Speaking with double tongues: what’s gone wrong in Hungary?

Now whoever asks a question is arrogantly refused the moral right of posing the question at all, and is actually faced with a threat that has been openly codified in law. That’s new. But Hungary's authoritarians still have to speak to the outside world in ‘European’. Europe is key.

Gábor Schein
21 February 2012

Hungary's present state cannot fully be understood without recalling what happened after 1989. The worst of the new developments - the disappearance of nearly one million jobs, the impoverishment of the south and the east, the literal maiming of the regions with the highest Roma population - were all accompanied by the persistence of the worst legacy of the previous era: an absence of social solidarity, leaving entire regions and classes abandoned, and a series of political and economic elites thoroughly occupied with dividing up the resources of the state for themselves.

Now, the most valuable good in Hungarian society is nothing more than the ownership of an individual dwelling. Achieved, by and large, through working overtime, as much after 1989 as before. Not only the crushing inflation of the past decades, but the continual social pattern of massive overwork has not only severely damaged interpersonal relations, but the possibility of political engagement among individuals as well.

With no experience of a public sphere beyond the satisfaction of the immediate family with consumer goods, democratic social participation is simply impossible. The few civic initiatives that did arise during this period were rapidly corrupted by established political parties. Though the Hungarian Constitution – heavily amended after 1990 but now derided by Premier Viktor Orbán as a Stalinist relic – contained all of the necessary legal stipulations necessary for the creation of a legitimate democratic state, no democratic mentality existed to make use of the written laws.

Even without explicit state control, no free market can truly exist under such conditions. Much as in the Kádár decades, all roads still led to the state – now, of course, not to the USSR-backed Communists but to the ruling political parties. Whether right or left, all of these parties made use of ineffective laws to hide the real sources of their financing. And the inevitable result has been the ever-present corruption that has poisoned the organs of public society. The state remained the greatest economic force in the marketplace, while the most successful private companies often became the pawns of the interests of high-ranking politicians.

Hungary is no special case, indeed it is typical of east-central Europe as a whole. Yet however tragic the circumstances have been, they are not enough to explain how a policy of a deliberate detachment from European values found such broad support among the voters.

Going back to the Weimar Republic for parallels

For postwar Germany and Italy, or Spain after Franco's death, the gradual process of implementing democracy in society went hand in hand with economic growth.

By contrast, in the lands of the former eastern bloc, social gaps between rich and poor have grown ever wider. In the very last four years, following the worldwide financial crisis and the failed economic policies of most of the regional governments, the process has accelerated enormously. Hungary's answer to the global economic crisis was exactly the same as the Kádár regime's: cheap credit, but now on a variety of levels, whether extended to the family, village or city government.

Now we see the predicament of the many families who took out mortgages in Swiss Francs: 1 Swiss franc, worth 180 HUF at the beginning of 2009, reached 270 HUF by 2011.  Many Hungarians were forced to sell everything that they had built up through a lifetime of hard work. A wave of suicides, a palpably growing public aggressiveness, found echoes in the racist statements appearing again and again in the media, even in ordinary conversations. Then the militant units of the self-styled “Hungarian Guard”, an affiliate of the far-right Jobbik party, began marching through settlements with high Roma populations, provoking brawls. In eastern Hungary, a small group came to be charged with the murder of several local Roma; possible connections with the intelligence services remain unexplained. All of these outrages were just a part of the backdrop of daily life: the concept of what was normal was changing, rapidly, but almost imperceptibly.

Is it any wonder that manifestations of populism of any stripe would be received with great enthusiasm among the populace? In Hungary, the parliamentary elections of 2008 led to a flood of empty promises. The Socialists won, only to face a campaign of public anger against the party, focusing on a leaked statement from the former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány from two years before. Every day, the opposition parties repeated their list of unmet promises. And ever more frequently, the parliamentary opposition made use of nationalist slogans and symbols that only shortly before had been the exclusive preserve of the still-marginal neo-fascist party Jobbik. Woven through these symbols and slogans, a sense of nationalist identity was set in place that excluded anyone who did not identify with the policies of the Fidesz or Jobbik parties, no matter what their place in Hungarian society.

In hindsight, there are definite parallels here with the fall of the Weimar Republic. Of course, inside the framework of the EU the final political outcome has been quite different from that of Germany in 1933. Yet nonetheless, the pervasive impression of an ungovernable chaos meant that at the end the new socialist prime minister Gordon Bajnai, who had succeeded Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2009, was glad to hand over government on April 11, 2010 to Viktor Orbán, even though he knew full well that the successor ruled his own party like a dictator and would inevitably move to a more authoritarian style.

