Hopes and Illusions: Idealism in Hungarian Politics

In this paper I will confront some political expectations
of 1989 with the realities of democratic politics of the past two decades.
Naturally, after all revolutions, post-revolutionary decades always represent
an era of lost illusions. The often quoted ’return to normalcy’ does
not only mean the institutionalization and consolidation of democracy but also
the return of everyday politics with its long-established, not necessarily
democratic, informal customs and habits. For some of these behaviours, reasonably
or not, communism was blamed, but it turned out that pre-communist legacies
played their role as well.

There is a long list of disappointments in Hungary and I do not aim to offer
a comprehensive overview. Instead, I will discuss some of the most debated
issues which demonstrate most clearly the tension between idealism of ’89
and the disturbing political outcomes afterwards. These topics can be characterized
by the belief in:

  • social market economy and ’welfare transition’,
  • the Havelian idea of ’living in truth’,
  • linear capitalist development,
  • civil society with democratic political culture,
  • full scale democracy.

These dimensions demonstrate some major fields of failed expectations. Instead
of welfare transition, Hungary experienced some radical reforms and even more
aborted reform-attempts. The idealism of ’living in truth’ has
been quickly replaced by ’half-truths’, a characteristic discourse
of democracies. The belief in linear, gradual economic development has been
recently shaken by the global financial crisis which hit Hungary hard. And
finally, the founding fathers of Hungarian democracy wanted to create a stable
democratic regime but, as it looks clearer today, the rather succeeded in overstabilizing
of institutions on the expense of civil society. This brought a special, one-sided
form of democracy, which might be called ’partocracy’. Whether
these expectations were originally based on realistic hopes or groundless illusions
is another matter that needs further clarification.

The Belief in Social Market Economy and the Illusion of Welfare Transition

In 1989, the notion of ‘democracy’ was a ‘hooray word’,
a panacea for all possible diseases inherited from the old regime. People were
patient enough in the first part of the 1990s to wait until the crisis of transformation
ends because they strongly believed that democratisation and economic development
were parallel processes. Moreover, they believed that democracy would inevitably
bring welfare soon. This hope was characteristic in the transition period already
when centre right forces tried to implement social market economy, following
Konrad Adenauer’s idea. The liberals, on the other hand, who lost the
elections of 1990, promoted economic ‘shock therapy’ measures,
to follow Leszek Balcerowicz policies in Poland. The idea of transition to
a social market economy fell short to the Hungarian realities, in a country
which was the most indebted one in the Eastern bloc. Economic crisis which
(partly) led to the crisis of the regime was followed by the crisis of the
economic transformation. Painful as it was the unpopular austerity measure,
the Bokros-package of 1995 named after the Minister of Finance of the leftist
government, restored the economic balance in a drastic fashion and by doing
so it initiated economic development later on.

Recovering from the decade of pains, i.e. the 1990s, the first half of the
current decade was again ruled by the optimistic paradigm of “welfare
transition” in Hungary. This idea projected Hungary’s near future in
terms of internal demand and consumption, expansion and uninterrupted growth.
The policy of welfare transition is linked in the popular perception to Péter
Medgyessy’s tenure as Prime Minister (2002-2004); however, it began before
and outlasted Medgyessy. At the end of the year 2000, the centre right government
coalition, led by Viktor Orbán, approved a two-year budget, in which
the policy of long term electoral budgeting replaced fiscal discipline. One
aspect of this policy was to boost internal production and consumption via
the so-called Széchenyi Plan, and to increase the remuneration of civil
servants, as well as to introduce student and mortgage loans, primarily for
the middle class. Need based childcare support had by the end of the 1990s
been replaced again with rights based childcare. The idea of the so-called “night
watchman state”, which had become popular during the transition period,
was forced to take a backseat. It was replaced by the notion of a strong, activist
state that had emerged as a guarantor of the consolidation of democracy during
the Fidesz-led government. The liberals had envisioned a state that would guarantee
and develop the “quality of freedom”, a vision that gained political
space as the policy of the Korszakváltás, or the changing
of an era. It was around this time when the political theory of the “Third
Way”, developed by Anthony Giddens and popularized by Tony Blair, sprang
up among the socialists. One element of this theory was the notion of the “opportunity–generating” state,
which had many supporters in the left-liberal camp.

