Attila Mesterházy

The future of MSZP: The Ferenc Deák Circle versus József Tóbiás

The municipal election results were barely tallied when Népszabadság published a proclamation in the  name of the Ferenc Deák Circle. This group was formed on July 15, a few days before MSZP held its congress in the wake of Attila Mesterházy’s resignation as chairman of the party. Who would succeed Mesterházy was never in question. There was only one candidate, József Tóbiás. But the members of the Ferenc Deák Circle–twenty-one prominent and less prominent, older and younger members of the socialist party–feared that under Tóbiás’s leadership the party would not choose the best path. The group hoped to influence the congress and thus the future of the party.

Who are the member of the Ferenc Deák Circle? First and foremost, Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman of the party. There are several former ministers: Ferenc Juhász, Mihály Kökény, János Veres, Ime Szekeres. The successful mayor of District XIII, József Tóth. Among the younger generation and newcomers, Kata Tüttő and Anna Lendvai from the Budapest MSZP, who have served as members of the city council in the last four years, and Róbert Braun, a newcomer who made a good impression on me in his television appearances. Ildikó Lendvai stressed that 14 of the 21 members of the Circle have no desire to hold any office. She herself, in fact, received several nominations but turned them all down.

The members of the Ferenc Deák Circle had fairly modest demands. They wanted greater transparency within the party; they also wanted to curtail the power of Mesterházy’s men. As it was, most of the people who were put forward as parliamentary candidates were close associates of the former chairman. The group suggested that the majority of the board members of the party not be members of parliament. Ildikó Lendvai was hopeful that their suggestions would be well received by the congress. The group hoped that the congress would vote in favor of a new program, new by-laws, and a new organizational structure. Well, none of these hopes of the group materialized.

Magyar Nemzet reported after the congress that “the members of the Ferenc Deák Kör who urged an opening toward the liberals failed.” The congress stood by József Tóbiás’s ideas of a move farther to the left and voted for the party’s total independence. Tóbiás, after being elected with 92% of the votes, gave a ten-minute speech in which, while not mentioning either DK or Együtt-PM by name, announced that “I will not measure on an apothecary scale how much liberalism, moderation or law and order are necessary for success.” He said he was building a left-wing party, not a “rainbow coalition.” As is evident from Tóbiás’s subsequent utterances, he hasn’t changed his mind on the subject.

Now, after a few months of hibernation, the Ferenc Deák Circle is back in the news. The text of its proclamation appeared in yesterday’s Népszabadság. Although it does not mention Tóbiás by name, it states that “we need a new political strategy; we have to do something else and that differently.” The ideas expressed in the proclamation echo to some extent those of Bálint Magyar and his study group, especially the claim that “one needs a party of the left that wants more than a change of government. We need regime change.” The new left should put an end to mafia methods. “We need new agreements, new concepts, new methods.” The proclamation calls for extensive discussions among the different groups “on the democratic side” to figure out together the practical and ideological bases of the opposition to the regime (rendszerellenesség). But it goes even further. It advocates “the coordination of the parliamentary and local presence of the democratic forces.” Surely, that means close cooperation among all democratic parties. It suggests the creation of “alternative legitimacy,” meaning an independent civil network of think tanks as well as scientific and cultural workshops. In connection with this “alternative legitimacy,” there is a reference to the necessity “to signal to our European and American friends the freedom loving voice of the Hungarian nation.” In my reading this means cooperation with European and American organizations in defense of Hungarian democracy. Finally, the proclamation states that “the concept of the leading party of the left” is over. In plain English, MSZP should give up the idea that it is the leading force of the opposition.

left-right

And, expanding on the proclamation, Ildikó Lendvai, one of the signatories of the proclamation, posted a letter on her Facebook page yesterday. I will focus here only on the passages that add to the contents of the proclamation. In her opinion, Budapest could have been won. Lajos Bokros’s 36% was a pleasant surprise despite the fact that he became a candidate only two weeks before the election. Budapest could have been won if MSZP had not sent conflicting messages about Bokros’s nomination and its support for his candidacy.

What are the lessons?

