András Schweitzer: Factors that made Hungary a borderline democracy (and are likely to stay)

András Schweitzer is a journalist who has been working for HVG since 1999. Currently he is on leave of absence. Since June 2013 he and his family have been living in Brussels.

In addition to being a journalist he is also scholar with a Ph.D. in political science who is currently working on completing a second Ph.D. in history. For a number of years he has been involved with a historical research project for the 1956-Institute.

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According to the official rhetoric, the profound constitutional and political restructuring by the second Fidesz government (2010-2014) aimed to put an end to two decades of post-communist meandering and to finish off the remaining legacy of state-socialism. However the actual legal and economic changes constitute more an illiberal turn back to the bad old days. Of all the countries that joined the West in the Annus mirabilis of 1989 Hungary returned to exist again in history in the Fukuyama sense.

It is logical but inadequate to blame the global financial crisis for this unfortunate chain of events. The corruption of the Hungarian democratic political and market-oriented economic system had already been going on years before it. The dramatic transformation should instead be attributed to the following factors.

1. As an unfortunate coincidence the Hungarian democratic opposition did not have a single outstanding politician comparable to Czechoslovak Václav Havel or Polish Lech Walesa when the Wall fell.  István Bibó, a brilliant scholar and deeply convicted democrat (the once spirited state minister of the Imre Nagy government in the heroic days of 1956) could have been such a character acceptable to all main dissident groups – but he died a decade too early. Of the sizeable pool of dissenters, Machiavellian and confrontational Viktor Orbán happened to be the most talented and ambitious, who managed to politically survive the last quarter of century by being both harsh with the opponents and attentive to popular expectations. He showed signs of wanting to concentrate political and economic power in his hands already after he had first become prime minister in 1998, but it was the two-third majority between 2010 and 2014 which made it achievable for him.

2. Skepticism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary and yet voters have always showed affinity for political illusions. Research shows that the correlation between the level of government spending and the election cycles in Hungary is significantly higher than in other East-Central European countries. Elections have increasingly become promise-contests where honest players (at the beginning Fidesz included) had no chance to win. Politicians had to learn this lesson or leave the scene. After winning with excessive election pledges in 2002 and 2006 the Socialists found themselves in a difficult position: first they tried to be true to their promises and accumulated a budget deficit reaching 10% of the GDP, then after the 2006 elections, when this was no longer feasible without an immediate financial crisis, Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted he had lied about the state of the economy and introduced tough austerity measures. This became an important reason for the increasing popularity of Fidesz.

3. Despite all the good intentions and creative solutions at its crafting, the complex election system of 1989 was unfit for Hungary. In a country where people tend to vote for candidates mostly according to their party affiliations and where there are no significant regional differences in voting patterns even the party list leg of the system and the additional compensation list could not guarantee proportionality. In a single party list system, which would be the proper alternative for Hungary, Fidesz would have won a simple majority of just over 50% in 2010, but the actual electoral system transformed this into a two-thirds win which is the legal limit to changing the constitution. The new rules made the 2014 election results even more unproportional: with more weight given to the first-past-the-post leg the system guaranteed about two-thirds of the seats to Fidesz with less than 50 percent of the votes. (It is typical of the relatively uniform Hungarian voting behavior that in a Westminster-style system Fidesz would have had a 98% majority in the 2010-2014 parliament as its candidates won in 173 out of 176 districts. The election result of last Sunday showed a similar pattern of homogeneity: with the exception of a few electoral districts in Budapest, Miskolc and Szeged the whole country turned orange again.)

4. Liberal democracy and free market economy did not produce a general sense that things are looking up as a result of economic reform (which would have been a necessary ingredient of the success of transformation according to the insightful prophesy of Ralf Dahrendorf), and there has been an illiberal downslide in public opinion. The failure of half-implemented liberal policies was used as an argument against liberal ideals. It was claimed that “neoliberal” openness and privatization resulted in foreign intrusion and the cheap selling out of the country’s wealth; tolerance increased crime; multiculturalism endangered the country’s cultural character; preference for market mechanisms brought unemployment and oligarchs; protection of civil rights brought inefficient government. Capitalizing on and enforcing this sentiment, left and right political groups sometimes joined forces in measures to undermine the third (liberal) power block, which practically disappeared by 2010.

"In the footsteps of our fathers" / Magyar Narancs

“In the footsteps of our fathers” / Magyar Narancs

5. Unlike the short 20th century Czech history, which could be schematized as the interwar democratic “good guys” being followed by the communist “bad guys” Hungarian heavy weight political leaders of the era – Miklós Horthy and János Kádár – are both controversial figures. Numerous Hungarians tend to forgive the interwar governor for being complicit in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews by claiming that he resisted deportation until the German occupation, which, in turn, didn’t leave him much choice. Many exonerate Kádár for his crimes as a communist dictator by emphasizing that he managed to construct the “happiest barrack” in the Soviet camp. As opposed to the Polish, the Czech or the Slovak context, Hungarian history lacks the heritage of a wide scale popular anti-fascist movement, and the revolutionary fever of 1956 also faded with the subsequent decades of a relatively mild dictatorship. A democratic role model is generally missing from Hungarian political consciousness. Horthy gained legitimacy by being the admiral of the nation who held the steering wheel of the Hungarian mothership against a sea of powerful enemies (even if the nation suffered a devastating defeat at the end). Kádár was made popular by providing welfare to the widest possible masses (even if this led to a crippling debt burden by 1989). Already the first democratically elected government capitalized on the earlier dormant nostalgia for the Horthy era, which has steadily grown stronger ever since, while Socialists never dared to dissociate themselves from widely popular János Kádár.

6. The Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map of the World based on findings of World Value Survey reveals a remarkable cultural pattern: of all the countries of “Catholic Europe” (other ex-communist states like Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia included) Hungary scores the highest on having  “survival” instead of “self-expression” values. This puts the country the furthest away from leading democracies of “Protestant Europe” and the “English-speaking” world and the closest to Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia. Survival values are indeed reflected in prevalent ideas of Hungarian political life: yearning for economic paternalism instead of a free market (stemming from the existential fear of individuals) and ethno-nationalist sentiments instead of tolerance (stemming from the collective existential fear of the nation). Kádár’s ways to gain legitimacy well fits the former whereas those of Horthy go hand in hand with the latter.

7. Sixteen years ago it was Hungary’s northern neighbor, Slovakia that was generally considered to be a laggard among the transition nations of East-Central Europe, with a populist unchecked majority rule in an unconsolidated democracy. At that time however the fear that Slovakia would be left out of NATO and EU enlargement served as a wakeup call to the people who in the 1998 elections ousted Vladimír Mečiar’s authoritarian-populist government. Unfortunately, lacking similar incentives, the equally strong signals from Western democracies to Hungary don’t seem to have a substantial effect. While numerous Hungarian individuals contributed greatly to world civilization (usually after emigrating from the country) the wider public has traditionally been quite inattentive to the outside world. Hungary is perceived by many to be an island in the German, Latin and Slavic seas, a feeling reinforced by the living grievances of the post-WWI events when Hungary lost two-thirds of its historic territory and more than 3 million ethnic Hungarians found themselves in foreign countries. The so-called Trianon-tragedy is usually blamed on disingenuous neighbors and conspiring great powers. The island feeling is also existent on the individual level: surveys have for decades shown an extremely high level of individualist sentiment and low-level of trust among Hungarians which hampers effective social cooperation.

Between 2010 and 2014 Orbán’s government created a peculiar system, which could be called a borderline democracy. It walks the rope of taking all possible undemocratic measures to ensure its power (from gerrymandering through concentrated denigration campaigns to limiting free press) while at the same time trying to maintain all the formal legal criteria of democracy. In order to produce laws that serve its political interests but don’t contradict EU legislation it collects and connects “worst practices” from other European countries (to use a term EU-expert Györgyi Kocsis used in early 2011 about the new media law). Having changed the electoral system to its liking, having filled political posts with friends and clients, having an overwhelmingly friendly media, it had a remarkably wide array of potential measures to ensure its decisive win at the 2014 elections. It must be noted however, that even if the democratic left had won in 2014, this would not have meant a quick return to democratic normalcy. Instead, the political fight and cold civil war that characterized the years 2006-2010 would have come back.

During the last 25 years politicians on the left and right have learned the lesson of being popular by being populist. As liberal parties were disappearing incumbents have managed to gain an ever greater pool of supporters. Orbán’s 2014 victory is the second time in a row (after the 2006 narrow win of Gyurcsány) when a party and a prime minister were given a second term. Orbán’s government successfully combined Kádár’s and the Horthy’s approaches to gain support – its actions and rhetoric were at times more socialist than those of the Socialists and more nationalist than those of the nationalists. It also managed to bleed out its opponents on the left and on the right by a thousand cuts (from discovering and publicizing awkward information about their politicians through starting legal procedures against them to strictly limiting their channels to address a wider audience or even to collect and use campaign money) but its voter base diminished since 2010 nevertheless. In the future more resources may be needed to successfully apply similar techniques, therefore further political and economic centralization and an increase in the confrontational rhetoric is likely to come in the run up to 2018.

Written on October 27, 2013, updated on April 7-8, 2014


  1. @Laszlo: They can still go for the mayoral positions in the individual districts, even if Fidesz eliminates the mayoral position for Budapest. Second, just because I think that they shouldn’t conclude that uniting was a mistake, I’m not saying they should do everything the same way… one thing that needs to be reconsidered is the MSzP leadership of such an alliance, especially in Budapest.

    I think the upcoming European Parliamentary elections (on which the opposition parties plan to run separately, and really there is no reason why they shouldn’t) could give an estimate of the relative strength of each opposition party. This then could be the starting point for structuring an alliance for the local mayoral elections.

  2. Sandor :
    I must disagree with borlaug, sorry. Szigetvari is a really useless party aparatchic, long on theory and short on practice. HIs election record is mostly constituted by failures. His major accomplishment in this campaign was that he managed to marginalize Bajnai. He also had the audacity to be a candidate besides being a campaign manager. So whom was he really working for in this case? His communications skills are the equivalent of a clock-work parrot, speeding through the programmed text without the slightest thinking, or conviction.
    He is an odious technician without taste, without class and most of all, without any imagination.

    I must add that questioning Scheppele’s accuracy was the most dastardly act of all as it reinforced Orban’s contention that ‘foreigners’ are not capable of understanding Hungary.
    Since such acts are de-rigueur for the underhanded specialty of Hungarian politics, people
    ought not to defend Szigetvari by claiming that ‘he didn’t know what he was doing’….’or that it wasn’t his intent’…

  3. Laszlo :
    An: if there was any reasonable chance that the opposition could win the mayoral position, Fidesz would just eliminate the position outright (it takes 5 minutes to draft the necessary amendments) or simply rewrite the rules so that for example the city assembly would elect him/her.

    I agree.

  4. @Some1: In that case the opposition can still go for the mayoral positions in the individual districts. Of course, assuming that Orban doesn’t crown himself.

  5. I don’t know if you are noticing, but Schiffer is becoming a hero in the social media scene. I’ve been an avid fan of Olga Kálmán, but I also tend to agree that he was the bully in this case. Schiffer expressed his dismay about the statue several times, he is very spot on (and you may not like this) that Hungarian society as a whole has a huge fatigue about topics, dating back 60 years as opposed to issues in the present. I started to thing that the constant Horthy nostalgia is not just a cognitive desire of Fidesz. It’s also their red herring they know the opposition will jump at and therefore get bogged down in a topic, most of the electorate just changes channel from. I think we have been all walking into Orbán’s trap, and Schiffer did make a lot of sense yesterday.

  6. Jano: “Hungarian society as a whole has a huge fatigue about topics, dating back 60 years as opposed to issues in the present.”

    Do you mean the hot issues of: How to become a feudal society again? Or how to get back under Russian wings? How to restore the Hungarian “empire” with “emperor”? When will there be the next Communist marches on which people will be able to express their disgust about the Communists and crypto-Communists who have ruined the country?

  7. Kirsten: You know what I’m talking about, the left and Jobbik is trapped in this abstract historical philosophical battle, while Fidesz, great friend of the people decreases their utility bills.

    I’m just as upset about what you wrote. This is exactly the emotion Fidesz is using against us here.

  8. @Jano: It depends on which social media you are looking at… I had friends on FB who were absolutely appalled. To me, it only says how bad of a politician Schiffer is… you NEVER say that something is “hysterics” unless you want to offend those who feel strongly about the issue. And there are quite a few who, unlike Schiffer, feel strongly about this.

    Even if he doesn’t think that the protest at the statute is the best idea, he should have been a lot more diplomatic. He, who prides himself of maintaining a dialogue among different political platforms showed how unable he is to handle a sensitive issue like this. Snubbing other people’s feelings like that, just because you want to snub your political rivals (DK and Egyutt)…. it’s very, very bad politics.

    Schiffer is all about himself. He is only interested in proving that he is right. Despite all the smokescreen of talking about “dialogue,” he is a very self-serving man. An absolute disaster for LMP, which used to have some people with a lot of potential.

  9. You know, sometimes being a politician needs compromises, sacrifices even.
    However, if you ever intended to exceed the orbanian level of selling out yourself for political advancements you may even consider to stick to some ideological principles.
    After all, what else supposed to distinguish you from the masses?

    In case of Schiffer the lack of principles what strikes me most.
    Presently the poor fellow fell into the phoney glory of being all but himself – whatever it may cost to the others and whatever misdirected it’s going to turn out – and enjoying the spin of the moment, being the only stedfast hero in the whole election, but the only relevant question remains unanswered for the time being, even worse, there isn’t any viable answer in sight: SO WHAT?
    Beside of suing whoever in sight – as a lawyer – arguing as whichever defines attorney would do, there isn’t any single substantial topic what anybody can connect with LMP, as I see it.
    Well, they gave away green apples.
    And its a telltale symbol as long as I concerned.

    Apples – when ripe and ready for consumption – are red. As long as they’re green they isn’t ripe yet. (Please, don’t tell me about Granny Smith’s, it’s beside the point, OK?)
    The same applies to LMP.
    Good initiative, but not ready yet, sorry.

    By the way, the manners of Schiffer all but politically mature, but hey, it takes time and learning, in case you wondering what’s wrong with this picture.

  10. An: I mean in the more or less independent blogosphere. He could have used other words, but KO was bashing him constantly, telling him that he was tense. Well if somebody tells me 10 times that I am tense, I will definitely get tense by the end, this was horrible journalism. He does feel strongly about this too (you can find countless interviews), he just argues that this is a Fidesz decoy and wanted to talk about other topics.

  11. It was supposed to be ‘defence attorney’ – the spell checker fooled me again, sorry.

  12. Jano, it is also Fidesz that is planning the memorial. I do indeed wonder why it is close to impossible to come up with a topic from the present except for utility bills, but again I read the agenda is set by Fidesz because it is them who own the media. So they cannot dwell on the highly topical issue of some speech from 2006, Trianon voters, a memorial for the German occupation, and then wonder why others are talking about it. To talk about the next government, or even better the parliament and their plans for the next four years is unnecessary because the MPs will be just a voting machinery. This is Hungary in 2014. Of course, it would be much better if Hungarian society indeed turned to the present, and more than just the decrease in the utility prices (paid for for instance through the very high VAT rate!) and fake openings of parks and firms, for instance the use of public money for education, health care, large government investments such as into Paks or other public services. Typically I hear that the Hungarian public just does not care or is sick of it all. But about that one should also not speak either because this is “badmouthing”. There is no way how to speak about the present and NOT provoke Fidesz. But of course, perhaps I am wrong and I have not yet noticed which topic of the present could be approached without making Fidesz complain about “misunderstandings” (at best).

  13. Spectator: “In case of Schiffer the lack of principles what strikes me most.”

    If that was the case then he would have been No 4 on the Kormányváltás’s list instead of Timea Szabó. He took the risk of possibly not making it into the parliament, that does take some character, he could have easily ended up falling below 5% and that would have been the end of his career.

  14. Kirsten: Then we perfectly agree, this is what I’m talking about. Habony masterminded this trap, and everybody has been playing from Fidesz’s notebook ever since. I’m happy Schiffer finally called attention to this.

  15. @Jano: “he just argues that this is a Fidesz decoy and wanted to talk about other topics”

    This is not what came through to me at all… if that was his message, he did a very poor job of delivering it. Degrading the issue to “hysterics” is not the way to do this.

    Actually, he got into the hot seat after denouncing the issue as “hysterics”…. no surprise that Kalman Olga was taken aback and pressed the issue further. I didn’t like Kalman Olga’s very personal questions about him being tense…. but he couldn’t handle that very well either… You just laugh that off and say that you are not tense. Loosen up, that will show them 🙂 He was tense.

