Tag Archives: Demokratikus Koalíció

László Botka is forging ahead, leaving others behind

As I was collecting material for today’s post on Ferenc Gyurcsány’s five-page letter to László Botka, a headline in the government propaganda site 888.hu caught my eye. It read: “Gyurcsány has written a love letter to Botka.” I don’t know about others, but for me a line like this can prompt strange associations. Out of the blue János Arany’s “Mother of Matthias” popped into my head: “Szilányi / Örzsébet / Levelét megirta: / Szerelmes / Könnyével / Azt is telesirta.” But the loving, tear-soaked letter Mátyás Hunyadi’s mother sent to her son, incarcerated in Prague, was not left unanswered. In fact, a black raven brought the answer back in record time. Gyurcsány’s letter, on the other hand, if one can believe Tamás Harangozó, a MSZP member of parliament, “was tucked away in a drawer set aside for all forthcoming letters and messages from Ferenc Gyurcsány,” never to be answered.

The letter was addressed to László Botka with copies to Gyula Molnár, party chairman, István Hiller, chairman of the board, and Bertalan Tóth, leader of the party’s parliamentary delegation. A couple of days after the letter was sent, Ágnes Vadai, one of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s deputies, made the letter public.

Why did Ferenc Gyurcsány decide to approach Botka again when Botka has made it eminently clear in the last six months that under no circumstances would he be on the same ticket as the leader of the Demokratikus Koalíció? Botka believes that Gyurcsány is still such a widely disliked political figure that his mere presence on a common list would mean the loss of perhaps half a million votes or more. There is no question that when pollsters ask respondents about the popularity of leading politicians, Gyurcsány is normally at the bottom of the list. On the other hand, there is no opinion poll on which we can rely to ascertain whether Gyurcsány’s presence on the list would have such a negative effect on the chances of the democratic opposition in next year’s parliamentary election.

About a week ago Gyurcsány managed to get hold of Botka, who again reasserted that under no circumstances would he sit down and discuss any kind of cooperation between MSZP and DK as long as Gyurcsány insists on being on the ticket. However, he added, perhaps Gyurcsány could write him a letter.

Those who listened to the two or three interviews Gyurcsány gave since this telephone call will not find much new in this letter. Still, in a letter one can be more nuanced and precise than in an interview. Moreover, as the saying goes, “verba volant, scripta manent” (spoken words fly away, written words remain), and therefore I think it was a good idea for Gyurcsány to spell out exactly what he has in mind. The text of the letter can be found here.

The general tone of the letter is polite, stressing the ideas and goals they share, but is critical when it comes to Botka’s steadfast refusal to talk to the representatives of the other parties. Gyurcsány objects to Botka’s belief that he is “the only one who knows the correct strategy” and that anyone who disagrees with him is interested only in acquiring a parliamentary seat instead of defeating Viktor Orbán and his regime. Botka wants the other parties “to join” him, while the other parties want “to work with him.” Gyurcsány calls Botka’s demands a “diktat.” Such an attitude “is alien to the western, European political culture that we represent,” he wrote. Botka’s strategy of forcing the other democratic parties to join MSZP reminds Gyurcsány of Fidesz’s tenacious efforts to subdue all the other parties on the right. Surely, a democratic party can’t possibly imitate Fidesz’s cruel political methods. Imitating Fidesz is not becoming to “our side.” In addition, Gyurcsány considers such a strategy ten months before the election “suicidal.”

The rest of the letter is mostly about the philosophical and technical problems of having the common list Botka insists on. If there is a common list, argues Gyurcsány, then Botka cannot have the exclusive leading role “because there are others around the table.” Neither Botka nor anyone else “has the right to say who should represent a given party on the common list.” This is the internal affair of the parties. “We can’t give up this right; we don’t want to give you such a right, just as you wouldn’t give us the right to say whom MSZP should put on the common list.” The democratic opposition cannot behave like Fidesz. If we use the “politics of ultimatums, the citizens might think that we are going to do the same once we are in power.”

And here comes the most hard-hitting part of the letter. “I left to last your wish that we support your candidacy for the premiership. We would gladly do so if we were wholeheartedly convinced that we are placing the fate of our country in good hands. But that is not the case. You have to convince us of your suitability. That you want to be and can be the kind of prime minister who is in possession of all the virtues necessary for the task.” And, he continues: “It is not enough to be clever, one needs wisdom.” To drive the point home, Gyurcsány writes that “in recent months we have not been convinced that you are ready to lead the country well. But we can still be persuaded.”

Neither Botka nor the others to whom the letter was addressed answered Gyurcsány. Tamás Harangozó must have received the job of summarizing the MSZP reaction to the letter. “We don’t want to spend any time on this subject. We set aside a drawer where we are going to collect his letters, messages, and all his other political schemes in the coming months.” He reiterated that with Gyurcsány one cannot win an election. Botka doesn’t want anyone on the list who held any major political position before 2010. He claimed that Gyurcsány is the symbol of everything that led to the devastating defeat in 2010.

