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The people’s President?

Activism and party politics in a polarised Hungary

July 1, 2005
7 min read

The election of László Sólyom to the Hungarian presidency poses important questions about the future of activism in Hungary. Sólyom’s candidacy was promoted by the leading eco-NGO Védegylet. It was backed, after some hesitation, by the Hungarian conservative parties and voted through, with a lot of dirty tricks, by the parliament on 6-7 June 2005. This could be seen as the ‘victory of the people’, as the leading conservative party Fidesz argued. But it can also be seen as a way to tame and taint civic activism in Hungary.

It is doubtful that the activist scene or the common ‘people’ will particularly benefit from this election. The persona of the president and his or Védegylet’s background did not become an issue in the campaign. Sólyom gave no interviews during before the elections and afterwards stressed that he will be a ‘quiet’ president. Even if he means to oppose the ranting of party politics, quietness may not help.

On the contrary, there is a worrying possible consequence. The ‘activist scene’ could become colonised by the political parties, and particularly by the political right. With the right claiming to represent the ‘people’ and ‘civic’ activity, non-party activism could be rebranded into (mere) right-wing politics. In this scenario, the polarisation of Hungarian politics and society would continue, and the non-party sphere would have no way to challenge the situation.

This has already started to happen. Recently, the conservative Fidesz took populist anti-parliament measures through the mobilisation of a referendum on double-citizenship in 2005 and through village parliaments – a way to politicise but also to control the countryside. Fidesz has adopted an anti-parliamentary stance since it lost power in the tight 2002 general election, but its actions continue to polarise and undermine the development of a vibrant civil society.

In a recent interview, the Fidesz leader and former Prime Minister Viktor Orbán argued that he intends to keep pushing Hungary towards a two party system. Whilst his discourse wobbles between the communitarian, ethno-nationalist and the neoliberal, Orbán is closely connected to West European leaders like Berlusconi and the Austrian Jörg Haider. His recent populist rhetoric focuses on the ‘Hungarian people’.

Dirty tricks

Fidesz did not stand its own party candidate to be discredited in the presidential elections because the governing Socialist (MSZP) and Free Democrat (SZDSZ) coalition has a simple majority in the parliament, which elects the president. So when the incumbent president Mádl decided not to stand for a second term, Sólyom became the perfect candidate for Fidesz and its populist agenda. They would defend the weaker ‘people’s candidate’ and stand ‘on the side of the Hungarian people’.

His opponent in the election was Katalin Szili, a partisan Socialist MP since 1994 and Speaker of the Parliament since 2002. She is known for her anti-globalisation comments and is even involved with the French farmers association. She is popular amongst the Socialists and in the countryside, but distrusted by the SZDSZ, who thought she would be too weak and easily controlled by the Fidesz. As a result, SZDSZ withdrew their support and this led to her defeat.

At the election, which took three rounds of parliamentary votes, Fidesz was less interested in who was winning than in who was voting for Szili or for Sólyom, since this was seen as a way to test the strength of the right-wing, ‘civic’ camp.

A secret ballot was not allowed to hamper these efforts. In the first round of voting, Fidesz decided not to vote to see how many votes Szili would receive. In the second round, MPs took pictures with mobile phones at the polling booths and sent them to the fraction leaders to confirm that they stayed within the camp. The independent right-wing candidates even took a group photo as they cast their votes for Sólyom.

The elections were a dirty, demoralising event. The only positive consequence has been to provoke a constitutional debate, which may result in a direct election for the presidency the next time Hungarians select their head of state. But the left found itself demoralised after the event, and the right may now collect an easy victory in the 2006 general election.

The politics of polarisation

Not that it really matters much who is in government in Hungary. As in so many other places, politics happens on the elite level. There is no real input from below, as problems such as homelessness, racism and deprivation are either ignored or subordinated to questions of holding the party line. Policies do not radically differ between the clientelist, neo-feudal but neo-liberalising right and the Blairite managerial left.

It is vital that in Hungary a mass of vibrant, independent and non-party-aligned activists come to the fore and join together to question the plaguing political polarisation and elitism, as well as to bring in new agendas.

However, the election of Sólyom will not automatically help Hungary out of the deadlock of the overwhelming polarisation that has spread from the political elites to all levels of social action over the last ten years. After all, he is one of the founders of the nationally focused conservative party MDF and a fine member of the political elite. He participated in the ’round table transition’ of 1989/90 and was one of the writers of the Hungarian constitution.

The slightly worrying thing about Sólyom, the constitutionalist, is that he legitimated the violation of the principal of the secret ballot at the elections. Although he had previously argued that he would resign if there were any dirty tricks in the conduct of the elections, he still took up his post. This is surprising as he also has been the pioneer of privacy laws in Hungary. For example, he drafted a law which abolished the personal identity numbers for a while in the country.

Finally, Sólyom’s impact in Hungary still remains a question mark. To make a change, Sólyom should actively promote social movements and NGOs rather than taking on the role of a quiet and passive president, as he has suggested. He should give voice to issues that have been ignored by the political parties and avoid showing gratitude to the political right which won him his post.

As a president, he could help new spaces to emerge for politics critical of the current parties, civic blocs and polarisation. But he might also symbolically cut any critical edge of the Hungarian NGO sector and activist scene by flirting with the conservative forces.

And what do the ‘people’ in Hungary make of all this? When the Socialists called for elections to replace the president, some of my Hungarian friends were surprised: ‘Didn’t they just change the president a couple of years ago? What’s wrong with this guy we have now? Why do they want to get rid of him? Just because he’s of a wrong party?’ They don’t have much to say about the new ‘old man’ either. People living under Hungary’s two-party ‘polarisation’ seem as detached from and tired of politics as they were under its one-party ‘communism’.Emilia Palonen is completing a PhD on Hungarian politics at the University of Essex, and is currently based at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna

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