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HUNGARY: Civil Society Steps in as Opposition

BUDAPEST, Jan 16 2012 (IPS) - The massive overhaul of Hungary’s political system by the conservative Fidesz party is raising fears the country’s days as a liberal democracy may be numbered. With opposition parties powerless, it is civil society that has awakened to support a more participatory democracy.

A ceaseless and unilateral stream of legislative initiatives from the party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban is turning the country of 10 million which joined the European Union (EU) in 2004 into an autocracy, critics say.

The pillars of Hungarian democracy have been shaken by a new constitution and some of the 359 laws Fidesz approved since it came to power with a qualified majority a year and a half ago.

The new constitution, which mentions god and the right to life, came into effect Jan. 2 amid widespread discontent in Budapest.

The constitution also establishes a permanent flat tax with regressive effects which will be very difficult to modify in the future, while new laws have challenged the independence of the judiciary, the media and financial institutions.

Moreover Hungarian minorities abroad, who mostly support Fidesz, have been given the right to vote in a move that may perpetuate the governing party’s grip on power.

A feeling of impotence has taken over opposition deputies, sidelined from all legislative initiatives. Some MPs have even claimed that parliamentary opposition is no longer useful.

In spite of the current democratic crisis, widespread disillusionment with politics dates back to the rule of socialists between 2006 and 2010, when Hungarians were not told the truth about the state of the economy and were then subjected to harsh austerity measures.

Many hoped Fidesz would provide a more prosperous alternative but instead it has only deepened cynicism towards politics. Polls estimate up to 60 percent of Hungarians are so disappointed with politics that they would rather not vote if an election took place today.

But Hungarians, especially younger ones, are looking beyond the party system to show their discontent with the prevailing political regime. Civil society movements are beginning to pop up at an impressive rate, while trade unions are promising action.

In a post-communist region not famous for the strength of its civil society, Andras Bozoki, a political analyst and former oppositionist under state socialism, notes that renewed civic activism is a reaction to “the rolling back of democratic institutions and the rule of law, something we hadn’t seen in the last 20 years.

“Hungary was a liberal democracy according to all international indexes, now it is considered a democracy but not a fully fledged one,” he tells IPS. People are uncertain and hesitant after both governing and opposition parties have disappointed them, “that’s why they are searching for alternatives in new movements.”

At no point was the new alternative more visible than on Jan. 2, when tens of thousands of citizens mobilised by civic movements gathered in front of Budapest’s Opera to protest the coming into effect of the new Constitution.

Among them was Attila Steve Kopias, one of the most visible faces of new opposition activism, with stunts that included getting arrested for dressing up as a homeless person and sleeping on a bench just to call attention to new laws criminalising homelessness.

“Any means of cooperation between the people and political power are being closed, so we have no alternative than to rise to power,” Kopias tells IPS.

“People have lived the last 20 years thinking politics is a job for politicians and we just have to vote. Now they are starting to realise that if we let politicians do whatever they want…they will do whatever they want.”

Kopias is hopeful more Hungarians will follow the trend towards mobilisation and participation: “I am absolutely sure the movement will grow. The big question is will it stop here? It is one thing we should send Orban away, but what should come after that? What kind of country do we want?

“We need precise requests, social justice, housing…but at least people have started talking about the details of politics while before they agreed with whatever their party said.”

Still, a large portion of the population views Hungary’s authoritarian drift passively, and is hostile to the same international bodies and states that criticise Orban’s governing style. Many among them voted for Orban trusting that his ‘unorthodox’ and ‘sovereign’ economic policy will protect them from further painful reforms.

In spite of months of troubling anti-democratic developments in Hungary, outspoken criticism from European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only came after the prime minister curtailed the independence of the Central Bank this month.

“This gives the impression they are more concerned about the Central Bank than about democracy,” Bozoki tells IPS.

Writing for the weekly HVG, Hungarian philosopher Tamas Gaspar Miklos makes a similar point: “The Hungarian people, so often disappointed, may see in the ‘democratic cause’ nothing more than a decorative icing on the increasingly harsh austerity measured pushed by Western powers worried about financial stability.

“We must not be amazed that Hungarian citizens show little enthusiasm for restoring liberal democracy if that means their own destitution,” the former dissident adds.

Fidesz’s last pieces of legislation are being examined for their compatibility with European law. Hungary may have to partially track down considering it is risking a full-blown debt crisis that only assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the EU may be able to prevent.

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