Tag Archives: Budapest

The Hungarian socialists in turmoil?

Perhaps the most telling sentence on the state of the Hungarian Socialist Party came from its chairman in an interview he gave to Inforádió on August 7. In the interview Gyula Molnár tried to be upbeat. The public clash between László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership, and Zsolt Molnár, one of the top leaders of the party, is now behind them. Zsolt Molnár and László Botka have made peace, and the decision was reached to follow the party’s initial strategy, the lynchpin of which is the retirement of Ferenc Gyurcsány from politics. The chairman sounded upbeat until he uttered the following sentence: “I’m already afraid of the results of the August opinion polls.” Molnár’s fear is well founded. There is a very good possibility that the clash between the two well-known MSZP politicians will further erode the dwindling support for the socialist party.

MSZP’s leadership will not change strategy. As long as the politicians and the membership of Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) insist on Ferenc Gyurcsány’s presence on a common party list, there will be no collaboration with DK. Perhaps it was Gyula Molnár’s interview that inspired DK to publish an open letter to László Botka. Ágnes Vadai, one of DK’s vice-chairmen, posted it on her Facebook page. I assume DK is trying to make sure that the public will place most of the blame on Botka because of his intransigence concerning the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány. So Vadai stressed DK’s attempts to come to an understanding with Botka, though she emphasized that the DK community will not accept him as the leader of the joint opposition without the presence of its chairman. As she put it, “DK is not for sale either with or without its chairman.” Vadai ended her letter by saying: “You accepted the leadership role. If you’re successful, it will be to your credit, but if you fail, you will have to shoulder the blame.” Vadai added that if Botka rigidly adheres to his present strategy, he will place the democratic opposition in an untenable situation.

László Botka wasn’t impressed. First, he made fun of “the followers of Donald Trump’s Twitter politics,” meaning Vadai’s choice of Facebook as a vehicle of communication. Second, he indicated that he has no intention of changing his mind on the subject of Gyurcsány’s presence in the political life of the democratic opposition. His answer was a paraphrase of a line from a Szekler story. An old couple is sitting on the terrace. The wife turns to the husband and complains that he never tells her that he loves her. The old Szekler says: “I said it once. If there is a change I will let you know.” This story might capture one aspect of the Szeklers, who are known for their reticence, but it was impudent under the circumstances. It showed the arrogance for which Botka is becoming known nationwide. Moreover, a day later Botka accused Gyurcsány of not being a man of democratic convictions. Otherwise, Gyurcsány would support him, because he is the one who “proclaimed the strategy of victory” which will remove Viktor Orbán’s government.

Given these unfortunate events, observers of the political scene on both sides of the aisle have become convinced that Gyula Molnár’s fears of a serious loss of support will force MSZP to drop Botka, who hasn’t shown the necessary political finesse or a willingness to keep communication open with the other democratic forces outside of MSZP. Government publications began to speculate that Botka’s days may be numbered. Earlier there had been voices suggesting that Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd would be an attractive alternative, but I can’t imagine that MSZP politicians would be ready to entrust a non-party member with that position. A couple of days ago Figyelő, the once highly respected financial weekly which has since been purchased by Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s court historian, came up with a replacement in the person of Ágnes Kunhalmi.

Source: nyugat.hu / Photo by Bálint Vágvölgyi

The 35-year-old Ágnes Kunhalmi has popular appeal that MSZP hasn’t really exploited. She was designated the party’s education expert. She does appear frequently in the media, but always strictly in that capacity. This is surprising because in the 2014 election Kunhalmi showed what she is capable of. Gábor Simon, an MSZP old-timer, was MSZP’s candidate in Budapest’s 15th electoral district (Pestszentlőrinc-Pestszentimre/District XVIII). Only a few weeks before the election Simon was accused of money laundering and was arrested. The party in the last minute replaced Simon with Kunhalmi, who in a spectacular campaign lost by only 56 votes. The Fidesz candidate’s slim margin was due to several phony parties with misleading names being encouraged by the government to enter the race. There were at least three such “social democratic types” of parties on the ballot (SZDP [67], MSZDP [52], Szociáldemokraták [128]). Later, when the democratic forces had problems finding a candidate to run against Fidesz-supported Mayor István Tarlós, I thought Ágnes Kunhalmi would be a perfect candidate. Instead, Lajos Bokros ran in the last minute. Although he is not a popular politician, he did surprisingly well, getting about 35% of the votes.

Soon after Kunhalmi’s name surfaced in Figyelő, the government publications were full of the news that “the dissatisfied MSZP leaders have already found the successor to Botka.” Origo seems to know that Kunhalmi, who is the chairman of the Budapest MSZP, is less than happy with László Botka’s decision to name József Tóth, the successful mayor of District XIII, as a kind of coordinator of the Budapest campaign, which under normal circumstances would be the job of the Budapest MSZP leadership. Yesterday Gyula Molnár denied in an interview on “Egyenes beszéd” of ATV that there is any intention of replacing Botka with Kunhalmi. In fact, their relationship is close. The party, including Kunhalmi, stands behind Botka. Moreover, MSZP will not change its initial strategy. MSZP has already chosen its 106 candidates for the 106 available electoral districts, though, he added, that can still be changed. In this scheme the other opposition parties would have a slim chance of winning any of the left-leaning districts.

Kunhalmi said that the election campaign will be in the hands of the Budapest Election Committee, which will be under the supervision of the Budapest MSZP leadership, which she heads. She and her team will, however, work with the party’s central leadership, with László Botka and with József Tóth. She added that she finds Tóth’s appointment an excellent idea because “there is a need to engage all successful left-wing politicians who can give new hope and impetus to Hungary after the long period of darkness under Fidesz.”

All of this optimism sounds too good to be true. Let’s wait for the polls, which will be coming out in late August. Perhaps, after all, the strategy will have to be changed and, with it, the person who will lead the team.

August 11, 2017

Search for saboteurs brings back unpleasant memories

Some journalists, especially of the younger generation, find the situation created by the incompetence of the Budapest Transit Authority (BKK) in handling the cyber attack on its website amusing. Every time the CEO of BKK or the mayor of Budapest opens his mouth it is patently obvious that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. And then there are the repeated breakdowns of the Russian-made metro cars, which are getting harder and harder to explain away. The reasons they offer are greeted with hilarity and incredulity. In turn, Mayor István Tarlós, who has had a fairly rocky relationship with the press, devotes his considerable energies to attacking the “tee-heeing”(heherésző) scribblers.

Since the leaders of the city are reluctant to admit that the problems are the result of either their own incompetence or the shoddy work of the Russian firm that produced the metro cars, they blame the media for exaggerating the rare and in any case fairly inconsequential mishaps. And if that tactic doesn’t work, they are quite ready to blame someone else for their own shortcomings. This is exactly what’s going on with the cyber attack against BKK and the obstinate metro car doors that refuse to close. In both cases, Tarlós talked about sabotage that had been carefully planned way ahead of time.

At least for the time being, however, the journalists don’t seem to be frightened. They compare the present situation to the 1950s when the communist leadership could easily find a couple of saboteurs who were responsible for the failure of a new factory to open by the deadline. Journalists recall Comrade Virág, the legendary character of the famous Hungarian film “The Witness,” who would be very impressed (if he lived today) by the government’s ability to find “three anti-people sabotages in one week.”

As for the explanation of the latest metro car incident, jokes abound in the opposition media about the “wooden block” that someone placed in the track of the sliding door. No one really believes the story. So, Tarlós made sure at his July 27 press conference that the journalists realize “this is not a joke,” because for such an act of sabotage the prescribed jail term is five years. The media’s reaction is that of deep distrust: if the powers that be work hard enough, they will find culprits. Everybody has heard stories about those dreadful days more than 60 years ago, which seem to be returning.

For the time being at least Tarlós stands behind Kálmán Dabóczi, CEO of BKK. After all, Dabóczi was his choice in 2014 when Tarlós fired the young Dávid Vitézy, whom he accused of hysterical and anti-social behavior. At the time I didn’t follow the “soap opera,” as Tarlós called it, of the firing of Vitézy but, if I recall properly, Vitézy had ideas that Tarlós found far too revolutionary, among them the introduction of the latest IT technology in running the public transportation system of Budapest.

From what Dabóczi had to say about the cyber attack on BKK’s website, it is clear that he doesn’t know the first thing about computer science and the internet. I don’t know how seriously one should take what Tarlós said at his press conference about the details of the massive attack that occurred after the discovery of the initial software problems. One begins to have doubts about the “experts” BKK apparently consulted who claim that a cyber attack of that magnitude is extremely costly. After all, says Tarlós, “40 million people entered BKK’s website within an hour, which costs 300 million forints and a lot of human resources.” One doesn’t need to be a computer expert to know that such attacks are powered by botnets. They are quite inexpensive (apparently starting at about $7 an hour) and need no manpower. Tarlós bragged about his knowledge by explaining that the hackers used 87 IP addresses and that what really did the system in were attacks from “foreign servers.” Well, of course. But at least Tarlós concluded that such a costly operation could not have been launched by the 18-year-old high school student. One ought to add that Tarlós likes to portray himself as a man of superior knowledge about everything technological because of his degree in engineering.

István Tarlós with the wooden block on display

Although demands from opposition forces are numerous for Kálmán Dabóczi’s dismissal, Tarlós stands behind the man, even though the CEO of BKK, who was known in the past as a champion of “morality,” lied several times in the course of the discovery of the software error. Since BKK and its CEO are innocent, the culprit must be the German T-Systems and its Hungarian affiliate, whose leadership “slyly lie low,” according to Tarlós. Without wanting to defend T-Systems, which obviously delivered shoddy work, one must also lay some blame on BKK, which turned a blind eye to warnings about the system’s security problems.

As for the problems of the metro car doors, what can one say? Tarlós’s  explanation that the wooden block was most likely put in the door’s track “between stations” makes no sense to me. After all, between stations the doors are closed. Of course, the skeptical journalists and the equally skeptical public are certain that there was no wooden block, although Tarlós had one on display.

During this same press conference Tarlós put his foot in his mouth when he was asked about the absence of handicapped accessibility at some of the stations. He claimed that there is only one disabled person in every 1,000 passengers, and therefore the additional cost is not warranted. Of course, his explanation is ridiculous because if the metro is not handicapped accessible, very few handicapped people will use it. The second problem is that his numbers are all wrong. The National Federation of the Association of Disabled Persons (MEOSZ) reacted by pointing out that making the metro handicapped accessible is not a choice. It is the regulatory duty of the city. In addition, Tarlós’s statistics are faulty: one in every ten people is handicapped according to the World Health Organization. Moreover, there are parents with baby carriages and older people who have difficulties with escalators and stairs. In the opinion of MEOSZ’s president, Tarlós and the City Council never seriously considered making the M3 line handicapped accessible, and therefore he is planning to make an illegal move. It’s time to find solutions instead of creating excuses.

So, that’s where we stand. Meanwhile the cyber crime experts in the national security offices attached to the ministry of interior are looking for the man with 300 million forints who attacked BKK in order to create chaos during the World Aquatic Championships.

July 31, 2017

Another grain of sand on the pile: The e-ticket fiasco

There is a Hungarian word “nagypolitika” (literally “large politics”) that is used when talking about a piece of news or an event that has national or international significance. Today’s topic is anything but “nagypolitika.” On the contrary, on the surface at least, it seems like an insignificant affair that luckily hasn’t caused major problems, only annoyance. Yet, judging from the public’s reaction to the faulty software of the newly introduced e-tickets of the Budapest Transit Center (Budapest Közlekedési Központ/BKK), the case has become the focal point of all the frustration Hungarians are experiencing over the incompetence and the arrogance of the Orbán regime in general.

Itcafé, an internet site serving those interested in information technology, claims that the present public mood can be compared only to the impromptu mass demonstrations against the government’s plans to introduce a heavy tax on internet use during the fall of 2015. Just like then, thousands are planning to march in defense of the 18-year-old boy who discovered the software glitch in the first place. Our young hero handled the situation pretty much the way most white hat hackers would have. After he discovered that by changing something in the “POST request” he could set his own price for a ticket, he purchased a monthly ticket for 50 forints (20 cents) instead of 10,000 ($38.00). He then fired off an e-mail to BKK pointing out the security risk, assuring them that his intentions were good. He also perhaps foolishly announced that at the age of 13 he wouldn’t have made such a gross error as the one he found in the brand new e-ticket software. The software company responsible for this shoddy piece of work was I T Systems Magyarország, an affiliate of the German I T Systems Group.

I T Systems Magyarország reported the hacking “crime,” and the police appeared at the boy’s house some 300 km from Budapest and arrested him. The very fact of the arrest upset the internet crowd, but the fact that the arrest took place at 7 a.m. really infuriated them. Media critics of the government interpreted the timing as intimidation, especially since this was not the first time that the Hungarian police have visited people for some minor offenses as, for example, not appearing in court as a witness, in the early hours. Soon enough everybody began calling our hero “the ethical hacker,” although, as I T System countered, “an ethical hacker” is someone who is hired by the company to catch glitches of the kind Szilárd found. The fact is, of course, that no one had found the glitch before our hacker reported it. I T Systems claimed that they had no choice but to move against the boy, regardless of his intentions.

Soon enough other security problems came to light, one of which at least was quite serious. Index warned those who had already signed up on BKK’s website for an e-ticket to change their passwords immediately because hackers can get to their passwords and their e-mail addresses. At a joint press conference given by BKK and I T Systems, the journalists gained the impression that the companies were blaming the customers instead of admitting that there is something wrong with the whole system. As days went by, anger grew. First, BKK’s Facebook page was bombarded with less than polite comments about what people thought of BKK and the decision to bring charges against the boy. On one afternoon 35,000 comments appeared on the site. Two days ago BKK’s website stopped functioning, and it is still unreachable. It is hard to tell whether it became the victim of not so ethical hackers or was just overloaded with users who wanted to vent their frustration. The two companies remained silent until late Friday night when they released a terse statement about the illegal hacking of their system, adding that they were sorry that the accused is a young student whose intentions were well-meaning, but otherwise they expressed no remorse. People demanded an apology.

BKK released statements about all the improvements they are working on, which only revealed the ignorance of the company about the technical aspects of the software the company purchased. The CEO of BKK kept talking about installing a “stronger firewall” as a solution, which of course is nonsense given the problems of the software. At last on Saturday the two companies “issued a half-hearted apology,” as 24.hu put it. Most likely Mayor István Tarlós put pressure on Kálmán Dabóczi, CEO of BKK, to make a statement. A day earlier Tarlós had disclaimed any responsibility for the situation created by the joint incompetence of BKK and I T Systems. Tarlós also promised an investigation of the whole debacle. The CEO of I T Systems by the end was also forced to engage the “ethical hacker” in professional dialogue, which almost sounded like a job offer.

All’s well that ends well, one could say. The boy was a bit shaken by the few hours he had to spend in jail; the software will be fixed; and the two CEOs have been humbled. It is possible that the head of BKK will lose his job as opposition parties demand. Why then the demonstration? The answer, I think, is simple. This public outburst is not just against the shabby treatment of the “ethical hacker.” It is against the whole system which is riddled with incompetence and graft. Vasárnapi Hírek pointed out that the Budapest Transit Authority has been promising an e-ticket system for ten solid years. According to them, this useless software cost 250 million forints. However, according to another source, “BKK received a 550 million forint subsidy” for a project that “is not worth more than 1 or 2 million.” Where did the money go, asks Z. V. in a letter to the editor. Actually, I’m afraid these figures greatly underestimate the real cost of the e-ticket project. I found an item on BKK’s official website—which unfortunately I can’t access at the moment, and which may no longer be there when the website comes back online—from 2012, according to which the city council voted to launch the e-ticket service and for that purpose the City of Budapest gave 6 billion forints to BKK. Six billion. Five years ago, and that’s what came of it.

Finally, here is an interpretation of this BKK affair that I wish were mine. The Hungarian “Szilárd” reminded Szabolcs Bogdán, a writer, of Mathias Rust, the 17-year-old West German youngster who in 1987 landed his plane on Red Square, escaping recognition by the Soviet Air Force. The self-confident Soviet leaders with seemingly limitless powers ruled the empire, but then came this small plane from West Germany. Heads rolled in the Soviet Air Force and the bigwigs thought all was well, merely a fleeting embarrassment. It turned out, however, that the weakness of the whole political system was laid bare by this plane’s landing. The regime was not omnipotent.

I don’t think the comparison is far-fetched. I don’t know how long it will take, but Orbán’s seeming self-confidence is unwarranted. Political life in Hungary right now is like the pile of sand made famous by the Danish physicist Per Bak: once the pile reaches the critical point, adding another grain of sand to it may cause an avalanche. There are times when one small thing can inexorably change the course of history.

July 23, 2017

The Hungarian opposition shows signs of life

Momentum’s victory

The major news of the day is the overwhelming success of Momentum’s signature drive for a referendum on holding the 2024 Olympic Games in Budapest. They needed 138,000 signatures; they collected 266,151. Although the young leaders of the movement don’t seem to be overly grateful, about 60,000 of these signatures were collected by political parties on the left. LMP and Párbeszéd were especially active.

Momentum’s plan at the moment is to become a self-sufficient party. But I wouldn’t be surprised if closer cooperation among Momentum, Párbeszéd, and LMP would materialize, especially now that Párbeszéd has withdrawn from negotiations with MSZP and DK.

Viktor Orbán, who a few months ago considered hosting the 2024 Olympic Games “a matter of national significance,” a couple of days ago instructed the Fidesz-KDNP parliamentary delegation to refrain from any comment in the event that Momentum gets the necessary number of signatures. His position now is that the central government supported the idea only after the Budapest City Council, including opposition members, voted to submit an application to the IOC.

Budapest mayor István Tarlós, although initially against holding the Olympics in Budapest, now stands by Viktor Orbán. He complains about “the betrayal of the opposition,” which a year and a half ago supported the idea heart and soul and now portrays itself as the defender of the people and the country. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of truth in this charge. Csaba Horváth (MSZP), József Tóth (MSZP), and Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd) supported the application. Even Erzsébet Gy. Németh (DK), who verbally disapproved of it, had the courage only to abstain. The sole person to vote against it was Antal Csárdi (LMP). Bravery and consistency are not the strong points of the Hungarian socialists and liberals.

Granted, given government pressure and the general Fidesz enthusiasm for the project, it was guaranteed to sail through the Budapest City Council. Still, those opposition city fathers who have been so loud of late in their disapproval of the project would look a great deal better if they had not bent under pressure and had instead voted their conscience. MSZP is especially hesitant to take a stand when its leaders believe, rightly or wrongly, that its voters might not approve of the party’s actions.

Tarlós indicated that once the final verdict on the number of signatures is announced, he “will think very seriously about withdrawing the application.” Given the enormous number of signatures collected, there is no doubt that the referendum request will be valid. And if the referendum were actually held, the “no’s” would carry the day. Tomorrow Publicus Intézet will publish its latest poll, according to which 76% of the total population would use the money for something much more important. The respondents could pick from several categories and obviously, since the numbers add up to more than 100%, could choose to allocate the saved funds to more than one urgent need. 65% of them opted for healthcare, 32% for education, 16% for the elimination of poverty, 11% for the creation of new jobs, and 8% for better infrastructure.

András Fekete-Győr proudly displaying the fruit of Momentum’s labor

The leaders of Momentum will embark on a two-month tour of the countryside where they plan to establish local party cells. András Fekete-Győr announced a few hours ago that the new party will have candidates in all 120 electoral districts. It intends to compete against the other opposition parties, although we know that fracturing the anti-Orbán forces is political suicide. Under the current electoral law, which is designed for a two-party system, a divided opposition can only lose. Nonetheless, for the time being Momentum is planning to follow in the footsteps of LMP, which doesn’t bode well for either Momentum or Hungarian democracy. László Bartus of Amerikai Magyar Népszava has already written an opinion piece in which he expresses his fears that Momentum is glossing over the distinction between Hungary prior to and after 2010.

László Botka’s program is shaping up

The anti-Orbán forces got some good news yesterday when Republikon Intézet published its poll on the popularity of current candidates for the post of prime minister. Viktor Orbán and László Botka are essentially neck to neck. Botka is only two percentage points behind Viktor Orbán (46% to 44%). What is especially significant is that Botka is by far the more popular candidate among undecided voters, 44% against Orbán’s 29%, a result that didn’t surprise me as much as it seems to have surprised the media. I have been convinced for a long time that if someone could inspire this group to vote, the majority would vote for a candidate on the left.

Many voters who sympathize with the “liberal” democratic parties in Hungary have been impatient with László Botka’s relative inaction since he announced that he intended to throw his hat in the ring. For example, although he promised to visit the chairmen of the smaller parties, he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. Yesterday I read that the first party he will visit will be LMP, an odd choice, I would say, since LMP’s willingness to negotiate with Botka is about zero.

On the other hand, Botka at last came out with an article, published in 168 Óra, in which he spells out at least part of his program. He embraces the idea of introducing a guaranteed basic income on an experimental basis in the most underdeveloped and poorest regions of the country. I assume that would be the northeastern corner and the County of Baranya along the Croatian-Hungarian border, both with large Roma populations. He also envisages introducing a supplement to pensions that do not provide enough income for survival. He would like to alleviate the difficulties younger people have in gaining access to affordable housing. He proposes that municipalities build apartment complexes, with apartments to be rented out at reasonable prices. He wants to change the flat tax system introduced by the second Orbán government to a progressive one. Moreover, he wants to introduce a property tax on high-priced real estate and luxury cars. In addition, Botka emphasized that education and health will his government’s priority.

I am curiously awaiting the reaction of the media and the general public. I’m sure that most of these goals will meet the expectations of the majority, although I don’t know how people will feel about the idea of a guaranteed basic income. I assume that MSZP will fully support these goals, but they will also have to be approved by those parties that are ready to stand behind Botka. The way things are going, very soon it will be only DK that Botka will have to negotiate with.

We already know the reaction of the government media to Republikon Intézet’s poll on Botka’s popularity. Here are some headlines: “Few people support László Botka on the left,” “Botka is not supported even on the left,” “László Botka is not popular.” The source of this information? Fidesz’s own pollster, Századvég.

February 17, 2017

Momentum’s anti-Olympics drive is already a success

A day after I wrote a post on the anti-Olympics drive there was an encounter at one of the collecting stations which, to my mind, starkly illustrates the attitudinal differences between those young people who established a new political movement called Momentum and the older generation of MSZP politicians.

Tibor Szanyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, decided to reap some political benefit by appearing on a news clip as he is signing the referendum petition. Apparently, he informed the Momentum activists of his intentions. When he showed up, cameraman and all, András Fekete-Győr, the president of Momentum, appeared and gave Szanyi a piece of his mind about the do-nothing attitude of Szanyi’s party. Party politicians come here for a media opportunity instead of going out and helping to collect signatures. Szanyi was visibly embarrassed and acted like a little boy who had just been scolded by his father. Once he had recovered from the shock, however, he decided to strike back. In a totally unnecessary retort Szanyi went so far as to compare the leaders of Momentum to Fidesz in their “manipulation of the news.” And he called them “asphalt hamsters,” whatever this term means. Not the best beginning for cooperation between professional politicians and the civil activists. I share Fekete-Győr’s anger when I see MSZP’s total inability (and unwillingness) to engage the population on any level save through TV and radio interviews.

Momentum activists are conducting a campaign that so far has been very successful, especially if one compares it to earlier abortive attempts by parties and individuals. In less than two weeks the Momentum activists, with the help of LMP, collected over 80,000 of the requisite 138,000 signatures. Yesterday László Sólyom, the former president of the country, signed the petition, as was reported by some readers of Index who spotted him.

Source: Pesti Srácok / Photo Péter Gyula Horváth

The conservative József Eötvös Group organized a discussion on the economic effects of holding the 2024 Olympics in Hungary. The main speaker was a “sport economist” who is in favor of the project, yet even he had to admit that if the Olympic Games were held in Budapest, they most likely would not be profitable. In fact, from his speech it became clear that the estimates of PricewaterhouseCoopers are unrealistic because the figures they presented cover only the “organizational costs.” The cost of the actual investments, like buildings, the Olympic village, stadiums, and infrastructure, are not included in the overall cost because, the eager organizers claim, these investment projects would have had to be built anyway and, in any case, they were already included in future plans.

So far Viktor Orbán is putting on a good face about Momentum’s NOlimpia drive. Only yesterday ATV learned from Fidesz sources that he believes that, even if there is a referendum, supporters of the Games will be in the great majority. As one self-assured Fidesz leader told ATV, “for the time being we are just sitting and smiling. We are not afraid.”

Well, perhaps Fidesz leaders spoke too early because today a new Medián poll was released. It shows that Fidesz’s assumptions about a pro-Olympic public in Budapest are based on faulty data. This is what happens when polling questions are being manipulated to achieve the desired results. While all the earlier polls showed little support for the Games, the one conducted by a pro-Olympic group found overwhelming support for holding the Olympics in Hungary.

Yes, there is every reason to believe that if a referendum were held, the anti-Olympics folks would be in the majority. According to Medián, 68% of the people don’t support holding the games in Budapest because it would cost too much and the money should be used for “more useful” things. Only 26% think that, “regardless of the cost,” the Olympic Games would strengthen “the bond that connects members of the nation and national pride.” Nine percent of those polled had already signed the petition, and 33% said they are planning to do so even if the number of signatures collected is multiples of those required. Sixty percent of them support the idea of holding a referendum on the question. If a referendum were held today, 54% of the Budapest voters would opt for withdrawing the Hungarian Olympic Committee’s application. Among those who are certain they would vote at such a referendum, the percentage is even higher, 59%.

The same Fidesz informant who told ATV that they were not worried one bit about Momentum’s campaign added that, even if the young activists succeed, there is always the weapon of a government counter-campaign in favor of the games. Of course, this is exactly what would happen. But I’m not at all sure in light of what I am reading about the politics of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) whether it would be worth the effort. I have very little knowledge of the inner workings of the IOC, but according to rumors, the committee “might break with established practice by naming the host-cities of both the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games when it gathers in Peru in September.” The reason for such a decision is that, despite the reforms introduced to lower the cost and make hosting the games more attractive, very few cities have applied, and those which had shown an initial interest later changed their minds, like Rome or, after a referendum, Hamburg. Currently, both Paris and Los Angeles are vying for the 2024 games; in fact, Paris is so adamant that at one point the French sports leaders announced that it is either 2024 or nothing. Perhaps, the officials of IOC figure, they could convince one of the two to accept the later date. In that case, Budapest’s chances are close to nil.

The news of the referendum drive in Budapest certainly reached the headquarters of IOC and may have strengthened their resolve to name the host countries for both the 2024 and 2028 games in September. As a sports reporter for insidethegames.biz writes, such a decision would be wise “since it emerged that Budapest, the outsider in what is currently a three-horse race, would not launch its international promotion campaign at the beginning of this month as planned, due to a resurgence of the referendum calls that seem to have been lingering in the background almost from day one.” The author further speculates that IOC’s decision would be made easier “if a handy referendum put a spanner in Budapest’s works.”

So, even though Fidesz leaders might be smiling and feeling very sure of themselves, the Hungarian Olympic Committee (MOB) is a great deal more cautious. Moreover, the very fact that an anti-Olympic drive began in Budapest has already damaged Hungary’s chances. Medián’s poll results will not help the Hungarian cause either. If the inhabitants of both Paris and Los Angeles are so gung-ho, the IOC will think twice before awarding the Games to a city where two-thirds of the population don’t want them.

Momentum’s political success is already palpable. That’s why I can’t understand why the two largest opposition parties on the left didn’t rush to support its initiative. NOlimpia is obviously a popular cause and promotes political action. I think that MSZP and DK made a mistake.

February 1, 2017

Momentum’s anti-Olympics drive has momentum

As is evident from the government media, the Orbán government is mighty upset over the early success of the Momentum Movement’s signature drive to hold a referendum on whether Budapest should host the 2024 Olympic Games. On the very first day of the campaign, Magyar Nemzet reported that people were queuing up and waiting a long time to be able to add their names to the list of those who believe that Hungary’s current financial situation doesn’t warrant such an extravagance. A host of problems remain in healthcare and education, on which in the last six or seven years the government has spent far too little money.

My hunch is that, initially, Viktor Orbán was not at all worried about Momentum’s anti-Olympics project. Two opinion polls had been held on the question, and the second one, after massive pro-Olympic propaganda, showed a slight majority supporting the idea. Therefore, I assume that the government decided to allow the signature drive in the belief that it would be a flop. Instead, here we are one week later and the activists have collected almost 70,000 signatures. Momentum has 30 days altogether to collect 138,000 signatures in favor of a referendum.

“No for the Olympics, yes for our future!”

Shortly after the beginning of the campaign, Magyar Idők must have gotten the word to begin a campaign of its own against Momentum and the opposition parties that decided to support it. Dávid Megyeri, a journalist for the government mouthpiece, tried to convince his readers and perhaps also himself that the opposition parties are actually committing “collective seppuku” by supporting Momentum’s anti-Olympics campaign, even if “they are hiding behind a phantom organization.” Megyeri’s imagination went quite far in assessing the dreadful consequences of this signature drive for the socialists. It is quite possible, he wrote, that the attack on the Olympics will be considered “a casus belli for MSZP’s voters.” He believes that the anti-Olympic drive “practically guarantees the disappearance of the remainder of the socialist party.” The “miniature” MSZP will fall into the lap of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The little fish will eat the big fish, concludes Megyeri. Perhaps a threat of this sort will further confuse the already confused MSZP leadership.

In fact, the most fervent supporters of Momentum’s drive are the activists of LMP, who collected an additional 10,000 signatures in a week. And who knows how many signatures were collected by the activists of the Two-tailed Dog Party, Együtt, and Párbeszéd. Magyar Idők tried to minimize the damage the drive’s success was causing by insisting that “the signature collection has lost its momentum.” That certainly does not seem to be the case.

Mayor István Tarlós, who initially was not too keen on holding the Olympics, by now has become a great fan, arguing that no sane person should sign the petition because Budapest will be the clear winner of the Olympic Games if Hungary gets the nod. After all, the construction of almost all the necessary buildings and stadiums as well as infrastructure improvements will benefit Budapest, while the government will take care of all the expenses. Of course, he is right, but the rest of the country, which lags behind the capital city in economic development, is not so enamored with the idea. Outside of Budapest enthusiasm for the Games is substantially lower than in the capital.

While the activists are doing a great job, the same cannot be said about the opposition parties. Let’s start with the opposition members of the Budapest City Council. LMP’s Antal Csárdi proposed that Budapest withdraw its bid for the 2024 Olympics. Of course, given the preponderance of Fidesz members on the Council, there was no way for Csárdi’s proposal to succeed. But at least one would have expected that the liberal-socialist members would vote for the proposal. Well, that didn’t happen. We are talking about thirteen opposition members all told, of whom only five supported the motion. Of the five MSZP members two voted for the motion, one abstained, one didn’t vote although he was present, and one voted against it. One DK member voted for it, the other against it. That will give you an idea about the state of the Hungarian opposition. Just as reflector.blog.hu remarked, “this is a sorry lot.”

Demokratikus Koalíció also showed itself to be totally inept and clumsy when the party decided “to help” the drive by setting up independent stations for non-Budapesters, letting them express themselves on the question of the Olympics even though they were not eligible to sign the petition. It soon became clear that DK, instead of helping the drive, was hindering it. Even the pro-DK nyugatifény.blog disapproved of the move that only confused people. After a day, the DK campaign was halted.

After the disastrous city council vote, the government media had a real heyday, pointing out the opposition’s double game. Pro-government journalists called attention to MSZP politicians who are now supporting the anti-Olympic drive but who earlier had enthusiastically endorsed hosting the Olympics. One of these “turncoats” was Ágnes Kunhalmi who, according to Origo, had said in 2015 that, if it depended on her, she would rather spend the money on education, but “the two together may give such strength to Hungary that it may set our country toward unparalleled successes.” She made crystal clear that she “supported the cause.” Rather embarrassing, I’m afraid, in light of her signing the petition on practically the first day of the drive.

Csaba Horváth, leader of the MSZP group in the City Council, was equally enthusiastic at the same event organized by the Hungarian Olympic Committee. However, Horváth is now trying to divert attention from this video interview available online. He made public the transcript of a speech he delivered at the council meeting on December 2, 2015. He now claims that he was the first one to suggest holding a referendum on the question of the Games. According to the transcript, Horváth said: “I believe in the Olympic movement; I believe in my politician friends; and above all, I believe that all Hungarians can unite for a good cause. However, the final decision should be based on the broadest possible consensus. Therefore, I suggest that we should hold a referendum on the question of the Olympics.” He apparently repeated the same sentiment in a letter addressed to János Lázár a few days later. Furthermore, on January 27, 2016, the opposition members put forth a motion about holding such a referendum, which was naturally voted down. By September 2016, he said, he was of the opinion that Budapest will not be able to accommodate the Olympics in 2024. But then why on earth did he abstain in the vote on Antal Csárdi’s motion? Typical MSZP waffling, I’m afraid. The party is loath to take a clear stand on anything.

Whether the Orbán government will actually allow a referendum even if Momentum and its allies get enough signatures, which by now is likely, remains questionable. Portfolio pointed out, however, that there is a good possibility that the International Olympic Committee will decide that support for the project is far too low in Budapest. In the past, cities were chosen only where popular support was over 65%, which is a far cry from the percentages measured by opinion polls in Hungary. In September 2015, only 41% of Hungarians supported the idea, according to Medián. Although the Hungarian Olympic Committee held its own poll, which showed a slight majority for supporters, most other polls indicate that only about 50% of Hungarians support a Budapest Olympics. In Paris, by contrast, popular support is 70%, while in Los Angeles it is 88%. I do hope that the International Olympic Committee will have enough brains to choose Los Angeles or Paris instead of a rather reluctant Budapest.

January 27, 2016

Another attempt to change the political landscape: The Momentum Movement

Even as we all complain about the political lethargy of Hungarians, a new political group has appeared on the scene. These self-assured young people in their late twenties and early thirties emerged from seemingly nowhere. But they handle their new roles in front of the cameras with poise and, unlike some earlier groups, they seem to have well-defined ideas about what they want. Although their immediate goal is to hold a referendum in Budapest to avert Orbán’s folly of hosting the 2024 Olympics in the capital, they are braced for an intensive political role. They call their movement Momentum.

Skeptics would say that Momentum’s efforts to defeat Hungary’s Olympics bid will be in vain. They must collect 130,000 signatures in 30 days in the dead of winter. And even if they get the necessary signatures, the prospect of a valid referendum is slim. Not even Fidesz’s outsize spending was enough to achieve that.

Momentum’s leaders seem to be realistic in their expectations: they will be satisfied even if all they achieve is getting the necessary number of signatures. After all, this would be a first among numerous failed attempts in the past. As for the likelihood of their ultimate success, the population of Budapest is divided on the issue of the Olympics. While about half of the population of Budapest opposes the games for economic reasons, the other half supports them either because of national pride or because they consider the infrastructure investment beneficial for their city.

If the only aim of the leaders of Momentum were to oppose holding the Olympics in Budapest, they wouldn’t have had such an enthusiastic reception in democratic circles. What Momentum offers is something new. The group unequivocally defines itself as a political organization. Why is that so significant? Because until now, newly emerged and promising civic groups refused any cooperation with political parties or declared themselves to be purely “professional” organizations. The leaders of these organizations denied any political motives, with the inevitable result that they became isolated and eventually disappeared. When, for instance, the teachers’ demonstration managed to get 40,000 people out in the pouring rain, it was clear that most of the people in the crowd were there because of their opposition to the government that was responsible for the ruined educational system. The teacher’s movement failed because it was unwilling “to get involved in politics.” Eventually, they noticed their mistake, but by that time it was too late.

What do we know about the Momentum group? I encountered two of the leaders in interview situations on ATV and HírTV, and I must admit that I was impressed. The chairman of the group, András Fekete-Győr (27), is a lawyer who works in an international law office in Budapest but earlier worked in the European Parliament and the Bundestag. The other person I watched was Anna Orosz (27), who studied economics in Budapest and Berlin with work experience in both cities. I haven’t seen a third member of the team, Miklós Hajnal, but I read a long interview with him. He is just finishing his last year as a student of philosophy, political science and economics in Oxford. According to him, about one-fifth of the membership either studied or lived abroad at one time or another and are eager “to bring home the best practices” they encountered abroad.

András Fekete-Győr and Anna Orosz

Momentum has had a longer history than I initially realized. At the beginning of 2015 nine young people established Momentum because “they were convinced that a purely civic initiative is not enough to achieve any systemic change. Therefore, they were thinking in terms of a political community which in the long run can offer itself as a replacement for the current political elite.” Their first move was to organize a get-together in a summer camp, attended by 200 people, somewhat similarly to what Fidesz did in 1985, in order to exchange ideas and hammer out a program. By the spring of 2016 the membership was large enough to establish an association with several working groups. What brought them together was a common feeling of “political orphanhood,” Miklós Hajnal told mandiner.hu.

I assume that if this group survives, we will know more about their political ideas. What I have learned so far is that although they don’t want to join any existing party, they are ready to work with all of them. They are not interested in ideology, and therefore they find labels like “left” and “right” obsolete. They find Viktor Orbán’s “work-based society” a dead end. They wouldn’t participate in primaries, which they consider “unfortunate and misleading.” Otherwise, their social policy strikes me as liberal. Anna Orosz’s historical ideal is Árpád Göncz, while András Fekete-Győr talked about St. Stephen and István Széchenyi. Judging from these references, both liberal and conservative strands are present in Momentum.

A right-wing blogger called the leadership of Momentum nothing more than a revival of the liberal SZDSZ’s youth organization. He reacted to the word “liberal” with the usual intense hatred. He described them as irrepressible and destructive people who keep returning in different guises. Among the leadership he called attention to András Radnóti, Momentum’s coordinator for foreign relations. He is the son of Sándor Radnóti, who indeed was very active in SZDSZ in the 1980s.

Former Prime Minister József Antall’s son Péter, who is heading the government-financed József Antall Center of Knowledge (Antall József Tudásközpont), wrote on Facebook that any associate of the foundation who expresses public support for Momentum’s anti-Olympics effort will lose his job. Those “who want to be independent politically” can pack. This is the son of the first democratically elected Hungarian prime minister after the regime change.

Magyar Idők also noted Momentum’s “attack on the Olympics,” which “is political in nature.” The current Hungarian government uses the words “politics” and “political” as practical equivalents of “treachery” and “treasonous.” One of the officials responsible for the preparation of the Olympics announced that “every time politics has gotten involved in sports, the sports have suffered.” This assertion is especially amusing considering that sports are such an important part of Viktor Orbán’s political arsenal.

I’m really curious what the reactions of other opposition parties will be to Momentum. LMP, Párbeszéd, Együtt, and the Two-Tailed Dog Party have already promised to help in gathering signatures. DK’s leadership hasn’t made any decision yet, but since DK also belongs to the anti-Olympics camp, I’m pretty sure that the decision will be favorable. MSZP, as usual, is divided on the issue of the Olympics, but MSZP’s spokesman promised an answer sometime next week.

As I said earlier, these young people are very self-assured and keep repeating that they are well prepared to enter the political struggle. Anna Orosz said in one of her interviews that “we would like to spread our ideas in ever larger circles and transplant them into reality.” The reporter’s reaction was that “in the next 30 days they will certainly meet reality” on the streets of Budapest. It will be an eye-opener and a challenge, I’m sure.

January 18, 2017