Tag Archives: Fidesz

How far is Kötcse from Brussels? Very far

Fidesz public relations gurus discovered early in the game that a party needs certain fixed points or anchors in order to radiate an aura of continuity, steadiness, and stability. Once they hit upon the idea of spending a long weekend with young Hungarians in Romania, where they were supposed to discuss their common problems and hopes, they faithfully kept returning, year after year. Admittedly, over the last 28 years the youthful and perhaps even exciting exchange of ideas has become stale, and the event has been more or less reduced to some dull speeches by the same three or four party and government leaders to which mostly older retirees listen. But the event is still held and still creates expectations in the media.

The gathering at Băile Bálványos/Bálványosfűrdő has become a ritual, just as has Viktor Orbán’s annual February speech on “the state of the country.” The party leader/prime minister will deliver that speech, rain or shine, before an invited audience. The opposition papers will claim that Orbán’s speeches are becoming increasingly shallow, which is true. But the quality of the speech is of less importance than the fact that this past February was the nineteenth year that Viktor Orbán stood in front of all those flags and basked in the adoration of his audience. After the event, journalists usually ask people who are leaving the building about their impressions. They invariably find the message uplifting. Moreover, these people were personally invited to the speech, and one can tell that they found that invitation priceless.

Finally, there is the picnic at Kötcse with a history of 16 years. Every September select individuals are invited to attend the picnic where Viktor Orbán shares his visions and plans with his devoted supporters. An invitation to Kötcse is a true honor for several reasons. First, there is the aura of secrecy. The media is locked out, and participants are told not to share anything that happened there. Second, the invited guests are not passive observers as they are at the “state of the country” speech. Here they can ask questions and mingle with high party officials. They can feel part of the family, which must be a truly uplifting experience for many. The few attendees who said anything at all about the picnic emphasized their awe at receiving “the great honor” of an invitation.

What did we learn about this year’s gathering at Kötcse? Not much. I listened to an interview with Zsolt Jeszenszky, the wayward son of Géza Jeszenszky, former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, who, unlike his father, is a great admirer of Viktor Orbán. According to him, Orbán’s speech lasted an hour and a half and was absolutely brilliant. Orbán’s knowledge of world affairs is phenomenal, but he is also thoroughly at home in the smallest details of domestic affairs. The man is simply amazing.

Otherwise, János Csontos wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Idők in which, somewhat obliquely, he let his readers in on some of the details of the gathering. First, he severely criticized those journalists who created “fake news” about the picnic when they had no first-hand knowledge. After a fairly lengthy introduction he allowed his readers to get a feel for the atmosphere of the gathering. In Csontos’s opinion, Kötcse is a place where “a mutual test takes place between the powers-that-be and the intelligentsia.” Orbán wants to know whether the “moonbow” is still with him, while the members of the intelligentsia want to know whether “Viktor Orbán is still in his right mind.” Csontos was happy to announce that there is nothing wrong on this front. Orbán is as sharp as always. As for the elite supporters, an odd sentence gives pause for thought. “There were times when the refined audience and the army of those with questions no longer wanted to hear the truth, the facts.” What does this mean? They didn’t quite believe Orbán’s worldview?

Orbán must have spent time on his future priorities: innovation, organization of the nation (nemzetszervezés), building up the army, and the demographic situation. Of these four, the one that worries me most is the “organization of the nation.” My problem, of course, is that I don’t have the foggiest idea what it could possibly mean, but at the same time I have the nagging feeling that whatever it is, it means something undemocratic and perhaps even sinister. Perhaps some kind of reorganization of society under state supervision. If that is the case, it reminds me of fascism.

HVG published a series of photos of the arriving guests under the title: “It is as far as Kötcse is from Brussels. Take a look at the elite of NER!” Well, first an explanation. There is a saying in Hungarian, “It is as far as Makó is from Jerusalem,” meaning very, very far. We are not sure of the origin of the saying, but most likely it has nothing to do with the city of Makó but perhaps refers to a medieval knight of the same name who never managed to get to Jerusalem. NER stands for “Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere,” i.e., the Orbán regime. HVG’s staff was obviously not impressed by what they saw.

And that takes me to an interview with Tamás Deutsch, one of the founders of Fidesz and currently a member of the European Parliament. He was among those featured in HVG‘s photo gallery. In his youth Deutsch was the darling of older women, who thought he was the cutest boy in all of Hungary. As you can see on the photo, he has lost his charm in the intervening years. The interview that appeared in Magyar Idők is a series of complaints about the West, where “the older member states consider themselves superior, more European than those who joined the Union in 2004 or after. They expropriated the representation of the so-called European values and they don’t understand or don’t even want to understand East-Central Europe.” Dutch Ambassador Gajus Scheltema’s criticism is typical of the widespread belief in the western part of Europe that “they are the sons and daughters of the developed West who can do anything in the wild east.”

Tamás Deutsch and László L. Simon, a poet

András Lánczi, political philosopher and Sebastian Gorka’s dissertation adviser

As for the differences that currently exist between East and West, Deutsch contends that the blame clearly falls on the West. “The politicians of the 15 member states thought that they were ready for the accession of the underdeveloped new members, but this was not the case. Therefore, the majority of the current problems derive from that fact. The new member states were much better prepared politically, psychologically, and socially.” What can one say? Blaming others while claiming superiority over them seems to be a favorite pastime in Hungary.

September 5, 2017

Who is planning physical violence on the streets of Budapest?

In the last few days more and more political observers have become aware of Fidesz politicians’ frequent references to the violent disturbances that will take place on the streets of Budapest in the coming months. The weak and desperate opposition, encouraged by the foreign enemies of the present government, will forcibly turn against the democratically elected Orbán government, they claim.

The fact is that Fidesz’s forecast of such an eventuality is not new. Already in March of this year three important government politicians, within a few days of one another, predicted a “brutal election campaign” accompanied by possible physical force.

On March 24, 2017, Zsolt Semjén (KDNP), deputy prime minister, was the first to speak of such a possibility in an interview he gave to Magyar Idők. What will make the election “brutal,” he said, is the fact that the opposition will be fighting for their “sheer survival,” and in their “desperation” they will be ready for anything. This will especially be the case if “there is someone abroad” who will give them a blank check and munition. Under these circumstances, Fidesz’s campaign slogan should be: “We must defend the country.”

A few days later László Kövér (Fidesz), president of the parliament, talked about street disturbances instigated by George Soros himself. Kövér envisaged “an undisguised coalition, which might be established between the Hungarian opposition and the Soros organizations with the aim of fomenting attacks against the institutional system of democracy before the elections.” The dirty work will be done by activists of the Soros-financed organizations. “They will try to create a civil-war-like atmosphere.”

The next day János Lázár (Fidesz), chief of staff, picked up the thread and called attention to the forthcoming election campaign that will be more brutal than any in the last 30 years. More recently, Antal Rogán (Fidesz), propaganda minister, frightened his audience by describing dreadful scenes that will take place on the streets of Budapest.

The charge that Fidesz would face a “brutal campaign” became more intense as time went by. Now, it seems, defensive measures are underway. The latest piece of news is that László Földi, a high-ranking intelligence officer in the Kádár regime, has been hired by István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest, to be his “security adviser.” Földi remained in the intelligence apparatus until 1996, when he was removed from his post by the Horn government because Földi and his men had a strange notion of “intelligence work.” They were watching and reporting on MSZP politicians. Földi is a devoted supporter of the Fidesz government, which uses him as a “national security expert.” I don’t think I’m alone in regarding Földi as raving mad. Unfortunately he spreads his outlandish interpretation of world affairs in the government-sponsored media. I devoted a post to him about a year and a half ago. There I expressed my suspicion that Földi may work for the Orbán government behind the scenes. This suspicion was reinforced by the news of Földi’s association with Tarlós.

I must say that I was stunned to find Földi in the city hall of Budapest, because although I have a low opinion of Tarlós, I didn’t think he was so naïve and gullible that he would listen to a man who is clearly a lunatic. But then, I remembered Tarlós expounding on the block that was masterfully crafted to fit the door of the Russian-made metro car in order to create public dissatisfaction. It was Földi’s voice talking there. In an interview Földi gave to Demokrata a few days ago, he expounded on “a new political style” developed by the opposition, which “will create chaos by attacking the city’s infrastructure,” as, for example, in case of the metro cars. But there will be other problems cropping up in the future, like in the water and gas supply or in garbage collection. The opposition will take advantage of these small problems to turn the population against the government.

