Tag Archives: Ágnes Kunhalmi

László Botka is on the campaign trail, with some hiccups

Although in the last few weeks László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for premiership, has begun to campaign with greater vigor, neither his own popularity nor the approval rating of his party has improved. In fact, according to Závecz Research (August 23, 2017), MSZP’s active voters dropped by three percentage points in three months. The loss was continuous and steady. Publicus Intézet (August 27, 2017), which also measured the popularity of politicians, registered a three percentage point drop in Botka’s popularity in one month. Support for DK in the last three months remained steady. Thus there is plenty to worry about in MSZP circles.

Earlier I wrote about the controversy between Zsolt Molnár, an influential MSZP politician, and László Botka, which showed a cleavage within the party leadership over MSZP’s relationship with the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK). One must keep in mind that DK began as a socialist splinter party, and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision to leave MSZP and create a new party left MSZP in a much weakened position. Therefore, one shouldn’t be surprised by the resentment some MSZP politicians feel toward DK and its leader. It is hard to judge the size of the group in the top leadership which under no circumstances would sit down to negotiate with the politicians of DK, but even though their number might be small, they are determined to go ahead alone, without the second largest party on the left. In this group are István Ujhelyi, EU parliamentary member, and Tamás Harangozó. On the other hand, Attila Mesterházy, former party chairman and candidate for the premiership of the united democratic opposition in 2014, seems to be on the side of those who sympathize with Zsolt Molnár’s position. His recent interview at least points in this direction. In this interview he revealed his pragmatic side when he suggested cooperation with Lajos Simicska, because “the removal of Viktor Orbán’s regime is a common goal.” He also defended Gyurcsány against Botka’s accusation that the former prime minister is not a democrat. Although Ágnes Kunhalmi is quiet, I suspect that she also has her doubts about Botka’s strategy. So, Zsolt Molnár is not alone.

MSZP old-timers complain that 15-20 years ago the party had the support of the leading professionals of the country, but by now they have left the socialists because the party leadership didn’t cultivate a working relationship with them. Perhaps Botka also realized that for a party to develop a program and make preparations for governing one needs experts in various fields. Legal experts, men and women with expertise in education, healthcare, public administration, etc. So, Botka sent out 200 invitations to a meeting in Szeged on August 26, where he was hoping to receive the common wisdom of the experts gathered there. When I first read the news as it was presented in Népszava, I had the distinct feeling that the turnout was low and that the largest group present were the big names in MSZP, past and present. Although Népszava, being a social democratic paper, was unwilling to say it outright, it was pretty obvious that there were very few well-known experts present. Népszava somewhat sarcastically noted that Botka announced that he didn’t want to give a speech but proceeded to give a very long one. Besides outlining ten important goals of MSZP once it forms a government, he again spent an inordinate amount of time on Ferenc Gyurcsány, which Népszava discreetly left out of its summary. In order to read that part of the speech one has to go to Index.

This gathering had one bright side, which had nothing to do with collecting professionals to assist the party program and possible future governance. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word “cooperation” carefully because I don’t think that “support” would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is “willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.” Considering Párbeszéd’s 1% support, Karácsony’s offer of cooperation will not bring too many new voters to MSZP. Still, this gesture should give a psychological lift to the disheartened democratic opposition. Botka also received the support of Zoltán Komáromi, a family physician, who has been a constant fixture in the media. He claims to have worked out an effective reform of the ailing healthcare system that would yield immediate, tangible results. Komáromi’s abandonment of Együtt is a blow to that small party, which has said that it will not cooperate with any other political group.

László Botka (MSZP) and Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd) / Photo Ádám Molnár

After these positive developments I must turn to the less bright aspects of Botka’s campaign activities. Botka was supposed to come up with 106 candidates by September, but to date he has managed to name only two. After visiting Gyöngyös, he declared that there can be no better candidate in that district than György Hiesz, the MSZP mayor of the town. Hiesz is one of the founders of MSZP. He was a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994 and again between 2010 and 2014. He was mayor between 2002 and 2010 and again from 2014 on. Then a few days later, while campaigning in the town of Makó, Botka had the bright idea of asking István Rója, who had been the principal of the local gymnasium, to be MSZP’s candidate in the coming election campaign. Rója’s appointment was not renewed despite wide support by teachers, students, and parents. Rója is not an MSZP member. While Hiesz is an experienced politician, Rója has never been involved in politics. These two people might be excellent candidates, but the way Botka single-handedly and in a somewhat haphazard manner is picking his candidates doesn’t appeal to some people within the party, especially since compiling the party list is supposed to be the leadership’s joint decision.

