Young Hungarian left-wingers express solidarity with Syriza

There seems to be somewhat of a generational divide on the Hungarian left, when it comes to austerity and the debt crisis in Greece. While the mainstream left-centre opposition parties have remained largely mum about the increasingly dramatic stand-off between the Troika and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza government in Athens, and while some older, “big guns” of prior Hungarian left-centre administrations have come out in support of further austerity, there are voices on the Hungarian left that are supporting the OXI (No) vote in Sunday’s referendum as a matter of principle.

The most visible such group is Balpárt (Left Party), which is readying to contest the 2018 parliamentary elections and is busy building its base, from its centre in Budapest’s multicultural and working class 8th District. On Friday afternoon, Balpárt organized a small demonstration in front of Greece’s embassy in Budapest, as a display of solidarity with the Tsipras government and the OXI campaign.

Balpárt activists György Várnai and Ádám Galba-Deák show a sign of solidarity, along with a Greek tourist who happen to be visiting Hungary, in front of Greece's embassy in Budapest. Photo: Balpárt.

Balpárt activists György Várnai and Ádám Galba-Deák show a sign of solidarity, along with a Greek tourist who happen to be visiting Hungary, in front of Greece’s embassy in Budapest. Photo: Balpárt.

A member of Balpárt's leadership team, Tibor Berta, protests in Athens, alongside the OXI camp. Photo: Balpárt.

A member of Balpárt’s leadership team, Tibor Berta, protests in Athens, alongside the OXI camp. Photo: Balpárt.

For the Hungarian radical left, the showdown between Athens and the Troika has the trappings of a David and Goliath type battle. On the one hand, you have a country of just over 10 million people — only slightly larger than Hungary — where nearly fifty percent of youth are unemployed and which has been asked to accept – verbatim –  for the past five years a mantra that painful austerity would lead to economic growth and an eventual easing of the hardship. (There has been some growth in Greece, but certainly no signs of prosperity.) Eastern Europeans are familiar with this as well–it was called economic shock therapy in the early nineties, and it turned the region, just arising from one party Soviet rule, into a laboratory where politicians and economists from the West could experiment in a way that they would never dare to do back at  home.

Yet it would appear that even the IMF has moderated and nuanced its message, suggesting that creditors need to take some responsibility for a debt and austerity plan that is putting a burden on Greece, which it will not be able to overcome any time in the foreseeable future, and must consider at least 50 billion euros in debt relief, as well as debt restructuring. Mr. Tsipras feels vindicated, and this was his message during a televised address to the nation on Friday.

There are some prominent names who have cast their virtual ballot for the No side in Sunday’s referendum and have lambasted the Troika’s approach, most notably Paul Krugman, who has also spoken out on authoritarianism in Hungary over the past five years.

“It has been obvious for some time that the creation of the euro was a terrible mistake. Europe never had the preconditions for a successful single currency (…) Greece should vote “no,” and the Greek government should be ready, if necessary, to leave the euro. (…) the Greek economy collapsed, largely as a result of those very austerity measures, dragging revenues down with it. And this collapse, in turn, had a lot to do with the euro, which trapped Greece in an economic straitjacket”writes Mr. Krugman. He also added that accepting the terms and conditions from the Troika would now “represent the final abandonment of any pretense of Greek independence.”

The Troika, which had been negotiating with a government elected in January on a clear platform of opposition to austerity, may be using Greece to send a message to burgeoning anti-austerity radical left parties, such as Podemos in Spain, which has won municipal elections outright in the country’s largest cities and stands a strong chance of winning national elections later this year. Parties like Syriza and Podemos–and possibly Balpárt in Hungary, if it manages to solidify and grow its base–may shake up the status quo supported by not just Christian Democrats on the right, but also most Social Democrats and liberals.

Balpárt's protest in Budapest, in support of Syriza. Left to right: Anna Hortobágyi, Szilárd Kalmár and Ádám Galba-Deák. Photo: Balpárt.

Balpárt’s protest in Budapest, in support of Syriza. Left to right: Anna Hortobágyi, Szilárd Kalmár and Ádám Galba-Deák. Photo: Balpárt.

Zoltán Pogátsa, a young Hungarian economist, wrote one of the most insightful blog posts on the crisis in Greece. Entitled “How austerity destroyed Greece,” Mr. Pogátsa argues that Troika-led austerity led to a 30% decrease in Greek wages and a 50% drop in pensions, major cutbacks in social solidarity programs, while the country was allowed to continue to spend an unjustifiably large amount on its military (3.5% of the total budget).

“The [Eurogroup] wanted to stop Syriza from creating a European precedent in terms of debt relief or post-austerity governance. They held on until Syriza capitulated to austerity, as did all mainstream Social Democratic parties before. By embracing austerity, PASOK has managed to basically eliminate itself from the Greek political scene, giving rise to the term “pasokification”. Those Greeks who are not aware of the fact that it was austerity that essentially led to default would believe that this was Syriza’s fault, after only a few months of governance, in a situation when they were effectively blocked from independent governance by the February agreement, which stipulated that they would make no independent moves without consulting with the Eurogroup and the IMF. The perfect trap,”
writes Mr. Pogátsa.

The young economist actually got into a heated Facebook exchange with Mátyás Eörsi, a prominent and long-standing liberal politician, who is generally socially liberal when it comes to socio-cultural policy, but is nearly identical in thinking to Canada’s conservatives when it comes to questions of the economy. That’s all too common on the Hungarian mainstream “left,” although parties that attract younger, urban voters, like Politics Can Be Different (LMP), Dialogue for Hungary (PM), the Fourth Republic (4K!) and in the near future Balpárt, have very consciously distanced themselves from old school neoliberalism.

But with the Greek referendum a mere hours away and with polls inconclusive in this historic and tightly fought race, the results will not only have an economic impact, but also a political one, well beyond the borders of Greece. Szilárd Kalmár, president of the Balpárt, mentioned to me earlier today that what is so disconcerting about all that is happening in Greece is the impression that the European Union’s leadership, hand-in-hand with the IMF, isn’t willing to tolerate a democratically elected left-wing government and are looking to have it toppled.

The burgeoning new left in Hungary is certainly watching events in Greece very closely. And with the mainstream left still deep in the political wilderness after more than five years in opposition, it’s well worth it for all of us who are opposed to the Orbán regime to keep an eye on how this new left evolves over the next few years.

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