Hungarians and democracy

A few days ago I was pretty much forced to engage in a verbal duel with an ardent supporter of the Orbán government who wrote an article in Die Welt, a conservative German daily. Her piece was not only a vehement defense of the current government; it was also an attack on the majority of German journalists who in her opinion misinform the German reading public with their slanted reporting on the Hungarian political situation. Among other things she was especially outraged by the often heard opinion that the majority of Hungarians prefer authoritarian rule to democracy. This sounds like "a birth defect," she said, which she rejects. I, in my answer, suggested that we leave "the birth defect" theory alone and concentrate on Hungarian history. I asked when there was real democracy in Hungary. Perhaps never, and therefore Hungarians' lack of appreciation for democracy is not really surprising. It is not a "birth defect" but the result of a historical accident.

In the past I wrote a lot about Viktor Orbán's ideas concerning the necessity of building "a central power" that has such an overwhelming majority that for fifteen or twenty years no other party has a chance to challenge its dominance. This new "regime" would not be a one-party dictatorship because there would be other parties and the parliament would be a functioning body, but it could be called a "quasi democracy." Hungary has a long history of this kind of "one-party rule," starting with the establishment of the parliamentary system after the Compromise of 1867.

Between 1867 and 1918 basically one party, first led by father and then son, was the only political power in the country. The name changed once from the Liberal Party (Szabadelvű Párt, 1875-1905) to the National Party of Work (Nemzeti Munkapárt; 1910-1917) but the ideology remained the same. The organizers of the two parties were Kálmán Tisza and his son István Tisza. During the Dual Monarchy the Hungarian political system was formally a multi-party democracy but because of limited electoral rights one political group was able to hang onto power for decades. Before 1918 only 6% of the population had the right to vote and there was no secret ballot.

The old regime fell in 1918, but soon enough another quasi-democracy was in place. By July 1920 the various smaller parties decided to form a large Party of Unity (Egységes Párt). The first election after the war took place in early 1920, and it was held under the so-called Friedrich election law, named after István Friedrich, prime minister between August and November 1919. It was a liberal law that included suffrage for women and a secret ballot. However, the old conservative political elite, left over from the pre-war years, was not satisfied with the composition of the parliament of 1920. The majority of the members belonged to parties of far-right coloring. The remedy according to István Bethlen, future prime minister, was to restrict voting rights once again so that neither the far right nor the social democrats could challenge the Party of Unity. By 1922 they managed to change the election law, excluding women without a higher education and making voting once again non-secret in the countryside. According to Ignác Romsics, quoted in HVG, this 1922 election law enfranchised only 28% of the adult population as opposed to the earlier 40%.

With the establishment of the Party of Unity, in a parliament of 213 members the opposition shrank to 20 people. The party may have changed names over the years, but basically the composition of the party remained very much the same. First it was called the Christian Peasant, Smallholders and Civic Party, later it changed its name to the Party of National Unity, and after 1939 it became the Party of Hungarian Life.

The organizers, the strong men, of these parties all argued for more rational governing. They felt that if they wanted to achieve something, an overwhelming majority in the House was necessary. Otherwise party squabbles would intrude and the real interests of the country would not be represented by anyone. Governing would become impossible.

Viktor Orbán makes no secret of the fact that he shares this view of effective government. If Fidesz manages to take over the position of a "central political force" then it will be able to represent "the real interests of the nation." That is, Fidesz's view of national interests. In his opinion the views of others are wrong and therefore there is no need for discussion of their vews. We might recall, however, that both István Tisza of the Party of Work and István Bethlen of the Party of Unity believed that they represented the interests of the nation, yet the party leaders led the country into two wars which Hungary lost. Therefore, perhaps the quasi democracy that Orbán finds so appealing may not be the best solution for the country's problems.

Viktor Orbán, when he complains about party squabbles, is simply articulating what many Hungarians feel.  People want peace and quiet and "unity." But perhaps one day they will realize that squabbles are still preferable to what is in effect one-party rule.

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Karl Pfeifer

Of course they will realize it one day, but before that Hungarians will realize what the economic policy or rather the lack of such a policy will mean for them.
National symbols can not replace the butter on the bread.

Odin's Lost eye
The ultimate goal for Fidesz is to make “one nation, one people (united behind), one leader” (Oh No! not that one AGAIN). Professor if I may steal a quote from you ** “That is, Fidesz’s view of national interests. In his (Orban Victor’s) opinion the views of others are wrong and therefore there is no need for discussion of their views.” **. If someone disputes the official view, then, I suppose, that Fidesz will need to have them ‘re-educated’ at a ‘re-education centre’ where they will have to learn to conform and work for the good of the nation after all “Work sets you free” (where have I seen that before?). You also say ** “Viktor Orbán, when he complains about party squabbles, is simply articulating what many Hungarians feel. People want peace and quiet and “unity.” But perhaps one day they will realize that squabbles are still preferable to what is in effect one-party rule. After over 150 odd years of almost continuous one party (in one form or another) rule, the people of Hungary should by now have learned better. In this piece you talk about non-secret ballots. I would like to remind the readers that The European… Read more »

I would confess a somewhat less benign opinion about Hungarian propensity to democracy.
Due to the awful lack of a decent and universal education, and the resulting rampant ignorance about politics and civic life, Hungarians have no idea what democracy is, what it does and how it works.
The political charlatan that Orban is, has a very easy time trying to persuade the majority about the benefits of National Unity, to supplant the hustle and bustle of a healthy democracy, because the population is illequiped to participate, never mind holding their own. More often than not almost half of the electorate is too tired, or too disinterested even to vote.
No vonder, it is much easier to run a country of deceived and apathetic people than a virile democracy.


One of the best things about politics in Germany after WW2 is, that most of the time no party was strong enough to govern alone, so we’ve had changing coalitions …
I call myself a liberal (with some green undertones) and the liberal party FDP has been in government with the social democrats as well as with the christian democrats at other times – so compromises had to be found …
Even in Britain we now see a coalition government – with positive results I think.
Let’s hope that the political landscape changes in Hungary too, so we will see a “wide” and “sound” political party spectrum …
(had to insert this …)

Tibor P

One-party system? Immature Hungarian electorate? Come on! Then the US and Britain should also be branded as “quasi-democracies”? Remember, in 1994-98 Gyula Horn’s Socialists also took 2/3 of Parliament, then Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz had to align itself with Torgyán’s Smallholders in in 98-02. Then Gyurcsány’s MSZP aligned itself with the Free Democrats until this year (well, almost, the SZDSZ quit the coalition a bit earlier).
It was the rampant corruption in the ranks of the Socialists – Hagyó, Hunvald, BKV, MÁV, Főtáv etc. – that gave Viktor Orbán 2/3, and not really the immaturity of Hungarians after whatever decades of this or that rule. Hungary is still an established democracy with secret balloting and elections “within reasonable intervals” (hope every 4 years is reasonable enough). If Orbán fails to deliver, he will surely be forced to give up his 2/3, or be voted out of office. No tears for Hungarian democracy yet.

Pásztor Szilárd

Tibor P: people like the author of this blog are shedding tears for democracy immediately as they fall out of power.
This is not a worry for democracy, this is anxiety because of losing power packaged in a democracy box.