(1) One is that in modern large cities the dividing line is no longer between left and right. “Today in Hungary that line is between openness toward Europe and inwardness, between progress and boorish conservatism.” In plain language, Tóbiás is out of touch with reality.

(2) “It would be a huge mistake if MSZP kept an equal distance between Fidesz and the democratic parties. This is András Schiffer’s road and it does not lead to a governing position.”

(3) The left does not equal MSZP. “Gergő Karácsony is an impressive politician of the left. Whether we like it or not, Gyurcsány’s party will stay although it showed the limits of its growth.” In brief, MSZP must make peace with them and cooperate.

I think that in the next few months MSZP’s leadership must decide what road to take. I’m almost certain that Tobiás’s answer will lead nowhere. Moreover, if he and his friends insist on the present course, a fair number of the leading MSZP politicians and even the membership will leave the party to join perhaps a new formation composed of democratically-minded people, which should include members of the Ferenc Deák Circle.

Regrouping on the left: MSZP on the brink

In the wake of the EU parliamentary election the non-Hungarian media will undoubtedly be preoccupied with the fact that the second largest party in Hungary is an extreme-right, racist, anti-Semitic party. But in the domestic press the “demise” of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the surprisingly good showing of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció is the chief topic. After all, Fidesz’s large victory was a foregone conclusion, and the Hungarian media had speculated for some time that Jobbik would surpass MSZP. But no one predicted that DK would almost catch up with MSZP.

DK’s performance was especially unexpected because most opinion polls predicted that DK had no chance of sending delegates to the European Parliament. Medián, normally a very reliable polling firm, forecast a large Fidesz victory, Jobbik as the second-place winner, and MSZP in third place. As far as E14-PM and LMP were concerned, their chances were slim, teetering around the 5% mark. The party that, in Medián’s opinion, had no chance whatsoever was the Demokratikus Koalíció.

As it turned out, the predictions were off rather badly in the case of the smaller parties. As it stands now, all three–E14-PM, LMP, and DK–will be able to take part in the work of the European Parliament. The largest discrepancy between the predictions and the actual results was in the case of DK, which with its 9.76% will have two MEPs in Strasbourg.

The talking heads were stunned, especially those who have been absolutely certain that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s name is so tainted that there was no way he could ever again be a major player in Hungarian politics. Even those who sympathized with him felt that he returned to politics too early and by this impatience jeopardized his own political future.

The very poor showing of MSZP had a shocking effect on the Hungarian public as well as on commentators. No one was expecting a large win, but Medián, for example, predicted at least 14%. Instead, the final result was 10.92%.  A devastating blow. On her Facebook page Ildikó Lendvai, former whip and chairman of the party, described MSZP as being asleep or perhaps even dead. Slapping around a dead man, she wrote, is a waste of time. The governing body (elnökség) of the party has already resigned en bloc, and Saturday we will find out whether Attila Mesterházy will have to step down. Some well-known blog writers suggested that he should leave politics altogether and find a nice civilian job.

Let’s take a closer look at what happened to the three parties that constituted the United Alliance in the April 5 national election. The supposition that MSZP did all the heavy lifting for the combined ticket turned out to be false, at least based on the new returns. DK and E14-PM together garnered 18% of the votes as opposed to MSZP’s 10.92%. A rather substantial difference. EP-valasztas 2014-2It is also clear that the relatively good showing of the United Alliance in Budapest was due to the two smaller parties. This time around DK and E14-PM received 26% of the votes as opposed to MSZP’s 11.5%. DK ran second behind Fidesz in the capital (13.1o%), very closely followed by E14-PM (13.07%). Which party won in which district? It seems that Gordon Bajnai’s party was strong in the more elegant districts of Pest and Buda: the Castle district, Rózsadomb, downtown Pest, and Óbuda. Gyurcsány’s party won in less affluent districts: Köbánya, Újpalota, Csepel. Altogether DK won in nine outlying districts.

DK also did better than MSZP in several larger cities: Debrecen, Győr, Nagykanizsa, Kaposvár, Érd, Kecskemét, Pécs, and Székesfehérvár. In addition, there were two counties, Fejér and Pest, where DK beat the socialists. I should add that Fidesz lost only one city, Nyírbátor, where MSZP received 41.12% of the votes to Fidesz’s 32.35%.

