Hungarian public discourse: Gloves off

We have been so preoccupied with Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the illiberal state that we have paid scant attention to some other important utterances of the Hungarian prime minister. Here I think of his many references to “honest” public discourse replacing what is “politically correct.” “Honest” public discourse often seems to encompass verbal abuse, including in some segments of Hungarian society racist and antisemitic expletives.

Right-wing politicians are pioneers of the art of “honest” discourse. While in opposition Viktor Orbán was a master of the craft. He used his skills to undertake a character assassination of his political foe, Ferenc Gyurcsány. Now that he is prime minister he refrains from the kind of language that was his trademark. He no longer calls his political opponents clowns, no-goods, idiots, adventurers, regents of eastern despotism, and similar epithets; he lets others to do the dirty work. For example, CÖF, the pro-government civil group. Or his old friend, Zsolt Bayer. But topping them is his close friend, László Kövér, president of the parliament, who has inherited his mantle; he is a master of finding the most abusive words when talking about the opposition.

Here are a few choice sentences from the latest Kövér special. On September 26 Kövér gave a pep talk to the Fidesz faithful in Budapest’s District XX. First he talked about the weak and confused opposition whose “members don’t know whether they are boys or girls, often in the strictest sense of the word.” (“Nem tudja,  fiú vagy lány” is an expression that means being confused.) One did not have to be there to know that this “witticism” must have been a real hit with the audience. After accusing the owners of utility companies of “stealing money out of people’s pockets,” he moved on to the arch-enemy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who is “the total bankruptcy and nadir of Hungarian democracy.” After piling one accusation after the other on the former prime minister, Kövér compared him to “the politicians of the Entente” [after World War I] responsible for Trianon. “In comparison to him Mátyás Rákosi was an altar boy.” And if that wasn’t enough, he called him “the reincarnation of Ernő Gerő,” Rákosi’s right-hand man.

gloves off

What can come after such verbal abuse? As often happens, physical abuse. This morning Ferenc Gyurcsány was campaigning in Csepel where the opposition actually has a good chance of defeating the current mayor, Szilárd Németh, the face of the utility rate decreases. A man started screaming at Gyurcsány and set out to attack him physically; fortunately the people around the former prime minister managed to restrain the would-be assailant.

The right-wing media naturally follow the “stylistic” lead of the politicians. Heti Válasz (nowadays only Válasz in the online version) decided to transform their formerly stodgy style into one that is more sensational. The articles in its new column called “Rosta” (sieve) have begun to resemble some of the opinion pieces of the far-right Magyar Hírlap. The leading Fidesz paper, Magyar Nemzet, also likes to pile abuse on political opponents. The latest victim of the paper is István Vágó, earlier a television personality, who decided to run for a seat on his district’s city council. Vágó’s program includes a suggestion to convert an empty piece of real estate into a children’s center. This particular building had earlier belonged to the district but was given back to the Catholic Church some time ago. Well, this suggestion was a cardinal sin in the eyes of the editors of the newspaper. Vágó was accused of a Rákosi-like harassment of the Church.

Unfortunately the verbal infection is spreading to opposition circles. An MSZP politician, Tibor Szanyi, who is often described as the enfant terrible of the party, decided some time ago to imitate the right-wing politicians. Recently Szanyi, a member of the European Parliament, got himself into a terrible jam when, as a result of a foolish bet he made, he had to invite a number of “goy bikers” to Brussels. Worse, he did that not on his own money but with funds provided by the European Union for the purpose of acquainting citizens with the workings of the European Union. The media, after learning about the event from one of the goy bikers, ran the story. Szanyi’s answer? He called the journalists rats! Szanyi is currently the leader of the four-member socialist-DK caucus. But not for long. The goy bikers story was too much for DK, and it seems MSZP concurs.

And now we come to the language of a well-known poet turned politician, Géza Szőcs. He started his career in Cluj/Kolozsvár, then worked as a journalist in Switzerland, returned to Romania where he became a politician, and finally ended up in Budapest where he joined the government of Viktor Orbán as assistant secretary in charge of culture. Here is this cultured gentleman’s letter to Hannu Launonen, a Finnish translator of Hungarian literature, who was awarded the Janus Pannonius Prize, a relatively new international award given jointly by the Hungarian government and the Hungarian PEN Club. Szőcs is currently the president of PEN.

