A couple of days ago a conference was held in Budapest with the title: Conservatism in the Twenty-First Century. Several right-wing politicians were invited to speak, among them István Stumpf, political scientist and formerly head of the prime minister’s office under Viktor Orbán; Tibor Navracsics, previously advisor to Orbán and currrently head of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus; Péter Harrach, previously minister of social welfare under Orbán and currently one of the stalwarts of the Christian Democratic (pseudo) Party. The most interesting speech was delivered by Ibolya Dávid, party leader of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum, and in my opinion the only true conservative in the bunch.
It is difficult to have a conservative party in Hungary. After all, a modern conservative party is supposed to preserve the best traditions of the past, those traditions that have relevance for today. However, the kind of conservatism we associate with the Anglo-Saxon tradition never really existed in Hungary. In Hungary the right didn’t mean conservatism but right radicalism. Some observers like to point to István Bethlen, prime minister in the 1930s, as the embodiment of the kind of conservatism that might be acceptable today, or rather on which a modern Hungarian conservatism could be built. But even the conservatism of Bethlen cannot serve as an example for the twenty-first century: he was far too conservative, perhaps he could even be called a reactionary. After all, it was during his leadership that the electoral law was changed to one of the least liberal in all of Europe which, among other things, included open voting in the countryside. Although he wasn’t responsible for the numerus clausus that excluded most Jewish students from universities, he didn’t do anything to change the law either.
Most of the modern European conservative parties developed after World War II, about the time that a Soviet-type regime was forced on Hungary. Therefore there was no possibility for an organic development of Hungarian conservatism. And indeed, the story of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum amply demonstrates that real conservatism has a very narrow base in Hungary. It was considered a miracle that the MDF managed to get into parliament by receiving just over five percent of the votes.
One thing is sure: the Fidesz is not a conservative party. Viktor Orbán himself has gone through several transformations–from radical liberal, atheist internationalist to right radical nationalist with very strong ties with the churches. As for the party, I cannot see any overarching political philosophy. There seems to be only one important goal for Orbán: to be prime minister again. At any price. The country be damned for now; paradise will come once he is back in power. Right now he thinks that to say no to everything and to promise the sky is the correct strategy. If that means leaving the old unreformed socialist health care system intact and let corruption flower, no problem. The important thing is to win. Whether he will win or not with this strategy, we will see.
What does Ibolya Dávid think about conservative politics? She herself must realize the weakness of native Hungarian conservatism and therefore she claims that the MDF is a party based on Anglo-Saxon and Hungarian conservative traditions. She rejects "categorically" the pre-1945 regime which she labeled an "empty world of the gentry," "world of the gendarmes," and "antisemitism." Instead she wants a moderate, modern conservative and "capitalist" party that believes in a regime based on real competition and competence.
Dávid reserved a few harsh words for the Fidesz whose only game is "the battle for power," whose politics is no more than "lumpen strategy." According to her, the Fidesz finds itself in a "negative spiral." She added that the Fidesz’s most recent interim program is a bit more promising and more realistic than the party’s earlier programs. One could agree with this if this more moderate program, mostly the work of Tibor Navracsics, were accepted within the party. But Viktor Orbán’s utterances and the written program differ greatly, and I have no doubt which one is the stronger and final voice.
Meanwhile one can only keep fingers crossed for Ibolya Dávid and her party. A modern conservative party is badly needed in Hungary. Yet I am worried that without true conservatives there can be no conservative party. Just as without liberals there can be no liberal party either. Too bad! I would love to see such a development.