The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) was the strongest party in four elections since multiparty 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 because of the impact of the 2008-9 global financial crisis, but there were some more general causes in play as well. The electorate was tired of seeing the faces of some socialist and liberal politicians, especially the former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, who became one of Hungary’s most rejected politicians. After three cycles in government, MSZP lost its technocratic charisma, and it found it hard to recruit young people.
It split shortly after the 2010 defeat when Gyurcsány formed a separate party (Democratic Coalition or DK) which also invited in 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 Viktor Orbán. After the second major defeat in 2014, the party was written off by many, a process briefly interrupted at the time of the dynamic campaign of László Botka for the premiership in 2017.
MSZP went into the latest campaign after a formal agreement with DK to divide all the electoral constituencies between them, forming an alliance with a smaller Left-Green party (Párbeszéd) and chosing 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 fruitless negotiations between various parties about (mutual) withdrawal, the left’s support overall remained static, Orbán achieved another constitutional majority, with the list of Jobbik (the radical nationalists) receiving the second largest share of the vote.
There are countries where the centre-left is weaker in Hungary, but in our case the entire liberal and far-left components are missing from the party political landscape. There is also a 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 these 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.
Campaign: program 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 extention of the nuclear plant (Paks-II) and wanted to promote social investment. This new orientation clearly broke with 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 gudiance 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 neoliberal version of social democracy. Since 2017, MSZP started to take inspiration from the examples of Jeremy Corbyn, the UK Labour leader, and Antonio Costa, the Portuguese socialist leader.
Karácsony, the Spitzenkandidat of the Alliance for Change, framed his program 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 tripartism at the world of work and reinforce public health and education. He also spoke about the need for more dynamic wage increases. The lack of a breakthrough did not mean that Karácsony’s program was wrong, but that the fragmented opposition, hampered by 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.
Shortly after election day the representatives of the OSCE voiced their concern about the quality of democracy in Hungary, and most imporantly 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 interwar 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 their ballot paper without any secrecy.
Reconstruction: organisation and outlook
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 stategy 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 and this amounts to the betrayal of the majority of their voters.
Since both Jobbik and LMP have had stonger support outside the capital, their crises open up opportunites 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. Despite the dismal results of 2018, this may be the start of a centre-left recovery, as long as the „Alliance for Change” between MSZP and the Left Greens under the leadership of Karácsony and Ágnes Kunhalmi, leader oif the Budapest socialists, is confirmed in place and achieves better results in the 2019 European and municipal elections.
While confirming the alliance and preparing for the 2019 elections, MSZP leaders have to think about the possibility of more fundamental changes of program, organisation and outlook in order to develop the party of unity that would reach 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 the key questions regarding personnel and program can be anwered.
In addition to the territorial one, the centre-left is facing a generational challenge. Even if many students and other young people have been outraged by the condact 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 collect 2.8 % of the total vote: below the 5% hurdle for entering Parliament so their votes were redistributed, with as many as half of them going to Fidesz. Momentum is likely to grow, but without a progressive program 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 unwitting helpers of Orbán.
Europe: from economics to values
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. The European Peoples’ Party (EPP) has provided cover for Orbán. Despite dismantling the rule of law in an EU member state, the EPP has protected him in order to avoid losing a member and in exchange for economic and political favors (e.g. to German business in Hungary like Audi, Deutche Telekom etc.). The German CSU has played a pivotal role in whitewashing Orban’s autocratic rule, and only pushed him back when he was going to the wildest extremes. Orbán has also pleased his German allies by championing fiscal austerity, in contrast with the previous period when Hungary struggled with excessive deficits.
Gpoing beyond tolerance, many conclude today that it was the EU itself that built up Orbán. His entourage is helping itself to the spoils of EU coffers. OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office, investigated dozens of cases in Hungary, while the national prosecutor only followed up a few. The EU is not funding those who promote its values, while funding endlessly those who confront them. This is a paradox that need to be resolved urgently.
There is a lot of talk about a „rule of law conditionality” in the EU budget, but this would only take effect with a delay, while Orbán would be re-elected once more. In reality, the EU could do a lot more to stamp out corruption, enforce sound financial management and protect the integrity of EU funds, without a delay.
In Hungary, but also in other countries, the EU needs to do a lot more not only through law enforcement, but by helping civil society in its promotion of EU values and by supporting the media that stand for pluralism, human rights and social progress. Specifically in Hungary, it is absolutely clear that purely domestic forces cannot stop the further slide into an autocratic regime.
Based upon an article originally published by Progressive Post