Tag Archives: István Hiller

Politics and the Hungarian socialists–Not a winning combination

The ineptness of MSZP politicians never ceases to amaze me, but their latest stunt really deserves a booby prize. While their new hope, László Botka, lectures on taking away from the rich and giving to the poor, high-ranking MSZP politicians endorsed a proposal to give away the state-owned Grassalkovich Mansion in Hatvan to the Széchenyi Zsigmond Kárpát-medencei Magyar Vadászati Múzeum (Zsigmond Széchenyi Hungarian Hunting Museum of the Carpathian Basin).

Hunting has become a favorite pastime of Fidesz politicians, who show a great affinity for the lifestyle of the traditional Hungarian landowning class, which included a love of hunting. Even during the Kádár regime high-ranking party functionaries indulged in this aristocratic pursuit. Zsolt Semjén (KDNP), deputy prime minister, and János Lázár, chief of the prime minister’s office, are the best known avid hunters.

First, a few words about the mansion that stands on the main square of Hatvan and that is named for Count Antal Grassalkovich (1694-1771), a wealthy man who owned vast tracks of land around Gödöllő, Hatvan, and Bag. In 1867 the mansion was purchased by the Deutsch-Hatvany family. After the German occupation of Hungary, the Gestapo settled there. It was also used as a military hospital. By 1979 the building was declared to be uninhabitable. After a lengthy reconstruction effort, the mansion’s restoration was more or less finished with the help of 3.15 billion forints provided by the European Union and the Hungarian government. In 2012 the decision was made to house the Hunting Museum, named after Zsigmond Széchenyi (1898-1967), a well-known explorer and writer, in the state-owned mansion.

A nice gift for the Hunting Association

On March 14 eight members of parliament, three from Fidesz-KDNP and five from MSZP, proposed an amendment to a law passed in 2011 that regulates the ways and means of giving away state-owned properties to private persons or private organizations. The three Fidesz-KDNP signatories were Zsolt Semjén, János Lázár, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the prime minister’s office. As for five MSZP members, they included well-known, important names: István Hiller, Gergely Bárándy, Dezső Hiszékeny, István Józsa, and Árpád Velez. According to the document, these eight men proposed giving the newly reconstructed Grassalkovich Mansion to the National Hungarian Hunting Association (Országos Magyar Vadászkamara/OMVK). The justification for the move was that this transfer of ownership will offer an opportunity for the museum to function “on a professional basis.” Because, the government politicians argued, at the moment the museum attracts very few visitors. Instead of the expected 100,000 a year, barely 30,000 visitors were registered in the last few years. That shortfall happened because the current management is not doing a professional enough job. Once the Hunting Association owns the mansion outright, however, it will have a more effective way of supervising the museum.

I must say that I do not see the connection between ownership of the building and management of the museum. Anyone with half a brain should have noticed that there is something wrong here. One of the Hungarian papers claimed that “the socialists were misled.” Well, it doesn’t seem to be very difficult to mislead these political geniuses.

There was another reason the MSZP politicians should have been suspicious. The privatization of public property needs a two-thirds majority in parliament. As we know, Fidesz doesn’t have that majority anymore. Most likely, they knew that Jobbik would never agree to cooperate with them on an issue like this. So, they turned to the patsies of MSZP instead. And it very nearly worked.

The reaction from the other parties on the left was swift. As usual, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció was the first to respond. Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for DK, said: “We always knew that Fidesz politicians steal,” but it is unacceptable for MSZP politicians to assist in this enterprise. According to Gréczy, MSZP must offer some kind of reasonable explanation for lending a helping hand to Fidesz in its quest to steal the country blind. MSZP’s leadership was unmoved. They answered that this is not about hunting but about a museum that serves the public good. Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt was the next to issue a statement. He went so far as to call this cooperation between Fidesz and MSZP “a grand coalition.” Shame, shame, he added.

A day later, on March 17, MSZP published a terse announcement: “MSZP wants to avoid even the appearance of working together with Fidesz in the privatization of state property, and therefore it withdraws its support for the privatization of the property destined for OMVK.” Before this announcement was made, however, Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, had stood by the party’s decision and repeated that cooperation with Fidesz for the sake of the museum was correct and justified. Gergely Bárándy, son of former Minister of Justice Péter Bárándy, accused the DK spokesman of “creating a scandal.” If he hadn’t opened his mouth, the public would have heard nothing about “this noble cause from the point of view of Hungarian culture.”

