Tag Archives: DK

Can László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, lead the democratic opposition?

The big news of the day is an interview that László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, gave for 168 Óra’s special Christmas edition. The paper will be on the newsstands only tomorrow, but the word is that Botka, the most popular socialist politician, is ready to lead the united opposition as a candidate for the premiership. Of course, he will accept the job only if his conditions are met by the currently negotiating opposition parties.

First, a few words about Botka, about whom I have written only twice before at any length. He joined MSZP at the tender age of 18. A year later, as a first-year law student in Szeged, he was already the honorary chairman of the party’s youth movement. In 1994 he won his district in the national election and, at the age of 21, was the youngest member of parliament. With the exception of four years, between 1998 and 2002, he was a member of parliament until 2014. In 2002, at the age of 29, he also became mayor of Szeged, a position he has continued to hold even as, at the municipal elections, almost the entire country turned orange.

László Botka in front of the Szeged City Hall

In the last few years Botka’s name was often mentioned as the party’s best bet for the post of prime minister, but the consensus in the party was that Botka was reluctant to accept the nomination, perhaps because of MSZP’s low standing in the polls. Maybe, commentators claimed, he is waiting for a better opportunity. Then last summer MSZP held its congress, and the delegates massively rejected Botka in his bid for reelection as chairman of the board. He felt betrayed and suspected some kind of conspiracy to remove him. He really wanted to remain in this post because, according to the new by-laws, the chairman is now able to influence the party’s strategy for the election campaign. This would have involved decisions concerning partnerships with other parties. My feeling at the time was that it was for this very reason that Botka was rejected as chairman of the board. He was known to be vehemently opposed to any kind of understanding with DK. Since at that point I had high hopes for a rapprochement between DK and MSZP, I was relieved that Botka was leaving party politics.

A couple of weeks later I wrote an article titled “Harmful politicians in the Hungarian democratic opposition,” in which I singled out Bernadett Szél of LMP and Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt. Szigetvári said that his favorite MSZP politician was László Botka. Since “MSZP blackballed Botka, the only conclusion one can draw is that the socialists don’t want to win the election,” he continued. I must say that Szigetvári’s praise of Botka didn’t endear me toward the mayor of Szeged.

Now, six months later, after seeing no signs of a constructive plan for a political formation that could possibly remove Viktor Orbán from power, I have changed my mind. I now think Botka should be given a chance, especially since I see no other viable and attractive candidate. The pro-government media has been floating names of possible contenders for the job, one less likely than the next. For instance, László Andor, former commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion in the Barroso II administration of the European Commission, whose name surfaced in Magyar Idők, is an excellent economist, but it’s hard to imagine him as an inspiring leader.

Although some people might find Botka too assertive, he is exactly the kind of person the opposition needs at the moment. In addition, it seems that Botka has changed his position on cooperation. Back in July I got the distinct impression that Botka believes MSZP can win the election on its own. Otherwise he wouldn’t have vetoed cooperation with DK. By now he realizes that this idea is dead in the water. MSZP can’t win the election on its own. Without cooperation the chances for the opposition are nil.

Botka put forth three conditions for accepting the candidacy. First, the opposition parties should have one common list. This is very important because, apparently, the negotiators still at the table envisage common candidates but separate lists. That would mean that people could cast their second vote for their favorite party, i.e. MSZP, DK, Együtt, Párbeszéd, etc. This would only confuse the electorate. In 2014, they did have a common list, but all the participating parties’ names were printed on the ballot. That was bad enough. Separate lists would be even worse. Second, candidates in all 106 districts would be picked on the basis of electability, not party affiliation. Thus, he would ban any behind-the-scenes negotiations about the number of spots allotted to each party, according to their relative strength at the polls. And finally, there must be prior agreement about the values and policies appropriate for parties on the left of the political spectrum. That means at some level a joint program.

Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read the full interview Botka gave to 168 Óra, I did hear his conversation with György Bolgár this afternoon. I also read an article published in delmagyar.hu, a local internet news site, whose reporter talked to Botka in Szeged. On both occasions he expressed the view that what’s going on at the moment at the negotiating table among representatives of some of the opposition parties is a replay of the 2014 scene. It led to failure then and it will lead to even bigger failure in 2018. “What we need are one million more voters because even if we add up the supporters of all democratic parties we have only half of what Fidesz has at the moment.” These new voters should come from the undecided group, as well as from Jobbik voters and disappointed Fidesz followers. The politicians at the negotiating table “must get their senses back and make a decision by the beginning of next year. Otherwise, they can forget about me. What’s going on right now I cannot, I don’t want to take part in.”

