Mid-way through FIDESZ's term of office in government, the tone of public debate in the Hungarian media is becoming increasingly polarised. Both sides of the ideological divide hurl accusations at each other in an ever more desperate attempt to lay claim to the moral high ground. In this undertaking the Socialists (MSZP) have the upper hand due to the entrenched positions of their supporters in every conceivable area of public life, though nowhere is their preponderance more apparent than in the media itself.
Like a leopard ostentatiously parading its new spots, the Socialists conveniently forget their origins in a less than rosy past. After forty-odd years of domination (not to mention dominion), they were consigned to the political wilderness to subsist on a diet not so much of locusts and wild honey as of humble pie.
So completely convinced were they of election victory that they miscalculated. In a democracy, the electorate actually has the opportunity to rid itself - at least temporarily - of a government, and a set of personalities can fall into disfavour. Overweening arrogance was never a particularly appealing trait in any political party, making the voters feel like their loyalty is being taken for granted, that they are being considered as mere cattle instead of rational beings or - worse still - passive and unquestioning chattels, possessions to be treated as the ruling party in its infinite wisdom sees fit.
I admit that I did feel a certain degree of káröröm (Schadenfreude) at the MSZP's defeat, when the party discovered to its horror that it was not quite as unassailable as it liked to think. Does that make me a reactionary? I have an innate dislike of hypocrisy and complacency.
Change is good even if for no other reason than to remind those whom we place in a position of authority over us - regardless of what political affinity they profess to - that this is not tantamount to a blank cheque. That they do not enjoy some sort of divine right of tenure. That they do derive their precarious mandate from us after all. Freedom is quite intoxicating! We do not have to put up with being spoon-fed empty rhetoric any more!
What of the contenders then? In the right-hand corner we have the FIDESZ-headed coalition: young, untainted by having been embedded in the old apparatus, whose promise it is to complete what the collapse of Communism (the "change of system") left unfinished, to instil civic values such as decency, diligence, respect for law and order, honesty and self-reliance, create a strong middle-class worthy of the name and arrest the process of decline inherent in a falling birth-rate, which jeopardises the very future of the nation. All of these elements have a familiar ring to them, being eternal obsessions of the Hungarian conservatives.
In the left-hand corner, we have the Socialists (and for that matter the Liberals), who deplore nationalism and the oppression of minorities within society, who, whilst rejecting the aberrations and excesses of the past, still situate themselves within the tradition of protecting the interests of the weak and vulnerable from the depredations of greedy employers, the sort of capitalist entrepreneurs FIDESZ is so fond of rubbing shoulders with and who are innately suspicious of what they smugly brand as irrationalism (of course, regarding themselves as the sole arbiters of taste and sound judgement).
In short, there are laudable principles in both camps. In taking stock of the coalition's track record thus far, I would like to present arguments from both sides before proceeding to an assessment.
Honeymoon nearing the end
In an article published in Magyar Nemzet (12 June, 1999), László Gy. Tóth looked back over one year of the FIDESZ coalition. At this stage, the honeymoon phase was not quite over, scandals of the László Juszt type had only just broken, and there were fewer clouds on the horizon. FIDESZ could still bask in the warm afterglow of victory without having to worry about illegitimate offspring (Tamás Deutsch's son born out of wedlock to his former mistress) or corruption (allegations of financial mismanagement levelled against Attila Várhegyi, former Mayor of Szolnok, now Parliamentary Under-Secretary within the Ministry of Culture). Values were in the focus of attention:
The civic Hungary programme is nothing other than the full consummation of the change of system, in other words, it relaunches the process, which has so often ground to a halt, of creating a solid middle-class. According to one of Viktor Orbán's speeches, the aim and the significance of the much-quoted phrase "more than a change of government, less than a change of system" is none other than creating the opportunities suitable to living a middle-class lifestyle. This involves professing to a set of values at the same time: showing commitment to the civic value system based on Christian ethics [Note that the author makes no attempt to include our Jewish fellow-citizens, who have always been model repositories of civic values in the urban intelligentsia!].
