Tag Archives: Magyar Liberális Párt

MSZP’s “generous offer” rejected

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

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

The announcement of the “generous offer”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 24, 2017

A new strategy or a new man is needed to lead the anti-Orbán forces

It’s time to take stock of the state of the democratic opposition after an MSZP gathering over the weekend where László Botka, the candidate to lead MSZP’s election campaign, introduced his team, what he calls the “new alliance.” Before anyone gets too excited, this “new alliance” doesn’t mean an agreement with the other left-of-center parties. Between January and now Botka has not managed to convince one party, with the possible exception of Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt (MPL), to support his strategy, which consists of a common party list and a division of the 106 electoral districts among the participating parties. One of these parties could be the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), but only if its chairman, Ferenc Gyurcsány, is not included on the party list. Not surprisingly, DK is not ready to accept outside interference in its internal affairs and refuses to accept the arrangement. While DK, according to all the opinion polls, could garner enough votes to become a parliamentary party on its own, the other three small parties– Együtt (Together), Párbeszéd (Dialogue), and MLP–couldn’t. Neither Párbeszéd nor Együtt is inclined to accept the kind of MSZP leadership Botka is offering. So, as it stands, MSZP is still alone, with dismal polling numbers.

So, what is this new alliance? As far as I can tell, it is a poor substitute for a joint electoral campaign. As Magyar Nemzet observed, Botka has given up looking for political allies and is satisfied with individuals who until now had been helping the smaller parties. One man who has switched to Botka’s side is Zoltán Komáromi, a family doctor who worked with Együtt on the party’s healthcare program. Another is István Szent-Iványi, a former SZDSZ member of parliament who was named ambassador to Ljubljana on January 25, 2010, i.e. a few months before the 2010 national election. To everybody’s surprise, Szent-Iványi wasn’t removed from his post by the new administration. In fact, the Orbán government left him in Slovenia until the end of his term five years later. He then disappeared from the political scene for a while, only to show up as the foreign policy expert of  Gábor Fodor’s liberal party. A third person who is ready to join Botka’s team is Ferenc Büttl, an economist and a member of Párbeszéd. Another supporter is László Andor, an economist who was EU commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion between 2010 and 2014. I would call him a socialist although he might not be a party member. A somewhat surprising addition is the former CEO of the internationally known organic demonstration farm that was sold to Fidesz oligarchs, who has been battling the action in court ever since. The newest supporter is the president of the National Association of Pensioners. Botka also named three people to stand as candidates in individual districts without consulting anyone.

Apparently, Botka’s great hope is Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd, who is currently vying for the same post as Botka. A couple of weeks ago he joined the MSZP hopeful in Szeged where he made some ambiguous remarks about his relationship to Botka. At the time, I wrote: “This gathering had one bright side…. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word ‘cooperation’ carefully because I don’t think that ‘support’ would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is ‘willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.’”

In that post I expressed my hope that Karácsony’s words might give a psychological lift to Botka’s flailing campaign. Well, I’m afraid that that hope has been quashed by László Botka himself, who in his eagerness to show results misread or misrepresented Karácsony’s remarks. Karácsony, who was invited to join the MSZP bigwigs to hear Botka’s ideas on the “new alliance,” learned only from Népszava that he was supposed to be responsible for the cultural aspects of Botka’s program. Karácsony decided not to attend the MSZP gathering, and this morning on ATV’s Start he explained why not.

The media is full of stories about a very serious division within MSZP over the efficacy of Botka’s strategy. Magyar Nemzet, which is normally well informed, seems to know that the majority of the party’s leading lights are skeptical about Botka and his new alliance and are urging him to change tactics. But so far Botka is unmovable. According to leaked information, some of the most senior MSZP leaders asked Gyula Molnár, the party chairman, to start negotiations with the leaders of the other parties. Vasárnapi Hírek, a socialist weekly owned by former party treasurer László Puch, suggested getting rid of Botka altogether if he is unable to produce tangible results.

