THE BLOG

Can Politics Be Different in Hungary?

Every few years in East-Central Europe, a new political movement emerges that challenges not only the status quo but the very substance of the political system. Sometimes the movement targets the party patronage system. Sometimes it focuses on the corruption that enriches those who participate in governance. Sometimes it elevates a set of issues that the media or the political elite has ignored.

In Poland, Janusz Palikot created a movement that spoke to the libertarian values of a younger generation, mixing together market liberalism with the legalization of marijuana and support for LGBT rights. In Bulgaria, Volen Siderov created a right-wing populist movement that attacked vested interests and also blamed minorities for a variety of social ills.

Hungarian environmentalists had been trying to create an authentic Green Party ever since the end of Communism. When they pulled together a new initiative Lehet Mas a Politika (LMP) in 2009, they didn't call it a Green Party. Instead, they wanted to transform the entire process of doing politics in the country. The name of the party said it all: Politics Can Be Different.

LMP's embrace of environmental sustainability and its attempt to alter the political status quo were both attractive to Katalin Ertsey. She'd been part of the first generation of Fidesz activists in the late 1980s. Unhappy with the trajectory of the party in the 1990s, she went into NGO work. But when she heard about LMP, she quickly enlisted.

"Obviously we knew that a Green party was needed sooner or later in Hungary," she told in an interview in Budapest last May. "But we didn't see that it was possible to break up the monolithic system of Hungarian parties. When the first news came out that some underground movement was thinking about establishing a Green Party, and knowing about the previous attempts by Élőlánc (Live Chain), in which my brother was involved, and seeing how that didn't succeed, I immediately contacted LMP and started working, way before the official debut on October 8, 2008. I still believe that LMP has brought the only new idea into politics for 20 years. This 'politics can be different' suggests a whole new look at politics. I actually took that seriously."

She entered parliament with LMP in 2010 and expected to work with all willing partners on the issues that LMP held dearly. But working across the aisle, she quickly learned, was not going to be easy, even with Fidesz members she still knows from the old days. "It's really hard for some of my old friends to face what they are doing now," she said. "They're betraying in many ways everything that we fought for together and also what they believed in just a few years ago. I also reached out on issues to those Fidesz members that I didn't know, like Ilona Ekes, whom I really appreciated for her work in 2006 in visiting people put in prison after the riots. Again, naively, I thought on women's issues that we could form a non-partisan caucus. I tried it several times and failed. I'm still not giving up. But everything is along party lines now. Although there are a handful of decent Fidesz MPs, loyalty is more important than reaching across the aisle."

LMP, too, fell victim to the polarizing effects of Hungarian politics. In advance of the elections that just took place -- and which Fidesz won -- the opposition tried to pull together an anti-Fidesz coalition. Half of LMP thought it was possible to align with the Socialist Party, among others, to defeat Fidesz. The other half thought such a strategy unlikely and preferred to remain independent. LMP split into two factions. The party that retained the name LMP managed to get just above the 5 percent threshold in the recent elections to get five seats in parliament. The breakaway faction, Dialogue for Hungary/PM, was part of the left-wing Unity Coalition that achieved a little more than 25 percent of the vote and 37 seats.

Ertsey also decided to leave politics. "Politics will not be different until we face the root of the problem, and that is how we have always ignored the fundamental issues," she concluded. "As a nation, we have never faced our past: the Holocaust, Communism, the various national tragedies of the 20th century. It's very clear in LMP's opening statement that we are not giving up on having a dialogue on that. As I move away from party politics -- I'm not running in the next elections -- this is one of the projects or ideas that very much excites me: to go back and look at our past through something like a truth and reconciliation committee. We should also open the files and establish on a bipartisan basis an Institute for National Memory to look at the issues. Facing our past would help overcome our current situation, when most of our critics say, 'Ah, you see, politics cannot be different.' I still believe that it can be. But it will have to come from going to the roots of the problem."

The Interview

Tell me about your decision to return to politics through Politics Can Be Different (LMP)?

