Tag Archives: Gyula Molnár

László Botka has taken things into his own hands in MSZP

Yesterday I ended my post saying that, because only a few hours had passed since MSZP submitted its own proposal for a new bill that would regulate political advertising, I was unable to gauge the reaction of the other smaller parties on the left. I suspected that their reception of MSZP’s very questionable political move was not going to be favorably viewed. A couple of hours later, I had the chance to listen to a television interview with Csaba Molnár, one of the deputy chairmen of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), who promised that the party leadership would take a good look at MSZP’s proposal but hinted that one has to be very careful when negotiating with Fidesz. The government party’s surprising readiness to negotiate was suspicious.

By this morning it became clear that no opposition party was ready to discuss the MSZP proposal. If the socialists go ahead with it, it will be a private deal between Fidesz and MSZP. But no opposition party can afford the stigma of making a deal with the devil. Only “political illiterates” could come up with such an idea unless, as many people suspect, certain members of the MSZP leadership are ready to cozy up to Fidesz for one nefarious reason or another. In this particular case, I think “political illiterates” were at work.

MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, László Botka, had been left in total darkness about the leadership’s decision to submit a “poster bill” of their own. That such a thing can happen gives you an idea of the chaos and confusion that must exist in the Hungarian socialist party. The most important officeholders in MSZP must have approved the proposal and its submission for consideration because it was Gyula Molnár, party chairman, and Bertalan Tóth, leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation, who announced the move at a joint press conference on Friday. Fidesz-KDNP jumped at the opportunity and secretly indicated they were game. When Jobbik got the wind of the pending deal, János Volner, Jobbik parliamentary leader, made it public.

Bertalan Tóth and Gyula Molnár at a press conference

It was at this point that Botka decided to intervene. He explained that any negotiations and any joint action, like voting with Fidesz, would discredit the party and himself personally since he had stressed on several occasions that any collaboration with Fidesz was out of the question. He apparently argued that if an election advertising bill were to pass, MSZP might be in a better position vis-à-vis Jobbik as far as political advertisement is concerned, i.e., both parties would receive the same rate from the providers of advertising surfaces. But MSZP “would lose its character as an opposition party.” Jobbik would be Fidesz’s primary opponent at the next election.

Today MSZP also created a new body called the “national election committee” (Országos Választási Bizottság/OVB), which will be in charge of the election campaign. According to Index, OVB will consist of five people: László Botka; Gyula Molnár, party chairman; József Tóbiás, campaign manager; György Kerényi, director of communications; and Bálint Ruff, Botka’s political adviser. I suspect that readers of Hungarian Spectrum may not be familiar with the names of György Kerényi and Bálint Ruff. Kerényi is a highly respected journalist who worked for Magyar Narancs, Tilos Rádió, and Roma Sajtóközpont and was one of the founders of vs.hu. He was known for his independence, and therefore his colleagues were greatly surprised that he accepted a party position. His decision was based on his conviction that MSZP is the only party that has a chance to unseat Viktor Orbán, who in his opinion must go. And he must personally do everything he can to make that happen. As for Bálint Ruff, he is a young man, a law school graduate, who is a managing partner of Invisible Hand Coaching and Consulting.

Most likely not independently from the blunder committed by the party leadership behind Botka’s back, the composition of OVB changed significantly in the last two days. Index reported on June 18 that Botka had named József Tóbiás’s campaign manager, who in turn named Zsolt Molnár, campaign manager in 2014, Ferenc Baja, a really old socialist politician who served in high positions both in the party and in the socialist-liberal governments between 1994 and 2010, and Bertalan Tóth, the most important man in the party’s parliamentary group, to the body. These three people have since disappeared from OVB, and I suspect that Gyula Molnár remained only because he is, after all, chairman of the party. Keep in mind that it was Molnár and Tóth who came forth with the announcement of an independent MSZP proposal for the “poster law.” In fact, we have evidence that Tóth’s removal is connected to this political miscalculation. István Nyakó, MSZP’s spokesman, said at today’s press conference that Bertalan Tóth represented the interests of the party to the best of his knowledge in negotiating with the other parties concerning the “poster law,” but with the appearance of Botka a “new political calendar” has begun. I wonder how long Tóth will remain the leader of the Fidesz caucus in parliament. As for Zsolt Molnár, he is a controversial character who has been the subject of long-standing criticism for his cozy relations with Fidesz politicians. As for Baja, perhaps Botka objected to his very high positions in the party for almost twenty years when Botka didn’t want to have anyone associated with the campaign who had had “substantial responsibility” for the political situation in which Fidesz could win a two-thirds majority in 2010. I might add that I for one don’t share Botka’s assessment of the guilt of the socialist-liberal governments for the overwhelming victory of Fidesz in 2010, but Ferenc Baja was never one of my favorites.

In addition, Botka tightened the reins on communication and finance. Without the knowledge of Kerényi, no MSZP politician can issue any statement or express any opinion different from the official one. I must say that this decision has been long overdue. MSZP is a notoriously undisciplined party where party leaders regularly contradict one another and voice their personal opinions about accepted party policies in public. István Nyakó, MSZP’s spokesman, also said that anyone who in any way collaborates with Fidesz will be expelled from the party.

Indeed, MSZP is shaping up to be a different party. Perhaps in the long run this botched-up political move will have a beneficial effect on MSZP. This incident might have prompted Botka to take a more active role in the everyday running of party affairs which, if he makes good decisions, might improve the party’s acceptance by the public. At the same time, if those socialist politicians who are the most visible public representatives of MSZP are not better able to convey the party’s messages and if the party leadership is unable to mobilize its supporters, no amount of firmness, tenacity, and determination on the part of László Botka can revive the Hungarian socialist party.

June 20, 2017

László Botka is MSZP’s candidate to face Viktor Orbán in 2018

On May 27 the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP) held its congress, at which an overwhelming majority of the usually fractious delegates stood by László Botka, mayor of Szeged, who about six months ago offered himself as his party’s candidate for prime minister of Hungary. At the time of his announcement I was enthusiastic, mostly because I didn’t see anyone else in MSZP who would have the slightest chance of running successfully against Viktor Orbán. Botka is a self-confident and forceful fellow who kept Szeged a socialist stronghold even when practically the whole country turned orange after the 2006 municipal elections. So, I said to myself, the fellow must know something. I also thought that his years as the leader of Hungary’s second largest city would have given him ample administrative experience, which would serve him well.

Over time, however, I started having doubts about the wisdom of this choice. It is one thing to be self-confident and forceful and another to be abrasive and aggressive. MSZP’s ineffectual and untalented leadership was so excited at receiving an offer from Botka, who had earlier steadfastly refused any role in national politics, that they immediately broke off negotiations with the other democratic opposition parties and assured Botka of their support. In turn, Botka promised an election and party program and a nationwide campaign, during which he was supposed to introduce himself to MSZP supporters and those undecided voters who could perhaps be convinced that he is a worthy challenger of Viktor Orbán.

Initially, Botka indicated that he would visit the other democratic opposition parties, but mighty little came of it. He did talk with the leadership of LMP, a party that had stressed over and over that they would never cooperate in any meaningful way with anyone else. I was somewhat puzzled by Botka’s decision and expected a flat no from LMP. I was right, it was a flat no. As far as the smaller parties were concerned, Botka simply ignored them. They then, one by one, announced that in that case they will be forced to enter the race as individual entities. That was bad enough, but demanding that the Demokratikus Koalíció’s supporters dump their party leader, Ferenc Gyurcsány, meant that for all practical purposes the Botka-led MSZP had decided to embark on the hard road to political victory alone.

That route would be defensible only if Botka’s appearance on the scene could make an appreciable difference in the anemic popularity of MSZP. But after six months of alleged Botka campaigning, MSZP is still hovering around the same 10-13% popularity against Fidesz’s 27%. The same as it was in January. Therefore, it is hard to fathom the enthusiasm that István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, exhibited this morning on ATV about his party’s prospects. He added that Botka was the best choice and that he is supported by the politicians in Brussels as a worthy opponent of Orbán. I for one would like to see some tangible results by now. I know, we are being told that “there is still time,” but I’m afraid that, given the sad state of the opposition, eight or nine months will be far too narrow a window in which to build a robust MSZP or achieve some kind of understanding among the democratic forces.

Botka’s acceptance speech was broadcast on ATV, and had detractors from both sides. From the right Otto Gajdics compared him to a Stakhanovite construction worker who is the puppet of George Soros. Botka’s speech reminded Origo’s nameless journalist of speeches at party congresses of the Kádár era, and he quoted some sample sentences which he considered to be carbon copies of old MSZMP slogans: “We are building a new world,” “We live in dark times,” “We’ve had enough of slavery,” and “Let the rich pay,” a slogan much criticized on the left as well.

Not only Fidesz critics found the speech wanting. László Bartus, editor-in-chief of Amerikai Magyar Népszava, was appalled by Botka’s misunderstanding of “the essence of the regime.” In his speech the candidate divided the voters into the satisfied and the dissatisfied. As he put it, “2018 will be decided between the satisfied and the dissatisfied voters. The satisfied ones will vote for Orbán, the dissatisfied for Botka. The choice is simple: Orbán or Botka.” Bartus finds this primitive Marxist worldview not to his liking. What about human rights, freedom, law, culture, intellectual values, human relationships, and principles? His conclusion is that MSZP in 27 years has been unable to shed its origins.

Tamás Bauer, formerly an SZDSZ member of parliament, was also unhappy with Botka’s speech and the ideas behind it. Bauer especially disliked the “Rich should pay” slogan, although I don’t believe that Botka wants to take rich folks’ money and give it to the poor, Robin Hood style, but only wants to send a message that the era of the flat tax is over and better off people will have to pay higher taxes. What really bothered Bauer was something that Gyula Molnár, the MSZP chairman, said in his speech: “Those who are not with us are with them,” meaning Fidesz. Doesn’t Molnár know the origin of this sentence, Bauer asks? It was Mátyás Rákosi who said “those who are not with us are against us.” It was this terrible concept that János Kádár changed to “those who are not against us are with us.” Clearly, Bauer worries about the electoral cooperation of democratic forces. The socialists “don’t seem to care about their allies, whom they humiliate.” Bauer, who is a DK member, obviously has Ferenc Gyurcsány and the leaders of other democratic parties in mind. As a professor of economics, Bauer is also worried about all the promises Botka made. Where will the money come from to pay for them?

Botka promised to introduce a subsistence minimum, to raise the salaries of civil servants, to cut the taxes of low income people, to raise the minimum wage and exempt it from taxation, to strengthen the rights of employees, to spend money on hospitals and schools instead of on stadiums, to launch a comprehensive rental housing program, to double the pension minimum, and to restore the thirteenth-month pensions. This promise tsunami strikes me as irresponsible. We know only too well that one of the problems with the economic policies of past governments stemmed from offering financial incentives to the electorate in exchange for votes. Time and again, it became obvious that government expenditures were too high and the national debt was increasing. Quickly enough, austerity programs had to be introduced. Perhaps one of the worst decisions was the Gyurcsány government’s introduction of the extra-month pension, which had to be taken away in early 2009 after the financial crisis hit Hungary. So, for anyone with a half decent memory, the promise of a thirteenth-month pension has a bad ring to it. I think that if MSZP wanted to raise pensions, it should have done so in some other way.

Today, Ferenc Gyurcsány congratulated Botka and suggested a meeting, which I doubt will take place anytime soon. The message via István Ujhelyi on ATV was that Botka will be very busy and will not have time for such a meeting.

May 29, 2017

Politics and the Hungarian socialists–Not a winning combination

The ineptness of MSZP politicians never ceases to amaze me, but their latest stunt really deserves a booby prize. While their new hope, László Botka, lectures on taking away from the rich and giving to the poor, high-ranking MSZP politicians endorsed a proposal to give away the state-owned Grassalkovich Mansion in Hatvan to the Széchenyi Zsigmond Kárpát-medencei Magyar Vadászati Múzeum (Zsigmond Széchenyi Hungarian Hunting Museum of the Carpathian Basin).

Hunting has become a favorite pastime of Fidesz politicians, who show a great affinity for the lifestyle of the traditional Hungarian landowning class, which included a love of hunting. Even during the Kádár regime high-ranking party functionaries indulged in this aristocratic pursuit. Zsolt Semjén (KDNP), deputy prime minister, and János Lázár, chief of the prime minister’s office, are the best known avid hunters.

First, a few words about the mansion that stands on the main square of Hatvan and that is named for Count Antal Grassalkovich (1694-1771), a wealthy man who owned vast tracks of land around Gödöllő, Hatvan, and Bag. In 1867 the mansion was purchased by the Deutsch-Hatvany family. After the German occupation of Hungary, the Gestapo settled there. It was also used as a military hospital. By 1979 the building was declared to be uninhabitable. After a lengthy reconstruction effort, the mansion’s restoration was more or less finished with the help of 3.15 billion forints provided by the European Union and the Hungarian government. In 2012 the decision was made to house the Hunting Museum, named after Zsigmond Széchenyi (1898-1967), a well-known explorer and writer, in the state-owned mansion.

