The executive of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) unanimously nominated László Botka to lead the party into the 2018 national elections, likely to be held next April. Forty-three year old Mr. Botka, the popular and long-time mayor of Szeged who beat his Fidesz rival by an impressive 22% landslide victory in the 2014 municipal elections, has come across as more agile and no-nonsense in his approach than most of the dithering and feeble politicians in the so-called “democratic opposition.” When Mr. Botka’s name was floated in late 2016 to lead the centre-left’s campaign against Prime Minister Orbán, the mayor had three firm demands: the splintered left and liberal parties must run a single, unified electoral list, the nomination of the strongest and most popular candidate in each single member constituency and they must agree on a new left-wing political platform based on the concept of social justice. “The ball is in their court,” said Mr. Botka of the left-wing’s various parties and clearly indicated that if those three terms are not met, then the opposition needs to look elsewhere for someone to lead their national campaign.
On Tuesday MSZP’s executives announced that they were backing Mr. Botka, with Party chairman Gyula Molnár adding that Mr. Botka “is fully authorized to engage in talks with all the other left-centre opposition parties on cooperation ahead of 2018.” In a barely four-minute long press conference, Mr. Botka told reporters:
“We need a unified alternative, running together in the elections, with a single electoral list, 106 joint candidates and we must be an alternative that is ready to govern. These are not my demands. This is simply the bare minimum for the democratic side to have a chance in the 2018 elections.”
Mr. Botka did not entertain any questions from reporters, so it’s difficult to tell whether or not he would agree to choosing the 106 candidates in single-member constituencies through primaries. He did indicate, however, that he will begin negotiations behind closed doors with opposition parties. The question of primaries will certainly come up. In late 2016, MSZP’s leadership committed itself to holding primaries, so scrapping this idea will be a major volte-face for the party.
As it stands, the Democratic Coalition (DK) is not especially pleased with the fact that the Socialists went ahead and selected a candidate for prime minister from within their own ranks without any broader consultation. DK was even more rankled by an earlier suggestion from Mr. Botka that former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány not appear on the ballot in 2018. Speaking to the 168 Óra weekly, Mr. Botka remarked that fully two-thirds of Hungarian voters would never vote for a list on which Mr. Gyurcsány is present. He then added that cooperating with the former prime minister’s party, DK, is unavoidable.
“My personal opinion of Ferenc Gyurcsány is better than that of the average Hungarian voter. But this doesn’t matter. Only the numbers count: a stable two-thirds majority of voters would not vote for him,” remarked Mr. Botka.
He has also repeatedly emphasized that there is no going back to the pre-2010 world of MSZP-SZDSZ coalitions. It is quite clear that Mr. Botka plans to craft a more markedly left-wing message, geared towards the 40% of the Hungarian population living below the poverty line.
“The majority of Hungarians did not consider the previous socialist governments as socially just, nor left-wing, nor socialist,” said Mr. Botka, in a very clear dig at Mr. Gyurcsány, who served as Socialist prime minister for nearly six years, but who advocated for a Blairite Third Way-type approach.
“We need to finally appear left-wing,” added Mr. Botka, noting that MSZP has failed to do this, while Fidesz built its 2010 campaign on left-wing rhetoric, yet implemented a system of servitude when it formed government.
In June 2016, the MSZP party congress effectively slammed the door on Mr. Botka and his concept of a more markedly left-wing Hungarian Socialist Party. They elected as their chair Gyula Molnár, who was seen as a more centrist politician who had close relations with Ferenc Gyurcsány. According to a report by András Hont in hvg.hu, when Mr. Molnár took over MSZP in June 2016 a DK Member of Parliament turned to his despondent MSZP colleague and said: “Just accept it–it’s going to be Feri!” This was a reference to Ferenc Gyurcsány returning as the inevitable leader of the left.
The main parties of the left–MSZP, DK, Együtt and Párbeszéd–have a long, rocky road ahead, and precious little time. But Mr. Botka’s ascension shows what a difference a day makes.