In the last minute Launonen turned down the prize. He was not the first one to do so. In 2012 Lawrence Ferlinghetti was awarded the prize but, after learning that the Hungarian government was a partial sponsor of the award, did not accept it. In declining, Ferlinghetti cited his opposition to the right wing regime of Viktor Orbán which curtails civil liberties and freedom of speech. Szőcs was infuriated with Launonen’s decision. And so he wrote an open letter to Launonen.

The letter was described by 168 Óra as “primitive.” But how primitive? Among other things, Szőcs wonders what would have happened if Launonen had decided to decline the prize after he received the €3,000 that went with it, intimating that he might have pocketed the money anyway. He accuses Launonen of “aping Ferlinghetti” and adds that his “gesture’s weight is truly relative.” At the end he claims that any exchange between the two of them is “superfluous and pointless” because on the basis of his behavior Szőcs considers him a man “of infirm character.” What can one say? If Szőcs hadn’t written this “superfluous” letter he could have saved himself the embarrassment of being called a boor.

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30 comments

  1. Ernő Gerő died in 1980, I am trying to think of a reference made to a U.S. political who has been dead 34 years that would be referenced in a comparable political rally for a local elected office and I honestly can’t think of one. Even the disgraced President Nixon is not referenced in such a manner nor even the equally disgraced dictator of the FBI J E Hover is not made reference to in political stump speeches.

    Hungary lives in the past whether it’s WWII or the old communist regime as if it were yesterday. I don’t know the reason for this but living in the USA where there is very little historical memory going back even ten years ago this is a bizarre phenomenon. It exists on the right and the left in Hungary too.

  2. trianonul a fost prea bland pentru unguri pentru ca ati pus mana si pe restul Crisanei. In curand va veni momentul in care Ungaria va trebui sa inapoieze si restul Crisanei pentru ca in definitiv pana si capitala voastra e asezata pe foste pamanturi romanesti .

  3. @ Istvan

    As Adam Michnik, Polish intellectual and editor in chief of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza said 25 years ago: “In Eastern Europe the past is the present..”.

    Awkward, but true.

  4. In Hungary, the past is the present because the traumas of the past have not been properly worked out, but also because the rulers of the country desperately need the past to legitimate their power. Remember May-June 2012 and Tibor Navracsics’s answer to Ágnes Vadai about the scandalous attempt to rebury József Nyirő’s ashes in Romania (http://www.galamuscsoport.hu/tartalom/cikk/140575)? He simply stated that the only people who can be held responsible for the deeds of the Arrow Cross party are the Communists (because, as we know, after the war the ex-Nazis en masse switched to the winning side) and their “successors”, that is, today’s Socialists. No more arguments needed.

    Or Viktor Orbán’s answer in November 2012 to MP Tamás Harangozó (MSZP) who commented on Orbán’s strange friendships with Post-Communist dictators. Orbán said something like this (I cannot find the Hungarian original just now): “In the 1980s I wasn’t fighting the dictatorship but those who made the dictatorship, and they were your party comrades.” In other words, Harangozó – who was ten or eleven years old when the Socialist system collapsed – has lost all moral right to criticize Orbán’s actions by joining a party which is still burdened by collective guilt in all the crimes of the Kádár régime.

    So, the memory of olden times is being kept alive so that they can mobilize the Peace Marchers by comparing Brussels with Moscow and EU with the Soviet Union.

  5. The more extreme the language of Fidesz becomes, the more they show their insecurity and political immaturity. Why would a party that’s sure of itself and the facts at its disposal need to stoop so low? Is there any evidence that the punters (I’m sure Orbán sees ordinary voters as such) are actually turned on by such antics?:

  6. @Istvan, very true, but also note that those who go these party rallies are usually older folks. And Kövér attracts an angrier set from such fideszniks. They are more likely to vote, so it’s kinda logical that Kövér caters for them, but I am not sure Gerő is a household name for the under 40 set. In any case, there is segmentation of the audience, Kövér caters to the angrier fideszniks, Pokorni for the calmer, more gentlemanly ones and so on. But I agree that the language is getting more and more aggressive. Jobbik is a huge competition, despite all the efforts Fidesz made to coopt Jobbik’s policies, and it’s not easy to fire up voters either.

    What’s really interesting to me at least is that Fidesz doesn’t even try to operate a less aggressive internet/print media. Info Radio is a consistently fidesznik but it’s style is very easy to confuse with “objectivity”. It’s partly the media type as in radio and tv, such language is less tolerated, but still, it’s interesting to note that Fidesz doesn’t think there is a audience curious about news, only soldiers hungry for political fodder.

  7. Re Varadi, the Együtt candidate hit by a car.

    In Stieg Larsson’s book, it was a dying secret agent who “sacrificed” himself to carry out a hit that was bound to become public. He didn’t have anything to lose and the goal was more important than any potential repercussions.

    It’s actually logical to instruct an old (and possibly sick) person to carry out a hit (in this case the perpetrator was 84 years old). Older people, even if caught (their guilt is proven) usually only get light sentences by the courts. This may or may not have been a contract killing, but what are the odds of an accident happening to this exact person?

    Varadi was probably the single most hated local political candidate, who has been constantly causing trouble in the home district of Orban and his strohmen (btw Orban’s wife is also a huge land-owner with some four dozen land plots all over the region), in the very heart of Orbanistan.

    Sorry, but after Tamas Welsz’ apparent murder, this “accident” sounds to me rather fishy.

  8. Only a sick mind would seek political profit from an unfortunate accident and a death of a real person. You remind me of the nutjobs who for years said that 9/11 was organized by the United States government and they blew up the buildings. They couldn’t have possibly collapsed just because a plane hit them.

    It is a sure sign of madness when people start to believe the most stupid and retarded theories to satisfy their conspiracy urges. You probably have an answer to everything like the “9/11” truthers.

    Like if it wasn’t an accident why did Varadi get out of his car and started to walk on a narrow road at night? Was he also paid to do that? If he stays home or stays in his car, how can a pedestrian vs car collision occur? Was Varadi also involved in the conspiracy?

    And why did the perpetrator stop to give first aid? And why did he call the ambulance which took Varadi to hospital where doctors tried to save his life? Were the ambulance and the doctors also part of the conspiracy? Why didn’t the perpetrator flee the scene? I’m sure you have answers just like every good conspiracy theorist has answers.

    But it is embarrassing to see how low can you sink. Trying to turn a man’s death into disgusting political propaganda. And the worst part is, it will not even help. It will hurt the chances of the opposition when people see their activists are batshit crazy. I am referring of course to your friends who are trying to spread the same message on Hungarian forums during election day. It is embarrassing to watch.

  9. The public discourse in Hungary does seem to have taken a turn for the worst.

    Just a few days ago Tibor Szanyi, a member of the European Parliament called Hungarian journalists “rats and vermin” because they questioned his use of public funds. Szanyi the leader of the Socialist delegation invited a few motorcyclists because he lost a bet and he used EU money to do it. A few journalists from the left-wing ATV asked Szanyi about this case and Szanyi responded by talking about “patkányújságírás” (rat/vermin – journalism).

    The exact quote was:
    “A patkányújságírásnak megvan az a hátránya, hogy nem csak két patkány van a rendszerben, hanem a patkányok egymást közt csivitelnek. És az én fülembe is visszajutnak olyan hírek amit a különböző patkányok mondogatnak.”

    “When journalists act like vermin or rats, it has a downside. There are more than two rats in the system and these rats squeak among themselves. And it gets back to me what these different rats are saying.” -Tibor Szanyi, MSZP MEP about left-wing questioning him the goj motoros case

  10. Yes, Tibor Szanyi is almost as bad as Bayer Zsolt – but that creature is a good friend of Orbán, so of course it’s different …

    K Troll P with its “Kindergarden Logic” is really too obvious in trying to divert from the real issues – it would be funny if it weren’t so sad!

    PS and OT:

    We walked this morning to the voting station (As an EU citizen with a second residence in Hungary I’m also allowed to vote in the local elections) and wondered again at all those run down houses, some looking like ruins but still with (usually old) people living there. The craziest aspect was that our dog accompanied us (of course we left her outside the building when we voted) and hundreds of poor dogs, often on a short chain, barked at her like mad when she was coming up to greet them – only a few said hello, wagging their tails, most others screamed like hell …

    Of course that’s not the dogs’ fault, but the owners’ – btw our dog is also Hungarian and people often are surprised how well behaved she is, especially all children love her …

    Reminds me of the reaction of some people/trolls here!

