The Hungarian Guard: a press conference, an opinion poll, and Fidesz strategy

This morning, at the invitation of Ibolya Dávid, head of the MDF (Magyar Demokrata Fórum), the five party leaders were scheduled to give a joint press conference before an international audience, including ambassadors and foreign news agencies. Only three party leaders appeared. Conspicuously missing were Viktor Orbán, head of the Fidesz, and Zsolt Semjén, head of the KDNP (Christian Democratic Party). They sent their underlings.

I haven’t been able to get the full text of Prime Minister Gyurcsány’s speech, but from what I read about it in the papers, it was hard hitting. For instance, Gyurcsány gave several examples of the cooperation between the Fidesz and the far right, including Viktor Orbán’s praise for the openly antisemitic weekly, the Magyar Demokrata. Gyurcsány made no secret of his conviction that the Hungarian Guard is the creation of neo-Nazis and promised to change the civil code in order to be able to combat the forces of the extreme right.

Tibor Navracsics represented the Fidesz, and soon enough the "international press conference" was more like a brawl. Navracsics attacked the prime minister: "How does he dare to insinuate that the Fidesz wants to establish a Nazi regime in Hungary and how does he dare to call the whole political right fascist?" Well, this is not what Gyurcsány said, but this is how it was interpreted. Navracsics further accused the government of "playing the Jewish card" for political purposes. However, he argued, this "Jewish card" didn’t work last spring and it will not in the future either. (I must admit, I have no idea what event last spring Navracsics was referring to.) Navracsics wouldn’t distance his party from the Jobbik or the Guard, although he admitted that the Guard’s appearance is "bad for Hungary." He reiterated the party line–that Gyurcsány overstates the case, creating hysteria at home and abroad.

Then came an interesting sideshow. Mátyás Eörsi, head of the SZDSZ caucus, which, after all, is the coalition partner of the MSZP, announced that there is no fascist danger in Hungary. This had to be music to the ears of Péter Harrach, who represented the Christian Democrats. Eörsi kept emphasizing that, unlike the other East European countries, there is no extremist party in the Hungarian parliament. Eörsi repeated SZDSZ party chairman János Kóka’s offer that if the Fidesz were to break all ties to the Jobbik, the SZDSZ would cooperate with the Fidesz in certain local councils if they needed extra votes. Navracsics had his answer ready: if the SZDSZ breaks with the MSZP, the Fidesz will help to create a new coalition. So the whole thing was a travesty. Needless to say, there was no joint declaration as promised.

The head of the Jobbik got his cue from Navracsics. Gábor Vona wants to sue the government for calling them Nazis. Vona also wants to have a debate with Gyurcsány. Well, that would an interesting spectacle. Gyurcsány is a formidable debater; he demolished Viktor Orbán, and Orbán is a lot sharper and more eloquent than Gábor Vona. Not that anything of the sort will ever occur.

A couple of related points here that I think are more important than the day’s main event. Medián’s latest public opinion poll regarding people’s attitude toward the Hungarian Guard is fascinating. Sixty percent of those questioned said that the Fidesz should condemn the Hungarian Guard and distance itself from the Jobbik. Fifty percent of the adult population thinks that President Sólyom should do the same. Thirty percent would ban the Guard outright. Another thirty percent would use political means to isolate it. Twenty-nine percent would ignore them, and nine percent would actively support the guard. A few days ago I estimated the far right in Hungary at about ten percent of the adult population. It seems that I was pretty close.

My other comment concerns Mátyás Eörsi’s rather unfortunate role at this press conference and afterwards in an interview with Olga Kálmán, the ATV’s reporter (Egyenes beszéd = Straight Talk). He tried to defend his position by saying that he is "very proud of the Hungarian people" who were "so wise" as to exclude the extreme right (MIÉP and later the Jobbik) from parliamentary representation. But let’s review the facts. In 1998 the MIÉP received 248,901 votes, which constituted 5.47% of the total. Thus, the MIÉP managed to pass the minimum 5% requirement for parliamentary representation. In 2002, they didn’t. But not, as I mentioned in a previous post, because the Hungarian people were so wise. The MIÉP received only 3,575 fewer votes than four years before. Pretty steady following, I would say. However, they didn’t manage to get 5% of the votes (only 4.37%) because voter participation was much higher than in 1998. It is true that by 2006 the joint MIÉP/Jobbik joint ticket received only 119,007 votes (2.2%). Where did they rest of those far-right voters disappear? Of course, they didn’t disappear: they voted for the Fidesz, which by then was far more radical than four years earlier and therefore more to the far-right voters’ liking.

And here’s an interesting conclusion that can be drawn from these numbers. If Medián’s poll is correct and about 10 percent of the Hungarian voters would support the Guard, then the best performance of the MIÉP at approximately at 5 percent doesn’t recognize the full strength of the extreme right within the population. Therefore, those people who don’t quite understand why the Fidesz sticks by the Jobbik, or rather why it doesn’t condemn the far right, haven’t thought the whole thing through. They keep talking about 2 percent of the votes. They argue that losing 2 percent is nothing if the party at the same time loses more than that from the moderate right. Obviously, these people are wrong. The Fidesz knows what it’s doing: 10 percent of the votes is serious stuff. They must not alienate that many voters. Winning or losing could easily depend on them.