Tag Archives: Budapest

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surprised if closer cooperation among Momentum, Párbeszéd, and LMP would materialize, especially now that Párbeszéd has withdrawn from negotiations with MSZP and DK.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

Explosion in Budapest: Skeptical Hungarians suspect foul play

Last night around 10:30 there was an explosion in front of an empty storefront at 2-4 Teréz körút. Two policemen, a man and a woman, both in their twenties, were seriously injured. According to early reports, the explosion took place inside the store, but eventually it was ascertained that the detonation of the anti-personnel nail bomb occurred outside. Hundreds of nails have been found nearby.

A few minutes after the explosion / Photo by László, a reader of Index

A few minutes after the explosion / Photo by László, a reader of Index

In no time, hundreds of policemen surrounded the area and evacuated the residents of the building. The police went from building to building, from apartment to apartment all night in the area, requesting information from the inhabitants. Some people near the scene of the crime reported a very powerful blast that did considerable damage to nearby buildings.

A demolition expert shared his knowledge of nail bombs with the public. On the basis of pictures of the crime scene he ascertained that this particular bomb was a small, most likely home-made device, adding that this was the kind of explosive device used in the Brussels airport and metro station that killed 31 people and wounded 250. Nail bombs are used mostly in the Middle East (including Israel), in the United States, and lately in Western Europe. In Hungary no such apparatus has ever been used. After this information, it was no surprise that people thought that whatever happened on Teréz kőrút was likely an act of terrorism.

Another expert, István Gyarmati, a Hungarian diplomat and political scientist specializing in national security issues, found it “odd that the victims were policemen and only policemen.” He found it equally strange that “they were only wounded” and not killed. So, it was inevitable that rumors began circulating on Facebook and in comments to newspaper articles about the possible perpetrators. This was especially the case since, until late tonight, the police refused to share any information with the public about the case.

This morning 24.hu neatly summarized the “facts,” which stoked public suspicion. The paper found it strange that only two policemen were hurt and that the first two people to arrive on the scene happened to be policemen in civilian clothes. Within minutes 100 policemen arrived in armored personnel carriers. Pieces of information coming from the policemen at the scene were contradictory and, most importantly, 12 hours after the explosion no official information was available.

Clearly, the reporter for 24.hu suspected that the explosion was an inside job. And he is not alone. No matter what the police investigation of the incident uncovers, a large segment of the Hungarian population will believe that the whole affair was staged by the Orbán government to make sure that the refugee referendum on October 2 succeeds. This shows the depth of suspicion that surrounds the Orbán government.

As the day went by more information was received from those who witnessed the bloody scene. MTV’s M1 station learned that a still unidentified man placed a package or brief case on the sidewalk seconds before the explosion. HVG learned that the two young policemen were actually the specific targets of the assailant. Employees of a restaurant selling gyros nearby claimed to see a white-skinned man around age 40 wearing a white hat. All sorts of stories were circulating, which only added to the suspicion of chicanery.

Around 2:00 DK demanded that the police and the government clear the air and tell the public by 6:00 p.m. what they have learned so far about the incident because “many people don’t find it impossible, in fact they believe it to be likely, that the Orbán government is behind” the alleged terrorist act. About the same time Bence Tuzson, undersecretary in charge of government communication at the prime minister’s office, told MTI, the Hungarian telegraphic agency, that by tonight the police will have enough information to inform the public of the details of the case. Népszabadság was pleased that Tuzson refrained from frightening people with terrorism. On the other hand, Georg Spöttle, another suspicious expert close to the Hungarian government who was apparently at one point a member of the German police force, announced that according to German law all crime using a detonating device is considered to be a terrorist act.

At last, around 9:00 p.m., Károly Papp, chief of the whole Hungarian police force, accompanied by the head of the Central Investigative Prosecutor’s Office (Központi Nyomozó Főügyészség) made an official announcement. Papp said that the assailant’s targets were the two policemen, adding an important sentence to the announcement: “he viewed the attack on these individuals as an assault on the whole police force.” A manhunt began for a 20- to 25-year-old man about 170 cm tall with a light-colored fisherman’s hat who wore a dark denim jacket, blue jeans, and white sneakers. The police are ready to pay 10 million forints to anyone who can provide information leading to the arrest of the suspect.

Although Police Chief Papp didn’t call the incident a terrorist act, there are a couple of sentences in his comments that are worrisome. He announced that tightened security measures have been introduced at the Ferenc Liszt International Airport, at border crossings, and on all international trains. A well-known journalist on Facebook found it troubling that Papp considers the attack on these two individuals to be an attack on the whole police force, which can be interpreted as a terrorist act. If that is the case, the government might introduce a state of emergency for the next two weeks, which would include the day the referendum is being held. That would mean a ban on demonstrations planned by opposition parties.

To these questions we have no answers at the moment. I’m pretty certain that a lone individual is responsible for the crime, but what this man’s motivation was only time will tell. Skeptical Hungarians on Facebook, however, are certain that we will never know the truth because whatever it is will be made a state secret for at least thirty years. That’s Orbán’s Hungary for you.

September 25, 2016

Two men who put up a fight: Lajos Simicska and Bachar Najari

Among the active members of Hungarian Spectrum there has been a long-standing debate about the most useful attitude toward the Orbán regime’s very existence and future. There are those who get upset when they encounter pessimism regarding the removal of the present Hungarian government. They think that defeatism is counterproductive and take every opportunity to raise their voices against naysayers. Among these people we find some who think that these pessimists are actually Fidesz propagandists whose job is to spread the dogma of Fidesz invincibility. But, to be fair, one doesn’t need to be a Fidesz troll to feel less than optimistic given the state of affairs in the country.

I for one agree that the proverbial Hungarian pessimism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which should be avoided at all costs. But, at the same time, we must admit that overcoming the obstacles that Orbán and his minions have placed in front of those desiring change is a formidable task.

Today I would like to hearten those who are worried about Hungary’s future by writing about two men who decided to stand up to the government. The first is Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s friend from high school, who reaped all the benefits of the mafia state until his falling out with the prime minister about a year and a half ago. The other is Bachar Najari, a Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss businessman, the new owner of the famed Zsolnay Porcelain Factory in Pécs. Although for different reasons, both were targeted for financial annihilation by a corrupt regime. It looks as if the powers that be are finding it difficult to destroy them.

Some people believe that Lajos Simicska’s contribution to the creation, development, and final accomplishment of Fidesz was even greater than Viktor Orbán’s. After all, it was Simicska who brought home the bacon. Of course, in the process he himself became immensely rich. But then came the falling out. Orbán, being a vindictive man, decided to ruin his old friend financially.

Simicska’s most important business venture is Közgép, a construction company that specializes in building highways and railways. As such, it is heavily dependent on government orders. Thus, Simicska looked like an easy target. Indeed, right after the blow-up between the two men, the government suspended midstream the highway that was to be built by Közgép. The second move was that the Public Procurement Authority (Közbeszerzési Hatóság), which handles government tenders, “discovered” that Simicska’s firm had cheated on one of its tenders. It was decided that as punishment Közgép would not be able to compete for any government jobs for three years. Simicska went to court and won, both in the lower court and also on appeal.

Trying to ruin Simicska through Közgép was not enough. Orbán instructed István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest, to break a long-term contract with Simicska’s firm, Mahir Cityposter. In 2006 the firm acquired the right to provide the city with 761 large cylindrical kiosks. The contract was to be good for 25 years. Ten years later the city suddenly “discovered” that the contract was not fair. When Simicska didn’t remove the kiosks by a specified date, the city ordered them to be forcibly removed despite a court order to stop the vandalism. Simicska promptly hired György Magyar, a very able lawyer, who said from the beginning that the case was absolutely clear-cut. And indeed, he was right. A few days ago the court agreed with the argument Simicska’s lawyer presented and forbade the removal of the kiosks while the case is pending before the court of appeal. The city will also have to pay 6.8 million forints in court costs. If the city loses, it will have to pay Simicska 600 million forints in damages.

Perhaps Simicska’s savviest move to date has been to form a consortium with the Italian company Itinera, which has been described in the Hungarian media as “a big gun.” Itinera has been “active in large-scale infrastructure projects and civil construction for more than 75 years in Italy and around the world.” Közgép together with Itinera presented a bid for a 27 km-long section of the M4 highway between Berettyóújfalu and the Romanian border. Their bid was 58 billion forints or approximately 188 million euros. Two other consortiums were also eyeing the job: (1) a consortium of three Hungarian companies whose bid was 84 billion forints or approximately 268 million euros and (2) a French-Slovak-Czech consortium that bid 87 billion forints or 272 million euros.

The difference in price is staggering. It seems that Simicska with this offer wanted to show the fair (admittedly, probably on the low end of fair) price of road construction and to highlight the graft that is normally built into these bids. In the case of the Hungarian consortium it was as much as 26 billion forints or 80 million euros. In this particular case almost 3 million euros per km would end up in someone else’s pocket. Of course, it is still possible to find fault with the Közgép-Itinera tender if Viktor Orbán so desires, saying that price is not everything, but apparently the Közgép-Itinera bid is also best in every other category, including environmental considerations. The consensus is that it will be very difficult to award the project to anyone else.

 

Now we can turn to the case of Bachar Najari, the Syrian-Swiss businessman with a Hungarian wife who also speaks fluent Hungarian. How Najari ended up owning the Zsolnay porcelain factory is a long story, which I pretty well told in a post titled “How to ruin a businessman with government help.” The upshot of the story is that one of Viktor Orbán’s oligarchs, Attila Paár, decided that he would like to own the factory because many of the vintage buildings in Budapest that will be restored or even rebuilt will need the famed terracotta tiles Zsolnay was famous for in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Najari had managed to put the formerly city-owned factory on solid financial footing, and it looked as if from here on it would be a profitable enterprise, especially with the impending sale of roof tiles. There was a fairly large loan which had been taken out by the city earlier from the Hungarian Development Bank for which Najari offered a certain amount of money to settle the account. The bank declined the offer and instead sold the debt for half of what Najari had offered to Attila Paár. Meanwhile, the city of Pécs decided to help Paár along by setting up a bogus company to which it recruited more than half of the workforce of Zsolnay. These workers are actually on paid vacation and no one knows who pays them. The situation was compared by one of the workers of the factory to a gangster film from the 1930s.

gangsters

Najari decided to fight. First he managed to get back his stock, which had been placed under sequestration. He used his own money and made good on the debt he inherited when he bought the factory from Pécs and also paid 90 million in local taxes, although it was a disputed item. Therefore there was no more reason for the city, which owns 19% of the stock, to take over the factory. Then the Kaposvár court refused to register Pécs’s new porcelain manufacturer, called Ledina Kerámia. Finally, the court in Zalaegerszeg turned down the request for a liquidation of the Zsolnay factory. A few days ago the city of Pécs “sold” the nonexistent Ledina Kerámia to an unnamed off-shore company. The city claims that the sale, for 3 million forints, “will ensure the jobs of those workers who were enticed to leave Zsolnay because it was to fold soon.”

Meanwhile work is being done at Zsolnay. Najari refused to be intimidated, and it seems that he managed to foil the attempt to rob him blind.

Although it is not easy, these two cases show that a person can win as long as he has the means and the determination to stop the Orbán regime’s unscrupulous, illegal activities.

September 19, 2016

Holding the Olympic Games in Budapest: Viktor Orbán’s obsession

In the last week or so we have been learning more about the cost of Viktor Orbán’s dream project: to host the Olympic Games in 2024.

It’s hard to know exactly when he first entertained the idea. We know that by the time he became prime minister in 1998 he was already plotting to hold the 2012 Olympics in Budapest. Luckily Orbán lost the election in 2002, and the following year the Medgyessy government had the good sense to withdraw Hungary’s bid. But a lot of money had already been spent on the project, which was unrealistic from the start. What a disappointing year it had to have been for Orbán. No fancy palace for the first family in the Castle District and no chance of hosting Olympic Games in Budapest. But Orbán never gives up on his pet projects. He just may live in the Sándor Palace one day. And he is still working hard on his Olympic dream.

MTI / Photo: Tibor Illyés

MTI / Photo: Tibor Illyés

Over the course of the last two years, in great secrecy, a team prepared Hungary’s bid. Until recently no one managed to get any information out of the government concerning the amount of money that has been spent so far. A few figures have been known for some time. For example, $36 million was spent just on the bidding process, which included feasibility studies and projected estimates. The total cost of $2.8 billion that PricewaterhouseCoopers came out with is considered by Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College, who is an expert on the economics of the Olympic Games, simply “fanciful.” For recent Olympics “the cost runs from about $15 billion to $30 billion.” He carefully calculated the costs and the possible benefits of holding the Games and came to the conclusion that they were financial suicide for most cities.

Holding the games in Budapest has many opponents, mostly of course from the ranks of the opposition. They even tried to hold a referendum on the question, which was rejected by both the government and the Fidesz-majority City of Budapest. The Kúria followed suit. If the government is at all worried about the outcome of a possible referendum, it makes sure that it will never be held.

In early August Publicus Research published a poll which found that the majority of respondents didn’t want to have the Olympics held in Hungary. Seventy-five percent of them considered the cost too high and 64% thought that the country is too poor for such an extravagance. Almost 60% believed that the money spent on the Olympics would only enrich entrepreneurs close to Viktor Orbán. Two-thirds would spend the money on healthcare and education instead.

After quite a few months and a lot of effort, journalists finally got some information about the money that has been spent already, which is staggering. As 444.hu aptly declared, those figures should convince the government that “it would be time right now to abandon the whole affair.” The money flows through an office which began functioning in 2015 called Budapest 2024 Nonprofit Zrt., owned jointly by the Magyar Olimpiai Bizottság (MOB) and the City of Budapest. The office is well endowed by the government. This year alone it has a budget of close to $36 million. Next year Budapest 2024 will most likely receive the same amount. The nonprofit spends a lot of money on itself. For example, it moved into the Eiffel Palace, one of the notorious purchases of the Hungarian National Bank, which is perhaps the most expensive piece of real estate in the whole city.

The estimate of $2.8 billion, which Zimbalist considered to be “fanciful,” doesn’t include such items as new bridges across the Danube, new streetcar lines, and a new railroad bridge. These items, according to estimates, add an additional $7.2 billion. So, we have already reached the lowest possible figure of $10 billion that Zimbalist was talking about. This figure is 8% of Hungary’s current annual GDP. Moreover, if this is their own estimate, we can be sure that the final figure will be at least twice as much.

Zimbalist published an article, “An Economic Myth of Olympic Proportions,” just about the time the Olympic Games began. He described the Games as boondoggles in the majority of the cases. He called the International Olympic Committee (IOC) “an unregulated global monopoly” which conducts a biannual auction in which cities compete against one another to prove their suitability. “The outcome of this process is predictable: winning cities usually overbid.” Recent Olympic Games have cost $15-20 billion and the total revenue for the host city was about $3.5-4.5 billion, including TV contracts. Why is the figure so low? Because 75% of the revenue from the TV contracts goes to the IOC and only 25% to the host city.

People who are keen on hosting the Olympics argue that holding the games boosts tourism, but this is not always the case. In fact, tourism in London during July and August 2012 decreased by 5% because ordinary tourists don’t want to encounter huge crowds, transportation delays, inflated prices, and possible security threats. And the argument that the country as a result of a successful Olympics will be more attractive to investors is hollow. Why should it be?

Péter Zentai, a Hungarian journalist, interviewed Zimbalist at the end of August, in the course of which he elaborated on his assessment of the economic aspects of the Games. According to his estimate, the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has lost about $10 billion. The Hungarian organizers argue that the so-called Agenda 2020 of the IOC puts a lid on the enormous expenses associated with the Games. But, according to Zimbalist, Agenda 2020 “doesn’t contain anything new.” The International Olympic Committee has always talked about “flexibility, sustainability, reuse” but at the end there was “always the same megalomania.” It’s no wonder that smaller cities like Cracow, Oslo, Stockholm, and San Moritz changed their minds. And there is talk about the possibility of Rome withdrawing its bid. The sad fact is that a mere 20% of the money spent benefits the economy and society of the city and the country.

One can only hope that Budapest will not win against Paris or Los Angeles, assuming Rome is no longer in the running. Even if the Hungarian government doesn’t have any sense and refuses to realize that the country doesn’t have the financial strength and the infrastructure in place to host the usual summer extravagance, perhaps those who decide the issue will.

September 5, 2016