Tag Archives: LMP

Negotiations drag on, but there are a couple of bright spots on the horizon

Those who think that the most important task of the opposition parties is joint action and cooperation because otherwise there is no chance whatsoever of removing Viktor Orbán from power are pretty desperate. And angry, very angry. They express their deep frustration with politicians’ “selfish” behavior. They accuse them of caring only for their own careers. They charge that politicians seem to disregard the true interests of the country and place party politics ahead of the common good.

Many ordinary Hungarian citizens want to get rid of not only Fidesz but all opposition politicians as well. Their irritation is understandable. On the surface what people who follow politics see is a never-ending series of negotiations between MSZP, the Hungarian socialist party, and Demokratikus Koalíció, a liberal-democratic party. These two parties are considered to be “large parties” with their 10-12-14% share of the votes. The third largest party with about 7-8% of the votes is LMP, a green-anti-globalist party, which refuses to cooperate with anyone. In addition, Hungary has at least four or five even smaller parties. In all vital matters, like the restoration of democracy, the reestablishment of checks and balances, and the revamping of the electoral system, these people are of one mind, but when it comes to dividing up the political terrain, they are unable to look beyond their own narrow interests. At least this is the general perception.

I know that the situation is pretty grim, but I would like to point to a few hopeful signs. While news sites report on the real difficulties weighing down the negotiations between MSZP and DK, one can easily miss a couple of indications that behind the scenes small steps are being made toward some understanding.

Let’s start with the MSZP-DK negotiations over the division of the 106 electoral districts. For the longest time we heard that the negotiators were very close to an agreement. It was only a question of days. But then, weeks went by and there was no resolution. MSZP announced that they would give details of the final agreement with DK at their congress, scheduled for December 9. As might be expected, the congress must be postponed because it is unlikely that negotiations can be concluded prior to that date.

It is hard to tell who is responsible for the sluggish negotiations. According to Ferenc Gyurcsány, one of the three DK negotiators, the three politicians representing MSZP don’t have the authority to make decisions on the spot. They have to go back to the party’s “presidium,” some of whose members accuse the negotiators, especially Gyula Molnár, chairman of the party, of being too soft. And they accuse DK of treating their party in a high-handed fashion. Some of them complain that Gyurcsány and Company are too aggressive and suspect, most likely not without reason, that DK wants to be “the only force” on the left. On the other side, Gyurcsány likes to remind his former comrades that they are no longer in a position to dictate terms as they did four years ago, with pretty disastrous results.

Apparently, some of the socialist leaders are so unhappy with Gyula Molnár that they have raised the possibility of removing him from the post of chairman, or, if not that, at least replacing him at the negotiating table with someone else. Fortunately for the socialists, that politically suicidal idea was dropped, especially since Molnár is, according to reports, anything but soft and consistently defends MSZP interests. For the next round, however, the socialists will be returning to the negotiating table with a much tougher attitude. The negotiators’ hands will be tied by prior decisions of the presidium. Such an arrangement is long overdue; after all, this is how the DK negotiating team functions. The DK presidium, for example, instructed the three negotiators that a common party list, which is at the core of MSZP’s demands, is out of the question.

The tug of war over a common party list shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows Hungarian party politics. I should point out that, with the exception of MSZP, no opposition party wants to merge its votes into a common party list. DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd are ready to divvy up electoral districts among themselves even if they are not entirely satisfied with their lot, but by insisting on separate party lists they can at least measure their nationwide support. On the other hand, MSZP, with its shrinking base, would like to bury its declining numbers in a common list. Four years ago DK suffered when MSZP insisted on reserving for MSZP politicians what later turned out to be an excessive number of places at the top of the list. DK most likely would have done a great deal better if its leaders had insisted on a separate party list.

This is where we stand right now. The socialists insist on a common list, and the party’s negotiators are bound not to agree to the DK position. In addition, there are a couple of districts that DK would like to have but MSZP is not ready to release. All in all, not too promising.

But there is some news that might lift the spirits. This morning Népszava reported that, according to their sources, Ágnes Kunhalmi, the most popular socialist politician, will be heading the MSZP list. This report was later modified to read that Kunhalmi will be “the face of the socialists’ campaign.” Even putting Kunhalmi forth as the “face of the campaign” is welcome news and should help MSZP recover its standing somewhat. It was a real shame that Kunhalmi was relegated to dealing with matters of education only and wasn’t used as a general spokesperson for the party, while real third-rates represented MSZP in public over the last four years. In 2014, at the time of the Budapest municipal election when the democratic opposition had trouble finding a mayoral candidate, she looked like an obvious choice to me. I think she might have surprised us. The idea didn’t occur to anyone.

Ágnes Kunhalmi

The other piece of promising news is that negotiations seem to be going on among DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd, and it looks as if they see eye to eye. They have lined up against MSZP, charging that MSZP is dragging its feet. Péter Juhász of Együtt complained that MSZP keeps sending messages but refuses to sit down to negotiate. So, the three parties demand the start of talks with MSZP. The trouble is that MSZP apparently refuses at the moment to sit down with all three parties at once, which is a rational decision on their part. As it is, the socialists feel threatened in a one-on-one situation with DK, and they certainly don’t need two other parties to deal with.

And finally, we often hear that LMP and Momentum are adamant in their refusal to talk to other parties as partners in the forthcoming national election. They will win the election alone, they claim. But, behold, there is a small by-election that will be held on December 10 in the town of Solymár, a suburb of Budapest. About two weeks ago it was reported that the locals found an independent candidate who will be supported by MSZP-DK-Együtt-Párbeszéd-LMP. Yes, LMP. This is a first, as far as I know. And the story doesn’t end here. Yesterday Momentum announced that it will join the others in support of the democratic opposition parties’ candidate. I should add that Jobbik will not take part in the election.

Perhaps there are still grounds to hope that reason will prevail and there will be a united front on the left. According to experts on the current electoral law, as long as there are only three candidates (Fidesz, United Left, and Jobbik), the left actually has a chance of winning the election.

December 1, 2017

Another abortive attempt at forging a united democratic opposition against Orbán

While some conservatives are showing a willingness to join forces with the “democratic opposition” parties, the situation on the left is still in disarray.

My hope was that, with the retirement of László Botka, negotiations among the left-of-center parties would become a great deal easier. In a very limited sense, the situation did change for the better. MSZP and DK agreed to sit down again and discuss ways in which they could cooperate. This was certainly a positive step; after all, MSZP and DK are the two largest parties in this camp. Apparently, negotiations concerning the allocation of individual candidates in the 106 electoral districts have been proceeding well. We have been assured that an agreement will be reached soon.

The smaller parties are still looking for ways to distinguish themselves as separate entities with their own distinctive characteristics. They thus refused to join the talks. One such commonality, something their leaders consider to be a plus, is their “purity.” Their politicians have always been in opposition and therefore, they claim, they are superior to those who dirtied themselves in the political arena before 2010. LMP, Együtt, Párbeszéd, and Momentum view themselves as members of this group. When it came to negotiations, however, it turned out that organizing a “new pole,” as Péter Juhász of Együtt named the group, faced insurmountable difficulties. LMP and Momentum currently insist on entering the political fray alone. It is hard to know what Együtt and Párbeszéd are planning to do. Of course, if all these parties put up their own candidates, the failure of the opposition in the 2018 election is guaranteed.

Another problem on the left is the lack of a candidate for the premiership. MSZP lost its candidate when Botka left the campaign and DK never designated one. Párbeszéd has named Gergely Karácsony, but, let’s face it, Párbeszéd has only a 1% share among active voters. Regardless of how attractive and popular a candidate Karácsony is, his chances are close to nil.

It seems that there are plenty of people around with some connection to politics and politicians who are ready with advice. The latest name to surface was Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government. He is a more than respectable candidate. He would be excellent and, as of yesterday, he was willing to become a candidate if the majority of the parties would support him. But he stressed that under no condition would he be the candidate of MSZP and DK alone, as was originally reported.

Péter Balázs

Balázs had a distinguished career in the ministry of trade and, later, in practically all the governments after 1990, with the notable exception of the first Orbán government between 1998 and 2002. A lot of analysts greeted Balázs’s willingness to serve with great enthusiasm, and for perhaps a day it looked as if the forces of the left had found a desirable candidate. Although Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, denied that he or anyone else from the party had approached Balázs, the normally well-informed Magyar Nemzet learned that MSZP was hopeful that the “negotiating proceedings” will accelerate as a result of Balázs’s indication that he is ready to talk. But it didn’t take long for Ferenc Gyurcsány to repeat that, as far as he is concerned, DK will not be a party to either a common list or a common candidate for the post of prime minister. At this point Gábor Török, the well-known political scientist, wrote on his Facebook page: “This was expected. With this step MSZP arrived at the edge of the precipice.” Within a day we learned that DK was not the only fly in the ointment. None of the parties was ready to stand behind Péter Balázs.

