Hungary’s rabid right is taking the country to a political abyss
The left has found no response to the right’s attacks on Gypsies, its virulent antisemitism and its xenophobic Christian nationalism
“Most Gypsies are not suitable for cohabitation. They are not suitable for being among people. Most are animals, and behave like animals. They shouldn’t be tolerated or understood, but stamped out. Animals should not exist. In no way.” Zsolt Bayer, Magyar Hirlap, 5 January 2013
Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party and personal friend of prime minister Viktor Orbán, has been saying this kind of thing in public for many years. How has it become acceptable to openly express such sentiments in a European country? Especially a country which played so prominent a role in the 1944-45 Holocaust?
Hate speech has been a defining aspect of the Hungarian right wing since well before the transition to multi-party democracy in 1989. The “democratic opposition” to the communist system always contained elements sympathetic to the authoritarian pre-war Horthy regime, a semi-constitutional autocracy with a welfarist dimension that became less democratic and more antisemitic as the 1930s progressed, despite (or because of) the admiral’s raging Anglophilia and enduring fascination with the English aristocracy. Despite appearances, the communist system did not displace such widely held prejudices; rather, it tended to work around them, offering a world of fixed markers, casual bribery and calculated submission. By the late 1980s, communism had bred a kind of sullen torpor among many, best described, perhaps, in Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s recently translated novel Satantango.
The ruling party in 1990’s first post-transition government, the MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) even included Istvan Csurka among its leaders. Csurka was an overtly nationalistic antisemitic politician, dedicated to restoring Hungary’s pre-first world war borders. His presence at the centre of post-transition political life indicated the weakness of democratic forces, even at the height of their supposed triumph. The borders between mainstream, European centre-right politics and the Horthy-centric far right have never been firmly established. In 1993, even as Csurka was expelled from the collapsing MDF administration, the leaders of the government engineered a ceremonial reburial of Admiral Horthy’s bones in his home village of Kenderes. Throughout the MDF government and its increasingly shrill and authoritarian Fidesz successors, the European People’s party – dominated by the German CDU and CSU – has been a loyal and largely uncritical supporter of the Hungarian right.
The politics of hate are usually twisted, and few countries can boast nationalist sentiment more deeply warped than that of the Hungarians. Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin have suffered harsh injustices since the Mongol invasion in the 13th century – the consequences of being on the wrong side in two world wars, the Turkish invasion, the Austrian invasion, occupation by the Soviets and the loss of territory under the bitterly regarded Treaty of Trianon. The current generation of Hungarian rightwing politicians is dominated, however, not by the likes of Csurka, but by a younger group of friends, epitomised by the energetic and exuberant writer of our article, Zsolt Bayer, who really remembers only the tail end of the Kadar years.
The 1980s were a time when Hungary was opening up to the financial institutions of the west – when dissidents were harassed, imprisoned and sidelined, but not, generally, killed. Describing themselves as a golden generation, the Fidesz circle around Zsolt Bayer and Viktor Orbán came of age during the Thatcher/Reagan years, fashioning their politics on a vaguely anti-authoritarian liberal economics and contrasting their youthful dynamism with the musty reform communism of the 1980s.
It could also be described as a “finance generation” – for the first time, Hungary was permitted to borrow on the international money markets, just when capital was riding the crest of a wave of deregulation. Whoever was quick to master the complexities of the new rules regarding ownership and finance would stand to win. The emerging professional classes have hardly been averse to hate speech, as can be seen in another recent headline case of antisemitism in Hungarian politics, involving Marton Gyongyosi, shadow spokesman on foreign policy for the far-right Jobbik party. In November, the privileged and monied Gyongyosi – a son of diplomats, graduate of Trinity College, Dublin and, most strikingly, former advisor with KPMG – demanded the compilation of an official list of all Jews representing a “national security risk”.
The MDF in the early 1990s had advocated a naive Thatcherism – the monetarism of Keith Joseph combined with the social conservatism of Rhodes Boyson – but its anti-communist opposition ideologues were quickly superseded by a younger, yuppified Fidesz party with some insight into the real workings of power and a far deeper understanding of modern politics. Viktor Orbán, who spent a year in Oxford under the sponsorship of Gyorgy Soros, developed a political model which drew from the UK. Orbán and his friends observed that the real long-term beneficiaries of Reaganism and Thatcherism had been private contractors, defence industry specialists, arms dealers, advertising and communications experts, and capitalists with links to service providers in what had formerly been the public sector. The Hungarian right therefore shifted from a literal interpretation of what we know as Thatcherism to an organisational-cultural interpretation. It wasn’t Thatcher herself who became the key figure, but rather those industrialists and businessmen (the Lord McAlpines and Lord Hansons) who funded her. Fidesz is in many ways an abstract exercise. Its aim is to prove the possibility of emulating Thatcher’s model of politics, whilst ditching large chunks of its policy base – which, arguably, merely represents a surface texture to the interests of big capital. Fidesz’s rhetoric can therefore easily switch from liberalism to social democracy to outright religious nationalism, as if changing a slide on a projector.
Bayer effectively represents a “closed circle” – a central committee of inner Fidesz confidantes. Their takeover of the withered Hungarian state apparatus has been accompanied by widespread gerrymandering of public contracts and an insular, insider culture which aims to concentrate resources in the hands of a select few. By forming alliances with the most powerful players in domestic capital the Fidesz elites engage in a direct power-play, developing personal fortunes through land ownership to create an aristocratic, feudalistic bourgeoisie, with a fairly small middle-class clustered in the service sector.
Serious resources are required to maintain stark cultural and personality-based differences in public life, while building up a circle of power at the core of the state. Sure enough, Fidesz devotes massive public resources to communication. Waging a kulturkampf to remove people of questionable loyalty from theatres, museums and opera houses, Fidesz reaps a double reward of engaging the opposition in yet another battle on the periphery, while ensuring that yet more budgets come under the centralised jurisdiction of the “closed circle”. In addition, rightwing supporters have been quick to claim ownership of Hungary’s barely-formed post-communist media landscape, whose early-1990s idealistic liberalism was quickly checked by brutal economic and technological realities. Zsolt Bayer can often be seen on Echo TV, part of a rightwing media empire which has emerged in the past 10 years, including radio stations, television channels and newspapers such as Magyar Hirlap, where his anti-Gypsy article appeared.
The Hungarian right is loud, strident and radical, and benefits from embedded support within various institutions, not least the Catholic church. The church in Hungary has rallied support for the government’s policies of victimising the poor and concentrating power in the centre. This close relationship between the church and the government may have a deeper meaning – that Fidesz has become the true party of state, inheritors of the governing apparatus. The Catholic church was chief among the many institutions contaminated by covert state operations, with widespread use of clerics as informants. Given that the MDF’s Istvan Csurka admitted that he was an informant for the communist authorities, it is highly likely that the upper reaches of Fidesz also include former opposition figures compromised by informal and covert operations. Some legacies of communism continue to damage public life, yet manifest themselves in hidden ways.
The Hungarian right has established prominent media platforms and built solid institutional networks. The final piece in the puzzle is its direct emulation of modern US Republicanism, with its toxic brew of intolerance, fundamentalist Christianity and xenophobic nationalism. Fidesz national symbolism is strongly redolent of redneck Southern nationalism – the ubiquity of the flag on political platforms, and its placement on flagpoles outside large traditional-styled dwellings. Fidesz trades in a strikingly glossy, soft-brush veneration of nation, family and mum’s apple pie (neatly counterpointed in Hungary by the inevitable cauldron of stew). Ranged against these “good things” are cosmopolitans (Jews), criminals (Gypsies), sexual deviants (homosexuals) and people who want to give prisoners an easy time (liberals). This straightforward approach defines the opposition as a set of grotesque caricatures before it has a chance to mount any kind of challenge. It is as brutally effective now as it was in 1964, when Harold Wilson was able to define the Tories as incompetent, grouse-hunting aristocrats. Fidesz does hard politics, delivered effectively. However, to reinforce the message, such a strategy has increasingly relied upon hate speech and castigation of different minorities. The resulting effluent provides rich pickings for neo-fascist groups.
Of course, just as Clinton’s New Democrats seemed to lead inexorably to Newt Gingrich’s Republican takeover in 1994, we can also add genuine economic populism to Fidesz’s political repertoire. The interests of the little man are being ignored by neoliberalism. Jobbik, playing the wild younger brother to the striped-shirt-wearing Fidesz hacks, can issue loud, clear and well-received demands for social and economic autonomy, alongside its thinly-veiled aggression against minorities. Those elements of the left unaffected or unpersuaded by neoliberalism have been pushed to the fringes of political impotence, and so calls for economic solidarity often originate from the radical right. The fragmented official opposition, mainly comprised of colourless liberals and social democrats, finds itself dancing a death tango with the combined, increasingly powerful forces of the right, and each year sees the couple move closer to the brink of an as-yet unknown abyss.