Tag Archives: KDNP

The Hungarian government chips away at the abortion law

Thursday afternoon, during his regular press conference, János Lázár announced the latest government decision. Two hospitals–the Budai Irgalmasrendi Kórház, managed by the Hungarian Catholic Church, and the Bethesda Gyermekkórház, maintained by the Hungarian Reformed Church–will receive a generous grant of 7.8 billion forints so they can offer obstetric services. In return, they will not perform abortions and will refuse to accept gratuities, which, as we all know, are steep. Obstetricians can become quite wealthy from money happy new parents pass to them under the table.

The immediate reaction in the liberal press was negative. Journalists remember only too well earlier attempts to restrict abortions. The sanctity of life issue is at the core of the Christian Democratic People’s Party’s ideology. During the debate on the constitution in 2010 KDNP politicians were adamant about the issue. Eventually the following sentence made its way into the final text of Orbán’s constitution: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. Every human being shall have the right to life and human dignity; the life of the fetus shall be protected from the moment of conception.” Subsequently, KDNP tried several times to convince Viktor Orbán to follow the Polish example, which makes abortion illegal except in cases of rape, when the woman’s life is in jeopardy, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged. The Polish government recently tried to enact a total ban on abortions, but it had to retreat in the face of huge demonstrations. Orbán knows that the introduction of a sweeping abortion law in Hungary would be political suicide.

Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (TASZ), the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, objected to the terms of the grants. Judit Zeller, who works on patients’ rights cases, took the position that although individual doctors may refuse to perform surgical interventions in pregnancy cases, institutions as such can’t. If the condition of the government’s financial assistance depends on the hospitals refusing to perform abortions, the arrangement between the hospitals and the government is illegal.

As is often the case in the chaos within the Orbán government, there was a discrepancy between Lázár’s statement and the official government text. In its announcement Magyar Közlöny, the official gazette of government edicts and laws, said not a word about the special understanding between the hospitals and the central government concerning the prohibition of abortions.

The two hospitals will actually share one new obstetric department, which will be housed in Bethesda. People familiar with the medical facilities in Budapest claim there is no need for an additional facility. They suspect that the arrangement is a kind of unholy alliance between the two so-called historic churches, on the one hand, and the Hungarian government, which is eager to have the churches’ full support, on the other.

KDNP, the “political arm of the Catholic Church,” has been unhappy ever since 2010 when it failed to have a total ban on abortions included in the new constitution. The party therefore periodically makes attempts to smuggle in restrictive laws. In 2012 there was a huge debate on the “abortion pill,” in which KDNP successfully led the opposition to its availability in Hungary. The World Health Organization approved the pill in 2005 and the Hungarian “college of gynecologists and obstetricians” also endorsed its use. But KDNP’s “expert” described the horrors that follow the procedure, which in his opinion was even more dangerous than the surgical technique. He also claimed that “WHO suggested the use of the abortion pill for overpopulated countries,” not for countries with a low birthrate like Hungary. As a result of KDNP’s fierce opposition, the pill is not available in Hungary to this day.

A year later, in 2013, KDNP introduced yet another bill to restrict women’s gynecological rights. This time is was Bence Rétvári, undersecretary in the department of justice, who introduced the bill. KDNP wanted to put an end to voluntary sterilization. Prior to 2005 Hungarian laws had restricted voluntary sterilization. The Constitutional Court found them unconstitutional because they violated women’s rights. Therefore, after 2006 such operations could be freely performed at the patient’s expense. It was this liberal law that KDNP wanted to change in such a way that only those women who were over 40 years old and already had three children could be sterilized. This bill was never enacted into law.

Medián took a survey at that time on Hungarian attitudes toward the abortion issue, and it turned out that even supporters of Fidesz-KDNP didn’t back further legal restrictions. The poll showed that 72% of churchgoers thought that in cases of financial stress abortion was an acceptable alternative. The same group of people believed that the abortion pill that KDNP torpedoed a year before was an acceptable, maybe even preferable, method of birth control.

A year ago Index got hold of a study by a hobby demographer whose remedy for the low birthrate in Hungary is to forbid all abortions on childless women between the ages of 35 and 45. This hobby demographer has close ties to KDNP. In fact, his study was at least partially financed by KDNP’s Barankovics Foundation.

In brief, KDNP has been relentlessly trying to overturn the current law on abortion. Yet the top politicians of the party now claim that they had absolutely nothing to do with the deal between the two hospitals and the government. I doubt that this is the case. I can hardly imagine that Miklós Soltész (KDNP), the secretary for churches, minorities and civil affairs, had nothing to do with the 7.8 billion forints given to the two church-run hospitals.

This first step toward “abortion free hospitals” might seem innocuous. It simply reduces the number of hospitals where women can have abortions. Perhaps this way KDNP’s drive for a ban on abortions might be less noticeable, especially if the process takes several years. Népszava’s headline to its article on the subject read: “Did the future begin?” A lot of people think so.

February 10, 2017

A Christian Democratic politician’s illicit affair with a minor

Journalists from local papers often uncover important pieces of political news that would otherwise never be reported in the larger nationwide papers and internet sites. The County of Vas is lucky in this respect because nyugat.hu is an independent paper, unlike most of the regional papers recently acquired by Lőrinc Mészáros, the alter ego of Viktor Orbán. “Nyugat” in Hungarian means “West,” both as a geographic term and as a metaphor, standing for enlightenment.

When news reached nyugat.hu that Ferenc Szabó (KDNP), the deputy mayor of Körmend, had resigned, the paper’s journalists figured that something dramatic must have happened because Szabó has been deputy mayor of the town of 10,000 for the last 19 years. Szabó’s explanation for his departure was a desire to spend more time on his “research.” Nyugat.hu carried a short article about the resignation and Szabó’s stated reason for stepping down but ended with “we will return to the matter later.”

And indeed they did. The next day nyugat.hu revealed the real reason for the resignation. The parents of a 16-year-old girl, currently enrolled in grade 10 in the local gymnasium, had filed charges against Szabó. They claimed he had had an illicit sexual relationship with their daughter when she was Szabó’s student either in grade 7 or 8–that is, under the age of 16. In brief, they charged him with statutory rape. As it turned out, the people of Körmend had been whispering about the 56-year-old teacher’s affair with his former student and they even complained to members of the city council. But the Fidesz-KDNP-majority city council was reluctant to move until the parents themselves filed a complaint with the police. By the end of January, they convinced Szabó to resign, but they didn’t insist on his total removal from the body. He resigned as deputy mayor but kept his seat on the council as an independent.

Ferenc Eőry Szabó

The weak opposition in Körmend is up in arms. Jobbik demanded his dismissal from the Körmend Council and called on the Fidesz mayor to make the information about the reason for Szabó’s resignation public. MSZP’s Körmend organization demanded the same. A civic organization called “Pro Körmend,” which actually has a member on the city council, claimed that Szabó’s “proclivity” for sexual advances toward his young female students had been known for years in the school. They wanted to know why the principal had done nothing. They also accused the Fidesz mayor who, according to them, tried to hush up the scandal.

There is good reason for these complaints because the parents apparently first approached the school principal and the mayor but didn’t receive any assistance or encouragement. So, at the end of January, they decided to go to the police and file a complaint.

ATV approached the Szombathely center of the infamous Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), which is supposed to be in charge of the elementary school where Szabó was and still is a teacher. The head of the center told the television station that he had received “no written complaint” from the institution, which begged the question as to whether KLIK had gotten verbal information from the school. And indeed, the center did hear from the school, but “at first the center looked upon the complaint as a simple political affair.” After a few days of thinking, the leader of the center suggested a face-to-face meeting between Szabó and the parents and the child, which I don’t believe took place.

Meanwhile the national leaders of KDNP–Zsolt Semjén, chairman, and Péter Harrach, head of KDNP’s parliamentary delegation–promised that Szabó will be expelled from the party if he is found guilty of the charge. For the time being, it seems that the party would be happy if Szabó took the initiative, if he resigned and quietly disappeared.

In order to understand Ferenc Szabó’s prominence in Körmend over and above his political activities, spanning the period between 1994 and 2017, it is important to dig into those “research activities” he quoted as the reason for his resignation. As soon as I read that Szabó’s “field of expertise” is “őstörténet” (prehistory), I knew that he had to be one of those people who propound outlandish and singularly unscientific theories about the history of humankind in the period before recorded history. There are, of course, linguists and archaeologists who can offer some hypotheses about, let’s say, the movements of Hungarian tribes along the steppes of Eurasia, but these people’s assumptions are based on scientific evidence. By contrast, there is a whole network of self-styled prehistory researchers, whom I consider to be the lunatic fringe. Szabó is one of them.

When it comes to Szabó’s theories, nyugat.hu politely called them “rather strange.” Among other things, he believes that “Hungarians are an entirely different species.” And that is just the beginning of the madness. He believes that we might be “cosmic beings.”

Ferenc Eőry Szabó, the embellished name he assumed for his research, along with some other prehistory hobbyists, established the Körmendi Kulturális Műhely (Cultural Workshop of Körmend), which hosts meetings featuring similar “prehistory researchers” and makes the videos available on the internet. The workshop also publishes books. Eőry Szabó was one of the authors of Szkíták—Hunok–Magyarok. The book’s blurb claims that anyone reading this book will be convinced that Hungarians are the ancestors of mankind. “The Bible is right. In the past there was only one language and one nation,” which was of course Hungarian.

Eőry Szabó also organizes conferences, one of which was on János Móricz, who was born in Körmend in 1923. Móricz allegedly discovered an Indian tribe in Ecuador whose members “could converse with Móricz in Hungarian.” One of the participants in this conference was Eőry Szabó’s “fellow researcher” Ágnes Purisaca Golenya. She was born Ágnes Golenya in Miskolc but received her second family name from the Indian Purisaca family in northern Peru. Her “famous” book is The Children of Blue Blood, “who are humans, living on earth, who belong to the system of Sirius headed by Mother Isis.” Just to give you an idea of Purisaca Golenya’s linguistic expertise, she even managed to prove that the name Sylvester can be explained by an Indian language spoken in Ecuador (Szilveszter = Sili-Us-Ter).

I’ve linked to the video of Purisaca Golenya’s lecture on “From Sirius to the Carpathian Basin.” But there are at least half a dozen such lectures available online from the series of lectures Szabó organized in Körmend.

One can only hope that he leaves his so-called expertise on prehistory outside the classroom, but I somehow doubt it. He is dead serious about all this stuff. He believes that “history must be reformed,” as he put it in his introduction to one of the lectures, so I can’t believe that he doesn’t spread the gospel even in school. His removal from his teaching position is therefore doubly justified.

February 9, 2017

Fidesz heavyweights against Viktor Orbán

Who would have thought that Viktor Orbán’s decision to repeal the law on Sunday store closings would create such turmoil in government circles? Deep divisions surfaced not only between Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) but also within Fidesz itself. To my great surprise some very important political leaders–like János Lázár, Zoltán Balog, and László Kövér–turned out to be such staunch supporters of this unpopular measure that they opted to stay away to avoid voting for the bill. Lázár and Balog made clear that their absence must be interpreted as a “no” vote. All three have been fined 100,000 ft. for not following the compulsory voting procedure for members of the Fidesz delegation.

We have to keep in mind is that the present Hungarian government is not a coalition. It is a “pártszövetség” (party alliance), which gives the Christian Democrats very little room for political maneuvering. The actual political strength of the party is minuscule. The party is nothing more than a political club whose largest “victory” was in 1994 when it received 5.7% of the votes. Four years later, with 2.59%, it ceased to be represented in parliament. Then, after eight years of inactivity, it resurfaced as part of Fidesz in 2006. The revival of the party and the fact that Fidesz essentially sponsored it was the result of Zsolt Semjén’s clever politicking. Once the party alliance was in place, he managed to get a fair number of government positions for KDNP members who, by the way, are often also members of Fidesz. One such person was Rózsa Hoffmann, who failed miserably as undersecretary of education. Bence Rétvári is another Christian Democrat who is now rather unsuccessfully battling with the teachers’ unions.

In addition to the failed “education reform,” KDNP had a couple of other issues they felt strongly about. One of these was the formulation of a new law on the churches. But after they put a lot of work into drafting a bill, Fidesz took over the project and completely rewrote it. The party also felt strongly about a so-called family bankruptcy law, which turned out to be so poorly formulated that after the government set aside half a billion dollars for it, only 100 families signed up. And, of course, the crown jewel of KDNP’s political agenda was the Sunday closing of retail stores. That turned out to be a failure too. Once Viktor Orbán was faced with a likely referendum on the issue, he quickly decided to repeal the legislation and reopen stores on Sunday.

In the last few weeks the Orbán government has been faced with two huge headaches: the revolt of the teachers and the upheaval surrounding István Nyakó’s referendum question. One wonders whether Viktor Orbán might not be re-weighing the benefit of having KDNP as an “ally.” At the moment it is only a pain in the neck.

I assume that Viktor Orbán is clever enough to make KDNP even more marginal in the “alliance” than it is now. The problem is that there is a cleavage even within Fidesz itself when it comes to the Sunday closing issue. As far as I can see, the Fidesz bigwigs’ opposition is not ideological as KDNP’s is. For many Christian Democratic politicians Sunday is a holy day when good Catholics are supposed to go to church. So, they look on the legislation as, at least in part, a religious issue. The Fidesz rebels apparently disagree with Orbán’s pandering to the voters. As a populist his main concern is the government/party’s popularity. If public opinion polls provided by the party’s own think tank, Századvég, indicate that Sunday store closing is not popular and that the opposition will rally the dissatisfied, it must be abolished. Apparently, it is this totally pragmatic approach that bothers László Kövér, János Lázár, and Zoltán Balog.

Viktor Orbán and János Lázar at the plenary session on Monday / MTI Photo Tibor Illyés

Viktor Orbán and János Lázar at the plenary session on Monday.  MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

According to 444.hu, over the weekend the highest officeholders of Fidesz got together. Both Kövér and Balog expressed their strong opposition to a retreat on the issue. Their argument was based on principles. Fidesz, according to them, is a conservative Christian party which made the decision out of conviction, and it should stick with it even at the cost of a loss of popularity. On Monday, during the cabinet meeting, the debate continued. At that meeting Lázár supported Balog and posed the theoretical question: “If the people don’t want stadiums, will we start demolishing them?” A few hours later, at the meeting of the Fidesz caucus, Kövér expressed his disgust at the decision.

At the moment it is difficult to know how serious a rift we are witnessing and where it may lead. I wonder, for example, how long Orbán will put up with Lázár’s less than loyal comments and his open disagreements with the prime minister. Perhaps Lázár thinks that he is irreplaceable, but we know that nobody is. I find it interesting that on his way to the Voivodina (Serbia) last night Viktor Orbán stopped in Hódmezővásárhely to have dinner at the Lázár house. In fact, he spent the night there. I suspect this was not a social call but a heated discussion of their disagreement over fundamental issues.

Many commentators consider the repeal of the law on Sunday store closings a huge defeat for MSZP and the other opposition parties, which have been deprived of at least three months of anti-government campaigning and possible victory at the polls. This is not how László Kövér sees the retreat. He considers Orbán’s decision “a huge mistake which cannot be left without comment.” He believes that Fidesz “ceded the unattended field to the left opposition, which can now wage a bait campaign against [them].” Fidesz was unable to convince the people of the correctness of their original decision, and if they don’t do better in the future they will be in trouble at the 2018 election.

And just one more word about our inimitable László Kövér. He was outraged that women were disproportionately against the Sunday closing. He said that they should show more solidarity toward those who must work on Sundays. This interview, which originally appeared in Magyar Idők, was summarized in HVG where, unlike in Magyar Idők, people can comment. Most of the comments were negative, many expressing their dislike of Kövér. Not surprisingly many women commented. One woman wrote: “I would love to be the wife of Kövér for a short while.” To which another wrote: “Me too! Lucrezia Borgia …. :-)”

April 13, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s lost battle: Sunday store closings

A few days ago I recalled an interview with a couple of talking heads who complained about the pettiness of the political issues the opposition was wasting its time on, like the closing of larger retail stores on Sunday. Why have a political debate about such a ridiculous topic? Well, the question of whether large supermarkets and big box stores should be open or closed turned out to be a much larger issue than these people thought. After thirteen months of wrangling and scheming, the Orbán government threw in the towel. The 2015 law that forbade these stores to be open on Sunday will most likely be repealed tomorrow.

The news spread rapidly. Libération’s Budapest correspondence, Florence La Bruere, published a detailed article on the Orbán government’s decision to reintroduce Sunday closings 25 years after the change of regime. In the article she quotes a woman who told her that “under socialism, everything was closed on weekends. After the fall of communism, stores could be open on Sundays and we really enjoyed that. It was a symbol of freedom.” It was this feeling of freedom that was taken away from Hungarians, who overwhelmingly opposed the new law.

Ever since November 2014 a tug-of-war has been waged between the government, which stubbornly insisted on defending a bad decision, and the people this government allegedly represents. Numerous attempts were made to force the Orbán administration to allow a referendum on the question, all to no avail. At least until now, when the highest court of the land, the Kúria, overturning the decision of both the National Election Office and the National Election Commission, allowed the socialists to begin a drive to collect the necessary number of signatures. The government’s reaction was swift. Fearing defeat at the polls, they opted to repeal the law that Fidesz-KDNP had enacted in November 2014.

Because of lack of common sense Closed Opening: Uncertain

Because of lack of common sense
Opening: Uncertain

From the beginning there was an ongoing debate about why Viktor Orbán agreed to the demand of KDNP, the Christian Democratic People’s Party. KDNP is a party that doesn’t really exist. But its phony parliamentary delegation allows the right wing to be over-represented on committees. I suggested that the leaders of this party, which normally follows Viktor Orbán without question, decided to make an issue of the Sunday store closings. They most likely handed a reluctant Orbán an ultimatum: if Fidesz doesn’t cave on this issue, they might not support a bill that is of great importance to Fidesz. My opponents suspected that the key to this case was not so much the Christian Democrats’ insistence but pressure coming from two Hungarian-owned supermarket chains, operating as franchises. They lobbied for a law that would be advantageous to smaller stores that can remain open on Sundays and disadvantageous to the large foreign-owned chains. Of course, it is possible, even likely, that pressure came from these sources, but given the reaction of the Catholic Church and KDNP there can be no doubt that the Christian Democratic (non)-party had a major role to play here.

KDNP’s fight for Sunday closings began in 2000, and a year later the Conference of Catholic Bishops joined forces with the party. One must keep in mind that the chairman of KDNP, Zsolt Semjén, once described his party as the political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church. Ever since that time Sunday store closings remained an important demand of the Christian Democrats as well as the Catholic Church. In April 2011 they managed to convince the national economic ministry to conduct a study which, unfortunately for them, showed that the issue was both politically and economically sensitive. It would be unpopular, and it would deprive the budget of about 50 billion forints in taxes. So, for almost four years the issue was not on the agenda. Sometime in early November 2014, however, Viktor Orbán unexpectedly decided to support the idea. The bill was signed into law on December 16, 2014, and beginning on the following March 15 supermarkets, big box stores, and many other retail stores closed their doors on most Sundays.

The repeal of the law on Sunday closings sheds light on decision-making in Orbán’s government. On Friday, on Hungarian state radio, Viktor Orbán still talked about the desirability of Sunday closings and in fact revealed that his government in the past few years has been trying to find ways to extend work-free Sundays to encompass not only the retail trade but other sectors as well. He said, however, that they will take a look at the economic consequences of the current practice on Monday. I got the impression that if the economic indicators were favorable, the present law would remain in force. Moreover, he added, they have “plenty of time” to make a decision. In one sentence that most people overlooked, however, Orbán said that “in light of the debate [in the cabinet meeting] we will decide on the right political conduct.” So, after all, it was not to be a purely economic decision.

This morning Bence Tuzson, undersecretary in charge of government communication, seemed not to have been updated since Friday. In an interview on ATV’s Start he fiercely defended the current practice of Sunday closings. A couple of hours later, Sunday closings were on their way out.

