By-election in Dunaújváros and its lessons

In the middle of February a local internet site reported that the Tolna County police were investigating an old murder case. Two years earlier, a well-known businessman had been reported missing. His body was eventually discovered, cemented over, in the backyard of a house in Dunaújváros. One of the men accused of the murder was Roland Gál, a Fidesz member of the Dunaújváros City Council. Soon enough, he was stripped of his party membership and removed from his position as a member of the city council. Hence, the necessity of a by-election, held yesterday.

The result in a nutshell. Fidesz’s candidate won, but only because MSZP, DK, and PM, the three democratic opposition parties, ran separately. If they had agreed on a common candidate (assuming he got the same number of votes as the total of the three opposition candidates), Fidesz would have narrowly lost the election. Everybody anticipated a Fidesz victory considering the fractured left. That was no surprise. The Fidesz candidate received 405 votes (39%), DK 241 (23%), Jobbik 199 (19%), MSZP 97 (9%), and PM 84 (8%). The very poor MSZP showing most likely sealed the fate of József Tóbiás; he is unlikely to be reelected chairman of MSZP. Tóbiás sacked the local party chairman, who was against a joint ticket, even though he himself apparently encouraged the locals to run on their own.

The DK leadership is convinced that their failure to reach an agreement with MSZP is the sole fault of MSZP. Their argument rests on a 2014 agreement between the two parties that stipulated that, in the event of a new election, the right of nomination would belong to the party whose candidate originally ran. Since at the 2014 municipal election the united opposition’s candidate was a DK politician, DK expected their man to run again. However, the local MSZP leaders refused to recognize the existence of such an agreement, arguing that it applied only to national, not to local elections. The top leadership decided to support the locals, who claimed that their candidate was more likely to succeed than DK’s man. As it turned out, it was a very bad decision.

One could ask why DK’s leaders insisted on such a confrontational strategy. For the sake of peace, why didn’t they simply go ahead and support the MSZP candidate? Apparently, Ferenc Gyurcsány himself was inclined to let MSZP have its way, but other top leaders of DK argued that such a conciliatory attitude would be a sign of weakness. DK was not aggressive enough when it came to bargaining for better positions on the party list in 2014, the result of which was a lopsided parliamentary representation in favor of MSZP. DK ended up with four members who have sit with the independents because the party didn’t meet the threshold for having a recognized parliamentary delegation, while MSZP has a 28-member caucus. And the ratio of their vote totals was at the time three to two.

The DK activists at work / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

DK activists at work / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

Once the decision was made that the democratic parties would go their own ways, the die was cast. Fidesz would undoubtedly win the election. The relatively low turnout (32%) was most likely due to the pessimism that greeted the decision against cooperation. Reporters who visited the city prior to the election came back with the distinct feeling that “the majority is sick of Fidesz but this way they will surely win.” So, it would be a waste of time even to bother to vote.

Even with the fractured democratic opposition, Viktor Orbán was worried enough about the outcome to schedule a campaign trip to Dunaújváros only a few days before the election. On May 31 he and the Fidesz mayor of the city signed an “agreement of cooperation,” which consisted of 20 billion forints the central government, or more precisely the European Union, would invest in Dunaújváros projects. It would take too long to list all the goodies Orbán promised the city for those measly 400 some votes. Clearly, this election was important to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán because the lost by-elections of the last two years have become not just embarrassing but also worrisome. Reports written on the spot before the election yesterday noted that the Orbán trip made a real impression on the local Fidesz community. Although they know that support for the party is on the decline in town, “now that Viktor Orbán came to see us things have changed,” one Fidesz supporter remarked.

Apparently, Fidesz activists also put an incredible amount of effort into getting out the vote. While DK and MSZP activists campaigned on the streets, Fidesz representatives quietly visited reliable Fidesz voters, urging them to vote.

DK’s strong showing surprised everybody, as did the very poor performance of the socialists. Their degrading loss was interpreted as a wake-up call for the overly self-confident socialist leadership. This seemingly unimportant by-election, where only about one thousand votes were cast, may be a milestone as far as the future of MSZP is concerned. Within a few weeks MSZP will hold its congress and elect a new chairman. Vying for the post are three serious candidates: the current party chairman, József Tóbiás, whose chances even without the failure in Dunaújváros were slim; Tibor Szanyi, who wants to move the party farther to the left and believes that in a head-to-head confrontation MSZP can win against Fidesz; and Gyula Molnár, to whose candidacy I devoted a whole post. A few weeks ago the consensus was that Molnár was the favorite, but then he made the mistake of revealing his plans to approach the other democratic parties, specifically DK, in the hope of closer cooperation. The anti-Gyurcsány forces within the party were less than enthusiastic. Some people feared that Molnár might have blown his chances by taking a conciliatory approach to the man who in October 2011 left MSZP to establish a party of his own. After the debacle of Dunaújváros, however, there is a good possibility that the delegates might realize that “going it alone” is not an option.

The funniest reaction came from the party leaders of PM. One young PM member, who is a council member in one of the Budapest districts, already envisages PM sailing into parliament in 2018 with 10% of all the votes cast. Dunaújváros, in his opinion, is the very beginning of PM becoming an important force on the left. Gergely Karácsony, the co-chairman, sees the results as a confirmation of the party’s belief in the necessity of holding primaries before the actual election as a means of finding the “right person” to head the ticket of a loosely united opposition. Three of the opposition parties support the idea: MSZP, PM, and Együtt.

And the socialists, headed by the candidate himself / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

And the socialists / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

So, let’s talk about this notion of primaries. When I first heard about the idea of introducing primaries into the Hungarian political system I was less than thrilled. Although I dutifully cast my vote in my state’s primaries, I’m not at all sure they are the best way to pick candidates for the U.S. presidency. I don’t want to dwell on U.S. domestic politics, but the fact that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate doesn’t speak well for the process which, by the way, has been uniformly used only since 1968.

Mátyás Eörsi, a former SZDSZ politician and now a DK supporter, wrote a good opinion piece in Népszabadság in which he outlined his objections. “Elections—just as primary elections—are by nature divisive.” So, primaries will only sharpen the ideological and personal differences between the candidates. Moreover, primaries in the United States are held within one single party and not among three or four or perhaps five different ones. Thus, a primary would in fact be a full-fledged election, after which voters whose candidate lost would be asked to abandon their party and vote for the leader of another. A hopeless idea. Especially since in Hungary the political culture is totally unsuited to the practice of burying the hatchet. Eörsi is so convinced about the lethal effect that primaries would have on the opposition’s chances that he fairly confidently announced that its already small chance of success in 2018 would be totally annihilated by holding primaries.

In the last few months, four times a week, György Bolgár, the host of the popular radio call-in show “Let’s Talk It Over,” poses the question: “What’s To Be Done?” Callers as well as politicians, political commentators, and intellectuals interested in politics have an opportunity to share their thoughts on how to save Hungary from another six years of Fidesz rule. At the beginning I enjoyed the exercise, but by now it is becoming tedious. I could count on one hand people who came up with truly insightful suggestions.

Perhaps what we should do is to strive for the ultimate, the maximum, the ideal. The one which at the moment is just a dream but which is actually the only sure way to stand against the Fidesz onslaught. Eörsi talks about this solution briefly, saying “If we dream, let’s dream big. In order to be able to take up a battle with the Orbán regime what we actually need is not cooperation but one big left-of-center party.” Indeed, this should be the ultimate goal. If the parties repeat their sorry performance of what they called “cooperation” in 2014, failure is guaranteed.

They should work very hard to create a brand new party. Forget about MSZP, DK, Együtt, PM. Create what could be called, for example, Magyar Demokraták Pártja. I would certainly include the word “democracy” in some form in the name of the party because it is no longer a struggle between left and right but between the adherents of democracy and the supporters of autocracy. Right now the formation of such a party seems impossible, but it is impossible only until the leaders of the opposition decide that it is worth working for in order to remove a cancer from the Hungarian body politic.

June 6, 2016
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Member
I think, that the MSZP is collaborating with the Fidesz, from almost the beginning, from 2011, so they are left alone and for this, nobody went to jail for their corruption and robbery and other crimes. The MSZP and the other parties’ members were and are corrupt, as is the norm for most of the Hungarian politicians. Anyone, who is not , simply cannot have a long career in Hungarian politics. When it comes to cooperation, solidarity, sacrifices for a common cause and working together for the success, Hungarians seldom cross the party lines openly. Anyone, who is in another party is an enemy, collaboration if organized, must be kept in secret with the payola and the favors received in turn. The Fidesz is successful, because the viktor organized a band of criminals and thieves, who are totally dependent on him being in power and anyone who does not tow the line is severely punished and exiled from Hungarian politics, some of the more unsavory criminals, turncoats, and/or those, who work for themselves without the blessing of the viktor even get killed. One takes a suicide pill in a police car another run over by a car, while on a… Read more »
Roderick Beck
Guest

Probably less corruption under the Socialists. Quite a few Socialists went to jail and that deters others. What Fidesz politician has been jailed for corruption since the 2010 election?

Gabor Toka
Guest

The article calls selecting candidates for a unity list via primaries “a hopeless idea” and then suggest to form a single party. No argument in favor of the primaries and none against either the desirability or the feasibility of party mergers is reviewed. But probably you just wanted to save those for a next post? P.S. I cannot always follows the Byzantine complications on the Hungarian left, but I believe that MSZP is not in favor of holding primaries just did not reject the idea outright like DK did.

abigél
Guest

The Left is unable to unite. This has a very simple reason.

Those people who accept, like, demand discipline, authority and respect (which are necessary for unity) tend to vote conservative/right-wing.

(Sure, until let’s say 1960 the communists were also very disciplined but since then the Left as an ideology fundamentally changed, it became a cultural movement.)

It’s a self-selection issue, people who want to work mindlessly in a bigger organization and serve authority won’t become leftists.

As a result I’m very doubtful that it’s possible to form a united democratic leftist party. Moreover its is very easy to divide any unity as Fidesz owns many leftist politicians and it has the secret services and the prosecution at its disposal.

webber
Guest

Nonsense. Almost every democratic country in the world has leftist parties which are able to win elections.

Guest

Webber, no use to try to reason with a right wing troll which “knows” that O is invincible …
Maybe the troll is right – well (or rather not …), then Hungary is lost for the next x years.

Btw my wife agrees with me that Hungarian society and politics are still fifty years behind the West – I see a similar situation in East Germany with Pegida etc.
She sometimes despairs when hearing/reading stuff that some of her friends produce re Greater Hungary, the role of women in society and so on … But she always was a strong person – did not become a party member in Kadar times even though it meant no career for her …

That does not mean that all East Germans or all Hungarians are stupid right wingers which follow any lunatic – but there is a large number of them, larger than say in Western Germany, Austria, France or the UK etc …

So do as I do and regard the “creature with a thousand names” as a funny puppet …

webber
Guest

Abigel might just be very young. I imagine her as someone who has not spent much time out of Hungary and who is trying social theory, but hasn’t been able to read enough yet because of her age.
Her idea seems to be that leftists are psychologically incapable of organization. It’s not a bad idea, as such, it’s just that it’s entirely wrong.
If she had said the same thing about anarchists, we would enjoy it because it seems even more logical: What is the goal of an anarchist party? To dissolve itself. A nice joke.
About leftists, it’s so wrong it isn’t funny – but, as I say, it could just be an error of youth on Abigel’s part, not trolling.

ancsa
Guest

Ask Gyurcsány, he says exactly the same things as Abigél. Look, I know a lot of liberals and leftist people in Hungary and they don’t seem to be the people who would thrive in a disciplined, quasi-military – but apparently highly effective – organization like Fidesz.

These friends, acquaintances like having their coffee in a nice cafe and like to argue, criticize, debate because the liberal idea of democracy is that of a deliberative democracy where people debate policy options and then come up with the best ideas. With such “bázisdemokrácia” you won’t get anywhere against a disciplined army aided by oligarchs, the media, the prosecution, the security establishments etc.

It is an issue the leftists have to deal with much more than the right-wingers and believe me at DK at least they are acutely aware of the problem.

Guest

Then why is in Baden Württemberg (the country of the usually very conservative Schwabs) the Green party the strongest with a Green Prime Minister?
So again, Hungary’s “democracy” is at least 50 years behind the West?
Do Hungarians still believe in a feudal system like Horthy’s where everybody knew his/her place?

obiwan
Guest

It’s not like they believe in it. But it is a system that apparently works for places which lag behind, which otherwise hasn’t been offering any hope for decades now. If Hungary was as successful as the West-Germans then democracy could work too. Democracy, trust, cooperation are middle classes, bourgeoisie categories. It’s not me who says it, but as diverse people as J. S. Mill and Lenin. Where such independent middle class does not exist, democracy cannot work properly.

Roderick Beck
Guest

Part of the problem is that the Left still dreams of Hungary as the Sweden of the East. But it seems highly implausible given Hungary’s low labor force participation, resistance to new ideas, and costly bureaucracy.

webber
Guest

I know a few Hungarian leftists, and none of them dreams of Hungary being the Sweden of the East – except in the way someone might dream of marrying George Clooney or Mila Kunis.
They know perfectly well what Hungary’s limitations are at the moment.
That said, what’s wrong with dreaming about Hungary being the Sweden of the East? Aim high, and you might get a bird. Aim low, and you’ll hit the ground.

abigél
Guest
Yes, that is right – but you’re missing the point. Maybe intentionally. From your observation it does not follow that already existing leftist parties can unite/merge into one single party for the sake of unity. This is a huge distinction and one that should not be overlooked. If there was only one leftist party in Hungary then yes that might’ve been able to defeat Fidesz. But there are almost half a dozen of them and yes, many members/leaders of such parties are owned by Fidesz outright. It is in fact extremely rare to see 5-6 leftist parties to unite and defeat an incumbent right-wing party (especially as it has ample reserve voters at Jobbik and abroad). It is not a trolling to call attention to the fact that leftists have a predilection for constant, open criticism, infighting, establishing “platforms”and suchlike. The current infighting on the right is not the usual infighting at any party (it is not the parallel of what you see on the Left). Fidesz to any average voters is still monolithic and united. The Fidesz infighting is the direct consequences of the fact that Fidesz is the state and the opposition parties are all irrelevant (for practical… Read more »
Guest
Re: ‘Btw my wife agrees with me that Hungarian society and politics are still fifty tears behind the West’ Interesting point. I have a hankering we’re looking at a future of dread. Magyarorszag is the canary in the mine when it comes to the existence of ‘democratic’ states in the modern age. There was euphoria for awhile after Hitler and his band went down the tubes but the hosannas got hushed real quick as the Soviets became new land barons. That worked for awhile until their ‘system’ collapsed with democracy allegedly whipping a defeat on the commies. But killing an idea is still tough even as it morphs into a new concoction where the illiberalist ‘mixed drink’ is making some lose their perspective once again. And democracy is once again ‘under the cosh’ as the Brits would say. If there was a ‘win’ it was short and illusory. As far as ‘unification’ of the opposition in Magyarorszag it could only happen with a ‘meeting of the minds’ to hash out differences, agreements and further points to ponder. All done in order to learn to be a viable ‘partner’ with the installed government in contributing and guiding the path of the… Read more »
webber
Guest

Samuel Huntington, Third Wave thesis: Democracy spreads in waves, as a sort of fashion. At the end of each wave there is a retrenchment, as many (even most) newly democratic countries drop democracy. However, the low point of the wave, after the retrenchment, is always higher than the previous low point, so that there is, on average, an increase in the number of democratic states over time.
If Hungary (and Poland, and Serbia, etc.) drop democracy, still make no mistake – if Huntington’s thesis is correct, more states will be democratic after the retrenchment than were before 1989. Those that become undemocratic are just the losers.

groovy
Guest

Please forget Huntington, politics and social, international relations are a tiny bit more complicated than that.

Moreover, as I remember Huntington somehow never really dealt with “capital” (probably he though that was a Marxist thing to do) and economic relations.

As if the US only invaded Iraq to export democracy or Hungary’s democratic project had nothing to do with the economic situation or the migrants from the Middle East would only come to Europe to spread Islam. Out of the canonized, liberal ones I honestly can’t think of any less relevant theorist than Sam Huntington.

webber
Guest

I think you ought to read that book by Huntington. It is anything but simple.

