Tag Archives: László Botka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 24, 2017

László Botka has taken things into his own hands in MSZP

Yesterday I ended my post saying that, because only a few hours had passed since MSZP submitted its own proposal for a new bill that would regulate political advertising, I was unable to gauge the reaction of the other smaller parties on the left. I suspected that their reception of MSZP’s very questionable political move was not going to be favorably viewed. A couple of hours later, I had the chance to listen to a television interview with Csaba Molnár, one of the deputy chairmen of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), who promised that the party leadership would take a good look at MSZP’s proposal but hinted that one has to be very careful when negotiating with Fidesz. The government party’s surprising readiness to negotiate was suspicious.

By this morning it became clear that no opposition party was ready to discuss the MSZP proposal. If the socialists go ahead with it, it will be a private deal between Fidesz and MSZP. But no opposition party can afford the stigma of making a deal with the devil. Only “political illiterates” could come up with such an idea unless, as many people suspect, certain members of the MSZP leadership are ready to cozy up to Fidesz for one nefarious reason or another. In this particular case, I think “political illiterates” were at work.

MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, László Botka, had been left in total darkness about the leadership’s decision to submit a “poster bill” of their own. That such a thing can happen gives you an idea of the chaos and confusion that must exist in the Hungarian socialist party. The most important officeholders in MSZP must have approved the proposal and its submission for consideration because it was Gyula Molnár, party chairman, and Bertalan Tóth, leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation, who announced the move at a joint press conference on Friday. Fidesz-KDNP jumped at the opportunity and secretly indicated they were game. When Jobbik got the wind of the pending deal, János Volner, Jobbik parliamentary leader, made it public.

Bertalan Tóth and Gyula Molnár at a press conference

It was at this point that Botka decided to intervene. He explained that any negotiations and any joint action, like voting with Fidesz, would discredit the party and himself personally since he had stressed on several occasions that any collaboration with Fidesz was out of the question. He apparently argued that if an election advertising bill were to pass, MSZP might be in a better position vis-à-vis Jobbik as far as political advertisement is concerned, i.e., both parties would receive the same rate from the providers of advertising surfaces. But MSZP “would lose its character as an opposition party.” Jobbik would be Fidesz’s primary opponent at the next election.

Today MSZP also created a new body called the “national election committee” (Országos Választási Bizottság/OVB), which will be in charge of the election campaign. According to Index, OVB will consist of five people: László Botka; Gyula Molnár, party chairman; József Tóbiás, campaign manager; György Kerényi, director of communications; and Bálint Ruff, Botka’s political adviser. I suspect that readers of Hungarian Spectrum may not be familiar with the names of György Kerényi and Bálint Ruff. Kerényi is a highly respected journalist who worked for Magyar Narancs, Tilos Rádió, and Roma Sajtóközpont and was one of the founders of vs.hu. He was known for his independence, and therefore his colleagues were greatly surprised that he accepted a party position. His decision was based on his conviction that MSZP is the only party that has a chance to unseat Viktor Orbán, who in his opinion must go. And he must personally do everything he can to make that happen. As for Bálint Ruff, he is a young man, a law school graduate, who is a managing partner of Invisible Hand Coaching and Consulting.

Most likely not independently from the blunder committed by the party leadership behind Botka’s back, the composition of OVB changed significantly in the last two days. Index reported on June 18 that Botka had named József Tóbiás’s campaign manager, who in turn named Zsolt Molnár, campaign manager in 2014, Ferenc Baja, a really old socialist politician who served in high positions both in the party and in the socialist-liberal governments between 1994 and 2010, and Bertalan Tóth, the most important man in the party’s parliamentary group, to the body. These three people have since disappeared from OVB, and I suspect that Gyula Molnár remained only because he is, after all, chairman of the party. Keep in mind that it was Molnár and Tóth who came forth with the announcement of an independent MSZP proposal for the “poster law.” In fact, we have evidence that Tóth’s removal is connected to this political miscalculation. István Nyakó, MSZP’s spokesman, said at today’s press conference that Bertalan Tóth represented the interests of the party to the best of his knowledge in negotiating with the other parties concerning the “poster law,” but with the appearance of Botka a “new political calendar” has begun. I wonder how long Tóth will remain the leader of the Fidesz caucus in parliament. As for Zsolt Molnár, he is a controversial character who has been the subject of long-standing criticism for his cozy relations with Fidesz politicians. As for Baja, perhaps Botka objected to his very high positions in the party for almost twenty years when Botka didn’t want to have anyone associated with the campaign who had had “substantial responsibility” for the political situation in which Fidesz could win a two-thirds majority in 2010. I might add that I for one don’t share Botka’s assessment of the guilt of the socialist-liberal governments for the overwhelming victory of Fidesz in 2010, but Ferenc Baja was never one of my favorites.

