Attila Mesterházy and Ferenc Gyurcsány outline their plans for the restoration of Hungarian democracy

It’s time to get back to the present, which is a great deal  less upbeat than the days just before the Hungarian government allowed the East Germans to cross into Austria. Those days were full of hope. The Round Table Negotiations were winding up and within a few days the establishment of the Fourth Republic was declared.

Today the mood of the country is outright gloomy. The economy is languishing and the opposition is in disarray. And yet one must move ahead. One helpful sign: a discussion about how the wounds the Orbán government inflicted upon the democratic institutions of the country can be healed is going on in earnest on the Internet. Zsófia Mihancsik, editor-in-chief of Galamus, was the one who initiated a series of articles on the topic. Up to date eleven pieces have appeared; I will compare the last two. Yesterday Ferenc Gyurcsány wrote and today Attila Mesterházy.

Attila Mesterházy

Attila Mesterházy

My first impression was that their ideas on the restoration of democracy in Hungary run along very similar lines. In my opinion, if it depended only on these two men, MSZP and DK could come to an understanding on practically all the important issues in no time. I don’t know whether Gordon Bajnai will join these two politicians and outline his own ideas on Galamus, but from what I know about E14-PM ‘s view of the future without Viktor Orbán it is quite different from those of Gyurcsány and Mesterházy.

Gyurcsany Ferenc

Ferenc Gyurcsány

So, let’s see what they agree on. Practically everything. Neither of them believes in any kind of compromise with Viktor Orbán’s party. Gyurcsány, as is his wont, puts it in stark terms. He considers the Orbán government illegitimate and illegal. Illegitimate because it didn’t receive a mandate to change the basic democratic structure of the country and lead it toward autocracy. It is illegal because it strives toward the acquisition of exclusive power. He also finds the 2012 Constitution illegal and illegitimate.

Neither Gyurcsány nor Mesterházy thinks that the 2012 Constitution can be left in place, but while Gyurcsány considers a two-thirds majority necessary to write a new constitution, Mesterházy perhaps  a little bit more realistically thinks that some kind of legal possibility exists that might solve the problem. For example, wide societal support for a new constitution that could force a referendum on the issue. That would require some very clever legal finagling given the current restrictive provisions of the Hungarian constitution.

Mesterházy spends some time distinguishing between Fidesz as a party and the Fidesz voters. He is convinced that the majority of those who voted for Fidesz in 2010 did so in the hope that Viktor Orbán would ensure them a better future but that by now they are disappointed in their man and his government. I disagree with his assessment of the current state of affairs. I don’t think that most Fidesz voters are disappointed. Yes, a lot are, but the so-called hard core is unshakable. In my opinion Mesterházy is far too optimistic when he writes about the eventual attrition of Orbán’s followers. Past experience tells us that 1.5 million people will always vote for Fidesz no matter what. Gyurcsány doesn’t address this problem.

Both think that political appointees must be relieved of their jobs because otherwise the new government would be totally powerless to make the changes necessary for the restoration of democracy. Gyurcsány specifically mentions a few crucial appointments in the judicial system such as Fidesz nominated judges to the Constitutional Court, new high-level judges, and the supreme prosecutor. He also thinks that many of the newly appointed civil servants most likely will have to be let go because by now the whole civil service is completely politicized. Unfortunately neither of them tells us how he would be able to accomplish this legally.

Both agree that the illegal concessions, be they land leases or tobacconist shops, must be reevaluated and if necessary revoked. As for the tobacco state monopoly Gyurcsány specifically calls for an immediate abrogation of the law. Let’s open the tobacco market, he says, and let the new Fidesz owners compete on a level playing field.

Gyurcsány is quite specific about which Fidesz changes he would leave alone. He would allow municipalities to choose whether they want to have their schools back or whether they are satisfied with having local schools under centralized state administration. One could even make an argument to leave hospitals in the hands of the state. He would not abolish the new administrative unit, the járás, although one most likely would give them autonomy instead of centralized state oversight.

These two men could easily see eye to eye. EP14-PM is a different matter. Bajnai’s team are ready for a compromise with Fidesz, and they think they could live with the current constitution after a little fiddling with it. On this point both Mesterházy and Gyurcsány are clear: there can be no compromise with Fidesz. This is such a basic disagreement of principle that it will be difficult to resolve. And, by the way, E14-PM again lost a couple of percentage points according to the latest Tárki poll that was released only today. The postponement of the negotiations in the hope of gaining strength didn’t bring the expected results. On the other hand, MSZP gained a couple of percentage points.


  1. Mutt :
    You are as blind as a fool can be when you still have blind faith while Orban and Co. is robbing you blind.

    Ever heard of repeating a statement does not make it any truer?
    Think about that.
    And, FYI, I’m very far from having blind faith in Orbán or anyone else. Oo, far from that.
    But what is obvious is that Orbán & co are the only party that are suitable for a government in Hungary, and with all their shortcomings (and, yes, corruption cases) are light years better than anyone else in sight. Moreover, they are really excellent in some areas, for example restructuring economy (and re-obtaining properties that should be in state property like monopolized companies).

  2. Johnny Boy,

    I did not call you a troll. At least not yet.

    You accused Eva of being unable to “see what’s going on”; I responded directly to you and asked if it was you who was, in fact, blind to a number of current government actions and policies that reasonable people find to be very bad for Hungary and its people. Rather than respond to any single point on my list, you said that I was arguing by calling you blind. I was not, and I can only suppose that this is because even you find it impossible to make an argument in support of these policies and actions. I asked if you were turning a blind eye to massive government incompetence and abuse, and, given your deflecting from the reporting of this incompetence and abuse, one has to wonder why do you hate Hungary and its people so much that you would tolerate this incompetence and abuse?

    I await a serious response to my points, otherwise the suspicion of trollhood will have hardened immeasurably.

  3. Paul :
    Gyurcsány is regarded by many (I suspect most) as a failure and an embarrassment. To Fidesz supporters and the Fidesz controlled media, he is a laughing stock, and a propaganda gift that never stops giving.
    He was largely responsible for the huge Fidesz election win, and, practically every time he opens his mouth, he helps towards them winning again in 2014.
    As long as the left/liberal intellectual elite clings to Gy because “he makes sense” they are fiddling while Hungary burns. They didn’t understand what was happening prior to 2010, they didn’t understand what happened in 2010, and they STILL don’t understand what is happening now.

    It is shocking (and bodes very ill for Hungary) if even some of the democratic opposition has fallen for Fidesz’s fetid, mendacious smear campaign against Gyurcsany. That foul tactic, like none other, is Orban’s signature M.O. Is it metastasizing to all of Pannonia, and not just the bottom strata of the Carpathian Basement?

  4. Mutt :

    Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10) :

    Mutt :
    I’m wondering what the “clear citizen moral” is (tiszta államplogári erkölcs). Is there a non-citizen moral? Is that bad? Do non-citizens go to heaven?

    Try “civic morality” as a translation, and go for Émile Durkheim…

    I think it’s rather a Christian term. It’s “civil morality”. It means that the individuals have to give up certain rights or actions for the common good.
    It’s fits. This is how our holy Joes see this garbage called Basic Law … We tell you what to give up – that is your civil morality.

    Civic or civil, depending on the tradition of political philosophy you refer to (today those terms are sometimes opposed). I agree with you on the basic idea, though it’s not only about giving up, it’s also about exercising rights / fulfilling duties. But since the concept emerged with secular thinkers, it can hardly be considered a ‘Christian term’.

  5. @Eva: I agree that he is right on abandoning niceties. But the man and this interview turned very caricaturistic. Instead of being hard and to the point, he comes off as somebody who’s loosing it. Mind you, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he was after all these years.

    It’s no secret that I don’t like him and that’s not because Öszöd or the interpretation of the igazság/hazguságbeszéd but because I think he was a spectacularly incompetent prime minister and, as Paul said, he has great responsibilities in the Fidesz landslide. As he himself said, Orbán is not the result of the wrath of god, the left liberal side “worked hard for it”.

    I know you like to picture everything as a result of Orbán’s trickery, but to tell the truth it wasn’t very elaborate scheming and a competent prime minister and government could have easily avoided it. Plus a competent prime minister would have never said that an international financial crisis wouldn’t effect Hungary just two weeks before turning to the IMF for bailout. He was a very easy target and had he gotten the seat again due to some miracle, there is no reason why anything would turn out differently.

  6. @Jano: It’s funny how everybody knows how to run a country.. oh, and by the way, it’s easy 🙂 It’s the same as in sports, (and in art and in education)… everybody is an expert. Everybody knows how to handle the situation best and the player who messes up is simply incompetent.

  7. An: No, it’s not easy, I for example would do a horrible job at it. That’s one of the reasons why I’m not trying to convince people to trust with their votes that I wouldn’t.

    Besides yeah, you know, Hungary is the country of 10M professional football coaches 🙂

  8. @Jano
    While there is a lot of truth in what you wrote, I’d like to call your attention to a slight flaw in your logic. Contrary to Orbán, Gyurcsány didn’t made all the decisions alone, as opposed to Fidesz there was no blind obedience in the MSZP during that time.
    Even worse, they worked hard against anything progressive what Gyurcsány ever intended to do, so there is much more in this picture than simple incompetence.
    One of the reason why he isn’t in the MSZP any longer.

    Otherwise, I hope, that you count the inaccurate predictions made even in the recent years too – just for fun 😉

  9. @Jano: It would have been fine if you had just blamed Gyurcsany for his own mistakes while he was PM.. I think people should be responsible for the mistakes they make (it’s always a matter of opinion, why they made it, because of incompetence or it was just the best they could do under the circumstances… whatever). But blaming Orban on Gyurcsany is going too far. Everybody should be responsible for their own mess.

