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János Kornai: Hungary’s U-turn

János Kornai, the renowned Hungarian economist, Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard University and Corvinus University of Budapest, has written a new paper about the situation in Hungary. He notes that the main direction of the changes up to 2010 was progress toward democracy, the rule of law, and a market economy based on the dominance of private ownership. Hungary is the first, and so far the only, member of the group of 15 post-socialist EU member countries to execute a sharp U-turn and set off resolutely in the opposite direction. The country has shifted from democracy to autocracy. The final version of this paper will be published in the October issue of Journal of Democracy. I’m grateful to Professor Kornai for allowing me to share this prepublication working paper with the readers of Hungarian Spectrum.

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Hungary’s U-Turn

János Kornai

 Prepublication working paper

January, 2015

Do not quote without the author’s permission

Hungary is a small country, poor in raw materials, with a population of only 10 million. No civil wars are being waged on its territory, nor is there any popular uprising or terrorism. It has not got involved in any wars, and it is not threatened by immediate bankruptcy. So why is it still worth paying attention to what is going on here? Because Hungary – a country that belongs to NATO and the European Union – is turning away from the great achievements of the 1989-1990 change of regime – democracy, rule of law, free-working civil society, pluralism in intellectual life -, and is attacking private property and the mechanisms of the free market before the eyes of the whole world; and it is doing all this in the shadow of increasing geopolitical tensions.

 

1

Let us consider the ensemble of the following countries: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. All of these now independent countries reached a crucial turning point in 1989-1990. Previously, they had functioned as independent states or as separate parts of states within the socialist system, ruled by the Communist party. Then the change of system started. The structure and pace of the transformations varied from country to country. Severe failures occurred in all of them, including Hungary; one step forward was often followed by a period of regression. However, despite the colorful variations, the main direction of the changes was common up to 2010: progress towards market economy based on the dominance of the rule of law and of private ownership.

Hungary is the first, and so far the only, member of this group of 15 countries which has performed a sharp U-turn and set off resolutely in the opposite direction. At the 2010 elections the coalition formed by Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (henceforth Fidesz for short), led by Viktor Orbán, won a landslide victory. That was when the turn began.[1]

  1. By 2010 the fundamental institutions of democracy had been established in Hungary – however, with the U-turn their systematic destruction started. It has already been completed to a significant degree.

In actual practice the executive and legislative branches are no longer separate, as they are both controlled by the energetic and heavy hand of the political leader who has positioned himself at the very pinnacle of power: Viktor Orbán. No worthwhile preparatory work on bills is being done either within or outside the walls of Parliament.  Parliament itself has turned into a law factory, and the production line is sometimes made to operate at unbelievable speed: between 2010 and 2014 no less than 88 bills made it from being introduced to being voted on within a week; in 13 cases it all happened on the same or the following day. Without exception, every single attempted investigation of the background of a scandal that has just broken, which would have been carried out objectively by a parliamentary committee with the effective involvement of the opposition, has been thwarted. ‘Reliable’ people close to the centre of power occupy decision-making positions even in organizations which are not under the legal control of the executive branch and which, in real democracies, should serve as a counter-balance to monitor the executive and legislative branches: in the constitutional court, the state audit office, the fiscal council, the competition authority (the office in charge of enforcing pro-competition laws), the ombudsman’s office and the central statistical office, as well as the national tax and customs office.

  1. The basic institutions of the rule of law had emerged by 2010; however, since the U-turn they have been abolished or significantly weakened. The new Hungarian constitution was drafted by a small group within Fidesz, and no wide public discussion ensued. All protests were completely ignored, and it was dragged through the defective filters of the law factory in very short order. The text abounds with shortcomings, which were pointed out immediately (and in vain) by outstanding Hungarian and foreign legal experts. It contained so many clauses which served the immediate political purposes of the people in power that the document, officially called ’Fundamental Law’, has had to be amended five times. In 2011-2013 the Fundamental Law was complemented by the passing of 32 so-called ‘cardinal laws’, which future parliaments will be able to modify only by a two thirds majority. This collection of laws almost completely covers every aspect of the country’s life.

One of the fundamental principles of the rule of law is that no-one, not even those who hold the most power, should be above the law. The law must be respected. In Hungary, the situation has changed: the holders of power are able to elevate any decision to the status of law quickly and without let or hindrance, at the push of a button. They pass retroactive laws, disregarding the prohibition of such legislation which goes back to Roman times. If they wish to arrange especially generous treatment for an individual or an organization, they pass laws using legal tricks which ensure de facto favoritism.

Moving on to the juridical branch of the state, the Prosecution Service is a centralized organization in Hungary. It is theoretically independent, not under the control of the government. In practice, however, and that is what is important, the chief prosecutor is chosen by the holder of supreme power, followed by a purely formalistic appointment by the parliament, which from then on is unable to effectively control him. The chief prosecutor executes the central will through the hierarchy that he heads. With a few insignificant exceptions, the investigation of all public scandals and cases of corruption involving individuals close to the present government party has got stuck in either the investigative or the prosecution phase of criminal proceedings. The Prosecution Service has, on the other hand, brought its full powers to bear on other economic scandals and cases of corruption in which people belonging to the current opposition are implicated. Dramatic, spectacular arrests are carried out for the benefit of the cameras, which arrive in droves. Compromising facts are often leaked while investigations are still in progress. No effort is spared to make sure that these cases come to court, though it is true that all too often charges have to be dropped in the prosecution phase, for lack of sufficient evidence; in other cases the charges are rejected by the court. And it is noticeable that the timing of a leak, of the bringing of charges or of a court hearing coincides frequently with some event on the political calendar: the mine which will destroy a rival’s reputation is detonated just before an election.

We seem to be witnessing a decided attempt by the ruling political group to take control over the courts as well. The President of the Supreme Court, who had been appointed before 2010, was dismissed early, before his mandate expired. A new institution emerged, the National Office for the Judiciary, which from the very start acquired exceptionally wide powers: not only to appoint judges, but also to decide which cases should be heard by which courts. Later, as a result of protests in Hungary and from abroad, the sphere of authority of Office was reduced, but its influence has remained significant. The retirement age fixed for judges was conspicuously different from average age limits and from the previous norms, with the result that the older generation was expelled. This affected several judges in leading positions within the judiciary system, who had been appointed before the present ruling group came to power, and although this measure was subsequently annulled by the relevant international court, so that the people involved obtained at least moral redress, most of them were not able to return to their previous leading positions.

Numerous members of the judiciary are unable to escape from the intimidating effect of the government’s measures. Some cases which come to court have political ramifications, and impartial experts in the field believe that some judgments are biased in ways that favor Fidesz policies. Nobody ventures to express an opinion about the number of cases involved. What is sure, however, (and encouraging) is that the ruling regime has not managed to subjugate the judiciary to the same extent as they have done in other spheres.

  1. By 2010 private rather than state ownership had become the dominant form of ownership. Since the U-turn, however, private property has become the target of frequent legal, economic and ideological attacks; the weight and influence of the state sector is rising again. The nationalization of private pension funds financed from the obligatory contributions of employers and employees, which was carried out using unique legal tricks, dealt a heavy blow to the principle of respect for private property. A similar form of indirect nationalization took place in the sector of saving and loan cooperatives. The state-owned sector has expanded significantly in the branches of banking, energy, public works, transportation, the media and advertising. In these areas the harsh means of disguised confiscation were not so often applied: property rights were bought instead. In many cases the previous owners were forced into a position where they felt they had no other option but to sell their property to the state, and at a price well below its market value.
  2. Up to 2010, decentralized mechanisms played an increasing role in the coordination of various activities. However, since the U-turn the tendency to centralize has become noticeably stronger.

This is primarily true of government administration. One of the major achievements of the change of regime was a significant increase in the powers of local government. The most obvious sign of regression is the fact that schools and hospitals no longer belong to local authorities, but are run from the bureaus of the central government. It is unprecedented – even on a world scale – that a misshapen bureaucratic giant has emerged, which decides over the heads of teachers, parents and local governments about staffing, curricular and financial matters in thousands of schools.

