In our series of articles about Hungary, Nouvelle Europe concludes with the perspectives of two Hungarian students on the new Constitution, Hungary in the EU, and alternatives to the current government.
On 2 January 2012, the Hungarian government celebrated its new Constitution in the national Opera house. On the streets around the Opera, opponents of the current government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose conservative party coalition Fidesz-KDNP also has an absolute majority in the Parliament, were demonstrating against the very same document with banners such as “Hey Europe, sorry about my President”. On 21 January, between 250 and, according to the Minister of the Interior Sándor Pintér, 400.000 Hungarians went on a peaceful march in support of the government. The reason for this demonstration: “One should not draw Orbán in a Nazi uniform, one should not write things like he built East Korea in Hungary, because these things are lies. Even people who had numerous problems with the government, said: we have had enough of this,” says journalist Zsolt Bayer, one of the organisers of the demonstration in an interview in the magazine Heti Válasz.
Indeed, many Hungarians have felt that attacks against the government went too far, even those who might not have participated in the Peace March and were themselves harshly criticising Fidesz. Socialist MEP Csaba Tabajdi, for example, said at the 18 January plenary of the European Parliament: “Even though the Hungarian government has taken several decisions and measures which were contrary to European values, I still believe that it is exaggerated if anyone calls Viktor Orbán Hugo Chavez, Puszta Putin, or Viktator ” He therefore asked the representatives of the EU to reassure the Hungarian people that they are seen as part of the European family, but as a family member who needs to be reminded that they might have taken the wrong decisions. (See Tibor Fischer on The Telegraph or György Schöpflin in an interview with BBC Hungary correspondent Nick Thorpe).
In sum, Hungary has been in the spotlight of European debates for the past month, and reactions have often represented the country and its government as nationalistic, ultra-conservative, and archaic. However, the political and social situation in Hungary is more complicated than that. This article is an attempt to look at some aspects of the discussion and try to give an explanation based on testimonies by two Hungarian students in their mid-twenties from Budapest: Anna, a student in Hungarian Language and Literature and young journalist on a national TV channel, and Tamás, a student of International Relations.
Hungary before and after the 2010 elections
Hungarian elections ever since the 1990s have always led to an alternating left-right government, apart from 2006, when the Socialist-Liberal government was reelected. This election was followed by a period of internal turmoil as a reaction to Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány's statement in which he admitted, cursing, his government's failures. Mass demonstrations against the government followed. The fact that the government stayed in power and that Gyurcsány was in office until 2009 did not make things better and neither did the dissolution of the coalition party SZDSZ after numerous corruption scandals in all layers of the government had come to light. This left the party without any sufficient approach to fight against the 2008 economic crisis and its aftermath.
By the 2010 elections, many Hungarians were disappointed by the political scene in their country (Read more on the Hungarian background here and here). The low voter turnout of 46.6% is but one proof of this. Fidesz thus celebrated a landslide victory, obtaining a majority of votes and 67.88% of the seats in Parliament, and introducing altogether 365 laws since their victory without paying much attention to opposition voices and international criticism.
The new Constitution: “important founding values” or “ultra-conservative, Christian ideology”?
Anna's and Tamás's perspectives on the past one and a half years could not be more different – just like the demonstrations in January in favour and against the Government.
“As far as the new Constitution is concerned, I primarily have positive thoughts – but of course I know the criticism directed at it,” explains Anna. For her, the content of the new Constitution, from which she has read some passages, has to be seen in a wider historical context. “For Hungary, the historical continuity that we, Hungarians, have already been here for 1000 years, and that we have formed a feeling of belonging, also in the multiethnic Greater Hungary of the nineteenth century (which should lead critics to rethink accusations of chauvinism), is indeed extremely important.” Part of this national consciousness is Roman Catholicism, which has long been the official religion of the Hungarian state: “this showed that we did not want to belong to the Eastern Greek Catholic block, but to Western Europe. Of course, all these values could not be added to the 1945 Constitution.”
By contrast, Tamás takes a negative stance: “This is the Constitution of the government because of its ultra-conservative, Christian ideology, which does not at all reflect the whole of Hungarian society (maybe not even half of it), and also because it aimed at cementing the power of Fidesz and Orbán.” Tamás sees PM Orbán as undemocratic. “No-one would have thought what is even worse, that they [Fidesz] would intentionally intervene into the cultural sphere, that they would occupy the public media. But the fact that they have occupied all independent institutions within one and a half years, that they have put an end to the independence of the branches of power, and that they have practically annihilated the rule of law, is much more that what could have been thought of or feared.”
