December 8, 2008

After the Elections: The Left and the Right in Hungary

According to a conventional analysis, Hungary’s politics could be treated as a straightforward contest between the left and the right, assimilating the Western or even specific local – British, French or German – meanings of these terms. This kind of analysis is favoured by much of the Western media and by their counterparts in Hungary. It is a widely-used interpretation technique, but it is also ideological and thus misleading.

According to a conventional analysis, Hungary’s politics could be treated as a straightforward contest between the left and the right, assimilating the Western or even specific local – British, French or German – meanings of these terms. This kind of analysis is favoured by much of the Western media and by their counterparts in Hungary. It is a widely-used interpretation technique, but it is also ideological and thus misleading.


György Schöpflin

After the Elections: The Left and the Right in Hungary

According to a conventional analysis, Hungary’s politics could be treated as a straightforward contest between the left and the right, assimilating the Western or even specific local – British, French or German – meanings of these terms. This kind of analysis is favoured by much of the Western media and by their counterparts in Hungary. It is a widely-used interpretation technique, but it is also ideological and thus misleading.
Despite the similarities in language use and, at first sight, even in political institutions (constitution, parliament, government, political parties), there are qualitative differences between post-communist countries and the part of Europe that did not have to endure 45 years under communist rule. Some of these differences stem from the patterns of thought inculcated by communism, some from the way in which communism collapsed in different countries and some from the subsequent behaviour of political actors. These continue to be relevant factors in explaining the political patterns in post-communist countries. Even if the EU accepts them as functioning democracies, it does not affect the model sketched below.
The particularities of the situation in Hungary can also be addressed by making comparisons with other former communist states in order to explain why the processes in one state differ from those in other states. Here, the emphasis lies on the decisions of the actors involved and on the intended and unintended consequences of their actions.
If we look at Hungary in the light of the above, what will strike any knowledgeable observer is not the left-right divide as such, but its depth and intensity. These are no ordinary left- and right-wing forces, but two irreconcilable visions of the world, two moral codes, two visions of right and wrong that use the labels “left” and “right”. The divide is unbelievably deep. It splits up families; it breaks up friendships; there are almost no views that the two forces share. Indeed, in Budapest there are identifiably left-wing and right-wing restaurants. It is not going too far to call this a “cold civil war”.
Some of the causes of the divide lie in the pre-communist past, in the unresolved issues concerning the Second World War and the role Hungary played in the Holocaust, in the failed revolution of 1956 and the deals made with the regime afterwards, in the winners and losers of the Kí¡dí¡r years and the regime change in 1989. It is quite remarkable that the transition to the new regime caused no trouble. Basically, the deal was that there would be no reckoning with the past, which meant that a veil was drawn over the crimes against humanity that communists had committed and that communists could keep the party’s property, networks and organisations as well as the assets hastily acquired through semi-legal privatisations in the early years. There was a tacit assumption that due to this generous deal, former communists would stay out of politics and let democracy evolve along Western lines. This was a false expectation and former communists, reconfigured as the Hungarian Socialist Party, returned to power in 1994.
By contrast, the Estonian Communist Party lost all its property and organisational links. As a result, the political landscape in Estonia is very different from that of Hungary, because the carry-over effect was much smaller. The pattern followed by Poland, Slovenia and Lithuania was closer to the Hungarian model, while the Czech Republic made a much cleaner break with the past by way of the Velvet Revolution.
Hungarian communists might have changed their name to socialists, but their patterns of thought and, above all, their understanding of power, which is something to be exercised monopolistically and without either self-limitation or ethical restrictions, had not changed. What could have been done in five years? For a complete transformation, something far more radical and sudden than the smooth transfer of 1989 should have taken place. In the absence of such a changeover, Hungary has not provided a level playing-field for all parties – the left has built-in advantages over the right and it exploits these advantages as much as possible. The outcome is not only the extraordinarily deep political divide, but a serious gap in democratic practices, which is proven by the fact that the people in power are never criticised, because such criticism is seen as ideological and illegitimate by both sides.
The right-wing forces in Hungary had a much more difficult task than the left, because they had nothing to build on. If you were a conservative in 1989, what past events could you have wanted to preserve as points of reference? Obviously, you could not have been interested in the communist past, because it had been appropriated by the left, while the pre-communist past was also unusable – the neo-feudal conditions of the 1930s were not attractive to anyone, but a few nostalgists.
There was no self-evident answer to this question and the task of being a conservative was made much harder by the political inexperience of the newly-elected politicians. The right-wing forces must always take into account the danger that without any traditions by which they can be guided, they could turn into radical nationalists, something which the left would love to see in order to further its ambitions to have monopoly control over democratic norms. In fact, the right has not fallen into the trap of nationalism, despite the strenuous efforts of the left and its counterparts in the West.
Broadly speaking, both sides have their agendas and strategic goals and both use the traditional labels of “left” and “right”. Nevertheless, their own self-descriptions only tell one side of the story. Both consider each other to be basically illegitimate or, at best, barely legitimate and they treat each other as hostile forces, rather than as proper representatives of the opposition and of the government, respectively. The left regards the right as crypto-fascist, chauvinistic and anti-Semitic. The left treats the entire right wing as the extreme right and this fact forms an integral part of the world view of the left. The right sees the left as a grouping that cares only about its own narrow interests that stem from the communist past, while it neglects the interests of the Hungarian state and society and does not have any clear concept of what being Hungarian means – the left-wing forces are but alien, comprador agents of globalisation. Neither side appreciates the labels used with respect to it by the other side.
It is in this context that strong personalities start to play an important part. Viktor Orbí¡n is unquestionably at the centre of all this. Both the left and the right are fascinated and obsessed by him. He is charismatic and has a strategic vision of what Hungarian society’s interests are and should be. In short, he is trying to expedite the process of Hungary’s modernization that was discontinued by the collapse in 1918. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of the 1918 trauma, which has haunted Hungary throughout the 20th century. Orbí¡n’s strategy focuses on how to link the conservative and modern forces in order to regain Hungary’s self-confidence in Europe. According to his strategy, the Hungarian nation forms a community based on common interests and solidarity, a community the members of which owe each another some support.
Orbí¡n is a superb public speaker. He is able to hold the attention of a very large crowd, even though it is no easy task to address one million people at the same time. His significance cannot be ignored. But in the modern democratic world charisma can sometimes cause problems, for while some are enthralled by it, others feel repelled, so it can be said that Orbí¡n is unquestionably a divisive figure. He enjoys the unconditional loyalty of about two-fifths of the electorate, while another two-fifths exhibit an equally visceral distrust towards him. Indeed, the left considers him to be as good as the devil incarnated, which is why he is demonised ceaselessly.
While Orbí¡n is genuinely charismatic, Ferenc Gyurcsí¡ny, who was re-elected prime minister in April, has a good public presence, he has certain charm and he comes across as a dynamic figure without being threatening. He has justified the faith placed in him by the left to take Orbí¡n on successfully. The right, on the other hand, dislikes him for being smarmy, dishonest (Gyurcsí¡ny is a millionaire who earned his fortune through shady privatisation deals in the early 1990s) and unfit for his post.
The left won the elections for a number of reasons, one of which was that the right lost the elections. Orbí¡n’s strategy for the right was to integrate all the right-wing factions into one single political force that would appeal to the majority of voters. This strategy failed and it did so because the campaign run by Fidesz turned out to be defective mostly because it forced Fidesz to participate in a competitive bidding process by offering ever greater rewards to voters. The left, being in government, could thereby ward off this challenge and could present itself as a reliable and credible force by maintaining that it and it alone was the guarantor of the well-being of Hungarians. This effectively prevented Fidesz, the challenger, from winning over the remaining ten percent of voters, who were still uncertain or undecided. It is noteworthy that until last autumn Fidesz was well ahead in the polls and that its lead was steadily whittled away only after the start of real campaigning. This means that campaigns do matter.
