hungarian socialist party

The exit of Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian socialists

The drama was of short duration. On Tuesday Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian Socialist Party, seemed to be certain that he would remain the leader of MSZP and the whip of the party’s parliamentary group despite the disastrous showing at the EP election on May 25. He thought he could rely on the people who were considered to be his steadfast supporters and on whom he had depended throughout the last four or five years.

Mesterházy believed, and he was not alone in the party, that the secret to the revival of MSZP lay in the rejuvenation of the party. Here the word “rejuvenation” is used in its literal sense: getting rid of the older, more experienced leaders who were allegedly responsible for past mistakes and bringing in new faces. Preferably young ones. Closer to 30 than to 40. So, as far as the media was concerned, MSZP had a face lift. But cosmetic surgery was not enough. According to people whose opinion I trust, most of these new faces were only faces. Nothing substantive behind their countenances. These newly recruited people who were elevated to important positions gave the impression of mediocrity at best and total incompetence at worst.

Old hands in the party, especially lately, made it clear what they thought of Mesterházy’s new young crew. At first just quietly, but lately ever more loudly. Perhaps the most outspoken on the quality of the Mesterházy leadership was László Kovács, former chairman, foreign minister, and European Commissioner, who when asked in an interview on what basis these people were chosen, answered: “You ask the chairman of the party.” Or just lately another old-timer, Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman and very effective whip, said, alluding to Mesterjázy’s centralization of power, that “what we need is not a small Fidesz in a worse version.” After all, no one can achieve, even if he wanted to, the one-man rule of Viktor Orbán.

According to people familiar with the internal workings of MSZP, Mesterházy was very good at developing a structure within the party that served his personal ambitions. He was also good at playing political chess, which usually ended with his winning the game. He managed to organize a party list of the United Alliance which greatly favored MSZP at the expense of DK and E14-PM. As a result, the other two parties, each with four MPs, couldn’t form official caucuses, which would have greatly enhanced their own voices and would have strengthened the joint forces of the democratic opposition parties.

Mesterházy was accused by some of his colleagues in the party of playing games with the party’s by-laws. By not resigning himself but only offering the resignation of the whole presidium (elnökség), he was able to postpone an election of all the officials, which is a very long process in MSZP. That would have ensured the continuation of his chairmanship and the existence of the current leadership for months. It was at this junction that the important personages in the party decided to act. At least one well-known socialist politician apparently told the others that if they postpone the election process, card-carrying party members will join DK in hordes because they have had enough of the paralysis that the party leadership has exhibited for some time.

Perhaps it was the Budapest MSZP leadership that was most affected by the results of the EP election. Let’s face it, MSZP lost Budapest. Csaba Horváth’s candidacy for the lord mayoralty is dead; Zsolt Molnár, who headed the Budapest MSZP organization, has resigned; and here was Mesterházy who, in their eyes, was making it impossible for them to recoup in Budapest before the municipal elections. The first group in Budapest to revolt against the chairman was the XIIIth district where MSZP was always very strong. Csepel, once an MSZP stronghold, followed suit. Dissatisfaction spread, and very soon all twenty-three district centers expressed their misgivings and demanded Mesterházy’s resignation.

Some of the old-timers offered solutions on how to change the leadership without getting involved in a complicated and lengthy election of new officials. László Kovács suggested an interim governing body that would be made up of politicians who in the past had showed that they had the trust of the electorate. That is, they won elections on their own. He could think of 6-8 people who could take part in that body. In addition, he would ask László Botka, mayor of Szeged, who has been able to be elected and reelected even in the most difficult times. Kovács also suggested three former chairmen of the party: István Haller, Ildikó Lendvai, and he himself. Mesterházy’s defiant answer to Kovács’s suggestion was: “It is not Lendvai and Kovács who are the bearers of the message of the future.”

Yesterday the party leaders of Budapest were ready for compromise. If Mesterházy resigns as chairman he can still be the whip, a position very dear to his heart. At least he made a case for occupying that post regardless of the fate of the chairmanship in a television interview. But after seeing Mesterházy’s stubbornness, the Budapest leaders and others wanted to strip him even of his parliamentary position. Some MSZP politicians were in fact ready to expel him from the party if he doesn’t play ball. Under these circumstances he had no choice but to resign. Today at noon he held a press conference and announced his resignation both as chairman and as whip of MSZP’s parliamentary group. He added that at the next election of officials he will not seek any position in the party leadership.

Photo: MTI

Photo: MTI

There was a sigh of relief, I’m sure, in the inner circles of the party. However, as one party official said, “this is not the end of the road but its beginning.” The party leadership, he added, “has to eliminate the heritage of the Mesterházy era.” And that will not be easy. For example, the MSZP parliamentary delegation is “Mesterházy’s caucus.” Some people within the party leadership think that each MP who gained a mandate from the party list should offer his resignation. This is not a realistic scenario. These people cannot be forced to offer their resignation and they would be unlikely to resign willingly. The pro-Mesterházy MPs, however, might not be a genuine problem because, according to the latest rumors, even his hand-picked MPs have abandoned him.

As for a successor, many names are circulating at the moment: László Botka, József Tóbiás, István Haller, to mention just a few. I have the feeling that what most people have in mind is an interim “collective leadership” until the party can have a full-fledged congress that would officially elect a new chairman and fill the other top positions.

I think that time is of the essence if MSZP hopes to recoup for the municipal election, although I myself doubt that they will be able to substantially increase their support either in Budapest or elsewhere. On the other hand, I see a good possibility that DK and E14-PM will be able to attract new followers. Success breeds success. I heard, for instance, that DK is getting a lot of membership applications. Yet, just as Ferenc Gyurcsány emphasizes, the three parties must cooperate in the municipal elections. Otherwise, they have no chance of capturing Budapest where at the moment Fidesz is leading in spite of the relatively good showing of DK, E14-PM, MSZP, and LMP. Although the media close to Fidesz intimate that DK is out to capture former MSZP voters while E14-PM is trying to lure former LMP voters, both parties claim to stand by MSZP in its present crisis. In fact, DK politicians keep emphasizing that their interest lies in a strong MSZP. I’m sure that at the moment this is the case. Eventually, however, it is inevitable that these parties will be pitted against one another for the future leadership of the left-of-center forces in Hungary.

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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!”

 

Gordon Bajnai blinked: He is ready to accept the thirty-five districts allotted to Együtt 2014

The somewhat surprising developments that occurred on Friday afternoon during the meeting between Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), and Gordon Bajnai, former prime minister and current co-chairman of Együtt 2014-PM, not unexpectedly created a huge discussion among political commentators. It still hasn’t subsided, despite the fact that Bajnai announced a retreat from his earlier position this morning.

When on Friday the two men got up from the negotiating table and held separate press conferences it looked as if even the partial results achieved over the past few weeks had been lost. Although there had been a tentative agreement on the division of the 106 mandates, Mesterházy made it clear that his party considered it null and void. According to this preliminary agreement, MSZP would be entitled to put up 71 candidates and Együtt 2014 35. These numbers, it seems, were not final. If MSZP insisted on providing the candidate for the premiership, Együtt 2014 wanted more than 35 seats. How many more is unclear. It was at this point that Bajnai introduced his idea of a campaign in which the two candidates would try to convince the electorate of their worth. After such a campaign the decision would be based on a couple of polls. Mesterházy turned the tables on Bajnai and suggested holding primaries.

Of course, each man suggested a course that would best serve his interests. So, let’s see first what the Bajnai group is confronted with. You may recall that sometime in June I wrote about an interview with Endre Hann, CEO of Medián, a polling company. In this conversation we learned that although overall Mesterházy has a 3% lead over Bajnai in the polls, this is due only to Bajnai’s relative unpopularity among Fidesz and Jobbik voters. As I reported, “Bajnai is definitely doing better with the voters of the so-called democratic opposition parties. In all parties he leads over Mesterházy–among sympathizers of Együtt 2014 (89%), of DK (64%), of LMP (56%). Even among MSZP voters 30% think that Bajnai is more qualified for the job of prime minister than MSZP’s chairman. Overall, 51% of the democratic opposition prefer Bajnai over Mesterházy (43%). That is not an unsubstantial difference. Translating it to actual numbers, we are talking about 200,000 voters. Among those who are against the present government but are still undecided as far as their party preference is concerned, 55% would prefer Bajnai over Mesterházy (33%). The difference here is about 100,000.”

Negotiations
In a poll asking supporters of the democratic opposition to choose between the two potential candidates, Bajnai would most likely come out the winner. Or at least this is the situation now. I’m sure that Mesterházy is aware of these figures and that’s why he would prefer a primary which, given the well developed nationwide MSZP organization, would favor him. I myself find a primary not a bad idea in theory, but under the present circumstances it is out of the question. At least for two reasons. First, Hungarian parties don’t have rostrums of their likely voters. If sometime in the future Hungarian politicians decide to introduce primaries, they will need to build databases of the party faithful (or introduce party registration). Second, primaries are held to pick a candidate from contenders within the same party. And Bajnai and Mesterházy are the leaders of two different parties. Primaries in the United States, for instance, are not held to decide whether a Republican or a Democrat will run for the presidency. Sándor Révész, a liberal supporter of Bajnai, in an editorial in Nepszabadság called the suggested primary a not so well hidden fraud.

On the other hand, there are others, for example, Andor Schmuck, chairman of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, who severely criticized Bajnai for his unacceptable demands. According to him, Bajnai might be more popular than Mesterházy, but he is the co-chairman of a party with a 6% share of the votes. Moreover, Együtt 2014 is not really a party but a coalition of different civic groups with no numbers behind them. He went on to list them: Milla has 50-100 people, Solidarity 250, Haza és Haladás (Homeland and Progress Foundation) 15-20. At the end Schmuck came up with 800 people who are organized behind Bajnai. It took them four months to come up with 90 names, which shows the lack of party organization and support. This holy mess (hercehurca) has been going on for eight months and people who want a change are sick and tired of it. Mesterházy went through four very difficult years when it was not exactly a picnic to be head of MSZP while Bajnai retired only to appear three years later, and now he wants to be the prime minister. As you can see, each side has its own valid arguments.

Mesterházy’s ultimatum also has another consequence that might not be welcome to the MSZP leadership. MSZP, like all parties, is made up of people with different shades of political opinion. Although MSZP has its share of liberals, there is also a fairly strong left-wing group whose ideas are strangely foreign to the ideal of western social democracy. One of the people in that group is Tibor Szanyi who, emboldened by Mesterházy’s rejection of any further negotiations with Bajnai, came out with the kind of demagoguery that makes a lot of people uneasy. On Facebook Szanyi tore into those capitalists whose wealth originates from communist oligarchs–like Péter Medgyessy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gordon Bajnai–who were not fit to lead a socialist party that is supposed to be a party of the working people. Gordon Bajnai might have been their prime minister in 2009-2010, but he is certainly not one of them. He doesn’t represent the working people. After all, he took away the thirteenth month salaries and pensions. If MSZP had been able to decide on its own, the thirteenth month salary wouldn’t have been touched. And I may add that they would have led Hungary into a financial abyss. Mesterházy needs these kinds of socialists like a hole in the head.

On the other hand, the Friday ultimatums prompted László Botka, the socialist mayor of Szeged, to raise his voice. I don’t think that I mentioned László Botka in the past, though perhaps I should have. His name often comes up as a possible candidate either for party chairmanship or even prime minister one day. On Facebook he expressed his surprise at the breakdown of negotiations and reiterated his belief that the most important goal is “the replacement of the Orbán government and anything else is secondary to it.” He asked for “more responsibility, greater magnanimity , and more wisdom.” He added that for those who want Orbán out of office the important question is not whether the prime minister will be Mesterházy or Bajnai. At last a sane voice in MSZP.

 

The Hungarian opposition has awakened. What comes next?

Hungarian commentators who follow politics very carefully and whose opinion I trust kept saying all along that cooperation among the diverse opposition groups would materialize because it cannot be otherwise given the electoral law. I was also inclined to believe that to be the case, but I have worried all along that they would run out of time.

I was enthusiastic when Gordon Bajnai decided to return to politics because he did a terrific job during his months as prime minister. There was modest economic growth as opposed to the recession that resulted from the unorthodox economic policies of the second Orbán government. I also thought that his quiet nature and measured tone would stand in stark contrast to Viktor Orbán’s firebrand style. But in the last five months I became increasingly disenchanted with Gordon Bajnai’s strategy. I don’t want to repeat myself, but for those who are not regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum my main objection was his alliance with a group called Milla that was formed on Facebook and that could get 40-50,000 people out on the streets on national holidays to protest the present regime. That was a feat, but the fierce anti-party rhetoric of the Milla group about whose leadership we knew practically nothing didn’t bode well for the future. Whether disenchanted Hungarians like it or not, elections can be won or lost only by parties.

Most likely because of Milla, Bajnai’s Együtt 2014 group and later party dragged its heels on the subject of negotiations with the other opposition parties. Five precious months went by, and about a week ago Bajnai asked for yet another two months before Együtt 2014 would sit down with MSZP to talk about the details of cooperation.

Attila Mesterházy, the chairman of MSZP, is most likely right when he says that the people he and his fellow politicians meet while traveling from town to town desperately want cooperation. It’s no wonder, Mesterházy said–and I can only agree with him–that about half of the voting population is undecided when there is no united party to vote for. Moreover, Mesterházy looked like an open and generous soul by saying that the candidate for the premiership should be the person who has the best chance of getting the most votes for the united party. He may not be completely honest on this question; one couldn’t blame him for wanting to have the post when he is the head of the largest opposition party. However, I have the feeling that if polls were to indicate by the end of the year that with Bajnai the opposition’s chances would be better, he would step aside.

It was exactly one week ago that Bajnai came up with his ideas for a timetable, but something happened between  April 19 and 27. First of all, according to the latest two public opinion polls Együtt 2014 further lost voters, three months in a row. Second, Bajnai couldn’t really explain why he needed two more months, aside from the obvious fact that Együtt 2014 is weak now and he would like to be in a better position in his negotiations with MSZP. He looked like the kind of schemer and cunning politician the Hungarians hate so much by now

But, in an apparent about face, when Attila Mesterházy called him on Thursday night to join MSZP’s steering committee meeting today, Bajnai accepted.

By Arrow-ErnetO / Flickr

Giving a helping hand by Arrow-ErnestO / Flickr

It seems to me that Fidesz was caught flatfooted. On the day that the news of the impending meeting between Bajnai and the steering committee of MSZP was announced, the Fidesz propaganda machine was behind the times. At least three articles appeared in Magyar Nemzet in two days about the close connection between Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai. As I said earlier, it really doesn’t matter how much Gordon Bajnai tries to act as if he has nothing to do with Ferenc Gyurcsány, it will not convince the Fidesz propagandists. It’s a waste of time and most likely politically injurious as well. After all, Gyurcsány’s party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, has a sizable following that might find Gordon Bajnai’s behavior unsavory.

Magyar Nemzet, the semi-official paper of the government party, at first tried to minimize the importance of the meeting. The paper, which is very good on getting the scoop from government circles, is much less well informed about what’s going on in the other parties. According to the paper, “the MSZP leadership doesn’t consider cooperation with other parties necessary for victory at the election next April.” In brief, one mustn’t be terribly worried about this meeting because it will lead nowhere.

According to the normally well-informed HVG, Bajnai originally accepted the invitation in order to explain to the socialists why he would like to start negotiations only in mid-June. Well, it turned out that the meeting was much more productive. The MSZP politicians were receptive even before the meeting started. Tibor Szanyi, one of the leaders of the party, emphasized that Bajnai came as a friend and, after all, “we are all friends here …. and comrades.” (The word “elvtárs” in Hungarian simply means “sharing the same ideas.”)  Bajnai, for his part, emphasized that “once during the economic crisis we worked together with great success and so we will able to do it again.” He was ready to subordinate all other issues to electoral success. Mesterházy was of the same opinion and called the coming election one of historic importance. “We must look after each other, we must help each other.”

In the end they agreed on the following: (1) In each electoral district there will be only one candidate. (2) At by-elections there will be joint campaigns and a common candidate. (3) The parties won’t try to weaken each other either in statements or in any other way. There will be a hotline set up between Bajnai and Mesterházy to coordinate the work between the two parties. (4) Each party’s activists, although they will work separately, will strengthen cooperation between the parties on the local level.

Two hours after the joint press conference of Bajnai and Mesterházy the editorial board of Magyar Nemzet already figured out an “appropriate” headline: “The Bajnai-Mesterházy-Gyurcsány pact became a reality.” “Pact” has a bad ring in Hungarian political discourse, and there is no way the government paper could possibly leave out the name of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the newly arrived at understanding between Együtt 2014 and MSZP. Moreover, the Hungarian opposition has a new name in the Fidesz vocabulary: “the mafia left.” It was first uttered today by Máté Kocsis, one of the young Turks of Fidesz, who began his youthful career in István Csurka’s anti-Semitic MIÉP party. He is only one of the newly appointed spokesmen, but I guess  if you have several and all of them say the same thing over and over the message will stick better with the party faithful. The more the merrier.

Meanwhile the strategists of Fidesz are working hard to discredit the opposition. In this deadly game the presumably trumped-up charges against György Szilvásy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Sándor Laborc will play an important role.

The real campaign just began. Perhaps somewhat optimistically Stop, an Internet paper, came out with this headline: “This is what Fidesz is terrified of: A strong opposition cooperation came into being.” And, let me add, it also began on the local level. Együtt 2014, MSZP, and DK launched a joint effort against the Fidesz mayor, Ferenc Papcsák, of Zugló (District XIV of Budapest). I have the feeling many such cooperative efforts will follow now that there is an understanding in the center.