[The following is the original English version of a May 7 commentary published in the Hungarian daily, Népszabadság. See post above.]
BRATISLAVA – The Fidesz super-majority may or may not rejuvenate Hungary’s economy, without a pesky opposition to block its new policies. Time will tell, as there’s no precedent for such a situation.
The Fidesz super-majority may or may not improve life for harassed ethnic Hungarians across the borders, if the party follows through on its vow to grant them citizenship. Time will tell, as there’s no precedent for such a situation.
But will the Fidesz super-majority enhance Hungarian democracy? Specifically, the quality of its democracy? For that, we do have precedent: Viktor Orban’s first run as prime minister.
That’s what concerns me, as an American with dozens of Hungarian relatives – and as a foreign correspondent who lived for six years in Budapest, then the last four next door in Slovakia.
Among all the analysis I’ve read that tries to interpret the remarkable rise of Jobbik, I see little mention of the incitement and hatred that has flourished over the past decade: whether against minorities or political opponents, whether in the media or even on the floor of Parliament.
As in my country, the United States, the drumbeat of hate speech from certain politicians and commentators now permeates society, stoking the audience’s deepest fears – or creating fears they never had before. The difference between here and there, though, is that even some responsible Republicans now stand up to say: “There’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.”
When Jobbik is breathing down his neck from across the aisle of Parliament, will Orban do anything to extinguish the flames of demonization that tear at Hungarian democracy? How will he react, if at all, to the first verbal grenades that Jobbik lobs at “Gypsy criminals” or “Israeli investors”?
I find it difficult to be optimistic, since Orban himself fanned those flames ten years ago.
Back in February 2000, for example, I wrote for Radio Free Europe about Orban’s silence in the face of inflammatory comments from Fidesz colleagues and others who attacked critics in terms ripped from a Hitlerite lexicon, like “cosmopolitans,” “Communist Jews” or “alien-hearted people.”
Orban was also quiet on the multiple efforts to whitewash Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, and, as I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor, was curiously sympathetic toward the fear-mongering Jörg Haider, after Brussels ostracized Austria for forming a new coalition with the far-right leader.
While it seemed many Hungarians rejected such language at the time, the envelope was pushed – with impunity. These were critical moments in Hungary’s democratic evolution, and Orban, given a choice to send a clear message between right and wrong, took the low road.
As former dissident and SzDSz politician Miklos Haraszti told me then, before he went on to become the media watchdog for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe: “These are deeply coded messages to the far right to show that this is where their hearts beat.”
But it’s not only the far right that receives the message: I shudder to think about the thousands and thousands of Hungarian teenagers who grow up today thinking that it’s perfectly acceptable – and a democratic right – to publicly broach “Cigánybűnözés.” They can be forgiven if they miss the Jobbik nuance that, “Oh, we’re not talking about all Gypsies!” Of course they’re not. Just the bad ones.
I understand the reflex to criminalize Holocaust denial, or incitement of hatred against minorities, as a heavy-handed answer to the problem. Yes, the ideal response would be education and age-appropriate school curriculum. That, though, also takes years to filter through society.
A more immediate solution is for Viktor Orban, as a role model to millions of voters and their children, to publicly declare the impact of hateful words: fair criticism crosses the line of civilized discourse when it assigns collective guilt to entire groups of people. Especially when it does more than aim to get the audience’s blood boiling, but incites people to aggression, even violence.
Or, with Jobbik a greater threat to Fidesz than MIEP was a decade ago, will Orban adopt a similar strategy: say nothing, for the public to conclude, “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
All this should not fall onto Orban’s shoulders alone.
I recently spoke with a Slovak human-rights activist here in Bratislava, where far-right leader Jan Slota – a member of the ruling coalition – has profited from bashing ethnic Hungarians and Roma. The activist describes a climate where it seems only Hungarians speak up for Hungarians, only Roma for the Roma, only Jews for the Jews. Too few decent-minded people here speak up for “the other.”
Does this sound familiar? It’s times like this that remind me of the German Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, and his immortal sermon shortly after World War II:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
One of the most striking comments I’ve seen from Jobbik’s Gabor Vona came on April 11, soon after the election results were announced: “I still feel, however, that two-thirds of Hungarians are Jobbik supporters but don’t know it yet.” That, presumably, encompasses the whole Fidesz electorate.
Is it true? Perhaps. So I grasp the pressures Orban will face. However, more than fulfill campaign promises, I hope new prime minister also fulfills the promise of a healthy Hungarian democracy.
Michael J. Jordan is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Bratislava.