In stark contrast to the Left’s timidity in the face of actual authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia, the liberal media’s treatment of Hungary has aggressively crossed the line. Paul Krugman of the New York Times sounded the alarm after Hungary’s conservative Fidesz-KDNP alliance won 68 percent of the seats in Parliament in the 2010 elections. He foresaw a post-Soviet “re-establishment of authoritarian rule” in Hungary. The British Guardian fell into line, describing Hungary’s new prime minister, Viktor Orbán, as an “autocratic leader.” The Washington Post, not to be outdone, compared Hungary to Belarus and Putin’s Russia. Not long after, and with great satisfaction, Hungarian émigré professor Charles Gati announced in an op-ed in the Times that Hungary is “no longer a Western-style democracy.” Having been drummed out of the West by left-wing editorialists, Hungary became fair game for the next phase of the liberal crusade: U.S. intervention. Slander has turned into absurd policy prescriptions, intent on destroying one of the most electorally effective center-right parties in Europe.
Writing in the Washington Post last week, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer, Gati, and another émigré professor, Miklos Haraszti, argue that the state of Hungarian democracy is dire and that Radio Free Europe (RFE) must recommence the type of broadcasts it made into Hungary during the Cold War. The goal this time, however, is not to destabilize a Soviet-imposed Communist regime but to undermine a democratically elected government. This unfortunate op-ed proposes that the U.S. government and American taxpayers get involved in combatting the specter of alleged tyranny in our NATO ally — an ally that has chosen to remain in Afghanistan until the bitter end, unlike several others.
The center-right coalition has received criticism for its 2010 Media Law, which when passed contained certain provisions that many deemed overly restrictive. However, these provisions were later invalidated by Hungary’s Constitutional Court — the very institution that many critics consider to be in Orbán’s pocket. Here is real proof that Hungary’s institutions are working as they should, even in the midst of constitutional change (Hungary’s new constitution took effect on January 1).
Nevertheless, Palmer, Haraszti, and Gati argue that freedom of speech and democracy itself are at risk in Hungary. They cite the removal of CNN from a cable-service bundle offered by one of Hungary’s cable providers, and the non-renewal of the license of a local talk and music station, Klubradio, as (the only) proof that Fidesz and Orbán are clamping down on Hungary’s free and open press.
In actuality, these changes are the result of market competition — and, as the bankruptcy of Hungary’s national airline last month demonstrates, telecommunications is not the only sector affected. Magyar Telekom dropped CNN from its most common service package (although it remains available from other cable operators) because CNN is largely unpopular in Hungary. Klubradio, a Budapest-based station known to be anti-Fidesz, lost a competitive bid organized by Hungary’s independent Media Council after its twelve-year broadcasting license expired. There are, of course, other opposition television and radio stations operating, as well as unrestricted and flourishing online and print media.
Free speech in this case is merely a red herring meant to bring down a government whose traditionalist policies are the real cause for alarm on the left. As Vernon Lowe correctly observes, Hungary’s conservative government has become a whipping boy for the international liberal punditocracy, which sees a fascist tyrant lurking underneath every coffee table with a Bible on top.
Yes, Hungary’s constitution has embraced the country’s heritage of Christianity, defined marriage in a traditional way, and proclaimed that life begins at conception. Hungary’s constitution also introduced a debt cap and reaffirmed Hungary’s 700-year-old forint as the national currency, to the chagrin of Brussels. These provisions reflect values held by most Hungarians and are therefore appropriately secured in their fundamental law. That Hungarians have decided to protect their traditional values unsurprisingly rankles the sensibilities of liberal pundits and bureaucrats in Europe and America, but it is hardly cause for crying “Dictatorship!”
This is not to say that all is well on the Danube. I have criticized certain policies of the Fidesz-KDNP government; for example, I noted in the Wall Street Journal certain problems with the new constitution, including inadequate legal protection of private property and economic freedom, as well as insufficient separation of powers. Despite missteps, however, Hungary is most assuredly not an “authoritarian” state like Belarus or Russia.
But measured, respectful criticism would not serve the actual leftist mission of destroying Fidesz and, more generally, stamping out conservative parties in Central and Eastern Europe altogether. Critics of Hungary have, therefore, seized upon the blunders of Orbán’s government in order to justify their international campaign, the goal of which is electoral defeat for Fidesz in the 2014 parliamentary elections. This outcome would undoubtedly translate into gains for Hungary’s other viable party, the ex-Communist Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which was in power from 2002 until 2010, when it was defeated by the center-right coalition. MSZP’s popularity now hovers at around 14 percent.
American taxpayers should not be funding RFE broadcasts that would, in effect, assist Hungary’s socialist party in elections it obviously cannot win on its own. Moreover, the Hungarian people have the right to govern themselves. Instead of calling on the U.S. to take sides on highly partisan domestic issues, émigrés like Gati and Haraszti, if they are really interested in Hungary’s future, should take part on the ground, in Hungary. Actual participation is the essence of politics, and whatever else Fidesz may have done, it hasn’t abolished politics; it has simply been winning at it.
Besides, the United States has bigger fish to fry — of the species Tyrannus authenticus. These include Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and China, just to mention a few. These are countries that have recently threatened the U.S. or its vital interests, and, of course, their people do not enjoy free speech, and their governments kill citizens for political reasons. If the U.S. is willing to spend money on strategic communication to bypass other governments’ restrictions on the Internet, satellite communication, cell-phone towers, and so on, then these countries are prime candidates. By so outrageously misrepresenting Hungary, however, Palmer, Haraszti, and Gati (and let’s not forget Krugman) have distorted the meaning of human rights and free speech, trivializing the very real horror experienced by millions of people living under oppressive regimes around the world, where a wrong word, written or spoken, can be a death warrant.
It has never been the responsibility or the right of the United States to intervene willy-nilly in the domestic affairs of other nations. Yes, the U.S. has a responsibility to help advance the cause of liberty and combat tyranny. Yet as any sober examination of Hungarian politics reveals, Hungary is certainly not an authoritarian dictatorship.
To blatantly and imprudently intervene in Hungary’s domestic affairs in an attempt to oust the governing coalition would be a demeaning insult to one of our firmest allies. In any case, the Left’s distaste for Hungary’s traditional values — some of which are equally dear to many Americans — in no way justifies such interventionist machinations.
— Marion Smith was a 2010 Washington Fellow at the National Review Institute and is the founding president of the Common Sense Society. The views expressed here are those solely of the author.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Hungarian Socialist Party came to power in 2006. It was the governing party from 2002 to 2010.