Tag Archives: Árpád W. Tóta

What’s behind Momentum? Banal clichés

At the end of February and the beginning of March, I spent a considerable amount of time on Momentum, the new political movement that, with a successful signature drive, managed to force the government to scrap its pet project of holding the 2024 Olympic Games in Budapest. I was enthusiastic about this group of young men and women, who struck me as an intelligent lot. What I found especially attractive was that the members of this civic group realized that they could best effect political change by becoming part of the political process. They announced early on their desire to form a political party.

Admittedly, I was worried about their categorical announcement that they would refuse to cooperate with the “political elite,” whom they obviously despised. It was equally worrisome that the chairman of Momentum, András Fekete-Győr, didn’t seem to make a clear distinction between the political system prior to 2010 and the one after. As if this young firebrand wanted to throw out the totality of political change that has taken place since 1989. He talked about instituting an entirely new political system once his party is in power. This statement unfortunately reminded me of Viktor Orbán’s promise in 2010 that his “revolution in the ballot boxes” was the beginning of true democracy in Hungary.

Because Momentum worked so assiduously on collecting signatures for a referendum on hosting the Olympics, the leaders of the movement had little time to give interviews and to share their political ideas with the public. Since then, the chairman of the new party, called Momentum Mozgalom (MoMo), has been giving interviews galore. From these interviews a sad fact emerges: András Fekete-Győr hasn’t got a clue about politics. If he faithfully represents the goals and platform of MoMo, we can forget about this new political formation and the 140 people who apparently make up the party at the moment.

The interview tsunami began on March 6 with Györgyi Szöllösi of “Hungary Live” on Hír TV. In the course of the interview Fekete-Győr triumphantly announced that Momentum is planning to win the election single-handed in a year’s time. Mind you, a few days earlier he admitted that 2018 was too early a date and announced that his party would concentrate on the 2022 election. No probing questions about the feasibility of such an improbable feat could shake Fekete-Győr’s self-confidence. They will be ready to form a government as a result of their impressive electoral victory. The reporter reminded him of an earlier remark: “We haven’t lost our minds and think that we alone can replace the present government.” So, what happened? asked the reporter. Fekete-Győr simply denied that he had ever said such a thing.

From here he moved to even shakier ground when he said that “the Hungarian Left doesn’t have a positive vision of the nation (nemzetkép).” As we know, this is the favorite accusation of Fidesz against the opposition. Therefore, it was inevitable that the reporter would want to know more about Fekete-Győr’s interpretation of “nemzetkép.” Within seconds it became patently obvious that Fekete-Győr had no idea what he was talking about. Eventually he came up with a totally meaningless answer: in his opinion, it means “political peace.” Let’s not even try to interpret this brilliant observation.

Well, that was bad enough, but a day later another interview, which appeared in 24.hu, prompted uniformly negative responses from responsible opposition commentators. First, let’s see what we can learn about Fekete-Győr’s political past from this interview. First, he most likely voted for Fidesz in 2010 when he was 21 years old. “What made Fidesz attractive for me was the fact that it had several convincing characters like Viktor Orbán, Tibor Navracsics, János Lázár, and János Áder.” Let’s not comment on Fekete-Győr’s choice of convincing politicians. Instead, I will be charitable and chalk up his strange taste to his youth. He still thinks, however, that “Orbán is a helluva talented politician who can speak the language of the common man about his coherent worldview.” He supports Orbán in his efforts to keep the refugees out, but it should be done “not so aggressively.” He also approves of the centralization of public education, “but KLIK is not a good answer.”

Otherwise, throughout the interview Fekete-Győr was so arrogant that the reporters eventually asked him: “What feeds this arrogance with which you reject the approach of all the opposition forces, be they Ferenc Gyurcsány or Tibor Szanyi?” Then came the answer: “We are not as arrogant with everybody—if you can call it arrogance—but I have no idea what the hell Ferenc Gyurcsány is still doing in politics. It would be high time for him to get lost.”

It took only a few hours for journalists to comment on this interview. One of the first was my favorite Árpád W. Tóta, who is both astute and witty. He began his opinion piece, titled “Moment, bitte,” with “Neither Right nor Left? And the Left not national enough? Please, tell me something really new.” Yes, we are grateful for not having the Olympic Games in 2024, but “gratefulness is not a blank check or a free ride.” In the rest of the essay Tóta accuses of Fekete-Győr of being utterly devoid of any serious vision and  contends that what he is trying to sell is at best a collection of banal clichés. Tóta is certain that if Fekete-Győr had to explain what a “positive national vision” is, which is missing on the Left but exists on the Right, he would be at a loss. As we could see from his Hír TV interview, Tóta was correct. The self-confident leader of MoMo failed. He couldn’t mutter out an intelligent sentence on the topic because, as Tóta rightly observes, the “concept” is an empty phrase, something Hungarians call a “lózung.” Tóta also visited MoMo’s website where he found the party’s “program” on education and healthcare, which they call their “vision.” There is nothing wrong with the direction, but the program is full of clichés that have been more intelligently developed and more fully proposed over the last three years by several parties on the Left.

Another devastating critique came from László Bartus of Amerikai Népszava, who called attention to some of the most objectionable statements in Fekete-Győr’s interview. I think Bartus is right when he criticizes the young politician’s admiration of Orbán’s ability to speak the language of the common people, which is mere populist drivel. Moreover, Hitler and Mussolini also knew how to speak the language of the people. How can he call Orbán’s illiberal, far-right, anti-Western pseudo philosophy a “worldview,” asks the editor-in-chief of Amerikai Népszava. Bartus finds Fekete-Győr so objectionable that he even defends Ferenc Gyurcsány against his ill-tempered attacks, and Gyurcsány is not exactly Bartus’s favorite. After all, as the reporters reminded him, the electorate decides who stays in politics and for how long, not Fekete-Győr. Anyone who wants politicians to pack up and clear out of public life is not a democrat, says Bartus. Moreover, he continues, “this helluva talented politician who is currently robbing the country blind is not Ferenc Gyurcsány. It was not Gyurcsány who abolished the constitution but Orbán.”

A day after the 24.hu interview came another interview, this time with Antónia Mészáros of ATV. A somewhat chastened Fekete-Győr tried to explain away his ill-tempered and inappropriate comments about the former prime minister. Mészáros, who is known for her sharp intellect and insistent interviewing style, was all sweetness and light. She handled the chairman of MoMo with kindness. I guess she knew that Fekete-Győr didn’t need her help to make himself ridiculous. Perhaps he didn’t realize it, but as a commentator said, “tonight Antónia Mészáros had Fekete-Győr for supper, and once she was full she leaned back and smiled. Her prey didn’t even realize that he was almost completely consumed.”

March 11, 2017

András Schiffer: From KISZ to neo-communism?

Just as I suspected, in one short post I couldn’t cover the departure of András Schiffer, the founder and leader of LMP, from politics as well as opinions of him that have appeared since his announcement. Over the years I have written more than a dozen articles about LMP and András Schiffer and yet, after re-reading them, I must admit that I never managed to give a satisfactory portrait of this complex, controversial, divisive man. I guess one day someone will write a book on LMP and the abortive attempt to establish a true green party in Hungary. That book will undoubtedly praise Schiffer, the party’s founder, for being able in two short years to build a party that sent a fifteen-member delegation to the Hungarian parliament. No mean feat. But most of the book will probably be about the constant internal fights within the party and its founder’s unyielding and, in my opinion mistaken, ideology and political strategy.

I suspect that most people would agree with András Stumpf of the pro-government Mandiner.hu website that, without Schiffer, LMP’s chances of becoming a parliamentary party in 2018 are remote. The party leaders of LMP are naturally much more upbeat. Bernadett Szél, co-chairman of LMP, sounded neither heartbroken about Schiffer’s departure nor pessimistic about the future of the party. She took the news laconically. “I’m old enough to know that if someone wants to leave, one should let him go. Today I can’t worry about this. Instead, I want to make sure that the green party that has grown roots in the country has a future.” She is already organizing a tour of the countryside with a view to widening the territorial base of LMP. Szél in this interview gave the impression of being a liberated woman who can now do things her own way. As for the hard-and-fast rule of not allying LMP with any other political formation, it remains in place as far as I can see.

Photo: István Fekete

Bernadett Szél. Photo: István Fekete

Among those with LMP ties, the greatest admirer is Péter Róna, which makes sense given Róna’s economic precepts, which include anti-capitalist sentiments and ideas of the “népiesek,” a group of people who envisaged a Hungary whose economy would be a “third road” between capitalism and socialism. Róna simply cannot understand the Hungarian intellectual elite’s indifference, or in some cases hatred, toward Schiffer, whom he considers the best and most honest politician in Hungary today.

Endre Kukorelly, who for a few months was an LMP member of parliament in 2010, is a writer. Since I haven’t read a line of his, I can’t pass judgment on his literary talents. But, to me, his political views are muddled. He who quit parliament after a few months hails Schiffer’s decision because it is so much easier to do politics without the shackles of a party. He represents the unproductive view that political parties are evil and that civilians are the ones who will change the present system.

The opinions of most other former LMP members, however, are pretty uniformly negative.

Benedek Jávor, whose activities in the European Parliament I greatly admire, most likely hit the nail on the head when he observed that “the conflicts that led to a split in the party have not dissipated with our departure,” referring to PM members’ leaving LMP in January 2013.

Virág Kaufer, who left LMP in 2012, suggested that Schiffer “take some time off and take a good look at what he created and speak with those who are no longer his supporters.”

Perhaps Gábor Vágó, a former LMP insider, best summarized LMP’s problem. In his opinion, Schiffer’s departure “is not the end of the LMP story. The fate of the party was sealed when it abandoned its critical attitude toward [Orbán’s] system.”

At the end of this post you will find about a dozen links to my past articles on LMP and András Schiffer, from which a fuller picture of LMP’s role in Hungarian politics should emerge. But perhaps I should add a few details that might be helpful in explaining where Schiffer came from.

Schiffer’s first political act at the age of eighteen was adding his name to an open letter addressed to the Congress of KISZ (Magyar Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség). The letter was dated April 10, 1989. Less than two weeks later KISZ was dissolved. Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány (KISZ secretary), and György Szilvássy (KISZ spokesman and later minister in Gyurcsány’s cabinet) also signed the letter. Schiffer talked about those days in 2014 in an interview with Szabolcs Panyi of Index. “In the spring of 1989, when it wasn’t quite clear which way things would develop, there was only one man in the whole nomenclature of the party-state who put his foot down, even risking his livelihood, and declared that the properties of KISZ and the party must be divided among alternative organizations. This man was Ferenc Gyurcsány. … Gyurcsány proclaimed what many of the opposition politicians didn’t dare: that because of the nature of the state socialist system what they [KISZ and the party] possess belongs to the people.”

Shortly after the dissolution of KISZ, Gyurcsány established a new youth organization called Új Nemzedék Mozgalom (Movement of the New Generation), of which Schiffer became a member. Gyurcsány soon gave up his political activities and became a businessman, but Schiffer remained active and was one of the founding members of a new political movement called Ifjú Szocialisták (Young Socialists). Shortly thereafter, Schiffer retired from politics (for the first time). After finishing law school, he worked for TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, where he became interested in the green movement.

What changed Schiffer’s attitude toward Gyurcsány, whom he clearly admired back in 1989, were the 2006 disturbances in which he, as an associate of TASZ, took the side of those he considered to be the victims of “police terror.” What happened on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Revolution is a hot potato about which people have widely different opinions. Rightly or wrongly, Schiffer accused Gyurcsány of criminal acts against innocent demonstrators. Hence, his hatred of the man.

His attitude toward Gyurcsány may have changed radically, but he didn’t shed his socialist political views. Árpád W. Tóta, who writes witty, sarcastic, sometime savage opinion pieces, said that LMP has never managed to present a coherent worldview and that “the only concrete position one can make out is a blood-curdling neo-communism. The kind that is becoming sawdust right now in South America.” Tóta portrays Schiffer as someone who wanted to be different simply for the sake of being different. The party was toggling between right and left until it started getting closer to the positions of Fidesz and Jobbik. In brief, in ideological terms Schiffer left the party in a real mess.

Links to Hungarian Spectrum articles on LMP and András Schiffer:

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/03/26/lmp-or-can-politics-can-be-something-else/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/03/27/two-interviews-with-andras-schiffer-chairman-of-lmp/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/07/07/viktor-orban-had-a-meeting-with-the-lmp-parliamentary-delegation/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/05/02/babes-in-arms-lmps-encounter-with-viktor-orban/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/07/12/the-new-electoral-law-lmps-wake-up-call/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/11/14/a-few-words-about-the-hungarian-green-party-the-lmp/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/01/14/the-rise-and-fall-of-lmps-andras-schiffer/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/07/26/the-future-of-lmp-an-interview-with-benedek-javor/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/10/21/hungarian-opposition-groups-lmp-4k-and-milla/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/11/17/with-or-without-gordon-bajnai-lmps-dilemma/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/11/18/lmps-andras-schiffer-won-but-did-he/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2013/01/26/where-is-andras-schiffer-leading-lmp-straight-into-the-arms-of-fidesz/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2013/01/27/lmps-rebels-left-the-party-who-will-be-the-winner-of-this-game/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2014/04/23/budapest-municipal-election-mszp-lmp-deal/

June 1, 2016

Some musings on Hungarian politics today

I hope I haven’t bored you to death with my continuing saga of the Hungarian democratic opposition’s struggles, but there are still many aspects of the issue that are worth investigating.

The general consensus is that Gordon Bajnai is the victim of a political game that has been going on for the last year and a half. On October 12, 2012, Gordon Bajnai seemed to be the messiah the anti-Orbán forces were waiting for. He offered himself as the beacon of the opposition; with his name on their banner they could march toward a better future in the name of democracy. He didn’t establish a party at that time but a kind of umbrella organization under which the groupings on the left could gather.

The initial reaction was fantastic. There were at least 50,000 people who cheered him on, and a few weeks later Medián registered a 14% approval rating for his organization. But from there on it was all downhill. Attila Mesterházy seized the initiative and suggested immediate negotiations with all the parties and former eminent politicians on the left. It was at this point that Gordon Bajnai, most likely on the advice of his former chief-of-staff, Viktor Szigetvári, decided to postpone negotiations. The rest of the story is only too well known, and there is no need to repeat it here.

Most commentators are burying Gordon Bajnai as a politician. In fact, many of them suggest that his failure is largely due to the fact that he is not a politician but a technocrat. They talk about his inept moves. Zsófia Mihancsik, editor-in-chief of Galamus who rarely minces words, blames Bajnai for “ending up exactly where we were in 2010.” According to her, he “stepped back into the nothingness, he ceased to be a counterweight, even if a minimal one, and handed full powers to Mesterházy.” The title of her short piece is “Congratulations to Gordon Bajnai.”

In this game most people see Attila Mesterházy as the ultimate winner. Someone who first managed to get rid of Ferenc Gyurcsány and hence remained his party’s only authoritative voice. And then came his next victim, Gordon Bajnai. However, according to one analyst, there is still one more possible victim–Ferenc Gyurcsány, who by joining the Mesterházy-led formation will find himself in the same corrupt socialist party that he left two years ago. Surely, the commentator, Zsolt Zsebesi of gepnarancs.hu, is no friend of the socialists and its chairman. His Mesterházy is a schemer and a power-hungry man who has been wanting to be prime minister ever since childhood. According to him, Mesterházy loves power as much as Viktor Orbán does. But what is worse, he writes, is that Mesterházy, other than being good at jostling in the intra-party power games, has no other redeeming qualities. He has no vision and no competence when it comes to becoming the next prime minister of Hungary.

