Tag Archives: Fidesz

Is Zoltán Balog emotionally unfit to oversee the ministry of human resources?

It’s hard to pick the least sympathetic minister in Viktor Orbán’s cabinet, but Zoltán Balog, the former Calvinist minister, is definitely somewhere at the top of the list. Admittedly, my acquaintance with Calvinist ministers is limited, but I imagine that a good minister should be a compassionate human being who is ready to listen to the joys and sorrows of others. Someone who can offer solace. Someone who knows the meaning of empathy. Someone whose love of his fellow human beings is discernible in all his actions and words. Although I have never met him in person, when I think of a man who is the embodiment of the ideal clergyman it is Gábor Iványi who comes to mind, the Methodist minister whose church has been the victim of Viktor Orbán’s inexplicable hatred.

On the other hand, Orbán became very fond of Zoltán Balog, who joined the still liberal Fidesz party in 1991 as an adviser on church-related matters. In his student days and even later, Balog was highly critical of the conservative Hungarian Reformed Church and, in turn, the church hierarchy believed he should probably not become one of them. First, he was expelled from the Hungarian Reformed College of Debrecen and later from the Debrecen University of Reformed Theology. Although for a while he worked as a practicing minister, soon enough, after 1990, he drifted toward a political career. In 1993 and 1994 Viktor Orbán was refashioning the liberal Fidesz into a Christian Democratic party and was in need of people, Catholics as well as Protestants, who knew something about Christian churches.

By the time Viktor Orbán became prime minister in 1998 and Balog his chief adviser, Balog had abandoned his earlier liberal, even radical, ideas about relations between church and state and about a thorough revamping of the Hungarian Reformed Church. As time went by, he became more and more conservative, even radical in some ways. He was one of the first Fidesz critics of “politically correct” speech. He fought any legal restriction of “hate speech” and made some unfortunate remarks about the situation of the Roma when he claimed that the greatest danger the Gypsies face is not racism but hopelessness. Some of his earlier liberal friends didn’t know what to make of his sudden metamorphosis. One thing is sure. Balog today is one of the greatest apologists of the regime Viktor Orbán has built since 2010.

These are the bare facts of Balog’s transformation from Protestant minister to super minister of “human resources,” the person who is supposed to oversee education, health, sports, culture, churches, and family and youth. One would think that a former Protestant minister would be well suited to manage such human endeavors, yet over the years it became evident that Balog is singularly unfit for the job. Almost every time he opens his mouth he insults somebody or at least presents himself as an uncaring person.

Balog’s “mishaps” are too numerous to recount here, but I recommend my post from 2013 on the Hungarian Reformed Church Charity’s brilliant move of collecting 40 kids who live in poverty for a luxury dinner in the Budapest Hilton Hotel. They were served goose consomé with vegetables and rotini, chicken breast with a mushroom sauce prepared with Calvados, vegetable lasagna, broccoli, and rice. The dessert was yogurt strawberry cake. All this for kids who like pizza, hamburgers, and gyros. But then came the Reverend Balog’s speech in which explained that perhaps these children, when they have a job or “perhaps even go to college, who knows,” will be able to afford to eat in a restaurant like this. Or perhaps they will be able to visit Paris or Cluj/Kolozsvár. It was an incredible performance.

Since this incident, there were many others that demonstrated Balog’s insensitivity. For example, a couple of months ago at a gathering to celebrate the Day of the Ambulance Service he gave a speech at a breakfast meeting held in a relatively expensive restaurant in Budapest. It is a well-known fact that the members of the ambulance service receive shamelessly low salaries. Balog began his speech by cracking a “joke” about his audience whose members “eat breakfast here every day.” No one laughed.

More serious was when Balog and the newly appointed chief of the National Ambulance Service gave a press conference about the dreadful accident involving Hungarian high school students, 16 of whom burned to death in the bus near Verona. Balog introduced the new director by saying that “Gábor Csató just took over the leadership of the organization and it was a real baptism by fire, if one can say such a thing.” I guess one can, but one shouldn’t.

Balog made headlines a couple of days ago when he gave an interview on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk). He explained that Hungarian healthcare is not as bad as one would think after reading the Hungarian media, which entertains the public with fake news which in turn has a negative effect on healthcare itself. The conversation turned to the case of a little girl who was being operated on but since the Országos Kardiológiai Intézet (National Institute of Cardiology) doesn’t have a CT machine she had to be transported to another hospital in the middle of the operation. Balog saw no problem with this situation. At least there is another hospital to which she could be transported. Instead of talking about the lack of CT and MRI machines, the media should concentrate on the higher salaries doctors are getting thanks to the government. He seemed to be totally unsympathetic to the little girl’s plight, who died a few hours after she was transported to the other hospital.

Most likely the trip to another hospital was not the cause of the girl’s death, but people nonetheless felt that Balog’s reaction, as usual, was inappropriate to the occasion. HVG pointed out that there are two possibilities. First, Balog may have been unaware of the death of the patient about whom many articles had been written lately. Or, second, he knew about it and yet showed no sympathy or emotion. In the former case, he is not fit to be a cabinet minister, and in the latter, he is unfit to be a clergyman.

July 13, 2017

What’s the new Fidesz game plan?

There is just too much talk by Fidesz leaders about the “hot autumn” ahead of us. One politician after the other, starting with Viktor Orbán, warns us that the frustrated opposition led by George Soros and his NGOs is preparing for disturbances on the streets which may well be the beginnings of an assault against Hungary’s “democratic institutions.”

László Kövér envisaged this very scenario at one of the “free universities” organized by Fidesz in neighboring countries. These “free universities” are three- to four-day gatherings where Fidesz politicians deliver speeches about the excellent performance of the Orbán government. The most famous “free university” is held in Tusnádfürdő-Bálványos, Romania, where Viktor Orbán makes a regular appearance. What he has to say there is usually politically significant.

In 2013 this Fidesz tradition was expanded to Slovakia. In July of that year a new “free university” was born in Martos (Martovce), a village of about 700 inhabitants in Komárno County. Originally, the organizers hoped that Viktor Orbán would honor the event with his presence, but in the end they had to be satisfied with László Kövér as the keynote speaker. This first appearance became a regular event. Every year Kövér opens the Martosfest, as he did this year as well.

It was here that László Kövér joined those Fidesz politicians and journalists of the government media who had declared that by the fall a veritable coalition will have been forged by the Hungarian opposition and the Soros NGOs. They will be organizing disturbances on the streets of Budapest. “They will try to create an atmosphere filled with civil-war psychosis,” as Kövér put it.

Actually, there is nothing new in this madcap story because Fidesz propaganda has been full of stories about impending physical attacks against the legitimate government of Hungary. At the end of May Antal Rogán, Orbán’s propaganda minister, was already talking about “existing training centers where people whose job will be the organization of widespread actions of civil disobedience” are being trained. And if that doesn’t work, they will try to provoke some kind of police attack against the demonstrators. On June 2 Magyar Idők seemed to know that the “members of the Soros network will embark on a new strategy, starting early autumn.” Their goal is the destabilization of the country because many of the leading commentators are convinced that the present regime cannot be replaced by democratic means.

Viktor Orbán himself talked about “the hot summer and even hotter fall that awaits us.” He predicted that George Soros will do his best to have a new government in Hungary that will take down the fence and open the borders to illegal immigrants. 444 might find all this sheer madness, but one can’t help thinking that we are faced here with a centrally manipulated propaganda campaign and that behind it the government may actually be preparing to create a situation that would require police intervention. That would give the government an opportunity for a major crackdown, possible martial law, and perhaps the large-scale jailing of activists and opposition politicians.

Opposition politicians are suspicious of Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz top leadership, and not without justification. There have been times in Fidesz’s history when Viktor Orbán and his closest circle most likely committed criminal acts in order to acquire power. In the first instance, they succeeded. A lot of people, including me, are convinced that the series of explosions that took place shortly before the 1998 election were the work of Fidesz, which at that time was trailing the socialist-liberal coalition forces. Whoever placed the bombs at or near houses or apartments of Fidesz and Smallholder politicians made sure that no serious damage was done. Of course, the Horn government and its minister of interior, Gábor Kuncze (SZDSZ), were blamed for the lack of security, and these events had a negative impact on public opinion. The election was held and Fidesz, with the help of József Torgyán, chairman of the Smallholders party, won. From that moment on there was silence. No other explosion anywhere.

Fidesz’s role in the 2006 disturbances is also murky. The attack against the headquarters of the Hungarian Public Television was undertaken by relatively few people, mostly football hooligans who were fans of Ferencváros (Fradi). Interestingly, a week before the siege against the television station Viktor Orbán paid a rather unusual visit to a Fradi game where he sat right in the middle of these Fradi fans. A lot of people at the time didn’t think that this was a coincidence. And what happened on October 23 and after was not exactly a spontaneous affair either. Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz politicians for four or five solid weeks did their best to incite the rather unsavory crowd that gathered in front of the parliament building. Perhaps we will never know exactly what role Viktor Orbán and his men played in this attempt to topple the Gyurcsány government, but many people are convinced that it was an attempt to force the resignation of the whole government after a period of extended disturbances. Their resignation would be followed by a new snap election. It didn’t work out that way, but I’m sure this was the original plan.

“The siege against the television station wasn’t organized by the opposition” / Source: Gépnarancs

So, it’s no wonder that both MSZP and DK issued statements accusing Fidesz of starting to orchestrate a situation that would require police action. MSZP specifically mentioned the mysterious explosions in 1998. DK reminded people that it was only Fidesz that provoked violent streets riots in Hungary. DK suspects that Viktor Orbán is preparing to set Budapest on fire again. This is all very alarming.

July 7, 2017

The heist of two million euros

Three days ago, thanks to 444.hu, the Hungarian public at last learned about a robbery that had actually taken place during the night of April 7. In the last three months not a word about it has leaked out, despite an extensive police investigation. The effort to keep the case under wraps is not at all surprising because the burglary occurred at the office of Arton Capital, one of the four companies that were entitled to sell residency bonds.

The residency bond project was launched in 2013. It allowed a citizen of a non-European country to “buy” a resident permit for the duration of five years by purchasing €250,000 worth of Hungarian government bonds. In 2015 that amount was raised to €300,000. I called the project “the Orbán government’s colossal swindle” in one of my posts. Anyone who’s interested in the details should read that post, in which I explained that the greatest beneficiaries of this arrangement were the four companies that had the exclusive right to sell the bonds. According to estimates, these companies made a real killing, receiving about a third of the 1.2 billion euros the state got from the residency bonds.

When 444.hu first reported on the heist, few details were known, just that the burglars took cash and that the amount of money was in the millions. A few hours later RTL Klub knew the exact figures: altogether 1.9 euros were stolen. One million was in a safe and the rest was in an unlocked desk drawer. The safe was gone and so was the server with the complete documentation of all the sales, including personal data of the purchasers.

This burglary has been taken very seriously. According to accounts, the police have pulled out all the stops in trying to solve the case. Index reported that 1,300 people have been questioned in connection with this affair.

We have always suspected that this whole residency bond arrangement, devised by Antal Rogán, served only one purpose: to siphon off as much public money as possible and pass it into individual pockets and most likely also into Fidesz’s coffers. Under normal circumstances, all transactions should have been conducted by drafts or promissory notes. Moreover, if this large amount of cash was part of the clients’ handling fee that varied between €45,000 and €60,000 per residency bond, how did these cash payments reach Arton Capital in Budapest in the first place? A person can legally bring a maximum of €10,000 into the country in cash. The answer of course is that it was done illegally, possibly with the assistance of the authorities.

The burglars were skilled. Their entry and their movements inside the offices showed a high level of professionalism. I assume they were familiar with the place and knew exactly what they were after. Naturally, as always happens in such cases, so-called experts, mostly former police officers, come up with all sorts of fancy explanations–from self-robbery to foreign secret service agents who are after the personal data of the people to whom Hungary so generously allowed free access to the whole European Union. In any case, it looks like a complicated case to me. Even if the usually inept Hungarian police find the culprits, I don’t think we will ever learn the real story behind this huge amount of cash stashed away in an unlocked drawer and a safe.

The weak and usually powerless opposition, especially Jobbik and LMP, has been trying to organize an investigative committee to look into this very suspicious business around the residency bonds. Naturally, Fidesz made sure that no such committee would be formed. Therefore, last November Jobbik, LMP, and the tiny Liberal Party decided to form a “shadow committee” and began their own, unofficial investigation of the clearly illegal and corrupt money laundering business conducted by the Orbán government. At that time, the opposition members of parliament who participated in the shadow committee hoped to finish their job by the spring. After this initial announcement I didn’t see any sign of their activities, although they had ambitious plans, including holding hearings where employees of the Immigration and Citizenship Authority would be called to testify. But now, after the burglary, the shadow committee suddenly revived. They announced that they want to talk to the representatives of the four companies who are in the residency bond business. Good luck, since I’m certain that the men and women in question have no intention of being questioned by members of an opposition shadow committee. On the other hand, a representative of the Liberal Party claims that the members of the committee have learned that the residency bond project is “a professionally organized criminal undertaking.”

A Jobbik member of the committee, Andrea Varga-Damm, was Olga Kálmán’s guest on HírTV yesterday where she revealed an important piece of information, which is most likely the result of the investigation this shadow committee has been conducting in the last few months. The law that established the project was enacted on December 27, 2012. Twenty-six days earlier, on December 1, the government made some small changes in the bill, which up to that point had allowed the companies to hold only a certain amount of money in petty cash. That limit was abolished, most likely not quite independently from the forthcoming residency bond project. Talk about “a professional organized criminal undertaking.” All was prepared for the killing ahead.

June 30, 2017

Mission accomplished: Jobbik’s hard-hitting billboards will be removed

On June 14, 2016, a united opposition prevented the adoption of a proposal intended to re-regulate the use of posters and billboards by political parties. The bill, among other things, included the stipulation that if the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the current market value, such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. Since a portion of the bill dealt with party financing, in order to pass, the bill needed a two-thirds majority of the members present.

The proposal was submitted in response to thousands of Jobbik billboards carrying the message that while ordinary citizens work, the members of the political elite and their friendly oligarchs steal the country blind. Viktor Orbán’s fury over the posters was only reinforced when he learned that Jobbik had rented the advertising surfaces from one of Lajos Simicska’s business ventures, Mahír, for practically peanuts. Simicska would like nothing more than to get rid of his former friend turned enemy Viktor Orbán at the next national election in the spring of 2018, and he was prepared to be generous to Jobbik in its anti-Fidesz billboard campaign.

The government party was two persons short of the magic two-thirds majority, and therefore it was imperative that all the members of the Fidesz and KDNP delegations showed up. Even György Rubovszky of KDNP, who died a week later, attended the session. The hope was that either a few opposition members would be absent or that the politically diverse opposition would not be well disciplined. But everyone was there with the exception of Lajos Oláh of DK, who was on his way to the hospital with kidney stones. And every member of the opposition voted against the bill. So Fidesz was left with only one absentee, which wasn’t enough. The bill failed to be enacted.

Within hours, however, the government party announced that the bill would be resubmitted. The president of the parliament called for an extraordinary session, where the only item on the agenda was the poster law nicknamed by its co-sponsor Lajos Kósa “Lex Csicska.” Csicska is a person who in jail or in a reformatory is forced to serve others. In this case, the “csicska” is Jobbik, the party which, they claim, is simply an instrument of Simicska’s design against Viktor Orbán and his government.

Since the session was not a scheduled one, the hope again was that many opposition members would be unable to attend. At the same time, just to be sure, Fidesz politicians began negotiations with several opposition parties and members, hoping to get partners to push through this bill that Viktor Orbán found so important. A few days ago I devoted a post to MSZP’s decision to submit a proposal of their own, which was not a hit with the other parties and which was eventually torpedoed by László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership. Thus, it looked as if there was no chance for Lex Csicska to be adopted. Moreover, on the day of the extraordinary session (Friday, June 22) Viktor Orbán was supposed to be in Brussels. And György Rubovszky died on June 21, a day before the crucial vote. Yet Viktor Orbán announced that he has no plans to return because “his boss,” i.e. the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, doesn’t think that his presence is necessary. It was at this point that I became mighty suspicious that the legal wizards of Fidesz had found some clever work-around solution.

And indeed, late on Thursday evening, when Orbán was already in Brussels, the public learned that Fidesz will not resubmit the original law which had been voted down a week earlier. Rather, members of parliament will have to vote on amendments to a 2016 law on the defense of community image (településkép), which required only a simple majority to pass. In Hungary the central government lays down the parameters of what towns can and cannot do in burnishing their images. The original law dealt with advertisements, posters, billboards but only commercial ones, advertising everything from beer to toothpaste. Expanding this law to give municipalities the authority to restrict party advertising is, according to most legal scholars, unconstitutional because the Hungarian Constitution specifically states that “the detailed rules for the operation and management of political parties shall be laid down in a cardinal Act.”

Gergely Gulyás, Fidesz’s wunderkind, enjoying the fruits of his labor

But that wasn’t the only trick Fidesz employed. Gergely Gulyás, deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation, breaking house rules, introduced MSZP’s proposal, which was never officially submitted for consideration, as an amendment, putting MSZP in the uncomfortable position that their members had to vote against their own “amendment.” The vote was 123 in favor and 68 against. Fidesz-KDNP parliamentarians knew ahead of time what was coming, so of their 130 members only 123 showed up. On the other hand, all 68 members of the opposition parties and the independents were present and voted against the bill.

Although legal scholars believe that the Constitutional Court should find this law unconstitutional, they admit that, given the composition of the 15-member body, the judges may just rubber stamp it. Zoltán Fleck, professor of sociology of law at ELTE’s law school, with a certain sadness remarked that he wasn’t really surprised to hear about this latest Fidesz ploy because in Hungary “the rule of law has long been officially terminated.” György Magyar, Simicska’s lawyer and civil activist, also tore the law apart on his blog.

An amusing story connected to the passage of this bill shows the cynicism of most of those Fidesz members of parliament who serve as voting robots. Máriusz Révész (Fidesz), under pressure from a journalist of 24.hu about the strange transformation of a law that requires a two-thirds majority into one that needs only a simple majority, got mighty confused. After a lot of prevarication, he blurted out: “obviously this time it is not happening according to the law.” So, he basically confirmed the opposition’s criticism that Fidesz acted illegally. It is not something the Fidesz leadership easily forgives. This afternoon Index, which reported on the 24.hu story, received a letter from Révész in which he tried to convince them that he wasn’t talking about the law itself but about illicit party financing.

Albert Gazda of Magyar Nemzet wrote an opinion piece titled “The cowardly Fidesz.” As the title suggests, Gazda looks upon this latest Fidesz trick, which he considers primitive even by the party’s own low moral and intellectual standards, as a sign of weakness. “Here is the first spectacular and hard-hitting campaign and Fidesz is running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Gazda also believes that Fidesz is not only cowardly but also fearful. “But fear eats away the soul, takes away strength, and destroys faith.”

I’m not at all sure that Gazda is right. Instead, I would suggest that these posters got under Orbán’s skin in a big way because he found them politically damaging. He had only one goal: the posters must be taken down immediately. Therefore, I believe, he didn’t particularly care in what manner this bill became law. He most likely knows that the law is unconstitutional, but in the short run he simply doesn’t care. Even if the Constitutional Court finds the law unconstitutional, that decision may take months while the billboards will have to be removed immediately. Orbán wanted to stop the political hemorrhaging right now.

June 24, 2017

László Botka has taken things into his own hands in MSZP

Yesterday I ended my post saying that, because only a few hours had passed since MSZP submitted its own proposal for a new bill that would regulate political advertising, I was unable to gauge the reaction of the other smaller parties on the left. I suspected that their reception of MSZP’s very questionable political move was not going to be favorably viewed. A couple of hours later, I had the chance to listen to a television interview with Csaba Molnár, one of the deputy chairmen of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), who promised that the party leadership would take a good look at MSZP’s proposal but hinted that one has to be very careful when negotiating with Fidesz. The government party’s surprising readiness to negotiate was suspicious.

By this morning it became clear that no opposition party was ready to discuss the MSZP proposal. If the socialists go ahead with it, it will be a private deal between Fidesz and MSZP. But no opposition party can afford the stigma of making a deal with the devil. Only “political illiterates” could come up with such an idea unless, as many people suspect, certain members of the MSZP leadership are ready to cozy up to Fidesz for one nefarious reason or another. In this particular case, I think “political illiterates” were at work.

MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, László Botka, had been left in total darkness about the leadership’s decision to submit a “poster bill” of their own. That such a thing can happen gives you an idea of the chaos and confusion that must exist in the Hungarian socialist party. The most important officeholders in MSZP must have approved the proposal and its submission for consideration because it was Gyula Molnár, party chairman, and Bertalan Tóth, leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation, who announced the move at a joint press conference on Friday. Fidesz-KDNP jumped at the opportunity and secretly indicated they were game. When Jobbik got the wind of the pending deal, János Volner, Jobbik parliamentary leader, made it public.

Bertalan Tóth and Gyula Molnár at a press conference

It was at this point that Botka decided to intervene. He explained that any negotiations and any joint action, like voting with Fidesz, would discredit the party and himself personally since he had stressed on several occasions that any collaboration with Fidesz was out of the question. He apparently argued that if an election advertising bill were to pass, MSZP might be in a better position vis-à-vis Jobbik as far as political advertisement is concerned, i.e., both parties would receive the same rate from the providers of advertising surfaces. But MSZP “would lose its character as an opposition party.” Jobbik would be Fidesz’s primary opponent at the next election.

Today MSZP also created a new body called the “national election committee” (Országos Választási Bizottság/OVB), which will be in charge of the election campaign. According to Index, OVB will consist of five people: László Botka; Gyula Molnár, party chairman; József Tóbiás, campaign manager; György Kerényi, director of communications; and Bálint Ruff, Botka’s political adviser. I suspect that readers of Hungarian Spectrum may not be familiar with the names of György Kerényi and Bálint Ruff. Kerényi is a highly respected journalist who worked for Magyar Narancs, Tilos Rádió, and Roma Sajtóközpont and was one of the founders of vs.hu. He was known for his independence, and therefore his colleagues were greatly surprised that he accepted a party position. His decision was based on his conviction that MSZP is the only party that has a chance to unseat Viktor Orbán, who in his opinion must go. And he must personally do everything he can to make that happen. As for Bálint Ruff, he is a young man, a law school graduate, who is a managing partner of Invisible Hand Coaching and Consulting.

Most likely not independently from the blunder committed by the party leadership behind Botka’s back, the composition of OVB changed significantly in the last two days. Index reported on June 18 that Botka had named József Tóbiás’s campaign manager, who in turn named Zsolt Molnár, campaign manager in 2014, Ferenc Baja, a really old socialist politician who served in high positions both in the party and in the socialist-liberal governments between 1994 and 2010, and Bertalan Tóth, the most important man in the party’s parliamentary group, to the body. These three people have since disappeared from OVB, and I suspect that Gyula Molnár remained only because he is, after all, chairman of the party. Keep in mind that it was Molnár and Tóth who came forth with the announcement of an independent MSZP proposal for the “poster law.” In fact, we have evidence that Tóth’s removal is connected to this political miscalculation. István Nyakó, MSZP’s spokesman, said at today’s press conference that Bertalan Tóth represented the interests of the party to the best of his knowledge in negotiating with the other parties concerning the “poster law,” but with the appearance of Botka a “new political calendar” has begun. I wonder how long Tóth will remain the leader of the Fidesz caucus in parliament. As for Zsolt Molnár, he is a controversial character who has been the subject of long-standing criticism for his cozy relations with Fidesz politicians. As for Baja, perhaps Botka objected to his very high positions in the party for almost twenty years when Botka didn’t want to have anyone associated with the campaign who had had “substantial responsibility” for the political situation in which Fidesz could win a two-thirds majority in 2010. I might add that I for one don’t share Botka’s assessment of the guilt of the socialist-liberal governments for the overwhelming victory of Fidesz in 2010, but Ferenc Baja was never one of my favorites.

