Note from the LeftEast editors: This interview of Àngel Ferrero with sociologist József Böröcz (Rutgers University) was carried out for the newspaper El Salto and first appeared there in Spanish on the 7th of April 2018. LeftEast reprints the English original with the kind permission of the author.
1/ According to the polls, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz is set to win the upcoming Hungarian elections with up to 49% of the vote, followed by the MSZP (social-democracy) with 12% and Jobbik (far-right) with 17%. What is the reason, in your opinion, behind the success and popularity of Fidesz?
I don’t want to get into research methods too much here, but we must remember that it is exceedingly difficult to tell future election results from polling data—for a number of reasons, including, e.g., (1) the fact that it is impossible to design polls such that they simulate elections, (2) much can happen in politics during the time that elapses between polling and the elections, especially in a society in such a hysterical state as today’s Hungary, and, (3) most societies are notorious in mis-stating their preferences to pollsters. The latest mayoral by-election in a small town in southern Hungary yielded, for instance, a result that was very different than the most accurate poll results. This is particularly true if the “real” election results are close.
Speaking in more general terms, Fidesz’s success is partly an artefact of the spectacular failure of the neoliberal project that had characterized much of post-state-socialist politics in Hungary until Fidesz’s rise to power in 2010. While neoliberal politicians promised, in pretty certain terms, a virtually assured “catching up with western Europe”, it is quite obvious that none of that happened in the one generation elapsed since the regime change 29 years ago. In fact Hungary, like much of the erstwhile state socialist part of Europe, underwent a major economic collapse and has not yet recovered its global position even to the point where it was in 1989.
It is also clear to most Hungarians that their economy is in a state of extreme external dependency–an astonishing percentage of the GDP is produced by a few multinational companies based in the European Union, having transformed the country into a “maquiladora”-style economy not unlike some parts of Latin America a generation ago. Add to that the bewildering, foreign-currency-based mortgage catastrophe affecting approximately one-third of the population at the time of the collapse of the last neoliberal government in 2010—and you have a fertile ground for a right-wing populist explosion.
And that is pretty much what happened. Under the leadership of its populist leader, Fidesz was able to direct all that frustration and anger in an extreme-nationalist, vulgar anti-EU direction. In spite of the obvious signs of multiple, cascading crises—e.g., of the collapse of the national health system, of the breathtakingly shameless cases of corruption, etc.—a large part of the population continues to idolize Viktor Orbán and his policies.
2/ A recent article in The Guardian written by Cas Mudde suggested a «tactical alliance between liberals and Jobbik» in order to oust Orbán. In my opinion, such a platform would be very similar to the coalition that ousted Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine in 2014. But is this maneuver possible in Hungary? And could be even driven by external forces who are against Orbán?
Everything is possible. I have no direct knowledge of the involvement of “external forces”—although an examination of the question of the geopolitical cui prodest will easily point us in the direction of a few obvious candidates—so all I can say is that, based on the evidence from the public sphere inside Hungary, it is clear that most loudly proposing this idea are those elite intellectuals who had, in the preceding three decades, been most closely associated with a neoliberal position. Their argument is that “the most important task at this juncture is removing Orbán at all cost.” Taking the last (seemingly rhetorical) point literally, they argue, in a concerted, often ad hominem fashion, especially on their all-important facebook conversations, that “since it is impossible for the non-nazi opposition parties to overthrow ‘the Orbán regime’, these “acceptable” parties must make a historic electoral compromise with the extreme right wing in Hungarian politics today. I can’t help but remember that this is not exactly new: We have historically seen examples of an odd marriage between neoliberal and extreme-right politics, e.g., in the case of Chile under Pinochet.
When anyone points out that a removal of Orbán in favor of the even more extreme right is like “neutralizing” a conventional bomb with a nuclear weapon, the standard reply is that whoever is unhappy about the neoliberal middle helping the extreme right into power is “supporting the re-election of the Orbán government.” That closes all conversation.
Given the specific, recent record of the extreme-right party in Hungarian politics, from its open, anti-Semitic rhetoric to its role in creating the ideological and political climate that had led to the racist murders of Roma Hungarians, it is safe to say that the Hungarian voter is facing a well-nigh impossible choice in the next election.
3/ What is to expect after a probable landslide victory of Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary?
In order to answer that question, I would need to know two additional details. First, would Fidesz reach a majority of more than two-thirds in parliament? And, second, if not, would a possible coalition with Jobbik (the extreme-right party) create such a majority? If the answer to either of those questions is “yes”, the implication is that the new government will be able to change the Constitution at will. Orbán has already done so five-six times in his first four-year term. He has also hinted at what changes he is contemplating for the near future, including removal of the—currently directly elected—mayors of the country’s small and mid-size towns with centrally appointed governors. In such a situation, only Budapest and maybe another five-six large-ish towns would be able to elect their mayors directly. A number of similar, anti-democratic, anti-grassroots, more and more openly fascist or quasi-fascist steps can be expected. (The importance of the mayors is that, on the local level, there exist a number of politicians who are either independent or are members of the opposition parties. With such a revision of the Constitution, they could simply be eliminated. Furthermore, the local mayors play an important role in implementing Orbán’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee policies, and play a key role in decision making regarding public works tenders, the allocation mechanism of EU subsidies, which constitutes an important mechanism of rewarding pro-regime capital in Hungary today.)
