Tag Archives: Fidesz

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

Momentum’s anti-Olympics drive is already a success

A day after I wrote a post on the anti-Olympics drive there was an encounter at one of the collecting stations which, to my mind, starkly illustrates the attitudinal differences between those young people who established a new political movement called Momentum and the older generation of MSZP politicians.

Tibor Szanyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, decided to reap some political benefit by appearing on a news clip as he is signing the referendum petition. Apparently, he informed the Momentum activists of his intentions. When he showed up, cameraman and all, András Fekete-Győr, the president of Momentum, appeared and gave Szanyi a piece of his mind about the do-nothing attitude of Szanyi’s party. Party politicians come here for a media opportunity instead of going out and helping to collect signatures. Szanyi was visibly embarrassed and acted like a little boy who had just been scolded by his father. Once he had recovered from the shock, however, he decided to strike back. In a totally unnecessary retort Szanyi went so far as to compare the leaders of Momentum to Fidesz in their “manipulation of the news.” And he called them “asphalt hamsters,” whatever this term means. Not the best beginning for cooperation between professional politicians and the civil activists. I share Fekete-Győr’s anger when I see MSZP’s total inability (and unwillingness) to engage the population on any level save through TV and radio interviews.

Momentum activists are conducting a campaign that so far has been very successful, especially if one compares it to earlier abortive attempts by parties and individuals. In less than two weeks the Momentum activists, with the help of LMP, collected over 80,000 of the requisite 138,000 signatures. Yesterday László Sólyom, the former president of the country, signed the petition, as was reported by some readers of Index who spotted him.

Source: Pesti Srácok / Photo Péter Gyula Horváth

The conservative József Eötvös Group organized a discussion on the economic effects of holding the 2024 Olympics in Hungary. The main speaker was a “sport economist” who is in favor of the project, yet even he had to admit that if the Olympic Games were held in Budapest, they most likely would not be profitable. In fact, from his speech it became clear that the estimates of PricewaterhouseCoopers are unrealistic because the figures they presented cover only the “organizational costs.” The cost of the actual investments, like buildings, the Olympic village, stadiums, and infrastructure, are not included in the overall cost because, the eager organizers claim, these investment projects would have had to be built anyway and, in any case, they were already included in future plans.

So far Viktor Orbán is putting on a good face about Momentum’s NOlimpia drive. Only yesterday ATV learned from Fidesz sources that he believes that, even if there is a referendum, supporters of the Games will be in the great majority. As one self-assured Fidesz leader told ATV, “for the time being we are just sitting and smiling. We are not afraid.”

Well, perhaps Fidesz leaders spoke too early because today a new Medián poll was released. It shows that Fidesz’s assumptions about a pro-Olympic public in Budapest are based on faulty data. This is what happens when polling questions are being manipulated to achieve the desired results. While all the earlier polls showed little support for the Games, the one conducted by a pro-Olympic group found overwhelming support for holding the Olympics in Hungary.

Yes, there is every reason to believe that if a referendum were held, the anti-Olympics folks would be in the majority. According to Medián, 68% of the people don’t support holding the games in Budapest because it would cost too much and the money should be used for “more useful” things. Only 26% think that, “regardless of the cost,” the Olympic Games would strengthen “the bond that connects members of the nation and national pride.” Nine percent of those polled had already signed the petition, and 33% said they are planning to do so even if the number of signatures collected is multiples of those required. Sixty percent of them support the idea of holding a referendum on the question. If a referendum were held today, 54% of the Budapest voters would opt for withdrawing the Hungarian Olympic Committee’s application. Among those who are certain they would vote at such a referendum, the percentage is even higher, 59%.

