Sat, Aug 17, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Autocrats arising amid democracies

From Hungary’s Orban and the Czech Republic’s Zeman to Erdogan in Turkey, a new breed of democratic strongman is taking power

By Ian Traynor  /  The Guardian, FELCSUT, Hungary

Illustration: Tania Chou

A 40-minute drive southwest of Budapest, Felcsut is a typical Hungarian village on the surface, its cottages strung out neatly along either side of the long main street. Untypical of the Hungarian countryside, however, is the frenzy of building activity. Private security guards watch over armies of men in hard hats, bulldozers, and cranes toiling in the sweltering heat to complete a fancy new soccer stadium dwarfing the pretty cottage gardens and vegetable patches.

Then there are half a dozen practice pitches plus a soccer academy named after Hungary’s soccer saint, Ferenc Puskas, the Real Madrid maestro of the 1960s.

The village of 1,800 people seems a strange location for such investment. However, Felcsut is also home to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s powerful prime minister, who happens to be a soccer fanatic and who has also changed the law to facilitate such investments.

Megalomania? Vanity project? Or just another aspect of the dizzying pace of change in Hungary since Orban and his Fidesz party won a landslide election three years ago?

Orban has given Hungary a new constitution and hundreds of new laws, sometimes reckoned to amount to one a day, including changes to the tax code making business investment in, and sponsorship of, sports tax-deductible.

The result has been a bonanza for the village where he grew up and keeps a family house. According to two independent Hungarian media investigations, businesses donated some 6 billion forints (US$27 million) to soccer projects in Hungary last year. Staggeringly, almost half of that total flowed to Orban’s village alone.

The bounty suggests that Hungary’s businessmen are eager to please their strongman prime minister who has an electoral mandate that other leaders in Europe can only dream about, but is also broadly seen to be abusing that mandate by establishing a new system for the perpetuation of his own power.

“There is a very clear tendency of concentrating power and deciding everything on his own,” said Peter Molnar, a civil rights activist and former close associate of Orban. “They’re very seriously weakening democracy in Hungary. He has changed things to concentrate power in his hands.”

The Hungarian leader is hardly alone in eastern and southern Europe, where democratically elected populist strongmen increasingly dominate, deploying the power of the state and a battery of instruments of intimidation to crush dissent, demonize the opposition, tame the media, and tailor the system to their own ends.

In Russia and Turkey, the two big former imperial powers that bracket Europe to the east and south, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are lashing out aggressively at opponents, trying and jailing opposition figures and routinely resorting to violence to crush peaceful protest. They are both popular and utterly dominate their national politics.

Last year, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta attempted what was widely seen as an abortive constitutional coup to unseat and impeach his rival and enemy, Romanian President Traian Basescu. He failed.

In Prague, Czech President Milos Zeman has sought to exploit a government crisis to boost his power. The Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy under a cabinet government, but when the government collapsed under the weight of a corruption scandal in June, Zeman moved to appoint a close ally as a technocratic prime minister.

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