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Ordinary Hungarians are not surprised when examples of corruption come to light; according to a recent opinion poll, 60 per cent of voters believe their government to be corrupt, but this has not stopped them voting for it, and it is unlikely to stop them doing so in the future. Such is the deep streak of pessimism which runs through Hungarian society, reflected in the pervasive can’t-do philosophy that one encounters almost everywhere — as well as in one of the highest suicide rates in Europe — that most assume that business success is likely to be rooted in criminality or nepotism, and that life generally — not just economic life — is bound to be a zero-sum affair.

Corruption feeds the national sense of despair, discourages trust (a commodity which is in short supply in all ex-Communist states), encourages the departure of many of the best and brightest — remarkably, London is now Hungary’s second-biggest city and according to Hungary’s Central Statistical Office a further 360,000 Hungarians are actively planning to leave in the next two years — while also discouraging foreign investors.

It was not always like this. For a brief few years in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Communism, it was possible to believe that despite short term hardships, inflation and rising unemployment, the process of political transition would mean that Hungary would rapidly take strides to catch up with its prosperous Austrian neighbour, while establishing a system of robust democratic pluralism. The government headed by Jozsef Antall from 1990-94 gave grounds for hope, but subsequent governments, of both of Left and Right, have not delivered the dream. Indeed, it is impossible to work in modern-day Hungary without recognising the emergence of a new post-Communist nomenklatura, akin to the privileged members of the Communist elites first described by Milovan Djilas in The New Class: individuals whose wealth and prospects are determined by their place in the party hierarchy. Its members occupy the top positions in public administration, journalism, broadcasting, the boards of think-tanks, research organisation, employers’ organisations and even sports bodies. Societies, clubs, institutes which describe themselves as NGOs all too often turn out on inspection to exist only because they are propped up by government. Genuine non-governmental organisations, most poorly funded, do exist, but those which criticise aspects of government policy may find that their financial backers come under pressure to withdraw their support.

Historically, Hungary’s middle class has been small and weak; when Communism collapsed it was widely recognised that it would need to grow in size and confidence if the country’s new political institutions were to be strengthened and civic consciousness to grow. Orbán set out to create an expanded middle class, not by allowing it the space in which to flourish and grow, but through top-down state patronage, handouts and favours — all in return for political loyalty. Those who have not met the loyalty test have mostly found themselves excluded.

The case against Orbán is not that he is authoritarian, or that he is right-wing, or that his attempts to protect his country’s borders are harsh or inhumane, but that he has failed to use his considerable political gifts to discourage tendencies which ensure that in important respects modern Hungary bears an unfortunate resemblance to the system from which, as a young man, he promised to rescue it.

A vibrant and expanding economy with a growing population, such as those which exist in parts of Asia, may not be held back much by a degree of graft and cronyism, although Singapore, which largely eradicated these under Lee Kuan Yew, has prospered more than any. The corrosive impact of these on a society which is shrinking demographically, has failed to come to terms with its troubled past and, perversely, places its reliance on big government and on politicians whom it nevertheless believes to be corrupt, is quite a different matter.
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