Big trouble in the Hungarian liberal party

One doesn't have to be a keen political observer to know that there is trouble in SZDSZ. I think the trouble started when the inimitable Gábor Kuncze unexpectedly announced his retirement as party leader. Yes, he was inimitable. He had such a wonderful sense of humor, sometimes biting but always intelligent and clever, that even his political opponents looked forward to his speeches in the parliamentary debates. In its lifetime SZDSZ has had seven party leaders and most of them didn't last long. The only exception was Kuncze, and under his leadership the liberals at least managed to get enough votes to have parliamentary representation. Ever since Kuncze stepped down SZDSZ's popularity has been shrinking. At the latest polls the party's support was down to 1-2%.

Once Kuncze no longer wanted to lead the party, two people vied for the position: Gábor Fodor and János Kóka. Fodor was one of the founding members of Fidesz but in 1993 he left the party because of his disagreement with Viktor Orbán about the Fidesz's sharp turn to the right. Fodor joined SZDSZ, and his new party rewarded him with the post of minister of education in the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition government (1994-1998). He didn't last long: by the end of 1995, that is about a year and a half after he assumed the post, he resigned. I don't know why. Some people claim that he was incompetent, others that Prime Minister Gyula Horn simply couldn't tolerate his somewhat extravagant ideas on education. Whatever the case, after he left the government he became fixated on becoming the head of SZDSZ. Every time there was an election of officers he ran, and every time he lost. He even tried against Gábor Kuncze when it was crystal clear that he had no chance whatsoever.

After Kuncze refused to be renominated Fodor undoubtedly thought that his time had come, but then János Kóka, a newcomer to the party, showed up and seemed to have the backing of Kuncze. For one reason or another Kuncze must have thought that Fodor was not the right man for the job. Kóka won by a very slim margin: seven votes out of about 700. A few months later it turned out that there had been irregularities in the voting procedure and that several people voted who were not eligible and apparently they voted for Kóka. The party leaders, after dragging their feet for awhile, decided to repeat the voting and behold, Fodor won by two votes! In spite of his razor-thin win, Fodor basked in glory. Just one indication of what I take to be vanity, I notice that if at all possible he adds to practically every sentence he utters: "I as the president of the liberal party…." Well, "the president of the liberal party" also wanted the position of head of the SZDSZ parliamentary delegation (frakcióvezető), a position held by János Kóka. Kóka did not budge, and for a while it seemed that the whole question of the leadership of the delegation had been put on ice. The word was: "János and I see eye to eye. We work very well together."

So great was the surprise when Fodor announced on December 1 that at the next election of officers on December 8th he is planning to run for the post against Kóka. Normally, there are nominations. No one nominated Fodor. Fodor nominated himself. Fodor maintains that in SZDSZ the custom is that the party leader also leads the parliamentary delegation and he wants that job. As it turns out, Fodor's memory is not very good. According to Iván Pető, one of the former party leaders, out of the seven in SZDSZ's twenty-year history only three of them held both posts for some time during their tenure: he himself, Kuncze, and Kóka. Pető, still a member of the SZDSZ delegation and an influential member of the party, wrote an e-mail right after Fodor's announcement to members of the delegation and the "managing directors" (ügyvezető testület) in which he didn't mince words. He asked Fodor and his supporters to give up the idea of contesting Kóka's position. Pető considered the move a "serious mistake." The possibility that Fodor would lose is real, and that loss "would result in the further weakening of his position." The emphasis here is on "further weakening." That is, Fodor's position is anything but secure within the party. Pető also felt that whether Fodor wins or loses, the rift within the party will only widen.

Pető pretty well indicated in his letter that Fodor was simply not fit for the post because "nobody could imagine that Fodor would be able to deal with the daily business of the delegation." That would indicate to me that organization and leadership is not Fodor's strength. Some people consider him a lazy guy. Or at least he is scattered. Not focused enough. It is obvious that Pető and the people who support him are dissatisfied with Fodor's role as party leader and simply can't believe that he could also handle another important job. That's pretty tough talk. Pető asked him not to go ahead. But in vain. Fodor will be running against Kóka.

In the Hungarian version of Washington Week in Review (A tét = The Stake) a former parliamentary member of SZDSZ, Tamás Bauer, rightly pointed out that such a fight between party leader and leader of the parliamentary delegation occurred only in parties that were in the middle of falling apart. I had the distinct feeling listening to Bauer that he thinks what I also think, that this is the final agony of SZDSZ. And what a loss. SZDSZ's early leaders were the only ones who actually fought against the Kádár regime. They were the opposition. They were not numerous but at least they did something, as opposed to other parties who were formed in and after 1988. They were a brave intellectual lot and look at them now: Kókas and Fodors. Really pitiful.