Tag Archives: boycott

What’s the remedy? Boycott of parliament and/or elections?

Over the weekend Ferenc Gyurcsány called together the elected leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció to discuss the party’s strategy in the wake of the political developments of the last week and a half. Apparently, after a very long and passionate debate, the politicians came to the conclusion that the party’s four members of parliament–Ferenc Gyurcsány, László Varju, Ágnes Vadai, and Lajos Oláh–from here on will boycott parliament. They will not attend the plenary sessions, they will not take part in the work of the committees, and hence they will not vote unless their vote would make a difference as far as Fidesz’s two-thirds majority is concerned. The four realize that they may not receive their salaries and/or may be fined. But, as Gyurcsány said at his press conference, they refuse to be a cog in Orbán’s “System of National Cooperation.” They will not cooperate with a dictatorial power.

The idea of a boycott is not at all new in Ferenc Gyurcsány’s thinking. He was still a member of MSZP in 2011 when he first suggested a partial boycott of the plenary sessions. The occasion was Viktor Orbán’s sudden decision to write a new constitution. MSZP had already decided not to attend the preparatory meetings, but Gyurcsány’s suggestion went further: MSZP should boycott parliament altogether when the new constitution was on the table. At that time no party was ready to heed Gyurcsány’s advice.

In February 2016, after skinheads prevented István Nyakó from turning in his referendum question at the National Election Office, Gyurcsány came up with the idea again. He suggested a boycott of parliament as long as the government party refuses to change the rules on holding referendums. The opposition parties didn’t support the idea. LMP’s András Schiffer went even further in his condemnation of the idea when he declared that “people must decide whether they will support the rule of law or follow Ferenc Gyurcsány.”

An intelligent critique of Gyurcsány’s suggestion came from Sándor Révész, Népszabadság’s op-ed page editor, who felt that between 2010 and 2016 Orbán had done everything in his power to destroy all vestiges of Hungary’s weak fabric of democracy and therefore a boycott was justified. But, he continued, staging a boycott because of one particular undemocratic step of the government is “not a very good idea.” He rightly pointed out that Orbán, “together with his Fidesz accomplices,” would come up with some clever way to “remedy” the objectionable piece of legislation and everything would go on as before.

The idea of a boycott, this time of the national election, was on the agenda again when Miklós Haraszti, SZDSZ member of parliament (1990-1994) and OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media (2004-2010), was interviewed by 168 Óra in May 2016. According to his argument, one of the sources of Fidesz’s overwhelming power is the electoral law that it created for its own benefit. Fidesz, with a 44.87% share of the popular vote, in 2014 achieved a 66.83% presence in parliament, which allowed the government to do anything it wanted, ignoring the powerless opposition. In order to stop the dictatorship of a supermajority, this lopsided, disproportionate electoral system must be abolished. In Haraszti’s opinion, all opposition parties should join ranks to force Fidesz to adopt an entirely different electoral system where 40% in the polling station means 40% in parliament. The parties should make it clear that if the government party doesn’t play ball, the whole opposition will walk out, refusing to participate in the next election. Such a move would create a “European scandal.”

The reaction to Haraszti’s idea was mixed. Márton Kozák, a sociologist and journalist, wrote a glowing endorsement in Magyar Narancs, praising Haraszti for calling attention to the electoral law as the key to curtailing Fidesz’s power. The opposition parties from here on should concentrate on enlightening their voters about the importance of this issue. And, he continued, the opposition parties must not assist Fidesz in its attempt to make small, unimportant changes in a basically faulty electoral law.

As usual, others violently disagreed. Someone who calls himself Nick Grabowszki found Haraszti’s plan naïve. “What European scandal?” he asked. Western European commentators and politicians already look upon Orbán as a representative of the far right. They compare him to Erdoğan, Putin, and Lukashenko. The European Union expects Hungarians to take care of their own little dictator. Moreover, Orbán is very careful not to cross any red line when it comes to his dealings with the European Union. Brussels will not get involved. Yes, says Grabowszki, the electoral system produces disproportionate results, but it is beneficial not only to Fidesz but to all parties that manage to achieve a certain percentage of the votes. Even if Fidesz were stupid enough to agree to the plan Haraszti has in mind, it would still win the election. It would simply be forced to find a coalition partner. Grabowszki is certain that Jobbik would not join the boycott, and therefore all people critical of the Fidesz government would vote for Jobbik. Grabowski’s conclusion is that “a left-wing boycott would lead to a Jobbik government.”

To return to DK’s current suggestion, the reaction of MSZP to DK’s announcement of a boycott is slightly different from its earlier stance when the party insisted that boycotting parliament would offend its constituency and that being in parliament still gives them a certain measure of influence. This time their argument is that a party which is large enough to have a parliamentary delegation (frakció), with the privileges that come with this status, “cannot boycott because that would mean ceding the role of opposition to Jobbik.” On the other hand, according to Gyula Molnár, DK, which has no such delegation, “made the right decision.”

osszefogas

It would be indeed wonderful if all the opposition parties could together decide on a joint action, as Haraszti’s theoretical model would demand. But here even the two largest democratic parties cannot agree when it comes to the decision to boycott parliament.

Despite this, there is some hope that these parties are coming closer and will be, we hope, acting jointly. For example, Fidesz organized a five-party discussion of the proposed amendments to the constitution. The five parties are the ones with their own delegations: Fidesz, KDNP, Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP. For a while it looked as if LMP would attend, but at the end only Fidesz-KDNP, which is in reality a single party, and Jobbik had a friendly chat. From the media coverage of the event it seems that the two parties are largely in agreement on all points.

Another promising development is that MSZP, DK, Párbeszéd, and Modern Magyarországért Mozgalom (MoMa) will celebrate together in front of the Astoria Hotel on October 23. This will be the first time that, on a national holiday, these parties will hold their rallies together. Együtt is missing from the list. Only recently it announced that it will not cooperate with any other opposition parties. Broad-based democratic cooperation is a painfully slow process, but the events of the last few days, I think, will convince more people that Orbán’s regime must go. As Ferenc Kőszeg, founder of the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, said in an article that appeared in Élet és Irodalom recently, “nothing is more important than the removal of Viktor Orbán from his position.” He added that “against him one can even vote for Gábor Vona.” Of course, this remark raised quite a few eyebrows, but I agree with him. At the moment Orbán is a great deal more dangerous than the leader of Jobbik.

October 11, 2016

The only good answer to Orbán’s referendum is a boycott

Ever since mid-July, if not earlier, a fierce debate has been going on about the best strategy for voters of left-of-center parties to follow at the forthcoming referendum. The question that will face Hungarian voters on October 2 will be: “Do you want the European Union, without the consent of Parliament, to order the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” The government is campaigning for, and expects, an overwhelming “no” vote.

Fidesz voters are an obedient lot who will follow the instructions from the party chief and prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Jobbik voters are perhaps a little less enthusiastic, but the majority of them will still vote “no.” On the other side, as usual, there is a lot of confusion.

Since the referendum is such a hot topic in Hungary, it’s not surprising that three separate public opinion polls have been taken in the last three weeks trying to predict its outcome. All three come to more or less the same conclusion: there is a good likelihood that the referendum will be valid and that the question will fail (where failure is the desired result from the government’s perspective). That is, at least 50% plus 1 of all eligible voters will vote and more than 50% of all votes will be “nays.”

No one has ever doubted that the referendum question would fail given the tremendous public rejection of the refugees, but at least at the beginning there were doubts about the validity of the referendum. Analysts doubted that half of the adult people would bother to vote on a referendum question which most legal scholars consider outright unconstitutional. If Viktor Orbán hadn’t eliminated all the checks and balances from the political system, this referendum couldn’t even have taken place. It would have been scotched already by the National Election Commission because there are just too many things wrong with the question. Starting with the obvious, the European Union cannot make any binding decisions without the consent of the European Council, which is made up of the prime ministers of the 28 member states, which naturally includes Viktor Orbán. Equally obvious is that Hungary, when it joined the European Union, gave up part of its national sovereignty and therefore will be obliged, if a joint decision is reached, to take some refugees. Finally, the parliament doesn’t have a central part to play in the Hungarian government’s dealings with the European Union. For example, Viktor Orbán doesn’t have to consult parliament before he travels to Brussels to vote on an EU decision. Conversely, laws enacted in national parliaments have no direct effect on the workings of the European Union. Admittedly, the Hungarian government could enact a law that would tie the hands of the prime minister by insisting on a parliamentary mandate, but this would be a law that no prime minister would ever want. In brief, perhaps more than four million Hungarians will vote on a structurally meaningless referendum question.

The question may have no binding consequences, but it has huge political value for Fidesz. The liberal-socialist side of the Hungarian political spectrum has been struggling to formulate a cohesive response. The basic question is whether its followers should participate in the referendum. Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) from the start has championed for a boycott with the slogan “Stay Home, Stay in Europe!” After some hesitation MSZP followed, but instead of using the word “boycott” they chose “abstention,” apparently because the party is planning to send observers to the polling places. A fine and, in my opinion, needless distinction that only confuses the would-be boycotters. The two smaller parties, Együtt and PM, are also for a boycott. LMP is offering no guidance to its followers; they can vote (or not) their conscience.

There is only one party on the left, the Magyar Liberális Párt of Gábor Fodor, that has been campaigning with great gusto for people to participate in the referendum and to vote “yes” to the question. This would be, Fodor argues, the courageous thing to do. It would mean that Hungarians stand up and say “yes” to taking in refugees. It would mean that Hungary is a constructive member of the European Union ready to share the burden of the refugee crisis facing Europe. Sitting at home, Fodor says, is simply cowardly.

The counterargument that participation legitimizes an illegitimate and unconstitutional referendum doesn’t seem to impress Fodor. He claims that Viktor Orbán doesn’t give a hoot whether the referendum is valid; he cares only about the percentages. If, let’s say, 30% of the voters say “yes,” this would not be good news for Orbán. If, on the other hand, Fodor contends, 80 or 90% of the votes are “nays,” it will be a great victory for the government quite independently of whether 40% or 55% of the eligible voters cast their ballots.

yes no

Meanwhile, some people think they should take part in the referendum process but should invalidate their ballots by, for example, ticking out both the “no” and the “yes” columns. This solution seems to be favored by the few liberals or socialists living in small villages who think that their not voting would be too obvious. They would like to avoid being labeled.

Of the three opinion polls on the referendum, only the Republikon Intézet included questions about “yes” and purposely invalid ballots. Its analysis showed that 74% of the voters would vote “no,” 7% would say “yes,” and 3% would cast an invalid ballot. However, among those Republikon Intézet describes as “preferring a left-liberal government,” 17% would be ready to say “yes.” For Fodor, whose MLP has only 1% support among the voting population, this 17% must be music to his ears. Since MLP is the only party advocating participating and voting “yes,” it looks as if MLP’s support is much larger. Fodor’s critics suspect that his real agenda is not so much taking a courageous pro-Europe stance as the much more self-serving goal of gaining recognition for a party hardly known to the public. And in the process he is splitting the ranks on the left.

One more observation about Republikon Intézet’s poll. One of its conclusions is that if the left-liberal parties can’t convince their voters to boycott the referendum, they will be the ones responsible for an outcome that will further boost the popularity of Fidesz. And indeed, according to their findings, 66% of people who would like to see a liberal-socialist government after 2018 will most likely vote and only 28% will stay at home. Moreover, 60% of those who plan to participate will vote “no.” Therefore, according to Republikon, the left-liberal voters will be the ones who will bear the burden for a valid and successful referendum for Viktor Orbán. Republikon blames all parties equally for not being able to convince their followers to respond appropriately to the referendum–that is, to boycott it.

The problem here is that lumping all the opposition parties (minus Jobbik) together is misleading. An earlier poll by Závecz Research was more granular. It showed that MSZP and LMP voters were terribly confused. DK, however, was successful at convincing its voters to boycott.

Two days ago Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, and Ferenc Gyurcsány of DK agreed to work together to promote a boycott of the referendum. They will urge their followers to participate in each other’s demonstrations. Both parties will use the slogan “Stay at home, stay in Europe!” Mind you, a day later István Nyakó, MSZP’s new spokesman, backpedaled, stressing that “there is no question of cooperation” between the two parties. They simply share the same opinion on the boycott.

It’s hard to understand why DK has to wait three weeks to start its campaign on September 2 when the government has been campaigning nonstop from the moment Viktor Orbán came up with his brilliant idea of a referendum. There is no time to waste.

August 16, 2016