“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
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.
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
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
The extreme right media dismiss these
prominent representatives of Hungarian culture as “un-Hungarian” or simply
“Jewish”- particularly if they “betray
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
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
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?
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