Delivering Hungary’s late transformation bill, else Orban as a symptom

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n the second of January, a hundred thousand people gathered in front of the Budapest opera house on the prestigious Andrassy Boulevard to demonstrate against a new constitution due to come into force in Hungary. This choice of location was not a coincidence – inside the building, the ruling Fidesz party were celebrating their latest victory over the opposition (and, as a result, over Hungarian society as a whole). The event appeared to mirror Hungary’s political situation in miniature. Ruling independently, the Fidesz party (which has a two-thirds majority in parliament), are capturing more and more ground on the way to absolute power. The opposition, helpless in parliament, can only shout in the streets. Waiting in the wings is the extreme right-wing Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, becoming a force to be reckoned with as they gain more and more political influence.

Two different perspectives offer the clearest explanation of the current situation in Hungary.

First, the anticommunist perspective relates to the discrediting of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) in 2006, after the then leader and prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitted, with disarming honesty, that his party had lied to the voters in order to win the election. The wrath of the electorate, furious about the corrupt post-communists (the MSZP), then brought Fidesz to power. This reaction is hardly surprising and the responsibility for the current situation is blamed on the post-communists.

The second perspective, of the “liberal” variety, concentrates on immature post-communist society which wanted prosperity after the period of transformation without agreeing to “necessary reforms”. All sides lacked the courage to introduce the necessary cuts. When, forced by a drastic budgetary situation, the prime minister Gyurcsany agreed to make the cuts, numerous money-minded citizens voted against him in protest, only having themselves to blame as a consequence.

The dilemmas of “simultaneity” and the end of “goulash post-communism”

The problem with these two perspectives centres on the fact that even when combined they only tell part of the story, while taken in isolation each further obscures the actual situation.

To understand the current scenario, one has to look at it from the perspective of the changes over the last 22 years, their beginnings rooted in the “dilemma of simultaneity” with which the democratic reformers in Hungary were confronted. Seeing the results of the sudden liberalization of the national economies in the Latin America in the 1980s, many of the theoreticians of democracy and democratisation were afraid that political transformation in Eastern Europe would also end with outbursts of violence.

In 1991, the German sociologist Claus Offe wrote that although, generally speaking, democracy needs capitalism (on the one hand, capitalism facilitated the internal diversity in societies necessary for the functioning of democracy and, on the other, it brought prosperity, allowing citizens to engage in politics), in the “old democracies” capitalism and democracy were not introduced simultaneously. Simultaneous introduction of capitalism and democracy was, according to Offe, in principle doomed to fail, because citizens would not accept a market economy.

The social anger in Hungary was pacified in a way that, according to Offe, was least likely – by selective, though extensive, welfare reforms. Income redistribution in Hungary is the highest in the The Visegrád Group and the level of social inequality is the lowest. The Hungarian economy was not capable of keeping such high level of social expenditure, but the prospect of joining the European Union made Hungary appealing in the eyes of foreign investors and potential loan providers. Additionally, Hungarian governments from the right and the left introduced mechanisms which facilitated private debt. It seemed that Hungary had escaped paying for the cost of transformation. However, in 2006 it turned out that the bill, though late, would be delivered after all.

“Ballot box revolution”

Following the parliamentary election 2006, the second government of Ferenc Gyurcsany announced a savings package which completely contradicted the pre-election promises of the MSZP. The cuts included welfare benefits, while electricity and gas prices would also be increased. The well-known tape scandal – revealing the recording in which Gyurcsany admitted lying to citizens in order to win the election – did bring a lot of people out into the streets, but didn’t significantly affect the popularity of the MSZP. Even corruption scandals starring the most senior socialist party politicians didn’t affect the party’s rating too much.

The post-communists lost support mostly due to the budget cuts introduced in 2006 and the later cuts from 2008, when in exchange for financial help, Hungary had to satisfy the painful criteria of the IMF and the European Commission. Only in this context did the tape scandal and the corruption affairs cause the socialists to lose their voters’ trust, which in the long run made it impossible to make up for their losses. What, just after the election in 2006, could have been called “the necessary cuts” made for the sake of the future prosperity, became a payment for the lies of corrupt politicians.

In 2010, the opposition party Fidesz won the election, gaining 53 percent of the vote. The new prime minister, Victor Orban, called the victory a “ballot box revolution”. It gave him an unprecedented majority with two thirds of the seats in the Hungarian parliament.

Is there method in this madness?

When one looks at the Orban government’s actions, at first glance it is difficult to find any sense or order. While everything it does makes public reference to its democratic mandate, at the same time it openly ignores the demonstrations of tens of thousands in the streets of Budapest. The same politician who criticized the socialists for their painful budget cuts has since introduced (among others) a flat rate of tax and one of the most oppressive workfare programs (the unemployment benefit is awarded for a month and then the beneficiary has to take any job that is offered, even if it is different from his/her qualifications and doing it means going to the other end of the country). Orban stresses the importance of national sovereignty all the time to such an extent that the International Money Fund broke the negotiations about the health package for Hungary; at the same time privatisation is progressing full steam ahead, with Hungarian companies ending up in the hands of the Chinese. The independent institutions which are supposed to guard the democratic order – the constitutional tribunal, the ombudsman, the prosecution office and the central bank – are losing their independence. There are also new institutions being created ad hoc, such as the Budgeting Council, which will have a right to veto the budget bill.

