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Hungary's struggles for freedom and democracy

The greatest concern with regard to EU criticism aimed at influencing the political course of Hungary is that without a good understanding of the political realities, even the best intentions may unintentionally play into the hands of Jobbik. Meanwhile Government statements are meant to convince those who are disturbed by the usurpation of power to give up all hope for the next forty years. Now the situation is more complex and in a way more precarious than in 1956.

Many articles appearing weekly in the western media address, for the most part realistically, the authoritarian tendencies and actions of the government of Viktor Orbán.  Hungarian writer Gábor Schein in his article in openDemocracy (“Speaking with double tongues: what’s gone wrong in Hungary?”) has gone beyond criticism, as he offers his suggestion on how western governments could help to restore Hungary’s democratic institutions, having repeatedly expressed  their concern over many clauses of the new Constitution - called the Basic Law of Hungary - and the tsunami of Cardinal Laws that were pushed through Parliament last year with Orbán’s 2/3 majority, restricting fundamental human rights in virtually all aspects of life.

Demotix/David Ferenczy. All rights reserved.

What can we expect from international criticism and pressure?

The criticisms and the concerns expressed by Washington and Brussels have had little effect so far. True, Orbán has retreated from some of his positions and modified some clauses in the laws to which Brussels specifically objected, but he remains steadfast in his refusal to recognize that it is the spirit of those new laws that is in conflict with the European concept of democracy.

Clearly, the west could apply more pressure, but such efforts may actually backfire, especially if the stick is applied too hard without a carrot, and without an understanding of Hungary’s previous setbacks in its struggles for freedom and democracy.

Domestically, the partial retreats of Orbán under western pressure are presented to the supporters of the Fidesz, Orbán’s ruling party, as great victories in defense of the country’s sovereignty against attempted ‘colonization’. And this propaganda offensive is just building up, as Zoltán Kovács, State Secretary in charge of communications, had to admit to a five million dollar increase in his budget presumably in anticipation of Brussels’ intention to freeze $617 million in the Cohesion Funds earmarked for Hungary for 2012 that was announced on February 22. This freeze, however justifiable it might be, will only worsen the already mounting economic hardships, and might well become a casus belli, mobilizing ultranationalist, anti-EU, far-right elements, particularly the radical neo-Nazi Jobbik party.

The right versus the radical right

Given that hard economic times always provide fertile ground for radicalism, actions that are intended to bring the government in line with European expectations will be used by government propaganda to incite the far right against those who have the courage to stand up for our democratic institutions. Orbán and his “parrot commando” of spokespersons have already accused the social-liberal opposition of treason, for inciting the western media campaign. According to them, not against the autocratic, semi-dictatorial government, but against the Hungarian people.

Right-wing radicals already tried to disrupt a peaceful demonstration, when on the second day of this year more than 30-40 thousand of us protested against the new constitution on Andrassy Avenue outside the Opera house, while inside, the government celebrated the inauguration of its authoritarian Basic Law, which replaced our democratic Constitution. Luckily, the ski-masked, hooded or skin head radicals, did not anticipate that so many demonstrators would show up, and thus they did not mobilize enough of their people to be able to interfere seriously with the demonstration. An economic downturn can be expected to lead to the  usual scapegoating  and more serious confrontations in the future.

To understand what the future might bring, we must first consider that the leaders of Fidesz grew up under the soft dictatorship of Kadar, whose one man rule was never legitimized by a free election. Thus they believe that their legitimately won two-thirds parliamentary majority gives them at least as much power as Kadar had. They also believe that this mandate trumps even international treaties and agreements and puts them on a higher moral plane than the principles of the European Union. And they can convince themselves that they represent the views of the whole Hungarian nation by repeating (almost like a chanted mantra) that anyone who does not support them is “alien hearted” – a code word also for Jews – and is not really part of the Nation. This is what Fidesz preaches, but deep down they must know otherwise: they try to stifle the people’s voices because they know  that these compatriots hold dear the values and principles that brought Hungary into the international news on two previous occasions. 

How Hungary got into its present predicament

In 1956, those Hungarians were called heroes who were prepared to die for freedom and democracy in an uprising against communist dictatorship under Soviet oppression. Without help from the west, all we were able to achieve was that the ruthless suppression of our revolt revealed the true face of the Soviet system and ended Moscow’s hope of gaining world domination through communist parties that had spread in western Europe, especially in Italy and France after WWII, and that until 1956 had the support of many prominent intellectuals.

Hungary appeared in the news again in the 1980s, when young intellectuals pressed for democratic reforms and liberalization. It was then that Hungary breached the Iron Curtain by letting thousands of East Germans escape to the west, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the whole Iron Curtain. The reforms also led to the end of the one-party political system in Hungary. After four decades of communist rule, the first free elections in 1990 were won by a center-right party with far-right support. But people soon learned the hard way that the path to a free-market economy is a rough one, as unproductive factories were closed and unemployment grew. 

Due to the ensuing hard times, nostalgia grew for the greater security of the last two paternalistic decades of the communist regime of Kádár, the last puppet of Moscow in Hungary. The political pendulum swung to the left and in 1994 a socialist-liberal coalition came to power that was compelled to introduce much-needed but painful measures to balance the budget. Falling for the demagoguery of easy solutions, the people again turned to the right, led by the once-liberal Viktor Orbán. In 1998, following a dirty campaign, the first Orbán government came to power with radical-right support. But four years later, in no small measure due to Orbán’s semi-dictatorial governance, his party, Fidesz, lost to the same socialist-liberal coalition that had governed before.

Orbán led a no-holds-barred, destructive opposition for the following eight years, greatly hindering good governance. Massive, often violent street demonstrations aimed at bringing down the government were later also fuelled by austerity measures necessitated by the financial crisis. In 2010, Orbán claimed that only he, if given a strong mandate, could bring about peace in society. The dangers of a 2/3 mandate, which, under the Hungarian electoral system could be achieved with 1/3 of the eligible votes, could not be effectively communicated by those who saw the imminent threat to our budding democracy, since by then, the (radical-)right already dominated the media.

Actually, the frequently mentioned 2/3 majority is not indicative of the public’s support for the regime’s anti-west rhetoric and anti-democratic actions. On the contrary, we must bear in mind that 85% of us voted in 1997 to join NATO and 83.8% voted in 2003 to join the European Union to assure our integration into the community of western democracies. These results contrast strongly with the less than 53% of mostly protest votes that Fidesz received in 2010. A mass demonstration, organized for the middle of January by rightwing activists to show support for the government, oriented mostly toward the west, as indicated by the large number of very fancy (and expensive) bilingual or just English banners.

While, according to the Ministry of the Interior itself, the number of participants amounted to 400 thousand people, even this clearly exaggerated number is not terribly impressive if we consider that on May 1, 1957, just a few months after the country was united in its uprising against communist dictatorship, nearly a million people were marched out or bussed into the same place to demonstrate their support for Moscow’s János Kádár.

History repeats itself: the road towards financial insolvency and its likely consequences

A similarly rough road led to Hungary’s present financial hardships. In brief, World War II left Hungary devastated, but Stalin did not allow us to benefit from the Marshall Plan. On empty stomachs and under the terror of a communist dictatorship, we - some of us working as forced labourers - had rebuilt much of the country by 1956, when the Red Army again reduced large parts of Budapest to rubble. Kádár eventually had to borrow money and finally, in 1982, joined the IMF, which played an important role in the aforementioned liberalization. However, the spiralling debt that developed greatly contributed to the instability of subsequent governments.

History seemed to repeat itself, as the cost of servicing our accumulated national debt skyrocketed. After having asked the IMF to leave the country two years ago, the government now has to meet conditions for new negotiations. It is readily apparent that in order to do so it will have to adopt austerity measures: the only question is how much belt tightening will be required. Unless the IMF ventures into the micromanagement of its conditions, we can be sure that the lowest income groups will be hurt the most, since the government will try to continue its policies of favouring the ‘middle class’ (read: affluent supporters). This will undoubtedly push the disenfranchised masses into the lap of the radicals. As there is no radical left visible to the naked eye, this means the radical right, the Jobbik party with its anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy fringes and nationalistic demagoguery, which has already garnered the support of some 30% of the under-30 age group. While a couple of years ago the poorest regions of the country were their main bases, today in some universities much higher percentages, even up to 70-80% of students profess at least leaning towards Jobbik, or identifying with at least some of their nationalist, chauvinist, racist teachings. With slogans and symbols banging on about a “glorious” (in reality devastating) Nazi past, Jobbik can mobilize large and aggressive crowds, as they did on January 14, when the burning of an EU flag was part of their planned programme for the day. The greatest concern with regard to the criticisms and pressures aimed at influencing the political course of Hungary is that without a good understanding of the political realities, even the best intention to create financial stability and strengthen democracy in Hungary may unintentionally play into the hands of Jobbik. 

The manipulation of public attitudes to discourage potential opposition 

Statements by Orbán & Co. that they have “poured into concrete” their legislative excesses for many election cycles to come, and thus can change the rules of the game (including the election system) anytime with their 2/3 majority, are not merely arrogant blustering. Rather, their statements are meant to convince those who are increasingly disturbed by the usurpation of power to give up all hope that on an uneven playing field they could win a 2/3 majority. And, of course they also want us to believe that without winning a 2/3 majority none of the “cardinal laws” can be changed that were hastily passed last autumn and that allegedly will tie the hands of future governments “for forty years”.

