Tag Archives: political parties

Another attempt to change the political landscape: The Momentum Movement

Even as we all complain about the political lethargy of Hungarians, a new political group has appeared on the scene. These self-assured young people in their late twenties and early thirties emerged from seemingly nowhere. But they handle their new roles in front of the cameras with poise and, unlike some earlier groups, they seem to have well-defined ideas about what they want. Although their immediate goal is to hold a referendum in Budapest to avert Orbán’s folly of hosting the 2024 Olympics in the capital, they are braced for an intensive political role. They call their movement Momentum.

Skeptics would say that Momentum’s efforts to defeat Hungary’s Olympics bid will be in vain. They must collect 130,000 signatures in 30 days in the dead of winter. And even if they get the necessary signatures, the prospect of a valid referendum is slim. Not even Fidesz’s outsize spending was enough to achieve that.

Momentum’s leaders seem to be realistic in their expectations: they will be satisfied even if all they achieve is getting the necessary number of signatures. After all, this would be a first among numerous failed attempts in the past. As for the likelihood of their ultimate success, the population of Budapest is divided on the issue of the Olympics. While about half of the population of Budapest opposes the games for economic reasons, the other half supports them either because of national pride or because they consider the infrastructure investment beneficial for their city.

If the only aim of the leaders of Momentum were to oppose holding the Olympics in Budapest, they wouldn’t have had such an enthusiastic reception in democratic circles. What Momentum offers is something new. The group unequivocally defines itself as a political organization. Why is that so significant? Because until now, newly emerged and promising civic groups refused any cooperation with political parties or declared themselves to be purely “professional” organizations. The leaders of these organizations denied any political motives, with the inevitable result that they became isolated and eventually disappeared. When, for instance, the teachers’ demonstration managed to get 40,000 people out in the pouring rain, it was clear that most of the people in the crowd were there because of their opposition to the government that was responsible for the ruined educational system. The teacher’s movement failed because it was unwilling “to get involved in politics.” Eventually, they noticed their mistake, but by that time it was too late.

What do we know about the Momentum group? I encountered two of the leaders in interview situations on ATV and HírTV, and I must admit that I was impressed. The chairman of the group, András Fekete-Győr (27), is a lawyer who works in an international law office in Budapest but earlier worked in the European Parliament and the Bundestag. The other person I watched was Anna Orosz (27), who studied economics in Budapest and Berlin with work experience in both cities. I haven’t seen a third member of the team, Miklós Hajnal, but I read a long interview with him. He is just finishing his last year as a student of philosophy, political science and economics in Oxford. According to him, about one-fifth of the membership either studied or lived abroad at one time or another and are eager “to bring home the best practices” they encountered abroad.

András Fekete-Győr and Anna Orosz

Momentum has had a longer history than I initially realized. At the beginning of 2015 nine young people established Momentum because “they were convinced that a purely civic initiative is not enough to achieve any systemic change. Therefore, they were thinking in terms of a political community which in the long run can offer itself as a replacement for the current political elite.” Their first move was to organize a get-together in a summer camp, attended by 200 people, somewhat similarly to what Fidesz did in 1985, in order to exchange ideas and hammer out a program. By the spring of 2016 the membership was large enough to establish an association with several working groups. What brought them together was a common feeling of “political orphanhood,” Miklós Hajnal told mandiner.hu.

I assume that if this group survives, we will know more about their political ideas. What I have learned so far is that although they don’t want to join any existing party, they are ready to work with all of them. They are not interested in ideology, and therefore they find labels like “left” and “right” obsolete. They find Viktor Orbán’s “work-based society” a dead end. They wouldn’t participate in primaries, which they consider “unfortunate and misleading.” Otherwise, their social policy strikes me as liberal. Anna Orosz’s historical ideal is Árpád Göncz, while András Fekete-Győr talked about St. Stephen and István Széchenyi. Judging from these references, both liberal and conservative strands are present in Momentum.

A right-wing blogger called the leadership of Momentum nothing more than a revival of the liberal SZDSZ’s youth organization. He reacted to the word “liberal” with the usual intense hatred. He described them as irrepressible and destructive people who keep returning in different guises. Among the leadership he called attention to András Radnóti, Momentum’s coordinator for foreign relations. He is the son of Sándor Radnóti, who indeed was very active in SZDSZ in the 1980s.

Former Prime Minister József Antall’s son Péter, who is heading the government-financed József Antall Center of Knowledge (Antall József Tudásközpont), wrote on Facebook that any associate of the foundation who expresses public support for Momentum’s anti-Olympics effort will lose his job. Those “who want to be independent politically” can pack. This is the son of the first democratically elected Hungarian prime minister after the regime change.

Magyar Idők also noted Momentum’s “attack on the Olympics,” which “is political in nature.” The current Hungarian government uses the words “politics” and “political” as practical equivalents of “treachery” and “treasonous.” One of the officials responsible for the preparation of the Olympics announced that “every time politics has gotten involved in sports, the sports have suffered.” This assertion is especially amusing considering that sports are such an important part of Viktor Orbán’s political arsenal.

I’m really curious what the reactions of other opposition parties will be to Momentum. LMP, Párbeszéd, Együtt, and the Two-Tailed Dog Party have already promised to help in gathering signatures. DK’s leadership hasn’t made any decision yet, but since DK also belongs to the anti-Olympics camp, I’m pretty sure that the decision will be favorable. MSZP, as usual, is divided on the issue of the Olympics, but MSZP’s spokesman promised an answer sometime next week.

As I said earlier, these young people are very self-assured and keep repeating that they are well prepared to enter the political struggle. Anna Orosz said in one of her interviews that “we would like to spread our ideas in ever larger circles and transplant them into reality.” The reporter’s reaction was that “in the next 30 days they will certainly meet reality” on the streets of Budapest. It will be an eye-opener and a challenge, I’m sure.

January 18, 2017

Publicus Institute: Civic groups and political parties

Two month have gone by since the publication (in Vasárnapi Hírek) of the Publicus Institute’s opinion poll on the teachers’ demonstrations. At that time the overwhelming majority (76%) of Hungarians sympathized with the teachers and thought that their demands were justified. Publicus decided to expand its inquiry to learn more about people’s opinions of the relationship between civic initiatives and party politics. This is a timely survey because there are many who, disappointed in party politics, are placing their trust exclusively in civic leaders. In fact, in the past at least, organizers of demonstrations practically forbade party leaders to attend their rallies. They were petrified that Fidesz-KDNP would label them agents of the opposition parties.

Such an attitude was self-defeating. In the first place, no amount of protestation would convince the government of their “innocence.” After every demonstration Fidesz found at least one organizer who earlier had had some vague connection to parties. It’s enough to think of an employee of  the Ökotárs Foundation responsible for handing the Norwegian grants to Hungary who, as Fidesz discovered, was at one point a member of LMP. Balázs Gulyás, organizer of one of the largest demonstrations of late, turned out to be the son of an MSZP EP member and a former party member himself. And Fidesz quickly learned that István Pukli, the principal organizer of the teachers’ demonstrations, was once also an MSZP member. In the eyes of Fidesz, everybody who demonstrates against the government is by definition a traitor who wants to topple the legitimate Hungarian government.

The civic leaders who organized demonstrations were also convinced that their supporters would abandon them if it turned out that they were in any way involved in party politics. Therefore before every demonstration stern warnings were issued demanding distance from the opposition parties. This attitude benefited only Fidesz and the government since, in general, one-off actions of civic groups don’t prompt the government to change its mind. Yes, as the result of a mass demonstration that got wide coverage in the foreign press the Orbán government, after a week of confusion and mixed signals, gave up the idea of a steep internet tax . But that’s all civic organizers have managed to achieved to date. The repeal of the law governing Sunday store closings resulted from the doggedness of MSZP, although clearly public sentiment supported their efforts.

If civic leaders feared a backlash from their supporters if they solicited the assistance of parties in their struggle for change, they can now breathe a sigh of relief. We know from the latest poll of the Publicus Institute that a large majority of Hungarians believe that civic groups should work together with parties. So, from here on perhaps leaders of civic organizations might take a few steps toward forging closer ties with the larger democratic parties.

Let’s dig a little deeper into attitudes regarding the relationship between civic groups and parties. Seventy-two percent of the respondents think that although it is natural that civic groups fight for their interests, alone they will not be able to achieve their aims. Sixty-three percent urge cooperation between civic groups and the opposition parties. On this question MSZP and Jobbik supporters, on the one hand, and Fidesz followers, on the other, think very differently. The voters of the former two parties are strong advocates of cooperation (89% and 83%) while the majority of Fidesz voters oppose it.

The Publicus Institute also returned to its earlier topic of the civic movements that have been taking center stage in Hungarian domestic politics. Interest in the efforts of the teachers, doctors, and nurses is still high. Eighty-five percent of Hungarians follow the events and support the organizers’ goals. At the same time, they expect politicians to solve the current problems of education and healthcare. Seventy-two percent of the respondents think that “if no definite steps are taken by opposition politicians, there is no other solution but for civic groups to lead the way.” However, a large percentage of the same people believe that if these groups try to go it alone, their cause will be lost (47%).

Support for the teachers is still high (62%), but lower than it was in mid-February when it was 76%. It seems that government propaganda has succeeded in convincing Fidesz loyalists that the Orbán administration has been doing its best to solve the problems but the teachers are reluctant to engage in well-intentioned dialogue. Twenty percent of Fidesz voters and 10% of Jobbik supporters have been won over by government propaganda. On the other hand, MSZP voters are more determined than ever to see the teachers win their case.

credibility

While people know that without politicians and political parties the opposition forces have no chance of succeeding, they still have no trust in individual politicians. The Publicus Institute chose eleven public figures who have in one way or another been connected with the education and healthcare movements. The question was: “How credibly do the following people represent the cause of education/healthcare?” Among the eleven names there were five politicians: Zoltán Pokorni (Fidesz), Ágnes Kunhalmi (MSZP), Dóra Dúró (Jobbik), István Hiller (MSZP), László Palkovics (Fidesz), and Zoltán Balog (Fidesz). On the whole, the politicians did badly. On a scale of 1 to 100, Balog and Palkovics came in last, each getting 44 points. István Hiller, minister of education during the second Gyurcsány and the Bajnai governments, didn’t do much better (45 points). Dóra Dúró, the Jobbik politician specializing in education, received 49 points. Only two politicians got more than 50 points: Zoltán Pokorni and Ágnes Kunhalmi. Pokorni, minister of education between 1998-2001, is the odd man out in this group because he retired from national politics some time ago, most likely not entirely on his own volition. He is no longer in parliament and has been tucked away as mayor of District XII since 2006. Ágnes Kunhalmi is, in my opinion, a promising young politician who is the chair of the Budapest MSZP group. She was given the task of focusing on educational matters, although I have the feeling that the party could make better use of her talents.

The star of the civic leaders is Mária Sándor, the nurse in black. Almost 90% of the people know who she is and 75% have trust in her. Other figures in the movement are less well known and received lower scores. Katalin Törley, co-chair of the Tanitanék Movement, got 57 points. Mrs. István Galló, leader of the larger teacher’s union, received 56 points; László Mendrey, the other trade union leader, got 55 points; and István Pukli, principal of the Blanka Teleki Gymnasium, got 51 points. So, all the civic leaders scored over 50 points while only two of the six politicians did so. In brief, politicians have to improve their image if they hope to take part in the upsurge of civic initiatives.

Opposition politicians should make every effort to deflate and combat the long-standing Fidesz propaganda, which unfortunately has been far too effective in besmirching the reputation of MSZP and SZDSZ politicians. Their accomplishments have been underrated and their failures exaggerated. It would be time to stand up and defend those policies that deserve praise. For example, teachers were far from satisfied with the state of education before 2010, and by all estimates most of them voted for Fidesz. Yet today they admit that, despite all the shortcomings, their and their students’ lot was much better before the arrival of Viktor Orbán’s Christian-national regime. Maybe it is time to drive home that truth.

April 17, 2016

What now? Civilians versus party leaders

Tomorrow’s demonstration is being organized by a Facebook group called “MostMi!” (Now us!). The chief organizer of MostMi! is Zsolt Várady, a man who two years before Mark Zuckerberg hit upon the idea of Facebook, started iWiW, a Hungarian site. Later purchased by Magyar Telekom, iWiW no longer exists. Várady tried his luck in Berlin but couldn’t quite make it as a software developer. Now back in Hungary, he has been waging a war for some time against the Hungarian tax system which in his opinion is ruinous for Hungarian entrepreneurs.

Várady’s strategy was bizarre. Sometime at the beginning of October he sued every Hungarian party that has existed since 1990, fifteen all told, for being responsible for the widespread tax evasion effectively foisted upon Hungarian citizens because of the existing system of taxation. Quite clearly, Várady does not like parties. The very name he gave to the organization responsible for tomorrow’s demonstration is telling: “Now us!” It implies that all the parties of the last twenty-five years have failed and that the time has come for him and other unaffiliated citizens to take the reins.

What does MostMi! want to achieve tomorrow? “We would like to experience again the same liberating feeling [of earlier demonstrations] after the holidays. To feel that we are not alone and that we dare to raise our voices against this regime.” I’m afraid this is not quite enough. It looks as if MostMi! will be unable to rouse large numbers of demonstrators. As of now only about 10,000 people have indicated they will attend. Of course, it’s mighty cold out.

But there might be an additional reason for the lack of enthusiasm. Speakers at earlier demonstrations talked about the misery of the last twenty-five years and railed against all politicians, no matter their political stripe, while the crowds demanded: “Orbán takarodj!” (Orbán scram!). The civil organizers and the demonstrators were not in sync. Many of the demonstrators are followers of already existing parties. They would vote for MSZP, DK, Együtt, PM, LMP–that is, mostly for the parties of the old “Összefogás” group. These parties want to remove the present government from power. Várady and his co-organizers, by contrast, are working to eliminate all the existing democratic parties while they wait for a new generation of pristine politicians to emerge from their own ranks to eliminate the present regime.

In the last week or so, several political analysts argued against letting civilians take the lead to the exclusion of parties because they are convinced that if parties don’t join the movement, it will end up just like Milla, another Facebook initiative, did. Milla refused to cooperate with established parties and as a result it disappeared, practically without a trace.

It is usually Ferenc Gyurcsány who makes the first move when he sees an opportunity. The Orbán government has been greatly weakened and, in his opinion, it is time for political action. He was the only politician on the left who announced that the opposition should devise a strategy that would result in an election in 2016 instead of 2018. For that, the parties must come out of hibernation and join the movement that was begun by the civilians. They seem to be the ones who can gather crowds, but the crowds are not as politically unaffiliated as the civic organizers think. The very fact that they go out on the street is a political act. And politics needs parties.

goal
On December 22, Gyurcsány asked his followers to join the demonstration once again, but this time with party flags and emblems. The reaction from the MostMi! group was predictable. They subscribed to the Milla template: no parties, no slogans. “Now us!” But who are the “us”?  Even a conservative blog,”1000 A Mi Hazánk,” insisted that parties must make their appearance because otherwise the whole momentum of the demonstrations will be lost. On the liberal side, István Gusztos in Gépnarancs was of the same mind. As he said, “the organizers sooner or later must understand that political parties are civic formations par excellence.” Keeping civilians away from parties is an impediment to their renewal, which will make a struggle against the present regime impossible.

A telephone conversation between Várady and Gyurcsány did not resolve the impasse. Gyurcsány said that DK members and sympathizers who have faithfully attended earlier demonstrations will be happy to join Várady’s goup on January 2, but only if they can show their party preferences. The debate between DK and the organizers continued for days. The other parties, whom Gyurcsány called on to join DK’s example, remained quiet. The main reason for their reluctance was that they don’t want to appear to be following Gyurcsány’s lead. After all, József Tóbás, chairman of MSZP, made it clear that the socialists will never work together with any other party. They will the ones that will form a socialist government in 2018. Obviously, they also reject Gyurcsány’s strategy of holding early elections.

Naturally, the right-wing press was delighted to hear that the organizers “fell upon each other” while the liberals who sympathize with Gyurcsány felt that the civilians “screwed it up again.” Defenders of the civic leaders considered Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision to be a way of usurping a demonstration that someone else organized. Indeed, by the rules of MostMi!’s game, Gyurcsány was trying to do exactly that. But as a liberal commentator said, “perhaps the rules of the game are wrong.”

The debate ended on December 30 when Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, a leading DK politician, announced that DK activists had received threats by civilians and that, in order to avoid possible violence, Ferenc Gyurcsány had withdrawn his request for DK sympathizers to be able to display their affiliation and affinity with the party. At that time Kerék-Bárczy still called upon the party’s followers to attend the demonstration. A few hours later, however, DK spokesman Zsolt Gréczy said that Gyurcsány had decided that if DK members and sympathizers can’t show their real colors, they will not attend. Of course, he cannot forbid DK sympathizers from attending, but neither he nor Gréczy will be there tomorrow.

Meanwhile criticism of the MostMi! group continues. Another civilian, Gábor Szabó, who has been demonstrating in front of the parliament building for months, wrote an open letter to Zsolt Várady saying that “it would be time to clear up what the real purpose of the demonstration is because the crowd thinks that the demonstration is against the Orbán regime while it seems that the goal of Várady and his collaborators is the creation of a new opposition.”

Potpourri: shifting public mood, protest vote, continued attack on the U.S.

Well, in the two days I spent in Switzerland (alas, virtually), a lot of things happened in Hungary. Since I found it difficult to choose a single topic, today’s post will be somewhat scattershot.

Yesterday we got the first public opinion poll since the unrest caused initially by the planned introduction of an internet tax and later by the corruption cases that surfaced at NAV. The frustration vented at the three large demonstrations that took place over the past two weeks went far beyond these issues, however. The participants seemed to have had enough of the whole political system that Viktor Orbán has been systematically building since 2010.

Of course, we will have to wait for a few more polling results to know whether Nézőpont Intézet, a pro-Fidesz company, is correct in its assessment. A few years ago they were utterly unreliable, but recently their results have been quite accurate. So, what’s the word? It looks as if Fidesz has lost some of its supporters. As Gábor Török, a political scientist who is famous for being noncommittal, noted on his Facebook page, this is the first time since June 2012 that Fidesz’s support in the adult population dropped below 30%. Just between October 14-17 and November 3-7 Fidesz lost 3%, about a tenth of its supporters. Most opposition parties had gains, including Jobbik and DK. MSZP by contrast seems to be in worse shape than before. Among eligible voters the socialists are at 7% while their arch rival, the Demokratikus Koalíció, is at 6%. MSZP’s situation is even worse when it comes to “potential voters,” i.e. people who indicate that they would go and vote if elections were held next Sunday. Here DK would garner 11% of the votes while MSZP would get only 9%. DK doubled its support in the last few months while the socialists are working hard at obliterating themselves. The graph below clearly shows clearly the trends in the last four and a half years.

Source Origo / Nézőpont Intézet

Source Origo / Nézőpont Intézet

Talking about parties, Jobbik had a huge success in Ózd, a kind of Hungarian Detroit, except that Ózd in the socialist period became a center of iron smelting. After the change of regime the coke works became less profitable and many folks lost their jobs. The people of Ózd were victims of the Kádár regime’s forced industrialization that in the new competitive environment was bound to fail.

Ózd was a solidly socialist city until 2010, when Pál Fürjes (Fidesz-KDNP) was elected mayor and the city council had 9 Fidesz members out of 14. MSZP had to be satisfied with one lone seat. The desperate inhabitants of the town undoubtedly hoped that a Fidesz administration would be able the reverse the city’s downward spiral. They were disappointed. Nothing changed. In addition, people noticed with dismay that the new Fidesz administration was “arrogant, condescending and corrupt.” The locals could hardly wait to get rid of Fürjes and his friends. The DK-MSZP candidate was new with little political experience and since Jobbik was strong in town, even the DK-MSZP supporters saw little chance of winning against Fürjes. And indeed, a 27-year-old Jobbik candidate of Polish origin, Dávid Janiczak, won with a margin of 66 votes.

But no Fidesz candidate can stomach defeat after having been in office for a while. In several places losers insisted on annulling the results. In two Budapest districts their efforts failed, but in the case of Ózd, where the case went all the way to the Debrecen Appellate Court, a new election had to be held. As you will see from the results, the people of Ózd revolted. One woman told Népszabadság that in October she did not bother to vote because her feet hurt but this time she would have crawled on all fours to vote for Fürjes’s opponent. The inhabitants found Fürjes’s behavior unacceptable and wanted to “punish him.” Well, they did. First of all, they went out to vote in record numbers. While in October only 10,927 people voted, in November the number was 15,982. While in October Janiczak received 4,214 votes, in November he more than doubled that result, with 10,299 votes. Fürjes got only a few dozen extra votes. The most remarkable aspect of the Ózd situation is that while the DK-MSZP candidate in October received 2,238 votes, in November he got only 520. Even people on the left were so determined that the Fidesz mayor not be reelected that they voted for the Jobbik candidate who had a real chance. In brief, it was a protest vote.

Anyone who would like portray the Ózd results as the beginning of an era of Jobbik dominance in Hungarian politics is wrong. This was a unique situation that was created by the usual Fidesz insatiability. Fidesz politicians cannot bear losing. Moreover, they have the feeling that the whole country should be theirs. They are not satisfied until every hamlet, every position everywhere is in their hands.

