Tag Archives: Gábor Vona

Dilemmas in current Hungarian politics

On the surface it was no more than a storm in a teacup: András Gerő, historian of the Habsburg Monarchy, wrote an angry letter to a somewhat secretive organization called Szeretem Magyarországot Klub/SZMK (I love Hungary Club) because the club members gave their blessing to an invitation to Jobbik Chairman Gábor Vona to meet with the membership. What the club members were especially interested in was Jobbik’s racist and anti-Semitic past and its present change of heart.

András Gerő is not a member of the club, but he normally gets invitations to the monthly gatherings because of his earlier appearance before the group as an invited guest. Still, he decided to write a sharply-worded letter to the club in which he expressed his disapproval of the decision. In the letter he admitted that Jobbik is “a legitimate parliamentary force,” but he argued that SZMK, with this invitation, legitimizes Jobbik and its chairman. The former is a political legitimization; the latter, intellectual and moral. Moreover, SZMK’s claim that by listening to Vona the members could gain new and useful information is idle. What one can hear about Jobbik in the media is quite enough to form an opinion of this party.

Gerő often ends up in the midst of controversies of his own making. A few years ago he divided the historical community by accusing Ignác Romsics of anti-Semitism, which most observers found unwarranted. His siding with Mária Schmidt against Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations in the altercation over the House of Fate didn’t raise Gerő’s stature in my eyes. His relationship with the Fidesz government is also hazy because he is the director of the Habsburg Historical Institute, a one-man organization (plus a secretary) with a very elegant office. The institute’s continued existence depends on the goodwill of the Orbán government. It was because of this connection that Jobbik accused Gerő of serving Viktor Orbán’s interests in trying to blacken the name of Jobbik.

I doubt that Gerő acted as an agent of Fidesz, trying to torpedo Vona’s appearance before the members of SZMK. But Fidesz certainly loved Gerő’s attack on Jobbik’s chairman since Viktor Orbán’s real enemy at the moment is Gábor Vona. First of all, although Jobbik’s move to the center has weakened the party somewhat, it still has a large following. Jobbik today is the second largest party in Hungary. Moreover, there are signs that Jobbik has acquired a powerful patron with deep pockets in the person of Lajos Simicska, who seems ready to spend a considerable amount of money to get rid of Viktor Orbán. Simicska not only helps Jobbik financially. He also shares with its leadership the large repository of his “dirty tricks” that made Fidesz into the powerful organization that it is today. Jobbik’s move to the center especially frightens Orbán because he worries that his whole political edifice might crumble if Jobbik and the left-of-center forces decide to cooperate in some manner.

When it comes to the coverage of Jobbik in the Fidesz media, the emphasis is on the extremism of Jobbik. Magyar Idők published several articles on Gerő’s letter in which it embraced the historian’s opinion that “Jobbik is the political putrefier of Hungarian society.” Magyar Idők’s editorial on the subject carried the title: “Gábor Vona bowed before the Left.” Gerő, who enjoys being in the center of these controversies, in one of his television appearances called SZMK’s invitation to Vona “political racism.”

What transpired at this contentious meeting? It is difficult to get too much information about SZMK’s gatherings. We know that it is an elite club where the recommended yearly dues are 120,000 forints (approximately $450). Members and participants are asked to be discrete, and therefore the club functions pretty much without any public mention. Last year Károly Gerendai, the founder of SZMK and the brains behind the Sziget Festival, which is one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe, did talk to Magyar Nemzet. There he gave some details about the membership and about the illustrious visitors who had appeared before them in the past few years, but otherwise little is known about the club’s activities. ATV got in touch with a few members, some of whom admitted that a long debate preceded Vona’s invitation. But, they said, at the end the decision was reached that “Gábor Vona is one of the most remarkable figures today in Hungarian politics who has been moving away from his earlier right radical position. We know his past, but he has a place in this club because we have many questions we would like to get answers to.” Moreover, “Gábor Vona and his party are a factor in Hungarian politics,” one of the participants said.

