The somewhat surprising developments that occurred on Friday afternoon during the meeting between Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), and Gordon Bajnai, former prime minister and current co-chairman of Együtt 2014-PM, not unexpectedly created a huge discussion among political commentators. It still hasn’t subsided, despite the fact that Bajnai announced a retreat from his earlier position this morning.
When on Friday the two men got up from the negotiating table and held separate press conferences it looked as if even the partial results achieved over the past few weeks had been lost. Although there had been a tentative agreement on the division of the 106 mandates, Mesterházy made it clear that his party considered it null and void. According to this preliminary agreement, MSZP would be entitled to put up 71 candidates and Együtt 2014 35. These numbers, it seems, were not final. If MSZP insisted on providing the candidate for the premiership, Együtt 2014 wanted more than 35 seats. How many more is unclear. It was at this point that Bajnai introduced his idea of a campaign in which the two candidates would try to convince the electorate of their worth. After such a campaign the decision would be based on a couple of polls. Mesterházy turned the tables on Bajnai and suggested holding primaries.
Of course, each man suggested a course that would best serve his interests. So, let’s see first what the Bajnai group is confronted with. You may recall that sometime in June I wrote about an interview with Endre Hann, CEO of Medián, a polling company. In this conversation we learned that although overall Mesterházy has a 3% lead over Bajnai in the polls, this is due only to Bajnai’s relative unpopularity among Fidesz and Jobbik voters. As I reported, “Bajnai is definitely doing better with the voters of the so-called democratic opposition parties. In all parties he leads over Mesterházy–among sympathizers of Együtt 2014 (89%), of DK (64%), of LMP (56%). Even among MSZP voters 30% think that Bajnai is more qualified for the job of prime minister than MSZP’s chairman. Overall, 51% of the democratic opposition prefer Bajnai over Mesterházy (43%). That is not an unsubstantial difference. Translating it to actual numbers, we are talking about 200,000 voters. Among those who are against the present government but are still undecided as far as their party preference is concerned, 55% would prefer Bajnai over Mesterházy (33%). The difference here is about 100,000.”
In a poll asking supporters of the democratic opposition to choose between the two potential candidates, Bajnai would most likely come out the winner. Or at least this is the situation now. I’m sure that Mesterházy is aware of these figures and that’s why he would prefer a primary which, given the well developed nationwide MSZP organization, would favor him. I myself find a primary not a bad idea in theory, but under the present circumstances it is out of the question. At least for two reasons. First, Hungarian parties don’t have rostrums of their likely voters. If sometime in the future Hungarian politicians decide to introduce primaries, they will need to build databases of the party faithful (or introduce party registration). Second, primaries are held to pick a candidate from contenders within the same party. And Bajnai and Mesterházy are the leaders of two different parties. Primaries in the United States, for instance, are not held to decide whether a Republican or a Democrat will run for the presidency. Sándor Révész, a liberal supporter of Bajnai, in an editorial in Nepszabadság called the suggested primary a not so well hidden fraud.
On the other hand, there are others, for example, Andor Schmuck, chairman of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, who severely criticized Bajnai for his unacceptable demands. According to him, Bajnai might be more popular than Mesterházy, but he is the co-chairman of a party with a 6% share of the votes. Moreover, Együtt 2014 is not really a party but a coalition of different civic groups with no numbers behind them. He went on to list them: Milla has 50-100 people, Solidarity 250, Haza és Haladás (Homeland and Progress Foundation) 15-20. At the end Schmuck came up with 800 people who are organized behind Bajnai. It took them four months to come up with 90 names, which shows the lack of party organization and support. This holy mess (hercehurca) has been going on for eight months and people who want a change are sick and tired of it. Mesterházy went through four very difficult years when it was not exactly a picnic to be head of MSZP while Bajnai retired only to appear three years later, and now he wants to be the prime minister. As you can see, each side has its own valid arguments.
Mesterházy’s ultimatum also has another consequence that might not be welcome to the MSZP leadership. MSZP, like all parties, is made up of people with different shades of political opinion. Although MSZP has its share of liberals, there is also a fairly strong left-wing group whose ideas are strangely foreign to the ideal of western social democracy. One of the people in that group is Tibor Szanyi who, emboldened by Mesterházy’s rejection of any further negotiations with Bajnai, came out with the kind of demagoguery that makes a lot of people uneasy. On Facebook Szanyi tore into those capitalists whose wealth originates from communist oligarchs–like Péter Medgyessy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gordon Bajnai–who were not fit to lead a socialist party that is supposed to be a party of the working people. Gordon Bajnai might have been their prime minister in 2009-2010, but he is certainly not one of them. He doesn’t represent the working people. After all, he took away the thirteenth month salaries and pensions. If MSZP had been able to decide on its own, the thirteenth month salary wouldn’t have been touched. And I may add that they would have led Hungary into a financial abyss. Mesterházy needs these kinds of socialists like a hole in the head.
On the other hand, the Friday ultimatums prompted László Botka, the socialist mayor of Szeged, to raise his voice. I don’t think that I mentioned László Botka in the past, though perhaps I should have. His name often comes up as a possible candidate either for party chairmanship or even prime minister one day. On Facebook he expressed his surprise at the breakdown of negotiations and reiterated his belief that the most important goal is “the replacement of the Orbán government and anything else is secondary to it.” He asked for “more responsibility, greater magnanimity , and more wisdom.” He added that for those who want Orbán out of office the important question is not whether the prime minister will be Mesterházy or Bajnai. At last a sane voice in MSZP.