The death of a philosopher and the two realities of Orbán’s Hungary – Politico

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BUDAPEST – The afternoon was cold. Yet hundreds of people gathered on the outskirts of the Hungarian capital to say goodbye to one of them: the philosopher Gaspar Miklos Tamás.

There were communist-era dissidents, current politicians, writers, journalists and young activists – a crowd that told the story of Budapest over the past four decades and today formed the seeds of opposition to Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. They gathered silently at the Farkashreti graveyard.

To some, Tamás has been a brother of dissent in Budapest since the 1980s, when he was active in an underground democracy movement. To a younger generation, the Transylvanian-born Marxist thinker and academic was also a favorite speaker at protests and events, where he excoriated Orbán. He was an intellectual “rock star,” a Hungarian outlet said.

But as the crowd dispersed – after eulogizing Budapest’s mayor and some of the city’s most famous figures – the mourners bumped into other locals, who seemingly live in a different Hungary.

“Whose funeral was there?” asked a shocked fellow passenger as mourners tried to squeeze onto a public bus back to the city centre.

The question echoed an emerging reality – or perhaps a dual reality – in Orbán’s Hungary. One group of people is increasingly living within the Orbán-curated narrative and another group is living outside of it.

It’s a dichotomy that both creates — and straddles — Hungary’s media, judiciary, education system, and the arts. The Hungarian leader was once a liberal dissident himself, running in the same circles as Tamas before hardening to the nationalist right.

This is why Tamas’ death inadvertently pierced this growing chasm when Orbán posted a photo of the late intellectual on Facebook in tribute to his (former) friend.

“The old freedom fighter is gone,” wrote the Prime Minister, referring to Tamas simply as TGM – the author’s ubiquitous byline.

Who among the Prime Minister’s supporters asked in the comment section, what is TGM? Can anyone explain?

Others were confused as to why Orbán was suddenly respecting someone who was ideologically opposed to his government. Some offered their condolences.

Meanwhile, Tamas’ fans were outraged. How dare Orban, whose government vilifies critics as traitors on a daily basis, post their favorite philosopher as an “old” warrior?

Some were confused as to why Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was suddenly honoring someone so ideologically opposed to his government. Robert Gement/EPA-EFE

The post of Prime Minister was probably a personal gesture: he once belonged to the same left and liberal circles as the mourners at the Shital Cemetery. Tamas himself once said that he believed Orbán personally respected some of the intellectuals he now despised politically.

The prime minister, he argued, had “no principles” – and his political stance was mere opportunism.

Whatever Orbán feels personally, he has gone to great lengths to discredit the opposition. His party took control of the state media and spread conspiracy theories portraying any opponent as undermining Hungary’s national interests.

This led to a deepening of Hungary’s polarization — and the emergence of two parallel bubbles in the country.

In the capital city and some other urban pockets, many Hungarians believe that Orbán is destroying Hungarian democracy. They want a stronger relationship with the EU and an end to high levels of corruption.

But elsewhere, particularly in the countryside and some small towns, Orban enjoys solid support — despite high inflation. Many of the prime minister’s supporters blame the US and Ukraine for the ongoing war and believe in the narrative that Brussels and shadowy interests are destroying Hungary.

In these places, many Hungarians do not read news that is not filtered by the ruling Fidesz party, which has worked to influence most of the country’s institutions. The government has lined Hungary’s streets and highways with billboards – paid for with taxpayer money – pushing a misleading and insulting message about tough EU sanctions against Russia.

“97 percent are not for prohibition,” declares a current government video ad “It is time that finally in Brussels they also hear the voice of the people.”

The government’s anti-ban rhetoric is so widespread that many citizens — fully 50 percent of Fidesz supporters, according to a poll late last year — are under the impression that Hungary actively opposes them. The opposite is true. Budapest has approved every package currently in effect.

But beyond his party’s powerful influence on the flow of information, given the dire state of Hungary’s economy and the apparent prosperity of people associated with the ruling party, there are still questions as to why Orbán is still successful in at least one bubble.

Hungary’s opposition struggled in the 2022 election, winning only 34 percent of the popular vote. Tamas criticized the opposition coalition in that race as a “product of desperation” that was not presenting a sufficiently clear alternative.

Asked why the prime minister was so successful in appealing to his political base, Tamás told Politico a few years ago that Orbán capitalized on a voter base that already existed within Hungarian society.

Hungary’s opposition struggled in the 2022 election, winning just 34 percent of the popular vote Ferenc Isza/AFP via Getty Images

“Coming from the outside – he was previously a nationalist and anti-religious left liberal – he was able to reunite the fragmented right and give it confidence,” Tamas said.

“There was,” he added, “a large right-wing voting base, but disorganized; they needed a leader.”

Another important factor, according to the late philosopher, is Orbán’s “courage to tap into long-dormant anti-Western resentments, an essential part of Hungarian and Eastern European politics since the defeat of the liberal revolution of 1848.”

In far-right and nationalist circles, for example, Western powers are blamed for Hungary’s loss of territory after World War I.

Orbán’s use of anti-Western rhetoric, Tamas said, was “in line with the original tradition” and “that’s why he’s been forgiven by his supporters – despite the corruption.”

“He’s known,” he said, “as a kind of national leader — more than anyone else in recent history.”