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East European Perspectives: June 9, 2004

9 June 2004, Volume 6, Number 12


By Michael Shafir

3. Viktor Orban's 'Transfiguration' or The Making Of A Radical Conservative

There is surprising consensus among analysts of Hungary's contemporary scene on the self-defeating impact overemphasis on "symbolic history" had for the defeat of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) at the 8 and 29 May 1994 polls. According to Andras Bozoki, "Disillusionment was fostered by the increasing identity politics of the Antall cabinet, which utilized an overdose of symbolic-ideological, history-based metaphorical politics. As a result, [in the 1994 elections] people tended to prefer parties with pragmatic political behavior" (Bozoki, 2002, p. 100). Similarly, George Schopflin is persuaded that Antall "had obviously picked the wrong myth" when he chose to depict himself as the premier "in spirit" of 15 million Hungarians. Initially, Schopflin writes, "there was a good deal of sympathy for Hungary's co-ethnics" in neighboring countries, but "gradually, as the Antall government emphasized the fate of the minorities as a central objective in its foreign policy strategy, Hungarian opinion began to tire of this rhetoric" (Schopflin, 2000, pp. 85 and 372, respectively). Last but by no means least, Rudolf Tokes comments that in order to "bridge the gap between budgetary resources and public expectations," the leadership of the MDF "opted for the revival of nationalist ideologies and the resuscitation of prewar notions on the nation's cultural hegemony in the region." And when "these failed to impress either the public or the intellectuals...the party's ideologues resorted to the selective rehabilitation of the Horthy regime's political personalities and the values of its Christian national middle class." Tokes therefore concludes that the Socialist Party's (MSZP) 1994 "landslide electoral victory was in many ways a protest vote against Antall's widely perceived attempts to turn back the clock to the prewar era." The electorate, heavily influenced by what Tokes rather dismissively calls "holdover intellectuals" who were former Hungarian communist leader Janos "Kadar's children," perceived the "semiofficial reburial of Admiral Miklos Horthy in September 1993" as "an ominous sign" and "cast their ballots to replace Antall's 'quiet strength' with [Gyula] Horn's familiar hand at the helm" (Tokes, 1998, pp. 409, 428).

Why, then, would Viktor Orban repeat -- and outdo -- his predecessor's mistakes? As always, simple questions invite complex answers. This is partly due to the fact that, as one scholar put it: "Fidesz's history...offers and intriguing puzzle: it has been one of the most unusual political parties, starting out as a youth organization in 1988 and by 1998 emerging into governmental position. Its road to power, however, was neither smooth nor straightforward, but riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, and 180-degree turns that require explanation" (Kiss, 2002, pp. 740-741)." Several points seem to me to be of cardinal (if perhaps not equal) importance in providing that elucidation insofar as the handling of the memory of the Holocaust (see below) is concerned.

First and foremost among these is anticommunism, which at the same time is perhaps the only trait that did not undergo change in the evolution of FIDESZ since its formation on 30 March 1988, as the former regime was agonizing. Its charismatic leader became known in Hungary and abroad due to the fiery speech he delivered on 16 June 1989, at the Heroes' Square ceremony that preceded the reburial of the earthly remains of Imre Nagy and his associates. That speech, in which he called on the Soviet Union to take out its occupation troops, was televised live and not only put his previously "invisible party on the political map" (Tokes, 1998, p. 330; Ash, 1999, p.51) but also established Orban's reputation as one who would never trust a communist. Not even a former one, as it later turned out.

Closely linked to anticommunism, yet distinct from it, is the generational aspect. The Alliance of Free Democrats' (SZDSZ) early leadership stemmed from intellectual dissidents with ideological links to the "New Left"-oriented "Budapest School" (Szabo, 1994, p. 143). While the contribution of these intellectuals to the demise of the former regime had been essential, they were just as adverse to the revival of old-type nationalism and to the Populists within the MDF. The abundance of "symbolic history" in the MDF's record was for them repulsive; furthermore, it seemed to entail personal dangers, as the Populists were portraying the SZDSZ as the "party of Jews" and seeking (with Antall's blessing) to eliminate from the media Jews who do not "defend the national interests" and who are the harbingers of "destructive modernism" engaged in a dangerous global plot to destroy the "essence" of Hungary and the "Hungarian nation" (Murer, 1999, p. 194). The former "revisionist" Marxists had evolved towards a sort of "Social Liberalism"(Szabo, 1994, p. 143). When, after their victory at the polls in 1994 the former communists returned to power and extended an invitation to the SZDSZ to join the ruling coalition (although capable of forming a cabinet by themselves), the SZDSZ did so. It was a self-defensive reaction, prompted by the fact that the "majority of Hungarian Jews seem to follow the century-old political strategy of supporting political forces that they believe to be heirs to the universalistic ideas of Enlightenment and as such able to protect them from the real and imagined threats of antisemitism." It was for this reason, as Andras Kovacs (1999, p. 116) writes, that "a section of Jewish intelligentsia strongly supported the creation of the 'unnatural' government coalition of the former communists and their former liberal opposition in 1994."

