Hungary’s fragmented left leaves space wide open for populist Right

First posted on 26 September 2012 through Extremis Project.

Hungary, once the poster child of post-communist transition, has fallen from its pedestal of liberal democratization. International media and human rights watchdogs have been raising red flags since nationalist conservative party Fidesz came into power in 2010 with a two-thirds majority in Parliament and young radical right party Jobbik became the third largest party in Hungary. One-by-one drastic changes have been expedited through the new government body restructuring the constitution, media laws and voting regulations along seemingly populist nationalist lines. But while we are quick to judge Hungary for its current direction we must also question the state of affairs in the context of the political options available.

A Fall from Liberal Grace

Like many nations, often election time demands a vote for the least bad rather than the best choice. While some might be shocked by the continued leading support for Fidesz, it is less shocking looking at the state of the party’s political rivals. The main opposition party remains the left-wing party MSZP (The Hungarian Socialist Party) who enjoyed electoral victory in the 2002 and 2006 elections but it has fallen to a former shadow of itself in recent years.

The deterioration of the party became obvious when in 2006 the Socialist Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, was caught on tape infamously stating that the he and his party had ‘lied morning, noon and night’ to win. Of course, if played in its entirety the speech reflects a critique not only on Gyurcsány’s MSZP but also on the behaviour and actions of politics at large in Hungary, but the sound bite was enough to cause days of protests and demonstrations outside of parliament demanding Gyurcsány’s resignation. With a string of other allegations and financial scandals linked to the party, MSZP is perceived as being untrustworthy and catering more to Europe than the nation, hindering the party from pulling its former support networks back together.

The 2010 elections showed an obvious disintegration of support for the left when liberal party SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats), former coalition partners of MSZP) were unable to even pass the electoral 5% threshold to enter parliament. Another crucial blow to the stability of the left came a year after elections when in October 2011 former Prime Minister Gyurcsány took centre stage in the news once again, announcing that he and a faction of MSZP members were breaking away from the party forming a new centre-left party called Democratic Coalition (DK). Despite the hope that perhaps DK could help create a united front of liberal-left supporting networks it has thus far failed to make a huge impact on the political scene (recent national polls show that DK has only 3% support from decided voters).

The main political force opposing Fidesz seemed to be crumbling a new, largely youth-based party LMP (Politics Can Be Different) came onto the scene. The party presented a fresh face to the left, despite maintaining political neutrality till financial decisions forced the party to declare itself Green. Picking up much of the disgruntled Budapest intelligentsia, the party managed to break the electoral threshold with 7%. LMP has had difficulty increasing their support base and remain a primarily Budapest-based party. Realizing the gaping hole present on the left other organizations have also tried to fill the liberal-left void. With similar timing to DK, another youth-based liberal party has formed called 4K! (Fourth Republic!) while rumours of yet another left-leaning party are on the horizon, though little real support can be seen for these emerging fringe parties.

A Steady Rightward Turn

The development of new liberal-left party options presented an opportunity for a strengthening opposition front but as of yet no formal coalitions have manifested. Instead there seems to be the continued realization that the left has no legs while small pockets of new factions crop up, spreading out, rather than honing in the oppositional fight against Fidesz.

Meanwhile, Fidesz remains an icon of strength and determination. The party has kept its main figureheads mostly intact since 1989, despite shifting from a liberal youth party to a nationalist conservative party. Viktor Orbán remains the unquestioned leader of the party, able to rally the masses during speeches with an audience of dedicated supporters cheering not for the party but for Orbán himself. And even if Fidesz seems to be recentralizing society and politics to suit the party’s guaranteed success they will always seem to be a centre-right party by many Hungarians due to the strong presence of the radical right, who currently enjoy 20% support from decided voters. Until the opposition can present a united front with a people-pleasing charismatic figure to bring together the disheartened and disillusioned there continues to be no real rival to the right.

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