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03.22.10 Posted in Writing by

What do all 4 leaders of the parties which will enter the new Parliament have in common?

They all have brown eyes. What else?

They all, I suspect, eat white bread, white sugar, and too much meat. What the Tatars, the Turks and Austrians couldn’t do to the Hungarians, Janos Kadar managed to do, with exactly that diet, in just 30 years, says my favourite winegrower, Lajos Somlosi.

And 20 years after the change of system, we continue his legacy in our stomachs.

Hungarian hospitals are groaning under the weight of the illnesses which this unhealthy diet inflicts. Radical change? Yes please: wholemeal bread, fresh fruit, fresh seasonal vegetables, affordable organic produce, more exercise, and a ban on tobacco in public spaces. Could someone please ask, in this country of incessant polls, how many deputies in the new Parliament smoke? And how many in the old? I see tobacco, in my least liberal moments, as the most disgusting, as well as the most dangerous drug. Which organisation is more dangerous to civil liberties in Hungary today? Jobbik, ANTSZ or APEH? Who are the biggest terrorists in Hungary today? As a pedestrian and a cyclist, the young, aggressive drivers, male and female, I would argue, who infest the nice new motorways and the Hungarian capital, and sound their horns and scream at any other driver who has the courtesy to slow down to let someone cross a city street. They are scarier, in my humble opinion, than most of the boy and girl scouts in black who call themselves the Hungarian Guard.

With the first round of this election behind us, it is a good moment to puncture some of the poisonous balloons floating fast towards us, in that sharp, prevailing north-westerly wind. They carry basket-loads of cliches. My colleagues in the western media, and not a few of my liberal friends, love nothing better than to bewail the rise of neo-fascism in Hungary. Just watch: open season will be declared on Hungary now, by those who find a perverse pleasure in imagining Hungary again as a kind of fascist, anti-semitic paradise. The Sunday Times has already started. But is it really true? The real danger from the rise of Jobbik, is when their words and deeds legitimise prejudice, hatred, and violence. As though the injection of a few hundred blackshirts into a village, like some wonder vaccine, would heal decades of neglect and hopelessness.

‘The Hungarians are not great consumers of extremism,’ Gyorgy Konrad said, many years ago, and I hope he is still right. Talking to ex-Socialist, now Jobbik voters on Csepel on Sunday, I was struck by how many held their nose, even as they voted, just as many no doubt did the same, as they chose Fidesz, or the Socialists. The people are often much wiser in every country than the politicians or the journalists give them credit for. But they get tired easily, and they are very tired now. Voting is not, and should not be, our only democratic act. We should hold the deputies in Parliament to account, for their words and deeds, for their activity, or laziness. And what of extremism? Of course there are extremists in every sphere of life – extremist liberals, extremist conservatives, extremist socialists as well as extremist nationalists. Parent-teacher meetings are often dominated by extremist parents who talk forever about their own children. ‘There are four fundamentalisms in India’ my former BBC colleague Mark Tully once wrote – ‘Hindu, Moslem, Sikh and Secular…’  Each of us has a duty to fight the extremist inside us.

A new election gives us all a chance to re-examine what we have achieved in our own lives in the past 4 years, and what we hope for from the next. For your country, which has been so hospitable to me, a stranger, I wish a government which governs firmly and fairly, but which also respects the initiative of the citizens. For the society, I wish for citizens capable of organising, and defending their interests against the state. For the cities, I wish more trees, and less statues. For the countryside, I wish people the ability to cooperate to produce the quality goods in the quantity the market really needs. For the new prime minister, I wish good luck. For the Socialists, I wish the chance to build a real Social Democratic party, willing and able to stand up for the downtrodden and rejected. For the people of the countryside, non-Roma and Roma alike, I wish the chance to raise hens, and grow produce, without losing them to thieves. For the police, I wish the will and skill to treat all citizens as equal before the law. The disappearance of the Free Democrats and MDF, like any species, is a blow to the diversity of Hungarian politics. But in the absence of a liberal party, perhaps it will be easier for all of us to be liberals now.

What a long list! It makes me tired just thinking of it. But think we must – outside the box, creatively and constructively.

I don’t want to hear the word ‘sajnos’ again for at least 4 years, OK?

This text first appeared in Hungarian, in the HVG weekly, 15/4/10

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