The obsession with centralization, which is intertwined in many ways with the aforementioned tendency to nationalize, affects almost all spheres of society: more and more  questions are decided at the highest level. A pyramid-like vertical hierarchy has emerged and solidified, with the supreme leader at its summit. Below him, ready to obey his every command, stand his hand-picked henchmen, who owe him unconditional loyalty.  Moving on down, we find the next level of the pyramid, and the next: for each position people are chosen for their loyalty to the regime. Commands which take obedience for granted tightly bind each subordinate to his or her superior. It is only the leader at the top who does not depend on his superior, only those at the very lowest level do not give orders to anyone. Everyone else incorporated into the levels in-between is servant and master at the same time. It is in their interests to hang on in there, to move further up in the pyramid. Their position is not decided at elections, but depends on winning the trust of their superior by services and flattery, or at least by uncritical obedience. Hundreds of thousands of public employees, including those who work in the state-run educational and health sectors, feel defenseless: few dare to speak up, to protest, because they fear for their jobs. The regime is robust, partly because it can surely count on the fear of the majority of people dependent on it, as well as on the ‘keep a low profile and obey’ mentality.

A very important decentralized mechanism is represented by civil society, a number of non-market based organizations and associations which are outside the control of state bureaucracy. In twenty years these have developed too, and have also become a means of scrutiny without which it would be impossible to expose and fight abuses of power. One manifestation of the U-turn is the methodical harassment of civil society. When parliamentary bills are being drafted trade unions and other relevant organizations are not consulted. Or if the people concerned express their point of view, in declarations or at demonstrations, their voices are disregarded. The indignant protest of the Norwegian government against the Hungarian government’s plans to interfere in their generous offer of assistance to Hungarian civil society is widely known.

While describing the processes of reversal I did not discuss the causes that induced   the U-turn. There were several important factors here: the grave mistakes made by the governments between 1990 and 2010 and the political parties functioning within and outside the parliament, the spread of corruption, the trauma caused by the appearance of mass unemployment, the increase of social inequality and the disappointment of a large proportion of the population after the high expectations brought by the change of system. It takes a long historical process for democracy to mature, and Hungary has just begun that learning process. It would be essential to complete a thorough causal analysis of the historical past; this, however, exceeds the limits of this paper. Therefore I will only deal with the new period starting with the 2010 elections.

2

When describing the coordinating mechanism of economic activities we cannot apply the metaphor of the U-turn: it would be more precise to call it a half-turn. Market mechanisms became dominant in Hungary in the first two decades after the change of system, and remained so even after 2010. Just as before, state and market continue to coexist in a symbiosis: there is no modern economy where these two social formations would not coexist and exert reciprocal effects.  The change that Viktor Orbán’s regime introduced is that now the state impinges on the economy in a much more aggressive fashion than the governments before 2010 did: it exerts more efforts to rule over it. This is done in many ways.

We are not talking about a case of ‘state capture’ carried out by a small group of oligarchs in order to establish regulations and pass measures in their own interests.  The direction of the process is the reverse. Orbán and the people who are close to him at the peak of political power decide who should become an oligarch, or who should remain an oligarch if he already is one, and how far his sphere of authority should extend.  Something similar takes place at lower levels too. The natural selection of market competition is overwritten by political considerations. “The important thing is that our man should win the public procurement tender, get permission to run a tobacconist’s or a casino, obtain tenure of that state-owned piece of land”. Tobacconists, casinos and land tenure all work on capitalist principles, but at the same time clientelism, a kind of feudal master-servant dependency, is asserted between the politician/bureaucrat and the capitalist entrepreneur.

A new term has been introduced into everyday Hungarian: ‘Fidesz-közeli cég’, meaning ‘a near-to-Fidesz company’.  Such firms do not belong to the party, but the sole or principal owner of the company is a crony of the political center. Maybe the association began a long time ago, at university or when the party was founded; or an individual’s career may have included a succession of political, bureaucratic and business activities. ‘Crony capitalism’ evolves. The intertwining of the worlds of business and politics is a global phenomenon, and provides fertile soil for corruption everywhere. What comes on top of this in Hungary is the social environment created by the aforementioned U-turn: the very organizations which should be fighting, with the authority of the state behind them, against the intertwining of business, politics and government and against corruption are not independent: they themselves are cogs in the same machinery. Just like any member of the Mafia, a corrupt politician or bureaucrat knows that the Mafia state will protect him – unlike the ‘whistleblowers’, who take personal risks to unveil corruption. The latter are not sufficiently protected, but often harassed, and even ‘character assassination’ campaigns are launched against them.

Viktor Orbán and those who implement his economic policies are swift to emphasize that if the state needs more income this will not be a burden for the people, and there will be no  ’austerities’. The new tax will be paid by companies, out of their profits. The word ‘profit’ itself has as bad an undertone as it did in the good old times when Marxist political economics was an obligatory subject for study. Above the usual forms of taxation special supertaxes have been used to pillage whole sectors, especially banking but also telecommunications, insurance, houehold energy supply, and a few other sectors. The effect of special taxes contributes to the fact that the volume of investments by private companies financed from their profits stagnates or barely increases. An unpredictable tax policy, legal uncertainty and anti-capitalist rhetoric discourage the ’animal spirit’; the propensity to private investment.[2] The extra-ordinary tax burdens ensure that the budget is balanced, which is reassuring for international organizations and credit rating agencies who are extra-sensitive to this indicator, but it does undermine an extremely important factor promoting growth and technological development. Moreover, it is not true that the extra burdens hit on the companies only, as they pass the extra costs, if possible, to the consumers.

While companies are held to ransom, the individual tax burden based on dividends has been significantly reduced. One of the first measures introduced by the Fidesz government was the abolition of progressive personal income tax, which was replaced by a flat rate of 16 percent, while at the same time value added tax was raised to an unprecedented 27 percent. It is known that in relation to the income of a given household, these tax rates impose a much greater burden on the living standards of people with low incomes than on those who earn more. Government propaganda proclaims as a great achievement the reduction of household expenditure on utilities through price-cap regulation. In reality, this price-capping policy is far more beneficial for the rich, as the bigger the flat, the more electricity, gas and water it uses, and the more rubbish it produces, the more it saves. We are all too familiar with the consequences of artificially depressing prices from the days of socialism. Companies make a loss, which in the end has to be scraped together by the community of tax-payers.

Restricting the functioning of the price mechanism is an important feature of the general phenomenon which has just been discussed: the state leans heavily on the private sector, using, among other means, administrative micro-interventions, fine-tuning of control and excessive regulation. Every economist who has studied the theory of market failure knows that appropriate regulation and well-aimed intervention can correct many problems caused by an uncontrolled market mechanism. This theory, however, at least tacitly, supposes that the state is at the service of public interests, and that regulation is carried out professionally and without bias. What happens if the levers of regulation are seized by incompetent or even corrupt people? What happens if a state whose masters use the state mechanism to preserve their own power interferes in the economy? Such interventions happen so frequently and affect the coordination process of the economy so deeply that sooner or later the half-turn can become a U-turn in this field as well.

The economic policy followed by Fidesz cannot win the approval of the conservative economist because of the upheaval that it causes to market mechanisms and the way it threatens private property. At the same time, it arouses rightful indignation in the liberal economist who is sensitive to the injustice in the distribution of income. It is not only the tax policy mentioned above, but various other measures must be disagreeable for them. The adherents of Keynesian economic policy must not let themselves be deceived by aggregate employment statistics. The revival following the depression is dragging its feet, the private sector is creating few new workplaces. The growing number of people in ’public work’ is supposed to make up for that. But they are employed for rock-bottom wages, 31-33 percent of the average salary, under degrading circumstances; they are not guided into the employment market this way, but kept permanently in their humiliating condition. Poverty and social exclusion are increasing at a dramatic rate. Enlightened societies would never tolerate the tone of voice that is used to stigmatize the poorest, or the way the homeless are chased out of cities by mayoral decree.

Any attempt to squeeze the classification of the Hungarian government’s economic policy into boxes labeled ’right wing’ or ’left wing’ is off-track. There is no question of the government intending to restore the socialist system, even though some phenomena are surprisingly reminiscent of the socialist era. The Orbán regime is not only compatible with capitalism, but each member of the power pyramid uses the opportunities offered by capitalism to their own advantage. When they launch an attack on banks or other sectors, they immediately conclude a special deal with this or that bank, sign ’strategic agreements’ with this or that large company in front of television cameras. ’Divide and rule!’ Instead of the left-right division, let us put the economy into another kind of spotlight: what best serves the survival of the existing power structure, the power of the central will, the interests of the higher levels of the power pyramid, including their financial interests? Suddenly it all falls into place and we know why this new institution or that new law emerged.

