Tag Archives: István Mikola

Demokratikus Koalíció moves into a “new phase” of its electoral campaign

Ferenc Gyurcsány, president of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), announced a “new phase” in the party’s 2018 election campaign. DK activists will collect signatures of people who agree with DK’s resolute opposition to the right of dual citizens who have never lived in Hungary to vote in Hungarian national elections. DK has been relentless in its opposition to the 2011 law, which it opposes on the grounds that only those people should vote who will directly bear the consequences of their decision.

Let’s make clear at the very beginning that no DK politician seriously thinks that this signature drive can have any impact on the current law. Instead, it was designed to serve political purposes. First, the signature drive allows the party to be visible. It will certainly give the party more exposure than the party’s forums, where a hundred or so people gather, most of whom are already DK sympathizers. Second, a signature drive will add tens of thousands of signatures and addresses to the party’s database. And third, it distinguishes DK from the other left-of-center parties that all believe that opposing the voting rights of non-resident Hungarian citizens is far too risky. It would alienate those Hungarians who live in Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine. And the government parties will call them traitors to the national unification efforts launched by Fidesz in 2010.

Surely, Gyurcsány must have known the kind of abuse he would get from abroad as well as from Fidesz and, to some extent, from Jobbik. Yet he decided that the advantages of such a signature drive far outweigh its disadvantages. In 2014, 95% of votes from the neighboring countries were cast in favor of Fidesz and perhaps 2% for the left-of-center parties, which in the eyes of the very conservative Hungarian voters in the neighboring countries are already considered to be traitors to the national cause. On the other hand, DK might endear itself to the overwhelming majority of Hungarian voters who strongly oppose voting rights for dual Hungarian citizens.

In August of this year Publicus Intézet published a comprehensive poll on the attitudes of resident Hungarian citizens toward the rights of Hungarians living outside the current borders of Hungary. The results cannot be clearer. While 68% of Hungarians think there is nothing wrong with granting citizenship to members of the Hungarian minorities, they have grave objections to granting them voting rights. When it was pointed out to the respondents that these people don’t pay taxes yet they are allowed to vote, only 18% of the population was in favor of granting voting rights to them. Of course, Fidesz voters were more enthusiastic than those of the other parties, including Jobbik, but still 50% of them objected to what they consider a “free ride.” Thus, gathering signatures will probably not be very difficult.

Some analysts consider the signature drive a very clever political move. Among them are Dániel Mikecz of the Republikon Intézet and, to my great surprise, Zoltán Ceglédi, a political scientist who is normally highly critical of Gyurcsány. The former is certain that this “radical” move will mobilize not only DK voters but sympathizers of MSZP as well. Gyurcsány will be fiercely attacked by Fidesz, but he is already hardened on that score. The issue can distinguish DK from the other left-of-center parties with an easily recognizable and strong political profile. It may allow DK to call attention to the real danger of a two-thirds majority with the help of votes coming from abroad. In 2014, 130,000 foreign votes gave the one extra seat in parliament that was necessary for Fidesz to achieve the much desired two-thirds majority. At that time, only half a million new citizens had been added to the voter rolls, but by now the number is close to one million. So, it can easily happen that the Fidesz parliamentary faction will gain two or three extra seast as a result of the vote coming mainly from mostly Transylvania.

Voting in Transylvania / MTI / Photo: Nándor Veres

The government is doing its best to make sure that the foreign vote will be large. A special commissioner was appointed whose single task is the organization of the election abroad. This is in addition to another commissioner who makes sure that as many individuals ask for citizenship as possible. Mikecz reminds his readers of the infamous speech of István Mikola in 2006 when he was Fidesz’s candidate to become deputy prime minster. He said that “if we can win now for four years, then we will give citizenship to five million Hungarians, and when they can vote, we will be set for twenty years.” And since, according to many analysts, the best the left-of-center opposition can achieve in 2018 is to prevent a huge, supermajority Fidesz win, a campaign against the voting rights of dual citizens can keep the issue alive.

