Tag Archives: parliament

Debate on the Hungarian electoral law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 20, 2017

The Hungarian parliament “debates” the anti-NGO bill

It’s becoming really hot in the Hungarian parliament, where the opposition is waging a heroic fight against an increasingly aggressive and unscrupulous Fidesz majority. Members of the opposition are feeling increasingly frustrated by their impotence within the walls of parliament. They are desperate as they watch the Fidesz bulldozer grind on with escalating force.

One would think that the international scandal that ensued after the Hungarian parliament passed legislation aimed at driving the American-Hungarian Central European University out of the country would temper Viktor Orbán’s zeal and that he would conveniently forget about the bill against those civic organizations that are partially financed from abroad. But no, he is forging ahead.

Tempers are flaring in parliament. Lately I have noticed growing impatience on the part of the Fidesz majority, which often prompts the president or his deputies to forcibly prevent discussion of pending legislation. One would think that with such a large majority, the government party would show some magnanimity, but this was never true of Fidesz and it is especially not true of late. Perhaps because Fidesz parliamentary leaders are feeling the pressure of the streets they take their anger out on the members of the opposition. In turn, some opposition members seem buoyed by those tens of thousands who have demonstrated in the past week. The result is shouting matches and fines ordered by either László Kövér or one of his Fidesz or KDNP deputies.

About two weeks ago commentators predicted that the Orbán government will consider their bill on the NGOs even more important than their law on higher education, the one that affected CEU. And indeed, top Fidesz representatives were lined up for the debate, among them Gergely Gulyás, whom I consider especially dangerous because he seems to be an unusually clever lawyer with the verbal skills to match. He acted as if the proposed bill wasn’t a big deal, just a simple amendment of little consequence. As for the issue of branding NGOs by demanding that they label themselves “foreign-supported” organizations, Gulyás’s answer was that some people consider such support a positive fact, others don’t. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with the bill. He accused the opposition of “hysteria” stemming from frustration.

The Christian Democrats have recently discovered an able spokesman, István Hollik, who was not as restrained as Gulyás and spelled out in detail what the government’s problem is with the NGOs. According to him, “there are people who would like their political views to become reality and who want to have a say in the events of the world without seeking the trust of the electorate. This is what George Soros does in Europe and in America.” It is through these NGOs that Soros wants to influence politics.

MSZP’s spokesman was Gergely Bárándy who, I’m afraid, doesn’t set the world on fire. LMP’s Bernadett Szél, however, is another matter. In her view, the country shouldn’t be shielded from the civic groups but from “the Russian agents who sit here today in parliament.” She continued: “You are a government financed from abroad; you are politicians who are financed from abroad; you are supposed to do this dirty work. It is unacceptable.” As for Hollik’s references to George Soros, Szél said “You people make me sick!” Szél was well prepared for this speech because she had hundreds of cards printed on a black background saying “I’m a foreign funded politician.” She placed them on the desks of Fidesz MPs. Tímea Szabó of Párbeszéd didn’t mince words either when she announced that “all decent people want to vomit” when Fidesz members vote against civic groups that help the disadvantaged and the disabled. Finally, Együtt’s Szabolcs Szabó compared the bill to the one introduced in Putin’s Russia. He charged that Viktor Orbán simply lifted a Russian piece of legislation and transplanted it into Hungarian law. “Even Mátyás Rákosi would have been proud of this achievement,” he concluded.

Bernadett Szél hard at work

But that wasn’t all. It was inevitable that the pro-government civic organization called Civil Összefogás (CÖF) would come up. CÖF is clearly a government-financed pseudo organization which spends millions if not billions on pro-government propaganda. Naturally, CÖF is unable to produce any proof of donations received. Bernadett Szél held up two pieces of paper to show that CÖF left all the questions concerning its finances blank. At that very moment, Sándor Lezsák, the Fidesz deputy president of the House, turned Szél’s microphone off. He accused her of using “demonstrative methods” for which she was supposed to have permission. Such an infraction means a fine. When Szél managed to continue, she said: “Take my whole salary, but I will still tell you that CÖF has a blank report. So, let’s not joke around. How much do my human rights cost? Tell me an amount. We will throw it together. I’m serious.” This is, by the way, not the first threat of a fine against opposition members. MSZP members were doubly fined because they called President Áder “János.” The spokesman of Párbeszéd “was banned forever from parliament” because he put up signs: “traitor” on the door leading to the prime minister’s study.

Speaking of CÖF. Today László Csizmadia, chairman of CÖF, launched an attack against Michael Ignatieff in Magyar Hírlap. He described Ignatieff as “Goodfriend II on the left.” The reference is to the capable chargé d’affaires of the United States Embassy during the second half of 2016 when American-Hungarian relations were at the lowest possible ebb.

And one more small item. Index discovered that the parliamentary guards, a force created by László Kövér in 2012 (about which I wrote twice, first in 2012 and again in 2013, will get new weapons and ammunition:

  • 45-caliber pistols
  • 56 mm (.223 caliber) submachine guns
  • 62x51mm sniper rifles using NATO ammunition
  • .306 caliber rifles
  • manual grenade launcher for 40mm grenades
  • intercepting nets
  • a variety of ammunition for new types of firearms
  • universal (fired, thrown) tear gas grenades with artificial or natural active ingredients
  • hand-operated teardrop grenades working with natural or artificial substances

So, they will be well prepared for all eventualities.

