As the violence has abated they’ve faded from our TV screens, but large demonstrations continue in Budapest against the Socialist-Liberal coalition government of Ferenc Gyurcsany, who was recorded telling his party that they had lied to win the last election.

The demonstrators seem no closer, however, to achieving their goal.

Indeed, Gyurcsany has gone on the offensive, accusing his political opponents of cooperating with “those who reject the democratic foundations” of the state. His tactic is to paint the demonstrators as right-wing extremists rather than concerned citizens: “arsonists and looters”, as one of his colleagues called them.

No doubt the truth is more complicated; the BBC’s Mark Mardell last week was able to find both “nice reasonable pensioners” and “knots of young skinheads” among the crowd. But Gyurcsany is making an important point. By choosing these grounds on which to fight him, the centre-right opposition is moving towards a dangerous sort of right-wing populism.

April’s Hungarian election was not an edifying spectacle; in the face of obvious fiscal trouble, both Gyurcsany’s government and the opposition FIDESz party resorted to populism, pretending that no painful reforms would be necessary. It was a little reminiscent of the 1996 election in Australia. But unlike 1996, the government hung on, and now has to face the unravelling of its rosy scenarios.

Speaking just after the election, Gyurcsany was explicit in telling his party that “It was perfectly clear that what we were saying was not true”, and that “The moment of truth has arrived quickly.” As Mardell puts it, he “has come unstuck for telling the truth about lying”. The opposition, however, is implicitly still maintaining that economic reform is not required.

Gyurcsany’s party are former communists, but as is the case across most of central Europe, the left are the more serious economic reformers, while the right flirt with extreme nationalism. Le Monde said in an editorial last week that FIDESz “not only is developing a demagogic program that proposes to reverse economic reform, but is flattering xenophobic sentiments”. With the hard right already in power in Poland and Slovakia, it would be a worrying sign if Hungary were to join them.

Peter Fray

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