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.
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).
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).
- Surprised? See discussion of the term 'state capitalism' here.↑
- 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):
- After a bizarre press vs. politicians court case, an introduction of parties & history since 1989.
- The workings of non-issue-based politics: the tragicomical double referendum on barring hospital privatisations and giving neighbouring countries' ethnic Hungarians double citizenship.
- Bush and Hungary: why the nominal centre-left (now governing) is pro-Bush and the nominal centre-right opposition anti-Bush.
- Campaign season opens - half a year early.
- Further in the campaign, October polls and nonsensical rhetoric (how can you give preferential treatment to both the elites and the poor?)
- The juiciest of the many storm-in-the-bathtub scandals: Mata Hari in Budapest
- 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).
- European Dream: where would Hungarians like to live?
- Hungarian Orange (no relation to the Ukrainian version): on a clever opposition poster campaign and its contrast with reality.
- On another poster campaign by the same party - how to outsource negative campaign, and how it can be made to backfire.