On June 19 MSZP held an extraordinary congress that was called together to discuss Ferenc Gyurcsány's challenge to the current leadership. The former prime minister became worried about MSZP's inability to recapture even a fraction of its former supporters. There is a hard core of MSZP voters who support the party no matter what, and that number is about 1 million. The problem is that in order to win a national election a party needs at least 2.5 million votes. Since the election Fidesz has lost at least 800,000 of those who voted for the party last April, but Fidesz's loss hasn't become MSZP's gain. Those who abandoned Fidesz mostly ended up in the ever-growing camp of undecided voters. By now the number of undecided voters is higher than the still Fidesz faithful.
The present MSZP leadership is trying to explain its inability to change the results of the opinion polls that show MSZP stagnating after its resounding defeat. They argue that it takes a long time to change public perception of a party that lost an election so badly. Ferenc Gyurcsány, on the other hand, thinks that the party as it is currently structured can't meet the challenges of the present political situation. The old leadership is on automatic pilot and although the leaders talk a lot about "renewal," they are doing nothing to change the structure and the personnel of the party. He suggested a country-wide vote by the party membership on some fundamental questions concerning current party practices. For example, the party leader is chosen indirectly. Gyurcsány would like to have a general referendum on the person of the party chairman.
Oh, yes, the party membership. That is a bone of contention. It turned out that the well-organized MSZP–"well organized" is meant in jest–has no idea how many members the party actually has. Officially, the number is a little shy of 32,000, but according to the State Auditing Office the number is closer to 19,000. Their estimate is based on dues received. Even leading party members admit that their rolls are not entirely up to date; for instance, some elderly members may no longer be among the living. Other members simply disappeared, but their names are still on the books.
Why is it important how many members MSZP has? Because for the vote that Gyurcsány was advocating to take place, these numbers were of vital importance. According to party rules an all-party vote is valid only if at least 25% of the members vote the same way.
Immediately after the close of the extraordinary congress it wasn't at all clear whether there would be such a referendum. The party leadership didn't try to block the proposal, but they suggested to Gyurcsány and his followers that they give up the idea of a referendum for the sake of unity. The steering committee of Ferenc Gyurcsány's Democratic Coalition, one of the platforms of MSZP, spent four solid hours deciding what to do. The next morning Gyurcsány announced on Facebook that they "will not back down." They decided to go ahead with the vote and see what happens. Gyurcsány was not at all hopeful. He thought that even if the majority of those who take part in the referendum vote for his proposals it was unlikely that there would be a minimum of 7,822–25% of the total–who would vote for his proposals.
The voting took place between June 22 and June 28 at 190 polling stations. Zsolt Molnár, organizational director of the party, estimated after the polling stations closed at 8 p.m. on the 28th that approximately 8,000 people had voted, which means only one-quarter of the total membership cast a vote, and all these people would have had to vote for Gyurcsány's platform for the results to be valid. And surely, was the implication, this was highly improbable.
Gyurcsány immediately responded. He was certain that the majority of those who took part in the referendum voted for his proposals. He made a distinction between active and passive party members and came to the conclusion that more than half of those who actively participate in party affairs voted for his proposals. "Those who don't understand this message are blind and/or deaf." The Democratic Coalition, on the other hand, "understands that so many people want change in MSZP that the party will have to act accordingly."
A couple of days later it turned out that 9,206 people had voted and about 80% of them voted for Gyurcsány's proposals. At this point Attila Mesterházy announced that "irrespective of the validity of the referendum in terms of party legality" they will take the results into consideration. The Democratic Coalition wanted more. They insisted that the official membership figures are inaccurate and asked for a postponement of the announcement of the results until there is a nationwide reassessment of the actual party membership. Gyurcsány made it clear that the leadership of the Democratic Coalition considers the results both valid and successful given their reckoning of the actual membership.
The current MSZP leadership didn't go so far as to withhold the final word on the validity of the referendum, but the results certainly made them pause. The "yes" votes were between 7,156 and 7,475 while the "no" votes were between 1,503 and 1,879, depending on the question. Since, if the official number is taken at face value, 7,822 votes would have sufficed for the results to be valid, the difference was only a few hundred votes. The MSZP leadership simply couldn't ignore such solid support for the reforms advocated by Gyurcsány. Even Tibor Szanyi, an arch-enemy of Gyurcsány, said that they mustn't "play with numbers" because those who expressed their opinion on the matter are "such a large mass" that they cannot be ignored.
Mesterházy announced yesterday that although formally the results of the referendum are not legally binding, they look upon them as if they were valid and successful. Therefore, they will change the by-laws which will be voted on at the next party congress on November 12-13. So, Gyurcsány won.
By the way, during the referendum it was discovered that the party membership has decreased by at least 1,000 people already. Oh, well! It is high time to reorganize a party whose the top brass has no idea how many members the party actually has.