Hungary 2014: 2010 reloaded?

Hungarian Parliament
Kornélia Magyar

The main goal of this article is to explain why left-of-centre opposition parties ended the protracted period of negotiations by creating a type of alliance that exhibits uncanny resemblances to the former governing left-wing coalition (which was roundly defeated by Fidesz in 2010) and has hitherto been incapable of mounting a serious challenge to the ruling right-wing majority in 2014. To do this, one must go back in time and review the key events of the 2006-2010 and the 2010-2014 parliamentary cycles. As I will show, the alliance formed by left-wing and centrist parties in January 2014 (the Socialist Party, Together 2014-PM, the Democratic Coalition, the Liberal Party) was primarily a response to constraints imposed by the ruling coalition and to a protracted power struggle on the fractured left.

From the Őszöd speech to the two-thirds majority

The 2006 parliamentary elections and the events of the following months are very closely connected with the situation today. Preparing for its second term, the incumbent socialist-liberal coalition and Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány did everything they could to maintain power – certainly even more than they should have. In 2006, the budget bill which had been passed in November 2005 forecast a 4.7 percent deficit for that year. Both political pundits and opposition forces questioned the number, which appeared unrealistic due to an upswing in welfare spending. The extent of the miscalculation only became clear after the Ministry of Finance, departing from the usual schedule, divulged the accurate deficit numbers after the second round of parliamentary elections, which the Socialist Party won. (It turned out that the government’s prediction was almost one trillion forints lower than actual spending and the deficit had reached 9.4 percent in June 2006.)

Although there were rumours during the campaign that at least some austerity measures may need to be introduced, the level of overspending shocked the public and experts alike. Aggressive austerity measures, unprepared reform actions – for instance in health care (which generated intense controversy within the coalition) – and the revocation of a planned tax-cut plan created such tensions that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s leaked Őszöd speech (in which he admitted to having lied about the extent of the budget deficit) exploded like dynamite. In October 2006, on the 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution, angry protesters stormed the public television building. The ensuing street battles between radical elements of the right-wing opposition and police forces shocked the public and led to a protracted legitimacy crisis which Ferenc Gyurcsány’s government was unable to overcome. The government first lost a critical referendum on its flagship health care and higher education reform, and then became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals before being dealt a final blow by the global financial crisis. The sharp devaluation of the forint forced the prime minister to resign, which in turn paved the way for Fidesz’s overwhelming victory and two-thirds majority in 2010. With hindsight, it appears likely that an appropriately timed resignation (i.e. in October 2006) would have allowed the Socialist Party (MSZP) to prevent its right-wing rival from securing a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

The party system on the move

As noted above, in the spring of 2010 Fidesz scored a landslide victory and the left suffered a monumental defeat. But these were not the only critical developments in that year for a party system which had proven surprisingly stable since 1990. The other novelty of the 2010 elections was the entry of new actors – Jobbik and LMP – into the parliament. It was the coexistence of these two factors – a landslide right-wing victory coupled with the emergence of parties who attracted left-wing voters – which made clear that the party system was shifting dynamically.

Since 2010, some analysts have advanced the argument that the 2010 election could be the beginning of a new era in which the previous two-block system could turn into a so-called predominant party system, where only one party (Fidesz) is capable of forming a majority. This theory seems to have been supported by the 2010-2014 cycle. Although between 2011 and 2013 Fidesz lost a substantial number of voters due to its widely criticised actions, this failed to translate into a resurgence of the left. The phenomenon which had been witnessed again and again during previous cycles – namely, that sooner or later the opposition would absorb voters disappointed in the government – failed to materialise. The Socialist Party failed to make gains despite the (provisional) weakening of Fidesz.

The reform of the electoral system

What kind of influence will the new electoral law (passed on 23 December 2011) exercise on a party system which has been on the move since 2010? Although the former clearly does not determine the latter (after all, Fidesz achieved a two-thirds victory under the old, more proportional electoral system), the question is whether the new electoral system will foster the return of the two-block party system, and, moreover, whether it will ensure the dominance of the largest left-wing party.

These are still open questions, but one thing is certain: the new election rules played a critical role in shaping the relations of left-of-centre parties as well as the form that their cooperation was to take. Were the previous electoral law still in force today, we would be certain to see rival left-wing parties presenting their own individual candidates and running on separate lists. This is because rival parties could decide based on knowledge of the results of the first electoral round whether to withdraw individual candidates or not – and in so doing to take part in the electoral competition without risking undermining the chances of unseating the Fidesz government. The key problem posed by the new electoral system is precisely that the decision to run alone entails the risk of directly assisting Fidesz in securing a victory in 2014.