In the fall, when the trouble starts, Földi said, the government must be resolute and the powers-that-be mustn’t retreat. Földi noticed that there were many foreigners among the demonstrators who went out on the streets during the spring and early summer. These are paid troublemakers who go from city to city all over Europe to create chaos. Behind them is the “clandestine power” Viktor Orbán and others talk about. But if you think that it is George Soros who is at the apex of this hidden power structure, you are wrong. According to Földi, he is just “the delivery boy.” The real decisions are made by hidden groups for whom his open society is only an instrument, not the goal. Budapest must be ready for this onslaught, and the police must act firmly. Tarlós seems to fall for Földi’s scenario, as was evident during his press conference after the transit authorities’ e-ticket disaster.

“Peaceful demonstrators” in October 2006

All in all, something is going on in the heads of Fidesz politicians and their “advisers.” Mátyás Eörsi, a former SZDSZ politician with many years in the Hungarian parliament, wrote a lengthier post on the subject on his Facebook page. In his experience, Fidesz talks about its “own sins” quite openly but with great finesse. Whatever they have done in the past or plan to do in the future appears in their parliamentary speeches as accusations directed at their opponents. It is a devilishly clever strategy because the opposition is immediately forced into a defensive posture. Those of us who follow Hungarian events know that the current Hungarian opposition has no intention of wreaking havoc on the streets of Budapest. So, based on Eörsi’s past experiences, he thinks it likely that Fidesz itself plans to provoke disturbances, which would be a bonanza for the Orbán government.

In addition, Eörsi makes another important observation. Let me quote him: “For me, the words of Kövér and Rogán about riots on the streets are the clearest proof of the true story of what happened in Budapest between 2006 and 2008. If anyone, it is the leaders of Fidesz who know exactly who stood where and what party interests were behind the street riots. Fidesz, when accusing others of organizing riots, is actually making a confession. From the words of Kövér and Rogán we can understand who generated the street disturbances in Budapest between 2006 and 2008.”

September 4, 2017

“Orbán or Europe? Choose!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2, 2017

The City of Pécs, which served as Fidesz’s laboratory, is close to bankruptcy

In preparation for today’s post on the chaotic situation in my hometown of Pécs, I read two pieces I had written in October 2009, shortly after, as the result of a by-election, Fidesz candidate Zsolt Páva became mayor of the city. The first article was titled “Watch Pécs: It will tell a lot about Fidesz plans for Hungary.” Rereading this article eight years later is an eerie experience because indeed Fidesz was using Pécs as a laboratory for its own plans for the country. All the tricks it later employed, including the national consultations, were first introduced in Pécs.

Originally Páva, in true populist fashion, wanted to take the oath of office on the main square, right in front of City Hall, but MSZP and SZDSZ members of the city council, who were in the majority, refused to endorse the plan, considering it “blatant demagoguery.” Eventually, Páva took the official oath inside the building but repeated the performance in public.

Soon enough one “referendum” followed the next, which were the forerunners of the Orbán government’s national consultations. Páva spent a sizable amount of money on these referendums, in which his administration inquired about matters to which the answer could only be “yes.” Doesn’t it sound familiar? Páva also sacked all city employees who had anything to do with the previous administration. In no time he managed to change the composition of the city council by convincing a couple of members to switch parties; thus Fidesz achieved a slight majority in the council. Every company owned by the municipality was audited at a considerable cost because, Páva claimed, the audit would save the city 500 million forints. This was, as it turned out later, simply not true.

His next move was the forcible takeover of the water company in which the minority shareholder was Suez, a well-known French company. Páva ordered security men to occupy the headquarters of the firm at 3:30 in the morning. When the employees arrived for work, the guards prevented people belonging to the upper and middle management of the company from entering. A few days later a new city-owned water company was formed with a capital base of five million forints. (No, that’s not a typo.) The new company promised to pay the salaries of Suez’s 360 employees from their “riches” of five million. Suez was stunned and called the occupation of its headquarters “forcible entry.” Naturally Suez brought legal proceedings against the city. The law suit dragged on for years. Pécs was finally assessed 3 billion forints for its share in the water company, which the city of Pécs was unable to come up with. The bill was paid by the central government.

