Interview: Szigetvári Says Együtt Is Focused On Bringing In New Voters

  • 2 May 2016 9:00 AM
Interview: Szigetvári Says Együtt Is Focused On Bringing In New Voters
The Beacon sat down recently with Viktor Szigetvári, president of the opposition party Together (Együtt). A great many things were discussed, but the most important takeaways are the following:

Szigetvári says his party’s increase in the polls (from 0 and 1 percent to 4 percent) over the past year show that, by and large, Hungarian society is starting to open up to their message;

While some “intellectuals in the capital” may have given up on the opposition’s chances in Hungary’s 2018 national election, Szigetvári says he sees reason to believe that Fidesz can be ousted by “some sort of cooperation between opposition parties”;

An opposition cooperation process must be based on voter involvement and consolidation of the opposition;
LMP’s András Schiffer has made a U-turn on a serious issue to pander to the hate-vote; and,

Együtt is poised to gather up LMP supporters.

Szigetvári says Együtt learned the lessons of the failed opposition unity of Hungary’s 2014 national elections. The party’s former head, Gordon Bajnai, is out of the picture, and the party has been able to successfully redefine itself and transition from a struggling party to one that knows its place in the Hungarian political spectrum.

According to Szigetvári, Együtt is focused on bringing in new voters, “fresh voters, younger than the average voters.”

“We are open to cooperating with whoever really wants to win [the 2018 national election]. But if there’s not going to be a sufficient willingness to gain ground electorally by the whole opposition, we are not going to force cooperation. In that case, we are going to run alone,” Szigetvári says.

Regarding Együtt’s anti-corruption guru Péter Juhász, Szigetvári says Juhász has “really connected [the issue of corruption] not only with the mind of the electorate, but also their hearts.”

“These guys who are in power in my homeland are really stealing the future away from us and our future kids. Péter’s efforts and relentlessness to bring up newer and newer stories of Fidesz’s corruption is very important,” Szigetvári says.

“Some analysts say that this may help Jobbik, and Jobbik only. I believe that Jobbik, sadly, is a credible party concerning their efforts in the fight against corruption. I don’t know what they would do if they were in power, but I do know that it’s not impossible for an opposition party on the liberal, or social democratic, or progressive side of the Hungarian political spectrum to gain ground politically speaking on this issue,” Szigetvári says. “This is one of the main pillars of our politics and of the identity of our party.

“The second pillar of our party is that we have a ‘no bullshit’ policy. We are anti-populist. We are centrist, not left, not right, a bit liberal and a bit progressive party. And we talk frankly about the crisis of our society. It’s very important that these are the two pillars on which we have built our new identity since we analyzed the electoral difficulties we faced in 2014.”

From the perspective of party building on a grassroots level, Szigetvári says Együtt is stronger in rural areas than some analysts believe.

“We’re there in more than 65 local municipal councils. We have deputy mayors in Szeged and in the big districts of Budapest,” he says.

Szigetvári talks about Együtt’s politicians outside Budapest, people like Tamás Bod. Bod, for example, is the local Péter Juhász in Békés county.

“Bod is fighting against the Mezőhegyes crisis where they are destroying a heritage of Hungary’s agriculture industry. He’s also fighting against the corruption taking place in the city of Gyula,” Szigetvári says.

But there are others, according to Szigetvári, such as Budapest District IX council member Krisztina Baranyai who made a name for herself as an Együtt politician by exposing the toxic waste dump scandal.

“Basically, for ten years nothing happened [with the toxic waste dump]. She came from nowhere and – while the whole problem isn’t solved yet because the toxic waste contaminated the earth under the site – steps have been made moving forward through cooperation with the government. That cooperation was the result of protests day after day and strong media management,” Szigetvári says.

After analyzing the regional structure of the party, Szigetvári says the party has determined there to be around 20 electoral districts out of the 106 where the party needs to become stronger and focus on building a better local presence.

The big challenge, in Transdanubia in particular, is that there are cities and towns where the party has supporters but lacks properly functioning grassroots organizations, Szigetvári says. He says the party has developed an 18-month strategy to fill those gaps.

“In the framework of the Hungarian political system, we should be realists. We believe that there is a fair 8 to 12 percent of the electorate that we target and intend to gain ground among. They are a little bit more liberal, a little bit more urban than the average voter, and a bit younger than the traditional leftist party base.”

But one of the problems working in such communities is that political involvement bears a stigma — regardless of whether you have a history in politics.

This no-bullshit mentality is something Szigetvári does not shy away from within his own party. He says it is important for Együtt activists and politicians to be aware of just how bad the stigma against politicians in general has become.

“Hungary’s whole transition in the 1980s and 1990s was a top-down transition…. In Hungary, the credibility of politics is really a problematic issue. Now, when someone joins our party or becomes a local candidate, I tell them, ‘Listen, until today you were a credible civil activist in this middle-sized town of Transdanubia. Now, you’ve become a corrupt politician even though you’re not’.