Well, that is plain talk. Unfortunately, initial reactions, admittedly still scanty, are not encouraging. To my surprise, Együtt didn’t want to respond to Botka’s forceful proposal, which is interesting given Viktor Szigetvári’s earlier expression of admiration for Botka. After all, Szigetvári is the co-chair of the party. DK’s spokesman, Zsolt Gréczy, speaking on Klubrádió, wasn’t at all enthusiastic. He pointed out that at the negotiations the person of the future prime minister had not been discussed and therefore he assumes that Botka’s putting himself forth is nothing more than the expression of “personal ambition.” A rather unfortunate way of saying that, as far as he knows, Botka is not the official candidate of MSZP. To reinforce this point, Gréczy reminded his audience that Botka had been squarely rejected as chairman of MSZP’s board only a few months ago. He promised, however, that DK’s leadership will discuss the matter whenever the issue is officially presented to them. I assume the discussion will be brief.

In a few days an article of mine will come out in Népszava’s Christmas issue. In it I expressed my negative opinion of the politicians of the fractious democratic opposition. I am not sure that Botka’s plan would succeed even if all the others wholeheartedly supported him, but what’s going on now seems utterly hopeless to me.

December 21, 2016

Is LMP in cahoots with Fidesz?

On October 17 Egon Rónay of ATV’s Start interviewed Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP. The occasion was the demonstration organized by Párbeszéd (Dialogue), Együtt (Together), and LMP (Politics Can Be Different) that had taken place the day before. Considering that by that time four of the left-liberal opposition parties had decided to celebrate October 23 together, the conversation soon turned to LMP’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with the others. What followed was a lengthy tirade by Szél against Ferenc Gyurcsány, whom she considers responsible for the very existence of Viktor Orbán as a politician. As she put it, as long as Ferenc Gyurcsány remains on the political scene Hungary will be stranded with Viktor Orbán.

Backbiting is unfortunately an everyday affair in Hungarian opposition circles, but Szél’s outburst was unusually acerbic and ill intentioned. A day later, on the same program, Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s spokesman, indicated that Együtt, led by Viktor Szigetvári and Péter Juhász, and LPM, led by Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy, with their refusal to cooperate wittingly or unwittingly were assisting Viktor Orbán’s government.

LMP’s decision to collaborate with Fidesz on the issue of the constitutional court’s newly elected judges led to a really ugly scene between László Varju of DK and the whole LMP parliamentary delegation of five plus András Schiffer, the architect of the Fidesz-LMP deal. The LMP politicians crashed Varju’s press conference, which was held in the parliament. Soon enough the press conference turned into a screaming session in which Varju called the five LMP members of parliament “collaborators.” In turn, Schiffer said that AVH, the dreaded Hungarian secret police between 1945 and 1956, was “the spiritual predecessor” of the political leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Moreover, he accused them of inciting anti-Catholic sentiments by criticizing Balázs Schanda, one of the new judges, who writes almost exclusively on legal questions concerning religion. The hapless Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP, tried in vain to end the exchange of accusations. He eventually got involved in the cacophony himself.

In the middle of the battle. András Schiffer enjoys it immensely

In the middle of the battle. András Schiffer enjoys it immensely.

Today an article appeared in index.hu which might explain, at least in part, the ferocious LMP attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány. According to the news site, sometime in early November LMP commissioned a poll to ascertain the views of the Hungarian electorate on the current government as well as on leading opposition personalities. From the survey LMP learned that three-quarters of its own supporters reject any cooperation with Ferenc Gyurcsány. They consider him an obstacle to unity. I don’t know whether this finding surprised LMP’s leadership, but it really shouldn’t have. DK’s liberal ideas on economic matters and its acceptance of globalization are in stark contrast to LMP’s far-left socialist ideas.

Even so, I don’t believe that LMP’s refusal to work with the other opposition parties on the left is the result of its supporters’ intense dislike of Gyurcsány and his ideas on the free market economy. Gyurcsány is only an excuse. LMP’s founder, András Schiffer, from the start made it clear that LMP alone would defeat the Orbán regime. I’m almost certain that even if Ferenc Gyurcsány gave up politics this very moment LMP still wouldn’t be willing to work hand in hand with the others.

Overall, the poll apparently found that 46% of those who side with the opposition think that Gyurcsány is an obstacle to the defeat of the Orbán government while 45% think that “the presence of Gyurcsány is necessary for the removal of Orbán from power.” That is a tie, says index.hu, but since LMP voters are so anti-Gyurcsány and therefore anti-DK, it is good politics to launch an attack against the party.

According to the survey, 45% of the electorate as a whole would like to see a change of government while 43% support the present Orbán government. Naturally, 94% of Fidesz voters are still loyal supporters of Viktor Orbán. The same level of fervor is manifest in those who today would vote for an opposition party. The situation is very different among the large group of Hungarians who haven’t found a party they would gladly vote for. Forty percent of them would like to see the Orbán government disappear, 26% would like it to stay, and 34% have no opinion. This untapped group of undecided voters should be the primary target of the opposition, but any effort to woo the undecided will be effective only if the opposition can create a unified force, speaking with one voice. Cacophony guarantees defeat.

