From Nazi occupiers to the Soviet-backed puppet regime, Hungarians have known their share of despots. Now, at the prodding of human rights groups, the European Union is confronting a Hungarian government — led by the conservative ruling party Fidesz (Hungarian Civil Union) — that some say is bringing the country dangerously close to the fascism Europe has been striving to bury in the history books.
Party leader and current Prime Minister Viktor Obrán led Fidesz to a sweeping victory in 2010 and a two-thirds majority in parliament. The party had enough votes to amend the constitution, and the changes that went into effect last month, critics say, are meant to allow the party to tighten its grip on power and stifle human rights.
For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said that the new provisions in the constitution grant a judge the ability to strip away an individual’s right to vote if he or she is deemed mentally incapable. Many such partisan changes are effectively permanent — the ruling party has recently amended the constitution to require a supermajority for major policy votes. Moreover, government officials with power over the courts, budget and media have been given longer terms, and Fidesz party loyalists have filled the posts.
An HRW report published last month said that the legal changes “create a new National Judiciary Office (NJO), whose president has the sole authority to appoint most judges. Together with the chief prosecutor, also a recent appointee, the NJO president can decide which judge should hear a case.” It goes on to say that the NJO “effectively neutralizes the Constitutional Court, which has issued a series of critical rulings against the government, as a check on state power. The person appointed president of the Judiciary Office is the wife of a leading member of the Fidesz party.”
In fact, Viktor Orbán’s dismissal of nearly 100 serving judges led the European Commission to file infringement proceedings against Hungary last month. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said of his meeting with Orbán about the charges: “We had a comprehensive and constructive discussion. The prime minister indicated Hungary’s readiness to address swiftly the issues raised by the Commission. … I also reiterated that there are wider political concerns that the Hungarian government needs to address.”
Human rights groups have also raised concerns over a new government office regulating the media that can close media outlets deemed to be imbalanced. Human Rights Watch reported that “an independent talk radio station, Klubrádió, lost its license in December and will close in March. Large numbers of journalists working for the state broadcaster have been dismissed, ostensibly for efficiency but in some cases the dismissals appear to be linked to their objections to government interference in editorial matters.”
A report released last month by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit organization based in New York City, said, “State media outlets are under firm control in Hungary. The state Hungarian News Agency, MTI, provides most of its services to media organizations free of charge. This suppresses competition in the news market, resulting in a kind of copy-and-paste journalism, especially at smaller media outlets with limited resources. The state radio and television stations predominantly echo official viewpoints. The most striking case occurred when the image of the former chief justice was blurred in a December TV news show because he had previously expressed criticism toward government.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists also noted that while this has led to a popular backlash, including a hunger strike by unionists and journalists and demanding reforms, their calls have fallen on deaf ears.
Orbán has been open to talks with E.U. officials about improving the country’s human rights standards to meet those of the E.U. But what is truly frightening is that despite Fidesz’s power in numbers, it faces opposition from the anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, far-right Jobbik party (Movement for a Better Hungary), which last month held a 2,000-member anti-E.U. demonstration in Budapest calling for Hungary to leave the bloc.
The situation with Fidesz is one more headache for the E.U., which is mired in the ongoing European debt crisis. While far-right nationalist parties have gained attention and supporters throughout the continent with their anti-immigrant and racist demonstrations, we are actually seeing the E.U. worry about the attacks on democracy from a ruling party, which emerged not from the extreme right-wing, but from the mainstream conservative movement.