Magyar Idők’s editorial recalled that in 2011 Gergely Karácsony, then still a member of LMP, suggested a temporary strategic alliance among all the opposition parties, including Jobbik, which could easily defeat Fidesz and gain a two-thirds majority. After a few months of “housecleaning” and a new more proportionate electoral law, the parliament could be dissolved and new elections could be held. This strategy has been in the air ever since. Miklós Haraszti, without suggesting a temporary alliance with Jobbik, is also thinking along the same lines: to force Fidesz in some way to accept a new electoral law. Lajos Bokros, when he talks about the magic 500 days which would be enough to get rid of the most objectionable pieces of Fidesz legislation, after which new elections could be held, is also proposing a variation of the same theme. And this is exactly what Viktor Orbán is worried about because, if that materializes, if Vona were able to convince the socialist-liberal parties that he is no longer the man they had known for years, Fidesz’s chances of winning the election, at least as things stand right now, would be nil.

Moreover, there are a lot of ordinary citizens who consider Orbán’s removal so important that they believe a temporary alliance with Jobbik is still preferable to perhaps decades of Orbán’s fascistoid one-party system. Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about this more than a year ago. After seeing that, at a couple of by-elections, citizens were ready to maximize their votes by voting for the candidate most likely to win and ignoring party affiliations, he wondered whether left-right cooperation might materialize. As he put it, “I wouldn’t have any enthusiasm for it, but I can no longer rule out the possibility of the opposition parties’ joining forces in the interest of getting rid of the present government. This regime might have a very strange end.”

At present no one contemplates such a joint action involving Jobbik. In fact, Gyurcsány’s party is one of the loudest in excluding any such possibility. On the other hand, apparently Vona told his SZMK audience that “Jobbik is ready to cooperate with anyone against Fidesz and specifically mentioned LMP as a possible ally.” Mandiner, a right-wing publication, noted that Vona and his audience especially saw eye to eye when it came to the person of Viktor Orbán. As the paper’s source claimed, “the audience and the party chairman outdid each other in their invectives against Orbán.”

Jobbik joined the other parties when it came to the “national minimum” on healthcare, and today the Közös Ország Mozgalom announced that they had received assurances from Dóra Duró, a Jobbik MP, that the party will take a look at the electoral law in its final form and will make a decision as to whether they are ready to support it. No one can see into the future, but there are signs of left and right pulling in the same direction.

September 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

Anne Applebaum (2015) Source: Václav Havel Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 18, 2017

Whither MSZP? It seems to be stalled

Before going into the latest follies of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), I should briefly summarize the findings of the most recent opinion polls in order to illustrate the true state of the party’s popularity among Hungarian voters. All four polls I consulted show Fidesz to have an enormous lead over its opponents. In all four, Jobbik was the second largest party in the country. Third place is occupied by MSZP and fourth by DK. Support for the other parties, with the exception of LMP, hovers around 1%. LMP has 3%.

Since the beginning of the year not much has changed in the popularity of the parties. A couple of percentage point differences here and there, but the ranking has stayed the same and, most importantly for our purposes here, support for MSZP hasn’t grown substantially since January. Combining the four opinion polls (Republikon, Závecz, Tárki, and Medián), the average support for MSZP is only 12% among active voters. In the same category, Fidesz would receive 50.25% and Jobbik 19%. DK’s support is 6%, which is nothing to brag about, but it is still a voting bloc one must reckon with, especially given the low popularity of the socialists.

Republikon also included a question about people’s opinion of the four declared candidates for the post of prime minister. The respondents were offered a choice of three people in two combinations. The first included Viktor Orbán, Gábor Vona, and László Botka; the second, Viktor Orbán, Gábor Vona, and Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd). The result is telling. In the first option Orbán received 38% of the votes, Botka 16%, and Vona 15%. The rest had no opinion. In the second option, where Karácsony took the place of Botka, the results for Orbán and Vona were practically the same and Karácsony received 14%, compared to Botka’s 16%. Not much of a difference. Once Republikon looked at party affiliations, it turned out that, as opposed to Fidesz and Jobbik voters who overwhelmingly support their candidates, only 60% of the left-of-center voters find Botka a desirable candidate. Karácsony, chairman of a party with 1% support, received a fairly impressive 48% popularity rating.

It looks as if MSZP’s leadership is blind to the reality of the numbers presented here. Otherwise, it is inexplicable that the party hasn’t considered changing course. After a while they should have recognized that László Botka’s remedies aren’t working. His “go-it-alone” strategy could have worked only if there was a spectacular growth in MSZP’s popularity, which in turn would have inspired the smaller parties to flock behind him. Since this hasn’t happened, a good politician would have changed strategy. But there was no sign of any soul-searching in MSZP until a few days ago, when Zsolt Molnár, one of the leading politicians in the party, wrote a short article in which he suggested that Botka should start negotiations with Ferenc Gyurcsány of DK, whom until now he had refused even to meet. I wrote about the subsequent unpleasant exchange between Botka and Molnár a few days ago.

When I summarized the Botka-Molnár controversy, I had no idea what the final outcome of this latest party quarrel would be. A couple of days ago there was a glimmer of hope that Gyula Molnár, the party’s chairman, would take matters into his own hands and would initiate some sensible alternative to the present hopeless course. But I’m afraid Gyula Molnár is not a strong leader, and instead of “summoning” Botka and Zsolt Molnár to party headquarters, as he first promised, we learned yesterday that it was Zsolt Molnár who traveled to Szeged. After a two-hour, apparently “amiable meeting,” as Molnár described it, he threw in the towel and assured Botka of his full support.

It is hard to know exactly what happened at this “amiable meeting” because it seems that Molnár either misunderstood what Botka told him or he was double-crossed. I suspect the latter. Molnár was supposed be in charge of negotiations with the other parties regarding the election campaign in Budapest and, as he recalled, this particular topic wasn’t even discussed at the meeting. However, the other politicians in the party already knew last night that Molnár would be stripped of all of his functions related to the elections.

The official confirmation of that fact came today at a press conference Botka gave. There it became clear that Botka had already come to an agreement with József Tóth, the very successful socialist mayor of District XIII, to take charge of negotiating with the other parties regarding the allocation of candidates of the united front of the democratic opposition in all 18 electoral districts of Budapest. These negotiations would include DK as well but, according to Botka’s wishes, without Ferenc Gyurcsány. Good luck to József Tóth, since there is no way that anyone from DK would sit down to negotiate with him if the price of cooperation is the shuttering out of the party’s chairman. And, according to analysts, Budapest cannot be won without DK. Even Tóth’s own very socialist district might be in jeopardy without it.

Botka, at least for now, is holding fast to his earlier position that every democratic politician will have to decide whether his own political future is more important than the removal of the Orbán government from power. He made no secret of the fact that he has Ferenc Gyurcsány in mind. Successfully pinning the blame on Gyurcsány, however, would work only if Botka himself weren’t carrying so much baggage in the eyes of the electorate. First of all, there is the problem of his lackluster support among left-wing voters. His high-handed treatment of Ferenc Gyurcsány also alienated a great number of people. His belittling of the politicians of the smaller parties as dupes didn’t endear him to the ones with whom MSZP is now supposed to negotiate. And finally, his ill-tempered attack on Zsolt Molnár is apparently disapproved of by the majority of the leading MSZP politicians. It can thus easily happen that it will be Botka who will end up being seen as the impediment to unity, not Ferenc Gyurcsány.

August 1, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s answer to the Jobbik campaign against him and his regime

On April 1 thousands of stark black-and-white billboards appeared all over the country. On the left, on a white background, is a single short sentence: “You work.” On the right are photos of either Viktor Orbán and Lőrinc Mészáros or Antal Rogán and Árpád Habony with an equally short message: “They steal.” For good measure, the consequences of the political elite’s corruption–poor healthcare and education plus low wages–appear on an orange background. “Jobbik for the People” is in the lower left corner.

The Fidesz-KDNP leadership didn’t find the April’s Fool Day surprise very amusing. In fact, they were infuriated because they realized the incredible impact these posters make. Everybody understands their simple, damning sentences. The appearance of such bold anti-government posters signaled to Fidesz and the Orbán government that the opposition is becoming increasingly daring and most likely also increasingly effective. They are tapping into a general dissatisfaction with the government that has been expressed recently in large-scale demonstrations. Fidesz came to the conclusion that a new, radical solution must be found to the problem. The old methods of discrediting their opponents no longer work.

Fidesz propaganda over the past few months has been directed mostly against Jobbik. Only recently has the government’s propaganda minister also paid attention to László Botka, MSZP’s likely candidate for the premiership. Disparaging Gábor Vona, the Jobbik party chairman, has been continuous and vicious. Among its many charges, Fidesz claims that Vona is being supported by Viktor Orbán’s arch-enemy, Lajos Simicska. And so it was predictable that Fidesz’s first reaction to Jobbik’s billboard campaign would be to reiterate that Vona is a puppet of Simicska while the left is financed by George Soros. Szilárd Németh, one of the deputies of Viktor Orbán, called Jobbik the party of billionaires and accused Vona of selling the “soul of Jobbik” for this media campaign. Perhaps, Németh continued, Vona swore allegiance to Simicska, promising him special financial deals after Jobbik wins the election.

