Tag Archives: Gergely Karácsony

From chaos to possible prospects for political understanding

The chaos caused by the resignation of László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, hasn’t subsided. If anything, it has grown over the last two days, nurtured by the vitriol that has surrounded Botka’s departure from the national political scene. Botka’s few stalwart supporters keep talking about the alleged treachery of certain leading members of the party, who were shielded by the majority of the board (választmány).

Perhaps the most stinging condemnation of the leadership of MSZP came from Ákos Tóth, the new editor-in-chief of 168 Óra, who began his editorial with the following sentence: “László Botka failed because the darkest scoundrels of the Orbán regime, his own kind, made him fail.” In the editorial Botka is portrayed as a valiant reformer who wanted to lift his party out of the swamp but was stabbed in the back by internal agents, moved by Fidesz hirelings with the help of pro-DK internet news sites, which he compares to 888.hu, the most heinous online government rag.

One should not be surprised by this vehement attack on the alleged rats within MSZP when Botka himself, seconded by István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, pointed the finger at Zsolt Molnár, one of the vice chairmen of the party. According to those who bought this story, Botka didn’t resign because his strategy of forging a united democratic opposition failed. He resigned because of his furor, mixed with sadness and disgust, after he realized that his comrades refused to go after the alleged traitors in the party. On the other hand, both Gyula Molnár, the party chairman, and István Hiller, chairman of the board, have repeated several times, quite emphatically, that there was no reason to censure Zsolt Molnár because the explanation he offered the board satisfied the great majority of the board members.

If anyone is guilty of undermining the little respect MSZP still has, it is István Ujhelyi. Botka has been quiet since his resignation, but Ujhelyi has given several interviews in which he laid the blame on “the Fidesz agents” in the party. As far as he is concerned, Botka’s only mistake was not making public the presence of these traitors in MSZP. He seems to believe that Fidesz agents are in all the opposition parties. Facts don’t seem to matter to Ujhelyi when it comes to the defense of his friend, László Botka. In these interviews he ignored the disastrous drop in MSZP support since Botka’s nomination and LMP’s latest unequivocal refusal to cooperate with him.

Are there any signs of a resolution to this admittedly dire political situation? I see the glimmer of a light at the end of the tunnel, but in order to explain why, I have to say a few words about electoral arithmetic. You may remember that Botka insisted on an agreement on the 106 electoral districts and on a common party list.  Gyurcsány agreed that there should be only one candidate in each electoral district agreed to by the different parties but insisted on individual party lists. That strategy has its pluses. For example, it satisfies the voters’ desire to vote for the party of their choice while being forced to vote for a candidate who might not be their first choice if they were absolutely free to decide. Botka argued that Gyurcsány was misleading the electorate because the electoral law doesn’t permit that combination of single candidates and multiple party lists. Was Botka right or not? Well, not quite. The law stipulates that the so-called coordinated voting system, which Gyurcsány promulgated, can be applied only if each party can put up at least 27 individual candidates. The problem in this case is that there are four parties on the left that could be part of an agreement: MSZP, DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd. Four times 27 is 108, more than the number of available districts.

Given this arithmetical conundrum, MSZP and DK should start to negotiate. There is apparently still some hope in MSZP circles that a common list remains a possibility. However, I don’t believe that Gyurcsány will give up his idea of individual party lists because, as I understand it, he foresees an outcome where the party with the highest number of votes cast for its party list will be the prime minister in the case of victory. But even if Viktor Orbán remains in power, the number of members of parliament for each party will depend on their party’s actual strength. This, he argues, would be a fairer apportionment of seats than an arbitrary assignment of places from a common party list. I should add that Gyurcsány obviously believes at the moment that his party will do well, perhaps even better than the ailing MSZP.

But what about the other two parties? This is where I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Today, Tímea Szabó, co-chair of Párbeszéd, announced that the party is ready to unite with Együtt to enter the 2018 race. Although the form of cooperation has not been finalized, it is likely that the two parties will have a common list and common candidates. That would be a rational decision given the minuscule size of the two parties. This would remove the obstacle to the “coordinated” voting system, although it is unlikely that these two parties would be able to compete on an equal footing with the two more established parties. I assume that once some kind of understanding is reached between MSZP and DK, these two parties could then sit down to negotiate. In that case, MSZP and DK might offer something enticing. For example, there is more and more talk about Gergely Karácsony as a possible common candidate for the post of prime minister.

Although Gyurcsány keeps repeating that an agreement can be reached in 72 hours, I think that even 72 days may not be enough to hammer out some kind of an agreement. This is a pity because the electorate, which would like a speedy agreement, might lose its little remaining faith in politicians if they drag their feet or if they keep publicly criticizing each other. Unfortunately, there is a good likelihood of such an outcome.

October 4, 2017

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

A new strategy or a new man is needed to lead the anti-Orbán forces

It’s time to take stock of the state of the democratic opposition after an MSZP gathering over the weekend where László Botka, the candidate to lead MSZP’s election campaign, introduced his team, what he calls the “new alliance.” Before anyone gets too excited, this “new alliance” doesn’t mean an agreement with the other left-of-center parties. Between January and now Botka has not managed to convince one party, with the possible exception of Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt (MPL), to support his strategy, which consists of a common party list and a division of the 106 electoral districts among the participating parties. One of these parties could be the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), but only if its chairman, Ferenc Gyurcsány, is not included on the party list. Not surprisingly, DK is not ready to accept outside interference in its internal affairs and refuses to accept the arrangement. While DK, according to all the opinion polls, could garner enough votes to become a parliamentary party on its own, the other three small parties– Együtt (Together), Párbeszéd (Dialogue), and MLP–couldn’t. Neither Párbeszéd nor Együtt is inclined to accept the kind of MSZP leadership Botka is offering. So, as it stands, MSZP is still alone, with dismal polling numbers.

So, what is this new alliance? As far as I can tell, it is a poor substitute for a joint electoral campaign. As Magyar Nemzet observed, Botka has given up looking for political allies and is satisfied with individuals who until now had been helping the smaller parties. One man who has switched to Botka’s side is Zoltán Komáromi, a family doctor who worked with Együtt on the party’s healthcare program. Another is István Szent-Iványi, a former SZDSZ member of parliament who was named ambassador to Ljubljana on January 25, 2010, i.e. a few months before the 2010 national election. To everybody’s surprise, Szent-Iványi wasn’t removed from his post by the new administration. In fact, the Orbán government left him in Slovenia until the end of his term five years later. He then disappeared from the political scene for a while, only to show up as the foreign policy expert of  Gábor Fodor’s liberal party. A third person who is ready to join Botka’s team is Ferenc Büttl, an economist and a member of Párbeszéd. Another supporter is László Andor, an economist who was EU commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion between 2010 and 2014. I would call him a socialist although he might not be a party member. A somewhat surprising addition is the former CEO of the internationally known organic demonstration farm that was sold to Fidesz oligarchs, who has been battling the action in court ever since. The newest supporter is the president of the National Association of Pensioners. Botka also named three people to stand as candidates in individual districts without consulting anyone.

Apparently, Botka’s great hope is Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd, who is currently vying for the same post as Botka. A couple of weeks ago he joined the MSZP hopeful in Szeged where he made some ambiguous remarks about his relationship to Botka. At the time, I wrote: “This gathering had one bright side…. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word ‘cooperation’ carefully because I don’t think that ‘support’ would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is ‘willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.’”

In that post I expressed my hope that Karácsony’s words might give a psychological lift to Botka’s flailing campaign. Well, I’m afraid that that hope has been quashed by László Botka himself, who in his eagerness to show results misread or misrepresented Karácsony’s remarks. Karácsony, who was invited to join the MSZP bigwigs to hear Botka’s ideas on the “new alliance,” learned only from Népszava that he was supposed to be responsible for the cultural aspects of Botka’s program. Karácsony decided not to attend the MSZP gathering, and this morning on ATV’s Start he explained why not.

