MSZP’s congress, which also served as the party’s campaign launch, has concluded. Originally, the congress was supposed to be held in December, but until the last minute the MSZP leadership kept hoping that they would be able to convince Ferenc Gyurcsány to join them in creating a common party list. The other reason for the general sluggishness of the MSZP negotiators was their ardent hope that by announcing László Botka’s candidacy for the premiership in October the party’s standing would improve considerably. That hope was pretty well dashed by the end of the year. And then a somewhat unexpected turn of events brought Gergely Karácsony, co-chair of Párbeszéd, to the negotiating table with the leaders of MSZP. He said he would be willing to be the party’s candidate for prime minister but only if Párbeszéd as a distinct entity could join the socialists, forming an MSZP-Párbeszéd ticket.
Such a demand is reasonable when the two parties are of equal or close to equal weight, but Párbeszéd is a minuscule party with perhaps 1% of support in the electorate. And there was another impediment to a merger. According to the Hungarian electoral law, if two distinct parties formally join, creating a new entity, that entity must receive at least 10% of the votes to become a parliamentary party. Given the poor showing of MSZP of late, some people in the party thought that such a move would be too risky. Others, apparently the fiery Ágnes Kunhalmi included, warned against that kind of gloomy outlook, saying it would negatively influence the whole socialist campaign.
Current thinking is that MSZP will be able to garner at least 15% of the votes, which translates more or less into a 15-member parliamentary delegation. In 2014 the common party list of MSZP, DK, and Együtt received enough votes for a 37-member parliamentary delegation, of which 29 seats went to MSZP due to a list on which MSZP members had an undue advantage. This time, in exchange for an attractive candidate in the person of Karácsony, the socialists seem to be a great deal more generous. Párbeszéd has three candidates in the first 20 slots, two of whom will probably be sitting in the next parliament.
Then there is the Magyar Liberális Párt of Gábor Fodor. It is even less significant than Párbeszéd, yet for some strange reason Party Chairman Gyula Molnár wanted Fodor to be part of the team. First, he suggested that Fodor run in the district that includes the city of Gyöngyös, Fodor’s hometown. Gyöngyös has a socialist mayor, whom László Botka recommended to be MSZP’s parliamentary candidate for the district. When the mayor was told by Molnár that plans had changed, he resigned from the party. But in the end it wasn’t Fodor who got the district but a young MSZP member from the area. The flip-flops gave the impression of a party that doesn’t know what it’s doing.
That was not, however, the end of the Fodor saga because Molnár still wanted Fodor to be part of the team and suggested him for the fifteenth slot, which is considered to be winnable. At that point a revolt broke out; Molnár was voted down 8 to 1. In the end a compromise was reached. Anett Bősz, one of the better-known members of the liberal party, was chosen instead of Fodor to represent the liberals. Perhaps Ferenc Gyurcsány’s experience with Fodor in 2014 made the MSZP leadership leery of trusting Fodor. On Gyurcsány’s insistence, Fodor got a top-notch place on the joint list, but after he was elected he refused to join the DK group, which needed only one more person to form an official parliamentary delegation. In any case, it is possible that Fodor’s long political career is over.
All this wrangling has done considerable damage not just to MSZP but also to the other left-of-center parties. Voters cannot understand their inability to set aside personal ambitions and coalesce into a united front. But it is easy to give advice from the outside. The creation of a party list is a difficult, emotional undertaking. The mayor of Gyöngyös was practically in tears when he announced his resignation from the party. And Gergely Bárándy, who in the last 12 years was the party’s legal expert, announced his retirement from politics. The reason is most likely his slim chance of continuing his work as a member of parliament.
In addition, although I often point out that the left-of-center parties have a great deal in common and that they agree on the fundamentals of liberal democracy, there are still many issues that divide them. One such issue is their attitude toward the recent past. Együtt, LMP, Momentum, and to a certain extent even Párbeszéd look upon the socialist-liberal era before 2010 as political baggage that must be discarded. Something went wrong as early as 1990 and everything must begin anew. Obviously, MSZP and DK feel differently about the democratic accomplishments of those years.
The parties’ views on liberalism also differ sharply. Members of the socialist party are convinced that the reason for their loss of support was the party’s move toward liberalism under the chairmanship of Ferenc Gyurcsány. In fact, the chairman of Demokratikus Koalíció still maintains that it is his party that most clearly represents liberal values; it is the most market-friendly party and the most sensitive among the democratic parties when it comes to human rights.
There is also the question of voting rights for Hungarians living beyond the borders, which sets DK apart from the rest of the left-of-center parties.
Gergely Karácsony believes in a guaranteed minimum income (GMI), which sends people like Lajos Bokros, a man holding hard-and-fast views on the traditional market economy, into fits of apoplexy. But the left wing of MSZP must welcome Karácsony’s ideas on what he calls “szociális demokrácia” as something different from szociáldemokrácia, which is a political movement. My understanding is that Karácsony is talking about a democracy that first and foremost concerns itself with the betterment of its citizens’ standard of living. Other political leaders believe that the restoration of the rule of law is the first order of business, which will then lead in an organic way to a more prosperous life.
Karácsony is promising help for those who suffered at the hands of financial capitalism, both honest and corrupt. Just today, he said he would take care of those people who took out Forex loans and ended up with incredible financial burdens for decades to come. He would also compensate those who suffered losses as a result of the Quaestor scandal of 2015. Other parties, for example DK, are worried about financial promises that either cannot be kept or, if kept, would be economically disastrous for the country.
Let me close by pointing out a few positive developments. In two instances MSZP members gave up their electoral districts to non-politicians who might stand a better chance of winning. One of the most promising examples is economist Tamás Mellár’s electoral district in Pécs. In 2014 Fidesz won the district narrowly and with the help of LMP, which had its own candidate. Since then, the local Fidesz government has driven the city to the brink of financial ruin, so voters seem to be eager for a change. The other district is around Siófok, where the “star lawyer” György Magyar decided to run with MSZP support.
These are good signs, but LMP’s reluctance to cut a deal with MSZP-Párbeszéd and DK is still a serious impediment to the opposition’s chances against the government party.