hungarian society

István Hiller on restructuring the Hungarian Socialist Party

Doomsayers are already predicting the demise of social democracy in Hungary. According to their argument, the socialists will disappear just as SZDSZ vanished because Hungarian society has no appetite for anything that is associated with the left.

A party may disappear, but the political philosophy behind it certainly will not. SZDSZ as a party is no more, but the liberal idea is alive. It lives on in Együtt-PM, in DK, and, yes, to a certain extent in MSZP. Anyone who wants to throw the very ideas of social democracy and liberalism out the window and who claims that their disappearance will be good for Hungarian society is gravely mistaken. (One of these Cassandras suggests in a comment on this blog that LMP should be the major political force because, in his opinion, it is a centrist party. The fact is that LMP is more leftist than MSZP ever was.) If we send the representatives of social democracy and liberalism packing, we are going to have “national unity” of the worst kind, unity built on single-party autocratic rule.

I believe that both social democracy and liberalism will survive, just as they have survived in most European countries. Of course, the farther east we go the less weighty is their presence. That’s why Péter Pető of Népszabadság is very wrong when he assumes that the underdevelopment of the Hungarian countryside and its uneducated population does not matter. Yes, it does matter. He is also wrong when he minimizes the obstacles built into the electoral system devised by Fidesz. Yes, Fidesz would have won but not the way it did, and today we wouldn’t be talking about the demise of the Hungarian left.

After this brief detour, I would like to return to István Hiller’s recommendations for restructuring MSZP. Before he became a politician Hiller was an associate professor of history at ELTE, where he had the reputation of being an excellent lecturer. Although one of the young Turks in MSZP, Tamás Harangozó, included Hiller in the older generation of “aunts and uncles” (bácsik és nénik), he is in fact only 49 years old. When he became one of the founders of MSZP he was 25.

In the last election Hiller won his district (Pesterzsébet and Kispest) handsomely. As I learned from this interview with him in Népszava, he always insisted on being an individual candidate even when as party chairman he needed special permission from the party to do so. He won in 2002 and 2006 and  now again, in 2014. It is likely that the party will designate him one of the deputy presidents of parliament.

How does Hiller see the party’s situation? “Those people are right who call attention to the electoral law, the restricted possibilities of the opposition to be heard, and the uneven playing field. But those who stop here and make excuses don’t really want the rebuilding of the left…. I believe that the Hungarian left didn’t understand, didn’t digest the shocking changes that Hungarian society underwent in the last five years. Some of the multitudes who live in poverty most likely voted for MSZP in the past. These people hate the present government, but they didn’t choose us but the far right. These people are not extremists, their situation is extreme.”  Thus the party should concentrate on the poorest segments of society.

Some of Hiller’s ideas echo those of Ildikó Lendvai but with a twist. For example, “one cannot blame the left-liberal side for defending democracy and democratic rights, but one must know where to say what.” It is useless to talk about the fine points of democracy in a God-forsaken, poverty-stricken village in the countryside.

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Hiller admitted that his colleagues don’t get what he is talking about. “They don’t reject [my ideas], but for the time being they don’t quite understand what I want. But I’m accustomed to fighting. What I want is the complete rebuilding of the Hungarian left. It is not enough to climb out of the hole. It is not enough to get from minus to zero. I have higher goals.”

Another similarity between the thoughts of Lendvai and Hiller is that Hiller also believes that there is something very wrong with Hungarian politics altogether. He specifically talked about the divisiveness that exists in Hungarian society. As Sándor Csányi, CEO of the largest Hungarian bank OTP, said, this divisiveness has become an impediment to economic competitiveness. “We must change our whole political culture.”

Hiller is, of course, most concerned with restructuring the left. He offered some specific proposals.  He would concentrate on “internal structure” and “communication.” When it comes to changing the internal structure of the party, he would use local self-governments as the basis of the party structure. “This is what I’m trying to convince my colleagues of.” According to him, the party should concentrate on micro-communities. “We should reconstruct our organizational model based on the municipalities.” The party bigwigs, however, don’t cherish the idea of shifting the focus of decision-making away from the center.

Finally, Hiller echoes Lendvai’s ideas about a social democratic network. The next three years should be spent moving the focal point from the center to the 3,000-some municipalities. Every village should have at least one party member or sympathizer who can help build the network that would cover the whole country. He ended the interview by saying that he will share his ideas with the party and with the public as well. He knows that it will be difficult to change, but without change there can be no renewal and reconstruction.

Lending a helping hand: How sick is Hungarian society?

A few days ago I read in the news that an employee of MÁV, the Hungarian State Railways, had died. At first blush one would think that this piece of news would not be of general interest, that it would properly belong among the obituaries.

The real news was not the man’s death but how he died. For sixteen hours he lay in a rest area on MÁV property, alive but obviously very sick. Two of his co-workers saw him but did nothing. They assumed he was drunk. They locked up for the night and went home, leaving him behind. A few hours later a third  man found him. He realized that the man was not drunk; he had had a stroke. A day later the man died in the hospital. MÁV is investigating.

I found this report very disturbing.  How could it happen that two men would leave their co-worker lying unconscious, whatever the cause of his state, and go about their business all day long without paying the slightest attention to the man lying a few feet away from them?

But what really made me reflect on the callousness that seems to be a hallmark of Hungarian society today is a story that broke two days ago. A totally naked man who was staying with his wife or girlfriend in a hotel on Rákóczi Street in Budapest either jumped or fell out of the window of his room. Traffic immediately stopped and a crowd of about 100 people gathered around the man, who was covered with blood. He was still breathing. There was only one man who rushed to his aid, Gábor Ferenczi, who left the bus on which he was traveling. In desperation he asked people gathering around the man to help, at least to get a blanket to cover the naked body. No one moved. In fact, some people laughed. So, the half dead man was lying there naked while onlookers were taking pictures of him. Eventually one woman moved, but she could offer only a  piece of Kleenex.

helping handsEventually a policeman showed up. His first question was whether they had called the police. Eventually he requested an ambulance which, after considerable delay, arrived. After a while someone showed up from the hotel with a blanket.

After the ambulance arrived Ferenczi went into the hotel to wash the blood off his hands. When he returned, he found a woman next to the body who seemed to have been the dead man’s companion. The treatment of  the woman by the police and the ambulance team, at least according to Ferenczi, was heartless. “Okay, and who are you? What was the name of the dead man? Where are his papers? And yours?”  Ferenczi asked one of the men from the ambulance to assist her back to the hotel but the only answer he got was: “Why?” So, Ferenczi himself helped her into the hotel and led her to the elevator. (I assume the police didn’t consider the room a potential crime scene.)

Not surprisingly, our Good Samaritan was badly shaken and couldn’t sleep. He phoned the ambulatory service and asked for advice. He was told “to drink a glass of something strong and go to a psychiatrist soon.” Ferenczi decided to talk about his experiences because he was so shaken, not just by the sight of a bloodsoaked naked body and the death of someone in his own arms but also by the behavior of the bystanders. After the death of the man was announced, one of the onlookers told him “the duck is dead, so it was in vain.” Ferenczi was outraged: “Is this man really a human being, or just something that walks on two legs?”

The story published in Origo elicited an incredible number of comments. The last time I looked, around 500. I picked a few noteworthy ones. One commenter insisted that “mankind is like that. There are some who help, while others laugh.” He found the reaction natural. Most people didn’t agree with him; there were far more damning comments than approving ones. Many came up with their own stories. One recalled that two months ago a girl on a bicycle was hit by a car “but we went to her although it was an awful sight. Thank God she survived. Twenty years ago a girl died in similar circumstances in my arms. I would spit into my own face if I were so cowardly that I would not offer help in circumstances like that.”