The same Fidesz informant who told ATV that they were not worried one bit about Momentum’s campaign added that, even if the young activists succeed, there is always the weapon of a government counter-campaign in favor of the games. Of course, this is exactly what would happen. But I’m not at all sure in light of what I am reading about the politics of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) whether it would be worth the effort. I have very little knowledge of the inner workings of the IOC, but according to rumors, the committee “might break with established practice by naming the host-cities of both the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games when it gathers in Peru in September.” The reason for such a decision is that, despite the reforms introduced to lower the cost and make hosting the games more attractive, very few cities have applied, and those which had shown an initial interest later changed their minds, like Rome or, after a referendum, Hamburg. Currently, both Paris and Los Angeles are vying for the 2024 games; in fact, Paris is so adamant that at one point the French sports leaders announced that it is either 2024 or nothing. Perhaps, the officials of IOC figure, they could convince one of the two to accept the later date. In that case, Budapest’s chances are close to nil.

The news of the referendum drive in Budapest certainly reached the headquarters of IOC and may have strengthened their resolve to name the host countries for both the 2024 and 2028 games in September. As a sports reporter for insidethegames.biz writes, such a decision would be wise “since it emerged that Budapest, the outsider in what is currently a three-horse race, would not launch its international promotion campaign at the beginning of this month as planned, due to a resurgence of the referendum calls that seem to have been lingering in the background almost from day one.” The author further speculates that IOC’s decision would be made easier “if a handy referendum put a spanner in Budapest’s works.”

So, even though Fidesz leaders might be smiling and feeling very sure of themselves, the Hungarian Olympic Committee (MOB) is a great deal more cautious. Moreover, the very fact that an anti-Olympic drive began in Budapest has already damaged Hungary’s chances. Medián’s poll results will not help the Hungarian cause either. If the inhabitants of both Paris and Los Angeles are so gung-ho, the IOC will think twice before awarding the Games to a city where two-thirds of the population don’t want them.

Momentum’s political success is already palpable. That’s why I can’t understand why the two largest opposition parties on the left didn’t rush to support its initiative. NOlimpia is obviously a popular cause and promotes political action. I think that MSZP and DK made a mistake.

February 1, 2017

Sebastian Gorka’s road from Budapest to the White House

A few hours ago Sebastian Gorka triumphantly announced on Twitter: “Well the radio silence is over. Congrats to those who guessed! Honored to be Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States,” most likely on the National Security Council. Faithful followers of Fox News may be familiar with his name since Gorka has been a frequent guest as an expert on Islamic terror. He is one of those people who are convinced that the Western world is at war with Islam, a war that could have been won if the president of the United States had been serious about the mission, as Barack Obama obviously wasn’t. Trump, however, “sees that this is an actual war that he wants to win.” It was this theme that Gorka developed in his 2016 book Defeating Jihad: A Winnable War. Gorka is also a regular contributor to Breitbart News and a protégé of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, or, as GQ magazine called him, “our president.”

Sebastian Gorka with Donald Trump

Sebastian Gorka’s name is not exactly a household word in the United States, but in Hungary it has a more familiar ring. In the years after 9/11 Sebestyén Gorka, as he was known in Hungary, was a national security analyst who, according to some less than charitable TV viewers, was usually wrong.

Gorka was born in Great Britain in 1970, the son of Hungarian refugees Zsuzsa and Pál Gorka. The father, according to Sebastian, was sentenced to life in the 1950s and was freed in October 1956. A few years ago Pál Gorka, who moved back to Hungary after 1990, wrote a book about his experiences before and during the revolution.

The young Gorka received a B.A. in philosophy and theology from the University of London and, upon graduation, joined the British Territorial Army reserves, serving in the Intelligence Corps. In 1992 he followed his parents to Hungary, where his meager military training and intelligence experience were sufficient to land him a job in the Ministry of Defense. There he worked on international security issues and Hungary’s future accession to NATO. Gorka spent five years in the ministry, during which time he also earned a master’s degree from Corvinus University in international relations and diplomacy. Later he received his Ph.D. from the same institution.

Anyone who’s interested in the career of Sebastian Gorka should consult his Wikipedia entry which, I suspect, he wrote himself. There is no need to repeat all that information. Instead I will concentrate on his time in Hungary.

Hundreds of articles have appeared in the Hungarian media in the last few days about Gorka’s fabulous career. He and his family left Hungary for the United States only nine years ago, and yet he will be an important adviser to the president of the United States. These articles note that he was also an adviser to Viktor Orbán. Some of the better informed pieces report that he eventually became disillusioned with Orbán and established a party, Új Demokratikus Koalíció. Interestingly, in his many resumés one finds not a word about his position as adviser to Viktor Orbán, which is odd since one would think that it might be a plus for his political ambitions.

Gorka established and was the executive director of a conservative think tank, the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security, in Budapest. By 2006 he decided to chart his own political course. In September of that year he gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet in which he explained why he was running against the Fidesz candidate for the mayoralty of Piliscsaba, a picturesque village in the Budapest metropolitan area where he and his family lived. A few days later he talked to someone from the New Telegraphic Agency who complained about the red-and-white-striped “Árpád” flags favored by Magyar Gárda. Gorka explained to him that the flag-wavers “are a soft target, because how do you prove you’re not a fascist?” And, he continued, “if you say that eight centuries of history can be eradicated by 19 months of fascist distortion of symbols, you’re losing historical perspective.” Gorka was a bit off; Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross regime lasted only about four months.

In January 2007 he and three others established a right-wing party. After Viktor Orbán lost the election in 2006 a lot of people within his own party came to believe that Fidesz cannot win an election as long as Orbán is at the helm. Gorka was one of the “insurgents.” He identified three groups within the party. One was the Orbán-Simicska line. The other was a group led by István Stumpf, head of the prime minister’s office during the first Orbán government, and Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror and today the court historian of Viktor Orbán. The third group was led by Zoltán Pokorni which, according to Gorka, was the weakest of the three. It was under these circumstances that Gorka wanted to establish a party in opposition to Fidesz. He added that he was hoping that some Fidesz leaders would join him. He specifically mentioned János Áder, today president of Hungary.

Jobbik, which had just started to become an important factor in the country’s domestic politics, sent an observer to the press conference that set out the goals of the new party. He came away with the feeling that the ideology of the Új Demokratikus Koalíció was confused. The leaders of the party counted on the right-wing followers of Mária Schmidt, the left-winger followers of Gyula Horn, and the “völkisch-national-socialists” of Katalin Szili. No wonder that Gorka’s attempt to establish this new party was a total flop. Most likely it was his political failure that prompted him to leave Hungary and not, as he later claimed, “the chaos created by Gyurcsány.”

The last time Gorka gave an interview to a Hungarian newspaper was in September 2016. The reporter of Magyar Nemzet asked his opinion of Viktor Orbán’s Russian policy, and he was anything but complimentary. He harshly criticized Putin’s policies and found Orbán’s balancing act between NATO and Moscow to be both dangerous and unsustainable. Orbán, he said, will have to decide between the West and the East. Given Gorka’s family background, it makes sense that he would be no fan of Russia or Putin, the former KGB agent.

Hungary might think that it is gaining influence in Washington by having Sebastian Gorka in such a prominent position. But given his low opinion of Orbán, whom he considered already in 2006 unfit to lead the country, the Hungarian prime minister might not get the kind of reception from Trump that he expects.

January 31, 2017

The political credo of László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for prime minister

The original article by László Botka, titled “Az igazságos Magyarországért,” appeared in 160 Óra on January 21, 2017. Thanks to the staff of The Budapest Sentinelit was translated into English and published today. I am grateful to the Sentinel‘s editors for permission to make the translation available to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Hungarian left has not been in such a storm battered state during the entire existence of the third republic, yet Hungary has never needed the left as much as it does now.

Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010, has thrust a country that served in the 1990s as a model for democracy in Eastern Central Europe into autocracy. Any democratic political force that defeats Orbán must return to constitutional democracy and the rule of law. However, the Orbán regime has not only dismantled the rule of law and democracy, but also spread a concept of society that is deeply unjust, runs counter to the basic interests of Hungarian people, and which all true left-wing forces must fight against.

The crisis of the left wing is not only a domestic issue. The rapid advance of national populism means progressive political forces around the world have found themselves on the defensive. Talk in recent years has been about nothing else: from the refugee crisis, via Brexit, to the US presidential election. Populists promised those parts of society that have been left behind, or are just holding on, that they can once again enjoy a secure livelihood – through the repression of other groups. Migrants, the homeless, the unemployed, the “undeserving” poor, ethnic minorities, intellectuals who express solidarity with them, and civic activists are all marked down as enemies of the nation. Hungary is at the forefront of all this: here the breakthrough for national populism came in 2010 with Orbán’s “ballot box revolution”.