3

Hungary’s friends abroad, intellectuals, journalists, political and economic analysts, diplomats and politicians who take an interest in the happenings here, do unintentionally fall into various traps or misunderstandings. One of these is to overestimate the value of the letter of the law.  At first, the Fidesz government created a law which failed to guarantee the complete independence of the central bank. Not only the media, but also the competent international organizations exerted pressure on the Hungarian state to change the law. This finally happened. Those who had demanded the change felt they had achieved success. The propagandists in Budapest used it to illustrate how flexible and ready to compromise the Hungarian government is. In reality, what happened to the law was irrelevant. Having resigned from his position as minister of finance György Matolcsy, who the prime minister publicly dubbed “his right hand”, stepped out of the ministry, walked a few hundred yards and entered the doors of the Hungarian National Bank, as its theoretically independent governor. Without exception, every single member of the highest body of the central bank, the Monetary Council, was hand-picked by the supreme leader and his advisers; they are all loyal members of the consolidated machinery of power.

According to the letter of the law, every single selection process conforms to various seemingly neutral legal regulations. For example, for one position the current Prime Minister nominates a candidate, the competent parliamentary committee expresses an opinion, and he is appointed by the President of the Republic. For another position the parliament not only expresses an opinion about the candidate, but also makes the final choice. Does this matter? The parliamentary committee, the majority of the complete session of parliament (a two thirds’ majority, at that), and even the President of the Republic are all cog-wheels in the same machinery of power.

Another important example is how the regime leans on the press, television, radio and other means of telecommunication. This is about nothing less than the independence of the ‘fourth branch of power’, the liberty of one of the most important checks and balances which function in real democracies. The competent bodies of the European Union and the international press dwelled at length upon the question of whether the rights allocated  to the centrally appointed media authority were excessive or not. Finally, a few regulations of the law on the media were amended. The critics considered this a victory. Viktor Orbán and his colleagues, however, knew perfectly well that it was irrelevant. What really mattered was the fact that they had put their own people in charge of all television channels and radio stations owned, controlled and financed by the state, who then purged their staffs and turned all of them into the collective mouth-piece of government propaganda. The government or near-to-Fidesz entrepreneurs seized the freely distributed and very popular advertising broadsheets and other free local media products. The state media are obliged to use material provided by the news agency controlled by the government. This is not obligatory for the country’s privately owned media, but the latter are offered new state-produced material free of charge, while purchasing news from independent international agencies or trawling the foreign press is expensive. It is hardly surprising that they are reduced to using the free material. Self-censorship, a form of behavior all too familiar from the communist era, is becoming widespread.

There are newspapers, television channels and radio stations which are independent of the government, and critical of it. This is very important; it is part of the impartial description of the present Hungarian situation. However, many obstacles are raised to their functioning, for example during the distribution of broadcasting frequencies, when licenses are granted. Their main source of revenue is advertising. Not only the government’s own agencies, but also private companies which wish to maintain friendly relations with the political masters refrain from advertising with them. Discrimination manifested in the advertising market has been compounded by an advertising tax piled on top of the existing corporation tax. The relevant decrees were worded in such a way that 81 percent of the advertising tax was to be paid by one broadcaster, RTL, even though its share of the advertising market is only 15 percent. This is how one company has been punished for its dogged independence and regular criticism of Fidesz politicians.

No matter how hard the authorities try to subdue the organizations which form public opinion, the IT revolution has made their task more difficult. Stalin was able to surround his empire with almost impenetrable barriers, but nowadays this is impossible: computers, tablets and mobile phones connect the individual with the world through the internet, hundreds of thousands can express their opinions and organize themselves on social networking sites. The Fidesz government would love to find a way to prevent this too.  Not long ago it proposed the introduction of an internet tax. Each gigabyte data transfer would have been taxed to the tune of 150 forints (roughly 55 USD cents). Within a few days, mass demonstrations had been organized; images of the protesters circulated in the international press. Viktor Orbán retreated – half-way: as I write these lines it is not yet clear if the plan has been abandoned for good or merely postponed. Whatever may happen, the image of tens of thousands of demonstrators raising their mobile phones to the sky has become a symbol. The light from the tiny screens might even have illuminated the clouds of the internet – today no regime is able to raise impassable barriers to the flow of free speech.

 4

Here is another frequent intellectual fallacy: certain recently established Hungarian institutions, or new procedures that have been introduced lately, are similar or even identical to the parallel institutions of a traditional Western democracy – at first sight. Many changes have been made in the Hungarian judicial system. What is wrong with that? After all, even after these recent changes, in many ways it still resembles the systems of some European countries. The tobacco trade used to consist of small shops competing with each other. Now  only the government is allowed to issue a license for the sale of tobacco. What is wrong with that? After all, in Sweden a state monopoly with similar or even greater powers covers the trade in alcoholic beverages.

What we have is a mosaic, many pieces of which are original Hungarian products, while others have indeed been imported from democracies abroad. However, if we look at the mosaic as a whole, the outlines of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary emerge. It is actually better to move away from the static image of a mosaic to represent the relationship between ‘part’ and ’whole’. It is not a fixed state that we have to interpret, but a dynamic process. What we have to recognize is the direction that has been followed by each small component of the machinery since the starting point in 2010. From then on, at every new change, we, the observers, must notice which direction the change has taken. In the US, the mandate of the members of the Supreme Court lasts for the rest of their lifetime. There, this regulation has emerged within the framework of a stable democratic order, with many checks and balances in operation. In Hungary, on the other hand, for the first time now the vast majority of members of the Constitutional Court were chosen by the current prime minister – and in a few years all the members, without exception, will be Viktor Orbán’s nominees. If their mandate, is being extended right now, this move, along with other similar moves, will shift the legal status of the country towards irreversible power relations. Thousands (yes, the number is no exaggeration) of discrete changes, all moving together in the same direction, create a new system. Understandably, the Budapest correspondent of a foreign newspaper might write about only one outrageous measure without putting the event into the whole context of Orban’s system. An international organization or a foreign government might be justified in protesting against a specific measure taken by the Hungarian government, and in trying to exert its influence to have this measure modified or withdrawn. This article is intended to help those who form public opinion abroad and those who plan and implement measures taken in the world outside that concern Hungary to a better understanding that more is at stake than a momentary event:  this is now a strongly forged system, whose essential properties cannot be altered by partial modifications.

Another intellectual fallacy is the faulty evaluation of the legitimacy of the Orbán government. “Although I don’t like what is taking place in Hungary, it seems to be what the Hungarians want.” This opinion is further reinforced by the official propaganda, which is busy announcing that the regime won a two-thirds majority for two successive parliamentary cycles; there is no other government in Europe that enjoys such strong support.  Yet let us take a closer look at the facts.

Kornai table
At the last election only every fourth person entitled to vote expressed the wish that Viktor Orbán and his party should govern the country. The others either voted for another political faction or expressed their weariness and disappointment in politics by abstaining. By staying away perhaps some people wished to indicate that they found the regime repellent, but they did not believe that their vote would bring about any change. Political legitimacy is not a binary variable: no government is simply either legitimate or not – but measured against the continuous scale of legitimacy, support for the Hungarian government is low. The election system itself, introduced after the change of regime, has offered the opportunity for a considerable difference between actual political support and the proportions among the representatives.[3] That gap has further widened as since the 2010 elections the electoral laws have been modified seven times; while Fidesz lost more than half a million votes, and the fraction of all eligible voters who voted for Fidesz dropped from one third to a quarter, the regime used legal tricks to maintain a proportion of deputies which is higher than the critical minimum needed to pass laws requiring a two-thirds majority.[4]

There is another intellectual trap connected to the misinterpretations that I have just mentioned; those who have fallen into it may see the Hungarian state of affairs thus: “It is true that the Fidesz regime has abolished many democratic achievements. However, the present form of government must still be considered a democracy.” At this point the debate about what we call ‘democracy’ begins. There is no consensus between academic political philosophers and political scientists. The terminology used by people who are actively engaged in politics is interwoven with elements of political rhetoric. Where the term ‘democracy’ is an honor, the status of democracy is awarded or denied to the Hungarian form of government by the journalist, political analyst, politician or diplomat according to whether they hold a favorable or an unfavorable opinion of the present Hungarian system.  The terminological confusion remains even when ‘democracy’ receives a defining attributive. The expression ‘illiberal democracy’ was originally introduced to political science with pejorative connotations, while Viktor Orbán uses the term ‘illiberal state’ with self-assured pride to describe his own system.

