A new Hungarian “Centrum Party”?

Bálint Magyar is one of the very few Hungarian politicians who played a role in the activities of the so-called "democratic opposition" to the Kádár regime. He was one of the handful of people in Hungary who signed Charta '77, an informal civic initiative in Czechoslovakia whose architects included Václav Havel and Pavel Kohout. Soon enough he lost his job and his passport but he kept going with samizdat publications such as Beszélő (Interlocutor) and Medvetánc (Dancing Bears). Not surprisingly he became one of the founders of SZDSZ. He has been a member of parliament ever since 1990 and served as minister of education in three different governments. First between 1994 and 1996 in the Horn government and later in the Medgyessy and the Gyurcsány governments between 2002 and 2006.

I thought it necessary to give these few details about Bálint Magyar so readers can appreciate the weight of his suggestion in the May 15th issue of Népszabadság. In an op-ed piece Magyar proposes a merger between SZDSZ and MDF in order to create a center party. A force between MSZP and Fidesz, both of whom he considers populist and incapable of guiding Hungary away from the kádárist past and into modernity.

Now let me introduce another man, Mihály Kupa, who had a different but also interesting past that says a lot about the history of the Kádár regime. Kupa, who was born in 1941, got into trouble much earlier than Magyar who was born in 1952. He was arrested and received ten months in 1958 on "conspiracy" charges. As a seventeen year old boy. After he served his jail term there was no way he could get into any university. So he worked as an unskilled laborer for the Chinoin pharmaceutical company. By 1965 he became head of the factory's microbiological laboratory. He began his college studies part time at the Karl Marx University of Economics from which he graduated in 1969. From there on he worked as an economist at several research institutes and in the mid-eighties was employed by the Ministry of Finance.

After the change of regime Prime Minister József Antall had a succession of ministers of finance. The first, Ferenc Rabár, quit after six months, and it was at that point, in December 1990, that Mihály Kupa assumed the post. He lasted until February 1993 when he also terminated his MDF membership. He tried his luck as an independent in 1994 but was unsuccessful. Four years later, however, he was elected as an independent and served out his term. But he was a restless soul. In 2001 he started a new party to which he gave the rather cumbersome name Harmadik Oldal Magyarországért Mozgalom which can be loosely translated as "third alternative." Kupa's party together with the Christian Democratic People's Party, the Hungarian Democratic People's Party (established by a small group of people who originally constituted the liberal wing of MDF), and the Green Democrats formed the Centrum Párt on December 21, 2001. Only a few months before the national elections when everybody was certain that Fidesz would easily win. Yet this absolutely unknown Centrum Párt managed to get 3.9% of the votes. There seemed to be a need for a moderate party between the right and the left.

Today Bálint Magyar is suggesting something similar. He thinks that today's MDF and SZDSZ should get together and form a kind of Centrum Party. He spares no criticism of the two "populist and paternalistic" parties. Obivously he finds Fidesz's aggressive attempts at creating a "uniculture" and, let's be less polite, a uniparty parliament dangerous. But he also thinks that MSZP is incapable of change and that it lacks the will to lead Hungary away from the kádárist past and into modernity. So it is time for the two parties that, in Magyar's opinion, are capable of rational decisions and not afraid of real reforms. Between left and right there is no middle at the moment. Forty percent of the electorate have no idea whom to vote for because they are disappointed with the "political elite." That dissatisfaction only feeds the popularity of the far-right. There is a good possibility, according to Magyar, of a parliament that may include the far-right, Jobbik. In this case a small and ineffectual MSZP will be alone on the other side. Magyar argues that Hungarian politics needs a moderate central party, a party that would include the Ibolya Dávid-led MDF and the more rational leaders of SZDSZ.

On paper this sounds enticing, but I'm afraid that the suggestion, even if it were accepted by the majority of MDF leaders which I doubt, might have come too late. MDF has been in ruins for some time. For months MDF leaders struggled in vain to keep the minimum ten seats required for a caucus. The caucus disappeared and their members had to sit with the independents. New negotiations ensued. But when it looked that one extra independent member might join them and the MDF caucus could be formed again, three other members decided to sabotage the move. So by now the former MDF caucus has only six members. On the surface SZDSZ seems to be in better shape, but the party is deeply divided. Public opinion polls indicate that the chances of MDF or SZDSZ are slim to none at the next elections: their supporters have practically disappeared. Neither party would get into parliament if elections were held next Sunday. So what kind of a "middle" is Magyar talking about? Perhaps a year ago a merger of these two parties would have made sense. But the opportunity for a centrist party, if there ever was one, was missed.

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“But the opportunity for a centrist party, if there ever was one, was missed” Perhaps a better way of looking at this, is to try to see beyond the next elections. Prediction is an unpredictable and uncertain business, and, obviously there are lots of events that could occurr that may disrupt the most plausible predictions. With that caveat on the table, at the moment it looks as if FIDESZ will be in a dominant position in the next parliament (enough to do what it wants with the constitution), and the MSZP will be a small rump. I’m also guessing that FIDESZ will want, citing the precedent of the Netherlands to justify their move, to change the constitution to centrally appoint mayors to prevent its opposition from building a base in local government. In this scenario, there is going to be a political vacumm. The MSZP will have a major public trust and credibility problem which is going to be at the very least difficult to overcome. My guess is that FIDESZ, once they are in power doing horrible things to the population, will have – despite their occupation of power – a major credibility problem of their own. Jobbik might… Read more »
Stephen P
Mark’s reference to Poland could be further extended. In 2005 a conservative populist party not too dissimilar to Fidesz swept away a discredited ex-Communist/Social democrat party, which has never recovered, and is little mourned. To get the majority they wanted, however, they had to flirt with several even more right wing populist parties, and the resulting coalition turned the stomach of most sensible Poles. (I’m not Polish, but I was surprised that the crackpot “League of Polish Families” and “Self Defence” were actually being seriously courted, and had managed to get 90 odd seats between them. You may recall the erratic behaviour of that Polish government, and the antics of the Duck faced Kaczynski twins, PM and President. The whole farce only lasted two years or so, and the outcome is a government of the centre liberal right, a main opposition on the centre (conservative) right (hopefully rather chastened by their experience) and the almost total discrediting of the extreme right wackos. So perhaps Hungary needs to grip the electric fence, get a short sharp shock and learn the hard way not to do it again. My main concern would be that in Hungary there seems to be an aversion… Read more »
Penny Sue Oswalt

I realize that these comments are from 2009, some things such as a new constituition has come to pass.Looking thru my 2009 printouts….On October 15, 2009 the Xinhua News Agency printed an article on the “3rd Austrian-Hungarian Cabinet Meeting” held in Austria!Does anyone have any more info than I do?One news reporting agency stated that Austria has been hit by Hungary in 2011 at a loss of 564million euros(the amount is an estimate),from banking in Hungary.


@ Penny Sue Oswalt, the search function of this blog is on the top left corner. Enter “austrian banks” and you will be able to read a very few posts regarding your question.

Penny Sue Oswalt

Thanks! This particular article poppped up on my screen while I was reviewiing comments.