THE BLOG

The Disappearance of the Political Middle in Hungary

Hungary has long been divided between its liberal and cosmopolitan capital and the more conservative countryside. During the Communist era, a small democratic opposition emerged that eventually, by the end of the 1980s, split into two political forces: the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz) and the more nationalist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF).

In the first free elections in Hungary in 1990, the Democratic Forum achieved a narrow margin of victory over the Free Democrats. The liberals went into opposition. But they had won over a million votes (in a country of only 10 million people). The country's first president came from SzDSz, and so did the mayor of Budapest. Four years later, their popularity had sagged a bit, but SzDSz still scored nearly a million votes in the elections.

Today, the party has disappeared. It failed to achieve any seats in the 2010 elections. A successor party, the Hungarian Liberal Party, threw its lot in with a large coalition opposed to the ruling Fidesz party and current Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But this larger coalition came in a distant second. Even in cosmopolitan Budapest, the mayor is a former Free Democrat who has become a conservative Fidesz politician.

Ferenc Koszeg was a key member of the democratic opposition and an editor of Beszelo, a samizdat publication. He also served in parliament with SzDSz. "In 1992, there was a general view that Hungarian society was divided into three blocs - an old-fashioned conservative group that believed in a authoritarian state, a socialist bloc that believed in a paternalistic state, and a liberal bloc that believed in individual freedom," he told me in an interview in his apartment in Budapest last May. "The proportion of support for these groups was similar - one-third was conservative, one-third socialist, and one-third liberal. The Free Democrats was twice the second largest party in the country, receiving more than one million votes. There was indeed a strong liberal part of the country. But since 1994, the general conviction became that you had to belong to the Right or the Left, and there was nothing in the middle, which is very bad."

The turning point, Koszeg believes, was 1994, because that was the year when the Free Democrats decided to join a coalition with the Socialist Party. The coalition lasted for 14 years.

"It was absolutely a mistake -- not from the point of view of just the party, and the end of the party, but also from the point of view of the country," Koszeg continues. "At that time, I was still the editor of Beszelo, which became a political weekly after the changes in 1990. In February 1994, I did an interview with Viktor Orban. At that time, SzDSz and Fidesz were very close to each other. It wasn't the first time we did an interview, and the atmosphere was rather friendly. Orban said, 'If the liberal Left and the socialist Left come together to make a coalition, then the gap between the Right and the Left will be like a rift between two mountains, and it will take at least 25 years before grass will grow again on the side of this rift.' Of course, the gap was also very useful for Fidesz. The policy of Fidesz was built on this gap. After the coalition happened, Orban did everything to deepen it and say that Fidesz was good and the Socialist-Liberals were evil. After that, he pushed Fidesz in the direction of a more radical right-wing politics."

We talked about the impact of Beszelo in its samizdat days and the challenges of maintaining the secrecy of its operations. In 1990 when I interviewed Koszeg, he was involved in the parliamentary effort to reform national security, including the police, so we also discussed the results of those reforms.

The Interview

When we talked in 1990, you were working on the issue of police oversight in the parliament.

I was on the committee on national security. This was a small committee, just 11 members, with a task to oversee the state security service. They changed its name to the national security service. This was my official task in the parliament. Also, inside the League of Free Democrats, I was responsible for police and similar organizations. This was because I believed that to stand up for human rights, you couldn't start with defending human rights but with controlling the organizations that are able to violate human rights. Therefore I was much more interested in police and security service than in direct human rights issues. Later, as my main job became the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, we carried on this type of activity, monitoring police, refugee camps, and the places where human rights are most violated.

You served one term in parliament?

I served two terms between 1990 and 1998. In 1998, I decided not to run again. From 1995, I'd become more active in the Helsinki Committee. For three years, it was not really compatible to be the leader of an NGO and to be a member of parliament, especially of the governing coalition. The other reason was that I didn't agree with the decision of the Free Democrats to join a coalition with the Socialist Party. After my first term, I was undecided about whether to stay in parliament and serve one more term. But practically, according to the law at the time, I had the right to get a pension after I was 59 years old. So I decided to serve until 1998 in order to get the pension.

But still I tried to use this position to influence the situation a bit. In the opposition there weren't many possibilities -- I was participating in the making of laws that needed a two-thirds majority. At that time, the government didn't have this majority. With the law on police, for instance, it was possible to reach some compromises. But in the second period, when the Free Democrats were in government, the possibilities became broader. I participated in making the laws on refugee asylum and on the national security services, and I was able to influence a little bit the final wording of the laws.

The issue of joining the Socialist Party in coalition, which the Free Democrats did in 1994, is still an issue today. It divided LMP, for instance. Do you think it ever makes any sense to have an alliance with the Socialists to achieve some greater goal?

I became more and more convinced over time that it was the worst decision that the Free Democrats ever made. It was absolutely a mistake -- not from the point of view of just the party, and the end of the party, but also from the point of view of the country. At that time, I was still the editor of Beszelo, which became a political weekly after the changes in 1990. In February 1994, I did an interview with Viktor Orban. At that time, SzDSz and Fidesz were very close to each other. It wasn't the first time we did an interview, and the atmosphere was rather friendly. Orban said, "If the liberal Left and the socialist Left come together to make a coalition, then the gap between the Right and the Left will be like a rift between two mountains, and it will take at least 25 years before grass will grow again on the side of this rift." Of course, the gap was also very useful for Fidesz. The policy of Fidesz was built on this gap. After the coalition happened, Orban did everything to deepen it and say that Fidesz was good and the Socialist-Liberals were evil. After that, he pushed Fidesz in the direction of a more radical right-wing politics.

It's hard to say whether this would have happened or not without this coalition. But we can say for sure that this became a part of the division of the country. In 1992, there was a general view that Hungarian society was divided into three blocs - an old-fashioned conservative group that believed in a authoritarian state, a socialist bloc that believed in a paternalistic state, and a liberal bloc that believed in individual freedom. The proportion of support for these groups was similar - one-third was conservative, one-third socialist, and one-third liberal. The Free Democrats was twice the second largest party in the country, receiving more than one million votes. There was indeed a strong liberal part of the country. But since 1994, the general conviction became that you had to belong to the Right or the Left, and there was nothing in the middle, which is very bad.

And that gulf still exists today.

Yes, just recently Janos Kis published an article about this -- that there won't be an end to this cold civil war without a historic compromise between the Left and the Right.

Yes, he told me it was a 100-year war between the Right and the Left.

Yes, the obvious point is that there's not a constitutional Right or even a constitutional Left -- so I'm not sure who can make this historic compromise. These political forces do not exist.

One can make several arguments about why Fidesz has moved from its liberal past and toward its right-wing anti-constitutional position. But do you think there is something within liberal philosophy itself that led to this division in society, particularly in Hungary where there was a relatively small number of dissidents compared to Poland and a historic conflict between the liberal intelligentsia in Budapest and the countryside. Perhaps, given this context, the assertion of a liberal philosophy by an elite necessarily led to a reaction.


To read the rest of the interview, click here.