An apt description of the present Hungarian political system / Source 168 Óra

An apt portrait of the present Hungarian political system / Source 168 Óra

Let us look at the set of previous and present historical forms of government that have characterized recent history. In one group we find democracies. Members of the European Union before its expansion, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Israel surely belong to this group, and as far as this article is concerned the question of which other countries might also belong can be left open for the time being. What is sure is that the essential common features do not exist only in theoretical texts, but can actually be experienced.  ‘Checks and balances’ are not merely requirements supported by arguments put forward by political philosophers – they really do exist, and their functioning can be experienced by observation. We can say the same about respect for minority rights; there are written and unwritten limits to what the majority, however large it may be, can do against the will of the minority. We could go on listing other important common features.

In the other group we have dictatorships.  For me, and for several hundred million other people, this is no abstract theoretical concept: it is a cruel, personally experienced reality.  Thirty years ago 28 countries belonged to one kind of dictatorship: totalitarian communism.

In between the two extremes, the set of all kinds of governments includes a subset; countries which belong here are neither democracies nor dictatorships, though they bear characteristic features of both. In my own work I have joined other authors in calling them autocracies.[5] This class is made up of a colorful multitude: I would place in it the pre-war regimes of the Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy and the Polish statesman Jozef Pilsudsky, or that of the Argentinean president Juan Domingo Peron in the post-war era. In our own time, besides the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the leaders of Belarus and many Central Asian post-soviet states rule over countries which belong to this subset.

I believe that under Viktor Orbán Hungary has moved from the subset of democracies  into the subset of autocracies. I am not talking in the future tense, about the danger of the country becoming an autocracy. The move has already taken place: the change has happened.

To consider Orbán a dictator would be to misunderstand the present Hungarian situation. Hungary today has a multi-party system, opposition parties function legally, newspapers opposing the government can be published. Political opponents are not imprisoned en masse; nor are they liquidated. We know all too well what real dictatorship is; we have experienced it, and what we are experiencing now is not that. However, to believe that Orbán is the leader of a democracy, and that although he breaks the rules of democracy from time to time, in the end he still behaves like a democrat, would also be a misunderstanding.  I do not even want to raise the question of whether Orbán, in the depths of his heart, is a true democrat or not. This may be an important question for his future biographer, but it is irrelevant for our analysis. We have to investigate what has actually already happened. And what has already happened is enough for us to say that Hungary now belongs to the wide subset of autocratic countries that are “neither democracies nor dictatorships”.

It would be a mistake to believe that Orbán is copying Putin. All autocracies are built on different historical traditions; they have emerged in different domestic and international environments, and the personalities and aspirations of their highest leaders differ. Orbán is not an imitator of others, he is a self-determining personality. This does not alter the fact that both the Putin and the Orbán regimes belong to the same subset of autocracies.

Hungary is the first of the post-socialist democracies that has joined the autocracies, but there is no guarantee that it will be the only one.  The balance of power might shift in other countries in such a way as to turn them into autocracies. There are foreign politicians who see Orbán as a model; there is a real danger that this contagion, leading to the loss of democracy and of the rule of law, will spread.

5

One of the sources of Viktor Orbán’s support is the fact that many see him as the staunch defender of the sovereignty of the Hungarian state, and of Hungary’s independence.  However, anyone who wishes to understand the Hungarian situation must realize that the problem cannot be shrugged off by simply labeling Orbán as a nationalist.

Worldwide, we can see two opposing tendencies. Globalization, the internet, the technical ease with which we travel, the emergence of transnational integration are all making the world more international. At the same time, national sentiments within the boundaries of a nation-state or in communities which reach beyond national frontiers but use a common language, and share common historical traditions, still persist; indeed, they are growing ever-stronger.

The change of regime not only brought about internal revival, but also coincided with the restoration of Hungarian sovereignty. “Russians go home!” was the first slogan; a happy separation from the East, an expectant turn towards the West. Western exports and imports were becoming more and more significant. Plenty of foreign capital was flowing into the country. Hungary joined NATO in 1999, and became a member of the European Union in 2004. In both cases, the intention to join was confirmed by a referendum, and in the campaigns leading up to these all the parliamentary parties, Fidesz among them, encouraged their followers to support the move. Although counter-opinions have always been present and voiced, for twenty years the direction of changes in foreign policy remained unambiguous. Hungary must be an organic part of Europe: it must unambiguously belong to the Western world; it must further strengthen the links binding it politically, economically and culturally to the West.

The year 2010 saw a peculiar U-turn in this area as well: unambiguity has been replaced by ambiguity. This emerges mostly in the rhetoric of official statements. Leading politicians grieve at public meetings about the crisis of world-wide capitalism and Western civilization. The leaders of the regime make use of the anti-EU, anti-American atmosphere; sometimes they go as far as to compare directives from Brussels with the pre-1989 dictates of Moscow. But if yesterday there was talk of the emasculation of the West and of the great things to be expected from the East, today’s discourse will be just the opposite. Orbán is proud of his Janus-face, and considers it the sign of his political shrewdness.[6] The content and tone of the words change, depending on whether they are intended for the Party faithful or spoken in Munich or Vienna at a conference for businessmen.[7] It is hardly surprising that both followers and opponents, both Hungarian and foreign observers, are mightily confused.

In the world of foreign policy and diplomacy official or semi-official statements can carry a lot of weight. Hungary is still member of NATO and the European Union; there has never been the slightest hint of any intention to leave either body.[8] The Hungarian government is happy to receive the plentiful financial support that flows from the EU; the only thing it insists on is full control over its distribution. (We have already mentioned the real motivating forces and intentions which govern state allocations.) At the same time the representatives of the ruling political regime regularly support Euroskeptic declarations.

The Hungarian diplomatic corps resolutely attempts (without much success) to establish business relations with various Asian autocracies and dictatorships, from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the Arab Sheikdoms to Vietnam and China, pointing out that other countries do the same. This is purely about business; taking a stand for democracy and human rights is another issue. But they sometimes ’rise above’ this point: recently Orbán called Azerbaijan a “model state” when its dictator was on an official visit to Budapest.

Understandably, other countries take the keenest interest in Hungarian-Russian relations. As we noted earlier, the present Hungarian and Russian forms of government share several features; in this respect both regimes belong to the same subset of autocracies. But now we are not focusing on this similarity, but on the economic connections and relations in foreign affairs between tiny Hungary and huge Russia. In this relationship, how far can the sovereignty of Hungary be maintained; to what degree is it committed now and for the future to its Russian partner? The corollary is another question: how far do these present tendencies endanger Hungary’s commitment to the European Union, to NATO, to the Western world?

In order to be able to answer the question, we would need, for example, to know more of the conditions under which in January 2014 the Hungarian and Russian governments reached an agreement over the expansion of the largest Hungarian power plant, the Paks nuclear power station. I am not in a position to judge whether this large-scale expansion of Hungarian nuclear power capacity is justified, and if it is, whether the Russian proposal was the most advantageous in technical, financial and geopolitical terms of the possible alternatives.  What many people in Hungary and abroad object to, and with good reason, is the way in which the decision was brought. It was not preceded by public debate among experts; the government’s plans were pushed through the parliamentary law factory without the least publicity.  In this crucial issue, which will have a deep impact on the lives of many future generations, on European integration, on the foreign affairs of the country, on its commitments to its allies, the government confronted the public with a fait accompli.

