Tag Archives: Fidesz

All eyes on Hódmezővásárhely: Brutal campaign in a Fidesz stronghold

I decided that we must take a trip to János Lázár’s Hódmezővásárhely, where an election campaign is being waged with incredible intensity. The Fidesz leadership of the city acts as if the party’s future was hanging in the balance. As if the defeat of Zoltán Hegedűs, the Fidesz contender for the post of mayor, against the independent Péter Márki-Zay would mean the end of the Fidesz era, not just in Hódmezővásárhely but in the country at large.

Some people call this local election a “dress rehearsal” for what’s coming on April 8, the day of the national election — if, that is, by some miracle the opposition parties could coordinate their strategies and have a single candidate running against the Fidesz hopeful in all 106 electoral districts. This is more or less what happened in Hódmezővásárhely. Both Jobbik and the left-of-center parties refrained from putting up their own candidates. Whether this was just a coincidence or there was some kind of tacit understanding among the parties to test the waters with a conservative candidate whom even the left-of-center parties could support, I don’t know. In any case, Márki-Zay has already been accused both of being a candidate of Jobbik and of being an agent of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The latter is a cardinal sin in Hódmezővásárhely. As János Lázár put it, “Fidesz in Vásárhely can work with anyone, we are open to all new suggestions, and we are ready to cooperate with everybody. There is one exception. We cannot work with somebody who sold his soul to Ferenc Gyurcsány.” (Márki-Zay is supported by both DK and MSZP.)

The palpable fear on the part of Fidesz, which one can sense in the descriptions of the mood of the city, would seem to be utterly unwarranted. Based on the results of the last municipal election, Fidesz shouldn’t have anything to worry about. In 2014 the Fidesz mayor received over 61% of the votes against Jobbik’s 17%, MSZP-DK-Együtt’s 15%, and a radical left party’s 7%. And yet, from the intensity of the campaign it looks as if both the local and the national Fidesz leadership are genuinely worried about the outcome. The campaign has been relentlessly waged for almost two months, and it is getting uglier by the minute.

Here are a few of Fidesz’s campaign tricks. Lajos Kósa, who was recently demoted to be in charge of the Modern Cities Program, announced that Hódmezővásárhely will receive 12 billion forints, the equivalent of half of the city’s annual budget, before the national election. A day later Defense Minister István Simicskó arrived in town to take a look at the army barracks that are being renovated to the tune of 5.2 billion forints. The next day the prime minister invited the Fidesz mayoral candidate for a cup of coffee, where the candidate asked Orbán for extra money for the renovation of the city’s churches. A few days later city hall announced that the Elizabeth cards worth 10,000 forints (about $40), which the town was supposed give to pensioners before Easter, will be distributed before the local election this Sunday.

As for the interest of the voters in the local election, Index found one town hall meeting that was practically deserted, although János Lázár was there to campaign on behalf of the Fidesz candidate. But a local paper called Promenád reported a huge gathering in the “garden city” section of town.

A speech given by the chairwoman of the local KDNP is indicative of the state of democracy in Hungary. She reassured her audience that “having multiple candidates is not a bad thing” because, after all, there is democracy in Hungary. The trouble is that behind Márki-Zay “an opportunistic coalition” stands. For her, there is something very wrong with democracy as it is being practiced in Hódmezővásárhely. And the local Fidesz chairwoman expressed her disgust that the independent candidate had besmirched the good name of the city by talking about a local dictatorship and comparing Hódmezővásárhely’s political system today to that of the Rákosi regime.

To help ensure a Fidesz victory, László Kiss-Rigó, the bishop of Szeged-Csanád, announced that a new Catholic church will be erected in the town thanks to the largess of the Orbán government. The city also quickly signed a contract with a company that will build a bypass, which will lessen traffic in the city. The Fidesz line is that thanks to the Orbán government the future of the town is assured. “At stake in the election is whether Hódmezővásárhely will be a winner or a loser.” That is a line from an interview the Fidesz mayoral candidate gave to Magyar Idők. Of course, the threat is real. Voters have to ask themselves whether it is worth replacing Fidesz’s autocratic rule in the city with uncertainty at best or outright discrimination against the city at worst.

Now that we are getting closer to the day of the election, János Lázár has become involved practically full time in the campaign in Hódmezővásárhely. He is having a relatively easy time of it because of the political inexperience of Márki-Zay, who in one of his speeches bemoaned the fact that Hungarians are easily intimidated. Other nations are not so patient; they stand together; they fight for their rights. He is not going to say what would happen in Ireland, in Scotland, or in France to this government because then he would be labelled an aggressive agitator. “Thus I don’t want to say what lampposts can be used for, in addition to putting posters on them.  … This government is very lucky that the Hungarian people are so sheep-like. This terribly lovable and tolerant Hungarian people even accept this [government].” Of course, Márki-Zay was intimating here that Fidesz politicians in other countries would be hanged from lampposts but was adding that it is not something he recommends. This isn’t the first time that unfortunate statements like this one are used against the candidate. Something like that happened to László Kövér in 2002 when he lashed out at those who don’t have enough self-confidence. If Hungarians believe that they are an untalented people who are incapable of achieving great things, they should go down to the cellar and commit suicide because life isn’t worth living with this kind of attitude. This so-called “rope speech” (köteles beszéd) contributed to Fidesz’s unexpected electoral loss.