April 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

osszefogas

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

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

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

October 11, 2016

The latest Orbán stunt: A referendum on “compulsory settlement” of refugees

This morning I was surprised to find an “invitation” to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s press conference, to be held today at 13:00, in my inbox. I am, I presume along with many others, entitled to watch the press conferences of government officials and politicians. My first thought was “Orbán is giving a press conference? What’s so important?”

It turned out that the announcement was about holding a referendum that would allow the electorate to vote on the following question: “Do you want the European Union, without the consent of Parliament, to order the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” Orbán gave the press conference in the middle of a cabinet meeting, emphasizing the import of the announcement.

He focused on the ideas of loyalty and independence. Voting against this question will be a proof of loyalty to the country. “Because how could be someone be loyal as long as others decide the most important questions?” It doesn’t matter how hard I try to follow Orbán’s logic, I can’t see the connection between loyalty and the matter on hand. As for independence, all those who say no to this proposition “stand by the independence of this country.” Reuters noted that, in addition, Orbán claimed that the government is “responding to public sentiment” because “we Hungarians think that introducing resettlement quotas for migrants without the backing of the people equals an abuse of power.” Orbán gravely announced that he was aware of possible ramifications of the referendum, especially if Hungarians say “no” to the quotas.

Feeling confident and important

Feeling confident and important

Apparently the European Commission refused to comment on the announcement, saying simply that the Hungarian government should first clarify what this referendum is all about. A very wise decision because there is a possibility that the whole referendum announcement is a canard. Speaking out against the refugees who threaten the existing Christian order is a winning ticket, as the polls during 2015 clearly showed. Orbán would like to keep the Hungarians’ fear and hatred of the refugees alive. That’s why the government has been collecting signatures in the last few months against quotas preferred by Angela Merkel and that’s also most likely why he came up with the idea of a referendum on the subject.

There are all kinds of legal hurdles, taking months to overcome, before a referendum can be held. Even if Orbán’s faithful servants speed up the process at every level, I would be surprised if a plebiscite on the issue could be held before late summer or fall at the earliest. And even if all the legal hurdles are behind them, which is not at all certain, there is the new law on plebiscites that makes it almost impossible to hold a valid one. Half of the approximately 8 million voters would have to turn out, which, given the low level of enthusiasm of the Hungarian electorate for voting in general, is highly unlikely. In addition, the government would need a little more than 2 million citizens to vote against the proposition. Fidesz may boast about the 2 million signatures it collected against the quotas, but this achievement is irrelevant if other less enthusiastic voters simply ignore the plebiscite. Of course, it is possible, as Ildikó Lendvai pointed out, that Fidesz will change the law and restore the 25% minimum turnout for a valid referendum. Anything is possible. These people are shameless.

However, it is possible that there will never be a plebiscite on the quotas because it might be ruled unconstitutional. The new basic law of 2011 clearly says that “no national referendum may be held on … any obligation arising from an international agreement.” (Article 8) And even if it is ruled constitutional, Article 19 states that “Parliament may ask the Government for information on its position to be adopted in the decision-making process of the European Union’s institutions operating with the Government’s participation, and may express its position about the draft on the agenda in the procedure. In the European Union’s decision-making process, the Government shall take Parliament’s position into consideration.” In plain language, parliament has no direct jurisdiction over the dealings between Hungary and the European Union, at best an advisory role. It is the Hungarian government’s sole prerogative to negotiate with the institutions of the European Union. So, it’s no wonder that even the ever-faithful George Schöpflin, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament ever since 2004, bluntly told Népszabadság that “the Hungarian referendum has no legal influence on EU decisions, or at least he doesn’t know about such.”

But there are other problems as well. The text of the proposed question is sloppy and not at all clear. According Boldizsár Nagy, a very good legal scholar, the question is so badly formulated that it might not pass the first legal hurdle, the National Election Commission, unless the Commission is filled with “lackeys.” For example, “compulsory settlement” (betelepítés) doesn’t exist either in Hungarian or in EU law. The terms used in connection with refugee matters are “transfer” (áthelyezés) or “resettlement” (áttelepítés). So, just because of the inaccurate word usage, the Election Commission should throw the question out. But if by some miracle it gets through the Commission, the Constitutional Court will probably put an end to the story.

Yet even the constitutional hurdle could be overcome if Fidesz has the temerity to amend the constitution with the help of Jobbik, which seems to be a willing accomplice. Yesterday Jobbik submitted a proposal to change the wording of Article 8 from forbidding a referendum on “any obligation arising from an international agreement” to “any obligation arising from an international agreement, except matters that touch upon Hungary’s immigration policy or any other decisions that have an impact on it.” The question is whether Orbán and Co. will have the audacity to change the constitution again to force through a referendum serving Fidesz’s political agenda.

Foreign newspapers immediately picked up the story. The Guardian thinks that Viktor Orbán would win such a referendum “in a preemptive strike against the European commission and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who are pushing for a permanent EU refugee quota system.” I, on the other hand, would not be so sure that this referendum will ever be held, unless Viktor Orbán is ready to amend the constitution and change the law on plebiscites. Even then, the wrong-headed legal argument that places parliament in a decision-making position vis-à-vis the European Union makes the success of this latest Orbán move questionable.

