Tag Archives: LMP

How not to pick a constitutional judge: LMP’s choices I

Parties of the democratic opposition are up in arms. They are outraged at the assistance LMP extended to Fidesz to score an important parliamentary victory, the approval of four new judges for the Constitutional Court.

MSZP in the last minute tried to delay the inevitable by instructing its representative on the nominating committee to resign ahead of the vote. With his resignation the committee, which according to house rules must have at least nine members, no longer had a quorum. The MSZP tactic might have been clever, but the socialists didn’t count on Fidesz’s total disregard for rules and regulations. The majority party could have opted to get another member to replace MSZP’s representative and, let’s say a week later, finalize the nominations. No, they simply went ahead. This time not even Gergely Gulyás, Fidesz’s legal magician, could give a half-believable explanation for the vote’s alleged legality. Because of the decision to go ahead with the nominations despite the lack of a quorum, the opposition parties consider the entire procedure by which these four people were appointed illegitimate.

The Károly Eötvös Intézet, the liberal legal think tank, hasn’t changed its opinion in the last year. Just as in January, the legal scholars working there consider LMP’s decision the worst possible move. Their position is that the Constitutional Court ever since its enlargement with four Fidesz-appointed judges has not been an independent court but an arm of Fidesz’s political will. It no longer fulfills its function. As it stands, there are seven judges who will always vote in favor of the government while four on occasion will express a contrary opinion. The four new judges, considered to be “conservative,” will make the situation even worse. And no judge will have to retire from the court before 2023.

That leads me to the problem of vetting nominees. It has happened in the past, when all parties participated in the nominating process, that the socialist-liberal nominee turned out to be much more conservative than anticipated. One reason for these “mistakes” is the lack of a body of legal work on the basis of which the candidate’s legal philosophy could be judged. A good example of this was the choice of Mihály Bihari by MSZP and SZDSZ. Although he had a law degree, he had worked as a political scientist. There was no reliable way to assess his legal views. A somewhat similar situation occurred when Fidesz nominated István Stumpf, again a political scientist, to the court in 2010. Judging by his past, he should have been an absolutely safe choice from Viktor Orbán’s point of view. After all, Stumpf served as Orbán’s chief of staff between 1998 and 2002. But he turned out to be much less reliable than expected. The same problem exists with people who have been practicing judges and have no published work on the basis of which one could assess their legal thinking. Among the new appointees Ildikó Marosi falls into this category. She has been working as a judge, dealing with administrative and labor cases.

Although all opposition parties are highly critical of LMP’s role in this affair, the Demokratikus Koalíció is the most outspoken in its condemnation of the party. Csaba Molnár, one of the deputy chairmen of DK, tore into Ákos Hadházy on ATV’s “Szabad szemmel” (Open eyes). It quickly became apparent that Hadházy had not the foggiest idea about the legal views of the nominees his predecessor, András Schiffer, had picked.

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Csaba Molnár and Ákos Hadházy on ATV’s “Szabad szemmel”

A lot of people, including me, hoped that under the leadership of Hadházy LMP would be more willing to cooperate with the other opposition parties. I remember vividly when he announced that any kind of a deal or coalition with Fidesz is absolutely out of the question as long as he is the co-chairman of LMP. Hadházy normally makes a very good impression on people. He comes across as a modest, earnest, idealistic man who isn’t quite at home in the world of politics. Unfortunately, he is also naïve. He doesn’t seem to understand how differences in legal philosophy shape how judges interpret the constitution. When Molnár tried to explain to him that at least three of the nominees come from the conservative legal camp, which would further strengthen the pro-Fidesz majority, Hadházy naively shot back: “And conservative people cannot be honest?”

In any case, poor Hadházy was demolished under the weight of the facts DK gathered on the legal and political past of the nominees. Hadházy could only mumble: “Well, I didn’t know that, I will have to check on this.” This was Hadházy’s answer to Molnár’s claim that Bálint Schanda’s views on abortion are so extreme that, if it depended on him, he would forbid pharmacists to fill valid prescriptions signed by a physician for the morning-after pill.

The fact is that Schanda writes almost exclusively on legal questions concerning religion. The list of his publications is a mile long, and some of them are available online. If it depended on Schanda, stores would be closed on Sundays because believers (Christians) should have the opportunity to follow the Scripture, which forbids any kind of work on the Sabbath. This is part of the freedom of religion in his opinion.

He can be critical of the government, but his criticism comes from his religious convictions and his special interest in the defense of the family. For example, he didn’t like the idea of keeping children in school all day long, which he considers to be a “left-wing notion” popular in Western Europe. That’s why he was surprised to learn that the conservative Fidesz government had decided to introduce such schools. He finds the idea of the state’s taking over the “nurturing” of children from the family unacceptable. Church schools, however, are different because the parents expressly grant the church the task of educating their children.

Schanda also liked the idea of “family electoral law.” That is, that parents, depending on the number of children they had, could have multiple votes. Admittedly, he doesn’t want Hungary to rush into being the first country in the world to introduce such a law, but “this question cannot be a taboo; it would be foolish simply to discard it without seriously considering it.” In the article he practically suggests starting preparatory work for such a piece of legislation to be introduced later. Perhaps if Ákos Hadházy took the time to read a couple of Shanda’s articles he would better understand the impact of legal philosophy on people’s daily lives.

Finally, Csaba Molnár brought up an article by Schanda that he published in Magyar Kurir, which is the official newspaper of the Conference of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops. The short article’s title was “Pope Francis and zero tolerance.” It was about the vexing question of pedophilia. Schanda explains that there is nothing new in Pope Francis’s announcement because the church has had strict laws concerned pedophilia since 2001. Zero tolerance in this case simply means that a priest accused of this particular crime is immediately suspended, which he approves of. He cautions, however, about exaggerating the problem “because according to American studies pedophilia among Catholic priests in comparison to lay teachers is infinitesimal.”

