George Schöpflin

Viktor Orbán and Christian democracy

It was yesterday that leaders of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt/KDNP) celebrated the establishment of their party seventy years ago. Well, not exactly because three of the founding fathers remembered three different dates and none of them was September 27, 1944. In any case, sometime between October 8 and November 30 a few conservative legitimist politicians with strong ties to the Catholic Church got together to establish a “Christian party.” Before the party’s founding the blessing of the Hungarian Catholic Church was sought and received.

This original party never managed to get permission from the authorities, either before or after the occupation of Hungary by the Russians, to be officially recognized. Under the leadership of Count József Pálffy, the group was considered to be reactionary and undemocratic. In the fall of 1944, however, the leaders decided to ask a newspaperman turned politician, István Barankovics, to join them in the hope that his name would make acceptance of the party easier. Barankovics’s political ideas were more in line with modern Christian democracy of the kind that came into being in Germany after World War II.

The ideological differences between Pálffy and Barankovics led to the breakup of the party. In May of 1945 Barankovics was chosen to be leader of the newly constituted party. Instead of following a conservative-legitimist line, the party chose a a more secular (even though officially still Christian–Protestant as well as Catholic) socialist ideology as its guiding principle. I might add here that Barankovics’s ideas were condemned by the head of the Catholic Church, József Mindszenty, who tried to keep his finger on the pulse of the party through Pálffy. In May of 1945 even the old name, Christian Democratic People’s Party, was abandoned. The new party was known simply as the Democratic People’s Party (Demokratikus Néppárt/DNP).

When, in 1989, the party was revived, the new leaders chose the old name, KDNP,  instead of DNP even though DNP was the only officially recognized Christian Democratic Party in Hungary between 1945 and 1949. I believe that the choice of name is significant. Today KDNP is really a party of the Catholic Church, something its current leader, Zsolt Semjén, does not hide. A few years back, in fact, he called his own party “the political arm of the Catholic Church.”

KDNP today is no more than a club of individuals who consider themselves devout Catholics. The last time KDNP was on the ballot (2002) it received 2.59% of the votes. Even the communists (Munkáspárt) had a larger following (4.08%). Today its support is immeasurable. It exists only in name–and in parliament, with a delegation of sixteen members. These people are in effect assigned to KDNP by Fidesz so that KDNP can have a separate caucus with all the privileges that this entails.

Yesterday there was a gathering to celebrate the great day in October-November 1944. About 150 people were invited, but many did not show up. In fact, according to Origo, it almost seemed that there were more members of the press corps than of the private club. After long speeches and a documentary film came the man everybody in the room was waiting for: Viktor Orbán. His speech was short but, as vastagbor.hu noted, “he said a few funny things.” He announced, for instance, that “KDNP is a large, significant, and influential party” which “stands on the shoulders of giants.” There is a doctored short clip on YouTube in which canned laughter was injected every time Orbán said something untrue or ridiculous.

The speech lasted only 13 minutes, and most of what the prime minister said we have heard before. What was new was his lecture on Christian democracy, which he juxtaposed with liberal democracy. In his view liberal democrats are exclusionary when they claim that only liberal democracy is democracy. With that they exclude great Christian democratic statesmen like Konrad Adenauer or Robert Schuman. As far as Konrad Adenauer is concerned, it is a well known fact that his ideal was a “market-based liberal democracy.” As for Robert Schuman, Orbán likes to quote him as saying that “Europe would either be Christian or not at all,” but I could not find that exact quotation except in an article about the betrayal of Europe’s Christian roots, where the author, Gianfranco Morra, wrote the following: “Konrad Adenuaer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman … drew from religious faith, professed and lived, and from their political commitment to a common conviction: that only Christianity could be the cement for the European Union. Europe and Christianity are an inseparable pairing. With the same understanding as Leo XIII, they affirmed that Europe and Democracy would either be Christian or not at all. Schumann wrote: ‘All the countries of Europe are imbued with Christian civilization. This is the soul of Europe, it must be reborn’.” It seems that the words the prime minister quoted are Morra’s, not Schuman’s.

Orban KDNP

After Orbán’s catastrophic speech about “illiberal democracy” he has been trying to explain his words away. Both he and some of his followers initially claimed that he was just talking about economic neo-liberalism, but this explanation, given the context, was untenable. George Schöpflin, the academic who usually comes to the regime’s rescue, offered another interpretation in the course of answering questions posed to him by HVG:

Liberal democracy is a particular variant of democracy, albeit in the most recent period it has sought to establish a hegemony. Other possible forms of democracy – Christian Democracy, Social Democracy, Conservatism – have been increasingly marginalized. This further means that what we call “Liberal democracy” these days, or indeed calls itself, has moved away qualitatively from the concept of liberalism defined by the founding fathers.

Finally, Orbán stated that “we are a government based on Christian democratic foundations. We govern in Christian democratic spirit in the interest of all Hungarians.” There is nothing shameful, he said, about what’s going on in Hungary. Indeed, it is not a liberal democracy but a very respectable Christian democracy. There are two problems with this claim. One is that Christian democracy, although conservative on social issues, is no enemy of liberal ideals like autonomy of the individual, civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority. Second, everybody knows that Orbán’s system has nothing to do with Christian democracy. In fact, very soon it will have nothing to do with democracy in any shape or form.

Anti-American voices after the reactions to Viktor Orbán’s speech

As promised, today I will write a few words about the worsening U.S.-Hungarian relations, not that they have been all that good over the last few years. Magyar Nemzet, the flagship of the Fidesz media empire, has been publishing one vitriolic editorial after the other. The same is true of Magyar Hírlap and the television stations HírTV and EchoTV. The attack is two-pronged. On the one hand, they accuse the United States of interference in the affairs of other countries and, on the other, they charge the U.S. with uncritical support of Israel all the while unjustly accusing Hungary of anti-Semitism.

Here I have selected three articles to give a sense of recent anti-American sentiment among the Hungarian right. Two of the authors work for Magyar Nemzet. They are Tamás Fricz, who is a regular contributor, and István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels. The latter’s “Open Letter to the Chargé of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest” actually appeared on a far-right internet portal Flag Magazin. Both pieces were republished on nemzeti.netwhich aggregates articles from hundreds of far-right online publications. It is a treasure trove for those interested in the activities of the Hungarian far right. The third article appeared in Magyar Hírlap and is from Zsolt Bayer, about whom I wrote several times. His targets are liberals, the foreign press, Jews, and anyone who criticizes the Hungarian government–for example, Ulrike Lunacek, an MEP from Austria. In comparison to some of his other writings this particular piece is tame.

I haven’t said much about István Lovas in the past and I will not have time to do so today. I will say only that he is one of the most unsavory characters in the Hungarian right-wing media, and that is something. Although he has some Jewish ancestors, he is a vicious anti-Semite. His open letter to André Goodfriend was occasioned by the visit of  Ira Forman, who was  appointed by John Kerry to be U.S. Special Envoy of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

Forman gave an interview to MTI, the Hungarian news agency, on July 21 in which among other things he talked about the unfortunate situation that developed over the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust and the memorial the Orbán government insisted on erecting despite strong opposition from Jewish and non-Jewish groups. He stressed that this is not only his personal opinion but also that of the U.S. government. Forman talked about the growing anti-Semitism in Europe ever since the beginning of the 21st century, especially in countries with large Muslim populations. But, he added, in Hungary “there is another kind, the classical 19th and 20th century Nazi type of anti-Semitism.”  And since there is a fairly large Jewish presence in Hungary, his office follows the situation closely.

One can quibble about the accuracy of this statement. After all, we cannot talk about a Nazi type of anti-Semitism in the nineteenth century. Perhaps “political anti-Semitism” might have been a better choice of words. And one might argue that Forman’s description of the Hungarian situation is far too general. But we can definitely say that the Hungarian far right’s political views bear a suspicious resemblance to those of German national socialism. And that the far right is represented in the Hungarian parliament.

It was a few days after this interview that Lovas decided to attack André Goodfriend, who is currently heading the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.  He charged that the embassy is the only one “in the whole world” whose chief activity is “the struggle against anti-Semitism.” Instead of concentrating on Hungary, the U.S. government should worry about the “death of Palestinian infants, children, women, nurses, and doctors.” He described the situation in Gaza as a “massacre.” Then follows a very long list of anti-Semitic incidents in various European countries. At the end he returns to the person of the American diplomat. Without telling the reader what terrible sin André Goodfriend personally committed, he asks him what he is afraid of. “To tell the truth?” And obviously this truth is the reason “why all U.S. embassies must be barricaded and surrounded by guards.” As time goes by they will need more and more barricades and guards.

