Hungarian eco-politics at a crossroads: The challenges faced by LMP’s successor parties

Photo: Sim Sullen License: CC-BY-NC-SA Source: Flickr

March 1, 2013
Kornélia Magyar
After the split of Hungarians green party LMP, two strategies have been developed for a consistent eco-policy. The prospects regarding the upcoming elections are not extremely rosy for either side.

Hungarian public discourse is full of impetuously and passionately commented conflicts that lead to quick judgements such as this: “Benedek Jávor and his friends are just traitors keen on selling their party to Gordon Bajnai for a couple of mandates and are only executing the former prime minister’s plan to abolish the green party’s independence.’ Or this: “András Schiffer is just a henchman of Fidesz who refuses to cooperate with left-wing opposition parties and in so doing kills all chances of getting rid of the devil that is Orbán”. After LMP’s latest congress and the split between the party’s so-called ‘fundi’ and ‘realo’ wings, simplistic arguments such as these gained sway in the media. In what follows, I will argue that these often biased and self-interested judgements mask more than they reveal. The inconvenient truth is that both sides have (in their own way) remained faithful to the goal which the green party’s founders set out to achieve in 2009: a parliamentary presence for the eco-political alternative in the form of an independent political family. It is Fidesz’s carefully crafted new electoral law that placed the party’s two wings – led by András Schiffer and Benedek Jávor – on a collision course. In the following analysis, I will assess the chances of each wing’s strategy, last but not least in consideration of the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2014.

Strategy I: The Schiffer Plan
András Schiffer’s main intention has always been to deeply reconstruct the Hungarian party system – to transcend its bipolar structure. Since the transition of 1989, most elections had presented voters with a clear-cut choice between two firmly entrenched political blocks on the left and right side of the political spectrum. The cementing of these two blocks led to the emergence of a critical discourse that linked the inefficiency of public policy regimes and the perceived increase of corruption to this particular structure. LMP, a force that positioned itself against the ‘elite of 1989’ from the very beginning, was born out of this phenomenon. The slogan which gave the party its name, ‘Politics can be different’, directly reflected the perceived need to transcend the bipolar party structure. It was this which the party’s founders wanted to see changed in the first place.

The parliamentary elections of 2010, which political scientists interpreted as ushering in a significant change in the party system, proved that this plan was not wholly unfounded. However, the landslide victory of the Fidesz-KDNP alliance and the historical defeat of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) projected the possibility of a so-called ‘predominant party system’ – dominated by one potent party. Only time will tell whether the peculiar constellation that came into existence in 2010 will be cemented or whether there will be a shift back to the older bipolar model. Relationships between parties are still very malleable, and tectonic movements cannot be ruled out. This instability theoretically gives András Schiffer’s strategy a chance to succeed, but there is one important element that powerfully undermines it: the new electoral law, which shifted the voting system towards a ‘first past the post’ model. This model punishes the ‘independentist’ ambitions of small parties and favours the emergence of a two-block party system even more strongly than the previous one (in force until 2010). Moreover, it is not just the voting system, but also political culture that flies in the face of Schiffer’s plan. Despite the presence of voices calling for new political alternatives, voters over the past twenty-three years have been primarily concerned with casting a ‘useful vote’ – one that would not be wasted on small parties failing to break the 5% threshold. Other than this, the strongest mobilising forces at elections have been disillusionment with the government and the urge to dethrone the ruling party.
So why did András Schiffer refuse to take part in the burgeoning left-of-centre coalition seeking to achieve a change of government in 2014? The answer is clear: because he believes that such an alliance would strengthen the old bipolar party structure in which he sees no space for an independent green party. This decision is not without risk for a party which is still weakly embedded in society and which is largely lacking in infrastructure and resources. If the overwhelming majority of voters are again primarily concerned with dethroning the ruling party in 2014, LMP may find itself on a one-way street leading out of parliament. This is not only an unrealistic scenario; precedents show that if it materialises it will be very difficult for LMP to climb back into parliament.

But Schiffer’s plan is not necessarily doomed to failure. It could prove successful if there are three to four hundred thousand centrist voters who believe that the priority in 2014 is not a change in government but to prevent the re-emergence of the two old blocks led by Fidesz and the Socialist Party. On the one hand, we know that amongst undecided voters there are a large number of people who had already voted for either MSZP or Fidesz in the past. It is plausible to believe that most of them will in the end decide to support one of these big parties again, especially if the race between Fidesz and MSZP looks tight. (N.B.: Which of the two big parties these voters will support will to a large extent depend on whether the dominant mood is that ‘the Socialists need to be kept away from power’ or that ‘they must be a bit better than Orbán’.) In addition, the relationship between Together 2014 and MSZP (in particular the weight of these parties relative to one another) will definitely have an impact on LMP. For instance, if Together 2014 loses more support, and its role within the alliance shrinks to a point where it cannot assign the prime minister nominee, this will increase the chances of an independent LMP since the former prime minister and Schiffer target very similar voter bases. Finally, even if LMP overcomes all of these hurdles, the most it can achieve is a small faction with just 2 or 3 MPs, thanks to the new election law and the reduction of the number of MPs in 2014 (from 386 to 199).

Strategy II: The Jávor Plan
The assessment of former parliamentary group leader Benedek Jávor and his 7 colleagues who left LMP’s parliamentary group to found their own party, Dialogue for Hungary (PM), is the mirror image of Schiffer’s. They see LMP’s chances of re-entering parliament under the conditions imposed by Fidesz (and due to strong competition with Bajnai for voters) as being close to nil. This is why the founders of the new formation are convinced that the future of an independent eco-political party can only be secured through strategic cooperation with the left-of-centre opposition (presumably with the exception of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition). Their hope is that, in an alliance with Together 2014, they will not only be able to enter parliament but also pressure Bajnai (whose popularity has been fading and therefore could definitely use a boost from a new ally) into granting PM an independent parliamentary presence in 2014.

Relative to the advantages of this strategy, we could enumerate the factors that we have cited as underpinning the risks involved with Schiffer’s plan. Since these are indeed weighty, one may jump to the conclusion that PM’s chances of making it into parliament are better than LMP’s. But what appears at first glance as a safe bet (jumping under the umbrella of a larger ally) may end up being a mirage. Why? First of all, it is not LMP but PM that needs to introduce a completely new brand. In another situation, this would not represent too serious of a problem, but in this case PM is hindered by two significant factors. First, the new brand will have to be built within the framework of cooperation with Together 2014 (and perhaps the Socialists). Second, the presence of LMP is likely to confuse some voters. (N.B.: The practical consequences of this should not be underestimated. It could mean, for instance, that voters who want to support Jávor Benedek, Gergely Karácsony or Tímea Szabó – the former faces of LMP who mainly represented the ethos of ‘politics can be different’ – may not recognise that these politicians are not members of LMP anymore, and hence may tick the box next to LMP in the polling booth.) An even bigger problem stems from the fact that PM did not seem to consider seriously the fact that the strategic interests of Together 2014 are partially at odds with its own. While it is in Together 2014’s interest to have faces like Jávor or Karácsony on its electoral list, it is clearly not in its interest to grant PM an independent group in the next parliament. What is more, PM’s chances of striking a decent bargain with Together 2014 would be decreased if Gordon Bajnai’s formation chooses to cooperate closely with the Socialist Party. (This may well be the price that Together 2014 will have to pay in exchange for supporting Bajnai as prime minister nominee.) Finally, PM also faces a powerful communication challenge: to provide and defend a morally grounded explanation for retaining their mandates in the face of the charge that Jávor and his colleagues acted out of financial and political self-interest, and bear the responsibility for destroying LMP’s parliamentary group.

Future Prospects
By way of conclusion, one may first of all note that the split inside LMP was the outcome of a hurried decision – an unenforced error of sorts. Jávor’s group may have had the time to reassert control over the party by convincing the majority of delegates of the necessity to forge a minimal cooperation with left-of-centre forces (in order to maximise the chances of a change of government). It is clear that conflicts within LMP were difficult to handle (with supporters of cooperation pressuring ‘pro-cooperation’ leaders to make a move), but one could argue that it was part of the political task to calm tensions by highlighting the huge risks which the split would involve.

With eight members leaving, LMP’s parliamentary group will be dissolved unless the parliamentary majority changes House rules. That will entail a loss of infrastructure for both LMP and PM: fewer experts, less money, no mandates in committees and a diminished media presence. (N.B.: There will be no legal obligation for public media to report on either side in the future. and, moreover, independent MPs have far fewer opportunities to speak in parliament.)

The prospects regarding the upcoming elections are not extremely rosy for either side. There is only slightly more than a year to go until the parliamentary elections – precious little time to regroup, rewrite political and communication strategies, and redraw the lines of a fractured voter base. If I had to make some kind of prognostic, I would say that PM has a better chance of entering parliament than LMP. However, the prospects of obtaining an independent faction are dim for the new green left party, and there is also a risk that (if the change of government does take place) its representatives will find themselves amid a patchwork legislative majority facing tremendous and previously untested challenges. While the chances of LMP making it into parliament are less, a result above the 5% threshold would also be a guarantee of independence (even if parliamentary work would be extremely difficult with 2 or 3 MPs). The most unrealistic scenario is that both LMP and PM make it into the legislative body, mainly because Together 2014 and LMP are targeting similar voters (especially in Budapest and the larger cities). If, on the one hand, Together 2014 (with PM under its umbrella) manages to build momentum in the course of the campaign, and achieves a decent showing (somewhere above 15%), there will be very little breathing space left for LMP. On the other hand, LMP could find itself reinvigorated if Gordon Bajnai falters during the election campaign. It is also worth noting that the governing parties are planning to organise the European Parliamentary elections at the same time as the national elections (in May 2014). This means that the results of the two elections will most probably mirror each other, and neither green party will be able to count on a boost of support in the event of a strong showing after the first elections (as LMP did after the European elections of 2009).

What happened to Politics Can Be Different in the last couple of months can be compared to the classic prisoner’s dilemma known from game theory. The key point is that although cooperation would reward both ‘prisoners’, the pursuit of individual rewards leads them to ‘betray’ one another, in consequence of which both are left worse off in the end. Those who know a bit of game theory are aware that there is also an extended ‘iterative’ version of the game, where the classic game is played over and over between the same prisoners, and, consequently, each prisoner repeatedly has the opportunity to penalise or reward the other for previous decisions. We are probably at such a stage in the game of eco-politics. The game is not over, but the prospects for cooperation towards a common independent eco-political alternative are poor indeed, while the chances of being punished are high for both sides.

Kornélia Magyar is director of the Magyar Progressive Institute.

Dossier: Focus on Hungary

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has compiled a dossier containing articles and interviews on the situation in Hungary since the right wing government came to power in April 2010. The driving goal behind the project is to analyze and interpret the changes in the domain of public life at ‘half-time’, two years before the next parliamentary elections.