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Rebuilding Hungary's Green Politics

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Hungary has a rich tradition of environmental activism, from the anti-dam campaigns of the 1980s to the nature conservation efforts of the post-Communist period. It has also seen the rise and fall of a number of Green parties, including the most recent, Politics Can Be Different (LMP).

In the run-up to the most recent parliamentary elections, LMP split. One part entered an electoral alliance with the Socialist Party to fight against the ruling party Fidesz. This group called itself Dialogue for Hungary. The other half kept the name LMP and vowed to maintain its independence. The electoral alliance anchored by the Socialist Party managed only a little more than 25 percent in the election, which Fidesz won in a landslide, and Dialogue for Hungary secured only one parliamentary seat. LMP squeaked into parliament by breaking the 5 percent barrier and saw its representation drop to five seats.

Javor Benedek has been at the center of all three of these stages in the development of Hungarian environmental politics. He was part of the rebirth of the environmental NGO movement with the creation of Vedegylet in 2000. He was one of the founders of LMP. And he led the breakaway faction Dialogue for Hungary.

Although LMP's initial success was exhilarating for Benedek, he found the experience in parliament quite frustrating.

"When we arrived in parliament, we thought we needed to end the cold war in Hungarian politics in which the political parties fight against each other with any tools they can," he told me in an interview in May 2013 at the Hungarian parliament. "We were going to concentrate on professional questions. If the government supported something we wanted, even if we were in the opposition we would support it as well. We started our activity like that. But after a short time, we realized that it didn't work like that. Politics in Hungary had irreversibly changed with Fidesz coming to power. No one was interested in our great proposals and amendments. Parliament is theater. There are no real debates on the content of the legislation. The parliament simply decides it's not interested in our proposals. The majority pushes through their own legislation, and they don't ask anyone, not the opposition or the trade unions or anyone. Also, they modified the parliamentary rules so right now they can introduce a bill on Sunday afternoon and pass it on Monday evening. So, you can imagine what kind of debates we have in parliament!"

This experience informed his decision to form the electoral alliance with the Socialist Party and the former Socialist prime minister Gordon Bajnai. For Benedek, it was not a question of supporting the Socialists or opposing Viktor Orban of Fidesz. It was whether LMP should act like a political party or an NGO.

"Of course critics ask whether it is credible Green politics if we cooperate with the former prime minister, and they make a list of all the decisions that Bajnai made when in office," he told me. "The critics say that we are betraying the original Green mission. These are normal political debates. When the Finnish Green Party joined the six-party government coalition, they had to make a decision whether to accept the new nuclear reactors. They decided to join the coalition even though the government supported the new nuclear blocks. It was an extremely difficult decision for them and, looking back, they think they made a bad decision. But this is politics! The real debate between LMP and us is not over whether to challenge Orban or not -- or cooperate with Bajnai or not. It's whether to behave like a political party or like an NGO. To remain alone and not cooperate with anyone and say that we are not wiling to make any compromises -- that's heroic. But that's what an NGO does, not a political party. What we are doing is politics, with all its difficult decisions and risks."

The Interview

I interviewed a number of people in environmental NGOs when I was here in 1990, including the Danube movement. At that time the environmental movement here was on a high. It had success in blocking the Nagymaros dam. It was popular. But then it seemed to go into decline between that time and when you founded Vedegylet in 2000. Why did that happen?

We've discussed this a lot with our colleagues and friends. What was Green activism before the transition was the Danube movement. There wasn't really much other than a few other activities. Also, the registered Green activities at that time were not only Green activities. They were a way of expressing the voice of illegal opposition in Hungary in the 1980s. The Danube movement was partly an environmental movement. But partly it was full of people who wouldn't join a Green movement right now and were members of the Danube movement because it was against the socialist system. That's why it was able to mobilize so many people and be so important in those transition years.

After the first free elections, a lot of people from the Danube movement went into different political parties and entered parliament. They started playing political games, and environmental issues slowly, step by step, fell on the priority lists of these people and their parties. At the beginning of the 1990s, with the Danube movement behind us and the transition ahead of us, a lot of people thought that Hungary would have a Green future with very strong green NGOs. This belief generated a lot of activities. There was also a lot of effort to found Green parties. By the middle of the decade, some disillusionment set in. People realized that a lot of former Green activists were not Green any more because they'd become party politicians in parliament. Green NGOs couldn't achieve many things. Green parties were unsuccessful, partly because of personal fights inside the parties, partly because the existing mainstream parties attracted successful Green politicians. There was a low tide by 1995 or 1996, even though by that time, the parliament had passed a number of important laws, including the Environmental Act, the Nature Conservation Act, the Forestry Act, and the Hunting Act. These laws had been passed in a climate in which Hungary and Hungarian intellectuals believed that the environment was important. In the last 10 years, none of the Hungarian parliaments would have accepted any of the environmental acts passed in 1995. They were quite a strong set of laws.

By the millennium, even the mainstream parties had lost all their Green politicians. But also around this time, the Hungarian Green movement had built up relationships with international movements that had come together around events at the international level -- Seattle, Prague, Genoa. This critical globalization movement came to Hungary as well and gave some momentum to the Green movement. This was really one of the best periods of the Hungarian Green movement, between 1999 and 2006, and I'm not just saying that because this period coincided with my involvement in NGOs. It happened in parallel with the boom in the international anti-globalization movement and with the rise of Green parties throughout Europe. It was quite a hopeful period of time. After 2005-6, the Hungarian Green movement declined a bit for several years. The government pushed back against Green activity by saying, for instance, that it was a barrier to investment. That happens all over the world. Finally, the new government after 2010 just killed the Green movement.

Were there particular targets when you created the movement in 2010 related to the impact of globalization in Hungary, for instance trade treaties or particular corporations?

Yes, of course, we included in our program most of the goals of the international anti-globalization movement, including critiquing free trade agreements, such as GATS, and organizations such as the GATT and the WTO. This whole free trade question was in the middle of our activity, particularly the privatization of public services, like the water supply and electricity. The whole electricity sector was being privatized at that time. We also followed the events on the international level, like the water privatization in Bolivia with the Cochabamba case, or the privatization in the UK, which produced the first big failures of privatization such as accidents on the UK railroad system.

Another important issue was agriculture and land. At that time, Hungary was still not a member of the EU. After joining the EU, Hungary had seven years not to open the land market to foreign investors. But everybody knew that this would happen at some point and we should prepare ourselves for it. We wanted to save the countryside and preserve equal possibilities for Hungarian citizens. Also there was the GMO question, which goes back to the WTO theme. We were looking at international trade not only from point of view of Hungary but also how the Global South suffers from international investment and free trade. We initiated the fair trade movement in Hungary, creating the first fair trade shops. Of course we had lots of local issues, like nature conservation, forestry, water management, and industrial versus sustainable agriculture.

There was very strong anti-GMO legislation passed here in Hungary. Were you involved in that as well?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.