The “give up all hope” political apathy that this Fidesz propaganda is intended to achieve is reflected in the steadily growing numbers of people who are inclined not to vote, already amounting to more than half of the population. There may be some who regard Orbán’s retreat from some of his heretofore most vehemently defended positions as a sign of weakening. This is, of course only a tactical retreat to open the way for negotiations with the IMF. But even more so it was presented to the public as great victory of Viktor Orbán, on whom the country can always count to outsmart her enemies.

This kind of interpretation can divide up the public even more, as some people have access through the internet to what actually happens in Brussels and Washington; while most only hear about it through the Fidesz-created and -controlled news filtration and reinterpretation machinery, which aims to stir nationalistic feelings by convincing people that ‘the West’ conspired against our sovereignty and wants to degrade us to colonial status. To counter this, we would have to overcome the already stifling effect of the new media law, which was met with protests from the west, but so far with little effect.

To give hope to the disillusioned, we must be able to bring them the voices of the established democracies, going back to Thomas Jefferson, who called freedom of the press the great bulwark of liberty and warned against its infringement by despotic governments. We must point also to President Obama, who said: “It’s in our interest to help foster democracy through the diplomatic and economic resources at our disposal. But even as we provide such help, we should be clear that the institutions of democracy – free markets, a free press, a strong civil society – cannot be built overnight….” We have learned this the hard way, trying to do so on our own for twenty-five years now, after our first attempt in 1956 failed in a few days when we received no help, having fallen on the wrong side of the iron curtain. But then, as already mentioned, at least we could offer a sacrifice on the altar of democracy.

The same fervent and resolute yearning to live with dignity and without fear in a western type of liberal democracy burns in most of us as ardently as it did in ’56, when the west encouraged us to fight against the evil of communism, but did not help, and in the 80s when it did not encourage us, but helped. The IMF, which we joined in 1982  through quiet negotiation, at least initially behind the back of Moscow, helped us through the reforms during a gradually softening dictatorship all the way to the free elections in the spring of 1990. Much credit is also due to a British-American billionaire of Hungarian descent, who backed the young reformers and provided scholarships, for example to the then liberal-democrat Viktor Orbán, to expose them to western democracies.

Now our situation is much more complex and in a way more precarious. In ’56 we were subjugated by the Evil Empire, and our uprising against the dictatorship was glorious even in its failure. In the 1980s the vast majority of the population was the beneficiary of the reforms and the country was essentially united in its desire for peaceful change. In the end the change from a weakened dictatorship to a free society was so peaceful that without a catharsis the freedoms won were not appreciated, and many people fall for the Fidesz propaganda that the democratic transformation only began to take place with their “election booth revolution” of 2010.

How the country got to be, and remains divided?

In the eight years (2002-2010) in which Fidesz was the largest opposition party it did everything it possibly could to bring down the socialist-liberal coalition government. It even incited riots with the help of far-right radicals, including anti-Semite neo-Nazis and football hooligans. Those who stood for liberal democracy, republican principles and non-nationalist devotion to country and European values were called traitors. Those who spoke up against such prejudices were abused in the media, which was increasingly dominated by the radical right. Their phone numbers were even made public to encourage anonymous callers. The country was systematically divided. 

Having won a secure two-thirds mandate in 2010 Orbán Victor had an opportunity to extend a hand to his defeated opponents. Instead, he and all those on the right side of the political divide they created, did everything to make the division permanent, talking about ‘your-kind’ and ‘our-kind’, and implying that only their kind should be regarded as part of the nation.

Yet at this point the democratic opposition is not primarily up against Fidesz, which according to recent public opinion polls has lost some 30% of its support since the last election. The divisive rhetoric is more and more shifting over to Jobbik, which needs to distinguish itself from Fidesz, from under whose cloak it crawled out in the days when they had a common enemy: the democratically elected government that they intended to bring down.

Prospects for the next election

Whether Fidesz alone or in coalition with Jobbik can be defeated at the next election depends on several factors. First of all, it depends on when the election will be held. Normally it would be in 2014, at the end of the current four year cycle, but several signs point to the possibility that it will be earlier. Without going into details, Fidesz sees that its support is weakening, and its leaders are likely to have anticipated this, knowing how drastically they wanted to control all aspects of our lives. And now they must also consider the possibility that if the economic situation continues to worsen next year, they have a better chance of winning at least a simple majority without Jobbik this year than in 2014.

And actually they no longer need the 2/3 majority, now that they have enacted all the cardinals laws that assure them the concentration of power that Orbán&Co. sought for many years.  In fact, losing the 2/3 may even be to their advantage, as under pressure to change some cardinal laws Orbán may simply say: “Sorry, we did not get a mandate from the people to change anything.”

