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Happy New Year: Now A Taste Of Goulash Democracy

Author bio: 
Richard Cottrell

On New Year's Day, a strange and disturbing event occurred in the small central European state of Hungary. A state promulgation came into effect which directly conjured forth the activities of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's ever more prophetic 1984. With almost no dissent or critical comment from abroad, a new star chamber eerily called the Media and Communications Authority was henceforth empowered to impose enormous fines on broadcasting corporations, newspapers and magazines unwise enough to repeat or record anything considered by the these faceless commissars as "unbalanced, or offensive to human dignity or common morals", according to the Associated Press.

Of course this plainly speaks of cold censorship and nothing else. The infernal Internet is not of course spared, and nor are foreign media circulating in the country. The gag even extends to radio or television broadcasts beamed from any external source. The colossal arrogance of the exercise ought, surely, to spark a revolt among Hungarians, who after all are still well remembered for their brave but ultimately tragic rising against their Soviet occupiers 54 years ago.

Yet apart from a few small street demonstrations featuring self-gagged protestors, or a few newspapers which went to press with blank front pages, there is scarcely a peep at the sudden shift to a creeping dictatorship, which all began with the sweeping election victory of the pin-up boy of Hungarian politics a year ago, and to whom virtually the entire nation is now in thrall.

Viktor Orban is not a name that, so far, travels widely. Yet patiently this 44-year-old has been climbing the ladder of ambition for the last two decades, with a helping hand now and again from his fellow Hungarian, the famed magnate and currency spoofer George Soros. Orban's light shines brightly around the corridors of Europe, where he is feted and courted by the likes of Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. In the States he is poster boy of the American Enterprise Institute, which appears, at face value anyway, to confirm his neo-con credentials.

Yet, as we shall see, it may not be quite as simple and clear cut in getting to grips with a highly complicated personality whose political direction is obviously still a work in progress. What can be said for certainty however, and for this his own pronouncements and actions are responsible, is that Viktor Orban is clearly not a patron of democracy in the general sense of the word. But we are beginning to get an emerging picture of where he will finally pitch his tent.

One earlier term in the premiership came to a fairly inglorious end, but it was quite sufficient to hint at the emerging autocratic style of a man with patently ruthless ambitions. Orban's lucky break in 1989 was the collapse of the subsequent incompetent and despised shadow communist government, which rammed the ship of state into the throat of a financial hurricane, which in turn called for the IMF lifeboats and a twenty billion dollar bail-out. In such circumstances the temptation to reach for the nearest strong man, as history so often records, can prove irresistible.

Unlike Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he is sometimes not very accurately compared, there is no playboy, lap-dancing side to a steely personality which is absorbed by the sheer beauty of power for its own sake. My comparison is rather more with Tony Blair than the well known Italian gigolo.

The upshot is that Hungarian politics now revolve almost entirely around an unmistakable personality cult. There is scarcely a moment when Orban is not dominating the front pages and news broadcasts. An enormous propaganda engine, the same one that is now to operate the system of blanket censorship, scarcely rests around the clock in generating images of the calculating man of action.

It helps obviously that he is certainly photogenic. Sharp and clean-cut, not perhaps film star looks exactly, a little bulky, but the sort of solid and reassuring figure with huge energy and dynamism most parents would like their daughters to marry. He makes much of his soccer worship, and not content with owning his own club, he plays for it as well, a clear distinction from his near-octogenarian colleague down by the Tiber. It is worth recalling however that the cult of physical fitness, which Berlusconi also exalts in his own athletic interpretations, was a famous trademark of Benito Mussolini.

Orban's trick has been to seize hold of a rather languid and vague political force calling itself the League of Young Hungarians, or Fidesz for short, and then drag it across the political spectrum from the liberal and soft left to the position it occupies now on the firm right. This was exactly the strategy pursued by Blair when he erected his self-inflated castle called New Labour on the tumbledown ruins of the exhausted British socialist party. That, too, was yanked progressively to the right. New Labour was, of course, Blair and nobody else. Likewise Orban and Fidesz.

It is often remarked that Blair uniquely presidentialised British politics. In fact Margaret Thatcher was his clear forerunner there, although Lord Protector Blair, unlike Thatcher, mostly dispensed with parliament altogether. Orban it seems is following the same path. From the point of his victory last year, which awarded him two thirds of the seats in parliament, he started to constantly invoke the word 'revolution' to decorate all his acts.

Autocracies, as everyone knows, evolve in stages. The point is that each enactment signals what will invariably happen next. So, Orban completed the transformation of the premiership into the focal point of government, reducing cabinet and parliament to rubber stamps. This is basically what has also occurred in Italy, although Berlusconi is infuriatingly forestalled by a presidency which retains some sharp teeth, for the moment anyway. Orban successfully drew the teeth of the constitutional court, which sends a very clear message that no obstinate judges will get in the way of future 'reforms'. This is something that must set Berlusconi, constantly frustrated in that same ambition, gasping with admiration.

Next "Viktator", as he is dubbed by dissident Hungarians, personally re-drew the electoral maps to ensure that Fidesz is guaranteed to win all but 5% of the mayorships when they next come up for grabs. After that, we can be sure, there will be gerrymandering of parliamentary seats to secure the permanent running inheritance of the governing party. Count on it.

But neither Blair nor Berlusconi dared to go quite as far Victor Orban in instituting the astonishing compulsory centralised public worship of a regime which has begun to take on the clear stripe of latter-day national socialism. And with it of course, the inevitable idolising of the Great Leader -- or if you prefer, Big Brother.