The only study on pedophilia among Catholic priests I found was from 2004. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice published a comprehensive study in which it was claimed that 4% of Catholic priests in the U.S. had sexually victimized minors in the past half century. This seems to be somewhat lower than school teachers during the same time frame. Well, “somewhat lower” is not “infinitesimally” less. Moreover, it is very possible that victims of priests are less willing to confront church authorities than victims of teachers are to go to civil authorities. But this is a small point and not an important one. What, on the other hand, I found disingenuous was his claim that “in the former socialist countries the proportion of such acts in comparison to western countries is much lower.” At this point I had to laugh. What makes Polish, Hungarian or Slovak priests less prone to committing such crimes? Their countries’ socialist past? Or, perhaps something else, like a lower rate of reporting and a higher rate of covering up cases. Schanda even tries to cast doubt on the seriousness of the very few stories that emerged in the last few years in Hungary by saying that the media used these cases to incite anti-church sentiment in the population. Moreover, he claims that these cases were exploited by political parties. Obviously, the socialist-liberal parties.

In the summer of 2011 I devoted four posts to the four Fidesz-picked judges, asking “how qualified will the new judges in the Hungarian Constitutional Court be?” I’m planning to do the same this time.

November 23, 2016

The new constitutional court: LMP lends a helping hand to Fidesz

After 2010 one of Fidesz’s first tasks was to “pack” the Constitutional Court. The party’s two-thirds majority allowed Viktor Orbán to add four new hand-picked judges to the eleven-member court. It was an act that transformed the court into a reliable partner of the Orbán government. It also extended the judges’ tenure to twelve years. Last year Chief Justice Péter Paczolay retired, and this year the terms of three judges will expire. So four judges needed to be appointed to bring the court back to full strength.

The problem was that Fidesz no longer has a two-thirds parliamentary majority. No longer could it single-handedly nominate its most loyal supporters. The party had to make a deal with at least one other party.

In theory, the support of Jobbik would have sufficed, but an exclusive alliance with a party considered by many to be neo-Nazi would not play well internationally. And so, however reluctantly, Fidesz invited all the opposition parties to cut a deal. The party’s suggestion was that it would nominate two judges while MSZP and Jobbik would each be entitled to nominate one.

Negotiations began in December 2015, but soon enough the talks broke down because Jobbik insisted on nominating Krisztina Morvai, Jobbik’s far-right representative in the European parliament. MSZP, after some hesitation, also withdrew from the negotiations. I don’t know how much influence the statement issued by the Károly Eötvös Institute had on the party’s decision, but it recommended the offer be rejected. Its reasoning was that all eleven judges who will remain on the court were appointed by Fidesz. Therefore any deal at this junction would only legitimize an already illegitimate body.

It was at this point that LMP showed an interest in continued negotiations. András Schiffer was still the co-chair of the party, and he didn’t agree with the Eötvös Intézet’s position. At the same time the party refused to participate in any kind of deal that would involve the other parties in the selection of the judges. Szabolcs Dull of Index thought it improbable that Fidesz would agree to LMP’s proposal. But while all the other parties condemned Schiffer’s willingness to negotiate, by January 2016 Fidesz and LMP were seriously discussing candidates for the four positions. As usual, it was the Demokratikus Koalíció that was the most vocal opponent, but Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt also protested in an open letter to András Schiffer. MSZP by mid-January decided to follow their lead.

The negotiations between Fidesz and LMP, represented by András Schiffer, continued. Between January and April Schiffer came up with 17 possible candidates for the job. Not much information about the candidates leaked out, but from the few reports I found it looks as if Schiffer negotiated hard. For example, he said he would accept a Fidesz nominee–Attila Horváth, a legal historian–only if Fidesz gave up the idea of renominating Barnabás Lenkovics. As HVG put it, the two together “would have been too much” for LMP given their strongly right-wing leanings. LMP apparently also insisted on a female candidate–Ildikó Marosi, a judge on the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court. It looked at this point as if Fidesz would swallow the bitter pill that, with the exception of Attila Horváth, all the other names came from LMP’s Schiffer. The nominees would be Marcel Szabó, Ildikó Marosi, Attila Horváth, and Balázs Schanda.

Marcel Szabó, Balázs Schanda, Ildikó Marosi, and Attila Horváth at the swearing in ceremony

Marcel Szabó, Balázs Schanda, Ildikó Marosi, and Attila Horváth at the swearing-in ceremony

But then, a few days after the publication of HVG’s report, Viktor Orbán changed his mind. The deal seemed dead for six months when, out of the blue, on November 15, Gergely Gulyás called on András Schiffer, the retired chairman of LMP, to say that his party was ready to accept the three LMP-nominated judges. The Fidesz decision was completely unexpected. Members of the parliamentary judicial committee didn’t learn about the deal until the second half of the week.

Jobbik was stunned. They had participated in only two discussions in the spring and, as far as they knew, the deal was off. Now suddenly there were four judges who were elected by secret ballot this morning. The yes votes came exclusively from Fidesz-KDNP and LMP. Altogether 136 votes, three votes over the necessary 133. LMP delivered.

It is something of a mystery why Viktor Orbán changed his mind and accepted the deal in which, at least on the surface, LMP played the dominant role. Ákos Hadházy couldn’t give a good explanation for Fidesz’s reversal on the issue. Some commentators believe that the sudden acceptance of LMP’s assistance had something to do with Fidesz’s acrimonious relations with Jobbik of late. Fidesz wanted to show Gábor Vona that it doesn’t need Jobbik; it can turn elsewhere to achieve the two-thirds majority if it wants to. Also, the government had been battered by its loss on the constitutional amendments, with Jobbik pulling its support, and an important parliamentary victory was something Viktor Orbán badly needed.

The opposition parties are up in arms. They consider the politicians of LMP collaborators in the furtherance of Orbán’s political system. Because of the absolute secrecy in which the LMP-Fidesz negotiations were conducted, we know very little about the candidates. For the time being we don’t whether Ákos Hadházy’s optimism is justified. He hopes that “perhaps this way we can stop on the road from democracy to dictatorship.” Something I very much doubt.

November 22, 2016

A possible opposition election strategy for 2018

Celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian revolution against the Rákosi regime and the Soviet occupying forces have already begun, with apparently thousands of young people, torches in hand, marching along the bank of the Danube on the Buda side. This march has become something of a symbol of the revolution. As a participant, I must admit, I viewed this event as a rather insignificant episode in the revolution with practically no tangible consequences for the course of events that followed. The real celebration will take place tomorrow which, I’m sure, will be lavish. How historically accurate is another matter.

Although the topic of today’s post is the current state of the opposition and my views on what the opposition parties should do under the circumstances, I first want to mention that if one goes to hirvonal.hu, my favorite search program for Hungarian news, there are at least as many articles on October 23, 2006 as on the events of October 1956. Almost all of the articles about the prime minister who gave orders to shoot at grandmothers (?) have appeared in pro-government publications. Distortion of the events of the fiftieth anniversary seems to be just as important for this government as the systematic falsification of 1956.

Two months ago György Bolgár invited me to join his program “Megbeszéljük” on KlubRádió. He wanted my opinion on “what should be done” to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal, oppressive, highly undemocratic regime. I began by saying that first I would like to note what I think the opposition parties shouldn’t be doing. Of course, what I was talking about was the constant bickering and attacking each other in public instead of closing ranks against the governing powers. I added that it is useless to wait for some unknown person to surface and save the nation from Viktor Orbán. Nor can one rely on civic group leaders who have no political experience. For better or worse, one must work with the existing politicians. Ideally, the really small parties (Együtt, PM, MLP) should disappear as separate entities and they and their often quite able leaders (Gergely Karácsony, Tímea Szabó, Benedek Jávor, and Péter Juhász, for example) should join the other two larger parties in order to form an entirely new party. One single party with one party leader. I haven’t changed my mind on that score, with one possible exception. Today I can imagine temporary cooperation with Gábor Vona’s Jobbik because I’m more and more convinced that without them there is no way to remove the Fidesz regime. I think that Gábor Vona is a great deal less dangerous than Viktor Orbán.

At the moment the situation among the opposition parties is far from ideal. Take the demonstration organized by Péter Juhász (Együtt), Ákos Hadházy (LMP), and Benedek Jávor (PM). They didn’t work with the other parties to organize a massive demonstration for freedom of the press. Not surprisingly, the crowd was much smaller than expected. But that was not enough. Péter Juhász, on the spot, announced a demonstration for tomorrow morning to disrupt Viktor Orbán’s speech in front of the parliament. He said he had already purchased 1,000 whistles, which he plans to use throughout the speech. That’s bad enough, but his demonstration coincides with the large demonstration organized by the other left-of-center opposition parties to be held on Lujza Blaha tér. Isn’t it funny that a party whose name Együtt means “together” is the only one, apart from the always go-it-alone LMP, that refuses to join the others? Együtt has the support of perhaps 1% of the electorate. Where will that lead? Nowhere, of course.

Moreover, what followed from LMP was beyond the pale. I am more or less accustomed to the intransigence of LMP’s Bernadett Szél, but her latest statement was more than I could swallow. On ATV’s Start program the other day she said, “If the people have to choose between the return of the world before 2010 and the present situation, on the basis of the two earlier elections they will vote for the latter. On the left, the same people say the same thing, and the emblematic character of that side is Ferenc Gyurcsány. It is not our fault that the opposition hasn’t been able to get renewed in six years.” Egon Rónay of ATV was stunned. Since then, Szél made it clear that her party is unwilling to sit down with the others to discuss the possibility of primaries, as promoted by PM. And naturally LMP, which at the moment doesn’t have enough followers to get into parliament, will run alone against the gigantic Fidesz political machine. Good luck.

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Bernadett Szél

I foresee the possibility of yet another split in LMP. It is all very well that András Schiffer, whose unbending attitude on LMP’s election strategy already ruptured the party once, is gone. But Szél is just as rigid as Schiffer was. Taking Schiffer’s place in the hierarchy as co-chairman is Ákos Hadházy, a moderate who considers the removal of the Orbán regime his foremost task. I can’t see him going along with the insane ideas of Bernadett Szél.

Meanwhile, the pro-government publications are having a jolly good time watching the fights in opposition ranks. Lokál, the latest Fidesz-financed free newspaper available at metro stations, called Szél’s attack on Gyurcsány a “catfight.”

Magyar Nemzet only yesterday devoted an article to the attempts of the opposition parties to organize themselves into a coherent political force. György Zsombor, the author of the article, noted that PM, the only party which is gung-ho on primaries, also demands a guaranteed income and four-day work weeks, ideas that will not meet with the approval of the other parties. The consultations in which, with the exception of LMP, all “democratic” parties will be represented, including the so-called Balpárt (Left party, a kind of Hungarian Linke), will take place on October 24.