A nice gift for the Hunting Association

On March 14 eight members of parliament, three from Fidesz-KDNP and five from MSZP, proposed an amendment to a law passed in 2011 that regulates the ways and means of giving away state-owned properties to private persons or private organizations. The three Fidesz-KDNP signatories were Zsolt Semjén, János Lázár, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the prime minister’s office. As for five MSZP members, they included well-known, important names: István Hiller, Gergely Bárándy, Dezső Hiszékeny, István Józsa, and Árpád Velez. According to the document, these eight men proposed giving the newly reconstructed Grassalkovich Mansion to the National Hungarian Hunting Association (Országos Magyar Vadászkamara/OMVK). The justification for the move was that this transfer of ownership will offer an opportunity for the museum to function “on a professional basis.” Because, the government politicians argued, at the moment the museum attracts very few visitors. Instead of the expected 100,000 a year, barely 30,000 visitors were registered in the last few years. That shortfall happened because the current management is not doing a professional enough job. Once the Hunting Association owns the mansion outright, however, it will have a more effective way of supervising the museum.

I must say that I do not see the connection between ownership of the building and management of the museum. Anyone with half a brain should have noticed that there is something wrong here. One of the Hungarian papers claimed that “the socialists were misled.” Well, it doesn’t seem to be very difficult to mislead these political geniuses.

There was another reason the MSZP politicians should have been suspicious. The privatization of public property needs a two-thirds majority in parliament. As we know, Fidesz doesn’t have that majority anymore. Most likely, they knew that Jobbik would never agree to cooperate with them on an issue like this. So, they turned to the patsies of MSZP instead. And it very nearly worked.

The reaction from the other parties on the left was swift. As usual, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció was the first to respond. Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for DK, said: “We always knew that Fidesz politicians steal,” but it is unacceptable for MSZP politicians to assist in this enterprise. According to Gréczy, MSZP must offer some kind of reasonable explanation for lending a helping hand to Fidesz in its quest to steal the country blind. MSZP’s leadership was unmoved. They answered that this is not about hunting but about a museum that serves the public good. Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt was the next to issue a statement. He went so far as to call this cooperation between Fidesz and MSZP “a grand coalition.” Shame, shame, he added.

A day later, on March 17, MSZP published a terse announcement: “MSZP wants to avoid even the appearance of working together with Fidesz in the privatization of state property, and therefore it withdraws its support for the privatization of the property destined for OMVK.” Before this announcement was made, however, Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, had stood by the party’s decision and repeated that cooperation with Fidesz for the sake of the museum was correct and justified. Gergely Bárándy, son of former Minister of Justice Péter Bárándy, accused the DK spokesman of “creating a scandal.” If he hadn’t opened his mouth, the public would have heard nothing about “this noble cause from the point of view of Hungarian culture.”

Who was responsible for this politically suicidal act? I’m afraid all the bigwigs of MSZP. I don’t have any knowledge of the interplay between the parliamentary caucus and the leadership of the party, but I would like to believe that the chairman of the party, Gyula Molnár, was informed that cooperation with Fidesz on the issue had been sanctioned by the parliamentary delegation. The leader (or whip) of the MSZP delegation is Bertalan Tóth. He is new at his job, but until now he struck me as an intelligent fellow. Perhaps he didn’t feel secure enough to go against people like Hiller, Bárándy, and Józsa. We know that the Fidesz politicians came to MSZP with the suggestion, which then was discussed at length. At the end, they decided to support the joint proposal. And now, here is this embarrassing retreat which was apparently initiated by László Botka, who must have hit the ceiling upon finding out about it. I don’t blame him. According to Népszava, Botka “specifically requested” the party’s immediate withdrawal from the joint project.

After this fiasco the party leadership is threatening MSZP members of parliament with immediate removal from the caucus if they dare vote for the bill. This indicates to me that some of the original signatories are giving the party leadership a hard time about prohibiting any further cooperation. MSZP, as usual, failed miserably as an effective opposition to the politically savvy Fidesz party machinery.

March 19, 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

Gábor Vona and Viktor Orbán: Who will win this political game?

At the end of yesterday’s post I indicated that Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, had just announced his party’s refusal to support the government party’s quest for another round of amendments to the constitution that would introduce a number of changes related to the settlement of foreigners in Hungary. Earlier I wrote an analysis of the notion of constitutional identity, which is the linchpin of the otherwise meaningless constitutional amendments, and published an English translation of the amendments themselves.

The government considers these amendments vital to Viktor Orbán’s impending battle with Brussels over a possibly mandatory distribution of refugees. But changing the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, which Fidesz-KDNP currently doesn’t have. The government party had been counting on the support of Jobbik, the only opposition party that was wholeheartedly behind the amendments. In fact, it was Jobbik that, from the beginning, championed for constitutional amendments instead of a referendum. Fidesz, however, rejected the proposal and embarked on an expensive, divisive referendum that in the end turned out to be invalid.

