Tag Archives: MSZP

Old-timers offer a helping hand to the democratic opposition

About a year ago György Bolgár invited me for a telephone interview on his Klub Rádió program. At that time he was running a series called “What is to be done?” People were supposed to offer ideas on how the opposition parties could defeat the Orbán government. I put together a short list of items I considered essential for any success at the ballot box in April 2018. I especially emphasized the need for consolidation of the democratic forces or, more bluntly put, an end to the present situation where almost a dozen dwarf parties with very similar programs are trying to defeat a strong and unified Fidesz. I admitted that there are some talented and attractive politicians in these tiny parties but said that in the end they will have to be satisfied with less than leading positions in the opposition since it is only the two larger left-of-center parties, MSZP and DK, that have a chance of getting enough support to make a difference. Although almost a year later a caller said that my position was the only one among the hundreds offered that appealed to her, the immediate reaction was less kind. A young man condemned my ideas in the name of democracy. As far as he was concerned, all tiny parties had the right to compete, and anyone who suggested otherwise didn’t know a thing about democracy.

Today, unfortunately very late in the game, the leaders of these mini-parties are reluctantly realizing that their chances at the polls are nonexistent and that the likelihood of their financial ruin after their very poor showing is almost certain. In addition, the votes cast for them, due to the quirky electoral law, will not only be lost to the opposition but in fact will be added to the votes for the winner. Since these parties are risking their very existence by remaining in the race as independent forces, I assume that soon enough we will see negotiations between them and the three larger parties on the left–MSZP, DK, and LMP, parties that will likely be represented in parliament after the election. It is also questionable how long LMP, with its 7-8% support, can continue to insist that it will on its own beat Viktor Orbán and form a government without making itself ridiculous. Momentum’s situation is truly dire, with its 1-2% support. Just today Momentum lost two more prominent young politicians.

In this fluid situation one can only welcome the group of 11 seasoned members of previous administrations who felt it their duty to help the parties find common ground. They established a movement called “Válasszunk! 2018” (V18), meaning “Let’s Vote.” The aim of the group is twofold. On the one hand, they want to fight the general apathy in the country, the feeling that everything is lost and that Fidesz will win no matter what, and on the other, they plan to offer their expertise to the parties in blending their programs into a coherent whole.

Among the members of the group are several people who served in the Antall and even the first Orbán governments, so it is a politically mixed lot. As Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government and organizer of the group, said, under different circumstances some of these politicians would be arguing in parliament on opposite sides of the aisle. But the situation today has changed. The goal is to defeat a party and a government that is increasingly moving to the extreme right and that has introduced a virtual one-party system. The longer Viktor Orbán stays in power, the harder it is going to be to dislodge him and his regime. In fact, a lot of people claim that winning against Fidesz in a democratic election is already an impossibility. This assertion, strictly speaking, is not correct. If enough people go to the polls and the opposition is capable of offering an attractive program and one single candidate in all 106 electoral districts, the opposition could even receive the majority of the seats, mostly because of the unfair electoral system that favors the majority.

From left to right: Attila Holoda, György Raskó, Péter Balázs, Péter Németh (journalist), and Kinga Göncz at the press conference

The other task, lending a helping hand to the parties in blending their messages into a coherent whole, is much more difficult. Not surprisingly, there is considerable confusion about what the V18 group has in mind. Unfortunately, Péter Balázs doesn’t help the situation by often referring to the group as a kind of “shadow government.” The question is: whose shadow government would it be? At the moment there are two declared prime minister hopefuls on the left, Bernadett Szél (LMP) and Gergely Karácsony (MSZP), while Ferenc Gyurcsány as “the leader of the DK party list” would, in the unlikely event of a DK victory, become prime minister of the country. Or, looking at another possible scenario, Gyurcsány, alongside Szél, Karácsony, and Gábor Vona (Jobbik), would be vying for the top position in a coalition government. Do the three left-of-center parties, with or without Jobbik, want to have a common shadow government? Most likely not, although public sentiment is very much in favor of what the man on the street calls “a government of experts,” the mistaken view that so-called experts would govern better than politicians.

The skeleton program the group offers at the moment is modest and moderate enough that all democratic parties could easily adhere to it. Of course, all parties would like to stop the gaping political divide between left and right, and everybody would like to give opportunities to the poor and the middle class to fulfill their dreams. Who doesn’t want to improve Hungarian healthcare services and education? And yes, all parties and an overwhelming majority of people want to have better relations with the other members of the European Union and would like to belong to the group of the most advanced member countries. Because of these generalized demands, several commentators have already criticized the group.  András Jámbor of Mérce and Szabolcs Dull of Index, for example, found the group’s proposals confusing and most likely ineffectual.

Obviously, the pro-government media as well as their commentators don’t think much either of the people involved or the aims of the group. Tamás Lánczi, a political scientist with Századvég and editor-in-chief of Mária Schmidt’s Felügyelő, called V18 “because of its participants junk car racing” (roncsderbi). Tamás Fricz, who calls himself a political scientist and has a column in Magyar Idők, described the members of the group as “frustrated people” who haven’t achieved the positions they think should be theirs.

Hungarian commentators are too quick to pass judgment on others, and I think we ought to hold our horses for a little while. I find the very fact that such a politically mixed group came together encouraging. I am almost certain that more prominent right-of-center people will gather their courage to join the group. After all, there are several people not yet on the list who are quite vocal in their condemnation of Orbán’s political system. Trying to stop what currently seems like an inexorable drift to an alt-right type of political system in Hungary is certainly a worthwhile undertaking.

January 4, 2018

What will come of Orbán’s opposition?

Yesterday HVG  published a two-page summary of Medián’s polling results over the 2017 calendar year. Ever since April Fidesz has been gaining in popularity among the electorate as a whole. Jobbik, although losing some of its support, has maintained its position as the largest opposition party. Opposition parties on the left, taken together, have garnered, depending on the date of the poll, between 19% and 25% support. Medián has a category of voters it calls “active undecided.” These are people who claim they would definitely vote but are still undecided about their party of choice. This is a group of a little over a million voters. And about half of the electorate, despite the seemingly overwhelming support for Fidesz, would like to see a change of government.

One of the striking findings of the survey is that with every passing month the number of people who would under no circumstances vote for MSZP or DK has grown. By November 59% of respondents said they wouldn’t vote for MSZP; 60% wouldn’t vote for DK. The reason for this development is twofold. First is the growing doubt about the chances of the left-of-center opposition at the polls. And second, the protracted negotiations between MSZP and DK gave the impression of incompetence, lack of political finesse, and the will to win. Whether this view will change after the conclusion of the first phase of the negotiations only time will tell, but I wouldn’t be overly optimistic, again for at least two reasons.

The first reason for my doubt is the relatively weak popular support for the kind of arrangement that MSZP and DK came up with. Only 21% of those who want a change of government would like to see one common left-of-center candidate against the candidates of Fidesz and Jobbik. A much larger percentage (45%) of respondents support across-the-board cooperation among the opposition parties, including Jobbik. That arrangement would pit one joint opposition candidate against one Fidesz candidate. In brief, almost half of the anti-Orbán forces are convinced that without Jobbik the left opposition cannot win.

The second reason for my belief that the campaign on the left-of-center side will not be particularly successful is the inability of its political leaders to set aside their bickering. I had hoped that public arguments about the best arrangement would come to an end once an agreement was reached on the individual districts. But I was mistaken. Last night Gyula Molnár and Ferenc Gyurcsány spent close to half an hour discussing the pros and cons of the arrangement on ATV’s “Egyenes beszéd.” For good measure, they also engaged in, at the urging of the anchor, a lengthy discussion about their differences of opinion regarding Gergely Karácsony as a suitable candidate for the post of prime minister. This conversation, as far as I was concerned, didn’t help the situation of either MSZP or DK. Gyurcsány’s disparaging remarks about Karácsony were unfortunate. He didn’t have to give a lecture on the unimportance of popularity as a political category or make snide remarks about MSZP not being able to come up with a candidate of its own. It was equally unnecessary for Gyurcsány to talk about the unlikely situation in which the left-of-center parties win the election and then have to decide on the best person for prime minister (when he didn’t rule himself out as being the best choice), as he did in an interview with Olga Kálmán on Hír TV. None of this is helpful in strengthening the electorate’s trust in the opposition.

It is also difficult to understand why László Botka felt compelled to give an interview right after his party and DK had just signed an agreement. I wasn’t convinced by Botka’s reasoning that he “owes the people of Szeged an account of his candidacy at the end of the year.” Botka looks upon himself as an innocent victim who was attacked by both Fidesz and his own party. He still believes that he “suggested total cooperation” and did everything in his power to achieve it. As we know, this was not the case. He spent nine months negotiating with no one and on principle excluding the leader of the second largest party from that “total cooperation.” In addition, he was largely responsible for his party’s rapid loss of popularity during the summer and fall of 2017. But instead of admitting his contribution to MSZP’s troubles, he now publicly accuses the current party leaders of not striving for victory. Botka now claims that he resigned because he couldn’t withstand the  “incredible pressure” coming from Fidesz “for which left-wing politicians often offered the munition.” It is unlikely that this mixture of public crying over spilt milk and accusations will inspire the anti-Orbán forces to stand behind the left-of-center parties.

By now it has been determined, whether DK likes it or not, that Gergely Karácsony will be MSZP’s candidate for prime minister, which I consider to be a fine choice. At the moment there are four declared candidates: Viktor Orbán, Bernadett Szél, Gergely Karácsony, and Gábor Vona. Medián asked voters to choose among these candidates. Although there remains a large undecided group (35-39% of the electorate), among those who have an opinion Viktor Orbán would win hands down with 45-46% against Szél’s 19%, Karácsony’s 18%, and Vona’s 16%.

Slogan says: Determination / Announcement for a meeting in Miskolc

Karácsony is a low-keyed man who, although he inherited a Fidesz-majority council, has been successfully running a Budapest district of about 130,000 inhabitants. He is young and good-looking. MSZP decided to send him and Ágnes Kunhalmi on a nationwide campaign. As Gyula Molnár said, the most popular politician with the most popular MSZP politician should be a winning combination.

December 22, 2017

A partial agreement between MSZP and DK

The first phase of the seemingly endless negotiations between MSZP and DK came to an end today. The two parties finally agreed on the division of the 106 electoral districts, but no one should think that this is the end of the story. Both MSZP and DK would still like to negotiate with the smaller parties on the left before the final allocation. And then we still have the huge problem that LMP and, to some extent, Momentum pose to any chance of the opposition winning. At the moment these two parties are unmoved by arguments that their unbending opposition to cooperation will lead to certain Fidesz victory.

Media reaction to the compromise, whether it comes from the left or from the right, is that Ferenc Gyurcsány was the winner of the struggle between MSZP and DK. But if that is the case, I don’t know why the former prime minister and chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció looked so mournful at the press conference that he and Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, gave this afternoon.

To put it in the simplest terms, MSZP will be able to name candidates in 60 districts and DK in 46. In November seven opinion polls were published whose average result showed MSZP at 11% and DK at 7%, though the most reliable pollsters (Medián and Závecz) showed even less of a difference between the two parties. Most commentators, however, believe that Gyurcsány’s real victory was achieving cooperation without agreeing to MSZP’s long-standing demand for a common party list.

As far as common versus individual party lists are concerned, opinion is split on which system is more advantageous to the opposition parties. Gyurcsány naturally believes that individual lists are superior because with this system the voter who might be obliged to vote for the candidate of a party not his own could still express his party preference and therefore would be more ready to go to the polls.

Although divvying up the districts was no easy task, I still cannot help thinking how much better it would have been if these two parties had agreed on the “coordinated” candidacies months ago. Perhaps the greatest drag on progress was the good nine months wasted when László Botka’s candidacy put an end to negotiations between MSZP and the other parties. The Botka period also did great harm to MSZP, whose popularity kept slipping with every passing month. With his resignation Botka retired from national politics, but he is still the strongman in Szeged, where he managed to prevent DK from getting one of the two Szeged districts. MSZP also kept District XVIII in Budapest, where Ágnes Kunhalmi, a last-minute candidate, lost the election in 2014 by only a handful of  votes. The complete list of MSZP and DK candidates in all 106 districts can be seen here.

Since negotiations with the smaller parties will apparently continue, some of the districts might have to be given up to candidates of other parties. We know already that Tímea Szabó of Párbeszéd will most likely get one of the Budapest districts from MSZP. A couple of independents might also get districts currently allotted to MSZP. The same is true of DK, which most likely will have to negotiate with Együtt. So, it’s not over till it’s over or, as 168 Óra put it, “they divided and multiplied and at the end with one foot they moved from one to two.”

As opposed to Gyula Molnár, Gyurcsány looked weary and was low-keyed. About the future he said only that “it was better before Orbán and it will be better after Orbán,” which is really a minimalist promise. It looks as if he learned from his experience with unfulfillable promises. On the other hand, he was categorical when it came to the DK list, which he will lead without being a declared candidate for the post of prime minister. Although earlier there was talk about Gergely Karácsony being the candidate of MSZP and DK, Gyurcsány said that “DK doesn’t support a candidate who is on the list of another party.” This refusal, however, didn’t change MSZP’s mind. As of now, Karácsony is heading the MSZP list, though I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on his remaining there.

In response to the news of a partial deal, Fidesz announced that “on the left Gyurcsány is still the real leader,” and everything is moving in a direction that serves only his interest. Origo called the agreement “an alliance of hopelessness and the past.” According to the editorial, the two parties have given up hope of winning against Fidesz in 2018 and simply want to survive and get ready for 2022.

But it would be a mistake to assume that only the government media panned the agreement. HVG, which is a fairly consistent critic of Ferenc Gyurcsány, called the agreement “an understanding to continue to fight between themselves” while “Gergely Karácsony drifts into nothingness.” Nothing will come of this tentative embrace, mostly because of Ferenc Gyurcsány. His short-term aim is to beat MSZP, which he might be able to do, but he cannot win against Fidesz and Jobbik. His real aim is to be the head of the opposition in 2022. Gyurcsány has managed to line up his troops, while the socialists so far have done nothing but give up 46 electoral districts.

These assessments might not be too far from the truth. There is no question that DK has been vying for the voters of MSZP, a party that is losing them fast. It is also clear that Ferenc Gyurcsány hasn’t given up on the idea of becoming Hungary’s prime minister again sometime in the future. In the past he made some contradictory comments about his plans, but as far as I know he has never excluded the possibility of a complete political revival. This time, in answering a question, he pointed out that “there might be a situation” when he could become head of the government because he is “still a very young man who is in good shape.” He wouldn’t like it if the political right managed to get rid of him too early. “Since the Gyurcsánys have been a long-lived lot, I do hope that I can offer a political alternative against everything Fidesz and its prime minister represent for a very long time to come.” And this wasn’t said as a joke.

