Tag Archives: Demokratikus Koalíció

László Lengyel, the “kingmaker”

On Saturday afternoon Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered his thirteenth speech on the state of the country, which was broadcast on both ATV and HírTV. Hungarian speakers can watch the 40-minute speech on ATV’s website. It was a forceful attack on Viktor Orbán and his government in which he compared Orbán to István Csurka, the extreme right leader of MIÉP, an anti-Semitic party which, after a spectacular rise in the second half of the 1990s, disappeared for good, to be replaced by Gábor Vona’s Jobbik. He also talked about the poverty of the “working poor” and blamed the present government for the growing poverty of many Hungarians, adding that, in his opinion, a person for whom the wounds of Trianon are more painful than the sufferings of Hungarians who are hungry and cold is not a patriot.

If Gyurcsány had confined himself to these themes, not too many people would have been overly excited about the former prime minister’s speech. But he continued with a juicy revelation. He accused László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, of conducting, with the assistance of a non-politician “kingmaker,” negotiations to exclude him and his party from a future electoral alliance of left-of-center parties. Such behavior can put an end to DK’s cooperation with the other socialist-liberal parties, he warned. Well, that sort of news is definitely something both the media and the public love. Indeed, soon enough a host of articles appeared about the speech and its content.

The name of the “kingmaker” didn’t remain secret for long. The spokesman of the Demokratikus Koalíció, Zsolt Gréczy, made it public on Facebook. The “kingmaker” was László Lengyel, a political scientist and economist who is a regular participant in political discussions, where he shows great mastery of both domestic and foreign affairs.

Soon enough it was determined that the meeting to which Gyurcsány alluded did indeed take place. What was more difficult to find out was what actually transpired at the meeting from which the leaders of MSZP, Párbeszéd, Együtt, and even LMP and László Botka wanted Gyurcsány and his party to be excluded. Although everybody involved has since given interviews, they have carefully avoided providing straight answers to any and all questions touching on the content of the discussions. After listening to all these interviews, I had the distinct feeling that Gyurcsány’s information was correct. The meeting was about getting rid of Gyurcsány while holding on to DK voters.

László Lengyel / Source: Népszabadság / Photo: János M. Schmidt

How did Gyurcsány and the leadership of the Demokratikus Koalíció find out about the meeting in the first place? Lengyel seems to have been foolish enough to approach Péter Niedermüller, DK member of the European Parliament, and invite him for a cup of coffee. There he told Niedermüller about what was afoot and extended an invitation to him to attend the meeting. Niedermüller refused and informed DK’s executive board of Lengyel’s scheme.

Eventually Niedermüller told his side of the story. He interpreted the conversation over coffee as “an attempt to exclude DK and its chairman from cooperation among left-of-center parties without losing DK’s voters.” Such “half-truths, secrecy, and mendacity are incompatible with my conscience,” Niedermüller announced. The main occupation of far too many opposition leaders is “branding those fellow politicians with whom they don’t agree.” By such behavior they only strengthen the prime minister and his regime.

László Lengyel admits that he did have a conversation with Niedermüller but denies everything the DK politician said about their meeting. He practically called Niedermüller a liar who was “dragged into this idiocy,” I guess by Gyurcsány. He expressed his regret that Niedermüller “got himself involved with such bad company.”

During the many interviews Lengyel gave in the last couple of days it became clear that he was the one who convinced László Botka to announce his interest in becoming a candidate to head the united democratic opposition. It is a well-known fact that Lengyel passionately hates Ferenc Gyurcsány. In one of his interviews he freely admitted that he swore in 2006 that he would never sit down at the same table with Ferenc Gyurcsány. And he is not exaggerating. I had personal experience with Lengyel’s uncompromising hatred of the former prime minister. Lengyel used to be a frequent contributor to Galamus, an excellent internet site–unfortunately by now defunct due to a lack of funds–that carried mostly opinion pieces. Both Péter Niedermüller and I were among the founding members. One day Zsófia Mihancsik, our editor, invited Gyurcsány to write an article for Galamus. As soon as the article appeared, Lengyel cut all ties with Galamus. He no longer cared about either the quality or the mission of the site.

The three authors on the left who wrote opinion pieces on the incident are split on the issue. Péter S. Földi and György Adorján condemn those democratic politicians who try to make deals behind the backs of others. It is only TGM, who specializes in contrary opinions on practically everything, who thinks that Lengyel is a private individual and as such has the right to meet with anyone he wants. Moreover, he looks upon Gyurcsány’s indignation as “an attack against intellectuals,” an act that foreshadows hard times to come. I’m not quite sure what TGM has in mind.