I’m sure that most observers consider the present situation quite hopeless, but I’m a bit more optimistic. Enthusiasm for László Botka and his solution has completely evaporated, and liberal and socialist papers increasingly find his treatment of the other parties unacceptable. So, I assume that soon enough there will be so much pressure on Botka that he will have to move in another direction. If not, Gergely Karácsony could always be a compromise candidate. He is a great deal more popular than Botka–a soft-spoken, compromise-ready politician. He is the kind of man whom Hungarians, who are longing for some peace and quiet, might find to be just what the doctor ordered.

September 18, 2017

The Hungarian opposition remains in disarray

A week ago, on Thursday, the Hungarian opposition parties, with the exception of LMP and Jobbik, got together to discuss the issue of holding a primary election to determine the relative strength of the parties when it comes to choosing candidates for the 106 electoral districts. This is the pet project of Párbeszéd (Dialogue), the latest name of Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM), whose best-known politicians are Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Zugló (District XIV), and Tímea Szabó. Another small party that embraced the idea was Együtt (Together), the party Gordon Bajnai organized before the 2010 elections. It is led nowadays by Viktor Szigetvári and Péter Juhász. Együtt, despite its name, shows very little inclination to work together with others. Szigetvári and Juhász said they will not be part of any effort to forge a joint campaign against Fidesz. They will go their own way. Depending on which opinion poll one consults, support for Párbeszéd and Együtt among active voters is about 1-2% each.

A week ago Együtt showed up for the first meeting because, as the party leaders explained, they are ready to talk about primary elections, which they consider a good idea, but that’s as far as they’ll go. And indeed, they didn’t attend yesterday’s meeting. Instead, they sent an e-mail informing the others of their decisions.

The opposition leaders on October 23. Népszava optimistically predicted that the opposition's cooperation is imminent / Photo: Ádám Molnár

The opposition leaders on October 23. Népszava optimistically predicted that cooperation among the opposition parties was imminent / Photo: Ádám Molnár

At the negotiating table were some parties and party leaders very few people have ever heard of. I have in mind in particular two tiny parties, both of which can be placed on the far left. The first is the Balpárt, established in 2014 and led by Szilárd Kalmár, a former MSZP member with close ties to Tibor Szanyi, who is known to belong to the left wing of the party. The other relatively unknown entity is Attila Vajnai’s Európai Baloldal-MMP2006 (European Left-Hungarian Workers’ Party 2006), a party that was created from Magyar Munkáspárt (MMP), the unreformed successor of MSZMP. According to the party’s Facebook page, they have 1,818 followers. From the party’s name it is evident that Vajnai’s problem with Gyula Thürmer, chairman of MMP, was Thürmer’s pro-Russian orientation. Moreover, since then, MMP has made a sharp turn to the right. I have encountered Vajnai on the internet and found him to be a surprisingly reasonable, intelligent man.

In addition to these two, the following parties took part in the first round of discussions: Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP), Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), Együtt, Párbeszéd, Magyar Liberális Párt, and Modern Magyarország Mozgalom (MoMa/Modern Hungary Movement). After the meeting was over, the parties released a statement saying that “the negotiations were conducted in a constructive atmosphere and the parties agreed to resume the search for solutions” a week later.

And so yesterday the parties, with the exception of Együtt, got together again. Reporters waited outside for news once the negotiations were concluded. But part way through, the delegation of Gábor Fodor’s liberals left. There are two complementary versions of what happened to make the liberals leave the negotiating table. The first is the statement that appeared on the website of the party signed by Anett Bősz, the party spokeswoman. It claimed that Ferenc Gyurcsány stuck to his earlier veto of MLP’s participation. She charged that the negotiations are dominated by Gyurcsány, who accused some people of finding their own positions and parties more important than their homeland. Of course, he meant Gábor Fodor. The other version comes from the spokesman of Párbeszéd, Richárd Barabás, who announced that there was no formal vote. The liberals decided to leave after objections were made to their participation by Gyurcsány and MoMa’s Lajos Bokros.

The source of the dispute lies in Gábor Fodor’s decision to urge his followers to go to the polls and vote “yes” at the referendum as a sign of their determination to vote for Europe. His argument was that boycotting the referendum was a passive act, while his suggestion was a proactive move and therefore more determined and resolute. The other side argued that the referendum question was phrased in such a way that it was almost impossible to vote “yes” and therefore Fodor, wittingly or unwittingly, was assisting Orbán in making the referendum valid. The “yes” votes were just a small fraction of the total valid ballots cast (1.6%) and hence didn’t influence the outcome in an appreciable way. But the suspicion was that Fodor’s real goal was political: to demonstrate the strength of his party through these “yes” votes.

