In a moving passage from his autobiography Denis Healey describes how, in 1956, as the news came over on his car radio that the uprising against the Communists had failed, he pulled over to the side of the road and tears of frustration rolled down his cheeks. Britain, on one of the Tories’ most incompetent watches, had abandoned its Hungarian neighbours to their fate in favour of a hubristic, end-of-empire and ultimately doomed intervention in Suez.
Now a long-liberated country within our cosy European democratic club, and a mere two-and-a-half hour flight away, Hungary’s current troubles are nothing like as dramatic as 1956. But they are nevertheless extremely worrying. For a start, the current governing party, Fidesz are a populist party of the far-right who are against more or less everything which the Labour Party stands for. They are anti-immigrants, they are fiercely nationalist, and would be best described as of the hard right. Now, all that is defensible up to a point: we may not like the parties people vote for, but at least they can vote, which is a big advance over the Hungary of twenty-odd years ago. And if they choose to vote for unpleasant parties, well, that’s democracy.
But it’s not quite that simple, because there’s a special trick: sometimes you can vote away democracy without really knowing it. What is truly worrying about Fidesz is that, despite having been voted in democratically, now in they have decided to move the constitutional goalposts, as the Economist reports.
“Hungarian democracy lacks checks and balances, say European and American diplomats. Fidesz has changed the electoral boundaries in its own favour. Its allies have been appointed to almost every independent institution…The government has reduced the jurisdiction of the constitutional court and sacked scores of judges. Officials say that the new appointees will exercise their mandates independently. But they cannot explain why it is only friends of Fidesz who can be safely entrusted with such responsibilities.”And this change is entirely legitimate, because they have a two-thirds majority. This does not mean, of course, an immediate return to authoritarian rule, but neither does it mean, ultimately, the preservation of true democracy.
In the absence of a coup which destroys it by force at a stroke, democracy essentially depends for its survival on one thing: that anti-democrats do not get elected and then use constitutional means to unpick democracy peacefully, piece by piece. Which is, ufortunately, precisely what has started to happen here. Because once you start unpicking it, you’ll find that it unravels more and more quickly as you go on until it disintegrates entirely. And, like cuckoos, once anti-democrats are in your nest, you’d better find a way of getting them out, sharpish.
In short, it rather means a move towards the kind of pseudo-democracy we highlighted here a few months back. It has gradually happened inRussia under Putin. It is what is currently well underway inVenezuela, under the odious Chávez. And if you want a look at how the endgame of all this looks, well, Zimbabwe is a good place to start.
Now, this does not happen overnight, and the clock can still be turned back. But it requires a huge effort on the part of a people hit by an economic crisis, and for whom the last twenty years have often been more painful slog than glorious, democratic Brave New World. Talk to a young Hungarian and you’ll find that people are very worried. Many are leaving. And as for those who are not: if you’ve never known democracy apart from this, as only a few Hungarian pensioners have, you might wonder what all the fuss was about. And you might wonder whether it was really worth fighting for.
Message to young Hungarians: it is. And as the Economist also points out, the EU and Europe’s right-wing leaders could do much more to stop what’s happening, starting with throwing Fidesz out of their EU grouping of the right, the European People’s Party. They need to, if they are not to end up feeling like Britain did after Suez.
Or even, one day, sick to its stomach, like Europe did after it looked the other way in Bosnia.