The Hungarian Tragedy

The Hungarian Tragedy

A Nationalist Conservative revolution has triumphed in Budapest; its leaders are busy dismantling constitutionalism and the rule of law. How could this have happened? And can the Western Left do anything about it?

There was a time when Hungary seemed the best hope for a liberal postcommunism. The country had produced some of the leading dissidents of the region in the 1970s and 1980s (such as ex-Marxist philosopher János Kis); civil society had developed rapidly even before the official end of state socialism in 1989. After the revolt of 1956 (which the Soviet Union brutally suppressed), the Hungarian government had slowly liberalized, introducing “goulash communism” and inverting the old totalitarian maxim to read: “who is not against us, is with us.” To be sure, state socialism was discredited—but not ideals of social justice.

The transition from state socialism was not only gradual—it was to a significant degree initiated by the old regime. Even the old Stalinist constitution remained nominally intact, amended beyond recognition through carefully crafted compromises. Fundamental changes were made, but it was, in the words of the political scientist Andrew Arato, very much a revolution against The Revolution—that is to say, against the idea of revolution as a violent rupture with the past. For some time, it even seemed as if the mild-mannered Kis might be the first postcommunist prime minister. He was beaten by a Christian Democrat, but, typically, one who had been trained as a historian and who in a different world probably would have been a university professor. As in other Central and East European countries, it was the hour of the intellectuals.

Hardly anyone could have imagined, then, that twenty years later Hungary might be the first postcommunist country west of Minsk—and the first member state of the European Union—to slide back into authoritarianism. In April 2010, the conservative-nationalist Fidesz Party won more than two-thirds of parliamentary seats, replacing a socialist government that had been in power for eight years. Under the leadership of the highly charismatic Viktor Orbán, the party has begun systematically to remove checks and balances, to undermine the rule of law and effectively curtail the media. A new constitution this year is to top off a process that the Economist has called “Putinization.”

How could this have happened, after two decades of what seemed like fairly stable democratic rule? The immediate answer is that the Socialists not only led the country to the brink of financial disaster in 2009, but that the party was also morally discredited in a way that has few parallels in Europe. The prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, admitted in a secret speech to a party meeting in 2006 that he had been lying to the electorate about the dire financial situation of the country, that no European country had “done anything as boneheaded” as Hungary, and that...

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