All these attempts, especially by the two tiny parties Együtt and Párbeszéd, to get rid of Gyurcsány are not just a waste of time but incredibly harmful. DK voters are devoted to the head of their party. They are not going to abandon him and flock to a left-of-center group that excludes their leader. And no election can be won without Gyurcsány and DK. All these meetings are really “much ado about nothing,” with the terrible side effect of shaking the little confidence left-wing voters still have in the opposition. The poll the smaller parties cite to bolster their claim about Gyurcsány’s standing with the voters is fallacious, as I pointed out earlier in one of my posts. Most Hungarians who would vote for a left political conglomerate don’t care one way or the other about the makeup of the joint party list. As for the undecided voters, only half of them feel strongly about the person of Gyurcsány.

Although there is nothing wrong with outsiders giving advice to politicians, it should be positive, constructive counsel, not counsel that would further split the already fractured Hungarian opposition.

February 7, 2017

On László Botka’s nomination and an NGO win

I will try to cover two topics today. First, I will share my initial reactions to László Botka as the official nominee of MSZP for the post of prime minister. And second, I will give an example of the kind of success NGOs can achieve in defending the rule of law in Hungary.

László Botka’s nomination

This morning, on Klub Rádió’s call-in-program “Let’s Talk It Over,” I listened with great interest to the by and large enthusiastic reception of MSZP’s nomination of László Botka as its candidate for prime minister. I myself was also glad that at last MSZP, a party known for its confused messages and timidity, had made a definitive move. I still welcomed the move, although initially I had disapproved of MSZP’s decision to act on its own. I hoped that the socialist leadership had explained to Botka that he must have an open mind in his negotiations with the Demokratikus Koalíció because Botka’s opening salvo against the chairman of DK didn’t bode well as far as future negotiations were concerned. And without DK there is no possibility of forging a workable election alliance.

Great was my disappointment when I read the short summary of Botka’s program in 168 Óra. In Botka’s opinion, the Third Way, which can be described as a political position that tries to combine right-wing economic and left-wing social policies within the social democratic movement, proved to be a failure in Hungary. He named Ferenc Gyurcsány as the chief proponent of this political philosophy. The failure of the Third Way, he said, led to the rise of populism and the stunning electoral victory of Viktor Orbán.

I would need a little more time to ponder Botka’s theory, but at first blush it doesn’t strike me as a valid criticism. One obvious counterargument is the growth of populism throughout the western world without either a Third Way or Ferenc Gyurcsány. I would suggest that Botka consider the 2008 world economic crisis as one possible cause of our current problems. With a little effort we could come up with many other factors that would counter Botka’s theory, among them the very strong showing of Fidesz from at least 2002 on, when experimentation with Tony Blair’s brainchild was still nowhere.

In any case, if Botka is serious about becoming the candidate of all democratic parties he should reconsider his attitude. Otherwise, his failure is guaranteed. One can’t start negotiations from such a position.

DK’s reaction was muted. Csaba Molnár, deputy chairman of DK, announced that they are expecting Botka’s call, adding that they agree that a new program is necessary for the removal of the Orbán government. He offered DK’s almost 80-page program “Hungary of the Many” for his consideration.

The Helsinki Commission (and Friends) and the European Court of Human Rights

The Orbán government has singled out three NGOs as the most objectionable: the Helsinki Commission, Transparency International, and Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (TASZ), which is the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. These three organizations stand for freedom, equality, the rule of law, human rights, and transparency. They call the government to account when it doesn’t follow the country’s laws or doesn’t fulfill its international obligations. Naturally, they are incredible irritants to the Orbán government.

One such case in which they called the government to task was the nomination of a Hungarian judge to the European Court of Human Rights.

Since, after 2010, the Hungarian Constitutional Court has been filled with government appointees, the “last resort” of NGOs is often the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The Court’s current Hungarian judge is András Sajó, a legal scholar, university professor, and member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, whose nine-year tenure will expire at the end of the month. Therefore, the Orbán government will be able to nominate one of its own.

According to Council of Europe policy, the nomination must be democratic and transparent. If not, the nominee might be rejected. Three names ought to be submitted for consideration, and their nomination must be preceded by an open application process.

Knowing the Orbán government’s attitude toward such international obligations, the Helsinki Commission was worried already a year ago about the government’s plans for the nomination of a new Hungarian judge. Therefore, they inquired from László Trócsányi, minister of justice, about the progress the government had made. The answer was worrisome because Trócsányi called the prescriptions of the Council of Europe “recommendatory documents.” In June, the Helsinki Commission inquired again and was told that the ministry of justice was in the midst of consultation with experts. When asked who these experts were, the ministry refused to divulge their identities, citing privacy rights. It then informed the Helsinki Commission that the list of names had already been submitted to the court. In response, 11 NGOs together demanded the withdrawal of the submitted names and asked for an open application process. This time, the ministry of justice didn’t even bother to answer their letter.

