Category Archives: Hungarian politics

The Hungarian government’s scholarship program for foreign students

I must admit that I didn’t realize until now the scope of the Stipendium Hungaricum (SH) program, which was conceived by the Orbán government in 2013. It has been an ambitious project from the very beginning. Péter Szijjártó, in those days still undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, announced that in the very first academic year of 2014/2015 Hungary was expecting 2,000 students from the Far East, the Arab countries, and the Western Balkans. By that time the Hungarian government had signed about 25 bilateral agreements specifying the number of students from each country who would receive full scholarships to study in Hungary. At the end, only 1,266 students arrived, the largest contingent coming from China (187), followed by Jordan (179), Tunisia (85), and Vietnam (77). Although the monthly stipend was meager (40,000 Ft/month), the total cost per student was pretty high. In 2013, the government was thinking in terms of 1.25 million forints per semester, which included tuition, health insurance, free dormitory space, and free textbooks. The ministry of human resources calculated that the total cost of having 900 HS students attend Hungarian institutions of higher education for three years would be 4.5 billion forints.

Today almost 3,000 foreign students are enrolled, and the government is planning a rapid expansion of the program. Already in 2013 Szijjártó said that the Orbán government was negotiating with Latin American countries. He indicated that negotiations were proceeding with Russia as well.

By December 2015 arrangements had been made with 45 countries. At that time Viktor Orbán announced that Hungary would like to extend the program to 80 countries. In the same speech he stressed that Hungary, in initiating this program, wants to show the world that it is a welcoming country, although he quickly added that the existence of the HS program doesn’t change the government’s attitude toward “illegal immigrants.” László Palkovics outlined the plan: by 2016 they want to have 3,000 students and by 2017, 5,000.

This ambitious scholarship program has been a success, unlike the “eastern and southern openings” the Orbán government initiated at about the same time. It is a well-known fact that trade relations with eastern and African countries haven’t grown, despite the government’s best efforts. But by now there are 3,000 foreign scholarship students in Pécs, Debrecen, Szeged, Győr, Budapest, and Miskolc. Universities are eager to accept these students because, first, they are fully funded by the ministry of human resources and, second, the number of Hungarian students in universities and colleges has decreased substantially. Demographic changes are partially responsible for these diminishing numbers, but I suspect that the government’s obvious unwillingness to have as high a number of Hungarian university students as were enrolled in 2010/11 is the real reason for the lower numbers. The Orbán government decreased the number of tuition-free places, and the tuition fees have become astronomically high. Moreover, according to the latest statistics, more than 7,000 Hungarian students are enrolled in western universities.

A certain “internationalization” of Hungarian education seems to be the goal. Universities actively recruit foreign students over and above those who are enrolled with the help of the HS program. In 2012/13 20,694 foreign students were in Hungary. By 2016 that number had grown to 28,628, which is about 10% of all university students. László Palkovics, undersecretary of education, wants to further increase the number of non-Hungarians in the system. By 2020 he would like to see this percentage rise to 15%.

Looking through the statistics that describe in some detail the growth in the number of students being educated at the expense of the Hungarian taxpayers, we see some notable trends. For instance, there has been a phenomenal growth in the number of students from Azerbaijan. While in the fall semester of 2015 only 39 Azeri students studied in Hungary, a year later their number was 202. The statistics for Morocco are equally impressive. Their numbers grew from 14 to 66 in one year. By now, the number of Chinese students is almost 300, and Jordan is not too far behind with 245. I noticed with some amazement that 93 Ecuadorians want to study in Hungary. Turkish-Hungarian relations are strong, as we know, and therefore it is not surprising that today 108 Turkish students are in Hungary as opposed to a year ago, when they numbered only 48.

Not everybody is happy about this large influx of students from so-called third world countries because they believe that the money spent on these foreigners should be spent on Hungarian students, whose numbers have decreased dramatically, from 302,000 in 2010 to 251,000 in 2017. The cost of the program today is much higher than was anticipated in 2013. Among other things, universities had to hire extra faculty members whose sole job is looking after the students who need mentoring and general assistance in adjusting to their new surroundings.

The newly arrived Stipendium Hungaricum students in Győr

The government claims that the opportunity for Hungarian students to attain a college or university education isn’t being curtailed by the HS students’ arrival in the system. This is true; the problem lies elsewhere. But the influx of HS students does put Hungarians at a disadvantage when it comes to dormitory accommodations since the foreign students are guaranteed either dormitory rooms or, if they prefer off-campus housing, a stipend of 40,000/month to cover the additional expense. Given the extremely high rent for apartments, almost all HS students opt for dormitory rooms. But there are not enough dormitories in Hungary in the first place, and the number of HS students does put an extra strain on the system. According to the latest figures, 43% more students apply for dormitory rooms than there are places. In some Budapest universities 15-50% of available dormitory places are occupied by HS students. The housing crunch is so severe at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics that, although the HS students are guaranteed dormitory space, they must live, believe it or not, in a Székesfehérvár dormitory 64 km and almost an hour in travel time away.

For most students the language of instruction is English (2,539). Only 378 study in Hungarian. But most of the students, at least at the István Széchenyi University in Győr, which received its first batch of 68 HS students from 25 different countries this year, take a course called “Magyar Nyelv and Kultúra.” According to Magyar Nemzet, however, these students have little interaction with Hungarian students because they are housed separately, which is a sure way of isolating them from the majority culture. The Hungarian government looks upon these students as future leaders of their native countries who will spread the good name of Hungary, but isolating them in clusters defeats the purpose. Even in the Rákosi regime, the government had the good sense to disperse Chinese students among Hungarians in dormitory rooms in order to improve their language skills and ease their adjustment to the Hungarian way of life. Considering the immense amount of money spent on the program, I really wonder how much Hungary will benefit as a result.

December 16, 2017

Orbán’s struggle will continue, but there might be a new enemy: Martin Schulz

Viktor Orbán has never been fond of answering questions. When accosted by journalists at home, he either says nothing or comes up with some flippant answer. Until recently, however, he was quite ready to talk to journalists while abroad. He has always been willing to give long interviews, mostly to German papers, and to hold press conferences after European Council summits. On these occasions he normally bragged about the important role he played during the negotiations, often claiming that he “vetoed” certain otherwise unanimous decisions. But on the last two occasions, he skipped his customary appearance before the journalists altogether.

This was the case this time as well, but the Hungarian prime minister, perhaps imitating Donald Trump, decided to communicate directly with “his people.” The only difference is that he uses Facebook instead of Twitter, which is a great deal less popular in Hungary than in the United States. Short videos are available on Orbán’s Facebook page, with English subtitles provided.

Yesterday I summarized his messages, but since then three more Orbán announcements were posted. The first was recorded right after the working dinner of the prime ministers/chancellors at which the question of migration was discussed. He described the meeting as a “political hand-to-hand combat” in which “the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Slovenes, and we managed to defend our positions.” The military theme is even more obvious in the Hungarian original, in which he used the word “hadállás,” which signifies a military position. No one argued against the necessity of secure borders, he continued, but “the great and strong ones want to bring the migrants into Europe and distribute them on a compulsory basis.” In his final video, he thanked those who had expressed their opposition to placing migrants in Hungary, which helped him “to repel the assaults that nearly managed to violate the sovereignty of Hungary again.”

Orbán’s description of the meeting conjures up a noisy, passionate verbal fight between two antagonistic sides, but other participants called the discussion dispassionate and calm. No charge against the military flanks at all. If I interpret the majority view on the matter of distribution of refugees correctly, the best the Visegrád Four can hope for is a slight modification, not an abrogation of the decision that had been accepted by the European Council earlier. It is possible that “qualified majority rule” will suffice for approval, which would mean defeat for the Visegrád Four’s position.

Viktor Orbán might not like to expound in front of local journalists, but János Lázár, his chief-of-staff, is quite happy to go on for a couple of hours every week to entertain the troops. Lázár is known for his brashness and his hyperbole. He might be amusing at times, but a few hours after these meetings one usually learns that what Lázár claimed was simply untrue or at best misleading. The Budapest correspondent for the Associated Press, who speaks Hungarian, is usually on hand for these Thursday afternoon press conferences. He immediately sent out the news that János Lázár and László Surján, the former vice-president of the European Parliament, had compared Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament and currently head of the German Social Democratic party, to Adolf Hitler. It didn’t take more than an hour for me to be able read this juicy story on ABC’s news site.

What happened that prompted this outrageous comparison? On December 7 Schulz wrote the following message on Twitter: “I want a new constitutional treaty to establish the United States of Europe. A Europe that is no threat to its member states, but a beneficial addition. A convention shall draft this treaty in close cooperation with the civil society and the people. Its results will then be submitted to all member states. Any state that won’t ratify this treaty will automatically leave the EU.” This tweet was discovered a week later by two members of the Hungarian Christian Democratic Party–Péter Harrach, the whip of the KDNP parliamentary delegation, and László Surján, who, as far as I know, by now plays no official political role. Péter Harrach, who is anything but flamboyant, compared Schulz to Ferenc Gyurcsány. Both men are “lots of talk without substantial achievement.” Surján said that Schulz’s voice “reminded him of Adolf Hitler,” which he “found unacceptable.” The two held a press conference to announce their disapproval of Schulz and his United States of Europe.

