Veteran Hungarian broadcaster Gyorgy Bolgar, who hosts a popular daily news-talk call in show on Klubradio, gets a daily earful from ordinary Hungarians upset with Prime Minister Victor Orban.
Many here fear Orban, a dissident during the communist era, and his conservative Fidesz party are pushing the country backward.
They are “limiting the media, limiting the judiciary, limiting the scope of the constitutional court,” says Bolgar, whose left-leaning station has more than 200,000 listeners. “It’s limiting democracy. We are not yet [Vladimir] Putin’s Russia, we are not a dictatorship. But we are on a road that is clearly leading us toward some kind of dictatorship or autocracy.”
Bolgar and the rest of the privately owned Klubradio may soon go silent. One of the only remaining independent broadcast news outlets in Hungary recently lost out to an all-music station when the license came up for renewal. The members of the media authority that made the decision are all Orban loyalists.
More worrying than the media crackdown, for the European Union, is Hungary’s new constitution, which took effect Jan. 1. The bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, said Tuesday that aspects of Hungary’s new constitution violate EU law and treaties.
The EU has questions about the new central bank law, which gives the Hungarian government much more control over naming top bank officials. The EU also has concerns about the independence of a new data-protection authority and about the forced, early retirement of hundreds of judges who have been replaced by ruling party loyalists. That raises serious questions about the independence of the judiciary.
“We are not selling any kind of secret, or doing tricks,” Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs says. “We are just using the mandate we were given.”
Kovacs says he’s confident the new constitution and other changes will stand up to EU scrutiny. Kovacs says Fidesz is simply fulfilling an election pledge to reform Hungary after decades of failed communist rule and eight years of what he calls corrupt socialist rule.
“We are going to have a completely new setup,” he says. “We are rebooting the system, so this is a major system update. And we are completely confident that this new constitution is coming up to all European and world standards.”
But Benedek Javor, a member of parliament from the Green-affiliated Politics Can Be Different party, says voters were never told during the campaign that a “reboot” would mean draconian restrictions and changes to basic structures of democracy.
“They didn’t know Fidesz was going to give a new constitution, to introduce a flat tax, to cut social care system, or limit the rights of the Constitutional Court,” Javor says. “All these things was not even mentioned before the elections.”
EU Membership At Stake?
Former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer worries Hungary is backsliding toward one-party rule. Alarmed by the erosion of an independent media, Palmer has asked the U.S. to consider restarting Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian service. He says it is no longer unthinkable that Hungary could be kicked out of the EU.
“I believe that is a real prospect,” Palmer says. “The single greatest achievement of the European Union in the field of democracy was, of course, was to bring these countries that had been dictatorships into the democratic world. But that process is not unidirectional if a country abandons its democratic principles and practices it will be expelled.”
Budapest has until mid-February to respond to the EU’s concerns. If Hungary ignores the requests to change the constitution, the European Commission can send a case to the European Court of Justice and impose fines. But the EU has another way to pressure Hungary: The EU and the International Monetary Fund are withholding financial aid Hungary desperately needs to remain solvent.