What with a shrinking economy, above-10-percent unemployment, political corruption, and a government that displays a sometimes unbelievable arrogance, surely there are plenty of reasons for Hungarians to be out on the street?
Yet in a summer that has seen huge middle-class demonstrations in countries such as Turkey, Brazil, and even Bulgaria – all fed up with the ineptitude and arrogance of their elected rulers – Hungarians remain docile, apathetic, and frankly bored.
It is one of the clichés in the Central European lexicon of national character traits that Hungarians are unusually prone to pessimism and are cynical to a man.
Didn’t Endre Ady, the poet, write:
I am the son of King Gog of Magog
I’m banging doors and walls to no avail
Yet I must ask this question as prologue
May I weep in the grim Carpathian vale?
Yet isn’t another cliché about Hungarians – splendidly dramatized by Michael York’s explosive, table-banging Count Andrenyi in the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express – that they are temperamental and quick to anger?
Isn’t it true that not one but two of their national holidays – 15 March and 23 October – celebrate revolutions and wars of independence? Perhaps the Hungarian, brooding, lost in deep sighs of wretchedness, will eventually reach boiling point and explode?
Perhaps he will. Yet surely more important is that the summer demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil, and Bulgaria have displayed a remarkable democratic spirit. In fast-growing Turkey and Brazil they are not even about economic issues. They express the confidence of their newly empowered middle classes that they will simply not take it anymore, least of all from their shameless politicians.
There are few signs of such a resolve here. Heaven knows, the last 20 years have been tortuous, with economic crises, corruption, even a brief upsurge of mafia war in the 1990s. But perhaps the biggest disappointment is the almost total lack of interest Hungarians have shown in their newly found freedoms and democratic institutions.
Among the depressing findings of a recent survey of university and college students is that a mere 40 percent agree that democracy is the best system of government, while nearly one-third think that in some situations a dictatorship would work better. (To be fair, this is perhaps not an especially well-formulated question: some situations could mean anything.)
Only 43 percent of the supporters of the ruling, conservative Fidesz party think democracy is the best option, while among the voters of Jobbik, the anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party, that is down to 22 percent. The overall figure of 40 percent is likely so low because far-right Jobbik is the most popular party among the respondents, with 29 percent support among those who say they will definitely vote. Fidesz gets 26 percent and the center-left Egyutt 2014 party gets 23 percent.
Some might look at those results and see a widespread disgust with traditional parties that has young people flocking to the neo-Nazis.
I’m more tempted to say, if that’s want you want, you illiterates, then you can have it. People over 18 have no excuses. If they want to vote, they’d best be able to read the newspapers and look beyond ask.fm. If one of every three wants an unapologetically neo-Nazi party to govern, then I say let them all drown.
This week the Financial Times tried to explain why the Germans are particularly upset over Edward Snowden's revelations about America's NSA spy agency. Supposedly they have learned from their Gestapo and Stasi past. They realize, as adults will, how precious freedom is once it’s lost.
In Hungary no one gives a fig about the NSA revelations. If anything, most people probably assume the government has been listening in on their phone calls since the telephone was invented. (The important difference between recording call data and the actual content of the call is obviously lost on everybody.) To wit, parliament recently passed a law, now under court review, that would allow the government to listen in on the phone calls of every civil servant for 60 days out of each year and to investigate their family members. I recall no outcry.
I have to conclude that Hungary simply deserves what it gets. As readers of this column will know from my endless complaints, in the last three years this government has essentially cut down liberal democracy, its independent institutions undone and plowed under one by one, to practically no domestic opposition.
That is fair, I reckon. Democracy is a game for adults. Politicians can act and pretend and lie all they like – as a Hungarian literary character (whose creator, Jeno Rejto, was incidentally murdered by his own Nazi-allied government) says, “a clever man can only be had twice.” Well, we’ve been had a number of times and we don’t seem to care much. Incompetent, corrupt, and authoritarian government is what we get because it is, evidently, what we want.
So why would anyone protest?