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Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Four: Liberation & Democratic Transition in Hungary, 1988-2004.   Leave a comment

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Goodbye János Kádár!

By the end of 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev had clearly abandoned the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ in terms of which the Soviet Union undertook to resort to military force in critical situations in the ‘eastern bloc’ countries. In other words, he intimated that the events of 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia and 1981 in Poland, where an invasion was only prevented by the announcement of martial law, would not be repeated. Kádár, the one-time pioneer of reforms in the bloc, was deeply disturbed by Gorbachev’s aspirations, for they now made any depth of reform possible, whereas the ones enacted up to 1985 in Hungary were the maximum he was willing to concede. It was rumoured among the broad segment of reformers in the party rank-and-file, whose expectations were heightened by Glasnost and Perestroika, that Gorbachev’s statements were being censored in Hungary as well as in the more rigid socialist countries. In the final stage of Kádár’s reforms in Hungary, ‘multiple candidacy’ was introduced for future general elections, allowing ‘independent’, non-party candidates to stand, resulting in ten per cent of the new parliament being composed of such deputies in 1985. Any further step in the opening up of the public sphere would have provided a fundamental challenge to the régime’s power base.

Supported by a faceless crowd of yes-men of his own age in the upper echelons of the party hierarchy, Kádár stubbornly denied any allegation that Hungary was in crisis. When he could no longer maintain this facade, in July 1987 he dropped his long-standing Prime Minister György Lázár, replacing him with one of the several vigorous, relatively young figures who were biding their time in the lower echelons. Károly Grósz was the most characteristic representative of the new technocratic cadres which were in favour of going forward with economic reforms without changing the political system. The policy of transition to a mixed economy based on mixed forms of property (state, co-operative and private) was therefore carried forward with the elimination of subsidised prices; the return, after four decades, of a two-level banking system and the introduction of a new tax system, including progressive personal income tax. Grósz also continued the ‘openness’ policy towards the West by abolishing all travel restrictions, winning Gorbachev’s confidence in the process. The Soviet leader had no objection to getting rid of Kádár, who was aged, sick and tired in every sense of the word. As he outlived his days, the stage was set for a succession struggle.

Besides Grósz, the main contenders included Nyers, the architect of the 1968 economic reforms and Imre Pozsgay, whose commitment to reform extended to the political sphere, in favour of democratisation. He was supported by a sizeable reform wing within the party, as well as by a group of social scientists who prepared, under his protection, a scenario for a transition to pluralism in 1986, Turning Point and Reform. In addition, Pozsgay communicated with a segment of the opposition led by ‘populist’ intellectuals. An investigation within the party and the expulsion of four prominent reformist intellectuals from the party in the spring of 1988 were intended by the ‘old guard’ to deter the opposition within the party, but the measure missed its target. Then on 22 May 1988, Kádár’s long rule came to an abrupt end: the party conference elevated him to the entirely impotent post of Party Chairman, electing Grósz as Party Secretary in his place and completely reshuffling the Political Committee. By this time the different opposition groups that had been germinating for a considerable period in the ‘secondary public sphere’ stepped forward into the primary one and started to develop as political parties, presenting the public with analyses of past and present communism, diagnoses of Hungary’s predicament, and antidotes to it, which proved to be more credible than the versions prevented by officialdom.

From its inception in the late 1970s, the opposition that arose as a viable political alternative a decade later was distinguishable from the post-1968 dissidents both by their ideological orientation and their strategy. Instead of grafting pluralism and democracy onto Marxism, which the experience of 1956 had shown to be futile, they drew on the liberal-democratic and Christian national traditions, and instead of the similarly futile effort to represent these endeavours in the ‘primary’ public sphere, whose organs and institutions were dominated by the party, they created and maintained autonomous organisations. At the outset, these initiatives were confined to a few dozen individuals, maintaining contacts with a few hundred others among the intellectuals of research institutes, university departments, editorial offices and student circles. Through these, their views started to infiltrate into the pages of literary and social science journals of the ‘primary’ sphere that were testing the limits of free speech. From the mid-1980s on, some of them also developed contacts with reformers within the party. Of course, the authorities continued to possess detailed and up-to-date information about the activities of opposition and the groups linked with them. But given the developing dialogue with the West and its increasing dependence on western loans, the régime could not afford to show its iron fist. Whenever the opposition made itself visible by coming out on the streets for alternative commemorations of the 1848 and 1956 Revolutions, up to 1988 arrests, detentions and beatings invariably followed. Otherwise, the régime contented itself with occasional harassment: sporadic searches, the confiscation of illegal publications, the rejection of travel permits, censorship of writers and replacement of editorial boards.

Far from being homogeneous, from the outset, there were clear divisions within the opposition, reflecting the old urban-populist divide, although they maintained a co-operative dialogue until the eve of the transition process. The ‘populists’ identified national ‘questions of fate’ as their main commitment, such as the conditions of Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries, types of social delinquency, demographic problems, the conditions of the Churches, the loosening of communal ties and the effects of communism on the national consciousness. The neglect of these issues by the government, especially the first, led to the beginning of these ‘populist’ nationalist trends, also at the end of the 1970s. From 1983 Sándor Csoóri became a dominant figure among the ‘populists’, with polemical writings combining the above-mentioned themes with a critique of the morally detrimental effects of socialism. New social service periodicals succeeded in outmaneuvering censorship and discussing in a more objective manner an extensive range of sensitive themes, not just Stalinism and the 1956 Revolution, but also anti-Semitism, the condition of the Roma minority, poverty and the anomalies of the social security system. Both liberal Democrats and populists established links with Hungarian emigré organisations in the West, benefiting in the shape of scholarships from the New York-based Open Society Foundation launched by the Hungarian-American businessman George Soros in 1982, which also opened a registered office in Budapest five years later.

In the first half of the 1980s, the endeavour of anti-communist cooperation dominated the relationship of the two camps of the opposition, so different in outlook. A conference was held at Monor in 1985 in June 1985, whose speakers addressed and analysed the most soaring issues of the then generalised crisis. As the transformation of the system responsible for it came on to the agenda, and programmes started to be worked out, the ways of ‘urbanists’ and ‘populists’ parted. In June 1987 the programme of the democratic opposition was published, entitled ‘Social Contract’. They were uncompromising in claiming that the current political leadership was unsuitable to guide the process. Their document concluded that Kádár must go. This was too radical for the populists, who envisaged a more gradual transition, with an active role for reform communists within it. As a result, the democratic opposition was not invited to the meeting of the ‘populist’ camp which took place at Lakitelek, near Kecskemét, where the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) was founded. This was a recognised movement with the goal of transforming into a political party and was formed in the presence of Pozsgay and other reform Communists, on 27 September 1987.

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The Young ‘Liberal’ Democrat, Viktor Orbán, speaking at the re-interment of Imre Nagy in June 1989. These days, neither Liberal Democracy nor Nagy’s Social Democracy are any more fashionable for Orbán and his now ultra-Conservative party and government.

The Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), established on 30 March 1988, originally as an alternative to the Communist Youth League, endeavoured to supersede the urbanist-populist divide and submitted a programme in which a mixed economy, human rights, political pluralism and national values were given equal emphasis. At the same time, it also identified itself as a radical liberal initiative, and for some time during the ‘Transition’, it remained the closest political ally of the former democratic opposition. The ‘urbanist’ counterpart of the MDF was the Network of Free Initiatives, launched on 1 May 1988 which then developed into the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) on 13 November that same year, after their hope of integrating most or all of the democratic opposition became thwarted by the mushroom-like growth of quasi-political organisations, together with professional associations and trade unions in the intervening six months. Shortly afterwards, the ‘historical parties’ reformed themselves: the Independent Smallholder Party re-emerged on 18 November 1988, followed by the Social Democrats in January and the Christian Democrats in April 1989.

Meanwhile, in November 1988, Grósz had passed over the premiership to Miklós Németh who, contrary to expectations, became one of the engineers of transition. He drew reinforcement from the successful manoeuvring of Pozsgay, who arose as an emblematic figure of reform Communist policies by sharpening the divisions within the party through a number of publicly made statements from late 1988 onwards. Pozsgay had avoided getting involved on either side in the 1956 Uprising because he was based in a provincial town at the time. He was an intellectual by instinct and training, who had worked his way up through the system until he and his fellow reformers had been strong enough to vote Kádár, who had once referred to him as ‘impertinent’, out of power in May 1988. It was then that Pozsgay became a member of the Politburo and it was soon after that he, not Grosz, had emerged as the dominant figure in the party leadership. Most notably, his announcements had included breaking the taboo of 1956: the redefinition of the ‘counter-revolution’ was as a ‘popular uprising’, and the urging of the introduction of a multi-party system. This was ratified by the legislature on 11 January, and acknowledged by the party on February 11, 1989. Through a cabinet reshuffle in May 1989, the followers of Grósz were replaced in most posts by pragmatic reformers like Németh himself. This did much to undermine hard-liner positions in the party and to push it to disintegration. The founder of the party did not live to see it. In early May 1989, Kádár was relieved of his offices, and died on 6 July, the same day that Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated.

Even before his total removal from power, it was already being openly said that the Kádár period had come to an end. What had come into existence under his aegis was now in ruins economically. The attempts of the régime at reform had won excessive, flattering judgements in the West, making it more suspect within the Eastern Bloc. But the end of the third decade of Kádár’s rule was overshadowed by the previously whispered, but later admitted, information that Hungary had accumulated a foreign debt of twenty billion dollars, most of it in a couple of years of recklessness. This was where the contradictory, limited national consensus had ended up, in a cul-de-sac of national bankruptcy; this was what the divergence of production of production and consumption, the maintenance of a tolerable standard of living, and the erroneous use of the loans received had amounted to. The heavy interest burden on these debts alone was to have its effects for decades, crippling many early attempts at renewal.

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By July 1989, Hungary had become a de facto multi-party democracy again. Although these parties, new or old, were not mass parties with large numbers of activists, they were able to show that Grósz was wrong to suggest, as he once did at the end of 1988, that the streets belong to us. There were few mass demonstrations during this period, but those that did take place were organised by the opposition and were effective in conveying clear messages. They included mass protests over Ceausescu’s treatment of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, reminding the Communists of their neglect of nationalist issues, and against the proposed construction of the hydro-electric dam system on the Danube Bend, which called attention to the ecological spoliation of communism. On 15 March, the anniversary of the 1848 Revolution, there was a keen competition to dominate the commemorative events in which the opposition scored a sweeping triumph; its main message was that the hundred-and-forty years of demands for civil liberty and representative government was still on the national agenda.

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Above: The Danube Bend at Visegrád, where the river, hemmed in by the Börzöny and Pilis Hills, meanders beneath the castle at Visegrád. After the foundation of the Hungarian State, Visegrád was one of the first ecclesiastical centres, as well as being a royal estate and a county seat. After the Turkish Conquest in the sixteenth century. the ‘Hungarian Versailles’ was laid low and almost completely raised to the ground. In the 1980s the area was again brought to the forefront of public attention. Czechoslovakia and Hungary long ago planned the building of a dam, of which the main Slovak installation would be at Bős and the main Hungarian installation at Nagymaros, north of Visegrád, in close proximity to the Royal castle and palace. But in East Central Europe during the 1980s growing political dissatisfaction and civic opposition found an object of focus in this gigantic project. In this, ecological and environmental considerations played a major part, with national and international ramifications.  The Hungarian domestic opposition had two main areas of activity: the publication and distribution of pamphlets and the struggle against the Danube dam. In response to this, the new Hungarian government elected in 1990 stopped all construction work on its side of the river and started to restore the bank to its natural state. Later, the ‘Visegrád’ group of four neighbouring countries was formed at the palace.   

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The most dramatic of all the public demonstrations was the official re-burial of the remains of Imre Nagy and his fellow ‘martyrs’ on the anniversary of their execution, 16 June 1989, which amounted to a public confession that in its origins the régime was built on terror and injustice. Nagy’s body, along with the others executed in 1958 was found in the waste ground at the Újköztemető (cemetery), wrapped in tar paper. After its exhumation, Nagy’s coffin lay in state in Heroes’ Square before being formally reburied. Over three hundred thousand citizens paid their respects to the martyrs of 1956, together with the tributes of government ministers. The fact that only a year beforehand police had used force to disperse a group of a few hundred demonstrators commemorating the martyrdom illustrates the rapid erosion of the régime’s authority and the simultaneous occupation of the public space by the opposition by the middle of 1989.

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The Hole in the Curtain:

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At last Hungary had come to terms with its past. Its future was determined by a decision taken by the Central Committee of the HSWP, to put the rapidly developing multi-party system on an official basis. Pozsgay’s own position had often seemed closer to that of the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) than to that of his own party. In the midst of these preparations for a peaceful transition of power and democratic elections, Kádár’s successors surprised the world at large. The summer of the annus mirabilis continued with its internationally most immediately conspicuous achievement: the dismantling of the ‘iron curtain’, the barbed-wire fence on the Austrian frontier, a process which had begun in May. On 23 August, the Foreign Minister Gyula Horn spent a sleepless night worrying about the changes going on around him and the irritated reactions of Hungary’s Warsaw Pact allies to them. He had been telephoned by the East German Foreign Minister, determined to know what was happening to Hungary’s border with Austria. He had assured him that sections had been removed for repair and would shortly be replaced.

