Do I stay or do I go?

That’s the question that seems to be on a lot of minds these days, as Hungary edges increasingly closer to the edges of democracy. The situation is attracting attention from political commentators such as Paul Krugman of the New York Times and the Contrarian Hungarian is posting regularly with updates on what’s going on. The Irish Times  published a piece and Ireland’s Newstalk radio had a 10-minute section on the goings on here last week, too. President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso and Hilary Clinton have both approached PM Viktor Orbán airing their concerns at the none-too-gradual, and ever quickening erosion of democracy. But to no avail.

Tonight, as Orbán and his VIP guests apparently entered the Opera House via underground tunnels to celebrate the new Hungarian constitution – one that was written and passed into law without any public consultation or referendum, the manifestation of an intention that was never mentioned in his election campaign –  an estimated 100,000 people gathered in the street outside to make their voices heard. Among them some hundred or so Árpád heads were kept under close watch by the police. I couldn’t tell you what they were saying, but there was no denying the venom with which they yelled. There is some consolation to be had in that their numbers were small and contained. But the fact that there are people in this country who feel like this is scary.

I wonder what it felt like to be inside, listening to the anger and frustrations of thousands of citizens, knowing that some of them had voted you into power? How safe can Orbán be feeling? Or does he care? More to the point, do I care?

I loathe the term ‘expat‘ but have resigned myself to being one. When I’m not in Ireland or elsewhere, I’m in Budapest. I love it here and I really don’t want to move. Yes, I’ll admit that the situation is getting a tad worrying and I’m more than a little concerned about talks of Hungary losing its EU membership. Far-fetched as it might seem, I’m beginning to have nightmares about getting a knock on my door at 4am (but that could also have something to do with my currently reading Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44). I’m also beginning to be more and more conscious of being a foreigner. Three years after I moved in, someone finally updated the doorbell list and I was horrified at the fear in my gut when I realised that my name was on there – advertising to the world where I lived. Am I losing my reason? Perhaps. Perhaps the drama queen in me is rearing her head and imagining all sorts but that didn’t stop me taping over my name. Why draw attention to myself.

I know this is irrational. I know, too, that I don’t want to leave Budapest. And tonight, I’ve realised that in choosing to stay, it’s not enough to stand idly by as Orbán & Co chisel away at a democracy that was hard won. Be it just adding to the numbers on the street at the next demonstration, or reposting articles on what’s happening here so that friends abroad know what’s going on  – I have to do something. Being an expat doesn’t exclude me from the ramifications of what could happen if this continues. I’ve been told that no matter how long I stay or how hard I try, I will never be more than a tourist. However true that might be, it hurt to hear. Yes, Ireland is and always will be my home. I will always be Irish. And while Hungary is a home from home, I have no desire to be Hungarian. And it could well be argued that I should butt out – it’s not my fight. But just as I didn’t listen to those who suggested I incorporate my company in another country, believing that if I choose to live here, I have  duty to pay taxes here, then if I choose to stay, I have a duty to get involved. So when standing 10 metres from a mob of chanting yobbos who I know would like nothing better than for me for me and every other foreigner in this country, and our associated institutions and organisations, to go home, I felt not fear, but anger. The words of  Martin Niemöller came to mind:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —  Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

The coming months will be interesting.  As a growing audience around the world watches and waits to see how the story evolves, liberal voices like Klubrádió are being silenced. When they are all gone, who will be left to speak out? Now is a time to believe in miracles.

14 Responses

  1. The UK Times has been running some pretty serious pieces on this too. Your stance is brave in a country whose future seems unclear………I would think that at times like this a good writers voice from within Hungary is particulary valuable in informing the outside world, I hope that you are being supported by your Hungarian friends.

    Take care

  2. As a Hungarian citizen I don’t share your concern. If today were elections in Hungary, Fidesz would win with two thirds and Jobbik would reach twenty procent. Also I don’t think that anyone who voted for Fidesz would even take part in such a demonstration which only reflects the opinion of a small minority. A rhetoric question: why were silent in 2006 those who fear now the existance of democracy in Hungary? 2006 is the year when eyes were shot out, the year of police brutality ordered by MSZP , when economic data was falsified, when it came out that the PM was lying non-stop and his beloved party was corrupt to the bone and were interested only to embezzle the country’s money. 2006 is the year when democracy was nulled down, not just in danger. Nowadays democracy is not in danger in Hungary. Fidesz with it’s 2/3 has the people’s mandate to fulfill for what they were voted: to do in and destroy once for all the corrupt system perpetrated by MSZP and the former SZDSZ, and build a new framework for a better future in the interest of the people and not against their interest as MSZP and SZDSZ did.

    1. Hi – haven’t heard from you in a while Erik – how goes the world?

      Personally I don’t know anyone who voted for Fidesz (and I’ve asked) and envisaged a blanket rewrite of the constitution, which is serving little other purpose that ensuring that the ruling party has more and more power. Rather than Fidesz winning the last election, it would seem to me that the incumbents lost. There was little choice but to put hope and trust in some other party. But I sincerely doubt that this is what the majority wanted – and given that rewriting the constitution was not part of the election mandate, I have to wonder at how exactly they are fulfilling the people’s mandate? You say democracy is not in danger – when one party, or one man, holds _all_ the power and has free rein to do pretty much what he/they like(s), what then do you call it? I agree that were there an election tomorrow, Fidesz would most likely win – but certainly not by the same majority. The tide is slowly turning and for once, last night, every opposing faction was united in their opposition – which is a first (to my knowledge). And yes, Jobbik would most likely see a surge (about 17% from what I’ve read) and that in itself is cause for sleepless nights. I’m glad you don’t share my concern – one of us losing sleep is enough.

      Mary Murphy

      1. Hi Mary! There is nothing new under the sun. 🙂

        There is a saying in Hungarian “bolhából elefántot csinál” (makes elephant from a flee) in order to describe exageration. And that is what the barking world opinion is doing regarding Hungary.
        Everyone can have their opinion. In 2006 they were silent. This discredits their present view in my eye.
        And this so called opinion is used by the two marginal parties: MSZP and LMP to get some leverage on the public.

        You have to remember that one party which has the legitimate power now was voted “by the people, for the people “.

        (Ex. Regarding the press law: since it has been adopted I’ve never seen any negative change or any difference: ex. the government is still under harsh critique which is good. But after 20 years press freedom must be paired with responsibility.
        Ex. Church law: sanctions the state financed 14 religions based on their numbers, and get rids of churches which were mascareded businesses not paying taxes. Anyone can gather and pray in whatever way to anybody, but they will not have state support.
        Ex. Central Bank law: see the american candidate Ron Paul and his book and why to government should controll the central bank.

        I hope you will have a sound sleep with no worries.

  3. Clearly there’s a lot of emotions involved there. Hungary does that to you I guess. If you were not this passionate though, I’d say you don’t belong.
    Remember though that things in Hungary are exaggerated by the media. With 80% of the Hungarian media and intellectuals still being left leaning (due to decades of communism), things are quite unbalanced there. I wish Mrs Clinton complained about that instead of Klubradio, which is a minor left-leaning radio in Budapest. I wish she really meant to help the country change for the better instead of making a political statement about the current government. Fidesz and Orban are portrayed as the aggressors, but if you put things in perspective they are really the underdogs.

    1. On this we’ll have to disagree I’m afraid. Far from seeing Orbán as an underdog, I think the masses were duped. I doubt anyone had any idea that he would use his majority as he’s done by rewriting the constitution without referendum. There is an argument that he was voted it; but every bone in my body tells me it was more a question of the last Gyurcsány gov being voted out. There is not other way to explain this wholesale abdication of democracy and the people’s right to referendum. I can’t get past that and while Fidesz, under another ruler, might well be what the country needs, things are they are, far from being exaggerated by the media, are really a cause for great concern. I fear that one day Hungary will wake up and wonder how things got so bad without anyone noticing. The shenanigans around Klubrádió and its loss of frequency is another story entirely and I only wish that more people saw this not as a incidental action against a minor-left leaning radio but as as symbol of what’s to come. Not good, methinks. Not good at all.

      Mary Murphy

  4. The masses are duped on both sides I’m afraid thanks mainly to the media. It only depends, which media you are reading or watching.