In advance of that consultation Demokratikus Koalíció celebrated the fifth anniversary of its founding. Ferenc Gyurcsány gave a speech in which he outlined one way to solve the predicament of the opposition parties. The speech itself can be viewed on ATV’s website. What he described strongly resembles my ideal scenario. The smaller parties should give up their independence and their able leaders should find positions within a new united party. For example, he specifically mentioned Gergely Karácsony, currently mayor of Zugló (District XIV), as a possible mayoral candidate at the next municipal election in Budapest. The thrust of his argument is that the paramount consideration today is the removal of Viktor Orbán. To achieve that goal differences must temporarily be set aside. Once democracy is restored there will be plenty of opportunity to debate inside and outside of parliament. Just as in 1956 Sándor Rácz, chairman of the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council, and Cardinal József Mindszenty were on the same side because the main task was the overthrow of the dictatorship. On all other issues they most likely held diametrically opposed views.

In theory this is a logical description of what should happen, but in practice it will be very difficult to achieve. One of the biggest hurdles is the conflicted state of MSZP. I don’t know much about the inner workings of the party, but I suspect that some members of the leadership still believe that MSZP can take on Fidesz alone or at least that their party should be the leading force in any future coalition. Then there are those who cannot forgive Ferenc Gyurcsány for leaving MSZP and establishing his own rival party. So they don’t want to work with him for the common good.

And finally, a few words about the way I see Jobbik’s position at the moment. I’m not the only commentator who thinks that Fidesz as a government party of practically unlimited powers is far more dangerous than Jobbik, which has shed its far-right rhetoric and is in opposition. Apparently, followers of Jobbik hate Fidesz just as much as the voters of MSZP and DK do. Jobbik followers boycotted the referendum on October 2 in just as great numbers as others did. At the moment, Viktor Orbán calls Jobbik and its leaders traitors and accuses them of blackmail. I don’t think it is in Vona’s interest to play second-fiddle to Fidesz in the forthcoming months. In my opinion, it would not be a total waste of time to put out feelers for a chat with Gábor Vona. I know that this is sacrilege as far as some of the opposition parties are concerned. I think of DK especially. But I still believe that creating a temporary alliance for the sake of toppling Viktor Orbán might be justified.

October 22, 2016

The only good answer to Orbán’s referendum is a boycott

Ever since mid-July, if not earlier, a fierce debate has been going on about the best strategy for voters of left-of-center parties to follow at the forthcoming referendum. The question that will face Hungarian voters on October 2 will be: “Do you want the European Union, without the consent of Parliament, to order the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” The government is campaigning for, and expects, an overwhelming “no” vote.

Fidesz voters are an obedient lot who will follow the instructions from the party chief and prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Jobbik voters are perhaps a little less enthusiastic, but the majority of them will still vote “no.” On the other side, as usual, there is a lot of confusion.

Since the referendum is such a hot topic in Hungary, it’s not surprising that three separate public opinion polls have been taken in the last three weeks trying to predict its outcome. All three come to more or less the same conclusion: there is a good likelihood that the referendum will be valid and that the question will fail (where failure is the desired result from the government’s perspective). That is, at least 50% plus 1 of all eligible voters will vote and more than 50% of all votes will be “nays.”

No one has ever doubted that the referendum question would fail given the tremendous public rejection of the refugees, but at least at the beginning there were doubts about the validity of the referendum. Analysts doubted that half of the adult people would bother to vote on a referendum question which most legal scholars consider outright unconstitutional. If Viktor Orbán hadn’t eliminated all the checks and balances from the political system, this referendum couldn’t even have taken place. It would have been scotched already by the National Election Commission because there are just too many things wrong with the question. Starting with the obvious, the European Union cannot make any binding decisions without the consent of the European Council, which is made up of the prime ministers of the 28 member states, which naturally includes Viktor Orbán. Equally obvious is that Hungary, when it joined the European Union, gave up part of its national sovereignty and therefore will be obliged, if a joint decision is reached, to take some refugees. Finally, the parliament doesn’t have a central part to play in the Hungarian government’s dealings with the European Union. For example, Viktor Orbán doesn’t have to consult parliament before he travels to Brussels to vote on an EU decision. Conversely, laws enacted in national parliaments have no direct effect on the workings of the European Union. Admittedly, the Hungarian government could enact a law that would tie the hands of the prime minister by insisting on a parliamentary mandate, but this would be a law that no prime minister would ever want. In brief, perhaps more than four million Hungarians will vote on a structurally meaningless referendum question.

The question may have no binding consequences, but it has huge political value for Fidesz. The liberal-socialist side of the Hungarian political spectrum has been struggling to formulate a cohesive response. The basic question is whether its followers should participate in the referendum. Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) from the start has championed for a boycott with the slogan “Stay Home, Stay in Europe!” After some hesitation MSZP followed, but instead of using the word “boycott” they chose “abstention,” apparently because the party is planning to send observers to the polling places. A fine and, in my opinion, needless distinction that only confuses the would-be boycotters. The two smaller parties, Együtt and PM, are also for a boycott. LMP is offering no guidance to its followers; they can vote (or not) their conscience.

There is only one party on the left, the Magyar Liberális Párt of Gábor Fodor, that has been campaigning with great gusto for people to participate in the referendum and to vote “yes” to the question. This would be, Fodor argues, the courageous thing to do. It would mean that Hungarians stand up and say “yes” to taking in refugees. It would mean that Hungary is a constructive member of the European Union ready to share the burden of the refugee crisis facing Europe. Sitting at home, Fodor says, is simply cowardly.

