Hungarian liberals and conservatives together?

Hungarian analysts don't quite know what to make of the intense negotiations that have been taking place lately between MDF and SZDSZ, whose official name nowadays seems to be "SZDSZ, A magyar liberális párt." I'm not at all surprised about the puzzlement over these negotiations because these two parties were arch enemies in the past. After all, one is/was proudly conservative while the other is/was a very liberal organization. Mind you, both parties have moved away from their original ideologies. MDF picked a man as their European Parliament member, Lajos Bokros, whose ideas on the economy are labelled as liberal and who was once a card carrying member of MSZP. Moreover, in 1995 he was the socialist Gyula Horn's choice for minister of finance. And if MDF made it clear that the party wanted absolutely nothing to do with the liberals they were equally adamant about their absolute rejection of the socialists.

MDF's changing political strategy became apparent when they picked Bokros to head their EP list. The MDF top leadership that had suffered quite a few setbacks even before Bokros's appearance on the scene was shrinking with every new move of Ibolya Dávid and Károly Herényi, her most faithful follower. First, there were those who felt that MDF should make some kind of deal with Fidesz because otherwise they have no chance of survival. When Bokros was chosen, another two or three in the top echelon left the party. People both inside and outside of MDF simply didn't know what to make of an EP list where Lajos Bokros was followed by George Habsburg. (I might mention here that if MDF gets enough votes to be represented in the Hungarian parliament then George Habsburg will most likely be MDF's delegate in Brussels.)

The eminence grise is or rather was Zoltán Somogyi, until recently a political commentator and co-owner of a successful political consulting firm, Political Capital. Apparently, it was his idea to solicit Bokros as MDF's candidate for the EP job. Somogyi has now retired from active participation in the firm and is devoting himself completely to conducting the affairs of MDF. According to the latest news Somogyi will be the party's campaign manager.

It is almost certain that it was Somogyi's idea for MDF to shift toward the center and get together with Attila Retkes's "new" SZDSZ. This "new" SZDSZ was also changing its position on the political spectrum. Retkes and some others in the party felt that SZDSZ was not successful because it neglected the "national issue" and was concentrating on questions that are not popular among Hungarians.  After all, they argued, raising their voice in defense of homosexuals, Gypsies, and women and against anti-Semitism does't bring in a lot of votes. On the contrary.

So while MDF was moving to the left, Retkes's SZDSZ was moving toward the right. It's no wonder that eventually they met. One might question the wisdom of two parties getting together whose individual popularity is very low at the moment. According to Szonda Ipsos MDF stands at 2% and SZDSZ at 1%. But one must keep in mind that MDF traditionally does much better than the public opinion polls indicate. SZDSZ, though currently in bad shape, might still have considerable strength in Budapest where MDF normally does rather poorly. Just last night it seems that an agreement was reached between the two parties on the Budapest list that would be headed by a joint candidate while the rest would be divied up between the two parties. The problem is that their first choice for the top spot, András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to Washington, turned the job down.

Before the negotiations with SZDSZ, MDF began recruiting old, disaffected MDF members from twenty years ago. The first name that cropped up was József Debreczeni who ever since 2003 has been the greatest critic of Viktor Orbán and his party. He is the one who predicts that if Fidesz manages to get two-thirds of the seats Hungarian democracy will be a thing of the past. Dávid, perhaps again on the advice of Somogyi, recruited two other people, Gábor Roszik and Tamás Katona. Having these two and Debreczeni next to one other on an MDF list is jarring. Katona and Roszik announced in a television interview that a coalition with Fidesz was imaginable as far as they were concerned. No wonder, by the way, that Katona feels that way. After all, it was during the Orbán government that he was named ambassador to Poland against the wishes of the majority of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations. But he became ambassador anyway. Hard to imagine these three people together in the same parliamentary caucus. And all analysts say that a political party can be successful in parliament only if there is absolute unity. This list as it is shaping up doesn't look too promising as far as unity is concerned.

A few people simply don't trust Ibolya Dávid and call attention to the fact that she was an important cabinet member in the Orbán government and as such was a faithful follower of the Orbán program. I for one don't consider that a great sin because after all there was a coalition agreement which she had to support. What is perhaps less understandable is that after four years of coalition MDF ran together with Fidesz again in 2002. Of course, we don't know whether Dávid made that decision against her own better judgment in the face of the rather large majority of the MDF caucus already committed to Fidesz.

Somogyi is certain that this Democratic Center, formed as a result of some kind of understanding between MDF and the new SZDSZ, will get at least 8-10% of the votes in April at the national elections. Somogyi's guesses until now have been quite accurate.