I should also call attention to another perhaps not so small blunder. Yesterday Botka essentially promised the job of minister of education to István Hiller, who had held this post between 2006 and 2010. About a year ago Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman of MSZP, suggested creating a so-called shadow cabinet, a popular political instrument in Great Britain, which consists of senior members of the opposition parties who scrutinize their corresponding government ministers and develop alternative policies. Such a body could develop a coherent set of goals and policies for a party. However, for some strange reason, László Botka doesn’t like the concept. As he keeps repeating, he wants to have a real cabinet, not a shadow one. Therefore, he said that he wasn’t going to name names. Yet yesterday, standing next to István Hiller, Botka announced that Hiller was once minister of education and he is very much hoping that he will be so again. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, this means that he has Hiller in mind for the post. There’s a major problem here, however. Botka in the last eight months talked about nothing else but those guilty MSZP and SZDSZ politicians who are responsible for the electoral disaster of 2010 when Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in parliament. They must retire and shouldn’t even be on the party list, meaning that they cannot even be ordinary backbenchers in parliament. That was allegedly his reason for insisting on Gyurcsány’s disappearance from politics. And now, he publicly indicates that his choice for minister of education is a former cabinet member in the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments. This inconsistency doesn’t look good.

All in all, Botka’s performance to date leaves a great deal to be desired. I wonder when the day will come that he is told to change course or else.

August 30, 2017

The Hungarian socialists in turmoil?

Perhaps the most telling sentence on the state of the Hungarian Socialist Party came from its chairman in an interview he gave to Inforádió on August 7. In the interview Gyula Molnár tried to be upbeat. The public clash between László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership, and Zsolt Molnár, one of the top leaders of the party, is now behind them. Zsolt Molnár and László Botka have made peace, and the decision was reached to follow the party’s initial strategy, the lynchpin of which is the retirement of Ferenc Gyurcsány from politics. The chairman sounded upbeat until he uttered the following sentence: “I’m already afraid of the results of the August opinion polls.” Molnár’s fear is well founded. There is a very good possibility that the clash between the two well-known MSZP politicians will further erode the dwindling support for the socialist party.

MSZP’s leadership will not change strategy. As long as the politicians and the membership of Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) insist on Ferenc Gyurcsány’s presence on a common party list, there will be no collaboration with DK. Perhaps it was Gyula Molnár’s interview that inspired DK to publish an open letter to László Botka. Ágnes Vadai, one of DK’s vice-chairmen, posted it on her Facebook page. I assume DK is trying to make sure that the public will place most of the blame on Botka because of his intransigence concerning the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány. So Vadai stressed DK’s attempts to come to an understanding with Botka, though she emphasized that the DK community will not accept him as the leader of the joint opposition without the presence of its chairman. As she put it, “DK is not for sale either with or without its chairman.” Vadai ended her letter by saying: “You accepted the leadership role. If you’re successful, it will be to your credit, but if you fail, you will have to shoulder the blame.” Vadai added that if Botka rigidly adheres to his present strategy, he will place the democratic opposition in an untenable situation.

László Botka wasn’t impressed. First, he made fun of “the followers of Donald Trump’s Twitter politics,” meaning Vadai’s choice of Facebook as a vehicle of communication. Second, he indicated that he has no intention of changing his mind on the subject of Gyurcsány’s presence in the political life of the democratic opposition. His answer was a paraphrase of a line from a Szekler story. An old couple is sitting on the terrace. The wife turns to the husband and complains that he never tells her that he loves her. The old Szekler says: “I said it once. If there is a change I will let you know.” This story might capture one aspect of the Szeklers, who are known for their reticence, but it was impudent under the circumstances. It showed the arrogance for which Botka is becoming known nationwide. Moreover, a day later Botka accused Gyurcsány of not being a man of democratic convictions. Otherwise, Gyurcsány would support him, because he is the one who “proclaimed the strategy of victory” which will remove Viktor Orbán’s government.

Given these unfortunate events, observers of the political scene on both sides of the aisle have become convinced that Gyula Molnár’s fears of a serious loss of support will force MSZP to drop Botka, who hasn’t shown the necessary political finesse or a willingness to keep communication open with the other democratic forces outside of MSZP. Government publications began to speculate that Botka’s days may be numbered. Earlier there had been voices suggesting that Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd would be an attractive alternative, but I can’t imagine that MSZP politicians would be ready to entrust a non-party member with that position. A couple of days ago Figyelő, the once highly respected financial weekly which has since been purchased by Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s court historian, came up with a replacement in the person of Ágnes Kunhalmi.

Source: nyugat.hu / Photo by Bálint Vágvölgyi

The 35-year-old Ágnes Kunhalmi has popular appeal that MSZP hasn’t really exploited. She was designated the party’s education expert. She does appear frequently in the media, but always strictly in that capacity. This is surprising because in the 2014 election Kunhalmi showed what she is capable of. Gábor Simon, an MSZP old-timer, was MSZP’s candidate in Budapest’s 15th electoral district (Pestszentlőrinc-Pestszentimre/District XVIII). Only a few weeks before the election Simon was accused of money laundering and was arrested. The party in the last minute replaced Simon with Kunhalmi, who in a spectacular campaign lost by only 56 votes. The Fidesz candidate’s slim margin was due to several phony parties with misleading names being encouraged by the government to enter the race. There were at least three such “social democratic types” of parties on the ballot (SZDP [67], MSZDP [52], Szociáldemokraták [128]). Later, when the democratic forces had problems finding a candidate to run against Fidesz-supported Mayor István Tarlós, I thought Ágnes Kunhalmi would be a perfect candidate. Instead, Lajos Bokros ran in the last minute. Although he is not a popular politician, he did surprisingly well, getting about 35% of the votes.

Soon after Kunhalmi’s name surfaced in Figyelő, the government publications were full of the news that “the dissatisfied MSZP leaders have already found the successor to Botka.” Origo seems to know that Kunhalmi, who is the chairman of the Budapest MSZP, is less than happy with László Botka’s decision to name József Tóth, the successful mayor of District XIII, as a kind of coordinator of the Budapest campaign, which under normal circumstances would be the job of the Budapest MSZP leadership. Yesterday Gyula Molnár denied in an interview on “Egyenes beszéd” of ATV that there is any intention of replacing Botka with Kunhalmi. In fact, their relationship is close. The party, including Kunhalmi, stands behind Botka. Moreover, MSZP will not change its initial strategy. MSZP has already chosen its 106 candidates for the 106 available electoral districts, though, he added, that can still be changed. In this scheme the other opposition parties would have a slim chance of winning any of the left-leaning districts.

Kunhalmi said that the election campaign will be in the hands of the Budapest Election Committee, which will be under the supervision of the Budapest MSZP leadership, which she heads. She and her team will, however, work with the party’s central leadership, with László Botka and with József Tóth. She added that she finds Tóth’s appointment an excellent idea because “there is a need to engage all successful left-wing politicians who can give new hope and impetus to Hungary after the long period of darkness under Fidesz.”

All of this optimism sounds too good to be true. Let’s wait for the polls, which will be coming out in late August. Perhaps, after all, the strategy will have to be changed and, with it, the person who will lead the team.

August 11, 2017

Momentum’s anti-Olympics drive has momentum

As is evident from the government media, the Orbán government is mighty upset over the early success of the Momentum Movement’s signature drive to hold a referendum on whether Budapest should host the 2024 Olympic Games. On the very first day of the campaign, Magyar Nemzet reported that people were queuing up and waiting a long time to be able to add their names to the list of those who believe that Hungary’s current financial situation doesn’t warrant such an extravagance. A host of problems remain in healthcare and education, on which in the last six or seven years the government has spent far too little money.

My hunch is that, initially, Viktor Orbán was not at all worried about Momentum’s anti-Olympics project. Two opinion polls had been held on the question, and the second one, after massive pro-Olympic propaganda, showed a slight majority supporting the idea. Therefore, I assume that the government decided to allow the signature drive in the belief that it would be a flop. Instead, here we are one week later and the activists have collected almost 70,000 signatures. Momentum has 30 days altogether to collect 138,000 signatures in favor of a referendum.

“No for the Olympics, yes for our future!”

Shortly after the beginning of the campaign, Magyar Idők must have gotten the word to begin a campaign of its own against Momentum and the opposition parties that decided to support it. Dávid Megyeri, a journalist for the government mouthpiece, tried to convince his readers and perhaps also himself that the opposition parties are actually committing “collective seppuku” by supporting Momentum’s anti-Olympics campaign, even if “they are hiding behind a phantom organization.” Megyeri’s imagination went quite far in assessing the dreadful consequences of this signature drive for the socialists. It is quite possible, he wrote, that the attack on the Olympics will be considered “a casus belli for MSZP’s voters.” He believes that the anti-Olympic drive “practically guarantees the disappearance of the remainder of the socialist party.” The “miniature” MSZP will fall into the lap of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The little fish will eat the big fish, concludes Megyeri. Perhaps a threat of this sort will further confuse the already confused MSZP leadership.

In fact, the most fervent supporters of Momentum’s drive are the activists of LMP, who collected an additional 10,000 signatures in a week. And who knows how many signatures were collected by the activists of the Two-tailed Dog Party, Együtt, and Párbeszéd. Magyar Idők tried to minimize the damage the drive’s success was causing by insisting that “the signature collection has lost its momentum.” That certainly does not seem to be the case.

Mayor István Tarlós, who initially was not too keen on holding the Olympics, by now has become a great fan, arguing that no sane person should sign the petition because Budapest will be the clear winner of the Olympic Games if Hungary gets the nod. After all, the construction of almost all the necessary buildings and stadiums as well as infrastructure improvements will benefit Budapest, while the government will take care of all the expenses. Of course, he is right, but the rest of the country, which lags behind the capital city in economic development, is not so enamored with the idea. Outside of Budapest enthusiasm for the Games is substantially lower than in the capital.

While the activists are doing a great job, the same cannot be said about the opposition parties. Let’s start with the opposition members of the Budapest City Council. LMP’s Antal Csárdi proposed that Budapest withdraw its bid for the 2024 Olympics. Of course, given the preponderance of Fidesz members on the Council, there was no way for Csárdi’s proposal to succeed. But at least one would have expected that the liberal-socialist members would vote for the proposal. Well, that didn’t happen. We are talking about thirteen opposition members all told, of whom only five supported the motion. Of the five MSZP members two voted for the motion, one abstained, one didn’t vote although he was present, and one voted against it. One DK member voted for it, the other against it. That will give you an idea about the state of the Hungarian opposition. Just as reflector.blog.hu remarked, “this is a sorry lot.”

Demokratikus Koalíció also showed itself to be totally inept and clumsy when the party decided “to help” the drive by setting up independent stations for non-Budapesters, letting them express themselves on the question of the Olympics even though they were not eligible to sign the petition. It soon became clear that DK, instead of helping the drive, was hindering it. Even the pro-DK nyugatifény.blog disapproved of the move that only confused people. After a day, the DK campaign was halted.

After the disastrous city council vote, the government media had a real heyday, pointing out the opposition’s double game. Pro-government journalists called attention to MSZP politicians who are now supporting the anti-Olympic drive but who earlier had enthusiastically endorsed hosting the Olympics. One of these “turncoats” was Ágnes Kunhalmi who, according to Origo, had said in 2015 that, if it depended on her, she would rather spend the money on education, but “the two together may give such strength to Hungary that it may set our country toward unparalleled successes.” She made crystal clear that she “supported the cause.” Rather embarrassing, I’m afraid, in light of her signing the petition on practically the first day of the drive.

Csaba Horváth, leader of the MSZP group in the City Council, was equally enthusiastic at the same event organized by the Hungarian Olympic Committee. However, Horváth is now trying to divert attention from this video interview available online. He made public the transcript of a speech he delivered at the council meeting on December 2, 2015. He now claims that he was the first one to suggest holding a referendum on the question of the Games. According to the transcript, Horváth said: “I believe in the Olympic movement; I believe in my politician friends; and above all, I believe that all Hungarians can unite for a good cause. However, the final decision should be based on the broadest possible consensus. Therefore, I suggest that we should hold a referendum on the question of the Olympics.” He apparently repeated the same sentiment in a letter addressed to János Lázár a few days later. Furthermore, on January 27, 2016, the opposition members put forth a motion about holding such a referendum, which was naturally voted down. By September 2016, he said, he was of the opinion that Budapest will not be able to accommodate the Olympics in 2024. But then why on earth did he abstain in the vote on Antal Csárdi’s motion? Typical MSZP waffling, I’m afraid. The party is loath to take a clear stand on anything.

Whether the Orbán government will actually allow a referendum even if Momentum and its allies get enough signatures, which by now is likely, remains questionable. Portfolio pointed out, however, that there is a good possibility that the International Olympic Committee will decide that support for the project is far too low in Budapest. In the past, cities were chosen only where popular support was over 65%, which is a far cry from the percentages measured by opinion polls in Hungary. In September 2015, only 41% of Hungarians supported the idea, according to Medián. Although the Hungarian Olympic Committee held its own poll, which showed a slight majority for supporters, most other polls indicate that only about 50% of Hungarians support a Budapest Olympics. In Paris, by contrast, popular support is 70%, while in Los Angeles it is 88%. I do hope that the International Olympic Committee will have enough brains to choose Los Angeles or Paris instead of a rather reluctant Budapest.

January 27, 2016

Publicus Institute: Civic groups and political parties

Two month have gone by since the publication (in Vasárnapi Hírek) of the Publicus Institute’s opinion poll on the teachers’ demonstrations. At that time the overwhelming majority (76%) of Hungarians sympathized with the teachers and thought that their demands were justified. Publicus decided to expand its inquiry to learn more about people’s opinions of the relationship between civic initiatives and party politics. This is a timely survey because there are many who, disappointed in party politics, are placing their trust exclusively in civic leaders. In fact, in the past at least, organizers of demonstrations practically forbade party leaders to attend their rallies. They were petrified that Fidesz-KDNP would label them agents of the opposition parties.

Such an attitude was self-defeating. In the first place, no amount of protestation would convince the government of their “innocence.” After every demonstration Fidesz found at least one organizer who earlier had had some vague connection to parties. It’s enough to think of an employee of  the Ökotárs Foundation responsible for handing the Norwegian grants to Hungary who, as Fidesz discovered, was at one point a member of LMP. Balázs Gulyás, organizer of one of the largest demonstrations of late, turned out to be the son of an MSZP EP member and a former party member himself. And Fidesz quickly learned that István Pukli, the principal organizer of the teachers’ demonstrations, was once also an MSZP member. In the eyes of Fidesz, everybody who demonstrates against the government is by definition a traitor who wants to topple the legitimate Hungarian government.

The civic leaders who organized demonstrations were also convinced that their supporters would abandon them if it turned out that they were in any way involved in party politics. Therefore before every demonstration stern warnings were issued demanding distance from the opposition parties. This attitude benefited only Fidesz and the government since, in general, one-off actions of civic groups don’t prompt the government to change its mind. Yes, as the result of a mass demonstration that got wide coverage in the foreign press the Orbán government, after a week of confusion and mixed signals, gave up the idea of a steep internet tax . But that’s all civic organizers have managed to achieved to date. The repeal of the law governing Sunday store closings resulted from the doggedness of MSZP, although clearly public sentiment supported their efforts.

