Tag Archives: Gergely Karácsony

MSZP-Párbeszéd held its campaign launch

MSZP’s congress, which also served as the party’s campaign launch, has concluded. Originally, the congress was supposed to be held in December, but until the last minute the MSZP leadership kept hoping that they would be able to convince Ferenc Gyurcsány to join them in creating a common party list. The other reason for the general sluggishness of the MSZP negotiators was their ardent hope that by announcing László Botka’s candidacy for the premiership in October the party’s standing would improve considerably. That hope was pretty well dashed by the end of the year. And then a somewhat unexpected turn of events brought Gergely Karácsony, co-chair of Párbeszéd, to the negotiating table with the leaders of MSZP. He said he would be willing to be the party’s candidate for prime minister but only if Párbeszéd as a distinct entity could join the socialists, forming an MSZP-Párbeszéd ticket.

Such a demand is reasonable when the two parties are of equal or close to equal weight, but Párbeszéd is a minuscule party with perhaps 1% of support in the electorate. And there was another impediment to a merger. According to the Hungarian electoral law, if two distinct parties formally join, creating a new entity, that entity must receive at least 10% of the votes to become a parliamentary party. Given the poor showing of MSZP of late, some people in the party thought that such a move would be too risky. Others, apparently the fiery Ágnes Kunhalmi included, warned against that kind of gloomy outlook, saying it would negatively influence the whole socialist campaign.

“Alliance for change” / Source: Népszava / Photo: József Vajda

Current thinking is that MSZP will be able to garner at least 15% of the votes, which translates more or less into a 15-member parliamentary delegation. In 2014 the common party list of MSZP, DK, and Együtt received enough votes for a 37-member parliamentary delegation, of which 29 seats went to MSZP due to a list on which MSZP members had an undue advantage. This time, in exchange for an attractive candidate in the person of Karácsony, the socialists seem to be a great deal more generous. Párbeszéd has three candidates in the first 20 slots, two of whom will probably be sitting in the next parliament.

Then there is the Magyar Liberális Párt of Gábor Fodor. It is even less significant than Párbeszéd, yet for some strange reason Party Chairman Gyula Molnár wanted Fodor to be part of the team. First, he suggested that Fodor run in the district that includes the city of Gyöngyös, Fodor’s hometown. Gyöngyös has a socialist mayor, whom László Botka recommended to be MSZP’s parliamentary candidate for the district. When the mayor was told by Molnár that plans had changed, he resigned from the party. But in the end it wasn’t Fodor who got the district but a young MSZP member from the area. The flip-flops gave the impression of a party that doesn’t know what it’s doing.

That was not, however, the end of the Fodor saga because Molnár still wanted Fodor to be part of the team and suggested him for the fifteenth slot, which is considered to be winnable. At that point a revolt broke out; Molnár was voted down 8 to 1. In the end a compromise was reached. Anett Bősz, one of the better-known members of the liberal party, was chosen instead of Fodor to represent the liberals. Perhaps Ferenc Gyurcsány’s experience with Fodor in 2014 made the MSZP leadership leery of trusting Fodor. On Gyurcsány’s insistence, Fodor got a top-notch place on the joint list, but after he was elected he refused to join the DK group, which needed only one more person to form an official parliamentary delegation. In any case, it is possible that Fodor’s long political career is over.

All this wrangling has done considerable damage not just to MSZP but also to the other left-of-center parties. Voters cannot understand their inability to set aside personal ambitions and coalesce into a united front. But it is easy to give advice from the outside. The creation of a party list is a difficult, emotional  undertaking. The mayor of Gyöngyös was practically in tears when he announced his resignation from the party. And Gergely Bárándy, who in the last 12 years was the party’s legal expert, announced his retirement from politics. The reason is most likely his slim chance of continuing his work as a member of parliament.

In addition, although I often point out that the left-of-center parties have a great deal in common and that they agree on the fundamentals of liberal democracy, there are still many issues that divide them. One such issue is their attitude toward the recent past. Együtt, LMP, Momentum, and to a certain extent even Párbeszéd look upon the socialist-liberal era before 2010 as political baggage that must be discarded. Something went wrong as early as 1990 and everything must begin anew. Obviously, MSZP and DK feel differently about the democratic accomplishments of those years.

The parties’ views on liberalism also differ sharply. Members of the socialist party are convinced that the reason for their loss of support was the party’s move toward liberalism under the chairmanship of Ferenc Gyurcsány. In fact, the chairman of Demokratikus Koalíció still maintains that it is his party that most clearly represents liberal values; it is the most market-friendly party and the most sensitive among the democratic parties when it comes to human rights.

There is also the question of voting rights for Hungarians living beyond the borders, which sets DK apart from the rest of the left-of-center parties.

Gergely Karácsony believes in a guaranteed minimum income (GMI), which sends people like Lajos Bokros, a man holding hard-and-fast views on the traditional market economy, into fits of apoplexy. But the left wing of MSZP must welcome Karácsony’s ideas on what he calls “szociális demokrácia” as something different from szociáldemokrácia, which is a political movement. My understanding is that Karácsony is talking about a democracy that first and foremost concerns itself with the betterment of its citizens’ standard of living. Other political leaders believe that the restoration of the rule of law is the first order of business, which will then lead in an organic way to a more prosperous life.

Karácsony is promising help for those who suffered at the hands of financial capitalism, both honest and corrupt. Just today, he said he would take care of those people who took out Forex loans and ended up with incredible financial burdens for decades to come. He would also compensate those who suffered losses as a result of the Quaestor scandal of 2015. Other parties, for example DK, are worried about financial promises that either cannot be kept or, if kept, would be economically disastrous for the country.

Let me close by pointing out a few positive developments. In two instances MSZP members gave up their electoral districts to non-politicians who might stand a better chance of winning. One of the most promising examples is economist Tamás Mellár’s electoral district in Pécs. In 2014 Fidesz won the district narrowly and with the help of LMP, which had its own candidate. Since then, the local Fidesz government has driven the city to the brink of financial ruin, so voters seem to be eager for a change. The other district is around Siófok, where the “star lawyer” György Magyar decided to run with MSZP support.

These are good signs, but LMP’s reluctance to cut a deal with MSZP-Párbeszéd and DK is still a serious impediment to the opposition’s chances against the government party.

February 11, 2018

Chinks in Fidesz’s political armor

There is great excitement in opposition circles because today HVG published Medián’s latest opinion poll on the current standing of Hungarian political parties. Medián, which has the reputation of being the most reliable polling company, came out with results that seem to indicate that the solid, abnormally high public support for Fidesz-KDNP has suffered a considerable setback.

Medián’s previous polling results were published on December 13 with a rather depressing title: “The voting blocks are frozen and the opposition is increasingly disliked.” Fidesz at that point had the support of 60% of respondents who were definitely planning to vote. The only bright spot in the poll was that 56% of eligible voters were planning to cast their votes as opposed to the earlier Medián poll, published on November 1, which measured only 52%. The electorate was evenly split between those who wanted the Orbán government to stay and those who wanted a change of administration.

This was the situation in the first week of December, but by January 19, when Medián began its latest poll, “party preferences conspicuously changed.” Jobbik as well as the so-called democratic opposition parties moved up while Fidesz lost. This decline is especially striking among those who were determined to vote for Fidesz at the beginning of December. The earlier Medián poll recorded that 60% of active voters would have voted for Fidesz, but in the last few weeks this number shrank to 53%. That is a significant change.

There is, as the article written by Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos points out in today’s HVG, “a degree of uncertainty that has set in among Fidesz voters.” At the beginning of December, 75% of them said that they would definitely vote on April 8; today only 70% of them are sure. As for party support, I will include here the most important group’s results: those who have a preferred party and who will most likely vote. Here are the numbers: Fidesz 53%, Jobbik 18%, MSZP 11%, DK 9%, and LMP 6%. The rest: Együtt, Momentum, Two-Tailed Dog, Workers’ Party are all at 1%. (Red = electorate as a whole; green = active voters; yellow = can pick a party; teal = have a party and will vote.)

Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos believe that “the MSZP-Párbeszéd common list, standing at only 8% among the electorate as a whole, has the largest potential because 14% of those asked are considering voting for the party.” They attribute MSZP’s growing popularity to the party’s decision to ask Gergely Karácsony, the chairman of Párbeszéd and mayor of Zugló (District XIV), to be its candidate for the premiership. In Medián’s interpretation, Karácsony’s popularity and acceptance by socialists (90%), DK voters (81%), Jobbik supporters (42%), and even Fidesz (24%) is a sign that the MSZP-Párbeszéd ticket will be a strong draw.  But this is a bit misleading since the same Medián poll shows that although Karácsony leads the popularity list among the opposition candidates, his lead is not that substantial. Karácsony got 27%, but he is followed by Bernadett Szél (22%), Gábor Vona (21%), and Gyurcsány, who is not officially a candidate (19%).

