Category Archives: Hungarian politics

All eyes on Hódmezővásárhely: Brutal campaign in a Fidesz stronghold

I decided that we must take a trip to János Lázár’s Hódmezővásárhely, where an election campaign is being waged with incredible intensity. The Fidesz leadership of the city acts as if the party’s future was hanging in the balance. As if the defeat of Zoltán Hegedűs, the Fidesz contender for the post of mayor, against the independent Péter Márki-Zay would mean the end of the Fidesz era, not just in Hódmezővásárhely but in the country at large.

Some people call this local election a “dress rehearsal” for what’s coming on April 8, the day of the national election — if, that is, by some miracle the opposition parties could coordinate their strategies and have a single candidate running against the Fidesz hopeful in all 106 electoral districts. This is more or less what happened in Hódmezővásárhely. Both Jobbik and the left-of-center parties refrained from putting up their own candidates. Whether this was just a coincidence or there was some kind of tacit understanding among the parties to test the waters with a conservative candidate whom even the left-of-center parties could support, I don’t know. In any case, Márki-Zay has already been accused both of being a candidate of Jobbik and of being an agent of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The latter is a cardinal sin in Hódmezővásárhely. As János Lázár put it, “Fidesz in Vásárhely can work with anyone, we are open to all new suggestions, and we are ready to cooperate with everybody. There is one exception. We cannot work with somebody who sold his soul to Ferenc Gyurcsány.” (Márki-Zay is supported by both DK and MSZP.)

The palpable fear on the part of Fidesz, which one can sense in the descriptions of the mood of the city, would seem to be utterly unwarranted. Based on the results of the last municipal election, Fidesz shouldn’t have anything to worry about. In 2014 the Fidesz mayor received over 61% of the votes against Jobbik’s 17%, MSZP-DK-Együtt’s 15%, and a radical left party’s 7%. And yet, from the intensity of the campaign it looks as if both the local and the national Fidesz leadership are genuinely worried about the outcome. The campaign has been relentlessly waged for almost two months, and it is getting uglier by the minute.

Here are a few of Fidesz’s campaign tricks. Lajos Kósa, who was recently demoted to be in charge of the Modern Cities Program, announced that Hódmezővásárhely will receive 12 billion forints, the equivalent of half of the city’s annual budget, before the national election. A day later Defense Minister István Simicskó arrived in town to take a look at the army barracks that are being renovated to the tune of 5.2 billion forints. The next day the prime minister invited the Fidesz mayoral candidate for a cup of coffee, where the candidate asked Orbán for extra money for the renovation of the city’s churches. A few days later city hall announced that the Elizabeth cards worth 10,000 forints (about $40), which the town was supposed give to pensioners before Easter, will be distributed before the local election this Sunday.

As for the interest of the voters in the local election, Index found one town hall meeting that was practically deserted, although János Lázár was there to campaign on behalf of the Fidesz candidate. But a local paper called Promenád reported a huge gathering in the “garden city” section of town.

A speech given by the chairwoman of the local KDNP is indicative of the state of democracy in Hungary. She reassured her audience that “having multiple candidates is not a bad thing” because, after all, there is democracy in Hungary. The trouble is that behind Márki-Zay “an opportunistic coalition” stands. For her, there is something very wrong with democracy as it is being practiced in Hódmezővásárhely. And the local Fidesz chairwoman expressed her disgust that the independent candidate had besmirched the good name of the city by talking about a local dictatorship and comparing Hódmezővásárhely’s political system today to that of the Rákosi regime.

To help ensure a Fidesz victory, László Kiss-Rigó, the bishop of Szeged-Csanád, announced that a new Catholic church will be erected in the town thanks to the largess of the Orbán government. The city also quickly signed a contract with a company that will build a bypass, which will lessen traffic in the city. The Fidesz line is that thanks to the Orbán government the future of the town is assured. “At stake in the election is whether Hódmezővásárhely will be a winner or a loser.” That is a line from an interview the Fidesz mayoral candidate gave to Magyar Idők. Of course, the threat is real. Voters have to ask themselves whether it is worth replacing Fidesz’s autocratic rule in the city with uncertainty at best or outright discrimination against the city at worst.

