Democracy, Populism, and the Political Crisis in Hungary

Article excerpt


In November 2006, Eurozine published an article by Thomas von Ahn analyzing the causes of the demonstrations in Hungary the previous month. Among other things, von Ahn argued that Hungarian opposition [Fidesz] leader Viktor Orban was operating a populist strategy that sought to undercut parliamentary procedures. Here, Gyorgy Schopflin, MEP for Hungary [Fidesz-EPP] offers a response.

There are serious methodological problems with Thomas von Ahn's analysis of Hungary's current political crisis. These problems gravely weaken his central argument that the Hungarian Right--of which I am a member--is teetering on the edge of an anti-democratic, anti-parliamentary strategy. The primary flaw is that von Ahn fails to recognize the significance of his proposition that Hungarian society is deeply divided--in fact, it is in a state of "cold civil war." The extraordinarily deep cleavage, unparalleled in Europe after 1945 (though it has some analogies with interwar Austria) is far more than a political phenomenon. It can be described as ontological, and is about qualitatively different and mutually exclusive visions of justice, of good and evil, of the country's past, and, ultimately, of the "good life."

This cleavage is necessarily reflected in the Hungarian media, which cannot, therefore, be treated as providing an objective account of events, but as articulating opposing world-views. The best evidence for this comes from Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany's "lying speech" (cited by von Ahn), in which he admitted that the government and the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) "prepared" the media and "involved" it in its work (this sentence was not noticed by von Ahn). The passage is worth citing at length: "We must try to take these things forward [...] prepare the leaders and publicists of the most influential papers regarding what to expect. To involve them in the process." (My translation) In other words, the left wing media in Hungary, about four-fift hs of all outlets, have become a transmission belt, doing the government's bidding. Gyurcsany makes it amply clear that he regards this as quite normal and that "preparing" the media is something that he and his party will continue to do in the future.

What appears in the media cannot be used as a prima facie source, but only as evidence of the cleavage. To quote Jozsef Debreczeni as an objective analyst of Viktor Orban, as von Ahn does, is therefore distinctly misleading. Debreczeni was indeed once an adviser to Orban, but is now a committed critic. Similarly, the output of the think tank Political Capital cannot be taken at face value, given its close links to the government coalition. And so on. Thomas von Ahn relies heavily on left wing news outlets, while ignoring the alternative views coming from the Right, such as Budapest Analysis or Heti Valasz. Centre-Right analysts such as Tamas Fricz and Andras Lanczi are also omitted. The implication is that von Ahn's key analytical points about Viktor Orban's strategy being populist and anti-parliamentarian are basically reflections of the discourses of the Hungarian Left .

In consequence, von Ahn misses the deeper causes of the crisis in Hungary and the trap that Hungary's elites, both Left and Right, have marched into. The first of these causes is the flaw in the institutional design of the Hungarian political system; the second is the long-term consequences of the "soft " regime shift in 1989-90; and the third is the nature of the Hungarian project that the country has been free to pursue since the end of the Soviet occupation.


Those who designed the Hungarian political system were not persons of Platonic detachment. They were highly motivated actors who wanted to secure maximum power for themselves under the new dispensation. In short, they were the leading elements of the communist nomenklatura. Their interlocutors were the democratic opposition and other leading intellectuals, who were wholly inexperienced in practical politics. …