Hungarian liberals: End game

It was on Sunday that some 406 delegates (out of over 600) showed up to elect a new SZDSZ president after Gábor Fodor resigned in the wake of the European parliamentary elections. There were three candidates: Attila Retkes, a musicologist, owner of a record company, and editor-in-chief of the periodical Gramofon; Szabolcs Badacsonyi, a medical doctor; and Leonárd Weinek, mayor of District XIV in Budapest. The first two men were barely known, even within the party. I certainly had never heard of them. I saw several interviews with Weinek after he was elected mayor of Zugló, another name for the district, in the 2006 municipal elections. An SZDSZ politician winning anything that time around was indeed big news.

Before the election the three candidates were invited to the usual talk shows to tell the voters about their ideas for the future of SZDSZ, and I must say that none of them was inspiring. All three said more or less the same thing: "they will not support the Bajnai government" but they will decide, item by item, I guess, "what's good for the country." Considering that the overwhelming majority of the SZDSZ caucus signed on to support the Bajnai government, the candidates' programs were at odds with the majority opinion of the party's parliamentary delegation. I had to agree with János Kóka, head of the SZDSZ caucus, that the party cannot go back on its word. They promised to support the government because of the economic necessities of the day, and it would be highly unethical to turn their backs on Gordon Bajnai and the efforts of the government. Moreover, Kóka rightly pointed out that the Bajnai government's program includes many former SZDSZ demands that the earlier Gyurcsány-led MSZP government refused to consider. So there is no need to straddle the fence and introduce an element of insecurity in the work of parliament and the government. Moreover, not supporting the government would mean early elections, which is clearly not in the interest of the party.

The upshot: I wasn't expecting anything good to come out of this election. I was told by someone familiar with the inner workings of the party that Weinek had no chance. The information was correct: he received only 72 votes. As soon as he lost, he resigned from the party! Szabolcs Badacsonyi was perhaps the most sympathetic and the least belligerent. However, he received only 106 votes. The winner was Attila Retkes with 228 votes.

The new party president is full of wrath against those who, according to him, ruined the party. SZDSZ, which badly needed someone to smooth over the differences between the two camps within the party, ended up with a man who further widened the gap. He said he wants to create a "likable" party but it is very difficult to create such a party with a president who himself is not likable! Moreover, he wants to move SZDSZ in a direction that will further alienate those who consider themselves liberals. He called SZDSZ a non-patriotic party (nemzetietlen) that didn't pay enough attention to matters of national life and death (nemzeti sorskérdések), a party that didn't care about the fate of the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, a party identified with corruption, a party that neglected the countryside. And he continued, listing the "original sins" of the former leaders that caused the downfall of the party. Previously, these criticisms were leveled against the party not from within but from the right and the extreme right for whom "nemzetietlen" meant non-Hungarian, i.e. Jewish. According to the right, the left-liberals don't pay enough attention to "questions of national life and death," whatever these questions are, because they are indifferent cosmopolitans. Turning toward the countryside can also be interpreted as a reference to the alleged Jewish nature of party because SZDSZ is primarily a party of the capital where Hungary's Jews are more numerous than anywhere else.

As a finalé to a terrible speech Retkes right then and there demanded János Kóka's resignation as head of the SZDSZ parliamentary delegation. Kóka was sitting in the conference room, not surprisingly stunned. And as if that weren't enough, Retkes asked for a vote of no confidence against Kóka. The overwhelming majority of those present voted to remove him. Kóka left the room and shortly afterward announced that he had no intention of resigning. No wonder. After all, the members of the caucus elected him head of the delegation as parliamentary rules dictate. The SZDSZ delegates as a body have no say in the matter. Neither does Attila Retkes. After Kóka's departure from the meeting the delegates chose a twelve-member governing body (ügyvívői testület). Not one name is familiar. Total unknowns. One of them, Károly Szentkuti, was interviewed by József Orosz on today's Kontra. If the intellectual level of this man is any indication of the overall quality of the new leadership, we can bury SZDSZ right here and now.

I don't think that we will have long to wait for the funeral procession. Monday morning ten founders of SZDSZ resigned, followed by perhaps hundreds by now. However, Retkes doesn't seem to be shaken in his conviction that everything is going just splendidly. He and his followers are convinced that SZDSZ has been doing poorly because, once it left the coalition, SZDSZ didn't behave as a true opposition party. I contend that the problem is just the opposite. The supporters of SZDSZ abandoned their favorite party because their politicians decided to break up the coalition. I can support this contention with the results of opinion polls. According to all pollsters, at the end of 2007 SZDSZ still had a 5% support level among the voters. Since March 2008 they have never reached that number. Support sank to somewhere in the neighborhood of 2%. I personally know many former SZDSZ voters who said after the break-up that they would never again vote for this party. They considered the abandonment of Ferenc Gyurcsány whose thinking was closest to the liberal ideals within the socialist party more than a political mistake. In their eyes it was a sin, because if SZDSZ truly breaks with MSZP and joins the opposition they can bring about the fall of the minority government. And they didn't want that. That would have meant early elections and a Fidesz sweep. But surely the SZDSZ politicians within the walls of parliament also realized that they were in an untenable situation: they abandoned Gyurcsány but they couldn't embrace Orbán. SZDSZ's strategy, if one could call it that, showed the ambivalence and the supporters simply couldn't follow the tortuous SZDSZ zigzags.