  11. What an ugly picture.

    After WWII, a truly unholy alliance was created.
    Some, but not all, very tainted Szalasi people melted into the new communist ranks.
    The next few generations were somewhat cleansed.
    But in the post 1989 era, again some very tainted Kadar people melted with the old and new conservative forces.

    The Kadar loyalists started to sing the politically correct Christian-Anti-Communist melody with some reemerging old horthy/szalasi loyalists.

    And Jobbik is clearly a hazard to the health of Hungary.

  12. The author of the Hungarian national anthem, Kölcsey warned, almost 200 years ago, about excessive Hungarian national yearning for the glory or shadow [!] of the past:

    “mit ér epedő kebel e romok ormán?
    Régi kor árnya felé visszamerengni mit ér? ”

    (Huszt, 1831)

  13. pistu “Only a sick mind would seek political profit from an unfortunate accident and a death of a real person.”

    Meta-conspiration theory: Most conspiration theories are created and spread by conspiracies.

  14. – But you don’t mean that you’d been surprised by the turn of the events, do you?

    As it seems from here, a sad bunch which resigned fully to their fate.

    Another glorious day to the Greatest Leader of All times – I guess.

  15. People love Fidesz, that’s all.

    Difficult to understand for some, but Fidesz does provide what people want.

    They are corrupt, yes, but not stupid. People hate stupid politicians.

    In Buda districts people after lunch couldn’t wait to vote for Fidesz, they looked happy, content, they felt like winners. This love is lacking for the left wing.

    In addition in Budapest, since Tarlos was gonna win big time anyway, there wasn’t enough contest for a lot of people to go to vote which naturally influenced local, district elections too.

  16. @wolfi

    Why are Texans conservative of Californians liberal?

    To be a zala megyei means being conservative. It’s an identity issue. It feels natural. In elections Zala county used to be conservative even 70 or 90 or 100 years ago. It never had an urban or traditional working class component in its society. It’s an affluent (as least as you can be in Hungary) but rural-suburban-ish region which does not depend on government handouts, so they don’t like gipsies and other poor people trying the “scam” the taxpayers.

    Beyond a tipping point, and Zala county is way beyond that, it doesn’t even occur to you there’s anything more than Fidesz/Jobbik right wing. This is the order of things, so why would you want to change? To be a tiny minority in a rural world where conformity is expected?

    This is a rural world, and people there emphatically hate urban, liberal, jewish intellectuals preaching about more human rights and more EU competition.

  17. @serpserp:

    OK, but still – even in Hévíz we got a Fidesz Mayor – he’s quite “nice” but a kind of country bumpkin, especially compared to the guy before him.

    And I always thought Zala might be more open/liberal/whatever being so near to Austria …

  18. Bokros’ results shows that a united left could have win or almost win.

    Many leftist voters just couldn’t force themselves to vote for the “restrictive”, “bloodsucker” Bokros who’s been the bogey man for two decades.

    Tarlos’ voters are thus not only Fidesz voters.

    If one takes away five points off from Tarlos and adds that to a likable, well-prepared, supported with a campaign opposition candidate (I mean Bokros has, it currently seems over 34% without any campaign or any financial investment from his party whatsoever) than he/she could have won or almost won, and given the current environment both could have been a big achievement.

  19. The interesting thing is that the east vs west divide is also evident in Romania, Germany, and Poland. Western Hungary is richer then eastern Hungary so they are less likely to buckle at the established conservative order. Even in Budapest the western Buda region is more conservative then the poorer more densely populated eastern Pest region. Hévíz is one of Hungary’s richest town and with the exception of some inner city more alternative areas richer usually means more conservative politically. The Socialists need to take back the poorer blue collar voters they lost to Jobbik and that’s close to impossible unless they can run on a successful law and order message since at the end of the day if you live in a poor region the probability is greater that you will have more negative interactions with the Roma then in middle class areas.

  20. Total Gyurcsanyist defeat in district XIII. In this district MSZP offered 4 districts to Gyurcsany and Szigetvari and they rejected it, demanding more. Instead of caving to the extortion MSZP battled against the Gyurcsanyist forces in every district giving up 0, instead of the 4 they offered up freely.