Zoltán Ceglédi is no friend of Ferenc Gyurcsány, but now he defends him because the other seven parties came forth under the banner of Márton Gulyás’s Közös Ország (Common Country) with a proposed electoral law that would give extra two mandates to the dual citizens outright, regardless of the number of votes. Momentum and Együtt went so far as to propose the creation of two extra districts, which would allow the voters in the neighboring countries to vote not only for party lists but also for local candidates. Given the strength of Fidesz domestically, the prospect of two or three seats coming from abroad should be truly frightening to the opposition.

Zsolt Semjén, whose chief job is to gather new citizens and new voters, is working assiduously. Viktor Orbán has already sent off a letter to all new dual citizens. An incredible amount of money is being spent abroad, for which the Hungarian government “is asking for and getting votes.” According to Ceglédi, “one mustn’t be mum about this.” Ceglédi believes that the opposition is doing Orbán a favor when it supports this idea under the false notion of “a common country” with people who have never set foot in Hungary and who “just mail their votes for Viktor Orbán.”

On the other side, Csaba Lukács, a journalist for Magyar Nemzet and a native of the Szekler district in Transylvania, is certain that Gyurcsány’s campaign is good only for Fidesz. He is sure that Hungarians living in the neighboring countries will be even more determined to vote after DK’s campaign. In his opinion, Gyurcsány is discrediting the entire left. His only goal is get a few more votes in order to squeeze his party into parliament. In Lukács’s opinion, the votes coming from abroad are neither here nor there. First of all, these people have only “half a vote” because they can vote only for the party list, not having districts of their own. And one seat out of 199 is nothing to make a fuss about. What Lukács forgets to mention is that “this one measly seat” gave Fidesz a two-thirds majority in 2014.

Another Transylvanian, Miklós Gáspár Tamás, TGM as he is known in Hungary, is convinced that Gyurcsány is a “bad politician,” as he has proved again and again. He admits that “it is somewhat unusual that people who have never lived in a country and have no intention of moving there and pay no taxes” can vote, but just because something is unusual does not necessarily make it incorrect, unreasonable, or illegal. “To reject these compatriots of ours just because they are partial to one particular Hungarian party is selfish and petty.” Gyurcsány “foments hatred … ignores or belittles the Hungarian nationalities in the successor states, which is intolerable. His madness and provocations are distasteful.”

So, that’s where we stand. We will see whether Gyurcsány is “a genius,” as the political scientist Gábor Török called him a few days ago, or a really bad politician whose latest move was most likely celebrated in Fidesz circles, as Csaba Lukács and TGM claim.

November 3, 2017

Viktor Orbán and the European Union: A forced change of strategy?

I sense a change in the Orbán government’s strategy as far as its attitude toward cooperation with the European Union is concerned. Although Orbán still talks about sticking to his government’s total rejection of a common EU policy, the ground is being prepared for a strategy shift. I suspect Viktor Orbán got the distinct impression in Brussels or perhaps even earlier that the strategy he had worked out hand in hand with his colleagues in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic has either already been rejected or will be repudiated by a large majority of the member states. Therefore, they sent István Mikola, nowadays undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs and earlier Fidesz deputy-prime minister candidate, to give a long interview to Népszava, of all places. What Mikola had to say to Marianna Biró almost blew the reporter’s mind.

A telling picture of Orbán's mood at the closing ceremony of the summit

A telling picture of Orbán’s mood at the closing ceremony of the summit

What did we learn from this interview? Exactly the opposite of what we have heard until now about Hungary’s attitude toward a common EU policy concerning the refugee crisis. But let’s go step by step because there is a lot here to discuss.

First of all, Mikola made a liar out of Viktor Orbán when he said that “there was no secret pact” between Germany and Turkey. Not only was it not secret, but “the accord was between the European Union and Turkey,” not between Germany and Turkey.

Second, as far as the introduction of the quota system is concerned, the Hungarian attitude is no longer as belligerent as it was even a few weeks ago. Hungary now has only “misgivings” about it. It seems that if the European Court of Justice finds it legal, Hungary will oblige. Mind you, a verdict on the issue cannot be expected before the end of the year, and I doubt that the European Commission will let the policy remain in limbo for that long.

Third, we have heard over and over from Orbán and members of his government that the European Union is on its last legs. It will collapse under the weight of the refugee crisis. In this connection the reporter called Mikola’s attention to János Lázár’s assertion that the Hungarian government doesn’t want to have closer European integration. In response to this Mikola said:

Membership in the European Union is of great importance for us. The Hungarian people live in a diaspora and it is through the existence of the European Union that the borders have become virtual and permeable…. Because of our membership in the European Union the world has opened for us. We could break out from our isolation. Not only have Hungarians gotten closer to each other, but now everybody can learn foreign languages and can take jobs abroad…. For Hungarians being part of Europe is of inestimable value…. From the mixing of different people a variegated, vibrant Europe will emerge.  This is something unique that must be preserved. It is our task to make sure that it will be protected. That’s why I’m not pessimistic. I believe that we will suffer for a while with the migrant crisis but at the end Europe will survive.

As I said, I don’t know what happened in the last few days or so, but Mikola’s message indicates to me a staggering about-face. I wonder whether this is in any way linked to the findings of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, the largest German non-profit foundation, which indicate that the overwhelming majority of people in the European Union want more integration and consider the quota system equitable and fair. Moreover, they want to punish those countries that refuse to abide by the common will. Until now we had no reliable data on public opinion across the continent concerning the refugees. On the right newspapers gleefully reported atrocities and anti-refugee demonstrations while the left sang the praises of the integration efforts of Germans, Swedes, and others.

I suspect that the findings of the Bertelsmann study have been known for some time by the EU decision makers, which must have given a boost to those politicians who share Angela Merkel’s vision for solving the crisis. The title of the 20-page study is “Border Protection and Freedom of Movement: What People Expect of European Asylum and Migration Policies.” I’m sure that you’ll be surprised, as I was, to read that

  • 79 percent of European citizens believe that the European Union should have a common European policy on migration. 52 percent believe that the EU should be primarily responsible for this issue. 27 percent say that the responsibility should be shared by the EU and the member states. 79 percent of Europeans also consider the freedom of movement to be of great importance, and believe that it should be defended at all costs.
  • 87 percent believe that the EU has a common duty to protect its external borders.
  • 79 percent of European interviewees believe that asylum-seekers should be distributed fairly among the member states of the European Union.
  • 69 percent of the interviewees believe that EU financial support should be reduced if member states refuse to accept their fair share of refugees.

A closer look at the data reveals a divide between public opinion in the old and the new member states (2004 Eastern Enlargement of the EU).

  • Only 54 percent of the citizens in the new member states think that asylum-seekers should be fairly distributed (versus 85 percent in the old member states).
  • And only 41 percent of the interviewees in the new member states think that countries which do not want to take in their fair share of asylum-seekers should have to pay a financial penalty (versus 77 percent in the old member states).

The study’s summary points out that “Europe’s politicians are once again confronted with political realities which they can no longer ignore…. Data shows that the electorate is a long way ahead of the politicians.”

Armed with that information, the European Union will feel free to take a more aggressive stance against the ideas of the eastern states that joined the Union twelve years ago. And this is not good news for Viktor Orbán and people like Fico.

Speaking of Fico. His popularity, just like Orbán’s, swelled as a result of his anti-refugee policies. A few months ago his party’s popularity reached 40%, and thus it could easily win the forthcoming elections with an absolute majority. However, since then fewer and fewer people have been concerned about the migrants. Instead, they are preoccupied with problems of education and healthcare at home. Does it sound familiar? Elections will be held on March 5 and Smer, Fico’s party, is losing voters. Fico is trying to keep the migrant issue in the forefront and now threatens to build a fence along the Slovak-Austrian-Hungarian border. Similarly, of course, Orbán is attempting to keep his people focused on the refugee issue instead of the troublesome topics of education and healthcare. I don’t know how often I read or heard that the Hungarian government is ready to build the fence at any time along the Romanian-Hungarian border. Yet no fence has emerged so far. A couple of days ago Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, announced an extension of the closed border between Croatia and Hungary. Surely, to emphasize the fear of migrants overrunning the country. Or, there is the heavy arming of the Hungarian National Bank, allegedly because of the threat of terrorism, which even Reuters called a paranoid measure. At the same time, Fidesz is collecting signatures protesting Hungary’s participation in a common solution to the fate of those refugees who either are already in western countries or are waiting in Greece to move on.

