Ferenc Gyurcsány

The opening session of the new Hungarian parliament

Today was the opening session of the new parliament. Before the session began the new MPs were treated in the “Red Room” to music by the so-called folk musician András Jánosi and his orchestra. Actually, András Jánosi’s genre is what used to be called Gypsy music; it seems to be experiencing a revival with the assistance of the Orbán government. In fact, Magyar Rádió established a separate channel devoted to Gypsy music and songs created in the manner of folk music (műdalok). The channel is named after a famous Gypsy band leader, Pista Dankó (1858-1903).

But why Gypsy music at the opening session of Parliament? According to Népszabadság, “they revived the tradition that the Gypsy band of János Bihari (1764-1827) played music for the arriving members of the Diet.” It’s too bad that historians are such sticklers for the truth, but this so-called tradition couldn’t have been exactly long-lived. Between 1811 and 1825 no Diet was convened at all; the “reform era” spanned the period between 1825 and 1848. Bihari, to repeat, died in 1827. So much for a great Hungarian tradition.

Outside the parliament building Tamás Gaudi-Nagy, a Jobbik member of the European parliament, organized a demonstration protesting the new law concerning agricultural lands. When a guest to the opening of parliament, István Pásztor, a Hungarian politician from the Voivodina, appeared, a scuffle ensued. The police stood by passively. Demonstrators, mostly women, surrounded Pásztor, calling him a traitor and a Bolshevik. Several women spat in his face. Why did Gaudi-Nagy’s group decide to attack Pásztor? According to ATV’s website, last year Gaudi-Nagy tried to “defend” the Hungarians in Serbia in the European Council, which Pásztor deemed “harmful” to the Hungarian minority. Whatever the reason, Jobbik distanced itself from Gaudi-Nagy, emphasizing that he is not a member of the party’s parliamentary caucus. Gaudi-Nagy, you may recall, is the man who a few months ago threw the flag of the European Union out of one of the bathroom windows of the parliament building.

Of course, there were also the usual opening speeches. Especially interesting was the speech of President János Áder, who drew on the writings and speeches of Ferenc Deák (1803-1876), known as the wise man of the nation because he was the architect of the Compromise of 1867. As is often the case, Áder used Deák as a springboard to make a political point. He quoted Deák saying that “we should not cast our glances at the past, but instead we must look forward to the future.” I don’t think one needs much imagination to grasp Áder’s intent. In my opinion, at least, he is telling all those people who are upset over the alleged falsification of history to leave the past alone and stop being pests.

Áder also invoked Ferenc Deák’s words about the necessity of differences of opinion in politics. “The truth gets extracted from differences of opinion,” Deák said. “I don’t mind, in fact I desire differences of opinion even in very important matters. I love all those citizens who oppose us. Let God grant us opponents and not enemies.” To hear these lofty words coming from the mouth of  János Áder was jarring. His party and the government he supports never listen to their political opponents, whom they treat as enemies.

Otherwise, according to Áder, no one can question the results of the election and the legitimacy of the electoral system. As for the new constitution, the election results also legitimized its legality.  Moreover, the results of the April 6 election in Áder’s view mean that “the Hungarian nation considers the long process of regime change final.” That is, the second Orbán government has brought to fruition what began in 1989-1990. Hungary has arrived at the pinnacle of democracy thanks to Viktor Orbán.

It seems, however, that some MPs openly and loudly disagreed with János Áder. When it came to the swearing-in ceremony, when the new members have to swear to the new constitution, the four Demokratikus Koalíció MPs, Ferenc Gyurcsány, Csaba Molnár, Lajos Oláh, and Ágnes Vadai, added the following two sentences: “I solemnly swear that I will do everything in my power for the reestablishment of the republic. I will try with all my strength to achieve the adoption of a new constitution confirmed by popular referendum.” Otherwise, Heti Válasz noted with some satisfaction that whoever was responsible for the parliamentary seating arrangement put the independent members of DK and Együtt2014-PM right behind the rather large Jobbik delegation.

Members of the Demokratikus Kolíció add their pledge to the official text of the swearing-in From left to right, Lajos Oláh, Csaba Molnár, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Ágnes Vadai / Stop.hu

Members of the Demokratikus Kolíció at the swearing-in ceremony
Lajos Oláh, Csaba Molnár, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Ágnes Vadai / Stop.hu

It was at this point that the new members had to vote for the deputies to the president of the House. The only interesting vote was for former skinhead Tamás Sneider (Jobbik). He received 150 yeas and 35 nays, while 5 MPs abstained. They were members of the LMP delegation. Fidesz, KDNP, and Jobbik have altogether 156 members, and therefore a number of MPs did not vote at all. Among them were Zoltán Balog, Zoltán Kovács, János Lázár, and Tibor Navracsics. On the other hand, Viktor Orbán voted for Sneider. As for the nays, they must have come from the democratic opposition parties: MSZP, DK, Együtt2014-PM, and the sole liberal member, Gábor Fodor. Péter Kiss (MSZP) and Ferenc Gyurcsány did not vote on Sneider.

In the secret ballot vote for president of the House, László Kövér received 171 yeas and 19 nays, with 3 abstentions. This is a first. In the past, votes for the president of the House were always unanimous. Fidesz and KDNP together have 133 members, and therefore 38 yea votes had to come from somewhere else. DK announced ahead of time that they, all four of them, will say no to Kövér’s nomination. If I calculate correctly, six people simply refrained from voting. Népszabadság announced the 19 nays as “Nineteen people dared to say no!”  Unfortunately it does seem to take a certain amount of courage to vote against Kövér and even greater courage to announce it publicly. He’s not the kind of guy who understands fair play and the democratic rules of politics.

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.

András Schweitzer: Factors that made Hungary a borderline democracy (and are likely to stay)

András Schweitzer is a journalist who has been working for HVG since 1999. Currently he is on leave of absence. Since June 2013 he and his family have been living in Brussels.

In addition to being a journalist he is also scholar with a Ph.D. in political science who is currently working on completing a second Ph.D. in history. For a number of years he has been involved with a historical research project for the 1956-Institute.

* * *

According to the official rhetoric, the profound constitutional and political restructuring by the second Fidesz government (2010-2014) aimed to put an end to two decades of post-communist meandering and to finish off the remaining legacy of state-socialism. However the actual legal and economic changes constitute more an illiberal turn back to the bad old days. Of all the countries that joined the West in the Annus mirabilis of 1989 Hungary returned to exist again in history in the Fukuyama sense.

It is logical but inadequate to blame the global financial crisis for this unfortunate chain of events. The corruption of the Hungarian democratic political and market-oriented economic system had already been going on years before it. The dramatic transformation should instead be attributed to the following factors.

1. As an unfortunate coincidence the Hungarian democratic opposition did not have a single outstanding politician comparable to Czechoslovak Václav Havel or Polish Lech Walesa when the Wall fell.  István Bibó, a brilliant scholar and deeply convicted democrat (the once spirited state minister of the Imre Nagy government in the heroic days of 1956) could have been such a character acceptable to all main dissident groups – but he died a decade too early. Of the sizeable pool of dissenters, Machiavellian and confrontational Viktor Orbán happened to be the most talented and ambitious, who managed to politically survive the last quarter of century by being both harsh with the opponents and attentive to popular expectations. He showed signs of wanting to concentrate political and economic power in his hands already after he had first become prime minister in 1998, but it was the two-third majority between 2010 and 2014 which made it achievable for him.

2. Skepticism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary and yet voters have always showed affinity for political illusions. Research shows that the correlation between the level of government spending and the election cycles in Hungary is significantly higher than in other East-Central European countries. Elections have increasingly become promise-contests where honest players (at the beginning Fidesz included) had no chance to win. Politicians had to learn this lesson or leave the scene. After winning with excessive election pledges in 2002 and 2006 the Socialists found themselves in a difficult position: first they tried to be true to their promises and accumulated a budget deficit reaching 10% of the GDP, then after the 2006 elections, when this was no longer feasible without an immediate financial crisis, Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted he had lied about the state of the economy and introduced tough austerity measures. This became an important reason for the increasing popularity of Fidesz.

3. Despite all the good intentions and creative solutions at its crafting, the complex election system of 1989 was unfit for Hungary. In a country where people tend to vote for candidates mostly according to their party affiliations and where there are no significant regional differences in voting patterns even the party list leg of the system and the additional compensation list could not guarantee proportionality. In a single party list system, which would be the proper alternative for Hungary, Fidesz would have won a simple majority of just over 50% in 2010, but the actual electoral system transformed this into a two-thirds win which is the legal limit to changing the constitution. The new rules made the 2014 election results even more unproportional: with more weight given to the first-past-the-post leg the system guaranteed about two-thirds of the seats to Fidesz with less than 50 percent of the votes. (It is typical of the relatively uniform Hungarian voting behavior that in a Westminster-style system Fidesz would have had a 98% majority in the 2010-2014 parliament as its candidates won in 173 out of 176 districts. The election result of last Sunday showed a similar pattern of homogeneity: with the exception of a few electoral districts in Budapest, Miskolc and Szeged the whole country turned orange again.)

4. Liberal democracy and free market economy did not produce a general sense that things are looking up as a result of economic reform (which would have been a necessary ingredient of the success of transformation according to the insightful prophesy of Ralf Dahrendorf), and there has been an illiberal downslide in public opinion. The failure of half-implemented liberal policies was used as an argument against liberal ideals. It was claimed that “neoliberal” openness and privatization resulted in foreign intrusion and the cheap selling out of the country’s wealth; tolerance increased crime; multiculturalism endangered the country’s cultural character; preference for market mechanisms brought unemployment and oligarchs; protection of civil rights brought inefficient government. Capitalizing on and enforcing this sentiment, left and right political groups sometimes joined forces in measures to undermine the third (liberal) power block, which practically disappeared by 2010.

"In the footsteps of our fathers" / Magyar Narancs

“In the footsteps of our fathers” / Magyar Narancs

5. Unlike the short 20th century Czech history, which could be schematized as the interwar democratic “good guys” being followed by the communist “bad guys” Hungarian heavy weight political leaders of the era – Miklós Horthy and János Kádár – are both controversial figures. Numerous Hungarians tend to forgive the interwar governor for being complicit in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews by claiming that he resisted deportation until the German occupation, which, in turn, didn’t leave him much choice. Many exonerate Kádár for his crimes as a communist dictator by emphasizing that he managed to construct the “happiest barrack” in the Soviet camp. As opposed to the Polish, the Czech or the Slovak context, Hungarian history lacks the heritage of a wide scale popular anti-fascist movement, and the revolutionary fever of 1956 also faded with the subsequent decades of a relatively mild dictatorship. A democratic role model is generally missing from Hungarian political consciousness. Horthy gained legitimacy by being the admiral of the nation who held the steering wheel of the Hungarian mothership against a sea of powerful enemies (even if the nation suffered a devastating defeat at the end). Kádár was made popular by providing welfare to the widest possible masses (even if this led to a crippling debt burden by 1989). Already the first democratically elected government capitalized on the earlier dormant nostalgia for the Horthy era, which has steadily grown stronger ever since, while Socialists never dared to dissociate themselves from widely popular János Kádár.

6. The Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map of the World based on findings of World Value Survey reveals a remarkable cultural pattern: of all the countries of “Catholic Europe” (other ex-communist states like Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia included) Hungary scores the highest on having  “survival” instead of “self-expression” values. This puts the country the furthest away from leading democracies of “Protestant Europe” and the “English-speaking” world and the closest to Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia. Survival values are indeed reflected in prevalent ideas of Hungarian political life: yearning for economic paternalism instead of a free market (stemming from the existential fear of individuals) and ethno-nationalist sentiments instead of tolerance (stemming from the collective existential fear of the nation). Kádár’s ways to gain legitimacy well fits the former whereas those of Horthy go hand in hand with the latter.

7. Sixteen years ago it was Hungary’s northern neighbor, Slovakia that was generally considered to be a laggard among the transition nations of East-Central Europe, with a populist unchecked majority rule in an unconsolidated democracy. At that time however the fear that Slovakia would be left out of NATO and EU enlargement served as a wakeup call to the people who in the 1998 elections ousted Vladimír Mečiar’s authoritarian-populist government. Unfortunately, lacking similar incentives, the equally strong signals from Western democracies to Hungary don’t seem to have a substantial effect. While numerous Hungarian individuals contributed greatly to world civilization (usually after emigrating from the country) the wider public has traditionally been quite inattentive to the outside world. Hungary is perceived by many to be an island in the German, Latin and Slavic seas, a feeling reinforced by the living grievances of the post-WWI events when Hungary lost two-thirds of its historic territory and more than 3 million ethnic Hungarians found themselves in foreign countries. The so-called Trianon-tragedy is usually blamed on disingenuous neighbors and conspiring great powers. The island feeling is also existent on the individual level: surveys have for decades shown an extremely high level of individualist sentiment and low-level of trust among Hungarians which hampers effective social cooperation.

Between 2010 and 2014 Orbán’s government created a peculiar system, which could be called a borderline democracy. It walks the rope of taking all possible undemocratic measures to ensure its power (from gerrymandering through concentrated denigration campaigns to limiting free press) while at the same time trying to maintain all the formal legal criteria of democracy. In order to produce laws that serve its political interests but don’t contradict EU legislation it collects and connects “worst practices” from other European countries (to use a term EU-expert Györgyi Kocsis used in early 2011 about the new media law). Having changed the electoral system to its liking, having filled political posts with friends and clients, having an overwhelmingly friendly media, it had a remarkably wide array of potential measures to ensure its decisive win at the 2014 elections. It must be noted however, that even if the democratic left had won in 2014, this would not have meant a quick return to democratic normalcy. Instead, the political fight and cold civil war that characterized the years 2006-2010 would have come back.

During the last 25 years politicians on the left and right have learned the lesson of being popular by being populist. As liberal parties were disappearing incumbents have managed to gain an ever greater pool of supporters. Orbán’s 2014 victory is the second time in a row (after the 2006 narrow win of Gyurcsány) when a party and a prime minister were given a second term. Orbán’s government successfully combined Kádár’s and the Horthy’s approaches to gain support – its actions and rhetoric were at times more socialist than those of the Socialists and more nationalist than those of the nationalists. It also managed to bleed out its opponents on the left and on the right by a thousand cuts (from discovering and publicizing awkward information about their politicians through starting legal procedures against them to strictly limiting their channels to address a wider audience or even to collect and use campaign money) but its voter base diminished since 2010 nevertheless. In the future more resources may be needed to successfully apply similar techniques, therefore further political and economic centralization and an increase in the confrontational rhetoric is likely to come in the run up to 2018.

Written on October 27, 2013, updated on April 7-8, 2014

The Hungarian election: A day after

I’m in the middle of reading a slim volume by György Bolgár, the “Dear Mr. Bolgár” of the call-in program “Let’s Talk It Over” on Klubrádió. His latest book is Poligráf, a word that needs no translation. In every short chapter he refutes another lie of Viktor Orbán.

If Bolgár had waited a month or so he could have added another chapter to the book: Viktor Orbán’s claim of “national unity.” In his acceptance speech Orbán said that what his party achieved is “a European record. This is a fact that gives us the right to say, and not just to say but also to be proud of the fact that Hungary is the most unified country in Europe.”  First of all, that “record” is nothing to be terribly proud of. In fact, in comparison to Fidesz’s most successful showing in 2010, the party lost over twenty percent of its voters. As 444‘s reporter pointed out, in 2002 and again in 2006 Fidesz lost the election with more votes than it got this time around. Others remarked that the last time Fidesz did so badly was in 1998.

As for “national unity” here are some figures. Fidesz won 44.36%, Unity Alliance 25.89%, Jobbik 20.46%, and LMP 5.24% of the votes. Do these figures suggest that Hungary is “the most unified country in Europe”? Surely not. The super majority that Fidesz may (probably will) achieve is the result of a cleverly devised electoral law, not the popular will. Unity? No, electoral manipulation. That’s the reality behind this fantastic European record.

Source: Index

Source: Index

A Fidesz super majority naturally means a system that discriminates against other parties. Both the Unity Alliance and Jobbik ended up with much smaller parliamentary representations than their actual performance would have warranted. In part that was achieved by the split between seats won outright and seats allocated on the basis of party lists. In any event, a totally unrepresentative parliament will convene after the formation of the third Orbán government.

It is now time to talk about Jobbik, the neo-Nazi party. Yes, it gained about 130,000 new voters. At the moment there are close to a million Jobbik voters in Hungary. Most of these voters came from Fidesz, which lost all told about 700,000 voters. Many people are very concerned about the growth of Jobbik. Some foresee a Hungary which will soon be run by neo-Nazis. The people who seem most concerned about Jobbik are also certain that the Hungarian Left’s poor showing will result in their total disappearance from the political scene. They envisage a second Poland where the Left was pretty well left for dead.

I’m a great deal less gloomy on the subject. First of all, in the twentieth century Hungarian extremist parties didn’t have long life expectancies. One year the Arrow Cross party had at least a million voters but a year later they lost most of their support. Moreover, these extremist parties have a tendency to splinter. A number of Jobbik members of parliament have already left the party for ideological reasons. In my opinion, Jobbik’s recent rise in the polls has two main causes. One is that the party leadership toned down their racist propaganda. And second, Fidesz made no attempt to curb their activities. Fidesz’s propaganda was directed against the Unity Alliance and specifically against Ferenc Gyurcsány; Jobbik remained untouched by the Fidesz propaganda machine. Although Jobbik did well at the polls, its leadership is still dissatisfied. Party chief Gábor Vona himself lost to a Fidesz candidate in one of the strongest Jobbik strongholds in northeastern Hungary. Moreover, his unreasonably high expectations for Jobbik’s performance might prompt a serious debate within the party about the efficacy of the new ideological line which didn’t bring about the desired results. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some serious disagreements about the future course of the party.

Finally, let’s talk about those who are ready to condemn the whole nation for voting for autocracy, semi-dictatorship, and servitude. Again, let’s see the figures. Out of the whole electorate only 27.30% voted for Fidesz, 17.87% for Unity Alliance, 12.31% for Jobbik, 3.23% for LMP, and 2.61% for other smaller parties. And yes, 38.81% didn’t bother to vote at all. It is true that almost two-thirds of those who did vote cast their votes for the Right–that is, for either Fidesz or Jobbik. But that is still not the whole country. And at least a vote for Jobbik was not a vote for autocracy.

One problem is that Hungarians’ attitude toward democracy is ambivalent, due mainly to ignorance and undereducation. Instilling an understanding of the importance of democracy should be the first task the democratic parties to tackle. Without a democratically-minded population one cannot build a democratic society.

Finally, let’s see what the International Election Observation Mission of OSCE had to say about the election:

The 6 April parliamentary elections were efficiently administered and offered voters a diverse choice following an inclusive candidate registration process. The legal framework for these elections was amended substantially in recent years. While some changes were positive, a number of amendments negatively affected the election process, including important checks and balances. The main governing party enjoyed an undue advantage because of restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage and campaign activities that blurred the separation between political party and the State.

The Fundamental Law (the constitution) and a large number of cardinal laws, including electoral legislation, were passed using procedures that circumvented the requirement for public consultation and debate. This undermined support and confidence in the reform process. A number of aspects of this legal overhaul undermined checks and balances, such as a reduction of the oversight powers of the Constitutional Court.

In a widely welcomed change, legal amendments reduced the number of parliamentary seats from 386 to 199, necessitating alteration in constituency delimitation. The legal requirement to have constituencies of a more equal size is positive. However, the need for a two-thirds majority for redrawing of constituency boundaries may make it difficult to change the boundaries in the future. The delimitation process was criticized by several OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors for lacking transparency and inclusiveness. There were allegations of gerrymandering; it remains to be seen how this translates into results.

Well, by now we know how all this translated into results. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington wrote to “Friends of Hungary” that “during the course of the election, monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) said they were satisfied with the voting process.” Surely, if we think of process as “a series of actions, changes, or functions bringing about a result,” then the Hungarian government isn’t telling the whole truth. The Election Observation Mission’s report didn’t express complete satisfaction with the process and the final word will be coming only when the results are final. I assume that, after analyzing the votes and how they got translated into seats, the final report will contain serious reservations about the “process” carefully devised by Fidesz to retain a super majority far into the future.

A quick look at the results of the Hungarian election

The interest in the Hungarian election is incredibly high on Hungarian Spectrum. The number of visitors more than doubled today. I’m sure that some of them were disappointed to see no new post analyzing the results. But the numbers began to trickle in very late, and the fate of some districts is still undecided. It looks, however, as if Fidesz will have 132 seats in parliament, enough for a two-thirds majority. This feat was achieved with only 44-45% of the popular vote. The new electoral system favors the winner that much. Four years ago Fidesz needed at least 52.5% to achieve that magic number.

Yes, the democratic opposition did very badly, but still better than four years ago. If you recall, in 2010 there was only one district in Budapest that was won by an MSZP candidate. This time that number will be considerably higher. Yes, it is true, as many of you remarked in the comments, it looks as if the Left lost everything except the capital. But four years ago they also lost practically the whole city. There are some high points. I find it amazing, for instance, that Szilárd Németh, the grand prophet of utility decreases and mayor of Csepel, lost to the candidate of the democratic opposition. And that Ágnes Kunhalmi was able to win in the district in which Gábor Simon was supposed to run. And that Ferenc Papcsák of Zugló lost the election. These are the bright spots.

Valasztasok 2014 Budapest

It is also true that the election campaign that was orchestrated by Fidesz cannot be considered a campaign in the traditional sense of the word. In democratic countries the parties of the opposition have a more or less equal opportunity to reach the electorate. This was not the case in Orbán’s Hungary.

Yet one must admit that the democratic opposition’s performance in the last four years, ever since Gordon Bajnai offered himself as the man around whom the parties of the opposition could gather, has been abysmal. This is not the time to list all the mistakes he and Attila Mesterházy made. It is enough to say that they wasted at least a year and a half of precious time. It doesn’t matter how often one repeats that a month or even two weeks are enough time to campaign, this is self-delusion, especially when one’s opponents are campaigning all through their four years in office.

When I began this post, there was no word yet from Attila Mesterházy. Gordon Bajnai made a nice speech but, if I understand him right, he is planning to go it alone and sever relations with the others in the Unity Alliance. If that is the case, I can’t think of a worse reaction to the defeat. As it stands, Együtt 2014-PM will have two parliamentary members: Gordon Bajnai and Tímea Szabó. One needs at least five people to form a parliamentary caucus. DK, if all goes well, will have four members. Again, not enough to form a caucus. Ferenc Gyurcsány hoped to be able to form a separate DK caucus, but now that it is unlikely. I assume he has the good sense to promote a joint effort of the parties within the Unity Alliance in the next parliament unless perhaps he can convince Gábor Fodor of the liberals to join him. That is the only reasonable thing to do under the circumstances. If Bajnai, who perhaps spoke too hastily, decides against cooperation, I believe he will seal the fate of Együtt 2014-PM.

In order to cheer up those who kept fingers crossed for the anti-Orbán forces I suggest taking a look at the electoral maps of 2010 and 2014 on the site of the National Electoral office. Yes, this year’s map looks terribly orange but four years ago it was even worse. That’s some consolation, albeit admittedly small.

Notes on a confused pre-election analysis of Hungarian politics

Four years ago, shortly before the election, I wrote two articles about Péter Tölgyessy, one in Hungarian and the other in English. One is not the translation of the other, but in both I was critical of his assessment of Hungarian politics at the time. I criticized him with perhaps more vehemence than it is my wont because it irritated me to no end that Hungarian liberals looked upon the man as the most reliable source of political analysis. If Tölgyessy says something, well, it must be true.

Why is he considered to be a real guru? I guess that his substantial contribution, alongside László Sólyom, to the new democratic constitution of 1989 is one of the reasons. Second, it was his “pact” with the new prime minister, József Antall, that established the stability of all Hungarian governments between 1990 and 2010. The deal entailed the introduction of several “cardinal laws,” which needed two-thirds majorities. It also included an agreement that a member of SZDSZ, Árpád Göncz, would become the president of the Republic of Hungary despite Antall’s right-of-center coalition government.

Perhaps another reason for his somewhat exaggerated reputation is that he speaks or writes so rarely. His rather unusual political career included eight years in parliament as a member of the Fidesz caucus during which he never spoke once. He occasionally comes out with books about politics, but his name rarely appears in the daily press. It seems, however, that he finds it practically compulsory to say something about Hungarian politics every four years.

Péter Tölgyessy

Péter Tölgyessy

His contribution for 2014 is long. It was published in three parts in HVG. In preparation for today’s post I spent a considerable amount of time reading and taking notes on it. And the more I read the more I came to the conclusion that Tölgyessy’s analysis is off the wall.

I’m sure that all of you are familiar with those political analysts who can’t refrain from predicting the future but do so in a way that pretty well includes all possibilities. At the very beginning of his treatise Tölgyessy announces that Fidesz can receive 70% of the votes (similar to the situation in Belarus) but that “one cannot exclude the possibility that the opposition will win with a small margin.” He finally settles for a Fidesz win “in the neighborhood of two-thirds.”

Although Tölgyessy foresees the possibility of a national tragedy as a result of Viktor Orbán’s policies, he seems to take this year’s election lightly. In his opinion, both sides exaggerate. Orbán claims that their inability to continue in office would bring disaster to the nation while the opposition charges that another four years of the present government would eliminate even the few remaining vestiges of democracy.

In reality, the cleavage between the two sides is greater than ever, yet Tölgyessy doesn’t see major differences between the two. This is what happens when an analyst pretends to be impartial. Whatever we think of the Hungarian left or the liberals, in comparison they still seem to be a great deal better than those currently in power. Moreover, within the essay it becomes evident that Tölgyessy is not politically neutral: he is now a supporter of András Schiffer’s LMP. He wishes, I’m sure, that LMP would be strong enough to win the election and get rid of all the current politicians. This, to his mind, would allow Hungary to become a truly European country.

In the second part of the essay Tölgyessy turns to the Hungarian left. The real problem, according to Tölgyessy, is the “political civil war” that exists between the two political sides. So far so good, but what can one do with the following statement: “Fidesz now with the help of the two-thirds majority, limited parliamentary system, and the elimination of true democratic election system,  is trying to step outside of  the warlike vortex of the last twenty years.” Oh, I see. Whatever Viktor Orbán did in the last four years was all for the good of Hungarian political life. He was simply trying to put an end to political division in the country and introduce peace and tranquility. Yet a few lines later we read that since everything works in the interest of extending Fidesz rule “the opposing forces might be directed against the whole system” and not just the Orbán government. I would say that we have already reached that stage.

Or what can we do with sentences like this: “because of the centralization of power, with one single electoral loss we can return to the confused world of the past.” Almost as if Tölgyessy himself believed the Orbán propaganda about the disorderly and incoherent past. Tölgyessy seems to like LMP because in his opinion András Schiffer’s party wants to “break the logic of the two-bloc political system.” Well, what I see is that Schiffer and his friends hate both the left and the right, and I don’t know why three warring groups would be preferable to two.

After this Tölgyessy takes on the opposition parties and finds something wrong with all of them. MSZP today might be a different party than before, but now the problem is that Attila Mesterházy is trying to imitate Viktor Orbán. This party “overpowers the opposition as never before.” A dubious claim at best. An ugly dig is put in for emphasis: “the MSZP activists have no life outside the Party.” The capitalized letter in “party” is a reminder of the Rákosi and Kádár days. Why? Is there life outside of Fidesz for people like Orbán, Lázár, or Rogán? He claims that MSZP politicians “have less feeling of responsibility toward society than Rezső Nyers and Gyula Horn.” Both are old leaders of the MSZMP of the Kádár period. On what basis does he make such an accusation?

As for Gordon Bajnai, he has no political talent whatsoever; moreover, his own past made him a hopeless candidate. After all, he was a member of the Gyurcsány cabinet, and his company’s involvement in the bankruptcy case of a poultry processing plant made him a thoroughly unsuitable candidate. Not a word about Bajnai’s record as prime minister. And finally, Tölgyessy echoes the Fidesz accusation that with the return of Ferenc Gyurcsány to the fold “the old left symbolically returned to its pre-2010 self.”

If we can believe that Tölgyessy is an outspoken supporter of capitalist development and would like to see Hungary adjust to the requirements of the global economy, why does he not notice that Frenc Gyurcsány’s DK is practically the only party in Hungary that embraces modern capitalism wholeheartedly? I guess he can’t come to that conclusion because he views Gyurcsány as a political adventurer with no sense of responsibility.

Finally, Tölgyessy thinks that the cleavage between left and right was caused primarily by MSZP. In his opinion, it is this party that “introduced eastern types of methods that were alien to the other new democratic parties” because its leaders were fearful of losing their old financial security. Honest to goodness, I don’t know what Tölgyessy is talking about. First of all, all the party leaders in 1989-1990 grew up in the Kádár regime. If one can characterize those methods as eastern, then the whole lot of them were students of eastern methods.

The second section of this long essay ends with the following words: “There is far less difference between the two blocs than their enthusiastic supporters think or their leaders try to convince the population of the country. Both are trying to solve the whole mess in their own way without much success. Fidesz, however, with its desire to win and put an end to this warlike opposition went too far and overstepped more limits than at any time before.” It was at this point that I threw up my hands. Others can plow through the section three.

Is Viktor Orbán a coward?

As I was writing yesterday’s post on Viktor Orbán’s March 15th speech and came to the part where he talked about bravery as an essential ingredient of a nation’s success, my mind wandered to one manifestation of his own lack of bravery (admittedly, most likely wise risk management on his part). It was in 2006 that he made the mistake of agreeing to have a television debate with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who headed the MSZP ticket. Score (being charitable): Gyurcsány 1, Orbán 0. Since then he has systematically avoided head-to-head encounters with his opponents.

Prior to 2006 Orbán had two public debates, one in 1998 with Gyula Horn and another with Péter Medgyessy in 2002. The first debate was a clear win for Orbán, who at that point, following U.S. practice, thought pre-election debates were a capital idea. Gyula Horn, who had had a long political and diplomatic career in the Kádár regime, was no match for the young and more dynamic Viktor Orbán. Although Horn is considered by many the best prime minister of Hungary since 1990, on that occasion he looked unprepared and tired. In a major miscalculation, I don’t think he took the debate seriously.

After the first debate, I’m sure Viktor Orbán was looking forward to taking on Péter Medgyessy in 2002. Medgyessy was not known for his eloquence; in fact, people made jokes about his difficulty with long Hungarian tongue twisters. Orbán was dynamic, Medgyessy very low-key. Moreover, according to all the polls, it looked like easy sailing for Fidesz at the election. Orbán had nothing to lose. But in the debate Orbán looked and sounded like a bully while Medgyessy came across as a modest everyman with whom people could sympathize. As it was, the Hungarian electorate had had enough of the incessant government attacks on everyone who didn’t support them. Orbán lost the election, a result he never quite accepted.

Then came the debate of 2006 with Ferenc Gurcsány. It is something Orbán will never forget or forgive. I’m convinced that his hatred of Gyurcsány dates from that day. I watched the debate and immediately proclaimed it a rout. (The debate is available on YouTube.) Orbán was demolished. Interestingly enough, some people in our group who were exchanging e-mails during the debate were not as sure as I was. Later polls confirmed my first impression. Even Fidesz supporters had to admit that Orbán had lost the debate. Since then Orbán has been trying to pay Gyurcsány back for his humiliation. If it depended on him, he would send Gyurcsány to jail for life. Orbán may be on top of the world right now, but he still considers Ferenc Gyurcsány a threat. Moreover, it seems that after 2006 he got permanently cold feet when it comes to public debates.

He refused to debate Attila Mesterházy in 2010 and it looks as if he has no intention of debating this year either. There are different excuses each time. Four years ago he claimed that there were too many candidates. This year he listed several reasons for refusing to debate. First was that “to this day we don’t know who the real leader of the opposition is: Ferenc Gyurcsány, Attila Mesterházy, or Gordon Bajnai.” Well, this sounds like a lame excuse to me. After all, the united opposition’s candidate for premiership is Attila Mesterházy. Mesterházy called on Orbán to debate several times; in his blog he even dubbed Orbán a coward for refusing to measure the Fidesz program against the opposition’s. Of course, the fact is that Fidesz has no party program unless one considers the decrease in utility prices a program. That is why the following “manifesto” that appeared on the Internet is so apt. In 1848 Sándor Petőfi and his young friends had a list of twelve demands, including freedom of the press, an annual national assembly in Pest, national army, civil and religious equality before the law, equal distribution of tax burdens, and abolition of socage. Viktor Orbán had the gall to compare his lowering of utility prices to the abolition of socage and serjeanty, feudal dues. As you can see, Orbán’s 12 points in this “Orbán” version of the twelve demands are all the same: “utility decreases, utility decreases” twelve times over. Thus it would be rather difficult to have a debate on party programs.

rezsicsokkentes

A take-off on the Hungarian nation’s demands in 1848

It would be uncomfortable to answer questions about the Putin-Orbán agreement on Paks or the incredible corruption. If Mesterházy were well prepared, he could demolish Orbán’s economic figures. And what about the ever larger national debt? All in all, Orbán will not debate because it is not to his advantage. Moreover, his admirers don’t even demand any program. They seem to be perfectly happy with the government’s performance in the last four years and look forward to four or even eight more years of the same.

Another reason that Orbán gave for his refusal to debate is that in his opinion there is no political formation today outside of Fidesz-KDNP that is fit to govern (kormányzóképes). Such labeling in a democracy is unacceptable. It just shows what kind of democracy we are talking about in Hungary.

András Schiffer of LMP would like to have a debate with Orbán, Mesterházy, and Vona (Jobbik). As you know, Schiffer is not one of my favorites, but he is a good debater and could score extra points if given the opportunity. I’m sure that Orbán will not be game, and I understand that Mesterházy will agree only if Orbán also participates. So, we can be pretty sure that there will be no debate in 2014. The opposition will remain invisible.