Tag Archives: László Botka

The latest opinion polls on the chances of the opposition parties

First, before getting into the polls, a short “public service announcement.” Arcanum Adatbázis Kft. will hold an “open day” tomorrow (October 13). Arcanum has been digitalizing an enormous number of documents, periodicals, newspapers, and books over the past few years. A certain amount of their digitalized material is available at no cost, including such gems as Maria Theresa’s 1767 Urbarium, which genealogy buffs will find especially useful, but for full access you must pay a monthly fee. If you visit Arcanum’s table of contents (https://adtplus.arcanum.hu/hu/) you will find an amazing amount of material. So I urge everybody to make a quick trip today and look around. Tomorrow everybody will be able to browse Arcanum’s rich depository of material.

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Two new polls have been published recently. The first was conducted by Publicus Research, which was specifically interested in voters’ reaction to László Botka’s withdrawal as MSZP’s candidate for the post of prime minister. To my surprise, 43% of the respondents didn’t think that Botka’s disappearance from the scene made an appreciable difference in the electoral chances of the parties on the left. My surprise was based on the following considerations. First, those who disapproved of Botka’s handling of the negotiations with the other left-opposition parties should think that his retirement would enhance the likelihood of a united front, which, at least in theory, should boost the chances of the socialist-liberal side. On the other hand, those who saw in Botka a strong leader who could give a face to a unified opposition should be disappointed and consider the chances of the opposition diminished. Yet, it mattered not whether the respondent was a Fidesz, a Jobbik, or an MSZP voter; they all agreed that Botka’s presence in the campaign was neither here nor there. I think this outcome is a sad commentary on Botka’s eight-month non-campaign.

The amazing finding is that, despite the fact that 66% of the respondents thought that Botka’s withdrawal from the race shows the chaos that exists among the left-opposition parties, 44% still think that with hard work and readiness to compromise the left-opposition could win, as opposed to 49% who think that, no matter what, they couldn’t win. Moreover, over 60% said that Botka’s resignation was not too late; there is, they believe, still time to find a suitable and successful replacement.

As for the likelihood of victory over Fidesz at the next election, the respondents were divided, depending on party preference. Over 83% of Fidesz voters are convinced that their party will easily win next year, while MSZP voters are even more sure (89%) that there will be a change of government in 2018. Interestingly enough, Jobbik voters are much more cautious in their predictions. The majority (58%) are optimistic, but there is a large minority (42%) who fear that Fidesz will remain in power.

When Publicus Research asked the respondents about their willingness to vote for the left-opposition, there were only a couple of surprises. Clearly, Fidesz supporters are not contemplating voting for such an opposition group. However, it was somewhat of a shock that 53% of Jobbik voters would be willing to vote for the left-opposition. I suspect that the question wasn’t clear enough: “How likely would you be to vote for a left-wing joint force (együttműködés) at the 2018 election?” There is only one situation in which such a decision would make sense: if a Jobbik voter was confronted with a situation in which no Jobbik candidate was on the ballot in his electoral district.

Otherwise, Publicus, along with many other pollsters, maintains that the majority (56%) of the electorate would like to see a change of government. Over 90% of MSZP, DK, LMP, Párbeszéd, Együtt, and Jobbik voters want Viktor Orbán and his minions to be replaced, and what is encouraging is that 56% of undecided voters want the same. Considering the consensus view that undecided voters hold the key to electoral success, that level of desire for a change of government must be heartening to the opposition.

The second poll, by Medián, was released today. The data was gathered in the second half of September, before the withdrawal of László Botka. The goal was to find answers to the question of the electorate’s desire for collaboration among the opposition parties. This time only possible voters for opposition parties took part in the survey. Here again there are some surprises. Perhaps the most intriguing result is that 33% of anti-Fidesz voters claim that they prefer each party to run alone. This, given the present electoral system, would be suicidal for the opposition parties, and again I’m not sure whether the respondents really understood the question properly. They may have thought of separate party lists, especially since there was an alternative that talked about a common list that included all the opposition parties minus Jobbik. The other surprise is the relatively large number (33%) of those who want complete cooperation, which would include Jobbik. When Medián broke the answers down by party preferences, it turned out that 43% of MSZP, almost 50% of DK voters, and 34% of the undecided ones are willing to include Jobbik in a joint venture against Fidesz. Obviously, the desire to get rid of Orbán and his corrupt and undemocratic government overrides any other consideration. Although the leadership of LMP has been championing for years to face the election on its own, the party’s voters are not entirely convinced. LMP voters are almost evenly split on the issue.

Finally, let me lighten your day with a Jobbik stunt concerning the government’s campaign against George Soros. I think I wrote earlier that Bernadett Szél asked for a copy of the Soros Plan, which naturally the government was unable to provide. Jobbik did better than that. It filed charges against George Soros with Károly Papp, the chief of police. The charges are: (1) preparation for a violent change of the constitutional order, (2) conspiracy against the constitutional order, (3) destruction, (4) treason, and (5) rebellion. As support for the charges they cited claims by Bence Tuzson, undersecretary responsible for communication, György Bakondi, chief adviser on domestic security, János Halász, Fidesz spokesman, Szilárd Németh, deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on security, András Aradszki, who called Soros Satan, Gyula Budai, Fidesz member of parliament, Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, and Csaba Fodor, managing director of Nézőpont, a Fidesz political think tank. Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik spokesman, said that if Soros is guilty of all the things Fidesz and government spokesmen accuse him of, he should be arrested and charged. I’m sure that Károly Papp will not find the Jobbik antic funny.

October 12, 2017

From chaos to possible prospects for political understanding

The chaos caused by the resignation of László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, hasn’t subsided. If anything, it has grown over the last two days, nurtured by the vitriol that has surrounded Botka’s departure from the national political scene. Botka’s few stalwart supporters keep talking about the alleged treachery of certain leading members of the party, who were shielded by the majority of the board (választmány).

Perhaps the most stinging condemnation of the leadership of MSZP came from Ákos Tóth, the new editor-in-chief of 168 Óra, who began his editorial with the following sentence: “László Botka failed because the darkest scoundrels of the Orbán regime, his own kind, made him fail.” In the editorial Botka is portrayed as a valiant reformer who wanted to lift his party out of the swamp but was stabbed in the back by internal agents, moved by Fidesz hirelings with the help of pro-DK internet news sites, which he compares to 888.hu, the most heinous online government rag.

One should not be surprised by this vehement attack on the alleged rats within MSZP when Botka himself, seconded by István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, pointed the finger at Zsolt Molnár, one of the vice chairmen of the party. According to those who bought this story, Botka didn’t resign because his strategy of forging a united democratic opposition failed. He resigned because of his furor, mixed with sadness and disgust, after he realized that his comrades refused to go after the alleged traitors in the party. On the other hand, both Gyula Molnár, the party chairman, and István Hiller, chairman of the board, have repeated several times, quite emphatically, that there was no reason to censure Zsolt Molnár because the explanation he offered the board satisfied the great majority of the board members.

If anyone is guilty of undermining the little respect MSZP still has, it is István Ujhelyi. Botka has been quiet since his resignation, but Ujhelyi has given several interviews in which he laid the blame on “the Fidesz agents” in the party. As far as he is concerned, Botka’s only mistake was not making public the presence of these traitors in MSZP. He seems to believe that Fidesz agents are in all the opposition parties. Facts don’t seem to matter to Ujhelyi when it comes to the defense of his friend, László Botka. In these interviews he ignored the disastrous drop in MSZP support since Botka’s nomination and LMP’s latest unequivocal refusal to cooperate with him.

Are there any signs of a resolution to this admittedly dire political situation? I see the glimmer of a light at the end of the tunnel, but in order to explain why, I have to say a few words about electoral arithmetic. You may remember that Botka insisted on an agreement on the 106 electoral districts and on a common party list.  Gyurcsány agreed that there should be only one candidate in each electoral district agreed to by the different parties but insisted on individual party lists. That strategy has its pluses. For example, it satisfies the voters’ desire to vote for the party of their choice while being forced to vote for a candidate who might not be their first choice if they were absolutely free to decide. Botka argued that Gyurcsány was misleading the electorate because the electoral law doesn’t permit that combination of single candidates and multiple party lists. Was Botka right or not? Well, not quite. The law stipulates that the so-called coordinated voting system, which Gyurcsány promulgated, can be applied only if each party can put up at least 27 individual candidates. The problem in this case is that there are four parties on the left that could be part of an agreement: MSZP, DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd. Four times 27 is 108, more than the number of available districts.

Given this arithmetical conundrum, MSZP and DK should start to negotiate. There is apparently still some hope in MSZP circles that a common list remains a possibility. However, I don’t believe that Gyurcsány will give up his idea of individual party lists because, as I understand it, he foresees an outcome where the party with the highest number of votes cast for its party list will be the prime minister in the case of victory. But even if Viktor Orbán remains in power, the number of members of parliament for each party will depend on their party’s actual strength. This, he argues, would be a fairer apportionment of seats than an arbitrary assignment of places from a common party list. I should add that Gyurcsány obviously believes at the moment that his party will do well, perhaps even better than the ailing MSZP.

But what about the other two parties? This is where I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Today, Tímea Szabó, co-chair of Párbeszéd, announced that the party is ready to unite with Együtt to enter the 2018 race. Although the form of cooperation has not been finalized, it is likely that the two parties will have a common list and common candidates. That would be a rational decision given the minuscule size of the two parties. This would remove the obstacle to the “coordinated” voting system, although it is unlikely that these two parties would be able to compete on an equal footing with the two more established parties. I assume that once some kind of understanding is reached between MSZP and DK, these two parties could then sit down to negotiate. In that case, MSZP and DK might offer something enticing. For example, there is more and more talk about Gergely Karácsony as a possible common candidate for the post of prime minister.

Although Gyurcsány keeps repeating that an agreement can be reached in 72 hours, I think that even 72 days may not be enough to hammer out some kind of an agreement. This is a pity because the electorate, which would like a speedy agreement, might lose its little remaining faith in politicians if they drag their feet or if they keep publicly criticizing each other. Unfortunately, there is a good likelihood of such an outcome.

October 4, 2017

László Botka’s resignation ends a nine-month ordeal

Yesterday I promised that I would return to the national consultation on the Soros Plan since last night’s post contained only a short introduction and a translation of the propositions and “infoboxes.” But breaking political news intervened. Around 9 o’clock Budapest time, hírtv.hu reported that László Botka had thrown in the towel. He is no longer MSZP’s candidate to lead the country after 2018.

Some MSZP party officials claim that Botka’s resignation was totally unexpected. As 24.hu put it, MSZP leaders are “stunned and paralyzed.” They described it as something that came as suddenly as a bolt of lightning from the clear blue sky. Sorry, folks, I can’t believe this version of the story. The handwriting had been on the wall for some time. And since last Wednesday, when Medián published its disastrous numbers indicating that MSZP’s popularity among active voters had dipped below 10%, Botka’s fall was inevitable. On that day I predicted (admittedly not in writing) that Botka would resign within a week. To continue the agony would have been foolhardy.

László Botka announces his resignation / MTI

Who is responsible for this inglorious end to an initially promising candidate? If you were to believe László Botka, the answer is simple: everybody except him. In his version of the story, Fidesz sent its agents to unseat him, while certain MSZP “forces” gave up the struggle to get rid of the present regime and either didn’t support him or actually undermined his efforts. He mysteriously referred to “the political mafia that has enmeshed all the democratic parties,” including his own. But Botka is mistaken. Most of the blame falls on his shoulders.

Initially I was enthusiastic about Botka’s candidacy. He was a very successful politician, serving as the long-time mayor of Szeged, a large city by Hungarian standards. Soon after his appearance on the national stage, however, I began to have doubts. Serious doubts. I couldn’t fathom how somebody who is supposed to gather all the left-of-center forces into a coherent whole and who therefore has to begin negotiations to that end could announce at the very beginning that he would not negotiate with a leading politician in that camp. It was also hard to understand why Botka courted LMP time and again when, if there was one party that couldn’t be convinced to cooperate, it was LMP.

In the first two months or so MSZP’s support moved up a couple of percentage points, and Botka’s own popularity one month reached or perhaps just surpassed that of Orbán. But soon after, things started to change. The number of MSZP voters kept shrinking along with Botka’s popularity. At that point a talented politician should have taken stock of the situation and seriously considered a change of strategy. But not Botka. The worse the situation got, the more he insisted that his “winning strategy” was the key to success.

I have no idea about the inner workings of MSZP or, for that matter, of any party, but surely one would expect the leadership in such a situation to sit down with the candidate and talk things over. Perhaps I’m unfair and in actuality the party bigwigs tried to convince him that his ways were leading nowhere. Perhaps he was adamant and they were caught in a situation from which there was no good way out. Botka several times accused certain people in his own party of all sorts of sins, but if the party leadership was guilty of anything, it was giving Botka a blank check at the very beginning. The members of the presidium (elnökség) and the board (választmány) should have known that his refusal to deal with Ferenc Gyurcsány would not float. Or that his arrogant comments about the smaller parties would not endear him to the leaders of these groups. But I suspect that these two decision-making bodies themselves were split on strategy and that therefore time was wasted on fighting among the leading MSZP politicians.

The fate of MSZP is up in the air. Some analysts foresee a rupture, resulting in some MSZP leaders, especially from the Budapest party center, leaving the party and moving over to DK, together with their voters. Others wouldn’t be surprised if MSZP simply disappeared, the way SZDSZ ceased to exist in 2010. Its voters might scatter all over. Some might decide to vote for LMP, which is clearly trying to attract left-leaning voters. Jobbik might also pick up voters from MSZP. Whatever the eventual scenario, these three parties are bound to profit from the incredible weakening or even possible demise of MSZP.