The media is full of stories about a very serious division within MSZP over the efficacy of Botka’s strategy. Magyar Nemzet, which is normally well informed, seems to know that the majority of the party’s leading lights are skeptical about Botka and his new alliance and are urging him to change tactics. But so far Botka is unmovable. According to leaked information, some of the most senior MSZP leaders asked Gyula Molnár, the party chairman, to start negotiations with the leaders of the other parties. Vasárnapi Hírek, a socialist weekly owned by former party treasurer László Puch, suggested getting rid of Botka altogether if he is unable to produce tangible results.

I’m sure that most observers consider the present situation quite hopeless, but I’m a bit more optimistic. Enthusiasm for László Botka and his solution has completely evaporated, and liberal and socialist papers increasingly find his treatment of the other parties unacceptable. So, I assume that soon enough there will be so much pressure on Botka that he will have to move in another direction. If not, Gergely Karácsony could always be a compromise candidate. He is a great deal more popular than Botka–a soft-spoken, compromise-ready politician. He is the kind of man whom Hungarians, who are longing for some peace and quiet, might find to be just what the doctor ordered.

September 18, 2017

László Botka is on the campaign trail, with some hiccups

Although in the last few weeks László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for premiership, has begun to campaign with greater vigor, neither his own popularity nor the approval rating of his party has improved. In fact, according to Závecz Research (August 23, 2017), MSZP’s active voters dropped by three percentage points in three months. The loss was continuous and steady. Publicus Intézet (August 27, 2017), which also measured the popularity of politicians, registered a three percentage point drop in Botka’s popularity in one month. Support for DK in the last three months remained steady. Thus there is plenty to worry about in MSZP circles.

Earlier I wrote about the controversy between Zsolt Molnár, an influential MSZP politician, and László Botka, which showed a cleavage within the party leadership over MSZP’s relationship with the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK). One must keep in mind that DK began as a socialist splinter party, and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision to leave MSZP and create a new party left MSZP in a much weakened position. Therefore, one shouldn’t be surprised by the resentment some MSZP politicians feel toward DK and its leader. It is hard to judge the size of the group in the top leadership which under no circumstances would sit down to negotiate with the politicians of DK, but even though their number might be small, they are determined to go ahead alone, without the second largest party on the left. In this group are István Ujhelyi, EU parliamentary member, and Tamás Harangozó. On the other hand, Attila Mesterházy, former party chairman and candidate for the premiership of the united democratic opposition in 2014, seems to be on the side of those who sympathize with Zsolt Molnár’s position. His recent interview at least points in this direction. In this interview he revealed his pragmatic side when he suggested cooperation with Lajos Simicska, because “the removal of Viktor Orbán’s regime is a common goal.” He also defended Gyurcsány against Botka’s accusation that the former prime minister is not a democrat. Although Ágnes Kunhalmi is quiet, I suspect that she also has her doubts about Botka’s strategy. So, Zsolt Molnár is not alone.

MSZP old-timers complain that 15-20 years ago the party had the support of the leading professionals of the country, but by now they have left the socialists because the party leadership didn’t cultivate a working relationship with them. Perhaps Botka also realized that for a party to develop a program and make preparations for governing one needs experts in various fields. Legal experts, men and women with expertise in education, healthcare, public administration, etc. So, Botka sent out 200 invitations to a meeting in Szeged on August 26, where he was hoping to receive the common wisdom of the experts gathered there. When I first read the news as it was presented in Népszava, I had the distinct feeling that the turnout was low and that the largest group present were the big names in MSZP, past and present. Although Népszava, being a social democratic paper, was unwilling to say it outright, it was pretty obvious that there were very few well-known experts present. Népszava somewhat sarcastically noted that Botka announced that he didn’t want to give a speech but proceeded to give a very long one. Besides outlining ten important goals of MSZP once it forms a government, he again spent an inordinate amount of time on Ferenc Gyurcsány, which Népszava discreetly left out of its summary. In order to read that part of the speech one has to go to Index.

This gathering had one bright side, which had nothing to do with collecting professionals to assist the party program and possible future governance. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word “cooperation” carefully because I don’t think that “support” would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is “willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.” Considering Párbeszéd’s 1% support, Karácsony’s offer of cooperation will not bring too many new voters to MSZP. Still, this gesture should give a psychological lift to the disheartened democratic opposition. Botka also received the support of Zoltán Komáromi, a family physician, who has been a constant fixture in the media. He claims to have worked out an effective reform of the ailing healthcare system that would yield immediate, tangible results. Komáromi’s abandonment of Együtt is a blow to that small party, which has said that it will not cooperate with any other political group.

László Botka (MSZP) and Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd) / Photo Ádám Molnár

After these positive developments I must turn to the less bright aspects of Botka’s campaign activities. Botka was supposed to come up with 106 candidates by September, but to date he has managed to name only two. After visiting Gyöngyös, he declared that there can be no better candidate in that district than György Hiesz, the MSZP mayor of the town. Hiesz is one of the founders of MSZP. He was a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994 and again between 2010 and 2014. He was mayor between 2002 and 2010 and again from 2014 on. Then a few days later, while campaigning in the town of Makó, Botka had the bright idea of asking István Rója, who had been the principal of the local gymnasium, to be MSZP’s candidate in the coming election campaign. Rója’s appointment was not renewed despite wide support by teachers, students, and parents. Rója is not an MSZP member. While Hiesz is an experienced politician, Rója has never been involved in politics. These two people might be excellent candidates, but the way Botka single-handedly and in a somewhat haphazard manner is picking his candidates doesn’t appeal to some people within the party, especially since compiling the party list is supposed to be the leadership’s joint decision.

I should also call attention to another perhaps not so small blunder. Yesterday Botka essentially promised the job of minister of education to István Hiller, who had held this post between 2006 and 2010. About a year ago Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman of MSZP, suggested creating a so-called shadow cabinet, a popular political instrument in Great Britain, which consists of senior members of the opposition parties who scrutinize their corresponding government ministers and develop alternative policies. Such a body could develop a coherent set of goals and policies for a party. However, for some strange reason, László Botka doesn’t like the concept. As he keeps repeating, he wants to have a real cabinet, not a shadow one. Therefore, he said that he wasn’t going to name names. Yet yesterday, standing next to István Hiller, Botka announced that Hiller was once minister of education and he is very much hoping that he will be so again. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, this means that he has Hiller in mind for the post. There’s a major problem here, however. Botka in the last eight months talked about nothing else but those guilty MSZP and SZDSZ politicians who are responsible for the electoral disaster of 2010 when Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in parliament. They must retire and shouldn’t even be on the party list, meaning that they cannot even be ordinary backbenchers in parliament. That was allegedly his reason for insisting on Gyurcsány’s disappearance from politics. And now, he publicly indicates that his choice for minister of education is a former cabinet member in the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments. This inconsistency doesn’t look good.

All in all, Botka’s performance to date leaves a great deal to be desired. I wonder when the day will come that he is told to change course or else.

August 30, 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

The Hungarian opposition is still in disarray

I am returning to party politics today because, after an extended holiday season, opposition politicians and civilians active in politics have become vocal again. One after the other gives interviews to newspapers or to the two friendly television stations, ATV and Hír TV. Naturally, the topic is how best to prepare for the 2018 national election. Alas, every time such a tsunami of statements comes from the opposition parties, confusion and discord reign.

While the opposition parties MSZP, DK, and Párbeszéd are allegedly negotiating and those negotiations are, according to reports, going well, one of MSZP’s big guns, István Hiller, at least according to Magyar Idők, announced on December 27 in an interview that he doesn’t believe in the kind of political partnership among the democratic parties that proved to be singularly unsuccessful in 2014. If it depends on him, such a strategy will never be repeated. I must say that this was a surprising announcement since Hiller’s party is currently negotiating with the small parties on the left.

That’s not the only subject on which MSZP leaders disagree. Unnamed MSZP sources told Magyar Hírlap a couple of days ago that the leadership is also divided over László Botka’s offering himself as a candidate for the premiership. They are puzzled by the fact that Botka twice sent messages to his own party, once via 168 Óra and again only two days ago in an interview given to Index, that were actually ultimatums. Moreover, some of Botka’s demands can’t be met. For example, the exclusion of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the election process, which even in the opinion of Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd is an impossibility.

Even though MSZP leaders are still optimistic that the parties will be able to agree on a common platform, there are a couple of hurdles that might make agreement difficult. One is the question of the selection process of the most promising candidates for each of the 106 individual electoral districts. The idea of primaries has been bandied about for years, but by the fall of 2016 Párbeszéd decided that this was the most promising way to find the best candidate in each district. This small party was then joined by civic groups, which kept widening the nominating process to the point that it now includes the possibility of voting online. For this they hired the company Anonim Digitális Azonosító (Anonymous Digital Identifier), whose website is already available. Párbeszéd managed to convince MSZP of the efficacy of primaries and DK, although not terribly enthusiastic, agreed to the idea if all the others are game. When it comes to the internet application, however, the other partners are less than keen. Moreover, Botka’s announcement that he finds primaries superfluous further complicates the situation since at the moment MSZP is still a supporter of the idea. Botka stressed the necessity of “choosing the best candidate” in each district but didn’t give any guidance as to how this should be accomplished.

The other possible stumbling block is the question of having a common party list versus having individual ones. One must keep in mind that in the Hungarian system each voter casts two votes, one for an individual and the other for a party. Two of the three parties that are still talking to one another are committed to a common list while DK is sitting on the fence, at least according to Népszava. I personally prefer one common list because separate party lists send a strong signal to the voters that unity is still sadly lacking.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Együtt and LMP. Despite hopes that with the departure of András Schiffer LMP’s new leadership would be more willing to cooperate with the other parties, this didn’t turn out to be the case. A couple of weeks ago I still felt sorry for Ákos Hadházy, Schiffer’s replacement, when he tried to rationalize his party’s strategy while claiming that his greatest desire is to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s regime. By now, however, I have decided that the new co-chair of LMP doesn’t deserve my sympathy. A sharp-tongued commentator in gepnarancs.hu called LMP “a closed ward,” indicating that he finds LMP’s leaders not quite sane. Of course, he quickly added: “pardon me, a closed structure.” In his opinion, “ever since the departure of their word-jongleur they wriggle like fish out of water.”

Együtt’s two-man leadership seems to have supreme confidence in their party’s weighty position in Hungarian politics. Consequently, Együtt wants separate lists to ensure parliamentary representation. Just as a reminder, in order to get into parliament, Együtt would need at least 5% of the votes. Meeting that threshold, however, would not ensure a separate parliamentary delegation, which in the current setup must have at least five members. For example, DK, which is a much larger party, currently has only four members and hence no delegation. Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair, is so sure of his party’s chances that he already announced in an interview that he will be the leader of the Együtt parliamentary delegation after 2018. I admire his confidence.

A growing sentiment within the opposition favors some kind of “understanding” between the democratic parties and Jobbik. After reading the pro-government papers I came to the conclusion that Fidesz is really worried about this possibility and is trying to prevent any such meeting of the minds. János Somogyi, a frequent contributor to Magyar Idők, devoted an opinion piece to the subject. Of course, he finds both sides abhorrent. He tries to convince himself that such an understanding will never happen. But if by some fluke it does, it matters not because Fidesz will win the election anyway. He concluded his article dramatically: “The Lord will hear the last words of Prime Minister László Bárdossy, who was innocently executed in January 1946. Holding his arms toward the sky, he said ‘My Lord, deliver the country from these bandits!’ Perhaps this will become reality in 2018.”

Naturally, democratically minded political commentators are divided on the issue. One unexpected promoter of the idea is Ágnes Heller, Hungary’s best-known philosopher who, by the way, is a Holocaust survivor. Here is Hungarian Free Press’s translation of what she had to say on the subject. The original appeared on the website of ATV.

Cooperation can happen if both sides desire it. Purely based on numbers it is true that if they went up against Fidesz together, they would defeat the governing party. It would not be bad if they did so. But if they don’t want to do it, then they should not…Maybe the word ‘cooperation’ is not the right one. They could just support each other. This, of course, would be very difficult to explain to their voters, even if today there is basically a state of emergency in Hungary. If this is impossible due to their divergent identities, they do not need to make ideological compromises. Instead of a public agreement, they can simply decide to support each other’s candidates, even as they both develop their own campaign strategies. And then, if Fidesz has been defeated, the current electoral system would be reformed and new elections would follow between the victorious parties.

Ágnes Heller

György Konrád, a well-known writer and also a Holocaust survivor, thinks that “one can even join forces with the grandmother of the devil as long as the goal of a democratic alteration of the electoral laws can be achieved.” He added that such an outcome is “improbable,” but “it cannot be totally excluded either.”

On the other hand, TGM, a political philosopher, Tamás Ungvári, a literary historian, and Mihály Kornis, a writer, find the idea totally unacceptable. Kornis, who has the tendency to exaggerate, declared that if the choice was between Jobbik and death he would choose death.

In brief, the Hungarian political scene is extremely complex, and carving out a winning strategy is a daunting task for the opposition.

January 9, 2017

The sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution

Today, on the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, there were two gatherings in Budapest, with the usual speeches: the official one in front of the parliament building and the one organized by the opposition parties. As could have been predicted, no one said anything about what really happened on those autumn days sixty years ago. The speakers on both sides talked a lot about freedom-loving Hungarians, but these are words that sound hollow today.

The ideological strains of ’56 were eclectic and fluid. The original program called for a radical reform of the Soviet-type political system, but in it one could find traces of Titoism and western-type social democracy. As János M. Rainer says in his new book on the October revolution, “the common platform was patriotism, national independence. This is the common positive content of October 23.”

Since the Soviets decided not to wait for the final outcome of the uprising, ’56 has remained an unfinished story. We have no idea what would have emerged from the sometimes conflicting strains of thought, so politicians can use those events to their own advantage. But one thing is sure. Those who lived through ’56 consider it the most important time of their lives. They believe it was a special gift of fate that allowed them to witness an event which can, I believe, be compared to 1848-49 in significance for the nation. All other important historical dates–1918-1919, 1945, 1989–pale in comparison.

So, let’s see what politicians did to 1956 this year. Let’s start with the official celebration. The government, which spent over 13 billions on a “proper” celebration of the national holiday, grossly overestimated the interest in Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, and Viktor Orbán, even though a serious effort was made to ensure a full house. Fidesz mayors all over the country were urged to bring busloads of people to fill not just Kossuth tér but also Alkotmány utca, all the way to Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út. At least this is what the placement of the loudspeakers all along the street indicates. As a result, the over-magnified voices of the speakers echoed in the half empty square and the totally empty Alkotmány utca. According to those who were present, they couldn’t make out anything from the speeches.