At this point 15 Hungarian NGOs informed the Council of Europe about the illegality of the Hungarian nomination process. It turned out that of the three submitted nominees two were closely connected to the current Hungarian government: one was an adviser to Trócsányi and the other was a department head in the ministry of justice who at one point had represented the Hungarian government in a case before the ECHR.

The General Meeting of ECHR decided against the two objectionable candidates, and so the Hungarian government turned in two new names. One of the replacements was also connected to the ministry of justice. And the open application process was again ignored.

The NGOs complained and this time turned to the ECHR. In response, the secretary-general of ECHR indicated to the Hungarian government that in the absence of an open application procedure, the nominees will be rejected. At this point the Orbán government threw in the towel. In October it withdrew the nominations and announced it would hold an open application process for the jobs.

The applicants had only two weeks to prepare, and outsiders had little knowledge about the selection process, but this was still a big step forward. This time, of the three names, only one has government ties, less intimate than in earlier cases. The finalists are Krisztina Füzi-Rozsnyai, an administrative lawyer, Péter Paczolay, former chief justice of the constitutional court, and Pál Sonnevend, head of the department of international law at ELTE. On January 12 the three applicants had their hearings. A final decision will be made on January 24.

After reading just this one case, I think it is easy to understand why the Orbán government wants to demonize these NGOs and possibly remove them. It is not a stretch for Orbán to claim that they are involved in anti-government political activities since they are defending the rule of law in a country where the government does everything in its power to circumvent the law. And they are often more successful than the political parties because of their expertise in both domestic and European law.

January 19, 2017

Not on Viktor Orbán’s Christmas list: A European Public Prosecutor

The establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) has been on the table since at least 2013. In the last three years, despite intensive negotiations, progress has been slow because of the resistance of some of the member states, among them Hungary. As it stands, in order to create EPPO 25 member states have to support the proposal because the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark have opted out. According to reports, 20 member states support the plan while Poland, Hungary, Sweden, and the Netherlands oppose it. The reluctance to cede certain national rights to the European Union is understandable from the point of view of nation states, but we can be sure that Hungary’s unwillingness has other sources as well.

EPPO will have the authority “to investigate and prosecute EU-fraud and other crimes affecting the Union’s financial interests.” Currently, only national authorities can investigate and prosecute EU-fraud. The existing EU bodies, such as OLAF, Eurojust, and Europol, don’t have jurisdiction here. OLAF can investigate, but the prosecution must be carried out by the authorities of the member states. As we know, in the case of Hungary OLAF finds plenty to investigate, but the Hungarian authorities never find anything wrong. Europol has no executive powers, and its officials are not entitled to conduct investigations in the member states or to arrest suspects. Eurojust, an organization I have not mentioned before, is merely a coordinating body which is supposed to improve the handling of serious cross-border crimes by “stimulating” investigative and prosecutorial coordination among agencies of the member states. This is another body that has no power over the justice system in the member states. Eurojust could “stimulate” Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office till doomsday and it would never investigate crimes committed by Fidesz officials.

From the description of EPPO’s structure on the website of the European Union I have some difficulty envisaging how this independent prosecutorial body will function. Under a European prosecutor, investigations will be carried out by European delegated prosecutors located in each member state. These delegated prosecutors will be an integral part of the EPPO, but they will also function as national prosecutors. I must say that I have my doubts about this setup, which Viktor Orbán’s regime could easily manipulate. But it will probably never come to pass because, among the Central European EU members, Hungary and Poland have no intention of going along with the plan which, according to Věra Jourová, commissioner in charge of justice, consumers and gender equality, should be voted on within three months.

The head of OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, naturally supports the plan because the number of cases his organization has to investigate increases every year. In 2015 OLAF opened 219 investigations and concluded 304. Hungary alone had 17 possible fraud cases, the third highest after Bulgaria and Romania. But OLAF can only make recommendations to the member states, which at least in Hungary’s case are not pursued. Interestingly, several chief prosecutors in member states support the idea of the setting up a European Prosecutor’s Office, among them the prosecutors of Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, France, and Romania. As we know, in Romania corruption is just as bad if not worse than in Hungary, yet there is a willingness to allow an independent body to investigate cases of fraud and corruption.