The second party, if you can call it that, that left shortly after the liberals was the Balpárt. It was again Gyurcsány and Bokros who objected to their presence, this time on ideological grounds. Their Wikipedia entry, which I assume was written by the party leadership, says that “the crucial role within the party’s ideology is Marxism but they don’t reject other radical left-wing social democratic directions and their representatives.” Otherwise, they compare themselves to the German Die Linke, the Greek Syriza, and the Portuguese Blocot. From the party’s online newspaper, however, a much less acceptable ideology emerges. They call ’56 “a black exclamation point in the history of the movement of the left.” It was a failure “because our late comrades were incapable of holding fast to the experiment that was launched in Russia in 1917.” In brief, after the Stalinist interlude, the Hungarian communists should have remained faithful followers of the Soviet experiment. I have to assume that Bokros and Gyurcsány also read this and similar writings in the Munkások Újsága (Workers’ Paper).

So, by the end, only MSZP, DK, Párbeszéd, MoMa, and Európai Baloldal-MMP2006 remained at the table.

Yesterday a caller to György Bolgár’s Megbeszéljük (Let’s Talk It Over) program made what I considered a good suggestion. He said that the parties should agree on an independent moderator who would chair these meetings. He suggested Gábor Kuncze, former chairman of SZDSZ. Bolgár subsequently got in touch with Kuncze to ask what he thought of the idea. Kuncze responded that the party leaders wouldn’t be too keen on him. Nor would he be eager to accept such a role. But he thought that direction should be given to the discussions. Without a moderator it is inevitable that one of the stronger personalities, like Gyurcsány, will dominate the discussions. There must be somebody who runs the discussion and insists on the Hungarian version of Robert’s Rules of Order. Unfortunately, I doubt that this idea will float. It’s hard to imagine the participants agreeing to have an outsider chair their discussions or, even if they agreed to this in principle, being of one mind as to who would serve as chair. It’s not the most harmonious lot.

November 4, 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

Viktor Orbán’s latest attack on the European Union

Perhaps tomorrow we will know more about the plans of the European Commission regarding the revision of the so-called Dublin asylum regulations. The revision may contain a punitive pay-off clause that would affect those countries–the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia–that refuse to take the number of refugees the Commission assigned to them in September 2015. According to the Financial Times, the Commission is contemplating a fine of €250,000 per refugee. For Poland, which first agreed to admit 6,200 refugees but later reneged on its promise, this would mean €1.5 billion. Hungary, which was supposed to take 1,294 refugees, would end up with a fine of 323 million euros or 100 billion forints.

The original European Commission decision on quotas was carefully worded. It talked about the temporary relocation of asylum seekers, wording that will gain special significance when we talk about the Hungarian referendum question that was just approved today by the Kúria.

On February 24 Viktor Orbán made an announcement that his government planned to hold a referendum that would allow the electorate to vote on the following question: “Do you want the European Union, without the consent of Parliament, to order the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” At the time I called the government’s plan to hold a referendum on the subject “Orbán’s latest stunt.” I also wondered, along with many others, whether holding such a referendum might not be unconstitutional because the basic law of 2011 clearly states that “no national referendum may be held on … any obligation arising from an international agreement.” (Article 8) And even if it is ruled constitutional, Article 19 states that “Parliament may ask the Government for information on its position to be adopted in the decision-making process of the European Union’s institutions operating with the Government’s participation, and may express its position about the draft on the agenda in the procedure. In the European Union’s decision-making process, the Government shall take Parliament’s position into consideration.” In plain language, parliament has no direct jurisdiction over the dealings between Hungary and the European Union, at best an advisory role. There have also been questions concerning the formulation of the question. Legal scholars challenged the reference to “compulsory settlement” (betelepítés), which doesn’t exist in either Hungarian or EU law. Objections were also raised over the mention of the European Union as not being a precise term in this context.

