Tag Archives: Jobbik

A first: Nine opposition parties agree on long-range healthcare priorities

Today was an extraordinary day, one that few people believed would ever come to pass. All nine opposition parties, including Jobbik, signed onto a “national healthcare minimum,” a document that outlines the basic steps that must be taken to salvage the sinking ship of Hungarian healthcare. Fidesz was also invited to the discussions that preceded the final act of approval, but the government party refused to participate.

How did this project come into being? The description of the process might be educational for crafting future agreements in fields that shouldn’t fall victim to party politics.

First, I should say a few words about the man, Gyula Kincses, without whom this healthcare minimum project couldn’t have taken place. Kincses was an ear-nose-throat specialist who eventually moved over to healthcare management and politics. He began his political career as an MDF member of parliament (1990-1994), but he was always more interested in healthcare management. It didn’t matter which party was in power, they all relied on his advice and expertise–from Viktor Orbán (1998-2002) through all subsequent governments–that is, up until 2010. He reached the pinnacle of his career during the Gyurcsány administration when he served as undersecretary of health.

By now Kincses is retired, but he is still extremely active. In the last five years he has been writing a blog called Asztalfiók (Desk drawer) in which he analyzes various aspects of healthcare. He is regularly asked to comment on health issues by Hír TV and ATV. As far as I know, he has not been asked for advice by this government.

Gyula Kincses

On June 14, 2017, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Political Capital held a conference titled “Can Healthcare be cured?” where, in addition to healthcare professionals, representatives of several opposition parties were invited to participate. Tímea Szabó (Párbeszéd), László György Lukács (Jobbik), Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Imre László (DK), and László Szakács (MSZP) were among the speakers. Naturally, Fidesz was also invited, but they ignored the event. At this conference Jobbik’s Lukács was the only person to stress the “necessity of a consensus among the representatives of political life, which would elevate the issue of healthcare over and above the usual political skirmishes.” This suggestion moved Gyula Kincses, who was in the audience, to ask Lukács whether he would sponsor such a resolution.

The Hungarian media didn’t waste much time on this conference. The only article I found appeared on Jobbik’s internet news site Alfahír, which makes sense since it was a Jobbik politician who accepted the challenge of getting all the parties involved in working out a national minimum. A month later, on July 28, Népszava reported that the representatives of nine parties with measurable support (DK, Együtt, Jobbik, LMP, Kétfarkú Kutya, MSZP, MoMa, Momentum, and Párbeszéd) had gathered to try to identify the most basic elements necessary for a coherent healthcare policy that could be sustained over time. One of the problems Hungary, like most countries, faces is that when a new administration comes into power it brings with it politicians with new ideas who immediately dismantle everything the previous administration had accomplished. An agreement on healthcare—or, for that matter, on education—over the long run would eliminate this extremely destructive practice. Surprisingly, it turned out that the parties actually agreed on many of the elements Kincses found important. By the end of July Kincses was greatly encouraged by the level of cooperation he had received. Kincses gave an interview to Egyenes beszéd (ATV) in which he stressed that Fidesz would be a welcome member of the team, but the government party was steadfastly refusing to participate. However, he said, they are still waiting.

Although Kincses didn’t brag about it, by that time the document was more or less ready. By early August the final text was sent to the participating parties for discussion and for a final word of acceptance or rejection. At that time Alfahír still expressed its doubts whether all the parties would accept the final text. Well, today we at last found out that Kincses accomplished the close-to-impossible task. All nine parties decided to support the nine basic elements of the document.

The Hungarian media can occasionally be more than irritating. None of the articles covering this story lists all nine points, but I managed to find that the parties committed themselves to spending at least 9.4% of the Hungarian GDP (EU average) on healthcare. Currently the figure is only 7.1%. Of this, the state pays 4.8%, while the rest is paid by individuals. Out of every 100 forints spent on healthcare, 40 forints are paid by Hungarian citizens, which is much higher than in other EU countries. The plan would lower that figure to 30%. Everyone who is insured would receive the same quality care, though private insurers could offer additional services. The document includes a promise of graduated, substantial salary raises for healthcare workers over the next five years and the restoration of the old “social security system,” which was abolished by the Orbán government and replaced with a system financed by taxation.

The first party to sign was Jobbik, followed by DK. By now only a few haven’t yet gotten around to signing the document.

Magyar Idők has been silent about this whole project. In the past few months the government media has reported nothing about the discussions concerning long-term healthcare plans. It was only Pesti Srácok which today sarcastically announced that “the great opposition cuddling materialized; of course, Jobbik is among them.” Otherwise, the paper summarized the document accurately.