Who was responsible for this politically suicidal act? I’m afraid all the bigwigs of MSZP. I don’t have any knowledge of the interplay between the parliamentary caucus and the leadership of the party, but I would like to believe that the chairman of the party, Gyula Molnár, was informed that cooperation with Fidesz on the issue had been sanctioned by the parliamentary delegation. The leader (or whip) of the MSZP delegation is Bertalan Tóth. He is new at his job, but until now he struck me as an intelligent fellow. Perhaps he didn’t feel secure enough to go against people like Hiller, Bárándy, and Józsa. We know that the Fidesz politicians came to MSZP with the suggestion, which then was discussed at length. At the end, they decided to support the joint proposal. And now, here is this embarrassing retreat which was apparently initiated by László Botka, who must have hit the ceiling upon finding out about it. I don’t blame him. According to Népszava, Botka “specifically requested” the party’s immediate withdrawal from the joint project.

After this fiasco the party leadership is threatening MSZP members of parliament with immediate removal from the caucus if they dare vote for the bill. This indicates to me that some of the original signatories are giving the party leadership a hard time about prohibiting any further cooperation. MSZP, as usual, failed miserably as an effective opposition to the politically savvy Fidesz party machinery.

March 19, 2017

The Hungarian opposition is still in disarray

I am returning to party politics today because, after an extended holiday season, opposition politicians and civilians active in politics have become vocal again. One after the other gives interviews to newspapers or to the two friendly television stations, ATV and Hír TV. Naturally, the topic is how best to prepare for the 2018 national election. Alas, every time such a tsunami of statements comes from the opposition parties, confusion and discord reign.

While the opposition parties MSZP, DK, and Párbeszéd are allegedly negotiating and those negotiations are, according to reports, going well, one of MSZP’s big guns, István Hiller, at least according to Magyar Idők, announced on December 27 in an interview that he doesn’t believe in the kind of political partnership among the democratic parties that proved to be singularly unsuccessful in 2014. If it depends on him, such a strategy will never be repeated. I must say that this was a surprising announcement since Hiller’s party is currently negotiating with the small parties on the left.

That’s not the only subject on which MSZP leaders disagree. Unnamed MSZP sources told Magyar Hírlap a couple of days ago that the leadership is also divided over László Botka’s offering himself as a candidate for the premiership. They are puzzled by the fact that Botka twice sent messages to his own party, once via 168 Óra and again only two days ago in an interview given to Index, that were actually ultimatums. Moreover, some of Botka’s demands can’t be met. For example, the exclusion of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the election process, which even in the opinion of Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd is an impossibility.

Even though MSZP leaders are still optimistic that the parties will be able to agree on a common platform, there are a couple of hurdles that might make agreement difficult. One is the question of the selection process of the most promising candidates for each of the 106 individual electoral districts. The idea of primaries has been bandied about for years, but by the fall of 2016 Párbeszéd decided that this was the most promising way to find the best candidate in each district. This small party was then joined by civic groups, which kept widening the nominating process to the point that it now includes the possibility of voting online. For this they hired the company Anonim Digitális Azonosító (Anonymous Digital Identifier), whose website is already available. Párbeszéd managed to convince MSZP of the efficacy of primaries and DK, although not terribly enthusiastic, agreed to the idea if all the others are game. When it comes to the internet application, however, the other partners are less than keen. Moreover, Botka’s announcement that he finds primaries superfluous further complicates the situation since at the moment MSZP is still a supporter of the idea. Botka stressed the necessity of “choosing the best candidate” in each district but didn’t give any guidance as to how this should be accomplished.

The other possible stumbling block is the question of having a common party list versus having individual ones. One must keep in mind that in the Hungarian system each voter casts two votes, one for an individual and the other for a party. Two of the three parties that are still talking to one another are committed to a common list while DK is sitting on the fence, at least according to Népszava. I personally prefer one common list because separate party lists send a strong signal to the voters that unity is still sadly lacking.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Együtt and LMP. Despite hopes that with the departure of András Schiffer LMP’s new leadership would be more willing to cooperate with the other parties, this didn’t turn out to be the case. A couple of weeks ago I still felt sorry for Ákos Hadházy, Schiffer’s replacement, when he tried to rationalize his party’s strategy while claiming that his greatest desire is to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s regime. By now, however, I have decided that the new co-chair of LMP doesn’t deserve my sympathy. A sharp-tongued commentator in gepnarancs.hu called LMP “a closed ward,” indicating that he finds LMP’s leaders not quite sane. Of course, he quickly added: “pardon me, a closed structure.” In his opinion, “ever since the departure of their word-jongleur they wriggle like fish out of water.”

Együtt’s two-man leadership seems to have supreme confidence in their party’s weighty position in Hungarian politics. Consequently, Együtt wants separate lists to ensure parliamentary representation. Just as a reminder, in order to get into parliament, Együtt would need at least 5% of the votes. Meeting that threshold, however, would not ensure a separate parliamentary delegation, which in the current setup must have at least five members. For example, DK, which is a much larger party, currently has only four members and hence no delegation. Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair, is so sure of his party’s chances that he already announced in an interview that he will be the leader of the Együtt parliamentary delegation after 2018. I admire his confidence.

A growing sentiment within the opposition favors some kind of “understanding” between the democratic parties and Jobbik. After reading the pro-government papers I came to the conclusion that Fidesz is really worried about this possibility and is trying to prevent any such meeting of the minds. János Somogyi, a frequent contributor to Magyar Idők, devoted an opinion piece to the subject. Of course, he finds both sides abhorrent. He tries to convince himself that such an understanding will never happen. But if by some fluke it does, it matters not because Fidesz will win the election anyway. He concluded his article dramatically: “The Lord will hear the last words of Prime Minister László Bárdossy, who was innocently executed in January 1946. Holding his arms toward the sky, he said ‘My Lord, deliver the country from these bandits!’ Perhaps this will become reality in 2018.”

Naturally, democratically minded political commentators are divided on the issue. One unexpected promoter of the idea is Ágnes Heller, Hungary’s best-known philosopher who, by the way, is a Holocaust survivor. Here is Hungarian Free Press’s translation of what she had to say on the subject. The original appeared on the website of ATV.

Cooperation can happen if both sides desire it. Purely based on numbers it is true that if they went up against Fidesz together, they would defeat the governing party. It would not be bad if they did so. But if they don’t want to do it, then they should not…Maybe the word ‘cooperation’ is not the right one. They could just support each other. This, of course, would be very difficult to explain to their voters, even if today there is basically a state of emergency in Hungary. If this is impossible due to their divergent identities, they do not need to make ideological compromises. Instead of a public agreement, they can simply decide to support each other’s candidates, even as they both develop their own campaign strategies. And then, if Fidesz has been defeated, the current electoral system would be reformed and new elections would follow between the victorious parties.

Ágnes Heller

György Konrád, a well-known writer and also a Holocaust survivor, thinks that “one can even join forces with the grandmother of the devil as long as the goal of a democratic alteration of the electoral laws can be achieved.” He added that such an outcome is “improbable,” but “it cannot be totally excluded either.”

On the other hand, TGM, a political philosopher, Tamás Ungvári, a literary historian, and Mihály Kornis, a writer, find the idea totally unacceptable. Kornis, who has the tendency to exaggerate, declared that if the choice was between Jobbik and death he would choose death.

In brief, the Hungarian political scene is extremely complex, and carving out a winning strategy is a daunting task for the opposition.

January 9, 2017

New MSZP leadership: New strategy and tactics?

While the whole world, including readers of Hungarian Spectrum, are preoccupied with the most unfortunate decision of a slight majority of the citizens of the United Kingdom, an important domestic event has taken place that may change the political landscape in Hungary. Today MSZP delegates from all over the country gathered in Budapest to elect a new leadership. The stakes are high: will the new officers be able, together with other democratic forces, to build a political force capable of successfully competing with the flourishing and self-confident Fidesz under the iron fist of Viktor Orbán? Now that the congress is over and almost all the more important leaders, including the chairman of the party, have been replaced, MSZP has another chance to demonstrate that it can be one of the leading democratic forces in Hungary.

A few days ago, while discussing the Hungarian national football team, we talked about “the players’ lack of self-confidence and will to win.” Someone in the course of the discussion remarked that one could say the same thing about the non-Jobbik opposition to Viktor Orbán’s government. It was this exchange that came to mind when I was reading some of the comments made by the four candidates for the party’s chairmanship in the last few months. For example, there is a strong tendency in MSZP to indulge in self-flagellation. What a total misunderstanding of politics. That is the job of Fidesz, not MSZP. Such statements as “we are unable to escape from quarantine until we face our past” (Tamás Harangozó) don’t inspire much confidence. Or, also from Harangozó, the MSZP supporter learns that by remaining in power between 2006 and 2010 the party went against the wishes of its electorate. I guess they should simply have thrown in the towel and resigned. Or, “MSZP by now is not the party that the people trust with the leadership of the country.” Then why should anyone vote for them? József Tóbiás, the chairman who just lost his position, is no better. What about this for inspiration? “MSZP must understand that we are not a big party.” And yet, he says, “on the left there are no competing parties. There is only one party, which is called MSZP.” Well, if MSZP itself is not a big party and it has no competition on the left, Viktor Orbán will have a very, very long tenure. Tibor Szanyi is a true democrat: “MSZP must get rid of the left-liberal little parties.” Instead, he generously offers a place for all democrats under MSZP’s umbrella.

