A satirical cartoon that appeared recently on a new, very politically incorrect Hungarian website depicts a short dialogue between party activists. "Who are we?" asks a fictitious supporter. "Eco-social, alternative-globalized, green, left-wing grassroot-democrats!" comes the answer. "And what the hell do we need?" the questioner continues. Reply: "Yet another party!" The party, of course, is the LMP, and to many who followed their recent split, the joke was spot on.
LMP stands for Lehet Más a Politika, or Politics Can Be Different, the Hungarian green-liberal party that surprised many by getting into parliament with their results in the 2010 general elections. A movement built from organizations of the Hungarian left-liberal NGO sector and untainted by the corruption of the era of social-liberal government between 2002 and 2010, LMP made a splash on a weary, old political party system as a colorful company of environmentalists, human rights activists, leftist economists, philosophers and lawyers. The once very influential liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats, or SZDSZ, had collapsed under the weight of inner rivalries and corruption cases during their eight years of coalition with the Socialists, creating an opening for LMP as a safe haven for progressive voters. At least temporarily.
The European Parliamentary elections of 2009 were the real turning point. LMP beat out SZDSZ, taking more of the progressive vote, but both failed to cross the five percent threshold. In the general elections the following year, however, LMP finished with a surprising 7.47 percent and entered parliament as the the only liberal party, seating a group of 16 members in the opposition benches along with the representatives of the badly defeated Socialists and the right-wing, radical Jobbik. The result came as a great success for the newcomers and offered some sense of redemption for the leftist, liberal, progressive outsiders who had grown disillusioned with the stale liberal force, the SZDSZ.
It's no accident that I keep mentioning that now all-but-forgotten, other liberal party, the Free Democrats. The fate of SZDSZ looms large over the LMP. As staunch, anti-communists, they were once the great hope of the early transition years, before they chose in 1994 to enter into coalition with the post-communist elite, forming a two-thirds majority government with the MSZP. The great dissident force became a part of - and sometimes the engine of - the post-communist networks that reached throughout politics, culture and the economy. It proved a troubled path for the SZDSZ, one that eventually drove it to extinction. The LMP faces a similar dilemma, confronted by a similar choice: a path to the mainstream, via the established political networks; or the anti-mainstream road, pursuing the political outsider strategy and image.
The liberal voters, the potential LMP supporters, are part of that dilemma. The SZDSZ may have vanished but its voter base has not. An undetermined number of urban, liberal, intellectual voters remain. Back in the day, they voted SZDSZ, or occasionally MSZP and, once upon a time in the early liberal days, perhaps Fidesz. Behind the surprising 2010 success of the young and still unorganized LMP we find a last-minute decision of orphaned liberal voters, who ultimately put an X next to LMP. It was a sort of leap of faith for many of these voters, putting trust in what was then still an untested political quantity.
LMP met their expectations only partially: the small, parliamentary group worked hard on complex, professional policy papers and parliamentary proposals. From the substance we could see in this work, LMP turned out to be quite a leftist party with a liberal image, standing much closer to the international New Left than to the free market liberals. But such an analysis of their ideological background is conversational fodder for the chattering class. The bigger problem was that LMP failed to articulate a tough, simple message to their public. As a small, intellectual party, they kept their distance from the conservative government (whose ideology is quite at odds with the New Left) and the Socialist opposition, refusing any cooperation out of concern that it would have corroded the very identity of the young party. And, of course, any association with the right-wing radical Jobbik was out of the question.
The small brigade of the LMP found itself in no man's land, somewhere between the old battle lines of Hungarian politics. One can explore that territory while trying to find safe ground but not for long. It’s such a precarious place to be that no one has been able to carve out a space there in Hungarian politics since the fall of communism. For a job like that a party needs smart and tough politicians, and not pensive, ideologist intellectuals. The LMP may have many of the latter, but it lacks real politicians.
The core of this young and inexperienced party has always been divided by these dilemmas, trying to choose between ideology and reality, lovable purity or the political swamp, the chattering class or the masses, fighting to win an election or staying forever outside, forever alone. These dilemmas have now torn the party in two.
In the last days of January, LMP gathered for their annual party congress, where the majority, mostly the grassroots activists, voted against the proposal of those who wanted to cooperate with the Socialists and the Együtt 2014 (Together 2014) opposition movement. The proposal surprised no one, so there was no harsh and open conflict at the congress. However, the losing faction then expressed its intent to leave the LMP and form a new organization called Párbeszéd Magyarországért (Dialogue for Hungary).
It was not clear until the first weekend of February what would become of the party’s parliamentary group. After days of discussion, eight of the MPs who were in favor of cooperation with Együtt 2014 decided to leave the group and work as independent MPs in the parliament. "We want to find a real solution for a change from the Orbán Government," they explained. With their departure, the party no longer has enough MPs to be recognized as a parliamentary group and was dissolved.
One can admire the ideological and ethical persistence of the party leader, András Schiffer, and his remaining loyalists in LMP, or, on the other hand, acknowledge the political pragmatism of the realist splinter group. But voters don’t care about ideological nuances and the inner debates of political newcomers. After all, the splitting of this small party -- which has a support of around 4 or 5 percent of voters – splits also whatever hope once existed for the survival of LMP, this young green-liberal party now wandering lost in the jungle of Hungarian party politics.