Bálint Magyar on the failures of the socialist-liberal governments

After two edited volumes on the post-communist mafia state (Magyar Polip, 2013 and 2014), Bálint Magyar came out with a book of his own, A magyar maffiaállam anatómiája (2015), which offers a brief but penetrating analysis of the failings of the socialist-liberal coalition government that led to the “revolution in the voting booth.” His thoughts on the matter are especially significant since Magyar himself was a member of three of these governments. He was minister of education between January 1996 and June 1998 in the Horn government and again in the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments between May 2002 and June 2006.

As Magyar says, although “the Third Republic wasn’t killed by the left and the liberals, they had a share in adding to its vulnerability.” After listing the usual reasons for their failure–corruption, loss of credibility, overspending, and strategic mistakes, Magyar concentrates on the deeper reasons for the current sad state of the liberals and the socialists. He points to a “loss of identity” due to a lack of recognizable symbols associated with the left. “The democratic forces had neither a public ethos nor a modern vision of society.” (p. 39)

One reason that the democratic forces couldn’t come up with an identifying symbolism was that the socialists and the liberals “didn’t speak the same language,” and therefore they couldn’t formulate a common policy. The socialist politicians didn’t understand the importance of creating a spiritual link to their electorate. In times of plenty, perhaps such a link can be dispensed with, but in times of trouble only those politicians can ask for “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” who themselves have a vision over and above the promise of a slightly higher standard of living. By contrast, Fidesz, after 1993, easily revived the old “ideological instruments of the right”: God, country, family. These were simple phrases that could offer a framework in which the Hungarian everyman could find solace and hope.

There were few meeting points between the socialists and the liberals, but there was at least one question on which they could easily agree: the separation of church and state. Both considered religion part of the private sphere. But Gyula Horn’s decision in 1998 to negotiate with the Vatican, resulting in special privileges for the Catholic Church, put an end to that accord. In Magyar’s opinion the leaders of MSZP looked upon the church the same way that politicians did in the Kádár regime–as “an institution that can be influenced and bought.” The socialists didn’t realize that by the 1990s the Catholic Church was no longer fighting for its survival; it strove for a more prominent political and social role. Because the Church’s leaders had been compromised by virtue of their cooperation with the Kádár regime, they had no intention of cooperating with the democratic socialists. Horn hoped that the Church would stand by the socialists in the election campaign as a result of his generous financial settlement. Of course, they didn’t. They helped Fidesz with its “God, country, family” slogan, which fit the Church better anyway.

Already in 1990 the liberals and socialists lost the parliamentary debate over the concept of a modern, democratic nation. The conservative parties made August 20th the national holiday, a day that emphasizes events eleven hundred years ago:  the arrival of Hungarians in the Carpathian basin, the establishment of the state, and the acceptance of Christianity. The liberals and socialists wanted March 15th to be the national holiday, the day when a modern, democratic Hungary was born. They lost. They also lost the debate over the question of the coat-of-arms, which was the heraldic symbol of the Kingdom of Hungary. Eventually the left even lost the battle for the left-inspired 1956 revolution, which in the interpretation of the right has since become “the revolution of right-wing radicals.”

Not only the socialists but also the liberals “were deaf” when it came to the necessity of symbols in political discourse. Members of the democratic opposition, including Bálint Magyar himself, were suspicious of anything that might limit the freedom and autonomy of the individual. This secular intellectual elite’s self-assurance seemed like an “arrogance of rootless individuals.” The socialist-liberal government even missed the opportunity to support women’s issues and work out a concept of a modern family where women can be useful members of the national economy. In brief, they failed at the reinterpretation of spiritual, national and familial communities, and therefore “the road to national populism was wide open.”


Meanwhile Hungarian society went through some very rough times after the change of regime. Instead of the hoped-for welfare state came high unemployment and inflation. Neither the socialists nor the liberals had any viable answers. The socialists could offer only paternalistic solutions while the liberals clung to their belief in the invisible hand of the markets. They looked insensitive to the hopelessness of those who were victims of the change of regime.

