Hungary’s self-destructive demons

The JC Essay


By Thomas Ország-Land, March 8, 2013
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NUMEROUS statues and plaques have recently been unveiled and prominent squares and avenues are being renamed up and down Hungary in honour of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the country’s wartime regent — the politician most responsible for the murder of close to 600,000 Jews during the Holocaust.

Elie Wiesel, the survivor and Nobel Laureate, last year returned a prestigious award bestowed on him by the Hungarian government, in protest against its recent rehabilitation of two minor, deceased writers whose only claim to fame was their antisemitism. The latest international religious freedom report issued by the American State Department criticised the rise of antisemitism in Hungary and the failure of the authorities to prosecute the disseminators of aggressive racists statements. Much of the blame for this must surely lie with Viktor Orbán, the authoritarian, populist, ultra-Conservative Hungarian Prime Minister.

But, in a timely and brilliant analysis, Paul Lendvai, the doyen of European foreign correspondents, rightly refrains from calling Orbán an antisemite.

In his unbridled lust for personal power, Orbán appears to have foolishly released the long suppressed, xenophobic hatreds festering in Hungary’s collective consciousness. Those demons are likely to destroy him and capture his people. Lendvai and many others well disposed toward Hungary fear that, in the absence of a credible, coherent, democratically minded parliamentary opposition, the rising discontent of the electorate may one day force Orbán’s Fidesz administration to share power with the relentlessly growing, far-right Jobbik party, a creature of his own making.

Wartime propaganda trash promoting popular racial hatred against the Jews is

Lendvai has been based in neighbouring Vienna since the failed anti-Soviet Hungarian revolution of 1956, in which he participated as a freedom fighter. He is a Jew who lost family in the Shoah and witnessed as a young adolescent in Budapest the gratuitous murder of tens of thousands of civilian captives by the Nazi rabble of the Hungarian Arrow-Cross — the role models of the Jobbik party today. His sympathetic coverage of Hungary’s now floundering efforts to build a liberal democracy after the painful decades of Soviet tyranny that ended nearly 25 years ago won the country many friends abroad.

I worked with Lendvai for years when he was Central Europe correspondent for the Financial Times, where I often prepared his copy for publication — and I learned to respect the insightful, sober accuracy of his reporting. Now 81 and editor-in-chief of the Viennese journal Europäische Rundschau, Lendvai is often quoted and consulted by the English and German press and academia.

But his name is constantly being smeared by the rightist Hungarian media, which links him, without verifiable evidence, to the bygone Communist secret police. His book launches in the German-speaking world are occasionally marred by threats of violence from the vociferous expatriate Hungarian far-right. His latest book — Hungary between Democracy and Authoritarianism — is essential reading for diplomats, politicians and investors as well as the informed public concerned about the disturbing rise of antisemitism in the region.

The book has been impressively endorsed by the Hungarian political and intellectual elite in their own way. After the first prospective publisher of an earlier, Hungarian version backed out under government pressure, the book was published elsewhere and became a best-seller. In it, Lendvai describes Orbán as a “master tactician,” “a gifted populist,” a “radical and consummate opportunist,” a “ruthless power politician who believes not in ideas but in maximizing his power without any compunction,” an irresponsible manipulator “giving vent to Hungarian nationalism” and “tapping into fear and prejudice at a moment of crisis”.

Orbán’s second period of rule was secured by a landslide election victory in April 2010.

It followed a sustained campaign of violent street demonstrations, fuelled by frustration with the global recession that badly hit a post-Communist country unprepared for the boom/bust cycles of Western capitalism. Hungary’s neo-Nazis seized the opportunity to emerge as arguably the nastiest and best-organised of their ilk within the EU.
Xenophobia here feeds on fertile soil. Some seven decades after the Holocaust, Hungary still doggedly declines to properly confront its murderous past. As the generations march on, their inherited sense of suppressed guilt periodically surfaces in aggressive denial.

For example, the Hungarian history atlas prescribed for secondary school use in 2009 did not even mention the wartime anti-Jewish racial laws, the deportations to Auschwitz, or indeed the Holocaust. And the wartime propaganda trash promoting popular racial hatred against the Jews is still in circulation.

Lendvai quotes a long list of depressing educational and social data.

According to research, only four per cent of the present generation of Hungarians aged 18-30 know the meaning of the word “Holocaust”. Only 13 per cent can give a figure for the number of its victims. Two thirds of the adult population believe that the Jews of Hungary are too powerful. Half squarely blame the Jews for the world economic crisis.

Jobbik won 47 of the 386 seats in the single-chamber Hungarian parliament in the last elections, capturing 23 per cent of the vote. Its supporters are mostly young men, and their numbers are dramatically swelling at the expense of Orbán’s Fidesz party. This lures Orbán further into the mire of radical rightist politics as he courts young racists in the hope of reversing the trend.

Consequently, the police stand idly by as Jobbik’s uniformed paramilitary wing, outlawed by the courts under a previous administration, marches again displaying the regalia of the defunct Arrow Cross, spreading fear in the targeted Jewish and Roma communities. There have been numerous recent attacks in the old ghetto district of Budapest on unaccompanied elderly Jews, including a widely loved and respected, former chief rabbi aged 90.

