The Hungarian Parliament – An Introduction to Suicidal Democracies3 min read
On 18 May 2020, the Hungarian government announced that parliament would soon open its doors again. For two months, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had been accused by European media and politicians of turning the country into an autocracy, as his government suspended parliament to deal with the COVID-19 crisis without providing a deadline as to when they would return power back to legislators. Now that things seem to be going back to normal in Hungary, the question arises: why did Orbán suspend parliament anyway? And does he want parliament to return? The answer: It doesn’t really matter.
Working at a Dutch national radio station, I received the annual report of American NGO Freedom House on an April morning, just a few hours before most Europeans. It said it right there, black on white, without journalistic fuzz, and in rationally pronounced scientific language: Freedom House does no longer categorise Hungary as a “full democracy”.
News-worthy content, but nothing really ground-breaking. We stashed the news away in a three-minute interview, somewhere between 10:30 and 11:00 in the morning, long after most people had already started work. The world hadn’t ended.
There were many reasons why Freedom House chose to change Hungary’s once-democratic status only now. The government’s monopolisation of the media and a legal act that pushed a critical university into closure helped Hungary move – step by step – towards a ‘hybrid regime’. But in the eyes of Western media, the suspension of the national parliament was the straw that broke democracy’s back. Or so they say.
Key figures from the Budapest government reacted to the fury of Western European media criticism. After all, hadn’t Belgium temporarily suspended its own federal government? A fair point well taken. The conclusion in the minds of the most sceptical Hungarian nationalists isn’t hard to imagine: these Western European accusations just confirmed that Westerners aren’t fond of democracy, they’re just fond of the West. And Hungary does not belong to the West.
When Budapest announced that parliament would soon be brought back to the decision-making process, Orbán once again managed to catch us off guard. By us, I of course mean the supposedly biased (pro-)Western media. The same old questions are once again echoing Europe’s editorial offices: why did Orbán abolish parliament? Had he finally managed to materialise his envisioned dictatorship? If so, then why did he bring back parliament? Viktor Orbán, truly one of the most talented and cunning politicians in Europe, placed himself on the kind of throne that any power-hungry leader would wish to sit on: a throne that allows you to abolish democracy but, for as long as necessary, declares you the sole winner of democracy.
A very short glance at recent history reminds us that this is nothing new. When Orbán lost the 2002 elections, he immediately began a four-year campaign on the streets of Budapest and the villages of Hungary. There, he said it more than once: the parliament is not the real representation of Hungary; the real representatives of Hungary can be found on the streets – the common people. Between those lines, I think that what Orbán really had to say was, not the parliament, but I am the sole representative of the Hungarian people. In the year 2020, he has finally demonstrated that this is the case – at least institutionally.
In reality, none of it really matters anymore. A parliament that is fine with abolishing itself is no longer a real parliament. A democratic leader who can shut down parliament at any moment is no longer a real democratic leader. The actual danger lies in us forgetting these events. Just because the Hungarian government has taken back its ‘democratic-ish’ shape doesn’t mean that it really is democratic. You can feel it in the streets of Hungary, you can see it on Turkish television, you could hear it when demonstrating voices in Moscow were put down in 2012. When democracy becomes suicidal, it is no longer a democracy. A real democracy loves to be alive.