Now that we are getting closer to the day of the election, János Lázár has become involved practically full time in the campaign in Hódmezővásárhely. He is having a relatively easy time of it because of the political inexperience of Márki-Zay, who in one of his speeches bemoaned the fact that Hungarians are easily intimidated. Other nations are not so patient; they stand together; they fight for their rights. He is not going to say what would happen in Ireland, in Scotland, or in France to this government because then he would be labelled an aggressive agitator. “Thus I don’t want to say what lampposts can be used for, in addition to putting posters on them.  … This government is very lucky that the Hungarian people are so sheep-like. This terribly lovable and tolerant Hungarian people even accept this [government].” Of course, Márki-Zay was intimating here that Fidesz politicians in other countries would be hanged from lampposts but was adding that it is not something he recommends. This isn’t the first time that unfortunate statements like this one are used against the candidate. Something like that happened to László Kövér in 2002 when he lashed out at those who don’t have enough self-confidence. If Hungarians believe that they are an untalented people who are incapable of achieving great things, they should go down to the cellar and commit suicide because life isn’t worth living with this kind of attitude. This so-called “rope speech” (köteles beszéd) contributed to Fidesz’s unexpected electoral loss.

János Lázár on the local television station

In the last few days Lázár threw himself into the campaign with his usual gusto. He first gave an interview to the local Vásárhely 24 in which he accused Márki-Zay not only of conducting a hate campaign but also of undermining the reputation of Hódmezővásárhely. He accused him of acting for selfish reasons. When he settled in town, Márki-Zay offered his services to city hall but was ignored. “Personal failure cannot be remedied by politics,” said Lázár. If Márki-Zay is elected, the city will not be governable because Fidesz is in the majority on the city council. “I doubt that stigmatization and whipping up hatred are the right means to effect change. I want to live in a country where such methods cannot be successful. We count on the sober majority.” On the same day Lázár also showed up at the local television station where he used stronger language. “The people of Vásárhely shouldn’t elect a madman! I suggest voting for a man who is of sound mind.”

There are so many questions for which at the moment we have no answers. Did Márki-Zay with his limited opportunities to spread his message convince dissatisfied voters to go to the polls? Are the people of Vásárhely angry enough at what goes on in Lázár’s city? Will total unity among the opposition, left and right, be enough to remove the top Fidesz officeholder in the city? One thing is sure. The Fidesz leadership seems to be anxious. Even a close election could be a warning sign to Viktor Orbán who, by the way, is furiously campaigning himself.

February 21, 2018

The European Commission, TAO support for sports, and the quality of Hungarian football

Benedek Jávor, a member of the European Parliament representing Párbeszéd, is one of the most active Hungarian MEPs. He has invested a great deal of time and effort in calling the European Commission’s attention to the less than transparent Russian-Hungarian negotiations concerning the building of the Paks II nuclear reactor.

Thanks to him we have learned a great deal about the Orbán government’s dubious dealings. His latest investigative project was the controversial Társasági Adókedvezmény/TAO (Corporation Tax Allowance) that was introduced in 2011. Most of the TAO money goes for football. The exact amount remains unknown because the Orbán government hasn’t revealed either the identity of the corporations that have contributed to Viktor Orbán’s favorite sport or the amount they gave. Estimates vary, but the latest figure is that 450 billion forints has been spent financing football, basketball, water polo, and ice hockey. Most of this money has gone to football and, within that slice of the pie, to Viktor Orbán’s football academy in Felcsút. The latest figure I read was 16 billion forints.

I wrote my first post on Orbán’s football mania in June 2012, by which point it was obvious that sports would have a special place in the Fidesz vision of Hungary’s future. Already in November 2010, the government announced the construction of a new stadium in Debrecen, and many similar announcements were made in the following months. At that time it was a mystery where the money would come from because in the following year’s budget not a penny was allocated for these projects.

It turned out later that some of the funding for these stadiums came from TAO money. But for this financial arrangement the Orbán government needed the blessing of the European Commission since using money that was being diverted from tax revenues could easily be construed as hidden government support for private business ventures. Although Orbán repeatedly asserted to domestic audiences that TAO subsidies are not public funds, he didn’t try to argue along the same lines in his government’s negotiations with the European Commission. Instead, the argument that convinced the Commission was that Hungarian football is so bad that Hungarian teams simply don’t count on the international scene. They are only good enough to play locally. Therefore they are not competitors of other professional teams, which must stand on their own financially. Once Hungarian football is beefed up and becomes a factor in international football, TAO grants will come to an end, the Hungarian government promised.

What kinds of restrictions did the European Commission place on the use of the TAO subsidies? Hungary promised that the money will go “mostly for modernization of existing facilities” and that only very few new stadiums will be built. The European Commission insisted that the facilities must be shared with the public for at least ten years. At the same time Hungary promised to set up a supervisory board that would detail the use of public money. And corporations were supposed to pass on the details of their gifts to a State Aid Monitoring Office.

As we know only too well, none of these promises has been fulfilled. Yet in 2017 the European Commission gave its blessing to the continuation of the TAO program. This is a scandal. It’s no wonder that criticism of the European Union is growing. It was bad enough that the European Commission allowed the introduction of this thoroughly corrupt system in the first place, but to extend the program six years later when only the blind could fail to see what’s going on in Hungary is really a criminal act. Sorry, but I can’t find any other adjective to describe my disgust.

