Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is Hungary Creeping Back Towards Fascism?

By Tom Kando

I just finished reading Paul Lendvai’s book “Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism.” (Hurst and Company, London, 2012). The book is a well-documented account of the country’s political history since the fall of Communism in 1989. It confirms the bad news which we have been getting lately, namely that Hungary is beginning to exhibit fascist tendencies.

I am a Hungarian expatriate. I have been back to my birth country many times. I have been rooting for Hungary all my life, hoping that it will finally join the ranks of the free, prosperous West. But once again, the country seems to be turning in the wrong direction.

The history of Hungary in the 20th century (and before) has been a nightmare. Its location at the crossroads of warring empires has been a curse. It was trampled by invading Turks, Germans, Russians, Austrians and others. It has swung wildly from fascism to communism, from the role of oppressor to that of oppressed, from revolution and liberation to reaction. It was dismantled, and its size was reduced by two thirds. Miraculously, it survives.

The people of Hungary are exceptionally talented. Their contribution to the world, to the arts and sciences, is enormous compared to their small number - now fewer than 10 million. Many of these contributions are by expatriates.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union kicked Nazi Germany and Hungary’s fascist regime out of the country, occupied it, and imposed Communism. In 1956, the Hungarians rebelled against the Soviet occupation, but they were put down brutally. Thousands died and a quarter million of us fled.

There followed three and a half decades of what many consider a more “benign” dictatorship under Janos Kadar, who was basically a Russian puppet. Finally, in 1989, as the entire Soviet system collapsed, Hungary achieved true independence and the promise of Western-style freedom and prosperity. This was a new dawn, after 75 years of war and oppression. There was hope that within two decades the country would resemble its happy and prosperous neighbor, Austria, and emulate East Germany’s re-integration into Germany.

Lendvai’s excellent book documents what happened instead: At first, the fledgling new democracy elected a respectable center-right coalition government, including President Arpad Goncz, a good friend of mine. By 1994, the socialists came back to power, under the leadership of Premier Gyula Horn. Although this was essentially the post-Communist party, it should not be seen as a return to Left wing totalitarianism. The socialists were morphing into a decent Western European-style social democratic party. Meanwhile, a small right-of-center party had been formed in 1989, called the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz). Its dominant figure was Viktor Orban. By 1994, Fidesz was in the parliament, although still as a small minority. A similarly small but more sinister group in parliament was the extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic Hungarian Justice and Life Party, under the leadership of Istvan Csurka. By 1998, only four years later, Fidesz had grown sevenfold! It was able to take over the government through a right-wing coalition.

The seesaw continued. The 2002 elections resulted in a center-left victory. The socialists were once again able to form a coalition government led by, among others, the flamboyant Ferenc Gyurcsany. He remained prime minister until 2010.

During Hungary’s first two decades of true democracy, both good and bad things happened: The good things included democracy, freedom, European Community membership, and a turn to the West. The bad things included a growing debt, income polarization and economic decline.

In 2010, the increasingly unhappy Hungarians turned massively to the right. This is what people tend to do under such circumstances, as they become increasingly frustrated, resentful xenophobic and scapegoating. That year, Fidesz and Viktor Orban took over once again, this time with a vengeance.

In and of itself, Fidesz may not be more malignant than the US Republican Party. But Hungarians are also voting massively for even more extreme positions: To the right of Fidesz there is the Jobbik Party - The Movement for a Better Hungary. In 2010, this group garnered 15% of the vote. It is virulently anti-gypsy and anti-Semitic. It is xenophobic, nationalistic and irridentist: It advocates regaining control over the “lost” territories and the five million ethnic Hungarians who now live in such adjacent countries as Rumania and Slovakia. It holds militaristic marches by uniformed youth, reminiscent of Hitler’s brown shirts and Hungary’s Arrow Cross. It terrorizes gypsies, some of whom have been murdered.

Fidesz keeps its distance from Jobbik, but it also treats it with velvet gloves. The ruling right-wing party is building an authoritarian state. It has stacked the media and the courts with its own yes-men. Censorship and the punishment of dissent are on the rise. The trend is reminiscent of other increasingly authoritarian countries in the vicinity, including Belarus and Putin’s Russia. To paraphrase Evita: “Don’t cry for me, Hungary.” (see also: Politics of Hungary)   leave comment here