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Again at Pozsgay’s instigation, the border gates were opened to allow for a ‘pan-European picnic’ in the woods on the Austrian side, which several hundred East Germans (‘holidaying’ at Lake Balaton) were able to stream through (pictured above). Hungarian citizens already had the right to visa-free travel to the West, but thousands of disenchanted East Germans, hearing from compatriots of the ‘hole’ in the curtain, had been making their way into Hungary via Czechoslovakia to escape from their own unpopular hard-line régime. Hungary had signed a treaty with East Germany in 1968 pledging not to allow East Germans to leave for the West through its territory. Horn sounded out Moscow as for a reaction as to whether the Soviet leadership would object if Hungary abandoned this undertaking. This was an urgent practical problem for the Hungarians, as about twenty thousand citizens from the DDR were seeking refuge at the FRG Embassy in Budapest. The Soviets did not object, so Horn resolved to open the main border crossings on the roads to the West. He said later that…

… It was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events. 

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Above: (left) Demonstrators in Budapest keep up the momentum; (right and below) East Germans, holidaying in Hungary, cross the border and head West, to the fury of their government, and to their own freedom.

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On 10 September, despite strenuous objections from the East German government, Hungary’s border with Austria was opened to the East German refugees. Within three days, thirteen thousand East Germans, mostly young couples with children, had fled west. This was the biggest exodus across the ‘iron curtain’ since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, and it was only the beginning. Eschewing its erstwhile role as ‘gendarme’, still expected of it within the Eastern camp, Hungary decided to let the refugees go West without exit visas, thereby playing the role of catalyst in the disintegration of the whole Soviet bloc. Over the next few months the international situation was transformed. Liberalisation in Hungary had led directly to the collapse of the Húsak régime in Prague and the breaching of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Writing in 1990, the historian István Lázár commented:

Naturally, all this can, or should, be seen in connection with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, even if in history questions of cause and effect are not entirely settled. However the question of what went before and what happened afterwards is constantly debated in history. Hungary, desperate and euphoric at the same time, turning away from the road followed for almost a half century and hardly able to see the path of the future … took  state, national and political risks with some of its decisions in 1989 in a context of a rather uncertain international situation which was not moving towards stability. This is how we arrived at the 1990s. 

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Queues on the road to Sopron and the border, with cardboard Trabants and boxes.

Tradition and Transition:

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Simultaneously, the scenario worked out by the opposition and Németh’s pragmatists to facilitate an orderly transition was launched. Between June and September 1989, representatives of the HSWP, the Opposition ‘Round Table’ (established in March by eight organisations) and the ‘third side’ (the Patriotic Popular Front and the trade unions) discussed the central issues of the transition process at national meetings. By the time President Bush visited Budapest in July (11-13), Hungary had effectively ceased to be a Communist country or a Soviet satellite state. I have written elsewhere on this site about this first ever visit by a US President, its importance and its outcomes. John Simpson, the BBC’s correspondent was standing on the balcony of a flat overlooking Kossúth Square where the President was due to make a speech. The owner of the flat was an Anglophile in his mid-forties from a wealthy background. There were English touches on the walls: mementoes of visits by at least two generations of the family. From his balcony they looked down on the enthusiastic crowds that were starting to gather:

“These little Communists of ours are acting like real politicians”, he said; “they’re giving people what they want, instead of what they ought to want. The trouble is, they can never give us so much that we can forget that they are Communists”. …

… He was right about the fundamental unpopularity of the Party. I went to see Imre Pozsgay a few days later and asked him whether he and his colleagues would really be the beneficiaries of the changes they were introducing.

“Who can say? Naturally I hope so. That’s why we’re doing these things. But to be honest with you, there’s nothing else we can do. Even if others win the elections, there’s no serious alternative to doing what we have done”.

On 18 September, an agreement was signed which emphasised a mutual commitment to the creation of the legal and political conditions under which a multi-party democracy could be established and the rule of law upheld. In addition, it put forward plans for surmounting the ongoing economic crisis. It required the amending of the communist constitution of 1949, the establishment of a constitutional court and the re-regulation of the order of national elections, legislation on the operation and finances of political parties and the amendment of the penal code. The two ‘liberal’ parties, the SZDSZ and FIDESZ refused to sign the agreement because it stipulated the election of a head of state before the elections, which they thought would benefit the only obvious candidate and most popular reform-politician, Imre Pozsgay. They also hoped to drive a wedge between the reform Communists and the MDF by insisting on a referendum on the issue, the result of which went in their favour. It was a sure sign of what was to come the following spring.

On 6 October, Gorbachev began a two-day visit to East Germany to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). The government there, led for almost half of its life by the now seventy-four-year-old Erich Honecker, remained perhaps the most repressive régime in Eastern Europe. Only four days earlier, it had sealed its border with Czechoslovakia to prevent its people from voting with their feet and flooding to the West through Hungary. When Gorbachev suggested that a more permanent solution might be for the DDR to introduce a version of perestroika to satisfy people’s material needs and demands, Honecker refused to listen. He pointed out that on his last visit to Moscow, he had been shocked by the empty shops. How dare Gorbachev tell the leader of what many believed was the most prosperous country in the socialist world how he should run his economy! But Gorbachev persisted, telling a large rally that East Germany should introduce Soviet-style reforms, adding that the country’s policies should, however, be determined “not in Moscow, but in Berlin”. Two days after he left, Honecker was ousted within the DDR’s Politburo and replaced by Egon Krenz, who represented himself as the East German Gorbachev.

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The crowds outside the Parliament welcoming the proclamation of the institution of a Liberal Democratic Constitution for the new ‘Republic of Hungary’, October 1989.

Meanwhile, meeting in Budapest, the Fourteenth Congress of the HSWP also proved to be its last. It officially abandoned Leninism. On the 7th, the vast majority of its deputies voted in favour of creating a new Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which defined its aims in terms akin to those of Western European socialist parties. Out of seven hundred thousand Communist Party members, only fifty thousand transferred their membership to the new Socialist Party, before the first free elections of March 1990. Shortly after the dissolution of the HSWP, the party’s paramilitary organisation, the Workers’ Guard was also disbanded. In another ‘gesture’ to the memory of 1956, reparation payments were authorized by Parliament to those imprisoned after the Uprising. On the anniversary of Uprising, 23 October, Acting President Mátyás Szűrös proclaimed the new “Republic of Hungary” on the thirty-third anniversary of the Revolution. The “People’s Republic” created forty years earlier, had ceased to exist.

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Parliament had changed eighty per cent of the 1949 constitution in the interim one that replaced it. It defined the peaceful transition to a market economy and the rule of law as the goal of the state. Its fundamental principles were defined as ‘civil democracy’ and ‘democratic socialism’. It guaranteed civil and human rights, declared the establishment of a multi-party system, not only eliminating the clause referring to the leading role of the Marxist-Leninist party of the working class but also outlawed the exercise of power by any single party. It was the first time that a ruling Communist Party anywhere had rejected its ideological faith and authorised a shift to liberal democracy and capitalism. Shortly after the promulgation and proclamation of the new constitution both inside and outside parliament (see the picture below), the red star was removed from the top of the building, demonstrating the end of the system of state socialism.

Yet now the full vulnerability of the economy was already being revealed, and the necessary decrease in consumption had to be forced on a society which was expecting a contrary shift. The past, both the pre-1949 and the post-1958 periods, began to be viewed with nostalgia, as ‘old-new’ ideas resurfaced alongside ‘brand-new’ ones. On the political scene, in both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary spheres, a faltering democracy continued to develop amidst struggles of bitter and frequently depressing content and form. In the meantime, both Eastern and Western visitors to Hungary at the beginning of the 1990s found the country more affluent and resourceful than did its own citizens, who saw it being forced into worrying straits. Eastern visitors were influenced by their own, often more miserable position, while Westerners found things better than their out-dated stereotypes of life behind the iron curtain would have led them to expect. This was Hungary’s paradox: almost every outside observer values the apparent dynamism of the country greatly, but unless they became inhabitants themselves, as some of us did, did they begin to see the burdens of ‘the changes’ born by ‘ordinary’ Hungarians and understood their caution and pessimism.

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Above: The famous MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) poster from the 1990 Election Campaign: Comrades Go Home!

On 2 November, as Minister of State, Imre Pozsgay met President Bush in Washington to discuss Hungary’s transition to democracy, a week before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The following January, Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, at the same time as Czechoslovakia and Poland, at a meeting of Foreign Ministers in Budapest, with effect from 1 July. In February, the United States signed an agreement providing for a Peace Corps Program in Hungary, to begin the following September. In March, the Soviet Union reached an agreement to remove all Soviet troops from Hungary by July 1991, two-thirds of them by the end of 1991. John Simpson’s friend in Budapest had promised his father that he would not drink the bottle of Bell’s Scotch Whisky he had placed in the cupboard in 1947 until the day the Soviet troops left Budapest. That day was now approaching. When the final round of elections took place on 8 April 1990, the reform Communists won only eight per cent of the seats, and Pozsgay and his colleagues were out of office. A centre-right government came to power, led by the MDF. They had won 164 out of the 386 seats. Looking back from later in 1990, John Simpson commented:

As in 1918, Hungary had emerged from and empire and found itself on its own; though this time, unlike the violence and destruction which followed the abortive Communist republic of Béla Kun in 1919, the transition was peaceable and relaxed. Hungary’s economy and environment had been horribly damaged by thirty-three years of Marxism-Leninism; but now, at least, it had shown the way to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. There are dozens of men and women … who had a part in encouraging the revolutions (which followed) … But the stout figure of Imre Pozgay, who now stays at home and cooks for his family while he tries to work out what to do next, is one of the more important of them.

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Rather than bringing stability and calm, however, the 1990s in Hungary were a time of intensive movement across the political spectrum from right to left and back again, with a minority persisting on both extremes and an undercurrent of the old ‘populist-urbanist’ divide surfacing from time to time to emphasise patriotism over cosmopolitanism. Of the sixty-five parties formed in 1988-89, only twelve could run a national list at the elections of March-April 1990, and the four per cent ‘threshold’ required to make it into parliament eliminated half of them. Of the six parties that surpassed this, the highest-scoring MDF invited the Smallholders and the Christian Democrats to form a centre-right coalition. József Antall, a historian and museum curator who had become President of the MDF the previous year, became Hungary’s first prime minister in the new democratic era. Pledging itself to uphold Christian and national values besides democracy and the market economy, the coalition enjoyed a comfortable sixty per cent majority. The opposition consisted of the two liberal parties, the SZDSZ, which came second in the elections, and FIDESZ. The Socialists struggled hard to emerge from the isolation the past had thrown them into. Based on a ‘pact’ between Antall and the SZDSZ leadership, the prominent writer, translator and victim of the 1956 reprisals, Árpád Göncz, was elected by parliament as its Speaker and the President of the Republic. Over the next four years, he made periodic use of his limited powers to act as a counterweight to governmental power. He was re-elected in 1995.

As a result of the first free elections after the fall of state socialism, there was a comprehensive change in the highest echelons of the political élite: ninety-five per cent of the MPs were new in that position. Nearly as dramatic was the change in their social and cultural backgrounds. The first setback for the coalition government came in the municipal elections of the autumn of 1990. In the larger settlements, the two liberal parties scored much better than the government parties. The prominent SZDSZ politician, Gábor Demszky became Mayor of Budapest and was subsequently re-elected four times, becoming the most successful politician in post-1989 Hungary.  Following a protracted illness in late 1993, József Antall died. His funeral, in December 1993, was attended by world leaders including US Vice President Albert Gore. He was replaced by Peter Boross, his Minister of the Interior. With Antall’s untimely death, the MDF lost a politician whose stature was unparalleled among its inexperienced ranks.

It was not only a shift in political sympathies among a considerable proportion of voters that started well before the parliamentary elections of 1994, the outcome of which astounded many people from more than one point of view. A recasting of roles and ideological commitments accompanied a realignment of partnerships among the parties from roughly halfway through the electoral cycle. The MDF had first emerged as a grassroots democratic movement and had advocated a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism. It had also been open towards ‘democratic socialism’. In government, it had adjusted itself to the personality of Antall, a ‘conservative liberal’, and had had to work hard to purge itself of its radical nationalist right-wing, which seceded in 1993 as the Party of Hungarian Justice and Life (MIÉP) led by the writer István Csurka. After its 1990 electoral victory, the MDF had indulged in militantly anti-communist rhetoric. This contrasted with the trajectory of the SZDSZ, which had initially tried to undermine the MDF’s credibility with allegations of collaboration with the former communists. Following the ‘media war’ which broke out between the two major parties, while the SZDSZ refused to abandon its core liberal values of upholding human rights, civil liberties and multi-culturalism, it re-evaluated its policies towards the left. This enabled the MSZP to re-emerge from the shadows and paved the way for the Democratic Charter, an initiative by intellectuals from both parties to counter the tide of radical nationalism that was threatening to engulf Hungarian political life.

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Viktor Orbán in the mid-1990s, looking Right.

In these circumstances, the earlier affinity and sometimes close collaboration between the SZDSZ and FIDESZ began to unravel as the inherent differences between them became ever more obvious. Of FIDESZ’s initial platform – anti-communism, youth culture and political liberalism – only the first was entirely preserved, while the second was quickly abandoned and the third was increasingly modified by an emphasis on Christian values, conservative traditions and strong central government. By 1994, FIDESZ had thus redefined itself as a party of the centre-right, with the ambition to become the dominant and integrative force of that segment of the political spectrum. This process was cemented in the public eye by the addition of the title Hungarian Civic Party (MPP) to its name. In 1999, it resigned from the ‘Liberal International’ and joined the ‘European People’s Party’, the conservative-Christian Democrat alliance in the EU. But in 1994, there was a general recovery in the fortunes of European socialists and social democrats, and the pledges of the MSZP to the values of social democracy looked credible enough to earn it widespread respectability in Europe and admission to the ‘Socialist International’. Its pragmatism and its emphasis on modernisation and technological development won it a landslide victory in an election which showed that the country was tired of ideological strife and disappointed with the lack of progress in the economic transition. Although the Socialists won over fifty per cent of the seats in parliament, the SZDSZ accepted the offer of Gyula Horn, MSZP chairman, to join a coalition. The other four parties of the previous parliament constituted the opposition. The Socialist-Liberal coalition government faced urgent economic tasks.

In the early to mid-nineties, Western corporations and investors came to Hungary hoping, in the long run, for a strong revival from the Hungarian economy. They procrastinated over possible investment, however, due to the threat of uncontrolled inflation. In an economy which was rapidly polarising society, with increasing unemployment and poverty while the rich got visibly richer, Hungarian citizens were already gloomy when they looked around themselves. According to the journalist Paul Lendvai, between 1988 and 1993 GDP fell by twenty per cent, twelve per cent alone in 1991; in 1990-91 real wages fell by twelve per cent, while inflation was thirty-five per cent in 1991, twenty-three per cent in 1992 and only sank below twenty per cent in 1993. Unemployment had risen sharply as thousands of firms were liquidated and half a million jobs disappeared. If they contemplated, beyond the borders, a crisis-ridden Eastern Europe beset by nationality problems and compelled to starve before the much-promised economic upturn, they were gloomier still. As Lázár commented:

Looking at the recent changes, perhaps ungratefully, this is how we stand in East Central Europe in the middle of Carpathian Basin, before the 1100th anniversary of the Hungarian Conquest, which, in five years time, will be followed by the opening of the third millennium…

In spite of the differences in their fundamental values, socialist and liberal, the MSZP and SZDSZ had similar policies on a number of pressing transitional tasks, such as Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic integration and monetarist reform, providing a wide scope for collaboration between them. In both of these priorities, they were successful, but none of these did much to assuage the resentment many voters felt towards the post-1989 politicians in general. In addition, many SZDSZ supporters were puzzled by the party’s reconciliation with the Socialists which they felt had robbed the party of its original liberal character. In the light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the SZDSZ followed the other great party of the 1990 régime change, the MDF, into relative obscurity following the 1998 general election. The remodelled FIDESZ-MPP attracted growing support during the second part of the election cycle, capitalising on mistakes made by the Socialists. While the latter maintained much of their popularity, FIDESZ-MPP won the election narrowly on the platform of a ‘civic Hungary’ in which the post-communist heritage would be forever buried while the state would accept greater responsibility in supporting the growth of a broad middle-class following Christian-nationalist values.

To obtain a secure parliamentary majority, the FIDESZ chairman and new PM, Viktor Orbán, formed a coalition with the MDF and the Independent Smallholder Party (FKGP). While the historic FKGP had a respectable place in the liberal democratic endeavour in post-1945 Hungary, its reincarnation was an anti-élitist, populist force, notorious throughout the 1990s for its stormy internal relations. In addition, although not part of the government, the radical-nationalist MIÉP – anti-communist, anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-globalist and anti-Semitic, frequently lent its support to the first Orbán government. On the other extreme of the political palette, the radical remnant of the HSWP, the Workers’ Party, openly cherished the heritage of the Kádár era and remained a part of the extra-parliamentary opposition throughout the post-1989 period. Whereas a fairly constant proportion of the electorate has supported a traditional conservative-liberal line with national and Christian commitments, in whichever of the pirouetting parties it appeared at any given election, the values and endeavours of the Socialists also continued to break through until recent elections. On the other hand, those associated with the Liberals fell to a level equal to the radical Right, a picture not very different from some Western European countries.

With regard to European integration, all significant political forces except MIÉP were in favour of it. Although the Council of Europe responded to the Hungarian application as early as November 1990, and Hungary became an associate member in December 1991, the ensuing process was considerably longer than optimistically hoped for. Alongside the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Slovenia, Hungary gained full membership of the European Union on 1 May 2004. By this time, public opinion in the West was increasingly sceptical about both the broadening and deepening of the EU. I have written extensively about Hungary’s more rapid progression into NATO membership elsewhere on this site, but its involvement in peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia, from 1994-1999, undoubtedly aided its process of accession to the EU. In an atmosphere of growing anxiety for global safety, neither the requirements concerning border security nor other developments caused a further postponement.

(to be continued…)

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Moments of Régime Change, Budapest (2009): Volt Produkció.

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Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1989 – 1992.   1 comment

Heroes and Villains at Home and Abroad:

In the middle of all the heroic struggles for freedom in the world in 1989, the Westminster village ‘bubble’ witnessed an event which seemed anything but heroic. Thatcher had been challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party by Sir Anthony Meyer, an elderly ‘backbencher’, pro-European, who was seen as a ‘stalking horse’ for bigger beasts to enter the fray in a challenge to the Prime Minister. He was much mocked on the Conservative benches as ‘the stalking donkey’, In the 1989 leadership election on 5 December, Meyer was defeated by 314 votes to 33, yet the vote was ominous for Thatcher when it was discovered sixty Tory MPs had either voted for ‘the donkey’ or abstained. Meyer himself said that people started to think the unthinkable, while in the shadows, prowling through Conservative associations and the corridors of Westminster was a far more dangerous, wounded creature.

Michael Heseltine, who had walked out of the Tory cabinet four years earlier, was licking his wounds, recovering and ready to pounce. He showed sympathy towards Tory MPs, in trouble in their constituencies over the poll tax, but tried neither to lick his lips nor sharpen his claws too obviously in public. On 31 March 1990, the day before the poll tax was due to take effect in England and Wales, there was a massive demonstration against it which ended with a riot in Trafalgar Square (pictured below). Scaffolding was ripped apart and used to throw at the mounted police, cars were set on fire and shop windows were smashed. More than three hundred people were arrested and four hundred policemen were hurt.

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Thatcher dismissed the riots as mere wickedness, which of course they were. Yet beneath them, it was obvious that there was a growing swell of protest by the lower middle class, normally law-abiding voters who insisted that they simply could not and would not pay it. That was what shook her cabinet and her MPs, worried about their electoral prospects in 1992. One by one, the inner core of true Thatcherites peeled off from their leader. Her Environment Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, had to resign after being rude about the Germans in a magazine interview. John Major turned out to be worryingly pro-European after all. Ian Gow, one of her closest associates, was murdered by an IRA bomb at his home. As the Conservatives’ ratings slumped in the country, Tory MPs who had opposed the tax, including Michael Heseltine’s key organiser, Michael Mates, began to ask their colleagues whether it was not now time that she was removed from power.

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Abroad, great world events continued to overshadow the last days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. A few weeks after the fall of Ceaucescu in Romania, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, the man whom Margaret Thatcher had once denounced as a terrorist, was released from gaol in South Africa to global acclaim. In April, Douglas Hurd, who had replaced Geoffrey Howe as the British Foreign Secretary, visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. The BBC’s John Simpson (pictured below) was among a group of journalists had assembled outside the Spassky Gate he Kremlin and as the bells sounded their strange falling peel on the hour they were ushered in by a side entrance.

Inside, there was little obvious security; for Simpson, the Kremlin in 1990 was a more relaxed place than the Palace of Westminster or the White House. However, a Kremlin official was watching and listening to them nervously. The doors were opened and they went into a room that was large and echoing, with Gorbachev and Hurd sitting with their translators in one corner of it, at a small table. Later, Hurd said that Gorbachev had been his usual enthusiastic and ebullient self, but to Simpson, he looked a good deal older and more tired than when he had seen him last in Belgrade, describing to the camera the problems he was having with the ‘regional problems’ in the Soviet Union. Only his eyes remained as intense and concentrated as they had then. He leaned across the table, holding Douglas Hurd’s gaze while their public compliments were translated. Simpson commented:

If the problems of coping with a collapsing empire were telling on him, they had not crushed him. The man who asked Margaret Thatcher at length in December 1984 about how Britain had divested herself of her colonies now had personal experience of the process. 

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At the time, Gorbachev had his problems with the demands of the Baltic States to leave the Soviet Union quickly and without face-saving negotiations. As the journalists grouped around the table where he and Douglas Hurd faced each other, Simpson caught the eye of Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet Foreign Minister, who was sitting next to Gorbachev:

I mouthed the word ‘Question’ to him and nodded towards Gorbachev. Shevardnadze shrugged and mouthed back the English word ‘Try’. But directly my colleagues and I began asking about Lithuania, Gorbachev smiled and shook his head. “I answered several hundred questions from the ‘Komosol’ this morning. That’s enough for me,” he said. The strain in his face seemed greater than ever. We were ushered out, and the double doors closed on him.

For John Simpson, the lesson of the winter of change in Central and Eastern Europe was that, no matter how hard the Communist Party tried to reform itself, the voters would punish it for the sins and failures of the past. That was what happened at the polls in Hungary later that spring, Imre Pozsgay had made multi-party democracy a possibility; his newly-formed Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) of ‘reformed’ communists received a tiny percentage of the vote. I observed the spirit of national renewal which seemed to sweep the centre-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) to power under the leadership of József Antall, the first freely-elected Prime Minister for forty years. In East Germany, most people agreed that Hans Modrow, the former Communist prime minister, was the best and most respected candidate standing in the election; he and his fellow communists felt that it was a considerable achievement to have won sixteen per cent of the vote. By the first few months of 1990 the mood in the Soviet Union was such that if there had been an election there, Simpson sensed that the Communist Party would have been swept out of office. Realising this, Gorbachev insisted that his election as President of the Soviet Union should be carried out by the deputies of the People’s Congress, not by popular vote. When local elections were held in the spring, Communist candidates usually fared badly.

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Above: August 1990 – The Iraqi Army invades and annexes Kuwait.

On 2 August, however, the whole world was taken by surprise by events in the Middle East. John Simpson was on holiday in the south of France (I was on a delayed honeymoon on Jersey) when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a small but oil-rich nation to the southern end of the region. Iraq was a Soviet ally, but it had also enjoyed the tacit support of both Britain and the US in its war with Iran and had secretly been provided with arms by them while it continued to torture and oppress both its Shi’ite and Kurdish minorities, as well as many dissidents. Within three hours of hearing the news on the radio, Simpson was on a plane back to London and two weeks later he was part of the first European television team to be allowed into Baghdad since the invasion. Negotiation had failed to dislodge the Iraqi forces and Thatcher had urged President George Bush to go into what became the Gulf War. An international coalition had been assembled. Simpson had decided that he wanted to report the war from the epicentre of the crisis, from Baghdad itself. He had left Iraq four months earlier, assuming that the authorities there would never have him back.

This was because he had become involved in the case of Farzad Bazoft, an Iranian journalist working for the Observer in Iraq. Between 1987 and 1989 the young Iranian had travelled to Iraq five times with nothing more substantial than British travel documents. The last time was in September 1989, and on the day he left London the news leaked out that a huge explosion had taken place at Iraqi government’s weapons manufacturing plant at Al Qa’qa sixty miles south of Baghdad. Committed to investigative journalism, Farzad Bazoft used his ‘considerable charm’ to persuade an attractive British nurse living in Baghdad, Daphne Parish, to drive him down there. He also asked an Iraqi minister and the information ministry for help to visit there and told the Observer over a heavily tapped phone line precisely what he was going to do. Farzad was picked up as he was leaving Baghdad airport at the end of his visit. In his luggage were some samples he had gathered from the roadside at Al Qa’qa; presumably, he wanted to have them analysed back in London to reveal what type of weapon had exploded there the previous month. He was tortured and eventually confessed to everything they wanted: in particular, to spying for the British and the Israelis. Daphne Parish refused to confess since she had not broken the law. When the Iraqi authorities put them together Farzad tried to persuade her to do as he had. It would, he said, mean that she would be released.

It didn’t of course; it just meant that the Iraqis had the grounds they wanted to execute Farzad Bazoft. At their trial, Farzad was sentenced to death and Parish to fifteen years. No one translated the sentence for them or told them what was going to happen. A British diplomat had to break the news to Farzad that he was to be hanged directly their meeting ended. Minutes later he was taken out and executed. Daphne Parish was released after ten difficult months in prison. Hanging Farzad Bazoft was Saddam Hussein’s first open defiance of the West. Mrs Thatcher had asked for his release, and called his action ‘an act of barbarism’. Those of us who had been campaigning on behalf of Iraqi and Kurdish dissidents who had fallen foul of such acts of imprisonment, torture and murder for the previous ten years, only to be told these were part of internecine conflict felt some vindication at last in these tragic circumstances. Had firm action, including effective sanctions, been taken against the Ba’athist régime been taken sooner, not only might Farzad and many others have been saved, but the whole sorry chapters of the wars in Iraq might have been unwritten. If the tabloid press in Britain hadn’t suddenly become hysterical about it, insulting the Iraqis, Farzad might, at least, have been spared the hangman’s noose.

All this had determined John Simpson to go to Baghdad himself to report the reality of Saddam’s reign of terror. Six weeks after Farzad’s death, he arrived there with a small team from the BBC and several other British journalists. There were daily demonstrations outside the British embassy complaining about the efforts which the British government was then belatedly making to stop weapons technology reaching Iraq. Simpson and his team were virtual prisoners in their hotel, and no one in the streets wanted to talk to them, knowing that such contacts with Western journalists were dangerous. The Ministry of Information decided to impound all of their video cassettes. Simpson had said something in a broadcast about the total surveillance under which they were working, which had upset their minders. Eamonn Matthews, the producer, decided to stay on to on for a few days to get them back and was picked up at the airport the following day exactly as Farzad had been. He was threatened, treated roughly, and kept a virtual prisoner overnight. When he walked into the Newsnight office in London his face showed signs of the stress he had been under. Simpson assumed he wouldn’t be let back into Iraq, and at that time, was not too upset about that.

When he changed his mind after the invasion of Kuwait in August, Saddam’s henchmen had already started taking British, European and American hostages. The risk seemed to be extremely high, but he couldn’t back away from it. The BBC didn’t like it, however, but he persuaded his bosses to let him see if he could get permission to return there in the first place. Since Britain had cut its diplomatic relations with Iraq after the execution of Farzad Bazoft, he had to apply for a visa in Paris. After receiving a ‘polite’ refusal from the Iraqi ambassador there, he processed through the Middle East reporting on the growing crisis and trying to find a way to get to Baghdad, with the producer and picture editor, Mike Davis. They started in Cairo, moved on to Jerusalem, and ended up in Amman, all without success in getting the visas. Just as he was about to leave for London, he heard that Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister was coming to Amman to give a press conference. He asked a couple of questions during the course of it, then ‘doorstepped’ Aziz as he left:

“Would it be possible for the BBC to visit Baghdad?”

“Why not?” he said, as he climbed into his expensive limousine. This time, though, I had the faint sense that he meant it.

The following day the Iraqi embassy in London called. Our visas had come through. 

When Simpson and his crew finally arrived in Baghdad, the streets were silent and empty. People were terrified of what might happen and mostly stayed indoors with their families. On his first afternoon there, Saddam Hussein visited some of the British hostages from Kuwait, accompanied by Iraqi television cameras, and stroked the hair of a young English boy as he talked to the parents. In an Arab context, there was nothing wrong with that, but back in Britain, the pictures set everyone’s teeth on edge. John Simpson was still meeting officials when the pictures were broadcast, and in between handshakes he tried to make out what was happening on the screen in the corner of the ministerial office. He asked if the hostages were going to be released, but the officials were vague and unwilling to commit themselves. They later discovered what Saddam had said during his meeting with the British family was that women and children taken hostage in Kuwait would be able to leave. They were brought up by coach to Baghdad and flown out from there. Many of the women behaved superbly, as Simpson reported. They smiled and kept calm while the Iraqi cameramen sweated and shoved them around. They talked in terms of quiet endearment about husbands and sons they had been forced to leave behind, and whose fate was completely uncertain. Many had no homes to go to in Britain, and no idea about where their future income would come from, or what it would be. Yet they spoke of returning to Britain’s green and pleasant lands and…

… to nice cups of tea … as if nothing had changed since the Blitz. They fought back the tears for the sake of their children, and busied themselves with their luggage so that the cameras couldn’t pry into their emotions.

Others complained. Their meals were cold, they couldn’t use the swimming pool in the luxurious hotel which the Iraqis had set aside for them in Baghdad, the journey from Kuwait had taken too long. …

Many complained that the Foreign Office or the British embassy had failed to help them enough, and seemed to feel it was all the  Government’s fault, as though Saddam Hussein were an act of God like drought or flooding, and Mrs Thatcher should do something about it.

“I don’t see why we should suffer because of her and President Bush,” said one affronted woman.

Another agreed. “If she’s going to call Saddam a dictator, why didn’t she wait till we were safely out of Kuwait?”

The British tabloid press lapped all this up, of course. They weren’t allowed into Iraq, so they interviewed the women as they came through Amman. Journey Through Hell was the way one headline described the trip by air-conditioned coach from Baghdad; Burning desert, torturing thirst, fiends, evil, sobbing loved ones, anguish: the newspaper hack’s thesaurus was in constant use. When he went back to London for a short break, the first ‘poster’ he saw declared Thatcher Warns Evil Saddam. As John Simpson commented,…

When the newspapers put a compulsory ‘evil’ in front of someone’s name, you know there’s a particular need for coolness and rationality. And to prove the superiority of our civilization over Saddam’s, someone threw a brick through the window of the Iraqi Cultural Centre in Tottenham Court Road.

Simpson returned to Baghdad after a week or so, staying there from September to November 1990. There were some ‘peace tourists’ there too; well-intentioned people who hoped to prevent the war by join the Iraqi protests in Baghdad or try a bit of freelance negotiation. Others had come to plead for the release of their fellow citizens whom Saddam Hussein was holding hostage. As far as the foreign press and media were concerned, a government which had been so paranoid about them a few months earlier now invited them to Baghdad in such large numbers that the pool of English-speaking Iraqi ‘spooks’ was drained by the effort of following them around. By the autumn, there were well over a hundred journalists from the main western countries, and the main international news organisations. The man who had invited them, the chief civil servant in the Information ministry, Najji al-Haddithi, spoke fluent English and had managed to persuade his minister to approach Saddam Hussein with a plan: that Iraq should now regard Western journalists as useful in its own propaganda campaign. As a result, the régime gradually opened its doors to every major British broadsheet newspaper and every major American, Canadian, Japanese and European news organisation, which each had its own representative in Baghdad.

Simpson was allowed to stay the longest because he got on well with Najji al-Hadithi, who liked Britain and the British and had a British sense of humour. In reciprocation, and as he got to know both officials and private citizens, Simpson grew to love Iraq and to sympathise with it too. At a private dinner party in October, he asked al-Hadithi why he allowed so many foreign journalists to come to Baghdad when, only a few months before, the Iraqi government had kept the doors so firmly shut. The chief civil servant answered him,

Because we want you to see that we are human beings like yourselves. So that your readers and viewers will see it. So that if, God forbid, President Bush decides to bomb us, you will know what you are bombing. You are a form of protection for us.

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In the Gulf War, US marines arrive at Khabji, Saudi Arabia, to reinforce the front line.

In all his six months in the country, however, John Simpson had not managed to meet Saddam Hussein himself. In November 1990, just as he was about to arrange the details of their meeting, he found himself suddenly unable to get in touch with the officials, including al-Hadithi. He knew that this was because of Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to let anyone edit his words. Simpson had warned the officials that the BBC would not be able to run ninety minutes of the president uncut, that this was something that would not be allowed to any British politician, even to the Prime Minister herself. The Iraqis resolved this stand-off by offering the interview to Independent Television News instead, who said yes at once. Simpson was furious and decided to go back to London: he was also tired, after ten weeks in Baghdad without a break. More to the point, when the news came through of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, he decided he wanted to cover the campaign for the succession.

Saint Margaret – Down and Out in Paris and London:

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The final act in Margaret Thatcher’s near-eleven-year premiership had begun on the European continent earlier that autumn, which was also where it was to end at the end of that remarkable season in British politics. There was another summit in Rome and further pressure on the Delors plan. Again, Thatcher felt herself being pushed and dragged towards a federal scheme for Europe. She vented her anger in the Commons, shredding the proposals with the words, ‘No! … No! … No!’ After observing her flaming anti-Brussels tirade, Geoffrey Howe decided, that he had had enough. The former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary had already been demoted by Thatcher to being ‘Leader of the House’. Serving in the two great offices of state, and now Deputy Prime-Minister, a face-saving but significant status, he had endured a decade of her slights and snarls, her impatience and mockery. He would finally leave the government, joining Michael Heseltine and Nigel Lawson on the ‘back benches’ of the Commons but, like them, he would leave on his own terms.

Howe resigned on 1 November, but it was not until a fortnight later, on 13 November 1990, that he stood up from the back benches to make a famous resignation statement which was designed to answer Number Ten’s narrative that he had gone over nothing much at all. Howe had written a carefully worded letter of resignation in which he criticised the Prime Minister’s overall handling of UK relations with the European Community. After largely successful attempts by Number Ten to claim that there were differences only of style, rather than substance, in Howe’s disagreement with Thatcher on Europe, Howe, therefore, chose to send a powerful message of dissent. To a packed chamber, he revealed that Lawson and he had threatened to resign together the previous year at the summit in Madrid. He attacked Thatcher for running increasingly serious risks for the future of the country and criticised her for undermining the policies on EMU proposed by her own Chancellor and Governor of the Bank of England. He also accused her of sending her ministers to negotiate in Brussels without the means to do so. He used a rather strange cricketing simile about captains and broken bats, which would have meant something to most MPs, but very little to those listening on the other side of the channel concerned with British negotiations on EMU in Europe:

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It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.

Curiously and perhaps ironically, it is this part of his statement which is best remembered and most replayed. However, his dispute with Thatcher was over matters of substance more than ones of style; this was no game, not even one of cricket. He was advocating a move back towards a more centrist position on constitutional and administrative issues, such as taxation and European integration.

Geoffrey Howe (pictured more recently, above right) represented a kind of moderate ‘Whiggery’ in the party, being educated, lawyerly, and diligent; while direct, he was conciliatory and collegiate in style. He calmly ended his speech with an appeal to his remaining cabinet colleagues:

The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.

Television cameras had just been allowed into the Commons so that, across the country as well as across the channel, via satellite channels, people could watch Howe, with Nigel Lawson nodding beside him, Michael Heseltine’s icy-calm demeanour and the white-faced reaction of the Prime Minister herself. The next day Heseltine announced that he would stand against her for the party leadership. She told The Times that he was a socialist at heart, someone whose philosophy at its extreme end had just been defeated in the USSR. She would defeat him. But the balloting system for a leadership contest meant that she would not just have to get a majority of votes among Tory MPs, but that she had to get a clear margin of fifteen per cent in total votes cast. At a summit in Paris, she found that she had failed to clear the second hurdle by just four votes. There would be a second ballot and she announced to a surprised John Sargent of the BBC, waiting at the bottom of the steps outside the summit, that she would fight on. It was a pure pantomime moment, seen live on TV, with viewers shouting “she’s behind you” at their TV sets as she came down the steps behind him. Then she went back up the steps to rejoin the other leaders at the ballet. While she watched the dancing in front of her, Tory MPs were dancing through Westminster either in rage or delight. Her support softened as the night went on, with many key Thatcherites believing she was finished and that Heseltine would beat her in the second ballot, tearing the party in two. It would be better for her to withdraw and let someone else fight him off.

Had she been in London throughout the crisis and able to summon her cabinet together to back her, she might have survived. But by the time she got back, even Maggie couldn’t pull it off. She decided to see her ministers one-by-one in her Commons office. Douglas Hurd and John Major had already given her their reluctant agreement to nominate her for the second round, but the message from most of her ministers was surprisingly uniform. They would give her their personal backing if she was determined to fight on but felt that she would lose to Heseltine. In reality, of course, she had lost them, but none of them wanted to join Heseltine in posterity as a co-assassin. Her MPs were too scared of the electoral vengeance to be wreaked after the poll tax. Only a few on the ultra-right, mostly outside the cabinet, were sincerely urging her to continue the struggle. One of them was Alan Clark, the diarist, who told her to fight on at all costs. She later commented, …

Unfortunately, he went on to argue that… it was better to go down in a blaze of glorious defeat than to go gentle into that good night. Since I had no particular fondness for Wagnerian endings, this lifted my spirits only briefly.

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She returned to Downing Street, where she announced to her cabinet secretary at 7.30 the next morning that she had decided to resign. She held an uncomfortable cabinet meeting with those she believed to have betrayed her, saw the Queen, phoned other world leaders and then finished with one final Commons performance, vigorously defending her record. When she left Downing Street for the last time, in tears, she already knew that she was replaced as Prime Minister by John Major rather than Michael Heseltine. She had rallied support by phone for him among her closest supporters, who had felt that he had not quite been supportive enough. Unlike in the first ballot, a candidate only required a simple majority of Conservative MPs to win, in this case, 186  out of 372 MPs. The ballot was held on the afternoon of 27 November; although Major fell two votes short of the required winning total, he polled far enough ahead of both Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine to secure immediate concessions from both of them. With no remaining challengers, Major was formally named Leader of the Conservative Party that evening and was duly appointed Prime Minister the following day. Although Thatcher herself had her private doubts about him, the public transition was complete, and the most nation-changing premiership of modern British history was at its end. Andrew Marr has conveyed something of the drama of this ‘final act’ in her political career:

She had conducted her premiership with a sense of vivid and immediate self-dramatisation, the heroine of peace and war, figthing pitched battles in coalfields and on the streets, word-punching her way through triumphal conferences, haranguing rival leaders, always with a sense that history was being freshly minted, day by day. This is why so many insults levelled at her tended to twist into unintended compliments – ‘the Iron lady’, ‘She who must be obeyed’, ‘the Blessed Margaret’ and even ‘the Great She-Elephant’… She had no sense of her own limits. The world was made anew. Her fall lived up in every way to her record. When a great leader topples, poetry requires that her personal failings bring her down. The story insists that it must be more than… weariness or age. And this story’s ending lives up to its earlier scenes.  

Major (minor), Return to Baghdad & the Magic Moment in Maastricht:

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John Major’s seven years in office make him the third longest-serving peacetime prime minister of modern times, behind Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, but he often gets overlooked, probably because he came in the middle of what is increasingly referred to as the Thatcher-Blair era in British politics. To Mrs Thatcher and others in the cabinet and Commons, he appeared to be a bland, friendly, loyal Thatcherite. He was elected because of who he was not, not a posh, old-school Tory like Douglas Hurd, nor a rich, charismatic charmer like Michael Heseltine. His father was a music-hall ‘artiste’ with a long stage career, Tom Ball: ‘Major’ was his stage name. When John Major was born, his father was already an old man, pursuing a second career as a maker of garden ornaments. He lost everything in a business deal that went wrong and the family had to move from their comfortable suburban house into a crowded flat in Brixton.

John Major-Ball was sent to grammar school, but was a poor student and left at sixteen. He worked as a clerk, made garden gnomes with his brother, looked after his mother and endured a ‘degrading’ period of unemployment before eventually pursuing a career as a banker and becoming a Conservative councillor. His politics were formed by his experiences of the inner-city and he was on the anti-Powellite, moderate wing of the party. He was selected for the Cambridgeshire seat of Huntingdon and entered Parliament in 1979, in the election which brought Thatcher to power. After the 1987 election, Thatcher promoted him to the cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, from where he became Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor. To everyone outside the Tory Party, Major was a blank canvas. At forty-seven, he was the youngest Prime Minister of the century and the least known, certainly in the post-war period. The Conservatives were content with this choice, having grown tired of amateur dramatics. He was seen by many as the bloke from next door who would lead them towards easier times. He talked of building a society of opportunity and compassion, and for privileges once available to ‘the few’ to be spread to ‘the many’. But he had little time to plan his own agenda. There were innumerable crises to be dealt with. He quickly killed off the poll tax and replaced it with a new council tax, which bore a striking resemblance to the ‘banded’ system previously proposed as an alternative.

One of the first things that John Major did as PM was to meet the elder President Bush and promise him full support through the Gulf War. When John Simpson returned to Baghdad in mid-December 1990, the atmosphere had changed as war loomed. Mr Hattem, the BBC’s driver, was much more subservient to their minders, and wouldn’t take the crew anywhere without consulting them. Once they missed an entire story as a result. Saddam Hussein had ordered the release of all the foreign hostages, a decision of considerable importance to the Coalition forces headed by the United States; public opinion at home would have been much more reluctant to support the air war if it had seemed likely that ordinary Americans, Britons and other Europeans would be killed by the bombs and missiles. The man who persuaded Saddam Hussein to give up one of his best cards in an otherwise rather empty hand was Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. According to Simpson, contrary to some Western stereotypes of him, he was always instinctively a man of peace and compromise. Apparently, he told Saddam that if he let the hostages go, this would weaken the moral argument of the US. It turned out to be a tactical mistake, of course, but Arafat had assumed that Saddam had been genuine when, early on in the crisis, he had offered to withdraw from Kuwait if Israel agreed to pull out of the West Bank. He had publicly come out in support of Iraq and had settled in Baghdad for the duration of the crisis. In an interview just before Christmas, he told Simpson that he was certain there would be no war:

YA: “… I can tell you that there will be not be a war. I promise it: you will see. Something will happen: there will be an agreement. You must not think that President Bush is so foolish. You must not think that the Arab brothers are so foolish. War is a terrible thing. Nobody wants it. President Bush will compromise.

At that stage, it looked as if Arafat might well be right about a deal being made. Bush was starting to talk about going the extra mile for peace, and the Iraqi press was announcing a major diplomatic victory for Saddam Hussein. As for the threat of terrorist attacks from Palestinian extremists elsewhere in the Middle East, the PLO had far more control over them in those days, and Arafat had shown that he could be ferocious in curbing it if he chose to do so. By the third week in December, Simpson was getting discreet visits from a very senior figure in the Iraqi régime, whom he nicknamed ‘Bertie’ and who persuaded him that he should go public on Saddam Hussein’s determination not to withdraw from Kuwait before the deadline imposed by the United Nations. Like the US and UK governments, Simpson was inclined to think that Iraq would pull back at the last-minute. ‘Bertie’ was absolutely certain that this wouldn’t happen, and he was right. This was what Simpson told BBC Radio 4 over their line from London about Saddam’s intentions, on 2 January 1991:

‘People who have seen him in the past day or so have told me that he is determined to stand and fight. He told one visiter that if he pulled his forces back now, there would be an uprising against him in the army and he might not be able to cope with it. It feels it’s essential to his own survival in power to face a war: he’ll certainly do it.

Simpson continued to press the same line even when James Baker, the US Secretary of State was due to meet the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, in Geneva, and ITN reported that Aziz was bringing with him an offer of conditional withdrawal. In the event, he brought no such thing, and the meeting broke up without any possibility of a diplomatic settlement. On 13 January, ‘Bertie’ told him that Saddam had said that Iraq would only have to face two waves of air-strikes and that Baghdad would be so destroyed and loss of life would be so great that international opinion would force the US, UK and France to stop, resulting in a diplomatic victory for him. Asked by Simpson whether Saddam himself might be killed in the strikes, ‘Bertie’ said that Saddam’s ‘bunker’ was impenetrable and that he will survive, even if tens of thousands die. On 11 January, they discovered exactly where the bunker was. Saddam Hussein was due to appear at an international Islamic conference at the government centre immediately opposite the Al-Rashid Hotel, where Simpson and the BBC crew were staying, along with many other international film crews and newspaper journalists. They had stationed camera crews at every entrance to the conference centre, in the hope of getting something more than the usual official pictures of the Iraqi president. Simpson himself sat in the hotel, watching the live coverage of the event on Iraqi television:

On cue the great man appeared on stage, holding out his arm in the affected way which is his trade-mark, while the audience went wild. I looked forward to the pictures the camera crews must be getting. But when they came back, each of them said that Saddam hadn’t come past him. That convinced me. We had long heard rumours that his command complex was based under our hotel: this indicated that there were underground roads and passages from the complex to enable him to reach the various important government buildings in the area. … So there we were, living and working a hundred feet or so above Saddam Hussein’s head. We were his protection. And if he knew it, the Coalition forces did as well: the European company which had built much of the bunker had handed over all the blueprints to them. The outlook wasn’t good. The American embassy in Baghdad, before it closed down, had warned everyone who stayed that they could expect to be killed in the bombing. President Bush himself had phoned the editors of the big American organisations represented in Baghdad and begged them to pull out. … the big organisations (with the exception of CNN) obliged.

I have written elsewhere about John Simpson’s own motives for staying and his experiences and accounts of the bombing of the city which began less than a week later, on 17 January, before the BBC crew were forced to leave. Suffice it here to quote from his interview some months later (10.5.91) with Sue Lawley, the then presenter of the popular and long-running BBC Radio programme, Desert Island Discs:

SL: But these things – I mean, it’s not really enough to risk your life to write a book, is it?

(Pause)

JS: I suppose it’s just that I’m a bit of a ‘chancer’, that’s all.

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The Gulf War was the first major conflict since the Second World War in which it was essential for the multi-national allied forces not to have large-scale casualties. It ended when President Bush began to get nervous about the pictures of death and destruction which were coming in from the desert. Public opinion in the United States did not want another Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, with large-scale carpet-bombing of civilian populations, pictures of massacres and of American GIs being flown home in body bags. In Britain too, people wanted a limited war fought to expel the Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but they didn’t want a huge body-count. They didn’t get one either, though there were some significant losses among the British forces. The Gulf War achieved its limited objectives, freeing Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion and resulting in the immolation the Iraqi army’s Republican Guard. It generated nothing like the controversy of the later Iraq War. It was widely seen as a necessary act of international retribution against a particularly horrible dictator. The bigger problem for the country itself was the quarter of a million deaths which occurred after the war, caused by UN Sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s reaction to them, especially his vengeful acts of genocide against the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country.

After the controversies and alarms of the Thatcher years, foreign affairs generated less heat, except for the great issue of European federalism. John Major had to turn straight away to confront Jacques Delors’ agenda, which was threatening to divide the Tory Party. If ever a place was well-chosen for debating the end of a Europe of independent nation-states, it was Maastricht in Holland, nestled so close to the German and Belgian borders it is almost nationless. Here the great showdown of the winter of 1991 took place. A new treaty was to be agreed and it was one which made the federal project even more explicit. There was to be fast progress to a single currency. Much of the foreign policy, defence policy and home affairs were to come under the ultimate authority of the EU. A ‘social chapter’ would oblige Britain to accept the more expensive work guarantees of the continent and surrender some of the trade union reforms brought in under Thatcher. For a country with a weak industrial base whose economy partly depended on undercutting her continental rivals, all this would be grave. For a Conservative Party which had applauded Lady Thatcher’s defiant Bruges speech, it was almost a declaration of war, in which Europe’s ‘federal’ destiny had been made more explicit.

John Major was trying to be practical. He refused to rule out the possibility of a single currency for all time, believing it would probably happen one day since it had obvious business and trading advantages. But now was too soon, partly because it would make life harder for the central European countries being freed from communism to join the EU. In his memoirs, he protests that he was accused of dithering, procrastination, lacking leadership and conviction. Yet at Maastricht, he managed, during genuinely tense negotiations, to keep Britain out of most of what was being demanded of the member states. He and his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, negotiated a special British opt-out from monetary union and managed to have the social chapter excluded from the treaty altogether. Major kept haggling late and on every detail, wearing out his fellow leaders with more politeness but as much determination as Thatcher ever had.  For a man with a weak hand, under fire from his own side at home, it was quite a feat. Major returned to plaudits in the newspapers using the remark of an aide that it was ‘game, set and match’ to Britain.

Briefly, Major was a hero. He described his reception by the Tory Party in the Commons as the modern equivalent of a Roman triumph, quite something for the boy from Brixton. Soon after this, he called the election most observers thought he must lose. The most immediate worries had been economic, as the hangover caused by the Lawson boom began to throb. Inflation rose towards double figures, interest rates were at fourteen per cent and unemployment was heading towards two million again. Moreover, a serious white-collar recession was beginning to hit Britain, particularly the south, where house prices would fall by a quarter. An estimated 1.8 million people found that their homes were worth less than the money they had borrowed to buy them in the eighties when credit had been easy to obtain. Now they were in what became known as ‘negative equity’ and were often unable to sell their properties. During 1991 alone, more than seventy-five thousand families had their homes repossessed. The economy was so badly awry, the pain of the poll tax so fresh, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party now so efficiently organised, that the Tory years seemed sure to be ending. Things turned out differently. Lamont’s pre-election had helped since it proposed to cut the bottom rate of income tax by five pence in the pound, which would help people on lower incomes, badly wrong-footing Labour.

With a party as full of anger and resentment as the Conservative Party behind him, he had little chance of succeeding as prime minister.  He was a throwback to an older kind of conservatism, middle-of-the-road, not too noisy, lacking in any particular conviction except that the Conservative Party was the natural governing party of Britain. The country had indeed been governed by Conservatives like Major for most of the twentieth century, and people were slow to understand how ideological the party had become under Thatcher. John Major shared none of her deepest views. He gambled that even if the backbenchers discovered his lack of right-wing conviction, the voters of Britain who traditionally dislike extremism and ideology would give him their backing. In the eyes of the British press, Major was the council-school boy, the anorak, the ‘swot’, who had ended up in Whitehall. He seemed to fit into a recognisable niche within the dreary, peculiarly English system of snobbery and was looked down on accordingly. In addition, many in the Conservative Party resented the fact that Mrs Thatcher had been overthrown, and would have taken it out on anyone who succeeded her.

Major lacked her convictions, certainly. For the many, this was a relief. These convictions, brandished like sticks, were what made her so unpopular in the country as a whole; and if she had led the party into the 1992 election she would have lost it. No one would have blamed Major if he had led the Tories to defeat in the 1992 election, which he called for April.

(to be continued…)

 

Whither Hungary? An Interested Observer’s Rejoinder to Reflections on the Outcome of the 2018 Elections.   Leave a comment

Reactions from Home & Abroad:

It’s been four months since the Hungarian general election (on the 8th April), so I’ve been interested to discover what Hungarians make of their country’s direction since the Orbán government was returned with two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. I have Hungarian Christian friends in Britain, working in the NHS, with young children, who have decided to return in advance of ‘Brexit’. Whether this is partly because of the ‘return to power’ of Viktor Orbán and his family-friendly policies I have yet to discover. Others, single professionals with different lifestyles, have decided to stay in the West, concerned about what sort of Hungary they would be returning to, defined as an ‘illiberal democracy’ by its Prime Minister. Yet the country has been a net recipient of funding from the European Union, an organisation which is built on ‘liberal values’ through the co-operation of countries which have been proud to describe themselves as ‘liberal democracies’ with pluralist parliamentary systems accommodating parties across the mainstream political spectrum. It’s not a scientific survey, but those who are socially conservative Christians seem unworried by this evolving ‘atmosphere’, whereas those with more ‘liberal’ attitudes seem keen to remain, especially in London, even after Britain leaves the EU.

