Open Democracy has recently carried three articles, not merely criticising the elected government of Hungary, but denouncing it as dictatorial, anti-democratic, even totalitarian. These articles, by Anton Pelinka, Gábor Schein and László Bitó make exaggerated and incorrect claims, and are calculated both to raise the temperature and to obscure the true nature of the debate over Hungary’s current government.
First of all, Hungarians have always been critical towards their governments, whether they voted for them or not. It is the nature of my fellow countrymen. Even now there are heated debates in Hungary about different policies of the government. The public debate in the Hungarian media, especially on the internet is open and free, and it is possible that a left wing thinker agrees with the right wing government, while a conservative journalist criticizes it.
It is very clear that we Hungarians are not united in our reaction either to the Fidesz government or to the leadership of Prime Minister Orbán. It is possible to agree with many of the legislative measures introduced by the government while disapproving Mr Orbán’s style. It is possible to be anxious about provisions in the new constitution while being thankful that Mr Orbán has the conviction necessary to address constitutional problems that most Hungarians believe to have been ignored for far too long.
Many of the disagreements in our country run deep, and of course many of them have historical roots (some of which are touched on by László Bitó) that cannot be exposed without awakening bitter memories that impede the work of reconciliation. But this surely does not excuse the intemperate and exaggerated accusations that the authors are prepared to make against the current Hungarian government. For these accusations do not target the government only. They libel the people of our country, and make us look like dupes or cowards. After all, if things were as bad as Mr Schein claims then we ought to be preparing to do now what we did in 1956, and throw off the yoke that oppresses us. And if Mr Bitó is right in implying that the governing party is not merely anti-Semitic but prepared to stir up hostility to the Jews as ‘alien hearted’, then the whole of Europe ought to be joining the battle. I have my own opinion about the wrong decisions taken by the current government, but any accusation of the Hungarian government with anti-Semitism is wholly false and highly offensive – not least for the millions who voted for them. Professor Pelinka tells us that Hungary’s internationally most prominent intellectuals have been leading the protests against the Fidesz government, mentioning Ágnes Heller and György Konrád by name. But he should have reminded the reader that these intellectuals, along with the signatories to the accusatory letter that Open Democracy published, are prominent left-wing figures. Agnes Heller, for example, has a long history of a love-hate relationship with the old communist party. This is a group whose political faction was decisively defeated in the recent elections and who have decided to embark on a no-holds-barred attack on the party that displaced them. This is a game of politics and power, not truth.
I am sure that they are sincere in thinking they have not been treated fairly in the subsequent war; but it is a war which they have been fighting for decades, and in which they have been prepared to stir up enmity in the European Union, in the American Academy, and wherever they have found sympathetic voices on the left. They would like to give the impression that all Hungarian intellectuals are disgusted with the new government, and united in opposing it. This is very far from the truth, as can be ascertained from the declaration from the Batthyány group of professors which is published on their website. In a way I can sympathise with Mr Schein’s claim that, in my country, ‘no democratic mentality existed’ after 1989. A democratic mentality exists only when people respect the procedures of public debate and try to resolve problems where they arise, rather than blurting out to all and sundry that nobody is listening to them. But this does not mean that we Hungarians should not also try to answer some of Mr Schein’s charges. For instance, he compares the current situation or the behaviour of the current government with that of Mr Rákosi's and Mr Kádár's era after the war, when the famous ‘salami tactics’ were used to destroy opposition to the communist takeover. During two years as Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Kádár set out to destroy every private association in Hungary, from private schools to philately societies, and from discussion clubs to village bands. He destroyed them all – 5,000 innocent institutions, the backbone of Hungarian civil society, and the base upon which any peaceful future could be built.
