Most Czechs and Slovaks remember Hungary as the legendary "happiest barrack in the Soviet Bloc". It was the place to go for those seeking good music, jeans, books and other consumer goods. A country where small private enterprises were allowed to thrive and the regime was not as hard-line as in Czechoslovakia. By the time Miloš Jakeš was General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hungarians could, without too much trouble, travel West. Hungarians paid a high price for their dreams of freedom during the 1956 uprising. However, as time went on, the Hungarian policy of repressions slowly gave was to a tacit social contract and "goulash socialism".
János Kádár repeatedly enunciated the principle that "he who is not against us is with us", and in return for the citizens remaining passive he attempted to ensure the people enjoyed easy lives. However, this generated unprecedently huge foreign debt (the highest within the Soviet sphere of influence per head) and further bombshells, ready to explode, but hushed up by the regime. The society was only to find out about these during the transformation. Miklós Németh was the last Communist Prime Minister of Hungary in office between November 1988 and March 1990. As an economist, he focused all of his attention on reforms in order to transform Hungary into a democratic country with a free market economy. During that time, the communist top brass were getting ready to convert the national party into a West European style left wing formation. As a result, in October 1989 the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSZMP) was dissolved and re-founded as the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP).
Representatives of already established opposition parties sat at a round table. September 1987 saw the founding of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). It brought together conservative intellectuals and its ideology reflected the religious, nationalist and bourgeoisie parts of the society. In March 1988, 37 students associated with the Bibó István College at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest established Fidesz, an independent, radically anti-communist youth organisation. The Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), geared to accommodate the liberal voter was founded shortly after, in November 1988. A number of traditional political parties also resumed independent activity. These included the Independent Smallholders' Party (FKgP) – winners of the first post-war and, for a long time, the last free elections in Hungary.
When the Communists themselves began using the term "popular uprising" to refer to the Hungarian revolution, it became clear that their time had come, as the entire ideology of János Kádár's regime was based on the assumption that the events of 1956 were counter-revolutionary. By June 1989 the political opposition had taken care of the arrangements for Imre Nagy's symbolic funereal, and government officials were mere spectators of the event. That was a magnificent day for Viktor , a young lawyer and co-founder of Fidesz. In his speech before hundreds of thousands of onlookers, Orbán openly called for an end to communism and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
The first free elections held in March and April (second round) of 1990 marked a great triumph for the national-conservative camp. MDF won, ahead of SZDSZ and FKgP. The post-communists had to lick their wounds and settle for fourth place. Fidesz and the Christian Democrats (KDNP) also had their feet in the door and had a presence in the parliament. MDF formed a government with the Independent Smallholders' and Christian Democrats. József Antall, MDF's leader, became Prime Minister. His family was part of the local gentry, he an intellectual with a humanist education and an active participant of the Hungarian uprising. His opponents described him as an "Impudent man from a previous epoch". He declared that he would be 'the Prime Minister of 15 million Hungarians', and therefore also of those who lived in the territory separated from Hungary under the Treaty of Trianon. Throughout his term in office Antall had been suffering from a serious cancer. It was decided elect Árpád Göncz (SZDSZ) as president.
Pitfalls of the transformation
Now the new government had to deal with the country's dire economic situation , while Antall, as a conservative, promoted the idea of a social-market economy in opposition to the Washington Consensus of liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation already pursued by Miklós Németh's government (Németh himself moved to London in 1991, where he became Vice-President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). Almost immediately the post-communists began supporting hard neo-liberal reforms, while the government, ruffled by disputes in the MDF, was no longer able to act. By 1994, Hungary's foreign debt had risen to USD 20 billion. The pre-war conflict between metropolitan liberals and national conservatives returned with renewed force under MDF governance. As Antall was unable to bring order and internal discipline to the MDF, over time a faction centred around István Csurka, a right-wing writer with anti-Semitic views, began to gain ground. Later Csurka left the MDF and founded the extremist Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP), which had seats in parliament between 1998 and 2002.
The rise of nationalism that was most feared by the liberal camp, while the SZDSZ in opposition increasingly found common ground with the post-communists. By then, the libertarian and anticlerical Fidesz was divided – some assembly members around Gábor Fodor were pushing for a close alliance with SZDSZ as the closest ideological partner, but Orbán's group disagreed. During Antall's last year in power, Orbán became closer with the Prime Minister and his political orientation slowly began to change.
József Antall and Viktor Orbán
Orbán's conflict with the Fodor faction deepened, and when he was elected the party's first chairman in April 1993 (replacing the previous collective leadership), a break-up was only a matter of time. Soon after Fodor and his supporters joined the ranks of the SZDSZ. Antall died in December and Péter Boross, Minister of the Interior and MDF Vice-President became Prime Minister. The new head of government guided the country to the next elections, but above all his cabinet passed two acts that best illustrate Antall's political legacy. The first was the act on secret service agents and the second is the land act, which prohibits foreigners, natural and legal persons, from owning agricultural land in Hungary.