What followed was a typical Viktor Orbán move: regardless of the failure of his referendum he decided to go ahead with the amendments to the constitution. But there was a rub. Jobbik demanded a price for its members’ votes, which Gábor Vona set forth early in the game.

For starters, Vona said that he wanted to meet with the prime minister in private. In the last six years, however, it has never happened that the ruler of Hungary sat down alone with an opposition leader. Granting such a privilege to Vona was too demeaning, so Orbán organized a series of “consultations,” starting with Zsolt Semjén of the Christian Democratic Party and his own deputy, which everybody thought was a joke. Then he sent a message to Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, who foolishly accepted the invitation, which he kept secret from the rest of the leading politicians of his party. Once the meeting became known, Molnár tried to explain himself away by saying that the consultation was not about the amendments but about the summit that is taking place at this very moment in Brussels. Since when does Viktor Orbán have consultations with opposition party chiefs about summits?

The long-awaited meeting between Vona and Orbán took place on October 18. In the days leading up to the meeting, Jobbik spokesmen repeatedly indicated that the party would support Orbán and that the Jobbik delegation would cast its votes with Fidesz-KDNP, guaranteeing an easy passage of the amendments. After all, this is what they wanted all along. Yes, but Jobbik was in a perfect position to demand something in exchange for its support of the government party. Vona’s demand was that the government cease selling residency bonds to wealthy Chinese, Russian, and Arab businessmen.

The residency bond sale, which I described as a “colossal swindle,” is the brainchild of Árpád Habony and Antal Rogán. Habony is safely deposited in London. Rogán, on the other hand, has been under incredible pressure, mostly because of Népszabadság’s revelations about his most likely ill-gotten wealth. The residency bond scheme has been severely criticized not only by the opposition but by some higher-up Fidesz leaders as well. In fact, in the last few weeks there were indications that the scheme would be modified. But I very much doubt that Orbán had the total cessation of the program in mind. And this is what Vona demands. If poor immigrants can’t settle in Hungary, rich ones shouldn’t be able to either.

The outcry against the Jobbik demand was not restricted to the government party. Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, also condemned it in almost identical words. Bence Tuzson, one of the many spokesmen of the prime minister’s office, called it “kufárkodás” (profiteering) while Molnár considered it “seftelés” (conducting business in a dishonorable way). The two words are practically synonymous. For good measure Molnár added that Vona’s behavior is “political prostitution” pure and simple.

I am amazed at these reactions. In the world of politics this kind of give and take is perfectly normal. If Viktor Orbán needs the help of Gábor Vona’s party, it is natural that Jobbik will want something in return. After the meeting, Vona talked to the press and announced that Viktor Orbán had rejected his proposal, but a few minutes later Orbán sent a message via Tuzson saying that “he will consider the request of Vona.”

The Hungarian media started speculating about whether Orbán would meet Vona’s demands. Szabolcs Dull of Index simply could not imagine that it will be Viktor Orbán who has to knuckle under. After all, Orbán has convinced the Hungarian public that he is always the one who comes out on top. He is always the winner. In fact, Dull suggested, Orbán wants to get rid of the troublesome residency bonds anyway, and therefore he will readily concede to Vona’s demands. In fact, “he will kill two birds with one stone: he will be able to restructure the residency bond scheme and will receive Jobbik’s endorsement.”

Dull’s theory collapsed less than ten hours later when the government indicated that it has no intention of scrapping the residency bond program. Yesterday, around noon, Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz caucus, announced that in their opinion the two issues, the bonds and the settlement of foreigners, have nothing to do with one another and suggested that Fidesz isn’t counting on the votes of Jobbik. They hope to get the necessary two votes from the “independent” members of parliament. Who these “independent” members would be is not entirely clear, but some Fidesz politicians indicated that they think a few “patriotic” Jobbik members could be found who would turn against Vona. By this afternoon most Hungarian journalists were convinced that Fidesz will put the amendments to a vote on November 8 even if they are not assured of Jobbik’s support.

Antal Rogán, carrying Viktor Orbán's briefcase in Maastricht, October 20, 2016

Antal Rogán, carrying Viktor Orbán’s briefcase in Maastricht today

In trying to win concessions from Orbán, did Vona sow the seeds of his own destruction? Today Magyar Nemzet speculated about why a Fidesz defeat would actually be good for Fidesz and bad for Jobbik. If the amendments are not passed and if Brussels insists on compulsory quotas, Fidesz can blame Jobbik.

Tamás Fábián of Index found this hypothesis compelling, adding that from information he received from people close to Orbán, “Brussels cannot be stopped and within months the compulsory quotas will be forthcoming.” If that is the case, “Jobbik politicians will never be able to get rid of the label of being traitors,” which Lajos Kósa already pinned on them. Fábián is convinced that Vona made a fatal mistake by presenting Orbán with an ultimatum. “He started on a narrow path and will suffer heavy blows along the way.”

Fábián also predicted that the sale of residency bonds will be continued, even if with some adjustments. Although in the last few days Fidesz spokesmen did talk about fundamental changes, two weeks ago Orbán called the program “a successful construction.”

I might add that despite all the dirt that was unearthed about Antal Rogán, he seems to have nothing to fear. Orbán will not let him go. I was astonished to see Rogán in Brussels, walking right behind Orbán. Since when do propaganda ministers go to summits in Brussels? I guess the government is sending a message that he is still under the protection of the prime minister.

October 20, 2016

What’s the remedy? Boycott of parliament and/or elections?

Over the weekend Ferenc Gyurcsány called together the elected leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció to discuss the party’s strategy in the wake of the political developments of the last week and a half. Apparently, after a very long and passionate debate, the politicians came to the conclusion that the party’s four members of parliament–Ferenc Gyurcsány, László Varju, Ágnes Vadai, and Lajos Oláh–from here on will boycott parliament. They will not attend the plenary sessions, they will not take part in the work of the committees, and hence they will not vote unless their vote would make a difference as far as Fidesz’s two-thirds majority is concerned. The four realize that they may not receive their salaries and/or may be fined. But, as Gyurcsány said at his press conference, they refuse to be a cog in Orbán’s “System of National Cooperation.” They will not cooperate with a dictatorial power.

The idea of a boycott is not at all new in Ferenc Gyurcsány’s thinking. He was still a member of MSZP in 2011 when he first suggested a partial boycott of the plenary sessions. The occasion was Viktor Orbán’s sudden decision to write a new constitution. MSZP had already decided not to attend the preparatory meetings, but Gyurcsány’s suggestion went further: MSZP should boycott parliament altogether when the new constitution was on the table. At that time no party was ready to heed Gyurcsány’s advice.

In February 2016, after skinheads prevented István Nyakó from turning in his referendum question at the National Election Office, Gyurcsány came up with the idea again. He suggested a boycott of parliament as long as the government party refuses to change the rules on holding referendums. The opposition parties didn’t support the idea. LMP’s András Schiffer went even further in his condemnation of the idea when he declared that “people must decide whether they will support the rule of law or follow Ferenc Gyurcsány.”

An intelligent critique of Gyurcsány’s suggestion came from Sándor Révész, Népszabadság’s op-ed page editor, who felt that between 2010 and 2016 Orbán had done everything in his power to destroy all vestiges of Hungary’s weak fabric of democracy and therefore a boycott was justified. But, he continued, staging a boycott because of one particular undemocratic step of the government is “not a very good idea.” He rightly pointed out that Orbán, “together with his Fidesz accomplices,” would come up with some clever way to “remedy” the objectionable piece of legislation and everything would go on as before.

The idea of a boycott, this time of the national election, was on the agenda again when Miklós Haraszti, SZDSZ member of parliament (1990-1994) and OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media (2004-2010), was interviewed by 168 Óra in May 2016. According to his argument, one of the sources of Fidesz’s overwhelming power is the electoral law that it created for its own benefit. Fidesz, with a 44.87% share of the popular vote, in 2014 achieved a 66.83% presence in parliament, which allowed the government to do anything it wanted, ignoring the powerless opposition. In order to stop the dictatorship of a supermajority, this lopsided, disproportionate electoral system must be abolished. In Haraszti’s opinion, all opposition parties should join ranks to force Fidesz to adopt an entirely different electoral system where 40% in the polling station means 40% in parliament. The parties should make it clear that if the government party doesn’t play ball, the whole opposition will walk out, refusing to participate in the next election. Such a move would create a “European scandal.”

The reaction to Haraszti’s idea was mixed. Márton Kozák, a sociologist and journalist, wrote a glowing endorsement in Magyar Narancs, praising Haraszti for calling attention to the electoral law as the key to curtailing Fidesz’s power. The opposition parties from here on should concentrate on enlightening their voters about the importance of this issue. And, he continued, the opposition parties must not assist Fidesz in its attempt to make small, unimportant changes in a basically faulty electoral law.

As usual, others violently disagreed. Someone who calls himself Nick Grabowszki found Haraszti’s plan naïve. “What European scandal?” he asked. Western European commentators and politicians already look upon Orbán as a representative of the far right. They compare him to Erdoğan, Putin, and Lukashenko. The European Union expects Hungarians to take care of their own little dictator. Moreover, Orbán is very careful not to cross any red line when it comes to his dealings with the European Union. Brussels will not get involved. Yes, says Grabowszki, the electoral system produces disproportionate results, but it is beneficial not only to Fidesz but to all parties that manage to achieve a certain percentage of the votes. Even if Fidesz were stupid enough to agree to the plan Haraszti has in mind, it would still win the election. It would simply be forced to find a coalition partner. Grabowszki is certain that Jobbik would not join the boycott, and therefore all people critical of the Fidesz government would vote for Jobbik. Grabowski’s conclusion is that “a left-wing boycott would lead to a Jobbik government.”

To return to DK’s current suggestion, the reaction of MSZP to DK’s announcement of a boycott is slightly different from its earlier stance when the party insisted that boycotting parliament would offend its constituency and that being in parliament still gives them a certain measure of influence. This time their argument is that a party which is large enough to have a parliamentary delegation (frakció), with the privileges that come with this status, “cannot boycott because that would mean ceding the role of opposition to Jobbik.” On the other hand, according to Gyula Molnár, DK, which has no such delegation, “made the right decision.”

osszefogas

It would be indeed wonderful if all the opposition parties could together decide on a joint action, as Haraszti’s theoretical model would demand. But here even the two largest democratic parties cannot agree when it comes to the decision to boycott parliament.

Despite this, there is some hope that these parties are coming closer and will be, we hope, acting jointly. For example, Fidesz organized a five-party discussion of the proposed amendments to the constitution. The five parties are the ones with their own delegations: Fidesz, KDNP, Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP. For a while it looked as if LMP would attend, but at the end only Fidesz-KDNP, which is in reality a single party, and Jobbik had a friendly chat. From the media coverage of the event it seems that the two parties are largely in agreement on all points.

Another promising development is that MSZP, DK, Párbeszéd, and Modern Magyarországért Mozgalom (MoMa) will celebrate together in front of the Astoria Hotel on October 23. This will be the first time that, on a national holiday, these parties will hold their rallies together. Együtt is missing from the list. Only recently it announced that it will not cooperate with any other opposition parties. Broad-based democratic cooperation is a painfully slow process, but the events of the last few days, I think, will convince more people that Orbán’s regime must go. As Ferenc Kőszeg, founder of the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, said in an article that appeared in Élet és Irodalom recently, “nothing is more important than the removal of Viktor Orbán from his position.” He added that “against him one can even vote for Gábor Vona.” Of course, this remark raised quite a few eyebrows, but I agree with him. At the moment Orbán is a great deal more dangerous than the leader of Jobbik.

October 11, 2016

Blunder after blunder on the left

When I woke up this morning and took a quick look at the latest news, I found stories about a murder and an abandoned baby. Nothing of import seemed to be happening politically, so I figured I’d have to turn to one of the subjects I put aside for no-news days. But then, about five hours later, I learned of two events that will most likely have serious repercussions for the future of the democratic opposition. One was the forced departure of Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy from the Demokratikus Koalíció; the other, an interview with Gyula Molnár on HírTV regarding MSZP’s policy on “compulsory quotas.”

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s departure from DK

When Kerék-Bárczy joined DK in 2013 it was a real coup for Ferenc Gyurcsány because he came from the moderate right. Although his political career began in Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF), after 1998 he became the chief-of-staff of István Stumpf, who headed the prime minister’s office in the Orbán government. Later he served as an adviser to Foreign Minister János Martonyi, and in 2001 he was named consul-general in Los Angeles. He stayed in this position even after Fidesz lost the election in 2002. Between 2007 and 2010 he served as the spokesman of Ibolya Dávid’s moderate, right-of-center, by now defunct MDF.

kerek-barczy2

For the last three years he has been an enthusiastic supporter of DK. If he had any doubts about the direction in which DK was heading, it was not at all obvious. But then came today when he published an article in 168 Óra titled “Paradigm shift!” in which he described the generally sad state of the opposition and offered his solutions. Support for the left, he wrote, hasn’t changed substantially in the last six years and, to win the next election, “the democrats would need between 500,000 and 1,000,000 new voters.” The Orbán government doesn’t enjoy the support of the majority, but the left cannot win “with its present structure.” The parties don’t trust each other and the electorate doesn’t trust them. The leadership is the same as it was in 2014, and if remains the same, failure is guaranteed.

