Leading article: Hungary retreats from democracy

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The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi once asked: Given the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, why haven't they made contact? "They are already among us," came the reply, "but they call themselves Hungarians."

The thrust of the joke was that this linguistically unique, geographically challenged central European nation had produced a stunning number of scientific and artistic geniuses given its diminutive size. But events of the past two years have given the quip a darker connotation. Under the pretext of completing the anti-communist revolution begun in 1989, conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban has incubated an alien horror in the heart of Europe. His new package of legislation radically damages Hungary's democratic credentials.

Mr Orban, who was a dissident hero in the 1989 revolution, remains enormously popular, and with a two-thirds majority in parliament he can do pretty much what he likes. But it appears that he has not fully digested the lessons of the historic movement that brought down communist tyranny across Eastern Europe. You can bring in tyranny by the front door and call it the vanguard of socialism, or by the back door and call it restoring the nation's pride and independence and Christian values. But whatever its name, all Europe knows that once it has arrived, you are on a slippery slope. The stunted development of democracy in Putin's Russia, seen by Mr Orban as the arch-enemy, should have provided him with a clear enough warning. Perversely, it seems to have been a role model.

By slashing the independence of the judiciary, the central bank and the media, by gerrymandering constituencies and cementing loyalists in key positions for nine-year terms, Mr Orban is ushering in a new age of authoritarian control. His justification is that the socialists he dislodged from power in 2008 had brought the country to the brink of ruin. But inconveniently for Mr Orban, his own medicine is not making the patient better, and Hungary now faces a lively risk of going bankrupt. The hubris of a small, landlocked country, however brilliant and maverick, demanding to go its own wild way would be comical were it not so dangerous.

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