Tag Archives: András Stumpf

Viktor Orbán’s pointless but possibly dangerous referendum

Although the international media has been aware, for some months, of the Orbán government’s looming referendum on the “migration quota issue,” now that President János Áder has fixed its date for October 2 the Hungarian referendum is a hot topic. Stories abound about its unfortunate nature and timing.

Within Hungary its critics viewed it, at least initially, as a stunt designed to reinforce the population’s antagonism toward the “migrants” and bolster their support for the anti-refugee policies of the Orbán government. They thought, that is, that it was primarily a domestic issue.

The democratic opposition parties opposed holding such a referendum, but first the Kúria and later the Constitutional Court agreed to let voters answer the following question: “Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?” There are so many things wrong with this question that it shouldn’t have been approved by the National Election Commission in the first place. Not only is it a leading question, but the Hungarian Parliament has nothing whatsoever to do with the government’s relationship with the European Union. It is a bad question on a nonexistent issue. As Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg pointed out, the Cameron government’s original question read: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union,” but the country’s Election Commission recommended spelling out both options instead of only one. (Not that it helped.) Orbán’s illiberal state has very few independent institutions by now, and the National Election Commission is certainly not one of them.

After Brexit many people from the left-liberal opposition parties practically begged Orbán to scrap the whole idea. Their argument was that there are many countries where large and powerful anti-EU parties exist, which will try to stage referendums similar to that of the Cameron government. Such actions may fracture the very structure of the Union, already wounded by Brexit. I don’t understand the democratic opposition’s repeated appeals to reason when it comes to this government. By now they should know that once Viktor Orbán embarks on a course of action, he will go through with it no matter what.

Orbán’s goal is a valid referendum with the highest possible number of “no” votes. I have no doubt that those who take part in the referendum will overwhelmingly vote against any mandatory settlement of migrants. That’s a no brainer. The question is whether enough people will turn out to vote. To get four million voters to the polling stations out of the eight million eligible voters will not be easy. As voting patterns from earlier referendums have shown, Hungarians demonstrate a low level of awareness of the blessings of participatory democracy. In fact, the Horn government lowered the requirements for a valid referendum to 25% just before the July 1997 plebiscite on Hungary’s membership in NATO, which was a wise move because only 49% of eligible citizens voted. For the referendum on Hungary’s joining the European Union only 45.6% of eligible voters turned out. Viktor Orbán, who has a genuine fear of referendums, raised the threshold for validity to 50%. It is this hurdle the government has to overcome with a propaganda tsunami between now and October 2.

I have no doubt that nothing will be spared in the next few months to achieve the magic number. The government will use disinformation, lies, and “incentives” to convince as many people as possible to vote with a resounding “no.” Huge billboards have already appeared telling Hungarians that with their vote at the referendum “they are sending a message to Brussels.”

The democratic opposition’s fear is that, although the overwhelming majority of Hungarians view the European Union favorably, such an intensive propaganda campaign might turn a large number of Hungarians against the Union. As it stands, the EU’s strongest supporters are the Poles (72%) and the Hungarians (61%). Is it possible that Viktor Orbán would like to temper this high level of enthusiasm for the EU? Is this why we heard from the government’s second highest official, János Lázár, that he “wouldn’t be able to vote to remain in the European Union in good conscience”? Or is this outrageous remark from the man who is in charge of the dispersion of EU convergence funds merely a come-on to encourage high participation in this very questionable referendum?

Source: András Stumpf's article "It was a mistake to hold a referendum, mandiner.hu

Source: mandiner.hu

Whatever the case, anyone who doesn’t want to be a pawn in Viktor Orbán’s game should stay away from this referendum to make sure it is not valid. The lower the participation the better. The alternative of going and voting “yes” as a sign of support for the European Union is the most bizarre idea I can imagine. Who will consider a “yes” vote an endorsement of the European Union as the Magyar Liberális Párt suggests? Luckily, Gabor Fodor’s Liberal Party is a practically nonexistent entity. Otherwise all the opposition parties, excluding Jobbik of course, will be campaigning for a boycott of the referendum.

To my great surprise even András Stumpf, a journalist currently working for Mandiner.hu, a right-of-center, pro-government internet site, also considers the referendum “pointless” and Orbán’s insistence on holding it “unfortunate.” He more or less decided to join those who will stay home. According to Stumpf, the question should have been phrased this way: “Do you object to the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent even at the possible cost of leaving the European Union?” Well put. But as long as the question voters will see on October 2 is what it is, the only answer is to boycott the referendum. Bershidsky is right in describing it as “manipulative” and the whole affair as a “farce.” But it’s a dangerous farce.

July 6, 2016

A one-year-old American non-paper surfaces

For almost eight months there was hardly any news about U.S.-Hungarian relations in the Hungarian media, with the exception of stories about NATO troop deployment in Eastern Europe and a U.S.-Hungarian military maneuver that went off without a hitch. In military matters at least, all seems to be well between Washington and Budapest.

In political terms, the stormy relations of the fall of 2014 have quieted down considerably. At least on the surface. The new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, has shown no inclination to roil the waters of U.S.-Hungarian relations despite Viktor Orbán’s occasional anti-American comments in connection with the alleged responsibility of the United States for the refugee crisis.

The prime minister’s more subtle criticism contrasts with the shrill anti-Americanism of the pro-government media. In earlier days it was Magyar Nemzet that led the way in this respect, but since Lajos Simicska and Viktor Orbán decided that their collaboration of a quarter of a century is over and the remaining staff of the paper no longer has to adopt a slavishly pro-government orientation, not only has Magyar Nemzet become a very much better paper but it has also abandoned its pro-Russian and anti-American slant.

There are still some government strongholds, however, especially the newly renamed Magyar Idők and Pesti Srácok. Here and there even Válasz and Mandiner come out with decidedly anti-American editorials, mostly in connection with the refugee crisis, which is usually portrayed as the direct consequence of U.S. meddling in the Middle East and North Africa.

After almost a year of relative calm Mandiner managed to get hold of a so-called non-paper prepared by the State Department, dated October 21, 2014. András Stumpf, the new star reporter of Mandiner, didn’t research his story thoroughly enough because otherwise he would have discovered that this non-paper was most likely handed to Péter Szijjártó himself during his meeting with Viktoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs. At least the dates match. So, all the talk that has appeared in the last few days in the Hungarian media about Chargé D’Affaires André Goodfriend’s “demands” handed to one of the diplomats in the Hungarian foreign ministry is a lot of nonsense. The “suggestions” or “demands,” as the pro-government media calls them, don’t contain any new revelations. It has been no secret what the United States thinks of the Orbán government’s anti-democratic policies. It also seems that, although a whole year has gone by, the Hungarian government hasn’t responded to any of the points made in the non-paper. Viktor Orbán has no intention of changing his undemocratic ways.

These two pictures accompanied a Romanian-language article published on October 27, 2014 Source: dcnews.ro

These two pictures accompanied a Romanian-language article published on 10/27/2014, a few days after the meeting between Victoria Nuland and Péter Szijjártó
Source: dcnews.ro

Stumpf indicates in his introduction to the document that they “learned about the existence of the document from a Washington source,” which was then confirmed by someone in Budapest. Most likely the Americans had had enough of the deafening silence from Budapest and decided to make the document, handed to Szijjártó a year ago, public.

There is nothing wrong about publishing such a document. In fact, I personally wish there were more such diplomatic revelations, but Stumpf’s or the editor’s decision to write a strongly anti-American headline is unfortunate. It reads: “This is how America would make the Orbán government its bitch” (Így csicskáztatná Amerika az Orbán-kormányt). The message is that because of the Orbán government’s steadfast refusal to oblige, the United States didn’t succeed in its attempt to curtail the country’s sovereignty.

Magyar Idők went even further. In its interpretation, the United States’ problem is that Hungary’s prime minister happens to be Viktor Orbán. Magyar Idők names André Goodfriend as the author and deliverer of the non-paper in question. In the view of the paper, Goodfriend was not at all concerned with the alleged corruption of Hungarian government officials because this non-paper didn’t deal with it. Written in the middle of the “corruption crisis,” the absence of the topic is telling. Ottó Gajdics, the editor-in-chief of the paper, also wrote an editorial. He pretty well denied the existence of any corruption in Hungary and accused the United States of being worried about “corruption only when no American interests prevail in a country.”

Válasz also chimed in, heralding the wonderful news that the Orbán government didn’t fall last October and November, although many people believed that it would because of strong U.S. pressure on the Orbán government. In the author’s opinion, the United States “got caught” (lebukott) with the publication of the non-paper.  It never occurred to him that officials in the U.S. State Department might have wanted to make the document public.

János Lázár, who is naturally a diligent reader of Magyar Idők and other pro-government papers, is convinced that this list came from an ordinary chargé d’affaires, whom he called “insolent.” According to Lázár, Goodfriend while he was in Hungary “used his time to poke his nose into the affairs of Hungary.” His spokesman, András Giró Szász, added that “André Goodfriend is always welcome in Hungary but only as a tourist.” Lázár is either ignorant of diplomatic protocol or, more likely, wants to minimize the weight of this non-paper.

Meanwhile, Népszabadság tried to set the record straight by pointing out that on October 22 Péter Szijjártó was in Washington and had a meeting with Victoria Nuland. It is a mistake to name André Goodfriend as the culprit. The non-paper was most likely handed to Szijjártó by Nuland herself.

The debate continues. This time between Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman for the Demokratikus Koalíció, and András Stumpf, the Mandiner reporter. Gréczy raised objections to the title of Stumpf’s article. In DK’s opinion, “it is difficult to criticize the contents of those 27 points the non-paper raises, which are exactly those that the Hungarian democratic opposition demands week after week.” Unlike me, Gréczy believes that the non-paper was made public by the Hungarian government. With its release it intended to incite anti-American feelings. He called on the government to cease and desist. Stumpf answered with ad hominem attacks on Gréczy. Otherwise, he denied the charge that the document came from the government.

And finally, here is the infamous non-paper:

Civil society:

– End harassment and intimidation of independent civil society, including by ceasing investigations, audits, and raids of organizations receiving European Economic Area-Norway grant funds and Swiss funds, returning seized documents and IT-equipment (and other seized property) to reided and audited organizations, and immediately reinstating suspended tax licenses.

– Publish online all information of KEHI audits and government investigations of NGOs in order to make it available to the public.

– Publicly promote civil society, human rights, checks and balances, and unrestricted space for political opposition.

– Allow civil society to operate freely and independently.

– Broaden incentives for private and corporate donations to NGOs.

– Require meaningful input from an inclusive sprectrum of civil society and the business community in public policy development and implementation, including on human rights, equality, and transparency in government.

– Ensure unbiased and transparent functioning of National Cooperation Fund with nonpartisan board and clear guidelines for grants and evaluations.

Inclusiveness – give opposition and other non-Fidesz loyalists a role in public policy (enhances checks and balances):

– Require oversight bodies to be made up of independent subject matter experts rather than political nominees, and that a certain number of slots be reserved for appointment by opposition.

– Constitutional Court appointment process should revert to pre-2010 ad hoc committee requiring agreement of two-thirds of the parties.

– Implement clearly defined and transparent procedures requiring issues of public interest to be addressed through meaningful consultation and input from all relevant experts and stakeholders.

– Legislative process: Build in hearings, debates, meaningful consultations with subject experts and civil society, and opportunities for amendments.

– Pass law that ensures long-term economic commitments and other matters of public interest are decided with transparency, substantive public input, and realistic opportunity and sufficient time for open debate and feedback.

Media:

– Rescind advertising tax, which is discriminatory and market-distorting.

– Require that state advertising budget be distributed evenly across major media outlets rather than to outlets aligned with the government party.