László Botka’s most enthusiastic supporter was István Ujhelyi, one of the vice chairmen of MSZP and the party’s representative in the European Parliament. I have always thought highly of Ujhelyi and could never understand why he was such an ardent follower of Botka. Yes, I knew that for many years he had represented Szeged in parliament and therefore his backing of Botka made sense, but I thought he was a good enough politician to realize that his favorite was heading in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, Ujhelyi believes, along with Botka, that Botka’s fall was due to the disloyal MSZP leadership. He even talked about a coup against his friend within the party. Ujhelyi therefore decided to resign from his position as vice chairman of the party. At the other end of the spectrum, Tibor Szanyi, the party’s maverick who is also an MSZP member of the European Parliament, spared no words about the cowardice of Botka and his attacks on his own party. These kinds of squabbles can be expected to continue, inevitably leading to the further weakening of the party. All in all, the prospects are grim for the once powerful MSZP.

October 2, 2017

MSZP is grasping at straws as its support plummets

At 1:00 p.m. today HVG published Medián’s latest opinion poll on the state of Hungarian party politics and the popularity of politicians. The message MSZP’s leadership received was shocking. For the first time in 25 years, MSZP’s support among determined voters sank below 10%. At 3:45 p.m. Gyula Molnár, MSZP chairman, released a short communiqué on the party’s website: “MSZP’s offer is still alive.” In it, Molnár called attention to the Závecz Research Institute’s quick poll showing popular support for the party’s “generous offer,” after which the following sentence was tacked on: “If all six parties outside MSZP find the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány acceptable on the list, then we are certainly open to negotiations concerning the issue.” Well, that didn’t take long.

After László Botka’s eight months of activity that has only damaged the party, it seems that some forces wouldn’t mind his retirement to Szeged. The interview last night with Tamás Lattmann on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd might point to such a turn of events. Originally, Lattmann was invited as a legal expert on international law to discuss Hungary’s rather belligerent attitude toward Ukraine and this position’s legal ramifications. But it seems that Lattmann had other things on his mind. He apparently indicated before the show that he would like to talk about something else. And that something was hot stuff.

You may recall that at the end of January Lattmann announced his candidacy for the premiership as a non-party candidate, representing civil society. At that point there was no officially declared candidate, and Lattmann believed that a non-party person might be able to expedite negotiations among the left-of-center parties. He also hoped that he could open the door that at the moment divides parties and civil society. But then came László Botka, and Lattmann’s name disappeared from the news.

Lattmann in the interview on Egyenes beszéd claimed that by December of last year there was political agreement among four parties–MSZP, DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd–which included a joint candidacy for the post of prime minister. He would have been the candidate. But then came László Botka, and the promising negotiations came to a screeching halt. Lattmann’s story about the successful negotiations is not new. We have heard Ferenc Gyurcsány and Lajos Bokros talk about them innumerable times. But that these parties were thinking of an outsider as the candidate for the post of prime minister is certainly new.

Tamás Lattmann

Lattmann gave details. He had negotiations concerning his candidacy with Gyula Molnár, MSZP chairman, Bertalan Tóth, head of MSZP’s parliamentary faction, István Hiller, head of the top party leaders, and Zsolt Molnár, an important party leader, especially in Budapest politics. Lattmann also had talks with DK. As for the anti-Gyurcsány strategy, Lattmann claims, that was Botka’s contribution to MSZP’s policy. Prior to his arrival on the scene, by December, an MSZP-DK understanding was a done deal, including Gyurcsány’s presence on a common party list.

How did the parties in question react to Lattmann’s revelations? According to the communiqué published today by the Demokratikus Koalíció:

During the fall of last year the party’s leaders received a position paper (tájékoztatás) that the leaders of MSZP are conducting negotiations with Tamás Lattmann about his candidacy for the post of prime minister. According to the position paper, the candidate had the backing of the chairman, the head of the parliamentary delegation, and the chairman of the board. MSZP asked DK to meet with Tamás Lattmann for an introductory visit. Accordingly, Csaba Molnár, managing deputy chairman, who was leading the negotiations with the other parties, had a meeting with Tamás Lattmann. The managing deputy chairman informed the presidium of DK of the meeting in detail, and it was decided to be open to the nomination. The presidium accordingly authorized Csaba Molnár to continue talks with the candidate. However, no second meeting was held because MSZP, changing its former position, nominated László Botka as the party’s candidate.

In brief, Demokratikus Koalíció corroborated Lattmann’s recollection of his negotiations with the MSZP leaders. Yet the MSZP politicians mentioned by Lattmann and reaffirmed by DK’s communiqué today outright denied any such negotiations. According to Gyula Molnár, “there is a serious misunderstanding” on the part of Tamás Lattmann, who doesn’t seem to understand the Hungarian language. There were only talks about “policy cooperation” (szakpoliltikai együttműködés). Accusing a university professor of international law of not knowing the Hungarian language is quite a charge.

Today Gyula Molnár, István Hiller, and Bertalan Tóth published a communiqué in which they repeated that Lattmann was mistaken. “It is a fact that can be checked by anybody, since no party organ dealt with the issue and therefore no decision was made.” You may have noticed that Zsolt Molnár, the fourth person Lattmann claimed he talked with, was not among the signatories. He is the one who about a month ago wrote an article about the desirability of stopping the anti-Gyurcsány campaign. In any case, the joint communiqué is no more than typical socialist double-talk. Yes, the issue didn’t get to any decision-making body, but the candidate had “the backing” of the three top party officials who asked DK to take a look at him.

Now let’s move on to MSZP’s second “generous offer.” This time MSZP expressed its willingness to negotiate about Gyurcsány’s inclusion on the list as long as all the other parties are ready to sit down and talk about it. But, as Zoom rightly pointed out, “this is an offer without any stake” because we know that all the other parties already said no to the first “generous offer.” A typical MSZP move, I’m afraid. The offer is meaningless.

Meanwhile something funny happened on the right. The government media suddenly became a great admirer of László Botka, who was thrown overboard by his heartless comrades. Origo’s headline reads: “They kicked Botka in the teeth.” In the article Origo came up with one possible scenario behind the scenes in socialist circles. According to the article, the Molnár-Hiller-Tóth-Molnár team wanted to stop the nomination of Botka already in January, but “at that point they were unable to accomplish their plan.” However, in the last few weeks, Botka couldn’t work on the campaign with full energy because of the constant party intrigues against him, and therefore he is more vulnerable to the intrigues of the Molnár-Hiller-Tóth-Molnár team. Finding one of Fidesz’s own papers standing up for a poor downtrodden MSZP candidate is really amusing. Magyar Idők is not happy with MSZP’s “entirely new direction” as opposed to the “categorical rejection” of Gyurcsány. “We could also say that Gyurcsány, like the fairy-tale wolf, put his foot into MSZP’s cottage. How will this tale end?”

Of course, we don’t know the end of the tale (although I doubt that MSZP will live happily ever after), but today Tamás Lattmann said in an interview with Reflector that under these new circumstances he would no longer be a viable candidate. But he considers Bernadett Szél “a perfectly qualified candidate to become prime minister,” although he is not an LMP supporter. So, this is where we stand at the moment, but who knows what tomorrow will bring.

September 27, 2017

A new strategy or a new man is needed to lead the anti-Orbán forces

It’s time to take stock of the state of the democratic opposition after an MSZP gathering over the weekend where László Botka, the candidate to lead MSZP’s election campaign, introduced his team, what he calls the “new alliance.” Before anyone gets too excited, this “new alliance” doesn’t mean an agreement with the other left-of-center parties. Between January and now Botka has not managed to convince one party, with the possible exception of Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt (MPL), to support his strategy, which consists of a common party list and a division of the 106 electoral districts among the participating parties. One of these parties could be the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), but only if its chairman, Ferenc Gyurcsány, is not included on the party list. Not surprisingly, DK is not ready to accept outside interference in its internal affairs and refuses to accept the arrangement. While DK, according to all the opinion polls, could garner enough votes to become a parliamentary party on its own, the other three small parties– Együtt (Together), Párbeszéd (Dialogue), and MLP–couldn’t. Neither Párbeszéd nor Együtt is inclined to accept the kind of MSZP leadership Botka is offering. So, as it stands, MSZP is still alone, with dismal polling numbers.

So, what is this new alliance? As far as I can tell, it is a poor substitute for a joint electoral campaign. As Magyar Nemzet observed, Botka has given up looking for political allies and is satisfied with individuals who until now had been helping the smaller parties. One man who has switched to Botka’s side is Zoltán Komáromi, a family doctor who worked with Együtt on the party’s healthcare program. Another is István Szent-Iványi, a former SZDSZ member of parliament who was named ambassador to Ljubljana on January 25, 2010, i.e. a few months before the 2010 national election. To everybody’s surprise, Szent-Iványi wasn’t removed from his post by the new administration. In fact, the Orbán government left him in Slovenia until the end of his term five years later. He then disappeared from the political scene for a while, only to show up as the foreign policy expert of  Gábor Fodor’s liberal party. A third person who is ready to join Botka’s team is Ferenc Büttl, an economist and a member of Párbeszéd. Another supporter is László Andor, an economist who was EU commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion between 2010 and 2014. I would call him a socialist although he might not be a party member. A somewhat surprising addition is the former CEO of the internationally known organic demonstration farm that was sold to Fidesz oligarchs, who has been battling the action in court ever since. The newest supporter is the president of the National Association of Pensioners. Botka also named three people to stand as candidates in individual districts without consulting anyone.

Apparently, Botka’s great hope is Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd, who is currently vying for the same post as Botka. A couple of weeks ago he joined the MSZP hopeful in Szeged where he made some ambiguous remarks about his relationship to Botka. At the time, I wrote: “This gathering had one bright side…. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word ‘cooperation’ carefully because I don’t think that ‘support’ would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is ‘willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.’”

In that post I expressed my hope that Karácsony’s words might give a psychological lift to Botka’s flailing campaign. Well, I’m afraid that that hope has been quashed by László Botka himself, who in his eagerness to show results misread or misrepresented Karácsony’s remarks. Karácsony, who was invited to join the MSZP bigwigs to hear Botka’s ideas on the “new alliance,” learned only from Népszava that he was supposed to be responsible for the cultural aspects of Botka’s program. Karácsony decided not to attend the MSZP gathering, and this morning on ATV’s Start he explained why not.

The media is full of stories about a very serious division within MSZP over the efficacy of Botka’s strategy. Magyar Nemzet, which is normally well informed, seems to know that the majority of the party’s leading lights are skeptical about Botka and his new alliance and are urging him to change tactics. But so far Botka is unmovable. According to leaked information, some of the most senior MSZP leaders asked Gyula Molnár, the party chairman, to start negotiations with the leaders of the other parties. Vasárnapi Hírek, a socialist weekly owned by former party treasurer László Puch, suggested getting rid of Botka altogether if he is unable to produce tangible results.

I’m sure that most observers consider the present situation quite hopeless, but I’m a bit more optimistic. Enthusiasm for László Botka and his solution has completely evaporated, and liberal and socialist papers increasingly find his treatment of the other parties unacceptable. So, I assume that soon enough there will be so much pressure on Botka that he will have to move in another direction. If not, Gergely Karácsony could always be a compromise candidate. He is a great deal more popular than Botka–a soft-spoken, compromise-ready politician. He is the kind of man whom Hungarians, who are longing for some peace and quiet, might find to be just what the doctor ordered.

September 18, 2017

“Orbán or Europe? Choose!”

Today will be all about speeches. After a very hot summer, politics has arrived in full force. After all, it is the beginning of the 2018 election campaign. Of course, according to the electoral law, the official campaign season is very short, the last two or three months before the actual day of the election, but no one is pretending anymore. People are openly talking about the beginning of the campaign season. In fact, Fidesz has learned a lot from the United States where one campaign ends and the next begins. On the day of his inauguration President Trump filed the paperwork to be an official candidate for reelection.

Before the “unofficial” opening of the campaign season, Viktor Orbán had the unpleasant task of visiting Pécs to attend the 650th anniversary of the founding of Hungary’s first and only medieval university. The Fidesz-led city’s financial collapse and the removal of the city’s mayor from his position of authority must have been an irritant. Moreover, the enthusiasm for his visit was more than muted. About 50 elderly admirers showed up to greet him, while a bunch of university students displayed banners indicating that he was not welcome in town. Orbán entered the Kodály Center via a back entrance, to find very few young faces in the audience.

It seems that Orbán is unable to tear himself away from the topic of a decaying Europe. In this speech he went so far as to envisage its disappearance. In that case, “the students of today will live in an as yet unknown world.” But they shouldn’t worry because there will always be courageous young people in Hungary who will go against these trends and will choose the family, the community, and the nation as opposed to multiculturalism and mass culture. Predictably, the university’s King Louis the Great Prize was given to the Pécs bishopric for its role in the foundation of the university in 1367.

Today Orbán had another occasion to deliver a speech, this time at the so-called Kötcse Picnic, which is a Fidesz tradition. For the last 16 years, the party has invited hundreds of public figures, writers, actors, artists, etc., who in one way or another support the party. This group of people is called in Hungarian the “moonbow” (holdudvar) of the party. László Botka tried to gather the ever decreasing members of MSZP’s moonbow the other day in Szeged, but, as I reported earlier, few accepted. The right-wing literary and artistic elite has never been as large or as internationally well known as its liberal counterpart, and year after year the same faces appear at the picnic. Mária Schmidt, for example, is always there.

The main attraction at the picnic is Viktor Orbán’s speech. This speech is not covered by the press, and it is not published on the prime minister’s website. This is how it happened that it was only months later that the Hungarian media recognized the importance of his 2009 Kötcse speech, which outlined Orbán’s brilliant political strategy of the “central power.” In that speech he set forth his intention to rule the country in an autocratic manner.

It is unlikely that Orbán delivered anything of such gravity this year. In fact, if I understand it correctly, Orbán’s speech was on the defensive side in the sense that he is portraying the next election as a defense of the results of the last seven years. What are the most important results? According to Bertalan Havasi, the prime minister’s press secretary, they are the building of the fence on the Serbian-Hungarian border which defended the country from migrants, the protection of jobs, and the maintenance of public safety. Apparently, Orbán stressed that, according to NATO’s calculation, 60 million migrants will start their journeys to Europe from Africa between now and 2020. He apparently also spent a great deal of time on Emmanuel Macron’s Le Point interview. From the short description of the press secretary it is hard to know exactly what was in the interview that Orbán agrees with, but apparently he appreciates the French president’s “realism” in foreign affairs and “his description of the signs of a serious crisis in Europe.” The press secretary didn’t say what Orbán found objectionable in the interview.

The Fidesz picnic is held in the courtyard of a somewhat neglected country estate situated at the end of a modest football field. Ironically, at the other end of the field Ferenc Gyurcsány and his family have their country retreat, but only his wife and smallest child watched the game, which was being played while the picnic was going on. Ferenc Gyurcsány himself was not at home. He was giving a speech in Budapest in front of the Western Station. The gathering kicked off the Demokratikus Koalíció’s election campaign.

Zsolt Gréczy, the party’s spokesman, announced on August 13 that their campaign slogan will be “Orbán or Europe? Choose!” Shortly afterward, the party began a telephone campaign, asking people to indicate their preference: Orbán or Europe.

At the time of the diplomatic ruckus between Hungary and the Netherlands, László Botka was on Klub Rádió talking about the coming election as a choice between Orbán and Europe. He expressed his firm belief that Viktor Orbán, by creating an unpleasant situation over the Dutch ambassador’s interview, was actually testing how the Hungarian people would react to Hungary’s exit from the European Union. I must say that I thought that Botka overstated the importance of this incident. I was also stunned by his description of the coming election as a choice between Orbán and Europe. Obviously, the DK leadership was not at all happy with Botka’s choice of words. A few days later, in a TV interview, Attila Ara-Kovács, the DK politician in charge of foreign affairs, charged that MSZP stole DK’s campaign slogan.

For a number of weeks György Bolgár has been asking politicians and public figures in general for their thoughts on a slogan or call that would move the lethargic Hungarian electorate. I always thought that, given the overwhelming support for the European Union among Hungarian voters, there can be no better slogan than something that would bring home the possibility of a rash move by Orbán once the financial benefits of the EU come to an end. And by that time, there would be no one to stop him.

Gyurcsány had barely finished his speech when Balázs Hidvéghi, the communication director of Fidesz, retorted. Hungarians must choose, he said, “between the Soros plan or Europe, and Ferenc Gyurcsány is working on the execution of that plan. He also wants to dismantle the fence and wants to let in the migrants.” That in addition to all sorts of other sins, including the party’s endorsement of a common EU defense and common immigration policies. It is hard to fathom this Fidesz fear of a party that currently has only an 8% share of support among active voters. Maybe Gyurcsány is right and in seven months a lot can happen, but at the moment apathy rules. Momentum’s anti-Russian demonstration was a flop, and the DK gathering was small. DK’s slogan, however, is a good one. We will see whether it can move the crowd.

September 2, 2017

László Botka is on the campaign trail, with some hiccups

Although in the last few weeks László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for premiership, has begun to campaign with greater vigor, neither his own popularity nor the approval rating of his party has improved. In fact, according to Závecz Research (August 23, 2017), MSZP’s active voters dropped by three percentage points in three months. The loss was continuous and steady. Publicus Intézet (August 27, 2017), which also measured the popularity of politicians, registered a three percentage point drop in Botka’s popularity in one month. Support for DK in the last three months remained steady. Thus there is plenty to worry about in MSZP circles.

Earlier I wrote about the controversy between Zsolt Molnár, an influential MSZP politician, and László Botka, which showed a cleavage within the party leadership over MSZP’s relationship with the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK). One must keep in mind that DK began as a socialist splinter party, and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision to leave MSZP and create a new party left MSZP in a much weakened position. Therefore, one shouldn’t be surprised by the resentment some MSZP politicians feel toward DK and its leader. It is hard to judge the size of the group in the top leadership which under no circumstances would sit down to negotiate with the politicians of DK, but even though their number might be small, they are determined to go ahead alone, without the second largest party on the left. In this group are István Ujhelyi, EU parliamentary member, and Tamás Harangozó. On the other hand, Attila Mesterházy, former party chairman and candidate for the premiership of the united democratic opposition in 2014, seems to be on the side of those who sympathize with Zsolt Molnár’s position. His recent interview at least points in this direction. In this interview he revealed his pragmatic side when he suggested cooperation with Lajos Simicska, because “the removal of Viktor Orbán’s regime is a common goal.” He also defended Gyurcsány against Botka’s accusation that the former prime minister is not a democrat. Although Ágnes Kunhalmi is quiet, I suspect that she also has her doubts about Botka’s strategy. So, Zsolt Molnár is not alone.

MSZP old-timers complain that 15-20 years ago the party had the support of the leading professionals of the country, but by now they have left the socialists because the party leadership didn’t cultivate a working relationship with them. Perhaps Botka also realized that for a party to develop a program and make preparations for governing one needs experts in various fields. Legal experts, men and women with expertise in education, healthcare, public administration, etc. So, Botka sent out 200 invitations to a meeting in Szeged on August 26, where he was hoping to receive the common wisdom of the experts gathered there. When I first read the news as it was presented in Népszava, I had the distinct feeling that the turnout was low and that the largest group present were the big names in MSZP, past and present. Although Népszava, being a social democratic paper, was unwilling to say it outright, it was pretty obvious that there were very few well-known experts present. Népszava somewhat sarcastically noted that Botka announced that he didn’t want to give a speech but proceeded to give a very long one. Besides outlining ten important goals of MSZP once it forms a government, he again spent an inordinate amount of time on Ferenc Gyurcsány, which Népszava discreetly left out of its summary. In order to read that part of the speech one has to go to Index.

This gathering had one bright side, which had nothing to do with collecting professionals to assist the party program and possible future governance. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word “cooperation” carefully because I don’t think that “support” would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is “willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.” Considering Párbeszéd’s 1% support, Karácsony’s offer of cooperation will not bring too many new voters to MSZP. Still, this gesture should give a psychological lift to the disheartened democratic opposition. Botka also received the support of Zoltán Komáromi, a family physician, who has been a constant fixture in the media. He claims to have worked out an effective reform of the ailing healthcare system that would yield immediate, tangible results. Komáromi’s abandonment of Együtt is a blow to that small party, which has said that it will not cooperate with any other political group.

László Botka (MSZP) and Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd) / Photo Ádám Molnár

After these positive developments I must turn to the less bright aspects of Botka’s campaign activities. Botka was supposed to come up with 106 candidates by September, but to date he has managed to name only two. After visiting Gyöngyös, he declared that there can be no better candidate in that district than György Hiesz, the MSZP mayor of the town. Hiesz is one of the founders of MSZP. He was a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994 and again between 2010 and 2014. He was mayor between 2002 and 2010 and again from 2014 on. Then a few days later, while campaigning in the town of Makó, Botka had the bright idea of asking István Rója, who had been the principal of the local gymnasium, to be MSZP’s candidate in the coming election campaign. Rója’s appointment was not renewed despite wide support by teachers, students, and parents. Rója is not an MSZP member. While Hiesz is an experienced politician, Rója has never been involved in politics. These two people might be excellent candidates, but the way Botka single-handedly and in a somewhat haphazard manner is picking his candidates doesn’t appeal to some people within the party, especially since compiling the party list is supposed to be the leadership’s joint decision.

I should also call attention to another perhaps not so small blunder. Yesterday Botka essentially promised the job of minister of education to István Hiller, who had held this post between 2006 and 2010. About a year ago Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman of MSZP, suggested creating a so-called shadow cabinet, a popular political instrument in Great Britain, which consists of senior members of the opposition parties who scrutinize their corresponding government ministers and develop alternative policies. Such a body could develop a coherent set of goals and policies for a party. However, for some strange reason, László Botka doesn’t like the concept. As he keeps repeating, he wants to have a real cabinet, not a shadow one. Therefore, he said that he wasn’t going to name names. Yet yesterday, standing next to István Hiller, Botka announced that Hiller was once minister of education and he is very much hoping that he will be so again. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, this means that he has Hiller in mind for the post. There’s a major problem here, however. Botka in the last eight months talked about nothing else but those guilty MSZP and SZDSZ politicians who are responsible for the electoral disaster of 2010 when Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in parliament. They must retire and shouldn’t even be on the party list, meaning that they cannot even be ordinary backbenchers in parliament. That was allegedly his reason for insisting on Gyurcsány’s disappearance from politics. And now, he publicly indicates that his choice for minister of education is a former cabinet member in the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments. This inconsistency doesn’t look good.

All in all, Botka’s performance to date leaves a great deal to be desired. I wonder when the day will come that he is told to change course or else.

August 30, 2017