Schmidt Mária

The Case for Populism

We Hungarians have rarely had easy lives. As was the case with other nations that came under the direct domination of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, we had to struggle to retain our national culture and way of life. Yet our trials have prepared us well for the challenges of the 21st century.

After World War II, the Soviet Union foisted a social experiment on Hungary, forcing us to live in a Communist society for almost half a century. In 1956 we rebelled against the Soviet-backed regime in an effort to regain our national independence. Our revolution failed, however, and we paid a heavy price. Liberation would come decades later, after the collapse of the Soviet empire.

In the totalitarian regime imposed on Hungary by Communist Moscow, politics was practiced in impenetrable, smoke-filled back rooms. There was a total absence of information on the streets, so the public relied on gossip to find out what was happening.

At the same time, people couldn’t care less about who had and who hadn’t fallen out of grace with the Communist leadership. Society was split between Them (party members and careerists within the ramparts of power) and Us (those whose principal aim was to lead independent lives on the periphery).

Under Communism, it would have been unimaginable for me to go out with a party official or share a friendly word with an army or police officer. Such people existed in a different world than the rest of us. Anyone valued or decorated by officialdom was a nonperson in our eyes. We had our own heroes to look up to. We had the freedom fighters from ’56. We had our poets, like Gyorgy Petri; our writers, like Imre Kertesz; our painters, like Gabor Karatson (one of the most important forerunners of the Hungarian Green movement); we had our singers and historians.

The stifling atmosphere under Communism prevailed through the 1970s. But then, in the 1980s, things started to change. The old guard of Communist officials retired, and their successors didn’t care much for the regime’s official ideology; they were asobsessed as the old guard had become with accumulating money and influence. As a result, the regime became increasingly insecure, while we became more liberated and self-assured.

When Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, we sensed that it was only a matter of time before the Hungarian regime unraveled. The veteran party leader Janos Kadar knew that Mr. Gorbachev’s reforms would be lethal, and he told the Soviet leader so.

He was right. The young officials who took power in the late ’80s soon accepted the inevitable and gave in to change. In June 1989, they permitted the reburial of Imre Nagy, the reform-minded former prime minister who was executed after the 1956 revolution. At this momentous occasion, the young Viktor Orban publicly called for free elections and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary.

In September 1989, the regime opened the Hungary-Austria border, allowing tens of thousands of East German refugees who had flooded into Hungary passage to West Germany. This destabilized the East German regime and unleashed a chain of events that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, and of Europe. “It was in Hungary that the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall,” Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor, later recalled.

These were unforgettable days for us. In the summer of 1989, President George H.W. Bush visited Budapest and assured the leaders of the new opposition that the United States would not let Hungary down like it did in 1956. Free elections were finally held in 1990, and the representatives of the old regime were voted out of office. The Soviet Union withdrew its last troops from Hungary, and we left the Warsaw Pact.

Excited to regain control of our destiny and emerge from the Iron Curtain, we Hungarians naïvely believed that Western Europe would share in our elation. We thought that other nations would empathize with the suffering we had experienced under Communism and offer us a helping hand in overcoming the challenges we faced.

Sadly, instead of treating us as potential allies who were finally joining the free world, the nations of Western Europe treated us as vanquished losers of the Cold War who had to defer to their wisdom. They used economic power to gain control of our markets, then kept us waiting in the antechamber of the European Union for 15 years. We did not experience a genuine reunification with Western Europe. Instead, we were forced to adapt ourselves to the West. It never occurred to the West that perhaps it should adapt itself to us.

During this time, Brussels and its neoliberal economic agenda gained increasing sway over the member states of the European Union, effectively denying citizens the right to make their own economic choices. In doing so it degraded national elections across the Continent, reducing them to formal exercises in changing governments, not policies.

Meanwhile, in Hungary some of the successors of the old Communist regime managed to retain significant influence over the nation’s economic and cultural institutions.

Fortunately, their power was dealt a significant blow in 2010, when Mr. Orban was elected prime minister in a sweeping victory. The political elites who preferred to maintain the status quo during the 2008 financial crisis left Hungary’s middle class, as well as its most needy citizens, high and dry. This impaired the democratic legitimacy of Hungary’s governing parties, which is why voters looked in a new political direction.

Since then Mr. Orban has put Hungary’s interests first when crafting his economic policies, and he has refused to follow the policy directives laid down by European Union bureaucrats in Brussels. He has also worked to replace the neoliberal vanguard that led the country toward bankruptcy during the financial crisis. To bolster the economy, he imposed special levies on multinational companies and banks to distribute the burden of the crisis as proportionately as possible between the market players who caused it (and profited from it) and Hungary’s citizenry.

In 2014, Mr. Orban proclaimed that Hungary was breaking with the kind of early 21st-century liberalism that had been bankrupted so spectacularly in 2008. Instead, he declared a desire for a nonliberal society — he called it “illiberal” — based on community, Christianity and solidarity. He understood that the West was suffering from a systemic crisis, in economic terms and within the liberal order itself.

Nine years have passed since Mr. Orban’s landslide victory in 2010, in which he won over two-thirds of parliamentary seats — a feat he has since repeated twice. This is a clear demonstration of the popularity and success of his policies. Hungary’s economy is in good shape: Inflation and unemployment are at low levels; gross domestic product growth stands at about 5 percent; and real wages have increased by 40 percent in the past few years.

The nonliberal shift promoted by Mr. Orban and the spread of populism that it heralded were consequences of an imbalance within the liberal order, one that favored elites over the needs of everyday citizens. As liberalism runs out of steam, true majoritarian democracy and popular representation is returning to Hungary.

And the same is happening across Europe. In the European Parliamentary elections earlier this year, the “populists” (democrats, in other words) significantly strengthened their position. The European electorate voted for a balance of stability and change — for preserving the European Union without losing more member states, and for keeping alive all of the European Union’s worthwhile achievements while discarding anything that has proved unsustainable. Voters sent a clear message: They want more flexibility in politics, less ideological dogmatism and more readiness for compromise.

While some may not be able to accept it, the old world is disappearing. It can’t be saved. What can and should be saved is Western (Christian) civilization. We must realize that, as the historian Niall Ferguson once wrote, “the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity — and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.”

We Hungarians are well aware that nobody has our best interests at heart other than ourselves. That’s why we continue to insist on liberty, democracy and our independence as a nation-state.

As citizens of a free country in the heartland of Europe, we have served as gatekeepers between East and West for a thousand years.

We hope to do so for a thousand more.

Maria Schmidt is an author and historian whose research focuses on 20th-century dictatorships in Europe. A former adviser to the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, she is the director general of the House of Terror museum in Budapest.

This is an article from World Review: The State of Democracy, a special section that examines global policy and affairs through the perspectives of thought leaders and commentators.

Az eredeti megjelenés a New York Times oldalán IDE kattintva olvasható.