It is important to confront bluster with straight talk, says Budapest District 13 mayor József Tóth (MSZP)

March 1, 2017

Translation of interview with long-serving Budapest District 13 mayor József Tóth appearing in print weekly 168óra on February 28, 2017 under the title “Without cooperation there will be no change of government.”

The entire left wing has been jostling for position and now they have started passing the buck, said one of Hungary’s most successful Socialist mayors. József Tóth has lined up with the leaders of thirty left-wing councils behind László Botka. Tóth believes today’s opposition parties have forgotten two things: how to campaign and how to work. If the right wing chooses the route of corruption, trading political positions and gangster power, it will win again in 2018, he told 168óra. The MSZP must choose its candidate for prime minister as soon as possible, even as early as this year’s spring congress, said Tóth. And he does not want to run down [former prime minister Ferenc] Gyurcsány.

You were among 32 mayors who came out in support of the Socialist Party’s (MSZP) László Botka in a public statement. You called on other town leaders to join in. Did they?

Look at this map, the red symbols show that town and village leaders from east to west have signed up. Since we issued our statement, six more have signalled that they will join us. Mayors representing 465,000 citizens have lined up with us so far. Fifty-five percent stood on behalf of the MSZP or other left-wing parties, organisations and associations in the election, while the rest ran as independents. The political rhetoric is inflated but those who have joined are well supported, trusted, directly elected leaders. There were some who said they cannot come with us yet.

Photo: Ivola Bazánth

Why not?

Because of their towns, their applications for tenders, and also they feared for themselves.

You didn’t hesitate?

No. I have been the leader of the Society of Left-wing Councils for over ten years. During this time I have worked in opposition and under the MSZP government. I worked with poor Laci Toller, the former mayor of Pécs, and we fought shoulder to shoulder through both periods on behalf of our towns.

Why have you only now begun your appeal?

Until now there was no candidate. You may ask, is Botka a good candidate?  Yes. Trustworthy? Of course.  Has he proven himself? Yes. Naturally, one can also ask whether there are any left-wingers in Hungary. What is for certain is that Laci Botka has taken on the left-wing programme.

You still haven’t answered one of my questions: are there really any left-wing voters left in Hungary?

There is sociological evidence for this.

But according to political analysts, the left is strong mainly in the capital, while the small towns and villages belong to the right.

But that depends which way the wind is blowing. People like to follow strong, trustworthy people. Both of these are true of Laci. With him, a change of atmosphere can be created. Today’s public debate is dominated by bluster, and it is important to confront this with straight talk.

In your statement you say it is unacceptable that the government is hollowing out local councils, and – as you put it – distributing indispensable sources of funding as a kind of patronage. You write that you want a just country built on solidarity. Is it really possible for a mayor of Szeged [Botka] to bring this about?

With Laci, after the 2010 elections, it was said in parliament that the government was preparing to hollow out local councils, and even to turn them into vassals. Moreover, the [new] constitution does not stipulate that citizens have a right to self-government. We were proved right: there is something wrong with a system where 60% of local councils have to beg for supplementary support that comes in the form of cash distributed to cronies. Just take a look how many local government officials became the number one man in a country. Mayors move in the real world and feel the concerns of the people first-hand. A person with this experience is also capable of leading a country.

Has Botka discussed the programme with you? He said he would introduce a basic pension and a basic income, a tax on wealth, a transparent system of tax declaration, and an obligatory declaration of interests for participants in public tenders.

We did not discuss it but I agree with him on 95% of things.

That leaves 5%.

One could argue about, for example, the literature on unconditional basic incomes: how and under what conditions it could be introduced. This is now being considered from east to west in Hungary. Along with Botka, we think it is unprecedented that communities are receiving no sources of social assistance. The government argues hypocritically that there will be full employment, although there is no need for it.

Have you thought that the council leaders joining Botka could coalesce into a movement or a political party?

Not for the time being. We have a prime ministerial candidate but we have to build a base beneath him. An important part of this is the civil sector, whose support could consolidate his position.

Provincial socialist mayors told 168óra that they had in mind a system built on three poles, with a group of credible left-wing professionals alongside the MSZP while, in the future, a democratic right-wing force could be brought into being. They believe such an alliance would attract independent mayors, too.

It is not enough just to win over left-wing and undecided voters. We have to lure back those who switched allegiance to the right

How?

I have been a firm believer in practical work and networking for the past 23 years. Unfortunately today’s opposition parties have forgotten two things: how to campaign and how to work. They believe that a politician’s job is done once they have spoken to the media, but this is not enough. You have to live among the people, listen to their concerns. This is a lot of work and it takes time.

Moreover, the MSZP is dying out in the provinces, and its members don’t have much of an appetite for fighting. On this subject, Botka said they could field 106 individual candidates on paper, but those concerned will break open the champagne if they don’t have to take part in the election.

Botka did not use one statement to send a message to the corrupt, those who trade political position and the gangster powers. If we follow their methods, the right-wing will win. His programme also makes clear his desire to win, while the powers-that-be are on the defensive. What a difference!

Who is corrupt, who are the gangster powers? Botka has already had a run-in with a member of the MSZP board, Zsolt Molnár, who he says did not fully support him and complained he did not think the candidacy of international lawyer Tamás Lattmann should have been rejected.

I’m not going to name names, I would damage the left wing by doing so, and it will soon be election time.

But you welcome the fact that Botka struck out namelessly.

Yes, because what had been going on needed to be brought to an end. In the spring, the party must officially choose its prime ministerial candidate.

