Socialist disarray – Reactions and fallout in the Hungarian opposition

Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was a guest on ATV’s Egyenes Beszéd (Straight Talk) evening news program. The host, Egon Rónai, asked the leader of the Democratic Coalition: did he feel vindicated that after months of László Botka calling on him to step back from the front-line of politics, it was he who was was ultimately left standing? Would Mr. Gyurcsány’s party actively go after disillusioned socialist voters, thus capitalizing on the MSZP’s disarray? This time, Mr. Gyurcsány struck a measured tone in the interview. He noted that he is not happy to see the Hungarian Socialist Party in such chaos, as the democratic opposition as a whole stands to lose voters to other parties, particularly to Jobbik. Mr. Gyurcsány also stated that he has no intention of actively luring what remains of the socialist voting base over to his party. Instead, he intends to continue projecting a calm, organized, stable and professional image. Voters, first and foremost, want to see a party that is stable, calm and determined, rather than rife with constant conflicts. Voters also want to see consistency in a party’s policies and, Mr. Gyurcsány argues, DK has offered precisely this. He pointed to the party’s steadfast opposition to granting voting rights to Hungarians living outside Hungary.

Ferenc Gyurcsány in ATV’s studio on October 2nd, 2017.

Mr. Gyurcsány contends that many socialists may end up voting for DK, as this party is seen as “normal and predictable.” That said, the former prime minister added: his adversary is not MSZP, but rather Fidesz. “For Botka, everyone was an enemy. He spoke about everyone with a degree of snobbery and condescension,” remarked Mr. Gyurcsány before adding: “Laci is a very good municipal leader, but when it comes to his national political abilities, there is still room for improvement.” Those words were much more diplomatic than DK’s far sharper critiques of Mr. Botka over the past months.

Ultimately, Mr. Gyurcsány believes that now it will be easier to come to an agreement when coordinating with MSZP about who to run in the country’s 106 ridings. At the moment, Mr. Gyurcsány is still determined to field his own national party list, rather than establish a joint list with the socialists. Mr. Gyurcsány also emphasized that he is in regular contact with socialist leaders, including party chairman Gyula Molnár, with whom he has a cordial relationship.

Economist and political scientist László Lengyel, known for his close connection to MSZP, also appeared on Egyenes Beszéd. He thought it foolhardy and delusional for anyone to think that MSZP’s troubles and Mr. Botka’s demise would open the door to prime ministerial nominees from small parties, such as Gergely Karácsony, the affable mayor of Budapest’s Zugló district, or Bernadett Szél of LMP. These politicians have absolutely no support beyond the liberal intelligentsia of central Budapest. They are completely unknown in small town or rural Hungary and have virtually no political sway even in Budapest’s suburbs.

Mr. Lengyel was highly critical of Botka as well. “It was not his job to reform MSZP. His job was to run successfully as a candidate for prime minister in an election. He should not have gone into the jungle. He spent more time battling socialists than fighting against Viktor Orbán,” remarked Mr. Lengyel.

“His graves mistake was going down into the belly of the Socialist Party” added Mr. Lengyel. The opposition must stop bickering in public and should not engage in power plays against each other. Their sole target should be Viktor Orbán. The analyst suggested there was only one option left for the opposition, if it is serious about the upcoming election campaign. They must agree on a joint candidate for prime minister who comes not from any political party, but from civil society and they must agree to a joint platform. Hungarians are, by default, suspicious about party politicians, so a joint nominee must absolutely be someone other than a career politician.

Meanwhile, within MSZP, there is serious strife. Index reports that Socialist MP Zsolt Molnár’s allegedly conspiratorial and disruptive activities within the party have been suspect to many in MSZP for months, yet the party’s leadership did not seem to take these concerns seriously. I can confirm that this past summer, when I spoke privately with a prominent former socialist politician, he had some choice words to describe Mr. Molnár, implying that the MP was being deliberately disruptive in the party–something that could only help Fidesz. Mr. Botka demanded that the party leadership investigate Mr. Molnár, especially in terms of his alleged involvement with Tamás Lattmann, who  tried to dethrone Mr. Botka, with the help of his supporter, Péter Tarjányi. Mr. Tarjányi claims that he was tasked back in 2016 with finding an ideal nominee for the left, which the left–allegedly–described as “a heterosexual male between 40 and 50 years of age.” Mr. Molnár claimed not to be involved in any conspiracy against Mr. Botka and the MSZP presidium decided not to investigate.

This is a decision that infuriated Socialist MEP István Ujhelyi, who resigned as the party’s vice chair. But in reality, Mr. Ujhelyi’s conflict with the party runs deeper. Mr. Ujhelyi and his socialist colleague in the European Parliament, Tibor Szanyi, are not on speaking terms anymore–a completely absurd situation for two Hungarian politicians from the same party serving abroad as Members of the European Parliament. Last week, when a socialist delegation visited Brussels on Mr. Szanyi’s invitation, they did not bother to tell Mr. Ujhelyi that they were coming. Speaking to Népszava, Mr. Ujhelyi said: “MSZP was the only party that honestly believed in a change in government and developed a program, as well as found a candidate, with all this in mind. I truly hope that the party finally shakes itself up and removes from itself those who are laying landmines.”

Party chairman Gyula Molnár now also seems to accept a theory that he had previously rejected, namely that MSZP has been effectively “hacked” by Mr. Lattmann and Mr. Tarjányi. The party chairman also accused one of Hungary’s top pollsters, Endre Hann of Medián, of helping to undermine Mr. Botka by publishing a recent poll, which found relatively high support for a “new left” type alternative. Mr. Hann fired back by rejecting the socialist chairman’s accusations.

The Hungarian left-centre opposition appears to be in full meltdown mode. Mr. Gyurcsány, who is striving to stay above the disarray and come across as the leader of a stable political party–a type of peaceful island refuge in a tempest–may benefit by picking up a couple of percentage points from the collapsing Socialist Party, but will no more able to attract new voters to the left than he has in the past several years. Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán is on course to winning another super majority in 2018 and Gábor Vona’s Jobbik has a good chance of securing its place as the regime’s official opposition.


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