– Require all-party representation on media council and shorten terms.

– Amend legislation on criminal penalties for libel, including to rescind all criminal penalties for defamation and make it a civil matter.

– Remove media council’s ability to levy fines and penalties for unbalanced coverage, which gives media council excessive control over content.

– Remove regulations that allow state broadcasters to run campaigneads but oblige commercial media to run ads for free.

– Incentivize diversity in ownership and pluralism of views in media.

– De-consolidate management and funding of public media and shield public media outlets from political pressure on content, to encourage independence.

– Ensure the political independence of the media council.

Elections:

– Implement all OSCE/ODIHR election recommendation, including: Amend law to ensure election commissions enjoy broad political consensus.

– Put in place safeguards to ensure a clear separation between the state and party. „Campaign finance”.

– Courts and administrative rules

– Rescind law that civil servants can be dismissed without justification.

– Strictly enforce prohibitions of political pressupure of influence on judges.

Constitution:

– Reinstate the right of Constitutional Court to rule on substantive constitutionality of proposed amendments to the Fundamental Law.

– Reinstate the right of Constitutional Court to use jurisprudence from 1990-2011 as case law.

– Move appropriate matters from cardinal laws into regular statutes.

Is Fidesz’s soul lost, or is there more to it?

At the moment a fairly sizable crowd of students is marching from the ministry of human resources to the new university for civil servants, policemen, and officers nicknamed “the school for janissaries.” The students were not impressed by the government’s gesture to allow them to major in subjects the authorities find irrelevant to the national economy. They want freedom not just within the walls of the university but in the whole country. I don’t think it will be long before others join them. The Orbán regime is in trouble. When a conservative university professor, a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, openly suggests that Viktor Orbán retire, the Fidesz edifice begins to look increasingly precarious.

I’m talking about Frigyes Solymosi. He has been critical of government policies for almost a decade, but his criticism was always packaged in such polite language that I found his opinion pieces on the boring side. Even now, Solymosi suggests only a temporary retirement, which might help restore “our international credibility.” Then, after a few years of rest, Orbán could again return to politics “with renewed energy either as the successor to the president or as the candidate of your party for the premiership.” The comments are less kind. “Nice, nice that you urge Viktor to take a short retirement, but please, don’t delude him. He must leave for good while he can.”

I heard an interview with Solymosi this morning, and I suspect that deep down even he doesn’t believe that his suggestion of a temporary retirement is realistic. He admitted that Viktor Orbán is not a man who is ready to change his ways, and therefore a “second coming” wouldn’t make the slightest difference.

Solymossy at least has been critical of Orbán and his political system for years while others on the right have remained quiet. But something has happened of late to induce them to speak out. A number of right-wing journalists at Magyar Nemzet, Heti Válasz, and Mandiner have recently written critical articles. Starting with the last, I would like to call attention to a piece by Gellért Rajcsányi that was translated into English by Christopher Adam, editor-in-chief of Hungarian Free Press.  Rajcsányi claims that “Fidesz has lost its political buoyancy.” He suggests that it can recover but only if it can change and be reborn. And, he cautiously adds at the end, “it’s quite the challenge to be born again from this state or to hit the re-start button … if Fidesz is at all capable of this.”

Another right-wing journalist, András Stumpf, formerly of Heti Válasz, now with Mandiner, wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Nemzet two days ago, which is just one of the many devastating critiques of Viktor Orbán coming from the right. Zsolt Bayer, whose unspeakable racist prose I’ve called attention to many times, wrote an article in which he bitterly complained that in the last few years “Fidesz has lost its soul.” Stumpf is convinced that the problem is not only with the party’s “soul,” which is why he titled his own piece: “Soul? Come on!” And then he catalogues the sins of Fidesz rule in the last five years.