The Jobbik-Simicska connection has been the topic of political debate for some time. Both Simicska and Jobbik deny any financial arrangement between the billionaire and the party. On the other hand, Simicska and his son have both made pro-Jobbik statements, and Vona admitted that he and Simicska have met at least twice at public events. Moreover, all the recent Jobbik messages appeared on the billboards of two companies, Publimont Kft. and Mahir Cityposter Kft., both owned by Lajos Simicska. Fidesz argues that this is proof of Simicska’s hidden financing of Jobbik.

Of course, it is possible that Jobbik received a special deal from Simicska, but hidden campaign financing would be difficult to prove. Although Simicska’s two companies are among the strongest billboard providers, altogether about 100 companies are involved in this competitive business. A couple of years ago Demokratikus Koalíció’s billboards appeared on Simicska’s properties. When Ferenc Gyurcsány was questioned about the arrangement, he said that Simicska’s firm offered the best deal. Simply capitalism at work.

Fidesz also came to the conclusion that “the constitutional court, led by László Sólyom, developed such an extremely liberal practice regarding freedom of speech” that the government has no way of fighting Jobbik’s messaging in court. At least this is the conclusion Zoltán Lomnici, a right-wing constitutional lawyer, came to. Moreover, he added, even if a Hungarian court ruled in favor of the government, one of the NGOs financed by George Soros would take the case to Strasbourg.

So, as a stopgap measure, Fidesz came up with a billboard of its own showing George Soros and Lajos Simicska as the puppeteers and László Botka and Gábor Vona the puppets. In addition, the personal secretary of Lajos Kósa organized a team of Fidesz activists to systematically deface Jobbik’s billboards all over the country. Unfortunately, he said, they couldn’t be burned because that would have destroyed the billboard structures, so they had to be satisfied with painting them over. That method is actually quite widespread in Hungary. Activists of Momentum, for example, suggest changing the “Stop Brussels” billboards to “Stop Moscow.” But these methods weren’t radical enough to solve the Orbán government’s problem with the the kinds of posters Jobbik put up.

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

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

Jobbik doesn’t seem to be too frightened for the time being because they came out with a variation of their original billboards. The color scheme is the same. The billboard pictures Viktor Orbán and Lőrinc Mészáros. The text is: “They steal. We will take it back and use it to raise wages.”

The opposition is up in arms over this government crackdown on campaign advertising. In the parliamentary committee on justice, where the Kósa-Halász bill is being considered, there was quite a ruckus. The opposition is convinced, not without reason, that the bill was written specifically to target Jobbik and Lajos Simicska. The Fidesz opposition tried to limit discussion of the matter, and the chairman, György Rubovszky (KDNP), refused to allow Márta Demeter (independent) and Ákos Hadházy (LMP) to take part in the discussion. In turn, the opposition members called the government party cowardly and the procedure shameful. Rubovszky at this point ordered the opposition members to leave the room, which they refused to do. Hadházy suggested that Rubovszky call the Parliamentary Guard to remove them forcibly. The chairman wisely refrained from making an ass of himself.

The opposition has a powerful weapon against this bill. To pass, the measure needs a two-thirds majority which, as we know, Fidesz doesn’t have at the moment. If the opposition, the left as well as the right, hangs together, it can win this battle. If it succeeds, this would be the second time that Fidesz is unable to force its will on the opposition.

As for the heinous governmental decree, I assume that some of those Soros-supported NGOs will start legal proceedings against it.

May 2, 2017

Gábor Vona is trying to cast doubt on Viktor Orbán’s past

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Interior Minister Sándor Pintér have faced some hard times in the last couple of months. There is, for instance, the Jürgen Roth story about Dietmar Clodo’s testimony that Semion Mogilevich may have bribed both Pintér and Orbán in the 1990s. This story might have induced Pintér to prepare the ground for the possibility of foreign attacks on both him and the prime minister. He added, of course, that whatever foreign secret service agencies have on them are forgeries.

And now Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, is challenging Viktor Orbán about his alleged past as an informer.

The topic came to the fore two years ago when Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s former friend and the financial brain behind Fidesz, talked about the prime minister’s alleged involvement in the state security apparatus in 1981-1982 when he spent a year between high school and university in the Hungarian Army.

