Hungary – A Very FIDESZ Democracy

carl rowlandsAdmiral Horthy may be long gone, but just lately he appears to have become all the rage in modern Hungary. Newspapers sympathetic to the governing Fidesz party continually run glowing editorials about this ‘honourable’ man, along with statues and parks being awarded his name.

Despite their legacy as ‘The Alliance of Young Democrats’, some in the ageing and increasingly authoritarian Fidesz party have found a historical hero who was certainly no democrat. As the 1930s progressed, the electoral franchise was progressively choked off in Hungary, quietly ensuring a succession of increasingly nationalistic and right-wing governments. Areas where the social democrats were strongest were effectively deprived of the vote through bureaucratic manipulation and banning of trades union activity. Meanwhile, in rural areas, landlord control of the franchise was overt. The ‘good old days’ to which many Fidesz supporters refer to, were also the days when Roma were physically segregated into remote slums, invisible but for the occasional presence of the gendarmerie, who would brutally and violently ensure that the locals knew their position at the very base of society.

When a leading Fidesz organizer and friend of the Prime Minister declares in an opinion column that ‘most gypsies are animals’ it is against this historical context. Yet it’s also against the context of a Hungarian Right which has established no clear institutional ethical boundaries against racism, and which has increasingly relied upon nationalist rhetoric in the last 20 years. The ruling party in 1990′s first post-transition government, the MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) even included Istvan Csurka among its leaders. Csurka was an overtly anti-Semitic nationalist politician, dedicated to restoring Hungary’s pre-World War One borders. His presence at the centre of post-transition political life indicated the weakness of democratic forces, even at the height of their supposed triumph. Even as Csurka was expelled from the collapsing MDF administration, the government engineered a ceremonial reburial of Admiral Horthy’s bones in his home village of Kenderes.

The Hungarian right’s love of ceremony and pageant – in somewhat embarrassing homage to the anachronisms of the United Kingdom – extended to a huge parade marking the relocation of the Crown to Parliament in 2000 – investing Parliament with ‘holy’ authority. Such mystical references are common currency across the Hungarian right-wing, whether supporters of ‘center-right’ Fidesz or ‘far-right’ Jobbik. It’s part of the deliberately mixed messages being sent by Fidesz. One week the Prime Minister can meet for photo-opportunity with rabbis, the next week, the Fidesz Deputy President can attend a commemoration for a Hungarian Nazi writer. There is always an eye for an opening.

Horthy might be a strange hero to many people inside and outside Hungary, but it’s especially alarming to consider that the same political forces who indulge in Horthy-worship are also the people centralising control of the Hungarian state (especially schools), redrawing a constitution and creating a whole new set of apparently ad-hoc electoral laws, the ultimate effect of which would be to make it very, very hard to elect a new government. Having won a two-thirds majority, Fidesz are attempting to exploit an opportunity to remake the administration of Hungary, as well as cementing their dominance over the future electoral process.

Anyone who remembers the 2002 Election, in which Fidesz attempted to defend its position in office against the Socialists, will remember the partial and disgraceful overt manipulation of public media. Government spokesmen and supporters dominated the programming. The editors of the public broadcasting channels even started broadcasting Fidesz rallies live-to-air – risking the ire of those who were looking to consume the normal diet of soaps and cheap cop dramas. The new electoral law attempted to consolidate this control of public media by preventing commercial radio and television channels from running party political programmes or advertisements during the campaign, leaving only the state-controlled media to provide political analysis. The intention was to drive the opposition off air.

Already we can see the beginnings of the 2014 campaign, with posters plastered on buses and placards around the city, blaming the previous government for Hungary’s problems. It seems much of the funding for this is already coming from state sources. When added to a number of bogus consultations concerning the constitution and the ‘job protection’ campaigns, Fidesz are spending an absolute fortune on communications. The next logical step is to remove the official state budget for political parties, thereby ensuring such massive communications machines are funded from either secretive or ‘grey’ sources. If enacted, it ensures a system that retains the outward trappings of democracy, whilst engaging in multiple instances of manipulation at different levels. The open gerrymandering of electoral districts is, from a UK perspective, more normal, but will further reduce the prospects of change in Hungary, whilst the reallocation of seats has been entirely driven by use of the two-thirds supermajority, with no attempt to garner a consensus.

Finally, and in tune with 1930s Hungary, the new electoral laws proposed a move away from a simple system of voter lists, to a system of voluntary registration. It is here that the government have been placed most under pressure, both internally and externally. Originally, the registration process was intended to involve people presenting themselves physically in a governmental office with the necessary forms of ID. Access to these offices could therefore be made as obscure, or as irregular as necessary, and would be a daunting test of organization and finance, as all parties would need to ferry many of their voters to the offices, or at least ensure as many were registered as possible. The Constitution Court has rejected the electoral laws, indicating dissent in the ranks – but it remains the undeniable case that the party leadership, Viktor Orban himself, wanted to push these changes through.

We could argue that Fidesz, at root, is nothing more than an electoral/communications machine, and in this sense is not so different to many other European political parties nowadays. This machine has even provided an easy cultural identity for Joe Public to adopt, a system of patronage for supporters and friends, plus a flexible and easily adaptable set of policies, which vary from economic liberalism, to nationalism, to oligarchy, depending on the lay of the land.

Yet the rancid nationalism and overt racism of many Fidesz supporters stops it being a question of abstract political science, and illustrates the dilemma that Fidesz has built for itself. For such a machine would obviously not want to risk being thrown out of office –a negative democratic verdict would be too costly to the many interests at stake in such a centralized system of patronage. Yet at the same time, Fidesz retains those same people who were part of the democratic opposition in the communist era, and whose political self-image is based partially upon being democrats in opposition to undemocratic communists. Fidesz need to distance itself from the far-right in some ways, whilst also retaining its nationalist rhetoric and feeding the monster it has helped to create.

By understanding that Fidesz are increasingly being torn in both directions, we can surely begin to appreciate that while the Association of Young Democrats may have a somewhat elastic understanding of the word ‘democracy,’ internal rivalries and dubious decision-making increasingly question the viability of Orban’s all-encompassing governing project. Paradoxically, this coincides with the continued consolidation of absolute power.  This should not obfuscate – the prospects for democratic change and political engagement with social realities in Hungary appear singularly bleak, regardless of right-wing factionalism.

  • LowlyPeruser

    The usual ranting, again….claiming “most = a significanz part”…. typical. Yawn.

  • Erika Siegfried-Tompson

    Excellent summary, thank you – except for “in somewhat embarrassing homage to the anachronisms of the United Kingdom “. The United Kingdom, as its name says, is a Kingdom with a Queen. There is no anachronism there, the beautiful and professionally organised ceremonies and pageantry is part of the UK’s centuries old traditions and its very real Royal presence. It helps to express the continuity, that is reassuring and which has been proven to serve the country extremely well.

    Hungary is not a monarchy, since 1918 it has had no sovereign (even up to then it was just part of an empire and did not have its own king). The revival of the ‘royal’ fuss is with operetta soldiers and uniforms and ceremonies and it is just a disgusting part of the general looking back, turning back to the past (which incidentally is shameful!), turning away from democracy, freedom, Western culture, openness, progress, enlightenment, modernity and fleeing into a fantasy past.

    • LowlyPeruser

      British traditions (with mass-murders, centuries’ old occupations in Ireland and elsewhere, colonization, throughout the world, enslavement and exploitation, etc) – Good

      Hungarian traditions with accepting nationalities, religious minorities even since the reign of Saint Stephen in the 11th century – Bad.

      Your world is enviably simple. Like that of a dot.

  • Chris

    It won’t surprise me (having lived 6 years in Budapest) if Hungary emerges as one of the first new-found fascist countries.There is a far greater acceptance of fascism in Central Europe.

    • LowlyPeruser

      Wow, that’s new – I have lived over 40 years here, and can’t see a single fascist. Maybe I should have visited those countries that were so willingly fighting terrorism in their urge to spread democracy, or act as their poodles…. in search of weapons-of-mass-disappearance in Iraq or elsewhere.

      • Erika Siegfried-Tompson

        40 years here and can’t see a single fascist! well, you do need some new glasses LowlyPeruser! How often do we have to organise antifascist counter demo – just recently 9 February, neo-Nazis complete with flags and uniforms celebrating the day of ‘blood and honour’ commemorating the Waffen SS and Hungarian Nazis’ attempted and failed break-out of the Buda Castle in 1945. The inauguration and swearing in of the banned guards on Heroes Square every year. How about Gyongyosi’s parliamentary proposal to list Jews ‘as national security risk’? Should I continue?