Still, the left did not win by a landslide, far from it. It managed to gain a couple of percentage points over the 2002 result. This raises some questions that the Hungarian media usually avoids asking. Why was the left unable to make serious inroads into the right-wing vote? Why did the left’s claims about the economic success of Hungary, symbolised by the invention of the “Pannonian puma” (there are no pumas in Hungary, maybe except in zoos) and the “thundering” economy, fail to appeal to the right?
This raises the issue that causes most concern among the right-wing forces – the state of the Hungarian media. If the political landscape in Hungary is divided along ideological lines, it follows that the media has to reflect this. And it does so, but not even-handedly. By any reckoning, at least four-fifths of the media, including the nominally independent state television channels, support the left. Any scrutiny of the media, of its tone, content and the language used will show that no serious efforts are made to recognise the right as the democratically elected force that represents a sizeable proportion of Hungarian citizens.
This adds fuel to the fire and reinforces the negative self-image of the right, which feels oppressed and continues to suffer similar disadvantages as it did under communism. Even if we do not agree with this self-assessment, it is obvious that there are two mutually exclusive concepts of society and that these are completely party-dependent and are thus defined in terms of ideology. The exclusion of the right was quite forcefully confirmed by Gyurcsí¡ny’s predecessor, Péter Medgyessy, who was also a left-wing prime minister and who declared upon Hungary’s entry into the EU in 2004 that he would like to leave behind one half of society – the half that voted for the right.
All of the above could be considered just another example of a political system that has gone wrong, were it not for the impending crisis. The causes of the crisis stem from the economy, but the crisis will have far-reaching political implications, especially if the crisis will be mismanaged by the newly-elected government. Economically, Hungary – far from being the “Pannonian puma” – is in dire straits. According to official data, its budget deficit is over 6 percent of GDP, but unofficial estimates suggest that the deficit is closer to 9 percent. The value of the forint has begun to decrease: the forint-euro exchange rate was at around 245 last autumn, but it currently stands at 270 and it could rise as high as 300 or even 310. Most international credit agencies have downgraded the credit rating of Hungary. The European Commission is breathing down the neck of the government to produce a convergence programme by 1 September that would not be based on creative accounting. As for joining the Eurozone – a goal which Hungary is obliged to pursue under the terms of its accession to the EU – this can be put off for many years. Optimists hope to join the Eurozone in 2012; pessimists say that it could happen even later.
In fact, the state apparatus in Hungary provides work for about 850,000 people, which is somewhat excessive for a population of 10 million. Worse still, the number of social security cards in circulation is estimated at 16 million and the proportion of Hungarians receiving disability benefits is several times higher than the EU average. In some villages, limping is an infectious disease. This gives some insight into the reasons for state overspending, but there is more to come.
The Medgyessy government inherited an economy that was in a reasonable state, despite some dubious promises the Orbí¡n government might have made to the population before the 2002 elections. But when in power, the left embarked on a spending spree to reward their voters and the economy never really recovered from this bout of generosity. This was populism in its purest form, as the government never restored the country’s economic balance. The fact that there were three ministers of finance in four years is yet further proof of this loss of balance. In addition, the government had to satisfy its left-wing clients by awarding them contracts and other benefits. Some evidence suggests that the outsourcing of government services to government-friendly agencies could actually be more costly than the performance of these services by the state itself, if the tendering process is not transparent and the respective figures are not publicised.
There is no question that a severely restrictive package of measures will have to be introduced. At this point, it should be pointed out that neither the left nor the right raised this issue during the election campaign. Indeed, the left continued to trumpet its economic success (more pumas), while the right echoed the same view until the eleventh hour, when it very belatedly raised the economic situation as a campaign issue. Since the elections, the left-wing media has also stopped daydreaming and there is now a growing clamour for action.