LMP’s poll also measured the popularity of five politicians: Bernadett Szél (41%), László Botka (34%), Ágnes Vadai (32%), Ákos Hadházy (31%), and Ferenc Gyurcsány (26%). This finding is especially interesting because only opposition politicians are being compared. I found the relatively low rating of László Botka especially surprising considering that he was declared to be the most popular MSZP leader, the one who could lead his party to victory.

A few hours after the index.hu article appeared István Ikotity, an LMP member of parliament, denied the existence of the survey, adding: “In my opinion, LMP shouldn’t be preoccupied with the opposition. We shouldn’t pay attention to the recognition and support of certain opposition politicians. Our position in relation to DK has remained the same. Nothing has changed.” His denial was not very convincing, but I believe him when he says that LMP’s attitude toward DK and Ferenc Gyurcsány hasn’t changed at all.

Let’s assume for the moment that LMP did commission this survey and that its politicians, seeing the results, decided to tip the scale against Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose standing in opposition circles is a practical tie between his supporters and his opponents. In that case, I think one can argue that LMP is a collaborator of Fidesz, not just because it assisted in enlarging the constitutional court which opposition parties, including Jobbik, find illegitimate but also because it purposely sowed discord among the opposition parties which will only weaken the anti-Orbán forces. András Schiffer, the creator of LMP, decided to call his party “Lehet Más A Politika” (Politics Can Be Different). If LMP is indeed involved in such a dirty, indecent game, it should be the last party on earth to bear that name.

November 29, 2016

How not to pick a constitutional judge: LMP’s choices I

Parties of the democratic opposition are up in arms. They are outraged at the assistance LMP extended to Fidesz to score an important parliamentary victory, the approval of four new judges for the Constitutional Court.

MSZP in the last minute tried to delay the inevitable by instructing its representative on the nominating committee to resign ahead of the vote. With his resignation the committee, which according to house rules must have at least nine members, no longer had a quorum. The MSZP tactic might have been clever, but the socialists didn’t count on Fidesz’s total disregard for rules and regulations. The majority party could have opted to get another member to replace MSZP’s representative and, let’s say a week later, finalize the nominations. No, they simply went ahead. This time not even Gergely Gulyás, Fidesz’s legal magician, could give a half-believable explanation for the vote’s alleged legality. Because of the decision to go ahead with the nominations despite the lack of a quorum, the opposition parties consider the entire procedure by which these four people were appointed illegitimate.

The Károly Eötvös Intézet, the liberal legal think tank, hasn’t changed its opinion in the last year. Just as in January, the legal scholars working there consider LMP’s decision the worst possible move. Their position is that the Constitutional Court ever since its enlargement with four Fidesz-appointed judges has not been an independent court but an arm of Fidesz’s political will. It no longer fulfills its function. As it stands, there are seven judges who will always vote in favor of the government while four on occasion will express a contrary opinion. The four new judges, considered to be “conservative,” will make the situation even worse. And no judge will have to retire from the court before 2023.

That leads me to the problem of vetting nominees. It has happened in the past, when all parties participated in the nominating process, that the socialist-liberal nominee turned out to be much more conservative than anticipated. One reason for these “mistakes” is the lack of a body of legal work on the basis of which the candidate’s legal philosophy could be judged. A good example of this was the choice of Mihály Bihari by MSZP and SZDSZ. Although he had a law degree, he had worked as a political scientist. There was no reliable way to assess his legal views. A somewhat similar situation occurred when Fidesz nominated István Stumpf, again a political scientist, to the court in 2010. Judging by his past, he should have been an absolutely safe choice from Viktor Orbán’s point of view. After all, Stumpf served as Orbán’s chief of staff between 1998 and 2002. But he turned out to be much less reliable than expected. The same problem exists with people who have been practicing judges and have no published work on the basis of which one could assess their legal thinking. Among the new appointees Ildikó Marosi falls into this category. She has been working as a judge, dealing with administrative and labor cases.

Although all opposition parties are highly critical of LMP’s role in this affair, the Demokratikus Koalíció is the most outspoken in its condemnation of the party. Csaba Molnár, one of the deputy chairmen of DK, tore into Ákos Hadházy on ATV’s “Szabad szemmel” (Open eyes). It quickly became apparent that Hadházy had not the foggiest idea about the legal views of the nominees his predecessor, András Schiffer, had picked.

molnar-hadhazy2

Csaba Molnár and Ákos Hadházy on ATV’s “Szabad szemmel”

A lot of people, including me, hoped that under the leadership of Hadházy LMP would be more willing to cooperate with the other opposition parties. I remember vividly when he announced that any kind of a deal or coalition with Fidesz is absolutely out of the question as long as he is the co-chairman of LMP. Hadházy normally makes a very good impression on people. He comes across as a modest, earnest, idealistic man who isn’t quite at home in the world of politics. Unfortunately, he is also naïve. He doesn’t seem to understand how differences in legal philosophy shape how judges interpret the constitution. When Molnár tried to explain to him that at least three of the nominees come from the conservative legal camp, which would further strengthen the pro-Fidesz majority, Hadházy naively shot back: “And conservative people cannot be honest?”

In any case, poor Hadházy was demolished under the weight of the facts DK gathered on the legal and political past of the nominees. Hadházy could only mumble: “Well, I didn’t know that, I will have to check on this.” This was Hadházy’s answer to Molnár’s claim that Bálint Schanda’s views on abortion are so extreme that, if it depended on him, he would forbid pharmacists to fill valid prescriptions signed by a physician for the morning-after pill.

The fact is that Schanda writes almost exclusively on legal questions concerning religion. The list of his publications is a mile long, and some of them are available online. If it depended on Schanda, stores would be closed on Sundays because believers (Christians) should have the opportunity to follow the Scripture, which forbids any kind of work on the Sabbath. This is part of the freedom of religion in his opinion.

He can be critical of the government, but his criticism comes from his religious convictions and his special interest in the defense of the family. For example, he didn’t like the idea of keeping children in school all day long, which he considers to be a “left-wing notion” popular in Western Europe. That’s why he was surprised to learn that the conservative Fidesz government had decided to introduce such schools. He finds the idea of the state’s taking over the “nurturing” of children from the family unacceptable. Church schools, however, are different because the parents expressly grant the church the task of educating their children.

Schanda also liked the idea of “family electoral law.” That is, that parents, depending on the number of children they had, could have multiple votes. Admittedly, he doesn’t want Hungary to rush into being the first country in the world to introduce such a law, but “this question cannot be a taboo; it would be foolish simply to discard it without seriously considering it.” In the article he practically suggests starting preparatory work for such a piece of legislation to be introduced later. Perhaps if Ákos Hadházy took the time to read a couple of Shanda’s articles he would better understand the impact of legal philosophy on people’s daily lives.

Finally, Csaba Molnár brought up an article by Schanda that he published in Magyar Kurir, which is the official newspaper of the Conference of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops. The short article’s title was “Pope Francis and zero tolerance.” It was about the vexing question of pedophilia. Schanda explains that there is nothing new in Pope Francis’s announcement because the church has had strict laws concerned pedophilia since 2001. Zero tolerance in this case simply means that a priest accused of this particular crime is immediately suspended, which he approves of. He cautions, however, about exaggerating the problem “because according to American studies pedophilia among Catholic priests in comparison to lay teachers is infinitesimal.”

The only study on pedophilia among Catholic priests I found was from 2004. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice published a comprehensive study in which it was claimed that 4% of Catholic priests in the U.S. had sexually victimized minors in the past half century. This seems to be somewhat lower than school teachers during the same time frame. Well, “somewhat lower” is not “infinitesimally” less. Moreover, it is very possible that victims of priests are less willing to confront church authorities than victims of teachers are to go to civil authorities. But this is a small point and not an important one. What, on the other hand, I found disingenuous was his claim that “in the former socialist countries the proportion of such acts in comparison to western countries is much lower.” At this point I had to laugh. What makes Polish, Hungarian or Slovak priests less prone to committing such crimes? Their countries’ socialist past? Or, perhaps something else, like a lower rate of reporting and a higher rate of covering up cases. Schanda even tries to cast doubt on the seriousness of the very few stories that emerged in the last few years in Hungary by saying that the media used these cases to incite anti-church sentiment in the population. Moreover, he claims that these cases were exploited by political parties. Obviously, the socialist-liberal parties.

In the summer of 2011 I devoted four posts to the four Fidesz-picked judges, asking “how qualified will the new judges in the Hungarian Constitutional Court be?” I’m planning to do the same this time.

November 23, 2016

The Hungarian opposition remains in disarray

A week ago, on Thursday, the Hungarian opposition parties, with the exception of LMP and Jobbik, got together to discuss the issue of holding a primary election to determine the relative strength of the parties when it comes to choosing candidates for the 106 electoral districts. This is the pet project of Párbeszéd (Dialogue), the latest name of Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM), whose best-known politicians are Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Zugló (District XIV), and Tímea Szabó. Another small party that embraced the idea was Együtt (Together), the party Gordon Bajnai organized before the 2010 elections. It is led nowadays by Viktor Szigetvári and Péter Juhász. Együtt, despite its name, shows very little inclination to work together with others. Szigetvári and Juhász said they will not be part of any effort to forge a joint campaign against Fidesz. They will go their own way. Depending on which opinion poll one consults, support for Párbeszéd and Együtt among active voters is about 1-2% each.

A week ago Együtt showed up for the first meeting because, as the party leaders explained, they are ready to talk about primary elections, which they consider a good idea, but that’s as far as they’ll go. And indeed, they didn’t attend yesterday’s meeting. Instead, they sent an e-mail informing the others of their decisions.

The opposition leaders on October 23. Népszava optimistically predicted that the opposition's cooperation is imminent / Photo: Ádám Molnár

The opposition leaders on October 23. Népszava optimistically predicted that cooperation among the opposition parties was imminent / Photo: Ádám Molnár

At the negotiating table were some parties and party leaders very few people have ever heard of. I have in mind in particular two tiny parties, both of which can be placed on the far left. The first is the Balpárt, established in 2014 and led by Szilárd Kalmár, a former MSZP member with close ties to Tibor Szanyi, who is known to belong to the left wing of the party. The other relatively unknown entity is Attila Vajnai’s Európai Baloldal-MMP2006 (European Left-Hungarian Workers’ Party 2006), a party that was created from Magyar Munkáspárt (MMP), the unreformed successor of MSZMP. According to the party’s Facebook page, they have 1,818 followers. From the party’s name it is evident that Vajnai’s problem with Gyula Thürmer, chairman of MMP, was Thürmer’s pro-Russian orientation. Moreover, since then, MMP has made a sharp turn to the right. I have encountered Vajnai on the internet and found him to be a surprisingly reasonable, intelligent man.

In addition to these two, the following parties took part in the first round of discussions: Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP), Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), Együtt, Párbeszéd, Magyar Liberális Párt, and Modern Magyarország Mozgalom (MoMa/Modern Hungary Movement). After the meeting was over, the parties released a statement saying that “the negotiations were conducted in a constructive atmosphere and the parties agreed to resume the search for solutions” a week later.

And so yesterday the parties, with the exception of Együtt, got together again. Reporters waited outside for news once the negotiations were concluded. But part way through, the delegation of Gábor Fodor’s liberals left. There are two complementary versions of what happened to make the liberals leave the negotiating table. The first is the statement that appeared on the website of the party signed by Anett Bősz, the party spokeswoman. It claimed that Ferenc Gyurcsány stuck to his earlier veto of MLP’s participation. She charged that the negotiations are dominated by Gyurcsány, who accused some people of finding their own positions and parties more important than their homeland. Of course, he meant Gábor Fodor. The other version comes from the spokesman of Párbeszéd, Richárd Barabás, who announced that there was no formal vote. The liberals decided to leave after objections were made to their participation by Gyurcsány and MoMa’s Lajos Bokros.

The source of the dispute lies in Gábor Fodor’s decision to urge his followers to go to the polls and vote “yes” at the referendum as a sign of their determination to vote for Europe. His argument was that boycotting the referendum was a passive act, while his suggestion was a proactive move and therefore more determined and resolute. The other side argued that the referendum question was phrased in such a way that it was almost impossible to vote “yes” and therefore Fodor, wittingly or unwittingly, was assisting Orbán in making the referendum valid. The “yes” votes were just a small fraction of the total valid ballots cast (1.6%) and hence didn’t influence the outcome in an appreciable way. But the suspicion was that Fodor’s real goal was political: to demonstrate the strength of his party through these “yes” votes.

The second party, if you can call it that, that left shortly after the liberals was the Balpárt. It was again Gyurcsány and Bokros who objected to their presence, this time on ideological grounds. Their Wikipedia entry, which I assume was written by the party leadership, says that “the crucial role within the party’s ideology is Marxism but they don’t reject other radical left-wing social democratic directions and their representatives.” Otherwise, they compare themselves to the German Die Linke, the Greek Syriza, and the Portuguese Blocot. From the party’s online newspaper, however, a much less acceptable ideology emerges. They call ’56 “a black exclamation point in the history of the movement of the left.” It was a failure “because our late comrades were incapable of holding fast to the experiment that was launched in Russia in 1917.” In brief, after the Stalinist interlude, the Hungarian communists should have remained faithful followers of the Soviet experiment. I have to assume that Bokros and Gyurcsány also read this and similar writings in the Munkások Újsága (Workers’ Paper).

So, by the end, only MSZP, DK, Párbeszéd, MoMa, and Európai Baloldal-MMP2006 remained at the table.