Although I’m sure he tried, Viktor Orbán couldn’t convince the KDNP to support the repeal of the bill their party found so important for ideological reasons. Only about half an hour after the announcement of the decision by Antal Rogán, Népszabadság learned that Péter Harrach, leader of the KDNP caucus, indicated that their MPs will not vote for the repeal. “The question has been a matter of principle for the last seven years,” he said. Soon after the announcement, the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops complained that the government hadn’t asked their opinion. András Veres, president of the Conference, added that “as a Christian and as a bishop of the Church [he finds] the present decision of the government mistaken and outright wrong.” The same Veres, according to HVG, declared that he “hasn’t heard of anyone who died of starvation because he couldn’t buy food on Sunday.”

It is not only the Christian Democrats and the Catholic Church who are against the decision to repeal the law. According to rumor, János Lázár is considering not voting for the bill that most likely will reach the floor tomorrow, although Orbán warned the Fidesz ministers that not voting for the bill might mean losing their jobs. Many rumors are baseless, but perhaps this time there is something to this gossip because Nándor Csepreghy, Lázár’s deputy who is close to his boss, indicated that the younger generation of Fidesz politicians was ready to continue the fight despite societal opposition and pressure from the opposition. Lázár certainly belongs to the younger generation of Fidesz leaders.

As for the economic side of the question, it is hard to decide whether Sunday closings hurt retail business or not. Those who claim it did point out that today there are 8,000 fewer employees in retail trade than at the beginning of 2015. Moreover, they add, in the last year alone about 800 small stores had to close. They argue that the small stores didn’t gain at the expense of large foreign chains, as the government intended. On the contrary, they lost customers. The real beneficiaries, the argument goes, were precisely those large supermarkets and big box stores the government wanted to discriminate against. On the other side, the argument goes something like this. Businesses have only gained by Sunday closings. Their turnover last year was 6% higher than the year before. But the increase in turnover might be explained by higher real wages and the hookup of cash registers with the National Tax Office. And, at the same time, the shuttering of many smaller stores may have nothing to do with Sunday closings.

The wisdom of the repeal is obvious. As Magyar Nemzet rightly pointed out, Fidesz isn’t so much afraid of the result of the referendum as the “road to it.” If a referendum were held, the opposition parties would have three months to campaign in favor of the repeal and against the government. Although the retreat is a loss of face for Fidesz, given its current problems it is better for the government to back down than to slug it out.

Now the opposition should turn to the role played by the officials of the National Election Office and the National Election Committee. The Kúria clearly stated that these officials are unfit to lead an independent body that is supposed to guard the purity of the elections. How can we trust the results of future elections if the decisions of these people are guided by the government’s interests? The opposition parties should also force the government to begin a serious investigation into the circumstances of the February 23 events at the National Election Office. The likelihood of Fidesz involvement on some level in the skinheads’ appearance at the Election Office is pretty obvious to everybody. If the opposition parties put as much effort into these two projects as MSZP did in validating its referendum question, victory might be possible. Fidesz is becoming vulnerable.

April 11, 2016

Government effort to prevent a referendum on Sunday store closings

There is  mounting evidence that closing super- and hyper-markets on Sundays was a singularly bad idea, just as everybody predicted from the start. It was not difficult to foresee that reducing the number of hours stores were open would result, on one hand, in fewer jobs and, on the other, in customer dissatisfaction. It was useless to lecture people who had become accustomed to the convenience of Sunday shopping about Austrian, French or German customers who seem to live satisfactory lives without stores being open on Sundays.

The whole idea was so bizarre and so many unforeseen difficulties cropped up during the legislative process that the law that eventually emerged was a monstrosity that required further and further corrections until no one really knew what the rules were. From the very beginning the great majority (68%-72%) of the population opposed the new law, although the January-February polls still showed that among Fidesz voters the majority (55%) swallowed the government propaganda about the beneficial effects of the new law. By now, even they have woken up. At the end of June, 63% of Fidesz voters wanted to say “no” to Sunday closings.

Opponents of the new law also predicted a loss of jobs, which was hotly denied by the government. Well, month after month there has been a notable decrease in retail sector jobs. Sunday closings began on March 15, and by mid-June 2,400 jobs had disappeared, mostly in supermarkets. A greater number of full-time employees had to work overtime.

The idea of Sunday closings has been a hobby horse of the Christian Democrats for a long time, but in the past Fidesz refused to support the idea. Even this time apparently a lot of Fidesz MPs had grave doubts about the efficacy of such a move, but in the last minute Viktor Orbán put considerable pressure on the Fidesz caucus, whose members as usual behaved like sheep and voted for the measure.

At the time of the debate over the Sunday closings I had difficulty understanding why Viktor Orbán decided to stand behind a measure that would surely be unpopular. Moreover, the bill was pushed through at a time when Fidesz’s support was waning. Within a few months Fidesz lost a third of its supporters. Why are they irritating even their own followers with such an unpopular move, I asked myself. The only thing I could think of was pressure on Viktor Orbán by the Christian Democrats (KDNP). After all, I reasoned, KDNP votes are vitally important to Fidesz. Most of the people I shared my idea with disagreed. KDNP’s sheer existence, they argued, depends on Viktor Orbán, so they would never dare to utter a peep. The only reason for the decision, they contended, was Orbán’s desire to put his supporter, László Baldauf, owner of the CBA supermarket chain, in a more competitive position. Most of the CBA stores are smaller than the cutoff for stores that had to be closed on Sundays. These smaller, so-called family stores could remain open and gain a huge advantage.

Well, my friends were right and I was wrong. About a week ago Baldauf gave an interview to Heti Válasz in which he made a careless remark which led the journalists of Index to the conclusion that it was Baldauf who planted the idea of Sunday closings in the head of government politicians and who managed to convince Viktor Orbán to stand behind the plan. Baldauf talked about his less than cordial relationship with Coop, another Hungarian chain of small stores. As an example, he recalled that “even in the interest of the Sunday closing we had difficulty cooperating.” This certainly sounds as if the initiative came from these Hungarian chains of smaller, franchised stores. Naturally, Baldauf considers such an interpretation unfounded.

Given public sentiment, if a referendum were allowed on the issue of Sunday closings the result would be a resounding victory for the anti-Sunday-closing forces and a terrible loss of face for the government. Fidesz, in general, doesn’t like referendums, and therefore parliament passed a law on referendums that pretty well precludes the possibility of holding any referendum the government doesn’t want. First of all, the process is dragged out by a provision that no new referendum question can be submitted until the fate of any previous submission has been decided. So far so good, but what has been happening is that all sorts of bogus questions are being submitted by phony parties or by individuals wanting to help the government. They are so poorly phrased that there is no way that the National Election Commission (Nemzeti Választási Bizottság/NVB) would ever approve them. Once the decision is reached that the question is unacceptable, the next person is ready with another bogus question. Timing is of the essence for those who are serious about holding a referendum.

MSZP politicians have been watching the website of the National Election Office (Nemzeti Választási Iroda/NVI) like hawks in the last few days because they figured that it was about time for a rejection of the last bogus question and they wanted to be first in line. Their question, ready to be submitted by Zoltán Lukács, deputy chairman of MSZP, was: “Do you agree that parliament should annul Law CII of 2014 that forbade performing work on Sundays in the retail sector?” As soon as the rejection of the previous submission was announced on the website of the National Election Office, they rushed over and handed their question to the authorities. Lukács triumphantly announced their success on ATV, only to find out a few hours later that they had lost the game again.

Ilona Pálffy, head of the office, announced that MSZP was too early. Although it is true, she admitted, that the announcement of the judgment had appeared on their website, it was not yet on the National Election Commission’s website. NVI’s announcement is not official, only NVB’s is. So she will send on another question submitted by Zoltán Vajda, a member of a civic group that calls itself Új Magyar Köztársaság Egyesület/ÚMKE, which was received by NVI a few minutes later. That question reads: “Do you agree that no law should limit the opening times of retail businesses?”

Palffy Ilona

All this happened on Sunday. The next day MSZP announced that they will sue because Ilona Pálffy acted illegally when she rejected their question and sent on another one that was received later. The announcement on NVI’s website appeared at 16:05, after Pálffy had received the decision hand-delivered by a messenger from NVB. MSZP resubmitted their question again on Tuesday. The Kúria will decide on the case.

What happened after that was also predictable. Yesterday Zoltán Vajda of ÚMKE screamed his head off for at least half an hour about MSZP’s dishonesty and their question’s deficiencies. He claimed that MSZP wants to bolster their popularity by being behind this important referendum. Instead, they should just let ÚMKE’s referendum question go ahead without any challenge.

I listened to his harangue with growing distress. His referendum question seems destined for rejection. Not only is it poorly constructed. One could argue that there are occasions when the government could restrict store openings, like Christmas Day or certain national holidays. I think MSZP’s question would have a much better chance  of passing the scrutiny of NVB.

I have another worry. Vajda and his group have submitted scores of referendum questions, of which NVB has already approved five. They are not the kind that would bring millions out to vote. I suspect that if their referendum question on store closings is accepted, it would simply be added to the otherwise innocuous list of already approved questions. In that case, I’m not even sure that the vote would be valid, due to lack of voter turnout.

All in all, I hope that MSZP’s referendum question will get the green light. Perhaps Hungarians will be able to vote on something their government clearly doesn’t want them to.

What is behind the Sunday closing of Hungarian retail stores?

Since this coming Sunday will be the first time most larger retail stores will be closed by law, let’s return to one of the most politically foolish and economically harmful decisions of the Orbán government.

I already wrote two posts on the subject, both in late 2014 when the Christian Democratic Party (KDNP) once again floated the idea. Once again, because this was not the first time that KDNP pressured the Orbán government to curtail the liberal retail store hours that have existed in Hungary for the last twenty years. In 2011, when the idea was first proposed, Viktor Orbán wisely rejected it, saying that the Hungarian economy couldn’t afford the luxury.