It is no coincidence that Péter Medgyessy, in the 2002 electoral debates,
told Viktor Orbán that he did not wish for more than a change in administration,
because he intended to retain many of Fidesz’s economic policies. As Medgyessy
called this policy “welfare transition”, which Orbán had
already represented thus far, albeit with different intonations. Fidesz had
called this “civic policy” to support the middle class. The idea
was that, since a strong, national bourgeoisie had not been able to emerge
during the transition and the privatization period, the state should at least,
subsequently, help resuscitate the national middle class. Medgyessy had tweaked
this idea to fit a more leftist agenda in his efforts to establish welfare-based,
social democratic policies. He not only tried to include the middle class and
the lower middle classes as the beneficiaries of this policy, but the poorer
segments as well. He announced that fences would be mended, along with the
policy of the “national middle class”. His policy of extensive
redistribution enjoyed the support of the right opposition as well. It increased
civil servants’ wages by 50 percent and it introduced the “thirteenth-month” pension,
giving retirees one extra month’s worth of pension per annum. These items
represented heavy budgetary expenses. In comparison, cancelling television
operation fees and allowing state-owned museums to be visited for free were
merely symbolic gestures, reflecting the optimism of the government vis-à-vis
the treasury.

Since the majority of the population supported policies of welfare economics,
and given the proximity of the upcoming May 2004 accession the European Union,
it seemed that the country had finally recovered from the economic crisis that
began in the 1970s and spanned the transition period. It was characteristic
of general mood of the time to consider someone a pessimist, rather than a
realist, who foresaw Hungary’s entering the Eurozone only by 2008. Shopping
malls, bridges and motorways were being built swiftly, and the levels of personal
credit reached record highs. Following accession, the borders became porous,
and with the appearance of budget airlines, tourism became affordable to masses
of people. The middle class developed an appetite for taking two holidays per
year, and ten thousands of Hungarians experienced the sensation of travelling
from winter into summer.

Many considered it act of historical reparation for Medgyessy to have restored
those benefits to civil servants, which the Bokros package had seven years
earlier taken away. The principal advisor of the government at the time was
Ferenc Gyurcsány, who in his essay entitled Let’s dare be leftist!, presented
a new political line. Even when the financial balance had tipped by the spring
of 2003, and the government quickly stopped its generous mortgage-lending system,
which tarnished MSZP’s public perception, the positive expectations concerning
the economy did not change. Medgyessy, right up to the moment of his downfall,
had hoped for the renewal of the booming of the West. His policies were built
upon the premise that by overcoming the “growing pains” of the
debt burden, consumption rates in Hungary would reach those of Western Europe
relatively quickly. He wanted to fulfil a major dream of the regime change.

Initially, Medgyessy’s hopes were shared by his successor, Ferenc Gyurcsány,
who took over as prime minister in September 2004. The issues of the December
2004 referendum, regarding the granting of dual citizenship to Hungarians living
beyond the borders, did not stir emotions with the majority of the electorate,
who was more preoccupied with retaining its own social security than with embracing
the idea of “national unification”, which Fidesz, the major opposition
party, had also promoted. Fidesz thereafter had turned its national rhetoric
into a social rhetoric, which explains its evolution over four years from a
referendum with nationalist agenda to another referendum with social agenda.
During the first Gyurcsány administration, there was a general belief
in the government circles that due to time constraints, it would not be worth
cutting back on social spending before the 2006 elections, especially since
the modernization of the welfare system could be financed subsequently using
EU funds. A characteristic feature of this period was that the leadership in
Hungary placed unnecessarily high expectations on tapping European Union funding.
Medgyessy left, but his policies outlived him.

The first Gyurcsány administration (2004-2006) had concentrated on
strengthening the base of potential leftist supporters, as well as the political
support of the “civic centre left”, and also mobilizing younger
groups of voters, which became indispensable for winning the elections. Upon
announcing his policy of “one hundred steps” in the spring of 2005,
Gyurcsány had explicitly warned against mentioning negative sounding
reforms. Rather, he stressed the idea of technocratic “busywork”.
He insisted to keep up the politics of welfare transition as much as it was
possible or even beyond that. The international financial institutions and
the representatives of the European Union closed their eyes to the fact that
during the last few months leading up the 2006 elections, fiscal discipline
had loosened and the deficit had sprung, although neither they, nor the inner
circle of Gyurcsány had anticipated such a large budgetary deficit.

