András Schweitzer: Factors that made Hungary a borderline democracy (and are likely to stay)

András Schweitzer is a journalist who has been working for HVG since 1999. Currently he is on leave of absence. Since June 2013 he and his family have been living in Brussels.

In addition to being a journalist he is also scholar with a Ph.D. in political science who is currently working on completing a second Ph.D. in history. For a number of years he has been involved with a historical research project for the 1956-Institute.

* * *

According to the official rhetoric, the profound constitutional and political restructuring by the second Fidesz government (2010-2014) aimed to put an end to two decades of post-communist meandering and to finish off the remaining legacy of state-socialism. However the actual legal and economic changes constitute more an illiberal turn back to the bad old days. Of all the countries that joined the West in the Annus mirabilis of 1989 Hungary returned to exist again in history in the Fukuyama sense.

It is logical but inadequate to blame the global financial crisis for this unfortunate chain of events. The corruption of the Hungarian democratic political and market-oriented economic system had already been going on years before it. The dramatic transformation should instead be attributed to the following factors.

1. As an unfortunate coincidence the Hungarian democratic opposition did not have a single outstanding politician comparable to Czechoslovak Václav Havel or Polish Lech Walesa when the Wall fell.  István Bibó, a brilliant scholar and deeply convicted democrat (the once spirited state minister of the Imre Nagy government in the heroic days of 1956) could have been such a character acceptable to all main dissident groups – but he died a decade too early. Of the sizeable pool of dissenters, Machiavellian and confrontational Viktor Orbán happened to be the most talented and ambitious, who managed to politically survive the last quarter of century by being both harsh with the opponents and attentive to popular expectations. He showed signs of wanting to concentrate political and economic power in his hands already after he had first become prime minister in 1998, but it was the two-third majority between 2010 and 2014 which made it achievable for him.

2. Skepticism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary and yet voters have always showed affinity for political illusions. Research shows that the correlation between the level of government spending and the election cycles in Hungary is significantly higher than in other East-Central European countries. Elections have increasingly become promise-contests where honest players (at the beginning Fidesz included) had no chance to win. Politicians had to learn this lesson or leave the scene. After winning with excessive election pledges in 2002 and 2006 the Socialists found themselves in a difficult position: first they tried to be true to their promises and accumulated a budget deficit reaching 10% of the GDP, then after the 2006 elections, when this was no longer feasible without an immediate financial crisis, Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted he had lied about the state of the economy and introduced tough austerity measures. This became an important reason for the increasing popularity of Fidesz.

3. Despite all the good intentions and creative solutions at its crafting, the complex election system of 1989 was unfit for Hungary. In a country where people tend to vote for candidates mostly according to their party affiliations and where there are no significant regional differences in voting patterns even the party list leg of the system and the additional compensation list could not guarantee proportionality. In a single party list system, which would be the proper alternative for Hungary, Fidesz would have won a simple majority of just over 50% in 2010, but the actual electoral system transformed this into a two-thirds win which is the legal limit to changing the constitution. The new rules made the 2014 election results even more unproportional: with more weight given to the first-past-the-post leg the system guaranteed about two-thirds of the seats to Fidesz with less than 50 percent of the votes. (It is typical of the relatively uniform Hungarian voting behavior that in a Westminster-style system Fidesz would have had a 98% majority in the 2010-2014 parliament as its candidates won in 173 out of 176 districts. The election result of last Sunday showed a similar pattern of homogeneity: with the exception of a few electoral districts in Budapest, Miskolc and Szeged the whole country turned orange again.)

4. Liberal democracy and free market economy did not produce a general sense that things are looking up as a result of economic reform (which would have been a necessary ingredient of the success of transformation according to the insightful prophesy of Ralf Dahrendorf), and there has been an illiberal downslide in public opinion. The failure of half-implemented liberal policies was used as an argument against liberal ideals. It was claimed that “neoliberal” openness and privatization resulted in foreign intrusion and the cheap selling out of the country’s wealth; tolerance increased crime; multiculturalism endangered the country’s cultural character; preference for market mechanisms brought unemployment and oligarchs; protection of civil rights brought inefficient government. Capitalizing on and enforcing this sentiment, left and right political groups sometimes joined forces in measures to undermine the third (liberal) power block, which practically disappeared by 2010.

"In the footsteps of our fathers" / Magyar Narancs

“In the footsteps of our fathers” / Magyar Narancs

5. Unlike the short 20th century Czech history, which could be schematized as the interwar democratic “good guys” being followed by the communist “bad guys” Hungarian heavy weight political leaders of the era – Miklós Horthy and János Kádár – are both controversial figures. Numerous Hungarians tend to forgive the interwar governor for being complicit in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews by claiming that he resisted deportation until the German occupation, which, in turn, didn’t leave him much choice. Many exonerate Kádár for his crimes as a communist dictator by emphasizing that he managed to construct the “happiest barrack” in the Soviet camp. As opposed to the Polish, the Czech or the Slovak context, Hungarian history lacks the heritage of a wide scale popular anti-fascist movement, and the revolutionary fever of 1956 also faded with the subsequent decades of a relatively mild dictatorship. A democratic role model is generally missing from Hungarian political consciousness. Horthy gained legitimacy by being the admiral of the nation who held the steering wheel of the Hungarian mothership against a sea of powerful enemies (even if the nation suffered a devastating defeat at the end). Kádár was made popular by providing welfare to the widest possible masses (even if this led to a crippling debt burden by 1989). Already the first democratically elected government capitalized on the earlier dormant nostalgia for the Horthy era, which has steadily grown stronger ever since, while Socialists never dared to dissociate themselves from widely popular János Kádár.

6. The Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map of the World based on findings of World Value Survey reveals a remarkable cultural pattern: of all the countries of “Catholic Europe” (other ex-communist states like Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia included) Hungary scores the highest on having  “survival” instead of “self-expression” values. This puts the country the furthest away from leading democracies of “Protestant Europe” and the “English-speaking” world and the closest to Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia. Survival values are indeed reflected in prevalent ideas of Hungarian political life: yearning for economic paternalism instead of a free market (stemming from the existential fear of individuals) and ethno-nationalist sentiments instead of tolerance (stemming from the collective existential fear of the nation). Kádár’s ways to gain legitimacy well fits the former whereas those of Horthy go hand in hand with the latter.

7. Sixteen years ago it was Hungary’s northern neighbor, Slovakia that was generally considered to be a laggard among the transition nations of East-Central Europe, with a populist unchecked majority rule in an unconsolidated democracy. At that time however the fear that Slovakia would be left out of NATO and EU enlargement served as a wakeup call to the people who in the 1998 elections ousted Vladimír Mečiar’s authoritarian-populist government. Unfortunately, lacking similar incentives, the equally strong signals from Western democracies to Hungary don’t seem to have a substantial effect. While numerous Hungarian individuals contributed greatly to world civilization (usually after emigrating from the country) the wider public has traditionally been quite inattentive to the outside world. Hungary is perceived by many to be an island in the German, Latin and Slavic seas, a feeling reinforced by the living grievances of the post-WWI events when Hungary lost two-thirds of its historic territory and more than 3 million ethnic Hungarians found themselves in foreign countries. The so-called Trianon-tragedy is usually blamed on disingenuous neighbors and conspiring great powers. The island feeling is also existent on the individual level: surveys have for decades shown an extremely high level of individualist sentiment and low-level of trust among Hungarians which hampers effective social cooperation.

Between 2010 and 2014 Orbán’s government created a peculiar system, which could be called a borderline democracy. It walks the rope of taking all possible undemocratic measures to ensure its power (from gerrymandering through concentrated denigration campaigns to limiting free press) while at the same time trying to maintain all the formal legal criteria of democracy. In order to produce laws that serve its political interests but don’t contradict EU legislation it collects and connects “worst practices” from other European countries (to use a term EU-expert Györgyi Kocsis used in early 2011 about the new media law). Having changed the electoral system to its liking, having filled political posts with friends and clients, having an overwhelmingly friendly media, it had a remarkably wide array of potential measures to ensure its decisive win at the 2014 elections. It must be noted however, that even if the democratic left had won in 2014, this would not have meant a quick return to democratic normalcy. Instead, the political fight and cold civil war that characterized the years 2006-2010 would have come back.

During the last 25 years politicians on the left and right have learned the lesson of being popular by being populist. As liberal parties were disappearing incumbents have managed to gain an ever greater pool of supporters. Orbán’s 2014 victory is the second time in a row (after the 2006 narrow win of Gyurcsány) when a party and a prime minister were given a second term. Orbán’s government successfully combined Kádár’s and the Horthy’s approaches to gain support – its actions and rhetoric were at times more socialist than those of the Socialists and more nationalist than those of the nationalists. It also managed to bleed out its opponents on the left and on the right by a thousand cuts (from discovering and publicizing awkward information about their politicians through starting legal procedures against them to strictly limiting their channels to address a wider audience or even to collect and use campaign money) but its voter base diminished since 2010 nevertheless. In the future more resources may be needed to successfully apply similar techniques, therefore further political and economic centralization and an increase in the confrontational rhetoric is likely to come in the run up to 2018.

Written on October 27, 2013, updated on April 7-8, 2014

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Guest
tappanch
April 8, 2014 3:52 pm

“Fixed investment fell from around 20% of GDP when Fidesz came to power in 2010 to a trough of just over 17% at the start of last year – its lowest rate since data began in 1960.”

GDP/capita in Central and Eastern Europe (11 countries)

Hungary:

2005: #3
2010: #6
2013: #10

quoted in

Hungary’s election: more Orbanomics by Kester Eddy

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2014/04/07/hungarys-election-more-orbanomics

Guest
tappanch
April 8, 2014 3:53 pm

Correction:

GDP/capita in Central and Eastern Europe (11 countries)

Hungary:

2005: #3
2010: #6
2013: #9

Guest
tappanch
April 8, 2014 4:00 pm

Little Hungarian election arithmetic.

# votes (list and district) / seat in Parliament

Fidesz: 31,833

United Opposition: 66,309

Jobbik: 84,879

LMP: 96,424

Guest
Istvan
April 8, 2014 4:28 pm

András Schweitzer writes: “Skepticism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary and yet voters have always showed affinity for political illusions.” I would phrase it somewhat differently – Cynicism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary and yet voters have always showed affinity for political delusions.

Guest
An
April 8, 2014 4:32 pm

@Istvan: Spot-on.

Guest
petofi
April 8, 2014 5:43 pm

Thank you for the precise analyses; but I am curious about one thing:

After Brussels, where to are thou headed?

Or, in other words, is it worthwhile to return to Hungary?

Guest
Kirsten
April 8, 2014 6:21 pm

“Cynicism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary and yet voters have always showed affinity for political delusions.”

What about: Cynicism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary and as a result (because their cynicism has prevented them from working out a serious and coherent political programme) voters have always showed affinity for political delusions.

Guest
Kirsten
April 8, 2014 6:51 pm

To stretch your patience, the other way round sounds even better: voters have always showed affinity for political delusions and as a result cynicism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary.

Guest
Bobby jr.
April 8, 2014 8:00 pm

Why is nobody talking about the election cheating of MSZP. I was looking at the election data a few minutes ago and I realized MSZP stole hundreds of thousands of votes! MSZP ran together with 4 other parties : PM-E14-DK-MLP according to election data. So it was a 5 party coalition, which received 25% of the vote. Using pre election polls we must split this 25% to get MSZP real share of the vote. The numbers are debatable but here are my numbers: PM 1%, E14 3%, MLP 1%, DK 6% (there are many hardcore Gyurcsanyists such as the author of the blog Eva Balogh this is why I think high number for DK is justfied). The four parties together contributed about 11% to the combined result of 25%. This means that the MSZP party share of the vote was 14%. For this 14% MSZP received 29 seats in Parliament!!!!! While Jobbik which reached 21% received only 23 seats. 14%—-> 29 seats for MSZP 21%—-> 23 seats for Jobbik We can see this is only possible through election fraud, and stealing of the votes by MSZP! There is no other explanation that MSZP stole a huge number of seats from… Read more »

Guest
kaláka
April 8, 2014 8:17 pm

Hungary is a poor country, with a rather weak work ethic compared to Czechs or Poles or Slovaks (aka Northern CEE people). From the creative destruction of the last 25 years, by far the most people have felt was the destruction part. Sure, the GDP may be as high as was in 1990, but the economic landscape changed completely. The local factories which gave (and this is never emphasised on enough) both an identity and a community to people disappeared and workers there were either laid-off permanently or forced into foreign-owned companies, which Hungarians don’t like much and feel that they are taken advantage of by the wealthy foreigners. Working for foreign companies is also a daily remainder for many that Hungarians are inadequate and just can’t create similar enterprises. Meanwhile there has been huge, under-appreciated, demographic changes. The population very significantly decreased by natural loss in the last 30 years, which has been exacerbated in the last 5-6 years by the mass exodus of active people to Western-Europe. (But, as it was clear from comments at this blog, people working abroad are not liberals or leftists at all, mostly they are conservative, white working class people, who like in… Read more »

Guest
Gergely
April 8, 2014 8:34 pm
Guest
Paul
April 8, 2014 8:35 pm

Thank you, Éva, a really excellent article. I’ve never seen the political/cultural situation in Hungary summed up so accurately and succinctly.

I fear he may be right in the prediction in the final paragraph as well. With Orbán losing support, instead of getting the rousing ‘thank you’ from the adoring hoards he no doubt expected, I suspect the run-up to 2018 is going to make 2014 look like a picnic.

Guest
April 8, 2014 8:39 pm

My avatar seems to have expired!

Guest
Nem Szeretem A Mai Magyarorszagot
April 8, 2014 9:08 pm

Borderline democracy?

More a stripping of individual freedom!

When Deak & Co. sponsored freedom to all equally, the people rose up, and produced a beautiful country.

When Orban & Co. dismantled the Hungarian freedom, the country fell silent.

RIP Free Hungary.

Guest
tappanch
April 8, 2014 9:40 pm

UK The Telegraph: “Hungary is becoming the biggest reason why we may have to leave the EU ” “Revanchist nationalists of different stripes have just won 65pc of the vote in post-democratic Hungary.” “The Fidesz ruling party – and serial violator – has a seemingly unbreakable grip over the governing machinery of a mid-sized EU state in the heart of central Europe. It has harassed the media (…), purged the judiciary, and muzzled the opposition by banning paid TV advertising and greatly restricting campaign access to the public networks – even as it flooded the airwaves with its own message.” Growth “is dire for what should be a fast-growing catch-up economy” “We can argue about definitions but in my view Hungary is no longer a fully-functioning democracy.” “the EU Council is almost silent now that it really does have a test on its hands” “The question for the rest of us is whether we want to be part of an EU treaty club that now includes authoritarian regimes. Just remember, any Hungarian magistrate can issue a European Arrest Warrant for any British citizen on British soil – or a French, or German citizen, on their soils – without having to… Read more »

Member
April 8, 2014 10:35 pm

tappanch : UK The Telegraph: “Hungary is becoming the biggest reason why we may have to leave the EU ” “Revanchist nationalists of different stripes have just won 65pc of the vote in post-democratic Hungary.” “The Fidesz ruling party – and serial violator – has a seemingly unbreakable grip over the governing machinery of a mid-sized EU state in the heart of central Europe. It has harassed the media (…), purged the judiciary, and muzzled the opposition by banning paid TV advertising and greatly restricting campaign access to the public networks – even as it flooded the airwaves with its own message.” Growth “is dire for what should be a fast-growing catch-up economy” “We can argue about definitions but in my view Hungary is no longer a fully-functioning democracy.” “the EU Council is almost silent now that it really does have a test on its hands” “The question for the rest of us is whether we want to be part of an EU treaty club that now includes authoritarian regimes. Just remember, any Hungarian magistrate can issue a European Arrest Warrant for any British citizen on British soil – or a French, or German citizen, on their soils – without… Read more »

