Tue Mar 3rd, 2009 at 02:49:25 AM EST
Last week, in the midst of the financial crisis and racist hate crimes, the European Parliament elections briefly grabbed the headlines in Hungarian media. The reason: the choice of a party as the leader of its list.
Lajos Bokros became (in)famous (and his surname, which means "bushy", turned a curse word) in 1995, when the Socialists brought him into the then government as finance minister to prepare and conduct a brutal austerity programme. Then he returned into economics, but remained a high-profile advocate of reforms.
As you'll see, the Bokros nomination is definitely not the standard dumping of party human resource no more fit for the front lines. But Bokros is not exactly a popular figure with the wider public, either (as opposed to the politico-media elite): his choice tells more about views of the EU and progress.
Attached: an overview of the EP elections in Hungary.
Ed. note: part of our European elections series. -- Jérôme
Bokros's whirlwind ministership
Bokros even has a link to the current exposure of Hungary and much of Central and Eastern Europe [more on this in a comment] to the financial crisis: he came into the finance ministry from a major bank, which he prepared for privatisation (something he then oversaw as minister...).
The "Bokros Package", his 1995 austerity programme to right state finances, was a mixed bag: most of it was neolib measures like radical social spending cuts and accelerated privatisation, but also import tariffs. At the macro-economic indicators level, it worked spectacularly. At the social level, it brought (further) misery that needed years to get back from. At the political level, it was more or less self-defeating: once economic numbers were improving, to get back some of the lost popularity, the then PM wanted to water it up -- at which point Bokros resigned, just one year after he started.
To expose bias and to give some indication of the man's style, I note the unpopular measure that on the long run hurt the governing parties most: the introduction of tuition fees for students (including yours truly). Perhaps surprisingly, back then the motivation was not neolib dogmatism, but class: the majority was supposed to feel that everyone is making sacrifices because the spoilt brat free-wheeler students pay, too. Of course, instead, there were big student protests with popular support (and lasting resentment after their failure - this was when today's right- and far-right youth emerged).
One of the protests I was at converged at the finance ministry. A cocky Lajos Bokros came out to 'talk to us', faced a minutes-long concert of boos with a wide grin, and shouted his standard fare into the microphone. While he enjoyed a fight, his popularity sank to a spectacular 9%.
Who is drafting Bokros and why?
Bokros is a neolib faithful, and following his departure from politics, he preached reforms in the media whenever he got the occasion. He did so from the position of a grey eminence: he became Europe and Middle East Director at the World Bank, and adviser to a number of CEE governments.
Given the above, it should be unsurprising that he had better and closer relations with the (neo)liberal Free Democrats (SzDSz) party rather than where he came from, the Socialists. Yet, to everyone's surprise, it wasn't SzDSz that asked him to lead its EP list. It was a small right-wing party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF).
Today's dwarf MDF is actually the remains of the main coalition partner in the first freely elected government. On the economy, that government oversaw a brutal recession, all the while favouring slow 'reforms' (i.e. a limited implementation of IMF advices), and the necessity of the 1995 austerity reform was also blamed on this policy, so any friendship is more recent.
The self-image of today's MDF is as 'civilised' conservatives, as a pragmatic West-European-standard alternative to the clientelism of both main parties, to the reckless populism of main right-wing party Fidesz, and the extremism of far-right splinters. This brought them above 5% in the 2006 elections to everyone's -- positive -- surprise (see The Laughing Fourth). They make much about the "credibility" and "responsibility" of policy drafts and political declarations. Their declared model to follow is German chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU.
MDF's EP campaign is to highlight this European-ness in pro-European-ness. And, it appears, they think the Moustache of Reform would be the best symbol of that...
EP elections outlook - Hungary
MDF is hoping for a good showing in the 7 June EP elections thanks to motivated and interested voters. With 22 MEP seats up for grabs (two less than in 2004), passing the 5% limit narrowly can be expected to be worth 1. (Thus MDF's current MEP was less than pleased about being pushed to second place.)
In Hungary, the EP elections are run as single-district proportional elections. Any party or association that collected recommendations from 20,000 voters can run.
Certain to get into the EP (again):
- Fidesz (Young Democrats): the right-populist main opposition party in Hungary, member of the conservative EPP in the EU. Like five years ago, the list is led by Pál Schmitt, the Chief of Protocol of the International Olympic Committee; followed by the real strongman of the Fidesz MEP contingent, Fidesz inner cabal member József Szájer. As polls stand, EPP can hope for 14-17 seats from Fidesz.
- MSzP (Socialists): sole party of a minority government in Hungary, member of the centre-left PES in the EU. The list is led by the least unpopular member of the government (in a country with the approval of all politicians below 50%), foreign minister and former psychotherapist Kinga Göncz, and followed by two more women. As polls stand, PES can hope for 5-6 seats from MSzP, with the (presently) last safe seat belonging to one of the few true lefties in the party, Gyula Hegyi.
Hoping to pass the 5% margin:
- SzDSz (Free Democrats): liberals who left the government last year in Hungary, member of the liberal-reformist ALDE/ELDRP in the EU. The list is (again) led by István Szent-Iványi, a foreign policy specialist and long-time EU politician.
- MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum): centre-right parliamentary opposition party in Hungary, member of the EPP in the EU. No official list released yet.
- Jobbik (ex Right-wing Youth Community, with the acronym meaning 'right-hand one' resp. 'better one'; today Movement for a Better Hungary): extra-parliamentarian far-right party in Hungary, with ties to Euronat in the EU, in particular with Nick Griffin's BNP. The list is led by Krisztina Morva, who, after a noted career as feminist lawyer, came out as venom-spewing anti-Semitic street and courtroom activist on behalf of far-right rioters. (The party's recent rise was covered in A photo and a story.)
With slim chances to reach 5%:
- Munkáspárt (Workers' Party): heir to the hardliner Kádárist communists who split from the Socialists in 1989, mostly an old-timer club around eternal party chairman Gyula Thürmer, who also leads the EP list.
- LMP (There can be a Different Politics): the latest reincarnation of a Green-Left party, no list yet. (The 2004 incarnation failed to collect enough recommendations to get on the ballot.)