Imre Mécs is a special phenomenon on the Hungarian political scene. He was sentenced to deathafter the 1956 Uprising then pardoned, he sat at the round table writing the Constitution
after the change of regime, and from 1990 on he was a parliamentary representative for 20 years, determining the fate of the country with his colleagues. Even today he can be spotted at almost all the street demonstrations. The contemporary witness told The Budapest Times about the past and present, including some things that are not known to many.
We meet Imre Mécs in a cosy café near Liszt Ferenc square. He has his usual inextinguishable, hardly noticeable smile. Mécs, born in 1933, speaks in a soft voice drowned from time to time by the piano music in the café; he is not the sort who calls attention by raising his voice.
Mécs did not look to attract attention in last year’s protests against the German occupation memorial on Szabadság tér either. Even if those daily protests have now ended, the topic is still on his mind: “The monument has not been officially handed over and inaugurated even today. Viktor (Prime Minister Orbán) did not come there in person and he could not send someone else either. The whole thing was finished quietly and secretly in the middle of the night.”
He speaks without bitterness: “The construction workers supported our protest in some passive way; at least that is how it looked to us. They were careful not to step on the mementos and flowers that we placed there. When the mementos had to be removed, they packed them carefully in boxes.”
Mécs recalls: “We removed the construction fences every day and they mounted them up every night again. Here in Hungary we don’t even have to read literature to experience the most peculiar absurdities every day.”
One of these absurdities was no doubt that Mécs, his wife Fruzsina Magyar and some of their companions protesting at Szabadság tér went on trial for resistance of the power of the state: “There were three or four hearings and at the end we were convicted to pay a fine of HUF 50,000.”
However, paying a fine was out of the question for the convinced democrats. “We wanted to follow up the case to the end and we were ready to go even to (the European Court of Human Rights in) Strasbourg if necessary.” After one appeal Mécs and his companions were acquitted.
He sees this as a confirmation of his most basic beliefs: “The right of freedom of speech is the most all-encompassing of all the European liberties. No other right should stand above this, except for the right to live. In order to make this clear, we decided to continue the legal process until the end.”
He was surprised and pleased that it finally all ended in Budapest, not Strasbourg: “The judge acquitted us barely relying on the facts. As a follower of the idea and as one of the founders of the Hungarian Constitutional state, I looked at the young judge with full trust.”
Mécs is not sure whether this is a sign of change but he is sure that something is happening in society: “The people are more and more confident, they stand up for their rights and they are not afraid of retaliation – and this is more and more true.” Sometimes he jokes with his wife that he can finally meet new people at demonstrations. Although he had doubts in the past few years whether the concept of a rebellious Hungarian youth still exists, Mécs is happy to see that people can still step on the path of protest when the topic is something tangible for them. He has also seen some of the well-known current politicians as young rebels: “In 1988, when we sat at the round table and we were discussing the new Hungarian Constitution, Viktor Orbán was sitting beside me. He knew about my political past and he asked me often: ‘Imre, how would you do it?’. Many people say that they knew already at that time that Orbán was dangerous but I can’t share their opinion.”
What he does agree with is the opinion that Hungary is on the road towards dictatorship today: “I have lived in dictatorships. The concept of dictatorship is at some point inseparable from the concept of totalitarianism. It was a dictatorship when people used to be hanged by the hundreds; thousands of us were arrested and interned. They called it the dictatorship of the proletariat, where the proletariat was completely out of the picture while the dictatorship was more present than ever.”
Today he feels Hungary is not yet in a situation of totalitarian dictatorship but it’s on the way, “since most dictatorships did not begin in a totalitarian way”. There were examples throughout history when they introduced some beneficial social-political measures before the political purges came along.
The person who was once sentenced to death expresses his damning judgement about the Orbán government: “We do not have a totalitarian dictatorship now. Up until now no one was executed and no one was arrested for political reasons. However, the legal apparatus is already taken. Prosecutors and judges are used in a manner and way which would be unthinkable in a democratic constitutional state.”
At the time when they were sitting around the round table, they agreed to use the term of democratic rule of law in the Constitution, since the rule of law cannot secure democracy in itself, or as Mécs put it: “The rule of law means that things work according to fixed rules. However, these rules are not necessarily good ones.”
Because of this it was very important for all the participants at that time that the democratic values would be the base of the new nascent society. Mécs says Orbán, who used to be a freedom fighter, has become very much distanced from these values: “The government has secured its position in concrete, even if that contradicts the new Constitution that they have just cobbled together.”
The manner and the way the Constitution and electoral law were changed and rebuilt recently – especially the idea of registration before elections – reminds him much of the times of the Habsburg monarchy, when the electoral law was put together with much care as well, so that the monarchy could hand-pick agreeable citizens.
How does he feel about seeing the once-convinced liberal and his former ally Viktor Orbán now? Mécs speaks about him without any bitterness: “Back in 1988 we welcomed Fidesz in our circles, we were truly happy that this organisation existed.”
At the same time Fidesz took care not to be accidentally mistaken for the youth organisation of the Democratic Association that was just established. “When we were rebuilding our party in 1988, we asked Fidesz for their support. Gábor Fodor was supposed to lead our founding congress. Fodor accepted our invitation and began his speech by asking a favour himself. He had heard that we would like to call our party Democratic Association. He asked us whether we could choose a different name, otherwise Fidesz (meaning Association of Young Democrats) would sound too much like our youth organisation.” The name was eventually changed to Alliance of Free Democrats, SZDSZ.
Mécs emphasizes how good the atmosphere used to be back then and how easy it was to cooperate. When they were working together on a new Constitution there was an air of change around them. “We felt that we had to do something right away. We did not know how long this timeframe will be open, when we will be able to make some real changes. So we were trying to compose a new Constitution but we had the feeling that we were blacksmiths trying to perform brain surgery.”
Despite their care they made many mistakes in the Constitution of 1989, for example the enormous number of 2/3 laws. “These have been corrected later on during the Antal government period and taken out of the Constitution.”
Did he feel a similar atmosphere of necessary change in 2010 too? “When we are looking at the whole picture from the historical side, we have to question our responsibility in the course of what happened. In 1989 we were trying to use German examples and experiences. But we wanted to create a Constitution of transition; the first freely chosen Parliament was supposed to pass a Constitution that was supported by the people.”
Still, fate had something else in mind; even the 72% majority of representatives from MSZP and SZDSZ (between 1994 and 1998) was not enough for a new Constitution. Within the parties they still could not process what happened back then. “Eventually this was what led to the self-righteousness of Fidesz today.”
The café is getting louder and louder as more and more people enter. However, we still have one last question: what would he advise his former companion and today’s prime minister, if he had the chance? Mécs answers promptly: “We are long past that point. Today we are at a state where dialogue is no longer possible. I see his person today as the greatest obstacle of democratic society, even if in 1989 he was our companion, with whom we wanted to shape the future together.”