Member
April 8, 2014 10:48 pm

A Fidesz troll under the false name of “Bobby jr.” wrote : Why is nobody talking about the election cheating of MSZP. I was looking at the election data a few minutes ago and I realized MSZP stole hundreds of thousands of votes! MSZP ran together with 4 other parties : PM-E14-DK-MLP according to election data. So it was a 5 party coalition, which received 25% of the vote. Using pre election polls we must split this 25% to get MSZP real share of the vote. The numbers are debatable but here are my numbers: PM 1%, E14 3%, MLP 1%, DK 6% (there are many hardcore Gyurcsanyists such as the author of the blog Eva Balogh this is why I think high number for DK is justfied). The four parties together contributed about 11% to the combined result of 25%. This means that the MSZP party share of the vote was 14%. For this 14% MSZP received 29 seats in Parliament!!!!! While Jobbik which reached 21% received only 23 seats. 14%—-> 29 seats for MSZP 21%—-> 23 seats for Jobbik We can see this is only possible through election fraud, and stealing of the votes by MSZP! There is… Read more »

Member
April 8, 2014 10:49 pm

typo in #15: depredations

Guest
Tadeusz
April 9, 2014 12:00 am

A good article in Hungarian about the extremely popular “national rock” genre, the rock music genre of the Jobbik-world. It is more than a subculture now, although the mainstream media pretty much avoids it. The music videos are extremely popular on youtube.

As the authors of the referenced study state it, the lyrics of the songs have two main topics: (A) the nation, the community and (B) the heroic past vs. the losses (eg. Trianon).

According to the lyrics those responsible for the losses are: (i) globalization, (ii) market competition and (iii) certain ethnic groups (obviously most often meaning the Jews).

I would remind people about (i) and (ii). These are good reminders that Jobbik and its related civil organizations are very much a resistance movement against capitalism.

In addition the music as the authors of the study write it is often only a pretext for being able to become a member of a community. A community which the left and liberals cannot provide, it seems.

http://www.quart.hu/quart/nagy/20140403-beszelgetes-a-nemzeti-rockrol-szolo-tanulmany-szerzoivel-feischmidt-margit-pulay-gergo.html?utm_source=origo-nyito&utm_medium=sec-top&utm_campaign=sec

Guest
Ron
April 9, 2014 12:35 am

Stevan Harnad: WILL THE EU UN-MEMBER HUNGARY OR WAIT FOR HUNGARY TO DISMEMBER THE EU?
Evans-Prichard is probably a eurosceptic anyway, but Orban’s depradations turbocharge his cause.

What ever will happen it needs to wait until after the EU elections.

Guest
Wondercat
April 9, 2014 1:13 am

Against the eventual appearance of the gentleman’s text in other fora, and in hopes of ensuring that it there meets the most favourable response possible: To be of deep conviction, as are some democrats, is to be deeply convinced; to be deeply convicted… subterranean courts?

Guest
tappanch
April 9, 2014 3:10 am

tappanch :
Little Hungarian election arithmetic.
# votes (list and district) / seat in Parliament
Fidesz: 31,833
United Opposition: 66,309
Jobbik: 84,879
LMP: 96,424

If we exclude the 2/3 of the “Transylvanian” votes that were counted as of yesterday,
and restrict ourselves to the regular domestic domestic votes
(“nomadic” and embassy votes are to be counted on April 12, so they are not included yet)

We find that
Fidesz needed 31,382 votes
United Opposition 66,289 votes,
Jobbik 84,815 votes,
LMP 96,369 votes to get 1 seat in Parliament.

So the vote exchange rate (abbreviate as VX :-) ) was

1 Fidesz vote= 2.11 Opposition votes = 2.70 Jobbik votes = 3.07 LMP votes

Guest
tappanch
April 9, 2014 3:37 am

In my opinion,

for the democratic opposition to win,

MSzP should remove Mesterhazy,

Bajnai should get rid of Szigetvary, and

Schiffer should shrink his worse half.

Guest
hongorma
April 9, 2014 3:46 am

This is an outstanding analysis of why Hungary has become a borderline democracy. Thank you.

