It was around noon in Hungary when I began writing this post on the negotiations among the three democratic parties in preparation for the municipal elections on October 12, and I’m not at all sure that within a few hours, by the time I upload this post, the situation won’t have turned around 180 degrees.
I began collecting material on these negotiations right after the national election on April 6. On April 23 a strange news item appeared in Index according to which the socialists had a magic formula for certain victory in the Budapest municipal election. What if, said Zsolt Molnár who at that time was chairman of the Budapest MSZP, András Schiffer’s LMP, a party known for its refusal to cooperate with any other opposition force, would nominate a person for lord mayor (főpolgármester) whom MSZP, and presumably DK and Együtt-PM, would support? Schiffer’s answer was brief and to the point: “let’s not clown around.”
Well, since then the three parties–MSZP, DK, and Együtt-PM–have been doing nothing else but clowning around although it is critical that they reach an understanding. It is only in Budapest that the democratic opposition has a chance to win the city and perhaps even the post of lord mayor.
Viktor Orbán was well aware of the threat because the results of both the national and the EP elections indicated that the democratic opposition had a chance of taking the city back from Fidesz. It was at this point that Fidesz decided to change Budapest’s electoral law so that it would be very hard for the opposition to gain a majority on the city council. In the past, positions on the council were determined by the number of votes received on straight party lists. From here on, mayoral winners on the district level (and there are 23 districts in Budapest) will make up the council. Thus, the opposition parties cannot compete individually; they have to agree on common candidates.
The jostling began immediately. It was clear from day one that the three parties must agree on a common candidate for the position of lord mayor. Weeks went by, with a different name circulating every other day. Hungarians call this graceless performance “casting,” using the English word for the phenomenon. Finally, after weeks of searching for someone who would take the job and who was also acceptable to the three parties, the candidate was announced a few days ago: Ferenc Falus, a physician who served as the country’s chief medical officer between 2007 and 2010. He is described by people who know him and worked with him as a good administrator and “almost stupidly honest.” Moreover, he seems to be everything that István Tarlós is not. While Tarlós is an intolerant boor and quite vulgar, he is a mild-mannered, well-spoken gentleman.
Although choosing the candidate for the post of lord mayor was not easy and seemed to take forever, the decisions on some 300 posts on the district level were even more difficult. Why such large numbers? Because for each district the three parties had to agree on not only the person of the mayor but also members of the district councils. And naturally, each party wanted to have as many of their own people as possible.
As the national and EP elections demonstrated in Budapest, DK and Együtt-PM have taken away a fair number of votes from MSZP. Although the strength of the three parties is more or less equally divided, leaders of MSZP seem to have some difficulty understanding that their party is no longer the “large” party while the other two are the “small” ones.
MSZP’s chief negotiator was Ágnes Kunhalmi, the new chair of the Budapest MSZP. She is young woman who until recently was the face of MSZP only when it came to matters of education. But then, Kunhalmi was thrust into the limelight just before the national elections when in the last minute she was nominated by the party to run instead of the disgraced Gábor Simon in Budapest’s 15th electoral district. She lost to her Fidesz opponent in a very tight race. In fact, the difference was so small, something like 200 votes, that a complete recount would have been in order. Kunhalmi was suddenly a star in the party.
It seemed to me that negotiations went along splendidly as long as Kunhalmi didn’t have to return to party headquarters to get approval of the deal from the chief honchos. But there Kunhalmi ran into difficulty. She asked for a few days to iron things out but said she was sure that in a day or so she will get the okay. The deadline had to be extended because MSZP was unhappy with its lot. Finally, a “firm” deadline was fixed for Friday, but Friday came and Friday went and MSZP was still playing coy. Then they got another extension, to midnight on Monday. But by Tuesday morning there was still no MSZP agreement. It was at this point that Viktor Szigetvári, who seems to be running the show in Együtt-PM, announced that their patience had been exhausted: they will run their own candidates in districts where MSZP refuses to recognize the tripartite agreement.
The revolt against the agreement apparently came from MSZP politicians who have been in city politics for a long time and who couldn’t understand why they would have to give up their places to inexperienced newcomers. After all, they have the experience that will be necessary in case of an electoral victory.
This may be true, but the electorate will not appreciate MSZP’s arguments. They only see that while the two other parties, especially DK, are eager to cooperate, MSZP stands in the way of an understanding. They are running out of time and the campaign cannot begin. A lot of people, including faithful MSZP voters, are disgusted with the performance of the socialists. At the same time I doubt that Együtt-PM will gain extra votes by their abrupt decision to go it alone. On the contrary, they might lose some because voters will punish them for their impetuous behavior.
DK at the moment is sitting on the sidelines, watching the battle between MSZP and Együtt-PM. Under the circumstances this seems to be the best strategy. In my opinion, the warring parties can only lose with this latest conflict. People are fed up with parties in general and even more fed up with the democratic opposition, whose members seem to be more preoccupied with their personal ambitions than with unseating the current administration in Budapest and elsewhere in the country.
In the last few hours Ágnes Kunhalmi fought back. By mid-afternoon she expressed her astonishment at Együtt-PM’s announcement about the breakdown of negotiations when only a few seats were still undecided out of the 300. MSZP was supposed to announce its agreement to the nomination of the last three candidates. She accused Szigetvári of personal ambitions to which he is ready to sacrifice the chances of the opposition at the Budapest election. Stop, a portal close to the socialists, thought that the biggest loser in this latest turn of events is Együtt-PM because, after all, the other two parties are in favor of continuing talks and compromise. A few hours later, Kunhalmi decided to use less belligerent language in connection with Együtt-PM’s decision to withdraw from further negotiations. She expressed her belief that there will be an agreement.
There may be, but the last few weeks of negotiations among the three parties did not enhance their reputations. The voters’ faith in their political acumen has been further eroded as the result of all that wrangling. Trust in their ability to govern either the city or the country may have been shaken in light of their inability to present a united front against a very resolute and ruthless political foe.