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Domestic reactions to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy”

In the wake of Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 26 politicians on the left have been united in their condemnation while journalists on the right have been scrambling to make the speech more palatable.

The reactions of MSZP, DK, and Együtt-PM to the horrendous political message about establishing an “illiberal democracy” were fairly similar. They all deplored the fact that the Hungarian prime minister seems to be following the example of Putin’s Russia.

József Tóbiás, the newly elected chairman of MSZP, was perhaps the least forceful  in his condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s political philosophy. Tóbiás pointed out that Orbán with this speech demonstrated that he has turned against all those who don’t share his vision: the socialists, the liberals, and even the conservatives. Because all of these ideologies try to find political solutions within the framework of liberal democracy.

Együtt-PM found the speech appalling: “The former vice-president of Liberal International today buried the liberal state. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán not only lay to rest liberal democracy but democracy itself.” Subsequently, the party decided to turn to Brussels, asking the European Commission to protect the independent NGOs.

Gábor Fodor in the name of the Hungarian Liberal Party recalled Viktor Orbán’s liberal past and declared that “democracy is dead in our country.” The prime minister “made it expressly clear that it’s either him or us, freedom loving people.”

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy in the name of the Democratic Coalition (DK) was the most explicit. He said what many people have been hinting at for a while: that “a fascist state” is in the making in Hungary. “Unfortunately,” he added, Orbán “is either insane or a traitor, or both.”

LMP’s András Schiffer, as usual, had a different take on the speech. According to him, Orbán’s critique of liberal democracy is on target. Only his conclusions are wrong. LMP, which likes to describe itself as a green party, is an enemy of capitalism and also, it seems, of liberal democracy.

Magyar Nemzet published an interesting editorial by Csaba Lukács. He fairly faithfully summarized the main points of  the speech with one notable omission. There was no mention of “illiberal democracy.” And no mention of “democracy” either. Instead, he went on for almost two paragraphs about the notion of a work-based state and expressed his astonishment that liberals are so much against work. “Perhaps they don’t like to work and that’s why they panic.” Lukács clumsily tried to lead the discussion astray. Surely, he himself must know that the liberals are not worried about work but about the “illiberal democracy” he refused to mention in his article.

Journalists who normally support the government and defend all its actions seem to be at a loss in dealing with Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” Deep down most likely they also know that this so-called “illiberal democracy” will not be democracy at all. So, they simply skirt the issue.

Válasz‘s editorial avoided the term as well, but at least István Dévényi wanted to know more about Viktor Orbán’s plans. After discussing the reactions of the opposition parties which talk about the end of democracy, he added: “I don’t think that for the time being there is reason to worry, but it would be good to know what exactly the prime minister has in mind when he talks about a nation-state, a work-based state that will follow the welfare state.”

A new English-language paper entitled Hungary Today managed to summarize the speech that lasted for 30 minutes in 212 words. Not surprisingly this Hungarian propaganda organ also kept the news of “illiberal democracy” a secret. Instead, the reader learns that “copying the west is provincialism, and we must leave it behind, as it could ‘kill us.'”

As for DK’s reference to Italian fascism, it is not a new claim. For a number of years here and there one could find references to the similarities between the ideas of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös (1932-1936) and those of Benito Mussolini. As prime  minister of Hungary, Gömbös made great strides toward establishing a fascist state in Hungary. József Debreczeni, an astute critic of Viktor Orbán who uncannily predicted what will happen if and when Viktor Orbán becomes prime minister again, quipped at one point that comparing Orbán to Horthy is a mistake; the comparison with Gömbös is much more apt.

Népszava's headline: "He already speaks as a dictator / Getty Images

Népszava’s headline: “He already speaks like a dictator / Getty Images

Péter Új, editor-in-chief of 444.hu, rushed to the library to find a Hungarian-language collection of the Duce’s memorable speeches. I might add that the book was published in 1928 and that István Bethlen, who happened to be prime minister at the time, wrote the preface to Benito Mussolini gondolatai (The thoughts of Benito Mussolini). In this book Új found some real gems: “The century of democracy over.” Or, “Unlimited freedom … does not exist.” “Freedom is not a right but a duty.” “It would be suicidal to follow the ideology of liberalism … I declare myself to be anti-liberal.” “The nation of tomorrow will be the nation of workers.”

