Democracy in Hungary is Coming Apart at the Extremes

Hungary is considered by most observers as the sick man of Europe. In terms of economics, this has been quite clearly established. It is at the bottom in all major categories outlined by the European Commission: it has the highest government debt, the lowest GDP among former Eastern Bloc nations, highest inflation, and although its unemployment record is not yet at the top of the list, the number is among the fastest rising within the European Union (EU). What makes this all the more tragic is that during the transition from communism to capitalism Hungary was regarded as one of the most advanced of the former Eastern Bloc. While the country has all but stagnated over the past two decades, other countries have been speeding ahead. In fact, there are now some who speculate that latecomers to the EU, Romania and Bulgaria, both of whom joined just this year, will soon catch up to Hungary and perhaps even surpass the country in a few years.

Yet it’s not just in economic terms that Hungary is the sick man of Europe. Politically speaking, Hungary’s democratic deficit has been growing in tandem with the government deficit to the extent that many are questioning how democratic Hungary really is. Despite political slogans and gestures indicating that the country is a functioning democracy, closer inspection reveals Hungary still has a long way to go before it can call itself truly democratic. The country’s constitution, which was cosmetically altered during the transition to democracy, still bears the legacy of its dictatorial past. There is no proper separation of powers while the checks and balances between the different branches of power are weak at best.

The failings of Hungarian democracy were perhaps best demonstrated last year in October during the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. During this time, people from all walks of life joined to rid the country of a communist dictatorship and Soviet occupation. One month prior to the recent anniversary, an audio tape was leaked in which the Prime Minister of Hungary, Ferenc Gyurcsany, admitted that he and his party systematically lied to voters merely to secure power. He then degraded the state to which he had sworn an oath calling Hungary that "fucking country".

In a functioning democracy, the Prime Minister would have resigned immediately. However, Hungary’s democratic deficit is so high that despite subsequent mass demonstrations and even a riot, the Prime Minister remained securely in place. Fearing further massive demonstrations that could have toppled the government, the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution was marred by a massive police crackdown that saw scores of people wounded — many of them innocent bystanders. Police on horseback charged the crowds slashing at anyone in the way. Rubber bullets were used indiscriminately and many people were shot in the face — one person actually losing an eye. In the end, the mayor of Budapest handed out an award to the head of the Budapest police for doing an excellent job in preserving the peace. Meanwhile, of the six high ranking officers responsible for the crackdown three have since retired while the rest have been promoted.

Now, as the October 23rd anniversary of the bloody police crackdown approaches, the frustration many feel toward Hungary’s growing democratic deficit is felt. People have become increasingly alienated from the political elites running the country and some have taken matters in their own hands. This was clearly seen last month with the organization of the Hungarian Guard.

The Rise of the Right

The Hungarian Guard was inaugurated in the Castle District overlooking Budapest at the end of August amid great controversy. As fifty-six people became the first ever members of this organization (the number fifty six symbolizing the Hungarian Revolution of 1956), various groups below the Castle demonstrated against what they viewed as the formation of a new version of fascist storm troopers. Plenty of police were on hand in order to keep the groups apart, and except for a few shouts and taunts, the event and demonstrations passed peacefully.

As with most events nowadays within Hungary, views toward the Hungarian Guard were split along party lines. Hence, in a country dominated by a two-party system, public opinion was likewise split. Those on the left — and thus in support of the government and the Socialist party — were vehemently opposed to the formation of the Hungarian Guard, linking them with the country’s quasi-fascist past. Those on the right and in support of the opposition FIDESZ (Hungarian Civic Union) coalition were either more reserved or were firmly behind in their support for the organization.

The Hungarian Guard was recently formed with the backing of the Jobbik Party. The word jobbik is Hungarian for "more right", alluding to the fact that the party holds itself as a true, more right-wing party. The party was organized primarily by former supporters of the Hungarian Truth and Life Party (MIEP) which is considered by most political analysts as a radical right wing party. The anti-Semitic writing of its leader, Istvan Csurka, has led many to regard the MIEP as an extreme far-right party, with many going so far as to calling it neo-fascist. After its catastrophic defeat in the 2002 national elections and all other elections since, however, members of the MIEP frustrated at the leadership of Csurka together with party reformers who were subsequently kicked out of the party decided to form the Jobbik as an alternative to the MIEP. Apart from a very brief marriage of convenience during the 2006 national elections under the banner of "The Third Way", there has been no love lost between the two parties.

The idea behind the Hungarian Guard is that it would act as a national guard of sorts. Many on the right lament that the Hungarian army is no longer concerned with home security and instead focused on foreign wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Previously, military service in Hungary was compulsory and much of the Hungarian army was used for domestic tasks such as disaster relief. Today the Hungarian army is entirely volunteer-based, and because of its small numbers and limited engagements outside of the country, it’s no longer used or even counted upon domestically as it used to be.

While for some the Hungarian Guard may seem to fill this void, for others it sends alarm signals. The fact that leading members of the Jobbik were behind its organization has led many to conclude that the Hungarian Guard is nothing more than the private army of the Jobbik. This is further reinforced by the fact that the organization has received licenses for the use of weapons training.

What adds to the fears and worries of many is the uniform of the Hungarian Guard. Many refer to the Hungarian Guard as the Black Guard, as their uniform consists of a black vest on top of a white shirt. While some attempt to forge a relation between this uniform and that of Mussolini’s black shirts, the differences are quite apparent. Moreover, traditional Hungarian dress for males consists of a black vest over a white shirt.

Nevertheless, many look upon the formation of the Hungarian Guard as the beginning of the end for Hungarian democracy and the re-emergence of fascism within this part of the world. This is despite the fact that Hungarian Jewish leaders have been talking about a "Jewish Renaissance" in Hungary over the past few years. Indeed, Hungary recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Jewish Summer Festival, which runs from the end of August until the first week of September.

The fact that the Hungarian Guard is closely linked with a political party is a cause for concern. Ironically, of those least supportive of the Hungarian Guard is the MIEP. They see the Hungarian Guard as nothing more than another cheap political stunt to draw attention to the Jobbik and away from the MIEP. The Jobbik are well-known for high publicity stunts such as erecting crosses at Christmas so as to counteract the erection of the Hanukkah. However, any true Christian would be able to immediately see the folly in this: not only does it unnecessarily provoke another faith, but it also misrepresents what Christmas is all about. The cross is an appropriate symbol at Easter to commemorate the death of Christ; at Christmas Christians celebrate Christ’s birth, not his death.

Yet it’s not only the MIEP which has reservations about the Hungarian Guard. In fact, most extreme right wing groups in Hungary see the Jobbik as a provocation and as a distraction more than anything else. For the extreme right in Hungary, what is problematic about the Hungarian Guard is not the organization itself but some of those behind it. Among them is Andras Bencsik, the editor of the right wing magazine Demokrata. The fact that he is one of the founding members of the Hungarian Guard has cast suspicion on the entire organization. As far as the extreme right and neo-Nazis in Hungary are concerned, Bencsik is nothing more than a "communist, Zionist gangster" who conveniently stepped from being an editor of a communist controlled daily newspaper (Nepszabadsag) in the 1980s to becoming the editor of a right wing magazine in the 1990s.

Climate of Fear

The irony that radical right wingers and neo-Nazis in Hungary are suspicious about the formation of a supposed neo-fascist organization has somehow been lost by the mass media. Sadly, some of what those on the far right in Hungary say contain a grain of truth — accidentally. The problem with the Hungarian Guard is not that it’s a provocation set up by a Zionist agent provocateur — as the more extreme elements on the far right claim — in order to mislead and divide the right. Rather, the problem with the Hungarian Guard is that it reinforces a climate of fear which has gripped Hungarian politics over the past few years.

The ultimate tragedy of Hungarian democracy since the fall of communism has been how the beginnings of a multi-party system have degraded into a two party system which has split the country in half. Most voters on either side of the divide don’t actually like the leading parties they support: the Socialists on the left and the FIDESZ on the right. Yet by exploiting a climate of fear these parties have not only been able to destroy the multitude of parties which had existed (although there are currently five parties in parliament, the smaller ones are considered as simple sidekicks to big brother), but have made the formation of a new and independently-minded party difficult, if not impossible.

As voters are always coerced by the fear of either side — the communist left or a re-emergent fascist right — there appears to be little room for an alternative. Likewise, ideas which run counter to the prevailing ideologies of globalization and consumer capitalism are duly sidelined. Csurka’s writing against globalization and the decline of the nation state in favor of a corporate state is not dissimilar to what progressive politicians and activists espouse in the west (no doubt he adopted much of these prevailing ideas). However, the fact that he peppers his rhetoric with anti-Semitic jargon has led him and his party to be political outcasts. Thus, anyone who dares to question the fundamentals of a free-market economy, capitalism, globalization, etc. is often branded as a member of the MIEP and the radical right.

As a result, some contend that Csurka himself is a member of the present nomenclature. It’s his job to mop up any remaining pockets of dissent so as to have them categorized as radical. Those who subscribe this view point to the fact that Csurka is able to get away with such blatantly anti-Semitic writing that others normally would not. Whether this is the case or not is a moot point. In the end, there is little genuine social or political discourse in Hungary over issues that are openly talked about elsewhere.

The Hungarian Guard, therefore, merely adds another element to this socio-political miasma. What is astonishing is not that such an organization had formed, but that it has been allowed to form legally. The likely result of this is that other parties and organizations will soon feel a need for protection and, eventually, Hungary will have evolved into a country of private armies.

Indeed, the first major test of the Hungarian Guard will be on the October 23rd Anniversary events and rallies. One of the underlying motives of the Hungarian Guard — which has thus far gone unmentioned in the Hungarian mainstream media — is the role it will play during October 23rd. Those who support the Hungarian Guard will look to them for protection — against the police — so that the atrocities which happened last year won’t be repeated. In fact, this year October 23rd will mark two anniversaries: one is the 51st anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, and the other is the first anniversary of the bloody crackdown of demonstrations in Budapest. How the Hungarian Guard will be used on this day remains to be seen.