Hungarian Social Democrats Take Fight To Orban

László Andor

So, László, thank you very much for being with us to talk about the Hungarian Socialist Party. What is the historical position of the Social Democratic Party in Hungary’s political system and where does it stand now?

To analyse the Hungarian situation we need to go back to 1989, because that’s when the Hungarian Socialist Party as we know it was launched. Also, this is a historical period when most of the significant political players, including the current prime minister Mr Orbán, started their political career. So, this is one long period in which we can define Hungarian politics from many angles.

In the 1990s, the Hungarian Socialist Party was a leading party and if you look at the electoral results, let’s say in the first 15 years after the democratic period started, the socialist party had the best electoral results in Hungary.

Absolutely counter-intuitively, it started to crumble after joining the European Union. So, the big expectation was that joining the EU would also consolidate social democracy, partly because the EU provides a good pattern. In most EU countries, social democrats are in the top two or three and very often in power. Also, because the EU provides the means to sustain a social market economy and the welfare state, it helps economic convergence.

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Why has it turned out to be the opposite? 1.) Hungary entered the EU with a very large legacy debt and that caused a significant instability which the socialist liberal government was just unable to manage in a consistent way. In 2006, when all other economies in the region were booming, Hungary was implementing a stabilisation programme and that started to create ambivalence inside the party but also to alienate some of the base which the party had in the previous roughly 15 years.

Then 2.) the socialist liberal government was caught up in the great financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, which again, with external intervention from the IMF, put us on the track of a very harsh fiscal adjustment policy which probably destroyed whatever remained of this broad support.

So, since about 2010, the socialists have been in opposition and never really managing to go beyond their core support. There is certainly a core, which is for sociological, ideological or various other reasons strongly attached to the centre-left and specifically the socialist party, but this is an ageing sociological group. Its values do not really transfer to the young generation, and any kind of reconstruction on the centre-left has turned out to be very difficult and very temporary.

If you come to the core of the SWOT analysis where are the strength and the weaknesses of the party?

In the 1990s, it was quite clear, because the socialists won the election in ’94 and remained the strongest single party in ’98, but they narrowly lost power that year to a right-wing coalition. It was clear that the party’s technocratic capacity was seen as a major strength (and it returned to power in 2002).

There were many new players in Hungarian politics in the centre and the centre-right at that time, but since a lot of people in the centre and centre-right were new to politics they often were seen as incompetent. Socialists, although some of them carried the baggage of being political active before ’89, simply because of the technocratic experience were seen as dominant, as almost a, kind of, natural party of government.

This technocratic charisma through various cycles of misfortune since EU membership has significantly weakened and the perception has disappeared that the socialist party could be seen as superior in terms of government capacity.

At the same time, the organic links to the natural base, which would be employees, especially those organised in trade unions, retired workers, student movement, so all these have been pretty much weakened.

Youth was always a problem, from the very start. Young people in Hungary, in the beginning, inclined towards liberal parties and later they were mainly inclined towards nationalism, and occasionally far-right nationalism. So, the base for the socialist party was largely active employees and, for a very long period, pensioners.

It’s, primarily, since the time of the fiscal adjustment that this strong base amongst pensioners has been lost. Fidesz clearly is dominant among pensioners. I mean, to some extent, it’s still the working population, especially organised labour, public sector employees like teachers for example, that might be considered as where the socialist party has greater influence.

Also, it’s a bit of a regional issue. There are some regions where traditionally the socialist party has been relatively strong and maintains its strength, but this is again a major issue. I would say there is some strength, seen in a SWOT analysis, in Budapest and some of the more traditional left-wing cities like Miskolc or Salgótarján, or Pécs, but we have also seen that in some of these cities it has been difficult to preserve power in municipal government.

We have several cases, as with László Botka who is now the prime minister candidate of the socialist party, that someone for a relatively long period managed to maintain municipal leadership in a significant city – in his case, Szeged.

Okay. So, there are regional disparities where you can make a distinction between strengths and weaknesses.


Obviously, against the backdrop of the specific Hungarian situation with Orbán and the way he has transformed his rule, where do you see the opportunities and threats going forward?

As for threats, the Hungarian case is in a way specific because the main threat for the Hungarian left, but Hungary in general, is the authoritarian tendency of Viktor Orbán and his political party. At the beginning, after they took over in 2010, this was not such a manifest trend but step-by-step I think it became clear that in the absence of internal and external constraints, they just go forward and forward towards a regime where they cannot be replaced.

The concentration of power, the lack of checks and balances, the fact that the party in government can just change the rules and shift the resources at any time, of course makes life difficult, if not impossible for opposition parties.

Now, there is also a difficulty, not really a threat, but let’s say a difficulty, a weakness, which is linked to social democracy in Europe in general, there is a lack of orientation in social democracy in general. I would say that ten, 15 years ago, there was a clear ideological orientation of the Hungarian socialist party which was a focus on Blairism and the Blairite version of the progressive political family.

After the years which I described, 2006 to ’10, this shine of Blairism was lost, not only in the UK but also in Hungary and the subsequent party leaders in various ways tried to distance themselves from, let’s say, a neoliberal version of social democracy, but without the capacity to give or define a very clear direction.

What we are experiencing now, since January, is another attempt in this fashion? To redefine a social democracy, but in the absence of a very clear and meaningful model which could be followed. This is not such an easy effort in Hungary.

If you look internationally again, do you see any parties that could be like role models? I mean, you mentioned that the Labour Party in the ‘90s was the role model for a lot of social democratic parties.

Yes, I think from the angle of Hungary, it’s not that hard to detect centre-left parties which are more successful. They might be either in government or have a strong position in opposition and waiting for a victory. These are primarily two types of parties, one which is the party of Robert Fico, our neighbour in the North, which is more nationalistic.

So, if you compare the Hungarian socialist and the Slovak socialist, the Slovaks are clearly a lot more nationalistic. Whether voluntarily or by compromise, whatever, there is clearly more open nationalism. Of course, in many ways it’s not something that would be attractive, but you have to recognise that they are quite successful.

The other version which you can see in Portugal, you can see now in the UK, I would also say Sweden, where social democracy is more characteristically left-wing and tries to rekindle some features of the classic social democratic programme. Which is the importance of public ownership, the importance of a strong welfare state, an explicit fight against inequality, income inequality but also inequality of wealth and a focus on the fight against poverty as well.

These are, in my view, the clear models. Where we have seen the meltdown of social democrats, from the Netherlands to Greece, it has largely been explained by too strong an attachment to economic policies, especially micro-economic policies, which have no real connection with social democracy and do not connect with the values or principles of this tendency.

I mean, all over the place social democratic parties have trouble connecting with their core constituency and even because of societal changes it may not be as straightforward as before to define what this core constituency is.

In previous discussions on this project, interview partners identified this shift away from socioeconomic policies towards identity politics as one of the contributing factors to a growing disconnect. So, without throwing away the liberties that were fought for, but you can also identify a shift back to a classic socioeconomic arena that maybe was neglected in recent years?

In the Hungarian context?

In general terms.

Well, in general, I would say that of course there might be confusion and ambiguity in the situation, but intellectually I wouldn’t say it’s as hard as you describe. I mean, Greece, if you remember the time of Papandreou, the party of Papandreou, Pasok, knew quite well that austerity is not a social democratic policy but the country was suffocated and they were forced into that direction.

Which was not the case in the Netherlands and the Dutch social democrats, they chose this direction. Nobody forced the Dutch into that direction and especially into playing a leading role through Dijsselbloem at the helm of the eurogroup in this type of economic policy making in Europe.

That’s, I would say, an important dimension, which we haven’t discussed so far, the role the European Union plays in all this and the lack of a strong social democratic voice and explicit pursuit of an alternative model at European level. This is a critical issue for many parties today, if the social democrats are seen as defenders of a status quo, defenders of a model which was not created by them, then of course, people in increasing numbers will ask the question: why should we vote for them? What do they represent at the EU level?

