Tag Archives: European People’s Party

Viktor Orbán turns his back on the Polish government

Although Viktor Orbán’s press conference this morning was anything but upbeat, a few hours later both the Polish left and right in addition to the Hungarian government media were full of praise for the prime minister’s superb diplomatic talents. In a Polish conservative opinion piece he was called the Talleyrand of our times who has been winning every major battle with “raging liberals and the Left in Europe.” He is a man who knows what Realpolitik is all about. Why this praise? Orbán had the good sense not to support the Szydło government in its hopeless fight against the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister of Poland between 2007 and 2014, is the bête-noire of Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party. Kaczyński’s enmity toward Tusk has a long history. First of all, at one point the two men were political rivals. Second, Kaczyński, who is convinced that the Russians were responsible for the death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, in 2010 when his plane went down in Russia, considers Tusk “politically responsible” for his brother’s death by allowing the Russians to investigate the case ahead of the Poles. But perhaps what is even more important, the far-right Polish government accuses Tusk, as president of the European Council, of wanting to bring down the right-wing Szydło government. The current Polish leadership decided to resist the reelection of the man who dared to criticize the present government in defense of democracy. Mind you, Tusk is not a “flaming liberal.” His party, the Civic Platform, is right of center.

Warsaw put up a counter-candidate–Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, like Tusk a Civic Platform member of the European People’s Party. To understand the dynamics of the situation we must keep in mind that the EP members of Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), basically a Euroskeptic lot. ECR doesn’t have the gravitas of EPP, to which Fidesz EP representatives also belong.

The Polish plan to block Tusk’s reelection didn’t go as planned. As soon as Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination was announced, he was removed from Civic Platform. And EPP removed him from all responsibilities within the party.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction let me turn to Viktor Orbán’s role in this ill-fated Polish political maneuver. Apparently, Warsaw was counting on Great Britain and the Visegrád Four for support. But it became apparent soon enough that neither Slovakia nor the Czech Republic would support Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination. The Polish government still hoped that Viktor Orbán would stand by their side, especially since, as we learned this morning from Viktor Orbán himself, at one point he promised that he would vote against Tusk. Orbán didn’t keep that promise.

As Orbán explained at his press conference in Brussels, since EPP’s only candidate was Tusk and since Fidesz is a constituent part of EPP, he had no choice. This is how the European Parliament functions, he explained. Otherwise, he claimed that he had tried his best to broker a deal but, unfortunately, he failed. He added that a couple of days ago he had informed the Polish government of his decision to vote for Tusk because circumstances didn’t allow him to do anything else.

Well, as usual, Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the whole truth. It wasn’t party protocol that forced him to vote as he did since there was another important European Council vote where he did not support the EPP candidate. I’m talking about the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission in June 2014. Juncker was EPP’s candidate for the post. At that time David Cameron and Viktor Orbán voted against Juncker, which didn’t prevent him from getting the job. Then, perhaps feeling safe under the protective wing of Cameron, Orbán had no trouble voting against the favored candidate. So his decision had nothing to do with party obligations. Moreover, he could have voted against Tusk as a gesture to his Polish friends because his “no” vote wouldn’t have made any difference: Tusk would have been elected anyway. But, for reasons known only to him, he decided to go with the flow. He even went so far in his press conference as to laud the European Union as the best place to live in the whole wide world. It is a place where people can be truly happy and satisfied with life. A rather amusing comment considering all his earlier talk about the EU being in decline with the attendant miseries for the people.

I don’t want to dwell on the foolish behavior of the Polish government, but I’m afraid the Polish media’s unanimous condemnation of their government’s incompetence is well deserved. The Polish government should be only too well aware of the misfortunes that have befallen the country as a result of the territorial ambitions of its neighbors. Poland is rightfully worried about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But then common sense would dictate good relations with the countries of Western Europe, especially with Germany. Yet the current Polish government treats Germany like its enemy. Perhaps this disastrous defeat will be a wake-up call, but the mindset of the present Polish political leadership doesn’t inspire confidence that it will happen any time soon.

In addition to the Polish fiasco, Orbán covered two other topics at some length in his press conference. One was the “migrant issue,” which had elicited widespread condemnation in the media and in international organizations involved with the refugee crisis and human rights. It turned out that the matter of the amendment to the Asylum Law came up during the summit. As Orbán described it, he “informed the prime ministers about the new [asylum] law, who didn’t raise any objections and did not protest.” He took this as a good sign, adding that the real fight will be with the bureaucrats of the European Union. Whether this silence was a sign of approval or an indication of a reluctance to get into a discussion of the issue we don’t know.

Orbán then explained the real meaning of the detention centers, which he compared to airports as transit zones. He was again quite explicit about the differences between the attitudes of the Hungarian government and the European Union when it comes to the refugee crisis. Hungary’s goal is not to handle the issue “humanely,” which the EU insists on, but to make sure that the refugees are stopped.

The other topic was the most recent conflict between Austria and Hungary. As is well known, an incredible number of Hungarians work in Austria. In 2016 more than 63,500 Hungarians lived in Austria, in addition to those who live in Hungary but cross the border daily to work on the other side. The Austrians recently floated the idea that Romanian, Hungarian and Czech employees would not receive extra family benefits. The Hungarians claim that as a result of such a new law Hungarian workers would receive 50% less than native Austrians for the same work. This is unacceptable for Hungary. Sophie Karmasin, the Austrian minister responsible for family affairs, visited Hungary only yesterday, and Viktor Orbán set up a meeting with Chancellor Christian Kern while in Brussels. On this topic, Orbán was forceful. He called the issue “a serious conflict” which he will take all the way to the top, meaning the European Commission and even the European Court of Justice. Hungarians cannot be discriminated against. If the Austrians discriminate against Hungarians, “we will respond in kind.” That is, if the Austrians proceed with this cut in family benefits, the Hungarian government will make certain that opportunities for Austrian businesses in Hungary will be curtailed. So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán fights against the European Commission at every turn, but once he feels that Hungarian citizens are being slighted he is ready to appeal for protection from the European Union.

March 10, 2017

Jean Asselborn calls for the expulsion of Orbán’s Hungary from the EU

Only a few hours have gone by since Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn gave an interview to Die Welt in which he called for the temporary or permanent expulsion of Hungary from the European Union. But the number of articles on the story is already in the hundreds, in the Hungarian as well as the international media. Asselborn argued that Hungary’s leaving was “the only way to preserve the cohesion and values of the European Union.” The EU shouldn’t tolerate such misconduct as “the treatment of the refugees, the massive violation of the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary.” Asselborn would like to see a change of EU rules that would allow “the suspension of membership of an EU country without unanimity.”

Asselborn is especially appalled by the treatment of those fleeing war, who “are being treated almost worse than wild animals.” In his opinion, “Hungary is not far away from introducing a firing order against the refugees.” Once he finished with the sins of the Hungarian government, he turned to the person of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whom he made responsible for the perception that, although in words the EU is supposed to be the defender of basic human values, it tolerates the existence of a regime represented by Orbán.

The letter Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó sent from Moldavia was, as Index pointed out, anything but politically correct. “We already knew that Jean Asselborn is not someone who should be taken seriously. He lives only a few kilometers from Brussels and it shows. He is patronizing, arrogant, and frustrated…. As a run-of-the-mill nihilist he tirelessly works on the ruination of European security and culture.” The description of EU politicians as the “nihilists of Brussels” is of very recent coinage. Viktor Orbán used it yesterday in his speech at the opening of the new session of the parliament. The image apparently comes from Aleksandr Dugin, the Russian political scientist whose views have been described as fascist.

