How Ferenc Gyurcsány broke the Hungarian Socialist Party

February 2, 2018

How Ferenc Gyurcsány broke the Hungarian Socialist Party
Photo: MTI/Balázs Mohai

Translation of “How Gyurcsány broke MSZP” (“Így törte meg Gyurcsány az MSZP-t”) appearing in 24.hu on January 30th, 2018.

Even those who follow only superficially the difficult-to-follow maneuvers of the Hungarian leftwing can hold their heads over changes in the cloak-and-dagger relations between Ferenc Gyurcsány and the Hungarian Socialist Party.

The Socialist leadership recently regarded Gyurcsány as the main marplot to democratic opposition party unity and tried to force him to voluntarily leave the political stage. Now they criticize him for not being willing to run a joint list with MSZP, even as they ignore his pronouncements. How did Gyurcsány once again become the main actor on the side of the opposition vis-a-vis his main rivals, the Socialists?

After leaving MSZP in October 2011, Ferenc Gyurcsány justified forming the Democratic Coalition on the grounds that, the Socialist party having failed to renew itself in under a year, it was more desirable to form another party at that time.  He also added that he and his followers would not take so “so much as a pin” with them. Then-MSZP party chairman Attila Mesterházy responded that his party would be stronger after the the split with DK because internal party disputes would no longer “sap their energy.”

Two and a half years later it became apparent that taking care of DK in this manner was not so easy.  Gyurcsány and company were the first to receive slots on the leftwing’s joint list of candidates (although its four representatives that got into parliament were not able to form a delegation). Then in May both DK and the Socialists were each able to send two delegates to the European Parliament.  The orbital failure forced the resignation of the MSZP presidium. By contrast, Gyurcsány showed that his party was a force to be reckoned with.

Since then the core of the tension between the two parties continues to be that the Socialists regard DK as a splinter group while Gyurcsány and company regard MSZP as incapable of renewing itself or freeing itself from its corrupt elements.

After some turn of events worthy of a soap opera, by the end of 2017/beginning of 2018, DK was in a position to dictate to MSZP.

Ferenc Gyurcsány even allowed himself to accuse his allies of allowing Fidesz to “finance this way and that” MSZP-tied political media and of cutting their own deals with Fidesz.

“Whoever eats from the palm of Fidesz unequivocally turns into Fidesz. It is not possible to get something on the one side while warning on the other side that this cannot continue. Who does this loses their basic ethical posture,” shared Gyurcsány at his annual state of the union address on Saturday.

MSZP party chairman Gyula Molnár reacted to his frank words in a conciliatory manner, simply saying that the campaign had started and that he respected the opinion of his allies, as well as wishing Gyurcsány and company good luck.

Nor did the Socialists issue a public protest when a few days later on (Olga Kálman’s prime-time talk show Egyenesen), Ferenc Gyurcsány said

“this was a warning, and if they like I could even add another shovel full.”

This was how Gyurcsány answered Gyula Molnár’s opining that the reason DK didn’t want to run a joint list is because it did not actually want to win.

Molnár had the following message for party chairman Gyurcsány’s colleagues:

“Expect to be treated the way you treat other people.” (“Olyan lesz a fogadj Isten, amilyen az adjon Isten”)

At a town hall meeting last week, Ágnes Kunhalmi (MSZP) also criticized DK for refusing to run a joint list with the Socialists, accusing Gyurcsány of preparing to play an opposition role in the interest of maximizing the size of his own parliamentary faction rather than setting as its goal ousting the Orbán government.

All of this is interesting if only because only a few months ago MSZP’s leadership did not even want to hear about Gyurcsány playing a role in the leftwing solidarity.  Let’s take a step back and see precisely what has happened over the past year or so.

From Botka to Karácsony

Discussions concerning cooperation in the 2018 election took place for the most part in 2016 when there was talk about holding a primary (for the sake of choosing the most popular opposition candidates for any given electoral district-tran.). From the outset LMP made it clear that it would not participate, and that it would run its own slate of candidates. Ferenc Gyurcsány stated that his party was not willing to cooperate with the Hungarian Liberal Party because (MLP founder and chairman-tran.) Gábor Fodor had helped Viktor (Orbán-tran.) by campaigning for a “yes” vote in the quota referendum.  (DK politicians then went on to attack the leftwing parties for getting behind (Zugló mayor and PM co-chair – tran.) Gergely Karácsony for ideological reasons. Shortly thereafter MSZP announced that Szeged mayor László Botka would be its candidate for prime minister, but in his annual speech assessing the overall situation delivered in 2017 Gyurcsány supported neither this nor the opposition strategy. Nor was it possible to know whether he had a plan to strengthen his own role on the left.

That tension existed between Botka and Gyurtcsány became clear in August 2017 when, among other things, the Socialist candidate for prime minister said:

“In my eyes there are democrats who, after falling from power, want to help new actors with their experience, and not those who, after six years, are balancing on the threshold for entry into parliament even though to this day they are the most rejected politicians in the country.”

Botka was right in that DK was measured at 5 percent. However, it was MSZP whose support began to plummet in May 2017 and which remains at a historical low point ever since.  At the same time, the Democratic Coalition has remained stable with the exception of a short decrease.

Despite this, candidate for prime minister László Botka frequently made it clear that Gyurcsány was a persona non grata in a coming together of leftwing parties, even though many within MSZP disagreed.  However, Botha’s ideas were supported by party chairman Gyula Molnár. They proposed an alliance with Gyurcsány’s party without Gyurcsány, even though is was obviously unrealistic for DK to contest the 2018 election with the Socialists without its founding chairman and most defining politician.

In the fall of 2017 it was still not possible to know what form the solidarity between MSZP, DK and other parties would take. Gyurcsány categorically declared that DK could not accept on principle that another party dictate who its leader should be and warned that MSZP was committing suicide.

Botka responded that whoever does not form an alliance with the Socialists was with Viktor Orbán.  By the end of the month, the Szeged mayor dropped his opposition and announced he was making a new proposal to the opposition, and that if the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány was acceptable to six parties apart from MSZP, they were open to discussing this as well.

Even though in 2014 DK wanted a joint opposition list at any cost, DK continued to insist on a coordinated list of individual candidates and its own list, even as the Socialists called for solidarity and a joint opposition list.

The impossible situation took an unexpected turn on October 2, 2017 when Lászlo Botka announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy for prime minister.  He said it had become perfectly clear that “the democratic opposition” did not want to win, citing LMP and DK.

According to our analysis at the time, we concluded that the move was favorable to Ferenc Gyurcsány, because on the one hand the absence of a joint democratic opposition candidate for prime minister held out the possibility of repeating the results of the 2014 European Parliament election, and on the other because DK could now require more slots on the joint list for itself than four years earlier, and it was even conceivable that the power ranking of the two parties might be reversed.

In an interview given to 24.hu, the DK chairman denied having defeated Lászlo Botka, claiming that the Szeged mayor had defeated himself.

“He wanted to eat us up. He said he would say what was good and that those were against them who did not like this.”

Following the scandal surrounding the nomination of a candidate for prime minister, Gyula Molnár stated that he was continuing along the way Botka was headed. They continued discussions with DK. Meanwhile they started feeling out Dialogue for Hungary (PM).  The work came to fruition at the end of November and the divvying up of the electoral districts was officially announced in December. DK and MSZP candidates would run in 45 and 60 electoral districts, respectively.

With this Gyurtcsány and company achieved the separate list they wanted.

In vain did the stronger Socialist politicians within the party want to persuade DK to run a joint list, they were incapable of doing so.  For this reason they roped in another party and candidate for prime minister: Dialogue for Hungary’s Gergely Karácsony, about which Gyurcsány has remained silent to this day.

But why doesn’t DK want a joint list?

DK doesn’t want a joint list because the party is better off running its own slate of candidates. Principles are not involved, merely electoral math.  Gyurcsány is certain that DK will be able to form a parliamentary delegation with at least 10 members (presently there are four representatives in parliament without their own faction).  This will only come about if it receives 7-8 percent of votes cast for its individual candidates and for its party list.

MSZP, whose support is at a historical low, could not promise DK as many seats in parliament as Gyurcsány wants. It is already bad enough for the Socialists that they struck a deal far worse than the agreement of 2014 and DK took a number of electoral districts in which traditionally the leftwing performs better.

In this game Gyurcsány can only win and the Socialists can be sure of not losing everything and their party not imploding in 2018.