The good news about Hungary’s unfortunate election

I’m a little behind schedule on this issue, but better late than never.

Much has been made of the results of Hungary’s recent parliamentary elections (at least, as much as is ever made of Hungary). They are both expected and surprising: expected, because everyone knew that the reining Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP) would lose and the right-wing Young Democrats Party (Fidesz) take power, accompanied by a strong showing for the radical-right Jobbik Party; unexpected, because, well, every time the right wing wins something in Central and Eastern Europe, everyone gets all in a tizzy.

Now, while there’s nothing wrong with being upset about right-wing victories per se – and strong showings by extremist nutcase parties like Jobbik (whose rhetoric makes the American tea-partiers look tame) in particular – there is something wrong with blowing this out of proportion. Focusing too much on the screaming headlines distracts us from what’s really going on. And what’s really going on, I argue, are two much more benevolent (or, at least, less malignant) phenomena than the headlines suggest.

The first of these phenomena is situational. The MSzP lost because they had spectacularly mismanaged the country since 2002: the country had sluggish growth, stubborn unemployment and inflation, a series of corruption scandals and – horror of horrors – the nagging sensation that they were falling behind Poland (which they were). The only thing that kept the MSzP in power for eight years was relatively fresh memories of the fact that when Fidesz was in power from 1998-2002 – led by the same Viktor Orban who runs the party now – the country had fared even worse. But memories fade, and even an unpalatable Fidesz has looked preferable to an even less palatable MSzP. Not to everyone, though: dissatisfied voters on the right looked to Jobbik, which came in third, while those on the left who could stand neither of the two main parties looked to another protest party, MLP.

The second phenomenon, though, is a bit more involved and considerably more important in the long run. In many ways, MSzP’s defeat at the polls was at least four years overdue; by my calculations, they should have been run out of office no later than 2006. Why? Because Hungary joined the EU in 2004.

Let me explain: of all of the ten Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU after the fall of communism, only in two – Hungary and Lithuania – did the parties that brought their countries into the EU last more than a year or two in office. Ruling parties in Estonia, Latvia and Slovenia were booted out within a year of EU accession. In Slovenia’s case, that election was a death knell for the Liberal Democracy party, which had held power for 11 of the previous 12 years. In Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, parties in power at the time of accession lasted fewer than two years. (Lithuania’s Social Democratic Party lasted another four years in office after EU accession, but that’s another story.)

Parties that had overseen EU accession weren’t rejected because constituents were unhappy about getting into the EU, however. They were rejected because they couldn’t adapt to the new political realities their countries faced. Ever since 1989, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had single-mindedly pursued a simple policy: get in to the European Union as quickly as possible. That required adopting a mountain of new legislation to bring laws and regulations in line with EU norms and an arduous process of political, economic and social reforms. Throughout the 15 years (and, in some cases, 18 years) between the fall of socialism and EU accession, politics was technocratic, as parties competed to prove that they could clear reform hurdles more successfully than their rivals.

After accession, however, the situation changed, and voters and politicians alike were left asking, ‘What do we do now?’ All of a sudden, ideology mattered, as societies dealt with a raft of new questions: How much of a welfare state do we want? What are the priorities for social and economic development? How do we balance our allegiances between our neighbors, Brussels and Washington, not to mention Moscow? The list is unending. And this is not the sort of thing that technocratic parties and politicians are very good at. The only reason Hungary’s MSzP escaped the fate of other regional technocratic parties was that the alternative for Hungarian voters was worse: for eight years, no one wanted to have anything to do with Fidesz. That was bound to change, however, and it did.

In that light, the fall of the MSzP looks a bit more promising. I don’t envy Hungary under Orban’s renewed rule, but then I didn’t envy my own country under the rule of W. Democracies are messy and often bring unfortunate results. But Fidesz’s victory has little or nothing to do with Orban or even with his party. It represents the final death knell for technocracy in Central and Eastern Europe, the demise of the last of the titans, and the irreversible return of politics. And that can only be a good thing.

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