An early election would also be to the advantage of Fidesz, because their devastating defeat left the current opposition in disarray, with the exception of Jobbik. And this is where the real danger lies. In fact many people are so distressed by the current attack on our democratic institutions that they actually hope that a financial crisis will bring down the current autocracy.  They seem to ignore the danger that the consequent destitution and despair will drive the masses straight into the radically demagoguic arms of Jobbik, strengthening them to the point that it may form the next government by itself or in coalition with the remains of Fidesz.

When confronted with this, many of those who are even ready to suffer a financial crisis to be freed of the despotism of Fidesz argue in despair that Europe would no longer allow the establishment within its body of such a festering sore, a potentially contagious infection such as Jobbik. Several of our neighbours have suffered bouts of neo-Nazi infection already, after all. But there is no reason to believe that they gained permanent immunity.

Taking a somewhat different route in presenting the background of the present dire situation in Hungary, Gábor Schein also warns: "What has happened in Hungary is something that affects Europe directly, presenting the EU with specific and grave dangers.” However, he sees this danger not in what may come, but in what already exists: “The authoritarian rule of Viktor Orbán could easily prove to be particularly infectious throughout the wider region.” And he goes on, explaining that the defeat of Fidesz may not be possible in 2014, mainly because its opposition is too weak and fragmented.

This is true of the democratic, socialist-liberal opposition. On the other hand, technically Jobbik is also an opposition party, and it is far from being weak or fragmented. If it can come to power because of bungled attempts to influence the course of events, it may cast a dark shadow way beyond our borders.

Can the stick work without a carrot? 

The onslaught of criticism of the autocratic rule of Fidesz and the concrete steps taken by Brussels to reverse some of the most glaring violations of democratic principles introduced by the avalanche of legislations enacted last year certainly encourages the hopes of those who believe that after such a long struggle and many setbacks democracy can be fully restored and preserved in Hungary. Having learned how vulnerable democracy is, we certainly will be more vigilant in the future, if we can get out of the present repressive autocracy and start with a clean slate in our quest for pluralist democracy.

Without the prospect of a clean slate, Fidesz’s propaganda may convince those who are not likely to vote for them (they have a prepared list of such renegades) not to bother to vote, since regardless who wins the next election the millstone of the national debt will remain around our necks. In fact, they may even be able to convince people that a change in governance and economic policy will set us back as much as 2010 did.

In the present situation of very widespread political apathy, it is unlikely that the stick of criticism and economic pressures would be enough without a carrot to motivate people who have already resigned themselves to “40 years” of Fidesz rule. Schein, without calling the carrot a carrot, writes: “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.”  Such assistance, whether Schein means financial or moral, would be welcome, to say the least.

How much time do we have?

We certainly should not think in a timeframe of more then a couple of years to prevent what may happen and reverse what already has happened, and we should not regard the 70s and 80s as an example of what may or should happen. In those years we were coming out of dictatorship, and even though laws and institutions threatening personal freedoms were mostly still in place, they were applied less and less to keep people in line. By the end of the 70s the fear of the authorities changed gradually to a cat and mouse game. Illegal pamphlets were produced and distributed by the thousands, and when copier machines were confiscated, people in the underground opposition got better ones from an American benefactor.

In our backwards world time works against us, as all the laws and agencies of autocracy and despotic absolutism have been put in place so that they can be used against us, sneakily if need be, when the eyes of the protectors of democracy are no longer on us. Time definitely works against us, because if Fidesz gets one more term, their prophesy of reaching their Canaan of a purified, monolith (racially pure, if the Jobbik will have its way) Magyar nation within 40 years, with its naturalized, nationalistic Diaspora, is likely to come true.

Attempts to influence what is happening in Hungary should be well planned and coordinated, bearing in mind how we got to this point and what we can expect to happen now, lest we fall from the frying pen of autocracy into the fire of the radical right. 

About the author

László Bitó was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1934. In the communist dictatorship after WWII, his family was among the many thousands marked as bourgeoisie, reactionaries, enemies of the working class, and in 1951 they were deported to a small village in eastern Hungary. In ’54 László was drafted into a forced labour unit to work in a coal mine. In ’56 he and his comrades disarmed their guards to join the revolution, but when it was crushed he recognized that he could no longer live in the hopelessness of a returning dictatorship. Escaping from Hungary, he ended up in New York, where he earned a Ph.D. in Medical Cell Biology and Biophysics at Columbia University. He then joined Columbia’s Research faculty where his work led to the development of a new approach to the reduction of eye pressure that saved the sight of millions of glaucoma sufferers. Upon retirement from Columbia as Emeritus Professor, László Bitó returned to his native Hungary and has started a second career as a novelist and journalist.

See also www.laszlobito.com


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