The policy of welfare transition had characterized the entire 2002-2006 parliamentary
cycle. The social effects of this policy, as well as the successful campaign
laid the foundation for MSZP’s victory in the 2006 elections and enabled the
social-liberal coalition to remain in power. It was the first time in the history
of Hungary’s democracy that the governing parties in office could win
an election, which in 2006 was made possible with social democratic policies
based on long existing, deep-seated hopes of voters. Fidesz’s flawed
campaign also contributed to this success. Their slogan “We are worse
off than we were four years ago” had been based on a misinterpretation
of economic realities. Hungarians had possibly never been so well off as they
were in the spring of 2006. But by the time the Socialists recovered from the
flush of victory, it became clear that the heritage of the Medgyessy government,
one riddled with hurdles, could not be continued. The golden age, based on
some illusions back to the regime change, had come to an end.

People had to realize again, more than ten years after the Bokros-package
of 1995, that democracy and welfare do not necessarily go hand in hand. Economic
hardships can return time to time and can therefore be part of democracy, even
within the European Union.

Living in Truth? The “?szöd Speech” and Its Effects

In 1989, people generally believed that the era of political lies is over.
Even if many expected some further lies, as part of the job of a professional
politician, it was widely shared that democratic politics cannot fundamentally
be built on lies.

The shock caused by the Ferenc Gyurcsány’s (in)famous speech
at ?szöd in 2006 was a dramatic indication of the need to depart
from this line of thinking. This initiated an over-arching crisis of confidence
and an earthquake-like series of political events, which by 2008 had culminated
in a successful anti-government referendum and the dissolution of the socialist-liberal
coalition.

Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, on May 26th, 2006 at Balaton?szöd,
had addressed the faction members of MSZP behind closed doors, calling for
a break from former policies, and the need for reforms. He was right in suggesting
that the problems were graver than anyone had thought. Gyurcsány made
it clear that following the electoral victory, he did not intend to continue
the policy of veiling of the truth. However, the Socialist faction was not
willing to believe him, which came as no surprise, given that only a few weeks
ago, Gyurcsány himself had asserted the opposite. Hiss fellow party
members initially did not take him seriously. But the speech was leaked in
September 2006 and it hit society like a cold shower. All of this led to a
deepening crisis in confidence. In Budapest violent and bloody street clashes
erupted between the police and demonstrators, and it is mere a stroke of luck
that these clashes caused no fatalities.

In democracies, the opposition continuously asserts that the government is
dishonest, incompetent, paints a rosy picture of reality and that it is inept
in delivering public services, and therefore, it must be replaced. And the
governing administration in all democracies claims that it is indeed capable,
responsible and that its policies are consistent, and it thus deserves the
trust of the people; however, the governing administration also claims that
it is the opposition who lies, exaggerates, sees gloom and doom, and offers
not alternative. It is this on-going clash between the standpoints of the administration
in power vis-à-vis the opposition that sustains the interest towards
politics and creates opportunity for change.

This is how democracy is normally played out, and the speech at ?szöd
had turned this practice on its head. HadGyurcsány himself began by
saying that the success of his party rested in “hundreds of tricks”,
through “lying morning, night and day”, and rather than governing,
by “doing nothing” the party had jeopardized the future of the
country, then there is nothing surprising in the fact that voters felt betrayed
and humiliated. Normally in democracies, such a speech is given when a politician
intends to leave office and just before submitting formal resignation. Moral
capital is the dearest treasure of all serious politicians. Should it be lost,
the politician should resign to salvage the honour of both his own party as
well as that of the entire political class, thereby saving the dignity of democratic
politics as a whole. Prime Minister Gyurcsány however, together with
the representatives of his party, did not for one instance feel the need to
resign. After all, he had delivered the speech behind closed doors, and he
undeniably told the truth when he recalled the dishonesty of his earlier practices.
He was correct in feeling that politics could not continue as it had been practiced
in the past. He thought that only through a new type of moral politicking would
it be possible to break out of the certain magic circle that had been formed
by didactic, popular politics. What for the voting population was an unveiling
of lies, proved for Gyurcsány to be an experience of renewal. The Prime
Minister wanted to make the transition from doing politics out of obligation
into a form responsible, reform-minded politics. This he intended to achieve
through a morally-intended speech, which precisely for moral reasons, turned
out to miss the fact that he himself had thus far pursued a series of policies
that generated a deficit and increased consumption.

