Tag Archives: Gábor Török

MSZP and DK at the negotiating table

Although most people would consider a Fidesz win at the next national election preordained, several political analysts consider the situation not that straightforward. There are several reasons to believe that Fidesz’s road to victory might be more difficult than it would seem at first glance. First of all, Fidesz voters at the moment appear to be complacent. Four years ago Fidesz was very effective in getting out the vote. But in several recent by-elections relatively few Fidesz voters bothered to go to the polls. Second, we know that the majority of voters would like to see a change of government. Only the sorry state of the opposition is responsible for the enormous Fidesz lead. Third, although opinion polls show an unstoppable Fidesz, support for the government party is usually overestimated in polls. Fourth, although few analysts pay enough attention to it, dramatic changes are taking place on the left that might change the political landscape. Here I am referring to the slow but steady disintegration of MSZP. Fifth, there is still an untapped pool of 1.5 million men and women who tell pollsters that they will definitely vote but at the moment are still undecided about their party preferences. These conditions, I believe, provide a level of political fluidity that may result in a closer election than most people expect.

Today I will concentrate on party politics, primarily the battle between MSZP and DK. Ever since László Botka decided to throw in the towel, both DK and MSZP politicians have been telling us that they are furiously and effectively negotiating. The winner of these protracted negotiations seems to be the Demokratikus Koalíció. According to the latest public opinion polls by Závecz Research and Medián, the difference between MSZP and DK is only 2%, in favor of MSZP, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in the November polls DK would surpass MSZP.

Why? DK just launched its election campaign with an impressive program, whose highlight was an hour-long speech by Ferenc Gyurcsány. We know from past experience that Gyurcsány is an effective campaigner. Also helping DK is its campaign against the voting rights of dual citizens which, I understand, is going well. With this issue DK is reaching people across the political spectrum because we know that a great majority of the Hungarian electorate opposes voting rights for those who don’t bear the burden of their decisions at the ballot box. DK obviously finds this approach to be of such importance that the party is investing in robocalls, to take place this week. With all this effort, I expect a surge in DK support. Of course, the question is whether DK will be able to appeal to any of those 1.5 million unaffiliated voters or will only siphon off disenchanted MSZP voters.

First, a few words about the gala opening of DK’s campaign. Judging from the video, it was a glitzy affair with lots of enthusiasm for the party’s chairman. The occasion  reminded Gábor Török, a political analyst, of American political rallies. In Török’s opinion, Gyurcsány is an oddity of sorts in Hungarian politics because he knows what his political interests are and he works resolutely on achieving his goals. On Olga Kálmán’s program on Hír TV Török called him “a potent politician.”

If there is agreement on the 106 electoral districts, which means only one opposition politician against the Fidesz candidate, Gyurcsány said he is “absolutely optimistic about the election.” At the moment, he believes that his support is 12-13%, as opposed to the 10% reported by Medián and Závecz, and he hopes that by election time DK might reach 15%. This is probably too optimistic an assessment of the chances of the opposition at the forthcoming election, especially since there are serious obstacles to DK and MSZP agreeing on those 106 electoral districts. At one point negotiations broke down, and a few days ago MSZP announced that, in addition to István Haller and Bertalan Tóth, two former chairmen, Attila Mesterházy and József Tóbiás, will join the MSZP negotiating team.

Apparently, in at least two districts there was a serious rift between the two parties over whose candidate will be the Fidesz challenger. One was the electoral district in Újpest; the other, one of the two seats in the city of Szeged. Let’s start with Újpest because its fate has already been decided. MSZP caved. László Varju (DK) will replace Imre Horváth (MSZP). In response, Horváth left the party, although he will sit with the MSZP delegation between now and the end of the current parliamentary session. This is a sad turn of events because in November 2014 Horváth, against all odds, won a by-election after the death of Péter Kiss. It was a tremendous victory. Péter Kiss in the spring had received 40.7% of the votes while the Fidesz candidate got 35.2%. In November Horváth got 50.6% of the votes and his opponent only 30.6%. No wonder that now, three years later, Horváth feels that his party has thrown him to the dogs, allowing DK to take over a traditionally socialist district. According to rumor, Horváth either will run as an independent or perhaps he will be LMP’s candidate, running, of course, in the same district against Varju.

Another bone of contention is one of the two Szeged districts that the local MSZP people refuse to hand over to DK. László Botka, the mayor of Szeged and former MSZP candidate for prime minister, is still strong enough to defend his territory against the MSZP negotiating team. István Ujhelyi, a member of the European Parliament and a strong Botka supporter, gave a press conference in Brussels, of all places, where he said that the local MSZP leadership has no intention of replacing a “winning team,” a claim that is only partially true. It is correct to say that Sándor Szabó (MSZP-Együtt-DK-PM) won one of the two Szeged districts, but the other went to László B. Nagy (Fidesz). The local MSZP’s candidate for the second district is Márton Joób, a MSZP-DK-Együtt-PM member of the city council and a close associate of Botka. Given the very loose party discipline in MSZP, it is not exactly easy to negotiate with the socialists. The center might make decisions that the national leadership finds important for the party as a whole, but the local party leadership can rebel, citing its own priorities.

All of this is hellishly complicated. The electoral law devised by Fidesz counted on just these kinds of situations that occur in each and every electoral district when it comes to dividing the political terrain among several parties. On the other side, Viktor Orbán handpicks the candidates, who are nothing more than loyal voting machines.

November 22, 2017

Demokratikus Koalíció moves into a “new phase” of its electoral campaign

Ferenc Gyurcsány, president of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), announced a “new phase” in the party’s 2018 election campaign. DK activists will collect signatures of people who agree with DK’s resolute opposition to the right of dual citizens who have never lived in Hungary to vote in Hungarian national elections. DK has been relentless in its opposition to the 2011 law, which it opposes on the grounds that only those people should vote who will directly bear the consequences of their decision.

Let’s make clear at the very beginning that no DK politician seriously thinks that this signature drive can have any impact on the current law. Instead, it was designed to serve political purposes. First, the signature drive allows the party to be visible. It will certainly give the party more exposure than the party’s forums, where a hundred or so people gather, most of whom are already DK sympathizers. Second, a signature drive will add tens of thousands of signatures and addresses to the party’s database. And third, it distinguishes DK from the other left-of-center parties that all believe that opposing the voting rights of non-resident Hungarian citizens is far too risky. It would alienate those Hungarians who live in Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine. And the government parties will call them traitors to the national unification efforts launched by Fidesz in 2010.

Surely, Gyurcsány must have known the kind of abuse he would get from abroad as well as from Fidesz and, to some extent, from Jobbik. Yet he decided that the advantages of such a signature drive far outweigh its disadvantages. In 2014, 95% of votes from the neighboring countries were cast in favor of Fidesz and perhaps 2% for the left-of-center parties, which in the eyes of the very conservative Hungarian voters in the neighboring countries are already considered to be traitors to the national cause. On the other hand, DK might endear itself to the overwhelming majority of Hungarian voters who strongly oppose voting rights for dual Hungarian citizens.

In August of this year Publicus Intézet published a comprehensive poll on the attitudes of resident Hungarian citizens toward the rights of Hungarians living outside the current borders of Hungary. The results cannot be clearer. While 68% of Hungarians think there is nothing wrong with granting citizenship to members of the Hungarian minorities, they have grave objections to granting them voting rights. When it was pointed out to the respondents that these people don’t pay taxes yet they are allowed to vote, only 18% of the population was in favor of granting voting rights to them. Of course, Fidesz voters were more enthusiastic than those of the other parties, including Jobbik, but still 50% of them objected to what they consider a “free ride.” Thus, gathering signatures will probably not be very difficult.

Some analysts consider the signature drive a very clever political move. Among them are Dániel Mikecz of the Republikon Intézet and, to my great surprise, Zoltán Ceglédi, a political scientist who is normally highly critical of Gyurcsány. The former is certain that this “radical” move will mobilize not only DK voters but sympathizers of MSZP as well. Gyurcsány will be fiercely attacked by Fidesz, but he is already hardened on that score. The issue can distinguish DK from the other left-of-center parties with an easily recognizable and strong political profile. It may allow DK to call attention to the real danger of a two-thirds majority with the help of votes coming from abroad. In 2014, 130,000 foreign votes gave the one extra seat in parliament that was necessary for Fidesz to achieve the much desired two-thirds majority. At that time, only half a million new citizens had been added to the voter rolls, but by now the number is close to one million. So, it can easily happen that the Fidesz parliamentary faction will gain two or three extra seast as a result of the vote coming mainly from mostly Transylvania.

Voting in Transylvania / MTI / Photo: Nándor Veres

The government is doing its best to make sure that the foreign vote will be large. A special commissioner was appointed whose single task is the organization of the election abroad. This is in addition to another commissioner who makes sure that as many individuals ask for citizenship as possible. Mikecz reminds his readers of the infamous speech of István Mikola in 2006 when he was Fidesz’s candidate to become deputy prime minster. He said that “if we can win now for four years, then we will give citizenship to five million Hungarians, and when they can vote, we will be set for twenty years.” And since, according to many analysts, the best the left-of-center opposition can achieve in 2018 is to prevent a huge, supermajority Fidesz win, a campaign against the voting rights of dual citizens can keep the issue alive.

Zoltán Ceglédi is no friend of Ferenc Gyurcsány, but now he defends him because the other seven parties came forth under the banner of Márton Gulyás’s Közös Ország (Common Country) with a proposed electoral law that would give extra two mandates to the dual citizens outright, regardless of the number of votes. Momentum and Együtt went so far as to propose the creation of two extra districts, which would allow the voters in the neighboring countries to vote not only for party lists but also for local candidates. Given the strength of Fidesz domestically, the prospect of two or three seats coming from abroad should be truly frightening to the opposition.

Zsolt Semjén, whose chief job is to gather new citizens and new voters, is working assiduously. Viktor Orbán has already sent off a letter to all new dual citizens. An incredible amount of money is being spent abroad, for which the Hungarian government “is asking for and getting votes.” According to Ceglédi, “one mustn’t be mum about this.” Ceglédi believes that the opposition is doing Orbán a favor when it supports this idea under the false notion of “a common country” with people who have never set foot in Hungary and who “just mail their votes for Viktor Orbán.”

On the other side, Csaba Lukács, a journalist for Magyar Nemzet and a native of the Szekler district in Transylvania, is certain that Gyurcsány’s campaign is good only for Fidesz. He is sure that Hungarians living in the neighboring countries will be even more determined to vote after DK’s campaign. In his opinion, Gyurcsány is discrediting the entire left. His only goal is get a few more votes in order to squeeze his party into parliament. In Lukács’s opinion, the votes coming from abroad are neither here nor there. First of all, these people have only “half a vote” because they can vote only for the party list, not having districts of their own. And one seat out of 199 is nothing to make a fuss about. What Lukács forgets to mention is that “this one measly seat” gave Fidesz a two-thirds majority in 2014.

Another Transylvanian, Miklós Gáspár Tamás, TGM as he is known in Hungary, is convinced that Gyurcsány is a “bad politician,” as he has proved again and again. He admits that “it is somewhat unusual that people who have never lived in a country and have no intention of moving there and pay no taxes” can vote, but just because something is unusual does not necessarily make it incorrect, unreasonable, or illegal. “To reject these compatriots of ours just because they are partial to one particular Hungarian party is selfish and petty.” Gyurcsány “foments hatred … ignores or belittles the Hungarian nationalities in the successor states, which is intolerable. His madness and provocations are distasteful.”

So, that’s where we stand. We will see whether Gyurcsány is “a genius,” as the political scientist Gábor Török called him a few days ago, or a really bad politician whose latest move was most likely celebrated in Fidesz circles, as Csaba Lukács and TGM claim.

November 3, 2017

Another abortive attempt at forging a united democratic opposition against Orbán

While some conservatives are showing a willingness to join forces with the “democratic opposition” parties, the situation on the left is still in disarray.

My hope was that, with the retirement of László Botka, negotiations among the left-of-center parties would become a great deal easier. In a very limited sense, the situation did change for the better. MSZP and DK agreed to sit down again and discuss ways in which they could cooperate. This was certainly a positive step; after all, MSZP and DK are the two largest parties in this camp. Apparently, negotiations concerning the allocation of individual candidates in the 106 electoral districts have been proceeding well. We have been assured that an agreement will be reached soon.

The smaller parties are still looking for ways to distinguish themselves as separate entities with their own distinctive characteristics. They thus refused to join the talks. One such commonality, something their leaders consider to be a plus, is their “purity.” Their politicians have always been in opposition and therefore, they claim, they are superior to those who dirtied themselves in the political arena before 2010. LMP, Együtt, Párbeszéd, and Momentum view themselves as members of this group. When it came to negotiations, however, it turned out that organizing a “new pole,” as Péter Juhász of Együtt named the group, faced insurmountable difficulties. LMP and Momentum currently insist on entering the political fray alone. It is hard to know what Együtt and Párbeszéd are planning to do. Of course, if all these parties put up their own candidates, the failure of the opposition in the 2018 election is guaranteed.

Another problem on the left is the lack of a candidate for the premiership. MSZP lost its candidate when Botka left the campaign and DK never designated one. Párbeszéd has named Gergely Karácsony, but, let’s face it, Párbeszéd has only a 1% share among active voters. Regardless of how attractive and popular a candidate Karácsony is, his chances are close to nil.

It seems that there are plenty of people around with some connection to politics and politicians who are ready with advice. The latest name to surface was Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government. He is a more than respectable candidate. He would be excellent and, as of yesterday, he was willing to become a candidate if the majority of the parties would support him. But he stressed that under no condition would he be the candidate of MSZP and DK alone, as was originally reported.

Péter Balázs

Balázs had a distinguished career in the ministry of trade and, later, in practically all the governments after 1990, with the notable exception of the first Orbán government between 1998 and 2002. A lot of analysts greeted Balázs’s willingness to serve with great enthusiasm, and for perhaps a day it looked as if the forces of the left had found a desirable candidate. Although Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, denied that he or anyone else from the party had approached Balázs, the normally well-informed Magyar Nemzet learned that MSZP was hopeful that the “negotiating proceedings” will accelerate as a result of Balázs’s indication that he is ready to talk. But it didn’t take long for Ferenc Gyurcsány to repeat that, as far as he is concerned, DK will not be a party to either a common list or a common candidate for the post of prime minister. At this point Gábor Török, the well-known political scientist, wrote on his Facebook page: “This was expected. With this step MSZP arrived at the edge of the precipice.” Within a day we learned that DK was not the only fly in the ointment. None of the parties was ready to stand behind Péter Balázs.

