I think by now one can safely state that SZDSZ (Szabaddemokraták Szövetsége/Alliance of Free Democrats) is no more. Most of the founding fathers who have been members of parliament ever since 1990 said farewell to each other and the building a few days ago. The well known names of Bálint Magyar, Iván Pető, Gábor Kuncze, Mátyás Eörsi, Gábor Horn, Gabriella Béki, Miklós Hankó-Faragó, Gábor Világosi, and Imre Mécs will soon not be in the news. They will retire. Bálint Magyar will be a sociologist again, Iván Pető will most likely return to teaching history, Gábor Horn is thinking of establishing a university, Mátyás Eörsi perhaps will once again be a lawyer.
How is it that the most important parties responsible for the change of regime are practically all gone? SZDSZ, the Smallholders, Christian Democrats, and, yes, even MDF are no longer in existence or soon enough they will disappear. MDF, for example, has difficulties even collecting enough endorsements to entitle its candidates to be on the ballot. Yes, Fidesz, another substantial force in 1989-90, remains, but today it is not the same party that it was twenty years ago. Apparently, this is not a unique development in the former Soviet bloc. Most of the parties instrumental in bringing about the change are gone.
Gábor Horn expressed the opinion that the fall of SZDSZ was due to the rivalry between Gábor Fodor and János Kóka. Sometimes people from the outside see things more clearly than those inside of the charmed circle. If I had to name the most important single cause for SZDSZ's failure it would be their doctrinaire attitude. Somehow these intellectuals turned politicians never realized that "politics is the art of the possible," as Otto von Bismarck said. They had principles that they refused to modify or abandon even if political realities proved that putting them into practice was impossible.
Naturally, a liberal party is extremely sensitive about human rights and equality. Therefore their leaders will take every opportunity to take the side of the underdog, the downtrodden minorities. They certainly should defend the rights of Gypsies, Jews, gays, and women. However, one ought to take into consideration realities. Let's take the Roma issue. One should do everything to change the situation, but simply ignoring the fact that there are serious problems facing the country as far as the Roma minority is concerned is foolhardy. It is not enough to raise one's voice when discrimination is detected; one must come up with realistic solutions.
What do I mean? MDF came up with a fairly comprehensive suggestion that might solve all sorts of problems with education in general and with the Roma children's school attendance in particular. The suggestion is that the child support all families in Hungary receive per child should no longer go the families but to the schools. In return, the schools would take care of the children between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. There would be only a short break during the summer. The children would receive three square meals. This would be the regimen for all children, Roma and non-Roma, rich and poor. Because the school attendance of Roma children is sporadic at best and often they stop going to school even before finishing eight grades, such a policy might help the situation. Roma families who didn't send their children to school would be reponsible for feeding them with no government subsidy. Liberals cried foul: rascism! But clearly the only hope for the Roma is education, and therefore every encouragement should be given to that one very important task. By the way, the Fidesz government also came up with a somewhat similar solution: if the child didn't attend school the family didn't receive child support. I thought that it was a step in the right direction.
Or there is school reform. I am the first to applaud a drastic liberalization of Hungarian schools. Just the other day I wrote a piece on the Christian Democratic politician Rózsa Hoffmann who has some very old-fashioned ideas on education. One of her most awful suggestions is that teachers would be tied to textbooks that would be the same for everyone. They could not add to or subtract from the compulsory texts by more than 10%. It reminded me of the Rákosi regime when our history teacher didn't dare utter a word that was not in the official textbook. Or I think of all that memorization that I at least forgot from one day to the next. So I am a deadly enemy of this system. And yes, I fully sympathize with the ideas of the SZDSZ politicians about education. But I am also aware of the fact that most teachers are ill equipped to shift gears. For decades they have been told what and how to teach. Learning by rote is what they have done all their careers. How on earth can one of these teachers suddenly teach history not by rattling off dates but thinking about the causes and consequences of certain events? Most likely they don't even know enough history to be able to engage the students in serious thinking about history. They should be sent back to school themselves.
So even if school reform takes place and the demands are entirely different from the old model, who is going to teach the subjects in a different way? Since the teachers of the old school will be incapable of doing it the reform will be considered a flop. Perhaps a better way to go about it would be to make the changes at the university level. Students would learn the new methods, learn to integrate computers into their teaching, and this new crew would then be able to implement the necessary changes. But that takes time.
These are only two examples where doctrinaire thinking stood in the way of effective politics. But one, I'm sure, could come up with many other examples. The country, the thinking of Hungarians simply couldn't follow the liberals' ideas. They were not ready. That was at least one of the reasons for their failure. The other was bad strategy. Especially after János Kóka became chairman of the party and thought that SZDSZ's popularity would grow if the liberals turned against their coalition partners. The result was just the opposite: their popularity became barely measurable. It was also suicidal from their point of view to break up the coalition. The Kóka-Fodor fight under these circumstances didn't really matter. The party committed suicide way before that.