Something very similar happened in 2016 when the city of Pécs acted as an intermediary, hoping to pass the Zsolnay Porcelán Manufaktura on to a Fidesz oligarch. The factory was owned by a Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss businessman who had bought 74.5% of the shares from the city and promised to sink 500 million forints into the enterprise. The methods were roughly the same as in the Suez case. First Páva and the businessmen behind him established a new company by enticing the majority of the approximately 150 workers to abandon Zsolnay in favor of the new city-owned company. The aim was a forcible takeover of private property. I don’t want to go into the complicated machinations, but a certain businessman with close ties to the Orbán family suddenly had a burning desire to own Zsolnay because of the large restoration projects in the Castle District and elsewhere in Budapest. The roofs of many of these buildings, which had been erected in the last years of the nineteenth century, were covered with pyrogranite tiles made by the Pécs factory. In the end, the city failed because the Syrian businessman wasn’t easily intimidated and had enough money to clear all of his debt to the Hungarian Eximbank, which had been complicit in turning him out of his property. The financial loss to the city as a result of its new “business venture,” which never got off the ground, was again considerable.

By now, apparently, the City of Pécs is close to bankruptcy. For some time, there has been talk about Páva’s possible departure from the mayoralty. About three weeks ago a press conference was scheduled to take place where the mayor was supposed to announce the establishment of the Magnus Aircraft factory in Pécs. This is a huge event for the city, whose economy is in the worst shape among all larger Hungarian cities. Since 2009 the city has lost 13,000 inhabitants, unemployment is high, and investors don’t find the city, far away from Budapest and hard to reach from the West, attractive. Yes, it is a charming city with a rich history, but aside from the university with its 20,000 students it has little to offer economically. The nearby coal and uranium mines have closed and nothing came to replace them.

Együtt: City of Pécs close to bankruptcy. When will Zsolt Páva resign?

So, the intention of Magnus Aircraft to set up a factory is big news. I must admit that I had never heard of this company, which developed the e-Fusion, the first all-electric, aerobatic trainer aircraft. It is a Hungarian company from Kecskemét which describes itself as a multinational group. It has a business arrangement with Siemens, which provides the batteries. What will come of this new technology no one knows, but Pécs is very excited.

The long-awaited press conference was held, sans Mayor Zsolt Páva. Instead, two Fidesz members of parliament representing the district, Péter Csizi and Péter Hoppál, made the announcement. Páva’s absence indicated to those journalists who, after being booted out of the local Dunántúli Napló when it was bought by Lőrinc Mészáros, founded an internet news site called Szabad Pécs (Free Pécs), that Páva’s position must be shaky. And soon enough came the news on the city’s official internet site that “a new policy making body will lead Pécs” from here on. The decision was allegedly reached by the Fidesz-KDNP members of the city council. The mayor, the deputy mayors, and the two Fidesz MPs will comprise this new group, but its chairman will not be Páva but Péter Csizi. So, as Magyar Nemzet rightly points out, the city will be run by a committee no one elected. Not exactly a democratic solution to a problem.

It is highly unlikely that the decision to establish such a body was made by the Fidesz-KDNP members of the city council. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the decision came from Viktor Orbán himself. Removing Páva at this juncture is out of the question because holding by-elections now would be a suicidal move. According to my calculations, if LMP hadn’t decided to run alone in 2014, Pécs wouldn’t have two Fidesz members of parliament today. In local elections Fidesz cannot rely on foreign votes, and the locals are pretty unhappy with the Fidesz leadership. The last thing Orbán wants is an electoral loss in a major Hungarian city.

According to rumor, Pécs, during the tenure of Zsolt Páva, has accumulated 24 billion forints in debt. The city is close to bankruptcy despite the fact that Pécs did not have to pay the 3 billion forints to Suez by way of compensation. As far as I know, the owner of Zsolnay Manufactura is also suing the city.

The Fidesz laboratory set up in 2009 has failed miserably. Páva did everything that was demanded of him and yet, or perhaps because of it, he drove his city into bankruptcy. Is it possible that once Orbán’s rule is over the country will be in a similar situation despite the regime’s bragging about its fantastic successes? Not at all unimaginable.

