Tag Archives: PM

A possible opposition election strategy for 2018

Celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian revolution against the Rákosi regime and the Soviet occupying forces have already begun, with apparently thousands of young people, torches in hand, marching along the bank of the Danube on the Buda side. This march has become something of a symbol of the revolution. As a participant, I must admit, I viewed this event as a rather insignificant episode in the revolution with practically no tangible consequences for the course of events that followed. The real celebration will take place tomorrow which, I’m sure, will be lavish. How historically accurate is another matter.

Although the topic of today’s post is the current state of the opposition and my views on what the opposition parties should do under the circumstances, I first want to mention that if one goes to hirvonal.hu, my favorite search program for Hungarian news, there are at least as many articles on October 23, 2006 as on the events of October 1956. Almost all of the articles about the prime minister who gave orders to shoot at grandmothers (?) have appeared in pro-government publications. Distortion of the events of the fiftieth anniversary seems to be just as important for this government as the systematic falsification of 1956.

Two months ago György Bolgár invited me to join his program “Megbeszéljük” on KlubRádió. He wanted my opinion on “what should be done” to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal, oppressive, highly undemocratic regime. I began by saying that first I would like to note what I think the opposition parties shouldn’t be doing. Of course, what I was talking about was the constant bickering and attacking each other in public instead of closing ranks against the governing powers. I added that it is useless to wait for some unknown person to surface and save the nation from Viktor Orbán. Nor can one rely on civic group leaders who have no political experience. For better or worse, one must work with the existing politicians. Ideally, the really small parties (Együtt, PM, MLP) should disappear as separate entities and they and their often quite able leaders (Gergely Karácsony, Tímea Szabó, Benedek Jávor, and Péter Juhász, for example) should join the other two larger parties in order to form an entirely new party. One single party with one party leader. I haven’t changed my mind on that score, with one possible exception. Today I can imagine temporary cooperation with Gábor Vona’s Jobbik because I’m more and more convinced that without them there is no way to remove the Fidesz regime. I think that Gábor Vona is a great deal less dangerous than Viktor Orbán.

At the moment the situation among the opposition parties is far from ideal. Take the demonstration organized by Péter Juhász (Együtt), Ákos Hadházy (LMP), and Benedek Jávor (PM). They didn’t work with the other parties to organize a massive demonstration for freedom of the press. Not surprisingly, the crowd was much smaller than expected. But that was not enough. Péter Juhász, on the spot, announced a demonstration for tomorrow morning to disrupt Viktor Orbán’s speech in front of the parliament. He said he had already purchased 1,000 whistles, which he plans to use throughout the speech. That’s bad enough, but his demonstration coincides with the large demonstration organized by the other left-of-center opposition parties to be held on Lujza Blaha tér. Isn’t it funny that a party whose name Együtt means “together” is the only one, apart from the always go-it-alone LMP, that refuses to join the others? Együtt has the support of perhaps 1% of the electorate. Where will that lead? Nowhere, of course.

Moreover, what followed from LMP was beyond the pale. I am more or less accustomed to the intransigence of LMP’s Bernadett Szél, but her latest statement was more than I could swallow. On ATV’s Start program the other day she said, “If the people have to choose between the return of the world before 2010 and the present situation, on the basis of the two earlier elections they will vote for the latter. On the left, the same people say the same thing, and the emblematic character of that side is Ferenc Gyurcsány. It is not our fault that the opposition hasn’t been able to get renewed in six years.” Egon Rónay of ATV was stunned. Since then, Szél made it clear that her party is unwilling to sit down with the others to discuss the possibility of primaries, as promoted by PM. And naturally LMP, which at the moment doesn’t have enough followers to get into parliament, will run alone against the gigantic Fidesz political machine. Good luck.

szel2

Bernadett Szél

I foresee the possibility of yet another split in LMP. It is all very well that András Schiffer, whose unbending attitude on LMP’s election strategy already ruptured the party once, is gone. But Szél is just as rigid as Schiffer was. Taking Schiffer’s place in the hierarchy as co-chairman is Ákos Hadházy, a moderate who considers the removal of the Orbán regime his foremost task. I can’t see him going along with the insane ideas of Bernadett Szél.

Meanwhile, the pro-government publications are having a jolly good time watching the fights in opposition ranks. Lokál, the latest Fidesz-financed free newspaper available at metro stations, called Szél’s attack on Gyurcsány a “catfight.”

Magyar Nemzet only yesterday devoted an article to the attempts of the opposition parties to organize themselves into a coherent political force. György Zsombor, the author of the article, noted that PM, the only party which is gung-ho on primaries, also demands a guaranteed income and four-day work weeks, ideas that will not meet with the approval of the other parties. The consultations in which, with the exception of LMP, all “democratic” parties will be represented, including the so-called Balpárt (Left party, a kind of Hungarian Linke), will take place on October 24.

In advance of that consultation Demokratikus Koalíció celebrated the fifth anniversary of its founding. Ferenc Gyurcsány gave a speech in which he outlined one way to solve the predicament of the opposition parties. The speech itself can be viewed on ATV’s website. What he described strongly resembles my ideal scenario. The smaller parties should give up their independence and their able leaders should find positions within a new united party. For example, he specifically mentioned Gergely Karácsony, currently mayor of Zugló (District XIV), as a possible mayoral candidate at the next municipal election in Budapest. The thrust of his argument is that the paramount consideration today is the removal of Viktor Orbán. To achieve that goal differences must temporarily be set aside. Once democracy is restored there will be plenty of opportunity to debate inside and outside of parliament. Just as in 1956 Sándor Rácz, chairman of the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council, and Cardinal József Mindszenty were on the same side because the main task was the overthrow of the dictatorship. On all other issues they most likely held diametrically opposed views.

In theory this is a logical description of what should happen, but in practice it will be very difficult to achieve. One of the biggest hurdles is the conflicted state of MSZP. I don’t know much about the inner workings of the party, but I suspect that some members of the leadership still believe that MSZP can take on Fidesz alone or at least that their party should be the leading force in any future coalition. Then there are those who cannot forgive Ferenc Gyurcsány for leaving MSZP and establishing his own rival party. So they don’t want to work with him for the common good.

And finally, a few words about the way I see Jobbik’s position at the moment. I’m not the only commentator who thinks that Fidesz as a government party of practically unlimited powers is far more dangerous than Jobbik, which has shed its far-right rhetoric and is in opposition. Apparently, followers of Jobbik hate Fidesz just as much as the voters of MSZP and DK do. Jobbik followers boycotted the referendum on October 2 in just as great numbers as others did. At the moment, Viktor Orbán calls Jobbik and its leaders traitors and accuses them of blackmail. I don’t think it is in Vona’s interest to play second-fiddle to Fidesz in the forthcoming months. In my opinion, it would not be a total waste of time to put out feelers for a chat with Gábor Vona. I know that this is sacrilege as far as some of the opposition parties are concerned. I think of DK especially. But I still believe that creating a temporary alliance for the sake of toppling Viktor Orbán might be justified.

October 22, 2016

Despite an all-out effort, enthusiasm for the referendum is shrinking

A friend of mine just returned from a short trip to Hungary and phoned to report on her impressions. She is one of those American-Hungarians who closely follows Hungarian news and is well aware of the tremendous effort the Orbán government has put into ensuring that the referendum on the non-existent compulsory quotas will be valid and that it will pass with a very large majority. Even so, she was not expecting the barrage of giant billboards lining the road from the airport to Budapest. “You have to be there to feel the atmosphere this campaign creates,” she said. No wonder. According to reports, there is a billboard every 40 meters.

tudta-kampany

The intensity of the campaign has been growing steadily ever since, at the end of February, Viktor Orbán announced his intention to hold a referendum. For Orbán a successful referendum, requiring the participation of more than half of the electorate, seems to be a matter of life and death. This is not an exaggeration. Only two days ago, at the Fidesz picnic at Kötcse, he used the phrase himself. What is waiting for him is a fight with Brussels which must be won because otherwise the death of the nation will be waiting for Hungarians.

Gábor Török, one of the numerous political commentators, questioned the wisdom of the prime minister for putting so much emphasis on the referendum. What if too few people show up and the referendum is not valid? That would be a real embarrassment.

Why is Orbán trying so hard to get out the vote? Even if he didn’t reach the magic 50% + 1 threshold, polls last month showed that over 80% would vote “no,” as the government wants. This result would still show tremendous support for Viktor Orbán’s migration policies. One possible rationale for Orbán’s frantic scramble for votes is that this referendum is not so much about the migrants as it is about gauging (and beefing up) his current level of support.

Admittedly, if more than half of the electorate were to vote massively in line with the wishes of the government, his hand would be strengthened at gatherings of the European Council. “You see, my support at home is overwhelming.” Moreover, he could rest assured that he will remain prime minister for some time to come. But let’s say that only 37% of the electorate turned out to vote on October 2. Not only would he look weak in Brussels, he would look weak at home as well. Especially since the opposition parties more or less unanimously, if belatedly and in some cases half-heartedly, have finally agreed to support a boycott of the referendum. If 63% of eligible voters stay home, there is no way to know how many of them were just lazy or indifferent and how many were active boycotters.

Last week an article appeared in Élet és Irodalom by Mária Vásárhelyi, who is known to readers of Hungarian Spectrum because we have discussed her sociological studies extensively here over the past few years. It is titled “Népakarat vagy politikai manipuláció” (Will of the people of political manipulation). In it she convincingly argues that “in dictatorships and autocracies referendums are the most effective means of political manipulation,” an assertion she supports by pointing to the frequent referendums held in Hitler’s Germany. One of Hitler’s first moves after becoming chancellor was to change the law on referendums: they could be initiated only by the government. Vásárhelyi calls attention to the fact that the Orbán government in 2010 also changed the law on referendums and since then has done everything in its power to prevent holding any referendums initiated by the public. If a referendum in an autocratic regime is intended to increase support for the regime, the fact that the democratic opposition parties haven’t managed to come together and formulate one common message against the referendum “is an unforgivable sin against Hungarian democracy,” she concludes.

Vásárhelyi wrote those lines before the latest Závecz Research poll about the referendum came out. You may recall that a month ago I wrote an article titled “Orbán’s anti-refugee propaganda is a roaring success,” in which I reported on a survey conducted by the same polling company at the end of July. “The enthusiasm is tremendous,” I wrote. “At the moment the majority of the population (54%) plans to vote. If they actually follow through, the referendum will be both valid and, from the government’s viewpoint, stunningly successful. Only 19% of the population claim they will stay at home. Another 23% haven’t decided yet. Of those who intend to vote, 85-90% will vote ‘no.’”

Závecz Research repeated the survey at the end of August, when the opposition parties’ campaign hadn’t yet started. The hilarious anti-referendum posters of the Magyar kétfarkú kutya párt (party of the dog with two tails) were not yet on the streets. Nevertheless public enthusiasm for the referendum dropped considerably in the past month. Tibor Závecz now feels fairly certain that it will not be valid. The number of people who will vote to support the government has dropped and the number of undecided voters has grown. In July 54% of the electorate was intent on voting while today this number is only 41%. That is a very considerable change.

Here are some details. Support from Fidesz voters is pretty much unchanged. Sixty-four percent of them would go and vote “no.” But the number of those who would vote “yes,” that is against the government, has grown from 5.5 to 8.1%.

The changes that occurred in the month of August are most striking in the case of Jobbik voters, who in July were as enthusiastically supportive of the government’s position as Fidesz voters were (61.8%). That number in August has shrunk to 47%. The number of Jobbik supporters who will go and vote against the government has grown substantially, from 3.8% to 8.5%.

DK’s message has been very effective all along. It was a simple slogan: “Stay at home, stay in Europe.” Their supporters got the message. Seventy-three percent of them will boycott the referendum and 10.8% of them will vote “yes,” which is twice as large as it was in July.

MSZP with its mixed messages managed to confuse its already confused electorate. Their reactions are all over the map, but the upshot is that almost 15% of MSZP voters intend to vote “no,” which must be translated as support for the Orbán government. In addition, 20.2% of MSZP voters indicated that they would vote but claimed they haven’t decided how they will vote, which can easily mean a pro-Fidesz vote. About 20% haven’t decided whether they will vote or not and only 31% say they will stay at home, which is practically the same as it was a month ago. MSZP’s new leadership has proved to be an ineffective lot, perhaps because its members are split on the issue. Some of them share Orbán’s anti-immigrant stance, while others take the position that they have to keep in mind their supporters’ views, which are not exactly friendly toward the migrants. A good summary of MSZP’s attitude toward the referendum can be found in today’s 168 Óra.

A few days ago, in an interview, Richárd Szentpéteri-Nagy, a political analyst with the Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ (Equity Center for Political Analysis), went further. He suspects that there are “a fair number of people within MSZP who are directly or indirectly maneuvered, instructed by Fidesz.” Mária Vásárhelyi puts forth another hypothesis. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the “mischievous” MSZP is perhaps already thinking of a possible Fidesz-MSZP coalition.

That’s where we stand at the moment. Only DK and the two other small parties, Együtt (Together) and PM, are consistent and steadfast opponents of the Orbán government which, as a friend told me, is being encircled with “increasingly quiet hatred.” The question is what this currently quiet electorate will do and whether there will be anyone to turn to for leadership when the time comes.

September 12, 2016

By-election in Dunaújváros and its lessons

In the middle of February a local internet site reported that the Tolna County police were investigating an old murder case. Two years earlier, a well-known businessman had been reported missing. His body was eventually discovered, cemented over, in the backyard of a house in Dunaújváros. One of the men accused of the murder was Roland Gál, a Fidesz member of the Dunaújváros City Council. Soon enough, he was stripped of his party membership and removed from his position as a member of the city council. Hence, the necessity of a by-election, held yesterday.

The result in a nutshell. Fidesz’s candidate won, but only because MSZP, DK, and PM, the three democratic opposition parties, ran separately. If they had agreed on a common candidate (assuming he got the same number of votes as the total of the three opposition candidates), Fidesz would have narrowly lost the election. Everybody anticipated a Fidesz victory considering the fractured left. That was no surprise. The Fidesz candidate received 405 votes (39%), DK 241 (23%), Jobbik 199 (19%), MSZP 97 (9%), and PM 84 (8%). The very poor MSZP showing most likely sealed the fate of József Tóbiás; he is unlikely to be reelected chairman of MSZP. Tóbiás sacked the local party chairman, who was against a joint ticket, even though he himself apparently encouraged the locals to run on their own.

The DK leadership is convinced that their failure to reach an agreement with MSZP is the sole fault of MSZP. Their argument rests on a 2014 agreement between the two parties that stipulated that, in the event of a new election, the right of nomination would belong to the party whose candidate originally ran. Since at the 2014 municipal election the united opposition’s candidate was a DK politician, DK expected their man to run again. However, the local MSZP leaders refused to recognize the existence of such an agreement, arguing that it applied only to national, not to local elections. The top leadership decided to support the locals, who claimed that their candidate was more likely to succeed than DK’s man. As it turned out, it was a very bad decision.

One could ask why DK’s leaders insisted on such a confrontational strategy. For the sake of peace, why didn’t they simply go ahead and support the MSZP candidate? Apparently, Ferenc Gyurcsány himself was inclined to let MSZP have its way, but other top leaders of DK argued that such a conciliatory attitude would be a sign of weakness. DK was not aggressive enough when it came to bargaining for better positions on the party list in 2014, the result of which was a lopsided parliamentary representation in favor of MSZP. DK ended up with four members who have sit with the independents because the party didn’t meet the threshold for having a recognized parliamentary delegation, while MSZP has a 28-member caucus. And the ratio of their vote totals was at the time three to two.

The DK activists at work / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

DK activists at work / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

Once the decision was made that the democratic parties would go their own ways, the die was cast. Fidesz would undoubtedly win the election. The relatively low turnout (32%) was most likely due to the pessimism that greeted the decision against cooperation. Reporters who visited the city prior to the election came back with the distinct feeling that “the majority is sick of Fidesz but this way they will surely win.” So, it would be a waste of time even to bother to vote.

Even with the fractured democratic opposition, Viktor Orbán was worried enough about the outcome to schedule a campaign trip to Dunaújváros only a few days before the election. On May 31 he and the Fidesz mayor of the city signed an “agreement of cooperation,” which consisted of 20 billion forints the central government, or more precisely the European Union, would invest in Dunaújváros projects. It would take too long to list all the goodies Orbán promised the city for those measly 400 some votes. Clearly, this election was important to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán because the lost by-elections of the last two years have become not just embarrassing but also worrisome. Reports written on the spot before the election yesterday noted that the Orbán trip made a real impression on the local Fidesz community. Although they know that support for the party is on the decline in town, “now that Viktor Orbán came to see us things have changed,” one Fidesz supporter remarked.

Apparently, Fidesz activists also put an incredible amount of effort into getting out the vote. While DK and MSZP activists campaigned on the streets, Fidesz representatives quietly visited reliable Fidesz voters, urging them to vote.

DK’s strong showing surprised everybody, as did the very poor performance of the socialists. Their degrading loss was interpreted as a wake-up call for the overly self-confident socialist leadership. This seemingly unimportant by-election, where only about one thousand votes were cast, may be a milestone as far as the future of MSZP is concerned. Within a few weeks MSZP will hold its congress and elect a new chairman. Vying for the post are three serious candidates: the current party chairman, József Tóbiás, whose chances even without the failure in Dunaújváros were slim; Tibor Szanyi, who wants to move the party farther to the left and believes that in a head-to-head confrontation MSZP can win against Fidesz; and Gyula Molnár, to whose candidacy I devoted a whole post. A few weeks ago the consensus was that Molnár was the favorite, but then he made the mistake of revealing his plans to approach the other democratic parties, specifically DK, in the hope of closer cooperation. The anti-Gyurcsány forces within the party were less than enthusiastic. Some people feared that Molnár might have blown his chances by taking a conciliatory approach to the man who in October 2011 left MSZP to establish a party of his own. After the debacle of Dunaújváros, however, there is a good possibility that the delegates might realize that “going it alone” is not an option.

The funniest reaction came from the party leaders of PM. One young PM member, who is a council member in one of the Budapest districts, already envisages PM sailing into parliament in 2018 with 10% of all the votes cast. Dunaújváros, in his opinion, is the very beginning of PM becoming an important force on the left. Gergely Karácsony, the co-chairman, sees the results as a confirmation of the party’s belief in the necessity of holding primaries before the actual election as a means of finding the “right person” to head the ticket of a loosely united opposition. Three of the opposition parties support the idea: MSZP, PM, and Együtt.

And the socialists, headed by the candidate himself / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

And the socialists / Source: 24.hu / Photo by Márton Neményi

So, let’s talk about this notion of primaries. When I first heard about the idea of introducing primaries into the Hungarian political system I was less than thrilled. Although I dutifully cast my vote in my state’s primaries, I’m not at all sure they are the best way to pick candidates for the U.S. presidency. I don’t want to dwell on U.S. domestic politics, but the fact that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate doesn’t speak well for the process which, by the way, has been uniformly used only since 1968.

Mátyás Eörsi, a former SZDSZ politician and now a DK supporter, wrote a good opinion piece in Népszabadság in which he outlined his objections. “Elections—just as primary elections—are by nature divisive.” So, primaries will only sharpen the ideological and personal differences between the candidates. Moreover, primaries in the United States are held within one single party and not among three or four or perhaps five different ones. Thus, a primary would in fact be a full-fledged election, after which voters whose candidate lost would be asked to abandon their party and vote for the leader of another. A hopeless idea. Especially since in Hungary the political culture is totally unsuited to the practice of burying the hatchet. Eörsi is so convinced about the lethal effect that primaries would have on the opposition’s chances that he fairly confidently announced that its already small chance of success in 2018 would be totally annihilated by holding primaries.

In the last few months, four times a week, György Bolgár, the host of the popular radio call-in show “Let’s Talk It Over,” poses the question: “What’s To Be Done?” Callers as well as politicians, political commentators, and intellectuals interested in politics have an opportunity to share their thoughts on how to save Hungary from another six years of Fidesz rule. At the beginning I enjoyed the exercise, but by now it is becoming tedious. I could count on one hand people who came up with truly insightful suggestions.

Perhaps what we should do is to strive for the ultimate, the maximum, the ideal. The one which at the moment is just a dream but which is actually the only sure way to stand against the Fidesz onslaught. Eörsi talks about this solution briefly, saying “If we dream, let’s dream big. In order to be able to take up a battle with the Orbán regime what we actually need is not cooperation but one big left-of-center party.” Indeed, this should be the ultimate goal. If the parties repeat their sorry performance of what they called “cooperation” in 2014, failure is guaranteed.

They should work very hard to create a brand new party. Forget about MSZP, DK, Együtt, PM. Create what could be called, for example, Magyar Demokraták Pártja. I would certainly include the word “democracy” in some form in the name of the party because it is no longer a struggle between left and right but between the adherents of democracy and the supporters of autocracy. Right now the formation of such a party seems impossible, but it is impossible only until the leaders of the opposition decide that it is worth working for in order to remove a cancer from the Hungarian body politic.

June 6, 2016

Hungarian mission in the fight against ISIS: Fidesz needed the help of the opposition

This morning the Hungarian parliament approved the country’s participation in the international effort against ISIS forces in northern Iraq and Syria. But before I break down today’s vote, I must go back a bit to set the stage.

In 2014 Viktor Orbán made some fleeting remarks about Hungary’s joining forces with other nations in fighting terrorism, a decision that requires a two-thirds majority vote in parliament. At that point, I’m sure, the Fidesz leadership never imagined that its candidate might be defeated in the Veszprém by-election. But the government had something else to worry about. Apparently at this juncture not all members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation were ready to back the proposal, which the government deemed necessary for bettering U.S.-Hungarian relations.

With the Veszprém election in February Fidesz’s two-thirds majority evaporated. Even if the leaders of the two government parties managed to convince all of their parliamentary members to vote for the proposal, without support from the opposition it would have gone down in defeat. The numbers were simply not there. It was at this point that Viktor Orbán called together the opposition parties to convince them to support the government on this issue.

A few days later, in early March, the press department of the Demokratikus Koalicíó (DK) announced that their members in parliament (four in all) would most likely support the government and thus secure the necessary two-thirds majority. The party spokesman explained that although DK is deeply opposed to the present government, they consider “ISIS a threat to Europe and our western democratic world. To stand against such a threat is our basic human and moral obligation. We cannot watch idly the destruction and mass murders” committed by the ISIS rebels. DK also announced, however, that the party would not send a representative to discuss the details of the mission with Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó because “of their strenuous opposition to the political system of Orbán.” The only thing they insisted on was being well informed on the preparedness of the Hungarian military for the task.

The other opposition parties did meet with the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs and trade, but unlike DK they were less than sanguine about the mission, a force of 150 Hungarian men to defend army bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. LMP said that its five-member parliamentary delegation would vote against such a proposal. András Schiffer, the party’s co-chairman, explained that ever since 2010 LMP had never supported the military participation of Hungarian troops in foreign missions unless the country was compelled to do so by international treaties. Since Hungary’s NATO membership does not demand that the country take part in this particular mission, LMP would vote against the bill. In fact, Schiffer said that he, as the leader of the group, would insist on party discipline and hence a compulsory “nay” vote.

Erbil. This is where the Hungarians troops going

Erbil. This is where the Hungarians troops are going

Jobbik also strenuously objected. The only support the party could imagine giving to anti-ISIS forces was humanitarian aid. Márton Gyöngyösi, Jobbik’s foreign policy expert, wouldn’t even agree to supply weapons and ammunition to those fighting this terrorist group. I might add here that, already in August 2014, Hungary sent weapons to the Peshmerga forces. According to Gyöngyösi, “although Jobbik condemns the violence against Christians and non-extremist Muslims, the size and preparedness of the country are not sufficient for undertaking such a mission which, in addition, would increase the threat of terrorism against our homeland.” Moreover, the United States shouldn’t try to rely on its allies when “it is the United States that is responsible for the destabilization of Iraq and Syria.”

MSZP as usual sat on the fence. First they wanted to know whether the other parliamentary delegations would support the mission. They also wanted to ascertain before deciding whether the Fidesz and KDNP delegations’ vote would be unanimous. Their final word was that they would discuss the matter informally.

If I recall, DK’s offer was initially received with ridicule in the pro-government media. What can the government do with four extra votes? The group is too small to make a difference. But today, when the Fidesz-KDNP delegation is short two votes, four votes from opposition politicians make a big difference. And, in the end, DK members were not the only ones who supported the government.

This morning in parliament the bill passed by a vote of 137 to 57. So, 194 members of parliament were present out of 199. Viktor Orbán was absent because he had some urgent business in Zalaegerszeg. The Jobbik parliamentary delegation voted against the mission to a man. The MSZP vote was mixed. Two members, István Hiller and Ágnes Kunhalmi, most likely flouting party discipline, simply didn’t vote, thus expressing their disagreement with the final MSZP decision. Apparently a huge debate preceded the actual voting, where many argued that voting with Jobbik on this issue might not do much for MSZP’s image, but at the end the leadership decided “not to assist Viktor Orbán in his peacock dance.” They believe that Orbán’s sudden interest in the ISIS mission is only a cheap tool for improving U.S.-Hungarian relations, while the government continues to paper over other outstanding issues like the still pending corruption cases under U.S. scrutiny.

As expected, all five members of the LMP caucus voted against the bill. In addition, the sole parliamentary member of PM, Tímea Szabó, joined Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP and cast her vote against sending the mission to Iraq. That vote was also somewhat anticipated. After all, PM came into existence after their members deserted Schiffer’s LMP. Finally, Péter Kónya, an independent member but previously chairman of Solidarity, also was among the nays.

So, who were the people from the Hungarian democratic opposition who voted for the bill? All four members of DK–Ferenc Gyurcsány, Lajos Oláh, Ágnes Vadai, and László Varju; Zsuzsanna Szelényi and Szabolcs Szabó from Együtt; Gábor Fodor, founder of the Magyar Liberális Párt; and Zoltán Kész, the newly elected independent member of parliament representing Veszprém County’s #1 electoral district.

I’m fairly certain that the majority of Hungarians are against sending soldiers to Iraq, so it took a certain amount of courage on the part of the smaller democratic parties to vote with Fidesz. Yet they took the risk. Ágnes Vadai, in the name of DK, stressed the party’s commitment to “the trans-atlantic alliance, European values, and universal human rights.” Zsuzsanna Szelényi, on behalf of Együtt, said that “Hungary must be present in the world.” Fodor also emphasized the necessity of good relations between Hungary and the United States.

As for István Hiller and Ágnes Kunhalmi, I wasn’t surprised that they were the ones who just couldn’t vote against the mission. They are members of the so-called social-democratic platform of the party, which I consider the most progressive wing of MSZP. It will be worth keeping an eye on them to see whether they can help shape the future of MSZP and its relations with the other smaller democratic parties.

Demands for Viktor Orbán’s resignation

Today is one of those days that I have no idea what will happen between beginning to write this post and uploading it. One thing, however, I can be pretty sure of: I don’t have to worry that by tomorrow morning Viktor Orbán will not be the prime minister of Hungary. Although that is what the opposition would like to see.

This morning’s editorial in Népszabadság demanded Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s resignation. And, indeed, Szijjártó’s situation was deemed so grave that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself came to his rescue. At a press conference in Sopron he said that he was the one who decided that all government money invested in bonds issued by private financial institutions must be withdrawn immediately. He announced his decision at the Thursday, March 4th cabinet meeting. The Hungarian National Trading House subsequently withdrew 3.8 billion forints from Quaestor on Monday, March 9th. That very evening Csaba Tarsoly, CEO of Quaestor, announced his firm’s bankruptcy.

The problem with this story is that it doesn’t jibe with earlier statements of the ministry of foreign affairs and trade that praised the Trading House officials who “acted conscientiously when, observing the market developments,” they opted to withdraw Trading House’s money from Quaestor. Because, according to the letter the ministry sent to cink.hu, there was real panic in the first days of March “when the majority of Quaestor’s clients began withdrawing their assets.” The problem with this explanation is that it is not true. There was no outward sign of trouble at Quaestor at the time. Once Orbán decided to bear the odium of what appeared to be insider trading on the part of government agencies, the ministry discovered that its earlier explanation did not accurately reflect the situation and that in fact the prime minister’s version was the correct one.

Many political reporters were stunned when they heard that Orbán had decided to be the fall guy in this scandal. “In the first moment I didn’t understand how [Orbán] could do something like that,” László Szily of cink.hu saidM. Kasnyk of 444.hu at first couldn’t believe that the story was true. After all, with this admission Orbán threw himself into a quagmire of monumental proportions with a possibly serious political fallout. But it seems that Viktor Orbán is confident about his invincibility. He thinks that his position is secure and that he has nothing to fear. Given the Hungarian parliamentary rules he is probably right, although the opposition parties appear to be united in demanding his resignation.

As we learn more about the events leading up to the collapse of Quaestor, it seems that the Fidesz political leadership had been aware that Csaba Tarsoly’s financial empire was in serious trouble for some time. A high-ranking member of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus told an Index reporter that it was likely after Buda-Cash’s collapse that there would be other bankruptcies. He specifically mentioned Hungaria Értékpapír and Quaestor, both of which subsequently failed.

But let’s return to why Viktor Orbán decided to speak up. Most likely because he realized that Péter Szijjártó was in big trouble. He had illegally invested government assets in a shaky private business venture and then, presumably equally illegally, had withdrawn 3.8 billion forints just before Quaestor’s collapse. Orbán gave this young man a critically important position, one that he was not prepared for. But Orbán is not the kind of man who would ever admit that he made a wrong decision, and therefore it would never occur to him to remove Szijjártó from his position. Also, Szijjártó served him with undivided loyalty for such a long time that perhaps Orbán feels obliged to defend him.

Viktor Orbán announcing that it was him who ordered the withdrawal of government assets from Quaestor

Viktor Orbán announcing his decision to withdraw government assets from Quaestor

Let’s take a quick look at the opposition parties’ reaction to Viktor Orbán’s announcement. Párbeszéd Magyarországért/Dialogue for Hungary (PM) was the first to announce their decision to press charges against government officials who, they believe, are guilty of insider trading. Tímea Szabó, co-chair of the party, naively said that they will demand the audiotape of the March 4th cabinet meeting. Good luck! As far as I know, no records of Orbán’s cabinet meetings are kept in any shape or form. Orbán made that decision already in 1998 when he first became prime minister. He didn’t want to become a second Nixon.

Együtt/Together decided that, while they were at it, they might as well send Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, into retirement alongside his old friend, the prime minister. DK is also pressing charges, and they “would like it if the prime minister would assume financial responsibility with his own assets” for the losses at Quaestor. LMP’s spokesman, a practicing lawyer, talked about insider trading, which is a serious crime and for which long jail terms are normally handed down. He even offered an explanation of what might have happened. In his opinion, it was through the close relationship between Szijjártó and Tarsoly that the information leaked out and spread within the Orbán administration. He also raised the possibility that with the ministry withdrawing about 20 billion forints, Szijjártó may have been partially responsible for the collapse of Quaestor. Gábor Fodor of the Liberális Párt (LP) wrote a letter to the prime minister which Orbán will have to answer at the latest in three weeks’ time. Fodor wants to know exactly how Orbán ordered the ministers to withdraw government assets from private firms. Was it in a letter and, if yes, who were the addressees?

Modern Magyarország Mozgalom (MoMa), the party of Lajos Bokros, called the Hungarian state under Victor Orbán a “den of criminals.” He called attention to the seriousness of insider trading for which “in the United States and in Great Britain people receive very long jail sentences.” In Hungary, he claimed, important government officials are involved in such practices. Bokros also wanted to know “how the ministry of foreign affairs and trade has extra money to invest.”

Several MSZP politicians talked about the case and they all called for Viktor Orbán’s resignation. Jobbik’s János Volner, chairman of the parliamentary committee on promoting entrepreneurial activities, plans to convene a meeting where he expects Péter Szijjártó and the leading official of the Hungarian National Bank to answer the committee’s questions. If they don’t get satisfactory answers, they are ready to go as far as the European Union.

Fidesz is stonewalling. The party “doesn’t fall for the socialists’ provocations because after all it was the left that in the socialist broker scandal [i.e., the Buda-Cash collapse] abandoned the Hungarian people.” And in any case, “it is MSZP, Gyurcsány and Bajnai who are involved in the network of brokerages.” I have no idea what the Fidesz spokesman is talking about here.

The last piece of news I read before sitting down to write this post said that MSZP is inviting all other opposition parties to a meeting tomorrow. We will see what the reaction to this call is. If they manage to form a common front, it will be a first.