Social Movements v Political Parties in Hungary

Originally Published by Policy Network 6 November 2014. Original linked here.

In Hungary, national, European and municipal elections this year have further solidified a unipolar party landscape, in which conservative party Fidesz has dominated. With the state of opposition parties in prolonged disrepair, liberal and leftwing voters continue to replace their electoral disillusionment with participation in protests and social movements. The most recent demonstrations taking place on 26 October and again on 28 October have seen an estimated 100,000 protest against Fidesz government initiatives.

This year there have been multiple elections in Hungary, all resulting in the unrelenting electoral support for Fidesz and the party’s unquestioned leader, Viktor Orbán. The 2014 national electionsgave Fidesz a super majority in parliament for a second term as well as a strong continuation of radical-right support for Jobbik. European parliamentary elections and most recently the municipal and Budapest mayoral elections have also reflected the population’s continued support of Fidesz, paired with disappointment and disillusionment towards liberal and leftwing parties.

Despite electoral victories for Fidesz, international watchdogs and political bodies have shown concern over a range of policies the government has implemented since 2010. Unease over a range of political decisions by the Fidesz government includes the changing of judicial and legislative structures, creating a new national constitution and centralising national holds on the finance and resource sectors. More recently, the European Union has also taken umbrage at Hungary’s willingness to choose economic ties with Russia over European efforts to help Ukraine in the current political crisis.

Where is the liberal/left political opposition?

Prior to the 2010 national elections, Hungary had one of the most stable  political systems in Europe, with elections closely matched between Fidesz and the Hungarian Socialist party (MSZP) from 1998 until 2010. The close rivalry and electoral balance between the two parties seemed secure until a string of corruption allegations against MSZP began proliferating into mainstream media. Thought to be facilitated by Fidesz supporting media outlets, the defining moment came about in 2006 when a recording of the MSZP prime minister in a private meeting was leaked to national radio stations. In this recording he admitted his party had ‘lied morning, noon and night’ to get into power. Taken as a whole the speech addressed the corruption apparent in all Hungarian political structures, however, the small sound bite was enough to spark the largest anti-government demonstrations Hungary had seen since transition.

Between 2010 and 2014, liberal and leftwing forces have ultimately failed to make a strong impact, largely due to the continued splintering and fracturing of opposition parties. A rough coalition of five such parties, the ‘Unity Alliance’ or Összefogás, won only 19.1 per cent in this year’s general election. Even after the elections, another new opposition party formed, the Modern Hungary Movement (MoMa) led by an old MSZP finance minister, Lájos Bokros. The trend in Hungary seems to be the consistent formation of new parties, led by old political faces. For many voters the unwillingness for old political faces to put the electoral defeat of Fidesz above their own egos remains palpable.

The rise of social movements and street activism

In parallel to the general decline of liberal and leftwing political parties, there has been an increase in social movements and demonstration activism in Hungary. The anti-government protests in 2006 were the first major example of this, although these protests were largely appropriated by rightwing and radical-right sympathisers. Since then, movements have become part of the political participatory norm, particularly in Budapest. Social movements, along with political parties, have started using the national memorial holidays for the 1848 and 1956 revolutions (15 March and 23 October) to rally support onto the streets.

Significant social movements have included both pro and anti-government groups. In 2010, a group nicknamed Milla (‘One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary’) began attacking the government for the introduction of new media laws, which were seen as curbing the freedom of speech and press in Hungary. Milla demonstrations attracted tens of thousands of anti-government protestors into the streets. Union-based movement Szolidaritás also joined Milla protests, providing a wider age range of activists and greater socioeconomic diversity within the movement. By 2012, pro-government rallies also started to form with equal numbers to show support for the government on the streets. By 2013, the 23 October events in Budapest saw 11 separate politically motivated demonstrations ranging across the political spectrum and attracting street activists from as few as 30 participants up to estimates of 200,000.

The most recent example of discontent with the Fidesz government manifesting itself in the form of large demostrations was at the end of last month in protests against the proposed introduction of a tax on internet usage. Arranged primarily through Facebook, a campaign against the tax quickly amassed over 200,000 followers, resulting in a demonstration on 26 October with estimates of between 10-20,000 protestors. The same group called for a second protest two days later, which is estimated to have brought out around 100,000 demonstrators. The protests were a success, with Orban eventually being forced to drop the proposals. These demonstrations and social movements show the range of political and social concerns of Hungarians, concerns that are not being adequately translated into opposition party politics.

The issue of channeling social movements into political power

There is a general sentiment among the Hungarian public that politics is inherently ‘dirty’ and that all political parties incorporate elements of corruption within their structures to maintain power, particularly successful parties. Newer youth-based parties, like the green ‘Politics Can Be Different’ party (LMP) and far-right Jobbik, have used their ‘newness’ to differentiate themselves from mainstream political parties. Both parties have used populist movement tactics to express their solidarity with the average Hungarian, against a ‘corrupted political elite’. While Jobbik’s radical-right program has maintained its populist rhetoric, LMP lost a large portion of its already limited support base when the party split in the lead up to the 2014 elections.

The relative success of recent street protests in comparison with electoral opposition to the government has resulted in a trend to incorporate ‘movement’ status directly into the names of many of the newly formed parties. Some liberal and leftwing opposition parties have gone further than simply taking on the rhetoric of social activism rhetoric and have actually sought to incorporate such movements in order to regain popularity among voters. The centre-left ‘Together 2014 party’ referred to itself in part as a movement and incorporated Milla and Szolidaritás into its campaign in order to absorb the support base these movements had already amassed.

However, the truth remains that when a movement becomes politicised, or a party becomes more embedded within the mainstream political framework, they lose credibility as a ‘clean option’. Milla and Szolidaritás are no longer strong movers and shakers for street activism. LMP barely passed the parliamentary five per cent voting threshold to stay in parliament. Voters were not swayed en masse to trust the coalition of liberal and leftwing parties that already included parties that had split and fractured from other parties within the same coalition.

We have yet to see liberal and leftwing street activism turn into actual electoral strength in Hungary. There continues to be a sense of disunity and disillusionment with political options for those opposing the Fidesz government. In order to channel social movement strength into electoral political strength a more credible uniting entity will be necessary. Unity of liberal and leftwing opposition will have to be genuine in order to be credible. This will include the need for many of the repetitive ‘old politics’ faces to retire their egos in exchange for a larger goal of providing a true electoral challenge to the Fidesz government.

In the meantime, with national, European and municipal elections out of the way, social movements and street activism remains one of the only trusted ways for Hungarian opposition sympathisers to express their discontent.

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