Ildikó Lendvai’s “Plan B” as a solution to the ills of Hungarian politics

Right after the election I created two new folders: “Orbán government, 2014-” and “MSZP, 2014-.” In the first instance, I hesitated to be too specific and add the expected date of the end of the third Orbán government. In the second instance, I was certain that a new era would begin soon after the election. It was inevitable that the role of Attila Mesterházy both as party chairman and as the candidate for the post of prime minister would be questioned.  Supporters of Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány were never happy with Mesterházy and were convinced that with Bajnai at the head of the Unity Alliance the opposition to Fidesz would have done better. Bajnai was always slightly ahead of Mesterházy in popularity, though not by much.

Considering the internal tensions that most likely existed within MSZP in the last two years or so, it was remarkable that the leading socialist politicians stuck pretty well to the party line. But some, especially the old hands, were unhappy with the way things were going. I must say that I sympathize with them. These people had years of experience behind them and a record of accomplishment. They had known the leading members of Fidesz since 1988-89. They had dealt with them on a daily basis. By the time Mesterházy and some of the newcomers got into politics, Viktor Orbán was no longer involved in open give and take. For eight years, between 2002 and 2010, he rarely showed up in parliament. He was a shadowy figure for these newcomers.

The younger generation also had no experience in party organization. They decided, for instance, not to put any effort into grass roots organization in the countryside. The new party leaders thought they could let Fidesz have the countryside and win with only city voters. That turned out to be a grave  mistake. And this particular problem was just one of many on the organizational level.

In the last few days, more and more old-timers have hinted rather strongly that Mesterházy should resign. I suspect that he will not resign, but it is unlikely that he will be reelected given the mood of the party faithful.

Today and tomorrow I will talk about the criticism that came from two former chairmen of the party: Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller. Hiller had a long interview with Népszava, and Lendvai published an op/ed piece in Népszabadság. 

As I was looking through my notes, I found an interview with Lendvai from November 2011 which also appeared in Népszabadság. The reporter jokingly asked her: “Don’t you think that you are going to be in trouble for giving an interview?” He asked that question because Attila Mesterházy had asked the older party leaders not to appear in public. Lendvai, who is well-known for her quick ripostes, answered: Mesterházy “asked everybody to work hard. I can report that I’m working and not just having fun, however pleasant the company.” Even in that old interview, Lendvai made it clear that she would like to have party leaders who were not looking to see “where the head of the table is.”

So, how does she assess the state of the party now? The title of her article is “Plan B.” She doesn’t mince words: both MSZP’s structure and its functioning are bankrupt. Actually, not just MSZP but the whole Hungarian political structure is in trouble, including Fidesz. The symptoms of the crisis in her opinion are:

(1) Fewer and fewer people bother to vote. Politics has become a game of the few. Politicians are often preoccupied with their own former political battles. The chasm between politics and the citizenry is growing.

(2) The very notion of parties is questionable. Fidesz no longer functions as parties normally do. KDNP is no more than a name while Fidesz operates more like a hierarchical, almost religious organization rather than a party. It exists only in “political processions” and is no longer the molder of government policies. It tried to take over the role and culture of the extremist Jobbik, but its hegemonic role in the right became weaker instead of stronger. It can easily happen that there will be a time when two right-wing parties fight between themselves for supremacy.

(3) In the last four years there were attempts at building bridges between parties and civil society but they were all failures. Fidesz’s Civil Összefogás Fórum is no more than a “collection of party soldiers” while Gordon Bajnai’s attempt at cooperation with civil society failed.

(4) The intellectual aging of the political elite has accelerated. No new ideas have penetrated the parties for years. In MSZP “change” was seen simply as a change of generations. But the electorate doesn’t have any better opinion of the new politicians than of the old. Politicians have to face the fact that even those who are interested in politics got to the point that they want to throw out all politicians. The electorate is becoming older and older, the camp of  the “politically homeless” is growing, there is less and less interest in politics, and less and less hope. This is what Hungarian politicians have to face.

In this situation the disappearance or reappearance of a party or some politicians will not solve the problems. One has to start with Plan B. This Plan B has at least three important components.

Plan for a solution: To change the party logo "Try to under: this is the twenty-first century! At least you should sometime take a look at the popularity lists of of the Internet Marabu / Népszabadság

Plan for a solution: Change the party logo
“Try to understand: this is the twenty-first century! At least you should sometimes take a look at the popularity lists on the Internet”
Marabu / Népszabadság

The first and the most difficult component of Plan B is the creation of an entirely new political structure. Instead of the present two political centers, a true network should be built that includes the whole society. This network would not only prepare Hungarian society for an election in 2018 but would also help it to survive the next four years. Lendvai finds it essential to build a network that could eventually become a movement. The lessening importance of parliament can be expected in the next four years. As a counterweight new communities should be created: professional volunteer organizations, a network of mini-parliaments, regional and societal advocacy groups, and so on. Just as happened economically in the Kádár regime: besides the official economy a “second economy” was born that not only helped people survive but also prepared the ground for future changes.

