Tag Archives: Gergely Karácsony

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

A possibly very strange end to Viktor Orbán’s political career

The following paragraph from an interview Ferenc Gyurcsány gave Somogyi Hírlap, a paper serving Kaposvár and the County of Somogy, has created quite a stir, mostly in the right-leaning media. Since there have been many, most likely purposeful, misinterpretations of what Gyurcsány actually said, here is a faithful translation of the controversial paragraph. This was Gyurcsány’s answer to the reporter’s question about cooperation among the opposition parties.

First we must wait until we find out what happens at the [forthcoming] congress of MSZP where four very different types of politicians will vie for the chairmanship. It is also not immaterial where MSZP will be by next spring. How self-confident they will be. I’m certain that there will be some kind of joining of forces before the next national election, even if not the kind that existed in 2014. But it is also possible that regardless of what we do or say the people—just like in Tapolca and in Salgótarján, in the former from left to right and in the latter from right to left–will vote for the candidate they think is most likely to succeed [against Fidesz]. Thus, a situation may occur—something Viktor Orbán hasn’t thought of—that left-right cooperation will take place over and above his “central power” scheme. It can happen that three large blocks are formed–the left opposition, Jobbik, and Fidesz-KDNP–but that none of them gets the necessary 50%, while they cannot form a coalition openly. Let me add that I wouldn’t be at all happy about such an outcome, but at the same time I cannot preclude the possibility of such public pressure that the current opposition forces will have to cooperate for the sake of dismantling the two-thirds laws. There is the possibility that the current political system will have a very strange end.

The Hungarian media is very Budapest-centric. Few journalists in the capital pay much attention to what appears in the provincial press. However, Gábor G. Fodor’s notorious new internet news site, 888.hu, immediately picked the story up from a far-right site called spiler.blog.hu. Both declared that “Gyurcsány would forge an alliance with Jobbik,” 888.hu adding that “things grow together that belong together.” Magyar Idők also indicated that Gyurcsány would work together with Jobbik and sarcastically added that “perhaps they could form one big party,” attracting voters from the entire political spectrum. “Gyurcsány would have a lot to talk about with [László] Toroczkai. Political success is guaranteed.” Toroczkai, the far-right leader of the Youth Movement of the Sixty-Four Counties, was an active participant in the destruction of the Magyar Televízió’s building when Gyurcsány’s Balatonőszöd speech became public. Válasz’s article ran under the headline: “Hang on, Gyurcsány embodies every anti-fascist’s nightmare.” The author of the article is pretty certain that nothing will come of such cooperation because both MSZP and DK said far too often: “Never with Jobbik!” However, he admitted that the last few by-elections showed that voters can create grand coalitions on “the theory of anybody but Fidesz.”

On the other side of the political spectrum there is deathly silence. No one wants to say anything about Gyurcsány’s assessment of the present political map of Hungary. I found only one blog, László Zöldi’s medianapló.blog.hu, that found this particular passage from the Gyurcsány interview important and thought-provoking. He can’t quite understand why no one explored the subject further with him, although Zöldi has heard at least two subsequent interviews. He simply can’t understand the silence. He even suggests that there may be topics the independent Hungarian media simply doesn’t want to talk about.

Source: pto.hu/post/1/6113

Source: pto.hu/post/1/6113

Indeed, it is a sensitive topic because in the last few years the strength of the various political blocs hasn’t changed substantially. As long as this constellation remains, Fidesz’s chances of winning the next election and perhaps even several more are good. On the other hand, there is the very real problem of Jobbik’s ideology and the democratic opposition parties’ determination not to cooperate with a neo-Nazi party. Gábor Vona’s announcement to get rid of some of his deputies was initially interpreted by many, including myself, as a move toward the center, but Vona’s candidates for the vacated positions hold views just as extreme as those of the party leaders he wants to dismiss.

Gyurcsány is actually not the first politician to talk about some kind of an arrangement between the left and Jobbik. Gergely Karácsony (PM), today mayor of Zugló (District XIV), brought up the idea of a short-term coalition of the opposition parties (MSZP-LMP-Jobbik) back in December 2011. At that point Karácsony was still a member of LMP. The Fidesz government was in the middle of working on a new electoral law. What the public could learn about the details convinced Karácsony that the law would greatly favor the government party and that even if MSZP and LMP faced the government party together they would not be able to get rid of the Orbán government. His suggestion was to forge an alliance among the three opposition parties for the sole purpose of breaking the stranglehold of Fidesz’s two-thirds majority rule. The goal of this alliance would be a minimum program that would remove the worst features of Orbán’s political system, including naturally the electoral system. After the essential changes that would restore the democratic functioning of the government were made, parliament could be dissolved and new elections held. The outcry on the left after this interview was so great that the idea was immediately dropped.