It seems that Lázár especially liked Surján’s comment and decided to use the comparison at his press conference a few hours later. He added a few extra words. He not only heard “Hitler’s voice” but claimed that “the last time Hungary received such an ultimatum was from Adolf Hitler.” Of course, such a comparison is ridiculous, and we must assume that the sudden interest in Schulz is not independent from the likelihood that a grand coalition will be formed in Germany and that Schulz will be part of the cabinet in some important position. Schulz is known to be a very harsh critic of Viktor Orbán. Perhaps after Soros the new devil will be Schulz and his plans for a United States of Europe.

December 15, 2017

Was Orbán’s bout with the EU a “points victory”? We will see tomorrow

Viktor Orbán, along with the other prime ministers of the European Union’s member states, is in Brussels at the moment, where among other things they are supposed to come to an understanding on the thorny issue of migration. The goal is naturally unity, a common understanding, a situation in which all member states share in the solution to the problems currently facing the European Union.

The greatest obstacle to reaching this goal is the refusal of three of the four Visegrád countries to accept one single refugee in case the need arises. These countries are the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. The fourth country, Slovakia, would take a very limited number of asylum seekers.

The Visegrád Four countries have jointly come up with a plan of their own. Those countries that already have a number of immigrants from countries outside of the Union should accept most of the refugees while the Central Europeans would redeem their non-compliance with cash contributions. They came out with a figure today. They would pay 35 million euros in assistance to Italy. Hungary’s contribution would be nine million euros. This offer has not found too many enthusiastic supporters. In fact, most of the influential political leaders of the larger states deemed the Visegrád Four’s solution to be unacceptable.

The deep division within the EU became all too visible even before the opening of the summit. In October Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, introduced the idea of sending around a so-called Leaders’ Agenda prior to the summits. Its alleged purpose was to set out topics to be informally discussed. This time the topic was “Migration: way forward on the external and the internal dimension.” It is hard to tell what Tusk meant by this mysterious title, and I’m not surprised that some of Tusk’s critics considered the document badly written. The short letter was full of commonplace notions, like “secure external borders.” But what was strange and new in the document was that Tusk decided that “only Member States are able to tackle the migration crisis effectively” and that the European Commission’s approach to the migration crisis “has turned out to be ineffective.”

Eszter Zalan of Euobserver wrote that Tusk’s note on migration prompted “institutional hysteria” in Brussels. Eventually, the text had to be changed after serious concerns were raised at the meeting of EU foreign ministers on December 11. This was considered by some to be a “humiliating climb-down.” The revised note called for the EU institutions to work together. EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called Tusk’s note “anti-European,” which might have been an overstatement, but even the official comments coming from the European Commission took umbrage at Tusk’s singular action. Its spokesman conveyed the Commission’s disagreement with Tusk’s criticism of its work.

It was not just the members of the European Council who were critical of Tusk’s move but also the political leaders of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and even Greece, which has had to manage large numbers of refugees and migrants. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, for example, called Tusk’s comments “aimless, ill-timed, and pointless.” Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose reproofs are usually quite subdued, was openly critical, insisting that “solidarity for the management of borders” is not enough; responsibilities must be shared within the Union as well. Italy might have been pleased with the financial offer but nonetheless reiterated that “we will continue to insist that a commitment on the relocation of refugees is needed.”

The leaders of the Visegrád Four must have been elated when they received Tusk’s note, but the changes that had to be made should have signaled to them that they couldn’t expect an imminent victory for their position. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó declared that Tusk had “spoken the truth” on mandatory quotas. He went even further in his criticism of the European Commission. “Some Brussels bureaucrats continue to organize and promote illegal migration, and Donald Tusk is now being attacked in a vile and sanctimonious manner by those who have been representing for years now the obviously misguided migration policy of the European Commission.”

The other side considered Tusk’s initiative to be an encroachment on the prerogatives of the European Council. As one unnamed EU diplomat said, “The European Council is not a legislative body.” In his opinion, Tusk couldn’t possibly mean to bypass the normal procedures of the European Union. Moreover, Tusk’s opinions bore a suspicious resemblance to the general argument put forth by the Visegrád Four, which could be a result of his national attachments.

Photo: Stephanie LeCocq / MTI-EPA

Viktor Orbán left Budapest in a combative mood with a backpack on his shoulder which, according to him, contained 2.3 million Hungarians’ rejection of the Soros Plan, which in Orbán’s domestic parlance means the plan of the European Commission. (I should add that no official results of the national consultation have yet been disclosed.) Today he seems to be flying high because his Facebook page is full of videos with English subtitles from Brussels, announcing all of the things he has been accomplishing.

Before the summit the Visegrád Four prime ministers, whose ranks included two new members, Andrej Babiš of the Czech Republic and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, met Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy. Juncker was especially open to the gesture of the four prime ministers and called the offer a sign of solidarity. Orbán was elated and declared that he was “deeply thankful to [Juncker], who was a good partner.” According to Andrew Byrne, Financial Times correspondent for Hungary, Romania, and the West Balkans, Orbán was overtaken by Juncker’s kindness. It’s no wonder that Orbán on one of his videos announced that “after the first bout we are doing well. It looks like a points victory today.”

We will see how the rest of the summit shapes up. After all, Tusk had to retreat, and there is a crucial dinner meeting tonight and another day of negotiations tomorrow.

December 14, 2017

The charge of sexual harassment used as a political tool? The Henrik Havas case

Unlike in the United States, the #metoo movement in Hungary seemed to have died a quiet death after three cases. But then, after a few weeks of hiatus, another case surfaced. The newly accused is Henrik Havas, a prominent member of the ATV staff. Havas is a controversial character whose programs apparently have a large following. I am not one of his admirers. I consider him an insufferable braggart whose veracity is at times questionable. He is a man who often talks about women in a disparaging way, which he claims is just funny. Through the years, I have come to the conclusion that he has more than an ambivalent attitude toward Gypsies and feels uneasy about his own relationship with and opinions of Jews.

Havas has published scores of books on a range of topics, like life in prison, women in the porn industry, and higher-class prostitutes. A few months ago Havas published a book about Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, an initially anti-Semitic and racist party that lately has been making efforts to move closer to the center. Jobbik is the strongest opposition party facing Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz. In the last year or so it has become evident that Viktor Orbán considers Jobbik a threat, and therefore a series of base personal attacks were directed against Vona. The dirty work was done by pro-Fidesz tabloids like 888.hu, Riposzt, and lately, Origo.

Vona was apparently flattered that Havas, whose political views are a far cry from his own, was interested in him. As he put it in an interview with Magyar Nemzet, the fact that Havas chose him to be the subject of his next book “means something politically significant. He could have picked Bernadett Szél or Gergely Karácsony,” the other two candidates for the post of prime minister.

The book launch was to take place on December 6, where both Havas and Vona were to be present. The great day arrived, but in the last minute Havas canceled. The reason for his absence was an accusation of sexual molestation by Éva Baukó, a participant on a reality show, ValóVilág (Real World), aired off and on by RTL Klub. Havas justified missing the event by claiming that “the pro-government media created a political event out of a simple book launch.”

At the book launch Gábor Vona argued that this attack on Havas is really “an assault on Jobbik.” He called the accusation against Havas “political terrorism” initiated in order to spread fear. As he put it, “You want to write a book about Gábor Vona? Then we will do you in.”

Actually, there was nothing new in the accusation. In 2012 Baukó accused Havas of demanding anal sex, which she refused and quit the show. However, the blog writer who commented on the interview at the time noted that Baukó was dead drunk and incoherent and that the story was utterly unbelievable. The interview was aired on TV, but no one paid the slightest attention to it. It was this accusation that was warmed up by Ripost.hu and later by TV2, which is owned by American-Hungarian producer Andy Vajna. This time she added more details, which included Havas’s offer to pay rent on an apartment and to give her monthly financial assistance. She admitted that there was no physical molestation but said that Havas fired her from the show. After the initial article in Riposzt, all government publications picked up the story, the most active being Origo. I haven’t counted them all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been at least 30-40 articles on the Havas affair.

Two days later a former participant on the ValóVilág show and a friend of Baukó claimed that Baukó’s newly released confession was actually staged and that Baukó received money for the warmed-up story about Havas. He told the reporter that TV2 was behind the attack on Havas. At this point, neither Havas nor ATV took the charge seriously.

But on December 8 another woman, Anikó Molnár, also accused Havas of sexual harassment. Molnár was also a participant on ValóVilág. Havas wrote a book about her titled “The Star, the Loser, and Who Was Looking for Her Mother,” published in 2009. Molnár told stories from her life, which Havas retold in the book. She recalled that Havas sent her a vibrator, which Havas doesn’t deny but claims it was just a joke. Apparently, in the intervening years the relationship between the two soured and not long ago Havas called Molnár a “gold-digger.” At this point, ATV decided to suspend his programs, and management said it would pursue an “internal investigation.”

And then a third woman appeared, a much more credible source–Zita Görög, a model and actress. She and Havas were involved in a television cooking show which included a dinner scene where under the table Havas approached her in an inappropriate manner. In fact, on live TV she turned to Havas and told him “not to touch my hands and thighs! Seriously, this is humiliating.” Havas has an explanation for this scene too. Apparently, there was another female member at the table and, according to Havas, “these two women were playing roles.” The other was nice and friendly, while Zita Görög was playing the elegant lady “who occasionally was hysterical.” At this point, ATV removed all of Havas’s shows from its video archives.

Since then, Origo came up with another story about an unnamed woman business associate of Havas, and in one article Origo made not so veiled references to Havas having been an informer in the Kádár regime.

Do Havas’s troubles stem from writing a book about Gábor Vona? Perhaps. But ATV will undoubtedly find it difficult, if not impossible, not to go after Havas since they were outraged when László Marton and Gábor Kerényi, two theater directors, were found to have sexually abused women. There are, however, a lot of doubts on the left. Many people find it difficult to believe that there is no connection between Havas’s book on Gábor Vona and the accusations of sexual harassment against him. I’m sitting on the fence.

December 13, 2017

Microsoft had enough: heads rolled

You may recall the huge Romanian corruption scandal that involved large bribes paid to members of the Romanian government in exchange for their approving increases in license fees for Microsoft products. It was in October 2014 that the investigation by the National Anticorruption Directorate began, and soon enough more than 100 persons were identified as being connected to the case. Among them were nine government ministers. Sentencing took place in March and October 2016. Four of the accused are already serving sentences of between two and six years.

There is a good possibility that similar corruption occurred in Hungary, this time involving Microsoft Hungary, a subsidiary of Microsoft Corporation. But the government response couldn’t have been more different.

József Spirk, earlier of Népszabadság and now at 24.hu, broke the news that the parent company had decided to initiate an internal investigation of the business practices of the Hungarian affiliate. In fact, it is likely that the investigation has been going on for some time. Apparently Microsoft headquarters sent a team of investigators to Budapest, perhaps as early as the second half of 2015. The investigators, with the help of a Hungarian law firm, looked into the business practices of Microsoft Hungary, especially during the tenure of István Papp as general manager.

According to Microsoft News, during Papp’s tenure (2011-2015) Microsoft Hungary was recognized as the best-performing Microsoft subsidiary of its size for two years running. In recognition of his achievement, Papp was promoted to the post of vice-president for sales, marketing, and services in the Asia Pacific in August 2015, and he and his family moved to Singapore. But his stay there was short. By March 2016 his employment was most likely terminated. He returned to Hungary, where he became vice president for business development of HIPA (Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency). HIPA is a government organization under the ministry of foreign affairs and trade. It provides professional consulting services to interested companies free of charge, identifying investment possibilities. In brief, he became a civil servant of sorts. After eight months, in August of this year, he decided to establish his own company, called Thriveo. It advertises itself, in its own English, as “No bullshit here. We build or enhance your strategy and engage in execution. We do not apologize for any inconvenience.” Looking at Thriveo’s website, I have my doubts about the future of Papp’s company.

Péter Szijjártó as representative of the government and István Papp as general manager of Microsoft Hungary sign a strategic partnership in December 2012

The other person of interest in this story is Viktor Sagyibó, who spent eight years at Microsoft Hungary between 2008 and January 2016. He started fairly low on the totem pole, but by 2012 he oversaw all sales of Microsoft products to the government. In July 2015 he was promoted again, to supervise the company’s business with large corporations. By April 2016, however, he was no longer at Microsoft. His departure was certainly not advertised. Microsoft simply announced a few months after his departure that his job had been taken over by Gabriella Bábel, who began her career at Microsoft in 2011.

After leaving Microsoft, perhaps under a cloud, Sagyibó became CEO of 4iG Nyrt., a company that designs customized software based on Oracle and Java technology. Its customers are mostly government agencies, like the National Health Insurance Fund, the National Police Headquarters, and the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. His tenure at 4iG, however, was short. Two weeks after getting the job, he resigned “for unforeseeable personal reasons.” Apparently his quick departure from 4iG had something to do with Microsoft’s strong suspicion or perhaps even knowledge that Sagyibó had a role to play in the corruption case Microsoft Corporation was investigating.

Microsoft Hungary doesn’t deal directly with the Hungarian government but uses so-called LAR partners. LAR stands for “large account reseller.” As a result of its investigation, last month Microsoft broke its contracts with three of its largest LAR partners “for ethical reasons.” These companies, as you can well imagine, were on very good terms with the Fidesz government.

The largest company, which was perhaps the busiest business partner of Microsoft, was Humansoft Kft., a company established in 1989. It has business arrangements with Dell, Cisco, Symantec, Fujitsu-Siemens, and many other important companies in addition to Microsoft. Humansoft has a close relationship to important Fidesz figures, and as a result it was the beneficiary of a 1.5 billion forint grant for software development from the European Union in 2015. The second company, Euro One Zrt., is also a well-established firm with 100 employees, while the third one is a much smaller outfit called RacioNet Zrt.

Microsoft’s decision to disrupt the traditional method of doing business with the Hungarian government, going back years, was unexpected and very sudden. It came a few days after János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, announced on November 7 that Viktor Sagyibó, the former Microsoft employee, had been hired as “ministerial commissioner” entrusted with the supervision of all domestic and EU projects. He is also in charge of monitoring information technology development within the so-called Public Administration and Civil Service Development Operative Program, a program that is very large. Hungary will invest over 935 million euros, including €795 million from EU funding, under this rubric

Sagyibó’s government appointment must have been the last straw for Microsoft. 24.hu naturally tried to get more information from Microsoft Hungary. It received no confirmation of the investigation, but the company didn’t deny the rumor.

Interestingly, both István Papp and Viktor Sagyibó ended up, at least temporarily, in government employment. Sagyibó came out especially well. It is not an everyday affair that someone who most likely left Microsoft under a cloud ends up being a commissioner who is supposed to make sure that EU grants are well spent.

December 12, 2017

Dress rehearsal for the national election? By-election in Solymár

Yesterday, on December 10, a local by-election for a seat on the town council was held in the sixth district of Solymár, a suburb of Budapest, which is described in its English-language Wikipedia entry as “a desirable destination for affluent city-dwellers moving to suburban homes outside of Budapest.” The extremely detailed Hungarian Wikipedia article portrays the small town of 10,000 as a bustling, culturally active community where there is a strong attachment to the German traditions that became nearly extinct with the deportation of a great number of indigenous German inhabitants of Solymár. The list of prominent writers, artists, and politicians who are associated with the town is impressive. Some well-known people from the right also seem to favor the place. The anti-Semitic leader of MIÉP, István Csurka, used to live there and Zsolt Bayer is still a resident. So is Pál Schmidt, the former president, who had to resign in disgrace.

Solymár is known as a Fidesz town through and through, a designation that is well-deserved, at least since 2006. Solymár has had a Fidesz mayor ever since that time, and all eight electoral districts of the town elected Fidesz-KDNP candidates. MSZP-DK, Jobbik, and Együtt-PM each received one place from the compensation list. The contested District #6 was handily won in 2014 by Gergely Gaal with 61.96% (215 votes) over MSZP-DK’s candidate with 27.67% (96) and Jobbik’s with 10.37% (36). A by-election had to be held because Fidesz-KDNP chose Gaal to replace György Rubovszky, a long-standing member of parliament (KDNP) who died in June. Gaal joined the Christian Democratic caucus, which represents a political formation that actually doesn’t exist.

All of the left-of-center opposition parties, including LMP and Momentum, two parties that are dead against any kind of cooperation with those they find politically unacceptable, decided to throw their weight behind an independent candidate, Zsuzsanna Kárpáti, a photographer who is well known and well liked in town. Jobbik decided not to enter the race, which was interpreted as a tacit endorsement of Kárpáti. Some of the independent media outlets heralded the event as “the dress rehearsal” for the national election next year. 24.hu considered the by-election in Solymár “a great deal more important than an ordinary by-election.” Having “only one competitor against the Fidesz candidate” is the sole formula by which Fidesz can be beaten. Magyar Nemzet also looked upon the Solymár by-election as a “litmus test” for next year’s election.

Zsuzsanna Kárpáti and supporters / Source: HVG

The election duly took place yesterday, and Attila Dalos, the Fidesz-KDNP candidate, won, receiving 225 votes (56.8%) against Zsuzsanna Kárpáti’s 169 votes (42.7%). The government propaganda machine was ecstatic. Magyar Idők interpreted Kárpáti’s loss as “a slap in the face to opposition cooperation.” The victory, in the opinion of the right, was “a win hands down.”

Gergely Gaal, whom Attila Dalos will replace as a member of the town council, interpreted the figures as proof that “the government parties have actually become stronger in Solymár” in the last three years. I predict a great career for Gaal in national Fidesz politics because his claim that Fidesz-KDNP has become stronger since 2014 when “Fidesz-KDNP received 55.6% and now 56.8%” is simple hoodwinking. Solymár is part of the Electoral District #2 of Pest County where Fidesz received 46.54% of the votes at the national election of 2014. Solymár with its 55.6% of Fidesz votes in the 2014 national election shows that Solymár is a Fidesz stronghold in District #2. Gaal is comparing apples and oranges when he compares municipal election figures to the numbers in the national election in order to portray the by-election as a great victory. The fact is that although the Fidesz-KDNP candidate won, the earlier overwhelming support for Fidesz (61.96%) in the local election slipped by more than five percentage points this time around. And the single challenger did considerably better (42.7%) than the MSZP-DK candidate (27.67%) in 2014.

