Gordon Bajnai’s short premiership at the time of severe economic and political crisis has been hailed as a heroic and successful achievement. By the end of his term his personal popularity began to climb and his fellow politicians abroad considered him to be an outstanding prime minister. Although he has not been in the limelight since he left office, he has maintained his popularity. He is up there with the admittedly low-scoring top Hungarian politicians. All that tells me that people remember him, especially as a consequence of what happened in Hungary since his departure, with growing nostalgia. Hungary wasn’t close to bankruptcy then as it is now and even financially the vast majority of Hungarians lived better. And those were not easy times either.
Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, April 14, 2009-May28, 2010
About a year ago Bajnai and some of his close associates established a foundation called “Haza és haladás” (Homeland and Progress), a phrase coined by the poet Ferenc Kölcsey (1790-1838). The “homeland and progress” movement encouraged “active patriotism.” When Bajnai picked the name for his foundation he was also thinking in terms of promoting good governance. Let’s not just talk but try to translate our ideas into action.
Today he wrote a thoughtful piece entitled “Republic, reconciliation, and recovery.” The original Hungarian text can be found on the website of Bajnai’s foundation.
What does Bajnai mean by “good governance”? How can we measure “good governance”? Every society has goals and a government’s success can be measured by its furtherance of these goals, how far a government can fulfill the expectations of the society it governs.
At the time of the regime change Hungarian society had three goals.
(1) The people wanted to live in a democracy governed by a constitution that provides checks and balances that safeguard the individual and minorities. They wanted to live in a society where the media has an important role to play and where the judiciary is independent. And finally they wanted to have a political system where a bad government can be peacefully deposed.
(2) The people wanted gradual but perceptible economic progress based on the sanctity of private property and a regulated free market economy that ensures catching up with the western half of the continent.
(3) And finally there was a desire for a regime where a greater and greater portion of society would eventually share the blessings of the country’s economic growth.
The first ten years after the regime change were a real success story, but from about 2000 on these three goals seemed increasingly distant. Somewhere Hungarian politics lost its way. According to Bajnai at the root of the problem was a political struggle that subordinates all other considerations. Bajnai also mentions the “irresponsible opposition” and the mistakes of the socialist-liberal governments as causes. When it comes to the mistakes Bajnai cites too many changes in direction and well-meaning but not well-managed reform attempts. All these together led to the 53% Fidesz victory in 2010.
This overwhelming majority was indeed a “historic opportunity” that could have led back to the original societal goals and the restoration of the ideas and practice of good governance. There was reason to be optimistic. However, after a year and a half of Fidesz rule it is clear that “the government didn’t use this opportunity but misused it.” Instead of returning to the original ideas of Hungarian society in 1989-1990, Orbán led the country in exactly the opposite direction. Bajnai mentions three characteristics of Viktor Orbán’s regime: an aggressive desire for power, economic dilettantism, and a cynical social policy. As a result a government structure came into being that led Hungary away from western ideals.
Bajnai covers four important aspects of the Orbán regime: democracy, economy, social stability, and international relations. In this first part I will deal with only the first one.
Democracy. According to Bajnai by now it is clear that the top leadership of Fidesz way before 2010 came up with well thought out plans for the elimination of the Third Republic. It seems that the conclusion Viktor Orbán drew from his 2002 defeat was that the necessary precondition for holding on to power is not good governance and substantive accomplishments but the building of a structure in which the media, the judiciary, and the electoral system are subordinated to the government and the governing party. And at the end of the four-year term there must be an electoral system in place that ensures the continuation of power. If by any chance Fidesz loses the elections, there would be people in place in all of the important positions through whom Fidesz, by that time in opposition, could practically paralyze governance. The way Bajnai sees it, the last year and half was spent on “the methodical breaking, one vertebra at the time, of the backbone of Hungarian democracy.”
Bajnai draws two conclusions from what has happened in the last year and a half in Hungary.
(1) Democracy, looked at from a practical point of view, is no more than “the possibility of the quick and peaceful correction of bad governance.” Bad governance can be the consequence of wrong decisions and/or the result of the willful exercise of power against the common interest. In Hungary’s case we can talk about both. Hungary at present has a bad government, and because the checks and balances have been eliminated this government is very difficult to unseat. “The young Hungarian democracy cannot possibly be facing a worse combination.”
(2) Even the so-called “directed democracies” need a mass base. In order to maintain such regimes the country needs some kind of “extra” economic resources that allow the government to provide well for its followers. If there is no such economic resource, as in Hungary, mass support dwindles fast enough. The following will remain loyal only so long “as the existential anxiety is greater than the fear that there will be a regime change.” When the position of the government becomes shaky, more and more people will ask themselves: “Will I have some problems later if I follow the instructions of the current government now?” If this feeling becomes widespread, the government will be paralyzed because there will be fewer and fewer people who would openly support the government. The longer this situation lasts the more permanent is the damage to the country.
To be continued