But later on the political landscape simplified. Argumented disagreements about institutions and public policies gave way to inarticulate sentiments. There are two main conglomerates of them. One is an amalgam of nationalism, vague references to Christianity and conservatism, and an anger against anyone who benefited from the rule of the old regime and can be associated with its heritage. The other, on the contrary, has been built around nostalgia for the relative social and economic homogeneity and security of the state socialist era, accompanied by an irritation by the moral arrogance of the other side and its flirts with the extreme right. Accordingly, there are two main parties that run the country on a more or less alternating basis. One of them is trying to integrate everything on the political right, the other, little surprise, is the successor of the party that had ruled us for forty years, now run by a billionaire businessman who used to be the head of the Communist Youth Organisation not much before the old regime collapsed.
When in power, there is not much difference between the two sides regarding their economic policies and practical attitudes towards redistributive justice. In the meantime Hungary’s economy has been privatised, either to multinationals or to domestic political clients. It took us more than a decade to regain the productivity of the last period of state socialism, but following the initial shock of the first five years the economy has been constantly growing. And so have social inequalities. Now roughly one third of the population is said to be in a state of poverty and social exclusion, receiving little, if any, attention from the political class. Public services are run down, with health services being in a dreadful situation, and the prospects for the public scheme for retirement pensions being also dire. Taxes are nominally high but there are semi-legal ways to get around them. The result is that employment looks relatively costly in the eyes of those looking for cheap labour force, while, at the same time, there is a constant shortage of public funds which is the main cause of the miserable state of public services.
There is virtually no public deliberation. Political will-forming takes place behind the scenes. Pre-decision policy drafts of government departments can be, and usually are, classified for decades, while the public is being fed through the media with a largely irrelevant discussion on symbolic and ideological matters. Although they are largely discredited, it would be virtually impossible to the brake the rule of the two big parties. They are deeply intertwined with the economic elite. One of the consequences is that their financial resources are in a different order of magnitude as compared with those of any other actual of possible political actor. They spend 20-30 times as much on propaganda during an election campaign as they are legally allowed, and I don’t know how many times as much as a challenger coming from outside could ever afford. Really independent media exists only on the internet and in the form of small community radio stations. Public electronic media is controlled by the establishment, quality newspapers are strongly affiliated with the parties. Tabloids and commercial tv and radio stations tailor their content to the intellectual level of the 8 years old. The public is in a state of political apathy. Political institutions like the government, the parliament or the parties are amongst the most distrusted according to every survey. Apart from election campaign periods, nearly half of the population refuses to choose from the existing parties when surveyed. Surely there is a representational vacuum, and our democracy has largely lost its initial moral justification. But what can we do about it?
Building a Popular Environmental Movement
Six years ago we started off as one of the many environmentalist organisations. We gradually grew interest in other areas of public policy, issues of social justice, public control, participatory democracy, and alternative globalisation. It was a long process to earn the interest of the media. There were a few key factors, which are worth mentioning. We almost always acted in coalition with other NGOs of all kinds, sometimes worker unions, and so became a very busy nod in the net of Hungarian civil organisations. We managed to turn the attention of the national media to some important local conflicts between the local people and their overwhelmingly more powerful political or economic opponents, and some of these conflicts were won. We managed to build surprisingly wide coalitions overarching the bipolar political division among the representative intelligentsia in support of some of our issues, which the media considered interesting. We built largely on an ongoing co-operation with artists and alternative cultural entities, and with their help we broke out from the realm of seminar rooms and written publications to streets, clubs and festivals. So gradually we became an ecological and critical political organisation which is now a constant element of the political landscape, and which, together with its allies, proved influential in several cases.
The Ecologist president
Finally, last year we thought of something big. After building a civil coalition behind the idea, we suggested that a law professor, a former head of the constitutional court and a founding member of our organisation should be the next president of the Hungarian Republic. Too much of our surprise, and through a series of political miracles, he was elected by the parliament last June. So now we have a president. After this happened, many turned to us with a new sort of question or rather expectation. Would it be us to initiate the formation a new party that would brake the political apathy, a party for which they could vote?
Creating a Political Party ?
So, should we try to organise a party, or not? Of course, it may well be the case that we do not have what it takes. And it may as well be that personally most of us don’t feel like it at all. These considerations may settle the issue. But let us set them aside for the moment. There remain important arguments on both sides that may be of general interest. For us, who grew up under a dictatorial regime, representative democracy is something that we value much, despite of all of its shortcomings. To decide that we want to try and find solutions to our social problems only outside it would mean that we somehow forfeited it. Obviously, mandated by an electorate, we would have a lot more opportunity to influence things. And rightly so, because this is the logic of democratic legitimation. And the converse of it is also true: being an NGO interfering with political matters, our legitimacy will always be easy to draw into question.
There is clearly a political vacuum. In our country most people do not vote for something they positively support. They legitimate what they consider the lesser wrong in order to avoid the bigger. There is indeed an expectation that someone should do something about it, and according to many, we are plausible candidates, and it is hard to see any other at the moment. Moreover, within the ecological movement, there is an important fraction that thinks that sooner or later the movement should have a party. Some of them think that the initiative should come from us.
Aware of the traps
But it seems that the problems we see with representative democracy are not specific to our country and its current parties. Maybe they are not even specific to new democracies emerging from a soviet type dictatorial past. Maybe it is the very logic of the system which makes our parties function very badly as means of political representation. Could we avoid a similar fate if we formed a party? To name only a few of the possible problems: Isn’t it possible that political competition with the other parties would require the sort of strong leadership which would destroy our internal standards of democratic decision making? Or isn’t it the case that mass media communication is inhospitable to our analytical approach to issues of public interest, and in the way of adapting to it we would lose our grip on social reality and substitute it with condensed and easily digestible “messages” tailored for the intellectual means of the eight years old, just like the other parties did? And maybe we would be under such a financial pressure, especially in campaign periods, that we would sooner our later loose our innocence and give in to some wealthy and acceptably looking “benefactors”. But then, it is just a question of time that we would look just like the other parties. Or, if retain our standards of internal democracy, it is still possible that people who do not really share our ideals, join us by mistake in such a number that they completely reshape our party to their likeness. Our party would even be susceptible to an organised invasion by one of the existing political actors.
Or maybe the best way to deal with the problems of representative democracy is to stay outside of the representative system and try to influence the environment in which it functions, so that it would be more difficult for the politicians to turn their backs on the realities of our society. Maybe it is indeed specific to new democracies that the society is very unorganised and people rarely stand up for their rights or issues of public interest, and it is part of the explanation why their elected representatives ignore them so easily. We may find ways to influence the public discourse of political issues, explore all legal ways to control those in power from the outside, and reclaim the public’s competence in public matters. And perhaps it is also possible to try out means of supplementing representative democracy with elements of direct participatory democracy. Some of these ways proved so far viable. But maybe there is deeper dilemma lurking in the background. I am not sure if we, who are dissatisfied with the current combination of global capitalism and national representative democracies based on parties, have any positive and viable utopia. In the lack of such an utopia, it is little surprise that we don’t know the way towards it, and don’t know whether what we want is realisable within the institutional framework of representative democracy, or we should rather try to fundamentally redesign it. So we are not sure how we should relate ourselves to its traditional political institutions.
Peter Rauschenberger is with "Protect the Future", based in Budapest. The text is a summary of the presentation Peter made at the European Social Forum in Athens in May 2006.