Tag Archives: Bernadett Szél

Is LMP in cahoots with Fidesz?

On October 17 Egon Rónay of ATV’s Start interviewed Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP. The occasion was the demonstration organized by Párbeszéd (Dialogue), Együtt (Together), and LMP (Politics Can Be Different) that had taken place the day before. Considering that by that time four of the left-liberal opposition parties had decided to celebrate October 23 together, the conversation soon turned to LMP’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with the others. What followed was a lengthy tirade by Szél against Ferenc Gyurcsány, whom she considers responsible for the very existence of Viktor Orbán as a politician. As she put it, as long as Ferenc Gyurcsány remains on the political scene Hungary will be stranded with Viktor Orbán.

Backbiting is unfortunately an everyday affair in Hungarian opposition circles, but Szél’s outburst was unusually acerbic and ill intentioned. A day later, on the same program, Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s spokesman, indicated that Együtt, led by Viktor Szigetvári and Péter Juhász, and LPM, led by Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy, with their refusal to cooperate wittingly or unwittingly were assisting Viktor Orbán’s government.

LMP’s decision to collaborate with Fidesz on the issue of the constitutional court’s newly elected judges led to a really ugly scene between László Varju of DK and the whole LMP parliamentary delegation of five plus András Schiffer, the architect of the Fidesz-LMP deal. The LMP politicians crashed Varju’s press conference, which was held in the parliament. Soon enough the press conference turned into a screaming session in which Varju called the five LMP members of parliament “collaborators.” In turn, Schiffer said that AVH, the dreaded Hungarian secret police between 1945 and 1956, was “the spiritual predecessor” of the political leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Moreover, he accused them of inciting anti-Catholic sentiments by criticizing Balázs Schanda, one of the new judges, who writes almost exclusively on legal questions concerning religion. The hapless Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP, tried in vain to end the exchange of accusations. He eventually got involved in the cacophony himself.

In the middle of the battle. András Schiffer enjoys it immensely

In the middle of the battle. András Schiffer enjoys it immensely.

Today an article appeared in index.hu which might explain, at least in part, the ferocious LMP attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány. According to the news site, sometime in early November LMP commissioned a poll to ascertain the views of the Hungarian electorate on the current government as well as on leading opposition personalities. From the survey LMP learned that three-quarters of its own supporters reject any cooperation with Ferenc Gyurcsány. They consider him an obstacle to unity. I don’t know whether this finding surprised LMP’s leadership, but it really shouldn’t have. DK’s liberal ideas on economic matters and its acceptance of globalization are in stark contrast to LMP’s far-left socialist ideas.

Even so, I don’t believe that LMP’s refusal to work with the other opposition parties on the left is the result of its supporters’ intense dislike of Gyurcsány and his ideas on the free market economy. Gyurcsány is only an excuse. LMP’s founder, András Schiffer, from the start made it clear that LMP alone would defeat the Orbán regime. I’m almost certain that even if Ferenc Gyurcsány gave up politics this very moment LMP still wouldn’t be willing to work hand in hand with the others.

Overall, the poll apparently found that 46% of those who side with the opposition think that Gyurcsány is an obstacle to the defeat of the Orbán government while 45% think that “the presence of Gyurcsány is necessary for the removal of Orbán from power.” That is a tie, says index.hu, but since LMP voters are so anti-Gyurcsány and therefore anti-DK, it is good politics to launch an attack against the party.

According to the survey, 45% of the electorate as a whole would like to see a change of government while 43% support the present Orbán government. Naturally, 94% of Fidesz voters are still loyal supporters of Viktor Orbán. The same level of fervor is manifest in those who today would vote for an opposition party. The situation is very different among the large group of Hungarians who haven’t found a party they would gladly vote for. Forty percent of them would like to see the Orbán government disappear, 26% would like it to stay, and 34% have no opinion. This untapped group of undecided voters should be the primary target of the opposition, but any effort to woo the undecided will be effective only if the opposition can create a unified force, speaking with one voice. Cacophony guarantees defeat.

LMP’s poll also measured the popularity of five politicians: Bernadett Szél (41%), László Botka (34%), Ágnes Vadai (32%), Ákos Hadházy (31%), and Ferenc Gyurcsány (26%). This finding is especially interesting because only opposition politicians are being compared. I found the relatively low rating of László Botka especially surprising considering that he was declared to be the most popular MSZP leader, the one who could lead his party to victory.

A few hours after the index.hu article appeared István Ikotity, an LMP member of parliament, denied the existence of the survey, adding: “In my opinion, LMP shouldn’t be preoccupied with the opposition. We shouldn’t pay attention to the recognition and support of certain opposition politicians. Our position in relation to DK has remained the same. Nothing has changed.” His denial was not very convincing, but I believe him when he says that LMP’s attitude toward DK and Ferenc Gyurcsány hasn’t changed at all.

Let’s assume for the moment that LMP did commission this survey and that its politicians, seeing the results, decided to tip the scale against Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose standing in opposition circles is a practical tie between his supporters and his opponents. In that case, I think one can argue that LMP is a collaborator of Fidesz, not just because it assisted in enlarging the constitutional court which opposition parties, including Jobbik, find illegitimate but also because it purposely sowed discord among the opposition parties which will only weaken the anti-Orbán forces. András Schiffer, the creator of LMP, decided to call his party “Lehet Más A Politika” (Politics Can Be Different). If LMP is indeed involved in such a dirty, indecent game, it should be the last party on earth to bear that name.

November 29, 2016

Harmful politicians in the Hungarian democratic opposition

It’s time to vent my wrath against some of those politicians who allegedly want to win the 2018 election and free the country from a semi-autocratic leader who has introduced an illiberal political system in Hungary.

A couple of days ago György Bolgár invited me to outline my ideas about what the democratic opposition should do to put an end to the rule of Viktor Orbán. Among other things, I emphasized the need for one large opposition party, which would necessarily mean the disappearance of those parties that have only minimal support. As it stands now, none of them would receive 5% of the votes, so any ballots cast for them would not only be a waste but would boost Fidesz’s electoral position.

There are some very good people in these parties. People like Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Gergely Karácsony (PM), Tímea Szabó (PM), and Péter Juhász (Együtt) would be real assets in a large left-of-center party. But others should disappear from the political scene because they are obstacles to any kind of joint action and mutual understanding. The two most prominent people in this latter category are the chairman of Együtt, Viktor Szigetvári, and the co-chairman of LMP, Bernadett Szél. Szigetvári accuses MSZP of being in bed with Fidesz and wanting to lose the election as the result of a secret pact. Szél just assured Fidesz of her party’s support for the anti-refugee referendum and, while she was at it, joined the anti-Soros chorus of Fidesz.

Let me start with Viktor Szigetvári. Back in March 2014, just before the election, I wrote a critical article about him. For years, ever since he graduated from college, he was affiliated with MSZP in one capacity or another. He served under Péter Medgyessy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gordon Bajnai. Because he was one of the organizers of the 2006 MSZP election campaign, he acquired the reputation of being an election guru with a magic touch. But, as his efforts in the 2014 election campaign showed, a magic touch was not enough. In 2013, after he left MSZP, he became co-chairman of Bajnai’s Együtt-PM which, despite promising beginnings, today has the support of only 1% of the electorate.

I freely admit that I have been following Viktor Szigetvári’s political career with growing concern. He appears on ATV frequently, and each time he lessens the chances of a unified democratic opposition. He tries to discredit and undermine the two larger parties, MSZP and DK, and puts himself forth as the only man who could engineer a democratic opposition victory in 2018.

Szigetvári’s latest foray into backbiting was an interview with András Hont of HVG where he said that “Együtt has an existing hinterland and an intellectual radiance which might not be as large as that of a party with 40% support” but the party isn’t tainted by those who were discredited in the days before 2010. Of course, Szigetvári conveniently forgets about the large role he played in the service of that “rotten regime,” whose other participants should be banished from political life.

Behind Viktor Szigetv'ari: "For Hungary"

Behind Viktor Szigetvári: “For Hungary”

The whole interview was full of contradictions. On the one hand, Szigetvári is convinced that only someone who had nothing to do with political life prior to 1990 can unseat Viktor Orbán. On the other, he indicated in the interview that his great hope for the premiership would be László Botka (MSZP), who came from exactly the kind of family Szigetvári talks about so scornfully. Both parents were MSZMP members; Botka’s mother was one of the founders of MSZP, mayor of Szolnok, and a member of parliament. And surely László, given his family background, was a member of KISZ. He became a member of MSZP at the tender age of eighteen.

László Botka is Szigetvári’s hero. The most popular MSZP politician who, due to some mysterious internal party conspiracy, was prevented from setting the agenda of MSZP for the next two years. Since MSZP blackballed Botka, the only conclusion one can draw is that the socialists don’t want to win the election, Szigetvári insists. Well, in my opinion, there is a more plausible explanation for Botka’s failure at the last party congress. It was well known inside and outside the party that Botka wouldn’t be willing to cooperate with anyone, especially not with Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, cannot be ignored as a factor in the present political constellation. My take is that the representatives who voted for Hiller instead of Botka were thinking in terms of the inevitable electoral failure if MSZP tries to run its own slate in the 2018 election.

Szigetvári himself also wants to meet Fidesz head-on, and it was at this point that he revealed his true position. “We will not sacrifice our community on the altar of ‘Down with Orbán!’” This is as clear as it can be. It doesn’t matter what Viktor Szigetvári says, it is not the politicians of MSZP and DK who want to lose the election for some unfathomable reason. It is Szigetvári’s politics that will weaken the forces of the democratic opposition and help Viktor Orbán remain in power, perhaps for decades.

The interview stirred up quite a controversy, but Szigetvári is not the kind of man to back down in the face of criticism. He accepted an invitation from Olga Kálmán of ATV to elaborate on the accusations he had made in his earlier interview. There he tried to explain the inexplicable with miserable results. Those who know the language should take a look at that encounter.

And now let me turn to Bernadett Szél’s performance at the 27th gathering of the Fidesz-inspired Bálványosi Nyári Szabadegyetem (Bálványos Summer Free University). It is no longer held in Bálványos/Cetățile Păgânilor. It moved to the larger Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad, so nowadays they call the event Tusványos. Every year Fidesz invites the leaders of the parliamentary caucuses of the opposition parties for a friendly chat with the Fidesz top brass, but last year only András Schiffer of LMP showed up. This year his former co-chairman, Bernadett Szél, also accepted the invitation. Neither Jobbik nor MSZP went.

Bernadett Szél and Lajos Kósa discussing the migrant issue

Yesterday morning I read an MTI news item from Tusványos. Lajos Kósa (Fidesz), Péter Harrach (KDNP), and Bernadett Szél (LMP) were having a friendly chat, mostly about the refugee crisis and the referendum. Kósa went on and on as is his wont about Hungarian sovereignty and that only the citizens of Hungary can decide who can settle in the country. No one from the outside can force Hungary to do anything. “I can invite anyone into my house but I won’t allow my neighbor to make such a decision.” Pope Francis is correct that we have to help our brethren, but “we should be the ones who decide the form of assistance.”

Bernadett Szél chimed in. According to her, “migration and immigration have always been within the competence of the member nations in the European Union and they must remain there. No nation must succumb to blackmail.” Therefore, Hungarians must vote “no” at the October 2 referendum. As you know, MSZP, DK, Együtt, and PM have urged their followers to boycott the referendum while Gábor Fodor recommended that the followers of his liberal party vote “yes.” Until now, LMP had said nothing. Szél finally clarified what most people had already suspected: that despite all the noise they make in parliament on other matters, LMP is not a serious opponent of Fidesz. In fact, LMP, with its refusal to cooperate with others, is an enabler of Fidesz’s political agenda.

And if that wasn’t enough, she decided to say a few ugly words about George Soros. LMP rejects Soros’s meddling in Hungarian affairs. It is unacceptable that some influential person from the outside tells us what the right attitude or position is in certain matters. He should be spending his time in other endeavors instead of giving advice in the matter of immigration. The Pope couldn’t be left out either. According to her, politicians misinterpret the Holy Father’s words.

Ákos Hadházy, who replaced András Schiffer as co-chairman of LMP and member of parliament, is an excellent man. Just like Péter Juhász of Együtt, he is doing a tremendous job unveiling government corruption involving EU funds. Quietly but fairly persistently he has talked about the necessity of “common thinking” and “discussion” among the democratic parties. But Bernadett Szél intervened and said there is no change in policy: LMP will go against Fidesz alone in 2018.

Gyula Molnár, after learning about Bernadett Szél’s shameful performance, announced that MSZP will have nothing to do with LMP. Szél won’t be upset. She has more powerful frenemies on the right.

July 23, 2016

Turkish and Saudi business ties of Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law

I’m coming to the conclusion that the “first family” of Hungary must have gotten together on several occasions to figure out how to guarantee that their new son-in-law, István Tiborcz, becomes a very rich man. Thanks to the good offices of Viktor Orbán, the young man—he is still not quite thirty years old—made a small fortune in the LED street lighting business. In fact, he was too successful. OLAF, the European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office, wanted to know more about this super company that received almost all of the contracts for EU-financed modernization of city lighting in Hungary.

With a possible investigation on the horizon, Tiborcz had to distance himself from the lighting business. And the head of the family had to find another source of income for Tiborcz that would be less directly involved with public procurements. It looks as if Orbán’s advice was for his son-in-law to try his hand at real estate.

Tiborcz’s first real estate venture was the purchase of the Schossberger Mansion last October. His father-in-law most likely also counselled him to make sure that his name doesn’t appear on the letterhead of companies he owns in full or in part. So, the new real estate company, called BDPST Ingatlanforgalmazó, is on paper owned by two people, apparently friends of Tiborcz. But since he paid the excise tax in connection with the purchase of the mansion, we can be confident that Tiborcz is behind BDPST. I wrote about this deal about half a year ago.

At that time we also learned that Tiborcz may have interests in two other real estate firms, AMX HS and AMX Nador House. The CEO of both companies was a wealthy Turkish businessman, Suat Gökhan Karakus, who lives in Hungary.

In the foreground Adnan Polat / Source: Magyar Narancs

Adnan Polat  / Source: Magyar Narancs

A few months later atlatszo.hu discovered that Tiborcz has other important foreign backers. One of them is the incredibly rich Adnan Polat, a Turkish businessman who is one of the owners of AMX HS and AMX Nador House. He has, as 444.hu learned, many contacts within the Orbán government and is very active in Hungarian-Turkish cultural and business associations. He is involved with the Hungarian Trading House in Istanbul, and the Hungarian Cultural Center set up shop in the offices of Polat Holding.

Another man who is now in Tiborcz’s circle of business associates is Ghaith Pharaon, a Saudi businessman of dubious reputation. AMX Nador House, a joint venture of Polat and Tiborcz, managed to buy from the state the old headquarters of Postabank at József Nádor tér. Soon enough they sold AMX Nador House to a certain Ammar M. A. Abu Namous, who immediately changed the name of the company to Pharaon-Kappa Befektetési és Tanácsadó Kft. The Hungarian internet site Válasz soon found out that Namous is a lawyer who handles Ghaith Pharaon’s business ventures in Hungary. There are already seven such businesses, all of whose names include letters of the Greek alphabet. In addition to extremely valuable Budapest properties, Pharaon through Namous bought the Zichy-Hadik Mansion in Seregélyes and the Hochburg-Lamberg Mansion in Bodajk.

The available English-language information on Ghaith Pharaon is extensive, mostly because of his association with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) back in the 1990s. Secretly acting on behalf of BCCI, Pharaon acquired control of two American banks in violation of federal banking laws. When the fraud was discovered, BCCI was forced to sell the banks, which soon after were shut down by regulators when it was determined that they were insolvent. Pharaon was charged with wire fraud and racketeering conspiracy. He has been wanted by the FBI since 1991 for his role in the fraud involving the financial collapse of BCCI and remains a fugitive. In addition, Pharaon was accused in a 2002 French parliamentary report of having financial dealings with hawala, an Islamic financial network which is also used by terrorist organizations. Currently, he is chairman of Attock Petroleum, CEO of National Refinery, and Director of Pakistan Oilfields, just to mention a few of his business ties. He lives mostly on his super yacht named Le Pharaon.

Pharaon might be wanted by the FBI, but the Orbán government is not fussy. Rumor has it that the state is planning to sell the building next door to the former Postabank building that is already in Pharaon’s possession. The building, which is currently occupied by the ministry of national economy, will soon be available when the ministry moves, along with the prime minister’s office, to the Castle District in Buda. In addition to his various real estate deals, Pharaon is also a business partner of the Hungarian state through the Hungarian National Trading House.

The stories circulating about Pharaon eventually worried opposition politicians. At the end of April the parliamentary committee on national security spent a three-hour session on the relationship between Pharaon and the Orbán government, at the end of which deputy chairman Szilárd Németh (Fidesz) informed reporters that “this Pharaon is not that Pharaon.” Then, on June 6, when János Lázár was testifying before the committee about the work of the secret services in the year 2015, Bernadett Szél (LMP) decided to ask him about the “Pharaon case.” Did the government manage to learn more about Pharaon? Since she didn’t receive a satisfactory answer, Szél is demanding a separate hearing of the case in the near future.

Whether Pharaon is a national security risk or not I have no idea, but Tiborcz’s role as an intermediary between the Hungarian government and foreign businessmen, given Tiborcz’s relation to the prime minister, is troublesome to say the least. It seems that Tiborcz and his father-in-law are unwilling to settle for a role for Ráhel Orbán’s husband that has nothing to do with the Orbán government and the Hungarian state. After all, as long as Orbán is prime minister, the financial benefits of such a relationship are enormous.

June 8, 2016

What can we learn about U.S.-Hungarian relations from János Lázár?

A huge sigh of relief. Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad is not worth reporting on. Normally he tests out his latest vision for Hungary on this occasion, but this time there was nothing new in the speech. Although he shares the view of the Hungarian far-right that the current migration of masses of people from the Middle East and Africa resulted from the United States’ invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and its support of the Arab Spring and although his speech was full of ire against the migrants and those who are using Hungary as an entry point to the European Union, he refused to connect the present European situation to U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. It was a cautious speech and therefore rather dull.

Since I don’t have to waste time on the speech, I can return to yesterday’s topic, János Lázár’s outline of Hungary’s foreign intelligence, which deserves further scrutiny. In the first place, yesterday I couldn’t cover the very lengthy Q&A session, which is an integral part of the whole and without which the picture of the Orbán government’s thinking on foreign affairs is incomplete. Second, yesterday I simply summarized the main points of the testimony without analyzing them. And third, the questions posed by two members of the opposition are excellent examples of political incompetence and even subservience. They show how easy it is for Viktor Orbán to proceed unchecked.

Taking a larger view of the whole speech, including the Q&A period, one is struck by the almost total neglect of Russia, as Professor Charles Gáti in his comment to yesterday’s post rightly pointed out. By contrast, Lázár was preoccupied with the United States. Judging from his references to the U.S., relations between Hungary and the United States are much worse than one would suspect. After all, at the end of January the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, arrived in Hungary and at the same time a new Hungarian ambassador replaced the rather ineffectual György Szapáry in Washington. The Hungarian government expressed great hope that relations would improve as a result of these changes at the head of the missions.

Well, the differences of opinion between the two countries are not as visible as they were in the stormy autumn months during the tenure of André Goodfriend as chargé d’affaires. Colleen Bell has been smiling a lot. But judging from Lázár’s testimony, relations are frosty. In fact, Lázár used the occasion to send a message to the United States. The Americans must understand, he warned, that Hungary will not tolerate any interference in the country’s internal affairs. There are some countries where the U.S. ambassador acts like a conductor and legislators play the music accordingly. He was most likely thinking of Romania. Well, Hungary is not one of these countries. Lázár admits that this is not “a friendly message,” but this is how it is. He also pointed out that the extensive personnel changes at the foreign ministry were intended “to break personal connections going back thirty years, which worked very well when it came to foreign interests but less so when it involved Hungarian interests.” His message: “this world is coming to an end now.”

Hungarian suspicion of the United States was manifest in the discussion of the alleged harassment of the Hungarian minority in Romania. A careful reading of these passages indicates that the Orbán government suspects that the United States actually encourages the Romanian authorities to act against ethnic Hungarians and against the two main Hungarian denominations: the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches.

U.S.-Hungarian relations also came up when Lázár answered a question from Ádám Mirkóczki (Jobbik) about the United States’ intention to send heavy armaments to East-Central Europe and to establish military bases in the region. Mirkóczki wanted to know whether Hungarian intelligence looked into the effect of such an American move on Russian policy. Lázár adopted the well-known Hungarian position of sitting on the fence when it comes to the conflict between Russia and the West, but he added something significant. In a sarcastic tone, he pointed out that “the United States has not favored us with special attention concerning military cooperation with us…. The close cooperation between the United States and Poland and between Romania and the United States is well known. We didn’t get such serious offers or requests. However, we continually weigh the pros and cons of heavy armaments appearing in Central Europe and try to decide how much the presence of such armaments worsens or improves the situation.” When this answer was given, the Hungarian government was most likely already engaged in negotiations over a heavy armament shipment to Hungary.

The national security committee has seven members, three of whom are from opposition parties: the chairman, Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), Bernadett Szél (LMP), and Ádám Mirkóczky (Jobbik). I already summarized Mirkóczky’s question, which was one of the more intelligent ones. After all, Jobbik is a pro-Russian party, and his question had relevance to Jobbik’s views on Russian-U.S. relations.

Bernadett Szél and Zsolt Molnár

Bernadett Szél and Zsolt Molnár

Unfortunately, the performances of Szél and Molnár were less than sterling. Initially, Szél came up with three not very important questions, mostly on issues of domestic importance, that had nothing to do with the topics covered. Lázár’s lengthy answers took up an inordinate amount of time that would have been better spent on questions that actually had something to do with his prepared remarks. But then, as an afterthought, Szél asked a question that showed the affinity between LMP and Lázár when it comes to free trade. LMP is an anti-globalist party with strong anti-capitalist overtones. In addition, they are no friends of the United States. So they are dead set against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. In addition, LMP styles itself as a green party, so it decries the use of chemicals in the production of food as well as any methods of handling food that may be harmful to “the Hungarian people.” She wanted to know “how can the Hungarian government, on the one hand, speak loudly about national sovereignty and, on the other, take part in a game that is obviously against the welfare of the Hungarian people.” From Lázár’s answer we learned that there are differences of opinion within Fidesz on the subject of TTIP and that Lázár’s opinion is actually very close to Szél’s.

Then came Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), who is suspected of being a bit too close to Fidesz. Molnár, like Szél, strayed from the topic at hand and kept talking about capital punishment. He wanted to have an assurance that the question is no longer on the table. But even here the two men found common ground. The Orbán government at the moment is fighting with the European Court of Human Rights over life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The court considers “actual life-imprisonment” inhumane. The Hungarian government thinks it is necessary. Molnár also likes the idea of locking up people for good. Molnár and Lázár also agreed that Hungary’s sending a small contingent to Kurdistan will increase the threat of terrorist attacks on the country. His tentative question on the usefulness of the fence to be built on the Serbian-Hungarian border was answered with the same propaganda one can read everywhere on billboards and was accepted at face value.

Is it any wonder that people hoping for a change in the country don’t trust the current leaders of the democratic opposition?

The new media landscape: Magyar Nemzet versus Napi Gazdaság

Back in 2010 I devoted a post to a comparison of the domestic news reporting of two Hungarian dailies: Magyar Nemzet, then a government mouthpiece, and Népszabadság, a paper close to the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP). All the articles appeared on the same day, and the results were startling. As I said then, “Two papers, two worlds.” Nowadays, when the print and online Hungarian media world is in turmoil, I thought it might be useful to take a look at the contents of the new Magyar Nemzet and the paper that took its ideological place, Napi Gazdaság.

In 2010 the most obvious difference between the two newspapers was which news items the editors picked from the offerings of MTI, the Hungarian news agency. Magyar Nemzet neglected to report on news that was unfavorable to the government while it picked up items of perhaps lesser importance if they showed the Orbán government in a good light. Népszabadság, on the whole, covered the events of the day more accurately, but there was a tendency to overemphasize matters that reflected badly on the government.

napi gazdasag2

Fast forward to 2015. Let’s start with Napi Gazdaság. If you recall, Viktor Orbán in his interview claimed that the reason for his government’s problem is the loss of the media that in the past explained the policies of his administration and directed public opinion “appropriately.” Looking at today’s Napi Gazdaság, one finds at least one article that aims to explain the government’s position on what it considers to be an important issue: the objections of the European Commission to certain provisions of the law on the use of agricultural lands, something I wrote about yesterday. Although other papers, including Magyar Nemzet and Népszabadság, didn’t consider the announcement of the chairman of the parliamentary commission on agricultural matters concerning the issue important enough to cover, Napi Gazdaság found it newsworthy. The message the paper wants to convey is that “the Hungarian law doesn’t contain anything that cannot be found in some other, older member states,” and therefore the Hungarian government finds the EU objections discriminatory.

There is another important task Napi Gazdaság must perform–anti-Gyurcsány propaganda. Although the news that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s consulting firm received the job of supervising an international team to improve the quality of decisions on contracts subsidized by the EU is old, Napi Gazdaság decided to include an article on the opinion of Ildikó Pelcz (née Gáll), who thinks that “the case is still full of question marks.” For good measure, the paper ran an editorial titled “Pinocchio.” The editorial combats Ferenc Gyurcsány’s newly announced program on utility prices. More than half of the editorial is designed to show the superiority of the government’s earlier decreases in utility prices over Gyurcsány’s suggestions.

One must always keep alive anti-communism, even if it takes some ingenuity to find a reason for talking about it. Gergely Gulyás made a speech at a conference held in the parliament building in which he called attention to the sufferings of the people on “this side of the iron curtain.” He also charged that “no one ever asked for forgiveness for the sins of communism” but immediately added that “those who maintained that regime can never be forgiven.”

A good government paper must also include some cheerful news, which is hard to come by of late. Therefore, a misleading headline always comes in handy. For example, one of the articles claims that “85% of Hungarian youth believe that they will be successful in life.” The other results of the survey, however, are not so rosy. That these young people believe that “to be successful one needs connections” should make readers wonder about the true state of affairs in Hungary when it comes to job opportunities. Or that over 40% of them would like to work abroad. On the other hand, we ought to rejoice at learning that the Raoul Wallenberg School, after so much tribulation, will be able to move, although “the final decision” will be reached by Zoltán Balog only at the end of May. But then why the announcement now? 

And finally, one ought to hit the opposition hard and, if possible, accuse them of dishonesty and possible fraud. Ferenc Papcsák, former mayor of Zugló, accuses the new administration of Gergely Karácsony of PM (who was supported by all the democratic opposition parties) of wasting the 2.5 billion forints he left behind. According to him, the salaries of employees haven’t been paid, certain projects had to be shelved, and the local paper, for the first time in 19 years, cannot appear because of a lack of funds.

There are several important pieces of news that Napi Gazdaság simply ignores. One is that Béla Turi-Kovács, a Fidesz member of parliament, is turning in a request to re-examine the abandonment of the M4 project. Turi-Kovács began his political career in the Smallholders party and served as minister of the environment in the first Orbán government between 2000 and 2002. This piece of news was reported by Magyar Nemzet, but the abandoned M4 is not something that should be talked about in a government paper.

The other significant news of the day that Napi Gazdaság failed to report on is that the head of Lombard Kézizálog Zrt., a financial institution that went bankrupt back in April, was arrested. Eight banks suffered a loss of about four billion forints. Perhaps even more interesting is another piece of news, this time about Lombard Lízing Zrt., a company being sued by a former customer who received a loan of 3.5 million forints in Swiss francs. Without going into the very complicated details of the case, the Hungarian National Bank and the government are siding with Lombard Lízing Zrt. against the customer. Fidesz seems to be so interested in the case that a Fidesz member of parliament between 2010 and 2014 will represent Lombard in the suit. That piece of news was discussed in a lengthy article in Magyar Nemzet but not in Napi Gazdaság.

Another topic that Magyar Nemzet, like other dailies, spends time on is the question of capital punishment. After all, there will be a discussion of Viktor Orbán’s reference to the death penalty tomorrow in the European Parliament. Magyar Nemzet actually has two interviews on the subject. One with Tamás Lattmann, a professor of international law, and another with Dóra Duró of Jobbik. Lattmann explains that no referendum can be held on the subject, while Duró tells about a debate within the party. The interviews were conducted by Lánchíd Rádió, another Simicska concern.

It is again not surprising that news that the association of history teachers and historians called on the government to condemn the 1915 genocide of Armenians did not appear in Napi Gazdaság. On the other hand, Magyar Nemzet is sympathetic to the cause of the Armenians, and the paper had a number of articles on the subject in the middle of April. Napi Gazdaság would never report on the historians’ request because, first of all, the historians involved are not exactly favorites of this government. Second, the Orbán government has exceedingly good relations with Turkey. Finally, Armenia broke off diplomatic relations with Hungary after the Orbán government sent an Azeri national who murdered an Armenian in Hungary back to Kazakhstan as a friendly gesture to the Azeri dictator.

Magyar Nemzet nowadays provides space for opposition members to express their views. For example, in today’s paper they reported on the opinion of Bernadett Szél, an LMP member of parliament, that the taxpayers will be responsible for the cost of taking care of atomic waste that will accrue at Paks.

The latest news about Vladimir Putin’s remarks on Hungary’s economic interest and the Paks II nuclear power plant naturally appeared in both papers. But there is an important difference. The Magyar Nemzet article consists of four sentences. It is restricted to the bare facts. Napi Gazdaság, on the other hand, spends considerable time on the issue, adding details about the size and the nature of the Russian loan.

Magyar Nemzet can no longer be considered a “government mouthpiece.” That role was taken over by Napi Gazdaság. The question is whether the new Magyar Nemzet will be able to retain its readership. Moreover, for the last month or so, we’ve heard about more and more Magyar Nemzet employees abandoning the paper and joining Napi Gazdaság. I assume they are offered higher salaries. And most likely the journalists who switch believe they will have better job security since the future of Napi Gazdaság, given its favored position, is assured, at least for three more years, while this might not be the case with Magyar Nemzet.

Evidence is presented in the Jobbik espionage case

Shortly after the news broke on May 14 that Péter Polt, the Hungarian chief prosecutor, had asked Martin Schulz, president of the European Union, to suspend the parliamentary immunity of Béla Kovács (Jobbik), Fidesz moved to convene the Hungarian parliamentary committee on national security. The committee is chaired by Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), whose plate is full of his own problems. Two weeks ago a picture from 1992 of the 18-year-old hooded Molnár was made public. Magyar Nemzet accused the socialist politician of being a skinhead in his youth. I guess it was just tit for tat: the opposition was outraged over Fidesz’s support of a Jobbik candidate for the post of deputy president of the House.

A couple of days ago I expressed doubts about the charge of espionage in the case of the Jobbik MEP. First of all, we know only too well the Fidesz practice of accusing their political opponents of some serious crime that years later turns out to be bogus. The acquittal comes far too late; the political damage is instantaneous. After the 2010 election wholesale accusations were launched against socialist politicians and now, four years later, most of the accused have been acquitted. Among those court cases one dealt with espionage, but because the case was considered to belong to the rather large realm of state secrets we still have no idea about the charges or the evidence. Early reactions from Ágnes Vadai (DK), who at that point was a member of the parliamentary committee, indicated that both bordered on the ludicrous.

Since I consider the national security office an arm of the Orbán government that is often used for political purposes, my first reaction was to be very skeptical of the charges leveled against Kovács. Until now, Viktor Orbán concentrated on the left (MSZP, DK, E14-PM) and ignored Jobbik. Now that everybody predicts a resounding success for the extremist Jobbik party at the polls on Sunday, it seems that Orbán decided to turn his attention to his adversaries on the right. After all, he has the magic two-thirds majority in parliament and doesn’t need Jobbik.

There is no question of Kovács’s pro-Russian sentiments. He spent the larger part of his life in that country, and he is an ardent supporter of Vladimir Putin and his vision of Russia and the world. In Brussels he is considered to be a “Russian lobbyist,” and I’m sure that he represented Russia more than Hungary in the EP. At least some of his speeches indicate that much. But espionage is something different from making propaganda at the behest of a country.

Viktor Orbán, never known to worry about linguistic niceties, is capitalizing on the situation. On Friday night on MTV he equated espionage against the European Union with treason. He claimed that “the Hungarian public is familiar with the treasonous activities of internationalists who don’t consider the nation important, but that a party that considers itself national (nemzeti) would want to send such people to Brussels where they are supposed to represent Hungarian interests is really unprecedented.”

Let’s analyze this sentence. First of all, he is accusing some (actually, probably most) left-wing politicians of being traitors, while suggesting that there might be more spies among the proposed representatives of Jobbik to the European Parliament. I’m sure that Viktor Orbán means every word he says in this sentence. He is convinced that everyone who disagrees with him and criticizes him is not only unpatriotic but also a traitor; if it depended on him, he would gladly jail all of them. Also, there are signs that Béla Kovács might be only the first target. Perhaps the grand prize would be Gábor Vona himself.  As it is, Lajos Pősze, a disillusioned former Jobbik member, claimed on HírTV that Vona is Moscow’s agent.

In any case, the parliamentary committee on national security was called together this morning. Both Béla Kovács and Gábor Vona were obliged to appear before the committee. It seems that everyone who was present, with the exception of Jobbik member Ádám Mirkóczki, is convinced on the basis of the evidence presented by the national security office that Béla Kovács committed espionage.

Gábor Vona, Ádám Mirkóczy, and Béla Kovács Source: Index / Photo; Szabolcs Barakonyi

Gábor Vona, Ádám Mirkóczki, and Béla Kovács after the hearing
Source: Index / Photo; Szabolcs Barakonyi

What did we learn about the proceedings? Not much, because the information will be classified for a number of years. We do know that the Hungarian national security office has been investigating Kovács ever since 2009 and that they have pictures and recordings of conversations. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) found the evidence convincing but added, “there is espionage but no James Bond.” Apparently, what he means is that the case is not like espionage concerning military secrets but “an activity that can be more widely defined.” Bernadett Szél (LMP) was also impressed, but she added that “a person can commit espionage even if he is not a professional spy.” These two comments lead me to believe that we are faced here not so much with espionage as with “influence peddling.” On the other hand, Szilárd Németh (Fidesz), deputy chairman of the committee, was more explicit and more damaging. He indicated that “Kovács had connections to the Russian secret service and these connections were organized and conspiratorial.” Attila Mesterházy, who was not present, also seems to accept the story at face value. The liberal-socialist politicians all appear to have lined up. Interestingly enough, not one of them seems to remember similar Fidesz attacks on people on their side that turned out to be bogus. Yes, I understand that Jobbik is a despicable party, but that’s not a sufficient reason to call Kovács a spy if he is no more than a zealous promoter of Putin’s cause.

Ágnes Vadai (DK) used to be the chair of the committee when she was still a member of MSZP and thus has the necessary clearance to attend the sessions. Since she had to retire from the chairmanship due to her change of political allegiance, she asked admission to some of the more important meetings of the committee. Normally, she receives permission. But not this time. Her reaction was:  “We always suspected that Jobbik has reasons to be secretive but it seems that Fidesz does also.” She promised to ask the Ministry of Interior to supply her with documents connected to the case. I doubt that she will receive anything.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the political philosopher whose views I normally don’t share, wrote an opinion piece that pretty well echoes what I had to say about the case three days ago. He calls attention to a double standard. The liberal journalists view Fidesz’s attack on the left-liberal political side with healthy skepticism, but this time they seemed to have swallowed the espionage story hook, line, and sinker. Kovács is most likely an agent d’influence but no more than that. TGM–as everybody calls him–considers the “criminalization of political opponents the overture to dictatorship,” which should be rejected regardless of whether it is directed against the right or the left.

Interestingly, Jobbik’s pro-Russian bias finds many adherents in Hungary. Apparently, whereas in most of the Eastern European countries the public is anti-Russian, especially after the Ukrainian crisis, Hungarian public opinion is divided. And the right-wingers, including some of the Fidesz voters, consider Putin’s intervention in Ukraine at the behest of the ethnic Russians justified. This sympathy most likely has a lot to do with the existence of Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.

How will Orbán achieve both of his goals–to ruin Jobbik with a Russian espionage case and at the same time defend Russia’s support of autonomy in Ukraine? He may well succeed. His track record when it comes to threading the needle is very good.

New details on the Russian-Hungarian agreement on Paks; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 2″

I’m returning briefly to the secretive Putin-Orbán agreement on the addition to the atomic power plant in Paks. Shortly after the news of the agreement became public, I heard rumors to the effect that what the Orbán government actually wanted was not so much a new power plant built by Rosatom but an outright loan of 5 billion dollars. The Hungarian media spent a few lines on this rumor, but the topic was dropped soon enough. Most likely the rumor couldn’t be substantiated. But now Népszabadság has returned to the topic. In a fairly lengthy article the reporter who has lately become a kind of Paks expert unearthed a number of new strands in the story.

The information comes from “an expert who is an adviser to the government with knowledge of the details” who asserted that the original rumor about the loan the Orbán government wanted so badly was in fact true. The government wanted a loan that it could use as it best saw fit. The Russian partner, however, wanted to link the loan to the extension of the Paks power plant. Although negotiations went on for about a year, the two sides couldn’t come to a satisfactory agreement. At this point István Kocsis, former head of Paks and later of MVM (Magyar Villamos Művek/Hungarian Electricity Ltd), was asked by the government to use his good offices with the head of Rosatom. It didn’t seem to bother Orbán that Kocsis had been charged with embezzling billions, a case that is still pending.

Apparently Kocsis achieved miracles and in no time Rosatom had a contract ready to be signed. Népszabadság‘s informant claims that the Hungarians couldn’t change a word in the terms of the contract. There is, in fact, the suspicion that the reason the Hungarian text is so awkward is that most likely it was a translation from Russian. Earlier difficulties arose as the result of Hungarian insistence that the loan be extended to Hungary even if for one reason or another the power plant couldn’t be built or the project were protracted. At the beginning Rosatom insisted that the money would be lent to Hungary only as the work progressed. We still don’t know exactly what is in the agreement but, as Népszabadság‘s informer said, we may find out that “in the final analysis the Orbán government didn’t bring two reactors but ‘a new IMF loan’ from Moscow.”

