MSZP

Potpourri: shifting public mood, protest vote, continued attack on the U.S.

Well, in the two days I spent in Switzerland (alas, virtually), a lot of things happened in Hungary. Since I found it difficult to choose a single topic, today’s post will be somewhat scattershot.

Yesterday we got the first public opinion poll since the unrest caused initially by the planned introduction of an internet tax and later by the corruption cases that surfaced at NAV. The frustration vented at the three large demonstrations that took place over the past two weeks went far beyond these issues, however. The participants seemed to have had enough of the whole political system that Viktor Orbán has been systematically building since 2010.

Of course, we will have to wait for a few more polling results to know whether Nézőpont Intézet, a pro-Fidesz company, is correct in its assessment. A few years ago they were utterly unreliable, but recently their results have been quite accurate. So, what’s the word? It looks as if Fidesz has lost some of its supporters. As Gábor Török, a political scientist who is famous for being noncommittal, noted on his Facebook page, this is the first time since June 2012 that Fidesz’s support in the adult population dropped below 30%. Just between October 14-17 and November 3-7 Fidesz lost 3%, about a tenth of its supporters. Most opposition parties had gains, including Jobbik and DK. MSZP by contrast seems to be in worse shape than before. Among eligible voters the socialists are at 7% while their arch rival, the Demokratikus Koalíció, is at 6%. MSZP’s situation is even worse when it comes to “potential voters,” i.e. people who indicate that they would go and vote if elections were held next Sunday. Here DK would garner 11% of the votes while MSZP would get only 9%. DK doubled its support in the last few months while the socialists are working hard at obliterating themselves. The graph below clearly shows clearly the trends in the last four and a half years.

Source Origo / Nézőpont Intézet

Source Origo / Nézőpont Intézet

Talking about parties, Jobbik had a huge success in Ózd, a kind of Hungarian Detroit, except that Ózd in the socialist period became a center of iron smelting. After the change of regime the coke works became less profitable and many folks lost their jobs. The people of Ózd were victims of the Kádár regime’s forced industrialization that in the new competitive environment was bound to fail.

Ózd was a solidly socialist city until 2010, when Pál Fürjes (Fidesz-KDNP) was elected mayor and the city council had 9 Fidesz members out of 14. MSZP had to be satisfied with one lone seat. The desperate inhabitants of the town undoubtedly hoped that a Fidesz administration would be able the reverse the city’s downward spiral. They were disappointed. Nothing changed. In addition, people noticed with dismay that the new Fidesz administration was “arrogant, condescending and corrupt.” The locals could hardly wait to get rid of Fürjes and his friends. The DK-MSZP candidate was new with little political experience and since Jobbik was strong in town, even the DK-MSZP supporters saw little chance of winning against Fürjes. And indeed, a 27-year-old Jobbik candidate of Polish origin, Dávid Janiczak, won with a margin of 66 votes.

But no Fidesz candidate can stomach defeat after having been in office for a while. In several places losers insisted on annulling the results. In two Budapest districts their efforts failed, but in the case of Ózd, where the case went all the way to the Debrecen Appellate Court, a new election had to be held. As you will see from the results, the people of Ózd revolted. One woman told Népszabadság that in October she did not bother to vote because her feet hurt but this time she would have crawled on all fours to vote for Fürjes’s opponent. The inhabitants found Fürjes’s behavior unacceptable and wanted to “punish him.” Well, they did. First of all, they went out to vote in record numbers. While in October only 10,927 people voted, in November the number was 15,982. While in October Janiczak received 4,214 votes, in November he more than doubled that result, with 10,299 votes. Fürjes got only a few dozen extra votes. The most remarkable aspect of the Ózd situation is that while the DK-MSZP candidate in October received 2,238 votes, in November he got only 520. Even people on the left were so determined that the Fidesz mayor not be reelected that they voted for the Jobbik candidate who had a real chance. In brief, it was a protest vote.

Anyone who would like portray the Ózd results as the beginning of an era of Jobbik dominance in Hungarian politics is wrong. This was a unique situation that was created by the usual Fidesz insatiability. Fidesz politicians cannot bear losing. Moreover, they have the feeling that the whole country should be theirs. They are not satisfied until every hamlet, every position everywhere is in their hands.

Fidesz likes to frighten the West with the specter of Jobbik. The usual mantra is: “Don’t criticize the present government and Fidesz because we are the guarantee that the far-right Jobbik will not swallow up the whole country.” This time too a so-called political scientist of the by now notorious Századvég foundation wrote in his blog: “Telegram to America: Ózd.” In plain English, “Goodfriend et al., get off your high horses. You bother about such trifling matters as corruption at the tax authority when we are the bulwark that holds back the far right. You see what you did? The Jobbik revolt in Ózd resulted from your high-handed behavior.” Of course, this is all nonsense. The people of Ózd said that they had had enough of  both MSZP and Fidesz. Let’s see what Jobbik can do. Not all these voters hold  far-right views and not all are racists. They are just fed up. As for how much the Jobbik mayor will be able to achieve, I fear not much even if he is a talented politician with full of good intentions. In the council there is still a solid Fidesz majority, and we know what Fidesz politicians do in such cases. We saw four years of struggle in Esztergom between a Fidesz-majority council and an independent mayor who defeated the Fidesz candidate in 2006. In District XV, where a DK man won this year, the Fidesz majority has already boycotted council meetings, preventing the election of deputy mayors. They will try their best to prevent the DK mayor from actually running the district. Most likely something like that will also happen in Ózd. The last thing that poor city needs.

Finally, the Orbán government’s attacks on the United States continue. In fact, the volume has been turned up somewhat. According to Antal Rogán, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, M. André Goodfriend, U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest, is “not a truthful man” (nem szavahihető). Even the honey-tongued Zoltán Kovács, one of the many government spokesmen, couldn’t quite manage to explain today that “not truthful” means anything other than “not truthful.”

Then there is the parliamentary committee on national security whose Fidesz majority decided last week to ask André Goodfriend to appear before them. The MSZP chairman had such serious doubts about the advisability of such a move that he refused to extend the “invitation.” Well, the deputy chair, Szilárd Németh, the one I described as a perfect candidate for a bouncer in a shady part of town, decided to go ahead anyway.

But the funniest part of the American-Hungarian tug-of-war was Ildikó Vida’s visit to the U.S. Embassy yesterday. Vida, head of the Hungarian tax authority, is one of the six Hungarians who cannot enter the United States because of their possible involvement in corrupt practices in connection with American firms doing business in Hungary. Vida, accompanied by her lawyer and a reporter and cameraman from HírTV, showed up at the U.S. Embassy unannounced and uninvited. It just happened that Goodfriend was going out for a walk when he was accosted by Vida and her lawyer. The encounter is the object of great hilarity on the internet, especially since Hungarians learned that the almighty head of the tax authority does not know a word of English.

I'm saying it slowly so even Ildikó Vida would understand it: cheers

I’m saying it slowly so even Ildikó Vida would understand it: cheers

In any case, eventually Vida and her lawyer had a fairly lengthy discussion with Goodfriend, during which Vida failed to learn anything new. Afterwards, she said that she considers the chargé totally ignorant of the details of her arduous work uncovering tax corruption. She also announced that she will force the issue by applying for a visa to the United States. Today Vida’s lawyer, Barnabás Futó, who is described as “the Fidesz-mafia’s well-known lawyer,” claimed on Olga Kálmán’s Egyenes beszéd (ATV) that “the American chargé informed him that he had received documents from András Horváth,” the whistleblower who first called attention to the highly irregular practices at NAV. Horváth, who was watching the program, immediately phoned in and announced that he had never met André Goodfriend. After this, however, he said he will have to meet the American diplomat in person to find out what transpired in his meeting with Vida and her lawyer. Perhaps the reason for the misunderstanding was Vida’s and Futó’s lack of language skills.

A watershed? Did Hungarian society awaken as some people think?

Most analysts agree that Viktor Orbán made a terrible political mistake when he consented to the idea of taxing Internet usage. Yet for the time being it looks as if the government will not take the proposal off the table. Observers are pretty well convinced that if the government had retreated at the first sign of serious opposition, the opportunity wouldn’t have arisen to forge a wide coalition of forces that by now can be viewed as a serious political opposition not only to the Internet tax but to the whole regime.

Perhaps one of the best descriptions of the feeling after yesterday’s enormous demonstration came from András Jámbor, a blogger and a participant in the demonstration, who said: “The Orbán regime did not fall last night and it is possible that it won’t for some time, but something very important happened yesterday: we conquered the cynicism and apathy around us, and the feeling that ‘it can’t be otherwise.’ We stood up for our own affairs…. Yesterday we won.” I think these words should be taken seriously.

I’d bet that this young man, after yesterday’s demonstration, felt something like the students did in October 1956 after they returned home from Kossuth tér–a distinct sense that from here on nothing will be the same. Even if the revolution failed, the events of that autumn day showed the participants that they were no longer powerless. I’m also sure that participants in the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs felt the same way: they were witnesses to the beginning of a new era. Yes, something changed yesterday, but it looks that members of the Hungarian government haven’t taken notice yet. Otherwise they wouldn’t insist on going ahead with the tax.

The man who announced the government’s resolve was Szilárd Németh, a long-time Fidesz member of parliament and, more recently, commissioner in charge of the successful campaign for utility price decreases. Németh began his career as a school librarian, although I can better imagine him as a bouncer in front of a nightclub in some less than reputable district of Budapest. I assume that he got the job of selling the Internet tax because of his great success with the utility rate campaign, which increased public support for the government from 17% to over 40%.

Some people are puzzled about Viktor Orbán’s absence and why he picked this particular time to visit his oldest daughter in Switzerland. After all, it was during his absence that the somewhat belated budget proposal was introduced in parliament. Even before we learned about the numerous new taxes included in the proposed budget, there was widespread fear that  a new austerity program was waiting for the no longer unsuspecting Hungarian public. Did he want to run away from the upcoming storm? Perhaps. However, those who naively think that the chaos in Budapest is due to the prime minister’s absence are wrong. Németh this morning spoke in Orbán’s name.

The two massive demonstrations in three days are hard to ignore or explain away. However, the delusional members of the administration convinced themselves that the demonstrations were actually organized by the opposition parties who misled 100,000 people into staging a political attack against the government. Government politicians by now really seem to believe their own propaganda about the unity of the nation and support for the government by every true Hungarian. The people out on the streets had to be misled, pure and simple. By the end of his interview Németh accused Ferenc Gyurcsány of being behind the plot. As critics of the opposition parties were quick  to note: wouldn’t it be nice if these parties could actually organize such huge crowds.

Zoltán Lakner, one of the few talented political analysts in Hungary, pointed out that by virtue of the government itself admitting that the demonstrations were political in nature, it created a huge political conflict out of a simple tax question. Another observer, Zoltán Somogyi, reminded us that “one prime minister had to resign because of a 300-forint co-pay, another will soon follow him because of a 700-forint” Internet tax. Of course, he was referrring to Ferenc Gyurcsány. Other political scientists are also convinced that if Fidesz does not change tactics, a political avalanche will follow. Even Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, a fierce defender of the Orbán government and CEO of Nézőpont Intézet, admitted that the demonstrations are serious warnings to the government and that even the stability created by the three victorious elections may not be enough to combat the political problem Viktor Orbán is facing.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the opposition parties’ position vis-à-vis this civic Facebook-organized movement. Before the Sunday demonstration, DK was planning a demonstration in front of NAV headquarters, the tax office, for Monday. Of course, this demonstration had nothing to do with the Internet tax but rather with the alleged corruption charges leveled against the office. Once the demonstration took place on Sunday, DK cancelled the event because they did not want to interfere in any way with a most likely much larger and more important demonstration on Tuesday. The party urged its members and supporters to join the planned demonstration. Együtt-PM and LMP did the same. MSZP said nothing.

Last night, after the official demonstration was over, about 2,000 people went to Kossuth tér in front of Parliament where they demanded that the EU flag be displayed. In the past both the Hungarian and the EU flags were displayed until László Kövér ordered that the EU flag be removed. He discovered that it is not compulsory to fly the EU flag on member states’ parliament buildings. That had to be a joyful discovery for the man who obviously hates the European Union through and through.

So, there was the crowd demanding the flag, but there was no way to force the people inside to oblige. At that point three women appeared in one of the windows with two EU flags. The reaction was stupendous. Cheers went up and most people recognized that one of the women was Ágnes Kunhalmi, an MSZP member of parliament and chair of MSZP in Budapest. The other two were also members of MSZP, Anita Heriges, and Ildikó Borbély. They waved the flags to the cheering crowd. It was a gesture that was highly appreciated. Party members and demonstrating civilians worked together for a brief moment to the satisfaction of both.