Yesterday a caller to György Bolgár’s Megbeszéljük (Let’s Talk It Over) program made what I considered a good suggestion. He said that the parties should agree on an independent moderator who would chair these meetings. He suggested Gábor Kuncze, former chairman of SZDSZ. Bolgár subsequently got in touch with Kuncze to ask what he thought of the idea. Kuncze responded that the party leaders wouldn’t be too keen on him. Nor would he be eager to accept such a role. But he thought that direction should be given to the discussions. Without a moderator it is inevitable that one of the stronger personalities, like Gyurcsány, will dominate the discussions. There must be somebody who runs the discussion and insists on the Hungarian version of Robert’s Rules of Order. Unfortunately, I doubt that this idea will float. It’s hard to imagine the participants agreeing to have an outsider chair their discussions or, even if they agreed to this in principle, being of one mind as to who would serve as chair. It’s not the most harmonious lot.

November 4, 2016

A possible opposition election strategy for 2018

Celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian revolution against the Rákosi regime and the Soviet occupying forces have already begun, with apparently thousands of young people, torches in hand, marching along the bank of the Danube on the Buda side. This march has become something of a symbol of the revolution. As a participant, I must admit, I viewed this event as a rather insignificant episode in the revolution with practically no tangible consequences for the course of events that followed. The real celebration will take place tomorrow which, I’m sure, will be lavish. How historically accurate is another matter.

Although the topic of today’s post is the current state of the opposition and my views on what the opposition parties should do under the circumstances, I first want to mention that if one goes to hirvonal.hu, my favorite search program for Hungarian news, there are at least as many articles on October 23, 2006 as on the events of October 1956. Almost all of the articles about the prime minister who gave orders to shoot at grandmothers (?) have appeared in pro-government publications. Distortion of the events of the fiftieth anniversary seems to be just as important for this government as the systematic falsification of 1956.

Two months ago György Bolgár invited me to join his program “Megbeszéljük” on KlubRádió. He wanted my opinion on “what should be done” to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal, oppressive, highly undemocratic regime. I began by saying that first I would like to note what I think the opposition parties shouldn’t be doing. Of course, what I was talking about was the constant bickering and attacking each other in public instead of closing ranks against the governing powers. I added that it is useless to wait for some unknown person to surface and save the nation from Viktor Orbán. Nor can one rely on civic group leaders who have no political experience. For better or worse, one must work with the existing politicians. Ideally, the really small parties (Együtt, PM, MLP) should disappear as separate entities and they and their often quite able leaders (Gergely Karácsony, Tímea Szabó, Benedek Jávor, and Péter Juhász, for example) should join the other two larger parties in order to form an entirely new party. One single party with one party leader. I haven’t changed my mind on that score, with one possible exception. Today I can imagine temporary cooperation with Gábor Vona’s Jobbik because I’m more and more convinced that without them there is no way to remove the Fidesz regime. I think that Gábor Vona is a great deal less dangerous than Viktor Orbán.

At the moment the situation among the opposition parties is far from ideal. Take the demonstration organized by Péter Juhász (Együtt), Ákos Hadházy (LMP), and Benedek Jávor (PM). They didn’t work with the other parties to organize a massive demonstration for freedom of the press. Not surprisingly, the crowd was much smaller than expected. But that was not enough. Péter Juhász, on the spot, announced a demonstration for tomorrow morning to disrupt Viktor Orbán’s speech in front of the parliament. He said he had already purchased 1,000 whistles, which he plans to use throughout the speech. That’s bad enough, but his demonstration coincides with the large demonstration organized by the other left-of-center opposition parties to be held on Lujza Blaha tér. Isn’t it funny that a party whose name Együtt means “together” is the only one, apart from the always go-it-alone LMP, that refuses to join the others? Együtt has the support of perhaps 1% of the electorate. Where will that lead? Nowhere, of course.

Moreover, what followed from LMP was beyond the pale. I am more or less accustomed to the intransigence of LMP’s Bernadett Szél, but her latest statement was more than I could swallow. On ATV’s Start program the other day she said, “If the people have to choose between the return of the world before 2010 and the present situation, on the basis of the two earlier elections they will vote for the latter. On the left, the same people say the same thing, and the emblematic character of that side is Ferenc Gyurcsány. It is not our fault that the opposition hasn’t been able to get renewed in six years.” Egon Rónay of ATV was stunned. Since then, Szél made it clear that her party is unwilling to sit down with the others to discuss the possibility of primaries, as promoted by PM. And naturally LMP, which at the moment doesn’t have enough followers to get into parliament, will run alone against the gigantic Fidesz political machine. Good luck.

szel2

Bernadett Szél

I foresee the possibility of yet another split in LMP. It is all very well that András Schiffer, whose unbending attitude on LMP’s election strategy already ruptured the party once, is gone. But Szél is just as rigid as Schiffer was. Taking Schiffer’s place in the hierarchy as co-chairman is Ákos Hadházy, a moderate who considers the removal of the Orbán regime his foremost task. I can’t see him going along with the insane ideas of Bernadett Szél.

Meanwhile, the pro-government publications are having a jolly good time watching the fights in opposition ranks. Lokál, the latest Fidesz-financed free newspaper available at metro stations, called Szél’s attack on Gyurcsány a “catfight.”

Magyar Nemzet only yesterday devoted an article to the attempts of the opposition parties to organize themselves into a coherent political force. György Zsombor, the author of the article, noted that PM, the only party which is gung-ho on primaries, also demands a guaranteed income and four-day work weeks, ideas that will not meet with the approval of the other parties. The consultations in which, with the exception of LMP, all “democratic” parties will be represented, including the so-called Balpárt (Left party, a kind of Hungarian Linke), will take place on October 24.

In advance of that consultation Demokratikus Koalíció celebrated the fifth anniversary of its founding. Ferenc Gyurcsány gave a speech in which he outlined one way to solve the predicament of the opposition parties. The speech itself can be viewed on ATV’s website. What he described strongly resembles my ideal scenario. The smaller parties should give up their independence and their able leaders should find positions within a new united party. For example, he specifically mentioned Gergely Karácsony, currently mayor of Zugló (District XIV), as a possible mayoral candidate at the next municipal election in Budapest. The thrust of his argument is that the paramount consideration today is the removal of Viktor Orbán. To achieve that goal differences must temporarily be set aside. Once democracy is restored there will be plenty of opportunity to debate inside and outside of parliament. Just as in 1956 Sándor Rácz, chairman of the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council, and Cardinal József Mindszenty were on the same side because the main task was the overthrow of the dictatorship. On all other issues they most likely held diametrically opposed views.

In theory this is a logical description of what should happen, but in practice it will be very difficult to achieve. One of the biggest hurdles is the conflicted state of MSZP. I don’t know much about the inner workings of the party, but I suspect that some members of the leadership still believe that MSZP can take on Fidesz alone or at least that their party should be the leading force in any future coalition. Then there are those who cannot forgive Ferenc Gyurcsány for leaving MSZP and establishing his own rival party. So they don’t want to work with him for the common good.

And finally, a few words about the way I see Jobbik’s position at the moment. I’m not the only commentator who thinks that Fidesz as a government party of practically unlimited powers is far more dangerous than Jobbik, which has shed its far-right rhetoric and is in opposition. Apparently, followers of Jobbik hate Fidesz just as much as the voters of MSZP and DK do. Jobbik followers boycotted the referendum on October 2 in just as great numbers as others did. At the moment, Viktor Orbán calls Jobbik and its leaders traitors and accuses them of blackmail. I don’t think it is in Vona’s interest to play second-fiddle to Fidesz in the forthcoming months. In my opinion, it would not be a total waste of time to put out feelers for a chat with Gábor Vona. I know that this is sacrilege as far as some of the opposition parties are concerned. I think of DK especially. But I still believe that creating a temporary alliance for the sake of toppling Viktor Orbán might be justified.

October 22, 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

Despite an all-out effort, enthusiasm for the referendum is shrinking

A friend of mine just returned from a short trip to Hungary and phoned to report on her impressions. She is one of those American-Hungarians who closely follows Hungarian news and is well aware of the tremendous effort the Orbán government has put into ensuring that the referendum on the non-existent compulsory quotas will be valid and that it will pass with a very large majority. Even so, she was not expecting the barrage of giant billboards lining the road from the airport to Budapest. “You have to be there to feel the atmosphere this campaign creates,” she said. No wonder. According to reports, there is a billboard every 40 meters.

tudta-kampany

The intensity of the campaign has been growing steadily ever since, at the end of February, Viktor Orbán announced his intention to hold a referendum. For Orbán a successful referendum, requiring the participation of more than half of the electorate, seems to be a matter of life and death. This is not an exaggeration. Only two days ago, at the Fidesz picnic at Kötcse, he used the phrase himself. What is waiting for him is a fight with Brussels which must be won because otherwise the death of the nation will be waiting for Hungarians.

Gábor Török, one of the numerous political commentators, questioned the wisdom of the prime minister for putting so much emphasis on the referendum. What if too few people show up and the referendum is not valid? That would be a real embarrassment.

Why is Orbán trying so hard to get out the vote? Even if he didn’t reach the magic 50% + 1 threshold, polls last month showed that over 80% would vote “no,” as the government wants. This result would still show tremendous support for Viktor Orbán’s migration policies. One possible rationale for Orbán’s frantic scramble for votes is that this referendum is not so much about the migrants as it is about gauging (and beefing up) his current level of support.

