It’s too early to tell how successful the battered MSZP’s efforts to regain its popularity and its electoral support will be, but the beginnings turned out a great deal better than I expected.
When I heard two or three weeks ago that MSZP isn’t officially supporting the demonstration of the Hungarian Democratic Charta and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s new Democratic Coalition but instead will hold a mass meeting on November 27, I really thought it was going to be a flop. How on earth can you organize a meeting protesting the government’s crippling of the constitutional court weeks after the fact? What I didn’t count on–how silly of me–was that the Orbán government would further attack the country’s democratic institutions in the interim and that there would be plenty of other issues to protest. And indeed, the government did a favor to the socialists: they decided to nationalize the private retirement funds. Well, that is an even bigger issue for the average citizen than the abstract notion of constitutional democracy.
I heard yesterday that the organizers were expecting a full house in the Sports Arena, which seats 10,000, and that in fact several thousand people were unable to get tickets. The crowd included MSZP supporters, the liberal Hungarian Democratic Charta, and Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition platform (which has about three times more non-party than party members). From the party leadership only Attila Mesterházy gave a speech, and the emphasis was on ordinary people and their grievances against the current government. (Videos they are available on MSZP’s website). Mesterházy was a great deal better than usual and even Index, not exactly sympathetic to the left, compared him to Ferenc Gyurcsány, who is indeed an inspiring speaker. The organizers chose a young man, Balázs Bárány, to deliver one of the speeches, and he turned out to be not only good looking but also an excellent speaker who wasn’t awed by the huge crowd.
Ferenc Gyurcsány is still very popular among the rank and file, and here I will quote the rather sarcastic description offered by Magyar Nemzet, a newspaper that is certainly not fond of the man. “But no one caused such rapture as Ferenc Gyurcsány. When he entered the arena, Zsolt Török, one of the spokesmen of the party, was just describing in what big trouble the country is. When the failed former prime minister stepped into the aisle he was followed by continuous applause. It was like ‘dolby surround sound’ in a multiplex movie. Meanwhile they were kissing and embracing him, but Török just went on about the ills of the country.”
The slogan of the gathering was: “Your place is here,” and the returning demand: “It was enough!” Mesterházy called on the people not to be afraid and to stand up for their rights and “pick up the gauntlet.” If the government doesn’t stop its current activities that aim at dismantling the foundations of Hungarian democracy then, come spring, MSZP will organize mass demonstrations. Mesterházy and the others managed to arouse the crowd, who wished Viktor Orbán to hell. And when certain Fidesz names were mentioned, such as Pál Schmitt, Péter Polt, Zsigmond Járai, and György Matolcsy, the people hooted and whistled.
Mesterházy promised compensation for anyone who suffered material losses as a result of the legislation of the Orbán government and swore that once they are back in power they will reverse all the discriminatory pieces of legislation recently accepted by the two-thirds majority. He called the people present “the ambassadors of democracy.” Each was given a “protest petition” to sign themselves and to ask their friends and acquaintances to join them. All well and good, but why they called this signature drive a petition, I can’t fathom. Subjects submit petitions to their ruler, asking for his favor. An unfortunate choice of words.
Mesterházy promised to organize street demonstrations and mass meetings in the spring if the Orbán government doesn’t change its behavior. Well, I don’t think that Orbán will change: his present policies reflect his very essence. The only possibility would be a real threat from Brussels that would carry serious material consequences. For example, if the European Union refused to accept the Hungarian government’s methods for achieving the 2.9% budget deficit and withheld the subsidies originally planned for Hungary. But even that wouldn’t help the situation as far as the constitution, the constitutional court, or the media are concerned.
As for street demonstrations, it is very possible that the trade unions will take their people out on the streets even before springtime. It is also possible that there will be a strike at the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV). Before the elections Gordon Bajnai and Csaba Horváth (MSZP), then deputy mayor of Budapest, worked out an arrangement by which the central government would help out BKV with a 12 billion forint subsidy. Fidesz won the elections and naturally the new government refused to fulfill the obligation of its predecessor. It seemed that Fidesz was waiting for the municipal elections after which the new Fidesz mayor, István Tarlós, could restart negotiations. Then the gift of 17 billion forints would come from Viktor Orbán and not his predecessor. Indeed, the agreement was reached but BKV has received no money. The Transit Authority is in such a bad financial state that it is unable to pay its workers’ end of the year bonuses due on December 5. The trade union is threatening a strike. The government employees are also planning a demonstration. So it is very possible that there might be more people out on the streets than Mesterházy is thinking of at the moment.
From Fidesz only Lajos Kósa had something to say about the MSZP mass meeting. According to Kósa, MSZP took ordinary people’s money (13th month pension, freezing civil servant salaries) while Fidesz taxed banks, multinational companies, the energy sector, and telecommunication companies. So, the majority of the people support the decisions of the Orbán government. As for the threat of going out on the streets, Kósa expressed his belief that everybody has the right to do so, “but the question is whether it makes any sense or not.” Of course, Fidesz in opposition took great advantage of street protests and mass meetings. If it made sense then, it certainly makes sense now. Unless of course Kósa thinks that it doesn’t matter what happens outside the charmed circle of Fidesz. No protests, no strikes, no demonstrations make the slightest difference. They are on top and they will remain there forever. But that’s not how things work in politics.