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Moving right

Keno Verseck / mll
January 30, 2013

When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Brussels, he had to deal with European criticism of his economic policies, but the EU keeps quiet about the country's lurch to the right.

Supporters of Jobbik wave a huge historical red-and-white flag during a demonstration EPA/ZOLTAN MATHE
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has in the past described Brussels as "a new Moscow" that wants to "colonize" Hungary. On Wednesday (30.01.2013), Brussels was considering Hungarian economic policy - a policy which the Hungarian Economy Minister György Matolcsy calls "unorthodox."

The EU Commission says that Hungary's policy makes it impossible for the country to ever reduce its budget deficit to below three percent of Gross Domestic Product, as required by EU rules. As a result, the EU has made the country into the subject of an excessive deficit procedure.

Among the points criticized is the so-called "crisis tax," which foreign banks and telecommunications companies have to pay. Although it does not raise much money, it is popular with the voters. The Commission also accuses Hungary of fiddling its statistics.

Orban wants the Commission to stop the deficit procedure - if it continues, Hungary risks losing some EU finance and could find it more expensive to raise money in the capital market.

New cult surrounding an old authoritarian

But it's not just the economic policy; Hungary is also attracting criticism over the political situation in the country, and especially over the increasingly right-wing policies followed by Orban and his Fidesz party. In many ways, they are similar to those of the far-right party Jobbik. In a storm of nationalist rhetoric, representatives of the International Monetary Fund were thrown out of the country in the summer of 2010.

Orban speaking in front of a row of Hungarian flags Photo:MTI, Zsolt Czegledi/AP/dapd
Viktor Orban has moved his country to the rightImage: AP

Welfare payments have been linked to compulsory communal labor and checks on homes in a policy that has been welcomed by Jobbik: the restrictions, say its members, are a measure against "criminal gypsies who are unwilling to work." Parliament has also increased the rights of paramilitary citizens' militias and established a right to armed self-defense.

Jobbik was also the inspiration for a new cult surrounding Miklos Horthy, the country's authoritarian leader between the two world wars. Fidesz politicians have joined campaigns to erect statues and monuments to Horthy, who was partly responsible for the killing of Hungarian Jews during the Second World War.

Criticism from Reporters Without Borders

But it's the public rhetoric that has changed most. Scarcely a week goes by without someone from Fidesz publicly taking a far-right position.

In early January, for example, the co-founder of Fidesz and a friend of Orban, Zsolt Bayer, wrote in the far-right Magyar Hirlap newspaper, "A considerable proportion of the gypsies is not fit to live among people. They are animals. These animals should certainly not exist. The problem must be solved - immediately and no matter how."

The article caused a storm in Hungary and throughout Europe, but the party responded merely that Bayer was "stating his own view." One Fidesz politician said that anyone who protested against the article "was putting himself on the side of murderers" - meaning the Roma.

A large part of the media supports the populist nationalist line of the government and journalists working on public stations are legally required to promote "national identity" and "national solidarity" in their work.

In its latest report, Reporters Without Borders notes that self-censorship has increased significantly, and Hungary has fallen 16 places to 56 in the organization's current ranking.

A journalist on air with Klubradio FERENC ISZA/AFP/Getty Images
Hungary's only national opposition radio station was forced off the airImage: Getty Images

Brussels has barely taken any official notice of the right-wing course that Orban is following. His political allies in the European People's Party (EPP), to which the Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats belong, avoid any criticism. German Christian Democrat Hans-Gert Pöttering wrote in a recent statement, "As far as I know, Viktor Orban and Fidesz have distanced themselves from anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism."

A few EPP members are beginning to be less reserved in their comments. The European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, for example, has expressed her indignation at Bayer's article.

Protest against the 'Jew lists'

Only a few weeks ago, Fidesz was giving the impression it wanted nothing to do with racism and anti-Semitism. A Jobbik member of parliament had demanded that "Jews living in Hungary should be registered in lists" and that there should be investigations into "which Jews, especially those in parliament and government," might be a "security risk" for Hungary.

The head of the Fidesz group in parliament, Antal Rogan, went as far as to speak in an anti-Jobbik demonstration in early December and to deliver a sharp condemnation of anti-Semitism.

Then came the Bayer's article - and Fidesz didn't react. Observers doubt whether the party, and above all its leader Orban, are serious about distancing themselves from right-wing extremism.

"Our research shows that 70 to 80 percent of the population holds anti-Roma views," says the Hungarian sociologist Pal Tamas. "Orban and his party will not take any clear position against this widely-held view among the voters."

The writer György Dalos agrees: "If Orban really wants to distance himself from the extreme right, he would have to do so together with all the democratic forces in the opposition," he says. "But, in the last three years, Orban hasn't even had a coffee in parliament with opposition politicians." Dalos believes that Orban won't take any such position: he never knows when he might need the far-right voters in the future.

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