Tag Archives: László Botka

Medián: Support for László Botka

In the last few days two opinion polls have been published that focus on the qualities and popularity of László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, and Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. The juxtaposition of the two is somewhat arbitrary because Ferenc Gyurcsány is not a declared candidate while Botka is. The comparison was most likely prompted by László Botka’s steadfast opposition to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s active participation in the political process. Moreover, given the paucity of political talent on the left, Botka and Gyurcsány are the two who stand out in the crowd.

The first poll, conducted by Závecz Research, was published two days ago. In my opinion it was based on a disappointingly simplistic methodology. The pollsters asked 1,000 eligible voters who they find more capable of defeating Viktor Orbán–László Botka or Ferenc Gyurcsány–and concluded that the former is four times (44%) more likely to stand a chance against the strong man of Fidesz than the latter (11%). Forty-five percent of the sample had no idea who would do better.

In the second question Závecz Research wanted to know whether people sensed or didn’t sense a decrease in antipathy toward Gyurcsány. This question reminded me of those food experts of the Orbán government who wanted to assess the differences in quality of products sold to Hungary as opposed to, let’s say, to Austria by relying on tasters’ palates. Or of a relative of mine who decides on the popularity of different parties based on her encounters with acquaintances on the street. Well, 51% of the people surveyed thought that the animosity toward Gyurcsány hadn’t subsided whereas 30% thought it had. Needless to say, this was music to the ears of the anti-Gyurcsány factions.

Yesterday, only a day after the publication of the Závecz poll, Medián came out with a much more sophisticated and revealing poll. First of all, Medián recognized that a poll that samples the entire electorate will give skewed, misleading results about the popularity of opposition politicians. Medián therefore concentrated on those voters who “want a change of government,” i.e., those who would not vote for Fidesz. Moreover, Medián focused on Botka and touched on Gyurcsány’s role only tangentially.

According to Medián, 43% of voters would prefer change as opposed to 48% who would stick with the Fidesz government. This disappointing result may be due in large part to the disarray among the fractured opposition forces.

Only half of the anti-Fidesz group thought that Botka would be a competent prime minister, 21% thought he was unqualified, and 29% had no idea. Botka’s support was of course highest among MSZP voters (70%), but a majority of DK voters were also ready to support him. (The poll was taken at the end of January, so it is possible that the relative enthusiasm of DK voters for Botka has since waned as a result of his categorical rejection of Ferenc Gyurcsány.)

When it came to passing judgment on Gyurcsány, 37% percent of the anti-Fidesz forces thought that his participation in the political process would lower the likelihood of removing Orbán from power, 23% thought it wouldn’t, and 40% were undecided. Among MSZP voters, 30% were against Gyurcsány’s involvement while 29% had no objection to his presence in the political arena. Although Endre Hann in his article on the subject didn’t label the third category, I assume that 41% had no opinion.

According to Endre Hann’s summary of Medián’s findings, Botka is the most popular politician on the left.

Respondents were given the opportunity to describe Botka as a man and a politician in their own words and to judge him on a scale of 0 to 100. Most of the attributes were positive: clever (60%), sticking to his principles (59%), diligent (58%), courageous (59%), strong (55%), responsible (53%), and socially sensitive (52%). However, when it came to whether he would be able to solve the problems of the country he averaged only 44%. This result might not be a reflection on Botka’s perceived abilities but rather the Hungarian public’s assessment of the seriousness of their country’s situation at the moment.

Botka got a surprisingly substantial (36%) approval rating from the electorate at large. Thirty-four percent had a poor opinion of him while 30% had no opinion. When it came to Botka’s ability to govern, Fidesz voters gave him only 35 points out of 100 as opposed to voters of the democratic opposition who awarded him 64 points.

As for the current political situation, it is becoming increasingly evident that there will be no partnership among the opposition parties. Each party seems ready to campaign on its own even though most people in the anti-Fidesz camp are convinced that without cooperation Orbán’s government cannot be removed from power. These people are also convinced that the country will not be able to survive another four years of “illiberal democracy” Orbán style.

Yet there have always been a small number of political scientists who argue that the “party alliance” effort that failed spectacularly in 2014 shouldn’t be repeated. The chief spokesman for this position is Zoltán Ceglédi. At the beginning he didn’t convince me, but I’m coming to the conclusion that, given the unbridgeable differences between the parties both ideologically and in personal terms, perhaps it makes sense to start individual campaigns and see how successful these parties are in the next few months. The really tiny ones with support only in the capital and perhaps in some larger cities will most likely fall by the wayside, while the larger ones can compete for the votes of the undecided electorate. Let the voters see the differences among them and allow them to choose. The parties on the left have to agree about only one thing at the end: there can be only one challenger in each electoral district. And then we will see what happens. If they are incapable of doing that much, then they deserve to remain in opposition for another four years.

March 23, 2017

Politics and the Hungarian socialists–Not a winning combination

The ineptness of MSZP politicians never ceases to amaze me, but their latest stunt really deserves a booby prize. While their new hope, László Botka, lectures on taking away from the rich and giving to the poor, high-ranking MSZP politicians endorsed a proposal to give away the state-owned Grassalkovich Mansion in Hatvan to the Széchenyi Zsigmond Kárpát-medencei Magyar Vadászati Múzeum (Zsigmond Széchenyi Hungarian Hunting Museum of the Carpathian Basin).

Hunting has become a favorite pastime of Fidesz politicians, who show a great affinity for the lifestyle of the traditional Hungarian landowning class, which included a love of hunting. Even during the Kádár regime high-ranking party functionaries indulged in this aristocratic pursuit. Zsolt Semjén (KDNP), deputy prime minister, and János Lázár, chief of the prime minister’s office, are the best known avid hunters.

First, a few words about the mansion that stands on the main square of Hatvan and that is named for Count Antal Grassalkovich (1694-1771), a wealthy man who owned vast tracks of land around Gödöllő, Hatvan, and Bag. In 1867 the mansion was purchased by the Deutsch-Hatvany family. After the German occupation of Hungary, the Gestapo settled there. It was also used as a military hospital. By 1979 the building was declared to be uninhabitable. After a lengthy reconstruction effort, the mansion’s restoration was more or less finished with the help of 3.15 billion forints provided by the European Union and the Hungarian government. In 2012 the decision was made to house the Hunting Museum, named after Zsigmond Széchenyi (1898-1967), a well-known explorer and writer, in the state-owned mansion.

A nice gift for the Hunting Association

On March 14 eight members of parliament, three from Fidesz-KDNP and five from MSZP, proposed an amendment to a law passed in 2011 that regulates the ways and means of giving away state-owned properties to private persons or private organizations. The three Fidesz-KDNP signatories were Zsolt Semjén, János Lázár, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the prime minister’s office. As for five MSZP members, they included well-known, important names: István Hiller, Gergely Bárándy, Dezső Hiszékeny, István Józsa, and Árpád Velez. According to the document, these eight men proposed giving the newly reconstructed Grassalkovich Mansion to the National Hungarian Hunting Association (Országos Magyar Vadászkamara/OMVK). The justification for the move was that this transfer of ownership will offer an opportunity for the museum to function “on a professional basis.” Because, the government politicians argued, at the moment the museum attracts very few visitors. Instead of the expected 100,000 a year, barely 30,000 visitors were registered in the last few years. That shortfall happened because the current management is not doing a professional enough job. Once the Hunting Association owns the mansion outright, however, it will have a more effective way of supervising the museum.

I must say that I do not see the connection between ownership of the building and management of the museum. Anyone with half a brain should have noticed that there is something wrong here. One of the Hungarian papers claimed that “the socialists were misled.” Well, it doesn’t seem to be very difficult to mislead these political geniuses.

There was another reason the MSZP politicians should have been suspicious. The privatization of public property needs a two-thirds majority in parliament. As we know, Fidesz doesn’t have that majority anymore. Most likely, they knew that Jobbik would never agree to cooperate with them on an issue like this. So, they turned to the patsies of MSZP instead. And it very nearly worked.

The reaction from the other parties on the left was swift. As usual, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció was the first to respond. Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for DK, said: “We always knew that Fidesz politicians steal,” but it is unacceptable for MSZP politicians to assist in this enterprise. According to Gréczy, MSZP must offer some kind of reasonable explanation for lending a helping hand to Fidesz in its quest to steal the country blind. MSZP’s leadership was unmoved. They answered that this is not about hunting but about a museum that serves the public good. Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt was the next to issue a statement. He went so far as to call this cooperation between Fidesz and MSZP “a grand coalition.” Shame, shame, he added.

A day later, on March 17, MSZP published a terse announcement: “MSZP wants to avoid even the appearance of working together with Fidesz in the privatization of state property, and therefore it withdraws its support for the privatization of the property destined for OMVK.” Before this announcement was made, however, Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, had stood by the party’s decision and repeated that cooperation with Fidesz for the sake of the museum was correct and justified. Gergely Bárándy, son of former Minister of Justice Péter Bárándy, accused the DK spokesman of “creating a scandal.” If he hadn’t opened his mouth, the public would have heard nothing about “this noble cause from the point of view of Hungarian culture.”

Who was responsible for this politically suicidal act? I’m afraid all the bigwigs of MSZP. I don’t have any knowledge of the interplay between the parliamentary caucus and the leadership of the party, but I would like to believe that the chairman of the party, Gyula Molnár, was informed that cooperation with Fidesz on the issue had been sanctioned by the parliamentary delegation. The leader (or whip) of the MSZP delegation is Bertalan Tóth. He is new at his job, but until now he struck me as an intelligent fellow. Perhaps he didn’t feel secure enough to go against people like Hiller, Bárándy, and Józsa. We know that the Fidesz politicians came to MSZP with the suggestion, which then was discussed at length. At the end, they decided to support the joint proposal. And now, here is this embarrassing retreat which was apparently initiated by László Botka, who must have hit the ceiling upon finding out about it. I don’t blame him. According to Népszava, Botka “specifically requested” the party’s immediate withdrawal from the joint project.

After this fiasco the party leadership is threatening MSZP members of parliament with immediate removal from the caucus if they dare vote for the bill. This indicates to me that some of the original signatories are giving the party leadership a hard time about prohibiting any further cooperation. MSZP, as usual, failed miserably as an effective opposition to the politically savvy Fidesz party machinery.

March 19, 2017

László Botka’s fight against the liberals and for the “melósok”

After about a month of total silence László Botka finally seems ready to take center stage and begin his election campaign in earnest. The opening salvo was a long interview he gave to Népszava in which he declared war not just against Fidesz and the Orbán government but also against the “small liberal parties” on the democratic side. Which parties is he talking about? All the parties on the left with the exception of MSZP.

Initially Botka promised to visit all of these parties with the exception of the Demokratikus Koalíció, whose chairman is unacceptable to the MSZP candidate. Botka began his “negotiations” with LMP, which I found a strange choice given LMP’s negative attitude toward joint political action. I have since come to believe that his choice of LMP as the first party to visit was intentional. After what he had to know would be a rejection by LMP, he could stop the “unity game,” which in his opinion led nowhere in 2014 and will certainly lead nowhere in 2018. He decided that he will go it alone and will “hold negotiations” with the electorate. Talks with other parties are “just a waste of time.”

Botka was adamant from the very beginning that Ferenc Gyurcsány must remove himself from the political arena and that the leaderless Demokratikus Koalíció should simply follow his and MSZP’s lead. I doubt that Botka ever seriously believed that Gyurcsány would oblige. Indeed, in no time Gyurcsány said that he has no intention of leaving his voters, who just reelected him chairman of DK.

So, two possible allies of MSZP–LMP and DK–were removed from the list, leaving only “the small liberal parties.” After this interview, however, it is unlikely that the politicians of these parties will be willing to negotiate with Botka about anything.

Throughout the interview Botka did his best to discredit “the small liberal parties” in every way possible. He expressed his great disappointment over the fact that the liberal politicians, who had been very encouraging when he first announced his candidacy, soon cooled toward him. In his interpretation this means that “they don’t believe in victory in 2018 and they got frightened.” This behavior of the liberal leaders prompted him to change strategy and give up negotiations altogether. He is not afraid, he believes that victory is possible. And that’s why he “doesn’t want to come to an agreement with the liberal party leaders who are stuck in their own selfish interests.” He will negotiate only with the voters. This, of course, is sophistry. One could come up with many reasons for their reluctance, among them Botka’s attitudes and his somewhat dictatorial ways. For instance, it was his imperious style that cost him his position as chairman of MSZP’s board last summer.

Botka continued his attack, accusing “the small liberal parties that exist at the border of being and not being” of actually wanting to maintain the current political setup. They want to get a few seats in parliament as part of the opposition, but they don’t want to remove the Orbán government. Therefore, the liberals, Jobbik, and Fidesz have the same goal: the maintenance of the status quo. MSZP is the only party that wants change and actually represents the interests of the people. Even so, Botka made an effort to seem marginally conciliatory: “my door is still open, but I will not put a comma where a period must be placed.”

I believe this is straight talk, and therefore for the time being any cooperation among the parties of the democratic opposition is over. Each party will campaign alone. MSZP launched its campaign in Miskolc, formerly an industrial city in the poorest region of the country. It was once a socialist bastion but has been under Fidesz leadership since 2010. Also, it was in this region that MSZP lost a lot of voters to Jobbik. So, starting the MSZP campaign there made a lot of sense.

MSZP’s campaign slogan is “Justice to be done, the rich will pay.” Some newspapers interpreted this slogan to mean that Botka’s final goal is “income equality,” which he denied in the interview. Still, his heavy emphasis on the disparity between rich and poor gave that impression and apparently frightened some people. Even the reporter who interviewed Botka in Népszava asked: “So, then you will draw a sword against the rich?”

The slogan may be overly aggressive, but given the poverty that exists in Hungary, Botka’s emphasis on improving the living standards of the poor and helping the lower-middle classes with tax breaks is a good strategy. There’s no question that the flat tax introduced by the Orbán government must be abolished.

Hungarian “melósok” received Balkanic wages

The question is whether this kind of program will make a difference as far as MSZP’s current poor showing in the polls is concerned. Will the party be able to garner enough support to win the battle with Fidesz on its own? Will this program resonate with the skeptical, disillusioned millions who right now don’t know where to turn? Will Botka’s program attract another one million voters the party needs to be competitive? If yes, Botka’s dismissal of the “small liberal parties” might not have been too hasty a decision. But that is a big “if.” What if the half a million or more non-MSZP voters on the left are turned off by Botka’s high-handed manner and refuse to support MSZP?

Botka’s success or failure depends on what happens to MSZP after the announcement of a strategy that moves away from the “third road” strategy of MSZP over the past ten to fifteen years. Will a social democratic program aimed at capturing the vote of the physical workers whom he called by the slang expression “melósok” be enough? There were millions of “melósok” prior to 1990, but today the description is dated, recalling bygone days. Still, perhaps the promise of a better life will move the apathetic uncommitted voters.

March 16, 2017

Total disarray among the democratic opposition parties

A few months ago I started a folder called “Opposition Parties: Dissension and Unity.” Well, by now the unity which a few months ago had a small chance of becoming reality can safely be buried. The fairly promising negotiations on the left fizzled out. After a few negotiating sessions only four political groups were still at the negotiating table: the socialists (MSZP), Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), Párbeszéd (Dialogue) led by Gergely Karácsony and Tímea Szabó, and former Finance Minister Lajos Bokros’s MoMa, which he describes as a “movement.” Együtt (Together) of Viktor Szigetvári and Péter Juhász refused to have anything to do with the others even before the negotiations began, and the participation of LMP (Lehet Más A Politika) was never a possibility. Then, on February 14, Szabó announced that Párbeszéd was leaving the negotiations because the others were not committed to holding primaries, which is an important part of the party’s program. A few days later Bokros announced MoMa’s withdrawal from the negotiations. A faint hope still remained that at least the two largest parties, MSZP and DK, would be able to work out some kind of an arrangement.

That hope disappeared when László Botka, the socialist mayor of Szeged, formally announced his decision to run as MSZP’s candidate for prime minister. Up to that point the person of the candidate for prime minister hadn’t been discussed at all among the parties, and therefore there was a certain amount of surprise mixed with ill feelings when MSZP acted as if the candidate was a fait accompli. At a large MSZP conference Botka gave a forceful speech with a decidedly left-leaning political message, which may have sounded attractive to the old socialist base, but it was the death knell of any cooperation between MSZP and DK. Botka in no uncertain terms announced that as long as Ferenc Gyurcsány is heading DK no understanding between the two parties is possible.

DK’s reaction was restrained. Zsolt Gréczy, the party’s spokesman, announced that they had sent DK’s party program to Botka and they were waiting for Botka’s call to discuss issues concerning the coming election. They waited and waited, but Botka had no intention of talking to Ferenc Gyurcsány and his party.

Botka, after returning from a trip abroad, approached LMP, and not surprisingly he returned empty-handed. LMP has remained steadfast in its resolve never to enter into political deals with anyone. I understand that Botka offered something quite enticing to LMP in exchange for the party’s support of his candidacy. According to rumor, Botka offered to cede half of the districts in Budapest to LMP, where the leftist-green party is strong. No dice. Ákos Hadházy, Bernadett Szél, and Péter Ungár, who happens to be Mária Schmidt’s son, refused. I assume Botka was hoping to replace DK voters with those from LMP. So by now it looks as if MSZP is planning to take on the Orbán government alone since neither LMP nor the smaller parties, like Együtt and Párbeszéd, are willing to support Botka, and Botka is unwilling to cooperate with Ferenc Gyurcsány.

Today, at DK’s congress, Ferenc Gyurcsány formally acknowledged that his original idea of a common list is dead. Despite the attacks coming from Botka, Gyurcsány refrained from attacking MSZP’s candidate. The gist of his message was “perhaps there are many flags but the camp is one.” The democratic opposition must agree on one candidate in each district against Fidesz’s nominee. Because running against each other would be truly suicidal.

The answer to this proposal was prompt. Imre Szekeres (MSZP), former minister of defense and an influential member of the party, accused Gyurcsány of either not knowing what he is talking about or knowingly suggesting “the impossible.” He claimed that separate lists and common candidates are incompatible. He gave a long list of reasons why this is the case, although I remember that during the negotiations such a solution was discussed.

László Botka didn’t wait long either. He told Index only a few minutes after Gyurcsány concluded his speech that he “doesn’t want to get involved with the debates of the ever increasing number of small liberal parties.” It was an arrogant response considering that, according to a January poll, among committed voters 10% of the electorate would vote for MSZP and 7% for DK. In his place I would be a tad more cautious. So, as it stands, all parties will be facing Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz alone. This is a sure way of handing an electoral victory to Orbán even though a significant majority of the electorate thinks that the present government and Fidesz are leading the country in the wrong direction.

What are the chances of a spectacular resurgence of MSZP at the moment? Róbert László, the electoral expert of Political Capital, a political think tank, considers such a Phoenix-like revival of the party unlikely. So do I. It carries too much baggage, and its politicians are singularly untalented. Gyurcsány, who is talented but tainted, is more realistic. His goal is to build a middle-sized party, gaining maybe 15% of the votes. That would give the party a good chance of forming a parliamentary delegation (frakció in Hungarian), which it currently lacks.

Otherwise, all commentators consider the appearance of Momentum politically important, but talking about this new group, as some of the “political scientists” do, as a serious threat to MSZP or DK is a mistake. These young people did an admirable job collecting signatures for a referendum on hosting the 2024 Olympics, but building a party from scratch in a few months is a well nigh impossible task. They may, however, be able to move the apolitical younger generation, especially in Budapest and other larger cities. In the countryside their chances are very poor.

Gyurcsány, and whether he was being honest or not is beside the point, said that he is happy for the emergence of the Momentum group, to which the spokesman of Momentum answered that “Momentum is not happy for Gyurcsány.” No wonder that many people compare Hungarian opposition leaders to kindergartners fighting over the toys lying around.

Péter Pető, former deputy editor-in-chief of Népszabadság, wrote an opinion piece in 24.hu with the title “Only one may remain: The war of Botka, Gyurcsány, and Momentum.” It is a thought-provoking piece, although Pető goes overboard in assessing the political weight of Momentum. Pető is no admirer of Botka, whom he calls “a media partisan” who shirks from being tested in a political struggle with real opponents. “The mayor of Szeged is unwilling to go into battle with Gyurcsány, who was reelected as the chairman of the party with 98% of the votes…. Botka’s game … gives him an opportunity to show whether he has what makes Gyurcsány an important politician: the killer’s instinct.” Pető then gives a couple of scenarios of Botka succeeding in making a deal with LMP or the other two small parties, in which case he thinks that Gyurcsány will have to face a very serious challenge, which may end his political career. “But the problem is that Gyurcsány is at his best in precisely this type of situation,” Pető concludes.

Of course, it is possible that more sober voices will come forward, but at the moment MSZP, LMP, Együtt, and Párbeszéd have declared their intention to face the big bad wolf alone. DK is waiting, but at the moment I don’t see any willingness to cooperate with Ferenc Gyurcsány and by extension with the Demokratikus Koalíció. Viktor Orbán must be feeling very good.

March 4, 2017

Botka’s formal introduction as MSZP’s candidate for Hungary’s new prime minister

Two days have gone by since László Botka, mayor of Szeged and MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, delivered a fifty-minute speech which has since received mixed reviews. The most quoted part of the speech was a frontal attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány as an impediment to electoral victory. Not even the socialists seem to be entirely happy with Botka’s attack, especially since Botka’s party is in the midst of negotiations with the other democratic opposition parties, including the largest among them, Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció. After the speech Lajos Bokros, former minister of finance and chairman of Modern Magyarország Mozgalom Párt (MoMa), withdrew from the negotiation process while Párbeszéd accused Botka of lifting one of its signature programs, the introduction of a guaranteed basic income.

The speech, both in content and in delivery, began well enough, but after about ten minutes Botka lost some of his early eloquence. The speech deteriorated at times into a hurried laundry list.

In his editorial Péter Németh, editor-in-chief of Népszava, while noting that the speech could be considered an ideological shift for MSZP, said that most commentators paid little attention to the socialists’ turn leftward and concentrated only on the vicious assault against the former prime minister. After this speech, he said, MSZP must make clear what the party’s intentions are. Does Botka’s speech mean the discontinuation of the negotiations? Has MSZP opted to confront Fidesz alone in 2018? It’s time to decide. Index’s Szabolcs Dull shares Németh’s opinion that “we will most remember [Botka’s speech] as an event at which Botka publicly assailed Ferenc Gyurcsány.”

Since the transcript of the speech is available, I can quote some of the more controversial passages verbatim. The reader must keep in mind that László Botka has been an MSZP politician for 23 years. With the exception of the 1998-2002 period, he was a member of parliament between 1994 and 2010. He has been mayor of Szeged since 2002. Therefore, one must take with a grain of salt that Botka bears no responsibility whatsoever for “the missteps committed by the left-liberal governments, especially between 2002 and 2010.” And he continues: “Those who lied into the eyes of the electorate are liabilities for the left and they therefore should decamp…. In Hungary consolidation and peace will come only when the two most divisive politicians in the country, the beloved and/or hated icons, at last leave the sanctuary of politics.” Gyurcsány’s reaction to this assault was muted: “The voters will decide who has a place in the democratic public life of Hungary. I, as a voter, would give a place to Botka also. Moreover, I wish him much success.”

Watching the video taken at the event, I came to the conclusion that there was a divide when it came to Botka’s attack. There are those, like István Ujhelyi, MSZP member of the European Parliament, who believe that cooperation with the other parties will materialize despite Botka’s outburst. I saw István Hiller sitting rather stone faced without applauding. I assume those who are enthusiastic about Botka’s strong language think that the leadership of DK will tell their chairman to go and fly a kite and will merrily cooperate with MSZP and Botka. But “others are less optimistic as far as electoral cooperation is concerned.” They are seriously worried that this speech might end all negotiation between MSZP and DK, which may result in a devastating loss for the democratic parties on the left. Jobbik was not far off when the party claimed that “it became clear that László Botka, MSZP candidate for the premiership, and MSZP don’t want to defeat Prime Minister Viktor Orbán but Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció.” Botka bet everything on a single card. His hope seems to be that his strong speech will whip up such enthusiasm for the socialist party that it will be able to beat the forces of Fidesz and Jobbik singlehanded. Suddenly, the opinion polls will show an incredible shift in popularity for the party and, as a result, it will draw those one million undecided voters Botka referred to in his speech in addition to the loyal DK voters who will see the light and switch their votes to the revitalized socialist party.

Of course, anything is possible, perhaps even this scenario, but it is not very likely. Only a joint anti-Orbán force has any chance of removing the present government from power. Moreover, I have been convinced for some time that most commentators and politicians don’t study the polls that could give us direct or indirect clues about the political attitudes of the electorate carefully enough. For instance, the Závecz poll’s findings that about 75% of the electorate would not vote for a ticket that had Gyurcsány’s name on the list is misleading because it also includes millions of Fidesz and Jobbik voters who would not vote for a left-wing party or parties no matter what. The same is true of the undecided voters. When Závecz came out with its finding that for half of the undecided voters Gyurcsány’s presence would make a difference, the assumption was that all these people would vote for the left. But, of course, this is not the case. Therefore, this whole Závecz report, on which many people on the left rely, is totally useless as a guide for future action. I’m convinced that most people who want to get rid of Orbán don’t give a hoot whether Gyurcsány’s name is on the list or not–as long as it’s not at the top of the list.

The government press is naturally delighted. Magyar Idők’s headline reads: “László Botka: Gyurcsány is a burden on the left.” However, Tamás Lánczi, a a right-wing political scientist and the new editor-in-chief of Figyelő, gave a surprisingly objective assessment of the speech in an interview on Inforádió. In his opinion, the speech contained many significant elements, but Botka’s attacks shifted attention away from its essence. It might be the case that the candidate for the premiership has to show strength, but “we know from various surveys and research papers that the voters of MSZP and DK readily cross-vote. The voters of the two parties don’t look upon each other as enemies, and therefore there is the possibility of cooperation.”

I must say I have to agree with the young Lánczi. Where I disagree with him is in his description of Botka’s speech as populist. I’m afraid Lánczi doesn’t know the true meaning of the word. Let me quote Jan-Werner Müller, who just published the highly acclaimed book What is Populism? A few days ago an interview appeared with Müller in Bloomberg titled “Why Donald Trump Really Is a Populist.” Müller said: “Not everyone who criticizes elites is automatically a populist. Rather, populists always claim that they—and they alone—properly represent the people or what they frequently call ‘the real people’ or the ‘silent majority.’”

Botka gave a social democratic speech, which emphasized social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy. It’s too bad that most Hungarians have no idea what the speech was really about. It deserves considered debate. The Gyurcsány bashing doesn’t.

February 20, 2017

The Hungarian opposition shows signs of life

Momentum’s victory

The major news of the day is the overwhelming success of Momentum’s signature drive for a referendum on holding the 2024 Olympic Games in Budapest. They needed 138,000 signatures; they collected 266,151. Although the young leaders of the movement don’t seem to be overly grateful, about 60,000 of these signatures were collected by political parties on the left. LMP and Párbeszéd were especially active.

Momentum’s plan at the moment is to become a self-sufficient party. But I wouldn’t be surprised if closer cooperation among Momentum, Párbeszéd, and LMP would materialize, especially now that Párbeszéd has withdrawn from negotiations with MSZP and DK.

Viktor Orbán, who a few months ago considered hosting the 2024 Olympic Games “a matter of national significance,” a couple of days ago instructed the Fidesz-KDNP parliamentary delegation to refrain from any comment in the event that Momentum gets the necessary number of signatures. His position now is that the central government supported the idea only after the Budapest City Council, including opposition members, voted to submit an application to the IOC.

Budapest mayor István Tarlós, although initially against holding the Olympics in Budapest, now stands by Viktor Orbán. He complains about “the betrayal of the opposition,” which a year and a half ago supported the idea heart and soul and now portrays itself as the defender of the people and the country. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of truth in this charge. Csaba Horváth (MSZP), József Tóth (MSZP), and Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd) supported the application. Even Erzsébet Gy. Németh (DK), who verbally disapproved of it, had the courage only to abstain. The sole person to vote against it was Antal Csárdi (LMP). Bravery and consistency are not the strong points of the Hungarian socialists and liberals.

Granted, given government pressure and the general Fidesz enthusiasm for the project, it was guaranteed to sail through the Budapest City Council. Still, those opposition city fathers who have been so loud of late in their disapproval of the project would look a great deal better if they had not bent under pressure and had instead voted their conscience. MSZP is especially hesitant to take a stand when its leaders believe, rightly or wrongly, that its voters might not approve of the party’s actions.

Tarlós indicated that once the final verdict on the number of signatures is announced, he “will think very seriously about withdrawing the application.” Given the enormous number of signatures collected, there is no doubt that the referendum request will be valid. And if the referendum were actually held, the “no’s” would carry the day. Tomorrow Publicus Intézet will publish its latest poll, according to which 76% of the total population would use the money for something much more important. The respondents could pick from several categories and obviously, since the numbers add up to more than 100%, could choose to allocate the saved funds to more than one urgent need. 65% of them opted for healthcare, 32% for education, 16% for the elimination of poverty, 11% for the creation of new jobs, and 8% for better infrastructure.

András Fekete-Győr proudly displaying the fruit of Momentum’s labor

The leaders of Momentum will embark on a two-month tour of the countryside where they plan to establish local party cells. András Fekete-Győr announced a few hours ago that the new party will have candidates in all 120 electoral districts. It intends to compete against the other opposition parties, although we know that fracturing the anti-Orbán forces is political suicide. Under the current electoral law, which is designed for a two-party system, a divided opposition can only lose. Nonetheless, for the time being Momentum is planning to follow in the footsteps of LMP, which doesn’t bode well for either Momentum or Hungarian democracy. László Bartus of Amerikai Magyar Népszava has already written an opinion piece in which he expresses his fears that Momentum is glossing over the distinction between Hungary prior to and after 2010.

László Botka’s program is shaping up

The anti-Orbán forces got some good news yesterday when Republikon Intézet published its poll on the popularity of current candidates for the post of prime minister. Viktor Orbán and László Botka are essentially neck to neck. Botka is only two percentage points behind Viktor Orbán (46% to 44%). What is especially significant is that Botka is by far the more popular candidate among undecided voters, 44% against Orbán’s 29%, a result that didn’t surprise me as much as it seems to have surprised the media. I have been convinced for a long time that if someone could inspire this group to vote, the majority would vote for a candidate on the left.

Many voters who sympathize with the “liberal” democratic parties in Hungary have been impatient with László Botka’s relative inaction since he announced that he intended to throw his hat in the ring. For example, although he promised to visit the chairmen of the smaller parties, he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. Yesterday I read that the first party he will visit will be LMP, an odd choice, I would say, since LMP’s willingness to negotiate with Botka is about zero.

On the other hand, Botka at last came out with an article, published in 168 Óra, in which he spells out at least part of his program. He embraces the idea of introducing a guaranteed basic income on an experimental basis in the most underdeveloped and poorest regions of the country. I assume that would be the northeastern corner and the County of Baranya along the Croatian-Hungarian border, both with large Roma populations. He also envisages introducing a supplement to pensions that do not provide enough income for survival. He would like to alleviate the difficulties younger people have in gaining access to affordable housing. He proposes that municipalities build apartment complexes, with apartments to be rented out at reasonable prices. He wants to change the flat tax system introduced by the second Orbán government to a progressive one. Moreover, he wants to introduce a property tax on high-priced real estate and luxury cars. In addition, Botka emphasized that education and health will his government’s priority.

I am curiously awaiting the reaction of the media and the general public. I’m sure that most of these goals will meet the expectations of the majority, although I don’t know how people will feel about the idea of a guaranteed basic income. I assume that MSZP will fully support these goals, but they will also have to be approved by those parties that are ready to stand behind Botka. The way things are going, very soon it will be only DK that Botka will have to negotiate with.

We already know the reaction of the government media to Republikon Intézet’s poll on Botka’s popularity. Here are some headlines: “Few people support László Botka on the left,” “Botka is not supported even on the left,” “László Botka is not popular.” The source of this information? Fidesz’s own pollster, Századvég.

February 17, 2017

László Lengyel, the “kingmaker”

On Saturday afternoon Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered his thirteenth speech on the state of the country, which was broadcast on both ATV and HírTV. Hungarian speakers can watch the 40-minute speech on ATV’s website. It was a forceful attack on Viktor Orbán and his government in which he compared Orbán to István Csurka, the extreme right leader of MIÉP, an anti-Semitic party which, after a spectacular rise in the second half of the 1990s, disappeared for good, to be replaced by Gábor Vona’s Jobbik. He also talked about the poverty of the “working poor” and blamed the present government for the growing poverty of many Hungarians, adding that, in his opinion, a person for whom the wounds of Trianon are more painful than the sufferings of Hungarians who are hungry and cold is not a patriot.

If Gyurcsány had confined himself to these themes, not too many people would have been overly excited about the former prime minister’s speech. But he continued with a juicy revelation. He accused László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, of conducting, with the assistance of a non-politician “kingmaker,” negotiations to exclude him and his party from a future electoral alliance of left-of-center parties. Such behavior can put an end to DK’s cooperation with the other socialist-liberal parties, he warned. Well, that sort of news is definitely something both the media and the public love. Indeed, soon enough a host of articles appeared about the speech and its content.

The name of the “kingmaker” didn’t remain secret for long. The spokesman of the Demokratikus Koalíció, Zsolt Gréczy, made it public on Facebook. The “kingmaker” was László Lengyel, a political scientist and economist who is a regular participant in political discussions, where he shows great mastery of both domestic and foreign affairs.

Soon enough it was determined that the meeting to which Gyurcsány alluded did indeed take place. What was more difficult to find out was what actually transpired at the meeting from which the leaders of MSZP, Párbeszéd, Együtt, and even LMP and László Botka wanted Gyurcsány and his party to be excluded. Although everybody involved has since given interviews, they have carefully avoided providing straight answers to any and all questions touching on the content of the discussions. After listening to all these interviews, I had the distinct feeling that Gyurcsány’s information was correct. The meeting was about getting rid of Gyurcsány while holding on to DK voters.

László Lengyel / Source: Népszabadság / Photo: János M. Schmidt

How did Gyurcsány and the leadership of the Demokratikus Koalíció find out about the meeting in the first place? Lengyel seems to have been foolish enough to approach Péter Niedermüller, DK member of the European Parliament, and invite him for a cup of coffee. There he told Niedermüller about what was afoot and extended an invitation to him to attend the meeting. Niedermüller refused and informed DK’s executive board of Lengyel’s scheme.

Eventually Niedermüller told his side of the story. He interpreted the conversation over coffee as “an attempt to exclude DK and its chairman from cooperation among left-of-center parties without losing DK’s voters.” Such “half-truths, secrecy, and mendacity are incompatible with my conscience,” Niedermüller announced. The main occupation of far too many opposition leaders is “branding those fellow politicians with whom they don’t agree.” By such behavior they only strengthen the prime minister and his regime.

László Lengyel admits that he did have a conversation with Niedermüller but denies everything the DK politician said about their meeting. He practically called Niedermüller a liar who was “dragged into this idiocy,” I guess by Gyurcsány. He expressed his regret that Niedermüller “got himself involved with such bad company.”

During the many interviews Lengyel gave in the last couple of days it became clear that he was the one who convinced László Botka to announce his interest in becoming a candidate to head the united democratic opposition. It is a well-known fact that Lengyel passionately hates Ferenc Gyurcsány. In one of his interviews he freely admitted that he swore in 2006 that he would never sit down at the same table with Ferenc Gyurcsány. And he is not exaggerating. I had personal experience with Lengyel’s uncompromising hatred of the former prime minister. Lengyel used to be a frequent contributor to Galamus, an excellent internet site–unfortunately by now defunct due to a lack of funds–that carried mostly opinion pieces. Both Péter Niedermüller and I were among the founding members. One day Zsófia Mihancsik, our editor, invited Gyurcsány to write an article for Galamus. As soon as the article appeared, Lengyel cut all ties with Galamus. He no longer cared about either the quality or the mission of the site.

The three authors on the left who wrote opinion pieces on the incident are split on the issue. Péter S. Földi and György Adorján condemn those democratic politicians who try to make deals behind the backs of others. It is only TGM, who specializes in contrary opinions on practically everything, who thinks that Lengyel is a private individual and as such has the right to meet with anyone he wants. Moreover, he looks upon Gyurcsány’s indignation as “an attack against intellectuals,” an act that foreshadows hard times to come. I’m not quite sure what TGM has in mind.

All these attempts, especially by the two tiny parties Együtt and Párbeszéd, to get rid of Gyurcsány are not just a waste of time but incredibly harmful. DK voters are devoted to the head of their party. They are not going to abandon him and flock to a left-of-center group that excludes their leader. And no election can be won without Gyurcsány and DK. All these meetings are really “much ado about nothing,” with the terrible side effect of shaking the little confidence left-wing voters still have in the opposition. The poll the smaller parties cite to bolster their claim about Gyurcsány’s standing with the voters is fallacious, as I pointed out earlier in one of my posts. Most Hungarians who would vote for a left political conglomerate don’t care one way or the other about the makeup of the joint party list. As for the undecided voters, only half of them feel strongly about the person of Gyurcsány.

Although there is nothing wrong with outsiders giving advice to politicians, it should be positive, constructive counsel, not counsel that would further split the already fractured Hungarian opposition.

February 7, 2017