Reflecting on the relationship between Hungary and other countries, the following question must be considered: what can Hungarians who worry about the U-turn, who fear for democracy, for the rule of law and for human rights expect from their foreign friends? A new development may be followed by cries of: “the West won’t put up with any more of this”. I am afraid many people nourish false hopes. The learning process is painfully slow; it takes years for foreign observers to realize there is anything wrong, and even longer before they put the different elements of the phenomenon into the right context.  And comprehension is only the beginning, what else is also needed if recognition is to be followed by some kind of action? This is a task that international organizations are not used to; they are at loss as to how an allied state can be forced to abide by the rules of democracy. Not many means are available. The European Union is unprepared for a situation where one of its members keeps turning against the value system and formal and informal norms of its community. And let us not forget that Hungary is only one small point on the map of the world; conflicting interests influence the motion of political forces. The special interests of countries, political groups, social classes and professions pull the main actors in many different directions. Threatening situations more important than the Hungarian one have proved impossible to solve reassuringly by peaceful agreements.

6

I have left the survey of the changes which have taken place in the ’ideological sphere’ to the end. A fundamental characteristic of communist dictatorship is the existence of an ‘official ideology’. The roots of its ideological history go back to Marx and Lenin, its terminology comes from the language of Marxist-Leninist party seminars. The communist party kept it up-to-date, and adapted it to the propaganda needs of whichever party line prevailed at the time. The citizen, especially the ‘cadre’ with a role in the system, was obliged to accept the ideology; he had to articulate it both verbally and in writing.

Following the fall of the old regime, the same main direction of change unfolded in this sphere too: the dominance of ‘official ideology’ was replaced by pluralism in the ideological world. Compared to this main tendency, we can observe a U-turn here too. The government strives to limit and discredit the principle of pluralism. It tries to force on society those theories, beliefs and norms of behavior that it considers the only acceptable dogma.

First of all, it vigorously established institutions which promote the execution of the central will. For the world of artists, pluralism and diversity are essential elements. Accordingly, in free societies many kinds of associations and unions, schools and groups coexist side by side, competing or even fighting with each other. The regime which seized power in 2010 selected a small group and invested it with powers that would be unimaginable in the West. Their main organization is the Hungarian Academy of Arts (Magyar Művészeti Akadémia). Other organizations and groups do still exist, but the name of this privileged body appears even in the constitution. It was given one of the most beautiful palaces in the capital as its headquarters, and made responsible for distributing the majority of publicly-funded cultural grants, as well as most awards and marks of recognition which come with financial rewards.

In the scientific world, the situation is similar. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences boasts a long history, and though its independence was severely curtailed by the party state under communism, its autonomy strengthened after the change of regime. It used to exercise considerable influence over decisions about which research projects should be funded by the state, through an institution which, like the American National Science Foundation, relied on expert opinion. Now, however, centralization has taken place here too. The National Innovation Office (Nemzeti Kutatási, Fejlesztési és Innovációs Hivatal), a leading state organization, was established. The Academy and other scientific organizations might try to express their opinion before final decisions are taken, but the days of a decentralized, professional and civil approach to funding allocations are over – the president of the office has sovereign decision-making powers. And who is that president? None other than the minister of education from the first Orbán government.

Turning to the sphere of education: the change of regime made the emergence of a real text-book market possible. The writers and publishers of school books could compete with each other; schools, or even individual teachers, could decide which books to use. Right now, competition is being abolished here too: a mammoth state text-book publishing house has been set up and granted what is effectively a near-monopoly.

What ideas is this increasingly centralized, nationalized, standardized machinery trying to promote? A return to the past is perceptible here too; not to the previous regime with its Marxist-Leninist ideology, but to an earlier ideological past. The official ideas of the pre-1945 Horthy period are being revived in various forms, with increasing strength. It is impossible to describe these with a handful of concise expressions such as nationalism, chauvinism, ethnic or religious prejudice or a conservative view of the family, because they appear in a variety of shades. Official politicians never make open and extreme declarations that would offend the ears of the civilized world; there are, rather, many covert hints and indirect expressions. But in that muted music, the marching tune for boots tramping out the same rhythm can be heard. To the ears of my generation the sound is familiar and frightening.

The images of cultural and academic life and of the world of ideas that I have highlighted here dovetail with the general description of the present-day Hungarian system, which was summarized in an earlier section of this article.  This sphere too bears the mark of an in-between state that is ‘neither democracy nor dictatorship’. The regime is trying to encroach in an increasingly aggressive fashion. Luckily there are large numbers of writers, poets, musicians, film-makers, artists, scientists, teachers and free-thinking intellectuals who will not allow themselves either to be intimidated or to be bought by money and rewards, and who protect their intellectual autonomy. Any visitor to Hungary can testify that intellectual life is thriving: great artistic works are born and significant scientific advances are made.

7

When I was giving lectures in the USA on a delicate and complicated situation, during the post-socialist transition, I was always asked the question: what should be done? What can we do? I admire and respect this readiness to act, but it is not my task to answer the question. My paper solely aims at revealing the situation; I wished to contribute to our American and other foreign friends’ better understanding of the Hungarian scenario.

What does the future hold for Hungary? One of the theories of democracy, linked mainly to the name of Joseph Schumpeter, deserves close attention. It does not dwell on how far a certain form of government expresses the ‘will of the people’, or at least of the majority. It considers democracy primarily as a procedure which enables the people to get rid of a government, not through the murder of a tyrant, not through conspiracy, military coup d’etat or a bloody popular uprising, but in a peaceful and civilized way, through elections which are well defined in legal terms, with many competing parties. The feasibility of dismissal is not a sufficient condition for a viable democracy, but it is a necessary one: it is the minimum condition.

It will be some time before we can say for sure whether this minimum condition is met or not. In Sweden it took forty years before the social-democratic government was dismissed at the 1976 elections. In Britain the conservative party ruled for eighteen years, from 1979 to 1997, before it was voted out of office. The historians of the future will give a final answer to the question of whether the minimum conditions of democracy are met in Hungary or not. However, many things are already clear.

Viktor Orbán and his party have ‘cemented themselves in’  – to translate an expression which has become commonplace in Hungary. The repeated modifications made to election laws were intended to favor a Fidesz victory, or rather, to make it an absolute certainty.  Should the need arise, the laws can be further modified without any hindrance. Fidesz was prepared for the unlikely but not impossible event of its failing to win a parliamentary majority at the elections. The mandates of many key positions, most importantly that of the chief prosecutor, the president of the republic, the head of the central bank, of the audit office and of the judicial office, extend beyond the current parliamentary cycle; they can all sit tight , even if the opposition wins. The Fiscal Council, a body appointed by the present government, but which would remain in office even in case of an election defeat, has not only an advisory role but also the right of veto over the budget submitted by a new government, and if that veto is used, the president of the republic may dissolve the parliament and call for new elections. In other words a few hand-picked men loyal to the present government would be able to overturn the next government.

All of this leads to the logical conclusion that it would probably be extremely difficult to effectively dismiss the government at parliamentary elections. In this sense, the situation that has emerged is nearly irreversible. Historical experience shows that an autocracy can only be brought down by an ‘earthquake’ that rocks the very foundations of the system.

Other future scenarios are also possible. The great events of history cannot be predicted on the basis of mathematical probabilities; every constellation is unique and unrepeatable. The situation could turn out a lot worse than today. The present Fidesz autocracy could react to the growing protests by hardening the repression. Or another way of events is also possible. Jobbik, the party of the extreme right, already represents a significant force; in more than one city its candidates have been elected as mayors. They speak undisturbed in parliament and in the street. What would happen if in a future election Fidesz did not manage to win a parliamentary majority? Would they be prepared to make a coalition with the extreme right? There is a historical precedent: towards the end of the Weimar republic the moderate right-wing conservative party entered into a coalition with Hitler’s party; together they constituted a parliamentary majority.

At the same time, favorable scenarios are not impossible either. What if more moderate groups within the ruling party are getting the upper hand, who are ready to stop on  the wrong track and turn back, in the direction to democracy and the rule of law? What if the opposition pulls itself together? What if new political movements emerge and win over millions? What if somehow, in spite of an electoral system which almost guarantees the defeat of future democratic forces, the tables turn?

Let us not give up hope.

—–

The printed text here contains very few footnotes. Further footnotes as well as a list of sources on the topic, in both English and Hungarian, will be available in a Web version of this article, available on the authors website: http://www.kornai-janos.hu.

[1] A few months after Fidesz took over the government I wrote an article entitled “Taking Stock”(“Számvetés”), which gave a summative overview of the main characteristics of the changes that had already taken place and which could be expected. Two volumes in Hungarian, edited by Bálint Magyar, were published under the title The Hungarian Polyp – The Post-Communist Mafia State.

The text here contains very few footnotes. Further footnotes as well as a list of sources on the topic, in both English and Hungarian, will be available in a later Web version of this article.

[2] The spectacular new projects inaugurated with pompous ceremonies by political leaders are mostly financed by European Union funds or are established by multinational companies.

[3] About half of the seats are divided among the parties in direct relation to the proportion of the votes. The other half are allocated in every constituency following the ‘winner takes all’ or ‘first past the post’ principle best known in the British system. That secures a large number of seats for a party which has even a small relative advantage over their rivals in several districts.

[4] Compare these figures with German data from 2013. The CDU/CSU received 29.7 per cent of the vote (41.5 per cent of those eligible actually voted). This is only slightly lower than the Fidesz results. But the actual proportions of votes are represented by parliamentary proportions in the Bundestag. Thus, Merkel did not have a majority, and a coalition with the Social Democrats is governing that country.

[5] In the related debates in Hungary, referring mostly to international sources, diverse terms have been in use, for example, ’managed democracy’, ’Führer-democracy’, or ‘elected despotism’.

[6] Viktor Orbán said the following in 2012: “There is a dance routine in international diplomacy. This dance, this peacock dance … has to be performed as if we wanted to be friendly. These are, let’s say, exercises in the art of diplomacy. … So we accept two or three out of seven proposals, those two or three that we have followed already, except they didn’t notice, and we reject the remaining two we didn’t want, saying ‘C’mon, we have accepted the other ones.’ This is a complicated game. Unless you insist, I’d rather refrain from entertaining you with the beauty of the details.”

[7] A characteristic scene of the ’peacock dance’ is the duplicity shown by Fidesz and the government towards Jews. More than once the government has emphatically  declared that it will not tolerate anti-semitism, and if necessary it will defend its Jewish citizens against any kind of attack. At the same time several government measures gravely profane the painful historical memories of Hungarian Jews. For example, it is falsely suggested in various ways that the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews was forcibly imposed by Nazi Germany, while in fact Horthy’s state machinery was actively involved in it.

[8] A noteworthy exception: the Speaker of the parliament, a Fidesz member, at one point publicly referred to the possibility of ”backing out” of the EU.

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Viktor Orbán no longer needs the oligarchs’ right-wing media

It was on January 9 that I wrote a post about the reorganization of the state media. I used the word “state” instead of “public” because by now Hungarian public television and radio are no more than government propaganda tools. I also wrote about Viktor Orbán’s vindictiveness, which is manifesting itself in plans for a state TV channel devoted exclusively to news. With this move Orbán is creating an alternative, backed by the state budget, to Lajos Simicska’s HírTV, which until recently faithfully served his and Fidesz’s policies. The two men had differences, however, and in Simicska’s media empire, of which HírTV is only one outlet, a few mildly critical programs and articles have appeared of late. For Orbán such disloyalty cannot go unpunished. Hence the new state news channel.

By an uncanny coincidence, on the very day I posted my article a “secret” meeting took place in the parliament building. Not until a week later, on January 15, did the public learn that Viktor Orbán had called together the editors-in-chief of right-wing, pro-government papers “to discuss and evaluate the work of the last year with them.” That is, to talk about how well the “media lackeys,” as one blogger called them, did their jobs last year. It wasn’t that we were unaware of the close cooperation between the government and the right-wing media, but it was still something of a shock to discover that this meeting was actually an annual affair. Apparently, every January the “lackeys” and the prime minister get together to discuss the successes or failures of the these media outlets’ work in the past year.

So, there was nothing unusual about the gathering itself, but what apparently transpired during the two-hour meeting was something else. Although not all those present told the same story, it seems that Orbán informed the editors-in-chief that from here on he will rely exclusively on state television and radio for government propaganda and therefore the generous subsidies to right-wing media outlets in private hands will be curtailed or may even cease. The subsidies to these government papers and television stations came in the form of advertisements from state companies. Just in the first seven months of last year Magyar Nemzet had ad revenues of 191 million forints from the Hungarian National Bank, 91 million from MVM, and 146 million from the state lottery Szerencsejáték Rt. If state advertisements stop, the right-wing media will be in the same boat as the socialist-liberal papers and the single left-leaning radio station (Klubrádió). This would impose a heavy financial burden on the owners, for example on Lajos Simicska.

ujsag

Orbán apparently made it clear that he was not satisfied with their work last year. There was still too much criticism of the government, which makes the electorate uncertain about the wisdom of the government’s decisions. According to the very detailed description of the meeting by Népszabadságthe prime minister was of the opinion that these newspapers and HírTV can manage on their own by now. Talking specifically about Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, both belonging to the media empire of Lajos Simicska, Orbán noted that being financially independent will free them from the quandary of identity. They can be both right-wing and government-critical in good conscience.

According to some of those present, the message did not come as a complete surprise. Gábor Borókai of Heti Válasz and spokesman of the first Orbán government (1998-2002) told Népszabadság that any casual reader of the right-wing media can see that since last fall “there have been very few ads from state companies and absolutely nothing on the current campaign of the prime minister’s office.” What surprised the editors, however, was how openly Orbán talked about the government’s goals with respect to the media. He did not hide his intention to use the “public media” for government propaganda. I guess he doesn’t care that soon enough Hungary’s allies, the European Union and the United States, will hear his candid words about the connection between the government and the public media reaffirmed by some of the participants who were present at the meeting. Of course, it is possible that even this revelation will not move the European Union to act, although one of the most controversial pieces of legislation of the Orbán government was the law on the media, eventually toned down on EU insistence.

Is Orbán’s move wise? Does it make sense to alienate the right-wing media and to bet the farm on an untried news channel of state TV, which has only 10% of total viewership? I see no compelling rationale for it, even from Orbán’s point of view. Mind you, he has done so many crazy things lately that perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that he decided to take on the until now loyal press. For a government there can never be enough good press, and turning on journalists can be lethal. Viktor Orbán knows this better than most. At the end of his first term at the beginning of 2002 he bemoaned the fact that during his four years in office he had not paid enough attention to building up a friendly media. So, what then? Is he that sure of himself? That is also hard to believe given the incredible loss of popular support for his party and for himself.

There can be only one explanation for this seemingly crazy move: he really thinks that the journalists in question are totally devoted to the right-wing ideology of Fidesz and that even without extra subsidies they will not turn against him and his government. Although I don’t think that all journalists working for the right-wing media outlets are so devoted, there is a hardcore of true believers. It is unlikely that they would start writing critical articles about the government. RTL Klub was different. It was neither a right-wing nor a left-wing television station. Its editors just decided to leave out a lot of news that showed the government in a bad light. They did not want to irritate Viktor Orbán. From this neutral position it was easy to shift the newscasts to include items that previously would have been omitted.

Even if the people working for, let’s say, Magyar Nemzet abandoned their right-wing ideology, the editor and owner of a paper must also think of the readership that is accustomed to and demands a certain political stance. These papers cannot suddenly change their content although, according to ATV, Lajos Simicska, who owns HírTV, Magyar Nemzet, and Lánchíd Rádió, wants a shift in political orientation to appeal to the conservative center. The question is whether there is such a thing in Hungary. I don’t believe there is at the moment, unless as a result of Viktor Orbán’s move to the far right a more traditional center will emerge in the coming months.

All in all, Orbán might be correct in not worrying too much about the pro-government orientation of these newspapers in the future. If that turns out to be the case, the new state news channel will be just an added bonus for those folks who don’t have cable and who from force of habit watch nothing but state television. After all, this is what they did in the good old days when there was but a single TV channel. It satisfied them then and it satisfies them now.

House cleaning at Magyar Nemzet

Although for months all kinds of hypotheses have been floated about the Simicska-Orbán feud, I have judiciously avoided joining the rumor mill. Conjectures about the apparent rift between Lajos Simicska and his old friend, Viktor Orbán, were vague and occasionally far-fetched. I believe that it is better to be cautious, especially in a case like this one where details are extremely hard to come by. Simicska, the foremost oligarch in Hungary, is a very secretive man. The media has not been able to get close to him, and those pictures of him that were, until recently, available on the Internet all dated from the late 1990s when he headed the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. It was just a few weeks ago that someone managed to get a new photo of him. He has put on some weight and naturally he is about fifteen years older. Here and there a journalist manages to get some information about Simicska and his relationship to Orbán, but a few days later it is usually denied by someone else. So, under these circumstances, the most prudent course is to wait until we have more reliable information about what is going on.

