Democracy or What You Will

A wonderful thing has happened. Last Thursday, on the day of Epiphany, Hungary took over the presidency of the European Union. I am a humble citizen of the union and I am Hungarian so this sounded like a good reason to order champagne, do the hula and start jumping up and down for joy.Epiphany means revelation and it refers to the twelfth day of the search party of the Three Wise Men, who following a star, on this very day caught sight of our Lord, aka baby Jesus and showered him with gifts. On this day, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán received the starry flag of Europe from his Belgian colleague Yves Leterme, delivered a moving speech involving plans of great magnitude, not stopping short of mentioning the need to save Western Civilisation. This is our big moment. The once proud bulwark of Europe is back into the game. The slogan for the presidency on the pulpit says it all: Strong Europe. Should I cry for joy or should I cry with laughter?

The Feast of Epiphany, also called the The Manifestation of God, is the last day of Christmas, originally it was the day for exchanging presents, so it’s not far-fetched to say it was Christmas for Hungary and Europe.

I had known the future president already in the eighties when we were protesting shoulder to shoulder for the freedom of speech facing unfriendly riot police squads. I have known his face from demonstrations before I knew his name. He was a brave, angry youth, who soon became the charismatic leader of FIDESZ, the party of young liberal democrats. Later the name and content has changed by a hair turning national conservative – nevertheless he remained on the top. And today, he is the rotating president of Europe, whatever that means.Looks like another victory for Mr. Orbán.

Why then are thousands getting registered on Facebook every day for what may the biggest demonstration for the freedom of speech since the fall of the iron curtain scheduled for Friday in front of the Parliament? Why do European ministers and politicians from both left and right keep bombarding Hungary’’s freshly passed media law? Why has there been a record number of articles written within days in the international press booing Orbán and his crew? Have they lost their clear judgement? Do you think they are dumb or something? I cannot think of anything else than this being part of a bigger plan. This must be genius political marketing trick worthy of the legacy of a country with a plentitude of Nobel laureates. Surely there was no way to gain more attention, nor to create more suspense, and definitely no other way to mobilize so many people who have not been involved in politics before.

A wonderful thing has happened. FIDESZ gave a once-in-a-lifetime chance to young Hungarians to test how dear democracy is to them after all. These kids took their rights for granted and never had a chance to look at freedom of speech as something you have to fight for. Their parents have probably long forgotten what was it like in the eighties. The Swedish-type welfare state we’’ve all dreamt of never happened and a lot of people have turned cynical and lost interest in politics. FIDESZ came in at the last minute to shake us all up. A clear sign that the government is game was given by Orbán following his inaguration, when he announced that they were ready to change the disputed law should there be any legal or political necessity. What is this, if not a coy wink inviting us to play?

When I was little my parents watched the news on TV every day at 7.30 pm. This was holy time, you could not ask them to play with you during the news. There was only one television channel so everybody was watching the same programme. Have you seen the film? was a typical question and nobody would ask: What film? Everybody knew they were lying on TV, but they  also knew that their life  depended on these lies. Everybody had to learn to read between the lines. For example, if they said that something hadn’’t happened here and here, you could be sure it had. The Russian news agency denies that bla bla bla… so it’’s true, whispered my dad in front of the TV. Censorship made information of much value. Forbidden books were circulating, people were listening to banned radio stations. If they banned something, they made it immediately interesting for the people. When some years ago I suggested to policy makers that the only way to make the European Union popular in Hungary was to ban it, they gave me a broad smile. I was serious. Had they listened to me, we would be way ahead now. Being censored was free advertisement in Hungary, it was like a quality stamp even after the fall of the iron curtain. On one occasion the leader of the Peasant Party asked the Parliament to destroy the remaining copies of a certain literary magazine which had a caricature of the coat of arms of the old Hungarian Kingdom on the cover surrounded by masturbating devils instead of the usual trusted angels. Some copies were smashed in a warehouse but the magazine sold more than at any other time due to the special interest raised by the party leader. I still have a copy at home, not so much for the devils, but it contains one of my very first poems. Banning can often have an opposite effect to the one intended. One of the very first moves of the special committee set up by FIDESZ was to impose a fine on a popular independent radio station for playing two songs from ICE-T during an afternoon broadcast. According to the explanation it was capable of influencing the physical, mental or moral development of individuals under 16 in an unfavourable way, especially by implying aggression and sexuality in an indirect way. If I were under 16 now, I would immediately get these songs and listen to them since it’’s cool once it’’s banned. The irony of it all is that the name of the radio station is Tilos Rádió, which means Forbidden Radio. It used to be an important pirate radio in the eighties moving from flat to flat in the Buda Hills escaping communist censorship with ease since it had the support of the people. FIDESZ members were often guests of Tilos Rádió. I was a guest too on a few occasions and I witnessed one of their moves into a new location once. I can tell you it’’s fun to be underground. Forbidden fruit is sweet. Words gain a special meaning when they are banned. With hasty decisions the media committee can make new heroes of the street and create an opposition for FIDESZ so that they won’’t have to bore themselves to death in the Parliament.

