Hungary’s ruling party and its concept of democracy

A fairly lengthy psychological portrait of Viktor Orbán has been circulating online lately. It is not new. It was put together in 2010, and my hunch is that it’s arousing interest now because after almost three years of the Orbán regime people are becoming curious about the psychological makeup of the man. After all, it is becoming clearer by the day that there is something not quite right with the original founders of Fidesz. Perhaps they are not what people thought they were. Attila Ara-Kovács’s short essay on the young Orbán stirred things up, and I hope that others who know a lot about this period will probe further into the beginnings of Fidesz and the people who were responsible for its founding and nurturing.

The profile is based on Freudian psychoanalysis. To my mind its real value comes not so much from its theoretical hypotheses as from its account, based on contemporary sources and later recollections, of how  self-government in the college dormitory where Fidesz was born functioned. If we can believe László Kéri, the political scientist who was one of their original supporters, four people ran the show in the dormitory: László Kövér, Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán, and Tamás Varga. (Varga subsequently spent more than three years in jail for tax fraud.) Orbán, Simicska, and Varga all came from the Székesfehérvár gymnasium. The “gang of four” were the ones who told all the others how they were supposed to behave and what they were supposed to think. Kéri thought that they were an aggressive, exclusive group who ignored the opinions of others and constantly sought out enemies. He compared them to the “Lenin boys” of Béla Kun who traveled the country murdering people. Kéri apparently warned that when Orbán runs this country he “will hang [István] Stumpf and me first because we know who you were once-upon-a-time.” Lately there has been a concerted effort to discredit Stumpf who as a judge on the constitutional court has exhibited too much independence and tends to side with those who rule against the government.

Kéri may have been that perceptive in the late 1980s, but I must say that he showed less acumen when before the 2010 elections he was actually looking forward to a new Orbán government, preferably with a two-thirds majority, because Viktor Orbán in this case will accomplish great things. When the reporter who conducted the interview with Kéri reminded him that Orbán’s first government was not very promising, he optimistically remarked that Orbán is eight years older and therefore wiser. He will be a great prime minister.

Soon enough Kéri had to admit that he was dead wrong. Reflecting on the lost election of 2002, Orbán told József Debreczeni, his biographer, that the only reason he failed was that he was not tough enough.

Critics of the current government tend to gloss over the first Orbán government even though almost all of the present tendencies have their antecedents in Orbán’s first four years in power: extreme nationalism, unification of the nation across borders, accommodating MIÉP (an extremist anti-Semitic party), interference with the media, government propaganda, strained relations with the neighbors. And one could go on and on. General dissatisfaction with, and even fear of, the government led to a record turnout in the 2002 election. And yet eight years later the same crew was reelected with a large majority.

Today, conflicts with the outside world are considerably more numerous than they were between 1998 and 2002 when Hungary wasn’t part of the European Union. But even then Viktor Orbán wasn’t exactly the favorite of foreign political leaders. He had especially strained relations with the United States. George W. Bush refused to meet him, most likely because although he was present in the chamber he acted as if he didn’t hear István Csurka’s (MIÉP) comment after 9/11 that the United States only got what it deserved. Relations with Romania were bad and Orbán managed to tear into Austria as well. Because of his attack on the Beneš doctrine he was not exactly beloved in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He looked upon Russia as an arch enemy. By the end he had only two friends left: Silvio Berlusconi and the Croatian Franjo Tuđman, whose funeral was boycotted by foreign politicians. But, fear not, Viktor Orbán was there.

A few days ago László Kéri wrote a fairly lengthy critique of the second Orbán government. The essay focuses on the first sentence of the government program allegedly written by Viktor Orbán: “The victor has a job to do, not to insist on being right…. For me this is the motto of modern governance.” And yet, says Kéri, Orbán has been doing nothing else in the last three years but trying to convince everybody that he is right. Always right. While none of the tasks he set forth has been accomplished. He destroyed practically overnight the old structures but was unable to set up functioning new ones.

The politicians of Fidesz don't believe in them

The politicians of Fidesz don’t believe in them.

These criticisms point out administrative failings. But George Kopits, former chairman of Hungary’s fiscal council between 2009 and 2011, is harder hitting. In The Wall Street Journal he bluntly calls Viktor Orbán’s newly constructed regime “a constitutional mob rule” because with the two-thirds majority Viktor Orbán can do whatever he wants. May I remind everybody that George Kopits is an economist with conservative political views, not one of those liberals whom the government accuses of treason against the nation when they criticize his government. Kopits also thinks that “today’s Hungary is eerily reminiscent of the communist regime of János Kádár, under which all public institutions were potemkin bodies that dared not challenge the hegemony of the Politburo.”

Is Kopits exaggerating? Surely not. Just today a lengthy interview with László Kövér appeared in Heti Válasz. Only a summary is available online, but the quotations are telling. “In a democracy there is only one constituent assembly, the people, which at election time receives a mandate through its representatives who via fixed rules and regulations exercise their rights.” The scrutiny of the constitution by the constitutional court “would mean the end of the rule of law and democracy.” He continues: “Who is a democrat? I, who think that the country’s future depends on the free decision of the people which can be corrected in four years, or those who in their distrust of the people expect a small body to read what kinds of messages the God of the Constitution (alkotmányosságisten) sends to earthlings based on the constellations, viscera, and bird bones?” In brief, the constitutional court is not only superfluous but is an outright undemocratic institution. So much for any understanding of democracy by the present rulers of Hungary. If one takes a look at the old 1949 Stalinist constitution, one will find very similar sentiments. Obviously Kövér and company feel quite comfortable with the constitutional arrangement of that dictatorial regime.

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56 comments

  1. @Minusio: “According to you, might this point to a psychological condition of the population at large?”

    That too + social and economic conditions (gdfxx came up with a few). I think the lack of democratic traditions and the lack of deeply ingrained democratic attitudes are also responsible. A lot of us talked about it on this blog how most Hungarians do not seem to realize that they need to be ACTIVE participants for democracy to work. It’s not enough just to “punish” parties when they do not deliver by voting them out, but there are several forms of civil activism that can bring about change. Not much of such tradition in Hungary.

  2. An :
    @Minusio: “According to you, might this point to a psychological condition of the population at large?”
    That too + social and economic conditions (gdfxx came up with a few). I think the lack of democratic traditions and the lack of deeply ingrained democratic attitudes are also responsible. A lot of us talked about it on this blog how most Hungarians do not seem to realize that they need to be ACTIVE participants for democracy to work. It’s not enough just to “punish” parties when they do not deliver by voting them out, but there are several forms of civil activism that can bring about change. Not much of such tradition in Hungary.

    Sadly, I think you are quite right.

    A case in point: When I still lived in Basel I showed my Hungarian girlfriend the “Basel Fasnacht” which is very different from all sorts of carnevals people might know about (so it’s worth googling it up). When she saw how much unpaid work went into it, how much it expressed the spirit of a whole city, how disciplined everybody behaved, how witty, creative, poetic and sarcastic some of the contributions were, she simply said: “Such a thing is unthinkable in Hungary.”

  3. Eva: “Did Orbán need this? Did he have to open his mouth a week ago expressing his outrage over an item about the Hungarian constitution on Kika’s (Kinder Kanal), a children’s channel? Did he have to say that in Hungary such “brainwashing” of children couldn’t possibly happen? If it did “they would be all sacked”…….. So, here he is: made fun of and ridiculed.”

    There was absolutely no need for Orbán to react and make himself ridiculous.

    The episode shows a dominant aspect of Orbán’s psyche. He is an obsessive denier. Everything critical said about him must promptly be denied, but denial is not enough. Criticism must also be characterized as slander, defamation, misrepresentation, vilification, and so on.

    The KiKa bit probably caused him to throw a tantrum and bite a piece out of his best rug. It was impossible for him to wait for the proper ministry to make a démarche, as a normal prime minister would have done.

    Orbán’s obsessive denials may turn out to be his Achilles heel. The more he yields to his obsession the more he will look like a clown. The opposition must learn how to tease him along.

  4. Jean P,

    I think you hit the nail on the head! Not only O but his ministers also (over)react absurdly vehement to any criticism – especially from abroad!

    The way they answer criticism with personal insults even to well established European politicians is really crazy.

    So provoking them into showing their real faces is a very good idea.

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