Guest
borlaug
April 9, 2014 4:33 am

tappanch :
In my opinion,
for the democratic opposition to win,
MSzP should remove Mesterhazy,
Bajnai should get rid of Szigetvary, and
Schiffer should shrink his worse half.

I think you misunderstand the situation. MSZP is now owned by Mesterházy. He cannot be removed. Out of the question.

Szigetvari brought Bajnai back to politics. Without Szigetvari, one could argue, there is no Bajnai.

Schiffer is who he is, he will not change as a person. His world view is formed, has been unchanged for years. He is very consistent. He will continue with what he has been doing and he feels vindicated by LMP’s passing the 5% mark, even though that is a serious loss compared to 2010.

So, none of your ideas are workable in practice. But that is beside the point, as the left has much deeper problems, fundamental ideological ones, the personal issues are just one manifestation of their problems.

Guest
tappanch
April 9, 2014 5:16 am

Pace of processing of mailed-in and dropped-off votes

March 31: 11,202 – accepted as valid: 75.54%
April 01: 0
April 02: 17,852 – accepted as valid: 81.03%
April 03: 21,601 – accepted as valid: 80.39%
April 04: 22,797 – accepted as valid: 80.73%
April 05: 21,849 – accepted as valid: 81.63%
April 05: 14,504 – accepted as valid: 78.89%

April 08: 8,100 – accepted as valid: 83.21%
April 09: 20,513 – accepted as valid: 83.58%

Remaining unopened outer envelopes : 16,868

As you can see, officials raised the ratio of accepted outer envelopes somewhat after election day to get that extra party list seat and the 2/3 majority for Fidesz.

Guest
April 9, 2014 5:25 am

Considering Hungary as a “borderline” democracy is a really soft and unprincipled approach to the facts.
The actual facts are evidence, well beyond a reasonable doubt, that Hungary is a fascist state, well beyond its infancy. In fact, it is confirmed now to develop into full flight, following the Mussolini model. And should anyone have any doubt, can easily check the the facts against the criteria postulated by Emilio Gentile:

http://www.oslo2000.uio.no/program/papers/s12/s12-gentile.pdf

No excuses will cover up this reality anymore. Just because parliamentarians are not murdered and journalists are not in jail, the fascist state is upon us anyway. Those outrages were not necessary so far, because the “electorate” favored this development. But there are plenty of violent and underhanded practices that make the “classic” techniques unnecessary.

Guest
tappanch
April 9, 2014 5:31 am

@borlaug

1.
Because Mesterhazy does not own MSzP, ha can be and should be removed by the party.
He lost 3 elections so far in 2010 and 2014, isn’t that enough to prove that he is either
not capable of leading or he is a Fidesz Trojan horse?

2.
Szigetvari is a conceited Niemand in my humble opinion.
He lost the 2010 election for MSzP and he lost the 2014 election with Bajnai, didn’t he?

3.
We agree, Schiffer might not be able to change. If he had the chance, he could become a gentler edition of Orban.

4. We agree that the opposition should create some ideology (from modernized, liberal Marxism).

Orban does not have ideology either, he just pretends to have one (nationalistic social-feudal Fascism) to deceive people.

His and his friends main goal is to enrich themselves.

Guest
April 9, 2014 5:37 am

I must disagree with borlaug, sorry. Szigetvari is a really useless party aparatchic, long on theory and short on practice. HIs election record is mostly constituted by failures. His major accomplishment in this campaign was that he managed to marginalize Bajnai. He also had the audacity to be a candidate besides being a campaign manager. So whom was he really working for in this case? His communications skills are the equivalent of a clock-work parrot, speeding through the programmed text without the slightest thinking, or conviction.
He is an odious technician without taste, without class and most of all, without any imagination.

Guest
tappanch
April 9, 2014 5:58 am

Orban government has achieved 71% of the planned yearly deficit in 25% of the time (first quarter).

Bravo.

http://www.portfolio.hu/gazdasag/mennyire_lyukadt_ki_a_koltsegvetes_marciusban.197598.html

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