Christopher Adam

Transitions Online (TOL), (Prague) April 23, 2004.

Hard Times: Hungary's Socialists

When Polish prime minister Leszek Miller, his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Medgyessy, must have felt his heart sink a little. Elected in April 2002, shortly after the Social Democrats came to power in Poland, the Hungarian Socialist coalition government now faces its own declining fortune: an increasingly unpopular prime minister, a party whose support has withered dramatically, and the looming European parliamentary elections set for June.

Halfway through the Hungarian government's four-year mandate, the situation could hardly be more precarious. After narrowly winning both rounds of the April 2002 elections and scoring an impressive victory in the municipal elections the following autumn, Medgyessy's government now faces the challenging task of re-engaging disenchanted centrist and left-wing voters in time for the June vote.

Unfortunately for Medgyessy, there appears to be near unanimity among major Hungarian polling firms that the popularity of the Socialist government, as well as that of Medgyessy himself, remains in a downward spiral. According to the latest results released by Gallup Hungary at the end of March, support for the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) decreased by 3 percentage points from February and now stands at only 20 percent. The newest polling figures represent the lowest rate of popular support for the Socialists since they took office in 2002 and a stunning decline from November 2002, when they stood at 42 percent.

For nearly a year, the Socialists have been on a steady decline, losing all but the very "core" of their party. At the same time, the liberally minded Alliance of the Free Democrats (SZDSZ), the junior member of the governing center-left coalition, has maintained a steady, though low, level of support at around 5 percent—just enough to pass the threshold required for official parliamentary status.

Not all of the major polling agencies agree on the extent of decline of the Socialist vote. For example, the March results of the Tarki-Szazadveg polling institute place the Socialist Party up 2 percentage points from January with 26 percent support, in contrast to 34 percent for the right-wing Fidesz. Szonda-Ipsos, another polling firm, shows the Socialists stagnating at around 24 percent.

Despite the differences in results, all figures indicate a similar trend, namely a gradual decline in support for the Socialists over a period of eight to nine months, coupled with a high number of undecided or politically disengaged voters.


While the Hungarian left appears to have lost a very significant portion of its electoral support and the right has maintained its levels, the latter has, nevertheless, failed to fully capitalize on the marked decline of the Socialist Party's popularity. The opposition Fidesz, led by Viktor Orban, Hungary's former conservative—and often controversial—prime minister, enjoys a 14-point lead with 34 percent support, according to the Gallup Poll. Despite this sizeable lead, the majority of disenchanted voters appear not to have realigned themselves with the opposition, choosing, instead, to either disengage themselves altogether from Hungarian politics or join the swelling ranks of the undecided.

The combined power of undecided voters and those who say they will not participate in the elections is pegged at 37 percent. Given that figure, Medgyessy and the Socialists might console themselves with the reasonable assumption that rather than giving up on the center-left altogether and, instead, placing their faith in the right, their former supporters are more disenchanted with the government than actually convinced by the opposition.

The Socialist Party’s strongest base of support comes from pensioners and, in general, from the middle-aged and older segments of society. It was precisely this critical mass of support that Medgyessy aimed to court when he followed up on an election promise and gave more than three million pensioners a one-time payment of 19,000 forints ($89) to supplement their pensions. Nevertheless, the total cost of this fulfilled election promise ended up amounting to more than 60 billion forints ($284 million) and was later identified by the opposition as an example of “reckless” socialist politics and a contributing factor to the declining economic fortunes of Hungary.

With the Hungarian National Bank projecting a higher-than-expected inflation rate of 6.9 percent for 2004, a national deficit comprising approximately 5.3 percent of the GDP, and government figures showing a rise in the price of natural heating gas by an average of 6.8 percent, the country's economic forecast appears dismal and the looming specter of austerity measures seem inevitable.


Despite the economic difficulties, the decline in support for the government—and especially for the prime minister—certainly is not only a result of higher prices and potential government cutbacks. A major part of the problem appears to be the prime minister himself. Although the Socialists can take some heart from the argument that their supporters have not changed sides and may yet return to the fold, Prime Minister Medgyessy must find it significantly more challenging to uncover the silver lining in the current situation, especially in light of the fast-approaching European parliamentary elections.

Twenty-three percent of the respondents to the Gallup Poll said that they were satisfied with the prime minister, representing a dramatic decline from his highest approval rating of 60 percent in November 2002. In contrast, 58 percent believe that Medgyessy has performed poorly as prime minister. Perhaps most disturbing for the MSZP, however, is that Orban is seen as the third most popular Hungarian political leader, behind President Ferenc Madl, and Ibolya David, former justice minister and leader of the smaller center-right opposition party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF).

Medgyessy's key problem appears to be his apparent lack of charisma, certainly as compared to Orban, and his relatively poor public speaking skills. Faced with an opposition leader, who proved capable of retaining his supporters and engaging them in the political process, Medgyessy had limited success in this regard. Nevertheless, his recent and seemingly spontaneous attempts at democratic reform have been widely seen as an attempt to stem the tide of voter dissatisfaction and indifference, by positioning himself as a statesman “above” party politics and in tune with the popular need for democratic reform.

In his February “state of the nation” address, Medgyessy surprised both political opponents and his own government when he suggested three critical reforms: a smaller parliament comprising 250 representatives, the direct election of the president, and a single national list representing the four parties in parliament for the upcoming EU parliamentary elections. That would mean that the 24 seats allocated to Hungary in the EP would be distributed on a proportional basis among the parties, and Hungarian voters would be left with only a single viable choice in the election.

The opposition reacted cautiously to Medgyessy’s maverick proposals, although there appeared to be consent around the issue of a smaller parliament. Opposition reaction to the proposal of fielding a single multiparty “national list” of candidates for the EP elections bordered on mockery. Fidesz drew implicit parallels to the Peoples’ Front of the former communist regime, but even Gabor Kuncze, the leader of the Free Democrats, publicly expressed concern regarding Medgyessy’s surprise move.


An internal opposition group made up of Free Democrats, however, offered a blunt reaction to Medgyessy's proposals, saying, “If Medgyessy will not give up his ‘conquistador’ ideas, he should look for a new coalition partner. And if the Socialists require the cooperation of the Free Democrats, they should look for a new prime minister.”

Even among his own Socialists, Medgyessy faced a degree of bewilderment. Foreign minister and party president, Laszlo Kovacs, told the press to be patient with the prime minister who, after all, “deserves two days to elaborate upon his proposal that, in a democracy, is unusual and may disengage the voters, and that has caused revulsion on the international scene.”

Despite this dramatic attempt to re-engage the electorate and present a dynamic image of governance and leadership, Medgyessy, instead, appears to have convinced his opponents, as well as some in his own coalition, of his desperation. The prime minister now stands as a politician who has fallen dangerously low in personal popularity and as a leader at the helm of a government increasingly ill at ease with its inability to rebound in opinion polls.

Two months shy of the European election and halfway through its mandate, the Socialists may be pondering appointing a new prime minister in the near future—a possibility that must appear not quite so remote, as Poland’s Leszek Miller exits the stage.