Others searched for additional sources of Orbán’s assorted thoughts and claims in the speech. I already mentioned Fareed Zakaria’s article on illiberal democracies. Gábor Filippov of Magyar Progressive Institute concentrated on Orbán’s assertion that a well-known American political scientist had described American liberalism as hotbed of corruption, sex, drugs, and crime. Filippov found an article by Joseph S. Nye, former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in the June 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “The Decline of America’s Soft Power.” (You may recall that Zakaria’s article also appeared in that periodical. It seems that one of Orbán’s speechwriters has a set of Foreign Affairs on hand!) But whoever wrote the speech badly misunderstood the text. The original English is as follows:

Autocratic regimes in the Middle East have eradicated their liberal opposition, and radical Islamists are in most cases the only dissenters left. They feed on anger toward corrupt regimes, opposition to U.S. policies, and popular fears of modernization. Liberal democracy, as they portray it, is full of corruption, sex, and violence—an impression reinforced by American movies and television and often exacerbated by the extreme statements of some especially virulent Christian preachers in the United States.

Radical Islamists are the ones who claim that liberal democracy is full of corruption, sex, and violence. Viktor Orbán is now joining their ranks. Putin, Mussolini, radical Islamists–these are Orbán’s ideological friends. And he has unfettered power to transform this frightening ideology into government policy.

László Bogdán, the Roma miracle worker of Cserdi

The support of the three opposition parties for Albert Pásztor, former police chief of Miskolc, as the city’s mayoral hopeful caused a huge political storm which still hasn’t subsided. Representatives of the Hungarian liberal intelligentsia or the intellectual elite, as Hungarians like to call this group, have been up in arms. How could these parties ever support a man who five years ago showed himself to be a racist?

Actually, the real target of their ire is the Demokratikus Koalíció. Since the central leadership of Együtt-PM distanced itself from the party’s local representative in Miskolc, critics left Együtt-PM more or less alone. They didn’t bother themselves with MSZP either because, as some of them admit, they don’t have great expectations of the socialists. After all, the party led by Attila Mesterházy, echoing Fidesz, endorsed “law and order” as an answer to society’s ills. DK is the only party that had consistently stood for the rights of all minorities. Its members and voters, all polls indicate, are the least prejudiced against foreigners, Gypsies, Jews, and gays. The intellectual elite expected more from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party. How could it support a racist?

And here we are in trouble because, as I know from personal experience in private debates with friends and acquaintances, we cannot even agree on what racism is. There are people who think that mentioning the ethnic origin of a person already indicates racist tendencies. Thus, when Albert Pásztor the other day announced that he will treat everybody the same without “regard to origin,” some people cried foul. He shouldn’t have mentioned people’s ethnic origins at all. And yet there are a large number of policemen who are truly racists and who don’t apply the same standards when dealing with Gypsies and non-Gypsies. So, if Pásztor wants to treat everyone equally, this should be considered a step in the right direction.

Some people are reluctant to talk about some of the serious problems that crop up between Roma and non-Roma. But is it racism to talk about the difficulties that exist between the majority and the minority cultures? I guess it depends on the source. One can detect the attitude of the speaker easily enough. Criticism can be well-meaning or hateful.

And what should we do with a Gypsy who passionately wants to change the situation of his fellow men and women but who at the same time is very critical of the majority of the Roma today. I am thinking of László Bogdán, the mayor of Cserdi, a village that lies between Bükkösd and Szentlőrinc in Baranya County.

Bogdán is a man in his late forties who became the mayor of Cserdi about nine years ago. He has transformed the heavily Roma village. How did he do it? The change didn’t come overnight, but by now his accomplishments are known as “the cserdi csoda” (the miracle of Cserdi). When he became mayor, Cserdi was riddled with petty crimes. On the average 200 a year. Today, there are only two or three. Unemployment was extraordinarily high, just in all Baranya villages with large Roma populations. Today, anyone who wants to work can.