This is a first step but, I think, an important one. I hope there will be others to follow. They might inspire the electorate to realize that, after all, these parties can agree on issues which are important to them.

September 20, 2017

Moving to the center? Anne Applebaum’s essay on Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump

This morning I encountered Anne Applebaum’s name on the “Reggeli gyors” (Morning express) program on KlubRádió, on several Hungarian internet news sites, and in a Hungarian-language summary of foreign news related to Hungary that I receive daily. Anne Applebaum is an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written several books on the Soviet Union and on Eastern Europe. She knows the region of East-Central Europe well, having spent several years in Poland while working as a correspondent for multiple British publications.

As a student of East-Central Europe, she is well acquainted with Hungary’s history and follows its current political events. She often writes about Hungarian affairs, so her name appears frequently in the Hungarian media. Every time an article of hers is published in The Washington Post, this or that Hungarian newspaper or internet site will report on its content. Hungarian journalists even follow her tweets.

As for her opinion of Viktor Orbán and his regime, it is devastating. This was not always the case. In 2010 she received the Petőfi Prize for her 2003 book on the Gulag, which was translated into Hungarian (as was her 2012 book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956). The Petőfi Prize was established by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society, which is a Fidesz-sponsored foundation. The prize was bestowed on her by Mária Schmidt, whom I call Viktor Orbán’s court historian.

Anne Applebaum (2015) Source: Václav Havel Library

If Anne Applebaum had any hopes for the Fidesz government in 2010, they evaporated soon after. She has written many harsh words on Hungarian domestic and foreign policy as well as on the government’s treatment of refugees. But this is not what I want to talk about here. Anyone who is interested in Anne Applebaum’s political opinions should visit her website, which offers an extensive collection of her writings over the years. Here I will focus on her latest article, “Beware: Trump may use the alt-right to turn himself into the center,” which appeared last night in The Washington Post, because it has a great deal to do with Hungary.

The article is about Donald Trump’s bigotry, which he has used as “an electoral tool, to excite a relatively small group of supporters.” He was successful mainly because the rest of his voters, mainstream Republicans, overlooked his tactics in their eagerness to win the election. Applebaum’s question is whether Trump will further manipulate racism “for political ends.” If he does and proves to be successful, the alt-right will gain strength, which might result in a level of violence that could offer Trump the opportunity to “present himself as the candidate of law and order.” In addition, “by encouraging the alt-right, Trump can also change our definition of what it means to be a moderate or a centrist.”

It is at this point that Anne Applebaum brings up the comparison with Hungary, where “the center-right ruling party, Fidesz, turned a neo-fascist alt-right party, Jobbik, into an electoral asset” and where Viktor Orbán can portray himself and his party as a centrist party that alone can save the country from extremism. A couple of years ago Fidesz used Jobbik very much as Anne Applebaum describes it, but I don’t believe this formula applies today.

In Hungary there are three main political forces: the left-liberals, Jobbik, and Fidesz. After 2006 the left-liberal group lost a great deal of its appeal, and at roughly the same time Jobbik, representing the extreme right, became an important political party. It was in this political climate that Viktor Orbán portrayed himself as the head of a right-of-center party that would save Hungary and Europe from the curse of a government of Gábor Vona, the leader of a racist, anti-Semitic party, which proudly declared itself to be an enemy of democracy.

But, as Anne Applebaum correctly points out, as time went by Fidesz, in order to maintain its support, took over more and more of Jobbik’s program. Applebaum says in this article that “Fidesz borrowed some of Jobbik’s ideas and language.” I think she is too kind. It wasn’t borrowing. It was a wholesale adoption of Jobbik’s program. From day one the Orbán government began fulfilling all of the important nationalistic demands of Jobbik, until the two parties and their constituents were barely distinguishable.

As the result of Fidesz’s rapid move to the right, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the myth of Fidesz as a central force, balancing between the “communists” and the “Nazis.” If Anne Applebaum had written this piece a few years ago, I would have fully agreed with her, but today I believe the picture needs to be refined.

As Fidesz was moving to the far right, becoming a nationalistic party with racist, anti-Semitic undertones, Gábor Vona of Jobbik realized that the political territory his party once occupied was being usurped. He decided to move his party more toward the center, with some success. Thus, the myth that the Fidesz government guarantees law and order in the face of a physically dangerous extreme right has collapsed. Today there is no longer a serious threat of extremists, akin to the alt-right extremists we saw demonstrating in Charlottesville, using deadly force in Hungary.

So, let’s go back to the United States and the “centrist” scenario Anne Applebaum foresees as a possibility. Viktor Orbán is a shrewd, intelligent politician, which we can’t say about Donald Trump. Such sophisticated thinking is, to my mind, unimaginable from Trump. I also believe that both his temperament and his deep-seated political views incline him toward extremism. I cannot picture him as a centrist in any guise, promising calm and the rule of law. He thrives on conflict and discord.

Before the 2010 Hungarians election I said in a lecture that “one doesn’t know where Jobbik ends and where Fidesz begins.” Today I am convinced that the same can be said about Donald Trump and the alt-right in all of its variations.

August 18, 2017

Two “Unite The Right” organizers and Hungary

A couple of months ago I wrote a post on far right western politicians in Hungary who found Budapest a place very much to their liking. At that time I talked about two Britishers: Jim Dowson and Nick Griffin. Viktor Orbán in his “address to the nation” told his audience that instead of admitting migrants from the Middle East and Africa, “we will let in true refugees: Germans, Dutch, French, and Italians, terrified politicians and journalists who here in Hungary want to find the Europe they have lost in their homelands.” The fact is that a number of people—nationalists, opponents of liberal values, members of extreme far-right parties or movements—have been gathering in Hungary for some time.

Today I will concentrate on two men who have had relationships with Hungary and who are closely connected to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville: Richard Spencer and Daniel Friberg. Both were involved with the organization of the rally and were scheduled speakers, but their speeches were scrapped due to the tragic end of the white supremacists’ demonstration.

Maybe I should start with Daniel Friberg, a Swede, who has been living in Hungary for some time. He is the co-founder and editor of AltRight.com, in addition to being a businessman connected to the Swedish mining industry. He is the co-founder and CEO of Arktos Media Ltd., which altright.com describes as “one of the world’s leading publishers of traditionalist and right-wing literature.” As for “traditionalist literature,” Arktos titles, according to Carol Schaeffer, “largely promote a viewpoint it characterizes as ‘alternatives to modernity’ that are critical of liberalism, human rights, and modern democracy.” It was Arktos that published full-text English translations of Russian theorist Alexander Dugin, “the intellectual guru of Putinism.” Friberg and his American editor-in-chief John B. Morgan moved the operation from the United Kingdom to Hungary in January 2016. (I should add that since then Morgan left Arktos and joined Counter-Currents, a white-nationalist publishing house and website also partially based in Budapest.)

With Friberg and Arktos moving to Budapest in early 2014, it made sense for Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank, to organize The National Policy Institute Conference in the Hungarian capital in October of the same year. Although by that time several American, French, and Swedish right-wing extremists lived in Hungary, Viktor Orbán decided not to allow the gathering on Hungarian soil, allegedly because propagating white supremacist messages is unconstitutional. Therefore, he instructed Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to prevent the speakers and organizers from entering the country. But there was a problem: there was no legal way of stopping these men from entering Hungary. And indeed, no one interfered with Richard Spencer, who after landing in Vienna took the train to Budapest.

Once it became clear that the Hungarian police had no authority to deny him entry, the decision was made to forbid the conference. But as TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, pointed out, such an action was also illegal. Even white supremacists have the right to express their opinions. But the Hungarian authorities’ bag is full of tricks. Spencer and about 40 of the would-be participants decided to spend the evening prior to the opening of the conference in a pub. Suddenly at least a dozen policemen arrived on the scene and asked Spencer for identification, which in this case would have been his passport. Hungarians are required to have their IDs on them at all times. Spencer, however, wasn’t carrying his passport. He was therefore arrested and held in jail for 72 hours, after which he was deported from Hungary. Because of the Schengen Agreement he was banned from all EU countries for three years.

Source: Népszabadság / Photo: Miklós Teknős

Before he was arrested and deported, Népszabadság had an interview with Spencer, from which we learn that one of the reasons the Institute chose Budapest as the venue for the conference was the presence of Arktos. He never contemplated holding the conference in Germany because of that country’s anti-hate laws. He thought that in Hungary they would be safe. And now, he said, he is confronted with “this political persecution.” He also expressed an aversion toward Jobbik because of the party’s “Asian fantasies,” which emphasize Hungarians’ relations with the Turks and other Central Asian people. From the interview we also learn that Spencer had friendly contacts with some Hungarian journalists. I assume these journalists came from Magyar Hírlap and perhaps Magyar Nemzet. Certainly, in later years Friberg was a welcome visitor at Magyar Hírlap. In the middle of 2016 the editors ran a whole series of articles about him as well as interviews with him.

