In the first two installments of my summary of Gordon Bajnai’s critique of the current state of affairs in Hungary and his vision for the country after Viktor Orbán, I finished with two important topics: the state of Hungarian democracy and the country’s economy. Rounding out his essay, Bajnai writes about two other topics: social stability and international relations.
Social stability. Because of the economic shock caused by the change from state capitalism to a free market economy a large segment of Hungarian society, about one million people, found themselves without jobs and, because of their meager educational attainment, without prospects. Great hopes turned into bitter disappointment. In Bajnai’s opinion by the time of the 2002 election campaign it became clear that elections were being decided by those whose “interest lies in redistribution,” that is, in social services and payments portioned out by the government to the inactive or very poor segments of society. This group naturally includes a very large group of people who already receive relatively high government pensions. Thus both left and right began courting these groups, offering them more and more social benefits. This “short-sighted” strategy gradually hurt the country’s competitive position in the global economy. At the same time the governments–in this case the socialist-liberal ones–paid no attention to the problems of labor inactivity, an aging population, the low birth rate, the Roma issue, and the hopeless economic situation that existed in certain regions of the country.
It is true that beginning in 2006 the tax system was changed so that the gap between rich and poor was reduced somewhat, but the very high level of redistribution remained unchanged. And then came the 2008 world economic crisis which threatened the financial stability of even the working middle class in Hungary. And to the woes one must add the country-specific problem of indebtedness in foreign currencies.
After the 2010 elections Fidesz’s “campaign mask,” given the very limited financial possibilities, had to be removed. One could then discover “the real social philosophy of Fidesz,” which was that the greatest assistance be given to the better-off segment of society even “at the price of the complete division of society between rich and poor.” Bajnai gives a few examples of this policy, among them the new tax system and the severely limited opportunity for higher education for the poorer strata of society. Fidesz is doing exactly the opposite of what it should if it wanted to narrow the gap between rich and poor and create a more uniformly prosperous society.
International Relations. By virtue of the fact that in the last ten years or so Hungary’s economic and societal achievements diminished, the country’s importance on the international scene also decreased. However, “what happened in the last eighteen months has ruined Hungary’s reputation.” Hungary’s allies watched the activities of the Orbán government, first with incomprehension and later with growing alarm and criticism. “There is no country of importance that would look on Hungary as an important and valuable partner. One shudders to think what would happen if a situation similar to the 2009 Hungarian-Slovak dispute occurred” because Hungary no longer has any friends who would come to her aid.
Conclusion. “Democracy in tatters, an economy that is heading toward bankruptcy, deeply divided society, and a Hungary that is marching out of Europe. This is the terrible result of the last year and a half.” A radical change is needed “and without delay.” The best solution would be the current government’s “self-correction.” One cannot completely discard this possibility, but “the current leadership of Fidesz and its policies up until now” don’t make it a probable outcome.
Therefore it will be the next elections in 2014 that will decide Hungary’s fate. Bajnai quotes Edmund Burke’s well known saying that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” A change of government is possible only if “there is an electable alternative on the political spectrum.” But even if the opposition can offer an alternative, the new electoral law, to use Bajnai’s words, was written in such a way that Fidesz has a handicap of 30 meters in a 100 meter dash.
Electability today is in part “a management question.” The opponents need a nationwide organization, competitive local and nationally known candidates, and enough financial backing which must be transparent. They must be able to access the local and nationwide media, and finally they need “an attractive political package.” All this means an incredible amount of work, time, and organizational ability.
The likelihood that one dominant party will be able to achieve a change of government is unlikely and therefore “the cooperation of many democratic organizations and parties will be unavoidable.” When talking about “cooperation,” Bajnai seems to be advocating “joint lists.”
A change of government makes sense only if “instead of the current destructive governance it is able to build a better, more successful country. That new government will not have time to experiment or learn on the job… This new government will have to be ready with an immediately applicable program.”
Bajnai warns against the “swinging of the pendulum” after a victory by the joint forces of the democratic opposition even though after the aggressive Fidesz rule the urge to “pay back” might be strong. One of the most important tasks of the new government will be to reach a wide-based national consensus concerning the goals of Hungarian society for years to come. For that the new government will need the agreement of the democratically-minded right-wing voters as well. The country simply can no longer bear the practice of the past that every four years everything was turned upside down in all spheres of public life.
Bajnai believes that after 2014 Hungary will be “basically a different country than it was before the revolution in the voting booths. A more tired, a more suspicious, a more experienced, and perhaps wiser but fundamentally different. Its middle will be somewhere else, its threshhold of acceptance, and its priorities will be elsewhere than now. Perhaps it will have learned by then that waiting for miracles and the loss of hope are the two greatest enemies of sustainable economic growth. And perhaps it will realize that democracy is like oxygen. While it is around we don’t notice it. But being without it means instant death.”
Here I would like to insert an old HVG cover from the spring of 2009 when there was the greatest uncertainty about who would follow Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who unexpectedly resigned. Eventually out of this veil emerged Gordon Bajnai.
Successor game, HVG, March 28, 2009
Bajnai’s last sentence in this essay is: “Only such a person can undertake the task of governing who understands these necessary changes.” One must conclude that Gordon Bajnai seems to understand them.