Media, Political Discourse, Mass Mobilization and Power in Hungary

CímMedia, Political Discourse, Mass Mobilization and Power in Hungary
Közlemény típusaElőadás / Presentation
SzerzőkHegedűs, István
Teljes szöveg

Introduction

On October 20, 2002, the ruling coalition of the socialist party (MSZP) and the liberal free democrats (SZDSZ) undoubtedly won the local elections in Hungary. The turn-out was 51 percent, the highest since the first self-governments (as they are called in the country) were established in 1990 after the collapse of the communist system. From now on, sixteen mayors of the twenty-two major cities are socialist politicians, whose party also dominates the county assemblies. Meanwhile, Budapest reelected the liberal Gábor Demszky: he can start his fourth four years long term in office. Leaders of the biggest right wing opposition parliamentarian group, Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party acknowledged the defeat of the 'civic side'.
There was no such a declaration after the general elections in April, just half a year earlier. The last public opinion polls before the first round of the elections showed a clear advantage on the side of the conservative coalition. During the extraordinary evening of 7 April, Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party seemed to be the winner even during the first hours of the vote counting. Fast information about the contest seriously misled some top government politicians, who interpreted the favorable news as the sign of Hungarian citizens' traditional conservatism. Nevertheless, as the votes in the capitol city were also counted, the tendency changed step by step. At the end of the night, socialists gained one percent more votes than Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party on the party lists, free democrats could pass the five percent parliamentarian threshold, whilst the extreme Hungarian Truth and Life Party (MIÉP) was outvoted from the parliament. The turnout proved to be a 71 percent record in the history of general elections since the regime-change. For the activists and leading cadres of Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party, there remained only one 'real' reason of the socialists' and the liberals' tiny majority at the end-game: the 'communists' cheated.
As a reaction to this partial result, prime minister Viktor Orbán mobilised supporters of the government in a striking speech in order to convince citizens that it was still possible to correct the mistake. His party organised mass demonstrations and fabricated a peculiarly negative campaign against the socialists. The political tension culminated in a histeric climate during these days - such an overpoliticized atmosphere has never been experienced in the country, even not during the feverish period of the political transition. The individual candidates of the right wing parties proved to be much more succesful in the second round of the elections than two weeks before. The political offensive of the right wing government and the personal Orbán-campaign could nearly turn over the result as the turn-out reached 73 percent, which was a new record, again.
Hungarian citizens have become sharply devided according to partisan-idological cleavages after the four years political course of prime minister Viktor Orbán between 1998 and 2002. The political turbulency during the parliamentarian elections was due to these strong devison lines. The high turn-out followed political observers' common place statements about the Hungarians' political apathy for many years.
The focus of this paper will be on different but connected issues of the political field - such as ideological perceptions about the role of the media in public affairs, the use of modern PR methods, the lack of necessary public discourse, ideology and strategy-making, the impact of the political personality. Speaking about these and similar topics, my presentation might contribute to the discussions about power relations, at least on the party-level. There is no room here to analyze the behaviour of all political actors in Hungary - I will concentrate mostly on Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party.

Opinion Polls and Political Climate

Although it is not our main focus, we have to face the problem raised in the introduction: why did all the Hungarian research institutes fail to foresee the final result of the general elections in April 2002? In the previous months and years, there have been many bitter methodological and political debates amongst the experts of these institutions. Most of them have a sort of political or party affiliation and the differences in their data often seemed to prove the importance of these links. On March 29, as Gallup, Tárki, Median, Szonda Ipsos and Marketing Centrum published the results of their surveys, the divergence in the numbers was up to ten percent. This time, however, all the opinion polls showed the same main tendency: a definite victory of the ruling right wing coalition. Public opinion seemed to be stable even during the last eight days before the elections, when new information was not allowed to be published by the law.
Moreover, according to the Bandwagon-effect assumption, uncertain voters might have decided to join the likely winners in their loneliness behind the curtains of the polling-booth. It is evident that such a conformist logic was not characteristic in the voters' behaviour at this election. Instead, we experienced a weak victory of the socialist-liberal opposition, which contradicted the propheses. The most convincing explanation of the voters's secret decisions and the failure of the research institutes on public opionion to understand the real intentions in a significant strata of the voters was proposed by Róbert Angelusz. Although the researchers estimated the high turn-out very precisely, they underestimatied the crucial role of the emergence and the direction of a latent public opinion. The rate of those citizens, who were not willing to tell the interviewers whom they would vote for, went up to twenty percent in the last days. Another group of people might have 'lied', hence, they probably felt a hostile social-political environment and found it risky to confess their (private) political sympathies in public. Paradoxically, the Bandwagon-effect might have functioned "during the interview and not at the elections" (Angelusz 2002:62). These citizens, perhaps, did not even believe in the neutrality of the representatives of the public opinion research institutes. Twelve years after the first free elections, old attitudes, which were so characteristic in an oppressive political system, might have come to the surface again. Citizens belonging to this block seemed to be uncertain voters, but in fact, four from five in this group probably wanted to vote and, finally, did vote against the government. Their decision proved to be decisive in the final result of the elections - and might explain the mistakes made by the researchers.
The cautious hiding of their political opinion was a public behaviour characteristic only for a minority block of citizens before April 7, 2002. This phenomenon, however, should be interpreted as a clear sympthom of a wide-spread nervousness in the society about the outcome of the party competition. Election day was a breath-taking event not only for the elites in Budapest: the hysterical politcal climate spread over and reached ordinary people in the whole country.
There is little doubt that before the evening of the first round of the elections, the most influential leaders of Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party were sure that they could start their second period in government right after the first one. As they formulated this belief in a persuading mannor: in case the majority of the voters, first time since the end of the one-party rule, would entrust the same political group to run the country for a second term, this willingness would mean that the regime-change had been completed. Their disillusionment came along with anger and a desire to act - Orbán's "will to win" (Tölgyessy 2002) was the key incentive inside the conservative camp after the first round.
As the government launched an ideological counter-offensive against the socialists and the liberals, the general tension grew even higher. It was a negative campaign with an intensity of a 'life or death' struggle. This rhetoric included old Marxist patterns - as Orbán urged people in his speech on April 9 to prevent 'plutocracy and finance capital' from forming the country's next government -, neo-conservative slogans about the danger, which jeoperdized the future of the nation and the families, as well as new economic 'facts' about the consequences of a communist takeover - for example, increase of the gas prices -, and moral accusations against Péter Medgyessy, prime minister candidate of the socialists. Although Fidesz - Hungarian Civic party lost the elections at the end, the difference became very narrow: the populist anticommunist messages and the intensive mass demonstrations proved to be surprisingly effective. It seems to be important to realize that the Bandwagon-effect did not work in the second round, either - this time the research institutes could measure the new tendency in an appropriate way.
For us, however, the most relevant question is why the Orbán-led campaign was so attractive for significant groups in the society. In some individual constitutencies the scale of the shift was about fifteen percent. Here we have some speculations about the reasons. First, the reaction of the socialists and liberals was only partly efficient. They decided, correctly, to keep the image of the 'quiet force' and not to organize big rallies: the comparison between the numbers of people who might have joined these gathereings could have been very disadvantegous for them. On the other hand, the socialists failed to prove self-confidence. Instead of slogans like "We are not frightened", positive messages like "Just one more week" could have maintained a stronger belief in the socialists unavoidable victory. A group of uncertain voters might have felt this nervousness and probably did not go to vote the second time. Secondly, agressive negative campaign on a low intellectual level might be convincing in some strata of the society and a group of citizens might have decided to change their votes in the second round. Thirdly, mass demonstrations with the intensive use of national symbols organised by a party, which was in governmental position might have emitted strength and created new identity and respect. A third group of people might have had a conclusion that this time they wanted to vote for Viktor Orbán's party, although they had remained at home two weeks before.
Some observers argued that it was the 'occupation' of the public media by the government and the live television broadcasting of the huge pro-governmental demonstration in front of the Parliament building in Budapest on April 13, which effectively influenced public opinion..

