Admiral Horthy may be long gone, but just lately he appears to have become all the rage in modern Hungary. Newspapers sympathetic to the governing Fidesz party continually run glowing editorials about this ‘honourable’ man, along with statues and parks being awarded his name.
Despite their legacy as ‘The Alliance of Young Democrats’, some in the ageing and increasingly authoritarian Fidesz party have found a historical hero who was certainly no democrat. As the 1930s progressed, the electoral franchise was progressively choked off in Hungary, quietly ensuring a succession of increasingly nationalistic and right-wing governments. Areas where the social democrats were strongest were effectively deprived of the vote through bureaucratic manipulation and banning of trades union activity. Meanwhile, in rural areas, landlord control of the franchise was overt. The ‘good old days’ to which many Fidesz supporters refer to, were also the days when Roma were physically segregated into remote slums, invisible but for the occasional presence of the gendarmerie, who would brutally and violently ensure that the locals knew their position at the very base of society.
When a leading Fidesz organizer and friend of the Prime Minister declares in an opinion column that ‘most gypsies are animals’ it is against this historical context. Yet it’s also against the context of a Hungarian Right which has established no clear institutional ethical boundaries against racism, and which has increasingly relied upon nationalist rhetoric in the last 20 years. The ruling party in 1990’s first post-transition government, the MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) even included Istvan Csurka among its leaders. Csurka was an overtly anti-Semitic nationalist politician, dedicated to restoring Hungary’s pre-World War One borders. His presence at the centre of post-transition political life indicated the weakness of democratic forces, even at the height of their supposed triumph. Even as Csurka was expelled from the collapsing MDF administration, the government engineered a ceremonial reburial of Admiral Horthy’s bones in his home village of Kenderes.
The Hungarian right’s love of ceremony and pageant – in somewhat embarrassing homage to the anachronisms of the United Kingdom – extended to a huge parade marking the relocation of the Crown to Parliament in 2000 – investing Parliament with ‘holy’ authority. Such mystical references are common currency across the Hungarian right-wing, whether supporters of ‘center-right’ Fidesz or ‘far-right’ Jobbik. It’s part of the deliberately mixed messages being sent by Fidesz. One week the Prime Minister can meet for photo-opportunity with rabbis, the next week, the Fidesz Deputy President can attend a commemoration for a Hungarian Nazi writer. There is always an eye for an opening.
Horthy might be a strange hero to many people inside and outside Hungary, but it’s especially alarming to consider that the same political forces who indulge in Horthy-worship are also the people centralising control of the Hungarian state (especially schools), redrawing a constitution and creating a whole new set of apparently ad-hoc electoral laws, the ultimate effect of which would be to make it very, very hard to elect a new government. Having won a two-thirds majority, Fidesz are attempting to exploit an opportunity to remake the administration of Hungary, as well as cementing their dominance over the future electoral process.
Anyone who remembers the 2002 Election, in which Fidesz attempted to defend its position in office against the Socialists, will remember the partial and disgraceful overt manipulation of public media. Government spokesmen and supporters dominated the programming. The editors of the public broadcasting channels even started broadcasting Fidesz rallies live-to-air – risking the ire of those who were looking to consume the normal diet of soaps and cheap cop dramas. The new electoral law attempted to consolidate this control of public media by preventing commercial radio and television channels from running party political programmes or advertisements during the campaign, leaving only the state-controlled media to provide political analysis. The intention was to drive the opposition off air.
Already we can see the beginnings of the 2014 campaign, with posters plastered on buses and placards around the city, blaming the previous government for Hungary’s problems. It seems much of the funding for this is already coming from state sources. When added to a number of bogus consultations concerning the constitution and the ‘job protection’ campaigns, Fidesz are spending an absolute fortune on communications. The next logical step is to remove the official state budget for political parties, thereby ensuring such massive communications machines are funded from either secretive or ‘grey’ sources. If enacted, it ensures a system that retains the outward trappings of democracy, whilst engaging in multiple instances of manipulation at different levels. The open gerrymandering of electoral districts is, from a UK perspective, more normal, but will further reduce the prospects of change in Hungary, whilst the reallocation of seats has been entirely driven by use of the two-thirds supermajority, with no attempt to garner a consensus.
Finally, and in tune with 1930s Hungary, the new electoral laws proposed a move away from a simple system of voter lists, to a system of voluntary registration. It is here that the government have been placed most under pressure, both internally and externally. Originally, the registration process was intended to involve people presenting themselves physically in a governmental office with the necessary forms of ID. Access to these offices could therefore be made as obscure, or as irregular as necessary, and would be a daunting test of organization and finance, as all parties would need to ferry many of their voters to the offices, or at least ensure as many were registered as possible. The Constitution Court has rejected the electoral laws, indicating dissent in the ranks – but it remains the undeniable case that the party leadership, Viktor Orban himself, wanted to push these changes through.
We could argue that Fidesz, at root, is nothing more than an electoral/communications machine, and in this sense is not so different to many other European political parties nowadays. This machine has even provided an easy cultural identity for Joe Public to adopt, a system of patronage for supporters and friends, plus a flexible and easily adaptable set of policies, which vary from economic liberalism, to nationalism, to oligarchy, depending on the lay of the land.
Yet the rancid nationalism and overt racism of many Fidesz supporters stops it being a question of abstract political science, and illustrates the dilemma that Fidesz has built for itself. For such a machine would obviously not want to risk being thrown out of office –a negative democratic verdict would be too costly to the many interests at stake in such a centralized system of patronage. Yet at the same time, Fidesz retains those same people who were part of the democratic opposition in the communist era, and whose political self-image is based partially upon being democrats in opposition to undemocratic communists. Fidesz need to distance itself from the far-right in some ways, whilst also retaining its nationalist rhetoric and feeding the monster it has helped to create.
By understanding that Fidesz are increasingly being torn in both directions, we can surely begin to appreciate that while the Association of Young Democrats may have a somewhat elastic understanding of the word ‘democracy,’ internal rivalries and dubious decision-making increasingly question the viability of Orban’s all-encompassing governing project. Paradoxically, this coincides with the continued consolidation of absolute power. This should not obfuscate – the prospects for democratic change and political engagement with social realities in Hungary appear singularly bleak, regardless of right-wing factionalism.