One woman told her own story. When she was 12 years old, a man grabbed her about 50 meters from her house in the outskirts of Budapest and 15 meters from the bus stop.”I screamed, yelled, kicked. The people waiting at the bus stop looked but then turned their heads and kept standing there. I’m now 50 but I still remember their faces.”

Another commenter told his story. A woman with a little girl and a teenage boy were crossing the road. Suddenly the boy collapsed in the middle of the road. The little girl cried, the woman screamed for help, but no one responded. People were standing on both sides of the street but no one moved. Eventually it was the commenter who carried the boy to the nearby hospital. He still remembers the anger and shame he felt at the behavior of those people.

Another person told of an experiment that took place a couple of months ago. Someone placed a toy baby in an abandoned baby carriage. The toy baby made realistic crying sounds. Out of ten people who went by the baby carriage only two stopped. One actually called the police, but another, a lawyer, announced that he had no intention of stopping: after all, “they could charge me with kidnapping.”

Someone commented that it had to be “the dregs of society” at the scene. To which another person replied laconically, “No, they are not. This is the norm.”

Holding a mirror to the Hungarian public: The key to Viktor Orbán’s success

A few hours ago I received two suggestions for discussion. Both are fascinating. The one I decided to take up today is actually not a new survey, but the current political situation makes it relevant.

We keep asking how it could happen that in record time Viktor Orbán and his willing subordinates managed to introduce a political system that turns its back on democratic values. There is nothing surprising about this, says the blogger who returned to this older survey. “The current political structure is the product of societal attitudes, and it can flourish because Hungarian society desires the kind of political elite Fidesz provides. Viktor Orbán is popular because he is the embodiment of the value system of the majority.” That includes “corruption, a strong state, and a leader of unlimited powers.” This sounds terrifying, but a 2009 survey conducted by Tárki supports this claim.

I would like to refer back to the piece I wrote (“Value structure of Hungarian society, 2009“) on October 13, 2009, right after the results of the survey were released. It was the usual short post in which not everything can be mentioned. Moreover, our blogger Anonymus looks at the survey from the perspective of 2013, which naturally I couldn’t have done in 2009 when Viktor Orbán hadn’t yet started his “renewal of Hungary” program with a two-thirds majority behind him.

But in order to get the background you ought to read my short 2009 post. Here I will mention only those details that I did not touch on, including a Pew Research Center study, also from 2009.

Distorting mirror / flickr

Distorting mirror / flickr

We are surprised that all the cases of corruption that surface day after day do not seem to bother the majority of the people. It’s enough to mention the tobacconist shop concessions or the leasing of valuable agricultural lands to politicians’ relatives and friends or political supporters. And yet people are not up in arms. Why would they be, asks Anonymus, when Hungarians even by East European standards are very forgiving when it comes to corruption. In 2009 42% of them found it acceptable to cheat on their income taxes as opposed to 30% of the Poles and 18% of the Czechs. Two-thirds of the population think that “although they themselves are honest and law abiding, the others are not.” They assume that this is simply how things are, and they can live with it.

Then there is the Orbán government’s total lack of sympathy for the poor, the disabled, the disadvantaged. For example, members of the government defend the grotesque idea that in order for poor families who cannot afford to bury their dead to receive some financial assistance they have to help prepare the body for burial, dig the grave, and carry the coffin. In general, according to the 2009 survey, Hungary does not excel in giving assistance to the sick, the disabled, the elderly, neighbors, or immigrants. In fact, in this respect Hungary ended up last in the Union.

According to another survey by the Pew Research Center dealing with the post-communist countries, Hungarians were certain in 2009 that they were economically worse off than they had been under communism. In Hungary 72% of the people considered themselves poorer than they were before 1990, as compared to Slovakia with 48% or Poland with 35%.  And when it comes to the Hungarian attitude toward democracy it is nothing to boast about. While in the Czech Republic 80%, in Slovakia 71%, and in Poland 70% of the respondents approved of democracy, in Hungary the number was only 56%. Just for comparison: Lithuania came in at 55%, Russia 53%, Bulgaria 52%, and Ukraine 30%. Hungarians’ attitude toward capitalism is again the most antagonistic in Eastern Europe. If we compare the sentiments in 1991 and in 2009 we find that enthusiasm waned in all countries studied, but the largest drop (from 80% to 46%) occurred in Hungary.

