Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.
Every few years in East-Central Europe, a new political movement emerges that challenges not only the status quo but the very substance of the political system. Sometimes the movement targets the party patronage system. Sometimes it focuses on the corruption that enriches those who participate in governance. Sometimes it elevates a set of issues that the media or the political elite has ignored.
In Poland, Janusz Palikot created a movement that spoke to the libertarian values of a younger generation, mixing together market liberalism with the legalization of marijuana and support for LGBT rights. In Bulgaria, Volen Siderov created a right-wing populist movement that attacked vested interests and also blamed minorities for a variety of social ills.
Hungarian environmentalists had been trying to create an authentic Green Party ever since the end of Communism. When they pulled together a new initiative Lehet Mas a Politika (LMP) in 2009, they didn’t call it a Green Party. Instead, they wanted to transform the entire process of doing politics in the country. The name of the party said it all: Politics Can Be Different.
LMP’s embrace of environmental sustainability and its attempt to alter the political status quo were both attractive to Katalin Ertsey. She’d been part of the first generation of Fidesz activists in the late 1980s. Unhappy with the trajectory of the party in the 1990s, she went into NGO work. But when she heard about LMP, she quickly enlisted.
“Obviously we knew that a Green party was needed sooner or later in Hungary,” she told in an interview in Budapest last May. “But we didn’t see that it was possible to break up the monolithic system of Hungarian parties. When the first news came out that some underground movement was thinking about establishing a Green Party, and knowing about the previous attempts by Élőlánc (Live Chain), in which my brother was involved, and seeing how that didn’t succeed, I immediately contacted LMP and started working, way before the official debut on October 8, 2008. I still believe that LMP has brought the only new idea into politics for 20 years. This ‘politics can be different’ suggests a whole new look at politics. I actually took that seriously.”
She entered parliament with LMP in 2010 and expected to work with all willing partners on the issues that LMP held dearly. But working across the aisle, she quickly learned, was not going to be easy, even with Fidesz members she still knows from the old days. “It’s really hard for some of my old friends to face what they are doing now,” she said. “They’re betraying in many ways everything that we fought for together and also what they believed in just a few years ago. I also reached out on issues to those Fidesz members that I didn’t know, like Ilona Ekes, whom I really appreciated for her work in 2006 in visiting people put in prison after the riots. Again, naively, I thought on women’s issues that we could form a non-partisan caucus. I tried it several times and failed. I’m still not giving up. But everything is along party lines now. Although there are a handful of decent Fidesz MPs, loyalty is more important than reaching across the aisle.”
LMP, too, fell victim to the polarizing effects of Hungarian politics. In advance of the elections that just took place – and which Fidesz won – the opposition tried to pull together an anti-Fidesz coalition. Half of LMP thought it was possible to align with the Socialist Party, among others, to defeat Fidesz. The other half thought such a strategy unlikely and preferred to remain independent. LMP split into two factions. The party that retained the name LMP managed to get just above the 5 percent threshold in the recent elections to get five seats in parliament. The breakaway faction, Dialogue for Hungary/PM, was part of the left-wing Unity Coalition that achieved a little more than 25 percent of the vote and 37 seats.
Ertsey also decided to leave politics. “Politics will not be different until we face the root of the problem, and that is how we have always ignored the fundamental issues,” she concluded. “As a nation, we have never faced our past: the Holocaust, Communism, the various national tragedies of the 20th century. It’s very clear in LMP’s opening statement that we are not giving up on having a dialogue on that. As I move away from party politics — I’m not running in the next elections — this is one of the projects or ideas that very much excites me: to go back and look at our past through something like a truth and reconciliation committee. We should also open the files and establish on a bipartisan basis an Institute for National Memory to look at the issues. Facing our past would help overcome our current situation, when most of our critics say, ‘Ah, you see, politics cannot be different.’ I still believe that it can be. But it will have to come from going to the roots of the problem.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
That’s a difficult one. It was in the process of things, so I don’t remember that particular moment. It’s unlike 9/11, which everyone remembers. When you mention the fall of the Berlin Wall, I do remember that I have a piece of it from a friend who was there just before it fell. So, I was around, I was in Hungary, I had a friend who had just returned, and I was still very much involved with Fidesz at the time. I must have been busy breaking down the system here in Hungary.