If civic leaders feared a backlash from their supporters if they solicited the assistance of parties in their struggle for change, they can now breathe a sigh of relief. We know from the latest poll of the Publicus Institute that a large majority of Hungarians believe that civic groups should work together with parties. So, from here on perhaps leaders of civic organizations might take a few steps toward forging closer ties with the larger democratic parties.

Let’s dig a little deeper into attitudes regarding the relationship between civic groups and parties. Seventy-two percent of the respondents think that although it is natural that civic groups fight for their interests, alone they will not be able to achieve their aims. Sixty-three percent urge cooperation between civic groups and the opposition parties. On this question MSZP and Jobbik supporters, on the one hand, and Fidesz followers, on the other, think very differently. The voters of the former two parties are strong advocates of cooperation (89% and 83%) while the majority of Fidesz voters oppose it.

The Publicus Institute also returned to its earlier topic of the civic movements that have been taking center stage in Hungarian domestic politics. Interest in the efforts of the teachers, doctors, and nurses is still high. Eighty-five percent of Hungarians follow the events and support the organizers’ goals. At the same time, they expect politicians to solve the current problems of education and healthcare. Seventy-two percent of the respondents think that “if no definite steps are taken by opposition politicians, there is no other solution but for civic groups to lead the way.” However, a large percentage of the same people believe that if these groups try to go it alone, their cause will be lost (47%).

Support for the teachers is still high (62%), but lower than it was in mid-February when it was 76%. It seems that government propaganda has succeeded in convincing Fidesz loyalists that the Orbán administration has been doing its best to solve the problems but the teachers are reluctant to engage in well-intentioned dialogue. Twenty percent of Fidesz voters and 10% of Jobbik supporters have been won over by government propaganda. On the other hand, MSZP voters are more determined than ever to see the teachers win their case.

credibility

While people know that without politicians and political parties the opposition forces have no chance of succeeding, they still have no trust in individual politicians. The Publicus Institute chose eleven public figures who have in one way or another been connected with the education and healthcare movements. The question was: “How credibly do the following people represent the cause of education/healthcare?” Among the eleven names there were five politicians: Zoltán Pokorni (Fidesz), Ágnes Kunhalmi (MSZP), Dóra Dúró (Jobbik), István Hiller (MSZP), László Palkovics (Fidesz), and Zoltán Balog (Fidesz). On the whole, the politicians did badly. On a scale of 1 to 100, Balog and Palkovics came in last, each getting 44 points. István Hiller, minister of education during the second Gyurcsány and the Bajnai governments, didn’t do much better (45 points). Dóra Dúró, the Jobbik politician specializing in education, received 49 points. Only two politicians got more than 50 points: Zoltán Pokorni and Ágnes Kunhalmi. Pokorni, minister of education between 1998-2001, is the odd man out in this group because he retired from national politics some time ago, most likely not entirely on his own volition. He is no longer in parliament and has been tucked away as mayor of District XII since 2006. Ágnes Kunhalmi is, in my opinion, a promising young politician who is the chair of the Budapest MSZP group. She was given the task of focusing on educational matters, although I have the feeling that the party could make better use of her talents.

The star of the civic leaders is Mária Sándor, the nurse in black. Almost 90% of the people know who she is and 75% have trust in her. Other figures in the movement are less well known and received lower scores. Katalin Törley, co-chair of the Tanitanék Movement, got 57 points. Mrs. István Galló, leader of the larger teacher’s union, received 56 points; László Mendrey, the other trade union leader, got 55 points; and István Pukli, principal of the Blanka Teleki Gymnasium, got 51 points. So, all the civic leaders scored over 50 points while only two of the six politicians did so. In brief, politicians have to improve their image if they hope to take part in the upsurge of civic initiatives.

Opposition politicians should make every effort to deflate and combat the long-standing Fidesz propaganda, which unfortunately has been far too effective in besmirching the reputation of MSZP and SZDSZ politicians. Their accomplishments have been underrated and their failures exaggerated. It would be time to stand up and defend those policies that deserve praise. For example, teachers were far from satisfied with the state of education before 2010, and by all estimates most of them voted for Fidesz. Yet today they admit that, despite all the shortcomings, their and their students’ lot was much better before the arrival of Viktor Orbán’s Christian-national regime. Maybe it is time to drive home that truth.

April 17, 2016

MSZP and the Hungarian bid to host the Olympics in 2024

A new poll was published today, this time by the Nézőpont Intézet. It reaffirmed an earlier poll showing that Fidesz’s popularity is on the rise again, most likely due to the government’s misleading propaganda about the asylum seekers. The parties of the democratic opposition haven’t gained any new followers. The only surprise in the poll was that among potential voters MSZP and DK are neck to neck.

Of course, Nézőpont is not known for its political neutrality and therefore its results are suspect, but this time I wouldn’t be at all surprised if its finding that only 12% of potential voters support MSZP was accurate. The party is in disarray and the incompetence of its leadership is staggering.

