Károly Herényi on Fidesz: Patriotism is the last bastion of scoundrels

May 10, 2015

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Nowadays skeletons are falling out of closets in the manner of a mass grave! They are scoundrels! To wrap this in a national ribbon and say “it’s ours” and “this is what we wanted” is the meanest slap in the face of national feeling. – Károly Herényi

Károly Herényi served as a member of parliament from 1998 until 2010, the last eight years as the head of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) parliamentary caucus.   In 2010 MDF failed to achieve the 5 percent threshold necessary to seat MPs in parliament  The party formally disbanded the following year.

Formed in 1987 during the period of one-party rule, MDF, was one of several parties to participate in round-table discussions resulting in free elections being held on April 1990.  Winning nearly a quarter of the vote, MDF formed a center-right governing coalition with its chairman József Antall serving as prime minister.  Hungary’s first freely elected parliament was seated on May 6th, 1990.

On Wednesday, the so-called Veritas Institute for historical research, one of five historical research institutes founded during the second Orbán government to rewrite Hungary’s history, “hosted” a 25th anniversary commemorative event at parliament.  Unlike previous commemorate events, no members of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the now-defunct Alliance of Social Democrats (SZDSZ) were invited to attend.

Led by the revisionist historian Sandor Szakaly, it seems Veritas is only interested in the truth according to Fidesz chairman and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and those sharing his particular take on the events leading up to and following the formation of Hungary’s first freely elected parliament in 50 years.

Olga Kálmán (OK):  What do you think about today’s 25th-anniversary commemoration?

Károly Herényi (KH):  We held commemorative events on the 10th and 15th anniversaries.  The first was held in the Stefánia Palace (official residence of the President of Hungary), to which everyone was invited. The second was held at the Academy of Sciences . . .

OK: Regardless of political affiliation?

KH: Of course. This should be a large, national celebration. I was 40 years old at the time. Until that time my life was predictable.  And then all of a sudden this beautiful freedom was bestowed upon us, which, for me, was the greatest experience of my life at that time.  I thought my fellow citizens would experience it with similar joy.  But unfortunately what we experienced afterwards was that there were material matters that were more important than freedom.  Perhaps it was this need that led the country onto a path it should not have turned onto, which claimed that the country was in a much better shape.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán talks about the difficult circumstances with which József Antall assumed the position of prime minister and the difficult tasks he faced. While true, the difficulties did not arise from the circumstances, but rather from inexperience and lack of familiarity, from unpredictability, and from József Antall’s fantastic good faith. I did not expect at that time our happiness would be shattered 25 years later.  And now we have to figure out how the heck we are going to avoid a Jobbik government which we also seem capable of achieving.  Nobody thought such a thing would be possible 25 years ago.

The biggest problem is that opportunities have been squandered.  Europe and the world look at us fundamentally differently now based on the performance of the past 25 years, than it did with its expectations following the opening of the border with regard to the Hungarian Republic and the Hungarian people succeeded in . . .

OK: Is the damage irreparable?

KH:  No, it is not irreparable.  It just requires an excess energy, a l9t of excess time, the importance of which I must emphasize, if only because not everybody is as fortunate as I am.  I was 4o years old at the time, as were welders, drill masters, taxi drivers, engineers, doctors.  These are probably pensioners by now.  Those who worked in industry or agriculture were probably earning minimum wage when they retired and inactive.  This isn’t what we promised them, and I am ashamed of myself.  And I believe the entire part of political society who took their tasks seriously should be ashamed of themselves.  We can say that we weren’t in government for that long or we had no influence, but we were there.  What can we say to these people?  They are 65 years old.  They’ve got a few years left.  And they are struggling to get by.  Perhaps they cannot afford to buy firewood or buying medicine, because the pension based on minimum wage is such that they cannot afford such things.  This isn’t what we promised and this isn’t what we hoped for.

OK: Their grandchildren are living abroad.

KH:  Their families are falling apart because who wants to live and has talent and opportunity is leaving.   The cumulative rubble, which is greater than what we inherited from socialism.   In 1990 the situation was not as bad as it is now.  The MSZMP leaders of the time, Miklós Németh, gave the country over in better shape then than it is now.

OK:  Viktor Orbán says that József Antall was the one who presided over our homeland’s transition from a slovenly dictatorship to representative democracy.  Is “slovenly dictatorship” how they usually refer to it?

KH: It wasn’t a dictatorship.  It was a one-party system.  A dictatorship has different characteristics.  I don’t know what was slovenly about it.  The country wasn’t in that bad of a shape.  Another important thing is that if we want to build a better future than we need to be honest about the past.  The decade between 1980 and 1990, when the reformers of the then MSZNP undertook very serious activities in order to move the country away from the framework of the Warsaw Pact towards the West, because no other normal way appeared at the time.   That needs to be recognized.  We are still labeling people communists.  To engage in such rhetoric 25 or 30 years after the fact, and to build the future on lies is a rather hopeless battle.

OK: There are those they are branding as communists, and those who have been erased.  With the exception of certain members recognized by the current government, MDF was not invited.  And it is as though SZDSZ and MSZP had been erased.  They were not invited at all.

KH: This is a question of manners.  Pokornyi recently declared that Fidesz has stylistic problems.  I say that style defines the person.  If someone politicizes or goes about his business by not inviting people who were there and played an important role, that’s a very afflicted manner.  These people serve as role models.  Whoever sees this in parliament, how are they to behave towards their neighbor, their friend, their family?  Among other things, I would characterize this as lacking manners and upbringing.  At such time one wonders what might have been done differently to ensure a different outcome.  What should the first MDF government have done differently?

OK: So that we wouldn’t have ended up where we are right now?

KH: Yes. A culture of opposition rages today.  The secret to successful countries is cooperation.  Which is not a big thing, it can be learned.  If in 1990 Antall had had the strength and the courage to form a large coalition, which he didn’t want to do believing that after 40 years of a one-party system there should not be a political constellation that was too strong, and he was right.  But he also said as a right-wing politician that the country needs a social democratic party to function as a counterweight to power.  This is needed because power corrupts.  The two-thirds has led to where we are because there is no opposition.  If he had formed a large coalition, and if he could have defeated those within MDF who didn’t even want to hear about forming a large coalition with the Alliance of Free Democrats, it is conceivable or presumable that in place of the culture of opposition, then a culture of cooperation would have become rooted in Hungarian society that would have had an affect on everything.  As for what is happening in the world of sports, or finance, or the whole country, public health, education, anything, this is the consequences of the “moral” example set by the  government.

OK: The reason I doubt that the political culture would have been different if there had been a large coalition, “we already would have learned from our own mistakes” is that even if there had been, there were always political matters that gave rise to confrontation, disagreements.  I believe the so-called “cockade” election was a watershed event, in which it fell into a deep pit, from which there was no return.  When citizens were looking at one another before the voting booth to see who was wearing the cockade and who wasn’t, and those who were wearing the cockade were considered real Hungarians according to those who were expected to come to power, and those who weren’t were nothing.  I believe at that time started the sharpening and escalation of confrontation in political life which may not improve the appearance of the time preceding it but certainly does not characterize it.

KH: You might be right.  But I maintain my point of view that the roots of the problem were there.  If we did not start off in this direction at that time,  Already in the fall of 1989 ugly things were happening, with one side denouncing the other side of being “Jews” and the other of being “antisemites”.  At that time started a completely unnecessary . . .

OK: . . . just look at the times we’re living in now.

KH:  That’s an extension of what happened then.  If we had started on a different path then, then it’s not certain that the “cockade election” would have happened.   Márai’s beautiful words come to mind: “patriotism is the last bastion of scoundrels.”   Now to use patriotism to justify . . . I am not accusing them of being scoundrels back then.  Nowadays we see skeletons falling out of closets in the manner of a mass grave!  They are scoundrels!  To wrap this in a national ribbon and say “it’s ours” and “this is what we wanted” is the meanest slap in the face of national feeling.

OK:  And didn’t you notice before who were the scoundrels around you and who wasn’t?

KH:  I don’t even notice now because that is not how my mind words. I learn about things from the media.  At that time there wasn’t this much.  It was more separated.  If we look at the style of the first parliament as recorded in the minutes of parliament, the style of addressing one another, we see that this was a completely different style.  At that time there was dialogue between the opposition and the government.  Prime minister József Antall often agreed on matters with the heads of the opposition factions if it was important.   He invited them and discussed matters with them.  That was part of the political culture.  This has been completely lost.

OK:  When Zoltán Pokornyi referred to the fact that this style is characteristic of Fidesz, then this style also characterizes Fidesz politicians.

KH: If they identify with Fidesz then it couldn’t be otherwise.

OK:  It’s another matter if they don’t identify with it but just play the part.  But for a politician that isn’t good either.

KH:  From a moral point of view it`s completely indifferent.

OK: Did you not see any sign of this grave when you were their coalition partners?  That wasn’t all that long ago.

KH: A lot of things have happened since then. That was between 1998 and 2002, which was when I first entered parliament.  At that time I already had confrontations with Fidesz.  . . . But I never saw anything like this.   On the other hand, I saw that Orbán did not take well the defeat of 2002 and was hard hit by the defeat of 2006.  I believe these two defeats deeply affected his personality, the force of which we can see in his everyday politics.

OK: Then they should replace him.  Viktor Orbán is only one person.

KH:  But he is the leader.  This is a party that believes in having a strong leader.  They discuss and try to envision a Fidesz without Orbán, but without Orbán there can be no Fidesz.  The whole thing will fall apart.  Unfortunately, G. Fodor very precisely summarized the point of Fidesz politics: to rule the moment.  But politics is not about this.   Ruling over the moment means to be in power at any cost.  And you don’t have to be in power at any price, because power is a service, and who is not capable of this, who is unsuitable, who does not see this, then the country ends up in the situation it presently finds itself.

OK: And does the will of the voters amount to nothing?  You cannot rule over the moment for five years.

KH:  If I was an active member of the political opposition, then I would be looking to provide a way out for disappointed Fidesz voters, and enabling those to divorce Fidesz without losing face or prestige without the opposition insulting them by saying “how idiotic you were for being there for so long”, because it is a difficult spiritual situation when somebody must confront his own mistakes, and it takes internal strength for someone to do this.  It is necessary to create the conditions for this.  The opposition has to think about this as well.

OK:  I think nobody is preventing you from re-entering politics if you have such plans.  But then let us know.