That kind of talk, unless some miracle happens in April of 2018, indicates that Gyurcsány has pretty well given up hope of the opposition winning the coming election. Yet here and there one gets the impression that he considers the possibility that Fidesz will not get an absolute majority and that the opposition parties will then have to sit down to negotiate a coalition government. But as I’ve said, something very unexpected and dramatic would have to happen between now and the election to be faced with such a currently unlikely situation.

December 20, 2017

Negotiations drag on, but there are a couple of bright spots on the horizon

Those who think that the most important task of the opposition parties is joint action and cooperation because otherwise there is no chance whatsoever of removing Viktor Orbán from power are pretty desperate. And angry, very angry. They express their deep frustration with politicians’ “selfish” behavior. They accuse them of caring only for their own careers. They charge that politicians seem to disregard the true interests of the country and place party politics ahead of the common good.

Many ordinary Hungarian citizens want to get rid of not only Fidesz but all opposition politicians as well. Their irritation is understandable. On the surface what people who follow politics see is a never-ending series of negotiations between MSZP, the Hungarian socialist party, and Demokratikus Koalíció, a liberal-democratic party. These two parties are considered to be “large parties” with their 10-12-14% share of the votes. The third largest party with about 7-8% of the votes is LMP, a green-anti-globalist party, which refuses to cooperate with anyone. In addition, Hungary has at least four or five even smaller parties. In all vital matters, like the restoration of democracy, the reestablishment of checks and balances, and the revamping of the electoral system, these people are of one mind, but when it comes to dividing up the political terrain, they are unable to look beyond their own narrow interests. At least this is the general perception.

I know that the situation is pretty grim, but I would like to point to a few hopeful signs. While news sites report on the real difficulties weighing down the negotiations between MSZP and DK, one can easily miss a couple of indications that behind the scenes small steps are being made toward some understanding.

Let’s start with the MSZP-DK negotiations over the division of the 106 electoral districts. For the longest time we heard that the negotiators were very close to an agreement. It was only a question of days. But then, weeks went by and there was no resolution. MSZP announced that they would give details of the final agreement with DK at their congress, scheduled for December 9. As might be expected, the congress must be postponed because it is unlikely that negotiations can be concluded prior to that date.

It is hard to tell who is responsible for the sluggish negotiations. According to Ferenc Gyurcsány, one of the three DK negotiators, the three politicians representing MSZP don’t have the authority to make decisions on the spot. They have to go back to the party’s “presidium,” some of whose members accuse the negotiators, especially Gyula Molnár, chairman of the party, of being too soft. And they accuse DK of treating their party in a high-handed fashion. Some of them complain that Gyurcsány and Company are too aggressive and suspect, most likely not without reason, that DK wants to be “the only force” on the left. On the other side, Gyurcsány likes to remind his former comrades that they are no longer in a position to dictate terms as they did four years ago, with pretty disastrous results.

Apparently, some of the socialist leaders are so unhappy with Gyula Molnár that they have raised the possibility of removing him from the post of chairman, or, if not that, at least replacing him at the negotiating table with someone else. Fortunately for the socialists, that politically suicidal idea was dropped, especially since Molnár is, according to reports, anything but soft and consistently defends MSZP interests. For the next round, however, the socialists will be returning to the negotiating table with a much tougher attitude. The negotiators’ hands will be tied by prior decisions of the presidium. Such an arrangement is long overdue; after all, this is how the DK negotiating team functions. The DK presidium, for example, instructed the three negotiators that a common party list, which is at the core of MSZP’s demands, is out of the question.

The tug of war over a common party list shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows Hungarian party politics. I should point out that, with the exception of MSZP, no opposition party wants to merge its votes into a common party list. DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd are ready to divvy up electoral districts among themselves even if they are not entirely satisfied with their lot, but by insisting on separate party lists they can at least measure their nationwide support. On the other hand, MSZP, with its shrinking base, would like to bury its declining numbers in a common list. Four years ago DK suffered when MSZP insisted on reserving for MSZP politicians what later turned out to be an excessive number of places at the top of the list. DK most likely would have done a great deal better if its leaders had insisted on a separate party list.

This is where we stand right now. The socialists insist on a common list, and the party’s negotiators are bound not to agree to the DK position. In addition, there are a couple of districts that DK would like to have but MSZP is not ready to release. All in all, not too promising.

But there is some news that might lift the spirits. This morning Népszava reported that, according to their sources, Ágnes Kunhalmi, the most popular socialist politician, will be heading the MSZP list. This report was later modified to read that Kunhalmi will be “the face of the socialists’ campaign.” Even putting Kunhalmi forth as the “face of the campaign” is welcome news and should help MSZP recover its standing somewhat. It was a real shame that Kunhalmi was relegated to dealing with matters of education only and wasn’t used as a general spokesperson for the party, while real third-rates represented MSZP in public over the last four years. In 2014, at the time of the Budapest municipal election when the democratic opposition had trouble finding a mayoral candidate, she looked like an obvious choice to me. I think she might have surprised us. The idea didn’t occur to anyone.

Ágnes Kunhalmi

The other piece of promising news is that negotiations seem to be going on among DK, Együtt, and Párbeszéd, and it looks as if they see eye to eye. They have lined up against MSZP, charging that MSZP is dragging its feet. Péter Juhász of Együtt complained that MSZP keeps sending messages but refuses to sit down to negotiate. So, the three parties demand the start of talks with MSZP. The trouble is that MSZP apparently refuses at the moment to sit down with all three parties at once, which is a rational decision on their part. As it is, the socialists feel threatened in a one-on-one situation with DK, and they certainly don’t need two other parties to deal with.

And finally, we often hear that LMP and Momentum are adamant in their refusal to talk to other parties as partners in the forthcoming national election. They will win the election alone, they claim. But, behold, there is a small by-election that will be held on December 10 in the town of Solymár, a suburb of Budapest. About two weeks ago it was reported that the locals found an independent candidate who will be supported by MSZP-DK-Együtt-Párbeszéd-LMP. Yes, LMP. This is a first, as far as I know. And the story doesn’t end here. Yesterday Momentum announced that it will join the others in support of the democratic opposition parties’ candidate. I should add that Jobbik will not take part in the election.

Perhaps there are still grounds to hope that reason will prevail and there will be a united front on the left. According to experts on the current electoral law, as long as there are only three candidates (Fidesz, United Left, and Jobbik), the left actually has a chance of winning the election.

December 1, 2017

MSZP and DK at the negotiating table

Although most people would consider a Fidesz win at the next national election preordained, several political analysts consider the situation not that straightforward. There are several reasons to believe that Fidesz’s road to victory might be more difficult than it would seem at first glance. First of all, Fidesz voters at the moment appear to be complacent. Four years ago Fidesz was very effective in getting out the vote. But in several recent by-elections relatively few Fidesz voters bothered to go to the polls. Second, we know that the majority of voters would like to see a change of government. Only the sorry state of the opposition is responsible for the enormous Fidesz lead. Third, although opinion polls show an unstoppable Fidesz, support for the government party is usually overestimated in polls. Fourth, although few analysts pay enough attention to it, dramatic changes are taking place on the left that might change the political landscape. Here I am referring to the slow but steady disintegration of MSZP. Fifth, there is still an untapped pool of 1.5 million men and women who tell pollsters that they will definitely vote but at the moment are still undecided about their party preferences. These conditions, I believe, provide a level of political fluidity that may result in a closer election than most people expect.

Today I will concentrate on party politics, primarily the battle between MSZP and DK. Ever since László Botka decided to throw in the towel, both DK and MSZP politicians have been telling us that they are furiously and effectively negotiating. The winner of these protracted negotiations seems to be the Demokratikus Koalíció. According to the latest public opinion polls by Závecz Research and Medián, the difference between MSZP and DK is only 2%, in favor of MSZP, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in the November polls DK would surpass MSZP.

Why? DK just launched its election campaign with an impressive program, whose highlight was an hour-long speech by Ferenc Gyurcsány. We know from past experience that Gyurcsány is an effective campaigner. Also helping DK is its campaign against the voting rights of dual citizens which, I understand, is going well. With this issue DK is reaching people across the political spectrum because we know that a great majority of the Hungarian electorate opposes voting rights for those who don’t bear the burden of their decisions at the ballot box. DK obviously finds this approach to be of such importance that the party is investing in robocalls, to take place this week. With all this effort, I expect a surge in DK support. Of course, the question is whether DK will be able to appeal to any of those 1.5 million unaffiliated voters or will only siphon off disenchanted MSZP voters.

First, a few words about the gala opening of DK’s campaign. Judging from the video, it was a glitzy affair with lots of enthusiasm for the party’s chairman. The occasion  reminded Gábor Török, a political analyst, of American political rallies. In Török’s opinion, Gyurcsány is an oddity of sorts in Hungarian politics because he knows what his political interests are and he works resolutely on achieving his goals. On Olga Kálmán’s program on Hír TV Török called him “a potent politician.”

If there is agreement on the 106 electoral districts, which means only one opposition politician against the Fidesz candidate, Gyurcsány said he is “absolutely optimistic about the election.” At the moment, he believes that his support is 12-13%, as opposed to the 10% reported by Medián and Závecz, and he hopes that by election time DK might reach 15%. This is probably too optimistic an assessment of the chances of the opposition at the forthcoming election, especially since there are serious obstacles to DK and MSZP agreeing on those 106 electoral districts. At one point negotiations broke down, and a few days ago MSZP announced that, in addition to István Haller and Bertalan Tóth, two former chairmen, Attila Mesterházy and József Tóbiás, will join the MSZP negotiating team.