We do have a few confirmed pieces of the puzzle, however. The newly introduced advertisement tax hurt not only RTL Klub but also the Simicska media empire. About a month ago I noticed that suddenly articles critical of the government began appearing in Magyar Nemzet, something that earlier was unimaginable. I devoted a post to that topic at the beginning of August. Since then there have been several more instances when government officials were scrutinized and their behavior condemned by the newspaper’s editors.

Lajos Simicska today

Lajos Simicska today

In the middle of the August Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság learned from a source close to both Simicska and Orbán that the two men had reached a temporary truce. Simicska agreed to sell Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, and Class FM to two close associates of Orbán–Árpád Habony, the brain behind Orbán’s political maneuverings, and Andy Vajna, the producer of the blockbusters Rambo and The Terminator. On the same day, however, another “reliable source” close to Magyar Nemzet denied the rumors to a journalist of Népszava. According to the latter source, the feud between Simicska and Orbán was greatly exaggerated but was still on. There are, he said, no plans for a complete or partial sale of Simicska’s media empire. This source admitted that because of the advertising tax, the ever decreasing readership of all print media, and smaller advertising revenues Magyar Nemzet will have to “rationalize” its business practices. The decision was already made at the beginning of August that the price of the paper will have to increase. It had remained constant for the last twelve years, so the hike was clearly overdue.

It seems that Népszava‘s information was the more accurate because today came the news that about thirty journalists have been fired at Magyar Nemzet. As it stands now, the paper employs about a hundred people. Seventy of them work on the print edition and thirty on the online publication. The “rationalization” involves merging these two groups and downsizing the staff.

Was this move necessary for financial reasons? Népszabadság came to the conclusion that although the advertising tax will cut sharply into the profits of Magyar Nemzet, the paper is getting just as much government advertising support as before. Pesti scrácok, a right-wing blog, claimed that Magyar Nemzet receives four or five times as much advertising as other newspapers and that its financial health is robust.

But then why this large-scale firing? And why ax famous journalists who have been zealous supporters of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz for decades? I will stick my neck out and suggest a couple of possibilities.

Let’s start with the advertising revenue. It is a well-known fact that no Hungarian newspaper can survive without indirect government support in the form of advertising and subscriptions. Each ministry and each Fidesz municipal administration has subscriptions for several dozen copies of Magyar Nemzet. The state-owned companies also greatly favor the right-wing publications, Magyar Nemzet and Válasz. But what if the relationship between the paper and the government sours in the future? Let’s assume that critical voices appear increasingly often in the paper, similar to what has happened at RTL Klub. In this case, it is very possible that the generous advertising orders will slow or come to an end. Is it possible that Magyar Nemzet is preparing for this eventuality? Is it possible that Simicska has not given up the fight but has instead decided to use the weapons available to the press?

There is another clue that might indicate a change in the political orientation of the paper. It is enough to look at the list of those who were dismissed: Miklós Ugró, a regular writer of editorials; Emil Ludwig, earlier editor-in-chief of the paper; Matild Torkos, an investigative journalist; Anna Kulcsár and Gabriella Lőcsei, both senior editors; and István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels. These have been core people at Magyar Nemzet over the last ten or fifteen years. As Pesti Srácok points out,  “these victims of the Simicska-Orbán feud are the people who steadfastly stood by Magyar Nemzet in its leanest years, at the time of the efforts to destroy the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments.” Indeed, Magyar Nemzet actively participated in that demolition job, and these people were perhaps the most zealous propagandists of Fidesz and its leader within the offices of Magyar Nemzet. What does their removal signify, if anything? Is it possible that their total devotion to Viktor Orbán has made them unfit for more balanced reporting in the future by Magyar Nemzet? Perhaps, but only time will tell. Until then this is only a hypothesis.

Mária Vásárhelyi on the “media octopus” in Hungary

Yesterday I talked about the state of the Hungarian media. In today’s Galamus, Zsófia Mihancsik, who is a very good journalist, suggested to her colleagues that it would be a good idea if they learned to read. But, as some of you suggested, the slanted reporting on certain “sensitive” topics might be the result not so much of careless reading or writing but of a willful distortion of the facts. This is definitely true about media under the direct or indirect control of the governing party.

So, I think it’s time to look around a little in the world of the Hungarian media. Here I’m relying heavily on Mária Vásárhelyi’s essay “The Workings of the Media Octopus–Brain and Money Laundering” that appeared in the Bálint Magyar-edited volume, The Hungarian Octopus.

According to Vásárhelyi, Viktor Orbán’s psyche was crushed in 1994 when he  managed to lead his party with a 40% chance of winning the election into almost total ruin with 7.7% of the votes. Before that fiasco Orbán was the darling of the press, but subsequently he became the pariah of the then still mostly liberal Hungarian media. He decided right then and there that the goal is not to be liked by the existing media; rather, a smart politician should strive for a loyal media he can easily influence. In Vásárhelyi’s estimate Fidesz had the lion’s share of responsibility for the 1996 media law that turned out to be neither liberal nor democratic.

Once Fidesz won the election in 1998 Viktor Orbán made a concerted effort to build a media empire with the use of private and public money. Billions of public money were spent on establishing Heti Válasz and on the “rescue” of the heavily indebted Magyar Nemzet. And right-wing oligarchs like Gábor Széles, Tamás Vitézy (Orbán’s uncle by marriage), Zoltán Spéder, István Töröcskei, and Lajos Simicska put large sums of their own money into media outlets that were anything but profitable. They were hopeful that their investments would serve them well one day when Viktor Orbán again returned to power.

Between 2002 and 2010 the preponderance of media outlets shifted to the right. Moreover, by 2008 the liberal media’s financial situation was dire. Companies strapped for funds cut their advertising budgets, and the liberal media outlets had no rich oligarchs who could ensure their continued existence during the hard times. Since 2010 the lopsidedness between right and left in the field of media has only become worse. According to Mária Vásárhelyi, “only those messages which the government party wants to deliver reach 80% of the country’s population.”

octopus

Studying the changes in the political orientation of radio stations is perhaps the most fruitful and most telling because it is here that the Media Council, made up entirely of Fidesz appointees, can directly influence the media. It is in charge of allocating radio frequencies. As the result, in the last five years the radio market became unrecognizable. Every time existing radio stations had to reapply for frequencies, the frequencies were given to someone else. The new stations were owned by companies or non-profits preferred by the government party, and in consequence government advertisements immediately poured in. Between 2010 and 2012 some 50 local and regional radio frequencies changed hands. Of these Mária Rádió (Catholic Church) got seven frequencies all over the country and Lánchíd Rádió (also close to the Catholic Church) got five. Európa Rádió, which is close to the Calvinist Church, by now can broadcast on three frequencies. Magyar Katolikus Rádió has two local and two regional frequencies. All these stations are considered to be non-profit and therefore they don’t pay for the use of the frequencies.

Zsolt Nyerges has built a veritable media empire: he is behind “the three most valuable radio frequencies in the country.” During the same time the liberal stations have been disappearing one by one. Radio Café, very popular among Budapest liberals, lost its frequency in 2011. So did another popular liberal station called Radio1. Of course, Klubrádió is the best known victim of Viktor Orbán’s ruthless suppression of media freedom. Klubrádió began broadcasting in 2001 and could be heard in a radius of 70-80 km around Budapest. By 2007 the station had acquired eleven frequencies and could be heard in and around 11 cities. Soon enough Klubrádió was the second most popular radio station in Budapest. Today, Klubrádió after years of litigation moved over to a free but weaker frequency that it already had won before the change of government in 2010. Out of its 11 provincial stations there is only one left, in Debrecen, and we can be pretty sure that as soon as its contract expires Klubrádió will no longer be able to broadcast there either.