Tomorrow Pécs will have a distinguished visitor, the prime minister himself. He is allegedly attending the 650th anniversary celebration of the university’s founding. Well, kind of. It is true that the first and only Hungarian medieval university was established in Pécs in 1367, but it most likely survived for less than fifty years. The real founding of today’s university was in 1921 when the University of Pozsony (today Bratislava) moved to Pécs. But more about that sometime in the future.

August 31, 2017

Friction between natural allies: The Orbán government and the Catholic Church

András Veres has been widely criticized ever since he delivered a brief but controversial sermon at the official Catholic celebration of August 20, Hungary’s premier national holiday. Veres, the bishop of Győr and the president of the Conference of Hungarian Bishops, is well known for his extreme conservatism. So when I heard that he would deliver the homily, I assumed that he would use the occasion to promote reactionary views of the Hungarian Catholic Church. I was surprised when I read the summary by MTI, the state-owned news agency. The summary was extremely short and devoid of any extremism.

Well, it didn’t take long before it was discovered that MTI had left out all the passages in which Veres was critical of the Orbán government. Magyar Kurír, the official internet site of the Conference of Hungarian Bishops, published the complete text, in which this passage could be found:

Brothers and sisters, we must pay attention to an internal danger. A deviously worded law under the guise of good intentions which ignores Christian values furtively is sneaking into the fabric of a Christian-based society, planting the blight of self-abdication. The last time we saw such a thing was in the provision to increase support for the test-tube baby program.

Another passage that was deemed unimportant by MTI was the one that dealt with relations between church and state. What Veres had to say on the subject, in my opinion, amounts to asserting the supremacy of the church over the state.

We Christians cannot abdicate our duty of shaping society according to the value system of the gospel. On the one hand, because we know that we serve the good of all people and, on the other, because if we renounced that task we would not fulfill our mission of baptism, that is, we wouldn’t be building the kingdom of God.

It took a couple of days before the real meaning of the words on the test-tube baby program sank in, but when it did, the outrage was widespread. Something unusual happened in a country of enormous political divisiveness: it mattered not whether people support the government or are in the opposition, they found Veres’s words unacceptable. When I read an open letter addressed to András Veres by László Szentesi Zöldi, I realized the depth of the rejection of the position of the Catholic Church on the subject. Szentesi Zöldi is a journalist who is usually the first to defend the Catholic Church. And yet in this letter he took it upon himself to teach the prelate about true Christianity.

András Veres, bishop of Győr

A long list of well-known personalities expressed their disappointment over Veres’s position. Some commentators couldn’t understand why Veres chose this particular occasion to get involved with such a controversial topic. But there is a fairly simple explanation that got lost in the emotional outcry against the church’s official doctrine. From the snippets of information that we have, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt/KDNP), which considers itself to be the political arm of the Catholic Church seems to be extremely unhappy with the government’s decision to enlarge the test-tube baby program. As of now, the state funds the birth of 6,000 test-tube babies a year, but because of outside pressure as well as the government’s interest in increasing the number of births, it promised enough funds to double that number to 12,000. My suspicion is that behind the scenes Fidesz is encountering opposition from KDNP at the urging of the Catholic Church.

The question of expanding the program has been on the table for far too long. It was during the second Orbán government (2010-2014) that Miklós Szócska, undersecretary of health, commissioned a study that came to the conclusion that the expansion of the program might produce 10,000 new babies every year. His successor, Gábor Zombor (June 2014-September 2015), continued advocating for an expansion, and this time the government actually approved the measure. But its implementation was postponed. This spring his successor, Zoltán Ónodi-Szűcs, brought up the issue once again, but those eager would-be parents who might benefit from the expansion of the program are still waiting.

I fear they can wait for a while, because I’m quite certain that the “discussion” between Fidesz and KDNP hasn’t been settled yet. In fact, if we can trust Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), former undersecretary of education (2010-2014), the fight over the issue is raging at the moment. According to her, “the test-tube baby program can be continued, but because of the Catholic Church’s objection there will still be a lot of debate on the issue.”

An article published today confirms my suspicion of the raging debate between the government parties. The author of the article calls attention to the fact that there is “total chaos surrounding the test-tube baby program.” For example, two undersecretaries in the ministry of human resources hold diametrically opposed positions on the issue. Katalin Novák (Fidesz), undersecretary in charge of family affairs in the ministry of human resources, distanced herself from Bishop Veres by emphasizing the enormous help the program gives to infertile parents. She reiterated that the expansion of the program will be approved soon. On the other hand, Bence Rétvári (KDNP), political undersecretary in the same ministry, did not stand by the program and was extremely vague on the details. Rétvári, who is a typical member of a party that considers itself to be the arm of the Catholic Church, suspects that the promoters of the program support the idea because it gives extra work and income to those institutions that specialize in this particular medical procedure. Whether the public outcry will tip the scale in favor of doubling the program we don’t know yet.

András Veres subsequently gave interviews explaining the church’s position, and the more he said the worse it got. Since the church believes in birth only through natural means, infertile couples just have to cope with their lot. Or, as a remedy, they could adopt a child, which would relieve their anxiety so they could eventually produce a child of their own. No one seems to be convinced.

As for Veres’s second statement, about the duty of the church to shape society, no has taken notice of it yet, although it might be a much more weighty statement than the church’s views on test-tube babies. After all, 80% of women pay not the slightest attention to the Catholic church’s views on reproduction. The shaping of society according to the value system of the Catholic church is a much more frightening prospect, especially in a country like Hungary where state and church are far too close as it is.

August 25, 2017

A minor miracle: nine parties support Márton Gulyás’s electoral reform plan

Yesterday’s post turned out to be quite controversial. It reported on a poll that showed what we have suspected for some time: that Hungarians who were born in the country and who currently live and work there resent the generous financial support given by the Orbán government to Hungarian minorities living in the neighboring countries. Moreover, Hungarians know that their tax money that goes abroad is intended primarily to gather votes for Fidesz, the party of choice in those countries. The majority of the inhabitants of Hungary proper strongly oppose the current practice of bestowing voting rights on those Hungarian speakers in the neighboring countries who become dual citizens. I added my own personal agreement to that general sentiment.

During the resultant discussion it turned out that many of the commenters are not familiar with details of the electoral law as it applies to citizens living abroad. I suggest that readers take a look at a November 2013 post of mine called “Inequality of the Hungarian electoral law.”

Since we had such a brisk debate on this aspect of the electoral law, we might as well talk about another angle of it, its gross disproportionality. There is nothing new in the disproportionality of the Hungarian electoral system. In 1994 MSZP got 32% and SZDSZ 19% of the popular vote. Together, with their combined 51%, they had a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. In 2010 a similar situation occurred: Fidesz’s 53% was enough to have a super majority in parliament. With amendments, tipping the electoral law even more in their favor, in 2014 44% was enough for Fidesz to get a two-thirds majority in parliament. In a more proportional system, Fidesz wouldn’t have been able to form a government on its own.

In March of this year, Miklós Haraszti, rapporteur of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a monitor of the elections in the Netherlands, began a campaign of sorts to induce Fidesz to change the electoral system before the 2018 election. In his opinion, an alliance of all left-of-center parties is neither realistic nor is it an effective way to ensure victory. Fidesz naturally would oppose any change to the present electoral system. In that case, all the other parties should refuse to participate in the election. Haraszti argues that Fidesz cannot risk such a “one-party campaign and election” and therefore will have to negotiate with the other parties.

Haraszti’s idea was widely debated in intellectual circles. In May it got a boost when at a demonstration Márton Gulyás, a civil activist, called for a political movement whose goal would be to change the unfair electoral system. As usual, there were many who argued that, in the current political landscape, the opposition would not benefit from a more or less proportional system but in fact would emerge weaker than it is now. As long as this greatly disproportional system exists, there is always the possibility that an opposition party may, even with 45% of the votes, be able to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority that would enable the new government to dismantle Viktor Orbán’s illiberal political system. However, given the current state of the Hungarian opposition, the likelihood of such a development is unlikely. The left-of-center parties show no inclination to gather under the leadership of MSZP’s László Botka. Perhaps the growing recognition of this fact induced these parties to line up behind Márton Gulyás’s new movement, Közös Ország Mozgalom/Common Country Movement (KOM).

