Finding their way: The Hungarian socialists’ dilemma

Ferenc Gyurcsány's answer to the problems of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) was an adaptation of Tony Blair's "Third Way" so successfully employed as well by Bill Clinton and others. The "Third Way" is a term that has been used to describe a political position that attempts to transcend left-wing and right-wing politics. This approach is commonly viewed as representing a centrist compromise between capitalism and socialism, or between market liberalism and democratic socialism. But the Hungarian version of a centrist, reformist political orientation within the Hungarian Socialist Party failed. Ferenc Gyurcsány was unable to deliver, and today MSZP is in crisis. What happened and why? This is what the party leadership is now trying to figure out, but I'm not at all sure that they are on the right track. The catchword today is "return to the left." Everybody is talking about "leftist values," whatever they are.

Gyurcsány, who has not been seen or heard from since his "retirement," still has his blog except instead of writing every day as he used to he writes perhaps once a week. Mind you, his "fans" are still numerous. His last blog had over 800 comments! Usually he confines himself to everyday affairs–his knee operation, his children–but here and there he writes a few lines about politics. It is evident that he is sticking with most of his political ideas, which he still considers the foundation of a modern Hungarian society. It seems that Gyurcsány has also had enough of all this talk about "leftist values" and the accusation that where MSZP went wrong in the last seven years was the party's abandonment of leftist values. To quote Gyurcsány (June 30, 2009; http://kapcsolat.hu/blog/a_baloldalisagrol): "The question is not whether we were leftist enough in the last few years but instead whether there were times when we were too leftist." Here "being leftist" for Gyurcsány means giving too much to segments of society that are not active in producing economic growth. Children, students, the disabled, pensioners, and so on.

Those in the party who are considered to be the followers of Gyurcsány join the others in repeating the "toward the left" slogan, but they add that it also means "modernization." What modernization means in this context is also a mystery. Then there are the left-wingers. Katalin Szili and Tibor Szanyi are good examples. They want to help the lower classes and are less concerned with the middle class that is actually the backbone of the party's electorate. As Szili said this morning, she wants to work for a "plebeian mass party of the left." However, she immediately added that she doesn't want to have "a squandering state but one that develops." You will say: "but this doesn't make any sense." No, it doesn't. It doesn't because I have the feeling that Ms. Szili doesn't know what she is talking about. Both Szili and Szanyi say that they wholeheartedly support Gordon Bajnai's program because the country has no other choice. They are supporting the program of the man who just the other day made it crystal clear that "the number 3.8 is carved in stone." That is, the deficit cannot be higher than 3.8% and surely no "squandering" of public money is possible with that tight a budget. (I use the word "squandering" here because I couldn't find any better equivalent for the Hungarian "osztogató." I think this translation is fairly close.) And there's the rub. How can MSZP be the "plebeian mass party of the left," which presumably implies a very generous state, under the present circumstances?  I don't think it can be.

There are some who think that MSZP's problem is that it suffers from left-over Kádárism that prevented the full blossoming of the market economy. At the same time they continued the "insane spending" that kept the Kádár regime going for a while. As the matter of fact, practically all governments after 1990 added to the "insane spending" until the the country nearly went bankrupt. But the most recent crisis wasn't the first. In the latter part of the 1970s and the mid-1990s the country was on the brink of financial ruin as well. Both times stringent measures had to be adopted. But these measures were temporary. As soon as the country got out of financial trouble the government went back to its profligate ways. This is what they call in Hungary a policy of "loosening and tightening."

The socialists at the moment are busily apologizing for not being socialist enough. They practically admit, repeating the accusations of the opposition, that they did nothing and achieved nothing. This is, of course, not at all true. They try to explain their failure on a lack of communication. They say that they didn't "explain" the reforms properly. Some critics claim that in the middle of a financial crisis and the implementation of an austerity program the government simply shouldn't have initiated a reform program. A lot of criticism is levelled against the socialists' coalition partner, SZDSZ, because of their doctrinaire liberalism that led to the disastrous so-called health reform. Yes, health reform was handled poorly, but it wasn't a pivotal factor in the failure of the Gyurcsány government. The decline of the party began immediately after the announcement of the austerity program during the summer 2006 and has continued relentlessly ever since.

