• Losing the “Left” in Hungary?

  • By Emilia Palonen | 22 Oct 09 | Posted under: Central and Eastern Europe , Hungary
  • The European elections demonstrated and further contributed to a deep disillusionment on the left in Hungary. The equilibrium between the two main parties in Hungary was shaken for the first time. The Socialists lost dramatically, their coalition-partner Free Democrats did not gain any seats. The extreme right made massive gains, the votes obtained by the main party of the right, Fidesz, amounted to a landslide, and even the small Hungarian Democratic Party kept its seat. What is wrong with the “left” in Hungary?

    East-European testing ground

    Hungary is an extreme case of polarisation, which could possibly show the way for all of Europe. This includes: the lack of alternatives in politics, the rapid and intensive rise of the extreme right and xenophobia in a country which in fact is quite homogeneous ethnically, the disappearance of the mainstream left after its turn to economic liberalism, the extreme marginalisation of the far left due to the massive and non-substantial confrontation between two or more mainstream parties, and the loss of interest in politics or democracy on the part of the majority of the population.

    In fact, Eastern Europe is seen as a model for development, a testing ground for processes that could take place in the “West”. First, it had the Soviet experience of “Communism”, with different phases and variants in each of the countries of the Soviet Bloc. Since then it has been in a “postcommunist” phase, a period where legacies of the previous era are still present (Schöpflin 1993). As the cultural economist János Mátyas Kovács maintains, the legacies of “Communism” lie where we would not expect to find them: in a heightened sense of individualism, competition and urge for success. “Communist systems” whatever they may have claimed to represent, produced the ideal-type ground for a rapid transition to neoliberalism, not to soft socialism according to the Nordic welfare model. This has consequences for the development of the left in Hungary, too.

    The other legacy that has been carried over is that of a black-and-white world view. The us-and-them sensibility dominates the Hungarian political scene. There seems to be only the “left” and the “right”. This, which we will call polarisation here, has penetrated all of society. The first thing a Hungarian thinks when meeting a fellow Hungarian – or a Hungarianised foreigner – is whether this person is on the left or the right. Often, one could recognise the difference through clothing or other external features, or by the restaurants the person frequents.

    For a European left-winger, finding a political home in Hungary is not easy. Left and right often sound equally negative. Similarly, the Hungarian ultra-left has preferred to withdraw from national politics altogether, finding it extremely uninteresting, as do many Hungarians. Polarised Hungarian politics has consequences for the image of left and right, which have little value or ideological content.

    Postcommunist parties and politics

    The multiparty system in Hungary was launched in round-table discussions, where the reformist wing of the ruling Communist Party and the dissidents agreed on a new constitution. The process had already been initiated in the mid-1980s. The first limited multiparty elections took place in 1985. Each of the groups brought their own set of demands to the round table. The electoral system was created so as to favour the development of a two-party system through a preference accorded to large nation-wide parties. This was reinforced following a trend in democratisation theory to impede the emergence of small parties.

    This meant that an emergence of a number of small or regional parties on the left did not occur in Hungary, and the New Left and the Hungarian Workers’ Party have not been able to mobilise enough support and get past the 5% electoral threshold. Instead, the reform-communist Socialist Party has been taking the lead in the representation of the “left” since 1994.

    The dissident group active in the 1980s formed the basis of the second “left” party, SZDSZ. This anti-communist party was the second largest party after the 1990 elections. As a coalition of intellectuals and urban people, it has always had a liberal take in both social and economic terms. It is also anti-nationalist, which contributes to its being called “Jewish”. Many in the leadership and supporters of the party are indeed Jewish Hungarians. It never managed to gain sufficient country-wide support. It has been in government with the Socialist Party in 1994–1998 and from 2002 almost continuously. Many, who were uncomfortable with the coalition with the former communists, left the party. Due to internal power-struggles, it has now lost its raison-d’être.

    The first elections were won by the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), which represented itself as the anti-communist rainbow coalition. It has always been national in outlook, conservative and even – especially around the 2006 elections – neoconservative. After the death of its leader József Antall, the party has been in permanent crisis. It has, however, managed to fight for and restore its independence within the right, which was endangered by its cooperation with Fidesz, the main right-wing party since 1998.

    Established as the party of the youth, with membership restricted to people not above 30 years of age, in 1989, Fidesz – now Fidesz–Hungarian Civic Party – has always been a radical party. It decided to take over representation of the right-wing pole in Hungarian politics, seeing as the MDF was weakened during its period in office 1990-94. Fidesz became the chameleon of the Hungarian party structure, radicalising dissent while at the same time working on etatist principles. It has been moving from the neoliberal outlook it had when in government (1998-2002) to nationalism and state-centred populism. Some Fidesz intellectuals and politicians also more or less openly profess anti-semitic rhetoric. Crucial to the development of the left in Hungary, Fidesz occupied three potentially left-wing positions: the radical, the state-centred and the anti-elitist – especially in opposition, where it has been successfully mobilising the population from 1994–1998 and from 2002 to the present. The mainstream wing of the left has not been interested in these positions.

    Why is it uninterested in these positions? First and foremost, this is due to the post-communist legacy. The Hungarian Socialists were used to being the party, the establishment party. In this sense “conservatism” in Eastern Europe is not necessarily owned by the right. Nostalgia for the pre-1989 past is increasingly present among the population and in party political rhetoric in all parts of the spectrum. While the Socialist Party has been blamed for the past and is considered to be simply the renamed Communist Enemy, it has also been exploiting the feeling for the good old days in a way that is by no means radical. The revolutionary character of the Hungarian socialists of the 1919 Béla Kun revolution certainly does not appear among the contemporary socialists. The Socialist Party always tries to occupy the middle ground.

    However, those in the Hungarian Socialist Party who carried out the changes in 1989 were not the old-school cadre, but reformists. After the process of de-Stalinisation each of the East European countries found their own take on Soviet-style socialism, and Hungarian socialism under János Kádár focused on the economy. Consumerism became the new ideology. Economic liberalisation was important also for the post-Kádár party elite who after 1989 were keen on privatising state property. The economic policies of the Free Democrats found fertile ground in the reform Socialists, whom many Free Democrat intellectuals had already been advising in the 1980s.

    From the Free Democrat perspective, the state was the ultimate evil, alongside nationalism which restricted possible other ethnic, religious and cultural identifications. In addition, the state was not the guarantor of quality services. In keeping prices low and quality decent, competition was important. This was obviously a quite elitist perspective. Nevertheless, it has been highly influential in the coalition governments in which the Hungarian Socialist Party participated.

    In contrast to that view, both the Socialist Party and Fidesz have since 2002 focused on the “little” or “normal” people. Both of them appear to be populist when they draw the line between the elite (ruling or former – depending on their position in opposition or government) and the people, following Ernesto Laclau’s (2005) definition.

    While Fidesz was in government in 1998–2002 its “civic (polgári) Hungary” was all about successful and entrepreneurial Hungarians making their way in the world and Europe. This excluded both those who did not do well and those who did not feel themselves first and foremost to be Hungarian. Around this the Socialist Party was able to mobilise enough support in the polls to win the elections in 2002. Since then, Fidesz has adopted an anti-elitist outlook, which is certainly easier to do in opposition than in government.

    The charismatic leader of Fidesz, Viktor Orbán, took off his suit, donned a checked shirt and did not attend many sessions of parliament. The strategy of the party became one of mobilising outside the parliamentary structures. Continuous campaigning, referenda and “national-consultation” surveys became the crux of Fidesz’s success. It kept itself on the agenda in the newspapers and on the streets and squares, among the – or “their” – people.

    Policy trouble

    The political debates in Hungary in recent years have been about social policy and financing the welfare services. It has been the Socialist–Liberal government which supported privatisation of hospitals and the introduction of tuition fees at universities. The right started mobilising against these two policies, which from the left’s perspective seemed trivial. They collected signatures for a referendum.