Gyurcsány’s first interview after Balázs’s affirmation of his interest was with Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV. It was during this interview that Gyurcsány stated that DK’s negotiations with MSZP are “not about a common list and not about a common candidate for the post of prime minister.” The party wants to arrive at an agreement on the candidates for the 106 electoral districts, but that is the extent to which DK is prepared to go. During the course of the conversation Gyurcsány recalled an essay he wrote in Népszabadság after the 2014 election in which he discussed the long-term future of the democratic opposition. He is still convinced that one day all these smaller parties will unite in “a big, open democratic party.” But this is not a program for 2018. The formation of such a party may take four or perhaps even eight years.

After this interview he explained the position of DK’s leadership in greater detail. For a common candidate for the premiership, one would need a common list and a common program. Although the programs of MSZP and DK have many features in common, on many questions the two parties don’t see eye to eye. For example, DK disagrees with MSZP on the voting rights of dual citizens living in the neighboring countries and on a return to the practice of giving pensioners an extra month’s stipend. A candidate for the post must represent a common program, which at the moment doesn’t exist; moreover, it is unlikely that the two parties will ever agree on all issues.

­HVG talked to a socialist politician who is convinced that DK wants to be the leading party on the left and wants to ruin MSZP. But, he said, Gyurcsány overestimates his party’s strength. The same politician admitted, however, that “MSZP in its present form is finished and that after the election reforms must be introduced.” On the basis of past experience, MSZP politicians should know that parties usually don’t revive after a state of marasmus. No reforms can help at this stage. I think he is right in believing that the DK leadership is convinced that they might become the strongest party, surpassing MSZP, on the left. From the trends of the last few months, their hopes are not unfounded.

Gyurcsány’s scheme is simple. If the democratic opposition wins the election, the party with the largest support will name the prime minister, who in turn will try to form a coalition government. One reason for DK’s reluctance to have a common list is the party’s bad experience at the 2014 election when MSZP allowed only very few DK members to be high up on the list. As a result, DK was very badly underrepresented and MSZP overrepresented in parliament.

Gyurcsány at the moment claims that it is out of the question that he would be the next prime minister, even if DK emerged as the strongest party after the election. “DK would consider someone else. Cooperation is easier when we don’t commit ourselves to one particular person.” A few months ago his ambition was to achieve a 13-15% share and have a fair-sized parliamentary delegation. In that case, he saw himself becoming the head of DK’s parliamentary delegation, which would allow him to display his oratorical and political skills. Whether he would be satisfied with only that much if DK emerged as an important political factor, I doubt. For the time being, however, we don’t have to worry about such an outcome.

October 26, 2017

Election predictions and fallout from the Botka-Molnár controversy

You may recall that after Viktor Orbán’s performance in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad I wrote that my “overarching impression” was that Viktor Orbán is afraid. I based this opinion on his “extended and continuous self-aggrandizing,” which made me suspicious that he is not as self-assured as he would have us believe. Therefore I was somewhat surprised that a few days later Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV and András Stumpf of Válasz, who rarely see eye to eye on anything, agreed that Viktor Orbán’s self-confidence has never been greater. He was genuinely relaxed and justifiably satisfied with his accomplishments.

Lately two well-known political scientists came out with their assessment of the current political situation, with special attention to possible outcomes of the 2018 national election. Somewhat surprisingly, both Gábor Török, someone who maintained fairly good relations with Fidesz until recently, and Csaba Tóth of the liberal Republikon Intézet described the mood in Fidesz as apprehension concerning the forthcoming election. Viktor Orbán is afraid that Fidesz may not have an absolute majority, preventing it from forming a government.

I’m sure that readers of Hungarian Spectrum would view the scenario described by the two political scientists as outright impossible. After all, we have been doing practically nothing else but bemoaning the sad state of the left-liberal opposition, whose chances were further reduced after László Botka’s intemperate attack on Zsolt Molnár. But Török and Tóth approach the issue from the other end of the political spectrum. They have been paying attention to the changes that have taken place in Jobbik.

Török’s interview with Magyar Narancs is still not available. Magyar Narancs, which is a weekly, comes out on Thursday, but it published a short excerpt from which we can glean the main outline of his thinking. His claim is that the political situation today cannot be compared to 2014 when the so-called “center field of force” (centrális erőtér) still existed. This center field of force meant that Fidesz positioned itself in the center of the political scene between two irreconcilable political forces, a left-liberal and a far-right one. This political combination could assure Fidesz an absolute majority, even with 35-40% of the votes. Now that Jobbik has moved toward the center, Jobbik voters are more likely to vote for a left-liberal candidate and vice versa as long as they manage to defeat the present government. Opinion polls corroborate such a willingness for cross voting. Consequently, as things stand now, Török explains that Fidesz may lose 40 electoral districts, which would mean that it would come up short of the necessary 100 seats for an absolute majority. In that case, Orbán will try “to buy” some members of parliament, try to find a coalition partner, or, most likely, have a snap election within three months.