The decision makers should have looked around a bit to find out what is happening at the football stadiums. First of all, with the exception of one Budapest stadium, they all lose money. The municipalities cannot find private companies that would be willing to take over their operation, so they remain albatrosses straining local resources. The Debrecen Stadium is being looked after by a company owned 90% by the government while the rest is the city’s burden. Moreover, these professional stadiums cannot be used by the public, even if their management would allow it. Felcsút is a special place where police stand by day and night to prevent anyone from even looking at the monstrously big stadium situated in a tiny village. These facilities have nothing to do with providing the general public with opportunities for more healthful living.

As a result of this deal between the European Commission and the Hungarian government, Viktor Orbán finds himself in a Catch-22 situation. As long as Hungarian football is dreadfully bad, Hungarian teams never get anywhere, and no one wants to buy Hungarian players, TAO money can flow into many pockets, including those of all the oligarchs who have been busily building sports facilities in the last eight years. But if Hungarian players suddenly get wings and their clubs start winning, TAO support might come to an end. What would happen then to the Felcsút Academy?

Népszava’s Miklós Hargitay makes no secret of his theory about the connection between TAO and inferior Hungarian football. He is pretty convinced that Orbán, for financial reasons, doesn’t really want Hungarian football to improve. Hargitay finds the large number of foreign players in the Felcsút Club proof of Orbán’s designs. Péter S. Föld, in an article titled “Why is Orbán-football sick?,” also accuses Orbán of duplicity. The prime minister needs the TAO money not to improve Hungarian football but to fill the pockets of stadium builders like Lőrinc Mészáros and István Garancsi. Mária Vásárhelyi in a Facebook entry also thinks that Hungarian football is purposely kept inferior and noncompetitive.

As I was reading these comments, I tried to remember the name of the football player who was Viktor Orbán’s favorite until Orbán fell out with him. I eventually came up with it: László Kleinheisler. He was a student at the Felcsút Academy and as such was destined to join Orbán’s favorite team, Videoton. However, his stay at Videoton was rocky. Because he refused to sign a second one-year contract with the club, the manager didn’t allow him to play with the regular team, although he was considered by many to be the best Hungarian football player around. Orbán also turned against Kleinheisler, accusing him of demanding special privileges. And so Kleinheisler sat out the year, during which Videoton refused to trade him to a good Polish team. When his contract was up, Kleinheisler joined Werder Bremen on a 3.5-year contract for an undisclosed salary.

As I recalled this old story, I began wondering. Why did Viktor Orbán stand in the way of this talented young man’s successful career outside of Hungary? Because he wanted to keep him in a domestic club to improve Hungarian football (but then he should have been allowed to play) or because he wanted to make sure that he doesn’t set an example for others, who might decide to look for opportunities on their own? A few other players like Kleinheisler and Hungarian football might just be noticed in the world at large. It is possible.

February 20, 2018

Orbán predicts MSZP’s demise in his state of the nation address

Reading foreign assessments of Viktor Orbán’s major speeches is an intriguing exercise. Even though most of the articles are based on reports by large international news services like Reuters, AP, and AFP, many papers add their own comments to the skeletal reporting of the news agencies. Some, like Bloomberg, have their own correspondents in Budapest. The Guardian’s coverage was written by a journalist posted in Brussels who focused on Orbán’s “apocalyptic visions” as far as the future of Europe is concerned. The article, titled “Orbán claims Hungary is last bastion against ‘Islamisation’ of Europe,” quoted Orbán as saying that if immigration to Europe continues, “in the big cities of Europe there will be a Muslim majority,” which was received with incredulity in certain circles. Bloomberg’s correspondent struck a similar tone in his article “Hungary’s Orban warns of Europe’s demise in re-election bid.” Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister and a long-time critic of Orbán, expressed his opinion that the speech was befitting a dictator “who believes that the drive to maintain power is more important than any political and moral decency.”

But, let’s face it, there is nothing new here. Orbán has been repeating these anti-Islamic platitudes for at least three years, and at home some commentators don’t even pretend to take their prime minister seriously anymore. The funniest headline I spotted was “Orbán: Africa will be Asia or Europe will be Africa.” The journalist wasn’t exaggerating. Orbán emphasized immigration from Africa, not from the Middle East. There might be a factually based reason for this switch since fewer people are now coming from the Middle East, and therefore it is politically wise to frighten people with another region of the world. The less benign explanation is that immigration from the “dark continent” is even more terrifying to Hungarians unaccustomed to blacks.