The Damned Soul by Michelangelo c. 1525

The Damned Soul by Michelangelo c. 1525

A party whose original mission was the creation of a country made up of a comfortably well-off citizenry cannot possibly turn away from the West, where the very idea of the bourgeoisie was born. But Viktor Orbán did exactly that and created a system in which it is not merit that counts but loyalty. Behind government decisions one always finds selfish political goals. The word “nemzeti” (national) became an empty phrase where even tobacco shops offered to party loyalists are called “nemzeti dohányboltok.” And Orbán created a country that allowed a murderer to return to Azerbaijan, where he was hailed as a national hero. Where was the soul then?

It is incredible to hear from a journalist who worked for years at Heti Válasz that “a new media empire is in the making, except now the dough will end up in different pockets.” He doesn’t even spare Fidesz when it comes to its relation to Jobbik. Orbán cannot attack Gábor Vona for his pro-Russian sentiments; after all, he himself is a great admirer of Vladimir Putin. The only weapon that remains in his hands is labelling the party neo-Nazi. No wonder that Vona makes every effort to rub the SS tattoo off. Once this is done, Vona “will stand there in a snow-white shirt not soiled yet by the dirt of prior governance and he will say more or less the same thing that [Orbán] does. And he doesn’t have a beer belly.” Quite an indictment.

What surprised me even more was an op-ed piece in today’s Magyar Nemzet written by Gy. László Tóth, who in the past was a loyal Fidesz “political scientist.” Years ago, by mistake, I picked up a book of his essays that I simply couldn’t get through. And now what do I read? He talks about the “ruthless fight for Orbán’s trust and for getting into the charmed circle around him from where it is possible to step into his shoes.” He tells about the “servility” of these people, about “the low level of intellectual capacity” in the leadership, about “the total lack of morality,” about “arrogant, cynical communication often accompanied by lack of manners” which “is rejected by the whole right.”

These criticisms are not voiced by some hopeless liberals but by people who have been enthusiastic supporters of Viktor Orbán and his party. So, there is a growing number of former Fidesz supporters who have had enough of Orbán’s vision of Hungary. They see the same corruption, greed, immorality, and cynicism as the other side does. What these critics haven’t realized yet, perhaps because they don’t know enough about the subject, is that the situation is not much better in the economy. Yes, I know, some people will point to the good GDP figures for last and perhaps even this year. But these figures are misleading. The growth is fueled by subsidies coming from Brussels. The amount has been especially high in the last two years because we are nearing the end of the European Union’s seven-year budget cycle when every country tries to spend as much money as possible in order not to lose a penny from the allocated amounts. But this happy state of affairs will soon come to an end.

It has taken five years, but Viktor Orbán has managed to alienate even his most ardent supporters. Now the question is whether the two sides can find some common ground. Reading these essays, I don’t think it would be impossible.

Greed might be the undoing of Viktor Orbán and his regime

Today I’m going to look at two corruption cases that might have serious consequences for the Fidesz empire in Hungary. The first is the “seizure” of the profitable retail tobacco market and its redistribution among friends and families of Fidesz politicians. It seems that the government may have gone too far here; there are signs of internal party opposition. We know only about small fry at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that dissatisfaction isn’t present in the highest circles of the Fidesz leadership.

The other scandal is not new at all. For years Közgép, a company owned by Lajos Simicska, a childhood friend of Viktor Orbán, has won practically all government projects financed by European Union subsidies. But it came to light only now that Brussels suspended payments on two very important “operative programs,” one dealing with the environment and energy and the other with transportation.

First, the response of  two party faithfuls to the tobacco shop scandal. On April 26 HVG received a letter from a Fidesz city council member in which he said that in his town the Fidesz members of the council decided who would get the tobacco concessions. At that point the informer didn’t want to reveal his identity, but two days later he was ready to give an interview, name and all. It is a long interview from which I will quote the key sentences.

Ákos Hadházy is a veterinarian in Szekszárd, the county seat of Tolna. He considers himself to be a conservative, but “this tobacconist shop-affair broke something in [him].” The Fidesz members of the council looked at all the applicants and suggested who should get favorable treatment.” Mostly friends and relatives. Hadházy struggled with his conscience. He felt that the way the selection was made was wrong, but at the same time he realized that “many would consider revealing his doubts a betrayal” of his party. Finally he decided that although “perhaps in the short run the party might lose a few percentage points, in the long run these revelations might actually be good for this party.”

