Half past nine on a Saturday night, outside a bar on Budapest’s Kazinczy utca is not the place one would expect to find the man who used to run the country. Nevertheless, here was former prime minister and Együtt 2014 leader Gordon Bajnai. His visit to the area was not a planned PR opportunity or chance to look good, simply a litmus test to see what the public reaction would be after an election that failed to break Fidesz’s grip on power.
A few low-key security personnel hung around in the background and a solitary photographer was on hand. Quite the opposite of a media stunt, The Budapest Times was only there due to the sheer coincidence of meeting some Együtt 2014 staffers the night before, and receiving a tip that Bajnai would be visiting.
Hungary’s dressed-down former leader walked into the bar’s courtyard to some surprised double-takes from members of the public, and after the shock of seeing him there subsided he received a warm welcome from the same people. This statesman who shared the stage with Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Ban-Ki Moon first thanked the local party supporters for their work.
Bajnai has an aura of calmness about him, he’s not a firebrand or a strong-arm politician but he carries a strength of character which is clear. The 46-year-old also retains the look of a younger man but in his eyes there is perhaps a weariness of the soul, the look of a leader who has fought many hard political struggles, battles that he knew he could not and would not win. For Bajnai there will be no respite, because in the foreseeable future there is no other credible figure who can lead the left. Like many people now looking retrospectively on the election he has his theories on why the Együtt 2014 movement failed to make more of an impact.
“Two reasons. First we as an opposition alliance have been unable to gain the necessary credibility,” he says. “The electoral system that Viktor Orbán created made it necessary for us to combine our forces in this union and we were unable to push our message through.
“The second reason is that the media and electoral/legal regime they [Fidesz] have created, along with the huge amount of money they spent, has given them an undue advantage. We also have to recognise that we can’t only blame the electoral system, we have to be honest and say we haven’t been able to offer an attractive enough package.”
Bajnai has just fought an election campaign that he had no chance of winning, against an entrenched and popular Fidesz government. With little time to lick their wounds, Együtt 2014 has already moved back into a campaign cycle, this time for the European Parliament elections on 25 May. With this vote coming just weeks after the dominant Fidesz showing in the domestic polls it is hard to imagine an Együtt breakthrough.
The changes made to Hungary’s political and legal system are a huge concern for Bajnai, who is dismayed at the radical re-writing of the nation’s civic framework, but of all the changes he can’t say which is the one that concerns him the most. “It’s difficult to name the top one,” he says. “In terms of the whole new Constitution distorting the situation, the electoral law and also the media law because this electoral law creates a situation that irrespective of bad governance it is an incredibly difficult uphill struggle to unseat them. On the other hand they have created such an insecurity in our legal environment that there is a massive capital and labour outflow from this country which is also damaging our long-term growth.”
There is hope for social democracy as a part of the Hungarian political landscape. Many polls show that young voters favour the left-wing message and voted accordingly. While this should be positive news for Együtt, Bajnai remains cool, especially when the far right also suggests it is picking up a high percentage of youth votes.
“It’s difficult to separate the votes that went into this common basket of democratic opposition,” he continues. “But based on our polls young people are more attracted to our program than any other democratic opposition movement. Unfortunately, Jobbik is also attractive to some, in fact quite a few. So one of our key missions is to deliver a credible message to those young voters.”
Perhaps the starkest and most foreboding words this former prime minister has are about the overspill from the rampant Fidesz party success and its effect on the greater European community. When asked what he would say to the leaders of other European countries, he has a look of deep conviction in his eye and despite there being a huge number of Hungarians who disagree, what he says as his final word tonight is clearly something that he believes.
“Be very wary of Orbánism,” he concludes. “It’s contagious, it’s a radical populism which is at the same time on the radical right and left. It is very dangerous. With this kind of control over media and electoral laws, his approach to governance can spread to other countries along with his aggressive nationalism, which is dangerous for the European Union.
“In politics you always have fashions and God save Europe from Viktor Orbán, and Orbánism becoming fashionable.”