A New Solidarity Movement in Hungary?

I was lecturing about transitions to democracy today, and I mentioned that my colleague Adam Przeworski has argued that no country with a GDP above $6,000/per capita that becomes a democracy has later lost its status as a democracy. I noted that this was one of the few iron rules of politics that political scientists have come up with (democracies don’t tend to get to into wars with each other is the other), when I looked up at a Hungarian student of mine and thought “uh oh….”.

For readers who have been singularly fixated on all things Iowa and New Hampshire of late, you may have missed the fact that between 70,000-100,000 Hungarians took to the streets on January 2nd to protest constitutional developments that they fear could make Hungary the exception to Przeworski’s rule. Another colleague of mine, John Jost, was in Budapest at the time, and he was kind enough to offer the following thoughts from the ground:

On January 2, 2012, between 70,000 and 100,000 Hungarian citizens demonstrated boisterously outside of the historic Opera House, where the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and other members of his conservative Fidesz party gathered for a posh celebration of their controversial new national constitution. The protest was arranged by the “Szolidaritas” (“Solidarity”) organization and supported by various trade unions, students, and others who are increasingly concerned about the government’s efforts to consolidate power, rewrite history, and generally move the country in an authoritarian direction. The slogan of the day was “Hungary Will Be a Republic Again”—a reference to the fact that the new constitution has changed the official name of the country, omitting the word “Republic.”

Critics of the new constitution, which has also been condemned by some leaders of the European Union, say that it was written exclusively by Fidesz operatives in the absence of consultation with other parties and constituencies. Controversial provisions of the constitution and accompanying pieces of legislation include the prohibition of same-sex marriage and progressive taxation (i.e., imposing a “flat tax”); a reduction in the size of Parliament (coupled with district gerrymandering to minimize the impact of left-wing voting); a reshuffling of the courts, including mandatory retirement of older judges (who have been replaced by young Fidesz loyalists); restrictions on citizens’ abilities to complain about violations of their civil rights; and the creation of a new committee to monitor the media (combined with a strategy of squeezing out independent media sources that have been critical of the government, such as ATV and Klub Radio).

The constitution features the rhetoric of nationalism and official Christianity (including a political reference to the “Holy Crown”) and nullifies not only the 1949 constitution passed during the Communist period but also the 1989 revised constitution passed after the democratic transition. Fidesz has declared that the current Socialist party is responsible for the crimes of the Communist party during the postwar period and has sought to bring legal charges against political adversaries, including the previous Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány. Changes to the new constitution must be approved by two-thirds of Parliament—which is seen by many as unattainable by any coalition other than the one led by Fidesz, at least for many years. A law has also been passed requiring all governmental offices in the country to display the new constitution prominently on a special table.

Since their election 18 months ago, the Fidesz government has taken extraordinary measures to induce citizens to move their retirement savings from private accounts (backed by international insurance companies) to state-held pension funds, ostensibly to lower the national debt to be in compliance with EU requirements. Those I spoke with have no confidence that they will ever see the money again. The government has drawn international criticism for seeking to assert hegemony over the independent central bank, which sets interest rates and monitors inflation; after the controversy over pensions, many citizens worry that the government will appropriate funds from the central bank for its own purposes. Very recently, Fidesz has also slashed the higher education budget by 25%, lowered the age of mandatory schooling to 16, and planned to curtail public health expenditures (on the assumption that wealthy families at least will be able to afford supplementary insurance).

Although the demonstration on January 2 was not sponsored by any of the opposition parties, it was well-attended by representatives of various centrist and leftist parties and organizations; because of the event’s success, future prospects for coalition-building among these previously disparate entities are now being reassessed. The extreme right-wing Jobbik party is backed by as much as 20% of the Hungarian public, but there were only about 50 members (dressed in black military uniforms) at the demonstration. They sharply antagonized a socialist delegation, ultimately prompting the tens of thousands in attendance to chant in unison: “Nazis go home!” But perhaps the most popular line was delivered by László Majtényi, a former ombudsman concerned with freedom of the press, who warned Orbán that, “It is better to be a departing prime minister than to be a dictator who is removed by the people!” Although the events unfolding in Hungary have not received much sustained attention in the West, CNN briefly covered the demonstration; soon thereafter, the station was abruptly dropped by Telekom, one of the country’s largest cable providers.

Disclaimer: The author did not attend the demonstration but was in Hungary immediately before and after the event and spoke extensively with others who attended. Many of the factual statements made here are also contained in the following English articles:







10 Responses to A New Solidarity Movement in Hungary?

  1. kerokan January 10, 2012 at 3:05 am #

    The current Hungarian govt. sounds like a classic case of nutjobs with too much power and self-confidence. I predict worsening economic mismanagement and corruption followed by removal of party from power either through elections or pressure by the IMF/EU. The int’l organizations will regain influence over Hungary once this train wreck hits economic realities. Hungary will lose a decade but things will get back to normal.

  2. Alan T January 10, 2012 at 3:41 am #

    More about the situation in Hungary here, here,here, and here.

    These are guest posts on Paul Krugman’s blog by Princeton political scientist Kim Lane Scheppele.

  3. D-dot January 10, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    People need to realize that you can’t always make informed opinions based on just a few selected news articles or a tourist-like visit. It is an arrogant, colonialistic view.

    Few of the correspondents dealing with Hungary actually live there, and even those who do are often live a life far removed from the everyday Hungarians.
    The overwhelmingly majority of Hungarians voted this government in a year and a half ago and despite some protests they are still popular. If the people of Hungary will see a better alternative, they can democratically remove them from power in 2014. They don’t need half-informed foreign know-it-alls to tell them what to do.

  4. J. Otto Pohl January 10, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    This attempt by political scientists to have iron rules like Chemistry is why the whole discipline is basically just voodoo. Democracies don’t tend to go to war with each other is not a rule, it is only a tendency. To be a rule it would have to be democracies never go to war with each other. But, you can not say democracies never go to war with each other because empirical facts get in the way unless you want to define either democracy or war in very narrow ways. Again political scientists unlike real scientists can not use their theories to predict anything. They are just guessing and they more often then not guess wrong.

  5. Scott Monje January 10, 2012 at 11:41 am #

    “no country with a GDP above $6,000/per capita that becomes a democracy has later lost its status as a democracy”

    Just curious. How would you classify Russia?

    • Jerry Wei January 10, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      It was only between 2005 and 2006 that Russia’s GDP/capita passed the $6,000 mark. By then Russia had a 5.61 Freedom House score (Partly Free). The Russia case doesn’t apply to this rule…even if you were to say that Russia was a democracy in the 1990s, its GDP definitely was less than $6,000/capita at that time.

    • Joshua Tucker January 10, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

      Scott – that’s a good point. Although, according to Google, it looks like Russia didn’t really pass $6,000 GDP/Per Cap until 2005/2006, by which point they had already lost their PF Freedom House ranking. But I’ll ask Adam what he thinks about it when I see him.

  6. Matt January 10, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    The $6000 threshold was in 1985 dollars, wasn’t it? What would that make it in current dollars?

  7. Imre Szabó January 14, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    As a Hungarian, I learnt here the connection between democracy and economical situation. I wonder which is the cause and which is the effect. I see at the moment only their correlation: both go down on a slope. Generally, the situation is very uncertain because nobody seems to know how far we go down and where we stop.