Hungary Insight

Read this before you write about Hungarian democracy

Western media outlets have been playing a part in enabling the erosion of institutions in Hungary. But there is a way forward. hungarian democracy

Article originally published on Medium.

On May 13, a man in Hungary was taken away from his home by the authorities for writing a Facebook post that criticises the governments’ handling of the current crisis¹. The official motivation for the arrest was the alleged spread of fake news.

Judging from what we know so far, this seems to be far from the truth. The man was quite simply expressing his opinion on the matter. Both my right to write this article and his right to do so were granted to us by the same legal source — the Hungarian Basic Law, written (unilaterally) and introduced (unilaterally) by the current regime.

No American conservative in their right mind would allow such a transgression of constitutional rights. None of the young activists that brought down communism in 1989 would be happy with seeing police knocking on people’s doors for expressing their opinion. Fidesz — Hungary’s current ruling party — is supposed to represent both conservatives and the anti-authoritarian youth of the 80s.

But this is not the US. And this is not 1989. This is Hungary, and this is 2020.

The most burning question at hand is why a great share of the Hungarian electorate seems to be blind to the government’s infringement of democratic values. I will here investigate the deep misunderstanding that lies at the heart of the issue and — spoilers — I will put part of the blame on Western² progressive media. It’s important to emphasise, however, that:

  1. The accusation of authoritarianism against Hungary is far from unwarranted, as exemplified by the events that I alluded to above;
  2. It’s clear that I’m generalising here, as ‘Western media’ falls short of a definite category. I don’t want to bore the audience by typing out “those outlets that are guilty of the shortcomings that I’m about to expose here, most of them being from North America and Western Europe”, so I’ll go with the simplified version instead.
  3. The main blame for Hungary’s wandering away from democracy lies not on any outsider, but on us Hungarians. This cannot, however, blind us to the fact that external political discourse has not been entirely helpful (if at all) in opposing the process.
Orban-Democracy-Freedom-House
For essentially a decade now, the public discourse on Hungary has been trapped in an ever-repeating vicious circle.

Why Western progressive media is to blame?

For essentially a decade now, the public discourse on Hungary has been trapped in an ever-repeating vicious circle. It’s a postmodern spectacle where each party tends to confirm their own narratives through the actions of the other. The screenplay goes something like this:

Orbán accuses Western liberals of attempting to take away Hungary’s sovereignty. Orbán infringes on the abstract ideals of liberal democracy. Orbán gets criticised for infringing upon said ideals. Orbán accuses Western liberals of attempting to take away Hungary’s sovereignty.

It’s a self-reinforcing process. Each op-ed published on prominent newspapers on the state of Hungarian democracy becomes propaganda material for the government. Their content confirms the median voter’s anxiety of losing grasp over their community to foreign powers. In a way, conservatives in Hungary want to “take back control”. Remind you of anything?

To someone unfamiliar with the intricacies of Eastern European history, this can easily seem absurd. “What is it about liberal democracy that would make one lose control? The whole point is to gain control over the government’s actions.” Such a reading misses three essential points, however. hungarian democracy

a. Liberal democracy as a colonising force

On one hand, liberal democracy is not native to Hungary. It’s an exotic foreign good. An import that was extremely popular for a very long period nevertheless: for much of the three decades following the regime change in 1989, the Hungarian electorate was fairly enthusiastic with Western values. Orbán himself championed some sort of classical conservative-liberal stance in 2006, often criticising then Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány for his involvement with Russia and the wave of police violence that flared up in response to protests against his government.

But all foreign things eventually go out of fashion. Perhaps made worse by the painful hangover of unfulfilled expectations, Hungarians turned away from Western values. Liberal democracy came to be associated with the shock-therapy privatisation of the 90s, the political and fiscal crisis of 2006, and the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Made worse by the mishandling of the Eurozone in subsequent years and the mass-migration of 2015, progressivism became synonymous with instability, unpredictability, and precarity. But most of all, it came to mean something alien. A colonising force.

b. The new privilege of national self-determination

We thus get to the second important factor in Hungary’s reluctance towards liberal values: sovereignty. This may escape many Western commentators, but national self-determination is a relatively new privilege for Eastern European countries. Perhaps there is no better way to put this than to use the words of Branko Milanovic:

When one draws the line from Estonia to Greece […], one notices that all currently existing countries along that axis were during the past several centuries (and in some cases, the past half-millennium), squeezed by the empires: German (or earlier by Prussia), Russian, Habsburg, and Ottoman. All these countries fought more or less continuously to free themselves from imperial pressure […] Their histories are practically nothing but unending struggles for national and religious emancipation […].

[The 1989 revolutions] were often interpreted as democratic revolutions. Thus the current “backsliding” of East European countries toward overt or covert authoritarianism is seen as a betrayal of democratic ideals or even, more broadly and extravagantly, of the ideals of the Enlightenment. […] This is however based on a misreading of the 1989 revolutions. If they are, as I believe they should be, seen as revolutions of national emancipation, simply as a latest unfolding of centuries-long struggle for freedom, and not as democratic revolutions per se, the attitudes toward migration and the so-called European values become fully intelligible.

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Each op-ed published on prominent newspapers on the state of Hungarian democracy becomes propaganda material for the government.

c. The Hungarian conception of democracy

Thirdly, there is a misunderstanding about the very meaning of democracy. The Anglo-Saxon conception of democracy is less about majority rule and more about minority protection. It’s less about what the state should do than it is about what it cannot do. The American constitution is essentially one giant document that limits the powers of government. This approach comes from hundreds of years of organic civic progress that we lack in much of Eastern Europe. hungarian democracy

The Hungarian conception of democracy, on the other hand, is intimately linked to national independence and majority rule. For large portions of our history, foreign invasions have been synonymous with tyranny³. For many Hungarians, democracy equals elections; a system where the will of the people is polled through fair and regular voting. Crucially, this condition was not fulfilled in the Soviet era. One can easily notice how most government officials, when confronted with the accusation of authoritarianism, will refer to results of the most recent elections.

This is what Orbán means by ‘illiberal democracy’. The expression is an oxymoron when observed through the lenses of generations of democratic rule — understandably so. It makes more sense, however, in the (erroneous) conception of democracy as sovereign, independent majority rule.

An outdated image of authoritarian regimes

Perhaps one of the best examples of the deep misunderstanding of the inner workings of Hungary is a recent CNN interview with Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó. The interview came in the wake of new legislation introduced by the parliament that gave special powers to the executive branch without a definite time limit. In typical fashion, the ‘Corona Law’ was designed not mainly as a power grab, but as a provocation.

The wording of the legislation allowed for two interpretations. On one hand, the state propaganda was able to frame it as a democratic measure using the peculiar standards that we discussed above. On the other hand, the Corona Law was authoritarian enough that no opposition party could vote for it with a clear conscience. The Machiavellian ploy worked perfectly: having refused to back the measures, opposition parties were framed as traitors of national unity who refuse to overcome political differences in times of dire crisis. The opposition had no choice but to play their part in the spectacle. hungarian democracy

A similar dynamic played out in Szijjártó’s recent CNN interview.

Accused of infringing upon democratic principles, the foreign minister repeatedly counters by bringing up the legislation’s formal content. A battle between the spiritual and the concrete, the vague ideals of democracy and the down-to-earth attitude of majoritarian governance unfolded. All Eastern Europeans reading this article will know which one prevailed. To everyone else, I recommend watching the video in its entirety.

The culmination of the spectacle comes at 5:03 when the journalist makes a factual error, claiming that the Hungarian parliament has not been in session. It’s a dire mistake to make in a game of details and optics, and it proves to be the ultimate occasion for the foreign minister to prove his narrative. To many Hungarians, this footage is the umpteenth confirmation of their belief that Western media are out to get their elected government by accusing them of authoritarianism.

While I may be seeing too much into this, I can’t help but think that the interview is symptomatic of the outdated image Western liberals have of contemporary authoritarian regimes. The narrative seems to be populated by past-century, soviet-era cliches that don’t apply anymore to systems that are much more subtle than they used to be. The game has changed; there are new players in town, and the old tools won’t work on them.

Hungarian democracy, and the importance of perception

To adequately criticise the Hungarian establishment, we need to understand why the regime is still widely popular among the electorate after nearly a decade of governance littered with undemocratic measures. The most important points in favour of the current regime are, in my judgement, the following: hungarian democracy

  1. Relative macroeconomic stability and upper-middle-class economic prosperity since the 2008–2012 crisis, with a special emphasis on employment;
  2. Lack of credible opposition alternatives exacerbated by a multi-party structure that is inadequate to win elections faced with the current electoral law;
  3. The protection of Hungarian national interests against global neoliberal forces.

Whether any of the above is factually true is of no importance at the moment; what matters is perception. Any faction that aspires to take Fidesz’s place at the helm needs to fulfil three criteria to the very least: (1) guarantee the macroeconomic stability of the country, (2) crowd out rival opposition parties, possibly by having experienced and credible policymakers, and (3) pledge to protect Hungary’s national independence.

If one truly wishes to counter the regime’s rhetoric, then it is essential to acknowledge the achievements for which it is appreciated domestically and counter the strongest points of the propaganda. Any subsequent criticism will become more credible and, more importantly, won’t trigger the Pavlovian anxiety of undoing the progress that has been made in the past decade. We could thus break the vicious circle of postmodern spectacle and ground the conversation in reality. hungarian democracy

Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s. It won’t delay on the Ides of March.

hungary-orban-national-consultation-roma-prisoners
Hungary is not Orwell’s 1984. Hungary is not Stalinist Russia. Orbán’s regime is an entirely new, and in some ways very successful political enterprise.

Understanding what Hungary isn’t

I want to make it clear that I think it is possible to build long-lasting liberal democratic institutions in Hungary. But the road to get there is tortuous, and I have a feeling that few are willing to walk the path. It takes dialogue, particularly with people that we may instinctually disagree with, but whose demands are nevertheless understandable. It takes compromise. And most of all, it takes ruthless self-criticism.

Perhaps before understanding what Hungary is, the world needs to understand what it isn’t. Hungary is not Orwell’s 1984. Hungary is not Stalinist Russia. Orbán’s regime is an entirely new, and in some ways very successful political enterprise. The only way to effectively criticise the current establishment is to know both its merits and its shortcomings. The system is not to be brought down — it is to be improved upon. And to do that, one needs to propose credible alternatives that don’t dismantle the achievements of the past decade while still managing to make steps forward in democratising the country. Sacrificing stability on the altar of democratic ideals won’t cut it for most Hungarians.

In many ways, it makes sense that Orbán’s graduate dissertation is heavily influenced by the work of Antonio Gramsci. Orbán understands hegemonic discourse, and he understands his place in it. Our job is not to play a part in the act, but to deconstruct its very premise.

So this is my plea to the West: if you truly wish to help Hungarian democrats, then stop playing your part in the grand spectacle directed by Orbán. Do your homework. Make an effort to understand this place and, more importantly, understand why this regime is popular.

Make your criticism sharp, relevant, and true. I promise you it will make a difference. Hungarians aren’t deaf; they just don’t speak your language.


[1] — It is due to be noted that I have not had the chance to fact-check this news as of the publication of this writing. The information comes from a rather reliable local source. I will update the article for future developments.

[2] — I’m aware that ‘the West’ is a highly dubious concept, but it’s reiterated both by the government and the liberal media. It is, therefore, an important notion insofar as it helps us understand the spectacle that Fidesz has been proposing.

[3] This reading of history is, of course, rather romanticised. There are plenty of examples of self-inflicted tyranny in Hungarian history. It is nevertheless true in a mythological sense, as a large share of the electorate believes it to be true.

Main photo credit: Viola Fátyol — Kisses in a Hurry, 2018, Budapest, Hungary.

6 comments on “Read this before you write about Hungarian democracy

  1. Pingback: Kafkadesk: Read this before you write about Hungarian democracy | Brave New Europe

  2. I am Hungarian and maybe I have a basic misunderstanding: isn’t “democracy” by definition, the rule of majority? As you call it a “down-to-earth majoritarian governance”.
    Why would then “vague ideals of democracy”, or an undefined, pliable concept of democracy be more desirable?

    • Accessing the majority position in a democracy needs to be something that remains possible for new groups and actors on an ongoing basis. Freedom of assembly, freedom to impart and receive ideas/information without the current majority tipping the scales is therefore rather crucial if you don’t want a mere one-shot democracy, i.e. one party wins a majority and then democracy terminates.

    • Attila Rózsavölgyi

      Another Hungarian here. Let me help You there. Having the majority support does mean more responsibility to the minorities – in democracy. Just because someone is stronger doesn’t mean hi must oppress anyone weaker.

  3. Will Odogwu

    Accessing the majority position in a democracy needs to be something that remains possible for new groups and actors on an ongoing basis. Freedom of assembly, freedom to impart and receive ideas/information without the current majority tipping the scales is therefore rather crucial if you don’t want a mere one-shot democracy, i.e. one party wins a majority and then democracy terminates.

  4. Thank you for this great analysis that really helps understand the situation to foreigners like me! Very clear and insightful.

    However there is one point (and only one) which seems strange to me. When you say “liberal democracy is not native to Hungary. It’s an exotic foreign good.” Is is really true?
    I would rague that Hungary DOES have a rich tradition of liberal state and political autonomy. That democracy is not at all something new in Hungary (contrary to other much more recent neighbour states). Therefore, it is not an “excuse” for Hungarians to say “we are illiberal because we have always been”.

    If we compare it to other places in the region (Romania, Slovakia, Czechia, Serbia, Bosnia and H., Slovenia, Croatia), most of these states did not have the national autonomy and the experience of power that Hungary had over the ages. They emerged as fully independent states very late compared to Hungary: some in the XIXth century, some in the XXth century after the first world war. My point is that in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary was not a “colonized” or “dominated” country. The Hungarians were on a higher level than the Poles, Czechs, Romanians, Slovaks, Gypsies and other (stateless) minorities of the Empire. To my knowledge, Hungarians do not refer to this period as a “foreign occupation” but rather as a time when they were co-rulers of the Empire together with the Austrians (for instance in Transylvania, were the Hungarians were the ‘de facto’ rulers).

    My point is that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was very liberal. And it lasted a very long time. Wasn’t it the place where one of the most democratic and liberal culture of Europe emerged? Modern constitutionnal law was born out of Vienna in the XXth century, intellectuals with new controversial ideas also lived and became successful in Vienna (Herzl and zionism, Freud and psychoanalysis, Einstein and relativity… Austrian economists and philosophers…). Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was a great compromise, but Budapest had a lot of power and autonomy too. This was probably the European power where the powers of the capital city Vienna was the least centralized. It seems to me that the Hungarians DO have a strong liberal (if not democratic) tradition, which goes hand in hand with a strong tradition of national autonomy and the development of an efficiant states. For example, Poland did have Hungarian Kings (Stefan Batory), but the Hungarian Kingdom was never ruled by a Pole! State-building and democracy takes time. A lot. I think Hungary had this time. Much more than its neighbours (except Austria of course).

    Could you please correct me if I’m wrong?
    Regards

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