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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
Old rivals square up in Hungary
The BBC's Nick Thorpe
By Nick Thorpe
BBC correspondent in Hungary

In the week before a former leader of Hungary's Young Communist League becomes the new prime minister, Nick Thorpe detects more than a touch of déjà vu.

The new prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany
The Socialists hope Gyurcsany will win the elections in two years
Kisz is not a rock-band, nor the brand-name of a fashionable clothes store, but simply the initials in Hungarian, of the now extinct Young Communist League.

And one of its former leaders is about to become prime minister.

At only 43, Ferenc Gyurcsany has already been through some interesting ideological loops.

Mr Gyurcsany is a native of the southern Hungarian city of Pecs, otherwise famous for the powerful, symbolic paintings of Tivadar Csontvary and for its giant tobacco factory.

He studied biology at university there in the early 80s, then "upped sticks" for the capital, and a place on the Central Committee.

By then, communism in Hungary was a strange affair, much diluted by pro-market reforms, but still paying lip service to single party rule.

The head of agitation and propaganda, Janos Berecz, had produced a mournful tract called "A lull in Marxism".

And a sociologist, Elemer Hankiss had remarked how, as one travelled from the West into eastern Europe, the streets become drabber, the taps dripped, and the people, well, smelt stronger.

Political youth

The Young Communist League kept itself semi-popular with the nation's youth in those days by spending most of its budget on beer and parties of the non-political variety, but jealously guarded its monopoly as the only permitted nationwide youth organisation.

Victor Orban, leader of Fidesz, the conservative opposition
Viktor Orban's politics are popular with the Hungarian youth
Until that is, the Young Democrats Association, Fidesz, came along.

Viktor Orban, a 24-year-old with a fresh law degree and a winning smile, came to my flat for afternoon tea with his friends in March 1988.

They were angling for publicity for their new association, which planned to challenge the Kisz monopoly.

I made them a strong brew, worthy of my own country's democratic tradition, and duly reported to an unsuspecting world that Kisz had a challenger.

Sixteen years later, Ferenc Gyurcsany is the socialist prime minister, and Viktor Orban is leader of the conservative opposition, still called Fidesz.

The political life of the country has come full circle.

The new premier is too busy to give interviews at the moment, so I have been listening back to a tape of a rather revealing conversation with him, two years ago.

'Good guys'

The Socialists had just narrowly won the general election, and had chosen Peter Medgyessy, a rather colourless banker, as prime minister.

I was making discrete enquiries about where the power really lay in the Hungarian Socialist Party.

And one of the trails led to Ferenc Gyurcsany.

The difference between me and Orban, is that he still believes in revolution
Ferenc Gyurcsany
He had wasted little time since the demise of communism to use his party contacts, and to be fair, his obvious flair, to make a lot of money.

I met him in the smart offices of his investment company, Altus, a stone's throw from parliament.

He spoke frankly about his own ambition for the top job, and about his contemporary and arch-rival Viktor Orban.

"The difference between me and Orban, is that he still believes in revolution," the socialist said about the leader of the conservative party.

In any other country, this would be a bizarre comment in the extreme.

The businessman warmed to his theme: "Orban divides the world into good people and bad, and wants to drive the bad people - the ex-communists - from power.

"But the people do not want revolution any more. They want peace and prosperity," he said.

"And anyway," he added, reassuringly, "we are all good guys now."

The phrase stayed with me, long after the interview ended.

"We are all good guys now" is a perfect slogan for today's re-born Hungarian Socialists.

Young conservatives

The conservatives, led by Viktor Orban, cling to ideas of political morality.

Students hold demonstration in front of the General Bem statue in 1956
In 1956, a multi-party government was formed almost overnight
And they sometimes claim, rather unfairly, the exclusive legacy of the great revolutions of Hungarian history, 1848 and 1956.

While the socialists and liberals embrace globalisation like a new lover - and present themselves as the parties of big business - the conservatives stand, heads bowed by the graves of their ancestors, vowing loyalty to the nation.

Idealist as always, the majority of the country's youth, the polls suggest, support the conservatives.

While the socialists are worried their voters are aging.

This is borne out most visibly in the sinking circulation of the daily paper closest to the socialists, Nepszava, which means "the word of the people".

The circulation of the mouthpiece of the conservatives, Magyar Nemzet, "The Hungarian nation", has soared since Viktor Orban appealed directly to his supporters to take out a subscription.

The faces at the top may be the same, and the lull in Marxism is certainly continuing, but some things have changed.

The streets are cleaner, the taps do not drip, and the people, well, smell marvellous.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 23 September, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Hungary
31 Aug 04  |  Country profiles


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