András Kósa, a well-known Hungarian journalist, just published a book titled The Speech of the Chief: Őszöd Ten Years Later. It is a collection of interviews with former and current politicians as well as with political commentators. Interest in Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech and its impact on subsequent political developments doesn’t seem to wane. A reader and friend of Hungarian Spectrum, Steven N., who is also a friend of Kósa, approached me asking whether we would be interested in Kósa’s interview with Ferenc Gyurcsány. If yes, he would translate it for us. I gladly accepted his offer. This is the second part of the interview.
But first, a few words about András Kósa. I remember him from the days when he was writing in the still liberal Magyar Hírlap in the early 2000s. Later he worked for Hírszerző, which was eventually absorbed by HVG. For a short while, he wrote for vs.hu. The website received some bad press when it became known that New Wave Media, the owner of vs.hu, had received 642,255,760 forints from foundations of the Hungarian National Bank. Six of the website’s journalists immediately resigned. András Kósa was one of them.
This June Kósa joined Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. As he said, “I know both editorial teams and I could say yes to both offers in good conscience.”
My heartfelt thanks to “Steven N.” for his work in translating the interview with Ferenc Gyurcsány. This second part is not about the speech but about the current state of Hungarian party politics. I found it fascinating and am looking forward to the third and final installment.
♦ ♦ ♦
András Kósa: Returning to the identity crisis issue: earlier there were serious attempts by you and MSZP to be more open towards young people (which even involved popular entertainment venues) so you could build a network with them. These attempts also failed. What was the reason for this?
Ferenc Gyurcsány: This was successful between 2004 and2006, and of course many things changed after the fall of 2006. This was partly because a credibility crisis arose from Őszöd, and also from social pressure that came about through our austerity program. It wasn’t cool or trendy enough at the time for young people to support the left, and the way it looks now; this basically hasn’t changed since then either.
I suppose it’s little comfort for you that it isn’t that trendy or cool nowadays to be a Fidesz supporter either. These days it really does seem that only Jobbik is able to reach young people.
But based on research that’s available, for the moment we don’t have to ring the alarm bells just yet. I rather fear that younger generations are simply staying out of the political realm, both in their everyday life and also during elections. They simply don’t take part in it. I’m not counting on things to turn for the better anytime soon. It is customary to characterize every left-wing public forum as “an audience predominately made up of retirees.” But if we look at similar forums for Fidesz, older people there also make up most of the attendees. They have much more determination and a greater willingness to vote, and of course, they are basically independent of the state, since they can’t be individually pressured because they receive a pension. Retirees are the strongest and most important demographic of the electorate today.
When you launched the Demokratikus Koalíció, where would you have guessed the party’s position and support in mid-2016?
It’s a good question, as it was very hard for us to be able to estimate at the time how high our support could go. There’s now roughly a consensus among analysts that we may have around half a million stable voters, or 10 percent support, plus or minus 1-2 percent, which is still growing. Some have previously said that we would have trouble getting past even the 5 percent threshold, while others did not rule out us getting as much as 30 percent. I’m not displeased with what we have achieved. In a real electoral situation, on an independent list, we could get roughly 15 percent, and I predict this for 2018 too.
However, there is also consensus among analysts that DK and MSZP are sharing the same “left-wing electoral cake” amongst themselves, and at the same time are unable to reach new groups of voters for now.
I wouldn’t presently be able to either confirm or deny this. All I can say is that based on polling, it is certain that a good number of our supporters have come from Együtt, the former party of [ex-PM] Gordon Bajnai. As they have collapsed, we have started to gain support. It’s also certain that there has been some crossover between the DK and Socialist voting bases. Based on my political experience thus far, I can say that this “communicating vessels” phenomenon will persist. We will be able to reach voters from those who are undecided once we finally have a more united alternative on this side. When there’s a better possibility of believing – which we, of course, have confidence in – that “these guys really can win.” Uncertain voters have no strong party preferences and do not judge ideologically: if they see a force that can unseat the ruling government, then that can be attractive to them, as they want to be part of this success. But for this to happen, many things still have to take shape within the left wing in the upcoming period to create such an alternative.
Could a primary election possibly play a positive role in this?
In any given local voting district, say, in Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County, no one would give a hoot about a primary. We wouldn’t even have the resources to organize it. Thirdly, knowing our side, a primary process and campaign would only result in leftist candidates bashing each other for weeks during the campaign, and by the time there’s a winner, our only achievement would be that person unable to get the entire left-wing camp behind him. So I don’t consider a primary election a sensible or useful instrument at the local level. If there were a joint alternative who headed the left, meaning a joint candidate for prime minister, I would consider that a good thing. But this entails a serious prerequisite: there should be at least two candidates in the first round. There isn’t even one now. Or rather, there are some techniques that can be applied in certain political situations, but these are not present at the moment. In this regard, the situation is radically different than it was before 2014. Back then, two candidates who were unable to come to an agreement with each other (MSZP Chair Attila Mesterházy and Gordon Bajnai) competed for the nomination. That’s when a primary would have solved the problem. But if there isn’t even one, then how can we call for a primary election?
In retrospect, what would you have done differently in 2014 instead of creating the joint ticket that proved to be a complete failure?
The fundamental error then was committed by Gordon Bajnai, despite all of his good intentions. Launching a political movement with the aim of bringing together democrats against the Orbán regime, without any preparation, without any consultation with the leaders of potential participants, launching this, simply announcing it, then expecting everyone to applaud it the next day and “get behind me” – this was a serious folly. It attests to a certain type of self-confidence that I had after the 2006 election, one of “I will be able to do everything in this country.” This is not a good advisor. And then, launching an independent party when you realize this isn’t working is no less of a serious mistake. Moreover, while Gordon Bajnai had gained very serious credibility following his one year of governing, it’s as if he did not understand that by not running in 2010, and even effectively removing himself from the skirmishes of party politics for two years and not having led a campaign, he was in a completely different situation than a party politician who puts himself to the test during an election. It’s a completely different genre. The mistakes were encoded into the situation. On the other hand, had I been in Attila Mesterházy’s place, especially at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, I would have conceded to Gordon Bajnai the nomination for prime minister. There was a small chance then that this team would win – so let Gordon Bajnai carry this burden. Attila’s insistence on being the nominee was completely senseless and irrational. It even cost him his career, at least for a while.
However, he could rightfully say that since he had undertaken the leadership of MSZP in the midst of a political crisis, when many people hadn’t ruled out even the complete disintegration of the party, and somehow had still continued to manage it until the 2014 elections, then why shouldn’t he be their nominee for prime minister?
Obviously, since he decided to do it the way you said. But this is not ultimately what swept Attila away, but the party’s disastrous results in the subsequent European Parliament elections, when they got 11 percent of the vote.
During the 2014 campaign, you also received quite a lot of criticism. Such things were said about you like, “Ferenc Gyurcsány is unreliable and unpredictable. If there’s a rally, then you can never know what he’s going to say when he steps on stage. He steals the show from others and always draws attention to himself at the worst time.” What do you think of these claims?
They can’t blame me for trying to shape the political relations on the left so that they wouldn’t be allied against us, the DK Party. For me, the strange thing is that this surprises anyone. This has been the preeminent political interest of the Demokratikus Koalíció party. I could not allow the other two actors (Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy) to push me out. It betrays the underdeveloped political skills of whoever is surprised by this. In any case, once the decision was made to create a broad coalition under Attila’s leadership, I don’t think you could find anyone else who came out more forcefully for Attila Mesterházy and pushed through the campaign without a single political comment about him or about our united efforts. Someone who spoke practically in superlatives about our candidate. I cannot do any more than this. It is true, of course, that I am a guy with personality. But this is valuable in politics. If I use my personality for a joint victory, what would be the problem with that?
Why is it that apart from you, there aren’t any other “guys with personality” on the left today?
I don’t know why. All I see is that many people try to explain their own mediocrity and mediocre performance by saying almost automatically, “It would be so much easier without Gyurcsány!” But it’s not me that’s preventing András Schiffer, Viktor Szigetvári, Gergely Karácsony, or Gábor Fodor from becoming better politicians. Or anyone else who pops up. This is a competitive political world. It is certainly not the case that politicians who call themselves democrats share each other’s’ roles within the remains of an otherwise diminishing political framework. If I have half a million voters (and it’s at least that many) for whom DK is a valuable alternative, why would we take this possibility away from them? Let someone else also get half a million, or a million! If everyone could do this on our side, we would defeat Fidesz in two days.
Don’t you feel that you’ve taken the Hungarian left hostage? The other players can neither swallow you nor spit you out. As long as you’re still here, you are the focus, giving Fidesz a perfect opportunity to “blame Gyurcsány for everything.” And yet, for now, there is no one else besides you.
Is it because of me that József Tóbiás [then MSZP chair – trans.] is not more exciting? It isn’t because of me. The reason isn’t me, but rather him, and his party. You were correct with your comment about Fidesz. It’s a very conscious political strategy on their part to present a clear picture of the enemy to maintain the unifying force of the right wing. In the world of Hungarian politics, anyone who dares to go against Fidesz becomes an enemy. Like Bajnai, George Soros, or Brussels. I have a privileged place in this line. But knowing Fidesz, I don’t believe for a minute that if it wasn’t me but a similar leader with personality who came along and opposed Fidesz in the same way, that person would not become public enemy number one in an instant. All it takes for a world-famous, Kossuth Prize-decorated conductor is to get into an argument with the mayor of Budapest, and he immediately becomes one of Soros’ henchmen.
How long do you think this will continue to work for them? How long will Fidesz be able to blame Gyurcsány for everything?
For an ever-shrinking core group, it will absolutely continue to work for them. The Őszöd story is ten years old – it hardly means anything to those who are now 25. In addition, we can also see that there are a lot of things I said in which the real world seems to have proven me correct. Was I right when I said that running the health care system in its present condition was unsustainable? And so I wanted to shake up my party to dare them to touch it? Yes. Was I right when I said that in the educational system today the disadvantages brought from home were not decreasing but increasing? Yes. Was I right when I said that we didn’t need to be a politician just because we couldn’t go back to polishing cars? But because there has to be some ethos to what we do as politicians? I believe so. Quite a few people over the past few years have shed their previous outrage at me and are now willing to say: maybe this guy was right. Six weeks ago I sat around with a group of people, and a good number of them were center-right leaning. It was awfully exciting when one of them came up to me at the end of the conversation and said, “I was there on October 23, 2006, yelling and honking at you, and now I’m a little ashamed of myself because of it.” I think this is now part of the Őszöd story too.
Hungarian political life – at least in the medium term – will remain three-pronged: along with Fidesz and Jobbik, the Hungarian left-wing will need to attain a majority that can form a government. When do you think this is likely to happen?
What we’ve observed in the past two years is a completely new phenomenon in Hungarian politics: some voters who oppose Fidesz from any political orientation have a greater desire to see the ruling party fall than the attachment they have to their own party. So they are willing to make insanely large moves just to keep the Fidesz candidate from winning the election. We had an unprecedented transfer of votes from the democratic left to the extreme right, and vice versa. A consequence of this could very easily be that Fidesz – even with a relative majority – loses 75-80 out of 106 electoral districts. One possible consequence of this would be that no one will get an absolute majority in 2018, and the chance arises for a minority government to form, or we are forced to have new elections.
Getting back to your chances in 2018 – and the left wing’s identity crisis: earlier I spoke with two MSZP leaders who, independently of each other, both said that the left can win if they find a candidate for Prime Minister who is someone that nobody knows yet, but is otherwise well-known, even a person widely recognized in society; who is both young but already has a large network of connections, who can’t have his financial means taken away from him (which probably means a wealthy businessman), yet no questionable issue can be tied to him, and of course, if possible he shouldn’t even enter politics until 2017, so as not to give Fidesz much time to “mow him down” in a political sense. It would be quite funny if that were your only chance, don’t you think?
More and more people believe that Fidesz skews the opinion polls in its favor, possibly by as much as 4-5 percent. If this is our starting point, then the ruling party’s current share of around 40-45 percent shows that in fact support for Fidesz has dropped below 40 percent. This is more than likely. The combined support of the Socialists and DK is around 30 percent, while the tiny parties (Együtt and Párbeszéd Magyarországért) together have a few percentage points. That is, two years before the election the difference is within 10 points. I don’t consider this dramatic. In 2002 we made up an even greater differential than this by 2004 when I was chosen as prime minister. We had an even bigger disadvantage. In this regard, the race may be even more open. You are correct that our main problem is whether or not we can respond to three major challenges. The first is a lack of credibility – this may be the most difficult to solve. The second is unifying the fragmented democratic side – I consider this a smaller concern at present. And the third is coordinating the party programs, which are quite varied right now – with the appropriate amount of counsel; this is the most easily solvable.
If Fidesz stays in power in 2018, can the current Hungarian left wing hold out for another four years?
I think that we will have a delegation of at least 10-15 members in the new Parliamentary session, even if the left is defeated in the election. I can’t really see into MSZP’s situation, so it is hard to say what will happen with the Hungarian left wing as a whole if we remain in opposition after 2018. The question is whether any of the current political fragments will disappear if the picture clears up, and if some kind of rapprochement begins to form amongst the remaining parties. It’s difficult to say any more about this right now.
Is it worth seriously discussing any kind of electoral cooperation with the Párbeszéd Magyarországért Party, which has 1 percent support, or with Együtt, which has around 2 percent?
I remember very well what it was like when we only had 1-2 percent support, and how others treated us then. I didn’t consider it proper of them, and I would not like to behave now in a way that I didn’t approve of at that time. In 2002, the socialists won by a few ten thousand votes in total: by a couple of tenths of a percent, if you like. So I am more inclined to have as many as possible come on board.
One of the foundations of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s strategy for power is nominating as many absolutely loyal supporters as they can to head every public institution (Constitutional Court, Fiscal Council, Media Council, Chief Prosecutor, National Office for the Judiciary, etc.) with a long mandate. If a change of government occurs under these circumstances, how much room will the new cabinet have to maneuver?
Quite a few people in the background are examining these kinds of situations that could be traps, and we do the same in DK as well. There’s a trap which, legally – with a little innovation – can be avoided, and one that will persist. And there’s a trap that can be avoided through political means.
Such as? What kind of things, and how?
I wouldn’t want to say any more about it, of course, since I don’t want to spoil our chances.
According to my sources, Viktor Orbán, speaking even earlier about the possibility of a change in government one day, said in a backroom discussion that they would resist a new government’s efforts to reshape the system, and that the extent of this will depend on how vigorously this particular government attempts to tear down the established order. How far do you think Fidesz can go to maintain its System of National Cooperation?
I don’t think they have any scruples. The “Fidesz of Orbán,” I think, would go very, very far in this area. I can presume anything of a person who is able to let the phrase “any means can be used to make a legitimate government fail” come out of his mouth. The question is not whether Fidesz will have the will, but whether they will still be in a position and have enough public support, credibility, and power to mobilize so that they can realize their will or not.