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

Events in Hungary have caused Berlin and other EU capitals to call for a new EU system to monitor democracy in its 28 member states, with penalties for perceived transgressions. It appears that such calls will gain traction in Brussels this year.

A tone of authoritarian nationalism pervades the discourse of the Orban government, according to critics. A Fidesz declaration following Orban’s election victory interpreted his mandate as “a new social contract” for the country.

“Hungarians decided to create a new system, the national

cooperation system... It is shared by every Hungarian inside or outside the country... It is not only an opportunity, but a requirement for every Hungarian,” with the new parliament and government “obliged by the Hungarian nation to take the helm in this endeavor.”

Molnar describes such language as “Orwellian, a total lie,” a throwback to the language of the 1930s. Orban’s government ordered that the declaration be hung prominently in every public building.

Outside parliament on the banks of the Danube River in Budapest, the large park area that has frequently been the site of political protests has also been cordoned off and turned into a giant building site. Under Orban, the site is being redeveloped into a replica of how it looked in the 1930s under then-Hungarian regent Miklos Horthy.

There has been no opposition of note, in contrast to Turkey where last month’s protests, crushed by teargas and water cannons, were sparked by the prime minister’s determination to destroy an Istanbul park also to build a 1930s replica of a military barracks and mosque.

If Orban, Erdogan and others share an intolerance of dissent and an aversion to pluralism, these tendencies are most sharply felt in the media. The instruments of control range from the legal framework, regulators packed with political cronies, state media homogenization, private media in the hands of loyal businessmen and oligarchs who depend on government contracts for their wealth and discourage critical reporting or holding policymakers to account.

Orban brought in a controversial new media law that centralized and homogenized all news production for state television, radio, and the national news agency and appointed all five members of the regulatory media council.

“They’ve succeeded in domesticating and chilling the media. You don’t get jailed or shot like in Russia. But you lose your job,” said Tamas Bodoky, an investigative journalist and colleague of Maroy who runs the freedom of information Web site, Atlatszo.

“Censorship is internalized,” Maroy added. “People are protecting their livelihoods, behaving as they’re expected to. That’s what is happening.”

Other instruments commonly wielded to coerce loyalty and punish dissidence include the selective use of tax inspectors to intimidate business leaders and individuals, and the awarding of government contracts and licenses.

Orban, for example, brought in a new system of tobacco sales licensing, destroying around 40,000 small family businesses then reissuing some 5,000 licenses in an operation that critics and independent journalists say was used to reward cronies and buy loyalty to the government.

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