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Tourists are still welcome of course since they bring with them much-needed additional income.  The MTI and Index.hu reported last month (July) that the Hungarian Parliament building had a record-breaking number of visitors in 2017. Nearly 650,000 people wanted to see the interiors of the famous sight in Budapest. The Parliament had never had so many visitors before. Among them were some left-wing friends from Wales, on a weekend break in the capital, whom I recommended should certainly include this on the brief itinerary. They did and wrote that they were greatly impressed by what they saw. The statistics show that a total of 647,000 people visited the Hungarian Parliament in 2017, up by eleven per cent from the year before. Twenty per cent of these were Hungarians, compared with eighty per cent from abroad. Of this latter number, nearly seventy per cent were from other EU countries. In the first four months of 2018, before the election, 201,000 people visited the building, eighteen per cent more than in the first four months of 2017. Tourists generated a revenue of HUF 1,188,000,000 (circa 3.7 million Euro) just by visiting this most popular tourist attraction in the Hungarian capital.

So, the unsavoury atmosphere reported by the OSCE* observers as prevalent in the country’s election campaign had little effect on foreign tourists. Quite rightly, Hungary has continued to polish its front gates and to proudly display its ‘Hungaricums’ in its shop window. Behind the this magnificent facade, the election slogans have not been so welcoming to ‘the west’. Of course, since very few visitors understand Hungarian, they were unlikely to pick up on the anti-Semitic trope inherent in the orange Fidesz election posters pointing to a ‘Soros Plot’, (térv in Hungarian). The American financier and philanthropist, George Soros (pictured below), not being a politician, is largely unknown outside Hungary though British people of middle age may recall his role in ‘Black Friday’ and the collapse of sterling in the early nineties. Even fewer would be aware of his Jewish-Hungarian origins. The ‘slogan’ has not gone away since the election either, as a proposed law designed to stop international charities and church groups from working with asylum-seekers and migrants has been introduced to Parliament known as the ‘Stop Soros’ Bill. They run the risk of being charged with ‘people smuggling’ and other offences for providing food and water, clothes and even bibles to ‘illegal immigrants’. Of course, all ‘asylum seekers’ from Syria and Iraq are illegal, having left their neighbouring refuge in Turkey, until they have been granted asylum elsewhere. They are not seeking to settle in Hungary, simply to cross it on their onward ‘trek’ to ‘northern Europe’. However, applications can take years to process, during which time the ‘illegals’ of all ages are held in tin boxes at the southern border, in all weather and temperatures, within high steel fences.

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Interestingly, a British friend who visits Hungary for extended periods on a regular basis could pick up on these ‘hate messages’ when he visited during the campaign. What was most noticeable for me was the way that most of my Hungarian friends in the town where I live, a Fidesz stronghold, clammed up during the campaign, and have continued to be unwilling to discuss the outcome of the election. Those who do comment have either ‘swallowed’ the government propaganda on ‘the vagrants’, or are dismissive of all politicians: like my wife, they recall the 1970s and 1980s when it was an unwritten rule that ordinary people did not discuss politics, certainly if they were not members of the Communist Party. Even ‘millennials’, not born until Hungary had emerged from the Kádár years, shared their parents’ view.

John O’Sullivan, the Associate Editor of the Hungarian Review and President of the Danube Institute in Budapest, ran into the large political demonstration of tens of thousands which took place in Kossúth tér, the square outside Parliament on the Saturday after the election. Those invited included supporters of ‘Jobbik’, the former ‘hard’ Right party, now by-passed by Fidesz, as well as the Left Opposition. The demonstration was, however, mainly the Left-wing protest of an election landslide for the Right (or, to broaden the analysis, by the elites against “populism”). In the May edition of the journal, he points out that, largely because of the numbers involved, criticism in the national and international media switched from the election process itself, still questioned in the case of the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, to the nature of the campaign. Here the most authoritative criticism was made in the preliminary report of the OSCE (election monitors, invited by the Hungarian government to observe) which can be read at:

*https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/hungary/377410?download=true.

The report distinguishes between the conduct of the election itself, which it describes as professional and transparent and the campaign, which it concluded provided limited space for substantive debate. It also claims that media coverage of the campaign was extensive, yet highly polarised and lacking critical analysis. It further criticised the overlap between state and party spending. 

Whatever the merits of the OSCE’s criticism of the popular political discourse, O’Sullivan points out that these arguments were, in turn, overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the Fidesz victory which entrenched the post-2010 political culture in Hungarian society for the foreseeable future. It became clear, he argues, that this new culture and orientation arose more from the pressure on Hungary of international organisations, such as the EU, and from foreign governments, such as the Obama administration in the US, which produced Viktor Orbán’s justification of his policy that Hungary is reasonably entitled to protect its national character as a European and Christian society against mass immigration. That justification ran counter to the prevailing EU orthodoxy that Europe’s future should be rooted in post-nationalism, multiculturalism and official secularism. If Orbán’s policy had been one representing only a minority, O’Sullivan suggests, it would surely have been defeated, but it won the day by a hat-trick of landslides.

The Strange Death of Liberal Democracy?:

These insights are confirmed and fortified by two articles on the election result by Gáspár Gróh and András Lánczi. The latter sees it as a contributory wave in an internationally significant sea-change that is now transforming the broad Western consensus on how we should be governed. Liberal democracy, as it is currently interpreted by global élites, is both splintering between radical progressives and disheartened centrists and running up against popular resistance which generates its own… alternative courses. Lánczi argues:

Anyone who is not committed or enchanted by the latest liberal ideas concerning gender or radical egalitarianism, will be reduced to refurbishing ideas of the discarded past, especially the natural right or natural law theories, and traditions which are seen on the Left as obsolete or untenable. But they are neither obsolete, nor untenable… Epoch-making changes are underway in political thought. The political symbol of Orbán’s political world is the new constitution enacted in 2011. It is based on regained national pride, a re-interpretation of Hungarian history, and a complete system of democratic institutional arrangements based on classical liberalism, while rejecting the goals of modern radical liberalism.

However, as O’Sullivan points out, this contains an inherent conflict and contradiction in the understanding of both Orbán and Lánczi of the developed world outside Hungary, and especially of Western European states. In fact, both of them have misunderstood liberalism in this context as being polarised between a classical form and a modern radical form. The historical development of liberal institutions in Europe, both within and between nations, has been a mostly gradual progression from the classical to the radical over the past century and a half, with the radical form providing renewal during and after periods of rapid social change and war. Hungary’s ‘absorption’ first by the German axis and then by the Soviet Empire during the latter half of this period cut it off from western influences and delayed its transformation from one type of liberalism to the other. In the last decade, the breakdown of the twenty-year transition to liberal democracy has forced it back into traditional regressive forms of nationalism and authoritarianism. In his review of two books on Europe since 1989, Nicholas T. Parsons argues that enabling the countries of Central Europe to develop politically and economically in accordance with their own customs and traditions would have better results than forcing all of them to adapt their quite different societies to the same Euro-style approach of centrally planning a free market. He may have a point, but again his mischaracterization of this as The Hapsburg Option indicates a reactionary view. His view of the ‘Single Market’ as a ‘centrally planned free market’ is a contradiction in terms. It has to be pointed out, as it has been in the ongoing ‘Brexit’ debate, that the strongest advocate of both the creation of the single market and Hungary’s early accession and integration into the EU was Margaret Thatcher, who, although a strong ‘free-marketeer’, was hardly an advocate of central planning in economic matters.

Lánczi is also mistaken in dismissing all those who point to the growing mood of authoritarianism of the past eight years over the past eight years as heirs of the intellectuals of the Communist period… poignantly described by Czeslaw Milos as “captive minds”. Whilst he may not like ‘liberal’ or ‘libertarian’ thinking, he is himself guilty of the same lazy thinking which places all legitimate democratic criticism as Left-Liberal or Leftist. He argues that In a post-Communist country like Hungary many intellectuals are still in a state of “captive mind”. He acknowledges that this may seem ‘Paradoxical’, but does not confront the central conundrum to which I have already referred, that the current antagonism towards Left-Liberalism in Hungary would seem to be the product of the eighty years of authoritarianism, ending in fascist and communist dictatorships which Hungarians endured, through few if any faults of their own. The twenty years of transition to 2010 were hardly enough for Hungary to take its place as a European liberal democracy, in the broadest meaning of that term. Libertarians are, by definition, not ‘captive minds’ but ‘free thinkers’, and the only ‘Method’ they employ is, in Aristotelian terms, their willingness to entertain ideas without necessarily accepting them. If they are not convinced by ideas from within Hungary or from outside, why should they be expected to accept them? The coalition may have won the election, but it would still seem, on the evidence of results themselves, to have a major task before it in winning over large sections of public opinion within Hungarian society, including those who are naturally conservative in social matters. The simple repetition of campaign mantras will not be sufficient to achieve that and ‘libertarianism’ should not be confused with ‘liberalism’ in this respect. 

Populists, Realists & Utopians:

Certainly, all European political thinkers and politicians need to concern themselves with the current perceived revolt against ‘liberal democracy’, including that in the name of a rather dim concept of “illiberal democracy” as voiced by Viktor Orbán. The populist ‘revolt’ against ‘liberal democracy’ if that is, indeed, what the political events of the last decade represent, has to be set in the historical context of the development of pluralistic, liberal democracies across Europe and America over the past century and a half. These histories reveal that there is more than one way of developing an independent and inter-dependent nation-state within a variety of supra-national structures. As Lánczi himself suggests, the common element to all of these experiments with liberal democracy is the concept of a ‘social contract’. This contract may or may not be expressed on a solitary piece of parchment or paper, but it has to be continually renewed and refreshed. Lánczi rightly points out that élites fail to respect this mostly unwritten rule at their peril. He claims, with some justification, that…

… Most public intellectuals are… inclined to forget that in order to run a society you need to ensure the majority of votes, and this job is more than endless moralising and playing out the authority of the intellectuals. It is easier to denigrate the succesful politician as “populist” than to work for the active support of the people, and suffer intellectually for the more profound understanding of the conditions of the world.

To that we may add that to be ‘populist’ does not mean being right or wrong, but being in the moment. However, sooner or later, the ‘populist’ politician – whether of the Right, Left or Centre – must also deal with truths which are not simply contemporary or contextual, but timeless and universal, especially if they claim to be Christian Democrats. After all, these are what give us the fundamental notion of a social contract, made up of basic absolute rights and duties. Politicians may be in the moment in responding to popular concerns, but they are not ‘of it’, and they must use their wider experience, wisdom and judgement to create sound public policy. ‘Populist’ should not be an insult or even a negative label for an ‘unprincipled’ form of politics. It might even be a compliment for a less dogmatic approach to governing. But by itself ‘Populism’, like ‘Patriotism’ (to paraphrase Edith Cavell), is not enough. Any teacher will tell you that being popular with students will only go so far in winning their respect and promoting their success. Sometimes the ‘tough love’ approach of stating the unpalatable truth is required. In dealing with the masses, politicians sometimes need to remember this. Majorities are, in any case, made up of minorities who may not all want the same thing, as the difficulty over the ‘Brexit’ vote shows, and – even if they do – the strength of a libertarian democracy is not revealed in its rewarding of the majority, but in the respect it shows to the minority/ minorities. That is how it will form new majorities in the future, by going beyond ‘Populist Majoritarianism’. Otherwise, like the ‘Bolsheviks’ (the ‘Majoritarians’ in Russian) we end up with ‘popular’ dictatorship rather than any recognizable form of democracy.

Another ‘obsession’ which Lánczi seems to possess is the idea that there is an irresolvable dichotomy between the development of the nation-state and transnational organisations as agents of the political community. In practical terms, there are certainly tensions, of which we are only too well aware, but such tensions can also be creative and constructive. Lánczi argues that the nation-state has legally, socially and culturally determined limits or boundaries and that only economic development exists outside these boundaries as an activity to be regulated by supra-national mechanisms. In doing so, he posits both a false dichotomy and an abstract, artificial division of the aspects of governance. In reality, it is impossible to separate the social, cultural and economic dimensions of human activity, whether local or global. He quotes those who argue that if the dominant nation-state system of the day remains the only political framework, the global economic and technological developments would prevail without any political control. In the era of global finance, mass media, mass migration, advancing new technologies and ecological trauma, they argue that we have to create transnational organisations capable of operating on the same scale. The current political system, they say, needs to be supplemented with global financial regulations in order to control economic globalisation, which is still dangerously unregulated. The political infrastructure required to complete globalisation has not even been conceived of, they argue. In particular, Lánczi highlights several of Rana Dasgupta’s references to Viktor Orbán in which the former observes that…

 … similar varieties of populism are erupting in many countries. Several have noted the parallels in style and substance between leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdogan … Like Putin or Orbán, Trump imbues citizenship with new martial power, and makes a big show of withholding it from people who want it: what is scarcer, obviously, is more precious.  

