Mária Vásárhelyi: “Self-appraisal”–The failure of the regime change

Now that for almost two weeks political life in Hungary has pretty well come to a standstill, I have time to read some analyses of topics of current interest. That’s why I decided to summarize the article of János Széky on the parallels and dissimilarities between the Polish and the Hungarian regimes the other day. Another article that appeared in the December 18 issue of Élet és Irodalom that piqued my interest was Mária Vásárhelyi’s probing look at Hungarian society’s seeming indifference to the destruction of democratic institutions by Viktor Orbán’s government. The article bears the title “Szembenézés–önmagunkkal,” which perhaps can best be rendered as “Self-Appraisal.” She is seeking answers for the failure of the 1989 regime change and assesses the role of intellectuals in the years that led to 2010 and after.

Hungarian society displays deep and widespread despondency in the face of changes introduced by Viktor Orbán’s government. Many people know that these changes, both in the short and in the long run, are injurious to the country. Yet they seem unable to take a stand against them, most likely because they no longer have any hope for a better life. Some people talk about the Hungarian psyche, which is inclined toward melancholy and pessimism; others bring up national tradition as an obstacle to an energetic response in the face of adversity. What Hungarian intellectuals don’t want to realize is that the democratic accomplishments they view as great achievements of the regime change are not considered as such by the public. “However painful it is, we must face the fact that for the majority the regime change is not a success story but a failure.” Achievements are dwarfed by losses. The values inherent in democracy and personal freedom cannot be measured against the shock of lost security and existential perspectives.

Vásárhelyi, a sociologist who already during the Kádár period was part of a team that conducted opinion polls, recalls that in the 1980s the great majority of the people considered a secure job, material advance, and free and widely available healthcare more important than such moral values as freedom, democracy, equal opportunity, and justice. The Kádár regime, with the help of foreign loans, ensured these material benefits. Exchanging these material pluses for abstract moral values was not what these people expected. But this is what more or less happened between 1989 and 2015. Between 1990 and 1994 one million people lost their jobs, Hungary’s industrial production decreased by 40% and its agricultural production by 30%. Hungarians never fully recovered from the shock of those years. Moreover, since 2010 the situation has grown worse.

During the four years of the second Orbán government the gap between rich and poor grew enormously. Consumer spending today barely reaches the 1988 level. In 1987 51% of the people reported that they had no serious financial problems, another 44% were able to make ends meet, and only 5% didn’t have enough money to make it through the month. Today one-third of households struggle to put food on the table and the remaining two-thirds barely manage. In the Kádár regime two-thirds of families could afford a summer vacation, today only one-third can. The middle class, instead of expanding, is shrinking.

I'm remaining a democrat and I am staying in Hungary

Mária Vásárhelyi: I’m remaining a democrat and I’m staying in Hungary

Not surprisingly, 80% of people with leftist leanings and 42% of Fidesz voters think that Hungary’s situation was better under socialism than it is now. Among the East European countries, Hungarians feel the most dejected and disappointed, which can partly be explained by the relative well-being of the population during the second half of the Kádár era. Another reason for the greater disappointment in Hungary might stem from Hungarian wariness of capitalism and private ownership of large businesses and factories. Already in 1990 half of the population opposed privatization, but today almost two-thirds are against private property on a large scale. Not only do Orbán’s nationalization efforts meet no resistance, they are most likely welcomed.

The situation is no better when people are asked their opinion of political institutions. At the beginning of the 1990s trust in the new institutions was quite high: on a scale of 0 to 100 the average was around 65 and none was under 50. Today not a single democratic institution reaches 50. Two-thirds of the people have no trust whatsoever in parliament and in politicians. Only 25% have any trust in politicians, parliament, government, or the opposition. Only 20% of them think that politicians want the best for the country and for the people. They don’t trust the media and the financial institutions. They have even lost faith in the judiciary, the police, the churches, and the scientific institutions. More than half of the population believe that the leaders of the country don’t care about their fate. Two-thirds are convinced that one cannot succeed by being honest. Almost 75% think that the laws serve only the interests of those in power and that they have nothing to do with justice.

