By Land, Thomas
Contemporary Review , Vol. 278, No. 1620
PRIME Minister Victor Orban's conservative coalition administration is introducing a big, long-term infrastructure building programme intended to accelerate the growth of the Hungarian economy. Similar development master-plans may well be launched by some of Hungary's wealthier neighbours in central and eastern Europe in response to the economic upturn helped by a recovery of key western export markets.
This may be Orban's last big attempt to win re-election for a second term in office through achieving an early Hungarian accession to the European Union (EU). An alternative may be some form of a populist coalition administration including the far-Right Smallholders Party. The proposition has alarm bells ringing in Brussels as well as in Budapest.
Housing and motorway building will consume the lion's share of Orban's new, 434 billion forint (1bn pounds) investment package over the next two years, with more to come later. This is a huge sum for this poor, formerly communist country of just ten million people which has nevertheless emerged as an important regional trendsetter.
Other main items on the modernization agenda are industrial innovation, small business as well as regional development, sub-contracting and tourism. The final version of the scheme should be published shortly. It is called the Szechenyi Plan after a 19th century Hungarian aristocrat responsible for a very ambitious modernization programme along the English model of that time. His name still carries strong patriotic appeal for all segments of society.
Orban's political opponents dismiss the plan as a piece of crude electioneering. Orban hopes that it may be the last big push needed to secure the country's entry into the EU. And in any case, he adds, quoting a long list of favourable, authoritative forecasts and analyses, now that the Hungarian economy has turned the corner, the time has come to step on the accelerator.
Like many successful politicians, Orban at age 38 is a slender man with an enormous sense of self sometimes concealed by his boyish charm. He recently asked journalists and economists to stop describing the country as a post-communist, transition, or emergent, economy. As he put it, 'Permit me to inform you that, a decade after the collapse of communism, Hungary has now completed the transition to a capitalist democracy'. He went on, with some exaggeration and much generosity: 'This entire region from the Baltic to the Adriatic Seas is now ripe for EU membership. Without it, the EU would remain incomplete'.
The transition to capitalism has been tough, brutal and costly, with consumption dipping by as much as 20 per cent at one point during the past decade. It is only now beginning to approach the level where it had been at the implosion of communist power.
However, statistics cannot tell the whole story. Many people are still far worse off than they used to be. For the transition has given rise to a class of first-generation bourgeois entrepreneurs which still owes its educational privileges and basic cultural values to the deeply corrupt and cynical old communist regime and which conspicuously consumes far more, by any standard of common decency, than a fair share of the national cake.
This leaves people embittered and resentful. The disappointment of their material aspirations tends to explain the emergence of a small, well organized and very vocal anti-EU far-Right coalition in Parliament for the first time since the birth of Hungarian democracy. And the voters have been exercising their democratic powers. During the past decade, they have booted out every government they had elected, after just one term in office. The popularity of the present coalition administration is ominously declining in the polls. Orban, the Oxford educated pragmatist lawyer son of an aggressively success-oriented working class family, will have to work very hard if his government is to survive the next elections in about two years' time. …