On May 27 the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP) held its congress, at which an overwhelming majority of the usually fractious delegates stood by László Botka, mayor of Szeged, who about six months ago offered himself as his party’s candidate for prime minister of Hungary. At the time of his announcement I was enthusiastic, mostly because I didn’t see anyone else in MSZP who would have the slightest chance of running successfully against Viktor Orbán. Botka is a self-confident and forceful fellow who kept Szeged a socialist stronghold even when practically the whole country turned orange after the 2006 municipal elections. So, I said to myself, the fellow must know something. I also thought that his years as the leader of Hungary’s second largest city would have given him ample administrative experience, which would serve him well.
Over time, however, I started having doubts about the wisdom of this choice. It is one thing to be self-confident and forceful and another to be abrasive and aggressive. MSZP’s ineffectual and untalented leadership was so excited at receiving an offer from Botka, who had earlier steadfastly refused any role in national politics, that they immediately broke off negotiations with the other democratic opposition parties and assured Botka of their support. In turn, Botka promised an election and party program and a nationwide campaign, during which he was supposed to introduce himself to MSZP supporters and those undecided voters who could perhaps be convinced that he is a worthy challenger of Viktor Orbán.
Initially, Botka indicated that he would visit the other democratic opposition parties, but mighty little came of it. He did talk with the leadership of LMP, a party that had stressed over and over that they would never cooperate in any meaningful way with anyone else. I was somewhat puzzled by Botka’s decision and expected a flat no from LMP. I was right, it was a flat no. As far as the smaller parties were concerned, Botka simply ignored them. They then, one by one, announced that in that case they will be forced to enter the race as individual entities. That was bad enough, but demanding that the Demokratikus Koalíció’s supporters dump their party leader, Ferenc Gyurcsány, meant that for all practical purposes the Botka-led MSZP had decided to embark on the hard road to political victory alone.
That route would be defensible only if Botka’s appearance on the scene could make an appreciable difference in the anemic popularity of MSZP. But after six months of alleged Botka campaigning, MSZP is still hovering around the same 10-13% popularity against Fidesz’s 27%. The same as it was in January. Therefore, it is hard to fathom the enthusiasm that István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, exhibited this morning on ATV about his party’s prospects. He added that Botka was the best choice and that he is supported by the politicians in Brussels as a worthy opponent of Orbán. I for one would like to see some tangible results by now. I know, we are being told that “there is still time,” but I’m afraid that, given the sad state of the opposition, eight or nine months will be far too narrow a window in which to build a robust MSZP or achieve some kind of understanding among the democratic forces.
Botka’s acceptance speech was broadcast on ATV, and had detractors from both sides. From the right Otto Gajdics compared him to a Stakhanovite construction worker who is the puppet of George Soros. Botka’s speech reminded Origo’s nameless journalist of speeches at party congresses of the Kádár era, and he quoted some sample sentences which he considered to be carbon copies of old MSZMP slogans: “We are building a new world,” “We live in dark times,” “We’ve had enough of slavery,” and “Let the rich pay,” a slogan much criticized on the left as well.
Not only Fidesz critics found the speech wanting. László Bartus, editor-in-chief of Amerikai Magyar Népszava, was appalled by Botka’s misunderstanding of “the essence of the regime.” In his speech the candidate divided the voters into the satisfied and the dissatisfied. As he put it, “2018 will be decided between the satisfied and the dissatisfied voters. The satisfied ones will vote for Orbán, the dissatisfied for Botka. The choice is simple: Orbán or Botka.” Bartus finds this primitive Marxist worldview not to his liking. What about human rights, freedom, law, culture, intellectual values, human relationships, and principles? His conclusion is that MSZP in 27 years has been unable to shed its origins.
Tamás Bauer, formerly an SZDSZ member of parliament, was also unhappy with Botka’s speech and the ideas behind it. Bauer especially disliked the “Rich should pay” slogan, although I don’t believe that Botka wants to take rich folks’ money and give it to the poor, Robin Hood style, but only wants to send a message that the era of the flat tax is over and better off people will have to pay higher taxes. What really bothered Bauer was something that Gyula Molnár, the MSZP chairman, said in his speech: “Those who are not with us are with them,” meaning Fidesz. Doesn’t Molnár know the origin of this sentence, Bauer asks? It was Mátyás Rákosi who said “those who are not with us are against us.” It was this terrible concept that János Kádár changed to “those who are not against us are with us.” Clearly, Bauer worries about the electoral cooperation of democratic forces. The socialists “don’t seem to care about their allies, whom they humiliate.” Bauer, who is a DK member, obviously has Ferenc Gyurcsány and the leaders of other democratic parties in mind. As a professor of economics, Bauer is also worried about all the promises Botka made. Where will the money come from to pay for them?
Botka promised to introduce a subsistence minimum, to raise the salaries of civil servants, to cut the taxes of low income people, to raise the minimum wage and exempt it from taxation, to strengthen the rights of employees, to spend money on hospitals and schools instead of on stadiums, to launch a comprehensive rental housing program, to double the pension minimum, and to restore the thirteenth-month pensions. This promise tsunami strikes me as irresponsible. We know only too well that one of the problems with the economic policies of past governments stemmed from offering financial incentives to the electorate in exchange for votes. Time and again, it became obvious that government expenditures were too high and the national debt was increasing. Quickly enough, austerity programs had to be introduced. Perhaps one of the worst decisions was the Gyurcsány government’s introduction of the extra-month pension, which had to be taken away in early 2009 after the financial crisis hit Hungary. So, for anyone with a half decent memory, the promise of a thirteenth-month pension has a bad ring to it. I think that if MSZP wanted to raise pensions, it should have done so in some other way.
Today, Ferenc Gyurcsány congratulated Botka and suggested a meeting, which I doubt will take place anytime soon. The message via István Ujhelyi on ATV was that Botka will be very busy and will not have time for such a meeting.