The way the Orbán government spends money every penny will be needed. As it is, the national debt is higher than ever. It is over 80% even with the large infusion of money the government laid its hands on from the private pension funds. If we discount this “stolen money,” the national debt would be over 90% of the GDP. The government so far has spent more than 600 billion forints buying up private utility companies and is embarking on very ambitious plans to create a so-called “museum quarters” in Pest, which will accommodate the museums and Hungary’s National Library that are currently housed in the Royal Castle. This project is necessary because Orbán wants to move the entire government to the Castle District. The president’s office would move from the Sándor Palace to the Royal Castle and Viktor Orbán would presumably move into the Sándor Palace.

Yesterday another interesting tidbit about the Putin-Orbán agreement saw the light of day. An LMP member of parliament, Bernadett Szél, initially demanded access to the document but her request was refused. LMP will sue the government on that issue. She was, however, granted a half-hour interview with Mrs. László Németh, who admitted to her that the Orbán-Putin agreement was signed before the Hungarian government had a chance to authorize the deal. Lately, it seems, Fidesz politicians often slip and tell the truth by mistake. Like Lajos Kósa about the tape of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech at Őszöd. The next day he had to “correct himself.” That was the case with Mrs. Németh as well. Her ministry immediately corrected her. The ministry’s spokesman claimed that it is clear from the January 31 issue of the Official Gazette (Magyar Közlöny) that the authorization was dated January 13 and it was on January 14 that the agreement was signed. My only question is: why did they publish the text of the authorization only on January 31?

Finally, let’s not forget about the Holocaust Memorial Year. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, decided to step down from the advisory board of the House of Fortunes. Since Mazsihisz (Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities) opposes the establishment of this new museum, Heisler saw no reason to remain a member of the board. Moreover, as he said, the board is totally inactive. Mária Schmidt, who is the government-appointed director of the project, called the board together only once.

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question

Part II: Writing the Rules to Win – The Basic Structure

Professor Kim Scheppele, Princeton University

How did the governing party Fidesz stack the deck so much in its favor that the upcoming Hungarian election’s results are not in doubt?

Fidesz started immediately after its election victory in 2010 to reshape the electoral system to ensure its hold on power. The Fidesz parliamentary bloc, which enacted constitutional changes without including or consulting any opposition party, slashed the size of the parliament in half, redrew all of the individual constituencies unilaterally, changed the two-round system to a single first-past-the-post election for individual constituencies, and altered the way votes were aggregated.

Moreover, Fidesz has granted dual citizenship and therefore voting rights to ethnic Hungarians outside the borders who are overwhelmingly Fidesz supporters, while at the same time maintaining a system that makes it comparatively harder for Hungarian citizens living or working abroad to vote.

The media landscape and campaign finance rules overwhelmingly benefit Fidesz and a series of last-minute changes to the law just before the campaign started put the newly united center-left opposition at an even greater disadvantage. In addition, the governing party has captured the election machinery which is now staffed with its own loyalists.

The sum total of all of these changes makes it virtually inevitable that Fidesz will win.

The devil is in the details, so let’s walk step by step through these various ways that the governing party has changed the rules in its favor.

As one of its first acts in office, on 25 May 2010, the Fidesz parliament amended the constitution it inherited to cut the parliament’s size in half. This was a move lauded by all sides of the political spectrum, as the old 386-member parliament was widely perceived as too large to be effective and too expensive for a small country in debt. The new 199-member parliament that will be seated after the 2014 elections will represent new electoral districts that had to be newly drawn to accommodate this new, smaller parliament. Redrawing the districts was not only widely welcomed, but also required by the Constitutional Court, which had ruled (first in 2005 and again in 2010) that the old districts had become too unequal in population size to give all citizens an equal vote.

The old districting system already favored Fidesz because the larger districts were in the urban strongholds of the left and the smaller districts were in the rural districts of the right. As a result, rural conservative votes were given more weight because it took fewer of their votes to elect an MP. But the way that Fidesz redrew the districts for 2014 gave their party an even greater advantage than they had before.

Without any consultation with opposition parties, Fidesz enacted a new “cardinal law” in 2011 that simply set the boundaries of the districts (Law CCIII/2011). While most election laws provide principles for drawing districts and assign some neutral or at least multi-party body to actually draw the boundaries, the borders of the districts in Hungary are now written directly into the law. Moving a district boundary by even one block requires a two-thirds vote of the parliament. The districts are therefore heavily entrenched and were not the result of either a public or an inclusive process. No justification for these districts was offered by the governing party.

Of course, not all districts in any electoral system have identical numbers of voters. But how much can districts vary before they deny equality of the vote?  The Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission), recommends no more than 10% variation as the international standard. The Venice Commission is not terribly clear about what this means, but given that the Venice Commission is working with a principle that demands that votes be weighted as equally as possible, one can guess that this means that districts should not vary by more than 10% in population overall.

The Hungarian law is fiendishly clever in appearing to come close to that standard while being miles away from it. The Hungarian Election Law (Act CCIII of 2011 – section 4(4)) mandates that the districts should not vary by more than 15%. The Venice Commission was not thrilled with the difference, but let it pass. They shouldn’t have.

A closer reading reveals the trick. The Hungarian law requires that districts vary by no more than 15% calculated from the mean number of voters in the district. This is not an overall 15% deviation, as the Venice Commission presumed, but is instead a standard that permits districts to vary by 15% below the mean and 15% above it.

An example demonstrates what a huge difference this makes. To aim at an average district containing 100 voters, a 10% overall deviation would permit districts to vary between 95 and 105 voters. (Divide 95 by the 10 voters that separate the largest and smallest districts and you get about 10%). The Hungarian law would permit districts to vary between 85 and 115 voters – 15% above the mean and 15% below the mean of 100. The gap between 85 and 115 voters in a district would be 35% overall! (Calculated the same way as above: 30/85 = 35%.) This is a huge difference that the Venice Commission did not seem to see.

In the actual districts were constructed as a result of the new election law, the variation became even larger than that. As you can see in the chart below, the smallest districts in Hungary now have about 60,000 voters while the largest districts have nearly 90,000 voters, roughly a 50% gap. (The horizontal axis shows the number of eligible voters in the new constituencies based on voter data from 2010, and the vertical axis shows the number of districts in the new scheme with that number of voters.) Not only are the actual districts highly unequal, but this variation has no apparent justification.

sizeThe Size of Parliamentary Districts in Hungary after Redistricting
Source: Calculations by Gábor Tóka, Central European University

Hajdú-Bihar County, in the eastern part of Hungary, provides a case in point. A last-minute amendment to the 2011 election law divided the city of Debrecen into two districts of highly unequal size. Now, one district has 87,278 voters and the other, right next to it, has 60,125 voters. These are very nearly the largest and smallest districts in the country, side by side, without official explanation.

The government may have given no reasons for its districts, but this huge variation in district size is not random. As Political Capital shows, the left-leaning districts are systematically 5,000-6,000 voters larger than the right-leaning districts, which means that it takes many more votes to elect someone from a left-leaning district than to elect someone from Fidesz.

The borders of these new districts also appear to be drawn to Fidesz’s advantage, since they just happen to break up the areas where the opposition alliance voters have traditionally been strongest and they scatter these opposition voters over a new Fidesz-majority landscape. Historically left-leaning districts were partitioned and blended into historically right-leaning districts, creating fewer districts where left-leaning candidates are relatively certain to win.

One of the most obvious gerrymanders occurred (again) in Hajdú-Bihar County. In the 2006 election, which went nationally by a wide margin to the Socialists, the county voted three of its nine districts for the Socialists and six for Fidesz, as you can see in the chart below, on the left. If the results from the 2006 election were tallied in the newly drawn six districts for that country, as shown on the right, Fidesz would now win every district. The map reveals that this all-Fidesz result was accomplished by drawing the districts to divide up the compact concentrations of Socialist voters so that they would become minority voters in Fidesz-dominant districts.   Examples like this one can be found all over the country, as left-leaning districts were partitioned to break up clusters of opposition voters to mix them with even more conservative voters from neighboring areas.

hajduThe US may have invented the gerrymander, and so it may seem presumptuous for an American to complain about the new districts. But the Hungarian gerrymander is different from the (also outrageous) American type. In US national elections, gerrymanders occur at the state level, which means one party cannot redistrict the whole country at once. In the US, districting plans are also subject to judicial review to check the worst self-dealing. In Hungary, however, the whole country was redistricted by one party all at once so the Hungarian gerrymander is far more decisive. And there is no judicial review to correct excesses. In addition, unlike in America where the governing parties in the states get a new shot at gerrymandering every 10 years, after each census, it will take a two-thirds vote of the parliament to change any district in Hungary’s future.

Hungarians don’t just cast votes for individual representatives in districts of the sort we have just seen, however. Hungarians cast two votes in national elections. In addition to casting ballots for representatives in the voters’ individual constituency, voters cast second ballots for party lists. Those votes are aggregated across the country and additional parliamentary seats are awarded to parties based on these results, above and beyond the seats won in the individual districts.

In the new parliament as in the old one, MPs elected both ways sit together with equal status. While this dual system of MP elections appears to mitigate the effect of the gerrymander, the new parliament, unlike the old, allocates more seats to the individual constituencies than to the party-list mandates. The new parliament features 106 district mandates and 93 party-list mandates. Since individual constituencies are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, this tilts the system toward an even more disproportionate distribution of mandates than in the prior also-disproportionate parliament.

Individual constituencies in Hungary were allocated from 1990 to 2010 in a two-round run-off system. Unless a candidate won 50% or more in the first round, a second round would be held between the highest vote-getters to determine who won the mandate. This system meant that many political parties would field candidates in round one, and then form coalitions before round two after the relative viabilities of the individual candidates could be assessed. Hungarian political culture grew up around this system so that parties were not accustomed to bargaining before any votes were cast.

The new electoral system in Hungary eliminates this second round, benefiting Fidesz, as the largest single party. It can now win districts outright without needing majority support because it only has to get more votes than any other party on the (single) election day to capture the constituency. Given that the districts have been drawn to give Fidesz an advantage overall, one can imagine other parties will have a hard time winning constituencies which have been constructed precisely so that Fidesz is the largest party.

The design of the new system means that the democratic opposition would only have a chance to win individual constituencies if the various opposition parties of the left could create a grand coalition before the election so that they didn’t run candidates against each other. But this was a result that everyone familiar with politics in Hungary knew would be hard to accomplish. The parties in the “democratic opposition” (excluding Jobbik) are sharply divided both by ideology and personality. But unless these parties could set aside their differences to unite, they would surely lose.

The announcement on 14 January that five parties in the opposition had managed to agree on a single list of candidates for the single-member districts as well as a common party list was therefore something of a political miracle.

But can the party leaders of the Unity Alliance bring all of their voters along with them? Many voters for the smaller parties on the left often don’t trust the larger Socialist Party which now dominates the coalition.  And some personalities in the mix are popular only within their own parties and unattractive to the others in the coalition. As a result, it cannot be assumed that votes for the five parties can simply be added together to produce a united whole that is the same size or even larger than the sum of the parts.

Because voters cast two ballots on election day, the individual constituencies are only part of the story, though they are the largest part. Parties will also run national lists to compete for voters’ second votes. The new conditions that came into effect since the last election actually make it easier than it was in 2010 to nominate candidates for the individual constituencies and to register parties with national lists, something that is consistent with a dominant-party strategy to divide up the opposition as much as possible.

But the party-list system also builds in incentives for small parties to join together to form a larger alliance. To be approved to run a national list, parties must field candidates in at least 27 individual constituencies in at least nine of the 19 counties plus Budapest. While this guarantees that parties are truly national, it also aggravates the problems created by the loss of the second-round runoff in the individual constituencies. Any new national list adds to the “clutter” of individual candidates in the individual constituencies and further fragments the vote.

So it makes sense, under these rules, for small parties to form a common national list. To avoid competing head-on and perhaps pushing each other below the 5% threshold for entering the parliament, small parties on the same side of the political spectrum are pushed by the logic of the system to join forces. But as soon as they do so, they run into another problem. In all elections since 1994, parties have had to meet a 5% threshold of the popular vote to gain a fraction in the parliament. For two parties that run together, the threshold rises to 10% and for three or more parties, the threshold is 15%.

If the smaller parties were going to unite for 2014, then, they ran the risk of together missing the higher threshold required of joint party lists. The rules of the game have therefore pushed the small parties of the “democratic opposition” to do what they did – which was to join with the Socialists to form Unity. Only an alliance with the larger Socialist party guaranteed that these smaller parties would be able to enter the parliament given the higher thresholds for joined lists. Because many of the smaller parties were created precisely to distance particular groups of voters from the Socialists, however, this is an uneasy alliance at best.

So that is where we were as the campaign was launched, witnessing a democratic opposition alliance whose members do not like each other much but who have to work together if they are to have any hope of ousting Fidesz given the way that the rules are structured. The public squabbling that occurred as the grand coalition went together belied the name of Unity Alliance and weakened their electoral position. They have the campaign period to convey a new unified message, but – as we will see – that is going to be very hard.