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Analysis: Hungarian Socialist Chief To Step Down

  • Michael Shafir

http://gdb.rferl.org/5CBE4F24-964F-4BAF-8C13-6AC99031CE46_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/5CBE4F24-964F-4BAF-8C13-6AC99031CE46_mw800_mh600.jpg Premier Peter Medgyessy Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) Chairman Laszlo Kovacs announced on 16 June that he would not run again for the position of MSZP party leader at the next congress of his party, slated for October, international news agencies reported.

The decision follows the 13 June elections to the European Parliament, in which the MSZP won nine seats out of the 24 seats allocated to Hungary in the enlarged (732 seat) European legislature. The main opposition party, the Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ), on the other hand, took half of those seats. The remaining three mandates went to the junior coalition members, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), which secured two and one seats, respectively (see Matyas Szabo, "The Implications At Home Of Hungary's Euro-Vote," at www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004).

If anyone still had doubts about who emerged victorious from the Hungarian ballot, Kovacs's decision should have dispelled them. Yet Kovacs is apparently not very helpful in easing this task. Instead of simply admitting responsibility, he explained on Hungarian state television that the dual position he holds (foreign minister and party chief) is too heavy a burden, saying: "[I] cannot fulfill my duties as foreign minister and fight for the cause of the MSZP at the same time," according to AP. Why this would occur to the veteran Hungarian politician only now not only went unanswered, but Kovacs did his best to prevent any linkage between the electoral failure and his leaving the party position: "Even if we had taken all 24 mandates it would still be true that I could not campaign at the head of the party for the 2006 general elections while being foreign minister at the same time," AFP quoted him as saying.

Kovacs thus made it clear that he intends to continue as his country's chief diplomat, at least until the next parliamentary elections. He had already served in this position between 1994-1998, in former Prime Minister Gyula Horn's government. It is, however, clear that the MSZP has understood that Kovacs diplomatic skills notwithstanding, he started to be more of a burden than an asset for the party. In a highly polarized environment in which FIDESZ and parties placed on its right remind Hungarians day and night that the Socialists are former communists and claim the MSZP has changed its name but not its habits, Kovacs could be used by the opposition to serve as the embodiment of that alleged fallacious transformation. The opposition has claimed that, just as former Premier Horn, Kovacs had been a member of the post-1956 communist pufajkas (fur coats) vigilante squads.

Fewer Hungarians may care about the past than the opposition would like to believe, but the trouble of the current MSZP-SZDSZ ruling coalition is that a lot of Hungarians care about the present and worry about the future. Against a less-than impressive record since it took over the government after the 2002 parliamentary elections, the cabinet headed by Peter Medgyessy can no longer afford to neglect some vulnerable points, and Kovacs might be one of them. It may be just an unfortunate coincidence for the Socialists, but right after the European Parliament vote, Hungary marked on 16 June the anniversary of the reburial of Imre Nagy, the executed premier who was to become a symbol of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Medgyessy said on the occasion: "I apologize for what happened then... [As MSZP prime minister] I must say this even if I was only 14 years old in 1956," according to Reuters.

Just as in previous elections, the next parliamentary ballot is going to be primarily decided by the incumbent government's record, rather than by history. But the cabinet can no longer continue to dismiss the opposition's criticism and it needs to start taking action. People in the MSZP are slowly becoming aware that a change of generation at the party's helm might be helpful in disassociating it from its past. The most often mentioned names for a possible successor to Kovacs have for some time been those of Culture Minister Istvan Hiller, parliamentary speaker Katalin Szili, and Sports Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. As for Kovacs, he is likely to believe he is a victim of his own success. After all, he was one of the architects of the Hungarian "negotiated revolution," which transitioned that country from communism to a democracy. But if he believes that, for the sake of his party he better keep the thought to himself.
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