What is the point of writing about Hungarian politics?

While all journalists would benefit from reading more about Hungary than writing at this time, there are still plenty of dynamics for the country’s columnists to pay attention to.

Those interested in Hungarian politics have started feeling like they’re starring in a remake of Bill Murray’s classic 1993 film, Groundhog Day. Every four years, emotions reach new heights in the already hyperpolarized Hungarian public discourse. Every four years, analysts debate favorites to win elections, voters wonder if the opposition will eventually oust Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz from government, and journalists try to find the best angles to cover the campaign. And every four years, reality hits everyone in the face since nothing changes and Fidesz wins a ⅔ majority.

Since April 3, there have been significant discussions among Hungarian commentators about whether something they do matters, given that the result always seems to be the same in every election. Some have gone through (or are going through) this process simply as part of professional intellectual reflection, while others have experienced a mini-crisis or even signs of burnout. While this attitude is somewhat understandable, Hungarian politics is still worth discussing, albeit undoubtedly in a different way than in the past decade. As Hungarian politicians and voters adjust to the new reality by accepting the possibility that a change of government is no longer possible in the country via an election, journalists must also hone in on the aspects of Hungarian politics on which they concentrate in their writings.

Journalists covering Hungary should embrace Phil Graham, the late Washington Post editor, that journalism is the first draft of history. Although party politics has become boring in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, there are some persistent patterns of Hungarian political and ideological traditions that still deserve attention and analysis.

As political analysts such as Péter Tölgyessy and Ervin Csizmadia regularly point out, it is a recurring trend in Hungarian political history for a party to become dominant and virtually unbeatable after brief democratic periods. It happened with the Liberal Party in the 19th century, with the right-wing Unity Party in the 1920s, with the Communists in the late 1940s, and now with Fidesz.

Above all, journalists and political analysts in Hungary should adopt this historical understanding and accept that it is the system in which they must analyze the actions of political actors. Or at least they should offer an alternative framework that is coherent but nevertheless accepts that orthodox political analysis is insufficient to understand the nuances and dynamics of the country’s politics. Regular analysis of campaign methods and political tactics with brief acknowledgments that there are no level playing fields will no longer suffice.

Secondly, chroniclers should try to understand common patterns in the aforementioned periods of Hungarian history and offer their analysis of the current system in light of their findings. This inherently involves more reading than writing at the moment, which is certainly a challenge in the fast-paced news environment of the 2020s. However, those who engage in Hungarian politics as a writer or readers should recalibrate their brains to develop a more long-term approach to their consumption of Hungarian news.

Third, journalists should also focus on alternatives to partisan politics and the shapes and forms that opposition can take. After all, the biggest setbacks the Orbán regime has faced in the past decade have been the anti-internet tax protests in 2014, Momentum’s Nolimpia campaign in 2017, and the Fudan protest of 2020. Only the latter was organized by the political forces of the party and the Internet. -tax protest organizer András Jámbor and Momentum entered politics after their success outside of it.

And while apart from parties that eventually develop hegemony, political parties tend to be short-lived in Hungary, the intellectual traditions they follow remain consistent. There have always been Hungarian liberals, socialists, conservatives and national radicals and these intellectual traditions in the country have a clear and continuous trajectory. Where they go next should be an intellectually stimulating point of interest in itself.

Who will win the battle to be the torchbearer of Hungarian progressivism? Although currently completely devoid of political representation, the New Left could use its emerging institutions to replace liberalism as the main progressive force in Hungary for the first time since the 1980s. But Hungarian liberalism could also wake up from its zombie state and learn from the new left by developing good quality institutions that revitalize and renew the ideology that could then even be adopted by existing parties.

And what about the Hungarian right? How long can Orbán maintain his grip on both the far right and the moderate right (or, as right-wing intellectuals like to call it, Hunnia and Pannonia) in the country? And if the alliance is to be broken, who will break it, the radical Huns or the moderate Pannons?

Will the formal opposition parties finally learn their lesson and start building a grassroots community? And if so, where will these communities be located geographically? And what activities will they organize for their members?

If for no other reason, journalists should pay attention to at least some movements within Hungarian politics to guide future historians. They may be able to understand this period of Hungary better than its contemporaries.

Attention should also be paid to the interaction between Fidesz and Hungarian society in general. While Fidesz’s propaganda efforts have excelled in changing the way Hungarians view Russia, Hungarians remain staunchly pro-EU even after a decade of continuous bashing of Brussels. The acceptance of the LGBTQ community is even on a completely opposite trajectory in Hungarian society than in official government opinion. Why is Fidesz able to implant certain narratives in the Hungarian public and why does it fail with others?

Columnists and followers of Hungarian politics should also pay attention to the international context. After all, the hegemony of the Liberal Party collapsed because of World War I, the hegemony of the Unity Party collapsed because of World War II, and the socialist hegemony ended in the end of the cold war. To be able to fully grasp the evolution of Hungarian politics in the coming years, analysts must deepen their understanding of the political evolution of the European Union as a whole and pay attention to the dynamics of the American Republican Party which maintains more and more dialogue with the Hungarian illiberals. Furthermore, how Orbán navigates between Hungary’s allies and China is bound to be an interesting story, which the contrasting hawkish attitude of the US right is sure to make even more complicated.

Finally, those who engage in Hungarian politics must sharpen their senses for subtle signs. Although all previous hegemonies came to an end largely due to outside influences, there was always one group that seized on the chaos and set up its own rule afterwards. These actors often do not come from the formal parliamentary or internal opposition of the hegemonic parties, but from extra-parliamentary movements in the making.

Therefore, political journalists in Hungary should research which intellectual circles and movements are beginning to flourish and are poised to be best placed to take over once illiberal Hungary has fallen. While politics in Hungary is likely to be at a standstill for years to come, a subtle dynamic will now lead directly into whatever is to follow in the particular development of Hungarian political history. That is why it is invaluable to understand and communicate them.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in history from Durham University. He specialized in Central European history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles here!

Scott R. Banks