“Bread and Circuses” (or bread and games) (from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. The current Hungarian government no longer can give bread, so remains the circus. It is amazing to watch the performance of this populist government as it tries to divert attention away from the real problems.
Let’s start with the problems. First and foremost they are in the economic sphere. Viktor Orbán claimed that the most urgent problem facing Hungary was the very high sovereign debt he inherited from the irresponsible socialists. We heard endlessly about his excellent stewardship between 1998 and 2002 when Hungary’s indebtedness was around 55% of the GDP and the deficit was around 4%, although the 4% was a phony number due to some clever accounting. The real figure was close to 9%. But he’s right: the sovereign debt of the country climbed steadily, as it did in practically all countries of the developed world.
Viktor Orbán vowed to wage a war against sovereign debt and in June he announced a spectacular reduction of Hungary’s indebtedness. Mind you, this significant drop was the result of the government’s cancellation of treasury bonds after the takeover of private pensions funds.
By August Bloomberg reported that Hungary’s state debt had resumed its upward trend as a result of the widening budget deficit. The paper predicted that it might climb above 20 trillion forints. However, Viktor Orbán didn’t believe the data published by his own Economic Ministry and a month later, on September 6, he announced that during the months of October and November his government will lower the country’s debt burden from 77% to 73%. This, he said, will amount to approximately 4 billion euros.
But what is the situation today? By September Hungary’s sovereign debt had reached more than 20.5 trillion forints. So, the analysis conducted by Napi Gazdaság based on data available at György Matolcsy’s ministry proved to be correct.
This is what has happened between April 2010 and September 2011. As you can see, the debt never fell back to the level the Orbán government inherited from Gordon Bajnai, even when the first stage of the “war against sovereign debt” began in June 2011.
But that’s not all. The budget that hasn’t even been voted on seems to be in tatters already. Hungary’s economic growth most likely will be much lower than the government estimated for the next year. Growth may slow to 0.6%, as opposed to the government’s 1.5% forecast. All in all, the “unusual economic policies” Orbán promised would solve the country’s economic problems have so far turned out to be misguided.
What does a demagogic populist politician do in a case like this? If he cannot satisfy the economic demands of the population, he turns to some other matters that might whip up enthusiasim for him and his party. And since Orbán has been working hard on falsifying recent history and showing the late Kádár regime as a hard-core, almost Stalinist dictatorship, it is now time to find some people responsible for the suffering of Hungarians. Never mind that the Kádár regime, especially after 1963, was called “gulyás communism” or “the happiest barracks” of the Soviet bloc; people’s memory is short. An odd combination of public consciousness prevails in today’s Hungary. On the one hand, a large segment, perhaps even the majority, of the population looks back with nostalgia to the good old days of János Kádár; on the other hand, many of the same people demand harsh punishment for the guilty communists who made their lives unbearable.
So, instead of putting all their energy into solving the current problems facing the country, the government party has decided on a totally futile witch hunt for the guilty communist leaders of the past. During the early 1990s there were attempts to find people who were responsible for mass murders of peaceful demonstrators during the revolutionary period of 1956, but after so many years there wasn’t enough evidence to convict them. Now, they are trying again. Fifty-five years after the events. They are also submitting a bill to parliament to discuss the possibility of retroactively taxing those whom a committee would determine were personally responsible for running the party and state apparatus. They would pay a kind of reparation tax that would be spent on “the victims and/or children” of the post revolutionary reprisals. Considering that there were about 800,000 members of the communist party in 1989, it might be difficult to decide who would have to pay this retroactive tax.
As we know, retroactive legislation is not alien to Fidesz and therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that János Lázár thinks that “it is reasonable to expect these people to make amends by paying a reparation tax.”
But that’s not enough. Fidesz is suggesting another bill that would allow the current Hungarian government to bring charges against those who ordered the political trials that took place after the failed revolution. In addition, judges or prosecutors who were in any way involved in these trials could also be called before the courts. Admittedly, the penal code would have to be changed in order to bring charges because of the statue of limitations. But if Hungary adopted certain international treaties that make these events crimes against humanity, then the cases against these people could be pursued.
How many people are we talking about? Given the number of years that have elapsed I doubt that there could be too many left. One Fidesz MP who is very active in these “political retribution” cases estimates a dozen or so.
And what will happen to the former officials is hard to know. Just to give an idea of some of the ideas that have surfaced, Mária Wittner, a victim of the harsh political reprisals, thinks, for example, that Gyula Horn should be one of those who would have to pay a reparation tax because he was a high official in the the former regime. Never mind that he was also the foreign minister of Hungary who was instrumental in the negotiations about allowing the East German refugees in Hungary to cross to freedom via Austria. Or that between 1994 and 1998 he was the prime minister of the country whose party received more than 50% of the seats in parliament in a free election.
The edifice is crumbling while inside lunatic ideas are circulating about events that took place 55 years ago. It’s extraordinary even to contemplate forcing people to pay extra taxes retroactively, twenty years after the change of regime. In 1989 the political change occurred in a peaceful way. It was a negotiated settlement. Twenty-two years later changing the rules of the game doesn’t seem fair to me. But then, as they say, all’s fair in love and war. And this is certainly a populist war.