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Hungary on the frontier

Updated: Apr 7, 2019

“You are on the frontier here” observed the President of the Central European University when I caught up with him in Budapest last week.  It’s just not clear what kind of frontier it is.  After serving as a diplomat there in those heady days 25 years ago when everything was dramatically changing in Central Europe, I revisited Hungary recently and I heard a surprisingly wide swing of opinions on the state of democracy and much more.  Given how important countries at the crossroads of Europe can be to global security and of course ideas about the left, the right and the nation state itself, the rambunctious cacophony that passes for politics in Hungary deserves more of a look.

Budapest is an achingly beautiful city, with exquisite architecture and a creative buzz of cutting edge fashion, music and art.  Its people are proud, opinionated and full of life.  But Hungary polarizes.  People either love it or, well, demonize it.   At the moment, if you believe a fraction of the hyperbole, Hungary is where a battle is being fought for (and against) liberal democracy.

This little country in the heart of Europe has historically been invaded, carved up, revolutions suppressed and minorities made victims of the most horrific of war crimes.  For most of its history, Hungary never really had much of a chance to develop a stable political culture like its western neighbours.  In those brief historic periods without authoritarian leadership, Hungary’s democracy was usually characterized by one-party dominance.  Yet it’s where fully democratic, multi-party elections were first held in the old Eastern Bloc, 25 years ago, and its decision to allow East Germans to cross its border with Austria led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.  So how’s democracy working out?

Well in Hungary it could be that democracy has been mistaken for populism.  The two can co-exist, of course, but only when there is a strong civil society and healthy opposition as a counterpoint.  In Hungary, populism has emerged in the absence of either.

“Immigration must be stopped”, demanded Hungary’s Prime Minister, on his return from Paris following the recent terrorist outrage.  Hungary’s PM, Viktor Orbán, can shock at one fell swoop with outrageous statements such as this one making a link between immigration and terrorism, more expected from an extremist fringe group than a national leader.

But while Orbán makes rash populist statements, he is also carving out a new kind of politics that we should better understand.  At the same time as exploiting the ethnic tensions never far from the surface in this part of the world, Orbán also picks and chooses from both right and left solutions to Hungary’s economic and strategic dilemmas.  He urges an end to austerity economics that has devastated livelihoods for millions across Europe and he advocates a balanced approach to developing trade and investment between East and West.  There is method beneath the bluster.

In the absence of a strong set of political parties, Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz has been staking out ground wherever there is likely to be popular support across the nation.  They are not always successful.  Indeed, they have suffered a recent significant dip in the polls, but there is little competition.  Why has Orbán no effective opposition?  Why has Hungary’s left collapsed and its liberal centre-right imploded?

One thing is for sure, there is no shortage of Hungarians with strident views about politics and they are not afraid to express them.  Some are great admirers of the charismatic and confident Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who I knew a generation ago as a young firebrand protestor against the old regime.  More popular than anyone else on the political scene, Orbán speaks about a unique Hungarian national vision and promises grand populist schemes to find Hungarian solutions for the economy and cultural identity.

Others fear him, believing he has amassed too much power by using his two-thirds majority in the parliament to secure constitutional changes and make key appointments that centralize authority in the hands of a ruling clique.  Many believe businesses can only prosper if they have connections to the government.  His Gen Y spin doctors run the country out of the Prime Minister’s office, with a direct line to the PM’s media oligarch friends and in too much of a hurry to consult the community or even parliamentary colleagues.

There is no doubt that some of the shine has come off in recent times.  The long promised economic recovery doesn’t seem to have reached most Hungarians.  A little too confident and not a little arrogant, Orbán’s Government has also botched the introduction of new taxes and charges, provoking widespread protests. With no tradition of parliamentary deliberation (why bother when you have a two-thirds majority and no upper house?) and certainly no context for community consultation, Hungary’s new democratic governments have governed with the elitism of their non-democratic predecessors.  Perhaps he shouldn’t count on having no effective opposition forever, if the rise in public protests is any indication.  But will effective opposition emerge from public protest?

