The Strange Death of Democratic Hungary

International & Foreign Policy  }

Carl Rowlands / June 9, 2018
What's so terrifying about the consolidation of Viktor Orbán's regime is how little reassurance it offers to democrats or socialists 2895 words / 12 min read

Photo: Owen Hatherley

The exact nature of the Orbán regime in Hungary can be difficult for observers to fully encapsulate. Perhaps two examples, relating to the governing Fidesz party, might help illustrate.

The first case is of a government minister, formerly mayor of the most central district of Budapest. Together with an associate, he proposes a scheme to let rich foreigners buy Hungarian bonds, in exchange for Hungarian citizenship. As part of this plan, a number of offshore companies are established, to act as brokers for the sale of these bonds. These offshore companies are closely connected to members of the Fidesz government. Each time a bond is sold, a large profit is made. But then our minister is given a new responsibility, devising a huge, state-funded campaign against migration. Millions of euros are spent on billboards, television advertising and different forms of media manipulation, focusing on migrants as being dirty, or an invasion force, an existential threat to the Hungarian way of life. The campaign, by any available measure, works.

The second case is of a mining engineer who has a son who goes on to become a very famous politician. This mining engineer is highly regarded in the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party during the 1970s and 1980s. As a valued and loyal party member, he is given responsibilities for propaganda. With the system change in the late 1980s, he is able to turn his political capital into real capital. He finds the finance to buy out the quarry at a minimal price. As owner, he proceeds to win a number of contracts, becoming rich in the process. His son, Viktor Orbán, becomes a politician who takes a turn towards the populist right, and publicly blames many of Hungary’s problems on ‘the communists’ who have benefited from the transition. When his son wins office, first in the late 1990s, and then again in 2010, government contracts go through the roof. The mining engineer becomes a multi-millionaire.

If there is any trace of an ideology here, it is arguably that of pure mendacity and cynicism. It is the politics of the grotesque. But a point about fascism, which tends to be underrepresented in historical accounts, is that it always was based upon massive degrees of cynicism, both hard-wired into the operating mode of the system, but also in its unaffectionate, yet encompassing embrace of existing elites. This being the 21st century, in an economy with many neo-liberal assumptions entirely unchallenged, Hungary currently has what Gaspar Miklos Tamas has described as a ‘post-fascist’ outcome: the Islamophobia and outright racism is delivered with a knowing smirk, the aspiration is for both power and money. The system which Orbán has developed since 2010 has the dialogue and construction of rude hierarchy, oligarchy and racialism, but is not prosecuting murderous physical aggression against political opponents so characteristic of fascism in the 20th century.

The government in Hungary has been producing openly racist propaganda. Propaganda which portrays people of colour as being inferior. It is the fact of its production, not the depth of the belief in the propaganda, which is the crucial aspect. It is possible, maybe even probable, that a dynamic is being created, whereby the only way to criticise the regime, is by their own failures as fascists. Just before the election it emerged that, despite the millions spent on ‘information’ aimed at stigmatising ‘migrants’, the interior ministry had in fact been processing the asylum claims of more than a thousand refugees. This was an obvious opposition attack line, but it was perhaps the most ominous: surely, if what waits beyond Orbán is a more thoroughgoing hatred of minorities and a more ‘honest’ right-wing authoritarianism, then politics in Hungary has been truly, effectively filleted.

At the outset of a regime, what is required, more than anything, is a degree of inaction and complicity. Protestors have filled the streets of Budapest on more than one occasion since the landslide Fidesz win on April 8th - a coalition of the non-Fidesz right-wing, liberals and the scatterings of what remains of the Hungarian left. The basis for a new republic, and a redrawn political system, might be in these protests, but the political agency, and the popular appetite for aspects of constitutional reform, has never been so slight. Unfortunately, rallies and A-B marches within Budapest are not considered by Viktor Orbán to represent a threat. Orbán, a political calculator of some ability, probably thinks that the demonstrators are simply not desperate enough, or politically hungry enough, to convert angst at the election manipulation and results into a wave of popular unrest, or civil disobedience. The numbers are large, but it’s mainly the usual suspects: students, the highly educated, the minority who are politically engaged. Summer will come. It will get hot. The crowds will dissipate, some of them to Lake Balaton, some to Croatia.

In the meantime, every day that passes sees further consolidation of Hungary’s material assets among Orbán’s oligarch insiders. His main bag-carrier, Lorinc Mészáros, has, in the last few weeks, been confirmed as Hungary’s richest man. His property and business assets - the ones which we actually know about - are now approaching massive levels of concentration, including chunks of Hungary’s core infrastructure - electricity generation, banks and agriculture. And the opposition know that this political-economic reality would be plaguing them, if by some miracle they had overcome the propaganda machine, electoral system biases and their own political incompetency to snatch an electoral victory. The Orbán machine has been designed to manipulate elections, but it is also robust enough to survive electoral cycles, having been hard-coded into oligarchy, the ‘natural order’ of the Hungarian nation. Any opposition would not only have to win, and win big, but it would then be faced with a war of attrition, as it would then be obliged to attempt the dismantling of hostile business empires created on the back of patronage - business empires where all roads lead to Viktor Orbán himself. The perception that the ‘democratic’ (ie non-far-right) opposition didn’t want to actually win is widespread, only confirmed by repeated references to corrupted individuals within the opposition who are apparently on the Fidesz payroll.