I left statements by Gyula Molnár, today’s winner, to last. He is, as opposed to his mealy-mouthed comrades, a combative sort who back in 1999-2000 wanted “to take up the kind of political tactics characteristic of our opponents.” This is something that the left in general has been unwilling to do. Molnár, because of his forced absence from politics between 2010 and 2016, has a great advantage. He doesn’t bear any responsibility for the things that went wrong with the party in the last six years. Among the candidates Molnár is the only one who doesn’t think that MSZP can single-handedly defeat Fidesz in the coming elections. I think he puts his finger on the problem when he claims that “the rejection of cooperation [with the other parties] is good for only one thing. To leisurely build the party with the result of losing the election.” A few days later he complained that “MSZP committed the left’s classical mistake: when we are in opposition we want to build the party, not win elections.”

Photo: MTI

Photo: MTI

So, I really think that with the election of Gyula Molnár a new chapter opens in the history of MSZP. At least now, I think, there’s a chance. The chairman of the board, László Botka, mayor of Szeged since 2006, was also replaced by István Hiller, chairman of the party between 2004 and 2006 and minister of education between 2006 and 2010. Hiller’s lead over Botka was surprisingly large. Hiller received 201 votes against Botka’s 134. This very poor showing by Botka who, according to Medián, is the most popular socialist politician in the country, is something of a mystery. Only a few days ago there was talk of Botka as a possible prime minister one day. Now the word is that Botka’s retirement from national politics, at least for the time being, is pretty certain.

We will not see much of József Tóbiás either because he announced his intention to resign from his post as leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation.

There were two rounds of voting. From the start Molnár was leading with 121 votes against Tóbiás’s 99, Harangozó’s 67, and Szanyi’s 45. However, since Molnár didn’t have 50% + 1 of the votes, a second round took place where Molnár won 121 votes against Tóbiás’s 99. There will be three deputy chairmen: István Ujhelyi (262 votes), András Nemény (234 votes), and Nándor Gúr (197 votes). I’m pleased by the good showing of Ujhelyi, one of the two MSZP EP members, whom I think highly of.

We know relatively little about what the candidates for the various posts had to say for themselves because the congress was held in camera. I’m relying here on a short description that appeared a few hours ago in 168 Óra. Predictably, Tóbiás tried to convince the delegates that the present course is successful and should be continued. As we know from the outcome, he wasn’t convincing. Harangozó promised that he will be a reliable and hardworking chairman, and Szanyi offered himself as “the captain” of the ship in these troubled times.

Molnár talked about “the fear in our soul. We are afraid to change, we don’t dare to risk. It would be nice to have a messiah who is not afraid of Viktor Orbán. But we can have a general only if there is an army behind him. As [Gyula] Horn said, with bowed head one cannot see far. One needs a new program, new tactics.”

After the congress closed, Molnár gave a short press conference in which he said that he will subordinate everything to the preparations for the 2018 elections. He also emphasized that “only one single challenger can defeat the Fidesz regime,” which means that he is open to negotiations with the other democratic parties. Compare that to László Botka’s speech at the congress in which he announced that “there is life after Gyurcsány and Orbán.” One cannot ignore and insult DK which, as far as electoral support goes, is not too far behind MSZP. Anti-Fidesz voters want cooperation, not strife. I wonder whether Botka’s poor showing has anything to do with his rigid attitude toward other parties on the left.

Fidesz’s “congratulations” to the winners of the MSZP election says a lot about what kind of people the opposition faces. Immediately after the first congratulatory sentence, one reads that both Molnár and Hiller held important positions during the “Gyurcsány era.” In fact, Hiller helped Gyurcsány become prime minister. In any case, it doesn’t matter who the chairman of the party is because MSZP will continue where it left off: “the socialists want to carry out Brussels’ plan of forced immigration, continue their pro-immigration policies, and cover up their corruption…. The new chairman, Gyula Molnár, already indicated that he wants to strengthen the Gyurcsány coalition, which already ruined the country once.”

I hope Molnár will find the right tone to answer such “congratulatory” notes from Fidesz.

June 25, 2016

István Hiller, MSZP, and the fence

I know that most likely everybody will want to talk about the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Paris, but I see no point in adding to the guessing game about the identities of the eight men involved. Of course, I’m also very curious whether the Syrian passport actually belonged to one of the terrorists, and I’m sure that the discussion of the details of the attack will continue in the comments. Today, however, I would like to talk about something else, though it is not unrelated to the refugee crisis and terrorism. It is the surprise announcement by István Hiller (MSZP) that, although he doesn’t like the fence, he doesn’t know “a better solution for the refugee crisis,” a statement that goes against the position of his party.

First, perhaps I should say a few words about István Hiller. He is currently one of the most important active politicians in MSZP. He was one of the founding members of MSZP as a young man of 25 and became chairman of the party in 2004. Two years later he was named minister of education and culture. In the last few months he has indicated his desire to head MSZP, which is in serious decline. I gather he believes that under his leadership MSZP can again become a large, influential party. Otherwise, he is a historian whose main field is sixteenth-century Austrian diplomacy.

One is always suspicious when Viktor Orbán praises someone from the opposite camp, and that is what he did in the case of István Hiller. During his conversations with students of his old dormitory, after dismissing the current political leaders of the opposition parties who are unable to formulate a “national strategy” (nemzetpolitika), Orbán announced that “interestingly there is someone who can at least theoretically achieve that goal and that is the former chairman of the party, ‘a professzor úr,’ Hiller…. He is a man whose heart is in the right place, and this is difficult for someone from the left.”

MSZP politicians were stunned at Hiller’s announcement. Some of them were aware of his opinion, but they didn’t expect him to announce it publicly against the wishes of his party. Some of his colleagues tried to look upon his indiscretion as a well-meaning response to the public opinion polls showing that the overwhelming majority of MSZP voters believe that the fence is necessary to stem the flow of asylum seekers. After all, a party must be responsive to its voting base’s wishes.

But soon enough it was noticed that several former associates of Hiller had quietly received important government jobs in the Orbán administration, and Hiller himself admitted that János Lázár had asked his advice in connection with the Esterházy Center to be set up in Fertőd. Hiller noted that there was nothing unusual about the request because, after all, it was during his tenure that the bulk of the restoration work on the Esterházy Palace had taken place.

Nonetheless, suspicions have solidified: Hiller is planning to make peace with Fidesz and Viktor Orbán. Of course, Hiller denies the charge. Yet there is a danger that Hiller might end up like Katalin Szily, who first kept criticizing her party, later established a party of her own that flopped, and now is an adviser to Viktor Orbán on “national issues” for a million forints a month. As a witty headline said, “If Hiller is clever he won’t become silly.”

A double interview with László Kovács and Ildikó Lendvai, both former party chairmen and people whose personal integrity is beyond reproach, shows what a hopeless party MSZP has become since 2010 when its leadership hatched the idea of “renewal.” Renewal meant getting rid of all the experienced politicians and replacing them with entirely new young faces whom nobody knew and who were not up to the task of renewing anything.

Kovács and Lendvai are top-notch politicians and excellent democrats. They were among the “old guard” booted out from their leadership positions. Kovács made a name for himself already in the last days of the Kádár regime when he, together with Gyula Horn, were largely responsible for the decision to allow the East German refugees to cross over to Austria. He was a successful foreign minister and served as EU commissioner for five years. Lendvai for many years was the leader of the large MSZP delegation of olden days. She is an eloquent, quick-witted speaker and one of the most honest politicians I have encountered.

Kovacs-Lendvai

The interview with these two people appeared in Origo. The headline was taken from something László Kovács said: “at that price I don’t want to win an election.” The discussion that preceded that sentence was about popularity and political strategy. If it is clear that Viktor Orbán’s reaction to the refugee crisis is popular even among MSZP voters, isn’t the correct strategy to move in the direction of popular demands? At this point the following conversation took place:

László Kovács: There are two possible choices for political parties. One is that they follow what is popular and brings more votes. But if MSZP wants to win the election this way, it would have to stand for things that are very far from European values.

Ildikó Lendvai: We might as well revile the Gypsies.

László Kovács: Or we can come up with the reinstatement of capital punishment because a lot of people would support it and thus we would be popular. But I don’t want to win at such a price. If we can win only with offering such inhumane solutions alien to European culture, then I would rather stay in opposition. A responsible politician should not only serve but also influence public opinion.

Those people who can read the whole interview should definitely do so. Both severely criticized István Hiller who, by the way, is planning to run for the chairmanship of the party, and they complained about MSZP’s lack of a clear alternative to Fidesz. MSZP’s platform should not be, to use Lendvai’s words, “Fidesz-light” or, as she said a few sentences later, “the same thing as Fidesz but not in a major but in a minor chord.”

It is hard to tell what will happen to MSZP, but I am convinced that the current leadership should pack up and leave. Otherwise, soon enough there will be no MSZP, and the leadership of the opposition will come from one of the smaller parties or a coalition (or unification) of these parties to replace MSZP.

Ferenc Gyurcsány, the mafia state, and the future of MSZP

Today Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister of Hungary and chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), released a 20-page political pamphlet, gave a few interviews, and delivered a 45-minute speech, shown live on ATV. Instead of trying to summarize his political program, titled “Hungary of Many” (Sokak Magyarországa), I will focus on a couple of points that struck me as significant.

The title of the pamphlet is telling. Gyurcsány is convinced that people didn’t vote for Fidesz because they wanted to live under a regime of “Eastern despotism” but because they saw strength in Fidesz as opposed to the left, which proved to be weak. Gyurcsány would like to bring together liberals, social democrats, and moderate conservatives because all these people have something in common: a desire to put an end to Orbán’s regime and to live in a country with an effective government that would serve the majority of the people instead of the select few.

