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

Sat, Aug 17, 2013 - Page 9

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.

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.

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.

He is also giving citizenship and the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of Hungarians outside the country. They will be able to vote for the first time in general elections next April. The expectation is they will vote for the party that gave them that right, helping Orban to another term.

Gordon Bajnai, an opposition leader and former Hungarian prime minister, described the current political project in Hungary last week as the building of “Orbanistan,” citing the Felcsut soccer stadium as a typical example.

Bodoky described the Felcsut soccer project as “pure feudalism,” somehow symptomatic of the new climate being wrought by Orban in Hungary.

“He is a very clever and a very authoritarian person. He’s a control freak,” Bodoky said. “He knows very well how the state works. He’s putting all his officers in all key positions and has no respect for independent institutions that can control or limit his power.”

Orban’s supporters — and he remains far ahead in the opinion polls — insist that the leader is simply daring to “deviate” from the European mainstream and put his country first. They are confident that Hungary and Orban, who utterly dominates national politics, are winning. Others are less sure.

“It’s a really tragic story,” Molnar said. “It’s a drama of how a very talented political person is being destroyed by his own hubris. I think he’s lost.”