Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

Delayed Warsaw Express arriving in Budapest

by DoDo Sun Apr 11th, 2010 at 09:19:05 AM EST

During the transition of Central Europe from 'communism' to democracy in 1989-1990, Poland was the first to hold free elections. Thus, Poland was also the first to hold elections four years later, when ex-reformed-communists returned to power in many countries of the region; and again another four years later, when the nationalist Right was resurgent. The same changes happened across the region as elections were held in close succession, as if the wind of change was carried by a fast train. Hence, in the nineties, people spoke of the "Warsaw Express".

Ex 232 "VARSOVIA" leaves Budapest-Kelenföld on 21.09.1989 (three months after Solidarność's election victory, ten days after the opening of Hungary's border for East Germans). Photo by Martin Welzel from Drehscheibe Online

By the noughties, as early elections and constitutional changes moved electoral calendars apart, and the political system of each country developed its own quirks, the regional trends broke down, and the term went out of fashion. However, the expected result of Hungary's general elections today has many parallels with Poland's 2005 elections, which propelled the Kaczyński twins into power [UPDATE: the brother still in power as President just died in a plane crash, see story]:

  • a general disillusion with politicians is cause for very low turnouts (maybe even under 50%),
  • the post-reformed-communist centre-left destroyed itself in government with a combination of unpopular neolib 'reforms' and corruption scandals,
  • the liberals put themselves out of the picture with internal bickering,
  • as a consequence, right-wing parties achieve a punch-out victory,
  • the Right is not classic centre-right, but right-populists, and the far-right at double-digits, with no cordon sanitaire between them.

There are some differences too. For example, as a faint glimmer of hope, for the first time a green party has a chance to enter parliament.

Other interesting moments are the fact that internet and bloggers began to play a significant role in the campaign, and the foreign policy implications.



Election system

Hungary is a unicameral parliamentary democracy (prime-minister-led government approved by elected parliament, which also selects the figurehead President). Elections are mixed: people vote both for party lists (proportional element) and individuals running in constituciencies (first-past-the-post; this element has two rounds if no candidate passes 50% in the first).

The (not completely balanced) FPTP part gives an edge to the biggest party or election alliance endorsing joint constituciency candidates, thus there was a natural trend towards a bipartisan system: the post-reformed-communist Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP) and the right-populist Fidesz expanded, all other parties shrunk into permanent satellites, were absorbed, or disappeared.

The small party extinction continued: a record low number of constituency candidates could gather the signed endorsements necessary to run, and only fivesix parties could register nationwide lists. However, the bipartisan structure is to be thrown off kilter.


Leaving power: the Socialists

After two terms in government, under three prime ministers, in the end in minority, the Socialists are pretty used up: currently, polls give them less than 20% of the vote! This 'achievement' is owed in equal parts to four factors:

  • The bad economic situation: exploding deficits, recession and growing unemployment (which, I have to emphasize, began two years before the Global Financial Crisis).

  •  Unpopular austerity measures and neolib 'reforms' officially meant to right the economy, like the failed hospital privatisation plan.

  • Corruption scandals: although there was a constant barrage of corruption accusations from the Right from eight years ago, mostly for non-issues, two real big scandals hit in the last year or so. One was a young upstart party member, who showed an amazing ability to gather funds -- turns out he made fake bills on an industrial scale, to get state grants for nonexistent projects of potemkin youth organisations. The trouble for MSzP: a lot of the party's next generation were close associates of this guy (who just got sentenced to an exemplary 8.5 years in prison). The other scandal concerns Budapest's public transit company: public procurements were used as cash cow by the Socialist vice-major, his aides and others. When the scandal blew up last year, MSzP broke up the coalition with the liberals that ruled the capital; arrests continue to this day.

  • A complete inability to deal with right-wing and far-right propaganda: as elsewhere, this had reasons both in communication and the structure of the media landscape. A local speciality is the fight over the oversight boards of public media, in which Fidesz secured long-term majorities with various tricks.


Getting all the power: Fidesz

Right-populist Fidesz, polling around 60%, should get a two-thirds majority in parliament -- the qualified majority for changing the constitution. Hungary still has its post-1956 constitution that was only overhauled in 1989. Fidesz can now write a new one on its own, in particular it can re-shape the election system.

Fidesz started out as a left-liberal alternative-youth party of college hotshots. The leading cabal is unchanged, but in 1994, they decided for a makeover to take the vacant spot of main right-wing party (and added "Hungarian Civic Party" to the party name, but rarely anyone uses it). Fidesz is led by once and future PM Viktor Orbán.

"The time is now!" [quote from the defining poem of the 1848 Revolution]. Viktor Orbán with lots of flags at the 22nd birthday of Fidesz in March, promising "more than a revolution, and a happy resurrection". Photo from Index.hu

I call Fidesz right-populist because, in line with the careerist makeover of its leaders, the party can stand for everything and the opposite: one day they rail against anti-social healthcare privatisation, another day they consider measures for rich people to have more and poor people less children; one day they want to improve the lot of pensioners, another day they talk about re-focusing on the active part of the population, and so on.

So, what to expect of the Orbán II cabinet on the economy? Who knows. In recent weeks, they tried to wind down the expectations of followers, saying the new government's hands will be tied for at least two years by the disaster the previous leaves behind.

An open question is how Fidesz will deal with its right flank.

When Fidesz was in government in the 1998-2002 period, it tried to unite the entire right-wing spectrum under its umbrella, from high bourgoise worshippers of the German CDU to the anti-semitic far-right. This cynical operation on one hand involved the mainstreaming of some of the rhetoric and symbols of the far-right, on the other hand, the engineering of the disintegration of smaller allies that didn't assimilate on their own.

Ultimately, the uniting attempt was less than successful. Even those absorbed could pose problems: a mayor and MP whom Fidesz's leadership wanted to keep only as a mayor after he became uneasy with anti-Gypsy and anti-semitic comments (see here) is running now as independent candidate. Worse, some groups sensed the danger and went independent, even if that meant hard times in past elections -- and one of those now grew big...


Enter the postmodern far-right: Jobbik

Jobbik, which started out as an association of university students, was but one of the many small competing grouplets in the diverse zoo of Hungary's far-right. It was one of the first to accept Fidesz's umbrella, but also one of the few escaping the suffocating embrace, even if that meant existing as a sub-1% dwarf until 2-3 years ago. While foreign commentators tend to just blame the economy for any far-right rise, methinks Jobbik laid the evil seed of its own recent success itself.

Jobbik's youthfulness showed in some differences compared to the older far-right groups:

  • internet-savvyness: the Jobbik-aligned far-right on-line media quickly rose to notoriety, and the web board community growing around it flooded political (and not just political) forums with their bile long before the party had any success.
  • re-focusing the target: in Jobbik's rhetoric the Hungarian far-right's traditional anti-semitism comes up mostly coded as anti-liberalism and anti-capitalism (but not too elaborarely coded: for example the nasty foreigner buying Hungarian real estate in a campaign speech parable has to be called Mr. Solomon), the main focus for hate is Roma.

It's the universal far-right recipe: pick some unsolved social problem connected to a minority, thematise it in collective terms, as the sole fault of that minority, as a standoff, and blow it out of proportion by making incessant noise about it. In this case, it's crime among permanently impoverished and ghettoised Roma, which is hardly a single phenomenon (e.g. a group of crimes all specific to that group), hardly even the top crime problem, not to mention the root of all problems in the country. But, by two years ago, the Jobbik-close media widened the Overton Window enough for he-said-she-said standard media to use their neologism "Gypsycrime", too.

If there is something that justifies the 'neo' in neo-fascism, IMO it's the use of plausible deniability (of discriminative intent or racism), and of demonstrative but superficial departures from the rhetoric or symbolism of historical precedents. Thus Jobbik's leaders, too, say that they aren't racist and are only concerned with crime. They emphasize the pre-WWII roots of their symbols. And they made sure that the paramilitary they created, the Hungarian Guard (see their first ceremony, description within the far-right spectrum, march against 'Gypsy crime', courtroom intimidation), not appear as a phalanx of aggressive young men, by including older people and girls.