    MSZP won every single district, so instead of the 4 they were so unsatisfied with, the Gyurcsanyists received 0 districts within district XIII. In this case resisting the Gyurcsanyist extortion paid off for MSZP.

    MSZP also won district XIX so it became the most successful opposition party in Budapest by winning two districts.

    Egyutt is almost totally destroyed, they extorted the opportunity to run in district V (home to the memorial of the victims of the Nazi occupation). In District V Egyutt in their wisdom decided to nominate Péter Juhász a convicted felon and drug abuser who only got around 20% of the votes. In district V!!! MSZP had a good strong candidate there, Pál Steiner, who was already mayor once, but NO. Egyutt HAD to have their own candidate…

    This Juhasz was also the one who trashed other opposition parties a few years ago, saying they are corrupt, unacceptable, disgusting. And now he wanted to win on the backs of their staff and voter base… the irony.

  21. @syndicate: Agree. Look at Ozd, the left is gone for good.

    In Budapest district XVI (suburban Pest) (over 60% Fidesz, the next candidate less than 10%), Fidesz won by more than it did in district XII, the most reliably conservative district.

    In district VIII (Kocsis, the heir apparent of Tarlos) Fidesz won with 57%, the next party has some 13% or so.

    Fidesz’ machinery should not be underestimated, it’s very effective in traditionally left-leaning areas too (though truth be told, internal district borders were gerrymandered as much as possible) to the point that it changed the map fundamentally.

    That’s the thing. Fidesz and Jobbik flipped many traditionally leftist areas. Moreover it rearranged the districts and divided the left. The left cannot flip its areas back and it is just impossible that it could ever win in Zala, Győr-Sopron, Veszprém or Bács or Hajdu-Bihar. People just don’t are about the communists there.

    The result, given the election system, the left will never get to power in Hungary.

    Hungary will be like Texas or California, a one-party state, dominated by the dominant party of the right wing (i.e. Fidesz).

  22. Illustration of the Fidesz gerrymandering inside Budapest districts

    The mayoral race was counted from the entire district,
    the district assembly election was decided by the gerrymandered internal precincts

    11th district, not final results (I do not know the % of counted votes)

    Fidesz mayor 46.5% , Fidesz assembly members: 62.5%
    Left mayor 41.6%, Left assembly members: 29.2%
    LMP mayor: 6.1%, LMP assembly members: 4.2%
    Jobbik mayor: 4.8%, Jobbik assembly members: 4.2%

  23. Yes but the interesting thing is that in a national context even in those states both parties have their areas of strength. If California were independent one would assume that a right wing alternative could move to the center without the national party negatively effecting their image. The same could be said for Texas. If Hungary were a country it would resemble Mexico more were the PRI Institutional Revolutionary Party, yes I know the name sounds like a contradiction, were they ruled for 70 years before President Fox of the PAN knocked them out of power for 14 years.

    The closest example we have of a one party state with democratic elections in Europe would be Iceland, Sweden, and Turkey were one party is able to rule for a very long time. Italy under the Christian Democrats also fell into this category until the parties collapse due to corruption. However one only has to look at Renzi, a former Christian Democrat, and see that their ideology still endures both on the left and on the right.

  24. Budapest mayoral race 2014 [2010] – the 2014 data is not final

    Fidesz 49.1% [53.4%]
    Left 36.0% [29.5%]
    Jobbik 7.1% [7.3%]

    Budapest assembly – new, 3-month old, Fidesz-created election system
    2014 data – preliminary

    Fidesz 66% [51.5%]
    Left 27% [30.3%]
    Jobbik 3% [9.1%]

  25. Votes for Lord Mayor of Budapest, 2014 [2010] in thousands

    Fidesz (Tarlos): 290 [322]
    Left: 213 [178]
    Jobbik: 42 [44]
    LMP: 34 [60]

    http://www.valasztas.hu/dyn/onk14/szavossz/hu/foejelolt.html
    http://valasztas.hu//hu/onkval2010/471/471_0_index.html

    Budapest Assembly: 2014: mayors+compensation [2010: popularly elected]

    Fidesz: 21= 18+3 [17]
    Left: 9 = 5+4 [10]
    Jobbik: 1= 0+1 [3]
    LMP: 1= 0+1 [3]
    Independent: 1= 1+0 [0]

    http://www.valasztas.hu/dyn/onk14/szavossz/hu/M01/mered.html

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