Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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’.
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
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi