Péter Tölgyessy’s analysis of the Hungarian political scene

Until now I haven't written much about Péter Tölgyessy and his career, but a few days ago I made an attempt in Galamus-csoport to compare two of his recent opinions on Fidesz's chances at the coming elections. To my great surprise I found that within the course of a few days he changed his mind about Fidesz's chances of achieving a two-thirds majority. While in one of the interviews he claimed that MSZP still had reserves and that Jobbik may take votes away from Fidesz, in the other interview conducted on HírTV, a channel close to Fidesz, he forgot about both opponents. Because Tölgyessy gives an interview on MR1 every Monday morning I decided that I should spend some time listening to these interviews because they may shed light on certain twists and turns in the commentator's opinions.

First, some background. Péter Tölgyessy went to law school, graduating in 1981. Right after graduation he moved to one of the Academy's research institutes dealing with law where his field was the legal aspects of interest groups. He came into contact with the founders of SZDSZ and in this capacity took part in the negotiations of the Round Table Discussions between the opposition and the communist party that eventually led to the regime change in 1989. He and László Sólyom were largely responsible for hammering out a constitutional framework for the new regime. Perhaps that's why he is often described as a constitutional lawyer. In fact, by now he cannot even be considered a legal scholar because in the last twenty years or so he has been doing only political analysis.

His political career was rather peculiar. In 1990 he became a member of parliament (SZDSZ) and eventually was the leader of the then rather large SZDSZ parliamentary delegation. A year later for a short while he was chairman of the party. However, in August 1996 he left SZDSZ and served as an independent for the rest of the session. By 1998 he moved over to Fidesz, was high on its party candidates list, and therefore became a member of parliament again. He sat in parliament for eight solid years without saying a word or doing anything. Well, that's not quite accurate. He wrote articles and gave interviews in which he was often quite critical of Fidesz. Eventually Viktor Orbán must have had enough of Tölgyessy. By 2006 he was of no use to anyone and was dropped. Since 2007 Tölgyessy has been working in another institute of the Academy, the Political Science Institute.

Well, with this little background behind us, let's move on to what Tölgyessy had to say on Magyar Rádió's "180 minutes" yesterday morning. This time he decided to talk about the chances of the smaller parties, LMP and MDF. Tölgyessy is very much hoping that these smaller parties will manage to cross the magic 5% threshold necessary to have parliamentary representation because, in my opinion mistakenly, he thinks that the presence of these small parties with their new faces "could substantially change not only the socialists but with time even Fidesz." For the better, I guess.

Let's stay with these claims a bit. There are so many things wrong with them that I don't even know where to begin. First of all, if MDF gets back to parliament the party will not present entirely different faces. Moreover, MDF has been represented in parliament for a good twenty years. If MDF's presence didn't mollify the cold war atmosphere in the parliament during the last eight years, it will not do so in the next four years either. New faces would appear on the scene only if LMP managed to get into parliament. Their small delegation–because one can't expect a spectacular electoral victory for the party–would be insignificant in comparison to Fidesz and MSZP, and it is unlikely that Fidesz's confrontational behavior would change radically once in power. And let's face it, the cold war atmosphere was mostly created by Fidesz. Moreover, Tölgyessy simply forgot about another force that might be considerable–that is, Jobbik. If the atmosphere was bad before, it will be much worse once this party's representatives grace the halls of parliament. And who is going to have a calming influence on Jobbik? LMP or MDF? The whole thing is bizarre.

Tölgyessy urges people to vote for the smaller parties and assures them that their votes will not be wasted because he is fairly certain that they will get over the 5% mark. Although he is talking about the small parties, including MDF, it is clear that his favorite party is LMP which is, according to Tölgyessy, fashioned after the German Green and Linke parties. Other people, whose views I trust more, have a much lower opinion of LMP. One of my problems with the party is that its origins go back to the same civic environmental group that produced László Sólyom for the post of president.

Tölgyessy is certainly no fan of MDF which he considers to be "the most wounded party of the sick Hungarian politics." Tölgyessy, in line with Fidesz's opinion, thinks that Ibolya Dávid transformed MDF into a left-wing party, pure and simple. He agrees with Viktor Orbán that MDF was partly responsible for Fidesz's defeat at the 2002 elections because Dávid refused to run with Fidesz as she did in 1998. Not only is MDF a left-wing party but it solicited Lajos Bokros, once minister of finance in Gyula Horn's government, to run at the head of the ticket. Moreover, today's MDF bears no resemblance to the party József Antall dreamt of because it adopted such slogans as "modernization" and "reform economics" which are the slogans of the socialists and the liberals. He doesn't like Dávid and MDF but he still thinks that their presence would have a calming effect on the parliament. How, I would like to ask.