The counterargument that participation legitimizes an illegitimate and unconstitutional referendum doesn’t seem to impress Fodor. He claims that Viktor Orbán doesn’t give a hoot whether the referendum is valid; he cares only about the percentages. If, let’s say, 30% of the voters say “yes,” this would not be good news for Orbán. If, on the other hand, Fodor contends, 80 or 90% of the votes are “nays,” it will be a great victory for the government quite independently of whether 40% or 55% of the eligible voters cast their ballots.

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Meanwhile, some people think they should take part in the referendum process but should invalidate their ballots by, for example, ticking out both the “no” and the “yes” columns. This solution seems to be favored by the few liberals or socialists living in small villages who think that their not voting would be too obvious. They would like to avoid being labeled.

Of the three opinion polls on the referendum, only the Republikon Intézet included questions about “yes” and purposely invalid ballots. Its analysis showed that 74% of the voters would vote “no,” 7% would say “yes,” and 3% would cast an invalid ballot. However, among those Republikon Intézet describes as “preferring a left-liberal government,” 17% would be ready to say “yes.” For Fodor, whose MLP has only 1% support among the voting population, this 17% must be music to his ears. Since MLP is the only party advocating participating and voting “yes,” it looks as if MLP’s support is much larger. Fodor’s critics suspect that his real agenda is not so much taking a courageous pro-Europe stance as the much more self-serving goal of gaining recognition for a party hardly known to the public. And in the process he is splitting the ranks on the left.

One more observation about Republikon Intézet’s poll. One of its conclusions is that if the left-liberal parties can’t convince their voters to boycott the referendum, they will be the ones responsible for an outcome that will further boost the popularity of Fidesz. And indeed, according to their findings, 66% of people who would like to see a liberal-socialist government after 2018 will most likely vote and only 28% will stay at home. Moreover, 60% of those who plan to participate will vote “no.” Therefore, according to Republikon, the left-liberal voters will be the ones who will bear the burden for a valid and successful referendum for Viktor Orbán. Republikon blames all parties equally for not being able to convince their followers to respond appropriately to the referendum–that is, to boycott it.

The problem here is that lumping all the opposition parties (minus Jobbik) together is misleading. An earlier poll by Závecz Research was more granular. It showed that MSZP and LMP voters were terribly confused. DK, however, was successful at convincing its voters to boycott.

Two days ago Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, and Ferenc Gyurcsány of DK agreed to work together to promote a boycott of the referendum. They will urge their followers to participate in each other’s demonstrations. Both parties will use the slogan “Stay at home, stay in Europe!” Mind you, a day later István Nyakó, MSZP’s new spokesman, backpedaled, stressing that “there is no question of cooperation” between the two parties. They simply share the same opinion on the boycott.

It’s hard to understand why DK has to wait three weeks to start its campaign on September 2 when the government has been campaigning nonstop from the moment Viktor Orbán came up with his brilliant idea of a referendum. There is no time to waste.

August 16, 2016

Harmful politicians in the Hungarian democratic opposition

It’s time to vent my wrath against some of those politicians who allegedly want to win the 2018 election and free the country from a semi-autocratic leader who has introduced an illiberal political system in Hungary.

A couple of days ago György Bolgár invited me to outline my ideas about what the democratic opposition should do to put an end to the rule of Viktor Orbán. Among other things, I emphasized the need for one large opposition party, which would necessarily mean the disappearance of those parties that have only minimal support. As it stands now, none of them would receive 5% of the votes, so any ballots cast for them would not only be a waste but would boost Fidesz’s electoral position.

There are some very good people in these parties. People like Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Gergely Karácsony (PM), Tímea Szabó (PM), and Péter Juhász (Együtt) would be real assets in a large left-of-center party. But others should disappear from the political scene because they are obstacles to any kind of joint action and mutual understanding. The two most prominent people in this latter category are the chairman of Együtt, Viktor Szigetvári, and the co-chairman of LMP, Bernadett Szél. Szigetvári accuses MSZP of being in bed with Fidesz and wanting to lose the election as the result of a secret pact. Szél just assured Fidesz of her party’s support for the anti-refugee referendum and, while she was at it, joined the anti-Soros chorus of Fidesz.

Let me start with Viktor Szigetvári. Back in March 2014, just before the election, I wrote a critical article about him. For years, ever since he graduated from college, he was affiliated with MSZP in one capacity or another. He served under Péter Medgyessy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gordon Bajnai. Because he was one of the organizers of the 2006 MSZP election campaign, he acquired the reputation of being an election guru with a magic touch. But, as his efforts in the 2014 election campaign showed, a magic touch was not enough. In 2013, after he left MSZP, he became co-chairman of Bajnai’s Együtt-PM which, despite promising beginnings, today has the support of only 1% of the electorate.

I freely admit that I have been following Viktor Szigetvári’s political career with growing concern. He appears on ATV frequently, and each time he lessens the chances of a unified democratic opposition. He tries to discredit and undermine the two larger parties, MSZP and DK, and puts himself forth as the only man who could engineer a democratic opposition victory in 2018.

Szigetvári’s latest foray into backbiting was an interview with András Hont of HVG where he said that “Együtt has an existing hinterland and an intellectual radiance which might not be as large as that of a party with 40% support” but the party isn’t tainted by those who were discredited in the days before 2010. Of course, Szigetvári conveniently forgets about the large role he played in the service of that “rotten regime,” whose other participants should be banished from political life.