Lánczi argues that the dominant view on Orbán’s policy in the ‘world press’ is embedded in a context biased towards the mainstream ‘liberal’ interpretations of politics, that ‘liberal democracy’ is good and that ‘the idea of progress’ should triumph in all debates. He claims that “populism” should be viewed as a political paradigm which presents a new model of democracy which is neither liberal nor demagogic, in which the focus has been removed from the ‘liberal intellectuals’ and ‘expert institutions’ to the people and their concept of ‘leadership’. ‘Populists’ are therefore seen by him as realists, concerned with the actual framework of political developments, common sense judgements and the actual series of events in the past narrative. ‘Liberals’, on the other hand, are ‘utopians’, seeking to convince the electorate about the most desirable outcomes to be achieved in the future.

The ‘Realist View’  begins by pointing out that Fidesz got 650,000 more votes in 2018 than in 2014 and had 336,000 more votes than total votes of the opposition parties. The people voted for Orbán in an undisputable proportion and manner after two terms full of reforms and decisions, all derived from political principles, and amid what Lánczi regards as an often rude and threatening international reception. From this point of view, he asserts, Communism and today’s liberal democracy are easy ideological bedfellows since both allow utopian ideas to occupy the arena of practical politics. Both Communism and liberalism are not just utopian ideologies, but both claim that they know what is to come and therefore what is to be done. This explains how an arch anti-Communist like Viktor Orbán could also become anti-liberal in the sense of the reaction against all forms of modernism. However, this analysis ignores the accepted definitions of both ‘classical’ and ‘radical’ liberalism in western Europe, as they evolved in the practical political contexts of the previous century and a half, for more than half of which Hungary was under the authoritarian rule of varying descriptions. If there is a misunderstanding here between ‘East’ and ‘West’, it is certainly a mutual one.

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In any case, the ‘reality’ is that Orbán’s disagreements with those he identifies as ‘liberals’ in the 1990s, to which Lánczi himself refers in his essay, were far from being ideological in nature. My recollection of the SZDSZ (the ‘Free Democrats’) in 1990-94 was that they were neither ‘classical’ nor ‘radical’ liberals, in British terms neither Gladstonian nor Lloyd Georgian, a remark I made to the late Charles Kennedy MP when I met him in the early nineties on his visit to Hungary as their guest (he later became the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in Britain). It was Fidesz who, at that time, was seen as the ‘Young Liberal’ party of Hungary. The ‘SZDSZ’ were commonly spoken and written about, in the Hungarian English language press at least, as being ‘Thatcherite’ free-marketeer centrists. In that sense, in western terms, they were economic neo-liberals, but we were careful not to use too many western descriptors for the politics of post-Communist Hungary. It would be more accurate to say that they were in favour of a complete opening up and deregulation of the Hungarian economy at that time, whereas other parties were more concerned to cushion to blows to employment and social benefits which might result from the conversion to capitalism. Their decision to go into coalition with the MSZP (Socialist Party) in 1994, abandoning Fidesz, was born not to ideology but out of the need to manage the economic and social transition at that time. Like the Socialists, they recognised that political and cultural transition would have to wait until after Hungary had joined the EU, which it did in 2004, securing the economic assistance that it needed. But the young Viktor Orbán never forgave them for this ‘betrayal’ of the ‘liberals’, and thus began his journey to the ‘hard right’ and an alliance with the centre-right Christian Democrats.

Aftermath & Analysis – What’s Left for the Left?

Orbán certainly won the 2018 election with evenly distributed votes from every category of society – blue-collar workers, intellectuals, rural workers, and middle-class professionals. He also won among both religious and non-religious voters and across all demographic groups.  But not all of Hungary voted for the victors in the election, and even those who did didn’t all support the fulfilment of the entire Fidesz programme if indeed we can call it such. In fact, Fidesz did not produce election programmes in either the 2014 or 2018 elections. In 2014 Orbán simply sent out a message, We Carry On! In the last election, the main slogan was For Us, Hungary is First! Otherwise, all the Fidesz posters and publicity were simply anti-immigration, re-running the government plebiscite campaign (‘national consultation exercise’) of a few months earlier. Lánczi maintains, rather unconvincingly,  that the lack of an explicit programme or set of promises did not mean that Orbán had no policies to present to the electorate. Apparently, he has central goals which are continually defined and re-defined in his frequent talks about ideas. In his ‘acceptance speech’, the returned PM was able for once to be magnanimous and statesmanlike rather than triumphalist. In an article that otherwise stresses the legitimacy conferred on the new government by the vote, Gáspár Gróh draws a cautionary lesson for both Fidesz and its Prime Minister:

The voter turnout of some seventy per cent suggests that the government enjoys the active support of about one-third of Hungarian society. This shows that humility would not be out of line. In order to secure the survival of the nation and accomplish the momentous tasks it faces, we need even broader co-operation. Indeed, the most complex and most daunting task of the new-old administration lies in figuring out how to convert its overwhelming parliamentary majority into winning the support of society on a similar scale.

Many on the Hungarian Left have perhaps been too quick to denounce their own leaders as more responsible than Fidesz for the landslide result. After all, there was no landslide in Budapest, where Fidesz had done badly even in those middle-class areas where the former MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) had predominated in the past. The victory had been largely achieved in the countryside, with its small provincial towns and cities, than among the conservative metropolitan intelligentsia, many of whom had voted for minor parties. The wholesale victory in the countryside was the product of an eight-year project of the party network to take control of the local institutions; town and county halls, schools and churches, through a system of popular patronage and quiet coercion which would have been the envy of Kádár’s cadres. Those who do not declare for Fidesz are not necessarily declared to be against the ruling party, but those who are known to be opposed to it find themselves moved sideways or even demoted. I have watched this happen over the past eight years in the significant provincial town where I live and work, where the opposition has been cowed and the ruling party’s control is now almost absolute, so much so that, as an almost inevitable product of this evolution, in-fighting has broken out in its ranks since the election victory.

Following the election, there were two further demonstrations in Budapest, all three having the aim of getting the elections annulled, gradually shrinking in size. Then the disgruntled intellectuals put their placards away for another four years. Opposition politicians have now, generally, backed away from challenging the result and started the painful process of internal blood-letting, demanding that their own parties look critically at themselves and why they lost. Meanwhile, oblivious to all that, the tourists continue to flock in and with the added support of EU loans, and the re-building is continuing, both in the capital and the countryside. The false boom continues, with no sign of bust in sight as long as Fidesz and Viktor Orbán can stay on the ‘right’ side of the Conservatives and Christian Democrats in the rest of Europe who subsdise their project of constructing illiberal Hungary.

As Gróh points out, however, we have become, sadly, inured to American-style negative campaigning, and increasingly accept that, in the populist era we live in, campaigns do not cease when the elections are over. Almost inevitably, a new one begins just as the previous one has ended. In Hungary, this is not quite the norm, but we are now ‘looking forward’ to two other rounds of elections within the space of just a year: one being for the EU Parliament, and the other in local elections, both of which extend the franchise to other EU nationals living here. Any appeasement by Fidesz will not, therefore, last long. Gróh suggests that it would be vain to expect the sentiments to subside or to hope for an impending period of calm, peaceful governance and an attendant constructive political rivalry focused on real substantial issues. ‘Campaign psychosis’  will continue to define the public discourse in Hungary for the foreseeable future. Fidesz will continue to retain its clinch on the majority of the middle classes with nationalist leanings and of regressive persuasions, as well as win over voters from other camps.

Gróh suggests that, despite their self-flagellation, there was little the opposition parties could do to shore up a united front in order to oust the government. In doing so, they would have been risking winning votes from conservative-minded citizens from the Right by offering them right-wing policies with which other centre-left parties could not agree. This would likely have produced an even more serious haemorrhaging of votes to the centre-right parties. This was particularly the case with the centre-left LMP’s strategy. In any case, the re-election of the ruling Fidesz-led coalition could easily be predicted from the fact that the Hungarian Forint exchange rate had shown no appreciable fluctuation as election day neared. International markets, always sensitive to major political changes, was clearly banking on the ‘devil’ they knew being returned to power. Nevertheless, Gróh maintains that the opposition parties were prevented from winning by their own incompetence, as the leaders like Ferenc Gyúrcsány, the former Prime Minister (pictured on the right, below), have been ready to admit. Altogether, the centre-left opposition parties garnered 320,000 fewer votes in 2018 than in 2014.

A partial agreement between MSZP and DK – Hungarian Spectrum

The reasons for this sharp decline are complicated, but Lánczi suggests that it is because both the post-Communist left and the liberals have always looked to the West to borrow ideas indiscriminately from and implement them on home soil. He claims that the merging of liberal and ‘leftist’ ideologies has resulted in an emaciated content of leftism based on the amelioration of the free market and “capitalism” through redistributive policies. Yet, these have always been the policies of the centre-left in Hungary since the 1990s, as the Communist period, for all its faults, had already provided a universal, comprehensive if basic, health, social welfare and education system from ages three to eighteen. There was little left for social democrats and liberals to achieve. However, gender egalitarianism can hardly be dismissed as the latest liberal idea to be imported from the West. Surely it is a matter of universal ‘Common Sense’ that fifty per cent of the population of any country should enjoy equal rights with its other half? A century-long campaign for female emancipation, equal rights and equal pay is hardly a leftist fad. It is a political priority for all mainstream parties across Europe, in government or in opposition, if no longer in the US. If by gender Gróh is referring to more recent demands for transgender rights he may have a point, but the assertion of these has met resistance from feminists, liberal or otherwise, on the grounds that it threatens hard-won women’s rights to female-only spaces in society.

Gróh is probably more justified in his assertion that Conservative ideas have become more attractive in Europe recently, partly because much of the agenda of the left has been fulfilled in many of its liberal democracies, and partly because social conservatism, as distinct from political ‘Conservatism’ is a resurgent though not dominant force in many of them. Orbán’s Conservatism, based on regained national pride and a re-interpretation of Hungarian history (which has sometimes ignored, distorted or falsified the facts, however), is not so different from changes underway in politics elsewhere, though these can hardly be described, yet, as epoch-making. Whether the legitimate concerns, both within Hungary itself and in the EU, about his apparent unwillingness to maintain a complete system of democratic institutional arrangements based on classical liberalism, will now evaporate remains to be seen and will largely depend on whether he now abandons his efforts to restrict the freedom and pluralism of the press and media and demonstrates his commitment to the independence of the judiciary.

Migration, the EU & Economic Policy:

Orbán Viktor miniszterelnök távozik az Európai Unió csúcsértekezletének végén, a 2015. október 16-ra virradó éjjel(MTI/EPA/Laurent Dubrule)

The key to the success of the Fidesz-Christian Democrat (KDNP) coalition had little to do with their performance in government, but much to do with its ability to campaign effectively. Consequently, their main campaign message was not about their achievements over the previous two consecutive terms, but on a platform built on their handling of the single issue of mass migration, and their handling of it during and after the summer of 2016, when large numbers of Syrian asylum seekers and migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan crossed Hungary and Austria en route to Germany and Northern Europe. In reality, this had been an issue of transit, which was temporarily resolved by Angela Merkel and the German government when it opened its borders to those crossing Hungary on their ‘Great Trek’ across the Balkans. Most of these ‘migrants’ had been in refugee camps in Turkey, Syria’s neighbour, having fled from the war across the border. Many of them were professional people and students in the process of gaining qualifications. When the war showed no signs of being brought to an end after three years, and with the advent of the Islamist Caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq, they gave up hope of returning home, determining instead to pursue their aspirations in western Europe. In doing so, they were following a natural impulse to secure human rights that those in Europe take for granted. In reality, very few had any intention of settling in Hungary, and to this date there are only a small number of them in the Hungarian capital, running successful businesses and services.

Nevertheless, the experience of the ‘Great Trek’, with its bottle-necks at the railway stations in Budapest, haunted the Hungarian imagination, with its folk-memory of the Ottoman occupation of centuries before, and led to the building of a ‘steel curtain’ along Hungary’s thousand-kilometre Balkan borders and its claim to be protecting ‘Christian Europe’ from ‘marauding Muslims’. Of course, much of this argument was ‘fake’, drawing on the Islamophobia which has been on the increase since 9/11, and some would argue since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ongoing wars with the Taliban in Afghanistan since then. As Hungary has no recent experience of interaction with Islamic cultures itself, references were made to isolated incidents of loss of control in German cities, to the social and cultural problems of integrating so many migrants, the situation at Calais and the Islamist terror attacks in Brussels, Barcelona, Paris, London and Manchester. The coalition parties in Hungary simply used the more recent tidal wave of Islamophobia hitting Europe to retain the upper hand they had gained on the issue of migration in 2016. This in itself was enough to lock in the coalition’s victory for the third time running, and since the election there has been no let-up in this anti-Muslim rhetoric and propaganda at every level, and especially in the government-controlled press and media.

In the election, no reference to the government’s record on the economy was required since the influx of EU funds had disguised its shortcomings to control inflation and improve wages and living standards among ordinary Hungarians. Had the election been fought on this record, Gróh comments, it would hardly have sufficed for the kind of sweeping victory we have seen. The Fidesz-KDNP coalition pulled of its ‘hat-trick’ with unprecedented mass backing on the ‘fake’ issue of migration, though with almost a third of voters staying at home.