Despite three years of daily propaganda, Hungarians are not really concerned about either immigration or terrorism. They are, however, worried about the country being on the wrong track (76%) and about inadequate healthcare (72%) which, I should add, was the worst of the 27 countries Ipsos MORI measured in January 2018. But in the prime minister’s address Hungarians heard nothing about the state of either healthcare or education, and when it came to the economy he “deployed a host of questionable statistics,” as The Guardian put it.

Orbán delighted political commentators with a feature which until now has been absent in his state of the nation addresses — and there have been twenty of them all told. He spent quite a bit of time disparaging his opponents, when normally he blithely ignores them. It is beneath him even to answer their questions in parliament. And his excuse for not having a pre-election debate is that there is not one serious candidate on the other side worth debating with. Of course, the real reason is his 2006 disastrous debate with Ferenc Gyurcsány. One such debate was enough for Orbán for a lifetime.

For some strange reason Orbán is preoccupied with parties that at present don’t appear to pose any political threat to Fidesz. For example, he seems to be hung up on the possible demise of MSZP. In his pre-election pep talk to the members of the Fidesz caucus he talked about the possibility that the socialists would be unable to reach the magic 10% threshold that would give them a place in the legislature. He told his Fidesz audience that MSZP’s disappearance might not be in the interest of their party. It would upset the balance between the left and the right oppositions that currently ensures the supremacy of the “center.” With the possible collapse of the socialist party this symmetry would disappear, with all sorts of unforeseen consequences, among them the possible return of Ferenc Gyurcsány as the leader of the left-of-center opposition. ATV’s Ildikó Csuhaj, who has numerous high-ranking Fidesz contacts, got the impression that Fidesz would rather deal with the socialists than with Gyurcsány’s DK. As for the other two opposition parties, Fidesz would prefer a stronger LMP over Jobbik.

Will it wither away?

Viktor Orbán’s disparaging remarks about MSZP, however, indicate that he has buried the party for good. What else can one think when one reads the following in his state of the nation address: “There is a party that needs a ‘foreign legionnaire’ at the head of its party list who calls himself a candidate for the premiership when he is only the receiver of a bankrupt party whose historical task is to lead MSZP out of the parliament.” Fidesz must have a recent opinion poll they consider to be reliable that shows MSZP teetering around the crucial 10%. Péter Krekó of the political think tank Political Capital considers MSZP’s decision to merge with Párbeszéd and thus face the 10% threshold to have been “politically extremely risky” and said it “shouldn’t have been undertaken in such a fragile political situation.”

What do the opinion polls say? On February 8 Republikon Intézet published its poll, according to which Jobbik stands at 18%, MSZP 13%, DK 5%, and LMP 4%. On February 12 IDEA conducted a poll in which Jobbik had 17%, DK 12%, MSZP 10%, and LMP 6%. So, as you can see, the results are all over the place when it comes to the strength of the opposition parties. To complicate matters, Publicus Research came out with a poll just today that was taken between February 9 and 14. Publicus, I’m afraid, chronically overstates MSZP’s results and most of the time doesn’t even measure DK’s support. This time Publicus found that MSZP’s support among committed voters is higher (18%) than Jobbik’s (16%). According to Publicus, LMP will receive 8% and DK 5% of the votes. Publicus also found, contrary to the usual turnout figures, that a whopping 71% of the respondents intend to vote at the next election and that only 34% of the electorate want the Orbán-led government to stay. Other polls show an almost equally divided country when it comes to the continued existence of the Orbán government.

Is Viktor Orbán right and will MSZP as it exists today disappear? And if so, what comes after its collapse? I have no idea.

February 19, 2018

Wholesale harassment of foreign journalists in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Although the transcript of Orbán’s speech about his government’s accomplishments in the last eight years, which he delivered this afternoon, is already available on the prime minister’s website, I will either postpone or perhaps even skip an analysis of it. Instead, today I will cover the muzzling of foreign correspondents who are posted in Budapest.

The phenomenon is not entirely new, but until recently only the government-sponsored media took it upon itself to attack journalists by name, some of whom were actually Hungarian nationals writing for foreign publications. Soon enough, however, Zoltán Kovács, who has the fancy title of Director of the International Communication Office, also entered the fray.

Kovács’s first victim was Lili Bayer, who did an interview with him for Politico in which she lauded Kovács by saying that “if Orbán’s critics, in Brussels and beyond, often seem unable to put a glove on him, it is thanks in large part to Kovács’s mastery of the political spin. He’s won respect, grudging from his detractors, as an effective and tireless mouthpiece of his boss.” But a Twitter comment that Bayer wrote raised the ire of Kovács. Bayer said that the anti-Soros campaign that started in September 2017 was anti-Semitic, and she compared it to the numerus clausus of 1920. Whether this is a correct comparison or not is beside the point. Governments must put up with an awful lot of criticism, some of which might not be fair but must be endured. In most civilized countries the law protects freedom of expression. Officialdom can’t blacklist journalists whose opinions they don’t like. But this is exactly what’s happening in Hungary. Since that incident Bayer is not allowed to attend official functions.

And she is not the only one who has encountered difficulties getting information. Zoltán Kovács admitted in an interview that on the very same day that he accused Bayer of being under the influence of drugs when she wrote her Twitter entry, two other journalists, a German and a Brit, also had to be “disciplined.” And, I’m afraid, the list is growing.

Just today newspapers reported that in the last year fewer articles about Hungary have appeared in the foreign press, but what has appeared has been more critical than previously. Mária Schmidt’s Figyelő accused foreign newspapers of meddling in the Hungarian election campaign on the side of the opposition. Three publications have been singled out: Foreign Policy, The Guardian, and The New York Times. This list, I’m sure, will expand in the coming months because I understand that several important papers that had no special correspondents in the region are planning to send journalists to Budapest. Also, the number of articles dealing with Hungary will undoubtedly multiply in the wake of the scandal created by OLAF’s revelations of widespread corruption linked to the family of Viktor Orbán. No matter how often Zoltán Kovács tells journalists that they are concentrating on unimportant issues instead of reporting the successes of the Orbán government in the last eight years, it is unlikely that critical articles will cease to appear in the foreign press. And if Kovács refuses to have any dealings with those critical voices, soon enough he will not be able to exchange a word with any of the foreign reporters.

Zoltán Kovács has a blog where he comments frequently on domestic and foreign affairs. On February 12 Patrick Kingsley wrote a biting article about Viktor Orbán in The New York Times, calling him one of the modern autocrats. In return, Kovács composed a letter of sorts titled “Dear New York Times: Hungarians are not stupid.” He told Kingsley that what he wrote in his article is actually old hat. Already in 2011 The Guardian was talking about “Hungary’s democratic ‘dictator in the making’ [who] takes center stage in Europe.” Kovács went on about all those articles that complain about the assault on the media, the judiciary, checks and balances, and the constitution. The article is “a classic example of the herd behavior of international journalists writing about Hungary, simply repeating without questioning.” Foreign journalists rely on information gleaned exclusively from spokesmen of the opposition, Kovács claimed. Actually, Kingsley did manage to get an interview with Kovács, but he was the only government official who was willing to talk to him. After this lecture, Kovács told Kingsley what he should have written about. He should have addressed successes like low unemployment, cutting the deficit, reducing the debt, restoring the credit rating to investment grade, and so on. These are the things that affect the lives of Hungarians, not what he and other foreign journalists write about.

Kovács continued: “We look forward to the visit of many international journalists to Budapest in the coming weeks in the run-up to that big day in April. For those journalists, here are a few suggestions. Try not to write your story before you arrive. Set yourself apart from the herd by starting your reporting from a different perspective. Try to answer the fundamental question at play in this election: if Prime Minister Viktor Orbán enjoys such strong popular support (and the opposition such dismal support) that he is predicted to win a third consecutive term, why is that? And if you want to find a thoughtful answer to that question, get out and talk to real people.”

Kovács had scarcely finished his opus to The New York Times when two articles by Jennifer Rankin appeared in The Guardian on February 12 with the telling titles: “How Hungarian PM’s supporters profit from EU-backed projects” and “Orbán allies could use EU as cash register, MEPs say.” By that time, Kovács must have given up because he refrained from delivering another sermon about proper journalistic practices. But The Guardian was already one of the bête noires of the Orbán government on account of an article that appeared on January 11 titled “Viktor Orbán’s reckless football obsession.” It is a lengthy, thorough, beautifully written article that must have made Viktor Orbán and his closest associates extremely unhappy. I heard an interview with György Szöllősi, who is now the editor-in-chief of Nemzeti Sport, Orbán’s favorite sports paper, about the article shortly after it appeared in print. He was very upset about the negative picture of Viktor Orbán that emerged. That is not what they expected, especially after the journalists even had a chance encounter with Viktor Orbán himself, who opened up about his love of the game.

One of the authors of this article was Daniel Nolan, a freelance journalist who has a sterling reputation. He has written for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, VICE News, Deutsche Welle, and the Blizzard, among others. He writes mainly on Central and Eastern European media, culture, politics, and human rights.  In 2016 he was shortlisted for the 2016 European Press Prize for his article “Spinning the Crisis: How the Hungarian Government Played Europe’s Migrant Influx.” The Orbán government considers Nolan to be a paid propagandist, just as Kovács called Lili Bayer. He is one of those who are now taking part in the election campaign against Viktor Orbán and his government.

What happened to Nolan at János Lázár’s “government info” this past Thursday shows that a journalist doesn’t have to be banned from official government press conferences. It is enough to ignore him because his questions might be embarrassing or because the government bigwigs consider him to be unfriendly.

Mr. Nolan. There is an order of things. The rule is that it is I who calls on you.

Dan Nolan, who is currently working on a piece for Al Jazeera, was unable to get an interview with Zoltán Kovács, so he decided to attend János Lázár’s weekly press conference where Kovács serves as a kind of emcee. It mattered not how hard he tried to get recognized, Kovács ignored him until, I guess out of frustration, Nolan grabbed the mike and began asking a question. Or, rather, tried to ask a question. Kovács immediately intervened. When Nolan insisted, saying that he had only one short question, Kovács indicated that if he doesn’t stop he will be removed from the premises.

After opposition parties called the event “an outrage,” Kovács decided to address a letter to Nolan, whom he mistakenly identified as The Guardian’s correspondent. There are rules, Kovács explained, and “here is a basic one: A journalist who wishes to ask a question requests permission and may pose the question after being granted permission.” So far, one could even agree, but this was not the reason for Kovács’s ignoring Nolan. The problem was that he is “more a partisan activist than a professional journalist. Once upon a time, there was a rule for journalists, part of the code of ethics of the profession, to strive to be objective in covering the news and avoid behavior that would seem partisan or biased.”

Just as in the Lili Bayer case, Nolan is considered to be “a partisan activist” because on Twitter he posted some unflattering comments about the Orbán government. A day later an unnamed author in Magyar Idők explained the situation more fully. “It should be known that Daniel Nolan played the hero in the middle of the migration crisis. He called the reception centers concentration camps.” The powers-that-be have a good memory. They don’t forget and they don’t forgive.

Even old-timer Nick Thorpe of the BBC, who has had the reputation of being far too soft on the Orbán government, complained the other day on BBC Radio 4 that he has been unable to get interviews with government officials. In fact, a day after the Nolan affair he was called in by Zoltán Kovács and was read the riot act about his biased reporting and being a partisan activist. The last time Thorpe, who has been in Hungary since 1988, experienced something very similar, he said, was in the Kádár regime. That’s what Hungary has come to.

If Zoltán Kovács continues his harassment of foreign journalists, I can assure him that the coverage of his country in the international press will be even more critical. With good reason.

February 18, 2018

Ahead of the election: LMP and DK are off and running

In case you missed it, today is the official beginning of the election campaign, and two opposition parties, LMP and DK, gathered their troops to energize them. The keynote speaker for LMP was the party’s candidate for the premiership, Bernadett Szél. At the gathering of DK politicians, activists, and party loyalists the chief attraction was Ferenc Gyurcsány.

After reading the available summaries of Szél’s speech and listening to the live performance of the chairman of DK, I came to the conclusion that the two events bore little resemblance to one another, although I don’t quite know what to make of Népszava’s description of LMP’s meeting as “more of a theatrical performance than a rousing party event.” The LMP gathering was advertised as an “assessment of the past year,” the kind of annual event that Viktor Orbán introduced in imitation of the American State of the Union Address. Whether in power or in opposition, Orbán has kept giving these speeches every February. Not surprisingly, opposition party leaders like Gyurcsány and now Szél opted to follow his example.

Szél said that she had originally planned to assess the Orbán government’s performance over the last year, but she was forced to face the fact that this is a well-nigh impossible task because the Orbán administration’s achievements are practically nonexistent, with the possible exception of good economic figures largely due to EU subsidies. The government is a house of cards built on propaganda. Education, healthcare, and social welfare lack ministries, but two years ago the government created a ministry (commonly referred to as the propaganda ministry) whose only task is to create a world that doesn’t exist. Otherwise, she promised higher salaries and “an economy built on an excellent education system.”

She talked about the importance of the coming election, which “is not just about the next four years” but about “the following decades.” She said that Fidesz leaders desperately cling to power because they know that after a failed election they will not just be in opposition but “they should be prepared for years in jail.”

As for LMP, according to Szél, “we are the ones who couldn’t be bought, couldn’t be blackmailed; we are the ones who have endured and who have not become thieves.” I assume this means that all other opposition parties have been bought, blackmailed, and become thieves. She accused the other opposition parties of “dishonest compromises,” a favorite phrase of LMP politicians. They often repeat, as was repeated on this occasion as well, that they are ready to sit down and talk, but they are not ready for “dishonest compromises.”

On the basis of the few articles I read, I don’t think this speech before an audience of 200-300 people made an appreciable difference as far as LMP’s chances are concerned.