Tell me how you first became politically involved.
I started very early. The first illegal organization that I got involved in was Dialogus, the independent peace movement in Hungary in 1981-2, while I was still a high school student. I just found the founding declaration of Dialogus two days ago. I have no idea how I got that. But that was the first time that I got involved in something illegal, something that questioned the system. Dialogus was about to set up an alternative peace movement — to say that we must break down the artificial walls between east and west, that youth are the same on both sides of the Wall, and that missiles should be removed from both sides. I never found the documents in the archives, but I was apparently reported on by the secret agents back then. I recall a meeting in Visegrad about organizing a peace conference involving the Western peace movement. There was also a demonstration using one forint coins, which at the time had doves on the back. We were making a peace sign out of those coins. The police didn’t like it because it was disrespectful of the forint, our national currency. Obviously, that movement was very quickly destroyed, and many of my friends got into trouble. But I didn’t because I was too young, only 16.
The next thing was Fidesz in 1988. I became very quickly involved in Fidesz in April 1988, three weeks after the establishment of the organization. We went to Veszprem for the student parliament, and I met the Fidesz leaders, including the current leaders. The paper on which I signed my name and became a member was confiscated that night by the police of Veszprem. It should still be in the police files there. I had to renew my signature on May 9, and the official version is that I entered Fidesz on May 9.
At that time, Fidesz was very proud of being liberal, alternative, and radical. How did you see yourself in those days?
Back then, Fidesz was more united. Behind this slogan of “radical, alternative, and liberal,” all of us were united. However, there were differences, which I can remember and identify retrospectively. Radicalism changes with age. But at that time I was pretty radical. On October 23, 1988, when it was still pretty dangerous to go out on the streets, I remember the debate within Fidesz about whether to participate in the street demonstration after the Hungarian Democratic Forum had decided not to. Back then, radical was okay. In that sense, I was radical. What “alternative” meant at the time, I don’t know, other than the sense of independence from the system. Liberal is quite interesting. I have become more conservative since and less radical. That also comes with age. In those days, it was really hard to find among the youth any other ideology than liberal. Now it’s different, because finally we have a new generation of young conservatives, which is nice. I didn’t see myself as part of any of the groups. I was working on foreign affairs and some women’s issues. Before Fidesz I was involved in the Danube movement. I was also writing my thesis on that, so I was interested in environmental issues as well.
When you say that you’ve become more conservative, how would you characterize that?
As the proverb says, you’re a Communist when you’re in your twenties and a conservative in your forties. With age and kids and more responsibilities I see things as more complex. I’m not a radical alternative liberal any more. But of course it’s all relative. When fundamental human rights are attacked in Hungary and you see your old friends in government now dismantling the system we all helped to create, you realize that maybe we should go back to our roots, when we all fought together. There’s an organic way of becoming more conservative. But there’s also an artificial shift – and that’s what happened to Fidesz. It moved consciously from one side of the political spectrum to the other. It lost those who could not follow this shift over the years and ended up with people who were not necessarily thinking in ideological terms but were just looking for a job. So, it’s hard to judge who in Fidesz is conservative these days and whether they came to that position as a result of an organic thought process.
I had a chance to talk with Orban Viktor three years ago when I joined parliament, and I told him, “I too have become more conservative, but in an organic way, not exactly like you.”
How did he respond to that?
