Rebuilding Hungary’s Green Politics
Hungary has a rich tradition of environmental activism, from the anti-dam campaigns of the 1980s to the nature conservation efforts of the post-Communist period. It has also seen the rise and fall of a number of Green parties, including the most recent, Politics Can Be Different (LMP).
In the run-up to the most recent parliamentary elections, LMP split. One part entered an electoral alliance with the Socialist Party to fight against the ruling party Fidesz. This group called itself Dialogue for Hungary. The other half kept the name LMP and vowed to maintain its independence. The electoral alliance anchored by the Socialist Party managed only a little more than 25 percent in the election, which Fidesz won in a landslide, and Dialogue for Hungary secured only one parliamentary seat. LMP squeaked into parliament by breaking the 5 percent barrier and saw its representation drop to five seats.
Javor Benedek has been at the center of all three of these stages in the development of Hungarian environmental politics. He was part of the rebirth of the environmental NGO movement with the creation of Vedegylet in 2000. He was one of the founders of LMP. And he led the breakaway faction Dialogue for Hungary.
Although LMP’s initial success was exhilarating for Benedek, he found the experience in parliament quite frustrating.
“When we arrived in parliament, we thought we needed to end the cold war in Hungarian politics in which the political parties fight against each other with any tools they can,” he told me in an interview in May 2013 at the Hungarian parliament. “We were going to concentrate on professional questions. If the government supported something we wanted, even if we were in the opposition we would support it as well. We started our activity like that. But after a short time, we realized that it didn’t work like that. Politics in Hungary had irreversibly changed with Fidesz coming to power. No one was interested in our great proposals and amendments. Parliament is theater. There are no real debates on the content of the legislation. The parliament simply decides it’s not interested in our proposals. The majority pushes through their own legislation, and they don’t ask anyone, not the opposition or the trade unions or anyone. Also, they modified the parliamentary rules so right now they can introduce a bill on Sunday afternoon and pass it on Monday evening. So, you can imagine what kind of debates we have in parliament!”
This experience informed his decision to form the electoral alliance with the Socialist Party and the former Socialist prime minister Gordon Bajnai. For Benedek, it was not a question of supporting the Socialists or opposing Viktor Orban of Fidesz. It was whether LMP should act like a political party or an NGO.
“Of course critics ask whether it is credible Green politics if we cooperate with the former prime minister, and they make a list of all the decisions that Bajnai made when in office,” he told me. “The critics say that we are betraying the original Green mission. These are normal political debates. When the Finnish Green Party joined the six-party government coalition, they had to make a decision whether to accept the new nuclear reactors. They decided to join the coalition even though the government supported the new nuclear blocks. It was an extremely difficult decision for them and, looking back, they think they made a bad decision. But this is politics! The real debate between LMP and us is not over whether to challenge Orban or not — or cooperate with Bajnai or not. It’s whether to behave like a political party or like an NGO. To remain alone and not cooperate with anyone and say that we are not wiling to make any compromises – that’s heroic. But that’s what an NGO does, not a political party. What we are doing is politics, with all its difficult decisions and risks.”
Do you remember when you first heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall and what you thought about it?
I don’t remember the moment when it happened. I guess it was the evening of November 9, 1989. It was a step in a long process that began before that in Hungary. For me, the most remarkable moment of the transition period was the reburial of the former prime minister Imre Nagy on June 16,1989. I participated in the event with my family. I was 17. We went to Heroes’ Square along with 150,000 other people. It was truly impressive. It also proved to me that the changes had not only started but reached a point of no return.
A couple months before, on National Day, which is March 15, there was a big demonstration in Budapest. At that time, I didn’t participate in the event because I was in secondary school. I went to a boarding school in the countryside so I was not in Budapest. But we followed those events on TV. I remember the strange feeling I had that something important and joyful was happening, but it was also kind of stressful: was this true, could it really happen in Hungary? My literature teacher at secondary school participated in the event in Budapest and came back and told everyone what happened. It was something surprising and exciting.
But by the reburial of the former prime minister, this feeling had changed. At that time, as I remember it 24 years later, I had the feeling that this was real and this was happening. It was something final.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was an important event. But also important were the big demonstrations in Prague, which Hungarians followed closely on TV. The big demonstrations in Leipzig were also constantly on our mind, and we followed those events on TV as well. So, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a big event, but it was just part of a long process.
