Tag Archives: Gábor Vona

Gábor Vona and the transformation of Jobbik

Great was my surprise this morning when I discovered that Gábor Vona, chairman of the right-wing party earlier known for its anti-Semitism and its condemnation of Israel as a terrorist state, had announced that Jobbik from now on “will respect Israel’s right to exist, form its own identity, opinions and articulate its interests.” As the Reuter’s headline put it: “Jobbik ditches far-right past” in order to be taken seriously as a challenger to Viktor Orbán at next year’s national election.

A couple of days ago I devoted a post to Gábor Vona’s Hanukkah greetings to heads of religious organizations. One of the recipients was Slomó Köves, head of the Chabad-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregations. Köves was taken aback by the “gesture” because of the strongly anti-Semitic past of Jobbik and its leader. An exchange of open letters followed Vona’s original message, which prompted a lively public debate.

What I didn’t mention in my post was an article written by T. Gábor Szántó, editor-in-chief of Szombat (Sabbath and also the Hungarian word for Saturday), who gave some advice to Vona about “how Jobbik could become part of a civilized, democratic society.” While Szántó acknowledged Jobbik’s “slow metamorphosis” and the “expulsion of the most extremist members of the leadership,” he noted that “Jobbik bears serious responsibility for the legitimization of anti-Semitic discourse in Hungarian public life.” Such transformations have also been observed in West European far-right parties, he noted, but the Hungarian extreme right is still very much behind in this respect.

If Jobbik wants to become a respectable, civilized, democratic force, the party and its forums must turn against their former views. To achieve that goal, first they must define their attitude toward the Holocaust and accept the Hungarian state’s responsibility for acts against its Jewish citizens in 1944. Second, they must clarify their party’s relationship to openly anti-Semitic and racist groups and forums. And finally, they should articulate their views on Israel’s right to exist and on the fundamentalism and terror of Islam that threatens the values of the western world. After such changes, assuming these changes remain permanent elements of Jobbik’s political views, one might discuss the possibility of a dialogue between the Jewish community and Jobbik.

It looks as if Vona took Szántó’s advice to heart. Jobbik a few years ago was guilty of holding all three unacceptable political positions that Szántó outlined. Let’s start with Jobbik’s attitude toward the State of Israel. I could, of course, find hundreds of examples. But here’s one, from 2012: a demonstration in front of the Israeli Embassy. The demonstration was organized to call attention to an Israeli attack on Gaza. Here, Vona, with a Palestinian scarf around his neck, said that while Israel constantly talks about the Holocaust, it maintains, with the assistance of the United States, the world’s largest concentration camp, Gaza. He suggested making a list of “Israeli capital” that exists in Hungary. He claimed that Viktor Orbán during his first administration signed a pact with Poland and Germany, according to which in case of trouble these three countries can settle 500,000 Israelis. He called Israel a terrorist state and said that all Hungarian politicians must be vetted to find out who are dual Israeli and Hungarian citizens.

A year later Vona had quite an exchange with Ilan Mor, the Israeli ambassador. The reason for the spat was Mor’s letter complaining about the decoration an openly anti-Semitic reporter at Echo TV received from the Hungarian government. Vona saw “in Ilan Mor’s behavior the Jews’ aspiration for world domination.” He assured Mor that he “will never be Israel’s dog as all the other parties” in Hungary are. Once Jobbik governs the country “we will politely send you [meaning Mor] home.”

As for Jobbik’s admiration for Islam and Muslim nations, this had been well known even before they won something like 16% of the popular vote in 2010. At a conference in November 2009 Vona astonished his audience by talking about Iranian-Jobbik ties. By the end of 2010 Vona published a fairly lengthy treatise on his views of the Muslim world, in which he recalled that as a university student he attended a youth conference in Yemen where he realized the plight of those people. His opponents think that this sympathy for Islam “is just more proof of [his] anti-Semitism.” But, he insisted, his admiration for Islam has nothing to do with his alleged anti-Semitism. It is rooted in his reading, which led to his realization that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment ruined European society, which had been pure and good in the Middle Ages. I gather from this that what he admired in Islam was its reliance on tradition and the negation of modernity.

By 2012 the western press discovered that Jobbik’s leader was infatuated with Islam. The International Business Times found an article in The Morocco World News which quoted Vona saying that “Islam is the last hope for humanity in the darkness of globalism and liberalism.” In the same speech he talked about Russia, Turkey, and Hungary as “the three nations [which] are European and Asian at the same time, due to their history, fate, and disposition…. These nations are destined to present the Eurasian alternative.”

However, as Christopher Adam of the Hungarian Free Press noted last summer, “the Hungarian right’s fascination with, and relative respect for, Islam is coming to an end, perhaps as a result of the Charlie Hebdo killings in France earlier this year and maybe even more so due to the large waves of Muslim refugees fleeing Syria and Afghanistan.”

Outright Holocaust denial was never Jobbik’s official dogma, but there were many signs that the party and its leader considered it to be an overblown topic. Here is a good example. In 2010 Vona said in one of his speeches that all that talk about the Holocaust was coming out of his ears (a könyökén jön ki). In a note he wrote on his Facebook page on October 3, 2013, he reacted to a lecture János Martonyi had given at an international conference on “Jewish life and anti-Semitism in today’s Europe” organized by the Tom Lantos Institute in Budapest. Vona suspected that because of the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust and the coming elections the topic of the Holocaust will be center stage. Unfortunately, said Vona, the goal of these events will be not peaceful remembrances but the creation of a sense of guilt. Therefore, Vona warned his followers to be cautious and not fall for provocations. Jobbik supporters shouldn’t give any ammunition to their adversaries.

I have not encountered any admission of the Hungarian government’s responsibility for what happened in 1944 by either Vona or any other leading member of Jobbik. However, we ought to keep in mind that Fidesz stated in its constitution that the Hungarian government was not responsible for the Holocaust, and therefore I think it would be unrealistic to expect more from Vona’s Jobbik.

I didn’t collect all this information on the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli views of Jobbik to deny Vona’s change of heart. In almost all of his comments lately he has compared the old Jobbik to a teenager who has done a lot of stupid things. But, he says, this teenager has now grown up. Reading through his essay on Islam, my first reaction was that he was a very confused man who was trying to find some coherence in his world but was just grasping at straws, ending up with an incoherent philosophical mess. When he was talking about his favorite writers–Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Mircea Eliade, Rüdiger Safranski, Konrad Lorenz and “his all-time favorite, Meister Eckhart,” I had the distinct feeling of intellectual confusion which then was unfortunately translated into political action. Let’s hope that he is correct and that he has grown up. And that his party has grown up with him.

January 17, 2017

Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and his Hanukkah greetings

Today Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP, managed to retain his position despite opposition from András Schiffer and the admittedly ineffectual smear campaign of the Fidesz-inspired media. Hadházy’s internal critics accused him of jeopardizing LMP’s firm policy of not cooperating with any other party when he talked about the necessity of dialogue among opposition forces.

I’m convinced that deep down Hadházy knows that the party’s current strategy is doomed to failure, but with a brave face he is trying to pretend otherwise. At the press conference after the party congress Bernadett Szél somewhat pointedly remarked that the party’s election strategy had already been decided earlier: LMP will be on its own at next year’s election because “there is no party in parliament that LMP could work with.” Hadházy took the easy way out by emphasizing that LMP doesn’t want to attract voters from the left but rather “hopes to convince voters of the government party that change is necessary.”

Now to the main topic of today’s post.

A few weeks ago the government launched a smear campaign against Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, which, as I indicated earlier, didn’t achieve its aim. In fact, the methods used to demonize Vona were so primitive and base that I got the distinct impression that the campaign actually resulted in some sympathy for Vona, even on the left.

Thus, new tactics were required, which Gábor Vona himself offered to Fidesz when he decided to write Hanukkah greetings to the various Jewish religious communities, including Slomó Köves’s Chabad-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation. Köves is a supporter of Orbán. Shortly after the formation of the second Orbán government he became chief rabbi of the Hungarian armed forces.

Vona’s Hanukkah greetings were obviously part of Jobbik’s new strategy, which includes shedding the party’s anti-Semitic past. The problem is that that past was laden with so many sins against Hungarian Jews that a quick turnaround couldn’t be accepted by Köves or any other Jewish religious leaders. Köves wrote a lengthy letter in which he listed some of Jobbik’s most outrageous anti-Semitic statements. After a few famous sayings from the Old Testament, such as “The tongue has the power of life and death,” Köves suggested that instead of sending Hanukkah greetings, Jobbik leaders should voice their new convictions, if they are genuine, at forums where previously “not light, but hatred, ignominy, and darkness reigned.”

Köves made his letter public, which in turn elicited a public response from Vona. Perhaps the most interesting part of the letter is Vona’s explanation of how he ended up on the wrong side. He “inherited” his anti-Semitism because he found himself in an environment in which “one side called Hungarians Nazis, while the other labeled Jews traitors.” Since then, he “has come to the realization that this doesn’t lead anywhere.”

Vona’s answer didn’t satisfy the Jewish community, which was justifiably offended by his occasional juxtaposition of Hungarians and Jews instead of Christian and Jewish Hungarians. At the same time, it also outraged the more radical members of Jobbik who, I’m convinced, have been getting ample support in their opposition to Vona’s leadership from Fidesz.

Origo has been closely following the reverberations within Jobbik after the Hanukkah affair. The first story of some import came from Vecsés, a town just outside the city limits of Budapest. Vecsés at one point was the center of the Army of Outlaws movement, whose leader is a friend of Gábor Vona. Otherwise, Jobbik claims that the party and this neo-Nazi group have nothing to do with one another. On the local level, however, there seems to be cooperation despite the denial. Or, at least this used to be the case. The only Jobbik member of the town council was, or perhaps still is, affiliated with the Army of Outlaws. This man, Imre Orbán, has a reputation for being a troublemaker and has distinguished himself as a fouled-mouthed anti-Semite. This time he placed a post on Vecsés’s Jobbik Facebook page in which he accused Gábor Vona of making a fool of Jobbik members by turning to the rabbi with his apologies. He added some four-letter words in his discussion of Hanukkah. This incident was taken seriously by the party and Vona promised to investigate.

The official “state news” Híradó reported a few days ago that the Jobbik leadership in Vámosmikola, a village of 1,600 inhabitants, also criticized the leadership because of the Hanukkah greetings and the subsequent exchange of letters. Jobbik cannot be strong in Vámosmikola since in the 2014 municipal elections it didn’t even have a candidate for mayor or the town council, but even the smallest protest is big news in the right-wing press.

Pesti Srácok gleefully reported that a former member of the Magyar Gárda, once the paramilitary arm of Jobbik, since dismantled, demanded the vest that was part of their uniform from Vona, who proudly wore it at the opening of parliament in 2010. By trying to build bridges between Jews and the party, Vona “became unworthy” of this precious vest, claimed the former member of the Magyar Gárda.

Yesterday Magyar Idők called attention to a demonstration of disappointed Jobbik members that will take place in Debrecen, where the organizers are expecting Jobbik sympathizers from four counties. These people not only complain about Vona’s Hanukkah letter but also about Jobbik’s abandonment of its earlier radical political strategy. A closer reading of the article, however, reveals that most of these people are no longer members of the party. As the chief organizer, Erika Ulics, a lawyer, explains, 35-40 local leaders who will gather in Debrecen already left the party after Vona, in 2014, decided to scuttle the party’s former ideals. Ulics herself was expelled from the party, allegedly because she leaked inside information to Népszabadság.

Ulics, by the way, is a notorious neo-Nazi and an admirer of Ferenc Szálasi, who was executed for war crimes in 1946. In addition, she is a racist who suggested that all Gypsies should be forced to join the army and attack Romania. “If we win, Transylvania is ours. If we lose, Hungary is ours.” Those with strong stomachs should visit the news sites Cink and 4024 for more quotations from this vicious neo-Nazi and anti-Semite.

The government-sponsored sites are so eager to spread news of the imminent collapse of Jobbik that they are resorting to fiction. According to alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s official site 888.hu reported that the entire ten-man Jobbik group in Nemeshetés, population 320, resigned in protest over Vona’s new pro-Jewish policies. It turned out that Jobbik doesn’t have a local cell in the village. Since then, the article has been taken offline.

Yesterday afternoon Ulics’s demonstration did take place. It is hard to tell from the picture just how many people attended, but as far as I can judge, there were mighty few. It certainly didn’t shake Jobbik to its very foundations as, I’m sure, some Fidesz leaders hoped.

The sign, by the way, is an Albert Wass quotation: “The surest weapon against mendacity and falsehood is truthfulness. This is our weapon.” And one shouldn’t miss the doctored photo of Gábor Vona and Ágnes Heller walking hand in hand. It is unlikely that Heller received this distinction because these people are such admirers of her accomplishments as a philosopher.

All in all, I tend to agree with the political scientist Attila Ágh, who in a recent interview said that Vona’s new strategy, for the time being at least, hasn’t resulted in any spectacular growth in the party’s popularity. On the other hand, it hasn’t collapsed either. The opposition to Vona is small, and he still has the party leadership behind him. Most supporters have remained faithful to the party, but it is difficult to predict whether Vona’s new strategy can achieve its aim of attracting voters from the left and from the large group of the undecided.

January 15, 2017

Fidesz’s preoccupation with Gábor Vona and Jobbik

What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of a socialist-Jobbik coalition

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

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

A view of Szentendre

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

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

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

December 13, 2016

A town council on the Serb-Hungarian border takes care of Muslims and gays

At the end of November a bizarre news item appeared: the council of Ásotthalom, a village of 4,000 inhabitants adjacent to the Serb-Hungarian border, passed a series of ordinances that forbade building mosques, wearing the burka, all activities of muezzins and, for good measure, the “propagation of gay marriage” and any publicity given to “opinions about the family different from the definition in the constitution.” Just to remind readers, the so-called “Fundamental law”–that is, the new Fidesz constitution–states that “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the survival of the nation.”

The mayor of Ásotthalom is the infamous László Toroczkai, who ten years ago led the assault against the headquarters of MTV, Hungary’s public television station. He even has a brief English-language Wikipedia entry in which he is described as “the founder of the far-right 64 Counties Youth Movement (HVIM).” He is, as the name of his organization demonstrates, a Hungarian irredentist, who as a result of his activities in the neighboring countries has been banned from Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia. I wrote several times about Toroczkai and his involvement in a host of far-right, neo-Nazi organizations. His affiliations and activities were obviously not viewed as a political liability in the village, however. He was elected mayor of Ásotthalom in a by-election in 2013.

Once the liberal media recovered from the shock that this man could become a mayor with over 70% of the votes, his name pretty much disappeared from the national press. But then came Toroczkai’s chance for renewed fame/infamy: the arrival of the refugees, whose escape route went through Ásotthalom. Toroczkai was in his element, organizing civic groups that were supposed to help the police and later the military in guarding the fence. I suspect that some of the atrocities against the refugees were actually committed by Toroczkai and his men.

The immediate reaction of the liberal media to Toroczkai’s ban was hilarity. A local ordinance against mosques and gays? One doesn’t have to be a legal expert to know that Ásotthalom’s ordinance is unconstitutional. Article VII of the constitution states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Moreover, “this right shall include the freedom to choose or change one’s religion or other belief, and the freedom of everyone to manifest, abstain from manifesting, practice or teach his or her religion or other belief through religious acts, rites, or otherwise, either individually or jointly with others, either in public or in private life.” It seems that of the six members of the village council two had the good sense to abstain while one had a valid reason to be absent. Thus only three council members voted for the resolution.

The locals learned about the decision from the papers and television and eventually came to the conclusion that these steps had been taken only as preventive measures in case the European Union forces Ásotthalom to accept Muslim migrants. As for the mosques, on TV they can see all those mosques in western cities; it is perhaps a good idea to spell out that no mosque will ever be built in their village. After all, as Toroczkai told Olga Kálmán on ATV the other day, “practically next door there is a mosque already.” It turned out that he was talking about Subotica in Serbia where there has been a mosque since 2007 to serve a community of 22 Muslims, all Serbian nationals.

Interestingly enough, there might actually be two Muslims living in Ásotthalom. One is a man from Kuwait who is married to a Hungarian Christian. After living in Kuwait for a while, they returned to Hungary 16 years ago. When asked, Toroczkai claimed that the ordinance is not directed against this man and his four children, who are Christians. He seemed to be more worried about a shadowy young woman no one really knows who apparently studied abroad and converted to Islam as the result of a romance with an Algerian man.

This incident created quite a headache for Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, who in a surprise move had recently asked Toroczkai to be one of his deputies. Toroczkai’s appointment followed the removal of Előd Novák, a far-right member of the Jobbik leadership who became an unwelcome burden with his radicalism and anti-Semitism. Vona has been trying to transform Jobbik into a right-of-center party that can be seriously considered to lead the country either alone or in a coalition. What no one could understand is why Vona thought that Toroczkai was less of an extremist than Novák. They are cut from the same cloth. When Novák learned about Toroczkai’s ordinance, he wrote on his Facebook page: “Hats off!” But otherwise, the Jobbik leadership didn’t appreciate Toroczkai’s move, about which he hadn’t notified his party. As Toroczkai complained, he had expected severe criticism from Muslims and gays but what surprised him was that “the most vehement attacks came from my own camp, the so-called national (radical) side.”

Gábor Vona, soon after the news of Ásotthalom’s ordinance reached the national media, paid a visit to the border town and had a long conversation with Toroczkai, which apparently led nowhere. Vona told N1 TV, an internet television station with ties to Jobbik, that he considers “the ordinance stigmatizing Muslims and gays irresponsible and unnecessary. Jobbik will guarantee freedom of religion to everyone” once in power.

László Toroczkai and Gábor Vona in Ásotthalom

Meanwhile, two gay organizations, Budapest Pride and the Hungarian LGBT Association, began organizing a trip to Ásotthalom for this afternoon to test Toroczkai’s ordinance. Toroczkai considered the demonstration a “provocation.” The homophobic elements of Toroczkai were considering a counter-demonstration, but the mayor wisely decided against it. He was, however, well prepared. He asked the Szeged police force to be on hand for the occasion and had one of the town employees standing by with a video camera. Toroczkai promised a careful examination of the video to ascertain whether anyone in the group of about a dozen men and women had “propagated gay marriage,” for example. There is the possibility that Toroczkai will consider the poster with the message “egy papa meg egy papa plusz egy gyerek” (one daddy and one daddy plus one child) a violation of the ordinance. If so, Toroczkai wants to fine the owner of the poster 150,000 forints. That’s unlikely ever to happen.