The government has fallen into the trap it has set for itself. The population is totally unprepared for the crisis, as the people have no understanding of the reasons for the crisis (once again, the media is partly to blame here for having done very little to educate the people on the harsh economic realities). They, especially those who voted for the left, will be shocked by the news and they will also feel disappointment and resentment. The rightist part of the society will be in no mood to give the government the benefit of the doubt, given its exclusion from decision-making. Fidesz has very little interest in giving the government a helping hand and it is highly unlikely to be asked to do so. Indeed, the left will try to blame Fidesz for the crisis – however implausible this may seem – and it is hard to see why the society should accept such an abdication of responsibility, unless the people were wearing ideological blinkers. So the government will have to handle the crisis in a situation where public confidence in the government has eroded.
Another issue in this connection is the future of the right-wing forces. The Fidesz strategy of integrating all the right-wing factions into one single party has failed, so a new plan will have to be elaborated, but a devastating economic crisis which has to be solved does not provide the best background for this kind of soul-seeking. It could affect the outcome of the crisis, if a breakaway group of radical right-wingers launched an agitation campaign directed at the victims of the restrictive measures. Street demonstrations and even violence cannot be ruled out completely. Although this is only one possible scenario, it does not mean that it should be ignored.
So far, this analysis has focused on the two dominant parties – the Socialist Party and Fidesz. At this point, it would be useful to provide a short overview of the Free Democrats and the Democratic Forum, which together received 11 percent of the vote. The Free Democrats have proved to be fairly loyal to the Socialist Party in the last four years – they could have withdrawn their support for Medgyessy, when it was publicised that he had been a communist counter-intelligence agent, but they did not do so. The self-induced fear, from which the demonised right was suffering, was more than enough to keep them in line. Paradoxically, the growing left-wing majority and the fact that the Fidesz strategy has failed may now lead the Free Democrats to put some distance between themselves and the Socialist Party, although it is unclear whether they will be able to avoid the opprobrium, which the economic package will attract.
It is hard to say where the other smaller party, the Democratic Forum, stands on the political spectrum. It sees itself as a conservative party, but it has become utterly hostile to Fidesz and to Orbí¡n. The relationship between Orbí¡n and the Forum leader, Ibolya Dí¡vid, could hardly be worse. There is some evidence that the election campaign of the Forum was partly funded by a left-wing source and several members of the party who were elected to the parliament associate themselves with the left. In its present form, the Forum is likely to play a neutral role between the left and Fidesz.
Another constraint on the government is the upcoming local elections in October. On the one hand, the convergence programme must be finalised by September; on the other, severe cutbacks could result in a humiliating defeat at the polls. It is hard to see how this situation could be solved. Furthermore, if the economic measures are not harsh enough, foreign investors would lose their faith in Hungary and the value of the forint could fall even further. This, too, would have unexpected social consequences. Approximately more than 40 percent of household credit, for example mortgages, are denominated in euros and Swiss francs. If the value of the forint decreases, it will increase loan repayments significantly. Moreover, the economic situation is already worsening. Those affected would certainly include some middle class supporters of the Free Democrats.
Even though the worst-case scenario might be avoided, there will definitely be a crisis and this crisis will unquestionably put severe strains on the government. The methods of government favoured by the left in the last four years have been directed exclusively at image creation, at how to present reality in a most suitable way for the left. What we have here is a classic example of a force that shapes reality, a force that operates as if it had a monopoly on truth. In today’s world, where external constraints are imposed on Hungary by the EU and the global market and where multiple sources of information exist, this imaginary reality must not diverge too far from what is actually happening. Otherwise, Hungary will have to pay a very high price.
So, the key questions are to what extent the left is in fact a prisoner of its own narratives and how it can adapt to changing circumstances, as its popular support might turn into public antipathy. Being in power means being responsible and this has its price. If the government is unable to make changes (and its previous years in office are not encouraging in this respect), it could find itself in a position, where its legitimacy is at risk. The government could face great uncertainties and be unable to rule the country. If that happens, it will put the maturity of Hungary’s democracy to a severe test indeed.

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