February 24, 2016

Gathering clouds: The opposition parties take a common stand

This afternoon the leaders of the democratic opposition parties held talks in the wake of Viktor Orbán’s announcement yesterday that he was the one who ordered the ministers of his cabinet to withdraw all government assets invested in bonds issued by the Quaestor Group. Since the meeting ended only about three hours ago, I could find only one commentary on the event. It was by Dániel Bita of Népszabadság who, if I interpret one of his rather convoluted sentences correctly, found it less than successful. I am, on the other hand, more charitable, especially since András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP who up to now has consistently refused to cooperate with the other opposition parties, decided to attend.

Today’s meeting was called by József Tóbiás, chairman of MSZP, which is in itself fairly remarkable since it was Tóbiás who shortly after the lost 2014 national election declared that “never again” will MSZP cooperate with any of the other parties. The socialists will go it alone and will single handedly win the next election. Of course, since then MSZP was forced several times to accept the assistance of DK which supports, for example, the MSZP-nominated Ferenc Pad in the Tapolca-Ajka election.

Fairly late last night MSZP released a communiqué titled “The government is in crisis, it is time for the opposition” in which Tóbiás called on “the representatives of the opposition parties” to meet at 1:00 p.m. in the parliamentary office building. Jobbik could hardly wait to express its willingness to join the other parties. It took Gábor Vona, the party chairman, no more than half an hour to announce that “naturally they will join the others [but] they expect Fidesz to be represented at the gathering.” He added that they “will also have to discuss the role of the socialist governments in the brokerage scandal.” They want to know about “the business relationships that did exist and perhaps still exist between leftist politicians and the corrupt leaders of the brokerage firms.” Tóbiás goofed. Surely, he didn’t mean to invite Jobbik, but he was sloppy in composing his invitation.

Tóbiás had to get out of this sticky situation. This morning MSZP released an explanation. According to the press release to MTI, the party said that all “democratic parties indicated their willingness to participate” but they didn’t think that Jobbik’s presence at the meeting would be appropriate because “Jobbik at such a gathering would only be a power broker for Fidesz.” According to MSZP, Jobbik, which is financed from abroad, is neither patriotic nor democratic, and it is certainly not an opposition party.

The following people attended the meeting: József Tóbiás (MSZP), Ferenc Gyurcsány (DK), András Schiffer (LMP), Timea Szabó (PM), Viktor Szigetvári (Együtt), and Anett Bősz (LP). The only person who was missing was Lajos Bokros, representing MoMa, a moderate conservative grouping, perhaps because it is “movement,” not a party.

At the meeting there seemed to be unanimity among the politicians that Viktor Orbán should leave Hungarian political life. According to Tóbiás, Viktor Orbán should simply resign. Barring that, at the very least he should ask for a vote of confidence. Tímea Szabó held a similar position, adding that if Orbán does neither then she will submit a declaratory resolution for the dissolution of parliament and for holding early elections. In addition, some of the participants added Péter Szijjártó and György Matolcsy to the list of those who should follow Viktor Orbán as undesirable political figures.

Tímea Szabó, József Tóbiás, Anett Bősz, András Schiffer, Viktor Szigetvári and Ferenc Gyurcsány

Tímea Szabó, József Tóbiás, Anett Bősz, Ferenc Gyurcsány, Viktor Szigetvári, and András Schiffer

Viktor Szigetvári is convinced that Orbán is guilty of insider trading, which is a criminal offense, and therefore he is longer fit to be the prime minister of the country. However, he was pretty vague about what to do if Orbán does not resign, which is all but certain. He came up with the shopworn remedy of creating a parliamentary committee to investigate Viktor Orbán’s role in the Quaestor scandal. Unfortunately, Hungarian investigative committees are not like the Watergate committee whose hearings eventually led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Orbán will simply not show up and that will be the end of it.

András Schiffer also thinks that Orbán “is morally unfit to be the prime minister,” but he concentrated on amendments to be offered by the opposition parties to a Fidesz draft proposal that is designed to financially assist those who suffered heavy losses as a result of the bankruptcy of Quaestor.

What Gyurcsány said or what kinds of plans he entertains under the present circumstances we don’t know because he was the only politician who gave no interview after the meeting. He said only that the meeting was “pleasant and constructive,” which the reporter of Népszabadság interpreted to mean that DK’s chairman found the gathering pretty useless. Although it is true that no definite road map emerged from this first meeting, the very fact that all the democratic parties were ready to sit down and discuss a common strategy is a step forward. The next few days will tell us whether any concrete steps will be taken after this exchange of ideas.

In my opinion, the most important event of the meeting was the decision to hold a mass rally organized by the democratic parties on April 11, the day before the Tapolca-Ajka by-election. This means that these parties are no longer afraid to show themselves and take a leading role in anti-government demonstrations. At the last big demonstration on March 25, although the parties could show their flags and logos, MSZP did not take advantage of the opportunity. Only MoMa and DK flags could be seen. Now MSZP seems eager to come out with their red carnations. Moreover, the civic organizers, as was demonstrated on March 15, no longer mind the presence of parties. All told, given the public mood, the rally should be a great success.

Fidesz interprets the opposition’s gathering of forces as a “petty power struggle.” The left “acts as if they had absolutely nothing to do with the socialist brokerage scandal although they were the ones who allowed financial corruption to flower in the last decades.” The problem is that this old “socialist brokerage story”–especially in light of the close relationship of the government, Fidesz politicians, and men close to Viktor Orbán with Csaba Tarsoly, CEO of Quaestor–is no longer believable. Fidesz has been in power for the last five years, and it was Fidesz-appointed officials who were supposed to make sure that financial institutions operate in a lawful manner. But the Hungarian National Bank allowed Quaestor, even when it was on its last legs, to issue 60 billion forints worth of bonds.

This morning Gábor Horn, the former SZDSZ member of parliament who was the intermediary between his party and the Gyurcsány government, was interviewed on ATV’s early morning program, Start. He compared the situation of the present government to that of the socialist-liberal government back when it became obvious that the government would not be able to survive much longer. Although, Horn said, Orbán is a “more talented survivor than Gyurcsány,” he now has to admit that Viktor Orbán is in big trouble. A caller to Klubrádió, however, described Orbán as being as slippery as “a soaped dolphin.” It is still quite possible that the great survivor will escape this scandal unscathed.

Kim Lane Scheppele: Hungary without two thirds

I’m glad to be able to share Professor Kim Scheppele’s latest article, which appeared on Paul Krugman’s blog in The New York Times on March 17, 2015.

* * *

On 22 February, in a small by-election in a medium-sized Hungarian town, the governing party Fidesz lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority.

The loss of the Fidesz supermajority is a big deal because two thirds is a magic fraction in Hungarian law. With two thirds of the parliamentary seats, a party can change the constitution at will and therefore govern without constitutional constraint. But it’s not just constitutional change that requires a two-thirds vote. Over the last five years, Fidesz built so many required two-thirds supermajorities into so many different laws that it is nearly impossible to govern Hungary on a daily basis without two thirds. And each time it now confronts a two-thirds problem, Fidesz must get the support of someone – or some party – outside its own circle. This is the first political constraint that Fidesz has faced since it came to power in 2010.

When Fidesz still had the the magic two-thirds majority

When Fidesz still had the magic two-thirds majority

What will Fidesz do without two thirds? It only took a little more than a week after the by-election for a tentative answer to emerge. A two-thirds vote appeared on the parliamentary agenda – and passed. Who put Fidesz over the top to get its two thirds? An MP from the far-right party Jobbik. The vote signaled that Fidesz may now be working in effective partnership with a party that Human Rights First has called “the bloody tip of the far-right spear in Europe.”

If this is true, then why hasn’t the European Union immediately launched crippling sanctions as EU member states did when the Austrian government included Jörg Haider’s far-right party in 1999? Because Fidesz learned a lesson from that example. In Austria, the coalition was public. In Hungary, a coalition can be secret.

The constitutional rules in Hungary permit Fidesz to keep its two thirds through strategic absences rather than affirmative votes. For most two-thirds votes, no member of parliament (MP) need visibly cross the aisle to vote affirmatively with the governing party. If an opposition MP is merely missing when a two-thirds vote is taken, Fidesz can still win.

In Hungarian constitutional law, not all two-thirds majorities are created equal. An absolute two-thirds majority requires the affirmative vote of two-thirds of all of the members of parliament. An absolute two-thirds majority is required to amend or rewrite the constitution or to ratify treaty change in the European Union. An absolute two-thirds majority is also required for electing constitutional judges, the president of the Supreme Court, the head of the State Audit Office, the head of the National Judicial Office, the public prosecutor and the ombudsman – or to declare a state of emergency. For Fidesz to gain an absolute two-thirds majority now, someone must to visibly cross the aisle and vote with the governing party.

But it takes only a relative two-thirds majority to do everything else – like amend the especially important “cardinal laws” or fill seats on the electoral commission or the media council. A relative two-thirds majority requires the affirmative vote of two thirds of the members of parliament who are present on that day in the chamber, given a quorum. Fidesz can therefore still win a relative two thirds with the votes of only its own party if all of its MPs are present while any non-Fidesz MP is missing. For the vast majority of two-thirds votes, then, Fidesz does not have to win an affirmative vote from an opposition MP. It only has to procure his absence.

On 3 March, Fidesz faced its first two-thirds challenge since it lost its supermajority. Two key items were on the agenda that day, both bundles of amendments to existing laws. Parts of each bundle were “cardinal” and thus required two-thirds votes while other parts were not and therefore required only a simple majority to pass. The governing party’s tendency to mix different sorts of amendments in the same parliamentary procedure is confusing for everyone, including MPs who have to vote by different majorities on each.

In the first package of amendments, child protection agencies, social security offices, employment centers, land administration agencies, environmental protection offices and more would lose their independent and separate spheres of action and become integrated parts of the regional offices of the central government as of 1 April 2015. The second package of amendments proposed to “enhance public trust in state officials” by requiring public sector workers to disclose to their employers if they are under criminal investigation.

At the time of the vote on both packages, all Fidesz MPs were present, but there was one opposition MP missing: István Apáti from Jobbik. The cardinal bits in first package of changes passed, with 131 votes in favor (all Fidesz), and 65 against, with 196 MPs present – gaining the support of 66.8% of those present. This gave Fidesz just barely two thirds (above 66.6%). The cardinal bits in the second package of changes failed because only 130 voted in favor, 44 voted against and 22 (Jobbik MPs) abstained. Because only 66.3% of the MPs present voted for the law, Fidesz failed to clear the two-thirds hurdle by a bare one third of one percent.

What happened in the second vote? Lajos Kósa, a Fidesz stalwart, pressed the wrong button and accidentally voted against the package. His party promptly fined him 100,000 forints (about $343 USD) for having disobeyed a party order to vote along party lines. (Yes, in the Hungarian parliament, some political parties fine their MPs for failing to take direction on parliamentary votes!)

Fidesz castigated Kósa for making a mistake on the second vote. But, they said nothing about how the first package could pass. It gained the required two-thirds vote only because an opposition MP was missing. Had Kósa not erred, the second package would have passed as well.

Jobbik’s party leader, Gábor Vona, claimed to be furious with the missing MP Apáti and fined him 100,000 forints for violating party discipline. Vona gave an interview shortly thereafter in which he threatened anyone who might claim that Jobbik was acting in concert with Fidesz on this vote.

But the whole story got curiouser and curiouser when Apáti started explaining why he had been absent on that crucial day. He claimed he had to protect his family because he had gotten death threats from a member of a Roma gang. (Jobbik rode to popularity on an anti-Roma platform blaming “Gypsy crime” for many of Hungary’s ills.) While the threat occurred on a Saturday, he reported it to the police only on Monday, which was the day before the parliamentary vote. Journalists who interviewed many people in his town could find no one else who knew about a local “Roma mafia.” So the story just seems strange and conveniently timed.

Does this mean that Fidesz is working under the table with Jobbik? From this one incident, it is hard to say for sure. Jobbik’s leader has been at pains to claim that there is no secret coalition, and yet Vona was himself missing for another parliamentary vote on 15 December 2014 that had the same effect. At that time, Vona’s absence shored up the Fidesz relative two-thirds when a Fidesz MP, Jenő Lasztovicza, was absent due to illness. (He later died – so there will be another by-election in April.) The December vote sailed over the two-thirds hurdle with even more support than necessary because another MP, former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, was missing as well. Fidesz was therefore already able to pass an amendment to a cardinal law (in this case, one that nationalized and regulated tobacco shops) when one of its MPs was dying – before the party definitively lost its two thirds in February’s by-election. In December, the Fidesz victory was made possible by missing one MP to the right and another MP to the left of the governing party.

When Vona’s December absence was noted in the brouhaha over the 3 March vote, he promptly fined himself 100,000 forints to show that he was even-handed about disciplining his party’s members. He then said he would donate the proceeds of this fine to charity, raising questions about whether, under Jobbik party rules, fines issued against MPs who don’t follow party orders go straight into the pocket of the party leader.

The theory that Fidesz is collaborating with Jobbik is not far-fetched, given the record. Since 2010, when Fidesz took office with its two-thirds supermajority, Jobbik has been the only parliamentary party whose MPs have voted with Fidesz on a non-trivial number of occasions. Jobbik supported many of Fidesz’s most controversial laws – for example, the extra taxes on banks, retroactive taxation of public sector severance pay, the elimination of time limits on pretrial detention and the approval of the recent deal with Russia on nuclear plants. Jobbik even backed two of Fidesz’s appointments to the Constitutional Court (Béla Pokol and Imre Juhász).

Not only has Jobbik already voted more often than any other party with Fidesz, but Fidesz has already borrowed many ideas from Jobbik. Before the by-election, Jobbik votes were not needed to get to two thirds and Fidesz did not have to take pages from Jobbik’s platform to get Jobbik’s votes. Jobbik regularly piled votes onto Fidesz initiatives and Fidesz regularly took ideas from Jobbik anyway. A secret collaboration at this point would only take underground what has already occurred in public. Perhaps what we saw on 3 March is a sign that Fidesz and Jobbik are already working together.

But the deniability of a working coalition is crucial to its success. Would the EU sanction the Fidesz government for collaboration with a far-right party when Jobbik MPs are simply missing in action at the time a parliamentary vote is called? Since there are so many reasons to be away from parliament on any particular day – “Roma attacks,” or perhaps a strategic illness, or a well-timed flat tire – missing MPs have plausible deniability that their absence was part of a plan. One can imagine that EU sanctions would dissolve without smoking-gun proof of coordination. In addition, Fidesz and Jobbik have every reason to deny working together in order to maintain their credibility with their own voters.

Jobbik is not the only source of a crucial missing MP. Any MP willing to put personal benefit ahead of party loyalty – or any MP who could be successfully blackmailed – could agree to be absent and allow a relative two-thirds majority to form without him. All Fidesz needs is one opposition MP to disappear on a particular day and the relative two-thirds votes will still sail through. Fidesz may find that it is even simpler to get an individual MP to break from a party than to convince a whole party to collaborate.

Of course, the fact that Fidesz could seek its procured absences elsewhere reduces Jobbik’s bargaining position. So, Vona could be right that there is no permanent coalition. But there may be an opportunistic collaboration on particular issues nonetheless. If Fidesz were really clever, however, it could hide such an opportunistic collaboration by procuring a strategic absence from both left and right on the same day, just to demonstrate its independence. We already saw that voting pattern in December. It would be fascinating to know what has been promised – or threatened – in exchange for absences. Or whether the absences were generated by one of the many perfectly innocent reasons why MPs go missing for crucial votes.

Figuring out what is happening in Hungarian politics from now on will require careful attention to missing persons. We probably will not have to wait long to see the new ways that Fidesz gets its two thirds because amendments to cardinal laws come up surprisingly often in the Hungarian parliament. Cardinal laws were originally only supposed to regulate matters of fundamental constitutional importance, but they now cover so many different subjects that two-thirds votes have become the “new normal” of political life.

The parliamentary records show that Fidesz has needed its supermajority almost every week – and sometimes even every day – that it has governed. In fact, one Hungarian law blog did the count: between September 2014 and January 2015, fully 50 matters before the parliament required two-thirds votes. In the year before that, two-thirds votes were required on 214 occasions. The law on economic stability alone was amended 20 times since its passage in 2011 and, since it is a cardinal law, each vote has required two thirds. (So much for economic stability!)

While Fidesz now claims that the loss of its two-thirds supermajority is not important because revolutionary changes are over and the need for the daily two thirds has passed, the statistics don’t lie. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s new constitutional order can’t operate smoothly without its two thirds.

Perhaps the best testament to the continuing importance of two thirds is the legal framework invented for last April’s parliamentary election. Orbán clearly thought that his two-thirds majority was so important that he stopped at almost nothing to keep it. In fact, Orbán actually needed every trick in the book to win his second two-thirds parliament. He also needed a trick that was not in the book. Fidesz won its two-thirds majority in April 2014 only by counting the speaker of the house in that total, and then the party discovered that the rules of parliamentary procedure prevented the speaker from casting a vote. So the Fidesz MPs quickly voted to change the “house rules” of the parliament to allow the speaker’s vote to count. And voilà! Fidesz retained its two thirds!

After February’s by-election, however, Fidesz no longer has its magic fraction. Given the party’s plunging popularity, it may well lose the next by-election in Tapolca on 12 April** as well. The loss of two thirds is important, both practically and symbolically. But we will only be able to assess whether Fidesz’s wings are really clipped and whether Orbán has had to depend on strategic partners by closely monitoring every two-thirds vote from now on. If Orbán keeps achieving relative two-thirds majorities with only the votes of his own party, then we should wonder what price was paid for every empty seat in the room. In Hungarian politics now, out of sight should not mean out of mind.

** In the original blog post, I not only got the by-election date wrong but also misspelled Tapolca! It’s corrected here.

Sándor Kerekes: Hungarian democracy in a nutshell*

I am speaking about democracy in a nutshell today, because that’s pretty well all that is left of Hungarian democracy by today. In fact, it is even quite loose in that nutshell, after having shrunk so small.

On December 31 2013, in the late night hours, as the country was well on its way to getting drunk and celebrating the new year, the Official Gazette of the Hungarian government published the text of a theretofore unheard-of Order: “About the memorial to be erected in Budapest’s fifth district and qualifying it as an overriding national economic importance and the appointment of the competent authorities.” This is just the title! You can imagine what follows.

But let me translate the details. The fifth district is the historic center of Budapest. The “overriding national economic importance” is the legalese term lifted from a not so long before enacted piece of legislation that enables the government to avoid any public tender process and, regardless of the size of the project, to award it to whomever they please, without any disclosure or explanation. This is corruption writ large, carved in legislative stone. (The price was found out later to be 311 million forints, or $1,399,671). The memorial is intended to stand on Freedom Square, a storied and beautiful public place, rife with social and historical significance, just under the windows of the US Embassy, and to be ready on the 19th of March 2014, on the anniversary day of the German occupation of 1944.

A short break for explanation
You must forgive the interruption, if I stop to explain. The winged figure, according to the artist’s technical description, is the defenseless and innocent Archangel Gabriel, symbolizing the defenseless and innocent Hungary, savagely attacked by the imperial eagle of the Third Reich. Of course, you all know that, far from innocent, Hungary was a staunch ally of Hitler, benefitted from the alliance and received the occupiers with open, welcoming arms at the time. This memorial is nothing but the most blatant, revisionist falsification of history. The intended spot for the memorial is on top of an underground garage, whose roof had to be enforced to bear the weight, so the deadline had to be extended to the end of May.

Naturally, you may ask: who could think it desirable to memorialize and celebrate the day of national humiliation, the source and the beginning of untold suffering and bloodshed?

Well, it is the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

As you see, PM Orban himself is not at all averse to flaunting some eagles of his own.

PM Orbán himself is not at all averse to flaunting some eagles of his own.

The rush to the slope
But how did we come to this point?

Well, in the election, May 2010, Viktor Orbán and the FIDESZ party won an overwhelming majority. The electorate was thoroughly fed up with the previous Socialist-Liberal coalition and wanted change. They elected the only alternative available, with a comfortable majority of 53%, and that was enough for a 2/3 majority in Parliament. On the evening of the election Viktor Orbán declared that “the people of Hungary executed a revolution in the voter’s booth.” He set to work within weeks to transform the entire system of government. It worked democratically before: checks and balances. But now, just as he described it previously, in a secret speech in the fall of 2009 to his confidantes, it would be a central “force field.” Eliminate the useless bickering, the bothersome tug of war between disparate interests and replace it with government by the will of a single force.

Before the opening of Parliament he personally received each member in his country house, where they, one by one, assured him of their personal loyalty and pledged cooperation. With one single exception this pledge has endured, their 2/3 of Parliament has flawlessly functioned as a voting machine.

With such legislative prowess it was a cinch to strangle the checks and balances. Some of them were just shut down. Others he replaced with new ones, or only their personnel were replaced with his own loyal followers. Usually placed there for nine-year terms, to carry out his policies, even if god forbid, he should lose an election in the future. After an unfavourable decision by the Constitutional Court, he diluted it, from nine to fifteen members, appointing his supporters, among them his personal lawyer, to prevent any similarly unpleasant decision in the future. And since he was working on the court already, he cut off most legal access to it and curtailed the court’s field of competence.

After these swift and efficient preparations he was ready to implement his “vision” even further!

The Orbán government, in a legislative fury, first issued the Manifesto of National Cooperation to be displayed in every public building. This document stipulates that the national reconciliation, peace and brotherly understanding will be accomplished if everyone just meekly follows the government. A new constitution was secretly prepared, without any consultation, and pressed through Parliament in three weeks, claiming that it was absolutely urgent and necessary, because the previous constitution (to which they all swore allegiance and promised to uphold) was a communist document.

Codified corruption
Concurrently, Orbán personally appointed as state dignitaries his college friends, reduced the number of ministries to eight, thus concentrating power in the most trusted hands. The speaker of the house and the president are his roommates from his college dorm. But there is a fourth college friend who is perhaps the richest man today in Hungary and who, from the beginning, has directed the financial dealings of the party and possibly Orbán himself, and is so obscure in the background that for more than twenty years has not been seen, or photographed: Lajos Simicska. The oligarch par excellence! This man owns the vast majority of billboards in Hungary, the largest advertizing agency, newspapers, TV and radio stations, the largest and most favoured civil engineering firm, and has the largest long-term lease, over 9000 acres of state-owned agricultural land. (While the legal limit is 300 acre per person and 1200 acres per family.) In 2013, his mind-bogglingly complicated company-network was awarded 14% of the entire public works and procurement budget of Hungary: 875 million forints (€2,916,700, or $3,946,418) every day, 39.6 billion forints (€128,721,432=$178,603,644) in total for the year.

All this, of course, was done secretly, through unknown channels and processes. So, it’s no wonder that some people claim that behind the mask of Orbán, it is actually Simicska who is running the country.

At the head of the eight ministries are Orbán’s most trusted people. That would be fine, if they were qualified. But in many cases they are not. Most ministries are covering unrelated responsibilities. For example, the Human Resources Ministry, which controls the greatest budget, has the responsibility for pensions, healthcare, education, employment, funding for the arts, Roma integration and so on. And who is the minister of this complex? He is Viktor Orbán’s spiritual adviser, the Rev. Zoltán Balogh, an ordained minster of the Reform Church, who has not the slightest previous experience in public administration.

Although the individual fields are supervised by undersecretaries whom, in many cases, are at least professionals. (Some of them are also graduates of the Simicska conglomerate.) While the Minister of Finance, interestingly, is an economist, the Minister of Development, in charge of all public works, is a bookkeeper, Mrs. Németh, who is also an alumna of the oft-mentioned oligarch, Mr. Simicska. Her educational attainment is a high school diploma. She hardly ever speaks publicly, or in Parliament. Her voice, (and her professional adviser as well), is Dr. János Fónagy, and with him we arrive at one of our basic subjects: the Jewish contribution. He is one of the two known, openly Jewish members of Parliament. Fully secular, very smart, a truly dedicated lawyer. Dedicated, that is, to upholding and operating the new, practically single-party system. But this savvy, seasoned lawyer was stunned, well-nigh speechless when, in November 2012, one of the openly anti-Semitic MPs demanded the listing of Jews in Parliament. All he could say was that his parents were Jewish, yes, but he had no choice, and no, he is not practicing.

Of course I became interested. One day two years ago I naively walked up to the entrance of Parliament asking to be admitted. They didn’t laugh, just sent me to this office and that, all for naught. In the US and Britain it is a matter of merely asking a representative for a free ticket and entrance to the legislature is assured. In France free entrance for all is outright spelled out in the Constitution. Now in Hungary one can buy a ticket for a guided tour of Europe’s largest parliament building, but visiting the sitting of the Assembly is tied to a special permit, a press accreditation, that must be renewed from week to week, and for me it took several months to obtain. Finally, months later, miraculously I was admitted at last. (The whole thing took only another twenty minutes of phone calls and checking.)

So, now that we are inside, let me introduce you first to Mr. Speaker, Viktor Orbán’s former college roommate, former communist party apparatchik with latent authoritarian inclinations, the intensely anti-communist Dr. Lászlo Kövér. His job is to restrict the House’s operation so that only Fidesz can have its way and to stifle the opposition. Speaker since August 2010, from his appointment on, he imposed control on proceedings. He cancelled all press credentials, then later, after readmitting them, he relegated all press to the loggia above the Speaker’s perch. This resulted in the prevention of photographing him and the person speaking on the rostrum from any angle, except from above and from behind. All rights to video are restricted exclusively to the official parliamentary broadcasting system; journalists are forbidden to make videos. This is not just idle talk, there are guards immediately interfering with any such attempt, if necessary, by putting their hand in front of any camera. The “official” video broadcast is strictly controlled in the government’s best interest and if the opposition should do anything untoward, or unexpected, the screen shows the speaker only, the sound is cut off and the public will never find out what actually happened. The public cannot come in and information cannot get out of there. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the public at large is completely ignorant of Parliament? One of Speaker Kövér’s golden rules is that immediate questions must be submitted in advance in writing, the MP must read them verbatim from paper and the Government’s answer is also read from paper. The whole charade of “immediacy” is a surrealistic farce.

Having sat in that press gallery for some time, I became increasingly frustrated by my failing hearing. I knew I was losing it, but this fast? After some days I realized though that I can hear Mr. Speaker perfectly well, only the rest is a muffled noise. I decided to “investigate.” Looking around the balcony I discovered that two loudspeakers on each end clearly convey Mr. Speaker’s voice from his microphone, but the connections to all other microphones are cut off and the disconnected loudspeakers and wires, as sad leftovers of corpora delicti, have been strewn under the chairs. I went immediately to the Press Office a few doors away. The head of the Press Office didn’t want to believe me. “Nobody has ever complained about such a thing before,” he said with conviction, (Yeah, I retorted, because nobody was interested in what is said in there,) then he put on his jacket and we dashed off to the press gallery to see it. I showed him around in his own domain, explained how the system worked, that is, how it actually didn’t work, showing the detritus beneath the chairs.

