Can Europe Make It?

Hungary: ruling in the guise of democracy

After 1989, within two decades, the hitherto ‘dormant’ authoritarian, leader-worshipping, order-obsessed right-wing mentality has gradually found its way to the surface. Its institutional shape is precisely impossible to define.

Rudolf Ungváry
8 November 2014

Marking twenty five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the latest article in our partnership with Eutopia magazine. Eutopia sets out to create a place for European citizens to analyze the issues most relevant to their future by openly debating them with authoritative voices in each field.


Viktor Orbán, March 2014.

Viktor Orbán, March 2014. European People’s Party/Flickr. Some rights reservedAdmitted earlier in 2004 to membership of the European Union, Hungary after 2010 became an autocracy whose real nature is impossible to register. No political immunity has developed to cope with this and no language to describe it. Descriptions like populist, illiberal, top-heavy, ruler-democratic, postmodern corporative, electoral authoritarian, can only serve to indicate those partial, legally uncodified features that appear on the surface of the regime.

This regime has grown in the absence of any external pressure, primarily out of the internal cultural and political traditions of Hungarian society. It has appeared on the scene as a response to two great challenges: on the one hand, the country in 1989, for the first time after a long history of oppression became once again free and independent, and on the other hand, the liberal democracy established after liberation has lost its credibility in the eyes of the masses.

The failure of Hungary’s political class is closely allied to the weakness of Hungary’s middle class and to the underdeveloped nature of its society as a whole. This society has proved unable to face and to cope with its far-right tradition, forced under the surface by the soviet-communist party state taking shape in 1947.

Consequently, in the absence of a free public discourse, this tradition also proved incapable of developing a viable democratic elite. The process was the exact opposite of what had come to pass in the western part of post-war Germany, where the allies simply imposed democracy on the country.

In this situation, all the surrounding nations were in a better position than Hungary. As a defeated power, Hungary lost a third of its territory to its neighbours, who had ended both wars fighting on the side of the victors. In their camp the level of historical frustration was significantly lower. Not being allies of the Third Reich, the Polish and Czech political elites had the chance and also the capacity to form a government-in-exile in London.

The rule that was established in 2010 by free elections led to short-term, irreversible results. It would have required some great good fortune to avoid these consequences, namely the surfacing of the worst traditions of Hungarian society.

The state system that came into existence reminds one more and more of the darkest days of Hungarian history. We are not talking about the return of the interwar Horthy regime; the current situation is a lot worse than that. At the end of a creeping, stealthy process we have ended up with an altered version of that which could not take shape at the end of the interwar period. Leading up to the beginning of WWII and then, during the war, up to the German occupation, the period’s conservative elite had just enough strength to prevent the openly anti-democratic, anti-liberal Hungarian far-right from seizing power. Then, in 1944, at the end of the German occupation, Szálasi-led extreme right Arrow Cross rule could be set up only with German backing, and then only for a few months.

After 1989, within two decades, the hitherto ‘dormant’ authoritarian, leader-worshipping, order-obsessed right-wing mentality has gradually found its way to the surface. At the same time, the present Hungarian rule, formed after 2010, has acquired an institutional shape, the decisive feature of which is precisely that which makes it impossible to define the true essence of this rule.

Viktor Orbán enters the stage

There is a characteristically creeping and stealthy dynamic to the way in which Viktor Orbán came into power. From the very beginning, going back to the days before the change of regime, there existed a tightly knit, college-related old boy group, "the family" or "closed men’s community" as some social researchers call it. This hard core played the role of a "hatching mechanism". During the change of regime, between 1988 and 1994 the driving energy seemed to derive from the sheer desire to get rich; to rise from nothing, from the bottom to the top. The members of this group were not tied to any ideology. Since in those days liberalism seemed the strongest political trend, the Orbán-led Fidesz party followed it automatically. In this political field however Fidesz, because of the young age and political inexperience of its leaders, had to play a subordinate role.

The Alliance of Free Democrats, another liberal party, was better known and more popular since its representatives were on record as fierce and open critics and opponents of the party state. This was a well-known fact. When, in 1994, the centre-right conservative government was ousted, the political space to the right of the centre remained empty. Orbán and his cronies gradually discovered that the road to power lay through occupying this space. They started out on this road and instinctively found the requisite ideology as they went.

