Attila Szigetvári

László Bartus on Gordon Bajnai’s road to failure

In the wake of the stalled negotiations between Együtt 2014-PM and MSZP several opinion pieces appeared. I found most of them less than inspiring. This morning, however, I happened upon László Bartus’s article in the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava, a paper Bartus bought after he emigrated to the United States. The Amerikai-Magyar Népszava is the oldest Hungarian-language paper in the United States, established in 1891. Within a few years Bartus managed to transform a backwater ethnic weekly into an Internet outlet that not only covers Hungarian news but also offers a rich digest of American politics. The paper that had only a few thousand readers ten years ago today has a significant online presence. Amerikai-Magyar Népszava has many devotees from Hungary who never fail to send me links to some of the more important articles published in the paper.

László Bartus is a controversial man. There are those who think very highly of him while others dislike his style. One thing is sure: Bartus doesn’t beat around the bush, and therefore he can rub people the wrong way. He has decided opinions, and I guess if someone holds equally strong opposing views the clash is inevitable. I’m pretty sure that this editorial will also be controversial. Although Bartus and I don’t always see eye to eye, I happen to agree with some of his analysis in “Road to failure” that appeared in yesterday’s Amerikai-Magyar Népszava. I found his criticism of Gordon Bajnai’s strategy especially on target.

The article is an indictment of Viktor Szigetvári, the chief adviser of Gordon Bajnai who, in Bartus’s opinion, is largely responsible for Bajnai’s political failure. In Bartus’s assessment Bajnai, given the poisonous political atmosphere in Hungary, was lucky that he managed to survive a year as prime minister of Hungary without serious political damage, which gave him a real advantage over some other politicians. But then he “committed all the mistakes that a politician can commit.” Bartus doesn’t remember one good step Bajnai has taken since October 23, 2012. We often make the mistake of blaming advisers of people whom we find decent and attractive but in this case, Bartus claims, the “bad adviser” syndrome is genuine. He considers Viktor Szigetvári “one of the most noxious characters of Hungarian public life since the change of regime.”

Like me, Bartus finds the Hungarian version of “political scientists” (politológusok) injurious to politics. Szigetvári is one of those “ventriloquists” who try to convince the rest of us that they are “in possession of some secret knowledge that other ordinary human beings simply cannot understand.” Some of them appear on radio and television programs and “talk a lot of nonsense only adding to the general confusion,” but there are others who are much more dangerous because they sell their “advice” for good money. Eventually these “advisers” become convinced that they themselves should be politicians because after all they are in possession of that secret knowledge. This is what happened in the case of Viktor Szigetvári who by now is co-chairman of Együtt 2014. But even before, Szigetvári had political ambitions and held high positions during the Medgyessy, Gyurcsány, and Bajnai governments. Under Bajnai, he was in charge of the prime minister’s office.

Viktor Szigetvári at one of his many appearances on ATV

Viktor Szigetvári at one of his many appearances on ATV

Bartus is amazed how it was possible for Szigetvári to survive unscathed even as everything he touched went sour. He was for a while in charge of MSZP’s communication, which was anything but admirable. He was somewhat of an odd bird among the socialist party leaders. I myself mentioned in April 2009 that Szigetvári graduated from the famous Piarist High School in Budapest which normally produces Fidesz cadres and not MSZP comrades. In addition, he wrote his dissertation under Tibor Navracsics. “He joined MSZP when it served his interest and when not he left it.” He calls himself a “conservative liberal.” Szigetvári’s “natural place would be on the “Christian-national right.” And perhaps that is why Szigetvári led Bajnai to the wrong strategy of trying to find allies on the conservative right which, according to most people, really doesn’t exist in Hungary.

In addition, it was also a mistake to use the so-called “civic movements” Milla and Solidarity because there is no politics without parties. It was wrong of Bajnai to offer himself as the leader of an alliance when he himself didn’t even have a party.  It was a mistake to define this alliance in opposition to the left. It was wrong to mouth some of the lies of Fidesz, including the Fidesz interpretation of the events of September-October 2006. Bartus “in place of the chairman of MSZP [Attila Mesterházy] would have gotten up and stopped all further negotiations with them at that very moment.”

Szigetvári’s strategy to create a centrist party led Bajnai into dangerous waters, For example, he talked about Cardinal József Mindszenty and István Bibó as if these two were on the same side in October-November 1956. Bartus objects to Bajnai’s views on the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, viewing them as no more than an echo of the Orbán government’s propaganda. Bartus is of the opinion that one cannot make peace with the Orbán ideology because it is impossible to rebuild democracy hand in hand with those who managed to destroy it.

While Bartus considers the Orbán regime fascism pure and simple, he also has a very low opinion of MSZP, even in its reformed and renewed form. What he would have suggested to Bajnai is to find a new “third road policy.” But Bartus’s third road is very different from the ideas of the populist/narodnik/népies writers. For him the “the road” means to be against both Orbán’s fascism and MSZP’s corruption. To bring true democracy, the rule of law, and a well regulated capitalist system at last to Hungary. As far as Bartus is concerned, MSZP is incapable of leading Hungary in this direction. In Hungary “the only possible partner in such a quest is Ferenc Gyurcsány and DK, which best represents these principles. Behind DK stands the majority of  the modern, enlightened grey matter of the country. . . . The real adherents to the rule of law.” Bartus admits that the supporters of  DK are not numerous, but still “these are the natural allies of Bajnai and not the careerist former students of Jesuits and socialists who cling to their corrupt ways.”

I happen to agree with László Bartus that Gordon Bajnai’s natural allies should be the members and supporters of the Demokratikus Koalíció, but one must ask whether Bajnai could have been any more successful if he had turned to Ferenc Gyurcsány and sought the support of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Unlikely. DK may one day become an important political force, but it certainly is not at the moment.