László Bogdán (in the middle) is visiting Duisburg, Germany

László Bogdán (in the middle) is visiting Duisburg, Germany

Bogdán was born in great poverty. He told Olga Kálmán the other day on ATV that he was thirteen years old when he finally had a pair of shoes of his own. Thirty years ago he got a job at a multinational company, cleaning the yard of the factory. Then one day they needed someone to pack the factory’s products. He kept going up and up until he was heading a department. Why he left his cushy job I have no idea, but he decided to run for parliament. When he lost, he settled for being the mayor of Cserdi, his birthplace.

Cserdi by now owns a fair sized forest the residents themselves established. They have 3,500 square meters of green houses, and they sell their produce in Pécs. They even had extra to give away to poor people in Budapest. The village owns a house on Lake Balaton. They fixed up most of the houses in the village. Bathrooms were installed in some of the Roma houses that had not known such a luxury. This summer Cserdi organized a summer school for the children. All this is an incredible accomplishment.

And yet Bogdán is a controversial man because of his rather draconian methods of dealing with his workers. He expects excellence, punctuality, and very hard work. And he is harsh with those who don’t perform. If one of the public workers doesn’t show up on time, he is “punished.” He has to read aloud from Micimackó ( Winnie the Pooh) to his fellow workers. He took some of the young people to a jail in Pécs so they could see what is waiting for them if they end up there.

Is Bogdán’s method more effective than some of the others that are being tried at a few places–very few places–in the country? I really don’t know, but I was impressed by the man. He is intelligent and very outspoken. For instance, if it depended on him, he would abolish the whole system of Roma self-government since he believes it does more harm than good. Many of the leaders, as he put it, are barely literate, and their aggressive behavior only alienates the majority population.

László Bogdán’s interview with Olga Kálmán / Egyenes beszéd / ATV

I have no idea whether Bogdán is right. But let’s go back to my pondering about who is racist and who is not. Is Bogdán a racist because he is more critical of the Roma community than most non-Roma? Is it racist to say, as he does, that Gypsies “must learn how to behave”? These are very difficult questions.

We know that the great divide between Roma and non-Roma Hungarians must be minimized. And this means that both sides have to change. The majority population will have to shed its incredible prejudice while the minority must be given the opportunity to achieve a higher economic and social status. But it is hellishly difficult to find the right way to this goal.

The Miskolc dilemma: Arguments on the other side

I would like to dwell a little longer on what has happened in Miskolc. Yesterday I summarized the events of 2009 when Albert Pásztor, then police chief of the city, made some remarks that reflected badly on the Roma minority of Miskolc. He made it clear that in his opinion integration of the Gypsies into the majority society had failed and that the coexistence of “Gypsies and Hungarians” is hopeless.

Pásztor was suspended by Hungary’s national police chief only a few hours after he made his views on the subject known. Equally speedy was the reaction of the local politicians, including the MSZP mayor and the local SZDSZ caucus, who came out in defense of Pásztor. The overly rapid response of the Gyurcsány government backfired, and the minister of justice had to reinstate Pásztor.

Some people date the growth of Fidesz/Jobbik supporters in Miskolc from that incident. According to estimates, 65-70% of the electorate in Miskolc today would vote for either Fidesz or Jobbik. Keep in mind that Miskolc was a socialist city between 1990 and 2010. People in the city who stand by Pásztor are convinced that the left can regain its predominance in the city only with him as its candidate.

In yesterday’s post I hinted at the typical reaction of Hungarians to any kind of untoward event. The reactions are immediate, pro and con and nothing in between. If we go back to 2009 and read about the Pásztor crisis it becomes clear that the government didn’t think through the possible consequences of suspending the local police chief. The government, which wholeheartedly supported the decision of the national police chief, knew very little about the political realities of Miskolc. In fact, this case is a good example of why the centralized Hungarian police structure is ineffective. If Miskolc had had its own independent police force, the national upheaval could have been averted. The socialist mayor, who obviously trusted the local police chief, could have had a talk with him and told him to apologize and tone down his remarks. Instead, the central government got into the unenviable position that they had to retreat and reinstate Pásztor.

Something similar happened this time. The local Együtt politicians endorsed Pásztor but Viktor Szigetvári and Tímea Szabó, the co-chairs in Budapest, refused Pásztor’s invitation to visit the city and talk things over. In my post written after 2009 incident I made it clear that what I thought of Pásztor’s remarks. Like most thinking people, I am convinced that integration and education are the only ways to solve the problem of the Roma minority. But integration cannot happen overnight. It took a long time in the United States to get to where we are today with the African-American minority, and we still have a very long way to go.

Most people point out that during the Kádár regime the situation of the Gypsies was a great deal better than it is today. The majority of them had jobs for which no skills were necessary. The men living in villages on Monday went to Budapest or other cities to work on construction projects or in factories and on Friday they went home to the family for the weekend. This was all very nice, but the education of Roma children was neglected and therefore when the low-paying unskilled jobs disappeared after 1990 they were left unemployed and reliant on welfare. Since then little has happened. Yes, Pásztor is definitely right on one thing. Attempts at integration have failed miserably.

I understand that the situation is especially bad in Miskolc. In today’s Galamus an article appeared written by Andrea Varga, a social worker from the city who knows the problems of the Roma colony in Miskolc. She considers herself a liberal who convincingly describes her long-standing relationship with Roma families and Roma school children. Yet she thinks that “the left made a wise decision when it supported Albert Pásztor as an independent mayoral candidate.” Why, one could ask.

Varga describes the hard times the city had to face after the factories closed.  The town never recuperated from the precipitous collapse of its economy. People are embittered, disappointed, and frustrated. The last four years of Fidesz rule only exacerbated the situation. The result, she claims, is the growth of racism. People are trying to find scapegoats, and the rather large Roma population is the first victim of their frustration and hatred. Jobbik and Fidesz with their anti-Roma policies are adding fuel to the fire. The frustrated people of Miskolc get more and more irritated by some of the loud members of the Roma subculture, and they turn against those who try to defend the Gypsies. She knows from bitter experience that it is impossible to have a reasonable conversation with these people. They don’t listen to the other side.

This is the area Andrea Varga worked as social worker Source: miskolc.hu

This is the area where Andrea Varga served as a social worker
Source: miskolc.hu

That’s why–Andrea Varga continues–Miskolc needs Pásztor, because if the parties on the left campaign there with their usual arguments the voters will neither listen to them nor vote for them. What is needed in Miskolc, she claims, is “flexibility” and a “channel of communication,” which might be Albert Pásztor. “This does not mean the abandonment of our principles, but we should opt for problem solving based on a realistic assessment of the situation.”

Now let’s see what Pásztor has to say for himself. On the whole, he stresses his commitment to democracy and promises “to talk about possible reasons for the conflicts [between Roma and non-Roma] in such a way that nobody should feel branded as a result.” But, at the same time, there is a sentence that might give us pause: “We must find out whether over and above the social situation there is something deeper and possibly revealable that the crimes that most irritate the inhabitants are primarily committed by those who are considered to be Roma.” What does he mean exactly? It would be a good idea to find out, and I’m sorry that those who oppose Pásztor refused to meet him. They just said no!

This attitude very much reminds me of what the Gyurcsány government did in 2009: they didn’t bother to investigate the situation in Miskolc. Now Együtt refuses to find what makes this person tick and what they could expect from him were he to become mayor of the city. It’s a mess. Parties draw lines in the sand, stand on moral principles to the exclusion of political realities–and lose.

The Miskolc dilemma: The left’s tainted candidate for mayor

The work of a politician is anything but easy. Pitfalls at every turn. A good example is what happened in Miskolc where the democratic opposition was looking for a promising candidate they could support to be the next mayor of the city. The local leaders of the three parties–MSZP, DK, Együtt-PM– found their man: Albert Pásztor, former police chief of the city. The central leadership of  MSZP had originally supported Gábor Simon, an MSZP member of the city council, but the locals eventually settled for Pásztor.

It was clear from the beginning that the left has to support common candidates if it is to stand a chance in the upcoming municipal elections. In Miskolc both Gábor Simon and Albert Pásztor looked like promising candidates. In order to be sure, the local democrats hired a nationally known polling firm. On the basis of a representative sample of 1,000 people it was determined that both candidates are equally popular in every voting district, including districts heavily populated by Roma. Since the Roma of Miskolc seemed to have nothing against the former police chief and since the Együtt-PM leadership made it clear that Simon was not acceptable as far as they were concerned, the locals opted for Pásztor.

Albert Pásztor announces his candidacy to be mayor of Miskolc

Albert Pásztor announces his candidacy for mayor of Miskolc

The politicians of both MSZP and DK emphasize that candidates for political office, whether in parliamentary or local elections, should be nominated by the local party leaders. They are the ones who know the mood of the electorate, the popularity of the candidates, and the local problems. MSZP in fact rarely if ever vetoes local decisions. And it did not interfere this time either, although immediately after the news of Pásztor’s nomination became known on July 1 the liberal camp raised serious objections. In fact, József Tóbiás, who is running the show in MSZP as interim chairman, told Népszabadság that even if the leadership wanted to veto Pásztor’s nomination, it couldn’t.

As far as DK is concerned, Pásztor’s candidacy was discussed at a meeting of the leadership on June 27 when there were some opposing voices, but apparently there was no formal vote on the issue. Since then both Ferenc Gyurcsány and József Debreczeni, one of the deputy chairmen of the party, have decided to stand by Pásztor. The latter’s weight is considerable in this case because he is a Miskolc resident and trusts Pásztor.

So, what is wrong with Pásztor? In order to understand the story we have to go back to the last months of the Gyurcsány administration when Albert Pásztor on January 29 held a press conference. Let me quote my own translation of what transpired:

The press conference was held in order to inform the public of the activities of the police force in the city. They investigated x number of murders, y number of thefts, z number of bank robberies, and so on. Why the police chief felt compelled to deliver a tirade against the Gypsy population of the city is a mystery to me, but he explained that one ought to tell the “truth.” And the truth is that Gypsy children were responsible for eight attacks against elderly people (purse snatchings) and against youngsters with cell phones. He wanted to warn these people to look out for those Gypsies who might attack them the next time they step out on the street. “Many of those darling little Gypsy kids become ruthless criminals.” But that wasn’t enough. He continued: “We can state with certain assurance that all the robberies committed in public places are done by Gypsies. The truth is that Hungarians [meaning non-Gypsies] will perhaps rob a bank or a gas station, but all others are committed by them [the Gypsies].”

Well, even that would have been more than American public opinion would tolerate but what followed was off the charts. In Miskolc there is a hilly area (Avas) in which there are many large apartment buildings erected during the Kádár regime. From the police chief’s speech it is clear that some Gypsy families purchased apartments in these complexes. In the police chief’s opinion “these people don’t even want to live in a place like that. They don’t have any need for such apartments. It doesn’t even occur to them that eventually the mortgage must be paid or that they will have to share with their neighbors the common expenses. It doesn’t occur to them that here they have to conduct themselves in conformity with their surroundings…. Living together with them simply doesn’t work. That’s all.” These were the closing sentences of his so-called press conference.

Without going into the details of the case, for a while it looked as if  these remarks would cost Pásztor his job, but both the MSZP mayor and all the other parties in town organized a demonstration on his behalf. In the end Tibor Draskovics, minister of justice, reinstated Pásztor. At that time Ferenc Gyurcsány said that he found Pásztor’s words “unacceptable,” but now he is much more forgiving when he stresses that “often complicated questions give birth to antithetical answers. This is the situation now in Miskolc.” To translate that into ordinary Hungarian or English, it means that in his opinion Pásztor is the only candidate who has a chance of defeating Fidesz or Jobbik. In an article published in Galamus today he stressed that he himself made mistakes and therefore one ought to be forgiving. After all, Pásztor with the exception of this one “mistake” never showed any signs of prejudice.

The problem with Gyurcsány’s position is that it stands in stark contrast not only to his attitude on the matter in 2009 but also to his usual insistence on principle. He stresses the consistency of his party. DK politicians don’t waver; they always stand by their beliefs. That is, Gyurcsány says, their strength. That’s why their followers are so loyal to the party. If the party is against giving the vote to Hungarians whose permanent address is outside of the country, then he will vote against it in parliament even if public sentiment might be for it. He is not like the socialists who make too many compromises. The problem with such consistency and such unequivocal political attitudes is that they do not allow for the flexibility that is essential in politics.

DK’s support of Pásztor will cost it dearly, I’m afraid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the party will have to abandon its support for Pásztor. But even if they do, the damage has already been done.