Tóth also concentrates on Jobbik. As opposed to the left, Jobbik “is capable of strategic thinking” and, unlike MSZP, is unified and speaks with one voice. He also stresses that it is a misconception to think that in order to defeat Fidesz one needs a single strong opposition force because of the possibility of cross voters in the new circumstances. In Tóth’s scheme, opinion polls indicate that the left-liberal opposition in Budapest is stronger than Fidesz and that 10-15 electoral districts could be won just in Budapest. Jobbik could easily win 10 districts nationally, and the liberal-left opposition could add another 10 districts in the larger cities. That would be enough for Fidesz not to have an absolute majority.

Tóth also talked about the Botka-Molnár controversy as far as the liberal-socialist opposition’s chances in Budapest are concerned. Keep in mind that Republikon Intézet is also a polling organization, and therefore Tóth has been looking at polling data as well as voting patterns in the past. The conclusion Republikon Intézet drew was that the left-of-center opposition can win only in individual districts where DK is strong and therefore the cooperation of MSZP and DK is a must in Budapest. As far as the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány is concerned, it is true that he is the most unpopular politician on the left, but even if Botka succeeded and excluded Gyurcsány from participation, “Fidesz would place Gyurcsány” behind any cooperation between DK and MSZP, even if on the local level. His conclusion is that “making the democratic forces free of Gyurcsány is impossible,” and therefore Botka’s efforts in this direction are misguided. Moreover, the numbers don’t support Botka’s strategy, because it was MSZP that lost voters and not the Demokratikus Koalíció.

Since my piece on the Botka-Molnár controversy was published yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to a couple of interviews relevant to the subject. One was by László Botka himself on Olga Kálmán’s “Egyenesen” on HírTV. In my opinion, it was a disappointing performance. Botka has only three or four sentences, which he keeps repeating over and over, even within the same interview. Otherwise, he is devoid of any vision. Anyone who’s interested in the interview should visit HírTV’s website.

Here I only want to point out something I found amusing, I guess because I have an interest in questions relating to language. Botka desperately tried to wiggle out of accusing Molnár of betrayal (árulás). After all, ‘betrayal’ is a strong word, and Botka’s use of it is widely considered to be politically damaging. Added to his discomfort was Kálmán’s disapproving tone while questioning him on this point. How did he try to get out of this sticky situation? This is the relevant passage: “After democratic discussions on political strategy a decision was reached and a few weeks later a socialist politician questions that decision. One cannot really find another word but betrayal because he divulged a common decision.” The poor man must have been desperate because, although it is true that “elárul” means both “to divulge” and “to betray,” “árulás,” the noun he used, can mean only one thing–“betrayal.”

Equally amusing was István Ujhelyi’s interview on ATV’s “Egyenes beszéd” yesterday. He also had a fairly lengthy conversation with György Bolgár on “Megbeszéljük,” a call-in show on KlubRádió, on Friday. Bolgár stressed the seriousness of Botka’s accusations and said that he hoped that Botka has proof to support his contention. Ujhelyi, who is perhaps the strongest supporter of Botka in the party, assured Bolgár that Botka is a man who doesn’t talk through his hat. He must have tangible proof. What about the others Botka alluded to, asked Bolgár? Ujhelyi answered that he was certain that after Botka returns from his vacation he will make public the “background information” about other possible traitors in MSZP.

By Monday this conversation, which took place a couple of days before, had become an embarrassment because it turned out that there was no hard proof of any “betrayal.” Moreover, the party bigwigs decided that all that talk about betrayal was damaging to MSZP. So, now Ujhelyi had to explain his words away. Luckily for him, András Sváby, one of the new anchors of “Egyenes beszéd,” was pretty clueless when confronted with Ujhelyi’s revised version of his conversation with Bolgár. Ujhelyi insisted that the only thing he said in the Bolgár interview was that “if there are people [in the party] who hold notions different from the official decision concerning electoral strategy Botka will put an end to their games.” It was really pitiful to watch the man, especially since I used to think highly of him as a hard-working member of the European Parliament. He is a decent man caught in a party machinery that has lost its way.

August 2, 2017

Despite an all-out effort, enthusiasm for the referendum is shrinking

A friend of mine just returned from a short trip to Hungary and phoned to report on her impressions. She is one of those American-Hungarians who closely follows Hungarian news and is well aware of the tremendous effort the Orbán government has put into ensuring that the referendum on the non-existent compulsory quotas will be valid and that it will pass with a very large majority. Even so, she was not expecting the barrage of giant billboards lining the road from the airport to Budapest. “You have to be there to feel the atmosphere this campaign creates,” she said. No wonder. According to reports, there is a billboard every 40 meters.

tudta-kampany

The intensity of the campaign has been growing steadily ever since, at the end of February, Viktor Orbán announced his intention to hold a referendum. For Orbán a successful referendum, requiring the participation of more than half of the electorate, seems to be a matter of life and death. This is not an exaggeration. Only two days ago, at the Fidesz picnic at Kötcse, he used the phrase himself. What is waiting for him is a fight with Brussels which must be won because otherwise the death of the nation will be waiting for Hungarians.

