Hungarian Elections: No rosy picture

The elections held in Hungary in April this year have given a slim majority to a social democrat-liberal coalition, ousting the incumbent centre-right government of Viktor Orbán who was forecast to win another term in office. Our correspondent in Hungary looks at the real situation facing workers today.

Hungary went to the polling booths twice in April in an election which promised the return of the Fidesz-MPP/MDP coalition government. Before the first round every opinion poll forecast a comfortable victory for the centre-right government of Viktor Orbán after a successful four years.

Taking stock of those four years, the supporters of the government agreed that Hungarians have never had it so good. Their statement was based on Hungary's economic indicators, which produced impressive growth figures in the first two years of the last parliament; on its improved international standing; on its promising plans for joining the European Union in 2004; on its continuing building boom, and on increased wage levels.

However, a more thorough examination of Hungary's economy produces a less rosy picture. Agriculture, which has always been a solid exporter and a strength of wealth production has been in the doldrums for years. The break up of the large cooperatives and state farms produced a severe drop in agricultural production at the beginning of the 1990s, from which this sector is only now recovering. However, a recent survey, produced for the EU, concluded that the vast majority of agricultural enterprises are still far too small to modernise their production methods and produce food economically and competitively. Only 2,500 farms have land over 250 acres and the number of farms of a size considered the most stable number less than 50,000. The rest, about 80% of the total are small, uneconomic and uncompetitive. Népszabadság, the old Communist Party daily wrote on April 25: "The data confirms the opinion that Hungarian agriculture does not possess that ideal structure which under the conditions of EU membership would ensure its ability to compete sufficiently."

Industry, the much boasted about success story of the Orbán government is also showing signs of stress. In the same edition of Népszabadság an article paints a somewhat worrying picture of a drop of 50% in GDP growth between early 2000 and late 2001, a slowdown in the growth of exports and a steady drop in foreign investment over the last four years. The slowdown in industrial investment is undoubtedly connected to a general tendency for foreign investors to take their money elsewhere. Hungarian industry has already been totally privatised. At a conservative estimate 80%-90% of it was sold off or closed down in the last decade. However, this process has only just begun in earnest in the Czech Republic and especially Slovakia, so while that is where the big bucks are to be made, Hungary will see less and less of new Western cash.

Still, the most consistent class base of the Fidesz might not have concerned itself with any of the above. The brash, new and vulgar nouveau riche of 21st century capitalist Hungary lived, and still lives, happily on government patronage, corruption and with crumbs from the tables of foreign investors, whom it slavishly serves. This prosperity, however, has totally passed by all the losers of this much praised "Hungarian model". Those in the countryside, without a job, de-skilled workers, employees of foreign enterprises without any employment protection with long hours and low wages, ethnic minorities in general, and the Romany population in particular, and finally all those people who in the past not only had a good, well-paid job in industry, but the pride and future that went with that, and who are now either unemployed or eking out a precarious existence on the black economy. Vast swathes of former heavy industry now lies idle; destroyed or turned into shopping centres, the local population still trying to recover from the devastation of their lives.

In the first round of the election some 13 parties fielded a varying number of candidates in an election fought in a complicated system of proportional representation. Some of the MPs were standing in a constituency, others were allocated seats in regional and national lists based on their parties' numerical voting strength. This system ensures that every party can put their leading figures on the national list, thus not facing the danger of a humiliating defeat and exclusion from parliament. This, however, did not save the leading figures of any party that could not muster 5% of votes as that is the threshold for representation and which was only reached by two parties and a coalition of another two parties, thus making four in all.

These were: Fidesz, MDF, MSZP and SZDSZ. Fidesz formed a coalition pact with MDF, both roughly equating to a conservative right-of-centre party, representing the beneficiaries of privatisation, upper middle class, entrepreneurial class. MSZP, the Socialist Party, which is the sanitised successor of the old CP, with policies very akin to the British Labour Party and other European Socialist parties and the SZDSZ, which roughly equates to the British Liberals and other liberal parties in Europe. The SZDSZ has been in coalition with the MSZP before, and while standing its own candidates were planning to form a coalition with the MSZP after the elections.

MIÉP, the far-right nationalist party, representing anti-Romany, national chauvinist sentiment has managed to poll the largest vote amongst the parties below the 5% threshold, but at 4.37% has no representatives in Parliament. This is an interesting turn-about in their fortunes, as this represents one of their least successful results over the last twelve years. This, in a year of the events in the French presidential election, is noteworthy. Some analysts claim that the Orbán government, especially in the last two weeks of the election campaign, was right-wing enough for most voters and thus deprived MIÉP of its voter base.

Munkáspárt or the Workers' Party is one of the split-offs from the old pre-1989 CP, representing the old Stalinist wing. It was in the areas of devastated old heavy industry, with its traditions of working class politics and on the basis of its now reduced status, that the Munkáspárt polled extremely well. In an election campaign, which was notable for its lack of politics, they made an appeal to the losers of the last four years, those without hope, without the chance of a decent life and they have responded. Their vote of 2.16% nationally does not reflect some of the results, in places over 8%, they managed to attract in these areas. Additionally, they found an echo in some deprived country areas too, where their propaganda also hit a nerve.

So, how did Fidesz manage to lose an election, which, even according to its opponents, was as good as in the bag? Amongst the myriad of reasons put forward by analysts, two stand out as the major reasons for this defeat.

First of all, answers could be found in the style of the party in general and Orbán himself in particular, betraying a lack of substance, arrogance and ignorance, which appalled all those thinking voters who expected better. The ultimate gem of this panic-driven last minute campaign included a statement which accused anyone not voting for Fidesz as not being truly Hungarian, in effect branding anyone thinking of voting for the MSZP or SZDSZ as traitors.

Secondly, and this is the more substantial argument, vast swathes of the Hungarian electorate have learnt over the last four years that the division of the country into have's and have not's has not served them well. This process started immediately after the fall of Stalinism at the end of the 1980s, but only now manifested itself in such a brutal and revolting manner. The major voter base for the MSZP was in the towns and an analysis of the vote betrays a clear class delineation of the vote in the capital, Budapest. In the swanky nouveau riche districts on the Buda hills and in the commuter belt Fidesz carried the majority of votes. Although, even there some surprises caused shocks, the vote going to some SZDSZ candidates in places. The working class districts have solidly lined up behind the MSZP, quite a few of them not needing second round voting, as the MSZP candidate carried more than 50% of the vote in the first round.

Interestingly, the traditional town and country divide, whereby Budapest and the largest towns have always been considered left-of-centre and the backward, non-political countryside could be relied upon to turn out for any right-wing party, has also had its shocks. As mentioned above, some country districts showed support for both MSZP and the Munkáspárt and the liberals. However, some of this can be explained with candidates carrying a personal support arising from a variety of sources. In fact, this election campaign can be characterised as lacking the clear political focus British and European elections usually have. In fact, no manifestoes could be identified during the last weeks of the election and with the exception of one of the Munkáspárt posters, all electoral materials contained generalities, personalities, some promises, but no politics at all. As one comment I heard described: "They are all very similar, so what could they argue about?" There is a great amount of truth in that, but Hungarian campaigning is unfortunately, more and more dominated by personal insults, accusations and a low level of politics.

This was a very polarised election. For the first time in 12 years only four parties stayed in, which represents a class polarisation never before experienced in post-Stalinist Hungary. It was clear that the mass of people wanted to get rid of the Orbán government. The extreme right understood that a vote for MIÉP was wasted and voted for Fidesz. The Fidesz carried its class base, but lost those floating voters who put their faith in them four years ago. The majority of the electorate found the MSZP a valid alternative. There was a shift to the left and no significant support for the extreme right.

The final make-up of the new Hungarian parliament is: MSZP 178, Fidesz-MDF 188, SZDSZ 19, MSZP-SZDSZ 1.

Based on the coalition plans of the MSZP-SZDSZ, this will give them an overall majority over the right wing parties of 10.

What does all this means for Hungary, can the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition government deliver on its promises? First and foremost, will they unite the country, as they promised, especially during the last two weeks of the campaign? This drive for unity proved a very handy slogan to counter the divisive policies of Fidesz.

Will it deliver on its promises, which were announced during the campaign and some of which were contained in its election address posted to every elector on March 10? Will they introduce:

  1. Less income tax.
  2. Extension of family income tax relief.
  3. Retraining of the unemployed over 45.
  4. Raise the upper limit of tax free income for farmers.
  5. Simplify the tax system for sole traders.
  6. Provide free transport for commuting students.
  7. Make agriculture profitable again.
  8. Give a 50% wage rise to health workers?

These are modest promises, but even their fulfilment is much dependent on whether the MSZP is yet again getting ready to manage capitalism in the interest of the multinationals or is prepared to break with their system and establish workers' democracy, based on the common ownership of the means of production and a plan? If the former, it is doomed to failure and might even play into the hands of the extreme right as we have seen in France this year.

If the latter, history could be written in Hungary, like it was in 1956. The choice is theirs, the fate of the Hungarian people depends on it.