This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Back in the late Eighties, as communism was hawking up arterial blood, I used to cross Bartók Béla street in Buda on my way to check out the action at the István Bibó Szakkollégium, a “special” university institute that was one of the hotspots of the democratic attack. The current prime minister, Viktor Orbán, president János Áder and the speaker of parliament, László Kövér, all studied there, as did Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife, who like many wives, doesn’t get enough credit. Whoever selected the students played a blinder.
The Gellért Hotel, one of Budapest’s most famous, is at the start of Bartók Béla Street and back then was rather down on its luck, like the rest of the street. There were some splendid old flats and houses just up the hill, usually in need of renovation, but for the street it was as if the Second World War had recently ended. The hurly-burly was across the Danube, in Pest, around Vörösmarty Square, where the fancy food, finery and gypsy serenaders were to be found.
That’s all changed. Bartók Béla Street is now referred to Bartók Béla “Boulevard”. It’s connected to the underground system, and it’s heaving with packed cafes and restaurants, and their affluent, Instagramable clienteles, and even a couple of bookshops. I’m not sure people here read more than in London, but at least they have the decency to pretend they do.
Budapest has become like many cities: a great place to live if you have money. My guesstimate is that most prices, in central Budapest at least, are only 10-15 per cent less than London. Public transport is the only thing still much cheaper. However, the salaries here are much less than those in London.
Religion, football and irritation about illegal migrants are the staple fare on the state channels
I take a seat in the Hadik café (Bartók Béla Street 36), which describes itself as “one of the great legendary cafés” of Budapest. The sachet of brown sugar that comes with my coffee, states (in English) “since 1906”. Like most things to do with Hungarian history, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The Hadik closed in 1940 and only reopened in 2010.
The sachet of sugar also has a sketch of Frigyes Karinthy on it. Karinthy was, and is, a very popular writer who hung out at the Hadik (presumably because his home was next door). The literary card is played heavily by the Hadik café. They hold literary events and a literary quiz. The menu, a slim volume hand-delivered despite Covid (in both Hungarian and English), is garlanded with a catholic selection of quotations (Hubert Selby, Arthur Conan Doyle, Péter Esterházy).
The Hadik café is also next to the statue of Géza Gárdonyi, one of the biggest names in Hungarian literature. He published a novel in 1901 entitled The Invisible Man. Since H.G. Wells beat him to it by a few years, it was published in English as Slave of the Huns. Much more sensational, and much more revealing. Slave of the Huns is a children’s classic: I suppose the Magyar equivalent of Treasure Island, but with impaling.
As it’s a literary café, I feel obliged to read. In fact, Hungary is very conducive to reading since you certainly won’t be tempted to watch any of the state television channels, and the commercial stations have little but dubbed American series. Many things have improved here, but not that. Religion, football and irritation about illegal migrants are the staple fare on the state channels, and there is an abundance of discussion programmes on all channels that feature two, three or four people in a studio (studiously distanced at the moment) talking. Just talking. It’s not what the medium was created for.
I scroll through the news. I haven’t been in Hungary for a while so I need to catch up. A local council election in Hajdúszoboszló catches my eye. To be frank, I don’t hugely care about Hajdúszoboszló. Most of the residents of Budapest don’t either. It’s a small place. Out there somewhere. Somewhere to the south. I think. But then the residents of Hajdúszoboszló don’t care much about their election either. The turnout didn’t reach 30 per cent. I only mention this tiny local election (750 voted) because the governing party Fidesz’s candidate lost to a local independent.
If anything, perhaps Hungary’s problem is that there is too much democracy
There are many people who claim to be journalists, such as Anne Appelbaum, who regularly write hysterical nonsense about Hungary, slagging it off as a “dictatorship” run by Viktor Orbán. I always thought the whole point of a dictatorship was that you had everything your own way, although, naturally you have certain obligations, like making the trains run on time.
Clearly the council elections in Hajdúszoboszló matter little in the nation’s fortunes. But last year Fidesz lost control of Budapest, as virtually all the significant opposition parties united to back Gergely Karácsony for the post of mayor. Losing the capital, that’s sloppy dictating at best. And every so often there’s the inevitable by-election humiliation for the government.