All these seemingly chaotic acts make more sense when seen in the context of the new constitution which has now come into force. From the preamble, “the National Creed”, we can find out what makes, or is supposed to make, the Hungarians proud (the Christian heritage of the country and their contribution to European culture), what their most important values should be (loyalty towards the nation, the Catholic faith and the family) and what the source of a person’s individual worth is (“work and intellectual achievements”).

At the same time, Hungary has broken the bonds with their communist heritage (occupation started in 1944 when Hungary was taken by the Nazis and finished in 1990) and is a continuation of the political and constitutional tradition from before the World War II. The recent bill, recognising the MSZP party as the heir of the communist party (MSZMP), and thereby deeming them as a criminal organization, is a part of the politics of memory. It is difficult to predict what the exact consequences will be, but two things are certain. In a symbolic sense, it is an attempt to delegitimise the post-communist left and at the same time all the actions of the governments that the MSZP was part of. More pragmatically, it may simply be the beginnings of the end for Hungary’s biggest opposition party.

Orban’s actions and the new constitution combine to create a whole, seemingly paradoxical, entity, an organic political community built on strong values and which, in the constitutional sense, has little in common with liberal democracy (lack of clear division of power, excess of executive power, etc.). Meanwhile, the economic basis for this community leans towards classical liberalism (low taxes, work ethics, workfare – Orban openly speaks about creating a “national middle class”). There is no contradiction in these actions, as long as we accept that political liberalism does not necessarily correlate with economic liberalism.

The future of the Hungarian democracy

Although the opposition’s demonstrations attract tens of thousands of participants, the situation in Hungary is not easy for at least a couple of reasons (and I am not here referring to economic factors, although it is not encouraging that the state only has enough money to function until February of this year).

Firstly, although Orban’s chaotic actions weaken his popularity, it is not the opposition who profit from this, but Orban’s rivals inside the Fidesz party, mainly the mayor of Budapest.

On the other side of political spectrum one cannot see an alternative for Fidesh party – the MSZP party split during the previous term and, despite being the key force in opposition, they lack ideas on how to regain public support. If the thesis on “the Warsaw express” proves to be true in this case, the MSZP party together with the Politics Can Be Different party (LMP) will share the same sorry fate of the Polish Democratic Left Alliance Party (SLD) and the Social Democracy of Poland Party (SDPL). Alternatively, if recognition of the MSZP as a criminal organization finishes with the actual destruction of the biggest opposition party, the only alternative to Fidesz will turn out to be the Jobbik movement, who for the time being have been monopolizing the language of economic anti-liberalism.

Thirdly, the structure of the support for political parties doesn’t give cause for optimism. The supporters of the central-left opposition are, to a great extent, older people. The Jobbik movement’s voters are mainly younger people, to whom the party’s nationalist demonstrations are the first and the most politically meaningful development. Although, since the 2010 election, Fidesz are in principle a catch-all party, their voters actually tend to belong to the middle and upper middle classes. In the 20th century, no right-wing dictatorship got to power without the support of these social groups.

This is the basic difference between Hungary and Poland. In Poland, the Law and Justice party (PiS) never gained the support of the higher social strata – it was a party of the “mohair berets” (a reference to the signature headgear worn by its elderly, conservative Catholic supporters) and, in a wider sense, the losers of the transformation period. Which is why comparison between PiS and Fidesz are pointless, as are threats of the phantom of the second Budapest striking Warszawa. Besides, many Fidesz activists refuse to follow the example of Jarosław Kaczynski’s party (PiS), preferring instead to follow the example of the competing Civic Platform (PO).

Orban’s rule is still fundamentally different from a dictatorship (allowing demonstrations attended by a hundred thousand protestors is best proof of that). Also, Hungary is not the first European Union country starting to employ anti-liberal policies (see Sarkozy’s expulsion of Roma Travellers from France or growing Islamophobia in Holland). However, it is the first country in the EU to introduce anti-liberal measures on a constitutional scale. Even if the Fidesz party finally loses power, the changes introduced by Orban may be practically irreversible.

The only chance at present is non-parliamentary opposition, part of who are planning to establish a new political party. The new formation will have to convert the energy of a hundred thousand people gathering in the streets into success in the election in 2014, which won’t be easy.

First of all, they will need access to media channels which, since the recent introduction of new broadcasting laws, are under strict control by the ruling party. Secondly, the new electoral system gives an advantage to the biggest party – Fidesz. In this context, the list of accusations made by Fidesz against MSZP as the heir of MSZMP (the former communist party), beginning with the charge of trying to establish a single-party dictatorship, now seems like an ironic twist of fate.

Translated by Katarzyna Abramowicz


Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.