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Constitutionally autocratic?

 Whenever we went on long car journeys when I was a child, my parents would try to curb my blisteringly irritating ways by handing me an “I Spy” book. Each of these brilliant little volumes – so beloved of weary parents – would be on a particular theme (cars, countryside, etc.), and every time you spotted a particular item in one of the books, you would win points proportionate to the scarcity of whatever it happened to be. In recent years, my affection for these little books has been dulled somewhat by the realisation that the bright red Delorian I spent hours searching for didn’t actually exist, but even so, I often find myself wishing that someone would write a tongue-in-cheek “I Spy” book for adults on politics. Spotting some things – like, say, an American President with a thick French accent – would obviously win you a whole mountain of points. But some things – the political equivalents of pickup trucks – are much easier to spot.

In the spotters’ guide to governments, autocracy is perhaps the easiest to recognise. It may be a little uncommon, but it’s so distinctive, you can’t miss it. Indeed, autocracy is so simple to spot that even the twelfth-century political “I Spy” champion, John of Salisbury, was able to sum it up quite simply. In his Policratus, he observed that what distinguished a legitimate government from a tyranny was the willingness to rule in accordance with an objective standard of law for the benefit of the people. To disregard the law, or to legislate without the common good in mind was the very hallmark of tyrannical or autocratic government. No doubt John of Salisbury would have awarded only one point for spotting it.

Even the most untrained political spotter could not fail to recognise that Hungary is already far gone on the path to autocracy. After his party, Fidesz, was swept back into power last spring with 53% of the vote, Viktor Orbán launched on a programme of radical reforms which culminated in the enactment of the country’s first post-Communist constitution on January 1. Taken together, Orbán’s reforms are little short of staggering. Quite apart from constitutional clauses redefining the status of religions, the character of marriage, and the rights of the foetus, the shape of Hungary’s new political order is more reactionary and authoritarian than merely conservative. With the foundation of a new national media board packed with party loyalists and invested with sweeping powers, the freedom of the press has been threatened. An expanded judiciary has been purged and staffed with political allies, while its capacity to review legislation and to question budgetary matters has been dramatically curtailed. And to top it all off, new electoral laws have redrawn boundaries in such a way that it is almost impossible for any party other than Fidesz to form a government.

It is perhaps no surprise that Orbán’s reforms have drawn intense criticisms from an international community well-versed in the ways of political “I Spy”. Taking heed of mounting popular protests, the often reticent U.S. State Department has expressed grave concerns, and anticipating the European Commission’s measures against Hungary, Jean Asselborn, the Luxembourgian Foreign Minister, argued that the country’s new constitution clearly violated both the spirit and the letter of EU treaties. Mirroring former Prime Minister George Bajnai’s attack on what is being seen as a blatant attack on democratic freedoms, Die Welt has dubbed Hungary a “Führerstaat”, and Nobel prize-winning economic Paul Krugman has vehemently condemned “the re-establishment of authoritarian rule”.