Postmodern brownshirts: the Hungarian Guard. (The girl showing the V-sign will feature again below.) Photo from Index.hu

Two years ago, at a time other groups of the far-right (the rioters, you may remember) grew tired, the conflict over the Hungarian Guard (which dragged on too long due to the government's and the justice system's ineptness) gave enough media appearances for Jobbik to outshine its rivals at the right end. They made sure that 'their' theme, 'Gypsycrime', remains in focus, by stirring the pot (see A photo and a story and 'War' in Sajóbábony). In addition, the Hungarian Guard helped this narrow group of educated urbanites to grow local presence and a party infrastructure, especially in villages, ensuring further growth in regions the established parties neglected.

Thus Jobbik got big enough to also collect the anti-establishment voters. (The party's election posters refrain from any discriminative or winking semi-racist slogan, and just say "Radical change! - In the name of the People", with photos of party candidates in folkish clothes.) By early 2010, they polled closer to 20% of decided voters (and well above among young voters...), and overtook the Socialists as second party in some polls.


Campaign-time scandals: Fidesz vs. Jobbik

With Fidesz's victory and MSzP's downfall long seen a foregone conclusion, there was less steam in negative campaigning between the two. But a new Fidesz-Jobbik confrontation made up for that.

Despite Jobbik's parting with Fidesz in national elections, there wasn't much open hostility between the two until recently, rather the opposite: Fidesz had no scruples to coalition with the nutters at local level. But now that Jobbik is a serious threat, last month, Fidesz let loose its own chained dogs in the media, to attack Jobbik for hypocrisy and communist ties(!), and leak taped conversations about mafia relations.

Meanwhile, a Jobbik MEP wanted to avert a parking fine with reference to her immunity, Jobbik members were also implicated in robbery and terrorism. But what had the most impact was last two weeks' 'moral' scandals -- blown up by bloggers.

First there was Jobbik's spokesman. He could play a paragon of Christian-conservative mores until... his former companion on a one-year global trek got enough of the hypocrisy and sent some photos and videos to media. You see a guy goofing around with the marchers at a Toronto gay parade (Jobbik is officially homophobic), smoking cannabis and even giving it to teenage girls, singing the Socialists' 2006 campaign anthem, and shouting abuse at foreigners in Hungarian: exactly the kind of boorish rootless libertine Jobbik rails against...

Scene in a park in Thessaloniki, Greece. This doesn't need much translation, but here is part of it: "...Hey, you, Helot! You worker Helot c*m! Do you hear me? Work harder, because the Spartans will come - heh-heh - and slaughter you, f*ck it! - heh - You won't work faster? Look here f*ck it, the Spartan youth will come, do you hear me? They will slaughter your family, too, heh-heh heh-heh..."

Next, that photogenous girl on the photo in the previous section, who made a name by resisting police at an illegal protest against the [limited-effect] banning of the Hungarian Guard, turned out to be a porn actress. Also doing lesbian scenes -- there goes homophobia again.

Although both 'moral hazards' were made to resign, I was sceptical about an effect on supporters: hypocrisy is a core value of conservatism, and Jobbik's main profile is hating Gypsies (as made abudantly clear by pro-Jobbik blog commenters). So I was a little surprised to see their numbers dropping in most of the last slew of polls released before the elections.

It seems Jobbik had decided that the latest attacks originate with Fidesz, too. They accused one Budapest Fidesz leader of corruption in a real estate deal; and Jobbik-close media showed a leaked video. In the video, a Fidesz campaign manager speaks about a personalised campaign, on the basis of a complete database of citizens' party preferences (he called anti-Fidesz voters 'the commies'), gathered from the reports of door-to-door campaigners.

I note this practice from Fidesz is an open secret. For example, after saying good-bye to a Fidesz activist ahead of the EP elections, no Fidesz leaflets or activists turned up at my door during the current campaign -- my address must be on the 'commies' list.

"Are we on it [the list], too?" MSzP supporters protest at Fidesz's conference. But the Socialists stand accused of maintaining voter databases, too. Photo from Index.hu


Foreign relations: Fidesz vs. Jobbik

The new Fidesz government will bring some changes in foreign policy -- and confrontation with Jobbik. Both parties have some surprising positions.

In neighbour relations, Fidesz's nationalism and aspiration to establish clients among the ethnic-Hungarian parties would lead to a default expectation of deterioration. That will certainly be true vs. Slovakia, where the popular left-populist PM Robert Fico is heading for re-election with his party Smer (this time maybe achieving majority without the far-right SNS): Fico warned against Orbán in public several times. But with Romania, things could get interesting. During the recent President vs. parliament struggle, Orbán bet on (ultimately winning) President Traian Băsescu (another right-populist) by publicly endorsing him, while Băsescu campaigned for ethnic-Hungarian votes with reference to Orbán.

"Viktor Orbán in the camp at Tusványos:
'In the second round, I would vote for Traian Băsescu'
Why would we wait for the second round?"
But look closely: the hand Băsescu holds is not Orbán's. Photo from Transindex.ro

This could become a strategic alliance -- but, I wonder if it survives an eventual introduction of double citizenship for ethnic-Hungarians abroad, as promised by Fidesz (which could result in a large block of Transylvania being inhabited by 90% Hungarian citizens), or Băsescu's eventual rejection of another appeal for territorial autonomy from ethnic-Hungarian parties. At any rate, from Jobbik, Fidesz will get the same cries of treason it allowed/used against the Socialists.

At EU level, Orbán was quickly recognised by peers as a young talent, and made vice president of the EPP. Fidesz used the connections for some campaign help and adoption of methods (above all from Berlusconi). However, Orbán is said to be on bad terms with Merkel, and lately, the comrades in the EP were less than enthusiastic about uncoordinated anti-communist witch hunts.

Jobbik in turn, as I wrote on ET several times, is a core member of the sub-network of European far-right parties organised by Britain's BNP. But one notable difference to the Western friends is the lack of Islamophobia: as a development of anti-semitism (on the logic of the enemy of my enemy is my friend) and irredentism (territories in neighbouring countries formerly part of Hungary seen as Occupied Territories), the Hungarian far-right in general symphatizes with the P side of the I/P conflict (including terror groups). Thus Jobbik even has a Syrian-born candidate in Budapest.

Fidesz got less enthusiastic about Atlanticism after Bush-era rebukes over tolerating anti-semitism. But on Russia, Fidesz is playing the Russophobic card. This however seems to have been a tactical move, to attack the Socialists over South Stream (see Russia -- ex-East-Bloc Realignment). In contrast, Europhobic Jobbik argues for an eastward re-orientation, and specifically for good relations with Russia -- a schizophrenic stance: at the same time, they are angering the Russian government by demanding the removal of WWII Soviet war memorials from public places.


The have-beens: centre-right, neolibs

The two biggest parties of the 1990-1994 parliament were centre-right MDF and liberal SzDSz. In 2006, both barely made the 5% limit. And in recent months, they were loud with internal strife -- especially SzDSz, which descended into chaos after not making it into the EP.

MDF had a neoliberal makeover when it invited a controversial figure for EP list leader (see The Moustache of Reform to the EP(P)?). The free-wheeling moustachioed guy continued to court controversy by joining the British Tories' new Eurosceptic EP faction (for which MDF was kicked from the EPP), and insulting everyone left and right. But, when he was made MDF's list leader for the national elections, he was enough attraction for the corpse of the SzDSz to agree to running joint constituency candidates (and no separate list). Measuring them at 1-3%, polls still don't give any chance to MDF.

In the shadow: MDF's boss Ibolya Dávid, in the light: list leader Lajos Bokros. Photo at MDF's campaign closing event from Index.hu


The emerging greens: LMP

There were several attempts to form a viable Green party in Hungary over the past two decades, but none of them got anywhere near 5%, or even 1% of the vote.

The latest attempt is LMP, "Another Politics is Possible" (a modification of the altermondialist slogan), which was formed for the 2009 EP elections (see Poster Spotting). Although they didn't made it either, 2.6% was a noted record for greens, and they stayed in the media's attention. Now almost all polls predict that LMP will just make it across the 5% barrier.

LMP, with strong roots in conservationist movements, is not a decidedly leftist formation like Western European peers. Representatives even emphasize centrism. Indeed one of the older formations, Green Left, runs own candidates. Still, in the competition for the liberals' former cosmopolitan urbanite voters, The Moustache of Reform attacked LMP for being "more communist than socialist"(!).

Activists gathering rubbish left by LMP's campaign closing event in front of the Parliament building. Photo from [origo]

Display:
I remember seeing off some relatives on Ex232 VARSOVIA as a child... but today that train name belongs to EC 40/41 (Warshaw-Berlin-Warshaw).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Apr 9th, 2010 at 09:43:08 AM EST
Warsaw.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Apr 9th, 2010 at 10:41:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm back from voting. There weren't many other voters. I guess the sunny weather also plays a role.

What was new for me (unless I've forgotten) that voters did not get an envelope to stuff their two ballots (list vote, constituency candidate vote) into. I guess less work for vote counters and less rubbish produced; but given that ballot papers are thin, this is not the best to ensure a secret vote.

Figures until 13h however show that turnout won't be a record low (that was 56.26% in 1998, incidentally, the previous occasion Fidesz won).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Apr 11th, 2010 at 09:27:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
(Well, technically, polls made in the last few days.)

List votes:
Fidesz (right-populist): 54-58%
MSzP (centre-'left'): 17-20%
Jobbik (fascist): 15-17%
LMP (green): 5-6%
MDF (centre-right + neolib): 2-4% [failed limit]

Constituency representative votes:
Fidesz is to win more than 140 (of a total 176) now (in the first round)

Extrapolating from the last partial figures, final turnout must have been slightly above 60% (still second lowest since 1990). Overall, no surprises here.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Apr 11th, 2010 at 02:03:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Scandal for election day: the Election Commission decided to centralise voting for those voting away from home to a few precincts in every constituency -- which resulted in long lines at those constituencies. In the end, it was decided to let everyone vote who stood in those lines before 19h, but get them indoors in order to shut them away from media. (What about their cell phones?...)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Apr 11th, 2010 at 02:08:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A real mess developed: the Election Commission announced an embargo on partial results, but soon after, it was estimated that the line of voters at one precinct won't finish until the early morning!

And who benefitted? Bloggers! The web was abuzz with partial results leaked from party centres, TV stations complained of unfair competition on air. Though that single precinct still didn't finish, now the embargo was lifted. At 99.18% counted:

Fidesz 52.76%
MSzP 19.3%
Jobbik 16.7% (every sixth voter for the fascists!)
LMP 7.43% (more than expected!)
MDF 2.65%
Civic Association 0.9%
Workers' Party (communists) 0.11%
...
MIÉP (onetime main far-right party) 0.03%

If Fidesz fails to get two-thirds, it will be 'interesting' to see whether and when they use Jobbik's support...

The good news: it appears the greens (LMP) beat the fascists (Jobbik) in Budapest (12.76% vs. 10.78%).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Apr 11th, 2010 at 04:49:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - Delayed Warshaw Express arriving in Budapest
I call Fidesz right-populist because, in line with the careerist makeover of its leaders, the party can stand for everything and the opposite: one day they rail against anti-social healthcare privatisation, another day they consider measures for rich people to have more and poor people less children; one day they want to improve the lot of pensioners, another day they talk about re-focusing on the active part of the population, and so on.

Sounds like a standard formula for a successful modern party.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Apr 9th, 2010 at 10:22:21 AM EST
In the video, a Fidesz campaign manager speaks about a personalised campaign, on the basis of a complete database of citizens' party preferences (he called anti-Fidesz voters 'the commies'), gathered from the reports of door-to-door campaigners.

I note this practice from Fidesz is an open secret. For example, after saying good-bye to a Fidesz activist ahead of the EP elections, no Fidesz leaflets or activists turned up at my door during the current campaign -- my address must be on the 'commies' list.

This is scandalous?

Don't all reasonably organised groups have lists of streets/housing units that are "don't bother - they're dumbasses to a man" territory?

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Apr 10th, 2010 at 01:47:03 PM EST
Here they have it with name -- which makes people concerned about misuse of data for political discrimination in public affairs.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Apr 10th, 2010 at 02:29:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
(And in my case, it's not a don't bother area for Fidesz: the Right usually does well.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Apr 10th, 2010 at 02:31:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the report.  It makes the situation clearer.

I was surprised by the number of swastikas I saw as graffiti in Esztergom and Budapest when I visited Hungary in March of 2000.  Have been following, remotely, some of the anti-Roma violence which I know is an issue not only in Hungary but across the borders in neighboring countries  as well.  

Was there any long-term fall-out from the Medgyessy affair, his outing as an informant for the Russians?

Solar IS Civil Defense

by gmoke on Sat Apr 10th, 2010 at 04:59:22 PM EST
I don't have specific memories of graffiti from that time, but this was probably connected to a resurgence of skinheads (incidentally with Esztergom as one of the pockets) at the end of the nineties, peaking in their first commemorations of the WWII Siege of Budapest (held in February) with delegations of 'comrades' from across Europe. In 2000, this commemoration was prevented by pre-emptively reserving the place.

However, today, though classic skinheads and neo-Nazis are far from gone (as I could experience), and others may be attracted by symbols of a foreign totalitarianism in spite their supposed nationalism (like this guy, who since moved from Fidesz to Jobbik), the 'activist' far-right and far-right graffiti I encounter are dominated by domestic themes and symbols, and so is Jobbik. And, here is the real difference, they are now not just a loud micro-minority.

Regarding the effect of the Medgyessy affair, there wasn't much of a long-term fallout: secret service files are still kept hard to access... Though some may identify the start of the Socialists' downfall with that row, they could still win an election (a re-election) after replacing Medgyessy with Gyurcsány as PM.

BTW, the claim that Medgyessy was an informant for the KGB was an unsupported extra allegation that is unlikely to be true. What is certain is that Medgyessy, as a top bureaucrat involved in foreign trade, was involved by the domestic counter-intelligence (unit III/II) at an officer rank (he even claimed to have worked against the Soviets, when the regime in Hungary wanted IMF credits, and feared that the Soviet overlords won't allow such Western re-orientation if they see the full scope of the plans).

Note that, although it would be simplicistic to apply a simple good guys/bad guys delineation, unit III/II and its regular staff continued under a different name after 1990, unlike unit III/III, which had spying on citizens as its main job. From further leaks after the Medgyessy affair, it appears most economy technocrats in the eighties were involved with counter-intel, including two key once and future ministers of Fidesz (and, who knows, maybe Jobbik's economy minister 'candidate' too: another ex-commie on the Right with whitewashed past). But that didn't prevent Fidesz from some anti-communist witch hunt in the EP recently, against another former III/II guy.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Apr 11th, 2010 at 10:33:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It is worth reminding that Hungary will hold the EU presidency for the first half of 2011.

"Ce qui vient au monde pour ne rien troubler ne mérite ni égards ni patience." René Char
by Melanchthon on Sun Apr 11th, 2010 at 06:57:25 PM EST
Thus, Poland was also the first to hold elections four years later, when ex-reformed-communists returned to power in many countries of the region; and again another four years later, when the nationalist Right was resurgent.

The history is more complicated than that. According to Wikipedia, the Polish had parliamentary elections in 1989, 1991 and 1993. Apparently, the first two Sejms did not serve full terms. The comeback election for former communists was on 19 September, 1993.

Besides, the Lithuanian surprise comeback election was almost a year earlier, in October/November 1992.

by das monde on Mon Apr 12th, 2010 at 12:04:31 AM EST


Display:
Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]

Top Diaries