Causes and Explanations

Having provided a possible exegesis of the theoretical construction of the Hungarian model of illiberal democracy, one cannot escape the question: how has one of the leading post-communist democracies transformed into a semi-consolidated Frankenstate? Some of the most appealing explanations will be discussed in the following part of the chapter. In order to understand the evolution and success of Orban’s constitutional capture, two features of post-transition Hungarian political life [will be particularly] highlighted: the domination of political parties in public affairs, and the prevalence of Orban’s long held political strategy to demonize and delegitimize political opponents an polarize politics to its extremes.

Values and Political Culture

Value surveys portray Hungarians as passive, uninterested in politics, isolated, and distrustful, with an especially low trust in democracy, market economy, and transparent, merit-based structures. In 2012, only 40% of Hungarian youth (mostly college and university students) accepted democracy as a legitimate system of government, and roughly one third did not see a difference between dictatorship and democracy (Szabo 2013). According to another survey, only about 20% of respondents were interested in politics (Szabo 2013, p. 22). While in 1991 74% of Hungarians approved of the change from a one-party system to a multiparty system, by 2009 only 56% favored the change, and 77% were dissatisfied with the way democracy was working in Hungary, which was the highest percentage of dissatisfied respondents in the region. While 89% held that politicians have benefited a great deal from the changes since 1989, only 17% believed ordinary people have done so. Seventy-six percent said that corrupt political leaders are a very big problem (Wike 2010). Only 38% believed that voting is a mechanism for affecting politics, and 91% thought the country is on the wrong track (Pew Global 2009).

Hungary is a closed society that is frustrated with the European Union and the development of capitalism, but that also has a high tolerance for corruption and an attraction to charismatic leaders. Regarding values, Hungary is in the vicinity of Orthodox cultures and far from its neighboring countries with similar level of economic development; Hungary is closer to Bulgaria and Moldova than to Slovenia (Keller 2010; Szabo 2013, p. 10; Wike 2010). In a comparative analysis, Hungary was found to be the very last of all European countries, including the former socialist states, in its levels of trust in institutions. Hungarians were found to have especially low levels of trust toward politicians, bankers, and journalists (Hungarian Spectrum 2009). Hungarians also live in social isolation: 81% reported difficulty in finding friends, and according to 85%, relationships often become increasingly unstable. Fifty-eight per cent found little interest in politics, and 41% reported no interest in solving social problems (Til 2015, p. 371).

It is apparent then that the NSC resonates with the expectations of a disillusioned, frustrated, inward-looking, closed Hungarian society that has lost its comparative advantage enjoyed during the time of relative freedom and economic prosperity created by the “Goulash communism” of the pre-transition 1980s. The term “Goulash communism” evokes images of a community-style dish cooked in the open air to symbolize a communist regime with a relatively pleasant overall atmosphere. This term characterizes the mixing of certain elements of the free market with a planned economy that allowed Hungary to have had slightly higher living standards than its Iron Curtain neighbors (Wike 2009) and to be among the rare countries in the Eastern block that did not have a shortage of food (Wike 2010). Paradoxically, Hungarian society retains a sense of superiority, especially toward its neighbors with a significant ethnic Hungarian diaspora traditionally looked down upon by the dominant “Magyars.” Still, Hungarians have severely lacked feelings of success in the two decades since the political transition.

It also needs to be added that the conservative political ideology still centers around 1920, when in the post-WWI treaty Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and the corresponding population. Ever since, the aspiration to reunite the old glory and territorial integrity, or at least a responsibility for ethnic kins in the neighboring countries has been a cornerstone of conservative domestic politics, and after the political transition in 1989, a constitutional responsibility and a foreign policy priority as well. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon also serves a symbol of Hungary’s and Hungarians’ victimization and mistreatment by the international community. The narratives of victimhood allow for the culture of frustration and refusing responsibility for one’s own fate and allowing others to be blamed for failures and the lack of success.

Another important feature of Hungarian political culture is what Andras Bozoki (2015) describes as “partocracy,” or a case in which political parties assume civic duties and dominate public life. Such practices may be for example establishing public benefit foundations, professional groups, club-like community forums called “civic circles” (polgari kor), delegating curators to committees, employing their own journalists and political and market analysts, and self-administering most of the media outlets and think tanks. Similarly to other post-communist states, Hungarian civil society is usually characterized as weak and resource dependent. Additionally, the number of non-government organizations controlled by the government, but being masqueraded as independent NGOs is remarkable (Kover 2015a). According to Jarabik (2015), although loyalty to political sides and parties is not a Hungarian specialty, nowhere else was the emerging civil society and the media captured by the political parties to such a degree as in Hungary.

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