He pointed out that competition among the parties of the left hasn’t resulted in any one party breaking loose from the pack. They are only taking votes from each other. The rivalry among the parties only deepens the gulf between those who are destined to cooperate. The strife caused by this competition alienates the moderate “middle.”

So, what is Kerék-Bárczy’s answer? It is his conviction that elections can be won only from the middle, which for him means “the moderate conservative, conservative-liberal community,” without whom there can be no victory.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I consider criticizing one’s own party’s decisions a perfectly legitimate, most likely even useful enterprise. But for an insider to publish a “tell-all” party-bashing article is another matter entirely.

So, let’s see what the DK leadership found so objectionable. First of all, Kerék-Bárczy accused members of the democratic opposition of not even wanting to win the next election. He let the public know that on DK’s own board there are people with different visions: (1) Fidesz can be beaten. (2) DK will be the largest party on the left. (3) DK can’t elect more than 15-20 people to the next parliament. “Putting these three together is absurdity itself.”

In his opinion DK’s strategy is fundamentally faulty. It first wants to be the largest party on the left. Once this is accomplished, the party will turn toward the middle in the hope of electoral victory. According to Kerék-Bárczy, this strategy has already failed. “It occurred to many of our members that our strategy doesn’t serve a 2018 victory but that only a couple dozen of our leaders will manage to receive parliamentary mandates.”

It didn’t take more than 20 minutes for DK’s board to decide that they no longer want to see Kerék-Bárczy in the party. Several called him a traitor. The pro-government media was delighted. On the left journalists reported Kerék-Bárczy’s departure from DK without comment. 444.hu was the only exception. It described him as one of the greatest political survivors of the post-1990 period who now is leaving the sinking ship because “it just occurred to him that the opposition will not win in 2018.” They also insinuated that perhaps he is hoping to become an ambassador somewhere thanks to his earlier position as consul general during the Fidesz administration.

Gyula Molnár is mighty confused

Last night, in an interview that lasted only about five minutes, Gyula Molnár got so mixed up that we have no idea where his party stands not just on “compulsory quotas” but on the whole refugee crisis and Viktor Orbán’s policies. I suggest that those who understand the language take a look at the interview. His key message was that “in legal terms we consider the referendum superfluous and from the point of view of Europe risky. But if the question of [compulsory quotas] ever comes up, we are ready to support the government in its fight against it.” The interviewer almost fell off his chair and reminded Molnár that, in that case, his party’s position on the issue is identical to Fidesz’s. That response so confused Molnár that he started piling contradictory remarks one on top of the other until one could find neither rhyme nor reason in the whole confused mess. At one point he argued that the money spent on the referendum could be spent better, for example, on giving it to the soldiers defending the border. But a few seconds later he condemned the very fence the soldiers were defending. It was a communication disaster.

molnargyula3

Magyar Narancs was not kind to Molnár when it published a short opinion piece titled “The chairman of MSZP bravely squeaks from the pocket of Fidesz.” In the paper’s opinion, either Molnár thinks that there will be no compulsory quotas and therefore it matters not what he says or Fidesz bought him. But, they added, there is a third possibility: “this man is an imbecile.” In normal circumstances what Molnár says wouldn’t make any difference, but “in a referendum campaign it means canvassing for the nay votes, in other words, for Fidesz, or more precisely for Viktor Orbán. But what else can be expected from the head of the largest opposition party?” The “head” here has a special meaning, of course. Magyar Nemzet also interpreted Molnár’s confused message as MSZP’s attempt at “jockeying.”

Finally, let me add a few observations. I understand that Facebook is full of condemnations of MSZP’s latest blunder. Just because Fidesz has been successful with its xenophobic messages and its harsh, un-Christian attitude toward people escaping war and hunger, the MSZP leadership shouldn’t assume that it could boost its support by joining Viktor Orbán’s pack. On the contrary, those who oppose the government might just shrug their shoulders and say, “Why should I vote for MSZP? After all, both are cut from the same cloth.” Or, perhaps even worse from the point of the party, MSZP supporters will decide that DK’s message on the issue is much more straightforward, simple and consistent. The message of MSZP on this issue was always murky, but by now if I were an MSZP voter I really wouldn’t know what my party’s stance is on the issue. There are times when I think that the majority of the politicians on the left are total nincompoops.

September 1, 2016