BUDAPEST Former prime minister Gordon Bajnai faces one of the toughest political battles in post-communist Hungary as he forges a coalition to beat Prime Minister Viktor Orban in 2014 elections.
Bajnai has set out to build a broad opposition alliance and draft a new programme to help him oust Orban's ruling centre-right Fidesz party, which has become the strongest political force in the central European country's recent history.
"This government is not governing the country," Bajnai, 44, told Reuters in his first interview with the international press since announcing his coalition last month on the anniversary of Hungary's 1956 revolution.
"They are using their two-thirds majority to build a regime," he said in the interview late last week. "We have to organize a large, strong political centre of people of different values, ideologies who want to live in a normal developing European country and not one that is drifting away from Europe."
Bajnai, whose movement Egyutt (Together) 2014 now ranks second in opinion polls to Orban's Fidesz, told Reuters his alliance would lead Hungary back from economic unorthodoxy and end what he said was democratic foul play in Orban's regime.
The most indebted nation in the European Union's eastern half, Hungary has often been at loggerheads with its Western partners since Orban's Fidesz swept to a two-thirds parliament majority in 2010.
Orban took over from Bajnai, whose caretaker government backed by the Socialists instituted an austerity programme that pulled Hungary back from the brink of default with emergency aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU.
Orban promptly ended talks on renewing that financing deal and embarked on policies that included tax cuts for the middle class, Europe's highest bank levy, and heavy new taxes on big corporations, most of them foreign-owned.
Lawmakers rewrote the Constitution to reflect a Christian conservative world view and, in a flurry of lawmaking, cemented Orban's powers well beyond his four-year term, critics contend.
A year ago Orban's government returned to the IMF seeking a financing backstop to lower the country's high borrowing costs but has held stop-go talks with lenders ever since, with a deal still a distant and uncertain prospect.
A businessman known for a no-nonsense, pragmatic style of governance, Bajnai said an EU/IMF backstop would not replace good governance but it would be needed to allow ill-managed policies to be fixed to restore investor confidence.
"Partly because of lack of competence and partly because of political overruling of economic rationale, this government has not been able to present a sustainable economic plan," he said.
"The IMF/EU contract would be a sort of stamp on government economic policy, which is badly needed because the credibility of the country is in shambles."
SIX TO NINE MONTHS
Never a party member, Bajnai has been in the background since the Socialists who backed his government fell out of favor with voters in 2010.
He formed the Country and Progress foundation which compiled policy papers. He also taught at Columbia University and the Johns Hopkins University before the Egyutt 2014 was formed.
Egyutt is not registered as a political party. In a poll last week that listed it anyway, it received the backing of 14 percent of voters, while Fidesz got 22 percent.
One analyst said Bajnai needs to unite the opposition, which is as big a challenge as unseating Orban will be next year.
"So far this is a movement with a huge momentum but without any organization," Republikon Institute Director Csaba Toth told Reuters. "If the established opposition parties decide to oppose Mr. Bajnai then it becomes a very messy situation."
"I think they definitely have a chance against Fidesz even today, even in this fractured state... But the main challenge for Mr. Bajnai is now within the opposition."
Though numbers alone make it the strongest opposition grouping, Bajnai said Egyutt had no plans to run alone. It would address undecided voters and engage parties that wished to join, formulate a programme and form a coalition by September 2013.
That is needed because recent changes in Hungary's electoral law ushered in a partly first-past-the-post system that makes it nearly impossible to unseat a strong incumbent.
"If you fragment the opposition in this electoral system there is no chance to get rid of the regime," he said. "The electoral system is forcing us to build this alliance as one block... to build a coalition before the elections."
He declined to discuss his own role and said candidates for specific posts, including that of Prime Minister, would not be considered until shortly before the start of the campaign.
Asked what he had told his partners in the EU and the United States, Bajnai said:
"I tell them the job I endeavored to do is to be one of the main organizers of a credible opposition alternative to Fidesz. That is the status now."
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Michael Roddy)