Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Is Hungary Rejecting Democracy

While it's a cliche to talk of democracy's fragility, it really doesn't take much to instill an authoritarian state in a nation where democracy seemed firmly entrenched.

We may be seeing this happen in Hungary.

The right-wing Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban won 53 percent of the popular vote in an election this year but gained 66 percent of the seats in parliament - enough to change the constitution. It proceeded to take over or attack the authority of every institution it did not control, including the presidency, the Supreme Court and the state audit office; the central bank is now under its assault.

Meanwhile, Mr. Orban has overseen passage of two media laws that will put Hungary in a league with Russia and Belarus on press freedom. One puts Fidesz in control of state television channels and all other public media outlets. The second, approved by parliament on Tuesday, creates a powerful Media Council with the authority to regulate newspapers, television, radio and the Internet. The council may issue decrees and impose heavy fines - up to $950,000 - for news coverage it considers "unbalanced" or offensive to "human dignity." Journalists can be forced to reveal their sources, and the council can search editorial offices and require that publishers reveal confidential business information.
This is not good. I'm hardly convinced that a large minority of Americans wouldn't support something like this. That most  Hungarians grew up under a single-party dictatorship suggests that a lot probably wouldn't mind going back to that if it provided stability.

Moreover, Hungary is about to take over the rotating presidency of the EU. A few states have publicly stated that such a government is not fit for the post, but Germany, France, Britain, and Italy have remained silent. Given that all four currently have center-right governments, it's unlikely they will. This provides Orban silent acquiescence for his totalitarian tendencies.

I'm not going to go all apocalyptic and say that the future of democracy in Europe is at stake. However, I do worry that other marginal states in the EU could turn away from democracy as a response to the economic crisis. And that's good for no one.

Applebaum with more.