Political Suicide: The Hungarian liberals

The Hungarian opposition party, the right-wing Fidesz, has been talking about a "crisis," both economic and political, for at least two years although there were no signs of it until now. One can talk about crisis from morning till night; as long as there is nothing but talk there is no great trouble. The socialist-liberal government of Ferenc Gyurcsány had a comfortable majority and therefore Fidesz, especially since the more moderate conservative MDF is no great fan of Viktor Orbán's Fidesz, couldn't  create a political crisis. As for the economic crisis, there was no sign of that either although admittedly living standards slumped and economic growth slowed due to a very strict deficit reduction program. But there was no sign of a recession. In order to create a political crisis Fidesz needed allies, and it seems that it has found them in the new political leaders of SZDSZ, the small and steadily shrinking liberal party. If all goes according to Fidesz plans, there will be early elections resulting in certain Fidesz victory. Not a small victory but a landslide.

Today's SZDSZ is a shadow of its former self. Its founders belonged to the handful of people who in their modest way actively kept up a dissident movement in the 1980s. János Kádár's Hungary wasn't exactly the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia and therefore these dissidents didn't end up in jail. But they lost their jobs, were refused permission to travel abroad, couldn't publish, and here and there were roughed up, usually on March 15 (Hungary's national holiday that under Kádár was no longer a holiday, most likely because there was far too much talk of freedom in 1848).

After the change of regime not suprisingly these dissidents who are called in Hungary "the democratic opposition" became important political leaders. They created a party called the Association of Free Democrats (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége, hence SZDSZ) and for a while it looked as if SZDSZ would be the largest party in Hungary. This was a strange twist because in Hungary the liberals never had an important role to play. The liberal party between the two world wars was a minuscule party with followers only in Budapest. Suddenly it looked as if Hungary had become a a stronghold of liberalism, but how? Liberalism and Hungary? A contradiction in terms. Suddenly, after forty years of communism how could there be millions of liberals in the country? I'm convinced that most people didn't even know what liberalism meant. The cornerstone of SZDSZ's popularity wasn't its liberalism but its anticommunism. They were the loudest when it came to attacking the fomer regime and communism in general. MDF, basically a Christian Democratic party, engaged in very little Communist bashing. In fact, they were ready to have some kind of arrangement with the party of Kádár. According to most analysts one reason MDF became the largest political party after the elections was that most of the 800,000 former party members voted for them fearing retribution from the liberals. Conversely, one is surprised to find people in far right circles who, it turns out, began their political career in SZDSZ.

In any case, SZDSZ was a large, powerful party until 1994 when it decided to join forces with MSZP (Magyar Szocialista Párt) although the latter had an absolute majority of the parliamentary seats. The socialists asked SZDSZ to form a coalition, apparently fearing that their communist past might not make them respectable in the European Union and in NATO circles. And they desperately wanted to join both the common market and the transatlantic military allliance. SZDSZ voters also supported a coalition because they didn't really trust the socialists.

The first socialist-liberal government had a two-thirds majority in parliament, but their four-year marriage wasn't exactly an extended  honeymoon. They fought left and right on almost every issue, and a few times it looked as if SZDSZ would throw in the towel. Some people feel that indeed that's what the liberals should have done. Gyula Horn's government had a safe majority in parliament without SZDSZ, so they wouldn't have been seen as a government wrecker. And perhaps the liberals could have stopped their slow but seemingly inexorable slide toward extinction. Instead, the anticommunist followers of SZDSZ turned away from the party that decided to join their former enemies. More and more SZDSZ voters moved over to Fidesz whose shrewd leader, the young Viktor Orbán, formerly a liberal himself, was shifting farther and farther to the right because he realized that with MDF's fall there was a political vacuum on the right.

By 2006 SZDSZ was no longer a mass party. It barely managed to have parliamentary representation, and things haven't gotten any better since. However, both times SZDSZ's 5.57% (2002) and 6.5% (2006) were necessary for MSZP to form a government. If between 1994 and 1998 SZDSZ could have left the coalition without creating a political crisis, this was not the case in 2008 when SZDSZ actually did just that. However, initially no one thought that Ferenc Gyurcsány's minority government would have to resign because everybody was sure that SZDSZ, although nominally in opposition, would support the government from the outside. (That was the case when Viktor Orbán's government became a minority government. MIÉP, a far-right party, voted along with the members of Fidesz.) People were certain of such cooperation because common sense dictated it. First of all, if the Gyurcsány government failed and new elections were held today, SZDSZ surely wouldn't reach the 5% threshold necessary to have representation. Second, Fidesz and SZDSZ are so far apart ideologically that no one could imagine that these two parties would ever cooperate. Fidesz leaders and voters hate SZDSZ even more than they hate MSZP. And yet now it seems that Gábor Fodor and his lieutenants are helping Viktor Orbán become the next prime minister of Hungary, most likely with a two-thirds majority (needed for major legislation, including constitutional changes). What happened?

I'm coming to the conclusion that Gábor Fodor, a former roommate of Viktor Orbán in college and one of the founders of Fidesz who left the party in 1993 to join SZDSZ, is somehow in cahoots with Viktor Orbán. A few weeks ago there were formal negotiations between Fidesz and SZDSZ, but then it seemed that closer cooperation was out of the question. What happened since? Did Fodor and his close friends receive some kind of assurance from Fidesz concerning their political futures? Perhaps. Otherwise, I can't believe that the leaders of SZDSZ are that stupid. I always knew that they were not good politicians. They are too doctrinaire. They have never heard of the word "pragmatism." But they can't be so incompetent as to destroy the party and their own political careers. A few days ago polls indicated that 80% of current SZDSZ voters (that is 2% of all voters) wouldn't vote for SZDSZ if they refuse to negotiate with Gyurcsány and if they cause Fidesz to win an early election. That means that SZDSZ with this move would eliminate itself. This is clearly political suicide. Unless, of course, something else would be coming their way. If I were the SZDSZ leaders I would be very leery of Viktor Orbán's promises. It is enough to remember the fate of József Torgyán, head of the Smallholders. He was made minister of agriculture and promised the presidency. But soon enough he ended up without a party, without a ministry, and without the presidency. He was foolish enough to vote for a two-year budget (instead of the normal one-year budget) proposed by Orbán, and from there on he was dispensable. Today he is a nobody and his party is gone.

The only hope is for MSZP and Gyurcsány that in SZDSZ's parliamentary delegation there are a few people who are not ready to drink Fodor's Kool Aid. Mátyás Eörsi already announced yesterday that he wasn't at the meeting where the idea of a government of experts was discussed, but he doesn't think that a government of experts is a viable alternative. In fact, he said, "in a democracy there is no such thing as a government of experts." Considering that Fodor and his friends are ready to discuss with Gyurcsány nothing else but his resignation and the creation of a government of experts, Eörsi's announcement indicates something. Tibor Navracsics was so happy to hear SZDSZ's love affair with a "government of experts" that he immediately announced that of course this government of experts would have a short tenure. The next step is early elections. I have the feeling that there might be some SZDSZ members of parliament who don't have suicidal tendencies. Put it this way, some very interesting days await us.

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Odin's lost eye

Forgive my ignorance. How many seats do SZDSZ have in the current parliment?

Eva S. Balogh

Odin: “Forgive my ignorance. How many seats do SZDSZ have in the current parliment?”