Ildikó Lendvai

What evil forces lurk behind the Hungarian demonstrations?

On December 29, 2014 Antal Rogán, whip of the Fidesz caucus, announced a new program called the “National Defense Action Plan” which, he claimed, was needed because the country is under siege. Details were not revealed at the time, but I suspected that it was intended to take the wind out of anti-government sails. “Action plan”–it sounds so manly, Ildikó Lendvai sarcastically remarked in an opinion piece that appeared in Népszava on January 3. She found the whole thing ridiculous until she read an interview with Gergely Gulyás, chairman of a newly created parliamentary committee on legislative activities. In this interview Gulyás said that it was time to make the law on free assembly more restrictive. “I immediately stopped laughing,” Lendvai wrote. This new action plan–because this is not the first in the history of the Orbán regime–should really be called the “Government Defense Action Plan.” The goal is to put an end to anti-government demonstrations.

A sharp-eyed reader of Népszava also became suspicious even before the appearance of the Gulyás interview. What does the government have in mind when it talks about a “National Defense Action Plan”? “Is this perhaps the beginning of limiting our basic human and political rights?” He found the whole idea “frightening.”

Within a week after the Gulyás interview, Viktor Orbán must have realized that he went too far. With all the international attention on the demonstrations and anti-government sentiment, tightening the law on free assembly might be seen as overreach. László L. Simon, undersecretary in the prime minister’s office who lately has been close to Orbán, was given the task of discrediting Gulyás. On January 7 he announced that “the government is not contemplating any changes in the law on assembly.” Gulyás simply expressed his own private opinion. Oh, sure!

Although Viktor Orbán abandoned the idea of changing the law, he is still bent on “dealing” with the anti-government forces. The Fidesz brain trust came up with another idea–putting pressure on the organizers of the demonstrations. Last Friday Rogán was the guest of HírTV’s P8 where he wondered “who is financing these more and more expensive demonstrations and for what reason?” And, he continued, “if someone for political reasons or because of economic interest finances such events, he should reveal his identity in order for us to see who is behind these demonstrations.” In his opinion, the organizers are trying to convince the public that the demonstrations are the handiwork of civic groups alone, “but they are not.” Unmasking the forces behind these demonstrations “might be part of the ‘National Defense Action Plan.'”

Since the Orbán government and its supporting media equate the government with the nation and the country, Magyar Nemzet argued that any support of the demonstrations by the democratic opposition parties is more than suspect. If opposition parties stand behind the demonstrations–as they don’t at the moment–it is a mortal sin, bordering on treason, from their point of view.

The truth is that the organizers ask for donations from the participants on the spot, and each time they manage to collect a few million forints. They have also made their financial records public on Facebook.

The anti-Semitic caricature sent by a student which Tényi found so hilarious

The anti-Semitic caricature sent by a student, which István Tényi found so hilarious

Antal Rogán made only veiled references to taking the case of financing the demonstrations to court if necessary, but a young teacher of Hungarian literature, István Tényi, decided to act. He filed a complaint against the organizers of the recent mass demonstrations on suspicion of fraud.

Tényi has a lot of experience in filing charges. He was the one who filed a complaint against Ökotárs, also for fraud, in connection with the group’s handling of the Norwegian Civic Funds. While he was at it, he filed a complaint against HVG because of its cover story showing Fidesz politicians gathering around the NAV chairwoman, Ildikó Vida, as if around Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus.

What I found out about Tényi isn’t pretty. He was fired from his first job because he sent threatening e-mails to his students indicating that the school will meet the same fate as Baghdad under the massive American bombing. Currently he teaches at the Károly Than Ökoiskola. A writer of a micro-blog found a “disgusting” item–his adjective–on Tényi’s Facebook page. One of his students sent him an anti-Semitic caricature of Gyurcsány. The former prime minister was depicted with the body of a cockroach and a Star of David on his face. The message was “the Israeli Gyurcsány should be crushed” just like a cockroach. Tényi must have enjoyed the caricature because he was one of the five who “liked” it. The other four, I suspect, are his students.