    I have to admit that in 2002, I voted for the left (the liberals who have since disappeared after ruining the country). They seemed to me the nice guys unlike Orban, the nazi dictator (I was reading the left leaning or so called “independent” media). I just couldn’t believe my eyes that there are people stupid enough wanting to vote for fascist Orban and Fidesz and can’t see through them. I had many heated arguments with many people and many friendships were ended as a result. Now I’ll soon be friendless if I keep arguing but now pro Fidesz!
    The left/liberals/communists after the fall of communism were quick to portray themselves through their large media in Hungary as pro-Western, pro-Democracy, pro-European, liberal, open minded, welcoming, intellectual and that resonated with me as well in 2002. But not anymore. Now after only one year in government, the leftist media and intellectuals (they consist a majority in Hungary) are cleverly painting Orban as Satan, Hitler, Putin, Hugo Chavez, Berlusconi you name it. The names are then quickly picked up all over the world as it’s easy to see things simplified as black and white. But let’s be truthful as this image has almost nothing to do with reality and that’s why I see Orban rather as the underdog here. I don’t think Orban’s intentions are as diabolic (at least I hope not) as the propaganda lets you believe. We might just as well call the leftist leader Stalin and it would be just as ridiculous in my opinion. Not cool.
    Here is just one example why I think Fidesz is the underdog and is unfairly targeted:
    After the left took over from Fidesz in 2002, they quickly removed all the previous Fidesz officials and replaced them with their loyal ex-communist party members. They attacked the few right leaning media by immediately cutting back subsidies, threatening companies who placed advertisements in these papers etc . In 2002 they took over the minor right wing Szabad Föld, which has roughly half a million readers and basically silenced it by turning it into left leaning.
    Have you heard about this? Probably not. Has anyone in the US, EU heard about this, let alone Hillary Clinton? The answer is no. Nobody was worried, appalled. Nobody was saying that the opposition is being silenced, nobody was concerned that media freedom and democracy are in danger in Hungary and that checks and balances are being removed. Why? Because nobody cares about a minor Hungarian paper being silenced! Now they do. You do. Why? It’s because the large leftist propaganda is making a big fuss about it (naturally as they are losing power in the country) and the international media are happy to take over every piece of information. But let’s not forget that Orban is just a politician trying to push his agenda through. If people are unhappy, they can simply vote him out at the next election. No dramas there. Hungary is a democracy. It is false to say otherwise.
    But this whole thing has nothing to do with reality or the truth. We could argue about the details, the constitution, the media, freedom, democracy, both of us would have some traces of truth, but it wouldn’t matter. It is only about emotions fuelled by the media. Masses are duped by the media big time (and not just in Hungary)! We are duped. Not good at all.

    1. I despair, I really do. It’s hard to know what to believe any more. I just have to go with my gut and if I’m wrong, so be it. What can we do but play with the cards we are dealt. My mother used to say that paper will take any print. It’s just the same as with the Internet and any other media we have to day. Still, though, I’m fixated on the rewrite of the constitution without referendum or consultation. But, hey, as you say, we could go around in circles on this. I’m just glad there are people out there still willing to talk about it reasonably.

      Mary Murphy

      1. Do you think the former constitution was voted in? No. And if there would have been a referendum people would have voted it in this new constitution. By the way there was a consultation, everyone could send in their proposals. Of course there are allways people who have a different take on matters and it’s their right to have it.

        Some different British views:

  5. One measure of Hungary – and arguably the most critical – which is outside of the right or left wing – is the economic measures. It is no coincidence the Forint has lost value across 2011 and plummeted in 2012 – in fact the worst performing currency globally. It is no coincidence that banks located in Hungary are at historic lows in terms of assets (Post 1989). Both the government – with their targeted corporate taxes, and depositors who have stripped their money out of the country – have combined to help achieve this low. The current government has cost the citizens of Hungary, billions of Forints. They inherited a mess and have done little to improve the foundation. They have not cut government expenses one Forint. They have stripped personal assets from its citizens (retirement funds). I could continue…

    But these above examples are not the reasons why money has fled this country. Why? Because the government and Orban have no direction. They pass a law day 1 and a week later they say “we will retract items from the law” (see media and central banking law). They are without a sustainable plan and continue to make policy as they go – something the markets will not support. Until this government shows sustainable financial and democratic policies, the situation will only continue to deteriorate. Buckle in for a horrid 2012 and likely another lost decade.

    That’s a snapshot of reality. It’s not from the left, or from the right.

  6. Pragmatic you are definitely right that Fidesz inherited a mess and they have not cut state expenses. They won’t be able to do it now I’m afraid. I think the same thing goes about the referendum of the constitution. Too much of a political gamble for Fidesz, too big a chance to the divided opposition to campaign against a common cause (against the new constitution) and almost no gain for Fidesz.
    They angered nearly everybody abroad and if they start cutting social benefits now, which would anger the masses, that would be the end of it. Street riots would have to be controlled by the police. Soon images of the riot and how dictator Orban oppresses the people would be on the front page of every paper around the world. Next talk of a Hungarian Spring in the media, then sanctions, war planes could hit Hungary… just the usual story and everybody would be happy that the bad dictator is gone.
    But that wouldn’t solve Hungary’s problems and it’s struggle to cope with the past (both communist and fascist past), reform the country and build up a future based on some sort of acceptable past. It doesn’t help that there are huge problems in this respect all over the Western world. There is still a lot of spooking with WWII, Nazism etc. I think it’s time to let go and accept the past, however horrible that past is.

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