Tag Archives: Miklós Haraszti

Debate on the Hungarian electoral law

In today’s post I will not even be able to scratch the surface of the debate over restructuring the Hungarian electoral system to make it more proportional. It’s an exceedingly complicated, emotionally fraught subject.

Until recently the discussion was merely academic, but with civil activist Márton Gulyás’s call for a political movement whose goal is changing the unfair electoral system, it has become a political issue. Supporters of such a change believe that it is a prerequisite for fair elections that would reflect citizens’ true political views instead of the two-thirds Fidesz majority that the present system practically guarantees. Opponents argue that, given the present political landscape, the opposition would not benefit from a more or less proportional system but in fact would emerge weaker than it is now. As long as this greatly disproportional system exists, there is always the possibility that an opposition party may, even with 45% of the votes, be able to achieve a two-thirds majority, just as Fidesz did in 2014, which would enable it to dismantle Viktor Orbán’s illiberal political system. As Orbán said, “one has to win only once, but then big.”

There is nothing new in the disproportionality of the Hungarian electoral system. In 1994 MSZP got 32% and SZDSZ 19% of the popular vote. Together, with their combined 51%, they had a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. In 2010 a similar situation occurred: Fidesz’s 53% was enough to have a super majority in parliament. With amendments tipping the electoral law even more in their favor, in 2014 44% was enough for Fidesz to get a two-thirds majority in parliament. In a more proportional system, Fidesz wouldn’t even have been able to form a government on its own.

In 2015 János Széky, writer, translator, and political commentator, first talked about the need to address the serious shortcomings of the Hungarian electoral law as it was originally conceived in 1990. He devoted a chapter to it in his book Bárányvakság, the Hungarian equivalent of Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis or LCA, an inherited eye disease. He returned to the topic in February of this year, arguing in an article that with a proportional electoral system Fidesz would never have gotten a two-thirds majority. The standard response to this assertion is that it wasn’t the electoral system that produced Fidesz’s super majority but the extremely poor performance of the Gyurcsány government. Széky disagrees. Since the end of World War II no other party has received two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in any of the present members of the European Union. Not even 60% of the seats. “There is no such thing in a democracy,” claims Széky. In this essay and in his book, Széky forcefully argues for a proportional electoral system based on party lists and criticizes the political elite for neglecting this vitally important political issue.

Recently Miklós Haraszti, rapporteur of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a monitor of the elections in the Netherlands, began a campaign of sorts to induce Fidesz to change the electoral system before the 2018 election. He gave several interviews and wrote extensively on the subject. He shares Széky’s poor opinion of party leaders who neglected to explain to their followers the real reason for Fidesz’s “success”–a grossly disproportional electoral system. In order to escape from what Haraszti calls “constitutional dictatorship,” this system must be changed. As far as Haraszti is concerned, in talking about electoral victory the opposition parties are engaging in self-deception or, even worse, deceit.

Haraszti doesn’t believe in an alliance of the left-of-center parties, which would be a straitjacket for the parties and wouldn’t satisfy the needs of their followers. Moreover, at present there is no sign of any kind of cooperation among them. Competition among parties is a natural state of affairs, but it can work only if there is a genuinely proportional electoral system. Fidesz must be forced to change the system it made even less proportional than it had been. If it refuses, the opposition parties should abstain from participation in the election. Haraszti believes that no electoral campaign and election would be accepted if all the other parties refuse to participate. Haraszti argues that Fidesz cannot risk such a “one-party campaign and election” and therefore would have to negotiate with the opposition parties, all demanding radical change.

One of the first people to criticize Miklós Haraszti’s blueprint for achieving a reform of the electoral system was the political analyst Zoltán Ceglédi. He calls the plan an illusion. It is hard to imagine that Orbán would willingly replace a system that is advantageous to him with one that would give him fewer votes. Moreover, knowing Orbán, the more pressure is applied, the more adamant he will be to keep the present system. In his opinion, the claim that Fidesz cannot be defeated under the present system is wrong. The word “Fidesz” is not in the law. One simply must get more votes. Ceglédi considers boycotting parliament under the present circumstances an acceptable method of not collaborating with a thoroughly corrupt and dictatorial regime. But boycotting the election is not a realistic goal. The defeat of Orbán as soon as possible is of primary importance, but it must be done under the present system.