For that, we also need to talk about why I left politics. It wasn't a radical step, but it's interesting to see how naive I was. I'd put a lot of effort into politics, from the first illegal movements through the organizations and movements we talked about all the way up to putting a party into parliament. We sent the boys into parliament in 1990, and I was like, "Okay I've done my job. I have some more things to do in civil society." So I went on to work with NGOs. I worked for about 15 years for various NGOs, from Roma issues through environmental issues to social health care and education. I always worked on the capacity building of NGOs, because I see civil society as still very weak. Even though for 20 years it's been a commonplace to talk about the fact that civil society needs to grow, the way we've ended up now is very much related to a weak civil society.

So, I didn't shut the door on Fidesz, I just moved on with my life. I even went back in 1992 or 1993 to help out on some foreign relations issues. But it had changed so much. This was not what I was used to doing, so I quit. I was happy and active politically, but not in the formal arena. And I was not touched by a new political idea until the birth of LMP.

Obviously we knew that a Green party was needed sooner or later in Hungary. But we didn't see that it was possible to break up the monolithic system of Hungarian parties. When the first news came out that some underground movement was thinking about establishing a Green Party, and knowing about the previous attempts by Élőlánc (Live Chain), in which my brother was involved, and seeing how that didn't succeed, I immediately contacted LMP and started working, way before the official debut on October 8, 2008. I still believe that LMP has brought the only new idea into politics for 20 years. This "politics can be different" suggests a whole new look at politics. I actually took that seriously. And that's why I have some difficulties now looking at how we are doing in Parliament, how much we can stop or slow Fidesz in dismantling what we once built together. It's still the most exciting political project in the 20 years since we had our first free elections.

When I was here in 1990, civil society seemed quite vibrant, especially compared to the Czech Republic, where you had relatively few people involved as dissidents. Or Slovakia, where it was even weaker. Or Romania or Bulgaria. Civil society seemed pretty strong here in Hungary. Was I mistaken, or did civil society grow weaker? Or were there strategic decisions made at that time that led to the marginalization of civil society organizations?

The strength of civil society used to be its weakness. In Hungary, where oppression was a lot less than in Czechoslovakia or other countries, this whole movement of civil society was very strong when you were here 20 years ago. That push made it possible for NGOs and nonprofits to establish themselves as institutions relatively quickly. However, the rapid institutionalization took away the momentum. And the movement type of organizations either became irrelevant, or most of the leaders went into politics. Ferenc Miszlivetz talked about how important it was to keep these movement-type organizations alive, but there were too few organizations for this to happen and also have these two other things: an institutionalized nonprofit sector doing its economic activities of serving the needy and politicians serving in parliament. It's just a question of numbers. Although I was working a lot on strengthening NGOs with capacity building and getting government funding (which was a big issue in the 1990s), that effort of strengthening the institutions has weakened the movements. NGOs that provide services to the disabled are still passionate about their topic, and they serve their constituents and lobby the government and all that. However, this vague but very lively idea of civil society for the sake of reflecting citizens' views in the political arena is gone.

The only time when we finally saw these grassroots coming back again was in the late 1990s, early 2000s with Védegylet (Protect the Future), TASZ (Hungarian Civil Liberties Union), and some of the women's organizations. The cornerstones of civil society had to wait for the first wave of nonprofits and institutionalization to pass. This rebirth of civil society started when things went really badly, and the Gyurcsany government really helped with that. Some of the tools were used by these NGOs to get the information out, to use fact-finding media, to publish scandals. Corruption in that sense helped civil society regain its feet. Ironically, now is the best time for civil society, because there's so much to talk about. The student movement HaHa, or the Hungarian version of the Occupy movement: these are signs of a growing civil society. In that sense, the harsher the system, the more potential for civil society. That's not to say that we wish for a harsher dictatorship. But they seem to go together.

It suggests that civil society has difficulty existing where there's no crisis.

Yes, the whole lesson from the Hungarian transition was that Hungary was not a tough enough place to establish the kind of longstanding moral standards that still exist in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where they have tackled the whole issue of the archives and secret agents files and have basically said no to the previous regime. Here, the previous regime was not all that oppressive. And we are only smart retrospectively. But I hope that other societies struggling with these problems can learn this lesson.

Tell me how you interpret this phrase "politics can be different."

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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