Two month have gone by since the publication (in Vasárnapi Hírek) of the Publicus Institute’s opinion poll on the teachers’ demonstrations. At that time the overwhelming majority (76%) of Hungarians sympathized with the teachers and thought that their demands were justified. Publicus decided to expand its inquiry to learn more about people’s opinions of the relationship between civic initiatives and party politics. This is a timely survey because there are many who, disappointed in party politics, are placing their trust exclusively in civic leaders. In fact, in the past at least, organizers of demonstrations practically forbade party leaders to attend their rallies. They were petrified that Fidesz-KDNP would label them agents of the opposition parties.
Such an attitude was self-defeating. In the first place, no amount of protestation would convince the government of their “innocence.” After every demonstration Fidesz found at least one organizer who earlier had had some vague connection to parties. It’s enough to think of an employee of the Ökotárs Foundation responsible for handing the Norwegian grants to Hungary who, as Fidesz discovered, was at one point a member of LMP. Balázs Gulyás, organizer of one of the largest demonstrations of late, turned out to be the son of an MSZP EP member and a former party member himself. And Fidesz quickly learned that István Pukli, the principal organizer of the teachers’ demonstrations, was once also an MSZP member. In the eyes of Fidesz, everybody who demonstrates against the government is by definition a traitor who wants to topple the legitimate Hungarian government.
The civic leaders who organized demonstrations were also convinced that their supporters would abandon them if it turned out that they were in any way involved in party politics. Therefore before every demonstration stern warnings were issued demanding distance from the opposition parties. This attitude benefited only Fidesz and the government since, in general, one-off actions of civic groups don’t prompt the government to change its mind. Yes, as the result of a mass demonstration that got wide coverage in the foreign press the Orbán government, after a week of confusion and mixed signals, gave up the idea of a steep internet tax . But that’s all civic organizers have managed to achieved to date. The repeal of the law governing Sunday store closings resulted from the doggedness of MSZP, although clearly public sentiment supported their efforts.
If civic leaders feared a backlash from their supporters if they solicited the assistance of parties in their struggle for change, they can now breathe a sigh of relief. We know from the latest poll of the Publicus Institute that a large majority of Hungarians believe that civic groups should work together with parties. So, from here on perhaps leaders of civic organizations might take a few steps toward forging closer ties with the larger democratic parties.
Let’s dig a little deeper into attitudes regarding the relationship between civic groups and parties. Seventy-two percent of the respondents think that although it is natural that civic groups fight for their interests, alone they will not be able to achieve their aims. Sixty-three percent urge cooperation between civic groups and the opposition parties. On this question MSZP and Jobbik supporters, on the one hand, and Fidesz followers, on the other, think very differently. The voters of the former two parties are strong advocates of cooperation (89% and 83%) while the majority of Fidesz voters oppose it.
The Publicus Institute also returned to its earlier topic of the civic movements that have been taking center stage in Hungarian domestic politics. Interest in the efforts of the teachers, doctors, and nurses is still high. Eighty-five percent of Hungarians follow the events and support the organizers’ goals. At the same time, they expect politicians to solve the current problems of education and healthcare. Seventy-two percent of the respondents think that “if no definite steps are taken by opposition politicians, there is no other solution but for civic groups to lead the way.” However, a large percentage of the same people believe that if these groups try to go it alone, their cause will be lost (47%).
Support for the teachers is still high (62%), but lower than it was in mid-February when it was 76%. It seems that government propaganda has succeeded in convincing Fidesz loyalists that the Orbán administration has been doing its best to solve the problems but the teachers are reluctant to engage in well-intentioned dialogue. Twenty percent of Fidesz voters and 10% of Jobbik supporters have been won over by government propaganda. On the other hand, MSZP voters are more determined than ever to see the teachers win their case.
While people know that without politicians and political parties the opposition forces have no chance of succeeding, they still have no trust in individual politicians. The Publicus Institute chose eleven public figures who have in one way or another been connected with the education and healthcare movements. The question was: “How credibly do the following people represent the cause of education/healthcare?” Among the eleven names there were five politicians: Zoltán Pokorni (Fidesz), Ágnes Kunhalmi (MSZP), Dóra Dúró (Jobbik), István Hiller (MSZP), László Palkovics (Fidesz), and Zoltán Balog (Fidesz). On the whole, the politicians did badly. On a scale of 1 to 100, Balog and Palkovics came in last, each getting 44 points. István Hiller, minister of education during the second Gyurcsány and the Bajnai governments, didn’t do much better (45 points). Dóra Dúró, the Jobbik politician specializing in education, received 49 points. Only two politicians got more than 50 points: Zoltán Pokorni and Ágnes Kunhalmi. Pokorni, minister of education between 1998-2001, is the odd man out in this group because he retired from national politics some time ago, most likely not entirely on his own volition. He is no longer in parliament and has been tucked away as mayor of District XII since 2006. Ágnes Kunhalmi is, in my opinion, a promising young politician who is the chair of the Budapest MSZP group. She was given the task of focusing on educational matters, although I have the feeling that the party could make better use of her talents.
The star of the civic leaders is Mária Sándor, the nurse in black. Almost 90% of the people know who she is and 75% have trust in her. Other figures in the movement are less well known and received lower scores. Katalin Törley, co-chair of the Tanitanék Movement, got 57 points. Mrs. István Galló, leader of the larger teacher’s union, received 56 points; László Mendrey, the other trade union leader, got 55 points; and István Pukli, principal of the Blanka Teleki Gymnasium, got 51 points. So, all the civic leaders scored over 50 points while only two of the six politicians did so. In brief, politicians have to improve their image if they hope to take part in the upsurge of civic initiatives.
Opposition politicians should make every effort to deflate and combat the long-standing Fidesz propaganda, which unfortunately has been far too effective in besmirching the reputation of MSZP and SZDSZ politicians. Their accomplishments have been underrated and their failures exaggerated. It would be time to stand up and defend those policies that deserve praise. For example, teachers were far from satisfied with the state of education before 2010, and by all estimates most of them voted for Fidesz. Yet today they admit that, despite all the shortcomings, their and their students’ lot was much better before the arrival of Viktor Orbán’s Christian-national regime. Maybe it is time to drive home that truth.