Behind Viktor Szigetv'ari: "For Hungary"

Behind Viktor Szigetvári: “For Hungary”

The whole interview was full of contradictions. On the one hand, Szigetvári is convinced that only someone who had nothing to do with political life prior to 1990 can unseat Viktor Orbán. On the other, he indicated in the interview that his great hope for the premiership would be László Botka (MSZP), who came from exactly the kind of family Szigetvári talks about so scornfully. Both parents were MSZMP members; Botka’s mother was one of the founders of MSZP, mayor of Szolnok, and a member of parliament. And surely László, given his family background, was a member of KISZ. He became a member of MSZP at the tender age of eighteen.

László Botka is Szigetvári’s hero. The most popular MSZP politician who, due to some mysterious internal party conspiracy, was prevented from setting the agenda of MSZP for the next two years. Since MSZP blackballed Botka, the only conclusion one can draw is that the socialists don’t want to win the election, Szigetvári insists. Well, in my opinion, there is a more plausible explanation for Botka’s failure at the last party congress. It was well known inside and outside the party that Botka wouldn’t be willing to cooperate with anyone, especially not with Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, cannot be ignored as a factor in the present political constellation. My take is that the representatives who voted for Hiller instead of Botka were thinking in terms of the inevitable electoral failure if MSZP tries to run its own slate in the 2018 election.

Szigetvári himself also wants to meet Fidesz head-on, and it was at this point that he revealed his true position. “We will not sacrifice our community on the altar of ‘Down with Orbán!’” This is as clear as it can be. It doesn’t matter what Viktor Szigetvári says, it is not the politicians of MSZP and DK who want to lose the election for some unfathomable reason. It is Szigetvári’s politics that will weaken the forces of the democratic opposition and help Viktor Orbán remain in power, perhaps for decades.

The interview stirred up quite a controversy, but Szigetvári is not the kind of man to back down in the face of criticism. He accepted an invitation from Olga Kálmán of ATV to elaborate on the accusations he had made in his earlier interview. There he tried to explain the inexplicable with miserable results. Those who know the language should take a look at that encounter.

And now let me turn to Bernadett Szél’s performance at the 27th gathering of the Fidesz-inspired Bálványosi Nyári Szabadegyetem (Bálványos Summer Free University). It is no longer held in Bálványos/Cetățile Păgânilor. It moved to the larger Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad, so nowadays they call the event Tusványos. Every year Fidesz invites the leaders of the parliamentary caucuses of the opposition parties for a friendly chat with the Fidesz top brass, but last year only András Schiffer of LMP showed up. This year his former co-chairman, Bernadett Szél, also accepted the invitation. Neither Jobbik nor MSZP went.

Bernadett Szél and Lajos Kósa discussing the migrant issue

Yesterday morning I read an MTI news item from Tusványos. Lajos Kósa (Fidesz), Péter Harrach (KDNP), and Bernadett Szél (LMP) were having a friendly chat, mostly about the refugee crisis and the referendum. Kósa went on and on as is his wont about Hungarian sovereignty and that only the citizens of Hungary can decide who can settle in the country. No one from the outside can force Hungary to do anything. “I can invite anyone into my house but I won’t allow my neighbor to make such a decision.” Pope Francis is correct that we have to help our brethren, but “we should be the ones who decide the form of assistance.”

Bernadett Szél chimed in. According to her, “migration and immigration have always been within the competence of the member nations in the European Union and they must remain there. No nation must succumb to blackmail.” Therefore, Hungarians must vote “no” at the October 2 referendum. As you know, MSZP, DK, Együtt, and PM have urged their followers to boycott the referendum while Gábor Fodor recommended that the followers of his liberal party vote “yes.” Until now, LMP had said nothing. Szél finally clarified what most people had already suspected: that despite all the noise they make in parliament on other matters, LMP is not a serious opponent of Fidesz. In fact, LMP, with its refusal to cooperate with others, is an enabler of Fidesz’s political agenda.

And if that wasn’t enough, she decided to say a few ugly words about George Soros. LMP rejects Soros’s meddling in Hungarian affairs. It is unacceptable that some influential person from the outside tells us what the right attitude or position is in certain matters. He should be spending his time in other endeavors instead of giving advice in the matter of immigration. The Pope couldn’t be left out either. According to her, politicians misinterpret the Holy Father’s words.

Ákos Hadházy, who replaced András Schiffer as co-chairman of LMP and member of parliament, is an excellent man. Just like Péter Juhász of Együtt, he is doing a tremendous job unveiling government corruption involving EU funds. Quietly but fairly persistently he has talked about the necessity of “common thinking” and “discussion” among the democratic parties. But Bernadett Szél intervened and said there is no change in policy: LMP will go against Fidesz alone in 2018.

Gyula Molnár, after learning about Bernadett Szél’s shameful performance, announced that MSZP will have nothing to do with LMP. Szél won’t be upset. She has more powerful frenemies on the right.

July 23, 2016

András Schiffer: From KISZ to neo-communism?

Just as I suspected, in one short post I couldn’t cover the departure of András Schiffer, the founder and leader of LMP, from politics as well as opinions of him that have appeared since his announcement. Over the years I have written more than a dozen articles about LMP and András Schiffer and yet, after re-reading them, I must admit that I never managed to give a satisfactory portrait of this complex, controversial, divisive man. I guess one day someone will write a book on LMP and the abortive attempt to establish a true green party in Hungary. That book will undoubtedly praise Schiffer, the party’s founder, for being able in two short years to build a party that sent a fifteen-member delegation to the Hungarian parliament. No mean feat. But most of the book will probably be about the constant internal fights within the party and its founder’s unyielding and, in my opinion mistaken, ideology and political strategy.

