In just a few weeks, on April 8th, Hungarians will be facing a truly crucial political challenge, disguised as parliamentary elections, that will determine their future – in or out, with or without Europe – for decades. In this case the commonplace sticking to all national elections as being ’historic’ seems to reflect reality, with the stakes exceptionally high, both for Hungary, and for the European Union. The real issue behind all recent political controversy between Budapest and Brussels, as well as within Hungarian society is how to keep Hungary in Europe, how to retrieve and preserve the European Hungary. For us, Hungarian democrats this equals the – indeed, historic – task to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s corrupt autocracy, bearing the cynical sticker ’the system of national cooperation’, that since 2010 has brought our country to the brink of exiting the community of free and democratic nations.
Sadly, anyone devoted to the generally accepted European perception of democratic, free, and fair elections will be reluctant to qualify the current electoral law of Hungary as such. Neither did the OSCE monitoring mission in 2014, that already found the previous elections unfair and only partially free, pointing to the lack of transparency, to gerrymandering, to the unequal treatment of the opposition in the media, etc. Hungary’s awkward ’the-winner-takes-it-all’ type ballot system introduced by the ruling party rewards any winner by only 44 % of the votes with a 2/3 parliamentary majority: a uniquely uneven playing field that Orbán’s Fidesz will be keen to (ab)use anytime in pursuit of their undemocratic political agenda. Since 2014 the situation has been aggravating, including further ad-hoc legislation, almost complete government media and advertising monopoly, direct manipulation of the press, legal and financial harassment and intimidation of the political and civic opposition of the regime – bound to continue until election day. With the Hungarian opposition forced into such a political straight-jacket, personally I am tempted to look at our next April 8 vote rather as a kind of overall opinion poll, notwithstanding its high stakes, and potentially vital consequences. Nevertheless, particularly considering those huge stakes, the democratic forces rallying around the Socialist Party (MSZP) have no other decent choice but to take their full political responsibility, to overcome fragmentation, and to fight this electoral battle, albeit uneven and unfair.
While as Hungarian democrats, socialists and others, we are just about to engage in the final campaign, trying our sincere utmost to succeed under the burden of this huge political responsibility, I think it is important to realize, and fair to remind our EU partners that most stakes involved in this upcoming Hungarian ballot are inherently European. The outcome is bound to effect the European taxpayer, the EU citizen working to contribute to our joint European project. Ending Orbán’s amok in Hungary is a matter of direct interest to the Union too, as this member state’s return to normal democratic functioning and cooperation will immediately improve the conditions for a renewed, deeper, and fairer European integration.
As I see, such all-European stakes and opportunities in Hungary present themselves equally in political, economic, social, and security terms:
Politically, many of the current Hungarian regime’s actions during their eight years in power boil down to a deliberate, direct attack against the core democratic values the Union was built on. Denying solidarity, undermining the state of law, eliminating most constitutional checks and balances, curbing freedoms of critical press and media, attacks against civilian initiatives and NGOs, feeding public intolerance, hatred, and xenophobia vising minorities, migrants, and others, while gradually adopting the extreme right’s rhetoric, and agenda: all deplorable, proven facts of government policies in Hungary today. Policies that represent a blunt defiance of European democratic principles, while the EU has proven to be legally and politically unprepared to deal with the emergence of a maverick ’illiberal’ state within its ranks. Council and Commission reaction remains hesitant and ineffective, even though the dangers of Orbán’s nationalist populism contaminating politics in the wider region, and capable to undermine important new EU efforts to tackle migration, social inequalities, security, etc. have become quite evident in recent years. Once again, the credit of trying to protect European democratic principles goes to the Parliament, which often confronts the Hungarian government with their breaches of relevant EU law, and recently initiated to apply the ’Article 7 procedure’. Real impact on Fidesz’s political behaviour, however, can only be expected of their own political family, but the EPP members, though embarrassed and silent, continue to hold a leaking political umbrella above Orbán, who, at his scarce appearances in Plenary, is only applauded by some right-wing extremists, or euro-sceptics. Of course, this leaves the noble task of liberating European politics of this anti-democratic, nationalist ’pain-in-the-neck’ entirely on the shoulders of the Hungarian voter.
