Dunaújváros and the future of opposition unity

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At a parliamentary by-election in mid-February, Hungary's opposition parties achieved something that until then had only been imagined as a distant and theoretical possibility. In the small city of Dunaújváros, each of the major opposition parties jointly ran a single common candidate against the Fidesz-backed contender, and won the election with a resounding majority. 

The victory of Gergely Kálló, a member of Jobbik, came after all of the opposition parties rallied behind a single candidate in a race for a parliamentary seat, the first time they had ever done so. Municipal elections in October delivered opposition victories in Budapest and half of the country's larger cities, but the strategy of uniting the parties behind single candidates saw its first test on a national level at the election in Dunaújváros. 

The results could be instructive for the parties as they prepare for national elections in 2022. Kálló won with 56% of the vote, 13 points more than his predecessor and fellow Jobbik member Tamás Pintér had in 2018, suggesting that opposition coordination could deliver success on a national level as well. This thesis becomes even more convincing when comparing other metrics of the two elections: despite voter turnout in the by-election being well under half of what it had been in 2018, Kálló's margin of victory was 192% higher than when Pintér won with only Jobbik's support. Opposition unity, therefore, unequivocally produced a much stronger victory.

My enemy's enemy is my friend

While cooperation between Jobbik, Democratic Coalition (DK), MSZP, LMP, Dialogue and Momentum paid off in Dunaújváros as it had in municipal elections, deploying the same strategy on a national level in all 106 of Hungary's electoral districts will present a serious set of challenges. As 444's Péter Magyari writes, electoral laws and tactical disagreements between the parties present significant hurdles to forging an opposition consensus. 

The parties have yet to hold meaningful discussions on the terms of their cooperation, but early statements indicate that their plans may not coincide. MSZP chairman Bertalan Tóth and DK chairman Ferenc Gyurcsány have both recommended that all six parties mount a single common list and run common opposition candidates against Fidesz in the 106 districts.

But Péter Jakab, Jobbik's newly-elected chairman, has said that while he would also run common candidates in the individual districts, he favors the fielding of two voting lists with DK-MSZP-Dialogue on one and Jobbik-LMP-Momentum on the other. Some Jobbik members argue that significant groups of voters in smaller municipalities would refuse to vote for politicians that were in government before 2010 (such as MSZP and DK politicians, especially former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány), and that splitting the parties into two lists would maximize voter support. For the moment, it appears that Jobbik will do whatever it can to avoid sharing a list with MSZP, which essentially cuts it off from Dialogue as well since the latter intends to continue its electoral cooperation with MSZP in 2022.

In any case, no party has suggested mounting any more than two party lists, a remarkable development since 2018 elections when the six parties ran five separate lists. Additionally, the presumptive agreement among the parties not to run against each other in the individual districts is itself unprecedented: in 2018, they ran candidates against one another in all 106. 

As for the timing of reaching an agreement, MSZP has declared it would like to have a deal settled by autumn, while the rest of the parties excluding Momentum would set the deadline by autumn 2021. Momentum, for its part, has said it will wait until Christmas 2021, just months before the elections, probably in hopes of continuing to gain support which it can use to secure a better bargaining position for placement of its own candidates on a prospective joint list. 

Even if the parties can agree to a framework for running against Fidesz, numerous obstacles will stand in their way. First, primaries will have to be held to determine who the opposition candidate will be in each of the 106 districts. In many of the districts which contain as many as 200 towns and villages (where the opposition parties have no local branches nor activists), holding signature drives for nominating a candidate and then conducting their campaigns will prove difficult both financially and in terms of the parties' limited human labor. With Jobbik still paying off major fines from the State Audit Office, MSZP trying to take a bite out of its debts, and Momentum receiving almost no state support due to its lack of a parliamentary caucus, the parties' financial woes could make a nationwide primary process economically unfeasible.

Second, electoral rules dictate that only those parties with candidates in at least 27 districts in nine counties and in Budapest can mount a list. Primary results could create a situation where a party coalition fails to satisfy this rule, disrupting their formation of a common list. Additionally, rules require that joint lists with three or more parties must reach a threshold of 15% of votes to take seats in parliament. Whether the parties can count on taking that much of the vote remains a question.

Whose Prime Minister?

The opposition parties running a common candidate for prime minister could strengthen their campaign across the parliamentary races, making the prospect of a government assembled by someone other than Viktor Orbán seem more of a genuine (and perhaps intriguing) possibility. But such a candidate would have to be determined by holding another countrywide primary, and would probably have to appear on one of the opposition lists. This could create further divisions among the parties which already have plenty of tensions and hurdles to overcome.

Two years remain for the parties to agree on, and execute, a strategy for unseating Fidesz. Their unexpected success in municipal elections and in the by-election in Dunaújváros provided a real-world demonstration of how a carefully managed campaign of cooperation could upset assumptions about the balance of political power. Fidesz-KDNP could still use their two-thirds majority to amend election rules at any time between now and 2022, but if opposition parties prove unable to overcome the tactical difficulties they face, such a move may not even be necessary.

This article incorporated analysis by Péter Magyari published by 444 here and here.

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