Socialists propose opposition primaries–Will it energize Hungarian voters?

The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) is taking a leaf from France’s political playbook and is suggesting a system of opposition primaries ahead of Hungary’s 2018 parliamentary elections, in order to ensure that the liberals and the left-centre field a single candidate in each of the 106 ridings and also nominate a joint candidate for prime minister. The recent primaries among conservative presidential contenders in France (those who sought to run under the banner of Les Républicains) was a success, with more than 4.4 million French citizens casting ballots in the second round. Hungary has no tradition of primaries and initial round-table discussions among representatives of the various centre-left and liberal opposition parties ended with in-fighting over which parties should be ejected from the process, based on ideological and other grounds.

The Socialists, as the largest party on the left–are taking another stab at this, but using a different, more grassroots and probably more unwieldy  approach.

According to the Index news site, as a first step, those parties and candidates with an interest in participating in the primaries must agree on a joint statement of values. This would not represent a joint party platform, but rather key concepts and ideals shared by all participants. It would, however, go beyond merely stating the obvious (the desire to remove authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Fidesz from power) which is what the opposition has done up until now, without offering a viable alternative. As just one example of a common principle that is likely to find its way into the document: participants may all agree to replace Hungary’s flat tax (introduced by Mr. Orbán), with a progressive tax. All parties, candidates as well as primary voters would have to sign this document.

Potential candidates would then have 30 days to gather 500 signatures in their respective ridings, in order to run. The primary would then be held in each riding over a two week period, with registered primary voters casting ballots in person, at a designated party office in each riding. (Some of the rural ridings spanning a larger territory would have multiple voting stations.)

Participating parties would also agree to run under a single banner in the 2018 elections. In other words, the left-centre parties would form a joint party for contesting the 2018 elections, complete with a single name, logo, brand and vision. This stands in contrast to the failure of 2014, where the opposition ran a single list with a hodge-podge of party logos appearing on the ballot and where party elites and functionaries, not ordinary voters, divided up the positions and ridings among themselves.

On the positive side, primaries will force opposition candidates to build a base at the local level, hold local meetings, build rapport with voters, awaken those unsatisfied with the current government from their slumber and do some much needed grassroots mobilization. Additionally, primaries can result in surprises–just look at both the United Stated or France. Thus far unknown candidates who make an effective use of social media can potentially unseat tired career politicians. The civil and community groups that have sprung up in recent years, held protests against the regime, but were often very critical of establishment opposition parties, have a chance to run locally under a joint opposition banner and to introduce new ideas.

MSZP's party logo, with the slogan "we are building community."

MSZP’s party logo, with the slogan “we are building community.”

One of the real dangers with this process, however, is the likelihood that Fidesz will attempt to subvert it using both physical and virtual trolls. Based on how the governing party “encouraged,” using lavish state funds, a plethora of non-existent or nascent political parties to field candidates in the 2014 elections and cause confusion among voters, this strikes me as a very real possibility. I am surprised to learn that the Socialists are not especially worried about this.

The other concern is that the Hungarian left-centre opposition can be its own worst enemy. The 2014 parliamentary elections, the 2014 municipal/regional elections and the recent attempt at laying joint rules for primaries all resulted in bickering and in-fighting, usually in front of live microphones, so that that the whole country could witness the disarray.

The opposition faces a tough time if it goes ahead with the primaries. If Fidesz smells a threat of any sort, it will use all means at its disposal (its stranglehold on public broadcasting and on regional and local publications) to engage in targeted character assassinations, smear campaigns and subversion of the process. But if the opposition parties succeed in keeping the train on the tracks, they may have energized their base and expanded it with new faces, less than a year before the next parliamentary elections.

One Comment

  1. Anything that directs the current democratic opposition towards the task of building institutionalized grass roots level presence in all of the voting districts is a step in the right direction. But I suspect this will be more like a one-off exercise, a tactical tool for electoral streaming, a campaign measure, that seeks only one objective – a reduction in the number of names on the ballot. It will not produce better governance, nor will it result in a lasting, unified and credible local presence for the winning party. Fidesz is the only political party in Hungary that understands how mass-political parties work. It is also best equipped to generate and harness the widespread public ignorance that’s needed to win in Hungary.

    Nothing is impossible, but I am not holding my breath about the effectiveness of this latest attempt by the socialists to circumvent institution building and hard work at the local level as a path to long term electoral competitiveness.

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