I still don’t know to this day, how sincere his astonishment was. We went back to his office and I asked what he intended to do about it. He promised to reconnect the speakers.

A week later, seeing that nothing happened, I went back to him, but another official told me that it was the end of the session, they are swamped, and this must wait until next session. That, of course, never came; soon an election was called for a new, reconstituted Parliament.

Speaker Kövér also called into being a special military unit, the Parliamentary Guard. These live tin soldiers are meant to impress the tourists, but even more, suggest the sinister muscle power at his exclusive personal disposal to apply force against unruly MPs. (The number of guards: 349, in the 2013 budget 2.3 billion forints €7,476,245=$10,373,444 and in 2014 an additional 30 are being hired.) The costume of the Guard is a combination of a little pre-war Royal Hungarian and a lot of German Wehrmacht elements and bears no resemblance to anything historical. But no matter, if Regent Admiral Horthy had such a guard, then Speaker Kövér, the son of a provincial metal worker, must have his too.

Legislating the coup
The Hungarian Parliament has dispatched a prodigious number of bills, produced at a scorching rate. In 2012 the government submitted and the House voted in 364 pieces of legislation. That’s right, one for every day, except Christmas day! So to speak. Regularly the government introduced legislation, several hundred pages long, on Friday evenings and got it read and voted in the following Monday. Amendments were proposed by obscure Fidesz backbenchers, often just half an hour before the final voting, and they passed, regardless of the opposition’s claims that there wasn’t even time to thumb through the papers. Voting was frequently timed to occur in the middle of the night, or later, to avoid possible public scrutiny. To my knowledge, in these four years not one single bill submitted was supported by any corroborating background papers. If ever made, they have been kept secret from Parliament, as well as from the public. Many of these laws are contrary to European Union rules, sometimes contrary even to their own new Fidesz constitution, but the European Union besides ruminating, producing damning reports and furling its collective brow, does nothing. The Machine works miracles.

One of those “miracles” was the new election law pushed through with the same dizzying speed and a mere few months before the election itself. It came out of the machine providing unprecedented advantages to the governing party, while making a win for the opposition nearly impossible. (As one of the opposition MPs noted, the field was not only tilted, it was actually vertical.) It reduced the members of Parliament almost by half and included rampant gerrymandering. Consequently, last month’s election, although free, was neither fair nor equitable. The rules were so skewed that even cheating was not necessary. Thanks to the carefully “calibrated” rules, with 44.87%, of the 61.24% voting, Fidesz won another electoral triumph. This represents a mere 27% of the eligible voters, yet again it was enough for a super-majority.

What system?
This election was a good example of how the Fidesz system works, its aims and its goals. All election-related spending was done to the benefit of Fidesz oligarchs, just like the public works are. The government boosted its success propaganda, often verbatim identical to that of the Fidesz party, the two inseparable; party money mingled with government money and they are indistinguishable. Billions have been paid to oligarchs. Then through unknown channels those oligarchs recycle the government monies into the party– and private coffers. Thus laundered, it buys more power and is rewarded by government largesse, contracts and fat jobs. There it yields new income for the oligarch and the cycle spins ad infinitum. This is the substance of the Orbán system of National Cooperation.

Sense and sensibility
In closing, let’s come back to the memorial, the start of this lengthy presentation.
When the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Parishes, known as MAZSIHISZ, heard of this bizarre memorial, the normally cordial air between the government and them froze almost solid. Their newly elected board and new president, Mr. András Heisler, sent a memorandum to the government. They set three conditions to participate in the official year of remembrance, one of them being: this memorial project must be abandoned. Anti-Semites were crying foul immediately, talking about an ultimatum.

No sane person could accept the whitewashing of war crimes attempted by this “statue”: the murder of 600,000 Jews, the 160,000 casualties on the front, or the cruelties perpetrated by the Hungarian forces in Serbia and against the Ukrainians.

Grudgingly, Orbán, citing the impending election campaign, suggested adjournment and reconsideration until, after the election, consultations could be held in a calmer, more conducive climate. MAZSIHISZ quietly agreed but were stunned when two days after the election the construction work started without the promised consultations. So, they decided that the Jewish Community “en bloc” would disassociate itself from the official government memorial events. The Jews will remember in their own way, in their own time, and with their own money.

Thanks to his own obstinacy, Viktor Orbán has painted himself into a corner from which he can only come out with a major loss of face and, by the same token, forged a Jewish Community tightly united as never before, and to a degree never thought possible. This is the first time, in an unprecedented way, that the Jewish Community has taken it upon itself to proudly represent civic courage, the advocacy of reason, and the principles of democracy, in the name of all of Hungary, that hardly anyone else dares to do in the ever-deepening and darkening pit that Hungary is rapidly becoming in the middle of Europe, and do it right into the face of the government machine of Viktor Orbán.

—–

* This paper was presented at a workshop organized jointly by the Ben Gurion University and the Konrad Adenaur Stiftung. The topic of the workshop was “Jewish Contribution to the European Integration Project.”