János Lázár on the local television station

In the last few days Lázár threw himself into the campaign with his usual gusto. He first gave an interview to the local Vásárhely 24 in which he accused Márki-Zay not only of conducting a hate campaign but also of undermining the reputation of Hódmezővásárhely. He accused him of acting for selfish reasons. When he settled in town, Márki-Zay offered his services to city hall but was ignored. “Personal failure cannot be remedied by politics,” said Lázár. If Márki-Zay is elected, the city will not be governable because Fidesz is in the majority on the city council. “I doubt that stigmatization and whipping up hatred are the right means to effect change. I want to live in a country where such methods cannot be successful. We count on the sober majority.” On the same day Lázár also showed up at the local television station where he used stronger language. “The people of Vásárhely shouldn’t elect a madman! I suggest voting for a man who is of sound mind.”

There are so many questions for which at the moment we have no answers. Did Márki-Zay with his limited opportunities to spread his message convince dissatisfied voters to go to the polls? Are the people of Vásárhely angry enough at what goes on in Lázár’s city? Will total unity among the opposition, left and right, be enough to remove the top Fidesz officeholder in the city? One thing is sure. The Fidesz leadership seems to be anxious. Even a close election could be a warning sign to Viktor Orbán who, by the way, is furiously campaigning himself.

February 21, 2018

The Tiborcz scandal is not “a mosquito bite”

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and members of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus launched what promised to be a glorious path to victory. Everything was prepared. After propaganda campaigns against George Soros and the migrants in the last two years, Fidesz was in the midst of a new assault on those NGOs that receive financial assistance from abroad, claiming that they pose a national security risk through their active promotion of immigration. Fidesz’s election law, which favors Orbán’s party, coupled with limits imposed on the opposition parties’ ability to wage an effective campaign, ensured an easy victory on April 8.

But then came a worrisome message from the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). After two years of thorough investigation, OLAF found such serious “irregularities” in the business practices of Elios Innovatív Zrt. that it is suggesting the return of €40 million to the European Union, money that it claims was illegally obtained. Unfortunately for the government and for Viktor Orbán, this is not one of those run-of-the-mill corruption cases that are far too numerous in Hungary. It is special since Elios Innovatív Zrt.’s co-owner was István Tiborcz, the prime minister’s son-in-law.

Although many who follow Hungarian politics are of the view that not even this super-scandal can shake the Orbán government, I’m beginning to think that this time really might be different. No, I’m not suggesting that Fidesz will lose the election, but I believe that this scandal will not just disappear into the thin air without leaving serious scars on Hungary’s governing party.

Although I can put together a logical argument for my hypothesis, I actually arrived at it in a flash of insight. Today I watched an interview with Gergely Gulyás, the latest leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation. It was a terrific interview, the kind one can see in Western Europe and the Anglo-Saxon countries. Egon Rónai of ATV was in great form. He was hard-hitting and refused to let go. Gulyás, who is articulate, smooth, and able to talk himself out of any situation, crumbled in front of our eyes. It became obvious that he had no good way to communicate Fidesz’s message.

There are already signs that Viktor Orbán has ordered a retreat. Let’s start with the infamous “Stop Soros” legislative package against the NGOs. The original plan was to put the proposal before parliament in a great hurry and to vote on it in typical Fidesz manner, that is, within a few days. But first the laws were amended on the recommendation of loyal citizens who were invited to comment on the draft proposal. As a result, certain parts of the bill that previously needed only a simple majority now require a two-thirds majority. Gergely Gulyás appealed to the opposition to support the bill in the interest of national security.

Commentators critical of the government were certain that this move was a trap. Fidesz wants to show its followers that the opposition parties are not good patriots and that deep down they want to fill the country with African and Middle Eastern immigrants. That explanation made no sense to me then and makes no sense to me now.

Last night we learned that Fidesz is not going to bring the bill forward for a vote before the election. The way Gulyás explained it, the opposition parties will not vote for the bill and therefore it is not worth even trying. After the election, when, according to our optimistic Gulyás, Fidesz will have the necessary two-thirds majority, the bill will pass easily. I might add here that Viktor Orbán, in his pep talk to the members of Fidesz MPs during a recent two-day retreat of the parliamentary delegation, told the troops that he isn’t counting on a two-thirds majority.

Well, let’s take a closer look at the issue. If it took Fidesz only a day to discover that they don’t have enough votes, why did they introduce those amendments that made its passage more difficult in the first place? I suggest that the addition of the last-minute amendments was designed not to shame the opposition but to serve as a pretext for “postponing” the vote. Why? One reason is what Gulyás himself admitted — that the pressure from abroad was too great. The German government specifically expressed its disapproval of the bill. The United Nations and the Council of Europe also protested. And we have no idea what kinds of telephone calls came from Brussels and what kinds of warnings Viktor Orbán received. It had to be something pretty weighty if the vote is “postponed.”

Finally, a few words about the possible ramifications of the Tiborcz scandal. What we hear from Fidesz sources is that many leading Fidesz leaders think that OLAF’s unveiling of the massive fraud committed in a crime syndicate of sorts “might be no more than a mosquito bite, but it can also shake the very foundations of Fidesz because, if these accusations are true, they are indefensible.” Some people who were present remarked that Orbán, despite his decades in politics and all his political cunning, is stunned by the assault on him and his family.

Viktor Orbán is not the only one who is stunned and perhaps on edge. Gergely Gulyás’s miserable performance last night is indicative of the jitteriness of Fidesz bigwigs. He was caught lying when he tried to convince Egon Rónai and ATV’s audience that the Orbán government learned about the OLAF report only this week. But how could that be, he was asked, when the MSZP member of the Szolnok city council received an OLAF document from the government that was dated October 2017? Gulyás had no ready answer. And that document is not the only proof that the Orbán government has been sitting on this report for about four months. There are other less direct clues for the approximate date of the arrival of the report.

I would like to point to two instances which, given this timeline, now make a great deal more sense. One is the complicated story János Lázár told on October 9, 2017, about which I wrote yesterday. I have the feeling that by that time Lázár knew the contents of the OLAF report and that’s why he spent so much time dissecting the exact relationship between the Orbán family and István Tiborcz. My second clue is an interview conducted by Origo, which by then was a government mouthpiece. Tiborcz, who I don’t think had ever given an interview in his life, offered the internet site a lengthy interview about his business activities. The interview appeared on October 30, 2017. In it he told the sad tale of a man whose real calling is business but who is restricted in his financial dealings by the fact that he is now related to the prime minister. This arranged interview was most likely one of the preemptive measures taken at the urging of Viktor Orbán himself.

Meanwhile, Gergely Gulyás wrote a brief note to all Fidesz politicians outlining the official line of communication concerning the Tiborcz scandal. Here are the three simple points. (1) The Olaf report is a “Brussels campaign report and thus an interference in the Hungarian election campaign.”(2) “In 2014, they also timed news concerning the case to come out just before the election. The case was investigated once, but now they are repeating the accusations.” (3) “They try to attack Viktor Orbán despite the fact that during much of the period under investigation the majority owner of the company was Lajos Simicska’s Közgép.”

This is, I’m afraid, a feeble attempt on the part of whoever is in charge of official government lying because right off the bat we can counter that: (1) The report was released in October, not just before the election. (2) The news concerning Tiborcz’s firm didn’t become public until December 2014, while the election took place months earlier, on April 6, 2014. (3) Of the 35 contracts called into question by OLAF, only three were negotiated and signed while Simicska held a majority stake in the company. Moreover, the CEO of the company all along was István Tiborcz.

In brief, Fidesz is floundering. Soon enough, I suspect, Gulyás will have to come up with a new set of instructions.

February 16, 2018

Could János Lázár be the sacrificial lamb of the Elios affair?

The other day, while discussing Péter Juhász’s indiscretions, I noted that a politician must choose his words carefully and be mindful of what information he shares with the public. Overly talkative politicians are normally found in MSZP, where party discipline is lax and individual party leaders often espouse views that contradict official policy. Such speaking out of turn is practically unknown in Fidesz with its stringent party discipline. Spokesmen for the party get their orders, and they faithfully repeat whatever the current slogan is that comes from the propaganda and communication gurus. The monotony that results might be very dull for journalists and political junkies, but it is effective.

One high-ranking Fidesz politician who is something of an exception is János Lázár, who has been in charge of the huge prime minister’s office ever since 2012. From the outside it may look as if Lázár is the person who is actually running the show, but no one should be misled. Viktor Orbán might be gallivanting around and delivering deep “philosophical” lectures to his captive audiences, but practically all decisions, large and small, come from him.

This is also true about decisions regarding the individuals with whom he works. Whether one describes the relationship between Viktor Orbán and his associates as akin to the bond that exists between the godfather and his subordinates in the family or the bond that existed between the seigneur and his vassals, Orbán can move his people around as if they were pieces on a chessboard. János Áder, currently the president of the country, had no intention of leaving the European Parliament, but in the end he reluctantly took the job, and by now there is no way out. Antal Rogán was quite happy as the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary caucus, but in 2015 he was ordered to head the newly created propaganda ministry. Lázár’s move to the prime minister’s office was very much the same story. He had to quit his job as mayor of Hódmezővásárhely halfway through his term, a job he loved, to oversee the prime minister’s office.

János Lázár might not enjoy his current job all that much because, in the last year or so, he has been talking about his desire to return to the life of an ordinary member of parliament, representing electoral district #4 in Csongrád County. He likes to talk to his constituents. Despite his arduous job in Budapest, he still lives in Hódmezővásárhely. And according to those in the know, nothing can happen in town without Lázár’s nod. Talking about personal preferences is unheard of in Fidesz circles, and therefore I can’t help thinking that Lázár’s departure from the prime minister’s office might be in Viktor Orbán’s playbook. It is possible that Lázár has already been told that after the election there will be a personnel shakeup and his place will be occupied by someone else.

In any case, there are signs that Lázár is preparing for another role. He, who used to jealously guard his family’s private life, just started a professional-looking internet site on which one can see touching family scenes and where his wife describes life in the Lázár household and her husband as the father of her children. Lázár is extremely popular in his district. He easily won all the elections since 2002, and therefore he doesn’t need this kind of advertising. People suspect that Lázár wants to attract national attention, perhaps even as someone who could replace Viktor Orbán if and when the time comes. Such ambitions, if they are too obvious, are hazardous to one’s health in Orbán’s Hungary. As it is, Lázár might be in trouble over his role as István Tiborcz’s first customer as mayor of Hódmezővásárhely.

Source: lazarjanos.hu

The spectacular business career of Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law began in Hódmezővásárhely, most likely at the request of the prime minister himself. Last November the overly talkative Lázár, replying to a question, admitted that he and Tiborcz “together figured out how to solve the public lighting problem” in his city. At that time, he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to explain that in 2010, when the two met, Tiborcz had no connection whatsoever with the Orbán family. Unfortunately for Lázár, no amount of protestation will change the fact that the romantic relationship between Tiborcz and Ráhel Orbán began in 2008, and by 2010 Tiborcz was considered to be practically one of the family. Or, at least he was part of the post-election celebration, standing alongside the members of the Orbán clan.

I doubt that Orbán is happy with the way Lázár is handling the situation, but there is no good way of downplaying this well documented fraud case. The line that Tiborcz had nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the firm cannot be maintained for long. First of all, there is Lázár’s own admission of his collaboration with Tiborcz. Second, there is an interview with Bálint Erdei, Tiborcz’s partner in Elios, from 2015 in which he stated that there was a division of labor between them as far as running the business was concerned. He did the “operative” work and Tiborcz was in charge of “the strategic fine-tuning.” Maintaining that it was Lajos Simicska who was responsible for what happened is not a viable option for the government, especially since only three of the 35 contracts in question were signed while Simicska was involved with the firm.

And so, Orbán will have to find someone else to take the fall for this affair. Government propagandists like Gergely Huth of Pesti Srácok only a couple of days ago accused Lázár of trying to drag Tiborcz into the Elios affair and thereby involving Viktor Orbán himself in the scandal. Alfahír, Jobbik’s official news site, heard that some people could see a way out of this sticky situation if they could blame Lázár for the whole thing. EU subsidies are handled exclusively by the prime minister’s office, after all. Will he be the sacrificial lamb?, asks Magyar Nemzet, because stories to that effect have reached the paper.

Today János Lázár held his regular press conference at which Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV asked him whether it is true that to some of his closer friends he complained that “some people want to shove him into the epicenter of the Elios affair.” He called the story “rubbish” (marhaság). It does sound far-fetched, but it may be one way of both stifling Lázár’s political ambitions and shielding the prime minister’s son-in-law.

February 15, 2018

Chinks in Fidesz’s political armor

There is great excitement in opposition circles because today HVG published Medián’s latest opinion poll on the current standing of Hungarian political parties. Medián, which has the reputation of being the most reliable polling company, came out with results that seem to indicate that the solid, abnormally high public support for Fidesz-KDNP has suffered a considerable setback.

Medián’s previous polling results were published on December 13 with a rather depressing title: “The voting blocks are frozen and the opposition is increasingly disliked.” Fidesz at that point had the support of 60% of respondents who were definitely planning to vote. The only bright spot in the poll was that 56% of eligible voters were planning to cast their votes as opposed to the earlier Medián poll, published on November 1, which measured only 52%. The electorate was evenly split between those who wanted the Orbán government to stay and those who wanted a change of administration.

This was the situation in the first week of December, but by January 19, when Medián began its latest poll, “party preferences conspicuously changed.” Jobbik as well as the so-called democratic opposition parties moved up while Fidesz lost. This decline is especially striking among those who were determined to vote for Fidesz at the beginning of December. The earlier Medián poll recorded that 60% of active voters would have voted for Fidesz, but in the last few weeks this number shrank to 53%. That is a significant change.

There is, as the article written by Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos points out in today’s HVG, “a degree of uncertainty that has set in among Fidesz voters.” At the beginning of December, 75% of them said that they would definitely vote on April 8; today only 70% of them are sure. As for party support, I will include here the most important group’s results: those who have a preferred party and who will most likely vote. Here are the numbers: Fidesz 53%, Jobbik 18%, MSZP 11%, DK 9%, and LMP 6%. The rest: Együtt, Momentum, Two-Tailed Dog, Workers’ Party are all at 1%. (Red = electorate as a whole; green = active voters; yellow = can pick a party; teal = have a party and will vote.)

Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos believe that “the MSZP-Párbeszéd common list, standing at only 8% among the electorate as a whole, has the largest potential because 14% of those asked are considering voting for the party.” They attribute MSZP’s growing popularity to the party’s decision to ask Gergely Karácsony, the chairman of Párbeszéd and mayor of Zugló (District XIV), to be its candidate for the premiership. In Medián’s interpretation, Karácsony’s popularity and acceptance by socialists (90%), DK voters (81%), Jobbik supporters (42%), and even Fidesz (24%) is a sign that the MSZP-Párbeszéd ticket will be a strong draw.  But this is a bit misleading since the same Medián poll shows that although Karácsony leads the popularity list among the opposition candidates, his lead is not that substantial. Karácsony got 27%, but he is followed by Bernadett Szél (22%), Gábor Vona (21%), and Gyurcsány, who is not officially a candidate (19%).

There is no question that Gergely Karácsony, a boyish 42-year-old, is an extremely attractive candidate. He is soft-spoken and, unlike many of his compatriots, is ready for reasonable compromises. MSZP’s “face,” Ágnes Kunhalmi, a 35-year-old energetic woman, who accompanies Karácsony on his nationwide campaigning, is an equally sympathetic person. I admired the leadership of MSZP for realizing that there was no viable candidate within their own ranks to lead the troops into the election campaign and for having the courage to embrace someone from the outside.

Gergely Karácsony

I do, however, take issue with Medián’s conclusion that the recent pullback in support for Fidesz is in large measure due to Karácsony’s candidacy. First of all, one can go back as far as October 2017 when Iránytű Intézet spotted Karácsony as the most popular opposition politician. Practically every month and in every poll, he, Bernadett Szél, and Viktor Orbán were in the top three spots. Now that he’s officially MSZP’s candidate for prime minister and is extensively campaigning, he is much better known. With greater visibility (+12%) it’s not surprising that his popularity also went up. As I said, Karácsony is an extremely likable man.

But what really makes me doubtful about the direct connection between Gergely Karácsony’s candidacy and Fidesz’s loss of popularity is that MSZP gained only one percentage point in electoral support between the November and the January polls. It is still languishing at 11% among active voters. If Medián’s interpretation were correct, MSZP should have picked up at least two or three percentage points in additional support. Karácsony’s choice as MSZP’s candidate became finalized on December 12 and he, alongside Kunhalmi, began campaigning right away. Yet, five weeks later, when Medián began its most recent polling, MSZP’s support moved only from 10 to 11% as compared to the November Medián poll. Moreover, the other opposition parties also gained a percentage point or two.

What is dramatic in Medián’s latest poll is the 7% drop among Fidesz’s most active supporters.  So, something must have happened on the Fidesz side rather than among the opposition parties. And this “something,” I suspect, was the news that reached Hungary on January 11 that a day before Assistant Undersecretary Kristóf Altusz had revealed in an interview to The Times of Malta that in 2017 Hungary permitted almost 1,300 refugees to settle temporarily in the country. A few days later it became clear that “the government’s communication had collapsed.” Members of the government kept contradicting themselves. And the opposition parties launched a full-court press, attacking the government that for over two years had campaigned on the promise that no “migrant” will ever set foot on Hungarian soil. After a week, on January 16, the government finally made public the exact number and status of the accepted refugees. Three days later, on January 19, Medián began polling.

I propose that it was Fidesz’s propaganda going astray that caused Fidesz voters to have second thoughts about Viktor Orbán and his party. Most of Fidesz voters had believed the propaganda, and now they felt hoodwinked, cheated, taken for a ride. Not an unexpected reaction. And not surprisingly, the number of those who want the “cheating and lying” government out of office has risen. In November the population was equally divided on the subject. The satisfied group was almost as high (46%) as the dissatisfied one (47%). Now, however, 49% would like the Orbán government to be defeated and only 42% have remained faithful to Fidesz.

Of course, all this might be only a flash in the pan, but after months of discouraging sameness this latest turn of events shows the potential vulnerability of the governing party. If everything is bet on one card and something goes wrong, the result can be fatal. And yet the Fidesz strategy is still centered on the same old anti-migrant, anti-Soros propaganda which, I believe, is responsible for the polling setback Viktor Orbán just suffered.

February 1, 2018

Church and State in Orbán’s Hungary

Let me return briefly to Hódmezővásárhely because, since we left this Fidesz stronghold, the city has acquired a special significance. Péter Márki-Zay’s decision to stand as an independent against the Fidesz candidate for the post of mayor has had a greater impact than a local campaign in a provincial town of Hódmezővásárhely’s size would warrant.

As an offshoot of this seemingly ordinary local election, a national discourse on the role of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has emerged. The relation between church and state has been seriously out of kilter in Hungary, an allegedly secular state, for some time. People simply needed a catalyst to begin challenging the incredible amount of taxpayer money that is being spent on churches, not just in Hungary but in the whole Carpathian Basin. And, perhaps more importantly, to ask how appropriate it is to sell the churches’ good will for hard cash. Márki-Zay’s parish priest provided this catalyst.

We knew from the beginning that Márki-Zay is a religious Catholic. Given his close association with the church, he certainly wasn’t expecting what he got from László Németh, whom he calls Father Laci. As Father László promised, on Sunday he delivered a short speech to the congregation in which he made it clear that his flock must vote for the Fidesz candidate because “not since World War II have the Hungarian churches, not just the Catholic Church, had such opportunities as they are getting now—in education, healthcare, social services, publications, and the list goes on. In Hódmezővásárhely we already have the money in our bank account; we are just starting construction of a third Catholic church in town. People knowing all this, knowing the facts, can make the right decision regarding whom they will vote for when they enter the voting booth.” Many people in the congregation were shocked and disgusted, especially because of the implication of the speech: the Orbán government had bought the Hungarian Catholic Church lock, stock, and barrel. Márki-Zay wasn’t expecting “all the hate and evil which erupted in the last ten days.” He and his friends apparently prayed at a Eucharistic Adoration last night for Father Laci, who must be having a hard time after his performance on Sunday.

