A question of honor
Rarely has a modern European leader been more brazen in his contempt for basic standards of political decency. After Hungary's socialist prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, admitted that he had secured re-election earlier this year after lying to voters about the true state of the economy "morning, evening and night" for the whole of his premiership, it is difficult to know whether one should be more appalled by his admission or by the astonishing fact that he is now trying to make political capital out of it.
"The real issue in Hungarian politics today," Gyurcsany wrote in his blog, "is not who lied and when, but who is able to put an end to this ... who can face up to the lies and half-truths of the past 16 years." In other words, he seems to be saying, you can trust me now because, unlike everyone else in politics, I'm honest about having been a liar. He has pointedly refused to resign.
It is hardly news that Hungary, with a budget deficit expected to exceed 10 percent of gross domestic product this year, is Central and Eastern Europe's economic basket case. Nor is it surprising that a government should attempt to cover up the reality of its own mismanagement, especially approaching an election.
What is unforgivable about Gyurcsany's remarks, which were taped at a meeting of Socialist Party leaders just after the April elections and leaked to the press last weekend, is that he has simultaneously humiliated the Hungarian people and subjected his country's youthful democracy to domestic and international ridicule.
We don't need to be naïve about standards of honesty in modern politics to insist that some things are so damaging to democratic values that the only honorable course of action is resignation. As Hungary's president, Laszlo Solyom, put it, the scandal has plunged the country into a "moral crisis." Because Gyurcsany, by refusing to step down, has trashed the principle that there must be a price to pay for outright dishonesty.
While we have come to expect our politicians to put a positive gloss on the policies they propose and the records they defend, to try to legitimize a past policy of systematic lying - which, whatever he says, is effectively what Gyurcsany has done - is to enter an entirely different moral universe.
To admit to lying for years on end and not to see that as a reason for resigning is to abolish a basic bond of trust between rulers and ruled, and thus to undermine the democratic system that put you into office. It is to enter a universe where the accusation that no one can believe anyone in politics stops being the property of the cynical or the paranoid and starts to become a plausible description of everyday realities.
The broader picture here is of a post- Communist society that has still not developed the kind of fully mature democratic culture that was supposed to have been a prerequisite to membership of the European Union in 2004. What is worse is that, albeit for different reasons, Hungary is not alone in this.
Two other leading new member states in the region, Slovakia and Poland, have this year shown worrying signs that their democratic cultures, too, are much weaker than had been hoped when they joined the EU. Both now have coalition governments that include fringe parties with only a tenuous commitment to democratic values. How much more "democratic slippage" are we likely to witness in the new member states?
The Polish government includes the Self-Defense Party, led by Andrzej Lepper, who has praised Hitler's economic policies. It also includes the homophobic League of Polish Families. Slovakia's new government includes the Slovak National Party, which has expressed sympathy with the country's wartime clerico-fascist government and which is deeply hostile to the country's ethnic Hungarian and Roma, or Gypsy, populations.
Hungary has not yet plumbed such depths, but it contains strong undercurrents of an aggressive and resentful nationalism that could easily surface if the mainstream political culture is debased further.
We don't know where this will end. What we do know is that Central and Eastern Europe have become interesting again, this time for all the wrong reasons.