I’m sure that readers of Hungarian Spectrum know that I have a very low opinion of Hungarian “political scientists” or, in Hungarian, “politológusok.” They are not really political scientists as we define the profession in the West. A Hungarian “politológus” is an unaffiliated political commentator at best. At worst he is in the pay of a political party as a so-called adviser. These “talking heads,” instead of doing research, normally go from one TV station to the next, pontificating about current politics.
But here and there we can find genuine political scientists in Hungary. A case in point is András Körösényi. Right after Fidesz won the 2010 election, he was named director of the Political Science Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Körösényi is described in the media as an “ősfideszes,” one of the progenitors of Fidesz from the late 1980s. Naturally, his appointment and his subsequent firing of some well-known political scientists were considered to be political acts. Körösényi protested in vain that the purge was not political, especially since most of those who were let go were considered to be associated with the left. He claimed that his decision was based on three considerations: (1) the staff was too large, (2) some of the political scientists were merely talking heads, and (3) the professional attainment of several associates was below par. In fact, Körösényi most likely was telling the truth. The very first man to be fired was the Fidesz propagandist Tamás Fricz, whose weekly column in Magyar Nemzet and lately in Magyar Idők is a disgrace to the profession. Körösényi, who is the best known Hungarian political scientist abroad, encourages the Institute’s associates to publish in foreign professional journals. Körösényi’s own list of publications is impressive in this respect.
You will not find either Körösényi’s or any of the associates’ names in daily publications. Nor are there any lengthy TV interviews with them about current political events. I wouldn’t be surprised if such activities were either discouraged or outright forbidden. However, the Institute periodically organizes conferences on selected topics. The topic of today’s conference was “Twenty-five years of the Hungarian political regime: 1990-2015.” The occasion was the publication of a new volume edited by Körösényi himself titled “The Hungarian political regime after twenty-five years.”
I suspect that the use of the word “regime” in the title sparked the interest of reporters. After all, “regime” is often used as a derogatory term, implying an authoritarian government or dictatorship. And since the public associates Körösényi with Fidesz, there was great interest in his thoughts on the nature of this regime. (Although he himself told a political science undergraduate at Corvinus in an interview for the political science department’s newspaper not long ago that he doesn’t keep in touch with his former political friends.)
The differences between a political system and a political regime are crucial to Körösényi’s argument. According to standard definitions,
A political regime is a set of political structures that make up a state. These political systems range from direct democracies to totalitarian regimes, such as military dictatorships. Common systems in the modern world include democratic republics, monarchies, and representative democracies.
A political system is the set of formal legal institutions that constitute a “government” or a “state.” This is the definition adopted by many studies of the legal or constitutional arrangements of advanced political orders. More broadly defined, however, the term comprehends actual as well as prescribed forms of political behavior, not only the legal organization of the state but also the reality of how the state functions. Still more broadly defined, the political system is seen as a set of “processes of interaction” or as a subsystem of the social system interacting with other nonpolitical subsystems, such as the economic system. This points to the importance of informal sociopolitical processes and emphasizes the study of political development.
Körösényi labels the present political Hungarian setup the “Orbán regime.” His reasons for this label are manifold. All of the political changes that have occurred in the last six years are connected to Orbán himself. A political system, in his opinion, is a “stable, permanent phenomenon, but a regime is very temporary. A regime might not be capable of ‘consolidation.'” Even those who sympathize with the right don’t trust that this regime will survive Orbán himself. Körösényi believes that the changes introduced since 2010 have not basically altered the political system, i.e. democracy. He brought up freedom of the media, free elections, and an independent judiciary. What is really different in this Orbán era is “a new kind of exercise of power.”
Examples of this new kind of exercise of power are the following: (1) the government always wants to solve some kind of crisis; (2) because of the perpetual crisis situation there are always extraordinary situations which demand authoritarian governance; (3) Fidesz created the myth that in these extraordinary times the country needs a leader of “extraordinary talents” who also satisfies the desires of the People and therefore his rule is democratic; (4) after taking away most power from the constitutional court “the concept of political majority is raised over the rule of law and meritocracy”; (5) public debates are superfluous; (6) the government avoids dialogue with institutions and elites and turns straight to the People; (7) this paternalistic and anti-pluralistic regime “has reorganized the relation between government and society and it more and more tries to influence our everyday existence”; and, finally, (8) the Orbán regime is right-wing but in many respects transcends the distinction between left and right. Its chief ideology is anti-communism, but even that can change. It can always substitute some other enemy instead. Ideology and pragmatism are mixed in its everyday governance, which Körösényi calls “tinkering” (barkácsolás).
His opponent was Zsolt Boda, department head of the Academy’s Social Science Research Institute, who criticized Körösényi for “beating around the bush.” In his opinion, this governance can be understood only “within the paradigm of hybrid [illiberal, authoritarian] regimes.” Boda doubts, for example, that the Orbán regime can still be called democratic, given the present state of the constitutional court, the functioning of the judicial system, especially the prosecutorial branch, and the present electoral system.
According to Gergely Tóth, a reporter for Index, “although Boda didn’t draw the conclusion, many political scientists present strengthened [his] opinion that in light of the changes that have taken place since 2010 the fine distinction between regime and system …doesn’t make much sense.” Most likely Boda is right, but considering Körösényi’s past association with Fidesz and its basically right-of-center political views, it is pretty remarkable that he got to the point of such a fundamental critique of the Orbán regime.