Gyurcsány’s first interview after Balázs’s affirmation of his interest was with Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV. It was during this interview that Gyurcsány stated that DK’s negotiations with MSZP are “not about a common list and not about a common candidate for the post of prime minister.” The party wants to arrive at an agreement on the candidates for the 106 electoral districts, but that is the extent to which DK is prepared to go. During the course of the conversation Gyurcsány recalled an essay he wrote in Népszabadság after the 2014 election in which he discussed the long-term future of the democratic opposition. He is still convinced that one day all these smaller parties will unite in “a big, open democratic party.” But this is not a program for 2018. The formation of such a party may take four or perhaps even eight years.

After this interview he explained the position of DK’s leadership in greater detail. For a common candidate for the premiership, one would need a common list and a common program. Although the programs of MSZP and DK have many features in common, on many questions the two parties don’t see eye to eye. For example, DK disagrees with MSZP on the voting rights of dual citizens living in the neighboring countries and on a return to the practice of giving pensioners an extra month’s stipend. A candidate for the post must represent a common program, which at the moment doesn’t exist; moreover, it is unlikely that the two parties will ever agree on all issues.

­HVG talked to a socialist politician who is convinced that DK wants to be the leading party on the left and wants to ruin MSZP. But, he said, Gyurcsány overestimates his party’s strength. The same politician admitted, however, that “MSZP in its present form is finished and that after the election reforms must be introduced.” On the basis of past experience, MSZP politicians should know that parties usually don’t revive after a state of marasmus. No reforms can help at this stage. I think he is right in believing that the DK leadership is convinced that they might become the strongest party, surpassing MSZP, on the left. From the trends of the last few months, their hopes are not unfounded.

Gyurcsány’s scheme is simple. If the democratic opposition wins the election, the party with the largest support will name the prime minister, who in turn will try to form a coalition government. One reason for DK’s reluctance to have a common list is the party’s bad experience at the 2014 election when MSZP allowed only very few DK members to be high up on the list. As a result, DK was very badly underrepresented and MSZP overrepresented in parliament.

Gyurcsány at the moment claims that it is out of the question that he would be the next prime minister, even if DK emerged as the strongest party after the election. “DK would consider someone else. Cooperation is easier when we don’t commit ourselves to one particular person.” A few months ago his ambition was to achieve a 13-15% share and have a fair-sized parliamentary delegation. In that case, he saw himself becoming the head of DK’s parliamentary delegation, which would allow him to display his oratorical and political skills. Whether he would be satisfied with only that much if DK emerged as an important political factor, I doubt. For the time being, however, we don’t have to worry about such an outcome.

October 26, 2017

Conservative awakening in Hungary

About a year and a half ago I created a folder devoted to “internal divisions” within Fidesz. At that time there were a few signs of differences of opinion among the top Fidesz leaders, which to me signaled the possibility of a chink in the armor of this monolithic party. I was wrong. In no time Lázár, Kövér, Balog, and some others buried the hatchet–if there ever was such a thing as a hatchet in the first place.

This time there can be no question. An internal opposition has emerged, comprised of politicians who had once occupied important positions in Viktor Orbán’s governments. Even earlier, one had the distinct feeling that people like Foreign Minister János Martonyi, who served Viktor Orbán faithfully for eight years, István Stumpf, who served as Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office between 1998 and 2002 and since July 2010 as a Fidesz-appointed member of the Constitutional Court, and Tibor Navracsics, former head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation (2006-2010), minister of justice and administration, deputy prime minister (2010-2014), who was “exiled to Brussels” in November 2014 to become European commissioner in charge of education, culture, and youth, disapproved of Viktor Orbán’s growing shift to the right, his foreign policy, and his illiberalism. But there was little or no public display of their dissatisfaction. It now looks as if their concerns have become grave enough to overcome their reluctance to turn against the regime they so faithfully supported earlier.

About two weeks ago János Martonyi and István Stumpf delivered lectures at a conference organized by the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum, where  Martonyi took issue with Viktor Orbán’s attachment to “ethnic homogeneity.” In February of this year Viktor Orbán, in a lecture delivered at the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, had talked quite openly about “safeguarding the ethnic homogeneity” of the country. Later, during his last trip to Poland, at the joint press conference with Prime Minister Beata Szydło, he repeated his vision for Europe and for Hungary that included references to ethnic homogeneity. Martonyi said he couldn’t reconcile Orbán’s concept of ethnically homogeneous nation states with the fact that three or four million Hungarians live outside the country’s present borders. Martonyi is right. Orbán’s ideological struggles with the European Union led him to an irreconcilable contradiction on this issue.

István Stump was even more outspoken. He criticized the limits the Orbán government placed on the competence of the constitutional court. He was specifically talking about the suspension of the court’s competency over economic matters, which he called “an open wound on the body of Hungarian constitutionalism.” He also complained about the practice of retroactive legislation, which “in the long run, eliminates the maneuverability of future governments.”

Then there is Tibor Navracsics, who said that “the Soros Plan is not part of the European Commission’s agenda.” That upset Zsolt Semjén, KDNP deputy prime minister, mightily. In a radio interview he declared that Tibor Navracsics, as a European commissioner, knows that “his colleagues, his surroundings, people as well as organizations, are not only in the hands of George Soros, but also in his pocket.” Semjén accused Navracsics of disloyalty and called on him to decide where his real allegiance lies: with his own country or with the international community. Navracsics didn’t seem to be intimidated and called Semjén’s reaction “hysteria” which leads to wrong political decisions. Semjén’s attacks on Navracsics, however, continue unabated. Only today one could read that Navracsics’s denial of the Soros Plan is being used by the opposition “as a knife in the back of the government.”

One of the harshest critics of the Orbán government is Géza Jeszenszky, minister of foreign affairs in the government of József Antall (1990-1994), who during the first Orbán government (1998-2002) continued his political activities as ambassador to the United States. In 2011 he was named ambassador to Norway and Iceland. In October 2014 he resigned because he disagreed with the government’s attack on the Norway Fund, which achieved nothing and ruined the relations between Norway and Hungary for some time. Jeszenszky is no friend of George Soros who, in his opinion, was “an unfair adversary of the Antall government,” but he finds the anti-Soros campaign “shameful.” He believes that Orbán’s “aggressive” foreign policy is wrong and his pro-Russian orientation dangerous. He gives many interviews in which he doesn’t hide his true feelings about the Orbán government. He even expressed his willingness to help the opposition parties with his advice and support. Naturally, Jeszenszky’s criticisms couldn’t be left unanswered. Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, described Jeszenszky as being “in a state of political dementia.” Magyar Idők was brief and to the point: “Whoever is (was) Géza Jeszenszky, he should be ashamed of himself.”

Meanwhile, more and more former politicians and professionals who used to work for the Antall and earlier Fidesz governments are ready to join the efforts of the opposition to dislodge the present government. Tamás Mellár, a conservative economist at the University of Pécs who used to work for the Fidesz think tank Századvég, announced his intention to run as an independent candidate for parliament if all the opposition parties would support him. Given the disastrous Fidesz administration in the city, I have no doubt that Mellár could easily win one of the two parliamentary seats from Pécs.

Some of the disenchanted conservatives: Attila Chikán, László Sólyom, and Péter Ákos Bod / Source: Magyar Nemzet

Péter Ákos Bod, minister of industry and trade in the Antall government (1990-1991) and later chairman of the Hungarian National Bank (1991-1994), has been a severe critic of the Orbán government for a couple of years. By now he is openly talking about the need to remove Viktor Orbán from power because he fears economic disaster if the present government prevails. In order to appreciate the significance of Bod’s present stance, one should keep in mind that in 2006, when Viktor Orbán was desperate because he realized that his party might lose the election again, he offered the post of prime minister to Bod between the first and second rounds of election in the hope of reversing the trend. So, Bod’s presence at an LMP event where Bernadett Szél announced the party’s cooperation with a small, right-of-center party called Új Kezdet (New beginning) established by György Gémesi, mayor of Gödöllő since 1994, is significant. It shows Bod’s total disillusionment with Viktor Orbán and his regime. György Gémesi’s decision to work together with LMP is also noteworthy. Gémesi was once an important MDF leader.

Analysts have been saying for years that the Orbán regime cannot be removed only by the left-of-center parties. Disappointed Fidesz voters who most likely would never vote for MSZP or DK must have their place in the sun. The awakening of these conservatives might be the harbinger of a new, truly right-of-center political formation that could help stop those far-right forces that Fidesz let loose on the country.