Last July the Hungarian media reported that the negotiations were in an advanced stage since Jourová called together the ministers of justice for an informal talk in Bratislava. At that point HVG reported that “Hungary supports the goals of the organization but is afraid that the sovereignty of the Hungarian prosecution may be undermined.” The explanation Justice Minister László Trócsányi gave for Hungary’s hesitation concerning EPPO was that in the Hungarian judicial system the chief prosecutor is appointed by the parliament and therefore the sovereignty issue might be a constitutional problem. By December, after Jourová’s visit to Budapest, this hesitation became a flat refusal. In addition to the argument about the parliamentary appointment of the chief prosecutor, a new argument surfaced in parliament, which had its source in Trócsányi’s proposed additions to the Fidesz constitution about Hungary’s “national identity and basic constitutional arrangements.”

Practically on the same day that the parliamentary committee said no to the proposal “in its present form,” Věra Jourová told Handelsblatt Global that “the European Commission could impose financial penalties on Poland and Hungary if they block the creation of a European public prosecutor.” Poland and Hungary receive more aid from the European Union than they pay into the budget, and therefore their refusal is unacceptable. She disclosed that on the basis of the known cases, €638 million of structural funds were misappropriated in 2015. The actual figure is most likely much higher. This must be stopped, she added.

Věra Jourová, commissioner in charge of justice. Despite her pleasant smile she’s apparently tough.

On December 8 EU justice ministers gathered again in Brussels to discuss the creation of EPPO, but while the majority of them support the plan, a few member states refuse to budge. To quote euractiv.com, “with no end in sight to this blockage, France’s Minister of Justice Jean-Jacques Urvoas and his German counterpart Heiko Maas decided to propose an enhanced cooperation deal for those countries that are in favor of this ‘super prosecutor.’” Enhanced cooperation is a mechanism that allows EU countries to bypass the requirement of unanimity. A group of at least nine member states may request a draft regulation. If this draft fails, the states concerned are free to establish enhanced cooperation among themselves. I fail to see how that would be disadvantageous to rogue states like Poland or Hungary. Orbán would gladly acknowledge the fact that EPPO has no jurisdiction over Hungary, and he and his friends could continue to steal about a third of the structural funds EU provides. A perfect arrangement.

Now let’s turn to how the opposition parties see the issue. As far as Jobbik is concerned, the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office is the first step to the dreaded United States of Europe. In fact, Jobbik accuses Fidesz and the Orbán government of not fighting hard enough in Brussels against this proposal. Jobbik must consider the issue very important because they published a statement in English in which Gábor Staudt, a Jobbik MP, explains the party’s position. He recalls the Fidesz members of the European Parliament not having the guts to vote against the proposal; they only abstained. Jobbik’s opposition is based strictly on its nationalistic defense of Hungarian sovereignty whereas Fidesz worries primarily about the legal consequences of an independent European prosecutor’s office investigating crimes of government officials.

The democratic Hungarian opposition parties are all enthusiastic supporters of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office. DK was actually campaigning with the idea ahead of the 2014 European parliamentary election. Benedek Jávor, a member of the European parliament delegated by PM (nowadays Párbeszéd), joined DK’s demand soon after. István Ujhelyi (MSZP), also a member of the European parliament, is of the same mind. He wrote a lengthy piece, published on the party’s website, about the necessity of such a body in the absence of a functioning Hungarian prosecutor’s office. Ujhelyi is sure that if EPPO is set up “the Fidesz hussars will be behind bars in crowded rows, including those corrupt officials who assist them.” He criticizes Fidesz members of the European Parliament for abandoning the position of the European People’s Party to which they belong. They “almost alone abstained” at the time the matter was discussed in Strasbourg.

Ujhelyi somewhat optimistically points out that if Hungary remains outside the group of countries that are ready to be under the jurisdiction of the European Public Prosecutor, the distinction between honest and dishonest countries will be evident. In case Fidesz refuses to support the decision, “it will be an admission that it is a party of thieves.” I’m afraid Viktor Orbán and his government simply don’t care what others think of them. At the moment Viktor Orbán is in Poland on a two-day visit. I understand that he and Jarosław Kaczyński had a leisurely three-hour dinner. I’m sure that the threat of a European Public Prosecutor to the sovereignty of Poland and Hungary was thoroughly discussed.

December 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

osszefogas

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

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

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

October 11, 2016

The deadly embrace of Hungarian television propaganda

Yesterday, while waiting for the results of the anti-refugee referendum, I decided to take a look at Channel M1, one of Magyar Televízió’s four or five channels. This particular channel is devoted to news and political discussions. I must admit that I hadn’t bothered to watch it before, though of course I knew that since 2010, when Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the election, MTV had become a servile mouthpiece of government propaganda. I heard all the jokes about its being the Hungarian version of North Korean Television and that anyone who has a cable connection avoids M1 like the plague. Insufferable, unwatchable, disgraceful; these were the verdicts coming from Hungary. And then, yes, there’s the astonishing €160,191,200 yearly budget on channels few people watch, although MTV can be received across the country and beyond. (Of the private stations, only RTL Klub and TV2 have nationwide coverage.) Well, yesterday I took the plunge.

Watching Channel M1 while the voting was in progress was a shocking experience. The intensity of the propaganda could easily be compared to the times of Mátyás Rákosi–if, that is, Hungary had had television broadcasting in those days. Friends of mine who worked as journalists during the last two decades of the Kádár regime tell me that, despite the limitations imposed on them by the regime, they had more freedom than those journalists who still work at MTV. The better ones were fired years ago; those who remained do what they are told.

I hate to think how much money MTV spent on this last-minute campaigning for a valid and successful referendum. One reporter was sent to Belgrade to interview “migrants” who are stuck there. Another went to France. Another was dispatched to the “capital of Székelyföld,” which is a fiction of the Hungarian right since there is no way Romania will grant autonomous status to the two counties where Hungarian-speaking Szeklers are in the majority. Another journalist stood in front of a former refugee camp in Debrecen.

The anchor at intervals asked for the latest developments in Belgrade. The correspondent there reported that the “migrants” are breathlessly waiting for word on the outcome of the referendum. If it is not valid, they are planning to storm the Hungarian border first thing Monday morning. Ten or fifteen minutes later the anchor got in touch with the reporter in Belgrade again for “the latest developments.”

Then came the turn of the reporter from France. She was in the village of Allex in southeastern France where, as several French- and English-language papers reported in mid-September that“furious villagers have plunged France’s asylum system into chaos after demanding a vote on whether to kick out migrants re-homed in their neighborhood.” Allex had to take 50 refugees and the locals, egged on by the Front National, created a situation that became explosive. They demanded a referendum, which couldn’t be held because localities cannot decide on immigration issues. This news was picked up by right-wing Hungarian internet sources like Origo, 888.hu, and Pestisracok.hu around September 15. So MTV sent a special correspondent to this village to record a conversation with the mayor about “the lack of democracy” in France.

The reporter in Csíkszereda told MTV’s audience in Hungary about the great enthusiasm among the Szeklers for this referendum. Népszabadság’s Bucharest correspondent, who was also in Csíkszereda, reported otherwise. According to the Hungarian consul-general, 17,525 people asked for ballots and instructions to vote on Sunday but 11,820 (67.45%) didn’t bother to pick them up. In Cluj/Kolozsvár the situation was a bit better. All in all, there was not much to see in Csíkszereda. Most people had already voted by mail and, as we know, more than 16% of the ballots were invalid. According to the National Election Office, 30,705 ballots came from Transylvania before October 1.

Then came the story of all the atrocities that “migrants” had committed in the last year or so in Hungary. The reporter stood in front of the by now empty barracks that used to house refugees in Debrecen. The whole neighborhood was ruined, there was litter everywhere, fighting broke out over some dispute about the Koran, every time they wanted something some migrants climbed up on a tower and threatened to jump if their demands were not met. In short, it was sheer hell and, if migrants were allowed to enter Hungary, the whole country would be like that. The story then continued with the “terrorists” in Röszke who threw rocks at the policemen, people at the Keleti Station, and the march toward Vienna. A long litany of atrocities committed by the “migrants.”

Finally came a series of interviews with politicians and ordinary citizens who all voted no and who explained their weighty reasons for doing so. These stories were packed into one hour of non-stop propaganda, which was outright stomach turning.

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I decided to write about the hour I spent on the state propaganda channel of a so-called democratic country because the defeat of Orbán’s referendum is even more momentous when viewed in the context of this government attempt at brainwashing voters.

Although most foreign and domestic observers consider the result a colossal failure for the Hungarian government, the Fidesz leadership gathered stone-faced in front of a small and somewhat artificially enthusiastic crowd to announce the government’s great victory. Journalists were forbidden to be present. In a short speech Viktor Orbán shamelessly claimed that nine out of ten Hungarians voted for the sovereignty of Hungary. “Brussels or Budapest. That was the question and we decided that the right of decision lies solely with Budapest.” Although I often get confused with numbers, I’m pretty sure that 2,978,144 is not 90% of 8,272,624 eligible voters.

As for his future plans concerning a change of the constitution, it is about as illegal as the referendum itself was. I know that Jobbik will support it because Gábor Vona’s original suggestion was a simple change of the constitution, which Fidesz refused to consider and instead launched the referendum campaign. We don’t yet know whether the democratic opposition parties will present a common front. So far DK and MSZP have announced that they will boycott any parliamentary action concerning an amendment to the constitution. The small Magyar Liberális Párt also expressed its disapproval of changing the constitution on account of the refugee quota issue.

Tomorrow I will attempt to shed some light on the very complicated issue of the relationship between the referendum and the constitution. Meanwhile we will see how Orbán handles this new situation. I suspect with belligerence and even more hateful speeches against both the refugees and the opposition. 444.hu recalled today an interview with Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife, in Story magazine a couple of years ago. She told the reporter that her husband is unable to lose and gave a couple of examples. When they run together, he pretends that he is close to chocking and is far behind, but in the last minute he revives and sprints ahead, beating her. Only once did it happen that they took part in a ski competition where she came in first and he second. By the time the results were announced Orbán had arranged to separate the sexes, and thus he was first in the men’s category. He is always ready to change the rules of the game. I think this is what we can expect.

October 3, 2016

Blunder after blunder on the left

When I woke up this morning and took a quick look at the latest news, I found stories about a murder and an abandoned baby. Nothing of import seemed to be happening politically, so I figured I’d have to turn to one of the subjects I put aside for no-news days. But then, about five hours later, I learned of two events that will most likely have serious repercussions for the future of the democratic opposition. One was the forced departure of Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy from the Demokratikus Koalíció; the other, an interview with Gyula Molnár on HírTV regarding MSZP’s policy on “compulsory quotas.”

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s departure from DK

When Kerék-Bárczy joined DK in 2013 it was a real coup for Ferenc Gyurcsány because he came from the moderate right. Although his political career began in Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF), after 1998 he became the chief-of-staff of István Stumpf, who headed the prime minister’s office in the Orbán government. Later he served as an adviser to Foreign Minister János Martonyi, and in 2001 he was named consul-general in Los Angeles. He stayed in this position even after Fidesz lost the election in 2002. Between 2007 and 2010 he served as the spokesman of Ibolya Dávid’s moderate, right-of-center, by now defunct MDF.

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For the last three years he has been an enthusiastic supporter of DK. If he had any doubts about the direction in which DK was heading, it was not at all obvious. But then came today when he published an article in 168 Óra titled “Paradigm shift!” in which he described the generally sad state of the opposition and offered his solutions. Support for the left, he wrote, hasn’t changed substantially in the last six years and, to win the next election, “the democrats would need between 500,000 and 1,000,000 new voters.” The Orbán government doesn’t enjoy the support of the majority, but the left cannot win “with its present structure.” The parties don’t trust each other and the electorate doesn’t trust them. The leadership is the same as it was in 2014, and if remains the same, failure is guaranteed.

He pointed out that competition among the parties of the left hasn’t resulted in any one party breaking loose from the pack. They are only taking votes from each other. The rivalry among the parties only deepens the gulf between those who are destined to cooperate. The strife caused by this competition alienates the moderate “middle.”

So, what is Kerék-Bárczy’s answer? It is his conviction that elections can be won only from the middle, which for him means “the moderate conservative, conservative-liberal community,” without whom there can be no victory.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I consider criticizing one’s own party’s decisions a perfectly legitimate, most likely even useful enterprise. But for an insider to publish a “tell-all” party-bashing article is another matter entirely.

So, let’s see what the DK leadership found so objectionable. First of all, Kerék-Bárczy accused members of the democratic opposition of not even wanting to win the next election. He let the public know that on DK’s own board there are people with different visions: (1) Fidesz can be beaten. (2) DK will be the largest party on the left. (3) DK can’t elect more than 15-20 people to the next parliament. “Putting these three together is absurdity itself.”

In his opinion DK’s strategy is fundamentally faulty. It first wants to be the largest party on the left. Once this is accomplished, the party will turn toward the middle in the hope of electoral victory. According to Kerék-Bárczy, this strategy has already failed. “It occurred to many of our members that our strategy doesn’t serve a 2018 victory but that only a couple dozen of our leaders will manage to receive parliamentary mandates.”

It didn’t take more than 20 minutes for DK’s board to decide that they no longer want to see Kerék-Bárczy in the party. Several called him a traitor. The pro-government media was delighted. On the left journalists reported Kerék-Bárczy’s departure from DK without comment. 444.hu was the only exception. It described him as one of the greatest political survivors of the post-1990 period who now is leaving the sinking ship because “it just occurred to him that the opposition will not win in 2018.” They also insinuated that perhaps he is hoping to become an ambassador somewhere thanks to his earlier position as consul general during the Fidesz administration.

