What is going on in Hungary?

What is going on in Hungary

I am reading the weekend’s newspapers of both home and abroad (January 22nd and 23rd, 2011). Let me sample at my convenience. In Hungary, János Kis gave an interview to the ex-communist daily, ’Népszabadság’, in which, irrespective what the question was, he keeps mentioning that the current Hungarian government, with Viktor Orbán on top, is antidemocratic, whereas the opposition is democratic. The liberal and mostly dogmatic János Kis gives a well-known list of the complaints of the post-communist opposition: curtailing the powers of Hungarian Court of Constitution, nationalization of the private pension funds, the media law, the one-sided attempt of Fidesz (Orbán’s Party) to frame a new constitution, and the like. His rhetoric completely coincides with the current post-communists’ view as if he was to be propagating the opposition’s arguments. It is interesting that he does not have a single word about the ongoing „philosophers’ scandal”, in the focus of which there are the founders of the Lukacs School, who happened to be accused of various forms of abusing public money. In Germany, the liberal Die Zeit never tires to denigrate the Orbán-government from its entering into office last year in May. This time the German periodical envisions that Hungary is on the verge of becoming an autocracy, or on her route towards the Orwellian nightmare. Can it happen that both the Hungarian liberal and post-communist elite and the mainstream foreign, dominantly leftist press and media are wrong? All authority seems to support the accusations against the Orbán government, or the case is different?


Orbán’s party, Fidesz, won last year’s elections in April by an unprecedented margin which provided a two-third majority for the governing party. Hungary had become almost a wasteland during the 8 year post-communist governance between 2002-2010. Hungary is just as indebted to the IMF and the EU as she was twenty years ago at the moment of the regime change. Since last May, as it was promised by Viktor Orbán before the elections, there has been a continuous legal examination of the possible reasons of and personal responsibilities for Hungary’s economic and social decline after 2002. As a result a number of post-communist (members of the Hungarian Socialist Party) and liberal (Alliance of Free Democrats) politicians have already been arrested, being investigated or have already been serving their sentences. It is not simply corruption but widespread practices of the post-communists (ex-communists and allied liberals) who governed this country between 1994 and 1998, and 2002-2010. All procedures are legal, and justified beyond question. The foreign press is usually silent about it. Hungary has been in trouble primarily not because of the global crisis but because of its bad governance and the dominant power of the post-communist left and corrupt treatment of public resources. In one sentence, the Hungarian post-communist left have always preferred to represent the interest of the globalized capital and foreign interests. The Orbán government, with the support of the voters, expressed its dedication to prefer national interest, a conception that has always been denied by the post-communist left. What the Hungarian left is doing, is to denigrate the incumbent Hungarian government as it is trying to name the responsible officials and bringing to court the persons who simply committed crimes at the expense of public good. Corruption is too lax a word to express the width and depth of the economic and moral crisis of the Hungarian political community. Disillusionment with the new regime of 1990 has become so widespread in Hungary that the government, with a two third support, had to reassess the whole period leading up to the 2010 elections. Is it reshuffling of the compromise of the 1989? To a considerable degree, yes, it is. Orbán has had the experience to conclude that if Hungary remains within  the framework of the 1989 elite compromise, nothing is going to change, what is more, Hungary will become even poorer, and lack of pride and distorted identity would make the indispensable  psychological renewal impossible.


But will is not enough for such a big change. Without strength the new government’s attempt would fail as it did during the first Orbán government (1998-2002). Orbán wanted to widen the economic sphere of movement. Since the EU did not allow for Orbán, under the shadow of the euro crisis, to increase the budget deficit from 3-4 percent to, say, 6 o 7 percent, Orbán had to find other solutions to the problem other than taking austerity measures that would have affected the citizens, a practice that had been pursued by the post-communists. Orbán keeps saying that the Hungarian citizens cannot be strained or burdened any more. Therefore he resorted to taxing the banks, retail sales networks, energy and telecommunication companies on equal and proportional footing, but since almost all firms or corporations are owned by foreign investors, the appearance is that Orbán is against the foreign capital. It is not true, he simply wanted to ask them to share the burdens under dire conditions when they had benefited from the home and global crisis.


Orbán, at the same time, announced that he is going to stimulate economy by rearranging the taxation system, and introducing his Széchenyi Project, an economic program that is to support the medium and small enterprises (to be announced in January, 2011). Just two little examples, from January 1st there has been a flat income tax in Hungary (16% - before the highest rate was 38%), and the corporate tax was reduced from 19 % to 10 %.