None of the left-wing opposition parties can afford to run on their own in individual constituencies, because this would automatically result in the victory of the Fidesz candidate in a first-past-the-post system. It was this prospect that forced the leaders of the Socialist Party, Together 2014-PM, and the Democratic Coalition (DK) to reach a pre-election arrangement – known as the Alliance – based on the balance of support shown in opinion polls. The fact that LMP will run independently does not contradict the existence of such constraints. Indeed, it is very likely that in some constituencies the LMP candidate will be blamed for a Fidesz victory. (N.B.: It is important to note that a putative decision to join the left-of-centre Alliance on the part of LMP would not necessarily have been respected by those who have green sympathies.)

This was not the only constraint created by the new electoral law adopted by Fidesz. Another element of the new electoral regulations, the new recommendation system, has made it far easier for small parties to compete in parliamentary elections. (To present individual candidates, parties now have to obtain only 500 recommendations, as opposed to 2010 when 750 were necessary and the electoral districts were smaller in size. Moreover, this time around, citizens can vote for as many candidates as they wish, as opposed to 2010 when they could only vote for one candidate. And the new regulations have also made it much easier for parties to present national lists.) The record number of 18 parties who were able to present a national list will make it difficult for LMP to re-enter the legislature.

All in all, Fidesz created a system that increased political competition while discouraging opposition parties from running on their own. Instead of allowing voters to determine the balance of forces between parties, the new electoral regulations have forced rivals on the left to enter into a previously untested pre-election agreement.

The frozen left

Fidesz’s political strategy per se cannot explain why the left has remained almost completely unchanged since its defeat in 2010 (although it certainly does explain why Fidesz has adopted the image of the “old left” as one of its main campaign messages). There are other reasons for this frozen state as well.

Socialist dexterity

Evidently, the electoral environment is not the only reason why the Socialist Party managed to hold on to its leading role in the opposition. The fact that the left did not completely collapse as was predicted by many – including myself – is partly due to the politics of party president Attila Mesterházy. The Socialists were capable of maintaining their popularity despite the fact that the party’s former president, Ferenc Gyurcsány, left MSZP to found the Democratic Coalition and despite the reappearance of another former prime minister, Gordon Bajnai, who headed the caretaker government that took over from Mr Gyurcsány in 2009, on the political stage at the beginning of 2012.

The question is how Attila Mesterházy, one of the party’s young titans who used to be an associate of Ferenc Gyurcsány, pulled this stunt off. One of the key arguments is that Mesterházy does not personally symbolise the failure of the social-liberal era, which took the edge off of the criticism to a certain extent. This in itself, however, would not have been enough to stop the whole organisation from crumbling, as was the case of the Socialists’ liberal coalition partner (SZDSZ) under the presidency of Attila Retkes. Unlike the liberals, MSZP was strongly embedded in society. This relative stability allowed the party to survive the catastrophic defeat of 2010. The third element is patience, in that Attila Mesterházy was successful in dodging all external and internal attempts to dethrone him making use of a good sense for tactics.

The notion of renewing the party was a central element of his internal campaign, and he has done a good deal to pull some of the former strongmen out of the limelight by appointing new young faces to important positions. A recent scandal over the putative commissioning of a fake video (shot with the intention of berating Fidesz) shed light on the fragile nature of the new structure, and led to the public reappearance of some of the old partisans. Still, looking at the finalised common Alliance list, an intention to limit the role of some of these former leaders remains palpable.

The dominance of MSZP was ultimately demonstrated in the competition for prime minister candidacy, which was won by Attila Mesterházy despite the fact that his rival, Gordon Bajnai, started from a leading position in 2012. The success of Mesterházy’s bid was primarily due to the tactical failures of his rival as well as an army of pro-Fidesz media and pundits focusing their guns on Bajnai, whom they perceived as the more potent figure.

Failed coups

Attila Mesterházy’s dexterity in itself, however, does not explain the Socialist Party’s ability to maintain its dominant position. LMP, which was also supported by left-wing voters disillusioned with the second Gyurcsány government’s record, was granted a historic opportunity after the 2010 elections: namely, to take over MSZP’s place on the left. But both internal and external factors undermined the plausibility of such a takeover. First, LMP was hesitant to embark on the difficult road that would have allowed it to transform itself into a people’s party: the old days of functioning as a movement and members’ strong commitment to the principles of grassroots democracy did not favour the first scenario. Second, Fidesz’s cleverly devised electoral reform presented the party with a dilemma that it was unable to overcome. As noted above, the new electoral system indirectly strengthened the position of the Socialist Party because defeating Fidesz would have required LMP to cooperate with MSZP. Working together with MSZP as a junior partner, on the other hand, appeared to undermine the possibility of renewing the left-wing alternative – a renewal which was necessitated by the legacy of eight years spent in government as well as by the fact that without it electoral victory appeared implausible. “To fight with or rather against” – this is the dilemma that fractured LMP’s base, leading to the creation of the Dialogue for Hungary party (PM) in January 2013. Unlike the rebels who first decided to join Gordon Bajnai and then teamed up with MSZP, LMP leader András Schiffer’s political strategy was and remains one of independence. Refusing to cooperate with the left is, of course, risky: LMP may fall short of the 5 percent threshold, but it may also be remembered as the party that prevented a left-wing victory in 2014. The path chosen by PM is at least as treacherous, however: accepting the pressures of the electoral system is equivalent to being heavily weighed down by the shadow of former prime ministers and a largely unreformed Socialist Party.

It is therefore not surprising that the launch of the Together 2014 alliance was a thinly veiled attempt to dethrone the Socialists. It is perhaps this promise, alongside discontentment with other opposition parties, which was responsible for this alliance’s surprisingly strong debut. (The first poll conducted after Gordon Bajnai’s re-entry into the political arena at the end of 2012 showed that 14 percent of voters supported the alliance). But the good times were not to last: even though the eight former LMP MPs who created PM joined Gordon Bajnai to form an enlarged alliance at the beginning of 2013 (Together 2014-PM), voter support began to plummet. The reasons for this are now clear: the reluctance to found a political party, the inconsistency of the criticism of the Gyurcsány government, the unnecessary rounds in deciding how technically to contest the elections, the tactical defeats at the hands of Attila Mesterházy, as well as the launch of a massive negative campaign by Fidesz against the person of Bajnai took the steam out of the Together 2014-PM engine, thereby further diminishing the possibility of reforming the left with every passing day. Beyond the strategic failures, the electoral system also tied Bajnai’s hands since the idea that some sort of collaboration with the Socialists would become necessary at least at the level of individual constituencies limited his manoeuvring room. The slogan “Divided we fall, together we win” turned out to be self-defeating, because it allowed politicians (most notably Ferenc Gyurcsány) who clearly did not symbolise the “change of era” advocated by Bajnai to claim the right to participate in the collective effort to unseat Viktor Orbán.

Although the initial cooperation agreement struck by Mesterházy and Bajnai in August 2013 – envisaging the presentation of common candidates in individual districts but separate (rival) MSZP and Together 2014-PM lists – provided Bajnai’s last hope to demonstrate his independence, the growing popularity of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition undermined this arrangement and paved the way for the reopening of negotiations on the left.

The rise of the Democratic Coalition

As I noted, Mesterházy was ultimately successful in relegating his rival to an underdog position and in presenting the Socialist Party as Fidesz’s main rival. However, the discourse on the “necessity of cooperation” which he had dexterously used against Bajnai was ultimately turned against him too, this time by Ferenc Gyurcsány. The organisation of a joint left-wing demonstration on 23 October 2013 (involving key figures of former social-liberal governments) turned out to be a monumental tactical error which allowed the DK leader to attack his political rivals from the main stage and – identifying with the ethos of cooperation – to demand the right to be included in the MSZP-Together 2014-PM alliance. Although DK was only polling at around 2 percent at the time, its leader managed to give another twist to the meaning of “cooperation”. From that point onward, this buzzword automatically triggered the image of an excluded Gyurcsány. (This image was reinforced by left-wing pundits who used the left-wing media – Klub rádió, ATV, Népszabadság – to express their expectation that a stronger and more united left-wing alliance would be formed.) This enabled DK to increase its support to the level of the parliamentary threshold by the end of 2013.

Alliance 2.0

The dilemma faced by MSZP and Together 2014-PM was the following: either they incorporate DK, taking the risk of losing voters who are repulsed by Ferenc Gyurcsány; or they stick to the initial agreement and let DK run alone, thereby risking the loss of all of the individual constituencies. The choice was a difficult one. The inclusion of DK could not only put off new voters but also presented a threat to the political identity of MSZP and Together 2014-PM: Mesterházy had based his strategy on the putative rejuvenation of MSZP and Bajnai had based his political comeback on the need for a change of era in Hungarian politics. At the same time, leaving Gyurcsány out of the union posed a risk not only for 2014 but for the ensuing period as well. Had DK managed to enter parliament independently, Gyurcsány could have used his status as an MP as a platform for blaming the left-wing defeat on the two other parties and for potentially becoming the leading left-wing candidate for the post of prime minister in 2018.