Otherwise, Tényi is 32 years old and graduated from ELTE’s Faculty of Arts in 2006. He is a member of the presidium of Fidelitas in Terézváros (District VI) where he functions as a coordinator. His favorite film is Star Wars IV-VI and his “ideal” is Sándor Petőfi. His favorite drink is mineral water. Most important, he enjoys filing charges against people who don’t agree with his party and the Orbán government. This man, if one can believe the messages on his Facebook page, is quite popular among his students. Imagine the education they are getting from this man. And unfortunately, there are far too many István Tényis among the followers of Viktor Orbán.

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The Hungarian socialists at a crossroads

While Fidesz and the Orbán government are busy hatching their latest plans to further restructure the Hungarian state and Hungarian society we cannot do more than wait for the day, which should come soon, when we find out what kind of austerity program will be introduced. There is no use talking about, for instance, all the leaked information from Fidesz politicians concerning the huge reforms of healthcare and higher education. We will turn to these topics when there are enough facts to make an assessment of the government’s plans. I should note, however, that Hungarians expect the worst. Pessimism about the future has grown in the last few months.

So, for the time being, let’s concentrate on party politics. Yesterday I wrote about the Ferenc Deák Circle, comprised of those MSZP politicians who consider cooperation with other parties of the democratic opposition essential for an effective stand against the growing “dictatorship of democracy” that Viktor Orbán has introduced in the last four and a half years. On the other side are the MSZP politicians currently running the party who have moved in the opposite direction. According  to József Tóbiás, the party chairman, there is only one party on the left and that is MSZP. He made it crystal clear in the last few days that his party will never make any compromises and will never join any other party. MSZP will break with the “authoritarian leadership of Ferenc Gyurcsány.”

Tóbiás’s dislike of Gyurcsány is common knowledge. When Gyurcsány and some of his fellow rebels left MSZP, Tóbiás was relieved. He announced that “MSZP gained an opportunity to go its own way and define itself as a leftist party.” That was in October 2011. Mind you, the departure of the “alien” elements from the party did not increase MSZP’s popularity. But Tóbiás is not one to engage in self-criticism. The current message to the other smaller parties is: never again will we have anything to do with you because you are the cause of our decline.

József Tóbiás and other MSZP politicians have been lashing out, condemning “Gyurcsány’s peremptory Führer-like politics” (Gyurcsány hatalmi, vezérelvű politikája). Leaders of three “platforms” within MSZP–the “Left-wing Gathering,” “Socialist,” and “People’s Group”–announced their support of Tóbiás and his policies. (There is also a “social-democratic platform”; Ágnes Kunhalmi belongs to that group.) The leaders of these three platforms asked the party leadership “to free the left from the trap Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister, forced them into.” Tóbiás needs no urging. In addition to breaking all ties to other democratic parties, he is ready to completely reorganize MSZP.

Source: Index / photo by Levente Haralamposz Hernádi

Source: Index / photo by Levente Haralamposz Hernádi

What kind of a party does he have in mind? Interestingly enough, his MSZP would be structured like Fidesz. Currently, the key figures in the nationwide structure of MSZP are the county chairmen. Some of these chairmen have become extremely powerful over the years and, since they hold the purse strings, they are difficult to dislodge. These chairmen were the ones who elevated Ferenc Gyurcsány to be the party’s candidate for the premiership in 2004 and they were the ones who dethroned him in 2009. Fidesz, on the other hand, is built around electoral districts. In Tóbiás’s scheme, each electoral district will have a chairman who can be removed by the central leadership if he is found wanting.

Apparently Tóbiás can’t remove the county chairmen because that would require a revision of the by-laws. What he can do without any congressional approval is to take money away from them. With that move, these formerly all-powerful local party leaders will become mere figureheads.

It is not only the structure of Fidesz that the MSZP leadership is ready to copy. The new MSZP will be “nationally committed party (nemzeti elkötelezettségű párt). This shift is not entirely new. MSZP’s leadership under Attila Mesterházy already thought that since Fidesz is so successful with its nationalist propaganda and since Viktor Orbán and Fidesz politicians constantly accuse the socialists and the liberals of “internationalism” and “cosmopolitanism,” perhaps success for the socialists requires greater emphasis on the nation. Tóbiás even managed to smuggle the concept of “Christian values” into his speech when he equated them with the socialists’ “social sensitivity.”

The divide between the left-wingers and the liberals in MSZP is fundamental. The question is whether the Orbán government can be dislodged by a united opposition or by a single, large socialist party. A similar debate went on in LMP a year and a half ago. The party’s parliamentary delegation was almost equally split between those who followed András Schiffer, who saw his party’s future in going it alone, and the rebels who were convinced that Schiffer’s tactics were suicidal. It was this debate that precipitated the split in LMP. The current situation in MSZP closely resembles what LMP went through then, although the split is not so even.

At the moment it looks as if the majority of the top leadership agrees with Tóbiás. According to them, the party’s problems began the day Ferenc Gyurcsány took over. He was too liberal, and therefore supporters of the party whose hearts were on the left abandoned them. Well, we know the answer is not that simple. Most likely Ildikó Lendvai was correct when she said in her Facebook note yesterday that the dividing line in Hungarian society is no longer between left and right. And if so, the whole reshaping of the party by József Tóbiás and his friends is most likely an exercise in futility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

left-right

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

What are the lessons?

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

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

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

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

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.

Two controversial Jobbik appointments: Tamás Sneider and Dóra Dúró

Today Jobbik finalized the composition and officers of its parliamentary delegation. The caucus consists of 23 people. Just as in the last parliament, Gábor Vona, party chairman, will be heading the group and just as before he will have five deputies.

Jobbik nominated Tamás Sneider to be one of the deputies to the president of the parliament, who will most likely once again be László Kövér. This nomination is very controversial and sparked a slew of objections in the last week or so. Even Bence Rétvári, undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, remarked that perhaps Jobbik should “rethink” the nomination. Well, Jobbik thought long and hard about it and decided to stick with its candidate.

So, what’s wrong with Tamás Sneider other than being a member of a neo-Nazi party?

Way back in August 2009 I wrote a post about Hungarian skinheads. There I briefly mentioned a skinhead cell in Eger. The group was  infamous because, under the leadership of Tamás Sneider, known in those days as Roy, it was involved in Roma beatings on the streets of Eger. That was sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sneider later joined Jobbik and became a member of the Eger city council.

During his time on the council he was arrested by the police because of a family dispute. As we learned from Magyar Nemzet, just before the 2010 election, Sneider, who by then was #9 on Jobbik’s party list for the 2010 election, wanted to put his parents under guardianship because, according to him, his father wanted to kill him. The parents had a different story to tell. Sneider apparently spent his share of the family fortune and further demanded the sale of their winery in Eger. When they refused, all hell broke loose and the parents sued the son. It was at this point that Sneider insisted that his parents were no longer able to be on their own due to their psychological impairment.  Since then psychiatrists have determined that the parents are perfectly normal. In light of the above, it is especially ironic that as a freshman MP Sneider was deputy chairman of  the parliamentary committee that dealt with, among other things, “family affairs.”

There were rumors in the last few days that the Fidesz delegation might vote against the appointment of Sneider due to his skinhead past. But that doesn’t seem likely. Today Antal Rogán, who was re-elected leader of the Fidesz delegation, indicated that Fidesz will not veto the nomination. “Each party must take political responsibility for its nominees. We would not like to choose among opposition nominees. There might be several nominees with whom we disagree. After all, we had a deputy president who was a party member in the old regime.”

I would have been very surprised if Fidesz, especially before the EP election, would have instigated a political fight over a Jobbik nomination. The reality is that Jobbik did exceedingly well in the last two elections and legitimately became a parliamentary party with all the privileges and prerogatives of that position. Perhaps Vona’s youth organization, so warmly supported by Viktor Orbán, should have been stopped as soon as it espoused an anti-Semitic and anti-Roma ideology. It is too late now.

Jobbik, just like all other parties, can send delegates to the various parliamentary committees. By law, the chairmanship of the committee on national security goes to someone delegated by one of the opposition parties. The position was held in the last four years by Zsolt Molnár of MSZP, and MSZP once again claimed the post. But this year, just as four years ago, Jobbik also wanted this important committee chairmanship. Four years ago their nominee, Gábor Staudt, didn’t receive clearance. This time around their nominee was the party chairman himself, Gábor Vona. But handing over the national security chairmanship to Jobbik would have been too much even for Fidesz. Instead, it supported MSZP, saying that by custom the largest opposition party is entitled to that position.

Having lost the chairmanship of the committee on national security, Jobbik insisted on another important post: chairmanship of the committee on education and culture. This time Fidesz supported their claim. An outcry followed. How could Fidesz give that critically important committee to Jobbik? “Our children’s future and Hungarian culture in the hands of a neo-Nazi party?” —asked Magyar Narancs.

Jobbik’s nominee for the post is Dóra Duró, wife of the notorious Előd Novák, who is most likely a member of the group responsible for kuruc.info. Here are a few choice (quasi-literate) sentences uttered by Dóra Dúró on matters of education. “Jobbik’s educational policy does not consider equality and integration as real values, but rather the fulfillment of people’s mission.” According to her, “from here on, the truth of educators must be unquestioned.”

Ildikó Lendvai, former MSZP chairman, commented on the probable appointment of Dúró this way: “Finally there is a seal on the alliance of Fidesz and Jobbik.”  The ideological roots of the two parties are similar in many respects, and over the past four years their views on cultural matters were practically identical. Fidesz often borrowed Jobbik’s ideas. For example, the removal of Mihály Károlyi’s statue was originally a Jobbik demand. The idea of resurrecting the Horthy regime also came from Jobbik. It was the extreme right that wanted to include Albert Wass and József Nyirő in the curriculum. And Jobbik was the first to propose the nationalization of schools, segregated schools, and the centralization of textbooks.

Dóra Dúró and her infamous laptop: "The nation lives in the womb"

Dóra Dúró and her infamous laptop: “The nation lives in the womb”

As for Dóra Dúró. The Dúró-Novák duo’s motto is “Be fruitful and multiply!”  She is only 27 years old but is pregnant with their third child. I read somewhere that she considers four children to be the minimum for a patriotic Hungarian family. Producing children seems to be a very important, if not the most important duty of a Hungarian woman. See the picture on the cover of her laptop: “The nation lives in the womb.”

She, like her husband, is a rabid anti-Semite. About a week ago a journalist asked Novák why the couple doesn’t take part in events remembering the Holocaust. His answer was: “We remember only genocides that actually happened.” Denial of the Holocaust is now a crime in Hungary, but as far as I know nothing happened to Előd Novák. Except that his like-minded wife will be chairing the parliamentary committee on education and culture.

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.

István Hiller on restructuring the Hungarian Socialist Party

Doomsayers are already predicting the demise of social democracy in Hungary. According to their argument, the socialists will disappear just as SZDSZ vanished because Hungarian society has no appetite for anything that is associated with the left.

