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6 July 2014

Hungarian Elections and After


For a centre-right party, for any political party really, to win a democratic election by a two-thirds majority is rare enough (as in 2010). To repeat the experience is unprecedented. One can well imagine the Fidesz-haters – and their number is legion – muttering into their bowls of gruel about the dark arts practised by Fidesz and wondering just how Orbán got hold of Harry Potter’s mobile number.

Yet for all that, while the second two-thirds majority at the end was a close run matter, Fidesz’s overall victory was not in serious doubt before the 6 April 2014 vote. Two years ago, say, the situation was not as clear-cut. The economy had not yet begun to pick up, and the Hungarian government was in constant trouble with the EU Commission. It was repeatedly denounced in the Western press as a fascist, semi-fascist, fascistique, fascistoid, fascisant (take your pick) formation that was, variously, a disgrace to Europe, a danger to democracy and generally in thrall to a far-right peril – the kind that leftwing commentators sketch when they truly want to frighten themselves and, thereby, bask in their own superior virtue.

Indeed, what is extraordinary about the descriptions and analyses of Hungary is how easy it has been for both domestic and foreign commentators to construct a fantasy Hungary on which they can project their own anxieties. Seeing that the European left sees itself as the sole proprietor of Enlightenment rationality – Habermas’s “communicative rationality” being a noteworthy case in point – the way in which this self-same left has so readily moved into an echo chamber and hears only its own amplified narrative fills one with a sense of wonderment. The expression “epistemological closure” was formulated precisely for situations like this.

So we should not be surprised that neither domestic nor foreign observers of Hungary have been able to account for Fidesz’s two-thirds majority the second time round. Some will take refuge in Ágnes Heller’s explanation – which I witnessed in person – that “Hungarians are servile”. But even she and her acolytes will know that there is more to it than servility.

It is this “more” that is, in reality, the key. First, by 2014, the radical transformation launched by the 2010 Fidesz government began to make an impact in many spheres. While it will take a while for some of these changes to bed down, there have been concrete tangible results. A new Fundamental Law, reform of public administration, the recuperation of the capital assets sold off by the left, the socalled “unorthodox” measures (like taxing banks, telecoms, multinationals), the help for small and medium-sized enterprises, the lifeboat extended to those who took out mortgages in hard currency (but had no idea of exchange-rate risk) and above all the stop on utilities charges. It also counts that the leftwing governments had set up such a complex system for applying for EU funds that bids for only about a €1,000 million out of a possible €7,000 million were actually successful. The new structures introduced by the Fidesz government were much more effective. Finally, for a culture that sets high store by visuality, the gradual renovation of buildings and public spaces, like Kossuth square around Parliament, also had an impact.

Thus the fact that there was a government in power that not only governed and actually did things, but also did them with a measure of competence, must also have created a sense of stability. This is a crucial factor.

What the Fidesz government also recognised was that the untrammelled freedom of the market in a capital-poor country had basically failed. International capital did, indeed, arrive in Hungary in considerable quantities, but its effect was to undermine domestic capital accumulation and, thereby, eliminate local competition. At the same time, much of the profit generated in Hungary was being repatriated, rather than reinvested. One illustration is that in the absence of a Hungarian telecom provider, mobile phone charges are among the highest in Europe. In effect, the weakness of capital accumulation and foreign competition created a kind of capital scarcity trap. Strategic intervention by the state was the response of the Fidesz government which repurchased many of the assets sold off in the 1990s and 2000s. Its economic strategy was driven by the need to reverse a failure.

The 2002–2010 leftwing governments were notable for their extreme incompetence, their inability to maintain a steady course and failure to exercise power in such a way as to make people feel that their tax forints were actually producing something. The corruption, seen by many as revelling in corruption, of the Gyurcsány government added to this. And then there was the “lying speech”.
Despite the best efforts of various public relations firms to whitewash it or rename it as some kind of “truth speech”, it simply didn’t resonate. From September 2006, the Gyurcsány government was not seen as legitimate by wide swathes of the population. The appalling attacks by the riot police on demonstrators on 23 October 2006, then simply added to the sense that the government was semiauthoritarian and should be sacked at the earliest opportunity.

From the perspective of political science analysis, not to mention common sense, the massive defeat of 2010 ought to have impelled the Hungarian left to launch a reassessment, an appraisal of how and why they were so badly defeated. The best that can be said of this assessment is that it basically took the position that the voters had been beguiled by Orbán, and that thanks to the commanding wisdom and communicative skills of the left, they would once again see the light of day and return to the fold.

