Freedom House

Serious questions about Fidesz’s election results

The first foreign media reactions to the results of the Hungarian election were anything but enthusiastic, but now that the dust has settled and there has been time to take a look at the figures, it is dawning on journalists and analysts that these “fantastic” results were achieved in a highly dubious manner. Even the raw figures give food for thought. How is it possible to achieve a two-thirds parliamentary majority with less than 44% of the votes? And then there is the disturbing statistic that among voters outside of Hungary’s borders 95% opted for Fidesz. Pictures showed vote collecting in street stalls in Transylvania, the source of most of the votes, with no attempt to even feign secret balloting. The ease with which these new citizens could cast their ballots as opposed to the difficulties expats in the United States, Canada, Australia, and western Europe encountered when they tried to register and actually vote makes critics question the intentions of the government. The final verdict most likely will be that Fidesz won this election before a single vote was cast.

Viktor Orbán’s team designed an electoral system that pretty well guaranteed Fidesz a two-thirds majority, which ensures that Viktor Orbán can rule Hungary, with the help of his 133-135 minions in parliament, as a prime minister of unlimited power. A Russian journalist, Leonid Bershidsky, who works for Bloomberg, called Orbán’s Hungary “the European Union’s only dictatorship,” and he compared Orbán to Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdoğan. One could argue that it is incorrect to describe Viktor Orbán as “a ruler exercising absolute power without the free consent of the people” because after all he won two elections. Moreover, he is “restricted by a constitution, laws, recognized opposition.” But, given the two-thirds majority, any law can be changed. And indeed laws were changed to fit the needs of the government all through the last four years. As we know, the constitution was also changed several times, and there is nothing to prevent Orbán’s parliament from changing it again. As for the consent of the people, well, one could argue that point, especially if we look at the 2014 election. Because although it is true that Fidesz won the 2010 election fair and square, we cannot say the same about this past election. Finally, a dictator according to the dictionary definition rules without an opposition. Well, in our case there is an opposition in the sense that there are a few dozen people who can make speeches in parliament, but they are unable to make a difference. Orbán’s team can forge ahead without any effective parliamentary opposition. For the time being, the majority of judges still come out with some surprisingly fair decisions, but Orbán already managed to get his own men on an enlarged constitutional court and tried to decapitate the judiciary by sending seasoned judges into retirement at the age of 62. The system that was introduced resembles the political setup of the Horthy regime (1920-1944) which Orbán, it seems, finds attractive.

Perhaps Leonid Bershidsky’s description is too strong, although he knows Putin’s Russia quite well, but other West European journalists also find the Hungarian situation serious. For example, Cathrin Kahlweit, writing for Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich), talks of Orbán’s laying down “the foundations for a permanent one-party government” achieved by “the declaration of a permanent revolution.” And these journalists call attention to the dangers this new breed of populists pose to the European Union. In Austria, Wolfgang Müller-Funk, professor of cultural studies at the Institute of European and Comparative Linguistics and Literature at the University of Vienna, calls Orbán’s system “Führer-Demokratie,” which is a threat to Europe. MDR, a radio and television station from Leipzig, called Orbán “a political predator” and compared him to Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin.

Viktor Orbán at one of his press conferences in Brussels / Photo: dpa

Viktor Orbán at one of his press conferences in Brussels / Photo: dpa

Let’s see  what Freedom House had to say about “the state of democracy in Hungary.” According to its report, “the changes initiated by Fidesz contributed to an outcome that was both less than fair and of benefit to Fidesz, as critics predicted. Indeed, Hungarian analysts suggest that without the electoral revisions, the party would have lost the supermajority it has enjoyed since 2010.” And Freedom House’s report didn’t even mention one of the most unfair features of the new Hungarian electoral law, the so-called “reform of the compensation list.” András Jámbor, a communications expert, wrote a piece for Al-Jazeera in which he described the system as one “where votes for individual candidates who did not win their electorate were transferred to their party list, originally designed to amass votes received by runners-up in districts – have now also allowed district winners (in most cases Fidesz candidates) to add their surplus votes to party lists, widening the gap between winners and their contenders, and bringing seven more seats for Fidesz.” 

The Freedom House report also called attention to the far too cozy relationship between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán. “It’s worth noting that the Hungarian election coincided with one of the most serious foreign policy crises faced by Europe since the Cold War’s end: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. On this critical issue, Orbán has had surprisingly little to say. He and his foreign ministry have issued anodyne statements of mild criticism for Russia’s action, questioned the sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, and made reassuring declarations about the safety of ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region.” The author of the article, Arch Puddington, vice-president for research, finds this attitude especially incongruous given Orbán’s anti-communist stand in the past. Moreover, he was until recently an outspoken critic of Putin’s authoritarian regime. He concludes that “Fidesz’s policies, both at home and abroad, are far from reassuring.”

