In the middle of February a local internet site reported that the Tolna County police were investigating an old murder case. Two years earlier, a well-known businessman had been reported missing. His body was eventually discovered, cemented over, in the backyard of a house in Dunaújváros. One of the men accused of the murder was Roland Gál, a Fidesz member of the Dunaújváros City Council. Soon enough, he was stripped of his party membership and removed from his position as a member of the city council. Hence, the necessity of a by-election, held yesterday.
The result in a nutshell. Fidesz’s candidate won, but only because MSZP, DK, and PM, the three democratic opposition parties, ran separately. If they had agreed on a common candidate (assuming he got the same number of votes as the total of the three opposition candidates), Fidesz would have narrowly lost the election. Everybody anticipated a Fidesz victory considering the fractured left. That was no surprise. The Fidesz candidate received 405 votes (39%), DK 241 (23%), Jobbik 199 (19%), MSZP 97 (9%), and PM 84 (8%). The very poor MSZP showing most likely sealed the fate of József Tóbiás; he is unlikely to be reelected chairman of MSZP. Tóbiás sacked the local party chairman, who was against a joint ticket, even though he himself apparently encouraged the locals to run on their own.
The DK leadership is convinced that their failure to reach an agreement with MSZP is the sole fault of MSZP. Their argument rests on a 2014 agreement between the two parties that stipulated that, in the event of a new election, the right of nomination would belong to the party whose candidate originally ran. Since at the 2014 municipal election the united opposition’s candidate was a DK politician, DK expected their man to run again. However, the local MSZP leaders refused to recognize the existence of such an agreement, arguing that it applied only to national, not to local elections. The top leadership decided to support the locals, who claimed that their candidate was more likely to succeed than DK’s man. As it turned out, it was a very bad decision.
One could ask why DK’s leaders insisted on such a confrontational strategy. For the sake of peace, why didn’t they simply go ahead and support the MSZP candidate? Apparently, Ferenc Gyurcsány himself was inclined to let MSZP have its way, but other top leaders of DK argued that such a conciliatory attitude would be a sign of weakness. DK was not aggressive enough when it came to bargaining for better positions on the party list in 2014, the result of which was a lopsided parliamentary representation in favor of MSZP. DK ended up with four members who have sit with the independents because the party didn’t meet the threshold for having a recognized parliamentary delegation, while MSZP has a 28-member caucus. And the ratio of their vote totals was at the time three to two.
Once the decision was made that the democratic parties would go their own ways, the die was cast. Fidesz would undoubtedly win the election. The relatively low turnout (32%) was most likely due to the pessimism that greeted the decision against cooperation. Reporters who visited the city prior to the election came back with the distinct feeling that “the majority is sick of Fidesz but this way they will surely win.” So, it would be a waste of time even to bother to vote.
Even with the fractured democratic opposition, Viktor Orbán was worried enough about the outcome to schedule a campaign trip to Dunaújváros only a few days before the election. On May 31 he and the Fidesz mayor of the city signed an “agreement of cooperation,” which consisted of 20 billion forints the central government, or more precisely the European Union, would invest in Dunaújváros projects. It would take too long to list all the goodies Orbán promised the city for those measly 400 some votes. Clearly, this election was important to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán because the lost by-elections of the last two years have become not just embarrassing but also worrisome. Reports written on the spot before the election yesterday noted that the Orbán trip made a real impression on the local Fidesz community. Although they know that support for the party is on the decline in town, “now that Viktor Orbán came to see us things have changed,” one Fidesz supporter remarked.
Apparently, Fidesz activists also put an incredible amount of effort into getting out the vote. While DK and MSZP activists campaigned on the streets, Fidesz representatives quietly visited reliable Fidesz voters, urging them to vote.
