Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the British Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
Budapest. Thousands march towards the state TV building to demand they cover days of popular protests they have studiously been ignoring (pigeons and their fate, among other things, have been prime time news on Hungarian official channels).
1988? No, this week. Opposition parliamentarians demand access to the building, as is their right in Hungarian law. Entrance is refused, but they find their way in. They want to read their demands, which include the restoration of media freedom and the abolition of new courts established under the direct control of the justice ministry, on TV. Their request is refused. Finally, the next morning, they’re roughed up and expelled from the building by private security guards. One, Laszlo Varju, is beaten so badly he is hospitalised.
Something is changing. The precarious balance where Viktor Orbán pretends not to be a dictator, and the opposition pretend there’s no need or possibility to rise up against him, has shattered.
Since taking power in 2010, he has hollowed out Hungary’s democratic institutions one by one. He calls this “illiberal democracy” but it´s really zombie democracy in which people’s formal power is ignored in the service of a governing clique.
Let me declare an interest. I’m no fan of Orbán. I chair Unhack Democracy Europe, which is running an initiative to investigate irregularities in the 2018 election. I believe that people who still live in functioning democracies should help people whose institutions are under threat.
With a two-thirds majority in the parliament, control of 87 per cent of the media (state and nominally independent) Orbán seemed unassailable. He could expel Hungary’s most reputed university, pass legislation that taxed political activity he didn’t agree with watch his cronies get inexplicably wealthy, all the while subsidised by British taxpayers’ EU contributions.
Then he made a fateful mistake. Alongside the constitutional manipulation of which he is a past master (this time to set up a network of courts directly under government control) he rammed through a new labour law in an irregular session.
The tumult (including a visibly shaken Orbán) was livestreamed by MPs and found its way to millions of mobile phones across Hungary.
The labour law, that involved extending the amount of overtime that could be included in contracts, contained one crucial catch: employees would have to wait three years to actually get paid for their extra work.
Unions and opposition campaigners swiftly denounced this as the “Slave Law” — an exaggeration, but hardly as exaggerated as the florid claims of a George Soros led conspiracy made by Orbán himself.
What had been a recondite debate about the powers of government that only elements of society already opposed to Orbán concerned themselves with suddenly became something that hit people’s daily lives.
As thousands took to the street official propaganda mouthpieces denounced them as agents of, guess who, George Soros, and, in a slip that betrays official Hungary’s alignment with Putin, accused them of plotting a Ukraine-style “Euromaidan” peaceful overthrow of a corrupt autocrat.
Pigeons were indeed a safer choice of topic for the state broadcaster.
Tomorrow, a bigger demonstration is planned. As in Communist times, the target is the state lie machine the regime uses to hide from its own people the costs of its corruption and mismanagement, and blame them, as though taking its lines from a Nasserite dictatorship, on the machinations of a Jewish financier.
In Hungary, despite consistent and fast economic growth, public services are suffering after political cronies have replaced competent managers. Hospitals struggle to retain staff, who have left for freer places, and even, in an echo of Communist times, remain under-stocked with toilet paper.
Until recently, the regime has kept its repression financial: taxes on private advertising to bankrupt independent media; tilting public procurement to cow the private sector; direct interference in universities and ministerial pre-clearance of cultural institutes’ output; politically motivated audits of businesses affiliated with the opposition.
In recent weeks, however, the pressure has turned darker. A mysterious fire at an opposition party’s offices. Police pepper spraying peaceful demonstrators. And now the assault on an opposition MP. The issue is not a single law, but abuse of power by an unaccountable ruling clique.
This raises an important question of conscience of the Conservative Party.
Indeed, Péter Niedermüller, an MEP for the DK party whose offices suffered the fire, told me he was “saddened” by Tory MEPs vote with Orbán over the application of the EU’s Article 7 in September.
Rumour has it it was done in an attempt to curry favour with Orbán in the Brexit negotiations. If that was the reason, it has clearly failed.
The Hungarian government’s behaviour has now crossed the line beyond which considerations of national sovereignty should affect Britain´s diplomatic stance.
The Conservative Party stood up for human rights in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and it´s time we did so again.
Jeremy Hunt should condemn this autocratic thuggery, which is happening less than two hours’ flight away.Leaving the EU must not mean leaving the European community of democratic values.