Hungary after Communism

The only forces tapping into Hungarian discontent are on the Right.

Photo by James Tesol

Everything in Budapest seems to be under construction. Exiting the central train station upon arriving in the city, I had to pick my way through a jumbled mass of heavy machinery and mangled concrete — the legacy of a subway line that’s been under construction since 2009. On the eastern side of the Danube River, tourists stepped around stooped construction workers to access the numerous posh shops on streets being repaved. The Hungarian Parliament building, with its regimented forest of spiky spires, is fenced off and inapproachable from the east due to a massive renovation project — an effective screen against the protest rallies that regularly attend the square.

The renewal of the city’s prominent sections is likely due to the approaching 2014 elections, which will be the first since the conservative Fidesz party won 262 of 386 seats in the parliament. The party’s leader, Viktor Orbán, is the most memorable of the former Communist regime’s opponents, described at the time of its 1989 overthrow by historian Timothy Garton Ash as the “fiery, black-bearded” activist who was the only speaker at dissident leader Imre Nagy’s reburial to inspire a heated response from the restive crowd. “Of all the leaders of the post-Communist era, he’s the only one they’ll build a statue of,” as one journalist told me.

But since the heady days of 1989, Orbán has shifted ever rightward. Now, his party appears destined for another electoral victory. The establishment center-left parties have little legitimacy or energy to challenge him, their thinning ranks comprised of aging party loyalists and neoliberal technocrats. And the only force that seems willing to tap into Hungary’s mass discontent is the fascist Jobbik Party, one of the strongest far-right formations in Europe.

Authoritarianism, Revisited

The parliamentary super-majority Fidesz won in 2010 was so large that the party could rewrite the Constitution at will with no consultation from other political parties. In 2011, they did exactly that, drafting it from scratch with provisions that threatened the independence of the media, the judiciary, the Central Bank, and emphasizing Hungary’s Christian identity. (The new document enshrines the idea that life begins at conception and that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.) Calls for a popular referendum on the new constitution were spurned, and the heads of prominent cultural institutions in Budapest were replaced with party loyalists.

Fidesz’s reforms targeting social-democratic institutions have attracted less attention. Free higher education has been ended and tuition is now required. The progressive income tax has been replaced with a flat tax of 16 percent, an issue the party did not even campaign on. The government is trying to make up the lost revenues with a bastardized version of the Tobin tax which targets not only high finance but mundane transactions such as paying utility bills or using a credit card.

A substantial value added tax of 27.5 percent has been levied on many basic items. New labor laws have dramatically weakened workers’ rights, making it easier to fire sick or outspoken employees, limiting legal protection to a specific number of unionists in a workplace, and eliminating collective bargaining for employees of state-owned companies.

The Left Turns to Neoliberalism

Orbán’s strongman act has brought him international censure. Less examined, however, is the paucity of opposition movements in the country and the lack of an effective progressive alternative.

Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Economist have trumpeted the maneuvers of the principal center-left parties: the primly moderate Together 2014, and the centrist Socialists of MSZP, which ruled from 2002–10 in coalition with the now-defunct liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats. Fidesz’s total victory in 2010 was due to the corruption, policy failures, and sheer incompetence of MSZP. Their leadership is largely comprised of leftovers from the old Communist Party ruling class who have renewed their oligarchic tendencies but now govern as neoliberals, with marching orders from Washington and Brussels instead of Moscow.

After the 2006 elections, MSZP privatized the forty-year-old universal health care system under a scheme that created a two-tier structure with a base of public care and private insurers for those who could afford them. The plan closed many publicly-owned hospitals. There are real problems in Hungary’s healthcare system, including excessive prescription of pharmaceuticals, underpaid and therefore bribe-prone doctors, and terrible medical outcomes. But the MSZP’s efforts did not result in significant cost savings: “much of the decline [in health care spending] stems from the ministry’s success in promoting cheaper generic alternatives to brand-name drugs,” in the words of a pro-privatization think tank.

The Socialists were dismantling Hungary’s social-democratic institutions, and Orban saw a political opening. He led the fight against MSZP’s privatization efforts and managed to force the policies on to a national referendum, where they went down in 2008 by a vote of 80 percent. The defeat of healthcare reform was a taste of things to come: in 2010, MSZP lost 131 seats in the legislature, and their liberal allies were driven from the parliament entirely for the first time since the fall of Communism. Ever since, polls have consistently shown them with substantially less than half the support of Fidesz, and a recent survey by age shows that their base is only likely to shrink. Fidesz is far ahead of all its competitors in every age category; MSZP only gets better than 20 percent support from those over forty-seven, and comes close to the conservatives’ numbers solely among those seventy-three and older.

Other factors make leftist revitalization unlikely. Overall union density in Hungary has declined from 19.7 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2009. Most of the Hungarian labor movement is comprised of unions that were former members of the SZOT, the toothless government-sanctioned federation of the Communist era. The second largest union federation, the private sector-based MSZOSZ, has remained affiliated with MSZP but not with other progressive groups.

The labor movement as a whole appears moribund, with a noticeable lack of new organizing efforts and an aging membership, the majority of whom are between forty and fifty-four. In May 2013, three of the union federations including MSZOSZ and the largest grouping, the public sector-focused SZEF, announced plans to unite into one super federation in an attempt to present a united front to Fidesz. (Orban has been using divide-and-conquer tactics in its negotiations with the movement’s factions.) But unless the new mega-organization results in new organizing, it seems unlikely the effort will result in the turnaround needed.

Although labor can be roused to action — the nurses unions fought MSZP’s attempt to privatize the health care system, and much of the movement fought a rearguard action against Fidesz’s anti-worker reforms — leaders seem largely uninterested in alliances with community groups. Activists who have attempted to join picket lines or coordinate solidarity actions report being met with bafflement. Meanwhile, NGOs have a strong presence in Budapest, including an array of groups that proclaim their protection of Roma rights, but they have no mass base, no capacity to mobilize people, and no ability to influence governance. The nonprofits do not have the power to force change or to motivate prominent political actors, while the unions do not have the wherewithal to look beyond their own memberships.

Barbarians at the Gates

The third largest party in Hungary is Jobbik, a fascistic formation with an antisemitic and anti-Roma racial ideology and a banned paramilitary wing, the Magyar Garda, with whom they act in concert. This group is most infamous for a vicious occupation of Gyöngyöspata, a small impoverished town that, like many Hungarian villages, is the site of tensions between the substantial Roma minority, relegated to shabby schools and sub-standard housing on the outskirts of town, and ethnic Hungarians.

Claiming that the town was wracked by “gypsy crimes,” far-right militias affiliated with Jobbik marched through the town with axes and then carried out “neighborhood watch patrols” for two months, purely intended to terrorize the Roma. Although the government has supposedly taken a stand against such displays, the party still holds torch-lit marches, replete with creepy uniforms and racist sloganeering, and uniformed militia members openly drilled in front of the World Jewish Congress’s recent convention in Budapest. Their political legitimacy is unchallenged — in sharp contrast to their counterparts in Greece’s Golden Dawn party, which is being suppressed by the government and confronted in the streets by organized leftists.

Rural populations in economically-depressed eastern Hungary, where much of the nation’s Roma population live, are a predictable base for an extreme right-wing party. But the fascists’ support among young people speaks to the lack of real alternatives to the establishment parties. Jobbik polls better than MSZP among every age group under forty-seven, with strongest support among eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds. With its loyal base of geriatric pensioners, the Socialist Party holds little appeal for the youth. No other progressive group has managed to organize to fill the void, leaving the parties of the right to attract those dissatisfied with the status quo. Hungary’s bumpy integration with the European Union and the shock of the Great Recession both took place under left-of-center leadership; only Fidesz and Jobbik have gathered strength from the backlash, aided by on-the-ground organizing efforts.