The last final and personal memory was in the summer of 1990. I was in Berlin. It was after the fall of the Wall. But the Wall still existed, more or less entirely. It was like a skeleton. It ran across the city and divided it into two independent cities that were completely open to one another. Checkpoint Charlie was not yet a museum. It was still a real thing.
People have told me that the most memorable part of the reburial of Imre Nagy was the speech by Viktor Orban. Were you affected by that speech at that time?
This is also a general question in Hungary, whether you remember the speech of Orban, what did you think about it then, and what do you think about it now. I remember that it was an impressive speech, and I was sure that it was an important historical speech. At that time, I had quite radical political views (and I hope I still do have some radical views). I agreed with Fidesz, which was a very open-minded liberal party at that time. But Viktor Orban as a personality didn’t impress me at all. I had bad feelings about him. I’m not saying that, looking back, I realized that something was not okay with the guy. But really, I remember the strange feeling that I agreed with the speech and it was a brave speech, but the personality behind it gave the impression of something aggressive. You are more likely to accept aggression if you agree with the goal. But still I had a bad feeling that this guy knows what he wants and he’ll achieve it, regardless of the opinions and views of others.
You said that your views at that time were radical. How would you characterize those views?
I was not an extreme leftist, Marxist revolutionary, Red Brigades activist! I was radical in the sense of the politics of Hungary in the 1990s, which means that I truly believed in democracy and liberal values. I agreed with Fidesz in criticizing the existing socialist structures and politics. But I also opposed the recreation of the interwar traditional conservative feudalistic Hungarian social structure. I deeply believed in a modern political and social community that was liberal and free. I believed that this could be the Hungary of the future.
Did the events of 1989 shift your trajectory in life? Did those changes make a change in your own future plans?
Of course. I don’t think there was an individual citizen in Hungary who didn’t change his or her life after the transition, for better or worse. If there hadn’t been a change in 1989, I wouldn’t be a parliament member right now. Many possibilities I had in life would have been lost. That includes simple things like when I spent several months in Brussels and Paris after my university years. This freedom of travel was something completely unimaginable during the socialist era. Also having contacts with European organizations, political bodies, friends — everything was completely different. I don’t know what would have happened if there had been no transition in 1989. But it happened.
Did you have particularly plans when you were 17?
Yes, of course. From the age of three I was interested in biology and animals. I decided to go to university to study biology. My childhood dreams were about working as a game warden in a national park in Africa. That hasn’t happened yet, but life is long, so I might still have the opportunity. At university, I studied ecology, and I have my PhD in ecology. That’s how I later joined the Green movement in Hungary. I started out in NGOs. I was one of the founders of a Green NGO in 2000, and I worked there until 2008. That’s how finally I found myself in a political party and in the Hungarian parliament.
Which NGO was this?
Vedegylet. In English we translated it as “Protect the Future.” It was a new Green NGO. We intended to create something different from the general Green movement in Hungary. We thought the Green movement at that time was too focused on particularly issues, like energy policy or waste management, or they were small local organizations, all of which is very important. But still we thought there was a need for a new type of Green NGO that represents a wider Green view of world affairs, including critical views on globalization, social issues like education, and international development issues. We wanted to represent these values and these interests in decision-making and through the media.
We campaigned to create a new position for an ombudsman for future generations. After seven years we were successful. By 2007, the Hungarian parliament had accepted our proposal. And four years later the Orban government closed down the institution. That’s a personal reason to fight the Orban government.
Also in 2005, we proposed Laszlo Solyom to be president of Hungary. Mr. Solyom was one of the big figures in the Green movement. He was in the Danube movement in the 1980s, and later he was head of the constitutional court. At that time the constitutional court was very active on environmental issues, and we thought that he could represent the Green values that we believe in. As a Green NGO, we wanted to try hacking into big politics by proposing someone as president. For different reasons involving political party decisions, we succeeded. The parliament elected Mr. Solyom the president of Hungary, and he spent five years in that position. Even though there are some criticisms of his period as president, he was one of the remarkable figures of post-transition Hungarian politics. It was a very important presidency.
I interviewed a number of people in environmental NGOs when I was here in 1990, including the Danube movement. At that time the environmental movement here was on a high. It had success in blocking the Nagymaros dam. It was popular. But then it seemed to go into decline between that time and when you founded Vedegylet in 2000. Why did that happen?
We’ve discussed this a lot with our colleagues and friends. What was Green activism before the transition was the Danube movement. There wasn’t really much other than a few other activities. Also, the registered Green activities at that time were not only Green activities. They were a way of expressing the voice of illegal opposition in Hungary in the 1980s. The Danube movement was partly an environmental movement. But partly it was full of people who wouldn’t join a Green movement right now and were members of the Danube movement because it was against the socialist system. That’s why it was able to mobilize so many people and be so important in those transition years.
