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.
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.