Well, he didn’t. He doesn’t really reflect on his self, 20 years ago. Although I think in private, that’s all he does, especially these days, when Facebook is full of his quotes from 1988 and 1989 and even the early 1990s. I just found something that is word for word what we say about the government today, and it’s what he said about the Antall government back then. He’s facing a lot of trouble when looking at himself 20 years ago. That’s normal. We all change, and we all become a more conservative, less radical, less alternative self. How far you go on that route differs from person to person. Also, how we change personally is not necessarily the same as how a party changes ideologically
On this issue of becoming more conservative, there seem to be three alternatives. It could be style. It could be strategy. Or it could be policy, how one feels about the state and economy. How would you characterize your own evolving position?
The policy level, which is the most important. Strategy is something you might choose, but it might agree with your policy. That’s what we also see in Hungary today. The strategy to pick a conservative line has become popular. People are conservative not necessarily in what they think but in their everyday life. But policy is the most important. On policy, when I think about the relationship between state and individual, I would be labeled a classic liberal. It has changed since the crisis. We all realize that the limitless market economy has shown some fundamental failures. I don’t see the answer to that yet. Before I came back to politics, I used to be involved in corporate responsibility and business ethics. A lot should be done there in terms of the individual behavior of companies and corporations. From those individual changes in individual companies, there should be a new ethical standard arising from business leaders and companies. I don’t see that happening. Some government interventions have taken place, but I don’t think it’s enough.
On human rights, I’m still liberal, although when you have kids, you have some concerns about, for instance, legalizing drugs. When you’re actually facing that danger it’s hard to decide, and that’s where your personal choice comes in. I’ve become a lot more involved in women’s issues. That’s also a change that comes with age: you realize what a fundamental injustice it is for women to be under 9 percent of parliament. Also unbelievable is the overrepresentation of men in all aspects of economic life, in corporations and companies. I am very much involved in women’s issues, but I also see that this is a very conservative country. So, since being radical can be counterproductive, I work a lot on compromises. If you see that even women agree to a more traditional role in society, you need to work with them first. In that sense, I’m not that radical any more even on issues that are close to my heart.
Tell me about your decision to return to politics through Politics Can Be Different (LMP)?
For that, we also need to talk about why I left politics. It wasn’t a radical step, but it’s interesting to see how naive I was. I’d put a lot of effort into politics, from the first illegal movements through the organizations and movements we talked about all the way up to putting a party into parliament. We sent the boys into parliament in 1990, and I was like, “Okay I’ve done my job. I have some more things to do in civil society.” So I went on to work with NGOs. I worked for about 15 years for various NGOs, from Roma issues through environmental issues to social health care and education. I always worked on the capacity building of NGOs, because I see civil society as still very weak. Even though for 20 years it’s been a commonplace to talk about the fact that civil society needs to grow, the way we’ve ended up now is very much related to a weak civil society.
So, I didn’t shut the door on Fidesz, I just moved on with my life. I even went back in 1992 or 1993 to help out on some foreign relations issues. But it had changed so much. This was not what I was used to doing, so I quit. I was happy and active politically, but not in the formal arena. And I was not touched by a new political idea until the birth of LMP.
Obviously we knew that a Green party was needed sooner or later in Hungary. But we didn’t see that it was possible to break up the monolithic system of Hungarian parties. When the first news came out that some underground movement was thinking about establishing a Green Party, and knowing about the previous attempts by Élőlánc (Live Chain), in which my brother was involved, and seeing how that didn’t succeed, I immediately contacted LMP and started working, way before the official debut on October 8, 2008. I still believe that LMP has brought the only new idea into politics for 20 years. This “politics can be different” suggests a whole new look at politics. I actually took that seriously. And that’s why I have some difficulties now looking at how we are doing in Parliament, how much we can stop or slow Fidesz in dismantling what we once built together. It’s still the most exciting political project in the 20 years since we had our first free elections.
When I was here in 1990, civil society seemed quite vibrant, especially compared to the Czech Republic, where you had relatively few people involved as dissidents. Or Slovakia, where it was even weaker. Or Romania or Bulgaria. Civil society seemed pretty strong here in Hungary. Was I mistaken, or did civil society grow weaker? Or were there strategic decisions made at that time that led to the marginalization of civil society organizations?
