Tag Archives: Christian Democratic People’s Party

A Christian Democratic politician’s illicit affair with a minor

Journalists from local papers often uncover important pieces of political news that would otherwise never be reported in the larger nationwide papers and internet sites. The County of Vas is lucky in this respect because nyugat.hu is an independent paper, unlike most of the regional papers recently acquired by Lőrinc Mészáros, the alter ego of Viktor Orbán. “Nyugat” in Hungarian means “West,” both as a geographic term and as a metaphor, standing for enlightenment.

When news reached nyugat.hu that Ferenc Szabó (KDNP), the deputy mayor of Körmend, had resigned, the paper’s journalists figured that something dramatic must have happened because Szabó has been deputy mayor of the town of 10,000 for the last 19 years. Szabó’s explanation for his departure was a desire to spend more time on his “research.” Nyugat.hu carried a short article about the resignation and Szabó’s stated reason for stepping down but ended with “we will return to the matter later.”

And indeed they did. The next day nyugat.hu revealed the real reason for the resignation. The parents of a 16-year-old girl, currently enrolled in grade 10 in the local gymnasium, had filed charges against Szabó. They claimed he had had an illicit sexual relationship with their daughter when she was Szabó’s student either in grade 7 or 8–that is, under the age of 16. In brief, they charged him with statutory rape. As it turned out, the people of Körmend had been whispering about the 56-year-old teacher’s affair with his former student and they even complained to members of the city council. But the Fidesz-KDNP-majority city council was reluctant to move until the parents themselves filed a complaint with the police. By the end of January, they convinced Szabó to resign, but they didn’t insist on his total removal from the body. He resigned as deputy mayor but kept his seat on the council as an independent.

Ferenc Eőry Szabó

The weak opposition in Körmend is up in arms. Jobbik demanded his dismissal from the Körmend Council and called on the Fidesz mayor to make the information about the reason for Szabó’s resignation public. MSZP’s Körmend organization demanded the same. A civic organization called “Pro Körmend,” which actually has a member on the city council, claimed that Szabó’s “proclivity” for sexual advances toward his young female students had been known for years in the school. They wanted to know why the principal had done nothing. They also accused the Fidesz mayor who, according to them, tried to hush up the scandal.

There is good reason for these complaints because the parents apparently first approached the school principal and the mayor but didn’t receive any assistance or encouragement. So, at the end of January, they decided to go to the police and file a complaint.

ATV approached the Szombathely center of the infamous Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), which is supposed to be in charge of the elementary school where Szabó was and still is a teacher. The head of the center told the television station that he had received “no written complaint” from the institution, which begged the question as to whether KLIK had gotten verbal information from the school. And indeed, the center did hear from the school, but “at first the center looked upon the complaint as a simple political affair.” After a few days of thinking, the leader of the center suggested a face-to-face meeting between Szabó and the parents and the child, which I don’t believe took place.

Meanwhile the national leaders of KDNP–Zsolt Semjén, chairman, and Péter Harrach, head of KDNP’s parliamentary delegation–promised that Szabó will be expelled from the party if he is found guilty of the charge. For the time being, it seems that the party would be happy if Szabó took the initiative, if he resigned and quietly disappeared.

In order to understand Ferenc Szabó’s prominence in Körmend over and above his political activities, spanning the period between 1994 and 2017, it is important to dig into those “research activities” he quoted as the reason for his resignation. As soon as I read that Szabó’s “field of expertise” is “őstörténet” (prehistory), I knew that he had to be one of those people who propound outlandish and singularly unscientific theories about the history of humankind in the period before recorded history. There are, of course, linguists and archaeologists who can offer some hypotheses about, let’s say, the movements of Hungarian tribes along the steppes of Eurasia, but these people’s assumptions are based on scientific evidence. By contrast, there is a whole network of self-styled prehistory researchers, whom I consider to be the lunatic fringe. Szabó is one of them.

When it comes to Szabó’s theories, nyugat.hu politely called them “rather strange.” Among other things, he believes that “Hungarians are an entirely different species.” And that is just the beginning of the madness. He believes that we might be “cosmic beings.”

Ferenc Eőry Szabó, the embellished name he assumed for his research, along with some other prehistory hobbyists, established the Körmendi Kulturális Műhely (Cultural Workshop of Körmend), which hosts meetings featuring similar “prehistory researchers” and makes the videos available on the internet. The workshop also publishes books. Eőry Szabó was one of the authors of Szkíták—Hunok–Magyarok. The book’s blurb claims that anyone reading this book will be convinced that Hungarians are the ancestors of mankind. “The Bible is right. In the past there was only one language and one nation,” which was of course Hungarian.

Eőry Szabó also organizes conferences, one of which was on János Móricz, who was born in Körmend in 1923. Móricz allegedly discovered an Indian tribe in Ecuador whose members “could converse with Móricz in Hungarian.” One of the participants in this conference was Eőry Szabó’s “fellow researcher” Ágnes Purisaca Golenya. She was born Ágnes Golenya in Miskolc but received her second family name from the Indian Purisaca family in northern Peru. Her “famous” book is The Children of Blue Blood, “who are humans, living on earth, who belong to the system of Sirius headed by Mother Isis.” Just to give you an idea of Purisaca Golenya’s linguistic expertise, she even managed to prove that the name Sylvester can be explained by an Indian language spoken in Ecuador (Szilveszter = Sili-Us-Ter).

I’ve linked to the video of Purisaca Golenya’s lecture on “From Sirius to the Carpathian Basin.” But there are at least half a dozen such lectures available online from the series of lectures Szabó organized in Körmend.

One can only hope that he leaves his so-called expertise on prehistory outside the classroom, but I somehow doubt it. He is dead serious about all this stuff. He believes that “history must be reformed,” as he put it in his introduction to one of the lectures, so I can’t believe that he doesn’t spread the gospel even in school. His removal from his teaching position is therefore doubly justified.

February 9, 2017

Fidesz heavyweights against Viktor Orbán

Who would have thought that Viktor Orbán’s decision to repeal the law on Sunday store closings would create such turmoil in government circles? Deep divisions surfaced not only between Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) but also within Fidesz itself. To my great surprise some very important political leaders–like János Lázár, Zoltán Balog, and László Kövér–turned out to be such staunch supporters of this unpopular measure that they opted to stay away to avoid voting for the bill. Lázár and Balog made clear that their absence must be interpreted as a “no” vote. All three have been fined 100,000 ft. for not following the compulsory voting procedure for members of the Fidesz delegation.

We have to keep in mind is that the present Hungarian government is not a coalition. It is a “pártszövetség” (party alliance), which gives the Christian Democrats very little room for political maneuvering. The actual political strength of the party is minuscule. The party is nothing more than a political club whose largest “victory” was in 1994 when it received 5.7% of the votes. Four years later, with 2.59%, it ceased to be represented in parliament. Then, after eight years of inactivity, it resurfaced as part of Fidesz in 2006. The revival of the party and the fact that Fidesz essentially sponsored it was the result of Zsolt Semjén’s clever politicking. Once the party alliance was in place, he managed to get a fair number of government positions for KDNP members who, by the way, are often also members of Fidesz. One such person was Rózsa Hoffmann, who failed miserably as undersecretary of education. Bence Rétvári is another Christian Democrat who is now rather unsuccessfully battling with the teachers’ unions.

In addition to the failed “education reform,” KDNP had a couple of other issues they felt strongly about. One of these was the formulation of a new law on the churches. But after they put a lot of work into drafting a bill, Fidesz took over the project and completely rewrote it. The party also felt strongly about a so-called family bankruptcy law, which turned out to be so poorly formulated that after the government set aside half a billion dollars for it, only 100 families signed up. And, of course, the crown jewel of KDNP’s political agenda was the Sunday closing of retail stores. That turned out to be a failure too. Once Viktor Orbán was faced with a likely referendum on the issue, he quickly decided to repeal the legislation and reopen stores on Sunday.

In the last few weeks the Orbán government has been faced with two huge headaches: the revolt of the teachers and the upheaval surrounding István Nyakó’s referendum question. One wonders whether Viktor Orbán might not be re-weighing the benefit of having KDNP as an “ally.” At the moment it is only a pain in the neck.

I assume that Viktor Orbán is clever enough to make KDNP even more marginal in the “alliance” than it is now. The problem is that there is a cleavage even within Fidesz itself when it comes to the Sunday closing issue. As far as I can see, the Fidesz bigwigs’ opposition is not ideological as KDNP’s is. For many Christian Democratic politicians Sunday is a holy day when good Catholics are supposed to go to church. So, they look on the legislation as, at least in part, a religious issue. The Fidesz rebels apparently disagree with Orbán’s pandering to the voters. As a populist his main concern is the government/party’s popularity. If public opinion polls provided by the party’s own think tank, Századvég, indicate that Sunday store closing is not popular and that the opposition will rally the dissatisfied, it must be abolished. Apparently, it is this totally pragmatic approach that bothers László Kövér, János Lázár, and Zoltán Balog.

Viktor Orbán and János Lázar at the plenary session on Monday / MTI Photo Tibor Illyés

Viktor Orbán and János Lázar at the plenary session on Monday.  MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

According to 444.hu, over the weekend the highest officeholders of Fidesz got together. Both Kövér and Balog expressed their strong opposition to a retreat on the issue. Their argument was based on principles. Fidesz, according to them, is a conservative Christian party which made the decision out of conviction, and it should stick with it even at the cost of a loss of popularity. On Monday, during the cabinet meeting, the debate continued. At that meeting Lázár supported Balog and posed the theoretical question: “If the people don’t want stadiums, will we start demolishing them?” A few hours later, at the meeting of the Fidesz caucus, Kövér expressed his disgust at the decision.

At the moment it is difficult to know how serious a rift we are witnessing and where it may lead. I wonder, for example, how long Orbán will put up with Lázár’s less than loyal comments and his open disagreements with the prime minister. Perhaps Lázár thinks that he is irreplaceable, but we know that nobody is. I find it interesting that on his way to the Voivodina (Serbia) last night Viktor Orbán stopped in Hódmezővásárhely to have dinner at the Lázár house. In fact, he spent the night there. I suspect this was not a social call but a heated discussion of their disagreement over fundamental issues.