The organizers hired a private company, whose employees were dressed in civilian clothes, to ensure order. I guess the idea was that having hundreds of uniformed policemen on hand wouldn’t be good for the government’s image. Those demonstrators who followed the call of Péter Juhász of Együtt were kept outside of a cordon set up for the occasion. The cordon didn’t prevent some elderly amazons from attacking the whistlers. One poured beer on a woman who wasn’t showing the same reverence for the great man as she did. A few burly men smashed faces and then ran away. One of the victims was Krisztián Ungváry, the well-known historian.

In a way Péter Juhász triumphed. The whistling was loud, continuous, and quite audible on the video I watched. (I don’t know whether state television can filter out the whistling and booing.) The whistling had to be a great embarrassment to Viktor Orbán. As we know, he is a vain man with very thin skin. Unfortunately, he is also vicious. Who knows how he will try to hit back and punish those people he considers traitors.

Orbán began by claiming that the lesson of ’56 was that “communism can be conquered.” By the end of his speech he had moved on to the possible “Sovietization of Brussels,” which, you have to admit, is an incredible feat. He called on “the freedom-loving people of Europe to save Brussels” from the fate of Sovietization. In between, in a way, he reinterpreted the meaning of the word “freedom” by insisting that “without freedom we can become only a nationality.” Hungarians hold onto their national heritage, as the Soviets learned the hard way in ’56. This sounded like a warning to Brussels of what to expect if they insist on curbing the sovereignty of Hungary. But, of course, the parallel is deeply flawed. After 1949-1950 the Rákosi regime imposed on the country a slavish imitation of the Soviet model. It was suffocating and led to a massive rejection of Soviet ways. Nothing like that is going on today. If Hungarians are adopting the customs of other European nations or the United States, it is the result of a natural development. Or when Orbán talks about diluting ethnicity, this is a natural trend due to the freedom of movement within the European Union.

He spoke in the name of love

He spoke in the name of love

Of course, he himself wants to lead the freedom-loving people of Europe to save Brussels, but, as I said a couple of days ago, with the exception of two or three East-Central European countries, he is attracting no followers. Nonetheless, he doesn’t seem to be discouraged. For him, the dates 1956, 1989, and 2016 reveal a pattern: Hungary becomes an important player on the world stage every 30 years or so. His closing the borders of the country in 2016 can be compared in significance to the revolution of 1956 or the end of the one-party system in 1989. Thus, by the end of his speech Orbán managed to portray himself as a central figure on the world stage today. As important a figure as the leading lights of ’56 or the Soviet and American politicians who managed to lift the iron curtain. The man is certainly not known for his modesty.

As for the joint demonstration of the democratic opposition parties, minus LMP and Együtt, the size of the crowd was disappointing, as were most of the speeches. Gyula Molnár is unfortunately not an inspiring speaker. Ferenc Gyurcsány is, but this speech was not up to par. Lajos Bokros was a breath of fresh air. By contrast, I found Gergely Karácsony’s reference to October 23, 2006 most unfortunate. He essentially repeated the Fidesz line, that Budapest witnessed a brutal attack on peaceful demonstrations. As one of the journalists who was there said, his remarks about the events of ten years ago were followed by total silence. Karácsony should know full well that the country is deeply divided over what happened that day. It is not something that should be brought up at the first joint celebration of the more or less united opposition. It was a huge error. I just don’t understand how it is possible that some of these younger Hungarian politicians have so little political sense. On Friday I heard Karácsony say that he didn’t know what he was going to talk about. Perhaps he should have thought a little longer about it and/or talked his intentions over with others. Blaming the politicians of MSZP and DK for crimes against democracy is not an auspicious beginning for a united democratic opposition.

Returning to Viktor Orbán’s speech. He once again tried to show off his great Biblical and classical learning. In a muddled image, he compared Hungarians to the young David who defeated Goliath because they are like “the ancient Greeks who were in possession of olden knowledge” and who claimed that “the secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” I would like to remind Viktor Orbán that Thucydides also said something else: “Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are injured.” That situation might come sooner than he thinks.

October 23, 2016