Source: Népszabadság / Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján

Source: Népszabadság / Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján

What was the official MSZP reaction to this gesture? Zoltán Gőgös, a member of parliament and an expert on agricultural matters, announced today at a press conference that although MSZP sympathizes with the organizers of the demonstrations, the party as such will not support them in any way.  He singled out  Ágnes Kunhalmi, who according to him did not wave the EU flag as a campaign gesture but simply responded to the request of the demonstrators. Of course, the opposition parties must be very careful not to give the impression that they in any way want to influence or lead the civilians, but it is the greatest folly to distance themselves officially.

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.

Post mortem: election results of the Hungarian municipal elections

Now that I’ve had a good night sleep and listened again to all the speeches by the various party leaders, I came to the conclusion that there are two points on which everybody agrees. One, that Lajos Bokros, the candidate of the united democratic opposition, did extremely well and, two, that the greatest loser in these elections was András Schiffer’s LMP.

So, let’s first talk about the mayoralty race in Budapest. We all know the handicaps Bokros had to overcome. Months of indecision, constant bickering, especially between the twin parties Együtt and PM, and only two weeks of campaigning. I think most people were prepared for a complete fiasco. Four years ago the socialist candidate received 29.47% of the votes but, the analysts predicted, Bokros who claims to be a liberal conservative will receive even less support. Behold, he got 36% of the popular vote. As Bokros likes to say, only 13% less than the victorious István Tarlós who was reelected with 49% of the votes as opposed to his 2010 achievement of 53.37%.

As for the LMP loss, we should keep in mind that LMP’s strength is confined to Budapest. To give some idea of what has happened to LMP in Budapest over the last four years, in 2010 Benedek Jávor, LMP’s mayoral candidate, received 9.9% of the votes. (Jávor since left LMP and joined PM. He is today Együtt-PM’s representative to the European Parliament.) This year’s LMP candidate, Antal Csárdi, received only 5.69% of the votes. I suspect that LMP lost its appeal among voters who came to the conclusion that a tiny party’s lonely fight against the Fidesz colossus is hopeless and perhaps even counterproductive.

Jobbik’s candidate, Gábor Staudt, received the same percentage of votes in both 2010 and 2014, around 7%.  The liberals’ candidate, Zoltán Bodnár, received 2.1% of the votes.

Tarlós’s decrease in support and the surprisingly strong showing of Bokros should give the Fidesz leadership pause, warns even the pro-government Válasz. Árpád W. Tóta, a sharp-tongued and talented journalist, approaches the same topic from the point of view of the opposition. He takes issue with Viktor Orbán’s claim that there is unprecedented unity among Hungarians. In Budapest one-third of 41% of the Budapest adult citizens voted for Lajos Bokros, “whose middle name is Package,” referring to the extremely strict austerity program Bokros introduced as minister of finance. Therefore, he argues, “there must be considerable bitterness” in the electorate for them to vote for Bokros.

onkormanyzati valasztasok

Just as predicted, Jobbik did well. The party’s mayoral candidates received about 100,000 more votes than four years ago. In 2010 the party’s candidates won in three smaller towns but in the last four years they added a few more larger villages, mostly in the northeast corner of the country. After these elections the party has more members in the city/town/county councils than ever before. Moreover, the party’s popularity is no longer confined to its former stronghold in the poorest districts of the country. Jobbik also did quite well in Transdanubia. For example, in Somogy County four years ago Jobbik received 9.83% of the votes while this year it got 19.34%. The situation was similar in Győr-Moson-Sopron County, which is considered to be a well-off district due to a number of large foreign-owned factories.

Finally, here are some general observations and comments. Voter participation has been steadily declining in Hungary ever since 2006. As Political Capital, a think tank, observed, Fidesz’s victories are due solely to the ineptitude of the opposition and voter apathy. Fidesz keeps winning while steadily losing voters. Although the opposition in Budapest didn’t do as well as they had hoped, Fidesz did lose two districts, XIV and XV, in addition to two “towns of county rank” (megyei jogú város). Political Capital published a long list of the towns where votes for Fidesz mayors dropped considerably. Take, for instance, my own hometown, Pécs, where Zsolt Páva won 68.59% of the votes in 2010 but this time got only 39.28%. Admittedly this was the largest drop in popularity but Kecskemét, the home of the Mercedes-Benz factory, was not far behind (79.12% versus 59.31%). Yet the democratic parties are incapable of enlarging their voting base.

There are a few success stories in the otherwise grim picture of the left-liberal parties. MSZP improved its showing in places it won in both 2010 and 2014–three Budapest districts and Szeged. For example, in Szeged László Botka (MSZP) received 52.51% of the votes and his Fidesz opponent 45.84% in 2010; this year Botka got 58.21% while his “independent” opponent with Fidesz backing received only 36.88% of the votes. I might add that while after 2010 Botka had to work with a Fidesz-majority city council of 28, this year there is a clear MSZP-DK-Együtt-PM majority. So, it seems that joint political action coupled with good past performance still works.

MSZP remains the strongest of the three opposition parties, followed by DK and Együtt-PM, but the differences between MSZP and DK are not that great. For example, in Budapest in districts I , XII, and XXIII, DK did better than MSZP, and in several others the differences were minuscule. The situation was the same in some of the larger cities, for example in Debrecen and Nagykanizsa where DK received more votes than MSZP or in Zalaegerszeg where they were neck to neck. So, it’s no wonder that Ferenc Gyurcsány seems to be satisfied overall, although he is disappointed that DK won only one district mayoralty in Budapest instead of the two they had hoped for.

I’m pretty sure that we will spend a great deal more time on the repercussions of the elections and on the intra-party struggles that most likely will follow. The present MSZP leadership seems to be adamant about following LMP’s lead and going it alone against the Fidesz machinery. I suspect, however, that not everybody will follow Tóbiás and the hardliners. Gyurcsány last night announced that a new union party should be open to every democrat, from Gábor Demszky to Lajos Bokros and Ági Kunhalmi! This morning on ATV’s Start Kunhalmi (MSZP) very cleverly deflected the question about her future political plans.

The Budapest elections and politics of the democratic opposition

The appearance of Lajos Bokros as the official candidate of DK, Együtt, and MSZP of Budapest under the leadership of Ágnes Kunhalmi has redrawn the political landscape on the left, despite protestations to the contrary. Ágnes Kunhalmi can send the message to Magyar Nemzet, the paper that said she would decamp to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció after the election, that “I love my party,” but the fact remains that she and the people around her decided to defy the central leadership of the socialist party. And that might have serious repercussions in the future.

Ágnes Kunhalmi is a relative newcomer on the political scene, having joined MSZP only in 2006. Until 2010 she served as a member of the Budapest City Council. In 2010, because of the female quota, she was chosen to be a member of the top party leadership. From there on she was the face of MSZP on matters of education. Her day arrived during the 2014 national election when, as a last-minute replacement candidate in the 15th electoral district, she lost the election by only 56 votes. This performance showed that Ágnes Kunhalmi is someone to reckon with inside the party.

Since I know next to nothing about the internal workings of the socialist party, I have no idea how this sudden fame of Ágnes Kunhalmi was received by the top leadership. I’m almost certain, however, that the Budapest MSZP leaders’ decision to endorse Lajos Bokros and thereby go against the wishes of József Tóbiás, the new party chairman, couldn’t have gone over too well. Although Tóbiás keeps repeating that local politics should be left to the local party leadership, I’m sure that this open defiance didn’t endear Kunhalmi to the more leftist leaders of MSZP.

But the real bone of contention, in my opinion, is not so much Lajos Bokros and his conservatism as it is Ferenc Gyurcsány, who allegedly masterminded the retirement of Ferenc Falus and secured the democratic parties’ support for Lajos Bokros. Thus, I suspect, in the eyes of József Tóbiás and his men Ágnes Kunhalmi is a traitor to the socialist cause not because she decided to stand behind Bokros but because she sided with Ferenc Gyurcsány. MSZP leaders suspect, not without reason, that Gyurcsány wants to gobble up MSZP. And the other smaller parties on the left are convinced that he wants to amalgamate them into one large “union party,” which would mean their disappearance.

