Tag Archives: István Újhelyi

MSZP’s László Botka in Brussels

László Botka has become a superbly self-confident man since he received overwhelming support from MSZP’s delegates to the party congress less than a week ago. At the press conference he gave in Brussels, he identified himself as “Hungary’s candidate for the premiership.” To clarify his status, at the moment at least five politicians are vying to replace Orbán: Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd), Lajos Bokros (MoMa), Tamás Lattmann (representative of civic society), Gábor Vona (Jobbik), and László Botka. These are just the declared candidates, but if at the end each opposition party has a separate party list, even Ferenc Gyurcsány, as leader of DK, might be one of the challengers. This, of course, is just an aside to show that MSZP isn’t paying much attention to reality. They are in a state of euphoria, which might not be warranted. In fact, several opinion pieces appeared lately describing Botka as the man who will oversee the total disintegration of the party. Or, a more charitable opinion, in a couple of years no one will remember who László Botka was.

I’m not so pessimistic, but I’m watching with growing concern the MSZP candidate’s moves. For example, I find it an annoying socialist habit to fight Fidesz by trying to appease its voters with the slogans of Fidesz itself. Socialist politicians should have learned by now that this kind of strategy leads nowhere.

Here is one example. The Hungarian public has heard nothing else in the last seven years but that the European Union is on its last legs. And yet we have ample evidence that the great majority of the Hungarian public is still pro-EU, despite the massive anti-EU propaganda. So, it would be logical to have an election campaign resting on the slogan: “Either Europe or Orbán.” To launch such a campaign, however, would require a full embrace of the Union. One shouldn’t be uncritical, of course, but for Botka to say, after arriving in Brussels, that he is “watching the performance of the European Union with apprehensive criticism” is not exactly a good beginning. What followed was no better. Botka announced that a significant number of citizens had lost their trust in the democratic institutions of the EU, which in turn is responsible for the upsurge of populism. I wish politicians would consider the truth of their political rhetoric before they open their mouths. Does Botka really think that a lack of trust in democratic institutions led to the rise of populism? It is enough to look around the world, from Russia to the United States, to know that this assertion simply cannot be true. After that introduction, to say that he is “deeply committed to the European Union” sounds hollow. Moreover, some of his suggestions to “solve” the crisis could have been uttered by Viktor Orbán himself. This is not the way to distinguish yourself from your political opponent.

Prime Minister Candidate of Hungary

Let’s take another example. The government media discovered that not only would László Botka be in Brussels. George Soros also stopped by for a short visit before flying on to Budapest. What a great opportunity for the kind of journalism practiced in Orbán’s Hungary. The M1 TV station announced that “László Botka and George Soros will negotiate on Wednesday.” Magyar Hírlap published as front-page news that “At last Soros and Botka will find each other in Brussels.” Practically all government papers carried the same news, insinuating some secret cooperation between MSZP and George Soros. What does a good politician do in a case like that? Does he keep insisting that he has never in his life met George Soros? Does he excuse himself by emphasizing that he has never been a beneficiary of Soros’s largesse and that MSZP has never received any money from “the financial investor or his circles”? Surely not. In fact, if he were a brave opponent of Viktor Orbán, who has been demonizing George Soros, he would simply brush aside the whole issue as a typical example of primitive Fidesz propaganda and say that whatever dirt they have been throwing at Soros is undeserved and disgusting. But, no, the brave socialist candidate is afraid that perhaps Fidesz-infected citizens who really think that Soros is the devil incarnate will not like him if he defends the founder of Central European University.

The most important meeting that István Ujhelyi, a MSZP member of the European Parliament, secured for Botka was with Frans Timmermans, who is well versed in Hungarian affairs. Timmermans is one of the most resolute critics of the Orbán regime, and therefore I’m sure it was unnecessary to convince him that “the socialist party and the democratic opposition are interested in the restoration of the rule of law.” What is more difficult to decide is what Botka meant by his request that “the Orbán government should be punished and not Hungary.” How can that be achieved? Viktor Orbán and his government represent the country, so whatever “punishment” is meted out to that government for any infraction will unfortunately affect the whole country and its population. Botka’s request was a timid response to the accusation that the opposition is lobbying in Brussels against its own country. Such pious pronouncements will not change the opinion of Fidesz supporters about the opposition’s alleged unpatriotic actions.

In addition to Timmermans, Botka also met with Marita Ulvskog, vice president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. She is also the vice-chair of the EP Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. This meeting was logical given Botka’s emphasis on a truly socialist agenda for MSZP, as opposed to the more centrist or even Third Road approach of the party under Ferenc Gyurcsány. The very low wages in Hungary and the lack of employee protection is truly appalling, and since 2010 the situation has only deteriorated. For example, the total destruction of the power of unions is a relatively new development. What I don’t understand, however, is what Botka was driving at by pointing out “the incredible inequality that exists between member states” as far as the level of wages is concerned. Currently, it is Jobbik that is in the midst of a campaign for equal wages for equal work in all member states of the European Union. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of economics knows that this is utter nonsense. It is one thing to support the creation of a union-wide social network, but complaining about small or medium-size member states “being powerless to defend the interests and wages of employees of multinational companies” is simply unfair, at least as far as Hungary is concerned, where employees working for multinational companies are better off than those who work for the “patriotic” Hungarian oligarchs.

At home Botka stepped on quite a few toes in the last couple of days. I have no idea what he had in mind when he answered the question of whether he would consider placing Gordon Bajnai, an economist and businessman who proved to be a popular and very effective prime minister in 2009 and 2010, on a common list of politicians of the opposition parties. He said: “Under no circumstances would I place Gordon Bajnai, János Kádár, Mátyás Rákosi, or Miklós Horthy on the list.” What on earth prompted Botka to utter this nonsense? Soon enough Bajnai placed this witty retort on his Facebook page: “I would ‘like to reassure the worried public that I have no desire to be placed either on the list of MSZP or on those of MSZMP, MDP, or even the Peyer Pact.” For those unfamiliar with these acronyms, MSZMP was the communist party under János Kádár between 1956 and 1989; MDP was the party of Mátyás Rákosi between 1948 and 1956; the Peyer Pact was a political arrangement between the Bethlen government and the Hungarian Social Democratic Party in 1921.

I don’t know, but Botka’s first few days are not promising. Popular reactions on Klub Rádió, ATV, and Hír TV are mixed, but there are many who don’t like Botka’s attitude. Let’s hope he and his party realize, and quickly, that this is not the best way to win the hearts of voters.

June 1, 2017

The perils of being an opposition politician in Hungary

I don’t know whether I will be able to make a coherent story out of the mess the Orbán government most likely has purposefully created regarding the report of the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) on irregularities—fraud and possible corruption—in connection with the construction of Budapest’s fourth metro line (M4). The report covered the period between 2006 and 2015.

Although the Hungarian government received the OLAF report—or its English-language summary, the Hungarian public heard about it only from the English-language news site Politico. It didn’t take long before the Fidesz government and the Fidesz-led City of Budapest, on the one hand, and the politicians of the socialist-liberal government of the pre-2010 period, on the other, were at each other’s throats. The government claimed that practically all the financial wrongdoings were committed before 2010 while the opposition politicians accused the Orbán government of making political hay out of the case while refusing to make the report public. The administration claimed that it has no authority to release OLAF’s findings.

Most likely because of the holiday season at the end of the year, for about a month not much happened. Then, on January 16, János Lázár officially announced that he will file a complaint against Gábor Demszky (SZDSZ), mayor of Budapest between 1990 and 2010, Csaba Horváth (MSZP), deputy mayor between 2006 and 2009, and János Atkári, a highly respected economist who for many years served as Gábor Demszky’s financial adviser. That announcement started an avalanche of often conflicting articles in the Hungarian media.

A day after Lázár’s announcement, his deputy Nándor Csepreghy gave a detailed press conference dealing with the Metro4 corruption case. The government found MTI’s report of that press conference so important that it was immediately translated into English. We learned from Csepreghy that the Fidesz government had had its own suspicions of fraud surrounding the project even before. The OLAF report only confirmed these suspicions.

Csepreghy disclosed a few relevant facts that might help our understanding of the case. For example, he revealed that the investigators of OLAF conducted interviews with 50 individuals, “including the competent executives and managers” of the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV) and the City of Budapest. In addition, Csepreghy named a few companies that had been involved in the construction of the metro line as possible culprits. He also gave the initials of certain individuals heading large public and private companies. Finally, he said that “there are dozens of actors mentioned in the report who were politicians, were associated with the realm of politics, or operated as semi-public actors.” Finally, he told the press that the “government’s legal advisers are currently looking into the possibility of disclosing the OLAF report to the public in its entirety, to which the Government is fully committed.”

Nándor Csepreghy at the press conference / Photo: Tamás Kovács (MTI)

Although the government filed a complaint against Demszky, Horváth, and Atkári, they weren’t among the individuals Csepreghy referred to by their initials. A Magyar Idők editorial found Demszky’s absence from the list especially regrettable. The former mayor will get off scot-free because “according to rumors, his name doesn’t appear to be in the report.” Only the CEOs of large companies will be prosecuted. But what will happen if they reveal “the name of the chief coordinator”? In brief, the journalist responsible for this editorial accuses Gábor Demszky of being the head of a conspiracy to commit fraud.

