A new political formation: The Liberal Civic Association

Let me start with the news that a number of influential SZDSZ politicians past and present announced yesterday the formation of the Liberal Civic Association. These people have not been shy about their antipathy toward the "new" SZDSZ led by Attila Retkes. I already wrote about SZDSZ and Retkes on July 14 ("Hungarian liberals: End game") and have no reason to change the opinion I expressed in that blog. If possible, I have gained an even worse opinion of the new president. The party as he conceives it bears no resemblance to the liberal party born in the days of the regime change in 1989-90. The reaction to his election was immediate. Hundreds left the party and the majority of the SZDSZ parliamentary delegation kept their distance from Retkes and his "new" SZDSZ. In fact, it was rather comical that Retkes insisted on the resignation of János Kóka, head of the parliamentary delegation, since Retkes and his coterie have absolutely no say in the matter. The head of the delegation is elected by the SZDSZ members of parliament and they are the only ones who can remove him. Retkes even gave Kóka a deadline for resigning. Deafening silence on Kóka's part!  Once the deadline passed, Retkes had to announce that, sorry, things didn't work out the way he had planned. It was laughable and pitiful at the same time.

Although it was evident that the well known and respected liberal political leaders rejected Retkes and his "new SZDSZ" (this is what Retkes calls his party all the time), the question was what steps they would take. A few months ago Bálint Magyar, formerly minister of education, wrote an article published in Népszabadság in which he basically suggested a merger between SZDSZ–certainly not the new one!–and MDF, a moderate conservative party. I wrote about this article on May 16 ("A new Hungarian Centrum Party?") and I for one liked the idea. Fidesz's popularity has grown enormously and then there is Jobbik, a party of the far right, that in the last few months has become a serious political factor and a threat to Hungarian democracy, especially if it receives tacit support from Fidesz. I felt then and I feel now that the democratic forces of Hungary must work together to turn things around. Therefore I believe that cooperation among MSZP, SZDSZ, and MDF is desirable. More than desirable. It is a must. The formation of the Liberal Civic Association might be the first step in that direction. Klára Sándor, MP and a member of the association's "presidium," made it clear that if there is enough support they might change the association into a party. And in that party they would welcome anyone who shares their values and political philosophy, be they supporters of MSZP or MDF!

The Hungarian name of the new association is "Szabadelvű Polgári Egyesület" (SZPE) and it's worth pausing here for a moment because every word counts. Let's start with "szabadelvű." That is the Hungarian equivalent of "liberális." It is one of those words Hungarians in their reforming zeal in the early nineteenth century came up with in order to avoid a "foreign" word. (Mind you, "szabad" meaning free is of Slavic origin, but I guess it was adopted such a long time ago that it no longer felt foreign.) "Liberal/liberális," in effect an international word, couldn't be banished from the Hungarian vocabulary. Thus Hungarian has two words for the same thing. SZDSZ's official name is: "SZDSZ-A Magyar Liberális Párt." The people who established SZPE judiciously avoided the word "liberális" for obvious reasons. The other adjective, "polgári," is also worth pondering. "Polgár" originates from the German "Bürger," a man belonging to the middle class. "Nagypolgár" means a person belonging to the upper middle class while a "kispolgár" belongs to the lower middle class. "Polgári demokrácia" as a term for constitutional democracy or liberal democracy most likely had its roots in the Marxist period. Fidesz fell in love with the word "polgári." Even today some of its politicians talk about the "polgári kormány," meaning the Fidesz government. They expropriated the word. In their usage of "polgári" it means the opposite of socialist. Of course, this is all nonsense and therefore I'm really happy that SZPE is trying to resurrect the original meaning of the word. It seems that those SZDSZ members who established SZPE would like to represent people who want the country to return to "normalcy." It would be high time because in the last few years Fidesz has managed to turn the country into a battleground.

According to SZPE's press release they would endorse old-fashioned virtues: responsibility, security, human dignity, decency, sobriety, moderation, knowledge, understanding, acceptance, and solidarity. These are middle-class values that should resonate with the politicians and supporters of MDF. Some observers immediately brought up the question of the "Gyurcsány orphans" within the MSZP camp. Whether they would be willing to support the association and later perhaps a party. "Gyurcsány orphans" are those MSZP voters who keenly feel the loss of Ferenc Gyurcsány and look upon the current MSZP with some suspicion. The verdict is still out on both Ferenc Gyurcsány's political plans and the thinking of his followers.

The last sentence of the news release is: "Our goal is the creation of a well balanced, well off, happy, and European Hungary." The question is of course whether there are enough Hungarians who understand what SZPE wants to achieve. Or who believe that Hungary can actually be transformed into this kind of country.