Given Hungary’s recent history, it would have appeared a safe bet a few years ago to expect a social democratic party to emerge as a balance to Orbán’s conservative nationalism.  After the Soviet invasion that crushed the 1956 revolution, Hungary’s home-grown Socialist Party evolved into a relatively benign authoritarian government.  While political opposition was suppressed, opinions were expressed a little more freely than elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain, travel was accessible for the trusted few who could afford it, a grey economy tolerated and a welfare state developed that provided quality education, healthcare and other public goods.  So there remains a constituency of nostalgia for those years, at least amongst those who were the beneficiaries.

Indeed, whereas the economic strategy of the communists was in tatters by the 1980s, there was no revolution in Hungary.  The transition to democracy was one taken by the ruling elite, nudged by newly vocal opponents such as Orbán, and with a nod and a wink from Moscow in the reforming Gorbachev period.  There was no need for a popular uprising, such as happened in neighboring Czechoslovakia, Romania and Poland.

Because there was no revolution, there was no process of “truth and reconciliation”, after the system changed and no committed project to reconstitute Hungary’s civil society.  With many leaders across all sectors having actively participated in the party state, it was thought that it was better to let bygones be bygones.

But that meant there was no purge within the Socialist Party, despite the absolute victory of its reformist wing over the conservative hard-liners who had resisted change. And there, arguably, the trouble began, because old habits of corruption and abuse of power were not dealt with.  Subsequently, when the Socialists returned to government by the popular vote in the 1990s and again in the early 2000s, their behaviour left much to be desired.  With corruption scandals and, worse, when their leaders admitted to lying to the people about their economic management, popular support for the left in Hungary collapsed.

And not just for the left, but for what we might describe as a liberal centre-right.  Never very strong in Hungarian society, but well represented amongst the Europhile, intellectual elite of Budapest, liberals played a disproportionate role in policy-making in the newly-emerging democratic Hungary.  Then, in coalition with the Socialists, the liberals embraced a Western model of development for Hungary but were widely slammed for the failure of their dramatic economic reforms to liberalize the economy.  Whether those reforms were so bad is a matter for history (they were arguably starting to work), but the liberals did not sell the changes to the community and paved the way for a more populist alternative.

And so Fidesz, the Young Democrats led by Orbán, a vibrant oppositional force in 1990, full of ideas and enthusiasm and criticism, are now the status quo.   They have taken the centre right ground as a conservative, Christian Democratic party and have taken hold of the national narrative as well.  This is where it really gets interesting.

Hungarians have a healthy – some would say too healthy – national identity.  While proud of their European heritage, being pro-Europe only goes so far.  If Hungarian identity and interests are involved, the nation will always come first.

Despite empires coming and going, the Hungarian nation has existed for a thousand years in the minds of the Magyars.  So Hungary after World War Two was an uneasy client of the Soviet bloc.  A revolution was brutally put down in 1956.  During the Soviet period, Hungarian nationalism was frowned upon and suppressed.  Not surprisingly, once there was greater capacity for political expression, the genie came out of the bottle.  Indeed, the very issue that mobilized Hungarians in protest in the late 1980s, including the young Orbán, was sympathy for the conditions of Magyars in neighboring countries, once lands ruled by a Hungary that lost two thirds of its territory and one third of its Magyar population in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

Now it is all too easy for strident nationalists to feel hemmed in by the perceived monolithic nature of the European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004.  An EU that the left and the liberals embraced as the solution, but about which not only Hungarians have mixed feelings.  So Orbán has become a symbol of national defiance.

First, Orbán promises an alternative to the neo-liberal austerity policies that have gripped and demoralized Europe in recent years.  He advocates home-grown Hungarian solutions to turn around budget problems while also supporting investment, consumption and growth.  His policies unapologetically target a growing middle class, including lower taxes, labour market deregulation and intervention to prevent massive losses from foreign exchange loans taken out by thousands of Hungarians before the Great Recession.