Return of the (post)communists
Post-communists and liberals celebrated success in the 1994 elections. The MSZP could govern on its own, but the presence of SZDSZ outside the constitutional majority somehow legitimised it externally. Gyula Horn, a long-time communist diplomat and foreign minister in Németh's government, became Prime Minister. Like Antall and Boross, he too was an active participant in the uprising, though he stood on the opposite side of the barricade – he fought alongside the intervening Soviet Army against the insurgents. Horn's government scrambled to quickly 'normalise' Hungary and bring the country up to European standards in preparation for accession to the EU and NATO. The government received a loan from the International Monetary Fund and heeded its terms.
Gyula Horn and Viktor Orbán in 1998
Minister of Finance Lajos Bokros proposed a package of reforms and, by devaluing the forint, reducing public spending, freezing wages, abolishing social benefits and reforming pensions, he sought to stabilise the economy and mitigate the risk of bankruptcy. Real wages fell by 18 per cent between 1995 and 1996, while prices rose by a similar degree. The government of the time embarked on large-scale privatisation which included the banking and energy sectors, deemed untouchable by Antall's cabinet. The share of foreign capital in Hungary rose sharply: by 1995 as much as 40 per cent of enterprises initially state-owned were in the hands of foreign investors (at the same time in the Czech Republic a similar phenomenon drew to a halt at 5 per cent). Statistically speaking state-owned companies were privatised for 28 per cent of their value, and the country lost a third of its jobs. Reforms succeeded in kick-starting the economy, nonetheless protests by various social groups, from workers to students, were mostly ignored by the government and even at the most critical moment it did not try to alleviate the serious consequences of its measures. And this took its toll on the popularity of SZDSZ; its support has dwindled to 6 per cent. From then on the Liberals were only a small party with an electoral base in Budapest, but they tipped the balance when it came to the formation of a Socialist government.
Meanwhile a consolidation process was underway on the right. Even though Fidesz had already paid for its internal disputes, poor campaigning and lack of distinctiveness, Orbán already had a clear vision of the direction the party would follow. He found a role for himself as the unifier of the right. "That which belongs together is coming together" was his laconic comment on the alliance of the socialists with the liberals. Orbán firmly refused to join the coalition. He still had a lot of work to do, with the three right-wing parties plus Fidesz winning between 7 and 12 per cent in the elections. On the one hand Orbán had respect for Antall's legacy, but on the other he accused the former Prime Minister of weakness and naivety, and above all of allowing capital and the media to be "swept away from under his nose".
As sympathy for Fidesz waned with the departure of the Fodor's faction, in 1995 Orbán summed up the situation of the right-wing in the press t by comparing it to a backside. The word "polgári" was added to the name of the party, which has several meanings in Hungarian: civic, middle-class, bourgeois and official. Here it expressed the all-national and pro-national orientation of the grouping. Fidesz promoted a division into the young "polgári" Hungary and the old post-communist Hungary. Orbán wanted to prove that his opponents within the party, who claimed that it was impossible "to be more pro-church than the MDF, to represent the countryside better than the Independent Smallholders" and that the only way to success was an alliance with the Liberals, were wrong. He criticised the government for pursuing the interests of international financial groups, for Horn behaving as if he were an ambassador of the International Monetary Fund and not the Prime Minister of Hungary. Orbán announced that the main aim of privatisation should be to create a Hungarian middle class, while foreign capital, driven by its own interests, must be forced to serve the nation. The party aligned itself with conservative and religious values and focused on rights of Hungarians in neighbouring countries.
Orbán succeeded and 1998 saw another change of government. Fidesz formed a coalition with MDF and the Independent Smallholders to continue the integration of the right-wing into a single entity under the "one camp, one flag" slogan. The government abolished or reduced some of the more drastic social measures and began acting responsibly in terms of its fiscal policy (in 2001 the country's debt fell to a record low of 55 per cent of its GDP), it supported young families, pensioners and Hungarians living abroad, which caused tensions in relations with its neighbours. Hungary joined NATO and the government focused on defending national interests during EU accession negotiations (in a popular comment from this period, Orbán stated that there is life outside the European Union). Fidesz left the Liberal International in 2000 and became an affiliate of the European People's Party. Some rather authoritative methods were evident in the government's actions. In particular these applied to the parliament. The ruling party was also entangled in a chronic conflict with the capital's mayor, Gábor Demszky, but economically they were effective – in four years unemployment fell and consumption was on the rise. Fidesz sought to deal with the legacy of communism through newly created institutions such as the House of Terror. Historic elements were an integral part of its policies. A few weeks before the elections, Orbán called on his supporters to wear festive Hungarian bows (traditionally pinned to clothes on national holidays in Hungary), which made it possible to immediately distinguish between right-wing and left-wing voters. Fidesz took a step towards retaining power and according to most polls it was going to prevail.
... and demise
Alas, following the fiercest election campaign to date, which divided the Hungarian society with a previously unknown intensity, Orbán's party lost by a whisker. The Fidesz and MDF coalition won 188 seats, while MSZP and SZDSZ had 198. This was a major shock for Orbán. After the initial consternation, he announced a mobilisation of the right and mass demonstrations took place under the slogan "The homeland cannot be in opposition". Half a million people came to the largest protest in Kossuth Square. Orbán quickly realised that this was a dead end approach and began to look elsewhere for the reasons for his defeat. He found two main causes. The first was Fidesz's institutional weakness, fragile and scarce party structures and lack of permanent roots within the society. Orbán felt that there were too few activists and local organisations, while the socialists had a huge base at their disposal: admittedly, of the 800,000 or so members of the former Communist Party, only about 50,000 became members of the MSZP. However, even that a number on a different scale than what Fidesz could conjure up. Orbán identified the media as the second cause of the defeat. The lion's share had a left-liberal orientation – and where not favourably inclined to Fidesz. Based on this diagnosis, the politician set two interrelated goals: to build a real social base and to have his own private media.
The socialists learnt from their 1998 defeat, and this time they decided to set out on a neoliberal course with clear social elements. In practice, privatisation of the remaining branches of the economy continued, state revenues declined and expenditure began to increase rapidly. Pensions and welfare were rocketing, employees of the gargantuan state apparatus saw their salaries increase by half compared to the Kádár Era The government plugged the deficits by borrowing from foreign lenders and Hungarians were encouraged to do the same – due to the forint's instability, they were expected to borrow in foreign currencies: the Euro, Swiss francs or Japanese yen. In terms of GDP, in 2006 Hungary was the seventh most indebted country in the world. Less than a month into his term, it emerged that Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy had been a communist intelligence agent in the 1970s and 1980s. Initially this seemed unacceptable even in Hungary, where there was undeniable transfer of staff between communists and socialists. The SZDSZ demanded the head of government to resign with immediate effect. However this did not come to pass, and the Liberals ultimately failed to carry out their threats against their coalition partner. Medgyessy's career came to an end two years later due to personal disputes in the coalition and the defeat in the first elections to the European Parliament. The coalition partners managed to agree on a single candidate – the former advisor to Medgyessy and subsequent sports minister – Ferenc Gyurcsány.
"The only League member worth his mettle..."
Gyurcsány was formerly a high representative of the Hungarian Young Communist League (KISZ). His wife came from a family of a Communist dignitary active in the 1950s. After the collapse of the regime, Gyurcsány became a successful businessman (as some have alleged – thanks to his and his wife's family's many informal connections); in 2002 he was ranked 50th on the list of the richest Hungarians. Interestingly it was Gyurcsány who Orbán described in 1988 as "the only capable KISZ activist".
Meanwhile Fidesz was laying down roots. Shortly after the election, Orbán came up with the idea of harnessing the energy of the mobilised right-wing electorate and creating a network of informal "civic clubs" across the country. As part of these, right-wing voters were to meet to discuss local issues. The change in the party's structure and the mass scale growth of the membership base must have had an impact on Orbán's position within the party leadership – he regained the presidency in 2003 and subsequently only strengthened his power in the party. At the same time, he began talks with representatives of a number of citizens' initiatives and smaller centre-right parties. In 2002, Fidesz had 5,000 members and, thanks to the effort spearheaded by the civic clubs, this number soon rose to 30,000. Integrating such a number of members in a short time was a complex operation, but it was mostly successful. Fidesz also figured out how to involve the passive part of society in the whole process – national petitions were used for this. Later also consultations were initiated and questionnaires on various topics were sent by the party to all Hungarian households. More than a million completed questionnaires were usually returned to the party headquarters. Party treasurer Lajos Simicska took charge of the media. Private TV stations Hír TV and Echo TV, several magazines and one radio station were established soon after. Simicska also won over the traditional Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap dailies for the right-wing camp. Right-wing voters could finally read opinions with which they would identify. In the aforementioned European Parliament elections, Fidesz won with 47 per cent of the vote and it seemed that in two years' time its victory on the national stage was done and dusted. However, there was still the capable Gyurcsány.
Compared to 1998 and 2002, Fidesz's 2006 election campaign fared badly. First and foremost, Orbán's party chose an unfortunate slogan. "Life is worse now than it was four years ago" was not true and not even the staunchest right-wing voter could utter it with conviction. The socialists advocated a life of glamour financed by loans, and Fidesz lacked credibility when it criticised this approach on the one hand and tried to outbid it on the other.
