Ildikó Lendvai’s thoughts on the election campaign

I have not talked about Ildikó Lendvai for a long time. I don’t even know how that happened because she has been one of the most important politicians in MSZP; between 2009 and 2010 she was actually the party chairman. But she really made a name for herself as the leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation between 2002 and 2009. Moreover, this was the job that she enjoyed most during her long and distinguished career.

It is also surprising that I didn’t devote more than one longer post to Lendvai because I personally think very highly of her. I know that a lot of people wouldn’t agree with me because they consider her one of those socialist leftovers from MSZMP.  They say that she should have retired a long time ago and should have let fresh faces take over. But who can match Lendvai’s wit and way with words? Well, Lendvai herself decided not to run again, although for twelve years she was elected with an overwhelming majority in her electoral district of  Budafok-Tétény.

One thing I like about Ildikó Lendvai is her honesty. She doesn’t hide the fact that for a number of years she worked first for the Central Committee of KISZ, the socialist youth movement, and later for the Central Committee of MSZMP.  The Central Committee had a very large staff with several departments and Lendvai worked for the department of science, education, and culture. I might mention that László Kövér also worked for the Central Committee of MSZMP as a researcher in the department dealing with youth. But, as we know, Kövér is a hero of anti-communism while Lendvai is labelled a vicious censor. She was a member of the party between 1984 and 1989 but, as opposed to many others, doesn’t try to hide any of her biographical data.

Within MSZP she is in the liberal wing of the party, somewhere close to those who later formed the Demokratikus Koalíció. Her opinions are similar to those of DK politicians on many issues, including the closest and speediest cooperation between the opposition forces. Although she doesn’t openly criticize either Együtt 2014-PM or MSZP, I suspect she cannot be too happy with all the foot dragging and fighting over who the prime minister ought to be.

In any case, today Ildikó Lendvai wrote her first longer editorial about the next election. She often publishes in Galamus, usually vignettes from parliamentary debates in which she points out the low level of the exchanges and the completely meaningless answers from members of the government to important questions. But this latest writing, which appeared in Népszava, touches on the core of election strategy: what the main message, the main thrust of the election campaign should be.

The title of her piece is “The missing flag.” Because it is usually a “flag” under which people gather when they take up a cause, be it war or peace. Ferenc Rákóczi’s flag said “Pro patria et pro libertate.” The “flag” of Martin Luther King was “I have a dream.” Or, there is Obama’s “Yes, we can.” A flag represents the community, it tells us that we exist, that we are together. The Hungarian opposition, she argues, needs a “flag.”

She recalls that Elemér Hankiss, an influential sociologist in the 1980s and 1990s, recounted the well known story of the garbage can lying in the middle of the road. Most drivers try to avoid it with some difficulty; not many would actually stop and move the garbage can off to the side of the road, thereby helping others.  The one who does is the hero. Today there is a lot of talk about the “missing hero.” People wish there was one clear winner, one person who could lead the troops. But what Hungary needs today is not so much a hero as a flag.

In a sense the democratic opposition does have flags: solidarity, justice, democracy, the rule of law, the Fourth Republic. More than enough. There are programs too. So, there is the cloth and the pole but “we know from the poem of  [Dezső] Kosztolányi that the flag is not only cloth and pole because it means more than its parts.” This is typical Ildikó Lendvai, who for a while taught Hungarian literature and later was the head of a publishing company. The flag, Lendvai points out, arouses feelings in us. She is convinced that the younger generation is not looking for parties but searching for a Weltanschauung: culture, attitude, community, values.

Ildikó Lendvai at the 2010 MSZP Congress

Ildikó Lendvai at the 2010 MSZP Congress

Unfortunately in Hungary it was the extreme right that first discovered this yearning and supplied this feeling of community but, as we know all too well, these slogans are used to arouse our worst instincts. Fidesz continued Jobbik’s tradition of appealing to the senses and perfected it. Fidesz is not popular because it governs well but because it manages to inculcate the feeling of community in its followers.

So, what should the democratic opposition place on that flag under which it marches? Lendvai is aware of some of the counterarguments but suggests nonetheless putting EUROPE on that flag. The slogan could be what a well known journalist already suggested : “Orbán or Europe.” Some of her friends told her that using the European Union as a electoral slogan might be too “intellectual to Aunt Mary” for whom Europe as a symbol of democracy is far too abstract. But “Europe means free movement, the final escape from the Iron Curtain, freedom from passports and visas. It also means choice of goods on the shelves , the freedom of their children and their grandchildren. It means travel and learning.” And all the benefits of democracy translate into easily understandable concepts: the European labor code, its social net, solidarity, responsibility for each other and peaceful coexistence.

Lendvai would go so far as to collect signatures for a referendum about Hungary and Europe. I am not sure whether there is a need for such a referendum, but I agree that the election campaign should make the idea of Europe and Hungary’s place in it its centerpiece.

