Although Bernadett Szél’s name can be found in scores of posts on Hungarian Spectrum over the years, I don’t think that I ever devoted an entire post to this popular female politician, the co-chair of LMP (Lehet Más a Politika/Politics Can Be Different). Well, now that LMP formally announced that she is the party’s choice to run for prime minister, it is time to assess her candidacy. Although Szél is a very attractive contender, one must keep in mind that LMP has consistently refused to consider cooperation with any other political party. LMP, led by Bernadett Szél, is planning to win the election single-handedly.
The forty-year-old Szél has an undergraduate degree in economics (2000) and a Ph.D. in sociology (2011). She is an excellent debater who has delivered some notable speeches in parliament. She is quite capable of silencing her opponents. She is perhaps best known as the most eloquent and resolute opponent of the extension of Hungary’s nuclear power plant in Paks. Unlike most of her colleagues in parliament, she speaks both English and German well. She also seems to have an abundance of energy and, despite her many duties, has time for a daily run or some other form of physical exercise. So, unlike the present prime minister of Hungary, she is in excellent shape. She and her husband have two young daughters.
Of the current candidates for prime minister–László Botka (MSZP), Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd), and Gábor Vona (Jobbik)–Bernadett Szél is probably the most promising. Even her gender may be in her favor. Thirty percent of the electorate would prefer a female prime minister, and sixty percent of the left-of-center voters would support a woman over a man. There is a growing conviction, often expressed by men, that women are more inclined to reach compromise solutions and that therefore Hungary would be better off with a female prime minister. I’m not at all sure that Bernadett Szél is the prototype of that compromise-ready woman since she has repeatedly expressed her total rejection of all politicians who had anything to do with politics before 2010. But still, judging by her accomplishments and talents, I believe that she would qualify as a very good and most likely popular candidate. With a party behind her with about 4-5% support of the electorate, however, it is unlikely that the name of Hungary’s next prime minister will be Bernadett Szél. Unless, of course, she is ready to strike a bargain.
Despite the party’s low poll numbers, Szél and LMP are dead serious about winning the 2018 Hungarian national election. Their first move was to get Ron Werber, an Israeli campaign strategist, to serve as LMP’s adviser. Werber used to work for MSZP, and his greatest accomplishment was MSZP’s victory in 2002 against all odds. From that point on, Werber became Fidesz’s bogeyman, the “conductor of hate” as they called him because of his negative campaigning style. I don’t know what kind of advice Werber has given Szél so far, but Werber and Szél seem to be a good fit. She has confidence in him, and Werber considers Szél “competent and someone who knows what she is talking about.” Werber apparently talked with both MSZP and DK but finally settled for LMP. The media would love to find out how much LMP is paying the Israeli adviser, but for now we must be satisfied with Szél’s claim that Werber’s advice is pro bono.
According to Magyar Nemzet, before the party’s announcement of its candidate for the premiership LMP hired Závecz Research to conduct a poll to assess Bernadett Szél’s chances against Viktor Orbán in a hypothetical two-person race. It turned out that four-fifths of socialist voters would support Szél. As far as Jobbik voters are concerned, the support is not that overwhelming, but the majority (54%) would vote for LMP’s candidate. This is especially significant because one would have assumed that a Jobbik voter in this scenario would vote for Orbán, but in fact only 20% would commit to the Fidesz candidate. LMP also wanted to know what would happen if the electorate could vote for prime minister separately. How would Szél fare? At this point, even before the announcement of her candidacy, Szél would get 29% of the votes to Orbán’s 44%. All this shows considerable support for Szél, but, of course, the problem is that the next election is not shaping up to be a two-way race.
Bernadett Szél has given several interviews in the last few days, but perhaps the most detailed one, as far as her ideas are concerned, was conducted three days ago by Attila Kálmán of 24.hu. Her message is straightforward. She decided to run because, just like the majority of the electorate, she can no longer endure “the total chaos” that exists within the opposition. In this interview she presents herself as the embodiment of LMP’s program, which is ready, but soon she will also tell the voters what she will do in the first 100 days of her administration. She is categorical when it comes to other parties on the left. Creating a unified voting bloc would be a “Frankensteinian construction,” after which they would be unable to govern. Members of this Frankensteinian construction “time and again forfeited the trust of the people in the last thirty years and therefore they shouldn’t be entrusted with the future of the country.” She promises “to shutter the past and revitalize the country.” But Bernadett Szél ought to realize that one cannot close the past because history is a continuum, nor can one drastically change a country at will. Still, despite her shortcomings and in a different electoral system, she would be a very promising candidate. Unfortunately, she has to measure herself against Viktor Orbán in an electoral system that he devised to his own advantage.
One more item that is only tangentially related to Bernadett Szél’s candidacy. ATV’s famed program, “Egyenes beszéd” (Straight Talk), has gone through some fundamental and unfortunate changes. First, at the end of last year the anchor of the program, Olga Kálmán, left the channel and started a new program called “Egyenesen” (Straight) on HírTV. “Egyenes beszéd” was taken over by Antónia Mészáros and Egon Rónai, both seasoned and outstanding reporters. Then, unexpectedly, Mészáros left to become managing director of the Hungarian section of UNICEF. After a few weeks of total chaos, when assorted people tried to replace Mészáros and Rónai, who was on vacation, a new setup emerged: one week Zsuzsa Demcsák, formerly of TV2, is the anchor, and Egon Rónai runs the show the next week. Her first week’s performance doesn’t bode well for the future.
Here is one example. Bernadett Szél was Demcsák’s guest on September 4. The new anchor turned to the candidate and said something like “you know there will never be a woman prime minister in Hungary.” Later, she tried to convince Szél that she is on the side of women and of course would be delighted if one day a woman became prime minister, but the harm was already done. To add insult to injury, she asked Szél what her husband thinks about a female prime minister. Of course, she profusely apologized for the question, but for some strange reason she thought it was relevant.
It is a good thing that there are not too many Zsuzsa Demcsáks in Hungary. To me it is a pleasant surprise that the electorate doesn’t share her views.