In a pre-election debate, Orbán undoubtedly wanted to give the impression of a man of consensus in comparison to the aggressive Gyurcsány, but he did not succeed. Gyurcsány came across as confident, while Orbán looked nervous and subdued. This was Orbán's worst debate ever. It was so bad that there was even speculation as to whether it was intentional. Even though both candidates are excellent speakers, Gyurcsány comprehensively crushed Orbán. The MSZP politician was quoting figures that Orbán could not even refute or counter, as the finance minister decided not to reveal the state's real balance sheet before the elections.
Gyurcsány and Orbán in a pre-election debate. Photo credit: TAMAS KOVACS / MTI / PAP/EPA
Fidesz was also dealt a blow by MDF, which decided to enter the elections alone. The Hungarian system has always favoured strong parties – a joint list of candidates would translate into a financial bonus. MDF barely managed to get their foot in the door, but SZDSZ won more votes. Before the second round, MDF was willing to cooperate, however, there was a condition: Orbán cannot be Prime Minister. He made such a promise, which turned out to be another dreadful mistake, as voters were emotionally attached to him. For the second time, Fidesz did not win despite securing more than 40 per cent of the vote. The socialist-liberal coalition would continue to govern, while Fidesz was in danger of disintegrating and Orbán of losing his leadership. Orbán was advocating to everyone that a strong leader was needed to win. However he lost, and that defeat continued to stalk him. This satiation did not last long, as shortly after the election Gyurcsány, by his actions, committed political suicide.
We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening, we lied at night...
A recording of the May Socialist Congress in Balatonőszöd was broadcast on 17 September 2006 by Magyar Rádió. In a vulgar speech, Gyurcsány tried to mobilise MPs to support reforms. He admitted that they had done nothing for four years, had "fucked everything up" and had only won the elections because they had "lied morning, evening and night" about the situation in the country and it was only through "divine providence, money from the world economy and hundreds of tricks" that they had survived.
People immediately took to the streets. The recording hit the airwaves in the afternoon, and by the evening several thousand demonstrators had already gathered. Next day, more than 40,000 protesters came and some of them tried to enter the public television building. The police stepped in. Its actions, as well as Gyurcsány's statement that he pondered over his resignation for about three minutes, led to the bloody night of 18-19 September, when demonstrators actually broke into the TV studios and interrupted broadcasts. Police had to call in reinforcements to get into the barricaded building. Cars and buildings were set alight, ambulances ferried hundreds of injured demonstrators and police officers to hospitals. Large-scale demonstrations continued for another week, then decreased in intensity, but recurred periodically until the end of the parliamentary term.
The demonstrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 uprising were extremely violent. Demonstrators broke through a police cordon near the parliament, blocked an adjacent street with a stolen bus and hurled bottles and stones at police officers. The police responded with water cannons. The protesters had to contend with streams of blue and green liquid, tear gas and rubber bullets. Orbán's demonstrations were broken up by police on horseback. Batons were used. Fidesz National Assembly member Máriusz Révész ended up in hospital with a cracked head and a broken arm. The demonstrators stole several vehicles, including an armoured car, and stared up an old Soviet T-34 tank, which they drove against the heavily armed police.
Gyurcsány had no intention of admitting responsibility for the riots. On the contrary: he arrogantly claimed that Fidesz was afraid to lead the protest and that it quietly took advantage of the people's anger. The left-wing blamed Fidesz for the unrest and the devastation. After an unfulfilled ultimatum to step down, which was just a political game, Fidesz began to completely ignore the Prime Minister, with members of the National Assembly walking out of the chamber during his speeches. In the municipal elections of autumn 2006 Fidesz had won as much as 53 per cent of the vote, but even this did not induce Gyurcsány to step down. That was happening "out there" and his government was left with no choice but to try to introduce reforms.
The following years were marked by austerity and cuts, tax increases and introduction of fees. However, Fidesz did not let the government off the hook. In 2008 through its efforts a referendum was held on health care reform introducing fees for doctor and hospital visits, and on tuition fees. The socialists did all they could to prevent the referendum. Unsuccessfully. The results were devastating: over 80 per cent of voters were against the government's policies. Shortly afterwards, the liberals decided to bail out at the last minute and left the government. However they continued to support the minority government.
The world economic crisis was looming, which was to be a moment of truth for Hungary. The country found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. Due to the devaluation of the forint, tens of thousands of families were unable to repay their loans taken out in foreign currency, unemployment was on the rise. Bank robberies and petty crime mainly perpetrated by the poorest Romani people were surging. Instead of the incompetent police, protection was afforded by militia units of radicals from the far-right Jobbik party, which began to gain more and more support in the polls. There were several racially motivated murders of Romani people.