A working group put up a video based on the Tárki study.

It’s fun to watch it even if one doesn’t understand everything. Basically, the story is that  countries such as Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria thrive because people there believe that everybody has the opportunity to succeed, they believe in themselves and in their future, they consider hard work important, they appreciate knowledge, they trust each other and their institutions. “So, if you want to change the world, change yourself.”

While Viktor Orbán wants a strong, successful Hungary, he is reinforcing the worst instincts of the majority of Hungarians. Exactly those qualities that retard the kinds of changes that could make Hungary successful. “Összezavarodott magyarok” (confused Hungarians), says the blog’s link. Indeed. The confusion is also in Viktor Orbán’s head.

Introducing religion as part of the curriculum in Hungarian public schools

A few days ago I noticed a new attempt by the Christian Democratic People’s party (KDNP) to shove religious education down the throats of a basically secular Hungarian society. As things stand now, the law on public education stipulates that all schools must offer both religion and ethics classes. KDNP suggests that “under certain circumstances” schools belonging to the state but run by the churches can offer only religion.

Zsolt Semjén, the chairman of KDNP, makes no secret of the fact that his party is the political arm of the Catholic Church. Since the number of practicing Catholics is diminishing, the Church is trying to find new recruits among the young. I found a Catholic website dealing with the subject of  teaching religion in schools where they state that religion classes in state and municipal schools are part of the church’s “missionary activities.” The same website also stresses that the Catholic Church finds the teaching of religion especially important in kindergarten because “at this age the children are very impressionable.”

Religion class / Népszava Archív

An energetic priest, bored students / Religion class –Népszava Archív

Personally, I’m dead set against teaching religion in schools. I’m also against maintaining “parochial schools” at the taxpayers’ expense. If any religious organization–Catholic, Protestant or Jewish–wants to get involved in the education of children, they should do so from their own resources and from tuition fees. I’d wager to say that the current enthusiasm for parochial schools in Hungary would wane if parents had to pay for the privilege of sending their children there. I am also a great believer in secular education. If parents want to bring up their children according to the precepts of one of the organized religions they can do so in the parish to which they belong.

Unfortunately, during the right-of-center government of József Antall the parliamentary majority made a “compromise” arrangement. Religion classes were held after official school hours but in the school building. It was an arrangement I didn’t like then and still don’t like. But now even this arrangement is not enough for the zealots who are running the country. The government insists that everybody should take either ethics or religion as part of the regular public school curriculum.

Let me tell you my experiences with “religion” when it was taught in Hungarian schools. I took religion for eight solid years and don’t remember a single thing that was useful or enlightening. Instead, we were taught to hate the Catholics, who worship idols. Impressionable as I was early on, I used to tease my younger cousin who was Catholic about her idols.

As for the separation of church and state, I spent my first four years in a state school. Great was my surprise when on the first day of school the whole student body was herded into the closest Catholic Church for mass. They never asked the religion of the children. Since I had never been in a church before, I had not the foggiest idea what was going on.

Then came the other surprise. The religion class. I knew that I was supposed to identify myself as a Calvinist. Since there were very few of us, our class was held after hours. While in ordinary classes the girls and boys were separated, in religion the class was mixed: both boys and girls attended. There were maybe five or six of us. One of my vivid memories from those days was that the first “kind” minister who taught us religion regularly caned the boys. From grade five on a nicer minister taught us but the quality of religious education didn’t improve. By grade seven a revolutionary change occurred: we had a woman teacher. Aside from her sex the same old practice continued.