Jean Asselborn and Péter Szijjártó, September 21, 2015 / MTI Photo Márton Kovács

Jean Asselborn and Péter Szijjártó, September 21, 2015 / MTI / Photo Márton Kovács

The very first person who came to the defense of Orbán was Jiří Ovčáček, the spokesman of Miloš Zeman, the notoriously anti-EU and pro-Russian president of the Czech Republic. Zeman’s support only further emphasizes how far out of the European mainstream Viktor Orbán is with his views.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steimeier tried to calm the situation. He pointed out that “there is no agreed position” within the Union on the treatment of Hungary, but he added that he “can understand, looking at Hungary, that some people in Europe are getting impatient.” Steimeier is a social democrat who most likely shares Asselborn’s feelings toward Viktor Orbán and his regime but is far more diplomatic.

Soon enough, however, German politicians on the right began to line up behind Orbán. The first of these was Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. Although occasionally Weber has been mildly critical of the Hungarian prime minister, this time he defended him quite vigorously, pointing out that “Hungary has always carried out all the decisions” of the European Union. On the other hand, he severely criticized the Polish government for its attempt to undermine the rule of law in Poland. An indefensible position, I must say, considering that in the last six and a half years Viktor Orbán has completely destroyed Hungarian democracy and has introduced an autocratic system without any semblance of the rule of law. Weber’s lopsided view is undoubtedly due to the fact that the Polish PiS members don’t sit in his EPP caucus.

The German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) naturally supports Orbán’s Hungary. The party’s deputy chairman called Asselborn’s demand “grotesque” and added that Orbán should be awarded the Charlemagne Prize. This suggestion is especially amusing in light of the fact that the last two recipients of the prize were Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, and Pope Francis. Orbán at the moment is accusing Schulz of conspiring with socialist Hungarian mayors to smuggle migrants into the country, and we know what the general opinion is in Fidesz circles of the pope who doesn’t understand Europe and is a naïve socialist.

Soon enough Austrian politicians also spoke up in defense of Orbán. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz considered Asselborn’s statement “unacceptable,” but as I read MTI’s summary of his statement he mostly objected to the fact that Asselborn criticized Orbán and his policies in public and expressed his belief that the topic may come up in Bratislava at the end of this week at the meeting of the European Council. The other Austrian who spoke on the issue in favor of Orbán was Hans-Christian Strache, the chairman of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party.

Too little time has gone by since the appearance of the Asselborn interview for foreign policy analysts to assess the significance of Asselborn’s harsh criticism of Orbán, with the exception of a partisan pro-Orbán piece written by Bálint Ablonczy of Válasz.

Asselborn’s dislike of Orbán is legendary, and this is not the first time that he has openly and harshly criticized the Hungarian prime minister. In 2010 he was one of the first critics of the media law, which he claimed “directly threatens democracy.” In 2012 he raised his voice against the introduction of a new constitution and called Hungary “a blot on the European Union.” In 2015 he suggested placing Orbán in diplomatic quarantine.

Asselborn, who has been in politics ever since the age of eighteen, has been foreign minister since 2004. He is also a close friend Jean-Claude Juncker. Of course, the question is how many people share his view of Orbán in Brussels and elsewhere. According to Hungarian opposition EP members, the anti-Orbán voices are growing, but this might just be wishful thinking.

Although no serious commentary on the Asselborn interview has yet been published, an “open letter from a potential refugee” appeared in Kolozsvári Szalonna, which is as intriguing a site as its name, which means Kolozsvár (Cluj) bacon. It was published both in Hungarian and in English. In it, the author, who calls himself István Kósi, explains to Asselborn how the Hungarian public is misled and how it has become “radicalized, fanaticized,” which can be compared only to the 1940s. The far-right shift then “led to gruesome consequences, so you probably understand why many of us are so worried this time.” He concludes the letter with these words: “Let’s throw them out of the EU, out of Europe in general, and out of the planet.” The author describes himself “as a citizen of the European Union and Hungary, potential refugee in the near future—unless something is being done by those capable of effectively doing anything at all.”

I believe that a lot of people share this sentiment, but only an iconoclastic site like Kolozsvári Szalonna will actually publish something that openly supports Asselborn’s suggestion. I’m curiously waiting to see how the opposition party leaders react and how they indicate that they are in favor of some kind of censure without going as far as Asselborn.

September 13, 2016

Polish-Hungarian friendship in action

The situation in Poland has become a serious concern not only for the politicians of the European Union but for the whole western world. The largest East European country among those that joined the European Union in 2004 is rapidly following Hungary on the road to becoming an “illiberal democracy” while the European Commission is trying to find proper answers to the emasculation of Poland’s Constitutional Court and the government’s attack on the freedom of the media.

Two important articles about the situation in Poland appeared yesterday, one by R. Daniel Kelemen and Mitchell A. Orenstein in Foreign Affairs and another by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. The Foreign Affairs article draws attention to the parallels between Kaczyński’s Poland and Orbán’s Hungary, with emphasis on the inaction of the European Union in the early years of the second Orbán government. Brussels did very little to make clear to Viktor Orbán that his destruction of Hungarian democracy cannot be tolerated by the member states of the EU. To a large extent the European People’s Party (EPP) was responsible for this shameful behavior. Fidesz’s delegation in the European Parliament is large, and its votes were deemed more important to the European Christian Democrats than was democracy in Hungary.

Meanwhile, in the last almost six years, Jarosław Kaczyński carefully watched the Hungarian prime minister’s masterful parrying with the western politicians who didn’t know how to deal with him. But although Kaczyński may have wanted to follow in Orbán’s footsteps, he doesn’t have the same political allies in the European Parliament. The Christian Democrats of EPP are a great deal more enthusiastic about “disciplining” Poland for the simple reason that Kaczyński’s party, Law and Justice / Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), decided to join the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) instead of EPP. I’m certain that if PiS’s 19 members sat with EPP, the Christian Democrats would be more understanding and forgiving of Polish events of late. But luckily for Polish democracy the large Polish delegation of the Civic Platform / Platforma Obywatelska (OB), now in opposition, sits with EPP.

This time there is a better chance for more forceful action against Poland than was the case with Hungary. As Kelemen and Orenstein warn, “if the European Union allows a second, much larger state to turn away from pluralist democracy and the rule of law, then the EU’s standing as a union of democracies and a beacon for liberty in the region will be damaged irreparably.” They urge the leaders of the European Union to act quickly and forcefully.

Polish demonstration, December 2015 / news.yahoo.com

Demonstration in Warsaw, December 2015 / news.yahoo.com

The message of Timothy Garton Ash in his article “The pillars of Poland’s democracy are being destroyed” is similar. “The voices of all allied democracies, in Europe and across the Atlantic, must be raised to express their concern about a turn with grave implications for the whole democratic west.” Ash wants the traditional friends of Poland to speak up: France, Spain, Italy, Canada, and naturally the United States, “especially as Poland prepares to host an important NATO summit this summer and wants NATO forces permanently based in the country.” Ash also talks about Cameron’s role in this affair. “And what about Britain? Realistically, Cameron is the politician least likely to criticize Kaczyński at the moment, because he desperately needs a deal over in-work benefits for (mainly Polish) migrants in the UK, so as to win his referendum on Britain’s EU membership. But it’s worth putting Cameron on the post, if only to hear his weasel words in reply. So will a British MP please challenge him about Poland in parliament at the next prime minister’s questions?”

How effective can outside pressure be, even if the EPP joins the others in censuring Kaczyński’s illiberal Poland? Especially after this morning, when Viktor Orbán announced in his regular radio interview that “it is not worth it for the European Union to rack its brains over any sanction against Poland because that would require full agreement. Hungary will never support any sanction against Poland.”

Viktor Orbán’s reaction is perfectly understandable. There is a strong ideological bond between him and Kaczyński. They see the world very similarly, and Kaczyński is now implementing most of those constitutional and administrative changes that Orbán introduced in Hungary, but at a much greater speed. He obviously admires Orbán’s political skills, and Orbán is most likely flattered to no end. This ideological bond itself would be enough for Orbán to stand by Kaczyński, but what reinforces these ties is the traditional Polish-Hungarian friendship. The importance of such historical traditions might be overstated, but Polish-Hungarian friendship over time has become part of the national ideologies of the two countries. A given. It is a romantic notion of long standing which, true or not, still makes an impact.

I  found a quotation from StanisƗaw Gabriel Worcell, a Polish revolutionary, written in 1849 which should make clear the depth of that feeling. “Hungary and Poland are eternal oak trees which have grown two separate branches, but their roots underground have been linked and invisibly intertwined over the years. Therefore, the existence and strength of one is the precondition of the life and health of the other.” Surely, an exaggeration but even recent history demonstrates that the two countries usually come to one another’s assistance in case of trouble. For example, Donald Tusk, who is certainly no Kaczyński, usually refrained from criticizing Viktor Orbán. As for Orbán, already in 2010 he was dreaming of an East European alliance system forming a corridor between the Baltic and the Adriatic. In order to demonstrate the seriousness of this vision, instead of going to Brussels after winning the election in 2010, Orbán’s first trip was to Warsaw. Donald Tusk, the prime minister at that time, didn’t show much inclination to make regional deals of this sort. As opposed to Orbán, he was developing good relations with Brussels.

If Hungary has the ability to veto any sanctions against Poland, then Brussels cannot rely on those countries Timothy Garton Ash suggested as possible pressure points. It is probably just as well, since we know from Hungary’s experience that a government that is bent on building an illiberal state can always outfox its critics. Orbán in the past proudly announced that, while they changed some of the wording in a piece of legislation to which EU officials objected, they managed to smuggle in something else that from Brussels’ point of view was even more objectionable. With governments like those in Poland and Hungary, only domestic forces can achieve results.

It looks as if the Poles aren’t taking Kaczyński’s autocratic rule lying down. While Hungarians passively watched the dismantling of the country’s democratic institutions, in Poland judges of the constitutional court and heads of the public media outlets resisted. If Kaczyński is not careful, he might find his hand-picked prime minister, Beata Szydło, out of office soon enough.

Will the European People’s Party abandon Viktor Orbán? Unlikely

Time and again the Hungarian media gets hold of news, which in the end turns out to be unfounded, that Fidesz will be expelled from the European People’s Party. The first article in my data base is from October 2012 when Népszabadság reported that Viktor Orbán, who had been one of the deputy chairmen of the European People’s Party, decided not to be renominated for the post. At that time analysts came to the conclusion that if Orbán decided to run for the post he most likely would still win but that there was a growing number of people who thought that Orbán was too confrontational, someone who didn’t quite fit in. It was possible that leading members of the EPP delegation actually informed Orbán of these reservations. A few months later, in May 2013, the Frankfurter Rundschau reported that the expulsion of Fidesz from EPP was seriously being contemplated because of Viktor Orbán’s “trampling on European values.”

If there were such voices in what Jan-Werner Müller called a “deeply dysfunctional” party, they remained in the minority. Today EPP is the largest delegation in the 751-member European Parliament with 274 members, 14 of whom come from Fidesz. If these 14 were forced or decided to leave on their own, EPP would still remain the biggest caucus. Yet it looks as if most of the Christian Democrats are unwilling to part ways with their Hungarian colleagues.

A few days ago rumors of the possible departure of Fidesz members from EPP began to circulate again. The Europe Society of Hungary held a conference in Brussels about “illiberal democracies” under the sponsorship of the Open Society Foundation and the German liberal Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit. During the conference an unnamed but “first-hand” source claimed that “the place of Fidesz in the EPP delegation might be in danger” unless Viktor Orbán unambiguously declares his commitment to European values. The EPP delegation, he said, expects Orbán to give a clear answer at the forthcoming meeting of the governing body of EPP in Budapest.

The day arrived. Yesterday Orbán gave a long interview to Napi Gazdaság, the new government daily, in which he mostly talked about domestic policy. He promised to steer a calmer course than the one his government followed in the past five years. The little he said about Hungary’s relations with Brussels, however, didn’t sound very promising. Regardless of what he told the EPP leadership today, he said he is planning to continue his fight for Hungary’s sovereignty because “the Hungarian people are in a constant state of endangerment.” As long as the financial, energy, media, and food sectors are in foreign hands, Hungarian sovereignty is just a fiction. This statement belies the domestic calm Orbán now promises. As far as the European Union is concerned, those people who believe Viktor Orbán’s promises will again be disappointed. European values will continue to be trampled on.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP caucus, and Viktor Orbán had a long talk over breakfast where Orbán, as was expected, promised everything Weber wanted to hear and perhaps even more. In no time Weber was convinced that Orbán never really meant to introduce capital punishment, which is probably true because Orbán is a master of double talk. One of his really bad blunders was his reference to “illiberal democracy,” which couldn’t be remedied by claiming later that the word “illiberal” in English doesn’t really mean “illiberal.” After he cleared the capital punishment hurdle, he laid it on thick: “The best possible cooperation with the strongest party of Europe, the European People’s Party and its parliamentary delegation, is in the strongest national interest of Hungary.” As he put it, “There is no Europe, there is no European politics, there is no European Union without the European People’s Party.”

Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján / Népszabadság

Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján / Népszabadság

All this praise was necessary to calm the waters in Brussels, where apparently Orbán had a very hard time at a meeting with the EPP MEPs after his appearance in the European Parliament a couple of weeks ago. But in Budapest the leading members of EPP were unwilling to say anything about Fidesz-EPP relations. As Népszabadság put it, “they remained awkwardly silent about Orbán.”