In addition, Botka tightened the reins on communication and finance. Without the knowledge of Kerényi, no MSZP politician can issue any statement or express any opinion different from the official one. I must say that this decision has been long overdue. MSZP is a notoriously undisciplined party where party leaders regularly contradict one another and voice their personal opinions about accepted party policies in public. István Nyakó, MSZP’s spokesman, also said that anyone who in any way collaborates with Fidesz will be expelled from the party.

Indeed, MSZP is shaping up to be a different party. Perhaps in the long run this botched-up political move will have a beneficial effect on MSZP. This incident might have prompted Botka to take a more active role in the everyday running of party affairs which, if he makes good decisions, might improve the party’s acceptance by the public. At the same time, if those socialist politicians who are the most visible public representatives of MSZP are not better able to convey the party’s messages and if the party leadership is unable to mobilize its supporters, no amount of firmness, tenacity, and determination on the part of László Botka can revive the Hungarian socialist party.

June 20, 2017

László Botka is forging ahead, leaving others behind

As I was collecting material for today’s post on Ferenc Gyurcsány’s five-page letter to László Botka, a headline in the government propaganda site 888.hu caught my eye. It read: “Gyurcsány has written a love letter to Botka.” I don’t know about others, but for me a line like this can prompt strange associations. Out of the blue János Arany’s “Mother of Matthias” popped into my head: “Szilányi / Örzsébet / Levelét megirta: / Szerelmes / Könnyével / Azt is telesirta.” But the loving, tear-soaked letter Mátyás Hunyadi’s mother sent to her son, incarcerated in Prague, was not left unanswered. In fact, a black raven brought the answer back in record time. Gyurcsány’s letter, on the other hand, if one can believe Tamás Harangozó, a MSZP member of parliament, “was tucked away in a drawer set aside for all forthcoming letters and messages from Ferenc Gyurcsány,” never to be answered.

The letter was addressed to László Botka with copies to Gyula Molnár, party chairman, István Hiller, chairman of the board, and Bertalan Tóth, leader of the party’s parliamentary delegation. A couple of days after the letter was sent, Ágnes Vadai, one of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s deputies, made the letter public.

Why did Ferenc Gyurcsány decide to approach Botka again when Botka has made it eminently clear in the last six months that under no circumstances would he be on the same ticket as the leader of the Demokratikus Koalíció? Botka believes that Gyurcsány is still such a widely disliked political figure that his mere presence on a common list would mean the loss of perhaps half a million votes or more. There is no question that when pollsters ask respondents about the popularity of leading politicians, Gyurcsány is normally at the bottom of the list. On the other hand, there is no opinion poll on which we can rely to ascertain whether Gyurcsány’s presence on the list would have such a negative effect on the chances of the democratic opposition in next year’s parliamentary election.

About a week ago Gyurcsány managed to get hold of Botka, who again reasserted that under no circumstances would he sit down and discuss any kind of cooperation between MSZP and DK as long as Gyurcsány insists on being on the ticket. However, he added, perhaps Gyurcsány could write him a letter.

Those who listened to the two or three interviews Gyurcsány gave since this telephone call will not find much new in this letter. Still, in a letter one can be more nuanced and precise than in an interview. Moreover, as the saying goes, “verba volant, scripta manent” (spoken words fly away, written words remain), and therefore I think it was a good idea for Gyurcsány to spell out exactly what he has in mind. The text of the letter can be found here.

