25 May 2018

Post-Election Reflections

"Whatever the merits of the OSCE’s arguments, however, they too were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Fidesz victory which entrenched the post- 2010 political culture in Hungarian society for the (politically foreseeable) future."


On the warm and sunny Saturday evening after the recent Hungarian election, I was crossing the square in front of Parliament on my return from a trip to our local grocery when I ran into a large political demonstration. I do not think it was quite as large as the 100,000 participants that the media later guessed, but it was undoubtedly large. It was also a lively occasion with a high-spirited crowd that included family groups, music, and a great deal of flag-waving. Eventually there were political speeches too when the main body of demonstrators who had originally assembled at the Opera House a walk of about 20 minutes from Parliament – marched in sections into the square to cheers from those already assembled who were milling about chatting and hailing friends. There were police present also – they regularly shepherd demonstrators through Budapest – but not in intimidating numbers, and they seemed to be on easy terms with the crowd. Though technically a political protest, the event had the atmosphere of a British bank holiday or an old-fashioned American carnival. It had flags galore, Hungarian flags as well as EU ones and even Árpád flags because, as I discovered, those invited to attend included Jobbik supporters as well as the Left opposition.

As a stereotypical bourgeois, bringing home wine for his wife’s dinner party, I had wandered uncomprehendingly into the latest cunning twist of History – the Left- wing protest of an election landslide for the Right (or, to broaden the analysis, by the elites against “populism”). It has been happening quite a lot lately – in the US over Trump, in Britain over Brexit, etc., etc. It used to be the case that an election determined which party or parties would govern a country for a constitutionally prescribed period. Today, however, when the fat lady has sung, a battle often breaks out about whether the election result was properly decided and so whether the government is a legitimate one.

Given the fierceness of partisanship in Hungary there was always the possibility of a similar dispute breaking out in Budapest following parliamentary elections on 8 April. Indeed, Gábor Horváth hinted at various signs of an election-rigging scandal in an interview with the Weekly Standard in Washington. These might have become the standard Left critique of the landslide if he had not added the final crucial qualification that “it would take an extraordinary level of manipulation and secrecy to commit a fraud with such overwhelming results”. As Hugh Hewitt, the US commentator likes to say: “If we win big enough, they can’t cheat.” And the corollary holds: “If we win big enough, we don’t need to cheat – nor to worry about their cheating.”

Largely because of the power of these numbers, criticism in the national and international media switched from the election process itself to the campaign. Here the most authoritative criticism came in the preliminary report of the OSCE election monitors (invited to observe by the Hungarian government, incidentally) which can be read here: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/hungary/377410?download=true.

Their report is well worth reading: thorough and professional (though it may tell you more about elections than you want to know), it distinguishes between the election (professional and transparent) and the campaign (limited space for substantive debate). But it comes with its own biases firmly attached. As I argued in the journal Quadrant, it smuggles in liberal policies camouflaged as pre-requisites for fairness: thus there are no legal requirements to promote gender equality in the electoral context (though it admits 30 per cent of the candidates are women and does not discuss how the voters might be able to deliberately elect a cross-section of the population to Parliament). It is innocently remote from how real political battle is waged: media coverage of the campaign was extensive, yet highly polarised and lacking critical analysis. And even when it has a strong point, as in its criticism of the overlap between state and party spending, it fails to recognise that this fault is pervasive outside Hungary as well as in this campaign: thus the UK government spent about 15 million dollars to oppose Brexit in the referendum without exciting condemnation from the OSCE or any other international body, largely because they too opposed Brexit.

It is sometimes said that a liberal is someone who refuses to take his own side in a fight. The OSCE report, despite its virtues, suggests that this might be because liberals have discovered it is far more advantageous to be the referee.

Whatever the merits of the OSCE’s arguments, however, they too were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Fidesz victory which entrenched the post- 2010 political culture in Hungarian society for the (politically foreseeable) future. Prior to the election, citing the authority of the late György Granasztói, I suggested that resistance to Hungary’s new political and national orientation arose more from international organisations and foreign governments than from the voters. Moreover, this resistance focused less on the policy itself than on Mr Orbán’s justification for it – namely, that Hungary is reasonably entitled to protect its national character as a European and Christian society against mass immigration – since that justification ran counter to the prevailing EU orthodoxy that Europe’s future should be one rooted in post-nationalism, multiculturalism and official secularism. All this was known, even notorious, before 8 April. If the Fidesz programme had been one of a minority, it would surely have been defeated. But it prevailed – and did so by an unprecedented hat-trick of landslides.

These insights are confirmed and fortified by the two articles on the election result by Gáspár Gróh and András Lánczi in this issue. Professor Lánczi sees it as an internationally significant wave in a sea-change that is now transforming the broad Western consensus on how we should be governed. Liberal democracy as it is currently interpreted by global elites is both splintering between radical progressives and disheartened centrists and running up against popular resistance which generates its own intellectual alternative courses.