The latter-day exodus to Europe in recent years is a historic challenge far too momentous to be considered as a mere campaign theme. The phenomenon has increasingly come to shape the outcome of elections across Europe, most recently in Italy. Gróh believes that this will continue, with implications for peace and prosperity in Europe. The corollary global issues of environmental damage, overconsumption and the impending demographic collapse of native populations are provoking the most general intellectual crisis in Europe since the seventeenth century. These emerging global issues emerging in recent years have now manifested themselves in more than just the influx of the masses from the destitute and war-torn continents in search of a better life. Nevertheless, they are ‘external’ to national elections since the problems they create can neither be solved nor even contained at a purely national level. They are beyond the control of national governments, which are only capable of mitigating the effects on their populations.

Although its seemingly tough stance on immigration policy was a clear vote-winner, in reality, the coalition government has little control over this issue independent from the other twenty-seven EU member states, acting in concert. It remains to be seen whether, and for how long, Hungary can continue to ignore its obligations as a member state to accept its quota of asylum seekers without jeopardising its central funding from the EU, or whether it can engineer an alternative, less humane strategy with other central European states and the recently elected Eurosceptic government in Italy. Viktor Orbán is making overtures to former Yugoslav and Balkan states, but many of these are not yet integrated into the EU, and are unlikely to be accepted any time soon. They are also suspicious of Orbán’s long-stated goal of reasserting Hungary’s influence in countries which were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a century ago, and still have significant though dwindling, ethnic Hungarian populations. This remains a major ‘plank’ of the nationalist government’s foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the re-election of Hungary’s incumbent government bodes well for bolstering the leverage of the revived Central European co-operation of the ‘Vísegrád’ countries as a means of seeking answers to strategic regional questions rather than simply as a means of ‘Saying No to Brussels’, another of the campaign slogans. The consolidation of central Europe as a distinct region within the EU should be welcomed by the western European states as it has far-reaching consequences for the European continent as a whole. As Gróh comments, however, the psychology of campaigns will continue to override the otherwise desirable limits of sober public affairs and responsibility. Meanwhile, Hungary still has its own internal problems to confront, some of which may have a European dimension or context, but most of which are distinctly within the control of the government. It is not enough that the Orbán governments had to cope with the economic problems it inherited in 2010, including the spiralling triple debt traps at personal, corporate and national levels, the passivity of overall society, the unjust distribution of tax and national insurance, and corporate and structural forms of corruption. Voters tend only to be really irritated by individual instances of corruption, even though these are dwarfed by entrenched corruption on a structural level, even now. The institutionalised corruption of the 1990s has now fallen into oblivion, and the danger for the current ‘régime’ is that, in continuing to utilise the campaigning tactic of blaming past administrations for the loss of billions of forint to the national treasury, it will increasingly draw the spotlight onto individual ‘oligarchs’ among its own associates and their corporate relations.

Certainly, it took a major effort by the Orbán governments to overcome institutionalised corruption between 2010 and 2018 and to dislodge the labour market and domestic consumption from stagnation, setting the country on a path to growing wages and bringing about a period of prosperity for some of its citizens. Hungary has yet to reach this destination for most of its citizens, however, and without prosperity, none of the problems in the public services can be solved, especially in health and education, because the new tax structure restricts its revenue. The foreign-exchange loans for housing purposes taken out before 2008 have finally been paid off with the help of the financial measures of the last Orbán government. Wages have risen steadily in the private sectors, and the government has begun to address the gap between those sectors and the public services, especially for teachers. Higher wages at home may yet have the ancillary benefit of keeping more of the workforce from seeking better wages in other EU countries, and in persuading those who have already done so to return. Higher earnings and tax incentives at home may enable more citizens to enter the housing market, enabling them to pay the rent or the mortgage without their dwelling becoming their only asset.

Much remains to be done in closing the gap for regions and social groups lagging behind, and in improving demographic trends and family policy, and it is in these areas, as much as in the restoration and retention of Hungary’s unique cultural values, that the next general election will most likely be fought. In other words, on the legacy of the Orbán administration in every area that matters in the life of a modern nation and which is within the control of its national government. All of this may be taken care of by the two-third parliamentary majority of the newly re-elected coalition, which is surely enough for good governance, but will it prefer to continue its shadow-boxing with external issues and policies it has a say in, but no real control over?

Orbán’s Goals – Family, Sovereignty & Community:

Miklós K. Radványi: “Open letter to Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary”  – Hungarian Spectrum

So, what are the central goals of the new Órban government? Lánczi has read between the lines of the PM’s speeches to identify three central ‘areas’ from which the star striker will aim to score: ‘Family’, ‘Sovereignty’ and what he calls a meritorious moral system based on a shift to an ethic of individual responsibility. The first two areas are nothing new in Fidesz’s programme. Lánczi admits that the idea of ‘family’ has played a central role in all of Orbán’s governments, affecting economic, financial, social and educational policies. The fundamental political idea was framed in the new Hungarian Fundamental Law (or ‘constitutional amendment’) of 2011:

Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the survival of the nation.

This places great emphasis on the role of the nation-state in ‘family affairs’ and what many would consider as being ‘private matters’ and questions of individual, universal human rights. In particular, the question of mutual recognition of same-sex marriages and civil partnerships across the member states of the EU under this law has not been addressed either in the Hungarian Parliament or in the General Election. Lánczi agrees that the Law, in general terms, runs counter to developments within the EU, although decisions on social matters are still considered to be the territory of the individual states. Many have eulogised Orbán for his ‘courage’ in this respect, particularly among socially-conservative religious people, but even among these it needs to be questioned whether the institution of Christian marriage needs to be protected and ‘enshrined’ in the law of the land, or whether the state should simply continue to concentrate on the legal requirements and relationships of marriage in the secular sphere. The Law, as currently written, may yet lead to lead to an unnecessary conflict over the rights of EU citizens resident in Hungary to have their legal relationships recognised here, with implications for property and pension rights in particular. Nevertheless, as Lánczi points out, the centrality of the family in the policies of the ruling party has important demographic motivations:

Almost all European countries have been facing the economic, social and cultural consequences of their declining populations. The smaller a nation is, the less likely they are to share the view of bigger nations’ seemingly comfortable solution to the problem: migration.

However, Lánczi then poses another false dichotomy, between the individual and the family as the smallest unit of society. The former leads, he suggests, to the organisation of society into a liberal democracy, whereas the latter leads to the strengthening of the nation-state. Viktor Orbán, he claims, is one of the few European political leaders who can see the correlation between the weakening institution of the family and the growing antipathy against the idea of the nation. But are the western liberal democracies really weakening the institution of marriage and the family by opening it up to a broader interpretation of what a family actually is, or can be, in modern society? Leaving aside religious concerns, at least for a minute, does the exact gender formation of a family really matter in societal and demographic terms? Evidence published to date suggests a negative answer, although we have yet to see the longer-term effects of changes in marriage law on wider society.

There is also a bigger social ‘demographic’ issue which we might refer to, in colloquial terms, as the elephant in the room. It could be argued that an insistence on one ‘traditional’ model of ‘the nuclear family’ might be detrimental to another ‘traditional’ model, still prevalent in Hungary, that of the ‘extended’ family. In placing all the emphasis on nation-state help for 2.4 children, are we not in danger of marginalizing the increasing numbers of elderly people, many of them living alone or in care homes, rather than with younger family members? At the same time, where is the help for those family members who are willing and able to care for their parents at home, in addition to continuing to care for their own children as well as holding down full-time employment? Surely, they need to be encouraged to remain economically active. In Hungary, as elsewhere, and as a member of such a family, I don’t see this support as forthcoming. Perhaps that will be the next step in the government’s family-friendly policies. It is certainly long overdue, and a challenge that needs somehow to be confronted.

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On the question of ‘sovereignty’, a term which also continues to be much in use in the ‘Brexit’ debates, Lánczi has pointed out that this concept has been a central ‘instrument’ of the Orbán governments. Among his early campaign slogans, Orbán used the statement, Small victory, little changes; big victory, big changes! We might balance this with the concept employed in many other European democracies, The bigger the majority, the greater the respect shown to minorities! However, this concept is unlikely to find its way into Orbán’s political vocabulary. On the other hand, the people’s will has to be assessed not only by pure numbers but also, according to his supporters, by the intensity of emotions, expectations and passions expressed.

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Sovereignty, the wielding of power on behalf of the people, needs to meet two criteria: the reasonableness of the political goals and the reliability of the political background. Orbán drew a lesson from his 2002 defeat that it was not enough to have popular goals and policies, but that he must organise the political machinery without which the leader would turn out to be a mere puppet of the civil service, very soon losing control over political developments. In particular, however, the issue of sovereignty which has preoccupied the administration since 2016 has been that of whether the EU or the Hungarian state should have the largest measure of sovereignty in the management of the mass migration across the member states. As mentioned elsewhere in this essay, there seems to be little prospect of a resolution to this issue in the near future.

Until the 2008 economic crisis the moral foundations of liberal democracy, “justice as fairness” and human rights had no viable alternative. Political arguments were supposed to be based on the idea that there were certain inalienable rights which every individual should be able to enjoy. But the monopoly of the modern liberal interpretation of rights is being widely challenged, not least in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Here, the renewed basis for political discourse involves the resuscitation of the traditional moral ties which are seen as binding Hungarian society together in the face of external threats and challenges. Egalitarian concepts of justice, both post-Communist and liberal, still have a strong grip on society, but it is increasingly questioned whether western individual-based moralities can and will hold the Hungarian nation-state and the European Union together. Lánczi argues that the emphasis has now shifted from one on the rights of the individual in society to the rights of the community. According to him, rights are nothing if there is no community that warrants them. The primary issue is, therefore, the unity of the community in which individuals can trust each other to a reasonable extent. In particular, Lánczi questions whether immigrants should expect to immediately be given the same rights as natives in the communities to which they move.

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Apparently, Orbán believes in the evolution of a system of ‘meritorious moral relationships’ in which individuals are given rights only when they have fulfilled their obligations. In other words, individuals must ‘fit in’ and integrate themselves into the community first before the latter will ‘reward’ them with rights. This effectively turns rights into privileges which must be earned. Rights are no longer absolute or universal, as in the ‘classical liberal’ sense, but  ‘mutual merits’ defined relative to a national or local moral code which is seen as the basis of the harmony between the individual and the community.  In Hungary, this is the basis for the lowering of personal income tax to 15% for all. Those who work more and risk more are rewarded. There is no longer any system of graduated taxation in which the richer pay a higher proportion of their income to support the poorer in the community. In addition, those on social benefits are required to do ‘workfare’, performing tasks for the community in return for those benefits. So the central moral virtues in Hungary are the ‘senses’ of obligation and responsibility, and individual rights are regarded as being dependent on them. This is seen as the secret of an illiberal morality which underpins Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy. It is therefore incumbent on newcomers to ‘discover’ this secret since expectations are not always clearly articulated or, indeed, static.

Again, this reveals a fundamental misreading of the first principles of classical liberal democracy, in which there has always been an understanding between individuals and the state of the need to balance rights and responsibilities or obligations, and to earn or merit privileges. However, in European liberal democracies, there has also always been, at least since the seventeenth century, an understanding that there are certain fundamental human rights which are either believed to be God-given or part of the social contract between the state and the individual. In addition, there is the question as to how ‘merits’ are to be valued and rewarded, and who determines what these should be and how they should be awarded, assuming that the concept of “justice as fairness” still applies. Otherwise, society is in danger of being dragged back into moral relativism, or an essentially Medieval morality underpinning a system of feudal patronage in which ‘rights and dues’ are determined and arbitrated by an individual ‘lord’. This renewed social contract between ‘the people’ and Viktor Orbán is therefore founded on a new top-down ‘meritorious’ moral code.

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Wherever Next then… ?

For the time being, at least, ‘Leftists’ and ‘Liberals’ are not popular in Hungary, seen as being in the pay of alien forces. What Lánczi refers to as the intellectually exhausted post-Communist Left and the dogmatic liberals have been marginalised within the new national community. If these principles and processes ring alarm bells for western democrats, Lánczi assures us that Orbán’s political model has managed to see off both leftist and rightist radicalism. His politics, we are told, is about the political centre defined in terms of national history and identity, the Christian context of our way of living, and a view of the good life. This is what provides the stable political background against which the people’s aspirations can be fulfilled by their governers. Perhaps, in time, there may also be a coral growth of more popular centrists, as in France, whether progressive liberals or pro-European social democrats, untainted by past associations. The Centre-Right also shows signs of splitting into Christian conservatives and more radical nationalists, led by ‘Jobbik’, who still attracted one million voters out of 5.6 million. But the reactionary and regressive elements in political life, both local and national, are likely to remain in control for much of the next four years, and perhaps beyond. They are deeply entrenched in Hungarian society, and it will take a seismic shift among younger generations, including those returning from abroad, to supplant them. The next four years will be crucial to Hungary’s survival as an open, pluralistic democracy at the heart of Europe.

Sources:

Gyula Kodolányi & John O’Sullivan (eds.) (May 2018), Hungarian Review, Vol. IX,  No. 3. Articles by Gáspár Gróh and András Lánczi; essay by Nicholas T. Parsons; editorial note by John O’Sullivan.        

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