As I predicted, very few Hungarians voted. In 2004 the figure was 38.50%, in 2009 36.31%, and this year only 28.92%. There might be several reasons for the low participation. For starters, people took a large Fidesz victory for granted. They did not think their votes could make a difference. Moreover, it was less than two months since the last election, and only the very committed took the trouble to make another trip to the polling station.

As far as the composition of the European Parliament is concerned, it looks as if EPP will have 212 members and S&D 186. So, the candidate for the post of the president of the European Commission will most likely be Jean-Claude Juncker, the man Viktor Orbán would not vote for in the European Council. What is wrong with Juncker? One very big problem is his country of origin: Luxembourg. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding is also a Luxembourger, and she was very tough on the Orbán government. As Orbán put it: “the commissioner from Luxembourg has only hurt Hungary in the past. So, Hungarians cannot support a Luxembourger.” And Redding was not alone. There was another Luxembourger, Jean Asselborn, foreign minister in Juncker’s government, who criticized Hungary’s media law. It seems that Orbán developed a general dislike of Luxembourgers.

Orbán might not be alone in the European Council in his opposition to Juncker because it looks as if  David Cameron will also oppose him. Mind you, he also has problems with Martin Schulz. I doubt that the anti-Juncker forces will succeed, however, because Angela Merkel has thrown her weight behind him.

As for Juncker, naturally he was asked about his reaction to Orbán’s opposition to his nomination at his press conference today. Juncker started off by keeping the topic away from his own person, saying that “this is a problem that exists between Fidesz and EPP,” but then he told the journalists what was on his mind. “I cannot accept that just because a former minister from Luxembourg got into an argument with the Hungarian government it is en0ugh reason to exclude another Luxembourger from the post of president of the European Council. This is not elegant reasoning.”

Elegant reasoning and Orbán? In his fairly lengthy and exuberant victory speech, the prime minister called the Hungarian MEPs the “advanced garrison of Hungarians who defend the homeland abroad.” He sent them off with these words: “Greetings to the soldiers entering the battlefield!”

 

Evidence is presented in the Jobbik espionage case

Shortly after the news broke on May 14 that Péter Polt, the Hungarian chief prosecutor, had asked Martin Schulz, president of the European Union, to suspend the parliamentary immunity of Béla Kovács (Jobbik), Fidesz moved to convene the Hungarian parliamentary committee on national security. The committee is chaired by Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), whose plate is full of his own problems. Two weeks ago a picture from 1992 of the 18-year-old hooded Molnár was made public. Magyar Nemzet accused the socialist politician of being a skinhead in his youth. I guess it was just tit for tat: the opposition was outraged over Fidesz’s support of a Jobbik candidate for the post of deputy president of the House.

A couple of days ago I expressed doubts about the charge of espionage in the case of the Jobbik MEP. First of all, we know only too well the Fidesz practice of accusing their political opponents of some serious crime that years later turns out to be bogus. The acquittal comes far too late; the political damage is instantaneous. After the 2010 election wholesale accusations were launched against socialist politicians and now, four years later, most of the accused have been acquitted. Among those court cases one dealt with espionage, but because the case was considered to belong to the rather large realm of state secrets we still have no idea about the charges or the evidence. Early reactions from Ágnes Vadai (DK), who at that point was a member of the parliamentary committee, indicated that both bordered on the ludicrous.

Since I consider the national security office an arm of the Orbán government that is often used for political purposes, my first reaction was to be very skeptical of the charges leveled against Kovács. Until now, Viktor Orbán concentrated on the left (MSZP, DK, E14-PM) and ignored Jobbik. Now that everybody predicts a resounding success for the extremist Jobbik party at the polls on Sunday, it seems that Orbán decided to turn his attention to his adversaries on the right. After all, he has the magic two-thirds majority in parliament and doesn’t need Jobbik.

There is no question of Kovács’s pro-Russian sentiments. He spent the larger part of his life in that country, and he is an ardent supporter of Vladimir Putin and his vision of Russia and the world. In Brussels he is considered to be a “Russian lobbyist,” and I’m sure that he represented Russia more than Hungary in the EP. At least some of his speeches indicate that much. But espionage is something different from making propaganda at the behest of a country.

Viktor Orbán, never known to worry about linguistic niceties, is capitalizing on the situation. On Friday night on MTV he equated espionage against the European Union with treason. He claimed that “the Hungarian public is familiar with the treasonous activities of internationalists who don’t consider the nation important, but that a party that considers itself national (nemzeti) would want to send such people to Brussels where they are supposed to represent Hungarian interests is really unprecedented.”

Let’s analyze this sentence. First of all, he is accusing some (actually, probably most) left-wing politicians of being traitors, while suggesting that there might be more spies among the proposed representatives of Jobbik to the European Parliament. I’m sure that Viktor Orbán means every word he says in this sentence. He is convinced that everyone who disagrees with him and criticizes him is not only unpatriotic but also a traitor; if it depended on him, he would gladly jail all of them. Also, there are signs that Béla Kovács might be only the first target. Perhaps the grand prize would be Gábor Vona himself.  As it is, Lajos Pősze, a disillusioned former Jobbik member, claimed on HírTV that Vona is Moscow’s agent.

In any case, the parliamentary committee on national security was called together this morning. Both Béla Kovács and Gábor Vona were obliged to appear before the committee. It seems that everyone who was present, with the exception of Jobbik member Ádám Mirkóczki, is convinced on the basis of the evidence presented by the national security office that Béla Kovács committed espionage.

Gábor Vona, Ádám Mirkóczy, and Béla Kovács Source: Index / Photo; Szabolcs Barakonyi

Gábor Vona, Ádám Mirkóczki, and Béla Kovács after the hearing
Source: Index / Photo; Szabolcs Barakonyi

What did we learn about the proceedings? Not much, because the information will be classified for a number of years. We do know that the Hungarian national security office has been investigating Kovács ever since 2009 and that they have pictures and recordings of conversations. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) found the evidence convincing but added, “there is espionage but no James Bond.” Apparently, what he means is that the case is not like espionage concerning military secrets but “an activity that can be more widely defined.” Bernadett Szél (LMP) was also impressed, but she added that “a person can commit espionage even if he is not a professional spy.” These two comments lead me to believe that we are faced here not so much with espionage as with “influence peddling.” On the other hand, Szilárd Németh (Fidesz), deputy chairman of the committee, was more explicit and more damaging. He indicated that “Kovács had connections to the Russian secret service and these connections were organized and conspiratorial.” Attila Mesterházy, who was not present, also seems to accept the story at face value. The liberal-socialist politicians all appear to have lined up. Interestingly enough, not one of them seems to remember similar Fidesz attacks on people on their side that turned out to be bogus. Yes, I understand that Jobbik is a despicable party, but that’s not a sufficient reason to call Kovács a spy if he is no more than a zealous promoter of Putin’s cause.

Ágnes Vadai (DK) used to be the chair of the committee when she was still a member of MSZP and thus has the necessary clearance to attend the sessions. Since she had to retire from the chairmanship due to her change of political allegiance, she asked admission to some of the more important meetings of the committee. Normally, she receives permission. But not this time. Her reaction was:  “We always suspected that Jobbik has reasons to be secretive but it seems that Fidesz does also.” She promised to ask the Ministry of Interior to supply her with documents connected to the case. I doubt that she will receive anything.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the political philosopher whose views I normally don’t share, wrote an opinion piece that pretty well echoes what I had to say about the case three days ago. He calls attention to a double standard. The liberal journalists view Fidesz’s attack on the left-liberal political side with healthy skepticism, but this time they seemed to have swallowed the espionage story hook, line, and sinker. Kovács is most likely an agent d’influence but no more than that. TGM–as everybody calls him–considers the “criminalization of political opponents the overture to dictatorship,” which should be rejected regardless of whether it is directed against the right or the left.

Interestingly, Jobbik’s pro-Russian bias finds many adherents in Hungary. Apparently, whereas in most of the Eastern European countries the public is anti-Russian, especially after the Ukrainian crisis, Hungarian public opinion is divided. And the right-wingers, including some of the Fidesz voters, consider Putin’s intervention in Ukraine at the behest of the ethnic Russians justified. This sympathy most likely has a lot to do with the existence of Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.

How will Orbán achieve both of his goals–to ruin Jobbik with a Russian espionage case and at the same time defend Russia’s support of autonomy in Ukraine? He may well succeed. His track record when it comes to threading the needle is very good.

Historian Zoltán Ripp’s analysis of the Hungarian election

Post-election soul-searching and analysis continues in Hungarian opposition circles. I spent two days talking about the remedies offered by MSZP insiders Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller. Politicians from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, have so far been silent. I understand they are spending this coming weekend analyzing the lessons of the election. On the other hand, DK activists gathered 42,000 supporting signatures, ensuring their participation in the EP election on May 25. Their election slogan, “Europe Is Performing Better,” is a take-off on the government’s claim that Hungary is doing better.

It is extremely difficult to guess how the opposition parties, this time campaigning alone, will do. Turnout for EP elections is usually very low, and Fidesz will most likely get a majority of the 22 seats Hungary is entitled to. Jobbik will probably do even better than in 2009 when they captured three seats, only one fewer than MSZP. The other opposition parties, Együtt 2014-PM and DK, are real question marks because this is the first time they will be able to measure their strength at the polls. Parties need at least 5% of the votes cast to send a delegate.

While the campaign for the EP election is going on, political analysts continue to ponder the consequences of the national election. This time it was Zoltán Ripp, a historian, who tackled the election results. Ripp is deeply immersed in political history, especially the history of the Hungarian communist party in the last fifty years or so. He also wrote a monumental work on the change of regime (Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990), which I find invaluable for understanding the political history of those years.

Ripp was described in a review of one of his books as a historian close to MSZP. Well, that might have been the case a few years back but, as evidenced by an article he published in Galamus, Ripp nowadays has a devastating opinion of MSZP’s current leadership. According to Ripp, MSZP politicians “are “culturally empty, morally dubious, and politically feeble.”

Zoltán Ripp / 168 Óra

Zoltán Ripp /168 Óra

So, how does Ripp see the election and its consequences? The title of his long essay is telling: “Opting for  Servitude.” The essay itself is a subjective description of his despair. Ripp, like most historians, doesn’t think much of the so-called political scientists and leaves “objective” analyses to the talking heads. He is convinced that now, after the election, “the constitutional third republic is gone for ever.” The change of regime is final, especially now that Viktor Orbán with the blessing of the electorate won another stunning victory. One can no longer claim that the Orbán regime is illegitimate. Those who voted for Fidesz reaffirmed its legitimacy.

Ripp, of course, realizes that for the core voters of Fidesz Orbán’s regime doesn’t mean servitude at all. On the contrary, they are convinced that they are performing a service in pursuit of a higher and more noble goal. They are lending a helping hand in the task of elevating the nation into future greatness. Viktor Orbán is described as “the chief shaman, ” “the anointed leader” who knows what he is doing. “Who is the embodiment of what is the best in us.” But, the problem is, Ripp continues, that “the party of Viktor Orbán could have won only in a country where society is gravely ill.” What is that illness? “The lack of democratic culture and mentality.” And that is very basic. Ripp claims that the failure of the democratic third republic was bound to happen. It was practically inevitable.

As opposed to many others, Ripp asserts that it was “not material questions that decided the outcome of the election.” Not that they didn’t matter, but the chief culprit was “the revival of the culture of subjugation.” The return of “resignation,” “assuetude.” And the problem with the opposition was, in Ripp’s view, that they didn’t concentrate on the real issue: that with the election of 2010 came a “regime change.” What was at stake in the election was democracy vs. autocracy painted over with a pseudo-democratic gloss. Ripp fears that the regime put in place byViktor Orbán will stay perhaps for decades. “We can get into a situation from which there is no way out by holding elections.”  Those who believe that there will be another chance in 2018 are mistaken, “they don’t understand anything about the nature of the Orbán regime (kurzus).”

In Ripp’s opinion this opposition misunderstood the very threat that Viktor Orbán’s regime was and is posing to Hungarian democracy. So, what should have been done? How should the opposition politicians have handled the situation? The key word in Ripp’s vocabulary is “radicalism,” but he quickly adds that radicalism is not the same thing as using scurrilous language. There should have been a concentrated radical attack on the illegitimate character of the Orbán regime. Democratic politicians should have announced as their goal the total elimination of the whole system Orbán built in the last four years. Instead, “our brave politicians” only managed to come up with the label of “kormányváltó,” which didn’t even make it to the Magyar Értelmező Szótár as an adjective. It simply means “change of government.” As Ripp puts it, “instead of strategy that great zeal degenerated into a whimper.” On such a basis one could not put together a civic concentration of forces that would have produced enough power for the removal of the Orbán regime. Instead, a coalition of parties was formed “based on cheap haggling.”

Ripp knows that “the intellectual giants of MSZP” will call him an idealist who cannot see farther than downtown Budapest and who talks nonsense because he doesn’t grasp the realities of the countryside. Ripp’s answer is that the democratic politicians had four years to explain to the population the connection between the lack of democracy and the rule of law and the quality of material life. He uses a famous line from Sándor Petőfi to illustrate his point: “haza csak ott van, ahol jog is van.”

What were the sins of the individual actors in the drama? Ferenc Gyurcsány’s “chief responsibility lies in the fact that, although he knew and said a thousand times what was at stake, in the end he accepted the rules of a losing game.” Bajnai’s responsibility is great. He gave up his original ideas and “followed the script of MSZP… He deteriorated into a weakish participant in a political battle.” As for Attila Mesterházy, in Ripp’s eyes he was totally unsuited to lead the battle against Fidesz. “Anyone who did not see that should look for some profession outside of politics.” But, he adds, Mesterházy was not the cause of the crisis but its symptom. What an indictment of MSZP! If Ripp is right, the remedies Lendvai and Hiller propose are useless.

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.

Soul searching in the Hungarian Socialist Party

On Saturday the MSZP committee of important party leaders (választmányi bizottság) gathered to evaluate the situation following the disastrous showing of the United Alliance. Apparently the at times heated debate lasted almost six hours. The gathering began with a forty-minute speech by party chairman Attila Mesterházy who, according to those present, repeated what he had already said publicly in an interview with HVG. First of all, he announced that there is no need for hasty action. It takes time to assess the situation. In any case, according to the party’s by-laws, there will be an opportunity to vote on possible personnel changes after the October municipal elections. At that time he will be a candidate for the chairmanship.

Otherwise, Mesterházy admitted that they didn’t listen to the demands of the people, that they ignored Jobbik, and that they didn’t appeal to sentiment, which is more important than rationality. In brief, at least in my interpretation, Mesterházy thinks that they should more or less have followed the path Fidesz chose in the last eight years or so. That is, let’s be as populist as Fidesz is, but let’s do it better. If Fidesz operates with highly charged nationalism, let’s be nationalistic. If the people want law and order, let’s create a law-and-order MSZP and by extension, because Mesterházy admitted that cooperation among the democratic parties is necessary, a law-and-order Unity Alliance. Mesterházy even dragged in the latest tiff between Brussels and Budapest over the distillation of pálinka. He stands with Viktor Orbán on that, he would also fight Brussels on the issue. But the European Union doesn’t want to forbid the distillation of pálinka, as Mesterházy implied. The argument is over taxes. The EU doesn’t want to allow Hungarians to brew pálinka without paying excise taxes on their product.

All in all, I believe that what Mesterházy outlined is no remedy for the ills of MSZP or the Unity Alliance.

The party leadership didn’t call for Mesterházy’s immediate resignation, a good decision considering that the EP campaign has already started. In fact, Tibor Szanyi, who will lead the MSZP delegation to Brussels, is hard at work and managed to get the necessary 20,000 endorsements in record time. Yes, now is not the time to get rid of the whole top leadership, although apparently there were voices demanding such a radical step. There was, however, plenty of criticism of Mesterházy’s leadership techniques. One of the main complaints was that he tried to imitate the leadership style of Viktor Orbán and hence created a highly centralized MSZP, which goes against socialist tradition.

In the wake of its 2010 defeat MSZP tried to reinvent itself to portray a younger, fresher image. The selection of the new leadership was based on age instead of experience and merit. In its rejuvenation campaign the old leadership was pushed into the background. Mesterházy somewhat naively thought that Fidesz politicians would no longer be able to call MSZP a bunch of commies. He should have known better. The name calling continued unabated.

Ildikó Lendvai, one of the critics of MSZP's present strategy, is arriving at the meeting Photo: Simon Móricz-Sabján/Népszabadság

Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman of MSZP, is arriving at the meeting
Photo: Simon Móricz-Sabján/Népszabadság

Antal Rogán and Gergely Gulyás are now offering MSZP a (poisonous) olive branch. They are talking about the possibility of reaching an understanding with MSZP as long as the coalition gets rid of Ferenc Gyurcsány. Orbán is fixated with Gyurcsány; he wants the former prime minister out of politics for good. The Fidesz leadership doesn’t really care whether MSZP is full of old apparatchiks or young Turks; they’ll attach the “communist” label in either case. But  they’ll gladly work hand in hand with these so-called communists to achieve their goal of silencing Gyurcsány.

I mentioned that the EP campaign has already started. It was DK that organized the first street demonstration. While Mesterházy is ready to fight Fidesz for the same voters, Gyurcsány blissfully ignores “the psyche of Hungarian society” which, according to Mesterházy, MSZP misunderstood. He doesn’t have to make compromises in the hope of competing with Viktor Orbán for the same votes. He can ignore the nationalism of the majority and stand for a United States of Europe, which might not be a popular position in the present nationalistic atmosphere created by Fidesz. Although he made a compromise for the sake of unity, the party’s official position is that no new Hungarian citizens in the neighboring countries should be able to vote. While Együtt2014-PM was ready to bargain with Fidesz over the new constitution, Gyurcsány could simply announce that, if it depended on him, the new constitution would be thrown out as soon as he is in power. Yes, he can say all these things because at the moment he is in no position to translate his ideas into action.

As for his ideas on the European Union, besides wanting to have a stronger central power Gyurcsány also seemed to indicate that more financial help would be necessary to avoid the kind of political climate that produced the growth of the extreme right in the eastern fringes of the Union. I’m trying to interpret what Gyurcsány had to say on the subject. Surely, he cannot hope for larger EU subsidies. Perhaps he contemplates using the EU convergence monies not only for building roads and paving city squares but for eliminating poverty. He said that it is not enough to have free travel and the right of entrepreneurship; “people must feel that poverty can be eliminated in the long run and the gap between rich and poor can be narrowed.”

I don’t know how the Hungarian left will improve its standing among the Hungarian electorate. But listening to the demands of the people as they have been shaped by powerful government propaganda is not a formula for success. Steve Jobs famously said that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” The left has to create its own unique product line, one so attractive that people will decide that it is something they simply have to have.

The political bickering has begun

The disappointment among sympathizers of the democratic opposition forces is indescribable. But reasonable barometers of the mood in this circle are the call-in shows on Klubrádió and ATV, which by now are the only opposition electronic media in Hungary. Of course, among the callers there are always those who believe that, if they had been in a position to decide, they would have done much better than the Bajnai-Mesterházy-Gyurcsány trio and who offer their pearls of political wisdom. But a lot of the callers simply describe their utter shock when they heard that Fidesz would most likely win again with a two-thirds majority.

Not that these people ever thought that the Unity Alliance would win the election, but the size of the Fidesz victory made them despair. Many students are ready to leave the country at the earliest opportunity because they don’t want to live in Orbán’s Hungary. Even before the election every third person in the younger generation was planning to leave the country. I suspect that the emigration will only accelerate in the future because I very much doubt that the Hungarian economy will improve any time soon, especially if Orbán and Matolcsy continue their unorthodox economic policies. It is also unlikely that the Orbán regime will change political course. No, they will continue their aggressive war against all the foreign and domestic “enemies” of their regime. It’s enough to note that immediately after the election Orbán gave the go ahead to erect the controversial monument to the German invasion of March 19, 1944.

