Tag Archives: DK

MSZP is grasping at straws as its support plummets

At 1:00 p.m. today HVG published Medián’s latest opinion poll on the state of Hungarian party politics and the popularity of politicians. The message MSZP’s leadership received was shocking. For the first time in 25 years, MSZP’s support among determined voters sank below 10%. At 3:45 p.m. Gyula Molnár, MSZP chairman, released a short communiqué on the party’s website: “MSZP’s offer is still alive.” In it, Molnár called attention to the Závecz Research Institute’s quick poll showing popular support for the party’s “generous offer,” after which the following sentence was tacked on: “If all six parties outside MSZP find the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány acceptable on the list, then we are certainly open to negotiations concerning the issue.” Well, that didn’t take long.

After László Botka’s eight months of activity that has only damaged the party, it seems that some forces wouldn’t mind his retirement to Szeged. The interview last night with Tamás Lattmann on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd might point to such a turn of events. Originally, Lattmann was invited as a legal expert on international law to discuss Hungary’s rather belligerent attitude toward Ukraine and this position’s legal ramifications. But it seems that Lattmann had other things on his mind. He apparently indicated before the show that he would like to talk about something else. And that something was hot stuff.

You may recall that at the end of January Lattmann announced his candidacy for the premiership as a non-party candidate, representing civil society. At that point there was no officially declared candidate, and Lattmann believed that a non-party person might be able to expedite negotiations among the left-of-center parties. He also hoped that he could open the door that at the moment divides parties and civil society. But then came László Botka, and Lattmann’s name disappeared from the news.

Lattmann in the interview on Egyenes beszéd claimed that by December of last year there was political agreement among four parties–MSZP, DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd–which included a joint candidacy for the post of prime minister. He would have been the candidate. But then came László Botka, and the promising negotiations came to a screeching halt. Lattmann’s story about the successful negotiations is not new. We have heard Ferenc Gyurcsány and Lajos Bokros talk about them innumerable times. But that these parties were thinking of an outsider as the candidate for the post of prime minister is certainly new.

Tamás Lattmann

Lattmann gave details. He had negotiations concerning his candidacy with Gyula Molnár, MSZP chairman, Bertalan Tóth, head of MSZP’s parliamentary faction, István Hiller, head of the top party leaders, and Zsolt Molnár, an important party leader, especially in Budapest politics. Lattmann also had talks with DK. As for the anti-Gyurcsány strategy, Lattmann claims, that was Botka’s contribution to MSZP’s policy. Prior to his arrival on the scene, by December, an MSZP-DK understanding was a done deal, including Gyurcsány’s presence on a common party list.

How did the parties in question react to Lattmann’s revelations? According to the communiqué published today by the Demokratikus Koalíció:

During the fall of last year the party’s leaders received a position paper (tájékoztatás) that the leaders of MSZP are conducting negotiations with Tamás Lattmann about his candidacy for the post of prime minister. According to the position paper, the candidate had the backing of the chairman, the head of the parliamentary delegation, and the chairman of the board. MSZP asked DK to meet with Tamás Lattmann for an introductory visit. Accordingly, Csaba Molnár, managing deputy chairman, who was leading the negotiations with the other parties, had a meeting with Tamás Lattmann. The managing deputy chairman informed the presidium of DK of the meeting in detail, and it was decided to be open to the nomination. The presidium accordingly authorized Csaba Molnár to continue talks with the candidate. However, no second meeting was held because MSZP, changing its former position, nominated László Botka as the party’s candidate.

In brief, Demokratikus Koalíció corroborated Lattmann’s recollection of his negotiations with the MSZP leaders. Yet the MSZP politicians mentioned by Lattmann and reaffirmed by DK’s communiqué today outright denied any such negotiations. According to Gyula Molnár, “there is a serious misunderstanding” on the part of Tamás Lattmann, who doesn’t seem to understand the Hungarian language. There were only talks about “policy cooperation” (szakpoliltikai együttműködés). Accusing a university professor of international law of not knowing the Hungarian language is quite a charge.

Today Gyula Molnár, István Hiller, and Bertalan Tóth published a communiqué in which they repeated that Lattmann was mistaken. “It is a fact that can be checked by anybody, since no party organ dealt with the issue and therefore no decision was made.” You may have noticed that Zsolt Molnár, the fourth person Lattmann claimed he talked with, was not among the signatories. He is the one who about a month ago wrote an article about the desirability of stopping the anti-Gyurcsány campaign. In any case, the joint communiqué is no more than typical socialist double-talk. Yes, the issue didn’t get to any decision-making body, but the candidate had “the backing” of the three top party officials who asked DK to take a look at him.

Now let’s move on to MSZP’s second “generous offer.” This time MSZP expressed its willingness to negotiate about Gyurcsány’s inclusion on the list as long as all the other parties are ready to sit down and talk about it. But, as Zoom rightly pointed out, “this is an offer without any stake” because we know that all the other parties already said no to the first “generous offer.” A typical MSZP move, I’m afraid. The offer is meaningless.

