Hungary: A country divided
1 February 2011
The government of Viktor Orbán (Fidesz) has succeeded in consolidating its power, including control over the media, and is preparing to amend the Constitution. Is the sudden set-back to democracy in Hungary just a hiccup, or is it a systemic phenomenon that could spread to other central European states? Respekt reports from Budapest.
"The people by and large haven’t voiced the reasons for their vote, but it’s clear they’re tired of corruption, poverty and unfulfilled promises of eight years of government by post-communists and liberals. They believe in Orban because he has a vision,” says political philosopher András Lanczi.
His modern office in one of the buildings of Corvinus University in the centre of Budapest looks out over the Danube. Though he guards his academic independence, Lanczi is considered an important intellectual pillar behind Fidesz. During our meeting with him the phone rings three times with requests for interview from foreign television stations. “It’s all the fuss over the media law," he says apologetically. Criticism from Brussels and across the entire EU annoys him and makes him slightly restless.
"The West simply doesn’t trust new EU members. It criticised Slovenia and the Czech Republic, too, after they took over the presidency," Lanczi says. But how then does one explain the concerns expressed and harsh words of criticism heard from prominent Hungarians as well? At that moment Lanczi, a benign man in his fifties, with a round face, unexpectedly raises his voice.
Orban gives hope for order
"Who are these critics? Paul Lendvai, the snitch in Vienna for the Hungarian Communists? György Konrad, who lets on that he was a dissident but was able to travel freely in the 80s? Miklós Haraszti, who simply loathes Orban? This Orban who was genuinely persecuted under communism, and there’s clear documentary evidence to prove it?"
As comes out in other interviews, personal grudges against ideological opponents on both right and left permeate Hungarian political life to an extent unimaginable even in the fierce arena of Czech politics.
The origins of Orban’s landslide can be traced to recent and not so recent history. Over the last 80 years Hungarians have experienced a series of defeats – in both world wars and in 1956 – and that famous goulash socialism of Janos Kadar then dug the country into a black hole of debt that the state has still not climbed out of.
If his economic approach runs aground, he’ll be in trouble
"People want to finally escape the trap, and Orban gives them hope for order, justice and a strong state," says Lanczi. It also helped that the new government refused a loan from the International Monetary Fund and imposed high taxes on banks and firms, especially foreign ones.
Another corner of Budapest, another University – the Central European University. The celebrated and influential dissident of intellectual "liberal circles”, Janos Kis is sometimes remarkably in tune with his ideological opponent, Lanczi. "The causes of the current situation are political rather than sociological or historical," he explains. The main cause is the weakness and corruption of the left, which brought about its "moral collapse".
Orban is now the major figure in Hungarian politics, and the conservatives that he leads sense they have come into a historic opportunity to fundamentally change the state. "When Orban taxed the banks, it was popular. But the nationalisation of pension funds and the attack on the Constitutional Court went too far. And if his economic approach runs aground, he’ll be in trouble."
The law was approved by a free parliament
Budapest may come across as a small provincial town of sleepy restaurants and half-empty streets. The Budapest of political storms, rough and rude and full of loathing, is a Budapest of clay whose life has been blown into it by the media. The media are divided into right and left, and between the two is that virtual yet impenetrable wall that the journalists themselves do not cross. Nor do they talk to each other. They don’t even read each other.
"The media war has gone on for 20 years," says Peter Csermely, deputy editor of the largest right-wing daily, Magyar Nemzet. He describes how the left-wing media, at home and abroad, and for no reason, denounce the right and its government as fascists and anti-Semites. "And yet when, under the former government, the police beat up anti-government protesters during a memorable protest in October 2006, the liberal media didn’t let out a peep. Is it any wonder that, after all that, the new media law requires “balance” in the media?"
Is it not odd, however, that Csermely’s newspaper is advocating a law that allows the new Media council (all five of whose members were appointed by Fidesz) to impose crushing financial penalties at its sole discretion, and which, for example, introduces mandatory registration of media – registration that needs the consent of the council? Should the media, regardless of ideological labels, not defend the widest possible freedom of expression, in the common interest? "The law may be strict, but it was approved by a parliament that came out of free elections," adds Csermely.
Orbán’s policy is based on hatred
As symbolically as could be – on the opposite bank of the Danube – sits the editorial headquarters of the largest left-wing newspaper, Népszabadság. An Austrian television crew is just vacating the office of Károly T. Vörös, chief editor. The editor invites a follow-on interview and in fluent German quickly summarises the situation:
"The division of society can be laid at the door of Orbán’s policy, which is based on hatred,” says Vörös. “But just between us,” he goes on, “the Hungarians are a very singular people. They feel they’ve been living for centuries under foreigners – Turks, Austrians, Russians – and even after 20 years they still haven’t grasped that they’re free now. And they don’t like capitalism. In parliament today, all four parties are anti-capitalist, albeit for different reasons.”
In early January Népszabadság came out with a blank front page on which was written only one sentence, in every European language: “Press freedom under threat in Hungary." Newspapers are preparing a submission to the Constitutional Court and they believe it will succeed. Vörös, however, does not expect any cooperation with the right-wing media editors, with whom relations are cool.
Translated from the Czech by Anton Baer