Faced by such a situation, in March 2009 Gyurcsány finally stepped down and was replaced by the former Minister of National Development and Economy, Gordon Bajnai. Apart from Bajnai, none one was interested in assuming the Prime Minister's post. The new head of government said he accepted the position because he has no political ambitions and his only goal is to stabilise the economy, even at the cost of painful reforms, and steer the country to elections. Orbán, who over the years had become accustomed to travelling around the country and meeting voters several times a day, did not have to do anything anymore. The population was sufficiently mobilised. All that was needed was to channel people's anger properly so that Jobbik would not be able to convince voters that the Romani people and Jews were responsible for their problems. This time the slogan was simple and said it all: "elég!" – enough!
A triumphant return and "reconstruction" of Hungary
Long before the election it was clear that Fidesz (in an electoral coalition with KDNP, which replaced the "disloyal" MDF) would win and govern alone. The only question remaining was whether it would win a constitutional majority. Orbán promised a complete reconstruction, the introduction of law and order, a million new jobs and, above all, to restore national pride. Hungary and Europe were already prepared for Orbán as Prime Minister. The election result was a landslide victory with Fidesz winning 68 per cent of the vote and unprecedented power to govern. The socialists lost a lot of ground and came second, with Jobbik hot on their heels. The last formation to surmount the electoral threshold was the anti-globalist Hungary's Green Party (LMP). MDF and SZDSZ, former ideological adversaries, entered the elections under a joint electoral list, but this did not help them at all: they won less than 3 percent. This marked the end of a certain era and the disappearance of the forces driving the Hungarian transformation – out of the traditional parties, only Fidesz and MSZP were left standing on the political stage.
Although before the election Orbán unveiled the slogan "small victory, small change – major victory, major change", the rapid efforts of the new government came as a surprise, both in Hungary and abroad. The Fidesz leader made no secret of his plan for a conservative revolution that would reach all areas of life. According to Igor Janke's biography of Orbán, he wanted the changes to be as profound as possible and difficult to reverse. Many of his moves of a systemic and symbolic nature were unarguably contrary to the unwritten European consensus principle. A new constitution was quickly written, in which God and a somewhat idealised image of the nation returned. It also included a reference to 1956, a sharp condemnation of communism and its "political heirs", and a declaration that marriage is a union of a man and a woman. The name "Republic of Hungary" was changed to "Hungary" – the constitutional system remained unchanged, but in the opinion of the Hungarian right, the republic did not do Hungary any good and there was no reason to keep it.
In terms of symbolic changes, the first regulation adopted by the new parliament is noteworthy. It proclaimed 4 June, the date of the Treaty of Trianon, was to be the Day of National Unity. The regulation which made it possible for Hungarians from neighbouring countries to obtain Hungarian citizenship was also of symbolic, but also systemic and political significance. A referendum had already been held on this issue in 2004 (due to low turnout it was invalid). Fidesz supported the initiative, while the Gyurcsány government fiercely opposed it. To this day the left has not managed to win the sympathy of "foreign" Hungarians, of whom over a million have been granted citizenship and thus the right to vote. The government is active in defending its citizens abroad. There is even a Székely flag flying on the parliament building in Budapest, a Hungarian minority of unclear origin that lives in Romania and seeks autonomy there.
Fidesz's victory had a profound impact on the shape of the public media. Similar to 2002, journalists associated with the previous political factions were purged. The question remains as to whether the Hungarian state media can be described as public at all, since the socialist government abolished the licence fee, thus making television fully dependent on politicians. The degree of subordination of state television and radio to the ruling party after 2010 has further weakened its market position and today the main news channel M1 has an audience of just three per cent. In addition to the Fidesz media conglomerate, which was expanded after the election victory by the popular commercial television TV2 and the news portal Origo, Hungary's media outlets include the most popular commercial television RTL Klub (German owned), the political channel ATV (a Hungarian owner), the daily Népszava (linked with the left), the most widely read weekly HVG, and the radio station Klubrádió. The government managed to take over mainly regional press, but surrounding itself with opposing media is not a problem. Opposition media beats those favouring the government head over heels when it comes to the internet – until recently Index was the most popular news website with six million users in a given month (by comparison, the most popular printed daily reaches sales of around 20,000). With the departure of most of the editorial team in July 2020, it is uncertain what direction it will go in. The role of the Index may be taken over by the second most popular news website representing an opposing point of view, 24.hu. However, the editorial board of Index has already announced the launching of a new project. Lack of solidarity on both sides is typical of the Hungarian media scene. When Lajos Simicska parted with Orbán in 2015, he oriented his entire media conglomerate against Fidesz. Editors who were not prepared to embark on this overnight change were sacked.