The other critic who published an opinion piece today is László Bruszt, professor of political science at Central European University and visiting professor at Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. He considers Viktor Orbán’s campaign for the recapture of the two-thirds majority pretty well lost. In his opinion, Viktor Orbán’s Easter message was not about the consolidation of his regime but a desperate stab at saving it. Bruszt is, however, unhappy with Márton Gulyás’s declared goal of changing the electoral system. Concentrating narrowly on one issue diminishes the opportunities the recent demonstrations offer the parties. In fact, it may divide them. Yes, Fidesz must be defeated but by Fidesz’s own rules. The secret is competition on party lists but with a single common candidate in each district.

What Bruszt considers more important than a change in the electoral system is a modification of rules and regulations not found in the electoral law. For example, the extreme limitations placed on sending messages to the electorate. A couple of weeks before the election in 2014 there were practically no signs of campaign activity. Parties had minimal possibilities to advertise either on the streets or in the media. Fidesz used so-called “civic organizations” like the government-financed CÖF as proxies. Since electoral laws did not apply to them, they were able to advertise where parties were forbidden to do so.

Orbán is in trouble now and much more vulnerable than in 2014. Bruszt actually compares him to Károly Grósz, the last party secretary of MSZMP in 1989 who, like Orbán, became more and more aggressive as he felt more and more threatened. The opposition should not let Orbán escape from the trap in which he finds himself by talking exclusively about an unfair electoral system and thereby offering excuses for failure. Moreover, since the present system can easily produce a super majority, if the opposition could receive 45-47% of the popular vote, it would be in a position to change the constitution and many other institutional laws the Orbán regime has introduced.

Electoral laws, of course, go beyond questions of proportionality. Electoral districts are drawn in such a way as to favor particular parties, voting procedures benefit some (for instance, Hungarian Romanians) and disadvantage others (Hungarians living in Great Britain), and campaign finance laws can make a significant difference in the outcomes of elections. All thorny, all worthy of debate.

April 20, 2017

What’s the remedy? Boycott of parliament and/or elections?

Over the weekend Ferenc Gyurcsány called together the elected leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció to discuss the party’s strategy in the wake of the political developments of the last week and a half. Apparently, after a very long and passionate debate, the politicians came to the conclusion that the party’s four members of parliament–Ferenc Gyurcsány, László Varju, Ágnes Vadai, and Lajos Oláh–from here on will boycott parliament. They will not attend the plenary sessions, they will not take part in the work of the committees, and hence they will not vote unless their vote would make a difference as far as Fidesz’s two-thirds majority is concerned. The four realize that they may not receive their salaries and/or may be fined. But, as Gyurcsány said at his press conference, they refuse to be a cog in Orbán’s “System of National Cooperation.” They will not cooperate with a dictatorial power.

The idea of a boycott is not at all new in Ferenc Gyurcsány’s thinking. He was still a member of MSZP in 2011 when he first suggested a partial boycott of the plenary sessions. The occasion was Viktor Orbán’s sudden decision to write a new constitution. MSZP had already decided not to attend the preparatory meetings, but Gyurcsány’s suggestion went further: MSZP should boycott parliament altogether when the new constitution was on the table. At that time no party was ready to heed Gyurcsány’s advice.

In February 2016, after skinheads prevented István Nyakó from turning in his referendum question at the National Election Office, Gyurcsány came up with the idea again. He suggested a boycott of parliament as long as the government party refuses to change the rules on holding referendums. The opposition parties didn’t support the idea. LMP’s András Schiffer went even further in his condemnation of the idea when he declared that “people must decide whether they will support the rule of law or follow Ferenc Gyurcsány.”

