Democracy at the system change: A dream come true?

, by Balázs Sean Brandt

Democracy at the system change: A dream come true?

In the framework of the project “Democracy is Europe”, UEF and JEF Hungary are organizing a series of two-part talks, which aims to draw inspiration from the change of regime and the events of 30 years ago to solve the current challenges of democracy in Hungary and the European Union. We will have the first conversation on 22 January, the main topic of which, in addition to recalling the events, will be how we thought about democracy and Europe at the time. Economist Eszter Nagy, Secretary General of the Hungarian Group of the Union of European Federalists, organizer of the event, gave a heraldic interview with Miklós Haraszti on "Democracy at the system change: A dream come true?”, a participant in a panel discussion on the subject held on 22 January.

Eszter Nagy: I found this photo of you on the internet evoking this positive mood in a ring of fellow politicians at the time, taken on March 15, 1990, on the celebration of the Revolution and the War of Independence. How do you remember that moment?

Miklos Haraszti: Bittersweet, not entirely as a moment of happiness, because it was between two rounds of elections, and it was that particular parliamentary election where, unlike Poland, the opposition had already fought against each other. We comforted ourselves that this is progress, just as this is the first completely pure free election. After all, the previous Polish election was still a restricted election, 100 chairs were automatically reserved for the reigning authority, but Solidarity, the fully united opposition, still ruined Polish communist regime. In contrast, here in Hungary, two major opposition parties - the SZDSZ and the MDF - fought against each other. In the end, the primacy in the second round was decided by the votes of the Socialists, who sided with the MDF because they seemed less anti-communist at the time than the SZDSZ. That was one of the things that made the national holiday a little tense. The other thing was that this was already preceded by a very nasty campaign, not free of racism. Which has so far poisoned Hungarian public life. At that time, the MDF was still a joint party of the center-right József Antal and the far-right István Csurka. At the same time, our expectation was gratifying, because the regime change itself was permeated by our liberal dictionary and plan of action that both had a European sense. To address the issue of the federalists today, the word Europe simultaneously meant the West, progress, the reunification of Europe, the end of the delusion between the East and West, already described by Endre Ady. Not in a way that we will belong to some other empire, as this day’s right wing wants it, but in a way that Europe reunites. We were 1,000 percent sure we were moving in that direction. I remember, for example, the moments with Viktor Orbán, patting each other in the back and seeing what a good little Dutch democracy we are going to establish, where any party can make a coalition with another, where the revolving stage will spin, and where the screening of the past is not to blackmail each other with it, but to finally be history. And indeed, 95% of Hungarian society in that election, including the voters of the state party, voted to leave the past. They voted for the future, and to belong to the West. We could talk a lot about the responsibility of everyone individually of where did this go wrong after, but also about how every young democracy does this, first learning how to fight for power against each other rather than how to cooperate. This is the eternal Weimar, even the American and French, the two oldest democracies did so in their first 30 years.

EN: Do you find the project’s approach a good idea, to draw inspiration from the recollection of events from 30 years ago, which are now in historical perspective, in order to solve the current problems with the state of democracy? Can reviving optimism at that time, a sense of liberation, and confidence help us recover from today’s difficulties in the future?

MH: I think there are many aspects to draw inspiration from, and I would mention two important things. The first is that against an autocracy, the forces that believe in a Western-type democracy must come together and be able to overcome the party conflicts that naturally stem from waging the battles of a normal democracy. Normal democracy is political Darwinism, who defeats whom, and then the common good will derive from it. This does not work for us now, because good political Darwinism is also a rule-game, and it has been abolished by our mini-Bonaparte. In such small and hopefully peaceful conditions, the experience of the Second World War repeats itself that the danger threatening freedom must be fought together. The other lesson is more technical, but very Hungarian. I see this as the root of the problems, far more important than which political force made a mistake and when. And this is the problem of a disproportionate electoral system and the ease with which the Constitution can be changed. In a young democracy, which is at the same time a diverse, fragmented society, a multi-party system is important, but a disproportionate electoral system necessarily destroys diversity. And then we stipulate where Hungarian democracy is now, that these sides which rightly represent the different electoral groups, must be brought together almost unnaturally in order to overcome an even greater danger, autocracy. This can be prevented by a proportional electoral system that maintains power-sharing and diversity, coalition, and consensual governance at a certain cost. The price to pay is the relatively cumbersome government formation and the relatively easy disintegration of the government. One of the main slogans of demagogues is governability at all costs, “don’t let there be a debate”. This slogan parasitizes the fact that the noise that develops in democracies is perceived as a burden by voters here. Here, people accept the homogenizing policy easier. So, a disproportionate electoral system is not a good, and a proportional electoral system is needed. The fact that Viktor Orbán failed to homogenize the Visegrád 4, these 4 democracies of similar destiny on the side of illiberalism, anti-Westernism, is also due to the fact that the electoral system in the other three countries is proportionate. There, elections really make a difference. The other huge issue is that with an easy two-thirds majority in the parliamentary, the constitution can be changed, meaning that democratic guarantees can be easily abolished. The constitution must guarantee an always revolving stage. Until 2010, these two deadly weapons hung like Chekhov’s pistol, on the wall of Hungarian democracy. And then a young unscrupulous Machiavellian leader took the gun of constitutional dictatorship off the wall. And now we suffer this. A lesson we can learn from the change of regime in Hungary is that we should have had a proportional electoral system and a solid constitution.

EN: The most important target group of our project is young people. Since the revolution, a new generation has grown up who no longer have any personal experience with it. How would you talk about this period to today’s youth? How exactly could they be informed about this period?

MH: I’m afraid there’s no perfect way. It is like when I grew up and they were exemplifying the Horthy era, which that was unfamiliar, of course, without relevance. I think their own experience and desire for freedom will bring change. There have been 3 developments this year that can fill everyone with hope. The first was that voters were tired of parties behaving in a political Darwinist way in an autocracy as well, and after the lost election in 2018, the popularity of opposition parties began to decline. What’s more, pollsters have been able to measure that it’s because they don’t get together. Because an “opposition voter” emerged who did not care which party he belonged to, just join forces with the other. This has forced coalition between the parties, although it is still not perfect, but at least they are on their way. The other two things are the rebellion of Index’s young team of journalists, and young students and their teachers at the University of Theatre ad Film Arts. These showed that the new generations would get to the rebellion against autonomy in their own way, as we jounalists, the democratic opposition of the seventies and eighties, did under the old regime.

EN: We would like to thank Miklós Haraszti for his answers and we are thanking him for his participation in our first panel discussion on January 22, where we had the opportunity to discuss this topic with sociologist Éva Judit Kovács, and memory researcher Nick Thorpe. The panel discussion is available online.

On January 23rd, “Hungary is the Black Sheep of the EU: What Happened to Us and How Can We Return to Democracy?” will be held as the second part of the two-part event, with the participation of Zoltán Fleck, sociologist of law, and Eszter Kirs, lawyer (Helsinki Committee). The second panel discussion will also be available online (also with simultaneous English translation). Participation is free, but registration is required. Register now at the following link:

Author: Eszter Nagy

Translator: Balasz Sean Brandt

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