Fri Aug 12th, 2005 at 06:39:26 PM EST
Some of you may wonder why I don't write anything about politics in my home country, Hungary. It's because politics in this region is too depressing even for rage against it - and I feel a lot warmer towards, say, the German Greens or the merry group of latter-day Trots in the British Respect party (/SWP), than anything on offer here. But today I thought I'd write about a tragicomedic story for laughs - and if you feel interested, below the fold a general explanation of post-1989 Hungarian politics.
Britain has libel laws, Hungary has press correction suits. But by now, politicians don't have much to fear - the only paper that still doggedly does some investigative reporting is Élet és Irodalom, usually just called ÉS, a literature(!) paper. (Well, Hersch publishes in the New Yorker too...)
A few years ago, they had a series about financial machinations by the then governing main conservative party Fidesz (voted out in 2002): income from the unethical selling of party real estate ended up with businessmen close to the party, disappeared in two dozen fake firms that also collected up debt, and then all of them were "sold" to the stolen passports of a Croatian wine-grower and a Turkish guest-worker in Germany. (Yeah, don't tell me it's like a cheap B-movie script...)
Fidesz responded with a suit. They didn't challenge any of the claims. They sued for ÉS calling these firms "Fidesz-firms", rather than "firms close to Fidesz"! And they won! No matter that the verdict actually proved the misappropiation of money, they claimed a clean vest.
Undeterred, ÉS continued to follow leads. A side thread led them recently to a vineyard investment group with the former PM's wife and friends in it, which made money with speculative purchases and state grants - and they got written proof that former PM Orbán personally helped them.
Fidesz again sued. They again didn't challenge any of the claims, including the written evidence. They sued for ÉS calling their top evidence a "minutes of a members' meeting", for this wasn't an official firm members' meeting, altough all members were present. And just last week, they won again!
Here starts the introducion to Hungary's senseless politics.
I best do it by way of introducing the parties, and then the four governments so far. You'll be introduced to a centre-right business party posing as socialists, the empty shell of liberals, cozy-to-communists anti-communists, a gated-community peasant leader, and a bunch of yuppies cruising the whole political spectrum.
MSzP (Socialists): this one grew out of the reform wing of the former communist party. I'd separate out these three main sub-groups, all mostly but not completely ex-Party-members: 1) the naive base, believes in redistribution (but culturally not liberal), but has least power and intelligence; 2) the entrepreneur base, much more influence and outside-politics ties; and 3) the technocrats, mostly Western-educated in the seventies-eighties and dour. My classification is more sociologic, power groups might cut across these --- but it is a lame bunch too diverse and too much without vision to follow a consistent policy in government.
Munkáspárt (communists): this was formed by the hardcore that rejected the reformists, never got into Parliament but refuses to die. They made attempts at copying the style of West European hard left, and had one lucky pick when they called for a referendum against hospital privatisation (was pursued by all in parliament, rejected by some 75-80% of the people including yours truly), only ruined by Fidesz (but that would be stuff for another tragicomedic post). However, this is all facade, they are unreconstituted Stalinists - the party leader even flew to Moscow during the failed 1991 coup against Gorbachev, to plead allegiance to the new masters...
SzDSz (liberals): this one grew out of the eighties liberal dissident movement. They had diverse opinions and were the most progressive, but then their social liberal streak died out (literally/left the party), they were strongly hit by a vicious nationalist and anti-semitic campaign against them, and even more strongly by compromises in government (more on this in the second part). Today a shadow of themselves, too afraid to praise cosmopolitanism or confront racism openly, with tax reductions and neoliberal 'reforms' left to argue. And they are still the most progressive choice. It's a shame - I always voted for them.
MDF (old nationalist conservatives): originally the big right-wing party, led by old-timers who did not much in terms of dissident-ism, cooperated with the since dead nationalist wing of the MSzP, and were in a large part historians, with the tepid smell of the pre-WWII semi-fascist system. Now a dwarf, led by the most popular politician in the country, probably due to her elegant hats and (relative to others) cultured manners.
