Andor Kish / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
Andor Kish / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

A Storm over Lake Balaton?

Szilárd Mészáros

European Parliament Elections in Hungary

The other day, a German friend of mine said: “Whenever we heard worrying news from Hungary in the first 20 years after the fall of communism, we always thought it was just another little storm over Lake Balaton. We should have taken it more seriously.” Long held up as a model of successful transition to democracy and European integration, Hungary is now one of the darkest corners of the continent. How did it come to this? What happened to this charming Central European republic? What are we to make of a country whose famed Lake Balaton was, in the decades prior to 1989, a symbolic landmark in the lives of individual Europeans, a meeting place for Germans from East and West, and yet whose dearest wish now – to judge by its government’s policies – is to be completely shut off from the Western world? How is the Hungarian left faring in this climate? What leftist initiatives can be identified in general, and in particular with regard to this year’s European Parliament elections?

What my friend said holds true insofar as the current policies of Viktor Orbán’s government are indeed, in some respects, rooted in a previous era. For all their achievements in transforming Hungary into a parliamentary democracy, the 20 years from 1990 to 2010 also involved significant setbacks from a social perspective and considerable economic disillusionment. There are really two geopolitical factors behind this. First, the neoconservative turn taken by the United States and Europe, symbolised for example by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, brought an end to social peace as The existential perspectives of the masses have disappeared. Second, social tensions were severely exacerbated by the 2008 economic crisis. The agenda of Hungary’s left-liberal governments between 2002 and 2010 included many measures that could be regarded as neoliberal (such as the introduction of doctors’ and student tuition fees), which gave the ‘traditional’ political system a major credibility problem.

This paved the way for populists like Viktor Orbán, who in opposition took every opportunity to discredit the parties in power at that time and their leaders – especially the socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose charismatic persona posed a threat to Orbán. At that time, Orbán adopted a West-oriented, pro-European stance, very different from his current political position. When in 2007 he said that “oil may come from the East but freedom always comes from the West”, he was clearly distancing himself from the then government’s pro-Russian foreign policy.

Hungarian ‘illiberalism’: background and attempts at interpretation

Since then, having won three two-thirds majorities in the Hungarian parliament, Orbán has performed a complete about-turn. The politics of ‘illiberalism’ pursued by his governments have now achieved worldwide notoriety. However, what looked at first like a purely tactical calculation has gradually evolved into a deep-rooted strategic conviction: the Hungarian government now actually believes in an anti-secular state, as well as eschewing political correctness, banning gender studies, lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 12 (for the most serious offences including murder, manslaughter, robbery and assault) and reducing the minimum school leaving age to 16 (in keeping with the ‘work-based social model’). It has partially abolished inheritance tax and pursues family policies based on traditional gender roles. The political credo underpinning social inequality and at the same time serving as the ideological foundation for cutting unemployment benefits is that the poor are responsible for their own lot. A form of perverse redistribution is taking place, whereby the rich are getting richer and those left behind are being pushed into an ever more desperate plight. Given the similarities in their programmes, it feels as if a Hungarian version of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has already taken power here.

Despite repeated attempts to work out a political classification for Orbán’s system and come up with a suitable name for it, the conventional categories of dictatorship and authoritarianism no longer seem adequate: after all, the country still has free (if not fair) elections and an (at least partially) independent judiciary. A “hybrid regime”, a “permanent state of exception” and a “one-man democracy” are just three of many attempts to interpret the Orbán power trip. In another context (the Balkans), Dirk Auer writes about “stabilitocracies”, which he defines as “semi-authoritarian regimes that stage themselves as guarantors of stability” but which “undermine democratic principles and the rule of law, attack the media, and subordinate state institutions to party interests”.

