Incompetent Petty Autocrats: Peacock-Dancing Hungarian Style

by Dr. David Mandler

Since 1848, March 15th has been a special day to remember in Hungary. It was on that day that the rebellion against Habsburg absolutist rule in Hungary began, ballooning into a full-scale war of independence. It was on that day that the fiery young poet, Sándor Petőfi, emerged from the shadows as a major voice. Sadly, March 15th, 2013, will enter into Hungarian history books as the day on which the utter incompetence and subsequent public relations machinations of the current FIDESZ-ruled Hungarian government in two separate fields became obvious: 1) in emergency response and 2) the selection of candidates for Hungary’s highest governmental awards.

When on March 11th the Hungarian parliament had passed a package of amendments, containing most of the laws Hungary’s Supreme Court had previously struck down, some hoped to see a massive outpouring of public anger on March 15th. Instead, Hungary was blanketed with snow and fierce winds the weather service had predicted correctly earlier in the week. Thus, instead of crowds of people demonstrating against this blatant attack against Hungarian democracy marching in the streets of Budapest, crowds of motorists found themselves stuck on a major highway towards Vienna. Having heard no useful updates about road conditions and even worse, false information in Hungarian public radio about imminent emergency assistance, thousands of people spent up to twenty hours in their cars, waiting for the emergency services to appear. Not until the dividing rails were cut could cars free themselves from the dangerous gridlock that had the potential for turning into a major disaster. With the help of a column of snow plowers from Austria (on March 15th when Hungary usually celebrates its independence from Austria) and a batch of tanks, Hungarian roads were slowly cleared.

The next day, instead of a letter of resignation, Hungary’s interior minister, another Sándor, Dr. Sándor Pintér, congratulated himself (not in a poetic form) as well as the chief of emergency services (much despised by the rank a file of Hungarian fire fighters) for a job well done.  The prime minister followed up the day after with the release of a short video clip (that many have claimed was staged) on Facebook in which he is heard (but not seen) driving a car, picking up a young couple from Transylvania and returning them to their truck amidst small talk. The authenticity of this video clip is still in dispute.

March 15th is also the date on which Hungary recognizes outstanding artists, journalists etc. for their contributions. This year, it was no different. What produced international condemnations was not Hungary’s response to the snow emergency, but rather the awarding of the prestigious Táncsics prize for journalism to the 52-year-old anchor of a program called World Panorama, Ferenc Szaniszló, Now, usually it is none of anyone’s business whom a sovereign nation’s government decides to award. But when a member of the European Union awards a person who regularly pontificates in a calm and articulate manner  not only on Hungarian events in the distant past and present but also international events such as 9/11, the death of Princess Diana, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (just to name a few) with a constant and never-changing ominous conclusion about dark, international conspiracies more fitting for an inmate in a lunatic asylum than a TV studio (it’s the Jews, stupid!) then the United States and Israel cannot remain silent. Sure enough, when Szaniszló’s unsavory track record was aired the day of the announcement, the minister responsible for the award, Zoltán Balog quickly reversed himself, incredibly citing his ignorance of Szaniszló’s virulent output of recent years despite the fact that the vetting committee had rejected Szaniszló’s nomination, and asked Szaniszló to voluntarily return the award. The offended journalist acquiesced on March 20th in his TV program with a torrent of withering criticism reserved for those who, in his benighted mind, would silence his demented narratives he labels as the truth (Israel (i.e. the Jews) and the U.S.).

Much less publicized and noted by the international community was the decision to award two equally unsavory individuals governmental medals of high honor, János Petrás and Kornél Bakay. The former is the bassist and composer of the virulently nationalistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic band, Kárpátia who composed the banned right-wing Hungarian Guards. The latter is an archeologist, academic, and museum director, Kornél Bakay. The now 72-year-old Bakay, who ran twice for parliament under the aegis of the now defunct nationalist party, MIEP, has a long track record of anti-Jewish activity. It was Bakay who declared that Jesus was not a Jew, called into question the existence of a Jewish State during the era of King David and Solomon, and asserted that the Jews were responsible for the slave trade in the Middle Ages. It was also the same Bakay who, in his capacity of museum director, organized a controversial  exhibition ten years ago about Miklós Horthy and the Hungarian Nazi, Ferenc Szálasi that created such a scandal that it had to be closed prematurely.

In the absence of public protest, Minister Balog has not asked these two individuals to return their medals of honor. He is unlikely to do so unless equally forceful pressure is applied from Hungarian civic groups and, more significantly, internationally significant organizations and governments. Mr. Balog’s imitation of Prime Minster Orbán’s famous peacock dance intended to deceive others into believing that he is doing what they want when he’s simply doing what he had always wanted has so far degenerated into a public relations nightmare. After all, Mr. Balog has managed to offend just about everyone (the left for awarding Szaniszló, and the right for asking him to return his award). Yet, Balog’s debacle is Orbán’s victory. By acting quickly to issue a letter in which Balog asks Szaniszló to return the Táncsics prize, he has successfully deflected criticism from his boss Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the person who should really be in the cross hairs of criticism, the guiding force behind driving Hungary from the path of democracy into one of autocracy. With one award returned and two left in place, Mr. Orbán may feel that he has successfully deceived the international community into believing that the Hungarian government does not award extreme right wingers (meaning anti-Semites) prestigious prizes when, in fact, it does.

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the nomination of Imre Juhász, a former member of an extreme right wing group of lawyers formed by the virulently anti-Semitic Krisztina Morvai (now an MP in the European Parliament), to the Constitutional Court. This development is extremely worrisome even though the Constitutional Court has been eviscerated under the new Fundamental Law (which no longer forms a stable constitution as the FIDESZ party may continue to amend it as it sees fit). For anyone in doubt, it should be even clearer that Imre Juhász is a bridge between the extreme right wing and FIDESZ since the anti-Semitic party, Jobbik, has enthusiastically supported his nomination.

While international organizations and governments should continue to raise their voices against rewarding people who foster an atmosphere of deep distrust and even hatred and institute protests with teeth against the evisceration of Hungarian democratic institutions, the results of such pressure in Hungary will indubitably reenergize neo-Nazis in Hungary who can point a finger at “outside Zionist forces” trying the “meddle” in Hungarian internal politics.

One thing is certain: as the weather warms up, one can expect to see a renewal of street protests in Hungary. How effective (and violent) these protest will be is still in question. Judging by the government’s deplorable response to the snow emergency, the supporters of democracy can only hope that the petty autocrats of Hungary will fail not only because of public protests but also because of their own demonstrated gross incompetence. Lack of performance coupled with the unstoppable spreading information in real time revealing the arrogance of government officials who claim victory even in defeat shared on social media sites that have so far escaped the far-reaching tentacles of the Hungarian government will certainly serve to foment discontent in Hungarian society.

Mr. Orbán must be grateful that Sándor Petőfi’s inspiring poem was not declaimed this year from the steps of the National Museum on March 15th. The lines “Rise, Hungarian, the country calls you/time has come: it’s now or never/should we be slaves or free men/that’s the question: make your choice now!” [my translation] would have sounded especially threatening.

And timely.