Index published an interview today with Bjørb Engesland, chairman of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC). The occasion for the interview was the appearance of the NHC’s second report on Hungary. The first one was published last year, after they became aware of a political situation in Hungary that “caused concern.” Interestingly enough, so far there has been no reference to the latest report in any other publication. Or at least that was the case about an hour ago.
After the NHC’s first report appeared, Hungary’s ambassador to Norway, Géza Jeszenszky, criticized it for failing to take into consideration the points of view of government officials. So the representatives of NHC returned to Hungary three times during 2012 to make sure that they had wide contact with members of the government. They not onlyvisited Budapest and made a side trip to Gyöngyöspata, the village where far-right military troops intimidated the local Roma population.
The new report, entitled “Democracy and Human Rights at Stake in Hungary,” describes how the Orbán government is centralizing power, undermining the independence of courts, and putting media freedom under pressure. According to the press release published on the website of NHC, the Orbán government tried to convince their representatives that “the transition from communism to democracy was not done properly in Hungary, and [therefore] it has been necessary to eradicate old structures once and for all.” It seems that the Norwegians were not buying the government propaganda. “If the aim really is to overcome the communist past, important measures would be to ensure division of power, the independence of the judiciary and a framework that supports media freedom and pluralism…. The Orbán government has gone in the opposite direction.”
The report offers a number of recommendations to the government of Hungary, the European Union, and the Council of Europe. It recommends that Hungary establish a national democracy commission that would include representatives of a wide range of institutions and civil society organizations. The commission’s task should be to propose initiatives to strengthen democracy, including securing more transparent party financing and mechanisms to fight political corruption.
The report deals extensively with the new constitution and its shortcomings as pointed out by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. In addition, it touches on the “reform of the judiciary” that in the Venice Commission’s opinion “threatens the independence of the judiciary.” The report was published before the extensive–fourth–amendment to the new constitution. To give you an idea of the extent of the changes it is enough to note that the constitution itself is 25 pages long and the changes take up 15 pages! As far as I know, Professor Kim Scheppele is planning to write a critique of the constitutional changes in the near future. Since she knows a great deal more about Hungarian constitutional law than either the Norwegian Helsinki Committee or I do, I’m waiting for her analysis.
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee also deals with the electoral system, but they didn’t touch on the greatest potential for electoral fraud, counting the “foreign” votes. As things now stand, a government appointed board will alone be in charge of authorizing and counting the votes coming from abroad. Anyone who wants to understand the depth of the problem should read the Democratic Opposition’s appeal published earlier on this blog. Naturally, NHC’s report covers the sad state of the Hungarian media and spends considerable time describing the government’s concerted effort to close the only independent radio station, Klubrádió.
A separate chapter is devoted to the growth of the extreme right with special emphasis on Jobbik, but the report neglects to detail the close connection between Jobbik and Fidesz. Because Fidesz would like to receive those votes that were cast in 2010 for Jobbik, Fidesz is trying to outdo Jobbik. The party’s effort has not been in vain. Today Jobbik’s share is only 6%. Those who left Jobbik moved over to Fidesz, which might explain why Fidesz hasn’t lost as many voters as might be expected under the circumstances.
Another chapter deals with “international criticism and the government’s response.” The report gives a good summary of the efforts made to call the Hungarian government’s attention to the concerns of the European and world community: the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It points out that “the government and the parliament have so far failed to adjust its course to fully follow [the required] standards.”
Answers to criticism usual consist of evasion. One favorite is that criticism is “a conspiracy of the national and/or international left and thus politically motivated.” At other times, criticism was portrayed as a “misunderstanding due to bad translation.” Finally, government officials counter that “equally bad laws” exist in other European countries.
The visit to Gyöngyöspata had to be an eye opener. The report describes the public works program that was initiated in the town as a pilot program. Some of the Gypsy workers told the visitors that “they were afraid to complain and that the program gives a lot of powers to the mayor.” What the report fails to mention is that the mayor of Gyöngyöspata is a member of Jobbik.
Hungary is a party to all major human rights treaties, including the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. According to article 7, “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favorable conditions of work”–among them, “remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum” and “fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind.” As we know, Hungary violates this treaty by paying people in the public works program less than the minimum wage. The general hopelessness of the Roma community is well covered in the report.
In conclusion, the report points out that “several European institutions and organisations were alarmed by the direction and pace of these reforms, seeing them as undermining some of the key requirements of a fully-fledged democracy, including independence of the judiciary, free media, as well as fair elections. Among stakeholders in Hungary, reactions were even stronger. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee met with a wide range of Hungarian politicians, representatives of non-governmental organisations, journalists and academics who all expressed serious concerns.” The report quotes several Hungarian critics of the regime.
I especially recommend taking a look at the very extensive list of sources at the end of the report. It is a useful tool for those who would like to have a bibliography of English language sources on Hungarian politics and economics.