By way of illustration, today I’m going to look at MSZP’s position on the Hungarian bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games.

It was just question of time: the idea of a Hungarian Olympics was bound to resurface. In 2001-2002 the first Orbán government eagerly supported the idea. A considerable amount of money was spent on feasibility studies, which naturally confirmed that nothing stood in the way of holding the games in Hungary. Luckily, Viktor Orbán lost the 2002 election, and with his defeat the idea died.

After Orbán’s victory in 2010, when the Fidesz leadership claimed that the country was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and that its economy was comparable to that of Greece, even the sports-crazed prime minister knew better than to float the idea of hosting the Olympic Games again. But as soon as there was one good year, which saw a growth rate of 3.6%, Orbán moved into action. A so-called non-political group, the Budapest Olympic Movement, was formed to promote the economic benefits of such an event. The people in this group all have ties to the government party. The president of the group is Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy, an economist and avid sportsman, whose great grandfather was the founder and the first president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee between 1895 and 1904. Szalay-Berzeviczy played a similar role in the 2001-2002 attempt to bring the Olympics to Hungary.

Unfortunately, most people have mighty little knowledge of the cost of hosting an Olympics. And their national pride swells at the very thought of being in the international spotlight for a couple of weeks. I suspect that the majority of the people, if asked, would support the idea.

Olympics 2024

Since most of the events would take place in Budapest, the city council had to vote on whether they would stand behind the games. Given the composition of the city council, it was not surprising that the final vote was 25 to 1 with one abstention. Antal Csárdi, the single LMP member of the council, voted against it, while DK’s Erzsébet Gy. Nagy abstained. That meant that the MSZP members of the council and Gergely Karácsony, the sole PM mayor in Budapest, voted with Fidesz for the Olympics. I heard Csaba Horváth’s feeble explanation of his decision, in which he called attention to the long overdue infrastructure projects that the games would bring to the capital. I haven’t seen Karácsony anywhere since.

Most people who consider the whole idea suicidal could barely recover from their surprise that MSZP would lend its name to the project. But in the next few days the number of MSZP politicians supporting Orbán’s megalomaniac idea multiplied. László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, opted to follow the lead of the Budapest socialist leaders who by then included Ágnes Kunhalmi, the Budapest chairman. I used to think highly of Kunhalmi, until I heard her say that “the concept of a profitable Olympics is not well known” because the government hasn’t publicized it. A profitable Olympics? Surely, Kunhalmi didn’t spend any time reading up on the subject. The truth is that even a cursory look at economic analyses of the Olympic Games shows that, with one possible exception, they were losing propositions.

At this point, most people figured that MSZP would support the government party and vote for the bill in parliament to empower the country to proceed with its application. But then came the bombshell. Zoltán Gőgös, deputy chairman of the party, announced that the socialists would refuse to support the bill. Total chaos. Obviously, party discipline is not a socialist strength. Even members of the top leadership don’t seem to talk to each other before they speak publicly or vote on issues. When Gőgös was asked by György Bolgár how such a situation could possibly develop, Gőgös’s only answer was that no decision was made by the leadership until the issue reached parliament. Again, a feeble answer to a botched up affair. How can such a party possibly compete against a disciplined Orbán-led Fidesz?

I have neither time nor space to reproduce the government’s propaganda list of the benefits of holding the games in Hungary. But no matter what the government argues, the reality is that Olympic Games are not money-makers. Even Szalay-Berzeviczy is hard pressed to come up with an economically profitable Olympics. The one exception may be the 2012 London Olympics. Common wisdom holds that the games boosted the UK economy by £9.9bn, but not everybody agrees with this assessment. Sports economist Stefan Szymanski said that coming up with exact figures is “almost like a bit of creative accounting.” Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Resarch, said that attributing the economic growth to the Olympics was “a little far-fetched to say the least.”

The New York Times published an article titled “Does Hosting the Olympics Actually Pay Off?” The answer is no. According to the article, “there is strikingly little evidence that such events increase tourism or draw new investment. Spending lavishly on a short-lived event is, economically speaking, a dubious long-term strategy. Stadiums, which cost a lot and produce minimal economic benefits, are a particularly lousy line of business. (This is why they are usually built by taxpayers rather than by corporations.)”  The author quotes an economist who has studied the impact of sporting events, who said: “the bottom line is every time we’ve looked–dozens of scholars, dozens of times–we find no real change in economic activity.”

Another article’s author asks, “Do the Olympic Games generate profits?” And the answer: “No. Unfortunately, they do not.” And who said that? Robert Barney, head of the International Center for Olympic Studies. According to him, “no city has profited in the long run from its hosting role in a purely bottom-line sense.”

Nonetheless, there are at least three MSZP members of parliament who feel so strongly about the issue that they received exemptions from voting against the bill: Ágnes Kunhalmi, László Varga (Miskolc), and Sándor Szabó (Szeged). I wish they would spend a little time learning about the economics of the Olympic Games.