Gábor Török, one of the numerous political commentators, questioned the wisdom of the prime minister for putting so much emphasis on the referendum. What if too few people show up and the referendum is not valid? That would be a real embarrassment.

Why is Orbán trying so hard to get out the vote? Even if he didn’t reach the magic 50% + 1 threshold, polls last month showed that over 80% would vote “no,” as the government wants. This result would still show tremendous support for Viktor Orbán’s migration policies. One possible rationale for Orbán’s frantic scramble for votes is that this referendum is not so much about the migrants as it is about gauging (and beefing up) his current level of support.

Admittedly, if more than half of the electorate were to vote massively in line with the wishes of the government, his hand would be strengthened at gatherings of the European Council. “You see, my support at home is overwhelming.” Moreover, he could rest assured that he will remain prime minister for some time to come. But let’s say that only 37% of the electorate turned out to vote on October 2. Not only would he look weak in Brussels, he would look weak at home as well. Especially since the opposition parties more or less unanimously, if belatedly and in some cases half-heartedly, have finally agreed to support a boycott of the referendum. If 63% of eligible voters stay home, there is no way to know how many of them were just lazy or indifferent and how many were active boycotters.

Last week an article appeared in Élet és Irodalom by Mária Vásárhelyi, who is known to readers of Hungarian Spectrum because we have discussed her sociological studies extensively here over the past few years. It is titled “Népakarat vagy politikai manipuláció” (Will of the people of political manipulation). In it she convincingly argues that “in dictatorships and autocracies referendums are the most effective means of political manipulation,” an assertion she supports by pointing to the frequent referendums held in Hitler’s Germany. One of Hitler’s first moves after becoming chancellor was to change the law on referendums: they could be initiated only by the government. Vásárhelyi calls attention to the fact that the Orbán government in 2010 also changed the law on referendums and since then has done everything in its power to prevent holding any referendums initiated by the public. If a referendum in an autocratic regime is intended to increase support for the regime, the fact that the democratic opposition parties haven’t managed to come together and formulate one common message against the referendum “is an unforgivable sin against Hungarian democracy,” she concludes.

Vásárhelyi wrote those lines before the latest Závecz Research poll about the referendum came out. You may recall that a month ago I wrote an article titled “Orbán’s anti-refugee propaganda is a roaring success,” in which I reported on a survey conducted by the same polling company at the end of July. “The enthusiasm is tremendous,” I wrote. “At the moment the majority of the population (54%) plans to vote. If they actually follow through, the referendum will be both valid and, from the government’s viewpoint, stunningly successful. Only 19% of the population claim they will stay at home. Another 23% haven’t decided yet. Of those who intend to vote, 85-90% will vote ‘no.’”

Závecz Research repeated the survey at the end of August, when the opposition parties’ campaign hadn’t yet started. The hilarious anti-referendum posters of the Magyar kétfarkú kutya párt (party of the dog with two tails) were not yet on the streets. Nevertheless public enthusiasm for the referendum dropped considerably in the past month. Tibor Závecz now feels fairly certain that it will not be valid. The number of people who will vote to support the government has dropped and the number of undecided voters has grown. In July 54% of the electorate was intent on voting while today this number is only 41%. That is a very considerable change.

Here are some details. Support from Fidesz voters is pretty much unchanged. Sixty-four percent of them would go and vote “no.” But the number of those who would vote “yes,” that is against the government, has grown from 5.5 to 8.1%.

The changes that occurred in the month of August are most striking in the case of Jobbik voters, who in July were as enthusiastically supportive of the government’s position as Fidesz voters were (61.8%). That number in August has shrunk to 47%. The number of Jobbik supporters who will go and vote against the government has grown substantially, from 3.8% to 8.5%.

DK’s message has been very effective all along. It was a simple slogan: “Stay at home, stay in Europe.” Their supporters got the message. Seventy-three percent of them will boycott the referendum and 10.8% of them will vote “yes,” which is twice as large as it was in July.

MSZP with its mixed messages managed to confuse its already confused electorate. Their reactions are all over the map, but the upshot is that almost 15% of MSZP voters intend to vote “no,” which must be translated as support for the Orbán government. In addition, 20.2% of MSZP voters indicated that they would vote but claimed they haven’t decided how they will vote, which can easily mean a pro-Fidesz vote. About 20% haven’t decided whether they will vote or not and only 31% say they will stay at home, which is practically the same as it was a month ago. MSZP’s new leadership has proved to be an ineffective lot, perhaps because its members are split on the issue. Some of them share Orbán’s anti-immigrant stance, while others take the position that they have to keep in mind their supporters’ views, which are not exactly friendly toward the migrants. A good summary of MSZP’s attitude toward the referendum can be found in today’s 168 Óra.