Ferenc Gyurcsány and Ágnes Kunhalmi

Ferenc Gyurcsány and Ágnes Kunhalmi

One doesn’t have to be an eagle-eyed political scientist to come to that conclusion: Gyurcsány makes no secret of his plans. In fact, he repeats on every possible occasion that, given the political landscape and the current electoral law, there is no hope of winning an election against Viktor Orbán without one large party that includes all anti-Orbán forces. Although there are people, for example Gábor Demszky, who believe that even the formation of such a single party can’t dislodge Viktor Orbán’s mafia state, it looks as if Gyurcsány still believes that one “does not have to stage a revolution, one just has to go and vote.”

What are the chances of forming one big democratic umbrella party in Hungary? At the moment nil, but Gyurcsány is thinking long-term. If I understand him correctly, he would like to see an inclusive democratic party established well ahead of the next national election in 2018. Can it be done? At the moment there are only a handful people who think so, but I would wait until we learn the results of the upcoming municipal elections. Not that I anticipate some spectacular victory or even progress as far as the fortunes of the democratic opposition are concerned, but after the elections we will be able to weigh the relative strength of the different democratic parties. Most observers are convinced that Együtt-PM, together and separately, has a very short life expectancy. MSZP has been losing voters since the national election in April. If, however, DK repeats its outstanding performance in the European Parliament election, Gyurcsány may be able to expand his base among the democratic forces.

One of the people who believes that “Gyurcsány has a chance” is Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist and a good political analyst. He thinks that deep down the ordinary MSZP membership believes that it is only Gyurcsány who can save the party, and Gyurcsány, who understands the thinking of members of the party’s lower echelon, makes sure not to alienate them. In fact, a fair number of these people have already deserted MSZP in favor of DK. Aczél wouldn’t be surprised if some “big fish” was also caught by Gyurcsány. He wouldn’t be surprised if both Kunhalmi and Bokros eventually ended up in DK. After all, Gyurcsány’s party is already an interesting political mix: former members of MSZP, SZDSZ, MDF, and previously unaffiliated voters who are against Orbán’s mafia state.

Perhaps, but at the moment DK is still a very small party. Only the collapse of MSZP and the disappearance of the other two small parties would give Gyurcsány a chance to create the kind of party he has been envisioning ever since 2006.

Gábor Demszky on the illegitimacy of the Orbán regime and on civil disobedience

With municipal elections to be held this Sunday, I decided to devote a post to the political reactivation of Gábor Demszky, lord mayor of Budapest between 1990 and 2010.

After Demszky’s fifth term ended, he not only left political life, he left the country. Prominent members of former administrations learned soon after the 2010 election that avenues for gainful employment in the public sector were blocked. Demszky therefore applied for grants and scholarships abroad and spent three and a half years in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. Once he returned, he decided to share his opinions on the present state of politics in the country and in the city.

In early August, when Lajos Bokros was just one of the many candidates for the mayoralty of Budapest, Demszky announced that he would support him since he considered Bokros the best person for the job. Then in Élet és Irodalom he gave a long interview to Eszter Rádai just a couple of days before the democratic parties decided on Bokros as their candidate instead of their original choice, Ferenc Falus. Here he not only talked about why he considers Bokros to be the best man for the job, he also elaborated on the political importance of the mayor of the capital city in the regime change that will eventually take place. In addition, he talked about his conviction that the present regime can be removed only through civil disobedience. Finally, he did not hide his contempt for most of the opposition parties.

So, where should we start? In Demszky’s opinion, the candidate for the job of lord mayor of Budapest must not promise much to the electorate because under the circumstances the city is entirely at the mercy of the central government. The situation was also bad during the first Orbán government between 1998 and 2002, but then at least the city still had some assets. By now, the city has been stripped of all its former wealth as well as its autonomy. What we have now, instead of self-government, is “a modernized form of the council system” that existed in the Kádár regime.

Yet the role of the mayor of Budapest is an important one because the post can be used as a bully pulpit, which gives the mayor an opportunity to represent the opposition toward the central government. He will have to act as a kind of ombudsman who stands up for the interests not only of the inhabitants of Budapest but of all citizens. The mayor of Budapest can have a powerful voice, which gives the man who holds the position political leverage. If the next mayor is a spokesman for the opposition, he might be able to challenge Viktor Orbán for the premiership four years later. And it is only Lajos Bokros who would be able to do that. After all, he once saved the country from bankruptcy. He is an internationally known economist who is strong enough to take up the fight against the mafia state.

