Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Democracy on Life Support: The view from within Hungary

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Future Challenges blogger Kinga Szalkai discusses Hungary’s political future.

Do you think policies such as those of Fidesz/Orbán are viable in the twenty-first century? Do you think they are appropriate to prepare Hungary as an EU member state in the next 5-10 years?

Szálkai: I do not think that looking inwards and turning away from the institutions of the international community can be a viable direction in the twenty-first century. In my opinion, a small, poor and crisis-ridden country in the heart of Europe, like Hungary, cannot and should not stand up against the mainstream integrational processes of nowadays, and can only have a future as a cooperating part of them. I think that the Fidesz government is aware of this fact, and is trying to balance between pleasing the leaders of the EU and satisfying its Hungarian voters as well. However, if and when the question of democratic and European values becomes part of this balancing act, the stable future of Hungary as an accepted and supported EU member state becomes endangered.

Do Orbán’s politics contribute to the broader economic and political crisis in Europe? If so, how? If not, why do you see them as isolated?

Szálkai: Hungary is a member of the EU, therefore the Hungarian government cannot be treated isolated from it. Hungary represents the EU and influences its international judgement and economic credibility with its political and economic decisions. If Hungary experiences a decline in democratic values, let alone European values, or in economic growth, it definitely contributes to a decrease in trust and credibility towards the EU – and, in this way, it contributes to the deepening of the economic and political crisis in Europe as well.

How entrenched do you think Orbán’s “reforms” already are? Do you think the next government could reset them, if there is a change in political attitudes? Are there any reforms that will be extremely hard to set back to the pre-Orbán state?

Szálkai: I believe that Fidesz still has a great chance to win the next elections in 2014, as it does not have a real alternative that is acceptable for the majority of the Hungarian society. Moreover, the second strongest political party is currently the right-fringe, anti-EU Jobbik, the election of which would lead to a more serious decline in democratic and European values in Hungary. Even if the next government will be a committed follower of these values, I am very pessimistic about the resetting of the laws that can only be changed with a two-third majority. The ongoing reform of the electoral districts will contribute to the difficulties in the restoration as well. However, there is another negative change that I find more important and will be extremely hard to restore in the course of time, and that is the significantly decreased trust in democratic institutions.

How is it that Orbán’s party is so popular, despite criticism from outside Hungary? Is it just populism and some sort of economic revanchism, or is it something more? Is it the sense of the ‘big Hungary’ and the post-War order that makes people so prone to the populist rhetoric?

Szálkai: Hungarian people experienced a great disappointment after the regime change and with the accession to the European Union. On the one hand, they expected prosperity from these changes. Instead, the period after the regime change was characterized by mass layoffs due to the restructuring, and the EU could not protect Hungary from the deep economic crisis of nowadays either. On the other hand, many people perceive that they are only ‘second-class’ citizens of the EU, and the comparison with Western European countries makes them even more disappointed. In my opinion, this state of despair makes the Hungarian society so receptive to populist rhetoric that invokes economic successes and national pride, promising a way out from the present situation.

Do you believe a local ethnic conflict is still possible in Central Europe (e.g. with Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, or Slovenia)?  Why or why not?

Szálkai: I do not believe that a local ethnic conflict is still possible in Central Europe. In spite of the hostile rhetoric that occurs time to time between these countries (or rather between the fringe groups of these countries), they are united in many international organizations and local initiatives, and they are aware of the fact that their main national interests can only be achieved by means of cooperation.


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