Panel discussion on the ‘revolution of the voting booths’

I might be a booth, but this is not my revolution!

Almost forty people attended the panel discussion on 8 March 2012 on the ‘revolution of the voting booths’, its historical precedents and impact. At the April 2010 general elections, Fidesz won 53% of the vote, which translated into 68% of seats, a parliamentary supermajority that has allowed the Fidesz-Christian Democratic Peoples’ Party (KDNP) government to initiate an intensive and controversial programme of constitutional, electoral, media, educational and countless other reforms. Given the revolutionary talk of ‘twenty years for twenty years’, we wanted to address the state of current affairs in Hungary, and ask the following questions:

How might historical precedents help us understand the ‘revolution of the voting booths’?

How has constitutional reform been framed in the light of ‘unfinished business’ from 1989?

How is political polarisation reflected in the Hungarian media landscape?

Given the increasing frequency of mass demonstrations, what are the opportunities for building consensus?

Professor Martyn Rady presented a historical appreciation of Hungarian legal culture. Addressing Fidesz MEP (and former UCL-SSEES Jean Monnet Professor of Politics) George Schöpflin’s notion of the discursive deficit, Martyn laid out the four sources of law (custom, juristic opinion, judicial decision and legislative acts) and their relevance in the Hungarian context. While the influence of custom was minimal, and juristic opinion had provided vital definitive statements of law from the sixteenth century until the Communist era, judicial activism—known as case law in the UK—played a minor role, with the exception of the first decade of the Constitutional Court’s activity after 1990. The fourth source, legislative act, was originally imported in the nineteenth century from German legal practice, and was used during the Communist era to regulate the interstitial space between public and private by means of both parliamentary statue and government decree. It was this tradition that provided the primary legal inheritance in 1990, a combination of statue and regulation via ministerial or governmental decree.

Dr Tom Lorman considered the ideological roots of the current government which have been described by some critics as a straightforward continuation of the interwar Horthy era model. Instead, Fidesz had weeded pre-World War II history for non-controversial figures such as Kálmán Széll (after whom a 2011 plan to lower sovereign debt was named, and after whom Moscow Square in Buda has been renamed), in order to present a version of Hungarian history that posits Fidesz as the embodiment of a rightist Hungary, and the sole heir of 1956 and 1989. Second, Tom argued that elements of the interwar népi intellectual movement were mobilised by Fidesz in its search for ‘Hungarian’ solutions that tapped into recurring hostility to (alien) elites. Accordingly, ‘us’ and ‘them’ are defined, and the left’s electoral successes of 1994, 2002 and 2006 are explained with reference to the survival of a network that undermines attempts at true reform. Finally, the problem of the weak state after 1989 was to be solved by bringing, in Orbán’s words, the post-Communist era to a definitive end.

Freelance journalist Vali Tóth outlined how questions of media ownership, political influence and content differed in Hungary and the UK. Political polarisation was reinforced by consumers relying only on sources that confirmed their existing beliefs and prejudices, an issue by no means limited to Hungary (and raised by well-known non-Hungarian George Clooney after the 2005 release of his second directorial feature, ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’: ‘you find yourself going to the place that plays to what your political and social agenda or beliefs are’). However, where a ‘winner takes all’ attitude to democracy allowed all incoming governments to staff institutions with their own personnel, the lack of professional continuity was compounded by a lack of dialogue between the two sides and their respective media outlets.

The discussion that followed was constructive and amiable, precisely what we were aiming for, since we felt representatives of the ‘two sides’ (pro- and anti-Fidesz) slugging it out all evening would be neither productive nor enjoyable. Panellists responded to questions on economic restructuring (or lack thereof) and German and Austrian banks’ exposure in Hungary, media protests, the role of intellectuals, activism among the young and right-leaning university students, changes to the electoral law and dual citizenship reforms, the macho nature of Hungarian politics, Fidesz’s competition with Jobbik for the radical right vote, and the broader ideological project Fidesz intends to carry out regardless of EU infringement procedures or the withholding of cohesion funds.

Wondering about what the ‘two sides’ might have in common, I asked for a show of hands of those who believed that there are indeed two Hungaries, with which over half the audience agreed. Whether the concept of ‘two Hungaries’ explains or entrenches the state of current affairs will be a subject for future discussion. It was agreed there was only one Hungary in 1956, and again in 1989, which would underscore the value of revolutionary rhetoric and (re-)definition of the Hungarian nation as a revolutionary work in progress.

The event was hosted by the UCL-SSEES Centre for the Study of Central Europe and opened by its director, Dr Richard Butterwick.

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