The Landscape of the Hungarian “Democratic Opposition”

I suppose most outside observers who care about democracy and have at least a minimal understanding of what is going on in Hungary see clearly enough that the turn the country took in 2010 was devastating. What could be more obvious than that everyone who is committed to the core values of liberal democracy—which in happier countries are of course shared throughout most of the political left and right—should pull together and stop the deterioration of Hungarian democracy in the upcoming elections? Yet the question of whether it is admissible to work together with the old left for this goal, and if so, how, appears to be a serious moral dilemma for many who want the country to escape Viktor Orbán’s “central forcefield”.

I guess anyone accustomed to the normal standards of political rationality would expect that the dilemma is the result of some insurmountable ideological controversy, or a deep disagreement about the policies that the different potential parties in such a co-operation would want to implement, should they succeed in driving Fidesz from power next year. It is not. Disagreement at the policy level is insignificant, and there is little prospect for ideological quarrels with the old left, since they are remarkably short on ideologies. Why then is it so difficult? This question is perhaps best approached by taking stock of the players involved.

But first a note on the idiom “democratic opposition” is in order. Many (including myself) find it somewhat irritating when the term is used to refer to all of the current opposition players, except for the far-right of course (hence the adjective “democratic”). This term already has a meaning in Hungarian politics, and refers to a group of brave individuals during the 1970s and 1980s who were expelled from their jobs, whose works were banned or denied publication, whose liberty to travel abroad was revoked, and who were constantly harassed in many ways by the secret police as János Kádár’s oppressive regime tried to deter them from their political activity. Although the present regime arguably displays aspirations to become similar to Kádár’s in some respects, it is inappropriate to use the good name of this movement from several decades ago and apply it in the present context. It is particularly disturbing when the Socialists refer to themselves as the leading force of the present-day “democratic opposition”. By making this remark, I have already anticipated an answer to the question posed above: It is Hungary’s history and its moral interpretation that make it so difficult to join forces with the old left to “save democracy”.

The decline of the Socialist party

The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) was formed in 1989 at the last conference of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), which ruled the Hungarian single-party state, nominally on behalf of the proletariat, before the change of regime. The Socialists remained in business after the first free elections in 1990, receiving about one-tenth of votes cast. By the end of the first legislative term, the disastrous and immediate effects of the transition on the economy and unemployment had propelled them once again to the forefront of Hungarian politics. They received nearly one-third of votes in the 1994 and 1998 elections, and more than 40% in 2002 and 2006. They were in government for twelve of the Third Republic’s twenty years. As far as political ideas are concerned, they kept a very low profile. In 1994, they advertised themselves as “experts” who knew how to run a country, and their technocratic approach has been combined with a vaguely articulated ideology of modernisation ever since. Although they have sometimes displayed expressly neo-liberal tendencies, there is some objective justification for regarding them as a genuine left-wing party, as they did manage to achieve some decreases in income inequality during most of time they were in power. On the other hand—and perhaps even more importantly—they failed to achieve any significant improvement in the employment rate, despite the fact that Hungary enjoyed a period of continuous economic growth lasting for nearly a decade and a half from 1994 until the outbreak of the recent economic crisis, a period during which the Socialists were in government for all but four years.

It was not only the crisis that broke them before the last elections; former prime minister and party leader Ferenc Gyurcsány did his bit as well. He rose to international fame through a speech he delivered to fellow Socialist MPs shortly after their 2006 victory, and by refusing to resign after a tape of his words had been leaked. In the speech, he said they had won by lying and by knowingly failing to introduce policies that the country needed in the second half of the previous term. Scenes from the riots that followed a radio broadcast of the speech and the use of police brutality indiscriminately against both violent and law-abiding anti-government protesters alike on the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising a few weeks later were widely reported in the international media. Also ravaged by a cascade of serious corruption scandals, the Socialist party received less than 20% of votes in the 2010 elections.

Not long after the 2010 fiasco, Gyurcsány broke with MSZP and with a small group of dissident Socialist MPs formed his own party, called the “Democratic Coalition” (DK)—somewhat misleadingly, as it is really the former prime minister’s one-man-show. DK distinguishes itself from the Socialists by self-professed attributes such as being left-wing in a more western and modern style—whatever that is supposed to mean. It is most likely to refer to a more liberal policy approach—in contrast to MSZP’s recent move towards a more markedly social-democratic profile—as signalled by the fact that the esteemed liberal economist and former liberal MP Tamás Bauer is in charge of drafting the party’s programme. Gyurcsány’s new party looked to be a dead end for the first year and a half of its existence, but in the last few months it has garnered significant support through an aggressive campaign.

The rise of Gordon Bajnai

Another former prime minister, Gordon Bajnai, is also a major figure on the present opposition scene. He took over the job in April 2009 after an embarrassing intermezzo that lasted nearly a month during which the Socialists roundly humiliated themselves by failing to nominate a new head of government after Gyurcsány finally announced his resignation. Bajnai usually presents himself as a non-partisan technocrat striving to create sound management for the country and calling for an era of rationality and sobriety by somehow overcoming the toxicity of the cold civil war between the left and right. On the right, however, he is seen as Gyurcsány’s less extravagant alter ego. The two started their business careers together in the early 1990s, but parted ways when Gyurcsány started his own businesses while Bajnai held senior management positions in well-established companies, including ones with strong personal links to politicians on both sides. He entered politics as a commissioner in the second Gyurcsány government entrusted with managing development policy financed from European funds. Later, having been elevated to the rank of cabinet minister, he performed essentially the same job, and when the Liberals left the coalition government he became minister of national development and economy.

I’m not in a position to report on his performance as the top executive of development policy, and I guess very few are, as literature on the topic is scarce. His performance as a prime minister, on the other hand, is a more straightforward matter. The crisis hit Hungary exceptionally hard, mainly as a consequence of previous governments’ fiscal profligacy. By the end of the third quarter of 2008, which is roughly when the crisis erupted, Hungary’s sovereign debt had reached 70% of GDP, whereas in all the other transition countries in the region it was under 40% (except for Bulgaria where it was around 50%). Many countries in the developed world reacted to the seizing up of the loan and credit market by relaxing their fiscal policy to mitigate recession, but for Hungary this was out of the question; its huge debt left no room for counter-cyclical action, and bankruptcy was averted only with the help of international organisations. By the time Bajnai took over the following spring, he faced a very limited range of options. Most agree that he performed well as a crisis manager, although there is of course some question about his share in the responsibility, as a member of the previous government, for the country’s helpless state when the crisis struck—a question, again, on which few can pass a responsible judgement.

Shortly after the 2010 elections, Bajnai launched his think-tank, Haza és Haladás (Patriotism and Progress), whose main activity was to prepare and publish analyses and programme proposals in several important policy areas, as if in preparation for a prospective prime minister who wants to return to the job fully prepared. The emerging papers, written by well-established experts in their respective fields, outline a programme which is firmly grounded in facts and can be construed as left-liberal with its focus on issues such as employment, cohesion and mobility alongside narrower economic goals. They certainly soften Bajnai’s hard-boiled neo-liberal image, at least for those who take the trouble to read them.

New movmements: Milla, Szolidaritás and the Greens

Bajnai may have found the position of a latent prime ministerial candidate without a political organisation somewhat uncanny after a while, so he took over two already existing ones in a single stroke a year ago. One was the somewhat optimistically named One Million for the Freedom of the Press in Hungary, which started as a Facebook group organising a massive protest demonstration when the parliament passed outrageous new media laws in 2011. The first demonstration was followed by several others, and Milla, as the group is better known, established itself as a successful demonstration franchise. The organisation may have in excess of one hundred thousand Facebook followers, but it is run by only a handful of mostly young activists of a broadly left-liberal persuasion, some of whom previously worked or still work in NGOs mostly concerned with the protection of rights and liberties. If your trade is organising mass demonstrations, after a while you might feel that letting out the steam and walking home afterwards is less interesting for your audience than it was the first time.

Milla may have shared this uncomfortable sentiment with Szolidaritás (Solidarity), a movement halfway between a labour union and an old-fashioned union-based social-democratic party, which became widely known for angry and spectacular demonstrations involving predominantly policemen, fire-fighters and soldiers when the government unilaterally changed their pension schemes and weakened general labour rights. In October 2012, as the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution approached, the urge in these organisations to try something new coincided with Bajnai’s need for a political hinterland. On Milla’s stage, Bajnai, Szolidaritás and Milla announced their intention to create a new political entity, which they envisioned as an umbrella organisation for a joint opposition effort to defeat Orbán’s Fidesz in the next elections. The initiative was christened accordingly: Együtt (Together) 2014. Although Bajnai emphasised his openness to suggestions as to who should lead the newly established movement, it was quite clear that he had no one other than himself in mind.

LMP (Politics Can be Different), a green party which—to the surprise of many—entered the parliament in the last elections by winning 7.5% of votes with completely new faces and virtually no resources, was immediately invited to join. They were quite reluctant, however. Bajnai’s move forward came at the worst moment for the greens, who were in the middle of grappling with the problem Fidesz had created for them by changing the electoral law. In addition to a good measure of ruthless gerrymandering, the new law made the electoral system even more disproportionate than it already was by shifting weight from party lists to individual electoral districts, and by weakening the compensation for votes cast for losing candidates. Most importantly, it also abolished the second round of voting in the individual districts. Hitherto, tactical voting in the individual districts kicked in only in the second round, and deals between parties were unnecessary in the first round. The new situation puts pressure on opposition parties to agree on candidates they can support jointly; otherwise, the division of opposition votes between two or more candidates almost automatically guarantees that Fidesz will win the seat with a relative majority. This has put LMP in an immensely difficult position: On the one hand, it is imperative to maximise the chances of defeating Fidesz in next year’s elections; on the other, LMP has strong normative reasons for avoiding electoral co-operation with the old left. To understand these reasons, one has to appreciate how Hungary’s traumatic history lives on in the 21st century. For most Hungarians, supporting either the political left or the political right is not a matter of policy preferences or stances on political principles; it is gut decision, which can also be likened to religious identity.

What distinguishes right-wing voters from left-wing voters

If you are a stereotypical right-wing voter, then you see Hungary’s history as a constant struggle for self-determination and independence from oppressive foreign powers: the Tatars, the Turks, the Austrians, the Russians, and nowadays the European Union and possibly international corporations as well. You view Hungary as a perennial victim of the injustices of international politics. You tend to underplay somewhat not the horrors of 20th century right-wing totalitarianism themselves, but the responsibility of the mainstream Hungarian right for allowing them to come about. In contrast, the horrors of left-wing totalitarianism are always at the forefront of your attention. Your being right-wing may be a family matter. If your family suffered more under Rákosi and Kádár than it did under Horthy and Szálasi, you are likely to have been raised in the right-wing faith. Interestingly, Christianity is not always something that connects you with the Christians of other nations. Rather, it is almost as if Christianity was a Hungarian invention. It is somehow part of your national pride.

You may dislike some of the neighbouring nations, but not necessarily, and the same goes for the Roma, the Jews, the Americans, and the homosexuals (and interestingly also the Piresians, a fictitious nation invented and surreptitiously inserted into an attitude survey by a sociologist some years ago to prove that a nation need not be real to be disliked around here). If you belong to the mainstream right—not the far-right—it is not hatred, but only discomfort, or maybe even less than that. You reserve your hatred for your left-wing and liberal compatriots. You feel that they are your compatriots only nominally; at heart, they are really foreigners. They side with the foreigners, are the agents of foreign interests and contaminate Hungarian culture with foreign values. You might or might not have heard about the idea of a republic which is a moral community shared by citizens with different worldviews and political convictions, but even if you have heard of it, you are not very interested in it. It is a pale liberal construction. The political right is intrinsically entitled to lead the nation, in your opinion, because it embodies the nation’s true values, and these should determine its political institutions.

On the other hand, if you are a stereotypical left-wing voter, you are likely to think that Hungary’s history is a series of failed attempts to modernise and catch up with more civilised nations. You look around yourself and are horrified by the mess and the backwardness you seem to see everywhere. Your only hope is the country’s membership in the European Union, not so much because of the development funds, which your unenlightened compatriots will probably waste on re-decorating the main squares and town halls anyway, but because you think it will eventually constrain the damage they would otherwise inflict upon themselves and you. Sometimes you completely forget that Kádár’s system was conceived in treason and murder, and you find yourself looking back nostalgically to the relative calm and seemingly jovial mediocrity of its last two decades. You may sometimes even think that democracy grew out of the benevolent and enlightened reforms proposed and implemented by the technocratic elite of the late Kádár era.

