Tag Archives: Egon Rónai

Bernadett Szél hopes to be Hungary’s next prime minister

Although Bernadett Szél’s name can be found in scores of posts on Hungarian Spectrum over the years, I don’t think that I ever devoted an entire post to this popular female politician, the co-chair of LMP (Lehet Más a Politika/Politics Can Be Different). Well, now that LMP formally announced that she is the party’s choice to run for prime minister, it is time to assess her candidacy. Although Szél is a very attractive contender, one must keep in mind that LMP has consistently refused to consider cooperation with any other political party. LMP, led by Bernadett Szél, is planning to win the election single-handedly.

The forty-year-old Szél has an undergraduate degree in economics (2000) and a Ph.D. in sociology (2011). She is an excellent debater who has delivered some notable speeches in parliament. She is quite capable of silencing her opponents. She is perhaps best known as the most eloquent and resolute opponent of the extension of Hungary’s nuclear power plant in Paks. Unlike most of her colleagues in parliament, she speaks both English and German well. She also seems to have an abundance of energy and, despite her many duties, has time for a daily run or some other form of physical exercise. So, unlike the present prime minister of Hungary, she is in excellent shape. She and her husband have two young daughters.

Of the current candidates for prime minister–László Botka (MSZP), Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd), and Gábor Vona (Jobbik)–Bernadett Szél is probably the most promising. Even her gender may be in her favor. Thirty percent of the electorate would prefer a female prime minister, and sixty percent of the left-of-center voters would support a woman over a man. There is a growing conviction, often expressed by men, that women are more inclined to reach compromise solutions and that therefore Hungary would be better off with a female prime minister. I’m not at all sure that Bernadett Szél is the prototype of that compromise-ready woman since she has repeatedly expressed her total rejection of all politicians who had anything to do with politics before 2010. But still, judging by her accomplishments and talents, I believe that she would qualify as a very good and most likely popular candidate. With a party behind her with about 4-5% support of the electorate, however, it is unlikely that the name of Hungary’s next prime minister will be Bernadett Szél. Unless, of course, she is ready to strike a bargain.

Source: 24.hu / Photo Dániel Mátyás Fülöp

Despite the party’s low poll numbers, Szél and LMP are dead serious about winning the 2018 Hungarian national election. Their first move was to get Ron Werber, an Israeli campaign strategist, to serve as LMP’s adviser. Werber used to work for MSZP, and his greatest accomplishment was MSZP’s victory in 2002 against all odds. From that point on, Werber became Fidesz’s bogeyman, the “conductor of hate” as they called him because of his negative campaigning style. I don’t know what kind of advice Werber has given Szél so far, but Werber and Szél seem to be a good fit. She has confidence in him, and Werber considers Szél “competent and someone who knows what she is talking about.” Werber apparently talked with both MSZP and DK but finally settled for LMP. The media would love to find out how much LMP is paying the Israeli adviser, but for now we must be satisfied with Szél’s claim that Werber’s advice is pro bono.

According to Magyar Nemzet, before the party’s announcement of its candidate for the premiership LMP hired Závecz Research to conduct a poll to assess Bernadett Szél’s chances against Viktor Orbán in a hypothetical two-person race. It turned out that four-fifths of socialist voters would support Szél. As far as Jobbik voters are concerned, the support is not that overwhelming, but the majority (54%) would vote for LMP’s candidate. This is especially significant because one would have assumed that a Jobbik voter in this scenario would vote for Orbán, but in fact only 20% would commit to the Fidesz candidate. LMP also wanted to know what would happen if the electorate could vote for prime minister separately. How would Szél fare? At this point, even before the announcement of her candidacy, Szél would get 29% of the votes to Orbán’s 44%. All this shows considerable support for Szél, but, of course, the problem is that the next election is not shaping up to be a two-way race.

Bernadett Szél has given several interviews in the last few days, but perhaps the most detailed one, as far as her ideas are concerned, was conducted three days ago by Attila Kálmán of 24.hu. Her message is straightforward. She decided to run because, just like the majority of the electorate, she can no longer endure “the total chaos” that exists within the opposition. In this interview she presents herself as the embodiment of LMP’s program, which is ready, but soon she will also tell the voters what she will do in the first 100 days of her administration. She is categorical when it comes to other parties on the left. Creating a unified voting bloc would be a “Frankensteinian construction,” after which they would be unable to govern. Members of this Frankensteinian construction “time and again forfeited the trust of the people in the last thirty years and therefore they shouldn’t be entrusted with the future of the country.” She promises “to shutter the past and revitalize the country.” But Bernadett Szél ought to realize that one cannot close the past because history is a continuum, nor can one drastically change a country at will. Still, despite her shortcomings and in a different electoral system, she would be a very promising candidate. Unfortunately, she has to measure herself against Viktor Orbán in an electoral system that he devised to his own advantage.

One more item that is only tangentially related to Bernadett Szél’s candidacy. ATV’s famed program, “Egyenes beszéd” (Straight Talk), has gone through some fundamental and unfortunate changes. First, at the end of last year the anchor of the program, Olga Kálmán, left the channel and started a new program called “Egyenesen” (Straight) on HírTV. “Egyenes beszéd” was taken over by Antónia Mészáros and Egon Rónai, both seasoned and outstanding reporters. Then, unexpectedly, Mészáros left to become managing director of the Hungarian section of UNICEF. After a few weeks of total chaos, when assorted people tried to replace Mészáros and Rónai, who was on vacation, a new setup emerged: one week Zsuzsa Demcsák, formerly of TV2, is the anchor, and Egon Rónai runs the show the next week. Her first week’s performance doesn’t bode well for the future.

Here is one example. Bernadett Szél was Demcsák’s guest on September 4. The new anchor turned to the candidate and said something like “you know there will never be a woman prime minister in Hungary.” Later, she tried to convince Szél that she is on the side of women and of course would be delighted if one day a woman became prime minister, but the harm was already done. To add insult to injury, she asked Szél what her husband thinks about a female prime minister. Of course, she profusely apologized for the question, but for some strange reason she thought it was relevant.

It is a good thing that there are not too many Zsuzsa Demcsáks in Hungary. To me it is a pleasant surprise that the electorate doesn’t share her views.

September 11, 2017

Hungary is waiting for an apology from the Netherlands

Gajus Scheltema, who has been the Netherland’s ambassador to Hungary since 2013, is now retiring from the diplomatic service. He has been a diplomat since 1978. Prior to his current post he served in Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Belgium, Romania, Jordan, Pakistan, and the United States. In brief, he is a seasoned diplomat. Therefore, his farewell interview in 168 Óra cannot be viewed as some horrible diplomatic faux pas. In fact, a careful reading of the interview reveals a man who is meticulous in his wording. What did Ambassador Scheltema say that so infuriated Viktor Orbán?

The interview itself is fairly lengthy, but there are only two sentences that set off the government. One came in the middle of his observation that the terrorists, as the losers in globalization, have turned toward extremism and fanatical religiosity because it gives them a feeling of security. “They create enemies along the same principles as the Hungarian government does.” The second sentence was embedded in a discussion about Hungarians’ inability to reach compromise, as opposed to the Dutch practice of constant negotiations. “Here, on the other hand, there can be only pro or con positions. Someone is either with us or against us. This is a classic Marxist viewpoint.”

The fact is that there were several other critical remarks, which most other governments would have found much more insulting than the two the Orbán government focused on. For example, this absolutely straightforward assertion that “We cannot finance corruption. We cannot keep alive a corrupt regime.” I cannot think of a more damning comment than that. Yet the Hungarian government didn’t find any reason to object to it.

Therefore, my suspicion is that this uproar over the Dutch ambassador’s interview is once again, as so often in the past, for domestic consumption. How many people read 168 Óra? Very few, and therefore only a small group of people will ever hear the ambassador’s harsh words about their corrupt government, which is kept alive by money coming from the European Union. And officially complaining about the ambassador’s calling the Orbán government corrupt would have meant disseminating an uncomfortable truth that the majority of the Hungarian public are also aware of. So, instead, the government picked on statements they thought would rile Hungarians against the European Union via the Dutch ambassador. Someone compared us to terrorists? Someone called us Marxists? It is unacceptable and we demand satisfaction.

Ambassador Gajus Scheltema

Péter Szijjártó’s initial reaction on Thursday, right after the interview was published, was quite mild. He simply said: “Let’s hope that the Dutch ambassador will leave soon.” A day later, however, he opted for a much stronger response. I suspect that Viktor Orbán, who had just arrived from his three-week vacation in Croatia, instructed Szijjártó to make a forceful move that would have reverberations internationally. Actually, Szijjártó doesn’t need much prodding when it comes to aggressiveness. In this case he announced that “relations at the level of ambassadors have been suspended indefinitely,” asserting that this move is “one of the most radical steps in diplomacy.” He announced that Hungary “won’t settle for an explanation behind closed doors.” They will be satisfied with nothing less than “a public apology.”

I must say that the Dutch foreign minister, Bert Koenders, didn’t show himself to be a nimble diplomat in this case. Perhaps he is unaccustomed to the Hungarian way of conducting diplomacy, but he crumbled instead of standing by his ambassador. In the course of a conversation with reporters he admitted that he was “embarrassed” because “it’s clear there is no link between terrorism and the actions of the Hungarian government.” At the end, he added that he couldn’t “imagine that this is what the ambassador wanted to say.”

The fact is that Scheltema said nothing of the sort. He wasn’t talking about a direct link between terrorism and Hungary. Rather, he pointed out that creating nonexistent enemies enables people to justify their own actions. The terrorists create enemies who are set on destroying them and who should therefore be punished. Similarly, the Hungarian government creates its own foes in order to justify its constant attacks on the European Union and clandestine international forces. The Orbán government needs these antagonists in order to prove to the populace that the country is in danger and that it is only the current regime that is fighting for their independence and well-being.

The Orbán government might have avoided a reference to the corrupt regime Ambassador Scheltema was talking about, but Egon Rónai of ATV didn’t miss the opportunity to quiz Péter Szijjártó on the subject. Members of the Orbán government are infamous for not wanting talk to the media, and there are certain outlets that are considered to be forbidden territory. One of these is KlubRádió, especially György Bolgár’s program “Let’s Talk It Over.” Another is HírTV, which is boycotted because its owner is Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s old friend turned enemy. ATV, although it is not considered to be a pro-government outlet, still manages to have some government officials as guests.

Yesterday Péter Szijjártó was being interviewed on “Egyenes beszéd” (Straight Talk). The interview was supposed to have been on Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with the Slavkov Three instead of the Visegrád Four. But then the controversy over the Dutch ambassador emerged. Egon Rónai asked Szijjártó about Scheltema’s labeling the Hungarian government corrupt. Szijjártó’s answer was priceless. He complained that foreign politicians accuse them of corruption, but when he asks these people to give particulars they cannot come up with anything. The accusation is ridiculous because a corrupt country cannot be economically successful. Hungary happens to be very successful, and therefore such allegations are baseless. When Rónai interjected and called attention to the incredible amount of convergence money coming to Hungary, Szijjártó’s reaction was to belittle the significance of these funds. However, as 444.hu pointed out, a new study just showed that without the convergence money the Hungarian economy would be 6% smaller and the level of investment two-thirds of the present level.

As for the unfinished business between the Netherlands and Hungary, the government made sure that no one forgets about it. Gyula Budai, who is currently undersecretary of the ministry of agriculture, gave a press conference at which he said that the Hungarian government is still waiting for the apology. It is a mystery to me what an agricultural undersecretary has to do with this diplomatic quarrel. Maybe no one else was in town this weekend.

Otherwise, the Hungarian foreign ministry is waiting to see whether its demand will be met. On Monday, “a decision will be made about the next step to be taken.” Prior to the final decision, Szijjártó will speak to the returning Hungarian ambassador and the Hungarian chargé will pay a visit to the Dutch foreign ministry.

The general sentiment in the Netherlands is that an apology will not be forthcoming. And then what? Interestingly, when a Russian official called the 1956 Revolution a counterrevolution ignited by the CIA, the Hungarian government said nothing. It also remained quiet when former Romanian president Traian Băsescu said that the real border between Romania and Hungary should be the Tisza River. But when it comes to one of the important countries in the European Union, Viktor Orbán behaves like a lion ready to pounce.

August 26, 2017