Another problem was the quality of the personnel in the ministries. By the second half of the Kádár regime the quality of the higher echelon of the ministries was high in comparison to the other socialist countries. Since then, the quality of the leading government officials has deteriorated. In addition, every four years each new prime minister decided to reorganize the whole government structure. Magyar is especially critical of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision in 2006 to eliminate the position of “administrative undersecretary,” the person who was in charge of the everyday running of the ministry. Gyurcsány also made the mistake of placing the police under the ministry of justice, which “the doctrinaire liberals” liked because it fulfilled their desire to have control over the police, but in the fall of 2006 the minister of justice, a former professor of law, turned out to be unfit for the job.

Finally, Magyar bemoans the weakness of the Hungarian system of institutions that were supposed to provide those checks and balances that guarantee the democratic functioning of the state. Way before 2010, racist talk and action became commonplace and was tolerated. And, Magyar asks, didn’t László Sólyom’s silence after the formation of the Hungarian Guard in 2007 contribute to the increasing acceptance of racism? Or, when he reacted far too late to the serial killing of Romas in 2008 and 2009? Or what about the courts that waited until the Hungarian Guard had grown into a sizable force and then took years to disband it?

The Constitutional Court also played a role in the demise of the Third Republic. Magyar mentions two milestones in the twenty-year history of the court. The first, when in 1995 the court ruled against a large portion of the austerity program of Finance Minister Lajos Bokros, which wanted to put an end to the populist policies practiced in Hungary. With this act the Court made “equitable and rational political discourse” impossible. And in 2008 the Court gave its blessing to a Fidesz referendum question on the annulment of college tuition fees and co-payments at doctor’s offices. Some members of the “independent” Constitutional Court were politically motivated in this case. Their decision heightened the population’s “unrealistic expectations and paralyzed the government’s capacity to act.” Indeed, this was the last nail in the coffin of the Third Republic.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
July 13, 2015 8:25 pm
While not having read the book, your analysis suggests that Balint Magyar is missing the main reason for liberalism not taking root during the 25 years of freedom in Hungary. In my humble opinion the biggest failure of the last 25 years of free (ok, free for 20 years of the 25) is the population not wanting and not appreciating a society where individual rights are guaranteed through a judicial system that is independent of the governing parties and what guarantees your right to succeed as a business or individual. A judicial system that forces governments to serve their whole constituency not just their voters or privileged voters. Magyar’s party has made the same mistake as the right wing parties – even if the latter enjoy a momentary upswing in Hungarian history and SzDSz very quickly faded out on a historical timescale: they think of these things first and foremost as ideological challenges whereas they are challenges of pragmatism in reality. All of the governments of the last 25 years have made exactly the same historical mistake: imposing on people how they can/should be successful. How about letting people to fail or succeed while their freedom to choose is always… Read more »
July 13, 2015 8:33 pm

It is kind of stupid to respond to your own comment but I wanted to recommend a brilliant piece of Hungarian literature to this forum. Jenoe Tersanszky Jozsi wrote a lovely series of short stories on the vagabond “Kakuk Marci”. If you think that Hungary has progressed over the last 100 years, warmly recommend the story of “Kakuk Marci kortesuton” or “Kakuk Marci on the campaign trail” in my poor translation. That much about the progress of the Hungarian constituency…

July 14, 2015 12:07 am

A pathetic and repellent story of a persistent failure of leadership in a backward society rife with racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, bottomless envy, inordinate greed and brutish dimwits (bunkók). What is missing most is common sense, good judgement and elementary decency.