It may be a family thing, too: Perhaps the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was easier on your family than the previous authoritarian regime  had been. It is far from certain that you feel strongly about any conception of social justice, or that your being left-wing has much to do with any even remotely substantive political idea other than your certainty that you are not right-wing. You may be familiar with the idea of political pluralism and the moral community of disagreeing democrats. In theory, you agree that right-wing citizens should have as much say in public matters as you or anybody else, and you congratulate yourself on tolerating their views, which you find abominable. You would not really want to exclude them from the democratic community, but you sadly acknowledge that they do not fit in, for, in your eyes, they are simply too irrational, or even somewhat barbaric. You do not exactly hate them, but you look down upon them. You hate and fear their leaders, however, who you think are aggressive and dangerous, threaten your liberties and want to cut off you and the country from the West, where you always wished to belong.

This may sound like a caricature, but I’m afraid it’s closer to reality than one might like. The mutual exclusionism of the right and left has long been a determinative aspect of Hungarian politics, made its mark on the country’s history during the last century, and contributed significantly to the demise of the Third Republic early in the 21st century. One important consequence of such attitudes is that neither side is likely to set any standards for their own political representatives. They may perform badly in government, they may be as corrupt as is humanly possible, they may breach all the fundamental rules of democracy, but their respective camps cannot afford to revoke their support because this would bring about the ultimate evil: The other side would come to power.

Difficult alliences

At the policy level, the result of the two decades separating the change of regime and Orbán’s “revolution at the booths” amounted to a huge failure. The country is on the brink of social disintegration with more than one-third of the population living below the subsistence level, with the lowest employment rate in the EU and the most unfair education system in the whole OECD. Orbán’s government has introduced policies that change things mostly for the worse, but he is far from being the only one to blame for the state the country is in socially and economically. He contributed to it as the leader of the right, but so did the old left. The short-sighted, irresponsible and in many cases simply uninformed and poorly monitored policies which have led us here were products of the moral and intellectual deterioration of political elites on both sides, during the course of which each side came close to fulfilling the worst nightmares of the other.

It was due to the moral collapse of the left rather than to “the unprecedented unity of Hungarians expressing their will” that Fidesz won 52.7% of votes in 2010, and it was the disproportionate electoral rule that gave them a two-thirds majority of seats. Orbán seized with both hands the opportunity to fundamentally reshape the political system in a way that would allow him to become the new Kálmán Tisza, whose party dominated the parliament and controlled virtually every single public office for thirty years between 1875 and 1905. What the new electoral law meant for LMP was that if they were to help stop it, they would have to forge an alliance with the discredited old left, thereby contributing to the latter’s moral rehabilitation and risking their own integrity.

This was particularly painful for LMP, since their ambition was to become more than just a green party. They considered it part of their political mission to break the dynamic that the mutual exclusionism of the left and right had created, and to find a path towards the moral restoration of democracy. Joining up with the old left for a battle which will inevitably be construed as another episode in the war between the left and right is the last thing you want to do if your ambition is to put an end to the war by convincing the antagonists that they should accept each other as legitimate parts of the democratic community. I’m sure many would respond to this by saying that more is at stake here than LMP’s political mission, which may be true enough, but the collapse of the old left in 2010 also brought the hope that there would be a change in the political patterns we have seen hitherto. LMP introduced a way of thinking capable of garnering significant support that was critical, yet inclusive, of both sides. Accepting the role of a junior partner of the old left in a fight against Fidesz could easily destroy not just LMP’s political identity and its achievements, but also the hope for change which they generated.

