The declaration that liberal democracy is over in Hungary is no exaggeration. Prime Minister Viktor Orban said so. He should know, having delivered two huge blows to democracy recently.
Last week started with a Constitutional Court (CC) decision that everyone had been waiting for. The CC was our last hope for checks and balances in the country. We had been optimistic but to no avail. The court slapped democracy in the face regarding Hungary’s municipal election system in the capital, Budapest.
New laws modified elections for the Budapest City Council. The new method, which replaces the one implemented by Fidesz in 2010, shows that the party is willing to completely change its own laws if conditions are favorable and if change can deliver more power. Opposition members in the parliament say the new laws violate the constitution that Fidesz implemented.
The current city council was elected through a party-list system, and the number of members was proportional to the population: one for every 50,000 citizens. Under the new system the council will consist of 33 members: the mayor of Budapest, the mayors of the 23 districts of the city, and nine members selected through a compensation list, in which candidates who did not win a district mayoral election share votes proportional to the population of their districts.
The CC overturned the proportionality element, saying the votes wouldn't have the same value as other votes cast, thus violating the rule of that all votes should count equally. But the ruling only modified the law. It did not abolish it. The fact that there are still many doubts about whether the law is constitutional is apparent from the number of CC judges who have a differing opinion. The court was divided 8-7, and its president was in the minority, opposing the view that the law is constitutional.
The major reason many oppose the law is that it bars free elections for the council. In the previous system people voted directly for their councilmen; now they only vote for the mayors of their districts, who in turn automatically become the majority of the council members. Voters have no say in whether the mayors of districts also serve as councilmen.
Fidesz hastily changed the law just two months before an election. It can make decisions so quickly because it has an absolute majority in the parliament. The changes ensure that Fidesz will have more seats on the city council than under the previous law because most of the 23 districts will almost certainly elect Fidesz members as mayor.
These are not the only changes Fidesz made to improve its chances in elections. Before the April parliamentary elections, it redrafted the electoral districts in favor of their own candidates.
Shortly after the CC put nearly the last nail in the coffin of democracy, the job was finished. In a speech in Transylvania, Romania, (where a large community of ethnic Hungarians live), Prime Minister Orban, whose government has a two-thirds majority in parliament, set an alarming new course by declaring, “The Hungarian nation is not merely an aggregation of individuals, but a community which must be organized, strengthened, and built. In this sense the new state we are building in Hungary is an illiberal, not liberal state.” The prime minister expressed his intention to abolish the welfare state and replace it by a work-based system. Nevertheless, the welfare state is flourishing. As for what a work-based system would consist of, Orban probably means a state-controlled market in which the value of labor is determined not by free market forces but rather by the state.
Orban has also condemned nongovernmental organizations for trying to influence Hungary on behalf of the West, especially the United States. Perhaps that is why Orban’s government has been harassing institutions of Hungarian civil society. The best example of harassment is the scandalous scrutiny of the Norway Grants beneficiaries in Hungary by government agencies on grounds that they serve foreign interests. (Norway Grants are financial contributions made by Norway to the least developed countries as part of the deal to set up the European Economic Area, which consists of the EU members as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway.)
Revealingly, Orban pointed out that in the United States the president can be impeached by the opposition for violating the law, and he asked: “How long do you think I would stay in power if the same was possible in Hungary?”
The decision of the court and Orban’s speech are clear signs that a new dictatorship is on the rise in Central Europe. The disappearance of the rule of law through the constantly biased Constitutional Court, the declaration of a collectivist illiberal state, and the cult of personality around the prime minister all resemble elements of certain countries in the pre-World War II period. Are we all going to stay quiet?