4/ You have criticized the concept of ‘illiberal’ state applied to Hungary as vague and even discriminating to Eastern Europeans. Why? And how could it be better described?
Nobody in their right mind doubts that the political and legal systems of Hungary (as well as a number of other countries in the former-state-socialist part of Europe) have been “hollowed out.” They have retained their pro forma democratic features (e.g., elections are held, laws are made in parliament, via majority vote, etc.) but the conditions have been transformed by the brilliant—although morally highly questionable—legal and other technical experts around the ruling party in order to assure that it is exceedingly difficult to vote the ruling party out of power, that there are serious problems with the functioning of the rule of law when pro-regime perpetrators are involved. There are also widely tolerated, open violations of the principle of equality before the law, etc. In other words, Orbán has created a political system that gives extreme advantages to the party in power as well as the experts and intellectuals that surround it in the competition for space in the media. It is virtually impossible to engage in the least bit “left”-leaning critical conversation about politics in Hungarian “public sphere”—without anybody explicitly employing censors, komissars or other such oppressing institutional arrangements.
I do have a problem with the dismissive cultural implications of the term “illiberal” politics. This is a word Orbán himself used to describe his own brand of politics (actually, the term he used was “illiberal democracy”—a nice, tension-filled, highly self-contradictory term—) in a “State of the Country” speech he gave in a rock-concert-cum-nationalist-jamboree held annually in a field on the outskirts of a resort town in northern Romania. He borrowed it from west European usage, with the customary sloppiness that characterizes such borrowing.
When this term is used in western Europe or north America to describe the Hungarian, Polish or Russian political field, it acquires a distinct, clearly recognizable tone, it becomes a language of dismissive power.
First of all, it makes an extremely sweeping statement about the entire field of politics in the east European, post-state-socialist part of the world. That is patently unfair to those activists, NGO workers, volunteers, social entrepreneurs, etc., who work day and night to make things less undemocratic, more egalitarian, etc. in their own societies.
The second—in my mind, undesirable—effect of this use of the term is that it serves, quite clearly, to “whitewash” the societies of “the West.” It makes it impossible, for instance, to point at the astonishing similarities between Orbán’s regime and not only, say, the political situation in Russia or Turkey (the comparisons that are often made) but also with recent political developments in the United States, France, Austria, Italy, Germany, etc.
5/ ‘Illiberal’ or not, there is a rising trend of right-wing populism (or nationalist conservatism) in Europe. Could Orbán’s ‘illiberalism’ be considered a forerunner of the policies of those parties?
First and foremost, Orbán is very much a follower of west European patterns in the sense that west European racism, nationalism and overall right-wing politics is clearly the direct, unmitigated source of inspiration and specific ideas for east European right-wing nationalism / racism / anti-democratic politics, etc. Western Europe is where east Europeans have historically learned how to be nationalist, racist and anti-democratic. This is part of the intellectual impact of west European political culture on east European societies. The latter understand this as part of the “European tradition”—and of course they see themselves as committed followers of the “European tradition.” East European societies have a strong commitment to ignoring the self-searching, conflict-filled impact of that tradition in today’s western Europe and the rest of the world.
On the other hand, Orbán is, of course, also a forerunner in the sense that Hungary has “run” in its support for such politics farther toward the right than any contemporary EU-member society has, with the possible exception of Poland. Orbán’s politics poses, clearly, a very complicated challenge to the field of politics in western Europe. On the one hand, it is obvious that those segments of west European Big Capital that are present in Hungary are elated in their support for Orbán’s low-wage, strictly “discipline-and-repress” style policies that provide an as yet seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap, regulated and reasonably well trained labor force, both in west-European owned companies located in Hungary and, increasingly, in the form of migrant labor leaving Hungary for western Europe, essentially undercutting the relative achievements of west European working classes.
Orbán poses a genuine challenge to the west European political status quo by pushing the midpoint of “acceptable” politics very much to the right. He also has a remarkably clearly articulated, pro-integration, anti-supranational, resolutely anti-federal model for the European Union. His slogan of an “Europe of nations” already has many interested listeners all over the European Union. With Brexit, Orbán will become considerably more important as a key proponent of that model for the EU. I would even go as far as allowing that part of the astonishing, almost completely lock-step, right-ward move of the successor states of the erstwhile Habsburg Empire and its immediate neighbors might also have something to do (obviously over and beyond local history, etc.) with the receptivity of a fairly sizeable proportion of the societies of Central Europe to the resolutely proto-fascist move that Orbán’s—apparently quite successful—politics represents. In other words, Orbán’s effects have already extended beyond the borders of Hungary.