Not everyone is convinced Orbán’s third way has all the answers, and many suspect corruption will stifle real opportunity for all but the friends of the ruling group.  But the opposition currently lacks any credible alternative.  Hungary is forecast to be amongst the fastest growing economies in Europe this year, after years of underperforming.  It retains its own currency, the forint, and has resisted joining the Euro.

Second, the Prime Minister unapologetically advocates for the identity and rights of ethnic Hungarians wherever they reside (including as minorities in neighboring countries).  Orbán controversially granted the right of all Magyars outside the borders to a Hungarian passport.  Those who say Hungarians should speak more softly about their identity seriously underestimate the resilience and the pride of the Magyars.  It’s like telling Americans not to stand up for Americans around the world.  Fidesz talks of a “Europe of the regions”, staking its interest in preserving Magyar cultural identity in regions outside Hungary’s national borders.  They are re-defining the nation as based not on borders but ethnic identity, a course that certainly risks excluding those outside the dominant group.

Third, Orbán stands in defiance of those who say Europe must always come first in foreign policy, trade and investment.  Orbán stands against a dependence on the EU alone.  His Hungary is just as keen to trade with and attract investment from China and Russia as with its Western neighbours.  It has a hedging strategy, keeping doors open to the East while remaining an active member of the EU and NATO.  Nationalist Hungarians see no contradiction, as Australians who trade with China and maintain a loyal alliance with the US might agree.  But vocal Europhile liberals are in revolt and are accused by Fidesz sympathizers of planting stories in the world’s media about a creeping authoritarianism in Hungary.  Orbán is even described as a little Putin.  Such is the rancor of Hungary’s domestic politics.

Orbán didn’t help things with a speech in which he appeared to denounce liberal democracy.  My read of the speech is that he was partly taken out of context (“liberal” having different connotations in Hungary including “neo-liberal”), but such is politics.  Many believe Hungary now has a reputation crisis.

Much of Hungary’s reputation problem, though, is because of another major player on the scene, Jobbik.  This extremist party on the far right, which plays to anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiment that sadly has always had a significant constituency in Hungary, has become the largest opposition force, with 14 per cent support.   Of course Hungary is not alone in seeing the rise of extremism in these troubling times.  The real dilemma is whether mainstream parties (as Fidesz plainly is) can govern in such a way that they reduce extremism or whether they give it oxygen.

As much as things have changed in Hungary over 25 years, some things remain the same.   Hungarians are deeply cynical, with a stubborn streak of pessimism, and as passionately full of opinions as they are disengaged from finding common ground solutions.  Some look for strong leadership, some long for some other recipe that hasn’t quite been found.  But one thing is sure, Hungary will inspire some, frustrate others and, yes, polarize, for a long time yet.

Finally, we should not forget that Hungary has a balancing mechanism, at least in theory.  As a parliamentary republic, Hungary has a largely ceremonial president, but this is a check and balance role that should not be underestimated if the Prime Minister should get ideas above his station.  It’s all very well to play politics as Prime Minister, but the President must tend to the whole nation, including those currently left out.  And just like his predecessors, János Áder does speak up, despite coming from the same party.  After Orbán’s inflammatory comments on his return from Paris against immigration (“we would like Hungary to stay as it is”), President Áder made this statesman-like comment:

“…during Hungary’s thousand-year history, it was proven several times that the members of national minorities are respectable Hungarian patriots who contribute to our common values, culture, language and the strength of our nation united in its diversity.”

It is too simplistic to describe Orbán’s Hungary as a lurch to the right.  Here, left and right have no meaning in the post-Cold War era.  There is a strident democratic debate going on but the failure so far to develop a balanced party system means the debate is shrill and anxious, not surprising in a place that has suffered crises in the past and remains suspicious of the present.  Hungary is a nation working out where its future and its interests lie.

This is undeniably Orbán’s time.  He will craft a narrative that appeals to many, but in his strength he will inevitably create a backlash and it will be fascinating to see what kind of alternative politics develops that can challenge him.  It will be a test for the left and liberal opposition if they are able to inspire the nation with a view of itself that celebrates and secures the land of the Magyars while not polarizing it forever.  Budapest will draw me back again and again and I will watch with great interest as the next chapter unfolds.

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