In addition, Botka tightened the reins on communication and finance. Without the knowledge of Kerényi, no MSZP politician can issue any statement or express any opinion different from the official one. I must say that this decision has been long overdue. MSZP is a notoriously undisciplined party where party leaders regularly contradict one another and voice their personal opinions about accepted party policies in public. István Nyakó, MSZP’s spokesman, also said that anyone who in any way collaborates with Fidesz will be expelled from the party.

Indeed, MSZP is shaping up to be a different party. Perhaps in the long run this botched-up political move will have a beneficial effect on MSZP. This incident might have prompted Botka to take a more active role in the everyday running of party affairs which, if he makes good decisions, might improve the party’s acceptance by the public. At the same time, if those socialist politicians who are the most visible public representatives of MSZP are not better able to convey the party’s messages and if the party leadership is unable to mobilize its supporters, no amount of firmness, tenacity, and determination on the part of László Botka can revive the Hungarian socialist party.

June 20, 2017

What’s MSZP up to? Other opposition parties are suspicious

On April Fool’s Day thousands of stark black-and-white billboards appeared all over the country. The message they carried was simple: ordinary citizens work while the political elite and their friendly oligarchs steal the country blind. Jobbik, the party that ran this billboard campaign, hit Fidesz where it hurt. An infuriated Viktor Orbán wanted the billboards gone as soon as possible. In the beginning Fidesz activists were sent to remove or deface them, but, given the number of billboards Jobbik scattered all over the country, a better solution had to be found. In such cases Fidesz’s usual response is to create a new, targeted law.

This is exactly what happened here. On April 27 Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the ministry of human resources, submitted a proposal to re-regulate the use of posters and billboards. The bill included the stipulation that if the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the “current market value,” such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. This regulation would be applicable at times outside of the three months officially designated as the “campaign period.” Owners of poster surfaces must turn in a price list to the State Account Office and will be obliged to make their prices available on their websites.

In addition, and much more worrisome, a government decree signed by Viktor Orbán stipulated that starting on June 1, 2017, local government permission would be needed to place new advertising spots anywhere. The decree also introduced other new regulations. For example, the size of the billboards would have to be reduced from 12m2 to 9m2 and the frame size changed from 14m2 to 11m2. An additional burden on the companies. Much worse, the appendix to the decree stipulated that in the future one will be able to advertise only on properties owned by the state or the municipality. As it stands now, 90% of the advertising surfaces are in private hands and only 10% belong to the municipalities. This decree turns the billboard market upside down and will institute a state monopoly over political advertising.

There was only one problem. Certain parts of the Kósa-Halász bill needed a two-thirds majority, and Fidesz at the moment is short by two votes. Fidesz couldn’t convince any member of the opposition to vote for the bill. The opposition, both right and left, found it unacceptable. And although one of the DK members of parliament had such a serious attack of kidney stones that he had to be taken to the hospital and missed the vote, Fidesz still came up one short. As you can see on this photo, Orbán was anything but happy. Nonetheless, it was decided to resubmit the proposal this Friday at an extraordinary session of parliament.

Zsolt Semjén, Viktor Orbán, and János Lázár after the voting was over Magyar Nemzet / Attila Béres

At the center of this billboard controversy is Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s former friend and business partner. Simicska, in addition to owning Közgép, a construction company that once had a virtual monopoly on government infrastructure contracts, also owns several other businesses, including Mahir Cityposter and Publimont, which rent out billboard spaces and advertising kiosks. Jobbik’s billboards and posters appeared on spaces owned by these two companies. It was suspected from the beginning that Simicska, who broke with Orbán and Fidesz about two years ago, provided space for the Jobbik posters at a cut rate, but until very recently Jobbik refused to divulge the cost. So, in addition to the Kósa-Halász bill and Orbán’s decree, NAV, the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, paid a visit to Mahir’s headquarters. They had the right to check all financial transactions between January 1 and April 30. They were specifically looking for financial transactions connected to the Jobbik posters.

When the price Jobbik paid Simicska’s firm was finally made public last week, it was obvious that “Simicska had sold the surfaces at a ridiculously low price,” as Népszava pointed out. Simicska, who until recently was the “financial genius” behind Fidesz’s coffers, used to favor Fidesz by charging very little for advertising posters. Now he was doing the same for Jobbik.

And so, if Fidesz’s bill were to fail again, because of Jobbik’s special relation with Lajos Simicska, the real winner would be the far-right but lately somewhat mellowed Jobbik. MSZP swung into action. They dusted off an old proposal that they had earlier submitted to parliament, which they now presented as an alternative to the Fidesz proposal. It would, just like the Kósa-Halász bill, forbid political advertising except during the campaign period by parties, municipalities, and the government, but, in addition, it would specifically forbid advertising by CÖF, the government-financed so-called civic organization, and Fidelitas, Fidesz’s youth organization.

With MSZP’s move Fidesz-KDNP was presented with an easy path to victory. Fidesz is “still studying” the matter, but it finds many aspects of the MSZP bill acceptable. Jobbik naturally is not game, and it looks as if LMP is also holding to its original position. According to LMP’s spokesman, unity must be maintained against this bill, which would only help Fidesz. However, as we all know, if MSZP is ready to sit down and negotiate, there will be no problem on Friday. And in that case, Jobbik will have been outfoxed. Not surprisingly, Jobbik politicians are crying foul. János Völner, head of Jobbik’s parliamentary delegation, described MSZP’s move as one of the most obvious and brutal political pacts since 1990. He claims that the poster market was the only one where there was parity among the parties. MSZP with this move contributes to Viktor Orbán’s media dominance.

Alfahír, Jobbik’s online news site, illustrates the mood in the party. The article reporting on MSZP’s offer begins this way: “June 19, 2017. Please don’t forget this date. Today is the birthday of the Orbán regime’s Patriotic Popular Front. Today what we had suspected for years has become official: MSZP became the prostitute of Fidesz.” The Patriotic Popular Front (Hazafias Népfront) was created in 1954 and was dismantled in 1990. It was supposed to be a body representative of the whole society.

Too little time has passed since the MSZP proposal to be able to gauge the reaction of the other smaller parties on the left. I suspect that, similarly to LMP, they will not be thrilled with MSZP’s special deal with the government party. They will be most likely strengthened in their suspicion that MSZP is not playing a fair game and that somehow it has a secret understanding with Fidesz. I wouldn’t go that far, but MSZP’s leadership is not known for its boldness and clear-cut positions. How MSZP voters will react to this unexpected move no one can tell yet, but somehow I don’t think that it will be popular among MSZP voters, most of whom, I suspect, wouldn’t want to have anything to do with Viktor Orbán and his party.

June 19, 2017

Justice in Orbán’s Hungary: The Ahmed H. case

As I was looking through my old posts to see my coverage of Ahmed H.’s trial for terrorism, which took place in 2016, I found to my astonishment that I hadn’t even mentioned the name of this Syrian man who received ten years for allegedly committing terrorism at the Serbian-Hungarian border. I have often been told that over the years the posts of Hungarian Spectrum can more or less serve as a timeline of Hungarian politics. I’m trying to cover all the important events, but, as is clear from this example, I don’t always succeed.

The omission is especially egregious because Ahmed’s alleged terrorism case was one of the pretexts for the government’s attempt to introduce a new category of emergencies that could be declared in the event of a “situation created by a terrorist threat.” Ahmed’s arrest and the subsequent charge of terrorism against him were followed by an unprecedented hate campaign against migrants. This Syrian man from Cyprus, where he has been living legally for the last ten years, became a symbol for all those vicious terrorists who want to overrun Hungary. The only problem with the Hungarian government’s plan was that the terrorism case against Ahmed H. was mighty weak.

Even if I missed covering the original trial, I can now make up for it, at least in part, by reporting on the ruling of the appellate court on June 15 and by recalling some of the events that led to the news that Ahmed has a second chance to receive a fair trial. The appellate court found the work of the court of first instance so flawed that the whole case must be retried–and not, as the judge made clear, by the same panel of judges.

Representatives of such civic organizations as Amnesty International and Migszol, a group formed at the time of the refugee crisis in Hungary in the summer of 2015, have been calling Ahmed H.’s trial a “conceptual show trial.” Looking through the available documents, one thing is sure. The Orbán government very much wanted to find someone guilty of terrorism. It needed such a verdict for its anti-migrant drive. Ahmed seemed to fit the bill. He had a bullhorn and was talking to the crowd in several languages, including English. He allegedly incited the crowd to violence, repeatedly threatened the security forces, and then joined the disturbances that took place on September 16, 2015. He was also charged with illegally crossing the border. On November 30 Ahmed H. was sentenced to a 10-year prison term.

The trial was a mockery of judicial fairness. The judge refused to hear the testimony of more than 20 defense witnesses and ignored the fact that the prosecution’s main witness, a police officer, was not certain of the accused’s identity. It was true that Ahmed threw a couple of items during the melee, but there was no proof that he hit anyone. He claimed that he tried to calm the people. But even if he was guilty of all the crimes he was accused of, did Ahmed H. deserve 10 years? Gauri van Gulik, deputy director of Amnesty International for Europe, said that “to sentence Ahmed to 10 years in prison for a terrorist act is absurd.”

