Those monthly polls in Hungary

Maybe I’m not paying enough attention, but I don’t hear the reports of six or seven American pollsters comparing the standing of the Republican versus the Democratic parties every month. This is the case in Hungary and, as if these polls concerning political parties weren’t enough, once a month Médián, one of the Hungarian pollsters, also publishes a popularity contest among politicians.

Pollster activity seems to be a perpetual motion machine. As soon as an election is over, the pollsters report the popularity of the party/parties that just won the elections; for a few months the popularity of the winning party inexorably goes up. When the pollsters ask people whom they voted for, it inevitably happens that more people say they voted for the winner than could have happened in reality. Then the euphoria wanes and as months go by the people become less satisfied with the government, whose popularity keeps going down.

The Medgyessy government’s popularity remained very high for longer than usual because Medgyessy fulfilled his campaign promises: 50% salary increases for health care providers and teachers, and all pensioners received an extra month of pension. But, of course, the beneficiaries of these incredible raises soon enough forgot the generosity of the government. When no more similar raises followed the first, disappointment set in.

This time, the disappointment was immediate because the government began to correct the earlier mistakes: somehow they had to reduce the nearly 11% budget deficit that Orbán, Medgyessy, and Gyurcsány in his first term had managed to accumulate. Gyurcsány promised less than Orbán or Medgyessy, but at the same time he didn’t divulge the whole truth about the desperate situation in which Hungary found herself. In the October 2006 municipal elections Fidesz swept the country, a clear sign of the terrible disappointment that had set in. And things haven’t gotten any better. Although the MSZP gained a few percentage points in August-September, since then the down trend in its polling results has resumed. (The September change in its favor and the relative loss of popularity of the Fidesz was apparently due to the formation of the Hungarian Guard and Fidesz involvement with the Jobbik, an extreme right wing party.)

According to the Médián which, according to some, produces the most reliable polls among the many similar companies, among those who claim that they would definitely vote if the elections were held next Sunday, the popularity of Fidesz is 64% while that of the MSZP is 26%. Of course, this sounds pretty terrible for MSZP supporters, but one must keep in mind that almost 40% of those asked were not sure of or refused to tell about their choice. Another consideration is that Fidesz supporters are far more resolute at the moment: 66% of them are certain that they would vote while among the MSZP supporters only 55% would cast a vote. All this shows the hesitancy of the MSZP voters.

One reason for this jump in Fidesz support is the renewed referendum campaign. One mustn’t forget that the Fidesz activisits again visited over one million households, which undoubtedly boosted their popularity. Another reason for the loss of popularity of the MSZP is their irresolute behavior. Some of the MSZP MPs became so frightened by their party’s sinking popularity that they turned against the reforms which, in their opinion, had made their party so unpopular. Their estimate is most likely correct, but turning back now or slowing down will not change the public’s mood. On the contrary. Several studies show that voters prefer political strength; they look around now and find the MSZP weak with a small but vocal minority criticizing the party leadership from the outside, sending messages to Gyurcsány and his circle through the media. Katalin Szili is the leader of this group.

And this brings me to another interesting point. Szili, who normally is at the very top of the popularity list of politicians, fell back considerably. László Sólyom now heads the list, followed by Lajos Kósa and Zoltán Pokorni, vice presidents of the Fidesz who are known as more moderate than their boss. Then comes Viktor Orbán, who at one point was very far down the list. Szili moved from second place to sixth place, behind Ibolya Dávid, head of the MDF. The only thing I can think of is that some MSZP voters don’t like Szili’s criticism of her own party, especially not in right-wing papers. Even this weekend she gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet.

In any case, the elections are far away, and early polls like this one don’t tell much about the possible results of elections that will be held two and a half years hence. But if the MSZP is to reverse its fortunes, it must improve its communication with the public and stop dragging out the health care reforms. People are afraid of what the reforms will mean for them. Until the reforms are in place, these fears will not subside.