Approaching election time: A united opposition, but is it enough?

Originally Published by Policy Network 22 JANUARY 2014: Original linked here.

In Hungary, all focus is on the fast approaching general elections. For opposition parties, and their sympathizers, the elections are daunting. The challenge for the left comes both externally, in terms of facing the unwavering strength of the conservative Fidesz party, as well as internally, overcoming the lack of cohesion apparent among liberal and left wing parties and movements.

The left in Hungary has been in disrepair, more or less, since 2006. The Hungarian Socialist Party, MSZP, won the 2006 general elections but the political calm was short-lived. Anti-government protests and riots followed in the fall when a tape was leaked of Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, saying that his party had ‘lied in the morning, at noon and at night’ to get into power. Though the speech in full targeted the corruption apparent in all Hungarian parties the sound bite was enough to bring right wing and radical right activists into the streets for a sustained period. Eventually, Gyurcsány resigned as Prime Minister in March 2009, giving his position to the entrepreneur-gone-politician, Gordon Bajnai. Bajnai acted as interim Prime Minister from April 2009 till May 2010 when the elections swung drastically in support of the right and radical right.

Uniting a fragmented opposition

Fast-forward to 2014 and the political landscape has shifted from what was once a strong bipolar system between the right (Fidesz) and left (MSZP), to a Fidesz-majority government opposed by a group of splintered and fragmented liberal and left wing parties and anti-government movements. Since the 2010 general elections, which gave Fidesz a two-third majority in parliament, the left has changed, though many of the same political faces remain.

By October 2011 Ferenc Gyurcsány announced his departure from MSZP with a group of followers, creating the new left wing party, Democratic Coalition (DK). One year later Gordon Bajnai united two anti-government movements (Milla and Szolidaritás) to create the movement-party Together 2014. Even the older liberal party, SZDSZ, who failed to pass the 5% electoral threshold in 2010, rebranded itself in April 2013, now the Hungarian Liberal Party, led by former MP and SZDSZ president Gábor Fodor.  Meanwhile left-leaning MSZP still remains the strongest, though greatly deflated, opposition party led by Attila Mesterházy.

While the Together 2014 movement-party was created specifically to unite opposition forces it took over a year to bargain conditions for the leading opposition parties to work together. Negotiating a joint candidacy was fraught with inter-party clashes and personality conflicts between heads of parties, over whose name would appear first on the candidacy list, among other issues.

On January 7th heads of opposition parties finally agreed on a joint candidacy between MSZP, Together 2014, Democratic Coalition and the Hungarian Liberal Party. While Bajnai was thought to be the sure lead candidate a few months ago shifting opinion polls and the negotiating powers of MSZP resulted in Mesterházy being named the official coalition leader.

Chances for the opposition in the 2014 elections

The most recent election polls, taken after the opposition announced its coalition, still show that the liberal-left has much to do if they will stand a chance against Fidesz in the April elections. As seen by the figure below, if the elections were to take place now, Fidesz would easily win. The combined voter support for the liberal-left opposition is currently at 21% while Fidesz has 37%. These figures are even more in favor of the right when looking at decided voters where the opposition has 25% voter support compared with Fidesz’s 47%.

Figure 1.

NOTE: The figure above shows the total percentages of voter support given to Fidesz and the main opposition parties. Data comes from Nézőpont Polls taken 6-9 January 2014.

The fate of the opposition in the 2014 general elections will depend greatly on its ability to inspire the undecided and uninterested populace, which currently makes up around 35% of voters. The difficulty the opposition faces is paired with a new electoral format and smaller parliament, instated by Fidesz legislation. This will be the first time in Hungary that elections will be determined by a single round of voting, rather than two-rounds, and the number of MPs will be reduced from 386 down to 199.

Electoral outcomes will also depend on Fidesz’s ability to maintain their support base and keep their super majority in parliament. If Fidesz loses its two-third majority there is a chance for the opposition to have more bargaining power in parliament. There are also questions about Fidesz’s ability, or willingness, to create an alliance with radical right party Jobbik in order to keep their parliamentary power. Either way, the 2014 Hungarian elections will dictate the direction Hungary takes for the next four years; continuing with the nationalist conservative direction of Fidesz or placing faith in a new opposition coalition which spans the liberal-left spectrum.

Dr. Erin Marie Saltman is a research project officer at the London-based think tank Quilliam and an expert in Hungarian political socialization.

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