Ferenc Gyurcsány's problem was not that he was not leftist enough but that he wasn't courageous enough to make greater cuts in unnecessary social spending. To the very end he insisted on keeping the extra month of pension for 3.5 million pensioners, which was a huge budgetary burden. And when he first came out with his austerity program he said "one mustn't be afraid, it won't hurt." Well, of course, it was going to hurt. He should have been totally frank and told the whole truth. After all, it seems that Bajnai's stringent measures have been accepted and there are already tangible results that even the population has been noticing. Perhaps a less timid, less leftist approach would have been more successful than the one Gyurcsány chose. The question is whether the party leaders would have accepted such measures in the summer of 2006. They seem to accept them now but perhaps three years later, after a world economic crisis, they came to their senses. In any event, I cannot see a return to the good old socialist "plebeian mass party of the left" any time soon. The only way out is still Gyurcsány's way, without him for the time being.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Mark
Guest
“But the Hungarian version of a centrist, reformist political orientation within the Hungarian Socialist Party failed. Ferenc Gyurcsány was unable to deliver, and today MSZP is in crisis. What happened and why?” This is a complex question and neither the left, nor Gyurcsány seem to me to have a convincing answer to it. The first problem was that while the “third way” was useful in winning the first election, it lacked any kind of attractive political programme. Clinton won in 1992, and within two years of his inaugration spent the remainder of his two terms mitigating the effects of Republican control of Congress. In Italy it brought the left one full term of power between 1996 and 2001, and the same in France from 1997 and 2002; in Germany the left barely scraped a second term in 2002, and in the UK – while electorally more successful – its defeat is imminent as a result of the crunch that has followed its credit-financed boom. Ultimately as a philosophy it has been vacuous, and it almost certainly had no chance at the outset in Hungary. On a superficial level the crisis of the MSZP has nothing though to do with ideology,… Read more »
Sandor
Guest
I am embarrassed writing so much here, but it is hard to resist. I must say, I do agree with your conclusions, more or less, but disagree with your reasoning. If I may remind you of Gyurcsany’s first lecture at Corvinus University, you will remember how he explained the cycles of largess and austerity in economic behaviour of the consecutive governments and how he vowed to avoid it. So, he was clearly aware of this problem, but was either too weak, or too inconsistent to stick to it in his policies and force the party and the parliament to follow suit. Then, when it came to the introduction and realization of his reforms, all very reasonable, first he flinched at the opposition of his own party, then he flinched again at the opposition of the, well, the Opposition. He did not realize at all, that he is supposed to manoeuvre around all this obstacles, as is a politician’s wont, instead he gave in more and more, until the reforms lost all meaning and all efficacy. For example, when the constitutional court ruled that the patients’ co-payment was suitable as a subject of referendum, because it was not part of the… Read more »
whoever
Guest
To paraphrase Neil Kinnock, it’s a ridiculous situation when a SOCIALIST government – a “socialist” government – is asking its supporters (who are often elderly and tend to be working-class) to vote in support of a bed charge resulting from hospitalisation. As if being in a Hungarian hospital isn’t already bad enough. That was an absolute low point from which there was, and will be no recovery. As Mark says, it is a betrayal of the trust given to the party to protect the more vulnerable in society. Is this “leftist?” To be honest, from Bismark onwards, it could also be described as paternalism. But in the MSZP there are few other concepts of leftism – few ideas on ownership or reducing child poverty. I had to go to a clinic on the day it was introduced and was told by a lady with a clipboard, that in England, the NHS is struggling because they haven’t introduced these measures. So very wrong, and sadly indicative of the arrogance and ignorance which informs much of Hungarian public life. But also indicative of the moral vacuum in which most Hungarian politics operates. Perhaps, for Sandor, politics is about pragmatism. But this technocratic… Read more »
Sandor
Guest

whoever, I see some reason in what you are saying. But not enough to be convincing.
Funny that you should mention Bismarck, the inventor of socialized health care. Similarly funny is how you disregard the German example of pragmatic governance, regardless of party affiliation: starting with Adenauer, through Kiesinger, Erhardt, and Schmidt, not to mention the present coalition. There is absolutely no excuse for the application of “values” at the detriment of effective, good government.
All this however is just hypothetical philosophizing, as far as Hungary is concerned, because they are nowhere near to be in the position to pick and choose values and governance models. And if you add the effect of the all pervasive corruption, there is no point to discuss the whole mess in terms of rationality.

