MSZP-DK negotiations

The factious Hungarian opposition

Yesterday by 11 a.m. it became clear that there was no chance of an electoral alliance between the socialists and the representatives of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Perhaps there never was because, although Attila Mesterházy only a few hours before this final meeting gave a 50-50 chance of reaching an understanding, I suspect that the decision had already been reached to reject the DK proposals.

Shortly before the meeting Mesterházy claimed that his party hadn’t formulated its position on Ferenc Gyurcsány’s participation in the campaign and his advocacy of a common party list. However, most of the DK demands eventually put forth had been known for at least a week, and I assume that the socialist leadership was fully aware that Gyurcsány’s person would be on the agenda in one way or the other.

As it turned out, DK had seven demands: (1) there should be joint MSZP-DK candidates; (2) the number of districts should be based on the principle of proportionality; (3) DK should receive nine districts, three of which should be winnable, three hopeless, and three uncertain; (4) on the list a DK candidate should occupy every eighth place, again on the basis of proportionality; (5) the person of the candidate should be decided by each party; (6) MSZP should receive the first and DK the second place on the list although if MSZP doesn’t accept this DK is ready to consider their counter-proposal;  (7) DK’s top place on the list should go to the chairman of DK. So, DK was not adamant about the second place but certainly wanted Gyurcsány to be on the best DK place whichever that would be.

MSZP wasn’t in a negotiating mood. Their demands reminded me of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia in 1914, which was formulated in such a way that the Monarchy knew that there was no way Serbia could accept it. MSZP offered four districts to DK, none of which was winnable. Instead of every eighth place on the list, MSZP was only willing to place a DK candidate in every twenty-fifth. According to electoral mathematics, the largest number of seats the opposition can win from the list is fifty, which would mean that only one or two DK candidates would receive mandates. In addition, DK couldn’t represent its own political ideas and would have to follow the MSZP-Együtt14 line. MSZP didn’t want anything to do with Gyurcsány and, when pressed, it turned out that they also didn’t want to see Ágnes Vadai, Csaba Molnár, or László Varju anywhere near the campaign. (In addition to Gyurcsány these three people represent DK in the Hungarian media.) MSZP would have veto power over any candidate put forth by DK but DK wouldn’t have the same veto power over the MSZP candidates. This was unacceptable to the DK negotiating team.

If you recall, MSZP in January was the prime proponent of joint action with all democratic parties and groups while Együtt 2014 was stepping back from close cooperation with MSZP. They were undoubtedly afraid that Attila Mesterházy was planning to seize the opportunity to lead the future coalition. E14 decided to postpone further negotiations in the hope of gathering more support. Precious months were wasted in what turned out to be a futile effort. So, came the compromise agreement of no common list but common candidates. Some politically savvy people consider the agreement a very good idea while others view it as a failure and an indication of weakness and discord.

Együtt 2014 with its 6% of the electorate came out the real winner with 31 districts. MSZP didn’t fare as well (75 districts), especially since it was the socialists’ burden to reach an understanding with the other smaller parties. Of the three parties only DK has measurable support. We are talking about 100,000-150,000 voters for DK while MSZP has about 1.2 million. If we look only at these numbers DK’s demands sound reasonable. The real aim of the opposition, however, is to convince the large block of undecided voters. We don’t know the party preferences of about 40% of the electorate. The opposition parties’ real goal is to attract this large group to their ranks.

And here the socialists and E14 are convinced that if they embrace Ferenc Gyurcsány and DK they will attract fewer people from the ranks of the undecided. József Tóbiás in an interview yesterday disclosed that the party had conducted a poll that was designed to measure the effect of cooperation between MSZP and DK. The poll revealed to the party leadership that they would lose more votes with Gyurcsány than they would gain. This finding lay behind their decision. If this poll correctly measures the effect of a joint MSZP-DK ticket, then MSZP’s decision was logical. Of course, we know how a wrongly formulated question can distort the results.

Naturally this poll reflects only the current situation. One doesn’t know how MSZP’s rather abrupt negative attitude toward the other parties and groups will affect MSZP’s standing or the electorate’s attitude toward DK. It is possible that they will consider MSZP too high-handed and uncompromising and DK an underdog. They may think that MSZP is not serious about unity, not resolute enough in its determination to unseat Viktor Orbán and Fidesz.

opinion pollOne could also ask MSZP whether the poll inquired about those possible voters who under no circumstances would vote for MSZP, because apparently they are also numerous. What about those who think of E14 as a party with no well defined political agenda? Only yesterday Szabolcs Kerék Bárczy, the last spokesman of Ibolya Dávid’s MDF, complained about Együtt 2014’s lack of political coherence. He pointed out that although E14’s avowed aim is to attract liberal conservatives, there is not one conservative in its ranks. Moreover, how can these people be attracted to a group whose members often applaud Orbán’s nationalization or who make statements against free markets and competition? Kerék Bárczy is thinking here of some people in the PM group with their decidedly leftist views of the world. Liberal conservatives, he says, will not vote for either E14 or MSZP. Because it looks as if MSZP is going to make a sharp turn to the left since some party leaders claim that MSZP’s failure stemmed from its move toward liberalism under Ferenc Gyurcsány’s chairmanship.

Kerék Bárczy doesn’t understand why MSZP nine months before the elections suddenly stiffened its attitude and refused to negotiate with anyone. He puts forward the question: what will happen if the poll numbers change as a result of these failed negotiations and a serious attempt by DK to attract more followers? What will E14 and MSZP do? Renegotiate their agreement? It will be difficult to change course without losing face.

The current state of the Hungarian opposition: Negotiations between MSZP and DK

I’m afraid I have to go back to the MSZP-DK negotiations because some of the coverage of MSZP’s reactions is far too sketchy.  MTI, which serves all Hungarian news organizations, first reported that MSZP found “three of DK’s nine-point suggestions unacceptable.” They are unacceptable because they suggest a renegotiation of the agreement between MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM. MSZP also found it worrisome that DK offers only “an election alliance while the socialists and Együtt 2014-PM agreed to a political alliance.”

Since not too many publications bothered to reprint DK’s nine-point proposal, which is available on DK’s webpage, I’m going to list the points here. Some of the more important passages are quoted verbatim. Others are only summarized.

(1) DK’s ideal arrangement would still be naming a common prime minister and having only one common party list. Therefore “we suggest holding out the possibility of coming to a possible understanding on these issues.”

(2)  “We recognize the validity of the MSZP-Együtt 2014 agreement. Although at present we are negotiating only with MSZP, we want to adhere to the MSZP-Együtt-PM agreement and we would like to apply the principles and their consequences to the agreement as a whole.”

(3) “The Demokratikus Koalíció is interested in the success of the negotiations and to this end the Party is ready to give up its right to form its own list and put up individual candidates.”

(4) “The desired agreement aims at concluding not a political but an electoral alliance…. From here on parties of the electoral alliance … will represent their own politics independently.”

(5) “It is our aim to have a common MSZP-DK list and to have common individual candidates.”

(6) DK believes in proportional representation when it comes to the individual candidates of the 106 electoral districts. MSZP and Együtt 2014 together have 1.4-1.6 million voters, DK has 100-200,000.

(7) Each party will have the right to name its own preferred candidates in the individual districts as well as on the lists.

(8) According to the unbroken Hungarian custom, “the largest party, i.e. MSZP, has the right to name the first person on the list and the smaller party, i.e. DK, will be able to name someone for the second place.”

(9) The two parties will prepare jointly for the election, they will name a team together and will jointly finance the campaign.

Even before the official word came from MSZP headquarters Magyar Hírlap learned from socialist sources that “MSZP is no longer interested in Gyurcsány.” According to the paper, MSZP politicians believe that leaving DK out of the agreement is more beneficial to MSZP because, according to polls ordered by the party, MSZP will receive twice as many votes without DK than with DK support. The paper took it for granted that as a result of MSZP’s refusal Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party will enter the race alone.

This doesn’t seem to be the case, however. As of this moment we still don’t know which three points are unacceptable to MSZP. In addition to these three unnamed points MSZP, which originally sided with DK on voting rights for ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, by now has changed its mind, most likely as a result of pressure from Együtt-2014-PM. Now MSZP insists on DK’s acceptance of this Fidesz-introduced law which in fact is unpopular among people in Hungary proper. MSZP also wants to have an answer about DK’s position on a tuition-free first year of college.

It would seem on first blush that there  is no reason to think that there will be an agreement between these two parties. But MSZP didn’t close the door. The talks continued, after which Gyurcsány seemed optimistic. He claimed that “we got one step closer to an accord” and expressed his hope that a final agreement will be reached within days.  Gyurcsány said that DK doesn’t want to reopen the negotiations, stressing that its nine-point proposal didn’t contain such a demand. He also indicated that DK accepts all of the policy concepts on which MSZP and E14 agreed. I assume that means DK’s abandonment of its strongly held view on ethnic Hungarian voting rights.

Gyurcsány found it especially heartwarming that MSZP didn’t raise objections to DK’s proposals for a common list and common candidates. He added that there was no MSZP criticism of DK’s ideas on proportionality. According to him, MSZP simply indicated that they don’t want to extend that principle to Együtt 2014-PM because MSZP had already closed those negotiations.

Last Sunday  MSZP-DK-Együtt 2014 logos together resulted a large victory for the candidate on the by-election in Szigetszentmiklós

Last Sunday MSZP-DK-Együtt 2014 logos together resulted a large victory for the candidate in the by-election in Szigetszentmiklós

If Gyurcsány’s understanding of the conversation with the MSZP leadership is correct, this would mean that DK would have the right to name its own candidates in 7 or 8 districts. In the 75 districts to which MSZP is currently entitled, all candidates would run under the MSZP-DK logos. And on the list DK politicians would receive about 10% of the places.

Perhaps Gyurcsány is overly optimistic, but if his description of the situation is correct, DK is not as badly off as I thought only a few hours ago. I still have some doubts, however. What if MSZP insists on leaving Gyurcsány off the list? There is no way that DK will ever accept that demand. What will Együtt 2014-PM think if DK’s logo appears alongside MSZP’s red carnation? Or perhaps Gyurcsány’s reference to “common candidates” doesn’t mean that they would run under MSZP and DK logos. In brief, there are still many questions. But within a few days we ought to know more.