 

Anyone who is not committed or enchanted by the latest liberal ideas concerning gender or radical egalitarianism, will be reduced to refurbishing ideas of the discarded past, especially the natural right or natural law theories, and traditions which are seen on the Left as obsolete or untenable. But they are neither obsolete, nor untenable… Epoch-making changes are underway in political thought. The political symbol of Orbán’s political world is the new constitution enacted in 2011. It is based on regained national pride, a re-interpretation of Hungarian history, and a complete system of democratic institutional arrangements based on classical liberalism, while rejecting the goals of modern radical liberalism.

 

All of this predicts a major philosophical and political conflict across the developed world outside Hungary as well as within it. Global elites and local progressives have a great deal to lose morally as well as practically in it. Also, their attachment to their underlying ideals of equality and cosmopolitanism cannot be doubted. Nor the destructive consequences of those ideals. Anthony Daniels’s essay on the thought of P. T. Bauer, the distinguished Anglo-Hungarian economist who deserves to be better known in his native land, points to the impact of making equality an aim of post-war development economics”:

 

Over and over again, Peter stressed the differing qualities, aptitudes and desires of people both as individuals and as groups. There was no possible way, short of extreme force, in which outcomes between different groups of people can be equalised or smoothed out… This has been so throughout history and will remain so, short of genocide. Superficial or demagogic egalitarian objections to spontaneously-generated differences have brought us such delights as Nazism, the slaughter of Chinese in Indonesia, and the expulsion of Asians from East Arica.

 

Nor do such perils lie entirely in the past and recent past. In his visionary article on the looming Techtopia, David Martin Jones foresees the potential misuse of social media and information technology and in particular the political and semi-mystical theories starting to be developed upon them – to create a “brave new world that has such (non) people in it”. This world would be still more stifling and oligarchic, he speculates ominously, than our own:

 

Somewhat differently, across the splinternet, we can identify in Silicon Valley utopianism the lineaments of a new techno-guardian class building transnational processes and networks and an evolving theory of political and social organisation framed around Pareto’s 20/80 rule and Gaetano Mosca’s elite theory. The recent eruption of populism against this trend, signified by Trump, Brexit and the victories of PiS in Poland and Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary, might only be a temporary blip, susceptible ultimately to long-term data management and big nudging.

 

It has not yet come to pass, however. The resistance exemplified by Trump, Brexit, et al might slowly prevail. For in this issue there are green shoots not only of such resistance but also of what might be called Restoration: the return of Hungarian aristocrats to help restore their old estates in Transylvania three generations after their brutal expropriation and expulsion as recounted by Gergely Szilvay; and the argument by Nicholas T. Parsons, in his review of that enabling the countries of Central Europe to develop politically and economically in accordance with their own customs and traditions – what he thinks of as the Habsburg Option – would have better results than forcing all of them to adapt their quite different societies to the same Euro-style approach of centrally planning a free market.

None of these have any direct connection with the Fidesz landslide. But they share the same desire to restore the better memories of their own past while resisting the imposition of other people’s dreams of the future. Not all of Hungary voted for the victors, let alone passionately desired their election and the fulfilment of their programme. In his article that otherwise stressed the legitimate power the vote had conferred on the new government, Gáspár Gróh drew a cautionary lesson for Fidesz and the Prime Minister:

 

The voter turnout of some 70 per cent suggests that the government enjoys the active support of about one third of Hungarian society. This shows that humility would not be out of line. In order to secure the survival of the nation and accomplish the momentous tasks it faces, we need even broader cooperation. Indeed, the most complex and most daunting task of the new-old administration lies in figuring out how to convert its overwhelming parliamentary majority into winning the support of society on a similar scale.

 

As I wandered through the relaxed crowd in front of Parliament on post-election Saturday, I ran into another conservative – a contributor to this Review who like me was touring an exhibition of rival ideas and loyalties for fun and enlightenment. We chatted; others joined us; there was good-natured back-and-forth between us all. It was all quite unlike the fiery speeches from the platform. Some of my new leftist friends denounced their own leaders as more responsible than Fidesz for the latter’s landslide. As for my old conservative friend, he pointed out that Fidesz had done badly in Budapest even in its local strongholds where middle- class supporters of the old MDF predominated. Its victory had been achieved, he thought, without much support from conservative intellectuals, many of whom had abstained or voted for doomed minor-but-harmless parties. That does not matter overmuch if you win the countryside wholesale. But the sun will not always be shining.

That day’s demonstration was advertised as the first of several protests to get the election annulled and a new election called. A second demo one week later attracted a smaller but still impressive crowd. The third on the day of Parliament’s swearing in was ragged and scattered. Opposition politicians have generally backed away from challenging the election result and started demanding their own parties look critically at themselves and why they lost.

And the national mood is changing. Budapest, restored, has never looked more beautiful. The economy is humming along. And the sun is shining.

But that is the time to mend the roof. And perhaps re-decorate the guest room?




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