Of course, the political atmosphere today is very different from the one in which Karácsony made this suggestion, which sounded bizarre after only a year and a half of Fidesz rule. Today, however, we have a situation in which several by-elections have shown that the electorate is indeed ready to vote for the candidate who is most likely to succeed against Fidesz. Left-wingers are ready to vote for a Jobbik politician, while disappointed Fidesz and Jobbik voters are ready to cast their votes for a socialist. If such trends continue, one can easily foresee the kind of situation Gyurcsány talked about. And then what? The democratic opposition must have a viable game plan.

May 4, 2016

MSZP and the Hungarian bid to host the Olympics in 2024

A new poll was published today, this time by the Nézőpont Intézet. It reaffirmed an earlier poll showing that Fidesz’s popularity is on the rise again, most likely due to the government’s misleading propaganda about the asylum seekers. The parties of the democratic opposition haven’t gained any new followers. The only surprise in the poll was that among potential voters MSZP and DK are neck to neck.

Of course, Nézőpont is not known for its political neutrality and therefore its results are suspect, but this time I wouldn’t be at all surprised if its finding that only 12% of potential voters support MSZP was accurate. The party is in disarray and the incompetence of its leadership is staggering.

By way of illustration, today I’m going to look at MSZP’s position on the Hungarian bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games.

It was just question of time: the idea of a Hungarian Olympics was bound to resurface. In 2001-2002 the first Orbán government eagerly supported the idea. A considerable amount of money was spent on feasibility studies, which naturally confirmed that nothing stood in the way of holding the games in Hungary. Luckily, Viktor Orbán lost the 2002 election, and with his defeat the idea died.

After Orbán’s victory in 2010, when the Fidesz leadership claimed that the country was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and that its economy was comparable to that of Greece, even the sports-crazed prime minister knew better than to float the idea of hosting the Olympic Games again. But as soon as there was one good year, which saw a growth rate of 3.6%, Orbán moved into action. A so-called non-political group, the Budapest Olympic Movement, was formed to promote the economic benefits of such an event. The people in this group all have ties to the government party. The president of the group is Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy, an economist and avid sportsman, whose great grandfather was the founder and the first president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee between 1895 and 1904. Szalay-Berzeviczy played a similar role in the 2001-2002 attempt to bring the Olympics to Hungary.

Unfortunately, most people have mighty little knowledge of the cost of hosting an Olympics. And their national pride swells at the very thought of being in the international spotlight for a couple of weeks. I suspect that the majority of the people, if asked, would support the idea.

Olympics 2024

Since most of the events would take place in Budapest, the city council had to vote on whether they would stand behind the games. Given the composition of the city council, it was not surprising that the final vote was 25 to 1 with one abstention. Antal Csárdi, the single LMP member of the council, voted against it, while DK’s Erzsébet Gy. Nagy abstained. That meant that the MSZP members of the council and Gergely Karácsony, the sole PM mayor in Budapest, voted with Fidesz for the Olympics. I heard Csaba Horváth’s feeble explanation of his decision, in which he called attention to the long overdue infrastructure projects that the games would bring to the capital. I haven’t seen Karácsony anywhere since.

Most people who consider the whole idea suicidal could barely recover from their surprise that MSZP would lend its name to the project. But in the next few days the number of MSZP politicians supporting Orbán’s megalomaniac idea multiplied. László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, opted to follow the lead of the Budapest socialist leaders who by then included Ágnes Kunhalmi, the Budapest chairman. I used to think highly of Kunhalmi, until I heard her say that “the concept of a profitable Olympics is not well known” because the government hasn’t publicized it. A profitable Olympics? Surely, Kunhalmi didn’t spend any time reading up on the subject. The truth is that even a cursory look at economic analyses of the Olympic Games shows that, with one possible exception, they were losing propositions.

At this point, most people figured that MSZP would support the government party and vote for the bill in parliament to empower the country to proceed with its application. But then came the bombshell. Zoltán Gőgös, deputy chairman of the party, announced that the socialists would refuse to support the bill. Total chaos. Obviously, party discipline is not a socialist strength. Even members of the top leadership don’t seem to talk to each other before they speak publicly or vote on issues. When Gőgös was asked by György Bolgár how such a situation could possibly develop, Gőgös’s only answer was that no decision was made by the leadership until the issue reached parliament. Again, a feeble answer to a botched up affair. How can such a party possibly compete against a disciplined Orbán-led Fidesz?

