Tag Archives: Ferenc Gyurcsány

MSZP is grasping at straws as its support plummets

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

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

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

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

Tamás Lattmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 27, 2017

MSZP’s “generous offer” rejected

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

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

The announcement of the “generous offer”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 26, 2017

Dilemmas in current Hungarian politics

On the surface it was no more than a storm in a teacup: András Gerő, historian of the Habsburg Monarchy, wrote an angry letter to a somewhat secretive organization called Szeretem Magyarországot Klub/SZMK (I love Hungary Club) because the club members gave their blessing to an invitation to Jobbik Chairman Gábor Vona to meet with the membership. What the club members were especially interested in was Jobbik’s racist and anti-Semitic past and its present change of heart.

András Gerő is not a member of the club, but he normally gets invitations to the monthly gatherings because of his earlier appearance before the group as an invited guest. Still, he decided to write a sharply-worded letter to the club in which he expressed his disapproval of the decision. In the letter he admitted that Jobbik is “a legitimate parliamentary force,” but he argued that SZMK, with this invitation, legitimizes Jobbik and its chairman. The former is a political legitimization; the latter, intellectual and moral. Moreover, SZMK’s claim that by listening to Vona the members could gain new and useful information is idle. What one can hear about Jobbik in the media is quite enough to form an opinion of this party.

Gerő often ends up in the midst of controversies of his own making. A few years ago he divided the historical community by accusing Ignác Romsics of anti-Semitism, which most observers found unwarranted. His siding with Mária Schmidt against Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations in the altercation over the House of Fate didn’t raise Gerő’s stature in my eyes. His relationship with the Fidesz government is also hazy because he is the director of the Habsburg Historical Institute, a one-man organization (plus a secretary) with a very elegant office. The institute’s continued existence depends on the goodwill of the Orbán government. It was because of this connection that Jobbik accused Gerő of serving Viktor Orbán’s interests in trying to blacken the name of Jobbik.

I doubt that Gerő acted as an agent of Fidesz, trying to torpedo Vona’s appearance before the members of SZMK. But Fidesz certainly loved Gerő’s attack on Jobbik’s chairman since Viktor Orbán’s real enemy at the moment is Gábor Vona. First of all, although Jobbik’s move to the center has weakened the party somewhat, it still has a large following. Jobbik today is the second largest party in Hungary. Moreover, there are signs that Jobbik has acquired a powerful patron with deep pockets in the person of Lajos Simicska, who seems ready to spend a considerable amount of money to get rid of Viktor Orbán. Simicska not only helps Jobbik financially. He also shares with its leadership the large repository of his “dirty tricks” that made Fidesz into the powerful organization that it is today. Jobbik’s move to the center especially frightens Orbán because he worries that his whole political edifice might crumble if Jobbik and the left-of-center forces decide to cooperate in some manner.

When it comes to the coverage of Jobbik in the Fidesz media, the emphasis is on the extremism of Jobbik. Magyar Idők published several articles on Gerő’s letter in which it embraced the historian’s opinion that “Jobbik is the political putrefier of Hungarian society.” Magyar Idők’s editorial on the subject carried the title: “Gábor Vona bowed before the Left.” Gerő, who enjoys being in the center of these controversies, in one of his television appearances called SZMK’s invitation to Vona “political racism.”

What transpired at this contentious meeting? It is difficult to get too much information about SZMK’s gatherings. We know that it is an elite club where the recommended yearly dues are 120,000 forints (approximately $450). Members and participants are asked to be discrete, and therefore the club functions pretty much without any public mention. Last year Károly Gerendai, the founder of SZMK and the brains behind the Sziget Festival, which is one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe, did talk to Magyar Nemzet. There he gave some details about the membership and about the illustrious visitors who had appeared before them in the past few years, but otherwise little is known about the club’s activities. ATV got in touch with a few members, some of whom admitted that a long debate preceded Vona’s invitation. But, they said, at the end the decision was reached that “Gábor Vona is one of the most remarkable figures today in Hungarian politics who has been moving away from his earlier right radical position. We know his past, but he has a place in this club because we have many questions we would like to get answers to.” Moreover, “Gábor Vona and his party are a factor in Hungarian politics,” one of the participants said.

Magyar Idők’s editorial recalled that in 2011 Gergely Karácsony, then still a member of LMP, suggested a temporary strategic alliance among all the opposition parties, including Jobbik, which could easily defeat Fidesz and gain a two-thirds majority. After a few months of “housecleaning” and a new more proportionate electoral law, the parliament could be dissolved and new elections could be held. This strategy has been in the air ever since. Miklós Haraszti, without suggesting a temporary alliance with Jobbik, is also thinking along the same lines: to force Fidesz in some way to accept a new electoral law. Lajos Bokros, when he talks about the magic 500 days which would be enough to get rid of the most objectionable pieces of Fidesz legislation, after which new elections could be held, is also proposing a variation of the same theme. And this is exactly what Viktor Orbán is worried about because, if that materializes, if Vona were able to convince the socialist-liberal parties that he is no longer the man they had known for years, Fidesz’s chances of winning the election, at least as things stand right now, would be nil.

Moreover, there are a lot of ordinary citizens who consider Orbán’s removal so important that they believe a temporary alliance with Jobbik is still preferable to perhaps decades of Orbán’s fascistoid one-party system. Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about this more than a year ago. After seeing that, at a couple of by-elections, citizens were ready to maximize their votes by voting for the candidate most likely to win and ignoring party affiliations, he wondered whether left-right cooperation might materialize. As he put it, “I wouldn’t have any enthusiasm for it, but I can no longer rule out the possibility of the opposition parties’ joining forces in the interest of getting rid of the present government. This regime might have a very strange end.”

At present no one contemplates such a joint action involving Jobbik. In fact, Gyurcsány’s party is one of the loudest in excluding any such possibility. On the other hand, apparently Vona told his SZMK audience that “Jobbik is ready to cooperate with anyone against Fidesz and specifically mentioned LMP as a possible ally.” Mandiner, a right-wing publication, noted that Vona and his audience especially saw eye to eye when it came to the person of Viktor Orbán. As the paper’s source claimed, “the audience and the party chairman outdid each other in their invectives against Orbán.”

Jobbik joined the other parties when it came to the “national minimum” on healthcare, and today the Közös Ország Mozgalom announced that they had received assurances from Dóra Duró, a Jobbik MP, that the party will take a look at the electoral law in its final form and will make a decision as to whether they are ready to support it. No one can see into the future, but there are signs of left and right pulling in the same direction.

September 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 24, 2017

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

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

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

Apparently, Botka’s great hope is Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd, who is currently vying for the same post as Botka. A couple of weeks ago he joined the MSZP hopeful in Szeged where he made some ambiguous remarks about his relationship to Botka. At the time, I wrote: “This gathering had one bright side…. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word ‘cooperation’ carefully because I don’t think that ‘support’ would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is ‘willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.’”

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

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

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

September 18, 2017

“Orbán or Europe? Choose!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2, 2017

László Botka is on the campaign trail, with some hiccups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 30, 2017