Jobbik offers university scholarships, an especially popular tactic given the recent institution of tuition. As it built momentum in the mid 2000s, the fascists hosted concerts, parties, and other events that had little explicit political content but built their popularity among younger Hungarians. Today, all major political parties have a presence at public markets, usually a stall with party literature and a smiling representative. But Jobbik did it first, years before the others. It has also developed its own ground game, with door-to-door election canvassing. The payoff of this strategy, of actually organizing at the grassroots, can be seen in their ascendant poll numbers.

The Path From Here

There is no Hungarian equivalent of Germany’s Die Linke or Greece’s Syriza, which offer progressive alternatives to staid, longstanding center-left parties. The three major center-left Hungarian parties energetically jostle with each other, but there is little public interest in their ideological distinctions. All of them merely seem to be running on an anti-Orban platform, while his party continues to poll far stronger than any of them.

There could be room for a new left party to emerge, but the only such effort on the horizon is the Fourth Republic Movement (4K!), a social-democratic party on the ballot for the first time in 2014. They claim 400 members, mostly in their 20s and 30s — thin ranks, but party membership isn’t a reliable indicator of voting strength in Hungary.

4K!’s downtown headquarters looks like a small, sparsely-furnished startup firm. Located in a warren of offices that includes an investigative journalism outfit, a theater, and a coffee house in an old warehouse, a few men and women were joking over their screens on the day I visited, sitting among boxes of stickers and posters sporting the image of György Dózsa, a peasant leader from the 1400s who led a crusade against the local nobility. 4K!’s president, András Istvánffy, is a young, puckish guy with near-perfect English who can excitably talk politics and macroeconomics without lecturing.

4K! stands little chance of breaching the 5 percent threshold needed to win representation in parliament in 2014, but Istvánffy doesn’t seem particularly worried by that fact. They are a young party, founded in the last couple years after a long struggle to get on the ballot. This election will be their first and they believe they have a chance  of getting on the board — if the party wins even 1 percent of the vote, they will become eligible for state campaign funding.

4K! hopes to appeal to both young people and those weary of the establishment center-left but uninterested in Jobbik or Orban. The party’s name refers to Orban’s new constitution, which they claim put an end to the third republic that was formed after the collapse of Communism. They want a return to the democratic norms of the post-1989 years but with a far stronger social contract.

“The third republic only fulfilled [a] few of its original promises. . . [creating] a stable multi-party system, the rule of law, and guaranteed basic freedoms for everyone,” 4K!’s party platform reads. “The country lost the civilized minimum that had been reached under socialism: namely, that society would not leave any of its members completely behind. Moreover, the third republic almost completely abandoned Roma people.”

Few Hungarians remember the Communist era fondly. But as the 4K! platform hints, there are many who do miss some of the economic security of the system. In those days, the state provided jobs for almost everyone, including Roma — who now face violence from Jobbik and an unemployment rate six times worse than the nation’s average of over 10 percent. The Communist state outlawed homelessness. But because nearly everyone had a job, even the poorest could at least afford the price of a room in the enormous institutions known as munkásszálló, hostels where single people could stay.

Today, Fidesz has also outlawed homelessness (a law the constitutional court struck down, then Orban simply changed the constitution to accommodate it), but the new Hungary provides no additional social programs to accommodate those in need. Budapest’s subway stations and doorways are full of figures burrowed inside sleeping bags — a shocking sight to those who remember the Communist era, when no one slept on the street. Homelessness is the most visible of the social ills haunting Hungary, and like rampant joblessness and the troubled healthcare system, it cannot be blamed solely on Orban: the Socialists and other post-1989 elites share some of the responsibility.

The overwhelming opposition to MSZP’s healthcare privatization scheme, and that party’s eroding base, suggest that there could soon be room on the Hungarian political spectrum for a party willing to lift the social-democratic banner. Until then, the options remain neoliberal, fascist, or Orban. Given those unpalatable options, Fidesz doesn’t need to constantly reconstruct Budapest to remind everyone that they are the only game in town.