Hopes and Illusions: Idealism in Hungarian Politics

Tr@nsit Online

Andread Bozoki confronts 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. 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 societyMany 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

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.

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.

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.