Tag Archives: MSZP

Momentum’s anti-Olympics drive has momentum

As is evident from the government media, the Orbán government is mighty upset over the early success of the Momentum Movement’s signature drive to hold a referendum on whether Budapest should host the 2024 Olympic Games. On the very first day of the campaign, Magyar Nemzet reported that people were queuing up and waiting a long time to be able to add their names to the list of those who believe that Hungary’s current financial situation doesn’t warrant such an extravagance. A host of problems remain in healthcare and education, on which in the last six or seven years the government has spent far too little money.

My hunch is that, initially, Viktor Orbán was not at all worried about Momentum’s anti-Olympics project. Two opinion polls had been held on the question, and the second one, after massive pro-Olympic propaganda, showed a slight majority supporting the idea. Therefore, I assume that the government decided to allow the signature drive in the belief that it would be a flop. Instead, here we are one week later and the activists have collected almost 70,000 signatures. Momentum has 30 days altogether to collect 138,000 signatures in favor of a referendum.

“No for the Olympics, yes for our future!”

Shortly after the beginning of the campaign, Magyar Idők must have gotten the word to begin a campaign of its own against Momentum and the opposition parties that decided to support it. Dávid Megyeri, a journalist for the government mouthpiece, tried to convince his readers and perhaps also himself that the opposition parties are actually committing “collective seppuku” by supporting Momentum’s anti-Olympics campaign, even if “they are hiding behind a phantom organization.” Megyeri’s imagination went quite far in assessing the dreadful consequences of this signature drive for the socialists. It is quite possible, he wrote, that the attack on the Olympics will be considered “a casus belli for MSZP’s voters.” He believes that the anti-Olympic drive “practically guarantees the disappearance of the remainder of the socialist party.” The “miniature” MSZP will fall into the lap of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The little fish will eat the big fish, concludes Megyeri. Perhaps a threat of this sort will further confuse the already confused MSZP leadership.

In fact, the most fervent supporters of Momentum’s drive are the activists of LMP, who collected an additional 10,000 signatures in a week. And who knows how many signatures were collected by the activists of the Two-tailed Dog Party, Együtt, and Párbeszéd. Magyar Idők tried to minimize the damage the drive’s success was causing by insisting that “the signature collection has lost its momentum.” That certainly does not seem to be the case.

Mayor István Tarlós, who initially was not too keen on holding the Olympics, by now has become a great fan, arguing that no sane person should sign the petition because Budapest will be the clear winner of the Olympic Games if Hungary gets the nod. After all, the construction of almost all the necessary buildings and stadiums as well as infrastructure improvements will benefit Budapest, while the government will take care of all the expenses. Of course, he is right, but the rest of the country, which lags behind the capital city in economic development, is not so enamored with the idea. Outside of Budapest enthusiasm for the Games is substantially lower than in the capital.

While the activists are doing a great job, the same cannot be said about the opposition parties. Let’s start with the opposition members of the Budapest City Council. LMP’s Antal Csárdi proposed that Budapest withdraw its bid for the 2024 Olympics. Of course, given the preponderance of Fidesz members on the Council, there was no way for Csárdi’s proposal to succeed. But at least one would have expected that the liberal-socialist members would vote for the proposal. Well, that didn’t happen. We are talking about thirteen opposition members all told, of whom only five supported the motion. Of the five MSZP members two voted for the motion, one abstained, one didn’t vote although he was present, and one voted against it. One DK member voted for it, the other against it. That will give you an idea about the state of the Hungarian opposition. Just as reflector.blog.hu remarked, “this is a sorry lot.”

Demokratikus Koalíció also showed itself to be totally inept and clumsy when the party decided “to help” the drive by setting up independent stations for non-Budapesters, letting them express themselves on the question of the Olympics even though they were not eligible to sign the petition. It soon became clear that DK, instead of helping the drive, was hindering it. Even the pro-DK nyugatifény.blog disapproved of the move that only confused people. After a day, the DK campaign was halted.

After the disastrous city council vote, the government media had a real heyday, pointing out the opposition’s double game. Pro-government journalists called attention to MSZP politicians who are now supporting the anti-Olympic drive but who earlier had enthusiastically endorsed hosting the Olympics. One of these “turncoats” was Ágnes Kunhalmi who, according to Origo, had said in 2015 that, if it depended on her, she would rather spend the money on education, but “the two together may give such strength to Hungary that it may set our country toward unparalleled successes.” She made crystal clear that she “supported the cause.” Rather embarrassing, I’m afraid, in light of her signing the petition on practically the first day of the drive.

Csaba Horváth, leader of the MSZP group in the City Council, was equally enthusiastic at the same event organized by the Hungarian Olympic Committee. However, Horváth is now trying to divert attention from this video interview available online. He made public the transcript of a speech he delivered at the council meeting on December 2, 2015. He now claims that he was the first one to suggest holding a referendum on the question of the Games. According to the transcript, Horváth said: “I believe in the Olympic movement; I believe in my politician friends; and above all, I believe that all Hungarians can unite for a good cause. However, the final decision should be based on the broadest possible consensus. Therefore, I suggest that we should hold a referendum on the question of the Olympics.” He apparently repeated the same sentiment in a letter addressed to János Lázár a few days later. Furthermore, on January 27, 2016, the opposition members put forth a motion about holding such a referendum, which was naturally voted down. By September 2016, he said, he was of the opinion that Budapest will not be able to accommodate the Olympics in 2024. But then why on earth did he abstain in the vote on Antal Csárdi’s motion? Typical MSZP waffling, I’m afraid. The party is loath to take a clear stand on anything.

Whether the Orbán government will actually allow a referendum even if Momentum and its allies get enough signatures, which by now is likely, remains questionable. Portfolio pointed out, however, that there is a good possibility that the International Olympic Committee will decide that support for the project is far too low in Budapest. In the past, cities were chosen only where popular support was over 65%, which is a far cry from the percentages measured by opinion polls in Hungary. In September 2015, only 41% of Hungarians supported the idea, according to Medián. Although the Hungarian Olympic Committee held its own poll, which showed a slight majority for supporters, most other polls indicate that only about 50% of Hungarians support a Budapest Olympics. In Paris, by contrast, popular support is 70%, while in Los Angeles it is 88%. I do hope that the International Olympic Committee will have enough brains to choose Los Angeles or Paris instead of a rather reluctant Budapest.

January 27, 2016

On László Botka’s nomination and an NGO win

I will try to cover two topics today. First, I will share my initial reactions to László Botka as the official nominee of MSZP for the post of prime minister. And second, I will give an example of the kind of success NGOs can achieve in defending the rule of law in Hungary.

László Botka’s nomination

This morning, on Klub Rádió’s call-in-program “Let’s Talk It Over,” I listened with great interest to the by and large enthusiastic reception of MSZP’s nomination of László Botka as its candidate for prime minister. I myself was also glad that at last MSZP, a party known for its confused messages and timidity, had made a definitive move. I still welcomed the move, although initially I had disapproved of MSZP’s decision to act on its own. I hoped that the socialist leadership had explained to Botka that he must have an open mind in his negotiations with the Demokratikus Koalíció because Botka’s opening salvo against the chairman of DK didn’t bode well as far as future negotiations were concerned. And without DK there is no possibility of forging a workable election alliance.

Great was my disappointment when I read the short summary of Botka’s program in 168 Óra. In Botka’s opinion, the Third Way, which can be described as a political position that tries to combine right-wing economic and left-wing social policies within the social democratic movement, proved to be a failure in Hungary. He named Ferenc Gyurcsány as the chief proponent of this political philosophy. The failure of the Third Way, he said, led to the rise of populism and the stunning electoral victory of Viktor Orbán.

I would need a little more time to ponder Botka’s theory, but at first blush it doesn’t strike me as a valid criticism. One obvious counterargument is the growth of populism throughout the western world without either a Third Way or Ferenc Gyurcsány. I would suggest that Botka consider the 2008 world economic crisis as one possible cause of our current problems. With a little effort we could come up with many other factors that would counter Botka’s theory, among them the very strong showing of Fidesz from at least 2002 on, when experimentation with Tony Blair’s brainchild was still nowhere.

In any case, if Botka is serious about becoming the candidate of all democratic parties he should reconsider his attitude. Otherwise, his failure is guaranteed. One can’t start negotiations from such a position.

DK’s reaction was muted. Csaba Molnár, deputy chairman of DK, announced that they are expecting Botka’s call, adding that they agree that a new program is necessary for the removal of the Orbán government. He offered DK’s almost 80-page program “Hungary of the Many” for his consideration.

The Helsinki Commission (and Friends) and the European Court of Human Rights

The Orbán government has singled out three NGOs as the most objectionable: the Helsinki Commission, Transparency International, and Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (TASZ), which is the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. These three organizations stand for freedom, equality, the rule of law, human rights, and transparency. They call the government to account when it doesn’t follow the country’s laws or doesn’t fulfill its international obligations. Naturally, they are incredible irritants to the Orbán government.

One such case in which they called the government to task was the nomination of a Hungarian judge to the European Court of Human Rights.

Since, after 2010, the Hungarian Constitutional Court has been filled with government appointees, the “last resort” of NGOs is often the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The Court’s current Hungarian judge is András Sajó, a legal scholar, university professor, and member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, whose nine-year tenure will expire at the end of the month. Therefore, the Orbán government will be able to nominate one of its own.

According to Council of Europe policy, the nomination must be democratic and transparent. If not, the nominee might be rejected. Three names ought to be submitted for consideration, and their nomination must be preceded by an open application process.

Knowing the Orbán government’s attitude toward such international obligations, the Helsinki Commission was worried already a year ago about the government’s plans for the nomination of a new Hungarian judge. Therefore, they inquired from László Trócsányi, minister of justice, about the progress the government had made. The answer was worrisome because Trócsányi called the prescriptions of the Council of Europe “recommendatory documents.” In June, the Helsinki Commission inquired again and was told that the ministry of justice was in the midst of consultation with experts. When asked who these experts were, the ministry refused to divulge their identities, citing privacy rights. It then informed the Helsinki Commission that the list of names had already been submitted to the court. In response, 11 NGOs together demanded the withdrawal of the submitted names and asked for an open application process. This time, the ministry of justice didn’t even bother to answer their letter.

At this point 15 Hungarian NGOs informed the Council of Europe about the illegality of the Hungarian nomination process. It turned out that of the three submitted nominees two were closely connected to the current Hungarian government: one was an adviser to Trócsányi and the other was a department head in the ministry of justice who at one point had represented the Hungarian government in a case before the ECHR.

The General Meeting of ECHR decided against the two objectionable candidates, and so the Hungarian government turned in two new names. One of the replacements was also connected to the ministry of justice. And the open application process was again ignored.

The NGOs complained and this time turned to the ECHR. In response, the secretary-general of ECHR indicated to the Hungarian government that in the absence of an open application procedure, the nominees will be rejected. At this point the Orbán government threw in the towel. In October it withdrew the nominations and announced it would hold an open application process for the jobs.

The applicants had only two weeks to prepare, and outsiders had little knowledge about the selection process, but this was still a big step forward. This time, of the three names, only one has government ties, less intimate than in earlier cases. The finalists are Krisztina Füzi-Rozsnyai, an administrative lawyer, Péter Paczolay, former chief justice of the constitutional court, and Pál Sonnevend, head of the department of international law at ELTE. On January 12 the three applicants had their hearings. A final decision will be made on January 24.

After reading just this one case, I think it is easy to understand why the Orbán government wants to demonize these NGOs and possibly remove them. It is not a stretch for Orbán to claim that they are involved in anti-government political activities since they are defending the rule of law in a country where the government does everything in its power to circumvent the law. And they are often more successful than the political parties because of their expertise in both domestic and European law.

January 19, 2017

The Hungarian opposition is still in disarray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ágnes Heller

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

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

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

January 9, 2017

András Kósa: The speech of the chief, Őszöd ten years later, Part III

Gyurcsány’s attempt to interpret the speech in Őszöd as the beginning of a new era

András Kósa, a well-known Hungarian journalist, recently published The Speech of the Chief: Őszöd after Ten Years, a collection of interviews with Ferenc Gyurcsány, former and current politicians, and political commentators. Interest in Gyurcsány’s speech and its impact on subsequent political developments doesn’t seem to wane.

A reader and friend of Hungarian Spectrum, Steven N., who is also a friend of Kósa, translated the interview with Gyurcsány for publication here. Since the interview was lengthy, I posted it in installments. The first and second have already appeared. This is the final installment.

♦ ♦ ♦

András Kósa: You know Vladimir Putin personally, as you’ve met with him on several occasions. What is the secret of the surprisingly strong relationship between the Russian President and Viktor Orbán?

Ferenc Gyurcsány: To answer this, it has to be noted that in the mid-to-late 2000s, the European Union and the Obama administration viewed Putin as a leader who was democratizing cautiously. During his first visit to Berlin, the entire Bundestag gave him a standing ovation. Then, in the Russian parliamentary elections in the fall of 2011, he had to pilfer 17 percentage points to be able to win. In the spring 2012 Presidential election, he again needed to cheat to attain a “victory,” though less so this time. I think these things have changed Putin. He realized that the policies he had pursued up until then did not automatically expand his power, so he launched a campaign of harsh repression at home (including the killing of journalists and political rivals, remaking the Russian criminal code, and restricting the freedom of assembly), and again began to assert the conquering pursuits of Great Russia. I have not changed: I’m not critical of Putin because I’m in the opposition. My relationship towards him did not change until the summer of 2012. We even met in Moscow with our families then. But I don’t like this Putin now. Orbán, by comparison, has taken the opposite route: when the world trusted Putin more, he was very critical of our cooperation. Then when the world increasingly kept its distance from Putin because of what I said earlier, he became one of his main allies. I think the only thing that’s happened here was that Viktor Orbán was looking for partners for his foreign policy, and he found one in Putin. If I want to go against Brussels (which was Orbán’s big foreign policy shift after 2010), then – being the Prime Minister of a small-medium-sized country – I need partners to do this, and Putin is perfect for it at the moment. The current Polish leadership is also an excellent partner.

Is it “only” this?

The possibility that money and corruption are behind the good relations between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin cannot be ruled out. Maybe it also greases their relationship. But it’s not the main reason.

As Prime Minister, you had insight into intelligence-related matters: would it be possible that the large intelligence agencies, for example Russian or American, could not find out pretty much anything about any kind of personal or perhaps business matter, or the financial situation, of the current Hungarian Prime Minister?

If they wanted to, they could find out pretty much anything. Of this, I have no doubt. If you’re asking whether these agencies are able to find out something that they could blackmail a Hungarian Prime Minister with, then I would say, yes, they could do that. Whether they’d use it or not, I wouldn’t be able to say. I didn’t come across these things during my own time in office. I did have very nasty disputes on energy issues with the American ambassador and with representatives of the government in Washington. They tried to talk me into this, that, and the other, but they didn’t venture beyond putting verbal pressure on me. Experts say that today around 600-800 people in Hungary are definitely working for the KGB in some capacity. This is not a small number. And their capacity is such that if they want to listen in on our phone calls, they can do it. If they want to know where we’re going and when, who we’re having dinner with and what we’re talking about, they can find out. I think that this coterie exerts a substantial influence on the world of Jobbik and Fidesz.

During your time in office, how big was this 600-800 number?

Roughly about half of that.

A two-speed Europe is forming right before our eyes, and for now we Hungarians seem to have a strong role on the periphery. In such a situation, in which we know that aid from the EU will be drastically reduced after 2020, how much can democratic ties loosen in Hungary, as well as in the region as a whole?

They won’t expel us from the European Union, but the processes can only really go in such a way that one group of countries will deepen its cooperation and head towards a federal Europe. While we remain on the periphery, as you said. Not only will they fund less and less of our finances, but also increasingly less attention will be paid to the social and general state of affairs here. Maybe I’m naive (since before 2010 I also didn’t expect that such a radical transformation would occur if Fidesz ever came into power), but I can’t really imagine what more the government could do in such a transformed EU. You can’t turn off the internet. There’s hardly any openness as it is. Under European circumstances, the police can still not just come into my apartment, and the authorities can’t take away my assets and businesses. I think that Fidesz has pretty much gone to the wall. It’s possible, of course that they’ve already figured this out, because what’s happening right before our eyes is a march towards a semi-authoritarian regime. János Kádár’s cloak stretches extremely far in this regard.

What do you mean?

We Hungarians signed on to what we thought was a highly successful, but nevertheless dishonest, historic compromise. Hungary was the only place in Eastern Europe where (in our so-called “soft dictatorship”) there wasn’t open repression that affected the masses. The “happiest barracks” was built on an immoral pact in which the authorities said: there are three things that you can’t touch. There’s a one-party system, 1956 was a counter-revolution, and the Soviet troops in Hungary protect the peace. Otherwise, you are more or less free to live your life, you can travel somewhat, the shoe stores have shoes, the meat shops have meat, and you can even tell political jokes too. This somewhat conflated the oppressor with the oppressed, which is why the majority of the country now reacts so permissively to political tyranny. Viktor Orbán correctly senses that it’s not the lack of democracy that will crush his regime. This issue has remained a cause only for the upper segment of the political class. Poor governance of the country leads to poor performance: healthcare, the educational situation, and a lack of prospects, shockingly low wages, and increasing vulnerability in the workplace – these are much more dangerous to Orbán than the fact that public television has become the television station of the ruling party. They’ll change the channel to something else.

Why is it that in Hungary charges of corruption don’t harm the government?

One reason is that Byzantine culture has maintained itself right up until the present time: if the powers-that-be dip into the common goods but some of it still occasionally comes my way, then I won’t be so strict with the rules all the time on my own level – this itself is in the tradition of Byzantine culture, which can still be found here. Moreover, the entire political class is considered corrupt – so what’s the difference? But there’s a much more tangible reason as well: the public prosecutor here has a monopoly on prosecuting cases. Péter Polt essentially refuses to launch any kind of investigation, so every initiative comes to naught. The system today is itself built upon corruption; it doesn’t have just a speck of corruption, but is its very essence. Everyone in Fidesz knows about it, everyone knows who is corrupt and in what way, but they condone each other’s actions. Finally, it’s because the opposition has not been very successful with these matters. In any case, Péter Juhász, the representative of the Együtt Party, has done more in this area in the past few years than the rest of us put together.

Will you be Prime Minister of Hungary again?

I won’t rule it out.

Would you want it?

I don’t have such a strong desire for it right now. I did have it in 2004, no question. I am grateful to fate for letting me be Hungary’s Prime Minister, but it now also has a strong desire for this democratic and civic alternative which I represent to gain a large base of support. It has a stronger desire for this now than it does to make me Prime Minister once more. I can feel good about imagining my life in a way that I remain a Member of Parliament and not have any higher power than this. But it’s devilishly hard to predict what fate will bring in 2022 or 2026. I’ll be 66 years old in 2026: this is still an active age as a politician. I am fortunate because my ambitions and opportunities are just now coming together.

You were once considered one of the most promising politicians in Hungary after the regime change of 1989, and then your name became associated with one of its biggest scandals. What was this experience like for you?

If I could be objective, I’d say: it’s my personal misfortune. But there’s no anger inside me towards anyone. For those who go into this career, it doesn’t hurt to be aware that such things can happen to you. Looking back, I don’t lament about how much of what happened to me was fair or not. Or how much was my fault, or how much was due to chance or a malicious conspiracy by others.

What was your responsibility?

To start with, I took over the government at the head of a party that I was not compatible with, neither culturally or in terms of mentality. This was encoded into what happened later.

When did you realize this? That you weren’t compatible with your own party.

When things started to go bad for us after 2006. And when I saw that Fidesz owed its success, among other things, to being able to fight its battles as a large singular unit, which we were not capable of. When Orbán gave his ultimatum after the Őszöd speech was leaked, that if they do not remove me as Prime Minister within 72 hours then he would put so much pressure on MSZP that we couldn’t hope to be able to bear it, I naturally called together the leaders of the Socialist Party. And I had to admit that there were some in the leadership who wanted to comply with Orbán’s demand purely out of fear. In that regard, of course, they were honest enough to indicate as much – and so the decision was made for me to ask for a vote of confidence against myself in Parliament. But after this, I felt that the party had completely changed: not standing up for introducing the doctor’s visit fee, not arguing for it or explaining it, but fleeing from it. This showed me that the party could not handle the struggles that I urged them to fight for in the Őszöd speech. I had convinced them right then and there. I got their votes, but I couldn’t get their hearts. If you don’t believe in the story, in the hellish debates, in the struggle – then what is it in politics that you do believe in?

We do love conspiracy theories, so since you’ve already brought up the 72-hour ultimatum of October 2006: many contend that with this step Orbán truly brought you back into the game from a losing position. If he had been slower and more patient then and there, he could even have succeeded with the ruling coalition ridding itself of Ferenc Gyurcsány. But after such an ultimatum, MSZP could not have done anything else but reinforce your position three days later in a Parliamentary vote of confidence.

I prefer to believe in the truth contained in a non-public poetic treatise by Orbán that we learned about from the Wikileaks cables, stating, “If you can kill your adversary, and don’t put it off.” I don’t think that today’s Prime Minster, who was the leader of the opposition at the time, delivered this ultimatum in order to keep me in office. He did it because he had assessed the courage of the Socialists pretty well, and he saw a chance that they would back away from me.

There is also an interpretation that you two need each other mutually in a political sense, as a clearly tangible image of each other’s enemy.

I know that to this day there exists this Orbán-Gyurcsány parallel, which really does hold up in two respects. With respect to our origin, we both came from a provincial town and from poverty, and were both first generation intellectuals. But more importantly, we have taken completely opposite routes since coming to Budapest: Orbán became jealous of the downtown elite – he felt that they had taken something from him. Even to this day, he views the metropolitan intellectual elite with contempt. But I admired them. The way I saw it, it was like, “Damn, you can live this way too! Then why would I do it any other way?” We’re also alike in that both of us are strong characters who live for politics. This is true. But there are no similarities between our respective visions. Nor between the systems that we want to build. I think that Viktor Orbán started as a very promising European-minded democrat, and I even saw very many things in him to admire. But from then on he has become an increasingly authoritarian figure who left behind everything about him that was respectable. I came from the youth organization of the state party, so there’s no doubt that he could label me a “communist” (while even before the regime change we had said that we wanted a multi-party system, just more cautiously and slowly, unlike Fidesz at the time), but on this basis I became a wholehearted democrat.

It is said that the reason why Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico understand each other so well (though they have different ideologies within their party’s family structure) is because both are opportunistic, populist politicians who always view a particular situation in terms of the techniques of power, and analyze how to exploit it to their benefit. After Fico was elected as Prime Minister for the second time (freeing himself from the nationalist Slovak National Party), he was able to “turn towards Europe” after 2012 and develop good relations with Brussels. Do you think Viktor Orbán would also be capable of the same in a particular situation?

I wouldn’t rule it out. The turnabout he did in Hungarian-Russian relations in connection with expanding the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant, in a very short time and managed so successfully (the right-wing voting base, having previously been extremely suspicious towards the Russians, adopted a basically pro-Russian stance two months later, according to polling) speaks for itself. I do absolve Orbán on a very small point, and can self-critically say: it is of course important to be principally and morally committed in politics (which I think I still represent to this day), but it should not be taken too far. I took it too far. It’s perfectly normal for a politician to think about what his voters give him a mandate to do and not to do, no matter how correct he may be. When Orbán said to the Christian Democrats, “However right you are in regards to banning abortion, no matter how much it may be your fundamental position as a principled Christian, if we do this we’ll lose the elections,” I think he was completely right to say it. It wasn’t that I thought: “These Hungarians have become accustomed to free health care while they hand out gratuity money to doctors. I have to convince them to do things differently.” But before that point I should have thought about whether I could convince them, and if not, what good would it do if I lost and then they change it back? Because then I didn’t do anything. I was proud that I fought to justify myself even against the will of the majority. Viktor Orbán pushes terribly hard for the other half of this matter: he is capable of nearly any compromise on principle for the stabilization and extension of his power. Of course, he doesn’t rely on the discretion of the people, so he dismantles institutions that provide a check on democracy: even if they wanted to they wouldn’t be able to stop his intentions.

However, as a wealthy businessman, you sometimes say things like you know what it’s like to live on minimum wage, which it’s better to live poorly but honestly…

Why wouldn’t I able to know? A doctor doesn’t have to have a backache to be able to feel his patient’s pain. A teacher doesn’t have to be an idiot to be able to feel the suffering that his weakest student goes through studying for the next day’s lesson. A politician doesn’t have to live in misery to understand that public goods should be distributed on the basis of social justice. And I haven’t even spoken about coming from an apartment with a kitchenette, where our toilet was in the outer corridor, or a Christmas when we didn’t even have a donut to eat. And I don’t even have to add that a large part of my family still lives a life that is not even lower-middle class, but one beneath that. People I regularly get together with. I consider this comment a cheap intellectual slur if I ever happen to see it.

Do you have any personal relationships with right-wing politicians or opinion makers?

None.

Do you think this is normal?

Of course not. But this is because of a deliberate division of the country into two on Orbán’s behalf. We go along hearing phrases (from Orbán) like “the homeland cannot be in opposition,” while these are the most severe words you can say. This statement means that you do not consider another’s political existence as natural. You consider the other political side as an error that must be eliminated, and with their elimination you have less and less moral compunction. This is the endpoint of this process. And in turn, Viktor Orbán’s responsibility for making this concept more and more acceptable to the country cannot be overstated.

How do you think this final/fatal mutual distrust can be overcome? And would this generation be at all capable of doing it?

Certainly not with Orbán. The preamble to the current Hungarian constitution condemns the entire Hungarian left. Which is absurd. But I also do not think that a majority of Fidesz supporters and some of its leaders would not want a world that is much more relaxed than the one we have now.

Where do you think the country is now, ten years after Őszöd?

In its moral state ten years before Őszöd – I mean that it is in worse shape than before 2006. But Őszöd is not the primary cause of the moral deterioration. It’s a different issue whether it helped open up the way to letting what the authorities are now doing to the country hide in the cloak of legality. There is now a terrible atmosphere in the country, without any large, shared positive experiences or successes.

December 24, 2016

MSZP steps up to support László Botka without talking to the other parties

I’m amazed at the ineptitude of most of the politicians in the Hungarian opposition parties. They simply don’t know what should and what should not be said. I’m afraid that László Botka’s surprise announcement of his willingness to lead an election campaign, which I greeted enthusiastically, will lead nowhere because of the mistakes he and his party made within the short span of 24 hours.

