Hungary Goes to the Polls, As the Walls Close In

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A quarter century after its first free elections in 1990, Hungary is running out of democratic options. Sunday’s general election promises little by way of change. The concept of a demos, the idea of an involved, participatory electorate, rings hollow in a political culture geared to short-term financial advantage, where the fabric of politics has been worn thin by apparently endless low-level bribery (mutyi) and self-aggrandisement.

Post-communist Hungarian politics represents machismo writ large; despite the best efforts of green activists and some liberals, it is a dull drone of male domination, where political questions are quickly transformed into traded accusations and where anyone who dares stick their head above the parapet is immediately accused of being the puppet of dark external forces or some traitorous overlord. Liberals are instantly assumed to be cult acolytes of the shadowy political forces who have previously made botched attempts to smuggle a foreign creed onto sacred Hungarian political soil, while pseudo-social democrats inhabit a world of private fiefdoms and patronage mirroring that of their conservative rivals. Objectivity is crushed, not only by expediency, but by necessity. 

There is a sense that the options are closing in on this central-eastern European country, which no longer describes itself as a ‘republic’ on road signs and clings, in what might seem a familiar way, to the trappings of a long-extinct royalism. The hyperactive growth model offered by Ireland to the 2004 class of EU accession countries has been segmented off with police tape, whilst no serious alternative for Hungary has emerged. Out of ideas, Hungary has continued to lag behind Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, all of which have their own economic problems. Some service companies establish offices in Budapest, whilst yet more adventurous German firms may open a few factories in the regions, echoing the M4 corridor’s effect on South Wales. There are pockets of contentment and prosperity. As with South Wales, none of it is enough, despite the subsidies, despite the EU support. 

Hungary’s ‘remaindered’ suffer from a cultural as well as material poverty. The reaction against social commentary and social realism over the last twenty five years, combined with the media industry’s commercial imperatives, has rendered contemporary working class Hungary mute. Society is unable to look itself in the mirror without seeing either a crime scene or a projection of an idealised yuppie lifestyle simulacrum of family values—Reaganite America.  There is, to borrow a phrase from sociologist Jozsef Borocz, a strategic forgetting of all the progressive aspects of the pre-1989 social order. Instead, unreconstructed daily life in a poverty-stricken region of Hungary engenders a culture of aching resentment. It reinforces the rise of neo-feudal power relationships amongst the nascent, if utterly small-time, political and economic elites, which the ruling Fidesz party both serves and encompasses. The sense that Fidesz and the opposition MSZP have agreed to divide the country’s assets between themselves—writ large on occasion—steepens the spiral of hopelessness, as Jobbik, leering in from the far-right, prepares to consolidate and strengthen its grip on the poorest towns in the countryside. 

Few doubt that Viktor Orban’s Fidesz will win another resounding majority on April 6th. An already formidable electoral machine has been reinforced by patronage, in a model resembling a Lego version of Putin’s Russia. The recent agreement between Russia and Hungary to extend the capacity of the Paks nuclear plant was an important political signpost. Even if the opposition managed to overcome the ruling party’s gerrymandering and electoral manipulation, the resulting government would find it difficult to achieve significant reforms. Such an administration, barely centre-left in any meaningful sense, would inevitably comprise a grab-bag of some of the more discredited politicians of the last twenty years, along with some reluctant allies. A recent article on the popular news portal hypothesised that such a coalition, riven by division and encircled by the embedded structures of Orban’s system, could stagger along for a year at most before collapsing, then allowing Fidesz to return. Even if wrong, this gives a sense of the level of optimism surrounding the democratic choices on offer. 

It is now common knowledge that, in order to strengthen their position on the Italian mainland in the course of the Second World War, the Allies helped the Sicilian Mafia to recover its previous eminence after years of being subdued by Mussolini’s anti-Mafia campaigns. After the war, the Mafia thrived, channelling US aid to Europe to entrench their economic control. They were only really challenged, fitfully, from the 1970s onwards. As a consequence, huge business empires have enmeshed with political power at all levels, allegedly providing the continuity between the Andreotti and Berlusconi regimes. Could it be that, not only in Hungary, but also in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic countries, and especially in Romania and Bulgaria, the EU, with its various funding transfers, is unwittingly playing a similar role in the East? Some of these countries seem to now be firming into mafia-states, with hardening crony power structures obstructing the rule of law and preventing economic redress. If, indeed, stark inequality can only be offset by political authoritarianism and rigidity, then the foreign and domestic policies of the core European states are creating monsters in the East. The current crisis in Ukraine may be just a taste of the chaos to come. 

Hungary, unlike postwar Italy, won’t have a relatively comfortable era in which to develop a system which allows Mafia control and a measure of public prosperity to informally co-exist. Hungary’s leaders will be dealing with a world of sharp trade imbalances, huge (if concealed) national deficits, climate change, and energy and materials shortages. Given that Fidesz has acted so decisively against working class interests in the last four years, through the introduction of a flat tax and universal workfare, finding a pitch to the wider electorate has not been easy. The reduction of utility bills (rezsicsökkentés) has formed its main offering in 2014, as Hungary’s privatised utilities, often managed by foreign companies, represent easy pickings and hold out the possibility of installing loyal Fidesz retainers into management and ownership roles. 

Yet this strategy has limited potential. In such perilous times, the takings from a mafia-state may not be sufficient to sate the mafiosi themselves, let alone the wider populace. In order to protect the regime it has created, the Fidesz leadership may feel growing pressure to clamp down. Its failure to transform Hungary’s economy will become increasingly apparent and the current mood of public resignation may not last. The more corrupt Fidesz becomes, the more it has to hide, and the more it desperate it will become to prevent independent reporting and challenges to its authority. In many ways, the real work for the Hungarian opposition has only just begun. 

Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest.