23 July 2012

The Need for an Upward Spiral

Ferenc Hörcher in Conversation with Nick Thorpe

The blog Mos Maiorum (http://mosmaiorum.blog.hu/) has emerged as a quiet, considered, critical supporter of the Fidesz government, edited from a centre-right perspective. It was founded by Professor of Political Philosophy Ferenc Hörcher (b. 1964) and staff, students and ex-students at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest.


NT: One definition of Mos Maiorum is “the wisdom of the ancestors” – which ancestors do you have in mind?

FH: The good ones, always the good ones! But seriously: this concept is taken from the political philosophy of Cicero. The idea for us is to run a blog which is interested in the Western tradition, because we regard Cicero as one of the key figures in that Western, republican tradition. That tradition is important for Hungary at the moment as well. Twenty years after the transition we have not arrived anywhere, we are in a deadlock. So we should look more clearly to the tradition to which we have belonged since the year 1000. In Hungarian political terms, we look to the sort of politics represented in the nineteenth century by Count István Széchenyi, and his father Ferenc.

We are all associated with the Catholic University, so the Catholic tradition is important for us as one of the building blocks of Hungarian culture and Europe as well. The Széchenyis were also Anglophiles – they looked to England, as a developed country economically and industrially, but also because the English knew how to govern on a fair and sound basis without the risk of revolution, as in France. That is the Parliamentary ideal which attracts us, and Széchenyi and his followers were aware of the similarities between the Hungarian constitutional tradition and the British one.

NT: You write in the credo of your blog about the importance of unwritten rules in a democracy. The current Fidesz government has spent its first two years in office passing a huge number – over 360 – of new laws, including a new Constitution. Should they have focussed more on improving Hungary’s unwritten political culture?

FH: The unwritten rules, the customs, manners, mores, are important in the life of a community. We should take care of these just as much as the written law. The question is what Fidesz should have done with its two-thirds majority in Parliament.

It was high time tohave a new Constitution. The earlier constitution stated clearly its temporary nature. The problem was the way they proceeded to renew it. They thought that the two-thirds majority meant that they did not need to heed who would actually take part in the constitutional procedure. They did not consider any compromises, any gestures, any ways to try to convince at least those parties which were nearer to them than the Socialists – like the LMP (Politics Can be Different). Perhaps in some issues even the right radical Jobbik could have been a partner – although that is a more risky claim, and I know the risks. There was some space to manoeuvre, mainly with the liberal Politics Can be Different, because their deputies did make some gestures towards Fidesz, like attacking (former Socialist Prime Minister) Ferenc Gyurcsány in court. There was such space, there was no risk attached, and if they had done so, the whole story would be different now.

NT: To establish a political culture, you need several sides willing to reach agreement. Are the opposition also guilty in this respect?

FH: The fact that a whole political elite went bankrupt shows that they must have made mistakes. The election in 2010 showed that the electorate was fed up with the political elite, they wanted a tabula rasa. Two old parties fell out of Parliament, two new parties entered, and the two-thirds majority for Fidesz showed that the electorate wanted a radical break. So yes, the Left should have reflected upon their radical mistakes, and the fact that they did not even consider the possibility of their own reform shows that they did not do so. And in their everyday political strategy, like whether to take part in the constitutional procedure, whether or not to attack the government through their allies abroad, they made tremendous mistakes. Not only for the country but also for themselves. You cannot become reliable and credible if you behave like this. Although it was, in a way, natural that they should want revenge, after the damage done to them. This is human nature.

NT: Was it the conflict between the two main political blocks which harmed the country most in the past twenty years, or was it the mistakes of one side or the other?

FH:One should not forget about the heritage of the twentieth century in Hungarian history. Since the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 the political elites have made a series of wrong decisions. Also, totalitarian foreign forces invaded the country in 1944 and 1945, so there were no good examples. Under these conditions the political elite could not be socialized in the democratic ways of dealing with political issues, with conflicts. And the Kádár regime actually prepared this sort of deadlock, when György Aczél (in charge of cultural policy, 1956–88) fanned the cultural war between Urbanist and Populist writers. This laid the groundwork for the conflict in Hungarian intellectual circles. Politics, in a sense, took over that conflict, because conflict is useful for politicians. They can rely on it to concentrate their powers and to keep together their electorate. So there was no real interest to overcome this conflict. Both Viktor Orbán and Socialist leaders from Horn to Medgyessy and Gyurcsány were all interested in radicalizing the conflict.

NT: They fell into a trap prepared by György Aczél?

FH: Yes. It gave them an alibi at least. It looks like a battle of world-views, but actually it’s just a good strategy for short-term political advantages, and is not good in the long run for the country. Politics has infiltrated every field of life. If Fidesz had really wanted to create a tabula rasa, they should have de-politicised some areas of public life, and established a long-term strategy by making agreements with the opposition in the interest of the whole political community. Areas like social security, education, and the health services can only be dealt with on a long-term basis.

NT: What has Fidesz done right in your view?

FH: I still support the idea that they are in power. First of all because there is no real alternative. If that was the choice of the electorate, it shows that there is no real competition at the moment. But that is not enough of course. We intellectuals like to rely on principles. And Mos Maiorum is about political culture which is not just for short-term advantage, but for a long-term strategy for a country. Fidesz have two more years, and I think they still do have a chance to prove that they can start a tabula rasa. They have not started it yet, but they still might do so. That is why I wrote in Heti Válasz that there is a need for a basic change in the path pursued by this government.

NT: Please be more specific – what would you like the government to do?

FH: I think that within Fidesz there are two groups, at least. One which says that the government is not on the right track because it is not radical enough – that no revenge was taken on the police leaders (responsible for police repression of protests in 2006), that there was no real judicial retribution for the corrupt government policies (of Socialist-led governments from 2002–2010) and so on. The other group says that the problem with Fidesz is that they are still stuck in the 20 year old trap, that the party has not yet started a new phase. The question is: how could it be done? In my view, the problem with the old Constitution was that there was no agreement on basic values in the change of system (in 1990). So what is still needed is to have basic values defined and accepted by the whole political community. That should be the starting point for a tabula rasa. To achieve that you need gestures. It is always the government that has to make the first steps. So they should make those gestures to establish their own credibility as far as the opposition is concerned, and then there could be a real debate about these kinds of basic values. I think the text of the Constitution does not exclude that. With some revisions in 2014, it could be acceptable for the whole political elite, and a new phase could be started. I think that in the two years to come, this is the kind of strategy which should be followed. They ought to open up towards the opposition with real gestures. To find issues which are important to them, and which are acceptable politically for Fidesz, and in this way to establish the sort of trust necessary for a new “value catalogue”. Once that is established, this could be the starting point for the tabula rasa I am talking about.

NT: Do you see a willingness within Fidesz to do that?

FH: There are signs that Fidesz have started to realize that there is no political alternative to this. That the generation of further conflicts does not lead to long- term success. We can see that their popularity has almost fallen to the same level as that of the opposition. That shows a serious decline, and you cannot turn that round without real effort. The case of newly elected President János Áder shows that this can work. The recent government changes also point to that direction, especially the appointment of Zoltán Balog to head the Ministry of Human Resources, and László L. Simon to be the new cultural Secretary of State. Economically there is not much room for manoeuvre, although I think that Matolcsy should be replaced as Minister of Economy, and the post of Minister of Finance restored. But the basic point is to establish an atmosphere of trust in education, in health and in culture.

NT: Surely the opposition could fairly turn round and say, you ignored us for two years, you passed the Constitution and all these laws against our will, you can’t behave like this for two years then suddenly hold out the olive branch?

FH: Exactly. So that means that the price (of cooperation) now is higher than it would have been two years ago. But you have to pay a price for your success. That is the price that Fidesz have to pay. I think that what we see right now is a downward spiral. Conflict is generated, which in turn generates new conflicts, and it’s a never ending story. But there is a chance to change the direction – into an upward spiral. If you start to compete, not to say something wilder about your opponent, but how to say something milder about your opponent, there could be a competition in that, which would create a kind of upward spiral.

NT: Hungary gets a bad press internationally. Is the criticism fair? Your own criticism comes from a rather more sympathetic starting point.

FH: I think the coverage is not fair, but it is quite reasonable. Fidesz were blind to the real weight of the international media. Earlier when Viktor Orbán was in power, Hungary was not a member of the European Union, and there was no economic crisis. These two facts, plus the Presidency in the first year, created a tremendous pressure on Fidesz, and they were not prepared for that. They thought they could just follow the usual tactics: keep together the domestic voters, don’t worry about the foreign press. But these tactics did not work. By now they realize that. Just look at the current changes in government personnel. Péter Szijjártó, formerly the spokesman for the Prime Minister will now be responsible for his foreign affairs. So this shows that there is a need for this job. This also shows a criticism of the foreign ministry. This is another sign that they are reflecting on what went wrong. Fidesz have to realize that we are a member of the EU, we are a member of the Western political tradition, we cannot speak a different language.

NT: Can the Constitution and some of the more controversial laws, like the Media Law, still be changed? Is Fidesz capable of climbing down on legislation that is so ideologically important to them?

FH:There are issues still pending. The reare issues before European institutions, which have attacked certain items of Fidesz legislation. The Hungarian Constitutional Court is also preparing new decisions. That means that in the next two years, further clashes can be expected, which can cause a bad press for Fidesz just as we approach the campaign period. So Fidesz have an interest in minimizing and calming down the external attacks, it is in their interest to try to negotiate on these issues.

They can do this in two ways – by externally saying that we are nice guys, but continuing as before at home. But that would be a double game. Instead, they ought to use the same sort of approach to politics at home as abroad, to bring their policies into line with each other, internally and externally. They went so far away because they knew there will be a need to return to certain issues, and that they will lose certain pending judicial procedures. They have already realized that. There is space for them to reconsider some issues, and that would create a minimum ground for negotiations.

NT: The Prime Minister sometimes gives the impression that he regards Jobbik as the most serious rival to Fidesz, rather than the left-liberal parties. Is that also your impression, and do you think he’s right?

FH: I think he is right in the following sense. It would be good for him if that were the case, as he can then present himself as the good, Western-style politician against these radical fundamentalists. Jobbik can never win an election, they will never have 50 per cent plus one in the elections. So this is practical thinking on his part, but it is not based on reality. The reality is that the Left is his main opposition. The Polish case is unlikely here – a choice between the right and the radical right. I think there will be some sort of an alliance on the Left, and that will be the main opposition to Orbán.

NT: Viktor Orbán has changed often in his political career – some say for opportunistic, others for pragmatic reasons. He’s still rather young – can he change?

FH: He was and is the most successful politician in Hungary. 25 years in the frontlines of politics. Two terms as PM – his is a real success story. The problem is that the country is in deep problems, as the result of 22 years of free politics. So he is in need of change, for his country’s sake, as well as for his party. His fate depends on his ability to change. I think he can.

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