The populist, conservative prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orban is once again at odds with the European Union. As part of a wider campaign to consolidate and perpetuate right-wing control over central Hungarian institutions, from the courts and the press to religious expression and confidential information, the Hungarian parliament – two-thirds of which is controlled by Orban’s Fidesz party – is poised Tuesday to vote in amendments to the country’s constitution that the Council of Europe, the body responsible for defending human rights in the EU, has warned will put Hungary’s democratic checks and balances at risk.
This is not the first time Budapest has clashed with Brussels.
Last year, similar amendments to the constitution proposed by Hungary’s parliament were sharply opposed by the EU. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso launched “infringement proceedings” in a successful bid to torpedo the laws.
One of the laws would have forced judges to retire at the age of 62 instead of 70 so that Orban would be able to replace judges appointed under leftist governments.
Another would have given the central government control over the agency responsible for protecting the confidentiality of Hungarian citizens’ data. A third would have given Orban the power to appoint the head of the central bank.
Now the Hungarian prime minister is back to his old tricks. Hiding behind the claim that the amendment proposals are “private bills,” Orban wants to institute limitations on political advertising in commercial media, make recognition of religious groups dependent on cooperation with the government and curb the constitutional court’s powers.
The Jewish community, which numbers about 100,000, has served as the canary in Hungary’s coal mine. As the history of civilization demonstrates, whether in Catholic Spain, in Nazi Germany or in Hamas-controlled Gaza, anti-Jewish sentiments are an unfailing prognosis of wider trends of antagonism to democratic ideals and freedom.
And Hungary is no exception.
As Orban’s government seeks to pass legislation that would curtail the rights of his country’s citizens, the most scurrilous anti-Semitic declarations are being made in Hungary’s parliament.
In April 2012, in a speech before the Hungarian legislature, Zsolt Barath, a leader of the far-right party Jobbik, essentially affirmed the blood libel that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood to bake matza for Passover.
Barath said that the Jews who were accused in 1882 of the ritual murder of a Christian peasant girl in what became known as the Tiszaeszlar Blood Libel were found innocent only because the judge worried that international bankers – a code word for Jews – would push Hungary into bankruptcy if the Jews were convicted.
Last November, Marton Gyongyosi, another Jobbik lawmaker, urged the government to draw up lists of Jews – including members of parliament – who pose a “national security risk” in the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense.
According to veteran journalist and Holocaust survivor Paul Ledvai, whose latest book is titled Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism, Orban is not an anti- Semite. But in a push to consolidate political power, the Hungarian premier is tapping into long-suppressed xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments festering in Hungary’s collective consciousness.
In a comprehensive survey conducted last year by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin titled “Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: a European Report,” Hungarians agreed at higher rates than any other country surveyed (Denmark, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and Poland) to anti-Semitic declarations such as “Jews have too much influence in the country.”
According to popularity polls, Orban’s Fidesz party has lost more than a million voters since 2010, many to the more rightist Jobbik, which is in the opposition.
Fidesz’s popularity has waned in part due to the deteriorating economic situation. Now, with more than half of Hungary’s electorate undecided, Jobbik could hold the balance of power in the 2014 elections between Fidesz and the fragmented left-wing opposition.
Orban’s renewed attempts to pass anti-democratic legislation appears to be a bid to pull his party further to the Right in an attempt to garner more support from Jobbik’s constituents.
Hungary is a sorrowful example of how rampant anti- Semitism can be a surefire barometer for reactionary, antidemocratic trends. Wherever Jews live in an atmosphere of antagonism and fear, it is likely that democratic checks and balances and other ideals of an open society are in the process of being dismantled.