The liberals of Hungary were busy already several years before the change of the regime. Historians, sociologists, lawyers and just plain hangers-on were printing and distributing “illegal” political literature for years. The ferment for change was equally contagious within the monolithic socialist dictatorship as well as without. The ways of the struggle were not without some characteristics of hide and seek, the political police was aware that they were outfoxed most of the time and the pioneers of liberalism knew that it was risky to be caught.
In 1988 the time was ripe to come out of hiding and they formed the Network of Free Initiatives. This Network was decidedly un-hierarchic and rather bohemian, there was no explicit structure to it and all adherents (it was too early to speak of membership) brought their own specialties to contribute. The only person perhaps who was a tiny bit more equal than the others was János Kis, a philosopher, a father figure to most of the others and provided the intellectual underpinning. They formed SZDSZ officially in November 1988.
The actual substance of Hungarian liberalism was the demand for free capitalist economy, demand for maximum personal and collective freedom and a social system completely devoid of any overbearing ideology. They were idealists in their politics and pragmatists in their economics. Because they were fully up to date on the literature of political science, some of them were the professors of the subject; they had an excellent grasp of at least what they wanted.
When exactly twenty years ago, in November 1989, the liberals initiated a referendum, their stock was high, because the questions to be decided were foremost in everybody’s minds. The referendum prevented the old communist party from acquiring the president’s post, exiled all party organizations from work places, demanded an accounting for the wealth of the communist party and put an end to the armed private army of the communists. This was a spectacular success for the SZDSZ, this new, fresh party. They were on the crest of the popularity wave. The following year they also succeeded to get one of their numbers elected as the president of the republic.
When, to their dismay, a conservative government was elected in May 1990, the SZDSZ nevertheless managed a substantial showing (23.83%) and sent the main opposition force to parliament. However, already at this time they gave a clear indication of their fatal flaw: they were ready, nay eager to compromise, make a secret pact with the government without getting anything in return and at the same time giving up some fundamental principals. What is worse, they found time and again, insufficient and unconvincing justifications for those unjustifiable compromises.
The election of 1994 brought back the socialists into power with a 54% majority. Being unsure of themselves and their legitimacy, they decided to invite SZDSZ as coalition partners. The socialists had a comfortable majority to govern, but were short of the two-thirds majority necessary to modify the constitution and they hoped to augment their ranks with SZDSZ. This was a mixed blessing for both parties. Now, the government did have the majority, but the partners were reluctant to alter the constitution, and besides the socialists were uncertain of what they wanted and afraid of messing with it. SZDSZ gave up their courageous earlier stance, accepted minor ministries and was hoping for realizing eventually a reduced liberal agenda. The socialists wouldn’t have any of that, they were too busy arranging the accession to the European union, and besides they also had a horrendous economic crisis on their hands. The liberals had to wait for another day.
Around this time I met a man in a discussion group on the net, who later, when we met in person at one of my visits, turned out to be one of the socialist city fathers of District XIV of Budapest and as such was well informed about the inside workings of politics. As we had the obligatory coffee and cake in a lovely patisserie, he explained to me the entire money making operation of the government. I was shocked. But I was even more shocked as he introduced me to the fact that the grand masters of making money in government were the SZDSZ. He was a trustworthy man and I believed him.
Corruption was always suspected, but it had a certain “traditional” level people were accustomed to and was not much talked about yet in 1995. The austerity program that decreased real wages by almost 15% was the main topic of politics for this and the following two years. It had its effect, the economy returned slowly to a manageable state and besides the accession and the election were approaching. Amongst these tense circumstances exploded the so-called Tocsik affair in 1996. Ms Tocsik was a bagwoman for both governing parties who performed the role of an intermediary between the central and the local governments for large amounts of money part of which she was supposed to returned into party coffers. This scandal scuttled the electoral prospects of both parties. For the socialists the damage was manageable, because they were a large mass party. But SZDSZ could not withstand the resulting anger and embarrassment. It was hard not to see that they were talking of lofty ideals, but greasy bagmen were stuffing their pockets with cash at the same time. It was time for some of the iconic leaders to resign. Also, the ever-increasing murmur of anti-Semitism found its convenient subject in SZDSZ, because many of its most prominent members were indeed Jews and the party’s unhealthy association with illicit money provided useful fodder for the hate speeches.
The election of 1998 brought into power Viktor Orbán, reduced the socialists to a substantial opposition party, but made hash of SZDSZ, their earlier 23.5% standing melted down to 5.5%. They were no longer the largest opposition party, far from it; they were a ghost of their earlier selves. But even more devastating was the fact that the years spent in coalition with the socialists consumed their credibility.
SZDSZ all those years was not only unable, but also actually uninterested in garnering wider popular support. They regarded themselves as the representatives of obvious truths that don’t need popular support, because they are self-evident to such a degree that every “smart” person must agree with them and therefore support the party. In retrospect they were arrogant indeed. The electoral annihilation in 1998 still did not galvanize them into action. Most of their stalwart leaders distanced themselves and those who remained were unable to rise to any task.
In 2002 the similarly arrogant Orbán government suffered a defeat that gave the government back, in the absence of any acceptable alternative, to the socialists. Although SZDSZ just barely skipped over the threshold, this time they were indispensible for the coalition government’s slim majority. This new government of prime minister Péter Medgyessy, a former banker and finance minister, embarked on an insane spending spree that was, or should have been, anathema to liberal economic principles, but our Hungarian liberals, again, compromised for the sake of political expediency and complied in silence. But merely a year went by when the prime minister was found out to be a former spook of the old communist secret service. This was an exclusionary cause, and he should have resigned immediately. The liberals, however, held an overnight conference and decided to support him. This was the epitome of spineless groveling at the feet of expediency; the whole country was disgusted. Those who earlier found justification to talk about the unholy alliance of Jews and bankers bankrupting the country had lots to talk about again. All those opportunists who were hoping to make hay based on the Jewish conspiracy had a field day for months and thundered about the encroaching international conspiracy of communism, the colonizing intentions of international finance and the sinister Jews behind it all.
However, in a few months Péter Medgyessy was gone, his government morphed into the Gyurcsány government. Hope was in the liberal air, Gyurcsány a man with two diplomas, a successful businessman and a pragmatist, was an ideal partner for the liberals, being a closet-liberal himself. But Gyurcsány despite all his good ideas and intentions has proven to be less than forceful enough to ram through his promised reforms in the face of hardening opposition. (I doubt if Bismarck himself could have done anything in the given political climate, but Gyurcsány was certainly no Bismarck.) The liberals were practically eating from his hands, as docile as can be; because he was promising them frequently varied reforms from their agenda. However, when nothing happened, the liberals finally bolted from the coalition, with a bit of prodding from Gyurcsány himself, and at the same time elections for party chairmanship had to be held. As it turned out the election was rigged and had to be repeated. The earlier winner was János Kóka while the latter Gábor Fodor who won only with one single vote from many hundreds. In the meantime they supported the government from the outside to prevent a new election. The new leader, an intellectual and ineffectual man whose only distinction was that he was probably the tallest politician in Hungary, was a disaster and resigned in short order. The universal disgust over the party’s shenanigans was understandable. Not because of the stormy anti-Semitic howls, but because the obvious question of how does this “party” propose to run the country if they are unable to conduct an internal election properly.
Today, under the reign of Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, the liberal party has its third leader in two years. The few remaining members who came this far are leaving and resigning in droves, even the parliamentary caucus has now four members who already resigned their party membership. The new leader, Attila Retkes, a nondescript nonentity, makes brave, encouraging noises, but the party is melting away: its membership is probably a few hundred now and in electoral polls their approval rating is well below one percent.
However, liberalism is not dead yet. Only SZDSZ is. There is no purchase for it amongst the electorate, that is true, but the notable departed members of the old SZDSZ establishment are quietly working towards the formation of a new liberal party.