    At best Schiffer need a thorough communication training (how to talk to the press and how not to put his foot in the mouth), but I do think the problems with Schiffer run deeper than that.

    I used to like LMP. I had friends who were there when LMP started. But every time this guy opens his mouth, I find LMP more and more distasteful.

  16. An and Schiffer. I also have a fairly violent reaction to the guy. He is so “antipatikus.” Unfortunately, that’s him. He cannot change. Just as Orbán cannot change.

  17. Jano :
    Spectator: “In case of Schiffer the lack of principles wat strikes me most.”
    If that was the case then he would have been No 4 on the Kormányváltás’s list instead of Timea Szabó. He took the risk of possibly not making it into the parliament, that does take some character, he could have easily ended up falling below 5% and that would have been the end of his career.

    – What I wouldn’t really mind, if we are talking about his political career.
    In my opinion he wasn’t even that good, the Unity Alliance was so weak, that people will have something else instead, and those who didn’t want Jobbik voted for LMP. It’s so simple really.

    To me he isn’t politician, but a lawyer in the parliament with a grudge against everyone in sight. A pity, that he managed to take over the leading of an otherwise interesting fresh and young group of people. If you just look up who’s he isn’t want to work with, you may see my point.

  18. Eva S. Balogh :
    An and Schiffer. I also have a fairly violent reaction to the guy. He is so “antipatikus.” Unfortunately, that’s him. He cannot change. Just as Orbán cannot change.

    As I see it Eva, Orbán never ever want to change, he is so “perfect” as he is, there is no need for a change, you see.
    Otherwise I agree, Schiffer isn’t the person who you want to be associated with on your free will, even if he truly is a decent fellow in his field – I don’t know, and I don’t even intended to figure out, I can happily spend the rest of my life without that knowledge.

    (Yes, I am an ignorant bastard, and I presume, I won’t change much in the nearest future, and that’s how is it.)

  19. An, Eva, Spectator: I think we just have to accept that we don’t see eye to eye on this. I personally find the way Schiffer carries himself a little odd too. That’s not really what matters to me in a politician, but I have my own ‘antipatikus’ people so I can understand where you are coming from.

  20. Jano :
    An, Eva, Spectator: I think we just have to accept that we don’t see eye to eye on this. I personally find the way Schiffer carries himself a little odd too. That’s not really what matters to me in a politician, but I have my own ‘antipatikus’ people so I can understand where you are coming from.

    Jano, I have no problem with your assessment, none at all. However, to me politician is just that, as it is, not only a person who assuming a role for a time being.

    I don’t really see the initial motivation of Schiffer – neither I really care – but when people distancing him-/herself of the very ideologic, moral and ethical ground what he/she supposedly belong to, let alone represent, then I have problem, among others with some credibility issues.

    Schiffer supposed to represent a party with higher moral standards what the orbanist crowd hold as its own, but he decided to ignore the present situation and decidedly won’t take a stand. Here comes the ‘not ready yet’ politician: the issue of opposing the monument is actually the right one, let say, the politically correct one, but he failed to recognise the interest of his party – to side with the right guys this time, in a morally clear situation of all cases. Staying out of the alliance can be explained with individualist views, staying outside of opposing this morally, humanly, historically and artistically wrong project is something else entirely: it shows how he’s relating to core-values versus temporary political status.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it.

  21. whatever schiffer does or does not, or olga kalman did or did not, does not matter.

    These are fodder for the daily facebook, news cycle, nothing more. it will not change the situation. right now schiffer is weaker than he was in 2010. you can argue that PM left LMP but the thing is he lost serious number of votes.

    I also doubt he can be the anti dote to Jobbik or fidesz. So this is a tempest in a teapot at best.

  22. Spectator: What if somebody honestly thinks that the this big union is not ever going to be able beat the Orbán regime? Why would he join it instead of trying to break out of the dichotomy that both the left-liberal press (what remains of it) and the Fidesz media machine tries to bully him into? We can blame a lot (e.g. the supermajority) on the new election mechanism but we can’t blame the defeat on it. If my god honest unpaid opinion is that the Gyurcsány-Mesterházy brand is over in Hungary, then it’s my duty not to join them. Of course you can argue this premise, but the in my opinion Schiffer has probably been the only consequent player in this game.

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