political compromise

Agreement is reached between MSZP and Együtt 2014

Last night after I saw Attila Mesterházy announcing the decision of the party leadership to continue negotiations with Gordon Bajnai, I thought that this time an agreement might finally be reached. I assumed that Mesterházy was stepping back from his threat on Friday to consider the earlier agreement between the two parties on the division of individual electoral districts null and void and in its place to hold individual primaries to decide which party’s candidate would run in each individual district.

Despite all the acrimony and drama that occurred during the negotiations, an agreement came unexpectedly swiftly. I for one like the solution. I consider it the most democratic way of deciding who potentially will be Hungary’s future prime minister.

So, let me outline briefly what the deal is. In the Hungarian system each voter can cast two ballots. One for the candidate in his electoral district and one for the party he prefers. In the past someone who voted for the SZDSZ candidate most likely also voted for SZDSZ’s party list. At least in the first round of the election. In the second round his decision could become complicated. Let’s assume that the SZDSZ candidate lost to the candidates of MSZP and Fidesz and therefore in the second round the voter had to decide whether to cast a ballot for MSZP or Fidesz. In this case, our SZDSZ voter most likely would have opted for MSZP’s candidate.

This time there will be no second round and a simple majority will decide the winner of the race. Under these circumstances, the opposition parties cannot afford to run alone. They must pool resources and agree on a common candidate against the Fidesz candidate running in the district. Otherwise they will have no chance. Everybody knew that from day one. The only argument up until now was what to do with the party list or lists. Should the opposition join forces here as well and create a common party list or not? The greatest proponent of a common party list was Ferenc Gyurcsány. It would have forced the parties to come up with a joint candidate for the premiership.

Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy at today's press conference Source: Népszava

Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy at today’s press conference
Source: Népszava

The new solution is a compromise that may have its benefits. There will be one single opposition candidate in each of the 106 districts, but Együtt 2014-PM and MSZP will each have its own party list. Topping the E-14 party list will be Gordon Bajnai; Attila Mesterházy will have the same spot on the MSZP list. And then the voters will decide. Assuming that the opposition prevails over Fidesz, if E-14 gets more votes from its party list, the prime minister most likely will be Gordon Bajnai. If MSZP has a stronger showing it will be Attila Mesterházy. I think this is a fair deal.

The real question is whether or not Ferenc Gyurcsány is right in suggesting that with a common party list the opposition could gather more votes than it could with two or more party lists. Those who today hail the agreement argue that this arrangement might in fact be advantageous to the opposition forces. After all, they argue, there are some E-14 supporters who would never vote for a party list headed by Attila Mesterházy and, vice versa, some MSZP supporters would refuse to vote for a list headed by a non-socialist candidate. These people, therefore, might decide not to vote at all. But with this compromise these people can have it both ways. They can vote for the common candidate and can also cast their vote for their favorite party. We don’t know, and never will know with certainty, which system would bring out the most opposition voters, but I tend to think that this is the better solution.

The quick agreement between Bajnai and Mesterházy most likely surprised Fidesz and the right-wing media. Magyar Nemzet made the mistake of publishing an article only a couple of minutes before the joint press conference announcing the agreement. In this article the author outlined the possibility of MSZP making a deal with Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció and the liberals (Gábor Fodor, Gábor Kuncze) against Bajnai. In the same article he reminded the socialists of all the past “lies of Bajnai” and warned the socialists not to believe him.

Naturally the government parties are not at all happy with the agreement, but for the time being the Fidesz spokespersons could muster only a condemnation of the two party leaders who “are preoccupied with their personal ambitions.” A rather peculiar reaction to an arrangement according to which both men agreed to step back and let the voters decide their fate. But who said that Gabriella Selmeczi and her colleagues on Lendvay Street are the sharpest knives in the drawer? They are capable only of repeating phrases given to them, and it seems that the top party leadership didn’t come up with the latest Fidesz response to such a speedy and unexpected outcome of the negotiations.

Ferenc Gyurcsány seems to be the only major opposition player at the moment who is unhappy with the result. He claims that the agreement signals the failure of the quest for unity. The announcement by Bajnai and Mesterházy is no more than a fig leaf that covers this failure. I was somewhat surprised by Gyurcsány’s reaction. But from the media I gather that Gyurcsány is offended by Bajnai’s decision not to work with DK and Gyurcsány. While Mesterházy is ready to negotiate with everybody, I gather that E-14 has no intention of giving up any of its 35 districts to a liberal or DK candidate.

I understand Gyurcsány’s anger, but I would suggest that instead of making public declarations he should negotiate first with Mesterházy and then with Bajnai, perhaps with the backing of MSZP. For the time being he should support the best E-14 and MSZP managed to achieve. It is not as bad a deal as Gyurcsány thinks.