liberal wing

Ildikó Lendvai’s thoughts on the election campaign

I have not talked about Ildikó Lendvai for a long time. I don’t even know how that happened because she has been one of the most important politicians in MSZP; between 2009 and 2010 she was actually the party chairman. But she really made a name for herself as the leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation between 2002 and 2009. Moreover, this was the job that she enjoyed most during her long and distinguished career.

It is also surprising that I didn’t devote more than one longer post to Lendvai because I personally think very highly of her. I know that a lot of people wouldn’t agree with me because they consider her one of those socialist leftovers from MSZMP.  They say that she should have retired a long time ago and should have let fresh faces take over. But who can match Lendvai’s wit and way with words? Well, Lendvai herself decided not to run again, although for twelve years she was elected with an overwhelming majority in her electoral district of  Budafok-Tétény.

One thing I like about Ildikó Lendvai is her honesty. She doesn’t hide the fact that for a number of years she worked first for the Central Committee of KISZ, the socialist youth movement, and later for the Central Committee of MSZMP.  The Central Committee had a very large staff with several departments and Lendvai worked for the department of science, education, and culture. I might mention that László Kövér also worked for the Central Committee of MSZMP as a researcher in the department dealing with youth. But, as we know, Kövér is a hero of anti-communism while Lendvai is labelled a vicious censor. She was a member of the party between 1984 and 1989 but, as opposed to many others, doesn’t try to hide any of her biographical data.

Within MSZP she is in the liberal wing of the party, somewhere close to those who later formed the Demokratikus Koalíció. Her opinions are similar to those of DK politicians on many issues, including the closest and speediest cooperation between the opposition forces. Although she doesn’t openly criticize either Együtt 2014-PM or MSZP, I suspect she cannot be too happy with all the foot dragging and fighting over who the prime minister ought to be.

In any case, today Ildikó Lendvai wrote her first longer editorial about the next election. She often publishes in Galamus, usually vignettes from parliamentary debates in which she points out the low level of the exchanges and the completely meaningless answers from members of the government to important questions. But this latest writing, which appeared in Népszava, touches on the core of election strategy: what the main message, the main thrust of the election campaign should be.

The title of her piece is “The missing flag.” Because it is usually a “flag” under which people gather when they take up a cause, be it war or peace. Ferenc Rákóczi’s flag said “Pro patria et pro libertate.” The “flag” of Martin Luther King was “I have a dream.” Or, there is Obama’s “Yes, we can.” A flag represents the community, it tells us that we exist, that we are together. The Hungarian opposition, she argues, needs a “flag.”

She recalls that Elemér Hankiss, an influential sociologist in the 1980s and 1990s, recounted the well known story of the garbage can lying in the middle of the road. Most drivers try to avoid it with some difficulty; not many would actually stop and move the garbage can off to the side of the road, thereby helping others.  The one who does is the hero. Today there is a lot of talk about the “missing hero.” People wish there was one clear winner, one person who could lead the troops. But what Hungary needs today is not so much a hero as a flag.

In a sense the democratic opposition does have flags: solidarity, justice, democracy, the rule of law, the Fourth Republic. More than enough. There are programs too. So, there is the cloth and the pole but “we know from the poem of  [Dezső] Kosztolányi that the flag is not only cloth and pole because it means more than its parts.” This is typical Ildikó Lendvai, who for a while taught Hungarian literature and later was the head of a publishing company. The flag, Lendvai points out, arouses feelings in us. She is convinced that the younger generation is not looking for parties but searching for a Weltanschauung: culture, attitude, community, values.

Ildikó Lendvai at the 2010 MSZP Congress

Ildikó Lendvai at the 2010 MSZP Congress

Unfortunately in Hungary it was the extreme right that first discovered this yearning and supplied this feeling of community but, as we know all too well, these slogans are used to arouse our worst instincts. Fidesz continued Jobbik’s tradition of appealing to the senses and perfected it. Fidesz is not popular because it governs well but because it manages to inculcate the feeling of community in its followers.

So, what should the democratic opposition place on that flag under which it marches? Lendvai is aware of some of the counterarguments but suggests nonetheless putting EUROPE on that flag. The slogan could be what a well known journalist already suggested : “Orbán or Europe.” Some of her friends told her that using the European Union as a electoral slogan might be too “intellectual to Aunt Mary” for whom Europe as a symbol of democracy is far too abstract. But “Europe means free movement, the final escape from the Iron Curtain, freedom from passports and visas. It also means choice of goods on the shelves , the freedom of their children and their grandchildren. It means travel and learning.” And all the benefits of democracy translate into easily understandable concepts: the European labor code, its social net, solidarity, responsibility for each other and peaceful coexistence.

Lendvai would go so far as to collect signatures for a referendum about Hungary and Europe. I am not sure whether there is a need for such a referendum, but I agree that the election campaign should make the idea of Europe and Hungary’s place in it its centerpiece.

As for Ildikó Lendvai’s retirement, I will certainly miss her although I don’t think that this will be the last we hear from her. She will remain an astute observer of Hungarian politics.