Viktor Orbán's achievement of power

Since 1989, political life in Hungary has followed the logic of a bloodless war. The election of 2010 meant the total defeat of both the socialist and liberal parties, leaving the absolute winner as the Fidesz party of Viktor Orbán, occupying more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. The self-declared “anti-democratic” Jobbik, which had agitated throughout the campaign period with open hostility to the Roma and veiled racist slogans, received twelve percent of the vote. The two democratic parties left in the opposition, the Socialists and the protest-party LMP (“Politics Can Be Different”), managed together to capture the support of around twenty percent of the vote. From this moment on, both political institutions and society in Hungary have favoured the formation of an authoritarian regime of a new type: one that thoroughly depends on its co-existence within the democratic environment of contemporary Europe.

Only a few months after the 2010 elections, the centres of independent power vital to a democratic state were eviscerated. Interpretations of constitutional law were restricted, and all judges past the age of 62 were forced into early retirement, to be replaced with the party cronies of Viktor Orbán. Through the new media law, the press and broadcasting were held back; meanwhile, the news services were formed into centralized monopolies while government-friendly media shamelessly lied and distorted facts. For all practical purposes, the right to strike was taken away from employees. Dozens of religious organisations were simply forced to close. Private pension funds were looted through government-sanctioned blackmail. Schools, previously in the control of local districts, were nationalised and all headmasters replaced; meanwhile, their educational programme was given a sharp ideological slant through the new law. A number of attack campaigns were levied against critical intellectuals. Only the National Bank managed to retain a certain degree of independence, and this with the aid of the EU. All the while the state, through the adoption of laws targeted specifically for this purpose, acquired for itself major shares of numerous large enterprises. Crowning the entire process of power consolidation was the implementation of a new constitution that – fully against the recommendations of the EU and other international bodies – placed ethnic and social minorities at a marked disadvantage.

The persistence of a juridical, legalistic mindset has allowed this authoritarianism to gain legitimacy, and has allowed the Hungarian government to complete its manoeuvres, consolidating and centralizing its power even within the highly regulatory environment of the EU. Viktor Orbán himself was educated as a lawyer, and nearly all the important figures in his government or the inner Fidesz circle have legal training. All of the legislative interventions of the present regime share a common trait, and define a dilemma new to the region. Hungary is a relatively small, geographically open country, and the dictators of the 20th century, such as Miklós Horthy, Mátyás Rákosi or János Kádár, found their backing through other, equally dictatorial, great powers. At the present moment, though, all of Hungary’s neighbours are, with the exception of Ukraine, EU member states or hoping to become members. Authoritarianism in Hungary cannot rely on a powerful outside dictatorship. It is from this historic and political perspective that the emergence of the duplicitous rhetoric of authority in Hungary should be analyzed.

The doublespeke of authoritarians

To date, there are still no defined theoretical concepts for the description of authoritarianism existing within an established democratic order, particularly a multi-national one such as the EU. As the chief of state, Viktor Orbán has named his regime a “centralised sphere of power”. Coded double-meanings and the problems of rhetorical interference belong among the most clear indicators of how power functions in this centralised sphere.

One language of authoritarianism is used for internal consumption, appealing directly to the Hungarian population: nationalistic, self-consciously egocentric and often militant. It creates an easily comprehended framework in which “us” and “the enemy” are caught up in an endless struggle. Viktor Orbán uses this language to promote himself as the protector of all that is national, a St. George in the struggle for national interests assailing the “dragon” of the EU, which is depicted as a colonising foreign power. Even when addressing the highest-positioned EU officials, Orbán draws upon this rhetoric. For after all, this language paints politics as a permanent (and almost inevitably unsuccessful) freedom-struggle. This discourse falls on highly fertile ground among the Hungarian populace, explicitly appealing to the long-nourished social-psychological habit of holding other political entities responsible for their own nation’s failed opportunities, crimes, and traumas. This language is no less appreciated by the Hungarian business elite, as it offers them a platform for state intervention to eliminate foreign competition.

Taking a closer look at the rhetorical contours of this language, immediately it becomes clear that it is the language of totalitarianism. Its sole recipient and sole referent is an undifferentiated, completely empty subject, “the people”. Above all, this language consists predominantly of hard-to-unravel metaphors and deliberately obscure jargon. This hollowing-out of the process of public discourse, the endless flow of clichés and the interpolation of often comical nonsense-phrases encourage the average listener to believe that there is no point in questioning authority. Where there is literally no meaning, questions cannot be posed. And even if someone were to come across a concept with any kind of corollary meaning, just in order to ask a question, no answer would be forthcoming anyway. This is precisely the same system that was put into practice by the Communist power elite. What, though, is new, is that whoever now asks a question is arrogantly refused the moral right of posing the question at all, and now actually is faced with a threat that has been openly codified in law.