The Budapest elections and politics of the democratic opposition

The appearance of Lajos Bokros as the official candidate of DK, Együtt, and MSZP of Budapest under the leadership of Ágnes Kunhalmi has redrawn the political landscape on the left, despite protestations to the contrary. Ágnes Kunhalmi can send the message to Magyar Nemzet, the paper that said she would decamp to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció after the election, that “I love my party,” but the fact remains that she and the people around her decided to defy the central leadership of the socialist party. And that might have serious repercussions in the future.

Ágnes Kunhalmi is a relative newcomer on the political scene, having joined MSZP only in 2006. Until 2010 she served as a member of the Budapest City Council. In 2010, because of the female quota, she was chosen to be a member of the top party leadership. From there on she was the face of MSZP on matters of education. Her day arrived during the 2014 national election when, as a last-minute replacement candidate in the 15th electoral district, she lost the election by only 56 votes. This performance showed that Ágnes Kunhalmi is someone to reckon with inside the party.

Since I know next to nothing about the internal workings of the socialist party, I have no idea how this sudden fame of Ágnes Kunhalmi was received by the top leadership. I’m almost certain, however, that the Budapest MSZP leaders’ decision to endorse Lajos Bokros and thereby go against the wishes of József Tóbiás, the new party chairman, couldn’t have gone over too well. Although Tóbiás keeps repeating that local politics should be left to the local party leadership, I’m sure that this open defiance didn’t endear Kunhalmi to the more leftist leaders of MSZP.

But the real bone of contention, in my opinion, is not so much Lajos Bokros and his conservatism as it is Ferenc Gyurcsány, who allegedly masterminded the retirement of Ferenc Falus and secured the democratic parties’ support for Lajos Bokros. Thus, I suspect, in the eyes of József Tóbiás and his men Ágnes Kunhalmi is a traitor to the socialist cause not because she decided to stand behind Bokros but because she sided with Ferenc Gyurcsány. MSZP leaders suspect, not without reason, that Gyurcsány wants to gobble up MSZP. And the other smaller parties on the left are convinced that he wants to amalgamate them into one large “union party,” which would mean their disappearance.

Ferenc Gyurcsány and Ágnes Kunhalmi

Ferenc Gyurcsány and Ágnes Kunhalmi

One doesn’t have to be an eagle-eyed political scientist to come to that conclusion: Gyurcsány makes no secret of his plans. In fact, he repeats on every possible occasion that, given the political landscape and the current electoral law, there is no hope of winning an election against Viktor Orbán without one large party that includes all anti-Orbán forces. Although there are people, for example Gábor Demszky, who believe that even the formation of such a single party can’t dislodge Viktor Orbán’s mafia state, it looks as if Gyurcsány still believes that one “does not have to stage a revolution, one just has to go and vote.”

What are the chances of forming one big democratic umbrella party in Hungary? At the moment nil, but Gyurcsány is thinking long-term. If I understand him correctly, he would like to see an inclusive democratic party established well ahead of the next national election in 2018. Can it be done? At the moment there are only a handful people who think so, but I would wait until we learn the results of the upcoming municipal elections. Not that I anticipate some spectacular victory or even progress as far as the fortunes of the democratic opposition are concerned, but after the elections we will be able to weigh the relative strength of the different democratic parties. Most observers are convinced that Együtt-PM, together and separately, has a very short life expectancy. MSZP has been losing voters since the national election in April. If, however, DK repeats its outstanding performance in the European Parliament election, Gyurcsány may be able to expand his base among the democratic forces.

One of the people who believes that “Gyurcsány has a chance” is Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist and a good political analyst. He thinks that deep down the ordinary MSZP membership believes that it is only Gyurcsány who can save the party, and Gyurcsány, who understands the thinking of members of the party’s lower echelon, makes sure not to alienate them. In fact, a fair number of these people have already deserted MSZP in favor of DK. Aczél wouldn’t be surprised if some “big fish” was also caught by Gyurcsány. He wouldn’t be surprised if both Kunhalmi and Bokros eventually ended up in DK. After all, Gyurcsány’s party is already an interesting political mix: former members of MSZP, SZDSZ, MDF, and previously unaffiliated voters who are against Orbán’s mafia state.

Perhaps, but at the moment DK is still a very small party. Only the collapse of MSZP and the disappearance of the other two small parties would give Gyurcsány a chance to create the kind of party he has been envisioning ever since 2006.

A new opposition candidate for mayor of Budapest, a rift in MSZP

It was about a week ago that I wrote about the Budapest municipal election. At that time there were seven candidates running against the incumbent István Tarlós, Fidesz’s choice in both 2006 and 2010. At that junction Ferenc Falus, the candidate of the joint democratic opposition, was trailing behind Lajos Bokros, former finance minister (1995-1996) and EU member of parliament (2009-2014), a man who calls himself liberal conservative. Együtt-PM, the party whose nominee Falus was, tried to convince Bokros to withdraw in Falus’s favor, but Bokros refused, saying that he was ahead of Falus in the polls. If anyone should withdraw it is Falus. At this point it looked that neither man would budge, and therefore I predicted that Bokros would be the scapegoat of the united opposition if István Tarlós wins the election by a large margin. Well, I was wrong. Yesterday Falus withdrew in favor of Bokros. György Magyar, an independent, followed suit.