Some in LMP thought that perhaps it would be less detrimental to the party’s long-term goals if they joined forces with the other fresh opposition movements—Milla, Szolidaritás and a newly established small left-wing party called the Fourth Republic (4K)—and entered an electoral co-operation with MSZP restricted to individual districts with a joint entity enjoying support roughly on the same order of magnitude as that of the Socialists. Discussions about the prospects of such a project were cut short by Bajnai’s return to the political scene one year ago, taking two of LMP’s prospective partners with him. This move split LMP in two. Many of the more conservative greens within LMP saw Bajnai as a representative of the old left and found close co-operation with him unacceptable. Some staunchly left-wing greens, for whom Bajnai was the archetype of the neo-liberal technocrat, adopted a similar position. Others thought that staying out of an opposition co-operation was not an option because that would help Orbán consolidate his regime, and because there was hope of distinguishing the new opposition movements, even with Bajnai aboard, from the old left. LMP’s party conference rejected Együtt 2014’s invitation with a narrow majority, after which those of the minority opinion left LMP. They did not exactly join Bajnai’s party, but instead formed a new one—Dialogue for Hungary (PM)—which immediately concluded an alliance with Bajnai’s Együtt 2014 with a view to contesting the next elections jointly.

Although PM kept its organisational independence, the party was running the risk of being perceived as nothing more than Bajnai’s accessory. Much depended on Együtt 2014’s leader, as most of the public’s attention was focused on him. On Milla’s stage in October 2012,  Bajnai gave a speech which largely paraphrased LMP’s original declaration of principles, signalling that he accepted the political mission pursued by the new opposition movements and was willing to draw a clear line between the old left and the alliance whose leadership he had assumed. This was reinforced by a note published on his think tank’s blog, which criticised the role of the police in the events of October 2006. Very soon thereafter, however, Bajnai decided to apply pressure on MSZP to accept him as the prime ministerial candidate of the joint opposition, which was hardly compatible with the narrative he gave on Milla’s stage. Együtt 2014’s shift in strategy ultimately proved unsuccessful: MSZP refused to yield to the pressure and the two agreed on a minimalistic framework for co-operating in the upcoming elections restricted to the level of individual electoral districts. It took almost a year to arrive at this conclusion and during this period the moral capital accumulated by the new opposition movements which sided with Bajnai had been severely eroded. Moreover, Bajnai’s changing tactics and the dilution of his message of not only unseating the Orbán government but also breaking with the marred practices of the era before 2010 cost him significant support among undecided voters, without whom Orbán cannot be defeated.

Now that the exact form of electoral co-operation between MSZP and Együtt-PM has been clarified, there is still the problem of finding a way to deal with Ferenc Gyurcsány, the anti-hero of the last legislative term, and his Democratic Coalition. The former prime minister refuses to give up his political career, and he gained considerable support during the months when MSZP and Együtt-PM were paralysed by the idle rivalry between Bajnai and MSZP’s leader, Attila Mesterházy. Bringing Gyurcsány on board would send a negative message to those in the middle who would like to live in a country less torn by the struggle between the left and right and would prefer to have some peace from the self-appointed “charismatic” leaders of both, as well as to those who want to prevent Orbán from seizing all power for decades, but not at the cost of completely absolving the old left from its responsibility for the moral decline of politics. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether one can draw a morally relevant line between MSZP and Gyurcsány based on any sound principle. Gyurcsány is incapable of attracting support outside hardcore left-liberal circles, but his attempt to position himself as the scapegoat of erstwhile friends has struck a chord in this narrow segment of the electorate. His campaign for all-encompassing co-operation on the opposition side is aided, rather tellingly, by the leaders of some of the fragments of the liberal party that once grew out of the original democratic opposition and was later completely discredited as MSZP’s junior partner for several terms in government.

Confusion on the opposition side is huge, and as far as I can tell this is for two main reasons. The first is that the new movements currently under Bajnai’s umbrella do not have a clear moral position vis-à-vis the old left to guide their behaviour and to make it clearly discernible to the public. The second is that the Socialists are reluctant to solve the problem posed by the fact that there are other fragments of the old left, primarily Gyurcsány, who also want to get involved. The confusion culminated in disturbing scenes at an opposition demonstration just a few days ago, with those who had protested against police brutality seven years ago appearing on the same stage with MSZP and Gyurcsány on the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and with those who were invited to the demonstration but are not part of the deal between MSZP and Együtt-PM hijacking the event and protesting against the unfairness with which they feel they have been treated. It is far from certain that this mess stands any chance of stopping Orbán half a year from now. I hope it does, but if it doesn’t, then the moral capital of the new opposition movements will have been spent in vain, and the chances of resisting Orbán’s rule in the next legislative period, let alone of rescuing the country from the depths of symbolic warfare, will be slimmer.