What to say about the growing criticism coming from European politics and media about Hungary? “We are part of this community; theoretically, we accept its values and principles,” Tamás claims, “and European integration means that we continuously let go of our sovereignty for a more unified and stronger Europe.” Maybe, Hungary is the black sheep of the European family and has to be led back on a right track. To quote MEP Tabajdi again, Hungary is a member of the European family and should be treated as such.
After all, as Anna argues, Hungary has historically shown a strong commitment of belonging to Western Europe and Orbán has reaffirmed this commitment in his closing remarks at the European Parliament on 18 January. Concerning the intervention of the European Commission in determining some of Hungary's actions, both students agree that “it is strictly codified which Union body, on which fields, and how far it is possible to intervene in the affairs of a Member State, if they see an infringement to any community values,” as Tamás says.
If many citizens, supporters and opponents of Fidesz alike, see the failures of the government, the question that arises is: what are the alternatives?
While Tamás hopes that a grand coalition lining up against Fidesz might be possible, this is not a possible scenario for Anna, who believes that neither the Socialists nor the Green Party LMP can present consistent and convincing programme. “Even though there are speculations of early elections within and outside the party, I believe that there would not be a chance for the discontent voices faced with the Fidesz-majority,” she explains, warning against early elections for other reasons – the possible benefit Jobbik, the far-right third political force in Hungary, could get from the rising public discontent of the Hungarian citizens: “Even though there are speculations of early elections within and outside the party, I believe that there would not be a chance for the discontent voices faced with the Fidesz-majority. This scenario is maybe not worth considering, as the only other party able to mobilise mass support is the radical Jobbik party, which is completely independent from Fidesz. Knowing history, it is not surprising that in a wave of economic crisis, in a country that has for a long time been governed in a messy context and without any clear goals, people living under harsh circumstances take a radical, blaming stance, and not one trying to find reconciliation. It is questionable whether it is a good idea to support these groupings with small things such as bringing up again and again the possibility of an emergency scenario.”
Unfortunately, the two students were not interviewed together. This, however, would have been what is needed: dialogue. For the time being, Hungarian politics and media has very often been about blame avoidance and scapegoating between the left and the right. However, as Anna points out, there is a third possibility in the form of more radical voices and Jobbik, which can get more and more support if the other two voices do not try to work for a common interest.
Anna's and Tamás's opinions are often contradictory. They show the complexity of the Hungarian situation divided up almost blindly between left and right, us or them, which is hard to understand from the in and outside. To put it in Tamás' words: “I do not envy those trying to see through these events from abroad; very often, it is not easy from here at home to follow the extremely fast and troubled streams of information, not to talk about the irrationality.”
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe
- Nouveau départ ou fin de la démocratie en Hongrie ?
- La nouvelle Constitution hongroise : un "renouveau spirituel et intellectuel" ?
- Antonela Capelle-Pogacean : "une réaction nationaliste de cité assiégée" en Hongrie
On the Internet
- FISCHER, Tibor, “Viktor Orbán, Hungary's political daredevil, will be judged by results” The Telegraph [online], 5 January 2012, , last access 2 February 2012.
- GATI, Charles, “Hungary's backward slide,” The New York Times [online], 12 December 2011, last access 2 February 2012.
- KORNAI, János, "Taking Stock, "Népszabadság Online [online], 7 January 2011, last access 2 February 2012.
- KRUGMAN, Paul, "Depression and democracy," The New York Times [online], 11 December 2011, last access 2 February 2012.
- SCHEPPELE, Kim Lane, "Hungary's Constitutional Revolution," The New York Times [online], 19 December 2011, last access 2 February 2012.
- SZAPÁRY, György, “Reply to Kim Lane Scheppele,” Hungarian Spectrum [online], 27 December 2011, last access 2 February 2012.
- THORPE, Nick, “Angels and devils: What is happening in Hungary today?,” Hungarian Review [online], 19 December 2011, last access 2 February 2012.
- THORPE, Nick, “Are Hungary's reforms a step too far?” BBC News [online], 14 January 2012, last access 2 February 2012.
- STUMPF, András, “Tömegvonzás” [Gravitation], Interview with Zsolt Bayer, Heti Válasz, 26 January 2012.
- “EP14 – 2012.01.18 – Tabajdi Csaba”, (Hungarian), 18 January 2012,, last access 2 February 2012.
- “Orbán Viktor válasza 2012.01.18 Strasbourg” [Viktor Orbán's reply 18 January 2012 Strasbourg] (Hungarian), 18 January 2012, last acces 2 February 2012.
- “Viktor Orbán at the European Parliament – January 2012,” 18 January 2012, last access 2 February 2012.