A few locals gathered to look at the spectacle. A yellow van normally used to take workers to the fields came by three times, and its passengers yelled through the open windows “filthy faggots.” One has the feeling that the locals are more preoccupied with gays than with Muslims. Interestingly enough, although the people of Ásotthalom encountered several thousand migrants last year, fewer people voted on the day of the referendum in the village than in the region as a whole.

♦ ♦ ♦

Finally, here is something that might cheer you up. You may recall that in my post on the PISA results I quoted Árpád W. Tóta, who said in his opinion piece that Orbán had managed to create “a school system for sheep.” That reminded Henk, who lives in Hungary and learned Hungarian very well, of a poem by Sándor Weöres (1913-1989) from his volume of poetry for children titled Bóbita (Tuft). Henk translated it into English. I’m very pleased to share his translation with the readers of Hungarian Spectrum.

A birka-iskola

Egyszer volt egy nagy csoda,
Neve: birka-iskola.
Ki nem szólt, csak bégetett,
Az kapott dicséretet.

Ki oda se ballagott,
Még jutalmat is kapott,
Így hát egy se ment oda,
Meg is szűnt az iskola.

The School for Sheep

Once there was a marvel great;
it was called: a school for sheep.
Who didn’t talk, but only bleat,
he was highly praised indeed.

Whoever refused to go,
was rewarded even more.
So, no one went to school of course,
and it had to close its doors.

December 10, 2016

Jobbik and the U.S. presidential election

The latest on Ghaith Pharaon

First, I think I should say a few words about the latest developments in the Ghaith Pharaon case. Heti Válasz, a conservative weekly, learned that in January 2014 Pharaon received not only a Hungarian visa but also a residency permit “for the purpose of business and investment activities.” It was the Jordanian honorary consul in Budapest—who by the way was Viktor Orbán’s host at that by now infamous dinner in Pharaon’s honor—who requested the visa, and it was the Hungarian consulate in Beirut that issued it. By the look of things, the Hungarian authorities ignored all the rules and regulations to make Pharaon’s life in Hungary trouble free. For a residency permit the applicant’s fingerprints must be taken but, when pressed, the ministry of interior admitted that Pharaon wasn’t even required to have an official photograph. For almost three years Pharaon had the right to travel to and from Hungary at will. He could also, if he chose, travel anywhere in the European Union. All national security precautions were dispensed with in this case. He most likely enjoyed the protection of Viktor Orbán himself.

Jobbik on the U.S. presidential elections

The government’s rejoicing over Donald Trump’s victory knows no bounds. The pro-government media is full of stories of the “liberal rabble” on the streets who have been aroused against the president-elect by people like George Soros. Relentless attacks on the Obama government and Hillary Clinton can be found daily in all the right-wing papers.

Interestingly enough, Jobbik’s reaction is a lot more tempered and, I must admit, more realistic. The government-financed 888.hu was outraged when it found that Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik’s spokesman, in response to a question from a reporter of HVG, called Trump “an unfit and poor candidate” who is “an unpredictable madman.” Otherwise, he said, the choice was difficult because neither candidate was inspiring.

A few days later, in an interview with Magyar Nemzet, Mirkóczki was more restrained in the sense that he didn’t repeat his one-liner about Trump’s state of mind, but he further elaborated on Jobbik’s position that the presidential choice this year was poor. The interviewer assumed that Jobbik “is as satisfied with the results of the American election” as Fidesz is, but he didn’t get the answer he was expecting. Mirkóczki said he feels for the American people, who had to choose between two poor candidates. He shares the government’s opinion that Clinton “would have been a disaster for Hungary” and in that sense between the two “catastrophic candidates, the less bad won.” Jobbik only “hopes that Trump’s policies will coalesce with Hungary’s interests.” But Mirkóczki was more than cautious on that score because “we don’t know anything about [Trump’s] political ideas.” If we can believe the Jobbik spokesman, the party hopes that Trump will mellow in time because “a radical leading the United States is not in Hungary’s interest.”

Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik spokesman

Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik spokesman

Jobbik doesn’t think that with Trump’s victory U.S.-Hungarian relations will be much better. Orbán will remind the American diplomats of his early support for Trump, but such messages are “irrelevant as far as economic, political, or military relations are concerned between two countries.” In plain English, as long the present government continues on the same path it has followed in the last six years, change of presidency or not, U.S.-Hungarian relations will not improve.

About a year ago Gábor Vona delivered a speech in which he talked about his party’s intention to develop direct relations with politicians in Washington. As far as I know, several Jobbik politicians visited Washington and other larger cities. Jobbik is no longer an outcast, so its politicians had the opportunity to meet with several ambassadors in Budapest, including U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell. Mirkóczki thinks that Orbán’s diplomatic approach to the United States has been counterproductive. Jobbik would strive for consensus, a style void of the “arrogant, lecturing, and negative style” that Fidesz has chosen in its dealings with the United States.