I hope that soon enough we will have opinion polls on the population’s reaction to the Botka-Gyurcsány duel. Although the following two online polls are definitely not scientific, they do indicate that not all left-wing voters are enamored with László Botka’s ideas and style. ATV asked whether Botka is right in demanding that Gyurcsány not be on the list. Over 8,000 people participated and 68% said no. Blikk’s results are even more interesting because the readership of Blikk is a politically mixed crowd, and yet the answers were favorable to Gyurcsány. “Gyurcsány or Botka? For whom you are rooting?” The results were: Ferenc Gyurcsány, 48%; they should cooperate, 20%; both should get lost, 17%; László Botka, 16%. The number of respondents was 7,526.

Finally, I would like to call attention to a couple of sentences in the letter which might be of  interest as far as Gyurcsány’s thinking about a possible scenario after the democratic opposition wins the election, which, as we know, is a very long shot. As for the election itself, he would like to have one candidate in every electoral district standing against the Fidesz and Jobbik candidates. He would like to have individual party lists. And he definitely hopes that DK will garner enough votes to become a “coalition partner” in a future government. Parties may have different views on many details of a future government program, but these differences don’t have to be discussed now. What will happen to pensions, for example, can be discussed after the victory. “We will arrive at good compromises as coalition partners do all across Europe,” he added. A perfectly acceptable solution, indeed widely practiced, but I have the feeling that, given the Hungarian political culture, it is unattainable at the moment.

June 7, 2017

László Botka is MSZP’s candidate to face Viktor Orbán in 2018

On May 27 the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP) held its congress, at which an overwhelming majority of the usually fractious delegates stood by László Botka, mayor of Szeged, who about six months ago offered himself as his party’s candidate for prime minister of Hungary. At the time of his announcement I was enthusiastic, mostly because I didn’t see anyone else in MSZP who would have the slightest chance of running successfully against Viktor Orbán. Botka is a self-confident and forceful fellow who kept Szeged a socialist stronghold even when practically the whole country turned orange after the 2006 municipal elections. So, I said to myself, the fellow must know something. I also thought that his years as the leader of Hungary’s second largest city would have given him ample administrative experience, which would serve him well.

Over time, however, I started having doubts about the wisdom of this choice. It is one thing to be self-confident and forceful and another to be abrasive and aggressive. MSZP’s ineffectual and untalented leadership was so excited at receiving an offer from Botka, who had earlier steadfastly refused any role in national politics, that they immediately broke off negotiations with the other democratic opposition parties and assured Botka of their support. In turn, Botka promised an election and party program and a nationwide campaign, during which he was supposed to introduce himself to MSZP supporters and those undecided voters who could perhaps be convinced that he is a worthy challenger of Viktor Orbán.

Initially, Botka indicated that he would visit the other democratic opposition parties, but mighty little came of it. He did talk with the leadership of LMP, a party that had stressed over and over that they would never cooperate in any meaningful way with anyone else. I was somewhat puzzled by Botka’s decision and expected a flat no from LMP. I was right, it was a flat no. As far as the smaller parties were concerned, Botka simply ignored them. They then, one by one, announced that in that case they will be forced to enter the race as individual entities. That was bad enough, but demanding that the Demokratikus Koalíció’s supporters dump their party leader, Ferenc Gyurcsány, meant that for all practical purposes the Botka-led MSZP had decided to embark on the hard road to political victory alone.

That route would be defensible only if Botka’s appearance on the scene could make an appreciable difference in the anemic popularity of MSZP. But after six months of alleged Botka campaigning, MSZP is still hovering around the same 10-13% popularity against Fidesz’s 27%. The same as it was in January. Therefore, it is hard to fathom the enthusiasm that István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, exhibited this morning on ATV about his party’s prospects. He added that Botka was the best choice and that he is supported by the politicians in Brussels as a worthy opponent of Orbán. I for one would like to see some tangible results by now. I know, we are being told that “there is still time,” but I’m afraid that, given the sad state of the opposition, eight or nine months will be far too narrow a window in which to build a robust MSZP or achieve some kind of understanding among the democratic forces.

Botka’s acceptance speech was broadcast on ATV, and had detractors from both sides. From the right Otto Gajdics compared him to a Stakhanovite construction worker who is the puppet of George Soros. Botka’s speech reminded Origo’s nameless journalist of speeches at party congresses of the Kádár era, and he quoted some sample sentences which he considered to be carbon copies of old MSZMP slogans: “We are building a new world,” “We live in dark times,” “We’ve had enough of slavery,” and “Let the rich pay,” a slogan much criticized on the left as well.

Not only Fidesz critics found the speech wanting. László Bartus, editor-in-chief of Amerikai Magyar Népszava, was appalled by Botka’s misunderstanding of “the essence of the regime.” In his speech the candidate divided the voters into the satisfied and the dissatisfied. As he put it, “2018 will be decided between the satisfied and the dissatisfied voters. The satisfied ones will vote for Orbán, the dissatisfied for Botka. The choice is simple: Orbán or Botka.” Bartus finds this primitive Marxist worldview not to his liking. What about human rights, freedom, law, culture, intellectual values, human relationships, and principles? His conclusion is that MSZP in 27 years has been unable to shed its origins.