There is no question that Gergely Karácsony, a boyish 42-year-old, is an extremely attractive candidate. He is soft-spoken and, unlike many of his compatriots, is ready for reasonable compromises. MSZP’s “face,” Ágnes Kunhalmi, a 35-year-old energetic woman, who accompanies Karácsony on his nationwide campaigning, is an equally sympathetic person. I admired the leadership of MSZP for realizing that there was no viable candidate within their own ranks to lead the troops into the election campaign and for having the courage to embrace someone from the outside.

Gergely Karácsony

I do, however, take issue with Medián’s conclusion that the recent pullback in support for Fidesz is in large measure due to Karácsony’s candidacy. First of all, one can go back as far as October 2017 when Iránytű Intézet spotted Karácsony as the most popular opposition politician. Practically every month and in every poll, he, Bernadett Szél, and Viktor Orbán were in the top three spots. Now that he’s officially MSZP’s candidate for prime minister and is extensively campaigning, he is much better known. With greater visibility (+12%) it’s not surprising that his popularity also went up. As I said, Karácsony is an extremely likable man.

But what really makes me doubtful about the direct connection between Gergely Karácsony’s candidacy and Fidesz’s loss of popularity is that MSZP gained only one percentage point in electoral support between the November and the January polls. It is still languishing at 11% among active voters. If Medián’s interpretation were correct, MSZP should have picked up at least two or three percentage points in additional support. Karácsony’s choice as MSZP’s candidate became finalized on December 12 and he, alongside Kunhalmi, began campaigning right away. Yet, five weeks later, when Medián began its most recent polling, MSZP’s support moved only from 10 to 11% as compared to the November Medián poll. Moreover, the other opposition parties also gained a percentage point or two.

What is dramatic in Medián’s latest poll is the 7% drop among Fidesz’s most active supporters.  So, something must have happened on the Fidesz side rather than among the opposition parties. And this “something,” I suspect, was the news that reached Hungary on January 11 that a day before Assistant Undersecretary Kristóf Altusz had revealed in an interview to The Times of Malta that in 2017 Hungary permitted almost 1,300 refugees to settle temporarily in the country. A few days later it became clear that “the government’s communication had collapsed.” Members of the government kept contradicting themselves. And the opposition parties launched a full-court press, attacking the government that for over two years had campaigned on the promise that no “migrant” will ever set foot on Hungarian soil. After a week, on January 16, the government finally made public the exact number and status of the accepted refugees. Three days later, on January 19, Medián began polling.

I propose that it was Fidesz’s propaganda going astray that caused Fidesz voters to have second thoughts about Viktor Orbán and his party. Most of Fidesz voters had believed the propaganda, and now they felt hoodwinked, cheated, taken for a ride. Not an unexpected reaction. And not surprisingly, the number of those who want the “cheating and lying” government out of office has risen. In November the population was equally divided on the subject. The satisfied group was almost as high (46%) as the dissatisfied one (47%). Now, however, 49% would like the Orbán government to be defeated and only 42% have remained faithful to Fidesz.

Of course, all this might be only a flash in the pan, but after months of discouraging sameness this latest turn of events shows the potential vulnerability of the governing party. If everything is bet on one card and something goes wrong, the result can be fatal. And yet the Fidesz strategy is still centered on the same old anti-migrant, anti-Soros propaganda which, I believe, is responsible for the polling setback Viktor Orbán just suffered.

February 1, 2018

Old-timers offer a helping hand to the democratic opposition

About a year ago György Bolgár invited me for a telephone interview on his Klub Rádió program. At that time he was running a series called “What is to be done?” People were supposed to offer ideas on how the opposition parties could defeat the Orbán government. I put together a short list of items I considered essential for any success at the ballot box in April 2018. I especially emphasized the need for consolidation of the democratic forces or, more bluntly put, an end to the present situation where almost a dozen dwarf parties with very similar programs are trying to defeat a strong and unified Fidesz. I admitted that there are some talented and attractive politicians in these tiny parties but said that in the end they will have to be satisfied with less than leading positions in the opposition since it is only the two larger left-of-center parties, MSZP and DK, that have a chance of getting enough support to make a difference. Although almost a year later a caller said that my position was the only one among the hundreds offered that appealed to her, the immediate reaction was less kind. A young man condemned my ideas in the name of democracy. As far as he was concerned, all tiny parties had the right to compete, and anyone who suggested otherwise didn’t know a thing about democracy.

Today, unfortunately very late in the game, the leaders of these mini-parties are reluctantly realizing that their chances at the polls are nonexistent and that the likelihood of their financial ruin after their very poor showing is almost certain. In addition, the votes cast for them, due to the quirky electoral law, will not only be lost to the opposition but in fact will be added to the votes for the winner. Since these parties are risking their very existence by remaining in the race as independent forces, I assume that soon enough we will see negotiations between them and the three larger parties on the left–MSZP, DK, and LMP, parties that will likely be represented in parliament after the election. It is also questionable how long LMP, with its 7-8% support, can continue to insist that it will on its own beat Viktor Orbán and form a government without making itself ridiculous. Momentum’s situation is truly dire, with its 1-2% support. Just today Momentum lost two more prominent young politicians.

In this fluid situation one can only welcome the group of 11 seasoned members of previous administrations who felt it their duty to help the parties find common ground. They established a movement called “Válasszunk! 2018” (V18), meaning “Let’s Vote.” The aim of the group is twofold. On the one hand, they want to fight the general apathy in the country, the feeling that everything is lost and that Fidesz will win no matter what, and on the other, they plan to offer their expertise to the parties in blending their programs into a coherent whole.

Among the members of the group are several people who served in the Antall and even the first Orbán governments, so it is a politically mixed lot. As Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government and organizer of the group, said, under different circumstances some of these politicians would be arguing in parliament on opposite sides of the aisle. But the situation today has changed. The goal is to defeat a party and a government that is increasingly moving to the extreme right and that has introduced a virtual one-party system. The longer Viktor Orbán stays in power, the harder it is going to be to dislodge him and his regime. In fact, a lot of people claim that winning against Fidesz in a democratic election is already an impossibility. This assertion, strictly speaking, is not correct. If enough people go to the polls and the opposition is capable of offering an attractive program and one single candidate in all 106 electoral districts, the opposition could even receive the majority of the seats, mostly because of the unfair electoral system that favors the majority.

From left to right: Attila Holoda, György Raskó, Péter Balázs, Péter Németh (journalist), and Kinga Göncz at the press conference

The other task, lending a helping hand to the parties in blending their messages into a coherent whole, is much more difficult. Not surprisingly, there is considerable confusion about what the V18 group has in mind. Unfortunately, Péter Balázs doesn’t help the situation by often referring to the group as a kind of “shadow government.” The question is: whose shadow government would it be? At the moment there are two declared prime minister hopefuls on the left, Bernadett Szél (LMP) and Gergely Karácsony (MSZP), while Ferenc Gyurcsány as “the leader of the DK party list” would, in the unlikely event of a DK victory, become prime minister of the country. Or, looking at another possible scenario, Gyurcsány, alongside Szél, Karácsony, and Gábor Vona (Jobbik), would be vying for the top position in a coalition government. Do the three left-of-center parties, with or without Jobbik, want to have a common shadow government? Most likely not, although public sentiment is very much in favor of what the man on the street calls “a government of experts,” the mistaken view that so-called experts would govern better than politicians.

The skeleton program the group offers at the moment is modest and moderate enough that all democratic parties could easily adhere to it. Of course, all parties would like to stop the gaping political divide between left and right, and everybody would like to give opportunities to the poor and the middle class to fulfill their dreams. Who doesn’t want to improve Hungarian healthcare services and education? And yes, all parties and an overwhelming majority of people want to have better relations with the other members of the European Union and would like to belong to the group of the most advanced member countries. Because of these generalized demands, several commentators have already criticized the group.  András Jámbor of Mérce and Szabolcs Dull of Index, for example, found the group’s proposals confusing and most likely ineffectual.

Obviously, the pro-government media as well as their commentators don’t think much either of the people involved or the aims of the group. Tamás Lánczi, a political scientist with Századvég and editor-in-chief of Mária Schmidt’s Felügyelő, called V18 “because of its participants junk car racing” (roncsderbi). Tamás Fricz, who calls himself a political scientist and has a column in Magyar Idők, described the members of the group as “frustrated people” who haven’t achieved the positions they think should be theirs.

Hungarian commentators are too quick to pass judgment on others, and I think we ought to hold our horses for a little while. I find the very fact that such a politically mixed group came together encouraging. I am almost certain that more prominent right-of-center people will gather their courage to join the group. After all, there are several people not yet on the list who are quite vocal in their condemnation of Orbán’s political system. Trying to stop what currently seems like an inexorable drift to an alt-right type of political system in Hungary is certainly a worthwhile undertaking.

January 4, 2018

What will come of Orbán’s opposition?

Yesterday HVG  published a two-page summary of Medián’s polling results over the 2017 calendar year. Ever since April Fidesz has been gaining in popularity among the electorate as a whole. Jobbik, although losing some of its support, has maintained its position as the largest opposition party. Opposition parties on the left, taken together, have garnered, depending on the date of the poll, between 19% and 25% support. Medián has a category of voters it calls “active undecided.” These are people who claim they would definitely vote but are still undecided about their party of choice. This is a group of a little over a million voters. And about half of the electorate, despite the seemingly overwhelming support for Fidesz, would like to see a change of government.

One of the striking findings of the survey is that with every passing month the number of people who would under no circumstances vote for MSZP or DK has grown. By November 59% of respondents said they wouldn’t vote for MSZP; 60% wouldn’t vote for DK. The reason for this development is twofold. First is the growing doubt about the chances of the left-of-center opposition at the polls. And second, the protracted negotiations between MSZP and DK gave the impression of incompetence, lack of political finesse, and the will to win. Whether this view will change after the conclusion of the first phase of the negotiations only time will tell, but I wouldn’t be overly optimistic, again for at least two reasons.

The first reason for my doubt is the relatively weak popular support for the kind of arrangement that MSZP and DK came up with. Only 21% of those who want a change of government would like to see one common left-of-center candidate against the candidates of Fidesz and Jobbik. A much larger percentage (45%) of respondents support across-the-board cooperation among the opposition parties, including Jobbik. That arrangement would pit one joint opposition candidate against one Fidesz candidate. In brief, almost half of the anti-Orbán forces are convinced that without Jobbik the left opposition cannot win.

The second reason for my belief that the campaign on the left-of-center side will not be particularly successful is the inability of its political leaders to set aside their bickering. I had hoped that public arguments about the best arrangement would come to an end once an agreement was reached on the individual districts. But I was mistaken. Last night Gyula Molnár and Ferenc Gyurcsány spent close to half an hour discussing the pros and cons of the arrangement on ATV’s “Egyenes beszéd.” For good measure, they also engaged in, at the urging of the anchor, a lengthy discussion about their differences of opinion regarding Gergely Karácsony as a suitable candidate for the post of prime minister. This conversation, as far as I was concerned, didn’t help the situation of either MSZP or DK. Gyurcsány’s disparaging remarks about Karácsony were unfortunate. He didn’t have to give a lecture on the unimportance of popularity as a political category or make snide remarks about MSZP not being able to come up with a candidate of its own. It was equally unnecessary for Gyurcsány to talk about the unlikely situation in which the left-of-center parties win the election and then have to decide on the best person for prime minister (when he didn’t rule himself out as being the best choice), as he did in an interview with Olga Kálmán on Hír TV. None of this is helpful in strengthening the electorate’s trust in the opposition.

It is also difficult to understand why László Botka felt compelled to give an interview right after his party and DK had just signed an agreement. I wasn’t convinced by Botka’s reasoning that he “owes the people of Szeged an account of his candidacy at the end of the year.” Botka looks upon himself as an innocent victim who was attacked by both Fidesz and his own party. He still believes that he “suggested total cooperation” and did everything in his power to achieve it. As we know, this was not the case. He spent nine months negotiating with no one and on principle excluding the leader of the second largest party from that “total cooperation.” In addition, he was largely responsible for his party’s rapid loss of popularity during the summer and fall of 2017. But instead of admitting his contribution to MSZP’s troubles, he now publicly accuses the current party leaders of not striving for victory. Botka now claims that he resigned because he couldn’t withstand the  “incredible pressure” coming from Fidesz “for which left-wing politicians often offered the munition.” It is unlikely that this mixture of public crying over spilt milk and accusations will inspire the anti-Orbán forces to stand behind the left-of-center parties.

By now it has been determined, whether DK likes it or not, that Gergely Karácsony will be MSZP’s candidate for prime minister, which I consider to be a fine choice. At the moment there are four declared candidates: Viktor Orbán, Bernadett Szél, Gergely Karácsony, and Gábor Vona. Medián asked voters to choose among these candidates. Although there remains a large undecided group (35-39% of the electorate), among those who have an opinion Viktor Orbán would win hands down with 45-46% against Szél’s 19%, Karácsony’s 18%, and Vona’s 16%.

Slogan says: Determination / Announcement for a meeting in Miskolc

Karácsony is a low-keyed man who, although he inherited a Fidesz-majority council, has been successfully running a Budapest district of about 130,000 inhabitants. He is young and good-looking. MSZP decided to send him and Ágnes Kunhalmi on a nationwide campaign. As Gyula Molnár said, the most popular politician with the most popular MSZP politician should be a winning combination.

December 22, 2017

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