democratic opposition

How to rebuild democracy in Hungary? According to some, not by compromise with Fidesz

As I mentioned yesterday, there were two topics suggested by readers and I agreed that they were interesting and definitely worth spending time on. After tackling two surveys on Hungarian societal attitudes we can now turn to the question of “What will happen, what should happen after Orbán?” posed by Zsófia Mihancsik, whose writings have appeared more than once on this blogHer latest contribution is  a series of questions she thinks the democratic opposition should discuss even before the election campaign. At the moment the various opposition parties and groupings agree on one thing:  Orbán’s regime must be removed. However, some very important decisions must be made and agreed upon. It is for this reason that she as editor-in-chief of Galamus initiated a series of articles that might assist those whose job it will be to work out a common platform necessary for setting up a successful and lasting coalition.

The first question is: “Do we have to reach a compromise with Fidesz after the party’s loss of the 2014 elections?” In practical terms that means that the democrats must forget about all “the political and moral crimes that had been committed by Fidesz  in opposition and in power.” One can make a case for such compromise by pointing out that, after all, the voters of Fidesz represent a certain portion of the electorate.

If the decision is to seek a compromise, one must determine whether this compromise should be with the party itself, with its voters, or both. Moreover, how much should the democratic forces be willing to pay for such a compromise? And one ought to ponder whether such a compromise would actually achieve the desired result of political and social tranquility.

But if it becomes obvious that no compromise is possible either with Fidesz or its voters, then how should the new political leadership handle the coming conflicts? Can they in a democratic regime ignore a party that received the votes of many and is represented in parliament?

What should they do with “the products of Fidesz’s rule–the new constitution and all those new laws?”  These laws were enacted in order to build a centralized, state-dominated regime serving only the needs of an autocracy. Would it be enough to whittle away at them or, like Orbán, should they start everything anew and develop an entirely new regime? “In other words, can one build democracy on a set of laws that were designed to build autocracy?”

What should be done with party cadres who masquerade as experts? Should they be replaced? And there is the question of those who were appointed for nine or eleven years. What should be done with those people who, thanks to Fidesz, received land or tobacconist shops? What about the nationalized schools? Does one have to face the fact that these mostly illegal changes cannot be undone and that one must live with them? And if yes, what are the consequences?

More or less these were the questions that Mihancsik posed in her article.

The first answer to some of these questions came from Ferenc Krémer. You may recall that he was one of the early victims of the Orbán regime when he lost his job as professor of sociology at the Police Academy. He was far too liberal for that place. I will summarize the article in greater detail, but his message is crystal clear: there is no way of making a compromise on any level because one cannot build  democracy on undemocratic foundations.

Building blocks - flickr

Building blocks – flickr

Can one build democracy by undemocratic means or does one need consensus? Krémer’s answer is that neither road will necessarily achieve the desired end. After all, the 1989-90 regime change was based on consensus and yet it didn’t produce a lasting democratic regime. At that time consensus was easier to reach because all segments of Hungarian society desired the the same thing, the establishment of a democratic regime. But today the situation is different because, although “all democratic opposition forces assume that there is need in this country for democracy, the fact is that almost as large a segment of society gladly settle for a dictatorship.” Thus the reintroduction of democracy in Hungary at the moment, unlike almost fifteen years ago, does not have a solid societal foundation.

If the preconditions of a general desire for democratic change are missing, can one substitute for them concessions to those whose ideal is not exactly democracy? In Krémer’s opinion one can’t. In the past, no concessions to a Viktor Orbán-led Fidesz ever followed by any tangible result of cooperation. Moreover, the election will be decided by the now still undecided voters. In Krémer’s opinion “it is a grave political mistake to consider the undecided voters as disillusioned Fidesz followers and to talk to them as if they had anything to do with what happened in the Fidesz era. … It is very probable that one cannot offer anything to the Orbán voters that would change their minds and therefore one shouldn’t even experiment with such an approach because it only confuses the anti-Orbán voters.”

The democratic opposition first and foremost must decide whether Orbán’s regime is a democracy or not because “autocracy will remain with us as long as its institutions and its culture exist and function.” If the answer is that, yes, it is a democracy, then both the institutions and the people populating them can remain in place. In this case, in Krémer’s opinion, there will not be democracy in Hungary even after the fall of the Orbán regime.