As is usually the case, the other side finds the results encouraging. Gábor Vágó, a former LMP member and nowadays a civil activist and journalist, thinks that “Solymár shows that the national election is not a done deal.” Vágó, in comparing the figures, said that in 2014 there was a 121 vote difference between the Fidesz winner and the MSZP-DK challenger which by now “has melted to 56.” Thus, says Vágó, cooperation among the parties has a mobilizing effect on the electorate. I think that Vágó’s explanation is too simplistic. One must keep in mind that Jobbik didn’t enter the race, and it’s not evident if its supporters turned out to vote anyway and, if so, for whom they voted. Considering that there is no love lost between Jobbik and Fidesz, they may have cast their votes for Kárpáti. In 2014 the Jobbik candidate received 36 votes. In addition, 26 more people voted this time than three years ago. All in all, it’s not obvious that the narrowing of the gap between 2014 and 2017 was due solely to party cooperation.

The socialists are also optimistic. The party believes that “if in District #6 of Solymár one can have such close results it means that Fidesz can lose in the majority of the 106 electoral districts.” After all, the argument goes, this is a super-strong Fidesz district, and therefore it is not a good indicator of future results.

The oddest assessment of the Solymár results came from Zoltán Tóth, who is considered to be a real wizard in the analysis of election laws. Unfortunately, he has a great deal less skill as a political analyst. For some strange reason he thinks that Jobbik stayed away from the fray because it wanted to help Fidesz win. Neither the figures nor current Fidesz-Jobbik relations support this assessment. It is enough to take a look at Jobbik’s internet news site, alfahir.hu, which notes with satisfaction that “Fidesz’s advantage has been greatly reduced.” After comparing the current and the 2014 results, the article concludes that “it is clear that a unified, independent candidate is capable of putting pressure on the Fidesz candidate even in Fidesz strongholds.” Surely, Jobbik was not on the side of Fidesz in Solymár. On the contrary.

Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt, who used to be an electoral number cruncher before he decided to become a politician, points out that only a 60% participation rate can remove the Orbán government, even if only one challenger faces the Fidesz candidate. Whether the opposition parties, whose main preoccupation seems to be fighting among themselves, will be able to mobilize those voters who are unhappy with the present government only time will tell.

December 11, 2017

Márta Pardavi’s testimony at the EP hearing on the Situation in Hungary

Márta Pardavi is co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. A lawyer by training, she leads the organization’s work in the field of refugee protection. She also serves on the board of the PILnet Hungary Foundation, a project funded by the International Visegrád Fund, which supports NGOs in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and the Verzió International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival. Between 2003 and 2011 she was a member of the board, and later vice-chair, of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a pan-European alliance of 96 NGOs protecting and advancing the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons.

Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE)
European Parliament
Brussels, 7 December 2017

Dear Chair, Minister, members of the European Parliament,

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today, it is an honor.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee was founded in 1989 and has been working to defend human rights in Hungary. Our work focuses on protecting refugees and protecting human rights in detention and in criminal justice and the rule of law. This year, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee was shortlisted for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Vaclav Havel Prize and also was the recipient of the Gulbenkian Foundation’s prestigious Prize in Human Rights, in Portugal.

The common values in Article 2 of the Treaty are core values that are both the pillars and the drivers of our European community and European integration.

In Hungary, the government has systematically weakened checks and balances and the rule of law. The fundamental values of the EU have come under increasing threat and are being systematically disrespected.

Where independent institutions of governance have been dismantled or weakened, a free media and a vibrant and vocal civil society are essential to counterbalancing excessive power. Public participation in democratic processes and holding government accountable cannot be ensured without free and plural media and a free civil society.

Civil society has many roles, but one is particularly important here today. We speak truth to power. As a human rights organization, we protect individuals and society as a whole against the overreach of power and breaches of our common values as set out in Article 2 of the Treaty. When it says this discussion is nothing but a political attack and interference in domestic affairs, what the Hungarian government questions is exactly the shared nature of our common core European values. However, civil society’s role is to encourage also the European institutions, and others, to act in the interest of upholding our common values.

Space for expressing and accessing critical and pluralistic views in Hungary has been rapidly and alarmingly shrinking in the past year.

Beginning back in 2013, a series of measures began to target, discredit and intimidate civil society organizations that strive to hold the government to account on its obligations concerning anti-corruption, environmental protection, fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law. You will remember the series of unjustified investigations and even a police raid in 2014 against NGOs that had received funds from the EEA and Norway Grants NGO Program.

Other measures putting pressure on independent civil society include unfounded allegations by members of the Hungarian government or the ruling party as well as misleading or untrue reporting from government-controlled and government-aligned media. The national consultations and government communication campaigns held this year, you will recall, plastered Hungary in billboards calling to ‘Stop Brussels’ which attacked European institutions, or the currently finishing consultation that has been scaring the country with a sinister plot on migration.