One of the main obstacles to the establishment of a true middle-class was the anxiety over retaining their position demonstrated by the middle and lower ranks of office-holders (klientúra) under the late-Kádárism as well as the deliberate relativisation of values. Following the inability of the Antall and Boross governments to break or eliminate the economic and cultural monopolies and the networks of informal relations they had inherited from the late Kádár era, these interest groupings were able to reorganise the networks they had managed to preserve and to consolidate a privileged position they had successfully salvaged.
All this was done in the wake of the MSZP's election victory in 1994 with a certain amount of political support, this time under a multi-party system. These groupings clustered around the MSZP and the SZDSZ and attempted to assert their interests and increase their influence [...].
In the Orbán government, the intention to break these monopolies is palpable, as is the intention to introduce competition into as many areas of life as possible as part of a move towards creating the kind of circumstances conducive to and worthy of a civic democracy and a society founded on fair competition.
Understandably, this ambition has generated a great deal of opposition and antipathy amongst those who belong to the MSZP and SZDSZ spheres of interest, who had thus far enjoyed a virtual monopoly and who have been affected by the change. They are trying to restrict the government's room for manoeuvre by troublemaking, peddling in disinformation, stirring up hatred and injecting a note of hysteria into intellectual and political public life.
In this struggle, the chances of the centre-right government are considerably boosted by the fact that FIDESZ has placed a political elite into a position to take decisions that is not attached to various interest-groupings, that does not depend on the forces of the past and that contains a majority of individuals, who have a personal interest in taking the change in system further, to its logical conclusion. The government is fighting an embittered battle to win back its freedom to act, and this is precisely why it is trying to release itself from the trammels of interest groupings and why it is so resolute in its attitude towards branch and lobby groups [...].
The battle over interpreting the past has also flared up again due to the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition's laboured attempts at legitimation. Many people were offended by the left-liberal unscholarly attempt at falsifying history, the essence of which was that all positive values and changes in fortune must emanate from the left. Moreover, nobody may be called to account for the crimes of the past. In a speech of 23 October 1997, the President of FIDESZ reacted to all this as follows:
The masters and beneficiaries of the post-1956 Socialist system, who incidentally these days follow the fashion of privatisation, have retained their old leanings in one single respect, and are attempting to collectivise responsibility for the Socialist years by saying that whoever lived in this country had to be collaborator as well[...].
Whereas the Horn-Kuncze government was to all practical intents and purposes bereft of values, the FIDESZ-led civic opposition knew exactly what it wanted. In his speech mentioned a moment ago, Viktor Orbán stressed for example that:
The civic coalition government's intent is to be the government of interdependence. We shall defend, nurture, encourage and enrich the forces, sentiments and institutions, which hold us together. We include amongst such forces our mother tongue, our common culture, our emotional ties, which rest on our shared experience, the nation and the historical churches.
Passing judgement at the half-way stage
A little further down the road, attention had turned to the style of government and the institutional reflection of a different approach to government. In an article in Magyar Nemzet (20 May 2000), Tamás Fricz reveals the underlying changes in philosophy and examines why they have met with such hostility from the opposition.
In contrast with the Antall and Horn cabinets, FIDESZ aspires to building up a considerably stronger government with a greater concentration of power vested in it. Both of these elements may be given equal emphasis. It is common knowledge that we have a parliamentary democracy, but within this broad framework it is more comparable to the German chancellery-based system than anything else.
In this system - in principle - a weak head of state exists alongside a very strong Prime Minister (Chancellor) and a strong Parliament, representing the axis along which powers are divided. Significantly, this structure was created by the MDF-SZDSZ pact announced on 2 May 1990, which introduced the constructive vote of no confidence, following the German model, reduced the number of votes requiring a two-third's majority to twenty and designated the person, who would become the head of state with the relatively weak position that the office implied.
By taking on board the chancellery structure and incorporating it into the constitution, it also became possible - in theory at least - for a strong government to come into being in Hungary after 1990. In spite of any intention to achieve this, however, neither the Antall nor the Horn eras were able to succeed in producing a truly strong government.