Gyurcsány, who had by that time been in power for a year and a half,
did not start off with a clean slate. Rather, he wanted to turn a new page
altogether. Delivering such a squandering speech should require that the politician
apologize, in the same speech, for previous policies with which he himself
intended to break. However, rather than apologizing, Gyurcsány began
to measure the relative moral weight of his earlier policies, and he tried
to wash away and disperse the responsibility for those policies. By doing so,
it became apparent that dishonest politics did in itself not represent the
main problem for the Prime Minister. Rather, the problem, as he saw it, was
that dishonest politics had pushed the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
As such, breaking with the politics of lies became necessary not because they
deceive the nation, but rather because they are economically unproductive.
Speaking the truth versus telling lies was, according to Gyurcsány,
purely instrumental: the question was not whether lying is right or wrong in
and of itself, but rather whether or not it is useful. This may often be the
case in politics. Yet if it is indeed the case, then previous breaks with erroneous
policies cannot be glorified on moral grounds. Seen from this light, the speech
at ?szöd was not a moment of moral clarification, as Gyurcsány
subsequently had interpreted it to be, but rather the tallying of political
gains and losses. The Prime Minister had later announced that he had been proud
of his speech. He did not see the internal contradictions and broader moral
context of the speech, nor did he sense its destructive effects on society.
This is what President László Sólyom referred to by calling
the situation a “moral crisis”. Sólyom had every reason
to think that the political elite had acted as a bad role model towards society
by tolerating lying, insofar as lies serve the interests of those in power.

All politicians can make mistakes—and they do. The mistakes themselves
can be forgiven, if there is a clear set of values in the background that guide
and give credibility to those policies. In this case, however, the issue was
not only that the relative synergy between words and deeds was called into
question. The basic principle of democracy that the chosen leader, according
to the obligations pledged in his oath, represents the interests of the common
good, and not those of particular groups, was put to the test. In his speech,
Gyurcsány himself had questioned this basic assumption when he made
it clear that he had allowed for the deterioration of the country for the sake
of his party. His own personal power and that of his party was more important
than the future of the country, rang Gyurcsány’s message, which
cost him his credibility as a politician. Inadvertently, Gyurcsány contributed
to the erosion of credibility of the democratic institutions, the emergence
of a loss of values in society, the relativization of the rules of the game[1].
These broad and negative impacts overrode the speech that otherwise seemed
honest, well-intentioned and well-spoken. According to opinion polls, there
was a widespread loss of trust: this was indicated not only by a plunge of
the governing party’s and the Prime Minister’s ratings, but also
by the increasing rejection of the entire political class by society.[2] Many
went to the streets to demonstrate, but even more turned away from politics
in apathy, as their trust in the norms of democracy had waned.

The ?szöd paradigm was sustained not only because the Gyurcsány
had stayed in office until April 2009, but also because Fidesz had introduced
a parliamentary boycott of the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Fidesz had also proposed
a referendum, for which the constitutional court had given its green light.
Voters had believed Fidesz, the largest opposition party, when it claimed that
maintaining the gains of the welfare transition was merely a matter of political
will. If the government wants to take these gains away, Fidesz said, it must
again be lying. This was the way how secrecy and elitism led to the dominance
of populism in Hungarian politics. During the referendum of March 9th, 2008,
in which the question of hospital visitation and daily fees, and also the issue
of tuition fees were voted on, the left-liberal government suffered heavy political
losses, resulting in the dismantling of the governing coalition (MSZP became
a minority government), and an end of the reform policies. Since the original
aim of the speech at ?szöd had been to lay down the foundations for
reform, the circle had closed.

Crisis in Capitalism: A Moral Purgatory?

A new narrative of the decade began in 2008, launched by the global financial
crisis. This issue dominates the public debates and will remain so in the foreseeable
future in Hungary. This is another issue which seemed to be impossible and
unforeseeable at the time of the regime change. For the regime change, as people
had expected, was not only a move from dictatorship to democracy but also from
the bankrupt state driven economy to a more successful free market economy.
The ideas of self-sustaining capitalism, self-regulating markets, liberalization,
deregulation and privatization were taken as obvious consequences of the economic
change. The discourse of 1989 was not only dominated by democracy, constitutionalism
and human rights, but also, importantly, by the idea of (neo)liberalism. All
existing institutions were viewed with suspicion: bureaucracies, apparatuses,
routine practices, institutional mechanisms were judged as remnants of the
communist past which had to be swept away. The idea of linear development of
free market capitalism was widely shared. Literary intellectuals of the democratic
opposition, champions of political rights and civil liberties suddenly turned
away from the lack of economic freedoms and supported top-down economic operations.
They saw it unproblematic to support the new social experiment following the
Anglo-Saxon version of European values. The elements of the Washington Consensus
of 1992 and the Copenhagen Criteria of 1993 framed the nascent ’Brave
New World’ after communism in such a strong way that people genuinely
believed that by no means any alternative existed.

