The state of democracy in Hungary: ‘The illness has advanced to a new stage’

A gypsy girl of maybe eight, nine years old holds onto her little brother tightly. Looking out over the chicken-wire fence at the end of their mud garden in the Roma ghetto in the village of Hejoszalonta, they stare at the around 600 members of Hungary’s fascist party, Jobbik, and its paramilitary wing, the Magyar Garda, dressed in black or camouflage or just leather jackets, marching right past where they live with torches aloft and nationalist heavy metal music blasting. […]

The protest, which took place on Saturday (2 April), is the second such demonstration by the far-right vigilantes in a month. At the beginning of March, Jobbik and its allied blackshirts went to the village of Gyongyospata, also claiming to protect it from the crimes allegedly perpetrated by their Roma inhabitants. There the numbers were larger. According to human rights groups, quoting the local community, some 2-3000 marched repeatedly up and down the streets of the town with torches and whips. […]

Meanwhile, the governing Fidesz-Christian Democrat coalition has remained “strangely silent”, [Judit] Kenda continued.

“By letting these armed groups roam freely, the state has abandoned its monopoly on the use of force,” she added, a line that is frequently repeated by human rights groups.

The police have stopped the human rights campaigners and the LMP from forming a human chain protecting the Roma houses, modest shacks with irregular, warping roofs and unfinished windows, ostensibly because the road through the village is “too narrow” to hold two demonstrations.

Nonetheless, the activists are relieved that at least the police are here this time. […]

Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in the country’s 2010 general election, enough to make changes to the country’s constitution, and the party is wasting no time exploiting this power. A new constitution was submitted to parliament on 21 March after the house speaker declared the existing text void. […]

Miklos Haraszti, until last year the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s press freedom watchdog and a co-founder in 1976 of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition Movement, told the conference: “For the first time, it is possible that Hungary will lose its freedom by throwing democracy away with simple democratic tools.” […]

Istvan Elek, a journalist from the same generation, said: “Hungarian democracy is very ill. It was already ill in 2010, but has now advanced to a more serious stage of the illness.” […]

Cohn-Bendit too warned that something is rotten in the state of Hungary: “If we allow a tremendous shift away from democracy in one member state, then this will happen in another member state and another.” […]

David Dorosz [hopes] that the European Union takes some sort of action to protect Hungarian democracy, but they are not holding their breath.

“The EU should address these problems, but the EU has a very weak history in this … Our greatest fear is that Europe will lose interest in what is going on here, with everyone paying attention to Libya, Japan and so on.”

“Pressure from the EU is so important. We cannot have the EU do our job for us, but we do need their support.”

The European Commission for its part says its hands are tied as it has no legal power over the crafting of national constitutions.

“We really think it’s up to Hungarians themselves. It’s their constitution,” EU justice spokesman Matthew Newman told EUobserver. “If there are any complaints about fundamental rights violations, they should be addressed by the national authorities.”

One EU source said that in principle, the commission and parliament do have the ‘nuclear option’ at their disposal – the application of Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which requires the suspension of voting rights of a member state found to be in “serious breach” of EU “founding values” such as democracy, human rights and the protection of minorities.

“But this is meant for the suspension of habeas corpus or the institution of martial law or one-party rule. Hungary is nowhere near any of this. The country is still a constitutional democracy.”

The European Union has no sanction it can deploy in cases of governments in that murky grey area somewhere between functioning liberal democracies and outright dictatorships.