A few days ago, in an interview, Richárd Szentpéteri-Nagy, a political analyst with the Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ (Equity Center for Political Analysis), went further. He suspects that there are “a fair number of people within MSZP who are directly or indirectly maneuvered, instructed by Fidesz.” Mária Vásárhelyi puts forth another hypothesis. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the “mischievous” MSZP is perhaps already thinking of a possible Fidesz-MSZP coalition.

That’s where we stand at the moment. Only DK and the two other small parties, Együtt (Together) and PM, are consistent and steadfast opponents of the Orbán government which, as a friend told me, is being encircled with “increasingly quiet hatred.” The question is what this currently quiet electorate will do and whether there will be anyone to turn to for leadership when the time comes.

September 12, 2016

Another “traitor”: Fidesz gutter journalists attack Gábor Török

While the views of István Stumpf and Péter Tölgyessy, discussed in earlier posts, were ignored by the Fidesz media, this was not the case with Gábor Török, the well-known political commentator whose analyses have been closer to Fidesz than to the liberal side. Török, in a remarkable interview given to Magyar Nemzet, no longer even tries to hide his sympathies with the “national liberal, conservative liberal” side. I agree with him that there is no such thing as absolute political neutrality, but what is unacceptable is financial “dependence.” Unfortunately, in Hungary by now there are practically no independent political commentators in this sense of the word. Whether Török is truly independent or not, as he claims, we don’t know, but a lot of people accuse him of being in the pay of Fidesz. I personally doubt it.

How does Török see Fidesz, at least from 2002 on, a year he considers crucial in the recent political history of the country? He claims, I believe mistakenly, that prior to 2002 Fidesz was a party whose policies were driven by principles, that the unexpected loss at the 2002 election drove Viktor Orbán and his friends toward cynical and perhaps more realistic politics of sheer power. Since then party decisions have been driven by public opinion polls. “If I could change anything in Hungarian political life in the last few years it would be the results of the 2002 election,” Török said in the interview. It was at that time that Fidesz came to the conclusion that “power politics” should be placed ahead of principles and that the left discovered that with empty promises one can win elections.

Once the conversation moved to the present situation Török, who in the past had been extraordinarily careful to be “balanced,” a habit that earned him a lot of scorn from the liberals, decided to abandon his customary “neutrality” and show a much less forgiving side. I guess the Orbán regime’s many unacceptable political moves left him no choice. He now sees Fidesz as a party that cannot return to its former value-driven politics. “Fidesz will either be successful for years to come or will hit the wall…. The system that was built up in the last twenty-five years is extraordinarily stable…. There is no János Lázár or Antal Rogán who can unseat [Orbán]…. There will be a political right after Orbán, but it will have nothing in common with the present system.”

As for future prospects, Török believes that “the end cannot be anything but a total collapse,” which might be closer than we think. Even the 2018 election cannot be taken for granted. What if Fidesz is still the largest party but would have to form a coalition government either with Jobbik or with MSZP? Orbán in this case would find himself in an unenviable situation.

And then there are the domestic issues, which are becoming serious. The refugee crisis for the time being conceals the brewing domestic dissatisfaction, but how long will the Hungarian people believe that those beyond the fence are “dangerous zombies”? There are already signs of skepticism. When the scare tactics fade, a new miracle weapon will be needed. But what can follow? As for Viktor Orbán’s warlike rhetoric, “one day it will run counter to the actual state of affairs when even the semblance of rationality can no longer be maintained.” Fidesz politicians don’t seem to sense the danger and, since there is no strong opposition, they are not forced to offer “good governance.” Orbán’s system worked well as long as Orbán and Simicska cooperated. “Since their relationship was severed the whole system is crumbling.”

"Dirty Dozen's editorial: "Should we expel from Schengen?"

Dirty Dozen’s editorial: “Should we expel Belgium from Schengen?” / 888.hu

It was this interview that outraged the Fidesz loyalist political commentators, especially Gábor G. Fodor of Századvég, who became editor-in-chief of government financed 888.hu, “a political tabloid” specializing in gutter journalism. The title of G. Fodor’s article is “From ass-licking A: Gábor Török, our personal favorite.” In it G. Fodor carries out the usual character assassination of those who dare to express any criticism of Fidesz and the Orbán government. G. Fodor, who in the past had friendly political discussions with Török, now calls his colleague “a close political advisor of Jobbik.” G. Fodor accuses Török of being the man who is trying to bring Lajos Simicska, the former Fidesz oligarch, and Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, together. Proof? It’s not necessary. The only thing we know about any possible connection between Simicska and Vona is that on some recent public occasion they had a 10-15-minute conversation. But this is how Fidesz gutter journalism operates.

The story wouldn’t be complete without Török also being accused of having some affinity with Ferenc Gyurcsány, the devil incarnate. So, while Török is trying to forge an alliance between the extreme right and Simicska, his view of the “migrant crisis” is identical to Gyurcsány’s. “The fundamental structure of his thoughts is in no way different from any one of the left-wing critics. The same fiction, the same mythological simplicity.”

Now it is up to us to decide whether Török is a socialist-liberal talking head or a man who is trying to convince Lajos Simicska to finance an extreme right-wing party.

