Bálint Magyar at Concordia University: Hungary as a mafia state

Bálint Magyar, Hungary’s former Minister of Education and author of the book Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary, gave a well-attended talk at Concordia University in Montreal on September 11, 2017. The lecture was hosted by the Department of Political Science and moderated by a familiar voice from HFP, namely Professor András Göllner. The discussion focused on how one might describe the type of political system that has developed in Hungary since Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010, as well as other post-communist autocracies. While noting that many have drawn parallels with both the Kádár and Horthy eras, Mr. Magyar emphasized that neither “fascist” nor “communist” are appropriate terms to use when defining the current Hungarian regime. Moreover, Mr. Magyar added that “illiberal democracy,” the term used by Prime Minister Orbán, implies that the system in Hungary is still a form of democracy and therefore not as insidious as it actually is.

Mr. Magyar’s presentation, introduced by Professor Emeritus András Göllner of Concordia University, compared and contrasted the characteristics of different types of post-communist regimes in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet states. He argued that many in the nineties believed in a linear progression towards liberal democracy, but very often this was an illusion. Corruption was a defining characteristic, the nature of corruption varied from one country to another–from pervasive, but ultimately petty corruption to partial state capture by oligarchs attached to those in power, to a full blown criminal state. The difference between partial state capture and a criminal state is that in the latter there is a complex political enterprise built, working in tandem with oligarchs. This is when “the state itself operates in concert as a criminal organization,” remarked Mr. Magyar.

(Photo: András Göllner (left) and Bálint Magyar (right) at Concordia University, Montreal)

Hungary, the presenter argues, has become a post-communist mafia state, where there are no longer citizens, but only patrons, a patron’s court and an adopted political family. In this system, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party is a political predator that has built a kleptocracy, where the system of checks and balances has been all but abolished. Having a system of proportional representation might help steer Hungary in a more democratic direction, argues Mr. Magyar, pointing to the fact that in 2014, Fidesz only needed around 43% of the vote to obtain a near two thirds majority of seats in parliament. What also might move Hungary away from autocracy is if the country had a more powerful president, elected directly by voters. Yet neither of these electoral changes are likely at all. The problem for democrats is what János Kornai argues: an autocratic government cannot be removed through a peaceful process. And while not yet a full blown dictatorship, Hungary certainly is an autocracy. A legal opposition exists, there is no open terror, such as large scale detentions or systemic, violent repression. But non-violent forms of repression are used against the opposition, the ruling party appoints its own people to all key positions, civil society is extremely weak and the freedom of the press is constrained by both legal and economic means.

Mr. Magyar points out that Hungary might be close to the point of no return, but it is still not in the same camp as countries like Russia or Azerbaijan, which have passed this point. One other unique characteristic in Hungary is that Prime Minister Orbán has managed to build a post-communist autocracy out of a fairly successful liberal democracy. This is unique, as countries like Russia, Azerbaijan and other authoritarian states never had a true liberal democratic “interlude,” such as what Hungary had for some two decades.

In this type of post-communist mafia state, churches and historic religious communities, be they Christian or Jewish, are either bought or blackmailed. A patron network dominates, there is a fusion of public and private interests and indeed the whole regime is based on this fusion. Most importantly: the state is built on informal collusion and informal institutions at all levels.

In this regime, civil servants, including diplomats, are not public servants, but rather “patronal servants.” There are no lobbyists in this regime, but rather “corruption brokers,” front-men and stooges. This type of state is not built on a market economy, nor a command economy, but rather a “relational economy.”

In this regime, according to Mr. Magyar, “Orbán is the godfather, the chief patron.”  There is a forced redistribution of wealth and opposition is co-opted in a number of ways. In Hungary’s case, and in post-communist mafia states, elections are manipulated, choice in elections is ultimately virtual and opposition parties are either marginalized or liquidated or else they are domesticated. Sometimes, parties are “simulated.” Anyone familiar with the 2014 elections in Hungary knows that a multitude of completely unknown “opposition” parties sprung up out of the blue from nowhere during the campaign and then vanished as soon as the election was over. It is widely accepted that these parties were created by the ruling regime, including ones that claimed to be social democratic and left-leaning in nature. At the end of the day, Hungary’s political system is built on “vassal” and “transmission belt” parties that have no real chance of dislodging the regime, pose no true threat, yet help create something of a semblance of multiparty democracy.

From a legal perspective, Mr. Magyar explained that in contrast to the rule of law, in a mafia state, one sees a system of “rule by law.” As well, instead of normative law enforcement, one will witness individually tailored and selective law enforcement. Jurisdiction is politically selective and “kompromats” are used to discredit political opponents, where a decision to investigate a possible crime is taken on the basis of political considerations.

One of the most thought-provoking angles of Bálint Magyar’s presentation in Montreal was his discussion surrounding the responsibility that liberals and liberal democrats bear for the rise of the far right and authoritarian politicians. Mr. Magyar, who was a co-founder of the Alliance of Free Democrats, Hungary’s now defunct liberal party and a key player in the transition to democracy in 1989/90, said that “doctrinaire liberalism” bears some responsibility for the rise of the populist far right. By dismissing tensions and fears in society as the musings of uneducated racists, people ended up finding a political home on the populist right.

Mr. Magyar’s presentation attracted a diverse audience and a full room–from professors, researchers and students to local Montrealers of Hungarian origin, as well as diplomats. It certainly raised awareness of the nuances of Hungary’s post-communist autocracy and put the Hungarian regime into a comparative theoretical framework.

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