The MSZP congress should be held as soon as possible?

Yes, between March and May.

How enthusiastic is the party for Botka? When it supported Zoltán Kész recently, the party was unable to collect 200,000 signatures across the entire country. The youngsters who got involved in the Olympics affair were able to collect well over that number in Budapest alone. What is more, the sluggish MSZP only joined Momentum’s action reluctantly, in the last minute.

The whole of the left wing has been jostling for position so far, and party leaders regarded each other in light of this. Now they are passing the buck, or even whitewashing in advance. We have a good candidate, he wants to win, not just survive, to take responsibility. As I see it, the party believes this, too: we must win!

Együtt [Together] is running alone, the DK [Democratic Coalition] won’t let Gyurcsány go, Párbeszéd [Dialogue for Hungary] jokes about joining Botka because he also supports the idea of a basic income. It is all tactical.

I would ask everyone, including the literate, to enlighten their party leaders to the fact that without cooperation, there will be no change of government. Alone, the parties are only fighting for survival. It’s as simple as one, two, three.

Yet not everyone wants to stand behind Botka.

But what kind of statesmanship is that?

There was no cooperation in your district, either. In the local council election, the other left-wing parties stood against the MSZP, and the MSZP won in all constituencies. Could this be the model for 2018, too?

No. The stakes and the rules are different for the parliamentary elections.

Does it not work against cooperation that Botka has called many times for Gyurcsány to step down? Regardless of opinion polls that suggest it cannot win with the former prime minister, the DK does not exist without its leader.

Don’t expect me to run down Gyurcsány. I agree with Botka, my opinion of him is also higher than that of society at large.

Botka said he does not want a return to the pre-2010 government. Is it a liability for the left that the former prime minister, state secretaries and ministers are still active?

Why? What should we do with them?

You know. I only brought it up because Botka has spoken about it continuously since last December.

Most of them have faded into the background, and they help the left wing in an organisational and analytical capacity, not under the spotlights.

And if not everyone sees it this way, will it mean the end of cooperation between the opposition parties?

That would be a historic mistake, and the world will be very grim. Those in government now can sit back in their chairs, light a cigar and drink a glass of whisky, because all will be lost even before it has begun.

But if that happens, the left will have buried itself for decades.

Poland is a bad example of this. But with the appearance of Botka, we have one more chance.

The MSZP wants László Botka

Anyone who lied to the face of the voters is a liability to the left, and they should be sent off. Anyone who hoodwinked them, and fixed their gas man up with a Harley-Davidson so he can run around more quickly between his media and hotel empires and his yacht on the Adriatic, must leave power – so said László Botka at a Free Press Foundation event on Saturday. In his state of the nation speech, the MSZP’s prime ministerial candidate called for Ferenc Gyurcsány and Viktor Orbán to go. “Hungary will only see a time of consolidation and peace if the country’s two most divisive politicians, the preferred icons of hate for the left and right, are finally removed from the political shrine,” he said.

The mayor of Szeged said his goal was to bring about a more equal, more just and flourishing Hungary. Botka holds the development of health-care and education to be important, and wants to fund it by “ending the symbiosis of oligarchs and politics, and the indebtedness that it leads to”.

“They will no longer lord it over us. We will shut out corrupt politicians,” he said, promising that everyone’s tax declaration will be transparent, following the Scandinavian model. And anyone who enters a public tender would have to make a declaration of interests. He signalled that the owners of villas worth hundreds of millions of forints and cars worth tens of millions should count on a special tax, and that opportunities to introduce an unconditional basic income would be examined.

Photo: Ivola Bazánth

He believes Orbán’s greatest betrayal was when he went back on his words and did not work in the interests of Hungarians.

“How can you explain that since 2010 the income of the richest has grown to eight times that of the poorest, and the divide continues to grow,” he asked.

He spoke about the need for a turn to the left, where taxes favour low-earners. He envisages a country where “equality is not just a dream, and where the equal citizenship is a tangible reality”.

Botka apologised to voters who had turned away from his party because they saw that “the party leaders, members of parliament and local authority representatives were occupied only with divvying up positions and sweeping up party funds”.

“I say to them: that world is no more!” he added.

László Botka foresees no kind of cooperation with Jobbik. At opposition meetings over recent weeks he has said that a joint list with 106 local candidates capable of garnering the most votes and a joint, new left-wing programme are not his conditions, but the most important building blocks of victory. He said he was open to any recommendations or programme points that will lead to the removal of Viktor Orbán.

The MSZP president Gyula Molnár said at the event that, whenever the elections come, they are ready. Fidesz can be removed and Hungary can be fixed, he said. “We are preparing for victory. We want LB in the decider.” He indicated that he was referring to László Botka.

Fidesz reacted to the speeches with a statement in which it wrote that those now speaking about justice and the state of the country are the same Socialists who “pocketed hundreds of millions in cash from the Metro, squandered the national wealth, put hundreds of thousands out of work and took money away from families, health-care and education”. Jobbik’s statement stressed that Botka only wants to defeat Gyurcsány, not Orbán. In response to calls for him to step down, the DK president said the voters would decide who has a place in the democratic Hungary’s public life.

József Tóth is the mayor of Budapest’s District XIII and president of the Society of Left-wing Councils. He has won the local council election six times, leading the district since 1994, and spent three terms as a member of the Hungarian parliament. In the 2014 council elections, all fifteen candidates he nominated won individual council seats.

He is married, with two grown-up children.