Hungary: Reliving American History?
Hungarians turned out in droves this week to protest against their government’s proposed tax on internet usage. Not only miffed at the prospect of having to cough up 60 cents per gigabyte, many Hungarians called the tax a threat to their freedom of information, likening it to “a digital iron curtain.” Considering other recent crackdowns ranging from voting practices to press freedoms, it’s no wonder why the increasingly conservative Hungarian regime has come under fire for its quasi-authoritarian initiatives. What is astonishing is the eerie similarity between the new Hungarian policies and various pieces of legislation the United States has enacted at some point during its history. Nearly all of the major tenants of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s massive overhaul of Hungarian law have a Dostoevsky-ian double from American history.
Take voting registration. In 2012, many Hungarians participated in a hunger strike against Orban’s proposal requiring voters to register 15 days prior to voting in an election. Sound familiar? Although some states allow registration on voting day, other states like California also require registration 15 days in advance of elections.
Court packing is another scrutinized Orban initiative with an American incarnate. Shortly after Orban took office, his party passed a law in parliament allowing for the expansion of the constitutional court with political appointees; President Roosevelt attempted to do the same thing to ensure the survival of his New Deal legislation back in the 1930s.
Even Orban’s treatment of the media through censorship agencies like the Media Authority evokes a certain historical déjà vu to press practices under the Office of War Information in the United States during World War II.
Internet-usage taxation happens to be just one of many legislative similarities between the two countries. Although not widely publicized, the US House of Representatives passed the Permanent Internet Taxation Freedoms Act this past July to put a lasting end to taxation on internet usage, even for states like Texas who annually rake in $350 million in revenue from previously grandfathered legislation allowing them to capitalize on web usage.
Considering the undeniable likeness between American and Hungarian legislation, why has the latter been vehemently dubbed as authoritarian? Why has Hungary’s press index been downgraded to ‘partly free’ on the Freedom House index while the United States still shines as a beacon of liberty? The simple answer: Orban.
All of the controversial legislation has come during peacetime from Orban’s administration. Despite his overwhelming support in parliament, Orban is ultimately just one man implementing a host of questionable policies in a young, fledgling country still gaining its bearings as a democracy. Fortunately, the Hungarian protests were enough to force Orban to renege on his ominous internet tax. We can only hope Hungarians will continue to keep Orban honest and avoid the tragic fate of so many other young democracies that fell into the clutches of similarly questionable rulers.