The Unpredictable Boomerang

Following the first round of Hungarian election, which ended in a clear victory for Viktor Orbán’‘s neo-conservative Fidesz and which will see the new extreme right wing grouping Jobbik take its place in parliament, a radicalization of Hungarian politics is looming, reawakening ugly memories. As I gathered with a few friends from the erstwhile democratic opposition on Sunday night, we were smiling but we were far from amused. Twenty years ago most of my friends were around forty, now they are in their sixties. I am a bit older. What was there to be happy about? The government that will emerge from this election is not likely to prove more intelligent than its predecessor. The fact remains that the Right has defeated the Left. There would be nothing wrong with that if Hungary would boast any conservatives who can be taken seriously; if it had a respectable and civilized Right.

However, no such thing is on the horizon.  All that remains is a bitter conclusion: I don’’t like either the Right or the Left in their present incarnation – but I do like democracy. The personalities in present-day politics are not worth talking about. I’’m all for a free power game but I’’m not too keen on the players. I find even the best of them boring, and the sight of the worst of them sickening. Smug kitsch has returned to the stage. The sight of the victors gives me a foretaste of the culture wars to come.

The majority wants to see heads roll – so they will make a few heads roll. Show me a well-paid job for which there are no contenders.  However, in the current economy the opportunities are scarce.  So where can we get jobs for the boys while professing to rein in bureaucracy? By replacing old cadres with new ones? This royal freedom is curbed by the budget. And so a pack of hungry wolves has to stay outside. What will happen if the poor chap, the new Prime Minister, cannot feed them?

Viktor Orbán, playing with a new authoritarian style, has transformed his Fidesz, the Union of Young Democrats, into a militant formation where only one person – the commander, the president – has any say.  The party of the previous generation, the liberal Union of Free Democrats, which sprang from the democratic opposition, has exhausted itself. Every viewpoint was tolerated, every group of friends, no matter how small, was given their weight on the platform. They were not even able to find a common denominator when counting votes. These wise, offended, quarrelsome people were not willing to shake hands even at the cemetery.

The picture in Fidesz is exactly the opposite. Those who dare to anger the boss have to say goodbye to a future in politics, maybe even to a bare existence. The militant leadership of this party seems to be operating not just within the party but also among its followers.  Fidesz has pulled off the trick of not revealing much of its programme. It wasted its words on nothing but vilifying its rivals and a heavy dose of nationalist rhetoric.

Maybe this is what has helped to drive up their popularity to unimagined heights.  Opinion polls suggested that under Orbán’’s leadership Fidesz might be able to muster a two-thirds majority in parliament, which would give it a mandate to change the eclectic constitution hastily drawn up in 1989, and to set up a pyramid-like presidential system. The Fidesz Chairman never denied that it was his ambition to replace a playing field that has two goalposts with one that has just one goalpost  – under the leadership of one large party.

What label can we give to this phenomenon? A number of euphemisms come to mind, such as:  directive democracy under a strong state; a powerful coming to terms with the past; confiscating the property of former high-ranking political figures and dragging them through the courts.  Such spectacles, shown on TV, would find an appreciative audience.  It would also be quite easy to stage partly justified show trials, provided some state prosecutors and judges could be politically influenced.The public has picked up on the change of rhetoric and believes it is quite possible that the atmosphere of the old days might return in a new guise: in other words, that people will again have to be afraid and will have to consider the option of external or internal exile.

The majority rhetoric has become more cautious since it became clear that the population, aware of political realities and the balance of power, shows more understanding for demonstrators in military boots and the public demands for Gyurcsány into the Danube, followed by the others! grow louder. The more ruthless the style and the less the opposition reveals its intentions, the more blatantly it vilifies the prime minister and the more categorically it refuses dialogue with the ruling administration.  Defaming him, but refusing to argue, to listen and participate in discussion, leaving the parliament, ignoring the opponent, attributing unspeakable things to him, comparing him with animals and declaring him mentally ill – this is a strategy designed to unnerve even the righteous middle class.


Probably no one could have foreseen what would happen after Fidesz slid from the liberal-anarchist corner of the political field to the opposite, national conservative corner, adding to the mix a cult of the leader, a silent tolerance of old style right-wing radicalism, complete with jeering at the Roma and the Jews.  No attempt was made to condemn this behaviour and the neo-Nazis were merely told off in a benevolent fatherly manner; they are good boys, basically. The future leader has repeated the mistake of the sorcerer’’s apprentice. The neo-Nazi genie he released from the bottle has perched on his shoulder and shows no sign of going back.


Asked how he planned to deal with the new radicalism Viktor Orbán replied: Just like we did in the Horthy era: by boxing their ears and saying goodbye.  The neo-Nazis could only smile at this naivety. They announced their intention to grab a share of the power and to sweep away the leading political class of the past twenty years. They won’’t spare the previous Right, Fidesz, either.

The main demand and promise of the right-extreme Jobbik is police power, used mainly against the Roma. Their paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard, reminiscent of the SA, has been marching up and down wearing uniforms similar to those worn by the fascist Arrow Cross in the Horthy era.  Although banned by the courts, it has resurfaced under the new name, the New Hungarian Guard, having made only minimal adjustments to their uniforms.

At a press conference held after winning the first round of the election Viktor Orbán was asked what he would do if Jobbik parliamentarians turned up in parliament wearing uniforms. Orbán has a good memory. Ten years ago the then justice minister was asked what she made of the fact that at football games of a certain club people regularly shouted: The train to Auschwitz is leaving although it is unlikely that the other team included any Jewish players. The crafty minister avoided criticizing those who made these statements by declaring, with a charming smile: I’’m not an expert on football.  I would not claim that this response is evidence that this lady should have been held in particularly good memory. The Prime Minister designate could not think of a wittier response than to avoid the question with a wink and say: I’m not an expert on fashion.


Hungary’’s political model before World War II was that of a conservative, authoritarian, autocratic party with right-wing radical connections.  Regent Horthy first had the Hungarian Nazi leader arrested but later he was forced to hand power over to him. Previously, he would never have believed that such lunacy could come true one day.  How can the dangerous genie be forced back into the bottle?  While the Socialists do not present much of a danger to the new government, the neo-Nazis certainly do – their muscles throb with youthful energy.  For the time being, they are the younger brethren. The way Fidesz had dealt with the old regime Jobbik is now going to deal with Fidesz. This seems to prove the old adage that radicalism is like a boomerang: if you throw it at your opponent it will come back and hit your own head.

It’’s even possible that we will end up rooting for Fidesz against its radical opponents, just like the French Left supported President Jacques Chirac against Le Pen and his National Front.  We may yet be surprised with whom we will find ourselves bound in friendship.


The situation is far from amusing but history is a long game, in which the bad can be mixed with the good.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

The essay appeared in a German translation the daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

We are grateful to György Konrád for the permission to publish this text in English.