Hungarian commentators who follow politics very carefully and whose opinion I trust kept saying all along that cooperation among the diverse opposition groups would materialize because it cannot be otherwise given the electoral law. I was also inclined to believe that to be the case, but I have worried all along that they would run out of time.
I was enthusiastic when Gordon Bajnai decided to return to politics because he did a terrific job during his months as prime minister. There was modest economic growth as opposed to the recession that resulted from the unorthodox economic policies of the second Orbán government. I also thought that his quiet nature and measured tone would stand in stark contrast to Viktor Orbán’s firebrand style. But in the last five months I became increasingly disenchanted with Gordon Bajnai’s strategy. I don’t want to repeat myself, but for those who are not regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum my main objection was his alliance with a group called Milla that was formed on Facebook and that could get 40-50,000 people out on the streets on national holidays to protest the present regime. That was a feat, but the fierce anti-party rhetoric of the Milla group about whose leadership we knew practically nothing didn’t bode well for the future. Whether disenchanted Hungarians like it or not, elections can be won or lost only by parties.
Most likely because of Milla, Bajnai’s Együtt 2014 group and later party dragged its heels on the subject of negotiations with the other opposition parties. Five precious months went by, and about a week ago Bajnai asked for yet another two months before Együtt 2014 would sit down with MSZP to talk about the details of cooperation.
Attila Mesterházy, the chairman of MSZP, is most likely right when he says that the people he and his fellow politicians meet while traveling from town to town desperately want cooperation. It’s no wonder, Mesterházy said–and I can only agree with him–that about half of the voting population is undecided when there is no united party to vote for. Moreover, Mesterházy looked like an open and generous soul by saying that the candidate for the premiership should be the person who has the best chance of getting the most votes for the united party. He may not be completely honest on this question; one couldn’t blame him for wanting to have the post when he is the head of the largest opposition party. However, I have the feeling that if polls were to indicate by the end of the year that with Bajnai the opposition’s chances would be better, he would step aside.
It was exactly one week ago that Bajnai came up with his ideas for a timetable, but something happened between April 19 and 27. First of all, according to the latest two public opinion polls Együtt 2014 further lost voters, three months in a row. Second, Bajnai couldn’t really explain why he needed two more months, aside from the obvious fact that Együtt 2014 is weak now and he would like to be in a better position in his negotiations with MSZP. He looked like the kind of schemer and cunning politician the Hungarians hate so much by now
But, in an apparent about face, when Attila Mesterházy called him on Thursday night to join MSZP’s steering committee meeting today, Bajnai accepted.
It seems to me that Fidesz was caught flatfooted. On the day that the news of the impending meeting between Bajnai and the steering committee of MSZP was announced, the Fidesz propaganda machine was behind the times. At least three articles appeared in Magyar Nemzet in two days about the close connection between Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai. As I said earlier, it really doesn’t matter how much Gordon Bajnai tries to act as if he has nothing to do with Ferenc Gyurcsány, it will not convince the Fidesz propagandists. It’s a waste of time and most likely politically injurious as well. After all, Gyurcsány’s party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, has a sizable following that might find Gordon Bajnai’s behavior unsavory.
Magyar Nemzet, the semi-official paper of the government party, at first tried to minimize the importance of the meeting. The paper, which is very good on getting the scoop from government circles, is much less well informed about what’s going on in the other parties. According to the paper, “the MSZP leadership doesn’t consider cooperation with other parties necessary for victory at the election next April.” In brief, one mustn’t be terribly worried about this meeting because it will lead nowhere.
According to the normally well-informed HVG, Bajnai originally accepted the invitation in order to explain to the socialists why he would like to start negotiations only in mid-June. Well, it turned out that the meeting was much more productive. The MSZP politicians were receptive even before the meeting started. Tibor Szanyi, one of the leaders of the party, emphasized that Bajnai came as a friend and, after all, “we are all friends here …. and comrades.” (The word “elvtárs” in Hungarian simply means “sharing the same ideas.”) Bajnai, for his part, emphasized that “once during the economic crisis we worked together with great success and so we will able to do it again.” He was ready to subordinate all other issues to electoral success. Mesterházy was of the same opinion and called the coming election one of historic importance. “We must look after each other, we must help each other.”
In the end they agreed on the following: (1) In each electoral district there will be only one candidate. (2) At by-elections there will be joint campaigns and a common candidate. (3) The parties won’t try to weaken each other either in statements or in any other way. There will be a hotline set up between Bajnai and Mesterházy to coordinate the work between the two parties. (4) Each party’s activists, although they will work separately, will strengthen cooperation between the parties on the local level.
Two hours after the joint press conference of Bajnai and Mesterházy the editorial board of Magyar Nemzet already figured out an “appropriate” headline: “The Bajnai-Mesterházy-Gyurcsány pact became a reality.” “Pact” has a bad ring in Hungarian political discourse, and there is no way the government paper could possibly leave out the name of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the newly arrived at understanding between Együtt 2014 and MSZP. Moreover, the Hungarian opposition has a new name in the Fidesz vocabulary: “the mafia left.” It was first uttered today by Máté Kocsis, one of the young Turks of Fidesz, who began his youthful career in István Csurka’s anti-Semitic MIÉP party. He is only one of the newly appointed spokesmen, but I guess if you have several and all of them say the same thing over and over the message will stick better with the party faithful. The more the merrier.
Meanwhile the strategists of Fidesz are working hard to discredit the opposition. In this deadly game the presumably trumped-up charges against György Szilvásy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Sándor Laborc will play an important role.
The real campaign just began. Perhaps somewhat optimistically Stop, an Internet paper, came out with this headline: “This is what Fidesz is terrified of: A strong opposition cooperation came into being.” And, let me add, it also began on the local level. Együtt 2014, MSZP, and DK launched a joint effort against the Fidesz mayor, Ferenc Papcsák, of Zugló (District XIV of Budapest). I have the feeling many such cooperative efforts will follow now that there is an understanding in the center.