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

Parliament has revolted, going against Zeman in a confidence vote last week. On Tuesday the Cabinet resigned, clearing the way for early elections which could resolve the deadlock.

With the exception of Russia, where democratic standards are far weaker, all these power-hungry leaders have been democratically elected and are careful to operate within the letter of the law.

Akos Maroy, an information technology specialist and freedom of information campaigner at Atlatszo, said of Orban’s tactics: “I’m sure he believes there should be fair and free elections, but the system he’s building now is working against those principles.”

“Orban is really world class at doing things in a way that is, or at least looks, formally legal when often it is obvious they are abusing the law,” said Molnar, who shared student rooms with Orban as a law student in the 1980s and was a co-founder of Fidesz with Orban in 1988, a year before the collapse of communism across the region. He quit Fidesz in the 1990s.

While the different countries vary hugely in their politics, the strongmen leaders tend to exhibit strikingly similar characteristics and often resort to identical tactics. Orban, Erdogan and Putin all head political parties or elites very much focused on and dominated by the leader.

Molnar describes Orban’s approach to policymaking as follows: “There might be some very limited discussion, but I’m telling you the result, and I’m doing it for the good of my country.”

Like Putin and Erdogan, Orban also views politics as a zero-sum game — the winner takes all. Opponents are reviled as extremists and traitors. Whether genuinely believed or used simply as a populist tactic, paranoia about foreign plots is regularly invoked to disarm critics. Nationalist rhetoric is used to brand opponents as unpatriotic puppets of foreign powers.

“There is an anti-Hungarian campaign,” Hungarian Minister for European Affairs Eniko Gyori said. “Foreign businesses are going to Brussels to complain about new taxes. Some in Europe say we’re reducing democracy. It’s not true. But the new constitution, plus the speed of reform and legislation, is seen as politically incorrect in Europe. Our critics say stupid things and that provokes anti-EU sentiment.”

She sees Orban as a visionary leader bent on restoring Hungary to regional prominence and arresting a long process of national decline.

“No one wants to reshape the borders in Europe, but we want to survive. The long-term vision is that the Hungarian people has to survive, and for that you need more children,” she said. “The population is declining. It’s awful. It’s frightening. If you want to survive in the Carpathian basin, if you want these people to remain, we maybe need more Hungarians. You need to encourage people that it’s a good thing.”

“Crisis management needs fast, decisive action. That’s exactly what our leader is doing,” said Balazs Orban, a constitutional lawyer at the pro-government think tank Szazadveg. “He’s a role model for others in eastern Europe. He’s capable of many things that other European leaders couldn’t do.”

With a two-thirds majority and the Hungarian parliament effectively reduced to a rubber stamp for the prime minister’s will, Viktor Orban can do whatever he wants. However, his antics have brought him into conflict with Brussels. The latest spat involves a highly critical and detailed report from the European parliament demanding a special new EU monitoring system to scrutinize Orban’s actions.

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