By the beginning of 2014, the consideration that Gyurcsány “takes more than he brings” (meaning that he puts off more voters than he brings to the Alliance) faded away in debates. Gyurcsány was able to exploit the findings of a much-discussed opinion poll showing that two-thirds of left-wing voters and half of uncommitted voters would vote for a left-wing alliance in which Gyurcsány would participate. This, together with the steady haemorrhaging of support for Together 2014-PM created an incentive to invite DK to the negotiating table. Bajnai calculated that DK’s inclusion would be inevitable and that he would be better off opening the negotiations himself, as his position would only become weaker with time.

The new agreements struck by the leaders of the Socialist Party, Together 2014, PM, DK and (as a surprise element) Gábor Fodor’s one-man Hungarian Liberal Party envisaged the creation of a joint party list led by Attila Mesterházy who was officially named the new Alliance’s candidate for prime minister. The creation of the joint list did not allow left-leaning voters to choose between rival left-of-centre parties and thereby to decide on the balance of power on the left. (The previous arrangement – using the so-called coordinated method – would have allowed for this since voters could at least have voted for their preferred party list.) Even more importantly, the creation of the joint list basically entailed giving up on undecided voters in return for uniting the existing voters of the three sizable left-wing parties. In the last part of my analysis, I will attempt to say something about the prospects for a left-wing victory and about the consequences of victory and defeat for the future left.

Prospects for the left

If the Alliance were to win...

Right now, the chances are slim that the Alliance will score a victory against Fidesz – not just because the corruption scandal involving MSZP’s deputy chairman and the Őszöd report published by the secret service are likely to stay on the agenda, but also because the Alliance’s current voter base appears too narrow to win (according to polls). Nonetheless, we should not totally exclude the possibility that dissatisfaction with the government may in the end override revulsion against the Alliance.

If the left wins, we can expect serious and protracted strategic conflicts among the parties of the Alliance. A Mesterházy government would have difficulty implementing its programme because of cardinal laws whose modification requires a two-thirds majority, and because the heads of the key institutions (the National Bank, Budgetary Commission, Chief Prosecutor, etc.) are loyal to Fidesz. It is also difficult to see how conflicts amongst the coalition partners could be eluded. It appears likely that representatives of different parties would be prone to blame each other for policy defeats – as has been the case in all of the previous coalition governments. Such internal struggles would be reinforced in this particular situation by the strong rivalry on the left and the overall instability of the party system. The most vulnerable actor would be Mesterházy himself, who, if not watchful, could be forced to take the blame for all the government’s potential mistakes. A reasonable limiting factor on attacks from coalition partners is the fear that these may pave the way for the collapse of the government and the return of Fidesz. (A good example of what we may call enlightened self-restraint was exhibited by Ferenc Gyurcsány’s minority government in 2008-2009, which was backed by liberal MPs even though SZDSZ’s liberals had left the government in 2008.)

I note that a less adversarial governmental strategy (one that aspires only to implement small, incremental policy changes with the intent of consolidating the country and harming the fewest possible interests) is also conceivable, but this does not appear to be the favoured scenario of left-wing parties (whose programmes contain pledges to withdraw key policies introduced by Fidesz, such as the flat income tax).

If the Alliance were to lose...

If the Alliance loses, we can expect even harsher struggles on the left, since there will be fewer incentives for working together. In this regard, the extent of the left’s defeat will be crucial. If it is a tight contest, there will be space for blame-games within the Alliance. (This does not pertain to LMP, which, as noted above, could easily become the target of attacks, especially if it falls out of parliament.) If, however, Fidesz wins with a large – not to mention a two-thirds – majority, we will see pitched battles on the left, with stinging statements starting on election night. Mesterházy as the prime minister candidate will be an obvious target for two reasons: first, this would be his second electoral defeat; and second, the joint list and campaign will make it harder to ascribe individual blame.

LMP’s ongoing quest for independence

LMP’s refusal to join the previous cooperation arrangement and the new Alliance threatens the (otherwise dim) prospects for a left-wing victory because its individual candidates may take votes away from the common left-wing candidate. (N.B.: I reiterate that a putative decision to join the left-of-centre Alliance on the part of LMP would not necessarily have been respected by voters harbouring green sympathies.) It is important to note, however, that changing the government cannot be considered to be the only defensible objective. When it came to choosing between the goal of renewing the programme and identity of the left and defeating the Orbán government, LMP opted for the former. This decision is both grounded in the party’s key principles and motivated by pragmatic considerations. LMP was born out disillusionment with existing left-wing alternatives, and it is therefore in some ways natural for it to pursue an agenda of renewal in the face of a re-emergent left-wing formation which in many ways resembles the “old” left. The pursuit of this strategy also appears warranted in view of the above-mentioned polls: there is a heterogeneous group of voters who are disillusioned with Fidesz’s record in government as well as with the politics of the reconstituted left, but who are not open to the far-right alternative. The question is: will there be enough of them?