DK’s strong showing surprised everybody, as did the very poor performance of the socialists. Their degrading loss was interpreted as a wake-up call for the overly self-confident socialist leadership. This seemingly unimportant by-election, where only about one thousand votes were cast, may be a milestone as far as the future of MSZP is concerned. Within a few weeks MSZP will hold its congress and elect a new chairman. Vying for the post are three serious candidates: the current party chairman, József Tóbiás, whose chances even without the failure in Dunaújváros were slim; Tibor Szanyi, who wants to move the party farther to the left and believes that in a head-to-head confrontation MSZP can win against Fidesz; and Gyula Molnár, to whose candidacy I devoted a whole post. A few weeks ago the consensus was that Molnár was the favorite, but then he made the mistake of revealing his plans to approach the other democratic parties, specifically DK, in the hope of closer cooperation. The anti-Gyurcsány forces within the party were less than enthusiastic. Some people feared that Molnár might have blown his chances by taking a conciliatory approach to the man who in October 2011 left MSZP to establish a party of his own. After the debacle of Dunaújváros, however, there is a good possibility that the delegates might realize that “going it alone” is not an option.
The funniest reaction came from the party leaders of PM. One young PM member, who is a council member in one of the Budapest districts, already envisages PM sailing into parliament in 2018 with 10% of all the votes cast. Dunaújváros, in his opinion, is the very beginning of PM becoming an important force on the left. Gergely Karácsony, the co-chairman, sees the results as a confirmation of the party’s belief in the necessity of holding primaries before the actual election as a means of finding the “right person” to head the ticket of a loosely united opposition. Three of the opposition parties support the idea: MSZP, PM, and Együtt.
So, let’s talk about this notion of primaries. When I first heard about the idea of introducing primaries into the Hungarian political system I was less than thrilled. Although I dutifully cast my vote in my state’s primaries, I’m not at all sure they are the best way to pick candidates for the U.S. presidency. I don’t want to dwell on U.S. domestic politics, but the fact that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate doesn’t speak well for the process which, by the way, has been uniformly used only since 1968.
Mátyás Eörsi, a former SZDSZ politician and now a DK supporter, wrote a good opinion piece in Népszabadság in which he outlined his objections. “Elections—just as primary elections—are by nature divisive.” So, primaries will only sharpen the ideological and personal differences between the candidates. Moreover, primaries in the United States are held within one single party and not among three or four or perhaps five different ones. Thus, a primary would in fact be a full-fledged election, after which voters whose candidate lost would be asked to abandon their party and vote for the leader of another. A hopeless idea. Especially since in Hungary the political culture is totally unsuited to the practice of burying the hatchet. Eörsi is so convinced about the lethal effect that primaries would have on the opposition’s chances that he fairly confidently announced that its already small chance of success in 2018 would be totally annihilated by holding primaries.
In the last few months, four times a week, György Bolgár, the host of the popular radio call-in show “Let’s Talk It Over,” poses the question: “What’s To Be Done?” Callers as well as politicians, political commentators, and intellectuals interested in politics have an opportunity to share their thoughts on how to save Hungary from another six years of Fidesz rule. At the beginning I enjoyed the exercise, but by now it is becoming tedious. I could count on one hand people who came up with truly insightful suggestions.
Perhaps what we should do is to strive for the ultimate, the maximum, the ideal. The one which at the moment is just a dream but which is actually the only sure way to stand against the Fidesz onslaught. Eörsi talks about this solution briefly, saying “If we dream, let’s dream big. In order to be able to take up a battle with the Orbán regime what we actually need is not cooperation but one big left-of-center party.” Indeed, this should be the ultimate goal. If the parties repeat their sorry performance of what they called “cooperation” in 2014, failure is guaranteed.
They should work very hard to create a brand new party. Forget about MSZP, DK, Együtt, PM. Create what could be called, for example, Magyar Demokraták Pártja. I would certainly include the word “democracy” in some form in the name of the party because it is no longer a struggle between left and right but between the adherents of democracy and the supporters of autocracy. Right now the formation of such a party seems impossible, but it is impossible only until the leaders of the opposition decide that it is worth working for in order to remove a cancer from the Hungarian body politic.