Hungarian Elections

The Center Holds

Hungary Elections
Hungarian Socialist Party leader Peter Medgyessy smiles after his victory in the second round of the general election, April 21, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Resisting the continent’s rightward drift, Hungarians went to the polls in April to vote leftist parties back into power. The parliamentary run-off elections, held April 22, make the Socialists and their allies, the Free Democrats, the largest bloc in the national assembly, with eight more seats than the center-right FIDESZ-the ruling party headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The run-off ballot and the initial April 7 contest prompted the highest levels of voter participation since the first post-communist vote, in 1990.

Zoltan Sandor, writing in Budapest’s conservative Magayar Nemzet, said that the run-off contest “closely resembled the excitement of an Olympic sprinters’ race” (April 22). Preliminary results indicate that the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) won 178 seats. Although FIDESZ, also known as the Alliance of Young Democrats, which shared the same party list with the Hungarian Democractic Forum (MDF), won the largest number of seats—189 – the Socialists and their partners from the Alliance of Free Democrats (SCSZ) will form the biggest bloc in Parliament.

The far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party, which seeks to restore Hungary’s pre-World War I borders, obtained only 4.37 percent of the vote, just below the 5-percent threshold for the right to representation in Parliament.

Peter Medgyessy, the MSZP’s candidate for prime minister, is in the process of creating a coalition government with the Free Democrats. MSZP will take power back from FIDESZ, which defeated the Socialists in the 1998 national elections.

The Socialists were the campaign’s underdogs. FIDESZ’s popularity among many constituencies forced its competitors to run on a platform of moderate change. The headline of Sandor’s Magyar Nemzet commentary – "On the Verge of the Past and Future” – aptly summed up the Socialist program. In Sandor’s view, “[The Young Democrats’] rivals consistently stated that ‘what is good [from FIDESZ], we will take forward.’ ”

The Socialists did manage to capitalize on FIDESZ’s alleged shortcomings. These included Orban’s autocratic style and confrontational rhetoric toward neighboring countries, as well as the ruling party’s tight grip on public broadcasting and its secretive approach to awarding public contracts. In addition, the Socialists got a boost from their close relationship with the SZDSZ, according to Ivan Peto, the Free Democrats’ spokesman. At an April 25 summit meeting of leaders from the MSZP and SZDSZ, both parties expressed a willingness to make compromises acceptable to their respective supporters, the left-wing Nepszava reported Peto as saying (April 25).

By comparison, the alliance between FIDESZ and the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) was short-lived. After the run-off, the MDF declared that it would function as an independent faction in parliament. Nepszava quoted Zoltan Pokorni, FIDESZ’s president, as saying that the activities of both of the two furthest-right parties “would be systematized in order to serve the interests of the voting public more effectively.”

Meanwhile, the Socialists outlined their program for their first 100 days in government. “The MSZP Has Something for Everyone,” Nepszava declared in its top headline on April 25. The party promised a 50-percent pay increase for teachers, effective Sept. 1, and similar increases in October for civil servants and medical professionals. The Socialists also pledged to provide aid to Hungarian farmers, make financial operations more open, and restore the independence of national broadcasting.

According to an April 24 editorial in the independent Magyar Hirlap, Hungarians are especially concerned about how their tax dollars are spent: Hungarian voters “don’t thirst for revenge or destruction; they would just like to know the truth about events. They would like to be able to follow the path of state funds from beginning to end–not just when such funds are transferred from the State Treasury to a joint stockholding company’s bank account. The voting public would like to see that ‘glass pockets’ are a reality, not just a campaign promise.”

FIDESZ lost the election as much as the Socialists won it. The Young Democrats, having assembled a strong popular base, entered the campaign as favorites to retain power. Zoltan Sandor, writing in Magyar Nemzet, argued that the Socialists could not win the campaign on the issues, because their platform “basically listed every one of the government’s programs.”

If FIDESZ could be faulted, it was for running a lackadaisical campaign, commented Magyar Hirlap’s Zoltan Lakner (April 25): “Those who, like us, believed that the negative campaign run against FIDESZ could not produce opposition or a loss of votes were wrong.” And Zoltan Sandor, of Magyar Nemzet declared, “Viktor Orban’s biggest opponent was Viktor Orban.”

What lessons are there to be gleaned from the election results? Very few, it seems. No government since 1989 has held power for more than a single four-year term. The center-right government elected in 1990 was replaced four years later by the reconstructed Socialist Party. Now, after four years with FIDESZ at the helm, the Socialists are back.

As Sandor put it, “The most important, indeed, the only truly important fact that emerges from this all about today’s Hungary is that a majority of Hungary’s voters consider themselves European in attitude and spirit, and this segment stands as united behind Viktor Orban as it did behind [19th-century Hungarian revolutionary] Lajos Kossuth. Enter Peter Medgyessy.”