Hungary's cold civil war

George Schöpflin
14 November 2006

From the outside, Hungary looks like a fairly conventional democracy with a left wing (currently in power) and a right wing (in opposition), each having its turn at governing the country. All the institutions of democracy seem to be in place, with civil society, independent judiciary and the usual checks and balances. You have to be Hungarian to understand that this is a facade and that behind it, things have gone disastrously wrong. It is no exaggeration, though outsiders find this hard to credit, that Hungary is in a state of cold civil war.

If something is rotten in the Hungarian political system - and only the most optimistic would deny this - then the rottenness flourishes behind barriers of great thickness, to the point of impermeability. These barriers are built to keep out critical opinion and alternative perspectives that might disturb the existing status quo. They are barriers of the mind and are constructed of words, of rhetoric, of abuse, of accusations and of projecting one's flaws onto one's opponents, who then become, for political purposes, enemies. Besides, the two words - ellenfél and ellenség - are very alike in Hungarian.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 revolution, unquestionably one of the most inspiring and moving events in Hungarian history ever, some of the hard reality of the cold civil war, fought until then with words, spilled over into physical violence.

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)

"Hungary: country without consequences" (22 September 2006)

On 23 October 2006, the anniversary of the start of the revolution, a peaceful and legal commemoration in Budapest, organised by the opposition, was dispersed with extraordinary brutality by the police. The crowds were already leaving when the police weighed in with mounted charges, teargas grenades, rubber bullets fired at people's heads, water-cannon and steel truncheons. From now on, 23 October will not just be a day for commemorating a revolution aimed at restoring democracy and freedom, but also as the moment when many people's faith in democracy was shaken to the roots.

To ensure that no one is called to account for the behaviour of the police, the government has placed all the relevant files on the secret list for eighty years. When the chief of Budapest police was called before a parliamentary committee, the left-wing members walked out, the police chief refused to answer questions and then walked out too. Civil society is as deeply divided as party politics and the Hungarian branches of the various international human rights bodies also lean to the left, which explains why their response to the events has been muted.

It is in this sense that the memory of 1956 and events of today have become merged. If anything, the commemoration has simply exacerbated matters. The government expected trouble and used the events to ensure that the right's mobilisation of protesters would not happen again - people have been intimidated.

In a broader perspective, the Hungarian political system has become completely blocked. There is no possibility of movement in parliament while the left maintains its unity and, thereby, its majority. In formal legal terms, the government is covered. But politically the division is so deep as to make democratic politics effectively impossible.

A question of legitimacy

This is where law and politics diverge. Politically, the government is acting as if it were a beleaguered minority and is seeking every opportunity to erode the opposition. In total, there have been five major steps in this process.

  • the left-wing government, headed by the Magyar Szocialista Párt (Hungarian Socialist Party), won the April 2002 elections and embarked on a massive spending spree, for which there was simply not enough money.
  • when taken to task by the European Union for overspending (as a potential member of the eurozone, Hungary is expected to keep within the Maastricht criteria), the government responded by returning figures that concealed the real state of affairs. Brussels knew this, of course, and sent the figures back, demanding a new convergence plan. (Most recently, on 9 November in Budapest itself, the EU financial affairs commissioner Joaquín Almunia issued another warning that Hungary was in a very difficult situation and that if the government neglected its obligations to the EU, a partial suspension of cohesion funds transfers would not be out of the question. This is diplomatic language veiling an unusually tough message).
  • the government announced an austerity plan, which Hungarian public opinion received with bad grace, given that only a few months earlier the left had been insisting that the economy was fine.
  • the sensational leaking on 17 September of prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány's speech to a party gathering in which he boasted of having lied "morning, noon and night", which provoked demonstrations outside parliament.
  • the local government elections, held on 1 October, in which the left was badly defeated, losing control of every county apart from Budapest. Public opinion polls have been showing a growing wave of support for the opposition Fidesz (of which I am a member).

In a very real sense, Hungary and the Hungarian political system are in a profound dilemma: what to do when the legally elected government loses its popular support, cannot renew it, insists that its formal legal control of power is legitimate and is sufficient for the exercise of power. The informal rule-book of democratic behaviour would say that the government should observe self-limitation and accept that it must renew its legitimacy, either by making concessions or calling new elections. It has lost its connection to society and must re-establish trust.

There is no sign that the government is ready to do this; on the contrary. Hence the democratic system is blocked and, as long as the will to launch a course correction is absent, there is no way of returning to something like a political equilibrium. The result is the ever more dangerous polarisation that has gripped the country.

Until the present crisis, there appeared to be some tacit limits to the exercise of power - above all, a recognition that there were national interests that transcended those of the political parties. This is now in doubt. The left seems to be so thoroughly shaken that it has come, not wholly consciously, to conclude that its interests are those of the country and of Hungarian society, and that those who oppose it are evil-minded, hostile and deserve to be eliminated.

Much of the language used by the left backs up this proposition. A socialist MEP, Gyula Hegyi, published an article in the Guardian ("We evacuate the territory of the left at our peril", 25 October 2006), in which he accused Fidesz of keeping "its doors open to the extreme right" and said that the former Fidesz prime minister Viktor Orbán "encouraged the rioters". There is no evidence to support these accusations, but they are the standard fare of leftwing discourse in Hungary.

Even more extreme was an article by András B Göllner, a government insider, in the Los Angeles Times ("Hungary's anti-Democracy Revolution", 7 October 2006), which went so far as to claim that Orbán was on a par with Hitler. Not only is this untrue, but the language simply enhances the polarisation. It is inconceivable that a leftwing commentator would allow himself or herself to equate the leader of the democratic opposition with Hitler.

Also in openDemocracy on Hungary in 1956 and 2006:

Gabriel Partos, "Hungary: change via continuity"
(8 May 2006)

Patrice de Beer, "Budapest 1956-2006" (2 October 2006)

Victor Sebestyen, "Twelve Days"
(23 October 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion"
(27 October 2006)

Gabriel Partos, "Hungary: history's battleground"
(8 November 2006)

and ... the Bad Democracy saga

A political trap

Because the left is aware of the need to keep the European Union persuaded of its credentials, it has begun a campaign to discredit Fidesz abroad. Hungarian ambassadors have been instructed to spread negative information about Fidesz and Orbán, a move that seriously undermines the impartiality of the civil service, though a majority of diplomats are left leaning anyway.

In effect, the left is hitting out with whatever methods it can use, regardless of the basic rules of democracy. The primary target is Fidesz, the main opposition party, which now has a solid majority in the polls - disappointed socialist voters have begun to drift rightwards.

But if the left were successful in its campaign to discredit Fidesz and marginalise it, the outcome would be significantly worse. For the time being, Fidesz is leading public opinion and thereby giving it a recognisable political quality; but if Fidesz were to be eliminated, then the left would have to face a much more serious threat, that of a spontaneous anti-government movement driven by popular anger.

The left inherited an economy on taking office in 2002, that was in a reasonable state, despite its clumsy attempts to blame Fidesz for the present crisis. The overspending has now created deficits and foreign debts which the Hungarian taxpayer has to shoulder. Real incomes are expected to shrink by 10%, and the budget deficit is over 10%. For the moment, foreign investment is still flowing into Hungary, but if the political instability were to spread, that movement would stop. The economic crisis is dire, and it can only be tackled with popular support, which means renewing trust and legitimacy.

A key role in the crisis has been played by the media, around four-fifths of which reflects the views and assumptions of the left. Where much of the media thus acts as an echo chamber and fails to observe its critical function, the left is deprived of a key instrument for understanding the reality of the situation.

In his "lying" speech, Gyurcsány freely admitted that the media are "prepared" and "involved" in what the goverment does; alarmingly, no one sought to deny this. Hence the language and ideas of the left, in unquestioningly reinforcing the presumptions of the government, have become a trap. In effect, the Hungarian left has acquired all the characteristics of a closed society (an especially ironic outcome, given that the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros has spent a good deal of money on the left precisely to promote an open society).

A way out?

Anyone looking at events in Hungary in the round will certainly see all the elements that are moving the country towards a potential tragedy. It is as if the Hungarian political elite has lost the capacity to stop the juggernaut, so that the left's insistence on the dangers of a far-right coup could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Something like the atmosphere of war psychosis that Andrew Stroehlein found in the United States can be discerned in Hungary, except that the "enemy" is immediately present and not some faceless terrorist abroad (see "The war in American hearts and minds", 11 September 2006).

There is a Hungarian warning against "painting the devil on the wall, lest it appear." This is precisely what is happening. The left has conjured up the non-existent threat of a fascist, right-extremist, anti-democratic movement coordinated by Fidesz and it is doing what it can to make this a reality by its actions. The left quite fails to see that wiping Fidesz off the map would bring something far worse into Hungarian politics.

Is there a way out? Fidesz has called for a government of experts that would establish the real situation about the economy and elaborate a reform programme on that basis - the government's data is trusted neither in Hungary nor abroad. The proposition would allow the government to save face and escape the trap that it has devised for itself, but the left has ignored it.

This leaves three possible scenarios. There could just be the kind of sudden, rapid collapse of the left's self-confidence that is predicted by catastrophe theory, perhaps brought about by some relatively trivial, unexpected event.

Another possibility is the acceptance of some kind of external intervention, like arbitration via the good offices of the European Union by a commission of "the wise". This could legitimate the much needed spending cuts which the government is unable to impose on its own.

This would be humiliating for Hungary, but better than the last option: the eruption of popular violence, the declaration of a state of emergency and the suspension of democracy. If that were to happen, all bets would be off and the European Union would be faced with an unprecedented crisis of its own. All in all, this is not a happy time to be Hungarian.

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