      • Chris

        “neo-Nazis complete with flags and uniforms celebrating the day of ‘blood and honour’ commemorating the Waffen SS and Hungarian Nazis’ attempted and failed break-out of the Buda Castle in 1945″…..yes please go on Erika Siegfried-Tompson and blow the whistle and let the world know what REALLY goes on in (modern) Hungary

  • LowlyPeruser

    So what Horthy deserves respect for:

    Re-vitalizing Hungary after the Trianon dictate, establishing sound and stable economy in 10 years – look how little the post-Communist elite have managed to achieve (even without war losses) after 1989;

    Creating 3 out of 4 present Hungarian major Universities, including medical schools -
    look how badly mismanaged the education has ever been since the Communist takeover in 1947, and especially after 1989-90;

    Maintaining national solidarity with the minority Hungarians, and achieve peaceful return of those territories and populations chucked to the little Entente countries. It was not Horthy’s fault that he alone could not stop Hitler or Stalin, caught between the two monsters – even stronger countries failed to do so.

  • Chris

    “Admiral Horthy may be long gone, but just lately he appears to have become all the rage in modern Hungary./When a leading Fidesz organizer and friend of the Prime Minister declares in an opinion column that ‘most gypsies are animals’ it is against this historical context. /Already we can see the beginnings of the 2014 campaign, with posters plastered on buses and placards around the city, blaming the previous government for Hungary’s problems. It seems much of the funding for this is already coming from state sources. /The intention was to drive the opposition off air./Such mystical references are common currency across the Hungarian right-wing, whether supporters of ‘center-right’ Fidesz or ‘far-right’ Jobbik.”

    for me this sums up the Hungarian attitude nicely…as someone who was made to wait 5 hours one night at a border crossing,was almost weekly hauled over by Police,castigated and thrown out ,refused to give a job to (even though many Hungarians are here in the UK working) finally investigated by Hungarian authorities over a minor issue……..

    and to end (lowly Peruser) you are in my experinece likely to be a Hungarian Government agent,spokesperson or Media…….always on these blogs Hungarians take to them saying things like…’this never ever happened to me’ ‘this never happened before’ etc etc…Its just makes your blood boil…such a xenophobic race of haters in the European Union.Lastly I leave you with this (front pages when I was in Dubai)

    http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/hungarians-launch-inquiry-into-assault-on-uae-chess-officials

    maybe this is imaginary?never happened either?hungarian thugs likely……..we have a saying here ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’.Hungary should be kicked out of the EU…it is not responding or reciprocating as planned…..(to EU integration).I could go on and on…I wont…..
    the American ambassador complained,Barroso complained (lately),the Germans complain…..Malev collapsed…QED,there you have it…….

    The Hungarians (unfortunately) dont seem to be a very compromising people…you either love them or hate them…there is no in-between

    • Erika Siegfried-Tompson

      Hi Chris, dreadful stuff you had to go through here! I am sorry, truly. I knew this country back in the 60s, 70s, I know the UK very well and I love it, having spent most of my adult life there – and I know this place now.

      So many of us ARE telling the world what REALLY goes on in Hungary. The whole free world’s press is writing about it, EU, USA and everybody complaining and trying to put pressure on this government. Some little successes so far – the people here have to deal with it. You know, every country, every people have the government they deserve.

      Modern? After 1989 there was some hope and in some years the country was on the way to modernise or at least to catch up with the 20th century.
      Then, because of history and because of the mistakes of the various governments up to 2009, the people decided to go backwards, to be inward and backward looking, in their desperate search for the solution for all their ills they grabbed for some ‘good old’ ideas and ideals – except that these are bad old ideas and ideals.
      Their dissatisfaction, desperation, cluelessness has then been exploited, used and misused for gaining and keeping power.