In the case of the Antall government, this can be explained on the one hand by the lack of experience in running a state administration, though, on the other hand, it is more likely that the failure was due to something I mentioned above, namely that the MDF coalition was simply in government and lacked an appropriate base in society from which it could derive strength (by which I mean providing it with economic, cultural, media and civil society-based capital).
This is why that coalition proved unable to realise its conceptions. It was put through the opposition's mincer, or rather that of public opinion sympathetic to the opposition, and the conservative government was subjected to such severe criticism that it was ultimately as good as paralysed.
It was not, for example, able to carry into effect its ideas about replacement of staff; it failed to win the sympathy of a substantial segment of the media; it could not rally the support of enough economic capital and so on and so forth. The Horn cabinet did not succeed in becoming a really strong executive power either.
In this respect, the boomerang effect came into play: the lobby groups inherited from the previous system and the trade unions, which gathered around the MSZP wanted to push through a maximum of their own interests vis-ŕ-vis the government and the cabinet was not really able to put up much resistance [...]. Moreover, the strength of the Horn cabinet was considerably weakened by the almost continuous polemics entered into with the smaller coalition partner, the "scheming" SZDSZ.
The FIDESZ-led cabinet is the first to consciously avail itself of the conditions set down in the constitution and the MDF-SZDSZ pact, to make full use of the opportunities inherent in chancellery-style government and to implement a truly strong executive. The principle of "more than a change of government, less than a change of system" inevitably prepares it for this, though, as we know, it would have failed in this undertaking [...] had it not endeavoured to create a power base in society over the last few years. Moreover, since July 1998 when it came to power in government, FIDESZ has continued to expand its power base.
It organised privatisation, supervision of state banks; it has secured growing influence in the world of the media and has established broadly based relations with multinationals. Only once it had all this in hand, only once it had this power base behind it, was the Orbán cabinet able to "flesh out" the contents of the chancellery model, because it was not confronted with politico-social opposition hostile to it from every conceivable point of view.
This strong government manifests itself first and foremost as follows: the cabinet does not as a general rule try to reach agreement with the opposition in the interests of putting the aims it has set itself within the framework of the government programme into practice. Instead, it makes the most of - and even exploits - every legal possibility at its disposal to assert its political will.
It restricts its efforts to reach agreement with the opposition parties to those issues where consensus is absolutely indispensable, but in all other areas the strength of implementation and governing is the decisive factor. Linked to all of this is a self-confident style, in which the government lets all criticism expressed against it run off effortlessly like water off a duck's back. The response to all this by the opposition and certain sectors of public opinion is to label it the arrogance of power.
The question as to whether there is any justification for the practice of exercising power applied by FIDESZ, which is unrelenting and rarely open to consensus, but which, in spite of all the criticisms voiced by the opposition remains firmly within the parameters of a democratic state where the rule of law prevails, is a legitimate one to ask. If we take the political aims espoused by FIDESZ as our starting point, then the answer is in the affirmative.
If a party wishes to establish an alternative centre of power as a counterweight to its largest political opponent - especially to that of the successor party, the MSZP - then the question is how effective a style of government and practice, which constantly strives towards reaching agreement with the opposition and which only ever dares to take any important step in government on the basis of a multi-party consensus might be.
It is quite unequivocal that such an approach would contradict, indeed stand in the way of, FIDESZ's fundamental aims, since this would provide its opponent, the MSZP, which already enjoys an overabundance of power anyway, with too many opportunities in its efforts to keep hold of its power within society. This is precisely what FIDESZ wishes to avoid, hence there is little choice for it but to pursue the strategy and style of government it has done over the past two years.
We must add to this that the building up of a concentrated structure of government, unknown in the first two parliamentary cycles, from the outset laid the foundations of "strong" government. The Prime Minister's Office has emerged as the most important institution of this structure. A Minister, rather than a Secretary of State, has been put at the head of the Office.
The Office - with its increase in tasks and functions - has been called upon to prepare the Prime Minister's decisions, thereby strengthening the powers of the head of government along the lines of a chancellorship. Following closely the "topics" of the various Ministries, the Office has become a sort of "mirror-image" report-drafting body, with the crucial aim of bringing the often conflicting interests of the portfolios into line with each other, coordinating them and thereby helping to work towards the realisation of overall government strategy.