The spokesman for Fidesz expressed the party’s delight after the initial verdict was announced. He repeated the slogan on the billboards: “every migrant must learn that, once in the country, he must honor the laws of Hungary.” But those outside the circle of Fidesz and its followers were stunned. The United States asked the Hungarian government to conduct a transparent investigation of the incidents at the border that would include an independent civic organization. The government should review Ahmed’s case. As far as the United States is concerned, it will follow the case’s future handling, the statement promised. It didn’t take long for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to respond, telling the United States that criticizing the work of the court may be allowed in the United States but not in Hungary. Moreover, in Hungary it is not the civic organizations that decide on the guilt or innocence of people but the courts. The ministry spokesman ended his harangue by saying that “we can promise one thing: Hungary will never demand an explanation of U.S. court decisions on terrorists attacking American policemen.”

A week before Ahmed H.’s case was to be continued at the Szeged Appellate Court, the Hungarian media reported that Péter Bárándy, one of the best lawyers in Hungary who was minister of justice between 2002 and 2004 in the Medgyessy government, was going to be Ahmed’s defense lawyer. (There is some indirect evidence that Bárándy had been working on the case since at least March.)

Ahmed H. has had four lawyers, including Bárándy. First, he had a court-appointed lawyer. Then a local Szeged lawyer took over who, according to a member of Migszol, “during the trial sat quietly and wasted not one word in defense of his client.” Two weeks before the end of the trial he quit. The accused got another court-appointed lawyer who apparently did at least try to defend his client, unfortunately without much success.

The news of Péter Bárándy’s appearance as the lawyer for the defense was not exactly welcome news in government circles, but it did give Fidesz leaders an opportunity to connect “terrorism” with its alleged supporters, the Hungarian liberals and socialists. In fact, Gyula Budai, the man who in 2010 was entrusted by Viktor Orbán to bring all socialist and liberal “criminals” to justice, gave a press conference in which he charged that the Soros organizations, Brussels, and the socialists are working hand in hand to free Ahmed H. and therefore “they support terrorism.” He used strong words like “while Europe is terrified of terrorism, Brussels is openly supporting it.” He wanted to know “who is paying the lawyer” and called on MSZP to give an account.

Péter Bárándy in the courtroom

At the trial the prosecutor mostly praised the excellent decision that had been reached in the lower court. But he found the sentence of 10 years, the minimum for those accused of terrorism, insufficient and asked the court for 17.5 years instead. It was then Bárándy’s turn, who pointed out that he found 205 serious mistakes in the proceedings of the lower court. Here, of course, I cannot recount all of them. But I think a couple of examples will give a good idea of the kind of justice that was meted out to Ahmed H. A key charge against him was that he was the leader of the crowd that was throwing rocks against the police. A video, however, showed that the rock throwing had been going on for at least 45 minutes before Ahmed got hold of the bullhorn. In addition, the judge ignored the existence of a video taken by a policewoman which, as opposed to other videos, also contained sound and it doesn’t support Ahmed’s alleged incitement of the crowd. On the contrary, he can be heard saying to the fellow refugees “please, wait, stay here,” “please advise,” “we speak English, we don’t want an Arabic interpreter, we are asking for someone who speaks English.” And finally he told the refugees in Arabic, “no, wait, go back, please go back.” The verdict also claimed that Ahmed gave the police two hours to open the border. How did the police know this? He held up two fingers. But this can also mean “victory.” Finally, he was found guilty of illegally crossing the border, but even that judgment was wrong because Ahmed had free access to all EU countries, including Hungary. At the most, Ahmed was guilty of a misdemeanor (szabálysértés).

Ahmed H. with his back toward us is trying to calm the crowd / Source: police.hu

After the appellate court sent the case back to the lower court for a retrial, Zsolt Bayer wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Idők titled “H. Bárándy and Ahmed Péter.” Bayer may seem to have gotten a little mixed up. I assume you get the gist of what he wants to tell us. It was a relief to read close to the end of the article that “we are not going to incarcerate the judge [of the appellate court] or H. Bárándy.” That’s awfully charitable.

Let’s end this post on a lighter note. The management of state television M1 channel most likely was certain that the Ahmed H.’s verdict would not be reversed or annulled. Perhaps he will even get 17.5 years as the prosecution demanded. They decided to send a camera crew to the trial along with their legal experts who were supposed to give live commentary. For three solid hours one could watch the trial. Once the decision was handed down, however, M1 ended the live broadcast in a great hurry. No further commentary necessary.

The reaction of the top Fidesz leadership has been as expected–a complete denial of any possibility that the original verdict could be flawed and a charge that the socialists, the civic organizations, Brussels, and everybody else under the sun are working together to open the borders and let in all those migrants who are in Bayer’s words members of “the terrible mob of Mordor, the Third World.”

June 18, 2017