I was even confirmed. Our preparation for confirmation consisted of memorizing passages from the Bible. The grand finale was a public examination. Each of us was called on to recite a long passage from the New Testament. To the horror of the family who gathered for the occasion I got stuck in the middle of the story of John the Baptist. No prodding helped.

That was my last encounter with the Hungarian Reformed Church. In grade eight I announced that there was no way I would ever cross the threshold of a church again. I guess my parents weren’t exactly heartbroken. It seems that in fact I liberated them. As far as I know neither of them ever attended church again. So, the Hungarian Reformed Church’s missionary work certainly wasn’t successful in my case.

My feeling is that the quality of  the new religious classes will be just as poor, if not poorer than those of my childhood. After all, in those days religion was a compulsory subject in every school and the churches had extensive experience teaching the subject. In addition, the number of schools was relatively small in comparison to the situation today. There were also more priests and ministers. Now there are more children, more schools, and fewer priests and ministers.

Aside from the quality of the teaching there are more substantive worries about the introduction of religion as a regular part of the curriculum. Critics of the law point out that, depending on the school administration’s ideological views, parents who opt for their children to take ethics instead of religion might find that their children are discriminated against in school. Moreover, the new constitution specifies that an individual has the right to keep his religious beliefs private. Requiring parents to choose encroaches upon this right. Moreover, the schools will send a list of children to be enrolled in religion classes to the churches. Admittedly, the churches ought to know how many children they will have to deal with. But the law says nothing about how long these lists can be kept and what they can be used for besides keeping tab on the number of students requiring religious education.

Knowing something about the Bible and world religions is important. “Hittan,” by contrast, as the Hungarians call it, is useless. “Hit” in Hungarian means “faith.” “Tan” “subject, class.” One cannot learn faith! It is impossible.

Psychology and politics: Two studies

Today I would like to summarize two articles on Viktor Orbán and his political strategy.  One was written in July 2012 and appeared in Élet és Irodalom, unfortunately available only to subscribers. The author, András Bruck, spent the bulk of his lengthy article on the psychology of Viktor Orbán and came to the conclusion that “he betrayed not only his own past but also that of his parents.” Bruck fears “that for this betrayal, for his own conflict ridden soul, we, the whole country, are paying dearly.”

While Bruck tries to discover the inner workings of Orbán’s psyche, Kristóf Varga, a political analyst and a psychologist, attempts to interpret the psyche of the Hungarian people. He comes to the conclusion that Viktor Orbán found the key to the wishes and desires of Hungarians. His policies that on the surface make no sense in fact speak to the “anxiety” of Hungarian society, a state that was induced by the uncertainties of life after 1990.

For Bruck it is Viktor Orbán’s insatiable appetite for power that moves him. Orbán realized that he can establish absolute power, even a dictatorship, only if he turns segments of society against each other. Earlier he concentrated on the dividing line between the left and the right, but by now he is turning judges against judges, teachers against children, children against their parents. This way, claims Bruck, society’s connecting fabric will be completely destroyed and the road will be open to a dictatorship.

Varga is also aware of Orbán’s pathological attitude toward power, but he puts the emphasis on Orbán’s recognition of society’s expectations. Many Hungarians live in a state of constant anxiety because of the uncertainties of the world that followed what was a secure life in the Kádár regime. In 1989-1990 came capitalism, democracy, and globalization, all at once. This new world was about individual responsibility, competition, and the well deserved results of competition. The Hungarian people were not ready for such a leap. Their answer was to escape from reality.

Anxiety by Joana Roja / Flickr

Anxiety by Joana Roja / Flickr

Many of us are prone to think when we encounter true believers that these people are under some kind of a spell. That their sense of reality is warped by some magic propaganda whose secret is known only to the leader of Fidesz and his small coterie. But, continues Varga, magic propaganda potions are only temporary. A smaller paycheck will not look bigger for long. The success of Fidesz, he argues, lies in “the presentation and transmission of  a behavior that helps the people cope with the anxiety that has been gripping a large segment of Hungarian society in the last twenty years.”

