Hungarian riots: the Aftermath of a Crushed Fantasy

 

The Hungarian PM Ferencs Gyurcsány admitted to the Socialist party crowds in May that he had been lying “day and night”. When the news broke out the fantasy of the democratic, economically viable Hungary was broken down. In Hungary, the response was turmoil. Political scandal and riots on the streets. The politicians had let down the people. What came to replace the fantasy of the well-off country was that of revolution.

My point here is to look what was going on. Why did he/they lie? Why did he admit it? What happened when they admitted it? And, finally, what is this “revolution” about anyway?

Even though the international community seem to have been ignorant, the country’s economy has been in a crisis for a while. Already during the summer it had been revealed that the PM and the Minister of Finance had been lying about the real state of the budget deficit, for months prior to the elections.

Yet, the revelation of the state of the Hungarian economy comes as a surprise to the larger community of EU countries, businesses and ‘the Western World’ – only a few would care about the Eastern neighbours’ perceptions on this matter. Perhaps, the actual state of the economy is surprising for me, too, I feel under-trained to take positions as my specialisation are discourses, ideals and experiences.

As all Hungarians, I also know that politicians have not really bothered to do anything about the economic situation. Neither have they really cared about the ordinary people. Election promises are promises, and these two – i.e. ‘we will fix the economy’ and ‘your life will become better over the next four years’ – have been pretty incompatible, especially in the conditions of the dominant neoliberalist discourse abroad and in Hungary.

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Privatisation of Hospitals: A Case to Illustrate the Situation

Let me take the example of privatisation of hospitals, to account for some context. This has been an issue in Hungary especially due to, since and around the referendum in December 2004. The turn-out in the referendum was too low to qualify but the results showed a strong opposition to privatisation. The liberal party SZDSZ supported the cause and the far-left parties and for the sake of mobilisation Fidesz, the main party on the national right, opposed it.

Everyone in Hungary knows that something has to be done about the health care system and hospitals in Hungary. Generally speaking the quality is bad and the system expensive. The nurses and young doctors are badly paid. Also it is expensive for the people using it since it is customary to give gifts (money) to your doctors and hospital nurses. There are cases where a patient has paid 100 000ft extra for a treatment and examination by a high-ranking doctor – a sum equaling a monthly salary of many Hungarians.

In September 2006 Hungarian newspapers were reporting on how things are elsewhere. They revealed that fellow EU citizens pay set fees to use the healthcare services in their countries. Indeed, this might solve some of the funding problem and the problem of corruption. However, since the unregistered, untaxed ‘gifts’ are going straight to the salaries of the doctors, first investment would be the salaries of doctors.

To put it prudely, one of the reasons behind the calls for privatisation is that if things were privatised those with money would not need to go to the very expensive and few private hospital or the ordinary ones, but would have more chances to avoid the ‘horrors’ of the Hungarian hospital. This demonstrates the logic on which many decisions are made by the political elite.

The state cannot afford to run hospitals, yet it would like to receive the tax on the real value of health services (and cut corruption…). Critical studies show how, in total, privatised health system is not any cheaper than a state-run one. Besides, if just the hospitals were privatised, who would buy them?

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Until now, the Socialist-Liberal government has sold the state property when it does not know how to deal with it. The privatisation of the Budapest airport is a recent example. Usually the sales produce little income. This is one of the things that Gyurcsány stressed in his speech in May: even if we sold everything that the state owns, we would not solve our current situation. There has to be large-scale reforms and long-term thinking.

This leads to the question: why did Gyurcsány admit that he had been lying? In short, he needed to legitimate large scale reforms, which would have little connection to the election promises. These promises could not be kept, was the PM’s message to the party crowd after the elections in May. Now as the recording of his speech was leaked in September, the whole country heard this.

Once the speech was leaked, Gyurcsány continued admitting what he had done but stressed that everyone in Hungary had been lying for the past 8-10 years.

Basically, Gyurcsány attempted to make it possible to carry out reforms to the economy. For this he needed to recognise that there is a problem. Instead of insisting that everything is going well, truth about the “fucked-up” state of Hungary had to be told. For this the whole culture of nationalism and deception should be reversed.

**

Why had Gyurcsány been lying? To win elections. Not a very noble cause – but for the party audience that his original speech was actually intended to.

Hungarian politics has been polarised since the late 1990s. This means that there is a strong frontier between the two political camps of the left and right. There is little contestation within each of the camps. The main objective of any political struggle is to defeat the other. In fact, the other camp is vital for the construction of the self-image of the own camp. Rejection of the others – which takes often forms of negative campaigning – offers the sense of unity.

Many of the lies, therefore, have been made to maintain the balance. Any controversies that might harm one’s own camp are undermined or rejected as the fault of the other. When this logic is the guiding principle in politics, there is no room for honesty.

The accusations by Gyurcsány that everyone has been lying were denied by the leader of the main opposition party Fidesz, former PM Viktor Orbán. Besides following the confrontational logic of polarisation Orbán sought to maintain the fantasy of the economically viable and democratic Hungary that had been so important for all the parties’ discourses.

Curiously, just before the general elections in April, Gyurcsány had a crushing victory over Orbán in a crucial TV debate, when he demonstrated how the former PM had lied and still does. Lying became an unpronounced election theme. Now the current PM himself admitted to having lied all along.

**

Everyone in Hungary knows that politicians lie. Even in the last elections many chose to vote for “the robbers against the murderers”. So far no one had admitted it.

Everyone knew that the Hungarian economy was in a bad shape. Now it became official. The country was in ruins.

The figure of ‘fantasy’ in psychoanalytic thought implies that even if everyone knows something to be a mere illusion, they want to believe in it. Fantasy brings cohesion and togetherness. When the bubble is broken, the emperor revealed to be naked and fantasy is dissolved.

The process of breaking down of a fantasy causes a lot of distress and therefore, when Gyurcsány admitted to have lied and argued that so had everyone else, he broke the bubble. He said something that had not been said before, something unsayable in those conditions. The structuring fantasy broke down.

It was replaced by another unifying fantasy: the myth of the revolution.

**

For the Hungarians and their national identity, the myth of the revolution is important. The tradition of the years 1848, 1956 and 1989 is constantly recalled in public speeches and symbols. This year the 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution had already started. At the time disillusionment the ideal of the people’s fight against the power-holders was seen as the solution for future action and for the lacking sense of unity.

But who’s “revolution” was this? The hooligans, neo-Nazis, ordinary right-wing people and disillusioned youth on the streets were one of the “revolutionary” sides. The revolutions of 1956 and 1989 had rather been one’s of reforms, “refolutions” as some political scientists call them. Also Gyurcsány called for a new era through reforms.

His rhetoric was “revolutionary” in the sense of shaking the old patterns of thought and speech. In his speech to the party activists, he used rough language and swore. In Hungary the nation and the country have been idealised in the political rhetoric of all parties, especially prior to the elections.

Having won the elections in April 2006, in his May speech Gyurcsány referred to Hungary using the most common swearword: things in this “bloody country” (kurva ország) had to be put on track.

**

Future will show whether Gyurcsány will indeed be the one to take care of the needed reforms and what will happen in the local elections in early October. The opposition parties were already before the crisis leading in the polls.

The political strategy the PM chose was a brave one. On the other hand, his choices were limited. His was the first government to continue after the elections since the new political system was established 1990. Thus, elections had not offered any break in policy. After all, previous changes of government after the elections had caused a mini-revolution changing besides the political elites, also the policies and bureaucrats. This time, the economic situation itself caused a need for deep changes.

In the long-run, however, mere reforms, changes or a “revolution” itself cannot offer the cohesive force or a solution to the economic decay in Hungary.

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