Hungarian socialists: change of strategy?

Although before the EP elections the leaders of MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party) kept repeating that nothing would change after the results were known, it was predictable that there would be consequences of a serious defeat at the polls. The media ever since June 7 have been full of stories about internal strife among the party leadership, but Hungarian newsmakers are notoriously unreliable when it comes to leaked information. One tidbit (with no confirmation from another source) and it's printed. And if one newspaper reports the leak, within a few hours the whole world will know about it because every newspaper, electronic or written, will be full of it. Since most of these stories in the past turned out to be untrue or greatly exaggerated, I won't venture into the world of rumor. Instead I will concentrate on something I myself noticed listening to interviews with József Tóbiás, director of the MSZP caucus.

The tone and content of these interviews were noticeably different from earlier interviews of MSZP leaders. In brief, Tóbiás ferociously attacked the heads of banks yesterday on Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk–ATV) and today on Nap-kelte (Sunrise–MTV). Moreover, according to two other MSZP representatives are giving speeches in a similar vein today–István Nyakó (MSZP spokesman) in Miskolc and István Tukács (MSZP member of parliament) in Nyíregyháza.These interviews and speeches would appear to signal a change in strategy to reclaim some of those voters who have lost faith in the socialists.

For weeks now there have been signs that the party leaders realized that their voters demanded greater empathy for the poorer strata of society. Yes, they said, they know that the government must introduce an austerity program but this program must be packaged differently. They also realized that  Ferenc Gyurcsány's speech at Balatonőszöd that was leaked in September 2006 resulted in the loss of credibility not only for the former prime minister but for the party as a whole. So the party has to realign itself to represent the interests of the common man and has to regain credibility with its former supporters. Moreover, they're trying to shift their presentations, formerly characterized by too much rationality and too little emotion. If I sense it correctly, yesterday the "new course" began.

In yesterday's interview with József Tobiás the adjectives were sharper, the volume higher, the delivery more passionate. He tore into the top management of the leading Hungarian banks. The immediate cause of the outburst was a remark by Péter Felcsuti, head of the Hungarian Banking Association (Bankszövetség), in which Felcsuti called the government's decision to establish a "crisis fund" with seed money of one billion forints to which they were expecting "gifts" from wealthy individuals and banks "cheap populism." He announced that one billion is too little money, it wouldn't be enough for anything, and the distribution of the pittances to the needy would cost more than the total value of the crisis fund. It seems that the government approached about 100 people to contribute to the fund, but as far as I know only a few Hungarian cabinet members (Bajnai, Oszkó, Kiss) and one member of the MSZP caucus obliged. The banks were not at all eager. Tóbiás found Felcsuti's remark "scandalous" and "bicskanyitogató"–a Hungarian saying quite untranslatable that describes a feeling of such anger that the pocket knife in one's pocket opens up by itself. He went on to say that the crisis was caused mostly by irresponsible bankers and that, while the Hungarian government immediately rushed to the banks' rescue, now they refuse to help those in trouble. The government gave the money to the banks to make sure that Hungarian small and medium-size businesses would be extended credit. Nothing of the sort happened. He accused the banks of doing practically nothing to ease the financial problems of people who took out mortgages or car loans in foreign currencies. He swore that the government will not allow even one family to remain without a roof over their heads. And if the banks don't do something on their own, then the government will force them to do so. MSZP already asked Gordon Bajnai's government to look around to see what legal means they have at their disposal.

If someone is interviewed on Egyenes beszéd one day then the next morning the same person normally appears on Nap-kelte. That's exactly what happened this time. This morning Tóbiás expressed his own personal opinion on MTV that András Simor, president of the Hungarian National Bank, should retire from his post. Or, I guess, if he doesn't want to step down, the government should force his hand. He added that there are many well qualified people who would be well received in the international financial community who could take Simor's place. András Simor, we recall, transferred some money to a firm established in Cyprus where taxes are a great deal lower than in Hungary. What Simor did is not illegal, but it didn't look good and it even reflected badly on MSZP. After all, he was chosen for the post by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány who was also the leader of the socialist party.

The new approach has lots of populist overtones, but it might be effective. There is a great deal of truth in the assertion that no successful politics can be conducted without emotional content. Economists and political analysts must be cool headed and rely on facts and figures, but politics without emotion is simply not a saleable item. Of course, it makes a difference what kind of emotions are invoked. Jobbik offers all sorts of sentiments that are unacceptable. So does Fidesz, whose message on many key points is not terribly different from that of Jobbik. But a criticism of the banks is a legitimate political weapon. After all, Tóbiás is right. The banks received prompt help from the government and have been using this money to shore up their balance sheets, only sluggishly beginning to lend some of it out. Moreover, Hungarian banks until now could unilaterally change the terms of signed contracts with their customers. But parliament has tightened banking rules and regulations; the new legislation will take effect on July 15. Felcsuti is not happy with that either. I'm sure the banks will try to find loopholes and the banking lobby will be hard at work pushing for modifications. All in all, I foresee a tug of war between the government/party on the one hand and the banks on the other. Whether that would help to restore confidence in MSZP it's too early to tell.