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The Office's task has become that of elaborating government strategy, operating on the assumption that the sum of the parts, represented by the various branches of activity and the interests of the portfolios, does not equal a whole - in other words a fully-fledged government programme - but merely a form of eclecticism. A further change of substance has been that the Office has also been charged with the task of strategic analysis and planning. In drawing up government policy, coordinating the interests of the Ministries or in separating the Ministries' wheat from their chaff, it has been elevated into a key position, taking the Prime Minister with it.
This chancellery-type government structure is a new development in the history of Hungarian democracy. The Antall government would dearly have loved to change the model of pushing through the interests of the different branches of government that had persisted from the days of Kádár but was unable to do so, and the government torn between various interests.
Gyula Horn and his government lent serious consideration to appointing a chancellery Minister (they even adopted legislation to this effect), but ultimately the undertaking was obstructed by strife between the two coalition partners and individual and group clashes of interest. The Orbán government drew the consequences of the legal and constitutional framework for establishing power and is attempting to switch over to government by the Prime Minister.
It is beyond doubt that this type of government structure entails a number of dangers, as it might very well lead to a situation in which the Office ends up being an instrument of concentrating power, placing constraints on the independence of the Ministers. On the basis of two year's worth of experience, however, it would appear that the Office, headed by István Stumpf, has more or less lived up to the hopes placed in it. The only limitation on the successful application of the model is none other than the occasional bout of "resistance" on the part of the coalition partners, most particularly the FKGP.
The Party of Independent Smallholders, led by József Torgyán, does not wish to see the interests and views of the Ministries under their supervision subordinated to the interests of the government as a whole. It is true that at the end of the day this attitude usually softens and leads to compromise in situations of major importance, but regardless of that, the concentrated exercise of political power often comes to grief on the rocks of opposition resistance. This repeatedly causes difficulties for Viktor Orbán and FIDESZ, but as of yet in the last two years they have been able to deal with the problems.
The Orbán government has a strong commitment to values. All its activities are permeated with the desire to see its national, liberal and conservative values, as set out in its electoral manifesto and its forty-point plan, brought into relief.
What is new about this compared to the government's predecessors? The Antall cabinet gave prominence to staunchly conservative values but was unable to assert them because of its impotence. The Horn government by contrast took a sort of value-neutrality or value-pluralism as its starting point, viewing its task as getting to grips with macro-political processes and felt that choosing a set of values was the personal business of each individual and that it was not entitled to intervene.
At the same time, however, the Ministry of Culture, steered by SZDSZ politicians, stepped beyond the boundaries of complete value-neutrality. From their culture-political measures the unmistakeable contours of a value system became apparent, the central point of which was respect for and indeed preference of difference [...].
The Orbán government has made a break with its predecessor's premise. Setting itself against the Horn government's SZDSZ concept, it has shifted the emphasis from the minority to the majority, to the "average" population of Hungary. Its point of departure has been that the family is the primary driving force in creating civic Hungary and a broad middle-class and this is why families and members of the middle-class have to be given help in maintaining the nation. At the same time, the poorer sections of society must also be given support in order to enable them to recover and to become part of the middle-class.
A particularly favoured role is ascribed to young people and young families simply because they will be the next generation. The present government has listed helping them as one of its primary aims. The Orbán government has also broken with the approach typical of the Horn era in that it almost always speaks of individuals and families in an effort to address the citizens directly.
It is the clearly visible aim of the Orbán government to put big politics back into everyday life, to win back people's confidence [...]. The following laws and decrees are worth mentioning [in this context]: abolition of university and college fees; reframing family benefit paid after each child as an individual entitlement; reintroducing maternity leave payments as of 1 January; adoption of the law regulating smoking; adoption of the law on practices for GPs and the introduction of a favourable credit system for young people to set up home [...].
Of all the value preferences displayed by the Orbán government, one is worth devoting particular attention to, namely, its commitment to national values. A strategy previously unseen in the realm of international relations has evolved, expressed in a stance, which although it resolutely defends our interests, is still not overly rigid. This entire attitude stands in stark contradiction to the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition's strategy, the central pillar of which was always to comply with the wishes of the important international institutions.
The Orbán government has broken with this paradigm: it has proceeded from the standpoint that we must, of course, live up to the expectations of international organisations, but that if these expectations run counter to our national interests, values and traditions it is a fundamental requirement to defend our national interests, since joining up to institutions and integration are not tantamount to abandoning one's sense of self [...].
Our accession negotiations with the EU are long and complicated, on several fronts there is a clash of national and EU interests, and the type of strategy deployed by the Hungarian government in the course of these negotiations is not a matter of indifference. This nationally-oriented pursuit of politics has placed particular emphasis on keeping close track of the fate of the Hungarian minorities living abroad and the active support of their interests.
Of course, the following questions readily spring to mind: does the Orbán government's commitment to and preference for certain values not imply a break with certain liberal principles (such as pluralism, for example)? Does it not imply that the values not shown preference are systematically relegated to the background even by using administrative instruments?
The experience of the last two years furnishes the reply: whereas certain values and the institutions linked to them (nation, Hungarian minorities, the family, middle-class lifestyle, religion, churches etc.) have been given state support, there have been very few instances where groups and institutions professing to other, divergent values have suffered administrative restrictions.
It is also a fact that - alongside all of the foregoing points - the government's policy, reflecting a commitment to certain values as it does, has intensified the ideological disputes between the government and opposition parties to a hitherto unprecedented extent [...].
On the one side, we have the national-minded and the anti-Socialists or opponents of the successor party (FIDESZ, Hungarian Democratic Forum, Party of Independent Smallholders - the Hungarian Justice and Life Party does come into this category, but its fundamental, radical right-wing nature and its sporadic extremist views separate it from the coalition parties) and on the other side we have the cosmopolitans and non-anti-Socialists, or those not opposed to the successor party (MSZP, SZDSZ).
It is an indisputable fact that the Orbán government is completely deliberate in its endeavour to render the differences in values and ideologies striking. It does not wish to see then blurred for the sake of some kind of political compromise, but the MSZP and the SZDSZ are at a loss when it comes to categorical opposition, radicalism and upping the ante about differences of opinion and outlook.
There is virtually no crossover between the national and the cosmopolitan-minded. There is either a complete lack of intermediary groups, organisations and public figures or there are some rare exceptions and this serves to make it more difficult to achieve the necessary political consensus. Relations between the elites of the two camps are not free of subjective animosities and, from time to time, visceral hatreds.
Radical opposition becomes visible in the work of the Parliament as well: a coarsening of tone has become typical, tempers are given free rein, it becomes impossible to reach compromises or consensus. Opposition becomes particularly pronounced when bills containing expressions of values are debated. The latter includes the issue of setting up the Presidencies of the Board of Trustees for the media, the debate on the minimum number of members required to form a political group, the surveillance affair or the disagreements on the three-week rhythm of Parliament's business.
The MSZP and the SZDSZ accuse the government of being in cahoots with the "extreme right" on certain issues - in other words with the MIÉP (Hungarian Justice and Life Party). The accusation, which has no foundation in reality, forms part of a political strategy designed to prove that the government is right-wing extremist and dictatorial and thereby discredits it abroad [...].
Orbán the matador
Clearly, FIDESZ's adoption of a confrontational rather than a conciliatory or consensual style was always going to rub the opposition up the wrong way. The image I have in my mind of Viktor Orbán dressed in the attire of a matador, waving a red cloak in front of an enraged László Kovács charging at him in the shape of a nose-ringed bull does give me a great deal of amusement, but I also wonder if FIDESZ are not taking themselves a tad too seriously when they get uptight about the barrage of criticism acts of provocation inevitably prompt.
The jury is still out on whether Orbán, for all his self-assurance, has bitten off more than he can chew.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 26 June 2000
In Part Two, we shall examine some of the opposition's reactions to the FIDESZ government's style and institutional changes as well as the scandals alluded to above (involving Tamás Deutsch and Attila Várhegyi).