As for Ildikó Lendvai’s retirement, I will certainly miss her although I don’t think that this will be the last we hear from her. She will remain an astute observer of Hungarian politics.

The director of a new research institute on the history of the regime change in Hungary

Although I’m going to talk about a historical research institute today, this post is not really about history. Far from it. It is about politics. Dirty politics. About a government that wants to recast recent political events in the light of its own ideology. About the falsification of history, if you want.

What am I talking about? The Orbán government set up yet another research institute, this one under the direct control of the Office of the Prime Minister. Viktor Orbán himself chose its first director. The institute, with the cumbersome name Rendszerváltás Történetét Kutató Intézet és Archívum (Research Institute and Archives for the Study of the Regime Change), will have 20 associates and a budget of 360 million forints just for the next six months. According to some articles I read on the subject, there was only one application for the director’s position that was submitted according to specifications, that of Zoltán Bíró, a literary historian whose field of study is Endre Ady’s poetry.

Who is this man? Those who aren’t familiar with the cast of characters in the regime change or aren’t diligent readers of Magyar Hírlap or don’t watch Echo TV might never have heard his name. Zoltán Bíró likes to describe himself as “the first chairman of Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF).” Almost every article about him and his new institute describes him as such. Actually, the first chairman of MDF was József Antall, who was elected to the post in October 1989. Bíró was managing director of the party between March and October 1989.

He had another occasion to become well known in those years. In April 1988 he together with Mihály Bihari, later chief justice of the Constitutional Court, László Lengyel, economist and publicist, and Zoltán Király, a journalist, was expelled from MSZMP. The four told their sad tale in a book entitled Kizárt a párt (I was expelled from the party).

Bíró’s political views are of the far-right variety. He is also an expert on weaving elaborate conspiracy theories. He has a chip on his shoulder because after the appearance of József Antall he lost his bid for party leadership. He began circulating stories in which he intimated that perhaps József Antall “was sent by someone” and those someones might have been the communists who found in Antall a man with whom they could do business.

Contemporaries describe Bíró as a man who sowed the seeds of mistrust and later even hatred between the narodnik-populists (népi-nemzeti) and the urbanites, whom he liked to identify as Jewish intellectuals. According to Zoltán Ripp (Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990, 2006), Bíró accused them of disseminating false information about the gathering of men and women in Lakitelek, in the backyard of Sándor Lezsák, describing it as a meeting of anti-Semites. There were references to a New York Times article, but I couldn’t find it.

In any case, by 1991 Bíró left MDF and together with Imre Pozsgay, a high-level MSZMP politician, established the short-lived National Democratic Alliance. From the beginning it was clear that Bíró really didn’t want to dismantle the Hungarian communist party (MSZMP) but rather to forge an alliance between the “népi-nemzeti” members of MSZMP, like himself and Pozsgay, and the narodnik groups outside of the party that included such men as István Csurka, Sándor Lezsák, and Sándor Csoóri.

He remains a critic of the change of regime and the decision to work out the details of this new regime with all political forces, including the reform wing of MSZMP. Something went wrong, Bíró claims, and he thus rather forcefully rejects the whole period that resulted from that historic compromise.

Imre Pozsgay and Zoltán Bíró at the Convention of the National Democratic Allice, 1991 / MTI

Imre Pozsgay and Zoltán Bíró at the Convention of the National Democratic Alliance, 1991 / MTI

I suspect, therefore, that he and his colleagues in this new institute will reject the very idea of real regime change in 1990. He will most likely claim that the communists actually preserved their rule intact. I furthermore assume that this interpretation will meet with Viktor Orbán’s approval, since he often talked about the past twenty or so years as chaotic and ideologically confusing. The line between dictatorship and democracy was not clear. I’m sure he would like to have it in writing, the product of “serious” research by a “recognized” historical institute, that real regime change came only in 2010.

János Kenedi, a historian of this period and a member of the democratic opposition in the 1980s, summarized the task of the institute as “to show that Orbán’s view of the regime change is the correct one and that there was actually no regime change between 1987 and 1990.”

All that is bad enough, but according to Sándor Révész, Bíró is also no friend of western multi-party democracy. In his book entitled Saját utam (My own road), he makes that clear, expressing as well his hatred of liberals and liberalism. In 2009 in Magyar Hírlap he stated that Fidesz should even use “dictatorial instruments because one should honor and consider sacred the existence of the nation and not the doctrine of democracy and freedom.” So, concludes Révész, “the official history of the change of regime will be in the hands of someone who thinks that dictatorship is a suitable instrument in the service of the nation while democracy and freedom harms it.”

Another perfect appointment of Viktor Orbán. Another blow for historiographical integrity.

The zeal of Viktor Orbán: Where will it lead?