“This isn’t only the product of Fidesz’s governance, it’s also the heritage of the past 25 years. I’m not fully critical of the past 25 years, but I am objective about the difficulties caused by the past 25 years and also about the steps forward that we as a country made and as a society.”

Recently, Szigetvári issued a press release critical of statements made by Politics Can Be Different (LMP) co-chair András Schiffer.

“It had to do with the migration issue. [András] recently spoke at a conference and on national television and went berserk. He spoke unacceptably about the crisis. He offered such a populist simplification fitting the narrative framework of Fidesz,” Szigetvári says.

According to Szigetvári, Schiffer’s “populist simplification” of the migration issue is a far cry from what the Politics Can Be Different movement once stood for.

“It’s not Germany that caused the Syrian crisis. I think it’s unacceptable [to assert that]. I think the way he analyzed the results and causes of the migration crisis was a populist simplification of reality. Maybe it wasn’t as intolerant as Jobbik’s or Fidesz’s simplification of reality. But from my point of view, as a politician, a leader of Együtt and as someone who really wants to create ‘no bullshit’ politics in Hungary, I think [András’] statements were unacceptable.

“András made a U-turn on this issue. A year ago, or ten months ago, he more or less shared in the consensus with the minority of Hungarian opposition parties that it is unacceptable that intolerance will cause increased fear, divide society further, and that the government is creating a narrative where they can benefit politically from this issue. He talked as a responsible political should talk about an issue like this.”

Szigetvári’s criticism of Schiffer – with respect to the LMP co-chair’s changing position on the refugee crisis – also extends to the Hungarian Socialist Party.

“In February, Schiffer gave an interview to Mandiner in which he said that he made the mistake of sharing the concerns surrounding the legal protection of migrants, that the framing of this narrative and framework is dysfunctional. He said he was sorry that he had done that. I don’t know why he feels it necessary to do this. But I think that, electorally speaking, he sees ground [to gain on]. In Együtt, we see this as a moral question. We’ve always said that, ever since the crisis broke out, and we feel that solidarity should be shown toward those who arrived here, and inhumane conditions for those who arrive here are unacceptable. The legal framework introduced by Fidesz in the middle of September totally goes against the Geneva Convention and that is really unacceptable. We were really one of the strongest voices against that framework,” Szigetvári says.

“András’ U-turn on this issue is why I wrote that article. He basically said that it’s the German capitalists’ interests that is behind the inflow of migrants, and, in the context of the EU mandatory/not-so-mandatory EU quota of migrants, he even dared to say that because Angela Merkel invited those migrants into Germany, it should not and cannot be the responsibility of the community of European Member States to solve that crisis. This is ridiculous.”

Szigetvári says that while Merkel’s decision certainly opened her to criticism, few people call into question her moral motivation for doing so.

“She did what she did, but this has nothing to do with the German capitalists’ interests. It’s true that in Germany’s labor market there is a labor gap and it should be filled by Eastern Europeans and maybe well-educated Syrians, because Syria had an educated workforce. But if you oversimplify the reasons behind this enormously complicated geopolitical, social and ecological crisis – that is, the Syria crisis and everything related to that – I think you fall into Fidesz’s trap in the Hungarian domestic political arena. You fall into the trap of the populists. You feed the electoral anger onto which you may benefit politically. It’s a surprise for me that András Schiffer chose that path and that’s why I wrote that article.

“This anti-German, anti-US, anti-establishment and anti-capitalist understanding of the complexity of the migration crisis has nothing to do with reality…. András’ unfounded and populist simplification is, I think, something that is really unacceptable mainly for the electorate that chose LMP,” Szigetvári says.

According to Szigetvári, LMP can generally be broken down into two groups. One group is made up of more rural voters who express a dissatisfaction with the past 25 years. These voters are more anti-establishment and are fed up with the “post-modern capitalist status quo.” Many of these voters became Fidesz and Jobbik supporters. Schiffer’s strategy may be to gain ground among these voters. These voters may have leftist sentiments but vote on the right.

The other group in LMP, says Szigetvári, is more urban and “do not buy [Schiffer’s] bullshit.”

“[This second group] may have problems with contemporary capitalism, they may have problems with the difficulties of our Western integration process and the transition that wasn’t a success story,” Szigetvári says.

For them, “this anti-liberal, anti-establishment and anti-capitalist understanding of this migration crisis” is a marked difference from the position of LMP’s other co-chair, Bernadett Szél.

But Szigetvári does admit that Együtt is reaching out to LMP voters.

According to him, voters who turned to LMP in 2014 because of the failed opposition unity are now reachable for Együtt because many of them share the same views on drug policy, anti-corruption, education and the reform of the electoral system.

On the issue of the 2018 national elections, Szigetvári is adamant that Együtt will not make the same mistake that led to the failed opposition unity in 2014. He says the only way his party is willing to work with other opposition parties is if there is a real commitment to beating Fidesz built on voter involvement and consolidation of the opposition. But this means Hungary’s opposition parties need to forget about deals being made in “smoky backrooms.”

Source: The Budapest Beacon

Republished with permission

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