Free Democrats after first round

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Free Democrat politicians' behaviour after the first round suggests that they are unaware that they have emerged strengthened from the campaign.

The sun had barely risen after the victory, but already the Free Democrat leadership had reached an agreement with the Socialists on which candidates to withdraw, without consulting with the party membership. This does not seem a self-confident move. It suggests that people are still too scared of a wounded and weakened Orban to take a hard line with the Socialist party. But given the level of support the two parties received, the Liberals could easily have argued that they deserved more MPs. After Gyurcsany attacked the Free Democrat education minister during his debate with Orban, Kuncze might, at a minimum, have shown a little less empathy for the Socialists.

The political scientist Tibor Loffler made an astute point recently when he wrote: "If the Free Democrats had not said in advance that they would govern in coalition with the Socialists, and had come up with a true alternative manifesto, then the liberal wing could have achieved 10 to 15 per cent levels of support." But Demszky's attempts to keep a distance from the Socialists in 2000 and 2001 were quickly stopped by the left-liberal elite and his opponents within the party.

We now have a situation where liberal intellectuals like Gyorgy Litvan, Miklos Jancso and Gyorgy Konrad insist that "the Free Democrats' reservations concerning the Socialists have ended in practice," and join together in praising the party's decision to stand down some of its candidates. It is understandable that a free-thinker has certain reservations concerning a Fidesz government that promises homophobia, prison for drug-using youths, and nostalgic hymns for Horthy and Kadar.

Nor should liberalism's strong anti-statist and anti-socialist traditions be forgotten. These traditions should be defeneded against the prime minister's rash spending promises. Gyurcsany has granted another 25 per cent rise for public employees. He has made transport free for the over-62s and increased family allowances by a fifth, to name just the most egregious examples. Yet everyone knows that the state of the budget cries out not for more spending, but for a Bokros package.

This does not mean that the Free Democrats should not withdraw their candidates to benefit the Socialists. But they should not make necessity out of a virtue, nor turn a marriage of convenience into a love-match. The Socialists have several times tried to restrict the freedom of speech with 'hate laws'. They have done nothing to reform the financing of the churches. They have prevented the closure of unsustainable village schools, and Monika Lamperth has not been the most demonstration-friendly interior minister. Whatever Gyurcsany has said, he has been unable to turn social security from a system based on entitlement into a system based on need.

The future junior coalition partner should make it clear that the alliance with the Socialists is not an emotional one, but the result of political need. They should say not that they love Gyurcsany the most, but that they hate him least. If they do not do this, then it will be prove that the Free Democrats' famed 'blackmail potential' has been quenched once and for all.

László Tamás Papp