DK’s meeting had a very different, more intense flavor. Similarly to Viktor Orbán, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s key concept was “harc” (fight, combat, battle). This combat, this duel will be against Orbán and Fidesz. He called Orbán “a predacious shark who didn’t need a son-in-law to become depraved; he is debased by his lonesome. It is in his blood.” Orbán’s sins taint the whole country, and “those who let that happen in silence will be sinners too.” Therefore, Hungarians must shake themselves free of Orbán. “Only then can the righteous enter the gate of the Lord.” This is a slightly altered version of Psalms 118:20 and typical of the kinds of metaphors Gyurcsány likes to use. The election will also be a fight for a future United States of Europe.

Source: MTI / photo: Zoltán Máthé

People who participate in talk shows either complain about the lack of party programs or point out that no one reads long party programs. One also hears that the message is often unclear. One must use simple language, the kind of language Viktor Orbán introduced to political discourse, they argue. Well, Gyurcsány presented a list that he placed within a cleverly constructed framework. One doesn’t need 500 days; one day is enough to act decisively and change the present situation drastically. Of course, this is ridiculous, but his hourly timetable makes the changes seem more dramatic. Here is what Gyurcsány would like to achieve after Orbán is gone.

 9:00—We will remove Péter Polt from his position and join the newly established EU prosecutor’s office.

10:00—By changing items in the budget we can immediately raise the salaries of doctors and nurses by one-and-a-half times and double the number of CTs and MRIs.

11:00—We will turn in the draft proposal of a new electoral law; those who have never lived in Hungary should not be able to vote.

12:00—The minimum wage should be raised to at least subsistence level.

13:00—We will inform the government in Kiev that we abrogate the earlier agreement and are ending the Ukrainian pension business.

14:00—We will make pension corrections that will be adjusted according to economic growth.

15:00—We will carry out the sequestration of the oligarchs’ assets.

16:00—Basic internet service will be free.

17:00—We will change the law on education and restore compulsory education to the age of eighteen.

18:00—We will review the agreement with the Vatican; the privileges of the churches will come to an end; a separate committee will examine cases of child molestation.

19:00—We will raise the family allowance by one third; in the case of single-parent families it will be a 50% raise.

20:00—We will introduce free electricity, gas, and water for minimum basic needs; above that, it will be zoned according to usage and the consumers’ economic situation.

Of course, this is a pipe dream, but it has the advantage of being short and clear. One could argue about some of the items that were included in the list of most important tasks, for example, the Ukrainian pensioners or the privileges of churches and a committee on child molestation. But these items are important for DK because the party has realized that they have great appeal for the electorate.

As for the best possible turn of events, I think Gyurcsány hopes for results that might give the opposition parties an opportunity to sit down and contemplate a coalition government. As he put it, in that case he will lead DK’s delegation to choose a prime minister who best represents the people and who is trusted by the electorate.

I will be curious what the next public opinion polls have to say about the standing of the parties. Viktor Orbán in his speech to Fidesz members of parliament expressed his misgivings about MSZP getting enough votes to become a parliamentary party. Considering that Fidesz spends a great deal of money on very frequent polls, it is possible that they know something that we don’t.

February 17, 2017

The Tiborcz scandal is not “a mosquito bite”

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and members of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus launched what promised to be a glorious path to victory. Everything was prepared. After propaganda campaigns against George Soros and the migrants in the last two years, Fidesz was in the midst of a new assault on those NGOs that receive financial assistance from abroad, claiming that they pose a national security risk through their active promotion of immigration. Fidesz’s election law, which favors Orbán’s party, coupled with limits imposed on the opposition parties’ ability to wage an effective campaign, ensured an easy victory on April 8.

But then came a worrisome message from the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). After two years of thorough investigation, OLAF found such serious “irregularities” in the business practices of Elios Innovatív Zrt. that it is suggesting the return of €40 million to the European Union, money that it claims was illegally obtained. Unfortunately for the government and for Viktor Orbán, this is not one of those run-of-the-mill corruption cases that are far too numerous in Hungary. It is special since Elios Innovatív Zrt.’s co-owner was István Tiborcz, the prime minister’s son-in-law.

Although many who follow Hungarian politics are of the view that not even this super-scandal can shake the Orbán government, I’m beginning to think that this time really might be different. No, I’m not suggesting that Fidesz will lose the election, but I believe that this scandal will not just disappear into the thin air without leaving serious scars on Hungary’s governing party.

Although I can put together a logical argument for my hypothesis, I actually arrived at it in a flash of insight. Today I watched an interview with Gergely Gulyás, the latest leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation. It was a terrific interview, the kind one can see in Western Europe and the Anglo-Saxon countries. Egon Rónai of ATV was in great form. He was hard-hitting and refused to let go. Gulyás, who is articulate, smooth, and able to talk himself out of any situation, crumbled in front of our eyes. It became obvious that he had no good way to communicate Fidesz’s message.

