Tag Archives: László Botka

Total disarray among the democratic opposition parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 20, 2017

The Hungarian opposition shows signs of life

Momentum’s victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

László Botka’s program is shaping up

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

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

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

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

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

February 17, 2017

László Lengyel, the “kingmaker”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 7, 2017

On László Botka’s nomination and an NGO win

I will try to cover two topics today. First, I will share my initial reactions to László Botka as the official nominee of MSZP for the post of prime minister. And second, I will give an example of the kind of success NGOs can achieve in defending the rule of law in Hungary.

László Botka’s nomination

This morning, on Klub Rádió’s call-in-program “Let’s Talk It Over,” I listened with great interest to the by and large enthusiastic reception of MSZP’s nomination of László Botka as its candidate for prime minister. I myself was also glad that at last MSZP, a party known for its confused messages and timidity, had made a definitive move. I still welcomed the move, although initially I had disapproved of MSZP’s decision to act on its own. I hoped that the socialist leadership had explained to Botka that he must have an open mind in his negotiations with the Demokratikus Koalíció because Botka’s opening salvo against the chairman of DK didn’t bode well as far as future negotiations were concerned. And without DK there is no possibility of forging a workable election alliance.

Great was my disappointment when I read the short summary of Botka’s program in 168 Óra. In Botka’s opinion, the Third Way, which can be described as a political position that tries to combine right-wing economic and left-wing social policies within the social democratic movement, proved to be a failure in Hungary. He named Ferenc Gyurcsány as the chief proponent of this political philosophy. The failure of the Third Way, he said, led to the rise of populism and the stunning electoral victory of Viktor Orbán.

I would need a little more time to ponder Botka’s theory, but at first blush it doesn’t strike me as a valid criticism. One obvious counterargument is the growth of populism throughout the western world without either a Third Way or Ferenc Gyurcsány. I would suggest that Botka consider the 2008 world economic crisis as one possible cause of our current problems. With a little effort we could come up with many other factors that would counter Botka’s theory, among them the very strong showing of Fidesz from at least 2002 on, when experimentation with Tony Blair’s brainchild was still nowhere.

In any case, if Botka is serious about becoming the candidate of all democratic parties he should reconsider his attitude. Otherwise, his failure is guaranteed. One can’t start negotiations from such a position.

DK’s reaction was muted. Csaba Molnár, deputy chairman of DK, announced that they are expecting Botka’s call, adding that they agree that a new program is necessary for the removal of the Orbán government. He offered DK’s almost 80-page program “Hungary of the Many” for his consideration.

The Helsinki Commission (and Friends) and the European Court of Human Rights

The Orbán government has singled out three NGOs as the most objectionable: the Helsinki Commission, Transparency International, and Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (TASZ), which is the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. These three organizations stand for freedom, equality, the rule of law, human rights, and transparency. They call the government to account when it doesn’t follow the country’s laws or doesn’t fulfill its international obligations. Naturally, they are incredible irritants to the Orbán government.

One such case in which they called the government to task was the nomination of a Hungarian judge to the European Court of Human Rights.

Since, after 2010, the Hungarian Constitutional Court has been filled with government appointees, the “last resort” of NGOs is often the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The Court’s current Hungarian judge is András Sajó, a legal scholar, university professor, and member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, whose nine-year tenure will expire at the end of the month. Therefore, the Orbán government will be able to nominate one of its own.

According to Council of Europe policy, the nomination must be democratic and transparent. If not, the nominee might be rejected. Three names ought to be submitted for consideration, and their nomination must be preceded by an open application process.

Knowing the Orbán government’s attitude toward such international obligations, the Helsinki Commission was worried already a year ago about the government’s plans for the nomination of a new Hungarian judge. Therefore, they inquired from László Trócsányi, minister of justice, about the progress the government had made. The answer was worrisome because Trócsányi called the prescriptions of the Council of Europe “recommendatory documents.” In June, the Helsinki Commission inquired again and was told that the ministry of justice was in the midst of consultation with experts. When asked who these experts were, the ministry refused to divulge their identities, citing privacy rights. It then informed the Helsinki Commission that the list of names had already been submitted to the court. In response, 11 NGOs together demanded the withdrawal of the submitted names and asked for an open application process. This time, the ministry of justice didn’t even bother to answer their letter.

