Reflections on the liberal Mátyás Eörsi’s nomination by the Orbán government

Mátyás Eörsi, a prominent member of the Democratic Coalition (Demokratikus Koalíció – DK) and formerly a Member of Parliament for the now defunct Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) announced that he spoke with Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó and the Orbán government intends to nominate him for the position of General Secretary of the Community of Democracies. This international organization includes countries, such as Hungary, that aim to “protect and enable civil society.” Moreover “the Community of Democracies is an intergovernmental organization that drives the global democratic agenda through common action.” The group also “recognizes the universality of democratic values.”

Does it sound like some form of extremely twisted humour that Hungary, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is a member? If so, the fact that Mr. Eörsi, one of Hungary’s most prominent liberal politicians and thinkers, is being nominated by the government and that Mr. Eörsi accepted the nomination, adds a whole new meaning to the term “dark comedy.”

Mr. Eörsi explained the following on Facebook:

“I am aware of the fact that many people will be stunned when they hear of this news. After all, this type of support or anything similar has hardly been characteristic of the Regime of National Cooperation.”

Caricatures of Mr. Eörsi and his decision were quick to appear. This one is a play on Fidesz's xenophobic campaign ads a play on the former slogan of Mr. Eörsi's Alliance of Free Democracies: "He dared to do it, and he did."

Caricatures of Mr. Eörsi and his decision were quick to appear. This one is a play on Fidesz’s xenophobic campaign ads and also a play on the former slogan of Mr. Eörsi’s Alliance of Free Democracies: “He dared to do it, and he did.”

Mr. Eörsi is mistaken on two fronts, and I tried my best to address this an article published on Hungary’s Mandiner news site earlier today. The article is entitled “The Democratic Opposition and That Which Does Not Exist.”

First, it is absolutely characteristic of the Orbán regime that it aims to pacify key opponents and tries to take the wind of the sails of the opposition by bringing them into the fold. János Kóka, the former chair of the defunct Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), is now a private citizen and businessman. While he was once an outspoken critic of Mr. Orbán and Fidesz and  leader of the liberal opposition for a period of time, today he admits to “meeting from time to time” with Foreign Minister Szijjártó, from whom he received a diplomatic passport. He commends Mr. Szijjártó for putting trade at the forefront of his foreign policy and participated in a delegation with Mr. Orbán in Saudi Arabia.

Then we have Katalin Szili, formerly a leading Socialist MP and the Hungarian Socialist Party’s nominee for President of the Republic of Hungary in 2005. As of 2015, Ms. Szili works as an adviser to Prime Minister Orbán, who commented that he is “honoured” to work with her.

On a different level, Gusztáv Zoltai, former director of the Federation of Jewish Communities (MAZSIHISZ), shocked many in his community and in the opposition when he accepted an appointment to serve as an adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, under Minister János Lázár.

This is obviously a partial list. More than anything else, Mr. Orbán’s government is Machiavellian and opportunistic. What better political move than for a government accused of illiberalism and antidemocratic politics, or strangling the opposition, to appoint one of its liberal critics to head an international organization that focuses on safeguarding democracy?

Secondly, I do not believe that anyone who follows opposition politics closely and who has had the opportunity to chat privately with some of their members would be stunned that key members of that opposition will talk-the-talk in ATV’s studios and will fire up dwindling and elderly crowds on the streets, whilst being in very cordial and personal contact with members of the government.

In most other circumstances, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with members of the opposition having a working and even friendly relationship with members of the government. But if the Hungarian opposition declares at every opportunity that we are dealing with an oligarchic, fascistic and deeply authoritarian criminal regime in Budapest, then no–it does not make sense that one has friendly chats behind closed doors or accepts positions and nominations from the oppressive regime.

The only way this makes sense–from a pragmatic perspective–is if leaders in the mainstream opposition have thrown in the towel and resigned themselves to another likely election loss in 2018 and that Mr. Orbán is here to stay for an extended period of time. Sadly, there are indications that this may be the case, including the way in which the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) managed to submit 42,000 fake or invalid signatures (out of just over 200,000) to the National Electoral Commission for a proposed referendum on the sale of state-owned lands. It is no secret in most circles that MSZP was not upset that the Commission uncovered all the invalid signatures. The referendum, had it gone ahead, would have been a huge embarrassment for MSZP, as turn-out would have been far below the required 50%. There is no way that MSZP could have mobilized at least 4 million voters. The Commission, which the Socialists correctly note is under Fidesz’s thumb, showed the party mercy and did them a huge favour by finding and throwing out all the invalid signatures. The Socialists expressed concern and questioned the Commission’s decision in public, and then quickly wrapped up their press conference, never to mention this again. It is all rather convenient.

Meanwhile, Mr. Eörsi’s decision is tough for many in his party. One journalist affiliated with DK, Viktor Mandula, wrote on Facebook:

“This is more than a sin. It was a mistake to accept the nomination. It sends a terrible message to opposition voters. DK’s ‘sex appeal,’ among its own supporters, was its unwavering opposition politics. This is what they have been accustomed to and this is what they expect–and rightly so. This is what sets DK apart from Katalin Szili and from the Gábor Fodors.”

Many others on the opposition expressed frustration and disappointment as well. Those who have always been reticent of working together with and supporting the “old guard” of opposition politicians (primarily voters with Dialogue for Hungary, Együtt and Politics Can Be Different, and some undecideds) now have one more reason to steer clear. This also means accepting that the hopes of a change in government in 2018 have all but vanished. The new goal is engaging in the difficult and painstaking work of gathering together the many disparate and small civil groups working in isolation of each other, and building a network that may provide the base to one day contest the elections in a viable manner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *