We all know that the Hungarian political left is in trouble. Opinion polls month after month show that Fidesz’s popularity is going up while the popularity of the parties on the left either stagnates or actually decreases. Not even their most optimistic sympathizers could say today that the six or seven larger and smaller parties have much of a chance of effecting a change of government in April 2018. Of course, there are still nine months to the finish line and some unexpected event might turn the wheel of fortune in favor of the democratic opposition, but by now few people believe in the possibility of such a miracle.
Six months have gone by since László Botka, mayor of Szeged, announced his interest in becoming the Hungarian Socialist Party’s candidate for the premiership. The announcement was received with great enthusiasm. It was hoped that the successful politician who has been reelected mayor of Szeged four times would revitalize the party, which then would be able to gather the other smaller parties into a single political alliance that could attract the large block of uncommitted voters. These expectations came to naught, and with the failure to produce results came disillusionment within the party and among supporters of the left-liberal opposition parties in general.
There are several reasons for Botka’s failure, including some personality traits such as a lack of charm. To put it more bluntly, he is not a likable person. He also proved to be far too autocratic in handling his fellow politicians inside and outside of his own party. His refusal to negotiate with Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), turned the sizable bloc of DK voters against him. Finally, and this is the most important reason for the current dissatisfaction with Botka in MSZP, his strategy seems to lead nowhere.
By the beginning of July the Hungarian media was full of stories about Botka’s battling “enemies within the party.” He called the whole party leadership to Szeged at that time and read them the riot act. He threatened unnamed persons who, according to him, malign his name, leak confidential material, and falsify public opinion data with disclosing their names in front of cameras. In brief, he tried to portray himself as the tough guy. But the complaints about him by his fellow politicians didn’t come to an end. The word was out that if the popularity of the party doesn’t improve, Botka will be out on his ears by September.
After weeks of whispering, the first important MSZP politician, Zsolt Molnár, chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, published an article critical of Botka’s handling of the campaign. Molnár emphasized the enormous importance of the coming election. Another four years of Fidesz rule would have terrible consequences for the country. He admitted that Fidesz is still very strong and in the next few months the government will be able to further boost the party’s popularity, but he still believes that the election can be won. However, he continued, the MSZP leadership “must take cognizance of the fact that there is no chance of beating [Orbán’s regime] without cooperation with Ferenc Gyurcsány and DK.” Gyurcsány is the leader and symbol of his party who will not retire just because Botka insists on his withdrawal from politics. Gyurcsány doesn’t want to replace Botka, but he has every right to be a member of parliament on account of his party’s substantial electoral support. The democratic opposition should concentrate on the removal of Viktor Orbán, not Ferenc Gyurcsány.
It took about a week for László Botka to retort, but today he let it all out in an interview in 168 Óra. He indicated that there are some MSZP politicians who are actually in the pay of Fidesz, but, according to him, there are also several well-intentioned but naive souls who don’t realize that they are being taken. With their actions and statements they help Fidesz remain in power. I assume that Molnár is one of the naive people Botka was talking about. He made it clear that he will not tolerate “betrayal and collaboration with Fidesz.”
A few hours later Zsolt Molnár continued the verbal duel in HVG. He repeated his earlier arguments about the necessity of including Gyurcsány in a joint effort but, most importantly, he indicated that his position within the party is strong enough that he doesn’t have to worry too much about Botka’s wrath. HVG asked him about the risk that, because of his opposition to Botka, he might be placed so low on the party list that he will not be able to be a member of parliament after 2018. Molnár seems to be certain of his assured place on the list that is put together by the party’s governing committee (választmány). According to people in the know, Molnár is popular. From the interview it also became clear that Botka’s position within the party is not rock solid. There has been talk about going outside the party and asking Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd, to become the candidate of the whole democratic opposition. Actually, as far as I’m concerned, Karácsony would be a good choice. He is a young, likable man who successfully manages Zugló, District XIV of Budapest, despite a Fidesz-majority council.
Zoltán Ceglédi, a rather sharp political analyst, predicted earlier that the surface peace in MSZP would not last long. He anticipates that “MSZP’s history, recent past, and its current state of affairs make it probable that the winner of this match will be Zsolt Molnár.” Moreover, he goes further in stating that “it will be a physical feat when DK, the little fish, eats the larger socialist one, not all at once but slowly, bite by bite. It can be achieved.” He agrees with Molnár that “Botka, with his idea of a common party list minus Gyurcsány, will only run into a stone wall time and again.” MSZP is in the process of committing suicide, in his opinion.
Apparently Zsolt Molnár’s position within the party is quite solid. As 444.hu puts it, “the party leaders on both sides agree that Zsolt Molnár is stronger within the party than an average member of the governing committee. He is apparently an important figure in the large and powerful Budapest contingent. Molnár’s main supporters within the party are politicians who have official positions in city councils and who are convinced that if DK candidates go up against them they will inevitably lose their seats.
Lately MSZP politicians are less willing to share inside stories with journalists, and so far few of them are ready to say anything about the Botka-Molnár affair. Party Chairman Gyula Molnár didn’t want to talk at all, but he was emphatic that he doesn’t consider Zsolt Molnár a traitor, as Botka claimed in his interview. HírTV got hold of Ferenc Baja, a real socialist old timer, who pretty much echoed Molnár’s contention that the road to Viktor Orbán’s defeat is not through “finding internal enemies.”
As far as Gyurcsány is concerned, I’m sure that he is intently watching what’s going on in MSZP, although he tries to give the impression of indifference. We mustn’t forget that his decision to leave MSZP and establish DK was a watershed in the history of the socialist party. As the Hungarian saying goes, the socialists can neither digest nor spit out Ferenc Gyurcsány. Although he has been away from the party for the last six years, his ghost is still there, casting a shadow on MSZP.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if MSZP eventually split. Ceglédi might not be too far off in predicting that the pro-Gyurcsány faction may end up in the Demokratikus Koalíció. But even if the two factions patch up their differences, with the kind of discord that exists in the socialist party it cannot assume the mantle of leader of the Hungarian democratic opposition.