The Hungarian Socialist Party at a crossroads

Every time journalists tell Attila Mesterházy, chairman of MSZP, that something is very wrong with the socialist party because, although Fidesz is rapidly losing ground support for the socialist party is at a standstill, the answer is that the current leadership is actually doing a tremendous job. After all, the prediction was that after a defeat as tremendous as the socialists suffered last year the party would simply disintegrate. And, you see, say the socialist leaders, MSZP managed to hold on to its core voting base. They usually add that a very serious reorganization has taken place within the party in the last year, although it might not be visible from the outside. In brief, they are satisfied with mere survival.

I have the suspicion that this kind of argument doesn’t sway too many people. I for one simply disregarded all that silly talk about the disappearance of the socialist party. It is hard to imagine any European society without the existence of some kind of social democratic party. MSZP has a well-established party network and its revival should only be a question of time–and effort. Therefore the argument that MSZP is doing splendidly simply because it has survived the first year of the Orbán government doesn’t impress me at all. I belong to that group of people who keeps wondering: why is the current leadership not able to regain some of its former voters? People who always voted for the liberals or MSZP but fell for the Fidesz promises of instant economic well being without any austerity measures today swear “never again.” They were fooled once, but they learned what to expect from Viktor Orbán and his team. Yet these people are sitting on the fence: they don’t know for whom they would vote even if elections were held this coming Sunday.

Of course, it is possible that a fair number of people don’t trust the pollsters. They suspect them to be the agents of Gábor Kubatov (the Fidesz mastermind of the election victories) and of keeping a list of those who opt for the socialists. Therefore, they feel safer being noncommittal. But I would say that the overwhelming majority of people who will not vote for Fidesz any time soon are truly undecided. They no longer trust MSZP because they are convinced that the party is corrupt through and through.

I wrote earlier that in my opinion the label of corruption was fixed on MSZP by a devilishly clever Fidesz campaign, often with the active assistance of the Hungarian prosecutor’s office. I think I compared that campaign to the inexplicable bomb attacks at the houses of Fidesz and Smallholder politicians in 1998 just before the elections that Fidesz won.

Of course, there are always some bad apples in every political party, and before the elections Zoltán Szabó (MSZP) counterattacked: he unveiled at least two dozen very suspicious Fidesz corruption cases. But nothing happened. Without an investigation by the prosecutor’s office there is no case. It was clear by then that neither the government nor MSZP could expect anything from the prosecutor’s office. So, when MSZP leaders today say that corruption within their party is not worse than, let’s say, in Fidesz, most likely they are telling the truth. However, Fidesz managed to create an atmosphere where in the public mind MSZP is inextricably linked with corruption.

Ferenc Gyurcsány, as chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció Platform (DKP) within MSZP, suggested about a week ago that the party make radical changes. First and foremost, said Gyucsány, there is an urgent need to change the image of the party. MSZP must get rid of the label of corruption, and the very first thing that must be done is to introduce greater transparency in the party’s finances. In addition, DKP suggested a much more serious investigation of the financial affairs of the party leaders. Gyurcsány wanted to have a vote on these matters at a forthcoming congress.

I heard the reactions of three MSZP leaders on the subject and all three were negative. Perhaps the sharpest attack came from András Balogh, one of the vice chairmen, whose input into the revival of MSZP is close to zero. I think his election to the post was a big mistake and only testified to the total confusion that must have reigned in the party right after the elections. It was clear to me from what Balogh had to say that not only did he find the idea abhorrent but that he heartily dislikes Ferenc Gyurcsány himself. The other vice chairman, István Hiller, was only a tad less antagonistic. Attila Mesterházy was more diplomatic but he also rejected the idea. All three announced that “this is not the time to deal with intraparty affairs.” There are so many other more important problems out in the country that the renewal of the party at this junction is not timely. Since they claim to have worked ever so quietly on reorganizing the party, the argument against renewal seems to be at its core a repudiation of Gyurcsány as a vital force in the party.

But if we take their statements at face value and there is no change, how can the party attract more adherents? Let’s face it, although there are many problems in the country the weak and ineffectual opposition parties cannot do a darned thing about them. They certainly cannot do anything about the serious Roma/non-Roma tensions besides making a few speeches in parliament criticizing the current administration’s policy. But these feeble reactions will not attract hordes of people into the MSZP camp as long as the old image of the party doesn’t change. If I were one of the MSZP leaders I would relent and hand-in-hand with DKP begin the transformation of MSZP. Otherwise, the credibility of the party will not be restored any time soon.

P.S. A friend of mine set up a “fan page” for Hungarian Spectrum on Facebook. Since everybody likes to be “liked” and I would be a bit sad if nobody said anything good about my efforts, I ask you to make a trip to the “fan page” of Hungarian Spectrum and click on the “like” sign. Of course, only if you really like this blog.

May 1, 2011