This is not a new message. What is new is that, after a lot of hesitation, Gyurcsány seems to have accepted Bálint Magyar’s description of the Orbán regime as a “mafia state.” As far as I know, he is the only opposition politician who has fully embraced Magyar’s concept. But that is not the only common thread in their thinking. Gyurcsány’s ideas on education also seem to echo Magyar’s. He cracked a few jokes about Orbán’s stuffing sausage while he doesn’t know what a “password” is. He elaborated on the essential role of computers in education, which would be a return to Magyar’s reforms between 2002 and 2006. Of course, one could ask why he buckled under MSZP pressure to relieve Magyar of his post and name István Hiller as his successor. Hiller, by the way, was praised by Orbán in his chat with the students of his former dormitory as the only talented politician on the left.

Gyurcsány offered an assessment of MSZP’s situation. As anyone who follows the Hungarian media knows, MSZP is in a serious crisis. Something of a palace revolution is underway. From what one can piece together from interviews with MSZP politicians who have pretty well disappeared from active politics, it looks as if under Attila Mesterházy’s chairmanship a conscious decision was made to push all the leading members of the older generation out of the party. I guess the new, younger politicians around Mesterházy believed that the older greats of MSZP were responsible for the party’s loss of popularity. Support for the party, they hoped, would soar once people saw all new faces running MSZP. Well, it didn’t work out that way. In fact, the party’s popularity has fallen. The MSZP parliamentary caucus, with very few exceptions, is comprised of inexperienced and unknown members whose performance, admittedly under adverse circumstances, is substandard.

Gyurcsány’s essay and speech were timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the founding of the Demokratikus Koalíció, but I’m sure that MSZP’s sorry state was also a serious consideration when it came to timing. In his essay Gyurcsány buried MSZP in its present form. As we know, the current thinking of the MSZP leaders is that the road to success lies in returning to truly “left” policies. Gyurcsány is convinced that they are wrong. A turn further to the left is not what Hungarians want. He also doubts MSZP’s ability to provide a candidate for the premiership who has any hope of winning because, as he put it, “ever since 2002 all successful prime ministers came from the world outside of MSZP.” In the last 15 years the socialists have been unable to attract or to produce a politically mature, suitable candidate for the post of prime minister. The appearance of PM, Együtt, and DK offered real competition, which will “make the transformation of our side more intensive. The final goal is unification, and the party of the future will barely resemble the MSZP we know.”

And now let me move on to a pretty dramatic conversation between Ferenc Gyurcsány and György Bolgár on Klubrádió’s “Let’s Talk It Over.” Bolgár began the 15-minute conversation by questioning the wisdom of Gyurcsány’s forceful call for unity. It might turn the other politicians on the left against him, warned Bolgár. After all, he is such a controversial character. Wouldn’t it have been better to remain quiet? he asked. Gyurcsány, who has been asked this kind of question many times before, even by Bolgár himself, normally answers in a measured way. But not this time. He lashed out at Bolgár. In his opinion, a democrat cannot possibly question the right of a politician to express his thoughts. He is the leader of a party that has about half a million voters. His followers want him to talk about the ideas that motivate them. When Bolgár brought up politicians like Viktor Szigetvári and Gergely Karácsony, who might be turned off by the hyperactive Gyurcsány’s latest political move, Gyurcsány responded that he didn’t care what Szigetvári or Karácsony think or say. He accused Bolgár of joining those who are sowing discord among the politicians of the left. In his opinion, this is a sin because with such an attitude they only lend a helping hand to Viktor Orbán’s regime.

I don’t know the reasons for this outburst, but I suspect that Gyurcsány believes that this is the right time to reassert himself publicly, either because of the discord within MSZP or perhaps because he has been getting closer to an understanding with some of the opposition politicians. If the latter, Bolgár’s criticism was not well timed.

What MSZP’s leading politicians will think of “Many for Hungary” I can well imagine. However, the party is in bad shape, and even the staunchest socialists have to admit that Gyurcsány’s decision to leave MSZP and establish DK was a terrible blow to the party. MSZP has to rethink its shrinking place among the opposition parties.

Historian Zoltán Ripp’s analysis of the Hungarian election

Post-election soul-searching and analysis continues in Hungarian opposition circles. I spent two days talking about the remedies offered by MSZP insiders Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller. Politicians from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, have so far been silent. I understand they are spending this coming weekend analyzing the lessons of the election. On the other hand, DK activists gathered 42,000 supporting signatures, ensuring their participation in the EP election on May 25. Their election slogan, “Europe Is Performing Better,” is a take-off on the government’s claim that Hungary is doing better.