However difficult it is, Hungary's authoritarians still have to speak to the outside world in ‘European’. Yet the official translations of Hungarian laws or the new constitution are only partial texts: the sentences and paragraphs that radically diverge from European concepts of human rights are simply deleted. In other cases, there is a search for formulations that more or less correspond to the Hungarian original but which nonetheless sound acceptable in EU-English. Interpreting this genre of translation-practise is exceedingly difficult. Often, the reader comes across sentences that actually have been translated 'accurately' into English and which, if read in Brussels, appear to state nothing objectionable – but when read by a Hungarian in Hungary, show themselves to be formulated in a language thoroughly imbued with an authoritarian mentality, creating a totally different meaning.

Problems arise for the Hungarian government only in those situations when both of these languages are forced to co-exist: for example, if a session of the European Parliament is broadcast by Hungarian television. In such situations, Viktor Orbán is forced to decide who his actual public is. In the end, the voters in Hungary are still more important than the anonymous ladies or gentlemen in Strasbourg. Anyone who makes the position of Viktor Orbán uncomfortable in these situations is instantly fingered as the enemy of the Hungarian nation. And if the individual bears a name like Cohn-Bendit, the surname in itself automatically marks him out as an enemy of the Hungarian people.

Legal uncertainties

Over the course of 2011, the Hungarian Parliament enacted over 200 laws, not counting the many government directives of the same period.  With alarming frequency, new laws are completely rewritten within several weeks. No one knows any longer with any clarity what is truly legally valid. Even the institutions directly subordinate to the government, the ministries, are lost among the new legislative directives. Moreover, these bills have been presented to Parliament not by the cabinet but by individual deputies of the ruling Fidesz party, with no need to pass through the process of justification and impact assessment. Laws have been completely revised and rewritten in hours, at times only minutes before the actual vote, with the deputies from the two-thirds majority Fidesz party pressing their “Yes” buttons for a piece of legislature they can't possibly have even seen.  

If no one knows what is legal, then no one can know what is illegal. And when no one knows what is illegal, then anything, essentially, can become illegal. Through this rushed and inconsistent process of lawmaking, what has emerged is the deliberate creation of a climate of absolute legislative uncertainty (and thus of fear). In this context, the ordinary citizen can rely only upon arbitrary mercy by the relevant authorities to avoid being unjustly persecuted.           

The dangers, infection and chaos

What has happened in Hungary is something that affects Europe directly, presenting the EU with specific and grave dangers. The authoritarian rule of Viktor Orbán could easily prove to be particularly infectious throughout the wider region. At present, the parliamentary opposition in Budapest is much too weak to present a workable alternative, while non-governmental opposition, predominantly organizing itself on the internet, is still far too fragmented. The new electoral law that the governing parties have recently passed, allowing voting rights in national elections to Hungarians living abroad in Romania, Ukraine, Serbia and Slovakia - in other words, within the area of the pre-1918 Hungarian Kingdom, but not beyond - is of course the outcome of a precise calculation of political interests. And it is still doubtful whether a Fidesz defeat will be possible in the next elections in 2014.

The removal of Viktor Orbán from power at the present moment, would not, however, be desirable, as it would mean the collapse of Fidesz, and could lead to sheer chaos. Above all, the Hungarian political public must struggle with authoritarianism from within its own ranks, no matter how unfavourable the circumstances, and however significant the level of Orbán's support.

Yet even here, Europe can do much to help those in Hungary who are struggling for a true civil society, no matter how lengthy the process might be.  The most effective current measures against the authoritarianism of Viktor Orbán are the persistent and thorough pressures of the EU for Hungary to conform to the EU's own stated principles of guarantees of civil and human rights. This pressure, though, must stipulate a policy that would in all cases keep Hungary within the bounds of EU membership. In addition to this, assistance should be provided to help strengthen both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary democratic opposition. It should be the kind of long-term assistance which, for example, opponents of the Kádár regime received from western Europe from the 1960s to the 1980s.

In the long term, however, what is even more crucial is that the lessons from Orbán's authoritarian consolidation and concentration of power enter into European political consciousness. We should concentrate on identifying and rectifying those errors committed by regional elites, as well as by the influential parties of the EU, during the geo-political and economic formation of the post-Communist Baltic and Central-East Europe regions.


Translated from the German by Martin Tharprti

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