After the initial announcement of Gulyás’s political movement in May, there were weeks of silence. To tell you the truth, I thought that the whole program had died even before it was launched. But on August 7 the newly revived zoom.hu reported that Gulyás’s movement will make its debut on August 20. Zoom.hu learned that most of the opposition parties indicated that they would support Gulyás’s movement. “If all these parties sign the document, we will be witnessing a minor miracle.” The internet site seemed to know that Jobbik had not yet made a decision. In any case, on August 18 Alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s official internet news site, published an intriguing article on the subject titled “There will be no political cooperation with the left but the electoral system must be changed.” The article quoted Jobbik PM Dóra Dúró’s personal opinion, posted on Facebook, which harshly condemned the leftist parties that “ruined the country” and declared opposition to any cooperation them. In the body of the Alfahir.hu article there was not a word about “the electoral system [that] must be changed.” These words appeared only in the title. However, if I read this article correctly, Duró’s words might not be the final ones on the subject. Her weight within the party has greatly diminished since the demotion of her husband, Előd Novák.

Well, it seems that the minor miracle did happen. Nine parties support the movement, including such stalwart “go-it-alone” parties as LMP and Momentum. The two larger rivals, MSZP and DK, managed to find common ground. This is indeed an accomplishment, and most likely it happened only because the initiator of the movement is a civil activist, an outsider in a way. The nine parties that signed up are MSZP, DK, LMP, MoMa, Együtt, Párbeszéd, the Liberals, the Two-tailed Dog Party, and Momentum. Negotiations with Jobbik are still in progress. As a spokeswomen of KOM stated, “the representatives of [Jobbik] might participate in the discussions that begin on September 4.” These discussions will take place in the open, in a temporary structure called Agora on Alkotmány (Constitution) utca, where topics related to the electoral law will be discussed continuously. I guess the hope is that during these discussions ideas regarding the final shape of a new electoral law will emerge. Otherwise, Gulyás gave Fidesz a deadline of October 23 to respond. If Viktor Orbán refuses to negotiate, the activists will begin a program of civil disobedience.

How can this be a country of all?

Does this movement offer any hope? What worries most people is the lack of a specific proposal for the kind of electoral system they would like to be adopted. What do they mean by a proportionate election law? But perhaps open discussion could ignite some public enthusiasm for change. We know that the majority of Hungarians don’t want to see another four years of Fidesz rule, but they have been discouraged and dispirited by the lack of resolve on the part of the opposition parties. Perhaps the very fact that nine parties or perhaps even ten could stand behind a political cause might give them some hope that Fidesz’s stranglehold on the Hungarian political system can be broken. We will just have to see.

As for Fidesz’s reaction, it is too early to say. For the time being, at least on the surface, the party leaders seem utterly unconcerned. We know, however, that the national security forces have been keeping a watchful eye on Márton Gulyás and his camps, which are supposed to prepare his followers for the force activists may face if they carry out peaceful resistance. We have also heard often enough about the “hot fall” that is coming, when enemies of Hungary will try to overthrow the government. So, obviously there is some concern on the part of the powers-that-be.

Fidesz was undoubtedly prepared for the launch of the movement, but what might have come as a shock was that there seems to be a united front behind it. At the moment only one short editorial appeared in Magyar Idők today. It makes fun of the people, nine men and nine women, representing the nine parties, on the video released by the movement. The journalist mocks their personal appearance and their alleged political gravitas, which he suggests is feather light. He tries to minimize the problem of the disproportionality of the Hungarian law and accuses them of “ignoring the unfairness of the French electoral system.” He asks them whether they plan to stand behind the “unrealizable brainstorming” of Momentum’s program on electoral reform. “Don’t miss it! Every word of it, every picture-frame of it, worth its weight in gold. And imagine what would happen if they governed the country. It’s better not to find out.” I guess the rest of the pro-government press is waiting for Viktor Orbán to return from Croatia, where he is spending his vacation.

August 21, 2017

Moving to the center? Anne Applebaum’s essay on Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump

This morning I encountered Anne Applebaum’s name on the “Reggeli gyors” (Morning express) program on KlubRádió, on several Hungarian internet news sites, and in a Hungarian-language summary of foreign news related to Hungary that I receive daily. Anne Applebaum is an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written several books on the Soviet Union and on Eastern Europe. She knows the region of East-Central Europe well, having spent several years in Poland while working as a correspondent for multiple British publications.

As a student of East-Central Europe, she is well acquainted with Hungary’s history and follows its current political events. She often writes about Hungarian affairs, so her name appears frequently in the Hungarian media. Every time an article of hers is published in The Washington Post, this or that Hungarian newspaper or internet site will report on its content. Hungarian journalists even follow her tweets.

