MoMa

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.