Many commentators consider the repeal of the law on Sunday store closings a huge defeat for MSZP and the other opposition parties, which have been deprived of at least three months of anti-government campaigning and possible victory at the polls. This is not how László Kövér sees the retreat. He considers Orbán’s decision “a huge mistake which cannot be left without comment.” He believes that Fidesz “ceded the unattended field to the left opposition, which can now wage a bait campaign against [them].” Fidesz was unable to convince the people of the correctness of their original decision, and if they don’t do better in the future they will be in trouble at the 2018 election.

And just one more word about our inimitable László Kövér. He was outraged that women were disproportionately against the Sunday closing. He said that they should show more solidarity toward those who must work on Sundays. This interview, which originally appeared in Magyar Idők, was summarized in HVG where, unlike in Magyar Idők, people can comment. Most of the comments were negative, many expressing their dislike of Kövér. Not surprisingly many women commented. One woman wrote: “I would love to be the wife of Kövér for a short while.” To which another wrote: “Me too! Lucrezia Borgia …. :-)”

April 13, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s lost battle: Sunday store closings

A few days ago I recalled an interview with a couple of talking heads who complained about the pettiness of the political issues the opposition was wasting its time on, like the closing of larger retail stores on Sunday. Why have a political debate about such a ridiculous topic? Well, the question of whether large supermarkets and big box stores should be open or closed turned out to be a much larger issue than these people thought. After thirteen months of wrangling and scheming, the Orbán government threw in the towel. The 2015 law that forbade these stores to be open on Sunday will most likely be repealed tomorrow.

The news spread rapidly. Libération’s Budapest correspondence, Florence La Bruere, published a detailed article on the Orbán government’s decision to reintroduce Sunday closings 25 years after the change of regime. In the article she quotes a woman who told her that “under socialism, everything was closed on weekends. After the fall of communism, stores could be open on Sundays and we really enjoyed that. It was a symbol of freedom.” It was this feeling of freedom that was taken away from Hungarians, who overwhelmingly opposed the new law.

Ever since November 2014 a tug-of-war has been waged between the government, which stubbornly insisted on defending a bad decision, and the people this government allegedly represents. Numerous attempts were made to force the Orbán administration to allow a referendum on the question, all to no avail. At least until now, when the highest court of the land, the Kúria, overturning the decision of both the National Election Office and the National Election Commission, allowed the socialists to begin a drive to collect the necessary number of signatures. The government’s reaction was swift. Fearing defeat at the polls, they opted to repeal the law that Fidesz-KDNP had enacted in November 2014.

Because of lack of common sense Closed Opening: Uncertain

Because of lack of common sense
Closed
Opening: Uncertain

From the beginning there was an ongoing debate about why Viktor Orbán agreed to the demand of KDNP, the Christian Democratic People’s Party. KDNP is a party that doesn’t really exist. But its phony parliamentary delegation allows the right wing to be over-represented on committees. I suggested that the leaders of this party, which normally follows Viktor Orbán without question, decided to make an issue of the Sunday store closings. They most likely handed a reluctant Orbán an ultimatum: if Fidesz doesn’t cave on this issue, they might not support a bill that is of great importance to Fidesz. My opponents suspected that the key to this case was not so much the Christian Democrats’ insistence but pressure coming from two Hungarian-owned supermarket chains, operating as franchises. They lobbied for a law that would be advantageous to smaller stores that can remain open on Sundays and disadvantageous to the large foreign-owned chains. Of course, it is possible, even likely, that pressure came from these sources, but given the reaction of the Catholic Church and KDNP there can be no doubt that the Christian Democratic (non)-party had a major role to play here.

KDNP’s fight for Sunday closings began in 2000, and a year later the Conference of Catholic Bishops joined forces with the party. One must keep in mind that the chairman of KDNP, Zsolt Semjén, once described his party as the political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church. Ever since that time Sunday store closings remained an important demand of the Christian Democrats as well as the Catholic Church. In April 2011 they managed to convince the national economic ministry to conduct a study which, unfortunately for them, showed that the issue was both politically and economically sensitive. It would be unpopular, and it would deprive the budget of about 50 billion forints in taxes. So, for almost four years the issue was not on the agenda. Sometime in early November 2014, however, Viktor Orbán unexpectedly decided to support the idea. The bill was signed into law on December 16, 2014, and beginning on the following March 15 supermarkets, big box stores, and many other retail stores closed their doors on most Sundays.

The repeal of the law on Sunday closings sheds light on decision-making in Orbán’s government. On Friday, on Hungarian state radio, Viktor Orbán still talked about the desirability of Sunday closings and in fact revealed that his government in the past few years has been trying to find ways to extend work-free Sundays to encompass not only the retail trade but other sectors as well. He said, however, that they will take a look at the economic consequences of the current practice on Monday. I got the impression that if the economic indicators were favorable, the present law would remain in force. Moreover, he added, they have “plenty of time” to make a decision. In one sentence that most people overlooked, however, Orbán said that “in light of the debate [in the cabinet meeting] we will decide on the right political conduct.” So, after all, it was not to be a purely economic decision.

This morning Bence Tuzson, undersecretary in charge of government communication, seemed not to have been updated since Friday. In an interview on ATV’s Start he fiercely defended the current practice of Sunday closings. A couple of hours later, Sunday closings were on their way out.

Although I’m sure he tried, Viktor Orbán couldn’t convince the KDNP to support the repeal of the bill their party found so important for ideological reasons. Only about half an hour after the announcement of the decision by Antal Rogán, Népszabadság learned that Péter Harrach, leader of the KDNP caucus, indicated that their MPs will not vote for the repeal. “The question has been a matter of principle for the last seven years,” he said. Soon after the announcement, the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops complained that the government hadn’t asked their opinion. András Veres, president of the Conference, added that “as a Christian and as a bishop of the Church [he finds] the present decision of the government mistaken and outright wrong.” The same Veres, according to HVG, declared that he “hasn’t heard of anyone who died of starvation because he couldn’t buy food on Sunday.”

It is not only the Christian Democrats and the Catholic Church who are against the decision to repeal the law. According to rumor, János Lázár is considering not voting for the bill that most likely will reach the floor tomorrow, although Orbán warned the Fidesz ministers that not voting for the bill might mean losing their jobs. Many rumors are baseless, but perhaps this time there is something to this gossip because Nándor Csepreghy, Lázár’s deputy who is close to his boss, indicated that the younger generation of Fidesz politicians was ready to continue the fight despite societal opposition and pressure from the opposition. Lázár certainly belongs to the younger generation of Fidesz leaders.

As for the economic side of the question, it is hard to decide whether Sunday closings hurt retail business or not. Those who claim it did point out that today there are 8,000 fewer employees in retail trade than at the beginning of 2015. Moreover, they add, in the last year alone about 800 small stores had to close. They argue that the small stores didn’t gain at the expense of large foreign chains, as the government intended. On the contrary, they lost customers. The real beneficiaries, the argument goes, were precisely those large supermarkets and big box stores the government wanted to discriminate against. On the other side, the argument goes something like this. Businesses have only gained by Sunday closings. Their turnover last year was 6% higher than the year before. But the increase in turnover might be explained by higher real wages and the hookup of cash registers with the National Tax Office. And, at the same time, the shuttering of many smaller stores may have nothing to do with Sunday closings.

The wisdom of the repeal is obvious. As Magyar Nemzet rightly pointed out, Fidesz isn’t so much afraid of the result of the referendum as the “road to it.” If a referendum were held, the opposition parties would have three months to campaign in favor of the repeal and against the government. Although the retreat is a loss of face for Fidesz, given its current problems it is better for the government to back down than to slug it out.

Now the opposition should turn to the role played by the officials of the National Election Office and the National Election Committee. The Kúria clearly stated that these officials are unfit to lead an independent body that is supposed to guard the purity of the elections. How can we trust the results of future elections if the decisions of these people are guided by the government’s interests? The opposition parties should also force the government to begin a serious investigation into the circumstances of the February 23 events at the National Election Office. The likelihood of Fidesz involvement on some level in the skinheads’ appearance at the Election Office is pretty obvious to everybody. If the opposition parties put as much effort into these two projects as MSZP did in validating its referendum question, victory might be possible. Fidesz is becoming vulnerable.

April 11, 2016

How far is Hungary prepared to go to raise the country’s birthrate?

On January 7 only a few people, mostly bloggers who spend a lot of time on the Internet, especially on Facebook, noticed that the Budapest section of the Association of Young Christian Democrats (Ifjú Kereszténydemokraták Szövetsége / IKSZ) was planning to gather to discuss Hungary’s demographic woes and possible remedies, like extra levies on single adults over the age of 24 or barring women with fewer than three children from important positions in the public sphere. That would mean, for instance, that “underperforming” women in healthcare and education could not become department heads, principals, or full professors. As it turned out, the Young Christian Democrats were inspired by a newly published book, At the Edge of the Precipice, written by József Benda.

To me József Benda is something of a mystery. In an article on him that appeared in Magyar Nemzet he is described as a sociologist. In another article he is said to run a private, experimental school based on a teaching method called “humanistic cooperative teaching.” Apparently Benda started his school, the Humánus Alapítványi Általános Iskola, in Újpest in 1982. Elsewhere Benda is presented as a university professor at the Budapest Metropolitan University, the largest private university in Hungary with master’s programs in communication and media studies, management and leadership, tourism management, and graphic design. In the last few years Benda seems to have devoted his time and energy to the study of demography. He is trying to find answers to the dwindling Hungarian population.

József Benda is no stranger to KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party). In fact it was the party’s foundation, the Barankovics István Alapítvány, that supported his book’s publication, which approaches Hungary’s demographic problem from an entirely new angle. If I understand it correctly, in Benda’s opinion the reason today’s adults don’t want to have children is because in their childhood they missed a close and loving relationship with their mother due to the mother’s role as a wage earner. Well, I for one don’t buy Benda’s hypothesis, but if he had been satisfied with proposing a theoretical explanation for the low birth rate, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Unfortunately, he has scores of “suggestions” for how to remedy the situation. And the vehicle for his thoughts is the Christian Democratic Party.

The idea of a debate on Benda’s ideas organized by the Young Christian Democrats was quickly abandoned. As Népszabadság noted, they got scared by the vehemence of the negative reaction all around. As soon as the paper reported on the forthcoming debate, the chairman of IKSZ phoned. He denied that he himself had anything to do with the gathering and later announced that the group “supports the government, whose policy is to lower taxes” and therefore it doesn’t support any punitive tax on childless women.

Benda’s ideas are truly outlandish, as we will see a bit later, but the problem is that some of them have been circulating in Fidesz circles for a number of years. As early as 2006 Fidesz talked about an extra tax on childless people. In fact, during the campaign Orbán promised that if Fidesz wins the election they will introduce a tax policy where childless people will pay three times more taxes than those with three children. Luckily for people without children Viktor Orbán lost the election.

In June 2010, however, the topic surfaced again. Peter Boross, former prime minister and now an adviser to Orbán, suggested the introduction of an extra levy on childless people. At the same time an association established to represent the interests of large families suggested a 10% surcharge “to put an end to individual selfishness.” So, although Benda’s ideas might be outlandish, it is not outside the realm of possibilities that the Orbán government is seriously thinking about introducing some kind of punitive taxation on couples without children despite the fact that the Young Christian Democrats retreated.

A spoof on a famous recruiting poster from 1919. Instead "Into arms!" "Get pregnant!

A wordplay on a famous recruiting poster from 1919. Instead of “To arms!” (Fegyverbe!) “Get pregnant!” (Teherbe!)

Today HVG’s print edition reported that KDNP not only subsidized Benda’s book but most likely also asked him to develop an “action plan.” This action plan is truly outlandish. First of all, most of the suggestions are highly discriminatory. For example, Benda recommends an extra levy only on single women over the age of thirty, as if women alone were responsible for bringing a child into the world. These women would have to contribute financially to families with many children. Benda recommends limitations on abortions for women between the ages of 35 and 40. Infertile women may hire surrogates, something that is currently illegal in Hungary. Benda suggests easier adoption of infants, even from war-torn areas outside of Hungary. Placing babies before the age of one in day care or a nursery school should be forbidden. College students should receive stipends if they are ready to produce children during their college years. Every workplace with ten or more employees, including private companies, should hire a “demographic commissioner” who would be responsible for limiting the workload of women between the ages of 35 and 42. The government should launch a media campaign showing the success stories of women who gave birth at the age of 40. The government should financially support people’s dating, their weddings, the birth of their children, etc.

Hungarians by now know only too well that once these kinds of stories circulate, regardless of how crazy they sound, the government will eventually come up with something that it deems essential for its plans. Since traditional methods for boosting the Hungarian birthrate haven’t worked, they are willing to try unconventional ideas.

The kind of demographic change Viktor Orbán is dreaming about did happen in the early 1950s during the Rákosi period, when the government forbade the performance of abortions and levied extra taxes on childless men between the ages of 20 and 50 and childless women between the ages of 20 and 45. As a result, in 1952 the birth rate spiked: 250,000 babies were born. These people, now in their sixties, are called the Ratkó babies, after Anna Ratkó, who was the minister of health at the time. But then there was no pill and the borders were sealed.

Reading Benda’s wish list, one has the distinct feeling that he wants a dramatic change in the next year or two because otherwise the problem cannot be remedied. But without another set of “Ratkó babies” it cannot be done, and I very much doubt that the Orbán government would dare to cut back on the availability of abortions. Such a move could be suicidal.

In any case, Zita Gurmai (MSZP), former EP member, wants to know the truth: what Viktor Orbán is contemplating. She suspects that if Hungarians are not watchful, the same thing will happen to them that happened when the Christian Democrats insisted on closing stores on Sunday. First the government denies any such plans and then one day they become reality.

How did Calvinism survive in Hungary?

Foreigners are always surprised when I tell them that I am not a Catholic. People who are only superficially acquainted with Hungary assume that, just like in Poland, every Hungarian is a Catholic. These same people would be surprised to learn that in the second half of the sixteenth century about 80% of the country’s population was Protestant–mostly Calvinists and to a lesser extent Lutherans. The situation was the same in Poland, where 90% of the nobles who were members of the sejm, the Polish parliament, were Protestants. But then came the counter-reformation, which in Poland’s case was so successful that, according to the latest statistics, 87.5% of the population declare themselves to be Catholic. The rest either refuse to answer or claim to be non-believers.

In Hungary the situation is different, due mostly to the semi-independent Transylvanian Principality (1570-1711) and the Ottoman occupation of the central parts of the Kingdom of Hungary (1541-1699). In the principality, the elected princes were either converts to Calvinism, as in the case of János Zsigmond, the first prince of Transylvania (1565-1571), or were already born as Calvinists and were therefore promoters of freedom of religion. In the case of the Ottoman-held territories, Catholic aristocratic families fled north or west into so-called Royal Hungary, and therefore their former serfs could follow their own religious inclinations. Just to give you an idea of how widespread the Calvinist and Lutheran denominations were, the great Hungarian churchman Péter Pázmány (1570-1637), the towering figure of the Hungarian counter-reformation, was born into a Calvinist family in 1570. He converted to Catholicism while attending a Catholic school in Kolozsvár/Cluj.

Martin Luther’s teachings reached Hungary very early. Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses were published in 1517, and two or three years later his teaching spread to those Hungarian towns that were inhabited largely by German-speaking people.

From 1540 on, however, the teachings of John Calvin became much more popular, especially in the villages. The changes in religious affiliation came about in an ad hoc fashion. In the early days individual parish priests attracted to the reform movement began to change the liturgy, slightly or more substantially. They began conducting services in Hungarian. Depictions of saints were painted over in white, in keeping with the puritanism of Calvinists. And when there was no priest ready to change his religion, wandering preachers went from village to village to spread the teachings of the new Protestant churches. Initially these people were ordinary tradesmen without much education, but soon enough highly educated men who had returned from western universities began working as missionaries. One of the early foreign-educated preachers was Mihály Sztárai (d. 1575?), who was active on both sides of the Dráva River. He established 120 Protestant congregations in Baranya County and in Slavonia (the northern part of Croatia) between 1544 and 1551. It was most likely under his influence that my ancestors became first (perhaps) Lutherans and later Calvinists. At the time the dividing line wasn’t that clear.

During the seventeenth century the Catholic Habsburgs used drastic measures against Calvinist and Lutheran ministers, and pressure was exerted on aristocratic families to convert to Catholicism. Once that was accomplished, the Crown used the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose land it is decides the religion), which was an alien concept in Hungarian constitutional law. Thus masses of common folk were returned to the fold. Until the majority of the inhabitants became Catholic again.

Because of the ardent Catholicism of the House of Habsburg, Calvinism became a “Hungarian religion.” With it came an anti-establishment attitude. Hungarian Calvinists believed that they were second-class citizens, a persecuted minority, which they certainly were until Joseph II’s Toleration Act of 1781. This edict put an end to more than 100 years of religious persecution of non-Catholics. But even it imposed restrictions on Protestants. For example, their churches couldn’t have a steeple, and no gate of a Protestant church could open onto the street.

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of the cross

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of a cross

The number of Calvinists in Hungary today is difficult to ascertain because at census time the declaration of religion is voluntary. According to the 2011 census, 39% of Hungarians declared themselves to be Catholics, 11.6% Calvinists, 2.2% Lutherans, 16.7% non-religious, and 2.5% atheists. The number of Jews is practically impossible to determine because they are leery about declaring their Jewishness. They most likely can be found in the non-religious category.

This 11.6% translates into 1,622,000 people. In addition, there is a large number of Calvinists (almost all Hungarians) living in Transylvania. Of the 1,227,623 people who claim Hungarian ethnicity there are 600,000 Calvinists. In 2009 they became part of a single Hungarian Reformed Church.

Reading the official history of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I was struck by the pent-up resentment against the authorities who through the ages looked upon the church and its followers as second-class citizens. The Catholic church and the state lived in a symbiotic relationship which the Calvinist hierarchy couldn’t share, even during the interwar period when Miklós Horthy, the governor, was a Calvinist. They hoped to find some “redress of past injuries and great losses” which, they feel even today, they didn’t receive.

As for the present state of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I would say that they are still “trying to climb into the position of being a second-tier state religion,” as the official history claims about the interwar period. But they are on the losing side when the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which was described by Zsolt Semjén, its chairman, as “the political arm of the Catholic Church,” is in coalition with Fidesz. The centuries-old symbiosis between the secular power of the state and the Catholic Church is far too strong.

Here is one example. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, is a Calvinist minister. Prior to his appointment, the undersecretary in charge of church affairs was also a Calvinist. When Balog took over the ministry, Semjén insisted on the resignation of the Protestant undersecretary. Having two Calvinists in this ministry was unacceptable to the Catholic Church.

I don’t follow the affairs of the Hungarian Reformed Church very closely, but my impression is that its leaders are inclined to sympathize with the far right, or at least they tolerate the presence of such ministers as Lóránt Hegedűs, Jr. This anti-Semitic minister, whose wife is a member of Jobbik, has been delivering the most horrendous sermons, but the official church has been unable to muster enough courage to throw him out of the church. Or they may in fact sympathize with his ideas. It was only in October of this year that he was “disciplined” for such offenses as having no biblical message whatsoever in his objectionable sermon and for being “unprepared.”

What is behind the Sunday closing of Hungarian retail stores?

Since this coming Sunday will be the first time most larger retail stores will be closed by law, let’s return to one of the most politically foolish and economically harmful decisions of the Orbán government.

I already wrote two posts on the subject, both in late 2014 when the Christian Democratic Party (KDNP) once again floated the idea. Once again, because this was not the first time that KDNP pressured the Orbán government to curtail the liberal retail store hours that have existed in Hungary for the last twenty years. In 2011, when the idea was first proposed, Viktor Orbán wisely rejected it, saying that the Hungarian economy couldn’t afford the luxury.

But in early November 2014 the KDNP leadership returned to its favorite hobby-horse. This time, learning from the 2011 fiasco, they decided to turn in their bill in the form of a proposal by an individual member of parliament. In 2011 it was the government that vetoed the suggestion for economic reasons, citing the results of an unpublished impact analysis. When an individual member of parliament submits a bill, however, no impact study is necessary.

The initial reaction of government members, Fidesz leaders, and Fidesz MPs to the KDNP proposal was negative. Mihály Varga publicly voiced his opinion that “‘the move wouldn’t be wise.” Lajos Kósa, another heavyweight in the party, was also against the bill. So was Miklós Seszták, minister of national development. Initially, even Viktor Orbán was unenthusiastic about the idea. In one of his radio interviews he admitted that he himself shops on Sundays and added that he “is not planning to influence the behavior of the people, who can decide for themselves what to do on Sundays.” So, by mid-November most commentators believed that the KDNP proposal was dead in the water. If the government vetoed the KDNP proposal in 2011, how could Fidesz possibly agree to it “in such sensitive times, after the internet tax affair when there are demonstrators against [the government],” a member of the governing board of Fidesz asked.

Great was the surprise when less than two weeks later, on December 1, 2014, Népszabadság learned that the full Fidesz caucus and naturally the prime minister now enthusiastically endorsed the zany plan of KDNP. Viktor Orbán’s abrupt change of mind was especially strange because initially he wanted to see an impact study and no analysis was produced in the interim. Orbán within two weeks became such an enthusiastic supporter of the measure that he paid a visit to the Fidesz parliamentary delegation and twisted the arms of his troops in parliament. By early December the government parties gave their unanimous blessing to the measure. Since then they have been tinkering with it with scores of amendments which at times loosen, at other times tighten its grip on retail stores.

Fidesz brain / Closed on Sundays too

Fidesz brain / Closed on Sundays too

Although it was always pretty clear that the majority of Hungarians were against the Sunday closings, since March 13th we know how strongly people feel about KDNP’s idea. Ipsos conducted a poll which showed that 64% of the population want stores to be open and only 32% are for store closings. Ipsos broke down the data on the basis of sex, cities and towns versus villages, young versus old, and interestingly enough the differences were not substantial. In fact, there were some unexpected results. For example, people living in villages opted for keeping stores open on Sunday in higher numbers (70%) than people in Budapest (62%). Clearly, the measure is not popular. Just how unpopular it is we don’t yet know, despite the appearance of the poll, because last Sunday was a national holiday and the stores would have been closed anyway. But this coming Sunday, the people who missed the news will be greatly surprised when they travel to their closest supermarket and find it locked up. The song that is spreading like wildfire on YouTube expresses people’s sentiments about the Sunday closings. It was written to the tune of the internationally known song “Gloomy Sunday,” from the 1930s.

Opinions about why KDNP was so eager to change the law vary. Some people believe that since it is a religious party (and here and there even call the leaders bigots) it wants Hungarians to go to church instead of to the mall. Others interpret the move as an attack on multinationals in favor of the one large Hungarian chain that is made up of family-owned franchises, most of them small enough not to be affected by the new law. The latter theory might explain why Viktor Orbán eventually decided to support the KDNP proposal. After all, he wouldn’t at all mind if the foreign supermarkets and large chains simply abandoned their businesses in Hungary. Such an outcome would benefit his favorite oligarchs, who could purchase their stores on the cheap. These hypotheses may reflect KDNP reasoning, but I don’t think either fully explains why the prime minister changed his mind and decided to endorse the KDNP bill.

A few days ago another theory emerged, presented by a “senior researcher” of the political think tank Policy Agenda, which I found utterly unconvincing. There is nothing “sinister” or “complicated” behind this decision, he explained. After all, KDNP is a coalition partner. They have had many demands that were not satisfied by their larger partner. So, it was time to throw them a bone. First of all, it is not true that KDNP’s demands have been ignored in the past. Just think of the increased subsidies for parochial schools, the incredible number of gymnasiums that were passed into the hands of the Catholic Church, and the decision to make religious education part of the regular school curriculum. Second, this is not how political decisions are reached. Would Viktor Orbán for such a trifling reason assume substantial political risk? Unlikely.

My own theory is that the Christian Democrats, realizing Fidesz’s rapid loss of support and the decline in Viktor Orbán’s popularity, decided to put pressure on the prime minister, most likely accompanied by a threat. KDNP has 23 votes in parliament, which can be withheld at any time. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the KDNP heavies told Viktor Orbán that it is either Sunday closings or no parliamentary support from the Christian Democrats on certain key issues.

As of this morning we know what was in the impact studies of 2011, which were leaked to Népszabadság. Pretty much the same negative results that trade unions and trade associations have predicted since the bill resurfaced last November. There will be a loss of 10,000 to 15,000 jobs. This can be translated into a 2.3 to 3.4 billion forint expenditure for the government in the form of unemployment insurance. About 26 to 27 billion forints would be lost annually in income taxes and social security payments. Expected lost sales for the companies would be 20.4 billion forints. VAT collections would drop by about 7.6 billion forints. All told, the Sunday closings would cost the Hungarian government 43.9-49 billion forints. That’s a steep price for Fidesz to pay to accommodate KDNP and a heavy burden for the Hungarian taxpayers to bear to keep the Fidesz-KDNP government in power.

The United States as enemy #1

Bálint Ablonczy, a journalist working for Heti Válasz, a pro-Fidesz publication, wrote a few days ago that “the idea of permanent revolution is not working anymore.” And yet the two most important players on the Hungarian political scene, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and János Lázár, his chief of staff, resolutely follow a strategy that is in Ablonczy’s opinion “no longer accepted by the voters.”

Most commentators agree that the prime minister is losing his sense of reality. They point out that the present course of action can result only in defeat and the further isolation of the country. After listening to Viktor Orbán’s latest outburst against the United States last night, I must join this chorus of critics. But before I go into some details of his warped view of the world, let me summarize his accusations against the United States, the country that, despite the fact that it is one of Hungary’s allies, is in his eyes solely responsible for his current political problems.

According to him, the United States’ allegation of corruption against certain Hungarian officials is nothing but “a cover story,” as “every thinking man knows.” The United States wants to gain leverage to increase its influence in the country. Currently a CIA operation is underway in Hungary. The United States is not only meddling in the internal affairs of the country but “is in fact an active political actor.” By this he means that the United States is organizing the demonstrations against his government. It’s trying to topple him.

The American interest in Eastern Europe is twofold. The Americans want to gain access to the energy market, and they want to have a commercial foothold in the region. The U.S. is “sore” because they wanted to build the Paks atomic power plant but Hungary chose Russia instead. And now Washington wants to drag Hungary into the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, but the Hungarian government wants to avoid a conflict that will lead to a new cold war. These charges are nonsense. The U.S. not sore because an American company didn’t get the contract to expand Paks, and it was not the United States that dragged Hungary into the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Just the opposite. It was Viktor Orbán who positioned himself in the middle of the power play between Russia and the Western alliance.

By the way, after the appearance of the Lázár interview, I found only one reaction coming from an “unnamed official” of the State Department that was published by HVGThe State Department urges the Hungarian government to take into consideration “the domestic and foreign misgivings.” Washington would like “to continue a constructive dialogue … about those decisions that are related to the state of democracy and rule of law.” Surely, Orbán has no intention of following the Americans’ advice.

As a Hungarian cartoonist sees it

As a Hungarian cartoonist sees it

Turning back to Orbán’s interview, I want to highlight some points that weren’t picked up by the wire services. One was his emphasis on Hungary’s “innocence” and its “loneliness.” One could feel Orbán’s hurt when he said that “we have never harmed anyone” and yet we are badly treated. The attacks on us are unjustified. As for the “loneliness” theme, Orbán returned to the age-old Hungarian lament that “we are alone” in the world. There are the Slavs to the East and the “honest (derék)” Germans to the West. The only thing Hungarians have is the land “where they have always lived,” their language, and their culture.

Note the adjective “honest/derék” in front of “Germans.” We can see from this interview as well as Lázár’s that the new government strategy is to counterbalance the worsening U.S.-Hungarian relations with an increased reliance on Germany. Both men tried to portray Germany as a great friend of Russia. Orbán, who when talking about the United States declared that Hungary will not be a “colony,” two minutes later announced that Hungary is happily following the lead of Germany when it comes to foreign policy. It seems that Orbán is hoping that Germany will ride to its rescue and mediate between Washington and Budapest. After all, since Germany has had its problems with the U.S. and since it is such a good friend of Russia, Hungary should benefit from German mediation.

As far as the Hungarian political leadership knows, Angela Merkel is still planning to visit the Hungarian capital in February. Dávid Trencséni, a journalist for Stop, put it bluntly: Berlin is “Orbán’s last hope.”

Berlin may be Orbán’s last hope but it may also have been partly responsible for his woes with the U.S. He’s been able to get his way most of the time in the European Union, thanks in large part to the German Christian Democrats. Both Fidesz and the Christian Democrats belong to the European People’s Party, a party that stands by its members even when they behave outrageously. By contrast, Orbán has no political ally in the United States. Both Republicans and Democrats condemn Orbán’s illiberal state and his pro-Russian policies.

And finally a few oddities that run through both interviews. Hungary must be respected because it has a thousand-year-old history. Well, Egypt has a much longer one, so should I respect the current Egyptian government? Hungary in the past was successful only when it was independent. Well, actually the opposite is true. The period between 1867 and 1914 when the country was part of Austria-Hungary is considered to be the golden age of modern Hungarian history. Then there are claims that merit no comment. For instance, even Hungary’s enemies have to admit that Hungary has been a success story in the last five years. All the decisions Orbán’s government made were the right ones. Economically, every year was better than the one before. Hungary is a strong country that has weight and “will take an active part in this new era.” Well, maybe these claims do merit comment after all: Who unlocked the gates of the asylum?