The Hungarians were not too excited about the Winter Olympics: they don’t have major winter sports heroes or a winter sport they are particularly keen on. It is elections that serve as the nation’s adrenaline-packed national sport. On election nights people gather in front of the TV with cases of beer and stay up late watching and commenting on the course of the elections in individual electoral districts as intently as if it was the world football championship.
In the middle of the Olympic Games the opposition FIDESZ party erected a billboard in front of the Hungarian parliament showing a 50-metre-long tailor’s measuring tape, with an opposition politician cutting of one centimetre at a time. Like conscripts marking the remaining days of their military service: only a few more days to go to the two-stage election on 11 and 25 April and then it’s OVER.
The defeat of the socialists after eight years in power seems inevitable. The stressed- out Left and the demoralized Liberals don’t even give the impression of really being up to a fight – they look more like waiting for the kiss of life. The battle is raging not just in the newspapers and on TV. The mass e-mails I get from time to time are full of fighting military spirit: They (i.e. the socialists) stole, they lied, how much longer will they remain in power? The fascist menace (i.e. the opposition), the communist menace (i.e. the socialists), and so on. The pre-election crop of e-mails included a joke: When the world was created each nation was given two character traits but the Hungarians were inadvertently given three: wisdom, honesty and a propensity to vote communist. Oops, I made a mistake, God realized, I’ll have to take one trait back. And ever since then a Hungarian is either dishonest, or unwise or he does not vote communist. And we’re still a few weeks away from the elections, the traditional right wing text-message tornado is not due until between the two rounds of the elections! Hungary has a nearly 200-year-old tradition of electioneering. It goes back to an aggressive campaign in Nógrád county in 1821 when the voters were wooed by roast oxen stuffed with geese, turkeys and ham. The good old days of Austro-Hungarian gastronomy are gone and a roast ox has been relegated in the list of promises to a remote position, behind the utopian vision of higher pensions.
The electorate has been whipped up for two years now, as pogroms targeting Roma families, explosions of parliamentarians’ cars or physical assaults against parliamentarians became an almost monthly occurrence, illustrating the appearance of the Hungarian Guard on the local political scene and of the ultra-nationalist Jobbik party in the European Parliament. The actual proportion of votes received by the opposition FIDESZ and the radical right is likely to be crucial. At the other end of the spectrum, the environmental movement LMP (Lehet Más a Politika, Politics Can Be Different), does stand a chance.
The Left has been reduced to begging for votes, citing the fascist menace and empty-handed fuming about the public’s lack of appreciation for Socialist and Liberal Europeanness. However, given the astronomical state debt, no future victor will have much room for manoeuvre.
But whoever wins, the crates of beer for the two election nights when the vote is counted and results gradually published, are already on ice.