The general tone of the letter is polite, stressing the ideas and goals they share, but is critical when it comes to Botka’s steadfast refusal to talk to the representatives of the other parties. Gyurcsány objects to Botka’s belief that he is “the only one who knows the correct strategy” and that anyone who disagrees with him is interested only in acquiring a parliamentary seat instead of defeating Viktor Orbán and his regime. Botka wants the other parties “to join” him, while the other parties want “to work with him.” Gyurcsány calls Botka’s demands a “diktat.” Such an attitude “is alien to the western, European political culture that we represent,” he wrote. Botka’s strategy of forcing the other democratic parties to join MSZP reminds Gyurcsány of Fidesz’s tenacious efforts to subdue all the other parties on the right. Surely, a democratic party can’t possibly imitate Fidesz’s cruel political methods. Imitating Fidesz is not becoming to “our side.” In addition, Gyurcsány considers such a strategy ten months before the election “suicidal.”

The rest of the letter is mostly about the philosophical and technical problems of having the common list Botka insists on. If there is a common list, argues Gyurcsány, then Botka cannot have the exclusive leading role “because there are others around the table.” Neither Botka nor anyone else “has the right to say who should represent a given party on the common list.” This is the internal affair of the parties. “We can’t give up this right; we don’t want to give you such a right, just as you wouldn’t give us the right to say whom MSZP should put on the common list.” The democratic opposition cannot behave like Fidesz. If we use the “politics of ultimatums, the citizens might think that we are going to do the same once we are in power.”

And here comes the most hard-hitting part of the letter. “I left to last your wish that we support your candidacy for the premiership. We would gladly do so if we were wholeheartedly convinced that we are placing the fate of our country in good hands. But that is not the case. You have to convince us of your suitability. That you want to be and can be the kind of prime minister who is in possession of all the virtues necessary for the task.” And, he continues: “It is not enough to be clever, one needs wisdom.” To drive the point home, Gyurcsány writes that “in recent months we have not been convinced that you are ready to lead the country well. But we can still be persuaded.”

Neither Botka nor the others to whom the letter was addressed answered Gyurcsány. Tamás Harangozó must have received the job of summarizing the MSZP reaction to the letter. “We don’t want to spend any time on this subject. We set aside a drawer where we are going to collect his letters, messages, and all his other political schemes in the coming months.” He reiterated that with Gyurcsány one cannot win an election. Botka doesn’t want anyone on the list who held any major political position before 2010. He claimed that Gyurcsány is the symbol of everything that led to the devastating defeat in 2010.

I hope that soon enough we will have opinion polls on the population’s reaction to the Botka-Gyurcsány duel. Although the following two online polls are definitely not scientific, they do indicate that not all left-wing voters are enamored with László Botka’s ideas and style. ATV asked whether Botka is right in demanding that Gyurcsány not be on the list. Over 8,000 people participated and 68% said no. Blikk’s results are even more interesting because the readership of Blikk is a politically mixed crowd, and yet the answers were favorable to Gyurcsány. “Gyurcsány or Botka? For whom you are rooting?” The results were: Ferenc Gyurcsány, 48%; they should cooperate, 20%; both should get lost, 17%; László Botka, 16%. The number of respondents was 7,526.

Finally, I would like to call attention to a couple of sentences in the letter which might be of  interest as far as Gyurcsány’s thinking about a possible scenario after the democratic opposition wins the election, which, as we know, is a very long shot. As for the election itself, he would like to have one candidate in every electoral district standing against the Fidesz and Jobbik candidates. He would like to have individual party lists. And he definitely hopes that DK will garner enough votes to become a “coalition partner” in a future government. Parties may have different views on many details of a future government program, but these differences don’t have to be discussed now. What will happen to pensions, for example, can be discussed after the victory. “We will arrive at good compromises as coalition partners do all across Europe,” he added. A perfectly acceptable solution, indeed widely practiced, but I have the feeling that, given the Hungarian political culture, it is unattainable at the moment.

June 7, 2017

MSZP’s László Botka in Brussels

László Botka has become a superbly self-confident man since he received overwhelming support from MSZP’s delegates to the party congress less than a week ago. At the press conference he gave in Brussels, he identified himself as “Hungary’s candidate for the premiership.” To clarify his status, at the moment at least five politicians are vying to replace Orbán: Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd), Lajos Bokros (MoMa), Tamás Lattmann (representative of civic society), Gábor Vona (Jobbik), and László Botka. These are just the declared candidates, but if at the end each opposition party has a separate party list, even Ferenc Gyurcsány, as leader of DK, might be one of the challengers. This, of course, is just an aside to show that MSZP isn’t paying much attention to reality. They are in a state of euphoria, which might not be warranted. In fact, several opinion pieces appeared lately describing Botka as the man who will oversee the total disintegration of the party. Or, a more charitable opinion, in a couple of years no one will remember who László Botka was.

I’m not so pessimistic, but I’m watching with growing concern the MSZP candidate’s moves. For example, I find it an annoying socialist habit to fight Fidesz by trying to appease its voters with the slogans of Fidesz itself. Socialist politicians should have learned by now that this kind of strategy leads nowhere.

Here is one example. The Hungarian public has heard nothing else in the last seven years but that the European Union is on its last legs. And yet we have ample evidence that the great majority of the Hungarian public is still pro-EU, despite the massive anti-EU propaganda. So, it would be logical to have an election campaign resting on the slogan: “Either Europe or Orbán.” To launch such a campaign, however, would require a full embrace of the Union. One shouldn’t be uncritical, of course, but for Botka to say, after arriving in Brussels, that he is “watching the performance of the European Union with apprehensive criticism” is not exactly a good beginning. What followed was no better. Botka announced that a significant number of citizens had lost their trust in the democratic institutions of the EU, which in turn is responsible for the upsurge of populism. I wish politicians would consider the truth of their political rhetoric before they open their mouths. Does Botka really think that a lack of trust in democratic institutions led to the rise of populism? It is enough to look around the world, from Russia to the United States, to know that this assertion simply cannot be true. After that introduction, to say that he is “deeply committed to the European Union” sounds hollow. Moreover, some of his suggestions to “solve” the crisis could have been uttered by Viktor Orbán himself. This is not the way to distinguish yourself from your political opponent.

Prime Minister Candidate of Hungary

Let’s take another example. The government media discovered that not only would László Botka be in Brussels. George Soros also stopped by for a short visit before flying on to Budapest. What a great opportunity for the kind of journalism practiced in Orbán’s Hungary. The M1 TV station announced that “László Botka and George Soros will negotiate on Wednesday.” Magyar Hírlap published as front-page news that “At last Soros and Botka will find each other in Brussels.” Practically all government papers carried the same news, insinuating some secret cooperation between MSZP and George Soros. What does a good politician do in a case like that? Does he keep insisting that he has never in his life met George Soros? Does he excuse himself by emphasizing that he has never been a beneficiary of Soros’s largesse and that MSZP has never received any money from “the financial investor or his circles”? Surely not. In fact, if he were a brave opponent of Viktor Orbán, who has been demonizing George Soros, he would simply brush aside the whole issue as a typical example of primitive Fidesz propaganda and say that whatever dirt they have been throwing at Soros is undeserved and disgusting. But, no, the brave socialist candidate is afraid that perhaps Fidesz-infected citizens who really think that Soros is the devil incarnate will not like him if he defends the founder of Central European University.

The most important meeting that István Ujhelyi, a MSZP member of the European Parliament, secured for Botka was with Frans Timmermans, who is well versed in Hungarian affairs. Timmermans is one of the most resolute critics of the Orbán regime, and therefore I’m sure it was unnecessary to convince him that “the socialist party and the democratic opposition are interested in the restoration of the rule of law.” What is more difficult to decide is what Botka meant by his request that “the Orbán government should be punished and not Hungary.” How can that be achieved? Viktor Orbán and his government represent the country, so whatever “punishment” is meted out to that government for any infraction will unfortunately affect the whole country and its population. Botka’s request was a timid response to the accusation that the opposition is lobbying in Brussels against its own country. Such pious pronouncements will not change the opinion of Fidesz supporters about the opposition’s alleged unpatriotic actions.