This is not the end of the story, however. Next week the European Parliament will vote on the Hungarian situation, and the European People’s Party will put forth a resolution reflecting their own attitude toward the question. This resolution is much more sharply worded than any previous ones coming from the party. I will quote here only some of the more important sections. The EPP caucus

4. Affirms Members States’ sovereign right to launch national consultations and engage their citizens in a dialogue on issues which are of great importance and have a direct impact on them; recalls that consultations should reflect the readiness of governments to exercise responsible governance aimed at securing democratic political solutions and respect for fundamental European values;

5. Believes, however, that the content and language of the particular consultation launched in Hungary, on immigration and terrorism, are highly misleading, biased and unbalanced; regrets the fact that it casts blame on the EU institutions and their policies, whereas the responsibility lies with the Member States, and recalls that the Member States are fully involved in the EU legislative process;

8. Recalls that the EU is faced with complex international challenges that require strong cooperation across borders, a willingness to exercise realistic solidarity, and a readiness to take responsible action; believes that the EU can only influence strong actors in other parts of the world, with their different values and political systems, when it shows unity in the most important fields;

9. Invites all Member States to participate in a constructive manner in the current discussion on the European Agenda on Migration, which affects equally internal, external and development policies that have to be implemented in the EU and consequently impact on the African continent and the Middle East;

For some time now there has been talk about Orbán moving the entire 14-member Fidesz caucus over to the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR), where the bulk of the delegation of 70 comes from the United Kingdom and Poland, if the EPP caucus is too hard on him and his policies or if the decision is reached to expel Fidesz MEPs from the caucus. People seem to know that Orbán has made some overtures to ECR and that ECR was also interested in gaining 14 new bodies for its parliamentary delegation. If one takes a look at the resolution for next week’s parliamentary discussion on Hungary which ECR submitted, one can see that, although ECR earlier was very hard on Orbán because of his pro-Russian policy, this time it decided not to take a strong position against the Hungarian government. I will quote here only the passages that relate to the national consultation on immigration and terrorism:

2. Affirms that the Member States also have a sovereign competence to establish their own laws and to hold their own democratic debates and consultations with the electorate at a national level; stresses that this principle is consistent with the sovereignty of a democratically elected government;

3. Supports the Commission’s role, as the guardian of the Treaties, in ensuring that national legislation, including that of Hungary, is in conformity with both the EU Treaties and basic European democratic values and human rights;

4. Stresses the importance of any evaluation and analysis carried out by the Commission and Parliament as to the situation in individual Member States being fact-based and balanced;

More than five years have gone by since Viktor Orbán began his crusade against the European Union and against Hungarian democracy. He encountered no serious opposition despite the fact that everybody must know by now that Hungarian democracy is in tatters. As long as the European People’s Party stands by him, Orbán will continue to flout the European Union, which doles out the money that keeps a mini-dictator in power.

Fidesz insiders think Orbán’s days are numbered

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day usually offers little sustenance for news junkies. But today I discovered a front-page article in Népszava with the titillating title “Does Orbán have only months left?” The paper’s “sources close to Fidesz” claimed that “Orbán is already finished” and the only “question is who will take his place.”

The article was met with skepticism, especially in pro-government circles. Válasz described the article as sci-fi and “entertaining.” Gábor Török, the popular political scientist, wanted to know what his Facebook “friends” thought about the appearance of such items in the media. Do government politicians actually say such things to reporters of an opposition paper or are the reporters only giving voice to their wishes? The comments that followed were a mixed bag but a reporter, András Kósa, who also receives information from dissatisfied Fidesz politicians, didn’t think that the article was fantasy, although it might be exaggerated. Here and there commenters thought that Fidesz will collapse as soon as Viktor Orbán is gone, but most “friends” of Török considered the article humbug. I’m less skeptical than most of Török’s friends because I’ve usually found Népszava to be reliable when it reports on information coming from unnamed sources.

So, let’s see what Népszava heard from “sources close to Fidesz.” They claim that Orbán’s “system” has no more than a few months before it collapses. Apparently Fidesz politicians are increasingly avoiding the limelight because “the fall is inevitable. In their opinion Orbán started down a road from which there is no return. Not only will he himself be the victim of his own mistakes but also his party and the country itself.”

The problems that beset the work of the government emanate from the character flaws of the prime minister: inconsistency, impenetrability, and unpredictability. Most government and Fidesz officials have no idea what course they are supposed to pursue. Orbán trusts fewer and fewer people, and the ones he still does give him wrong advice. He apparently is looking for enemies everywhere, and this is one of the reasons that government decisions are not preceded by any discussion. It often happens that Orbán himself changes his mind in the last minute, which makes consistent communication nearly impossible. Underlings parrot a line that has been superseded by a new brainstorm of the prime minister. More and more people would like to save themselves from such embarrassments.

According to these informants, serious problems within Fidesz are not new although they are only now becoming visible. Signs of trouble began to surface when Orbán decided, sometime before the April elections, to change the “structure” under which Fidesz had been functioning very well for over twenty years. Until then, Lajos Simicska was in charge of the party’s finances, but “from the moment that Orbán decided to take over economic decisions” the old dual structure collapsed and with it the well-functioning system. When Orbán again managed to receive a two-thirds majority, he completely lost his sense of judgment. As months went by, anti-Orbán murmurs in the party began to proliferate, and the Christian Democrats, realizing that Orbán was losing his grip on the party, decided to put pressure on the beleaguered prime minister. That’s why Orbán had to give in on the unpopular law that forces stores to be closed on Sundays.

What observers see is no longer a “system” but a political process based on day-by-day ad hoc decisions which, according to the saner Fidesz leaders, cannot be maintained because “it is incapable of self-correction.”

The informers seem to have less information about actual attempts to topple Viktor Orbán. Names were not mentioned, but they indicated that the people they had in mind “would be quite capable of taking over the reins of government without changing political direction.” Népszava‘s sources consider Angela Merkel’s planned visit to Budapest in February a date of great importance. I guess they think that Merkel will tell Orbán that he is persona non grata as far as the European People’s Party and the European Commission are concerned.

CalendarNépszava‘s description of the strife and chaos within Fidesz is most likely accurate. The question is what Orbán is planning to do to forestall the outcome described by Népszava‘s sources. For the time being, as we learned from the interviews of János Lázár, Viktor Orbán, and László Kövér, he will fight to hold onto power by convincing his Peace March troops that the “fatherland is in danger.” I’m almost certain that internal polls are being taken to gauge support. Would it be possible to turn out 100,000 people to defend the prime minister against foreign and domestic intrigues? I assume that the size of the planned anti-government demonstrations on January 2 will also influence Orbán’s decision about the next step to take to combat his opponents inside and outside the party.

In any case, for the time being it was Antal Rogán who was called upon to announce a countermeasure that might take the wind out of anti-government sails.  It is called the “National Defense Action Plan.” The details are secret for the time being, but it most likely includes some kind of answer to the United States’ decision to bar six Hungarian citizens from the United States due to corruption. It is also likely that a huge propaganda effort will be launched to discredit the U.S.-EU free trade agreement that until now the Hungarian government has welcomed. According to government and Fidesz sources, the “National Defense Action Plan” was put together in the prime minister’s office by Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, Antal Rogán, Péter Szijjártó, and Árpád Habony (who neither holds an official government position nor has national security clearance). These are the people who make most of the decisions in the Orbán government.

Meanwhile what are the anti-Orbán political forces doing in this fluid situation? Ferenc Gyurcsány decided to ask those followers who have been at the anti-government demonstrations all along to bring party posters and flags to the January 2 demonstration. József Tóbiás, leader of MSZP, did not respond to Gyurcsány’s request to follow DK’s lead. But István Újhelyi, an MSZP MEP, announced today a socialist “diplomatic offensive” against the Orbán government. Orbán must be stopped because his “Russian roulette” will have tragic consequences.

At the beginning of the new year there will be at least two important events. First, the mass demonstration planned for January 2 in front of the Opera House. Three years ago a gigantic anti-government demonstration also took place there, and for a whole month newspapers kept asking how long Orbán could last. We are again asking the same question. Since Orbán not only survived but thrived in the last three years, some people might come to the conclusion that the Hungarian prime minister will always triumph, even in the most perilous circumstances. But I would caution the pessimists. Three years ago the pressure came only from the inside. This time Orbán has embroiled himself and the country in a high stakes international power play in addition to alienating about 900,000 of his former supporters.

The second event will be Orbán’s new “remedy,” the “National Defense Action Plan.” Will it work? Is Orbán strong enough to rally his troops for another supportive Peace March as he did in 2012? And even if he manages, will anybody care?

Interview with Kim Scheppele, Part II: From the Tavares Report to the Electoral System

Members of the Orbán government and its defenders never miss an opportunity to remind critics that it was the Hungarian people who democratically elected Viktor Orbán and his party to govern their land. Not once, they add, but three times just this year–and each time with an overwhelming majority. What they neglect to say is that “Fidesz got its two-thirds using every trick in the book, and it needed every trick in the book to do that,” as Kim Scheppele tells Benjamin Novak in the second part of the interview The Budapest Beacon conducted with her at Princeton University. The first part of the interview can be seen on Hungarian Spectrum (November 13). Kim Scheppele is an expert on the Hungarian constitution, but as you can see here she is thoroughly conversant with Fidesz’s electoral law as well.

Thanks to The Budapest Beacon, I can republish the video and the transcript of the interview. I’m sure that you will all find it most enlightening.


Let’s talk about the Tavares Report. George Schöpflin tells me that it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

In what sense? Does he thinks it’s false or does he think it’s meaningless?

He thinks it’s the left-liberal way of complaining about this unacceptable situation in which a center-right conservative party gets a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

So let me start with what I take to be the vote on the report, and then maybe we can get into what the report actually says. The report actually came to the floor of the European Parliament. As I understand it, the European People’s Party, which is the party that Fidesz is affiliated with, had a number of members who wanted to be able to vote for the report but were afraid to do so because their party leadership told them to object to the bill. So there was an agreement that there would be a “voice vote”, which is to say just a count of the actual numbers and not a roll call vote. So that said, when you look at the actual numbers for the Tavares Report, the number of people who voted against it was less than half of the total number of European People’s Party representatives, which means that the EPP was divided. Now, it was true that almost all those who opposed the report were on the conservative side. But it was also the case that conservatives had a majority in the European Parliament at the time that that report was voted on. Actually, two-thirds of the members of the European Parliament either voted for it or abstained and let it go through. So, you can’t any longer make this argument that it was just the left against Hungary, because at least half of the conservatives in the European Parliament had to support the report in one way or another. So it’s just wrong that this was something that the left pushed through and the right opposed.  In fact, what was so striking was that that was the first vote in which you could see that the European People’s Party was already splitting on Hungary.

And now they’re splitting again. Just the other day MTI actually reported on the European Parliament’s debate on Hungary and there were a number of people who participated in the debate who afterward gave interviews to MTI.  There was one guy who was described in the Hungarian news service as “Frank Engel, MEP from Luxembourg” because they didn’t want to say “Frank Engel, MEP from the European People’s Party”. He’s in the leadership of the European People’s Party and he came out and said Hungary is really on the edge of being kicked out of the family of democratic states.  I’m seeing this from an outside perspective, but if you look at the comments being made by EPP leaders, you look at the votes on issues having to do with Hungary, I don’t think that the Hungarian government should presume that it’s got the support of the European People’s Party, or that it’s divided the European Parliament left-right.  It just hasn’t done that.

Also every time the European Commission brings sanctions against the Hungarian government, or brings an infringement procedure against the Hungarian government, or makes a criticism of the Hungarian government, it’s very often EPP commissioners who are doing it. The commissioner that the Hungarian government loved to hate most was Viviane Reding, who was an EPP representative from Luxembourg, that was her party. So I think it’s a mistake to think of this as left-right in the European Union. It clearly isn’t. It’s true that the supporters of the Hungarian government in the European Parliament are EPP people. But the EPP is very divided.  And I would be very surprised if the whole party stood up on mass to defend the Orbán government. I just don’t see that happening.

What does the Hungarian government have in store for itself in the upcoming years? Are there going to be sanctions? Obviously, you don’t know if there will be but if there were, what would these look like?

Several of the commissioners during their hearing before the European Parliament, both Juncker who is the President of the European Commission, and now also Timmermans, who is kind of the right-hand man of Mr. Juncker – they’ve all said that when countries violate basic European principles that something must be done. They’ve never mentioned the Hungarian government by name, but they’ve actually made some quite tough statements going into their new terms that something I think is going to happen.

Also, the European Parliament has already started to schedule these hearings on Hungary. So far it has been the left who have initiated these hearings. But the Tavares Report is still there as the statement of the European Parliament.  And the Tavares Report laid out a series of programs for both monitoring what was happening inside Hungary and also checking on whether what the Hungarian government said it was doing actually fixed the problems that the European Parliament identified, and set up a potential road to sanctions. Last Spring the European Commission came out with something it called its Rule of Law Initiative which provided a kind of glide path for how to use Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, which is the harshest punishment available now in the European system. So they’re all inching toward actually using the mechanisms that European law makes available to sanction Hungary.

So then the question is what kind of sanctions?  What people don’t realize is that in the European Union there is no way to throw a state out. There now is a way for a state to quit. If Orbán really believes that the EU is being a really repressive actor . . .

. . . then he can pack up and leave.

That’s what Britain’s talking about doing. But if Orbán thinks that, then he can leave. But I really suspect that Orbán will not do it because Hungary really needs the money. You know, the vast majority of funds coming in for economic development to Hungary are coming from the EU. The EU is holding up the Hungarian economy in ways that Orbán can’t afford to walk away from. But if he wants to complain that much, then he has that exit strategy.

Do you think this “eastward opening” is a bluff?

No, I think the “eastward opening” is really important to Orbán because I think what he realizes is that the Hungarian economy rests on a very shaky foundation. And it rests on a shakier foundation now that he’s disrupted all of the legal certainty that foreign investors came to Hungary in reliance on. So, as you’ve seen, foreign investment has been drying up. That’s why the dominant money coming into the country right now is coming in from EU funds. So Orbán has to find some way to kickstart the economy.

Now he’s clearly indicated that he wants no constraints on his own sphere of action. So, any money coming from the Troika – which is the IMF, the ECB and the Commission – or any EU sources is going to come with strings attached about changing the domestic landscape so that Orbán is no longer an autocratic monopolist as it were. Obviously, he doesn’t want that, so he has to find money elsewhere.

Frankly, I think the “eastward opening” is Orbán’s trick of how to find money elsewhere because what he’s discovered, and all the attention right now on Hungary is because of Russia, that he’s also (seeking) investments from China, he’s been going hat in hand to Azerbaijan, to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, the Saudis –

To the ideal illiberal democracies.

Well. they’re not even democracies in many cases. Turkmenistan is definitely nowhere close to a democracy.  I was just there this summer.  But these are countries that are rich and Orbán goes to them and says “give us some money”.  And in a number of cases these countries are giving Orbán money. So then the question is, why are those countries giving Orbán money? Now, we’ve had the most focus on Russia and think that Russia is Orbán’s model. Although, these autocracies, these non-constitutional, non-rule of law, non-democracies, will never ask Orbán to become a constitutional democrat.

Of course not.

So what do they want from Orbán? I think what they want from Orbán is Orbán’s position within the EU. They want somebody on the inside of the EU advocating for their interests.

It wouldn’t be unheard of.

In fact, here at Princeton University we had an undergraduate student who did a very fabulous senior thesis a few years ago. He wanted to know how do tiny, tiny little countries, like little islands in the South Pacific that have only 10,000 people but they’re members of the United Nations… they have nothing to sell, no natural resources… how do they support themselves? He went off and he interviewed members of those parliaments, people in the governments, and what he discovered is that these little countries joined every single international organization that they can.  And then they sell their votes in these international organizations to the states that will pay to keep their governments going.

I read this thesis and thought what an interesting model for government finance! I can’t prove that this is what Hungary is doing, but then what does Hungary have that it can sell? I mean, pálinka is great, Tokaji is divine, I mean there are a number of things that Hungary has that it can sell, but not enough to hold up the whole government.

In Hungary’s case, it wouldn’t be unheard of.  There was this case regarding Béla Kovács, this Jobbik MEP, who allegedly was spying for Russia.

The relationship between Jobbik and Fidesz is not nothing, but they don’t have exactly the same interests. It’s clear that Russia has been sneaking around and looking for ways to get its perspective into European countries and EU institutions.  Because I think that Russia sees the EU as a competitor and a threat. You look at all the signals and it would make sense for Russia to try and make allies inside the EU.

So what does Hungary have to sell? It has its position within the EU. Again, I cannot prove this because I don’t yet have all the evidence, but one of the things that Orbán could be doing with the opening to east, is to get investment into Hungary. Then you have to ask what’s he giving back in return? I don’t think we have a good answer yet to that question.

Only time will tell.  What do you see happening with regards to the United States relationship with Hungary at this point?

Well, I think the United States has been saying for some time that “Hungary is an ally,”  “We’re a little concerned,”  “We’re a little more concerned”.  “Hungary is a friend,” “Friends criticize friends”.   The U.S. was making all those kinds of noises.

But then last month things changed. So first, there was that kind of off-hand remark by Bill Clinton, who is so clever that off-hand remarks like that are not anything he does. Then President Obama repeated these words at a speech in which he was critical of Hungary. Nothing the President says is casual, especially not when he mentions a foreign country. Then we have Victoria Nuland’s speech where she almost threatens Hungary’s position in NATO where she said that we fought for democracies in that part of world, now countries have become democracies, if they start to think that they can pull away from that, then they will not be able to “comfortably sleep at night under their Article 5 blanket”. Now, Article 5 is a piece of the NATO treaty that says that if any country is attacked that all the others will come to its defense. It’s the core of the collective self-defense provision. She put that on the table as contingent on being a member of the club of democracies. And then suddenly we have these sanctions against unnamed Hungarians, probably state officials. That’s a very rapid downhill slide of US-Hungary relations. And then we had the comment by Deputy Chief of Mission Goodfriend that says we are essentially wondering whether Hungary can still be an ally. Those are sharp words. In diplomatic language, that’s huge.  And its concerted, it’s coming from multiple players, and it’s not an accident. This is something that really represents, I think, looking from the outside, a breach in US-Hungary diplomatic relations.

Do you think US-Hungary relations will play a role in helping things at the EU level move forward with respect to Hungary?

This is interesting. When we think of what European Union sanctions are, they have this possibility of excluding Hungary from voting in European affairs. If you think about what I said a minute ago about Hungary’s eastward opening, if I’m right (and it’s a hypothesis), if Hungary is selling its influence in the EU to dodgy states, then losing its vote in the EU would matter a lot because then it could no longer vote on matters in the European Council, its position will be marginalized in European institutions, it can no longer have any influence in the European Union. That’s what that Article 7 is all about. That’s why sanctions could be serious if this is what Hungary is really doing.  Again, this is speculation, but it really is something that one has to wonder. Why are dodgy countries supporting Hungary? What is Hungary selling in exchange? That’s one kind of theory about this.

In terms of US sanctions, the US has relatively few ways it can directly sanction Hungary, except in the way that it’s been sanctioning Russia by issuing individually targeted sanctions on individuals. Those are very powerful. If you’ve been in Moscow recently you’ve seen that high-flying society there is basically closed down. Restaurants are empty. The high-value stores are empty. It hasn’t affected the average Russian very much, which is the good thing about those kinds of targeted sanctions. The US is a friend to the Hungarian people, as I hope it’s clear that I’m also a friend of the Hungarian people.  It’s the government we’re having trouble. Ideally, if the diplomatic community wants to have an effect on the government, they need to figure out a way to do that without also having it affect the people of that country.

Article 7 sanctions in the European Union would just affect Hungary’s vote. It will not be noticed by the average Hungarian. These denial of entry sanctions that the U.S. State Department has now issued against a number of Hungarians. Even financial sanctions which the U.S. has done in the case of Russian individuals and businesses, if the U.S. moves that way, are really designed to influence exactly the circle around the government and not the average people. I think that looks to me like that may be where the EU is going.  It may be where the U.S. is going.  But I think it’s very important for Hungarians to understand that, as I see it from the outside, it looks to me like both the EU and the U.S. are teeing up this possibility of having sanctions that will just be confined to the Hungarian government and the officials in the inner circle.

Let’s talk a bit about the Hungarian elections. In 2010 Fidesz wins with an unprecedented landslide two-thirds majority, a supermajority. Why can’t the West just accept that two-thirds of Hungarians want this?

Well, first of all, two-thirds of Hungarians didn’t want this.  If you look at the low turnout, so more than a third of Hungarians didn’t vote at all. Of those who voted, the opposition was divided. Fidesz only got 54 percent of the vote. This time, however, they got 45 percent. That’s pretty significant. If you look at the numbers, they’ve lost a big fraction of their voters and they managed to win this recent election by reducing the overall vote. Something like 500,000 Hungarians have left the country under the Fidesz watch since 2010, at least as far as we can tell. Many of them were voters affiliated with the opposition and Fidesz made it very difficult for them to vote in the election.

So they exiled the opposition. They then made it harder for them to vote. Then they give new citizenship to all these people in neighboring countries. That vote, by the way, went 97-98 percent for Fidesz. That’s like North Korea voting. There’s no election in which you get that percentage of the vote for the governing party. All the polls that were being taken in Romania, in the community of Hungarian citizens there, showed that Jobbik would probably get 20 percent of the vote, and Jobbik got nothing.   Which makes me wonder what happened to the Jobbik vote.  I’m not a fan of Jobbik but it really makes me wonder what happened to the Jobbik vote in this last election.

It was an election that was very carefully staged to make it appear that Fidesz got this two-thirds vote.  And often times what you’ll hear Fidesz leaders saying that, “We won with two-thirds support!” Well, certainly that’s just wrong in terms of just the numbers. It’s definitely wrong when you look at the way the election was micromanaged from the way they redrew the electoral districts.

Some serious gerrymandering happened.

Also, they put in all these new rules like this winner compensation vote. That was six seats in the parliament.

How would you explain the compensation vote to an American. It took me two months to understand what that is all about!

This is a really complex system. In many European parliamentary systems, voters get two votes when they go to the polls. One vote is like the American election where you vote for your representative. The second vote is where you vote for a party and the seats in the parliament are divided between single member seats and then these party list seats where the party makes a list of who will get in. If they get such and such a percentage of the vote then their top ten people get in and so forth.

So what happens is that single member districts are wildly disproportionate. Somebody can win with one vote and then they get the whole seat, even those where  one less than half voted for somebody else. So it means that these systems are always disproportionate, the American system, the British system, all the ones that use this “first past the post” system are highly disproportionate. What parliamentary systems that have this double vote do is they say maybe we can make it somewhat more proportional by taking the losing votes, the votes cast for losing candidates, and let’s give those votes to the parties when you count the party list votes. So either all of those votes, or a fraction of those votes, or some mathematical function of those votes get added to the other column where people voted for the party lists.

So this was for the original compensation list so that the winner doesn’t take all.

The German system works like that, they have a very disproportionate first past the post system for individual districts. Then by adding the lost votes, the votes cast for losing candidates, to the list votes. They then kind of balance the parliament so that overall the seats kind of represent the underlying votes across parties. It’s a very sane system. Now, that was the system that Hungary had before. It wasn’t perfect, it was still quite disproportionate in all kinds of ways, but that was the prior system.

So Fidesz comes in and says, “Let’s define what is a lost vote”, and they say, “A lost vote is any vote that was not absolutely necessary to a candidate winning the seat.” So suppose you’ve got three candidates in a district and the winner wins by 300 votes and the other candidates get 200 and 100. Under the old system, the 200 votes for that candidate would be added to that candidate’s party list votes, the other 100 votes would be added to that candidate’s party list votes, and the winner who got the seat would get nothing because the winner got the seat. They won.

Now, under winner compensation Fidesz says, “Okay, it turns out that we could have won that seat with 201 votes. The other 99 were just gravy, like that was just extra. So, as a result, those other 99 votes were lost because we didn’t need them to win the seat. So we’re going to add those 99 votes to our compensation list on the party list side.”

What that does just mathematically is it completely tips the balance because it makes it completely disproportionate, especially since Fidesz drew the electoral districts and could maximize its own votes in a lot of these places by dividing the opposition. This is why every time the opposition divided, either between Jobbik and the democratic opposition – and I’m not saying they should get together – or between LMP, the Socialists and the Unity ticket, every time you split the vote you not only split the vote and make it less likely that any opposition party will win the seat, you give Fidesz a bigger advantage over the second-place party because the more you divide, the more they conquer.

So it just compounds the problem.

So the new parliament has 199 seats. Those of us who have looked at the numbers and run the numbers have now realized that they got 6 of those seats just because of this trick. Now, look at how many seats they need for their two-thirds. They needed every vote they got for that two-thirds.  If they didn’t have winner compensation, if they did the election like any normal parliamentary system, they would not have their two-thirds and then they would not have bragging rights.

The foreign vote is another problem. There, they clearly were depressing the voter turnout for the emigré Hungarians – people who had lived in the country, still have permanent residence in the country, but were registered to vote elsewhere. Those people had to register to vote outside and their registration had to exact match what was back in the office in Budapest. So, first of all, a bunch people are rejected because they spelled their mother’s maiden name the wrong way, or if the information they provided didn’t exact match the data at home they were automatically rejected. And there were lots of people who were rejected for that reason. Then, people had to physically go to a consulate or to an embassy to vote. In the UK where there are somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 Hungarians, everyone had to go to London. There was no other place to vote except London.  So if someone was relatively far away from London, they’d have to physically travel to London. Then, the National Election Office sent a letter to everyone telling them what address to go to vote. Then it turned out that the address was wrong. They sent out the wrong instructions for the British vote.

Wow!

They also sent out the wrong instructions for what day the Americans had to vote. “Oops a mistake!” But all the mistakes went to suppress the external vote. So then, everyone has to go to the consulate to vote or go to the embassy to vote. Or in London they had to rent a bigger hall because they were expecting so many people. Then suddenly people show up and they are told “you need your foreign passport to be able to vote.” A lot of people showed up to vote with the identification they’d use to vote with in Budapest, their address card. So people show up with their address card and they’re told, “No, you need your foreign passport.” And so people who had travelled all that distance, people who could not go home to pick up their foreign passport and come back, they were then denied the right to vote in the designated polling station. Not surprisingly, there was a relatively small turnout among émigré Hungarians.  Because you really had to be determined and because Fidesz really had to let you vote and there were all these places where they could turn you down, in the registration, in giving you the proper instructions to vote, in going there and checking your ID. There were certainly members of the opposition who voted abroad.  But there were lots of people who were turned down too. In opposition circles the understanding is that it was not random who was turned down. You can’t prove it without better numbers but that was certainly the impression that a lot of people had.

But was that also the case with votes coming from neighboring countries inside the Carpathian Basin?

No. “Near abroad voters” as Fidesz calls them, had a completely separate set of rules. They would register to vote. The could sign up anywhere. Actually, their information didn’t even have to match. In the statute it actually says if their registration doesn’t match all the information we have on file for them, the election officials should ignore the discrepancy. It says that in the law.

So if you have the wrong birthplace, or if you picked the wrong district in Budapest where your family was last registered, or whatever else they needed, and you didn’t match the registration information in the official records, then you were still permitted to register. There was almost no basis on which the electoral officials could deny the registration. Then, how did they get to vote? They could vote by mail. So, you didn’t have to travel, moreover you could vote by mail and you could hand your ballot to anyone who would turn your ballot in for you. You didn’t even have to vote by mail. So there would be people who were of unclear political affiliation, but shall we say were given the vote were probably not affiliated with the democratic opposition, would go through these Hungarian villages and pick up all the ballots and take them to all these new consulates that were opened for example in Romania. Also, there was never a live human who showed up to check anything.

So there were no controls?

There were no controls, there were no checks. Somebody could register in the name of a voter with partial information because, again, the information didn’t have to match.  There was no check that the person who was registered was the one who cast the ballot.  There was no check that the bundler who handled all these hundreds or thousands of ballots hadn’t changed them.  There were no election officials where those ballots were opened in the consulates abroad. So there were no checks on that system at all. So far as we can tell, there were 2 or 3 seats in the Parliament that were determined with those foreign votes.

Again, you add those votes to the winner compensation scheme, I mean, Fidesz got its two-thirds using every trick in the book and it needed every trick in the book to do that. Any one trick, you didn’t have that way of doing foreign votes, you didn’t have that way of doing winner compensation, you didn’t have that way of redrawing districts, etc, etc., any one of those things meant that they certainly wouldn’t have their two-thirds. They probably would have gotten the majority anyway given the turnout. It’s like in Russia where if Vladimir Putin steals elections he’s going to win anyway. But in this case, that two-thirds was crucial because if you don’t have the two-thirds in Parliament, then Fidesz can’t just change any law at will, even the Constitution.

The state of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: An exchange of views

Today I’m republishing an exchange of letters between György Hölvényi, a Christian Democrat who is a member of the Fidesz European Parliamentary delegation, and H. David Baer, associate professor at the Texas Lutheran University. The reason for the exchange was an article that appeared in The Economist entitled “A slippery Magyar slope.” The article was about the “ill-named law on ‘the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations and Religious Communities.’” Hölvényi, who before becoming a MEP was deputy undersecretary in charge of the government’s relations with churches, national minorities and civil society, came to the defense of the much criticized law. Since the article in The Economist was republished by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), Hölvényi sent his reply to that organization, which subsequently included it in its newsletter. Baer, an expert on Hungarian religious affairs, decided to respond. His reply was also published in HRWF’s newsletter. I thought that this exchange of letters, which shines a light on the Orbán regime’s attitude toward religious freedom, was worth republishing.