Even with the best of intentions, a new administration would be faced with legal detritus on the scale of that facing Italian prosecutors in the aftermath of the collapse of Andreotti’s client state in the early 1990s, with the additional twist that, in this case, the client state has a nationalist ideology, and an active, aggressive right-wing who will, in theory, man barricades in order to defend deference, oligarchy and hierarchy. It would be a massive struggle: maybe we need to face the fact that it would be a civil war, and that, as things are, the Republican side would simply face a massacre. But most importantly, it is not altogether clear what it is that the Republicans would be fighting for.

There is no way back to the status quo before 2010. The Third Republic was drained of political support by 2010. The Socialist Party (MSZP), is truly finished, a zombie husk, clinging desperately to its diminished resources. We have to acknowledge that the atrophy of democratic institutions and the rule of law in Hungary has parallels in the decline of the Weimar Republic, the inter-war German democratic system that found itself with so few defenders by the early 1930s.

The Hungarian Right does not exactly have a Treaty of Versailles with which to create a myth of betrayal. Hungary’s losses in the Treaty of Trianon were huge, and some of these were arguably unfair, but this was nearly 100 years ago and there is no prospect of reversal. Orbán has made significant moves, in offering Hungarians beyond the border votes and citizenship (for those of us spooked by Brexit, apparently it is now 50 euros to buy a Hungarian/EU passport in Serbia, no questions asked). Trianon is a grievance which the Right has used, but there has been a much more important factor, which Orbán was able to make use of to great effect.

By the late 2000s, the radical Right had adopted a strategy of delegitimisation, highlighting the lack of popular consent underpinning the Third Republic’s origins in the Round Table transition talks in 1989. Of course, the mainstream right-wing at the time took full part in these discussions (Orbán himself, then described as a liberal, was an active participant). But in the late 2000s, with Hungary in recession, government austerity and a number of corruption cases emerging, the far-right was able to portray the origins of the Third Republic in a far more sinister light - that of being a secretive stitch-up, where the communists did deals and converted themselves into post-communist oligarchs.

Orbán, as we have seen, adapted this critique - distancing himself from the chaotic economic situation, the unfair privatisations and the elites which gained from the transition. The critique established a direct link between the pre-1989 system and the socialists. As the MSZP was a successor party to the communist party, it was particularly vulnerable to this attack line. But the other part of this equation was also to associate the Third Republic with failed economics - neo-liberalism. The liberals, upon which the socialists depended for a coalition, were, in most cases, neo-liberals. Consciously, unashamedly Thatcherite, in terms of economics.

It was a powerful critique. Corruption leached into public life, directly or indirectly, as a result of the transition. The constitution of the Third Republic looked forward to a social market economy, specifically mentioning co-operatives and different degrees of social solidarity and support. In fact, the socialist and liberal coalitions disregarded it. They did not attempt to diversify ownership. There was no systematic attempt at redistribution. If anything, the right-wing governments of 1990-1994 and 1998-2002 offered more than the left, in terms of welfare, with the possible exception of the short, socially liberal premiership of Peter Medgyessy, between 2002 and 2004.

Of course, it was grotesque, in so many ways, for Viktor Orbán, a creature of the 1989 political class, to adopt this radical right critique. But he did so with skill, and enormous chutzpah. The argument that the 1990 constitution, a patched but coherent version of the previous, communist-era articles, lacked popular consent, was finally pursued to a bloody conclusion, as Fidesz used their massive parliamentary majority to inflict a brand-new constitution, with barely a trace of either popular consent or even consultation. The post-communist elites were already likely to side with the Right by the mid-2000s: Orbán’s regime has cemented the positions of its own post-communist elites into the very core of Hungary’s existence.

But perhaps what is most disconcerting about the gruesome vivisection of the Hungarian Third Republic, is that it offers us so little reassurance. Those of us who are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn should perhaps feel as challenged as those who are not. Certainly, in terms of economics, the former communists had signed up to a free market economy, and were implicated in creating huge social divisions, whilst failing to offer anything like a functioning welfare state for so many people in need.

Yet the Orbán regime has consolidated itself both legalistically and informally, through its arbitrary use of oligarchical power, stretching throughout the country to enforce its will on questions of property and personnel. Through its different tentacles, it gives verdicts on who should be headmistress of a primary school, on who should be a theatre director. This is an attack upon the very substance of the rule of law, which underpins the function of liberal institutions. Since 2010, there have been ongoing purges of non-government supporters from the civil service and throughout the administration. Orbán has even set up his own university of public administration, to ensure that his aim of ‘everyday nationalism’ is broadly pursued. It is clear that the conditions in which a democratic process can actually occur, through which a democratic change can be implemented, depends upon these liberal institutions, and depends, to an extent, on the rule of law, being implemented, to a large extent, fairly.