July 14, 2015 3:13 am
The fundamental purpose of any government, anywhere, is to regulate the economy and to keep in check people’s worst instincts through legislation. I am not sure if Hungarians are any worse than people anywhere else, but the legislation here, and the enforcement of laws pertaining to racism, hate-talk, etc, are on paper only, if even there. I do not care what people say in their homes, but it is a different matter when hate of any race is actively and vociferously exercised in public. In Hungary it is an everyday occurence to hear people on street corners loudly and proudly talking down other Hungarian citizens, if they are of a different race, though this is usually confined to Jews and gypsies. They do so because they know they can, since there are never any consequences. What, for instance, has been the fate of the charming town councilor in Eger, who was taped in her office making antisemitic remarks about Jewish lefty artists, and how Eger city does not want them there? I suspect nothing, and she still sits at her well-paid Fidesz desk, happily expounding her opinions, with her colleagues nodding in agreement, who were all laughingly agreeing with her… Read more »
July 14, 2015 3:31 am

Within one day, we have seen two historic capitulations. Greece’s to Germany and USA’s to Iran.

Had Merkel exerted 1/10 of the pressure on Orban as on Tzipras, Hungary would have stayed a democracy.

July 14, 2015 4:38 pm

“Within one day, we have seen two historic capitulations. Greece’s to Germany and USA’s to Iran.”

Capitulation? The Iran deal is a huge win for corporate America:


July 14, 2015 4:01 am

July 14, 2015 at 3:31 am

Well, yes, but the Hungarian implosion is no skin off her rear end, whereas the Greek debt is a hot hip pocket issue for the Germans. As it would be for any of us, if we lent a whole heap of dough to someone, who then proceeded to promptly gamble it all off, then told us to go jump, instead of repaying it as per the agreed terms. If Hungary had large unmet debt obligations to Germany similar to that of the Greeks, Hungary would have surely met a similar fate at the hands of the lady Iron Chancellor (whom I personally admire very much). Democracy or otherwise among the Hungarian retards is, on the other hand, the least of her concerns.

July 14, 2015 11:55 am

I, too, like Merkel. She’s tough when need be, and it was certainly necessary with the mis-behaving Greeks. Lest we forget, the Italians and other countries in financial trouble were watching.

Being part of the Club of Europe means that funds are available for borrowing: it doesn’t mean that you renege on promises to pay back.

It was sweet to watch that the Greeks got punished by a much stiffer deal for their little ‘political theatre’ of the plebiscite. Justly deserved.

Surely the Greek citizenry will be thoroughly confused: “Can’t we just reject this like the other offer…?”

Who’s going to explain the difference to them now?

July 14, 2015 4:06 am

The number of people applying for refugee status in Hungary between January 1 and July 12, 2015 has reached 75,294.

Since May 1, 24,864 people have entered Hungary as refugees, prodded by the news of the fence building between Serbia and Hungary.

Ninety per cent of them leaves Hungary within two weeks.


July 14, 2015 6:06 am

Public tenders à l’orbanaise

Task: build a 8.5 km long public road.

Bid 1: 1.063 billion forints (by oligarch Simicska, who fell out of grace)
Bid 2: 1.068
Bid 3: for 65.6% more, 1.76 billion (by people close to Orban friend & thus oligarch Meszaros).

Bids 1 & 2 are disqualified for being too cheap, bid 3 is declared the winner.


Task: write three essays for the office of the prime minister for 140 million forints.

There were 14 bidders. Thirteen of them were disqualified, so the sole winner for each of the essays is chief propagandist Giró-Szász’s former or not-so-former company.


July 14, 2015 9:34 am
Re: “It is the constituency and the resolve of the constituency that makes Western societies successful and liveable not their government” I’d say that is very good remark on that relationship though I think the synergistic balance between the two has to be constantly reinvigorated and watched to get ‘success’ in democratic environments. How many can say this existed consistently in Magyar society from the beginning of the tumultuous 20th century? If Europe sneezed at the time Magyarorszag would usually be in the most likely place, the infirmary. She exactly was not a healthy patient during that time. I’d suggest Magyarorszag society indeed has lived and been treated ‘ paternistically’ to the extent that she hasn’t the faintest idea of how to reorient itself to a much more fluid society where the individual has the freedom to reorient themselves to that society in perhaps new ways. It is a matter of not waiting to have things ‘done for you’ but to take responsibility. And if the institutions themselves think from a command ‘top-down approach’ well it doesn’t appear to be a good way to have democratic traditions flourishing. The ‘blockage’ between the two is extremely evident. Magyarorszag reminds me of… Read more »
July 14, 2015 10:33 am

Anthony Bourdain was just here last month. Or rather, his segment on Budapest aired last month, so probably he came a few months before that.

