Red Sun Rising - Hungary's Elections

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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The Slovaks, perhaps a trifle prematurely, rejoiced. The Czech CTK News Agency reported from Prague that the ethnic Hungarian parties in Slovakia were cautiously unhappy. Bela Bugar, the chairman of one such party (the SMK, now in coalition) grumbled, referring to the Hungarian-Slovak basic treaty:

"If this policy of two faces were to continue, it would worsen relations at least on the level of government and the given (Hungarian) ethnic minority." The Hungarian minority in Slovakia was not even consulted before the weighty document was signed by the Socialists (MSZP) and the Union of Free Democrats (SZDSZ).

These very two parties now won the first round of the elections in Hungary, narrowly defeating the center-right coalition led by Fidesz (the Hungarian Civic Party) and the Hungarian Democratic Forum. Of the 185 seats decided, the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Free Democrats ended with 98. Another 176 seats are left to a second round. The parties then cast proportional votes to determine the composition of the remaining 25.

If they win the runoff on April 21 as well - and fervent coalition-making is currently under way - the Socialists will lead this prosperous country of 10 million people into the EU. This would not be their first taste of power, though. They ruled Hungary between 1994 and 1998.

Many Free Democrats found the experience of allying with the Socialists traumatic and believe that it tarnished the party's reputation irreversibly. Some are even pushing to team up with Fidesz rather than with the victorious Socialists. But this is unlikely. The party campaigned on an anti-Fidesz ticket.

A two-party system has emerged from these elections, in which a record 71 percent of eligible voters participated - a sign of the maturation of the Hungarian political scene. Rabid right-wingers, like the Hungarian Justice and Life party (MIEP), were trounced. This removed an obstacle from Hungary's accession to the EU. Their leader, Istvan Csurka, ordered his acolytes to vote for Orban (Fidesz), hoping to recreate the reversal of fortunes in the 1998 elections. The Socialists then also won the first round, only to lose the elections in the second.

The ruling coalition may have been punished by urbanite voters - mainly in Budapest - said the center-left daily "Nepszava". Its open contempt of intellectuals, liberals, the media, and city-dwellers has often translated into withheld or truncated budgets and bureaucratic obstructionism. Zoltan Pokorni, Fidesz's president, said the rural vote would be crucial in the second round:

"We advise our supporters in the provinces to take part in the second round. Their will should not be thwarted by Budapest."

Such was the disenchantment with Orban that the stock exchange surged almost 4% on the news. The Socialists promised less interference in the economy. And during their previous term in office, Hungary's stock market enjoyed an uninterrupted bull run. The forint - propped up by Hungary's preference for a strong currency under Fidesz - dutifully weakened.

Hungary's remarkable economic performance during Orban's reign, state interventionism notwithstanding, seems to have been utterly forgotten, though. The somewhat incredulous Socialist prime ministerial candidate, Peter Medgyessy, said, in his typical low-key manner:

"We are very happy with the confidence that has been expressed by investors. We can guarantee predictability for the economy."

But voters were after justice as well as predictability. Inequality in capitalistic Hungary grew under Orban. In post-communist societies, evenly spread poverty is often preferred to unevenly spread riches. Gnawing envy may have led to electoral retribution. Orban was accused of authoritarianism, cronyism, and patronage.

Fidesz has been denigrated as merely enjoying the long-delayed fruits of painful reforms the Socialists have instituted - for which the latter paid dearly in the last elections in 1998. The chairman of the Free Democrats, Gabor Kuncze, already cautioned against "stealth privatization" of various state assets, including many farms and a retail chain. The government, he warned, should act as a mere caretaker.

Orban's escalating rhetoric worked against him. It began to unsettle foreign investors and EU commissioners alike. But, above all, it did not resonate with the increasingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan society that Hungary has become. Orban typecast himself as a rustic, traditionalist, anti-intellectual, nationalistic, and down to earth populist folk hero. Hungary is urban, non-conservative, intellectual, and European. It feared a possible Fidesz-MIEP rule.

Peter Medgyessy could not have been more different. He joined the Socialist party only lately and reluctantly. He worked as a besuited banker in Societe Generale in Paris. He is a technocrat. The Financial Times described his performance in a debate with the brash and arrogant Orban - "Calm and factual".

Agrarian voters may yet turn the tide. If enough Socialist voters stay home on April 21, now that MIEP is no more - Fidesz could still pull a last minute rabbit out of the hostile ballot box. But whoever wins, the right will never be the same again. It has been humbled - and warned. Be part of a liberal Europe - or cease to be altogether.

April 19, 2002

The Budapest Stock Exchange has reached its zenith for the year earlier this month, having risen by a quarter since January 1. It was buoyed by flows of foreign capital. Foreign investors disliked the outgoing government for its heavy handed interventionism and micro-management of the economy. It was also tainted by nepotism and cronyism, though not by outright and crass corruption.

Having apparently learned nothing from his biting defeat in the first round of the elections on April 7, the youthful and unrepentant prime minister, Orban, fanned the xenophobia that has become his hallmark. He cited the stock exchange's vicissitudes as proof positive of the undue and pernicious influence of "big (read: foreign) capital", likely to be running the country under the socialists.

In some ways, these elections seem to perpetuate a pattern. No government in central Europe has leveraged its first term to win a second one. Yet, in other ways, these elections are a watershed. What is decided is not the fate of politician or a party. At stake is the process of EU enlargement and the future image of a united Europe.

In a massive rally on Saturday at Kossuth ter in front of the well-lit building of parliament, Orban, flanked by pop stars and celebrity athletes, addressed the crowd, claiming to believe in the forces of "unity and love". He implored his listeners to join the train to the future. He contrasted the Bokros austerity plan of his socialist predecessors with his own business-friendly Szechenyi program. He called upon voters to "bring a friend with them to vote (for the party he chairs, Fidesz)".

Orban stands for a prouder, more affluent, Hungary. No longer the mendicant at the gates of the kingdom of Brussels, he promotes the interests of his country fearlessly and does not recoil from tough bargaining and even conflict. While unwaveringly committed to the European project, Orban, like Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic, is an unmistakable nationalist.

His nationalism often comes uncomfortably close to a vision of "Great Hungary". It is a non-territorial kind of expansionism and it encompasses all the Hungarians wronged by the treaty of Trianon and doomed to become minorities in neighboring countries.

By showering these expatriates with financial benefits and extra-territorial rights, Orban has engaged in economic imperialism on a minor scale. The socialists want to renegotiate the agreement with Romania, granting special privileges to Romanian temporary workers in Hungary. This was the political price Orban had to pay in order to extend these rights and more to Hungarians in Romania.

Fidesz has an informal and uneasy alliance with MIEP, the far-right, ultra-nationalist, and intermittently anti-Semitic, Hungarian Justice and Life Party. Its supporters attended the Saturday rally. Its leaders called on Fidesz to out and accept MIEP's help publicly.

Quoted in Hungarian Radio, deputy parliamentary group leader, Csaba Lentner, said that "it could have tragic consequences if the 250,000 MIEP voters will not even receive a good word from the centre-right for their unselfish sacrifice (in voting for Fidesz in the second round, as their leadership recommended)".

The nation-state may have been grafted on eastern Europe in the 20th century - but in central Europe it has always been a natural outgrowth. Yet, in both regions it derives its vitality from the land. Nationalism in the east has agrarian, rustic roots. Orban inevitably gravitated towards the village - the symbol of tradition, wholesomeness, integrity, forthrightness, honesty, deep-rooted commitment to the nation, the abode of the nuclear family - home and hearth. No wonder that the main bones of contention in the negotiations towards EU accession are farm subsidies and agricultural policy.

This mythical vision was contrasted with the no less mythical vision of the city - Budapest. Cosmopolitan, traitorous, non-productive, swarming with criminals, con-men, foreigners, and uprooted intellectuals. Orban starved Budapest by denying it access to budget funds. He clashed with its mayor publicly and gleefully. He berated urbanites and extolled the farmers. He was duly punished in the ballot box by disgruntled city-dwellers.

Europe's hinterland - the vast arable lands of Poland, Germany, Hungary, Ukraine, and Russia - is being denuded by the forces of the market. The cities swell inexorably. Urban development has become unsustainable. Infrastructure is crumbling. Crime is soaring. Orban represents the forces of reaction to these disturbing trends.

Orban may be paying the price for the success of the Hungarian economy. Capitalism is driven by inequality - and ruined by iniquity. Capitalist societies encourage people to swap their rags for riches. Capitalism seeks to foster constructive envy and the wish to emulate success stories. But a society divided among haves and haves not is, by definition, unequal and polarized. In post-communist societies, evenly spread destitution is often preferred to unevenly spread affluence. Gnawing envy may have led to electoral retribution.

Orban was also accused of authoritarianism, cronyism, and patronage. These have nothing to do with capitalism and a lot to do with nanny-state communism. Old habits die hard. State interference, the formation of a nomenclature, cronyism in privatization deals, lack of transparency, paranoia - are all leftovers from four decades of communist depredation.

In an ominous note, Peter Medgyessy, the socialist's technocratic prime ministerial candidate, vowed to honor agreements signed by the current government - if they are found to be legal. Orban, being the brash representative of a new generation, was supposed not to have been contaminated by a depraved past. But he proved to be even more socialist than any socialist before him. The markets rejoiced at the reasonable prospect of his political demise.

Where is the EU headed? Will it become a confederation of independent nation-states, as Britain would have it? Or will a Unites States of Europe emerge and subsume its components, the erstwhile nation-states?

This may well be decided in central Europe rather than in its west. Countries like France and Britain are already committed to one model or another. The swing votes - today's applicants, tomorrow's members - will, in all likelihood, determine the outcome of this debate. Hungary realizes that the greater the number of candidates it sponsors, the more clout it will possess in any future arrangement. Hence, its continued demands to commence preliminary discussions with Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova - the EU's future neighbors following enlargement - with a view to their ultimate accession.

It was a Frenchman (Ernest Renan) who wrote:

"Nations are not eternal. They had a beginning and they will have an end. And they will probably be replaced by a European confederation."

Also Read:

Hungary's Ever Closer Union

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