"Kádár was a conservative politician compared to Orbán," says Péter Tölgyessy

October 12, 2016

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“A quarter century after 1989, we have returned to the point where we have a power structure that can’t be ousted and a state-controlled economy.  . . . A country needs to be kept together even if the country itself is not successful — and Hungary is pretty unsuccessful. If we cannot achieve success, then at least we can point the blame at some enemy. This is what the Orbán system is incredibly talented at doing, it does a world-class job at developing scapegoats. But more importantly, Orbánism is finding its place in a much larger global trend.”

The following interview with Péter Tölgyessy was published on Index.hu on October 12th, 2016.

Tölgyessy is a researcher at the Political Science Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. During the transition, he played a defining role in the roundtables as an Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) delegate. He served as the Liberal parliamentary group leader in the first parliamentary cycle. After falling out with his party for forming a coalition with the Hungarian Socialist Party, he left the party in 1996 and became a Fidesz MP under the first Orbán government. He left politics in 2006 and is a full time researcher and university professor. His academic speciality is the “crisis of the Hungarian model.”

It seems to be an immutable fact that the government cannot be ousted. Has this become a national tradition for us?

It certainly is not an anthropological determinant that Hungarians are like this. Still, despite the country’s repeated upswings, these top powers that cannot be ousted somehow always seem to find their place in Hungary. A quarter century after 1989, we have returned to the point where we have a power structure that can’t be ousted and a state-controlled economy.

We still have a Kádár system?

This is clear, for example, from a general understanding of the legal system. But we also find in this system that much older traditions still have very much influence as well. At the same time, we see that in several other countries in the region – and even in the West – the world appears to be losing the post-1945 balance.

Irrationalism is taking over, and the authority once held by the old parties and the elite is unraveling. All of this converges in Viktor Orbán’s system. This would not be the first time in the 20th century that a new trend is being started in Hungary.

How much longer will state socialism be around? How much longer can we continue to point at Kádár?

The generation that lived under Kádár is slowing dying out, their party is also on the cusp of disappearing, but the young continue to live in a way that still carry their traits. A good number of Hungarian entrepreneurs do not believe in market competition and instead prefer to be unscrupulous. The secret to success is now tax evasion, stealing from the state, and taking advantage of their partners on the market. This is how the Kádár era lives on with us. The Hungarian transition was undertaken with the completely absurd assumption that, while every statistic indicated that we were in a state of progressive decline prior to 1989, Hungarian families lived through the Kádár decades as if it were a time of upheaval, as if it were a time when talented and hardworking people could make it. Today, this is the only model for success that Hungarians know.

What is it today that makes the Kádár system so attractive today?

Prior to the war, Hungary was not far behind Italy and Ireland, it was roughly on the level of Finland, just ahead of Spain. By 1989, we completely fell behind these countries. Regrettably, we did not have the opportunity to close the gap with western countries, so Hungarians were really only able to enjoy step out of the vicissitudes of the 20th century through the stable predictability of the Kádár decades.

Kádárism was able to domesticate many of the worst elements of earlier communism. These traits were somehow blended into Hungarian tradition in a livable manner. This is what Orbánism is trying to do with capitalism. It is trying to adjust capitalism to the Hungarian model. One reason for this is that the Orbán system enjoys significant support from the population. The notion that Hungary would close the gap with the west has failed. It is now clear that the very gate we once thought to be open has since closed. What once worked for the Finns, Irish, or even Spanish, will no longer work for our region. Global capitalism inherently offers less favor to central Europe and, in the meantime, new competitors are on the scene, such as China and India — and they are significantly more competitive than us. For the time being, they are not capable of much more than us, but they are certainly cheaper and do not require as much maintenance.

On “domesticating capitalism,” is the Orbán system only offering us a psychological defense?

A country needs to be kept together even if the country itself is not successful — and Hungary is pretty unsuccessful. If we cannot achieve success, then at least we can point the blame at some enemy. This is what the Orbán system is incredibly talented at doing, it does a world-class job at developing scapegoats. But more importantly, Orbánism is finding its place in a much larger global trend.

Aside from Trumpism and the casting aside of the reality principle, what other signs are there of this trend?

In 1989 the ruling theory was that global capitalism and liberal democracy had won. But in the developed world, the plight of the middle class has been going on for quite some time against the backdrop of the ever-increasing wealth of the upper class. Inequality has been on the increase in the developed world for the past forty years. Those who have been on the losing end of market inequality are now using the institutions of democracy to revolt against the truths and science of the elites. Even Aristotle knew that democracy is fallible and that it could easily be taken over by demagogues, and that it will only work well if the center is strong. People can only be entrusted with governance if there exists a middle class that is wide enough and stable. But the middle class is weakening in these [western] countries, and uncertainty has replaced the security enjoyed in the past. And in Hungary, there is hardly something we could call a middle class.

But isn’t it this missing middle class that the Orbán government is trying to psychologically strengthen?

There is a spiritual dimension to this which is very significant. Viktor Orbán simply wants to reflect those beliefs, the imagery, and myths that the majority of the public holds to be true. This is precisely being measured by the government. All they do is shout back what the people want to hear, and they are incredibly good at that, all the catch-phrases about how the government supports the center and how the government will protect them from “evil foreigners.”

So this economic protectionism is just an illusion?

It is not worth judging how well a government operates based simply on what it is saying. Instead, you should look at something like its budget. For example, the middle class can be supported well through quality education and effective health care.

The Orbán system, however, is set on squeezing these items in the budget, more so than was done during the Bokros package.

Social policy under Fidesz follows an old Hungarian tradition. Back during the time of dualism, but even during the interwar period, the Hungarian state primarily gave support to the upper class and those with high status, and even those classes which were afraid of backsliding, but it never really supported those really at the bottom. Now, the most significant state resources are being directed to the highest levels of society, and this is [Fidesz’s] economic policy.

Feeding the system of clientelism as opposed to really building a middle class?

Exactly, but it’s important to point out that this could not result in political success if not for those who are committed followers of this. Fidesz founders learned this back during their first parliamentary cycle. They led the popularity polls for a long time, but in the 1994 elections the Socialists received 209 mandates and Fidesz only got 21. There were a lot of things that caused this defeat for Fidesz, but it is important to point out that those influencing the Left were much better at controlling public opinion and they had a massive economic hinterland. Fidesz’s main trauma in 1993-1994 was that the democratic intellectuals were advancing at Fidesz’s expense, and that the various groups from the Kádár era – especially the reform-minded intellectuals and old left-wing progressives – were monopolizing the public space. That is when the decision needed to be made whether Fidesz will fall in line and become the smaller child in the Gyula Horn government (1994-1998) or whether they would need to fight to stay alive.

The relentlessness of the left-wing intellectuals is so brutal, that this fight could only be compared to the gangster wars in Chicago.

Whoever draws the pistol first, and knows neither God nor man, has the best chances. This is also why it is so important to build an anti-MSZP. Otherwise, there is no use being hopeful about politics changing if the left wing is dominated by those whose roots are tied to the Kádár era.

This is something that the Fidesz founders experienced: the left-wing parties started building their media and economic power back in the years of communism, and this sin-based clientelism has the country in its clutches. The idea being that they only way to fight back against them is by using the same tactics.

Fidesz politicians are at the point where they believe that they must kill or they themselves will be killed, that there is no middle ground.

András Lánczi’s assertion that what people consider to be corruption is actually the building of a clientelistic base was actually born as the result of Fidesz’s defeat in 1993-1994.

When was the last time you spoke to Orbán?

Well before the 2010 election. We spoke for an entire afternoon. He was a determined believer in the benefits of introducing a flat tax. A comprehensive plan for a new “transition” was not really on his mind then. As a politician, he was more preoccupied with his next immediate step. He was trying to work against the spirit of everyday trends ever since the 1980s. He tries relentlessly to bend the facts of any given situation to satisfy his position. Truth and rationality were always something that were subjugated to political will. After 2010, he risked quite a lot by being among the first to acknowledge that a new trend was taking place in the world. Today, he can consider himself a leader of the times in this respect.

But does he actually believe this, or is he just saying it?

With all the corruption and falsities of his system, he obviously believes that he was destined to be the savior of the country. He believes we are seeing the twilight of the old west. He must believe that he knows better than any old western politician was this country needs, and even what the entire western world needs. Prior to 1994, he was the Hungarian politician calling for more accountability in following the western models. For a long time he was a policy-oriented leader, but he has changed to become a leader who emphasizes the broad historical narratives over the solutions offered by the old west.

When did Orbán take up this Kádárism?

After the failed referendum of 2004, sometime around 2006. That is when it became clear to him that relying solely on the traditional right would not be enough for him to defeat the left-wing coalitions. He tried to woo the the children of Kádár away from the left. This was part of the “we are worse off” campaign. But this yielded weak results against Péter Medgyessy’s initial big spending. But MSZP did not own the Kádár era voters. In order for Fidesz to successfully carry out this transformation, it needed for the old left-wing to collapse. But this did not occur as a result of Fidesz doing a good job.  It happened because the country went on a spending spree and fell into the debt trap. Overspending led to austerity and market-oriented reforms. One might say the left-wing coalition fell in the same way that János Kádár fell.

Kádár, according to widely held beliefs, followed a compromise and consolidation-oriented style of politics. Why isn’t Orbán experimenting with this?

Viktor Orbán is not a Kádár-like leader in many ways. Kádár, in his later years, avoided conflict. He tried to pursue the old Austria-Hungary tradition of “give and take” in his own way. But Viktor Orbán is a warlike politician. He is always eager to project the imagine of being in battle, always on the attack. The grievance-like opposition of the Kuruc rebels, the permanent freedom fight against the foreign great powers, and the Hungarian-style snide remarks has brought him more support than weak consolidation.

Kádár was a conservative politician compared to Orbán.

The prime minister is eager to control his excessive power, but he still prefers following Mussolini’s example of “living dangerously.” He needs an opponent to crush every day. He does not understand why the EU treats his conflict-oriented politics with constant negotiation. Instead, he treats his European partners like he treats his opponents at home: by making loud and noisy accusations.

Your theory is that the central power area cannot be defeated in this current situation. What do you think, when and how will this system collapse?

In our region it is usually the international situation that intensifies. I might not be wrong when I believe that as long as this system is buoyant and has support from the people in this current global context, this system will stick around. If this trend reverses, the obvious and serious internal conflicts of this regime will become much more animated.

If the politics of “take from the bad and give to those who deserve” no longer works because they have already given everything to their followers, if the budget is placed under too much stress, and if we are still not as effective, all of these will emerge as signs of crisis. System changes can be incredibly fast sometimes. In 1987 it appeared as though the Kádár system would still be around for quite some time. But it soon buckled underneath its own weight, eaten by its own rust, and it collapsed in one big crash together with the Soviet Union.

Who, if anyone, can oust him?

Hungarian history shows us that the systems usually collapse together with the opposition. It will not be the old opposition who win the next elections.  Rather, it will be the system together with the opposition will lose in an environment when international and domestic relations have changed. The new system ushers in a completely different power structure and, in many cases, a new economic system. It is hard to be believe that anyone from Hungary’s current opposition will ever defeat the central power area.

I am afraid that Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gábor Vona, among others, are actually important pieces of the Orbán system structure.

Do not misunderstand me, this does not necessarily mean they are paid agents..  They are all part of this regime in one way or another.  Some are around simply because there needs to be an enemy that can be crushed. The more they work for their own success, the more they help the Orbán system. Even Gábor Vona seems to be the most talented of them, but he is too close to Fidesz’s ideology, and the governing party constantly takes the winds out of his sails. But he also happens to stand the furthest away from western middle class solutions.

So it isn’t because of the opposition’s own incompetence that it does not have a chance?

I think incompetence of the opposition is only done for show, its condition is simply a consequence of becoming subjugated. Of course, they can certainly still appear to be appallingly incompetent. Take, for example, the referendum. The Prime Minister fell significantly short of his goal. This is still a defeat for a system constructed entirely by those in power. But let’s also consider the proportion of invalid votes cast. This 6 percent, which can be considered a success, is at the level of support for LMP, meaning that victory can be achieved at the level of 5 MPs.

An opposition divided many ways serves to stabilize this system.

One side of the opposition can always be portrayed as being comprised of people from the past with solutions from the past. The smallest opposition is overly green. The third option is the one that says everything the ruling power says, except that it is unable to govern. It uses its radicalism and right-wing mythology to seduce the younger generation otherwise capable of revolting. But as we saw with the referendum, its supporters can be drawn over to the central power area from time to time.

Disillusioned opposition supporters tend to place hope in civil movements when better alternatives are lacking.

They are not wrong to do so. This system has much more to fear from civil movements than it does from opposition parties. When civil movements address detailed policy issues, say, for example, the problems addressed with public education, then everyone knows that they are talking about a real problem. This is what is very risky for those in power. The caveat here is that Hungarian society is not willing to sustain its participation in civil movements.

In Hungary, we have “professional civilian [actors]” who earn a living organizing movements and defending the rights of citizens. So, if the government makes even partial concessions, or if public awareness is directed elsewhere, the movement immediately loses traction. But single issue movements are not enough to take it to the next level. The Prime Minister is actively working on making sure these movements get stuck, that they are forced to join existing political parties, and to paralyze them by other means.

So it’s Fidesz forever?

We can be sure about one thing: the Prime Minister is creating a system for the long term. World events seem to be working in his favor at this moment in time. The system he is creating may be around for many decades. But then look at Fidesz. It was started by thirty people, and it was opposed by what appeared to be an immovable system. What happened there? 11 different regimes replaced one another over the past century. The current one may also be replaced by a change of system.

What Fidesz lauds as its success are most likely dead-end fanfares, and this system has once again put distance between Hungarians and the century long desire for a middle class. If this system ever starts to become shaky, its demise may be swift.