An intelligent critique of Gyurcsány’s suggestion came from Sándor Révész, Népszabadság’s op-ed page editor, who felt that between 2010 and 2016 Orbán had done everything in his power to destroy all vestiges of Hungary’s weak fabric of democracy and therefore a boycott was justified. But, he continued, staging a boycott because of one particular undemocratic step of the government is “not a very good idea.” He rightly pointed out that Orbán, “together with his Fidesz accomplices,” would come up with some clever way to “remedy” the objectionable piece of legislation and everything would go on as before.

The idea of a boycott, this time of the national election, was on the agenda again when Miklós Haraszti, SZDSZ member of parliament (1990-1994) and OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media (2004-2010), was interviewed by 168 Óra in May 2016. According to his argument, one of the sources of Fidesz’s overwhelming power is the electoral law that it created for its own benefit. Fidesz, with a 44.87% share of the popular vote, in 2014 achieved a 66.83% presence in parliament, which allowed the government to do anything it wanted, ignoring the powerless opposition. In order to stop the dictatorship of a supermajority, this lopsided, disproportionate electoral system must be abolished. In Haraszti’s opinion, all opposition parties should join ranks to force Fidesz to adopt an entirely different electoral system where 40% in the polling station means 40% in parliament. The parties should make it clear that if the government party doesn’t play ball, the whole opposition will walk out, refusing to participate in the next election. Such a move would create a “European scandal.”

The reaction to Haraszti’s idea was mixed. Márton Kozák, a sociologist and journalist, wrote a glowing endorsement in Magyar Narancs, praising Haraszti for calling attention to the electoral law as the key to curtailing Fidesz’s power. The opposition parties from here on should concentrate on enlightening their voters about the importance of this issue. And, he continued, the opposition parties must not assist Fidesz in its attempt to make small, unimportant changes in a basically faulty electoral law.

As usual, others violently disagreed. Someone who calls himself Nick Grabowszki found Haraszti’s plan naïve. “What European scandal?” he asked. Western European commentators and politicians already look upon Orbán as a representative of the far right. They compare him to Erdoğan, Putin, and Lukashenko. The European Union expects Hungarians to take care of their own little dictator. Moreover, Orbán is very careful not to cross any red line when it comes to his dealings with the European Union. Brussels will not get involved. Yes, says Grabowszki, the electoral system produces disproportionate results, but it is beneficial not only to Fidesz but to all parties that manage to achieve a certain percentage of the votes. Even if Fidesz were stupid enough to agree to the plan Haraszti has in mind, it would still win the election. It would simply be forced to find a coalition partner. Grabowszki is certain that Jobbik would not join the boycott, and therefore all people critical of the Fidesz government would vote for Jobbik. Grabowski’s conclusion is that “a left-wing boycott would lead to a Jobbik government.”

To return to DK’s current suggestion, the reaction of MSZP to DK’s announcement of a boycott is slightly different from its earlier stance when the party insisted that boycotting parliament would offend its constituency and that being in parliament still gives them a certain measure of influence. This time their argument is that a party which is large enough to have a parliamentary delegation (frakció), with the privileges that come with this status, “cannot boycott because that would mean ceding the role of opposition to Jobbik.” On the other hand, according to Gyula Molnár, DK, which has no such delegation, “made the right decision.”

osszefogas

It would be indeed wonderful if all the opposition parties could together decide on a joint action, as Haraszti’s theoretical model would demand. But here even the two largest democratic parties cannot agree when it comes to the decision to boycott parliament.

Despite this, there is some hope that these parties are coming closer and will be, we hope, acting jointly. For example, Fidesz organized a five-party discussion of the proposed amendments to the constitution. The five parties are the ones with their own delegations: Fidesz, KDNP, Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP. For a while it looked as if LMP would attend, but at the end only Fidesz-KDNP, which is in reality a single party, and Jobbik had a friendly chat. From the media coverage of the event it seems that the two parties are largely in agreement on all points.

Another promising development is that MSZP, DK, Párbeszéd, and Modern Magyarországért Mozgalom (MoMa) will celebrate together in front of the Astoria Hotel on October 23. This will be the first time that, on a national holiday, these parties will hold their rallies together. Együtt is missing from the list. Only recently it announced that it will not cooperate with any other opposition parties. Broad-based democratic cooperation is a painfully slow process, but the events of the last few days, I think, will convince more people that Orbán’s regime must go. As Ferenc Kőszeg, founder of the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, said in an article that appeared in Élet és Irodalom recently, “nothing is more important than the removal of Viktor Orbán from his position.” He added that “against him one can even vote for Gábor Vona.” Of course, this remark raised quite a few eyebrows, but I agree with him. At the moment Orbán is a great deal more dangerous than the leader of Jobbik.

October 11, 2016

Miklós Haraszti: The intricacies of translation

Yesterday Miklós Haraszti commented on my post about Viktor Orbán’s “unwanted immigrants.” I considered his contribution so valuable that, with his permission, I am republishing it as a full-fledged post. 

First, a few words about Miklós Haraszti, who has played an important role in Hungarian politics. In 1976 he co-founded the Hungarian Democratic Opposition Movement and in 1980 became editor of the samizdat periodical “Beszélő.” In 1989 he participated in the “roundtable discussions” among all the political parties, which eventually led to free elections. Between 1990 and 1994 he was a member of parliament, and between 2004 and 2010 he served as OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Currently he is UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus.

In yesterday’s post I translated the twelve questions the Hungarian government will pose to voters about their attitudes toward “economic immigrants,” which in the original is “megélhetési bevándorlók.” The Hungarian adjective “megélhetési” is practically untranslatable for reasons that Haraszti’s explanation of the word and its history makes evident. “Economic” is at best a sanitized translation of “megélhetési.”  Without understanding the real meaning of the Hungarian word, we cannot grasp the baseness of Viktor Orbán’s world.

Here I am combining two separate comments by Mr. Haraszti, the second of which was prompted by my remark that to the best of my knowledge it was fairly recently that a Hungarian politician coined the phrase “megélhetési politikusok.” In this second comment we learn about the origin of the phrase.

* * *

Miklós Haraszti being interviewed by Benjamin Novak of The Budapest Beacon

Miklós Haraszti being interviewed by Benjamin Novak of The Budapest Beacon

“Megélhetési bevándorlók”

Let me add a little linguistics of meanness. Orbán, throughout his anti-immigration PR campaign, and in his 12-point “National Consultation” questionnaire, identifies the refugees as “megélhetési bevándorlók,” which is then translated for international consumption as “economic immigrants.” This is what we find in Eva’s translation. But it is no match for the cruelty of the original adjective, “megélhetési.” Orbán never uses the adjective “economic,” that is “gazdasági,” when he speaks in Hungarian. What his consultation uses, “megélhetési,” is in fact a ready-made hate word in Hungarian political language.

Of course, the questionnaire’s hateful, xenophobic content speaks for itself even with “economic immigrant,” but the reader should know that what the Hungarians get, the original “megélhetési,” means “parasitic, opportunistic, profiteering, sharking” — and means all this in a super-despising way — it simply means a swindler.

Examples: “megélhetési gyermekvállaló” (parents who ‘produce’ children solely for the sake of child welfare benefits) — it means a Roma parent and nothing else.

Or: “megélhetési bűnöző” (a criminal out of poverty) — invariably just means a gypsy.

Or: “megélhetési politikus”  — means a corrupt politician. Etc, etc.

