Tag Archives: Ferenc Falus

A new opposition candidate for mayor of Budapest, a rift in MSZP

It was about a week ago that I wrote about the Budapest municipal election. At that time there were seven candidates running against the incumbent István Tarlós, Fidesz’s choice in both 2006 and 2010. At that junction Ferenc Falus, the candidate of the joint democratic opposition, was trailing behind Lajos Bokros, former finance minister (1995-1996) and EU member of parliament (2009-2014), a man who calls himself liberal conservative. Együtt-PM, the party whose nominee Falus was, tried to convince Bokros to withdraw in Falus’s favor, but Bokros refused, saying that he was ahead of Falus in the polls. If anyone should withdraw it is Falus. At this point it looked that neither man would budge, and therefore I predicted that Bokros would be the scapegoat of the united opposition if István Tarlós wins the election by a large margin. Well, I was wrong. Yesterday Falus withdrew in favor of Bokros. György Magyar, an independent, followed suit.

So, what happened? Well, that’s not exactly clear. Here is Lajos Bokros’s side of the story. He received a telephone call from Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair of Együtt-PM, allegedly speaking in the name of all four parties–MSZP, DK, Együtt and PM–who informed him that they were ready to support him and drop Falus’s candidacy. A meeting was arranged, to be attended by representatives of all four parties, but to Bokros’s dismay only Szigetvári of Együtt and Ferenc Gyurcsány of DK showed up. Szigetvári was again asked about his authority to speak in the name of those who were absent. Szigetvári assured him that he had the authority. Falus later joined the meeting, and the participants decided to make the announcement yesterday at noon.

It turned out that Szigetvári did not in fact have the authority to speak in the name of MSZP and PM. MSZP’s Budapest executive board got together in a hurriedly called meeting as did the national executive board at a separate gathering to decide the matter. After a lengthy discussion Ágnes Kunhalmi, chair of MSZP’s Budapest board, announced last night that they support Bokros’s candidacy. A few minutes later József Tóbiás, chairman of MSZP, made a short statement. Although he did not say that the party is not endorsing Bokros, he stressed that for them it is not enough that somebody is a democrat, as Bokros surely is; he must be “a social democrat.” He expressed his great sorrow that voters of socialist convictions cannot vote for a leftist candidate. It is a shame. They had a good candidate in Csaba Horváth, who in 2010 received 35% of the votes, but on the insistence of the other three parties they sacrificed him for the sake of Együtt’s candidate, Ferenc Falus. PM earlier announced its refusal to support a liberal conservative candidate because the party can’t expect him to fully represent their green-socialist agenda.

Ágnes Kunhalmi, chairperson of the Budapest MSZP

Ágnes Kunhalmi, chairperson of the Budapest MSZP

With less than three weeks to the municipal elections at least we have two fewer candidates vying to unseat István Tarlós. It was always clear that András Schiffer’s LMP would have nothing to do with any of the other democratic parties because he is convinced that within a few years his party will be able to unseat Viktor Orbán and Fidesz singlehandedly. As far as Jobbik is concerned, the democratic opposition wants nothing to do with an anti-Semitic and racist party. That leaves only the candidate of the Magyar Liberális Párt (MLP). This is the party, if you can call it that, of Gábor Fodor, who in the last hours of SZDSZ served as its chairman. Although he makes a very good impression in interviews, people who know him say that his main concern is his own advancement.

Gábor Fodor’s behavior in the last year and a half supports his critics’ contentions about his character. In April 2013 he established his own liberal party and a year later, thanks to the intervention of Ferenc Gyurcsány, he received the #4 place on the party ticket of the united opposition. I assume Gyurcsány thought that after the election Fodor would join the DK parliamentary caucus out of gratitude. Indeed, if Fodor had done this, DK today would have a separate delegation. But once Fodor was safely ensconced in parliament representing practically nobody except himself, he had no intention of joining anyone. He decided to remain independent.

Fodor’s second move was to present his own candidate for the mayoralty of Budapest, Zoltán Bodnár, a former deputy governor of Hungary’s central bank. Considering that the party is not supposed to have any money, Bodnár’s campaign seems to be extraordinarily well financed. His posters are all over town, which has made the other democratic parties suspicious. It is widely believed by opposition politicians as well as voters that it is Fidesz who stands behind the lavish liberal campaign. This suspicion was reinforced yesterday when Zoltán Bodnár announced that he has no intention of withdrawing because he is “the only serious candidate.” At the same time, with no support for his contention, he accused Ferenc Gyurcsány of orchestrating Falus’s removal from the campaign. In his version it was Gyurcsány who “forced Falus’s withdrawal.”

In any case, at the moment it looks as if Bokros will have four opponents: István Tarlós (Fidesz-KDNP), Gábor Staudt (Jobbik), Antal Csárdi (LMP), and Zoltán Bodnár (MLP). According to Nézőpont Intézet’s poll, Csárdi and Staudt will each receive 3% of the votes. Bodnár’s name did not appear on Nézőpont’s list, but “Other” polled at 2%.

I consider the most important political development of the last couple of days to be the open split of the socialists. We have always known that within the party there is a left and a right wing. The right wing has been more open to cooperation with non-socialist but democratic parties and groups. In the Budapest MSZP these people seem to be in the majority. They think that getting rid of Tarlós in Budapest is more important than any party consideration. They feel comfortable with people in DK, among whom there are a number of former SZDSZ politicians as well as people from the moderate conservative MDF.