One more interesting thing. The list of charter members includes Gábor Kuncze, former president of SZDSZ who is still a member of parliament. Kuncze swore a year ago that in 2010 he would leave politics for good. Therefore it was something of a surprise to see his name on the rostrum. Kuncze's popularity is enormous. Some people think that, were he to be a candidate for prime minister, it might shift the outcome of the election which at the moment decidedly favors Fidesz. He was also mentioned as a candidate for mayor of Budapest, as the only man who could win against Fidesz candidate István Tarlós. I'm certain that a lot of people, frightened by the growth of the right, are trying to convince him to take an active part in politics. I wouldn't be surprised if some even reminded him of his responsibilities under the circumstances. Perhaps his willingness to participate in SZPE is an indication that Kuncze might have changed his mind.

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Sophist
Guest
Rather than abstractions such as “responsibility, security, human dignity, decency” etc. Which every political party can sign up to – Jobbik use these words in their rhetoric. Politics should be about policy. The proposed merger of elements the SZDSZ, MDF and MSZP – though it would introduce political harmony in the Sophist household – overlooks some fundamental diffrences in policy. MSZP believe, or should believe the State should intervene in the market to advance social cohesion; however, the MDF as the only proponents of liberal economic policy in Hungary don’t. And the SZDSZ who straddle the fence should figure out which cause, a liberal economy or social cohesion is more important and move accordingly. The last thing the future opposition needs now is further fragmentation. “Fidesz’s popularity has grown enormously and then there is Jobbik, a party of the far right, that in the last few months has become a serious political factor and a threat to Hungarian democracy, especially if it receives tacit support from Fidesz” Again, “democracy” is also would Jobbik subscribes to. It would be worthwhile what polices would be practicable under a Jobbik/Fidesz coalition – and how these would change exsiting democratic institutions – my guess… Read more »
Mark
Guest
“The formation of the Liberal Civic Association might be the first step in that direction. Klára Sándor, MP and a member of the association’s “presidium,” made it clear that if there is enough support they might change the association into a party. And in that party they would welcome anyone who shares their values and political philosophy, be they supporters of MSZP or MDF!” If you’ll forgive my cynicism this move is a product more of political calculation, than principle. The situation is simple – the current SZDSZ parliamentary party has abandoned their national party. However, this means unless they do something they stand no chance of being reelected to parliament next years, for the SZDSZ party leadership and membership will be able to decide on who should be candidates (leaving aside whether we think the SZDSZ has any chance of winning seats in their own right). As individuals SZDSZ members of parliament could seek places high up the lists of other parties, but, I’m pretty sure that the last thing either large sections of the MSZP or MDF want are ex-SZDSZ politicians on their list. The LMP-HP, realizing that having SZDSZ politicians on its list would be the kiss… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark about the new liberal civic association: “If you’ll forgive my cynicism this move is a product more of political calculation, than principle.”
I might be biased because I am on very friendly terms with some of the people who are involved and I think very highly of them. I am certain that their motives have nothing to do with their alleged fear of losing their parliamentary seats. If that were the case they could simply switch parties. I’m sure that they would be welcome in either MSZP or MDF. In fact, Klára Sándor was a candidate who had been endorsed by both SZDSZ and MSZP in her district that she won outright.

whoever
Guest
This article doesn’t really give the full story in regards to Kuncze. He is a popular figure, largely based on his wit and being something of a genuine heavyweight, in a world which now includes a number of lightweights as MSZP and Fidesz top brass. But he has backed Kóka unreservedly as SZDSZ fraction leader. And what Eva hasn’t mentioned is that, in Hungary, Kóka is only marginally more popular than Robert Fico. In other words, he is a “devalued brand”. Kuncze’s backing of Kóka not only brings into question his own judgement, but also illustrates the sense in which the SZDSZ were depending on Kuncze, who is now quite old, of course. Not to mention the whispering that surrounds Kuncze’s own business deals, which I will not repeat here. Eva is right to mention sections of the MSZP in relation to a “new liberal” bloc. The MSZP play a role similar to the Conservative Party in the UK, or perhaps the CDU in Germany – the Party itself does not itself have any clear ideology. It has links with the state and public sector finance, which means that it talks of a role for the state, but when in… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

whoever: “But he [Kuncze] has backed Kóka unreservedly as SZDSZ fraction leader. And what Eva hasn’t mentioned is that, in Hungary, Kóka is only marginally more popular than Robert Fico.”
I would correct the above a bit. Kuncze supported Kóka for the presidency of SZDSZ and that job also meant heading the parliamentary delegation. My hunch is that Kuncze supported Kóka not so much for his own sake but because he didn’t want to have Fodor to have the job. Most likely he felt that Fodor would be a disaster. He wasn’t much off in that. I don’t like Kóka either but I like Gulyás, Béki and some of their ilk even less.

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