The general election that has now begun in Hungary has received little attention in the media outside the country. Yet it is highly significant not merely for the Hungarians but for the future of Central Europe. For the first time since the fall of communism, a centre-right government is battling to retain power against a socialist opposition, with no landslide defeat in sight. The first results suggest that the socialists might win; but not by so much that the governing coalition will be destroyed or discredited.
The situation should be contrasted with the hectic swings that we have witnessed in Poland, from post-communist crooks to befuddled ex-dissidents and back again. In Hungary a relatively stable political order has emerged, in which government and opposition are contesting an election on more or less equal terms.
To a great extent this is the achievement of the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, who is, at thirty-seven, the second youngest prime minister in Europe (after Albania's Pandeli Majko). Orbán is also the first centre-right politician to escape from the rigid priorities of privatisation and the market economy and to address instead the problems of national identity and the town-and-country divide problems that many politicians in other countries are shirking, to their people's cost.
The communist legacy
I first met Viktor Orbán in 1987, when he was a student at the Jogusz-Szakkollegium, a law school which the students had effectively confiscated from their Marxist teachers in order to invite speakers from the West and to shape the programme of a post-communist government. Two years later Orbán and a few friends formed Fidesz, the Federation of Young Democrats, as a youth party which was to put its toe through the door of Parliament in the first post-communist elections.
In those days discussions within Fidesz focused on two questions: should the party align itself with the left or the right in Europe? And should it remain a party of youth?
After some hesitation it became clear that Fidesz could not appeal to the mass of Hungarian voters merely as a youth party, cheered though the voters had been by the sight of young faces on the TV screen. It also became clear that the ex-communists now re-formed as the Socialist Party were too powerfully connected to the European left, had their hands on too many of the levers of power, and were too intent on state control of the media and the opinion-forming channels, to make it feasible to oppose them from the left.
Gradually Fidesz formed itself as a centre-right party, with a decidedly Hungarian emphasis on the nation and its culture by way of shaping its pre-political appeal.
The Hungarian political scene, like the political scene in Poland and the Czech Republic, is the legacy of the last years of communism. The ex-communists emerged from 1989 with all the know-how, the connections and the resources but with no legitimacy. The opposition had been deprived of everything except their ideas. At the same time the Hungarian opposition reflected a fundamental divide in Hungarian society, between the urban intelligentsia of Budapest and the nationalist high school culture of the countryside, and this cultural division within the former dissident movements has been decisive in creating the existing Parliamentary alliances.
The Budapest intelligentsia is a long-distance product of the Habsburg imperium: cosmopolitan, with a large Jewish component, and strongly influenced by Marxism. Its most important twentieth-century representative György Lukács led a tainted life as commissar in Béla Kuns first communist government of 1919, and subsequently, as a servant of Moscow in the post-war repression, being the only member of Imre Nagys government not to be murdered after the Soviet invasion of 1956. Although Lukács is repudiated now in Hungary, his pupils and colleagues formed the core of the semi-official culture during the seventies, and their children were among the leading Budapest dissidents thereafter.
This Budapest intelligentsia has always had a high profile in the West: Lukács was one of the leading gurus of May 1968, and his impact on Western thought continued long after Leszek Kolakowski (in Main Currents of Marxism) had exploded his pretensions. His influence can still be discerned in New Yorks New School of Social Thought. The Budapest intelligentsia also dominates the perception of democratic Hungary in the Western media eclipsing that other, more socially rooted, political movement which had grown from the uprising of 1956.
This movement had none of the samizdat glamour of the underground city. It worked through the schools, the churches (both Catholic and Calvinist) and the vestiges of local society to unite Hungarians around a vision of their national past and hopes for their national future. The archetype of this vision is of course known to us from Bartók and Kodály two characters as far removed from the totalitarian mindset of Lukács as it is possible to imagine. But it was not, until Orbán, known to us as a political force.
Viktor Orbáns achievement
Viktor Orbán was, in 1987, a small-town anti-communist, who had come for his education to Budapest, but who rejected the self-conscious oppositionism of the urban intellectuals, hoping instead for a nation-wide coalition of positive forces.
After the collapse of communism, the core of the Budapest opposition formed the Free Democrats. They benefited from a cohort of brilliant leaders the sociologist Bálint Magyar; the former samizdat publisher and now mayor of Budapest, Gábor Demsky; the legal philosopher János Kis; and the mercurial polymath Gaspár Tamás all of whom had played noble roles under the communist régime.
For a variety of reasons, however, the Free Democrats decided that they could gain power only by entering into alliance with the Socialists: proof, to many young people, that they were not, after all, as disgusted with communism as they had once pretended.
Orbán meanwhile chose to ally himself, not without misgivings, with the revived Smallholders Party, a relict of the inter-war period, which his opponents caricatured as benighted, extremist and lost in nostalgia for a vanished way of life.
It is no small tribute to Orbáns political acumen that he has made this unlikely alliance work, and has built Fidesz from a student movement to a natural party of government, with personalities who have a national following, and policies that address the serious question of Hungarys standing in the world.
Opponents tend to dwell on the nationalist element in the Fidesz agenda. There have also been accusations of corruption, though not on the scale to which Hungarians had been habituated under the communists and their socialist successors. The criticisms are amplified by the Hungarian media, which the socialists have engineered into a fiefdom of their own.
The fiercest attacks come, however, not from the Socialists but from the Free Democrats former fighters in the same anti-communist cause, who have lost out through their alliance with the Socialists, and who are therefore all the more determined to vindicate their strategy, as the only one that will lead the country into the post-modern world. The Free Democrats have exploited their media connections to caricature Orbán as a right-wing peasant, out of touch with the new realities, anti-European, völkisch and dangerously attached to the old dream of a homeland that will unite all Hungarians under a common government.
There is in my view nothing of the peasant about Orbán. It is true that his first love is football, which he plays to a professional standard. But he is also a sophisticated thinker, with a sound knowledge of law, who has pursued post-graduate studies in Oxford. He is ambivalent towards the EU, but this hardly makes him into a hard-line nationalist.
And he has had the courage to address the truly difficult, and for Hungarians heart-rending, problem of the Hungarian minorities in neighbouring Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and Serbia. There is no room for these Hungarians in the miniscule remnant of Hungary that emerged from the 1918 Treaty of Versailles (the Treaty of Trianon, as it is known locally). The only possible move is therefore to negotiate favourable terms for the Hungarian minorities with the states that harbour them. By making this a priority, Orbán has secured a large following among the older generation, with which to supplement his natural constituency among the youth.
Whether or not Orbán is returned to power this month, it is clear that he and his government have not been just a passing fad of a disillusioned electorate, but a real force in Hungarian politics. The current election shows that the Hungarians are able to accept the legitimacy of a government for which they did not vote. This achievement which marks a radical break with the post-communist norm is due largely to Viktor Orbán.