After about a month of total silence László Botka finally seems ready to take center stage and begin his election campaign in earnest. The opening salvo was a long interview he gave to Népszava in which he declared war not just against Fidesz and the Orbán government but also against the “small liberal parties” on the democratic side. Which parties is he talking about? All the parties on the left with the exception of MSZP.
Initially Botka promised to visit all of these parties with the exception of the Demokratikus Koalíció, whose chairman is unacceptable to the MSZP candidate. Botka began his “negotiations” with LMP, which I found a strange choice given LMP’s negative attitude toward joint political action. I have since come to believe that his choice of LMP as the first party to visit was intentional. After what he had to know would be a rejection by LMP, he could stop the “unity game,” which in his opinion led nowhere in 2014 and will certainly lead nowhere in 2018. He decided that he will go it alone and will “hold negotiations” with the electorate. Talks with other parties are “just a waste of time.”
Botka was adamant from the very beginning that Ferenc Gyurcsány must remove himself from the political arena and that the leaderless Demokratikus Koalíció should simply follow his and MSZP’s lead. I doubt that Botka ever seriously believed that Gyurcsány would oblige. Indeed, in no time Gyurcsány said that he has no intention of leaving his voters, who just reelected him chairman of DK.
So, two possible allies of MSZP–LMP and DK–were removed from the list, leaving only “the small liberal parties.” After this interview, however, it is unlikely that the politicians of these parties will be willing to negotiate with Botka about anything.
Throughout the interview Botka did his best to discredit “the small liberal parties” in every way possible. He expressed his great disappointment over the fact that the liberal politicians, who had been very encouraging when he first announced his candidacy, soon cooled toward him. In his interpretation this means that “they don’t believe in victory in 2018 and they got frightened.” This behavior of the liberal leaders prompted him to change strategy and give up negotiations altogether. He is not afraid, he believes that victory is possible. And that’s why he “doesn’t want to come to an agreement with the liberal party leaders who are stuck in their own selfish interests.” He will negotiate only with the voters. This, of course, is sophistry. One could come up with many reasons for their reluctance, among them Botka’s attitudes and his somewhat dictatorial ways. For instance, it was his imperious style that cost him his position as chairman of MSZP’s board last summer.
Botka continued his attack, accusing “the small liberal parties that exist at the border of being and not being” of actually wanting to maintain the current political setup. They want to get a few seats in parliament as part of the opposition, but they don’t want to remove the Orbán government. Therefore, the liberals, Jobbik, and Fidesz have the same goal: the maintenance of the status quo. MSZP is the only party that wants change and actually represents the interests of the people. Even so, Botka made an effort to seem marginally conciliatory: “my door is still open, but I will not put a comma where a period must be placed.”
I believe this is straight talk, and therefore for the time being any cooperation among the parties of the democratic opposition is over. Each party will campaign alone. MSZP launched its campaign in Miskolc, formerly an industrial city in the poorest region of the country. It was once a socialist bastion but has been under Fidesz leadership since 2010. Also, it was in this region that MSZP lost a lot of voters to Jobbik. So, starting the MSZP campaign there made a lot of sense.
MSZP’s campaign slogan is “Justice to be done, the rich will pay.” Some newspapers interpreted this slogan to mean that Botka’s final goal is “income equality,” which he denied in the interview. Still, his heavy emphasis on the disparity between rich and poor gave that impression and apparently frightened some people. Even the reporter who interviewed Botka in Népszava asked: “So, then you will draw a sword against the rich?”
The slogan may be overly aggressive, but given the poverty that exists in Hungary, Botka’s emphasis on improving the living standards of the poor and helping the lower-middle classes with tax breaks is a good strategy. There’s no question that the flat tax introduced by the Orbán government must be abolished.
The question is whether this kind of program will make a difference as far as MSZP’s current poor showing in the polls is concerned. Will the party be able to garner enough support to win the battle with Fidesz on its own? Will this program resonate with the skeptical, disillusioned millions who right now don’t know where to turn? Will Botka’s program attract another one million voters the party needs to be competitive? If yes, Botka’s dismissal of the “small liberal parties” might not have been too hasty a decision. But that is a big “if.” What if the half a million or more non-MSZP voters on the left are turned off by Botka’s high-handed manner and refuse to support MSZP?
Botka’s success or failure depends on what happens to MSZP after the announcement of a strategy that moves away from the “third road” strategy of MSZP over the past ten to fifteen years. Will a social democratic program aimed at capturing the vote of the physical workers whom he called by the slang expression “melósok” be enough? There were millions of “melósok” prior to 1990, but today the description is dated, recalling bygone days. Still, perhaps the promise of a better life will move the apathetic uncommitted voters.