So, basically, if I’ve got you right, you see that trying to influence European level politics and trying to change the way politics is being formulated at the EU level is an absolutely necessary complementary part to reconfiguring national social democratic politics?

Yes. In some areas this is well understood, in other areas it isn’t. I give an example of where I think it is well understood. All the discussion on social dumping, for example, comes from the recognition that the EU, because it’s a single market, brings not only opportunities but also limitations to national welfare states and labour regulation, and the protection of the workforce and social rights within countries. This needs to be compensated by EU-level action, either legislation or financial instruments, or policy co-ordination, but some form of EU policy needs to supplement and protect the national welfare systems.

I would say that this approach or programme of social democracy has been in existence but very narrow in recent years, especially if you look at discussions in the European Parliament. Very focused debates on social dumping but only very general pursuit of an investment agenda, for example. Which allowed the current Commission to get away with an investment plan whose additionality and added value is in doubt.

So, for seven, eight years now, the perception of the public, including supporters of the centre-left, there has been a grand coalition, centre-left, centre-right, jointly governing Europe, but the centre-left components of this agenda, in many cases, are either vague or nominal.

Okay, and finishing off, again, with the Hungarian case. What would be your best recommendation for how to develop the party in the specific and very difficult context of Hungarian politics?

Well, I think a critical issue has been dominant since 2004 (when Hungary became a member): how do they come to define its place in the European Union, and whether EU membership and its various facets help the pursuit of a social democratic agenda. Cohesion policy was supposed to play a major role in that, and that also went utterly wrong in the Hungarian context. In the first period, because of inexperience, and in the second period, since Fidesz is in power, because of the EU funds being integrated in a political food chain of the centre-right.

So, obviously, in order to regain not only support for social democracy but also combined support for the EU project and social democracy, you need to be able to redefine what cohesion policy is for, because if it’s not possible then the components of these programmes fall apart.

So, this is exactly, because of the deepening of internal territorial imbalances, an absolutely critical question for the socialists to regain support in rural areas. I mean, now, the party has more or less withdrawn to towns and especially the larger cities. Of course, with such a geographic focus, you cannot become a dominant party again. So, this is one very important issue.

The second issue is the question of youth. I think this is perhaps slightly easier, because I think more and more young people understand that the polices of the right in Hungary are not about creating opportunities for young people, from the reorganisation of the high school to Internet use. I mean, in a variety of ways, Fidesz has just undermined the opportunities of young people and that’s why such a high proportion of Hungarian pupils and students want to go to other countries, especially in western Europe, and also young employees want to leave the country.

This is something which invites a strong social democratic programme. Schooling, training, universities and the opportunities for young people in the world of work, this may be a complex problem but I don’t think it’s impossible to resolve. The problem comes with the fact that most of the people who would benefit from a strong social democratic programme supporting education and youth, they are already outside the country or will soon be leaving.

Then Hungarian electoral law doesn’t allow you to vote if you do not reside in the country, and there are about 200,000 Hungarians in the UK and they left because they didn’t like the situation at home, but they cannot vote postally. They can only vote if on the day of voting they go to London and visit the Hungarian embassy. So, up to 200,000 people are supposed to vote in the Hungarian embassy in London, even if they work in Manchester or Glasgow, or anywhere.

So, obviously, Orbán did his best to disenfranchise these people who dare to move out of the country to work, while at the same time he gave the franchise to ethnic Hungarians living in surrounding countries and they can vote postally, even if they don’t have a residence in Hungary. So, the electoral system has been manipulated to reflect these conditions.

Okay. Well, certainly very challenging circumstances in the case of Hungary. László Andor, thank you very much for this conversation and I hope with this project we can contribute to generating some new ideas that might be helpful in different European countries.

This interview is the third part of a new project on SWOT analyses of progressive parties Social Europe is running in partnership with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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