Mark
Guest
Sándor: “Similarly funny is how you disregard the German example of pragmatic governance, regardless of party affiliation: starting with Adenauer, through Kiesinger, Erhardt, and Schmidt, not to mention the present coalition. There is absolutely no excuse for the application of “values” at the detriment of effective, good government.” You write here as if “good government” and “values” are in some kind of opposition to each other; in fact they are mutually self-reinforcing, and I think the (West) German example shows this. All of the politicians you mention were motivated by the desire to build a democratic, European German state after the disaster of Nazism, and under the shadow of the threat of state socialism. I suspect if FIDESZ and MSZP had shown the same kind of committment to overcome a troubled past, and had shown the same unequivocal committment to democratic values as both the SPD and CDU/CSU have then Hungary’s democracy would be in a better state than it is now. Helmut Schmidt, despite his advanced years, continues to be a staunch defender of social democratic values. In his recent articles in Die Zeit he has held the “market fundamentalism” that spread from the US and UK to CEE… Read more »
Gábor
Guest
One of the yields of the last month was to show how superficial and shallow is the would be ideology of modernization in the MSZP. During the run up to the congress one of the main dividng lines inside the party was between those who advocated a “leftist turn” and those who advocated the preservation of the “modernization” as the party’s main goal. A significant proportion of the party see in the Bajnai government the embodiment of the real left, a government making the necessary reforms at last, leading out Hungary from the Kádár-era. (It is not insignificant that in his recent interviews Bajnai tried to depict his government as the one that achieved everything the villainous politicains weren’t capable in their fear from the electorate in the last decade.) FRo soem people it is clearly an obsession. For example Vitány in an interview given recently to the Népszabadság periodized the history as follows: the West, after a great historical achievement reached the welfare state in the second half of the 20th century and moved forward towards the sel-care state! He even praised the Horthy-era, as at that time his father only had to pay the 5 pengő to the… Read more »
Gábor
Guest
As for Gyurcsány’s mistakes and faults: it was clear even before the 2006 elections that with the SZDSZ embracing wholeheartedly neo-liberal economic theory there is a very limited sphere of possible cooperation. In 2006 the coalition should have to agrre on one issue dear to the heart of the SZDSZ and pursue it vigorously and leave everything else to the socialists. The result instead was a somewhat chaotic reform attempt in wich the SZDSZ insisted not only on the reform of helath care but the introduction of the flat tax (and the brutal cut of social spending with it). Therefore I would be more emphatetic with the socialists, who among those circumstanes tried to achieve compromises in every field and that way effectively blocking every major reform attempt. (But once agin, I think the rethorical concession to the SZDSZ on the helth care insurance issue was disastrous. The planned system was far fom being the initially propsed private insuarance system with a relatively short transition period to the individually assessed insurance fees, but to allow the SZDSZ to save its face it was referred to as a private isnurance system…) It’s true that Gyurcsány tried to bring about reforms with… Read more »
Gábor
Guest
I tend to agree with whoever’s statement that Sándor’s approach to – let’s say – good governance is non-democratic. It is rather leading to an Orwellian world. Many of today’s economists are convinced that the society can be described with econimc models and even social systems should be organized according to market principles. They always propose an optimal solution – supported by mathematical models, seemingly sophisticated, but rudimentary for many mathematicians. The real problem is, that if such dedicated, single soultion for every social problem exists, how can anyone oppose it? The only possible action – in order to provide the community with the maximum public good – to accept and implement the propsals. I would prefer a word in wich we can make mistakes, to a world directed by econimists. Hungary seems to be a special case in this sense, as the economic filed is dominated by neoliberals and very few contradicting ideas appear. Quite telling was the fact, that only Péter Róna was capable to put forward his contesting views, who was a banker at Solomon and Barney’s. Where alternative econimc discourses exist it can be possible for politicians to free themselves for some extent from the “experts”,… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Gábor: “Ormos was never an enemy of reforms, but she considers Vitányi’s “analysis” ridiculous, that has nothing to do with history and insulting to the people, as it treats them as lazy, indolent, stupid etc.)” I have long been interested in the ways in which European (and indeed Hungarian) social and economic history has been distorted in political debates. I suppose my first acquaintance with it was in 1995 – just before the announcement of the Bokros programme – when an MSZP politician, György Jánosi, I think, was holding forth in a radio interview on why the Horn government had not delivered the social improvements promised in the elections the previous year. His argument, was that the transition would follow the development of capitalism in nineteenth century England and that Hungary would pass through the same “historical stages”. There would have to be first a period of “wild capitalism” which would be bad but would create the material base for a welfare state. My jaw dropped! Similar arguments clearly underpin concepts like the “premature-born welfare state” which one hears more frequently – and from reputable social scientists. Leaving aside for a moment the spectacular ignorance of the actual history of… Read more »
nwo
Guest
Unlike Germany post-World War II, there appeared to be no definitively right or wrong answer about Hungary post Kadarism. Lots of people liked their lives during the twilight of socialism, and for some reason (which is beyond me) even those who hate communism/socialism seem often to distinguish between the political effects of the Socialist system (BAD!) and economic/social elements of the era. As such, MSZP has for most of the post-1989 period been perfectly happy in adopting policies that were really Kadarism-lite. Gyurcsany spoke of a break from this, but in the end was manifestly unable to do so. The Bajnai Government is (as Mark has noted) the first radical change from this type of politics. Second, it seems to me (as one who is not a huge fan of an all encompassing social welfare state) that any effort to build a successful social welfare state requires real social cohesion and a responsible citizenry willing to pay the price for such welfarism. Anyone who spends more than one hour in Hungary should understand that social compact does not exist and at least since 1989 has never existed. Instead of the social compact, the welfare state in Hungary survived solely on… Read more »
Mark
Guest
NWO: “What ever you want to say about Tony Blair and the Labor party in the 1990s, it was not that they promised a free lunch.” I think, in contrast, that “the Third Way” was precisely a way of offering people a “free lunch”. In the UK context it was about reassuring the middle classes that they could keep the low tax regime established under Thatcher/Major, while promising Labour’s own supporters more collectivism – “Swedish levels of public spending with American levels of taxation”. This was an illusion that rested on persuading the UK citizenry that the hard choices of funding state services could be avoided. It was an illusion that was maintained by a titanic housing bubble, in which rising prosperity for home-owners was bought by freezing the young out of property ownership (and has left 8% of the UK population, c. 5 million people stuck on waiting lists for social housing). It was also bought by a mountain of both public and private sector debt (equivalent to 300% of UK GDP). There are clearly differences between “the Third Way” a la Blair, and the same a la Gyurcsány, though having lived under both of them, they are not… Read more »
nwo
Guest

Mark
I take your point which goes to show that while the contrast I drew was faulty, my underlying point may have even more validity.

Mark
Guest
NWO: “my underlying point may have even more validity.” I agree with your underlying point to an extent. My difference with relates to the origins of nostalgia for the world of the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t think it represents actually a belief that that period was “good”; rather for much of society it was seen as “better” than what came after it. In other words it is a consequence of the mess that was made of the transition – to persuade people to change their behaviour, especially in a society characterized by low public trust, one has to be able to offer people tangible improvements. It took until 2000 for average living standards to recover to their 1989 level, and there are still large numbers of people in Hungary for whom living standards have yet to recover. In this context it is not surprising that people become backward-looking, risk averse and politics becomes centred on issues of material security. I don’t think “nostalgia” is really about the remnants of Kádárism (however conunter-intuitive this point seems). It is rather more a reaction to what came after the system-change. And if this is correct, then one of the (many) consequences of… Read more »
wpDiscuz