Tag Archives: Ferenc Gyurcsány

Botka’s formal introduction as MSZP’s candidate for Hungary’s new prime minister

Two days have gone by since László Botka, mayor of Szeged and MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, delivered a fifty-minute speech which has since received mixed reviews. The most quoted part of the speech was a frontal attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány as an impediment to electoral victory. Not even the socialists seem to be entirely happy with Botka’s attack, especially since Botka’s party is in the midst of negotiations with the other democratic opposition parties, including the largest among them, Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció. After the speech Lajos Bokros, former minister of finance and chairman of Modern Magyarország Mozgalom Párt (MoMa), withdrew from the negotiation process while Párbeszéd accused Botka of lifting one of its signature programs, the introduction of a guaranteed basic income.

The speech, both in content and in delivery, began well enough, but after about ten minutes Botka lost some of his early eloquence. The speech deteriorated at times into a hurried laundry list.

In his editorial Péter Németh, editor-in-chief of Népszava, while noting that the speech could be considered an ideological shift for MSZP, said that most commentators paid little attention to the socialists’ turn leftward and concentrated only on the vicious assault against the former prime minister. After this speech, he said, MSZP must make clear what the party’s intentions are. Does Botka’s speech mean the discontinuation of the negotiations? Has MSZP opted to confront Fidesz alone in 2018? It’s time to decide. Index’s Szabolcs Dull shares Németh’s opinion that “we will most remember [Botka’s speech] as an event at which Botka publicly assailed Ferenc Gyurcsány.”

Since the transcript of the speech is available, I can quote some of the more controversial passages verbatim. The reader must keep in mind that László Botka has been an MSZP politician for 23 years. With the exception of the 1998-2002 period, he was a member of parliament between 1994 and 2010. He has been mayor of Szeged since 2002. Therefore, one must take with a grain of salt that Botka bears no responsibility whatsoever for “the missteps committed by the left-liberal governments, especially between 2002 and 2010.” And he continues: “Those who lied into the eyes of the electorate are liabilities for the left and they therefore should decamp…. In Hungary consolidation and peace will come only when the two most divisive politicians in the country, the beloved and/or hated icons, at last leave the sanctuary of politics.” Gyurcsány’s reaction to this assault was muted: “The voters will decide who has a place in the democratic public life of Hungary. I, as a voter, would give a place to Botka also. Moreover, I wish him much success.”

Watching the video taken at the event, I came to the conclusion that there was a divide when it came to Botka’s attack. There are those, like István Ujhelyi, MSZP member of the European Parliament, who believe that cooperation with the other parties will materialize despite Botka’s outburst. I saw István Hiller sitting rather stone faced without applauding. I assume those who are enthusiastic about Botka’s strong language think that the leadership of DK will tell their chairman to go and fly a kite and will merrily cooperate with MSZP and Botka. But “others are less optimistic as far as electoral cooperation is concerned.” They are seriously worried that this speech might end all negotiation between MSZP and DK, which may result in a devastating loss for the democratic parties on the left. Jobbik was not far off when the party claimed that “it became clear that László Botka, MSZP candidate for the premiership, and MSZP don’t want to defeat Prime Minister Viktor Orbán but Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció.” Botka bet everything on a single card. His hope seems to be that his strong speech will whip up such enthusiasm for the socialist party that it will be able to beat the forces of Fidesz and Jobbik singlehanded. Suddenly, the opinion polls will show an incredible shift in popularity for the party and, as a result, it will draw those one million undecided voters Botka referred to in his speech in addition to the loyal DK voters who will see the light and switch their votes to the revitalized socialist party.

Of course, anything is possible, perhaps even this scenario, but it is not very likely. Only a joint anti-Orbán force has any chance of removing the present government from power. Moreover, I have been convinced for some time that most commentators and politicians don’t study the polls that could give us direct or indirect clues about the political attitudes of the electorate carefully enough. For instance, the Závecz poll’s findings that about 75% of the electorate would not vote for a ticket that had Gyurcsány’s name on the list is misleading because it also includes millions of Fidesz and Jobbik voters who would not vote for a left-wing party or parties no matter what. The same is true of the undecided voters. When Závecz came out with its finding that for half of the undecided voters Gyurcsány’s presence would make a difference, the assumption was that all these people would vote for the left. But, of course, this is not the case. Therefore, this whole Závecz report, on which many people on the left rely, is totally useless as a guide for future action. I’m convinced that most people who want to get rid of Orbán don’t give a hoot whether Gyurcsány’s name is on the list or not–as long as it’s not at the top of the list.

The government press is naturally delighted. Magyar Idők’s headline reads: “László Botka: Gyurcsány is a burden on the left.” However, Tamás Lánczi, a a right-wing political scientist and the new editor-in-chief of Figyelő, gave a surprisingly objective assessment of the speech in an interview on Inforádió. In his opinion, the speech contained many significant elements, but Botka’s attacks shifted attention away from its essence. It might be the case that the candidate for the premiership has to show strength, but “we know from various surveys and research papers that the voters of MSZP and DK readily cross-vote. The voters of the two parties don’t look upon each other as enemies, and therefore there is the possibility of cooperation.”

I must say I have to agree with the young Lánczi. Where I disagree with him is in his description of Botka’s speech as populist. I’m afraid Lánczi doesn’t know the true meaning of the word. Let me quote Jan-Werner Müller, who just published the highly acclaimed book What is Populism? A few days ago an interview appeared with Müller in Bloomberg titled “Why Donald Trump Really Is a Populist.” Müller said: “Not everyone who criticizes elites is automatically a populist. Rather, populists always claim that they—and they alone—properly represent the people or what they frequently call ‘the real people’ or the ‘silent majority.’”

Botka gave a social democratic speech, which emphasized social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy. It’s too bad that most Hungarians have no idea what the speech was really about. It deserves considered debate. The Gyurcsány bashing doesn’t.

February 20, 2017

László Lengyel, the “kingmaker”

On Saturday afternoon Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered his thirteenth speech on the state of the country, which was broadcast on both ATV and HírTV. Hungarian speakers can watch the 40-minute speech on ATV’s website. It was a forceful attack on Viktor Orbán and his government in which he compared Orbán to István Csurka, the extreme right leader of MIÉP, an anti-Semitic party which, after a spectacular rise in the second half of the 1990s, disappeared for good, to be replaced by Gábor Vona’s Jobbik. He also talked about the poverty of the “working poor” and blamed the present government for the growing poverty of many Hungarians, adding that, in his opinion, a person for whom the wounds of Trianon are more painful than the sufferings of Hungarians who are hungry and cold is not a patriot.

If Gyurcsány had confined himself to these themes, not too many people would have been overly excited about the former prime minister’s speech. But he continued with a juicy revelation. He accused László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, of conducting, with the assistance of a non-politician “kingmaker,” negotiations to exclude him and his party from a future electoral alliance of left-of-center parties. Such behavior can put an end to DK’s cooperation with the other socialist-liberal parties, he warned. Well, that sort of news is definitely something both the media and the public love. Indeed, soon enough a host of articles appeared about the speech and its content.

The name of the “kingmaker” didn’t remain secret for long. The spokesman of the Demokratikus Koalíció, Zsolt Gréczy, made it public on Facebook. The “kingmaker” was László Lengyel, a political scientist and economist who is a regular participant in political discussions, where he shows great mastery of both domestic and foreign affairs.