Retkes and his followers want to strip János Kóka of his membership in the party. However, that will not solve the new president's  problems. One doesn't have to be a party member to be a member of the caucus. Retkes's only hope is to convince one of the Kóka supporters to switch sides, thus tipping  Kóka's current majority of one to a minority of one. But I wouldn't be too sure of that. The opposite may happen, especially after the mass departure of old-timers and the open disapproval of Retkes's program by such important figures as György Konrád, Róza Hodosán, Attila Ara-Kovács, Miklós Haraszti, Gábor Iványi, László Rajk, Judit Rajk, and others. Although anything can happen, it is unlikely that important personages in the caucus such as Gábor Kuncze, Iván Pető, Bálint Magyar, and others will follow Attila Retkes's lead. One of the funniest comments I read about Retkes was on the internet by one of the readers: "Nomen est omen!" Retkes means "dirty, grimy." It is a truly unfortunate name, especially under the circumstances.


  1. As one who also know former SZDSZ supporters who have abandoned the party, I do not believe this was caused primarily by the Party dropping out of the coalition. The problems with SZDSZ were and are manifold and cumulative, and include:
    (1) lack of philosphical and intellectual consistency;
    (2) Willingness for years to bend or break every principle to remain tangentially in power (i.e., supporting MSZP through the ridiculous periods of 2002-2006!);
    (3) The disgrace that is the Budapest Government and the embarrasment of that is Demszky
    (4) The Party’s complicity in the Solyom disaster
    (5) Corruption (all Parties are corrupt but liberals hold themselves to a higher standard and in Hungary they do not live by that standard)
    (6) Fecklessness
    However, for the Party to now abandon the Government (that is more economically and probably socially liberal than any Hungary has ever had post 89) would be funny if it were not so pathetic. Like the Democratic Party in the U.S. of the past (and probably of the future), it would be such a bad move to bring down the Government that you must expect that it will happen.

  2. nwo: ” it would be such a bad move to bring down the Government that you must expect that it will happen.”
    Of course, I laughed, but actually I don’t think that it will happen. As one commentator (Political Capital guy) said yesterday, if Kóka remains Retkes is defeated.

  3. I fundamentally agree with NWO’s six points on the causes of the SZDSZ’s problem. I might add that for a certain section of their membership – especially that in the provinces – their governing alliances with the MSZP have always generated unease, even their four year one in the 1990s.
    Much as I disagree with them, I have some sympathy for their plight. Their real difficulty is that a truly liberal position is a minority one in Hungary (as it is in all fairness in Germany which has an established liberal party of similar size). In this situation they have two choices – one is to be like the Liberal Democrats in the UK and be a permanent opposition party, exercising a “liberal” influence on public debate by behaving as a party that on the hand is politically moderate, but is also anti-system. The other is to seek a partner. Unfortunately, for the SZDSZ the only way really to make this strategy an effective one was if – like Germany’s FDP has done in the past – it was able to maximise its bargaining power through an alternation of that partner. We know, however, that FIDESZ would never accept SZDSZ as a partner, and for this reason they have faced the choice of the MSZP, or nothing. In this climate, as we have seen, it has to accept a position where it supports a government which in important respects contradicts liberal principles (as was the case with the Horn government towards the end, and between 2002 and 2006). Ditching the MSZP – as we have seen more recently – is not really an option, while the “middle way” of co-operating with the MSZP and applying pressure on them leads them to be branded as the “undemocratic” small party, always trying to usurp the will of the electorate. Whatever one thinks of the individuals in the party’s leadership, this is an untenable structural position for a party to be in, and there are no good choices for it.

  4. Well Eva, today I shall be very strict with you.
    There is no basis whatsoever to claim to be a Hungarian if you disassociate from soc… well, football!
    Not only Orban and BajnaI are active players, but believe it or not, the book publisher and scholar Gyurgyak (a pretty good historian), is also regularly chasing the ball.
    We are talking here true local and national history for Pete’s sake!
    Just for reminder, the Fradi was established and maintained for a hundred years as the object and personification of civic pride of petite bourgeoisie. It was paid for and patronized by the everyday person and was immensely successful for all its history. Some of its players from the turn of the century were national and even international heros. Until, that is, these hooligans and a bunch of corrupt officials ruined it in the last 15-20 years.
    Now, if you look at that logo again, you will see that on the bottom there is that “funny” symbol, a rune of the letter H, the same you would see on the arm band of the “Õrsereg,” and a scarcely vailed substitute for the arrowcross. So, those are the fans of Fradi now-days.But be that as it may, there isn’t and could not be a more glorious way to spend a nice, sunny afternoon then sitting in a stadium and screaming your heart out on behalf of your favourite team and going home in the after-glow, with the friendly throng afterwards, discussing the events of the match with your friends, all the way to the restaurant.
    How sad and how un-Hungarian not to appreciate all that.
    I admit, it was my father, eons ago, who took me to some matches and all this is just a nostalgic memory now. But, who knows, should the opportunity arise, It would be my pleasure to take you out to a match, should you drop by one day. You will be grateful for it for ever, I think.

  5. Sandor: “Now, if you look at that logo again, you will see that on the bottom there is that “funny” symbol, a rune of the letter H, the same you would see on the arm band of the “Õrsereg,” and a scarcely vailed substitute for the arrowcross.”
    I suspected something like that. I even looked at the runic abc on line but I must have been blind: I didn’t see it. But it’s there. You’re right. Nice little fan club.

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