In terms of culture or education, the government built its dominance gradually through personnel changes and the creation of "administrative" institutions that brought together previously formally independent organisations (above all, those where a left-wing worldview had always prevailed). Here we are dealing with a typical kulturkampfem – a dispute between two committed minorities, one for which the Hungarians have an established name: kultúrharc (culture war). Because this dispute continues unabated with the participation of all media, it is the loudest. However, projects unrelated to the logic of kultúrharc, such as the idea of taxing the internet or organising the Olympic Games in Budapest, also mobilised large parts of the society. In both these matters, under pressure from the masses, the government embarked upon a U-turn. Nonetheless it stood its ground when it came to the "culture war".
Corporations will pay!
Despite making some headway under the Bajnai government, the economy was still Hungary's most pressing problem. And it is economy where Orbán's cabinet decided to pursue unorthodox methods. The situation of debtors with mortgages in foreign currencies was resolved to the disadvantage of banks, which had to recalculate loans at the Hungarian National Bank's exchange rate and even retroactively offset customer losses. He rejected another loan from the International Monetary Fund because it was conditional upon Hungary abandoning its economic experiments. The government imposed a crisis profit tax on corporations operating on the energy, telecommunications, banking, insurance and wholesale markets. With money from the "nationalised" second pillar of the pension system (USD 14 billion), the government bought back shares in strategic companies. In 2013, the IMF loan was repaid early and on the same day the Hungarian branch of the fund had its lease terminated.
Orbán government's economic policies initially angered foreign businessmen with large capital, media and politicians. However, the adaptability of the corporate world quickly came to the fore - the new rules were accepted and, with the exception of a few banks, the alarmist predictions that all foreign companies would leave Hungary or transfer the financial burdens to their clients did not materialise. One of the great stumbling blocks of the Hungarian economy were the many pensioners not set off by the too few taxpayers. The government began to review requests for early retirement and curbed them within the military and the police. For most citizens the retirement age was increased by three years (while for judges, it was reduced by eight years as many had to be replaced).
As part of its vision of a "work-based society", the government reduced unemployment benefit payments to just three months and introduced a system of public works. They last for a maximum of 12 months and may be extended for a further six months. In 2016, 223,000 Hungarians (41% of the unemployed) worked under the programme. The aim of the project is to preserve the habit of working and to motivate the unemployed to seek better paid employment. The government came close to fulfilling its election promise of 800,000 more Hungarians working in 2020 than ten years earlier. Significant tax breaks were introduced for families with children, and by buying out energy concerns, the government was able to reduce the exorbitant prices of gas and electricity, which citizens are consistently reminded of on their bills. Orbán's government managed to stabilise the public budget deficit at less than three per cent and the country's debt has been falling for many years.
Trade with everyone!
The drive to diversify foreign trade, above all with regard to Asia, which Orbán sees as the continent of the future (in his famous speech on liberalism in 2014, he mentioned successful countries - Singapore, China, India, Russia and Turkey - as a model to follow), was also reflected on a symbolic level, by changing the name of the "Ministry of Foreign Affairs" to "Ministry of Foreign Trade" ("and Foreign Affairs" was only added later). Hungary has since shown minimal interest in human rights (apart from persecuted Christians, for whom a dedicated government department had been set up). Its foreign rights policy is dominated by hard realism. The policy of "opening up to the east" paved the way to much-criticised steps, such as entrusting completion of the Paks nuclear power plant to the Russians. However, it is also interesting that 2019 was the year when Hungary's main investor was not Germany but South Korea.
A controversial dimension of Hungary's unorthodox economic policies is the creation of a "patriotic national bourgeoisie" as a counterweight to foreign capital and the "red barons". The problem is that representatives of the new bourgeoisie have friendly or family relations with government politicians and the public tender system is severely politicised. The relation between the state and capital is opposite of that in the Czech Republic, for example. Capital does not lobby politicians, but is subordinate to them.
In 2009 Orbán spoke of replacing the "dual system of forces with a central system" in the years to come. In other words: instead of a symmetrical bi-party system, a single party, "able to articulate matters of national interest: shall govern. This was not meant to be a threat, but rather a statement of fact. It was obvious that the socialists would suffer a devastating defeat, and there was no other party as large and popular as Fidesz in Hungary.
Changes, which were basically to everyone's liking (except those affected) came swiftly, but in practice they meant an even greater concentration of power: the number of ministries was reduced to eight including the super-ministry of human resources. At the same time, the Prime Minister's influence increased, the head of the prime minister's office effectively became the second most powerful person in the country, and the number of members of the unicameral parliament was decreased from 386 to 199. The new electoral system also reflects this, with the second round abolished, boundaries of some constituencies modified and majority elements reinforced: 106 members are elected in single-member constituencies, the rest come from a nationwide vote based on electoral lists. This is the ideal set-up for a scenario with a fragmented, incapable opposition.