At its inception, FIDESZ was also on the barricades of the struggle against nationalist revival. In 1990, the party's parliamentary group walked out of a session called to mark the Trianon Treaty's unjustness (Kiss, 2002, p. 745). As late as 1992, in a speech delivered at the FIDESZ congress that year, Orban was telling his colleagues that the MDF "by and large represented a rotten, decaying old world that would never again return to Hungary" (cited in Pataki, 1992, p. 9). It seems that at that time Orban never contemplated the possibility of becoming one of the main promoters of that return. His FIDESZ had joined the Liberal International, just as the SZDSZ did.

Still, there were obvious differences between the two liberal formations and FIDESZ could by no means be regarded as a sort of SZDSZ "youth wing." As Michael Waller (1996, p. 40) put it, at that point in time the party's "requirement that members be under the age of 35 was in itself sufficient to give the party a particular identity, involving a rejection of the communist past, carried further to an independence also of earlier Hungarian traditions." The "liberalism" displayed by FIDESZ was substantially different from the SZDSZ's "social liberalism." It inclined toward a "liberal conservatism" with no, or only slight sensibility shown toward social problems. In short, early FIDESZ looked like a Thatcherite party and, "lacking any roots in Marxism was clear-cut anticommunist, more radical, in some issues, than SZDSZ" (Szabo, 1994, p. 143). This orientation was not shared by all FIDESZ leaders and was to cause a split in the party in 1993, when founding member Gabor Fodor left it, disagreeing with Orban's orthodox "free-marketeering." Eventually, Fodor ended up in the SZDSZ (Szabo, 1994, pp.143-144; Kiss, 2002, p. 743).

The age limit was abolished at the 1993 congress, which also did away with the last elements of the party's "grassroot movement" features, introducing hierarchical discipline and redefining FIDESZ as a "liberal-center" group with a "NATIONAL" commitment (Pataki, 1993, p. 26. Emphasis added). Relatively little attention was paid at that time to this -- as it turned out -- major signaling of FIDESZ's change of course. In part, this was due to the fact that FIDESZ still ran in alliance with the SZDSZ in the 1994 elections. But the alliance -- involving stepping down in favor of the best-placed candidate in runoffs for single-member constituencies -- as well as a pre-electoral agreement providing for obligatory consultations ahead of signing any agreement with a third party, was (insofar as FIDESZ was concerned) primarily aimed at preempting precisely what emerged in the wake of the elections -- a MSZP-SZDSZ coalition. Orban hoped the elections would engineer a MDF-FIDESZ-SZDSZ government (Pataki, 1993, p. 25). The election results were a debacle for FIDESZ (for the electoral outcome see Bugajski, 2002, p. 374), which made it into the legislature with great difficulty and found itself sharing the opposition benches with a greatly enfeebled MDF and other parties of the right.

It was during this 1994-98 opposition period that FIDESZ underwent its "transfiguration" from a liberal into a radical conservative formation. The evolution was crowned in the year 2000, when the party left the Liberal International and joined the conservative European People's Party (EPP). An important milestone on this road was the party's 1995 congress, at which its name was changed by adding to FIDESZ the additional denomination of Hungarian Civic Party ("Magyar Polgari Part"). Once more, not enough attention has been paid then to this idiomatic transformation. As it would eventually turn out, "civism" had an inclusive connotation for Orban and his friends, aimed at the gradual absorption, and eventual monopolization, of the right wing side of Hungary's political spectrum. That process is still underway in contemporary Hungary.

The party's economic doctrine also underwent a radical shift at the 1995 congress, when FIDESZ left "Thatcherism" behind and adopted pro-welfare postures based on high-growth and redistributive policies targeting in particular the new provincial middle classes and small businesses (Kiss, 2002, p. 744). From the electoral point of view, the shift was an intelligent response to the highly unpopular "Bokros package" of austerity measures enforced by the MSZP-SZDSZ cabinet and named after Finance Minister Lajos Bokros. Together with rampant corruption, the package highly contributed to the ruling coalition's defeat in the 1998 elections (for the outcome, see Bugajski, 2002, p. 374) and the emergence of the cabinet headed by Orban (Bozoki, 2002, pp. 102-108).

