Transformation of Hungarian political parties

A comment on Hungarian conservatism offered a new topic for today: the transformation of Hungarian political parties. Surely, today’s SZDSZ is not the same SZDSZ that came into being at the time of the change of regime. And not just because by now it has lost about 90% of its supporters. And it is equally clear that Gyula Horn’s MSZP was very different from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party today. The MDF has also changed considerably. In addition, there has been a great deal of individual movement between parties: former members of the inner sanctum of the MSZMP are supporting the Fidesz today while former SZDSZ members have ended up in the MIÉP or the Jobbik. István Csurka, one of the vice chairmen of the MDF, became an emblematic figure of the far right. One could think, as many people do, that these people  changed sides because it was in their political or material interest. I’m sure that in certain cases this was the case, but more importantly the problem lies with the earlier one-party system where everybody who did not wholeheartedly support the regime was lumped together into one camp: those who wanted change. I assume all wanted to change the one-party system into a multi-party democracy, but what kind of government they had in mind remained vague. This can become clear only in a free society where there is choice and people are free to follow their own destiny.

I must confess that I don’t know enough about the first four years of the third republic. I became interested in Hungarian politics only in the spring of 1994, shortly before the devastating defeat of the MDF and the overwhelming victory of the MSZP. My interest was piqued by a visit to Hungary in December 1993. I found out that the government was exceedingly unpopular and that ordinary Hungarians were not at all thrilled with their new freedom. Prior to that trip I assumed that my former compatriots must be happy about the turn of events. But no, they were greatly disappointed and I wanted to know why. Thus, I started to read papers, signed up for different discussion groups and slowly became more familiar with the situation.

I don’t know much about the Antall-Boross government’s corruption. I’m pretty sure that there was plenty since corruption seems to be a fact of life in Hungary. What struck me was that the members of the government were amateurs who had no idea how to govern. They were not politicians either: half the cabinet seemed to be made up of historians. (That is an exaggeration but there were far too many of them.) Even members of parliament (on both sides of the aisle) were "intellectuals": philosophers, political scientists, historians, poets, writers. Not the best material for running the country. Although I arrived in Hungary only for József Antall’s funeral, I read later that he was capable of historical lectures lasting hours. Even in the United States he gave lectures about Hungarian history.

I think that the main problem of the Antall government was that within a few months the MDF became a mass party, where people of diverse polical backgrounds gathered from the left to the right. For example, among its supporters were a lot of former MSZMP members who thought that they had less to fear from the MDF than from the fiercely anti-communist SZDSZ. And conversely, a lot of early SZDSZ supporters were people who voted for this liberal party because of its very pronounced anti-communism. Among these were also people who today are the greatest enemies of the SZDSZ and joined either the Fidesz or the extreme right-wing parties. As soon as the SZDSZ joined the MSZP in coalition (1994) most of the SZDSZ supporters evaporated. They voted for the Fidesz or the MIÉP at the next election.

Specifically, let’s talk about today’s MDF and the old MDF in 1990. Surely the two parties are the same only in name. Ibolya Dávid likes to emphasize that this MDF is the only legitimate successor to József Antall’s ideas. One thing is sure, József Antall happened upon an MDF whose founders’ ideas were far from his own. As far as I can see, the people of Lakitelek (where the MDF came into being) were followers of the Hungarian populists of the 1930s (kind of a Hungarian narodnik movement) who believed in a "third road" between capitalism and socialism. Whatever Antall believed, it wasn’t that. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that soon enough Antall became a pariah within his own party. (It’s worth rereading Kata Beke’s book, Jézusmária, győztünk! [1993] in which she bitterly complains about Antall’s appearance out of the blue among the real founders of the MDF.)

Thus, it is not at all surprising that the MDF not only lost the elections and became an insignificant parliamentary group but lost its active politicians one by one. Most of them moved over to the Fidesz while others tried to unseat Ibolya Dávid and staged a palace revolt only to be removed from the party. Thus there remained only a small group of people which with Dávid’s leadership is trying to create a modern conservative party. It is possible that József Antall would approve of her efforts, but I’m not 100 percent sure.

As for people’s judgment of Antall: opinions have changed somewhat lately. I guess this has something to do with the appearance of Viktor Orbán, the Fidesz, and the far right. In comparison he still looks a great deal better. Also, my feeling is that the problems of the regime change were so enormous that even a more seasoned politician would have failed. Let’s add, as it is quite clear now and perhaps even then, that he didn’t really have a party behind him. Under those circumstances he didn’t have much of a chance. As I said earlier: you cannot have a strong conservative party without true conservatives.

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New World Order

What I don’t understand is why the Hu. situation is different than other countries in the region? Across much of the rest of the CEE (in particular Poland), real conservatives politicians have been succesful (even if it is next to the more populist kind). The transition in Hu. was if anything less traumatic and difficult then in the rest of the region. Has this somehow made the Hungarians less willing to give up easy socialism for political alternatives that require a greater level of individual responsibility? I fear so.


There was an article less than a year ago where Viktor Orban was described as the most dangerous populist politician in (East) Europe.
I can just not remember which newspaper (Washington/New York Post or Times…) and I have not been able to find it on the net.
Any suggestions?

New World Order comments: “Across much of the rest of the CEE (in particular Poland), real conservatives politicians have been succesful” – I would like to add the rider “only just!” The position of the various conservative parties (all including mostly the same members) in Poland since 1990 was very weak until the last election. After the familiar initial “amateur” period until 1994 a rebranded Social Democrat Party (made up of – quelle surprise – ex-communists) was in power in various coalitions up until 2005. Then came the turn of a coalition of previously fringe nationalists /populists/ conspiracy theorists – I remember having a good laugh at them back in 2001. I scarcely thought they’d ever get anywhere near the Sejm, but then they allied… Only after the Polish people had been given a hard lesson in the realities of living under such “just” policies have a fairly balanced conservative party finally managed to get into power. Prior to 2005 this party, and its predecesors only once got more than 10% of the vote, and at other times failed to get more than the 5% threshold. I hope next time their “little brother” – the liberal party they split with… Read more »
New World Order
Pistefka- I generally agree with you, However, compare the careers of Leszek Balcerovicz with that of Lajos Bokros. Balcerovicz has, for the most part, remained front and center of Poland’s economic reforms, while both preaching and implementing a drastic reform package. Bokros was basically exiled from the Hun politicaql system for his efforts at saving the Hu economy in 1995. If Donald Tusk wanted to bring Balcerovicz back into the Govt. he could. If Gyurcsany even thought of giving Bokros an official position he would be crucified (by both the RIGHT and the Left). Of course, the real successful “conservative” government in the region was Dzurinda’s in Slovakia, which came out of nowhere, was fortunate to be able to govern through a pieced together coalition, but not only saved the country from near oblivion of the Meciar period, but has then taken it to the position of unquestioned star of the region. If one were to plot the trends lines of the Slovak and Hungarian economies on a graph they would be almost completely inverse with the cross over between the two sometime in the early 2000s. The comparison of the two economies today should be considered an indictment of… Read more »