“Thus it is not at all surprising that not only the democratic institutions but democracy itself has lost its importance.” According to a 2009 poll, three people out of four agree with the statement that the change of regime caused more harm than good to the country. Only every fifth person is convinced that regime change will bear fruit in the long run.

It was on this general disappointment with capitalism and democracy that Viktor Orbán built his electoral strategy in 2010 and managed to acquire a two-thirds majority in parliament. In Vásárhelyi’s opinion

It was not the right-wing values, the restoration of the Horthy regime, not even the anti-communist slogans that attracted the majority of the voters to Orbán but the violent anti-regime rhetoric studded with overwrought nationalism. He convinced his voters that he would redress the injustices and the wrongs of the regime change. … It was the promise of a new change of regime, the restoration of the state’s dominance in the economy, the compensation for losses suffered, calling to account those who illegally benefited from the privatization of public property that the people voted for when they cast their votes for Fidesz.

And because for the majority of people the democratic institutions held no great attraction the systematic  destruction of these institutions didn’t meet with any resistance. The rule of law, freedom, equal opportunity were popular points of reference in the first few years [after 1990], but when the promises of the regime change didn’t materialize they lost their appeal. What followed was mass impoverishment, closing of channels of social mobility, dramatic differences between rich and poor, segregation, the narrowing of opportunities in the small villages, and the hopelessness of breaking out from disadvantageous positions, all of which started well before 2010.

Therefore, I consider those ideas that look for a solution to the crisis of Hungarian democracy in the revival of the traditions of the regime change and the reconstruction of the democratic institutions mistaken. Those political and cultural values that the non-right-wing elite considers important clearly don’t speak to the majority of Hungarians…. They don’t even attract those who are victims of all that has happened since 2010 and who are greatly disappointed in the Orbán regime. These people are actually in the majority. According to the 2014 European Values Survey, almost half of the population believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Only 25% of the electorate are satisfied. Twice as many people look toward the future with trepidation than with hope. The former group are those who will have to get rid of Orbán’s autocratic regime, but it is obvious that they can only be inspired by a more attractive alternative than the elite democracy that developed after 1989.

Is there an alternative to the fundamentals of the democratic changes or the introduction of a market economy, which were the promise of 1989-1990? I don’t believe there is. What has to be changed are not the fundamentals but their implementation, so that a growing prosperity will be shared by all the people of Hungary, not just the upper crust with political connections, which is the strategy of the Orbán government. Any other economic policy is doomed to failure.

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December 30, 2015 7:32 pm
Wow Eva no alternative at all to a market economy for Hungary. As we all know there are highly regulated Northern European market economies that by US standards would be considered to be communist by free market supporters in the USA.. There are gangster state market economies like the Russian Federation, Hungary, many African nations like Nigeria, and other nations. There are quasi-market economies like China, and Vietnam where the Communist parties still control many of the levers of those economies. Fundamentally these all can be called market economies. Capitalism and market structures are widely varied throughout the world. Time does not stand still, neither do economic structures. We have no idea what the economies of the future will look like due to environmental constraints, the exhaustion of resources, and the possible reduction in consumer buying power due to wage reductions on a world scale. There may well have to be alternatives to market economies in the years to come, and probably for Hungary too. There is always an alternative, there is no end to history. Unless of course we are nearing the “end times” of biblical prophesy which I suspect most readers of this blog do not believe is… Read more »
December 31, 2015 12:08 am
A brilliant analysis by Vásárhelyi. And Eva’s point on the central importance of the quality of implementation is of course absolutely spot on. The Hungarian political and intellectual elite – both left and right – emerging from three decades of semi-feudal fascism followed by four decades of various hues of communism was totally clueless about many things, such as the operation and prudent regulation of a well-functioning market economy, the necessity of a hard-nosed focus at all times on protecting and maximizing the welfare and well-being of the general public, or the sensible management of public expectations, so as to prevent the rise of unrealistic expectations inevitably leading to the sort of despondence we are witnessing today. But above all, they were utterly unprepared and clueless as to how best to manage and minimize the pain of transition from a command economy that provided economic security with reasonable living standards for most people (albeit on the back of massive loans from international banks, though that would not have concerned in the least the average János bácsi or Mari néni who were the beneficiaries of the debt-funded largesse), to a prudently regulated market economy under liberal democratic governance that could and… Read more »
December 31, 2015 8:57 am


