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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Imran and Orban By Fouad Khan

For a few days during the month of cusp between 2011 and 2012, in those shallows of packaged punditry called New York Times Op-Ed Section, Pakistan was no longer the country frothing the most foreboding omens for future. That dubious honor was moved, albeit temporarily to the shoulders of Hungary; a landlocked little nation sitting squat in the middle of Europe.
It all started with Paul Krugman running into his next door neighbor one fine New York morning. She said something about Hungary and a new constitution and freedom. It must’ve been the words ‘a central bank under the influence of an elected government’ that would’ve caught his ears. They must’ve decided to talk about it in detail later.
After all, that next door neighbor was Dr. Kim Lane Schepple; director of Law and Public Affairs program at Princeton. If she was saying democracy was under threat from a democratically elected government in the heart of Europe, that must be the case. If nothing else, at least a Nazi analogy could be drawn from the entire fiasco, no matter how feeble or lame. Even lame Nazi analogies sparkle in an Op-Ed piece like diamonds on a Harry Winston dial.
So they met again over the next few days, and armed with grand new alarmist high squeak, the man sat down and wrote. “… democratic values are under siege…  I am not being alarmist… it’s important not to fall into the “not as bad as” trap… ominous political trends shouldn’t be dismissed just because there’s no Hitler in sight.”
Over the next three weeks, Dr. Schepple, borrowing Krugman’s Op-Ed column in New York Times, would pontificate on the subject in detail. She is the foremost authority on Hungarian constitution in the US.
During the 2010 election in Hungary, a center right party, Fidesz, under the charismatic leadership of one Victor Orban rose to a landslide victory and two thirds majority in parliament. True to his word, Orban went about setting in action widespread constitutional changes, something which the Hungarian populace had given him mandate for through the two thirds majority. On January 1st of this year, the old constitution was replaced entirely with a new one. According to Dr. Schepple, the new constitution conspires to concentrate the power in Fidesz’ hands.
Media, judiciary, opposing political parties all have been cut short, says Dr. Schepple. According to her, it’s an ‘unconstitutional constitution’. The part that’s really made the European Union sit up and take notice though, is the deployment of new laws for management of the Central Bank. The new law gives the Prime Minister the right to appoint vice presidents of the Central Bank. An ‘infringement procedure’ has been initiated against Hungary for violating EU laws.
What Dr. Schepple fails to acknowledge is the fact that none of what Fidesz government is doing is actually either illegal or unconstitutional. Fidesz continues to be the most popular party in Hungary, despite not having uniform support countrywide for some of the constitutional amendments being put in place. The demonstrations in favor of Fidesz continue to bring out people to the streets in the hundreds of thousands and there’s no real indication that the massive wave of popular support Fidesz rode to power in 2010 elections has broken along those banks of Danube where the Hungarian parliament legislates.
At Central European University in Budapest on Tuesday (February 1), Dr. Schepple tried to make the case that the new Hungarian constitution is not a ‘liberal’ constitution. But not being liberal is not the same as not being democratic. Fidesz government, and by consequence, the new constitution, enjoys democratic legitimacy and support.
What’s happening in Hungary is not merely a right leaning political party’s mad dash for absolute power at the first shot of the starting pistol of legislative authority, but Hungary, as a nation’s, slow slide away –nose tightly clenched between thumb and index finger- from the stinking corpse of economic liberalism’s false dreams. The loss of some social and personal liberty in the process, is merely collateral damage.
Of course the popular democratic lean towards right can now be described as a global phenomenon without much hesitation. In Austria, the Freedom Party is gaining momentum, in Finland there are the True Finns. The Arab spring has been led by a bevy of religious parties who in different countries lie in a different spot on the spectrum from Hamas to Jamat-e-Islami, but no further left. In America, the Tea Party draws its strength from a strong religious and fiscal conservatism and hard right lunacy. As far as popular resistances go, the Tea Party movement is one that comes pre-hijacked (by the machine), but it is channeling a discontent that is very real. All across the world, nationalism seems to be the flavor of the political epoch and religiosity pervades the zeitgeist. The right is on the rise.
Pakistan is no exception. Imran’s popular movement is built on a base of staunch nationalistic pride with sprinklings of religious machismo on top. This new global right though, of which Imran is a part, is right of center only in the sense that it views free trade neo-liberalism suspiciously. What binds this ‘right’ together is its wholehearted embrace of the economic values of an old, forgotten ‘left’.
They are religious because they need a narrative to drive inspiration from, they view conventional media with suspicion because they feel mainstream media has sold them out, they want change but they’d rather have the change come through democratic means. And above all, they feel that they’ve had just about enough of economic exploitation in the name of freedom and democracy. In opposing economic imperialism they stand together, Imran, Orban and the rest.
The Paul Krugmans of the world are wrong to see shades of 1933 in the rise of the likes of Orban or his ideological brother from another mother, Imran. Which is not to say that there aren’t parallels here to be drawn from history. In the spring of 1848, not too long after installation of the first telegraph lines and on the back of nearly two decades of relative stability and prosperity, the French populace coagulated into a violent mass in opposition to the ‘Citizen King’ Louis Philippe.
The echoes of this revolution would be heard all around the world with eruption of riots and many minor revolutions in other European principalities and nations from Prussia to Switzerland. Within a couple of decades Indians deep down in the south would also try their hand at ‘mutiny’ and Marx and Engel, inspired by a vacuum would go on to write and publish a little title named Das Kapital. So would the world change forever?
Imran, Orban and their kin, leaders of such ilk are born of this vacuum. That vacuum -crass and tired as yet another reference to class warfare may sound to twenty-first century ears- is simply a chasm between haves and have-nots that has grown past a certain threshold. That threshold is like a tripwire; the events it may trigger can never be predicted pre-factum. This threshold, this vacuum, and this chasm… we’ve been here before, just not in 1933. The date you are looking for Mr. Krugman is 1848.


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