Overblown fears of fascism on the rise

Hungary’s proposed new constitution owes as much to retrograde Western trends as it does to right-wing nationalism.

Angus Kennedy

Topics World

On Monday the Hungarian government voted through the text of a new constitution. If approved by President Pal Schmitt on 25 April, the Hungarian Republic will become simply Hungary – a symbolic break with the legacies of postwar Communism.

This is just one of a number of changes introduced by the new constitution, voted into effect by the ruling Fidesz government’s two-thirds majority. The constitution includes a preamble or credo which expresses pride in the foundation of Hungary as part of Christian Europe by King St Stephen and respects the Holy Crown as the embodiment of the ‘continuity of the Hungarian constitutional state and the unity of the nation’. It also calls on God to bless Hungarians and for ‘spiritual and intellectual renewal’.

Hungarian liberals are deeply alarmed by recent developments. An editorial in Népszabadság, for instance, complained that the Fidesz government were trying to ‘impose a monochrome nationalism’ dredged up from the nineteenth century. Internationally, worries have also been aired about Hungary’s current direction. German deputy foreign minister Werner Hoyer declared that the German government was watching developments ‘with great attention and not without concern’. And, writing in January in the Observer about Fidesz’s new censorial media law, Nick Cohen said: ‘I will not call it a fascist country or even a neo-fascist country, but just note that an old, foul stench wafts from the “new society” Orbán’s patriots are building on the Danube.’ He is happy enough, however, to call the country an ‘ugly little state’.

Cohen is not alone in seeing some sinister goings-on in Hungary. Concerns have been raised at the lack of consensus behind the constitutional changes; the liberal LMP and the Socialists boycotted the process; even the far-right party Jobbik voted against it as none of its proposals had been included in the drafting.

Many are particularly alarmed at the possible erosion of civil liberties (eg, the bar on gay marriage) and of the rights of women (eg, the protection of the unborn child). One much remarked upon provision – to allow extra votes to parents on behalf of their children – did not make the cut but remains something for which the government may yet legislate. It’s a striking proposal to give real political weight to the family by abandoning the principle of one man one vote.

Many of the objections to the new constitution, from Hungarian and international NGOs, as well as Western liberal commentators, rest on its proclamation of traditional Christian, pro-family, and right-wing ideology. This is something its critics claim will be detrimental to the rights of women, single parents, atheists and gays. Protests planned for this weekend call the new constitution the ‘death of democracy’.

But is this concern all too shrill? Is the comparison with fascism on the rise too overblown?

Fidesz has, after all, expressed its commitment to parliamentary democracy and the separation of powers in clear and seemingly moderate terms. They argue that the rewrite of the constitution simply brings them into line with other former Communist countries (Poland rewrote its constitution in 1997) and that no one was happy with the 1989-90 amendment of the 1949 Stalinist constitution.

Moreover, much of the document has been lifted straight from Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, with deputy prime minister Tibor Navracsics arguing that it ‘places special emphasis on the protection of children, mothers, young people, the elderly and people with disabilities’. On the question of marriage being only a union between a man and a woman, he argues that this is the case in other European countries and that Hungary will continue to recognise same-sex couples through registered partnerships. The constitution moreover does not tie the concept of ‘family’ to marriage and supports ethnic diversity.

If Fidesz and prime minister Viktor Orbán do represent anything sinister, it is how thoroughly they have taken on board the politically correct language of contemporary political concerns common across Western Europe. If they are nationalist stormtroopers, then they are very cunningly disguised. And if they are quite so sure of themselves and command so much power, then why so much hedging around with this kind of PC language? To sniff fascism on the breeze smells a little like conspiracy theory.

The new national credo in the constitution, after all, contains some very moderate statements. At the same time as recognising Christianity, it appreciates ‘the different religious traditions of our country’. It considers ‘the nationalities and ethnic groups living in Hungary as parts of our Hungarian nation’. It believes ‘that our national culture provides a rich contribution to the diversity of European unity’.

In the combination of the language of tradition with that of contemporary politics it is reminiscent of the new Polish constitution adopted in 1997, which speaks for: ‘Both those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty, [a]s well as those not sharing such faith but respecting those universal values as arising from other sources.’

Even the question of votes on behalf of children can be likened to the moves afoot in many Western democracies to lower the voting age and bring the interests of future generations to bear on today, an argument writ large in such baby-boomer guilt trips as Pinch and the Jilted Generation. More to the point, such emphases do not reflect the strength of the family and God in Hungary (where, like Britain, it is more usual to go to the pub on Sunday than church). Remember this was a Communist country for 45 years with atheism as the state religion. What a proposal to give mothers extra votes does express, however, is a lack of faith in democracy, that is, a lack of faith in the ability of adults to determine affairs purely in their own interests and a desire instead to let the voice of every minority be heard. Once more adopting a PC tone, Fidesz have pointed out that 20 per cent of society, its children, are denied democratic ‘representation’.

This isn’t to say that there is nothing to be concerned about in the new constitution. This is not just idle nationalist rhetoric: Fidesz is indeed in the business of trying to create history anew from a year zero in 1989, to reinvigorate a national tradition, and to write itself into the history books in the process. Things there are not simply the same as they are here. While in Budapest recently I heard people explaining their problems with the phrase: ‘the Jews steal from above, the gypsies from below’. You don’t hear that here. (Although you do hear people blaming bankers and welfare cheats.)

What you have in Hungary is a broadly populist government rejecting what has gone before and seeking to base its authority and legitimacy on a more traditional statement of moral values. In doing so, Fidesz is not relying solely on the politically correct language more normally employed in Europe and particularly by that not-so democratic body the European Union whose faith in popular democracy was demonstrated by its determination to make the Irish vote again and again until they got it right. Western Europe does not appear a shining example of democracy and progress to many Hungarians – and with good reason. After all, the West is going through a major crisis of values and lack of faith and confidence in itself.

To see what is going on as an eternal struggle between democrats and authoritarians is to miss the real dynamic. Fidesz was democratically elected with a two-thirds majority and a mandate to deal with the mess left by the previous Socialist government of ex-prime-minister and self-confessed liar Ferenc Gyurcsany: a government widely reviled for its corruption and inefficiency.

It has a mandate to clean up the corruption of the post-Communist elite: that nomenklatura which, as in Poland and Russia, helped themselves to the state’s assets after the fall of Communism. But because it has chosen to do so in a language of tradition and nation Western liberal noses are now twitching in revulsion, despite the co-existence of this language with that of respect for diversity and the rights of children.

Hungary’s situation is not a mere instance of an ahistorical struggle between democrats and authoritarians. What is happening is that a government, elected for the largely negative reason of not being the other guy, is trying to gain some semblance of legitimacy through recourse to a traditional political moralism. Both here and in Hungary there is indeed a pressing need for spiritual and intellectual renewal. But it ought to come from those who really believe in the spirit of democracy.

Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival.

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Topics World


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