A great speech: Gordon Bajnai, the hope of the Hungarian opposition

I had the good fortune, thanks to modern technology, to be able to see or hear all the important speeches today. As I was listening I took copious notes.

I began my day by tuning into ATV, but within half an hour the interest was so great that their server gave up the ghost. However, I still managed to hear Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech. At this point I switched to Klubrádió where I caught Péter Juhász. Then I received a direct link from a friend to Milla’s video where I heard Péter Kónya and Gordon Bajnai. Finally I was able to listen to the whole speech of Viktor Orbán by switching back to Klubrádió.

Let’s start with Gordon Bajnai. If there is a clear winner of the day it is certainly Gordon Bajnai. I always liked him and was impressed by the quiet, resolute way in which he managed to save Hungary’s sinking financial ship during one short year in office. When he handed the country over to “the dear leader,” as more and more people call Viktor Orbán, it was in fairly decent shape. Orbán managed to steer the country into recession in two short years.

But I couldn’t quite imagine Bajnai as a politician. He is basically a modest man who, when he became prime minister, described himself as a goalie rather than a forward. (He does play football like Viktor Orbán, but what a difference!) Moreover, he said often enough during his tenure that he was not a politician but a man who became prime minister because of his problem-solving talents. Yet he managed to secure the support of the two governing parties by telling them that if they don’t promise unwavering support of his austerity package they can forget about his accepting the job. What I missed in him was the fire.

But perhaps the fire was there all along. Perhaps it was just that those times needed quiet perseverance instead of fiery speeches. Bajnai’s other, until now hidden, side came out today. At last we can say that there might be a more than worthy opponent to Viktor Orbán. I think that Bajnai’s speech today just might convince the disparate groups and parties that it is worth throwing their weight behind him as a common candidate leading a united opposition.

Gordon Bajnai at the Milla-Solidarity demonstration
Origo / Photo by Zsófia Pályi

As opposed to Orbán’s forced “My honored ladies and gentlemen” (tisztelt hölgyeim és uraim), Bajnai talked to his “friends” (barátaim) and “compatriots” (honfitársaim). He used the familiar form (te ~ ti).

He began by outlining the psychological road that led to his appearance at this demonstration. On March 15 he attended the demonstration as one of the many thousand participants. Initially he maintained that he wasn’t a politician and therefore he had no intention of getting involved in politics. But at the beginning he wasn’t worried about the survival of democracy in Hungary. Soon enough, however, came “the bitter awakening.” He had  to get involved because, as he said, “I can do no other.” Who doesn’t hear in this sentence the words of Martin Luther? He came to the conclusion that 2014 is not just one election among many; it is an event that will determine not just the next four years but the next twenty-five. He can’t sit and do nothing.

In 2010 a lot of people wanted “change.” They had enough of unfulfilled promises, political warfare, and dilettantism. “They trusted and they were deceived…. We all have to ask forgiveness from each other and from the world…. This government methodically breaks the backbone of democracy vertebra by vertebra.” After describing the “institutionalized corruption” Bajnai went on to say that “the rich get richer and the poor are the poorest,” a nod to a famous poem by Attila József (“Aki szegény, az a legszegényebb”). He talked about the aggressiveness of the regime, but argued that aggressiveness is “the last refuge of the impotent.”

Bajnai continued by saying that one needs more than a change of government, there must be a regime change. In fact, there must be even more, an entirely new era (korszakváltás). To achieve this goal one doesn’t need a new party. Instead, people from the right and the left should “meet in the middle.”

There are four important considerations the opposition must keep in mind. First, they have to deal with the concepts of the “homeland” (haza) and “progress” (haladás). We mustn’t forget that the name of Bajnai’s foundation is Haza és haladás. What did he want to say here? That the liberals and the socialists must pay more attention to Hungarian patriotism. After all, there can be no question that one of the chief appeals of Orbán is his nationalist demagoguery. The left simply doesn’t know what to do with the question of nationalism versus patriotism. On the other hand, the left has a fairly clear concept of “progress.” They want to bring Hungary closer to Europe and achieve greater democracy. But, as Bajnai stressed, “the emphasis is on the “és,” on the “and.” One cannot neglect one at the expense of the other. Otherwise, the opposition forces will not be able to recruit members from the moderate right without whom regime change is impossible.

