The Magi: Haider, Fico, and Orbán

The Hungarian equivalent of the Magi (the Three Kings) is "Háromkirályok." Grammatically it's a most interesting construction because it goes back to a time when Hungarian still used the plural form of a noun following a number. Today if you talk about three kings in Hungarian you simply say "three king – három király." Another such word, also with religious meaning, is "All Saints," which in Hungarian is "Mindenszentek." Again there is the final -k indicating the plural form.

Well, after this little linguistic detour, let's talk about the three politicians–Haider, Fico, and Orbán–whom Pál Tamás, a sociologist, calls in an article in Népszabadság the Magi and the "managers of populism." We are talking about three neighboring states with a long common history where not only the citiscapes are similar but where the people's culture and mentality are very close as well. The pioneer marketing manager of populism was Jörg Haider of Austria who died about a month ago in a car accident. Tamás writes that an early Haider poster proclaimed: "Vienna will not be Chicago!" A new poster of another right radical party reads: "Vienna will not be Istanbul!" The homepage of the same party touts "Popular Representation instead of EU-traitors!" And the majority of Austrians under the age of thirty voted for these radical parties at the last elections. According to Tamás perhaps Austrian democracy is not yet in danger but liberalism, modernism, Atlantism are.

Tamás contends that Haider had to be satisfied with a position at the far-right because the more "elegant" positions, moderate right and left, were already occupied. In Slovakia and Hungary the situation was different. In Slovakia there was a serious vacuum on the left, while in Hungary the vacuum was on the right. Fico became a "social democrat" and Orbán quickly abandoned his left liberal position to become the spokesman of the right. Tamás argues with some justification that if the situation had been reversed today we would find Fico as the head of the right and Orbán as the head of a socialist party. For these populists ideology doesn't really matter. They are not principled, they want power, and they move where there is opportunity. Although these politicians don't have ideological commitments and their sole aim is to garner as many votes as possible, eventually "they become the captives of their own rhetoric."

At the beginning of his career Haider tried to make deals with the moderate right, but it soon became clear that those people didn't want anything to do with him. So he moved farther and farther to the right and eventually became the persona of an extreme right ideology.

Orbán had a difficult transition to the right. His old liberal friends abandoned him, he himself looked down on the "classical right" (the MDF), and ideologically he found himself in no man's land. He spoke in a somewhat radicalized version of the language of the "traditional" Hungarian right, but he didn't develop an independent ideology. It was under these circumstances that he suddenly found himself, to his own surprise and a bit too early, in power. During his four years as prime minister he tried to build a "national" middle class and spent a great deal of time on questions of the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. Otherwise there was no ideological originality in his thinking. Once he lost the 2002 elections Orbán seemed to be paralyzed. As Tamás says, "the defeat visibly made his ability to learn difficult." Between 2004 and 2006 when his party's popularity seemed to be in freefall he discovered the "little man of Comrade Kádár," but trying to compete with the socialists didn't bring spectacular results.

According to Tamás, Fico's situation in Slovakia was much easier. By the time he appeared on the political scene the legacy of the old Czechoslovak social democractic tradition was practically gone. So Fico could do anything he wanted. However, he had no ideology, especially not a socialist ideology, and he had to ally himself with the nationalists and the nationalists won out. As Tamás ironically says: "the cadres of the Matica Slovenska always wanted to be the ideologists of the state." The Matica Slovenska was a cultural organization established in 1863 when Slovakia was still part of Hungary; it always had a nationalistic tinge to it.

While most populist parties come and go, the parties of the Magi have been successful over time. True, Orbán's Fidesz has not been in power for six years and most likely he will have his next chance only in two years' time, but he manages to hang to the two million voters he gathered about ten years ago. Fico's popularity is growing. And what is the lesson we learn? These three populists were not friends of the people but simply found the cracks in the wall of democratic politics. The intellectual and political elite hasn't paid much attention to "those without language exams." That is, those with less education, the ones who are frustrated and disappointed. The new world left them behind. It is this group that supports the Haiders, the Ficos, and the Orbáns.

These countries need their own Barack Obama.