Tamás Fricz, to the shame of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is a senior researcher at its Institute of Political Science. He also teaches political science at the University of Miskolc. Interestingly enough, he didn’t major in political science but received a degree in finance and accounting not at a university but at a three-year college. After graduation he enrolled at ELTE but, again, not as a student of political science but of philosophy (1985-1989). In the 1990s he received a doctorate, a title that no longer exists, from the University of Economics, today called Corvinus, but in what field it is hard to tell. That doctorate was then automatically morphed into a Ph.D.

He wrote his anti-American article after the condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s speech by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Fricz opines that The New York Times‘s editorial pretty well reflects the views of the American government. How do they dare call on the European Union to reduce EU subsidies to Hungary or take away her voting rights? “We are amazed.” What would happen if the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Le Figaro demanded sanctions from the president against one of the states, he asks? Perhaps the United States should ask for membership in the European Union and pay the contributions member states of the EU have to pay.

Fricz continues his harangue against the United States by pointing to its military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States’s fight against Taliban “terrorism” led nowhere. The same thing happened in Iraq where “they introduced democracy” and the only result is that there is now total chaos in the country. He explains that “free elections, human rights, rights of citizens in themselves are not enough for the establishment of real democracy. Cultural, historical, societal, religious preconditions must be present for the establishment of democracy and we must declare that these preconditions are stronger than the institutional prerequisites.” How true! What Fricz does not seem to recognize is that he just condemned his own country as one of those lands where these preconditions of democracy don’t exist. I doubt that he thought this through.

Fricz and Bayer

Zsolt Bayer’s piece is just as primitive as the others. Bayer is one of the 37 founders of Fidesz. At the time he was a student of Hungarian literature and history at ELTE. He likes to show off his vast knowledge of history, literature, and philosophy. He is a name dropper. In his “Open letter to the New York Times” he starts off with Nietzsche and finishes with Ortega y Gasset, to which he adds: “It was Ortega who wrote these lines. I don’t suppose you [the editors of The New York Times] understand them.”

The gist of the piece is how much better Hungarians are than Americans. Because they did not start wars “under false pretexts”; they did not ignore the verdicts of international organizations; they did not legalize torture; they did not hold prisoners in Guantanamo; they don’t spy on other people, including their allies; and finally the Hungarian head of state does not have the right “to liquidate people” without consulting with the judiciary as the American president has. I assume Bayer is referring here to a speech by Attorney General Eric Holder at Northwest University in 2012, I believe in connection with American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki.

The Ortega quotation is amusing because it has nothing to do with Orbán’s lecture on “illiberalism.” Ortega is considered to be a “liberal philosopher” and therefore it is hard to believe that he thought that “liberals … were old-fashioned people who marched under faded flags.” The quotation is most likely taken out of context because the portion Bayer quotes begins: “Why are they satisfied with the repetition of ready-made ideas?” Moreover, these old-fashioned people can be either liberals or reactionaries. So, clearly, Ortega is talking about non-thinking people in general.

This is how the open letter ends: “Your obese society is marching under the faded flag of liberalism. Without a thought, pitifully. But you must understand one thing: you have no right to interject yourselves into the affairs of other societies and their future. Is that clear?”

In case you think that one ought not to pay much attention to these lunatics, consider the opinion of a man who in his former life was a respected British scholar and who subsequently became the refined voice of Viktor Orbán in the European Parliament–George Schöpflin. This is what he had to say about the possible effects of the Orbán speech: “it might even be that a decade from now the Bǎile Tuşnad speech will be referred to as the audacious and courageous forerunner of necessary change. Of course, it could be that it will not be. But in that case, democracy will be in trouble.”

With friends like these, democracy needs no enemies.

Viktor Orbán’s bad billing: From the World Jewish Congress to the European Parliament

Before I turn to the topic of today’s post I would like to call everybody’s attention to several documents that are now available in English concerning the latest amendments to the Hungarian Constitution. The first is the draft report of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (Rapporteur: Rui Tavares) on Hungary. This is the report that was the basis of today’s debate in the European Parliament’s LIBE Committe. The transcript of the debate is not yet available but let’s hope that it will be soon. You have to keep in mind that the European People’s Party (EPP), to which Fidesz belongs, has the majority. If the EPP delegation solidly supports Orbán, nothing will happen.

The discussion of the draft report already began in the Hungarian media. Magyar Nemzet described it as a “left-liberal ultimatum” and George Schöpflin, Fidesz EP MP, found the document “humiliating.” Népszabadság simply recounted the demands outlined in the document and came to the conclusion that, if accepted, the Hungarian government will be forced to withdraw practically all of the amendments.

Another document, also in English, can be found on the website of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. It is an analysis written by three legal scholars who were asked by János Martonyi  to give their opinions on the fourth amendment to the constitution. The three scholars were Francis Delpérée, Pierre Delvolvé, and Eivind Smith. These are conservative legal scholars, and the Hungarian government hoped that they would fully support the Hungarian point of view. As you can see, this was not the case. They also found plenty to criticize.

tvlistings.zap2it.com

tvlistings.zap2it.com

And now let’s look at some reactions to Viktor Orbán’s speech at the World Jewish Conference. The speech is now available in English. Commentators critical of Viktor Orbán and his government found the speech no more than empty rhetoric while Magyar Nemzet not only praised his speech but also reported that yesterday Ronald Lauder apologized to Viktor Orbán because he was unaware of the Orbán interview that appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth, a Tel Aviv daily. In it, Orbán admitted that Jobbik poses a real danger. “We in Hungary must be especially careful to act as categorically as possible against this phenomenon. If we want to protect democracy, we must take a firm stand against Jobbik. Jobbik has developed a political ideology that quite obviously violates the human rights of Jews at both an individual and community level.” Well, I don’t think that Lauder had to apologize. It was easy for Orbán to say something specific about Jobbik in a Hebrew-language paper published in Israel. He was reluctant, however, to say a word about Jobbik in Hungarian in Budapest.

The foreign press was pretty hard on Orbán. According to Die Welt, Orbán’s words were only “half-hearted” and he refused to talk about any “tangible measures” he is contemplating to curb anti-Semitism in Hungary. The applause at the end of the speech “remained polite.” According to James Kirchick in Spiegel InternationalOrbán whitewashed anti-Semitism. “Orbán’s speech was notable more for what it left out than what it said.”

The reporter for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote that Orbán tried to minimize the problem in Hungary by pointing to the rest of Europe. The Austrian Der Standard carried an editorial by Eric Frey that was a strongly worded indictment of Orbán’s speech. Even the title was telling: “Anti-Semitism in Hungary: Orbán’s subtle complicity.” Frey argued that Orbán “plays on the same chauvinistic and xenophobic keyboard as the anti-Semites and gives them backing.” Frey extended his criticism by maintaining that “anti-Semitism is only one component–and certainly not the biggest–of the undemocratic, bigoted and anti-European masonry Orbán has built to secure his power for years to come.”

Naturally, everybody is waiting to see what will follow Orbán’s condemnation of anti-Semitism in general terms. Will they remove the name of the anti-Semitic Bishop Ottokár Prohászka from the streets and pack away his statues? Will they stop the ever-growing Horthy cult and direct local communities to get rid of the statues of Admiral Miklós Horthy? Personally, I very much doubt it.

There was, however, one interesting development yesterday. During the last three years it rarely happened that an MSZP suggestion to table a parliamentary discussion was ever accepted by the Fidesz majority. But, behold, yesterday it happened. MSZP suggested that the Hungarian government should make it possible for every Hungarian student to visit Auschwitz at least once. Earlier that proposal was voted down by the Fidesz caucus. Yesterday, however, Zoltán Pokorni, the chairman of the committee on education, announced that the government party would reconsider the proposal as long as such a trip would not be compulsory for the schools. It would only be a possibility.

Well, this isn’t much, but it is something. Although one can very well imagine that certain principals will simply refuse to participate in such a program. Even if it’s free.

Tomorrow will be a fateful day as far as Hungarian-European Union relations are concerned. One crisis after the next, but apparently the Hungarian prime minister thrives in such an atmosphere. So for a while he will be in his element. After this hurdle will come the question of the excessive deficit procedure. The Hungarian government is preparing for the worst.