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Campaign Watch Hungary: Of Socialists and Presidents

by DoDo Thu Jan 26th, 2006 at 03:56:22 PM EST

back from the frontpage

Thursday last week, Hungary's President of the Republic announced that the first round of elections will be held April 9 - a less expected early date.

Time for another report of the crazy politics in Hungary. This time, a peek at the inner workings of the main government party and some aspects of the political system - only loosely connected to current events.

The Socialists

On first approximation, MSzP, the bigger partner in the governing coalition, could be termed a post-reformed-communist party. But that would be too simple - there are a lot of ex-Party-members in other parties, and non-members in the MSzP. A better picture is to speak of three wings and several power alliances.

The three wings are: the naive socialistic members, the mostly ex-cadre entrepreneur wing1, and the small but influential technocrat wing. Power alliances usually have footing in multiple wings, resulting in rather byzantine power struggles. For example, current PM Ferenc Gyurcsány is of the entrepreneur wing, but conducted his mid-term coup against the previous PM after a campaign aimed at winning the favour of the naive small-s-socialists, and allying with two then powerful powerful blocks he later dissed.

Last year, these byzantine games led to an MSzP own goal, during the vote for President of the Republic.

President of the Republic

In the system since 1990, the President of the Republic is a largely ceremonial post with a five-year term, and its bearer is elected by parliament - an adoption of the German system. I remember well when the for and against of such matters was discussed hotly by everyone - the main for arguments were: (a) a popularly elected President may take his popular legitimacy to usurp the powers of the government, (b) a popularly elected President only represents the majority, but parties may find a consensus candidate to represent all (and (c) to prevent the ascent of a then powerful reformed communist who cozied up to the then main right-wing party; but this is long forgotten).

In practise so far however (four occasions), the parties resorted to partisan fighting even on the matter of President. However, the system still may have forced parties to limit their choices, and the persistent first place for the President-in-office in politicians' approval polls may be taken as proof that the system works. Myself, I very much liked the first (Árpád Göncz, who had two terms, and who began translating The Lord of The Rings while awaiting death sentence in prison for his part in 1956), not so the second, but again the third. This third came in last year as the candidate of the right-wing opposition, when MSzP totally blew it.

It happened that the then most powerful woman in MSzP, the president (US: Speaker) of the parliament, wanted the President of the Republic post too much. For a year or two before, she laboured hard on a 'conservative Socialist' image (stuff like visiting the Pope). Then she arranged for the inner-party support to become Socialist candidate, and had her party steamroll over the objections of the coalition partner liberals. She must have thought lost votes on the government side will be put off by votes from the split opposition, where the bigger and the smaller party played similar games with each other. But the cynics in the main opposition party Fidesz (a leading cabal of spineless ex-liberal yuppies) had more tactical foresight, and swung behind the smaller party's candidate in the last hour - ouch, no Socialist President... Instead, a man named László Sólyom.

The Activist Judge

Now the new President is a very special choice for the nominating party. He is a conservative lawyer. But one who headed the Constitutional Court (like US Supreme Court) at the time of the so-called First Media War, just when the nominating party was the largest in a right-wing governing coalition. The First Media War was fought over legal restrictions to freedom of speech and the control of state media; between the government and the parliamentary majority and their media appointments on one side, and the opposition, most journalists, the then President of the Republic, and the Constitutional Court on the other side.

The US right-wing likes to rant about 'activist judges' - now Sólyom & colleagues here, they truly were that. During the First Media War, they struck down law after law (and not just on media), and often made rather specific recommendations about how things should be done properly.

A President To Inflame All Hypocrites

After the end of his tenure, despite being a conservative, Sólyom gave signs of some views one would count as progressive in Western Europe. In Hungary, that's less obvious because of Fidesz's demagogic manoeuvring - when MSzP acted as an ideologically dead pro-business party, some genius had the idea to import fresh hard-left altermondialist rhetoric - to the Right!... Thus when Sólyom, who built a rather good and public relationship with Hungary's dismissed greens and environmentalists, expressed public support for the grass-roots protesters against a NATO radar station in a natural reserve, it was on the Right that some thought this will be their man.

Since his taking of office, Sólyom caused some grotesque 'scandals'. First was his public criticism of the US, declaring he won't travel there until fingerprints are taken at the airport - cheered by the Right, called shameful by pundits on the nominal Left2. When Sólyom held the traditional New Years' Address on TV, in which he requested a campaign without negative campaign in unusually clear terms, it was the far-right's turn to be outraged: he had no flag in the background!...

