The Hungarian prime minister speaks of the possible abandonment of democracy, but has he read the headlines recently?by Balint Szlanko 1 August 2012
The Hungarian prime minister was referring to the economic turmoil gripping Europe, which he predicts will lead to a realignment in world affairs comparable to the events of the early 1990s. Such developments require a strong hand, he argues, and there may be some truth to that, except what he really means is that these hands must be attached to his arms in particular.
These matters have been a favorite subject of Orban for the last two years. Europe, and more broadly the West, is indeed facing deep questions over the future of its economic system and its place in the world, largely as a result of the rise of the rest and the crisis we have created for ourselves. It is fitting that he is grappling with these questions.
The problem is that he is drawing the wrong conclusions. Orban has said time and again that he admires China and other rising powers in the East, including, perplexingly, Kazakhstan, an authoritarian petro-state. He likes to speak, in that tiresome artificial folksiness of his, of an “eastern wind.”
The energy and increasing inventiveness of China is indeed admirable. But what Orban seems to like the most is the authoritarian bit – the strong hand. Hence the not-so-vague musings about what we should do with this unruly system called democracy, particularly amid these wild-eyed semi-Asiatics such as “our” people, hoping (against hope, no doubt) that it needn’t be replaced.
One could ignore such rants. Yet Orban is practicing what he preaches. In the last two years he has reduced parliament to a rubber stamp, undermined the independence of the courts, and attacked independent bodies such as the budget council and the ombudsman’s office. Now he is trying to skew the elections by introducing a requirement to register and by redrawing constituency boundaries.
He now couples this with an increasing veneration for the regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy, regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1944. Horthy was a Nazi ally who sent thousands of Jews to forced labor and ultimately to their deaths (in the end, 430,000 perished), and who ran a strongly authoritarian system with a meaningless democratic facade.
“A thousand kinds of disease / so many infants die / orphanage and men old before their time / insanity, dreary and stolid / sin, suicide, and torpor,” wrote Attila Jozsef, the great poet, of this depressing era, lest we forget what it was really like.
Laszlo Kover, parliament’s speaker and an Orban man, recently attended a commemoration for Jozsef Nyiro, an early-20th century pro-Nazi writer whose work is now in the school books. A new statue of Admiral Horthy has gone up. A town governed by Orban’s Fidesz party tried to name its high street after him. Where is all this going?
Orban’s musings about strong leadership and the crisis of the West are ignorant and superficial. He is but a little Putin who thinks all would be well if only people would learn to follow a strong leader instead of always arguing and bickering. Yet witness the hole into which he has driven the economy in the last two years, tolerating no argument, stubbornly banging his head against the wall. This is primitive politics and has no place in a European state or indeed an “Asiatic” one in the 21st century.
The trend is quite the opposite. Notwithstanding the present crisis, wealth is increasing worldwide. Most of us really are middle class now. Information is everywhere, communication tolerates no boundaries and restraints, and people will not suffer leaders who try to leave them in the dark. All this is spawning a citizenry that is increasingly independent and politically conscious. And as our societies and economies become more complex, top-down control will be less effective. It is no wonder that in today's open, hyper-connected world it is mostly democracies that thrive.
Witness even the Arab world, hitherto a black hole on the map of liberty, yet now a wellspring of hope where people will gladly die for their freedom and dignity. Even China’s leaders occasionally muse that democracy may be delayed but not denied in their country if it is truly to become a modern society. Putin may be well-ensconced in the Kremlin but a new opposition to him is emerging.
And those roaring eastern economies are facing social upheaval, environmental degradation, and corruption that no central diktat will be able to fix.
Very much unlike Orban’s depressing and self-serving vision, a new era of democracy is emerging. History is leaving such petty tyrants, real or aspiring, well behind.