From certain angles of economy and finance, I believe it is high time for the European taxpayers to realize that they have been financing the build-up of a full-fledged cleptocracy in the heart of Europe, just as it is for the EU institutions to draw the conclusions. While the regime loudly alarms the electorate against ’Bussels’ as the key enemy of national independence and well-being, Hungary figures among the highest per capita beneficiaries of EU structural and cohesion funds that provide the almost exclusive source of economic growth and investments in the country. Behind this fragile financial facade Orbán manages to maintain a complex, government-run, corrupt public procurement and investment web to channel EU funds to a limited group of personal and politically proxies, and to the enrichment of the Prime Minister’s own family. Notwithstanding the obvious state capture involved, and even public knowledge of countless corruption scandals, this is still the ’country without consequences’, with another political appointee, the Attorney General furnishing legal haze and procedural protection to Fidesz proxies. (Unsurprisingly, Hungary is a fierce opponent of EU plans to fight corruption and tax evasion, and to introduce a European Public Prosecutor). As a rule, that is where the – usually too late, too little, too lenient – control efforts of the Commission, or OLAF’s reports fail. Consequently, this is the area where a pro-European political turn ousting the current rulers of Hungary would offer the most tangible benefits for the entire Union, also serving as a useful lesson for designing future funding rules under the next MFF period. For the country’s economy, the public, the entrepreneurs, however, the lost EU financing opportunities, and other damage caused by systemic corruption may be irretrievable.
The same economic facade hides in Hungary one of the most burning social crises within the EU. Eight years of Orbán’s reckless, socially insensitive course resulted in a growing social gap between the poor and the very rich, massive deprivation and poverty, child hunger, marginalisation and discrimination of women, of the Roma and other minorities, curbing workers’ and union rights. Official unemployment statistics aim to mislead Eurostat and public opinion by including those forced into the humiliating, futile system of ’community work’, as well as the hundreds of thousands of mainly young professionals (in fact economic refugees) who left the country to work and settle elsewhere in Europe. This dire social record belies everything the EU’s social agenda stands for, and begs for a complete policy review, as suggested by the Hungarian Socialists’ election programme, partly inspired by the new EU social pillar concept. Indeed, it takes a different, socially responsible government to retrieve Hungary as an EU member state ready to work with the others for a genuine Social Europe.
If there is an EU policy area where the community can least tolerate a maverick member state government’s irresponsible actions, it must be our common internal and external security. Ever since the 2015 refugee crisis Orbán seems to enjoy annoying EU partners by deliberately confusing terrorism and migration issues, by undermining the slowly emerging new common migration policy, and denying any solidarity with Union partners in dealing with the flow of refugees and migrants. Although his motives for feeding xenophobia are purely linked to internal vote maximizing, such a destructive behaviour by a member state, particularly in a potentially unstable border region of the EU behaving, is unprecedented, and represents a new type of security hazard to the Union as a whole. The same applies, even in global terms, to his Russia-policy that, by serving Putin’s foreign policy goals and scenarios, seriously compromises both Hungarian and European security, economic, and energy-policy interests. More than anything else, this danger explains why tomorrow’s European Union – finally waging decisive steps to achieve its goal of a real, common foreign and security policy – would be much better served with reliable and responsible political partners forming the next Hungarian government.
In the remaining days until April 8th the Hungarian left, together with other democratic forces, will work to achieve a political breakthrough, with as a result a new government is Budapest that is fully dedicated to the EU, and can lead our country back to the heart of the European project. The real challenge is to bring the voter to the ballot, and to overcome political apathy, inertia, and fear casting their shadows over Hungarian society in recent years. The good news is that, according to Eurobarometer, and all other polls, an overwhelming majority of Hungarians remain devoted to the European Union, and see their future deeply anchored in Western democratic values, in European integration. This is our source of strength, determination, and trust for the upcoming campaign.
Tibor Szanyi is a Member of the European Parliament (for the Magyar Szocialista Párt) and member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament.