Tag Archives: Klubrádió

Political action and the critical mass

For over a week György Bolgár has been conducting a series of conversations with politicians, political commentators, and regular listeners on his popular “Let’s Talk It Over!” call-in show on Klubrádió. The topic is “What is to be done?” given the present political situation. How can the opposition dislodge the political system Viktor Orbán masterfully put in place in the last six years?

Many well-known people were invited to share their ideas, but only a couple of these ideas struck me as workable or promising. There were some who want to send all politicians into retirement and to find new faces, but they neglect to tell us where to find these talented young people with all the attributes of a good politician. Then there are those who have lost faith in politicians altogether and think in terms of civil society exclusively. But again, without parties and leaders it is impossible to imagine a functioning parliamentary system and a modern democratic regime. Still others are split on whether the existing democratic parties should unite as soon as possible to create a new party because, without unity, the splintered opposition cannot possibly win at a national election that was tailored to benefit the government party. Then there are some who are dead against forming a unity party since at the last election this strategy failed spectacularly. These people suggest competition among the five or six opposition parties on the left, the idea being that sooner or later one of them will rise to the top. Almost all people severely criticize the current opposition leaders for their incompetence or for simply being too soft on the government.

I would be hesitant to offer a recipe to the current Hungarian opposition even if I had one. The only thing I know is what cannot or should not be done. I know that without parties and without a strong charismatic leader the prospects of the opposition are slim. I also know that without massive public support behind that party leader there will be no possibility of regime change. In brief, as long as there is no widespread dissatisfaction with the Orbán government, no politician, no matter how talented he is, can wage a successful campaign against the present regime. I also know that at the moment the four or five opposition parties (I leave LMP out of the calculations) cannot possibly unite, even though they agree on most of the political fundamentals. Personalities trump politics. Therefore, I believe that they should carry on for a while on their own, with the expectation that sooner or later one of them will come to dominate the field. According to Medián, in November 7% of the electorate would have voted for MSZP (Magyar Szocialista Párt) led by József Tóbiás and 6% for Ferenc Gyurcsány’s DK (Demokratikus Koalíció). Each of the other opposition parties–Együtt (Together), PM (Dialogue for Hungary), and MLP (Magyar Liberális Párt)–has only 1% support. So at the moment the race for the lead is between MSZP and DK.

But let’s return to the most important ingredient of success: widespread, strong public support. What is going on in Hungarian education is a perfect formula for political action. A school with an apparently young, forward-looking teaching staff has the guts to put into writing things that have been bothering thousands and thousands of teachers who were afraid to stand up against their boss, the almighty state. After all, brave individuals standing alone are vulnerable. One needs a “critical mass” to be safe.

There comes a moment when everything falls into place. It starts with the few who initiate a move against the powers that be, and then the thousands who are ready to follow join the cause. Once the movement has grown to a certain size, its growth will gain speed. At that point others, who are in one way or the other affected by the initial cause of dissatisfaction, will join. The growing protest emboldens organizations, for example trade unions, that up to that point couldn’t move because their leaders knew that the membership wouldn’t follow them. The time was not ripe.

crowd1

Once a movement is successful and the government must retreat, others who are in a similar situation within their own profession will be encouraged and will imitate these successful strategies. There will be a chain reaction. If the time is ripe, there is simply no way of stopping it.

Pessimists, and there are many among us, will counter that the teachers’ rebellion will come to naught just as the very promising revolt against the internet tax did once the government retreated. The tens of thousands who went out on the streets, once they got what they wanted, returned home never to resurface. But I suggest that the two situations are radically different. The internet tax was only announced as something to be introduced in the future. So, the demonstrations were of a preventive nature. The teachers’ revolt is something very different. They want to abolish practices that were forced upon them more than three years ago, practices that they find injurious to Hungarian education. What they want is to undo the crazy system Viktor Orbán came up with, which turned out to be unworkable and bad for students as well as teachers. The teachers, supported by their unions and even by their professional association forced upon them by the government, are not satisfied with small concessions. They want to negotiate. Otherwise they will strike. As of now 17,659 people and 207 schools have signed the manifesto published by the staff of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium, and their numbers are growing rapidly.

Admittedly, these are just first steps, but, given the oppressive nature of the regime, I believe the time will come when the majority of the population will realize that the whole system is rotten to the core and that the vast majority of the population are its victims. I don’t know when this realization will arrive, but I’m sure that it will happen. The corruption, the incompetence, the arrogance of this regime will not be tolerated indefinitely. How long will people put up with empty stadiums for billions or an airport for Felcsút, the village where Viktor Orbán spent his childhood, while millions live in poverty? And once there is an awakening, there must be a party and a leader who can gather the dissatisfied troops. The opposition has its work cut out for it.

January 21, 2016

The Hungarian media scene is still in flux

Although the Hungarian government’s only concern of late seems to be how to keep asylum seekers out of the country, I don’t want to succumb to the same tunnel vision. And so today I’m turning to the state of the Hungarian media.

So-called public (közszolgálati) television and radio are by now mere mouthpieces of government propaganda. Magyar Rádió is still, by default, the station that most people who are interested in more than pop music listen to. Magyar Televízió’s M1, a news channel, turned out to be a flop. On the other hand, a few days ago MTV began broadcasting a sports channel that is, not surprisingly, a hit since most Hungarian football games can be seen there and only there. Of course, the government’s media experts made certain that the canned news of MTV can also be heard on the sports channel. So one cannot escape the barrage of propaganda.

Back in May I wrote a post on the new media landscape, which included the purchase of Napi Gazdaság, a financial daily that imitated the look of The Financial Times. Former editors of Magyar Nemzet followed their editor-in-chief and began transforming Napi Gazdaság into a second Magyar Nemzet. As far as the contents are concerned the work has been pretty well completed, but the name of the newspaper doesn’t really fit, nor does its colored paper. A few days ago we learned that the new quasi-government paper will be called “Magyar Idők” (Hungarian Times), and soon enough it will be printed on normal newsprint.

The capital that was originally sunk into the paper was relatively modest, but subsequently János Sánta, the beneficiary of the latest redistribution of the wholesale sector of the tobacco state monopoly, purchased a 49% stake in the new paper. I wrote about the details of this redistribution, which benefited only Sánta’s Continental Tobacco Group and British American Tobacco, in a post titled “The Orbán government in action: Graft and fraud.” Clearly, Sánta was told that it was time to pay his benefactor, Viktor Orbán, for the fantastic business opportunity. The deal was most likely struck way before the government decision was announced.

Meanwhile Árpád Habony, Orbán’s mysterious adviser, and others are working on new projects. They want to come out with an online news site, but nothing has materialized yet. On the other hand, they put together Lokál, a free paper that is supposed to replace the very strongly pro-Fidesz Helyi Téma that went bankrupt a few months ago. According to Origo, this new paper seems to avoid political topics altogether and concentrates on the activities of Hungarian celebrities.

It has also been widely reported that Andy Vajna, formerly producer of the Rambo and Terminator movies, who was rumored to be interested in buying TV2, is now thinking of starting a cable television station of his own. There is no question in whose service Vajna’s station will be if it materializes. Andy Vajna, who left Hungary as a young boy in 1956, has made a spectacular career for himself in Hungary. His latest coup is that he will run five of Hungary’s eleven gambling casinos. His life in and out of Hungary certainly deserves a post or two.

Heti Válasz only last week published a very critical article about Andy Vajna's  financial affairs

Heti Válasz only last week published a very critical article about Andy Vajna’s financial affairs

These accomplishments are not, however, enough for Viktor Orbán. He wants to get rid of all of the media outlets still in the hands of Lajos Simicska and his business partner, Zsolt Nyerges: Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, Heti Válasz, and Class FM, the only commercial radio station that can be heard everywhere in the country. An unlikely person has surfaced as a potential buyer of a couple of print and online publications: Mária Schmidt, the court historian and director of the House of Terror. Apparently, Schmidt is interested in buying Heti Válasz and perhaps Origo.

Mária Schmidt is a very rich woman. She inherited quite a fortune from her husband, who died unexpectedly in 2006. Népszabadság learned that she recently established a company called “Médiaháló” (Media Net) and is looking for newspapers to buy. She put out feelers to Magyar Telekom, which apparently has been wanting for some time to get rid of Origo. The other paper she is interested in is Heti Válasz. But Lajos Simicska, despite his recent troubles at the hands of Viktor Orbán’s government machine, is not ready to sell any of his media holdings. I don’t know how long Simicska will be able to maintain his unbending attitude because, as things stand now, Viktor Orbán has made sure that Simicska’s firm, Közgép, will not be able to bid for any government contracts in the next three years. Simicska is ready to fight the decision and, if necessary, go to the European Court of Justice, but that takes time. And who knows what other “misfortunes” will befall Simicska in the interim.

Whether Origo will land in Mária Schmidt’s lap is not at all certain because another newly established media firm, Brit Média Befektetési Zrt, already started negotiations with Telekom months ago. The company’s majority stake belongs to B’nai B’rith International, based in Brussels. András Jonatán Megyeri is a minority owner. Megyeri at one time worked for TV2 and Viasat, a high-speed internet company. He is a religious Jew who serves as the volunteer cantor of the Bét-Sálom Synagogue. A couple of weeks ago his new company invested 40 million forints in KlubRádió, which is still in dire financial straights. Mária Schmidt versus B’nai B’rith International, I’m curious whom Magyar Telekom will choose. I’m sure that opponents of Viktor Orbán are keeping fingers crossed for Brit Média.

No free and plural media in Hungary? The government’s answer to Neelie Kroes

The reaction to Viktor Orbán’s speech a week ago has been uniformly negative. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal agreed with the liberal New York Times that Orbán’s vision of the future of Hungary is incompatible with western values, specifically the values of the European Union of which Hungary is a member.

This speech and its aftermath necessarily turned attention away from other developments, among which one of the most important is an article by Neelie Kroes, European commissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe. In the last four years there were two female members of the European Commission who especially irritated Viktor Orbán. One was Neelie Kroes and the other Viviane Reding, Commissioner of Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. The latter is one of the two Luxembourgians who dared to raise their voices against Viktor Orbán’s policies and therefore incurred the ire of Hungary’s “pocket dictator.”

The article appeared simultaneously on the website of the European Commission in English and in Hungarian in NépszabadságThe original title of the piece is “Media Freedom remains under threat in Hungary,” while the Hungarian title is shorter and therefore somewhat stronger: “Media freedom is in danger.”  Let me republish this short article here:

A free and plural media is the foundation of a free society, and a safeguard of democratic tradition. The new “advertising tax” in Hungary shows it is still very much under threat.

This new tax was introduced in Parliament in just a few days, without significant debate or consultation. Ostensibly an “advertising tax” to raise revenue, in fact it disproportionately affects on single media company, RTL. Indeed, according to their own calculations, they are the only single company that would face the highest rate of the tax; imposing significant losses and putting in jeopardy their ability to operate.

The conclusion is obvious. RTL is one of the few channels in Hungary not simply promoting a pro-Fidesz line; it is hard to see that the goal is anything other than to drive them out of Hungary. The Hungarian Government does not want a neutral, foreign-owned broadcaster in Hungary; it is using an unfair tax to wipe out democratic safeguards, and see off a perceived challenge to its power.

The freedom of establishment is a fundamental principle of the single market.

But it is about more than just one tax or just one company: it is part of a pattern that is deeply worrying; a pattern contrary to the EU’s values. Taxation cannot be an instrument for discrimination, and tax policy should not be a political weapon.

A new media law introduced in 2010 put huge powers over the Hungarian media into a body subject to political interference: breaching the Hungarian constitution and EU law and jeopardizing fundamental rights. Later on, opposition radio station Klubrádió lost its licence; they eventually got it back, after a complex and costly fight, but the episode revealed (in the words of the European Parliament) “biased and opaque tendering practices.” In 2013, new laws placed restrictions on political advertising. Meanwhile, just last month, the editor of oneline newspaper ORIGO was dismissed after it uncovered a political scandal; many ink his dismissal to political pressure.

Some of these criticisms and concerns have been addressed, under pressure from the EU and the international community. Others remain a very real worry.

A recent report from the OSCE shows that the impact this is having. It found that, in the run-up to recent elections, the majority of monitored TV channels showed “significant bias” towards ruling party Fidesz; with RTL being one exception. And it highlights an “increasing number of outlets directly owned by business people associated with Fidesz.” The picture it paints is of a media sector that is (at best) uncertain and self-censoring; and at worst partisan if not government-controlled.

In that environment it is deeply damaging that the government would turn a blind eye: they should be engaging positively to manage threats to media pluralism. The fact is, government control, monopoly and censorship belong to a different, darker, period in Hungary’s history: and no one should seek a return to it.

Fair and unbiased coverage is a principal function of a free and plural media. Undermining that, and attempting to silence dynamic debate, is an attack on Hungarian democracy. For the sake of that democracy, and of the Hungarian people who have fought so hard to enjoy its benefits, we cannot stand by as idle spectators.

Hungary is not the only EU country where such concerns and debates exist; these are also issues raised, with different emphases and in different contexts, in Bulgaria, Italy, the UK and others. Europe needs to get its own house in order to ensure a free and plural media. There are many proposals out there for how to achieve that–including those set out in the Report of the High Level Group chaired by Vaire Viķe -Freiberga. It’s time we started taking those ideas seriously, for the sake of our freedom and democratic values.

An answer came immediately from Gergely Gulyás, who was recently elevated to a new parliamentary position. He became deputy-president of parliament responsible for the legislative work of the House. In brief, all pieces of legislation that come before parliament will have Gulyás’s approval. Quite a position for a thirty-three year old. The tone of the letter is typical of this political leadership: arrogant and sermonizing.

Commissioner Neelie Kroes

Commissioner Neelie Kroes

“We agree with Neelie Kroes that ‘a free and plural media is the foundation of a free society’ and we are happy to report that the Hungarian media is free and plural. And as far as Hungarian society is concerned it is also free.”

According to Gulyás, everything is in order with the advertisement tax. It has been in the works for years. RTL Klub is not being discriminated against, because the tax depends on advertising revenues. RTL just happens to receive the largest share of ad revenues. Every segment of society must bear its fair share of the tax burden. RTL is no exception. Political revenge on the part of the government is out of the question because RTL Klub until now spent little time on politics. However, since the passage of the tax law the station “has been one-sidedly slandering the government and its politicians.” It seems that for Gulyás reporting on political scandals is nothing but slander.

Gulyás also objected to Kroes’s contention that the Hungarian government wants to drive out foreign companies. In this connection she reminded the Hungarian political leadership of “the freedom of establishment [which] is a fundamental principle of the single market.” Foreign companies have a large share of the Hungarian media market and this will most likely be the case for a long time to come, he said. As for “democratic values,” Gulyás would like to know exactly what kinds of values Neelie Kroes has in mind. After all, in 2013 the secretary-general of the Council of Europe found everything in order with the 2010 media law that Kroes is now criticizing.

Gergely must have been happy to find a factual error in Kroes’s letter in connection with Klubrádió. Indeed, Kroes wasn’t precise enough. Although Klubrádió valiantly fought for its survival for more than three years, it did not lose its license in Budapest. But what Gergely neglected to mention was that it did lose eleven other frequencies throughout the country. By now Klubrádió can be heard only in Budapest.

Gulyás was equally at a loss to know what Kroes could possibly mean by “biased and opaque tendering practices” in allotting radio frequencies. Gulyás “would like to inform the Madame Commissioner” that all the rules and regulations are constitutional and transparent; all applicants are treated equally, and there is the possibility of legal appeal.

As far as restricting political advertisement, Gulyás finds nothing wrong with the current practice. Every country in the Union has some restrictions. As does Hungary. And the current practice is fair because it gives the same chance to all parties regardless of their financial strength. It is in fact a highly democratic practice.  With respect to the firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo, allegedly for political reasons, there is no proof of it and “it is irresponsible of the commissioner to bring it up without any proof.”

As for the OSCE report which Kroes claims found bias in television news coverage in favor of the government, this allegation is also incorrect. If there had been such a bias, the liberal-socialist opposition parties would have gone to the Media Authority to protest, but with the exception of far-right Jobbik no party did.

Finally, Gulyás complained about the political pressure coming from the European Union every time the Hungarian parliament passes laws affecting foreign banks and companies.

This last accusation leads me back to Viktor Orbán’s speech. It looks as if the simultaneous appearance of two very strongly worded editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal surprised the right-wing political analysts. They can’t imagine that these two papers would independently call for strong sanctions against the Orbán government because they were genuinely shocked by the message delivered by Viktor Orbán on the virtues of “illiberal states.” Instead, they pulled out a favorite from the Hungarian right playbook, a conspiracy theory.

Ágoston Sámuel Mráz of Nézőpont Institute, a right-wing think tank with large orders from the government, believes that “foreign interest groups may be behind the attack [on Viktor Orbán] which will be deprived of considerable revenues because of the reduction of utility prices, taxes on the banks and advertisement.” Csaba Lentner, an economist who currently teaches at the newly established Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem (National University of Civil Service)  thinks that The New York Times editorial might in fact be against international law because a newspaper from the United States is urging action by the EU against Hungary. A bizarre contention. I might add that Lenter, who is currently a great supporter of Fidesz, was a MIÉP member of parliament between 1998 and 2002. MIÉP was an openly anti-Semitic, far-right party.

Mária Vásárhelyi on the “media octopus” in Hungary

Yesterday I talked about the state of the Hungarian media. In today’s Galamus, Zsófia Mihancsik, who is a very good journalist, suggested to her colleagues that it would be a good idea if they learned to read. But, as some of you suggested, the slanted reporting on certain “sensitive” topics might be the result not so much of careless reading or writing but of a willful distortion of the facts. This is definitely true about media under the direct or indirect control of the governing party.

So, I think it’s time to look around a little in the world of the Hungarian media. Here I’m relying heavily on Mária Vásárhelyi’s essay “The Workings of the Media Octopus–Brain and Money Laundering” that appeared in the Bálint Magyar-edited volume, The Hungarian Octopus.

According to Vásárhelyi, Viktor Orbán’s psyche was crushed in 1994 when he  managed to lead his party with a 40% chance of winning the election into almost total ruin with 7.7% of the votes. Before that fiasco Orbán was the darling of the press, but subsequently he became the pariah of the then still mostly liberal Hungarian media. He decided right then and there that the goal is not to be liked by the existing media; rather, a smart politician should strive for a loyal media he can easily influence. In Vásárhelyi’s estimate Fidesz had the lion’s share of responsibility for the 1996 media law that turned out to be neither liberal nor democratic.

Once Fidesz won the election in 1998 Viktor Orbán made a concerted effort to build a media empire with the use of private and public money. Billions of public money were spent on establishing Heti Válasz and on the “rescue” of the heavily indebted Magyar Nemzet. And right-wing oligarchs like Gábor Széles, Tamás Vitézy (Orbán’s uncle by marriage), Zoltán Spéder, István Töröcskei, and Lajos Simicska put large sums of their own money into media outlets that were anything but profitable. They were hopeful that their investments would serve them well one day when Viktor Orbán again returned to power.

Between 2002 and 2010 the preponderance of media outlets shifted to the right. Moreover, by 2008 the liberal media’s financial situation was dire. Companies strapped for funds cut their advertising budgets, and the liberal media outlets had no rich oligarchs who could ensure their continued existence during the hard times. Since 2010 the lopsidedness between right and left in the field of media has only become worse. According to Mária Vásárhelyi, “only those messages which the government party wants to deliver reach 80% of the country’s population.”

octopus

Studying the changes in the political orientation of radio stations is perhaps the most fruitful and most telling because it is here that the Media Council, made up entirely of Fidesz appointees, can directly influence the media. It is in charge of allocating radio frequencies. As the result, in the last five years the radio market became unrecognizable. Every time existing radio stations had to reapply for frequencies, the frequencies were given to someone else. The new stations were owned by companies or non-profits preferred by the government party, and in consequence government advertisements immediately poured in. Between 2010 and 2012 some 50 local and regional radio frequencies changed hands. Of these Mária Rádió (Catholic Church) got seven frequencies all over the country and Lánchíd Rádió (also close to the Catholic Church) got five. Európa Rádió, which is close to the Calvinist Church, by now can broadcast on three frequencies. Magyar Katolikus Rádió has two local and two regional frequencies. All these stations are considered to be non-profit and therefore they don’t pay for the use of the frequencies.