A party may disappear, but the political philosophy behind it certainly will not. SZDSZ as a party is no more, but the liberal idea is alive. It lives on in Együtt-PM, in DK, and, yes, to a certain extent in MSZP. Anyone who wants to throw the very ideas of social democracy and liberalism out the window and who claims that their disappearance will be good for Hungarian society is gravely mistaken. (One of these Cassandras suggests in a comment on this blog that LMP should be the major political force because, in his opinion, it is a centrist party. The fact is that LMP is more leftist than MSZP ever was.) If we send the representatives of social democracy and liberalism packing, we are going to have “national unity” of the worst kind, unity built on single-party autocratic rule.

I believe that both social democracy and liberalism will survive, just as they have survived in most European countries. Of course, the farther east we go the less weighty is their presence. That’s why Péter Pető of Népszabadság is very wrong when he assumes that the underdevelopment of the Hungarian countryside and its uneducated population does not matter. Yes, it does matter. He is also wrong when he minimizes the obstacles built into the electoral system devised by Fidesz. Yes, Fidesz would have won but not the way it did, and today we wouldn’t be talking about the demise of the Hungarian left.

After this brief detour, I would like to return to István Hiller’s recommendations for restructuring MSZP. Before he became a politician Hiller was an associate professor of history at ELTE, where he had the reputation of being an excellent lecturer. Although one of the young Turks in MSZP, Tamás Harangozó, included Hiller in the older generation of “aunts and uncles” (bácsik és nénik), he is in fact only 49 years old. When he became one of the founders of MSZP he was 25.

In the last election Hiller won his district (Pesterzsébet and Kispest) handsomely. As I learned from this interview with him in Népszava, he always insisted on being an individual candidate even when as party chairman he needed special permission from the party to do so. He won in 2002 and 2006 and  now again, in 2014. It is likely that the party will designate him one of the deputy presidents of parliament.

How does Hiller see the party’s situation? “Those people are right who call attention to the electoral law, the restricted possibilities of the opposition to be heard, and the uneven playing field. But those who stop here and make excuses don’t really want the rebuilding of the left…. I believe that the Hungarian left didn’t understand, didn’t digest the shocking changes that Hungarian society underwent in the last five years. Some of the multitudes who live in poverty most likely voted for MSZP in the past. These people hate the present government, but they didn’t choose us but the far right. These people are not extremists, their situation is extreme.”  Thus the party should concentrate on the poorest segments of society.

Some of Hiller’s ideas echo those of Ildikó Lendvai but with a twist. For example, “one cannot blame the left-liberal side for defending democracy and democratic rights, but one must know where to say what.” It is useless to talk about the fine points of democracy in a God-forsaken, poverty-stricken village in the countryside.

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Hiller admitted that his colleagues don’t get what he is talking about. “They don’t reject [my ideas], but for the time being they don’t quite understand what I want. But I’m accustomed to fighting. What I want is the complete rebuilding of the Hungarian left. It is not enough to climb out of the hole. It is not enough to get from minus to zero. I have higher goals.”

Another similarity between the thoughts of Lendvai and Hiller is that Hiller also believes that there is something very wrong with Hungarian politics altogether. He specifically talked about the divisiveness that exists in Hungarian society. As Sándor Csányi, CEO of the largest Hungarian bank OTP, said, this divisiveness has become an impediment to economic competitiveness. “We must change our whole political culture.”

Hiller is, of course, most concerned with restructuring the left. He offered some specific proposals.  He would concentrate on “internal structure” and “communication.” When it comes to changing the internal structure of the party, he would use local self-governments as the basis of the party structure. “This is what I’m trying to convince my colleagues of.” According to him, the party should concentrate on micro-communities. “We should reconstruct our organizational model based on the municipalities.” The party bigwigs, however, don’t cherish the idea of shifting the focus of decision-making away from the center.

Finally, Hiller echoes Lendvai’s ideas about a social democratic network. The next three years should be spent moving the focal point from the center to the 3,000-some municipalities. Every village should have at least one party member or sympathizer who can help build the network that would cover the whole country. He ended the interview by saying that he will share his ideas with the party and with the public as well. He knows that it will be difficult to change, but without change there can be no renewal and reconstruction.