    The other problem with blaming Gyurcsany or the socialists for Orban is that it totally misses the main culprit who is to blame: Hungarian sheep who let Orban do whatever he wants.

    Hungarians still have this idea of politics as a reality show, where all they have to do to sit back and comment on the players and then maybe vote every four years. They don’t seem to realize that if they want a better country, they need to get off the couch and do something about it. Unhappy about corruption? How about starting or supporting an existing advocacy group (like Transparency International) to fight it? Political advocacy and grass-root movements are close to zero in Hungary… everybody is just waiting for somebody else to do something.

  10. An: I agree, I’m not just blaming Orbán solely on him. This was much more than a “one man job”. On the other hand his impotent governance certainly didn’t help and a prime minister is responsible for what is happening under his governance. That’s why resignation is always an option if you feel like your tenure is hijacked and you don’t want to have your name tainted by what’s happening.

    Obiviously dealing with MSZP behind my back would definitely not be a scenario I would like to find myself in, but my question still stands: What would be so different next time? He would curse more? That’s why I don’t believe in the opposition, even though I would love to see Orbán out of power, I’m pretty sure all these guys would bring back would be a spectacular chaos that would pave the road for Orbán to come back stronger than he ever was. (I’m still not saying Orbán should stay, as civilized people don’t say such things, but I certainly don’t see a bright future anytime soon).

    Of course An, you have a point about the responsibility of the Hungarian sheep, but to stay at football, you can only change coaches not an entire team. Orbán learned how to lead the sheep very well, while the left liberals learned how to earned their hatred and repulse (not entirely without reason).

  11. Spectator: I would agree with you, but as the old saying says if my granddad had had an electric collector, he would have been Tram 2. We need someone who would make a good prime minister period. Not somebody who could be a good prime minister if this and that condition was satisfied when they are clearly not.

    In this thought process I’m assuming that you are correct and Gyurcsány is a talented progressive politician (which I think is more of a legend, but that can be a topic of a different conversation).

  12. @Jano
    At least, we pretty much can agree on the fact, that Hungary is in a deep trouble – either way.
    Otherwise An absolutely right, as long as the Hungarian people does nothing but waiting, if someone/something – the EU? God? – will turn things right, nothing ever will change, that’s for sure.

  13. @Jano: “Obiviously dealing with MSZP behind my back would definitely not be a scenario I would like to find myself in, but my question still stands: What would be so different next time?”

    Any political party which is committed to restoring democratic institutions, rule of law, and checks and balances is better than what we have now. Any. The reason is that only in a DEMOCRACY you can address any of the problems that led to the disillusionment in the political elite of the the 90s and 2000s (for example corruption, to name one). First, you need to restore democracy, then, you need citizens who realize that even in a democracy they need to be a lot more active in a shaping politics (and there is a lot they can actually do through advocacy groups).

    The tragedy is that the Hungarian electorate in their desperation for change has fallen for a con-man, who exploited this disillusionment for his own benefit, and makes progressive change even less possible than before. You have to start with number one, restoring the democratic play-field.

    Letting Orban’s pseudo-democracy exist just because democratic parties don’t measure up to our ideals is silly. Take the democratic parties, restore democracy and then use the democratic framework to pressure the political elite to improve their ways. The chances for successfully doing that is a lot higher in a democracy than in an autocracy.

  14. J Grant writes: “Bajnai is preparing for a compromise with Fidesz (as Prof. Balogh writes) and they drop 2 percent. Mesterhazy finally comes out with a clear statement that no compromise is possible with Fidesz and he goes up a couple of percents.”

    I understand your point, do you really think a couple of points up or down will decide the election in 2014? In my mind a less than 50% parliamentary majority forcing Fidesz into a coalition with Jobbik still looms high and it frightens me.

  15. BTW, the reverse outcome in 2014 is also troubling. Suppose some combination of the left wins the election, with less than 50% of the seats. Who are they going to join in a coalition Fidesz Jobbik? Or will they have to return their mandate to form a government and turn it over to the next highest winner, most likely Fidesz?

    Also looming large on the horizon after the election is the large collection of constitutional and “sarkalatos” laws requiring a 2/3 majority to change or eliminate. An override will require some kind of cooperation by parties that are sworn enemies.. Fidesz will likely stick by the laws they wrote, so will the left find it possible to vote with Jobbik (and will Jobbik vote along with the left)?

    Am I the only one worried about this?

  16. @An: Yes restoring the democratic playing field is important but it has to be done in a stable way. If a new government falls apart chaotically and Orbán is back in two years, then nothing was accomplished.

  17. @Sackhoes: No I am very much too. It seems to me that everyone thinks it’s enough to beat Fidesz by a little margin in 2014. Well that might very well happen, in the polls the gap is not that big. But the opposition needs to get 50% of the seats otherwise it’s still game over. And that one is very far away from how things are now.

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