Zsolt Nyerges has built a veritable media empire: he is behind “the three most valuable radio frequencies in the country.” During the same time the liberal stations have been disappearing one by one. Radio Café, very popular among Budapest liberals, lost its frequency in 2011. So did another popular liberal station called Radio1. Of course, Klubrádió is the best known victim of Viktor Orbán’s ruthless suppression of media freedom. Klubrádió began broadcasting in 2001 and could be heard in a radius of 70-80 km around Budapest. By 2007 the station had acquired eleven frequencies and could be heard in and around 11 cities. Soon enough Klubrádió was the second most popular radio station in Budapest. Today, Klubrádió after years of litigation moved over to a free but weaker frequency that it already had won before the change of government in 2010. Out of its 11 provincial stations there is only one left, in Debrecen, and we can be pretty sure that as soon as its contract expires Klubrádió will no longer be able to broadcast there either.

As for the public radio and television stations, let’s just call them what they are: state radio and television stations as they were during socialist times. But then at least the communist leaders of Hungary didn’t pretend that these media outlets were in any way independent: the institution was called Hungarian State Television and Radio. They were at least honest. The only difference was that in those days state television and radio aired excellent programs, especially high quality theatrical productions and mini-series, all produced in-house. Now I understand the programming is terrible and only about 10% of the population even bothers to watch MTV, and most likely even fewer watch Duna TV. Their news is government propaganda: on MTV more than 70% of the news is about government politicians and the situation is even worse at Magyar Rádió.

These state radios and television stations have a budget of over 70 billion forints, a good portion of which ends up in the hands of Lajos Simicska. How? MTV and Duna TV no longer produce shows in-house but hire outside production companies. Thus, public money is being systematically siphoned through MTV and Duna TV to Fidesz oligarchs. The programs are usually of very low quality and complete flops.

Most Hungarians watch one of the two commercial stations: RTL Klub and TV2. Both are foreign owned but as Orbán said not long ago, “this will not be so for long.” And indeed, a couple of weeks ago TV2 was sold, allegedly to the director of the company. Surely, he is only a front man. An MSZP politician has been trying to find out who the real owner is. Everybody suspects the men behind the deal are Lajos Simicska and Zsolt Nyerges.

And finally, the print media is also dying, which is not surprising given the worldwide trend. But right-wing papers are doing a great deal better than liberal and socialist ones for the simple reason that public money is being funneled into them through advertisements by the government and by state-owned companies. Even free newspapers are being brought into the right-wing fold. There was a very popular free paper called Metro owned by a Swedish company. But Orbán obviously wasn’t satisfied with its content. So, the government severely limited the locations where Metro could be stacked up, free for the taking. Thus squeezed, the Swedish owner decided to sell. And who bought it? A certain Károly Fonyó, who is a business partner of Lajos Simicska. The paper is now called Metropol and, in case you’re wondering, is doing quite well financially.

Napi Gazdaság was sold to Századvég, the think tank that was established by László Kövér and Viktor Orbán when they were still students. As I mentioned earlier, Népszabadság was sold recently to somebody who might be a front man for Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development who had financial interests in the world of the media before he embarked on a political career. The paper was owned by Ringier, a Swiss company that wanted to merge with the German Axel Springer, which owns a large number of provincial papers in Hungary. Although in many European countries the merger was approved with no strings attached, the Hungarian government set up an obstacle to the merger. The merger could be approved only if Ringier first sells its stake in Népszabadság.

Fidesz hasn’t been so active online. Most of the online newspapers are relatively independent. What keeps the party away from the Internet? Vásárhelyi suspects that it is too free a medium and that it doesn’t comport with Fidesz’s ideas of control. Surely, they don’t want to risk being attacked by hundreds and hundreds of commenters. Index, howeveris owned by Zoltán Spéder, a billionaire with Fidesz sympathies. After 2006 it was Index that led the attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány and the government. Vásárhelyi predicts that Index will turn openly right sometime before the election.

The scene is depressing. There is no way to turn things around without the departure of this government. And even then it will require very strong resolve on the part of the new government to stop the flow of public money to Fidesz media oligarchs. The task seems enormous to me.

Two polls, two different results, and disappointing opposition politicians

In the last couple of days the results of two new public opinion polls on party preferences appeared: Ipsos on November 18 and Medián today. According to Ipsos, Fidesz-KDNP and LMP gained and the left lost, both by an inconsequential 1%. Medián’s survey, by contrast, found more substantial shifts, and in the opposite direction. Fidesz-KDNP lost 4% of its support in one month and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, DK, became as strong as E14-PM.

Let us examine these results a little more closely. According to Ipsos, Fidesz-KDNP’s support among the electorate as a whole is 27% while MSZP’s is 15%. As for the other parties, 7% of the eligible voters support Jobbik, 3% Együtt-PM, and only 2% LMP and DK.

As for voter commitment, according to Ipsos only 36% of the electorate is certain that they would cast a vote rain or shine. And that is very low. In this group Fidesz-KDNP leads by a mile: they would receive 51% percent of the votes against MSZP’s 26%. Jobbik voters are also deeply committed to their cause and therefore show good results in this category.

Somewhat larger changes occurred in the last month or so among the 42% of the voters who call themselves undecided. Within that group the size of “the completely passive voters” decreased by 3% while the number of those who have a preference but refuse to divulge what it is grew from 8% to 11%.

And let’s pause a bit to expand on these last figures. According to Tibor Závecz, the man in charge of the monthly Ipsos polls, the pool of “secretive voters” is large, about 900,000. Although these people might not want the pollsters to know their political views, the poll takers ask indirect questions that can be quite revealing. Based on answers to these indirect questions, Závecz claims that at  least two-thirds or even three-quarters of the secretive voters actually sympathize with the left.

Moving on to Medián, I’ll compare the still very sketchy outlines of this month’s results to Medián’s October figures. What we must keep in mind is that the October results reflect the situation before the October 23 mass meeting and the public demand there for unity among the forces on the left. The attendees wanted to broaden the arrangement Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy worked out to the exclusion of other parties and groupings. At that time Fidesz had a 36% share in the electorate as a whole and 52% among those who would definitely vote at the next elections as opposed to MSZP’s 14% and 21%. Együtt2014-PM still polled relatively well: 5% in the electorate as a whole and 7% among committed voters. DK at this point was weaker than E14-PM: 3% among all voters and 4% among committed voters.

red = the whole electorate;
black = those with a party preference;
orange = will definitely vote

And what is the situation today, after the mass demonstration?  Fidesz has a 34% share among all eligible voters and among the sure voters only 48%. That is a 2%/4% loss in one month. MSZP ticked up 2% in the electorate at large and remained unchanged among committed voters. E14-PM’s support eroded by 1%: last month’s 5% and 7% are 4% and 6% today. DK, on the other hand, as many people predicted, inched up and now matches Együtt2014-PM’s levels of support: 4% and 6%. If these numbers are more than a one-off, Gordon Bajnai who just the other day referred to those who were left out of the election agreement as small parties as opposed to his own might have to revise his estimate of the situation.

And this brings me to a couple of interviews György Bolgár conducted yesterday and today. Bolgár’s program lasts two hours and consists of a mixture of interviews and listener comments. Yesterday the whole first hour was devoted to a interview with Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy. Their performances were disappointing. My own feelings were exactly the same as those of Zsófia Mihancsik and Ferenc Krémer in today’s Galamus. Mihancsik’s article was entitled “This way there is no hope,” and Krémer called his “Sadness.” Shall I say more?

Attila Mesterházy took an unyielding position, standing by the arrangement that E14-PM and MSZP worked out. All other parties, including DK that is by now as strong as E14, should be satisfied with their sorry lot and support the two of them. I wonder what Mesterházy will do if in a couple of months it turns out that E14’s support has eroded further while DK has again gained.

I strongly suggest that those who can handle Hungarian listen not only to the interviews but also to the comments that followed. It is strange that these opposition politicians refuse to heed the voice of the electorate. They didn’t believe that the demonstration for unity was genuine and now surely they will say that all listeners of Klubrádió are DK supporters. How long can that fiction be maintained?

The MSZP argument for excluding DK is their conviction that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s presence on the ticket would take away more votes than it would bring in. However, a September survey, also by Medián, indicates that this is not the case. I wrote about this poll at length back in September. It is hard to figure out why Mesterházy clings to that, in my opinion, mistaken notion.

Today György Bolgár had a shorter interview with Klára Ungár, chairman of Szabad Emberek Magyarországért Liberális Párt or SZEMA, one of the three liberal groups. SZEMA’s support is immeasurably small.

I personally like Klára Ungár, but this interview highlighted the dysfunctions that pervaded SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége). The party fell apart because of internal squabbling, political differences, and personal animosities. Things haven’t changed since. It was clear from Ungár’s interview that she would refuse any cooperation with the other liberals, that is with Gábor Kuncze’s group and Gábor Fodor’s new liberal party. Ungár, who hasn’t been active in politics since 1998, feels very virtuous and insists that other SZDSZ politicians should not only admit responsibility for Viktor Orbán’s rise to power but should simply disappear from political life.

So, this is the situation at the moment. A change of strategy is desperately needed as soon as possible. But after listening to Bajnai and Mesterházy I see no possibility of such a change in the near future. Meanwhile time is running out.

Rearrangement on the Hungarian left? It looks like it

Although there are many topics we could discuss today, I would like to return to party politics. I’m interested in the analysis of intra-party developments because of my fascination with personalities and their interactions. My other reason for taking up the topic is that in my opinion we will most likely witness major changes within the democratic opposition soon.

I don’t think that I ever hid the fact that I consider the arrangement that was sealed by Attila Mesterházy of MSZP and Gordon Bajnai of Együtt14-PM unsatisfactory. And, it seems, the potential supporters of this “electoral association” feel the same way as I do. Admittedly, how we feel about a certain occurrence is always influenced by our own likes or dislikes, and therefore it is not the best barometer of the effectiveness of a political action. The real problem, however, with the agreement between E14 and MSZP is that it didn’t bring the expected results. That is a fact that is hard to deny. Surely, the signatories hoped that even a loose coalition would rally the anti-Fidesz forces. It didn’t happen. On the contrary, E14 effectively lost about half of its potential voters.

Looking back on the events of the last half year, I’m actually surprised that the politicians of these two parties ever thought that the arrangement that was achieved only with great difficulty would ever work. You may recall that E14 refused to negotiate until they had their nationwide campaign. E14 politicians were obviously hoping to sit down to negotiate with MSZP from a position of strength. You may also recall that this hoped-for outcome didn’t materialize. Between March and October E14 support  hovered between 3 and 5% in the electorate as a whole. No amount of campaigning helped. Mind you, MSZP didn’t fare any better. The party was stuck between 14 and 15% among all eligible voters. Meanwhile valuable months were wasted.

After the debacle of the October 23 opposition rally and the phony Baja video scandal I hate to think what the next opinion polls will tell us about the state of these two parties. One doesn’t have to be a political genius to see that something went terribly wrong. But it seems that neither Bajnai nor Mesterházy has been willing to admit his mistake. They keep sticking to an untenable position: no renegotiation, no compromise. Everything is peachy-pie as is.

At this point, I was just waiting for the palace revolutions. I didn’t have to wait for long. Two days ago Péter Kónya, leader of Solidarity, was the guest of Olga Kálmán where the careful listener could discern deep trouble within E14.

Solidarity is part of E14-PM, but Kónya hasn’t been given much exposure despite Solidarity’s fairly extensive nationwide base. You may recall that it was Kónya who came up with the idea of an Orbán styrofoam statue imitating the Stalin statue that met its maker on the very first day of the October Revolution. Both Bajnai and Mesterházy timidly repudiated the action, which only gave further ammunition to the hypocritical outrage on the right. At this point I tried to imagine myself in Kónya’s shoes, who steadfastly refuses admit his “mistake.” I would have been furious as I believe Kónya was. Right now, he might be facing a charge of disorderly conduct. Yet he refuses to back down and told Kálmán that he was ready to go to jail if necessary.

Changing leaves

Changing leaves

It was at the end of the conversation that the really important piece of information could be heard. Yes, said Kónya, there are internal disputes concerning strategy in E14. Although at the top of the hierarchy the party leaders refuse to negotiate with Ferenc Gyurcsány, on the local level Solidarity activists are working hand in hand with DK members.  Concurrently with this interview Népszabadság ran an article with the title “Solidarity demands greater influence: Sharp criticisms.” From the article it became clear that Kónya wants a closer working relationship with the Demokratikus Koalíció.

And what one cannot read in the newspapers or hear from the politicians themselves: apparently local E14 members have been leaving the party in droves and joining DK. Apparently there are localities where E14 centers no longer exist. Surely, something must be done.

The situation is not much better in MSZP, although we know less about the inner workings of the party. The first inkling that not all’s well at Mesterházy’s headquarters came from Ildikó Lendvai, legendary whip of MSZP and later chair of the party who decided not to run as a candidate. Her decision, as we learned today, was based on her belief that she was considered one of those old timers the new leadership wants to see disappear. Mind you, Lendvai is one of the most sympathetic and smartest politicians in MSZP, and her quick mind and wit made her one of the best leaders of the MSZP parliamentary group. László Kovács, another old timer, was also on his way out. Their places were taken by second-rates.  One such lightweight was interviewed on ATV two days ago. Olga Kálmán managed to make him look like a fool.

In any case, about a week ago Lendvai gave an interview to Heti Válasz from which we could learn that she holds different views on party strategy from those of the chairman. Very diplomatically but clearly, she indicated that given the strengthening of the Demokratikus Koalíció and the weakening of E14 some kind of renegotiation of the terms of the agreement between MSZP and E14 will have to take place. She suggested that one of the problems standing in the way of a mutual understanding between MSZP and DK is that MSZP couldn’t decide on its attitude toward the party’s record during the Gyurcsány era. The way I read the abbreviated version of the interview online, Lendvai indicated that MSZP should have proudly embraced some of the accomplishments of the period between 2004 and 2009.

And then came the bungled video case. I’m sure that there were already rebels within the party who were not too pleased that Mesterházy was unable to handle the situation at the October 23 rally. An experienced politician would have been able to respond to those who demanded “unity.” Instead, Mesterházy stubbornly stuck to his prepared text just as now he stubbornly holds to the view that the agreement works splendidly when it is obvious that it doesn’t. The handling of the video was, I think, the last straw. By now it looks as if Mesterházy isn’t the master of his own house.

Yesterday came the news that some MSZP leaders, for example Gergely Bárándy and Zsolt Molnár, tried to deny that Ildikó Lendvai and László Kovács will be “advisers” to Attila Mesterházy. Today Lendvai was interviewed by György Bolgár* where she candidly shared her own views as to what strategy MSZP should pursue for participation in a unified democratic opposition. She added that this is her own private opinion that many people within the party don’t share. Clearly, she stands on the side of those who think that MSZP cannot stick with a mistaken agreement that has led nowhere. It was a mistake at the moment of its signing and since then it has become what looks like a blunder. Somehow the wrong must be righted. Now the question is: will Attila Mesterházy listen to the “oldies”?  I have the feeling he has no choice.

——–

*For those of you who understand the language I highly recommend listening to the Lendvai interview with György Bolgár available here: http://www.klubradio.hu/klubmp3/klub20131106-155854.mp3 The interview begins at 27:32 in the first part and continues in the second part: http://www.klubradio.hu/klubmp3/klub20131106-162853.mp3

Growing troubles in opposition circles

It was only a few days ago that the democratic opposition’s mass rally ended with a protest from the crowd itself–a demand for unity and the resultant quasi demonstration against Attila Mesterházy, chairman of MSZP.

What followed was almost inevitable. The two parties that had signed an exclusive political arrangement which effectively shut out the other opposition parties and groups placed the blame for the protest on Ferenc Gyurcsány, former prime minister and head of DK, a party with sizable support. It didn’t seem to matter that the other speakers’ message was the same as Gyurcsány’s; he was the only one who was accused of flaunting an alleged agreement that speakers would in no way criticize the deal between MSZP and E14-PM. Opposition leaders deny the existence of any such agreement.

Then came the accusation that it was actually Ferenc Gyurcsány himself who organized the demonstration against Mesterházy. His people were the only ones who kept demanding “unity.” I looked at several videos of the event taken from different angles, and in my opinion just as many people holding MSZP red flags shouted slogans that for a while kept Mesterházy from speaking. Some overzealous MSZP politicians like Tibor Szanyi claimed to have seen Ferenc Gyurcsány leaving the gathering in a great hurry even before Mesterházy finished his speech. The implication naturally being that after he created the disturbance Gyurcsány quickly left the scene of the crime. Szanyi turned out to be wrong. Gyurcsány, his wife, and Ágnes Vadai were present to the very end of Mesterházy’s speech. According to Gyurcsány, he even applauded Mesterházy.

Gordon Bajnai joined the MSZP politicians in forcefully asserting that the deal that was signed will in no way ever be changed. This is the best arrangement even if all the other speakers and it seems the overwhelming majority of the voters on the left don’t think so. Of course, politicians can ignore popular demand, except they do so at their own peril. My hunch is that this unbending attitude cannot be maintained for long.

mistakesBut that was not the only problem the opposition had to face. Péter Juhász, who represents Milla, a group formed on Facebook, has caused a lot of trouble in the past, and he struck again. Juhász is not a politician. He worked as an activist even before 2010 and by and large has a devastating opinion of both politicians and parties, left or right. Therefore he often talks about the “past eight years” exactly the way Fidesz politicians do. I assume that within E14-PM his colleagues try to temper his outbursts, but it seems that he cannot help himself. Shortly after the October 23 gathering Juhász was the guest of Olga Kálmán on ATV where he announced that he would never want to stand on the same platform with Gábor Kuncze or Ferenc Gyurcsány. Moreover, he claimed that Kuncze wasn’t invited to participate. I guess Kuncze just appeared on the scene. Crashed the party, so to speak.

These unfortunate remarks were not without consequence. A number of well-known people, like Attila Ara-Kovács, László C. Kálmán, Mária Ludassy, and Ádám Csillag withdrew their support for E14. Most of them added that this Juhász incident was just the last straw. They had had their problems with E14 even before. Gordon Bajnai seems to be adrift, without a firm idea of his party’s goals. And E14’s floundering is reflected in its poll numbers. A year ago support for E14 was about 12%; now it hovers around 5%.

But that wasn’t the only blow to the democratic side. Shortly before he retired from politics Gábor Kuncze was asked by Klubrádió to be the moderator of a political show once a week. Although Kuncze’s program was popular, the owner of Klubrádió, András Arató, decided that since Kuncze agreed to make a speech at the opposition rally he should be dismissed. The result? A fair number of loyal listeners who have been generously contributing toward the maintenance of Klubrádió are angry. Some have gone so far as to stop contributing to the station, which is strapped for money due to the Orbán government’s illegal manipulation of the air waves. They argue that Klubrádió knew about Kuncze’s plans to attend and that Arató should have warned him about the possible consequences. These people figure that the speedy and unexpected dismissal was due to a “friendly” telephone call from MSZP headquarters. The station denies that they have ever yielded to political pressure and claim that no such call came.

Finally, there is the case of a sympathy demonstration organized in Budapest demanding territorial autonomy for the Hungarian-speaking Szeklers who live in a solid mass in three counties in the middle of Transylvania. Since I’m planning to write something about the autonomy question, I’m not going into the details here. It’s enough to say that the views of the Hungarian political leaders in these parts are close to Jobbik. The most important Hungarian party in Romania is a center-right party called RMDSZ, but Fidesz feels more comfortable with the Szeklers.

The sympathy demonstration was organized by CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), the Szekler National Council (Székely Nemzeti Tanács), and Fidesz. CÖF is the “civic” forum, actually financed by the government, that organized the two peace marches against the “colonizers” and that was also responsible for gathering the supporters of Fidesz for the mass rally on October 23. Well-known anti-Semites like Zsolt Bayer, Gábor Széles (owner of Magyar Hírlap and Echo TV), and András Bencsik have prominent roles in CÖF. The Goy Bikers also made an appearance at this demonstration.

Both MSZP and E14-PM decided to support the march as well as Szekler autonomy. They argued that after all RMDSZ also gave its cautious approval to the march that concurrently took place in Romania. RMDSZ’s position, of course, is very different from that of MSZP and E14. After all, RMDSZ needs the Szeklers’ vote; MSZP and E14 don’t. Or, more accurately, supporting their demands will not prompt the Szeklers to vote for these two leftist parties at the next election. Those who vote will vote for Fidesz.

MSZP was satisfied with verbal support, but E14 politicians actually marched along with all the right-wingers and Goy Bikers! And with that move E14 lost even more supporters.

If the opposition is to stand any chance at the next election it can’t keep alienating potential voters. And it shouldn’t act like an exclusive club open only to the MSZP-E14 “founding members.” Politics is a numbers game, and numbers rise with inclusiveness. And with unity.