The strength of civil society used to be its weakness. In Hungary, where oppression was a lot less than in Czechoslovakia or other countries, this whole movement of civil society was very strong when you were here 20 years ago. That push made it possible for NGOs and nonprofits to establish themselves as institutions relatively quickly. However, the rapid institutionalization took away the momentum. And the movement type of organizations either became irrelevant, or most of the leaders went into politics. Ferenc Miszlivetz talked about how important it was to keep these movement-type organizations alive, but there were too few organizations for this to happen and also have these two other things: an institutionalized nonprofit sector doing its economic activities of serving the needy and politicians serving in parliament. It’s just a question of numbers. Although I was working a lot on strengthening NGOs with capacity building and getting government funding (which was a big issue in the 1990s), that effort of strengthening the institutions has weakened the movements. NGOs that provide services to the disabled are still passionate about their topic, and they serve their constituents and lobby the government and all that. However, this vague but very lively idea of civil society for the sake of reflecting citizens’ views in the political arena is gone.
The only time when we finally saw these grassroots coming back again was in the late 1990s, early 2000s with Védegylet (Protect the Future), TASZ (Hungarian Civil Liberties Union), and some of the women’s organizations. The cornerstones of civil society had to wait for the first wave of nonprofits and institutionalization to pass. This rebirth of civil society started when things went really badly, and the Gyurcsany government really helped with that. Some of the tools were used by these NGOs to get the information out, to use fact-finding media, to publish scandals. Corruption in that sense helped civil society regain its feet. Ironically, now is the best time for civil society, because there’s so much to talk about. The student movement HaHa, or the Hungarian version of the Occupy movement: these are signs of a growing civil society. In that sense, the harsher the system, the more potential for civil society. That’s not to say that we wish for a harsher dictatorship. But they seem to go together.
It suggests that civil society has difficulty existing where there’s no crisis.
Yes, the whole lesson from the Hungarian transition was that Hungary was not a tough enough place to establish the kind of longstanding moral standards that still exist in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where they have tackled the whole issue of the archives and secret agents files and have basically said no to the previous regime. Here, the previous regime was not all that oppressive. And we are only smart retrospectively. But I hope that other societies struggling with these problems can learn this lesson.
Tell me how you interpret this phrase “politics can be different.”
Obviously it’s a slippery slogan, and we knew we would be criticized for it right way. It is a pretty funny name. It’s a name like those from 1989, when you had organizations like Public Against Violence. But of course the name suggests that it’s not enough just to create just a Green party and work on getting out the message of sustainability and get across to people that a Green Party is not just about hugging trees. LMP has been a whole new way of looking at the world and development.
Obviously the slogan also suggests that we aim to renew the political culture. The tragedy of Hungary is that it has really become the main motivation of both sides to attack the other one, also at a personal level. That’s the end of politics. In that sense, we wanted to bring politics back to its original sense of a reasonable and fact-based debate about our common things. LMP came from a lot of frustration with the Gyurcsany government. But in the last few years, Hungarian political culture has further deteriorated. The main motivation these days is to ignore the facts and get power. This was Gyurcsany’s idea: grab power, no matter how, and then do what it thought was the “right thing.” Until this idea of politics can be different — that dialogue is possible, that there can be more of a political partnership – it has not been possible while we’re still in this mud fight. But I’m not willing to give up. It’s a constant struggle.
Politics will not be different until we face the root of the problem, and that is how we have always ignored the fundamental issues. As a nation, we have never faced our past: the Holocaust, Communism, the various national tragedies of the 20th century. It’s very clear in LMP’s opening statement that we are not giving up on having a dialogue on that. As I move away from party politics — I’m not running in the next elections — this is one of the projects or ideas that very much excites me: to go back and look at our past through something like a truth and reconciliation committee. We should also open the files and establish on a bipartisan basis an Institute for National Memory to look at the issues. Facing our past would help overcome our current situation, when most of our critics say, “Ah, you see, politics cannot be different.” I still believe that it can be. But it will have to come from going to the roots of the problem.
Can you give an example of how you tried to bring that spirit to parliament and either succeeded in some way or didn’t?
I’m constantly talking to Fidesz members. Obviously I had friends who are now in government. I was naive enough to even send a text to one of my old friends – Bus Balazs, the mayor of the third district — saying that we can do great things together. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Did you get a response?
I don’t remember whether I got a response to the text. But I always got good reactions from some MPs in Fidesz whenever I reached out. It’s a bit more difficult now. As I mentioned, it’s really hard for some of my old friends to face what they are doing now. They’re betraying in many ways everything that we fought for together and also what they believed in just a few years ago. I also reached out on issues to those Fidesz members that I didn’t know, like Ilona Ekes, whom I really appreciated for her work in 2006 in visiting people put in prison after the riots. Again, naively, I thought on women’s issues that we could form a non-partisan caucus. I tried it several times and failed. I’m still not giving up. But everything is along party lines now. Although there are a handful of decent Fidesz MPs, loyalty is more important than reaching across the aisle.
Of course, there is a big issue in parliament whether this reaching across the aisle should include Jobbik. We were again hopeful that some in Jobbik could be open for dialogue. And they had some pretty decent guys, most of whom left or were kicked out. And Jobbik is changing as well. They realized that they weren’t getting anywhere by behaving decently in parliament. I knew a guy from KPMG before who was in the first line of Jobbik and is now a backbencher — Hegedus Tamas, a very nice guy. I’m also talking to the Socialists. Very few of them are able to understand what we’re talking about, for instance on women’s issues — it’s unbelievable how little the Socialists understand about the role of women and gender equality. On these issues, it’s hard to work with any other groups in parliament. So, that’s my strategy of politics can be different.
On women’s issues, the statistics you mentioned were quite depressing. Do you see the situation of women actually deteriorating in Hungary, or has it been this bad all along?
It’s always been bad. With the transition and the loss of 1.5 million jobs, women had the opportunity to go back to the household and take care of kids. Now, with the crisis, it’s the same again. Women who are caring for children or the elderly always have this option to withdraw. So, it’s getting a bit worse.
It’s shocking, given the level of economic and political development here in Hungary, that there’s no recognition of how fundamental gender equality should be in a democracy. I talk to a lot of women’s advocates regionally, and there are at least 2 or 3 times more women sitting in parliament in those countries, and the NGOs are not killing each other as in Hungary on women’s issues but instead are working together. Yes, of course, Fidesz has a major responsibility for the situation getting worse. They had women as candidates who were happy with the traditional way of looking at things. They were also silent even about issues that are not radical feminist ideas — fundamental issues like representation and simple everyday issues like work-life balance. Why is it so impossible to raise a kid and work in Hungary at the same time? I’m still not sure why things haven’t changed or have changed for the worse for women.
I’m working really hard trying to establish a non-partisan preparation process for the mentoring and training of women candidates. I’m more interested in getting 30-50 female candidates from whatever party — minus Jobbik, I’m not going to work on that – than which party wins the election. That may be the first successful attempt to bring together parties on an issue, in this case working together to get more women into parliament. Every day I sense that we just don’t talk about these issues because the 92 percent of the parliament that is male simply has no idea about this.
Two options present themselves. One is the American approach — Emily’s List — putting training and money into bringing women into parliament. The other is a quota system.
Before the new election law was discussed, I was one who initiated parliamentary debate to see where parties stand on these two options. I did this so the discussion would be on women’s participation more generally and not only on the quota. But already back then, which was months before the election law came to parliament, it was obvious that Fidesz would not support a quota. During the election law process, we introduced a 33 percent quota and a zipper system, the same system that LMP is actually using internally. This proposal was less radical than the quota proposed in 2007, and also the proposing party was not united back then. If you recall, SzDSz in 2007 was split on the issue. The liberals said, “You women are on your own, fight for it, and if you get it, you’re in.” Others, who understood that this was not about equal opportunities but counterbalancing the inequalities for women, pushed the agenda of quotas. I put out a few blog posts and articles about this.