Lendvai notes that “the genies Orbán has conjured up in his thirst for power have spun out of control… [Yet] I still believe that the real danger comes not from the neo-Nazis or those who seek solutions in violence but rather from the… silence of the political right around Orbán and, with a very few exceptions, the Catholic and Protestant churches”.

Orbán’s popularity is significantly waning. His administration could face defeat in the 2014 elections if the fractured democratic opposition manages to form a single platform. Paradoxically, the substantial decline of Orbán’s approval rates stems from his astonishing personal success. He has built a political establishment totally subject to his control and reduced the legislature to a rubber-stamp.

Fidesz won 53 per cent of the vote in the last elections, cast in a 64 per cent turnout. By means of a quirk of the electoral law, this gave the party a two-thirds parliamentary majority. All the deputies of his party, and even the state president and the chairman of the legislature, have been chosen personally by Orbán. They owe their loyalty to him rather than to the electorate.

In little over two years, this parliament has managed, in a frenzy of legislation, to disable the essential checks and balances of democratic control. No aspect of Orbán’s radical reform programme had been disclosed, let alone debated, before the elections. The centre-piece of the reform is a new constitution passed without cross-party consensus and already modified six times.

It shirks the question of Hungary’s culpability for the Shoah and trivialises its significance by equating that crime against all humanity with the subsequent Soviet occupation. The constitution also drops the word “Republic” from the official name of the country, leaving the door open for Orbán to crown himself king. Seriously.

A long series of new laws and decrees exposes the press to prohibitive fines potentially issued at will at the hands of a committee of political appointees, emasculates the judiciary by replacing independent-minded judges with party hacks, and redraws constituency boundaries to favour Fidesz. The administration has also challenged or undermined the independence and effectiveness of such essential institutions as the central bank and the office of the parliamentary ombudsman.

The FT summed up the reforms thus: “Together they bestow inordinate power on the ruling party. The prime minister can claim to have won the last election fairly. Now he is deploying a two-thirds majority in parliament to deny opponents the same possibility.”

There is more. An effective change of administration under the new rules would be virtually impossible to establish because, even if another party were to win the elections, the existing Fidesz office holders in charge of the key national institutions would continue to run the country. The reason: these executives have been appointed for terms ranging from six to nine years by a law stipulating that they could be removed from office only by subsequent legislation requiring another two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Outside these institutions, Orbán’s extra-parliamentary power extends through client networks embracing the mass media, business, industry, agriculture, diaspora organisations, art and education funding, regional administration and, of course, the civil service.

Many of the key relationships in this informal maze of dependence were originally forged in the dying days of Soviet power. Its dominant participants then were among the brightest communist cadres who learned how to secure for themselves and each other the choicest pieces from the disintegrating state structure. Today, they are the Hungarian oligarchs.

To survive, an autocratic, populist regime must focus the hostility of its outraged electorate on real or imagined enemies abroad. Orbán has thus declared a national freedom struggle, in the idealised spirit of the 1956 revolution, against such safe targets as the EU, the International Monetary Fund — and foreign correspondents, especially Lendvai.

All this has frightened away foreign investors. Global credit rating agencies have responded by downgrading Hungary’s public debt to junk status. Cheaper money may or may not be forthcoming from the IMF, which does not want to see Hungary go bankrupt for fear of fresh riots possibly fanned and exploited by the volatile neo-Nazis.

Charles Gati, a distinguished, Hungarian-born academic, is quoted by Lendvai as saying: “This country is no longer a Western-style democracy. It is an illiberal, or managed, democracy in the sense that all the important decisions are made by Orbán”.

To George Kondád, sociologist, best-selling novelist and Lendvai’s lifelong comrade in the struggle to build a liberal democracy, Hungary — despite all the efforts since the collapse of communism — remains “a junk country with a junk administration and a junk prime minister”.

Lendvai himself grimly states: “In my view, there is nothing to suggest that the Orbán regime could be seriously threatened (at the polls) by the left in the foreseeable future”.

Though Lendvai despairs, I do not. For the tyrants of the modern world tend to survive for any significant length of time only when protected by mighty domestic industrial infrastructures or by foreign interests — and Orbán enjoys no such support. He is in charge of a weak European economy surrounded by neighbours committed to integration with the mature Western democracies.

The Hungarian Prime Minister is a lonely, frail figure driven by a fatal attraction to power and plagued by its attendant paranoia. His command structure is based on the unquestioning obedience of professional managers prepared to serve any cause or master. When Orbán inevitably succumbs to the intolerable pressure exerted by the democratic opposition and the paranoia generated by his own style of administration, his painfully constructed edifice of control must collapse with him.

Thomas Ország-Land is a poet and foreign correspondent who writes from London and Budapest. His next book will be ‘The Survivors: Holocaust Poetry for Our Time’ (Smokestack/England, 2014)

Last updated: 9:45am, March 8 2013