The global financial crisis, which reached Hungary in the Fall of 2008, overrode
almost all previous narratives. Neither the speech at ?szöd, nor
the convergence program, nor the “velvet reforms”, not even the
idea of government by experts stayed on the agenda. All of the sudden, the
future of the country became much more important than the future of the current
administration. For it was capitalism, i.e. ’the system’, which
seemed to be shaken fundamentally.

The weakening of the national currency, the fall of the stock markets, the
credit crunch, the emerging credibility crisis surrounding the markets, the
freezing of the self-regulatory market, as well as the subsequent decrease
in production and unemployment rates caused real fears around the world. The
internal dynamics of the interdependence of the global economy, reaching scales
never before witnessed by history, is currently being reorganized. Governments
alone cannot to maintain control over the processes of the economic crisis
that span the nation state. There is an increasing call for the need for a “world
government”. Although such a government is unlikely to appear in the
near future, the crisis has brought the member states of the European Union
closer together, and reasserted the will of these country for joint and effective
collaboration. The first signs of danger looming over Hungary were warded off
by the European Union and the international financial institutions, together
with the Hungarian Government and the National Bank. However, the real economic
effects of the crisis are only now begin to be felt.

What can be said is that the neoliberal model of capitalism is in crisis.
Yet the question remains whether the way out of the crisis will be through
a more aggressive type of neoliberalism, or by designing an entirely new model.
In the case of the former, the economic and social effects of a more virulent
anti-socialist neoliberalism will be difficult to manage politically using
the tools of traditional liberal democracy. Xenophobia, far-right sentiment,
and quasi-fascist political forces may appear, which may deepen the disenchantment
of society, who may turn towards racist, anti-foreign, or nationalist rhetoric.
Police state-like measures and paramilitary forces may become the tools of
political management. In the latter case, if a new model is to be designed,
we may see the renewal of the leftist line of thinking, or moderate conservatism,
which is currently in crisis. This line of thought endorses the notions of
non-cyclical economic policies, strengthening solidarity, increasing recognition
of unions and independent civil communities, participatory democracy, sustainable
development and justice, as elements of a more liveable society.

Financing Hungary’s the welfare transition over the years has been
made possible with the abundance of available external funding. The global
economy, however, is capable of producing the most unexpected of situations.
Governments and national banks are able to respond to these crises quickly;
however, their individual know-how to do so is patchy. It is becoming increasing
difficult for the common goods to survive in isolation at the national level.
The interests of certain sectors of the global economy have become generalized,
systematic and they are based on non-disputed, fundamental principles.

Inter-governmental cooperation at the European Union level is becoming increasing
necessary, in order to develop a team of experts and an economic “alarm
system” that can respond to crises immediately, and one that protects
the common principles of economic policy, and the member states also. It is
disquieting that the steady emergence of the network of the technocratic elite
is not held in check by a committed and active civil society. The polarization
of “important people” from “redundant people”, narrows
the space for mobility of the latter group, and this economic and social marginalization
undoes the social contract embedded in democracy. Furthermore, it overshadows
the principles of equality and solidarity and forces democracy towards the
false alternatives of elitism and populism.

Although no national government is responsible for having caused the crisis
directly, not all countries have been able to react to its effects well. An
emerging pattern suggests that the crisis affects those countries worst where
the national currency is overvalued, debt is high, state-owned companies perform
poorly, efficiency of labour is low, urban unemployment is increasing, agricultural
output is decreasing, the quality of services is deteriorating, public healthcare
and education is weak, and where higher education is dwindling. In these countries,
mutually-reinforcing negative processes unfold, acting as a sort of negative
spiral. These processes make infrastructure more fragile, deepens corruption,
create lags in technology, and decreases the pool of skilled labourers. Politics
as a result becomes polarized, leading to the systematic exclusion of groups
that have fallen outside the parameters of society.

The effects of the crisis have been so profound in Hungary that they have
sidelined earlier events of domestic politics. Albeit in September 2008 the
Prime Minister and the President of the National Bank had hoped that the crisis
would evade Hungary, in effect Hungary had become one of the „weakest
link” in the European Union. The prolonged success of the “attacks” on
the weakening national currency is explained by the lack of a credible economic
policies. Hungarian companies suffered huge losses. Loan repayment instalments
increased dramatically, and there has been a sharp rise in unemployment levels.
In November 2008, industrial production had fallen back by two-digits against
the figures of the same period in the previous year. In addition, social and
ethnic tensions have worsened, causing petty criminality that has been closely
followed by the media. A series of political mishaps have also lead many Hungarians
to blame the Slovak and Roma groups for these so-called “attacks against
Hungarians”.

