Europe, Headlines

HUNGARY: Left Turn by Right Brings Upheaval

Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Apr 23 2008 (IPS) - Hungary’s governing coalition has announced it is splitting up, leaving the socialists in a minority government, and so prolonging the biggest crisis of the left since state socialism collapsed in 1989.

The latest debacle followed a decisive defeat for the government in a referendum that showed Hungarians’ dissatisfaction with government policies, and their express wish to maintain a strong welfare state.

With a 50 percent turnout, the Mar. 9 non-binding referendum initiated by the neo-conservative opposition Fidesz showed 80 percent of voters oppose tuition, visiting, and hospital daily fees.

The fees were part of wide-ranging reform and austerity measures introduced by the governing Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and its junior coalition partner, the liberals of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ).

A few days after the referendum defeat, the government submitted proposals to parliament abolishing the controversial fees, although it warned it would have to compensate the absence of fees with budget money.

The first sign of a rift within the governing coalition came with statements by SZDSZ politicians indicating they blamed the socialists for the referendum humiliation.

Noting that two of the three measures rejected by the electorate regarded the health ministry, socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány sacked the SZDSZ-nominated Health minister Agnes Horvath late in March without consulting its junior coalition partner.

With the sacking came the announcement that the government was backtracking on allowing private capital to enter the country’s health insurance system.

The SZDSZ, which had made the introduction of the private sector into public healthcare one of its flagship ideas, announced it was leaving the governing coalition, with its leader Janos Koka claiming that the socialists had “turned against the reforms.”

Fearing a massive right-wing victory, the MSZP has decided not to call early elections, and to try its luck in a minority government, negotiating support on an ad hoc basis mainly from individual SZDSZ deputies.

“Socialists have the optimistic view they can manage in a minority government, but our point of view is that it will be a period of hardship, it will be very difficult for them to have parliamentary majority to pass the 2009 budget or laws on healthcare reform, “Péter Krekó, senior analyst at the Budapest-based Political Capital institute told IPS.

But the two parties are bound to maintain some form of cooperation as their biggest fear is handing over power to former prime minister and Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán.

Some speculate that both sides are happy with the decision, as now the MSZP can present itself as a moderate reformist party whereas SZDSZ will strengthen its identity as a radical reformist party advocating shock therapy.

Socialists and liberals can thus hope to regain some of their voter base which has been seriously eroded since the 2006 election victory. MSZP support rates hover around 20 per cent, whereas SZDSZ is currently unlikely to make it into parliament, and is risking a break-up.

“In opposition to liberal fundamentalism and social populism, the MSZP wishes to follow a moderate reform policy,” Gyurcsány recently told the press in an indication of the party’s new ideological line.

Following the defeat the MSZP has adopted the line that something has to change, namely its communication with those affected by reforms, but that these are fundamentally right and necessary.

Many socialists blame the liberals for the referendum defeat, who campaigned on ridiculing socialist nostalgia, and are perceived as an arrogant and elitist force by supporters of all other political forces.

The party members have renewed their confidence in Gyurcsány, but this trust will most likely not be maintained after 2010, when the socialists will look for a less unpopular politician to stand in the parliamentary elections.

The socialists know getting rid of Gyurcsány at this point would question the government’s and the reforms’ legitimacy, but in the future the party will try to come closer, not just rhetorically, to the classic left-wing values of its voter base.

Critics of the government have accused it of taking an overly top-bottom approach to the reforms, imposing them often against the will of trade unions, interest groups and regional governments.

Shockingly for the socialists, it is estimated that up to 20 percent of the party’s supporters voted in support of the opposition’s views.

Even more are believed to stand for retaining many of the social achievements of Hungary’s demised socialist regime, with only a minority supporting Gyurcsány’s modernising, ‘third-way’ line.

This has been noticed by Fidesz, which continues to move leftwards in an attempt to garner a larger support base.

“Fidesz’s message on economic policy has been mainly left-wing since 2004, but now their policy is to target all important voters; it is becoming a popular party with left and right wing messages,” Krekó told IPS. “It wants to avoid its past mistakes of targeting the extreme-right, which have cost them leftist and centrist voters. The referendum showed the success of this strategy, so its continuation can be expected until 2010.”

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