Tag Archives: Együtt

Negotiations drag on, but there are a couple of bright spots on the horizon

Those who think that the most important task of the opposition parties is joint action and cooperation because otherwise there is no chance whatsoever of removing Viktor Orbán from power are pretty desperate. And angry, very angry. They express their deep frustration with politicians’ “selfish” behavior. They accuse them of caring only for their own careers. They charge that politicians seem to disregard the true interests of the country and place party politics ahead of the common good.

Many ordinary Hungarian citizens want to get rid of not only Fidesz but all opposition politicians as well. Their irritation is understandable. On the surface what people who follow politics see is a never-ending series of negotiations between MSZP, the Hungarian socialist party, and Demokratikus Koalíció, a liberal-democratic party. These two parties are considered to be “large parties” with their 10-12-14% share of the votes. The third largest party with about 7-8% of the votes is LMP, a green-anti-globalist party, which refuses to cooperate with anyone. In addition, Hungary has at least four or five even smaller parties. In all vital matters, like the restoration of democracy, the reestablishment of checks and balances, and the revamping of the electoral system, these people are of one mind, but when it comes to dividing up the political terrain, they are unable to look beyond their own narrow interests. At least this is the general perception.

I know that the situation is pretty grim, but I would like to point to a few hopeful signs. While news sites report on the real difficulties weighing down the negotiations between MSZP and DK, one can easily miss a couple of indications that behind the scenes small steps are being made toward some understanding.

Let’s start with the MSZP-DK negotiations over the division of the 106 electoral districts. For the longest time we heard that the negotiators were very close to an agreement. It was only a question of days. But then, weeks went by and there was no resolution. MSZP announced that they would give details of the final agreement with DK at their congress, scheduled for December 9. As might be expected, the congress must be postponed because it is unlikely that negotiations can be concluded prior to that date.

It is hard to tell who is responsible for the sluggish negotiations. According to Ferenc Gyurcsány, one of the three DK negotiators, the three politicians representing MSZP don’t have the authority to make decisions on the spot. They have to go back to the party’s “presidium,” some of whose members accuse the negotiators, especially Gyula Molnár, chairman of the party, of being too soft. And they accuse DK of treating their party in a high-handed fashion. Some of them complain that Gyurcsány and Company are too aggressive and suspect, most likely not without reason, that DK wants to be “the only force” on the left. On the other side, Gyurcsány likes to remind his former comrades that they are no longer in a position to dictate terms as they did four years ago, with pretty disastrous results.

Apparently, some of the socialist leaders are so unhappy with Gyula Molnár that they have raised the possibility of removing him from the post of chairman, or, if not that, at least replacing him at the negotiating table with someone else. Fortunately for the socialists, that politically suicidal idea was dropped, especially since Molnár is, according to reports, anything but soft and consistently defends MSZP interests. For the next round, however, the socialists will be returning to the negotiating table with a much tougher attitude. The negotiators’ hands will be tied by prior decisions of the presidium. Such an arrangement is long overdue; after all, this is how the DK negotiating team functions. The DK presidium, for example, instructed the three negotiators that a common party list, which is at the core of MSZP’s demands, is out of the question.

The tug of war over a common party list shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows Hungarian party politics. I should point out that, with the exception of MSZP, no opposition party wants to merge its votes into a common party list. DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd are ready to divvy up electoral districts among themselves even if they are not entirely satisfied with their lot, but by insisting on separate party lists they can at least measure their nationwide support. On the other hand, MSZP, with its shrinking base, would like to bury its declining numbers in a common list. Four years ago DK suffered when MSZP insisted on reserving for MSZP politicians what later turned out to be an excessive number of places at the top of the list. DK most likely would have done a great deal better if its leaders had insisted on a separate party list.

This is where we stand right now. The socialists insist on a common list, and the party’s negotiators are bound not to agree to the DK position. In addition, there are a couple of districts that DK would like to have but MSZP is not ready to release. All in all, not too promising.

But there is some news that might lift the spirits. This morning Népszava reported that, according to their sources, Ágnes Kunhalmi, the most popular socialist politician, will be heading the MSZP list. This report was later modified to read that Kunhalmi will be “the face of the socialists’ campaign.” Even putting Kunhalmi forth as the “face of the campaign” is welcome news and should help MSZP recover its standing somewhat. It was a real shame that Kunhalmi was relegated to dealing with matters of education only and wasn’t used as a general spokesperson for the party, while real third-rates represented MSZP in public over the last four years. In 2014, at the time of the Budapest municipal election when the democratic opposition had trouble finding a mayoral candidate, she looked like an obvious choice to me. I think she might have surprised us. The idea didn’t occur to anyone.

Ágnes Kunhalmi

The other piece of promising news is that negotiations seem to be going on among DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd, and it looks as if they see eye to eye. They have lined up against MSZP, charging that MSZP is dragging its feet. Péter Juhász of Együtt complained that MSZP keeps sending messages but refuses to sit down to negotiate. So, the three parties demand the start of talks with MSZP. The trouble is that MSZP apparently refuses at the moment to sit down with all three parties at once, which is a rational decision on their part. As it is, the socialists feel threatened in a one-on-one situation with DK, and they certainly don’t need two other parties to deal with.

And finally, we often hear that LMP and Momentum are adamant in their refusal to talk to other parties as partners in the forthcoming national election. They will win the election alone, they claim. But, behold, there is a small by-election that will be held on December 10 in the town of Solymár, a suburb of Budapest. About two weeks ago it was reported that the locals found an independent candidate who will be supported by MSZP-DK-Együtt-Párbeszéd-LMP. Yes, LMP. This is a first, as far as I know. And the story doesn’t end here. Yesterday Momentum announced that it will join the others in support of the democratic opposition parties’ candidate. I should add that Jobbik will not take part in the election.

Perhaps there are still grounds to hope that reason will prevail and there will be a united front on the left. According to experts on the current electoral law, as long as there are only three candidates (Fidesz, United Left, and Jobbik), the left actually has a chance of winning the election.

December 1, 2017

MSZP’s “generous offer” rejected

Let’s continue with party politics, especially since yesterday the socialists came out with an “extremely generous offer.” What is the party’s proposal? For the complete unity of the democratic forces, MSZP is ready to evenly share the 98 member party list with all parties that have a measurable following. Thus, on the basis of the opinion polls by the Republikon Intézet and Závecz Research Institute over the last six months, DK would receive 15%, LMP 13%, Momentum 8%, Együtt 6%, Liberals 3%, and Párbeszéd 2% of the available places. The offer was further sweetened by a more magnanimous allocation of the most desirable positions on the list. The first 32 places are the most coveted, 25 of which went to MSZP in 2014. This time these 32 places would be halved between MSZP and the others. According to István Botka, that would guarantee parliamentary representation to all parties. LMP and DK would likely have large enough representations to form their own delegations (frakció). Mind you, as things stand now, these two parties would be able to achieve this goal without Botka’s scheme.

The MSZP politicians who came up with this plan–István Botka, Gyula Molnár, and István Hiller–were convinced that their offer was so attractive that it was practically impossible to refuse. They urged the other party leaders to take their time to consider the offer seriously. The public announcement of MSZP’s latest scheme was accompanied by letters to each party’s top leadership. Zoom, an internet news site, got hold of the letter that was sent to the Demokratikus Koalíció, which didn’t impress the DK leadership. The letter can be divided into two parts. The first is about the general desirability of Botka’s proposal of having common candidates in 106 electoral districts and a common party list. The second was tailored to the specifics of DK. The stumbling block in this case is the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose name, according to László Botka, should not be on the common list, allegedly because of his unpopularity. By way of compensation, Botka offered Gyurcsány Budapest’s District XV, which “is a DK success story with László Hajdu as DK mayor” where he could easily win. In this way his place in parliament would be ensured. The socialists urged DK’s politicians to “stop the pseudo-debates” and get to work.

The announcement of the “generous offer”

According to DK’s spokesman, the proposal doesn’t contain anything new. The sticking point is MSZP’s meddling in DK’s internal affairs with its insistence on the party chairman’s exclusion from the common list. In order to make certain that the party leaders’ hands are tied, a couple of weeks ago more than 70% of the approximately 9,000 full-fledged DK members voted to reject any negotiations with any other party whose condition is the exclusion of Gyurcsány from the common list. Apparently, 94% of those party members who participated voted with a resounding “no.”

Péter Juhász, chairman of Együtt, told Magyar Nemzet that Botka’s proposal is not new to him, but his party doesn’t believe in a single common list in the first place. Moreover, he is in the process of working out a list with those parties that did not exist prior to 2010. They are Együtt, Párbeszéd, LMP, and Momentum. These parties would have their own common candidates in all 106 districts. Unfortunately for Juhász, neither LMP nor Momentum shows much interest in his scheme.

LMP, as usual, said that the presidium will consider the proposal but most likely will reject it. The party spokesman indicated that László Botka had already approached them with a “generous offer” which they had rejected. As he put it, “one cannot remove Viktor Orbán with the actors of the past and the parties of the past which bear responsibility for the past 30 years.”

Momentum also rejected the offer. As far as they are concerned, there is no possibility of any cooperation with the socialists. “What Botka offers now is what Mesterházy offered in 2014. We still bear the brunt of the result of that so-called cooperation.” Moreover, Momentum’s participation in politics is not for the goal of gaining parliamentary seats but for higher ideals. They cannot be bought this way, they insisted.

Thus, as far as I can see, Botka’s proposal is dead in the water. Yet, according to Magyar Nemzet, MSZP still insists on having talks with DK, although Botka refuses to sit down with Ferenc Gyurcsány. Thus, Gyula Molnár and István Hiller will be the emissaries who will try to convince Gyurcsány to accept the offer. I think they could save themselves a trip because DK’s leadership as well as its members are adamant that no outsider has any right to interfere in the party’s internal affairs.

The Závecz Research Institute was on hand to conduct a quickie poll on the reception of MSZP’s latest offer. Two-thirds of the respondents responded favorably to the “generous offer.” After all, people are sick and tired of all the party strife. They have been waiting for more than half a year for Botka to move toward closer relations with the other parties. Unfortunately, these instant polls don’t tell us much, especially since Fidesz voters are also represented in the sample. It is also doubtful that the respondents knew much about the details of the proposal.

There is a lot to criticize about the way in which this offer was introduced. István Botka has the bad habit of making announcements without first discussing them with the people who will have to consider them. This time was no different. MSZP Chairman Gyula Molnár, in an interview with Egon Rónai of ATV, was at a loss to explain the lack of prior discussions with the parties, which are supposed to be part of the arrangement. Molnár tried to avoid the subject by saying “let’s not get into this.” When Rónai insisted, he couldn’t give a rational answer to this total lack of communication with the other party leaders. At about the same time that Rónai was trying to get a straight answer from Molnár, Olga Kálmán was talking to István Botka. Kálmán pressed him about the differences between the 2014 common list and his proposed 2018 one, without much success. Kálmán’s question about whether he would cede his place to another party’s candidate if that would be politically more desirable surprised him. He responded that he is the most experienced of all candidates and that Bernadett Szél and Gergely Karácsony “will receive important positions,” I assume in the next government which he envisages as a coalition.

György Jánosi, former deputy chairman of MSZP, wrote the following on his Facebook page about Botka’s offer. He wanted to know why the MSZP party brass didn’t share their far-reaching ideas with their hoped-for partners. He compared the manner of announcing the plan to a bone tossed from the table of the lords that the middle-sized or small parties can fight over. “It seems that László Botka and MSZP haven’t learned anything. Who will stop this flying blind? I’m afraid, no one. They don’t realize that this party has ceased to be a party that could offer a new government to this country.” Bitter words from a formerly important MSZP politician.

September 26, 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

A new strategy or a new man is needed to lead the anti-Orbán forces

It’s time to take stock of the state of the democratic opposition after an MSZP gathering over the weekend where László Botka, the candidate to lead MSZP’s election campaign, introduced his team, what he calls the “new alliance.” Before anyone gets too excited, this “new alliance” doesn’t mean an agreement with the other left-of-center parties. Between January and now Botka has not managed to convince one party, with the possible exception of Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt (MPL), to support his strategy, which consists of a common party list and a division of the 106 electoral districts among the participating parties. One of these parties could be the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), but only if its chairman, Ferenc Gyurcsány, is not included on the party list. Not surprisingly, DK is not ready to accept outside interference in its internal affairs and refuses to accept the arrangement. While DK, according to all the opinion polls, could garner enough votes to become a parliamentary party on its own, the other three small parties– Együtt (Together), Párbeszéd (Dialogue), and MLP–couldn’t. Neither Párbeszéd nor Együtt is inclined to accept the kind of MSZP leadership Botka is offering. So, as it stands, MSZP is still alone, with dismal polling numbers.

So, what is this new alliance? As far as I can tell, it is a poor substitute for a joint electoral campaign. As Magyar Nemzet observed, Botka has given up looking for political allies and is satisfied with individuals who until now had been helping the smaller parties. One man who has switched to Botka’s side is Zoltán Komáromi, a family doctor who worked with Együtt on the party’s healthcare program. Another is István Szent-Iványi, a former SZDSZ member of parliament who was named ambassador to Ljubljana on January 25, 2010, i.e. a few months before the 2010 national election. To everybody’s surprise, Szent-Iványi wasn’t removed from his post by the new administration. In fact, the Orbán government left him in Slovenia until the end of his term five years later. He then disappeared from the political scene for a while, only to show up as the foreign policy expert of  Gábor Fodor’s liberal party. A third person who is ready to join Botka’s team is Ferenc Büttl, an economist and a member of Párbeszéd. Another supporter is László Andor, an economist who was EU commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion between 2010 and 2014. I would call him a socialist although he might not be a party member. A somewhat surprising addition is the former CEO of the internationally known organic demonstration farm that was sold to Fidesz oligarchs, who has been battling the action in court ever since. The newest supporter is the president of the National Association of Pensioners. Botka also named three people to stand as candidates in individual districts without consulting anyone.

Apparently, Botka’s great hope is Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd, who is currently vying for the same post as Botka. A couple of weeks ago he joined the MSZP hopeful in Szeged where he made some ambiguous remarks about his relationship to Botka. At the time, I wrote: “This gathering had one bright side…. 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.’”

In that post I expressed my hope that Karácsony’s words might give a psychological lift to Botka’s flailing campaign. Well, I’m afraid that that hope has been quashed by László Botka himself, who in his eagerness to show results misread or misrepresented Karácsony’s remarks. Karácsony, who was invited to join the MSZP bigwigs to hear Botka’s ideas on the “new alliance,” learned only from Népszava that he was supposed to be responsible for the cultural aspects of Botka’s program. Karácsony decided not to attend the MSZP gathering, and this morning on ATV’s Start he explained why not.

The media is full of stories about a very serious division within MSZP over the efficacy of Botka’s strategy. Magyar Nemzet, which is normally well informed, seems to know that the majority of the party’s leading lights are skeptical about Botka and his new alliance and are urging him to change tactics. But so far Botka is unmovable. According to leaked information, some of the most senior MSZP leaders asked Gyula Molnár, the party chairman, to start negotiations with the leaders of the other parties. Vasárnapi Hírek, a socialist weekly owned by former party treasurer László Puch, suggested getting rid of Botka altogether if he is unable to produce tangible results.

I’m sure that most observers consider the present situation quite hopeless, but I’m a bit more optimistic. Enthusiasm for László Botka and his solution has completely evaporated, and liberal and socialist papers increasingly find his treatment of the other parties unacceptable. So, I assume that soon enough there will be so much pressure on Botka that he will have to move in another direction. If not, Gergely Karácsony could always be a compromise candidate. He is a great deal more popular than Botka–a soft-spoken, compromise-ready politician. He is the kind of man whom Hungarians, who are longing for some peace and quiet, might find to be just what the doctor ordered.

September 18, 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

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

Total disarray among the democratic opposition parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 4, 2017