Photo: Péter Komka

The left is now charged with a historic task: we must put a stop to this far-right national populism, and make our own vision of society attractive once again. Populists cannot solve the crisis that exists on many levels; they only make the problem worse. A populist is like a dentist who does not dare to tell a patient with toothache what the real cause of the problem is. Instead of treating it, he prescribes painkillers. The patient may well get temporary relief, but in reality his condition is getting ever worse. The left will not get anywhere with false remedies. We must be honest, because lying to a patient is dishonorable, the effects of a painkiller are only temporary, and the problem will only return in a more serious form. The Hungarian left must present a vision of a future Hungary that we would all like to live in, somewhere we can live well.

In this piece – which will be followed by more over the coming weeks – I have undertaken to present a vision of how our homeland could become a more just country. By aiming for this goal, the left could finally haul itself out of its deep crisis. We need a politics of equality that is far removed from that practiced by the left-wing in recent years and one that is diametrically opposed to Orbán’s vision of Hungary.

Orbán dreams of a “work-based” authoritarian state in which government representatives have the last word on every issue, even when they are wrong – one where the powers that be promise a well-functioning and developed economy can be built by ending democratic debate. Some observers of Orbán’s system say the prime minister’s aim is to set up an eastern European Singapore, where Orbán could lead the country for decades as father of the nation, and hurriedly join the developed world by cutting back on political debate. To put it more simply, Orbán is offering prosperity and security in exchange for freedom and democracy.

Hungary cannot accept this deal for two reasons. First of all, because this promise is a lie. Hungary will not be the next Singapore. There is not and never will be an Orbán miracle. Instead of building a developing, authoritarian Singapore, there has been a Putinization of the country, where the promise of prosperity only applies to those favored by Orbán. For the rest there is only poverty, hopelessness and abjection – and restricted freedom. We are talking about a system where, according to the Ministry of Human Resources, capable members of society are carrying Hungary “on their shoulders” while disadvantaged people such as the disabled and the Roma are merely a burden. That is, in its own dishonest way, the government is dividing society into those who “pull their weight” and the “carried”. Yet this “carrying on the shoulders” is another lie, because the government long ago abandoned the disadvantaged to their own problems and difficulties. Society under Fidesz is a cast system in which everyone has their own place and fate. Helping the lower casts is in no way an aim of the Orbán state. This cast system is held together by the power principle. Since 2010, Fidesz has built a new feudalism, and with this it keeps Hungary on the margins of the Western world.

Orbán believes in a labor market where workers are diligent producers and desire nothing but a secure place on the production line. This is the opposite of where the developed world is heading. The knowledge-based economies of the modern world can only take off with the work of creative people. The only route to creating a prosperous, dynamic economy is one where the education system sends students brimming with imagination and creativity out onto the path. It is significant that the education budget as a proportion of GDP has sunk to tragic depths under the Orbán regime. A new left-wing government must set out the goal of transforming Hungary into an innovative, knowledge-based economy by markedly increasing funding for, and radically raising, the level of education.

Equally significant is the fact that Orbán has come up with just one idea to tackle unemployment: workfare. But is not difficult to see that no start-up entrepreneurs are going to emerge from among those on public work schemes. Moreover, it is unfortunately clear that there is no path from the prison of workfare to a real job. Orbán’s work-based state is, for hundreds of thousands of people, nothing but a dead end.

Instead of the Orbán state, where social groups are set against one another and divided into winners and losers, we need a state that actively intervenes to help people achieve their goals and, where necessary, ensure a high level of leverage for this recovery. Hungary can only be successful if an ”only the fittest survive” mentality is replaced with one of “we are all in the same boat”.