Meanwhile Hungarian members of the European Parliament decided to look into the question of whether the Hungarian government told the truth when it claimed that it needed the approval of OLAF to release the report and that it was waiting for OLAF’s response to its request. All three opposition MEPs–Csaba Molnár (DK), Benedek Jávor (Párbeszéd), and István Ujhelyi (MSZP)–asked the head of OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, about OLAF’s position. All three claimed that, according to the information they received, it was up to the Hungarian government whether to release the document or not. Since there is a controversy over the meaning of the information received, I will rely on Ujhelyi’s statement, which includes the original English-language letter he received from OLAF. Here is the crucial passage:

In response to your question, since the OLAF final report has now reached its intended recipients, the Office is not in a position to decide on the possible release of the report. Such a decision belongs in the first place to the national authorities to which the report was addressed. It is for these authorities to assess the impact of a possible release of the report and to ensure compliance with the relevant legal obligations on judicial secrecy, data protection and procedural rights, including the right of access to file.

It is hard to fathom why the Orbán government again resorted to lying instead of appealing to the possible legal problems that could stem from the release of the report. Since then, Attila Péterfalvi, president of the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, personally asked István Tarlós, who by now has a copy of the document, not to make the OLAF report public. It looks as if Péterfalvi, before making this request, consulted with János Lázár of the Prime Minister’s Office and Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, who are both against the release. Although there might be compelling legal reasons not to allow the publication of the OLAF report, given the reputation of Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office one cannot help being skeptical about the real reasons for the secrecy.

Over the weekend Gábor Demszky gave an interview to Vasárnapi Hírek in which he detailed his position on the case. Demszky said that, according to the rules of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, OLAF must give anyone mentioned in their investigative reports the opportunity to respond. Since no one contacted Demszky, Horváth or Atkári, it is probably safe to assume that they are not the subjects of the investigation. Even so, the Orbán government filed complaints against them. Demszky also said that because OLAF conducted its investigation between 2012 and 2016, “most of their information came from the offices of the Fidesz government.” OLAF, Demszky added, most likely accepted the information in good faith because its investigators don’t expect these offices to be swayed by political pressure.

I might add that one has to be very careful when assessing the veracity of witness testimony. We know from other politically motivated trials that witnesses often give false testimony. The most infamous was that of Zsolt Balogh, head of BKV. In order to save himself months of pre-trial custody, he invented the story that Miklós Hagyó (MSZP), one of the deputy mayors, demanded 40 million forints, to be delivered in a Nokia box.

The opposition parties are truly worried about the prospect of years of investigation by politically motivated Hungarian prosecutors. Even though in the past most defendants were eventually exonerated, they remained in limbo for years and their careers were ruined. We must also keep in mind that although OLAF has filed scores of such reports on cases involving fraudulent procurement practices, only four guilty verdicts have been handed down in the last almost seven years. Some cases, like that involving Orbán’s son-in-law, were unceremoniously dropped. The prosecutors’ sudden interest in this case indicates to me that they think they can use it to do damage to the opposition, one way or another. Evidence of culpability has never been the litmus test for deciding which cases to pursue.

January 30, 2017

Fidesz insiders think Orbán’s days are numbered

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day usually offers little sustenance for news junkies. But today I discovered a front-page article in Népszava with the titillating title “Does Orbán have only months left?” The paper’s “sources close to Fidesz” claimed that “Orbán is already finished” and the only “question is who will take his place.”

The article was met with skepticism, especially in pro-government circles. Válasz described the article as sci-fi and “entertaining.” Gábor Török, the popular political scientist, wanted to know what his Facebook “friends” thought about the appearance of such items in the media. Do government politicians actually say such things to reporters of an opposition paper or are the reporters only giving voice to their wishes? The comments that followed were a mixed bag but a reporter, András Kósa, who also receives information from dissatisfied Fidesz politicians, didn’t think that the article was fantasy, although it might be exaggerated. Here and there commenters thought that Fidesz will collapse as soon as Viktor Orbán is gone, but most “friends” of Török considered the article humbug. I’m less skeptical than most of Török’s friends because I’ve usually found Népszava to be reliable when it reports on information coming from unnamed sources.

So, let’s see what Népszava heard from “sources close to Fidesz.” They claim that Orbán’s “system” has no more than a few months before it collapses. Apparently Fidesz politicians are increasingly avoiding the limelight because “the fall is inevitable. In their opinion Orbán started down a road from which there is no return. Not only will he himself be the victim of his own mistakes but also his party and the country itself.”