The crisis had shaken the government. Gyurcsány was looking for escape
by turning towards the issues of identity politics, when suddenly he was faced
an unexpected opportunity to emerge as an internationally active, pragmatic
crisis manager. It had become clear that the crisis was global. Gyurcsány
quickly became absolved of his earlier mistakes, and he announced the IMF loan
agreement as a success. The crisis also encouraged the political elite to unite.
The Prime Minister took advantage of this by first calling for a “national” and
thereafter for an “economic summit”. Despite the polls, which indicated
that the prestige of democracy was stained, the need for national collaboration
temporarily overrode party-based sympathies. People had come to appreciate
the ability for someone to simply take action.

Every crisis is also an opportunity. The Hungarian political class now has
to do what it needs to do. Until this point, it could not until now summon
the political will to act. Now, it must do so by force. External circumstances
will impel the country to develop, but this will cost society. Public financing
will decrease, inflation will be lower, and the country will be able to take
greater steps towards introducing the Euro. But the Hungarian state, unlike
states in the West, is too weak and too poor to reduce unemployment with anti-cyclical
economic policies, infrastructural developments, and other quick, state-driven
investments. Hungary can only become a strong democracy, versus its current
oligarchic-provincial democracy self, if civil society is emboldened, new political
parties appear on the political arena, unions are strengthened, and independent
public life becomes more dynamic. Only then will the long overdue change in
outlook on economic and social policy be possible.

Public discourse is now dominated by varying interpretations of the crisis.
The competence of the government is to be judged by its ability to act as a
crisis manager. This will not change the negative effects of the crisis, for
which the voters will punish the government regardless. The downfall of the
government is inevitable.

Realizing this, Gyurcsány suddenly decided to leave office. The new
government, led by Gordon Bajnai since April 2009, is now in a situation in
which it has nothing to lose, a certain “state of mercy”. It can
react in two ways: in a worse case scenario, it can take risks, whilst the
IMF loan lasts, and by the time the economic situation worsens, it will be
in opposition, and free to deliver criticisms. In a better case scenario, however,
the government will look beyond the immediate benefits of winning elections,
by looking towards saving the poor and downtrodden, to help the country emerge
from the crisis and to prepare for the introduction of the Euro as painlessly
as possible.

How the government will be judged by history is yet to be seen. Victory in
elections is as much a part of democracy as is loss. Crisis management will
be the last test for the Bajnai government. The stake will be whether it can
emerge from the situation of a loss of credibility, and restore public trust.
That public trust which was slowly but surely lost in the past two decades
after 1989. Moreover, the new government needs to prove that the Prime Minister
truly believes that the future of the country is more important than his own
political survival.

It remains uncertain whether the perception of the government, one which
wants to restore the idea of „living in truth” can be salvaged.
If it can, the government stands the chance of losing with dignity. Leaders
had to learn that they were responsible for politics that they left behind
following their departure.

Democracy to Partocracy, or the Costs of Overstabilization

The founding fathers of the new Hungarian Republic in 1989 began the task
of building the institutional order of a democratic system with high hopes.
It was a historic moment, one in which the oppositional forces united according
to the best of their abilities and knowledge at the roundtable talks. They
were thinking in a new, comprehensive regime, where institutions of the democratic
state and of civil society would mutually respect and reinforce each other.

The political transition was successful in that in Hungary, like in many
countries in the region, a multiparty, constitutional democracy emerged, ushering
the country into the European Union, an alliance concentrating the world’s
richest and most democratic countries.

