Tag Archives: LMP

The Hungarian opposition is still in disarray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ágnes Heller

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

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

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

January 9, 2017

Is LMP in cahoots with Fidesz?

On October 17 Egon Rónay of ATV’s Start interviewed Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP. The occasion was the demonstration organized by Párbeszéd (Dialogue), Együtt (Together), and LMP (Politics Can Be Different) that had taken place the day before. Considering that by that time four of the left-liberal opposition parties had decided to celebrate October 23 together, the conversation soon turned to LMP’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with the others. What followed was a lengthy tirade by Szél against Ferenc Gyurcsány, whom she considers responsible for the very existence of Viktor Orbán as a politician. As she put it, as long as Ferenc Gyurcsány remains on the political scene Hungary will be stranded with Viktor Orbán.

Backbiting is unfortunately an everyday affair in Hungarian opposition circles, but Szél’s outburst was unusually acerbic and ill intentioned. A day later, on the same program, Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s spokesman, indicated that Együtt, led by Viktor Szigetvári and Péter Juhász, and LPM, led by Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy, with their refusal to cooperate wittingly or unwittingly were assisting Viktor Orbán’s government.

LMP’s decision to collaborate with Fidesz on the issue of the constitutional court’s newly elected judges led to a really ugly scene between László Varju of DK and the whole LMP parliamentary delegation of five plus András Schiffer, the architect of the Fidesz-LMP deal. The LMP politicians crashed Varju’s press conference, which was held in the parliament. Soon enough the press conference turned into a screaming session in which Varju called the five LMP members of parliament “collaborators.” In turn, Schiffer said that AVH, the dreaded Hungarian secret police between 1945 and 1956, was “the spiritual predecessor” of the political leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Moreover, he accused them of inciting anti-Catholic sentiments by criticizing Balázs Schanda, one of the new judges, who writes almost exclusively on legal questions concerning religion. The hapless Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP, tried in vain to end the exchange of accusations. He eventually got involved in the cacophony himself.

In the middle of the battle. András Schiffer enjoys it immensely

In the middle of the battle. András Schiffer enjoys it immensely.

Today an article appeared in index.hu which might explain, at least in part, the ferocious LMP attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány. According to the news site, sometime in early November LMP commissioned a poll to ascertain the views of the Hungarian electorate on the current government as well as on leading opposition personalities. From the survey LMP learned that three-quarters of its own supporters reject any cooperation with Ferenc Gyurcsány. They consider him an obstacle to unity. I don’t know whether this finding surprised LMP’s leadership, but it really shouldn’t have. DK’s liberal ideas on economic matters and its acceptance of globalization are in stark contrast to LMP’s far-left socialist ideas.

Even so, I don’t believe that LMP’s refusal to work with the other opposition parties on the left is the result of its supporters’ intense dislike of Gyurcsány and his ideas on the free market economy. Gyurcsány is only an excuse. LMP’s founder, András Schiffer, from the start made it clear that LMP alone would defeat the Orbán regime. I’m almost certain that even if Ferenc Gyurcsány gave up politics this very moment LMP still wouldn’t be willing to work hand in hand with the others.

Overall, the poll apparently found that 46% of those who side with the opposition think that Gyurcsány is an obstacle to the defeat of the Orbán government while 45% think that “the presence of Gyurcsány is necessary for the removal of Orbán from power.” That is a tie, says index.hu, but since LMP voters are so anti-Gyurcsány and therefore anti-DK, it is good politics to launch an attack against the party.

According to the survey, 45% of the electorate as a whole would like to see a change of government while 43% support the present Orbán government. Naturally, 94% of Fidesz voters are still loyal supporters of Viktor Orbán. The same level of fervor is manifest in those who today would vote for an opposition party. The situation is very different among the large group of Hungarians who haven’t found a party they would gladly vote for. Forty percent of them would like to see the Orbán government disappear, 26% would like it to stay, and 34% have no opinion. This untapped group of undecided voters should be the primary target of the opposition, but any effort to woo the undecided will be effective only if the opposition can create a unified force, speaking with one voice. Cacophony guarantees defeat.

LMP’s poll also measured the popularity of five politicians: Bernadett Szél (41%), László Botka (34%), Ágnes Vadai (32%), Ákos Hadházy (31%), and Ferenc Gyurcsány (26%). This finding is especially interesting because only opposition politicians are being compared. I found the relatively low rating of László Botka especially surprising considering that he was declared to be the most popular MSZP leader, the one who could lead his party to victory.

A few hours after the index.hu article appeared István Ikotity, an LMP member of parliament, denied the existence of the survey, adding: “In my opinion, LMP shouldn’t be preoccupied with the opposition. We shouldn’t pay attention to the recognition and support of certain opposition politicians. Our position in relation to DK has remained the same. Nothing has changed.” His denial was not very convincing, but I believe him when he says that LMP’s attitude toward DK and Ferenc Gyurcsány hasn’t changed at all.

Let’s assume for the moment that LMP did commission this survey and that its politicians, seeing the results, decided to tip the scale against Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose standing in opposition circles is a practical tie between his supporters and his opponents. In that case, I think one can argue that LMP is a collaborator of Fidesz, not just because it assisted in enlarging the constitutional court which opposition parties, including Jobbik, find illegitimate but also because it purposely sowed discord among the opposition parties which will only weaken the anti-Orbán forces. András Schiffer, the creator of LMP, decided to call his party “Lehet Más A Politika” (Politics Can Be Different). If LMP is indeed involved in such a dirty, indecent game, it should be the last party on earth to bear that name.

November 29, 2016

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.

yes no

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