These reservations didn’t impress the Kúria, which brushed aside all applications for review. In the judges’ opinion the question was appropriate from the point of view of both the constitution and the law on referendums. They ruled that EU treaties cannot be compared to other international treaties. The referendum question does not touch on the treaties signed at the time Hungary was admitted to join the Union but relates to EU law itself. As for the competence of parliament, such matters as laws governing the settlement of non-Hungarian citizens, their status and the duration of their stay belong to the jurisdiction of the Hungarian lawmakers. Finally, as far as the term “compulsory settlement” is concerned, it can be understood by most people as “placement” of foreigners “for a lengthier period of time” inside the borders of the country. The judges had no objection to the use of the word “European Union” in a general sense because “it is a well known organizational concept, a generic term” meaning “the decision making body of the European Union.” The Kúria this time was not the stickler it was in earlier cases, when every word in the text was carefully scrutinized and usually rejected.

When Orbán announced his intention to hold a referendum, legal scholars considered the conceptual structure underpinning the question so legally flawed that they were certain that neither the members of the National Election Commission nor the Kúria could possibly approve it unless, as one of them said, these two bodies are filled with “lackeys.” Well, it looks as if they are.

state border

Naturally, the opposition is up in arms. Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt (MLP) is planning to go to the Constitutional Court. They will appeal to the judges to defend the very institution of referendums because here the government is proposing to hold one that serves the political interests of Fidesz exclusively. Holding such a referendum “will further deepen the government-induced hatred toward refugees and foreigners.”

Együtt still insists that the question is unconstitutional since it concerns international treaties and its meaning is far from clear. The Kúria’s argument is unacceptable because it lends credence to “the Orbanite lie about compulsory quotas” when they simply don’t exist. Otherwise, the party leaders are urging people to boycott the referendum.

The Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) is also asking its voters not to vote. Considering that DK has about half a million devoted followers, such a request will most likely bring results. DK claims that “the referendum is not about the accommodation of one thousand people but about the rejection of our European Union membership. This mendacious referendum wants people to believe that there is such a thing as a free lunch and that we can be a stowaway in the European Union who evades his responsibilities while holding out his hand for its benefits.” The party’s spokesman added that “those who boycott the referendum will vote for Europe.” This is a good argument politically because the overwhelming majority of Hungarians want to remain part of the European Union.

The position of the leaders of the socialists (MSZP) is quite different. Currently, they are collecting signatures to hold referendums on two issues: (1) capping the monthly salaries of state company managers as well as any holders of high offices financed by the government at two million forints and (2) stopping the sale of agricultural lands still in state hands. Interestingly enough, in 2010 it was the Orbán government that insisted on such a salary cap. However, lately they have been jacking up salaries at an accelerated rate. As for the sale of state lands, there is no need to rehash the corruption that surrounds these transactions.

József Tóbiás, chairman of MSZP, claims that they are making great progress at collecting the necessary 200,000 signatures that would allow them to hold a referendum on these two questions. It would, he maintains, be logical to hold only one referendum at which all three questions would be on the ballot. I guess MSZP politicians fear that these two questions are not “exciting enough” to draw enough voters to render the referendum valid. On the other hand, as we know, Orbán’s referendum question is enthusiastically supported by millions. If Orbán manages to whip up enough enthusiasm in the fall when the referendum most likely will take place, his phony referendum might be valid despite the exceedingly high voter turnout requirement (50% of the whole electorate).

I must say that I will never understand the thought processes of the current MSZP politicians. The only sensible reaction to the Kúria’s decision is to boycott the referendum whose very question is illegitimate. According to the latest polls, MSZP has been gaining support, most likely because of its resoluteness in fighting the National Election Office, the National Election Commission, and Fidesz’s machinations in trying to prevent the party’s representative from turning in his referendum question on Sunday store closings at the National Election Office. The opportunistic move Tóbiás is now contemplating, however, will not endear the party to those who want to have a resolute, even unyielding stance against the current government. In making a deal with Fidesz, MSZP is again playing games for which its former voters will not reward it.

May 3, 2016

Political accord at home and Russian-Hungarian understanding abroad

How wrong journalists can be when they start second guessing the details of delicate negotiations that politicians managed to keep under wraps. Commentators were certain that the most important difficulty facing the negotiators was the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The stories revolved around him: will he or won’t he be on the list? And if yes, in which position? There were stories about the negotiators wanting to “hide” him in the number six slot because in this case his name would not appear on the official list the voters see. I must say that I decided early in the game that I would pay not attention to all the chatter. I was certain that the necessity for immediate action had such force that the negotiations would not be sidetracked by such petty squabbles.

This media concentration on the person on Ferenc Gyurcsány was most likely encouraged by Fidesz, whose politicians immediately announced that his presence on the ticket will boost their own chances of winning the election. I didn’t expect them to say anything else, but it is telling that Századvég, Fidesz’s favorite political think tank, released this morning, only a few hours before the joint press conference of the chief negotiators, their latest poll according to which 72% of the voters wouldn’t vote for a common list because of the presence of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The timing of the release of this rather dubious poll suggests what the real feelings are in Fidesz circles about the new agreement. It doesn’t matter what Antal Rogán, Lajos Kósa, or Gabriella Selmeczi says about the fantastic advantage this new formation offers to Fidesz and the Orbán government, the fact is that it is not a welcome piece of news for the right.

The desired common ticket and a single candidate for the post of prime minister has been achieved. Attila Mesterházy (MSZP) will head the ticket, followed by Gordon Bajnai (Együtt-2014), Ferenc Gyurcsány (DK), Gábor Fodor (Magyar Liberális Part/MLP), and Tímea Szabó (PM). As for the individual candidates, each district will have only one common candidate. MSZP will field candidates in 71 districts, Együtt-2014 in 22, DK in 13. One of DK’s candidates will be Gábor Kuncze, former chairman of SZDSZ. Gábor Fodor’s liberal party received 3 positions on the common list.

Attila Mesterházy, Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gábor Fodor / www.parameter.sk

Attila Mesterházy, Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gábor Fodor www.parameter.sk

All in all, I think the present setup is the best one could have achieved under the circumstances. The cooperation among the parties and their leaders seems to be close, and they are trying to reassure their voters that there will be no dissension and rivalry because they want to win. I was surprised to hear Gyurcsány profusely praise Attila Mesterházy’s skills as a politician; according to him, it was Mesterházy who was largely responsible for the success of the negotiations. He also indicated that he will follow the lead of Mesterházy. I”m less certain about full cooperation from the PM politicians, who still don’t seem to be entirely reconciled to the idea of sitting in the same boat with Gyurcsány, whom they consider to be the embodiment of all that was wrong with Hungary prior to 2010.

The other important event of the day was the signing of a bilateral agreement between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán that put an end to speculation about the future enlargement of the Paks nuclear power plant. We don’t know too much about the details, but we do know that it will be the biggest investment Hungary has ever made. It will cost at least 10 billion euros; usually by the time these power plants actually get built the cost overruns are enormous. The work will begin soon on two new reactors, the first of which will be able to produce energy by 2023. Russia will provide the money necessary to build the reactors, apparently at a relatively low interest rate, to be paid back over the next thirty years. According to Fidesz sources, the interest rate is “way below 5%.” Fidesz sources also claim that the arrangement has the blessing of the European Union, which apparently allowed Hungary to chose Rosatom, a Russian state company, without a competitive bid. In any case, this Paks job will be the first for Rosatom in an EU country. I have the feeling that we will hear more about this particular aspect of the deal.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin apparently get along very well, about which I’m not surprised. Politicians, if circumstances dictate, can forget quickly, and therefore I assume that Putin no longer remembers (or cares) what Viktor Orbán had to say about him and his country in the past. Perhaps one day I will collect a few choice adjectives that will show that Viktor Orbán is capable of a complete turnaround and can say something and its exact opposite with the same conviction.

This was an important day indeed. The agreement among the parties will set the course of political events for the next three months or so. Whether they will be able to win over former Fidesz voters is of paramount importance for Hungarian democracy. Commentators are certain that if Fidesz stays in power for another four years the country’s democratic structure will be even more shaken than it is now and the damage will be incalculable. As for the Russian-Hungarian agreement, it may determine Hungary’s geopolitical position for some time to come. Unfortunately, the two events are interconnected. Will Hungary chose the European Union and democracy or will it increasingly resemble Putin’s Russia, which Viktor Orbán considers to be a strategic economic partner?