After the first free elections, a lot of people from the Danube movement went into different political parties and entered parliament. They started playing political games, and environmental issues slowly, step by step, fell on the priority lists of these people and their parties. At the beginning of the 1990s, with the Danube movement behind us and the transition ahead of us, a lot of people thought that Hungary would have a Green future with very strong green NGOs. This belief generated a lot of activities. There was also a lot of effort to found Green parties. By the middle of the decade, some disillusionment set in. People realized that a lot of former Green activists were not Green any more because they’d become party politicians in parliament. Green NGOs couldn’t achieve many things. Green parties were unsuccessful, partly because of personal fights inside the parties, partly because the existing mainstream parties attracted successful Green politicians. There was a low tide by 1995 or 1996, even though by that time, the parliament had passed a number of important laws, including the Environmental Act, the Nature Conservation Act, the Forestry Act, and the Hunting Act. These laws had been passed in a climate in which Hungary and Hungarian intellectuals believed that the environment was important. In the last 10 years, none of the Hungarian parliaments would have accepted any of the environmental acts passed in 1995. They were quite a strong set of laws.
By the millennium, even the mainstream parties had lost all their Green politicians. But also around this time, the Hungarian Green movement had built up relationships with international movements that had come together around events at the international level — Seattle, Prague, Genoa. This critical globalization movement came to Hungary as well and gave some momentum to the Green movement. This was really one of the best periods of the Hungarian Green movement, between 1999 and 2006, and I’m not just saying that because this period coincided with my involvement in NGOs. It happened in parallel with the boom in the international anti-globalization movement and with the rise of Green parties throughout Europe. It was quite a hopeful period of time. After 2005-6, the Hungarian Green movement declined a bit for several years. The government pushed back against Green activity by saying, for instance, that it was a barrier to investment. That happens all over the world. Finally, the new government after 2010 just killed the Green movement.
Were there particular targets when you created the movement in 2010 related to the impact of globalization in Hungary, for instance trade treaties or particular corporations?
Yes, of course, we included in our program most of the goals of the international anti-globalization movement, including critiquing free trade agreements, such as GATS, and organizations such as the GATT and the WTO. This whole free trade question was in the middle of our activity, particularly the privatization of public services, like the water supply and electricity. The whole electricity sector was being privatized at that time. We also followed the events on the international level, like the water privatization in Bolivia with the Cochabamba case, or the privatization in the UK, which produced the first big failures of privatization such as accidents on the UK railroad system.
Another important issue was agriculture and land. At that time, Hungary was still not a member of the EU. After joining the EU, Hungary had seven years not to open the land market to foreign investors. But everybody knew that this would happen at some point and we should prepare ourselves for it. We wanted to save the countryside and preserve equal possibilities for Hungarian citizens. Also there was the GMO question, which goes back to the WTO theme. We were looking at international trade not only from point of view of Hungary but also how the Global South suffers from international investment and free trade. We initiated the fair trade movement in Hungary, creating the first fair trade shops. Of course we had lots of local issues, like nature conservation, forestry, water management, and industrial versus sustainable agriculture.
There was very strong anti-GMO legislation passed here in Hungary. Were you involved in that as well?
In Hungary, there was no GMO regulation at that time and no GMOs. Hungary fought for years to exclude GMOS from Hungary. The EU, partly because of U.S. and WTO pressure, wanted to introduce some GMOs on the European market. For years, Hungary fought intensively to keep the country GMO-free. At that time, the debate centered around MON 810 corn, which was permitted in the EU and which Monsanto wanted to introduce to the Hungarian market. For years we were able to keep this moratorium. Later on, the Amflora potato type joined this issue. Still Hungary was able to keep the country free from GMO. But there was a fear that after a while the EU would reject our moratorium. In 2005 or 2006, they accepted our GMO act, which was not very strong since it allowed the production of GMO crops under certain circumstances. But basically this law was never used because there were no permitted GM organisms under cultivation. Finally, the new parliament after 2010 accepted a new constitution, which declared Hungary GMO-free. There have been some debates over whether it fits the new European regulations. But so far the EU hasn’t criticized this point in the constitution. So, the GMO Act still exists, but as long as the constitution is valid, it’s a senseless regulation.
Describe to me your decision to enter politics.
We started our NGO Vedegylet in 2000 with the intention of creating something new and different from what environmental NGOs were doing at that time. It was more publicly active, not just for the small Green community but for the wider public. We presented the Green agenda as a complex and complete program for restructuring our society. And that’s a political act par excellence, even though it was carried out within the frame of an NGO. At the very beginning, the question emerged whether working in an NGO was the best way to represent the Green program and values. There was a lot of discussion about whether Hungarian society was ready to support a Green party and send it to parliament. There was an existing Green party that was a member of the European Green Party network, but it was completely unsuccessful in any elections. So there were a lot of questions to answer before organizing a Green party. But the whole time it was in our mind.
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a politician. But I thought that these Green values needed political representation and I had a responsibility to create this representation. For years, I thought I’d work a lot on these issues but I wouldn’t be a politician. Once our party made it into the parliament, I could step back and stay in the NGO movement. But after a while, we realized it was not like that. There were no other people to become Green politicians. It’s not like we could create the party and someone else would come by to become our politicians. We had to do it ourselves. We had to be the politicians.
We had a joke that we were always starting to create a Green party in every odd year. This started in 2003 when I wrote an article in one of the leading Hungarian magazines about the possibility of a political representation of the Green movement. As a consequence of this article, the Greens sat down at the table to discuss this possibility, but after a couple months it fell apart. Then in 2005, there was a quite intensive initiative to create a Green party, but after a while most of the Green movement, including myself, didn’t participate in creating that party because it wasn’t sufficiently well prepared. The 2006 elections were too close, and it was impossible to organize it by the elections. We were also not sure if it represented the Green values we believed in. It started from Vedegylet, since one of the founding members of our NGO, Andras Lanyi, started that party. In the elections of 2006, it was not successful. It couldn’t field more than four candidates. At that time you had to collect 750 recommendation slips from the citizens for each candidate, and they were not able to collect those. So, it was a complete failure.
After 2006, there was quite an intensive political period with the “lies speech” of Prime Minister Gyurcsany, the aggressive events in autumn 2006, the siege of national television, and the angry confrontation on October 23 between demonstrators and police. It was not the optimal political climate to found a new Green party.
But finally in 2007, we sat down — 15 of the leading Green thinkers and activists — to decide if ever in our lifetime we would make a Green party in Hungary or not. We were tired of starting this debate again and again. Finally, we decided to try. The political situation in Hungary had changed deeply. We thought that Hungarian society was experiencing a political crisis that helped new political forces to step on the stage. We realized also that the Green movement had changed. Before, the Green NGOs tried to be as far from politics as possible. By 2007, they realized that if they stayed alienated from politics then politics would kill them. So they had to act. They were much more open to creating a Green party that could represent their values in politics than they were two years before.
We started our party Politics Can Be Different (LMP) in 2007 with the understanding — and this was something I wrote in my article in 2003 – that the Hungarian election system made it more or less impossible to create a new party that could step in into parliament. The electoral rules were extremely difficult, and a new party needed a lot of financial support. The problem was that a new Green party didn’t have these resources. But there was one exception, and this was the European parliament elections. For these elections you didn’t need 176 candidates in 176 constituencies each collecting 750 recommendation slips with all the necessary money to achieve this. For the European elections, you needed only a list of 24 candidates at that time, with 20,000 signatures from citizens supporting this list.
We decided that this was the small gate through which we could enter politics. We prepared for the European elections. We successfully collected the 20,000 signatures. In the elections, we got 2.6 percent. This 2.6 percent was not a bad result, taking into consideration that the Liberal Party, which had been in parliament for 20 years, reached only 2.2 percent. It gave our party momentum. It was like when they send a spaceship into the cosmos, they use a Jupiter booster rocket. We regarded the European elections as our booster rocket. It gave us media coverage. A lot of people joined us. We were able to get some funding. It strengthened our belief that we could do this.
We decide to participate in the 2010 elections, even though everyone thought it was impossible. All the analysts wrote down the “golden rule” of Hungarian politics: that there are no new parties in Hungarian politics. And our party, LMP, was regarded as something ridiculous. They were all sure that it would be unsuccessful. Finally, however, we were able to arrive at a turning point just a couple weeks before the elections when we were able to change public opinion. After that point, a lot of people looking for something different decided that LMP could be that, and they believed that we could get into Parliament. We got 7.5 percent of the vote, which is not bad compared to other European Green parties. That gave us a parliamentary group of 16 and allowed us to participate in Hungarian politics for the last three years. But our party ultimately exploded because we could not agree on the real nature of the Fidesz government, the importance of changing the government, and how to do it.
Fidesz has a parliamentary supermajority, so were you able to achieve any of your Green goals?
If I remember well, my last amendment proposal passed in parliament in December 2011. It was an amendment to the state budget, which gave more money to national parks and environmental authorities. It survived for almost one-and-a-half months, because in January 2012 the government changed the budget and cut back on the national parks. Before that I had a proposal to assure the rights of NGOs to participate in creating the management plans for World Heritage sites, and that’s still in place. So, more or less, these are the successes of the last three years.
When we arrived in parliament, we thought we needed to end the cold war in Hungarian politics in which the political parties fight against each other with any tools they can. We were going to concentrate on professional questions. If the government supported something we wanted, even if we were in the opposition we would support it as well. We started our activity like that. But after a short time, we realized that it didn’t work like that. Politics in Hungary had irreversibly changed with Fidesz coming to power. No one was interested in our great proposals and amendments. Parliament is theater. There are no real debates on the content of the legislation. The parliament simply decides it’s not interested in our proposals. The majority pushes through their own legislation, and they don’t ask anyone, not the opposition or the trade unions or anyone. Also, they modified the parliamentary rules so right now they can introduce a bill on Sunday afternoon and pass it on Monday evening. So, you can imagine what kind of debates we have in parliament!
Everyone tells me that the split spells the end of LMP.
I think what LMP represents — and I left the party — is the end of the road. At this point in Hungary, you can’t behave like you don’t have an opinion about changing this government or how it should be done. The citizens are not interested in a few people who say that they are against the Orban government and also critical of the Socialist Party. Of course I am critical of the Socialist Party, but either you want to change this government or you don’t. I plan to cooperate with the Socialist Party to change the current government and then participate in decision-making in order to present what I believe in.
We created a new party, Dialogue for Hungary (PM), which created an electoral alliance with the movement of Together for 2014, led by former prime minister Gordon Bajnai. But keep in mind that we didn’t join Together for 2014. We created an electoral alliance. PM is an individual party, and we plan to have a separate parliamentary group after the elections to represent Green politics. What LMP decided to do is the end of the representation of Green politics in the Hungarian parliament. Even if I don’t see things from the point of view of changing this government but also from the point of view of Green politics, I think what LMP is doing is – in a deeper sense – absolutely unsuccessful.
Of course critics ask whether it is credible Green politics if we cooperate with the former prime minister, and they make a list of all the decisions that Bajnai made when in office. The critics say that we are betraying the original Green mission. These are normal political debates. When the Finnish Green Party joined the six-party government coalition, they had to make a decision whether to accept the new nuclear reactors. They decided to join the coalition even though the government supported the new nuclear blocks. It was an extremely difficult decision for them and, looking back, they think they made a bad decision. But this is politics! The real debate between LMP and us is not over whether to challenge Orban or not — or cooperate with Bajnai or not. It’s whether to behave like a political party or like an NGO. To remain alone and not cooperate with anyone and say that we are not wiling to make any compromises – that’s heroic. But that’s what an NGO does, not a political party. What we are doing is politics, with all its difficult decisions and risks.
Why didn’t you call your new party Green something?
I was pushing us to call it Dialogue for Hungary – Greens, or something like that. There was a debate about whether a party named Green could attract enough voters in Hungary. The word “Green” is heavily connected to small local environmental causes. Most people don’t understand that Green is not just about protecting flowers. It’s a vision of the world. Still, I wanted to call my party a Green party. Perhaps, after the elections at the latest, we will include the word Green in our title if we want to represent environmental issues here in Hungary.
Do you think you have a chance, the coalition as a whole, to win in the elections?
If I didn’t, I would go home and play with my kid instead of spending my time with crazy debates in parliament and having meetings with our political partners. Of course I believe this! If you are interested in a number, I think we have a 40 percent change of winning the election. If you have such a chance, then you have to fight. You can’t give up. You fight for that 40 percent.
The last three questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not in Hungary, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
If I look back to my illusions at that time, I would give a 3.
Same period, same scale: your own personal life?
Well, I’m a happy man. I have a family. I have exciting work that of course sometimes pushes me into complete disillusionment and hopeless feelings. But I achieved much more than I ever thought I would. So, 8.
Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for the country on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
It depends on the election results. If the Fidesz government stays in power, I think it’s over and this country just lost the 21st century. In this case, I would say 2.5.
Budapest, May 14, 2013