Soon enough it was determined that the meeting to which Gyurcsány alluded did indeed take place. What was more difficult to find out was what actually transpired at the meeting from which the leaders of MSZP, Párbeszéd, Együtt, and even LMP and László Botka wanted Gyurcsány and his party to be excluded. Although everybody involved has since given interviews, they have carefully avoided providing straight answers to any and all questions touching on the content of the discussions. After listening to all these interviews, I had the distinct feeling that Gyurcsány’s information was correct. The meeting was about getting rid of Gyurcsány while holding on to DK voters.

László Lengyel / Source: Népszabadság / Photo: János M. Schmidt

How did Gyurcsány and the leadership of the Demokratikus Koalíció find out about the meeting in the first place? Lengyel seems to have been foolish enough to approach Péter Niedermüller, DK member of the European Parliament, and invite him for a cup of coffee. There he told Niedermüller about what was afoot and extended an invitation to him to attend the meeting. Niedermüller refused and informed DK’s executive board of Lengyel’s scheme.

Eventually Niedermüller told his side of the story. He interpreted the conversation over coffee as “an attempt to exclude DK and its chairman from cooperation among left-of-center parties without losing DK’s voters.” Such “half-truths, secrecy, and mendacity are incompatible with my conscience,” Niedermüller announced. The main occupation of far too many opposition leaders is “branding those fellow politicians with whom they don’t agree.” By such behavior they only strengthen the prime minister and his regime.

László Lengyel admits that he did have a conversation with Niedermüller but denies everything the DK politician said about their meeting. He practically called Niedermüller a liar who was “dragged into this idiocy,” I guess by Gyurcsány. He expressed his regret that Niedermüller “got himself involved with such bad company.”

During the many interviews Lengyel gave in the last couple of days it became clear that he was the one who convinced László Botka to announce his interest in becoming a candidate to head the united democratic opposition. It is a well-known fact that Lengyel passionately hates Ferenc Gyurcsány. In one of his interviews he freely admitted that he swore in 2006 that he would never sit down at the same table with Ferenc Gyurcsány. And he is not exaggerating. I had personal experience with Lengyel’s uncompromising hatred of the former prime minister. Lengyel used to be a frequent contributor to Galamus, an excellent internet site–unfortunately by now defunct due to a lack of funds–that carried mostly opinion pieces. Both Péter Niedermüller and I were among the founding members. One day Zsófia Mihancsik, our editor, invited Gyurcsány to write an article for Galamus. As soon as the article appeared, Lengyel cut all ties with Galamus. He no longer cared about either the quality or the mission of the site.

The three authors on the left who wrote opinion pieces on the incident are split on the issue. Péter S. Földi and György Adorján condemn those democratic politicians who try to make deals behind the backs of others. It is only TGM, who specializes in contrary opinions on practically everything, who thinks that Lengyel is a private individual and as such has the right to meet with anyone he wants. Moreover, he looks upon Gyurcsány’s indignation as “an attack against intellectuals,” an act that foreshadows hard times to come. I’m not quite sure what TGM has in mind.

All these attempts, especially by the two tiny parties Együtt and Párbeszéd, to get rid of Gyurcsány are not just a waste of time but incredibly harmful. DK voters are devoted to the head of their party. They are not going to abandon him and flock to a left-of-center group that excludes their leader. And no election can be won without Gyurcsány and DK. All these meetings are really “much ado about nothing,” with the terrible side effect of shaking the little confidence left-wing voters still have in the opposition. The poll the smaller parties cite to bolster their claim about Gyurcsány’s standing with the voters is fallacious, as I pointed out earlier in one of my posts. Most Hungarians who would vote for a left political conglomerate don’t care one way or the other about the makeup of the joint party list. As for the undecided voters, only half of them feel strongly about the person of Gyurcsány.

Although there is nothing wrong with outsiders giving advice to politicians, it should be positive, constructive counsel, not counsel that would further split the already fractured Hungarian opposition.

February 7, 2017

Metro 4: The largest case of Hungarian fraud and corruption

Now that the complete OLAF report is available online, we can all settle down and try to read 103 pages of dense prose detailing “irregularities, fraud, corruption, and misappropriation of EU funds.” A five-member OLAF group began their investigation in January 2012 after the Court of Auditors and the Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy of the European Commission contacted OLAF, asking the office to scrutinize the case. During the investigation, the OLAF staff got in touch with only the City of Budapest and Péter Medgyessy, prime minister of Hungary between 2002 and 2004, whose consulting firm worked for Alstom Transport S.A., one of the firms accused of wrongdoing.

The total cost of the project was €1,747,313,606, of which €696,490,000 came from the Cohesion Fund. According to OLAF’s calculation, “the financial impact on the Cohesion Fund is €227,881,690.”

The release of OLAF’s final report put an end to the political game Fidesz and the Orbán government had been playing with the document. János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, and his deputy, the honey-tongued Nándor Csepreghy, did their best to get as much political mileage from the affair as possible. Lázár intimated that an international socialist-liberal conspiracy was behind the corruption that occurred at the Metro 4 project. On another occasion, he claimed to have filed charges against Gábor Demszky, mayor of Budapest between 1990 and 2010, Csaba Horváth, deputy mayor between 2006 and 2009, and János Atkári, an adviser to Demszky. Csepreghy must have known that none of these people was mentioned in the document, but in a long interview at 888.hu he intimated that even Ferenc Gyurcsány, prime minister between 2004 and 2009, may have shared responsibility for the misappropriation of funds. A few days later he claimed that other politicians might also be implicated.

All this is just political fluff. What we know from the OLAF report is that the City of Budapest signed a contract in 2004 with Budapesti Közlekedési Vállalat (BKV), the city-owned transit authority, which was commissioned to implement the project. Most likely that was a major mistake, which led to a lot of difficulties later. Any project, especially such a large one as the construction of a metro, needs a general contractor who oversees the project. BKV’s staff was not equipped to coordinate the work, which led to innumerable hiccups during construction.

Throughout the project the Hungarian media, especially the online site Index, reported many suspicious cases of overspending. But these cases were actually small potatoes, like too many consulting firms and lawyers making millions for very little work. Although several such cases are described in the final report, the bulk of the money OLAF would now like to be returned came from serious irregularities during the acquisition of tenders by huge corporations.

According to OLAF, 96% of the “irregularities” occurred in contracts signed by six large firms: Siemens AG, the largest manufacturing and electronics company in Europe; Swietelsky, an Austrian construction company from Linz; Strabag, the largest construction company in Austria, based in Villach; a Hungarian company called Hídépítő Zrt., which as its name indicates builds bridges and roads; the BAMCO consortium (Vinci CGP, Strabag, Hídépítő Zrt); and Alstom, the French multinational company operating worldwide in rail transport, including the manufacture of metro trains.

I left Alstom to last because it was in regard to Alstom that OLAF got in touch with Péter Medgyessy, who received €600,000 in 2007-2008 from Alstom for two years of consulting. This payment occurred after Alstom had won the tender with apparently the worst offer. Medgyessy naturally claims that his consulting firm had nothing to do with the Alstom case, adding that it is a well-known fact that his relationship with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and the liberal SZDSZ leadership of the City of Budapest was strained. What his relationship with Gyurcsány had to do with BKV deciding to purchase overpriced Alstom cars is beyond me. I have no idea whether in a court of law Medgyessy would be found innocent or not, but in ethical terms his behavior was highly suspect.

Siemens, the German company which was in charge of electrical works, received 31.7 billion forints (€102,303,730) for the job. Since OLAF claims that Siemens most likely received inside information during the bidding process, the European Union wants the Hungarian government to pay back the whole amount. The same is true of Alstom’s 22.9 billion forint (€73,892,769) tender. BAMCO also won the tender in an irregular manner, and therefore the European Union demands the return of 8 billion forints (€25,817,360). The EU also demands 7.6 billion forints (€24,523,364) from Swietelsky, which was responsible for the interior of the metro stations. Strabag-Hídépítő, in charge of structural work on the station at Baross Square, received 3.7 billion forints for its work but because of procurement irregularities 2.5 billion forints (€8,067,751) should be returned.

Another politician who, although not mentioned by name, was most likely involved in the metro case is László Puch, former financial director of MSZP, whose company Media Magnet Kft. just purchased the ailing Népszava and Vasárnapi Hírek. Media Magnet, according to the OLAF report, received 331 million forints (€1,068,110) from Siemens for advertising. The report notes that “this company was in charge of the campaign of the political party which was in a decision-making position in the case of Metro 4.” In 2010 Index reported that BKV ordered all sorts of superfluous studies from Media Magnet on such things as, for example, the state of the cable television market. There is a strong suspicion that some of this money ended up in MSZP’s coffers.

The biggest culprits will most likely be found among the representatives of the named companies and those BKV officials who were in contact with them. There’s no question that the guilty parties should be punished, but judging from the outcomes of earlier corruption cases I have my doubts that we will ever hear about all the dirt that OLAF unearthed. I’m also pretty sure that Fidesz will try its darndest to drag high-level politicians into the morass around BKV.

I see that Gábor Demszky will be represented by György Magyar, one of the “star lawyers” in the country. On February 3 Magyar announced on ATV that Demszky had signed only three contracts during the many years of construction. One was the contract between the city and the government in which the parties agreed that 79% of the construction cost would be borne by the government and the rest by the City of Budapest. The second contract dealt with a loan the City had to obtain for the project. The third was the contract that gave full authority to BKV for the implementation of the project.

Fidesz naturally wants to have a parliamentary investigation into the case, which will lead to further accusations on both sides. If Hungary had a decent prosecutor’s office and an independent chief prosecutor, it should undertake a speedy, thorough, unbiased investigation of the case. Unfortunately, this is the last thing we can hope for under the present circumstances.

February 6, 2017

The Hungarian opposition is still in disarray

I am returning to party politics today because, after an extended holiday season, opposition politicians and civilians active in politics have become vocal again. One after the other gives interviews to newspapers or to the two friendly television stations, ATV and Hír TV. Naturally, the topic is how best to prepare for the 2018 national election. Alas, every time such a tsunami of statements comes from the opposition parties, confusion and discord reign.

While the opposition parties MSZP, DK, and Párbeszéd are allegedly negotiating and those negotiations are, according to reports, going well, one of MSZP’s big guns, István Hiller, at least according to Magyar Idők, announced on December 27 in an interview that he doesn’t believe in the kind of political partnership among the democratic parties that proved to be singularly unsuccessful in 2014. If it depends on him, such a strategy will never be repeated. I must say that this was a surprising announcement since Hiller’s party is currently negotiating with the small parties on the left.

That’s not the only subject on which MSZP leaders disagree. Unnamed MSZP sources told Magyar Hírlap a couple of days ago that the leadership is also divided over László Botka’s offering himself as a candidate for the premiership. They are puzzled by the fact that Botka twice sent messages to his own party, once via 168 Óra and again only two days ago in an interview given to Index, that were actually ultimatums. Moreover, some of Botka’s demands can’t be met. For example, the exclusion of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the election process, which even in the opinion of Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd is an impossibility.

Even though MSZP leaders are still optimistic that the parties will be able to agree on a common platform, there are a couple of hurdles that might make agreement difficult. One is the question of the selection process of the most promising candidates for each of the 106 individual electoral districts. The idea of primaries has been bandied about for years, but by the fall of 2016 Párbeszéd decided that this was the most promising way to find the best candidate in each district. This small party was then joined by civic groups, which kept widening the nominating process to the point that it now includes the possibility of voting online. For this they hired the company Anonim Digitális Azonosító (Anonymous Digital Identifier), whose website is already available. Párbeszéd managed to convince MSZP of the efficacy of primaries and DK, although not terribly enthusiastic, agreed to the idea if all the others are game. When it comes to the internet application, however, the other partners are less than keen. Moreover, Botka’s announcement that he finds primaries superfluous further complicates the situation since at the moment MSZP is still a supporter of the idea. Botka stressed the necessity of “choosing the best candidate” in each district but didn’t give any guidance as to how this should be accomplished.

The other possible stumbling block is the question of having a common party list versus having individual ones. One must keep in mind that in the Hungarian system each voter casts two votes, one for an individual and the other for a party. Two of the three parties that are still talking to one another are committed to a common list while DK is sitting on the fence, at least according to Népszava. I personally prefer one common list because separate party lists send a strong signal to the voters that unity is still sadly lacking.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Együtt and LMP. Despite hopes that with the departure of András Schiffer LMP’s new leadership would be more willing to cooperate with the other parties, this didn’t turn out to be the case. A couple of weeks ago I still felt sorry for Ákos Hadházy, Schiffer’s replacement, when he tried to rationalize his party’s strategy while claiming that his greatest desire is to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s regime. By now, however, I have decided that the new co-chair of LMP doesn’t deserve my sympathy. A sharp-tongued commentator in gepnarancs.hu called LMP “a closed ward,” indicating that he finds LMP’s leaders not quite sane. Of course, he quickly added: “pardon me, a closed structure.” In his opinion, “ever since the departure of their word-jongleur they wriggle like fish out of water.”

Együtt’s two-man leadership seems to have supreme confidence in their party’s weighty position in Hungarian politics. Consequently, Együtt wants separate lists to ensure parliamentary representation. Just as a reminder, in order to get into parliament, Együtt would need at least 5% of the votes. Meeting that threshold, however, would not ensure a separate parliamentary delegation, which in the current setup must have at least five members. For example, DK, which is a much larger party, currently has only four members and hence no delegation. Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair, is so sure of his party’s chances that he already announced in an interview that he will be the leader of the Együtt parliamentary delegation after 2018. I admire his confidence.

A growing sentiment within the opposition favors some kind of “understanding” between the democratic parties and Jobbik. After reading the pro-government papers I came to the conclusion that Fidesz is really worried about this possibility and is trying to prevent any such meeting of the minds. János Somogyi, a frequent contributor to Magyar Idők, devoted an opinion piece to the subject. Of course, he finds both sides abhorrent. He tries to convince himself that such an understanding will never happen. But if by some fluke it does, it matters not because Fidesz will win the election anyway. He concluded his article dramatically: “The Lord will hear the last words of Prime Minister László Bárdossy, who was innocently executed in January 1946. Holding his arms toward the sky, he said ‘My Lord, deliver the country from these bandits!’ Perhaps this will become reality in 2018.”

