Robert Schuman

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.