Tag Archives: Károly Herényi

What went wrong in 1990?

This year we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the birth of Hungarian democracy after fifty years of Soviet domination. To mark the occasion a number of books, articles, and reminiscences will be published. Several interviews with people politically active in those days have already appeared.

These new studies and memoirs will complement books that have already been published dealing with the two or three years preceding the opening of parliament on May 2, 1990. Of course, there are at least two narratives of the same story, but I consider Zoltán Ripp’s Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990 (Budapest, 2006) a book that will have a significant impact on the public assessment of these events for a long time to come. Ripp, as a good historian should, tried to give a balanced view, yet it was obvious that his sympathies lay with those people who later formed the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). I’m unaware of a comparable work written from the point of view of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), although I just read that Imre Kónya, who later became minister of the interior in the Boross government (December 13, 1993-July 14, 1994), is in the process of writing his reminiscences of the period. Of course, the memoirs of a politician, however valuable, cannot be compared to a scholarly work with thousands of footnotes.

Two biographies of József Antall, the first prime minister of the post-communist era, appeared earlier. The first, Antall József távolról (József Antall from Afar), was written by Sándor Révész, a journalist at Népszabadság. It was published in 1996, three years after Antall’s death, not enough time for a balanced assessment. In 2006 József Debreczeni came out with A miniszterelnök (The Prime Minister), which suffers from Debreczeni’s undisguised admiration for Antall.

To understand the political situation twenty-five years ago it is important to recall the results of the elections of 1990 which took place on March 25 and April 8. Considering that it was the first free election after so many years, voter turnout was relatively low: 65%. MDF received 24.7%, SZDSZ 21.4%, the Smallholders 11.7%, MSZP 10.9%, Fidesz 8.9%, and the Christian Democrats 6.4%. MDF couldn’t form a government alone. Eventually, Antall opted for a coalition of MDF, the Smallholders, and the Christian Democrats. The opposition, all from the left of center, were the liberal SZDSZ (93 seats) and Fidesz (21 seats) in addition to MSZP (33 seats). A “grand coalition” of MDF and SZDSZ was out of the question for Antall and other important MDF leaders.

Although it is fashionable on the right to blame SZDSZ for the very sharp divide between the two political groupings, it was not a one-way street. A hatred of SZDSZ was widely shared in MDF political circles. The above-mentioned Imre Kónya published a short article in Magyar Nemzet a few days ago in which he recalls a conversation with Antall during the coalition negotiations. The future prime minister told Kónya that he didn’t want to govern with the liberals because “once they establish themselves in some of the ministries not even God Almighty will be able to get rid of them.” Yet, given the Hungarian constitutional set-up, Antall was forced to come to an arrangement with SZDSZ to ensure the relative stability of his government.

Today some critics, even former members of MDF like Károly Herényi, think that Antall made a huge mistake when he decided to form a coalition of three parties, all from the right. The problems facing the country were so great and the road ahead so difficult that a “grand coalition” would have been the only sensible move. Such an arrangement would have spread the responsibility for the very unpopular measures that lay ahead. And common governing may have blunted the sharp differences between the two groups.

Ever since 2010 there have been signs of a softening of the opposition’s very negative opinion of József Antall. Those who criticized him for years now think much more highly of the former prime minister. This is not surprising after five years of Viktor Orbán. Most people stress the fact that, despite all his faults, he was a steadfast supporter of parliamentary democracy, which is more than one can say about the current holder of the office.

And yet, although MDF could certainly have made a worse choice, Antall’s background and his immersion in Hungarian history didn’t prepare him to lead a new Hungary. This may sound odd coming from a historian, but let me explain what I mean. Normally, one would think that being well versed in history ought to be an asset for a politician. Yes, but not when the history of the country offers no viable models for a democratic future. Moreover, Antall by upbringing brought along the thinking of the “keresztény úriosztály” who were the main supporters of the Horthy regime. What do we mean by “keresztény úriosztály”? Another difficult term to translate. It was a group of upper middle class people, often of gentry background. The majority were Catholics, and many of them were either civil servants or were employed by the municipalities. József Antall, Sr. belonged to this class and held high civil service positions during the Horthy era. József, Jr. naturally attended a Catholic school, the famous Piarist gymnasium in Budapest. Throughout his youth he was steeped in that culture.

Source: www.piarist.hu

József Antall with István Jelenits, Piarist theologian and writer / Source: www.piarist.hu

With this background came a heightened nationalist fervor, which was an important ingredient of post-Trianon Hungary. Imre Kónya in an interview recently explained that what made him an opponent of the Kádár regime was not only the lack of democracy and freedom but also the want of nationalism. Although he sympathized with the fierce anti-communism of SZDSZ, it was the MDF leaders’ nationalism that induced him to join the party. After all, Antall was the one who announced that in spirit he wants to be the prime minister of 15 million Hungarians, which raised quite a few eyebrows. This nationalism has been the hallmark of the Hungarian right ever since. Unfortunately, in today’s world this nationalism can lead only to isolation and conflict.

The other day I talked about RMDSZ, the Hungarian ethnic political party in Romania. I mentioned its former chairman, Béla Markó, who just yesterday published a remarkable opinion piece in Népszabadság. He was talking about May 9, Europe-Day. He concluded his piece with these words: “Today we celebrate that day [May 9] as Europe Day, when the idea of European cooperation proved to be more important than the delusions of nation states because in a common Europe nations can breathe more freely than they can being locked up in their own hubris. I don’t know whether this will happen or not. But it should happen this way.” An indictment of both Hungarian and Romanian nationalism.

When Viktor Orbán is honest: The Hungarian constitution is not a liberal document

It was only today that I managed to find more than an hour to listen to Viktor Orbán’s speech to the honorary consuls who gather every five years in Budapest to reinforce their ties to the country they serve. An honorary consul doesn’t have to be a Hungarian national. For example, I learned that an American professor who teaches in a nearby college in Connecticut just became an honorary consul. Apparently Hungary has honorary consuls in 100 countries, only 54 of which have official Hungarian consular service. In the United States there are 18-19 honorary consuls strategically placed in different parts of the country.

The event took place on September 18 in the chamber that was the home of the Hungarian Upper House before World War II. By all descriptions the consuls found the prime minister’s speech elevating and, although his speech was not interrupted by periodic applause, at the end the audience gave Orbán a standing ovation.

The speech in some ways was quite remarkable. It was a curious combination of surprising honesty and unsurprising falsehood. I doubt that too many people in attendance comprehended the full significance of what they heard.

What did Orbán want to accomplish with this speech? To provide the honorary consuls with ammunition to defend Hungary against foreign criticism. Or at least to explain away Hungary’s bad press in the international media as based on misconceptions. He admitted that these consuls most likely had a hard time in the last three years. Hungarian nationals see their own country differently from those who look at Hungary from the outside. But he offered a few fundamental facts that might make the consuls’ work easier.

Orban konzulok2

First, Orbán tried to explain his government’s position vis-à-vis the European Union. Ignoring the fact that in the last years his anti-European Union speeches have multiplied and become increasingly antagonistic, he tried to convince his audience that he and his government are not euro-skeptics. They are only euro-realists. During the course of the speech it became crystal clear that Hungary has no intention of joining the eurozone and thus adopting the euro as Hungary’s currency. Of course, Hungary is required to join the eurozone eventually, despite the fact that the new constitution includes the statement that “Hungary’s currency is the forint.” Since Hungary is obligated to join the eurozone, avoiding this obligation can be accomplished only by leaving the European Union.

There was another issue about which he was brutally honest. He told his audience that the new Hungarian constitution is not a liberal document because, in his opinion, “a liberal constitution cannot be the basis of the economic renewal of the country.” He admitted that this is “a strong statement, perhaps even debatable,” but this new Hungary he is building cannot be founded on a constitution that emphasizes “the interests of the individuals.” This is a fact that he will not hide from all those countries whose constitutions are based on liberal concepts. One day other countries will come to realize that indeed a “new economic system” cannot be built on a liberal basis. He categorically stated that economic competition and liberalism are incompatible.

He admitted that questioning the validity of individual rights might have given rise to harsh international criticism and huge debates, but Orbán proudly announced that he managed to prevent such adverse reactions by “a political novum” called “national consultation.” I assume you all remember those 13-14 meaningless questionnaires sent out to 8 million Hungarian citizens. One of these inquired about the relationship between the rights of individuals and the rights of the community; 85% of those who answered agreed that both should be included in the new constitution. With that he avoided possible controversy over the new illiberal constitution, or at least so he said.

What can we learn from this speech about Hungary’s breakthrough economic system? Nothing new. Hungary will not be a welfare state but a workfare state. Hungary will handle the economic crisis differently from the rest of the world. Common wisdom holds that after an economic crisis there will be a slow recovery and that as an economy starts to recover investment will grow and with it job opportunities. The Hungarian solution will be the opposite of this sequence of events. They will start with work which will eventually solve the economic crisis. I don’t think that I have tell you how fallacious this argument is. If there is no private investment and the state doesn’t have money, as Orbán admitted in this speech, then only useless public work can be provided. And digging roadside drains financed by public money will never amount to anything. Orbán invoked the example of Roosevelt, but anyone familiar with economic history knows that the end of the Great Depression in the United States wasn’t brought about by FDR’s public work projects.

As I said at the beginning, the speech was a combination of brutal honesty and outright lies. Here are a few lies. In 2010 Hungary was in a worse economic state than Greece. Since then Hungary’s economic policy has been most successful. In the European Union only five countries managed to lower their national debt and Hungary is one of them. This, of course, is not true. In fact, the national debt has grown. It is true that the excessive deficit procedure was lifted by Brussels against Hungary, but the budget is so tight that there is a good possibility that Hungary will not be able to hold the 2.9% deficit currently projected. He repeated the lie that before 2010 only 1.8 million people paid taxes and now there are 4 million. And, not a lie but a conveniently undated forecast, Hungary will be the leading economic force in the region just as it was ten years ago.

And finally, a few interesting comments from the Q&A session. This is always the time that Orbán improvises and comes up with some interesting “facts.” All cities east of Strasbourg are “German cities.” Like, for example, Vienna, Prague, and and even St. Petersburg. There is only one exception: Budapest. The same Budapest where the majority of the population as late as the second half of the nineteenth century was largely German-speaking? Where first there was a German theater and only afterwards a Hungarian theater?

His thoughts on networking were also amusing. For Hungarians networking is a strange idea because what is networking really? Hungarians are friendly and hospitable, but networking is based on “calculation.” One does something for somebody in order to get something in return. This is really alien to the Hungarian psyche. But the world went a different way and, although it is nice to be old-fashioned occasionally, yes, Hungarians must learn the art of networking.

One final word on Orbán’s illiberal constitution. Yesterday, Károly Herényi, the second man in the Ibolya Dávid-led MDF, wrote an article in Galamus. Here is a man who is not considered to be a far-left liberal. On the contrary. He was a member of a moderate right-of-center party. And what does he say? There is no way that Orbán’s constitution can stay after a (possible) victory by the democratic forces. It must go. He considers any attempt by Gordon Bajnai to make a deal with Viktor Orbán a mistake. He suggests holding a referendum on the constitution right after the election to decide its fate.  I agree with him.