As for her opinion of Viktor Orbán and his regime, it is devastating. This was not always the case. In 2010 she received the Petőfi Prize for her 2003 book on the Gulag, which was translated into Hungarian (as was her 2012 book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956). The Petőfi Prize was established by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society, which is a Fidesz-sponsored foundation. The prize was bestowed on her by Mária Schmidt, whom I call Viktor Orbán’s court historian.

Anne Applebaum (2015) Source: Václav Havel Library

If Anne Applebaum had any hopes for the Fidesz government in 2010, they evaporated soon after. She has written many harsh words on Hungarian domestic and foreign policy as well as on the government’s treatment of refugees. But this is not what I want to talk about here. Anyone who is interested in Anne Applebaum’s political opinions should visit her website, which offers an extensive collection of her writings over the years. Here I will focus on her latest article, “Beware: Trump may use the alt-right to turn himself into the center,” which appeared last night in The Washington Post, because it has a great deal to do with Hungary.

The article is about Donald Trump’s bigotry, which he has used as “an electoral tool, to excite a relatively small group of supporters.” He was successful mainly because the rest of his voters, mainstream Republicans, overlooked his tactics in their eagerness to win the election. Applebaum’s question is whether Trump will further manipulate racism “for political ends.” If he does and proves to be successful, the alt-right will gain strength, which might result in a level of violence that could offer Trump the opportunity to “present himself as the candidate of law and order.” In addition, “by encouraging the alt-right, Trump can also change our definition of what it means to be a moderate or a centrist.”

It is at this point that Anne Applebaum brings up the comparison with Hungary, where “the center-right ruling party, Fidesz, turned a neo-fascist alt-right party, Jobbik, into an electoral asset” and where Viktor Orbán can portray himself and his party as a centrist party that alone can save the country from extremism. A couple of years ago Fidesz used Jobbik very much as Anne Applebaum describes it, but I don’t believe this formula applies today.

In Hungary there are three main political forces: the left-liberals, Jobbik, and Fidesz. After 2006 the left-liberal group lost a great deal of its appeal, and at roughly the same time Jobbik, representing the extreme right, became an important political party. It was in this political climate that Viktor Orbán portrayed himself as the head of a right-of-center party that would save Hungary and Europe from the curse of a government of Gábor Vona, the leader of a racist, anti-Semitic party, which proudly declared itself to be an enemy of democracy.

But, as Anne Applebaum correctly points out, as time went by Fidesz, in order to maintain its support, took over more and more of Jobbik’s program. Applebaum says in this article that “Fidesz borrowed some of Jobbik’s ideas and language.” I think she is too kind. It wasn’t borrowing. It was a wholesale adoption of Jobbik’s program. From day one the Orbán government began fulfilling all of the important nationalistic demands of Jobbik, until the two parties and their constituents were barely distinguishable.

As the result of Fidesz’s rapid move to the right, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the myth of Fidesz as a central force, balancing between the “communists” and the “Nazis.” If Anne Applebaum had written this piece a few years ago, I would have fully agreed with her, but today I believe the picture needs to be refined.

As Fidesz was moving to the far right, becoming a nationalistic party with racist, anti-Semitic undertones, Gábor Vona of Jobbik realized that the political territory his party once occupied was being usurped. He decided to move his party more toward the center, with some success. Thus, the myth that the Fidesz government guarantees law and order in the face of a physically dangerous extreme right has collapsed. Today there is no longer a serious threat of extremists, akin to the alt-right extremists we saw demonstrating in Charlottesville, using deadly force in Hungary.

So, let’s go back to the United States and the “centrist” scenario Anne Applebaum foresees as a possibility. Viktor Orbán is a shrewd, intelligent politician, which we can’t say about Donald Trump. Such sophisticated thinking is, to my mind, unimaginable from Trump. I also believe that both his temperament and his deep-seated political views incline him toward extremism. I cannot picture him as a centrist in any guise, promising calm and the rule of law. He thrives on conflict and discord.

Before the 2010 Hungarians election I said in a lecture that “one doesn’t know where Jobbik ends and where Fidesz begins.” Today I am convinced that the same can be said about Donald Trump and the alt-right in all of its variations.

August 18, 2017