2014 and the triumph lives on
The conservative government has had to deal with foreign disapproval from the start. At the inauguration of the Hungarian presidency of the EU in January 2011, Orbán was whistled at in Brussels by left-wing MEPs concerned about the draft of the new constitution and the adopted media regulation. The first debate on the state of democracy in Hungary took place at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in early 2012. Orbán accepted an invitation and gave a speech that was clearly addressed to Hungarians. The following day, a large demonstration under the slogan "We will not be a colony" in support of the government unfolded in Budapest. Hundreds of thousands of people took part. Such scenes were then repeated year after year, as Orbán used the European Parliament and the devastating, ideologically motivated criticism to his advantage. The conviction that Western elites had always favoured post-communist governments that did not care about national interests but served international capital, thus ruining Hungary, was widespread among right-wing Hungarian voters.
The situation in the country was having an increasingly profound effect on the popularity of the ruling party, which fell sharply during the initial two years. Even though the government did not want to go down the path of austerity, some of Bajnai's solutions had to be retained. The standard VAT rate is still at a record high in Hungary today (27%), while the attack on private pension insurance caused unrest amongst the citizens. The overall situation only began to stabilise noticeably in 2013. In addition, the government issued a huge number of regulations during the first two years, usually in the form of legislative initiatives by members of the national Assembly, which caused chaos as they had to be frequently amended or cancelled. This was followed by the unpleasant scandal of President Pál Schmitt, who had to resign when it emerged that much of his Master's thesis was plagiarised.
In the end, however, stability was achieved, the liberals' fear of a crash was not substantiated and Hungary defended its unorthodox path. As the economy began to grow, the government was afforded space to take forward its positive social vision and Fidesz held onto its constitutional majority of 133 votes in 2014. The crushing victory in single-member constituencies where Orbán's party defeated the left-wing alliance by a ratio of 9:1 paved the way to Fidesz's victory. Under a national electoral list, the previously successful Jobbik shared the fate of UKIP in the British elections, failing to win a single seat in the general elections. The same fate was in store for LMP, Hungary's Green Party. Shortly after the election, however, the government made several mistakes; a new tax on the internet brought previously passive, mainly young, Hungarians to the streets followed by Orbán's divorce from the media magnate Simicska, who publicly referred to the Hungarian Prime Minister using extremely rude word and was widely discussed in the press.
To this day that phrase is the most popular slogan of the opposition, who immediately forgot that in three decades no one in Hungary did more for the "Orbán regime" than Simicska. Simicska then proceeded to take on journalists from left-wing press who began to expose the government's transgressions and corruption – and specifically the various beneficiaries of state contracts after Simicska himself no longer had access to these.
The migration crisis and all is not what it seems....
However, as Fidesz's popularity began to slide again and Orbán, after his split with Simicska (which must also have been painful for the Prime Minister privately as the two men had been friends since high school), found himself on the back foot, he was hit by the migration crisis. Hungary was on the Balkan migrant route and, according to government statistics, more than 400,000 people crossed its borders illegally in the summer months of 2015. Practically none of those crossing the border planned to stay in Hungary and apply for asylum there. They were all heading for Western countries, and Germany in particular, which, for its own moral and economic reasons, decided to carry out humanitarian work and help people in need outside of the rules asylum framework. Orbán's government defended its adherence to that framework, which has led to condemnation from the Western intellectual world, liberal politicians and the media, threats (including exclusion from the EU), accusations of fascism and deliberate distortion of reality. A popular film from Hungary shows a migrant throwing his wife and child onto train tracks. The policeman who tried to help them was portrayed in the Western media as the one before whom the family cowered in fear on the ground.
Orbán's tough and pragmatic approach – which will eventually turn into tacit EU consensus – strengthened his position at home. During those hectic months of 2015 his support was growing. However, there is more – it was thanks to the massive criticism from abroad that Hungary was able to begin to play a role on the pan-European stage that clearly transcended the country's geopolitical and economic power. Orbán was a diligent student. He knew full well that on the issue of mass migration, which has been troubling the Western countries since at least the 1960s, there has never been a social consensus. For several decades Politicians have been approaching the subject as passively as they did in 2015, the silence of the masses enforced by socio-political pressure. In the West migration became an issue that could no longer be discussed normally.
BBC viewers must have been shocked when Hungarian Foreign Trade Minister Péter Szijjártó calmly and in good English informed an upset journalist that Hungary wanted to remain a culturally homogeneous country and therefore had the right to do so, just as Britain had once chosen to become a multicultural society.
Thus Orbán flew the flag of resistance. This made him many opponents as well as supporters throughout Europe. Hungary became a second Israel of a kind – a country about which everyone has an opinion. Domestically, migration became a number one topic, and in time the American financier of Hungarian origin, George Soros, was also became widely discussed. This was quite logical: the opposition proved too weak, disintegrated and focused on its own internal problems to be a worthy opponent of Fidesz. It was unable to take a stand on migration and tried to play it safe so as not to alienate voters with an established opinion on the issue. Soros is undoubtedly the Hungarian government's counter-weight; in his vision of the world, according to an interview for Bloomberg, the refugee is the focus of attention and borders are an obstacle. To this day Soros still has strong ties with Hungary. It was here that he set up his university and tried to influence the course of Hungarian politics. According to Janke, in 1994 he tried, among other things, to persuade Fidesz representatives to join a socialist-liberal coalition, which he supported unlike the MDF, which was suspected of nationalism.
2018 and the third victory
With the themes of migration and Soros, Fidesz repeated the "kétharmad" in 2018, a victory with two-thirds of the vote and a constitutional majority. Voter turnout was very high, at almost 70 per cent. After eight years, the opposition was not able to mobilise a party capable of competing with Fidesz, as MSZP once did, nor (due to numerous personal animosities and program differences) to form an alliance at least for the needs of single-mandate constituencies. In the campaign, it tried to bring to the fore systemic corruption and beat Fidesz with social promises of "everything for everyone". In Hungary, the absence of a party proposing to scale down public administration and pushing for a market economy is apparent.
Jobbik (in its new role as a centre-right party) came second, followed by three more left-wing parties. In this way, Fidesz "scored a hattrick" and is able to pursue its vision of liberal democracy as before without the slightest hindrance until 2022. It announced that over the next few years it will focus on the demographic crisis that Hungary has been struggling with since the 1970s. In 2011 Hungary had a record low birth rate with 1.23 children per woman. Thanks to the pro-family policy, the government managed to raise this figure to around 1.6. On top of tax breaks, the authorities have made available favourable home loans for families with at least three children, help in buying a seven-seater car or full tax exemption for women with four children. Hungary now spends a record 5 per cent of GDP on its pro-family policies. Middle-aged people made up the largest group of Fidesz voters in 2018.
Further areas of public, academic and cultural life are being centralised. Protests are of a rather low intensity and scarce. According to a comprehensive survey by the Policy solutions think-tank, in 2020, 57 per cent of Hungarians see family support, 45 per cent consider defence against migration and 35 per cent a drop in energy prices as the biggest positive of ten years of Fidesz. All the three areas have become the government's flagship themes. In terms of negatives, 56 per cent mention poor state of the health service, 34 per cent see too much inequality as a problem and for 31 per cent poor handling of workers is a major issue. Only 11 per cent includes the statement "there is no more democracy in Hungary" among the three biggest problems.
In Autumn 2019 Fidesz recorded noticeable losses in municipal elections, where the opposition worked together for the first time and out forward joint candidates. Cooperation in at least 106 single-member constituencies has also been announced by opposition groups for 2022, the year of the next parliamentary elections. Their alliance continues to be complicated by program and personal conflicts, the presence of Jobbik on one side and Ferenc Gyurcsány on the other. By August 2020, several municipal coalitions established after the autumn elections had fallen apart. Fidesz emerged stronger after the first wave of the pandemic and its support in the polls today exceeds 50 per cent, which would mark the best result for the party since 2010. While abroad there was talk of a coronavirus dictatorship in Hungary, at home the Orbán government succeeded in luring the opposition into a trap. By refusing to cooperate, it was seen to be opposing measures aimed at protecting people and the economy. The much-discussed state of emergency in Hungary came to an end first among European countries. A second, stronger wave of the epidemic for a country with an underfunded health service and a fragile economy is quite the challenge.
On 30 November Viktor Orbán broke Kálmán Tisza's 130-year-old record and became Hungary's longest-serving Prime Minister. In December 2020, the entire parliamentary opposition (and the extra-parliamentary Momentum movement) decided on the closest possible form of cooperation until the 2022 elections. In the primaries, the opposition parties will select joint candidates for 106 single-mandate constituencies, and prepare a joint list with a joint candidate for Prime Minister. According to polls, this is the only way to defeat Fidesz, which enjoys stable support at 45-50 per cent. On its own, the strongest party is Ferenc Gyurcsány's Democratic Coalition with support at around 15 percent. The politician's wife Klára Dobrev is earmarked as one of the possible candidates for Prime Minister.
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English language sources:
Published within the scope of the Poland and Hungary: A path to liberalism report by the New Direction think-tank and subsequently in the Kontexty periodical