It is extremely difficult to guess how the opposition parties, this time campaigning alone, will do. Turnout for EP elections is usually very low, and Fidesz will most likely get a majority of the 22 seats Hungary is entitled to. Jobbik will probably do even better than in 2009 when they captured three seats, only one fewer than MSZP. The other opposition parties, Együtt 2014-PM and DK, are real question marks because this is the first time they will be able to measure their strength at the polls. Parties need at least 5% of the votes cast to send a delegate.

While the campaign for the EP election is going on, political analysts continue to ponder the consequences of the national election. This time it was Zoltán Ripp, a historian, who tackled the election results. Ripp is deeply immersed in political history, especially the history of the Hungarian communist party in the last fifty years or so. He also wrote a monumental work on the change of regime (Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990), which I find invaluable for understanding the political history of those years.

Ripp was described in a review of one of his books as a historian close to MSZP. Well, that might have been the case a few years back but, as evidenced by an article he published in Galamus, Ripp nowadays has a devastating opinion of MSZP’s current leadership. According to Ripp, MSZP politicians “are “culturally empty, morally dubious, and politically feeble.”

Zoltán Ripp / 168 Óra

Zoltán Ripp /168 Óra

So, how does Ripp see the election and its consequences? The title of his long essay is telling: “Opting for  Servitude.” The essay itself is a subjective description of his despair. Ripp, like most historians, doesn’t think much of the so-called political scientists and leaves “objective” analyses to the talking heads. He is convinced that now, after the election, “the constitutional third republic is gone for ever.” The change of regime is final, especially now that Viktor Orbán with the blessing of the electorate won another stunning victory. One can no longer claim that the Orbán regime is illegitimate. Those who voted for Fidesz reaffirmed its legitimacy.

Ripp, of course, realizes that for the core voters of Fidesz Orbán’s regime doesn’t mean servitude at all. On the contrary, they are convinced that they are performing a service in pursuit of a higher and more noble goal. They are lending a helping hand in the task of elevating the nation into future greatness. Viktor Orbán is described as “the chief shaman, ” “the anointed leader” who knows what he is doing. “Who is the embodiment of what is the best in us.” But, the problem is, Ripp continues, that “the party of Viktor Orbán could have won only in a country where society is gravely ill.” What is that illness? “The lack of democratic culture and mentality.” And that is very basic. Ripp claims that the failure of the democratic third republic was bound to happen. It was practically inevitable.

As opposed to many others, Ripp asserts that it was “not material questions that decided the outcome of the election.” Not that they didn’t matter, but the chief culprit was “the revival of the culture of subjugation.” The return of “resignation,” “assuetude.” And the problem with the opposition was, in Ripp’s view, that they didn’t concentrate on the real issue: that with the election of 2010 came a “regime change.” What was at stake in the election was democracy vs. autocracy painted over with a pseudo-democratic gloss. Ripp fears that the regime put in place byViktor Orbán will stay perhaps for decades. “We can get into a situation from which there is no way out by holding elections.”  Those who believe that there will be another chance in 2018 are mistaken, “they don’t understand anything about the nature of the Orbán regime (kurzus).”

In Ripp’s opinion this opposition misunderstood the very threat that Viktor Orbán’s regime was and is posing to Hungarian democracy. So, what should have been done? How should the opposition politicians have handled the situation? The key word in Ripp’s vocabulary is “radicalism,” but he quickly adds that radicalism is not the same thing as using scurrilous language. There should have been a concentrated radical attack on the illegitimate character of the Orbán regime. Democratic politicians should have announced as their goal the total elimination of the whole system Orbán built in the last four years. Instead, “our brave politicians” only managed to come up with the label of “kormányváltó,” which didn’t even make it to the Magyar Értelmező Szótár as an adjective. It simply means “change of government.” As Ripp puts it, “instead of strategy that great zeal degenerated into a whimper.” On such a basis one could not put together a civic concentration of forces that would have produced enough power for the removal of the Orbán regime. Instead, a coalition of parties was formed “based on cheap haggling.”

Ripp knows that “the intellectual giants of MSZP” will call him an idealist who cannot see farther than downtown Budapest and who talks nonsense because he doesn’t grasp the realities of the countryside. Ripp’s answer is that the democratic politicians had four years to explain to the population the connection between the lack of democracy and the rule of law and the quality of material life. He uses a famous line from Sándor Petőfi to illustrate his point: “haza csak ott van, ahol jog is van.”

What were the sins of the individual actors in the drama? Ferenc Gyurcsány’s “chief responsibility lies in the fact that, although he knew and said a thousand times what was at stake, in the end he accepted the rules of a losing game.” Bajnai’s responsibility is great. He gave up his original ideas and “followed the script of MSZP… He deteriorated into a weakish participant in a political battle.” As for Attila Mesterházy, in Ripp’s eyes he was totally unsuited to lead the battle against Fidesz. “Anyone who did not see that should look for some profession outside of politics.” But, he adds, Mesterházy was not the cause of the crisis but its symptom. What an indictment of MSZP! If Ripp is right, the remedies Lendvai and Hiller propose are useless.