Second. In the coming parliamentary cycle the social divide between the haves and the have-nots will most likely grow. Solidarity must be strengthened in Hungarian society. People should be encouraged to volunteer for all sorts of work, from feeding the poor to offering pro bono legal help to the needy. This way new blood could come into traditional politics. And the parties should be made more open to accepting help from the outside.

Third. People both inside and outside of the party must discuss topics they feel uncomfortable with.  Is it really true, as a lot of people in MSZP claim, that “we don’t have to talk about democracy because this doesn’t interest the poor people? Or that we shouldn’t talk about the Gypsies because the topic is apt to arouse negative feelings in many?” Lendvai’s answer is that the left should fight against vulnerability, which derives both from the lack of bread and the lack of rights.

At the very end of her article there is an innocent sounding sentence that may not even be noticed by the casual reader. “One ought not to compete with Fidesz and Jobbik by copying Fidesz’s centralized one-man rule and imitating Jobbik’s spurious slogan of law and order accompanied by the limitation of rights. We need a Plan B. But our own.” This sentence contains a severe criticism of Attila Mesterházy, who lately has been building a more centralized party with his own small group of young politicians and who a few days ago even talked about MSZP standing for “law and order” because after all that is what many people want. This is a hopeless and unacceptable proposition, as some of his fellow MSZP politicians immediately announced. I don’t know whether Lendvai’s ideas would work, but that Mesterházy’s ideas are a dead end I’m sure.

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13 comments

  1. Plan B for Benign

    ”People should be encouraged to volunteer for all sorts of work, from feeding the poor to offering pro bono legal help to the needy.”

    Yes, yes. That way the democratic opposition can start putting real substance behind LMP’s empty “Politics Can Be Different” slogan.

    And dump Mesterhazy as fast as possible. With his petty ambition and pathetic lack of vision he is after Orban the single person most reponsible for the disastrous outcome. And the best he can come up with at this time is to take a cue for Fidesz’s and Jobbik’s “winning” (and popular) strategies…

    Bravo to Ildiko Lendvai for her integrity and vision (and to Professor Balogh for her distillation of it).

  2. Lendvai’s Plan B and the analysis on which it is based seem to me very convincing.

    But where does Hungary (still) have the people who have the strength and the political talent necessary to turn the tide? Those couple of thousand Budapest citizens, Klubrádió and ATV will not be sufficient. Where are the people who can build a grassroots organisation also in the countryside?

    And finally, where will the necessary funds come from, now that you can’t simply drain one of the utilities? As far as I know there is still no party financing law.

  3. One plan can defeat tyrants and orbans.

    All members of the nations must have a guaranteed freedom.

    Once achieved by the Kossuth Deak Szechenyi group, it can be the plan to defeat the orban tyranny.

    Can Ildiko Lendvai lead the nation to freedom?

  4. Ledvai’s Plan B is the plan of polgári körök anno 2002 i.e. civil circles, grass roots organization announced by Orban when he lost in 2002. Though better late then never, as they say.

    Fidesz of course occupied genuine civil organizations too, which the left wing was unable to and Orban still controls them. It is true that CÖF is a party outlet, but Fidesz occupied brand name organizations from the chambers of commerce to Association of Big Families to chamber of medical doctors and when it could, it also gave these organizations exceptional rights such as the Hungarian Academy of Arts. It also set up specifically partizan right-wing leaning civil organizations for theatre artists competing with existing civil organizations.

    Of course, all the national churches and religious organizations support Fidesz and Jobbik.

    I very much doubt by the way that there was a ‘strategy’ to concentrate on urban centres as opposed on villages. There was no such (any) strategy at all. There was no emphases even on bigger towns, and in addition there is not much difference between an officially town of 15,000 and a smaller village in terms of social behavior. Simply Mesterhazy and his pals had no vision and failed at the most basic task of grass roots organization. They also were stupid, as non-lawyers just could not get how Orban and the new generation like Lázár, Tuzson, Papcsák operate.

    In addition, the aging of the electorate and political class as Lendai state is not true. Jobbik’s leadership is very young (stay started politics only a couple of years ago and they are young too, Vona is still way younger than 40) and its voters are young too. They are the future. And when they will get older they will graduate to become Fideszniks.

  5. drummer boy :
    In Hungarian, a good interview about regional, rural issues.
    MSZP has zero embeddedness in rural areas now, it has nothing.
    Fidesz, given its 12 years of civil circle grass roots organization is king.
    Meanwhile all the youngsters are Jobbikniks.
    It is pretty hopeless for the left.
    http://nol.hu/belfold/eltero-regiok-azonos-valasztoi-akarat-1457367/

    People are much more pragmatic in rural areas. They hate intellectual debates, they want actions and decisiveness. They want money now and don’t care about long-term issues. They don’t care about corruption, and love results: big building, subway line 4. They want strong characters, not impotent lefty bull***ing.

