Hungarian Elections, Budapest, 2002 April 14

Prior to the first round of voting on Sunday 17 202, opinion polls, including Gallup’s, placed the Fidesz government on average 10% ahead of the opposition MSZP, (Hungarian Socialist Party). That the Socialists won the first round with a 0.5% margin would seem to be a cause for celebration here in Budapest, where they won every seat. Yet the Metro, the trams and the cafés are unusually and disconcertingly silent.

As a foreigner living and working in Budapest, I thought it perhaps imprudent to observe that many members of the Socialist Party were members of the communist government of twelve years ago. Before moving over here from London, my pulp-fiction imagination had turned over images of the old AVH secret police that forced so many Hungarians to live in fear or escape to Canada, the US and UK. On arriving, however, I was relieved to find a prosperous, cosmopolitan, thriving European city. Finding work in the flourishing Hungarian IT market was as easy as finding a cup of good coffee in the pavement cafés. Hungary has experienced a 5% national growth in the last quarter at a time when the world’s major economies are generally taking down-turns. The rate of inflation has been brought down from a soaring 16% in 1998 to a very respectable 6%. And on a level more personally communicative, the installation of my Internet cable connection was twice as fast as the installation of my BT ADSL line. No wonder the country looks set to be at the head of the new entrants to the EU in 2003.

This is a modern country rapidly coming to terms with its past. Ten years after the evaporation of the secret police, their infamous headquarters at 60 Adrássy Ut – a hundred metres from my flat, and one-time station of the Nazi Gestapo – has been opened to the public as a memorial: A Terror Háza, The Terror House. Its walls are lined with testimony, written and filmed, of those who survived torture under the two dictatorships; it makes public the disappearances of citizens into its basements that was for so long an unmentionable terror ever present just a breath from the surface of Hungarian society. It was an exhilarating, elating experience to see the crowd of 200,000 people on the street at the opening of the Museum:I was inexplicably proud to see so many individuals with tears in their eyes.

Naturally, such elation and faith in human nature couldn’t last, and what time in a modern democratic country is more suited to the dilution of faith in good nature than an election? Yet what I’ve heard in the past seven days is forcing me beyond healthy cynicism to consider my future in a country I had hoped would mother my children.

Whispers, increasingly loud, on the streets is that the elections are a coup for the Russian Mafia, those well-known faces in the Moulin Rouge. As gossip on the streets is never to be trusted, I asked the opinions of informed friends and colleagues. One attorney of the Supreme Court told me she had recently attended a public meeting in which it was reported that the MSZP had given to pensioners and the unemployed lifts to polling stations, along with handfuls of currency. When I asked how she knew this, she told me that those making the accusations had taken the offerings. I was doubtful, until the television news the following night reported the same story – set in a different town – and substituting fresh food and beers for currency. Naturally an official investigation was called: The MSZP spokesman appeared on televions to say that the food was allowable as part of the ‘entertainment budget’. ‘True,’ he continued, ‘there were lots of Gypsies given these gifts, but we all know how Gypsies are attracted to public events.’

[No need for comment?]

As time passes, disconcerted voices are gaining courage to speak up.

The day after the election, an unpublicised FIDESZ rally held in a Budapest University had an unexpected attendance of more than 150,000 people, according to the M1 television channel. The following Saturday, FIDESZ held a publicised rally outside the neo-Gothic Parliament building.The party and benefactors subsidised transport to the event; there were flags from every part of the country. Two national television channels broadcast the speeches of the politicians, statesmen, academics and authors to a crowd that the police estimated to be of around two million people. There were many tears in the heightened atmosphere, but many more when the evenings news reported a crowd of on 40,000. Who should I, a stranger in a strange land, trust: the television, or the police and Prime Minister? Having seen the photographs of the PM as a young man, speaking against totalitarianism in a communist state, faced by machine-gun totting police, beating on the young political dissidents, it is hard to remain without bias.

Harder still to remain convinced of the free and fair nature of these elections when speaking to an Official Witness of the polling in Gödöllõ. These individuals are unpaid volunteers, members of the public appointed to see that all is correct during the process of vote counting. ‘With the way things are going, who can I tell that I saw Mr X walk away from the counting tables with an armful of voting slips, and returned with a large pile of MSZP votes and a couple of FIDESZ votes.’ I thought to suggest reporting to the national media, but remembered their reporting of the Saturday rally. I suggested the electoral regulators – but it transpires that unless such crimes are reported within three days, the report cannot be considered.

This evening, in a local café, I was accosted by a middle-aged woman, frustrated and apparently scared by the threats to, if not out and out usurping of, democracy: ‘And your Prime Minister,’ she pressed her finger to the table, ‘your Tony Blair has invited Medgyessy Péter [the MSZP candidate for PM], to London! Has congratulated him on his victory before we have even finished voting!’ She found it hard to believe that Blair did not already know for a fact that Medgyessy had won, that it was merely international freindliness.I explained how in Britain things were different, fairer; how we had dealt with the cash- for-questions scandal in such a thorough manner, and the price the part involved had to pay. ‘Do you not know who Medgyessy is? Have you not read of his expulsion from the last MSZP government for taking huge bribes for accepting a bid on a government contract for one million Forints over a bid of eighty million Forints?’ Of course I had not: what English-language paper reports events in Hungary? Neither had I heard more than a cursory mention of his on-going public prosecution for allegedly taking bribes in the sale of a Budapest Palace to a private company.

As time passes, disconcerted voices are beginning to be raised: but they have yet to be heard.