But twenty years on, in 2009, some of the system’s defects can already
be clearly seen, defects that need fixing. It became clear that the founding
fathers in 1989, albeit with the noblest of intentions, over-guaranteed the
political system vis-à-vis society and other sub-systems. They overestimated
people’s desire for stability, and they did not consider how the illusion
of stability long-term would erode the system’s flexibility of the system,
thereby allowing for the country slip. The desire for stability is a legacy
of the Kádár era, which solidified Communism in response the
traumas experienced during the 1956 revolution. The Kádár period
was characterized by a conscientious choice to head for the eye of the storm,
avoiding collective demonstrations at all cost, neutralizing society, depolitization
and turning towards consumption. At the time, many quoted author Zsigmond Móricz’ s “Leave
politics; build!
” This helped many to give up on politics. Kádár’s
regime became a „soft dictatorship”, one softened by lies. The
regime became liveable, because the regime itself often did not take its own
rules seriously. A system of dual rules developed, in which one had to navigate
carefully between the formal and informal avenues. The corruption of the dictatorship
sweetened the system, which does not mean that all corrupt regimes are necessarily
liveable. The soft dictatorship ended up in a soft transition to democracy.
Society tried to soften the relationship between the two regimes with old methods.
In Hungary, Kádárism, a concept unknown in other East
and Central European countries, had its peculiarities that the citizenry became
accustomed to by internalizing processes that made the dictatorship more bearable.
The old regime for them was not nearly as bad as the one their Polish, Czech,
or Romanian counterparts endured. For this reason, during the transition, they
only broke with the regime, but kept its methods, customs and informal procedures.

Much else, for this same reason, turned inside out. The activities around
the elections and the direct participation in the elections, as well as collecting
the nomination slips for the candidates (to ensure better integration of parties
in society), became a hotbed for corruption. In today’s context, it would
make sense to do away with the nomination slips, because they are being abused.

Despite the expectations of 1989 concerning the emerging multiparty system,
Hungarian electoral laws do not allow for many parties to enter Parliament.
They also prevent the easy downfall of government. The founders of Hungarian
democracy, during the turbulent transformation period of 1989, wanted to avoid
the situation whereby short-lived governments would replace one another, thereby
preventing governments to fulfil their four-year mandates. Their solution proved
to be too successful: Formally, the Hungarian political regime is probably
the most stable in the Central European region. Since 1990, all coalition governments
completed their four-year terms. Formal stability does, however, come with
a price: The initial regulation substantially hinders the system’s autocorrective
mechanisms.

Sustaining laws on two-thirds majorities has become similarly problematic.
These rules, in effect, serve no other purpose than to encourage political
parties in parliament to assume collective responsibility. The regulation seeks
to enforce consensus by institutionalized means. The Németh administration
had established these laws qualified majorities with the purpose of ensuring
that the heirs of the ruling parties, which would likely form part of the opposition,
would not lose all their political influence. The MDF-SZDSZ pact of 1990 kept
the laws on two-thirds majorities, an indication of the lack of strong mutual
trust between the two leading political parties of the opposition at the time.
This was probably justified back then, since the issue concerned basic legislation.
Now, however, 20 years later, keeping these laws does not longer seem to be
necessary. The laws on majorities generate forces unnecessary, broad-based
constitutional consensuses, which again have stem from the desire for stability
which the founders had sought.

To ensure governability, the current constitutional mechanisms in Hungary
ensure that the government stays in power for the entire electoral cycle. Meanwhile,
the laws on two-thirds majorities restrain the government in power, by depriving
it of much of its ability to govern, forcing it into a certain straightjacket,
or to use a metaphor that reflects an old Hungarian tradition, “gúzsba
köti
”, in other words, to tie one up with a hemp or straw rope.
It is only a slight overstatement to say that this structure on the one hand
ensures that the government stays in power, whilst on the other hand, it prevents
the government from using the powers it has been granted. These Hungarian “tricks”,
taken to the constitutional level, are counterproductive to the point of being
almost self-destructive. But whilst under the Kádár regime it
was the Soviets who had imposed this tradition on the Hungarians, it has been
the Hungarians themselves who since 1989 have continued this tradition out
of their own free will, passing it on as a part of their “national cultural
heritage”.

The peculiarities of the Hungarian democratic political regime usually cements
the survival of political parties, and makes it extremely difficult for new
political groups to enter parliament. These are: Collecting nomination papers
in order to run in the elections, to overcome the high threshold for entering
parliament, the constructive motion of no confidence, the numerous laws on
qualified majorities, the dishonest regulation of party finance system and
the system on party endowments, the deficit of intra-party democracy etc. We
should note that a solid democracy is not equate to entrenching the multiparty
system structure. The multi-dimensionality of democracy should not be reduced
to one dimension.