Bajnai dealt with two more important aspects that must be part of the underlying foundations of this new epoch. One is solidarity, which is sorely missing from the mindset of the current government. Orbán simply doesn’t care about the fate of the poor, whose numbers are growing by leaps and bounds. Right now we are talking about 40% of the population. The economic policies of a new government must deal with this segment of the population by redistributing the burdens that the current tax policy imposes on the less well-to-do portion of society. Finally, Hungarians at the moment are deeply divided over the issue of the country’s relationship to the European Union. Supporters of Orbán look upon it as an oppressive empire that foists its own will upon Hungary. As Orbán put it in his speech today, “we can’t accept that others can decide what we can do in our own country” and, a sentence or two later, “we can’t accept that foreigners govern us.” According to Bajnai, “there must be a new understanding” of Hungary’s role in Europe based on “common interest and a community of shared values (értékközösség).”

Bajnai also said a few words about the Orbán government’s program of “national unity across borders,” which in his opinion can only fail. What the country needs is “unifying the nation within the borders.” Difficult times await the democratic opposition but it can be done. “We want to get our country back, a country we can be proud of. … It can be done together. Only together can it be done.”

It was a great and inspiring speech. A new politician was born today, a man for whom the country has been waiting for some time.


  1. Eva S. Balogh :
    I just learned that yesterday ATV was the most watched program all afternoon and evening. One million people!!!! That’s quite something. It means something. There might have been fewer demonstrators at the Milla meeting but obviously the number of those who are interested in this heretic, anti-government station is growing!!!! And keep in mind that ATV is available only on cable.

    And – as we both know – their server was lagging severely, obviously due to extreme high demand, too! So we can quite freely assume, that the people of Hungary isn’t really indifferent, au contraire, they literally craving for a change, they waiting only for the real alternative.

    The most important task from now on not to disappoint their hopes – this is the very last chance!

  2. To the speech of Gordon Bajnai. I like it very much. I also find the strategy quite convincing. First manage to forge a platform of those people who want change (and even better: a platform where neither MSzP nor DK have the leading role) and make clear from the start that this group is already diverse. Change will not come through the “old” groups, even if they have to be taken on board. Now I hope that Bajnai will find a sufficiently large group of other people with this “independent” background to manage this platform and to organise the joint strategy for 2014. The biggest hope is that MSzP and Fidesz will both disintegrate a bit and that these people will have to take a stand whether they are willing to change and leave corruption behind or whether they cannot imagine otherwise.

  3. Kirsten: That sounds really good. I also loved that even though he made a distinction between the “past 8 years” and the past two years (of course as part of the GYF government he can’t say otherwise), he admitted to having made lots of mistakes and that some sort of facing the past has to be done on this side too. Oh how far this is from Szanyi’s most prospering era in Hungarian history…

    He also understands that patriotism is not a make of the devil, and as Eva rightly pointed out the left just doesn’t have a clue what to do with this. For so long, we let the right monopolize our national symbols and traditions. For example why are traditions from pagan tribal Hungary only taken care of by the hard right? This is just not right. Bajnai was also able to address the question of the 15 million Hungarians in a down to earth manner. Bravo.

  4. Bowen :
    Gordon Bajnai’s speech can be read in English here:

    Nice speech! I particularly liked this:

    Fundamentally, we must ascertain that patriotism and progress – upholding national traditions and rejuvenating the country – are not contradictory, nor mutually exclusive terms

    It’s been pretty confusing for me as a non-Hungarian fascinated by the history, culture, language and traditions – how can these things be celebrated when they seem to have been annexed by the extreme-right? But not celebrating them (or turning away from them, understandably, as shibboleths of an anti-foreigner/anti-semite/anti-modern position) leaves a huge hole. I’m glad to see Bajnai is right trying to reclaim this territory.

    And this:

    We all carry St Stephen’s heritage within us. For over a millennium, we have been born into this legacy, not the one of the turul, the sacred falcon

    ….a sideways kick at Orban’s Opusztaszer speech, I think…

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