While Western social scientists are seeking an answer to the same question – what will the world order be like after the global financial crisis? – often these debates seem to have gone unnoticed in Hungary. What role will China and the emerging economies play in the world? How can billions of people be lifted out of abject poverty and be brought into the 21st century? And how will the Western world adjust to the new situation? The European Union, and within it the member states including Hungary, is attempting to interpret its own crisis in the light of these questions.
Framing the Hungarian debate
Fidesz has recognised this process of change and sought to become engaged in the debate, while the left-liberal opposition has been so fixated on Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that the global questions appear to have escaped its notice. Yet the crisis of the Western world has not failed to attract the attention of Hungarian society. If the opposition wishes to demonstrate its governing competence and ability to modernise itself, then it needs to put forward ideas for renewal of similar weight to former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s third-way approach based on sociologist Anthony Giddens’ school of thought.
We have grown accustomed to Orbán reflecting not only on domestic but also on global processes in his speeches. From his talk in December 2011 at the Széll Kálmán Foundation to his most recent Tusnádfürdõ speech, the prime minister has repeatedly sought to place Hungary in the debate that the West has been having for some time and which studies the possible outcomes of the global transformation that is in progress.
The global changes also affect Hungary, so from his governing position Orbán could not be indifferent to the question. However, on the left wing, since Gyurcsány we have not seen a similar type of “academic” approach. We might say that there is no need for this in opposition. Yet that is not true if the opposition does have the ambition of gaining governing power.
Currently the opposition’s rhetorical “capital” seems to consist solely of the necessity of anti-Orbán solidarity in defence of democracy and constitutionalism. In order to understand what alternative the left wing could take up, we first need to outline the international debate on which Orbán is basing his narrative. There are four scenarios:
- The crisis will be followed by the emergence of a global “no man’s land” and power vacuum on the world stage. For the first time in modern history the world will be without a “custodian”.
- The role of nation states and their influence will strengthen. Those countries that can position themselves well in the “jostling” between nations can lay the foundations of their economic and political supremacy for decades. There are two related scenarios:
- China and the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) topple the West from its previous role as great power.
- The United States and the West are capable of maintaining their political and economic position.
According to Fidesz’s narrative, the West as we know it is in crisis and undergoing transformation. Neoliberal economics has had its time and another kind of economic structure, based on productive capital, the “Eastern model”, will come into prominence. However, another important cornerstone of the Fidesz approach that is frequently forgotten or distorted was voiced in Tusnádfürdõ, namely that Hungary must not turn its back on the West: it is in Hungary’s interest for Western Europe and the eurozone to recover from the crisis, but Hungary needs to develop its own economic system instead of unquestioningly copying the Western model.
In other words the government’s stance is an amalgam of the two positions that are set forth in the international debate. By contrast the left-liberal opposition’s only position in terms of the global narratives is that it opposes the Orbán narrative as a traditional supporter of the West and Europe. Its response to the global crisis is the same as to the domestic political situation, a policy of standstill: the solution to the eurozone crisis is deeper European integration, while the solution to the domestic political crisis is a return to how things were in 2010.
However, that in itself is insufficient. A potential change of government and restoration of the old order does not provide any kind of answer to the question of how to manage the changes taking place around us. If the opposition proclaims that democracy is in crisis then it also needs to offer a way out of the crisis. That, however, does not mean that its theoretical modernisation likewise needs to take the global crisis as its starting point. There is no reason that it cannot be based on local-level change.
Got lemons? Make lemonade, Finnish think-thank figures
In our analyses of the work of foreign think-tanks, we have written earlier about the Finnish thank-tank Sitra, which is tasked with finding solutions to specific economic, political and social questions. It is financed by parliament but is independent of the political parties. Recognising that democratic institutions face numerous new challenges, this spring it began studying how democracy can be further developed and enhanced amid the uncertainty caused by the global crisis.
That collaborative thinking resulted in the term “active democracy”, which exists alongside traditional participatory democracy as a supplement to it. Citizens are turning away from traditional forms of participation, while at the same time social engagement has increased in numerous other areas of life that lie beyond traditional institutions.
According to Sitra president Mikko Kosonen, the world economic crisis has left many people feeling powerless, and confusion in the government administration, the economy and in the field of social participation is an everyday phenomenon. “Finnish society is currently undergoing major changes… ,” he says. “That represents a major challenge for politics and the ability of the democratic system to modernise itself.”
What does such modernisation mean? How is active democracy different from traditional democracy? It enables flexible, independent organisation. Participation in local initiatives, where people can achieve visible results and take their lives into their own hands, enabling them to experience direct democracy, has increased perceptibly.
The aim in most cases is not a political one. It may be a one-off event or an activity organised around a specific community issue that loses its validity once a solution has been found. Regardless, such initiatives are all parts of modern participatory democracy, since society takes issues that it holds important into its own hands and plans, organises and makes decisions within its own sphere of competence.
That, however, raises the question of how it is possible to guarantee the role of the “traditional” system of institutions, and to make sure that those aspects that work well remain during the process of modernisation, while the aspects that require innovation change. Negotiation and real cooperation is needed between the government administration and the initiators so that they reinforce each other, according to the Finnish justice minister. It has been recognised that bureaucracy often spells the death of democracy, and that superfluous and inflexible administration greatly hinders and in some cases even prevents individual initiatives.
Democracy, protection of institutions and government negotiation with citizens are all concepts that sound familiar. The left-liberal opposition constantly finds these lacking on the part of the current government. Nevertheless, the model in question is substantially “more” than what is typically voiced by the opposition. It is a comprehensive response to the crisis of democratic institutions and participatory democracy.
Naturally we could come up with plenty of counter-arguments as to why the model would not work in Hungary. We realise that voluntary community work has a centuries-old tradition in Finnish society, while in Hungary community involvement gets badmouthed as something akin to “communism”. In Hungary the quality of life and the need to scrape a living from day to day do not allow for such a level of activity by citizens and so on….
It cannot be ignored that Fidesz, besides its theory of global change, bases its communications on very similar “local” community values, the feeling of national solidarity and the importance of families. For the left wing the rediscovery of the community and its “organisation” could be the key to renewal. Adaptation to Hungary of the model of community self-provision would lend real content to the slogan of cooperation that currently rings hollow.