March 26, 2016

Hungarian Christian Democrats and freedom of the press

The Parisian terrorist attacks will have, I fear, a negative effect not only on Hungary’s immigration policy but also on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the country. At least this is the way things are looking at the moment.

In an earlier post I recalled Viktor Orbán’s long-standing belief that Europe as a whole and Hungary as part of the European Union should remain “European.” European in this case means ethnically and religiously pure. Until last week, however, we didn’t know that this sentiment was actually reflected in current government practice.

It was on Sunday afternoon, before Viktor Orbán’s by now infamous press conference railing against immigration to Europe, that I realized that strict anti-immigration policies have been in effect ever since 2010. They were introduced quietly, under cover so to speak. Antónia Mészáros, a reporter for ATV, had an interview with Zoltán Balog on Friday afternoon, which didn’t air until Sunday, in which he admitted that the Orbán government has been conducting an anti-immigration policy all along.

Now there is an opportunity to put this unspoken policy into law. On Monday morning Antal Rogán seconded Viktor Orbán’s position on the undesirability of immigration. The next day the “international spokesman” of the Orbán government, Zoltán Kovács, followed suit and explained the Hungarian position on CNN, not with the greatest success. Richard Quest, the reporter, worried that the kind of debate the Hungarians are promoting will become a witch hunt. He ended his program (and this is a rough transcript) by saying that

What’s worrying is when politicians start whipping up the rhetoric. `Hungary for Hungarians,’ – when it starts to become immigration must be stopped. Then you go into you’ve crossed the line. It’s no longer a debate about whether immigration is good or bad, it becomes one to whip up a ferment. History is replete with examples where this has happened, and anybody who tries to deny an innocent-sounding comment for what it could turn into in the future is simply misguided.

As it stands, four out of ten Hungarians share Viktor Orbán’s and his government’s point of view. Tárki, a Hungarian polling firm, has been keeping track of Hungarian xenophobia for some time. In the decade between 2002 and 2011, 24% to 33% of the population were anti-immigrant. After that date the anti-foreign sentiment shot up to 40%, which is not surprising given the rhetoric of Viktor Orbán and his government.

I talked earlier about some right-wing journalists who intimated that the staff at Charlie Hebdo were responsible for their own fate. They provoked the followers of Islam by drawing crude caricatures of their prophet. This argument is now being taken up by the Hungarian Christian Democrats who are, on the whole, even more radical than Fidesz when it comes to religiosity. Their party is often described as the “political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church.” According to their whip, Péter Harrach, “neither freedom of the press nor freedom of speech can be extended to blasphemy.”

ShawFareed Zakaria, the American reporter who came up with the label “illiberal democracy” for countries like Turkey or Hungary, wrote an article in The Washington Post on the subject of blasphemy. In it he pointed out that the Koran “prescribes no punishment for blasphemy.” However, as we know, today many Muslim countries have harsh laws against blasphemy. It seems that Péter Harrach finds this practice attractive. But Harrach doesn’t have to look to current Muslim practice for a model. As Zakaria points out, only “one holy book is deeply concerned with blasphemy: the Bible.” The Old Testament is full of stories of blasphemers who receive harsh punishment for their sin. It seems that Harrach wants to lead Hungary all the way back to Old Testament times.

This morning representatives of five parties  (Fidesz, KDNP, Jobbik, MSZP, LMP, Együtt) got together to discuss the fight against terrorism. According to Antal Rogán, the parties agreed that “the European Union cannot defend its member states” and that therefore they must formulate and enforce their own strategies. “Political correctness by now is not enough.” Fidesz suggests that “certain public symbols and values should receive special protection.” Rogán made it clear that “religious symbols” would certainly be covered by the new law. I wouldn’t be surprised if among Hungarians’ “common values” we would also find national symbols. Or even political offices. Or high dignitaries of the land, like the president or the president of the house.

There are some analysts, for example, Gábor Török, who are convinced that the terrorist attack in Paris came at the right time for Orbán, whose party lost another 2% in support last month. According to Ipsos, some of the lost voters drifted over to Jobbik, and therefore the Fidesz top leadership decided to turn up the volume on far-right talk. With this strategy they are hoping to regain solid control of the right. Maybe, but I wouldn’t be so sure. According to some fairly reliable sources, Fidesz leaders are not panicking over their loss of popularity at the moment. In their opinion, the current level of support is still high enough for the party to bounce back. Demonstrations will end soon, and people will forget about their grievances over the introduction of toll roads and the Sunday store closings.

As opposed to Török, I don’t believe that Orbán’s outburst in Paris has anything to do with his party’s popularity. I think that he is convinced of the ill effects of immigration and is happy that he found an opportunity to take up arms against it, alone if necessary, quite independently of the European Union. He most likely explored how far he can go and came to the conclusion that he can introduce a law that would effectively stop immigration to Hungary and that he could also restrict freedom of the press as long as the law does not differentiate between religions. Therefore, I fear that Hungarian journalists can look forward to greater restrictions to their freedom.