Such populist economic policies "were accompanied by support for a strong state and a conservative Catholic line on social issues." Furthermore, in its electoral propaganda ahead of the 1998 elections and in pronouncements during its 1998-2002 rule of the country, there has been an obvious siding with provincial Hungary against the capital Budapest (Kiss, 2002, p.745), perceived as being dominated by foreign capital and non-Hungarian values -- which often meant Jewish influence -- even if it was left to the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) and other extremists to employ an overtly, uncoded anti-Semitic discourse.

The siding with the countryside against "cosmopolitan Budapest" could perhaps be explained in terms of myth handling. As Schopflin puts it, "It is difficult to integrate a rural population when the integrating community has no strong myth of urban experience. When two such communities are engaged in a contest, the weaker one may find that some of its members shift their allegiance via assimilation" (Schopflin, 2000, p. 83). But what Orban did was not merely to assimilate his party into the traditions of the Populists but to literally turn "inclusion" into the key of his party's tactics. Two paradoxes emerge from this.

First, the anticommunist Orban resorted to communist-style tactics. As designed by Ken Jowitt, the concept of "inclusion" refers to a third-stage in the development of ruling Leninist parties, in which the communist party perceives "that the major condition for its continued development as an institutionalized charismatic organization is to integrate itself with, rather than insulate itself from, its host society" (Jowitt, 1992, p. 91). In Hungary itself, the famous September 1987 Lakitelek conference was a good illustration of "inclusive" tactics operated by the regime and laid the basis for a long and fruitful collaboration between the Populists and the party reformists headed by Imre Pozsgay (see Tokes, 1998, pp. 196-200). Second, the anticommunist new premier would turn to those who collaborated with the communist regime against the Urbanites (now the SZDSZ) who by-and-large were targeted by that regime and viewed as its most dangerous challenge.

The evolution would also be reflected in the Populists-cum-MDF shift of vocal support of Hungarian ethnic minorities abroad, resulting in the famous and controversial "Act on Hungarians Living in Neighboring Countries" ("Status Law") passed by the Hungarian parliament on 19 June 2001 (Kingston, 2001). Inaugurating the Office for Hungarians Beyond Borders on 19 August 1999, Prime Minister Orban said that "all citizens of Hungary and Hungarians beyond borders are members of a single and indivisible nation" (cited in Shafir, 1999), which sounded quite close to Antall's "spiritual" premiership of 15 million Magyars. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Socialist Prime Minister Gyula Horn had explicitly called himself the prime minister of 10.4 million Hungarians (Schopflin, 2000, p. 373).

This brings us back to Andras Kovacs's concept of "creating an identity on a symbolic level." It should have become quite clear by now that this is precisely what Orban set out to do when he engaged in transforming FIDESZ from a liberal into a neoconservative formation. As I have put it elsewhere, FIDESZ's "transfiguration" can be explained in terms of sheer political opportunism, but also in terms of "awareness of the opportunity to fill in the niche left open by the practical political demise of the MDF after Antall's death in December 1993 and the disastrous MDF electoral performance in 1994 "(Shafir, forthcoming). As Csilla Kiss would eventually formulate it, FIDESZ has been able to move "into the conservative space vacated by the fragmented" MDF -- a "move that was made possible by the coincidence of Fidesz's need to change and the vacuum on the right" (Kiss, 2002, p. 757). But as Schopflin (1998) had once asked, what could "conservative" mean in the postcommunist context, since the recent past in Hungary was a communist one? Questions might invite radically different answers and mine are miles apart from Schopflin's (see Schopflin, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c). In a nutshell--while the British-Hungarian political scientist believes that much of FIDESZ and Orban's negative image is maliciously invented by Westerners who themselves are subjected to the powerful influence of the "pro-left" Budapest Jews, I regard that image as having been generated by Orban et al's toying time and again with "symbolic history." The treatment of the Holocaust on one hand, and the related institutionalized insinuation that Jews equal communism embodied in the House of Terror museum are part and parcel of that game, both being also reflected in the politics of public space in the Orban era.
* This is an abridged version of the paper "Hungarian Politics and the Legacy of the Holocaust Since 1989" presented at the 16-18 March 2004 Symposium "The Holocaust in Hungary: Sixty Years Later," Washington, D.C., United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and is reproduced here with the museum's permission.


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