Somewhat belatedly German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Viktor Orbán on his electoral victory. It was yesterday afternoon that the press director of the Prime Minister’s Office released the news to MTI, and around 4 p.m. a summary of the letter appeared on the government website. Merkel emphasized that Fidesz’s large majority carries a special responsibility to use it soberly and sensitively. “In doing so, you can continue to count on Germany as a reliable partner in Europe,” the chancellor remarked. For emphasis she added: “in this spirit, I’m glad about our continued cooperation.” I think this letter was a warning to Viktor Orbán, who has already ignored Merkel’s message. If Merkel is serious about making good German-Hungarian relations dependent on Orbán’s restraint and moderation, she can start preparing for a rocky four-year period. It looks as if Orbán has no intention of slowing down. On the contrary, on day one he decided to take on the Hungarian and international Jewish community.
Those readers who are not familiar with the background of the controversial monument commemorating the German occupation of Hungary should read my many posts that deal with the matter, starting in early January. Here it is enough to say that this monument is a distortion of Hungarian history and by extension a falsification of the Hungarian Holocaust. The question is why Orbán insists on erecting this monument despite worldwide protestation. Why is he ready to face condemnation and contempt as a result of his stubbornness? As far as I can see, there can be only two answers to this question. Either his psychological make-up simply doesn’t tolerate defeat, which is a serious problem in itself, or whitewashing Hungary’s role in the Holocaust is vitally important to him.
After three days of protest, during the police passively watched demonstrators dismantle the fence built around the future site of the monument, authorities gave the green light to the police to crack down. There were several arrests today, with most likely more to follow.
While the tug of war over the erection of the monument continues, we should talk about another topic. Fear. A day before the election, Lili Bayer, a young researcher on Hungarian politics wrote a piece on the “return of fear” in Hungary. Let me quote her:
One element missing in much of the coverage of Hungary, however, has been the rise of fear in Hungarian society. A few outspoken Hungarian journalists have come out and spoken about their experiences of being intimidated and censored, especially in the state-run media, where some topics are considered off-bounds. Some former state employees, from ex-Fidesz agriculture official József Ángyán to bureaucrats at the Central Bank have described corruption and intolerance of dissident opinion throughout the government bureaucracy. Some of the country’s most talented television hosts and policy experts have lost their jobs. Fidesz and its oligarch supporters control not only the state bureaucracy and most of the media, but also many businesses and all government contracts. Husbands, wives, and friends of opposition figures have therefore become unemployable. As a result, some Hungarians have come to fear speaking their minds.
The fear extends beyond ministries and media institutions. It is present in private corporations, in schools, and in households across the country. At its root, the fear comes from the decline of Hungary’s democratic institutions and the lack of checks on the Fidesz party’s power. Fidesz has used its two-thirds majority in parliament over the past four years to gain control over nominally independent institutions. The Media Council, which oversees both state-owned and private news outlets, is dominated by Fidesz loyalists. Justices from the country’s top court have been forced out to make way for Orbán’s appointees, thus undermining the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on the government’s actions. There is therefore no institution to protect those fired on political grounds, no one willing to start a formal inquiry into censorship.
The fear is not, of course, comparable to the fear of Chinese, Uzbeks, or Iranians, who live under the rule of much stronger and more authoritarian regimes. But the return of fear to Hungary after a two-decade absence is significant. It impacts the daily lives of millions, and has no place in a modern democratic society. The existence of this kind of fear in the European Union should ring alarm bells across the continent.
An increasing number of articles are appearing in Hungary that talk about fear, in Hungarian “egzisztenciális félelem” (fear for one’s livelihood). This fear is widespread. That’s why in the past four years the teachers’ unions could not get too many people on the streets. That’s why these same teachers cannot be enticed to strike. That’s why so many people refuse to answer the questions of public opinion firms. People notice that cameramen are hard at work at demonstrations, and they are convinced that these pictures will be used against them one day. People are afraid that their telephone conversations are no longer private. There were instances when Fidesz propaganda messages arrived on cell phones whose numbers were not public. I heard about cases where university students were threatened by their dean to stop their political activities. Naturally, these political activities were on behalf of the parties of the democratic opposition. At opposition gatherings one can see mostly people of retirement age. We know that young people all over the world are not terribly interested in politics, but there is another reason. Younger people are worried about their jobs as civil servants, doctors, or teachers.
There is another kind of fear that affects entire communities. Take, for instance, the city of Esztergom. The city had a famously bad Fidesz mayor before 2010. Esztergom is a conservative city, but even the good burghers of Esztergom had enough of the mayor. In October 2010 with a large majority they voted for an independent newcomer to politics, a woman. The people of Esztergom thought, however, that the mayor was only a bad apple among the otherwise wonderful Fidesz local politicians and voted overwhelmingly for Fidesz candidates for the city council. Subsequently the Fidesz majority did everything in its power to prevent the new mayor from carrying out her duties. And the government decided to punish the city for voting one of their own out of office. This time Esztergom voted solidly for the Fidesz candidate. They learned that voting against Fidesz is dangerous and counterproductive.
This morning one of Hungarian Spectrum‘s commentors sent me a video. It is a recording of a ten-minute segment of the Fidesz gathering in Debrecen where Viktor Orbán made his last campaign appearance. Before his speech an elderly gentleman with a monumentally large moustache recited a poem written byRudolf Kotzián. The elderly gentleman turned out to be Zsolt Dánielfy, a member of the Csokonai Theater of Debrecen. Keep in mind that Attila Vidnyánszky, the Fidesz favored new director of the Hungarian National Theater of rightist leanings, used to be the director of the Debrecen theater. Kotzián seems to specialize in bad nationalistic poems, some of which are available on a rather obscure site called Eugen. The poem recited here is a frightening warning of what lies ahead for those who don’t vote for Fidesz. Kotzián might be off his rocker, but the organizers of the gathering surely knew the content of his poem and gave their blessing to having it recited. What is the message? “You will be treated the way you voted.” If you vote against this regime, look around, you will see what happens to you. This message is repeated ad nauseam until the fear of God is pounded into those brave souls who stand up against this power.
There is also an entirely new police force whose members with their black outfits and masks are a frightening sight. By now there are almost a thousand of them. Why Hungary needs such a force is a mystery. Officially, it is supposed to be an anti-terrorist unit, but surely the terrorist threat to Hungary is minimal. The country doesn’t need a force of a 1,000 heavily armed men against non-existent terrorists. In reality, this task force has only one purpose: the protection of Viktor Orbán. What is Viktor Orbán afraid of? The people. And what are the people afraid of? Viktor Orbán. This is where we are in April 2014.