The obvious way forward – from my centre-right perspective – would (and should) have been to recognise that Budapest was not Hungary, that the left did not have a monopoly of modernity and competence, that the relics of communism were and would be a millstone round the necks of the collective left and, maybe above all, that if the left wanted to be taken seriously by Hungarian society, it would have to show the voters respect as citizens. This last part was decidedly lacking, a hiánycikk [a good in short supply] as the curt Hungarian word goes.

Indeed, if one were to assess the actions of the Hungarian left through the prism of political rationality, then – given its rapidly declining legitimacy after 2006 – it should have called early elections before Fidesz had a chance to regroup from its defeat that year. Instead, the left hung on to its bitter end in 2010, accepting Gordon Bajnai as Prime Minister after Gyurcsány resigned on what looked like a whim. Bajnai had a rather poor reputation as a heartless technocrat, who was linked to the collapse of an agricultural enterprise and the bankruptcies of those who put their trust in it. He never expressed any particular concern for those affected. He then pursued a tight austerity policy as if deliberately enhancing his unpopularity. In the interim, the perception of corruption and incompetence remained. All things considered, while the two-thirds majority for Fidesz was less predictable, a staggering defeat for the left in 2010 was inevitable, as was the collapse of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), the darling of the Budapest left, which failed to cross the five percent threshold, and melted away like snow in summer.

One might have thought that in these circumstances the left would embark on a process of rethinking and modernisation, that it would seek to measure its sources of support, its voter base and, crucially, its appeal to different strands of Hungarian society. This last is particularly significant, in that its traditional voter base, the one inherited from communism, had begun to erode, seriously in some cases, as in the north-east where voters were switching to Jobbik in droves.

There were several obstacles to renovation and these proved insuperable. First, there was the trauma of the defeat itself. It took some time for the left to digest it or, rather, not digest it as the case may be. Then, the left had to confront its actual raison d’etre – what did it mean to be leftwing in Hungary in the 2010s?

The liberal wing of the left, abetted by the hard-left media elite had no doubts. They were committed to the kind of liberalism that had emerged from Giddens’s and Beck’s “Third Way” leftism, which in essence defaulted into maxims such as “the market knows best” and “minorities that we define as minorities are always in the right”. This was incessantly espoused by the Budapest intellectual and professional elites as if there were no tomorrow and, more to the point, as if there was no one else in Hungary but them. Correspondingly, the Budapest elite looks down on the countryside and patronises the centre-right as ignorant hicks. This does not go down well.

This approach, which has deep roots in the Hungarian past, is strongly universalist (quondam internationalist) and will not or cannot understand how the great majority in Hungary accepts its Hungarian identity and objects to its being disrespected. Consequently, the left-liberal elite not only has to confront a shrinking voter base, but actually appears to revel in it and to insist on the absolute correctness of what it says by constant reference to “the West”.

This “West” however is an imaginary construct (to misuse Benedict Anderson’s language) that serves only to legitimise the left-liberal elite’s claim to power, the power that is to set the agenda and pass moral judgement. It’s an odd kind of opposition that is constantly running abroad for its support base, is increasingly cut off from the social and cultural realities of its own society, lives in an epistemological bubble and betrays its purported intellectual heritage by refusing to engage in argument of any kind. Consequently, its cultural capital is shrinking, a haemorrhage that does not seem to perturb it in the slightest.

In the final analysis, this increasingly isolated elite would not matter all that much. It can muster about seven to ten per cent of the vote (depending on the turnout) and could be the basis of a centrist, and not particularly relevant liberal party. But its influence on the media and what passes for leftwing thinking means that its role cannot be ignored.

Despite years of relentless complaining about the Hungarian media law, the leftwing media are, in reality, well represented and well entrenched. With over four-fifths of the population having internet access, pluralism is in any case guaranteed. To that may be added the support that the leftwing media receive from sponsors abroad. In spite of this, the leftwing media are forever assuming the pose of being victims of the Fidesz government and attack it whenever possible. The relationship between the media and the leftist elite is close and reciprocal. They strengthen one another’s self-legitimation, so that the media to some considerable degree constitute and sustain the epistemological closure mentioned above.

In addition, for reasons of their own, the international media have run a quite unbelievably vicious campaign against Hungary. Plausibly backed by a sophisticated public relations operation that plays to the journalists’ own predispositions, a thoroughly negative narrative of Hungary has been constructed and the domestic media use this to reinforce their own belief system. The leftliberal elite then sees itself justified in its thinking. It’s a wonderful circular system, that has only one drawback: it doesn’t win votes.

To make matters worse for the left during the 2010–2014 Fidesz government, no clear leader emerged to unify the scattered elements, the disjecta membra. It should be clear enough that there will always be a complex relationship between structures and personalities; the struggle to gather up the different bits of the left in Hungary proved no exception. The parliamentary and organisational capital of the left was vested in MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party), the successor to the communists, an authoritarian legacy it never quite succeeded in throwing off.

In the 2010–2014 period, however, the left began to fragment. Attila Mesterházy, the leader of MSZP, patched up the party, but proved ineffectual in opposition. Boycotting the government, one of MSZP’s gambits, was hardly the act of a loyal opposition, and smacked rather of a grand sulk. Another recent example was on display when Parliament confirmed Viktor Orbán as Prime Minister on 29 May. Mesterházy did not come forward to offer him his congratulations, while all the MSZP deputies stood up and walked out.

Gyurcsány had one claim to fame for the left – he had actually defeated Fidesz and Orbán in 2006. For many on the left, this gave him the air of a messiah, thereby overlooking his character flaws, his undeniable hamartia, above all his capriciousness, unreliability and opportunism. A long tussle for the leadership ensued between Gyurcsány and Mesterházy resulting in the former eventually leaving MSZP. It is hard hence to place Gyurcsány on any political spectrum, perhaps it’s best to see him as “Gyurcsányist” and precious little else, an elusiveness that also characterises DK (Democratic Coalition), the party he established as his political vehicle.

At the same time, another contender emerged for the leadership of the left in the form of Bajnai. Despite his technocratic qualities – maybe because of – he came to be seen as a safe pair of hands to run Hungary in the way that his foreign sponsors, like the Centre for American Progress (as I was told in Washington) wanted. He stood for austerity, foreign loans, and the very market liberalism that had wrought considerable damage to the Hungarian economy. (I watched him at the inauguration of Viktor Orbán on 29 May listening to Orbán’s speech impassively, except when Orbán spoke of improving economic prospects at which point he shook his head disapprovingly.) Bajnai, not to put too fine a point on it, is uninspiring and has a talent for the suicidally crass statement, like when he said of his economic policy, that “it will hurt”. Despite his incompetence as a politician, Bajnai’s international approval rating is obviously high. In the summer of 2014, after his party was trounced at both the 6 April and 25 May elections, he remained the favourite abroad, as shown by his invitation to the Bilderberg meeting in June 2014.

What these three contenders did manage to do in the election campaign was to paper over the cracks, albeit the paper had various slogans written on it. The leftwing electoral alliance was put together – cobbled may be a more appropriate word – late in the day and its unity never ran deep. Evidently Bajnai’s “Együtt” (Together) and Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition (DK) badly needed MSZP’s networks and organisational resources. Mesterházy, sensing the danger, wanted nothing of it, but his local organisations threatened to defect to Gyurcsány, so he caved in. The underlying argument was that thereby the left would attract different sections of voters. This failed, twice. Both in the Hungarian elections and the European Parliamentary elections, the left was badly beaten by Fidesz and in the latter by Jobbik as well. (Fidesz won 12 seats out of 21, Jobbik 3 MSZP 2, DK 2, “Együtt” 1 and LMP 1.)

There is no single factor to explain the inability of the Hungarian left to consolidate itself into a worthwhile opposition, but some of the explanation is unquestionably cultural. In the first instance, there is the legacy of communism, something that MSZP never sought to get rid of. The proposition that the left was the natural party of government led readily to the claim that the left should enjoy a hegemony over power. Other parties could exist, but only the left had the knowledge, more precisely the technical knowledge, to govern. The way in which MSZP presented itself as possessing a de facto monopoly of expertise and, equally, its adherents’ firm insistence that they and they alone understand the world remains a part of the left’s credo. “Professionalism in government” (szakértői kormányzat) was the watchword of the left from 1994 on and was claimed as a unique qualification of MSZP.

By the same token, runs this argument, only the left is European, Western and progressive. After the collapse of communism, the Hungarian left never really formulated a theory of democracy in which the centre-right had any legitimate role. Then, the left, despite its apparent belief in progress, appears to have no theory of change and does not seem to understand that the Hungarian society of 2014 is qualitatively different from that of 1989. Crucially, while communism did impose a kind of distorted modernity on society, it did not seek to bring into being citizens with a sense of their own autonomous agency, but constructed a dependent and atomised mass society. Since 1989 this has changed and a politically significant section of the population has begun to move, however tentatively, towards a citizenship concept that accepts individual autonomy and action.

Seemingly, the left became a captive of its own discursivity and language, and really came to believe at least some of what it was claiming. Finally, the incompetence of the spendthrift, corrupt governments of the 2002 to 2010 period was never addressed by the left, whether in terms of an explanation towards society or merely by trying to clean up their act. The fact that in February 2014 the deputy chairman of MSZP could be ousted as the owner of a private bank account in Austria with around €1 million of unaccounted funds looks to have been the coup de grâce that destroyed the chances of the left.

Lady Luck, the roll of the dice, accident, chance all play a role in politics, despite the well-established belief system in Hungary that if something has happened, it was because someone wanted it to happen. This view of the world was evidently flouted by the fate of LMP (Politics Can Be Different). In both the domestic and the European elections, LMP just scraped in, getting a whisker over the 5 per cent threshold. In this instance Fortune favoured the different.

In short, LMP under its skilful leader András Schiffer stands for something green, something new, something Hungarian and possibly for something young. It has declared total opposition to Fidesz and will have no truck with any of the other centre-left groups, so that its opposition faces all directions. This last element is essential if it is to survive as an autonomous political force, for it cannot afford to be associated with Hungary’s clapped-out left. Indeed, in the 2010–2014 Parliament, LMP endured a serious party split precisely over whether the left had a duty to do everything against Fidesz and Orbán and to set up a leftwing front or whether it should remain separate. Schiffer ended up losing half his deputies, who went on to team up with Bajnai, LMP later having to endure a hostile whispering campaign.

This last point underlines a particular quality of Hungarian politics, the intensity of which cannot be underestimated. On the left, Orbán is loathed, detested and demonised to an unbelievable extent; the left finds his success inexplicable. This proposition does imply that the left’s analysis of Hungarian politics ignores the difficult structural factors and prefers to concentrate on the personal. So far this has turned out to be a blind alley, but for the time being that does not appear to disturb the left at all.

A few words on the other opposition party, Jobbik. Despite the best efforts of the left to insist that Jobbik is an extension of Fidesz, this is wholly misleading. Their policies are different, their style is different and their voter base is different. Jobbik emerged in 2007, at least in part as a protest against what the radical right regarded as Fidesz’s namby-pamby handling of the campaign against the Gyurcsány government after the lying speech. That entry moment has characterised Jobbik ever since. It has adopted a right radical programme and an intransigent style, vociferous in its anti-Roma and anti-Semitic utterances in order to attract whatever attention it could. It may have moderated these two lines of public statement latterly, but its style is still marked by strident denunciations. The EU, what passes for liberalism, globalisation, and the rest of the world are all targets – with one significant exception. Jobbik is closely aligned with Russia and Putin. The allegations against a Jobbik MEP, Béla Kovács, that he was or is linked to Russian security surfaced during the European election campaign and could well have eaten into Jobbik’s vote.

Clearly, to judge from the election results, this approach has brought Jobbik a measure of success. Its support increased from 16.6 per cent in 2010 to 20.5 per cent in 2014, though it fell back to 14.8 per cent in the European elections in 2014. Its voter base also became more diverse. It built on its established constituency in the northern Hungarian rust belt (Miskolc, Ózd) continuing to take voters from MSZP; it also has a degree of support from the marginalised lower middle class strata; from young male intellectuals; and from some small, economically weak villages in Transdanubia. This voter base basically comprises the losers of globalisation, and whether Jobbik can retain its support depends to a considerable extent on whether the Fidesz government’s economic policies brings about a general improvement or not.

In conclusion, Fidesz’s position is evidently strong. It faces a weak opposition, one that – at the time of writing – was more concerned with infighting than with formulating a coherent opposition strategy. It is conceivable that Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition (DK) will launch a takeover bid for the remnants of MSZP and try to seize its parliamentary representation for itself. Another possible scenario is that LMP will look to present itself as the core of a genuine leftwing alternative, one that is not subservient to the Western left and thereby appeals to a kind of national liberal constituency. Jobbik may well have reached its apogee, unless the economy goes into free fall. But it is clear enough that for the coming years, the Hungarian political scene will be dominated by Fidesz.



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