Despite this unpleasant encounter, Spencer keeps his eyes on Hungarian events. For example, he reads The Hungarian Free Press, which he labelled as “neither Hungarian nor free nor a press,” in which he found an article about Zsolt Bayer. Bayer had just published an article in which he portrayed the current refugee crisis in Hungary and Europe as a racial war intended to annihilate white people. Based on this article, Christopher Adam, the author of The Hungarian Free Press’s opinion piece, concluded that “Fidesz is now more extreme than the ominous opposition party” Jobbik. Spencer agreed with Adam because “from an identitarian perspective Orban and his party are far sounder ideologically than Jobbik, whose leaders believe, perhaps accurately, that Turks are their brothers and sisters. Orban, on the other hand, has spoken of ‘Europe for Europeans.’” He found the Orbán quotation in an article about the prime minister’s 2015 speech at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, which appeared in Hungary Today, a government propaganda publication. At the end of the article Spencer comes to the conclusion that Bayer, and perhaps Orbán also, have been reading the literature of the alt-right because “Bayer does not speak the language of your standard European ‘ethno-nationalist.’ And it is Hungarians—and not us … at least not yet—who are in the position to realize the ideals of identitarianism.” So, Hungary’s prospect for achieving Spencer’s ideal society is far greater than that of Western Europe and the United States. Obviously kindred souls.

August 15, 2017

Election predictions and fallout from the Botka-Molnár controversy

You may recall that after Viktor Orbán’s performance in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad I wrote that my “overarching impression” was that Viktor Orbán is afraid. I based this opinion on his “extended and continuous self-aggrandizing,” which made me suspicious that he is not as self-assured as he would have us believe. Therefore I was somewhat surprised that a few days later Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV and András Stumpf of Válasz, who rarely see eye to eye on anything, agreed that Viktor Orbán’s self-confidence has never been greater. He was genuinely relaxed and justifiably satisfied with his accomplishments.

Lately two well-known political scientists came out with their assessment of the current political situation, with special attention to possible outcomes of the 2018 national election. Somewhat surprisingly, both Gábor Török, someone who maintained fairly good relations with Fidesz until recently, and Csaba Tóth of the liberal Republikon Intézet described the mood in Fidesz as apprehension concerning the forthcoming election. Viktor Orbán is afraid that Fidesz may not have an absolute majority, preventing it from forming a government.

I’m sure that readers of Hungarian Spectrum would view the scenario described by the two political scientists as outright impossible. After all, we have been doing practically nothing else but bemoaning the sad state of the left-liberal opposition, whose chances were further reduced after László Botka’s intemperate attack on Zsolt Molnár. But Török and Tóth approach the issue from the other end of the political spectrum. They have been paying attention to the changes that have taken place in Jobbik.

Török’s interview with Magyar Narancs is still not available. Magyar Narancs, which is a weekly, comes out on Thursday, but it published a short excerpt from which we can glean the main outline of his thinking. His claim is that the political situation today cannot be compared to 2014 when the so-called “center field of force” (centrális erőtér) still existed. This center field of force meant that Fidesz positioned itself in the center of the political scene between two irreconcilable political forces, a left-liberal and a far-right one. This political combination could assure Fidesz an absolute majority, even with 35-40% of the votes. Now that Jobbik has moved toward the center, Jobbik voters are more likely to vote for a left-liberal candidate and vice versa as long as they manage to defeat the present government. Opinion polls corroborate such a willingness for cross voting. Consequently, as things stand now, Török explains that Fidesz may lose 40 electoral districts, which would mean that it would come up short of the necessary 100 seats for an absolute majority. In that case, Orbán will try “to buy” some members of parliament, try to find a coalition partner, or, most likely, have a snap election within three months.

Tóth also concentrates on Jobbik. As opposed to the left, Jobbik “is capable of strategic thinking” and, unlike MSZP, is unified and speaks with one voice. He also stresses that it is a misconception to think that in order to defeat Fidesz one needs a single strong opposition force because of the possibility of cross voters in the new circumstances. In Tóth’s scheme, opinion polls indicate that the left-liberal opposition in Budapest is stronger than Fidesz and that 10-15 electoral districts could be won just in Budapest. Jobbik could easily win 10 districts nationally, and the liberal-left opposition could add another 10 districts in the larger cities. That would be enough for Fidesz not to have an absolute majority.

Tóth also talked about the Botka-Molnár controversy as far as the liberal-socialist opposition’s chances in Budapest are concerned. Keep in mind that Republikon Intézet is also a polling organization, and therefore Tóth has been looking at polling data as well as voting patterns in the past. The conclusion Republikon Intézet drew was that the left-of-center opposition can win only in individual districts where DK is strong and therefore the cooperation of MSZP and DK is a must in Budapest. As far as the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány is concerned, it is true that he is the most unpopular politician on the left, but even if Botka succeeded and excluded Gyurcsány from participation, “Fidesz would place Gyurcsány” behind any cooperation between DK and MSZP, even if on the local level. His conclusion is that “making the democratic forces free of Gyurcsány is impossible,” and therefore Botka’s efforts in this direction are misguided. Moreover, the numbers don’t support Botka’s strategy, because it was MSZP that lost voters and not the Demokratikus Koalíció.