Simultaneously, the new government has announced that it wishes to found its policy on five values: work, home, family, health, and order. Each of these has its long story and justification. Let me pick only two of them, work and family. Hungary’s employment rate is one of the lowest in Europe, it is ca 55 %, that is unemployment (officially 11%) and unregistered or black-market employment is extremely high with its all budget consequences. The new government has offered a new policy based on a mutual or reciprocal relationship between the state and the citizens. One can only get state benefits, if the citizen also gives something in exchange, i.e. family allowances are due only if the children of the family go to school regularly). Family is a preferred value out of many reasons. First, Hungary’s fertility rate is one of the lowest even in Europe. Something must be done in order to avoid the economically and socially disastrous consequences of an imminent possibility of Hungary’s population dropping from 10 million to 8 million in a few decades. Second, Fidesz believes that order begins in family, and if every second marriage ends in divorce, education as such and public morals in general will not have a proper value system.


Hungary, being an excessively licentious country, has proved to be rather unsuccessful, both economically and socially, therefore a new economic and social policy had to be introduced.


The Orbán government announced at the beginning of its coming to office that revolutionary  changes are needed. As a result, never seen abundance of new bills were passed by the Hungarian Parliament  in the Fall of 2010 including the Media Law and providing dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarian living in the neighbouring countries (even the Socialists voted for it, though they had been against it for twenty years). Yes, it is true that the powers of the most powerful Hungarian Court of Constitution in Europe were reduced in economic issues. Yes, it is true that a new Constitution is to be voted for by the Parliament in April 2011. Yes, it is true that order is to be made in all walks of life with special emphasis on public security (the Hungarian left was never tired of mentioning that the Hungarian Guard, which was established a few years ago by the radical right, is fascist and racist, but failed to point out that this could only happen because of the state’s inability to maintain public order in certain regions of Hungary. Under Orbán the Guard has started to disintegrate). All this, to a considerable degree, is because liberalism was mistaken for licentiousness in Hungary. The outcome is clear for all Hungarian citizens. Increasing crime, tax evasion, neglect of traffic rules etc. What the archenemy of Fidesz calls the end of democracy in Hungary is nothing else than an embittered cry of the totally disintegrated party of the liberals (Alliance of Free Democrats, the disintegration of which took place well before the elections), and the post-communists (Hungarian Socialist Party) who managed to stir an international scandal about the media law. The situation reminds an average Hungarian of the communists’ calling in the Soviet troops in the revolutionary Budapest in 1956. And do not forget that the revolutionaries were sentenced to death in the very same name of the Constitution that was amended in 1989. So because of the almost complete loss of power, influence and authority at home, the Hungarian post-communists and liberals have resorted to foreign ’aid’ labelling the new media law as putting an end to the freedom of the press. The embittered attack is not about the freedom of the law, which is unbreachable in Hungary, but about the fear of overviewing the accountability of the previous government and its extended intellectual clientele.


Only one example of deep-seated source of hatred towards the Orbán government. In a couple of months ago a prestigious Hungarian weekly political magazine, ’Hetiválasz’ disclosed the past of an ex-Hungarian Austrian journalist, Paul Lendvai’s collaboration with the communist Kadar regime in the 1980s. He has been one of the communist fellow travellers in the West who was not forced to collaborate with the communists, for he lived in Vienna. After 1989 he sided with the post-communists and became a biased informer of the Western press and media about the Hungarian developments of the past twenty years. He was outraged after his documents were made public, and there is no doubt he was personally interested in the denigration of the second Orbán government. And there are many other channels to augment or transfer the internal conflicts and developments of Hungary to an international scene. It is not a conspiracy theory, it is a fact based on home experience, stupid remarks of Hungarian post-communists including the notorious figure of the previous post-communist governance in Hungary, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who happened to write back in 2010 after the general elections that the new government would sorry for each day they went into the new parliament. Now, we know what he meant.


The name of the game in Hungary is whether this country will be able to get out of the indebtedness trap, creating a national unity, and making governance efficient. And not, what is proposed by the post-communist Hungarian left, whether Hungary remains a democratic country with liberal rights and institutions or not.


January 2011


András Lánczi (Hungary) is professor of political science at the Corvinus University of Budapest, director of the Institute for Political Science, and author of Political Philosophy in the 20th Century (1999), Democracy and Political Science (2000), Crisis and Modernity in Leo Strauss’s Works (2000), Conservative Manifesto (2002), and Utopia as Tradition (2004).


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