With municipal elections to be held this Sunday, I decided to devote a post to the political reactivation of Gábor Demszky, lord mayor of Budapest between 1990 and 2010.
After Demszky’s fifth term ended, he not only left political life, he left the country. Prominent members of former administrations learned soon after the 2010 election that avenues for gainful employment in the public sector were blocked. Demszky therefore applied for grants and scholarships abroad and spent three and a half years in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. Once he returned, he decided to share his opinions on the present state of politics in the country and in the city.
In early August, when Lajos Bokros was just one of the many candidates for the mayoralty of Budapest, Demszky announced that he would support him since he considered Bokros the best person for the job. Then in Élet és Irodalom he gave a long interview to Eszter Rádai just a couple of days before the democratic parties decided on Bokros as their candidate instead of their original choice, Ferenc Falus. Here he not only talked about why he considers Bokros to be the best man for the job, he also elaborated on the political importance of the mayor of the capital city in the regime change that will eventually take place. In addition, he talked about his conviction that the present regime can be removed only through civil disobedience. Finally, he did not hide his contempt for most of the opposition parties.
So, where should we start? In Demszky’s opinion, the candidate for the job of lord mayor of Budapest must not promise much to the electorate because under the circumstances the city is entirely at the mercy of the central government. The situation was also bad during the first Orbán government between 1998 and 2002, but then at least the city still had some assets. By now, the city has been stripped of all its former wealth as well as its autonomy. What we have now, instead of self-government, is “a modernized form of the council system” that existed in the Kádár regime.
Yet the role of the mayor of Budapest is an important one because the post can be used as a bully pulpit, which gives the mayor an opportunity to represent the opposition toward the central government. He will have to act as a kind of ombudsman who stands up for the interests not only of the inhabitants of Budapest but of all citizens. The mayor of Budapest can have a powerful voice, which gives the man who holds the position political leverage. If the next mayor is a spokesman for the opposition, he might be able to challenge Viktor Orbán for the premiership four years later. And it is only Lajos Bokros who would be able to do that. After all, he once saved the country from bankruptcy. He is an internationally known economist who is strong enough to take up the fight against the mafia state.
At this point Eszter Rádai reminded Demszky that Viktor Orbán in this case would make a second Esztergom out of Budapest. Esztergom is the place where an independent mayor was chosen instead of the Fidesz candidate for mayor in 2010. The city was punished for it. Not a penny came from the central government to rescue the city that had become hopelessly indebted under Fidesz management in the previous years. Demszky’s answer was that Viktor Orbán did the same thing with Budapest between 1998 and 2002 and yet it was Budapest that won the election for the opposition in 2002. Demszky is not exaggerating. I remember vividly that Fidesz was leading all through the early hours when the votes were pouring in from outside of Budapest but then the late Budapest results started coming in and suddenly everything changed. Fidesz lost the election. Viktor Orbán certainly did not forget the disloyalty of the city.
The conversation moved on to the opposition. In Demszky’s opinion, “the opposition is an integral part of this regime” and all of its sins because it has not stood behind its twenty years of democratic achievements. Since it is not ready to take responsibility for its past, it does not have a future either. It accepts the Fidesz narrative of the “muddled twenty years of transition,” the way Viktor Orbán likes to describe the period between 1990 and 2010. This is the greatest sin a political opposition can commit in confronting a dictatorship. Giving up the praise of democracy and freedom. It denies its most important tradition, liberalism. In fact, the leaders of the opposition want to free themselves of the liberals. The opposition parties “only act as if they are the representatives of the democratic opposition while they have nothing to do with either democracy or opposition.”
Out of the five opposition parties Demszky considers three to be Fidesz appendices: Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP. I guess the relationship of Jobbik and LMP to the governing party does not need further elaboration, but I think MSZP’s inclusion in this category does. In Demszky’s opinion MSZP is not really a party of the left. It never was. The MSZP leaders united only to grab power, but once they lost it they became helpless. That leaves only two parties, Demokratikus Koalíció and Együtt-PM, that Demszky considers bona fide opposition parties. Együtt-PM is so small and weak that it cannot be taken seriously while DK will be, in his opinion, unsuccessful in the long run because it is led by Ferenc Gyurcsány, who is the most divisive politician of the opposition. Gyurcsány is correct when he emphasizes the necessity of a unified opposition party, but one needs more than that.
Those who believe that the Orbán government and its mafia state can be removed by ordinary parliamentary elections are wrong. Naturally, Demszky does not advocate the violent overthrow of the government, but he recommends civil disobedience. One should study Mahatma Gandhi as the Polish opposition did in the 1980s. One must realize that Orbán’s regime ruined the constitutional order, took away political and individual rights, and ruined democratic institutions. The present political system has thus been rendered illegitimate. One needs more than a change of government; just as after Kádár, Hungary needs a regime change.
Demszky admits that at present very few people are ready to stand against the regime openly, but he is convinced that the situation will get to the point that people in large numbers will be ready to resort to civil disobedience. Poverty will only grow and, although at present there are no political prisoners, there will be. Dissatisfaction with the regime will grow. Demszky excludes the possibility of Fidesz’s tight ranks breaking up under the weight of outside pressure: “what holds these people together is power and fear because they know that they could lose everything. They put all their money on one card.”
I think most of us can agree with Gábor Demszky–and Bálint Magyar–that the opposition must concentrate on regime change because by now Viktor Orbán’s system has solidified into a full-fledged regime that Magyar calls a post-communist mafia state. Many of Hungarian Spectrum‘s readers, to judge from the comments, have a very low opinion of MSZP and few believe in its survival. However, when it comes to Lajos Bokros’s role in the regime change, few would bet on him as a contender to replace Viktor Orbán as prime minister of Hungary. Not because he would not be an outstanding prime minister but because a political career cannot be built without a viable political party and Bokros at least at this moment does not have such a party behind him.
But when it comes to Demszky’s main thesis about the illegitimacy of this government and Orbán’s state he is certainly right. The opposition forces should pay serious attention to this fact. As long as they collaborate with the government and with Fidesz in parliament they only help to ensure the survival of the regime.