Naturally, democratically minded political commentators are divided on the issue. One unexpected promoter of the idea is Ágnes Heller, Hungary’s best-known philosopher who, by the way, is a Holocaust survivor. Here is Hungarian Free Press’s translation of what she had to say on the subject. The original appeared on the website of ATV.

Cooperation can happen if both sides desire it. Purely based on numbers it is true that if they went up against Fidesz together, they would defeat the governing party. It would not be bad if they did so. But if they don’t want to do it, then they should not…Maybe the word ‘cooperation’ is not the right one. They could just support each other. This, of course, would be very difficult to explain to their voters, even if today there is basically a state of emergency in Hungary. If this is impossible due to their divergent identities, they do not need to make ideological compromises. Instead of a public agreement, they can simply decide to support each other’s candidates, even as they both develop their own campaign strategies. And then, if Fidesz has been defeated, the current electoral system would be reformed and new elections would follow between the victorious parties.

Ágnes Heller

György Konrád, a well-known writer and also a Holocaust survivor, thinks that “one can even join forces with the grandmother of the devil as long as the goal of a democratic alteration of the electoral laws can be achieved.” He added that such an outcome is “improbable,” but “it cannot be totally excluded either.”

On the other hand, TGM, a political philosopher, Tamás Ungvári, a literary historian, and Mihály Kornis, a writer, find the idea totally unacceptable. Kornis, who has the tendency to exaggerate, declared that if the choice was between Jobbik and death he would choose death.

In brief, the Hungarian political scene is extremely complex, and carving out a winning strategy is a daunting task for the opposition.

January 9, 2017

András Kósa: The speech of the chief, Őszöd ten years later, Part III

Gyurcsány’s attempt to interpret the speech in Őszöd as the beginning of a new era

András Kósa, a well-known Hungarian journalist, recently published The Speech of the Chief: Őszöd after Ten Years, a collection of interviews with Ferenc Gyurcsány, former and current politicians, and political commentators. Interest in Gyurcsány’s speech and its impact on subsequent political developments doesn’t seem to wane.

A reader and friend of Hungarian Spectrum, Steven N., who is also a friend of Kósa, translated the interview with Gyurcsány for publication here. Since the interview was lengthy, I posted it in installments. The first and second have already appeared. This is the final installment.

♦ ♦ ♦

András Kósa: You know Vladimir Putin personally, as you’ve met with him on several occasions. What is the secret of the surprisingly strong relationship between the Russian President and Viktor Orbán?

Ferenc Gyurcsány: To answer this, it has to be noted that in the mid-to-late 2000s, the European Union and the Obama administration viewed Putin as a leader who was democratizing cautiously. During his first visit to Berlin, the entire Bundestag gave him a standing ovation. Then, in the Russian parliamentary elections in the fall of 2011, he had to pilfer 17 percentage points to be able to win. In the spring 2012 Presidential election, he again needed to cheat to attain a “victory,” though less so this time. I think these things have changed Putin. He realized that the policies he had pursued up until then did not automatically expand his power, so he launched a campaign of harsh repression at home (including the killing of journalists and political rivals, remaking the Russian criminal code, and restricting the freedom of assembly), and again began to assert the conquering pursuits of Great Russia. I have not changed: I’m not critical of Putin because I’m in the opposition. My relationship towards him did not change until the summer of 2012. We even met in Moscow with our families then. But I don’t like this Putin now. Orbán, by comparison, has taken the opposite route: when the world trusted Putin more, he was very critical of our cooperation. Then when the world increasingly kept its distance from Putin because of what I said earlier, he became one of his main allies. I think the only thing that’s happened here was that Viktor Orbán was looking for partners for his foreign policy, and he found one in Putin. If I want to go against Brussels (which was Orbán’s big foreign policy shift after 2010), then – being the Prime Minister of a small-medium-sized country – I need partners to do this, and Putin is perfect for it at the moment. The current Polish leadership is also an excellent partner.

Is it “only” this?

The possibility that money and corruption are behind the good relations between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin cannot be ruled out. Maybe it also greases their relationship. But it’s not the main reason.

As Prime Minister, you had insight into intelligence-related matters: would it be possible that the large intelligence agencies, for example Russian or American, could not find out pretty much anything about any kind of personal or perhaps business matter, or the financial situation, of the current Hungarian Prime Minister?

If they wanted to, they could find out pretty much anything. Of this, I have no doubt. If you’re asking whether these agencies are able to find out something that they could blackmail a Hungarian Prime Minister with, then I would say, yes, they could do that. Whether they’d use it or not, I wouldn’t be able to say. I didn’t come across these things during my own time in office. I did have very nasty disputes on energy issues with the American ambassador and with representatives of the government in Washington. They tried to talk me into this, that, and the other, but they didn’t venture beyond putting verbal pressure on me. Experts say that today around 600-800 people in Hungary are definitely working for the KGB in some capacity. This is not a small number. And their capacity is such that if they want to listen in on our phone calls, they can do it. If they want to know where we’re going and when, who we’re having dinner with and what we’re talking about, they can find out. I think that this coterie exerts a substantial influence on the world of Jobbik and Fidesz.

During your time in office, how big was this 600-800 number?

Roughly about half of that.

A two-speed Europe is forming right before our eyes, and for now we Hungarians seem to have a strong role on the periphery. In such a situation, in which we know that aid from the EU will be drastically reduced after 2020, how much can democratic ties loosen in Hungary, as well as in the region as a whole?

They won’t expel us from the European Union, but the processes can only really go in such a way that one group of countries will deepen its cooperation and head towards a federal Europe. While we remain on the periphery, as you said. Not only will they fund less and less of our finances, but also increasingly less attention will be paid to the social and general state of affairs here. Maybe I’m naive (since before 2010 I also didn’t expect that such a radical transformation would occur if Fidesz ever came into power), but I can’t really imagine what more the government could do in such a transformed EU. You can’t turn off the internet. There’s hardly any openness as it is. Under European circumstances, the police can still not just come into my apartment, and the authorities can’t take away my assets and businesses. I think that Fidesz has pretty much gone to the wall. It’s possible, of course that they’ve already figured this out, because what’s happening right before our eyes is a march towards a semi-authoritarian regime. János Kádár’s cloak stretches extremely far in this regard.

What do you mean?

We Hungarians signed on to what we thought was a highly successful, but nevertheless dishonest, historic compromise. Hungary was the only place in Eastern Europe where (in our so-called “soft dictatorship”) there wasn’t open repression that affected the masses. The “happiest barracks” was built on an immoral pact in which the authorities said: there are three things that you can’t touch. There’s a one-party system, 1956 was a counter-revolution, and the Soviet troops in Hungary protect the peace. Otherwise, you are more or less free to live your life, you can travel somewhat, the shoe stores have shoes, the meat shops have meat, and you can even tell political jokes too. This somewhat conflated the oppressor with the oppressed, which is why the majority of the country now reacts so permissively to political tyranny. Viktor Orbán correctly senses that it’s not the lack of democracy that will crush his regime. This issue has remained a cause only for the upper segment of the political class. Poor governance of the country leads to poor performance: healthcare, the educational situation, and a lack of prospects, shockingly low wages, and increasing vulnerability in the workplace – these are much more dangerous to Orbán than the fact that public television has become the television station of the ruling party. They’ll change the channel to something else.

Why is it that in Hungary charges of corruption don’t harm the government?

One reason is that Byzantine culture has maintained itself right up until the present time: if the powers-that-be dip into the common goods but some of it still occasionally comes my way, then I won’t be so strict with the rules all the time on my own level – this itself is in the tradition of Byzantine culture, which can still be found here. Moreover, the entire political class is considered corrupt – so what’s the difference? But there’s a much more tangible reason as well: the public prosecutor here has a monopoly on prosecuting cases. Péter Polt essentially refuses to launch any kind of investigation, so every initiative comes to naught. The system today is itself built upon corruption; it doesn’t have just a speck of corruption, but is its very essence. Everyone in Fidesz knows about it, everyone knows who is corrupt and in what way, but they condone each other’s actions. Finally, it’s because the opposition has not been very successful with these matters. In any case, Péter Juhász, the representative of the Együtt Party, has done more in this area in the past few years than the rest of us put together.

Will you be Prime Minister of Hungary again?

I won’t rule it out.

Would you want it?

I don’t have such a strong desire for it right now. I did have it in 2004, no question. I am grateful to fate for letting me be Hungary’s Prime Minister, but it now also has a strong desire for this democratic and civic alternative which I represent to gain a large base of support. It has a stronger desire for this now than it does to make me Prime Minister once more. I can feel good about imagining my life in a way that I remain a Member of Parliament and not have any higher power than this. But it’s devilishly hard to predict what fate will bring in 2022 or 2026. I’ll be 66 years old in 2026: this is still an active age as a politician. I am fortunate because my ambitions and opportunities are just now coming together.

You were once considered one of the most promising politicians in Hungary after the regime change of 1989, and then your name became associated with one of its biggest scandals. What was this experience like for you?

If I could be objective, I’d say: it’s my personal misfortune. But there’s no anger inside me towards anyone. For those who go into this career, it doesn’t hurt to be aware that such things can happen to you. Looking back, I don’t lament about how much of what happened to me was fair or not. Or how much was my fault, or how much was due to chance or a malicious conspiracy by others.

What was your responsibility?

To start with, I took over the government at the head of a party that I was not compatible with, neither culturally or in terms of mentality. This was encoded into what happened later.

When did you realize this? That you weren’t compatible with your own party.

When things started to go bad for us after 2006. And when I saw that Fidesz owed its success, among other things, to being able to fight its battles as a large singular unit, which we were not capable of. When Orbán gave his ultimatum after the Őszöd speech was leaked, that if they do not remove me as Prime Minister within 72 hours then he would put so much pressure on MSZP that we couldn’t hope to be able to bear it, I naturally called together the leaders of the Socialist Party. And I had to admit that there were some in the leadership who wanted to comply with Orbán’s demand purely out of fear. In that regard, of course, they were honest enough to indicate as much – and so the decision was made for me to ask for a vote of confidence against myself in Parliament. But after this, I felt that the party had completely changed: not standing up for introducing the doctor’s visit fee, not arguing for it or explaining it, but fleeing from it. This showed me that the party could not handle the struggles that I urged them to fight for in the Őszöd speech. I had convinced them right then and there. I got their votes, but I couldn’t get their hearts. If you don’t believe in the story, in the hellish debates, in the struggle – then what is it in politics that you do believe in?

We do love conspiracy theories, so since you’ve already brought up the 72-hour ultimatum of October 2006: many contend that with this step Orbán truly brought you back into the game from a losing position. If he had been slower and more patient then and there, he could even have succeeded with the ruling coalition ridding itself of Ferenc Gyurcsány. But after such an ultimatum, MSZP could not have done anything else but reinforce your position three days later in a Parliamentary vote of confidence.

I prefer to believe in the truth contained in a non-public poetic treatise by Orbán that we learned about from the Wikileaks cables, stating, “If you can kill your adversary, and don’t put it off.” I don’t think that today’s Prime Minster, who was the leader of the opposition at the time, delivered this ultimatum in order to keep me in office. He did it because he had assessed the courage of the Socialists pretty well, and he saw a chance that they would back away from me.

There is also an interpretation that you two need each other mutually in a political sense, as a clearly tangible image of each other’s enemy.

I know that to this day there exists this Orbán-Gyurcsány parallel, which really does hold up in two respects. With respect to our origin, we both came from a provincial town and from poverty, and were both first generation intellectuals. But more importantly, we have taken completely opposite routes since coming to Budapest: Orbán became jealous of the downtown elite – he felt that they had taken something from him. Even to this day, he views the metropolitan intellectual elite with contempt. But I admired them. The way I saw it, it was like, “Damn, you can live this way too! Then why would I do it any other way?” We’re also alike in that both of us are strong characters who live for politics. This is true. But there are no similarities between our respective visions. Nor between the systems that we want to build. I think that Viktor Orbán started as a very promising European-minded democrat, and I even saw very many things in him to admire. But from then on he has become an increasingly authoritarian figure who left behind everything about him that was respectable. I came from the youth organization of the state party, so there’s no doubt that he could label me a “communist” (while even before the regime change we had said that we wanted a multi-party system, just more cautiously and slowly, unlike Fidesz at the time), but on this basis I became a wholehearted democrat.

It is said that the reason why Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico understand each other so well (though they have different ideologies within their party’s family structure) is because both are opportunistic, populist politicians who always view a particular situation in terms of the techniques of power, and analyze how to exploit it to their benefit. After Fico was elected as Prime Minister for the second time (freeing himself from the nationalist Slovak National Party), he was able to “turn towards Europe” after 2012 and develop good relations with Brussels. Do you think Viktor Orbán would also be capable of the same in a particular situation?

I wouldn’t rule it out. The turnabout he did in Hungarian-Russian relations in connection with expanding the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant, in a very short time and managed so successfully (the right-wing voting base, having previously been extremely suspicious towards the Russians, adopted a basically pro-Russian stance two months later, according to polling) speaks for itself. I do absolve Orbán on a very small point, and can self-critically say: it is of course important to be principally and morally committed in politics (which I think I still represent to this day), but it should not be taken too far. I took it too far. It’s perfectly normal for a politician to think about what his voters give him a mandate to do and not to do, no matter how correct he may be. When Orbán said to the Christian Democrats, “However right you are in regards to banning abortion, no matter how much it may be your fundamental position as a principled Christian, if we do this we’ll lose the elections,” I think he was completely right to say it. It wasn’t that I thought: “These Hungarians have become accustomed to free health care while they hand out gratuity money to doctors. I have to convince them to do things differently.” But before that point I should have thought about whether I could convince them, and if not, what good would it do if I lost and then they change it back? Because then I didn’t do anything. I was proud that I fought to justify myself even against the will of the majority. Viktor Orbán pushes terribly hard for the other half of this matter: he is capable of nearly any compromise on principle for the stabilization and extension of his power. Of course, he doesn’t rely on the discretion of the people, so he dismantles institutions that provide a check on democracy: even if they wanted to they wouldn’t be able to stop his intentions.

However, as a wealthy businessman, you sometimes say things like you know what it’s like to live on minimum wage, which it’s better to live poorly but honestly…

Why wouldn’t I able to know? A doctor doesn’t have to have a backache to be able to feel his patient’s pain. A teacher doesn’t have to be an idiot to be able to feel the suffering that his weakest student goes through studying for the next day’s lesson. A politician doesn’t have to live in misery to understand that public goods should be distributed on the basis of social justice. And I haven’t even spoken about coming from an apartment with a kitchenette, where our toilet was in the outer corridor, or a Christmas when we didn’t even have a donut to eat. And I don’t even have to add that a large part of my family still lives a life that is not even lower-middle class, but one beneath that. People I regularly get together with. I consider this comment a cheap intellectual slur if I ever happen to see it.

Do you have any personal relationships with right-wing politicians or opinion makers?

None.

Do you think this is normal?

Of course not. But this is because of a deliberate division of the country into two on Orbán’s behalf. We go along hearing phrases (from Orbán) like “the homeland cannot be in opposition,” while these are the most severe words you can say. This statement means that you do not consider another’s political existence as natural. You consider the other political side as an error that must be eliminated, and with their elimination you have less and less moral compunction. This is the endpoint of this process. And in turn, Viktor Orbán’s responsibility for making this concept more and more acceptable to the country cannot be overstated.

How do you think this final/fatal mutual distrust can be overcome? And would this generation be at all capable of doing it?

Certainly not with Orbán. The preamble to the current Hungarian constitution condemns the entire Hungarian left. Which is absurd. But I also do not think that a majority of Fidesz supporters and some of its leaders would not want a world that is much more relaxed than the one we have now.

Where do you think the country is now, ten years after Őszöd?

In its moral state ten years before Őszöd – I mean that it is in worse shape than before 2006. But Őszöd is not the primary cause of the moral deterioration. It’s a different issue whether it helped open up the way to letting what the authorities are now doing to the country hide in the cloak of legality. There is now a terrible atmosphere in the country, without any large, shared positive experiences or successes.

December 24, 2016

MSZP steps up to support László Botka without talking to the other parties

I’m amazed at the ineptitude of most of the politicians in the Hungarian opposition parties. They simply don’t know what should and what should not be said. I’m afraid that László Botka’s surprise announcement of his willingness to lead an election campaign, which I greeted enthusiastically, will lead nowhere because of the mistakes he and his party made within the short span of 24 hours.

Let’s start with the interview itself, to which I didn’t have access two days ago when I wrote about the Botka phenomenon. I had to rely on summaries. Now I have the full text. Botka stressed that he considers the closest cooperation among the democratic parties to be the cornerstone of victory. That means that he, as a long-time leading member of MSZP, must convince the other parties to join the common cause. But if this is the case, why did he feel it necessary to include the following sentences? “I have a better opinion of Ferenc Gyurcsány than the average Hungarian citizen. The numbers show that a good two-thirds of the electorate wouldn’t vote for a party list on which his name appears.” This is not an auspicious start toward forging a united front against the Orbán government.

Let’s take a look at the poll to which Botka was referring. Apparently, one of the smaller opposition parties commissioned it for their internal use. The party wanted to assess the attitude of the electorate toward a common list that included Gyurcsány’s name. If you take a look at the results as they appeared in 168 Óra, you will find that the numbers Botka is quoting include Fidesz, LMP and Jobbik voters, who wouldn’t vote for a list put together by MSZP, DK, Párbeszéd, Együtt, etc. in the first place. Not terribly surprisingly, 86% of Fidesz, 89% of Jobbik, and 79% of LMP voters wouldn’t want anything to do with the democratic opposition’s common list. These people are not the democratic opposition’s potential voters. The numbers that are relevant are the MSZP, DK, and undecided voters. Naturally, 91% of DK voters would vote for a common list that included their party chief. Even the majority (62%) of MSZP voters aren’t allergic to the former prime minister. And most importantly, the undecided voters are split almost down the middle on the issue. Surely, headlines like “No Gyurcsány even against Orbán” are misleading. And Botka’s reliance on the overall poll number is regrettable.

MSZP made the second mistake today. Botka’s conditions for being a candidate for prime minister were addressed to the leaders of all the democratic parties. Not just to MSZP. Yet the party, without consulting with the others, made an official announcement saying that they accept Botka’s conditions because “in the last six months the party in its negotiations with the other opposition parties represented exactly the ideas that László Botka put forth.” Therefore, “MSZP supports him as the candidate for the post of common prime minister of the democratic opposition.”

Not surprisingly, DK is not thrilled. The official reason for their dissatisfaction is that, until now, MSZP supported the idea of selecting both the candidate for the post of prime minister and the 106 individuals who would run in each electoral district through primaries. MSZP’s unilateral support for Botka goes against the party’s position during the negotiations. Otherwise, Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman of DK, announced that his party is ready to give up the idea of primaries because, after all, at earlier by-elections opposition candidates won handily without any newfangled selection process. They are, however, waiting for MSZP’s “final suggestion on the method of choosing a candidate for the post of prime minister” before they announce their reaction to these new developments. Gréczy said nothing about Botka’s implicit demand to remove Gyurcsány’s name from the joint party list, but there is no question that the DK leadership will never agree to such a condition.

The Orbán media is making the most of Botka’s unfortunate remarks. Magyar Idők’s headline trumpets that “according to Botka, the left cannot win with Gyurcsány.”

The paper is also piling abuse on László Botka as a politician. Apparently, one of the leading socialist politicians told the paper that “Botka should stay in Szeged” because he is a “disagreeable fellow” who has only demands while he waits for others to do the work. Other socialists pointed out that “creating a joint list without Gyurcsány is impossible.”

888.hu is busily publishing article after article about Botka, saying that his popularity in Szeged is waning because of his “support” of the “migrants.” He is described as someone who would love to see thousands and thousands of migrants because when the refugees arrived in Szeged during the summer of 2015, he dared to say that “they didn’t disturb the inhabitants of the city at all.” His sin was that he behaved humanely when thousands were stranded at the Szeged railroad stations.

Soon enough Botka will find himself in Gyurcsány’s shoes

I suspect that Viktor Orbán is not happy with the appearance of László Botka as a possible leader of the opposition, and therefore the pro-government media is already hard at work trying to discredit him. It would be time to close ranks on the left, to iron out the differences in a great hurry. That will mean compromise on Botka’s part as well.

December 23, 2016

András Kósa: “The speech of the chief: Őszöd ten years later” Part II

fonok-beszedeAndrás Kósa, a well-known Hungarian journalist, just published a book titled The Speech of the Chief: Őszöd Ten Years Later. It is a collection of interviews with former and current politicians as well as with political commentators. Interest in Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech and its impact on subsequent political developments doesn’t seem to wane. A reader and friend of Hungarian Spectrum, Steven N., who is also a friend of Kósa, approached me asking whether we would be interested in Kósa’s interview with Ferenc Gyurcsány. If yes, he would translate it for us. I gladly accepted his offer. This is the second part of the interview.

But first, a few words about András Kósa. I remember him from the days when he was writing in the still liberal Magyar Hírlap in the early 2000s. Later he worked for Hírszerző, which was eventually absorbed by HVG. For a short while, he wrote for vs.hu. The website received some bad press when it became known that New Wave Media, the owner of vs.hu, had received 642,255,760 forints from foundations of the Hungarian National Bank. Six of the website’s journalists immediately resigned. András Kósa was one of them.

This June Kósa joined Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. As he said, “I know both editorial teams and I could say yes to both offers in good conscience.”

My heartfelt thanks to “Steven N.” for his work in translating the interview with Ferenc Gyurcsány. This second part is not about the speech but about the current state of Hungarian party politics. I found it fascinating and am looking forward to the third and final installment.

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András Kósa: Returning to the identity crisis issue: earlier there were serious attempts by you and MSZP to be more open towards young people (which even involved popular entertainment venues) so you could build a network with them. These attempts also failed. What was the reason for this?

Ferenc Gyurcsány: This was successful between 2004 and2006, and of course many things changed after the fall of 2006. This was partly because a credibility crisis arose from Őszöd, and also from social pressure that came about through our austerity program. It wasn’t cool or trendy enough at the time for young people to support the left, and the way it looks now; this basically hasn’t changed since then either.

I suppose it’s little comfort for you that it isn’t that trendy or cool nowadays to be a Fidesz supporter either. These days it really does seem that only Jobbik is able to reach young people.

But based on research that’s available, for the moment we don’t have to ring the alarm bells just yet. I rather fear that younger generations are simply staying out of the political realm, both in their everyday life and also during elections. They simply don’t take part in it. I’m not counting on things to turn for the better anytime soon. It is customary to characterize every left-wing public forum as “an audience predominately made up of retirees.” But if we look at similar forums for Fidesz, older people there also make up most of the attendees. They have much more determination and a greater willingness to vote, and of course, they are basically independent of the state, since they can’t be individually pressured because they receive a pension. Retirees are the strongest and most important demographic of the electorate today.

When you launched the Demokratikus Koalíció, where would you have guessed the party’s position and support in mid-2016?

It’s a good question, as it was very hard for us to be able to estimate at the time how high our support could go. There’s now roughly a consensus among analysts that we may have around half a million stable voters, or 10 percent support, plus or minus 1-2 percent, which is still growing. Some have previously said that we would have trouble getting past even the 5 percent threshold, while others did not rule out us getting as much as 30 percent. I’m not displeased with what we have achieved. In a real electoral situation, on an independent list, we could get roughly 15 percent, and I predict this for 2018 too.

However, there is also consensus among analysts that DK and MSZP are sharing the same “left-wing electoral cake” amongst themselves, and at the same time are unable to reach new groups of voters for now.

I wouldn’t presently be able to either confirm or deny this. All I can say is that based on polling, it is certain that a good number of our supporters have come from Együtt, the former party of [ex-PM] Gordon Bajnai. As they have collapsed, we have started to gain support. It’s also certain that there has been some crossover between the DK and Socialist voting bases. Based on my political experience thus far, I can say that this “communicating vessels” phenomenon will persist. We will be able to reach voters from those who are undecided once we finally have a more united alternative on this side. When there’s a better possibility of believing – which we, of course, have confidence in – that “these guys really can win.” Uncertain voters have no strong party preferences and do not judge ideologically: if they see a force that can unseat the ruling government, then that can be attractive to them, as they want to be part of this success. But for this to happen, many things still have to take shape within the left wing in the upcoming period to create such an alternative.

Could a primary election possibly play a positive role in this?

In any given local voting district, say, in Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County, no one would give a hoot about a primary. We wouldn’t even have the resources to organize it. Thirdly, knowing our side, a primary process and campaign would only result in leftist candidates bashing each other for weeks during the campaign, and by the time there’s a winner, our only achievement would be that person unable to get the entire left-wing camp behind him. So I don’t consider a primary election a sensible or useful instrument at the local level. If there were a joint alternative who headed the left, meaning a joint candidate for prime minister, I would consider that a good thing. But this entails a serious prerequisite: there should be at least two candidates in the first round. There isn’t even one now. Or rather, there are some techniques that can be applied in certain political situations, but these are not present at the moment. In this regard, the situation is radically different than it was before 2014. Back then, two candidates who were unable to come to an agreement with each other (MSZP Chair Attila Mesterházy and Gordon Bajnai) competed for the nomination. That’s when a primary would have solved the problem. But if there isn’t even one, then how can we call for a primary election?

In retrospect, what would you have done differently in 2014 instead of creating the joint ticket that proved to be a complete failure?

The fundamental error then was committed by Gordon Bajnai, despite all of his good intentions. Launching a political movement with the aim of bringing together democrats against the Orbán regime, without any preparation, without any consultation with the leaders of potential participants, launching this, simply announcing it, then expecting everyone to applaud it the next day and “get behind me” – this was a serious folly. It attests to a certain type of self-confidence that I had after the 2006 election, one of “I will be able to do everything in this country.” This is not a good advisor. And then, launching an independent party when you realize this isn’t working is no less of a serious mistake. Moreover, while Gordon Bajnai had gained very serious credibility following his one year of governing, it’s as if he did not understand that by not running in 2010, and even effectively removing himself from the skirmishes of party politics for two years and not having led a campaign, he was in a completely different situation than a party politician who puts himself to the test during an election. It’s a completely different genre. The mistakes were encoded into the situation. On the other hand, had I been in Attila Mesterházy’s place, especially at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, I would have conceded to Gordon Bajnai the nomination for prime minister. There was a small chance then that this team would win – so let Gordon Bajnai carry this burden. Attila’s insistence on being the nominee was completely senseless and irrational. It even cost him his career, at least for a while.

However, he could rightfully say that since he had undertaken the leadership of MSZP in the midst of a political crisis, when many people hadn’t ruled out even the complete disintegration of the party, and somehow had still continued to manage it until the 2014 elections, then why shouldn’t he be their nominee for prime minister?

Obviously, since he decided to do it the way you said. But this is not ultimately what swept Attila away, but the party’s disastrous results in the subsequent European Parliament elections, when they got 11 percent of the vote.

During the 2014 campaign, you also received quite a lot of criticism. Such things were said about you like, “Ferenc Gyurcsány is unreliable and unpredictable. If there’s a rally, then you can never know what he’s going to say when he steps on stage. He steals the show from others and always draws attention to himself at the worst time.” What do you think of these claims?

They can’t blame me for trying to shape the political relations on the left so that they wouldn’t be allied against us, the DK Party. For me, the strange thing is that this surprises anyone. This has been the preeminent political interest of the Demokratikus Koalíció party. I could not allow the other two actors (Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy) to push me out. It betrays the underdeveloped political skills of whoever is surprised by this. In any case, once the decision was made to create a broad coalition under Attila’s leadership, I don’t think you could find anyone else who came out more forcefully for Attila Mesterházy and pushed through the campaign without a single political comment about him or about our united efforts. Someone who spoke practically in superlatives about our candidate. I cannot do any more than this. It is true, of course, that I am a guy with personality. But this is valuable in politics. If I use my personality for a joint victory, what would be the problem with that?

Why is it that apart from you, there aren’t any other “guys with personality” on the left today?

I don’t know why. All I see is that many people try to explain their own mediocrity and mediocre performance by saying almost automatically, “It would be so much easier without Gyurcsány!” But it’s not me that’s preventing András Schiffer, Viktor Szigetvári, Gergely Karácsony, or Gábor Fodor from becoming better politicians. Or anyone else who pops up. This is a competitive political world. It is certainly not the case that politicians who call themselves democrats share each other’s’ roles within the remains of an otherwise diminishing political framework. If I have half a million voters (and it’s at least that many) for whom DK is a valuable alternative, why would we take this possibility away from them? Let someone else also get half a million, or a million! If everyone could do this on our side, we would defeat Fidesz in two days.

Don’t you feel that you’ve taken the Hungarian left hostage? The other players can neither swallow you nor spit you out. As long as you’re still here, you are the focus, giving Fidesz a perfect opportunity to “blame Gyurcsány for everything.” And yet, for now, there is no one else besides you.

Is it because of me that József Tóbiás [then MSZP chair – trans.] is not more exciting? It isn’t because of me. The reason isn’t me, but rather him, and his party. You were correct with your comment about Fidesz. It’s a very conscious political strategy on their part to present a clear picture of the enemy to maintain the unifying force of the right wing. In the world of Hungarian politics, anyone who dares to go against Fidesz becomes an enemy. Like Bajnai, George Soros, or Brussels. I have a privileged place in this line. But knowing Fidesz, I don’t believe for a minute that if it wasn’t me but a similar leader with personality who came along and opposed Fidesz in the same way, that person would not become public enemy number one in an instant. All it takes for a world-famous, Kossuth Prize-decorated conductor is to get into an argument with the mayor of Budapest, and he immediately becomes one of Soros’ henchmen.

How long do you think this will continue to work for them? How long will Fidesz be able to blame Gyurcsány for everything?

For an ever-shrinking core group, it will absolutely continue to work for them. The Őszöd story is ten years old – it hardly means anything to those who are now 25. In addition, we can also see that there are a lot of things I said in which the real world seems to have proven me correct. Was I right when I said that running the health care system in its present condition was unsustainable? And so I wanted to shake up my party to dare them to touch it? Yes. Was I right when I said that in the educational system today the disadvantages brought from home were not decreasing but increasing? Yes. Was I right when I said that we didn’t need to be a politician just because we couldn’t go back to polishing cars? But because there has to be some ethos to what we do as politicians? I believe so. Quite a few people over the past few years have shed their previous outrage at me and are now willing to say: maybe this guy was right. Six weeks ago I sat around with a group of people, and a good number of them were center-right leaning. It was awfully exciting when one of them came up to me at the end of the conversation and said, “I was there on October 23, 2006, yelling and honking at you, and now I’m a little ashamed of myself because of it.” I think this is now part of the Őszöd story too.

Hungarian political life – at least in the medium term – will remain three-pronged: along with Fidesz and Jobbik, the Hungarian left-wing will need to attain a majority that can form a government. When do you think this is likely to happen?

What we’ve observed in the past two years is a completely new phenomenon in Hungarian politics: some voters who oppose Fidesz from any political orientation have a greater desire to see the ruling party fall than the attachment they have to their own party. So they are willing to make insanely large moves just to keep the Fidesz candidate from winning the election. We had an unprecedented transfer of votes from the democratic left to the extreme right, and vice versa. A consequence of this could very easily be that Fidesz – even with a relative majority – loses 75-80 out of 106 electoral districts. One possible consequence of this would be that no one will get an absolute majority in 2018, and the chance arises for a minority government to form, or we are forced to have new elections.

Getting back to your chances in 2018 – and the left wing’s identity crisis: earlier I spoke with two MSZP leaders who, independently of each other, both said that the left can win if they find a candidate for Prime Minister who is someone that nobody knows yet, but is otherwise well-known, even a person widely recognized in society; who is both young but already has a large network of connections, who can’t have his financial means taken away from him (which probably means a wealthy businessman), yet no questionable issue can be tied to him, and of course, if possible he shouldn’t even enter politics until 2017, so as not to give Fidesz much time to “mow him down” in a political sense. It would be quite funny if that were your only chance, don’t you think?

More and more people believe that Fidesz skews the opinion polls in its favor, possibly by as much as 4-5 percent. If this is our starting point, then the ruling party’s current share of around 40-45 percent shows that in fact support for Fidesz has dropped below 40 percent. This is more than likely. The combined support of the Socialists and DK is around 30 percent, while the tiny parties (Együtt and Párbeszéd Magyarországért) together have a few percentage points. That is, two years before the election the difference is within 10 points. I don’t consider this dramatic. In 2002 we made up an even greater differential than this by 2004 when I was chosen as prime minister. We had an even bigger disadvantage. In this regard, the race may be even more open. You are correct that our main problem is whether or not we can respond to three major challenges. The first is a lack of credibility – this may be the most difficult to solve. The second is unifying the fragmented democratic side – I consider this a smaller concern at present. And the third is coordinating the party programs, which are quite varied right now – with the appropriate amount of counsel; this is the most easily solvable.

If Fidesz stays in power in 2018, can the current Hungarian left wing hold out for another four years?

I think that we will have a delegation of at least 10-15 members in the new Parliamentary session, even if the left is defeated in the election. I can’t really see into MSZP’s situation, so it is hard to say what will happen with the Hungarian left wing as a whole if we remain in opposition after 2018. The question is whether any of the current political fragments will disappear if the picture clears up, and if some kind of rapprochement begins to form amongst the remaining parties. It’s difficult to say any more about this right now.

Is it worth seriously discussing any kind of electoral cooperation with the Párbeszéd Magyarországért Party, which has 1 percent support, or with Együtt, which has around 2 percent?

I remember very well what it was like when we only had 1-2 percent support, and how others treated us then. I didn’t consider it proper of them, and I would not like to behave now in a way that I didn’t approve of at that time. In 2002, the socialists won by a few ten thousand votes in total: by a couple of tenths of a percent, if you like. So I am more inclined to have as many as possible come on board.

One of the foundations of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s strategy for power is nominating as many absolutely loyal supporters as they can to head every public institution (Constitutional Court, Fiscal Council, Media Council, Chief Prosecutor, National Office for the Judiciary, etc.) with a long mandate. If a change of government occurs under these circumstances, how much room will the new cabinet have to maneuver?

Quite a few people in the background are examining these kinds of situations that could be traps, and we do the same in DK as well. There’s a trap which, legally – with a little innovation – can be avoided, and one that will persist. And there’s a trap that can be avoided through political means.

Such as? What kind of things, and how?

I wouldn’t want to say any more about it, of course, since I don’t want to spoil our chances.

According to my sources, Viktor Orbán, speaking even earlier about the possibility of a change in government one day, said in a backroom discussion that they would resist a new government’s efforts to reshape the system, and that the extent of this will depend on how vigorously this particular government attempts to tear down the established order. How far do you think Fidesz can go to maintain its System of National Cooperation?

I don’t think they have any scruples. The “Fidesz of Orbán,” I think, would go very, very far in this area. I can presume anything of a person who is able to let the phrase “any means can be used to make a legitimate government fail” come out of his mouth. The question is not whether Fidesz will have the will, but whether they will still be in a position and have enough public support, credibility, and power to mobilize so that they can realize their will or not.

December 5, 2016