And while these measures are being undertaken domestically, Orbán is making preparations for an about-face. This will not be an easy sell, especially after the teachers’ revolt, which has already made the government retreat somewhat. However, the leaders of the movement are determined to dismantle the whole system and to restore their autonomy. Fidesz’s popularity, which stagnated between November and December, has now dropped a bit, and I suspect that polls taken after the teachers’ demonstration will show a further erosion of Fidesz’s popularity. And the realization that the “migrants” are coming will be a terrible blow to the party faithful.

February 21, 2016

U.S.-Hungarian rapprochement? I doubt it

Ever since the arrival of Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador to Hungary, and the departure of M. André Goodfriend from Budapest, hopes have been high in government circles that U.S.-Hungarian relations will be on the mend. The general impression is that the United States has realized that Viktor Orbán is here to stay and the Americans better make peace with him. Orbán himself is convinced of this, and therefore it is unlikely that he is planning to change his policy toward the United States. The new ambassador’s considerable charm only supports this interpretation. Lots of smiles, lots of appearances, lots of flattering remarks about the greatness of Hungarian culture and the beauty of the country.

Viktor Orbán figures that the United States, for lack of a better alternative, is forced to cooperate with him. Of course, he tries to sweeten the bitter pill by leaking information about alleged business offers for American companies, from Sikorsky helicopters to Westinghouse’s participation in the Paks project. The government even suggested that they would be willing to join anti-ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. How serious that offer was is questionable. The government pulled back on it because of “the opposition parties’ objections.” But since when has Fidesz ever cared about the opinion of the opposition parties? Meanwhile, the courting of the new ambassador began, which Népszabadság described as a “charm offensive.”

Colleen Bell in Budapest

Colleen Bell in Budapest

In any case, the government is optimistic while domestic critics of the government are deeply worried. They believe the government’s propaganda about the greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary, which they interpret as the American abandonment of Hungarian democracy. They are certain that Goodfriend’s departure was the first step toward U.S.-Hungarian rapprochement, which will be followed by, if not a a full-blown friendship, American tolerance of Orbán’s anti-democratic policies.

Hungarian comments on articles about U.S.-Hungarian relations accuse Washington of trading Hungarian democracy for business interests. They compare Colleen Bell to her predecessor, whom they considered a clueless woman who was charmed off her feet by the cunning Viktor Orbán. Orbán, who already met Bell at a private party, will meet her officially on the 17th. I’m sure that the U.S. ambassador will be gracious, and I predict the anti-Orbán forces will interpret her words as a sign that the United States is caving in to Viktor Orbán. As they usually say: “You see, he always wins. Western politicians are easily fooled. They are naive.”

Most likely I’m among the few who are much more cautious when passing judgment on the current state of affairs between Washington and Budapest. Clearly, it is to the advantage of the Hungarian government to give the impression that the only reason for the strained relations between the two countries was the way Goodfriend handled his job. But as Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary of state, reiterated when he visited Budapest a few days ago, Goodfriend was simply following the policies of the State Department, to everybody’s satisfaction. And although Bell may smile a lot more often than Goodfriend did, Bell herself, between friendly gestures, also delivers Washington’s message. She announced that she will follow Goodfriend’s practice of meeting a wide variety of people, including the opposition leaders. She made it clear that in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Hungary’s place should be with the West and not Russia. She talked about the rule of law, independent democratic institutions, checks and balances, free elections, and an active civil society.

There are signs, as we learned from Gábor Horváth’s editorial in Népszabadág, that the Orbán government is retreating on several fronts. László Szabó, undersecretary of the ministry of foreign relations and trade, told Melia that Hungary wants to diversify its energy supply and stressed Hungary’s commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. A few weeks ago another undersecretary of the ministry, István Mikola, categorically announced that Hungary will veto the transatlantic free trade agreement. But the Orbán government changed its mind and most likely will sign the agreement, in whatever form it is eventually passed.

The question is whether American officials can be convinced that the Hungarian promises are credible or whether they will be remain suspicious that the present moves are just part of the same old peacock dance. I think that by now very few American or European politicians believe that Viktor Orbán will change, and therefore I doubt that throwing a few bones to state department officials will convince the Obama administration to radically alter its attitude toward Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state.

Attila Ara-Kovács, DK’s foreign policy expert, wrote a few days ago that the Orbán regime is “a closed system” in which foreign policy is an integral part of the whole. In his opinion, no fundamental change in foreign policy orientation is possible because otherwise the whole system would collapse. I’m inclined to agree with Ara-Kovács and therefore find Zsolt Németh’s hopes for a drastic reorientation of foreign policy illusory. Zsolt Németh, one of the founders of Fidesz who served Viktor Orbán as undersecretary of foreign affairs between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014, as an insider is unable to see that the disagreement between Washington and Budapest is not the result of “a misunderstanding” that can be ironed out. No, the differences are fundamental, and Viktor Orbán will never follow Németh’s suggestions for the very reasons Ara-Kovács outlined in his opinion piece.

Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, will visit Budapest at the end of March. She was described by one of the Hungarian internet sites as “Orbán’s American bogey.” We’ll see how successful one of the undersecretaries of the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade will be in convincing Nuland, who is known as a tough cookie.

As for the Hungarian government’s overwhelmingly positive assessment of Colleen Bell, just today I saw the first signs of disapproval from Zsolt Bayer, the notorious journalist working for Magyar Hírlap. Colleen Bell asked for suggestions from Hungarians about the best way to learn about Hungary and Hungarians. According to Bayer, there was an excellent opportunity to learn something about the country but Bell missed it. On February 25 Hungary remembers the “victims of communism,” and for that day the House of Terror invited her to take a look at the exhibit. She would have had the opportunity to receive a guided tour of “one of the best museums in Europe.” But the ambassador didn’t even respond to the invitation.

That was bad enough, but she committed an unforgivable sin. On the very day of the victims of communism, she paid a visit to the Holocaust Museum where, with the top leaders of the museum, “she discussed the timely questions and fields of possible cooperation” between the United States and the Holocaust Museum. “On that day the ambassador shouldn’t have gone there. There are thousands and thousands of reasons for that, but let’s not talk about them now.” Bayer expressed his hope that Bell will visit the House of Terror next year on that day “in order to learn something about an era about which she knows nothing.”

There’s plenty of time for history lessons. For now, Bell has enough on her plate representing American interests and not becoming a victim herself, of the charm offensive.

Absentee ballots from Romania may give rise to electoral fraud

We are witnessing a mad dash to register the largest possible pool of voters in Hungary’s neighbors, especially Romania. Currently 4,000-5,000 applications for citizenship reach the office handling the cases. The hope is to get at least 300,000 dual citizens living outside of Hungary to register, a task that can be done as late as 15 days before the actual election. Three-quarters of these votes will most likely come from Romania. In fact, the Tusnádfürdő/Baile Tusnad extravaganza was also used to solicit more registered voters for Fidesz. The allegedly independent National Elections Committee’s chief, Ilona Pálffy, was on hand to make a pitch for voting in the Hungarian elections. In order to make the proposition attractive she minimized the bureaucratic hassles. In fact, she simplified the procedure to such an extent that the new investigative online website, 444.hu, immediately figured out that something was not quite cricket with the process by which a dual citizen votes.

Ilona Pálffy, formerly one of Viktor Orbán’s chief advisers, told the HírTV reporter who was present in Tusnádfürdő: “There will be many ways a dual citizen will be able to vote. He can mail his ballot in the country of his domicile to the National Election Committee; he can send it to the embassy or go to one of the consulates where there will be a box in which a person can even place all the ballots coming from the same village. He will not even need an ID. The registered voter can also bring his ballot to Hungary and mail it there. And finally, he can place his ballot in a box set up for this purpose in every voting district on the day of the elections.” Easy, isn’t it?

One’s very first question is how the authorities know that the person who arrives with a few hundred ballots is actually entrusted with the task by the voters.

Ilona Pálffy found herself in an uncomfortable position, especially after Együtt-PM cried foul and asked the obvious question. How can someone without any identification cast a ballot in the name of another person or persons? She tried to explain her earlier statement. Electoral fraud is out of the question. Hungary is simply following the practice of other countries. The voter will first place his ballot in an unmarked sealed envelope and will then put it in a second envelope with the name and the address of the voter. In one of the ways described above, these envelopes will reach the National Election Committee. There the outer envelopes will be opened and the unmarked envelopes “will be piled in a heap.” The ballots will be counted by the members of the National Election Committee.

electoral fraud

I checked the absentee ballot provisions of a few American states; several use this two-envelope solution. The inner envelope is called “secrecy envelope” and the second the “affidavit envelope” because on it there is a written declaration made under oath before a notary public or other authorized person. So far I haven’t heard anything about a declaration made under oath that would ascertain the identity of the voter. In fact, there is not word of it in the law concerning electoral procedures.

But there are other potential problems as well. Ilona Pálffy mentioned that representatives of other parties “can be present” when the outer envelopes are removed but said nothing about there being representatives of other parties at the actual counting of the ballots in the offices of the National Electoral Committee, a body whose members are all Fidesz appointees.

Then this morning I heard an interview with Zoltán Tóth, the foremost authority on elections in Hungary and abroad. He called attention to an odd distinction between “cím, lakcím” and “értesítési cím,” both meaning address. The latter is a roundabout way of saying that it is an address where a person can be notified.  (See  The Act on  Electoral Proceedings (2013. évi XXXVI. törvény a választás eljárásról). After all, aren’t the two the same? One immediately becomes suspicious: what is this all about?

Well, here at least is Tóth’s explanation. Currently “paid agents” of Fidesz (the government?) go from house to house, from village to village in Romania urging people to request a registration form. Once a request is forwarded by one of these agents, the National Electoral Commission compares the applicant’s data with the list of new citizens and decides on eligibility. After the eligibility decision is made, the registration form must be sent immediately to “the ‘értesítési cím’ of the given central register unless the citizen otherwise instructs.” In brief, it will be sent to the  central collecting center’s representative who solicited the registration.

These details are dealt with extensively in the law but nothing is said about who has to fill out the ballot and how the details of the person’s identity are ascertained. Presumably, the voter could simply tell someone else his party preference. Moreover, if there are Fidesz lists prepared in Romania as in Hungary, and apparently such lists already exist, someone could actually fill out ballots on the basis of that list. Tóth called attention to the 2010 postal voting fraud in the U.K., in Oldham, North Manchester, Richdale, and Bolton. A resident complained that he filled out the forms for his family but they were taken from his house by a party worker. Another voter complained that one of the parties got his details from the “postal voting list.”

I’m not at all surprised that the opposition parties are suspicious. Viktor Orbán doesn’t want to lose another election. His 2002 experience had a devastating effect on his psyche. The dual citizenship scheme was designed first and foremost to bolster Fidesz’s chances at the ballot box. István Mikola, minister of health in the first Orbán government, spilled the beans in 2006 when at a large Fidesz gathering he announced that “if we make voting from the neighboring countries possible at national elections we can cement our power for the next twenty years.”

I think Mikola was far too optimistic. Right now Fidesz hopes to have 300,000 registration applications. Of course, not all will actually vote, but I’m sure that the “paid agents” will make sure that most will. But even if 300,000 new voters all cast their votes for Fidesz apparently the impact on the outcome will be moderate, a difference of only about 3-4 seats. Of course, in a very close election these seats could make all the difference.

The experiences of the last three years show that Viktor Orbán and his minions are ready to use all legal and sometimes even semi-illegal instruments to make sure that they come out on top. They will do almost anything to win this election. And naturally money is no object. With this kind of preparatory work among the Romanian-Hungarian electorate the size of the Fidesz vote will be overwhelming in Romania.