These measures are meant to focus on and attack individuals and groups that express views about public affairs which are different from that of the government. This is no way to respect our common values in a European democracy.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst expressed concern in March 2017 about the continued stigmatization of human rights defenders and about the chilling effect of the inflammatory language used by senior government officials on the public perception of the value of civil society.

In its May resolution, the European Parliament called on the government of Hungary to withdraw the then proposed Act on the Transparency of Foreign-Funded Organizations. Nevertheless, on 13 June, the Hungarian Parliament proceeded to adopt the anti-NGO law.

Under the Anti-NGO Law, any civil society organization that receives over about EUR 23,000 per year from foreign sources should register as an “organization receiving foreign funds” in a state register. Foreign funding can come directly from the European Commission, UN bodies, private foundations or Hungarian citizens who are living abroad. The ‘foreign-funded’ label has to be displayed on all of its publications, print and digital alike. Failure to comply with the law could lead to a judicial procedure that could impose fines or even result in the court dissolving the organization.

The Venice Commission issued its final opinion a week after the law was adopted. It stressed that despite its legitimate aims, the law may not be used to stigmatize NGOs or restrict their ability to carry out their activities. The law causes disproportionate and unnecessary interference with freedom of expression and association, the right to privacy and non-discrimination.

In July 2017, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure on account of the law on foreign-funded NGOs. The Commission found several violations of EU law, namely that the Law interferes unduly with fundamental rights as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in particular, the right to freedom of association. The Commission concluded that the new law could prevent NGOs from raising funds and would restrict their ability to carry out their work. The new registration, reporting and publicity requirements are foreseen by the law are discriminatory and create an administrative and reputational burden for these organizations. These measures may have a dissuasive effect on the funding from abroad and make it difficult for the concerned NGOs to receive it.

To date, 233 Hungarian NGOs have publicly condemned the Anti-NGO Law as we believe it is unnecessary, stigmatizing and harmful. Unnecessary, because Hungarian civil society organizations are already transparent in their operations, provide accurate information about their donors and finances in annual reports and carry out their activities before the public. Stigmatizing, because the law implies that organizations which work for the benefit of Hungarian society by receiving international grants for their work pose a threat to the country. Harmful, because it undermines mutual trust in society and questions the right to freedom of expression.

There is a reason to fear that the newly adopted law will not be the endpoint of the several years’ long governmental campaign against independent civil society organizations. On the contrary, this is a new step in a long process that aims at fully discrediting and hindering independent civil society organizations.

This anti-NGO law is closely modelled after the Russian ‘foreign agent law’, which has made the work of independent pro-democracy and human rights NGOs extremely difficult. In many cases, good NGOs doings highly important work have had to close down.

Not only is the anti-NGO legislation itself strikingly similar in Russia and Hungary. The smear campaigns against prominent NGOs, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, are also very similar to what goes on in Russia.

Now, the government has begun to make references to national security risks. Already at the end of October, the Prime Minister and other government ministers spoke about having instructed the domestic and foreign intelligence agencies to look into how the so-called Soros-network has links to what it calls ‘Brussels’, European institutions such as the Parliament and the Commission.

As a Hungarian, it makes me upset that instead of fostering tolerance, the government of Hungary fuels intolerance — with taxpayer funds.

In addition to the constant Brussels-bashing in the billboards and full-page advertisements that I am sure you have seen pictures of as well, the hugely expensive taxpayer-funded national consultations are driving intolerance and xenophobia in Hungary to alarmingly high levels. Fearmongering against migrants and refugees, against Muslims, against foreigners who might look different than an average Hungarian, has created widespread hatred and fear in society. In small communities, locals have prevented a handful of recognized refugees from holidaying in their village. Elsewhere, foreigners staying in local bed and breakfasts must show their vaccination certificates under a local decree.

While radical, extremist and racist views like these are found in many parts of Europe, it is not governments themselves who fuel and disseminate them with taxpayer funds.

Politicians and governments can lead by example. However, the government of Hungary is setting a worrying and dangerous example when it comes to human rights and rule of law protection. My country has become a widely quoted example of an illiberal state in the heart of Europe, in the European Union. We are witnessing how this example is being followed elsewhere in the EU, most notably in Poland, but not only there.

Over the years and this year, the European Commission has launched infringement measures for a significant number of rules of law and human rights issues in Hungary. However, these infringement measures have not been able to address, let alone remedy the systemic breaches of rule of law and human rights in Hungary. In our European toolbox, we have further tools to address the broader concerns — of which I have highlighted a few here, but for lack of time, not all.

I haven’t spoken about refugee protection; independence of the judiciary, corruption, equality between men and women, minorities — the list of concerns goes on.

The tools to fix them need to be taken out before it’s too late.

Thank you for your attention.

December 10, 2017