Tag Archives: conservative critics

Hungary at a crossroads? Viktor Orbán will have to choose

Since Viktor Orbán returned home after last week’s summit, more and more people have noticed a change in his communication tactics. Right after the summit I wrote about the difference in his attitude toward the European Union. As opposed to his customary fiery anti-EU rhetoric, he indicated that perhaps, after all, there might be room for cooperation instead of constant opposition to everything Brussels stands for.

Viktor Orbán’s position within the European Union has been considerably weakened by Brexit and the EU politicians’ firm and steadfast insistence on a “hard Brexit.” His hope for some kind of special relationship with Donald Trump has come to naught. Moreover, there are visible cracks in the regional “alliance” of the Visegrád 4 countries. Also, we shouldn’t forget about the disappointment Orbán must have felt when the far-right parties in Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, and France didn’t achieve the kind of electoral victories he was hoping for when he declared 2017 the year of revolt. Instead, as Attila Ara-Kovács put it, 2017 turned out to be “the year of sobering.” Slovakia and the Czech Republic are reluctant to follow in the footsteps of Poland and Hungary because they are convinced that their anti-EU policies and undemocratic regimes will lead them to isolation and to the economic periphery of the European Union. While Emmanuel Macron indicated that he had no intention of visiting Poland any time soon, he already had a meeting with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in Brussels and accepted an invitation from the president to visit Romania in the near future. Foreign policy analysts, Ara-Kovács for example, believe that the kind of foreign policy Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński have been experimenting with cannot be conducted in this new Europe.

So, soon enough Hungary, and perhaps Poland as well, must choose. Either their current leaders must accept the inevitable and embark on a road that will lead to more limited national sovereignty or they will be left behind. With the exception of the government media, foreign policy analysts predict that Orbán will have no choice and, however reluctantly, will have to accept the lead of Germany and France. The media Viktor Orbán created in the last couple of years, however, still follows the old Orbán doctrine about the declining West and the successful East. Among the many such articles I was especially struck by one that appeared in the Saturday issue of Magyar Idők written by Károly Kiss, an economist who teaches at Corvinus University. The title is: “Is the West still the model?” I guess no one will be surprised to learn that the answer is a definite “no.” The East Asian and Southeast Asian “limited democracies” have been spectacularly successful, and Hungary should follow their lead.

Kiss complains that even conservative Hungarian economists, sociologists, and political scientists still declare their adherence to the century-old “mistaken” belief that Hungary’s future lies with the West. A good example is a collection of essays that appeared only a few days ago, Ascend: Social and Political Challenges in Hungary. Its authors find “all of our problems … in the fact that we are not following the path of European development.” Although Károly Kiss may not like it, those liberal and conservative thinkers whose ideal is still the west are right. The destiny of Hungary as well as that of Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria lies in the wholehearted acceptance of western values, institutions, and economic and political norms.

A difficult path ahead

Some of the conservative thinkers whose articles appear in this volume were once advisers to Viktor Orbán, but his policies of the last seven years have turned them against him. Orbán’s rebuff of the west is only one of the reasons for their disenchantment. The other is his undemocratic, autocratic system and his totally mistaken economic and social policies. The appearance of this book is a milestone. As the publisher of the volume said at the book launch, “The Bibó memorial volume was the intellectual end, the tombstone of the Kádár regime, this volume … I will not finish this sentence.” (The Bibó memorial volume was the most important document of the Hungarian samizdat literature, which contained articles by 76 writers, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. Work on it was completed in October 1980.)

As far as western orientation and European integration are concerned, optimists believe that “during the fall Orbán and Co. will receive an offer they cannot refuse” from the European Union. Attila Weinhardt, writing in Portfolió, is certain that the German-French duo will figure out a way to entice still reluctant members to join the Eurozone, where integration will begin. The package, according to the article, would be so advantageous that it would be impossible to say no to it. Moreover, Weinhardt points out that countries in the region which do not yet use the euro will opt for it, and therefore it would be difficult for Hungary to remain outside. He specifically mentions the Czech Republic. I assume Romania would also be an eager participant. The Hungarian people are enthusiastic supporters of the currency change, according to Eurobarometer. I was surprised to read that 64% of them believe that countries that adopted the euro benefited from the change, while 57% would welcome the introduction of the euro in Hungary. The author is obviously a great supporter of Hungary making the jump and joining further integration efforts, even if that means limited sovereignty in certain areas, like finance and perhaps even the judiciary.