    The referendum held on March 9 received positive replies from 84% of voters and 42% of eligible voters: “Do you agree that inpatient care should be exempt from daily hospital fees starting on January 1 in the year after the referendum on the present issue?“ The second and third questions – “Do you agree that family medical care, dental care and special outpatient care should be exempt from consultation fees starting on January 1 in the year after the referendum on the present issue?“ and “Do you agree that students in state-subsidised higher education institutions should be exempt from tuition fees?” – similarly gained earned the approval of 82% and 41% of voters and eligible voters, respectively. The left complained that the phrasing made it too easy for the people simply to vote “yes”. They believed the fees would make for better service. In the health sector, furthermore, it is customary to pay unofficial fees. Up to now, how full the brown envelopes were that were handed to doctors or nurses ensured quality service. This is what could now be made transparent, the left claimed.

    There is yet another paradox here. In Hungary, in its East European way, the state is generally mistrusted yet still seen as the main provider of services. Taxation in Hungary has been highly problematic due to the extensive black labour market. Also, many officially earn only a minimum salary to avoid taxes. For the state, this is not enough to raise funds for public services.

    Polarised politics occurs in elite-level confrontations, yet real social problems are emerging in Hungary. There is a growing gap between the well-off and the worst-off and insecurity around state provision of the services. For instance, health insurance is tied to employment. By May 2009 the unemployment figure in Hungary had increased to over 10%. Lack of regularised employment was another issue. For instance, in 2004 over a fourth of 25–29-year-old and almost a third of 35–39-year-old males worked in the black market. (Elek 2009)

    The lies of democracy

    In many ways, all of Hungarian politics and economic life seem to be based on a bunch of lies – or at least two bunches. Constant boosting of one’s own political camp and discrediting the other has been the main task of political forces. This, in turn, leads to a situation in which any fact can be seen from two perspectives. There are facts of the right and facts of the left. Two different figures can be presented in the public which both claim to demonstrate an ascertainable reality.

    The media’s task has been to portray both the versions supporting the right’s claims and the versions favourable to the left in the best and most balanced way. In the very partisan media only one of the “realities” is conveyed. This has made it almost impossible for other political forces to gain representation in the media. Small parties, even the “medium”-size Free Democrats and MDF, which have representatives in the parliament and often in government, have been complaining about this. This obviously applies to the emergence of any political force that seeks to address broad issues in politics. Single-issue parties such as the nationalist-xenophobic Jobbik have not been affected by this trap, since they are not trying to reach mainstream audiences and deal with problems with which the mainstream is concerned.

    The problem of lies was something the former Prime Minister Ferencs Gyúrcsány addressed head on in 2006 when he admitted his party had “lied day and night”. The budget deficit was much larger than was admitted to the general public prior to the elections of spring 2006. The emperor that everyone wanted to see clothed was revealed to be naked. A fantasy collapsed, as democracy and the accountability of politicians – which everyone knew did not really exist but wanted to believe in – was admitted to be in shambles.

    Before the 2006 elections, Gyurcsány then Minister of Sports and Youth and a post-1989 millionaire, was chosen to lead the Socialist Party to another victory in September 2004 replacing Péter Medgyessy as the Socialist PM. Medgyessy had successfully led the party to victory in April 2002, but already in June was revealed to have worked for the secret service during the Kádár era. Gyurcsány kept up good appearances and spirits until the elections. Hopeful of being elected to four years in office, something could be done about the keeping-up-with-appearances ledger right after the elections.

    The news broke out in June that the economic situation in Hungary was worse than what the Hungarian Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance had claimed. A new financial programme consisting of tough measures was proposed in parliament in June 2006. Projected at 10% of GDP, the budget deficit was declared to be the highest in the European Union.

    On May 26, 2006, in Balatonöszöd, Prime Minister Gyurcsány spoke to the party crowd using strong language and criticising himself and the party. His intention was to legitimate new policies and reforms. Election promises could not be kept. There was no budget. The party crowd was the obvious first point of contact for the millionaire party leader when he projected a new era in the rhetorical style that incorporated popular speech and swearwords. The Prime Minister admitted to having lied to maintain the status quo until the elections. Now, however, he wanted reforms. Judging by the economic situation and the electoral promises, it was clear that the reforms could not be legitimated without revealing how bad the economic situation was.

    The real lies are in the system, in the system that the party had participated. The current intentions of the PM were social democratic:

    This is the real scandal. The real scandal is, that about which Laci [unknown representative of the Socialist Party] is talking: his gypsy men, they get one-tenth the quality of the healthcare service I get. And since my mother, my mother’s name is known in Pápa [Gyurcsány’s hometown] and they call her Katus [nickname for “Katalin”], she also gets better care, what a fucking life! She did not know, what had happened. “Has the healthcare system improved, my son?” I reply: “Bullshit, mom! The truth is that they recognise your name”. This is scandalous. Compared to this, in a social sense the admission for medical attention [i.e. 300 Ft for each doctor visit] is nothing. It is not a scandal, it is unpleasant politically, and it is unpleasant to pay it. […] We do not dare to touch a bunch of evident social lies, because we are afraid of the political consequences affecting us.

    Although in summer 2005 the approval ratings were low, the Socialists pulled an electoral victory in spring 2006. The PM seems to have believed the party could also have recovered and famously argued:

    I almost perished because I had to pretend for 18 months that we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, night and evening. I do not want to carry on with this. Either we do it and you have a person for it, or someone else will do it. I will never give a single interview at the end of which we part with each other in argument. Never. I will never hurt the Hungarian left. Never. But it is only worth doing it to touch the big issues.

    The speech was leaked on September 18, first by the Hungarian State Radio and then throughout the Hungarian media. Demonstrations were called for the resignation of the lying PM. Nights of riots followed. Gyurcsány continued admitting what he had done. He insisted to the media that, in fact, the whole Hungarian political elite had been lying for the past 8 to 10 years promising prosperity and avoiding reforms, and as he was the first one who had been brave enough to admit his mistakes, he would not resign.

    The debate was focused on the lie. Some thought a whole new era started in 2006; others thought the speech and its aftermath was not important at all. Yet it made visible the democratic deficit in the post-1989 system, and the disillusionment with politics, politicking and policies led to the Socialists’ downturn, manifested in the Euroelections 2009.

    The 2004 elections for the European Parliament had been for the right-wing Fidesz its largest victory ever: 47.4% of the vote and half of the 24 mandates. In 2009, it was a true landslide: 56% of the votes and 14 mandates out of 22. However, the de facto surprise winner of the elections was the radical right-wing populist party Jobbik. Still in April 2009, a third of the voters had not even heard of Jobbik (Medián). In June, they took 15 % of the vote and three seats in the European Parliament. The conservative MDF managed to pass the threshold with 5.3% of the vote and keep their MEP. The left failed dramatically. 

    The Socialists gained only 17% support and four mandates, less than half of what they had had. The Free Democrats lost the two seats they held in the previous parliament, gaining only 2% support. A new political force – LMP, “Politics Can Be Different” – did not get near the 5% threshold but gained 2.6% of the vote in coalition with the Humanist Party. What the elections did indeed show was disillusionment with normal politics. There was space for something new. The LMP reached for it, but the extreme right managed to mobilise a larger audience.

    The left did not turn up at the polls. Part of the explanation is that, according to surveys, Hungarians were mainly choosing “national” representatives for the Union. Crucially, however, Socialists and the Free Democrats lacked ideological credibility. What people expected of the Socialists had been maintenance of the welfare state but their policies had been quite different. The Free Democrats were seen as unreliable. The left had lost its virtuous image – due to the hyped and self-declared lying and due to corruption claims. The non-right, non-Left LMP was seen as arrogant and opportunistic by many: they had never specified their “different politics”.

    While an analysis of the extreme right’s emergence in Hungary requires a longer study, it should be noted that the Socialist votes did not migrate to Jobbik. Of Jobbik voters 39 % were first-time eligible voters and those who had not before cast their vote. A fourth of the voters had voted Fidesz in 2006. Only 13 % had voted for the predecessor MIÉP-Jobbik in 2006. While the two main parties’ supporters had decided a year before the elections whom they would vote for, Jobbik supporters made their decisions in the final weeks before the elections and LMP’s supporters often on election day (MTI June 19, 2009).

    Intraparty struggle: the fall of the Free Democrats

    One of the reasons for the Socialists’ failure on welfare policies involves the small Liberal Party. Finally, in 2008, the drift within the left regarding economic policy led to a break-up of the government in April 2008, which lasted until Gyurcsány’s resignation in April 2009. The Liberal Party that left the coalition faced a crisis: the leadership fight polarised the party between economic and social liberalism. The contest was between two figureheads and policies in the Free Democrats: on June 7, 2008 Gábor Fodor won over János Kóka by two votes 346 to 344. There were accusations of a rigged vote.

    The Free Democrats are the only party in Hungary publicly to exhibit internal struggles. In postcommunist conditions “our” side ought never be divided. A black-and-white world view expects total unity on the side of the “we”, the party. Though part and parcel of democracy, the internal battle was so deep that it had led to the downfall of the party. As many people over the years had left the party in frustration, by the time of its loss in the 2009 European elections it was a mere fragment of its former self. Corruption also played a major role in the downfall of the rather elitist party.

    One of the reasons why the Free Democrats had failed was their inability to project their own identity. Around 2000, under Gábor Demszky, the party was trying to become the third force. The attempt turned lethal in the Budapest Municipal Council. Budapest’s mayor relied on the support of the Socialists, as the largest party, to get his policies through, and this support would have been withdrawn had Demszky maintained the strategy of distancing the Free Democrats from the Socialists.

    One of the strategies was to profile the party through anti-semitism and pro-minority positions. Anti-semitism is widespread in Hungary and neither of the large parties (which both have a few hundred anti-semitic voters) argue vehemently against anti-Jewish and anti-Roma political rhetoric and movements. This profiling, however, gained negative publicity for the party, and took focus away from their economic and other social policies.

    What is left of the left?

    To conclude, there is nothing much left of the left in Hungary after the elections in 2009, and the more traditional left-wing rhetoric has been occupied by the right, mainly Fidesz, arguing for state ownership. The other question is what is to the left of the “left”? Why have I only focused on the two “Left” parties? Because due to the electoral system and political polarisation, there is little space for small parties – even those the size of MDF and the Free Democrats. Furthermore, the left fringe is not trying to get involved in party politics. In fact, the Hungarian Monde Diplomatique prides itself in not reporting on Hungarian politics, which is overwhelmingly present in the mainstream media.

    Jobbik, the Hungarian Guard and Fidesz have been claiming a monopoly of popular mobilisation, in its different forms from consultations to “village parliaments”. One popular movement, Védegyelet, for instance, had its figureheads elected in the parliament on the Fidesz and MDF tickets. President László Sólyom has been vehement in supporting Hungarian minorities abroad.

    The left is also fragmented. There is the Social Forum movement and other small movements, mainly in Budapest. The Hungarian Communist Worker’s Party engages in symbolic politics by having a presence, for instance, through public ceremonies. Hungarian Attac is still very much in touch with pre-1989 leftism. The internal struggles among the altermondialist left in Hungary are also taking very polarising turns and are visible at the European level. Sectarianism is widespread, and the symbolic politics of the “alternative” overshadows radical openings that could have a mass mobilising potential and change the political spectrum.

    The hope in Hungary is in the new generation which would reject both the polarised politics of the mainstream and the sectarianism and legacies of the socialist period. The rise of the extreme right and of xenophobia and the downfall of the Free Democrats and decay of the Socialists could act as a trigger for something new – both in Hungary and across Europe.



    Ferencs Gyurcsány’s speech at the party conference, May 26, 2006. Balatonöszöd. (a translation from Wikipedia is cited): en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Ferenc_Gyurcs\’e1ny’s_speech_in_Balaton\’f5sz\’f6d_in_2006_May

    Péter Elek, Scharle Ágota, Szabó Bálint and Szabó Péter András, ‘A bérekhez Kapcsolodó Adóeltitkolás Magyarországon’ ELTE Társadalomtudomáyi Kar: http://www.tatk.elte.hu/, April 2009

    Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, London: Verso, 2005.

    George Schöpflin, Politics in Eastern Europe 1945-1992, Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993.

    Emilia Palonen Stuck in the Division? Political Polarisation in Contemporary Hungary Forthcoming (2009) from l’Harmattan, Budapest.

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