I suspect that most people would agree with András Stumpf of the pro-government Mandiner.hu website that, without Schiffer, LMP’s chances of becoming a parliamentary party in 2018 are remote. The party leaders of LMP are naturally much more upbeat. Bernadett Szél, co-chairman of LMP, sounded neither heartbroken about Schiffer’s departure nor pessimistic about the future of the party. She took the news laconically. “I’m old enough to know that if someone wants to leave, one should let him go. Today I can’t worry about this. Instead, I want to make sure that the green party that has grown roots in the country has a future.” She is already organizing a tour of the countryside with a view to widening the territorial base of LMP. Szél in this interview gave the impression of being a liberated woman who can now do things her own way. As for the hard-and-fast rule of not allying LMP with any other political formation, it remains in place as far as I can see.

Photo: István Fekete

Bernadett Szél. Photo: István Fekete

Among those with LMP ties, the greatest admirer is Péter Róna, which makes sense given Róna’s economic precepts, which include anti-capitalist sentiments and ideas of the “népiesek,” a group of people who envisaged a Hungary whose economy would be a “third road” between capitalism and socialism. Róna simply cannot understand the Hungarian intellectual elite’s indifference, or in some cases hatred, toward Schiffer, whom he considers the best and most honest politician in Hungary today.

Endre Kukorelly, who for a few months was an LMP member of parliament in 2010, is a writer. Since I haven’t read a line of his, I can’t pass judgment on his literary talents. But, to me, his political views are muddled. He who quit parliament after a few months hails Schiffer’s decision because it is so much easier to do politics without the shackles of a party. He represents the unproductive view that political parties are evil and that civilians are the ones who will change the present system.

The opinions of most other former LMP members, however, are pretty uniformly negative.

Benedek Jávor, whose activities in the European Parliament I greatly admire, most likely hit the nail on the head when he observed that “the conflicts that led to a split in the party have not dissipated with our departure,” referring to PM members’ leaving LMP in January 2013.

Virág Kaufer, who left LMP in 2012, suggested that Schiffer “take some time off and take a good look at what he created and speak with those who are no longer his supporters.”

Perhaps Gábor Vágó, a former LMP insider, best summarized LMP’s problem. In his opinion, Schiffer’s departure “is not the end of the LMP story. The fate of the party was sealed when it abandoned its critical attitude toward [Orbán’s] system.”

At the end of this post you will find about a dozen links to my past articles on LMP and András Schiffer, from which a fuller picture of LMP’s role in Hungarian politics should emerge. But perhaps I should add a few details that might be helpful in explaining where Schiffer came from.

Schiffer’s first political act at the age of eighteen was adding his name to an open letter addressed to the Congress of KISZ (Magyar Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség). The letter was dated April 10, 1989. Less than two weeks later KISZ was dissolved. Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány (KISZ secretary), and György Szilvássy (KISZ spokesman and later minister in Gyurcsány’s cabinet) also signed the letter. Schiffer talked about those days in 2014 in an interview with Szabolcs Panyi of Index. “In the spring of 1989, when it wasn’t quite clear which way things would develop, there was only one man in the whole nomenclature of the party-state who put his foot down, even risking his livelihood, and declared that the properties of KISZ and the party must be divided among alternative organizations. This man was Ferenc Gyurcsány. … Gyurcsány proclaimed what many of the opposition politicians didn’t dare: that because of the nature of the state socialist system what they [KISZ and the party] possess belongs to the people.”

Shortly after the dissolution of KISZ, Gyurcsány established a new youth organization called Új Nemzedék Mozgalom (Movement of the New Generation), of which Schiffer became a member. Gyurcsány soon gave up his political activities and became a businessman, but Schiffer remained active and was one of the founding members of a new political movement called Ifjú Szocialisták (Young Socialists). Shortly thereafter, Schiffer retired from politics (for the first time). After finishing law school, he worked for TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, where he became interested in the green movement.

What changed Schiffer’s attitude toward Gyurcsány, whom he clearly admired back in 1989, were the 2006 disturbances in which he, as an associate of TASZ, took the side of those he considered to be the victims of “police terror.” What happened on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Revolution is a hot potato about which people have widely different opinions. Rightly or wrongly, Schiffer accused Gyurcsány of criminal acts against innocent demonstrators. Hence, his hatred of the man.

His attitude toward Gyurcsány may have changed radically, but he didn’t shed his socialist political views. Árpád W. Tóta, who writes witty, sarcastic, sometime savage opinion pieces, said that LMP has never managed to present a coherent worldview and that “the only concrete position one can make out is a blood-curdling neo-communism. The kind that is becoming sawdust right now in South America.” Tóta portrays Schiffer as someone who wanted to be different simply for the sake of being different. The party was toggling between right and left until it started getting closer to the positions of Fidesz and Jobbik. In brief, in ideological terms Schiffer left the party in a real mess.

Links to Hungarian Spectrum articles on LMP and András Schiffer:

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/03/26/lmp-or-can-politics-can-be-something-else/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/03/27/two-interviews-with-andras-schiffer-chairman-of-lmp/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/07/07/viktor-orban-had-a-meeting-with-the-lmp-parliamentary-delegation/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/05/02/babes-in-arms-lmps-encounter-with-viktor-orban/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/07/12/the-new-electoral-law-lmps-wake-up-call/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/11/14/a-few-words-about-the-hungarian-green-party-the-lmp/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/01/14/the-rise-and-fall-of-lmps-andras-schiffer/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/07/26/the-future-of-lmp-an-interview-with-benedek-javor/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/10/21/hungarian-opposition-groups-lmp-4k-and-milla/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/11/17/with-or-without-gordon-bajnai-lmps-dilemma/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/11/18/lmps-andras-schiffer-won-but-did-he/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2013/01/26/where-is-andras-schiffer-leading-lmp-straight-into-the-arms-of-fidesz/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2013/01/27/lmps-rebels-left-the-party-who-will-be-the-winner-of-this-game/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2014/04/23/budapest-municipal-election-mszp-lmp-deal/

June 1, 2016

András Schiffer’s departure is hailed on the left

The big news of the day is that András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP (Lehet Más a Politika = Politics Can Be Different), announced his irrevocable decision to retire from politics. He is resigning as leader of LMP’s parliamentary delegation immediately, and at the end of August he will quit parliament altogether. In a long farewell interview to Index he gave several reasons for his departure from politics, the most important being “the lack of intellectual support that would provide stability to a party with a critical attitude toward the existing system.” In plain language, he lay the blame for his own political failure on those intellectuals who in the past stood fast in support of democratic parties but who now don’t aid his efforts against the political system of Viktor Orbán. Veranus, the blogger with strong opinions and a sharp tongue, reacted to this accusation: “I as a former LMP voter and someone who has watched the party’s fortunes over the years with sympathy can tell you the reason for the lack of intellectual support: your hysterical autocratic behavior. You screwed up.” Well, he used a slightly stronger verb.

Schiffer Andras2

While Mandiner.hu, a right-wing site, is full of comments that are quite sympathetic to Schiffer and express regret at his departure, those who, according to Schiffer, should have been his supporters rejoice that at last the man who refused to cooperate with other democratic parties before the 2014 elections was at last out of the way. Klára Ungár, formerly a Fidesz and later an SZDSZ member of parliament, remarked on Facebook that “surely LMP without him will be more successful because [Schiffer] is an extraordinarily unpleasant man.” Zoltán Lovas, one of the organizers of the vigil in front of the statue of Archangel Gabriel against Orbán’s falsification of history, rejoiced over “the disappearance of one of the most repugnant and contemptible characters of the past few years in Hungarian domestic politics.” György Csepeli, a well-known sociologist, attached the following post: “I would also add the adjective ‘heinous.’” Tamás Bereczky, an HIV activist, remembered “little Schiffer from elementary school where he had the reputation of being a little dotty, an aggressive, priggish meschugge.”

The people who can definitely be categorized as belonging to the intellectual elite, the ones Schiffer most likely counted on, dislike him for several reasons. First of all, they consider LMP under his leadership a useful tool in Viktor Orbán’s hands. Schiffer, ever since the formation of the party, has steadfastly refused any kind of collaboration with the other democratic parties, thereby giving an advantage to Fidesz. Some people are convinced that Fidesz helped Schiffer’s party gain parliamentary representation in both 2010 and 2014. The only question is whether there was some kind of a secret deal between Orbán and Schiffer or whether Schiffer was simply a “useful idiot.”

Because of Schiffer’s unyielding attitude LMP already split once in January 2013, when eight of the 15-member parliamentary delegation left to form a party of their own. I suspect that the real reason for Schiffer’s resignation now is that he no longer has the majority of the party leadership behind his policies. The reason for the party strife is probably the same as it was three years ago: the majority of LMP leaders no longer believe that Schiffer’s “go it alone” policy can succeed. Schiffer in his interview was fairly successful in hiding the real reason for his resignation. There was only one sentence that gave him away: “In LMP an organizational culture has developed in which even informal influence is a curse word.” In party debates his support for an issue is actually “counterproductive,” he complained in the interview. Therefore, he added, the party will be fine without him.

There was one member of the left-wing intellectual elite, Gáspár Miklós Tamás or TGM as he is known in Hungary, who was waving his hat while saying goodbye to András Schiffer. TGM’s admiration for Schiffer is not at all surprising. Schiffer made LMP a party that is against globalization and multinational corporations. Schiffer’s LMP is a socialist party and therefore close to the heart of TGM, who still believes in some form of utopian socialism. He believes, like Schiffer, that the politics of the 1990-2010 period were just as bad as the regime of Orbán.

I think it might be useful to summarize a speech Schiffer made in August 2015 at a party gathering to which, for some strange reason, Schiffer invited László Kövér. In this speech he claimed that the cooperation between foreign capital and the communist capitalists resulted in the failure of the country’s economic convergence. He talked about oppression and the exploitation caused by globalization, which threatens nation states. As Péter Béndek, a conservative commentator, noted, “for Fidesz there is only one acceptable socialist, Schiffer.” The co-chairman of LMP is, he continued, a typical representative of those green politicians who are “green on the outside but red on the inside.” Surely, Schiffer’s radical socialism couldn’t possibly appeal to Hungarian liberals and moderate social democrats.

And there is another “sin” for which a lot of liberals will not forgive Schiffer. When in May 2011 the prosecutor’s office charged Ferenc Gyurcsány with “abuse of office” in connection with the Sukoró real estate swap, it was on the basis of a complaint filed by András Schiffer in October 2009. Of course, Viktor Orbán would dearly have loved to send his political opponent to jail, but he preferred to have Schiffer’s name attached to this particular dirty trick instead of instructing his commissioner to launch the court case against Gyurcsány. Clever fellow. Supporters of Gyurcsány simply cannot forgive Schiffer for his involvement in this case, especially since Schiffer has never felt the urge to file a complaint charging Viktor Orbán with “abuse of power.” Most people feel that he should have apologized to Gyurcsány since he went after him on the flimsiest of charges. That’s not going to happen. Schiffer hates Gyurcsány about as much as Orbán does.

Finally, I should add that I also dislike András Schiffer. I disagree with what he stands for politically, and I find him objectionable as a person. I join those who think that his departure is a blessing for the true opponents of Viktor Orbán’s political system.

May 31, 2016