Let’s start with the interview itself, to which I didn’t have access two days ago when I wrote about the Botka phenomenon. I had to rely on summaries. Now I have the full text. Botka stressed that he considers the closest cooperation among the democratic parties to be the cornerstone of victory. That means that he, as a long-time leading member of MSZP, must convince the other parties to join the common cause. But if this is the case, why did he feel it necessary to include the following sentences? “I have a better opinion of Ferenc Gyurcsány than the average Hungarian citizen. The numbers show that a good two-thirds of the electorate wouldn’t vote for a party list on which his name appears.” This is not an auspicious start toward forging a united front against the Orbán government.

Let’s take a look at the poll to which Botka was referring. Apparently, one of the smaller opposition parties commissioned it for their internal use. The party wanted to assess the attitude of the electorate toward a common list that included Gyurcsány’s name. If you take a look at the results as they appeared in 168 Óra, you will find that the numbers Botka is quoting include Fidesz, LMP and Jobbik voters, who wouldn’t vote for a list put together by MSZP, DK, Párbeszéd, Együtt, etc. in the first place. Not terribly surprisingly, 86% of Fidesz, 89% of Jobbik, and 79% of LMP voters wouldn’t want anything to do with the democratic opposition’s common list. These people are not the democratic opposition’s potential voters. The numbers that are relevant are the MSZP, DK, and undecided voters. Naturally, 91% of DK voters would vote for a common list that included their party chief. Even the majority (62%) of MSZP voters aren’t allergic to the former prime minister. And most importantly, the undecided voters are split almost down the middle on the issue. Surely, headlines like “No Gyurcsány even against Orbán” are misleading. And Botka’s reliance on the overall poll number is regrettable.

MSZP made the second mistake today. Botka’s conditions for being a candidate for prime minister were addressed to the leaders of all the democratic parties. Not just to MSZP. Yet the party, without consulting with the others, made an official announcement saying that they accept Botka’s conditions because “in the last six months the party in its negotiations with the other opposition parties represented exactly the ideas that László Botka put forth.” Therefore, “MSZP supports him as the candidate for the post of common prime minister of the democratic opposition.”

Not surprisingly, DK is not thrilled. The official reason for their dissatisfaction is that, until now, MSZP supported the idea of selecting both the candidate for the post of prime minister and the 106 individuals who would run in each electoral district through primaries. MSZP’s unilateral support for Botka goes against the party’s position during the negotiations. Otherwise, Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman of DK, announced that his party is ready to give up the idea of primaries because, after all, at earlier by-elections opposition candidates won handily without any newfangled selection process. They are, however, waiting for MSZP’s “final suggestion on the method of choosing a candidate for the post of prime minister” before they announce their reaction to these new developments. Gréczy said nothing about Botka’s implicit demand to remove Gyurcsány’s name from the joint party list, but there is no question that the DK leadership will never agree to such a condition.

The Orbán media is making the most of Botka’s unfortunate remarks. Magyar Idők’s headline trumpets that “according to Botka, the left cannot win with Gyurcsány.”

The paper is also piling abuse on László Botka as a politician. Apparently, one of the leading socialist politicians told the paper that “Botka should stay in Szeged” because he is a “disagreeable fellow” who has only demands while he waits for others to do the work. Other socialists pointed out that “creating a joint list without Gyurcsány is impossible.”

888.hu is busily publishing article after article about Botka, saying that his popularity in Szeged is waning because of his “support” of the “migrants.” He is described as someone who would love to see thousands and thousands of migrants because when the refugees arrived in Szeged during the summer of 2015, he dared to say that “they didn’t disturb the inhabitants of the city at all.” His sin was that he behaved humanely when thousands were stranded at the Szeged railroad stations.

Soon enough Botka will find himself in Gyurcsány’s shoes

I suspect that Viktor Orbán is not happy with the appearance of László Botka as a possible leader of the opposition, and therefore the pro-government media is already hard at work trying to discredit him. It would be time to close ranks on the left, to iron out the differences in a great hurry. That will mean compromise on Botka’s part as well.

December 23, 2016

Can László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, lead the democratic opposition?

The big news of the day is an interview that László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, gave for 168 Óra’s special Christmas edition. The paper will be on the newsstands only tomorrow, but the word is that Botka, the most popular socialist politician, is ready to lead the united opposition as a candidate for the premiership. Of course, he will accept the job only if his conditions are met by the currently negotiating opposition parties.

First, a few words about Botka, about whom I have written only twice before at any length. He joined MSZP at the tender age of 18. A year later, as a first-year law student in Szeged, he was already the honorary chairman of the party’s youth movement. In 1994 he won his district in the national election and, at the age of 21, was the youngest member of parliament. With the exception of four years, between 1998 and 2002, he was a member of parliament until 2014. In 2002, at the age of 29, he also became mayor of Szeged, a position he has continued to hold even as, at the municipal elections, almost the entire country turned orange.

László Botka in front of the Szeged City Hall

In the last few years Botka’s name was often mentioned as the party’s best bet for the post of prime minister, but the consensus in the party was that Botka was reluctant to accept the nomination, perhaps because of MSZP’s low standing in the polls. Maybe, commentators claimed, he is waiting for a better opportunity. Then last summer MSZP held its congress, and the delegates massively rejected Botka in his bid for reelection as chairman of the board. He felt betrayed and suspected some kind of conspiracy to remove him. He really wanted to remain in this post because, according to the new by-laws, the chairman is now able to influence the party’s strategy for the election campaign. This would have involved decisions concerning partnerships with other parties. My feeling at the time was that it was for this very reason that Botka was rejected as chairman of the board. He was known to be vehemently opposed to any kind of understanding with DK. Since at that point I had high hopes for a rapprochement between DK and MSZP, I was relieved that Botka was leaving party politics.

A couple of weeks later I wrote an article titled “Harmful politicians in the Hungarian democratic opposition,” in which I singled out Bernadett Szél of LMP and Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt. Szigetvári said that his favorite MSZP politician was László Botka. Since “MSZP blackballed Botka, the only conclusion one can draw is that the socialists don’t want to win the election,” he continued. I must say that Szigetvári’s praise of Botka didn’t endear me toward the mayor of Szeged.

Now, six months later, after seeing no signs of a constructive plan for a political formation that could possibly remove Viktor Orbán from power, I have changed my mind. I now think Botka should be given a chance, especially since I see no other viable and attractive candidate. The pro-government media has been floating names of possible contenders for the job, one less likely than the next. For instance, László Andor, former commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion in the Barroso II administration of the European Commission, whose name surfaced in Magyar Idők, is an excellent economist, but it’s hard to imagine him as an inspiring leader.

Although some people might find Botka too assertive, he is exactly the kind of person the opposition needs at the moment. In addition, it seems that Botka has changed his position on cooperation. Back in July I got the distinct impression that Botka believes MSZP can win the election on its own. Otherwise he wouldn’t have vetoed cooperation with DK. By now he realizes that this idea is dead in the water. MSZP can’t win the election on its own. Without cooperation the chances for the opposition are nil.

Botka put forth three conditions for accepting the candidacy. First, the opposition parties should have one common list. This is very important because, apparently, the negotiators still at the table envisage common candidates but separate lists. That would mean that people could cast their second vote for their favorite party, i.e. MSZP, DK, Együtt, Párbeszéd, etc. This would only confuse the electorate. In 2014, they did have a common list, but all the participating parties’ names were printed on the ballot. That was bad enough. Separate lists would be even worse. Second, candidates in all 106 districts would be picked on the basis of electability, not party affiliation. Thus, he would ban any behind-the-scenes negotiations about the number of spots allotted to each party, according to their relative strength at the polls. And finally, there must be prior agreement about the values and policies appropriate for parties on the left of the political spectrum. That means at some level a joint program.

Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read the full interview Botka gave to 168 Óra, I did hear his conversation with György Bolgár this afternoon. I also read an article published in delmagyar.hu, a local internet news site, whose reporter talked to Botka in Szeged. On both occasions he expressed the view that what’s going on at the moment at the negotiating table among representatives of some of the opposition parties is a replay of the 2014 scene. It led to failure then and it will lead to even bigger failure in 2018. “What we need are one million more voters because even if we add up the supporters of all democratic parties we have only half of what Fidesz has at the moment.” These new voters should come from the undecided group, as well as from Jobbik voters and disappointed Fidesz followers. The politicians at the negotiating table “must get their senses back and make a decision by the beginning of next year. Otherwise, they can forget about me. What’s going on right now I cannot, I don’t want to take part in.”

Well, that is plain talk. Unfortunately, initial reactions, admittedly still scanty, are not encouraging. To my surprise, Együtt didn’t want to respond to Botka’s forceful proposal, which is interesting given Viktor Szigetvári’s earlier expression of admiration for Botka. After all, Szigetvári is the co-chair of the party. DK’s spokesman, Zsolt Gréczy, speaking on Klubrádió, wasn’t at all enthusiastic. He pointed out that at the negotiations the person of the future prime minister had not been discussed and therefore he assumes that Botka’s putting himself forth is nothing more than the expression of “personal ambition.” A rather unfortunate way of saying that, as far as he knows, Botka is not the official candidate of MSZP. To reinforce this point, Gréczy reminded his audience that Botka had been squarely rejected as chairman of MSZP’s board only a few months ago. He promised, however, that DK’s leadership will discuss the matter whenever the issue is officially presented to them. I assume the discussion will be brief.

In a few days an article of mine will come out in Népszava’s Christmas issue. In it I expressed my negative opinion of the politicians of the fractious democratic opposition. I am not sure that Botka’s plan would succeed even if all the others wholeheartedly supported him, but what’s going on now seems utterly hopeless to me.

December 21, 2016

Not on Viktor Orbán’s Christmas list: A European Public Prosecutor

The establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) has been on the table since at least 2013. In the last three years, despite intensive negotiations, progress has been slow because of the resistance of some of the member states, among them Hungary. As it stands, in order to create EPPO 25 member states have to support the proposal because the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark have opted out. According to reports, 20 member states support the plan while Poland, Hungary, Sweden, and the Netherlands oppose it. The reluctance to cede certain national rights to the European Union is understandable from the point of view of nation states, but we can be sure that Hungary’s unwillingness has other sources as well.

EPPO will have the authority “to investigate and prosecute EU-fraud and other crimes affecting the Union’s financial interests.” Currently, only national authorities can investigate and prosecute EU-fraud. The existing EU bodies, such as OLAF, Eurojust, and Europol, don’t have jurisdiction here. OLAF can investigate, but the prosecution must be carried out by the authorities of the member states. As we know, in the case of Hungary OLAF finds plenty to investigate, but the Hungarian authorities never find anything wrong. Europol has no executive powers, and its officials are not entitled to conduct investigations in the member states or to arrest suspects. Eurojust, an organization I have not mentioned before, is merely a coordinating body which is supposed to improve the handling of serious cross-border crimes by “stimulating” investigative and prosecutorial coordination among agencies of the member states. This is another body that has no power over the justice system in the member states. Eurojust could “stimulate” Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office till doomsday and it would never investigate crimes committed by Fidesz officials.