Applebaum and Co are probably hampered by their lack of Hungarian, so it’s possible that no one has explained to them that there is a parliament in Hungary. It’s that very big building by the Danube, full of Hungarians insulting each other. If anything, perhaps Hungary’s problem is that there is too much democracy. There are dozens of political parties, and new ones are constantly being formed as the traditional Hungarian custom of screaming in fury at their fellow Hungarians continues.
The boy from the countryside has thrashed the left-wing metropolitan intellectuals repeatedly
In 1989-90, as the system collapsed, there was a “big bang” of political parties. Anyone with a phone, a few friends and some spare time could form a party and lie about its membership. I’m pleased to read that the “do it yourself” ethos lives on.
János Volner, a little-known MP, has just announced a new party. The Volner Party. That’s actually the name. I applaud the economy, the candour and that the name will help remind the electorate who he is. It’s a much better choice than the party started by a former MP Tibor Szanyi in June, the Yes For Solidarity with Hungary Movement, the acronym for which reads in Hungarian as “I drink”.
Volner is a former member of Jobbik, the one major party where you could find some far-right nutters. He is planning a shrewd “plague on both your houses” policy, denouncing both the right and the left. His gambit isn’t entirely ridiculous. It’s a long longshot. Most of the opposition parties are attempting to run a united front for the parliamentary elections in 2022. If they succeed they will erase Orbán’s huge majority at the very least; they might even win. But it’s also quite likely that there will be a hung-ish parliament, when a small party can play kingmaker.
There is much jubilation in the opposition ranks after their joint triumph in Budapest in 2019. They actually don’t have much to crow about. Budapest is the centre of anti-Orbán sentiment, and imagine an election where the Liberals, the Labour Party, the Greens, Ukip, the SNP and the Monster Raving Loony Party all had to get behind one candidate to beat a Conservative.
Nevertheless, Gergely Karácsony, the new mayor, is clever and by the low, lazy standards of the Hungarian opposition, dogged. In a desperate search for entertainment on television, I’ve accidentally caught him doing interviews. He has the smirk of a man who has discovered the secret of transmuting dung into gold (at low cost). Enjoy the hubris while you can.
The opposition’s love of squabbling is so strong it probably outweighs their desire for power
Orbán will have trouble in the next elections. His hat-trick of landslide victories in 2010, 2014 and 2018 is nothing short of miraculous. The boy from the countryside has thrashed the left-wing metropolitan intellectuals repeatedly: one of the reasons they scuttle off to Brussels and Washington bleating about tyranny and antisemitism. But in democracies, even if you’re doing a good job, the voters get tired of you.
I doubt the opposition can maintain this wide alliance. I suspect they’ve peaked too early. The latest by-election was in Tiszaújváros, where the “joint” opposition candidate, a Jobbik member László Biró, was caught posting the old joke about “Jew-dapest”. Lamentable, because it’s an old dig (circa 1910) and because, since the unfortunate events of 1944, there isn’t a large Jewish population in Budapest.
Biró also mentioned that the local hotels were full of Polish, Russian and Israeli tourists, then used a term that puzzles most Hungarians, (literally) “lice-slides”, by which I assume he meant “playgrounds for lice”. Whether this was broad-minded xenophobia, or exclusive antisemitism is hard to say. And why complain about tourists bringing business to local hotels? Economics is not Biró’s strong suit, apparently. It’s hilarious he was supported by the Socialists (aligned with Britain’s Labour Party) and other left-wing parties. The opposition alliance’s unshakeable support for him was to no avail. He lost (but not by much: 46 per cent of the votes to the Fidesz candidate’s 51 per cent).
The opposition’s love of squabbling, fragmentation and foot-shooting is so strong it probably outweighs their desire for power. But even if Karácsony and the others can hold their alliance together, in 2022 they will be facing the most successful politician in Hungarian history, Viktor Orbán, in full campaign fervour.
I should add that the ice-cream at Ko Fagyi? (Bartók Béla Street 35) is excellent.
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