Since my piece on the Botka-Molnár controversy was published yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to a couple of interviews relevant to the subject. One was by László Botka himself on Olga Kálmán’s “Egyenesen” on HírTV. In my opinion, it was a disappointing performance. Botka has only three or four sentences, which he keeps repeating over and over, even within the same interview. Otherwise, he is devoid of any vision. Anyone who’s interested in the interview should visit HírTV’s website.

Here I only want to point out something I found amusing, I guess because I have an interest in questions relating to language. Botka desperately tried to wiggle out of accusing Molnár of betrayal (árulás). After all, ‘betrayal’ is a strong word, and Botka’s use of it is widely considered to be politically damaging. Added to his discomfort was Kálmán’s disapproving tone while questioning him on this point. How did he try to get out of this sticky situation? This is the relevant passage: “After democratic discussions on political strategy a decision was reached and a few weeks later a socialist politician questions that decision. One cannot really find another word but betrayal because he divulged a common decision.” The poor man must have been desperate because, although it is true that “elárul” means both “to divulge” and “to betray,” “árulás,” the noun he used, can mean only one thing–“betrayal.”

Equally amusing was István Ujhelyi’s interview on ATV’s “Egyenes beszéd” yesterday. He also had a fairly lengthy conversation with György Bolgár on “Megbeszéljük,” a call-in show on KlubRádió, on Friday. Bolgár stressed the seriousness of Botka’s accusations and said that he hoped that Botka has proof to support his contention. Ujhelyi, who is perhaps the strongest supporter of Botka in the party, assured Bolgár that Botka is a man who doesn’t talk through his hat. He must have tangible proof. What about the others Botka alluded to, asked Bolgár? Ujhelyi answered that he was certain that after Botka returns from his vacation he will make public the “background information” about other possible traitors in MSZP.

By Monday this conversation, which took place a couple of days before, had become an embarrassment because it turned out that there was no hard proof of any “betrayal.” Moreover, the party bigwigs decided that all that talk about betrayal was damaging to MSZP. So, now Ujhelyi had to explain his words away. Luckily for him, András Sváby, one of the new anchors of “Egyenes beszéd,” was pretty clueless when confronted with Ujhelyi’s revised version of his conversation with Bolgár. Ujhelyi insisted that the only thing he said in the Bolgár interview was that “if there are people [in the party] who hold notions different from the official decision concerning electoral strategy Botka will put an end to their games.” It was really pitiful to watch the man, especially since I used to think highly of him as a hard-working member of the European Parliament. He is a decent man caught in a party machinery that has lost its way.

August 2, 2017

The heist of two million euros

Three days ago, thanks to 444.hu, the Hungarian public at last learned about a robbery that had actually taken place during the night of April 7. In the last three months not a word about it has leaked out, despite an extensive police investigation. The effort to keep the case under wraps is not at all surprising because the burglary occurred at the office of Arton Capital, one of the four companies that were entitled to sell residency bonds.

The residency bond project was launched in 2013. It allowed a citizen of a non-European country to “buy” a resident permit for the duration of five years by purchasing €250,000 worth of Hungarian government bonds. In 2015 that amount was raised to €300,000. I called the project “the Orbán government’s colossal swindle” in one of my posts. Anyone who’s interested in the details should read that post, in which I explained that the greatest beneficiaries of this arrangement were the four companies that had the exclusive right to sell the bonds. According to estimates, these companies made a real killing, receiving about a third of the 1.2 billion euros the state got from the residency bonds.

When 444.hu first reported on the heist, few details were known, just that the burglars took cash and that the amount of money was in the millions. A few hours later RTL Klub knew the exact figures: altogether 1.9 euros were stolen. One million was in a safe and the rest was in an unlocked desk drawer. The safe was gone and so was the server with the complete documentation of all the sales, including personal data of the purchasers.

This burglary has been taken very seriously. According to accounts, the police have pulled out all the stops in trying to solve the case. Index reported that 1,300 people have been questioned in connection with this affair.

We have always suspected that this whole residency bond arrangement, devised by Antal Rogán, served only one purpose: to siphon off as much public money as possible and pass it into individual pockets and most likely also into Fidesz’s coffers. Under normal circumstances, all transactions should have been conducted by drafts or promissory notes. Moreover, if this large amount of cash was part of the clients’ handling fee that varied between €45,000 and €60,000 per residency bond, how did these cash payments reach Arton Capital in Budapest in the first place? A person can legally bring a maximum of €10,000 into the country in cash. The answer of course is that it was done illegally, possibly with the assistance of the authorities.

The burglars were skilled. Their entry and their movements inside the offices showed a high level of professionalism. I assume they were familiar with the place and knew exactly what they were after. Naturally, as always happens in such cases, so-called experts, mostly former police officers, come up with all sorts of fancy explanations–from self-robbery to foreign secret service agents who are after the personal data of the people to whom Hungary so generously allowed free access to the whole European Union. In any case, it looks like a complicated case to me. Even if the usually inept Hungarian police find the culprits, I don’t think we will ever learn the real story behind this huge amount of cash stashed away in an unlocked drawer and a safe.

The weak and usually powerless opposition, especially Jobbik and LMP, has been trying to organize an investigative committee to look into this very suspicious business around the residency bonds. Naturally, Fidesz made sure that no such committee would be formed. Therefore, last November Jobbik, LMP, and the tiny Liberal Party decided to form a “shadow committee” and began their own, unofficial investigation of the clearly illegal and corrupt money laundering business conducted by the Orbán government. At that time, the opposition members of parliament who participated in the shadow committee hoped to finish their job by the spring. After this initial announcement I didn’t see any sign of their activities, although they had ambitious plans, including holding hearings where employees of the Immigration and Citizenship Authority would be called to testify. But now, after the burglary, the shadow committee suddenly revived. They announced that they want to talk to the representatives of the four companies who are in the residency bond business. Good luck, since I’m certain that the men and women in question have no intention of being questioned by members of an opposition shadow committee. On the other hand, a representative of the Liberal Party claims that the members of the committee have learned that the residency bond project is “a professionally organized criminal undertaking.”

A Jobbik member of the committee, Andrea Varga-Damm, was Olga Kálmán’s guest on HírTV yesterday where she revealed an important piece of information, which is most likely the result of the investigation this shadow committee has been conducting in the last few months. The law that established the project was enacted on December 27, 2012. Twenty-six days earlier, on December 1, the government made some small changes in the bill, which up to that point had allowed the companies to hold only a certain amount of money in petty cash. That limit was abolished, most likely not quite independently from the forthcoming residency bond project. Talk about “a professional organized criminal undertaking.” All was prepared for the killing ahead.

June 30, 2017

Mission accomplished: Jobbik’s hard-hitting billboards will be removed

On June 14, 2016, a united opposition prevented the adoption of a proposal intended to re-regulate the use of posters and billboards by political parties. The bill, among other things, included the stipulation that if the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the current market value, such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. Since a portion of the bill dealt with party financing, in order to pass, the bill needed a two-thirds majority of the members present.

The proposal was submitted in response to thousands of Jobbik billboards carrying the message that while ordinary citizens work, the members of the political elite and their friendly oligarchs steal the country blind. Viktor Orbán’s fury over the posters was only reinforced when he learned that Jobbik had rented the advertising surfaces from one of Lajos Simicska’s business ventures, Mahír, for practically peanuts. Simicska would like nothing more than to get rid of his former friend turned enemy Viktor Orbán at the next national election in the spring of 2018, and he was prepared to be generous to Jobbik in its anti-Fidesz billboard campaign.

The government party was two persons short of the magic two-thirds majority, and therefore it was imperative that all the members of the Fidesz and KDNP delegations showed up. Even György Rubovszky of KDNP, who died a week later, attended the session. The hope was that either a few opposition members would be absent or that the politically diverse opposition would not be well disciplined. But everyone was there with the exception of Lajos Oláh of DK, who was on his way to the hospital with kidney stones. And every member of the opposition voted against the bill. So Fidesz was left with only one absentee, which wasn’t enough. The bill failed to be enacted.

Within hours, however, the government party announced that the bill would be resubmitted. The president of the parliament called for an extraordinary session, where the only item on the agenda was the poster law nicknamed by its co-sponsor Lajos Kósa “Lex Csicska.” Csicska is a person who in jail or in a reformatory is forced to serve others. In this case, the “csicska” is Jobbik, the party which, they claim, is simply an instrument of Simicska’s design against Viktor Orbán and his government.

Since the session was not a scheduled one, the hope again was that many opposition members would be unable to attend. At the same time, just to be sure, Fidesz politicians began negotiations with several opposition parties and members, hoping to get partners to push through this bill that Viktor Orbán found so important. A few days ago I devoted a post to MSZP’s decision to submit a proposal of their own, which was not a hit with the other parties and which was eventually torpedoed by László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership. Thus, it looked as if there was no chance for Lex Csicska to be adopted. Moreover, on the day of the extraordinary session (Friday, June 22) Viktor Orbán was supposed to be in Brussels. And György Rubovszky died on June 21, a day before the crucial vote. Yet Viktor Orbán announced that he has no plans to return because “his boss,” i.e. the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, doesn’t think that his presence is necessary. It was at this point that I became mighty suspicious that the legal wizards of Fidesz had found some clever work-around solution.

And indeed, late on Thursday evening, when Orbán was already in Brussels, the public learned that Fidesz will not resubmit the original law which had been voted down a week earlier. Rather, members of parliament will have to vote on amendments to a 2016 law on the defense of community image (településkép), which required only a simple majority to pass. In Hungary the central government lays down the parameters of what towns can and cannot do in burnishing their images. The original law dealt with advertisements, posters, billboards but only commercial ones, advertising everything from beer to toothpaste. Expanding this law to give municipalities the authority to restrict party advertising is, according to most legal scholars, unconstitutional because the Hungarian Constitution specifically states that “the detailed rules for the operation and management of political parties shall be laid down in a cardinal Act.”

Gergely Gulyás, Fidesz’s wunderkind, enjoying the fruits of his labor

But that wasn’t the only trick Fidesz employed. Gergely Gulyás, deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation, breaking house rules, introduced MSZP’s proposal, which was never officially submitted for consideration, as an amendment, putting MSZP in the uncomfortable position that their members had to vote against their own “amendment.” The vote was 123 in favor and 68 against. Fidesz-KDNP parliamentarians knew ahead of time what was coming, so of their 130 members only 123 showed up. On the other hand, all 68 members of the opposition parties and the independents were present and voted against the bill.

Although legal scholars believe that the Constitutional Court should find this law unconstitutional, they admit that, given the composition of the 15-member body, the judges may just rubber stamp it. Zoltán Fleck, professor of sociology of law at ELTE’s law school, with a certain sadness remarked that he wasn’t really surprised to hear about this latest Fidesz ploy because in Hungary “the rule of law has long been officially terminated.” György Magyar, Simicska’s lawyer and civil activist, also tore the law apart on his blog.

An amusing story connected to the passage of this bill shows the cynicism of most of those Fidesz members of parliament who serve as voting robots. Máriusz Révész (Fidesz), under pressure from a journalist of 24.hu about the strange transformation of a law that requires a two-thirds majority into one that needs only a simple majority, got mighty confused. After a lot of prevarication, he blurted out: “obviously this time it is not happening according to the law.” So, he basically confirmed the opposition’s criticism that Fidesz acted illegally. It is not something the Fidesz leadership easily forgives. This afternoon Index, which reported on the 24.hu story, received a letter from Révész in which he tried to convince them that he wasn’t talking about the law itself but about illicit party financing.

Albert Gazda of Magyar Nemzet wrote an opinion piece titled “The cowardly Fidesz.” As the title suggests, Gazda looks upon this latest Fidesz trick, which he considers primitive even by the party’s own low moral and intellectual standards, as a sign of weakness. “Here is the first spectacular and hard-hitting campaign and Fidesz is running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Gazda also believes that Fidesz is not only cowardly but also fearful. “But fear eats away the soul, takes away strength, and destroys faith.”

I’m not at all sure that Gazda is right. Instead, I would suggest that these posters got under Orbán’s skin in a big way because he found them politically damaging. He had only one goal: the posters must be taken down immediately. Therefore, I believe, he didn’t particularly care in what manner this bill became law. He most likely knows that the law is unconstitutional, but in the short run he simply doesn’t care. Even if the Constitutional Court finds the law unconstitutional, that decision may take months while the billboards will have to be removed immediately. Orbán wanted to stop the political hemorrhaging right now.

June 24, 2017

What’s MSZP up to? Other opposition parties are suspicious

On April Fool’s Day thousands of stark black-and-white billboards appeared all over the country. The message they carried was simple: ordinary citizens work while the political elite and their friendly oligarchs steal the country blind. Jobbik, the party that ran this billboard campaign, hit Fidesz where it hurt. An infuriated Viktor Orbán wanted the billboards gone as soon as possible. In the beginning Fidesz activists were sent to remove or deface them, but, given the number of billboards Jobbik scattered all over the country, a better solution had to be found. In such cases Fidesz’s usual response is to create a new, targeted law.

This is exactly what happened here. On April 27 Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the ministry of human resources, submitted a proposal to re-regulate the use of posters and billboards. The bill included the stipulation that if the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the “current market value,” such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. This regulation would be applicable at times outside of the three months officially designated as the “campaign period.” Owners of poster surfaces must turn in a price list to the State Account Office and will be obliged to make their prices available on their websites.

In addition, and much more worrisome, a government decree signed by Viktor Orbán stipulated that starting on June 1, 2017, local government permission would be needed to place new advertising spots anywhere. The decree also introduced other new regulations. For example, the size of the billboards would have to be reduced from 12m2 to 9m2 and the frame size changed from 14m2 to 11m2. An additional burden on the companies. Much worse, the appendix to the decree stipulated that in the future one will be able to advertise only on properties owned by the state or the municipality. As it stands now, 90% of the advertising surfaces are in private hands and only 10% belong to the municipalities. This decree turns the billboard market upside down and will institute a state monopoly over political advertising.

There was only one problem. Certain parts of the Kósa-Halász bill needed a two-thirds majority, and Fidesz at the moment is short by two votes. Fidesz couldn’t convince any member of the opposition to vote for the bill. The opposition, both right and left, found it unacceptable. And although one of the DK members of parliament had such a serious attack of kidney stones that he had to be taken to the hospital and missed the vote, Fidesz still came up one short. As you can see on this photo, Orbán was anything but happy. Nonetheless, it was decided to resubmit the proposal this Friday at an extraordinary session of parliament.

Zsolt Semjén, Viktor Orbán, and János Lázár after the voting was over Magyar Nemzet / Attila Béres

At the center of this billboard controversy is Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s former friend and business partner. Simicska, in addition to owning Közgép, a construction company that once had a virtual monopoly on government infrastructure contracts, also owns several other businesses, including Mahir Cityposter and Publimont, which rent out billboard spaces and advertising kiosks. Jobbik’s billboards and posters appeared on spaces owned by these two companies. It was suspected from the beginning that Simicska, who broke with Orbán and Fidesz about two years ago, provided space for the Jobbik posters at a cut rate, but until very recently Jobbik refused to divulge the cost. So, in addition to the Kósa-Halász bill and Orbán’s decree, NAV, the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, paid a visit to Mahir’s headquarters. They had the right to check all financial transactions between January 1 and April 30. They were specifically looking for financial transactions connected to the Jobbik posters.

When the price Jobbik paid Simicska’s firm was finally made public last week, it was obvious that “Simicska had sold the surfaces at a ridiculously low price,” as Népszava pointed out. Simicska, who until recently was the “financial genius” behind Fidesz’s coffers, used to favor Fidesz by charging very little for advertising posters. Now he was doing the same for Jobbik.

And so, if Fidesz’s bill were to fail again, because of Jobbik’s special relation with Lajos Simicska, the real winner would be the far-right but lately somewhat mellowed Jobbik. MSZP swung into action. They dusted off an old proposal that they had earlier submitted to parliament, which they now presented as an alternative to the Fidesz proposal. It would, just like the Kósa-Halász bill, forbid political advertising except during the campaign period by parties, municipalities, and the government, but, in addition, it would specifically forbid advertising by CÖF, the government-financed so-called civic organization, and Fidelitas, Fidesz’s youth organization.

With MSZP’s move Fidesz-KDNP was presented with an easy path to victory. Fidesz is “still studying” the matter, but it finds many aspects of the MSZP bill acceptable. Jobbik naturally is not game, and it looks as if LMP is also holding to its original position. According to LMP’s spokesman, unity must be maintained against this bill, which would only help Fidesz. However, as we all know, if MSZP is ready to sit down and negotiate, there will be no problem on Friday. And in that case, Jobbik will have been outfoxed. Not surprisingly, Jobbik politicians are crying foul. János Völner, head of Jobbik’s parliamentary delegation, described MSZP’s move as one of the most obvious and brutal political pacts since 1990. He claims that the poster market was the only one where there was parity among the parties. MSZP with this move contributes to Viktor Orbán’s media dominance.

Alfahír, Jobbik’s online news site, illustrates the mood in the party. The article reporting on MSZP’s offer begins this way: “June 19, 2017. Please don’t forget this date. Today is the birthday of the Orbán regime’s Patriotic Popular Front. Today what we had suspected for years has become official: MSZP became the prostitute of Fidesz.” The Patriotic Popular Front (Hazafias Népfront) was created in 1954 and was dismantled in 1990. It was supposed to be a body representative of the whole society.

Too little time has passed since the MSZP proposal to be able to gauge the reaction of the other smaller parties on the left. I suspect that, similarly to LMP, they will not be thrilled with MSZP’s special deal with the government party. They will be most likely strengthened in their suspicion that MSZP is not playing a fair game and that somehow it has a secret understanding with Fidesz. I wouldn’t go that far, but MSZP’s leadership is not known for its boldness and clear-cut positions. How MSZP voters will react to this unexpected move no one can tell yet, but somehow I don’t think that it will be popular among MSZP voters, most of whom, I suspect, wouldn’t want to have anything to do with Viktor Orbán and his party.

June 19, 2017