From the description of EPPO’s structure on the website of the European Union I have some difficulty envisaging how this independent prosecutorial body will function. Under a European prosecutor, investigations will be carried out by European delegated prosecutors located in each member state. These delegated prosecutors will be an integral part of the EPPO, but they will also function as national prosecutors. I must say that I have my doubts about this setup, which Viktor Orbán’s regime could easily manipulate. But it will probably never come to pass because, among the Central European EU members, Hungary and Poland have no intention of going along with the plan which, according to Věra Jourová, commissioner in charge of justice, consumers and gender equality, should be voted on within three months.

The head of OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, naturally supports the plan because the number of cases his organization has to investigate increases every year. In 2015 OLAF opened 219 investigations and concluded 304. Hungary alone had 17 possible fraud cases, the third highest after Bulgaria and Romania. But OLAF can only make recommendations to the member states, which at least in Hungary’s case are not pursued. Interestingly, several chief prosecutors in member states support the idea of the setting up a European Prosecutor’s Office, among them the prosecutors of Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, France, and Romania. As we know, in Romania corruption is just as bad if not worse than in Hungary, yet there is a willingness to allow an independent body to investigate cases of fraud and corruption.

Last July the Hungarian media reported that the negotiations were in an advanced stage since Jourová called together the ministers of justice for an informal talk in Bratislava. At that point HVG reported that “Hungary supports the goals of the organization but is afraid that the sovereignty of the Hungarian prosecution may be undermined.” The explanation Justice Minister László Trócsányi gave for Hungary’s hesitation concerning EPPO was that in the Hungarian judicial system the chief prosecutor is appointed by the parliament and therefore the sovereignty issue might be a constitutional problem. By December, after Jourová’s visit to Budapest, this hesitation became a flat refusal. In addition to the argument about the parliamentary appointment of the chief prosecutor, a new argument surfaced in parliament, which had its source in Trócsányi’s proposed additions to the Fidesz constitution about Hungary’s “national identity and basic constitutional arrangements.”

Practically on the same day that the parliamentary committee said no to the proposal “in its present form,” Věra Jourová told Handelsblatt Global that “the European Commission could impose financial penalties on Poland and Hungary if they block the creation of a European public prosecutor.” Poland and Hungary receive more aid from the European Union than they pay into the budget, and therefore their refusal is unacceptable. She disclosed that on the basis of the known cases, €638 million of structural funds were misappropriated in 2015. The actual figure is most likely much higher. This must be stopped, she added.

Věra Jourová, commissioner in charge of justice. Despite her pleasant smile she’s apparently tough.

On December 8 EU justice ministers gathered again in Brussels to discuss the creation of EPPO, but while the majority of them support the plan, a few member states refuse to budge. To quote euractiv.com, “with no end in sight to this blockage, France’s Minister of Justice Jean-Jacques Urvoas and his German counterpart Heiko Maas decided to propose an enhanced cooperation deal for those countries that are in favor of this ‘super prosecutor.’” Enhanced cooperation is a mechanism that allows EU countries to bypass the requirement of unanimity. A group of at least nine member states may request a draft regulation. If this draft fails, the states concerned are free to establish enhanced cooperation among themselves. I fail to see how that would be disadvantageous to rogue states like Poland or Hungary. Orbán would gladly acknowledge the fact that EPPO has no jurisdiction over Hungary, and he and his friends could continue to steal about a third of the structural funds EU provides. A perfect arrangement.

Now let’s turn to how the opposition parties see the issue. As far as Jobbik is concerned, the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office is the first step to the dreaded United States of Europe. In fact, Jobbik accuses Fidesz and the Orbán government of not fighting hard enough in Brussels against this proposal. Jobbik must consider the issue very important because they published a statement in English in which Gábor Staudt, a Jobbik MP, explains the party’s position. He recalls the Fidesz members of the European Parliament not having the guts to vote against the proposal; they only abstained. Jobbik’s opposition is based strictly on its nationalistic defense of Hungarian sovereignty whereas Fidesz worries primarily about the legal consequences of an independent European prosecutor’s office investigating crimes of government officials.

The democratic Hungarian opposition parties are all enthusiastic supporters of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office. DK was actually campaigning with the idea ahead of the 2014 European parliamentary election. Benedek Jávor, a member of the European parliament delegated by PM (nowadays Párbeszéd), joined DK’s demand soon after. István Ujhelyi (MSZP), also a member of the European parliament, is of the same mind. He wrote a lengthy piece, published on the party’s website, about the necessity of such a body in the absence of a functioning Hungarian prosecutor’s office. Ujhelyi is sure that if EPPO is set up “the Fidesz hussars will be behind bars in crowded rows, including those corrupt officials who assist them.” He criticizes Fidesz members of the European Parliament for abandoning the position of the European People’s Party to which they belong. They “almost alone abstained” at the time the matter was discussed in Strasbourg.

Ujhelyi somewhat optimistically points out that if Hungary remains outside the group of countries that are ready to be under the jurisdiction of the European Public Prosecutor, the distinction between honest and dishonest countries will be evident. In case Fidesz refuses to support the decision, “it will be an admission that it is a party of thieves.” I’m afraid Viktor Orbán and his government simply don’t care what others think of them. At the moment Viktor Orbán is in Poland on a two-day visit. I understand that he and Jarosław Kaczyński had a leisurely three-hour dinner. I’m sure that the threat of a European Public Prosecutor to the sovereignty of Poland and Hungary was thoroughly discussed.

December 11, 2016