Tag Archives: opposition parties

“Observer”: An action befitting a dictatorship

The action of the “independent” State Audit Commission (ÁSZ) against the opposition parties emerges as the most brazen act of political repression committed by the Orbán regime to date (together with the respective legislation passed earlier).

Although many already may know the basic facts, I would like to recap:

At the end of last year ÁSZ completed the scheduled audits of all opposition parties and unprecedentedly found that they all had accepted “illegal funding in kind” and suggested* they have to repay/pay the amount of the alleged illegal funding shown below + an equal amount of fine:

  • LMP 8 mil. Ft. for below market prices leases
  • DK 16 mil. Ft. for below market prices leases
  • Együtt 16 mil. Ft. for below market prices lease and for member fees accounted for as donations (the question of how ÁSZ knows who are the members is left unanswered)
  • Együtt, Párbeszéd, and MOMA were also fined for poster space below market prices.
  • Jobbik 331 mil. Ft. for poster space below market prices (remember the “You work they steal posters”) grant

* According to the 2011. LXVI. Law regulating ÁSZ (ÁSZ Law), it can only offer its findings, suggest and advise Parliament, or initiate proceedings with the competent authorities. The law does not contain the word “fine,” nor does it grant ÁSZ in any way the right to such or any other administrative action.

For lack of space we shall not discuss the often scandalous actions that ÁSZ undertook earlier, such as refusing to audit Fidesz, citing a lack of jurisdiction for market price comparison or studies, scheduling Fidesz audits in even years, i.e. after elections, and flouting document submission deadlines during the audits (of Jobbik), etc.

Fitting the picture is also the end of 2016 – 2017 onslaught against the advertising/poster free market after Jobbik and other parties contracted space from the Simicska-owned CityPoster. The Orbán parliament amended obscure settlement image legislation in an attempt to circumvent the important law on political advertising, which the government couldn’t change for lack of the required two-thirds supermajority. This stands as another brazen act of defying the legal order of the country, i.e. a clear demonstration of dictatorship.

I would, however, draw attention to several actions, which considered together defy credulity and strongly suggest ulterior motives and unlawful organized action:

  • All parties were charged with the same form of “illegal funding in kind,” i.e. they had supposedly rented premises below market prices. Notably, many leases are years old and had been audited by ÁSZ before. In one case the leases were arranged by the Parliament Administrative Office.
  • Four parties allegedly all contracted poster space at below “list prices.” ÁSZ never addressed the long-standing objection that in practice everyone in the market is given some discount from the list price. (Until now the dispute was left hanging in the air since no action was ever taken by ÁSZ on this issue).
  • The space contracted by Jobbik was from the same Simicska-owned company that had “supported” Fidesz in the same way for more than a decade, until the fallout between Simicska and Orbán, after which the practice was outlawed in 2014. In response to the other parties’ protests against those economically nonsensical prices, Simicska once cynically responded that everyone has the right to be stupid.
  • In crude violation of all legal principles (e.g. as DK pointed out, ÁSZ didn’t specify the incriminated leases, and they had many), ÁSZ also did not make public or at least disclose to the affected parties the evidence/materials supporting their conclusions or the way ÁSZ calculated the specific amounts.
  • Jobbik, the largest opposition party, the one most likely to draw votes from the Fidesz camp, was hit hardest, annihilated with a 336 million withdrawal of funding + a fine of the same amount. Jobbik was also found to have failed to cooperate, mainly to provide requested documents (which Jobbik denied in detail), and was threatened with steps to initiate criminal prosecution against its president, i.e. Gábor Vona, under par. 33.3.a. (An indictment would disqualify him from participation in the election.) In the autumn Jobbik was negotiating even more poster space with several firms.
  • Just before the ÁSZ action, by act 29/2017 of October 6, 2017 the Ministry of National Economy (NGM) amended the enforcement/collection provisions only, rep. only for the illegal funding, adding par. 2.A. to decree 55/2016. (XII. 21.) NGM. The amendment was to “come into force on the day following the publishing.”
  • Finally, according to the ÁSZ’s Enikő Czinder, “A proposal based on the auditing experience of the State Audit Office was acted upon, [and] the legal loophole indicated by the ÁSZ was closed by the Ministerial Decree on National Economy for the Suppression of Prohibited Funding.” The timing indicates that the amendment was practically retroactive, as the ÁSZ audits of the parties had been going on during the same period. [Translation is mine.]