So, what happened? Well, that’s not exactly clear. Here is Lajos Bokros’s side of the story. He received a telephone call from Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair of Együtt-PM, allegedly speaking in the name of all four parties–MSZP, DK, Együtt and PM–who informed him that they were ready to support him and drop Falus’s candidacy. A meeting was arranged, to be attended by representatives of all four parties, but to Bokros’s dismay only Szigetvári of Együtt and Ferenc Gyurcsány of DK showed up. Szigetvári was again asked about his authority to speak in the name of those who were absent. Szigetvári assured him that he had the authority. Falus later joined the meeting, and the participants decided to make the announcement yesterday at noon.

It turned out that Szigetvári did not in fact have the authority to speak in the name of MSZP and PM. MSZP’s Budapest executive board got together in a hurriedly called meeting as did the national executive board at a separate gathering to decide the matter. After a lengthy discussion Ágnes Kunhalmi, chair of MSZP’s Budapest board, announced last night that they support Bokros’s candidacy. A few minutes later József Tóbiás, chairman of MSZP, made a short statement. Although he did not say that the party is not endorsing Bokros, he stressed that for them it is not enough that somebody is a democrat, as Bokros surely is; he must be “a social democrat.” He expressed his great sorrow that voters of socialist convictions cannot vote for a leftist candidate. It is a shame. They had a good candidate in Csaba Horváth, who in 2010 received 35% of the votes, but on the insistence of the other three parties they sacrificed him for the sake of Együtt’s candidate, Ferenc Falus. PM earlier announced its refusal to support a liberal conservative candidate because the party can’t expect him to fully represent their green-socialist agenda.

Ágnes Kunhalmi, chairperson of the Budapest MSZP

Ágnes Kunhalmi, chairperson of the Budapest MSZP

With less than three weeks to the municipal elections at least we have two fewer candidates vying to unseat István Tarlós. It was always clear that András Schiffer’s LMP would have nothing to do with any of the other democratic parties because he is convinced that within a few years his party will be able to unseat Viktor Orbán and Fidesz singlehandedly. As far as Jobbik is concerned, the democratic opposition wants nothing to do with an anti-Semitic and racist party. That leaves only the candidate of the Magyar Liberális Párt (MLP). This is the party, if you can call it that, of Gábor Fodor, who in the last hours of SZDSZ served as its chairman. Although he makes a very good impression in interviews, people who know him say that his main concern is his own advancement.

Gábor Fodor’s behavior in the last year and a half supports his critics’ contentions about his character. In April 2013 he established his own liberal party and a year later, thanks to the intervention of Ferenc Gyurcsány, he received the #4 place on the party ticket of the united opposition. I assume Gyurcsány thought that after the election Fodor would join the DK parliamentary caucus out of gratitude. Indeed, if Fodor had done this, DK today would have a separate delegation. But once Fodor was safely ensconced in parliament representing practically nobody except himself, he had no intention of joining anyone. He decided to remain independent.

Fodor’s second move was to present his own candidate for the mayoralty of Budapest, Zoltán Bodnár, a former deputy governor of Hungary’s central bank. Considering that the party is not supposed to have any money, Bodnár’s campaign seems to be extraordinarily well financed. His posters are all over town, which has made the other democratic parties suspicious. It is widely believed by opposition politicians as well as voters that it is Fidesz who stands behind the lavish liberal campaign. This suspicion was reinforced yesterday when Zoltán Bodnár announced that he has no intention of withdrawing because he is “the only serious candidate.” At the same time, with no support for his contention, he accused Ferenc Gyurcsány of orchestrating Falus’s removal from the campaign. In his version it was Gyurcsány who “forced Falus’s withdrawal.”

In any case, at the moment it looks as if Bokros will have four opponents: István Tarlós (Fidesz-KDNP), Gábor Staudt (Jobbik), Antal Csárdi (LMP), and Zoltán Bodnár (MLP). According to Nézőpont Intézet’s poll, Csárdi and Staudt will each receive 3% of the votes. Bodnár’s name did not appear on Nézőpont’s list, but “Other” polled at 2%.

I consider the most important political development of the last couple of days to be the open split of the socialists. We have always known that within the party there is a left and a right wing. The right wing has been more open to cooperation with non-socialist but democratic parties and groups. In the Budapest MSZP these people seem to be in the majority. They think that getting rid of Tarlós in Budapest is more important than any party consideration. They feel comfortable with people in DK, among whom there are a number of former SZDSZ politicians as well as people from the moderate conservative MDF.

As far as I can recall, this is the first time that the MSZP leadership has split so openly and unequivocally. This rift may have serious repercussions–in the most dire scenario leading to the eventual breakup and possible demise of MSZP. If that happens, the hard-liners will have nowhere to go. The moderates, by contrast, have already established networks that may lead to some kind of association or even merger with other parties. The next couple of years might be more exciting than we think right now.