Let the rich pay! A new left-wing populism in Hungary?

The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) launched its new campaign and national tour on Thursday and kept its central slogan as simple as possible: “Let the rich pay!” Standing in front of a grey, socialist era apartment block and a billboard featuring László Botka, the Socialist candidate for prime minister in 2018 with the words: “Let’s do justice — Let the rich pay,” Mr. Botka and MSZP chairman Gyula Molnár announced that an MSZP government would impose a special tax on luxury products, as well as higher taxes on Hungarians earning more than 1 million forints per month (approx. C$4,600). Additionally, anyone with property or real estate valued at more than 100 million forints can also expect to pay additional taxes. It is worth noting that at this time, there is no unified property tax system in Hungary as such. Some districts or municipalities will charge their own very modest property taxes.

Mr. Botka indicated that approximately 200,000 Hungarians would be impacted by the new tax on luxury goods, as well as a progressive income tax regime. The additional taxes on the wealthiest would bring in an extra 300 billion forints for the state. This would then be used to decrease the tax burden on those with modest incomes, as well as fund and expand social solidarity programs.

László Botka and Gyula Molnár. Photo: MTI.

The MSZP politicians only presented the broad concept of the heavily left-leaning bread-and-butter economic platform on which they plan to run in the spring 2018 national elections. They plan to actually finalize the details during the national tour launched this week, when they meet with ordinary voters in towns and villages across the country.

Mr. Botka noted that 50% of Hungarians have no savings beyond owning their primary residence, at most. A remaining 45% of Hungarians have no major material possessions, beyond an apartment or house and a car, while only 5% of the population would have what one might consider relatively comfortable savings or additional possessions. Two-thirds of all Hungarians would have difficulty paying for sudden, unexpected expenses.

Viktor Orbán won his initial landslide victory in 2010 in significant part by usurping the political language and economic populism that one would associate with the left. At the time, he opposed the hospital and doctor user fees that the previous MSZP government implemented, as well as tuition in colleges and universities, and even spearheaded a successful referendum against these policies. Mr. Orbán certainly did not run on a traditionally conservative platform in 2010 and the left allowed Fidesz (and to a more limited extent Jobbik) to woo the large cross section of Hungarians whose main concern focuses on the most rudimentary bread and butter issues, and not on any “lofty” ideals of liberal democracy or personal freedoms. Of course, we know that Mr. Orbán established a regime built on crony capitalism, while keeping people occupied with diversion tactics, fear mongering and the occasional modest carrot–such as cuts in utility fees.

The brand of left-wing economics now espoused by MSZP, at least in terms of rhetoric, has not been seen in Hungary since 1994, when Gyula Horn brought the Socialists back to power. Will the party’s decision to change gears and spend time outside of Budapest television studies and in small town Hungary bear fruit? Jobbik has been weakened in the past several months, so MSZP may be able to bring home some of its voters who have wandered off. But MSZP will need to do more than merely resurrect parts of its traditional, historic voting base.

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