As for the public radio and television stations, let’s just call them what they are: state radio and television stations as they were during socialist times. But then at least the communist leaders of Hungary didn’t pretend that these media outlets were in any way independent: the institution was called Hungarian State Television and Radio. They were at least honest. The only difference was that in those days state television and radio aired excellent programs, especially high quality theatrical productions and mini-series, all produced in-house. Now I understand the programming is terrible and only about 10% of the population even bothers to watch MTV, and most likely even fewer watch Duna TV. Their news is government propaganda: on MTV more than 70% of the news is about government politicians and the situation is even worse at Magyar Rádió.

These state radios and television stations have a budget of over 70 billion forints, a good portion of which ends up in the hands of Lajos Simicska. How? MTV and Duna TV no longer produce shows in-house but hire outside production companies. Thus, public money is being systematically siphoned through MTV and Duna TV to Fidesz oligarchs. The programs are usually of very low quality and complete flops.

Most Hungarians watch one of the two commercial stations: RTL Klub and TV2. Both are foreign owned but as Orbán said not long ago, “this will not be so for long.” And indeed, a couple of weeks ago TV2 was sold, allegedly to the director of the company. Surely, he is only a front man. An MSZP politician has been trying to find out who the real owner is. Everybody suspects the men behind the deal are Lajos Simicska and Zsolt Nyerges.

And finally, the print media is also dying, which is not surprising given the worldwide trend. But right-wing papers are doing a great deal better than liberal and socialist ones for the simple reason that public money is being funneled into them through advertisements by the government and by state-owned companies. Even free newspapers are being brought into the right-wing fold. There was a very popular free paper called Metro owned by a Swedish company. But Orbán obviously wasn’t satisfied with its content. So, the government severely limited the locations where Metro could be stacked up, free for the taking. Thus squeezed, the Swedish owner decided to sell. And who bought it? A certain Károly Fonyó, who is a business partner of Lajos Simicska. The paper is now called Metropol and, in case you’re wondering, is doing quite well financially.

Napi Gazdaság was sold to Századvég, the think tank that was established by László Kövér and Viktor Orbán when they were still students. As I mentioned earlier, Népszabadság was sold recently to somebody who might be a front man for Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development who had financial interests in the world of the media before he embarked on a political career. The paper was owned by Ringier, a Swiss company that wanted to merge with the German Axel Springer, which owns a large number of provincial papers in Hungary. Although in many European countries the merger was approved with no strings attached, the Hungarian government set up an obstacle to the merger. The merger could be approved only if Ringier first sells its stake in Népszabadság.

Fidesz hasn’t been so active online. Most of the online newspapers are relatively independent. What keeps the party away from the Internet? Vásárhelyi suspects that it is too free a medium and that it doesn’t comport with Fidesz’s ideas of control. Surely, they don’t want to risk being attacked by hundreds and hundreds of commenters. Index, howeveris owned by Zoltán Spéder, a billionaire with Fidesz sympathies. After 2006 it was Index that led the attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány and the government. Vásárhelyi predicts that Index will turn openly right sometime before the election.

The scene is depressing. There is no way to turn things around without the departure of this government. And even then it will require very strong resolve on the part of the new government to stop the flow of public money to Fidesz media oligarchs. The task seems enormous to me.

A fake tape snowballing into punitive legislation against journalists

It is hard to imagine that the Baja by-election is still a hot topic in the Hungarian media. By now the focus is not so much on the results and how they were achieved as on what followed. And it seems that the deeper we dig the greater a morass we find. The strange events surrounding a simple electoral fraud by now have snowballed into something that looks to me like an excellent political weapon to make sure that the election that really matters, the national election, will go the way Fidesz wants it to.

What do I mean? With the appearance of the phony video showing a number of Roma inhabitants of Baja, Fidesz managed to divert attention away from its own electoral fraud, committed not once but twice. Now everybody talks about the fraud that MSZP allegedly committed and not about the votes the local Fidesz paid for, despite tangible proof of the latter.

By now in one way or the other it is MSZP and to a lesser extent DK that are being accused of hiring people to stage a phony scene where money was exchanged between a representative of the Roma self-government and four inhabitants of Baja. Gusztáv Kőrös, the man who came forth with the “details” of MSZP’s involvement, is also a Roma official but from another town. According to his own very confused story, he was asked by two MSZP officials to produce the incriminating video. I might add here that our man was “under police protection” for three days. From whom were the police protecting him?

Let me state upfront that Kőrös’s story is totally unbelievable. If this is the best the people who are behind him could come up with, then any half-competent police force could easily solve the case in no time. That is, if they wanted to. But I very much doubt that the police actually want to.

snowballingYou may recall that at one point I suggested that the whole scheme was a simple ruse to get some quick money, perhaps from DK, which offered a reward for bona fide proof of electoral fraud. I no longer think that this was the case. After all, when Gusztáv Kőrös showed up at MSZP headquarters he asked no money for the DVD he handed over to a party official. So, I reasoned that local Baja Fidesz politicians might be behind the creation of the video. There is indirect evidence in support of that hypothesis. Before HVG released the video it was sent to Fidesz headquarters for their response. There was no answer. What does this tell me? That the Fidesz leadership wanted this video to be made public because they knew it was a fake.

MSZP, however, is not entirely innocent in this sordid affair. A few minutes ago the news broke that Gábor Gavra, former editor-in-chief of HVG, received the tape from MSZP. To be precise, from the director of communications of the party, Balázs Déri, at party headquarters. Of course, that doesn’t imply that MSZP was actually involved in the staging of the phony meeting, but it casts a shadow on the truthfulness of Attila Mesterházy who in the last few days steadfastly denied that there was any communication between the party and the editor-in-chief of HVG. All the MSZP politicians who talked about this affair claimed that, after receiving the tape, examining it, and finding it suspicious, they turned it over to the police. So, MSZP is sinking deeper and deeper into the quagmire while Fidesz is reaping the benefits of this whole sordid affair.

Fidesz is pushing its advantage, though perhaps too hard. In the name of the “purity of the election processes” Fidesz came forward with a proposal for a new provision to be incorporated into the Criminal Code. The proposed law is already nicknamed Lex HVG.

Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz caucus, turned in the amendment to the new Criminal Code, which will come into force in December. If accepted, and why shouldn’t it be given the past record of the Fidesz-KDNP two-thirds majority, the burgeoning field of Hungarian investigative journalism will be stifled because the proposed amendment threatens any journalist who publishes material that a police investigation subsequently deems to be fake with jail time.

Very briefly outlined, here are the main points. (1) Someone who creates either an audio tape or a video in order to slander the reputation of another person will receive a jail term of one year. (2)  Anyone who makes such a tape or video available will get two years in jail. (3) Anyone who makes such a tape or video available to a wide audience (nagy nyilvánosság) will be jailed for three years.  And (4) anyone who didn’t ascertain the exact nature of such a tape or video because of “carelessness” (gondatlanság) will be jailed for at least one year.

So, the creator of a false tape or video will receive exactly the same sentence as the newspaperman who failed to ascertain, although he tried, the exact nature of the material he received. The whole amendment is outrageous, as Ákos Balogh, editor-in-chief of Mandiner, a moderate right-wing Internet site, pointed out this morning on ATV Start. In fact, the conservative Balogh was even more critical than his liberal counterpart, Dávid Trencséni of Stop. First of all, there is no need to introduce a new law on this particular issue because it is possible to handle such cases on the basis of the existing provisions of the Criminal Code. Second, such an amendment would greatly restrict the freedom of the media. Who will dare to publish any audio or visual material if he can face a stiff jail sentence? After all, no one can be 100% certain about the genuineness of such material. One would have to consult several experts, but even the experts might be wrong, and what will happen if the police’s expert says that it is a fake?

On the same ATV Start program the moderator interviewed Gergely Gulyás, the young legal expert of Fidesz, about this law, which is being fiercely debated among journalists and the general public. Gulyás is a self-assured fellow who can make the most outrageous things sound perfectly acceptable and reasonable. But this time even he seemed to be in trouble. He normally looks directly at the reporter without blinking an eye, but today he cast his eyes down far too often. Moreover, his excuses were feeble. It is not enough to say “don’t worry, no one will go to jail,” as he did. As the moderator rightly pointed out, why then do we need such a law?

I very much hope that this amendment will die because, if it doesn’t, the whole media controversy that was finally settled to the European Union’s apparent satisfaction will come to the fore again. If it passes, I hope that Brussels will be insistent that such punitive laws against journalists are unacceptable.