His critics are denouncing the blatant "Orbanization" of Hungary. A decree has been made that oblong plaques must be affixed to every government building, including ministries, courts, military barracks, tax offices and other state owned structures including schools which state that "a new social contract" has developed "following the successful revolution in the voting booths." The text continues: "Hungarians have voted for a new system, that of national unity." The government, the plaque continues, will complete this unity "resolutely and without compromise." If this does not very clearly indicate the future direction of the "Hungarian Revolution" then what exactly will?

Those Hungarians who are increasingly disturbed by what is happening in their country recognise and rightly shudder at this carefully selected language. "Revolution" is a very clear invocation dating back to the 1957 rising and its brutal suppression by the forces of the Warsaw Pact, one of the most traumatic events in all Hungarian history. It also tars the walking wounded known as Hungarian socialists, who have all but committed political suicide as any competent observer can see, as subliminal aiders and abetters of that national tragedy. Like previous regimes of national socialist or fascist character -- Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Greece between 1967 and 1974, not leaving out Hungary herself between the two world wars -- the implication of purifying and cleansing a diseased body politic by autocratic measures is all too obvious. The disgust for 'compromise' -- that favourite bogy of Thatcher -- is unmistakable.

As we know too well Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Peron in Argentina and indeed the whole class of populist-nationalists cast in that mould, the vicious soldier-dictators of South America, the legendary Great Leaders of North Korea, Pol Pot of the infamous Cambodian Killing Fields, all exploited the same political vernacular. What is true however is that the chief buzz words inscribed on these tablets of stone, namely 'national unity,' can only be squeezed to discover any intelligible purpose if they imply an on-going, perpetual roller-coaster of change, the underlying theory of Leon Trotsky. Blair called it 'healing', echoing the earlier language of Thatcher, but boiled down to basics, it all means the same thing.

When Hungarians voted to turf out the socialists and by such a grand majority, it was out of natural repugnance rather than any fear that the state itself was at risk. Viktor Orban has twisted this perfectly logical reaction to build his personal revolution from the ground upwards. The plain fact is that had the former left-wing administration governed competently, or at least with modest skill, then both Orban and his party of national unity would find themselves if not exactly in the wilderness, then incapable of orchestrating what is now the country's controlled descent into the ranks of nominal democracy.

It goes without saying that the new media agency -- the Ministry of Truth -- which is to effectively control and manipulate the information agenda is staffed entirely by stooges selected personally by the Prime Minister. Every publishing or broadcasting outfit in the country is henceforth under government supervision, which in time will mean blue pencillers in the news rooms and pulling the plug on those who step out of line in broadcasting studios or on the Net.

The fines which offending organs may suffer, up to one million dollars for what are categorised as serious offences -- although no-one can discover from the vaguely phrased 170-page document what that means -- are actually less important than the obvious blackmail. Repeat hits might put some newspapers or journals out of business altogether. So deterrence is the name of the game. As for the foreign media, it will be interesting to see if The Economist dares repeat its recent blitz on Orban's "cynical populism and mystifyingly authoritarian socialist-style policies".

For once the magazine did not mince words. This is as close any international journal has come to fixing Orban in the evolutionary line of national socialism.

By extraordinary irony the new press law -- almost identical as it is to that introduced in the Reich in 1933 -- came into force on the first day of Hungary's six-month term at the tiller of the European Union. Angela Merkel muttered something woolly about "watching developments closely", but went no further because the ruling force in Hungary is also a close ally in the right-wing coalition at the helm of all European affairs -- the so-called European Peoples' Party (bearing its own distinct and chilling Hegelian overtones of universalist autocracy).

This is a typical example of the iron law of inertia that governs all the business of the glorious EuroFatherland. For inspiration it draws on one of the famous scratchy long-playing records that always pop up during any eulogies to the EU, namely the elixir of democracy and human rights supposedly enshrined in the act of membership. The elevation of the Host, so to speak, over the new Holy Roman Empire. When the former Soviet Union's entire European commonwealth was clasped to the bosom of Brussels all at one go in the spring of 2004, there was much pseudo-biblical babbling of the return of the exiles to the joys of market forces and their usual marching companion, free elections.

The latest events in Hungary expose the bogus sterility of these always absurd pretences.

If further proof is needed, then we can look to a certain Herman van Rompuy, a recycled dead-beat Belgian politician elected a year ago (by the 27 Euro heads of State, unanimously) as the first non-rotating president of the European Council of Ministers, the EU's top drawer. Herman Van Who? as he is generally known, swooped on Budapest just before Christmas, paused briefly to eulogise Orban and all his works and then returned to the skies from whence he came. "I am here to celebrate," the quaint alien from the European headquarters declared: "I will return to Brussels with an excellent impression."

Herman is a fully paid up Bilderberger.

Almost alone, the foreign minister of the tiny pocket state of Luxembourg dared venture whether "such a country deserves to lead the EU. If we don't do anything, it will be very difficult to talk to China or Iran about human rights." Or Belarus, he might have usefully added.

Hungarians who voted enthusiastically to join the EU in the belief they would be guaranteed against the repeat of previous authoritarian regimes of both left and right can be forgiven if they now wonder if they made the right decision. From the EU perspective the point is that the show must go on, at any price. If the Hungarian innovations are copied in other countries which are observably slipping into pseudo-democracies -- Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Italy, the UK among them -- then we have been forewarned.


Richard Cottrell is the author of Gladio: NATO's Dagger At The Heart of Europe, a forthcoming attraction from Progressive Books. He is a former Member of the European Parliament.