The UK left knows that there is an establishment which is anti-leftist, and knows that many institutions are hostile to leftist values. But perhaps many of us take for granted the fact that we have a legal basis. The slow dismembering of the Hungarian Third Republic shows us, though, a model in which we can be excluded from public life, exorcised from the process. It infers that we depend on a kind of legalistic adaptation of liberalism, for continued political existence.

But the liberal, Atlanticist critique of Orbánism is also lacking. I would argue that Orbán represents a specific evolution of neo-conservatism, drawing from the cultural dividers which were so powerful for the US Republicans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and skilfully repurposing them for local conditions. This occurs, as it did in the US, in the absence of a mainstream left capable of wider association or popular mobilisation. Orbán, on one level, as a leader of a political organisation, has created and mobilised a coalition. By describing this as ‘populism’, or simply as ‘tribalism’, commentators adopt an ahistorical approach. Orbán is doing politics, in a rude, pork-barrel, 19th century or early 20th century manner. If anything, he harks back to the loud-mouthed ranters and charlatans who were so prevalent at the beginnings of wider suffrage - the mayoral candidates, described by the political journalist Charles Dickens, whose one chief brag was to have five, six, maybe even seven children.

Though possibly well-intentioned, a liberal analysis of tribal-populism lets the Hungarian opposition off the hook far more than they deserve, relieving them of their continued failures and arrogance. The opposition’s inability to communicate effectively with the Hungarian working classes reflects a distance from the everyday social realities of the less privileged. The channels through which this could have happened have now been closed. Post-socialist Hungarian politics was a vacuum of participation, and a bad man, but a politically capable man, has moved to capture the whole edifice.

Hungary remains Hungary: layered city spaces, often beautiful, often with a rather deliberate air of late-Habsburg cultivation, some buildings putting out like pretentious wedding cakes. The centre of Budapest, with its boulevards, its spinning arrays of courtyard staircases looming over dutifully mopped art deco walkways. But these are also cities-within-cities-within-a-vacuum that have turned their backs on the working class - entirely abandoning a commitment to provision of housing or social provision for those on average or lower incomes, in a way that even the UK, languishing under what is likely to be more than a decade of viciously right-wing governments, has not yet attempted. This is a place where the artistry of the architecture is turning cold, like a disused movie set. The grip of economic forces, resulting from the property economy which we have come to know and revile in the UK, are omniscient.

The regime is embedded-in, as a macro-political entity, and it is embedded as a micro-political entity. Within the localities it relies on the ‘upstanding members of the community’ to admonish people to vote correctly: the house managers, the local bureaucrats, the people who perhaps would have been the most ‘pretend-enthusiast’ communists forty years ago. It is quite clear that the situation in the countryside has become analogous to a Russian-style election, with very organised ‘management’ of voters, allied with massively disproportionate campaign resources. The pattern of the electoral results make spectacularly grim reading. Whole areas of the country, less-wealthy regions, show Fidesz support at around 50 per cent, with another 15 or 20 per cent opting for what was previously described as the ‘far-right’ Jobbik, leaving the disparate democratic opposition clutching at around ten per cent of the voter base. After April 8th, it is impossible, therefore, to imagine a transfer of power in Hungary through a straightforward democratic process.

Putin’s Russia has served as a model for much that has happened since 2010 - including the flat tax system and the use of friendly oligarchs to control the media. The status of post-communist, Fidesz-supporting oligarchs in Hungary can also be compared to the nationalist industrialists of 1930s Germany: the Alfred Hugenberg-types, too dim-witted to succeed as politicians themselves, but who have hitched themselves to the most dynamic political force, and find that they have themselves become almost entirely dependent upon their political contacts. Domestic capital, and foreign capital, in the shape of German multinational companies, have been entirely and almost unreservedly co-operative with the Orbán regime, further embedding a sense of genuine inevitability, whilst underlining that Hungary, under its current government, despite the weighted election and outright racist government propaganda, remains within the parameters of European Union acceptability.

Already among the most pessimistic countries in Europe, with notably high levels of alcohol abuse, with manifest, creeping poverty and mental health issues, Hungary, in its devolved, post-fascist condition, now stands to become a real export country. Not only to export its surplus, under-valued labour force overseas, a process which has already hollowed out the potential opposition, but also to export its own political-economic model, a variant of capitalist kleptocracy, bolstered by unchallenged racism and bigotry. The ‘Misery of the Magyars’ is a political and cultural phenomena, with potential to translate across different European countries, and it may soon be opening somewhere near you - for an indefinite, but probably extensive period.


Carl Rowlands