      Then this power has been used to complete the hateful split in society: ‘left’ and ‘right’; ‘national’ and on the other ‘side’ anybody and everybody who is not their follower but especially if they are Gypsies (“animals”), Jews (“to be listed”), educated people (to clever for their new world), liberals (the biggest swear word), democrats (rather not), artists (too independent), judges (to retire early so that they are not in the way of the new ‘regime’), police (they tried to keep order in 2006 against the violent trash), firemen (no money for them, let everything burn), students (let them pay through the nose for their education and we don’t need them-see educated people above), disabled (let them die, they are just a nuisance), the poor (they are worth only what they got, which is very little), pensioners (what a b…y burden especially now that the government took away the once privatised portion of their state pension fund), school and university teachers/rectors/governors (no problem, it’s all nationalised now, they will be kept quiet and down), non-Catholic religious people (no problem, most religious communities have been outlawed and get no more support, so they will just wither away), journalists/media guys who will not pull the line (there aren’t many left, but some have been on the street 24/7 since December 2011! – non-stop demo, non-stop harassment) – should I continue? There is more.

      I am not left, I am not right, I don’t care about these labels, I just advocate a balanced society, democracy, freedom, modern 21st century life, tolerance. I have never been involved in politics, don’t want to be involved, just want a relatively civilised life for the people here. The next 18 months will show how many people want this, how they will vote in 2014 and what sort of government they will chose. With that, what sort of life they will chose.

      To understand the country, the people, one has to look at history. It doesn’t really help the situation, just helps to see the ‘logic’. By history I mean 1000 years. There is only 1000 years of it, not much by world standards, but people here are very proud of it. Proud of all the defeats, occupations, having always chosen the wrong side of international conflicts, having always fought against what was in the country’s interest, having always quarrelled with everybody else and among themselves …. they still do. It is their choice.

      And it is everybody’s choice to live here or not. Many are leaving. Many are considering leaving. Some are still here, working towards what they believe in. We’ll see what happens.

      But I suppose you have had enough and don’t really want to study the why.
      Take care and all the best

      • Chris

        Yes Erika,very nicely and eloquently put.I am not gonna feel sorry for myself (over what ‘bad’ things happen in Hungary).It was an interesting part of my life…quite a lot of rough things happened (that hadn’t happened elsewhere) I got mugged,my car was stolen.Even so belive it or not actually I still like Hungarians and Budapest.As for what you have written above……”because of history and because of the mistakes of the various governments up to 2009, the people decided to go backwards, to be inward and backward looking, in their desperate search for the solution for all their ills they grabbed for some ‘good old’ ideas and ideals”…… ” By history I mean 1000 years. There is only 1000 years of it, not much by world standards, but people here are very proud of it. Proud of all the defeats, occupations, having always chosen the wrong side of international conflicts, having always fought against what was in the country’s interest, having always quarrelled with everybody else and among themselves …. they still do. It is their choice.”
        This is ^ very good!
        I was in Hungary to do ‘business’ and to try to help build up a new state.Now I have left (for the moment)……just one small thing I would ,please,like to add.Trianon.
        All roads seem to lead back to Trianon.Believe it or not,having looked at it hard,I/we am/are on their side…I think there IS a case……they will have to mediate Transylvania,Slovakia,maybe part of Serbia,Burgenland,extreme west part of Ukriane back to Hungary.It will be very difficult (like with Bosnia)…possibly they should carry out a census in these disputed lands.

        Without this Hungarians will just not shut up and get on with it……it was unjust,and has to be corrected at the right time.I just hope they know all this in Brussels.

        All this shows to us (unfortunately) how harsh the situations and sentiments have become
        “Gypsies (“animals”), Jews (“to be listed”), educated people (to clever for their new world), liberals (the biggest swear word), democrats (rather not), artists (too independent), judges (to retire early so that they are not in the way of the new ‘regime’), police (they tried to keep order in 2006 against the violent trash), firemen (no money for them, let everything burn), students (let them pay through the nose for their education and we don’t need them-see educated people above), disabled (let them die, they are just a nuisance), the poor (they are worth only what they got, which is very little), pensioners (what a b…y burden especially now that the government took away the once privatised portion of their state pension fund), school and university teachers/rectors/governors (no problem, it’s all nationalised now, they will be kept quiet and down), non-Catholic religious people (no problem, most religious communities have been outlawed and get no more support, so they will just wither away), journalists/media guys who will not pull the line (there aren’t many left, but some have been on the street 24/7 since December 2011! – non-stop demo, non-stop harassment)”

        Thanks for your kind thoughts Erika,good luck to you too, and goodbye!