Of course, it is difficult to tell how much of this is merely for show. Recently BBC’s Nick Thorpe wrote an article about the metamorphosis of Jobbik “from a radical nationalist party … to a moderate ‘conservative people’s party’” and said that Vona “now promises to restore the checks and balances lost under Orbán.” He quotes Vona, who nowadays tries to avoid political labeling, who said that “if [he] lived in Greece [he] would probably vote for Syriza, though they are supposed to be on the left.” He also adopted Bálint Magyar’s characterization of Orbán’s regime and called it “a mafia-type state.”

Given Jobbik’s past, it is probably wise to take much of this with a grain of salt. But Jobbik’s cautious attitude toward the impending Trump presidency is much more statesmanlike than the Orbán government’s uncritical admiration of Trump’s radicalism. In this respect at least, Jobbik sounds more like a conservative party; Fidesz, the radical one.

November 16, 2016

Vona, under vicious attack, may yet outfox Orbán

Viktor Orbán is bent on the destruction of Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, and with him the whole party. I know it was only two weeks ago that I wrote a post titled “Power struggle on the Hungarian right?” but I think that recent political developments warrant a second look.

By now I believe that this struggle is more than a turf war between two right-wing parties. Since Jobbik succeeded in foiling Viktor Orbán’s plan to amend the constitution, Fidesz has put Jobbik and its chairman squarely into the enemy camp, along with the parties on the left. Before the confrontation over the amendments Viktor Orbán viewed Jobbik not only as his competition on the right but also as an ally on whom he could call in time of need. Therefore, Fidesz criticism of Jobbik was always muted. But by now these relatively amicable relations have frayed to such an extent that Lajos Kósa, head of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, declared two days ago that even Ferenc Gyurcsány was a more decent politician than Gábor Vona. In Fidesz vocabulary one cannot find a more damning description of a political opponent.

Viktor Orbán has come to realize that Jobbik is behaving like a full-fledged opposition party, which from the look of things seems to have surprised him. And he is hitting back hard, which makes the Jobbik leadership fight back even harder. The result is that there are more and more signs of a commonality of interests among all opposition parties. For the time being both sides deny that they have any plans for even limited cooperation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they changed their minds in the not too distant future. Because, let’s face it, without some cooperation between the left- and right-wing opposition parties Viktor Orbán cannot be unseated in 2018. In fact, if nothing changes, Orbán might die in office. After all, he is only 55 years old.

Viktor Orbán, who had taken Jobbik for granted, feels double-crossed. And we know that in such circumstances Orbán goes into attack mode. The first move was to launch a media campaign against Jobbik. The Fidesz propaganda machine dredged up all of Jobbik’s past sins, real and invented. Ripost.hu found “shocking evidence” that Jobbik is behind the murder of a policeman by an armed right-winger, which is a fabrication. On the other hand, Jobbik does have plenty to hide, including murky relations with Russia and contacts with far-right organizations in Hungary. The Hungarian security offices surely have plenty of incriminating evidence, including photos. Some of this material is being given to Fidesz-friendly media outlets to embarrass the party.

But everywhere they turn they encounter common skeletons in the closet. Ripost.hu made a big deal of the fact that Adrien Szaniszló, who works for Jobbik’s “foreign affairs cabinet,” was born in Moscow, which seems to be an indelible stain on one’s pedigree. The problem is that she is the daughter of Ferenc Szaniszló, a controversial commentator on the right-wing Echo TV, whose high decoration from Zoltán Balog a few years back was greeted with such an outcry that Balog had to ask Szaniszló to return the award. As for Adrien Szaniszló birthplace, it is something she couldn’t help. Her father was Magyar Televízió’s correspondent in Moscow.

It seems that the propaganda ministry didn’t think that warming up these old stories had been effective enough. So they recycled Terry Black’s 2013 story of Vona’s alleged homosexuality. Such stories make a huge splash in Hungary. In 2015 Klára Ungár, a former SZDSZ member of parliament who is openly gay, wrote on her Facebook page: “Viktor blabbers about those members of the gay community who do not provoke and explains why this is a good thing. What do Máté Kocsis and Szájer say to that? Surely they agree and that’s why they are hiding.” Viktor’s blabbering refers to a speech he gave in which he explained that one can live peacefully with gays as long as they don’t make too much noise. He added that gays are different, and therefore they don’t deserve the same rights as heterosexuals. He was referring to the marriage of same sex couples. That’s what got Ungár’s goat. Szájer had the good sense to remain quiet, but Kocsis sued Ungár and lost the case on appeal.

Fidesz was in an uproar over Ungár’s accusations and made a big deal about the immorality of resorting to such methods in order to discredit someone. But now that the government and its servile media are doing the same thing, Fidesz leaders no longer have such compunctions. In fact, Ungár’s little note on Facebook cannot be compared to the onslaught against Vona. I have no idea how successful the smear campaign will be, but the pro-Fidesz media is convinced that it’s working. For example, Ripost.hu claims that Vona finds this accusation so damaging that Jobbik created a special “crisis center” to handle the fallout. It’s no wonder, Riport.hu continues, since in the past Jobbik was a homophobic party that “on several occasions sharply condemned any homosexual relations and, in fact, demanded harsher penalties than are in the existing criminal code.”

I don’t know about the crisis center, but Vona’s wife posted an open letter to Anikó Lévai, wife of Viktor Orbán, asking her to intercede with her husband to put an end to these ad hominem attacks on her husband. She understands that there is “confusion, resentfulness, and vindictiveness” because of the failed constitutional amendments, but political fights should remain within the realm of politics. “I suspect that you are the last person he perhaps still listens to.” To which the website Kolozsvári Szalonna responded: “I want to warn you not to expect miracles from Anikó Lévai, who has as much say in this affair as in her own shitty little life.”

Gábor Vona and his wife, Krisztina Szabó

Gábor Vona and his wife, Krisztina Szabó

If Magyar Nemzet’s information is correct, Gábor Vona is not retreating. In fact, he is ready for a second round with Viktor Orbán. Fidesz already announced that it is abandoning the constitutional amendments and that by the end of the year the sale of residency bonds will also come to an end. Apparently, Jobbik is planning to resubmit the Fidesz bill on the amendments as its own. Only half a sentence will be added to the original text: “settlement requests for financial compensation” cannot be considered.

Such a move would put Viktor Orbán in a very awkward situation. I assume he would not agree to allow Jobbik’s, or any other opposition party’s, bill to reach the floor. Every proposed bill first has to go to committee, where it will probably die. But how will Viktor Orbán explain that his precious bill is not important enough to be discussed and voted on? Even the extra half sentence should be acceptable to Fidesz because the government has already decided to stop the sale of residency bonds. So why should it be dead on arrival?

This is shaping up to be the third major political embarrassment for the infallible political genius. Gábor Vona is obviously a talented politician who has managed to do something no other opposition party has: score a major victory over Viktor Orbán’s government not just once but perhaps twice.

And that’s not all. Vona seems to have something else up his sleeve. In connection with the clearly dirty business of residency bonds the opposition parties suggested setting up a special parliamentary committee to investigate the matter. Naturally, the Fidesz majority voted the proposal down. Jobbik called a meeting of opposition parties, to which representatives of LMP, Együtt, and the Liberals showed up. They decided that the four parties should form an extra-parliamentary “shadow committee” to investigate the affairs of Antal Rogán’s off-shore middlemen active in the residency bond business. The parties’ bigwigs still have to give their blessing to the idea, but the comments of LMP’s Bernadett Szél were promising. In her opinion, alternative political instruments are necessary because no meaningful work can take place in the Fidesz-ruled parliament. Such an extra-parliamentary body can be as effective as an official one, she said.

The work of a shadow committee might have an invigorating effect on the opposition. I must say that I find the idea attractive.

November 12, 2016

The constitutional amendments failed: Another blow to Orbán

As soon as I turned my computer on this morning, a desk-top notification from a Hungarian internet news site informed me that the vote on Viktor Orbán’s amendments to the constitution had failed. He needed 133 votes and came up two short. Those opposition parties that have recognized delegations abstained, and three of the ten independent members voted “no.” I must admit I was surprised because, in the last few days when I repeatedly heard from Fidesz politicians that they would go ahead with the vote on November 8 as planned, I was certain that Viktor Orbán had already secured the two extra votes necessary for another Fidesz parliamentary success.

I was even more surprised when I read the article, which claimed that this defeat was actually a great victory for Viktor Orbán in the long run. And it wasn’t only this media outlet that seemed to be convinced that no matter what happens, Fidesz always wins. But that’s just not the case. It’s high time to abandon this increasingly unfounded assumption. Over the last few months Viktor Orbán’s strategy has suffered several serious setbacks. This last one is perhaps the worst.

All along Orbán had argued that his government needs a valid referendum, which would strengthen his position in his negotiations with Brussels. If the European Union is confronted with the fact that more than 50% of the Hungarian electorate stands fast behind him, he will have a much easier time defending Hungary’s strongly anti-migrant position in the European Council. But the referendum was not valid. Far from it. The opposition parties’ call for a boycott was effective. Only 39% of the electorate showed up. Admittedly, 98% of those who went to the polls supported Orbán’s purposely misleading and meaningless question. No, they didn’t want to have compulsory quotas unless parliament approves them. Who could say “yes” to that? Not too many people.