Meanwhile something funny happened on the right. The government media suddenly became a great admirer of László Botka, who was thrown overboard by his heartless comrades. Origo’s headline reads: “They kicked Botka in the teeth.” In the article Origo came up with one possible scenario behind the scenes in socialist circles. According to the article, the Molnár-Hiller-Tóth-Molnár team wanted to stop the nomination of Botka already in January, but “at that point they were unable to accomplish their plan.” However, in the last few weeks, Botka couldn’t work on the campaign with full energy because of the constant party intrigues against him, and therefore he is more vulnerable to the intrigues of the Molnár-Hiller-Tóth-Molnár team. Finding one of Fidesz’s own papers standing up for a poor downtrodden MSZP candidate is really amusing. Magyar Idők is not happy with MSZP’s “entirely new direction” as opposed to the “categorical rejection” of Gyurcsány. “We could also say that Gyurcsány, like the fairy-tale wolf, put his foot into MSZP’s cottage. How will this tale end?”

Of course, we don’t know the end of the tale (although I doubt that MSZP will live happily ever after), but today Tamás Lattmann said in an interview with Reflector that under these new circumstances he would no longer be a viable candidate. But he considers Bernadett Szél “a perfectly qualified candidate to become prime minister,” although he is not an LMP supporter. So, this is where we stand at the moment, but who knows what tomorrow will bring.

September 27, 2017

Another miracle: Eight-party working document on Hungary’s electoral system

Today seems an appropriate time to look at much needed changes to the Hungarian electoral law. The German polls just closed, and yesterday eight Hungarian left-of-center opposition parties agreed to sit down to work out a more equitable, more proportional electoral system to replace the one Fidesz introduced to satisfy the party’s immediate political interests. They announced that they already have a rough working document and that by October 23 they intend to have the final product.

I’m sure they will study the German electoral law carefully since the 1989 Hungarian law, which governed elections between 1990 and 2010, was modeled to some extent on the German system–except it turned out to be much more complicated and a great deal less proportional. It’s high time to remedy the situation, although we know that as long as Fidesz-KDNP holds sway over the country, whatever these parties come out with in the next month will remain merely a plan, to be stashed away for later implementation.

Still, the very fact that the eight left-of-center parties agreed to work together on a piece of legislation is an important event. It was only a few days ago that the same eight parties (along with Jobbik) agreed on a “national minimum” as far as healthcare is concerned. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if soon enough a similar undertaking would address the transformation of the Hungarian educational system.

Gergely Karácsony, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Lajos Bokros at the Agora where the working document was announced

Before going into the present state of the discussion on the electoral law, I think it might be useful to share some material on the subject from the websites of the different parties.

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) published the party’s position on the reform of the electoral system in 2011, prior to Fidesz’s single-handed reworking of the system in its own favor. Nonetheless, I’m confident that the document still reflects the views of the party on the subject. Among the available material, I found LMP’s presentation of the party’s ideas on an ideal system to be the best. It is succinct and clear. LMP at that point wanted to make the 1989 electoral law more proportionate but didn’t want to drastically change the system. They wanted to retain the mixed system of individual districts and party lists. LMP, being a small party always hovering around 5%, wanted to lower eligibility for representation to 3%. Since the leaders of LMP didn’t believe that the incredibly low percentage of women in parliament would change on its own, they suggested a female quota.

Demokratikus Koalíció/DK’s program titled “Hungary of the Many” (2016) has a section called “For a Fair Electoral System.” DK is also in favor of the mixed system (individual districts and party lists) but suggests further study of an “open list system,” which allows voters to indicate their favored candidate on the party list. Otherwise, DK is adamant that “voting rights can only be given to people who are inhabitants or who spent a considerable time in the country.” DK, like LMP, recommends a quota set-aside for woman politicians.

The document of Együtt, in which the party set forth its ideas on a new electoral system, is the longest but is unfortunately quite repetitious and at places muddled. Most likely this is because, as the author of the document says, they don’t only want to have a more proportional and fairer system. “The main task of the party is a model change which would strengthen political competition through the institutionalization of compulsion for compromise (kompromisszumkényszer).” Együtt also wants to retain a mixed electoral system, but unlike such systems in other countries, the party would have an equal number of seats for MPs from the districts and from the lists. They suggest a 222-member parliament, two members of which would come from votes of the dual citizens residing in the neighboring countries. Együtt recommends the introduction of instant-runoff voting. Instead of voting for only a single candidate, voters can rank the candidates in order of preference. Együtt is in favor of an “open system,” whose introduction DK is also contemplating. Együtt also supports a quota system to ensure the fairer representation of women in the legislative process. Együtt can’t imagine taking away the voting rights of dual citizens, but it would completely rework the system governing their voting. Right now they can cast only one vote, for a party list. Együtt would create two districts with their own candidates.

I left MSZP to last because what the party has is not a program but a collection of ideas, which the party leaders offered “for debate.” The document is called “Election in Hungary: A new alternative.” As far as MSZP is concerned, there are only two alternatives: a mixed system with run-offs with compensation derived from votes on party lists and single voting by counties plus Budapest for party lists alone. MSZP would give three seats to dual citizens residing in neighboring countries. Whoever put the document together assigned the number of seats for all 20 districts. In addition, MSZP threw in several other options for discussion: a female quota on all party lists, introduction of a preferential (instant-runoff) voting system, lowering the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation, lowering the voting age to 16, compulsory voting, a second house, or just one countrywide list like in the Netherlands. I assume that MSZP isn’t seriously considering any or all of these options but is simply putting them out for discussion.

As you can see, the parties who have already offered some thoughts on the reform of the electoral system are not very far apart, and therefore I don’t anticipate serious disagreements among them. From what we know so far about the discussion among the parties, the mixed system would remain and the number of seats would be raised to 220-222. The participants are optimistic that by the October 23 deadline the final proposal will be signed and sealed.

Ferenc Gyurcsány at the time of the announcement that they already had a working document and that they would spend the month ironing out the details expressed his opinion that “the democratic opposition is in better shape intellectually and in human terms than it appears from the outside.” If there is easy agreement on as difficult an issue as the electoral system, “it is even possible that these parties and movements will govern the country well.” Gergely Karácsony expressed his opinion that this is “not the end but the beginning of something.”

The working document is not public yet, but we learned a few details. Péter Juhász of Együtt indicated that they no longer insist on the introduction of an “open party list.” Ferenc Gyurcsány said at the press conference that DK added a proviso to the document in which they stated that the party doesn’t support voting rights for dual citizens who are permanent residents of another country. Anett Bősz of the liberals added that the Magyar Liberális Párt did the same thing regarding the minimum threshold for parliamentary representation.

So far, so good. In the case of the “healthcare” minimum, it was an outsider, not a party leader, who hammered together an agreement that was acceptable to all parties. Now, a week later, a civic activist achieved the beginnings of the same for the electoral system. Perhaps the party-civic society combination has a greater chance of success than I anticipated.

September 24, 2017

“Orbán or Europe? Choose!”

Today will be all about speeches. After a very hot summer, politics has arrived in full force. After all, it is the beginning of the 2018 election campaign. Of course, according to the electoral law, the official campaign season is very short, the last two or three months before the actual day of the election, but no one is pretending anymore. People are openly talking about the beginning of the campaign season. In fact, Fidesz has learned a lot from the United States where one campaign ends and the next begins. On the day of his inauguration President Trump filed the paperwork to be an official candidate for reelection.

Before the “unofficial” opening of the campaign season, Viktor Orbán had the unpleasant task of visiting Pécs to attend the 650th anniversary of the founding of Hungary’s first and only medieval university. The Fidesz-led city’s financial collapse and the removal of the city’s mayor from his position of authority must have been an irritant. Moreover, the enthusiasm for his visit was more than muted. About 50 elderly admirers showed up to greet him, while a bunch of university students displayed banners indicating that he was not welcome in town. Orbán entered the Kodály Center via a back entrance, to find very few young faces in the audience.

It seems that Orbán is unable to tear himself away from the topic of a decaying Europe. In this speech he went so far as to envisage its disappearance. In that case, “the students of today will live in an as yet unknown world.” But they shouldn’t worry because there will always be courageous young people in Hungary who will go against these trends and will choose the family, the community, and the nation as opposed to multiculturalism and mass culture. Predictably, the university’s King Louis the Great Prize was given to the Pécs bishopric for its role in the foundation of the university in 1367.

Today Orbán had another occasion to deliver a speech, this time at the so-called Kötcse Picnic, which is a Fidesz tradition. For the last 16 years, the party has invited hundreds of public figures, writers, actors, artists, etc., who in one way or another support the party. This group of people is called in Hungarian the “moonbow” (holdudvar) of the party. László Botka tried to gather the ever decreasing members of MSZP’s moonbow the other day in Szeged, but, as I reported earlier, few accepted. The right-wing literary and artistic elite has never been as large or as internationally well known as its liberal counterpart, and year after year the same faces appear at the picnic. Mária Schmidt, for example, is always there.

The main attraction at the picnic is Viktor Orbán’s speech. This speech is not covered by the press, and it is not published on the prime minister’s website. This is how it happened that it was only months later that the Hungarian media recognized the importance of his 2009 Kötcse speech, which outlined Orbán’s brilliant political strategy of the “central power.” In that speech he set forth his intention to rule the country in an autocratic manner.

It is unlikely that Orbán delivered anything of such gravity this year. In fact, if I understand it correctly, Orbán’s speech was on the defensive side in the sense that he is portraying the next election as a defense of the results of the last seven years. What are the most important results? According to Bertalan Havasi, the prime minister’s press secretary, they are the building of the fence on the Serbian-Hungarian border which defended the country from migrants, the protection of jobs, and the maintenance of public safety. Apparently, Orbán stressed that, according to NATO’s calculation, 60 million migrants will start their journeys to Europe from Africa between now and 2020. He apparently also spent a great deal of time on Emmanuel Macron’s Le Point interview. From the short description of the press secretary it is hard to know exactly what was in the interview that Orbán agrees with, but apparently he appreciates the French president’s “realism” in foreign affairs and “his description of the signs of a serious crisis in Europe.” The press secretary didn’t say what Orbán found objectionable in the interview.

The Fidesz picnic is held in the courtyard of a somewhat neglected country estate situated at the end of a modest football field. Ironically, at the other end of the field Ferenc Gyurcsány and his family have their country retreat, but only his wife and smallest child watched the game, which was being played while the picnic was going on. Ferenc Gyurcsány himself was not at home. He was giving a speech in Budapest in front of the Western Station. The gathering kicked off the Demokratikus Koalíció’s election campaign.

Zsolt Gréczy, the party’s spokesman, announced on August 13 that their campaign slogan will be “Orbán or Europe? Choose!” Shortly afterward, the party began a telephone campaign, asking people to indicate their preference: Orbán or Europe.

At the time of the diplomatic ruckus between Hungary and the Netherlands, László Botka was on Klub Rádió talking about the coming election as a choice between Orbán and Europe. He expressed his firm belief that Viktor Orbán, by creating an unpleasant situation over the Dutch ambassador’s interview, was actually testing how the Hungarian people would react to Hungary’s exit from the European Union. I must say that I thought that Botka overstated the importance of this incident. I was also stunned by his description of the coming election as a choice between Orbán and Europe. Obviously, the DK leadership was not at all happy with Botka’s choice of words. A few days later, in a TV interview, Attila Ara-Kovács, the DK politician in charge of foreign affairs, charged that MSZP stole DK’s campaign slogan.

For a number of weeks György Bolgár has been asking politicians and public figures in general for their thoughts on a slogan or call that would move the lethargic Hungarian electorate. I always thought that, given the overwhelming support for the European Union among Hungarian voters, there can be no better slogan than something that would bring home the possibility of a rash move by Orbán once the financial benefits of the EU come to an end. And by that time, there would be no one to stop him.

Gyurcsány had barely finished his speech when Balázs Hidvéghi, the communication director of Fidesz, retorted. Hungarians must choose, he said, “between the Soros plan or Europe, and Ferenc Gyurcsány is working on the execution of that plan. He also wants to dismantle the fence and wants to let in the migrants.” That in addition to all sorts of other sins, including the party’s endorsement of a common EU defense and common immigration policies. It is hard to fathom this Fidesz fear of a party that currently has only an 8% share of support among active voters. Maybe Gyurcsány is right and in seven months a lot can happen, but at the moment apathy rules. Momentum’s anti-Russian demonstration was a flop, and the DK gathering was small. DK’s slogan, however, is a good one. We will see whether it can move the crowd.

September 2, 2017

László Botka is on the campaign trail, with some hiccups

Although in the last few weeks László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for premiership, has begun to campaign with greater vigor, neither his own popularity nor the approval rating of his party has improved. In fact, according to Závecz Research (August 23, 2017), MSZP’s active voters dropped by three percentage points in three months. The loss was continuous and steady. Publicus Intézet (August 27, 2017), which also measured the popularity of politicians, registered a three percentage point drop in Botka’s popularity in one month. Support for DK in the last three months remained steady. Thus there is plenty to worry about in MSZP circles.

Earlier I wrote about the controversy between Zsolt Molnár, an influential MSZP politician, and László Botka, which showed a cleavage within the party leadership over MSZP’s relationship with the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK). One must keep in mind that DK began as a socialist splinter party, and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision to leave MSZP and create a new party left MSZP in a much weakened position. Therefore, one shouldn’t be surprised by the resentment some MSZP politicians feel toward DK and its leader. It is hard to judge the size of the group in the top leadership which under no circumstances would sit down to negotiate with the politicians of DK, but even though their number might be small, they are determined to go ahead alone, without the second largest party on the left. In this group are István Ujhelyi, EU parliamentary member, and Tamás Harangozó. On the other hand, Attila Mesterházy, former party chairman and candidate for the premiership of the united democratic opposition in 2014, seems to be on the side of those who sympathize with Zsolt Molnár’s position. His recent interview at least points in this direction. In this interview he revealed his pragmatic side when he suggested cooperation with Lajos Simicska, because “the removal of Viktor Orbán’s regime is a common goal.” He also defended Gyurcsány against Botka’s accusation that the former prime minister is not a democrat. Although Ágnes Kunhalmi is quiet, I suspect that she also has her doubts about Botka’s strategy. So, Zsolt Molnár is not alone.

MSZP old-timers complain that 15-20 years ago the party had the support of the leading professionals of the country, but by now they have left the socialists because the party leadership didn’t cultivate a working relationship with them. Perhaps Botka also realized that for a party to develop a program and make preparations for governing one needs experts in various fields. Legal experts, men and women with expertise in education, healthcare, public administration, etc. So, Botka sent out 200 invitations to a meeting in Szeged on August 26, where he was hoping to receive the common wisdom of the experts gathered there. When I first read the news as it was presented in Népszava, I had the distinct feeling that the turnout was low and that the largest group present were the big names in MSZP, past and present. Although Népszava, being a social democratic paper, was unwilling to say it outright, it was pretty obvious that there were very few well-known experts present. Népszava somewhat sarcastically noted that Botka announced that he didn’t want to give a speech but proceeded to give a very long one. Besides outlining ten important goals of MSZP once it forms a government, he again spent an inordinate amount of time on Ferenc Gyurcsány, which Népszava discreetly left out of its summary. In order to read that part of the speech one has to go to Index.

This gathering had one bright side, which had nothing to do with collecting professionals to assist the party program and possible future governance. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word “cooperation” carefully because I don’t think that “support” would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is “willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.” Considering Párbeszéd’s 1% support, Karácsony’s offer of cooperation will not bring too many new voters to MSZP. Still, this gesture should give a psychological lift to the disheartened democratic opposition. Botka also received the support of Zoltán Komáromi, a family physician, who has been a constant fixture in the media. He claims to have worked out an effective reform of the ailing healthcare system that would yield immediate, tangible results. Komáromi’s abandonment of Együtt is a blow to that small party, which has said that it will not cooperate with any other political group.

László Botka (MSZP) and Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd) / Photo Ádám Molnár

After these positive developments I must turn to the less bright aspects of Botka’s campaign activities. Botka was supposed to come up with 106 candidates by September, but to date he has managed to name only two. After visiting Gyöngyös, he declared that there can be no better candidate in that district than György Hiesz, the MSZP mayor of the town. Hiesz is one of the founders of MSZP. He was a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994 and again between 2010 and 2014. He was mayor between 2002 and 2010 and again from 2014 on. Then a few days later, while campaigning in the town of Makó, Botka had the bright idea of asking István Rója, who had been the principal of the local gymnasium, to be MSZP’s candidate in the coming election campaign. Rója’s appointment was not renewed despite wide support by teachers, students, and parents. Rója is not an MSZP member. While Hiesz is an experienced politician, Rója has never been involved in politics. These two people might be excellent candidates, but the way Botka single-handedly and in a somewhat haphazard manner is picking his candidates doesn’t appeal to some people within the party, especially since compiling the party list is supposed to be the leadership’s joint decision.

I should also call attention to another perhaps not so small blunder. Yesterday Botka essentially promised the job of minister of education to István Hiller, who had held this post between 2006 and 2010. About a year ago Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman of MSZP, suggested creating a so-called shadow cabinet, a popular political instrument in Great Britain, which consists of senior members of the opposition parties who scrutinize their corresponding government ministers and develop alternative policies. Such a body could develop a coherent set of goals and policies for a party. However, for some strange reason, László Botka doesn’t like the concept. As he keeps repeating, he wants to have a real cabinet, not a shadow one. Therefore, he said that he wasn’t going to name names. Yet yesterday, standing next to István Hiller, Botka announced that Hiller was once minister of education and he is very much hoping that he will be so again. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, this means that he has Hiller in mind for the post. There’s a major problem here, however. Botka in the last eight months talked about nothing else but those guilty MSZP and SZDSZ politicians who are responsible for the electoral disaster of 2010 when Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in parliament. They must retire and shouldn’t even be on the party list, meaning that they cannot even be ordinary backbenchers in parliament. That was allegedly his reason for insisting on Gyurcsány’s disappearance from politics. And now, he publicly indicates that his choice for minister of education is a former cabinet member in the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments. This inconsistency doesn’t look good.

All in all, Botka’s performance to date leaves a great deal to be desired. I wonder when the day will come that he is told to change course or else.

August 30, 2017

The Hungarian socialists in turmoil?

Perhaps the most telling sentence on the state of the Hungarian Socialist Party came from its chairman in an interview he gave to Inforádió on August 7. In the interview Gyula Molnár tried to be upbeat. The public clash between László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership, and Zsolt Molnár, one of the top leaders of the party, is now behind them. Zsolt Molnár and László Botka have made peace, and the decision was reached to follow the party’s initial strategy, the lynchpin of which is the retirement of Ferenc Gyurcsány from politics. The chairman sounded upbeat until he uttered the following sentence: “I’m already afraid of the results of the August opinion polls.” Molnár’s fear is well founded. There is a very good possibility that the clash between the two well-known MSZP politicians will further erode the dwindling support for the socialist party.

MSZP’s leadership will not change strategy. As long as the politicians and the membership of Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) insist on Ferenc Gyurcsány’s presence on a common party list, there will be no collaboration with DK. Perhaps it was Gyula Molnár’s interview that inspired DK to publish an open letter to László Botka. Ágnes Vadai, one of DK’s vice-chairmen, posted it on her Facebook page. I assume DK is trying to make sure that the public will place most of the blame on Botka because of his intransigence concerning the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány. So Vadai stressed DK’s attempts to come to an understanding with Botka, though she emphasized that the DK community will not accept him as the leader of the joint opposition without the presence of its chairman. As she put it, “DK is not for sale either with or without its chairman.” Vadai ended her letter by saying: “You accepted the leadership role. If you’re successful, it will be to your credit, but if you fail, you will have to shoulder the blame.” Vadai added that if Botka rigidly adheres to his present strategy, he will place the democratic opposition in an untenable situation.

László Botka wasn’t impressed. First, he made fun of “the followers of Donald Trump’s Twitter politics,” meaning Vadai’s choice of Facebook as a vehicle of communication. Second, he indicated that he has no intention of changing his mind on the subject of Gyurcsány’s presence in the political life of the democratic opposition. His answer was a paraphrase of a line from a Szekler story. An old couple is sitting on the terrace. The wife turns to the husband and complains that he never tells her that he loves her. The old Szekler says: “I said it once. If there is a change I will let you know.” This story might capture one aspect of the Szeklers, who are known for their reticence, but it was impudent under the circumstances. It showed the arrogance for which Botka is becoming known nationwide. Moreover, a day later Botka accused Gyurcsány of not being a man of democratic convictions. Otherwise, Gyurcsány would support him, because he is the one who “proclaimed the strategy of victory” which will remove Viktor Orbán’s government.

Given these unfortunate events, observers of the political scene on both sides of the aisle have become convinced that Gyula Molnár’s fears of a serious loss of support will force MSZP to drop Botka, who hasn’t shown the necessary political finesse or a willingness to keep communication open with the other democratic forces outside of MSZP. Government publications began to speculate that Botka’s days may be numbered. Earlier there had been voices suggesting that Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd would be an attractive alternative, but I can’t imagine that MSZP politicians would be ready to entrust a non-party member with that position. A couple of days ago Figyelő, the once highly respected financial weekly which has since been purchased by Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s court historian, came up with a replacement in the person of Ágnes Kunhalmi.

Source: nyugat.hu / Photo by Bálint Vágvölgyi

The 35-year-old Ágnes Kunhalmi has popular appeal that MSZP hasn’t really exploited. She was designated the party’s education expert. She does appear frequently in the media, but always strictly in that capacity. This is surprising because in the 2014 election Kunhalmi showed what she is capable of. Gábor Simon, an MSZP old-timer, was MSZP’s candidate in Budapest’s 15th electoral district (Pestszentlőrinc-Pestszentimre/District XVIII). Only a few weeks before the election Simon was accused of money laundering and was arrested. The party in the last minute replaced Simon with Kunhalmi, who in a spectacular campaign lost by only 56 votes. The Fidesz candidate’s slim margin was due to several phony parties with misleading names being encouraged by the government to enter the race. There were at least three such “social democratic types” of parties on the ballot (SZDP [67], MSZDP [52], Szociáldemokraták [128]). Later, when the democratic forces had problems finding a candidate to run against Fidesz-supported Mayor István Tarlós, I thought Ágnes Kunhalmi would be a perfect candidate. Instead, Lajos Bokros ran in the last minute. Although he is not a popular politician, he did surprisingly well, getting about 35% of the votes.

Soon after Kunhalmi’s name surfaced in Figyelő, the government publications were full of the news that “the dissatisfied MSZP leaders have already found the successor to Botka.” Origo seems to know that Kunhalmi, who is the chairman of the Budapest MSZP, is less than happy with László Botka’s decision to name József Tóth, the successful mayor of District XIII, as a kind of coordinator of the Budapest campaign, which under normal circumstances would be the job of the Budapest MSZP leadership. Yesterday Gyula Molnár denied in an interview on “Egyenes beszéd” of ATV that there is any intention of replacing Botka with Kunhalmi. In fact, their relationship is close. The party, including Kunhalmi, stands behind Botka. Moreover, MSZP will not change its initial strategy. MSZP has already chosen its 106 candidates for the 106 available electoral districts, though, he added, that can still be changed. In this scheme the other opposition parties would have a slim chance of winning any of the left-leaning districts.

Kunhalmi said that the election campaign will be in the hands of the Budapest Election Committee, which will be under the supervision of the Budapest MSZP leadership, which she heads. She and her team will, however, work with the party’s central leadership, with László Botka and with József Tóth. She added that she finds Tóth’s appointment an excellent idea because “there is a need to engage all successful left-wing politicians who can give new hope and impetus to Hungary after the long period of darkness under Fidesz.”

All of this optimism sounds too good to be true. Let’s wait for the polls, which will be coming out in late August. Perhaps, after all, the strategy will have to be changed and, with it, the person who will lead the team.

August 11, 2017

Toward a police state? A proposed government “data grab”

It doesn’t happen too often, but a few days ago Attila Péterfalvi, president of the National Authority for Data Protection of Freedom of Information (Nemzeti Adatvédelmi és Információszabadság Hatóság/NAIH), strongly criticized the government’s latest attempt to infringe upon the privacy of both Hungarian citizens and foreign visitors.

On July 31 the ministry of interior submitted a bill for consideration which, among other things, aims at a greater scrutiny of individuals and creates a central storage facility for information gathered by state and non-state authorities. Thus, as opposed to the present practice, extracting information on individuals would be a one-step process. At the moment data gathered by the different branches of government and non-government organizations (police, traffic supervision, public transportation authorities, banks, toll road monitors, etc.) can be accessed only by first presenting reasons for their legitimate use. But, as the bill reads now, there would be no judicial oversight of the collected material. Thus, every scrap of information on individuals would be collected in one place where an individual’s whole history could easily be assembled–and all that without any judicial oversight.

In addition, the ministry of interior wants to know more about everybody who spends any time in a hotel as a guest, be that person a Hungarian citizen or a foreign tourist. Hotels would have to copy people’s I.D.s or passports. The state seems to be interested in all the details: date of arrival and anticipated date of departure, sex, birthplace, birth date, citizenship, and mother’s maiden name. All this information would have to be stored and provided upon request to the various national security services. The authorities would also require hotels to install software that would enable the transfer of data collected.

It didn’t take long for Péterfalvi to label the proposed bill “a visual surveillance system for secret information gathering.” Péterfalvi’s letter to one of the assistant undersecretaries can be found on the website of NAIH. His conclusion is that the new law would “further restrict” the individual’s right to the protection of his personal data. He suggested changing the bill to make sure that the state authority that needs the piece of information documents the reasons for its request and specifies the precise scope of the inquiry. He also wants further restrictions on surveillance around churches, polling stations, political meetings, and demonstrations. In addition, Péterfalvi wants NAIH to have the authority to verify the use of the documents requested by the state authorities.

Now that practically the whole government is on vacation, István Hollik of the Christian Democratic Party was the one to react to Péterfalvi’s opposition to the bill. Hollik was brief and noncommittal. According to him, the government will have to consider whether Péterfalvi’s proposals can be incorporated into the bill. But, he added, since the bill otherwise is fine, he sees no problem with the small changes proposed by the president of NAIH. I’m not sure whether Hollik understands that Péterfalvi’s requirements are more substantive than they may appear at first glance.

In any case, Demokratikus Koalíció isn’t satisfied with Péterfalvi’s solution to the problem. The party wants the whole bill to be withdrawn. Péter Niedermüller, co-chair of the party and member of the European Parliament, announced that if the bill, even with the amendments, is passed by the Hungarian parliament, DK will turn to the European Commission because the party believes that the law doesn’t comport with the constitution of the European Union.

Viktor Szigetvári, the president of Együtt’s board, also wants the ministry of interior to immediately withdraw the bill. In his opinion, the bill paves the way for the establishment of a police state. He called attention to the anti-democratic practices of Russia, whose president is Viktor Orbán’s role model, and therefore he suspects that Orbán’s intentions are anything but benevolent. He considers the bill another sign of Orbán’s plans for unlimited power.

MSZP, which seems to be far too preoccupied with its own problems, didn’t make any official announcement about the party’s position on the question. The only comment came from Zsolt Molnár, chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, whose status in the party is more than shaky after his recent open disagreement with László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership. MSZP usually takes a less categorical position than the other opposition parties, and therefore I wasn’t particularly surprised when Molnár stated that there is a need for a new law on data protection but there are several problems with this bill. He called the proposal “excessive, even if national security precautionary measures sometimes justify stricter restrictions.” As usual, MSZP is sitting on the fence.

So far, only a couple of foreign papers have reported on Péterfalvi’s reaction to the proposed bill. Euractive introduced the topic with the headline “Hungary rights chief denounced ‘data grab’ bill,” using AFP’s report from Budapest. It quoted from an interview with Péterfalvi on KlubRádió where he claimed that the bill “would give almost automatic access to personal data.”

I assume the issue will not come up until late September, when the parliament reconvenes.

August 8, 2017

What happened to Momentum? The loss of youthful innocence

I think it’s time to return to Momentum, a new political formation that became an overnight sensation after their activists, with some help from left-liberal parties, collected 260,000 signatures in the dead of winter in support of a referendum about holding the Olympic Games in Budapest in 2024. The overwhelming support for the initiative forced the Orbán government to retreat and abandon one of Viktor Orbán’s most cherished dreams.

The last time I wrote about Momentum was in March, after a number of disastrous interviews that András Fekete-Győr, the leader of the group, gave to ATV and HírTV. I titled that post “What’s behind Momentum? Banal clichés.” I’m afraid nothing has happened since to make me change my mind. But, if we can believe Republikon Intézet’s telephone poll, Momentum is so popular in Budapest that 9% of active voters would vote for it at the next election. Momentum’s standing nationwide, as measured by several polling companies, is 2%.

Many commentators compare Momentum to the youthful Fidesz in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was also a generational party that came from practically nowhere. A few months later it won enough votes to be represented in parliament. In July 1989 Fidesz organized a three-four-day gathering that included political discussions. It was held in Bálványosfűrdő/Băile Bálványos, which over the years has become a gathering place for Hungarians, mostly from Romania, to listen to the political messages of Viktor Orbán. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the leadership of Momentum decided to organize a three-day gathering called “Opening Festival” in Bodajk, a town of 4,000 inhabitants in Fejér County. During the day they held panel discussions and at night it was all fun and games. Lots of music and dancing. The event, as we learned later, cost quite a bit of money, but the business-minded Momentum leadership believed that it was a good investment, even in financial terms. By all accounts relatively few people attended. According to the journalist from Index, on the first day there were no more than 200-300 people.

In March, when I looked at Momentum’s so-called program, it was practically nonexistent. Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t changed since. They promise a party program for October 15. Otherwise, Momentum’s strongest message is that it rejects not only the last seven years of Fidesz rule but everything that has happened in Hungary since 1989. As for the general political orientation of the party, Fekete-Győr likened Momentum to Emmanuel Macron’s “En Marche!” The general impression is that Momentum is neither on the right nor on the left, perhaps because so far it seems devoid of ideas.

It is almost impossible to figure out what Momentum actually wants. They made only a few concrete political announcements, the most important of which was that in no way would they consider cooperation with any other party unless “there is a danger of a two-thirds Fidesz majority,” as Fekete-Győr put it. This makes no sense to me. By the time it seems likely that Fidesz’s strength would result in a two-thirds majority, no cooperation among opposition parties could do anything to change the situation.

Momentum seems not to know whether it is a serious political party or a charitable organization. In the midst of talking about matters like Hungary’s place in the European Union and the benefits of the Eurozone, Fekete-Győr could tell his audience about a project of theirs to supply soap and towels to schools and hospitals where they are currently in short supply.

Árpád W. Tóta of HVG, whom I consider one of the most astute observers of the current Hungarian political scene, asked the leaders of Momentum some probing questions. What Tóta learned from Fekete-Győr was that the political profile of Momentum, which today is fuzzy, will be shaped by whatever the people want. Of course, this is a very dangerous populist notion which can lead a party to adopt even extremist views. This is exactly what happened in Fidesz’s case when Viktor Orbán discovered what people wanted to hear. I don’t think the leaders of Momentum ever thought through the dangers of such a populist approach to politics. I’m sorry that the video has no subtitles, but those who understand the language should definitely spend 10 minutes on Tóta’s conversations with the leaders of Momentum. It is worth it.

The “Opening Festival” was lavish, and questions were raised where the money came from to fund the event. Tóta himself in that interview asked Fekete-Győr about the cost, but the Momentum leader feigned ignorance of the amount. He maintained, however, that the only money they have comes from membership dues. Another student leader, Miklós Hajnal, on ATV claimed that the cost of the festival was a “trade secret.” Eventually Momentum announced the real cost. The party spent 23 million forints (about $89,000); the income received from the participants was only 11 million. Apparently, currently Momentum has 1,100 card-carrying party members who pay 1,000 forints a month as a membership fee.

The less than transparent finances of Momentum have aroused the interest of the media. A few days ago Heti Válasz, a right-of-center weekly, discovered that at least two well-known businessmen have helped the party financially. One is Gábor Bojár of Graphisoft, a software company, and the founder of the Aquincum Institute of Technology, who told the paper that he gave them one million forints. The other is György Raskó, MDF’s undersecretary of agriculture in the Antall government, who is now a successful agro businessman. The amount Raskó gave to Momentum is unknown, but there were strings attached to the gift. He wanted the party to include an education program that would be similar to the successful Finnish model. Apparently, he also wanted to receive assurances that Momentum would not cooperate on any level with MSZP and the Demokratikus Koalíció. In addition, Raskó also warned that he doesn’t want Momentum to become a “Budapest downtown liberal intellectual” party.

Momentum, right turn / Photo: HVG

Not surprisingly the government media attacked both Momentum and its wealthy supporters. Magyar Idők hypocritically expressed its concern over “the undue influence of entrepreneurs over party politics” and declared that Momentum is not an independent party but an instrument in the hands of men with definite political goals. But left-liberal publications aren’t exactly thrilled either. Pesti Bulvár, a relatively new internet news site, repeated the general dissatisfaction on the left with Momentum’s refusal to cooperate with anyone, which further weakens the anti-Orbán forces. Garai, the author of the article, titled “A party is for sale,” estimates that Momentum has already spent 100-150 million forints. He charges that the leaders of Momentum, by accepting Raskó’s demands, admitted that they don’t really want regime change because they ought to know that small parties running alone can lead only to Fidesz victory. Moreover, given Raskó’s political views, he says, Momentum is moving over to the right.

I have had heard interviews with both Bojár and Raskó and found most of what they had to say eminently reasonable. Raskó is normally asked to comment on matters related to agriculture, and he shows great knowledge of the subject. However, I must admit that his categorical refusal to make common cause with other anti-Orbán forces shows a shortsighted and rigidly ideological posture that is not in the interest of the country.

We don’t know how long Raskó has been supporting Momentum financially, but my feeling is that it has been from the very beginning. We know that he gave these young people money at the time of their signature drive for a referendum on the Olympic Games. Moreover, Raskó’s son is a member of Momentum. As for the extent to which Raskó has been influencing these young people’s ideas, that remains an open question. We know, for example, that Raskó is a believer in the establishment of large agro businesses instead of small family farms and that Momentum also supports this idea.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting advice from experts. In the case of Momentum, when I think back, I was struck how often András Fekete-Győr boasted about unnamed, very important advisers who worked with them. All political parties need experts in a range of fields, but in this case we have a bunch of young people without any political experience who may not know what to do with the advice they receive. And, of course, I am disheartened by Raskó’s advice of noncooperation. It is the worst advice he could have given the leaders of Momentum.

Finally, Edina Pottyondy, a member of Momentum’s board of governors, quit her post two days ago. She remains a member of the party and will be one of the organizers of the party’s efforts to recruit followers in the countryside, said the spokesman for the party. I cannot escape the feeling that the less than transparent handling of the party’s finances might have had something to do with her departure. In any case, whatever has transpired since July 22, the first day of the “Opening Festival,” has done a lot of damage to Momentum. The reputation of the seemingly innocent, young, bright boys and girls has suffered a serious blow.

August 5, 2017