Hungary Insight

What’s the point of writing about Hungarian politics?

Though all journalists would benefit from reading more about Hungary than writing at the moment, there is still plenty of dynamics to pay attention to for the country’s chroniclers.

Those interested in Hungarian politics have started to feel like they are starring in a remake of Bill Murray’s classic 1993-film, Groundhog Day. Every four years, emotions are elevated to new heights in the already hyperpolarised Hungarian public discourse. Every four years, analysts discuss who the favourites are to win the elections, voters contemplate whether the opposition will finally oust Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz from government, and journalists try to find the best angles to cover the campaign from. And every four years, the reality hits everyone in the face as nothing changes and Fidesz win a ⅔ majority.

Since April 3, there have been significant discussions among Hungarian commentators about whether anything they do matters at all, given that the outcome always seems to be the same in every election. Some have gone through (or are going through) this process simply as a matter of professional intellectual contemplation, while others have experienced a mini-crisis or even signs of burnout. While this attitude is somewhat understandable, Hungarian politics is still worth engaging with, albeit undoubtedly in a different way than in the past decade. As Hungarian politicians and voters adjust to the new reality in accepting the possibility that a change of government is no longer possible in the country via an election, journalists also have to fine-tune what aspects of Hungarian politics they focus on in their writings.

Journalists covering Hungary should embrace the late Washington Post publisher, Phil Graham’s notion that journalism is the first draft of history. While plain party politics might have become boring in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, there are certain continuing patterns of Hungarian political and ideological traditions that are still worth attention and analysis.

As political analysts such as Péter Tölgyessy and Ervin Csizmadia regularly point out, it is a recurring pattern in Hungarian political history that a party becomes dominant and practically unbeatable after brief democratic periods. This happened with the Liberal Party in the 19th century, with the right-wing Unity Party in the 1920s, with the communists in the late 1940s, and now with Fidesz.

First and foremost, political journalists and analysts in Hungary should embrace this historical understanding and accept that this is the system in which they must analyse the actions of political actors. Or at least they should offer an alternative framework which is coherent but nevertheless accepts that orthodox political analysis is insufficient to understand the nuances and dynamics of the country’s politics. Regular analysis of campaign methods and political tactics with brief acknowledgements that there is no level playing field won’t cut it anymore.

Second, chroniclers should try and understand the common patterns in the aforementioned periods of Hungarian history and offer their analysis of the current system in light of their findings. This inherently implies more reading than writing for now, which is certainly a challenge in the 2020s rapid news environment. However, those who engage with Hungarian politics either as a writer or a reader should recalibrate their brains to develop a more long-termist approach to their consumption of Hungarian current affairs.

Third, journalists should also focus on the alternatives to party politics and what shapes and forms opposition can take. After all, the greatest setbacks the Orbán regime faced in the past decade were the anti-internet tax protests in 2014, Momentum’s Nolimpia campaign in 2017, and the Fudan protest of 2020. Only the latter was organised by party political forces and both the internet-tax protest organiser András Jámbor and Momentum entered politics after their success outside of it.

And while other than the parties that end up developing a hegemony, political parties tend to be short-lived in Hungary, the intellectual traditions they follow remain consistent. There have always been Hungarian liberals, socialists, conservatives, and national radicals and these intellectual traditions in the country have a clear, continuous trajectory. Where they go next should be an intellectually stimulating point of interest in itself.

Who will win the battle to be the torchbearer of Hungarian progressivism? Though at the moment completely without political representation, the New Left could utilise its emerging institutions to replace liberalism as the primary progressive force in Hungary for the first time since the 1980s. But Hungarian Liberalism could also wake up from its zombie state and learn from the New Left by developing good quality institutions that revitalise and renew the ideology which could then even be embraced by existing parties.

And what of the Hungarian right? How long can Orbán maintain its grip on both the far and moderate right (or as right-wing intellectuals like to call it, Hunnia and Pannonia) in the country? And if the alliance is to be broken, who will be the one to break it, the radical Huns or the moderate Pannons?

Will formal opposition parties finally learn their lesson and start grassroots community building? And if they do, where will these communities be set up geographically? And what activities will they organise for their members?

If not for any other reason, journalists should pay attention to at least some movements within Hungarian politics in order to guide future historians. They will perhaps be able to understand this period of Hungary much better than its contemporaries.

It is also worth paying attention to the interaction between Fidesz and Hungarian society in general. While Fidesz’s propaganda efforts excelled in changing how Hungarians view Russia, Hungarians remain staunchly pro-EU even after a decade of continuous Brussels bashing. Acceptance of the LGBTQ community is even on a complete opposite trajectory in Hungarian society than it is in official government opinion. Why is Fidesz able to plant certain narratives in the Hungarian public and why does it fail with others?

Chroniclers and followers of Hungarian politics should also pay attention to the international context. After all, the Liberal Party’s hegemony collapsed because of the First World War, the Unity Party’s hegemony collapsed because of the Second World War, and the socialist hegemony ended when the Cold War finished. To be able to fully grasp the evolution of Hungarian politics in the coming years, analysts should develop a deeper understanding of the political evolution of the European Union as a whole as well as pay attention to the dynamics in the American Republican Party which increasingly maintains dialogue with the Hungarian illiberals. Besides, how Orbán navigates his way between Hungary’s allies and China is bound to be an interesting story, which the American right’s contrasting hawkish attitude is bound to make even more complicated.

Finally, those who engage with Hungarian politics should fine-tune their senses to detect subtle signs. Though all previous hegemonies ended largely due to external influence, there was always a group that seized the chaos and set up their own regime afterwards. These actors often came not from the hegemonic parties’ formal parliamentary or internal opposition but from brewing extraparliamentary movements.

Therefore, political journalists in Hungary should seek to find which intellectual circles and movements are starting to blossom and are on course to be the best placed to take over once Illiberal Hungary falls. While politics in Hungary is likely at a standstill for years to come, subtle dynamics now will lead directly to whatever comes next in the peculiar evolution of Hungarian political history. That is why it is invaluable to understand and communicate them.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised in Central Europan history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.