Orbán and his closest associates who gathered after the result became known looked as if they were attending a funeral. But by the next day Orbán was ready to give a positive spin to the outcome. The overwhelming number of “no” votes proves that his support is larger than ever before. In 2014, 2.2 million people voted for Fidesz, but 3.3 million people supported Fidesz’s referendum. A new unity, he said, has emerged behind his party. This large mandate means that the government party can amend the constitution regardless of its failure to secure a valid referendum.

But the failure of the referendum undercut Viktor Orbán’s clout in the European Union’s community. Many EU officials and members of the European Parliament expressed their relief that the referendum was not valid. The Hungarian people are wiser than their government, Martin Schulz said.

Then came the proposed amendments. Some people judged them to be totally unnecessary and meaningless. Others believed that certain sections of the amendments might be useful in attacking the very constitution of the European Union.

Initially, passing the proposed amendments seemed foolproof. The government assumed it would have the support of Jobbik, the party that used to be a radical right party but by now is practically indistinguishable from Fidesz. Jobbik supported the referendum because its followers are against immigration at least as much as, if not more than, Fidesz voters. But the Jobbik leadership saw an opportunity. Since Fidesz needed the Jobbik votes in parliament, the party decided to demand a price for its support: the immediate cessation of the sale of so-called residency bonds. The program is a fantastic deal for those who have 300 million euros to purchase a five-year bond in exchange for a residency permit and free movement within the European Union. And a good deal as well for those who benefit from the corruption that permeates the program.

Some politicians on the left were convinced that Gábor Vona either didn’t issue an ultimatum or that, if he did, he wouldn’t follow through on it. Well, they were wrong on both counts. Vona did deliver an ultimatum, and he meant every word of it.

Initially Orbán opted to oblige. It seemed that these amendments were so important to him that he would swallow a huge one and stop selling residency bonds to mostly Chinese and Russian businessmen. But then he changed his mind.

Fidesz announced that it would go ahead as scheduled, putting the amendments to a vote on November 8. Jobbik politicians swore that their 24-member delegation would not vote for the amendments. And so, if the opposition members on the left remained steadfast, the package of amendments was doomed. They did, and it was.

With this defeat Orbán can no longer go to Brussels and say that his hands are tied not only by 3.3 million Hungarian patriots but also by a two-thirds majority of the parliament. And that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t agree to accept any quotas. Today’s vote is a huge failure. Months of political maneuvering by Orbán have led nowhere.

A couple of foreign commentators concur. They note that this defeat will most likely weaken him “in his long-running fight with Brussels.” It is a personal blow to the prime minister. BBC’s Nick Thorpe described it as the second blow in a month, the first, of course, being the referendum itself. No constitutional amendment has ever been defeated since 1990, the beginning of the Third Republic. Since 2011 Fidesz easily pushed through six amendments. Well, things have changed.

Although, as I noted earlier, a few newspapers looked at the parliamentary vote as a success for a politician who is unbeatable, several others saw it quite differently, as a defeat that will hurt Fidesz both in the short and the long run. Jobbik’s strategy was praised by such until recently pro-Fidesz media as Válasz. Jobbik’s position is very simple: “neither poor nor rich migrants” should come to Hungary. Gábor Török, the well-known political commentator, called Jobbik the clear winner of this game. Until recently, Jobbik wasn’t a distinct political actor because the parties on the left conflated it with Fidesz. But in the last two weeks Jobbik was the leading force in the opposition’s attack on Fidesz. The left was nowhere.

Bálint Molnár, one of the editors of Kolozsvári Szalonna (Bacon à la Kolozsvár), and I seem to agree on the significance of what happened this morning in parliament. Let me quote: “I don’t agree with those who claim that Fidesz-KDNP, headed by someone named Orbán, won the match even if he was worsted. In my opinion, no one won here. On his own playing field, according to his own rules, he has burned an incredible amount of money and yet the seventh amendment of the Orbán all-mighty basic botchery has failed badly. The Young Democrats managed to bungle the all-time most expensive public opinion poll. That’s the essence of it. That is the situation. The hero, the martyr, the knight of a border fortress [végvári vitéz], the general of all Hungarians fell on his face…. For the first time since 2010 Orbán has tumbled and sunk to his knees.”

amendment-vote

Photo: Attila Kisbenedek / AFP

That pretty well sums it up. After this it will be difficult for Orbán to play the strong man who flexes his muscles.

I would like to call special attention to the photo Kolozsvári Szalonna attached to their piece on today’s vote in parliament. As soon as it became known that the government proposal had failed, Orbán got up and darted toward the exit. Gergely Gulyás, his eyes cast downward, may well be afraid of what’s waiting for him as the man responsible for legislative acts. He was full of self-confidence about easy sailing for this piece of legislation. Péter Harrach is scratching his head as if doesn’t know what to make of the situation.

Orbán is no longer accustomed to defeat. I’m sure he will take it very hard. And lash out.

November 8, 2016