Who can save the left in Hungary?
By Sean L Hanley, on 6 January 2012
Two new, very different parties hope to rebuild Hungary’s badly damaged opposition writes Erin Marie Saltman
Hungary’s opposition made a rare show of unity on 2 January, when it organized tens of thousands of people (some claim as many as 100,000) to protest a new constitution pushed through parliament by the ruling, conservative-populist Fidesz party.
Like the protests in Russia, they were a departure from Hungarians’ usual apathy. But also like those protests, they could still fail to translate into real political change. The left in Hungary is badly fractured and parts of it remain widely discredited.
That means that however draconian Fidesz’s legislative maneuvers – which have been pushed through thanks to a supermajority and include clamping down on press freedom; reining in the judiciary and central bank; nationalizing private pensions; and changing the labor, tax, religious, electoral, and education laws – opposition parties still face long odds in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The governing coalition continues to poll far ahead of other parties.
Undeterred, two new parties, the Democratic Coalition and the Fourth Republic, have stepped into the fray, with very different approaches to reconstructing Hungary’s liberal-left.
Established in October, the Democratic Coalition Party (DK) split off from the Socialist Party and is headed by its former leader, ex-Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. DK aims to regain the Socialists’ lost popularity – their parliamentary representation fell from 186 seats to 59 after being clobbered by Fidesz in 2010 – and to win over voters whom the Socialists have not been able to attract.
DK has shown a willingness to cooperate with other liberal and left-wing groups and is fronted by a mix of well-established politicians and energetic young figures.
The breakaway party emerged out of a long-standing tug of war among the Socialists, between those pulling in a nationalist direction and those, like Gyurcsany’s DK followers, promoting a neoliberal platform. But typically for a Hungarian political party, DK has so far focused more on opposing Fidesz than on articulating specific policy choices.
DK is also trying to modernize the left wing, drawing in youth support and first-time voters by tapping into online networks and forums.
Potential problems facing the Democratic Coalition have less to do with its ideals and more to do with its origins. Like the Socialists, it is linked to the pre-1989 past. The Socialists’ roots are in the old Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party (Magyar Szocialista Munkaspart, MSZMP), a distinct liability in light of Hungary’s turn toward nationalist and populist political rhetoric, reflected in the rise of Fidesz and far-right party Jobbik.
Gyurcsany, too, could be a liability. Although he is the strongest political figurehead of the left, many have not forgotten the infamous 2006 speech that gave spark to the right-wing flame, in which Gyurcsany said his party and others had “lied morning, noon, and night” to gain power. Although the speech was calling for political transparency and reform, the sound-bite led to days of protests and demonstrations outside of parliament and calls for the prime minister’s resignation.
Still with its political experience and strong neoliberal message, DK could become a strong force in the 2014 national elections.
The Fourth Republic Movement (Negyedik Koztarsasag!, 4K!) announced in October that it would make the transition from civic movement to political party to run in the 2014 elections. With plans for its first congress in May, the group defines itself as the “patriotic left” versus what it sees as Fidesz’s authoritarian nature and abuse of the rule of law.
Fourth Republic spokesman Andras Istvanffy said the country needs a left-wing party that is not associated with the old, tainted leftists.
That attitude, and the differences between Fourth Republic and DK, could make cooperation difficult. Fourth Republic is less concerned with establishing a “European identity” for Hungarians or in cooperating with European and international institutions.
Fourth Republic was founded in fall 2007 as a civic movement for “non-political young people aiming at reclaiming space,” Istvanffy said. It created so-called urban playgrounds within city centers. Flash mobs and street parties were monthly events, and it held national pillow-fight days, citywide capture-the-flag games, and MP3 Simon Says events mocking the consumer mentality. As a political party the group’s approach will have to change.
Istvanffy said the party seeks a government that is closer to the people and not held by some version of the same elite that has controlled the country for 20 years. That Hungary’s 1989 revolution was bloodless was seen as a triumph at the time, but many in the country now feel it was more an elite transition than a movement of the people. Fourth Republic embraces this sentiment, seeing the current government as a regime that needs changing from the bottom up. It has worked with environmental groups and other protest organizations such as One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary (Egymillioan a Magyar Sajtoszabadsagert, nicknamed Milla) to mount large demonstrations against the Fidesz government.
The new party will have its work cut out for it: Fourth Republic’s strong support among young people in Budapest will not necessarily translate into backing in the rest of the country, particularly in rural right-wing and radical-right strongholds. The green LMP, for instance, drew most of its votes in Budapest during the last election. Fourth Republic’s youthfulness itself could be a liability, leaving it open to criticism that it lacks experience. Most members of the movement are in their 20s and early 30s.
So 2014 will not be a cakewalk for either of these new political forces: the 2010 elections seem to have tipped the scales irreversibly toward the right and radical-right.
But in Hungary, elections can always bring surprises. Since 1989, control of government has bounced back and forth between right and left.
Aside from Fidesz’s ability to keep its voters satisfied for the next two years, much will depend on various liberal-left organizations and parties’ willingness to cooperate and unite in opposition. Splintering groups and parties will have difficulty amassing the electoral numbers to overcome a strong force such as Fidesz. Although Fourth Republic hopes to clean the slate of a socialist past, it is perhaps the joined forces of DK’s experienced politicians with Fourth Republic’s youth and spirit that can rebuild a healthy multiparty system in Hungary.
Erin Marie Saltman is a PhD candidate at UCL-SSEES. Her research focuses on the socialisation and political engagement of young people in Hungary.
This piece was first published by Transitions Online and is reproduced with permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL