Dr Helen Szamuely
Once again the European Union showed itself to be hysterical for the wrong reasons. The second round of the Hungarian parliamentary elections, completed on April 21, the same day as the electorate of France delivered its body blow to the European and French political establishment, ended as predicted: with a small majority for the left of centre coalition of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Social-Democratic Alliance (SZDSZ). Between them they took 198 of the 386 seats in the Hungarian Parliament, showing themselves, as expected, to be stronger in the towns, particularly in Budapest.
Viktor Orbán, the youthful outgoing Prime Minister and leader of the right of centre FIDÉSZ, originally the party of youth, had hoped to beat the post-Communist Hungarian pattern of never electing the same government twice. He failed and the failure is causing some tension between his party and that of his allies, the small Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). The tension is unlikely to lead to a complete break, as the two parties need each other in Parliament.
The new Prime Minister, Péter Medgyessy and the President of the Socialist Party, László Kovács look much more like the old-fashioned East European apparatchiks than Orbán and his cohorts did. By a coincidence they also look a great deal like the EU apparatchiks, who find it much easier to deal with former Communists than with people who appeal to the national pride of recently liberated countries.
Guy Verheugen, the European Commissioner in charge of enlargement, congratulated the Hungarian people for rejecting the extreme right-wing nationalist group, Justice and Life. Since this group did not reach the necessary five per cent in the first round, having done exactly as badly as all those who know the Hungarian political scene had predicted, this congratulation seems unnecessary and patronizing. Verheugen was trying to paper over the fact that he and his colleagues had expressed perturbation about Orbán’s campaign, which tried to appeal to national pride and family values, not, theoretically, anti-European concepts.
The winning alliance is not immune to tension. The main party is the old Communist Party that had been called the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP). By dropping the workers from its name and performing a volte face in some of its policies, it resurrected itself as a modern socialist political group. When in power in the mid-nineties it put into place a number of tough economic policies and carried the country through a period of austerity into economic growth. Its junior partner, the Social-Democratic Alliance evolved from the group of left-leaning, metropolitan dissidents of the eighties, who, unlike opponents of the regime such as Viktor Orbán’s family, consisted mostly of children of privileged post-1956 officials, were based largely in Budapest and were well-known in the West. Some or all of these characteristics made the group less popular in Hungary itself and to the surprise of their Western supporters the SDA (SZDSZ) did very badly in the first post-Communist elections. Since then they have become the third party of the Hungarian political structure. It remains to be seen how well they will collaborate with their erstwhile enemies, the Socialist Party, in government.
As far as Hungary’s application to the European Union is concerned, the change in government will not mean a change in policy. Enlargement is more likely to be at risk from Le Pen’s good showing in France and the effect that is bound to have on Chirac’s policies.