Admittedly, if more than half of the electorate were to vote massively in line with the wishes of the government, his hand would be strengthened at gatherings of the European Council. “You see, my support at home is overwhelming.” Moreover, he could rest assured that he will remain prime minister for some time to come. But let’s say that only 37% of the electorate turned out to vote on October 2. Not only would he look weak in Brussels, he would look weak at home as well. Especially since the opposition parties more or less unanimously, if belatedly and in some cases half-heartedly, have finally agreed to support a boycott of the referendum. If 63% of eligible voters stay home, there is no way to know how many of them were just lazy or indifferent and how many were active boycotters.

Last week an article appeared in Élet és Irodalom by Mária Vásárhelyi, who is known to readers of Hungarian Spectrum because we have discussed her sociological studies extensively here over the past few years. It is titled “Népakarat vagy politikai manipuláció” (Will of the people of political manipulation). In it she convincingly argues that “in dictatorships and autocracies referendums are the most effective means of political manipulation,” an assertion she supports by pointing to the frequent referendums held in Hitler’s Germany. One of Hitler’s first moves after becoming chancellor was to change the law on referendums: they could be initiated only by the government. Vásárhelyi calls attention to the fact that the Orbán government in 2010 also changed the law on referendums and since then has done everything in its power to prevent holding any referendums initiated by the public. If a referendum in an autocratic regime is intended to increase support for the regime, the fact that the democratic opposition parties haven’t managed to come together and formulate one common message against the referendum “is an unforgivable sin against Hungarian democracy,” she concludes.

Vásárhelyi wrote those lines before the latest Závecz Research poll about the referendum came out. You may recall that a month ago I wrote an article titled “Orbán’s anti-refugee propaganda is a roaring success,” in which I reported on a survey conducted by the same polling company at the end of July. “The enthusiasm is tremendous,” I wrote. “At the moment the majority of the population (54%) plans to vote. If they actually follow through, the referendum will be both valid and, from the government’s viewpoint, stunningly successful. Only 19% of the population claim they will stay at home. Another 23% haven’t decided yet. Of those who intend to vote, 85-90% will vote ‘no.’”

Závecz Research repeated the survey at the end of August, when the opposition parties’ campaign hadn’t yet started. The hilarious anti-referendum posters of the Magyar kétfarkú kutya párt (party of the dog with two tails) were not yet on the streets. Nevertheless public enthusiasm for the referendum dropped considerably in the past month. Tibor Závecz now feels fairly certain that it will not be valid. The number of people who will vote to support the government has dropped and the number of undecided voters has grown. In July 54% of the electorate was intent on voting while today this number is only 41%. That is a very considerable change.

Here are some details. Support from Fidesz voters is pretty much unchanged. Sixty-four percent of them would go and vote “no.” But the number of those who would vote “yes,” that is against the government, has grown from 5.5 to 8.1%.

The changes that occurred in the month of August are most striking in the case of Jobbik voters, who in July were as enthusiastically supportive of the government’s position as Fidesz voters were (61.8%). That number in August has shrunk to 47%. The number of Jobbik supporters who will go and vote against the government has grown substantially, from 3.8% to 8.5%.

DK’s message has been very effective all along. It was a simple slogan: “Stay at home, stay in Europe.” Their supporters got the message. Seventy-three percent of them will boycott the referendum and 10.8% of them will vote “yes,” which is twice as large as it was in July.

MSZP with its mixed messages managed to confuse its already confused electorate. Their reactions are all over the map, but the upshot is that almost 15% of MSZP voters intend to vote “no,” which must be translated as support for the Orbán government. In addition, 20.2% of MSZP voters indicated that they would vote but claimed they haven’t decided how they will vote, which can easily mean a pro-Fidesz vote. About 20% haven’t decided whether they will vote or not and only 31% say they will stay at home, which is practically the same as it was a month ago. MSZP’s new leadership has proved to be an ineffective lot, perhaps because its members are split on the issue. Some of them share Orbán’s anti-immigrant stance, while others take the position that they have to keep in mind their supporters’ views, which are not exactly friendly toward the migrants. A good summary of MSZP’s attitude toward the referendum can be found in today’s 168 Óra.

A few days ago, in an interview, Richárd Szentpéteri-Nagy, a political analyst with the Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ (Equity Center for Political Analysis), went further. He suspects that there are “a fair number of people within MSZP who are directly or indirectly maneuvered, instructed by Fidesz.” Mária Vásárhelyi puts forth another hypothesis. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the “mischievous” MSZP is perhaps already thinking of a possible Fidesz-MSZP coalition.

That’s where we stand at the moment. Only DK and the two other small parties, Együtt (Together) and PM, are consistent and steadfast opponents of the Orbán government which, as a friend told me, is being encircled with “increasingly quiet hatred.” The question is what this currently quiet electorate will do and whether there will be anyone to turn to for leadership when the time comes.

September 12, 2016