Of deficits and spending

The New Year's two big 'real' issues are: the exploding budget deficit (over 6% after the EU prohibited the exclusion of state investment into highway construction from the budget account, and predicted to stay high by EU Economic/Monetary Commissioner Joaquín Almunia), and more benefits for the poor. Thus the ensuing bizarre campaign battle of the two major parties may not sound that unfamiliar to others even in our neoliberal times:

Fidesz leaders make speeches that Hungary is in a chronic state and needs all kinds of support programs to help the people - while promising tax reductions and reduced deficits. MSzP starts a campaign pointing out the social programs they started and increases they implemented, including the so-called 13th-month pension, and dismiss Almunia's projections. Then Fidesz promises to introduce a 14th-month pension (no I didn't made this up!), and an extreme supply-sider hallucination to finance it: 10 percentage points reduced pension contributions...

Now, you could say, you have seen this all, and campaign pledges will be broken anyway. Only - Hungary has a precedent for the opposite. When the current ruling coalition won its hairthin victory in 2002, Fidesz started a post-election frontal attack hoping to bring down the government. So the government felt they have to deliver - and both the MSzP's social spending promises and their liberal partner's tax reduction promises were fulfilled. The result: the giant deficits we have today, and almost no state investment into the future (say, change the energy sector or the transport sector...).

I'm not at all certain that this won't repeat after the elections, whoever wins (after all, Fidesz's previous reign was already a milder version of this economic insanity).

Tabloid Finish

I can't decide whether Fidesz is more corrupt than MSzP or are the latter's culprits better at covering their tracks - but of course usually both get away with exposed stints. Here is a story to encompass them both: a Socialist who strongly attacked Fidesz's corruption affairs before 2002 was entrusted with investigating them after the regime change, but was repeatedly blocked by the Fidesz-nominated Chief Prosecutor. A few months later he disappeared from limelight. Recently, it came out that somehow, half a dozen of his relatives got good jobs as civil servants...

Meanwhile... last time, I wrote about how Fidesz 'outsourced' its negative campaign: a supposedly independent 'civilian group' produced stuff in the form of a tabloid, but MSzP managed to draw the connection in the public's mind with a certain fax copy. But the outsourced campaign continues - last week, another fake newspaper plastered Budapest full of attack ads against another government-side politician (Budapest's major).

  1. Surprised? See discussion of the term 'state capitalism' here.
  2. I explained the reason behind the inverted positions on the Iraq War in my diary on Bush and Hungary.

What you find in my older posts on Hungarian politics (oldest first):

  1. After a bizarre press vs. politicians court case, an introduction of parties & history since 1989.
  2. The workings of non-issue-based politics: the tragicomical double referendum on barring hospital privatisations and giving neighbouring countries' ethnic Hungarians double citizenship.
  3. Bush and Hungary: why the nominal centre-left (now governing) is pro-Bush and the nominal centre-right opposition anti-Bush.
  4. Campaign season opens - half a year early.
  5. Further in the campaign, October polls and nonsensical rhetoric (how can you give preferential treatment to both the elites and the poor?)
  6. The juiciest of the many storm-in-the-bathtub scandals: Mata Hari in Budapest
  7. A foray into history (not much to do with recent Hungarian politics, but some further perspective for the debate on Turkey's accession to the EU).
  8. European Dream: where would Hungarians like to live?
  9. Hungarian Orange (no relation to the Ukrainian version): on a clever opposition poster campaign and its contrast with reality.
  10. On another poster campaign by the same party - how to outsource negative campaign, and how it can be made to backfire.

Fascinating diary, thanks. Do you predict a close election?
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Jan 23rd, 2006 at 04:30:53 PM EST
Yes, but with low confidence. I can't close out an implosion of either side until April (and I have to say I see it more likely for the government side), nor a chaotic between-the-rounds two weeks.

Last I looked, i.e. in December, it was a head-to-head race in polls. (I note I stopped giving credit to single polls, and check all four main polls at the end of every month.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Jan 24th, 2006 at 10:08:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the update. We've already discussed our mutual dissatisfaction/distaste for FIDESZ so we won't go there.

Any chance for the Greens or are they just the usual 3% type of Green party that never seems to be able to get its act together and move forward?

by gradinski chai on Wed Jan 25th, 2006 at 09:36:47 AM EST
Much worse, but that's a long story, I'd have to look up the more recent developments. (I'll do it from home.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jan 25th, 2006 at 10:21:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Here is the longer reply after I did some research.

You will note that I wrote small-case-greens. I meant civilian greens, ones who don't just want to preserve stuff (environmentalists) but want to change society.

Political Greens were stricken by two factors. One is a rather nasty history of divisions and party reformulations.

Greens got attention and mass support when in the eighties, the government wanted to push through a silly Hungarian-Slovakian project of two dams on the Danube (the upper one, entirely in Slovakia, was later unfortunately built). However, most of the leaders of this movement entered the other main parties, only the remainder formed the Green Party - and got 1.9% where they could erect a list (i.e. in 4 regions out of 20; just 0.36% in total).

The original Green Party was infiltrated and taken over in a coup by a group of far-right youth(!) in 1993. Then the 'real' Greens formed the Green Alternative party, but it was too late: both parties together got less than 0.3% where they ran (and 0.17% in total) in 1994. The far-right version shrunk below 0.1% but was still around to confuse voters, while Green Alternative entered an alliance with other mini-parties to get 0.64% where it ran (0.19% in total) in 1998.

Then in 2000, Green Alternative and a number of other 'real' left mini-parties united into Green Democrats. In the 2002 elections, this party in turn entered the election alliance called Centre as junior partner, but that list ended at fourth place and outside Parliament with 3.90%. Unfortunately, what followed was another break - the Alliance of Green Democrats formed, but was attacked by many civilian greens. Consequently, they failed to gather enough signatures for the European Parliament elections.

The latest attempt was formed by members of a civilian green group after the successful protests against a NATO radar in a natural reserve (which I mentioned), under the strange name Living Chain for Hungary.

The other problem Greens have is the election system. It is a mixed election system that, unlike the German one, is heavily tilted towards the FTPT part. (There is a compensation mechanism, of votes on loser candidates added to list votes, but one affecting less than a quarter of seats - while almost half are from FTPT.)

This favors the formation of a two-party system, where smaller parties are eaten up, and most people don't want to risk the victory of the block they dislike more by voting for something that may not even get 5% of list votes, and even if it gets it, 2.5% of parliamentary seats is too little to hope for a result in which that party is the balance of power.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jan 25th, 2006 at 01:13:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The second outsourced negative campaign again took some grotesque turns.

It happened that the public transit authority took down the posters (which I repeat, attacked the major of Budapest). So the fake tabloid's editors accused the major of having ordered it. Who grabbed his chance: he announced he will litigate these guys for defamation, and at the same time he denounced the public transit authority's decision as an attack against free speech and ordered an investigation!...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jan 25th, 2006 at 01:20:54 PM EST
Last Thursday, an An-24 plane of the Slovakian air force, on its way home from Kosovo with 43 people on board, crashed into a mountain en route to Košice (Slovakia's second largest city and Bratislava's Eastern 'counter-pole'; Hungarian: Kassa, German: Kaschau). There was one survivor.

The reason for the crash is a mystery. Technical errors have been closed out. Apparently the pilots flew by sight - in the evening. Further mystery is in conflicting accounts - the official version is that the plane veered off its flight path (along a valley between two mountain ranges) by 3 km, but some Hungarian airflight insiders claim that the plane flew along a different route, and flew 350 m under the minimum allowed flight height.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jan 25th, 2006 at 01:35:55 PM EST
Hopefully it won't be like Spain's Yakovlev-42 crash in 2003 in Turkey, but it sounds ominously like it. That was a cesspit of government prevarication that the PP still has not acknowledged.

Spain: military chiefs replaced over Yak-42 plane crash
Spain: Aznar rejects public inquiry into military plane crash
Turkey air crash kills Spanish troops
Spain drops Nato flight contract

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jan 25th, 2006 at 01:40:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What the heck - I checked the polls. Only one of the four main pollsters released its January result so far, but that1s the one considered most neutral. It showed the same results as in December to the percent (of the two big Fidesz ahead but within the error margin, all other parties would fail at the 5% limit - including the current governing partner liberals SzDSz and the smaller right-wing opposition party MDF, both at 3%).

More interesting is the current top six of politicians by approval:

1 László Sólyom (President of the Republic) 73%
2 Ibolya Dávid (leader of MDF) 62%
3-4 Katalin Szili (president of parliament and failed P.o.t.R. candidate) 53%
3-4 Kinga Göncz (non-party-member youth/family/social/equality minister, daughter of first P.o.t.R.) 53%
5-6 Ferenc Gyurcsány (Socialist PM) 48%
5-6 Viktor Orbán (once and in his hopes future Fidesz PM) 48%

Those at positions 2-4 are women. (So were those at places 7-8 in the previous poll, but haven't seen the full results of this one so far.) None of them like Thatcher. I like Kinga Göncz, respect Ibolya Dávid and am so-so about Katalin Szili - but on balance, I'd prefer even her to either of the two macho PM-hopefuls at 5-6th place. Contrast Ibolya Dávid's popularity with that of the party she leads, and you'll see how much real influence they have... sad.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jan 25th, 2006 at 02:10:22 PM EST

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