Yet the democratic opposition must continue to fight the good fight because its electoral results were not as bad as they appeared at first sight. As Árpád W. Tóta said in his last opinion piece, if 1,200,000 voters stuck it out with this two-left-handed Unity Alliance, not everything is lost. The opposition simply has to do a little better, which shouldn’t be that difficult.

The Unity Alliance before the election

The Unity Alliance before the election

The disheartened sympathizers will bounce back. Soon enough, especially if the democratic opposition finds someone who can actually lead the anti-Orbán forces effectively, they will once again gather around the liberals and socialists. I am not worried about them. I am, however, very concerned about the politicians and the so-called political scientists who are now engaged in a blame game.

The finger pointing has already started. Attila Mesterházy blames everybody except himself. He doesn’t think he should resign from the chairmanship of his party. Too bad he doesn’t listen to the callers on Klubrádió. I don’t know what his colleagues in MSZP think (perhaps we will see in May), but László Botka, mayor of Szeged, announced that “continuing in the same way and with the same set-up is not worth doing.”

Or there is Gordon Bajnai, who once it became clear that he would not be the candidate for prime minister succumbed to Weltschmerz. After a fleeting appearance in politics he has already had enough. He is throwing in the towel. He just announced that he will not take his parliamentary seat. And the PM people will all resign after the European parliamentary election. That would be fine if there were a second tier of politicians behind them. But there isn’t.

According to the politicians of Együtt2014-PM and MSZP, the whole Unity Alliance was a mistake. Mesterházy apparently announced right after the election that “we could have done that well alone.” Bajnai declared on Sunday night that they will “never again agree to any unprincipled political compromise.” These politicians are reinforced by the talking heads who also suddenly discovered that the whole alliance was a huge mistake. It was a forced and unnatural political amalgam of diverse political groups. Yes it was, but it was Viktor Orbán’s devilishly clever electoral law that forced that straight jacket on them. The great minds who ex post facto condemn the joint action don’t ask what would have happened if three or four opposition politicians ran against a single Fidesz candidate. In that case, surely, not one district would have been won by the democratic opposition.

Given the mood of  the Bajnai and the Mesterházy groups, it seems there won’t be a united parliamentary delegation either. Both Együtt2014-PM and DK have only four parliamentary representatives, not enough to form a caucus. Only parties with a minimum of five members can have a caucus. That doesn’t seem to bother Együtt2014, whose politicians already announced that no meaningful political activity can be conducted in a parliament in which one party holds a two-thirds majority. They will conduct most of their activities on the streets. Unfortunately, the last two years showed how difficult it is to convince sympathizers of the democratic opposition to take an active part in street demonstrations. MSZP has its own caucus and therefore could care less what the Bajnai group does.

DK politicians haven’t said much, but from the little I heard from Ferenc Gyurcsány it looks as if he is in favor of joint action and a joint caucus.  This solution now seems close to impossible. Gyurcsány did mention that DK might approach Gábor Fodor, the lone “representative” of the Hungarian Liberal party, to join them. After all, it was Gyurcsány who convinced Együtt2014-PM and MSZP to put Fodor high enough up on the party list to assure him of a seat in parliament. Yesterday Fodor said on ATV that no such request had come from DK. Today, however, in the early afternoon Fodor announced that DK did approach him and that “the leadership” of his party had decided against it. DK’s spokesman denies that they approached Fodor with such an offer.

Otherwise, DK has already begun its campaign for the forthcoming European parliamentary election. They are collecting signatures. It was decided some time ago that the three parties would try their luck individually at the EP election. Of the three parties, only MSZP has a chance of actually sending representatives to Brussels. But since people can vote only for a party list in the EP election, Együtt2014-PM and DK can use this election to get a rough sense of their relative strength among the electorate.

So, this is where we stand. Not a happy picture.