Viktor Orbán and Hungarian democracy

There are many who dread the prospect of Viktor Orbán's return to power. And, I'm afraid, not without reason. Although it seems that the majority of people don't quite remember the days when Viktor Orbán was prime minister, others have a better memory. They recall that even then Orbán was not exactly a faithful guardian of democracy. In fact, he and his government considered parliament a burden that constrained their activities. They did everything in their power to limit its competence. They couldn't change the constitution because according to the Hungarian system any constitutional change must be passed by a two-thirds majority. Thus, Fidesz had to be satisfied with changes made, for example, in the house rules governing the the functioning of parliament. One house rule demands that parliament while in session convenes "every week." The government parties by a simple majority vote changed that to "every three weeks." The opposition turned to the Constitutional Court which as usual dragged its feet, but three or four years later when Orbán was long gone the Court ruled that the change was indeed unconstitutional. One of the first decisions of the Medgyessy government, by the way, was to honor the letter and the spirit of the law and to restore the custom of meeting every week that parliament is in session.

In a decent parliamentary system the prime minister usually attends at least one parliamentary session a week. Ferenc Gyurcsány, for example, practically every Monday gave a speech and answered questions. Gordon Bajnai has followed that practice. Orbán hardly showed up in parliament as prime minister and, after he lost the elections, for three and a half years the leader of the opposition didn't show up at all! Not once. And after 2006 Fidesz members walked out every time the prime minister spoke. What kind of a parliamentary party are we talking about whose leader thinks so little of the most important institution of democracy, the parliament?

But one can go further. In a democracy the government prepares a yearly budget. As we know, the vote on the budget is an important moment in the life of any government. If the governing party's support has eroded over the course of the year and there are not enough votes to pass the budget, the government falls. Orbán in 2000 prepared and managed to pass with the help of his coalition partner the Smallholders not the requisite yearly budget but a two-year one. And as soon as the budget passed, he got rid of Torgyán and and his party.

Another important instrument of parliamentary politics is setting up investigative committees. It is customary to accede to the wishes of the opposition when it requests an investigation. In the Orbán years not one such committee was convened. Since then every Fidesz request for such a committee has been honored. Another interesting development in Orbán's parliament was the expropriation of the system of interpellations. Interpellations are normally used by the opposition. At the beginning of each session a certain amount of time is set aside for members of parliament to ask questions of the ministers. In order to save themselves a lot of trouble Fidesz came up with the brilliant idea of simply encouraging their own members to ask benign questions from their own ministers who then gave glowing reports about their wonderful accomplishments. It was a mockery of parliamentary democracy.

While in opposition Orbán's anti-democratic tendencies have only grown. First of all a cult of personality has developed around him. He shows up only in front of adoring audiences where the devoted crowd similar to the Rákosi days rises when the chief enters and rhythmically claps while shouting: Viktor! Viktor! Viktor! Every time I see that I shudder because I remember my school days when we had to do the same except we had to repeat: Long live Stalin! Long live Rákosi! Long live the Red Army! No thanks! And who can forget the picture of an old lady kissing the young Viktor Orbán's hand?Kézcsók He is completely unaccustomed to having someone say "no" to him. Or even to listening to contrary opinions. He organized the party on Bolshevik models. Party democracy doesn't exist. Every position must be approved by him. People he takes a fancy to can occupy important positions in the party with no apparent qualifications. At the same time he can drop people willy-nilly whenever he wants. I think one reason that Orbán did so poorly in his debate with Gyurcsány before the 2006 elections is that he only gives speeches where he cannot be interrupted or questioned.

Here I collected a few Orbán quotations that might give a fair idea of what Orbán thinks of parliamentary democracy. Let's start with 2002 after he lost the elections. "Although our parties and our representatives are in opposition in parliament, we, who are here on this square cannot be and will not be in opposition because the nation cannot be in opposition. Only a government can be in opposition against its own people." Or in 2005: "There are people who put the emphasis on parliament but I put it on democracy." Or a couple of years later: "Today we must restore public confidence not with movements within parliament but at last with giving people the experience that the people themselves can decide the most important questions of the day. Democracy is more than sending representatives every four years to parliament. I will never be satisfied with that." Or a few days later (May 2007): "Parliamentary democracy robbed us of the possibility of taking the fate of the country into our own hands. We will see who is the boss, the galley or the current of the river." Another quotation also from 2007: "The political direction that determines the life of the nation must be formed by the will of the people … despite every Hungarian election won as a result of lies and fraud. If the constitutional order cannot serve democracy–and under the present circumstances in Hungary it cannot–then one must create those constitutional institutions and guarantees with which Hungarian democracy can defend itself. Only once must we win but then very big." In case someone has difficulty understanding the meaning of this last sentence Orbán here is talking about a situation in which Fidesz has such a large majority that it can effect those constitutional changes that could allow it to remain in power for a very long time. Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that he envisaged lately a "one-colored parliament." Here he is referring to the picture showing the seating arrangement in the chamber. This picture shows the results of the elections of 2006.Parlament As Orbán's critics rightly pointed out, Hungary did experience days when the parliament was all red but those were not the best days in the life of the nation.

Fidesz under the guidance of Orbán simply doesn't understand that politics in a democracy means politics of compromise. Zoltán Pokorny, one of the vice-chairmen of the party, apparently said to one of his MSZP colleagues after his party lost the elections in 2002: "You will always feel our chilly breath on your necks!" And indeed. No question about it. Another way people describe Fidesz strategy is as a "full court press." While other opposition parties can agree on a "national minimum," that is simply impossible as long as Fidesz is under the leadership of Viktor Orbán.

A lot of people are afraid that Fidesz will gain such an overwhelming victory next year that they can change the constitution. From there on Hungarian democracy might not be exactly the kind we are accustomed to in Western Europe. Some people worry that Orbán is planning to restore the Horthy regime, but József Debreczeni who has been a consistent critic of Orbán begs to differ. No, he says, it will be much worse. Orbán is not a second Horthy but a second Gyula Gömbös.  Gömbös was the leader of the Hungarian far right during the 1920s who became prime minister in 1932. I don't think that Debreczeni is exaggerating. Reading Gömbös's program (Nemzeti Munkaterv/National Work Program) I also found a lot of similarities between the ideas of the two men. I even wondered whether perhaps Orbán decided to refresh his high school history and took the time to read one of those books on Gömbös that came out recently. For example, Jenő Gergely's Gömbös Gyula: Politikai pályakép, Budapest, 2001. The similarities are striking. And Gömbös's ideal wasn't exactly parliamentary democracy. It was Hungary's good fortune that he died suddenly in 1936.

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whoever
Guest
I wonder if people aren’t too ready to ascribe an aura of omnipotence to Orban, which risks turning him into a larger figure than he really is. He strikes me as someone who is constantly walking the fine line between the different shades of what passes in Hungary for “right-wing” politics. Some of this right-wing politics has its roots in the pre-war period, where the right made its attempt to mimic the rituals of mass movements. Hardly surprising given the general weakness of democracy in the post-1989 settlement. So there is some truth in what you allude to. But how much? In most political situations, I’d question whether someone “walking the line” as much as Orban does, with such a motley collection of casual supporters and die-hard nationalists, can stick it out for too long. There’s so many ways he can come unstuck, from within and without. If he wins next year, he may be one of the most tired opposition leaders to ever become Prime Minister anywhere, ever. Large sectors of the population will automatically hate him from the off, before he lifts a finger or even opens his mouth. I wonder whether he will last the four years,… Read more »
Mark
Guest
“Orbán is not a second Horthy but a second Gyula Gömbös.” There is no denying the parallels between the political language used by both men. József Vonyó has edited a collection of Gömbös’s speeches, and from reading those the parallel comes out far more strikingly than in Gergely’s biography. But perhaps we are forgetting context. In Gömbös’s day political democracy was in wholesale retreat across Europe. While there are concerns of about the state of political representation in some countries – Italy for example – these are not be compared to the parlous state of the inter-war years. I always thought that comparison through time, though not without all foundation, missed the point. Instead I think you should look west, firstly to Austria and Jörg Haider whom the post-1998 Orbán has shamelessly plagiarized, and south-west to Italy and Silvio Berlusconi (of whom Orbán hasn’t even tried to hide his admiration, despite the rather powerful stink of personal and institutional corruption). “From there on Hungarian democracy might not be exactly the kind we are accustomed to in Western Europe.” I’m not really sure about the validity of this statement either. Not because I think Orbán is a model democrat, but because… Read more »
Mark
Guest

whoever: ” I wonder whether he will last the four years, never mind whether he will set up a totalitarian state.”
Certainly if he continues current economic policies he will end up in the same mess that Gyurcsány did, and more quickly than he thinks! The problem is that I’m not sure the people who will profit from this will be on the left.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark quoting me: “From there on Hungarian democracy might not be exactly the kind we are accustomed to in Western Europe.”
“I’m not really sure about the validity of this statement either. Not because I think Orbán is a model democrat, but because while Europe today seems democratic it has not always been so. Just go back forty years and count the proportion of current EU member states that were democratic in 1969, and you have about half of the 27.”
I really don’t know what you’re talking about. I mentioned Western Europe. The emphasis is on Western. I didn’t talk about the whole European Union.

Peter
Guest

It would be sad for Hungary if Orban were to win next year but it will probably happen, but I don’t think Hungary’s neighbors will be as tolerent of his radical comments this time around. It will be fun to watch.

Sophist
Guest
Mark, “I do expect Orbán to have his two-thirds majority, and his more “guided” version of Hungarian democracy – but we are kidding ourselves if we believe this would be so far outside the mainstream of European development.” Its amazing to me that Hungary is entering an era where constitutional reform is on the agenda, but there is no serious discussion of what shape that reform will take: the leader of the opposition merely alludes to it. In the abstract, I am in favour of a executive president. However, it is the detail of this “presidential democracy” which will determine how democratic Hungary will be: how is the office to be filled, what will the division of powers be like, what will the term and the term limits be. Has their been an election anywhere in the European Union where 66% of the seats went to one party? When the electorate realises what is at stake here, the disaffected MSZP supporters and the cautious don’t-knows will vote against Orbán, so 66% seems improbable to me although I expect him to gain a simple majority. Whereas I agree that Orbán himself probably doesn’t want a less democratic state than de Gaul’s… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest
When and If the All-highest of Fidesz (Victor Orban) comes to power in a landside victory then he will find things very different from his first time as ‘top boss’. Firstly he has the IMF keeping a very ‘beady eye’ on his financial activities. So will Brussels. This time he also will have the European Commission looking over his shoulders. I think that there has only been one country which changed its constitution since the inception of the E.U. and that was France, but the circumstances under which this was done were very different to that existing in Hungary. Paris was in turmoil and De Gaul went to the French zone of Germany to sound out the French Army. Messages were also sent from the U.K., Germany and other countries which looked at De Gaul’s plans and said ‘OK’. Orban’s plans are at the moment nebulous and he will have to get used to the idea that he is trammelled by Hungary’s membership of Europe. I think most of ‘new Europe’ do not understand the limitations placed on them by things like The European Charter of Rights. They seem to think that these are just ‘platitudes’ or ‘propaganda’ and can… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Eva: “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” Forgive me if I wasn’t entirely clear. What I was getting at is that in much Hungarian discussion “western European democracy” is a kind of ideal to aspire to, that only really those socialist states in CEE diverged from. Therefore all that was needed was a brief period called “transition”, and everything would be just fine. In practice “western European democracy” is a fragile and contested thing. Even in my native UK, in one constituent part of the country – Northern Ireland – democracy was suspended in 1973 as a result of a quasi-civil war situation and has only been restored recently on condition that all major parties form a coalition. That’s not to mention those southern European states – Spain, Portugal and Greece – that underwent transition in the 1970s. Furthermore we know that Italy’s democracy (founder member of the EU) went through torrid times between the late 1960s and late 1970s. France’s political system collapsed in 1958, from which the Fifth Republic was born. Whether we like it or not the road to democracy has been a rocky one in much of western Europe. In many states it has… Read more »
Mark
Guest

Sophist: “When the electorate realises what is at stake here, the disaffected MSZP supporters and the cautious don’t-knows will vote against Orbán, so 66% seems improbable to me although I expect him to gain a simple majority.”
You have to remember that although Hungary’s electoral system has proportional elements, it is actually extremely majoritarian. Because the single-member district representatives are chosen over two rounds, because of the way qualification for the second round works, and because of the geographical distribution of votes if a party is dominant it will sweep those districts. The mistake everyone is making is believing that FIDESZ need a huge vote lead to win a two-thirds majority. They don’t. They need a percentage in the upper forties and a lead of around ten percent over their nearest competitor. So, if in the first round FIDESZ win 47% or over, and the MSZP (or Jobbik if they are second) win 37% or less FIDESZ will win a two-thirds majority after the second round. The interesting feature is the way the national list works which makes it very difficult for them to win very much more than two-thirds of the seats.

Sophist
Guest

Mark,
Having been thoroughly mystified by your 47% + 10% lead scenerio (a result which I think is a racing certainty) I had a look at previous results:
http://electionresources.org/hu/ (if anybody else in interested)
I now see that you are probably right: the majoritarian element is in the voting for single seat constituencies. When parties have been able to clean up in these constituencies, they have been able to get a disproportionate number of seats: 1990, MDF 25% of votes got 42% of the seats, 1994 MSZP 33% got 54%.
I can also see that this disproportionality disappeared (1998,2002,2006) when the leading parties were close together. This will be the first election where one party has both a big chunk of the vote and no serious opposition – no wonder Orbán has been so complacent for so long.
So it seems Orbán will only encounter internal opposition to his constitutional reform program. Even if the outcome is an acceptable form of Democracy by European standards, the manner by which it will come about seems far from democratic. The issue of how the constitution can be amended seems more urgent than ever.

Mark
Guest
Sophist: ” When parties have been able to clean up in these constituencies, they have been able to get a disproportionate number of seats.” The significannce of the 47% figure is that it is around this score that FIDESZ would win first round victories in a majority of the single member districts. They would also likely win an outright majority of those votes which were cast for the territorial list seats (that is after the votes for parties winning below 5% are disqualified and before the compensatory element kicks in). That is they effectively win the election in the first round. FIDESZ strategists believed they could win a two-thirds majority this way in 2002 – they called this the “knockout” strategy, and it inspired the “K.O.” headline in Magyar Nemzet the day before the first round that fell foul of the electoral commission. On that occassion though they were right about the electoral system, they overestimated FIDESZ’s strength (I assume because they only talked to other right-wingers)and lost while overreaching themselves. This doesn’t apply this time. I think the other factor that is more favourable for them now than in 2002, will be that Jobbik will be on the ballot… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “Jobbik will from those who still want to punish the MSZP”
You’re not giving up on this idea of yours in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. There are times when we have to give up our favorite theories.

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