At this point 15 Hungarian NGOs informed the Council of Europe about the illegality of the Hungarian nomination process. It turned out that of the three submitted nominees two were closely connected to the current Hungarian government: one was an adviser to Trócsányi and the other was a department head in the ministry of justice who at one point had represented the Hungarian government in a case before the ECHR.

The General Meeting of ECHR decided against the two objectionable candidates, and so the Hungarian government turned in two new names. One of the replacements was also connected to the ministry of justice. And the open application process was again ignored.

The NGOs complained and this time turned to the ECHR. In response, the secretary-general of ECHR indicated to the Hungarian government that in the absence of an open application procedure, the nominees will be rejected. At this point the Orbán government threw in the towel. In October it withdrew the nominations and announced it would hold an open application process for the jobs.

The applicants had only two weeks to prepare, and outsiders had little knowledge about the selection process, but this was still a big step forward. This time, of the three names, only one has government ties, less intimate than in earlier cases. The finalists are Krisztina Füzi-Rozsnyai, an administrative lawyer, Péter Paczolay, former chief justice of the constitutional court, and Pál Sonnevend, head of the department of international law at ELTE. On January 12 the three applicants had their hearings. A final decision will be made on January 24.

After reading just this one case, I think it is easy to understand why the Orbán government wants to demonize these NGOs and possibly remove them. It is not a stretch for Orbán to claim that they are involved in anti-government political activities since they are defending the rule of law in a country where the government does everything in its power to circumvent the law. And they are often more successful than the political parties because of their expertise in both domestic and European law.

January 19, 2017

The Hungarian opposition is still in disarray

I am returning to party politics today because, after an extended holiday season, opposition politicians and civilians active in politics have become vocal again. One after the other gives interviews to newspapers or to the two friendly television stations, ATV and Hír TV. Naturally, the topic is how best to prepare for the 2018 national election. Alas, every time such a tsunami of statements comes from the opposition parties, confusion and discord reign.

While the opposition parties MSZP, DK, and Párbeszéd are allegedly negotiating and those negotiations are, according to reports, going well, one of MSZP’s big guns, István Hiller, at least according to Magyar Idők, announced on December 27 in an interview that he doesn’t believe in the kind of political partnership among the democratic parties that proved to be singularly unsuccessful in 2014. If it depends on him, such a strategy will never be repeated. I must say that this was a surprising announcement since Hiller’s party is currently negotiating with the small parties on the left.

That’s not the only subject on which MSZP leaders disagree. Unnamed MSZP sources told Magyar Hírlap a couple of days ago that the leadership is also divided over László Botka’s offering himself as a candidate for the premiership. They are puzzled by the fact that Botka twice sent messages to his own party, once via 168 Óra and again only two days ago in an interview given to Index, that were actually ultimatums. Moreover, some of Botka’s demands can’t be met. For example, the exclusion of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the election process, which even in the opinion of Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd is an impossibility.

Even though MSZP leaders are still optimistic that the parties will be able to agree on a common platform, there are a couple of hurdles that might make agreement difficult. One is the question of the selection process of the most promising candidates for each of the 106 individual electoral districts. The idea of primaries has been bandied about for years, but by the fall of 2016 Párbeszéd decided that this was the most promising way to find the best candidate in each district. This small party was then joined by civic groups, which kept widening the nominating process to the point that it now includes the possibility of voting online. For this they hired the company Anonim Digitális Azonosító (Anonymous Digital Identifier), whose website is already available. Párbeszéd managed to convince MSZP of the efficacy of primaries and DK, although not terribly enthusiastic, agreed to the idea if all the others are game. When it comes to the internet application, however, the other partners are less than keen. Moreover, Botka’s announcement that he finds primaries superfluous further complicates the situation since at the moment MSZP is still a supporter of the idea. Botka stressed the necessity of “choosing the best candidate” in each district but didn’t give any guidance as to how this should be accomplished.