July 14, 2015 5:03 pm

You got it. He was and now I recall seeing him with Vilmos.

And just to say something about his trip usually he does and at times make comments on the ‘political’ situation in the country he is traveling in. I don’t believe he said anything at all on ‘politics’ in that segment. It was really more about Vilmos’ great skill with cameras and his life. Perhaps Mr. Bourdain wasn’t familiar with all the machinations going on? If so I ohms understand as I had and still am going through bit of an ‘educational’ experience of Magyar ‘Tombstone Territory’.

July 14, 2015 12:04 pm

“…where the individual has the freedom to reorient themselves to that society…”

And how, exactly, would you expect this to come about in a country where, for instance, the civil servants must shiver in their boots after every election lest they be dismissed and be replaced by a party hack?

Hungary is not a country of ‘rights’?
It’s a country where, if you know which ass to kiss, you may get to keep your job…

The only ‘reorientation’ that Hungarians have been known to do is figuring out who they must submit to and to do it forthwith.

Hayra Magyarok!

July 14, 2015 5:27 pm

Re: “The only ‘reorientation’ that Hungarians have been known to do is figuring out who they must submit”

If that is the case in modern day Magyarorszag then Lenin, Stalin and the rest of the Reds really got into their heads didn’t they? They succeeded then in practically re-wiring the entire Magyar neurological together with its ‘soul’. As I can see it is apparent that the psychic damage to Magyar existence is deep and irreparable thanks to that ‘comradely’ old brigade.

Time to read ‘The Hungarian Patient’. Maybe some cures are embedded in the analyses.

I was thinking on mailing a copy of that great 1966 film, ‘A Man for All Seasons’ to the government which develops the themes of noting of how individual refuses to be obsequious in the face of government power, corruption and the disregard of law. I have the feeling nobody would understand it even if I added Magyar subtitles. Their minds have of course been re-wired too.

July 14, 2015 2:41 pm

Eva there is no doubt because of your review I will struggle through yet another book in Hungarian. In general I dislike reading highly academic works in Hungarian and find the reading very difficult, your review intrigues me however. Eva who is the publisher and is it available in e-reader format?

Just a comment to tappanch, just because the US Department of State and President Obama have reached an agreement with Iran on it nuclear program doesn’t mean in the least that the United States Senate will approve a resolution of ratification . The Majority Party in the US Senate are Republican (54 seats). The US Constitution provides that the president “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur” (Article II, section 2). The US Senate for example rejected the Treaty of Versailles twice. It is also possible the Republican leadership of the US Senate will simply not call for a vote on the resolution of ratification.

July 14, 2015 2:45 pm
I appreciate Eva’s efforts. However, I am reluctant to scrutinize this piece because it would have little added value for the future. It sounds as if the author owes an explanation to someone. Not very credible. I am of a strong opinion that all failures fall back on you one day. To me, these guys failed on several fronts. Foremost there was no one to educate people about democracy, rule of law and market economy; what are the workings of citizenry, etc. The first and last meaningful debate started and ended with NATO.” Disregard timely warnings from EU officials Hungary achieved membership without people’s real understanding of the consequences. Therefore, I am not surprised at all that “popular unpreparedness” could be exploited to such a degree. Liberal; non-liberal; and on all failures… This piece and the yesterday’s post is a credible proof for that. To be fair, all transitional countries suffer from this failure to a differing degree. (It can be even exploited in UK.) The degree mostly depends on the will of politicians. That educational job could have been done by NGOs. In Hungary, the NGO sector quickly disappeared into well-paid private sector jobs. In Yugoslavia, this sector was… Read more »