But in early November 2014 the KDNP leadership returned to its favorite hobby-horse. This time, learning from the 2011 fiasco, they decided to turn in their bill in the form of a proposal by an individual member of parliament. In 2011 it was the government that vetoed the suggestion for economic reasons, citing the results of an unpublished impact analysis. When an individual member of parliament submits a bill, however, no impact study is necessary.

The initial reaction of government members, Fidesz leaders, and Fidesz MPs to the KDNP proposal was negative. Mihály Varga publicly voiced his opinion that “‘the move wouldn’t be wise.” Lajos Kósa, another heavyweight in the party, was also against the bill. So was Miklós Seszták, minister of national development. Initially, even Viktor Orbán was unenthusiastic about the idea. In one of his radio interviews he admitted that he himself shops on Sundays and added that he “is not planning to influence the behavior of the people, who can decide for themselves what to do on Sundays.” So, by mid-November most commentators believed that the KDNP proposal was dead in the water. If the government vetoed the KDNP proposal in 2011, how could Fidesz possibly agree to it “in such sensitive times, after the internet tax affair when there are demonstrators against [the government],” a member of the governing board of Fidesz asked.

Great was the surprise when less than two weeks later, on December 1, 2014, Népszabadság learned that the full Fidesz caucus and naturally the prime minister now enthusiastically endorsed the zany plan of KDNP. Viktor Orbán’s abrupt change of mind was especially strange because initially he wanted to see an impact study and no analysis was produced in the interim. Orbán within two weeks became such an enthusiastic supporter of the measure that he paid a visit to the Fidesz parliamentary delegation and twisted the arms of his troops in parliament. By early December the government parties gave their unanimous blessing to the measure. Since then they have been tinkering with it with scores of amendments which at times loosen, at other times tighten its grip on retail stores.

Fidesz brain / Closed on Sundays too

Fidesz brain / Closed on Sundays too

Although it was always pretty clear that the majority of Hungarians were against the Sunday closings, since March 13th we know how strongly people feel about KDNP’s idea. Ipsos conducted a poll which showed that 64% of the population want stores to be open and only 32% are for store closings. Ipsos broke down the data on the basis of sex, cities and towns versus villages, young versus old, and interestingly enough the differences were not substantial. In fact, there were some unexpected results. For example, people living in villages opted for keeping stores open on Sunday in higher numbers (70%) than people in Budapest (62%). Clearly, the measure is not popular. Just how unpopular it is we don’t yet know, despite the appearance of the poll, because last Sunday was a national holiday and the stores would have been closed anyway. But this coming Sunday, the people who missed the news will be greatly surprised when they travel to their closest supermarket and find it locked up. The song that is spreading like wildfire on YouTube expresses people’s sentiments about the Sunday closings. It was written to the tune of the internationally known song “Gloomy Sunday,” from the 1930s.

Opinions about why KDNP was so eager to change the law vary. Some people believe that since it is a religious party (and here and there even call the leaders bigots) it wants Hungarians to go to church instead of to the mall. Others interpret the move as an attack on multinationals in favor of the one large Hungarian chain that is made up of family-owned franchises, most of them small enough not to be affected by the new law. The latter theory might explain why Viktor Orbán eventually decided to support the KDNP proposal. After all, he wouldn’t at all mind if the foreign supermarkets and large chains simply abandoned their businesses in Hungary. Such an outcome would benefit his favorite oligarchs, who could purchase their stores on the cheap. These hypotheses may reflect KDNP reasoning, but I don’t think either fully explains why the prime minister changed his mind and decided to endorse the KDNP bill.

A few days ago another theory emerged, presented by a “senior researcher” of the political think tank Policy Agenda, which I found utterly unconvincing. There is nothing “sinister” or “complicated” behind this decision, he explained. After all, KDNP is a coalition partner. They have had many demands that were not satisfied by their larger partner. So, it was time to throw them a bone. First of all, it is not true that KDNP’s demands have been ignored in the past. Just think of the increased subsidies for parochial schools, the incredible number of gymnasiums that were passed into the hands of the Catholic Church, and the decision to make religious education part of the regular school curriculum. Second, this is not how political decisions are reached. Would Viktor Orbán for such a trifling reason assume substantial political risk? Unlikely.

My own theory is that the Christian Democrats, realizing Fidesz’s rapid loss of support and the decline in Viktor Orbán’s popularity, decided to put pressure on the prime minister, most likely accompanied by a threat. KDNP has 23 votes in parliament, which can be withheld at any time. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the KDNP heavies told Viktor Orbán that it is either Sunday closings or no parliamentary support from the Christian Democrats on certain key issues.

As of this morning we know what was in the impact studies of 2011, which were leaked to Népszabadság. Pretty much the same negative results that trade unions and trade associations have predicted since the bill resurfaced last November. There will be a loss of 10,000 to 15,000 jobs. This can be translated into a 2.3 to 3.4 billion forint expenditure for the government in the form of unemployment insurance. About 26 to 27 billion forints would be lost annually in income taxes and social security payments. Expected lost sales for the companies would be 20.4 billion forints. VAT collections would drop by about 7.6 billion forints. All told, the Sunday closings would cost the Hungarian government 43.9-49 billion forints. That’s a steep price for Fidesz to pay to accommodate KDNP and a heavy burden for the Hungarian taxpayers to bear to keep the Fidesz-KDNP government in power.

Hungarian Christian Democrats and freedom of the press

The Parisian terrorist attacks will have, I fear, a negative effect not only on Hungary’s immigration policy but also on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the country. At least this is the way things are looking at the moment.

In an earlier post I recalled Viktor Orbán’s long-standing belief that Europe as a whole and Hungary as part of the European Union should remain “European.” European in this case means ethnically and religiously pure. Until last week, however, we didn’t know that this sentiment was actually reflected in current government practice.

It was on Sunday afternoon, before Viktor Orbán’s by now infamous press conference railing against immigration to Europe, that I realized that strict anti-immigration policies have been in effect ever since 2010. They were introduced quietly, under cover so to speak. Antónia Mészáros, a reporter for ATV, had an interview with Zoltán Balog on Friday afternoon, which didn’t air until Sunday, in which he admitted that the Orbán government has been conducting an anti-immigration policy all along.

Now there is an opportunity to put this unspoken policy into law. On Monday morning Antal Rogán seconded Viktor Orbán’s position on the undesirability of immigration. The next day the “international spokesman” of the Orbán government, Zoltán Kovács, followed suit and explained the Hungarian position on CNN, not with the greatest success. Richard Quest, the reporter, worried that the kind of debate the Hungarians are promoting will become a witch hunt. He ended his program (and this is a rough transcript) by saying that

What’s worrying is when politicians start whipping up the rhetoric. `Hungary for Hungarians,’ – when it starts to become immigration must be stopped. Then you go into you’ve crossed the line. It’s no longer a debate about whether immigration is good or bad, it becomes one to whip up a ferment. History is replete with examples where this has happened, and anybody who tries to deny an innocent-sounding comment for what it could turn into in the future is simply misguided.

As it stands, four out of ten Hungarians share Viktor Orbán’s and his government’s point of view. Tárki, a Hungarian polling firm, has been keeping track of Hungarian xenophobia for some time. In the decade between 2002 and 2011, 24% to 33% of the population were anti-immigrant. After that date the anti-foreign sentiment shot up to 40%, which is not surprising given the rhetoric of Viktor Orbán and his government.

I talked earlier about some right-wing journalists who intimated that the staff at Charlie Hebdo were responsible for their own fate. They provoked the followers of Islam by drawing crude caricatures of their prophet. This argument is now being taken up by the Hungarian Christian Democrats who are, on the whole, even more radical than Fidesz when it comes to religiosity. Their party is often described as the “political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church.” According to their whip, Péter Harrach, “neither freedom of the press nor freedom of speech can be extended to blasphemy.”

ShawFareed Zakaria, the American reporter who came up with the label “illiberal democracy” for countries like Turkey or Hungary, wrote an article in The Washington Post on the subject of blasphemy. In it he pointed out that the Koran “prescribes no punishment for blasphemy.” However, as we know, today many Muslim countries have harsh laws against blasphemy. It seems that Péter Harrach finds this practice attractive. But Harrach doesn’t have to look to current Muslim practice for a model. As Zakaria points out, only “one holy book is deeply concerned with blasphemy: the Bible.” The Old Testament is full of stories of blasphemers who receive harsh punishment for their sin. It seems that Harrach wants to lead Hungary all the way back to Old Testament times.

This morning representatives of five parties  (Fidesz, KDNP, Jobbik, MSZP, LMP, Együtt) got together to discuss the fight against terrorism. According to Antal Rogán, the parties agreed that “the European Union cannot defend its member states” and that therefore they must formulate and enforce their own strategies. “Political correctness by now is not enough.” Fidesz suggests that “certain public symbols and values should receive special protection.” Rogán made it clear that “religious symbols” would certainly be covered by the new law. I wouldn’t be surprised if among Hungarians’ “common values” we would also find national symbols. Or even political offices. Or high dignitaries of the land, like the president or the president of the house.

There are some analysts, for example, Gábor Török, who are convinced that the terrorist attack in Paris came at the right time for Orbán, whose party lost another 2% in support last month. According to Ipsos, some of the lost voters drifted over to Jobbik, and therefore the Fidesz top leadership decided to turn up the volume on far-right talk. With this strategy they are hoping to regain solid control of the right. Maybe, but I wouldn’t be so sure. According to some fairly reliable sources, Fidesz leaders are not panicking over their loss of popularity at the moment. In their opinion, the current level of support is still high enough for the party to bounce back. Demonstrations will end soon, and people will forget about their grievances over the introduction of toll roads and the Sunday store closings.

As opposed to Török, I don’t believe that Orbán’s outburst in Paris has anything to do with his party’s popularity. I think that he is convinced of the ill effects of immigration and is happy that he found an opportunity to take up arms against it, alone if necessary, quite independently of the European Union. He most likely explored how far he can go and came to the conclusion that he can introduce a law that would effectively stop immigration to Hungary and that he could also restrict freedom of the press as long as the law does not differentiate between religions. Therefore, I fear that Hungarian journalists can look forward to greater restrictions to their freedom.