Opposition parties negotiate at the Agóra

September 6, 2017

Negotiations among eight liberal, left-wing, and conservative opposition parties kicked off Monday morning at the Agóra, a public forum constructed especially for the talks in front of Hungary’s parliament.

Often wearing scarfs or blankets to shield from the September chill, representatives from the parties spent their first two meetings discussing the merits of different electoral systems and the changes they would like to see in Hungary’s media landscape and regulatory framework.

The initiative is the brainchild of Country for All Movement (Közös Ország Mozgalom) organizer Márton Gulyás with the aim of brokering consensus among opposition parties on the need for electoral reform. Like many opposition politicians and critics, the civil activist argues that free and fair elections are impossible under the current, Fidesz-designed electoral system.

The electoral system adopted in 1989 after a series of political roundtable discussions was designed to help smaller parties enter parliament, even if none of their candidates were elected, by distributing so-called “lost votes” among parties on the basis of which they could send candidates to parliament from national party lists. The electoral law adopted by Fidesz before the 2014 general election turned this system on its head by redefining “lost votes” to include superfluous votes cast for winning candidates. The result was an electoral system that heavily favors the party or parties whose candidates won direct election to parliament.

It was this system that enabled Fidesz to retain its two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2014 despite receiving just 44 percent of the popular vote.

The Socialist party (MSZP), Democratic Coalition (DK), Politics Can Be Different (LMP), Dialogue for Hungary (PM), Together (Együtt), Modern Hungary Movement (MoMa), Momentum, and the Liberals are all participating in talks at the Agóra. Organizers symbolically leave two seats—labelled “Fidesz-KDNP” and “Jobbik”— free at the table.

In a friendly debate on Monday morning, talks centered on whether Hungary should have a more proportional voting system, or a perfectly proportional system. The party representatives talked about whether the country should have a two-round voting system for districts. Viktor Szigetvári, representing Együtt, warned of the dangers of gerrymandering, arguing that there is no way to maintain a district-based voting system that is immune from politically-driven redistricting.

Momentum, meanwhile, maintained the position that districts are acceptable as long as a neutral institution draws the district lines.

There was broad agreement that Hungary’s political landscape lends itself to a multiparty system, and that the participants all prefer a more proportional voting system. The debate, and specifics, will be revisited in later negotiating rounds this month.

Tuesday’s discussion, on the other hand, focused on the media. Debate centered on whether the parties should call for the abolition of public media, or whether the goal is to reform the current public media system. There were also differences on how parties envision a future media regulator. Participants discussed the problem of state-funded advertising in private media, as well as state-owned companies spending advertising money in Fidesz-favored outlets.

By the end of the discussion, there was agreement that Hungary should retain a form of public media, but that the current system must be restructured. There was no consensus, however, on the exact structure of a future media oversight body, with LMP in particular warning that recent history has shown an ombudsman-type structure is too weak to provide sufficient oversight.

“I really enjoy how we can talk so constructively and in a friendly way in this round, and I want to call attention to how around this table […] are those who can replace the government without Jobbik,” said Ádám Sermer, vice-president of the Liberals, after the end of discussions on Tuesday.

While the talks are the first time that all opposition parties are negotiating in detail on specific issues ahead of the spring 2018 election, the talks themselves garnered very little attention in Hungarian media. Like media outlets close to the ruling Fidesz party, media under the direct or indirect control of oligarch Lajos Simicska, who supports Jobbik, appear for now to be avoiding reporting on the content of the discussions at the Agóra.

Government figures, meanwhile, have accused the Country for All Movement of trying to  destabilize the country ahead of the election.

Negotiations will continue at the Agóra on Thursday, when the opposition parties will discuss campaign financing.