political acumen

“The beginning of a new era” as Gordon Bajnai’s E14 envisions it

Yesterday was highly anticipated, not only in opposition circles but also among government officials and Fidesz politicians. Gordon Bajnai was to deliver a speech he called “Evaluation of the Orbán Government.” Actually, it was more than that. I would call it an opening bid to become the next prime minister of Hungary.

A blog writer with whom I had been unfamiliar until now considers Bajnai a bad speaker and charged the organizers with placing two even worse orators ahead of him so that Bajnai would look good: Péter Juhász of Milla and Péter Kónya of Solidarity (Szolidaritás).

Juhász led off. A friend of mine who was present thought he gave a splendid speech. Well, the audience didn’t seem to think so. Moreover, I suspect that there weren’t too many Milla supporters present in the rather large audience because Juhász’s appearance didn’t meet with much enthusiasm. The applause wasn’t exactly thunderous.

Several times I’ve expressed my doubts about Bajnai’s decision to join forces with Juhász because I consider him someone whose political acumen is sadly lacking and because it is hard to judge the size of the electorate that stands behind him. I was often disappointed in his interviews that showed a total lack of political finesse and no grasp of the present situation or the rules of modern democracy. One cannot achieve anything in politics by fueling the citizens’ hatred of politics and politicians.

Now to my reaction to his speech yesterday. First, I disagree with Juhász’s contention that in the past twenty years “the powers-that-be excluded people either because they were right-leaning or left-wingers; or because they were liberals, or because they were independent ‘civilians’; or because they were poor, Gypsies, Jews, gays, disabled, or homeless.”  Well, I don’t remember any governments actually excluding these people before 2010, but obviously Juhász and I see the world differently.

I also noticed that Juhász does not always use the right words when describing certain political concepts. For example, he claims that “we want only one thing: we should have representation. We want to be part of Hungary as simple citizens.”  For Pete’s sake, were the simple citizens disenfranchised in Hungary in the last twenty years? Didn’t they have representation?

Or here is another expression used incorrectly in the context of Hungarian politics. According to Juhász “politics is too important a thing to leave it to professional politicians.” Juhász used the expression “megélhetési politikusok”  (megélhetés means livelihood), coined by an MDF politician. The original usage  referred to a former MDF member who changed party affiliation during the first Orbán government in order to become a member of the cabinet. So, he left his convictions behind to be promoted and remain part of the governing elite. He did it for his material and professional benefit. This is not what Juhász had in mind.

One could also argue with the generalization that all governments since 1990 were “sly, contradicting themselves, liars who took us for fools.” These descriptions fit the present government better than any others before. This kind of generalization is good for only one thing: to shake the confidence of the population in democracy. If all governments in the last twenty-two years were rotten to the core, what is the likelihood that this crowd will be drastically different? Because Péter Juhász says so?

And finally, Juhász said a few words about MSZP, alluding to the fact that there are voices within the party that mistakenly believe they can win the elections alone. There is quite a bit of truth in that, although the group within the party that advocates cooperation is growing. But it is clear that the party leadership would like MSZP to be the leading force in forging that cooperation. I find that desire quite natural. After all, MSZP is the largest party and the only one with a nationwide political machine. But to say, as Juhász says, that “the socialists traditionally don’t like coalition governments and power sharing” is outright wrong. I don’t know whether anyone read Juhász’s text before he delivered it, but you don’t have to be a political wizard to know that all the governments in which the socialists participated since 1994 were coalition governments. Even between 1994 and 1998 when the socialists had an absolute majority in parliament and didn’t really need SZDSZ in order to govern, Gyula Horn asked the liberals to join his government.

Péter Kónya of Solidarity was the second speaker. It seems that perhaps the majority of the audience came from the ranks of Solidarity, which is a union-based organization. As a former union leader himself, Kónya concentrated on labor demands but always added that the changes employees would like to see depend on economic performance. He listed very specific issues the next government should concentrate on: taxation, minimum wages, new labor laws, unemployment insurance, programs for the Roma, and the right to strike, which has been greatly circumscribed.

And then came Gordon Bajnai. Only a few days ago the organizers of the phony civic organization that is responsible for the 200 million forint anti-Bajnai-Gyurcsány campaign compared Bajnai to a funeral director. Contrary to that image, Bajnai is becoming a good speaker, although he worked from borrowed material. His reference to Hungary not being a “normal country” was first used by Ibolya Dávid of MDF. His emphasis on “hope” reminded me of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan. His references to the half a million Hungarians who left the country and his emphasis on producing more children were obvious appeals to patriotic, perhaps right-of-center sentiments.

Here I will pick two themes from the speech. One is Bajnai’s attitude toward MSZP and the other his view of his own place in a future “togetherness.”

Bajnai seems to be convinced that the majority of currently undecided and/or disillusioned voters will never vote for MSZP. This assumption seems to me outright wrong if we believe polls that focus on the undecided voting bloc. All polls attest to the fact that the majority of the undecided voters lean toward the left and not the right. Believing, as Bajnai does, that there are at least a million people who would under no circumstances vote for MSZP is simply not warranted. So alienating MSZP in the hope of gaining millions of votes from the allegedly right-of-center voters is I think a mistake. Because I firmly believe that there is no true moderate right in Hungary. The 1.5 million Fidesz voters will never vote for E14. The undecided, if they vote at all, will vote for the left. If E14 positions itself to the right, it may end up nowhere.

If Bajnai had only claimed that MSZP at the moment doesn’t have enough voters to win the 2014 elections alone, he would have been perfectly right. But adding that “it doesn’t have enough credibility or enough expertise to govern” was an unnecessary dig if Bajnai would like to forge an alliance with MSZP.

Glorious new era /a heartforgodsglory

Glorious new era /aheartforgodsglory

The second theme that will further infuriate MSZP politicians is that Bajnai practically introduced himself as the next prime minister of Hungary. I consider this a premature announcement. At the end of the speech he switched to the first person singular and declared himself to be the leading force in the change that will be more than a change of government but the beginning of “a new era.” To this end he will “not allow any diversionary maneuvers … petty political games, positioning and selfish tactics.” He will “concentrate all his energies to organize the victims of the current regime.” And finally, he “will shape the dreams and hopes of [his] compatriots into a concrete government program.”

“Come with me, join the coalition of hope!” This is how Bajnai concluded his speech. He asked the people to join him at a mass demonstration on March 15, an idea Ferenc Gyurcsány first suggested in his speech at DK’s Second Congress on January 26. I might add that Bajnai didn’t mention the Demokratikus Koalíció at all, which might be a politically savvy move on his part, although he must know that if anyone supports his candidacy it is Ferenc Gyurcsány. One thing is sure: devoted DK supporters are already mightily offended.

MSZP supporters will be too. And if my hunch is correct, this constant harping on the bad governing of the past will not go over well. After all, Gordon Bajnai was a member of the Gyurcsány government that is now being mightily criticized by Bajnai’s associate Péter Juhász. Moreover, he was a prime minister of an MSZP-SZDSZ government that Milla’s leader considered to be as bad as the Orbán government. The difference of the last three years is “only qualitative of everything we didn’t like in the last ten or twenty years.”  And why ten years? Prior to 2002 it was better?

There are just too many contradictions that leave me uneasy about the success of the effort and the program that this odd coalition of a liberal economist and a populist non-politician with a hatred of politics can come up with.