What Is Happening in Hungary Today?

NT: The Fidesz government stands accused of a wide variety of crimes…Is there any sense in which you would admit that government steps are reducing Hungarian democracy?

GS: The list is so long that it is in itself suspect. It means – with only a slight exaggeration – that there is hardly anything sinful or criminal which has not been attributed to the Fidesz government. And that’s a phenomenon that is worth looking at. Why is it that the Fidesz government in the 20 months or so it has been in power, has attracted so much very aggressive comment? Certainly from the left wing opposition in Hungary, and from those abroad who adopt the line taken by the left-wing opposition in Hungary, not least because of the briefings they receive from their Hungarian interlocutors.

Frankly speaking, the answer is no it has not. There is any amount of evidence to the contrary, which very seldom makes it into the western papers, which continue to criticise Fidesz in no uncertain terms. For example, just before the New Year the Constitutional Court, which is supposed to have been emasculated by this ‘terrible’ Fidesz government, was actually ready to throw out three laws which the Fidesz government had passed. In other words – ‘there’s no democracy’ but still the Constitutional Court functions – ‘no checks and balances,’ but still the Constitutional Court does what a Constitutional Court is supposed to do.

Or take this ‘terrible’ media law which came into force 6 and 12 months ago. Actually if you look at the record, the media law has really not done very much at all. And the so-called Media Council, ‘entirely staffed by Fidesz people’ – party loyalists, the Hungarian language uses the term ‘party soldiers’ – they haven’t actually done anything, they have not restricted the freedom of the press. If you look at the Hungarian papers, they continue to attack Fidesz in the most extreme terms, which are almost unimaginable in any other country. The intensity of polarisation in Hungary has to be seen to be believed.

There is also the question of this left-wing radio station, Klub Radio, which failed to get its frequency  renewed. But the devils, or the angels, lie in the details. The Media Council announced on 21 December that another, hitherto unknown company, Autoradio had put in a better offer for the 95.3 FM frequency, and had won the tender. Karola Kiricsi, the spokeswoman of the Council, commented that the Klub Radio tender had been conspicuously weak’ – which was immediately denied by Klub Radio, which has appealed against the decision. What is clear is that Klub Radio offered much less money than the winning bid. Now Klub Radio is run by very experienced people. I can quite understand those who say that Klub Radio did this deliberately, in order to provoke a crisis. Others might argue that they did their level best. No doubt they will subsequently put in yet another application, which will actually contain all the requisite data.

So we’re looking at a very fluid situation in which the left-wing is basically attacking every step taken by the Fidesz government – steps which are not in any way perfect. One example is the law on religious establishments. This was probably superfluous, in that it restricts the charitable tax basis of a number of bodies that called themselves religious, and requires them to apply for re-registration. Some are very dubious, but in the past they got this tax-free status. Historic Hungarian churches got this status automatically. It was probably not necessary to pass this law at this time. Because by doing so Fidesz is attracting attention to areas where there is really no need to focus attention.

What is happening is that the left wing has extremely weak support in Hungary, if we look at the polls of the last two to three months. The 3 left wing parties – the Socialist Party, the Civil Democratic Coalition and this eco-green party, Let Politics be Different – with a bit of good will we can say they would perhaps get 25 per cent support.

Jobbik, the far right party, which is the real danger to democracy is probably pulling ahead of them. At this point I think the left is desperate, and so they’re pulling out all the stops in terms of foreign support, seeing that their support in Hungary is growing weaker all the time. I think this is something that has to be looked at very carefully.

NT: But what about the judiciary? The President of the Supreme Court, Andras Baka was removed from his post after only 18 months of a six year term, after criticising government measures in Parliament. His criticisms were later upheld by the Constitutional Court; the judiciary has been centralised, with control concentrated in just one pair of hands, which happen to belong to the wife of a Fidesz MEP. Surely these are examples of an over-centralisation of power in the hands of the state – a weakening of the institutional structure of checks and balances?

GS: This is certainly the case which being made as far as these reforms are concerned. I think we should also look at the persons appointed, who may or may not be close to Fidesz, but they are also professionals in their own right. When under the previous government similar processes were taking place, nobody said ‘oh, this person has only been appointed because they are devotees of the Hungary Socialist Party or the Party of Free Democrats. In other words, party alignment, party loyalty has only been raised as an issue since the Fidesz government came to power. 

In each case, the point is, that these people may or may not have Fidesz sympathies, or left-wing sympathies, but the question ought to be, are they competent professionals? And the answer is: absolutely yes.

As far as Andras Baka is concerned, my understanding is that he did not fit the legal requirements for his post, he did not have sufficient experience within Hungary.

Let us look at the judiciary as a whole. How do we measure its effectiveness?

We know that the Hungary judicial system is creaking, it functions very slowly. So part of this transformation, this reform is actually about making the judicial system more efficient. At the moment it is not very efficient in Hungary. It can take years before a defamation case goes before a court, say.

This is a part of the problem. There must be some way to make the judiciary more transparent.

The one point I want to make very strongly, is that merely because someone happens to have centre-right attitudes, it doesn’t make them incompetent. This is a constant refrain of the Hungarian Left – that ‘only they have the professionalism’ – this is simply not true. It was never true, and it is not true now.

NT: In the demonstrations against the Gyurcsány government in the autumn of 2006, Fidesz claimed the moral high ground, just as a broad spectrum of opposition groups are claiming it today against the Fidesz government. They argue that the Republic of Hungary was not such a bad construction, and that Fidesz is now riding roughshod over something that was actually functioning more or less well.

GS: This is pretty much what Fidesz was saying 5 years ago, so there is a sort of strange mirror effect. This is what the Left refuses to take on board. There is indeed to my mind a regrettable but definite propensity in Hungarian political culture for the party that is in power to behave as if it had 100 per cent support. It ignores the opposition. Now that was certainly the case in Gyurcsány’s time – although the left wing at that time had just over 50 per cent of seats in Parliament, which was a clear but not all that large majority.

The Fidesz government does have a two-thirds majority, which can be interpreted as a mandate for a thoroughgoing change, and this is what the Left is objecting to. Some of these changes unquestionably work against the interest of the Left. Some I think may work in the interest of the country as a whole.

I think any talk about ‘the end of the Republic of Hungary is frankly silly. I cannot see the problem with the name. It is ridiculous to say the Republic has ceased to exist. Hungary has not ceased to be a Republic!

NT: In 2009, a Pew survey found that Hungarians are the most disappointed people in the former eastern bloc, by the transition to democracy. But the same survey found that Hungarians place more value on the freedom of the press and civil liberties than anyone else. You’ve wasted an opportunity to include these people, haven’t you? If Fidesz had practised power in a more inclusive way, would you not have alienated less people – for example in the wording of the new Constitution?

GS: Public opinion polls show quite clearly that support for Fidesz has declined. By how much is a contentious issue. I think it is possibly partly a sense that too many laws are being passed. And it may be that the effect of these laws is to restrict, to change, to transform basic freedoms, though I myself don’t see it that way. Certainly there is no evidence to support that yet. It may be that in peoples’ minds there is a fear. That is a real problem, but not much can be done about it. The real issue is the economy. There is no doubt that the Fidesz government launched an economic strategy, based on a basically a Keynesian idea of pumping money into the economy, in the expectation that this would start a growth process, which would then find a response in an improving European economy. The latter hasn’t happened! The net result of which is of course that the Hungary state is in some trouble, in terms of its shrinking tax take. Which means of course that the amount of services the state can provide, are looking very difficult, a lot of local governments are in difficulty, and so on.

This is real source of the disappointment. When the GDP per capita is below 20,000 Euros, its still a poor country, especially if we compare it with a wealthy country like Britain. And there is a serious economic crisis. This is a very low baseline. The net result of which is the level of disappointment.

And this is where I see the real vulnerability. One third, or maybe two fifths of the population is at or below the poverty line. Probably ten to fifteen per cent are in deep poverty. These are the people who are vulnerable not to the left wing, but to Jobbik. And that is what the left wing refuses to see, and that is what all the critics of Hungary fail to see – that the deteriorating economy is not helpful to the left, it is helpful to the far right. In any logical thinking, it would be in interest of the Hungarian left to see what kind of strategies they should employ to improve the Hungary economy, and thereby actually to diminish the danger from the far right. But they don’t see it that way. Instead they think that Fidesz is really the far-right – and there I think they are completely wrong.

NT: But you are in power – not the Left! If Fidesz is really interested in excluding Jobbik from the debate – should you not be doing more to build bridges with other parties and civic groups against the far-right?

GS: I’m not persuaded that the left wing parties are ready to accept bridge building – that’s certainly not what I read or hear. As the Hungarian Left relies ever more strongly on its support from the west, it is actually causing serious problems with Hungary’s image, which means of course that western investors will look twice or three times at what is actually going on in Hungary. The ratings agencies don’t look at the fine detail. They form impressionistic assessments, and rely on what various western papers write about a country like Hungary.

If there’s a consistent argument that Hungary is a terrible place where dreadful things go on, that will be enough. And here it seems to me that the Hungarian left, instead of saying – yes there are problems in Hungary, but they can be amended, the country can be transformed, they are saying the opposite. Let me give you a contrast: In Slovakia where dividing line is also very deep between the left and the right, though perhaps not as deep as in Hungary, nevertheless when it comes to supporting the country, left and right are united. That is not the case in Hungary. There’s a clear difference, and part of the explanation why the Hungarian country image is so bad.

NT: There has been considerably criticism of Hungary in recent weeks, not least from Jose Manuel Barroso and Hillary Clinton. Are you concerned that that criticism might grow? Is Hungary heading for a situation where it might be ostracised or punished by the European Commission?

GS: I think there’s a real danger of something along these lines happening.

I don’t think there will be another Austrian type of boycott. But certainly my understanding is that Hungary in European Union terms is subject to the Excessive Deficit Procedure. And although the Hungarian figures are improving, the EU is treating them shall we say with circumspection and not necessarily accepting them at face value. Which means that Hungary may not get out of this procedure, in spite of the efforts of the government.

Certainly the impression I have is that there is very little sympathy for Hungary in Brussels. And that I think is partly to do with the growing international criticism – here again I would say that what I read in the western press is at best a part of the truth, let alone the reality. One recent example of this. Paul Krugman, an economist and law professor from Princeton University, referred to what he called ‘the respected Hungarian think tank’ Patriotism and Progress. But that is a left wing think tank! Its head is Viktor Szigetvári, who was the former campaign chief for the Socialist Party in 2010, and now a close associate of former Socialist-backed Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai. When we come up against distortions like this, we realise that the Hungarian government faces a very serious communication problem. And here I think the Hungarian government has not done well. It has not spent enough time and money and effort and energy, in saying ‘this is a more complex problem, don’t take the simple answer for gospel, there are alternative explanations for what is happening.’ That message is not getting through. And here, I think, there’s a real deficit, one that the government will have to confront and confront soon.

NT: The stress on the importance of the economy. The government expects to start talks with the EU and IMF later this month, but parliament passed two laws which IMF and the European Commission had expressed serious concerns about – which they expressly asked you not to pass, because of fears that they interferes with the independence of the National Bank. Was it so important to the sovereignty of this country to pass those laws? Would it not have been more prudent of the government not to go against international advice?

GS: I can go along with that line of argument, but I would say also ask – where was the IMF, where was the international press, back in 2004-5 when the Gyurcsány government likewise increased the size of the Monetary Council? When they were gunning for the then governor of the National Bank, Zsigmond Járai? It seems to me the precedent was set, that any government is free to change the composition and size of the Monetary Council. There were changes made by the Gyurcsány government as well concerning the post of vice president of the bank. It may be that what upset the Fidesz government, is that the National Bank, which is independent, put up interest rates at the beginning of December or late November, at a time which did not serve the Hungarian economy well. They made credit more expensive, which slows down the recovery which the Hungary government rather hopes will begin in 2012. So you can see that there are counter arguments. I think some of the criticism from the IMF and from the EU is probably justified in terms of the form but not the content of these new laws. But then again, why haven’t they looked at the precedents? Finally I do not think that the actual outcome of this change is all that different from what you find in a number of other EU countries. In other words, Hungary is being singled out for special treatment in a negative sense.

NT: A final question. What do you hope for in the coming period?

GS: I would like to see calm and stability, and general reflection on the part of those who have been criticising Hungary so strongly – a recognition from them that maybe they’ve only got hold of a part of the picture, and not the entirety of the picture. I would rather hope that finally the Hungary government has passed all the so-called cardinal laws that it had to pass, and that actually this will attract less attention in future.

I hope those who listen only to the Hungarian Left will also say maybe actually if we’re going to be fair-minded about Hungary we’re also going to listen to what the Fidesz side has to say too. Above all, I hope they will recognise that the real danger to democracy in Hungary is Jobbik, the radical right. If they get 25 or 30 per cent in the 2014 elections, then there will be real problems for Europe as a whole, not just for Hungary.

What does worry me, though, is the mounting evidence that the Hungarian left is preparing for extra-parliamentary action with the aim of destabilising the democratically elected government. It’s beginning to resemble a colour revolution conceivably. To this end, seemingly, the left is ready to make common cause with Jobbik. Anything like this would be a disaster for democracy in Hungary and, indeed, for Europe as a whole.

György Schöpflin is Member of the European Parliamentfor Hungary (Fidesz), and and formerly Jean Monnet Professor of Politics, University of London.

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