There are too many coincidences, unless one believes in miracles.

♦ ♦ ♦

Before delving into the legal aspects of the case, I have to confess that it’s not easy to find the updated and complete texts of the various acts, since the Orbán regime has passed over 750 laws and amendments, often abusing the legislative process by hiding amendments in the bulk of omnibus bills.

The legal aspects

Let’s move on from the audit performance and its findings to the legality the so-called fines ÁSZ imposed.

Prof. Peter Róna, economist, jurist and businessman, recently published an article in HVG and gave some interviews where he harshly denounced the action: “ÁSZ committed a coup against the constitution … The ÁSZ action against opposition parties forsakes the separation of powers set by the Basic Law. This is a dictatorship,” he stated.

Beyond the ulterior intentions and the actual attempt to impair the opposition’s capabilities to successfully participate in the election race, Professor Róna warns of what he sees as “the final elimination of the constitutional foundations of our country.” He points out that the current “Basic Law is the basis of Hungary’s legal system (Article Q (1)), which is based on the principle of separation of powers (Article C (1)). The power of the state is divided into three parts, namely the Parliament entrusted with legislation (Article 1), the Government with the executive power (Article 15) and the Courts entrusted with providing justice. (Article 25)”

According to article 42/43 of the Basic Law, ÁSZ is an organ of Parliament; § 1.1 of the (ÁSZ Law) 2011. LXVI. stipulates: “The State Audit Office is the main financial and economic control body of the Parliament, which performs its task under the Parliament. The statute and the powers of the State Audit Office are defined by the Basic Law and this Act.”

The above status, argues Professor Róna, “precludes any executive task, the possibility of any executive action. ÁSZ, therefore, cannot be authorized by any law with more or wider powers than the ones the Parliament itself possesses, or with which Article 42 of the Basic Law endows it. The Parliament has no constitutional rights to carry out specific [executive] actions, even less so to impose specific punishment, and the Basic Law only defines auditing powers” to ÁSZ.

The ÁSZ Law specifies the ÁSZ functions as follows:

  • 1.4 Assisting Parliament with findings, suggestions and advice.
  • 1.5 Based on its findings, the State Audit Office can initiate proceedings with the competent organs against the audited organizations and responsible persons.
  • 3, 4 and 5 setting out tasks of ÁSZ mentions “audit plan,” “carrying out audits,” “auditing functions,” “auditing activities,” “findings of the audit,” but no executive action at all.

The ÁSZ Law repeatedly and consistently refers to ÁSZ’s right and obligation “to initiate proceedings with the competent authorities” or organizations/organs: §11.4 11.5 16.5 23.2.b 27.1 27.7 27.8 30.1 33.3a/b, but does not mention any form of punitive action by ÁSZ, which leaves no doubt regarding the intention of the legislator.

Prof. Róna thinks that the much maligned provision of the ÁSZ Law “§ 1.6 The ÁSZ reports, the findings therein and its conclusions cannot be challenged before a court or other authority” fits into this line of legal thinking, because “from ÁSZ’s scope of authority it follows that it cannot make decisions binding on others; it can only inform the competent organizations or Parliament if it detects a violation of the law. Its [ÁSZ] decisions cannot be appealed exactly because in the absence of binding force there is nothing to rectify or to execute.”

Most of us agree that the interpretation of the ÁSZ finding, including the testimonies of (sometimes dubious) external experts, as being incontestable is absurd in any legal system today. Even in Prof. Róna’s line of reasoning, I still am critical of the clause, because it makes unclear the status of the ÁSZ findings vis-à-vis other evidence in any legal contest.

In Róna’s judgment “the action of ÁSZ against the opposition parties forsakes the separation of the branches government set out in the Basic Law, i.e. the Parliament through its own organ, the State Audit Commission, takes specific [executive] action circumventing the judicial branch and denying legal remedy. This is the dictatorship itself, for the prevention of which the separation of the power branches was conceived.”

What next?

By now all affected parties have stated that they are not going to pay–Jobbik actually cannot, but there are various statements regarding the following steps and the presumed consequences thereof.

Fines are generally due to the Treasury, and, if not voluntarily paid, some can be collected by the Tax Office. The applicable 2003 Law XCII. (Art.) § 145, contains an exhaustive listing of “enforceable documents,” i.e. the only legal grounds for the Tax Office to enforce collection:

  1. final official decision determining the payment obligation (order, order for payment),
  2. in the case of tax self-assessment, a tax return containing tax obligation (tax advance payment)
  3. outstanding public debt, which can be collected in the way of tax collection,
  4. tax assessment communicated to the taxpayer
  5. a judicial decision …[ordering court fees]
  6. document establishing a healthcare contribution obligation

ÁSZ, however, is in no position to issue any of the above, so the guessing game is on.
Viktor Szigetrvári of Együtt stated that they won’t pay voluntarily but was certain that the Fidesz party state will take their money anyway (in Hungary the Tax Office can garnish, freeze, and seize funds from a bank account without any writ), administering “quick poison” to the opposition. He did not elaborate further.

Emese Pásztor of the Eötvös Károly Institute spoke of ÁSZ “calling upon” (felszólítani) the parties to pay within 15 days, and stated that the legal nature of such “calling upon” is unclear; it cannot possibly be considered an administrative act, as all such must be open to appeal.

Attila Szabó of TASZ (Hungarian Civil Liberties Union) concurs in this respect. He also criticized the lack of justification by ÁSZ, e.g. how were the amounts of the fines established. He speculated that the parties can petition the Administrative Courts, which will most probably throw out the petition for lack of jurisdiction, but such a ruling may help clarify the status of the case and may be used in an eventual international legal challenge. He also pointed out that one-fourth of the MPs can petition the Constitutional Court for subsequent control of the legislation involved.

I couldn’t find a firm opinion on whether the ÁSZ act can trigger the process of collection, and it may be that there isn’t any such provision. There have been many cases of half-baked pieces of legislation rushed through by the all-too-eager ruling party, which are often deliberately drafted in a way to conceal their true ulterior objectives.

The eventual enforced collection is also problematic since the 2003 Law XCII. (Art.) obliges the Tax Office to avoid causing “undue stress” to the debtor by eventually deferring and scheduling the payments. In our case this means a collection after the elections and in installments.

So what are we to make of this week’s more telling than baffling initiative of the minister for the economy Mihály Varga, who started a “co-ordination“ (egyeztetés) with Treasury and the Tax Office aimed at postponing and scheduling the payments of the fines by the parties. The move raises numerous questions: why the NGM minister, why not ÁSZ, on what authority does the minister interfere, etc.

My first guess is that the whole action was planned as a form of intimidation only, with no intention to actually seize the funds, not now at least. However, witnessing the recent harder line taken by the regime in other areas, I can’t exclude the possibility that the intention was to destroy Jobbik and/or to drain Simicska’s resources. It is possible that Viktor Orbán felt that ÁSZ’s heavy-handed action created too much political noise and turned to Varga to do something quickly to smudge the picture, a favorite routine in Orbán’s Hungary, prompting Varga’s ill-considered action.

Summing up

Péter Róna sees the situation as follows: The reason Parliament or the government “does not entrust the task of punishing any wrongdoings to the competent authority — as stipulated in Article 23 of the Basic Law — is because the BL provides for legal remedies against executive actions. Since the [government’s] intention was to take actions that would not pass the filters of justice, there was a need to find a body that does not fall under the jurisdiction of the courts. Such is the State Audit Commission.

“The Parliament’s responsibility is now enormous. It is a constitutional duty to reject … the [ÁSZ’s] decision, … and the opposition parties’ responsibility is to refuse to comply with any ÁSZ measure,” concludes Prof. Róna, to which ÁSZ reacted with some platitudes and with calling on Prof. Róna “to cease misleading the citizens.”

It turned out that the indicting ÁSZ reports were not signed by the president, László Domokos, formerly Fidesz member of parliament. The law allows for substitution, but one must ask why the president didn’t sign such politically explosive documents. When pressed, Bálint Horváth, ÁSZ’s communication director, said only: “because the president decided so.” My sarcastic reaction is that it was perhaps insurance against eventual criminal charges.

Let me cynically sum up: a party soldier at the head of ÁSZ acts beyond his authority, attempting to cripple financially the opposition parties and annihilate the biggest one, charges all of them with the same alleged offense — a situation that has existed for years and has previously passed muster with ÁSZ, while providing no detailed justification of its findings and how the fines were arrived at. This assault on the opposition just before the elections happens to benefit the ruling “illiberal” regime, which has a long record of actions against the democratic institutions, and which in this case amended legislation to facilitate the collection of precisely such fines.

I rest my case. It’s now up to the jury.

January 12, 2018

To run against Fidesz might be injurious to your health: The case of Péter Márki-Zay

While we await the fallout from the opposition parties’ refusal to pay the fines the State Accounting Office meted out to them, I thought we ought to visit Hódmezővásárhely, a Fidesz city par excellence.

Ever since 1990 Vásárhely, as the locals call their city, has never had a mayor who was not a member of Fidesz. In 1990, at the first municipal election, András Rapcsák, an engineer, became mayor and was reelected in 1994, 1998, and 2002. In December of 2002 he died suddenly, and his young personal secretary, János Lázár (Fidesz), ran in a by-election and won. Lázár remained Vásárhely’s very popular mayor until 2012, when Viktor Orbán recruited him to be his chief-of-staff. In 2012 one of the deputy mayors, István Almási (Fidesz), ran and won with 52% of the votes. In 2014 he received strong support from the party and got 61.03% of the votes. Just to give you a sense of the strength of the opposition at the last election, Jobbik’s candidate got 17.11% and MSZP-DK-Együtt, 14.99%.

It was under these circumstances that a political novice, Péter Márki-Zay, decided to try his luck as an independent candidate. Márki-Zay is a conservative man with strong ties to the Catholic Church. He and his wife Felicia have seven children, which by itself is remarkable in a country of small families. The other remarkable thing about them is that they spent five years in Canada and the United States and returned to Hungary only in 2009. The apparent reason for their return was their patriotism; they wanted their children to receive a Hungarian education.

I don’t know when Márki-Zay discovered that he may have made a mistake, but shortly after his arrival in Hungary he made some critical observations, according to an article Délmagyar wrote about the family. How is it possible that, despite the international economic crisis, he sees more BMWs in Hungary than in the United States? He told the journalist that “Americans don’t expect help from above. They are not more talented than Hungarians, but their outlook on life is different.” He was impressed with the American habit of doing volunteer work, and he and his wife were planning to do the same in Vásárhely.

The five years in North America most likely contributed to his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Vásárhely. And so, after the unexpected death of Mayor István Almási in November 2017, he decided to enter the race against the Fidesz candidate, Zoltán Hegedűs.

Péter Mári-Zay / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Béla Nagy

On December 29 Vásárhely24, the internet news site of the municipality, reported that Márki-Zay will be the common candidate of Jobbik and MSZP, which turned out to be untrue. The candidate thinks that the fake news was concocted in order to discredit him. It looks as if the very idea of possible united front against the Fidesz candidate in Vásárhely worried the government party, which quickly moved into action against the candidate.

Two days after he announced his candidacy, he was informed that the company for which he has been working for years no longer has any need for him. The municipality placed four or five cameras along the street where he lives, which the city claimed has nothing to do with Márki-Zay, but the timing is suspicious. As an answer to the fierce attack on the independent candidate, all opposition parties decided to support the disillusioned former Fidesz voter who is convinced that “Orbán’s regime is already a failure in the moral sense.” What he sees in Hungary is no longer democracy.

The local Fidesz leadership moved into high gear. Katalin Havasi, the local party chairman, rang the alarm bell and asked “God to save the city from a mayor who is being supported by Gyula Molnár and Ferenc Gyurcsány, people who wanted to close the hospital in Hódmezővásárhely.” The city needs a mayor “who is being supported by Viktor Orbán and who will defend the hospital.” On his Facebook page Márki-Zay expressed his puzzlement over being seen as a threat to the hospital. Why the hospital? Perhaps if he had been in Hungary in 2007 he wouldn’t be so surprised. In that year Mayor János Lázár created total panic over the death of an old drunkard, well-known in the hospital, who died while being transported from one hospital to another. Lázár blamed the healthcare reforms introduced by the Gyurcsány government for the man’s death.

It seems that the Fidesz locals asked János Lázár to take an active part in the campaign. Lázár still lives in Hódmezővásárhely and commutes daily to Budapest. Those close to the scene claim that nothing happens in the city without Viktor Orbán’s chief-of-staff knowing about it. So, János Lázár showed up and offered to work for Zoltán Hegedűs’s campaign. He brought along some promises too. He told residents that the government is planning a very large “industrial program” and that Vásárhely will be one of the beneficiaries.

Meanwhile both Magyar Nemzet and Index sent reporters to the city, hoping to learn more about the mood in Vásárhely. The former reported total apathy. The few people who were willing to talk would vote for the Fidesz candidate, but they were less than happy with the current situation. As one woman said, she was only hoping that “things will not become worse.” People complained about the lack of job opportunities, but they added that without a Fidesz mayor very little money would come from Budapest. Index also found mostly Fidesz supporters, including a man who spoke glowingly about all the development in the city but at the end admitted that he is planning to leave his job that pays 100,000 Ft. and settle in Germany to wash dishes for 1,200 euros. He also added that he had heard Márki-Zay speak, “and he said a few good things.” The reporter found one person who admitted that she doesn’t know for whom she will vote and had a fairly critical view of Fidesz’s migrant policy, complaining about 1,200 refugees but allowing 20,000 Arabs, Chinese, and Russians.

The pro-Fidesz papers, from Origo to Magyar Idők and Pest Srácok, continue their smear campaign against Márki-Zay, calling the candidate a liar with a persecution complex. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a psychological disorder. Márki-Zay is not alone in reporting abuse because of his political activities. Just the other day a Fidesz local representative in Budapest’s District XV shared the travails she underwent because she didn’t follow the political orders from above to the letter. That’s not a pretty story either.

And the latest is that Momentum Chairman András Fekete-Győr’s father lost his job as executive director of the National Deposit Insurance Fund of Hungary. He was deputy director between 1993 and 2010, when he was appointed executive director for five years. Two years ago his appointment was renewed for another five years — that is, until 2020, when he reaches retirement age.

This is how life goes in Hungary for those who don’t walk in lockstep with Viktor Orbán.

January 9, 2018

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

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

The latest opinion polls on the chances of the opposition parties

First, before getting into the polls, a short “public service announcement.” Arcanum Adatbázis Kft. will hold an “open day” tomorrow (October 13). Arcanum has been digitalizing an enormous number of documents, periodicals, newspapers, and books over the past few years. A certain amount of their digitalized material is available at no cost, including such gems as Maria Theresa’s 1767 Urbarium, which genealogy buffs will find especially useful, but for full access you must pay a monthly fee. If you visit Arcanum’s table of contents (https://adtplus.arcanum.hu/hu/) you will find an amazing amount of material. So I urge everybody to make a quick trip today and look around. Tomorrow everybody will be able to browse Arcanum’s rich depository of material.

♦ ♦ ♦

Two new polls have been published recently. The first was conducted by Publicus Research, which was specifically interested in voters’ reaction to László Botka’s withdrawal as MSZP’s candidate for the post of prime minister. To my surprise, 43% of the respondents didn’t think that Botka’s disappearance from the scene made an appreciable difference in the electoral chances of the parties on the left. My surprise was based on the following considerations. First, those who disapproved of Botka’s handling of the negotiations with the other left-opposition parties should think that his retirement would enhance the likelihood of a united front, which, at least in theory, should boost the chances of the socialist-liberal side. On the other hand, those who saw in Botka a strong leader who could give a face to a unified opposition should be disappointed and consider the chances of the opposition diminished. Yet, it mattered not whether the respondent was a Fidesz, a Jobbik, or an MSZP voter; they all agreed that Botka’s presence in the campaign was neither here nor there. I think this outcome is a sad commentary on Botka’s eight-month non-campaign.

The amazing finding is that, despite the fact that 66% of the respondents thought that Botka’s withdrawal from the race shows the chaos that exists among the left-opposition parties, 44% still think that with hard work and readiness to compromise the left-opposition could win, as opposed to 49% who think that, no matter what, they couldn’t win. Moreover, over 60% said that Botka’s resignation was not too late; there is, they believe, still time to find a suitable and successful replacement.

As for the likelihood of victory over Fidesz at the next election, the respondents were divided, depending on party preference. Over 83% of Fidesz voters are convinced that their party will easily win next year, while MSZP voters are even more sure (89%) that there will be a change of government in 2018. Interestingly enough, Jobbik voters are much more cautious in their predictions. The majority (58%) are optimistic, but there is a large minority (42%) who fear that Fidesz will remain in power.

