* Goal is to present joint PM candidate, party list by Sept-Oct
* Former PM Bajnai’s group struggling to gain traction with voters
* Ruling Fidesz maintains comfortable lead, already in election mode
* Leftist opposition has been divided between Socialists, Bajnai’s party
By Gergely Szakacs
BUDAPEST, July 19 (Reuters) - Hungary’s leftist opposition, aiming to forge a united front to challenge Prime Minister Viktor Orban in an election next year, hopes to agree on a joint candidate by October, former premier Gordon Bajnai said on Friday.
A decision would represent a breakthrough in sluggish progress towards an agreement that has been hampered by a struggle between Bajnai and Socialist party chairman Attila Mesterhazy for the number one spot on a joint ticket.
Bajnai’s newly formed party, the Egyutt 2014-PM, is made up of several independent opposition figures and some breakaway parliamentarians from the liberal LMP party. It is not in parliament itself.
It has been negotiating with the Socialists, the main opposition, to present a united front before the election due in April or May.
“To win, we need to be popular but we cannot be populists. That is the biggest dilemma for us,” Bajnai told a meeting with foreign journalists on Friday.
Bajnai, who implemented an IMF-backed austerity package under a previous Socialist government, said he aimed to have a final agreement in place with the Socialists by September or October at the latest.
Ideally, that would include a joint prime minister candidate, a joint party list and joint candidates in the 106 constituencies.
While Bajnai’s party has managed to hammer out the main planks of a common election platform with the Socialists, his new party has struggled to gain traction with voters after an early public opinion poll surge late last year.
A survey by pollster Median published on Wednesday showed the two parties scored a combined 20 percent among all voters, compared with 30 percent backing for Orban’s ruling Fidesz, while about a third of 8 million voters had no party preference.
Orban’s government has flagged pay hikes for teachers in the autumn, more utility price cuts for households, and is preparing new ways to help families struggling with debt.
His government is also running a media campaign touting its success in getting the indebted central European country out of the European Union’s budgetary monitoring procedure after nine years.
An anti-government protest this month outside the Fidesz party headquarters in central Budapest attracted just several hundred people, highlighting the difficulties an opposition alliance will face in challenging Orbans’ populist platform.
Unlike at the last election, which gave Fidesz a two-thirds majority in parliament, the 2014 vote will be decided in a single round.
“As it is a first-past-the post, we need to find a solution where only one candidate stands opposed to the Fidesz candidate,” Bajnai said.
If in power, the opposition alliance would scrap Orban’s signature flat tax, which Bajnai said benefited the top 12 percent of earners and left everyone else worse off.
Instead, Bajnai said, a possible new government would reduce wage costs and raise taxes for the top 8 percent of earners. That would result in an immediate increase in net salaries for low earners and boost competitiveness, he said.