At the end of yesterday’s post I indicated that Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, had just announced his party’s refusal to support the government party’s quest for another round of amendments to the constitution that would introduce a number of changes related to the settlement of foreigners in Hungary. Earlier I wrote an analysis of the notion of constitutional identity, which is the linchpin of the otherwise meaningless constitutional amendments, and published an English translation of the amendments themselves.
The government considers these amendments vital to Viktor Orbán’s impending battle with Brussels over a possibly mandatory distribution of refugees. But changing the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, which Fidesz-KDNP currently doesn’t have. The government party had been counting on the support of Jobbik, the only opposition party that was wholeheartedly behind the amendments. In fact, it was Jobbik that, from the beginning, championed for constitutional amendments instead of a referendum. Fidesz, however, rejected the proposal and embarked on an expensive, divisive referendum that in the end turned out to be invalid.
What followed was a typical Viktor Orbán move: regardless of the failure of his referendum he decided to go ahead with the amendments to the constitution. But there was a rub. Jobbik demanded a price for its members’ votes, which Gábor Vona set forth early in the game.
For starters, Vona said that he wanted to meet with the prime minister in private. In the last six years, however, it has never happened that the ruler of Hungary sat down alone with an opposition leader. Granting such a privilege to Vona was too demeaning, so Orbán organized a series of “consultations,” starting with Zsolt Semjén of the Christian Democratic Party and his own deputy, which everybody thought was a joke. Then he sent a message to Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, who foolishly accepted the invitation, which he kept secret from the rest of the leading politicians of his party. Once the meeting became known, Molnár tried to explain himself away by saying that the consultation was not about the amendments but about the summit that is taking place at this very moment in Brussels. Since when does Viktor Orbán have consultations with opposition party chiefs about summits?
The long-awaited meeting between Vona and Orbán took place on October 18. In the days leading up to the meeting, Jobbik spokesmen repeatedly indicated that the party would support Orbán and that the Jobbik delegation would cast its votes with Fidesz-KDNP, guaranteeing an easy passage of the amendments. After all, this is what they wanted all along. Yes, but Jobbik was in a perfect position to demand something in exchange for its support of the government party. Vona’s demand was that the government cease selling residency bonds to wealthy Chinese, Russian, and Arab businessmen.
The residency bond sale, which I described as a “colossal swindle,” is the brainchild of Árpád Habony and Antal Rogán. Habony is safely deposited in London. Rogán, on the other hand, has been under incredible pressure, mostly because of Népszabadság’s revelations about his most likely ill-gotten wealth. The residency bond scheme has been severely criticized not only by the opposition but by some higher-up Fidesz leaders as well. In fact, in the last few weeks there were indications that the scheme would be modified. But I very much doubt that Orbán had the total cessation of the program in mind. And this is what Vona demands. If poor immigrants can’t settle in Hungary, rich ones shouldn’t be able to either.
The outcry against the Jobbik demand was not restricted to the government party. Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, also condemned it in almost identical words. Bence Tuzson, one of the many spokesmen of the prime minister’s office, called it “kufárkodás” (profiteering) while Molnár considered it “seftelés” (conducting business in a dishonorable way). The two words are practically synonymous. For good measure Molnár added that Vona’s behavior is “political prostitution” pure and simple.
I am amazed at these reactions. In the world of politics this kind of give and take is perfectly normal. If Viktor Orbán needs the help of Gábor Vona’s party, it is natural that Jobbik will want something in return. After the meeting, Vona talked to the press and announced that Viktor Orbán had rejected his proposal, but a few minutes later Orbán sent a message via Tuzson saying that “he will consider the request of Vona.”
The Hungarian media started speculating about whether Orbán would meet Vona’s demands. Szabolcs Dull of Index simply could not imagine that it will be Viktor Orbán who has to knuckle under. After all, Orbán has convinced the Hungarian public that he is always the one who comes out on top. He is always the winner. In fact, Dull suggested, Orbán wants to get rid of the troublesome residency bonds anyway, and therefore he will readily concede to Vona’s demands. In fact, “he will kill two birds with one stone: he will be able to restructure the residency bond scheme and will receive Jobbik’s endorsement.”
Dull’s theory collapsed less than ten hours later when the government indicated that it has no intention of scrapping the residency bond program. Yesterday, around noon, Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz caucus, announced that in their opinion the two issues, the bonds and the settlement of foreigners, have nothing to do with one another and suggested that Fidesz isn’t counting on the votes of Jobbik. They hope to get the necessary two votes from the “independent” members of parliament. Who these “independent” members would be is not entirely clear, but some Fidesz politicians indicated that they think a few “patriotic” Jobbik members could be found who would turn against Vona. By this afternoon most Hungarian journalists were convinced that Fidesz will put the amendments to a vote on November 8 even if they are not assured of Jobbik’s support.
In trying to win concessions from Orbán, did Vona sow the seeds of his own destruction? Today Magyar Nemzet speculated about why a Fidesz defeat would actually be good for Fidesz and bad for Jobbik. If the amendments are not passed and if Brussels insists on compulsory quotas, Fidesz can blame Jobbik.
Tamás Fábián of Index found this hypothesis compelling, adding that from information he received from people close to Orbán, “Brussels cannot be stopped and within months the compulsory quotas will be forthcoming.” If that is the case, “Jobbik politicians will never be able to get rid of the label of being traitors,” which Lajos Kósa already pinned on them. Fábián is convinced that Vona made a fatal mistake by presenting Orbán with an ultimatum. “He started on a narrow path and will suffer heavy blows along the way.”
Fábián also predicted that the sale of residency bonds will be continued, even if with some adjustments. Although in the last few days Fidesz spokesmen did talk about fundamental changes, two weeks ago Orbán called the program “a successful construction.”
I might add that despite all the dirt that was unearthed about Antal Rogán, he seems to have nothing to fear. Orbán will not let him go. I was astonished to see Rogán in Brussels, walking right behind Orbán. Since when do propaganda ministers go to summits in Brussels? I guess the government is sending a message that he is still under the protection of the prime minister.