When Publicus Research asked the respondents about their willingness to vote for the left-opposition, there were only a couple of surprises. Clearly, Fidesz supporters are not contemplating voting for such an opposition group. However, it was somewhat of a shock that 53% of Jobbik voters would be willing to vote for the left-opposition. I suspect that the question wasn’t clear enough: “How likely would you be to vote for a left-wing joint force (együttműködés) at the 2018 election?” There is only one situation in which such a decision would make sense: if a Jobbik voter was confronted with a situation in which no Jobbik candidate was on the ballot in his electoral district.

Otherwise, Publicus, along with many other pollsters, maintains that the majority (56%) of the electorate would like to see a change of government. Over 90% of MSZP, DK, LMP, Párbeszéd, Együtt, and Jobbik voters want Viktor Orbán and his minions to be replaced, and what is encouraging is that 56% of undecided voters want the same. Considering the consensus view that undecided voters hold the key to electoral success, that level of desire for a change of government must be heartening to the opposition.

The second poll, by Medián, was released today. The data was gathered in the second half of September, before the withdrawal of László Botka. The goal was to find answers to the question of the electorate’s desire for collaboration among the opposition parties. This time only possible voters for opposition parties took part in the survey. Here again there are some surprises. Perhaps the most intriguing result is that 33% of anti-Fidesz voters claim that they prefer each party to run alone. This, given the present electoral system, would be suicidal for the opposition parties, and again I’m not sure whether the respondents really understood the question properly. They may have thought of separate party lists, especially since there was an alternative that talked about a common list that included all the opposition parties minus Jobbik. The other surprise is the relatively large number (33%) of those who want complete cooperation, which would include Jobbik. When Medián broke the answers down by party preferences, it turned out that 43% of MSZP, almost 50% of DK voters, and 34% of the undecided ones are willing to include Jobbik in a joint venture against Fidesz. Obviously, the desire to get rid of Orbán and his corrupt and undemocratic government overrides any other consideration. Although the leadership of LMP has been championing for years to face the election on its own, the party’s voters are not entirely convinced. LMP voters are almost evenly split on the issue.

Finally, let me lighten your day with a Jobbik stunt concerning the government’s campaign against George Soros. I think I wrote earlier that Bernadett Szél asked for a copy of the Soros Plan, which naturally the government was unable to provide. Jobbik did better than that. It filed charges against George Soros with Károly Papp, the chief of police. The charges are: (1) preparation for a violent change of the constitutional order, (2) conspiracy against the constitutional order, (3) destruction, (4) treason, and (5) rebellion. As support for the charges they cited claims by Bence Tuzson, undersecretary responsible for communication, György Bakondi, chief adviser on domestic security, János Halász, Fidesz spokesman, Szilárd Németh, deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on security, András Aradszki, who called Soros Satan, Gyula Budai, Fidesz member of parliament, Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, and Csaba Fodor, managing director of Nézőpont, a Fidesz political think tank. Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik spokesman, said that if Soros is guilty of all the things Fidesz and government spokesmen accuse him of, he should be arrested and charged. I’m sure that Károly Papp will not find the Jobbik antic funny.

October 12, 2017

Is LMP in cahoots with Fidesz?

On October 17 Egon Rónay of ATV’s Start interviewed Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP. The occasion was the demonstration organized by Párbeszéd (Dialogue), Együtt (Together), and LMP (Politics Can Be Different) that had taken place the day before. Considering that by that time four of the left-liberal opposition parties had decided to celebrate October 23 together, the conversation soon turned to LMP’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with the others. What followed was a lengthy tirade by Szél against Ferenc Gyurcsány, whom she considers responsible for the very existence of Viktor Orbán as a politician. As she put it, as long as Ferenc Gyurcsány remains on the political scene Hungary will be stranded with Viktor Orbán.

Backbiting is unfortunately an everyday affair in Hungarian opposition circles, but Szél’s outburst was unusually acerbic and ill intentioned. A day later, on the same program, Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s spokesman, indicated that Együtt, led by Viktor Szigetvári and Péter Juhász, and LPM, led by Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy, with their refusal to cooperate wittingly or unwittingly were assisting Viktor Orbán’s government.

LMP’s decision to collaborate with Fidesz on the issue of the constitutional court’s newly elected judges led to a really ugly scene between László Varju of DK and the whole LMP parliamentary delegation of five plus András Schiffer, the architect of the Fidesz-LMP deal. The LMP politicians crashed Varju’s press conference, which was held in the parliament. Soon enough the press conference turned into a screaming session in which Varju called the five LMP members of parliament “collaborators.” In turn, Schiffer said that AVH, the dreaded Hungarian secret police between 1945 and 1956, was “the spiritual predecessor” of the political leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Moreover, he accused them of inciting anti-Catholic sentiments by criticizing Balázs Schanda, one of the new judges, who writes almost exclusively on legal questions concerning religion. The hapless Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP, tried in vain to end the exchange of accusations. He eventually got involved in the cacophony himself.

In the middle of the battle. András Schiffer enjoys it immensely

In the middle of the battle. András Schiffer enjoys it immensely.

Today an article appeared in index.hu which might explain, at least in part, the ferocious LMP attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány. According to the news site, sometime in early November LMP commissioned a poll to ascertain the views of the Hungarian electorate on the current government as well as on leading opposition personalities. From the survey LMP learned that three-quarters of its own supporters reject any cooperation with Ferenc Gyurcsány. They consider him an obstacle to unity. I don’t know whether this finding surprised LMP’s leadership, but it really shouldn’t have. DK’s liberal ideas on economic matters and its acceptance of globalization are in stark contrast to LMP’s far-left socialist ideas.

Even so, I don’t believe that LMP’s refusal to work with the other opposition parties on the left is the result of its supporters’ intense dislike of Gyurcsány and his ideas on the free market economy. Gyurcsány is only an excuse. LMP’s founder, András Schiffer, from the start made it clear that LMP alone would defeat the Orbán regime. I’m almost certain that even if Ferenc Gyurcsány gave up politics this very moment LMP still wouldn’t be willing to work hand in hand with the others.

Overall, the poll apparently found that 46% of those who side with the opposition think that Gyurcsány is an obstacle to the defeat of the Orbán government while 45% think that “the presence of Gyurcsány is necessary for the removal of Orbán from power.” That is a tie, says index.hu, but since LMP voters are so anti-Gyurcsány and therefore anti-DK, it is good politics to launch an attack against the party.

According to the survey, 45% of the electorate as a whole would like to see a change of government while 43% support the present Orbán government. Naturally, 94% of Fidesz voters are still loyal supporters of Viktor Orbán. The same level of fervor is manifest in those who today would vote for an opposition party. The situation is very different among the large group of Hungarians who haven’t found a party they would gladly vote for. Forty percent of them would like to see the Orbán government disappear, 26% would like it to stay, and 34% have no opinion. This untapped group of undecided voters should be the primary target of the opposition, but any effort to woo the undecided will be effective only if the opposition can create a unified force, speaking with one voice. Cacophony guarantees defeat.

LMP’s poll also measured the popularity of five politicians: Bernadett Szél (41%), László Botka (34%), Ágnes Vadai (32%), Ákos Hadházy (31%), and Ferenc Gyurcsány (26%). This finding is especially interesting because only opposition politicians are being compared. I found the relatively low rating of László Botka especially surprising considering that he was declared to be the most popular MSZP leader, the one who could lead his party to victory.

A few hours after the index.hu article appeared István Ikotity, an LMP member of parliament, denied the existence of the survey, adding: “In my opinion, LMP shouldn’t be preoccupied with the opposition. We shouldn’t pay attention to the recognition and support of certain opposition politicians. Our position in relation to DK has remained the same. Nothing has changed.” His denial was not very convincing, but I believe him when he says that LMP’s attitude toward DK and Ferenc Gyurcsány hasn’t changed at all.

Let’s assume for the moment that LMP did commission this survey and that its politicians, seeing the results, decided to tip the scale against Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose standing in opposition circles is a practical tie between his supporters and his opponents. In that case, I think one can argue that LMP is a collaborator of Fidesz, not just because it assisted in enlarging the constitutional court which opposition parties, including Jobbik, find illegitimate but also because it purposely sowed discord among the opposition parties which will only weaken the anti-Orbán forces. András Schiffer, the creator of LMP, decided to call his party “Lehet Más A Politika” (Politics Can Be Different). If LMP is indeed involved in such a dirty, indecent game, it should be the last party on earth to bear that name.

November 29, 2016

The Hungarian opposition remains in disarray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 4, 2016