In some respects the present political leadership reminds me more of the Rákosi regime than of the Kádár period. Before someone jumps on me, let me emphasize the words “in some respects.” First and foremost, I think of the zeal with which the Orbán-led political elite began to rebuild society. This entailed a radical change of everything known before. The Fidesz leadership seems to be very satisfied with the results. Just the other day László Kövér claimed that under their rule all the nooks and crannies of society that had developed since the regime change of 1989-90 were reshaped. Everything that came before 2010 had to be altered in order to build a new Hungary.

The last time we saw such zeal was in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the communists wanted to turn the whole world upside down or, to use another metaphor, to wipe the slate clean. As one of their songs promised: “we will erase the past.” And they began in earnest. They wanted to build an entirely new political system–immediately.

Such attempts usually fail because such rapid change cannot be achieved without ransacking the economy. If one lets the experts go for political reasons and fills their positions with people who finished at best eight grades, the results are predictable. If you get rid of the former manager of a factory because he is deemed to be reactionary and you hire a worker without any experience in management to run the newly nationalized factory, we know what will happen. And indeed, in no time the Hungarian economy, which had recovered after the war with surprising speed, was in ruins. Food rations had to be reintroduced in 1951 or 1952.

This is the same kind of zeal that one sees with the Orbán government. Only yesterday Tibor Navracsics proudly announced that in three years they managed to pass 600 new laws. He added–because Orbán and company can certainly compete with Rákosi and his gang when it comes to bragging–that these laws are of the highest quality. In fact, legal scholars are horrified at the poor quality of the legislative bills pushed through in a great hurry with last-minute amendments.

By contrast János Kádár, who became the first secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party (at that point called Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt), moved slowly, hoping to gain acceptance after the failed uprising. In fact, the whole Kádár period was known for its cautious, deliberate move toward a less oppressive regime. It was still a dictatorship but it was based on an understanding with the citizens who were ready to make some political compromises in exchange for a better life. By the 1980s, although there were some taboo topics,  intellectual freedom was greater than in any of the other satellite countries.

Intellectual freedom. Unfortunately the present political elite’s attitude toward literature and art greatly resembles that of the Rákosi era when there was a long list of forbidden books and when, as far as art and literature were concerned, socialist realism was the only accepted form. The situation today is not very different. The government supports art and literature that is “national.” Modernity is out and the nineteenth-century classical style is favored. Fidesz politicians on both the local and the national level make sure that only theater directors who cater to their taste are appointed. The very successful director Róbert Alföldi lost out in his bid to continue with his work at the National Theater to a man who talks about the National Theater as a sacred place that he plans to have blessed by a Catholic priest. The plays he is going to stage are mostly written by Hungarian authors. The emphasis is on Hungarian, not on quality.

I could easily be charged with overstating the similarities between the two leaders and their governments. For instance, one could retort, don’t compare the poverty of the Rákosi regime to that of today. But don’t forget that in the late 1940s and early 1950s Hungary was still paying war reparations to Russia while today Hungary is getting handsome subsidies from the European Union. Believe me, without that money Hungary would not be able to meet its financial obligations. Another difference is that today there are still large foreign companies in Hungary which by the way are practically the only source of Hungarian exports. Without them the country would be in even greater economic trouble than it is now. However, Viktor Orbán is working hard to take over some of the foreign companies and banks. And if he continues with his onerous tax policy, the owners of these businesses will most likely be glad to sell to a state that seems more than eager to take them over and that, so far at least, has not balked at overpaying.

Viktor Orbán as some blogger sees him /

Viktor Orbán as a blogger sees him /

As for the clientele of the two regimes. The Hungarian communists in 1948 and afterwards wanted to obliterate the old upper and even lower middle classes and give power to the working class. The better-off peasantry was also considered to be an enemy of the people. They made  no secret of the fact that they wanted a complete change: those who were on the top would be at the bottom and the poor peasants and workers would be on top. They didn’t even try to hide their intentions. Orbán is undertaking the same kind of social restructuring, albeit with different winners and losers. His goal is a complete change of not only the business but also the intellectual elite. Those who sympathize with the liberals or the socialists will be squeezed out and politically reliable Fidesz supporters will take their place.

People I know and whose opinion I trust tell me that Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió had more balanced reporting in the second half of the 1980s than they do today. This is where Hungary has ended up after three years of frantic Fidesz efforts to remake the country.

András Bruck in a brilliant essay that appeared a few days ago in Élet és Irodalom insists that despite appearances Hungary today is a dictatorship because what else can one call a system in which every decision is made and put into practice by one man? And what is really depressing, says Bruck, is that the dictatorship prior to 1989 was forced upon Hungary by Soviet power. Today there is no such outside pressure. Hungarians themselves gave Fidesz practically unlimited power and for the time being show no signs of wanting to get rid of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. In fact, 1.5 million people are devoted to him and in a nationalist frenzy are ready to fight against the colonizers of the European Union. A shameful situation.