The death of Hungarian socialism?

Christopher Adam, National Post                                                                            Published: Friday, August 7, 2009 (p. A12)

Hungarians usually refer to the doldrums of August as the “pickle season.” In a modest parallel to Canada’s cottage season, many Hungarians traditionally flee their city apartments to work tiny plots of land behind weekend houses, the majority of which were granted to them during the bygone days of socialism. But this year is different, in that Hungary finds itself at the cusp of seismic political change, which is likely to transform the country. This sense of imminent transition permeates society, as the left teeters on collapse and as the right looks set to win the most massive parliamentary majority in the European Union.

At the centre of this transformation is the imminent collapse of the Hungarian left, which has governed the country for nearly 12 out of the 20 years since the transition to democracy in 1989. Following a disastrous performance in the European parliamentary elections, the governing Socialist Party finds itself in the unhappy position of having only scored two percentage points more than an upstart far-right party and nearly 40% behind Fidesz, its main right-wing rival.

The Hungarian left’s collapse is a peculiar phenomenon very much tied to the economic experimentation that has characterized Eastern Europe over the past 20 years. In 1990, the Socialist Party was a pariah; a political rump with single-digit support and with little more than the depressing legacy of having been the successor of the communist party state. Four years later, however, the Socialists won a landslide election victory, on a moderate centre-left platform.

But old habits die hard and reminders of the communist past would regularly raise their head. Socialist MPs often referred to each other as “comrades” during the 1990s when speaking with the media. Socialist Party headquarters in Budapest was adorned with a plaque commemorating the communist victims of the 1956 “counterrevolution.” Former Socialist prime minister Gyula Horn stood squarely on the side of the communist party state during the days of the revolution and never denied this, while the country’s more recent left-centre prime minister, Peter Medgyessy, was a counter-espionage agent during the Cold War who worked under the pseudonym “D-209.”

The only way to escape a politically burdensome past was to hand over the party leadership to a new generation of politicians. A colourful, outspoken and successful businessman, Ferenc Gyurcsany, seemed the perfect fit for the job. Parachuted into the party from the business world, Gyurcsany took it upon himself to complete the left’s modernization by ridding it of aging communist-at-heart MPs. Gyurcsany tried the impossible and attempted to infuse the Socialist Party with classical liberal economic principles of small government. He introduced doctor user fees, hospital fees, university tuition and privatized the country’s largest state-run companies.

Gyurcsany and his entourage of trendy neo-liberal communication specialists sent out the message that calls for social justice were tantamount to populist demagoguery, all the while forgetting that the party’s core base of supporters has always been comprised of pensioners and middle-aged voters who yearned for the comfortable economic certainty of communist Hungary.

The Socialists managed to give their core supporters and left-leaning Hungarians nothing rhetorically, while constantly floating the necessity of painful austerity measures, without ever fully implementing them. Following Gyurcsany’s sudden resignation, the left finds itself leaderless, devoid of any political message, badly divided and increasingly without supporters.

With Fidesz widely expected to garner two-thirds of the seats in the next election, the so-called “Warsaw Express” — a reference to the complete collapse of the left in Poland — is set to roar into Budapest. What Fidesz is able to do with Europe’s largest governing majority remains to be seen. The idea of transforming Hungary into a presidential system is floated regularly, as is suspending parliamentary immunity in order to prosecute left-wing politicians suspected of corruption. A new government is also likely to take a much tougher line with neighbouring countries such as Slovakia, which has a sizeable Hungarian minority.

But one thing that Fidesz will find impossible to do is satisfy the hybrid and unruly base that it has built around itself. With the implosion of the left, Fidesz has absorbed nearly all factions of Hungarian society — from rough and tumble nationalists on the far right and savvy English-speaking urbanites, to the washed-out communist technocrats of the 1980s who were attracted by the right’s ability to attack the government’s compassionless economic rhetoric from left field.

Hungary will soon have a government with the most powerful mandate in all of Europe. The country, however, will continue to have very little economic wiggle-room, which is why major political and constitutional change may be in the offing.

Christopher Adam is a sessional lecturer in history at Carleton University.