Since then, the situation has worsened, and it’s visible in the votes. Even Orban Viktor said yes to the 50 percent quota back then, when he was in the opposition. And now this time with a 33 percent quota, he didn’t even abstain, which is the normal way of dodging the issue, but voted no. DK, Gyurcsany’s party, did not support the quota, which is weird. Fidesz members who voted yes in 2007 abstained. So the situation has worsened. We still made an attempt in the second round of election procedure law, but obviously that’s not the place for it. So, the quota question is off the table.
What’s left is to work with the NGOs, the OECD, the embassies, and all kinds of organizations interested in a fair electoral process. That’s where I will put all of my energies. The quota question will not come back to parliament in a long time.
Let me see if I understand this correctly: LMP split over whether to form a coalition against Fidesz or to adhere to its original principles?
Yes, that’s relatively accurate. It’s not whether to form a coalition against Orban, but whether it was worth it to risk our original values. And by now it’s obvious that it was not worth it. Gordon Bajnai is at 5-7 percent. His coalition is just not going to be able to gain enough in the next year.
Behind this issue were some power struggles. The reason I left LMP as a member — though I still represent the policies of LMP in parliament, and content-wise I have no problem with LMP – is that the power struggle in LMP showed some ugly faces. When I talk about the political culture, I’m not happy with the political culture within LMP now as well, and that’s a result of the split.
Politics has a lot to do with intuition. One of the main architects of Bajnai’s strategy was Karacsony Gergely, a pollster. He said, “I’ve studied election polls for decades, I know what I’m talking about: if you add up these numbers, it will work.” But it doesn’t. It caused a major problem for LMP. We lost 3 percent of our support, which didn’t help Bajnai either, since they went up a bit and then went back down.
It will be a major comfort if and when we get back the right to form a group in parliament. The Constitutional Court ruled that although Gyurcsany can’t have a formal faction because they were not the ones running in the elections on behalf of that party, those who ran in the election should have the right to form a faction no matter how many are left. It’s a legal debate now, and I hope we win that by September. That will be our reward for standing on principle.
I didn’t have a lot of problems with Bajnai. He was the most decent of all our prime ministers. But I could not face supporting a change that involves people who form a long line behind Bajnai. For all of us involved in the transition times, we have difficulty in agreeing to bring back, not the old Communists, but people like Gyurcsany. He’s not a young socialist like my friend Tamas Harangozo. There are decent young socialists like him who want to renew the Socialist Party. But Gyurcsany read the reports of secret agents about me back in 1988 in Pecs. This ethical principle of lustration should hold for those of us involved in the changes — let’s make it a clear line. I have no problem doing stuff together. According to LMP’s statement, we always support causes on a case-by-case basis, but to govern with these guys is impossible. If it were doable, if the election math eventually added up, I could imagine a situation in which we seriously thought about it. After all, although we have serious problems with Gyurcsany, he wasn’t dismantling the constitution in Hungary. But we’re so far from that situation that it won’t come up as a real issue.
There’s been a lot of international criticism of Orban and Fidesz, which sometimes translates into criticism of Hungary. I’m curious what you think the international response should be toward Hungary. On the one hand, if the Fidesz government does something wrong, it should be chastised. On the other hand, these negative reactions just confirm Fidesz’s statements that the world is ganging up on Hungary.
The EU has no tools to deal with this. I’ve been telling all my international contacts, and anyone who asks, that if you cook a soup, each ingredient might be edible on its own, but it might not suitable for human consumption when you put it all together. That’s what we have. Each piece might be acceptable in other countries’ structure — for instance, an often-quoted example, is that the head of BBC is appointed by the British government. Yes, but look at the whole structure. These criticisms should be as accurate as possible, but they will still be cynically dismissed by Fidesz. And Fidesz will just do the bare minimum to meet the criticism. The whole soup is still inedible, that’s what is making Hungary and Hungarians suffer. If you look at how the EU is able to deal with just bits and pieces, and not the whole thing, then you can imagine how Hungarians must feel.
The EU could cut off funds. That might not be likely, but that’s within the realm of possibility. Could you conceive of a situation in which the EU should do this?
We always said that as long as there was a double standard against Hungary — and there is obviously a double standard — then we will not vote on monitoring or harsher instruments. As time moved on, it has become obvious that nothing will change. And I still believe in naming and shaming. At some point, if legal critics can point to very specific things that the government should change, and it doesn’t, then sanctions are okay. But as I said, the government will fix the bare minimum, so that’s not likely. The way Fidesz turns the arguments around and manipulates people through the media is something that should shock any decent politician. It should not be part of the political culture to trick your counterpart this way and turn the argument around and play this cynical game. At least it shows how far the EU can go, what it can and cannot do. That’s an important lesson. We’ve always taken these basic values of democracy for granted, and we shouldn’t. This is an issue we all have to face: what if someone is smart enough to go around the rules and figure out that the rules of the game can’t be enforced?
You mentioned the double standard. Do you mean the way the EU dealt with Berlusconi?
Yes, Berlusconi and also Austria. But also the excess deficit procedure, which has been applied differently. All politicians are irritated at how Fidesz reacts. That’s why I can imagine that the EU might change the rules. But ironically, the macro numbers are getting pretty good. In parallel with the process of showing better numbers at the macro level, Fidesz is getting more aggressive in fighting back. So, it will be a very difficult situation for the EU to keep up the excess deficit procedure against Hungary. But if you let Hungary go and keep others under monitoring, that sends the wrong message. Fidesz always argues that most of this is politically motivated. Well, we’re talking about political values here. And the way that Fidesz is using this issue is highly politicized. On both sides it’s politics.
The restructuring of Hungarian society at all levels by Fidesz: can this be reversed with a change in political administration or is this something that will be with Hungary regardless of whether Viktor Orban is in charge or not?
These major changes are here to stay. If you look at how they could be changed back, that won’t happen for a long time.
All the cardinal laws, as well as the constitution itself passed by the two-thirds majority. We’re not going to see a two-thirds majority again. But that limit is not there for one party to achieve such powers but to encourage compromise. So, I’m not looking for another party to achieve a two-thirds majority. I’m looking for a situation in which compromise is possible and needed.
There shouldn’t be a radical, revolutionary change to reverse these laws. First of all, there were some major problems that Fidesz tried to handle through bad means. The right questions were asked, and the wrong answers were given — mainly because it was rushed. On many issues, from the Church law to the media law, it should take time. If Fidesz really cared about creating an organic change in society, they could have done this, especially if I look at the parliament schedule now. It’s very light. In the first years, they were pushing through all these cardinal laws, thinking that they would lose support by mid-term. But they didn’t lose the support. They could have worked out these laws in a way that was acceptable.
That’s why we often say, if any kind of change back is possible, it should go through a genuine procedure of talking to all the stakeholders and making laws in a decent way. The same applies to the constitution. We have wonderful lawyers who could, with some minor changes, revise the current constitution. We could have a pretty decent constitution that could be acceptable even in a very conservative country where people want to see the constitution accepted by everyone but still long for the state to take care of them. All of these things should be taken into consideration. You can’t just rely on the majority. It’s just not going to work over the long term.
On the issue of the truth and reconciliation commission, I wasn’t clear whether this was something you wanted to do in parliament or outside.
There should be a law about this. Obviously that involves getting some key people interested in it. It should come from historians and intellectuals who recognize the need. It’s a long-term, non -partisan, primarily non-parliamentary project.
And your role would be?
I’m just hoping to raise the issue and call it to the attention of important people like Schmidt Maria and those who have the right connections — opinion leaders who understand the significance of these historic issues but are not party politicians. I’m hoping to hold a conference to see whether the political will is there.
