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The government Hungarians deserve

Right-wing nationalism continues to govern Budapest, dashing Hungary'€™s post-communist optimism

April 9, 2014 5:00AM ET

The grim election results in Hungary speak volumes about the democratic culture that has evolved there since communism’s demise. No matter that the European Union, among others, has publicly reprimanded Prime Minister Victor Orban and his Fidesz party for their authoritarian behavior, gagging of civil society and clampdown on the media. Still, the Hungarian people returned Orban to power on April 6, with 45 percent of the vote — enough for another supermajority in parliament, which means that for another four years, he and Fidesz can pass just about any legislation they want.

What does this result say about Hungary, the democratic wunderkind in 1989 when Soviet-style communism collapsed? At the time, I was living in Budapest and celebrated the thrilling liberation with Hungarians of all ages in the bars and cafes along the Danube. Hungary had been transitioning out of communism for nearly a decade with reform-minded communists in office. By the time the Wall fell, they were leagues ahead of the East Germans when it came to democracy and civil society, to say nothing of the Romanians who were still living under Nicolae Ceausescu’s fierce dictatorship. There was no comparison between Hungary’s high standard of living and Poland’s shattered economy. Hungary appeared to have all the prerequisites for success, an unfair jump on everybody else in the former Eastern Bloc.

But now Hungary has been passed by all those countries, and the Hungarians appear content with it this way. Hungarians welcomed the overthrow of communism, anticipating the inflow of material wealth from Western Europe. But reforming the economy was a project that would take decades, not years. Now even Poland, which was destitute in the early 1990s, has surged ahead of Hungary — a result of sound policies and dogged perseverance.

The Hungarians obviously never embraced the culture of democracy, opting instead for a powerful authoritarian leader who shifts blame to everyone else but them for the miserable state of the country. Orban’s tirades against the EU, the West and Hungary’s other perceived enemies obviously find resonance in the country.

“We received a clear and unquestionable mandate to continue what we started,” said Orban after the vote. Indeed he did, even if the new Fidesz-designed election laws, which were criticized by election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation, skewed the results in the party’s favor. Opinion polls, especially among young people, show frighteningly high tolerance for ethnic nationalism, authoritarian leadership and racist prejudice against Roma and other ethnic minorities. Fidesz managed to convince many Hungarians that it had bettered the economy for them by, for example, reducing energy costs in the run-up to the vote. 

Even in cosmopolitan Budapest, one sees 'Greater Hungary' bumper stickers on a frightening number of trucks and cars.

Of course, Orban’s lopsided victories would be unimaginable without the collapse of the democratic opposition. The leftist Socialists’ record of corruption and ineptitude paved the way for Orban four years ago. Meanwhile, the country’s liberals have failed miserably to mount a serious challenge to Fidesz in the past two elections. They were unable to convince Hungarians that they would look out for their interests, especially their economic interests, better than Fidesz. The calls for more democratic culture fell mostly on deaf ears. Together, the Socialists and other opposition parties amassed only 26 percent of the vote.

Even more unnerving than the Fidesz victory is the fact that the ultra-right-wing Jobbik party garnered nearly 21 percent of the vote – 4 points more than in 2010. Jobbik is an openly anti-Semitic, anti-Roma party that harkens back to Hungary’s interwar nationalism. Although it ran a moderate campaign, its representatives promise Hungarians a redrawing of national borders so that Hungary can be “complete” again, by incorporating chunks of neighboring Slovakia, Romania and Serbia. There is not the faintest chance that this will happen, even if Russian President Vladimir Putin can get away with annexing Crimea. Yet somehow it inspires the imagination of a fifth of Hungarians — disproportionally new and young voters who are discontent with the status quo and liberalism as such. Indeed, even in cosmopolitan Budapest (which voted for the democratic opposition) one sees “Greater Hungary” bumper stickers on a frightening number of trucks and cars.

The feeble state of Hungary’s democratic opposition is a condition more or less unique to Hungary among EU countries. But Hungarians’ support for right-wing, anti-EU populists is an unfortunate trend that reaches beyond its borders. Just look, for instance, at the recent French elections, in which the National Front fared so well. Just about everywhere in Europe, right-wing nationalists that damn the EU are expected to make big gains in the upcoming May elections for the EU parliament. The EU is suffering the greatest crisis of its existence, and populists are set to capitalize on it.

One might reasonably think that the Ukraine-Crimea crisis would make reasonable people grateful that they live in the EU. It is exactly this kind of geostrategic maneuvering and land grabbing that no longer happens in EU Europe. Indeed, this, more than material prosperity, was the original raison d’être of the union. Who should understand this bonus better than the Hungarians, who have been the losers in so many wars and have paid such a high price?

But Putinism is alive and well, and not just in Russia. The similarities between Putin and Orban are many. And obviously they seem to get along well. Even at the height of the Crimea crisis, Orban and Putin struck a deal over Russia’s delivering nuclear energy technology to Hungary.

One tiny ray of light is the fact that Fidesz received 9 percentage points less of the vote than it did four years ago. But this is too little to rejoice about. Liberal, democratic-minded Hungarians have to start virtually from scratch again to build up a credible opposition to take Orban down in 2018. The democratic opposition parties allied to form the center-left Unity party at the beginning of the year, only to net 26 percent of the vote. They will have to rethink their strategies to prove that Hungarians deserve better than Orban — that is, if indeed they do.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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