Hungary: country without consequences

George Schöpflin
21 September 2006

The crisis in Hungary over the recorded comments of the prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány to a party meeting and the explosion of protest they provoked is far from resolved. Moreover, there are deeper structural factors that make that resolution extremely difficult. At first glance Hungary looks like a fairly normal democratic country with a left wing and a right wing, but closer scrutiny shows three serious flaws in democratic practice.

First, in a way it is not unfair to regard Hungarian democracy - and this applies to quite a few of the former communist states - as an incomplete democracy. Democratic legitimation is in place and is secured through elections, so that power is exercised with the consent of the people. But in the absence of democratic values like accountability, transparency, self-limitation and responsibility for decision-making, the outcome is rather less than democratic.

Second, there is the legacy of communism. After the system-change of 1989 and subsequent years, the former ruling communist party rebranded itself as democratic socialist and participated in elections, campaigns and parliamentary debates as a "normal" component of Hungary's new, multi-party political system. But it had been able to salvage far-reaching assets from the previous system - including money, property, networks, know-how and other resources. By contrast, the centre-right began its life having to construct everything from scratch. It is in this sense that there was and is no level playing-field in Hungary.

The third problem is a constraint of institutional design - the prime minister effectively cannot be removed from office. Even if he loses his parliamentary majority, there still has to be a vote of "constructive no confidence"; in other words, an alternative candidate has to be voted in before the incumbent disappears.

The reason for this device is to secure stable government, and the sixteen years of post-communist Hungary have certainly (until now) been marked by such stability; but its cost has been the effective nullification of prime-ministerial responsibility, and through it that of all ministerial responsibility as well. The opposition, and beyond it society as a whole, is powerless to change this as long as political leaders in power lack the sensitivity to know when to resign.

George Schöpflin is a member of the European parliament for Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) and was Jean Monnet professor of politics at University College London

Also by George Schöpflin in openDemocracy:

"Putin's anti-globalisation strategy"
(10 July 2006)

"Israel-Lebanon: a battle over modernity"
(8 August 2005)

A contested legacy

Partly for these reasons and partly for more deep-rooted historical ones, the political scene in Hungary is quite extraordinarily polarised. The polarisation centres on various issues, among them perhaps most importantly the problem of Hungarian nationhood itself; here, the left has been dismayed at the strength of national consciousness and this has given the right the capacity to mobilise.

Another factor which has enhanced polarisation has been the right's quest to "re-level" the playing-field - in a way that has been echoed more recently in Poland - by making the communist successor party face its responsibilities for the crimes of the communist era and by dismantling the secret-police networks that have survived from that era. The left is bitterly opposed to this approach and demonises the right as fascist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic. The right counterattacks by calling the left traitors and anti-national.

The problem of the media is central in this political order. Grassroots organisation is weak on both sides, though better on the left which has superior resources. Hence the media constitute the vital link with society. The left has been successful in gaining control of anything up to 85% of media outlets; as a result, Hungarian public opinion is fed a steady diet of demonisation of the right, and an overheated rhetoric of polarisation. The left is fearful of what would happen in the event of the right returning to power, while the right resents the unfair picture that the leftwing media paint. Hungarian media, like Hungarian politics, has next to no knowledge of self-limitation: all is fair and there is no concept of consistency - people routinely display the faults they ascribe to others.

In Hungary's deeply divided political culture, almost everything is perceived as a function of party politics (in Budapest this goes as far as identifiably leftwing and rightwing restaurants). This situation has become much worse during the left's years in power since 2002, with the result that the exclusion of the right has proceeded apace, causing ever-stronger resentment. The polarisation has other anti-democratic consequences - if all developments are interpreted in partisan terms, there can be no autonomous public sphere and public opinion is itself politicised, with the result that the principled democratic critique of power is marginalised and ignored. Some Hungarian commentators have described the Ferenc Gyurcsány government as the "so-what government" and Hungary as the "country without consequences".

Parallel with this absence of criticism has been a decline in transparency and accountability, together with a rise in corruption (noted by Transparency International). So, for example, tendering for government contracts is opaque, and more than once companies with ties to the coalition have received contracts in a very unclear fashion. The ministry of finance has repeatedly resorted to creative accounting in its reporting of a deteriorating economic performance.

This has not impressed either the European Union or the international money markets and the reliability of official statistics has also been questioned. Autonomous institutions have one by one come under pressure to do the government's bidding - among them the Hungarian national bank, the Hungarian central statistical office, the chief procurator, and the financial supervisory authority.

A question of legitimacy

All this is a potentially serious incursion into the norms of democratic behaviour. However - and this is the origin of the current crisis - even worse was to come. In the April 2006 election campaign the left steadfastly denied that the country was in an economic crisis, even though it had the worst indicators of all the new members of the European Union (including a budget deficit of around 10% of GDP). The opposition attempted to argue otherwise, but was accused by the left of indulging in a scare campaign and generally not telling the truth.

A few weeks after winning the election, the truth turned out to be what the opposition had been claiming and Gyurcsány introduced a crisis package of restrictive measures with higher taxes and cuts in social benefits. A wholly unprepared public, which had been repeatedly reassured by the government that the country was doing well, was thoroughly shocked.

Then, on 17 September 2006, the tape of a speech by Gyurcsány to party activists was leaked to various media outlets. In a talk sprinkled with obscenities, the prime minister freely admitted - even came close to boasting - that his leftwing government had not governed for four years but had lied day and night; "we've screwed this up", he added. It was this admission of lying that seems to have ignited the current wave of protests and spilled over into an attack on the Hungarian state television building and other forms of violence on the streets.

The deeper consequences of this crisis remain unclear, though various scenarios can be sketched:

  • the left coalition and Gyurcsány will successfully ride out the crisis and restore order
  • the wing of the socialists that is quite likely to have leaked the tape may successfully persuade the Hungarian Socialist Party to dump Gyurcsány (although there is at present no plausible candidate to succeed him)
  • the violence escalates, the government responds with needless counterforce, and this triggers off a wave of protests producing a potentially revolutionary situation
  • Gyurcsány's self-confidence collapses suddenly and he resigns, leaving a vacuum at the centre of power
  • Gyurcsány accepts the opposition's proposal to set up a government of experts (unlikely)
  • the socialists ask for external political support as a way of establishing Hungarian society's quiescence, on the grounds that "Europe" has higher credibility
  • the opposition directly challenges the government's legitimacy, using the argument that the government is in power only because it has lied
The key to all these scenarios is the self-legitimation - the self-confidence - of the left; the extent to which it can persist in its belief that even with a serious and growing upheaval on its hands it can hold onto power; and at what point, if at all, this self-belief will collapse.

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