Perhaps you have heard it before that Hungarians tend to feel isolated and exceptional and often look for unique solutions instead of following the well-trodden path. Eight years of left-wing government with a series of Himalayan blunders toppled by the economic crisis left the country un economic ruin, which was responsible for the landslide victory of the centre-right taking home two-thirds of the votes and an extreme right party getting into the Parliament for the first time in Hungarian history.

After the political left had gone up a blind alley, the right found itself without any opposition which makes democracy a rather boring matter in the end. The ruling party, having enough votes to pass any law or even to change the constitution, came to the conclusion that power does not equal happiness and it’’s time to barter it for something more substantial. Let me explain to you the complex and singular reality of contemporary Hungarian politics. The new right of Hungary are made up of very sensitive individuals who cannot work in a hostile environment. They need the love and support of the press, otherwise they may accidentally make errors when calculating the national budget, inattentively impose new taxes or absent-mindedly delete a few inessential constitutional rights.

They went on complaining endlessly about the media not being friendly. No matter how hard they tried, they were just mocked even more. Depression was followed by anger, enough is enough, they would not tolerate the malign, impertinent comments of the estranged media any more. They set up a committee, which was meant to decide what goes and what doesn’t go in public speech, including blogs and even Facebook. Since all the five members of the committee are also members of the ruling party, it cannot be maliciously accused of independence.

All of those suggesting parallels to Russia or the Balkans are failing to see that this is an essentially Central-European affair even if the subject is somewhat unique. Austria was suspended from its European membership ten years ago, Hungary still has to find its limits. Danish and French legislation had come up with items that we had thought were unthinkable in a Western democracy and Holland also had its share of strange times not long ago. What we have here is a party with almost unlimited power, which is a good opportunity to remind us why we are having states on our backs and what they are running when they are running a country. I don’’t fear a build-up for a mental Gulag. This is not an attempt for a totalitarian regime but a very Hungarian conflict of self-control. There is not much difference between an average Hungarian and Mr. Orbán’’s government. They both think that they can do everything better than anybody else. Still they won’t tell me what to write and what not to write. If parallels are to be found outside the European Union, it would be more fruitful to compare the situation to the US in the Sixties where you could end up paying huge fines for using four-letter words. Some of the possible press fines in today’s Hungary are close to a million Euro. This is not the communist days coming back, this is a rather hefty capitalist fine.

The Hungarian language is very rich in swear words – it’’s like a whole language within the language. Curtailing them could lead to a degradation of a uniquely Hungarian cultural phenomenon that a government fond of tradition would surely not want to see.

Twelfth Night or What You Will is a comedy by William Shakespeare written to celebrate the end of the Christmas season. It is a comedy of mistaken identity whose main characters are shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria. Illyria is the name of the Roman Province that covered most of the former Austro-Hungarian coastline on the Adriatic where Governor Horthy, the authoritarian leader of Hungary between the wars used to be an admiral before the empire had disappeared into thin air. Many Hungarian critics of Orbán fear the comeback of the language and gestures of an age whose costumes were already present at the official ceremony on Three Kings Day at the Parliament. The play ends well after all misunderstandings are cleared away – which should be the case of Hungary as well, for we believe it is a comedy and not a tragedy we are watching here and cannot envision that Mr. Orbán, who is presently holding the presidency of the European Union, would undermine all that he had fought for 20 years ago as a champion of resistance. It would be a rather Shakespearean move – as tragic as it is farcical. Hopefully this challenge will only strengthen Hungarian democracy, and he will go down in history as one who helped his country and the union prosper – and not as another in a series of incredible losers lining up from the first world war who managed to rule this godforsaken little country.


Both the most important writer’’s organizations of Hungary (Szépírók Társasága) and the Union of Hungarian Journalists (MÚOSZ) have urged the government in an open letter to change the new media law. Last Monday, the most important Hungarian daily (Népszabadság) ran only one sentence on its cover written in the 22 official languages of the European Union: The freedom of press in Hungary ceased to exist. Several other influential magazines appeared with empty pages on their covers. A major protest is planned in front of the Parliament at 6 pm on Friday 14th organized by an independent civilian group on Facebook. The name of the page is Egymillióan a magyar sajtószabadságért 1 millon people for the freedom of press in Hungary. Its membership has grown to over 70 thousand in a week and its aim is to reach 1 million as it claims.


Link to the protest organized on facebook for Friday 6 pm

Link to live stream of the protest starting on Friday from 5.45 pm

The article appeared in The Guardian; an abbreviated version in Slovak translation will be published in Fórum, the Saturday supplement of the daily SME.