Then comes his analysis of MSZP. Equally interesting. First, I have some serious problems with Tölgyessy's statistics. According to him in 2006 55.1% of the population voted for left-wing parties: MSZP, SZDSZ, and MDF. That meant 3 million votes. So far so good. But then he claims that currently MSZP has only 800,000 voters and that about the same number left the socialists and went over to Fidesz and Jobbik. As far as I know Fidesz's base hasn't changed in the last four years. It is still about 2 million voters. So in his simple scheme: 800,000 socialist voters remained, 800,000 left, and therefore about 1.5 million former left-wing voters are missing. Many of them will stay away, but "even if a smaller portion of this mass moves, the little parties, especially LMP, might cause a surprise." And then Péter Tölgyessy can wake up!

6 comments

  1. Actually the most interesting thing now are the small parties, largely because the more of them get in the fewer territorial list and compensatory national list seats can be won by FIDESZ. In other words, if both LMP and MDF get in it becomes much harder for FIDESZ to win that two-thirds majority they want.
    Furthermore, because of the strange way the nominating procedure has worked it looks like only four parties – FIDESZ, MSZP, Jobbik and LMP – will be on the list ballot everywhere, with the MDF missing from the ballot paper in Vas and Somogy. Furthermore, for parties aspiring to win 5% they are on the ballot in a very small number of individual constituencies – somewhere just over 90 for LMP and MDF each. This is very significant, because while in previous elections the votes for the big parties in the constituencies have lagged behind their list score, this factor should reverse this phenomenon in much of the country, helping the largest likely vote getter win more seats on the first round than one would otherwise expect.
    On the parties ……
    “Tölgyessy, in line with Fidesz’s opinion, thinks that Ibolya Dávid transformed MDF into a left-wing party”
    I’m afraid I find this frankly bizarre. It is fairly clear to me that MDF is a neo-conservative party, and on both social and economic issues is to the right of the Conservatives in the UK. Whatever the merits of its position are, to call it left-wing is pretty ludicrous.
    ” Although he is talking about the small parties, including MDF, it is clear that his favorite party is LMP which is, according to Tölgyessy, fashioned after the German Green and Linke parties. Other people, whose views I trust more, have a much lower opinion of LMP. One of my problems with the party is that its origins go back to the same civic environmental group that produced László Sólyom for the post of president.”
    Some of them come from there, but their programme doesn’t bear too much resemblance to any of Sólyom’s public positions. In fact their programme looks like that of a western European Green Party, and their candidates are made up of people who either have no previous political past, or come from right across the political spectrum. They are probably less overtly left-wing that the Green Party in the UK, but similar to those in Germany and France. And they are inexperienced. But that, I suppose, is not the point – five parties have a chance of making it into parliament. One of those is neo-fascist, another is a right-populist party, another is neo-conservative, the fourth has a Socialist name – but in practice there is little difference between it and the neo-conservatives, and then for those who are committed to social liberal and left-wing values there is only really the LMP that is making any attempt to talk to them. And it is this rather hopeless situation that has given them their big chance. We’ll see if they are ready to exploit it.

  2. i dare say many of those “missing” left-wing voters have moved onto the next world by now, only to be replaced by their grandchildren who are increasingly ditching the old left for the new right. i also think the mszp’s bad name recently has turned a large number of former leftists rightwards, permanently.
    i dont see LMP making any significant progress outside of budapest. im not sure how relevant their “green” politics is in the countryside, far from the cafes and universities of the capital, but certainly they are well positioned to tap into part of the old szdsz/mszp demographic.
    as for mdf – well i dont think anyone is seriously very worried about them. like the szdsz, their days appeared to be numbered.

  3. Paul: “i dont see LMP making any significant progress outside of budapest. im not sure how relevant their “green” politics is in the countryside, far from the cafes and universities of the capital, but certainly they are well positioned to tap into part of the old szdsz/mszp demographic. as for mdf – well i dont think anyone is seriously very worried about them.”
    Firstly, I’m not going to write MDF off just yet. This is because (1) the party has collapsed so many times only to campaign well enough to survive, (2) they have a tradition and name recognition, and (3) they have positioned themselves as the low spending, low tax conservative party. They’re not going to win an election with this position, but if they can convince all those who want a low-spending, low-tax state they can get 5%.
    Secondly, Paul suggests that Budapest is less important in determining elections than it is. It accounts for, maybe, 17-18% of the total electorate. Because turnout in the capital has been significantly higher than anywhere else in the country in previous elections, we can expect it to account for 22-24% of all voters on 11 April. That means, as the SZDSZ have found throughout their history, and FIDESZ found to their cost in 2002, a good or a bad performance in the capital is of national significance, as it impacts hugely on the national result.
    A good performance in the capital is important for both small parties, and absolutely vital for the LMP’s chances. An LMP which makes 5% (and there are still questions as to whether it has the national organization or name recognition to do this)would have a vote that is geographically distributed like that of the SZDSZ. Therefore we would expect it to be very strong in the capital among highly educated voters, and also strong in those towns in Pest county where singificant numbers of well educated commuters work in Budapest. It doesn’t really need to do very well at all outside these areas – with 10% in Budapest, on this level of differential turnout it could hope to get in with around 3.5% across the whole of the rest of the country.
    You may say that it is strange to see a “Green” party that is not strong in rural areas, but this is the pattern with Green parties in western Europe. Austria’s Greens get their votes in the middle-class and student-inhabited areas of inner Vienna; Germany from Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg etc., and in the UK from culturally-liberal, high income areas in inner London, Brighton, Cambridge, Oxford and Norwich.

  4. Mark,
    Sorry but I don’t share your optimism for the MDF(/SZDSZ). For better or worse, I think they are a spent force. I could of course be wrong on this – the April results will prove one of us right.
    Im quite aware that green parties are generally far stronger in cities than rural areas – i didnt say it was strange at all. I think you misunderstand my statement there, we are actually agreeing on this. I apologise if this wasnt clear from my post.
    I was however trying to suggest that I don’t think LMP will get enough votes outside budapest to reach 5% nationwide – ie. i don’t think your figure of 3.5% across the counties is realistic. i also think 10% in budapest is a fairly optimistic estimate (but not impossible i suppose). Either way, with 4 other well-known options available to voters, i just dont see LMP being able to break 5% at this election. 2014 of course may see them coming of age.
    media speculation that LMP will jump the 5% hurdle is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. by fuelling this speculation, outlets (generally with more liberal leanings) are helping the LMP to sway those voters who are unsure as to whether the 5% will be reached – thus making it more likely that it actually will be.

  5. Paul: “I was however trying to suggest that I don’t think LMP will get enough votes outside budapest to reach 5% nationwide – ie. i don’t think your figure of 3.5% across the counties is realistic. i also think 10% in budapest is a fairly optimistic estimate (but not impossible i suppose). Either way, with 4 other well-known options available to voters, i just dont see LMP being able to break 5% at this election. 2014 of course may see them coming of age.”
    You can make a very plausible case for this and up to a few weeks ago I would have said that you were certainly correct. Clearly, they have lots of enthusiastic activists but their performance in collecting nominations suggests that this has not been welded into the kind of professional, focussed political machine they need. One would have expected a party with at least 3-5% right across the country to collect sufficient nominations in around 140-150 constituencies, but the last time I looked they only had 91 (one more than the MDF who managed the same result despite mutiny in parts of their organization). However, excatly the same things could have been said about FIDESZ’s organization and its reach beyond the capital in 1990 and 1994.
    Also, because the SZDSZ has vanished, and the MSZP is discredited, and Bokros will not pull the socially minded (rather repel them) they have an electoral niche that is much larger than their current level of measured support. I see in one recent poll that 16% would like to see them get into parliament, while at the moment only 3-5% are prepared to vote for them. Therefore I read the issue as being whether they have the infrastructure to deliver a campaign that persuades enough of this group.
    Getting the media the target voter group reads/listen to/watches on side is part of this. So, clearly having the left-liberal media talking about them helps (and it is much better than the three minutes on NapKelte they got last year). Persuading the messengers is an important part of campaigning in a media-based election.

  6. It’s common practice among analysts to divide the whole voting population among the parties. In fact, there is a large uncommitted, even apathetic group in the middle. In the past most of this group recoiled from Orban and his open winking toward the far right. But this year Jobbik wants nothing to do with Fidesz and Orban, ever the opportunist, is striking a moderate tone. This is far more acceptable to the uncommitted and Orban’s numbers show it. If he had done this in 2002 or 2006, he would have been elected.
    Like everywhere, in Hungary each party has their “yellow dog” supporters, but the elections are decided by the undecided.

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