    Can the left provide these?

    Especially now that the left again consists of I don’t know how many parties and there are many non-party lefty intellectuals spreading the new-lefty gospel?

    Sorry, but this sounds like a cluster**** for the left.

  6. One can dispute whether it is just or not, but the MSZP is a toxic brand and there is no way back. The same became true of the SZDSZ and it has now ceased to be. And for the good of Hungarian society, the MSZP needs to vanish back into the dust. The longer it hangs on, the longer it will impede the creation of any new political movements (if only because of its financial clout.) It is blindingly obvious that there is no appetite in Hungary for any political grouping calling itself “the Left” and while one can argue that the population is mistaken about this, that is the reality and needs to be heeded.

    The only way ahead if for MSZP to vanish and for some new quasi-LMP to emerge that occupies the central ground and establishes an identity of having come from outside the existing political elite. The crying shame about LMP is that far from being different, it was all too Hungarian with a divisive leader who in the end, forced most of the sensible ones into exile. But when one looks at the work of someone like Rebeka Szabó, who earned true respect in rural areas because of her stand on the földmutyi, there is a glimmer of hope that some new political party could emerge, but only if it comes totally from the outside.

  7. As I head off to church this morning with my family to immerse ourselves in Hungarian culture I couldn’t resist taking a quick look at Eva’s blog even on Húsvét. So I read this passage:

    “The first and the most difficult component of Plan B is the creation of an entirely new political structure. Instead of the present two political centers, a true network should be built that includes the whole society. This network would not only prepare Hungarian society for an election in 2018 but would also help it to survive the next four years. Lendvai finds it essential to build a network that could eventually become a movement. The lessening importance of parliament can be expected in the next four years. As a counterweight new communities should be created: professional volunteer organizations, a network of mini-parliaments, regional and societal advocacy groups, and so on. Just as happened economically in the Kádár regime: besides the official economy a “second economy” was born that not only helped people survive but also prepared the ground for future changes.”

    If the “new communities” of opposition are truly going to be comparable to the asztal alatt economy of the Kadar years, then we need to be honest that it wasn’t just about helping people survive economically. It was also about justifying corruption and dishonesty which somehow was a noble endeavor in the fight against communism. It has helped to bring Hungary to where it is today where the much of the population accepts that Orban has created a Mafia state, but maybe for them it will pay off with one or another perk.

  8. Inside info and/or rumors about the MSzP

    1. The party has accumulated a debt of 2 billion forints (6.5 million EUR)

    2. The lender bank put a hold on the party’s accounts during the election campaign.

    3. Chairman Mesterházy regularly meets Orban’s chief adviser Habony.
    They discussed the ownership of the opposition daily “Népszabadság”.
    The new owners are probably close to Fidesz.

    4. Orban’s former treasurer, Simicska, or rather his “Közgép” company advertized in
    the opposition dailies “Népszabadság” and “Népszava” to the tune of 300 million HUF (1 milllion EUR) recently.

    5. Socialist politicians discouraged further inquiries into Fidesz faction leader Rogan’s real estate deals.

    http://www.vasarnapihirek.hu/fokusz/miert_kerdeztek_mesterhazytol_hogy_szokotte_talalkozni_habony_arpaddal

  9. I heard back in January about the huge money given to Népszava by Közgép. The story was that Fidesz were worried that if Népszava was to go to the wall before the elections, and possibly Népszabadság as well, it would look very awkward to have a press with no opposition papers. Now the elections are over, I think it is quite likely one paper will vanish, the other have its fangs removed yet further.

  10. I heared about these rumors months ago. Obviously, they are spread rather rapidly as such rumors usually do. I don’t believe them. For example, the Egyenlitő blog is still on the Internet and the interest of the media in Rogán’s affairs hasn’t stopped. Just take a look at Hïrkereső. Now it is about his villa in Balatonlelle

  11. @ Eva

    “…the interest of the media in Rogán’s affairs hasn’t stopped.”

    No matter. There’s a lesson in all this Orban is all to happy to promulgate: the Law is what
    I say it is. Oppose me and you’ll find no ally in the Law. In this country, the Law serves me
    like everything else does.

    Similar is the message to the jewish community–‘you obstinacy will be ignored…ridiculed…and later you will be punished. Do your worst with the fence thing, it’s laughable and futile: just more ‘entertainment’ for the country-folk.’

    Orban’s gift to the Hungarian population is that formerly anti-semitic actions and outbursts
    are allowable, indeed, invited. It creates a stratification of society where the jews are at the bottom and Hungarians above…regardless of the financial state. Indeed, the psychic pleasure
    of being able to ridicule and hate openly creates the euphoria of a new-found power.

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