András Göllner: Comparing Canada’s Harper to Orbán relativizes predatory rule in Hungary

Popular talk radio host György Bolgár of Hungary’s Klubrádió interviewed Professor András Göllner, founder of the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter (CHDC) on Wednesday. (Part 1 is available here, and Part 2 here.) The Montreal-based academic and civil liberties activist was asked to speak to an article appearing in the New York Times, in which Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is presented as a leader who for nine years “consistently limited the capacity of the public to understand what its government is doing, cloaking himself and his Conservative Party in an entitled secrecy, and the country in ignorance.”

This stinging criticism from a reputable international paper appeared, at least on the surface, to surprise Mr. Bolgár, and perhaps others in Hungary who have perceived Canada as a safe, model haven of enlightened liberal democracy. Could it be that authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is not alone in the western world when it comes to the wholesale dismantling of checks and balances, pluralism and liberal democratic governance?

One of the most important points in Dr. Göllner’s 15-minute interview on Klubrádió is that he throws a bucket of cold water on such parallels between Mr. Harper and Mr. Orbán, which are frequently made, and which unwittingly relativize the predatory and authoritarian nature of Fidesz rule in Hungary.

Dr. András Göllner

Dr. András Göllner

Dr. Göllner notes that a New York Times article about Canada’s prime minister is not such a “hot” news item here as a similar piece about Mr. Orbán would be in Hungary. It will have virtually no impact on the electoral outcome or on public discourse, he suggests.

In the Klubrádió interview, Dr. Göllner argued that unlike Hungary, the Canadian parliamentary system works: checks and balances, pluralism, constitutionalism and justice have not been eradicated, there is scrutinization inside and outside of Parliament, the ruling party is “not the only show in town.”

Critically, the Conservative Party of Canada is not a hegemonic power – while in Hungary virtually all the regional governments are Fidesz run (with only sprinkles of Socialist and Jobbik administrations, as well as independent, or nominally independent mayors in the smallest communities), in Canada the Tories don’t run everything. Alberta elected the New Democratic Party (NDP), Ontario and Quebec are Liberal, municipal governments are even further removed from one-party control and the kind of collusion that exists for example between the municipal governments of Budapest, Debrecen and Fidesz.

Despite the differences, it is worth pointing out, and Dr. Göllner does just this, that Mr. Orbán and Mr. Harper share the same campaign strategist – Arthur J. Finkelstein – which is naturally reflected in their approach to the press, to information and campaigning. But the ability of “getting away with murder” in Canada is much more restricted here than in Hungary. The leaders’ impulses may be the same – but their capacity is vastly different. Canada is a just society. Hungary is not. While Mr. Harper’s grip on power is brittle, the Fidesz-Jobbik’s grip is very firm.

The Montreal-based Hungarian Canadian academic talked about the fallacy of “betting all of Hungary’s taxpayers’ money on one Canadian horse – a horse, that is likely to lose the race.”

The Orbán government, of course, is doing whatever it can to “buy” votes within the Hungarian Canadian diaspora, and is pumping larger amounts of money into the Hungarian Canadian community than ever before. The Hungarian Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto (Torontói Magyar Ház) received nearly $600,000 from the Orbán regime this summer, in order to complete the construction of a new building. The planned Victims of Communism monument in Ottawa received some $115,000 in funding from Budapest this month.

“While Mr. Orbán may be able to get a significant proportion of the Hungarian diaspora to vote for him, he cannot manipulate them to the same degree as far as Canadian federal or provincial voting behaviour is concerned. The ethnic Hungarian vote is widely dispersed in Canada’s ridings, the impact in individual constituencies is virtually zero”–argues Dr. Göllner.

The CHDC founder also pointed out that while the Harper government’s support for Fidesz may be strong now, it could easily crumble, since the relationship is asymmetrical. Mr. Harper is far more important to Mr. Orbán, than Mr. Orbán is to Mr. Harper. At the moment, the Canadian opposition parties have nothing to do with Fidesz.

“In time, the Tories may follow suit, and bail out from the love in, despite the heavy investment by Mr. Orbán”–suggested Professor Göllner.

“Indeed the Fidesz’s one-sided approach, coupled to the growing evidence of Hungary’s rule of law violations, and Orbán’s pro-Putin stance could create serious problems for Hungarian Ambassador Bálint Ódor in the corridors of power in Ottawa. More evidence about the duplicitous nature of Fidesz’ approach to multiculturalism, immigration, ant-Semitism could turn into a serious liability,” Dr. Göllner added.

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