“The Hungarian political and intellectual elite….was totally clueless.
I don’t think that holds for the political elite. How much sharper could they have been than to take maximal advantage during the takeover than to dip into district holdings and snap up the best apartment and store-front real estate in all of Budapest? They knew what they were about. And the criminality was so widespread that no one even attempted to stop it. One of the laughable consequences was that Hungarian store-owners–many former district politicians ended up with tens of locations–created a new terminology: I forget the exact Hungarian but it meant, ‘the right to pay rent’. So, you paid for the ‘right’ and thereafter could pay rent. Only in Hungary….

December 31, 2015 11:14 pm

Yes indeed, most Hungarians have always been enthusiastic looters this past century, first looting the Jews, then the middle class, then whatever they could steal from state property, then whatever they could snatch up dirt cheap in the fire sales of the nation’s hard assets, and then stealing even the hard earned private pension funds into which the ordinary Joe in Hungary sank his meager savings.

But the opinionated and self-conceited left of center political and intellectual elite that Vásárhelyi talks about were and are also totally clueless on matters such as leadership, vision, goals, grassroots political organization and the management of a painful transition from a leaking command economy to a viable market economy under liberal democratic governance.

The bottom line is that they could not work their way out of a brown paper bag.

December 31, 2015 1:54 am

Unfortunately, it would seem that the bottom line strongly implicated by Vásárhelyi’s piece is that the prospects of existing left of center political formations in the 2018 Hungarian general elections range from dim and meager to entirely nonexistent.

December 31, 2015 2:21 am

And indeed, today’s left of center political formations in Hungary appear to be giving a fair imitation of a Blind Freddy act in what appears to be the blind leading the sightless across a busy freeway . . . .

December 31, 2015 8:38 am

Tough to get a hold of that as it could indeed be the reality. I would say that even if democracy is getting kicked into the gutter it still has to be arguably the best political formulation to insure the concepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in human communities. Hungarians today I’m afraid are like Pavlovian dogs part of a conditioning experiment where they are learning to salivate
to principles and attitudes that will continually make them sick.

You know I look at Zimbabwe and see what has been going on there. What a fine dictatorship. What a way to live in that ‘Mugabian’ environment. No way a democracy can get traction there in that environment. A cautious note for Hungarians. I’d think if real democracy has any chance of taking root in Hungary the autocrats first have to go. And then there’s plenty of work to be done in the area of great ‘political imagination’. It has been done before…here in the US. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

December 31, 2015 4:36 am

Left-liberals are now only a subculture in Hungary says Tamas Lanczi of Századvég. He says that even ardent leftists like Paul Lendvai and others are realizing that Orban is right and that he is winning.


December 31, 2015 5:06 am


Just because Orban is winning does not mean he is right.

All it means is that he is superbly skillful in manipulating for personal gain and for his mafia cronies a psychologically terribly sick society.

January 1, 2016 8:12 pm

Erdös, please. Lanczi is saying what he is paid for, Szazadv had at least 3.5 bil Ft last year, Giro became rich pumping there.
BTW Orbán was only rude on the immigrant issue dumping the load onto the neighbors. And I don’t see any winning on any front, quite the opposite e.g. last weeks data on the external debt spells disaster if confirmed.

December 31, 2015 4:55 am

For some reason, the law on the closing of stores on Sundays covers Dec. 31 as well: http://index.hu/gazdasag/2015/12/30/szilveszterkor_delben_zarnak_a_boltok/
How can they justify this on religious grounds (the supposed reason for the law)?