The history of the phrase “megélhetési politikusok”

The first political usage of the adjective was in the expression “megélhetési politikusok” (politicians who are ready to serve whoever is ready to pay them). The inventor was Miklós Csapody, ex-MDF, who coined it sometime between 1996 and 1998, the day after the defection of MPs Ervin Demeter and Csaba Hende from MDF. These two decided to move over to the Fidesz benches, weakening the small liberal-conservative wing of the remaining MDF. (The Sándor Lezsák/István Balsai national-conservative wing of MDF had defected earlier.) Csapody severely criticized Demeter and Hende. Ervin Demeter was later rewarded by being appointed minister of civilian intelligence services in the first government of Orbán. After the fall of that government, he was involved (together with László Kövér) in the UD Zrt. private eye wiretapping scandal which was intended to ruin — whom else — his former boss, Ibolya Dávid. The other, Csaba  Hende (today minister of defense), became the central Fidesz keeper/financer of the “polgári körök” (civic circles) in 2002, a movement which was Orbán’s Red Guard/Tea Party within his own party in 2002 when he lost the elections and mutineers challenged his continuing leadership.

Csapody’s word, the adjective “megélhetési” as used for politicians, became proverbial, simply meaning “corrupt,” or worse, “fake and greedy.” Typically for Orbán, he now utilizes a term that was famously intended to provoke him and his party.

The word “megélhetési” had existed earlier. It has a liberal origin, it was an invention of political correctness, and I cannot exclude the possibility that Csapody, when he used it against Fideszniks, picked it in a tongue-in-cheek manner to make it even more humiliating. Namely, sociologists and lawyers had long used it to describe a kind of petty criminality where the perpetrators (thieves, typically) steal only in order to have something to eat that day. It had been used as an equivalent of “poverty criminality” and, unquestionably, it had an explanatory, attenuating, almost acquitting flavor. Therefore MIÉP, Jobbik, and their Fidesz copy-pasters started to use it sarcastically, ridiculing liberal political correctness, agitating against “those who have kind words for criminals and thereby encourage them.” They started to use it for “Gypsy” as a “politically correct” racist slur. (That is, instead of using Roma, they would say: “there comes a suntanned “megélhetési bűnöző.”) The adjective started to stand on its own as a noun, a biting euphemism for Roma: “egy megélhetési” or “a megélhetésiek,” hitting both the Roma and the liberals.

The story of the word is thus full of surprises. Csapody, when he turned it against right-wing politicians, of course knew about the racist usage of the originally  PC adjective. In fact, it was his own PC, modern way of saying “cigánykodás,” which means largely the same. (See: http://www.nyest.hu/hirek/ciganykodas-zsidoskodas-skotsag-bevezetes-az-etnosztereotipiak-vilagaba).

And now Orbán puts his hands on the term and openly uses it in a “National Consultation” to describe any refugees of the East and the South who dare to enter Hungary. Using the adjective “megélhetési” instead of “gazdasági” also means: “Do you want to have more Gypsies, sent along by the EU in order to ruin our nation?”

Addendum: the noun “megélhetés”

I forgot to say what “megélhetés,” the noun, means. Its most basic meaning is “livelihood.” Thus “megélhetési,” the adjective made from it,  means pursuing or rather imitating a vocation or a victimhood solely for the material gains of that status. Both mean profiteering, cheating.

One of the beauties of the Hungarian language is that it is easy to create adjectives from nouns and vice versa. So, an English translation that would carry the oddness of Orbán’s vocabulary could have been: livelihood-immigrants or refugees, or even better “occupational immigrants” and not “economic immigrants.”

Two prominent Hungarians: Interviews with Charles Gati and Miklós Haraszti

Budapest Beacon, a bilingual online newspaper that reports on current events in Hungary, conducted a number of interviews with leading Hungarian analysts living or temporarily working in the United States. Herewith two of these: the first with Charles Gati, a renowned political scientist and senior research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; the second with Miklós Haraszti, a writer, human rights advocate, and former OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media.

Professor Gati’s interview was conducted in English, Mr. Haraszti’s in Hungarian. Since Gati’s main interest is international affairs and foreign policy, his interview focuses on American-Hungarian relations that are such a hot topic of late. Mr. Haraszti currently teaches at Columbia University, but because in 2012 he was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus, the interview took place in the United Nations headquarters where Mr. Haraszti was due to report on his findings.

The interviewer is Benjamin Novak, an American Hungarian who currently lives in Hungary and is senior correspondent of Budapest Beacon.