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Hungary: A land of bad choices

Critics of Viktor Orbán’s government often use the word “dictatorship”, which describes a regime that is forced upon the people against their own will. Two successive elections and what has happened in between prove otherwise.

April 14, 2014 - János Széky - Articles and Commentary

14.04.2014 orban1

Attila JANDI / Shutterstock.com

Orbán’s party Fidesz received almost 53 per cent of the popular votes in 2010. It was enough for them to attain the much-coveted two-thirds supermajority, thanks to the mixed electoral system of party lists and small local constituencies, which disproportionately favour the largest political bloc (or two parties of a roughly similar size, except that there was no such other party at the moment).

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Fidesz remained by far the most popular party throughout the four-year period that followed. It used its supermajority in the Parliament to bend the electoral law even more in its own interest, and on April 6th 2014 it was able to secure that very same supermajority again, although with much fewer popular votes. It received 2.15 million “homeland” votes as compared to 2.7 million in 2010. (The new law enfranchised about 500,000 members of the Hungarian minorities living in neighbouring countries. About a quarter of them cared to vote, almost exclusively for Fidesz, which added another 122,000; but even that would not have been enough for the two-thirds score without a host of other subtle changes or foul tricks in the electoral system.)

Meanwhile, the left-wing opposition never missed an opportunity to take a wrong step, and the majority of potential voters never considered it to be a serious alternative. The new electoral regulations, with changes such as raising the quota of individually elected MPs from 46 to 53 per cent and abolishing the second voting round in local constituencies, were devised to weaken the medium-size and smaller parties even further. So the chances for them to form a coalition government after the elections were close to nil. They had to form a pre-election coalition just to retain the mere hope of defeating Fidesz, which, by giving up their distinct identities and pushing them toward the lowest common intellectual denominator, reduced their chances in the first place. It was a well-devised trap, and they fell into it.

The final results of the elections, published a week later, were the following: the national-conservative Fidesz gathered 45 per cent of the votes given to party lists and won in 96 of the 106 constituencies; the left-wing coalition called Government Change (Kormányváltás), dominated by the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), collected 25.7 per cent of the list votes and took 10 constituencies. The nationalist-socialist Jobbik came in third with 20.3 percent and the leftist-environmentalist LMP fourth with 5.4 percent, both without any individual victories.

Still, Fidesz would have easily won in a perfectly fair and proportional electoral system, and it surely could have easily formed a coalition preserving its dominance or, being quite experienced in such manoeuvres, cajole some MPs from other parties to secure its own simple majority. All this came after four years of rather authoritarian governance, which drew heavy criticism from all sides (except the government, of course) for curtailing basic freedoms and dismantling the rule of law.

We live in an age of mass politics, so it would be no surprise for an authoritarian party to be re-elected, provided it improved the living standards of the masses. But Fidesz failed to do that also.

Net wages are the lowest in the region. Hungary belongs to those EU member states where per capita GDP is below the 2007 level. The same is true for competitiveness; all other Visegrad and Baltic states fare better (Hungary’s Global Competitiveness Index ranking dropped from 21st in 2001 to 63rd in 2013). There is little hope of catching up; experts say growth potential for the near future is no more than 1 percent per year. The exchange rate of the forint, the Hungarian currency hit an all-time low just before the elections.

Government debt was 73 per cent of GDP in 2007 before the crisis. Orbán spoke of it as the source of all evil and ordered to nationalise the so-called mandatory private pension funds; that is he simply expropriated about ten billion euros, which were the savings of three million people, in order to repay some of that debt. By early 2014, former private pension money was spent almost to the last cent. But rather than being reduced, government debt has grown to 85 per cent of GDP.

One could (and some people actually did) write volumes on Fidesz’s blatant cronyism and corruption – they have reached a level where people are simply too tired to care anymore. The crowning feat was a secretly negotiated agreement with Russia, which Orbán signed in the darkest days of the Ukrainian crisis with Putin, about Rosatom building two huge blocks to a Hungarian nuclear power station in Paks – financed by a rather disadvantageous Russian long-term loan (ten billion euros plus interests).

How can a government and a party in Central Europe not only get away with such poor economic performance but actually win the elections by such a large margin? The right answer cannot be found in any western political textbooks.

Orbán might be economically illiterate, but he is a first-rate expert on the Hungarian mind. For historical reasons, most Hungarians are bounded in a particularly strong love-hate relationship with the state. They expect as much money and free services from the state as possible, and get disgruntled when the state does not deliver what they expect. One should also take into account the special brand of Hungarian nationalism, which is particularly strong and somewhat paranoid.

Orbán not only acts as the leader of a state which can givesomething to each social stratum – government contracts and lowered income tax rates to the upper half of the middle class; reduced household energy prices (by government decree) to the struggling majority; and jobs to the poor in downtrodden towns and villages where the government is the largest or only employer – but he can also act as a protector, a soldier of God and the nation always on the alert. He purports to protect the people from hostile forces that want to destroy the time-honoured, proud and honest Hungarian way of life; from the European Union itself (there are huge pro-government demonstrations chanting the anti-EU message “We Won’t Be a Colony”) to banks and speculators; from whichever foreign politician happens to criticise him to foreign-owned utility companies. He protects “us, the Hungarians” from the vaguely-defined “Others”; urban citizens from the homeless; “hard-working Hungarians in the countryside” from “those who live on welfare and do not work” (he does not have to pronounce the word Roma because the message can be decoded easily); and the Roma (in cooperation with ethnic Roma leaders loyal to Fidesz) from the racist Jobbik.

This latter dual strategy does not always work out. After the elections, a coloured map has been published on the website Portfolio.hu which shows the geography of the second largest parties. Out of about 3000 cities, towns and villages, Jobbik was runner-up in 2,165 local communities. It strengthened its positions in northern and eastern Hungary (where the Roma population is concentrated but many non-Roma live in bleak poverty as well), and since 2010 it has gained strength in the poorer regions of western Hungary also.

In sum, the arithmetic two-thirds of Hungarian voters chose parties which combine ethnocentric nationalism with social demagoguery. Government Change had no effective answer to nationalism, and considered subjects such as dismantling the rule of law and Russian dependence to be too high-brow for the average voters; so it resorted to social demagoguery. Since 1990 this was the first time when no liberal or centre-right party entered the competition; their voters chose either Government Change or LMP, which is even less conservative and declaredly not liberal but at least morally clean. But it was not enough in most constituencies. If the trend continues, Jobbik will be the second party in 2018.

Attila Mesterházy, the 40-year-old-chairman of the Hungarian Socialist Party, was quick to learn from the failure. At a session of the party’s strategic board, he said that “Gyula Horn’s people voted for Jobbik” (Horn was MSZP’s most successful politician, instrumental in choosing western alliances and switching to capitalism but also a populist, who could speak the ordinary people’s language perfectly.). Mesterházy concluded, “we need a law-and-order left”. So that is Hungary’s choice for now.

János Széky is an editor at Élet és Irodalom (“Life and Literature”), a weekly Hungarian newspaper about literature and politics.

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