Gyula Molnár is mighty confused

Last night, in an interview that lasted only about five minutes, Gyula Molnár got so mixed up that we have no idea where his party stands not just on “compulsory quotas” but on the whole refugee crisis and Viktor Orbán’s policies. I suggest that those who understand the language take a look at the interview. His key message was that “in legal terms we consider the referendum superfluous and from the point of view of Europe risky. But if the question of [compulsory quotas] ever comes up, we are ready to support the government in its fight against it.” The interviewer almost fell off his chair and reminded Molnár that, in that case, his party’s position on the issue is identical to Fidesz’s. That response so confused Molnár that he started piling contradictory remarks one on top of the other until one could find neither rhyme nor reason in the whole confused mess. At one point he argued that the money spent on the referendum could be spent better, for example, on giving it to the soldiers defending the border. But a few seconds later he condemned the very fence the soldiers were defending. It was a communication disaster.

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Magyar Narancs was not kind to Molnár when it published a short opinion piece titled “The chairman of MSZP bravely squeaks from the pocket of Fidesz.” In the paper’s opinion, either Molnár thinks that there will be no compulsory quotas and therefore it matters not what he says or Fidesz bought him. But, they added, there is a third possibility: “this man is an imbecile.” In normal circumstances what Molnár says wouldn’t make any difference, but “in a referendum campaign it means canvassing for the nay votes, in other words, for Fidesz, or more precisely for Viktor Orbán. But what else can be expected from the head of the largest opposition party?” The “head” here has a special meaning, of course. Magyar Nemzet also interpreted Molnár’s confused message as MSZP’s attempt at “jockeying.”

Finally, let me add a few observations. I understand that Facebook is full of condemnations of MSZP’s latest blunder. Just because Fidesz has been successful with its xenophobic messages and its harsh, un-Christian attitude toward people escaping war and hunger, the MSZP leadership shouldn’t assume that it could boost its support by joining Viktor Orbán’s pack. On the contrary, those who oppose the government might just shrug their shoulders and say, “Why should I vote for MSZP? After all, both are cut from the same cloth.” Or, perhaps even worse from the point of the party, MSZP supporters will decide that DK’s message on the issue is much more straightforward, simple and consistent. The message of MSZP on this issue was always murky, but by now if I were an MSZP voter I really wouldn’t know what my party’s stance is on the issue. There are times when I think that the majority of the politicians on the left are total nincompoops.

September 1, 2016

A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER PÉTER SZIJJÁRTÓ.    PART II

Yesterday I covered only about half of the lengthy interview Péter Szijjártó gave to Index a couple of days ago. I talked about Viktor Orbán’s foreign advisers who are attached to the prime minister’s office and described U.S.-Hungarian relations, with special emphasis on Szijjártó’s relationship with Ambassador Colleen Bell and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. It is now time to move on to the Hungarian perception of Russia’s diplomatic and military plans. In addition, Szijjártó described at some length his ministry’s active support of even opposition politicians seeking political or business opportunities abroad. This claim came as news to many of us.

If we take Szijjártó’s comments on Russia at face value, the Orbán government has complete trust in Vladimir Putin. The conversation on Russian-Hungarian relations began with the reporter recalling recent statements about possible military threats from the east as well as the south. Does Szijjártó hesitate “to say that this eastern threat means Russia,” the reporter asked. The answer boiled down to the following. The Hungarian foreign minister “doesn’t think that Russia would decide on any threatening act against any of the NATO countries.” Therefore, the fears of the Poles and the inhabitants of the Baltic countries are based only on intangibles like past experience or geography. They look upon Russia as a “threat to their sheer survival.” Hungary’s situation is different: “we don’t consider Russia an existential threat,” he repeated several times. Therefore, he doesn’t think that “NATO soldiers should come to Hungary to defend us from Russia.”

How fast some people forget. It is true that Hungary, unlike Poland or the Baltic states, didn’t encounter Russian encroachment until 1849, but Hungarian aversion toward the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union has been strong in the last two centuries. The Russian occupation of Hungary after World War II, which lasted almost 50 years, seems to have faded from Hungarian consciousness, and pro-Russian editorials have been abundant in the pro-government, right-wing media. The absence of fear of a Russian military threat can be at least partially explained by the fact that Hungary is no longer a direct neighbor of Russia. As Semjén Zsolt, deputy prime minister, said rather crassly at the time of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, “It is a good thing to have something between us and Russia.” But, of course, the main reason for the current cozy relationship between Russia and Hungary is Viktor Orbán’s admiration of Vladimir Putin and his, I believe mistaken, notion that Hungary can act as a bridge between Russia and the European Union.

Although Orbán often quite loudly proclaims his opposition to the economic sanctions against Russia, time and again Hungary obediently votes with the rest of the EU countries to extend the sanctions. This was also the case at the end of June when the next six months’ extension was approved. So, not surprisingly, Szijjártó tried to camouflage Hungarian action by first saying that “the approval was reached at the level of deputy permanent representatives only and that it had to be accepted without any discussion because that was the expectation.” Soon enough, however, it became clear that the approval of the extension of the sanctions didn’t go exactly the way Szijjártó first described it. It turned out that there was in fact discussion “and at the beginning there were a few of us who were opposed to it, but the opposition melted away and at the end everybody accepted it.”