Árpád W. Tóta, a witty commentator and sharp observer, goes even further. He recalls in his opinion piece that an economist complained just the other day that the democratic opposition cannot offer anything more than a return to the pre-2010 world. But, Tóta continues, such a program would actually not be bad at all. The problem is that this crew within the socialist party is a great deal less talented than their predecessors. Gyula Horn, László Kovács, Ferenc Gyurcsány were ready for victory. Mesterházy is the only one who seems to be at a loss. (Actually Tóta, who sprinkles his writing with four-letter words, said something stronger than that.) His final conclusion is that the socialists, by trying to distance themselves from the infamous “last eight years” (2002-2010), are committing a folly. They can win only by identifying themselves with those years and should be glad  if they are not judged by the last three and a half years.

I must say that I have a better opinion of Mesterházy than those from whose writings I just quoted. Mesterházy seems to have managed to keep the party together which, considering the devastating defeat they suffered, was quite an achievement. Any comparison with Viktor Orbán, of course, is ridiculous, but having Mesterházy at the top of the ticket is certainly not a calamity. The only question is whether he can run a successful campaign that results in a change of government. And no one knows that yet.

Perhaps the most interesting comment came from Gábor Török, a political scientist whose comments usually annoy me because they are insipid and wishy-washy. One cannot pin him down on anything. But last night he made a good point on his blog. His argument goes something like this. For the time being Mesterházy seems to have won, but it will be some time before we know what his fate will be in the long run because, if the joint opposition forces lose the election, it can easily happen that he will be blamed for the failure. That his personal ambition was too high a price to pay for another four years of Viktor Orbán. On the other hand, for Ferenc Gyurcsány it is a win-win situation. He won this round and, if the new formation headed by Mesterházy loses the election, he will be declared a prophet, an excellent politician whose advice should have been heeded.

I should also say a few words about the PM contingent within the Együtt-2014-PM alliance. PM stands for Párbeszéd Magyarországért (Dialogue for Hungary). The politicians of PM are the ones who broke away from LMP due to András Schiffer’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with other democratic parties. Some of these people swore that they would never cooperate with Ferenc Gyurcsány. And now, here they are. Katalin Ertsey, a member of LMP’s caucus, even today can repeat with disgust that her former colleagues in the party “lie in the same bed with Gyurcsány.” Yet the PM members are ready to cooperate because they rightly point out that times have changed and it would be most irresponsible not to do so.

However, Péter Juhász, a civic leader who organized large anti-government demonstrations on the Internet, refuses to be on the same ticket with Gyurcsány. But that is not his only problem. He also rejects joining a ticket that is headed by Attila Mesterházy.

I always considered Juhász muddle-minded. I can’t understand how it was possible that Juhász didn’t notice until now that there was a very good chance of Mesterházy’s becoming prime minister if the Együtt-2014-PM-MSZP coalition happens to win the election. Because according to the original agreement the head of the list that receives the most votes will become prime minister. And there was never any point in time when Együtt-2014-PM was anywhere near MSZP’s popularity. Then what are we talking about? In any case, my reaction is: good riddance. I found Juhász a detriment to the cause.

And finally, Mandiner, the conservative site run by mostly young journalists, decided to devote a whole article with lots of pictures to Gyurcsány. It was supposed to be funny and whole thing was written in an ironic style. They included a video from the great MSZP campaign demonstration on Heroes’ Square and Andrássy út in 2006.

Of course, I saw this video earlier. In fact, I think I watched the whole fanfare. But it is an entirely different experience to watch it today, eight years later. The comparison between the self-confident MSZP in 2006 in the middle of the campaign and now is really staggering. I thought I would share this video with you to see the contrast and the sad state of the party today. Can it be revived? And if yes, how? And by whom? Or will it die and will something else come in its place?

Fidesz’s success and the public’s ignorance of democratic principles

I guess the real test of a good opinion piece is whether the reader finds it thought provoking. Whether while reading the piece dozens of  examples, questions, and ideas come to mind. I must say that I don’t have this experience very often, but this morning I did thanks to an article by Árpád W. Tóta entitled “A fideszes áfium ellen való orvosság.” My mind immediately started racing (some might say wandering), but as it turned out I wasn’t too far from the main thrust of Tóta’s argument.

First I stopped at the word “áfium” in the title.  My high school years came back to me. All those who finished Hungarian high school learned something about Miklós Zrinyi (1620-1664), ban (governor) of Croatia, general, poet, politician, writer of political treatises. He wrote a political pamphlet entitled “A török áfium ellen való orvosság” and, although I don’t remember ever reading a single line from this work in school, we did learn the pamphlet’s title. But there was one rather serious problem. We had no idea what the word “áfium,” an archaic word, meant and our Hungarian teacher never bothered to enlighten us. It was only years later that I found out that “áfium” meant “opium” and that the title actually meant “Medicine against the Turkish opium.”

From “áfium” I made a mental leap to the deficiencies of Hungarian education and found myself on the same wave length as Tóta, who complained in the body of his article about the ignorance that allows a million and half Hungarians to be unquestioning followers of a false messiah. Tóta believes that “the medicine against the Fidesz opium” lies in enlightenment, in education, in learning about democracy, learning about the world.

Tóta is right when he claims that those who find Fidesz’s message and practices repugnant often think that Viktor Orbán’s slavish followers are simply stupid. No, he says, they are just ignorant–and they lack intellectual curiosity. I would change the order of deficiencies here. Without intellectual curiosity a person will never acquire the information necessary to make intelligent choices. And intellectual curiosity is in short supply in Hungary. For instance, the number of Hungarian adults taking continuing education courses is the lowest in all of Europe.

Source: 02varvara.wordpress

Source: 02varvara.wordpress

Tóta blames the eight years of socialist-liberal governance for allowing a generation to grow up without ever acquiring the rudiments of democratic thinking. As a result 17% of Hungarian college students believe the drivel of Jobbik. Tóta suggests that once Fidesz is gone it will be time to transform the newly adopted compulsory hour of morality and religion to “civics.” As he jokingly says, “the framework is given; one just has to change the textbooks.”

Once I got this far I recalled Ferenc Krémer’s latest article on Galamus about “Teaching democracy, the German example.” Krémer naturally mentioned the German children’s show which teaches the pillars of democracy, like an independent judiciary, freedom of the media, and freedom of assembly. It was on this show that German children learned about all those undemocratic practices the Orbán government introduced. Naturally Orbán was outraged and called the show “brainwashing,” something he would never allow to appear on Hungarian public television.

My guess is that a lot of liberal and socialist opponents of the Orbán government would agree with Tóta and Krémer that democratic thinking must be taught, preferably at a young age. But many of the same people find the European Union’s efforts at curbing smoking unacceptable. It is brainwashing, they say.

So, let’s see what brainwashing means. It has two meanings: (1) intensive, forcible indoctrination, usually political or religious, aimed at destroying a person’s basic convictions and attitudes and replacing them with an alternative set of fixed beliefs, and (2) the application of a concentrated means of persuasion, such as an advertising campaign or repeated suggestion, in order to develop a specific belief or motivation.

Surely, neither the German children’s show teaching young kids about democratic thinking nor the campaign against smoking would fall into the first category. There is no question of forcible indoctrination here. Instead, both use persuasion in order to develop a specific belief or motivation. In the first instance to develop a belief in democracy and in the second to reinforce one’s motivation to quit smoking. Both are for the common good, I think. Yet a lot of confusion as well as genuinely conflicting opinions surround the question of influencing public opinion. The Nazis in Germany didn’t have to force people to follow the Führer. A concentrated means of persuasion was enough. Or we condemn the tobacco companies’ advertising practices that encouraged smoking but laud the efforts of governments to curb smoking, although both fall into the category of persuasion by social means.

The subject of brainwashing and persuasion has a large literature, but I like one simple description of brainwashing: “someone else is thinking for you.” This is unfortunately very much the case with nonthinking Fidesz followers. Whatever future Hungarian governments do to ensure a better educated public, they must put the emphasis on independent thinking and a broader knowledge of the world. It also might not be a bad idea to teach children the meaning of “áfium” and, while they are at it, tell them what Zrínyi’s work is all about.