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A Political Island Defies Europe

BUDAPEST, May 1 2013 (IPS) - “Give gas” was the original name for the Goj motorbikers parade intended for Apr. 21, a day when Hungary’s large Jewish community commemorates the Holocaust in the Peace March.

The Gojs (which means gentile – non-Jew – in Hebrew) planned to ride in front of Budapest’s largest synagogue. Only energetic protests from Jewish leaders prompted authorities to prohibit the event, which took place after changes to the original route and name.

Hungary, a country of 10 million now governed by the conservative Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, had not seen such overt expressions of far-right ideas since the infamous 1940s.

Last November, the ultranationalist Jobbik deputy Márton Gyöngyösi, whose party obtained 17 percent of the vote in the 2010 legislative elections, suggested that the names of Hungarians of Jewish origin should be kept on a registry as they constitute “a national security risk.” He later corrected his statement to mean dual Israeli-Hungarian citizens.

The are more parallels with the 1940s: during the last few years paramilitary militias have marched in Hungarian villages with large gypsy communities in order to intimidate them and bring a message of law and order. Several instances of physical aggression, gunshot wounds and fires have been linked to these marches.

In the case of the marginalised gypsy community, representing up to 7 percent of the population, authorities have done little to protect them from abuse, as was noted in a report published last year by Amnesty International.

Moreover, high-profile supporters of the government have contributed to the atmosphere of hate prevailing in the country: Zsolt Bayer, one of Fidesz’s founders and a close friend of Orbán, wrote last January in the pro-government paper Magyar Hirlap that gypsies “ought not to exist” and called for an immediate solution to the ‘problem’ “regardless of the method.”

Bayer added that running over a gypsy child is correct as long as one “does not think about stopping and steps hard on the accelerator.”

Orbán failed to publicly condemn any of these incidents. Critics claim the Prime Minister fears alienating the most extremist sections of his electorate, which may join the ranks of the far-right Jobbik.

Instead, Orbán has been more preoccupied with purging the various political, judicial, cultural and media institutions of dissenting elements, empowered by Fidesz’s spectacular electoral victory in 2010, which gave it a two-third constitutional majority in parliament.

The overhaul of the country’s institutions has been justified with an alleged need to cleanse public life of the lingering influence of communism.

The government’s actions have also alienated the country from the EU: this month saw Fidesz officials involved in verbal disputes with Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission, over the country’s constitutional reforms, which were also the subject of fresh debates in the European Parliament.

The latest constitutional reform has been criticised for criminalising the homeless and favouring the government during electoral campaigns. These same laws had been presented separately in parliament and rejected by the Constitutional Court, leading the government to include them in the country’s fundamental law.

Moreover, the Court has lost its power to revise future constitutional amendments, severely weakening the formal separation of powers in Hungary and leading the European Commission to ring the alarm bell.

Yet analysts claim that talk of Hungary turning into a dictatorship is misplaced: “What we have is a narrow political elite riding mass waves of disenchantment with liberal democracy and economic neoliberalism that manages to establish a rule by decree where there is no space for dissent, for participatory decision-making or consensus-building,” Gábor Halmai, a sociologist and human rights activist told IPS.

“However, this strong-handed politics is supported by a very large and mobilised part of society.”

András Deák, an analyst at the Budapest-based Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, similarly claims the Orbán government “has clearly authoritarian features and obviously tests the limits of democratic governance,” but points out that “all these measures were legitimate in terms of domestic legislation.”

Deák moreover notes the uniqueness of the Hungarian case. “It is difficult to find any post-World War II government in Europe, at which the wish to shake up the country’s political system coincided with such an overwhelming electoral legitimation,” he told IPS.

This may be one of the reasons why Brussels has refrained from going beyond public criticism and infringement procedures which, while common to many other European states, are accumulating at an alarming pace in the case of Hungary.

Moreover, anti-EU sentiments are on the rise in Hungary, with large swaths of the population feeling “their interests are at odds with those of Brussels,” says Deák.

This was made particularly clear by some of the government’s economic measures, namely the taxing of banks and multinational corporations to benefit the middle-class and the national bourgeoise.

The measures were criticised by the EU but enjoyed substantial popular support.

With the EU angered, Orbán’s latest strategy involves attracting more Chinese and Russian investment, coupled by statements criticising the “decadence” of the Western capitalist model. As long as the EU remains merged in a financial crisis, many Hungarians will follow his lead.

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