One segment in particular from this lengthy interview caused quite a stir in liberal circles. The conversation took an odd turn after a question about instructions the foreign ministry gives to Fidesz politicians when they go to Russia. The journalists were especially interested in Antal Rogán’s trip to Russia in May 2013. It was a secret trip to Moscow to discuss ways in which the Hungarian government could accumulate foreign currency reserves in Russian rubles because of the unstable position of the dollar. This trip created a scandal in Hungary. I wrote about it in “Viktor Orbán’s Russian roulette.”

Szijjártó, who at that point had nothing to do with the foreign ministry, couldn’t enlighten the journalist on this particular event, but he offered juicy information on all the assistance his ministry gives to politicians, and not just those who belong to Fidesz. He continued: “Perhaps it is surprising, but the Demokratikus Koalíció indicated that Ferenc Gyurcsány was going to China. It was the most natural thing for me to ask the Department of Chinese Affairs to put together some preparatory material for the former prime minister.”

Eorsi Matyas

That kind of information shouldn’t prompt an extended discussion in an interview, but in Hungary such simple and customary courtesy astounds everybody because it is so unexpected from the boorish lot that leads the country today. Once Szijjártó saw the astonishment on the faces of the journalists, he decided to tell more about the government’s generosity toward its political opponents. “But I can also tell you some breaking news! Recently I had a visit from Mátyás Eörsi, who lives in Warsaw and works as deputy-secretary general of an international organization called Community of Democracies. This organization has 18 members, among them Hungary, and Eörsi would like to run for the post of secretary-general, but he needs the nomination of his government. He asked me whether such a nomination would be possible, and I said: of course. I visited the prime minister and told him that this was a good idea. He said that [Eörsi’s] merits at the time of the regime change deserve respect even if we have since disagreed on many things.” It was at this point that Szijjártó learned that Mátyás Eörsi is actually a member of the Demokratikus Koalíció.

First, a few words about the Community of Democracies, which was established in 2000 at the initiative of Polish Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Its purpose is to bring together governments, civil society, and the private sector in support of democratic rules and to strengthen democratic norms and institutions around the world. As for Mátyás Eörsi, his political career is studded with important positions domestically as well as internationally. The English-language Wikipedia has a shorter and the Hungarian version a longer description of his political importance ever since 1990. Given Eörsi’s solidly anti-Fidesz political activities, his endorsement by the Orbán government is indeed a great surprise.

Eörsi, prior to the appearance of the Szijjártó interview, published an announcement of his nomination by the government on Facebook. Ever since, a fierce debate has been going on both in the media and among people on Facebook about Eörsi’s decision to seek the nomination from the Orbán government. There are those who find Eörsi’s move unacceptable. Among these is Christopher Adam, editor of Hungarian Free Press, and Tamás Bauer, formerly an SZDSZ member of parliament and nowadays a member of DK. Christopher Adam is worried that if he actually becomes the secretary-general of this organization he might not be able to publicly condemn Fidesz’s pro-Russian and anti-EU policies freely. Tamás Bauer argues about the inappropriateness of Eörsi’s decision because, while in democratic countries it is perfectly natural for a government to nominate for an international position someone holding different views, in this case we are dealing with a government that has completely destroyed democracy. Eörsi’s decision, Bauer continues, gives the false impression that Hungary is still a democracy. Thus endorsement is in the interest of Fidesz but not of Hungary. This is what Eörsi doesn’t understand, Bauer concludes. Zsolt Zsebesi in gepnarancs.hu called on Eörsi “not to be Orbán’s useful idiot.”

On the other side, Judit N. Kósa of Népszabadság expressed her dismay that the Hungarian political situation is so distorted that Eörsi had to explain why he turned to Szijjártó for a nomination. She expressed her hope that this is not just a trick from the Orbán government but that they truly mean that even an opposition politician can represent Hungary in the Community of Democracies.

Finally, today Ferenc Gyurcsány himself stood by Eörsi, also on Facebook. He assured Eörsi of his support but admitted that he doesn’t understand the government’s motives. “We shouldn’t doubt our colleague’s obvious decency…. It is not Eörsi who should explain the reasons for his action but Viktor Orbán. He should be the one who ought to explain to his own why he supports one of the symbolic representatives of the liberals, one of the leaders of DK for such an important position.” He added that Orbán may know that under the present circumstances it is unlikely that the board of the Community of Democracies will vote for a Hungarian secretary general because that would be considered an endorsement of Orbán’s regime. His final sentence was: “I would be glad if I were wrong . . .”

August 4, 2016