The Hungarian coalition (MSZP and SZDSZ): a very bad marriage

The SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége) was at one point a large party with a diverse following. Although consistently liberal, early on it espoused strongly anti-communist views that appealed to a broad spectrum of Hungarians, including those who today belong to Fidesz and parties even farther to the right. After the SZDSZ agreed to form a coalition with the MSZP in 1994 (when it wasn’t necessary and only tarnished the SZDSZ in the eyes of its more conservative supporters), it lost its following. It shrank to a second-tier party, barely getting into parliament in 1998, 2002, and 2006. It is a party that does well in Budapest but barely exists outside the city limits of the capital.

The SZDSZ in many ways is an attractive party. I personally can agree with many of its ideas, but I am amazed at how little political sense the party’s current leadership has. This problem most likely goes back to the very origins of the party. The founding fathers were intellectuals who spent their time publishing samizdat literature. The Communist party leadership kept an eye on them, but I think Kádár and company didn’t consider them dangerous: the whole group consisted of about one hundred individuals, if that many. Let’s face it, the Hungarian people were quite happy with gulyas communism as long as the standard of living went up, however modestly. Their concerns were not individual freedom but personal well being. (As the Clinton campaign famously repeated, "It’s the economy, stupid.") When the opportunity came, they voted for "democracy" because they thought that democracy meant higher living standards à la Austria or Germany. The rest we know. Living standards didn’t go up, they went down, and so came disappointment and nostalgia for the good old days.

But let’s get back to our "democratic opposition," that is, the beginning of the SZDSZ. By now most of the founding fathers are gone. They left the party for one reason or another. Some because the party was too liberal, others because it wasn’t liberal enough. For a while the party was kept together by a relative newcomer to the group, Gábor Kuncze, whose sense of humor, signature bass voice, and good political sense more or less kept the party on an even keel. A few months ago Kuncze gave up the leadership of the party and the liberal caucus. Most likely in 2010 he will not even seek reelection to parliament. János Kóka, minister of economics and transport, is the leader of the party (he won by one vote over his rival, Gábor Fodor), and the new leader of the caucus is Mátyás Eörsi, who previously was best known for his interest in foreign affairs.

With the change of leadership the SZDSZ immediately demanded a rewriting of the coalition agreement. By now it is hard to remember what they wanted or what they achieved, but at the end it was much ado about nothing. However, it kept the media busy for a while and gave the impression of governmental instability. Then came the announcement that Kóka will resign his ministerial post in December in order to devote his full attention to his party. To announce someone’s resignation months in advance doesn’t seem to make much sense, but lately nothing the SZDSZ does.

The latest is today’s announcement that the SZDSZ cannot support the prime minister’s suggestion for a referendum if the parties refuse to come to an agreement. According to the SZDSZ, this "referendum tsunami" is unacceptable. These questions must be handled in parliament. Gábor Horn, one of the shining lights of the SZDSZ, announced today that it is a miracle that the Fidesz is ready to send delegates to the five-party conference tomorrow after the prime minister announced his plans for a referendum. Can this man think? The Fidesz decided to attend this meeting because of the threat of Gyurcsány’s referendum.

It’s hard to believe that there are only a handful of observers who understand what’s up. Most of the people are way off the mark. Including the so-called coalition partner.