It can be a simultaneously polarizing and a healing type of process.
The procedure is based on going through a cathartic experience that’s very personal and very emotional. If it’s done well, it’s not so much dividing as difficult, at least at first. But you need, and this is the weak point, a figure like Desmond Tutu in South Africa who was able to unite the nation, or at least those who get involved at that level. We painfully lack those figures.
You don’t have those on a cultural level like Arpad Goncz?
We ran out of those. I believe former president Laszlo Solyom was such a figure. But even he is attacked by some, primarily Gyurcsany supporters. It’s sad. I’m talking about Schmidt Maria because she is one of the few who can reach out. There’s nobody in Hungary who would be free from harsh criticism. But if that’s a given, that’s what you have to work with. In the absence of someone who is accepted by everyone at least we should look for someone who can talk to all sides, and is accepted in that role.
Romania went outside of the country to invite Vladimir Tismaneanu to head up their commission on the investigation into historical crimes. Can you go outside the country?
Unfortunately, Fidesz has built up suspicions about those who survived in the West in emigration. I can’t imagine like in Poland electing a prime minister who comes back. The glory of someone coming in untouched by all these conflicts is gone. Only during the transition times were the old emigrants coming back to Hungary in this way.
You’re not going to run for LMP. Are you not going to run at all?
I’m not going to run. I decided that last summer.
Do you feel that your political career has come to some kind of closure?
I know myself, and I will be always involved in politics at some level, primarily this non-partisan level on a few issues like truth and reconciliation and women’s issues. If any government needs what I can do and what I’ve learned over the past decades, I’d be happy to serve in an executive position.
I’ve learned my lessons about the role of the MPs. We made the mistake of putting over-educated people into parliament. Parliament doesn’t need that. You need to save those people for government, although that’s difficult. And I’m not talking about this parliament where hundreds of people just sit there pushing a button: that’s not a model. Parliament needs decent, relatively educated but not outstanding people. Many of us are simply overqualified for that kind of position.
American politics can serve as a model for having non-outstanding people in parliament.
On a personal level, I will have to do my PhD, which I put off because of LMP. I’m way too old to put it off for another four years. I’ll do that in the UK — on gender. I hope that will help when I come back to Hungary at some point — if anybody can use what I know. I’m sure that I’m not going to disappear.
What’s the topic of your dissertation?
There are two programs that I’m interested in: Manchester and Bristol. One topic is a UK-Hungary comparison of women in politics, looking at the electoral system and political culture. The other is more complex. It would be women’s leadership in three sectors – NGOs, government, and business — which reflects more my personal story. I’ll have to put in the proposal, look for money, and see how it goes.
When you think about your worldview circa 1990-91, when you were still in Fidesz, how has that changed? You’ve talked about becoming a little more conservative and addressing some issues with greater focus, like women’s issues. What kind of second thoughts have you had since that period?
I still believe in the same things. It’s funny, and it tells you about the situation, not only my personal story, how the things I wanted to contribute to changing have still not changed for the better. I couldn’t mention any values or any one issue that I have fundamentally changed my position on. I’m one of those who will look at society and always say, “This is not okay, let’s change it.” My drive for change remains the same — for fundamental justice, equal opportunities, sustainability. Sustainability emerged as a new idea and grew more prominent, but I’d already written my thesis on that 20-some years ago, so the roots of the Green idea were there already. I’m more mature and have learned some of the nitty-gritty of the business and the nature of the business. I’m not that naive anymore. But I’m still not willing to accept it when someone says, “Hey babe, these are the rules of politics: take it or leave it.” I’m still credible when I say that politics should be different, and I still believe in that. But it may take another form, as I grow older.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same period of time, same scale: your own personal life?
10. But it was 10 back then as well!
When you look into the near future, how would you evaluate Hungary’s prospects, with 1 being most pessimistic, and 10 most optimistic?
4. With the potential to grow.
Budapest, May 13, 2013