It’s final: Attila Mesterházy is the Hungarian socialists’ choice

It was almost a foregone conclusion that the choice of MSZP's nominating committee for prime minister would be accepted by the party congress. Though it did happen once, in 2004, that the top brass's choice, Péter Kiss, was set aside in favor of Ferenc Gyurcsány. But this time such an event was unlikely. Ninety percent of those present endorsed him as opposed to the 70% who voted for the list. Of course, such a disparity is not surprising. Those who didn't make the list or were in a throwaway slot would have been unlikely to embrace the list.

Mesterházy's speech was printed in full in today's Népszabadság's online edition. A lot depends on delivery, and therefore I will suspend final judgment on his speech until after I have had the chance to hear it live. The main thrust of the speech was the emphasis he put on MSZP's role as the embodiment, the flag bearer of Hungarian democracy. "The question is whether we can preserve those democratic values that in the last twenty years we together managed to acquire." Surely, he was talking here about the "SZDSZ orphans" and everybody who is afraid of the undemocratic turn that might take place with a Fidesz victory. Perhaps these fears are exaggerated, but Orbán's ever increasing shrillness doesn't give much comfort to those who are worried about such a turn of events. Although MSZP at the moment is in a weakened position, it is still a mass party–the largest on the left. Therefore the socialists have the greatest responsibility when it comes to conducting a successful campaign. Or at least this is what I sense from statements of socialist politicians and also from Mesterházy's speech. Their aim is to appeal to everybody who is not a committed Fidesz or Jobbik voter.

Mesterházy further emphasized the theme of democracy when he quoted José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero upon his election as prime minister of Spain: "The country doesn't need great leaders. It needs democrats." This quotation is quite appropriate in today's Hungary. The number of democrats is frighteningly small.

Otherwise, Mesterházy talked very little about the achievements of the last eight years of socialist rule. Instead he praised the Bajnai government's few months in office, adding that the MSZP parliamentary caucus worked hand in hand with Gordon Bajnai. Most people would admit that Mesterházy handled the difficult MSZP delegation well. The government with the support of MSZP, according to Mesterházy, not only averted a financial collapse but saved 120,000-150,000 jobs. They spent money on public safety by creating local police forces. They took steps to control unscrupulous lending practices. They decided to make a concentrated effort to get rid of the widespread practice of usury, especially in Roma-inhabited villages. They established a fund to give timely financial help to those in real need. According to Mesterházy 75,000 people received such assistance. The change in the tax law will have a beneficial effect on wages received. Ninety percent of taxpayers' take-home pay will be substantially higher: an extra month's worth every year. Maybe even a month-and-a-half. There was also an increase in the assistance given to the farmers.

When it came to the question of what will happen after the economic crisis, Mesterházy was a bit vague. He came up with the new concept of "national modernization." What is "national modernization"? According to Mesterházy it is "a powerful state with strong democratic controls." "Good economic policy that is . . . an instrument for better living standards." "National modernization is setting up clear-cut priorities." For example, creating job opportunities in the countryside and improving the quality of life in the villages. In addition, Budapest should be made a more liveable place. They want to guarantee the retirees their pensions but at the same time they don't want to jeopardize the future of their children. "National modernization also means sustainable development and a greener Hungary." Well, I for one find this "national modernization" concept a bit forced. Almost as if the socialists want to emulate the "nationalist" rhetoric of Fidesz. After all, a lot of people accused them of not being patriotic enough. Perhaps if they use the adjective "national" in front of "modernization" it will satisfy those who haven't been supporters of MSZP for nationalistic reasons.

If he came up with "national modernization" why not a "national minimum"? "National minimum" meant, at least until now, that there ought to be certain steps, especially when it comes to foreign policy, that all parties support. Surely, such was Hungary's adherence to NATO or to the European Union. There seemed to be consensus when it came to the Slovak language law. But now Mesterházy used the term with a different meaning. He widened it by including the "fight against poverty." Since about 80-90% of those living in poverty are Roma, he is appealing to the whole "political elite" to join forces in the fight to solve the "Roma question." As Mesterházy said: "Our fellow citizens, Roma or non-Roma, need jobs." He thought that an epidemic should not be used for political purposes as Fidesz has done with H1N1 vaccines because "such irresponsible behavior may claim lives." And finally "it is also a national minimum to recognize that Trianon is a painful event for all of us except our answers are different to this tragedy."

He finished his speech with "Éljen Magyarország, hajrá MSZP!" This is not exactly original either. Viktor Orbán finishes all his speeches with "Hajrá Magyarország! Hajrá magyarok!" Orbán wasn't original either. He stole the idea from Silvio Berlusconi's "Forza Italia!" Forza = hajrá is a term used by soccer fans. So, Mesterházy came up with "Long live Hungary, forward MSZP!"

As you may detect I have my reservations. We will see what will come of it.