It was more than a week ago, to be precise on August 15 when I was listening to an interview with Tibor Szanyi, that I had the distinct feeling that the rumor that the negotiations between MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM had come to a halt was not really a rumor. Tibor Szanyi, one of the leading members of MSZP, was invited by Olga Kálmán to talk about the European Union’s decision to hold up practically all the money Hungary currently receives from Brussels. A few hours prior to that conversation, however, Olga Kálmán heard that the negotiations between the two parties had been halted. Szanyi, who is not a member of the negotiating team, neither could nor wanted to give details of what transpired at the meeting. Nonetheless, Szanyi, who is not very good at hiding his feelings, indicated that although the negotiations will most likely continue, for the time being the members of the negotiating teams decided to take a break. Maybe for a week. As Szanyi said, “they could all go home and think a little bit.”
The next day Péter Juhász of Együtt 2014-PM was the guest on Egyenes beszéd. By that time Olga Kálmán seemed to have gotten more information on the stalled negotiations, specifically that it was actually Péter Juhász himself who caused the rupture by talking threateningly with his negotiating partners. So, Olga Kálmán confronted Juhász by first asking him about the allegedly stalled negotiations followed by probing questions about Juhász’s own role in the possible failure of the negotiations. Juhász denied both, but his nervous laugh gave him away.
Someone with whom I shared my misgivings about these protracted and now possibly stalled negotiations accused me of believing Tibor Szanyi over Péter Juhász. Indeed, given the tone and body language of the two men, I felt that Szanyi’s description of the meeting was closer to the truth than Juhász’s version.
Well, the holidays ended and the negotiators didn’t gather to continue their talks. It seemed that the week that was deemed necessary to think things over was simply not enough. On Friday morning, however, we heard that Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy will sit down alone in the hope of solving the still outstanding issues. After two and a half hours not only was there no resolution; the divide between the negotiating partners now appeared unbridgeable. As everybody suspected, the sticking point is who will be the candidate for the premiership.
According to Mesterházy, he arrived at the meeting thinking that the topic of the conversation would be those electoral districts about which the two sides couldn’t agree before. Instead, Gordon Bajnai came up with an entirely new proposal. He suggested putting aside the question of the premiership so that it wouldn’t have any bearing on the number of mandates each party would receive. Instead the two parties should divide the 106 districts: MSZP would put up candidates in 77 districts and Együtt 2012-PM in 35. As for the choice of prime minister, it could be decided after an electoral campaign lasting a few weeks followed by a couple of in-depth polls by two or three reputable pollsters. The man who according to the pollsters would be able to gather the most votes for the opposition should be the nominee.
Clearly, the MSZP leadership has an entirely different scenario in mind. As far as they are concerned, in the case of a coalition government in a parliamentary democracy the largest party provides the prime minister. However, Mesterházy, who was apparently somewhat taken aback by Bajnai’s unexpected suggestion, seemed to be willing to compromise. Indeed, he and his party are ready not to insist on the position and are willing to put it up for a vote. But they insist on the votes of “real” people and not perhaps manipulated opinion polls. Why don’t they have a true primary instead? MSZP is quite willing to hold primaries in larger cities and towns. According to Mesterházy, they wouldn’t cost a lot and would be relatively easy to organize. After all, two years ago the party membership voted without a hitch on whether they would rather follow Ferenc Gyurcsány or Attila Mesterházy.
It’s a stretch to compare a nationwide primary to a party vote of perhaps 20,000 registered members. And just think of the potential Fidesz shenanigans that could wreak havoc with the outcome of a primary. However, one must admit that Mesterházy is a good tactician. Együtt 2014-PM will have a difficult time turning down a seemingly democratic solution to the disputed premiership. At the same time such a primary would greatly favor MSZP, which has a well established national organization with local party headquarters, membership, and delegates in the local town and city councils. Where would Együtt 2014 be in such a primary? Nowhere. So, it’s no wonder that Gergely Karácsony (PM) already announced that as far as he is concerned Mesterházy’s suggestion of a primary is unacceptable.
This latest move of Együtt 2014 baffles commentators, and they’re hard pressed to offer logical explanations. The most outlandish explanation, and one that seems to be gaining some traction in the media, is that Együtt 2014 never really wanted to have an agreement with MSZP and from day one they planned to run alone at the next election. Well, I may have a low opinion of Gordon Bajnai’s advisers, but I still think that they cannot be that stupid. How could a party that has been trying for months to edge up in the polls without much success possibly want to go it alone in an electoral system that severely limits the chance for smaller parties?
It is more likely that Gordon Bajnai or rather his chief adviser, Viktor Szigetvári, misjudged the situation. Együtt 2014 demanded too much given their size and importance. People who always preferred Bajnai to Mesterházy are rather angry at the Együtt 2014 team whom they blame for the sorry state of the negotiations. First, they point out, Bajnai and Szigetvári were dragging their feet in hope of a great breakthrough that never materialized and now because of their political appetite they are practically killing the possibility of an electoral victory. Because, let’s face it, most people at this point think that the next prime minister of Hungary will be neither Attila Mesterházy nor Gordon Bajnai but Viktor Orbán despite the fact that the majority of the electorate want to see the Fidesz government go.
Even those people whose political views are closer to those of Bajnai’s party than to MSZP’s reacted angrily. Gábor Fodor (Liberal Party) wrote on Facebook: “Attila Mesterházy answered Gordon Bajnai’s ultimatum with an ultimatum of his own. This way there will be nothing of the whole thing. The largest opposition party must be the one that names the prime minister. The political games of Együtt 2014 have wasted a whole year. It is time to close the debate and begin attending to the ills of Hungary.” Ferenc Gyurcsány, who often expressed a preference for his old friend Gordon Bajnai, also came to the conclusion that Bajnai made several major mistakes and now has to give up the idea of becoming the next prime minister of Hungary. Gyurcsány is very pessimistic about the chances of the opposition altogether.
As things stand now, Mesterházy announced that if Együtt 2014 is not willing to play ball, MSZP will begin negotiations with Gábor Fodor’s liberals, Andor Schmuck’s Hungarian Social Democratic Party, and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció.
This might not be the end of the story. If Bajnai has any sense, Együtt 2014 will retreat from this position. Although Bajnai lost a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm of the electorate, he still has a certain following, but if his followers realize that because of his unfortunate political strategy he is helping Viktor Orbán’s cause his reputation will be seriously tarnished.