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02.06.2009 | György Dalos | Neue Zürcher Zeitung

A Peaceless Democracy




















Photo: Peter Župník


“Hungarian democracy is in crisis. It is in crisis is because it lives in fear” said political thinker István Bibó (1911 – 1979) in the summer of 1945. His aphoristic diagnosis alluded to two dangers: that of a restoration of the authoritarian pre-war regime and of the imposition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The second threat proved to be more real, not surprisingly, given the presence of the Soviet army in the country and the free world’s acceptance of the post-Yalta world order. A few years later the Moscow-controlled communist party did away with the short-lived parliamentary democracy and civil rights, ushering in a form of government known throughout Eastern Europe by the tautological name “people’s democracy” (i.e. popular democracy of the people) which survived, albeit in a significantly more relaxed form, until the autumn of 1989.

Bibó’s assessment of the post-war period provides a surprisingly apt description of the current situation. Twenty years after the end of communism it is clear that the unexpectedly peaceful transition to a free market economy and pluralism has brought the Hungarians a rather uncertain, restless and anxious democracy. Although the Hungarians are by no means the only ones in the former Eastern bloc who have found themselves in this situation, its citizens have perceived it primarily in national terms. Instead of comparing themselves to Latvia, whose economy has plummeted much more spectacularly than that of Hungary, they keep casting envious sideway glances at the shopping tourists from neighbouring Slovakia who have been crowding Hungarian supermarkets flaunting their newly- minted euros.

Comparisons are in any event not very useful in a society where a few million people live on or just under the poverty line and where a fifth of all children qualify as very poor and one quarter as poor. Poverty is not just a matter of statistics but also a psychological phenomenon, a widespread fear of impoverishment.

Reckless Promises

The impact of the global financial crisis on Hungary was similar to a meteorological disaster hitting a country whose exposed position (lack of raw materials, extreme dependency on foreign investment) left it vulnerable, yet completely unprepared. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the problems are partly the result of mistakes made by successive governments. Afraid of losing their power, the parties kept making election promises (increased salaries and pensions, fixed energy costs, etc.) that they could not keep. Instead of expertly devised social policies the rulers showered the population with sporadic “gifts” which, insufficient and unjustly distributed as they were, only helped raise expectations.

At the same time, in order to placate their voters each successive government stopped short of carrying out much-needed reforms.  And although this behaviour was typical of both major political forces - the Socialist Party (MSZP) and its coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats (SZDSZ) on the one hand, and the conservative Civic Party (Fidesz), headed by  Viktor Orbán,  the faux-pas committed by the Left have proved to be particularly fatal as the party has been in power continuously since 2002. This was a disaster in the making.

After the leaking of Prime Ferenc Gyurcsány’s conversation with a closed group of confidants shortly after the 2006 election, in which he admitted that the tight victory over his arch rival Viktor Orbán was achieved largely thanks to empty election promises and described his own party’s performance as „shitty“,  all hell broke loose. Street riots followed and the police attempts to get them under control varied from unprofessional to disproportionately violent. The social liberal coalition certainly deserved strong criticism, including the justified demand that personal consequences be drawn. 

However, something completely different happened: the opposition set the government an ultimatum to resign within 72 hours, staging a “revolutionary situation” and launching a character assassination campaign against the socialist leader Gyurcsány, with Orbán calling him a “pathological liar”. The young, dynamic but rather headstrong Prime Minister with a tendency to improvisation, whom his supporters had originally regarded as capable of political miracles -- a kind of left-wing Orbán -- became a liability to his own party and finally resigned in the spring of 2009. Yet the intense hatred he had attracted for over two years has survived his departure continuing to permeate Hungary’s political climate.

On top of this the government’s loss of prestige resulted in a bizarre situation: while the make-up of the National Assembly still reflects voters’ preferences from spring 2006, current opinion polls put the opposition firmly in the lead. However, this imaginary majority lacks a real mandate necessary to topple the legitimate government.  Calls for an early election have been thwarted by the parliamentary majority even though the liberal SZDSZ has by now left the coalition. The country is now governed by Gordon Bajnai’s last-chance cabinet, composed mostly of respected experts, its activities limited to crisis management and the planning of unpopular budget cuts. This somewhat masochistic enterprise is presumably dictated by the hope that a successful rescue operation might avert state bankruptcy and the widely predicted landslide victory - e.g. a two-thirds majority - for Fidesz.  

Playing the national card

A by-product of Hungary’s turbulent autumn of 2006 is the increase of right-wing extremism and its increased media profile. The various radical groupings, partly interlinked and partly at loggerheads with each other, have been directing their most bitter attacks primarily at minorities and marginal groups such as the Roma, Jews and homosexuals but also at the EU, the US, “global capital”: basically, the rest of the world. The extreme right pays homage to a “posthumous anti-communism” by labelling - in the absence of any real communist forces - all their opponents as Bolsheviks. The extreme right is also spontaneously anti-intellectual, as demonstrated by their most recent campaign against nationally and globally recognized authors such as György Spiró,  Péter Nádas,  Péter Esterházy and - unfortunately but quite predictably - the Nobel Prize laureate Imre Kertész.

The extreme right media dismiss these prominent representatives of Hungarian culture as “un-Hungarian” or simply “Jewish”- particularly if they “betray Hungary” by publicizing their concerns about developments in their country in foreign media. They are all regarded as treacherous whistle-blowers which is not particularly new: authoritarian forces on the left and on the right have traditionally played the Hungarian nationalist card to stifle any criticism of their power-grabbing. What is new, however, is that this attitude is now on display in a country which has been, for the past few years, part of a larger entity, the European Union.

Although the extreme right-wing rhetoric is undoubtedly loud and frightening, it is not necessarily indicative of its supporters’ numerical strength.  The party that needs to be taken most seriously as a political force is Jobbik (The Movement for a Better Hungary) led by the young historian Gábor Vona. Jobbik presents itself as a “Christian and national party of order” aiming to oust post-communists and “extreme liberals” from Parliament. Despite their strict opposition to an EU membership that “mutilates Hungary’s independence” the party is contesting the EU elections [it actually won 3 out of 22 seats, ed.] in what most Hungarians see as a potential test for a decisive showdown in 2010. 

It remains to be seen how the extreme right will behave in what is likely to be Orbán’s second era; currently they are positioning themselves as rivals to the former youth movement Fidesz, something Fidesz has until now regarded as an affront to its monopolistic centre-of-right doctrine “One camp - one flag”. Whether the two parties might reach an under-the-cover agreement or even form an open coalition might be determined at the last minute by the mathematics of the situation. This was the case in the economically more successful Slovakia where Ján Slota’s right-wing extremists are in the government, significantly helping to shape its anti-Hungarian nationalism. But perhaps there are still some European inhibitions in force that will prevent such an alliance?

In any case, the real question ought not to be how dangerous is the extreme right but rather how strong is Hungarian democracy. Will it be able to respond convincingly to the authoritarian threat by presenting a functioning project of a social market economy?


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in German in the NZZ on 16 May 2009.

We are grateful to Gy örgy Dalos for the permission to publish this text in English.


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