It is likely that the combined effect of this questionable election and Orbán’s new pro-Russian policy will have a negative effect on his already strained relations with the United States and the European Union and will lead to the further isolation of Hungary in the community of western democracies. But Orbán doesn’t fret about isolation–at least as long as the EU money keeps flowing. As Jonathan Swift wrote (and Orbán’s quote-happy speechwriters might consider including at the appropriate time),“When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

Senator Ben Cardin: Human Rights in Hungary

The following remarks by Ben Cardin, senator from Maryland, were delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Friday, December 13, 2013. Senator Cardin is deeply interested in foreign affairs and sits on the Committee on Foreign Relations. He is also the co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, otherwise known as the Helsinki Commission. Senator Cardin addressed the Senate in this capacity on Friday.

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US Senate

Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, earlier this year I chaired a Helsinki Commission hearing on the situation in Hungary. Today, I would like to revisit some of the issues addressed by our witnesses.

Since the April 2010 elections, Hungary has undertaken the most dramatic legal transformation that Europe has seen in decades. A new Constitution was passed with votes of the ruling party alone, and even that has already been amended five times. More than 700 new laws have been passed, including laws on the media, religion, and civic associations. There is a new civil code and a new criminal code. There is an entirely new electoral framework. The magnitude and scope of these changes have understandably put Hungary under a microscope.

At the Helsinki Commission’s hearing in March, I examined concerns that these changes have undermined Hungary’s system of democratic checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, and freedoms of the media and religion. I also received testimony about rising revisionism and extremism. I heard from Jozsef Szajer, a Member of the European Parliament who represented the Hungarian Government at the hearing. Princeton constitutional law expert Kim Lane Scheppelle, Dr. Paul Shapiro from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska from Freedom House presented compelling testimony.

Unfortunately, developments in Hungary remain troubling.

Even though Hungary’s religion law was tweaked after the Constitutional Court struck down parts of it, it retains a discriminatory two-tier system. Moreover, the Parliament is empowered with the extraordinary and, for all practical purposes, unreviewable power to decide what is and what is not a religion.

This month, the government announced it is launching an investigation into the Methodist Evangelical Church, a church persecuted during communist times. Today, the Methodist Evangelical Church is known for its outreach to Roma, work with the homeless and is one of the largest charitable organizations in Hungary. As I noted at the Helsinki Commission hearing in March, it is also one of the hundreds of religious groups stripped of official recognition after the passage of Hungary’s new religion law.

The church has now complied with submitting the necessary number of supporters required by the law and, as a reply, the government has announced an unidentified “expert” will conduct an investigation into the church’s beliefs and tenets. This step only reinforces fears that parliamentary denial of recognition as a so-called “Accepted Church” opens the door for further repressive measures.

Veneration of Hungary’s wartime regent, Miklos Horthy, along with other anti-Semitic figures such as writer Jozsef Nyiro, continues. In November, a statue of Hungarian Jewish poet Miklos Radnoti, who was killed by Hungarian Nazis at the end of 1944, was rammed with a car and broken in half. At roughly the same time, extremists staged a book burning of his works along with other materials they called “Zionist publications.” At the beginning of December, two menorahs were vandalized in Budapest.

Reflecting the climate of extremism, more than 160 Hungarian nationals have been found by Canada this year to have a well-founded fear of persecution. Almost all are Romani, but the refugees include an 80-year-old award winning Hungarian Jewish writer who received death threats after writing about anti-Semitism in Hungary, and was stripped of his honorary citizenship of Budapest on an initiative from the far-right Jobbik party, supported by the votes of the ruling Fidesz party.

While there are many who suggest the real problem comes from the extremist opposition party Jobbik, and not the ruling government, it seems that some members of Fidesz have contributed to a rise in intolerance.

I am particularly troubled that the government-created Media Council, consisting entirely of Fidesz delegated members, has threatened ATV–an independent television station–with punitive fines if it again characterizes Jobbik as extremist. If you can’t even talk about what is extremist or anti-Semitic in Hungary without facing legal sanctions, how can you combat extremism and anti-Semitism? Moreover, this decision serves to protect Jobbik from critical debate in the advance of next year’s elections. Why?

Other new measures further stifle free speech.

Unfortunately, and somewhat shockingly, last month Hungary amended its defamation law to allow for the imposition of prison terms up to 3 years.

The imposition of jail time for speech offenses was a hallmark of the communist era. During the post-communist transition, the Helsinki Commission consistently urged OSCE countries to repeal criminal defamation and insult laws entirely. In 2004, for example, the Helsinki Commission wrote to Minister of Justice Peter Barandy regarding the criminal convictions of Andras Bencsik and Laszlo Attila Bertok.

This new law, raced through under an expedited procedure in the wake of a by-election controversy in which allegations of voter manipulation were traded, was quickly criticized by the OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media. I share her concerns that these changes to the criminal code may lead to the silencing of critical or differing views in society and are inconsistent with OSCE commitments.

Hungary was once held up as a model of peaceful democratic transition and is situated in a region of Europe where the beacon of freedom is still sought by many today. I hope Hungary will return to a leadership role in the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy.