Hungarian Socialist Party in turmoil: prime ministerial nominee and vice president resign

László Botka, the Hungarian Socialist Party’s nominee for prime minister in the 2018 elections, and István Ujhelyi, MSZP’s vice president, both resigned on Monday, throwing the largest party of the democratic opposition into turmoil a mere seven months before the national vote. Mr. Botka claimed that “secret agents” of Fidesz within both MSZP and in the broader left-centre opposition made his candidacy impossible. While not discounting the likelihood that there are people within the opposition who receive various favours from the ruling regime and who are indebted to Fidesz, Mr. Botka’s departure has more to do with something else altogether. From the first day that Mr. Botka, the popular mayor of Szeged, began contemplating MSZP’s call to be the nominee in 2018, he declared that this was contingent on two factors:

  • That the opposition runs in a coordinated fashion, with a single party list, and accept him as their nominee for prime minister as well;
  • That former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, founder of the Democratic Coalition, not appear on a joint opposition party list. Mr. Botka was adamant that Mr. Gyurcsány is so compromised and disliked in Hungarian society, that his presence on any joint list would turn off voters.

In the last couple of weeks, it became clear that there was no chance of a joint opposition list, nor would Mr. Gyurcsány take a step back. Just this past weekend, the Politics Can Be Different (LMP) green party, which has seen a slight uptick in support, confirmed their own nominee for prime minister, namely Bernadett Szél, and announced their own program. Of the small parties, LMP–which appeals to younger voters and undecided voters who generally have no history of voting for either MSZP or DK–would have been the most important for Mr. Botka to get on board, and these efforts failed.

In June, I attended a private picnic in Budapest organized in the home of a Hungarian publisher with close ties to MSZP. Mr. Botka was present, as were several other MSZP politicians, former ministers, left-leaning journalists and pro-MSZP cultural figures. Mr. Botka took questions from this high-profile audience of around 40 people and I could sense a degree of tension. People were concerned about Mr. Botka’s choice of messaging, which included a populist left-wing turn that spoke of taxing the wealthy. While that might not shock socialists or left-wingers in other countries, Hungary’s left-wing rhetoric has been very tame and centrist in comparison, for at least the past 15 years. I know that many were not comfortable with this rhetoric and suggested that MSZP should instead focus on a staunchly pro-European Union message in its campaign.

There is also talk of a coup against Mr. Botka within MSZP, involving a potential independent candidate–Tamás Lattmann–who had earlier on expressed interest in being the prime ministerial nominee for the left. Mr. Lattmann, a 41 year old legal expert and academic, claimed that he had the support of key leaders within MSZP and specifically named MP and a leading socialist Zsolt Molnár as a supporter. We know that Mr. Molnár and Mr. Botka had a rocky relationship. This past summer, Mr. Botka accused Mr. Zsolt Molnár in public of being a “traitor.” Party chairman Gyula Molnár did little to investigate this conflict.

László Botka (left) and Gyula Molnár (right)

Late last week, Mr. Lattmann aligned himself with Mr. Molnár’s expert on public security policy, Péter Tarjányi, apparently with the aim of removing Mr. Botka.

Mr. Botka hardly departed quietly and his departure was followed by public acrimony among socialists.

“I erred, because I underestimated how conniving Fidesz actually is and I also did not realize how effectively the political mafia had encircled the democratic opposition, including my own party, unfortunately,” declared Mr. Botka. He then charged that DK and the other small parties were only concerned with passing the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation and had given up on defeating Viktor Orbán.

“All they want is to secure a couple of places in the parliamentary benches of the Orbán regime”, said Mr. Botka.

In keeping with a style that has become his hallmark, Socialist MEP Tibor Szanyi shot back and said: “A leader is not a leader because he shits his pants and then pokes at his own base.”

Jobbik was quick to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the public implosion of MSZP. “MSZP has now officially stopped being the leading power on the left. The socialists are on the precipice of total collapse”–said Dóra Dúró of Jobbik.

And Ms. Dúró is probably right. MSZP has nobody in mind to run as its nominee for prime minister and it is likely that Jobbik will be able to break off a larger chunk of the traditional socialist base in small town Hungary.

Seven months before the 2018 elections, the democratic opposition is in significantly worse shape than it was in the months before the 2014 election. MSZP is adrift and occupied with internal feuds. DK stagnates at around 5% and cannot draw in new voters, except a handful from MSZP. Együtt continues to push for a New Left alliance that none of its potential partners are interested in. LMP had decided that it will go it alone and Momentum–stuck at 2% and with almost no money–won’t even hear of cooperating with anyone.

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