Tamás Bauer, formerly an SZDSZ member of parliament, was also unhappy with Botka’s speech and the ideas behind it. Bauer especially disliked the “Rich should pay” slogan, although I don’t believe that Botka wants to take rich folks’ money and give it to the poor, Robin Hood style, but only wants to send a message that the era of the flat tax is over and better off people will have to pay higher taxes. What really bothered Bauer was something that Gyula Molnár, the MSZP chairman, said in his speech: “Those who are not with us are with them,” meaning Fidesz. Doesn’t Molnár know the origin of this sentence, Bauer asks? It was Mátyás Rákosi who said “those who are not with us are against us.” It was this terrible concept that János Kádár changed to “those who are not against us are with us.” Clearly, Bauer worries about the electoral cooperation of democratic forces. The socialists “don’t seem to care about their allies, whom they humiliate.” Bauer, who is a DK member, obviously has Ferenc Gyurcsány and the leaders of other democratic parties in mind. As a professor of economics, Bauer is also worried about all the promises Botka made. Where will the money come from to pay for them?

Botka promised to introduce a subsistence minimum, to raise the salaries of civil servants, to cut the taxes of low income people, to raise the minimum wage and exempt it from taxation, to strengthen the rights of employees, to spend money on hospitals and schools instead of on stadiums, to launch a comprehensive rental housing program, to double the pension minimum, and to restore the thirteenth-month pensions. This promise tsunami strikes me as irresponsible. We know only too well that one of the problems with the economic policies of past governments stemmed from offering financial incentives to the electorate in exchange for votes. Time and again, it became obvious that government expenditures were too high and the national debt was increasing. Quickly enough, austerity programs had to be introduced. Perhaps one of the worst decisions was the Gyurcsány government’s introduction of the extra-month pension, which had to be taken away in early 2009 after the financial crisis hit Hungary. So, for anyone with a half decent memory, the promise of a thirteenth-month pension has a bad ring to it. I think that if MSZP wanted to raise pensions, it should have done so in some other way.

Today, Ferenc Gyurcsány congratulated Botka and suggested a meeting, which I doubt will take place anytime soon. The message via István Ujhelyi on ATV was that Botka will be very busy and will not have time for such a meeting.

May 29, 2017

The Hungarian government media’s portraits of Macron

Two days ago, when I wrote a post about Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election and its reception by the Hungarian government, I had rely on the relatively few analyses that appeared in the government media. They didn’t address most of the reforms Macron proposes but were preoccupied with his ire against the Polish and Hungarian governments and his support for a two-speed Europe, both of which concern Hungary directly. Still, the basic message was (and still is) that with Macron’s victory, everything will remain the same. The decline of Europe will continue. The French voted for the wrong person.

Macron has ambitious plans for revitalizing France, especially in economic terms, and even more ambitious ideas for restructuring the European Union. We don’t know whether any of Macron’s ideas will materialize, but nothing is further from the truth than that Macron is a man who is stuck in the present. Here are a few of Macron’s ideas for the Eurozone, premised on a two-speed Europe, as outlined in the Eurobserver. He would like to see a Eurozone parliament, finance minister, and budget, which we already know Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, opposes. Jean-Claude Juncker doesn’t seem supportive of Macron’s plans either. He warned that “not all euro member states agree that someone based in Brussels or somewhere else should call the shots on budgets instead of national parliaments.” Macron also wants to have a set of social rights introduced at the European level, setting up standards for job training, health insurance, unemployment benefits, and the minimum wage. At the same time he would like to see closer cooperation on defense, security, and intelligence. In brief, he wants “more Europe” than perhaps even Orbán’s “bureaucrats in Brussels.”

So, when Tamás Ulicza in Magyar Hírlap claims that “Macron’s answers are the same as all the earlier unsuccessful attempts to date except only to a higher degree,” he is misrepresenting Macron’s position. In Ulicza’s view, the European Union is still heading toward the abyss. Macron’s election is only giving the leaders of the EU a false sense of security. Le Pen, Ulicza writes, almost certainly wouldn’t have led France out of the European Union, but “she wouldn’t have swept the existing problems under the carpet.” Macron lacks a political vision for his own country; “he can think only in terms of Europe,” he insists, although even Híradó, the official news that is distributed to all media outlets, fairly accurately reported on his plans for revitalizing the French economy. Macron proposes cuts to state spending, wants to ease the existing labor laws, and wants to introduce social protection for the self-employed.

Magyar Idők offered no substantive analysis of Macron’s economic or political ideas. The editors were satisfied with a partial reprinting of a conversation with György Nógrádi, the “national security expert,” a former informer during the Kádár period about whose outrageous claims I wrote several times. I especially recommend the post titled “The truth caught up with the ‘national security expert,’ György Nógrádi.” But at least Nógrádi did tell the television audience, accurately in this case, that Macron wants to reduce the size of the French government by letting 120,000 civil servants go.

Perhaps the most intriguing article appeared in the solidly pro-government Origo with the title “We are introducing the French Gyurcsány.” According to the unnamed journalist, “the career of the former banker and minister of economy eerily resembles the life and ideology of Ferenc Gyurcsány.” As we know, there is no greater condemnation in Orbán’s Hungary than comparing anyone to the former prime minister. What follows is a description of the two politicians’ careers, starting with both entering the political arena only after successful careers in business in the case of Gyurcsány and banking in the case of Macron. Both, the article continues, are followers of third-road socialism, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder.

One thing is certain: both believe in an eventual United States of Europe. They believe there should be a European government with a prime minister and a strong parliament and a second chamber made up of the heads of the member states. “Neither of them stands by the idea of strong nation states.” The article claims that both men belittle the culture, history, and heritage of their own countries. Macron, for example, stands against the view that French culture is superior to all others. Mon dieu! And what did Gyurcsány say? In 2007, when Merkel visited Hungary, he told her that the Holy Crown’s place in not in the parliament. Macron has a disparaging opinion of boeuf bourguignon, a favorite of the French. Gyurcsány is guilty because “to this day he would take away the voting rights of Hungarians living in the neighboring countries.” And what was obviously his greatest sin: in a speech delivered in 2013 he said that “we [the democratic opposition] are the real patriotic heirs of St. Stephen.”

It is true that Ferenc Gyurcsány and his party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, are totally committed to the European Union. Only a few days ago DK organized a conference in which Frank Engel (EPP), Ulrike Lunacek (Greens), and Josef Weidenholzer (Socialists and Democrats) participated. DK’s slogan as a counterpoint to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign is “Let’s catch up with Brussels!” Gyurcsány would like to see a new European constitution, dual citizenship, joint border defense, and common social security. The final goal is a United States of Europe.

As far as Macron’s ideas on the economy are concerned, he seems to me a combination of Ferenc Gyurcsány and Lajos Bokros.

Of course, Viktor Orbán also wants to reform the European Union, but what he would like to achieve cannot be called “reform.” He would like to go backwards, taking away the present prerogatives of the European Commission and Parliament and giving more power to the 27 member states. The EU does need reform, but not the kind that Poland and Hungary are proposing. Macron might not succeed in everything he hopes to do, but he is correct in his belief that the solution lies in more, not less integration.

May 10, 2017

Medián: Support for László Botka

In the last few days two opinion polls have been published that focus on the qualities and popularity of László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, and Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. The juxtaposition of the two is somewhat arbitrary because Ferenc Gyurcsány is not a declared candidate while Botka is. The comparison was most likely prompted by László Botka’s steadfast opposition to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s active participation in the political process. Moreover, given the paucity of political talent on the left, Botka and Gyurcsány are the two who stand out in the crowd.

The first poll, conducted by Závecz Research, was published two days ago. In my opinion it was based on a disappointingly simplistic methodology. The pollsters asked 1,000 eligible voters who they find more capable of defeating Viktor Orbán–László Botka or Ferenc Gyurcsány–and concluded that the former is four times (44%) more likely to stand a chance against the strong man of Fidesz than the latter (11%). Forty-five percent of the sample had no idea who would do better.

In the second question Závecz Research wanted to know whether people sensed or didn’t sense a decrease in antipathy toward Gyurcsány. This question reminded me of those food experts of the Orbán government who wanted to assess the differences in quality of products sold to Hungary as opposed to, let’s say, to Austria by relying on tasters’ palates. Or of a relative of mine who decides on the popularity of different parties based on her encounters with acquaintances on the street. Well, 51% of the people surveyed thought that the animosity toward Gyurcsány hadn’t subsided whereas 30% thought it had. Needless to say, this was music to the ears of the anti-Gyurcsány factions.

Yesterday, only a day after the publication of the Závecz poll, Medián came out with a much more sophisticated and revealing poll. First of all, Medián recognized that a poll that samples the entire electorate will give skewed, misleading results about the popularity of opposition politicians. Medián therefore concentrated on those voters who “want a change of government,” i.e., those who would not vote for Fidesz. Moreover, Medián focused on Botka and touched on Gyurcsány’s role only tangentially.

According to Medián, 43% of voters would prefer change as opposed to 48% who would stick with the Fidesz government. This disappointing result may be due in large part to the disarray among the fractured opposition forces.

Only half of the anti-Fidesz group thought that Botka would be a competent prime minister, 21% thought he was unqualified, and 29% had no idea. Botka’s support was of course highest among MSZP voters (70%), but a majority of DK voters were also ready to support him. (The poll was taken at the end of January, so it is possible that the relative enthusiasm of DK voters for Botka has since waned as a result of his categorical rejection of Ferenc Gyurcsány.)

When it came to passing judgment on Gyurcsány, 37% percent of the anti-Fidesz forces thought that his participation in the political process would lower the likelihood of removing Orbán from power, 23% thought it wouldn’t, and 40% were undecided. Among MSZP voters, 30% were against Gyurcsány’s involvement while 29% had no objection to his presence in the political arena. Although Endre Hann in his article on the subject didn’t label the third category, I assume that 41% had no opinion.

According to Endre Hann’s summary of Medián’s findings, Botka is the most popular politician on the left.

Respondents were given the opportunity to describe Botka as a man and a politician in their own words and to judge him on a scale of 0 to 100. Most of the attributes were positive: clever (60%), sticking to his principles (59%), diligent (58%), courageous (59%), strong (55%), responsible (53%), and socially sensitive (52%). However, when it came to whether he would be able to solve the problems of the country he averaged only 44%. This result might not be a reflection on Botka’s perceived abilities but rather the Hungarian public’s assessment of the seriousness of their country’s situation at the moment.

Botka got a surprisingly substantial (36%) approval rating from the electorate at large. Thirty-four percent had a poor opinion of him while 30% had no opinion. When it came to Botka’s ability to govern, Fidesz voters gave him only 35 points out of 100 as opposed to voters of the democratic opposition who awarded him 64 points.

As for the current political situation, it is becoming increasingly evident that there will be no partnership among the opposition parties. Each party seems ready to campaign on its own even though most people in the anti-Fidesz camp are convinced that without cooperation Orbán’s government cannot be removed from power. These people are also convinced that the country will not be able to survive another four years of “illiberal democracy” Orbán style.

Yet there have always been a small number of political scientists who argue that the “party alliance” effort that failed spectacularly in 2014 shouldn’t be repeated. The chief spokesman for this position is Zoltán Ceglédi. At the beginning he didn’t convince me, but I’m coming to the conclusion that, given the unbridgeable differences between the parties both ideologically and in personal terms, perhaps it makes sense to start individual campaigns and see how successful these parties are in the next few months. The really tiny ones with support only in the capital and perhaps in some larger cities will most likely fall by the wayside, while the larger ones can compete for the votes of the undecided electorate. Let the voters see the differences among them and allow them to choose. The parties on the left have to agree about only one thing at the end: there can be only one challenger in each electoral district. And then we will see what happens. If they are incapable of doing that much, then they deserve to remain in opposition for another four years.

March 23, 2017

Politics and the Hungarian socialists–Not a winning combination

The ineptness of MSZP politicians never ceases to amaze me, but their latest stunt really deserves a booby prize. While their new hope, László Botka, lectures on taking away from the rich and giving to the poor, high-ranking MSZP politicians endorsed a proposal to give away the state-owned Grassalkovich Mansion in Hatvan to the Széchenyi Zsigmond Kárpát-medencei Magyar Vadászati Múzeum (Zsigmond Széchenyi Hungarian Hunting Museum of the Carpathian Basin).

Hunting has become a favorite pastime of Fidesz politicians, who show a great affinity for the lifestyle of the traditional Hungarian landowning class, which included a love of hunting. Even during the Kádár regime high-ranking party functionaries indulged in this aristocratic pursuit. Zsolt Semjén (KDNP), deputy prime minister, and János Lázár, chief of the prime minister’s office, are the best known avid hunters.

First, a few words about the mansion that stands on the main square of Hatvan and that is named for Count Antal Grassalkovich (1694-1771), a wealthy man who owned vast tracks of land around Gödöllő, Hatvan, and Bag. In 1867 the mansion was purchased by the Deutsch-Hatvany family. After the German occupation of Hungary, the Gestapo settled there. It was also used as a military hospital. By 1979 the building was declared to be uninhabitable. After a lengthy reconstruction effort, the mansion’s restoration was more or less finished with the help of 3.15 billion forints provided by the European Union and the Hungarian government. In 2012 the decision was made to house the Hunting Museum, named after Zsigmond Széchenyi (1898-1967), a well-known explorer and writer, in the state-owned mansion.

A nice gift for the Hunting Association

On March 14 eight members of parliament, three from Fidesz-KDNP and five from MSZP, proposed an amendment to a law passed in 2011 that regulates the ways and means of giving away state-owned properties to private persons or private organizations. The three Fidesz-KDNP signatories were Zsolt Semjén, János Lázár, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the prime minister’s office. As for five MSZP members, they included well-known, important names: István Hiller, Gergely Bárándy, Dezső Hiszékeny, István Józsa, and Árpád Velez. According to the document, these eight men proposed giving the newly reconstructed Grassalkovich Mansion to the National Hungarian Hunting Association (Országos Magyar Vadászkamara/OMVK). The justification for the move was that this transfer of ownership will offer an opportunity for the museum to function “on a professional basis.” Because, the government politicians argued, at the moment the museum attracts very few visitors. Instead of the expected 100,000 a year, barely 30,000 visitors were registered in the last few years. That shortfall happened because the current management is not doing a professional enough job. Once the Hunting Association owns the mansion outright, however, it will have a more effective way of supervising the museum.

I must say that I do not see the connection between ownership of the building and management of the museum. Anyone with half a brain should have noticed that there is something wrong here. One of the Hungarian papers claimed that “the socialists were misled.” Well, it doesn’t seem to be very difficult to mislead these political geniuses.

There was another reason the MSZP politicians should have been suspicious. The privatization of public property needs a two-thirds majority in parliament. As we know, Fidesz doesn’t have that majority anymore. Most likely, they knew that Jobbik would never agree to cooperate with them on an issue like this. So, they turned to the patsies of MSZP instead. And it very nearly worked.

The reaction from the other parties on the left was swift. As usual, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció was the first to respond. Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for DK, said: “We always knew that Fidesz politicians steal,” but it is unacceptable for MSZP politicians to assist in this enterprise. According to Gréczy, MSZP must offer some kind of reasonable explanation for lending a helping hand to Fidesz in its quest to steal the country blind. MSZP’s leadership was unmoved. They answered that this is not about hunting but about a museum that serves the public good. Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt was the next to issue a statement. He went so far as to call this cooperation between Fidesz and MSZP “a grand coalition.” Shame, shame, he added.

A day later, on March 17, MSZP published a terse announcement: “MSZP wants to avoid even the appearance of working together with Fidesz in the privatization of state property, and therefore it withdraws its support for the privatization of the property destined for OMVK.” Before this announcement was made, however, Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, had stood by the party’s decision and repeated that cooperation with Fidesz for the sake of the museum was correct and justified. Gergely Bárándy, son of former Minister of Justice Péter Bárándy, accused the DK spokesman of “creating a scandal.” If he hadn’t opened his mouth, the public would have heard nothing about “this noble cause from the point of view of Hungarian culture.”

Who was responsible for this politically suicidal act? I’m afraid all the bigwigs of MSZP. I don’t have any knowledge of the interplay between the parliamentary caucus and the leadership of the party, but I would like to believe that the chairman of the party, Gyula Molnár, was informed that cooperation with Fidesz on the issue had been sanctioned by the parliamentary delegation. The leader (or whip) of the MSZP delegation is Bertalan Tóth. He is new at his job, but until now he struck me as an intelligent fellow. Perhaps he didn’t feel secure enough to go against people like Hiller, Bárándy, and Józsa. We know that the Fidesz politicians came to MSZP with the suggestion, which then was discussed at length. At the end, they decided to support the joint proposal. And now, here is this embarrassing retreat which was apparently initiated by László Botka, who must have hit the ceiling upon finding out about it. I don’t blame him. According to Népszava, Botka “specifically requested” the party’s immediate withdrawal from the joint project.

After this fiasco the party leadership is threatening MSZP members of parliament with immediate removal from the caucus if they dare vote for the bill. This indicates to me that some of the original signatories are giving the party leadership a hard time about prohibiting any further cooperation. MSZP, as usual, failed miserably as an effective opposition to the politically savvy Fidesz party machinery.

March 19, 2017

Total disarray among the democratic opposition parties

A few months ago I started a folder called “Opposition Parties: Dissension and Unity.” Well, by now the unity which a few months ago had a small chance of becoming reality can safely be buried. The fairly promising negotiations on the left fizzled out. After a few negotiating sessions only four political groups were still at the negotiating table: the socialists (MSZP), Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), Párbeszéd (Dialogue) led by Gergely Karácsony and Tímea Szabó, and former Finance Minister Lajos Bokros’s MoMa, which he describes as a “movement.” Együtt (Together) of Viktor Szigetvári and Péter Juhász refused to have anything to do with the others even before the negotiations began, and the participation of LMP (Lehet Más A Politika) was never a possibility. Then, on February 14, Szabó announced that Párbeszéd was leaving the negotiations because the others were not committed to holding primaries, which is an important part of the party’s program. A few days later Bokros announced MoMa’s withdrawal from the negotiations. A faint hope still remained that at least the two largest parties, MSZP and DK, would be able to work out some kind of an arrangement.

That hope disappeared when László Botka, the socialist mayor of Szeged, formally announced his decision to run as MSZP’s candidate for prime minister. Up to that point the person of the candidate for prime minister hadn’t been discussed at all among the parties, and therefore there was a certain amount of surprise mixed with ill feelings when MSZP acted as if the candidate was a fait accompli. At a large MSZP conference Botka gave a forceful speech with a decidedly left-leaning political message, which may have sounded attractive to the old socialist base, but it was the death knell of any cooperation between MSZP and DK. Botka in no uncertain terms announced that as long as Ferenc Gyurcsány is heading DK no understanding between the two parties is possible.

DK’s reaction was restrained. Zsolt Gréczy, the party’s spokesman, announced that they had sent DK’s party program to Botka and they were waiting for Botka’s call to discuss issues concerning the coming election. They waited and waited, but Botka had no intention of talking to Ferenc Gyurcsány and his party.

Botka, after returning from a trip abroad, approached LMP, and not surprisingly he returned empty-handed. LMP has remained steadfast in its resolve never to enter into political deals with anyone. I understand that Botka offered something quite enticing to LMP in exchange for the party’s support of his candidacy. According to rumor, Botka offered to cede half of the districts in Budapest to LMP, where the leftist-green party is strong. No dice. Ákos Hadházy, Bernadett Szél, and Péter Ungár, who happens to be Mária Schmidt’s son, refused. I assume Botka was hoping to replace DK voters with those from LMP. So by now it looks as if MSZP is planning to take on the Orbán government alone since neither LMP nor the smaller parties, like Együtt and Párbeszéd, are willing to support Botka, and Botka is unwilling to cooperate with Ferenc Gyurcsány.

Today, at DK’s congress, Ferenc Gyurcsány formally acknowledged that his original idea of a common list is dead. Despite the attacks coming from Botka, Gyurcsány refrained from attacking MSZP’s candidate. The gist of his message was “perhaps there are many flags but the camp is one.” The democratic opposition must agree on one candidate in each district against Fidesz’s nominee. Because running against each other would be truly suicidal.

The answer to this proposal was prompt. Imre Szekeres (MSZP), former minister of defense and an influential member of the party, accused Gyurcsány of either not knowing what he is talking about or knowingly suggesting “the impossible.” He claimed that separate lists and common candidates are incompatible. He gave a long list of reasons why this is the case, although I remember that during the negotiations such a solution was discussed.

László Botka didn’t wait long either. He told Index only a few minutes after Gyurcsány concluded his speech that he “doesn’t want to get involved with the debates of the ever increasing number of small liberal parties.” It was an arrogant response considering that, according to a January poll, among committed voters 10% of the electorate would vote for MSZP and 7% for DK. In his place I would be a tad more cautious. So, as it stands, all parties will be facing Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz alone. This is a sure way of handing an electoral victory to Orbán even though a significant majority of the electorate thinks that the present government and Fidesz are leading the country in the wrong direction.

What are the chances of a spectacular resurgence of MSZP at the moment? Róbert László, the electoral expert of Political Capital, a political think tank, considers such a Phoenix-like revival of the party unlikely. So do I. It carries too much baggage, and its politicians are singularly untalented. Gyurcsány, who is talented but tainted, is more realistic. His goal is to build a middle-sized party, gaining maybe 15% of the votes. That would give the party a good chance of forming a parliamentary delegation (frakció in Hungarian), which it currently lacks.

Otherwise, all commentators consider the appearance of Momentum politically important, but talking about this new group, as some of the “political scientists” do, as a serious threat to MSZP or DK is a mistake. These young people did an admirable job collecting signatures for a referendum on hosting the 2024 Olympics, but building a party from scratch in a few months is a well nigh impossible task. They may, however, be able to move the apolitical younger generation, especially in Budapest and other larger cities. In the countryside their chances are very poor.

Gyurcsány, and whether he was being honest or not is beside the point, said that he is happy for the emergence of the Momentum group, to which the spokesman of Momentum answered that “Momentum is not happy for Gyurcsány.” No wonder that many people compare Hungarian opposition leaders to kindergartners fighting over the toys lying around.

Péter Pető, former deputy editor-in-chief of Népszabadság, wrote an opinion piece in 24.hu with the title “Only one may remain: The war of Botka, Gyurcsány, and Momentum.” It is a thought-provoking piece, although Pető goes overboard in assessing the political weight of Momentum. Pető is no admirer of Botka, whom he calls “a media partisan” who shirks from being tested in a political struggle with real opponents. “The mayor of Szeged is unwilling to go into battle with Gyurcsány, who was reelected as the chairman of the party with 98% of the votes…. Botka’s game … gives him an opportunity to show whether he has what makes Gyurcsány an important politician: the killer’s instinct.” Pető then gives a couple of scenarios of Botka succeeding in making a deal with LMP or the other two small parties, in which case he thinks that Gyurcsány will have to face a very serious challenge, which may end his political career. “But the problem is that Gyurcsány is at his best in precisely this type of situation,” Pető concludes.

Of course, it is possible that more sober voices will come forward, but at the moment MSZP, LMP, Együtt, and Párbeszéd have declared their intention to face the big bad wolf alone. DK is waiting, but at the moment I don’t see any willingness to cooperate with Ferenc Gyurcsány and by extension with the Demokratikus Koalíció. Viktor Orbán must be feeling very good.

March 4, 2017

Botka’s formal introduction as MSZP’s candidate for Hungary’s new prime minister

Two days have gone by since László Botka, mayor of Szeged and MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, delivered a fifty-minute speech which has since received mixed reviews. The most quoted part of the speech was a frontal attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány as an impediment to electoral victory. Not even the socialists seem to be entirely happy with Botka’s attack, especially since Botka’s party is in the midst of negotiations with the other democratic opposition parties, including the largest among them, Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció. After the speech Lajos Bokros, former minister of finance and chairman of Modern Magyarország Mozgalom Párt (MoMa), withdrew from the negotiation process while Párbeszéd accused Botka of lifting one of its signature programs, the introduction of a guaranteed basic income.

The speech, both in content and in delivery, began well enough, but after about ten minutes Botka lost some of his early eloquence. The speech deteriorated at times into a hurried laundry list.