I have neither time nor space to reproduce the government’s propaganda list of the benefits of holding the games in Hungary. But no matter what the government argues, the reality is that Olympic Games are not money-makers. Even Szalay-Berzeviczy is hard pressed to come up with an economically profitable Olympics. The one exception may be the 2012 London Olympics. Common wisdom holds that the games boosted the UK economy by £9.9bn, but not everybody agrees with this assessment. Sports economist Stefan Szymanski said that coming up with exact figures is “almost like a bit of creative accounting.” Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Resarch, said that attributing the economic growth to the Olympics was “a little far-fetched to say the least.”

The New York Times published an article titled “Does Hosting the Olympics Actually Pay Off?” The answer is no. According to the article, “there is strikingly little evidence that such events increase tourism or draw new investment. Spending lavishly on a short-lived event is, economically speaking, a dubious long-term strategy. Stadiums, which cost a lot and produce minimal economic benefits, are a particularly lousy line of business. (This is why they are usually built by taxpayers rather than by corporations.)”  The author quotes an economist who has studied the impact of sporting events, who said: “the bottom line is every time we’ve looked–dozens of scholars, dozens of times–we find no real change in economic activity.”

Another article’s author asks, “Do the Olympic Games generate profits?” And the answer: “No. Unfortunately, they do not.” And who said that? Robert Barney, head of the International Center for Olympic Studies. According to him, “no city has profited in the long run from its hosting role in a purely bottom-line sense.”

Nonetheless, there are at least three MSZP members of parliament who feel so strongly about the issue that they received exemptions from voting against the bill: Ágnes Kunhalmi, László Varga (Miskolc), and Sándor Szabó (Szeged). I wish they would spend a little time learning about the economics of the Olympic Games.

The new media landscape: Magyar Nemzet versus Napi Gazdaság

Back in 2010 I devoted a post to a comparison of the domestic news reporting of two Hungarian dailies: Magyar Nemzet, then a government mouthpiece, and Népszabadság, a paper close to the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP). All the articles appeared on the same day, and the results were startling. As I said then, “Two papers, two worlds.” Nowadays, when the print and online Hungarian media world is in turmoil, I thought it might be useful to take a look at the contents of the new Magyar Nemzet and the paper that took its ideological place, Napi Gazdaság.

In 2010 the most obvious difference between the two newspapers was which news items the editors picked from the offerings of MTI, the Hungarian news agency. Magyar Nemzet neglected to report on news that was unfavorable to the government while it picked up items of perhaps lesser importance if they showed the Orbán government in a good light. Népszabadság, on the whole, covered the events of the day more accurately, but there was a tendency to overemphasize matters that reflected badly on the government.

napi gazdasag2

Fast forward to 2015. Let’s start with Napi Gazdaság. If you recall, Viktor Orbán in his interview claimed that the reason for his government’s problem is the loss of the media that in the past explained the policies of his administration and directed public opinion “appropriately.” Looking at today’s Napi Gazdaság, one finds at least one article that aims to explain the government’s position on what it considers to be an important issue: the objections of the European Commission to certain provisions of the law on the use of agricultural lands, something I wrote about yesterday. Although other papers, including Magyar Nemzet and Népszabadság, didn’t consider the announcement of the chairman of the parliamentary commission on agricultural matters concerning the issue important enough to cover, Napi Gazdaság found it newsworthy. The message the paper wants to convey is that “the Hungarian law doesn’t contain anything that cannot be found in some other, older member states,” and therefore the Hungarian government finds the EU objections discriminatory.

There is another important task Napi Gazdaság must perform–anti-Gyurcsány propaganda. Although the news that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s consulting firm received the job of supervising an international team to improve the quality of decisions on contracts subsidized by the EU is old, Napi Gazdaság decided to include an article on the opinion of Ildikó Pelcz (née Gáll), who thinks that “the case is still full of question marks.” For good measure, the paper ran an editorial titled “Pinocchio.” The editorial combats Ferenc Gyurcsány’s newly announced program on utility prices. More than half of the editorial is designed to show the superiority of the government’s earlier decreases in utility prices over Gyurcsány’s suggestions.

One must always keep alive anti-communism, even if it takes some ingenuity to find a reason for talking about it. Gergely Gulyás made a speech at a conference held in the parliament building in which he called attention to the sufferings of the people on “this side of the iron curtain.” He also charged that “no one ever asked for forgiveness for the sins of communism” but immediately added that “those who maintained that regime can never be forgiven.”

A good government paper must also include some cheerful news, which is hard to come by of late. Therefore, a misleading headline always comes in handy. For example, one of the articles claims that “85% of Hungarian youth believe that they will be successful in life.” The other results of the survey, however, are not so rosy. That these young people believe that “to be successful one needs connections” should make readers wonder about the true state of affairs in Hungary when it comes to job opportunities. Or that over 40% of them would like to work abroad. On the other hand, we ought to rejoice at learning that the Raoul Wallenberg School, after so much tribulation, will be able to move, although “the final decision” will be reached by Zoltán Balog only at the end of May. But then why the announcement now? 

And finally, one ought to hit the opposition hard and, if possible, accuse them of dishonesty and possible fraud. Ferenc Papcsák, former mayor of Zugló, accuses the new administration of Gergely Karácsony of PM (who was supported by all the democratic opposition parties) of wasting the 2.5 billion forints he left behind. According to him, the salaries of employees haven’t been paid, certain projects had to be shelved, and the local paper, for the first time in 19 years, cannot appear because of a lack of funds.

There are several important pieces of news that Napi Gazdaság simply ignores. One is that Béla Turi-Kovács, a Fidesz member of parliament, is turning in a request to re-examine the abandonment of the M4 project. Turi-Kovács began his political career in the Smallholders party and served as minister of the environment in the first Orbán government between 2000 and 2002. This piece of news was reported by Magyar Nemzet, but the abandoned M4 is not something that should be talked about in a government paper.

The other significant news of the day that Napi Gazdaság failed to report on is that the head of Lombard Kézizálog Zrt., a financial institution that went bankrupt back in April, was arrested. Eight banks suffered a loss of about four billion forints. Perhaps even more interesting is another piece of news, this time about Lombard Lízing Zrt., a company being sued by a former customer who received a loan of 3.5 million forints in Swiss francs. Without going into the very complicated details of the case, the Hungarian National Bank and the government are siding with Lombard Lízing Zrt. against the customer. Fidesz seems to be so interested in the case that a Fidesz member of parliament between 2010 and 2014 will represent Lombard in the suit. That piece of news was discussed in a lengthy article in Magyar Nemzet but not in Napi Gazdaság.

Another topic that Magyar Nemzet, like other dailies, spends time on is the question of capital punishment. After all, there will be a discussion of Viktor Orbán’s reference to the death penalty tomorrow in the European Parliament. Magyar Nemzet actually has two interviews on the subject. One with Tamás Lattmann, a professor of international law, and another with Dóra Duró of Jobbik. Lattmann explains that no referendum can be held on the subject, while Duró tells about a debate within the party. The interviews were conducted by Lánchíd Rádió, another Simicska concern.

It is again not surprising that news that the association of history teachers and historians called on the government to condemn the 1915 genocide of Armenians did not appear in Napi Gazdaság. On the other hand, Magyar Nemzet is sympathetic to the cause of the Armenians, and the paper had a number of articles on the subject in the middle of April. Napi Gazdaság would never report on the historians’ request because, first of all, the historians involved are not exactly favorites of this government. Second, the Orbán government has exceedingly good relations with Turkey. Finally, Armenia broke off diplomatic relations with Hungary after the Orbán government sent an Azeri national who murdered an Armenian in Hungary back to Kazakhstan as a friendly gesture to the Azeri dictator.

Magyar Nemzet nowadays provides space for opposition members to express their views. For example, in today’s paper they reported on the opinion of Bernadett Szél, an LMP member of parliament, that the taxpayers will be responsible for the cost of taking care of atomic waste that will accrue at Paks.

The latest news about Vladimir Putin’s remarks on Hungary’s economic interest and the Paks II nuclear power plant naturally appeared in both papers. But there is an important difference. The Magyar Nemzet article consists of four sentences. It is restricted to the bare facts. Napi Gazdaság, on the other hand, spends considerable time on the issue, adding details about the size and the nature of the Russian loan.

Magyar Nemzet can no longer be considered a “government mouthpiece.” That role was taken over by Napi Gazdaság. The question is whether the new Magyar Nemzet will be able to retain its readership. Moreover, for the last month or so, we’ve heard about more and more Magyar Nemzet employees abandoning the paper and joining Napi Gazdaság. I assume they are offered higher salaries. And most likely the journalists who switch believe they will have better job security since the future of Napi Gazdaság, given its favored position, is assured, at least for three more years, while this might not be the case with Magyar Nemzet.

Is Deutsche Telekom lending a helping hand to the Orbán government to suppress media freedom?

Scandals in Hungary often fizzle out, as one of our readers correctly stated, but abroad scandals don’t die so fast. They spread via the international media. This is what happened with the case of Origo, an internet news organ, whose latest editor-in-chief, Gergő Sáling, was forced to resign, most likely for political reasons. Soon enough the deputy editor-in-chief followed suit, and by now practically the whole news team is gone. A fairly large demonstration was organized immediately after the sacking of the editor-in-chief, and more demonstrations are planned for next week.

Yesterday 444.hu, a relatively new internet newspaper, came out with additional information on the case which, if true, isn’t pretty. Origo Zrt. is a subsidiary of Magyar Telekom, which is in turn a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, which is partly owned by the German government. 444.hu learned from a high-ranking member of the government that the firing of Gergő Sáling was the result of a deal between Magyar Telekom and the Orbán government.

Kerstin Günther / Source: Portfolio

Kerstin Günther / Source: Portfolio

One of the problems with the Hungarian economy is the preponderance of the state in all facets of economic life, which means that good relations with the government are very important for any company. In 2010 and 2011 relations between Magyar Telekom and the government were strained, mainly because of the extra taxes levied on communications companies. Apparently Hungarian politicians didn’t particularly like the CEO of Magyar Telekom, the American Christopher Mattheisen. Then in April 2013 the post of CEO was split in two, carving out a separate post of chairperson of the board. This new job was created for Kerstin Günther, who was very knowledgeable about Hungary because she began her Telekom career in Budapest in the 1990s. According to 444.hu‘s informer, she was sent to Hungary for the purpose of improving relations between the company and the Orbán government.

The company needed the goodwill of the Hungarian government because it is the government that decides the fates of frequencies that T-Mobil, a large part of Magyar Telekom’s business, uses. In 2013 it was time to renew these frequencies. Their renewal was vital for the company. At the end of the year, the government decided to renew the frequencies of all three cell phone companies operating in Hungary until 2022. For these frequencies the government asked a total of 100 billion forints. Magyar Telekom’s share was approximately 35 billion forints. It is 444.hu‘s claim, based on information received from its source, that Origo’s fate was sealed by the end of 2013. The deal was that Magyar Telekom would get an extension of its frequencies and that in return the management would make sure that Origo plays ball. Apparently, János Lázár “was often unhappy” about some of the articles that appeared on the site about various Fidesz and government wrongdoings, including his own.

According to the informer, Günther and Lázár met even before Günther arrived in Hungary. Lázár apparently showed her a 150-page analysis of the news items that had appeared in Origo and Híradó, the government mouthpiece that provides news to all state radio and television stations. Given Híradó‘s pro-government stance, it’s no wonder that Origo looked “dramatically oppositional.” It seems, however, that Magyar Telekom found the “study” well founded and often referred to it in arguments with Origo.

In the last two years pressure mounted on the internet site, hence the frequent personnel changes at the head of the editorial board. In three years there have been four different editors-in-chief. In government circles it was common knowledge that Lázár believed that “one must do something about RTL Klub and Origo.”

The relationship between Magyar Telekom and the Orbán government is excellent at the moment. In fact, it looks as if Deutsche Telekom will be entrusted with “the government’s comprehensive development of rural broadband access” that will cover the whole country. Or at least this is what János Lázár said in his parliamentary hearing that approved his suitability for the post of minister at the head of the prime minister’s office.

444.hu immediately translated the article into English, and naturally the story was picked up by several important German papers, especially since DPA (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) reported on it. A long and detailed article, not based on the DPA summary, entitled “Under Pressure” appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung by Cathrin Kahlweit. She operates out of Vienna but knows the Hungarian scene quite well. In the article she reminds her readers that four years ago the controversial media law “drew international protests,”  and says that it seems that the Orbán government is again using “money and new legal provisions to impede critical reporting.” According to her, Deutsche Telekom received a one-billion euro contract from the Hungarian government for the “expansion of the broadband network,” the price of which was the taming of Origo. Deutsche Welle also reported on the attempted censorship by the Orbán government. And naturally, Reporters Without Borders protested as well.

Up to now two opposition politicians, Gergely Karácsony (E14-PM) and András Schiffer (LMP), have written letters to Timotheus Höttges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom, in which both strongly disapproved of the alleged “deal” between Deutsche Telekom and the Hungarian government. Karácsony called the deal unethical and expressed his hope that Deutsche Telekom would not be a partner to such a dirty affair. Surely, he said, Höttges considers freedom of the press a basic right. Schiffer’s letter was equally hard hitting and expressed amazement that a respectable firm operating in a democratic country would lend its name to such shady business.

Deutsche Telekom is washing its hands of the affair. The spokesman for the firm emphasized that they are all for freedom of the press but reiterated that they have nothing to do with personnel changes within Origo, which are the “result of internal restructuring.” I fear that will not be enough.