Stores in Hungary close at NOON today folks, do your shopping right now.

December 31, 2015 4:58 am

Not entirely OT:
It appears that the English translation of Bálint Magyar’s recent books will be published exactly three months from now:

December 31, 2015 6:41 am

2016: A prediction and a wish

In my last New Year’s comment I made a number of predictions about what would happen in Hungary in 2015. I now admit without remorse that I failed. What really happend in Hungary in 2015 was far worse than what I could imagine at the beginning of the year.

This year I will let my imagination venture into what is unimaginable in a civilized country:

In 2016 Hungarians will die in numbers from lack of subsistence and healthcare with Orban’s blessed name on their lips.

My New Year’s wish is that truth and compassion will revive in Hungary

December 31, 2015 8:49 am

“not just the upper crust with political connections, which is the strategy of the Orbán government”…

Uh, sorry, this has been the government process regardless of political stripe.

The problem is not ‘left’, ‘right’, or center. The problem is that the Hungarian is insistent in taking the ‘short-cut’ to success, which means payoffs and back-stabbing.

The only solution is a legal system intent on severe punishment for
financial and governmental law-breaking. Not only a rap on the knuckles but depriving the offending politician of his worth, and especially, the family home. Let it be the wife who rides shotgun over
the husband’s behaviour.

December 31, 2015 11:41 pm

I would say that the problem is not economic, but psychological, or in other words, the distasteful economic and interpersonal issues you point to, are merely consequences of the underlying very complex psychological problem.

The core issue is that the Hungarian mind is desperately sick and full of bull, misconceptions and misinformation, while empty of knowledge relevant and useful in a rapidly globalizing world.

That the Hungarian is insistent on taking the ‘short-cut’ to success, which means payoffs and back-stabbing is thus not a root cause, but just one of the more minor consequences of his/her parlous mental state.

As to the legal system, unfortunately a legal system can only work when the majority of the people want it to work. Otherwise it is of scant help, regardless of how severe the punishment for financial and governmental law-breaking.

In any case, the purpose of the legal system in Hungary today is not to uphold the rule of law as that is generally understood in the West, but very specifically to underpin and buttress systematic looting by the mafia in power.

December 31, 2015 10:39 am

Vasarhelyi’s assessment of Hungary’s political culture is very similar to my own (non scientific) view. It is also not new. Even in the mid 1990s (when I was very involved in the key events of Hungary’s development as a market economy (of sorts) and in particular the large scale privatization of key industries), there was almost no general public understanding or appreciation of what was going on, and its implications for society. And certainly, only limited support (at best) among the population at large for a more open, liberal economy. In hindsight, a large part of the fault belongs to the political class (as well as the World Bank and IMF), which promised effectively better living standards without any substantial costs (while maintaining most if not all of the benefits of an all encompassing welfare state).

December 31, 2015 11:07 am

One of my sisters’ husband also worked in the middle 90s in Budapest for one of the global players and he very much liked the city and its restaurants, culture etc.
But he told horrifying stories about business (and politicians, police etc) and swore he’d never return here after his three year stint – financial experts like him were always assigned new countries after a max of three years to prevent “getting involved with the natives” …
My sister however has fond memories and regularly returns to Budapest and visits us at least once a year …

December 31, 2015 3:38 pm


Your sister’s husband is right–this is a disgusting country.
No right-thinking person would want to return to it.

December 31, 2015 4:23 pm

Please, petofi – there are some/many disgusting people here in Hungary just as in Germany, the USA, wherever.
But the country is not lost and there are many nice people here too (just think of my wife …)!
And remember Germany 75 years ago – would you have thought that we’d get out of this mess?

December 31, 2015 11:58 pm

I don’t think that the situation in Germany 75 years ago is in any way comparable to the situation in Hungary today.

The Germans were so far down that the only way was up. And they put themselves onto the right trajectory, at least the West Germans who could.

