On October 23, Hungary commemorated the anniversary of the 1956 revolution, but few Hungarians had cause to celebrate except the ruling Fidesz party, which is eagerly looking forward to next spring’s parliamentary elections.
Fidesz has learned the lessons of its previous spell in power, when in 2002 general disenchantment with its performance lost it the elections. Back in power since 2010, all measures have been taken to avoid a similar defeat. The Fidesz–led government granted voting rights to Hungarian minorities living abroad, changed the election system, redesigned electoral districts, eliminated checks and balances built over the past two decades, reshaped the juridical system and has gained nearly full control over the media and all state institutions.
In addition to a tax system that favours the rich, economic assets from land to productive capacities and infrastructure have been re-distributed to create a new class of loyal, privileged crony capitalists (and large and growing numbers of the poor and very poor). By extending state control over key companies, expropriating the private pension funds and recently, the Savings Cooperatives, by channeling EU money and using the economy’s remaining reserves, the government is able to lavishly finance its own projects and distribute money to its clients through public procurement policies. A recent Transparency International report describes a “state captured by private interest groups”.[i] The government can also finance large-scale publicity campaigns to convince citizens that it acts relentlessly on their behalf, from “defending the country’s independence” to artificial lowering of utility charges.
The economy is at a standstill, with the bulk of investments financed from EU funds. Unemployment is officially close to 10%. Half of those without work are long-term unemployed, and joblessness among youth is nearly 30%. The government’s “solution” to a stagnating labour market has been an expensive and inefficient “public work” system in which job-seekers are employed by (predominantly Fidesz-led) local authorities and compelled to accept whatever work is offered them, often in primitive conditions at less than the official minimum wage.
In September the Statistical Office reported that 3.2 million persons, nearly 33% of the population lives in poverty, including half a million in deep poverty and deprivation.[ii] The drastic reduction of unemployment assistance, welfare benefits and social services, coupled with punitive measures against the poor, homeless and marginalized make their situation desperate. 70% of the country’s approximately 700,000 Gypsies, who under the former system at least had work but have now been brutally expelled from the labour market, lives in abject poverty.[iii]
The only electoral promise Fidesz has fulfilled has been the “restoration of order”, through a myriad of laws, decrees and regulations, a particularly harsh new Penal Code and several new organizations, like well-equipped special anti-terrorist units, fancily dressed Parliamentary Guards to discipline MPs, special bodies to supervise public workers and even a school police force with rights to control and search school-age kids.
Through a complex system of regulations, economic pressure, intimidation, propaganda and hand-outs the government has extended its control over its citizens’ life from the cradle to the grave, from economics through the education system to artistic creation, including the private sphere, with measures that spread from encouraging marriage and child birth to the reform of state funeral services, going as far as authorizing itself to spy on state employees and their families.
Each of these measures has chilling details that reveal the nature of the system. Teachers, whose work conditions have significantly worsened, have to join a government-created ‘National Teachers’ Body’ and are expected to sign an ‘Ethical Code’ created by it; youngsters can risk two years of prison if they share a joint at a school party; the poor are offered a “social burial” - an (initially) free site in a separated section of the cemeteries, with uniform graves fabricated by prisoners - provided they bury their dead themselves.
Protest, dissent and criticism are actively discouraged, neglected or dealt with by one of Fidesz’ basic methods of governing: ‘divide et impera’. The government’s outspoken critics come under virulent, orchestrated attacks. Criticism abroad – including from the EU institutions in Brussels - is dismissed as “unfounded” or ‘fuelled by international capital and business’ or by the internal opposition that “betrays” the fatherland. And if all this were not enough to secure a next mandate, the government has less elegant methods. In a recent municipal election in Baja, Roma families were paid and driven to the ballot box to cast their vote for Fidesz. (Some over-zealous opposition activists forged a video to “prove” the fraud - when they were caught, Fidesz was able to turn the whole affair to its advantage.)
Nevertheless, Fidesz probably wouldn’t need to use its heavy weaponry, since its opposition is pathetically weak and divided. The ‘Együtt 2014’ (Together 2014) electoral platform that evoked high hopes when it was founded a year ago has failed to come out with a convincing alternative vision for the country. But even if the opposition miraculously pulls itself together to win next Spring’s elections, the new government’s hands would be tied by Fidesz legislation and Fidesz appointees who occupy all key state positions, from the juridical system to media supervision, with long mandates stretching over election cycles. The case of Esztergom, where since 2010 the Fidesz-dominated city government has paralyzed the whole city to obstruct an independent mayor, is a sinister foreboding.
According to recent polls[iv], the large majority of the population believes that things are bad and will deteriorate further in Hungary. However, 42% of potential voters don’t know who to vote for and probably won’t participate in the next elections. Absenteeism mixed with massive disappointment in mainstream political forces is a dangerous cocktail, like the advance of the far right in Europe shows. Jobbik, the Hungarian party of the extreme right, is looking confidently forward to next Spring, like Fidesz. At present 26% of potential voters would vote for Fidesz - enough for them to win the elections and have again an overwhelming majority in Parliament, thanks to the electoral system they’ve installed.
This year’s commemoration of the 1956 revolution and its aftermath played out the worst-case scenario for the coming election year. Prime Minister Victor Orban used the national holiday as his Party’s first electoral rally, greeting the “spontaneous” masses of the “Peace March” (organized and sponsored by loyal Fidesz supporters) from a platform decorated with a sea of national flags and surrounded with armed soldiers. His speech was a violent call for battle against the country’s external (‘colonizers, speculators and international financiers’) and internal enemies (former, present and would-be “Communists”, including their “comrade”, ‘tavarish’ Tavares) ‘who sold the country’ and ‘would shoot at us today …if they could’. [v]
In front of the building of the Technical University, where the first student rally that set in motion the mass protest movement in October 1956 started, a large crowd of opposition supporters gathered hoping to revive hope in a free and democratic country – the real message of 1956. Instead of the so much needed demonstration of unity, the event turned into a disheartening manifestation of division and in-fights in the ranks of the various opposition formations that has been going on since. The day after the national holiday, a government official and media close to Fidesz launched yet another attack against the philosopher Agnes Heller, who dared to criticize the government in an interview with Swedish television.
A couple of days later a government-backed march was held all over the country to demand autonomy for Sekler’s Land (a part of Transylvania with a large Hungarian population that belonged to pre-WW1 Hungary) organized by a civil society organization and some of the Peace March organizers. By the end of the week, a bronze statue of Admiral Miklós Horthy[vi], a former ally of Hitler, the leader of Hungary between 1920 and 1944, was unveiled at the entry of a Reformed Church located in the centre of Budapest, by the Church Minister, well-known for his extreme-right views and by the same Jobbik MP who some months ago demanded the listing of Jewish members of Parliament. In his first reaction, the Fidesz mayor of the district only managed to regret the fact that this provocation might fuel further ”anti-Hungarian” criticism in western “leftist” media.
This is a rather pernicious preview of a possible future for the country. Hopefully it will serve as a wake-up call for those who want to live in a different Hungary.
[iii] http://www.romadecade.org/cms/upload/file/9270_file9_hu_civil-society-monitoring-report_hu.pdf; http
[iv] http://hvg.hu/itthon/20131017_Ipsos_nott_az_ellenzek_tabora & http://median.hu/object.aa1da5a0-e054-4ffb-8e6f-784e318108e1.ivy
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