The state of the Hungarian liberal party (SZDSZ)

Let me be blunt: the SZDSZ is on life support, with their political "condition" somewhere between guarded and critical. According to the latest opinion poll (Tárki) only 1% of the electorate would vote for them.

Let’s review quickly the fortunes of the SZDSZ in the last seventeen years. In 1990 they received 23.8% of the votes. About 1 million people voted for the party.  Four years later the situation didn’t change dramatically: the number of votes cast remained about the same, but because of the fantastic showing of the MSZP (who received 54% of the seats in parliament) the SZDSZ’s share was only 17.8%. Still substantial. In 1998 the SZDSZ had to be satisfied with 6.22% of the seats: instead of a million people only 500,000 voted for the liberals. In 2002 they managed to garner only about 300,000 votes (6.5% of the seats), and in 2006, when voter participation was very high, they managed to get 350,000 votes. They received 5.57% of the seats. One year later their situation is grave.

What is behind their declining support? Why were they so popular in 1990? And if they were so popular, how did the right-of-center coalition manage to form a government?

According to most commentators the initial popularity of the SZDSZ was due to their staunch anti-communist stance. The leaders of the party came from that very small group of outspoken critics of the regime, referred to as the "democratic opposition" in Hungary and as the "dissidents" in the West. Among the factors working against them in the 1990 election was that former communist party members (and there were 800,000 of them in a country of 10 million) feared reprisals if the SZDSZ won the election and therefore voted for the MDF, which seemed much more pliable in this respect.

The SZDSZ in its early days attracted people who were anti-communist and/or liberal. As we know, these two elements don’t always coexist peacefully. Liberalism in the modern sense never had a significant following in Hungary. Between the two world wars there was a small liberal party, but its strength was concentrated in Budapest. And still today, the bulk of SZDSZ voters live in the capital. Many of the people who were active in the early days of the Third Republic are now busy on the extreme (anti-communist) right. A charter member of the SZDSZ is in the Jobbik today.

So, to fast forward, what has happened in the last year or so? For one, the very popular Gábor Kuncze, former head of the party and leader of the parliamentary caucus, resigned from both positions. Mátyás Eörsi, whose forte is not internal politics (he spent quite a bit of time as an observer in Brussels prior to Hungary’s joining the European Union), now leads the caucus. Vying for the position of head of the party were two men: Gábor Fodor and János Kóka. Kóka wasn’t even a party member until very recently. Fodor began his career as an important person in the Fidesz (as students he and Orbán were roommates) but left the party in 1993 because Orbán and his friends were already showing signs that they were planning to move from the liberal left to the right. The two men, Fodor and Kóka, were in a dead heat. Eventually, Kóka won. Fodor had to be compensated somehow, and he received the post of minister of environmental affairs where right now he is throwing his weight around. Kóka a couple of months ago announced his resignation from his ministerial post at the end of the year in order to devote himself fully to the building of the party. That sounds nice, but I don’t think that Kóka is quite up to the task. Kóka also announced that he is also taking over the post of Mátyás Eörsi who seems to have taken the blow rather well, acting as if he always knew that his position would last only a few months.

Ever since the resignation of Kuncze there has been nothing but constant bickering between the SZDSZ and the MSZP. The culprit is usually the SZDSZ. The SZDSZ acts as if it weren’t in a coalition but was an opposition party. Kóka’s latest is that he practically sided with László Sólyom and Krisztina Morvai in blaming the police for terrible brutality. Gábor Horn, who is most visible in the media, announced a couple of days ago that the SZDSZ is not wedded to the MSZP and that he could imagine a coalition with the Fidesz (though only without Viktor Orbán). A day later he is trying desperately to talk himself out of this hole but he doesn’t sound too convincing. Realpolitik was never not the SZDSZ’s forte but the current leaders heap mistake on top of mistake. At the moment I wouldn’t bet on the party’s political future.