There is no question that there is a power struggle going on inside the Hungarian Socialist Party. At the end of the summer Ferenc Gyurcsány, former party chairman and prime minister, decided to return to politics. Attila Mesterházy, the current party chairman who was chosen as a compromise candidate, is heroically trying to hold together a party whose leadership is sharply divided on both ideology and strategy.
Among the party leadership there seems to be fairly solid opposition to Gyurcsány's suggestion to "make a new party out of MSZP." First of all, there are a number of people who simply don't want to change the party either structurally or on ideological grounds. Some of these people started their careers in Kádár's MSZMP and believe that MSZP, which was formed from the reform wing of that party, is perfectly suited to represent the Hungarian left. Some of these people love talking about "the left" without being able to give a coherent account of what modern social democracy is all about. Even the party's name, Hungarian Socialist Party, is indicative of the fact that those who established it in 1989 didn't want to go so far as to include "social democracy" in the party's name. I just learned from an article by Iván Vitányi, the grand old man of the party and a close ally of Ferenc Gyurcsány, that the question of name change came up at least three times but the old timers voted down the suggestion to change the party's name to Hungarian Social Democratic Party every time.
So, one can imagine the upheaval within the party leadership when it became known that a group of five or six men who sympathize with Gyurcsány are working to register and thus reserve the name "Demokrata Párt" just in case. It was Magyar Nemzet that found out about the registration efforts and it released the news on the day the MSZP leadership discussed Gyurcsány's proposals for a party-wide vote. The leadership, including Gyurcsány, was closeted for nine solid hours where the topic of the Demokrata Párt and its connection to Gyurcsány caused quite a stir. Surely, the timing couldn't have been a coincidence. Gyurcsány has powerful enemies both inside and outside of the party.
One such enemy is László Puch, who bluntly said in an interview a few days ago: "We have had enough of Gyurcsány!" He finished his lengthy interview by comparing Gyurcsány to a bus driver who in 2004 took over the wheel of a vehicle with 2.5 million passengers. He was driving the bus at an incredible speed but had an accident. In the last minute he jumped out of the vehicle and left the bus with only 1 millon live passengers. And now he wants to reoccupy the driver's seat. "If it depends on me he will never get behind our wheel."
Another man, Tibor Szanyi, told Gyurcsány that he should leave MSZP and start his own party. After all, they survived the departure of Sándor Csintalan and Katalin Szili. Of course, the weight of these two people within the party cannot be compared that of Ferenc Gyurcsány. Others like Imre Szekeres, István Hiller, Péter Kiss are less vehement. They simply claim that the "timing isn't right."
Yesterday András Lázár, a member of the party's governing body, wrote an abominably long letter to Ferenc Gyurcsány which he embellished with all sorts of literary allusions. The upshot of the letter is that "our paths have diverged." As is abundantly obvious from the Puch quotation, the old guard think that it is Gyurcsány alone who is responsible for the decline of MSZP.
However, says Vitányi in his article in yesterday's Népszabadság, the real problem with the party is that its leaders "didn't quite digest the basic creed of modern social democracy." There is not much new in this. For the last twenty years we have often heard that MSZP is still not quite a modern social democratic party. But Vitányi goes further and insists that a modern prosperous society must be based on a healthy and sustainable economy. The aim of modern social democracy is the economic progress of the whole society. The latter cannot be achieved without the former. MSZP didn't pay enough attention to the modernization of the economic structure inherited from the earlier regimes and thus didn't manage to raise the living standards of everybody. Only about one-third of the population enjoyed the economic progress made in the last twenty years.
Because the party didn't face the challenges that would have been necessary to achieve rapid growth and rising living standards "left values were limited to empty promises and generous assistance from the state coffers." In 1994 MSZP had a splendid opportunity to tackle the problems. László Békesi, Gyula Horn's minister of finance, worked out an excellent plan for structural reforms but the prime minister, partly out of personal jealousy, removed Békesi from his post. And the party leadership supported Horn's decision. There was a second attempt by Lajos Bokros, Békesi's successor, but Horn put an end to his reforms as well because of his fear of losing the elections.
In 2002 there was another opportunity that was also missed. Four years went by without any structural reform while the government continued to spend more on social services than it could afford. It is true that Ferenc Gyurcsány in late 2004 became prime minister, but he had too little time to introduce any substantial reforms before the elections in less than two years' time. And when he tried to do something, neither the party nor the socialist parliamentary delegation supported him wholeheartedly. The party leadership wasn't ready to embrace a far-reaching reform of the economic structure and the party completely neglected its relationship with the civic society. How often did I hear socialist supporters complain on György Bolgár's call-in show that they phoned party headquarters and offered help but their offers were not answered. The party became isolated and bureaucratic.
So, according to Iván Vitányi, the trouble within MSZP is much deeper than the simplistic explanation that is so often heard from the anti-Gyurcsány forces: "it is Gyurcsány's fault." The decline of the party is due to the Hungarian socialists' inability or unwillingness to embrace the tenets of modern social democracy.
Gyurcsány seems to be casting a wider net, stressing plain-vanilla (or perhaps chili and vanilla–a nod to those who follow Hungarian cooking stars) democracy over social democracy. He wants to open the doors of the party to everybody who is committed to democratic principles. Some of the party leaders make no secret of the fact that they have no intention of admitting non-socialists to the party. Perhaps within a week we will know who will win the battle for the heart and soul of the socialist party.