István Hiller on restructuring the Hungarian Socialist Party

Doomsayers are already predicting the demise of social democracy in Hungary. According to their argument, the socialists will disappear just as SZDSZ vanished because Hungarian society has no appetite for anything that is associated with the left.

A party may disappear, but the political philosophy behind it certainly will not. SZDSZ as a party is no more, but the liberal idea is alive. It lives on in Együtt-PM, in DK, and, yes, to a certain extent in MSZP. Anyone who wants to throw the very ideas of social democracy and liberalism out the window and who claims that their disappearance will be good for Hungarian society is gravely mistaken. (One of these Cassandras suggests in a comment on this blog that LMP should be the major political force because, in his opinion, it is a centrist party. The fact is that LMP is more leftist than MSZP ever was.) If we send the representatives of social democracy and liberalism packing, we are going to have “national unity” of the worst kind, unity built on single-party autocratic rule.

I believe that both social democracy and liberalism will survive, just as they have survived in most European countries. Of course, the farther east we go the less weighty is their presence. That’s why Péter Pető of Népszabadság is very wrong when he assumes that the underdevelopment of the Hungarian countryside and its uneducated population does not matter. Yes, it does matter. He is also wrong when he minimizes the obstacles built into the electoral system devised by Fidesz. Yes, Fidesz would have won but not the way it did, and today we wouldn’t be talking about the demise of the Hungarian left.

After this brief detour, I would like to return to István Hiller’s recommendations for restructuring MSZP. Before he became a politician Hiller was an associate professor of history at ELTE, where he had the reputation of being an excellent lecturer. Although one of the young Turks in MSZP, Tamás Harangozó, included Hiller in the older generation of “aunts and uncles” (bácsik és nénik), he is in fact only 49 years old. When he became one of the founders of MSZP he was 25.

In the last election Hiller won his district (Pesterzsébet and Kispest) handsomely. As I learned from this interview with him in Népszava, he always insisted on being an individual candidate even when as party chairman he needed special permission from the party to do so. He won in 2002 and 2006 and  now again, in 2014. It is likely that the party will designate him one of the deputy presidents of parliament.

How does Hiller see the party’s situation? “Those people are right who call attention to the electoral law, the restricted possibilities of the opposition to be heard, and the uneven playing field. But those who stop here and make excuses don’t really want the rebuilding of the left…. I believe that the Hungarian left didn’t understand, didn’t digest the shocking changes that Hungarian society underwent in the last five years. Some of the multitudes who live in poverty most likely voted for MSZP in the past. These people hate the present government, but they didn’t choose us but the far right. These people are not extremists, their situation is extreme.”  Thus the party should concentrate on the poorest segments of society.

Some of Hiller’s ideas echo those of Ildikó Lendvai but with a twist. For example, “one cannot blame the left-liberal side for defending democracy and democratic rights, but one must know where to say what.” It is useless to talk about the fine points of democracy in a God-forsaken, poverty-stricken village in the countryside.

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Hiller admitted that his colleagues don’t get what he is talking about. “They don’t reject [my ideas], but for the time being they don’t quite understand what I want. But I’m accustomed to fighting. What I want is the complete rebuilding of the Hungarian left. It is not enough to climb out of the hole. It is not enough to get from minus to zero. I have higher goals.”

Another similarity between the thoughts of Lendvai and Hiller is that Hiller also believes that there is something very wrong with Hungarian politics altogether. He specifically talked about the divisiveness that exists in Hungarian society. As Sándor Csányi, CEO of the largest Hungarian bank OTP, said, this divisiveness has become an impediment to economic competitiveness. “We must change our whole political culture.”

Hiller is, of course, most concerned with restructuring the left. He offered some specific proposals.  He would concentrate on “internal structure” and “communication.” When it comes to changing the internal structure of the party, he would use local self-governments as the basis of the party structure. “This is what I’m trying to convince my colleagues of.” According to him, the party should concentrate on micro-communities. “We should reconstruct our organizational model based on the municipalities.” The party bigwigs, however, don’t cherish the idea of shifting the focus of decision-making away from the center.

Finally, Hiller echoes Lendvai’s ideas about a social democratic network. The next three years should be spent moving the focal point from the center to the 3,000-some municipalities. Every village should have at least one party member or sympathizer who can help build the network that would cover the whole country. He ended the interview by saying that he will share his ideas with the party and with the public as well. He knows that it will be difficult to change, but without change there can be no renewal and reconstruction.