Questions about Orbán’s past are not new. Already in 1991 János Kenedi, one of the top experts on the state security apparatus in Hungary, after examining the relevant documents, declared that Orbán, if anything, had been the victim of intelligence gathering and was innocent of any wrongdoing. That testimony, however, didn’t put an end to speculation. Here and there someone finds a piece of evidence that stirs up suspicion again. One such occasion was the discovery by László Varga, director of the Archives of the City of Budapest, that Viktor Orbán’s dossier, titled “Viktória,” whose existence was a known fact, “had disappeared.”

What has been disturbing all along is that Orbán refuses to say outright that he never, ever reported on anyone in his life. At the time of Simicska’s accusation in 2015, Hír24 asked him this question. Orbán’s answer was not a categorical denial. He said that “the facts speak for themselves. All information is available on the internet. I suggest that you study them.” Magyar Narancs, commenting on this statement, asked: “Why can’t the prime minister’s office or the press secretary or he himself put together a simple sentence: ‘Viktor Orbán was not an informer and never reported on anyone.’” A good question.

Now, two years later, Orbán still refuses to utter this simple sentence. At the moment, the release of informers’ names is again a matter of debate in the Hungarian parliament, and Gábor Vona used the occasion to inquire from Viktor Orbán about his possible involvement. “Mr. Prime Minister, I know that during your military service you were in contact with the secret service. I also know, Mr. Prime Minister, that there was a member of your family who during the 1956 revolution was working for ÁVH as an agent.” Orbán’s answer was almost identical to his earlier response to the same question. “All documents are available on the internet, study them.” That was not enough for Vona, who then asked: “Do you have the courage to declare that ‘I have never been an agent and I didn’t report on anyone either in writing or verbally?’ Do you dare to declare it?” Again, Orbán refused to affirm it in the first person singular. Instead, he said that “naturally I was on the other side, just as all of us here. We were on the other side; we were the ones who were persecuted; it was in our apartments that they planted listening devices; we didn’t cooperate with any kind of service.”

Gábor Vona questioning Viktor Orbán

Not only did Orbán refuse to answer these simple questions but he wasn’t really truthful about the ideological commitment of the leaders of Fidesz in the 1980s. In 1985 László Kövér imagined himself and his friends in Fidesz as the future leaders of the existing regime, that is, the socialist people’s republic under Kádár or perhaps, given Kádár’s age, some younger, more dynamic leader. The “college” where these boys and girls from the countryside received extra educational opportunities was created to be “a school for political leadership.”

As for all those Fidesz members sitting in the parliament, who according to Orbán “were on the other side,” that is also an exaggeration. Several important Fidesz politicians were actually members of MSZMP, the party established by János Kádár and others during the days of the October 56 revolution. Just to mention a few: János Martonyi, György Matolcsy, István Stumpf, Sándor Pintér, András Tállai, Béla Turi-Kovács, and Péter Harrach.

The younger members of Fidesz would obviously like to bury the sins of their elders. Only recently, in connection with the demand for the list of informers, János Lázár declared that they were only victims and therefore their identities should be shielded. The real culprits, he claimed, are the former members of MSZMP who “denied the freedom and self-determination of the Hungarian people.” They are the ones who are traitors and who should never have any role in political life. One would like to remind Lázár that in 1989 there were 800,000 party members in Hungary. Moreover, if Fidesz professes to have such a pristine past, it should get rid of those politicians on their side of the aisle who were not exactly on the “other side.”

Viktor Orbán answering Gábor Vona

After the Vona-Orbán encounter, speculation abounded that Vona might have received damaging information about Orbán from Lajos Simicska, especially since Simicska’s son Ádám just recently optimistically announced that Jobbik will win the 2018 election with a two-thirds majority. (At the moment Ádám Simicska’s prediction has a zero percent chance of materializing.) Vona in an interview on ATV denied that he has any new information, but he added that if he learns anything he will not hesitate to make it public.

According to people close to Simicska, he makes no secret of his plan to release “seriously compromising documents” on Orbán close to the election. He talks quite freely about the circumstances surrounding his break with Orbán and keeps repeating that “it is his obligation to do everything in his power to facilitate the overthrow of the prime minister.” According to Fidesz politicians, Orbán as well as the leading members of the party consider Simicska a serious antagonist who “has money to spend and nothing to lose.”

March 21, 2017

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