Populism in Hungary

I've been reading two books of late, cycling between them. I began with József Debreczeni's reinterpretation of his political portrait of Viktor Orbán, left that unfinished and moved on to Péter Kende's book on the trial of Attila Kulcsár, whose Ponzi scheme was fortunately not of Madoffian proportions. Once I finished Kende's book I returned to Debreczeni's Arcmás.

I've already devoted three pieces to this book, with the underlying motif of debunking the alleged transformation of the good guy into the bad guy. I don't believe in such fundamental personality changes. Most likely today's Viktor Orbán was already present in the "student revolutionary."

Of course, I'm picking and choosing among an array of themes in Debreczeni's book. Today I want to focus on populism which, according to Debreczeni, was Orbán's answer to the appearance of Ferenc Gyurcsány on the political scene.

Academic and scholarly definitions of populism vary widely and the term is often employed in loose, inconsistent ways. One recent definition that appealed to me comes from Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell. Populism according to the co-authors is "an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous 'others' who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice." That definition seems to fit with Orbán's strategy of defeating the arch-enemy, the current government and its supporters.

I was pleased to find a study by Emilia Palonen (University of Jyväskylä, Finland) on the topic of Hungarian populism that appeared in Parliamentary Affairs 62/2 (January 2009). Palonen in this article ("Political Polarisation of Populism in Contemporary Hungary") gives a succinct description of Orbán's political career: "Orbán as an innovative ideologist–to follow Quentin Skinner's terminology–has been transforming his party from the position of the anti-elitist anti-communist youth party in the early 1990s to the leading national centre-right party since 1993 to the European progressive nationally minded civic party in 1998-2002, to the etatist-conservative force from 2006…. Brought up in dissident Hungary and having made his first success by rapidly gaining a mass support for a student alternative initiative, turning it into a mass party, he chose to work outside the parliament [emphasis by EB)] The civic initiatives that were proposed were against the elite and the power-holders–where the elite he opposed could also be be understood as the inheritors of state socialism." So far so good but I can't quite understand Palonen's conclusion: "The populist leader promises solutions, but above all, clearly identifies the enemies (the scapegoats), attributes responsibilities and offers assurance. Both sides profess this rhetoric."

Not only I but József Debreczeni would violently disagree with Palonen's conclusion. In fact, Debreczeni spends a considerable amount of time arguing against the tendency in certain circles, including those of political scientists to which Palonen herself belongs, to blur the differences between the two sides. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Debreczeni draws a clear distinction: in his view that he supports with innumerable examples Orbán is the embodiment of the "populist alternative" while Ferenc Gyurcsány was/is the defender of parliamentary democracy. (p. 225)

Returning to the definition of populism, many political scientists and historians maintain that populist movements can be precursors of fascist/national socialist movements. According to this theory nationalist socialist populism interacted with and facilitated Nazism in interwar Germany. Debreczeni belongs to this group when he says that "today's radical right-wing populism in many respects shows a surprising affinity with the early manifestations of twentieth-century fascism and Nazism." And he lists the common features: (1) aggressive nationalism that includes the use of nationalistic rhetoric and symbols and is apt to label the political opponent as someone who doesn't belong to the nation, (2) stigmatization of the opponents and the creation of hate campaigns against them, (3) anti-parliamentary sentiments and constant reference to the people who are the only source of political will, taking politics to the streets, organizing mass demonstrations in often theatrical settings, (4) cult of the leader, (5) manipulation of the masses by professional spin doctors, skillful use of the modern media (in Hitler's time the use of the radio, today television) and instead of rational discourse, monotonous repetition of simple emotional messages, (6) the constant castigation of the political elite that happens to be in power, (7) anti-liberalism, elevating the community above the freedom of the individual, (8) promise of care from cradle to grave by the state, (9) unscrupulous promises and social demagoguery, (10) whipping up antipathy against international financial and business circles, and (11) xenophobia, rejection of minority views and groups, overt or covert anti-Semitism.

Debreczeni adds at the end of this list that of course some of these features can be found in other political regimes as well, but "all of them together can be found only in the populist ideologies between the two world wars and in its current version."

Debreczeni's inventory of Orbán's political arsenal is pretty accurate. The question is what on earth he will do if he wins the elections. Because surely his remedies, especially his economic ones, don't hold water. It would be impossible to implement them even under normal circumstances but especially not as the world tries to dig itself out of a financial and economic crisis. We can only hope, though without any empirical evidence to the contrary, that he doesn't turn to populist quick fixes to divert public attention away from the hard realities of, in the cliché of the day, the "new normal."

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I always thought of populism as something akin to utilitarianism, as developed by Bentham and Mill. However, I see that my views were not so accurate. Your analysis of these two books and current political machinations have made the distinction more clear in my mind. It’s been great reading your blog.