In his editorial Péter Németh, editor-in-chief of Népszava, while noting that the speech could be considered an ideological shift for MSZP, said that most commentators paid little attention to the socialists’ turn leftward and concentrated only on the vicious assault against the former prime minister. After this speech, he said, MSZP must make clear what the party’s intentions are. Does Botka’s speech mean the discontinuation of the negotiations? Has MSZP opted to confront Fidesz alone in 2018? It’s time to decide. Index’s Szabolcs Dull shares Németh’s opinion that “we will most remember [Botka’s speech] as an event at which Botka publicly assailed Ferenc Gyurcsány.”

Since the transcript of the speech is available, I can quote some of the more controversial passages verbatim. The reader must keep in mind that László Botka has been an MSZP politician for 23 years. With the exception of the 1998-2002 period, he was a member of parliament between 1994 and 2010. He has been mayor of Szeged since 2002. Therefore, one must take with a grain of salt that Botka bears no responsibility whatsoever for “the missteps committed by the left-liberal governments, especially between 2002 and 2010.” And he continues: “Those who lied into the eyes of the electorate are liabilities for the left and they therefore should decamp…. In Hungary consolidation and peace will come only when the two most divisive politicians in the country, the beloved and/or hated icons, at last leave the sanctuary of politics.” Gyurcsány’s reaction to this assault was muted: “The voters will decide who has a place in the democratic public life of Hungary. I, as a voter, would give a place to Botka also. Moreover, I wish him much success.”

Watching the video taken at the event, I came to the conclusion that there was a divide when it came to Botka’s attack. There are those, like István Ujhelyi, MSZP member of the European Parliament, who believe that cooperation with the other parties will materialize despite Botka’s outburst. I saw István Hiller sitting rather stone faced without applauding. I assume those who are enthusiastic about Botka’s strong language think that the leadership of DK will tell their chairman to go and fly a kite and will merrily cooperate with MSZP and Botka. But “others are less optimistic as far as electoral cooperation is concerned.” They are seriously worried that this speech might end all negotiation between MSZP and DK, which may result in a devastating loss for the democratic parties on the left. Jobbik was not far off when the party claimed that “it became clear that László Botka, MSZP candidate for the premiership, and MSZP don’t want to defeat Prime Minister Viktor Orbán but Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció.” Botka bet everything on a single card. His hope seems to be that his strong speech will whip up such enthusiasm for the socialist party that it will be able to beat the forces of Fidesz and Jobbik singlehanded. Suddenly, the opinion polls will show an incredible shift in popularity for the party and, as a result, it will draw those one million undecided voters Botka referred to in his speech in addition to the loyal DK voters who will see the light and switch their votes to the revitalized socialist party.

Of course, anything is possible, perhaps even this scenario, but it is not very likely. Only a joint anti-Orbán force has any chance of removing the present government from power. Moreover, I have been convinced for some time that most commentators and politicians don’t study the polls that could give us direct or indirect clues about the political attitudes of the electorate carefully enough. For instance, the Závecz poll’s findings that about 75% of the electorate would not vote for a ticket that had Gyurcsány’s name on the list is misleading because it also includes millions of Fidesz and Jobbik voters who would not vote for a left-wing party or parties no matter what. The same is true of the undecided voters. When Závecz came out with its finding that for half of the undecided voters Gyurcsány’s presence would make a difference, the assumption was that all these people would vote for the left. But, of course, this is not the case. Therefore, this whole Závecz report, on which many people on the left rely, is totally useless as a guide for future action. I’m convinced that most people who want to get rid of Orbán don’t give a hoot whether Gyurcsány’s name is on the list or not–as long as it’s not at the top of the list.

The government press is naturally delighted. Magyar Idők’s headline reads: “László Botka: Gyurcsány is a burden on the left.” However, Tamás Lánczi, a a right-wing political scientist and the new editor-in-chief of Figyelő, gave a surprisingly objective assessment of the speech in an interview on Inforádió. In his opinion, the speech contained many significant elements, but Botka’s attacks shifted attention away from its essence. It might be the case that the candidate for the premiership has to show strength, but “we know from various surveys and research papers that the voters of MSZP and DK readily cross-vote. The voters of the two parties don’t look upon each other as enemies, and therefore there is the possibility of cooperation.”

I must say I have to agree with the young Lánczi. Where I disagree with him is in his description of Botka’s speech as populist. I’m afraid Lánczi doesn’t know the true meaning of the word. Let me quote Jan-Werner Müller, who just published the highly acclaimed book What is Populism? A few days ago an interview appeared with Müller in Bloomberg titled “Why Donald Trump Really Is a Populist.” Müller said: “Not everyone who criticizes elites is automatically a populist. Rather, populists always claim that they—and they alone—properly represent the people or what they frequently call ‘the real people’ or the ‘silent majority.’”

Botka gave a social democratic speech, which emphasized social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy. It’s too bad that most Hungarians have no idea what the speech was really about. It deserves considered debate. The Gyurcsány bashing doesn’t.

February 20, 2017