Post-1990 Hungarian politics discovered how to handle that anxiety. The strategy was “the establishment of a soft democracy.” You may recall that the later Kádár years are often described as “soft dictatorship,” which meant a regime that made life even in a one-party dictatorship bearable. Politicians realized that a rapid move to full-fledged “hard democracy” with its emphasis on individual responsibility, competition, and globalization might lead to social instability. Moreover, the immediate introduction of “hard democracy” would have endangered the position of the intellectual and political elite.

All parties adjusted their policies to this reality, but it was Fidesz that perfected the strategy of “soft democracy” by creating a closed community and offering membership in that community to all. The leadership of that community denied the necessity of competition, globalization, even the rule of law. They aroused a fury against the Hungarian reality, resulting in their landslide victory in 2010.

The reason for the hatred of the Gyurcsány era was Ferenc Gyurcsány’s insistence on precisely those “virtues” a large number of Hungarians were reluctant to embrace: individual responsibility, global integration, the necessity of competition, and meritocracy. He escalated tensions even as he was unable to carry out the necessary reforms that would have established a “hard democracy.” Fidesz, on the other hand, promised a world without tensions and thus without anxiety.

Orbán is trying to shield Hungarians from competition and globalization by turning against the very institutions that provide the critical ingredients of modern global capitalism. As Varga puts it, like Jim Jones who took his followers to the jungles of Guyana, “Orbán took his own people to the forest of HirTV, EchoTV, Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hírlap, Heti Válasz, Helyi Téma, M1, M2, Duna TV, Kossuth and Petőfi Radios, MTI, Láncrádió, media outlets that hermetically seal off anything that might remind his followers of the threatening outside world.” Here Orbán and his closest associates are building a world that doesn’t exist while their followers are desperately trying to believe that the picture they receive from above is both real and promising.

The relationship of the individual to a therapeutic community is always irrational. Its members often support the cause even if it means going against their own interests. Also, the cult of personality is such that the individual follower can readily explain the inconsistencies that can be uncovered daily in the leader’s announcements. Moreover, the Fidesz true believers have no difficult reconciling their own tax evasion with their complaints about the rich who put their money in Swiss banks. They can easily vote against a 300 forint co-pay and at the same time give thousands to doctors in white envelopes.

“The anxiety-ridden people were not shocked–or more properly frightened–because Gyurcsány lied in his speech at Őszöd but because he admitted his lie.” The mutual lying–between the politicians and the people–was something they were used to and therefore were comfortable with. New rules totally alien to them were unacceptable.

Varga is optimistic that sooner or later the true believers will recognize that hiding in a forest that takes them away from the real world is no solution. First of all, Hungary cannot be hermetically closed off from the outside world and therefore even if Orbán has ideas about introducing a full-fledged dictatorship, it cannot be realized. Second, sooner or later the economic problems will be too daunting to paper over with communication tricks. And third, the anxiety that Orbán’s strategy was supposed to alleviate is in fact greater today than ever. The presumed remedy has failed.

Bruck, on the other hand, calls the present system a “pre-classic dictatorship.” He is certain that if it depended on Viktor Orbán he would introduce a full-fledged one. For such a move Orbán would have to take Hungary out of the European Union. Bruck thinks that this is not an impossible proposition. He predicted last summer that Orbán was preparing the ground for such a move.

Well, here I really can’t agree with Bruck. Yes, Viktor Orbán would love to get out of the uncomfortable embrace of the European Union, but after failing in his attempt to get financial backing from the East he cannot. Since Bruck’s article was written, we have seen a desperate effort to secure cohesion funds and other subsidies from the EU without which the Hungarian economy would collapse.

So, all in all, if Varga’s prediction about the disillusionment of the faithful if true and if I’m right that Orbán, whether he likes it or not, can’t jettison Hungary’s EU membership, I think we’ll see a growing weakening of the Orbán regime. It is up to the opposition forces to take advantage of this development.