Hungary’s revolution of the ballot boxes

by Lili Bayer

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Three years ago, when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared that his Fidesz party has achieved a “revolution in the ballot boxes”, few observers imagined that Hungary will truly undergo revolutionary changes. The last time the word ‘revolution’ was associated with Hungary, in 1956, Soviet tanks were rolling through the streets of Budapest. In 2010, there were no armed crowds or repressive security forces vying for influence over the country’s future. Election day was quiet, and voter turnout was typically low. The new Prime Minister’s Fidesz party did, however,  win two thirds of seats in Hungary’s unicameral legislature, a feat not only unprecedented in Hungary but also highly unusual throughout the post-Communist world. At the time, European officials dismissed Orbán’s victory as that of a populist leader whose fiery rhetoric succeeded in attracting the support of Hungarian voters during an economic downturn. Some of the Fidesz party’s proposals during the electoral campaign did appear out of the ordinary, but as a member of the European Union, Hungary’s democratic path was never questioned in Brussels or Washington.

Since the election, the Fidesz party has implemented a wide variety of changes to the country’s laws and public life. The government has used its two thirds majority in Parliament to introduce a new Constitution, centralize power, and limit the independence of institutions such as the judiciary and the Hungarian Central Bank. The Fidesz party has also worked to control the media, criminalize homelessness, and prevent university students from leaving the country after graduation. At the same time, Prime Minister Orbán and his government have been trying to appeal to far-right voters through the use of nationalist rhetoric and their continued refusal to condemn openly racist and anti-Semitic Fidesz party members.

So far, the Hungarian government has managed to avoid serious repercussions for its actions. Domestically, the opposition is divided and has failed to pose a serious electoral challenge to the ruling party. Hungary’s leaders were sometimes able to use ideological and partisan solidarity to garner support from foreign politicians. Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey issued a statement praising the Fidesz government, while the German government remained relatively quiet regarding its European People’s Party (EPP) partner’s agenda. Other European leaders, although generally critical of Fidesz policies, have been preoccupied with countries such as Greece and Cyprus.

Revolutions require a change in regime, not just a change in governments. Tourists visiting Hungary are generally unaware of the enormous transformations taking place. Even many Hungarians, who tend to dislike and distrust politics in general, regard the recent changes as unconnected to their daily lives. Some voters still maintain that Fidesz is their best hope for the future, or that it is better to support Fidesz than to vote for parties with a corrupt past. On the surface, life in Hungary appears far from revolutionary. Budapest’s many fashionable cafes and clubs are filled to the brim. The streets are safe, and members of the opposition are not generally harassed.

Below the surface, however, life is changing. Today, many young Roma are prevented from entering some of Budapest’s popular night clubs simply due to the color of their skin. The Fidesz government decision to turn a blind eye to racism and at times even encourage racial stereotyping has sent a signal to businesses that de facto segregation is now acceptable in Hungarian society.  Moreover, when Hungarians turn on their television sets, with the exception of one channel, what they see and hear is a version of the news which tends to focus on petty crime and heavily de-emphasizes the negative impact of the Fidesz ‘revolution’. During one opposition demonstration, the public television station turned its camera so that its reporter would be discussing the protest in front of an empty street, thus concealing the thousands of constituents who came to voice their concerns. Soon, Hungarians will notice that there are no more homeless individuals in the streets, but this change will not come as a result of the construction of new shelters or an improvement in economic conditions. There will be no more homeless in Hungary due to a Constitutional provision making it illegal to sleep in the streets, thus resulting in jail time for anyone who cannot afford to either pay rent or a steep fine.

On a more symbolic level, street names are changing. Even the country’s name has been altered from the Republic of Hungary to simply “Hungary”.  Disturbingly, statues of Miklos Horthy, a Nazi ally and Hungary’s wartime dictator, are appearing in several towns with official blessing. For young students, the content of their school curriculum is shifting to suddenly include works by extremist interwar authors who supported fascist ideas, as well as new interpretations of history which focus on Hungary as a victim, and not a perpetrator of atrocities during the Second World War.

Revolutions throughout history have oftentimes been bloody affairs, with opposing groups fighting to transform both the way a country is governed and how its people live. The Fidesz party’s Revolution of the Ballot Boxes began, as it name suggests, as a democratic project to change Hungary. Over the past three years, however, the nature of the revolution has changed as the Fidesz party’s rhetoric regarding the need for radical new policies shifted into a transformation of both Hungary’s government and society. Recently, members of the European Commission, as well as European politicians from different ends of the political spectrum expressed serious concerns regarding Hungary’s Constitution and the government’s lack of respect for the rule of law. Revolutions, however, depend on the participation of ordinary people in new institutions, and they generally need citizens to adopt new forms of behavior and ways of thinking in order to affirm the legitimacy of the new order. Ultimately, therefore, it is up to the Hungarian voters themselves to recognize the revolutionary changes taking place around them and to stand up for Hungarian democracy.


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