As far as I can recall, this is the first time that the MSZP leadership has split so openly and unequivocally. This rift may have serious repercussions–in the most dire scenario leading to the eventual breakup and possible demise of MSZP. If that happens, the hard-liners will have nowhere to go. The moderates, by contrast, have already established networks that may lead to some kind of association or even merger with other parties. The next couple of years might be more exciting than we think right now.

The Budapest campaign: Lajos Bokros as challenger of István Tarlós?

Municipal elections will be held in three weeks. Not so long ago it seemed that the opposition actually stood a chance of winning in Budapest. After all, in the last election more people voted for the opposition parties than for Fidesz in the capital city. Fidesz sensed danger: its two-third’s majority in parliament promptly changed the Budapest electoral law. This move greatly reduced the likelihood of the opposition’s winning. But, as has since become painfully obvious, the real problem lies not so much in the new, admittedly unfair law but rather in the inability of the opposition to close ranks. As it stands now, there are seven hopefuls for the post of lord mayor of Budapest: István Tarlós (Fidesz-KDNP), Ferenc Falus (Együtt-PM), Antal Csárdi (LMP), Gábor Staudt (Jobbik), Zoltán Bodnár (MLP), Lajos Bokros (MoMa), and György Magyar (independent). Is it any surprise that, according to a couple of opinion polls, Tarlós is leading the pack by a wide margin?

When, after agonizingly long negotiations, the democratic opposition settled on Ferenc Falus, I thought he was a good candidate. I had seen several interviews with him from his days as the country’s chief public health official. He seemed to me the opposite of István Tarlós, whom even one of his political allies recently called “a fellow with churlish manners.” Falus, by contrast, struck me as a perfect gentleman with an even temperament whom people could trust. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a disappointment. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Was it Falus’s political inexperience or the fault of the party that nominated him? Wasn’t he properly prepared? Why didn’t he know enough about the workings of the city before he had to face an army of journalists?  I suspect that the fault lies with Együtt-PM, whose candidate he is, although MSZP and DK decided to support him. Sometimes I wonder whether Falus would be better off if Viktor Szigetvári, the man who is running the party nowadays, would just leave him alone. One day Falus says that if opinion polls indicate that another opposition candidate has the lead he will withdraw in his favor, but the next day he is forced to say that his statement was a mistake. He will not withdraw from the race. Meanwhile, the poor man’s credibility is severely damaged. I think that Falus’s chances of winning are approaching zero.

Today I will focus on another candidate, Lajos Bokros, the economist and former minister of finance in the Horn government (1995-1996). He was the one who made necessary economic adjustments which resulted in a very strict austerity program nicknamed “the Bokros package.” As a result, the popularity of the Horn government dropped, but within a couple of years, due to the measures he introduced, the Hungarian economy began to grow rapidly. He was criticized by the left as well as the right, but in fact Viktor Orbán should have been grateful to him. As a result of his reforms, the first Orbán government had an easy time financially, and before the 2002 election there was even enough money to loosen the monetary policy of the country. But the personal cost to Bokros was high; he became the most hated man in the country. His popularity at one point was 9%.

Lajos Bokros / Source: ATV

Lajos Bokros / Source: ATV

The fact is that Bokros is not really a politician. His main concern is the economy, and therefore I was surprised that in April 2013 he and some former politicians of MDF decided to establish a political party called Modern Magyarország Mozgalom/Movement for Modern Hungary  (MoMa). In the April election he and his party supported the united democratic opposition, but on July 7, 2014 he announced his candidacy for the post of mayor of Budapest. At the time I don’t think anyone would have given him the slightest chance of even getting the necessary number of signatures to be able to proceed. But Bokros surprised everybody. In fact, Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ, a respectable political think tank, believes that among all the candidates he is the only one who would have a chance against István Tarlós, the current Fidesz-KDNP mayor. Moreover, Nézőpont Intézet, the only pollsters to conduct a survey in Budapest, already ranked Bokros ahead of Falus.

How could that happen? I see quite a few possible reasons for that unlikely development. One is that among the people running against the incumbent mayor, Bokros has the highest name recognition. Second, it is possible that Bokros’s lack of political finesse is a plus in the eyes of the electorate, which is suspicious of politicians. Third, people are beginning to appreciate professional expertise, and Bokros oozes self-confidence. And he even knows what he is talking about. Fourth, Bokros offered a coherent program well before the campaign got underway. Falus, by contrast, announced his candidacy without any program. His supporting party then cobbled something together, losing two precious weeks of the short campaign time.

Yet it is unlikely that any of the other opposition candidates, with the exception of the independent György Magyar, will withdraw in his favor. The candidates of Jobbik and LMP are out of the question. Neither the liberals’ candidate, Zoltán Bodnár, nor Ferenc Falus seems willing to step aside. In fact, Falus’s latest pronouncement is that he expects Bokros, who is ahead of him in the polls, to withdraw in his favor. He graciously offered Bokros a position in his administration.

On October 12, election day, it is almost certain that István Tarlós will win fair and square. The scapegoat will probably be Lajos Bokros. The opposition, the lament may go, could have won if only Bokros hadn’t refused to cede to the man who is most likely currently running behind him.

The sorry state of the Hungarian opposition: The Budapest municipal elections

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.

At least the three parties agree on Ferenc Falus as candidate for mayor of Budapest

At least the three parties agree on Ferenc Falus as candidate for mayor of Budapest

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.