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May 25, 2022

A legacy of adversity

The Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) is reading for political change. Veteran Marko Bela will pass on the baton to the man groomed as his successor, Culture Minister Kelemen Hunor, or to presidential adviser Peter Eckstein-Kovacs. The third contender, Olosz Gergely, is credited with far less chances to take over the UDMR leadership.

Kelemen is the frontrunner, and naturally so, given Marko’s support. More than a decade and a half of uninterrupted leadership gives the current vice premier almost complete control over the grouping. Nonetheless, aware of the confines of too long a leadership, the UDMR president showed the strength to retire before his position was undermined. Aside from the erosion created by being the party’s leader for 17 years, a member of several governments, in some of which he held the position of deputy premier, and slaloming through the most unlikely alliances, Marko Bela had to face some steadfast challenges too, the first and foremost of which was the leader competition which pitted him against Laszlo Tokes, ended in the latter giving up the honorary president position at the congress in 2003.

Tokes founded the Magyar National Council in Transylvania (CNMT), whose concurrent political actions acted as a pressure factor on UDMR, of which Szekler autonomy plans, originated by the Szekler National Council, an opposite organization, and Tokes standing as an independent candidate in European parliamentary elections, with a very high score. A consensus was however reached which led to Tokes and a few of his close political partners being put on the UDMR lists in 2008. However, the political competition carried on. Laszlo Tokes, who has become one of the vice-presidents of the European Parliament with Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban’s help, is seriously contemplating setting up a new, popular style party. The latest political scandal his name was linked to refers to accusations by some UDMR leaders that the consultancy offices set up by CNMT, of which he is president, for the Magyar Romanians willing to obtain Hungarian citizenship, under a law passed by the Parliament in Budapest this year, also seek to collect signature for Tokes’s new party. The offices concerned, bearing the unassuming name “centres for democracy”, receiving financing from the Hungarian government makes the issue even more contentious.

A second anti-Marko front, of some Hungarian political leaders, is therefore at stake here too. Although UDMR declared itself being a rightist organization (in name at least, given its affiliation to the European People’s Party (EPP), despite its ideological factions, which make the proportion of the majority to be rather low) the Marko-led team got along much better with the Hungarian socialists than Orban’s populars. This would explain not only Premier Orban’s wish to see Tokes growing more influent than an UDMR president, but also insisting for this grouping to assume its rightist popular identity more steadfastly than it has done so far. Towards this end, he “advises” UDMR, through one of his deputy premiers, to remain in an alliance with “popular” democrat-liberals. It is not so much the identity of a popular policy that’s at stake here, but rather a greater convergence of UDMR’s political options with the strategy of the government in Budapest. Actually, UDMR has made some deep inroads in the Romanian politics of the past 15 years, contributing decidedly to soothing ethnic tensions in Transylvania. This would have most likely not been the case had it followed the more challenging line of the Orban’S FIDESZ Party.

These two difficult relationships, with Tokes and Orban, will be the legacy passed on to the next president of the UDMR. The two main candidates are unlikely to drastically change the course followed so far in that respect. Tokes and Orban are factors of political pressure that compel UDMR leaders to reply in a competition of political rhetoric. “Autonomy” remains at the heart of the political discourse of Magyars in Romania, with a major contribution from those contesting the political hegemony of the UDMR. Marko has placed his bet on the legitimacy offered by concrete political results. His latest achievement is the education law stipulating that ethnic minorities can learn History and Geography in their native language, a provision hard to imagine a decade ago. A small step, when looked at from outside, yet greatly symbolic after the heated polemics in the ‘90s. However, such strategy relies on the need for more “achievements”. Minorities’ law and that on reconfiguration of development regions are still on the list of the goals waiting to be achieved. Taking advantage of the very frail governing coalition, UDMR would like to see them taking shape by the end of this parliamentary legislature. While this may be but an exercise in rhetoric, no UDMR leader could discard the issue of territorial autonomy. Peter Eckstein-Kovacs, a self-professed Liberal that has almost always been alien to radical rhetoric, built his internal electoral campaign on the need for a Szekler autonomy project. However, it’s yet to be seen whether the alternative project of a Szekler-suited development region would prove a solution more readily accepted by the Romanian political class.

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