I’m pretty sure that all of you have heard over and over from friends and acquaintances that no party that talks too much about the importance of democracy in Hungary can possibly win an election. People are disappointed in democracy, which only brought them misery, a drop in living standards, and systemic corruption. Some commentators go even further: the Hungarian people have always been conservative, bordering on a fascination with the far right, and therefore no party on the left can ever win an election. These are the statements I would like explore in this post.
As things stand now, the best recipe for electoral success seems to be unbridled nationalism and the hatred of strangers. At least this was what brought back into the fold at least half a million voters who had abandoned Fidesz during the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015. But that strategy has been trademarked by Fidesz, and the pitiful imitators on the left only make themselves ridiculous by trying to repeat the worn-out nationalistic phrases coined by the “parrot commando.” Fidesz voters will not be impressed by politicians of the small democratic parties who feel compelled to add the adjective “Hungarian” every time they utter the word “people.” This road leads nowhere.
Another possible way to tilt the odds in favor of the political forces on the left is to offer an immediate financial reward to the state employees—doctors, nurses, teachers—who at the moment are on the lowest rungs of the pay scale. Lately the socialist party (MSZP) has been trying out this tactic, without much success. The apathetic populace no longer believes that their living standards will change for the better any time soon, and they no longer believe politicians’ promises. Moreover, as we know from past experience, a one-time large increase in wages can be forgotten by the electorate within months.
So, let’s go back to the original statement about the alleged hopelessness of winning an election in Hungary in the name of democracy and social justice. I would like to argue against the proposition that the failure of the democratic opposition is due to their emphasis on democracy, which has lost its appeal in the eyes of the electorate. Of the five parties on the left, it is Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) that places the greatest emphasis on the necessity of restoring democratic norms. Gyurcsány finishes every speech with a call for a return of the Third Republic, which basically means a restoration of the pre-2010 period. And yet DK is the only party that has been able to grow steadily, to the point that its level of support practically equals that of MSZP, which has fluctuated between 16% at its height in 2013 and its current 10%. If the mention of the word “democracy” was such poison for a party, then DK should have remained on the level of Együtt (Together) and PM (Dialogue), with 1% support each. Surely, it is not a party’s devotion to democratic values that makes a party successful or unsuccessful.
The structure and leadership of a party is, in my opinion, a much more important factor, and here DK is in a better position than MSZP. Critics rightly point out that DK is so closely associated with Ferenc Gyurcsány, as Fidesz is with Viktor Orbán, that if either of them suddenly disappeared their parties would most likely collapse. However, having one person whose standing within the party is unquestioned lends strength and stability to a political organization. There seems to be solid cohesion in the top leadership of DK as opposed to MSZP, where József Tóbiás has many secret and not so secret critics within the party and where there is no coordinated policy to deliver a common message.
In addition to the personnel problems in MSZP there is an unfortunately obvious hesitancy when it comes to determining the kind of policy the party should follow. MSZP often behaves in a cowardly fashion. Every time they think that a Fidesz proposal might be popular with their electorate they feel compelled to vote for the bill. One might call such behavior pragmatic, but it is unprincipled, and my guess is that what the anti-Orbán electorate would like to see is a sure-footed opposition instead of a party that offers half-measures. This kind of brave, uncompromising attitude might be the key to a party’s success between now and the next election.
And that leads me to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s twelfth speech on “the state of the nation” on January 23. Practically all commentators touched upon the harshness of his criticisms. He described today’s Hungary as a country divided between “the few who live in great style and who are becoming rich as a result of corruption and those toiling multitudes without hope.” In his opinion “a criminal gang that is headed by the prime minister, masquerading as politicians, runs the country.” One cannot possibly more harshly and aptly describe what is going on in Hungary today.
Gyurcsány is ready to take unpopular stands. For example, the refugee issue. MSZP last summer criticized the government’s anti-refugee policies, but by end of September they changed tactics. The MSZP caucus abstained when the question of the army’s participation in building the fence that kept migrants out of the country came up for a vote. They called their new strategy “positive neutrality.” Gyurcsány criticized MSZP at the time, and even today he is unwilling to abandon his belief that Hungary would benefit from a well-regulated immigration policy that would allow a certain number of immigrants to settle in the country. Fidesz immediately announced that Gyurcsány is dangerous.
DK’s motto is “no compromise with the government under any circumstances.” The question is whether such an unbending attitude will be more successful than MSZP’s hesitant and vacillating approach. Only time will tell.