The right-wing populist government of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, of the Fidesz Party, has been taking measures that many fear will not only move this country of 10 million people further to the right, but will also give the state authoritarian powers that will let it ride roughshod over all opposition.
Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Hungarian parliament in 2010. The previously governing Socialist Party had suffered a massive loss of public prestige after it came out that former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsanyi had lied to the public about the country’s economic situation. The 2010 election also saw the rise of an extreme right-wing party, Jobbik, which has worked to legitimize various reactionary ideological trends that have a long history in Hungary, including anti-Semitism and anti Ziganism (prejudice against Roma, or Gypsies), as well as belligerent nationalism.
Hungarian right-wing nationalism has its roots in the period between the two world wars.
In the First World War, Hungary was part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a large amount of internal autonomy, though the emperor of Austria was also the king of Hungary.
After the defeat of the Central Powers in 1918, large pieces of Hungary’s land and population were divided up among its neighbors, Romania and two new states that came out of the war, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. The old regime in Hungary, which was dominated by landholding aristocrats and urban bankers and industrialists, was swept from power. But first a liberal regime (under Mihaly Karolyi) and then a short-lived communist one (under Bela Kun) were unable to solve the country’s internal problems or successfully resist pressure from the victorious Entente powers, especially Romania and France.
As a result, not only did Hungary lose territory in the Trianon Treaty of 1919, but as many as a third of the Magyars, or ethnic Hungarians, ended up outside Hungary’s borders. There was a special resentment of the fact that Transylvania, formerly an autonomous principality with a large Magyar population, went to Romania.
In 1919, reactionary forces grouped around Admiral Miklos Horthy de Nagybanya swept into power, displacing Bela Kun’s communist-led government. Their project of repressing communists, socialists and trade unionists inspired the promotion of a right-wing nationalist ideology that could justify such measures. The right-wing slogan “nem, nem soha” (“no, no never”), which referred to the loss of Hungarian territory and people, dates from this time.
Hungary once more defined itself as a monarchy, with Admiral Horthy as “regent” in place of an absent King Karl, who was kept out of the country by force. A series of governments dominated by conservative aristocrats made sure that communists and socialists were repressed, trade unions limited in their scope, and nationalist ideology taught in the schools. At the same time, fascist groups challenged the regime’s grip on power with an even more right-wing ideology increasingly attuned with those of Mussolini and Hitler. This, and the promise of getting back lands lost in the Trianon Treaty, eventually brought Hungary into World War II on the Axis side.
The war was an unmitigated disaster for Hungary. Admiral Horthy made belated efforts to disengage a defeated Hungary from its alliance with Germany and make peace with the Western allies and the USSR. This led to a Nazi-sponsored coup, the arrest by Germany of Horthy and members of his government, and even more brutality and bloodshed, as Jews were hunted down. Much of Hungary, including the streets of Budapest, became a gruesome battleground during the last desperate days of the war.
In 1948, a socialist government came to power, supported by the USSR. In 1956, there was an anti-communist rebellion, which was put down. Hungary remained socialist from 1948 until the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European socialist systems at the beginning of the 1990s.
During the socialist period and for a while thereafter, the right-wing nationalist ideology epitomized by the “nem, nem soha” slogan was not allowed to flourish. But it is now revived full force. Orban’s government has revived the idea that Hungary has a special right and responsibility to speak out in representation of the Magyar minorities in neighboring countries, a stance that has alarmed the governments of Slovakia, Romania and Serbia.
Prime Minister Orban and the Fidesz party have taken advantage of the supermajority they gained in the April 2010 election to ram through drastic modifications of the constitution.
They have withdrawn government recognition from a number of religious communities, including Muslims, Buddhists and Methodists. They have managed to criminalize the Communist Party (Hungarian Communist Workers Party) and its slogans and symbols, officially and legally equating it with fascism, and making possible the prosecution of former members of the socialist regime. They have reduced the power of labor unions, and worked to bring the press and cultural institutions under their political control so as to promote their right-wing, nationalist-populist ideology. On the other hand, Orban has so far held back from imposing the austerity measures being implemented in Portugal, Greece and Spain, and, to the alarm of the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, made an assault on the autonomy of the Hungarian central bank.
But Hungary is in bad shape economically. Both unemployment and the public (equivalent to the entire Gross Domestic Product) and private debt are sky high. Although it is not a member of the Euro currency zone (while it is a member of the European Union and NATO), Hungary has been heavily dependent for credit on the selfsame European Union banks that are currently threatened by the crises in the poorer Western European countries, the so-called “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain).
And two weeks ago, the Fitch bond rating agency followed Moody’s and Standard and Poors in lowering Hungary’s sovereign bonds to junk status, just as Orban’s government was making a desperate plea for a bailout loan to the International Monetary Fund. It seems that Orban may back off his effort to bring the central bank under his control rather than endanger the proposed IMF bailout.
Orban’s Fidesz Party government has suffered a massive loss of public support, and large-scale demonstrations against its policies are beginning to take place. However, it remains to be seen if it will respond to this by backing down from some of its right-wing positions, or if it will now move to play the fascist card in an even more forceful way, taking advantage of the disunity of the left.