The Hungarians do not consider themselves to be so far down that the only way is up. And they deliberately put themselves on the wrong trajectory, because they could.

The Germans have mentally cleansed themselves decades ago. They are precise and punctual with a fantastic work ethic, straight talkers and straight shooters, clean as a whistle, and very nice people to boot. I know this from experience, having worked for some years in the eighties as a senior executive in a German firm near Hanover.

The Hungarians have none of these qualities.

As to nice people, I am sure there are plenty in Hungary, at least on the surface.

But nice Hungarians often seem to have mental locks, blocks, fixed ideas and obsessions that one cannot really get past. And beware the Hungarian smiling in your face and even obsequious, because he/she is likely to prove to be an inveterate back stabber.

January 1, 2016 6:26 am


First off, before any improvements, or corrections, can be made, one must acknowledge the past. Have the Hungarians ever done that? Have they confessed, or gave an explanation, why they sent 400,000 more jews to auschwitz than the nazis had asked for?


The guilt of Hungarians is covered over by the thickest of shells made up of a faux superiority, catholicism, and an uber nationalism that will brook no correction.

The Hungarian mind is riddled with neuroticisms and terminal sicknesses.

December 31, 2015 11:42 am

It is true, but I’m not sure more Slovaks or Romanians had deeper understanding of the events or support for the economic changes.

January 1, 2016 12:14 am

This is very true.

All East Block countries and the Balkans, except perhaps Estonia, are in the same mental boat in many respects, including this.

December 31, 2015 11:08 am

OT: Good news for those who support the Fidesz government! Fidesz will “regroup” 3.5 milliard forints for sport stadiums, and to local maintenance!!!!! The money will come from the local governments’ budget that supposed to be spent on child welfare, and on collective food distribution. According to Fidesz , local governments did not use the money, even though according to local mayors Fidesz did not even allowed them to apply for this money.
Fantastic news, isn’t it! Build more stadiums, and spend more on soccer!

January 1, 2016 12:44 am

“maradok demokrata, maradok itthon”

“Democrat” can mean all kinds of things to all kinds of people (including illiberals supporting a dictatorship of the majority).

“Liberal” necessarily implies a democrat respectful of minority rights and opinions; “democrat” unfortunately does not.

January 1, 2016 1:01 am

And may I add that this seems a fairly typical example of the woolly thinking prevalent on the left side of Hungarian public affairs.

But there is also another irony in Vásárhelyi holding up this poster.

At her age and with her professional background what else could she do, but stay put in Hungary?

January 1, 2016 5:29 am

What I find really strange:
Not only in Hungary “Liberal” has become a kind of expletive – when in the French Revolution it was the first Maxim:
Liberté, égalité, fraternité !
I`ve always been proud to be a liberal – first a liberal social democrat, later a liberal green …

January 1, 2016 10:30 am

And speaking of that French Revolution, I’d suggest that well we haven’t seen ‘The Terror’ rear its head in Hungarian political life. All I’ll suggest is ‘lil’ ‘Robespierres’ who are supposedly democratically inclined have already tinkered with the great political document of the country. A line already has been crossed.

January 1, 2016 8:42 pm

No more terror is necessary, over 10 k fired, thousands investigated, hundreds charged, dozens detained, a couple sentenced and most scared. After that the Orban mafia gets all they want, no fuss. But if and when they feel threatened they will ratchet up the pressure, make no mistake.

January 2, 2016 4:35 am

Me too. :-))

I’ve also been always proud to be a liberal – first a liberal social democrat (and even a kind of socialist – after all, I have actually been quite an enthusiastic kibbutznik for some years), then just a plain, regular classical liberal, then a non-dogmatic libertarian, and these days both a non-dogmatic libertarian and a non-dogmatic green ( if that is not too much of an oxymoron).

As Lloyd George is said to have said:

“A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn’t got a head.”

And Mussolini is said to have said something to this effect:

“If you have never been a socialist before age thirty, you have never been young; if you remained a socialist after age thirty, you never grew up.”