Philosopher sparks Hungarian clash in European Parliament

Agnes Heller.jpg

The centre-right Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán is "criminalising 20 years of democratic transition in the country," a prominent Hungarian philosopher told the European Parliament yesterday (1 March).  MEPs close to the Orbán government denounced the speaker as "a liar".

Ágnes Heller, a Budapest-born philosopher of Jewish descent, made a passionate plea for Europeans to stay alert on anti-democratic trends in Hungary under the present government of Viktor Orbán.

Speaking at an open debate, organised by the Greens/European Free Alliance group, Heller, who left the country in 1977 and followed an academic career in Australia and the USA, blasted the Hungarian government for "misusing its legislative majority to methodically dismantle democracy's checks and balances".

Orbán's government is not conservative but revolutionary, Heller argued, because the prime minister declared a "revolution" when on 25 April 2010 voters gave his party two thirds of the seats in parliament.

"It is a revolution in which 20 years of democratic tradition in Hungary gets criminalised," Heller said. She insisted she was not speaking as a politician but as a "liberal intellectual".

She said that Orbán was seeking to "criminalise" the former governments of Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnaj by passing a retroactive law which would consider as a crime increasing Hungary's national debt . Under this law, she argued, all members of the previous Socialist-led government could be prosecuted as criminals.

Heller also criticised other retroactive legislation adopted in Hungary, such as a law on special taxes for foreign firms, as well as on nationalising private pension schemes.

Heller also mentioned the controversial media law, which the Hungarian authorities recently decided to revise. She argued that despite the European Commission having given its blessing to the legislation, the main thrust of the law had not changed, namely the fact that the supervising authority was 100% controlled by the ruling party.

The philosopher said that in democratic countries the media controlled the government, while in Hungary the government had passed a law allowing it to control the media.

She also expressed concern over the fact that Orbán had voiced hope that the Hungarian media law would become an example for other countries to follow.

Illustrating her idea that the ruling power in Hungary was destroying democratic checks and balances, she said that the present head of state, Pál Schmitt, who is from Fidesz and was sworn in on 6 August 2010, was "a puppet".

A Hungarian debate

The statements by Heller sparked a heated reaction from MEPs close to the Fidesz government. Roughly half of the audience present in the packed meeting room were Hungarians.

MEP Krisztina Morvai of nationalist party Jobbik lashed out at Heller, calling her "a liar" and accusing her of having been silent when the previous government, in her words, had "shot at protesters". In 2006, Hungarian police fired rubber bullets and teargas to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters marching on parliament on the 50th anniversary of the country's uprising against Soviet rule.

Fidesz MEP György Schöpflin took a calmer line, explaining to the audience that throughout 20 years of transition in Hungary, there had been two completely different "narratives" about events in the country, one from the centre-left and the other from the centre-right. Heller was clearly the exponent of one of those narratives, he argued.

Other Fidesz MEPs also blamed Heller for her alleged lack of objectivity and for "not being qualified" to speak about Hungary, as in their words she had not lived there for years.

Heller was also criticised for calling Hungary's president "a puppet". One MEP pointed out that a previous president Árpád Göncz (1990-2000) had also been as close to the then-ruling Socialists.

German Green MEP Helga Trüpel, who chaired the meeting, said that the changes made to the Hungarian media law had been seen as insufficient by MEPs, and that the Commission had kept its eyes shut over the real problem, namely the one-party supervisory body. She said that the Parliament was determined to keep up the pressure for additional changes.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-chair of the Greens/European Free Alliance group, said he  had an argument with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about the media law, in which cited the example of the Watergate Affair of 1970. The scandal led to the resignation of US President Richard Nixon following revelations by the Washington Post that Nixon's team had spied on its political opponents.

Under the Hungarian law, the Washington Post could not have published its scoops, Cohn-Bendit said he told Orbán.

Cohn-Bendit also cited the example of German Defence Minister Theodor zu Guttenberg, who resigned on 1 March after admitting he had plagiarised his PhD thesis.

"With a similar law, the government would have prevented the media from uncovering that he had cheated," Cohn-Bendit said.

 

Following general election held in April 2010, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that voters had carried out a "revolution" by giving his party two thirds of the seats in parliament to rebuild Hungary after a near financial collapse.

Hungary took over the six-month presidency of the Council of Ministers on 1 January 2011. Its first six weeks were marked by controversy over a media law adopted before Christmas by Hungary's ruling majority.

On 16 February, the problem appeared to have been largely solved, with the European Commission welcoming amendments to the law that Hungary had pledged to make.

But analysts say that the media law is only the "tip of the iceberg" regarding the direction taken by Hungary under the Fidesz government.

Hungary is bound to adopt a new constitution made by one party and without internal consultations. Controversial legislation has already been adopted, and when the country's Constitutional Court voiced objections, its powers were curtailed.

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