A would-be autocrat model

That’s how The New York Times billed this head of state in a front-page article early this week. How so?

Recent surveys show that he is “undeniably popular,” aided by a “weak, divided opposition” and a “pliant news media.” Soon after his election victory, via a “supermajority” in the legislature, he launched an assault on his country’s Constitution. First, he moved simultaneously to curb the news media and the judiciary, and proceeded next to erode the political system’s checks and balances. He has positioned himself as a “buffer” against “modern-day threats” to his country and people.

This wily politician has “courted” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and he endorsed Donald J. Trump for US president. What he is doing, the NYT article said, is “part of a broader decline of democracy in the world.”

Certain details may make one think of President Rodrigo R. Duterte. Quite close, maybe, except that there’s no mention about resorting to military and police fascist methods including extrajudicial killings committed with impunity.

The subject of the article is President Victor Orban of Hungary, who is also president of his conservative and right-wing populist political party, named Fidesz. While their governing styles appear to be on similar trajectories, Orban is very much ahead of Duterte. Our own president is only in his second year of a six-year term with no reelection, whereas the Hungarian ruler has been president since 2010, and is set to seek another term in the April elections this year.

Let’s go over how President Orban built up what he calls an “illiberal democracy” but which the NYT tagged as “an odd kind of soft autocracy,” while a member of Hungary’s Constitutional Court described it as “very autocratic” but still “not a totalitarian system.”

Intended to protect fundamental rights and uphold the rule of law, this Constitutional Court was created in the early 1990s, during Hungary’s transition from a former socialist state in Eastern Europe. Its members were nominated by a committee composed of representatives of all political parties in Parliament, so that each member was chosen by consensus. But after gaining power in 2010, Fidesz, through its legislative supermajority, voted to give itself complete power to choose the nominees.

After eight years all the Constitutional Court members till today have been Fidesz’s choices. It isn’t surprising that, as a University of Wisconsin research noted, the vast majority of the court have usually voted in favor of the government.

Orban’s party has further tightened its grip on the judiciary by giving one of his oldest friends the final say on which judges are promoted to senior positions. This state of affairs has placed the promoted judges under heavy political pressure.

From 2010 to 2015, Fidesz’s supermajority in Parliament passed more than 1,000 laws, many of then enacted only after a few hours of debate. One of these laws, preposterously, criminalized homelessness. It was one of the many pieces of legislation that were questioned before the Constitutional Court, which the latter declared unconstitutional. Parliament retaliated by amending the Constitution – incorporating into it the laws rejected by the court! Thus, probably only in Hungary is homelessness a crime.

A check through Wikipedia affirmed the NYT report that under Orban’s watch, Parliament “assaulted” the Hungarian Constitution in a big way. It reportedly made 2,000 amendments, which placed too much power in the hands of Fidesz, limited oversight by the Constitutional Court, and removed democratic checks and balances in various areas of governance, including in the supervision of elections and the mass media.

The erosion of checks and balances “has helped Mr. Orban share the spoils of power with close friends and important businessmen,” the article pointed out. And by restructuring the electoral system (through redrawing the electoral map, for example) he has been able to remain in power, even as his party has been winning fewer votes in succeeding elections. A founding member of the Constitutional Court, Imre Voros, noted: “The election law does not correspond to democratic features, and Hungary is therefore not a democratic country.”

Summing up, the NYT article, written by Patrick Kingsley, says:

“Through legislative fiat and force of will, Mr. Orban has transformed the country into a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture. He has done this even as Hungary remains a member of the European Union and receives billions of dollars in funding from the bloc. European Union officials did little as Mr. Orban transformed Hungary into what he calls an ‘illiberal democracy.’

“Now Mr. Orban is directly challenging the countries that have long dominated the European bloc, predicting that 2018 will be ‘a year of great battles’…. His domestic political standing is largely unchallenged, partly because of the changes he has made in the electoral system; he is almost certain to win another term in the April elections.”

Orban’s political thrust is reportedly being felt in Central and Eastern Europe. He has already hooked Poland’s Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski into following in his footsteps. “You have given an example, and we are learning from your example,” Kaczynski has said.

In a socio-economic, political, and cultural setting different from Hungary’s, President Duterte and his PDP-Laban’s version of a legislative “supermajority” are brashly but crudely pursuing, through con-ass (constituent assembly), their assault on the 1987 Constitution, purportedly to allow the shift to a federal form of government whose ramifications and workability have yet to be clearly defined.

We can be heartened by the strong and broadening public opposition, even condemnation, that has met their scheme (unlike in the Hungarian case, apparently). Being spurned are the administration’s proposals: to extend the terms of elected officials; centralize power in President Duterte’s hands; limit the people’s exercise of sovereign power; and open our natural resources to full foreign exploitation and our public utilities, educational institutions and media, among other investment areas, to full foreign ownership.

* * *

Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
Feb. 17, 2018

Share This Post