In recent years, Orbán has presented himself as the saviour of Hungarianness and of the Christian West from a “wave of Muslim migrants” – a political self-portrait that helped him to another election victory in April 2018. A (near-absolute) majority of voters played it safe, favouring the stability apparently offered by Orbán in the face of fear of the unknown (refugees in this case) and the associated fear of losing out. The following points are worth noting in this regard:

1) These electoral decisions and political sympathies mask deeper-seated issues from Hungary’s past. The Hungarians experienced many centuries of oppression – first under the Turks and then under the Habsburgs. After the collapse of communism in 1989-90, politicians – chief among them the gifted strategist Orbán – were able to build on the awakening and burgeoning sense of national pride. Hungarians are told repeatedly by right-wing politicians that they are destined for greater things, that they deserve better. Orbán has recently claimed that Hungarians are not given enough respect and that they are misunderstood. This sentiment is even reflected in the country’s national anthem, whose final lines refer to the Hungarian people having “suffered for all sins of the past and of the future”. Clearly, such a historical legacy makes it difficult to build a balanced and optimistic sense of national identity – all the more so when politicians unscrupulously undermine this. Moreover, to this day there is still no sound basis for a conscientious reappraisal of Hungarian history. Yet if a nation cannot come to terms with its past, this is arguably the main prerequisite for the emergence of nationalist sentiments.

2) Nationalism tends to grow whenever the number of those left behind increases and the gap between rich and poor widens. In these circumstances, the frustration felt by those who have lost out from globalisation and the deliberate smear campaign targeting ‘unpatriotic traitors’ provide fertile ground for authoritarian policies. In recent years, Orbán has consistently railed against the left-liberal elite, the banks, foreign financial capital, the International Monetary Fund and Brussels bureaucrats. In doing so he has managed to present himself as a protector of the Hungarian nation – one whose protection requires some extraordinary (‘unorthodox’) measures to be taken. Of course, the 175 km fence at the Serbian border and the 41 km fence at the Croatian border do not prevent refugees (referred to as “migrants” in government communications) reaching Europe from the Middle East. However, they do symbolise a brand of nationalist politics based on defence and protection from the outside world, though not – in view of recent rabble-rousing against refugees, for example – one that can be regarded as in any way Christian or Christian Democratic. However, this hardline approach (based ultimately on xenophobia, racism and feelings of white superiority) goes down very well with large swathes of the electorate, as it embodies a strong, even all-powerful State providing protection and security.

3) In addition, one of the effects of the centralisation of political power is to create an attitude within society that everybody waits for decisions from above. Gradually the point is being reached where nobody dares to be proactive in dealing with any community-related or even work situations. For where personal initiative is no longer valued, or is even proscribed, it is self-evident that people will gradually become subordinated to the will of the authorities. As a result, the public and even some private media have been brought to heel and are now merely serving the propaganda purposes of the government. This climate played a significant role in Orbán’s re-election. Many people, not wanting to lose their jobs and fearing for their family members, have now begun to toe the line. The deplorable state of public services and the healthcare system is not proving to be a significant factor. This is because large sections of society have an interest in continued Orbán governments: civil servants, community workers, schoolteachers (whose employer has, for some years now, been a state-run central authority) and of course the oligarchs. All these groups are profiting from an unmistakable renewed trend towards corruption in everyday life.

Orbán is also ensuring that there are suitable outlets for public frustration. By creating one new bogeyman after another, he is able to scapegoat others (as in the witch-hunt-like smear campaigns against George Soros and more recently Jean-Claude Juncker) and so carry on acting almost as if he were still in opposition.

With the population cowed and suppressed, it is understandably also difficult for left-wing political forces to mobilise their vote and even work out a viable line of opposition. Yet rarely has Hungary had a greater need for humanistic policies, solidarity and justice than today, when heavily indebted families are threatened with forced eviction and the homeless are criminalised by the Constitution. On the one hand we have a growing precariat, low levels of social activity and a marked disenchantment with politics, and on the other a fractious and fragmented left, whose parties garner a total of around 20% in the opinion polls.