Media and Political Communication

To start with, we have to consider why Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party, the main force of the conservative coalition wanted to control public media, especially public television. The main reason of this political intention is ideological. There is a deep conviction about the existance of a media power in right wing circles since the regime-change in Hungary. The Hungarian version of the universal media power theory has two main arguments. First, it is almost only the media, which matter in modern politics. This claim is similar to other dominant views in post-communist countries about the role of the media in public affairs. There is a "greatly exaggerated belief in the political importance of the media. In ironic agreement with Leninist theories of the media, many politicians and journalists assume that the views of the public are a direct function of media content." (Steinsdorf 2001:19-20) Such media content, and this is the second claim in Hungary, is selected, fabricated and distorted by a left-liberal media elite. "There is a change compared to the period of communism: totalitarian rule on life can be now achieved not with the help of armed forces, but with the aspiration to own exclusive rule in the (spiritual) public sphere... The majority of the Hungarian media world is a force, which defends old structures by all means and contains decommunization, or, induces the worst globalist-like changes", as a radical right-wing philosopher argued (Tőkéczki 2002:241, 243).
There is no room here to discuss different positions in the literature about the rule of a 'mediocracy'. This hypothesis was challenged by many authors, including Daniel C. Hallin, who argued that "the collapse of America's 'will' to fight in Vietnam resulted from a political process of which the media were only one part". (Hallin: 1989:213) Latest research about the impact of the media on public opinion also present a sophisticated picture. The agenda-setting as well as the issue framing theories are reluctant to declare that the media have a dominant position in the political process compared to the influence of political actors and citizens (Graber 1994). Another school of media researchers critisize the market orientation of the commercial television. In this approach, however, members of the media-elite cannot cheat the public: since there is a continuous pressure of the competition they are captive of the audience ratio. Certainly, it is still possible to claim that "the manipulators are also manipulated", as the famous French sociologist argues (Bourdieu 2001:18). It might look surprising that the sensitivity of left wing media theoreticians to many negative effects of the media on the people in western countries seem to coincede with similar attitudes of right wing media experts in Hungary and other new democracies. There is a way out, however, from this common pessimistic world-view: "Rather than mistakenly 'blaming the messenger', we need to understand and confront more deep-rooted flows in systems of representative government" (Norris 2000:4).
Certainly, historical, party political and personal continuity and discontinuity with the communist period is a complex issue in the Central- and Eastern-European regions. There are significant differences amongst post-communist states in a comparative perspective. In Hungary, leading right wing politicians often simply project the old 'murderer - victim' dichotomy on current party political divergences. The anniversary of the 1956 revolution was exactly such an occasion recently (Seres 2002) The above mentioned analysis about the former communists and their liberal allies, whose aspiration was to maintain their old political power with the misuse of a hegemonic media influence, goes along with the same logic. Moreover, in case this description is true, in order to rearrange existing and hidden power relations, conservative governments have no other choice but to cut the resources of communist-led institutions and to create alternative networks of 'civic' political, economic as well as cultural groups and individuals - in the interest of the citizens.
The right wing coalition made definite efforts to create a new 'balance' between 1998 and 2002. Concerning the domain of public media, a new board of the Hungarian Television (MTV) was elected, exclusively from the delegates of pro-governmental political parties. In a secret way, Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party co-operated with the extreme right wing party (MIÉP) in the parliament and blocked the candidacy of the socialist and liberal opposition to the board (Hegedűs 1999). As for the consequences, we might quote the opinion of the International Federation of Journalists and the report of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights: "The perception of government influence over media content has undoubtedly contributed to a catastrophic collapse in public and professional confidence in public televisison" (White 2002). During the campaign period "in all reports on government affairs characterized as positive or negative, the government received favorable treatment in 2/3 of them. The views of opposition leaders were not presented in MTV1's coverage of government affairs stories." Amongst the opposition parties, "only MIÉP enjoyed some positive references. SZDSZ was featured in about 6% of the station's election-related programming, but the ratio between positive and negative information was 1:10... Bias in favor of Fidesz-MDF in the coverage of public station MTV1 reached its peak" between the two rounds of the elections." (OSCE 2002)
Nevertheless, the impact of the public television on the elections should not be overestimated. The audience ratings of the Hungarian Television have fallen under one-tenth on the Hungarian market in recent years. This downfall was the consequence of many factors: the evident party political bias in the programs, a wrong strategy, which followed the abolition of the former state TV monopoly as competition was finally introduced by the media law in 1996, the lack of financial resources and the dramatic failures of the management.
Political control over the public media on the one hand, the strong belief in the existance of a 'mediocracy' on the other, came along well with an unconditional enthusiasm for modern, perhaps postmodern, political communication methods and techniques during the last four years of the right wing government. Media power theory survived, even if new fashionable ideas about Viktor Orbán's charisma and ability to shape the political agenda-setting process seemed to contradict to its basic assumptions. Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party gradually seduced most of the supporters of its coalition partner, the Smallholders Party, and seemed to incorporate all the other relevant right wing political formations. Many political scientists celebrated the introduction of a new and easily understandable political communication. According to them, the right-wing coalition seemed to grasp both the traditional conservative supporters with its Christian and national symbolical political messages as well as the average citizens with commercial-like slogans. Washing-powder typed, bombastic advertisements on giant posters dominated the streets - such as 'The future has started' and 'Dreamers of dreams'.
The regular and depoliticized 'baroque' speeches of the prime minister fit into this tendency - his 'statesman' style, which should have floated over unpopular party conflicts, however, reminded many analysts to the the Kádár-era. These 'micro-practices' of the government recalled the old methods of 'success propaganda' under the former one-party rule. Each year, Orbán analyzed the state of the republic in front of a celebrating audience of committed supporters. He did not choose the building of the parliament, where opposition parties could have had a chance to react to his statements right in time. One of the reasons to use this pre-modern publicity policy (where the representation of power seemed to be the only objective) was to avoid open political debates with the opponents. Orbán did not give interviews to the commercial media; instead, he preferred the radical right wing Sunday morning program of the public radio. The government's perception on public discourse led to the decrease of political and intellectual discussions on relevant public policy issues. This was combined with the limitation of the parliament to control the executive branch of the political system. As once the opposition left the assembly after a bitter debate, the prime minister created a new 'bon mot': "The parliament can function without opposition."
The steadily repeated apolitical declarations were regularly supplemented with a 'black-and-white' rhetoric related to the socialist and liberal opposition, whose representatives were described as the 'forces of the past'. This confrontational spirit was strongly present in the news and comments of the newspapers, which supported the government. Nevertheless, it was László Kövér, chief ideologist of Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party, who led the attacks. In front of big and supportive audiences, at least in two speeches, he suggested to those on the side of so-called defeatism - who were not enthusiastic about the government's plans to organize the Olympic Games in Budapest in 2012 - that they "should find a nail, a strong beam in the cellar and should hang themselves". This statement evoke the socialists' and the liberals' rough counter-offensive. Probably, there will be no exact data, which could prove whether this latest scandal did change the mind of volatile voters and mobilized some indifferent citizens against the government, or this 'invitation' did not matter in anyone's decision any more.
At least, Kövér's radical proposal might be called a peculiar communication mistake, in case we insist on this terminology. But we should not perceive it as a pseudo-event. From Kövér's perspective, the error was purely political. The most popular newspapers and the commercial media were not under the control of the government. Kövér should have remembered whilst addressing his supporters that 'hostile' political observers and media people might have listened to his words carefully. At least he had to know, his sentences can be distorted, his message might be misinterpreted. From another perspective we might add that in a democratic society, it is not alone the government, which controls the political agenda-setting process. Brutal political statements create scandals everywhere.
Since the defeat of the right wing parties, the myth about the omnipotent 'power' of political marketing has almost disappeared. It became evident that expensive 'cook book' PR methods could not make miracles alone. Political corruption scandals, the danger of a potential coalition between Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party and MIÉP as well as the lack of new motorways and other traditional policy issues became relevant and crucial parts of the campaign.
The myth about the decisive role of television debates burst in the campaign, as well. The two top candidates met on a Friday evening, just before the first election round on the coming Sunday. Péter Medgyessy, who played the role of the challenger, had much less communication skills, and his deficiency was well-known in the public. Orbán's task would have been to ensure the victory of his political camp in the eyes of the audience, which reached a record of seventy percent ratio. Since this scenario failed, we need an explanation. It is partly true that Medgyessy was surprisingly laid-back, whilst Orbán looked to be nervous. Yet, it might be more important to consider that TV-debates can usually influence only a small number of uncertain voters. This opinion obviously contradicted to the common visdom concerning the impact of television duells in Hungary. According to a general observation, four years ago Orbán was much more convincing in the debate than Gyula Horn, the incumbant socialist prime minister. Then, the televison battle occured between the two election rounds. That is why Orbán's performance seemed to be essential. However, even if the public did not realize it, the result of the first round already showed a clear predominance of the right wing parties in aggregated numbers.

Strategy, Power, Party Politics

After the local elections, the future character of the Hungarian political system depends first of all on the development of the right wing political forces. Certainly, a broader analysis should include the political culture and the world-view of the governing socialists and free democrats (see: Neményi 2002, Kende 2002).
1. In the last four years, the strategy of Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party was to create a single right wing political block: eating up its smaller but rival organizations, the Smallholders Party and the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) as well as displacing the extreme right wing party from the parliamentarian political life. The concept was almost perfectly completed, but Fidesz-leaders slipped on a banana skin. What seemed to be the conclusion to be drawn from the defeat on a minimal scale at the elections for Viktor Orbán and his core team? The relative succes in the second round showed that a confident and radical right wing offensive can mobilize more voters than socialsist and liberals were able on the other side of the political scale. Instead of choosing a more moderate, centrist position, nourishing the antagonized division between the political forces should bring back political power to Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party sooner or later. The massive support at the street demonstrations mean that radical conservative elan can be maintained, whilst activists have to be organized into new movements, in loose institutional formations, into so-called civic circles - 'beyond' the normal party structures. This strategy proved to be a failure in the lights of the local elections on October 20, 2002. Moreover, the electorate awarded the moderate conservative style of the former junior partner MDF this time. Party president Ibolya Dávid openly refused Orbán's slogan, which demonstrated his intention to unite the right wing forces under a new 'party-union' umbrella. Instead of the watchword "One camp, one flag", she prefered the idea to have "One camp, many flags".
2. It will be complicated for Viktor Orbán to look like a moderate politician once again. He might have gone too far right. After the elections, he argued that the right wing block was not in opposition, but in minority - since the nation cannot be in opposition. Of course, the core of this meassage is 'deadly perilous' in a democracy, as Gáspár Miklós Tamás put it (in: Sükösd - Vásárhelyi 2002:479). The rationale of this rhetoric might be to integrate the extreme right wing voters into the electorate of Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party, or its successor, Hungarian Unity Party, which might be founded in 2003. Then, this new formation could take a moderate platform in order to seduce voters - and the popularity of the socialists might gradually evaporate in government. Between 1994 and 1998, Fidesz produced a similar curve successfully. It is a question, however, whether a new turn back from the margin would not be too sharp and incredible in the eyes of the majority of the citizens.
3. After the elections, Viktor Orbán's analysis on the media situation in Hungary followed the old logic about the "media dominance owned by the liberal public thinking", whilst, according to him, the only failure of the government was that "we should have created more newspapers" (Debreczeni 2002:556). Although the circulation of the right wing papers has grown since the elections, this fraction of the public sphere might remain a spiritual 'ghetto' for the right wing political camp. This fear might have contributed to Orbán's new demand: he suggested the division of the public television into two ideological televison channels. As he said on a rally in Budapest: "Those millions, whom we represent here today, also have a right to access to their own public television, which speaks from their heart and to their soul" (Orbán 2002). Orbán was ready to call for a referendum in order to enforce the implementation of this idea. Certainly, Orbán would have to change his relations to the public and commercial media in case he wants to win once again. Nevertheless, the full revision of his values and attitudes is unimaginable, since they are part of a general perception about two antagonistic cultural communities and not a single political society (see András Bozóki's study in Sükösd - Vásárhelyi 2002).
4. As the consequence of 'dynamism' and 'pressing' of the former government, there was a tendency to overestimate the importance of agenda-setting in the Hungarian literature. Political observers realized that Fidesz - Hungarian Party often initiated new ideas or used agressive confrontational tactics in many political fields simultanously. Nevertheles, other and rival political players and the media were also present in these arenas. The public is often very fragmented and the majority of the citizens might have a positive or negative reaction to new ideas. The success of political activism might depend on the issues as well as the actual popularity of the inventors. For the free democrats, for, example, it was not easy to break out from the image that they were the big losers of recent political fightings (Bruck 2001).
5. After the tense political campaign in spring 2002, some left-liberal social scientists raized the question, whether the borders of democracy were crossed by the methods of the former government (Sükösd - Vásárhelyi 2002). There are many arguments supporting this thesis. Public money was spent for partisan objectives, the control of the public media ended up in government propaganda programs and there was a vast black campaign of leaflets, e-mails and mobile text messages. We might consider all these phenomenons unaccaptable or percieve them as the negative side of party competition. Still, the real problem is psychological. As Viktor Orbán declared his counter-offensive two days after the first round of the elections and a mass demonstration was also proclaimed for the coming Saturday, ghossips spread over about a new political scenario. According to this expectation, serious provocations would have occured and the government sould have decided to introduce the martial law and to postpone the second round of the elections. Nothing was true in the 'news'. But it expressed the fear of many people, although this feeling seemed to be totally forgotten during the twelve years of democratic order. During this era citizens experienced the change of government three times. Finally, it occured the fourth time again and there was no violence - the Hungarian democray passed the test.

Conclusions

In the last four years period in Hungary, traditional parliamentarian politics have been often replaced with an everyday fight between political parties to dominate the political agenda-setting and issue framing processes in the public sphere. The government exerted a siginificant influence on the public media. In the election campaign, the competition between professional political communicators was supplemented with mass mobilisation of party activists and supporters. However, even in the age of new political communication techniques, the political content of meassages and the credibility of politicains remained crucial for the Hungarian citizens.
As a special feature of post-communist power relations, an annoying lack of trust between government and opposition dominates the political life of the country. Twelve years after the regime-change, a split between Budapest and the countryside as well as inside many families and working places was a new and dangerous phenomenon for the whole society. The stake of the choice between left and right seemed to have a character of 'life or death'. Although the right wing parties mobilized their electorate in order to prevent the comeback of the 'communists', for the socialists and the liberals it was charismatic neo-conservative prime minister Viktor Orbán, whom they wanted to stop.
Six months later, the political tension at the local elections was much lower. Everything goes back to normal. This shift means that the Hungarian society was healthy enough and could survive a politically hysterical period. Nevertheless, the backlash of the over-politicised struggles might be a disoriented and/or apolitical citizenry. Indeed, there were no rational debates about the challenges facing Hungary as a will-be member state of the European Union in the recent years. In 2003, people will be able to express their opinion on the accession of the country at a referendum. Instead of studying the essence of the European Union, Hungarians wasted their time with a lot of artificial domestic conflicts. It is a question how much the Hungarian political elites have learnt the use of smart political communication methods in order to mobilise the citizens for noble and historic objectives.

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