It is not only because authoritarianism does not lead to prosperity that we must say no to Orbán’s system. Authoritarianism is unacceptable in and of itself. Orbán’s cast system is unjust to its core and its authoritarianism unacceptable. As one of the 20th century’s most influential egalitarian thinkers, John Rawls, put it: justice is more important than any other parameter for evaluating societies. Equally important is Rawls’ view that freedom, equality and prosperity are indispensable building blocks for a just society, so one cannot sacrifice basic human rights in the interests of material prosperity. Therefore, we cannot choose the route of authoritarianism, because there is a better and more moral path: that of freedom and prosperity. Prosperity for the large majority of society – as the example of Scandinavian society shows – can and should be ensured when freedom and prosperity reinforce one another.

From 2018, the next left-wing government must build a successful and prosperous Hungary on a foundation of justice. To further this aim, I offer a vision of a successful left-wing state based on the ideal of equality for all as an alternative to Orbán’s authoritarian state. The three pillars of egalitarian politics are equality of opportunity, relative equality of wealth, and the principle of equal citizenship.

The ideal of equality of opportunity, a cornerstone of all western democracies since the Second World War is nothing other than the rejection of a cast system. The strong conviction is that social advancement cannot depend on others, only our own talents and endeavors, irrespective of whether we come from a rich or a poor family.

The idea of equality of opportunity cannot be reconciled with Fidesz’s politics. Under Orbán’s regime, the wealthy elite spend millions so their children can study in private schools or in Switzerland. For the poorer parts of society, an uncompetitive or downright segregated school is the first, and often the last, station.

With regard to this basic principle, the left should not shy away from self-criticism. The “third way” social democracy of the 1990s and 2000s – for which former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was the standard bearer in Hungary – moved too far from the idea of equal opportunity. The third-way “New Labor” party that will forever be associated with the names of British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and its successors, gave up on material equality and placed equality of opportunity as the exclusive guiding principle. The third way soon turned hollow: it became clear that it had been naive to think that equality of opportunity alone was enough. Even if it had succeeded in ensuring social mobility in education and the world of work, material inequality and social division would not have disappeared. The left believed, and its followers believed, that modernization would create no losers, only winners. The principle of equality of opportunity promised that everyone could find a place in knowledge industry based on high skill levels, but this remained an illusion. The fate of those left out of the modern knowledge economy became ever more hopeless. Nationalist, chauvinist and populist forces picked up on this, and disappointment gave them a way to reach the people.

Photo: Zoltán Balogh

Nor can a society of equals develop when half of the country is mobile, well trained and wealthy and the other is tied to the land, unskilled and owns nothing. We cannot describe such a country as just. Inequality of wealth today is tomorrow’s inequality of opportunity. This situation in Hungary in this regard is serious. A report by Tárki in 2016 showed that 44% of the population owns no property, and 60% are incapable of adopting a middle class way of life. The most absurd thing about all this is that it we find ourselves at this point under the leadership of a government that continually invokes the name of the middle classes.

Despite Fidesz’s chief economic ideologue saying that criticism of wealth disparities arises purely from jealousy, certain social risks can really only be averted by combating economic inequalities. Research has shown that a raft of new problems arise when wealth inequality gets out of control. In societies with high social inequality, life expectancy is shorter, education is of lower quality, social mobility is restricted, and there is a higher rate of mental illness, drug addiction and crime. Hungarians’ terrible state of health and its catastrophic results in the PISA survey are grimly related to the enrichment of Lőrinc Mészáros.

So the promise of equality of opportunity is not enough to improve the lot of the half of Hungarians that have been left behind. We must also strive for relative wealth equality – this is the second fundamental principle of egalitarian left-wing politics. Instead of sports stadiums and the enrichment of the “national” oligarchy, resources must be spent on citizens. Partly in the form of quality education, partly through social security packages that reduce the lack of food and adequate housing, and risks arising from illness of the loss of a job.

Besides all this there is a third pillar to equality that is less often mentioned: the principle of equal citizenship. In a society based on equal citizenship, the prime minister has to wait in line at the baker’s, the post office or the doctor’s surgery just like anyone else. This notion of equality must become the most important guiding principle for the Hungarian left.

The principal of equal citizenship is breached by the emergence of a new cast of powerful and gracious ladies and gentlemen who do not share public spaces with the common people, do not breathe the same air. It is enough to think of the minister in charge of propaganda, who flies to parties by helicopter, or the chief government minister who shoots hundreds of pheasants while hunting with his partners, and who believes that everybody deserves their lot in life. Meanwhile, the system they put in place locks entire masses into poverty and the world of workfare. This is how Viktor Orbán and Fidesz have corrupted Hungary: in place of a nation of fellow citizens, we have become a nation of lords and lackeys. Politicians of the governing party no longer represent the interests of the people, citizens or the nation in the Parliament, merely the private goals of their separate “elite” cast. It cannot go on like this!

I see the most important task of the left as precisely that of recreating the conditions for equal citizenship. We must become worthy of representing the principles and practicing egalitarianism. We must put an end to the era of unprincipled compromise, climb-downs and putting up with things – our political actions must have a moral basis. Egalitarian politics is just, and suitable for lifting Hungary to the level of the developed Western world.

It follows from this that the next left-wing government must also conduct a principled foreign policy. Viktor Orbán swapped a western orientation based on solid moral principles for opportunistic friendships with dictators. We cannot give up the ideal of an open and free Europe in favor of a new Iron Curtain era. A European partnership built on shared ideals is the right policy, and one that serves Hungary’s interests. However much Viktor Orbán might deny it, we belong to the free world.

In my political career to date, I have used the means at my disposal to work for a free and just Hungary and the politics of equality. If I am given the opportunity by the citizens, this is what I would also like to do as prime minister of Hungary.

January 28, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s rubber bones? No, his master plan

I thought this morning that I would be original if I wrote about a favorite word of both the Hungarian media and the opposition. The word is “gumicsont,” a dog toy made out of solid rubber or sometimes nylon. “Gumicsont” is used as a metaphor for a communication device that is designed to distract the attention of the public from something much more important. Almost everything that happens in Hungarian political life is immediately labelled “gumicsont.”

It seems that I wasn’t the only to find all this talk about “gumicsont” irritating. Almost a year ago Péter Konok, a historian and political commentator, wrote an opinion piece on the subject in HVG. He, like me, thinks that the Orbán government’s constant barraging of the population with political bombshells are not distractions intended to divert attention from something else. No, Konok says, the Orbán government’s chicaneries are genuine because “they are like this.”

Moreover, says Konok, our views on what counts as political distraction depend largely on what we personally consider important. For example, those for whom having stores open on Sunday is important may well think that talk about the size of Antal Rogán’s apartment is trivial, a distraction. Some people were certain that Viktor Orbán’s shocking announcement about the reintroduction of capital punishment was a “gumicsont” to distract attention from the Quaestor scandal.

One could give numerous examples of this Hungarian habit of labeling an action as a kind of sleight of hand to divert public attention from something else. In Konok’s opinion, these so-called artificially created distractions are unfortunately reactions to very real problems. By dismissing them as merely rubber bones to chew on, the Hungarian public fails to acknowledge that the country is in big trouble and that Orbán’s regime is only a symptom of its woes.

I would go further. Almost all of the political strategies introduced by Fidesz and the Orbán government are carefully and methodically prepared ahead of time, having very specific aims in mind. The latest “gumicsont,” according to some journalists, is the attack on the NGOs. This recent “distraction” is allegedly intended to serve up a new enemy since the migrant issue is becoming old hat and has lost its appeal. Dead wrong, I’m afraid. It is, in fact, part and parcel of the same master plan that has been systematically pieced together ever since January 2015.

The Orbán government has been preparing the ground for this move for a very long time. George Soros has been the boogeyman in Fidesz circles at least since 2010. And as far as the NGOs are concerned, Viktor Orbán made it clear in the interview he gave to 888.hu last year that 2017 will be “the year of Soros,” that is, he will get rid of the NGOs one way or the other. A distraction? A rubber bone? Of course not. It is the next step in consolidating his power and bolstering the popularity of his government.

Some observers even called the “migrant question” a rubber bone, which is total nonsense. This was again a policy initiative that Orbán had carefully crafted with a very specific goal in mind. It was designed as a popularity booster which, as Orbán rightly predicted, couldn’t fail. Just as a reminder, Fidesz’s popularity between October 2014 and February 2015 had dropped by 14%.

Orbán is aware that despite all the propaganda, his government is not popular and that it is only the weakness of the splintered opposition that makes his position safe. So, he is ready with contingency plans, the latest being to incite xenophobic Hungarians to turn against organizations that receive money from abroad. Orbán’s advisers have already managed to make Soros’s name a hated household word. Only a couple of days ago Századvég, Fidesz’s think tank, released its findings, according to which “61% of Hungarians have a negative opinion of the businessman.” Eighty-eight percent of the population—on both the right and the left—consider the use of so-called “soft-power” a violation of Hungary’s sovereignty.

The attack on NGOs is a variation on the “migrant” theme. First came boosting xenophobia and simultaneously elevating nationalism. Now the government is impressing on the population that these NGOs are vehicles of foreign political influence and pressure on the Hungarian government, which is a “violation of national sovereignty.”

Another plan Orbán announced yesterday morning was his defiance of the European Union and his fight this time against any “economic interference” of Brussels in Hungary’s affairs. Every time Orbán announces a new fight against this or that, the normal reaction in Hungary is that the man cannot live without battling against someone. That’s his nature. But what if his duels are not merely the results of personal traits but part of a well-designed masterplan which we, the observers, fail to recognize? We naively consign them to the heap of policy “distractions,” claiming that they are just tricks to turn our attention away from healthcare, education, and general poverty. I think it is a big mistake to think in these terms. We must take everything he says with deadly seriousness. No rubber bones here.

Everything Orbán does is designed to ensure the popularity of his government and his own well-being. Since his talents don’t include an aptitude for good governance, he has to rely on the country’s alleged vulnerability as a crutch. The refugees’ arrival in Europe was a godsend to Orbán. The country, he argued, must be defended against the migrants, against Brussels, against George Soros’s “soft power.” I’m afraid that nationalistic Hungarians lap all this up, including even those who wish him straight to hell. As long as Orbán can harness this kind of nationalism, the Hungarian public will never be able to get rid of him. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, Hungarians don’t see the connection between their nationalistic attitudes toward alleged outside enemies and Viktor Orbán’s staying power.

January 14, 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

Fidesz’s preoccupation with Gábor Vona and Jobbik

What’s in a name?

In the first part of this post I will wander off topic a bit to a subject that has been intriguing me over the last few days. As the readers of Hungarian Spectrum know, a few weeks ago I wrote about a kind of show trial that took place in 1920 and 1921. Subsequently, I found among my books a brief journalistic description of the background and the trial itself. Since the book was written in the 1970s, it bears the stamp of the times and hence as a source is pretty useless. But one thing captured my imagination: the family names of the accused and the witnesses. A hundred years ago family names reflected the ethnic diversity of Hungary, which blossomed during the second half of the nineteenth century as the result of urbanization and greater mobility. Here are some of the names: Hüttner, Sztanykovszky, Vágó-Wilhelm, Horvácsanovics, Csernyák, Friedrich, Csermák, Lux, Pekár, Gärtner, Eichner, Littomerczky, Lukachich, Horánszky, and Frömmel. Of course, there were Hungarian names as well, some of which sounded magyarized, but the number of non-Hungarian names is striking. Today far fewer Hungarians have names that point to their family’s non-Hungarian origins. One reason is that all civil servants had to magyarize their names sometime in the early 1940s.

Believe it or not, my musing on the changing map of Hungarian family names is relevant to my main theme today: the Fidesz-Jobbik duel in parliament and the Fidesz media. It looks as if even Gábor Vona’s family name is part of the Fidesz smear campaign. As has been known for some time, Gábor Vona was born Gábor Zázrivecz, a name he changed to Vona. The Fidesz tabloid Riposzt seriously pondered the vexing question: why did he change his name? The journalist found this name change “odd.”

Since in Jobbik rumors circulated that perhaps he was Jewish and the grandson of an infamous communist politician, Vona decided to explain his reasons for the name change. His father László Zázrivecz was adopted by his grandmother’s second husband. Her first husband, the actual father of László, was Gábor Vona, who died in World War II. Otherwise, he added that Vona is an Italian name and that “to this day there is a professor called Piero di Vona who—of all things—is an expert on Julius Evola,” a fascist racist thinker. Riposzt, in order to discredit the Jobbik chairman, wrote that Vona claimed a direct relationship to Piero di Vona and went so far as to get in touch with him, inquiring whether he knows anything about this Hungarian relative. Of course, he didn’t. In fact, Piero di Vona announced on Andy Vajna’s TV2 that he knows nothing about a Hungarian relative named Gábor Vona.

Vona is an Italian name, and I suspect that some Italian Vonas settled in Hungary a very long time ago. I found people called Vona as early as 1722, about as far back as online Hungarian genealogical records go. Apparently, it is a variant of Bona, and it is quite common both in Italy and in the United States. As for why Gábor Zázrivecz changed his name when he did, most likely he was already contemplating a political career. Zázrivecz doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Although Vona’s name change was innocuous, it provided Fidesz with fodder for its smear campaign. After all, going against Viktor Orbán’s political plans is an unforgivable sin.

Fear of a socialist-Jobbik coalition

Behind this attack on Vona is Viktor Orbán’s fear of an alliance of sorts between the so-called “democratic coalition” and Jobbik, which could result in a victory for the opposition parties in 2018. We know from polls that the majority of the electorate is dissatisfied with the work of the government, so an understanding between the left and the far right (or however one can best categorize Jobbik these days) could be deadly for Fidesz’s prospects at the next election. Of course, for the time being there is little chance of such an outcome, but I see signs in the pro-government media that the Fidesz leadership is concerned.

One justification for such apprehension is an article that appeared in Origo yesterday titled “An alliance of the left and Jobbik was born in Szentendre,” where by-elections will be held on January 15, 2017. One of the Fidesz members of the town council died, hence the repeated election. The fate of the seat is not vital for Fidesz. Of the 14-member council nine (now eight) represent the government party. They have a comfortable majority. Yet the party seems to be terribly worried that this seat might be lost to a local civic organization called Társaság az Élhető Szentendréért (TÉSZ), which is already represented by two councilmen.

A view of Szentendre

The worry comes from the fact that neither MSZP nor Jobbik nominated anyone to run at the coming by-election when, as Origo pointed out, in the past both parties were always represented. The paper learned that the local MSZP and Jobbik organizations wanted to participate, but the “ukase came from the two party headquarters, which are trying to defeat Fidesz by supporting TÉSZ.”

There is a good possibility that TÉSZ’s candidate might win. In 2014 Fidesz’s candidate won with 44.5% of the votes, but TÉSZ’s man followed him closely with 37.72%. MSZP received 8.19% and Jobbik 7%. So if past is prologue, this looks promising for TÉSZ’s candidate, a retired diplomat. As far as TÉSZ is concerned, Origo reminded its readers that back in 2014 Jobbik called TÉSZ “a pseudo-civic organization” which was born from the ruins of SZDSZ. Moreover, one of TÉSZ’s representatives on the council is also a member of Együtt. Origo is certain that “the Szentendre model is only an experiment to decide whether cooperation in the 2018 campaign is a possibility or not. The essence of the model is to line up behind a seemingly independent candidate in order to beat Fidesz.” A “red-brown” alliance is likely, predicts Origo, especially since Századvég’s analysis of the pattern of parliamentary voting shows that MSZP and Jobbik members vote in sync more often than Fidesz and Jobbik do.

Index also visited Szentendre, but they see the situation in this picturesque town somewhat differently. It is true that both Jobbik and MSZP decided against running in the by-election, but only MSZP and DK support TÉSZ’s candidate. Jobbik’s reason for not participating is not entirely clear. They claim they had an excellent candidate who “at the last minute changed his mind, apparently for personal reasons.” Jobbik, unlike MSZP and DK, isn’t supporting the TÉSZ candidate openly, but it is certainly helping TÉSZ’s cause by not putting up a rival candidate. Whether this is indeed a trial run, I have no way of knowing. But, whatever the case, Fidesz is concerned.

December 13, 2016