In Hungary, democracy has become lopsided, taking the form of “rule
of the parties”, or “partocracy” which is also known from
earlier histories of Western democracies. This system is characterized by the
overpolitization of social, economic and cultural life, and the excessive opportunities
for political parties to have a say in the various aspects of public life.
This further degrades the autonomy of certain societal subsystems and its own
appraisal mechanisms: it makes the entire system inflexible, and unable to
innovate or self-correct. If social progress depends not on achievement, but
rather on which particular party is in power, then people lose their lust for
delivering real achievements. In exploring the reasons for the crisis in Hungary,
one should not look only towards the Prime Minister, nor towards the external
effects of the global financial crisis that are independent of Hungary. In
addition, there are institutional-structural reasons that explain Hungary’s
lacklustre response to external challenges and for which reason it is more
vulnerable during a time of crisis than other countries. Mental and institutional
stability is indeed a virtue, but as the past decade has shown, its fetishization
restrains and impedes the country’s development.

Conclusions: Democracy for the Few

In Hungary, the intellectuals played an active role in the regime change,
in establishing multiparty system, some sort of democratic political culture
and independent public sphere.

One of the major functions of intellectuals is to maintain a discourse on
public good, functioning society, and good governance. In this spirit, public
debates should not merely reflect on party interests, they should have more
general lessons and consequences, which include critical and auto-critical
approaches as well.

Due to its former political activism, the intelligentsia participated in
constructing the new regime – with “professional politicians”.
For a while, there was a constant flux between intellectuals and politicians
in Hungary. Some intellectuals had a chance to learn the mechanisms of the
world of professional politics. Therefore is important to critically analyze
not only the formal structures of governance, but also the role of different
actors of democracy, including the intellectuals. For instance, journalists
often tend to hide their own opinion in their articles. They do not always
aim to undertake subversive investigative journalism rather they too quickly
understand the position of different political and economic elite groups. Professional
circles of journalists are relatively weak to maintain widely shared professional
standards. Also, the economists and economic advisors rarely bring any new
ideas to the public debates. Instead they are repeating the well-known dogmas
of the neoclassical school of economic thought relentlessly. They often behave
like provincial doctors who always suggest the same medicine to different diseases.
Their frame of reference still rooted in the dominant neoliberal ideas of the
1980s. It is now questionable whether the mantras of deregulation, privatisation,
de-etatization solve all inherited problems of state socialism, not to mention
some unexpected problems related to the new, post-communist capitalism. Only
few of these economists speculate about a potentially better balance between
state and market, economy and society. Former macro-economic thinking of people
of universities of economic sciences has been largely replaced by the ready-made
approach and micro-economic mentality of the business schools.

Also it is often seen that political scientists and political analysts frequently
focus on the surface of politics by discussing ephemeral events only and approaching
politics as political elite games in a “value-neutral” fashion.
Some of them tend to avoid putting the phenomena of “the political” into
as wider social context. So the role of intellectuals as “attentive public” or
as “opinion maker” is weaker today than two decades ago. If politicians
do not feel the attention of civil society on themselves they will increasingly
ignore it. It still does not seem to be obvious in Hungary that democracy cannot
be the issue of a few professional groups only.

The intelligentsia used to be a privileged social group in the Kádár
era, whose own experiences fundamentally differed from those in the lower classes.
Some of them insisted on soft transition and welfare capitalism for themselves
while experimenting with harsh reforms on others. Those of them who had became
rich and propagated free enterprise tended to remain silent about the origin
of their own wealth which had nothing to do with free market, rather it rooted
in the social capital of the late communist times.

After the shock of political transformation and under the threat of fundamental
economic change, several leading intellectuals became prisoners of the illusion
of stability in order to save their old privileges. They preferred high rate
of statist redistribution for themselves on the expense of the endless patience
of the poor. These illusions undermined social solidarity and did not helped
in enhancing social development. Today, it is not only the memory of the regime
change of 1989 is unpopular, but the whole political class lost its credibility
in the eyes of the people. Restricted choice, limited innovation, public cynicism
and the lack of new political ideas and idealism – these are the characteristic
features of Hungarian politics these days. Hungary became one of the most euroskeptic
countries of the European Union. Politicians and intellectuals are both responsible,
even if not equally, in that the democratic consolidation ended up in pursuing
of illusions in several aspects.


1. A question which is beyond the scope
of this paper is whether a democratically elected leader can lie in the interest
of the nation. It seems that as long as the rules of democracy are respected,
this is possible, because a leader has been bestowed with powers to represent
the interests of the political community. It is another question altogether
why in times of peace such practices are not carried out in the international
community because in long-term they might result in a credibility loss.

2. In Hungary, in
2009, it is possible to lead the list of the most “popular” politicians
by 45 percentage points. This was unimaginable before autumn 2006, not to
mention the period of regime change.

Copyright © 2009 by the author & Tr@nsit online.
All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from Transit.

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    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

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    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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