Krémer then outlines a series of possible compromises that could be offered to Fidesz. What Fidesz institutions should be left intact? The Media Council?  The current system of public works? The “orbanization” of state lands? The national tobacconist shops? The nationalized and centralized school system? The militarized police? The Anti-Terrorist Center (TEK)? Forcing experts into retirement? Which ones?

What about some of the newly enacted laws? “Vote for which one you would like.”  The new labor law? The Basic Law, especially with its fourth amendment? The law dealing with the police? The law that dispensed with local autonomy? The law on churches that discriminates against some religious communities? Or what about the law in the making that would sanction school segregation?

What can they offer to the “servants of dictators”? Should they follow the policy of Imre Kerényi and György Fekete, commissars of national culture, or the views of the historians of MTA who decided that no György Lukács or Vladimir Mayakovsky can have streets named after them? Should one say that there is agreement regarding Fidesz’s concept of family or that one can believe in God in only three ways? “Yes, we could say it but then we wouldn’t be who we are.”

In brief, Krémer is unequivocably against any compromise. Naturally one could argue with his views, but his reasoning, in my opinion, is sound.

Coming to an understanding with Viktor Orbán and his followers?

Yesterday’s post didn’t excite too many people. But how can one compete with Trianon? Who cares about the LIBE Commission’s report and the 500 some proposed “amendments,” mostly from Fidesz MPs and their Hungarian friends from Slovakia and Romania? On top of it all some people didn’t even get the details although I gave a link to the amendments that are available on the Internet.

But isn’t it the case that these amendments are a hundred times more relevant to the fate of the Hungarian people than absolutely useless discussions of a treaty, however just or unjust it was, that cannot be altered? Revisionism was the cornerstone of Hungary’s interwar foreign policy and some people were convinced, as was John F. Montgomery, U.S. ambassador in Budapest in the 1930s, that “the Hungarian people were not quite sane on that subject.” Well, it seems that some Hungarians are returning to the very same insanity that led Hungary nowhere except to another lost war, the loss of millions of its people, and a series of absolutely tragic events. But there are always people who are incapable of learning from past mistakes. Just like the Bourbons.

So, discussing Trianon endlessly and crying over Hungary’s misfortunes are dead ends. The Venice Commission’s opinion and the LIBE Commission recommendations, on the other hand, are of the utmost importance. The outcome of the investigations of the Hungarian government’s reshaping of Hungarian democracy into an authoritarian or even worse regime affects the very future of Hungarian democracy.

Let’s talk a little bit about the fate of Hungarian democracy. Some people are convinced that true democracy no longer exists in Hungary due to Viktor Orbán’s “renewal” of the country. I know that a lot of the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are certain that Viktor Orbán and his ilk will be running Hungary for the next twenty years. They are certain that Fidesz is unbeatable because the party communicates better, because all the state institutions are in party hands, and because the new electoral system is designed to keep them in power. By contrast, the opposition is fractured and lacks a charismatic leader. So why bother to do anything?

This defeatist attitude may be misplaced, especially since almost half of the electorate at the moment either doesn’t know or doesn’t divulge its political preferences. The various social groups that have been injured in one way or the other by the “renewal” measures of the Orbán government are numerous: civil servants, teachers, doctors, judges, university professors, artists, writers, and people receiving the minimum wage. One could go on and on. At the moment all these people are shaking in their boots, fearing for their jobs. They are afraid to go out to demonstrate. Surely, hidden cameras will reveal their identity. Fear has returned to the country.

But there might be a tipping point when all the grievances converge and serious opposition to the government breaks out. Who could have said on October 21, 1956 that in two days there would be an open rebellion against the Rákosi regime in Budapest? Or two weeks ago who would have thought that there would be street fights between young Turks and the police? Most likely nothing that drastic will happen in Hungary, but the possibility of a broad common front cannot be ruled out. Therefore, the opposition must be ready for such an occurrence. Moreover, the democratic parties have to come to some kind of an agreement concerning their attitudes toward “the accomplishments” of the Orbán government. Of course, I’m using the word “accomplishments” ironically.

What I mean is: can there be some kind of compromise between Fidesz and its democratic opposition? Because if not, says one school of thought on the subject, the present political division will only be perpetuated. Others are convinced that there is no way any kind of compromise is possible: Orbán’s autocratic rule cannot be “balanced” by those who believe in liberal democracy. Oil and water don’t mix.

Let me go back a bit to history and linguistics. I use the word “compromise” for “kiegyezés.” Indeed, when we talk about the historical “kiegyezés” of 1867 between Austria and Hungary in English we use the word “compromise.” The Compromise of 1867. However, the German word for the same event is “Ausgleich,” which means not so much compromise as “settlement.” Austria and Hungary settled their differences. So, according to a number of politicians, including Gordon Bajnai, the opposition must sit down with the politicians of Fidesz and settle their differences.

A settlement in the offing? /

A settlement in the offing? 

Bajnai, in an interview with Die Zeitenvisages an electoral outcome in 2014 in which the united opposition achieves a modest victory which “would be an opportunity for a kind of national agreement for fair negotiations.” He wants “to cross party lines to reach a consensus” and has no intention of turning everything back to the pre-Orbán period. After watching Viktor Orbán up close and personal ever since 1998, I would like to see just one occasion when he was ready to come to a “national agreement.” We all remember when in 2002 Péter Medgyessy, then apparently on the advice of Ferenc Gyurcsány, tried to extend a hand to Viktor Orbán. He called this approach “filling the trenches” or “burying the hatchet” in English. He got nowhere. He was only rebuffed.

The latest attempt at “appeasement” (at least this is what I call it) on the part of Gordon Bajnai is asking for forgiveness for the referendum of 2004 when the Fidesz-supported idea of giving citizenship to Hungarian nationals living in the neighboring countries was rejected with the active support of the government parties. Since then the Orbán government’s super-majority voted for citizenship, which includes voting rights. Bajnai feels that this right cannot be revoked. Thus, the citizens of Hungary must live with perhaps a million extra votes of people who have no real stake in the outcome of the election and don’t have to bear its consequences. That is a very large number when only about four million people vote at national elections.

Bajnai, in the hope of extra votes from the other side, is giving in on many other issues as well. For example, he made special mention of the Day of Unity (in other words, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Trianon) where he talked about three-fourths of the territories and two-thirds of its population Hungary lost. Of course, these numbers are correct, but failing to point out that the majority of this two-thirds were not Hungarians was a mistake. Talking about Trianon as a “tragedy” is again only adding oil to fire. He is hoping to come to an understanding on “the trauma of the Soviet occupation” and “the trauma of the Holocaust.” No wonder that the headline in HVG declared: “Bajnai compared Trianon to the Holocaust.” I don’t think that the loss of territories and the loss of lives can cause the same trauma. The last sentence of Bajnai’s communiqué stated that “we will have to close the period that meant the silence and abuse of Trianon.” That to me means that he promises the Hungarian nationalists that Trianon will remain a topic of debate. Keeping Trianon alive will also stoke the self-pity that is so injurious to the Hungarian psyche and that should be discouraged.

But that’s not all. Gordon Bajnai said the following about anti-Semitism and the Orbán government in Berlin the other day. “There are many problems with the government but one cannot claim that it has anything to do with antisemitism and racism.” One doesn’t have to go that far in seeking “national consensus” or “settlement” with Viktor Orbán and his followers. After all, Orbán’s attitude towards both is far from unequivocal.

That is the Bajnai approach, which in my opinion is utterly mistaken. Devoted Orbán followers will not vote for the democratic opposition because Bajnai supports the voting rights of Hungarians in the neighboring countries. It is also unlikely that a devoted supporter of Fidesz will be terribly impressed with  all that mea culpa on the issue of Trianon. But the voters of the democratic opposition may lose trust in him.

In the next few days I will outline some other ideas about what the opposition should do concerning the Orbán government and its supporters.

Metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán?

A few months ago I had a debate about Viktor Orbán’s metamorphosis from liberal to right-wing populist with someone who has known Viktor Orbán ever since the beginning of the democratic opposition’s struggle for regime change. I insisted that no one can change that much and that fundamentally, and therefore, I submitted, Orbán was never a democrat. My friend, a well-known member of SZDSZ, insisted that yes, Viktor was a true liberal but power had a terrible effect on his psyche. I wasn’t convinced.

