The Purgatory of Socialists in Hungary


By László Andor

Support for the Hungarian Socialist Party collapsed before the 2010 election and the subsequent split made it harder to recover. Instead of a come-back, the 2018 election ended with further weakening. New leaders of the Centre Left have to address key questions about the programme, its personnel, organisation as well as outlook in the next year or two in order to restore hope in a better result next time.

Social Democracy is in crisis in Europe and Hungary is no exception. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) was the strongest party in four elections since multi-party democracy was introduced in 1990. Since 2010, it has suffered three consecutive defeats and a recovery is neither imminent nor automatic.

Results : from bad to worse

MSZP lost badly in 2010 primarily because of the impact of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, but there were some more general causes at play as well, amounting to an overall trend of decline. The long-term programme of MSZP was in a way fulfilled by EU accession, and a new long-term programme was not produced. The electorate also was tired of seeing the faces of some socialist and liberal politicians, especially the former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, who became one of the most rejected politicians of the country. After three cycles in government, MSZP was losing its technocratic charisma, and it found it very hard, if not impossible, to recruit young people.

The party split shortly after the 2010 defeat when Gyurcsány formed a separate party (Democratic Coalition or DK) which also invited some former liberals and conservatives. Causing fragmentation in the party system, this did not make it easier to mount a challenge against the increasingly authoritarian drive led by Viktor Orbán. After the second major defeat in 2014, the party was written off by many, which was interrupted shortly at the time of the dynamic campaign of László Botka in 2017, but he withdrew his candidacy at the 2018 elections, seven months before it took place, feeling the lack of unity behind him and accusing some in the party leadership of collaborating with Fidesz.

MSZP went into the campaign after a formal agreement with DK to divide all the electoral constituencies between them, and formed an alliance with a smaller Left-Green party (Párbeszéd or Dialogue) and choosing the leader of the latter, Gergely Karácsony as Spitzenkandidat. Since, however, unity was only partial, and the last weeks of the campaign were dominated by unfertile negotiations between various parties about a withdrawal, the left support overall did not grow, Orbán achieved another constitutional majority with the list of Jobbik (the radical nationalists) receiving the second largest share of the vote.

Locked in the system of limited democracy

The overall outcome of these elections means that purely domestic forces cannot stop the slide of Hungary into an autocratic regime. The results of the centre-left is not as bad as in some other countries, but in Hungary practically the entire liberal and far-left components are missing from the party political landscape.

Shortly after the election day the representatives of the OSCE voiced their concern about the quality of democracy in Hungary, and most importantly the availability of state resources to be used for the party political campaign of Fidesz. Indeed, the country has been shifting towards a one-party state for some time, resembling the inter-war Horthy regime when the Social Democratic Party was forced to accept limitations (practically not organising outside Budapest), and people in the countryside often had to cast the ballot paper without secrecy.

Today, it is important to notice the spectacular divide between the capital city and the rest of the country. Two thirds of the Budapest seats were won by the opposition, and almost all could have been won in case of further mutual withdrawals of candidates between opposition parties (centre-left and the greens).

On the other hand, Fidesz received the highest share of the vote in rural areas and especially in districts where the poorest people live. It is not because Fidesz would have done or offered anything for poor people, but those people heard from propaganda (including state owned TV and churches) that the flood of migrants is threatening Hungary and it is only Fidesz that can protect them. They heard very little if anything about how their lives would change under a progressive government.

Programme and ideology

In this campaign, all opposition parties were bound to focus on the kleptocratic nature of Fidesz rule, while many, and especially the alliance led by Karácsony, also outlined how the welfare state should be rebuilt and the social dialogue relaunched. The left called for halting wasteful mega-projects like the extension of the nuclear plant (Paks-II) and wanted to promote social investment. This new orientation clearly left behind the times when MSZP was seen as more technocratic than social democratic.

In the late 1990s many in Europe, including MSZP tried to follow the guidance of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder to reshape social democracy. In Hungary, the shine of Blairism was lost, especially after the turbulent events (fiscal stabilisation and street riots) of 2006. Party leaders after 2010 in various ways tried to distance themselves from a neo-liberal version of social democracy, but without the capacity to give or define a very clear direction.

Since 2017, MSZP started to take inspiration from the examples of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and António Costa in Portugal. DK, which with its President Gyurcsány preserves the spectre of Blairism, did not jump into the same orientation, but did not come out to oppose this in a confrontational manner either. MSZP kept talking about the need for more dynamic wage increases, especially during the election campaign.

Karácsony, the Spitzenkandidat of the Alliance for Change framed his programme in a new way. He rejected Orbán’s « fake democracy », but without suggesting a return to the 1990—2010 « liberal democracy ». He pointed to a third model: « social democracy » that would introduce tri-partisanship in the world of work and reinforce public health and education. The lack of a breakthrough did not mean that Karácsony’s programme was wrong, but that the fragmented opposition with a limited chance to reach out to its natural base outside the cities has been too weak to match Orbán’s concentrated power and unlimited resources.

In need for a reconstruction strategy

Since its existence, the MSZP vote was only lower in 1990, although if we take into account the combined centre-left we can speak about stagnation since 2010. While MSZP has to elect a new leadership, it should also see that other opposition parties, namely Jobbik and LMP are in a greater crisis. Jobbik will review its centrist strategy and, after internal strife, possibly return to its far-right roots. The Greens (LMP) will have to look into the mirror and digest that their non-cooperative, « neither left, nor right » strategy helped Orbán to a constitutional majority three times, which now amounts to the betrayal of the majority of their voters.

Since both Jobbik and LMP have had stronger support outside the capital, their crises open up opportunties for a centre left revival outside Budapest. This, however, is far from automatic, and there are pre-conditions for that to succeed. First an open alliance between the Socialists and the Left Greens (Párbeszéd) will have to continue. The joint ticket of the two parties is probably the best way forward for them in 2019 when European and municipal elections take place. For Párbeszéd this means that they can still be players in future elections, and for MSZP this keeps the only window for renewal open at this moment.

While confirming the alliance and preparing for the 2019 elections, MSZP leaders have to think about the possibility of more fundamental changes of its programme, organisation and and outlook in order to develop the party of unity that would arrive to the 2022 as a resurrected force. The time to take decisions on such broader questions will come after the elections of next year. This process would also need to end the pointless separation of DK from MSZP, as long as key questions regarding personnel and programme can be answered.

In addition to the territorial one, the centre-left is facing a generational challenge as well. Even if many students and other young people have been outraged by the conduct of Orbán and his party, they hardly chose left-wing parties at the elections, and this also needs to change. Many have been attracted to a bogus new party, Momentum. This party was launched by highly educated young people in 2017. Their supporters were clearly anti-Fidesz, but eventually they only managed to achieve 2,8 % of the total vote by running in the election but not entering Parliament. Momentum is likely to grow, but without a progressive programme and a genuine chance to appeal to people outside major cities. It will be a crucial puzzle how to turn them into a constructive force instead of becoming helpers of Orbán.

Finally, even if centre-left forces would re-define their way forward soon, they have to expect Orbán blocking the ways of reorganisation. There is no country where progressives can come to power easily, but in Hungary the additional problem remains: the European Union continues to tolerate an autocratic regime which has developed the habit of controlling practically everything, including the political opposition. To defy this will be no small task and requires international support in the coming years.

Photo: FB MSZP