Is Hungary a dictatorship? Political scientist Laszlo Keri says not yet, but give it time.

April 15, 2014


Laszlo Keri (pictured here in a recent appearance on ATV) is one of Hungary’s leading political scientsts and, according to Budapest Beacon senior reporter Benjamin Novak, a great person to talk Hungarian politics with over wine spritzers.

Hungary has an autocratic parliamentary democracy where the government has removed itself from the jurisdictions and mechanisms of democratic control.

The system of checks and balances has been destroyed by Fidesz, and Fidesz wants to force its majority rule on everything. If this continues it inevitably leads to a dictatorship.

Fidesz has become accustomed to doing whatever it wants. If it wants something, it will just push it through parliament within 24 hours. This is unhealthy and horridly bad for Hungarian democracy.

Fidesz has spent the past four years testing–rather successfully–whether it can destroy traditional democracy. It has tested whether it can accomplish instituting a long-term anti-democratic system in its place to act as a precursor to an actual dictatorship. I look at the entire process and what I’m seeing is that there has been a shifting away from the traditional checks and balances of democracy towards the direction of a majority dictatorship. But the majority dictatorship has not yet become fully institutionalized. If Fidesz gets another four years, we might just see its full institutionalization.

The majority of Hungary’s population has not the slightest clue that there are certain structurally implemented rules that are heavily biased in favor of one group.

A lot can be said about the maturity of Hungarian society if, after all that has happened over the last four years, Fidesz wins Sunday’s election. It will show that a significant part of the Hungarian population is highly susceptible to the kind of demagoguery that allows for this continuous and limitless retardation.

Fidesz is not the future. They are a failure, even if they win the election. They showed that they were incapable of accomplishing anything in the last four years: not in public administration, not in healthcare, not in education. Corruption has risen now to previously unseen heights despite their 2010 campaign’s biggest promise to rid the country of corruption. Fidesz, unfortunately, had done the absolute worst with their historical opportunity in 2010. The two-thirds majority gave them a fantastic opportunity and they blew it. Over the past four years, Fidesz has shown everyone the worst possible way to use a two-thirds majority.

                                                        – Laszlo Keri, political scientist

Budapest Beacon senior reporter Benjamin Novak conducted the following extraordinary interview with leading Hungarian political scientist Laszlo Keri a few days before the 6 April general election.

What has happened in your life since 2010?

I left the Hungarian Academy of Sciences the first week of May 2010. After the 2010 elections the Academy’s new director, a well known senior advisor to Fidesz, called eight of us to his office one-by-one and told us our time is up. He gave us one or three months to get out.

Interestingly, this decision seemed to affect those who happened to be more left-leaning, such as Erzsebet Szallai, Bela Galo, and Gyorgy Szoboszlai.

I’ve heard some interesting things about the new director. This story doesn’t surprise me.

Yes, we’re talking about the same guy. I didn’t like him too much to begin with. He struck me as a pompous idiot back when we had taught together earlier in our careers. He knew that I didn’t like him, but I didn’t know he would end up coming over to the Academy of Sciences and become my boss. I had been at the academy for 27 years, and he had only been there for two months. So it was quite an experience to go through.

It wasn’t simply that I was no longer a member of the research institute, it was a lifestyle. I loved being able to read the handwritten drafts of my colleagues’ work which would only be published years later. We would have weekly discussions and debates, and that group I was part of had people like Peter Tolgyesy, Gyorgy Szoboszlai, Peter Szigeti – who was the President of the National Election Committee. I shared an office with (future Chancellor of the Prime Minister’s office Istvan) Stumpf. The intellectual environment was phenomenal. You could take part twice a week in the professional discussions or debates. That is where the Political Science Review was written, and you would be asked to contribute to various publications. When a study is published and made available to the public, I had likely become familiar with its content two years earlier when it was still being debated by our colleagues in its handwritten phase. It wasn’t simply that the academy was the place for research–it was the place where you could be the first to have access to most advanced information and ideas.

When you are suddenly kicked out of an environment like this after 27 years, it’s like being thrown out into the street. So, it would have followed that after being kicked out of the Academy that I should have also been dropped from appearing in any media.

Tell me about your personal background, how did you get involved in this?

I was incredibly lucky. I was in law school here in Budapest between 1970 and 1975. During my freshman year I received an appointment to the position of demonstrátor, a position usually given to those students who maintain strong relationships with the faculty but are also recognized for organizing students. I was appointed to this position in the department that would later become the first Hungarian political workshop, the Faculty of Government, Legal Theory, and Sociology. At 19 years old I was pulled into a department that had just started teaching political sociology and the political science of government.

Try to imagine that back then, in that world, this department had been receiving publications like the American Political Science Review since it was first published in 1907, and continued to receive it even during the 1950s! We would also receive publications like the Midwest Political Journal, the German Politische Vierteljahresschrift, Revue Francaise de Science Politique, and British political journals such as Government and Opposition, and Political Quarterly–practically all the essential academic publications in our field from around the world! And I was entrusted with organizing these journals in our faculty’s library! Back then, our department’s library went back a century. The foundations of our library were laid by people like Bogod Somlo and Gyula Mor who added to it between the two wars. It was incredible! Our department’s materials had been preserved and survived all the turmoil of the years. It even had material dating back to Oszkar Jasz. And as a student I was entrusted with looking after the library!

I stayed at the department after graduating, and immediately started teaching students only a year younger than myself. Our department became the first in Hungary to start teaching political science.

That faculty included people like Mihaly Bihari, a young instructor who actually invited me there and who later fought successfully for the creation of the Hungarian Political Science Society. Our department chairman Kalman Kulcsar, who later became the director of the Institute of Sociology, went on to serve as the Minister of Justice after the fall of communism, and eventually served as Hungary’s ambassador to Canada.

My friend Istvan Kukorelly and I were the notaries for the incorporation of the Hungarian Political Science Society back when it was founded in 1981. Istvan is now Constitutional Law faculty chairman, but he had also been the dean of the law school and served as a Justice of the Constitutional Court for nine years. He’s very well known in his field. The two of us were the youngest members of the Hungarian Political Science Society when it was founded.

I was born into what was the blossoming field of Hungarian political science.

From 1977-78 our faculty was the first to start teaching political sociology. Our access to publications like those I mentioned earlier was phenomenal. I would look over the book review column of these journals and I would see what books were being released! I could actually order the most current Western political sociology textbooks to our department – books authored by our field’s leading thinkers, people like Richard G. Braungart, George Kourvetaris, Michael Rush and Phillip Althoff.

Looking back, we were able to teach political sociology and its related topics in a manner comparable to that of a university in Turin, Sydney, or an American university.

First of all, as a young man I had no idea that I was in the place where the new Hungarian understanding of political science was being born. Secondly, our field of study was so isolated and cut-off from everyone else that we were afforded a tremendous amount of freedom compared to other disciplines. We weren’t told that we couldn’t teach what we wanted to teach. Thirdly, we were involved in raising a new generation.

My first pupil was Istvan Stumpf who would later go on to become Chancellor of the Prime Minister’s Office during the first Orban government. My later pupils included Hungary’s president Janos Ader, Speaker of the National Assembly Laszlo Kover, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Our faculty became the fermenting pot for a new generation of political thinkers, and I was able to found the dormitory where these pupils lived.

I spent 15 years working at the law school teaching sociology and political science. But aside from my legal education I had received degrees in philosophy and sociology. When I left the law school to work for the Institute of Political Science, formerly known as the Institute of Social Studies, I had received a position to independently research the field of political sociology. It was there that I organized the first group of Hungarian political sociologists. During the 1980s this group produced the eight volumes of political sociology, which were the first works in Hungarian on the subject. We had accumulated a tremendous amount of empirical research.

From 1982 to 2006 hardly a year passed when I did not participate in some kind of empirical research study. Among Hungary’s political sociologists, I was one of the very few people whose lectures and books were backed by years of empirical research in the field, which was not the case for the majority of those in our field.

That’s pretty much it about my background: from the university I went to the institute, and I remained at the institute until 2010.

A lot of people hear the term ‘Political Science’ and think it means politics, as in everyday politics. But it’s not. Is it science like botany? Or an art? Or a professional craft? What is it?

Political science is a branch of social studies that is concerned with using internationally established standards for gathering empirical evidence to understand and follow political developments.

There are fundamental rules that govern the workings of politics, just like there are fundamental rules governing how these poplar trees grow. These trees have certain biological traits that are the same which is why they are all poplar trees.  Similarly, the most basic types of political systems, such as a democracy, dictatorship, or any other political system, each have distinctly unique traits that define their structure, how they operate, how decisions are made, and so on. But unlike the poplar tree, a political system directly affects all those who are subject to it.

For this reason, I think that political science as a branch of social studies is in very serious danger because to think scientifically means to think objectively, without bias, and in a way that takes into account as many components as possible, but also to acknowledge that everyone has an understanding of this field. Everyone has an opinion. People have opinions even when they lack knowledge, or in slightly better cases their knowledge comes from the media. If someone is a good citizen they might even read the news.

But the current situation in Hungary is worse than this because they lack knowledge of the media, which therefore means that their opinions are formed by what they hear from others, or their own displaced emotions. In such cases, people form very firm and unrelenting opinions.

So, it is a branch of social studies that is in quite a bit of danger. People often argue about the nature of politics because people frequently and mistakenly equate the political scientist with the politician. This mistake is often made in the media as well.  They call me a politician and then realize that I am a political scientist but still have no idea how the two differ from one other. I usually use the example of the doctor and the patient. Just because a doctor’s occupation involves working with a sick person, it doesn’t necessarily imply that the doctor wants to be a sick person. Similarly, a political scientist’s work is concerned with politics, and it doesn’t mean the political scientist wants to become a politician. In fact, in many cases the political scientist wants nothing to do with getting involved in politics.

Due to this lack of understanding many people do not believe this. Unfortunately, the activities of many of my colleagues haven’t made this situation any better. There is no justice being done for the respectability of political science when a political scientist becomes involved in speaking on behalf of a political party.

I can understand why a professional political scientist would be concerned about a so-called political scientist using the legitimacy of his profession as a science to provide validation for a certain political ideology – blurring the lines between the two makes it easy for someone to disguise political prejudice with objective professionalism.

Yes, exactly.

Let’s talk about politics in Hungary. There have been significant changes to Hungary’s electoral system, including the redrawing of electoral constituencies. How will the redrawing of ALL of Hungary’s electoral districts affect the electoral system?

Originally, there were 176 electoral constituencies, or districts, in the Hungarian electoral system. The redrawing of the electoral districts resulted in the enlarging or combining of the previous districts. Today, in this new system, we have 106 electoral constituencies.

In the previous system Hungary had 386 seats in parliament. Today, in the new system, there are only 199 seats in parliament – almost half of the previous amount of seats.

There are mainly two types of election systems used around the world: the simple majority system, and the proportional system. Hungary uses a combination of both, which is perhaps why many people around the world have said the Hungarian election system ranks as one of the most confusing.

No one has an understanding of Hungary’s new election system. The 106 election constituencies, or districts, are completely new. Very few people actually have an idea about the political characteristics of  these 106 completely new electoral districts. Of the two or three of my colleagues who have actually studied the political characteristics of Hungary’s previous electoral districts and have compared the data to the new electoral districts, they say the redrawing of the electoral districts is heavily biased in favor of Fidesz.

So they gerrymandered.

Yes, there’s absolutely no doubt that the redrawing of ALL of Hungary’s electoral districts is a clear case of gerrymandering.

What evidence led your colleagues to this conclusion?

To put it simply, they researched the data regarding the characteristics and voting habits of the previous 176 electoral districts for Hungary’s six previous elections and compared this data within the framework of the new electoral districts.

To illustrate, let’s use the example of where we’re sitting right now. Imagine that all these empty tables around us represent small electoral districts, and the people sitting at each table have demonstrated patterns for voting in a certain way. What Fidesz did is they pushed together, separated, and combined the tables in a way that took a set of combined tables that formerly favored the left-wing and split it up, combining one or both sections with a newer set of two larger, predominantly right-wing tables.

So your colleagues have used mathematics to criticize the newly redrawn electoral districts based on the history of voting patterns within a specific geographical boundary.

Yes, that’s it. Very few people have an understanding of this. In Hungary there are about four or five people who are experts in this, and they have been talking about this ever since Fidesz redrew the electoral districts, but the Hungarian media didn’t care much.

Also, you have to keep in mind that Fidesz used their two-thirds majority in parliament to pass the law creating fewer electoral districts with gerrymandered borders for the whole country. Any criticism was futile against a two-thirds majority in parliament.

But Fidesz made other significant changes to the electoral system as well. . . .

Yes, the entire electoral system has changed. For example, 40 percent of the mandates won in Hungary’s previous electoral system were based on the electoral districts, with the remaining 60 percent based on the parties’ national lists of candidates. The current system is the opposite. The majority of mandates, around 54 percent, will be decided by the electoral districts, with less mandates being decided by the national list.

But there are other details about the new electoral system that very few people are aware of. The previous system had a process to help ensure parliamentary seats for small parties unable to win in any electoral districts whereby the total popular vote cast for such parties was measured in proportion to that cast for the other opposition parties, and its total percentage of the total popular vote would then be used to furnish its national list candidates with seats in parliament. In the new system, all parties may benefit from the compensation rule. For example, even if your party wins the district, the number of its national list candidates increases too. The previous rule was made as a form of compensation to help small parties get into parliament. This new modified version of the rule disproportionally rewards the winning party. Therefore, our previous system’s principle of compensation to help smaller parties – which is also used in many other countries – has been replaced with a rule that provides compensation to the parties that were victorious anyway.

Combined with the gerrymandering, wouldn’t this rule give Fidesz a dramatic advantage?

Yes, yes it would. But these issues were only important to a very small group of experts and their concerns fell upon deaf ears when the issue was being discussed. I think that Hungarian society will only now realize how unfair this new election system really is. The majority of Hungary’s population does not have the slightest clue that there are certain structurally implemented rules that are heavily biased to favor one group, such as the new campaign laws, the shortening of the campaign season, the restriction of commercial television from participating in the campaign… It’s laughable.

Why do you think they did these things?

I think they did these things to deprive the citizens of the opportunity to become informed over the course of the campaign. It’s very interesting that the government can freely campaign in the election in mediums that the parties have to compete to be on, and the government just blankets these mediums.

But the worst is that the National Election Committee is comprised entirely of Fidesz members. This is a nightmare. Previously, the rule was that opposition parties and the ruling-parties were to have equal representation in the election committee because this is the committee that would have to investigate the election-related complaints. Now, this exclusively Fidesz election committee has been given a quasi-judicial authority to decide what complaints it will hear, which means they will only give consideration to the pro-Fidesz complaints.

What I want you to understand about all of this is that there are no huge serious violations of rights. Instead there are lots small ones. Why should the average Hungarian care about who is sitting on the national election committee? The average Hungarian will never have to interact with this organization. Why should the average Hungarian care about what the new campaign laws state, that is the television broadcaster’s problem. Why should the average Hungarian care about how the borders to the electoral districts were drawn when he already knows where he has to go to vote? The kinds of rules that have been changed are the rules that are simply irrelevant to the everyday politics that affect the average Hungarian.

But when you put all these things together you get a situation where Fidesz has to be beaten by 10 percent in order for there to be a situation where the opposition can win.

What do you mean “win”?

If Fidesz has at least 2 million voters, you’re going to need 2,200,000-2,300,000 to be able to be in the position to really clear the hurdles of this system that Fidesz has put in place. You can’t beat Fidesz if you get one more vote than they do. You need many hundreds of thousands more votes to really win a clear victory after the elections.

The new election law also got rid of the second round.

That’s the biggest problem and it is hugely significant. It the two-round election was important in Hungary’s elections because it allowed for the grouping of voters in the second round based on the results of the first round. If it wasn’t for the two-round election system the Hungarian Democratic Forum wouldn’t have been able to win in the first election, Fidesz would never have been able to win in 1998, and MSZP wouldn’t have been able to win in 2002.

The first round of the election clears the table for and separates the competitors into two groups, and the first round can have as many as 8-10 competitors. But after the first round the weakest of the competitors fall out. Two weeks later, the supports of those who fell out get another opportunity to decide which of two remaining groups it wants to support. This was immensely important over the past two decades and it has now been taken away. What we’re left with now is a situation where even before the election is announced parties who are determined to be in parliament must form compulsory partnerships with other parties who don’t even share the same values.

This is one of the main complaints Lajos Bokros has with the new system.

And he’s right to feel that way. But there are other significant problems as well.

They wiped out voter participation rate requirement. Now, a party can win an election with a 40 percent voter turnout. I do not think voter turnout will be that low. It will probably be somewhere in the 60’s – but that will also vary as very significant differences in voter turnout that can be seen in different electoral districts. In the past, if the average voter turnout in western Hungary was 65-70 percent, it would decrease going east and you could see an average of 40 percent in eastern Hungary.

It also occurred in certain Hungarian counties that they had to hold another first round election because voter turnout was not high enough to meet the legally required threshold.

So the required voter turnout threshold was significant because it disciplined the attitude of the citizens. But there’s another problem: If you remove the required voter turnout threshold, you can win a majority in parliament if only 25 percent of eligible voters vote for your party. (In fact, Fidesz ended up winning a two-thirds majority with one quarter of the eligible vote.-ed).

You would only need a fraction of eligible voters to vote for you in order for you to get a majority in parliament.

Let’s count it. 8 million people are eligible to vote in Hungary. The average voter turnout for first round elections is 65 percent, which comes out to 5,200,000 people. But let us say that 4,000,000 people or even less actually vote, Fidesz only needs 2,000,000 of their very loyal voters to cast a vote for Fidesz. In such a case, Fidesz would win the election with four-fifths majority in parliament.

If the voter turnout in this is 55 percent, Fidesz’s 2,000,000 voters can get a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Fidesz would need to start worrying if the voter turnout is above 60 percent, but Fidesz can only lose certainty in victory if voter turnout is at or above 65 percent. Therefore, undecided voters in Hungary’s elections can have significant sway. These undecided voters are those people who only decide who they will vote for on the day of the elections.

These undecided voters drive Viktor Orban crazy. Last year he tried to have a law passed that was a kind of registration law, which would have required voters to take part in a pre-election registration six weeks before the election or else they would not be allowed to vote in the elections. The Constitutional Court invalidated the law for being unconstitutional. Viktor is so afraid of the undecided voter because they were the reason he lost his 2002 election. He was so afraid that he tried to have them constitutionally eliminated. (laughs)

There are a lot of problems with this electoral system. As you mentioned earlier, the replacing of a two-round electoral system with a one-round system is one of those problems. But there are also the bogus changes to rules governing campaigning which made it significantly easier for fake parties to take part in the election. These parties only need to meet the most minimal requirements to take part in the elections, and that’s why there are dozens of parties taking part in the elections that no one even knew existed three months ago. These parties serve only one function: to divide the legitimate opposition parties’ camps. Everyone knows who Fidesz is, but not everyone knows who the opposition is. Imagine, they had no shame in financing parties whose name differed from that of the legitimate opposition camp by a single letter.

Osszefogas would be one such example, but even the legitimate opposition camp has to share in this blame.

Yes. And if there are others too like the Social Democrats, the Workers’ Party, and so on, the voters might mistake these eight or ten parties for actual parties. These parties will receive votes solely because of their names and that is guaranteed to divide the legitimate opposition votes.

The government did not just force the opposition parties into one large camp. They also diverted attention away from who the actual opposition camp is by allowing all these fake parties to take part in the election. I think a large portion of the voting population, at least one-third of voters, has no clue about which party is which. Such voters only know that there is the ruling party and the opposition. When a voter is presented with a long list of parties, they will vote based on this lack of information.

You’ve known Viktor Orban for a long time.

Yes, I’ve known him for quite a long time. I wrote the first book about him. I was on good terms with him for a long time.

Did you teach him?

I taught his wife and (Fidesz MEP) Jozsi Szajer in my last class before I left the university. But I’ve known him pretty well since the autumn of 1982.

Why doesn’t Orban like to debate?

He has not taken part in a debate for a long time. He only likes to preach in front of his own supporters. Orban lost the ability to take part in substantive debate a long time ago. He has lost any idea of what a substantive debate actually is. The last debate he took part in was in 2006 when he debated Gyurcsany – and he suffered a spectacular defeat in that debate. I think that defeat is one of the reasons why he is avoiding a debate. I didn’t find the manner in which Gyurcsany overwhelmed Orban particularly appealing, because no one should ever win such a large victory in politics. Gyurcsany was upset with me because I wrote to him the next day and I said, “Feri, you didn’t need to do that. You never kick a man when he’s down on the ground.” During the debate when Gyurcsany sensed Orban’s weakness and insecurities, Gyurcsany just jumped on it. I told Gyurcsany that it wasn’t good to do that and that one day he would regret it. Feri became very upset with me and responded by sending me various opinion poll results about the debate. I knew how the public interpreted the debate, so the poll results didn’t interest me. I told Feri how I personally felt about it.

But Viktor’s inability to debate didn’t become obvious in Hungary. It became obvious in Strasbourg – twice – when Viktor had to take part in debates in the European Parliament. There was the time last year in late June when he had to debate in the European Parliament in response to the Tavares Report. The other time was  in January 2011 when the European Parliament overwhelmingly rejected Hungary’s media law and a number of European Parliament party factions had demanded to debate the situation in Hungary. In both cases, the Hungarian media shielded the Hungarian population from seeing these debates. But luckily I was abroad during both debates and was able to watch them. What I saw was that Viktor Orban was incapable of debating. If there is a legitimate challenger, legitimate criticism, he will always redirect the debate in another direction. For example, back then he said that he is going to Brussels to protect the Hungarian nation and Hungary’s interests. But everyone in Strasbourg was telling him, “Mr. Orban, we have no intention of hurting the Hungarian people or the Hungarian people, our concerns are specifically with your government’s activities.” Orban didn’t even want to hear this. He always hides behind the Hungarian population.

This is a very interesting observation. One of the things I’ve noticed in Hungary is that there is no free press. To be precise, the most widely accessible media is incredibly biased and non-objective.

That is because the government nationalized it. This was the very first thing they did after winning the 2010 elections. In three waves, June, November and December of 2010, they completely rewrote the rules addressing Hungary’s media: it’s management, ownership structure, financing, and internal professional operation. They created an entirely new media environment. The Media Codex is thicker than our constitution. Think about it, the Media Council is comprised entirely of Fidesz political appointees. These are the people responsible for appointing the management of radio, television, and the Hungarian press wire, and they are all Fidesz appointees. It’s a joke.

As a political scientist, do you think Hungary’s current system can be called a democracy?

There is a lot of debate about this, even amongst my colleagues. I don’t like that some on the liberal side immediately start crying out that Hungary is dictatorship. This is just absurd. A dictatorship is when you and I would no longer be able to have a discussion like this. In a dictatorship there are no coffeehouses and no open public squares where people could openly talk about things like this.

Hungary has an autocratic parliamentary democracy where the government itself has removed itself from the jurisdictions and mechanisms of democratic control. We have a mongrel breed of democracy that is well-known in Eastern European history. But it’s not a dictatorship. I don’t like when some of my colleagues start calling Hungary a dictatorship because in a dictatorship personal freedoms have been compromised. That isn’t the case in Hungary.

What do you mean by “personal freedoms”?

For example, when people have to look around and decide who they can talk to and who they can’t talk to.

Many people believe this is the situation in Hungary.

Yes, but many people exaggerate this, too. I’ve made many presentations around the country and I am very aware that there is a climate of fear in Hungary. This fear has grown because people got used to talking openly about whatever they wanted for that last twenty-some odd years, since 1989. Now people have to consider that what they say can have a negative impact on their child’s employment. But this does not mean that people are being thrown in jail for their opinions. It means that the freedoms people enjoyed earlier are being curtailed. So, this is not a dictatorship. In a dictatorship the state can organize violent groups to influence the economy, culture, and everything else. In Budapest, we have a vibrant alternative theater culture that makes an entertaining mockery of our system every night. Visit the Szkéné, the Pinter Bela Theatre company, the Juranyi theatre – and I can name many more – where every night four or five hundred people are slapping their stomachs in laughter at the Orban government. You are not being told what you have to teach at the universities.

Recently, I have given presentations in big Fidesz cities. I have been invited to Gyor, Szekesfehervar, Sopron – all these so-called right-wing places – and 150-200 people are showing up for my presentations that start at 8 pm and last three hours! If we lived in a dictatorship, these presentations could never be publicized and no one would come to them.

Instead, I would say that compared to our earlier democracy where everyone had freedoms, even the minorities, we’ve arrived at a place where minorities are finding it more difficult to enjoy their freedoms than they did during the previous 20 years. Now, Hungary is a place where the movement of minorities is being restricted. Despite these restrictions, there is still some room to move. MSZP can take part in elections, and other parties can too. Their fooling around is also at fault for their inability to translate Hungarian society’s discontent into a voting majority. It is very strange. There is a schizophrenic situation in Hungary. There are more people who dislike this government than like it. But despite this, Fidesz will win the elections.

Fidesz will not just win because they are trying to turn Hungary into a dictatorship – because this is what’s happening, except they haven’t been able to do away with democracy – but also because the three or four opposition parties have been fooling around and were not able to present a unified political alternative. That is why I dislike it when people on the left and those among the liberals try to call Hungary a dictatorship in order to shift blame away from their own political ineptitude.

I live in the Ujlipotvaros part of Budapest. Everyone is also talking about dictatorships and I always argue with them and tell them, “You don’t have any capable political leaders! This opposition is too inept to fulfill the function of a real opposition. Don’t blame this exclusively on Fidesz! It just so happens that there are a whole lot of things that Fidesz can justly be accused of, but the opposition’s utter inability to bring together the majority of society for the purpose of supporting a legitimate political alternative is not one of them. That’s your problem, not the government’s.”

So, we live in a restricted democracy with institutionalized barriers. Hungary’s government has spent the previous twenty years under the supervision of, and subject to, democratic checks and balances provided by the Constitutional Court, the Hungarian State Audit Office, the media, interest groups,the unions, and local governments. Now, the government has done away with this and has made it impossible for its surrounding institutions to have any insight into the government’s decisions. That’s the biggest problem. The system of checks and balances has been destroyed by Fidesz, and Fidesz wants to force its majority rule on everything. What makes this so outrageous is that if this continues it inevitably leads to a dictatorship.

Here is how I see it. Fidesz has spent the past four years testing–rather successfully–whether it can destroy the traditional democracy. It has tested whether it can accomplish instituting longer-term anti-democratic system in its place which can act as a predecessor to an actual dictatorship. I look at the entire process, and what I’m seeing is that there has been a shifting away from the traditional checks and balances of democracy towards the direction of a majority dictatorship. But the majority dictatorship has not yet become fully institutionalized. If Fidesz gets another four years, we might just see its full institutionalization.

A lot can be said about the maturity of Hungarian society if, after all that has happened over the last four years, Fidesz wins Sunday’s election. It will show that a significant part of the Hungarian population is highly susceptible to the kind of demagoguery that allows for this continuous and limitless retardation.

We haven’t seen this kind of lying and shameless demagoguery since 1989. Viktor Orban and his government will lie the stars down from the sky. They will lie to the people and claim there is economic growth in areas where economic activity has been stagnant for years. For years they have lied about an investment-boom taking place, when in reality investments have been continuously decreasing.

The last time Hungary saw so few homes being built in this country was years before the First World War. We have not built so few homes in the last 100 years.

They boast that they’ve created 250,000 new jobs. It’s laughable because their calculations included those who travel daily to work in Austria, Slovenia, and Slovakia. This government has no shame. They will seek praise for jobs created in other countries!

My wife is an economist. She has shown that employment in the private sector, which is the important thing in economics, has decreased over the past four years. The demagoguery is being forced on everyone with such power that people actually think that just because their own personal situation has not improved in the past four years, surely the situation of others has. If everyone is saying that things are better here, then I am ashamed to say otherwise just because that is not the case for me. The vast majority of Hungarians feel remorse because their uncertainty translates to blaming themselves because all they hear is the endless and forced demagoguery telling them the whole country is doing better. This is what is called “success propaganda”.

I haven’t heard a single well-known foreign economist praise Hungary and say that Hungary’s economy is performing better.

Neither have I. But the vast majority of Hungarians think this is true.

At Fidesz’s election rally on Saturday at Heroes’ Square Viktor Orban also hinted at this when he said, “In the future, when they write about Hungary they will write about this… and they write about that…” He might have said this because no one has written or said anything remotely close to this in the present.

(laughs) I once dedicated an entire day to reviewing the internal organization structure of the Office of the Prime Minister. There are 76 separate divisions within the Office of the Prime Minister. Of this 76, 19 deal exclusively with “communications”. Seven to eight of them deal with international relations. Between 20 and 30 deal with preparing new legislation so that everything has a legal reason, but only one of the seventy-six divisions deals with economic policy. The 19 that deal exclusively with communication do things like newspaper watching, media watching, preparing media for foreign press, preparing media for domestic press.

I know Feri Kumin quite well and we had a very good relationship ten years ago. I taught his wife for eight semesters and his wife is a good friend of mine to this day. But Feri has refused to meet with me ever since he took the position to become the international communications spokesperson for the Fidesz government three years ago. I meet with his wife right here at this table, but Feri never comes.

There was an interesting and funny article that appeared on yesterday that explores the lies Feri Kumin spreads on behalf of Hungary to the international community about what is happening in Hungary.

But nobody believes him. I meet with foreign press and diplomatic representatives often who tell me that they had just spoken with Feri. People see right through it and everyone laughs at his work. But Feri was capable of more. When he was younger I involved him in a number of research projects. At the age of 23-24 he was a diligent and capable boy. But I think he took the job because he was blinded by the prospects of an accelerated career and lots of money. If he would have stayed where he was before, it would have taken ten years and lots of hard work before prevailing in his field. He was offered all those rewards immediately with the Fidesz government. They made him a State Secretary after one year, gave him subordinates, and he was given the authority to decide how his department would use the millions that had been budgeted.

But there are many like Feri. Similarly, Andras Giro-Szasz was also a student of mine that I had a good relationship with. Now he’s the government spokesperson. I see this complete change in him as well. It’s absolutely impossible to have a normal discussion with him now. He was a proper and kind boy many years ago.

Everyone that gets sucked into the ring of Viktor Orban’s power becomes a conceited person who feels compelled to lecture everyone about everything. They do not want to hear any criticism, and they only want to lecture you. When I meet them I tell them, “Listen, don’t be upset, but please don’t start lecturing me. You learned these words from me twenty years ago and now you want to start teaching me?”

Why do you think they do this? It’s so arrogant. Didn’t Lord Acton say something about power corrupting absolutely?

They do it because they are close to a source of power. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But I’ve seen the same thing in the left-wing’s version.

It’s very strange that a system based on lies has been created and the majority of Hungarian society has not yet been able to see through that. But the Hungarian nation is so stupid that it will always be like this. I am not affected by this system because I exist outside of it entirely. I would actually be a little bit happy if they win the next election. Let this mountain of lies come down on them like an avalanche in four years because what Hungary has now is simply an unsustainable system. When the time comes in one or two years when the majority of Hungarian society realizes “My God, nothing they promised is actually as they promised,” the national anger will sweep them right out. The two million people who stand by Fidesz right now will hate them the most. In my nightmares, I see a situation where I will have no option but to protect the crazy Fidesz gang from that angry mob.

They will win the elections. And I think we will have some huge problems by 2016 at the latest because this current system in financially unsustainable. This is a small country which is home to only two percent of the European Union’s population of 500 million. We produce only one percent of the European Union’s GDP. How is that going to get any better? Hungary has lost all of its international partners over the past four years. The Germans have written us off. America doesn’t even want to meet with Orban. France and England look right past us. And we’ve spoiled relations with our neighbors. What can Hungary prove to the world when it is a country that can only stand on its feet with the help of its international allies? It cannot stand on its own. Only one thing can effectively limit the Orban system: unrelenting outside criticism. We can see that the European Union is no longer tolerating the lies. We have been discounted every time Hungary has had to clash with the EU. We depend on the EU because that is where all the money comes from.

Fidesz neglected to mention that a significant number of  European People’s Party representatives–European Parliament party Fidesz belongs to–signed the Tavares Report.

There were 350 signatories to the Tavares Report and only 260 voted against it. A majority like this could only happen if at least 20-30 representatives from the EPP signed it too. There were 70 representatives who abstained from the vote – all of whom belonged to the EPP. It’s clear that Viktor’s own party members wouldn’t stand with him.

Let’s talk about the voters living outside Hungary’s borders. I know that the Americans aren’t as interested in the campaign as, say, those in Transylvania or Serbia.

It’s not that big of a deal there either. Despite pumping a lot of money into the campaign in Transylvania I think those voters will favor Jobbik. The Slovakian Hungarians – as we saw last week – who Orban wanted to see support Fico in the Slovakian election, couldn’t stop 75 percent of the voters from voting against Fico. There is empirical evidence from three elections that shows whenever Orban tried to involve himself in his neighbors’ internal politics by orientating the affected Hungarian voters, it always backfires. Again, this is an example of the twisted government rant that says, “All Hungarians living outside Hungary’s borders are exclusively Fidesz voters.” This is simply untrue and there is empirical data that proves it is untrue.

How do you think the parties will do in this election? I’m not a believer in public opinion polls.

Neither am I.  But I think that Fidesz will win. The polls say that Fidesz will have a majority of 52-54 percent. But if we see a voter turnout ratio above 60 percent – and I hope it will be that high, I’d predict 63 percent – then Fidesz will get 48 percent. I think the united opposition will receive around 27 percent, and it’s likely that Jobbik will get somewhere between 15 and 20 percent. The big question here is whether or not LMP get in. They are teetering on the edge. LMP’s future depends largely on the number of Sunday’s undecided voters. I’m referring to that group of voters who will only decide whether or not they will vote on Sunday morning.

LMP is likely to get in with 6-7% of the vote if there is a large turnout among undecided voters. I predict that Fidesz will win but will not have a two-thirds majority.  Opposition parties will be able to secure around twenty of the electoral districts. 11-12 in Budapest, Miskolc, Szeged, Pecs, and in Komarom county. I think that Fidesz will pull in 80 of the 106 electoral districts, the united opposition can win around 45-50 mandates in parliament.  Jobbik will land 10-12, and LMP will get 5-6, and then there will not be a Fidesz two-thirds majority. 133 are needed for a two-thirds majority. If the united opposition received 50, Jobbik 10-12, and LMP 5-6, then Fidesz will not have two-thirds. Such a situation would be completely unexpected because Fidesz created the new constitution to favor their two-third majority. If they did not have the two-thirds, they would be forced to negotiate with every law – something they have not done in four years.

So, people are wrong when they say that nothing is at stake in this election. At every place I visited recently, I told people that they have to go vote because it’s very important that Fidesz not practice a two-third parliamentary dictatorship, and that it is important that Fidesz learn to take part in continuous dialogue because there are other players, too, who need to be consulted that Fidesz has completely ignored over the past four years.

Fidesz has become accustomed to doing whatever it wants. If it wants something, it will just push it through parliament within 25 hours. This is unhealthy and horridly bad for Hungarian democracy. It would be a lesson for Fidesz if they would be forced to consult with others.

You mentioned earlier that you look at politics as process, not just as one single event. Do you think it’s important for Hungary to go through this right now. Maybe Hungary has to go through another four years of this in order to come out of the experience with a new understanding of what it means to live in a democracy. Hungary’s transition democracy has been set back in recent years, maybe another four years of this is needed for the people to realize how far off the path they’ve strayed.

If you have time to read the paper on Saturday, I’ve written a piece for the Nepszava in which I look at how Fidesz claims that it has ended the democratic transition process and has ushered in a new era. I don’t think this is true. The problem is that Fidesz’s system in itself is part of the transition, and it’s the worst possible version of it. The Fidesz regime represents all of the democratic transition’s layered tensions and has distorted and magnified them. They happen to belong to that past, and the future is not theirs to decide. Fidesz has attempted to skip over the transition period, but the problem is that they’ve distorted the transition’s last 20 years. The new era is for someone else. Fidesz has effectively prolonged the agony-phase of the transition. They constantly proclaim that they have ushered in the end of communism, and that they have closed the worst part of the transition.

In my eyes Fidesz is not the future. They are a failure, even if they win the election. They showed that they were incapable of accomplishing anything in the last four years: not in public administration, not in healthcare, not in education. Corruption has risen now to new heights despite their 2010 campaign’s biggest promise to rid the country of corruption. Fidesz, unfortunately, had done the absolute worst with their historical opportunity in 2010. The two-thirds majority gave them a fantastic opportunity and they blew it. Over the past four years, Fidesz has shown everyone the worst possible way to use a two-thirds majority. As a result, Hungary’s transition will be prolonged for at least another four years. Fidesz, in my eyes, did not lead Hungary forward. It pulled Hungary back. I have friends and acquaintances who support Fidesz. This is a constant debate between us. They are unwilling to accept that I am convinced that Fidesz is responsible for this epic problem. Fidesz and Orban boastfully claimed that they have put an end to corruption.

They are the protectors of conservative Christian values. . . .

Where are the Christian values in distributing state property to your friends?

Fidesz could never call itself a center-right conservative party in the Western world. There is nothing center-right or conservative about their politics, and it’s unfortunate they’ve even manage to trample the center-right conservative values by exploiting the Christian base….

What part of the United States are you from?


I once visited Southern California. I was in Orange County and was staying with conservative Hungarians.

Orange County is sometimes referred to as “the Orange Curtain” because it is a traditionally conservative area in the primarily democratic state.

I visited them during an election. My friends were hardcore Republicans, and I was able to see what an election night looks like with them. I was there when Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein were elected to the Senate.  It was in 1992. Feinstein and Boxer won a tremendous victory. I know they are still around, but back then they were new to the position. It was a big change in California. In Orange County I saw that people around me were so disappointed to see them win….

Was visiting the Great State of California a good experience?

I loved it. It was the first time I had ever seen the Pacific Ocean. I visited the California State University of Fullerton. The day after the election, the political science department of the university held an all day debate. I really enjoyed the ambience I experienced there. I’ve been to Atlanta, Georgia, four or five times, Florida, Washington, and New York a number of times. But California was a great experience. I’ve also been to Nebraska and Oklahoma. I have visited many parts of the United States.

I often meet people here who think that all Americans are the same. We all wear cowboy hats and shoot pistols.

I’ve learned that America is incredibly diverse. It’s unbelievable articulated, and it’s almost impossible for an adult to understand how diverse it is unless they grew up there. It’s hard for a European person to grasp what it must be like to be born into such a diverse country and live together naturally with so many people with so many different backgrounds. For example, Texas for me was like being a dream. From Austin down to San Antonio where everyone was speaking Spanish. I went to a bar in San Antonio and asked for a beer and they told me that everyone speaks Spanish here and that I shouldn’t want to speak English.

Did you ask for a cerveza?

I did remember that much! Texas was a colorful place. It was amazing to see how much Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio differed from each other. It was as if they were separated by hundreds of years. In the 1990s I visited the United States every year until 2000. I would visit Florida, Washington, New York, or Connecticut. Back then, Americans were interested in Eastern Europe and often invited us to conferences they were organizing. We were able to join in all kinds of projects. This interest died down after 2000.  They didn’t find us that interesting after that.

If things in Hungary continue along this path, maybe that interest will pick back up again.

Especially now with this incredibly stupid decision to make us stand with the Russians.  It’s unbelievable that we would stand by the Russians now, at the absolutely worst possible time when the rest of the world is condemning Russia!

What’s worse is how the Hungarian government actually made the decision. They shat on every democratic step that should have preceded the decision.

And they had a deputy state secretary sign the agreement on behalf of our country. What a nightmare. They signed an agreement that they would not be allowed to sign without the explicit consent of parliament, and used some one hundred-twenty something ranked deputy state secretary to sign the agreement in the name of our government. I think this Paks is the most outrageous scandal of the last four years.

This one scandal should have brought the end of the Orban government because it perfectly represents everything that is wrong with the Orban government: arrogance, utter disregard for public opinion, disregard for economic rationality, ignoring the international political climate. Under circumstances like this, no normal person would ever conduct meetings with the Russians, let alone accept their money.

What makes it even worse is that the conditions of the agreement come with incredibly bad conditions for the Hungarians. It’s unbelievable. This Paks scandal has it all. We don’t even know why they did it. I suspect there are things lurking in the background–there are some private interests behind this. But did you see how clever they were? The Simon scandal was perfectly timed to come to the public’s attention on the day we learned about the Paks deal. The Hungarian media jumped all over the Simon scandal, and Paks only affects the entire country’s future. . . . .