political elite

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 / ellenallas.blog

Viktor Orbán as a blogger sees him / ellenallas.blog

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.

Bálint Magyar: Viktor Orbán’s post-communist mafia state, Part III

Today I will finish my summary of the lengthy interview with Bálint Magyar about the nature of the post-communist mafia state developed by Viktor Orbán in the last three years. After Magyar described its characteristics, the interviewer, Eszter Rádai, inquired about the unusual unity in the Fidesz political elite. There are no splinter groups, there are no dissenters. But, as Magyar emphasized, there is nothing terribly surprising about that. After all, in traditional mafia families there is only one thing members of the group cannot tolerate: disloyalty. It is the same with the mafia state. Once a person is inside the charmed circle, getting out is extremely difficult because punishment can be severe. Not only would he experience a loss of privileges and almost limitless possibilities for achieving a comfortable life for himself and his family, but other dangers might be in store for him. Like being accused of illegal activities and finding himself in jail.

Structure of a mafia family / Wikipedia

Although there are expressions of regret over the high rate of emigration, in fact the current political power doesn’t really mind the departure of certain people whom they consider to be troublemakers. Without them the system is more stable.

As for the poor and the downtrodden, what will happen to them? Clearly, said Magyar, the “upperworld” doesn’t care about them. “After all, they don’t vote.” On the other hand, there is an ever-growing well-to-do stratum that is the winner of the regime. Then there is another rather large group of people who are worried about their jobs: teachers, doctors, civil servants. They are unlikely to turn against the regime because they depend entirely on the goodwill of the state. Even small entrepreneurs who depend on large corporations must fall in line.

Chances for the preservation of the mafia state are pretty good because it is an admissive system. Therefore, those who think that a victory by the anti-Fidesz forces might be more likely in 2018 than in 2014 are wrong. Moreover, that kind of talk harms the prospects of winning the elections next year. Those who don’t want to live in a mafia state must organize themselves.

Some people might accuse Bálint Magyar of creating a conspiracy theory, but in 2001 when he first wrote his article on the political “upperworld” he simply described what he saw and since then he hasn’t had any reason to change his mind. Those who don’t want to accept this mafia state must first be able to understand the nature of the regime. “If we are unable to do so, our lot will not only be a lack of freedom but we will also be the objects of ridicule. And that would be unworthy of us.”

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.