So, liberal and conservative economists, financial experts, sociologists, and political scientists all think that Hungary’s further integration into a German-French-led European Union would be the only way of catching up with the west. I find it difficult to believe that the Viktor Orbán we know would gratefully accept the irresistible package Brussels might offer during the autumn months, although I must admit that, as he exhibited in the past, Orbán is perfectly capable of completely reversing himself if time or his own interests so dictate. So, perhaps he will shock us. Of course, the authors of Ascend, who are all avid supporters of a western orientation, would rather first see the fall of Viktor Orbán. This would be an event that would allow Hungary to make another attempt at the “westernization” of the country under a liberal-conservative political leadership.

June 26, 2017

Péter Tölgyessy’s dead end

A few days ago I wrote an article on a new phenomenon: the cautious, somewhat hesitant but discernible criticism coming from former Fidesz supporters. In a volume of collected essays titled A magyar polgár (The Hungarian citoyen) two such authors appeared among the many who certainly couldn’t be considered friends of the present regime. One was Péter Tölgyessy and the other István Stumpf. Because of time and space constraints, I could deal only with the short essay written by Stumpf. Today I am turning to the essay by Tölgyessy who, I must admit, is not one of my favorites. In fact, I wrote about him twice, once in Hungarian for Galamus and once in English on this blog. My Hungarian article’s title was “Tölgyessy Péter, a guru,” a title which ironically pointed to my disregard for Tölgyessy’s analytical powers. I should note, however, that most of my Hungarian friends disagree with me and think highly of his magic touch when it comes to political analysis. My view of him is also colored by his political career–from chairmanship of SZDSZ to a backbencher of Fidesz who for eight solid years, between 1998 and 2006, sat in parliament without opening his mouth once. Eventually, Orbán had enough and Tölgyessy was quietly dropped from the list.

Tölgyessy’s essay in this volume is mostly about Hungary’s backwardness in comparison to countries west of it, including the Czech lands and Austria, and the reasons for its lack of a robust well-heeled upper middle class without which, to Tölgyessy’s mind, no modernization can take place. It is only in the last three or four pages of the essay that he writes about the Orbán regime per se.

Péter Tölgyessy

Péter Tölgyessy

In Tölgyessy’s view, the greatest problem is the dominance of the state in the economic life of the country which favors its political clients from business to the arts. Indeed, we know that to be the case, but what can we make of sentences such as: “private concerns with close ties to the powers that be are being preferred, which is seen by those outside of the charmed circle as systemic corruption.” Is it corruption? Or is it something that those who are left out merely view as corruption? Tölgyessy is reluctant to commit himself. He also writes that “because of [these businessmen’s] lack of market competitiveness, they are in need of constant protection.” Does the Orbán government provide “protection” only to struggling businessmen? It’s almost as if he had difficulty understanding the proper meaning of words, which is surely not the case.

A couple of sentences later he expresses less veiled criticisms about centralization, indoctrination, and the creation of intellectual and artistic courtiers. He then goes on to assert that “the vision of Viktor Orbán is an original creation, but in its linguistic formulation and categories it contains the views fashionable between the two world wars in addition to the anticapitalistic theses of the Marxist seminars of the Kádár regime.” I don’t want to nitpick, but is the mishmash of right-wing ideas of the 30s and ideas picked up at Marxist seminars “an original creation”? Can we really treat the “linguistic formulation” of Orbán’s ideas as something separate from the ideas themselves? Tölgyessy criticizes Fidesz’s legislative practice of creating laws to fit the needs of specific persons, but at the same time he sees this practice as the instrument of a coherent policy coming from the center of power. The two are difficult to reconcile.

Here is something I think I ought to translate verbatim. “The Orbán regime despite its obvious internal tensions fulfills its primary task: in time of crisis it offers workable governmental stability to the country burdened by dangerous economic and societal pressures.” Mind you, Tölgyessy adds that this is done only through “methodical scapegoating and scare tactics.” Furthermore, he states that “following the western-type intermezzo after 1989, with the prime minister’s new regime Hungarian society has returned to its earlier history.” Something of which he doesn’t approve. “It is difficult to imagine that by going against centuries of western experience and the achievements of western civilization the country can move ahead. It is to be feared that what looks like a victorious march forward now will lead the country to a dead end, which was already experienced so often in the twentieth century.”

Tölgyessy doesn’t dare to say what is on his mind in a straightforward manner. He hedges and fudges with phrases like “it is to be feared.”

People find it difficult to admit that they made a mistake, that they served a false prophet, at least as long as that false prophet continues to rule. But even halfhearted criticism may ultimately be useful. It may embolden others. Think of Granovetter’s model of individual thresholds for joining the ranks of dissidents and being willing to take collective action. The tail can sometimes wag the dog.

March 25, 2016

Joining forces? Conservatives raise their voices

I will start this post with a piece of news that at first glance may not seem especially noteworthy.

Viktor Orbán’s grandiose plans for rebuilding large portions of Budapest include the creation of a “museum quarters,” part of which would be built in Városliget, the Hungarian capital’s more modest Central Park. The city, especially the Pest side, is very short on green areas, and from the very beginning many people objected to the project on ecological grounds. Others objected to Viktor Orbán’s burning desire to move his office into the historic castle district, within whose medieval walls Hungarian kings once resided. Today parts of the royal castle, built in the nineteenth century, are used to house the National Library and the National Gallery. Among Viktor Orbán’s extravagant plans is the reconstruction of the monstrously huge royal castle, which requires moving both the National Gallery and the National Library elsewhere. The trouble is that there are no suitable buildings where these two important institutions could be relocated. Hence, the idea of a “museum quarters” and perhaps even a new building for the National Library somewhere near the National Museum in downtown Pest. All this would, of course, cost an enormous amount of money and would, in the process, destroy the “city park.”

Until recently the people who were actively opposing these plans came from the ranks of those who were also critical of the political system Viktor Orbán has been creating in the last six years. But dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán’s regime is spreading, and we find that more and more conservatives no longer think that criticizing Fidesz is tantamount to making a pact with the communist devils. In fact, they have been joining forces. Admittedly, their criticism is limited. They are not ready to admit that Viktor Orbán’s whole edifice is rotten, but they seem to have overcome their passivity and their reluctance to come to grips with the painful truth that they were duped.

The government invited well-known architects, city planners, and museum directors to help come up with a coherent plan but, as usual, members of the government who were in charge of the project went ahead with their own ideas without paying the slightest attention to the experts. Eventually, last December, the invited experts had enough and resigned en bloc. It was this group that began a protest on Facebook against the “takeover of the Castle” and the construction of large buildings in the city park. They approached well-known intellectuals and public personages to join their protest. The list includes such names as József Ángyán, former undersecretary of agriculture in the second Orbán government; Géza Jeszenszky, former foreign minister and ambassador to Washington and Oslo; Levente Szőrényi, a composer with right-leaning views; Tamás Mellár, a conservative economist; and József Zelnik, a Christian Democrat who is the deputy president of the much-criticized Magyar Művészeti Akadémia, a gathering place of ideologically driven artists. Géza Jeszenszky warned in a radio interview today that there are times when a government must listen to the voice of the people, and it can go against their wishes only at its own peril. The enormous amount of money being spent on this ego trip of Viktor Orbán should instead be spent on education and healthcare.

Aerial photograph of Városliget

Aerial photograph of Városliget

A more important sign of change in the attitude of former Fidesz politicians who foresee possible disaster at the end of the road on which Viktor Orbán has embarked can be found in two studies written recently in a volume of essays titled A magyar polgár (The Hungarian citoyen). They were written by Péter Tölgyessy, a jurist and political scientist, and István Stumpf, head of the prime minister’s office in the first Orbán administration and currently a moderate member of the Constitutional Court.

I will have to postpone an analysis of Tölgyessy’s essay titled “From dead-end to dead-end” because of the pressures of time and space. Today I’ll limit myself to Stumpf’s essay about the metamorphosis of a group of college students. Of course, he is talking about one particular group of students under his care. He admits at the beginning that he is biased because his life has been closely intertwined with the fate of these former college students, so he tries to rely on “Weberian sociology in the interpretation of their behavior.”

When it comes to Fidesz’s early political activities, Stumpf is anything but objective. He finds it difficult to face Fidesz’s “first metamorphosis” from a liberal to a conservative party which, in my opinion, was a radical ideological change that signaled its party leader’s lack of principles and insatiable appetite for power at any cost. He glides through the first Orbán government in which he was deputy to Viktor Orbán between 2000 and 2002, viewing it as a positive period in which the only serious problem was “the style of governing.” I don’t expect István Stumpf to critically dissect the Orbán government’s political moves during this period, but if he were capable of doing so he would discover that the first Orbán government did not “respect the constitutional demands of the rule of law.” The truth, which Stumpf is incapable of seeing, is that the only reason that Viktor Orbán and his cohorts “respected” the constitutional court was that they didn’t have enough power to squash it.

So, what brought about the change in Viktor Orbán’s thinking between 2002 and 2010? “It became clear to him” that “the whole structure of the regime change must be destroyed,” including all its accomplishments. The political failures Fidesz had experienced taught its leaders “to look upon politics as a battlefield and use their majority ruthlessly.” At this point Stumpf sets out a long laundry list describing all those moves that “significantly eroded the belief in constitutional democracy.” Here again, we catch him trying to minimize the sins of the Orbán regime. The Orbán government’s policies didn’t “erode the belief in democracy,” as he claims, but it ate away at democracy itself. The huge problems created by incompetence and the neglect of education and healthcare are described by Stumpf merely as “functional woes which created dissatisfaction even among conservative members of the elite.”

After another paragraph listing accomplishments, this time on the international stage, Stumpf arrives at the most important part of his short essay. “These successes cover like thick fog the tensions that have been brewing in wider and wider segments of society. The majority of the country’s citizens are not in a euphoric mood.” Today Hungary is not an attractive country for its young citizens, and “if a country loses its talented youth, if they feel no affinity for politics, and if instead of knowledge and expertise the path of a career depends on loyalty alone, then Hungary will not become a country with a future.”

I know that many of you will say that this is not much, given the terrible damage that Stumpf’s favorite college boys have inflicted on the country and on the fabric of Hungarian democracy. But, for the time being at least, we will have to be satisfied with it. In the last six years we haven’t heard a peep, at least not publicly, from supporters of Fidesz and admirers of Viktor Orbán. Even a few months ago it would have been very difficult to imagine István Stump’s essay appearing in the same volume as essays by Iván Szelényi, Péter Felcsuti, Péter György, Éva Palócz, Virág Erdős, Zsuzsa Ferge, Krisztián Grecsó, Péter Nádas, and Pál Závada. This is a first step and, as they say, the first step is always the hardest.

March 18, 2016

Conservative critics of the Orbán regime: The József Eötvös Group

I’m convinced that “something is in the air.” There is a growing dissatisfaction in all strata of Hungarian society, which may signal the beginning of more active political participation on the part of those who find the current government’s policies injurious to the interests of the country and devastating for the majority of the Hungarian people.

I already covered the demands of teachers and physicians, which are professional in nature but may at any time morph into political opposition. After all, when students and teachers complain about outdated teaching methods and demand fewer restrictions and more time for independent thinking, they are expressing views incompatible with the undemocratic worldview of the Orbán regime. As we discussed in the comments, most likely the majority of the teachers and doctors who today are challenging the government were Fidesz voters. And if Jenő Rácz of the Veszprém hospital thinks that Hungarian healthcare is on the brink of collapse—something that the lowly nurse Mária Sándor also says but no one listens to—then, believe me, the problem is serious.

As we know very well, there are problems in other fields as well. The economy, of which Viktor Orbán and György Matolcsy are so proud, is struggling if one looks beneath the surface. The spectacular 3.6% economic growth in 2014 was due solely to the unusually large size of subsidies that arrived from Brussels. The state of democracy and the rule of law are also in deep trouble.

Until now only so-called liberal economists and legal scholars criticized the Orbán government’s policies and its trajectory. But now so-called conservative economic and legal thinkers have also felt the need to sit down and exchange thoughts on the sorry state of the Hungarian economy and legal system. I want to emphasize up front that the opinions of these conservative thinkers are practically indistinguishable from those of the liberals. Looking at the situation from the outside, I simply can’t understand why these two groups cannot get together.

The idea of organizing a group of conservative economists and legal scholars came from Tamás Mellár, professor of economics at the University of Pécs, and András Jakab, director of the Institute of Jurisprudence of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Mellár was the director of the Central Statistical Office (Központi Statisztikai Hivatal / KSH) between 1998 and 2003. Jakab’s curriculum vitae is most impressive. He taught at the University of Liverpool, the University of Nottingham, and the William and Mary Law School and was research fellow at the Max Planck Institute.

Their idea was to organize small gatherings to discuss topics of importance. Jakab, the moderator, normally invites two speakers who approach the given topic from different perspectives. Their last meeting took place a few days ago. Although they advertised their meetings on Facebook, this is the first time that the public learned of the József Eötvös Csoport (Group).  The group was named for the minister of education between April and September 1848 and again between 1867 and 1871. Eötvös was a moderate, a centrist, and a devoted follower of Ferenc Deák. Today we would call him a liberal conservative.

The group was established in March 2015 by Péter Ákos Bod, Attila Chikán, László Csaba, András Jakab, András Jóri, Béla Kádár, Tamás Mellár, László Sólyom, Péter Tölgyessy, and László Urbán. It would take up too much space to identify each of these people, but all of them were involved in some capacity with the governments of either József Antall or Viktor Orbán. Bod was even the candidate for prime minister for a few days in 2006 when Viktor Orbán felt that without him Fidesz had a better chance of winning the election.

In the front row László Sólyom and Béla Kádár

In the front row László Sólyom and Béla Kádár

I’m not sure how many meetings the group has held since March 2015, but I know that they had one on “corruption and economic decline” where the two speakers were Miklós Ligeti, director of Transparency International Magyarország, and Balázs Szepesi, strategic director of the Hétfa Kutatóintézet (Hétfa Research Institute). Szepesi at one point described those responsible for the Hungarian economy today as blind people trying to fix a watch with a hammer. There was also a discussion on “national independence and European integration.”

The last meeting was about the nature of Viktor Orbán’s system. Is it populism or something else? One of the speakers was András Körösényi, about whose ideas I wrote already in a post titled “Orbán system or Orbán regime: Debate on the nature of the Hungarian government.” This time Körösényi, a political scientist, came to the conclusion that although there are certain identifiable populist elements in Orbán’s political system, his government most of the time ignores the popular will. It is better to describe Orbán’s decisions as based on “oligarchic interests.” This description of the Orbán regime is not too different from Bálint Magyar’s mafia state. Yet they come from different sides of the Hungarian political spectrum.

Although the organizers insist that this is not an opposition group, the speakers and discussants express views critical of the present regime. Sooner or later these conservative thinkers must face the fact that their discussions are more than “offering a good example of civilized discourse.” I very much doubt that any of the founders of the József Eötvös Group believe that Orbán’s political system can be “reformed.”

This became evident to me when I listened to Antónia Mészáros’s interview with Péter Ákos Bod on ATV. Bod, the former Fidesz prime minister delegate, talked about his worries over the rule of law and economic progress that has been halted. He criticized the economy, in which corruption is widespread. He described the existing economic system as a far cry from a true market economy. He criticized the ad hoc nature of economic decisions and the lack of professional expertise. The economy is slowing, he said, and the government is not prepared for the difficulties that will ensue when the flow of money from Brussels slows or even stops. Every time policy makers sense an economic slowdown they come up with some new idea that is supposed to remedy the situation. One such remedy is the idea of giving 10 million forints to families willing to have three children who want to buy a new home. The idea is fraught with hidden pitfalls which are not yet evident. Such fiddling with the economy usually has adverse consequences in the future.

How often did we hear all these criticisms not from “conservative” economists but from “radical liberals,” as Fidesz politicians like to call them? But the message is the same, regardless of whether it comes from the left or the right. The whole system is flawed, and sooner or later it will come to a sorry end. And then the country will need all these people to try to fix the problems.

January 23, 2016