The problems that beset the work of the government emanate from the character flaws of the prime minister: inconsistency, impenetrability, and unpredictability. Most government and Fidesz officials have no idea what course they are supposed to pursue. Orbán trusts fewer and fewer people, and the ones he still does give him wrong advice. He apparently is looking for enemies everywhere, and this is one of the reasons that government decisions are not preceded by any discussion. It often happens that Orbán himself changes his mind in the last minute, which makes consistent communication nearly impossible. Underlings parrot a line that has been superseded by a new brainstorm of the prime minister. More and more people would like to save themselves from such embarrassments.

According to these informants, serious problems within Fidesz are not new although they are only now becoming visible. Signs of trouble began to surface when Orbán decided, sometime before the April elections, to change the “structure” under which Fidesz had been functioning very well for over twenty years. Until then, Lajos Simicska was in charge of the party’s finances, but “from the moment that Orbán decided to take over economic decisions” the old dual structure collapsed and with it the well-functioning system. When Orbán again managed to receive a two-thirds majority, he completely lost his sense of judgment. As months went by, anti-Orbán murmurs in the party began to proliferate, and the Christian Democrats, realizing that Orbán was losing his grip on the party, decided to put pressure on the beleaguered prime minister. That’s why Orbán had to give in on the unpopular law that forces stores to be closed on Sundays.

What observers see is no longer a “system” but a political process based on day-by-day ad hoc decisions which, according to the saner Fidesz leaders, cannot be maintained because “it is incapable of self-correction.”

The informers seem to have less information about actual attempts to topple Viktor Orbán. Names were not mentioned, but they indicated that the people they had in mind “would be quite capable of taking over the reins of government without changing political direction.” Népszava‘s sources consider Angela Merkel’s planned visit to Budapest in February a date of great importance. I guess they think that Merkel will tell Orbán that he is persona non grata as far as the European People’s Party and the European Commission are concerned.

CalendarNépszava‘s description of the strife and chaos within Fidesz is most likely accurate. The question is what Orbán is planning to do to forestall the outcome described by Népszava‘s sources. For the time being, as we learned from the interviews of János Lázár, Viktor Orbán, and László Kövér, he will fight to hold onto power by convincing his Peace March troops that the “fatherland is in danger.” I’m almost certain that internal polls are being taken to gauge support. Would it be possible to turn out 100,000 people to defend the prime minister against foreign and domestic intrigues? I assume that the size of the planned anti-government demonstrations on January 2 will also influence Orbán’s decision about the next step to take to combat his opponents inside and outside the party.

In any case, for the time being it was Antal Rogán who was called upon to announce a countermeasure that might take the wind out of anti-government sails.  It is called the “National Defense Action Plan.” The details are secret for the time being, but it most likely includes some kind of answer to the United States’ decision to bar six Hungarian citizens from the United States due to corruption. It is also likely that a huge propaganda effort will be launched to discredit the U.S.-EU free trade agreement that until now the Hungarian government has welcomed. According to government and Fidesz sources, the “National Defense Action Plan” was put together in the prime minister’s office by Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, Antal Rogán, Péter Szijjártó, and Árpád Habony (who neither holds an official government position nor has national security clearance). These are the people who make most of the decisions in the Orbán government.

Meanwhile what are the anti-Orbán political forces doing in this fluid situation? Ferenc Gyurcsány decided to ask those followers who have been at the anti-government demonstrations all along to bring party posters and flags to the January 2 demonstration. József Tóbiás, leader of MSZP, did not respond to Gyurcsány’s request to follow DK’s lead. But István Újhelyi, an MSZP MEP, announced today a socialist “diplomatic offensive” against the Orbán government. Orbán must be stopped because his “Russian roulette” will have tragic consequences.

At the beginning of the new year there will be at least two important events. First, the mass demonstration planned for January 2 in front of the Opera House. Three years ago a gigantic anti-government demonstration also took place there, and for a whole month newspapers kept asking how long Orbán could last. We are again asking the same question. Since Orbán not only survived but thrived in the last three years, some people might come to the conclusion that the Hungarian prime minister will always triumph, even in the most perilous circumstances. But I would caution the pessimists. Three years ago the pressure came only from the inside. This time Orbán has embroiled himself and the country in a high stakes international power play in addition to alienating about 900,000 of his former supporters.

The second event will be Orbán’s new “remedy,” the “National Defense Action Plan.” Will it work? Is Orbán strong enough to rally his troops for another supportive Peace March as he did in 2012? And even if he manages, will anybody care?