Budapest and the not-so-Blue Danube

Americans may not know much about Hungary except that in 1956 it was the scene of brutality that suffocated in blood the yearnings of the Hungarian people for freedom from the Soviet yoke.

The greatest landmark in Hungary is the Parliament Building in Budapest, a huge structure in the Gothic Revival style, overlooking the Danube River. Americans are familiar with the ornate building, inaugurated in 1896 on the 1,000th anniversary of the nation, for the unique reason that it is the centerpiece of incessant television ads extolling the experience of navigating the Danube on a river cruise. In our days, Budapest is the premiere stop on the river made famous by warriors and waltzes, composers and artists, and Europeans looking for a taste of the Belle Epoque. The river, alas, is not ”blue” and in recent summers the low flow of water has hampered the river cruises.

Unbeknownst to many, the magnificent Parliament Building is a far cry from a cradle of representative democracy. Today’s National Assembly is unicameral and meets in the Lower House. It is nothing but a magnificent but sad window dressing. For the past eight years, Prime Minister Orbán has chipped away at the foundations of Hungarian parliamentary democracy. To start with, he cut by half the number of deputies. Through a ruthlessly engineered constitutional amendment, he named 11 of 15 judges of the constitutional court who were confirmed without debate by the Orbán-controlled parliament. Fidesz, Orbán’s party, fully controls television channels and media companies and cleverly sets up bogus opposition parties during parliamentary elections as a way to splinter the opposition vote. The result is that while theoretically the opposition could coalesce and gain a majority, the Fidesz is able to stamp out any dissent by seizing control of every major aspect of the country’s social and political life. The opposition does not have a chance in Orbán’s Hungary. Orbán has stated it many times in the great hall of the European Parliament in Strasbourg: “Hungary is not going to be a country of migrants.”

An effective term to describe the political landscape in Hungary is “soft fascism.” From old-style fascism, Orbán’s party has inherited the basic tenets of propaganda putting them to widespread use to warn Hungarians about the existential threat to the nation coming from refugees and Muslims. In the few days I spent in Budapest, I did not see a single Muslim. No Muslims or black people were noticeable on the fashionable Váci Utca Street of Buda. For that matter, I met just one black person, a talented American pianist who played in one of the ritzy hotels near the Cathedral. Talking to Hungarian friends who know the United States well is a very demoralizing enterprise. There is a palpable feeling of frustration among many Hungarians who deep down know that there are enough of them to do away with the authoritarian state that Hungary has become, but they do not make a critical mass. In fact, the nonsensical web of controls instituted by the government makes it impossible for a democratic movement to achieve any influence. The exasperation of freedom-loving Hungarians has spread even further as a result of Fidesz’ success in promulgating laws that establish gerrymandered districts and distorted proportional representation. In 2014, the party received fewer votes than in 2002 and 2006, when it lost elections, but it emerged with a supermajority in Parliament.

The European Parliament voted to label the Orbán’s government “a systemic threat to the rule of law.” It was too little, too late. Orbán’s Fidesz Party still belongs to the European People’s Party group, the alliance of center-right parties, the largest in the 28-nation European Parliament. The struggle for supremacy in the parliament will come to a head with the May elections, a make or break proposition to the rightist national forces in Europe and its leaders, real and wannabe, Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy premier. Orbán leaves no doubt about his faith that the far right nationalist forces in Europe will prevail. In his mind, as well as in his speeches, the European elections will bid “goodbye” to liberal democracy and the “liberal undemocratic system.” With a high measure of chutzpah, Orbán propounds Christian Democracy as an alternative to liberal democracy, where Christian Democracy gives priority to Christian culture. For him and his ilk, Christian Democracy is anti-immigration. There was a time, just after World War II, when Christian Democracy was the movement that prospered under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi as the crusade for liberal democracy, equality and human rights. In post-Communist Hungary, Viktor Orbán has made Christian Democracy into an oxymoron.

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