Lately I have been noticing a change of heart among those who worked closely with Orbán or who as members of the media have been following those Hungarian political events in which he played a prominent role.

Just today Endre Aczél, a seasoned journalist with vast experience with MTI in the 1970s and MTV in the late 1980s, wrote one of his short but sharp-eyed opinion pieces in Galamus. In it he expressed his “suspicion” that it was at least fifteen years ago that Orbán abandoned the idea of the “rule of law.” He recalls a speech by the freshly elected young prime minister that was delivered before the yearly meeting of the country’s ambassadors. Orbán suggested to Hungary’s representatives abroad not to emphasize the “rule of law” but to stress the “law and order” that his government wants to re-establish.

The orange is rotting. That's all /

The orange is rotting. That’s all. /

Tamás Bauer, an economist, former SZDSZ politician, and today deputy chairman of DK, also remembers the day when he knew that Viktor Orbán was not a democrat. It was also in 1998, on July 6, when during the debate on the government program in parliament Orbán said: “I ask everybody who wants to re-establish order and security; everybody who wants a child be important not only to the family but also to the state; everybody who wants to belong to the Hungarian nation; everybody who wants to make Hungary a country that cooperates with other European nations to vote for the program of the government.” It was at this point that Bauer truly understood, although he had had an inkling before, how Orbán imagined the exercise of power. Because Orbán made it clear that he envisaged himself as the man who alone represents the nation and who considered the opposition a group of people who don’t belong to the nation. After all, in normal parliamentary democracies, the opposition doesn’t vote for the government program.

Therefore Bauer knew way before 2010 what kind of rule Orbán was going to introduce, especially once he achieved the much coveted two-thirds majority. Although according to some interpreters the original Orbán constitution of 2011 was still a democratic document, Bauer disagrees. A constitutional committee was set up, but the majority of the members came from the two government parties. Thus the new constitution reflected the will of the government and the party, Fidesz-KDNP. There was no use participating in this farce. It was Ferenc Gyurcsány who first called for a boycott and his call was followed by MSZP and later by LMP. That constitution was about as legitimate as the 1949 communist constitution. After all, the 1949 constitution reflected only the will of the Hungarian communist party, and the 2011 document was similarly created by and for Fidesz-KDNP.

Yes, both commentators claim, Viktor Orbán hasn’t been a democrat for a very long time. Perhaps he never was, I might add.

In the last few days there is a video that has been making the rounds on the Internet. It originally appeared on the website of Népszabadság. The video was taken at the demonstration organized to urge János Áder not to sign the amendments to the constitution. The speaker is Péter Molnár. Perhaps not too many people remember him, although he was one of the founders of Fidesz and the group at István Bibó College where Fidesz was born. He even spent four years in the Hungarian parliament as a member of the Fidesz caucus. And then he left the party and politics. On the video one can hear him telling Áder: “That is not what we dreamed of, Jánó!” A few days ago I quoted Tamás Deutsch’s tweet claiming that this is exactly what they were dreaming of back in the late 1980s. Surely, this was an answer to Molnár.

I first encountered Molnár’s name in György Petőcz’s book Csak a narancs volt (It was only the orange / Élet és Irodalom, 2001). He was one of the contributors to the volume. He and the four other contributors left Fidesz completely disillusioned in 1993-1994.

What are Molnár’s recollections of the early days of Fidesz and Bibó College? According to him, László Kövér managed to create a lot of tension even in those days. At every meeting he insisted that all members of the college–there were around 80 students–must be politically active. Kövér and Orbán worked together and wanted to rule the community according to their own ideas. Molnár recalls that in the college there was a feeling of unity and solidarity but “Viktor’s political management destroyed it just as he destroyed [the original] Fidesz.” A good example of how this “solidarity” worked in Fidesz land. Once a member of the college group said that “Viktor can be certain that he can rely on his old friends in Bibó College.” Two years later the old buddy of Viktor lost his high position in the party and the government because he dared to disagree with him. “Solidarity existed only as long as the person followed the ‘correct’ policy. It didn’t matter whether he belonged to the inner circle or not, if he disagreed with Laci Kövér and Viktor, he was finished.” Does a democrat behave this way?

Let’s return for a moment to Endre Aczél’s opinion piece that appeared today. Its title is “Order? My own!” No,  Orbán hasn’t changed his stripes.