Lajos Bokros and Gáboe Demszky at the book launch of Hungarian Octopus, vol. 2

Lajos Bokros and Gábor Demszky at the book launch of Hungarian Octopus, vol. 2

At this point Eszter Rádai reminded Demszky that Viktor Orbán in this case would make a second Esztergom out of Budapest. Esztergom is the place where an independent mayor was chosen instead of the Fidesz candidate for mayor in 2010. The city was punished for it. Not a penny came from the central government to rescue the city that had become hopelessly indebted under Fidesz management in the previous years. Demszky’s answer was that Viktor Orbán did the same thing with Budapest between 1998 and 2002 and yet it was Budapest that won the election for the opposition in 2002. Demszky is not exaggerating. I remember vividly that Fidesz was leading all through the early hours when the votes were pouring in from outside of Budapest but then the late Budapest results started coming in and suddenly everything changed. Fidesz lost the election. Viktor Orbán certainly did not forget the disloyalty of the city.

The conversation moved on to the opposition. In Demszky’s opinion, “the opposition is an integral part of this regime” and all of its sins because it has not stood behind its twenty years of democratic achievements. Since it is not ready to take responsibility for its past, it does not have a future either. It accepts the Fidesz narrative of the “muddled twenty years of transition,” the way Viktor Orbán likes to describe the period between 1990 and 2010. This is the greatest sin a political opposition can commit in confronting a dictatorship. Giving up the praise of democracy and freedom. It denies its most important tradition, liberalism. In fact, the leaders of the opposition want to free themselves of the liberals. The opposition parties “only act as if they are the representatives of the democratic opposition while they have nothing to do with either democracy or opposition.”

Out of the five opposition parties Demszky considers three to be Fidesz appendices: Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP. I guess the relationship of Jobbik and LMP to the governing party does not need further elaboration, but I think MSZP’s inclusion in this category does. In Demszky’s opinion MSZP is not really a party of the left. It never was. The MSZP leaders united only to grab power, but once they lost it they became helpless. That leaves only two parties, Demokratikus Koalíció and Együtt-PM, that Demszky considers bona fide opposition parties. Együtt-PM is so small and weak that it cannot be taken seriously while DK will be, in his opinion, unsuccessful in the long run because it is led by Ferenc Gyurcsány, who is the most divisive politician of the opposition. Gyurcsány is correct when he emphasizes the necessity of a unified opposition party, but one needs more than that.

Those who believe that the Orbán government and its mafia state can be removed by ordinary parliamentary elections are wrong. Naturally, Demszky does not advocate the violent overthrow of the government, but he recommends civil disobedience. One should study Mahatma Gandhi as the Polish opposition did in the 1980s. One must realize that Orbán’s regime ruined the constitutional order, took away political and individual rights, and ruined democratic institutions. The present political system has thus been rendered illegitimate. One needs more than a change of government; just as after Kádár, Hungary needs a regime change.

Demszky admits that at present very few people are ready to stand against the regime openly, but he is convinced that the situation will get to the point that people in large numbers will be ready to resort to civil disobedience. Poverty will only grow and, although at present there are no political prisoners, there will be. Dissatisfaction with the regime will grow. Demszky excludes the possibility of Fidesz’s tight ranks breaking up under the weight of outside pressure: “what holds these people together is power and fear because they know that they could lose everything. They put all their money on one card.”

I think most of us can agree with Gábor Demszky–and Bálint Magyar–that the opposition must concentrate on regime change because by now Viktor Orbán’s system has solidified into a full-fledged regime that Magyar calls a post-communist mafia state. Many of Hungarian Spectrum‘s readers, to judge from the comments, have a very low opinion of MSZP and few believe in its survival. However, when it comes to Lajos Bokros’s role in the regime change, few would bet on him as a contender to replace Viktor Orbán as prime minister of Hungary. Not because he would not be an outstanding prime minister but because a political career cannot be built without a viable political party and Bokros at least at this moment does not have such a party behind him.

But when it comes to Demszky’s main thesis about the illegitimacy of this government and Orbán’s state he is certainly right. The opposition forces should pay serious attention to this fact. As long as they collaborate with the government and with Fidesz in parliament they only help to ensure the survival of the regime.