Apparently, in at least two districts there was a serious rift between the two parties over whose candidate will be the Fidesz challenger. One was the electoral district in Újpest; the other, one of the two seats in the city of Szeged. Let’s start with Újpest because its fate has already been decided. MSZP caved. László Varju (DK) will replace Imre Horváth (MSZP). In response, Horváth left the party, although he will sit with the MSZP delegation between now and the end of the current parliamentary session. This is a sad turn of events because in November 2014 Horváth, against all odds, won a by-election after the death of Péter Kiss. It was a tremendous victory. Péter Kiss in the spring had received 40.7% of the votes while the Fidesz candidate got 35.2%. In November Horváth got 50.6% of the votes and his opponent only 30.6%. No wonder that now, three years later, Horváth feels that his party has thrown him to the dogs, allowing DK to take over a traditionally socialist district. According to rumor, Horváth either will run as an independent or perhaps he will be LMP’s candidate, running, of course, in the same district against Varju.

Another bone of contention is one of the two Szeged districts that the local MSZP people refuse to hand over to DK. László Botka, the mayor of Szeged and former MSZP candidate for prime minister, is still strong enough to defend his territory against the MSZP negotiating team. István Ujhelyi, a member of the European Parliament and a strong Botka supporter, gave a press conference in Brussels, of all places, where he said that the local MSZP leadership has no intention of replacing a “winning team,” a claim that is only partially true. It is correct to say that Sándor Szabó (MSZP-Együtt-DK-PM) won one of the two Szeged districts, but the other went to László B. Nagy (Fidesz). The local MSZP’s candidate for the second district is Márton Joób, a MSZP-DK-Együtt-PM member of the city council and a close associate of Botka. Given the very loose party discipline in MSZP, it is not exactly easy to negotiate with the socialists. The center might make decisions that the national leadership finds important for the party as a whole, but the local party leadership can rebel, citing its own priorities.

All of this is hellishly complicated. The electoral law devised by Fidesz counted on just these kinds of situations that occur in each and every electoral district when it comes to dividing the political terrain among several parties. On the other side, Viktor Orbán handpicks the candidates, who are nothing more than loyal voting machines.

November 22, 2017

Former PM Péter Medgyessy on the current political situation

Two days ago, when I was covering the negotiations between MSZP and DK, I was initially planning to include a few words about an interview with Péter Medgyessy, who was prime minister of Hungary between 2002 and 2004. Because I launched Hungarian Spectrum only in July of 2008, readers will find relatively little information on him on this blog. But his name came up about a year ago when we learned that the former prime minister, who owns a consulting firm, had received €600,000 from the French company Alstom in 2006, the year in which the City of Budapest made its decision to buy Alstom cars for the new metro line. Medgyessy naturally claims that his consulting firm had nothing to do with the decision in favor of Alstom, adding that it is a well-known fact that his relationship with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and the liberal SZDSZ leadership of the City of Budapest was strained. This may be so, but receiving a high fee from a firm that was already in some trouble over corrupt business practices doesn’t look good.

Medgyessy comes from an old Transylvanian family and can trace his ancestry all the way back to the seventeenth century. After graduating from Karl Marx Economic University, he became a civil servant, working his way up the ladder until by 1982 he was deputy finance minister. After the regime change, he retired from politics and became CEO of a couple of banks. In 1996 he was named finance minister in the Horn government. In 2002 he was chosen as MSZP’s candidate for the premiership and, after a slim victory over Fidesz, became prime minister of the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition government.

Less than three weeks after his inauguration, Magyar Nemzet, a newspaper that had close ties with Fidesz in those days, revealed that Medgyessy had worked as a paid counterintelligence officer under the code name D-209 in the III/II section of the ministry of the interior. SZDSZ demanded that Medgyessy be replaced with someone with a clean record, but MSZP politicians convinced them to support Medgyessy. Two years later, however, Medgyessy lost the support of the coalition partners.When he threatened to resign unless the SZDSZ minister of the economy was dismissed, MSZP refused to stand by him. His resignation was accepted, and MSZP named the young Ferenc Gyurcsány as his replacement.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction, let me turn to the interview itself. Szabolcs Dull of Index visited Medgyessy in his home, where he asked the former prime minister to assess the current political situation. The conversation began with the chances of the opposition parties at the forthcoming election. Medgyessy predicted a Fidesz victory due to the poor performance of the opposition politicians and Viktor Orbán’s superior political instincts. What Medgyessy was referring to here were Orbán’s policies in the face of the migrant crisis. He doesn’t like Orbán’s answers, but he would have done the same thing if he had been in Orbán’s shoes. He also praised Orbán’s public works program. He admitted that the program doesn’t make much sense economically, but it is a good thing to put these people to work, for which they “receive a little bit of money.”

Source: Index / Photo: István Huszti

As for Orbán’s political chances, Medgyessy is convinced that “it will not be the opposition but time that will displace Orbán.” The problem with the opposition politicians, including Gyurcsány, is that “they are made of old stuff,” which is somewhat amusing to hear from a former Kádár counterintelligence officer who served as deputy finance minister in the old regime. They are not only old-fashioned socialist types from Kádár’s times, but “they are also mediocre.” No socialist can successfully take on Viktor Orbán, “who is anything but mediocre.” There is only one person who is up to the task, and that is Bernadett Szél. Medgyessy admits that Szél’s prospects for 2018 are slim, but he believes that she will be ready to lead the country in 2022. Medgyessy’s description of Szél as a person who “can integrate people” is strange considering her categorical and total rejection of cooperation with any other opposition politicians.

At the end of the interview Medgyessy repeated what he had asserted in an interview almost a year ago–that Viktor Orbán can be removed only if MSZP, DK, and Jobbik cooperate. Such a solution might not be a principled political decision, but “what is principled in politics?” The question is not whether the political left likes Jobbik. “There are historical situations which override every other consideration.” As for the problem of a workable coalition government that would comprise left-wing parties and a right-wing Jobbik, Medgyessy’s answer was: “This is the art of politics.” After all, this problem was solved in Austria during Wolfgang Schüssel’s chancellorship between 2000 and 2007 when he formed a coalition government with Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party of Austria.

The interview was not well received in opposition circles. The only person who had a high opinion of the interview was László Kéri, who found Medgyessy’s assessment of the present Hungarian situation correct and convincing. His colleague Zoltán Lakner, whom I consider perhaps the best political analyst in Hungary today, had a strikingly different opinion of Medgyessy and his interview. He said that it is hard to forget Medgyessy’s D-209 past and his rather miserable performance as prime minister. Moreover, someone who doesn’t remember the past accurately might not be the best person to predict the future. Here Lakner is referring to Medgyessy’s repeated claim after his resignation that it was a veritable coup d’état organized by Gyurcsány and other MSZP leaders that removed him from office. And with a D-209 past, “he shouldn’t stand on a moral pedestal because it may wobble under him.”

Lakner’s colleague Kornélia Magyar, in a comment to the above, wondered why Index found an interview with Medgyessy such a good idea just now. What is the editorial direction of Index? Clearly, she is suggesting an ulterior motive behind the publication of this interview. I assume Magyar was making a mental note of the fact that Index is owned by Lajos Simicska, who has been supporting Jobbik.

Jenő Kaltenbach, former ombudsman in charge of national and ethnic minority rights, was blunt in expressing his befuddlement at “keeping alive these political weathervane-corpses (Szili, Medgyessy). Unless because of Fidesz.”

This last point refers to the fact that in November 2015 Péter Szijjártó bestowed a prize on Medgyessy for his work on developing closer relations between China and Hungary. The ceremony took place shortly after Medgyessy in an interview claimed that corruption was not greater during the Orbán government than it had been earlier. As for Katalin Szili, formerly one of the top MSZP politicians who was president of the parliament (2002-2009), she accepted all sorts of jobs from Viktor Orbán after 2010. For example, she became a member of the Nemzeti Konzultációs Testület in 2011 and in that capacity had a hand in writing the new constitution. Since March 2015 she has been working for the Orbán government as a commissioner representing the prime minister himself, dealing with matters related to Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.

What upset MSZP politicians most was Medgyessy’s suggestion of a political collaboration with Jobbik. The party published a statement in which they expressed their opinion that “Jobbik is the party of a billionaire thief while Fidesz is the party of thieving billionaires –one mustn’t vote for either! With these? Never!” Ildikó Lendvai, former party chairman and leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation between 2002 and 2009, stressed in a television interview yesterday that, although she thinks highly of Medgyessy and considers him a pleasant and clever man, she found this interview unfortunate. To work together with Jobbik would be a suicidal strategy. She also took issue with Medgyessy’s support of Bernadett Szél. Although Szél is a very promising and talented politician, one cannot have as the common prime minister of the democratic opposition somebody who refuses to work with others.

All of this shows the predicament in which Hungarian opposition politicians find themselves. Viktor Orbán managed to set up a structure that created a trap from which it is almost impossible to break out.

November 9, 2017

MSZP’s self-inflicted wounds, with some outside help

Mistaking the date of the publication, I started reading a report by József Nagy of 24.hu from June 2017. The report was based on conversations with ten high-level MSZP politicians about the prospects of their party. Most of them were so optimistic about the bright future for MSZP led by István Botka that Nagy’s article bore the title “Botka eats the grandmother.” One of them described the situation as follows: the party now has 20% of the votes among the determined voters and perhaps by October MSZP will have 27%. If not, they will have to come to terms with the Demokratikus Koalíció.

The polls published in May and June did show a slight bump in MSZP’s popularity, but that didn’t last for long. The party began losing supporters at a fairly rapid rate. Instead of reaching 27% support by October, Medián reported at the beginning of November that MSZP has only 9% support among those voters who are 100% sure that they will vote. DK has 7%. So, it’s no wonder that an article appeared in HVG today that talked about “shrinkage of the declining MSZP.” MSZP is in such a sorry state, claimed the article, that by now its leaders are ready to invent agreements with DK in order to boost the waning trust of the voters in MSZP. This description of the state of affairs is not quite accurate, but it is true that some observers talk about the party’s “death struggle.” It is just a question of time before the socialist party meets its maker.

Party preferences in October 2017 / blue: population as a whole; green: eligible voters; red: committed voters

Many of MSZP’s problems are self-inflicted. Let’s start with Tibor Szanyi, who for years has been a problematic character. Every few months he comes out with something outrageous, but he seems to have enough clout within the party that he never gets into serious trouble with the leadership. It’s possible that his latest job as a member of the European Parliament was an attempt to remove him from center stage, but unfortunately Facebook is always at his disposal. And he is a diligent contributor. Moreover, he is still a frequent guest on radio and television programs.

In order to “appreciate” Szanyi’s lack of common sense, here is an early example. A few months after Szanyi occupied his office in Brussels, he invited the far-right Goy Bikers for a visit to get acquainted with the workings of the European Parliament. Their airfare was paid from a special fund that could be tapped by members of parliament for such invitations but, naturally, whoever came up with the idea didn’t have the Goy Bikers in mind.

This time Szanyi decided to commemorate the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution by posting a photo of the only major blemish on the face of a revolution, which was renowned for its incredibly humane treatment of those on the other side. Anyone who tried to use force was told that these people should be dealt with in a court of law. But a mob attacked and lynched several people after the occupation of the party headquarters. The Kádár regime used this event as proof of the counterrevolutionary nature of the revolution. Szanyi decided to remember the revolution with this photo, which he posted on Facebook. By now the photo and Szanyi’s comment are no longer available. Everybody, not just Fidesz-KDNP and its media, was outraged. Gyula Molnár felt compelled to distance himself and his party from Szanyi’s outrageous “remembrance of the revolution.”

But that’s not all. Szanyi’s latest is that he shared his opinion, again on Facebook, of László Marton’s sexual dalliances, saying that he finds “the public calibration of Marton’s penis a disgusting thing. It is worth recalling who is running around on stage stark naked,” obviously referring to the women who were allegedly the victims of Marton’s sexual interest. Well, that wasn’t well received in the party either. Kata Tüttő, a member of the board, sent Szanyi straight to hell. István Ujhelyi, his colleague in the European Parliament, wrote “Tibor, this is shameful. Stop it!” Szanyi’s post elicited an incredible number of comments, practically all negative.

One could write Szanyi off as an aberration. But when a letter to the party chairman, written by an important party leader, accusing him of incompetence, reaches the public, the situation is more serious. And that is what happened yesterday. HírTV got hold of a letter that Árpád Velez, a former “party director,” wrote to Gyula Molnár. In it he describes at length how Molnár ruined the party. From a “leading party of the left [Molnár] created a vulnerable political community which is unmotivated, dejected, trailing after the others.” In this weakened state MSZP is at the mercy of DK, which has been building a strong structure while “our own party is in ruins.” Apparently one reason for Velez’s distraught state of mind is that the district he was supposed to run in was allegedly given to DK.

The impression is that MSZP is in total chaos. Gyula Molnár stated already on Friday that MSZP and DK had reached an agreement. The announcement was made in an interview with György Bolgár, the moderator of Klubrádió’s call-in program “Let’s Talk It Over.” Molnár said that the two parties had agreed on a 60-40 split of the 106 electoral districts. DK’s press office immediately released a correction: “Contrary to a series of news items and statements, so far no agreement has been reached concerning the coordinated candidacy of electoral districts between MSZP and DK. Negotiations are still ongoing. Our aim is to reach an agreement within weeks.” It turned out, however, that Molnár had told the truth. An agreement about the ratio had been reached, but there was no final decision yet on the particulars. For example, MSZP and DK must talk to the other smaller parties about the allocation of districts.

The way I see it, DK has tried to undermine MSZP’s credibility by choosing to interpret what constitutes an “understanding.” As a result of DK’s denial, the alleged chaos within MSZP has been magnified, and the public perception of the incompetence of the MSZP leadership has been strengthened. DK is counting on the further weakening of MSZP and the growth of DK as a result of a promising signature drive against the voting rights of dual citizens. Apparently, in the first five days DK collected 70,000 signatures. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these negotiations drag on until the end of November, when new opinion polls are available. Perhaps, if DK closes the gap with MSZP, even the 60-40 split will have to be renegotiated. Of course, with Fidesz support among committed voters standing at 61%, these negotiations will have at best only a marginal effect on the outcome of next year’s election.

November 7, 2017