Tag Archives: Miklós Haraszti

U.S. State Department comes to the aid of the beleaguered regional press in Hungary

On November 9 a highly unusual announcement appeared on the website of the U.S. State Department. The Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) announced a “funding opportunity” for the support of “objective media in Hungary.” DRL supports “those persons who long to live in freedom and under democratic governments that protect universally accepted human rights.” DRL is normally not involved with European countries, especially those that are members of the European Union and are supposedly developed countries with the necessary set of democratic institutions.

DRL’s goal in this case is to support media outlets operating outside the capital of Hungary “to produce fact-based reporting and increase their audience and economic sustainability…. The program should improve the quality of local traditional and online media and increase the public’s access to reliable and unbiased information. Projects should aim to have impact that leads to democratic reforms.”

This was such stunning news that even the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade was unable to respond. The grant of 200 million forints or $700,000 means that the United States no longer considers Hungary a democratic country where the free flow of information can be taken for granted. Earlier, when U.S. Chargé d’Affaires David J. Kostelancik delivered a tough speech at the headquarters of the National Association of Hungarian Journalists, both Tamás Menczer, foreign ministry spokesman, and Levente Magyar, its undersecretary, were outraged and complained about interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs. But when 444.hu, the internet news site that discovered the item on the website of the State Department, asked the foreign ministry for its reaction, it got the following brief answer: “Unusual step; we are studying its aim and goal; for the time being we have no comment.”

The fact that the grant specifically targets the countryside means that the Americans are well informed on the state of the Hungarian media. While the print editions of the two independent countrywide daily newspapers, Népszava and Magyar Nemzet, reach very few people, the regional local papers are quite popular. People want to know what’s happening in their towns. But all 19 regional papers were gobbled up recently by Lőrinc Mészáros and Andy Vajna, the alter-egos of Viktor Orbán. The sections of these local papers that deal with national and foreign news are written centrally and distributed to all 19 local papers. State television, which can be seen without a cable hookup, broadcasts unadulterated propaganda. TV2, the other television station that can be seen everywhere in the country, was acquired lately by Andy Vajna. Thus, people living in the countryside have access only to a one-sided and highly distorted view of reality. The 200 million forints, of course, will not alter that situation substantially, but it is a warning to the Orbán government that it went far too far in creating practically a one-party state with an omnipresent propaganda machine.

A good example of the marketplace of free ideas. The front page of a few of the 19 regional papers

Népszava called attention in its front-page article to the fact that “it is unparalleled in diplomatic practice for the United States to support independent media in a European country which is considered to be developed.” It also reminded the readers that as early as 2012 Mark Palmer, former ambassador to Hungary, Charles Gati, professor of political science, and Miklós Haraszti, former OSCE representative on freedom of the media, wrote an article in The Washington Post in which they called attention to the problem and suggested the revival of Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian language radio station.

The so-called diplomats of Viktor Orbán’s ministry of foreign affairs might be too stunned to say anything, but at least two pro-government papers have an opinion on the matter. According to Magyar Idők, by giving this fairly modest grant “the United States is building a client media in the countryside.” The paper is certain that not just one group of journalists will be the beneficiaries. The United States will give grants to “minimally four or five organizations,” which might cost the U.S. about 2 million dollars. The paper sarcastically adds that for the United States this amount of money is insignificant, just as it wouldn’t be big money for China or Russia if they wanted to give money to the United States or Germany “for the support of ‘more’ objective information, leading to democratic reforms. But what would Donald Trump or Angela Merkel say to that?”

Mária Schmidt’s Figyelő, in an article titled “The temporary American chargé is planning to create an anti-media,” goes into a complicated explanation for the reasons for this grant. The real aim is “not raising the quality of Hungarian journalism;  the real goal is a change of government.” The article admits that the money will be distributed only after the national election, but what the Americans want to achieve with this move is to influence the results of the 2019 municipal elections. They gave up on the “democrats of the capital,” whom they are leaving to George Soros’s generosity, and are concentrating instead on the countryside, which is bright orange (i.e., solidly Fidesz) now. The article is full of complaints about “these temporary chargés” who are still hanging around. “Who is this Kostelancik?” He was foreign policy adviser to the Helsinki Commission, and “we are only too familiar with the Helsinki Commission.” He worked in Moscow as an adviser to the ambassador, and “we know from spy movies that these are always disagreeable fellows.” But when the ambassador appointed by Donald Trump comes, “he will get rid of Mr. Kostelancik.”

As is evident from the Figyelő article, Hungarian right-wing journalists, and to some extent even the politicians, hope that the lack of improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations is due to the fact that the old-timers are still hanging around. Donald Trump didn’t have time yet to get rid of them. But, as Népszava rightly points out, giving this grant to the independent media of a so-called democratic country is no trifling matter. It may even have been cleared by the White House.

The Hungarian right-wing media has a friend in the United States, Daniel McAdams, executive director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, who wrote an article after the announcement of the grant titled “Manipulation: The US State Department’s New Program to Take on Hungarian Media.” Only recently the U.S. Justice Department demanded that the Russian-backed RT America network register as a foreign propaganda entity or face arrest. And now DRL is launching a program to “massively interfere in NATO-partner Hungary’s internal media.” Hungary is “a full democracy where the will of the people is regularly expressed at the ballot box and there the media competes freely in the marketplace of ideas.” This intervention must feel “like a stab in the back to Orbán and his government” because while “Brussels saw Trump as a gauche loudmouth, Orbán openly admired the soon-to-be-president’s position on immigration.” In this article McAdams comes to the same conclusion as the journalist of Figyelő when he asks: “What would you do if China sent in a few million dollars to prop up US publications who agreed to push the Beijing line?” He warns: “Hands off Hungary!”

I think one should explain to Daniel McAdams that he is comparing apples to oranges. Russia Today is a Russian state-financed television network broadcasting Russian propaganda all over the world. DRL’s modest grant is designed to open a small door to those who are exposed exclusively to government propaganda. The amount of money the Orbán government spends on “communication” is staggering, and talking about competition “in the marketplace of free ideas” is a brazen lie when 19 regional papers are effectively in the hands of one man, the prime minister of the country.

November 11, 2017

Dilemmas in current Hungarian politics

On the surface it was no more than a storm in a teacup: András Gerő, historian of the Habsburg Monarchy, wrote an angry letter to a somewhat secretive organization called Szeretem Magyarországot Klub/SZMK (I love Hungary Club) because the club members gave their blessing to an invitation to Jobbik Chairman Gábor Vona to meet with the membership. What the club members were especially interested in was Jobbik’s racist and anti-Semitic past and its present change of heart.

András Gerő is not a member of the club, but he normally gets invitations to the monthly gatherings because of his earlier appearance before the group as an invited guest. Still, he decided to write a sharply-worded letter to the club in which he expressed his disapproval of the decision. In the letter he admitted that Jobbik is “a legitimate parliamentary force,” but he argued that SZMK, with this invitation, legitimizes Jobbik and its chairman. The former is a political legitimization; the latter, intellectual and moral. Moreover, SZMK’s claim that by listening to Vona the members could gain new and useful information is idle. What one can hear about Jobbik in the media is quite enough to form an opinion of this party.

Gerő often ends up in the midst of controversies of his own making. A few years ago he divided the historical community by accusing Ignác Romsics of anti-Semitism, which most observers found unwarranted. His siding with Mária Schmidt against Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations in the altercation over the House of Fate didn’t raise Gerő’s stature in my eyes. His relationship with the Fidesz government is also hazy because he is the director of the Habsburg Historical Institute, a one-man organization (plus a secretary) with a very elegant office. The institute’s continued existence depends on the goodwill of the Orbán government. It was because of this connection that Jobbik accused Gerő of serving Viktor Orbán’s interests in trying to blacken the name of Jobbik.

I doubt that Gerő acted as an agent of Fidesz, trying to torpedo Vona’s appearance before the members of SZMK. But Fidesz certainly loved Gerő’s attack on Jobbik’s chairman since Viktor Orbán’s real enemy at the moment is Gábor Vona. First of all, although Jobbik’s move to the center has weakened the party somewhat, it still has a large following. Jobbik today is the second largest party in Hungary. Moreover, there are signs that Jobbik has acquired a powerful patron with deep pockets in the person of Lajos Simicska, who seems ready to spend a considerable amount of money to get rid of Viktor Orbán. Simicska not only helps Jobbik financially. He also shares with its leadership the large repository of his “dirty tricks” that made Fidesz into the powerful organization that it is today. Jobbik’s move to the center especially frightens Orbán because he worries that his whole political edifice might crumble if Jobbik and the left-of-center forces decide to cooperate in some manner.

When it comes to the coverage of Jobbik in the Fidesz media, the emphasis is on the extremism of Jobbik. Magyar Idők published several articles on Gerő’s letter in which it embraced the historian’s opinion that “Jobbik is the political putrefier of Hungarian society.” Magyar Idők’s editorial on the subject carried the title: “Gábor Vona bowed before the Left.” Gerő, who enjoys being in the center of these controversies, in one of his television appearances called SZMK’s invitation to Vona “political racism.”

What transpired at this contentious meeting? It is difficult to get too much information about SZMK’s gatherings. We know that it is an elite club where the recommended yearly dues are 120,000 forints (approximately $450). Members and participants are asked to be discrete, and therefore the club functions pretty much without any public mention. Last year Károly Gerendai, the founder of SZMK and the brains behind the Sziget Festival, which is one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe, did talk to Magyar Nemzet. There he gave some details about the membership and about the illustrious visitors who had appeared before them in the past few years, but otherwise little is known about the club’s activities. ATV got in touch with a few members, some of whom admitted that a long debate preceded Vona’s invitation. But, they said, at the end the decision was reached that “Gábor Vona is one of the most remarkable figures today in Hungarian politics who has been moving away from his earlier right radical position. We know his past, but he has a place in this club because we have many questions we would like to get answers to.” Moreover, “Gábor Vona and his party are a factor in Hungarian politics,” one of the participants said.

Magyar Idők’s editorial recalled that in 2011 Gergely Karácsony, then still a member of LMP, suggested a temporary strategic alliance among all the opposition parties, including Jobbik, which could easily defeat Fidesz and gain a two-thirds majority. After a few months of “housecleaning” and a new more proportionate electoral law, the parliament could be dissolved and new elections could be held. This strategy has been in the air ever since. Miklós Haraszti, without suggesting a temporary alliance with Jobbik, is also thinking along the same lines: to force Fidesz in some way to accept a new electoral law. Lajos Bokros, when he talks about the magic 500 days which would be enough to get rid of the most objectionable pieces of Fidesz legislation, after which new elections could be held, is also proposing a variation of the same theme. And this is exactly what Viktor Orbán is worried about because, if that materializes, if Vona were able to convince the socialist-liberal parties that he is no longer the man they had known for years, Fidesz’s chances of winning the election, at least as things stand right now, would be nil.

Moreover, there are a lot of ordinary citizens who consider Orbán’s removal so important that they believe a temporary alliance with Jobbik is still preferable to perhaps decades of Orbán’s fascistoid one-party system. Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about this more than a year ago. After seeing that, at a couple of by-elections, citizens were ready to maximize their votes by voting for the candidate most likely to win and ignoring party affiliations, he wondered whether left-right cooperation might materialize. As he put it, “I wouldn’t have any enthusiasm for it, but I can no longer rule out the possibility of the opposition parties’ joining forces in the interest of getting rid of the present government. This regime might have a very strange end.”

At present no one contemplates such a joint action involving Jobbik. In fact, Gyurcsány’s party is one of the loudest in excluding any such possibility. On the other hand, apparently Vona told his SZMK audience that “Jobbik is ready to cooperate with anyone against Fidesz and specifically mentioned LMP as a possible ally.” Mandiner, a right-wing publication, noted that Vona and his audience especially saw eye to eye when it came to the person of Viktor Orbán. As the paper’s source claimed, “the audience and the party chairman outdid each other in their invectives against Orbán.”

Jobbik joined the other parties when it came to the “national minimum” on healthcare, and today the Közös Ország Mozgalom announced that they had received assurances from Dóra Duró, a Jobbik MP, that the party will take a look at the electoral law in its final form and will make a decision as to whether they are ready to support it. No one can see into the future, but there are signs of left and right pulling in the same direction.

September 25, 2017

A minor miracle: nine parties support Márton Gulyás’s electoral reform plan

Yesterday’s post turned out to be quite controversial. It reported on a poll that showed what we have suspected for some time: that Hungarians who were born in the country and who currently live and work there resent the generous financial support given by the Orbán government to Hungarian minorities living in the neighboring countries. Moreover, Hungarians know that their tax money that goes abroad is intended primarily to gather votes for Fidesz, the party of choice in those countries. The majority of the inhabitants of Hungary proper strongly oppose the current practice of bestowing voting rights on those Hungarian speakers in the neighboring countries who become dual citizens. I added my own personal agreement to that general sentiment.

During the resultant discussion it turned out that many of the commenters are not familiar with details of the electoral law as it applies to citizens living abroad. I suggest that readers take a look at a November 2013 post of mine called “Inequality of the Hungarian electoral law.”

Since we had such a brisk debate on this aspect of the electoral law, we might as well talk about another angle of it, its gross disproportionality. 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 have been able to form a government on its own.

In March of this year, 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. In his opinion, an alliance of all left-of-center parties is neither realistic nor is it an effective way to ensure victory. Fidesz naturally would oppose any change to the present electoral system. In that case, all the other parties should refuse to participate in the election. Haraszti argues that Fidesz cannot risk such a “one-party campaign and election” and therefore will have to negotiate with the other parties.

Haraszti’s idea was widely debated in intellectual circles. In May it got a boost when at a demonstration Márton Gulyás, a civil activist, called for a political movement whose goal would be to change the unfair electoral system. As usual, there were many who argued that, in the current 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 the necessary two-thirds majority that would enable the new government to dismantle Viktor Orbán’s illiberal political system. However, given the current state of the Hungarian opposition, the likelihood of such a development is unlikely. The left-of-center parties show no inclination to gather under the leadership of MSZP’s László Botka. Perhaps the growing recognition of this fact induced these parties to line up behind Márton Gulyás’s new movement, Közös Ország Mozgalom/Common Country Movement (KOM).

After the initial announcement of Gulyás’s political movement in May, there were weeks of silence. To tell you the truth, I thought that the whole program had died even before it was launched. But on August 7 the newly revived zoom.hu reported that Gulyás’s movement will make its debut on August 20. Zoom.hu learned that most of the opposition parties indicated that they would support Gulyás’s movement. “If all these parties sign the document, we will be witnessing a minor miracle.” The internet site seemed to know that Jobbik had not yet made a decision. In any case, on August 18 Alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s official internet news site, published an intriguing article on the subject titled “There will be no political cooperation with the left but the electoral system must be changed.” The article quoted Jobbik PM Dóra Dúró’s personal opinion, posted on Facebook, which harshly condemned the leftist parties that “ruined the country” and declared opposition to any cooperation them. In the body of the Alfahir.hu article there was not a word about “the electoral system [that] must be changed.” These words appeared only in the title. However, if I read this article correctly, Duró’s words might not be the final ones on the subject. Her weight within the party has greatly diminished since the demotion of her husband, Előd Novák.

Well, it seems that the minor miracle did happen. Nine parties support the movement, including such stalwart “go-it-alone” parties as LMP and Momentum. The two larger rivals, MSZP and DK, managed to find common ground. This is indeed an accomplishment, and most likely it happened only because the initiator of the movement is a civil activist, an outsider in a way. The nine parties that signed up are MSZP, DK, LMP, MoMa, Együtt, Párbeszéd, the Liberals, the Two-tailed Dog Party, and Momentum. Negotiations with Jobbik are still in progress. As a spokeswomen of KOM stated, “the representatives of [Jobbik] might participate in the discussions that begin on September 4.” These discussions will take place in the open, in a temporary structure called Agora on Alkotmány (Constitution) utca, where topics related to the electoral law will be discussed continuously. I guess the hope is that during these discussions ideas regarding the final shape of a new electoral law will emerge. Otherwise, Gulyás gave Fidesz a deadline of October 23 to respond. If Viktor Orbán refuses to negotiate, the activists will begin a program of civil disobedience.

How can this be a country of all?

Does this movement offer any hope? What worries most people is the lack of a specific proposal for the kind of electoral system they would like to be adopted. What do they mean by a proportionate election law? But perhaps open discussion could ignite some public enthusiasm for change. We know that the majority of Hungarians don’t want to see another four years of Fidesz rule, but they have been discouraged and dispirited by the lack of resolve on the part of the opposition parties. Perhaps the very fact that nine parties or perhaps even ten could stand behind a political cause might give them some hope that Fidesz’s stranglehold on the Hungarian political system can be broken. We will just have to see.

As for Fidesz’s reaction, it is too early to say. For the time being, at least on the surface, the party leaders seem utterly unconcerned. We know, however, that the national security forces have been keeping a watchful eye on Márton Gulyás and his camps, which are supposed to prepare his followers for the force activists may face if they carry out peaceful resistance. We have also heard often enough about the “hot fall” that is coming, when enemies of Hungary will try to overthrow the government. So, obviously there is some concern on the part of the powers-that-be.

Fidesz was undoubtedly prepared for the launch of the movement, but what might have come as a shock was that there seems to be a united front behind it. At the moment only one short editorial appeared in Magyar Idők today. It makes fun of the people, nine men and nine women, representing the nine parties, on the video released by the movement. The journalist mocks their personal appearance and their alleged political gravitas, which he suggests is feather light. He tries to minimize the problem of the disproportionality of the Hungarian law and accuses them of “ignoring the unfairness of the French electoral system.” He asks them whether they plan to stand behind the “unrealizable brainstorming” of Momentum’s program on electoral reform. “Don’t miss it! Every word of it, every picture-frame of it, worth its weight in gold. And imagine what would happen if they governed the country. It’s better not to find out.” I guess the rest of the pro-government press is waiting for Viktor Orbán to return from Croatia, where he is spending his vacation.

August 21, 2017

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.