Merkel came and saw, while a giddy opposition waited with bated breath

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán didn’t have an exceptionally good day. He almost certainly could have avoided an embarrassing press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel if only he would have taken the more pragmatic route of distancing himself from comments made last summer in Transylvania, about the possibility of turning Hungary into an illiberal democracy. Mr. Orbán was answering a question from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), in which the Hungarian prime minister was asked to explain what he meant when he spoke positively about an “illiberal democracy.”

Mr. Orbán and Ms. Merkel in Budapest on Monday. Photo: Parliament of Hungary

Mr. Orbán and Ms. Merkel in Budapest on Monday. Photo: Parliament of Hungary

“Not all democracies have to be liberal,” answered Mr. Orbán, as Ms. Merkel looked on with a brief expression of astonishment. “Those who say that democracy is necessarily liberal are trying to put one school of thought above the rest and we’re not going to grant that privilege,” added the Hungarian prime minister, digging himself further into a political hole entirely of his own making. Ms. Merkel was unequivocal in her response and did not hesitate to publicly reject what her Hungarian counterpart and Christian Democratic “comrade” was saying.

“I personally don’t know what to do with the term,” said Ms. Merkel of Mr. Orbán’s illiberal democracy. And within minutes, this was the headline on all major Hungarian news sites.

The left-centre opposition jumped on Mr. Orbán’ public chastising. Népszava’s feature article was entitled Orbán gets a lesson in democracy,” while Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy of the Democratic Coalition (DK) wrote on Facebook that thanks to the Merkel-visit, “the ball is now in our court.” He noted that Mr. Orbán must have received “sharp criticism” in private from the German chancellor and echoed Ms. Merkel in saying that being socially sensitive and respecting liberalism is part of Christian democracy. Mr. Kerék-Bárczy is himself a conservative politician within Ferenc Gyurcsány’s hybrid party, a practicing Catholic and formerly associated with the now defunct Hungarian Democratic Forum.

József Tóbiás, the leader of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) commented on Facebook that today proved that “Mr. Orbán can’t even hide his anti-democratic views during a brief press conference.” MSZP then quickly issued an official statement confirming that the Socialists firmly believe that “the Europe of the future is based on social, Christian and liberal values.”

MSZP then went a bit further to confirm that the Hungarian Socialist Party and Ms. Merkel “basically think the same thing about democracy, even though we did not meet with her today.”

MSZP’s press release was dire, but not too much worse than what DK produced shortly after Ms. Merkel got onto her plane and flew away.

“Mr. Orbán looked like a frightened child standing next to his teacher,” said Csaba Molnár. The Hungarian text refers to Ms. Merkel in this context as the “tanár néni,” which is hard to translate, but I would ask my readers to think of a no-nonsense elderly, female schoolteacher. The word “néni” means “aunt.” What is unfortunate, is that the Hungarian opposition, in large part, actually sees Ms. Merkel precisely in these terms: a strict German model democrat who will carry a whip when she meets the out-of-control Mr. Orbán.

DK also felt that it was very significant that Ms. Merkel thanked the Hungarian people as opposed to thanking the Hungarian government during her visit. This, however, isn’t really a slight to the current government, it is simply recognizing — as Mr. Merkel’s press secretary did through Twitter — that Hungary played a critical role 25 years ago in the dismantling of the Iron Curtain.

It says something about the psyche of Hungarian society, and the Hungarian opposition in specific, that people could get into such a frenzy and could expect so very much from an eight hour visit of a right-wing politician, whose track record on social justice and democracy actually isn’t stellar. Gáspár Miklós Tamás (TGM) wrote about this in January, as opposition parties, many activists and media personalities all seemed to wait with bated breath for Ms. Merkel to crack down on Mr. Orbán and teach him a lesson that he would not soon forget.

It’s just a pity that the Hungarian opposition is so servile and ineffective, that it needs to sit and pray for a miracle, in the form of a foreign right-ring politician coming down hard on the man that they are unable to defeat.

“Auntie Merkel, would you please free us from Mr. Orbán and tell us how to introduce freedom in Hungary?”–writes TGM, mimicking the Hungarian opposition. “Some of them think that the adults of Europe will put the rotten kindergarten kids in their place, who happen to be ruling Hungary purely as a fluke of fate,” he added.

It may have been a better day than most for the Hungarian opposition, no thanks to anything that they have done. But Ms. Merkel is now gone, and they can either look to western Europe to sort out their problems for them, or finally grow up, put away this bizarre servility and try to do something that would let them take charge of their own fate.


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