October 25, 2017

Another attempt to silence Jobbik

In the last few days we have witnessed an entirely new form of pressure being exerted on Jobbik, currently the largest opposition party in Hungary, by the Orbán government with the assistance of the State Accounting Office (ÁSZ).

ÁSZ audits the finances of all parties biennially. This is one of those years when ÁSZ asks for documentation of party finances. The parties were informed that the auditing procedures for 2015-2016 would begin on August 10. On October 3 ÁSZ announced that Jobbik had refused to cooperate with the office and that it was therefore turning the case over to the prosecutor’s office. Unlike in other cases, the prosecutor’s office was prompt. It referred the case to the Nemzeti Nyomozó Iroda/National Investigative Office (NII), which is often called the Hungarian FBI. NII deals with cases involving human trafficking, state secrets, terrorism, drug-related issues, money laundering, and tax evasion.

Jobbik denies the accusation and claims that Péter Schön, the financial director of the party, and the chief accountant of ÁSZ’s investigative team were in constant touch. Moreover, on September 21 Schön and the officials of ÁSZ met personally. At that time Jobbik was told that this year ÁSZ was not going to do the auditing on the premises; Jobbik would have to send all the documents electronically. Then, suddenly, on September 28, Jobbik received an e-mail in which it was informed that, after all, there would be an audit at Jobbik’s headquarters and that ÁSZ was also interested in the first six months of the current year. This was a highly unusual request. In the 27-year history of ÁSZ no one ever wanted to audit financial transactions of a current year. Moreover, ÁSZ also informed Jobbik that the auditing team would arrive at 9:00 a.m. on the next day although—or because—Péter Schön had informed the ÁSZ officials already on September 27 that he would not be in the office that day and suggested the following business day, October 2, for ÁSZ’s visit. I should add that Jobbik by law had five days to respond and therefore was not obliged to jump.

Once ÁSZ’s men found the office locked on September 29, the office refused to accept the electronically submitted documents that Jobbik tried to submit. It also rejected the documents that János Volner, vice chairman of Jobbik, and Péter Jakab, the party’s spokesman, carried to ÁSZ in two boxes on October 3. They were told that ÁSZ cannot take the documents. They can accept only electronically submitted material, which Jobbik was prevented from submitting earlier.

It was obvious that ÁSZ, which in the past has been fairly even-handed, must have gotten the word from above to put pressure or worse on Jobbik. We know from Fidesz sources that Viktor Orbán flew into a rage over Jobbik’s brilliant billboards showing Viktor Orbán, Lőrinc Mészáros, Árpád Habony, and Antal Rogán. In a great hurry the government proposed a new law that was supposed to put an end to billboards with political messages, but it was so sloppily thrown together that it was full of loopholes. Lajos Simicska came to Jobbik’s rescue, selling the party 1,200 billboard spaces that allowed the party to continue its political attacks on Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. I assume that Orbán decided to put an end to this cat and mouse game once and for all.

János Volner and Péter Jakab in front of ÁSZ’s headquarters

Fidesz’s auxiliary forces were on hand to offer their two cents. István Kovács, the “strategic director” of the notorious Center for Fundamental Laws (Alapjogokért Központ/AK), which is a government-financed legal think tank, moved into immediate action. In an interview on the state television’s M1 channel, “without exhibiting any objectivity,” he announced that there is a strong possibility that Jobbik’s “refusal” to cooperate with ÁSZ will result in the party’s loss of its legal status. Such a move would throw the whole country into chaos, which might result in the physical violence on the streets that Antal Rogán and other Fidesz politicians kept talking about. As it turned out, however, the super clever legal experts of the Center were mistaken. The present law doesn’t allow the shuttering of a political party due to financial misconduct. But there is a brand new law which seems to have been written just for this occasion. In a great hurry Magyar Közlöny (Official Gazette) published an extraordinary issue on October 6 which contained the announcement of only one law: any offense committed in connection with the statutory aid to parties will result in an abatement of the amount received by the guilty party. Moreover, the amount ÁSZ found missing must be paid back in the form of taxes. So, in case anyone is naïve enough to think that the whole affair wasn’t staged and that Jobbik was actually uncooperative, this law is proof that it was premeditated. The Orbán government and Fidesz used the allegedly independent State Accounting Office and, through it, the prosecutor’s office to concoct stories in order to deprive its political opponent of the financial means to conduct a campaign for the next national election.

LMP, in a surprise move, came to Jobbik’s rescue. The party issued a statement deploring “the campaign against representative democracy with the assistance of the commissars of the prosecutor’s office.” The party also announced that it will ask TASZ, Hungary’s Civil Liberties Union, to provide legal aid to Jobbik. No official statement came from the other opposition parties as far as I know. I’m sure that LMP’s concern is genuine, but at the same time the move has benefits as far as LMP is concerned. Bernadett Szél just announced her candidacy for the post of prime minister and turned out to be the most popular among all the opposition candidates. For an aspiring party and its leader it is good politics to be in the news. It is important to be active.

The Jobbik leaders already labelled the government’s attack on their party the “Orbán Plan.” They naturally portray themselves as the only likely challenger of Fidesz of whom Viktor Orbán is afraid. Jobbik politicians might exaggerate their own importance, but it is true that in the last 12 months Fidesz attacks on Gábor Vona and his party have been fierce. Although Jobbik has lost some of its supporters, I don’t believe that this was due to the concerted offensive launched by Fidesz, led by Viktor Orbán himself. The relatively small loss of support was mostly due to Vona’s effort to make Jobbik a less radical and more mainstream right-of-center party. Some of the radicals in the party’s ranks most likely moved over to the Fidesz camp, which has shown a slow but steady rise. Therefore, I don’t believe that this latest assault on Jobbik will achieve its aim. It is very possible that it will actually elicit a certain amount of sympathy. In any case, I think that András Schiffer, the former co-chair of LMP, is quite right in saying that Fidesz, when it comes to Lajos Simicska, loses even its pretense of rationality. But, he added, it is really outrageous that ten million people have to suffer because of the personal vendetta that exists between these two men.

October 7, 2017

László Botka’s resignation ends a nine-month ordeal

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

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

László Botka announces his resignation / MTI

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2, 2017

MSZP’s “generous offer” rejected

Let’s continue with party politics, especially since yesterday the socialists came out with an “extremely generous offer.” What is the party’s proposal? For the complete unity of the democratic forces, MSZP is ready to evenly share the 98 member party list with all parties that have a measurable following. Thus, on the basis of the opinion polls by the Republikon Intézet and Závecz Research Institute over the last six months, DK would receive 15%, LMP 13%, Momentum 8%, Együtt 6%, Liberals 3%, and Párbeszéd 2% of the available places. The offer was further sweetened by a more magnanimous allocation of the most desirable positions on the list. The first 32 places are the most coveted, 25 of which went to MSZP in 2014. This time these 32 places would be halved between MSZP and the others. According to István Botka, that would guarantee parliamentary representation to all parties. LMP and DK would likely have large enough representations to form their own delegations (frakció). Mind you, as things stand now, these two parties would be able to achieve this goal without Botka’s scheme.

The MSZP politicians who came up with this plan–István Botka, Gyula Molnár, and István Hiller–were convinced that their offer was so attractive that it was practically impossible to refuse. They urged the other party leaders to take their time to consider the offer seriously. The public announcement of MSZP’s latest scheme was accompanied by letters to each party’s top leadership. Zoom, an internet news site, got hold of the letter that was sent to the Demokratikus Koalíció, which didn’t impress the DK leadership. The letter can be divided into two parts. The first is about the general desirability of Botka’s proposal of having common candidates in 106 electoral districts and a common party list. The second was tailored to the specifics of DK. The stumbling block in this case is the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose name, according to László Botka, should not be on the common list, allegedly because of his unpopularity. By way of compensation, Botka offered Gyurcsány Budapest’s District XV, which “is a DK success story with László Hajdu as DK mayor” where he could easily win. In this way his place in parliament would be ensured. The socialists urged DK’s politicians to “stop the pseudo-debates” and get to work.

The announcement of the “generous offer”

According to DK’s spokesman, the proposal doesn’t contain anything new. The sticking point is MSZP’s meddling in DK’s internal affairs with its insistence on the party chairman’s exclusion from the common list. In order to make certain that the party leaders’ hands are tied, a couple of weeks ago more than 70% of the approximately 9,000 full-fledged DK members voted to reject any negotiations with any other party whose condition is the exclusion of Gyurcsány from the common list. Apparently, 94% of those party members who participated voted with a resounding “no.”

Péter Juhász, chairman of Együtt, told Magyar Nemzet that Botka’s proposal is not new to him, but his party doesn’t believe in a single common list in the first place. Moreover, he is in the process of working out a list with those parties that did not exist prior to 2010. They are Együtt, Párbeszéd, LMP, and Momentum. These parties would have their own common candidates in all 106 districts. Unfortunately for Juhász, neither LMP nor Momentum shows much interest in his scheme.

LMP, as usual, said that the presidium will consider the proposal but most likely will reject it. The party spokesman indicated that László Botka had already approached them with a “generous offer” which they had rejected. As he put it, “one cannot remove Viktor Orbán with the actors of the past and the parties of the past which bear responsibility for the past 30 years.”

Momentum also rejected the offer. As far as they are concerned, there is no possibility of any cooperation with the socialists. “What Botka offers now is what Mesterházy offered in 2014. We still bear the brunt of the result of that so-called cooperation.” Moreover, Momentum’s participation in politics is not for the goal of gaining parliamentary seats but for higher ideals. They cannot be bought this way, they insisted.

Thus, as far as I can see, Botka’s proposal is dead in the water. Yet, according to Magyar Nemzet, MSZP still insists on having talks with DK, although Botka refuses to sit down with Ferenc Gyurcsány. Thus, Gyula Molnár and István Hiller will be the emissaries who will try to convince Gyurcsány to accept the offer. I think they could save themselves a trip because DK’s leadership as well as its members are adamant that no outsider has any right to interfere in the party’s internal affairs.

The Závecz Research Institute was on hand to conduct a quickie poll on the reception of MSZP’s latest offer. Two-thirds of the respondents responded favorably to the “generous offer.” After all, people are sick and tired of all the party strife. They have been waiting for more than half a year for Botka to move toward closer relations with the other parties. Unfortunately, these instant polls don’t tell us much, especially since Fidesz voters are also represented in the sample. It is also doubtful that the respondents knew much about the details of the proposal.

There is a lot to criticize about the way in which this offer was introduced. István Botka has the bad habit of making announcements without first discussing them with the people who will have to consider them. This time was no different. MSZP Chairman Gyula Molnár, in an interview with Egon Rónai of ATV, was at a loss to explain the lack of prior discussions with the parties, which are supposed to be part of the arrangement. Molnár tried to avoid the subject by saying “let’s not get into this.” When Rónai insisted, he couldn’t give a rational answer to this total lack of communication with the other party leaders. At about the same time that Rónai was trying to get a straight answer from Molnár, Olga Kálmán was talking to István Botka. Kálmán pressed him about the differences between the 2014 common list and his proposed 2018 one, without much success. Kálmán’s question about whether he would cede his place to another party’s candidate if that would be politically more desirable surprised him. He responded that he is the most experienced of all candidates and that Bernadett Szél and Gergely Karácsony “will receive important positions,” I assume in the next government which he envisages as a coalition.

György Jánosi, former deputy chairman of MSZP, wrote the following on his Facebook page about Botka’s offer. He wanted to know why the MSZP party brass didn’t share their far-reaching ideas with their hoped-for partners. He compared the manner of announcing the plan to a bone tossed from the table of the lords that the middle-sized or small parties can fight over. “It seems that László Botka and MSZP haven’t learned anything. Who will stop this flying blind? I’m afraid, no one. They don’t realize that this party has ceased to be a party that could offer a new government to this country.” Bitter words from a formerly important MSZP politician.

September 26, 2017

Another miracle: Eight-party working document on Hungary’s electoral system

Today seems an appropriate time to look at much needed changes to the Hungarian electoral law. The German polls just closed, and yesterday eight Hungarian left-of-center opposition parties agreed to sit down to work out a more equitable, more proportional electoral system to replace the one Fidesz introduced to satisfy the party’s immediate political interests. They announced that they already have a rough working document and that by October 23 they intend to have the final product.

I’m sure they will study the German electoral law carefully since the 1989 Hungarian law, which governed elections between 1990 and 2010, was modeled to some extent on the German system–except it turned out to be much more complicated and a great deal less proportional. It’s high time to remedy the situation, although we know that as long as Fidesz-KDNP holds sway over the country, whatever these parties come out with in the next month will remain merely a plan, to be stashed away for later implementation.

Still, the very fact that the eight left-of-center parties agreed to work together on a piece of legislation is an important event. It was only a few days ago that the same eight parties (along with Jobbik) agreed on a “national minimum” as far as healthcare is concerned. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if soon enough a similar undertaking would address the transformation of the Hungarian educational system.

Gergely Karácsony, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Lajos Bokros at the Agora where the working document was announced

Before going into the present state of the discussion on the electoral law, I think it might be useful to share some material on the subject from the websites of the different parties.

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) published the party’s position on the reform of the electoral system in 2011, prior to Fidesz’s single-handed reworking of the system in its own favor. Nonetheless, I’m confident that the document still reflects the views of the party on the subject. Among the available material, I found LMP’s presentation of the party’s ideas on an ideal system to be the best. It is succinct and clear. LMP at that point wanted to make the 1989 electoral law more proportionate but didn’t want to drastically change the system. They wanted to retain the mixed system of individual districts and party lists. LMP, being a small party always hovering around 5%, wanted to lower eligibility for representation to 3%. Since the leaders of LMP didn’t believe that the incredibly low percentage of women in parliament would change on its own, they suggested a female quota.

Demokratikus Koalíció/DK’s program titled “Hungary of the Many” (2016) has a section called “For a Fair Electoral System.” DK is also in favor of the mixed system (individual districts and party lists) but suggests further study of an “open list system,” which allows voters to indicate their favored candidate on the party list. Otherwise, DK is adamant that “voting rights can only be given to people who are inhabitants or who spent a considerable time in the country.” DK, like LMP, recommends a quota set-aside for woman politicians.

The document of Együtt, in which the party set forth its ideas on a new electoral system, is the longest but is unfortunately quite repetitious and at places muddled. Most likely this is because, as the author of the document says, they don’t only want to have a more proportional and fairer system. “The main task of the party is a model change which would strengthen political competition through the institutionalization of compulsion for compromise (kompromisszumkényszer).” Együtt also wants to retain a mixed electoral system, but unlike such systems in other countries, the party would have an equal number of seats for MPs from the districts and from the lists. They suggest a 222-member parliament, two members of which would come from votes of the dual citizens residing in the neighboring countries. Együtt recommends the introduction of instant-runoff voting. Instead of voting for only a single candidate, voters can rank the candidates in order of preference. Együtt is in favor of an “open system,” whose introduction DK is also contemplating. Együtt also supports a quota system to ensure the fairer representation of women in the legislative process. Együtt can’t imagine taking away the voting rights of dual citizens, but it would completely rework the system governing their voting. Right now they can cast only one vote, for a party list. Együtt would create two districts with their own candidates.

I left MSZP to last because what the party has is not a program but a collection of ideas, which the party leaders offered “for debate.” The document is called “Election in Hungary: A new alternative.” As far as MSZP is concerned, there are only two alternatives: a mixed system with run-offs with compensation derived from votes on party lists and single voting by counties plus Budapest for party lists alone. MSZP would give three seats to dual citizens residing in neighboring countries. Whoever put the document together assigned the number of seats for all 20 districts. In addition, MSZP threw in several other options for discussion: a female quota on all party lists, introduction of a preferential (instant-runoff) voting system, lowering the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation, lowering the voting age to 16, compulsory voting, a second house, or just one countrywide list like in the Netherlands. I assume that MSZP isn’t seriously considering any or all of these options but is simply putting them out for discussion.

As you can see, the parties who have already offered some thoughts on the reform of the electoral system are not very far apart, and therefore I don’t anticipate serious disagreements among them. From what we know so far about the discussion among the parties, the mixed system would remain and the number of seats would be raised to 220-222. The participants are optimistic that by the October 23 deadline the final proposal will be signed and sealed.

Ferenc Gyurcsány at the time of the announcement that they already had a working document and that they would spend the month ironing out the details expressed his opinion that “the democratic opposition is in better shape intellectually and in human terms than it appears from the outside.” If there is easy agreement on as difficult an issue as the electoral system, “it is even possible that these parties and movements will govern the country well.” Gergely Karácsony expressed his opinion that this is “not the end but the beginning of something.”

The working document is not public yet, but we learned a few details. Péter Juhász of Együtt indicated that they no longer insist on the introduction of an “open party list.” Ferenc Gyurcsány said at the press conference that DK added a proviso to the document in which they stated that the party doesn’t support voting rights for dual citizens who are permanent residents of another country. Anett Bősz of the liberals added that the Magyar Liberális Párt did the same thing regarding the minimum threshold for parliamentary representation.

So far, so good. In the case of the “healthcare” minimum, it was an outsider, not a party leader, who hammered together an agreement that was acceptable to all parties. Now, a week later, a civic activist achieved the beginnings of the same for the electoral system. Perhaps the party-civic society combination has a greater chance of success than I anticipated.

September 24, 2017