During the 23 October 1956 commemoration on Tuesday both the governing parties and the opposition essentially launched their campaigns a year and a half ahead of the spring 2014 elections. The main aim of former prime minister Gordon Bajnai and his movement was a display of strength: showing that a strong movement of voters is taking shape on the left wing, which it is worth voting for. His opening performance was impressive despite there being perhaps fewer participants than expected. Bajnai has embarked on a political experience unprecedented in Hungary but it is far from certain that he will be able to get the left-wing opposition parties on board, without which he will not stand a chance of ousting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 18 months.
First potential contender
This year’s remembrance of the 1956 Uprising was also extraordinary because it was the first time in three years that Orbán had a real “opponent”: a political leader who many identify as a possible challenger to him. Orbán’s speech largely consisted of the standard elements. It was targeted at the group of 1.2-1.5 million voters that forms the Fidesz core. Orbán has been holding that camp together effectively for a long time by painting an image of the enemy consisting of “outsiders and non-patriots”, against which he sets his own government in the role of freedom fighter.
The prime minister’s speech most likely kept his own committed supporters happy. The question is, however, whether his strident anti-West messages (“We will not allow ourselves to be governed by outsiders”) will alienate potential Fidesz voters in the centre of the political spectrum, given that public opinion is far from being as hostile to the European Union and International Monetary Fund as supposed by Orbán’s speech and the publicly funded anti-IMF government campaign leading up to it.
Someone new to listen to
Since the Orbán speeches rooted in combative anti-communism have become an accustomed part of the political choreography of 23 October in recent years, Bajnai’s speech attracted greater attention. Ahead of the event there was considerably more focus on him than on any other speaker, one reason for which is that the people’s tribune role is not one familiar to him.
Although you could see his lack of practice, Bajnai delivered a well-structured, resolute speech and positioned himself not just as former prime minister but also as a challenger to the current government. His speech was clearly targeted at the electoral centre, a large part of which consists of voters who are not decided in favour of any of the current parties.
According to some opinion polls (for example, the figures of Szonda Ipsos), the latter group comprises around 50 per cent of the electorate. Although a considerable proportion of this group will not actually vote (turnout at recent parliamentary elections has typically been between 60 and 70 per cent), there may be as many as one million potential electors who want to vote but are not satisfied with what’s on the menu.
Building from the ground up
Bajnai is in a fundamentally different situation from that of Orbán because he and the organisations in an alliance with him do not have their own established, cohesive political camp with suitable political infrastructure. The attempt to create that got under way with the event on Tuesday.
This also explains the timing: Bajnai’s Haza és Haladás association (Patriotism and Progress), Milla and Szolidaritás could not wait any longer if they want to stand a chance in 2014, especially given that the campaign could begin as early as next summer because of the introduction of prior voter registration. They clearly wish to compel the other opposition forces to declare where they stand.
Opposites to attract
The success of the new-style, civil movement depends to no small degree on the extent to which it manages to “attract” the other opposition forces, namely the Politics Can Be Different (LMP) party and the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which are currently hesitating on this question. From this point of view Bajnai’s performance may even have proven too effective: although in theory three equal-ranking organisations (Milla, Szolidaritás, Haza és Haladás) presented themselves on Tuesday, in reality everybody has taken to referring to the grouping as Bajnai’s movement. This could make it more difficult for the other opposition actors to make any kind of collaboration with him seem like anything other than the total loss of their independence.
The LMP will be forced to decide soonest: a central topic at the party’s congress on 16 November will be whether their parliamentary group leader, Benedek Jávor, may begin talks with the new movement. The party is extremely divided on the question (Jávor’s rival, András Schiffer, has almost equal support within the party) and the outcome cannot be predicted. Schiffer lodged a formal complaint against former MSZP PM Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2009 over the Lake Velence casino land-swap scandal. Bajnai was development minister at the time.
Which way LMP goes could also fundamentally determine the MSZP’s decision, because the party will presumably not want to be the only one left out of the collaboration.
In other words the success of the new movement depends to a considerable extent on whether the membership of the MSZP and the LMP inclines towards independence or joining forces. One thing seems sure, however. If Bajnai does not manage to get the opposition parties on board (either alongside or behind him), without the necessary infrastructure and given the dividedness of the opposition, he will not stand much of a chance of relegating Orbán to an opposition role.
The government has systematically broken the spine of Hungarian democracy, vertebra by vertebra.”
– Gordon Bajnai
“This government calls itself strong but it is merely strong-armed, and we all know that violence is the last refuge of the weak. And this government is weak. The problem is not only that it tears up every rule but that it is ineffectual even when it does.”
– Gordon Bajnai
“In Brussels we find plenty who in place of renewing the European economy want to breathe new life into a sagging money- and bank-capitalism, who want to support a system of speculators instead of a work-based economy, and who instead of an equitable sharing of the burden want the people to bear the brunt of it.”
– Viktor Orbán
“The prime minister does not understand how a country works. A prime minister who sees business as the enemy, who increasingly taxes entire sectors and has no economic idea other than to look for more places to levy taxes… fails to understand that where there is no credit or investment, where people are leaving the country not arriving, there will not be a single job either”
– Former Socialist prime minister and now leader of the Democratic Coalition splinter party Ferenc Gyurcsány
“Europe still hasn’t decided where it stands. In Brussels they still don’t know whether to hit the brakes or step on the gas, whether to turn the steering wheel to the left or to the right.”
- Viktor Orbán