You are basing your comments on his Clash of Civilizations nonsense, I suppose (hated it).

His Third Wave book is well worth reading, I assure you.

Istvan
Guest
I have posted on this site in relationship to the late Samuel P Huntington before, I believe I even included a link to a recording of a presentation he made at the Army War College that I attended many years ago. I believe it was Eva who made a reference to Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” that inspired that post. As I related in that post, as a young US Army officer I was deeply impressed with his book “The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations” (1957). But after my own experience during the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong blitzkrieg offensive in March, April and May 1972 (the Easter Offensive) across the DMZ about one year after President Nixon had ordered most US combat troops out of Vietnam I came to believe that Dr. Huntington’s support for the theory of the strategic hamlets was really an overreach of theorizing. Huntington advocated for the concentration of the rural population of South Vietnam, via a strategy of carpet-bombing and defoliating the rural lands and jungles of Vietnam, as a means of isolating the Viet Cong. Binh Duong province, bordering the city of Saigon where I was stationed in… Read more »
Roderick Beck
Guest

Over the course of my life (born in 1962) democracy has successfully taken root in many countries. Don’t underestimate its power.

Guest

wrfree?

I don’t want to talk about it.

Guest

Re: ‘Over the course of my life (born in 1962) democracy has successfully taken root in many countries. Don’t underestimate its power’

And I’d suggest that is true despite the fact that it hasn’t been around consistently in the centuries between the ‘golden age’ Greeks and
our modern age. Conclusion? Real tough to implement and and perhaps prone to ‘disorder’ in its precepts of debate and ‘give and take’ and focus on compromise.

And at bottom it is easier to move it to a path of decay rather than development when inattention occurs or when leaders believe it is better to substitute dialogue with force or with subtle intimidations as to where outcomes should go. Democracy…..Hard to create and develop. Much easier to destroy. Many are called. Sometimes only a few are chosen. And some as we see regress to that disturbing ‘dark side’.

Trying to leave a light on for Magyarorszag, Poland etc. And worried about the lights going out in the Baltics. When the bear gets hungry and looking for a snack who knows what it will do. But we have history that can give an answer on that.

Guest

Wrfree? You don’t usually miss them!

‘Some guys have all the luck’ RS said that!

‘I don’t want to talk about it’ RS said that!

‘We must always maintain our sense of humour’

(I said that!)

Guest

London Calling!

“Forget about MSZP, DK, Együtt, PM. Create what could be called, for example, Magyar Demokraták Pártja.”

The trouble is if you put four Hungarians together you get five different opinions – and five different versions of history.(!)

The idea of Magyar Demokraták Pártja means closer co-operation!

If they couldn’t co-operate on a loosley-coupled policy agreement – they sure won’t agree to a closer cooperation umbrella party. Imagine trying just to agree on a logo!

I’m sorry but yet again the “Are you the people’s front of Judea?” comes into my mind!

This ‘MDP’ will still have to engage on Orban’s terms – with his warped voting mechanisms and stitched-up media.

The ‘don’t-take-your-seat’ election idea has come of age – and it’s time the opposition started engaging on their own terms. ‘Playing Parliament’ has run its course and failed – the MDP will be strung along with Orban’s private -members-bill-legislation-factory.

But I’ll vote MDP. As you know I voted DK last time!

(Providing I have my freedom!)

Guest

I’m not an expert on the Hungarian election laws obviously, so maybe my question is naive:

Wouldn’t it be possible for several “left parties” to have a common list and common candidates – isn’t that what Fidesz/KDNP has been doing?

And rather OT:

Does anyone have an idea why the HUF has been strengthening lately, from 315 to 310 to the €?

Roderick Beck
Guest

I would rather see economic malaise or a financial crisis undermine Fidesz than a resurgent Hungarian Left. It makes more sense for an impartial body like the IMF to impose the necessary reforms that are anathema to both the Hungarian Right and Left. Make no mistake, it is necessary to cut social benefits and social taxes. And the system and culture are both unfriendly to business. Is the Hungarian Left ready to adopt a pragmatic approach like Denmark where capitalism is welcomed and nutured? I doubt it.

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