Are we really seeing something like that in Hungary today? I should point out that Professor Pelinka enjoys a secure position at the Central European University, a private institution which is – in most cases – highly critical of the Hungarian government but which is not only officially tolerated but also widely respected as an example of what can be achieved by privately funded education. Likewise, Mr Bitó addresses his denunciations of our government, which do not stop short of linking it to radical neo-Nazi movements. This is untrue: just look at the websites of the neo-Nazis who are harsh critics of the conservative Hungarian government which has taken various steps against them. It is no part of my intention to defend all the legislative initiatives of the present government. Many are already subject to external and internal criticism, and it is clear that some of the cardinal laws have been passed far too quickly and without sufficient debate. But this does not excuse the distortions that these three authors present as facts. For example, in a particularly deceptive phrase, Professor Pelinka tells us that ‘all Islamic as well as evangelical groups have lost their status as legal entities entitled to specific rights’. This is simply false. Right now there are 32 churches, among them smaller Evangelical Christian and Islamic groups that will be officially accepted churches by the new law.
As far as I know, the Venice Committee is monitoring the new law on churches, and there may be future changes in the provisions of the law. The law on churches has not deprived any group of its status as a legal entity, and there is complete freedom of religion in Hungary. What Professor Pelinka does not say is that churches are entitled to tax relief and also to state subsidies, so the state must of necessity limit the number of associations that can claim these privileges. Many businesses have been masquerading as churches. I don’t need to remind Open Democracy of the stringent requirements of English charity law, when it comes to the allocation of tax privileges to so-called religious groups. Why should we Hungarians not follow the example that the UK has set?
To rebut all the charges made by your three authors is no part of my aim. I cannot claim that everything is perfect in Hungary, or that we are proceeding towards a real consensus about the fundamental issues. We have a long-standing problem of integrating the Roma into our society – a problem ignored by both the communists and their socialist or social democrat successors. There are long-standing resentments due to the dismemberment of our country after the First World War, which transferred several million Hungarians to other states without their consent. There are economic and social problems, many of which replicate problems familiar in the rest of Europe. And it is true that there are radical and potentially subversive groups on both the right and the left. But it seems to me that our government is attempting, however clumsily, to address these issues, and that Mr Schein’s evocation of a ‘return to totalitarian normality’ is intemperate and absurd. Mr Bitó denounces Viktor Orbán for his refusal to recognise that the spirit of the new cardinal laws is in conflict with the European concept of democracy, and he seems to assume throughout his piece that there is only one unique model of democracy and that the EU is some kind of arbiter of democratic virtue. Is it not worth pointing out that the EU commissioner in charge of foreign affairs, Baroness Ashton, has never stood for an election in her life, that she rose through the ranks of the Labour Party after a career in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, that she entered politics through the unelected House of Lords, and that her career does not distinguish her in its broad particulars from most of those who pontificate from Brussels about the absolute value of democratic elections?
Surely it would be useful in a respected medium like Open Democracy to make a few comparative judgements: for example the democratic credentials of the European Commission compared to a government democratically elected by a vast majority of voters. I suspect that Hungary, in the wake of such an examination, won’t compare so unfavourably with its neighbours. Nor, I suspect, will it compare entirely unfavourably with Britain and some of its not too democratic traditions of the Prime Minister's or the Church of England's rights; or with the British mass media, which are widely despised as social predators without respect either for the privacy of the citizen or for the collective good of the country, as the Leveson inquiry is currently demonstrating.
Some final remarks: the current changes in Hungary are still far from a national consensus. The Fidesz party (once a small elite group of young anticommunist activists and lawyers) and its government now tries to overcome the unwritten political agreements of 20 years of postcommunism in Hungary. However, the government enjoyed the support of the vast majority of the voters at the 2010 parliamental elections, and Fidesz is still the most popular political party at the half-time of this parliamental term. The government still has the legitimacy to change, but it is up to them to live up to the voters' expectations – and to change their policies or the style of the governance if the time for a self-correction has come.
Recently, Pál Schmitt, the President of Hungary (elected by the current government) had to resign after the scandal around his doctoral thesis. The resignation happened after weeks of heated and free political debates in Hungary – against the initial intention of the government. Is this a country sliding towards authoritarianism? Democracy is functioning and the political system is able to correct itself. The politics in Hungary are vehement, passionate – and free.
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