Drawing upon antidemocracy roots

This ideology derived partly from the antidemocratic tradition of the Hungarian historical right. Since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Customs Union, there has been an increasing expectation that the state and the ruling power should solve every problem, and maintain the balance in the public sphere.

During the interwar Horthy regime, even before Mussolini, this led to the cult of "our eastern provenance" and, along with this special Hungarian obsession, to the worship of authority and power. Hence the ever-present sense of wounded national pride. Add to this the long tradition of hostility to competition and capitalism; a tradition generated by the country’s economic isolation. And on top of all this, a sizeable portion of the population keeps nurturing anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy sentiments.

However, the interwar Horthy regime had also displayed numerous liberal features inherited from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The insufficient democracy of those days had produced two consequences. First, there was no chance for the western tradition of democratic political attitudes to take root. Second, the extreme right of the system had inevitably gained great strength. The almost half a century long post-war party state rule, along with the continued democratic deficit simply "deep-froze" this situation, while further increasing the trust that the apolitical masses of the population placed in the almighty state.

The Orbán-led political group also recognized that after the 1945 defeat of fascism and national socialism, the extreme right could not show its face openly, and so it had to find clandestine, roundabout ways to destroy democracy. Goebbels had already shown the way in 1928: "We rely on Parliament to take our weapons from the armoury of democracy itself."

The leftist and liberal contribution

The success of this power-grabbing dynamic was due largely to the weakness of Hungarian democracy described above. After 1989 almost all the faults of liberal democracy came to the fore, and sooner or later they undermined the leftist and liberal governments. These governments themselves were also responsible for such a turn of events, as they failed to affect a radical break with the party state past.

The leftist Hungarian Socialist Party did not come to grips with the corruption charges levelled against various members of the party machinery inherited from the Kádár era. The leftist liberals on the other hand were recklessly hasty in introducing their neoconservative economic policy. And all of them were hopelessly caught up in a game of escalating political promises in their desperate attempt to win over the mass of voters, who expected everything from the state.

 [R1] There was a widely held, but false belief among the population that with liberation, with joining the western world, and with the restoration of productive private property, will also come a significant increase in their standard of living. In reality, it was poverty that was on the increase.

System of National Cooperation

But no matter how faulty the daily politicking of the left and the liberals was, that was not the decisive factor in determining the political fate of the state. In neighbouring former party states the consequences were essentially similar, yet the political-economic development of these states took a different turn. To make things worse in Hungary, here the majority of those living in actual poverty are just as supportive of the present government as those who benefit from its unfair politics.

The success of the System of National Cooperation hinges upon the success with which the government  [R2] manages to satisfy the needs of the majority of voters hungering for authoritarian rule, order, and safety. By the time the governing elite came into power for the second time in 2010 it had learned from the mistakes committed during its first four years in office, between 1998 and 2002. This time around the new government wasted no time in remodelling the electoral system so that even in the absence of an absolute majority they could secure a two-thirds majority in parliament. Having gained this majority they were then able to achieve that which in the days of the Third Reich used to be called Gleichschaltung. The difference is that now the elimination of the checks and balances, the government takeover of the media, the rewriting of the constitution, and the subordination of the legislative process to the daily interest of the government is not justified by an open formulation of an ideology.

Starting with words

In spite of this, in Hungary too everything "started with words". The regime showed its true face very early on, even before it came to power. The initial clues were mere words. Those who heed only facts and practical matters paid no attention to these words.

From the very beginning, the leader of the Fidesz-system has been using telling metaphorical political phrases in his speeches. He has been giving voice to nationalist, anti-western sentiments and ideas, proclaiming the Asiatic roots of power, blood and the Hungarian people, envisioning the realization of "God’s Country" as the final goal of the System of National Cooperation. Obviously, "God’s Country" can only be realized in the souls of the people. His aim is to justify an essentially pagan political goal by relying on Christian spirituality: his actual final goal is the possession of absolute political power.

His oratory might seem the expression of an unhinged intellect, but in fact it is just a verbal manifestation of a toxic leader manipulating the emotions of a politically illiterate constituency. In addressing them he gives a poignant indication of the coming rebirth of the past in a new shape and of the increasingly centralised, unified order based on this long-awaited rebirth.

