Hungary's Socialists make leftist turn to challenge Orban

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s opposition Socialists aim to bolster support with their new, more leftist program before forming any alliances to try to unseat Prime Minister Viktor Orban in elections next year, their candidate for premier said.

Socialist Prime Minister candidate Laszlo Botka attends an interview with Reuters in Budapest, Hungary May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Orban, who has locked horns with Western partners over his unwinding of democratic checks and balances and his harsh rhetoric in the recent migration crisis, is runaway favorite to win a third straight term in elections next April, against a fragmented opposition.

Laszlo Botka, the 44-year-old mayor of the southern city of Szeged, told the Reuters Central & Eastern Europe Investment Summit on Wednesday that the only way to beat Orban is to have a single leftist challenger.

The Socialists have far more support than other left-leaning parties in a crowded field. Botka wants to push the party further to the left, aiming to distinguish it from others, such as the radical nationalist Jobbik party, which also wants to be Orban’s main challenger in 2018, and has moved in on the center with a milder rhetoric.

Botka is busy reaching out to voters who abandoned the Socialists in droves because of economic mismanagement and corruption scandals in the 2000s, leading to a crushing defeat in 2010 from which the party has yet to recover.

“There is no election victory without expanding the current base,” he said. “We need a credible and forceful program built on powerful social equality ... and guarantees that we learned from our mistakes before 2010.”

He said there would be absolutely no cooperation with Jobbik, whose politics he called unsuccessful and inauthentic. He also said the party would not repeat mistakes made in 2014 when Orban cruised to another landslide after leftist parties became bogged down in a lengthy row on whether, and how, to cooperate.

The Socialists would go it alone if necessary, Botka said.

“Everyone is charting their own path now. I unveiled a brand new leftist program. I want to expand my base, and I am sure eventually everyone will consider their responsibility ... in unseating the government.”

The Socialists began to unveil their program this month, pledging to bring back a progressive personal income tax, to replace the current flat tax regime, that would re-route about 350 billion forints ($1.3 bln) per year to the poor and the middle classes.

They also plan to pay pensioners an additional month’s state pension, covering the 250 billion forint annual cost from a budget that Botka said was a victim of “staggering waste and corruption”.

Botka also said he would dismantle a fence along the border with Serbia - which Orban put up to keep migrants from entering Hungary - as soon as European Union border protection controls are in place and the situation in the Middle East calms down.

Reporting by Marton Dunai and Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Susan Fenton