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Hungary 2007 – A year of Programs Without Elections

An evaluation by Political Capital Institute.

While 2007 is the only year during the term of the current administration when voters do not have to go to the polls, the domestic political scene been awash in programs and, with the exception of KDNP, all Parliamentary parties elected new officeholders. Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány (also elected MSZP President in February) tried to give new momentum to his government and MSZP alike by announcing a series of new programs, and Fidesz spent the entire year developing its new platform. Big ideas were bandied about and politicians were constantly preoccupied with each other all in vain as political life barely changed. Debates raging over the major symbolic issues defining the entire year (e.g., the anniversary of the Balatonőszöd speech, the healthcare reform and the referendum initiatives) left political lines all but frozen in place.

The second year of the Balatonőszöd speech
The Balatonőszöd speech that came to light in the fall of 2006 left its mark on 2007 as well and, in fact, the speech had two anniversaries: the date of its delivery in May and its revelation in September 2006. These and other national holidays offered opportunities for demonstrations all year round, where radical groups, with diminished ability to mobilise, tried to make a show of force and engage the general public by recalling the riots of the fall of 2006. While, with the exception of the actions of the Hungarian Guard, the relevance and intensity of street demonstrations mobilising radicals steadily decreased throughout the year, the politics of Parliamentary parties showed little change: they were unable to break out of the deadlock reached by the end of 2006. As a result, Hungarian political parties continued to operate in 2007 under the spell of the Balatonőszöd speech, which gave them but little room for making any headway.

However, all parties showed a desire for a cautious shift, demonstrated primarily by attempts at developing new programs. In the campaign leading up to SZDSZ’s party election, programs developed by Gábor Fodor and János Kóka competed head on head. Kóka won that race with the slogan ‘success’, although the first year of his presidency (also resulting in his resignation as the Minister of Economy) can be described more accurately as a fiasco. At other parties, elections to high positions were not contested. MDF continues to be a one-person party: under the leadership of Ibolya Dávid, the party’s entire program for the year has been limited to capturing 13% of middle-class votes. Fidesz opened the year with a pamphlet, Our Future, and closed it with a program entitled Strong Hungary. However, the already modest attempts at developing a new strategy expressed in these documents were further eroded by Viktor Orbán’s politics, summarised is his book, A Single Nation, published during the year. During the party elections conflicts within Fidesz became more apparent but once public interest in these subsided, Orbán again managed to consolidate his party’s long-standing structure and political direction.

Ferenc Gyurcsány and MSZP looked for a way out by announcing one set of principles and programs after the other. In a paper, (“Szembenézés”, January 29, 2007), the Prime Minster announced 23 points, as part of the flagship program (February 12, 2007) 5 points, at Parliament’s fall opening session, in a summary of government tasks (September 10, 2007) 48 points and in his plan for a clean-up of public life (October 2, 2007) an additional 7 points. None of these represented radically new ideas or measures; indeed, they were nothing more than an updated recapitulation of government objectives known from the past with the intention of reassuring the electorate: the government is doing its job and it has clearly-defined concepts. Despite the series of announcements and cabinet reshuffles, the Prime Minster failed to present his government’s vision for the future or find allies for his proposed reforms, while support for the coalition continued to decline. Speculation on the Prime Minister’s imminent departure has become all but permanent by the fall of 2007. In the last months of the year the question in the public mind was not whether but when Ferenc Gyurcsány would resign, and who would take his place. All this hardly improved the government’s stability or the Prime Minister’s popularity.

Healthcare reform – raised to a symbol
The reform of the healthcare system dominated the news throughout 2007. From the very start it dominated other policy issues: it became the most important symbolic topic of political discourse over the entire year. Healthcare was at the centre of every debate over reforms between the government and MSZP, between the coalition partners, as well as between the government and the opposition. Fidesz built almost its entire referendum drive on the criticism of the healthcare reform (especially the visit fee). And starting this fall, the stakes of the healthcare reform were also raised by some politicians on the government side. SZDSZ announced several times: should the government fail to carry through the reform of the health insurance system, it is ready to leave the coalition, some MSZP politicians argued for a slowdown of the reform process, while the coalition partner and the Prime Minster considered the passage of the health reform act as a vote of confidence.

Thus the general public gained the impression that the reform issue could make or break the coalition. While in connection to the referendum initiated by Fidesz the government parties insisted all along that issues related to healthcare have no bearing on the stability of the government, by the end of the year they themselves have lent the case the meaning associated with the referendum questions. Eventually, at the December 17th parliamentary session (when the 2008 budget was passed by representatives almost unnoticed) the government majority voted as a block and passed the healthcare reform act, thereby stabilising the position of the coalition. It is to be seen next year whether the reform can in fact be implemented. One thing is certain however: the referendum initiated by Fidesz will keep the healthcare issue on the agenda and the plebiscite could bring political benefits either for the government or Fidesz.

The year of referendum initiatives
In the wake of Fidesz referendum initiative started in 2006 (in the rhetoric of the largest opposition party, a tool for defeating the government) a veritable flood of referendum initiatives was set in motion. In 2007 alone some 400 referendum initiatives were made that, aside from focusing on specific issues (primarily various aspects of the healthcare reform), question the institution of the referendum itself, the constitutional relationship between direct and representative democracy and the impact of the referendum, i.e., whether a plebiscite can lead to the replacement of the government. As a result of these debates, despite its new program Fidesz has been unable to break out of its policy built on the referendum campaign. While for some time it appeared Fidesz would be ready to abandon its idea of overthrowing the government in mid term, by the end of the year Viktor Orbán returned to this line of communication. Due to debates generated by major symbolic issues, 2007 passed without any significant change. At the end of 2006 Viktor Orbán said the government should leave immediately and Ferenc Gyurcsány responded: immediate steps must be taken, “reforms or collapse”. Although both political camps emphasised the need for urgent change, 2007 brought no major political developments. (press release)