There are already signs that Viktor Orbán has ordered a retreat. Let’s start with the infamous “Stop Soros” legislative package against the NGOs. The original plan was to put the proposal before parliament in a great hurry and to vote on it in typical Fidesz manner, that is, within a few days. But first the laws were amended on the recommendation of loyal citizens who were invited to comment on the draft proposal. As a result, certain parts of the bill that previously needed only a simple majority now require a two-thirds majority. Gergely Gulyás appealed to the opposition to support the bill in the interest of national security.

Commentators critical of the government were certain that this move was a trap. Fidesz wants to show its followers that the opposition parties are not good patriots and that deep down they want to fill the country with African and Middle Eastern immigrants. That explanation made no sense to me then and makes no sense to me now.

Last night we learned that Fidesz is not going to bring the bill forward for a vote before the election. The way Gulyás explained it, the opposition parties will not vote for the bill and therefore it is not worth even trying. After the election, when, according to our optimistic Gulyás, Fidesz will have the necessary two-thirds majority, the bill will pass easily. I might add here that Viktor Orbán, in his pep talk to the members of Fidesz MPs during a recent two-day retreat of the parliamentary delegation, told the troops that he isn’t counting on a two-thirds majority.

Well, let’s take a closer look at the issue. If it took Fidesz only a day to discover that they don’t have enough votes, why did they introduce those amendments that made its passage more difficult in the first place? I suggest that the addition of the last-minute amendments was designed not to shame the opposition but to serve as a pretext for “postponing” the vote. Why? One reason is what Gulyás himself admitted — that the pressure from abroad was too great. The German government specifically expressed its disapproval of the bill. The United Nations and the Council of Europe also protested. And we have no idea what kinds of telephone calls came from Brussels and what kinds of warnings Viktor Orbán received. It had to be something pretty weighty if the vote is “postponed.”

Finally, a few words about the possible ramifications of the Tiborcz scandal. What we hear from Fidesz sources is that many leading Fidesz leaders think that OLAF’s unveiling of the massive fraud committed in a crime syndicate of sorts “might be no more than a mosquito bite, but it can also shake the very foundations of Fidesz because, if these accusations are true, they are indefensible.” Some people who were present remarked that Orbán, despite his decades in politics and all his political cunning, is stunned by the assault on him and his family.

Viktor Orbán is not the only one who is stunned and perhaps on edge. Gergely Gulyás’s miserable performance last night is indicative of the jitteriness of Fidesz bigwigs. He was caught lying when he tried to convince Egon Rónai and ATV’s audience that the Orbán government learned about the OLAF report only this week. But how could that be, he was asked, when the MSZP member of the Szolnok city council received an OLAF document from the government that was dated October 2017? Gulyás had no ready answer. And that document is not the only proof that the Orbán government has been sitting on this report for about four months. There are other less direct clues for the approximate date of the arrival of the report.

I would like to point to two instances which, given this timeline, now make a great deal more sense. One is the complicated story János Lázár told on October 9, 2017, about which I wrote yesterday. I have the feeling that by that time Lázár knew the contents of the OLAF report and that’s why he spent so much time dissecting the exact relationship between the Orbán family and István Tiborcz. My second clue is an interview conducted by Origo, which by then was a government mouthpiece. Tiborcz, who I don’t think had ever given an interview in his life, offered the internet site a lengthy interview about his business activities. The interview appeared on October 30, 2017. In it he told the sad tale of a man whose real calling is business but who is restricted in his financial dealings by the fact that he is now related to the prime minister. This arranged interview was most likely one of the preemptive measures taken at the urging of Viktor Orbán himself.

Meanwhile, Gergely Gulyás wrote a brief note to all Fidesz politicians outlining the official line of communication concerning the Tiborcz scandal. Here are the three simple points. (1) The Olaf report is a “Brussels campaign report and thus an interference in the Hungarian election campaign.”(2) “In 2014, they also timed news concerning the case to come out just before the election. The case was investigated once, but now they are repeating the accusations.” (3) “They try to attack Viktor Orbán despite the fact that during much of the period under investigation the majority owner of the company was Lajos Simicska’s Közgép.”

This is, I’m afraid, a feeble attempt on the part of whoever is in charge of official government lying because right off the bat we can counter that: (1) The report was released in October, not just before the election. (2) The news concerning Tiborcz’s firm didn’t become public until December 2014, while the election took place months earlier, on April 6, 2014. (3) Of the 35 contracts called into question by OLAF, only three were negotiated and signed while Simicska held a majority stake in the company. Moreover, the CEO of the company all along was István Tiborcz.

In brief, Fidesz is floundering. Soon enough, I suspect, Gulyás will have to come up with a new set of instructions.

February 16, 2018

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