Magyar Demokrata Fórum

The factious Hungarian opposition

Yesterday by 11 a.m. it became clear that there was no chance of an electoral alliance between the socialists and the representatives of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Perhaps there never was because, although Attila Mesterházy only a few hours before this final meeting gave a 50-50 chance of reaching an understanding, I suspect that the decision had already been reached to reject the DK proposals.

Shortly before the meeting Mesterházy claimed that his party hadn’t formulated its position on Ferenc Gyurcsány’s participation in the campaign and his advocacy of a common party list. However, most of the DK demands eventually put forth had been known for at least a week, and I assume that the socialist leadership was fully aware that Gyurcsány’s person would be on the agenda in one way or the other.

As it turned out, DK had seven demands: (1) there should be joint MSZP-DK candidates; (2) the number of districts should be based on the principle of proportionality; (3) DK should receive nine districts, three of which should be winnable, three hopeless, and three uncertain; (4) on the list a DK candidate should occupy every eighth place, again on the basis of proportionality; (5) the person of the candidate should be decided by each party; (6) MSZP should receive the first and DK the second place on the list although if MSZP doesn’t accept this DK is ready to consider their counter-proposal;  (7) DK’s top place on the list should go to the chairman of DK. So, DK was not adamant about the second place but certainly wanted Gyurcsány to be on the best DK place whichever that would be.

MSZP wasn’t in a negotiating mood. Their demands reminded me of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia in 1914, which was formulated in such a way that the Monarchy knew that there was no way Serbia could accept it. MSZP offered four districts to DK, none of which was winnable. Instead of every eighth place on the list, MSZP was only willing to place a DK candidate in every twenty-fifth. According to electoral mathematics, the largest number of seats the opposition can win from the list is fifty, which would mean that only one or two DK candidates would receive mandates. In addition, DK couldn’t represent its own political ideas and would have to follow the MSZP-Együtt14 line. MSZP didn’t want anything to do with Gyurcsány and, when pressed, it turned out that they also didn’t want to see Ágnes Vadai, Csaba Molnár, or László Varju anywhere near the campaign. (In addition to Gyurcsány these three people represent DK in the Hungarian media.) MSZP would have veto power over any candidate put forth by DK but DK wouldn’t have the same veto power over the MSZP candidates. This was unacceptable to the DK negotiating team.

If you recall, MSZP in January was the prime proponent of joint action with all democratic parties and groups while Együtt 2014 was stepping back from close cooperation with MSZP. They were undoubtedly afraid that Attila Mesterházy was planning to seize the opportunity to lead the future coalition. E14 decided to postpone further negotiations in the hope of gathering more support. Precious months were wasted in what turned out to be a futile effort. So, came the compromise agreement of no common list but common candidates. Some politically savvy people consider the agreement a very good idea while others view it as a failure and an indication of weakness and discord.

Együtt 2014 with its 6% of the electorate came out the real winner with 31 districts. MSZP didn’t fare as well (75 districts), especially since it was the socialists’ burden to reach an understanding with the other smaller parties. Of the three parties only DK has measurable support. We are talking about 100,000-150,000 voters for DK while MSZP has about 1.2 million. If we look only at these numbers DK’s demands sound reasonable. The real aim of the opposition, however, is to convince the large block of undecided voters. We don’t know the party preferences of about 40% of the electorate. The opposition parties’ real goal is to attract this large group to their ranks.

And here the socialists and E14 are convinced that if they embrace Ferenc Gyurcsány and DK they will attract fewer people from the ranks of the undecided. József Tóbiás in an interview yesterday disclosed that the party had conducted a poll that was designed to measure the effect of cooperation between MSZP and DK. The poll revealed to the party leadership that they would lose more votes with Gyurcsány than they would gain. This finding lay behind their decision. If this poll correctly measures the effect of a joint MSZP-DK ticket, then MSZP’s decision was logical. Of course, we know how a wrongly formulated question can distort the results.

Naturally this poll reflects only the current situation. One doesn’t know how MSZP’s rather abrupt negative attitude toward the other parties and groups will affect MSZP’s standing or the electorate’s attitude toward DK. It is possible that they will consider MSZP too high-handed and uncompromising and DK an underdog. They may think that MSZP is not serious about unity, not resolute enough in its determination to unseat Viktor Orbán and Fidesz.

opinion pollOne could also ask MSZP whether the poll inquired about those possible voters who under no circumstances would vote for MSZP, because apparently they are also numerous. What about those who think of E14 as a party with no well defined political agenda? Only yesterday Szabolcs Kerék Bárczy, the last spokesman of Ibolya Dávid’s MDF, complained about Együtt 2014’s lack of political coherence. He pointed out that although E14’s avowed aim is to attract liberal conservatives, there is not one conservative in its ranks. Moreover, how can these people be attracted to a group whose members often applaud Orbán’s nationalization or who make statements against free markets and competition? Kerék Bárczy is thinking here of some people in the PM group with their decidedly leftist views of the world. Liberal conservatives, he says, will not vote for either E14 or MSZP. Because it looks as if MSZP is going to make a sharp turn to the left since some party leaders claim that MSZP’s failure stemmed from its move toward liberalism under Ferenc Gyurcsány’s chairmanship.

Kerék Bárczy doesn’t understand why MSZP nine months before the elections suddenly stiffened its attitude and refused to negotiate with anyone. He puts forward the question: what will happen if the poll numbers change as a result of these failed negotiations and a serious attempt by DK to attract more followers? What will E14 and MSZP do? Renegotiate their agreement? It will be difficult to change course without losing face.

The director of a new research institute on the history of the regime change in Hungary

Although I’m going to talk about a historical research institute today, this post is not really about history. Far from it. It is about politics. Dirty politics. About a government that wants to recast recent political events in the light of its own ideology. About the falsification of history, if you want.

What am I talking about? The Orbán government set up yet another research institute, this one under the direct control of the Office of the Prime Minister. Viktor Orbán himself chose its first director. The institute, with the cumbersome name Rendszerváltás Történetét Kutató Intézet és Archívum (Research Institute and Archives for the Study of the Regime Change), will have 20 associates and a budget of 360 million forints just for the next six months. According to some articles I read on the subject, there was only one application for the director’s position that was submitted according to specifications, that of Zoltán Bíró, a literary historian whose field of study is Endre Ady’s poetry.

Who is this man? Those who aren’t familiar with the cast of characters in the regime change or aren’t diligent readers of Magyar Hírlap or don’t watch Echo TV might never have heard his name. Zoltán Bíró likes to describe himself as “the first chairman of Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF).” Almost every article about him and his new institute describes him as such. Actually, the first chairman of MDF was József Antall, who was elected to the post in October 1989. Bíró was managing director of the party between March and October 1989.

He had another occasion to become well known in those years. In April 1988 he together with Mihály Bihari, later chief justice of the Constitutional Court, László Lengyel, economist and publicist, and Zoltán Király, a journalist, was expelled from MSZMP. The four told their sad tale in a book entitled Kizárt a párt (I was expelled from the party).

Bíró’s political views are of the far-right variety. He is also an expert on weaving elaborate conspiracy theories. He has a chip on his shoulder because after the appearance of József Antall he lost his bid for party leadership. He began circulating stories in which he intimated that perhaps József Antall “was sent by someone” and those someones might have been the communists who found in Antall a man with whom they could do business.

Contemporaries describe Bíró as a man who sowed the seeds of mistrust and later even hatred between the narodnik-populists (népi-nemzeti) and the urbanites, whom he liked to identify as Jewish intellectuals. According to Zoltán Ripp (Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990, 2006), Bíró accused them of disseminating false information about the gathering of men and women in Lakitelek, in the backyard of Sándor Lezsák, describing it as a meeting of anti-Semites. There were references to a New York Times article, but I couldn’t find it.

In any case, by 1991 Bíró left MDF and together with Imre Pozsgay, a high-level MSZMP politician, established the short-lived National Democratic Alliance. From the beginning it was clear that Bíró really didn’t want to dismantle the Hungarian communist party (MSZMP) but rather to forge an alliance between the “népi-nemzeti” members of MSZMP, like himself and Pozsgay, and the narodnik groups outside of the party that included such men as István Csurka, Sándor Lezsák, and Sándor Csoóri.

He remains a critic of the change of regime and the decision to work out the details of this new regime with all political forces, including the reform wing of MSZMP. Something went wrong, Bíró claims, and he thus rather forcefully rejects the whole period that resulted from that historic compromise.

Imre Pozsgay and Zoltán Bíró at the Convention of the National Democratic Allice, 1991 / MTI

Imre Pozsgay and Zoltán Bíró at the Convention of the National Democratic Alliance, 1991 / MTI

I suspect, therefore, that he and his colleagues in this new institute will reject the very idea of real regime change in 1990. He will most likely claim that the communists actually preserved their rule intact. I furthermore assume that this interpretation will meet with Viktor Orbán’s approval, since he often talked about the past twenty or so years as chaotic and ideologically confusing. The line between dictatorship and democracy was not clear. I’m sure he would like to have it in writing, the product of “serious” research by a “recognized” historical institute, that real regime change came only in 2010.

János Kenedi, a historian of this period and a member of the democratic opposition in the 1980s, summarized the task of the institute as “to show that Orbán’s view of the regime change is the correct one and that there was actually no regime change between 1987 and 1990.”

All that is bad enough, but according to Sándor Révész, Bíró is also no friend of western multi-party democracy. In his book entitled Saját utam (My own road), he makes that clear, expressing as well his hatred of liberals and liberalism. In 2009 in Magyar Hírlap he stated that Fidesz should even use “dictatorial instruments because one should honor and consider sacred the existence of the nation and not the doctrine of democracy and freedom.” So, concludes Révész, “the official history of the change of regime will be in the hands of someone who thinks that dictatorship is a suitable instrument in the service of the nation while democracy and freedom harms it.”

Another perfect appointment of Viktor Orbán. Another blow for historiographical integrity.