Activist Márton Gulyás on restoring parliamentary democracy in Hungary

April 23, 2017

“It is terribly important that our democracy finally begin to work in a parliamentary manner.” – Márton Gulyás, activist

Translation of Szilárd Teczár’s interview with activist Márton Gulyás appearing in the April 20th, 2017 edition of Magyar Narancs under the title “It can be done.”

The distorting electoral law is the basic problem of the Orbán system. Changing this would be the first step to restoring parliamentary democracy, says Márton Gulyás who is launching a new movement, who we also asked about the possible petering out of the current wave of demonstrations.

What are the most important lessons for you of the past two weeks to the historians of Budapest?

It turned out that Fidesz is far more disorganized and unprepared than we thought. It is not just that they don’t have a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the dissatisfaction that is quasi-independent of them, they don’t even know how to foist their programs on society.  We talk a lot about the opposition’s lack of organization, whereas Fidesz is no better off.  Their only advantage is the infinite amount of resources which makes it possible for them to make as many mistakes as they want, because it appears they always have the opportunity to make corrections.

This means that you believe that the government assessed the possible reaction in the CEU affair?

I would even say that they assessed what actions to take at the beginning of the protestors in order to intimidate demonstrators. No matter what they did, it only incentivized willingness to participate. For the past days the Prime Minister has been giving interviews to the party propaganda media practically daily. These make unequivocal the government’s retrograde and aggressive character, while it is clear that it upsets him to let go even for a day the reigns he has not been able to hold tightly for weeks.

Why was it the CEU affair that triggered this wave of dissatisfaction?  It is possible to think that this question only affects the elite and only directly?

It is the same formula as in the case of the internet tax, although at first it appears to have affected a broader segment.  The net tax demonstrations weren’t just about the planned taxation of data traffic either.  By then huge dissatisfaction had accumulated in a wide segment of society.  It is just that over the course of the three elections in 2014 there wasn’t a political project capable of channeling this. People are terribly frustrated over the fact that in vain did 60 percent of the people want a change in government, Orbán’s two-thirds majority continued.  The internet tax focussed the dissatisfaction, even those it by itself was sufficient cause for protests, but other frustrations could also connect to it wonderfully.  In a similar manner, the CEU affair by itself could be the particular problem of a private university.  Fortunately after seven years of NER (National System of Cooperation-tran.), society realized that this was not about education policy or professional issues, but that the reason the government no longer wanted to see this training place in Hungary had to do with power politics. The CEU affair perfectly echoed the general condition or the country.  People know that if they allow this, they legitimize everything that has been done to them to far, and what will be done afterwards.

Part of the spontaneous demonstrations were organized after your preliminary detention.  Since then you have already spoken at the Saturday protest.  Do you also play a role in its organization?

No, virtually none.  I was a mere participant in my arrest. I did not publicize myself at all. Since 2014, I have deliberately chosen affairs in which to step forward, in part because I would like for as many voices as possible to be heard and I do not want to steal the “show” from anyone. In connection with CEU there was clearly a huge expectation on the part of society.  Here is a matter that brought a lot of people together who really had no idea how to continue.  The reason I threw paint was not only because it is permissible, but also because I thought it necessary to express my opinion this way to show that there are still peaceful, non-violent means at our disposal.  When I started with the plastic bottle (of paint-tran.) I calculated with being brought up on a misdemeanor. That it became such a large affair betrays the government’s infinite retrograde and closeness.

Did you throw in changing the electoral system so that, beyond saving CEU, the protests would be given a concrete objective?

I raised this issue a year ago at the Balatonszárszó conference. The feedback was for the most part that Gulyás has joined the ranks of the cryptocommunists.  Last fall we launched the Common Country Club (Közös Ország Klub) initiative where I expressly talked about how, if we allow the 2018 elections to take place in this system, then we are ensuring ahead of time that Fidesz will remain in power.  I’ve dealt with this for a while.  The plan of the movement was in my head.  I felt that now is the time and I mustn’t wait any longer in order to give a good purpose to the wave of protests. I don’t believe that in doing so I took a slice out or the sail of the CEU affair. The case of the university showed that the monolithic power crowd does not bend to anything.  For this reason we don’t need a new law about CEU, but must do away with the predominance of power in order for Fidesz and the opposition to enter parliament based on actual social support, so that the majority of society that does not want a Fidesz-dominated Hungary can finally have a chance of being represented.

From a practical point of view, how do you imagine this electoral movement?  Relatively little time remains to change the electoral law, and there is no apparent willingness even on the side of the opposition.

The role of the mainstream opposition parties in 2014 was to legitimize the electoral system by contesting elections.  Over the past three years, nothing has made it any more clearer to Hungarian society that Fidesz has the electoral law to thank for its power that turned 40 percent support into over 60 percent of the seats in parliament.  It is not the parties that will achieve what they were incapable of achieving over the past three years.  The majority of society must get behind a more proportional electoral system.  We disagree about many things, but in this the radical rightwingers, conservatives, liberals and leftwing supporters can and must undertake to form a community. As I said in my speech, if there is only one thing I would give to both (Jobbik chair-tran.) Gábor Vona and (DK chairman –tran.) Ferenc Gyurcsány, it is that they receive parliamentary mandates in proportion to the societal support as closely as possible.  From that point on real parliamentary democracy could begin.  I don’t see there being any other road to removing Fidesz from power.

Apart from giving an email address for activists to contact, what will the movement look like?

I have the plan of a campaign in my head through the end of the year.  Our first task is to recruit supporters, and to create a solid and deep knowledge in the community as to why we are campaigning.  The choice of suitable means for applying pressure and disseminating knowledge can follow.

Is the goal for a completely proportional system to come about, or would you be satisfied if the government rescinded the 2013 modifications (winner compensation, manipulation of the electoral district boundaries)?

I believe there are four or five essential components to a proportional electoral system.  But in the movement my recommendation will only be one among the many.  The group will reach conclusions with the involvement of election experts.  There is no one ideal condition.  Electoral systems are always the result of a political match.  The question is who is allowed to compete in this match. Society, political parties, or a single monolithic crowd, Fidesz-KDNP?  We are struggling to bring about a system that enjoys the broadcast social support.  Perhaps it will be more proportional than the system before 2010, but that is not certain.  The point is that it not be one leader who decides, but that we really work out our demands together.  This makes it possible for the proportional election not to be the affair of a few people, but for a large number of people to associate with it.

If a proportional or nearly proportional electoral system comes about, then projecting based on data indicates that either Fidesz or Jobbik would have to be included in a coalition government.  Does this not pose a dilemma?

There are far greater risks than that. For example, a Fidesz-Jobbik coalition, which people obviously do not want.  At the same time, the circle of uncertain voters is very wide because they regard the whole thing as a circus, theatre, or because they don’t have their own party.  I don’t have a party either.  I don’t know who I would gladly vote for.  I am in the habit of being forced to decide such things. The proportional electoral system could liberate energies in society and help launch new parties.  In today’s system a new formation is immediately compelled to enter into negotiations which can only result in the loss of its own character, opportunism, and the abandonment its moral integrity.  It is due to the electoral system that it is only possible to think of representation in absolute terms: only one group needs to gain exclusive domination, and dictate.  This is why politicians fear that various cooperation will destroy their credibility in the eyes of society.  Some air could be admitted to the stench if the parties did not need to adapt, but rather could express their views clearly to the voters.  Once in parliament the could work out what coalition is capable of forming a government.  It is terribly important that our democracy finally begin to work in a parliamentary manner.

How would “solidarity” be received differently if coalitions were formed after the elections rather than before?

There can be an electoral coalition as well.  Except that in 2014 the opposition parties came together not because they thought they could march in substantive, political, and ideological harmony, but because they thought they would bleed to death in the face of Fidesz otherwise.  The system needs to be cleaned up.  It is necessary to make it possible for everybody in their purest form to receive mandates based on their voters.  If there aren200,000 fellow citizens who think Ferenc Gyurcsány’s politics are the best in Hungary, who am I to deny them representation in parliament?  Ferenc Gyurcsány and DK should not enter parliament because it compels other parties through political blackmail to run a joint list, but because it can show up enough supporters who say “Gyurcsány is our leader.”  I will not agree with this, but it is precisely the point of democracy that we are able to express, subscribe to, and fight for different ideas in an institutional setting.

Another important consideration is a bunch of two-thirds majority rules, including the electoral law, that can only be changed if the opposition, even if Jobbik, defeats Fidesz with a two-thirds majority in the current electoral system.  If the democratic system was restored, proportional elections could easily be held.

This is a little like the Grimm tales: I like it, it sounds good, but if I scratch the surface, it turns out it cannot last. It is total phantasmagoria that if parties that cannot agree to cooperate on the basis of Péter Juhász’s “new polus” despite having little choice, that a technical coalition will come about which includes every party from MSZP to Jobbik in the face Fidesz.  Moreover, that would not be fortunate. Let’s assume that MSZP, DK, LMP, Együtt, PM and Momentum are given the change to govern for 300 days.  In that case they might agree that (head prosecutor-tran.) Péter Polt should go and that a new constitution is needed, but obviously they could not name a new head prosecutor or draft a new constitution.  It would only reenforce the distorting, anti-democratic framework if we compelled more into strongly mimicking political actors whose problem today is that they cannot speak openly about themselves.  If those obtaining a majority in a proportional electoral system are prevented from governing by the “hinterland power” left by Fidesz, then let’s see and if the insufficient working is so experienced that voters give a qualified majority in a repeat election.  It is not possible to solve all the systemic problems with one step.  And the real systemic problem is not the current functioning of Péter Polt or the National Bank, but the electoral system which disproportionally supports the crowd that is best organized.

Previously you stated that you consider a boycott of the election to be an acceptable tool.  If you do not succeed in changing the system, then should opposition parties not participate in elections?

It is necessary to continually evaluate with which tools it is possible for society to maintain, strengthen and sharpen pressure the in Fidesz’s direction.  Among these, boycott can also play a role, but we are not there yet at present.  The boycott can be the final, desperate attempt.  It should only be used in a very exceptional social situation. There is much for us to do until then.

Do you have any political ambitions beyond organizing the movement?

I am not contemplating either founding a party or playing a formal political role.  It has been nearly two years since I found the role that for me is acceptable.  I see great potential in my YouTube channel, and organizing the movement can fill a void in the Hungarian political palette.  A party, from an institutional point of view, is the peak product of building, and a huge number of conditions must be fulfilled in order for it not to lose contact with society.

How well did Momentum do this?  How much did they behavior like a true movement before becoming a party?

At the end of 2016 nobody would have thought that obstructing organizing the olympics would be the affair that electrifies people politically, or in the power of a signature. Despite this, Momentum served as an example that it is still possible.  It is important that we not fear to define seemingly unachievable, ambitious goals, like a proportional electoral system, because society will be wiling to support them.

What do you make of Viktor Orbán’s “scratchy palm” interview?

I do not consider Viktor Orbán to be a sovereign actor.  He gives interviews daily in orders to dominate public discourse.   For this increasingly strong statements are needed.  What he says stems neither from social political concepts nor coherent strategy.  It merely follows the command of “ruling the moment.” Orbán is a political actor who improvises from one week to the next.  He long ago lost the urge to offer political truth and vision to the whole of society.

I also asked this question because (Fidesz publicist-tran.) Zsolt Bayer also raised the possibility of controlling the demonstrators more directly.  But Gergő Varga, with whom you took the stage, also said that the people of Pest will drag the government out of parliament if it does not resign.  Would it be dangerous if passions were set free?

There is no question that it would be dangerous. I am not standing on the side of non-violence because I am a good guy, but because violence cannot result in sustainable societal conditions. The Ukrainian, Macedonian and North African revolutions show that it is not possible to impose consensus in a bloody, violence manner which society can consolidate in a sustainable way.  If society resorts to this, that generally gives more repressive powers the possibility to return, and I would not be happy if our oppressor is not called Viktor Orbán but rather Gábor Vona, János Lázár, or anything else. I am not interested in Viktor Orbán being forced out, but rather that the political culture created by Viktor Orbán and company come to an end. I would like for our capacities not to be stolen by such questions as whether the country should be (Fidesz) orange or (MSZP) carnation, but whether there can finally be something between the two.

Is it necessary for the street demonstrations to continue with similar intensity?

Revolutions and intensive social movements do not suddenly come out of nowhere, but are always preceded by long cultural fulfillment.  It is important that these powers be able to measure themselves in terms of political ideology, and for there to be individuals who undertake for there to be justification for their struggle.  A protest cannot be measured with the logic of a single bit whether it toppled the Orbán government, it was successful, if not, then a total failure. With this we have colonized ourselves for nearly seven years!  There is a lot of accumulated knowledge in the current protests from the demonstrations of Mária Sándor, Tanítanék, Zsolt Várady, and Milla. These are never totally lost energies. They always build society’s immune system and knowledge of democracy, and make possible for us to more precisely understand each other and to better cooperate. If by chance the current protests were to peter out a week or a month later, they still won’t have been pointless, because they build common knowledge and that Hungary we wish to create as opposed to Orbán. We mustn’t underestimate this. Nor should we underestimate it because that would serve the interest of the powers that be.