MIÉP (far right): broke off of MDF, led by Csurka, a gifted playwright turned mini-Goebbels, whose open anti-semitism and militancy made even the leader of the infamous Vlaams Blok flip out. They were once in parliament (1998-2002), then out, unfortunately they refuse to die too.
FKGP (smallholders' party): the predecessor of this party won the only free elections just after WWII by a landslide. However, the 1989 version was quickly taken over by Torgyán, a gifted demagogue, a lawyer from the capital who understood how to appear as a man of the earth to gullible farmers. However, his party began to divide like a cell (at one time there were like one and half dozen smallholders' parties!), and they were incredibly (and stupidly) corrupt, they disappeared by now.
Fidesz ('young democrats', populist right): this party is the craziest of them all.
It started out as a progressive liberal party, with alternative-left and anarchist overtones, formed by a group of young hotshots. But when the star of MDF began to fall, the by then unquestioned leader of Fidesz, Orbán (BTW a demagogue even more gifted than Torgyán), decided that he'll be PM only if Fidesz takes the place of a large people's party - and as the place on the Right just got empty, that was where Fidesz moved. And where they won, in 1998.
But this cabal of yuppies never believed in any ideology, so their line changed whatever their tactical goal at the moment was, touching everything and the opposite (literally!) from far left to far right. And managed to get their flock to follow at every twist and turn. Like Bliar in Britain, they believed in spin - and used it heavily, borrowing heavily from around the world (from Tudjman in Croatia, Berlusconi in Italy, Bush in the USA - you cannot imagine the combined intensity). In the meantime, they 'ate' most of the rest of the parties on the Right, including the far right (many of whose 'arguments' they made mainstream).
1990-1994: MDF in coalition with FKGP and another small right-wing party, with SzDSz as the main opposition. Economic reforms with Western guidance lead to recession and increased poverty. Meanwhile, failure to suppress the far-right in the party with appeasement, ultimately they break off and form MIÉP. Authoritarian and nationalistic tendencies, culminating in the First Media War: fought over the control of the state media.
1994-1998: MSzP, despite absolute majority alone, with SzDSz. Socialists ride to victory on a wave of silly nostalgia for stability under the old regime, but people get something else. Initial haphazard populism is followed by the technocrats' austerity reforms (the previous government cooked the books), which straighten the budget but push a lot of people across the brink, and tuition fees alienate students for a decade. Still arrogantly confident in their majority, the Socialists battle with their coalition partners (who stupidly won't leave), produe a big corruption scandal, and revive a universally hated Slovakian-Hungarian river dam scheme that costs them reelection (and SzDSz credibility).
1998-2002: Fidesz, in coalition with FKGP and MDF, most of which they 'eat up' over the four years. Spin politics. Media war II: cooperating with the opposition far-right MIÉP, vagueness in legal texts is used to gain control of the state media. Fidesz first intends to create a US-style two-party system by creating its own corrupt client background in the economy, but noticing how lame the MSzP is, they go for a one-party system. But extreme arrogance, tit-for-tat battles with Budapest's popular SzDSz major, and a string of corruption scandals dwarfing the previous government's anger enough people for a narrow election loss.
2002-: MSzP-SzDSz lame duck government. As they have a hair-thin majority, Fidesz tries in the first summer to topple the government with continuous barrage, but over-reaches and the generated scandals (like exposing that the new PM was a spy - he was in counter-intel, ironically even acting against the Russians when Hungary seeked Western financial ties) fall back on its head.
Since then, Fidesz plays "let's ignore every unwritten rule of democracy, and even written ones if there is no punishment". But hand it to the government to undercut themselves. Feeling weak, to gain popularity, there were massive payrises, combined by tax cuts at the SzDSz's demand, predictably leading to a budget crisis. So it's back to 'reforms' - while political discourse is now exclusively about a series of storm-in-a-bathtub scandals. At the same time, they played apologists for Bush & Bliar, against much of their base. A year ago, the PM was replaced after an internal party coup - now a rich guy from the entrepreneur wing tries to be a counter-Orbán, not without success (now should I be happy about this or weep?), but Fidesz still commands 50%+ in polls.