György Gábor, an expert on the philosophy of religion, has a devastating opinion of Father László’s attitude toward his own religion and his church. “He put a price on the teachings of Jesus. The first person who valorized the teachings of Jesus was Judas; he asked for thirty pieces of silver for the betrayal of him.” In Hódmezővásárhely, as Father László revealed, there is a symbiosis of church and state that is the result of a dirty financial deal.

Let’s take a look at a few recent cases of large sums of money showered on the churches. Defense Minister István Simicskó and Undersecretary Miklós Soltész, who is in charge of state-church relations, just announced a two billion forint grant to two Catholic gymnasiums in District XI. This is over and above the 2.5 billion that had already been dispersed among religious organizations, mostly Catholic, in the district. They explained that giving financial assistance to churches is especially necessary now that “Christian civilization and the lives of Europeans are threatened by other civilizations.” Simicskó added, quoting Carl von Clausewitz, that without faith one cannot have a strong army. We can ponder the meaning of this strange remark.

The same Miklós Soltész proudly talked the other day about the renovation of 5,500 churches in the Carpathian Basin on Hungarian taxpayer money over the last four years. I don’t know how many of these churches are in Hungary and how many in the neighboring countries. And of course, a lot of brand new churches have been built since Fidesz won the election in 2010. Not that Hungary is in dire need of new churches. We know from statistics that the number of regular churchgoers in Hungary is very small. For instance, from the article about Father László’s speech in his church we learned that there was such interest in the event that the number of attendees was about three times normal. As one of the parishioners said, the size of the congregation could be compared only to mass on Christmas Day. So, one cannot help wondering why Hódmezővásárhely needs another Catholic church.

I assume that the situation is no different with the Protestants, yet a number of new church buildings have been erected lately with generous government assistance. The Hungarian Reformed Church is especially favored. After all, Orbán is “református” and so is Zoltán Balog, whose ministry is in charge of church affairs.

Here is one example from the many. The prime minister is apparently a member of the Svábhegyi Református Gyülekezet (Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy), which received a new building seven years ago. Svábhegy/Swabian Hill is one of swankiest parts of Buda. But the congregation had larger plans. It wanted a church center, and its most famous parishioner promised to help. He kept his word. In December the Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő (Hungarian National Asset Management) purchased two lots adjacent to the church to the tune of almost 650 million forints. One was owned by the City of Budapest and the other by District XII. On the one was a workers’ hostel and on the other, two small apartment buildings. No problem. The workers were moved into another building somewhere in the city and the tenants were given new apartments elsewhere. The two lots, free of charge, will be at the disposal of the Hungarian Reformed Church for the Svábhegyi Református Központ for 50 years. I assume that the money for the construction of the center will also come from the taxpayers.

The church of the Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy

Finally, about a week ago Index reported that the government is launching a scholarship program for priests and ministers who will be serving communities in the Hungarian diaspora in the Carpathian Basin as well as in Western Europe and the Americas. Apparently there is a shortage of clerics who can serve Hungarian parishes abroad.

A member of Index’s staff questioned the constitutionality of this planned program. She quoted from the new Basic Laws’ Article VII(3), which states that “the State and religious communities shall operate separately. Religious communities shall be autonomous.” The trouble is that she overlooked Article VII(4), which reads: “The State and religious communities may cooperate to achieve community goals. At the request of the religious community, the National Assembly shall decide on such cooperation. The religious communities participating in such cooperation shall operate as established churches with regard to their participation in the fulfillment of tasks that serve to achieve community goals.” So, forget the unconstitutionality of launching a “clerical scholarship program.”

I might add that the 1989 Constitution read very differently. In it one cannot find the kind of loophole Fidesz put into its own constitution. Article 60(3) says that “The church and the State shall operate in separation in the Republic of Hungary.” No ifs, ands, or buts. Fidesz made sure that everything in the new constitution would serve its plans for reshaping Hungarian society from the ground up.

January 16, 2018

To run against Fidesz might be injurious to your health: The case of Péter Márki-Zay

While we await the fallout from the opposition parties’ refusal to pay the fines the State Accounting Office meted out to them, I thought we ought to visit Hódmezővásárhely, a Fidesz city par excellence.

Ever since 1990 Vásárhely, as the locals call their city, has never had a mayor who was not a member of Fidesz. In 1990, at the first municipal election, András Rapcsák, an engineer, became mayor and was reelected in 1994, 1998, and 2002. In December of 2002 he died suddenly, and his young personal secretary, János Lázár (Fidesz), ran in a by-election and won. Lázár remained Vásárhely’s very popular mayor until 2012, when Viktor Orbán recruited him to be his chief-of-staff. In 2012 one of the deputy mayors, István Almási (Fidesz), ran and won with 52% of the votes. In 2014 he received strong support from the party and got 61.03% of the votes. Just to give you a sense of the strength of the opposition at the last election, Jobbik’s candidate got 17.11% and MSZP-DK-Együtt, 14.99%.

It was under these circumstances that a political novice, Péter Márki-Zay, decided to try his luck as an independent candidate. Márki-Zay is a conservative man with strong ties to the Catholic Church. He and his wife Felicia have seven children, which by itself is remarkable in a country of small families. The other remarkable thing about them is that they spent five years in Canada and the United States and returned to Hungary only in 2009. The apparent reason for their return was their patriotism; they wanted their children to receive a Hungarian education.

I don’t know when Márki-Zay discovered that he may have made a mistake, but shortly after his arrival in Hungary he made some critical observations, according to an article Délmagyar wrote about the family. How is it possible that, despite the international economic crisis, he sees more BMWs in Hungary than in the United States? He told the journalist that “Americans don’t expect help from above. They are not more talented than Hungarians, but their outlook on life is different.” He was impressed with the American habit of doing volunteer work, and he and his wife were planning to do the same in Vásárhely.

The five years in North America most likely contributed to his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Vásárhely. And so, after the unexpected death of Mayor István Almási in November 2017, he decided to enter the race against the Fidesz candidate, Zoltán Hegedűs.

Péter Mári-Zay / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Béla Nagy

On December 29 Vásárhely24, the internet news site of the municipality, reported that Márki-Zay will be the common candidate of Jobbik and MSZP, which turned out to be untrue. The candidate thinks that the fake news was concocted in order to discredit him. It looks as if the very idea of possible united front against the Fidesz candidate in Vásárhely worried the government party, which quickly moved into action against the candidate.

Two days after he announced his candidacy, he was informed that the company for which he has been working for years no longer has any need for him. The municipality placed four or five cameras along the street where he lives, which the city claimed has nothing to do with Márki-Zay, but the timing is suspicious. As an answer to the fierce attack on the independent candidate, all opposition parties decided to support the disillusioned former Fidesz voter who is convinced that “Orbán’s regime is already a failure in the moral sense.” What he sees in Hungary is no longer democracy.

The local Fidesz leadership moved into high gear. Katalin Havasi, the local party chairman, rang the alarm bell and asked “God to save the city from a mayor who is being supported by Gyula Molnár and Ferenc Gyurcsány, people who wanted to close the hospital in Hódmezővásárhely.” The city needs a mayor “who is being supported by Viktor Orbán and who will defend the hospital.” On his Facebook page Márki-Zay expressed his puzzlement over being seen as a threat to the hospital. Why the hospital? Perhaps if he had been in Hungary in 2007 he wouldn’t be so surprised. In that year Mayor János Lázár created total panic over the death of an old drunkard, well-known in the hospital, who died while being transported from one hospital to another. Lázár blamed the healthcare reforms introduced by the Gyurcsány government for the man’s death.

It seems that the Fidesz locals asked János Lázár to take an active part in the campaign. Lázár still lives in Hódmezővásárhely and commutes daily to Budapest. Those close to the scene claim that nothing happens in the city without Viktor Orbán’s chief-of-staff knowing about it. So, János Lázár showed up and offered to work for Zoltán Hegedűs’s campaign. He brought along some promises too. He told residents that the government is planning a very large “industrial program” and that Vásárhely will be one of the beneficiaries.

Meanwhile both Magyar Nemzet and Index sent reporters to the city, hoping to learn more about the mood in Vásárhely. The former reported total apathy. The few people who were willing to talk would vote for the Fidesz candidate, but they were less than happy with the current situation. As one woman said, she was only hoping that “things will not become worse.” People complained about the lack of job opportunities, but they added that without a Fidesz mayor very little money would come from Budapest. Index also found mostly Fidesz supporters, including a man who spoke glowingly about all the development in the city but at the end admitted that he is planning to leave his job that pays 100,000 Ft. and settle in Germany to wash dishes for 1,200 euros. He also added that he had heard Márki-Zay speak, “and he said a few good things.” The reporter found one person who admitted that she doesn’t know for whom she will vote and had a fairly critical view of Fidesz’s migrant policy, complaining about 1,200 refugees but allowing 20,000 Arabs, Chinese, and Russians.

The pro-Fidesz papers, from Origo to Magyar Idők and Pest Srácok, continue their smear campaign against Márki-Zay, calling the candidate a liar with a persecution complex. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a psychological disorder. Márki-Zay is not alone in reporting abuse because of his political activities. Just the other day a Fidesz local representative in Budapest’s District XV shared the travails she underwent because she didn’t follow the political orders from above to the letter. That’s not a pretty story either.

And the latest is that Momentum Chairman András Fekete-Győr’s father lost his job as executive director of the National Deposit Insurance Fund of Hungary. He was deputy director between 1993 and 2010, when he was appointed executive director for five years. Two years ago his appointment was renewed for another five years — that is, until 2020, when he reaches retirement age.

This is how life goes in Hungary for those who don’t walk in lockstep with Viktor Orbán.

January 9, 2018

Old-timers offer a helping hand to the democratic opposition

About a year ago György Bolgár invited me for a telephone interview on his Klub Rádió program. At that time he was running a series called “What is to be done?” People were supposed to offer ideas on how the opposition parties could defeat the Orbán government. I put together a short list of items I considered essential for any success at the ballot box in April 2018. I especially emphasized the need for consolidation of the democratic forces or, more bluntly put, an end to the present situation where almost a dozen dwarf parties with very similar programs are trying to defeat a strong and unified Fidesz. I admitted that there are some talented and attractive politicians in these tiny parties but said that in the end they will have to be satisfied with less than leading positions in the opposition since it is only the two larger left-of-center parties, MSZP and DK, that have a chance of getting enough support to make a difference. Although almost a year later a caller said that my position was the only one among the hundreds offered that appealed to her, the immediate reaction was less kind. A young man condemned my ideas in the name of democracy. As far as he was concerned, all tiny parties had the right to compete, and anyone who suggested otherwise didn’t know a thing about democracy.

Today, unfortunately very late in the game, the leaders of these mini-parties are reluctantly realizing that their chances at the polls are nonexistent and that the likelihood of their financial ruin after their very poor showing is almost certain. In addition, the votes cast for them, due to the quirky electoral law, will not only be lost to the opposition but in fact will be added to the votes for the winner. Since these parties are risking their very existence by remaining in the race as independent forces, I assume that soon enough we will see negotiations between them and the three larger parties on the left–MSZP, DK, and LMP, parties that will likely be represented in parliament after the election. It is also questionable how long LMP, with its 7-8% support, can continue to insist that it will on its own beat Viktor Orbán and form a government without making itself ridiculous. Momentum’s situation is truly dire, with its 1-2% support. Just today Momentum lost two more prominent young politicians.

In this fluid situation one can only welcome the group of 11 seasoned members of previous administrations who felt it their duty to help the parties find common ground. They established a movement called “Válasszunk! 2018” (V18), meaning “Let’s Vote.” The aim of the group is twofold. On the one hand, they want to fight the general apathy in the country, the feeling that everything is lost and that Fidesz will win no matter what, and on the other, they plan to offer their expertise to the parties in blending their programs into a coherent whole.

Among the members of the group are several people who served in the Antall and even the first Orbán governments, so it is a politically mixed lot. As Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government and organizer of the group, said, under different circumstances some of these politicians would be arguing in parliament on opposite sides of the aisle. But the situation today has changed. The goal is to defeat a party and a government that is increasingly moving to the extreme right and that has introduced a virtual one-party system. The longer Viktor Orbán stays in power, the harder it is going to be to dislodge him and his regime. In fact, a lot of people claim that winning against Fidesz in a democratic election is already an impossibility. This assertion, strictly speaking, is not correct. If enough people go to the polls and the opposition is capable of offering an attractive program and one single candidate in all 106 electoral districts, the opposition could even receive the majority of the seats, mostly because of the unfair electoral system that favors the majority.

From left to right: Attila Holoda, György Raskó, Péter Balázs, Péter Németh (journalist), and Kinga Göncz at the press conference

The other task, lending a helping hand to the parties in blending their messages into a coherent whole, is much more difficult. Not surprisingly, there is considerable confusion about what the V18 group has in mind. Unfortunately, Péter Balázs doesn’t help the situation by often referring to the group as a kind of “shadow government.” The question is: whose shadow government would it be? At the moment there are two declared prime minister hopefuls on the left, Bernadett Szél (LMP) and Gergely Karácsony (MSZP), while Ferenc Gyurcsány as “the leader of the DK party list” would, in the unlikely event of a DK victory, become prime minister of the country. Or, looking at another possible scenario, Gyurcsány, alongside Szél, Karácsony, and Gábor Vona (Jobbik), would be vying for the top position in a coalition government. Do the three left-of-center parties, with or without Jobbik, want to have a common shadow government? Most likely not, although public sentiment is very much in favor of what the man on the street calls “a government of experts,” the mistaken view that so-called experts would govern better than politicians.

The skeleton program the group offers at the moment is modest and moderate enough that all democratic parties could easily adhere to it. Of course, all parties would like to stop the gaping political divide between left and right, and everybody would like to give opportunities to the poor and the middle class to fulfill their dreams. Who doesn’t want to improve Hungarian healthcare services and education? And yes, all parties and an overwhelming majority of people want to have better relations with the other members of the European Union and would like to belong to the group of the most advanced member countries. Because of these generalized demands, several commentators have already criticized the group.  András Jámbor of Mérce and Szabolcs Dull of Index, for example, found the group’s proposals confusing and most likely ineffectual.

Obviously, the pro-government media as well as their commentators don’t think much either of the people involved or the aims of the group. Tamás Lánczi, a political scientist with Századvég and editor-in-chief of Mária Schmidt’s Felügyelő, called V18 “because of its participants junk car racing” (roncsderbi). Tamás Fricz, who calls himself a political scientist and has a column in Magyar Idők, described the members of the group as “frustrated people” who haven’t achieved the positions they think should be theirs.

Hungarian commentators are too quick to pass judgment on others, and I think we ought to hold our horses for a little while. I find the very fact that such a politically mixed group came together encouraging. I am almost certain that more prominent right-of-center people will gather their courage to join the group. After all, there are several people not yet on the list who are quite vocal in their condemnation of Orbán’s political system. Trying to stop what currently seems like an inexorable drift to an alt-right type of political system in Hungary is certainly a worthwhile undertaking.

January 4, 2018