In 1997, still in opposition, Orbán in one of his inspired speeches referred to the government to be deposed as "alien-like". This was a common anti-Semitic descriptive in Hungary in the interwar years. Nowadays everyone understands it as a reference to Jews. In 2002, having lost the election after his first term in office, in another inspired speech he declared that "the homeland cannot be in opposition". Then, in 2009, immediately before regaining power he made it quite clear that when in office again, he would build a political power structure that would represent national issues, "not in cease-less debates, but in their own natural way". He confirmed all this recently when in the summer he committed himself to the idea of illiberal democracy. After his party emerged victorious in the local elections he once again declared: "One day perhaps the opposition will understand: the homeland cannot be in opposition".

Deep structure of the homeland

Based on all this, Orbán’s system cannot be called simply right-wing or conservative. Rightist and leftist, conservative and liberal politics are all inseparable from a fundamental democratic commitment. In Orbán’s case, we are talking about an extreme form of politics which cannot fit into any of the above four categories, and this makes it similar to the national-socialist extreme right and the Bolshevist extreme left.

The system is characterized by the following deep-structural features that are not always expressed in the form of laws appearing on the surface:

– the leader principle (everything depends on the leader),

– the fidelity principle (in an interview, one of this government’s ministers happened to say: "I prefer to depend on the will of one person rather than on an institution"),

– an emphasis on the power principle, relying on sheer power in realising political will,

– the elimination of checks and balances (public institutions staffed by individuals loyal to the party),

– organized chaos (a certain degree of freedom of decision-making among local chieftains and lower-level cadres),

– discrimination in the form of "not our people" (that is, constantly changing target groups at the expense of which wealth can be redistributed in reward to clients),

– a boundless and reckless politics of wounded national pride, vehement anti-liberalism.

There are three surface-level features to secure the democratic mimicry:

– the deep-level features are not codified by laws, therefore there is no visible sign of oppression: a carefully curtailed opposition media is left in place, the appearance of democracy is maintained,

– the operators of this system are convinced that they themselves are good democrats (although not liberals),

– they also make an effort to obtain transcendental legitimacy by seeking the backing of the historical, mainly Catholic, churches.

Whatever the political formation so brought to life might be, so far it has no commonly accepted name, for it has not returned in one of its original shapes. Under the democratic veneer its true nature remains hidden from view.

Broad daylight

It is here in all its glory, but operating within the framework of a seeming rule of law it cannot be unmasked on its official state surface-level. Relying on democratic methods and a seeming rule of law as some sort of magic hat, it transforms itself into the shape it wishes to present to the world. It has adapted itself to a democracy currently prevailing in our Euro-Atlantic culture; by assuming a democratic camouflage it has managed to blend into the political environment of this culture. This explains why it can realise itself in broad daylight without the risk of being identified by assigning to it a fitting and historically discredited name.

The present Hungarian political system contains its fascistic features hidden in the depth of its structure, which prevents the contemporary observer from perceiving the true nature of the system. Fascism and National Socialism are historically derived categories. They cannot be employed to describe current political phenomena. So, the present Hungarian system cannot be termed fascist either. The misleading mimicry is produced by showcasing those democratic features under the cover of which the system wishes to appear to the public. The Orbán regime is a populist mutation of historic extreme-right systems.

In reality, the present Hungarian system is the product of an extreme-right revolt against democracy but instead of playing itself out in the customary "revolutionary uprising" mode, it blends into the political background of the European Union, while quietly ticking away like some kind of political time bomb. Its dissimulation makes its inner political content invisible. As long as we fail to assign a fitting name to this system of political camouflage, we shall also fail to discover the right and effective ways of resisting it. To face the challenge presented by this dominating system, democrats must find a suitable language, and they also have to find out the reason why the liberal political system, the product of the 1989–90 liberation, had to come to grief in Hungary and not somewhere else.

A mighty task

In the absence of a suitable language it is impossible to talk about and successfully fight against this revolt against democracy, a revolt that has appeared in Hungary in a metamorphosed shape. This language is difficult to find because the operators of the system are not openly connected to their own ideological roots. But the main difficulty is caused by the fact that the deep-level features of the Orbán regime cannot be detected under the democratic veneer.

It is the Euro-Atlantic democratic right and the conservatives who are now facing the biggest task. Primarily, they are the ones who have to understand that this may very well be skin off their noses as well. For, there is a felt need for the import of the Orbán system also in their respective countries. And that might be the end of them too, not just of the democratic left and the liberals.

This article was first published in Eutopia magazine on November 8, 2014.

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