Clashing values over Europe

The big question in the forthcoming European Parliament elections is whether the Hungarian left with its pro-European stance can succeed in establishing a counterbalance to Orbán’s hostility to the EU. For some time now, he has been hard at work producing the latest political poison to emerge from his cauldron. Branding Brussels the new Moscow, labelling the European Commission the embodiment of the mistakes of the EU elite and referring to the EU as the empire of the Brussels bureaucrats are actually expressions of right-wing Euroscepticism that serve to depict the European Union as the new external threat facing Hungary and to alienate the public from the EU even more than they may be already. All these remarks by Orbán are at odds with the fact that Hungary receives the highest level of funding per capita of any EU Member State (Hungary has received around €30 billion from the EU budget over the past seven years). Yet in this regard he consistently makes out that the subsidies paid to Hungary are compensation for the country opening up its market to Western capital.

However cynical and arrogant this assertion may be, we must not lose sight of the fact that this Western (and especially German) capital recently saved Orbán’s party from being permanently excluded from the European People’s Party (EPP). Hungary’s corporate tax rules significantly benefit the German automotive industry – and the country also provides it with cheap labour. (Other plans by Western European conservative politicians concerning Orbán’s Fidesz party remaining in the EPP will not be discussed here.)

For years, Hungary’s leftist political forces have faced the challenge of how to form an efficient and credible opposition to this opposition-minded government. The depressing truth is that the left has not done its political homework, having failed over the last eight or nine years to provide an insurgent alternative based on the values of solidarity and openness to the world. The Hungarian left and left-liberal parties and movements have not followed the paramount revolutionary commandment handed down by Ferdinand Lassalle and Rosa Luxemburg: to proclaim loudly and clearly what is.

One encouraging exception, which could also be considered a step in the right direction, was the opposition parties’ joint protest at a parliamentary plenary session in December 2018, in which they tried to prevent a vote on the amendment of the Labour Code. The government majority wanted to allow an extra 150 hours of overtime to be worked each year, on top of the 250 already permitted. In the end they (unsurprisingly) succeeded in pushing this through. Furthermore, the work-time cycle has been extended from a maximum of 12 to a maximum of 36 months, if appropriate provisions are laid down in the collective labour agreement. These new arrangements provide even greater scope for worker exploitation. The opposition dubbed this legislation a ‘slave law’ and, for the first time in years, managed to establish a suitable contextual framework for a political issue and to make the political discourse a subject of debate – if only for a short time.

A number of small left-of-centre parties will be contesting the European Parliament elections.

The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), the former governing social democratic party, has suffered mounting losses in the three most recent parliamentary elections. Latterly, they formed an electoral alliance with the green/left party Dialogue for Hungary (Párbeszéd), securing almost 12% of the vote. The two parties will join forces again for these elections, under the slogan ‘Home. Love. Europe.’ – a clear appeal to voters’ national pride and Hungary’s national interest within the EU.

The Democratic Coalition (DK), the party of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, is unabashedly pro-European. Having entered the national Parliament with just over 5% of the vote at the 2018 elections, DK hail the idea of a United States of Europe and claim to be Hungary’s most European party. Their list is headed by the talented and charismatic Klára Dobrev (Gyurcsány’s wife), who, after much consideration, has now decided to move into politics. The party has staked out its ground the clearest, with an avowedly leftist message based on manifesto items already instigated by the left internationally: a European minimum wage and child benefit, a European minimum pension and European taxation of multinational companies.

The globalisation-sceptical green party Politics Can Be Different (LMP), having polled 7% in the 2018 elections, is currently flirting with the idea of joining forces with Jobbik, a formerly right-wing radical party that has latterly become difficult to classify. After a move towards the centre, Jobbik performed worse than expected in the elections, securing 19% of the vote. Both parties have been involved in crippling internal disputes in recent months and are significantly down in the opinion polls.

In light of the above, it is perhaps unsurprising that in Hungary no one political force has been able to establish itself to the left of social democracy. While there are some parties who see themselves as representing workers, they barely register on the radar and are politically insignificant.

In this situation, where virtually all the votes from the right fall to one party, namely Orbán’s Fidesz, while the left is fragmented across a plethora of electoral lists espousing a wide range of values, a victory for Orbán is as predictable as it is unstoppable. While the varied nature of the left-wing opposition may be considered a virtue from a democratic perspective, in the Hungarian political system it creates an ongoing sense of hopelessness for its voters, who for years have been going to the polls feeling humbled and hemmed in.