In addition to Timmermans, Botka also met with Marita Ulvskog, vice president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. She is also the vice-chair of the EP Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. This meeting was logical given Botka’s emphasis on a truly socialist agenda for MSZP, as opposed to the more centrist or even Third Road approach of the party under Ferenc Gyurcsány. The very low wages in Hungary and the lack of employee protection is truly appalling, and since 2010 the situation has only deteriorated. For example, the total destruction of the power of unions is a relatively new development. What I don’t understand, however, is what Botka was driving at by pointing out “the incredible inequality that exists between member states” as far as the level of wages is concerned. Currently, it is Jobbik that is in the midst of a campaign for equal wages for equal work in all member states of the European Union. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of economics knows that this is utter nonsense. It is one thing to support the creation of a union-wide social network, but complaining about small or medium-size member states “being powerless to defend the interests and wages of employees of multinational companies” is simply unfair, at least as far as Hungary is concerned, where employees working for multinational companies are better off than those who work for the “patriotic” Hungarian oligarchs.

At home Botka stepped on quite a few toes in the last couple of days. I have no idea what he had in mind when he answered the question of whether he would consider placing Gordon Bajnai, an economist and businessman who proved to be a popular and very effective prime minister in 2009 and 2010, on a common list of politicians of the opposition parties. He said: “Under no circumstances would I place Gordon Bajnai, János Kádár, Mátyás Rákosi, or Miklós Horthy on the list.” What on earth prompted Botka to utter this nonsense? Soon enough Bajnai placed this witty retort on his Facebook page: “I would ‘like to reassure the worried public that I have no desire to be placed either on the list of MSZP or on those of MSZMP, MDP, or even the Peyer Pact.” For those unfamiliar with these acronyms, MSZMP was the communist party under János Kádár between 1956 and 1989; MDP was the party of Mátyás Rákosi between 1948 and 1956; the Peyer Pact was a political arrangement between the Bethlen government and the Hungarian Social Democratic Party in 1921.

I don’t know, but Botka’s first few days are not promising. Popular reactions on Klub Rádió, ATV, and Hír TV are mixed, but there are many who don’t like Botka’s attitude. Let’s hope he and his party realize, and quickly, that this is not the best way to win the hearts of voters.

June 1, 2017

László Botka is MSZP’s candidate to face Viktor Orbán in 2018

On May 27 the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP) held its congress, at which an overwhelming majority of the usually fractious delegates stood by László Botka, mayor of Szeged, who about six months ago offered himself as his party’s candidate for prime minister of Hungary. At the time of his announcement I was enthusiastic, mostly because I didn’t see anyone else in MSZP who would have the slightest chance of running successfully against Viktor Orbán. Botka is a self-confident and forceful fellow who kept Szeged a socialist stronghold even when practically the whole country turned orange after the 2006 municipal elections. So, I said to myself, the fellow must know something. I also thought that his years as the leader of Hungary’s second largest city would have given him ample administrative experience, which would serve him well.

Over time, however, I started having doubts about the wisdom of this choice. It is one thing to be self-confident and forceful and another to be abrasive and aggressive. MSZP’s ineffectual and untalented leadership was so excited at receiving an offer from Botka, who had earlier steadfastly refused any role in national politics, that they immediately broke off negotiations with the other democratic opposition parties and assured Botka of their support. In turn, Botka promised an election and party program and a nationwide campaign, during which he was supposed to introduce himself to MSZP supporters and those undecided voters who could perhaps be convinced that he is a worthy challenger of Viktor Orbán.

Initially, Botka indicated that he would visit the other democratic opposition parties, but mighty little came of it. He did talk with the leadership of LMP, a party that had stressed over and over that they would never cooperate in any meaningful way with anyone else. I was somewhat puzzled by Botka’s decision and expected a flat no from LMP. I was right, it was a flat no. As far as the smaller parties were concerned, Botka simply ignored them. They then, one by one, announced that in that case they will be forced to enter the race as individual entities. That was bad enough, but demanding that the Demokratikus Koalíció’s supporters dump their party leader, Ferenc Gyurcsány, meant that for all practical purposes the Botka-led MSZP had decided to embark on the hard road to political victory alone.

That route would be defensible only if Botka’s appearance on the scene could make an appreciable difference in the anemic popularity of MSZP. But after six months of alleged Botka campaigning, MSZP is still hovering around the same 10-13% popularity against Fidesz’s 27%. The same as it was in January. Therefore, it is hard to fathom the enthusiasm that István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, exhibited this morning on ATV about his party’s prospects. He added that Botka was the best choice and that he is supported by the politicians in Brussels as a worthy opponent of Orbán. I for one would like to see some tangible results by now. I know, we are being told that “there is still time,” but I’m afraid that, given the sad state of the opposition, eight or nine months will be far too narrow a window in which to build a robust MSZP or achieve some kind of understanding among the democratic forces.

Botka’s acceptance speech was broadcast on ATV, and had detractors from both sides. From the right Otto Gajdics compared him to a Stakhanovite construction worker who is the puppet of George Soros. Botka’s speech reminded Origo’s nameless journalist of speeches at party congresses of the Kádár era, and he quoted some sample sentences which he considered to be carbon copies of old MSZMP slogans: “We are building a new world,” “We live in dark times,” “We’ve had enough of slavery,” and “Let the rich pay,” a slogan much criticized on the left as well.

Not only Fidesz critics found the speech wanting. László Bartus, editor-in-chief of Amerikai Magyar Népszava, was appalled by Botka’s misunderstanding of “the essence of the regime.” In his speech the candidate divided the voters into the satisfied and the dissatisfied. As he put it, “2018 will be decided between the satisfied and the dissatisfied voters. The satisfied ones will vote for Orbán, the dissatisfied for Botka. The choice is simple: Orbán or Botka.” Bartus finds this primitive Marxist worldview not to his liking. What about human rights, freedom, law, culture, intellectual values, human relationships, and principles? His conclusion is that MSZP in 27 years has been unable to shed its origins.

Tamás Bauer, formerly an SZDSZ member of parliament, was also unhappy with Botka’s speech and the ideas behind it. Bauer especially disliked the “Rich should pay” slogan, although I don’t believe that Botka wants to take rich folks’ money and give it to the poor, Robin Hood style, but only wants to send a message that the era of the flat tax is over and better off people will have to pay higher taxes. What really bothered Bauer was something that Gyula Molnár, the MSZP chairman, said in his speech: “Those who are not with us are with them,” meaning Fidesz. Doesn’t Molnár know the origin of this sentence, Bauer asks? It was Mátyás Rákosi who said “those who are not with us are against us.” It was this terrible concept that János Kádár changed to “those who are not against us are with us.” Clearly, Bauer worries about the electoral cooperation of democratic forces. The socialists “don’t seem to care about their allies, whom they humiliate.” Bauer, who is a DK member, obviously has Ferenc Gyurcsány and the leaders of other democratic parties in mind. As a professor of economics, Bauer is also worried about all the promises Botka made. Where will the money come from to pay for them?

Botka promised to introduce a subsistence minimum, to raise the salaries of civil servants, to cut the taxes of low income people, to raise the minimum wage and exempt it from taxation, to strengthen the rights of employees, to spend money on hospitals and schools instead of on stadiums, to launch a comprehensive rental housing program, to double the pension minimum, and to restore the thirteenth-month pensions. This promise tsunami strikes me as irresponsible. We know only too well that one of the problems with the economic policies of past governments stemmed from offering financial incentives to the electorate in exchange for votes. Time and again, it became obvious that government expenditures were too high and the national debt was increasing. Quickly enough, austerity programs had to be introduced. Perhaps one of the worst decisions was the Gyurcsány government’s introduction of the extra-month pension, which had to be taken away in early 2009 after the financial crisis hit Hungary. So, for anyone with a half decent memory, the promise of a thirteenth-month pension has a bad ring to it. I think that if MSZP wanted to raise pensions, it should have done so in some other way.

Today, Ferenc Gyurcsány congratulated Botka and suggested a meeting, which I doubt will take place anytime soon. The message via István Ujhelyi on ATV was that Botka will be very busy and will not have time for such a meeting.

May 29, 2017

The real story of the ELI Laser Center in Szeged

Talking about Viktor Orbán’s stamina. After the grueling five-day trip to Beijing and a busy last week and weekend, today Orbán went to the city of Szeged to open the ELI Laser Center.

What is ELI? It stands for Extreme Light Infrastructure, which is a new research infrastructure of pan-European interest. It is a laser project that aims to host the most intense beamline system in the world. The ELI project will be located in four sites. One will be in Dolní Břežany, near Prague. It will focus on the development of short-pulse secondary sources of radiation and particles. ELI-ALPS (Attosecond Light Pulse Source) will be in Szeged, which will be “a unique facility which provides light sources within an extremely broad frequency range in the form of ultrashort pulses with high repetition rate.” In Măgurele, Romania, the ELI-NP (Nuclear Physics) facility will focus on laser-based nuclear physics. The fourth facility’s location is still undecided.

It was on October 1, 2009 that the EU decided to give these three former communist countries a mandate to proceed with the construction of ELI facilities. Being a pan-European project, 85% of all costs would be covered from the European Regional Development Fund. There was only one caveat: these governments didn’t receive extra resources from the European Union for these facilities. They had to use a small portion of their seven-year budget that came from the European Union. It was Gordon Bajnai’s government that signed the agreement, but the whole project, including the decision to construct the center in Szeged, began in 2006 during the second Gyurcsány government.

With this timetable in mind, let’s turn to Viktor Orbán’s speech at the ribbon cutting. First, he made sure that his audience understands that “this facility is not a gift” from the European Union. It was paid partly from the country’s own resources and partly from monies Hungary received from the European Union. And since, in his opinion, Hungary is entitled to the money it receives from the European Union, Orbán considers the money coming from Brussels to be part of the country’s own resources, which could be used in any way he wants. It was a hard decision, he said, because 70-80 billion forints for a single project is a lot. Yet “in 2011 we decided, I believe correctly, to build the largest scientific institution in Hungary’s modern history.” (The Ferenc Puskás Stadium will cost Hungarian taxpayers 200 billion forints, and the cost of the World Aquatic Games has reached 100 billion and counting.)

What happened between October 1, 2009, when the Bajnai government gave its blessing to the project, and 2012, when the Orbán government decided to build the facility? Well, one obvious event was the May 2010 national election when Viktor Orbán again became prime minister of Hungary. Without dwelling on this three-year gap, Orbán said that “today at the time of success, it is unnecessary to recall disputes at the time, but it was seriously debated whether to concentrate on one large investment or not.” The truth is that the Orbán government refused to honor the Bajnai government’s offer of 200 million euros for its construction. Shortly after the election, it withheld one billion forints promised earlier for the planning stage of the project.

Before the municipal elections in October 2010, Lajos Kósa, vice chairman of Fidesz, and the Fidesz candidate for the mayoralty in Szeged held a joint press conference during which they accused the socialist mayor, László Botka, of misleading the people of Szeged. They claimed that no money whatsoever will be coming from the European Union. But, they added, the Orbán government is all in favor of the project and is trying to find the necessary funds, which is not easy under the present financial circumstances.

Of course, all this was just a charade to mislead the people of Szeged, who were naturally keen to have this prestigious project built in their city. The government wanted to use the EU monies for something else, and behind the scenes they were trying to convince the European Union to allow them to abandon the project. As late as August 2012 there was still no decision. László Botka, in an interview at the time, expressed his fear that the project would be cancelled. “Some people are convinced that Orbán is reluctant to spend 10 billion forints on Szeged. Apparently he is thinking of spending this amount of money on Fidesz-led cities. For example, he could divide the amount among 3,000 bakers,” he said sarcastically, since apparently the government was thinking of subsidizing small- and medium-size businesses from the money.

But canceling the undertaking in Szeged would have endangered the ELI enterprise in the Czech Republic and in Romania as well. The decision in 2006 to place the ELI facilities in former Soviet-bloc countries which had joined the Union only two years earlier was a sign of trust in these countries’ ability to create and run first-rate research facilities that were important for the European Union as a whole. So, finally in December 2012—not in 2011 as Orbán claims—the government came to the conclusion that forcing through their original plan and abandoning the project would cast Hungary in a very bad light. It would prove that the former communist countries cannot, after all, be trusted with an important pan-European project of extreme scientific importance. So, they reluctantly gave their blessing.

Orbán now talks about the Laser Center as being of “tremendous value” and proudly claimed in his speech that the very existence of the ELI center is proof of Fidesz’s even-handedness. Too bad that some people have a good memory.

May 23, 2017

Boycotting the media is counterproductive

Until now it was only certain high-level Fidesz party and government officials who refused to give interviews to certain left-of-center newspapers, radio, and television stations. Then, two years ago, after the breakup of the long-lasting and financially fruitful friendship between Viktor Orbán and his old friend-turned-oligarch Lajos Simicska, the boycott was extended to Simicska’s newspaper, television, and radio outlets as well. Simicska’s media holdings include a weekly, Heti Válasz, which initially refused the follow the road his daily, Magyar Nemzet, chose. It remained surprisingly loyal to Viktor Orbán. One reason for this loyalty might have been the person of the weekly’s editor-in-chief, Gábor Borókai, who, after all, was the spokesman for the first Orbán government. Unlike the others since 2010, he served throughout the entire 1998-2002 period. Moreover, it is likely that the two men already knew each other while they were law students. In 2013 Viktor Orbán made sure that Borókai received a high decoration (Magyar Érdemrend tisztikeresztje).

Lately, however, even Borókai has become quite critical of the government. In November 2016 he warned that all the lying and misinformation disseminated by the government will lead to its downfall if Fidesz politicians don’t wake up. Last month Borókai wrote a critical editorial about the government’s handling of the Central European University case and even complained about the state of democracy and freedom in Hungary. The old friendship between Orbán and Borókai was coming to an end.

András Lánczi, Orbán’s favorite philosopher and president of Corvinus University, had written regularly in Heti Válasz for ten years, but when Borókai’s weekly published an interview with Ron Werber, who devised the strategy that assured MSZP’s victory in 2002, he decided to make a clean break with the publication. As he told 888.hu, he had indicated to Borókai earlier that he didn’t approve of “the new direction,” but that interview was the last straw.

Meanwhile, the output of government-paid journalists is of such low quality that serious journalists no longer consider them colleagues. Indeed, most of the young people who staff internet propaganda tabloids like 888.hu and ripost.hu don’t deserve to be called reporters, journalists, or media workers. Even so, I’m not convinced that MSZP’s decision to boycott Echo TV, M1, TV2, Origo, Pestisrácok.hu, 888.hu, Magyar Idők, Lokál, Ripost, and Magyar Hírlap is a good idea. The party’s rationale, according to party spokesman István Nyakó, is that these publications distort the opposition politicians’ answers to their questions. Moreover, these media outlets describe a nonexistent world. “We are not going to assist them in creating manipulated material.” Nyakó told the reporter of Echo TV who happened to be at the press conference that he doesn’t consider him a journalist but a paid spokesman of Fidesz. This may all be true, but I’m not sure how these politicians’ boycott will change the editorial policies of the client media of Fidesz.

MSZP’s decision to boycott Fidesz media is most likely the result of an encounter László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership and mayor of Szeged, had with the staff of a weekly program on Echo TV called “Informátor.” According to Botka, the Echo TV people arrived unannounced, cameras in hand, wanting to have an interview with him. Botka already had a scheduled conference, but the Echo TV staff refused to budge, and they even wanted to enter Botka’s room by force. Or at least this is what Botka claims. Apparently, at that point Botka called the police. Of course, Echo TV’s story of the encounter sounds very different from Botka’s version. In any case, Botka seems to be convinced that “the government falsification factory is trying to provoke him.” In his opinion, the journalists who work for government outlets are simple provocateurs. He knows that the goal was not to conduct an interview but to create a scandal. I fully agree with Botka, but then why did he fall for the provocation? Because by calling the police on them Botka managed to fulfill the goal of Echo TV. It might have been better to give them a short dignified interview. If their sole objective was to create a scandal, they would have traveled 300 some kilometers for nothing.

Mutual boycotting will lead nowhere, although I sympathize with those who find the output of the government propaganda close to unreadable and disgusting. Moreover, I can’t believe that such obvious propaganda, rivaling the output of the Rákosi regime, can possibly be effective from the point of view of the government. Just as eight solid years of communist propaganda between 1948 and 1956 failed to convince people that they lived in a socialist paradise, Fidesz propaganda will not achieve its aims either. In fact, it might turn people off.

In a similar vein, the latest “national consultation” seems to be a flop. Of the 8.5 million people who received questionnaires, only 1.3 million have returned them thus far. Kósa is already “asking the government” to extend the deadline from May 20 to May 31 because the post office was late in delivering some of them. Of course, the post office story is bogus. The real explanation is the stupid questions posed and the even stupider answers provided.

It’s time for Viktor Orbán to rethink his communication strategy. His massive pro-government media network may not be the panacea he anticipated.

May 16, 2017