In his opinion “the 2010 landslide victory was a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time such a large victory is harmful for a party.” A well functioning opposition is “a basic necessity…. If there is no opposition, sooner or later [the party leadership] will be unable to control [its] own decisions. There will be no reaction when [they] make wrong decisions.” Unfortunately this is what happened in Fidesz’s case.

Hadházy even went further and announced that the problem is that there is no opposition within the party either. The members of parliament are no more than voting machines because after 2014 there will be fewer seats available and naturally everybody would like to keep his job. “One can’t expect negative opinions from them…. If there are no debates within a party … then there are only two possibilities: either [the party] does something fantastically well or something is not right.” Most often decisions are unanimous. Ordinary party members are not consulted. Maybe once a year there is a meeting of the local party members, but that’s all.

corruption2Fidesz is indeed a very disciplined party, but he thinks they “went too far.” Such discipline was fine when Fidesz was in opposition. Then “the para-military structure was acceptable, but when in power the party should have moved in a more democratic direction.” Hadházy believes–I think wrongly–that Fidesz has fantastic “intellectual capital” but doesn’t try to use this capacity and doesn’t listen to them. “This in the long run is a suicidal strategy because the members of the intelligentsia  are the ones who can influence public opinion.”

As far as he is concerned there are two possibilities: the party will not take kindly to his going public and then his political career will be over. If, on the other hand, he is spared he “will be very glad to know that Fidesz is full of real democrats, even if this is not always evident given how decisions are made now.”

The other rebel is András Stumpf of the pro-government Heti Válasz.  Don’t think that András Stumpf is a “soft” Fidesz supporter. He is no Bálint Ablonczy, another reporter for the same weekly, who is a moderate right-winger. Stumpf is pretty hard-core. He aggressively defends the government at every opportunity–for instance, when he appears on ATV’s Start. Even in this critical article he expresses his belief that Sándor Laborc of the Office of National Security hired Tamás Portik to spy on the opposition, meaning Fidesz. Yet it seems that the tobacconist concessions and the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act were too much for him. Not even he believes that the quickly amended piece of legislation has nothing to do with the concessions and the government’s attempt to hide the truth from the public. In Stumpf’s opinion, the amendment is most likely unconstitutional and what the government is doing is “frightening.” If they have nothing to hide, make the documents public.

Moving on to the withheld EU payments, a new internet website, 444.hu, published an article entitled “Secret war between Budapest and Brussels” on April 30. According to the article, last summer the European Union suspended payment for cohesion fund projects. The apparent reason was that Brussels discovered that there is discrimination against foreign engineers. Only engineers who belong to the Hungarian Society of Engineers can be hired.

With due respect to the journalist of 444.hu, I can’t believe that this is the real reason for the suspension of billions of euros. Instead, I recall that about a year ago Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció turned to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) to call attention to the fact that Közgép, Simicska’s company, had received an incredible number of government contracts, all financed by the European Union. The suspicion is that Közgép through Lajos Simicska is actually owned by Fidesz. Or at least a substantial percentage of  its profits ends up in party coffers. I remember that sometime during the summer of 2012 OLAF’s investigators took possession of Közgép’s computers. I suspect that the suspension of funds has more to do with Fidesz government corruption than with discrimination against foreign engineers.

By now opposition politicians are openly accusing Közgép of being a front for Fidesz. Gábor Scheiring (PM) said that “the essence of Lajos Simicska’s firm … is financing Fidesz from its profits.” Gyurcsány considers “Lajos Simicska  the most notorious and most influential person in Fidesz and the business establishment built around it.” László Varju, the party director of DK, in one of his press conferences talked about the need to investigate the possible “role of [Közgép] in the financing of the government party.” If it could be proven that Közgép and Simicska are just a front for Fidesz, Orbán might find himself and his party a lot poorer.