First a few words about György Hölvényi. He comes from a devout Catholic family. His father was a Cistercian priest who eventually left the order and married. The young Hölvényi became involved with the Christian Democratic movement and in 1989 was one of the founders of the Christian Democratic Union. He spent many years in Brussels serving the parliamentary delegation of the European People’s Party in various capacities. As a result, his name was practically unknown in Hungary. That changed in May 2012 when he was named assistant undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s Ministry of Human Resources.

Prior to that date the post was occupied by László Szászfalvi, who was a Hungarian Reformed minister just like Balog himself. Apparently the Catholics in the Christian Democratic Party raised a stink: two Protestant ministers were at least one too many. A Catholic must be found. Szászfalvi had to depart and came Hölvényi.

In the most recent elections for the EU parliament Hölvényi was number 12 on the Fidesz list. The party had to do very well for Hölvényi to get to Brussels. One reason for his low rank on the list was that certain positions were reserved for ethnic Hungarians from Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. But the size of the Fidesz victory was such that he made it, and now he is a member of the new European Parliament.

The article in The Economist pointed out that “getting recognition as an ‘incorporated church’ required a two-thirds majority in Parliament. So what should be a simple administrative decision was turned into a political one, in which legislators have to assess the merits of a religion…. As a result of the law, at least 200 religious communities, including Methodists, Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists, Reform Jews, Buddhists and Hindus faced a downgrading of their status…. In February 2013, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that 67 groups had been deregistered unconstitutionally. However the government seems to have ignored the ruling. A government ministry rejected the written requests of at least four deregistered bodies to be added to the list of incorporated churches.”

Gábor Iványi, one of the victim's of the Orbán regime's church law

Gábor Iványi, one of the victims of the Orbán regime’s church law

With this introduction here is the exchange of letters. First, György Hölvényi’s letter written immediately after the appearance of the article in The Economist. David Baer’s letter was published only a few days ago in the HRWF newsletter.

 * * *

Response to the Erasmus blog post “A slippery Magyar slope,” September 25th 2014

The recent post of The Economist’s blog Erasmus on religious freedom in Central Europe (“A slippery Magyar slope”” by B. C., September 25th 2014) makes several misleading statements and offers a rather personal interpretation of the existing legal regulations on churches in Hungary.

Basic aspects on the registration process of churches have not been detailed in your blog post. Firstly, all associations dealing with religious activities are registered solely by the courts in Hungary. A politically highly neutral system. These communities operate independetly from the state, acoording to their own principles of faith and rituals.

The blog post makes references on “incorporated churches” in Hungary. It is crucial to know that the category of “incorporated churches,” as you call it, does not affect religious freedom at all. It is simply about financial aspects such as state subsidies for churches running social activities for the common good of the society.

It must be pointed out that many European countries apply legal distinctions between different religious organisations for various reasons. Quite often it is the Parliament who is entitled to grant them a special status (e.g. in Lithuania, Belgium). Besides, there are a number of European countries where the constitution itself places an established religion above the rest of the religious communities (e. g. in Denmark, Finland, Greece, Malta). For the record, it needs to be mentioned that the Parliament is involved in special recognition processes of the churches at different later stages also in Austria, Denmark, Portugal or Spain. In general, the European Union leaves the rules on the foundation of churches in the Member States’ competence.

As the post correctly recalls, the original Hungarian regulation on churches of 1990 was probably the most permissive in Europe. Uniquely in the world, more than 300 registered churches operated in Hungary for decades, enjoying the widest range of financial entitlements provided by the state, with no respect to their real social activities. The amended Church Act provides for a complete freedom of conscience and religion in Hungary, at the same time it eliminates errors of the uniquely permissive regulation.

When looking at international commentaries of the issue let us focus on the facts again. The relevant opinion of Venice Commission on the issue of religious freedom in Hungary stated that the Hungarian regulation in place “constitutes a liberal and generous framework for the freedom of religion.” The resolution of the Constitutional Court in Hungary referred to in your blog post did not make any reference to the freedom of religion in Hungary. On the contrary, the government’s intention with the new legislation was widely acknowledged by the Court. The US State Department’s report on religious freedem of 2013 does underline that the Fundamental Law and all legislation in Hungary defends religious freedom. Facts that have been disregarded by the author of your post.

Last but not least, the alliances of the non-incorporated churches in Hungary recognised and declared in a joint statement with the responsible Hungarian minister that they enjoy religious freedom in Hungary.

In contrast to the statements of your article, incorporated churches in Hungary include the Methodists: the United Methodist Church in Hungary is a widely recognised and active community in Hungary, as well as internationally. The fact is that Mr Iványi’s group has not been included in the UMC itself and is not recognised at all by the international Methodist bodies. Describing it as a “highly respected” church is again a serious factual mistake, reflecting a lack of information on the issue.

Coming finally to the issue of the European Court on Human Rights’ decision: some of the member judges formed special opinions to the appeal of the affected churches. Although the Hungarian government is challenging the decision, at the same time it started negotiations with the appealing communities on the remedy process.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend that your blogger B.C. pay wider attention to the facts to better understand regulations on church affairs that have been in place in Europe for decades and centuries.

HÖLVÉNYI György
Member of the European Parliament for Hungary / EPP Group

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H. David Baer’s reply:

Mr. Hölvényi writes to defend a church law that the ECtHR has found to breach the European Convention and which the Hungarian government refuses to amend.  He would thus have us believe that religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom even as they are not protected by the rule of law.

Mr. Hölvényi urges that we stick to the facts. The fact is that in 2011 the government of Hungary retroactively “deregistered” religious communities already recognized as churches under Hungarian law.  The fact is that in 2013 Hungary’s Constitutional Court found this deregistration procedure unconstitutional.  The fact is that after 2013 the government of Hungary blatantly ignored the Court’s decision, refusing to treat unconstitutionally deregistered religious communities as legal churches.  The fact is that in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary’s unconstitutional church law also violated the right of religious freedom and the European Convention.  The fact is that the Hungarian government has still not, as of this day, acted to abide by the European Court’s decision.

Mr. Hölvényi knows these facts, because prior to being an MP in the European Parliament he was the state undersecretary responsible for dealing with the churches in Viktor Orbán’s government.  As undersecretary, Hölvényi worked closely with Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Capacities, to obstruct implementation of the Constitutional Court’s decision so as to deny deregistered religious communities their constitutional rights. Just this past month, Péter Paczolay, the president of Hungary’s Constitutional Court, lamented openly in a public address that the Court’s decision on Hungary’s church law had never been respected or implemented.  Mr. Hölvényi bears direct responsibility for this.  Thus, to listen to him aver that Hungary’s deregistered churches enjoy religious freedom is a little like listening to a man caught stealing his neighbor’s shirt and pants aver that his neighbor has the freedom to wear underwear.

Religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom the way NGO’s in Hungary enjoy freedom of association. Denied equality under the law and subject to opaque regulations, deregistered religious communities, like unpopular NGO’s, are subjected to arbitrary and expensive audits, hindered or prevented from raising money, attacked in the government controlled media, and harassed by local officials.  Mr. Hölvényi, a member of the European Parliament, should know that when citizens aren’t equal under the law they aren’t equally free.

Instead of defending Hungary’s indefensible church law, perhaps Mr. Hölvényi should encourage the government of his country to respect the rule of law, uphold its international commitments, and abide by the European Convention.

David Baer
Texas Lutheran University
USA