An uneasy coalition

In 1994 the MSZP received an absolute majority (54.15%) in parliament, yet Gyula Horn, the party leader and prime minister designate, asked the SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége = Association of Free Democrats) to share power with his party. At that time, the SZDSZ was still a strong party, with 17.62% of the votes. Why did Gyula Horn and the socialists decide to form a coalition in spite of their parliamentary majority? Most likely for at least two reasons. First, because Western Europe would have been suspicious of a socialist party that, after all, was a direct descendant of Kádár’s MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt) and Horn wanted to avoid the communist label. Second, because they were only too aware of the disastrous financial situation of the country and didn’t want to bear the odium of an austerity program alone. The marriage of convenience wasn’t exactly a success: Horn complained about the SZDSZ and the SZDSZ complained about Horn. There were rumblings about breaking up the coalition. This could, of course, have been easily accomplished. After all, the MSZP didn’t need the SZDSZ in order to remain at the helm. But together the two parties had the critical two-thirds majority necessary to pass major pieces of legislation. They didn’t act on their strength. I’ll bet they are sorry today that they didn’t!

Eight years later, in 2002, there was again a coalition government with the same two parties. This time the MSZP badly needed the SZDSZ, a party without which they couldn’t have formed a government. The MSZP received 49.22% of the seats while the Fidesz garnered 42.49%. The SZDSZ’s meager 5.18%, barely enough to participate in the work of the parliament, was of vital importance. As a result, the SZDSZ carried more weight in the coalition. This time the cooperation was better than it had been between 1994 and 1998, though it was still not harmonious. One reason for the relatively peaceful coexistence was the personality of Gábor Kunze, head of SZDSZ and leader of its parliamentary caucus. Kunze is a quiet, pleasant man with a fantastic sense of humor. His quips were famous all over the country. Everybody liked Kunze. One had difficulty imagining the SZDSZ without Kunze. As it turned out, not without reason.

Out of the blue Gábor Kunze resigned as leader of the party and head of the SZDSZ caucus. To this day we are not sure why. Did he just become tired of the whole thing? Did he leave because he failed to boost SZDSZ’s share of the vote in 2006 to 10% as he promised? Whatever the case, there were two aspirants for his job. The old inside critic of Kuncze and the leadership, Gábor Fodor, who had tried earlier and failed, and János Kóka, the newcomer and a Gyurcsány protégé who became minister of economics and transportation when Gyurcsány assumed the prime ministership in 2004. I am in no position to judge whether Kóka, a very successful young businessman, was a good or a bad minister. But some of the unfortunate remarks that he made showed that he was no politician. Both men campaigned furiously prior to the voting in March 2007, and after the first round each man got an equal number of votes. The voting had to be repeated. This time Kóka received 13 more votes than Fodor. Not a great victory, especially in hindsight. Upon review of the events a year later, it turned out that some of the people who voted for Kóka might have been ineligible. It is possible that the whole procedure will have to be repeated. Since Kunze’s departure SZDSZ support has dwindled to practically nothing. According to all the polls, they have around 2% popular support. Thus if elections were held today, they wouldn’t even get into parliament.

A few months ago Kóka resigned as minister of economics and transportation to concentrate all his energy on the affairs of his party. Fodor, on the other hand, became minister of the environment as compensation for the closely fought and lost election. Ever since, Fodor has been superactive as minister: he announces at least once a week what a fantastic job he is doing and what great achievements he can lay claim to since he took over the post. According to him, everything he has laid his hands on is a success. When you look a little closer, it turns out that perhaps Fodor is exaggerating a bit.

The SZDSZ agreed to the coalition only if they received the ministry of health because they had a ready- made plan for the reform of Hungarian health care. It was a far more ambitious plan than the one that was eventually adopted and passed about a month ago. For instance, the plan contained multiple insurers as opposed to one insurer. Since the present fiasco is connected to health care reform, one could ungenerously say that the MSZP’s troubles are SZDSZ’s fault . Being coalition partners, of course, they must share the blame. Therefore, Gábor Horn’s disgusting remarks while watching the prime minister on television are really outrageous. First he made some snide comments about the socialist entourage standing behind Gyurcsány. Then when the prime minister said that the people voted not to pay 300 Ft., he turned to Kóka and said: "No Feri, the people told you where you can go…" (Actually it was much worse than that, but the English language is poverty stricken in comparison to Hungarian when it comes to obscenity.) The referendum was a devastating moment for the government, and here were Kóka and Horn (who is by the way managing director of the party and in charge of coordination between the coalition partners) standing in front of the television monitor laughing merrily after what must have been quite a few drinks.

In my opinion, Horn should have resigned, but he only apologized and tried to explain himself away. Not too successfully. Kóka is not fit to lead the SZDSZ or any other party for that matter. What could save the party would be Kunze’s return, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if behind the scenes there are people who are trying to convince him to do just that. Meanwhile, Gábor Fodor is very much hoping that there will be another round of voting for party chief and that this time he will be the only candidate. I must say that I won’t be too happy if this actually comes to pass.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of

It is a real shame to see the Liberals in the state that they’re in, because when it comes to fixing the fundamental problems of the Hungarian government and economy, it seems to me that the Liberals are the only ones who have the slightest clue about what what needs to be done. The Socialists can’t see past their popularity polls, and Fidesz is trying to win everyone’s love by promising buckets of free money to the whole country – which if they actually got power and did, would ruin the country financially.
I’m confident that the Liberals’ popularity would shoot back over the 5% mark if they tarred and feathered Koka and ran him out of town, like he deserves. Seriously – he’s annoying, he’s an idiot (in spite of his intelligence), and everyone hates him – please, for the sake of Hungary, dump him and get back to the business of fixing the country!

I am sorry but in many respects your analysis of SzDSz’s histroy in Government is somewhat lacking. I do not want to dwell on the whole history, but one thing that must be mentioned is that when the coalition came back into power in 2002, the Liberals completely failed-in all respects-to stand up for any of their principles and as such completely abdicated their theoretical role as the “mature” partner to the MSZP. By any standard, the 2002 Government has been the WORST of all the post-1990 governments (at least as regards fiscal policy). That Government is the one most at fault for the disasterous financial situation the country is currently in. There was absolutely no effort made at any reform and its popularity was bought through a massive fiscal stimulous. This does not mean that the prior governments were good, but just that the 2002 one was horrible. SzDSZ could have used their power to do something about this. They could have walked out (as they should have) to protest the wild spending and the total lack of reform. They did not. And they didn’t because they are equally complicit in the failures. Today’s SzDSz is not the same… Read more »
John Hunyadi

A very interesting analysis Eva. My personal – relatively uninformed – opinion lies more towards that of NWO. I see the 1994-98 government as the only one that has implemented any substantial reforms, though in hindsight they should have done more. In comparison with what they achieved in the past I have been very disappointed with the SZDSZ’ role in the current governing coalition. Some of my Hungarian friends and acquaintances feel the same way; while they voted SZDSZ in the past, now they choose other small parties (MDF, Greens) or do not vote at all. They are tired of personality politics and see Koka as no better than the leaders of the two main parties.