The other possible stumbling block is the question of having a common party list versus having individual ones. One must keep in mind that in the Hungarian system each voter casts two votes, one for an individual and the other for a party. Two of the three parties that are still talking to one another are committed to a common list while DK is sitting on the fence, at least according to Népszava. I personally prefer one common list because separate party lists send a strong signal to the voters that unity is still sadly lacking.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Együtt and LMP. Despite hopes that with the departure of András Schiffer LMP’s new leadership would be more willing to cooperate with the other parties, this didn’t turn out to be the case. A couple of weeks ago I still felt sorry for Ákos Hadházy, Schiffer’s replacement, when he tried to rationalize his party’s strategy while claiming that his greatest desire is to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s regime. By now, however, I have decided that the new co-chair of LMP doesn’t deserve my sympathy. A sharp-tongued commentator in gepnarancs.hu called LMP “a closed ward,” indicating that he finds LMP’s leaders not quite sane. Of course, he quickly added: “pardon me, a closed structure.” In his opinion, “ever since the departure of their word-jongleur they wriggle like fish out of water.”

Együtt’s two-man leadership seems to have supreme confidence in their party’s weighty position in Hungarian politics. Consequently, Együtt wants separate lists to ensure parliamentary representation. Just as a reminder, in order to get into parliament, Együtt would need at least 5% of the votes. Meeting that threshold, however, would not ensure a separate parliamentary delegation, which in the current setup must have at least five members. For example, DK, which is a much larger party, currently has only four members and hence no delegation. Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair, is so sure of his party’s chances that he already announced in an interview that he will be the leader of the Együtt parliamentary delegation after 2018. I admire his confidence.

A growing sentiment within the opposition favors some kind of “understanding” between the democratic parties and Jobbik. After reading the pro-government papers I came to the conclusion that Fidesz is really worried about this possibility and is trying to prevent any such meeting of the minds. János Somogyi, a frequent contributor to Magyar Idők, devoted an opinion piece to the subject. Of course, he finds both sides abhorrent. He tries to convince himself that such an understanding will never happen. But if by some fluke it does, it matters not because Fidesz will win the election anyway. He concluded his article dramatically: “The Lord will hear the last words of Prime Minister László Bárdossy, who was innocently executed in January 1946. Holding his arms toward the sky, he said ‘My Lord, deliver the country from these bandits!’ Perhaps this will become reality in 2018.”

Naturally, democratically minded political commentators are divided on the issue. One unexpected promoter of the idea is Ágnes Heller, Hungary’s best-known philosopher who, by the way, is a Holocaust survivor. Here is Hungarian Free Press’s translation of what she had to say on the subject. The original appeared on the website of ATV.

Cooperation can happen if both sides desire it. Purely based on numbers it is true that if they went up against Fidesz together, they would defeat the governing party. It would not be bad if they did so. But if they don’t want to do it, then they should not…Maybe the word ‘cooperation’ is not the right one. They could just support each other. This, of course, would be very difficult to explain to their voters, even if today there is basically a state of emergency in Hungary. If this is impossible due to their divergent identities, they do not need to make ideological compromises. Instead of a public agreement, they can simply decide to support each other’s candidates, even as they both develop their own campaign strategies. And then, if Fidesz has been defeated, the current electoral system would be reformed and new elections would follow between the victorious parties.

Ágnes Heller

György Konrád, a well-known writer and also a Holocaust survivor, thinks that “one can even join forces with the grandmother of the devil as long as the goal of a democratic alteration of the electoral laws can be achieved.” He added that such an outcome is “improbable,” but “it cannot be totally excluded either.”

On the other hand, TGM, a political philosopher, Tamás Ungvári, a literary historian, and Mihály Kornis, a writer, find the idea totally unacceptable. Kornis, who has the tendency to exaggerate, declared that if the choice was between Jobbik and death he would choose death.

In brief, the Hungarian political scene is extremely complex, and carving out a winning strategy is a daunting task for the opposition.

January 9, 2017

MSZP steps up to support László Botka without talking to the other parties

I’m amazed at the ineptitude of most of the politicians in the Hungarian opposition parties. They simply don’t know what should and what should not be said. I’m afraid that László Botka’s surprise announcement of his willingness to lead an election campaign, which I greeted enthusiastically, will lead nowhere because of the mistakes he and his party made within the short span of 24 hours.

Let’s start with the interview itself, to which I didn’t have access two days ago when I wrote about the Botka phenomenon. I had to rely on summaries. Now I have the full text. Botka stressed that he considers the closest cooperation among the democratic parties to be the cornerstone of victory. That means that he, as a long-time leading member of MSZP, must convince the other parties to join the common cause. But if this is the case, why did he feel it necessary to include the following sentences? “I have a better opinion of Ferenc Gyurcsány than the average Hungarian citizen. The numbers show that a good two-thirds of the electorate wouldn’t vote for a party list on which his name appears.” This is not an auspicious start toward forging a united front against the Orbán government.

Let’s take a look at the poll to which Botka was referring. Apparently, one of the smaller opposition parties commissioned it for their internal use. The party wanted to assess the attitude of the electorate toward a common list that included Gyurcsány’s name. If you take a look at the results as they appeared in 168 Óra, you will find that the numbers Botka is quoting include Fidesz, LMP and Jobbik voters, who wouldn’t vote for a list put together by MSZP, DK, Párbeszéd, Együtt, etc. in the first place. Not terribly surprisingly, 86% of Fidesz, 89% of Jobbik, and 79% of LMP voters wouldn’t want anything to do with the democratic opposition’s common list. These people are not the democratic opposition’s potential voters. The numbers that are relevant are the MSZP, DK, and undecided voters. Naturally, 91% of DK voters would vote for a common list that included their party chief. Even the majority (62%) of MSZP voters aren’t allergic to the former prime minister. And most importantly, the undecided voters are split almost down the middle on the issue. Surely, headlines like “No Gyurcsány even against Orbán” are misleading. And Botka’s reliance on the overall poll number is regrettable.

MSZP made the second mistake today. Botka’s conditions for being a candidate for prime minister were addressed to the leaders of all the democratic parties. Not just to MSZP. Yet the party, without consulting with the others, made an official announcement saying that they accept Botka’s conditions because “in the last six months the party in its negotiations with the other opposition parties represented exactly the ideas that László Botka put forth.” Therefore, “MSZP supports him as the candidate for the post of common prime minister of the democratic opposition.”

Not surprisingly, DK is not thrilled. The official reason for their dissatisfaction is that, until now, MSZP supported the idea of selecting both the candidate for the post of prime minister and the 106 individuals who would run in each electoral district through primaries. MSZP’s unilateral support for Botka goes against the party’s position during the negotiations. Otherwise, Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman of DK, announced that his party is ready to give up the idea of primaries because, after all, at earlier by-elections opposition candidates won handily without any newfangled selection process. They are, however, waiting for MSZP’s “final suggestion on the method of choosing a candidate for the post of prime minister” before they announce their reaction to these new developments. Gréczy said nothing about Botka’s implicit demand to remove Gyurcsány’s name from the joint party list, but there is no question that the DK leadership will never agree to such a condition.

The Orbán media is making the most of Botka’s unfortunate remarks. Magyar Idők’s headline trumpets that “according to Botka, the left cannot win with Gyurcsány.”

The paper is also piling abuse on László Botka as a politician. Apparently, one of the leading socialist politicians told the paper that “Botka should stay in Szeged” because he is a “disagreeable fellow” who has only demands while he waits for others to do the work. Other socialists pointed out that “creating a joint list without Gyurcsány is impossible.”

888.hu is busily publishing article after article about Botka, saying that his popularity in Szeged is waning because of his “support” of the “migrants.” He is described as someone who would love to see thousands and thousands of migrants because when the refugees arrived in Szeged during the summer of 2015, he dared to say that “they didn’t disturb the inhabitants of the city at all.” His sin was that he behaved humanely when thousands were stranded at the Szeged railroad stations.

Soon enough Botka will find himself in Gyurcsány’s shoes

I suspect that Viktor Orbán is not happy with the appearance of László Botka as a possible leader of the opposition, and therefore the pro-government media is already hard at work trying to discredit him. It would be time to close ranks on the left, to iron out the differences in a great hurry. That will mean compromise on Botka’s part as well.

December 23, 2016