Fidesz likes to frighten the West with the specter of Jobbik. The usual mantra is: “Don’t criticize the present government and Fidesz because we are the guarantee that the far-right Jobbik will not swallow up the whole country.” This time too a so-called political scientist of the by now notorious Századvég foundation wrote in his blog: “Telegram to America: Ózd.” In plain English, “Goodfriend et al., get off your high horses. You bother about such trifling matters as corruption at the tax authority when we are the bulwark that holds back the far right. You see what you did? The Jobbik revolt in Ózd resulted from your high-handed behavior.” Of course, this is all nonsense. The people of Ózd said that they had had enough of  both MSZP and Fidesz. Let’s see what Jobbik can do. Not all these voters hold  far-right views and not all are racists. They are just fed up. As for how much the Jobbik mayor will be able to achieve, I fear not much even if he is a talented politician with full of good intentions. In the council there is still a solid Fidesz majority, and we know what Fidesz politicians do in such cases. We saw four years of struggle in Esztergom between a Fidesz-majority council and an independent mayor who defeated the Fidesz candidate in 2006. In District XV, where a DK man won this year, the Fidesz majority has already boycotted council meetings, preventing the election of deputy mayors. They will try their best to prevent the DK mayor from actually running the district. Most likely something like that will also happen in Ózd. The last thing that poor city needs.

Finally, the Orbán government’s attacks on the United States continue. In fact, the volume has been turned up somewhat. According to Antal Rogán, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, M. André Goodfriend, U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest, is “not a truthful man” (nem szavahihető). Even the honey-tongued Zoltán Kovács, one of the many government spokesmen, couldn’t quite manage to explain today that “not truthful” means anything other than “not truthful.”

Then there is the parliamentary committee on national security whose Fidesz majority decided last week to ask André Goodfriend to appear before them. The MSZP chairman had such serious doubts about the advisability of such a move that he refused to extend the “invitation.” Well, the deputy chair, Szilárd Németh, the one I described as a perfect candidate for a bouncer in a shady part of town, decided to go ahead anyway.

But the funniest part of the American-Hungarian tug-of-war was Ildikó Vida’s visit to the U.S. Embassy yesterday. Vida, head of the Hungarian tax authority, is one of the six Hungarians who cannot enter the United States because of their possible involvement in corrupt practices in connection with American firms doing business in Hungary. Vida, accompanied by her lawyer and a reporter and cameraman from HírTV, showed up at the U.S. Embassy unannounced and uninvited. It just happened that Goodfriend was going out for a walk when he was accosted by Vida and her lawyer. The encounter is the object of great hilarity on the internet, especially since Hungarians learned that the almighty head of the tax authority does not know a word of English.

I'm saying it slowly so even Ildikó Vida would understand it: cheers

I’m saying it slowly so even Ildikó Vida would understand it: cheers

In any case, eventually Vida and her lawyer had a fairly lengthy discussion with Goodfriend, during which Vida failed to learn anything new. Afterwards, she said that she considers the chargé totally ignorant of the details of her arduous work uncovering tax corruption. She also announced that she will force the issue by applying for a visa to the United States. Today Vida’s lawyer, Barnabás Futó, who is described as “the Fidesz-mafia’s well-known lawyer,” claimed on Olga Kálmán’s Egyenes beszéd (ATV) that “the American chargé informed him that he had received documents from András Horváth,” the whistleblower who first called attention to the highly irregular practices at NAV. Horváth, who was watching the program, immediately phoned in and announced that he had never met André Goodfriend. After this, however, he said he will have to meet the American diplomat in person to find out what transpired in his meeting with Vida and her lawyer. Perhaps the reason for the misunderstanding was Vida’s and Futó’s lack of language skills.

Thousands of fraudulent endorsements and still no investigation

More and more evidence surfaces daily about large-scale electoral fraud even though the election is still more than a week away. Ever since March 1 there have been rumors about how newly established parties got hold of an incredible number of endorsements. Some of these parties were formed in order to receive generous government support, others to weaken Fidesz’s opposition. It was discovered early on that some, if not most, of the signatures were fake. In one case, one of the employees of the office handling election matters discovered his own name on an endorsement list. The man went to the local police, but the municipal official in charge of matters connected to the election refused to do anything because the fake signature “doesn’t materially influence the outcome.” After all, he claimed, the candidate has more than enough bona fide signatures. These are the people who are supposed to make sure that the election will not be fraudulent.

Soon enough it became clear that no one would check the validity of signatures even though a week later serious questions were raised. Attila Péterfalvi, the man responsible for data protection, didn’t seem to be bothered by proof of fraudulent endorsements. He announced that it would take too long to check the validity of the names and signatures. It would be impossible to undertake such an arduous task. I guess I don’t have to tell anyone that Péterfalvi, who was ombudsman before 2010, is a devoted Fidesz man.

I don’t know how long the Hungarian administration can maintain that everything is in perfectly good order given the current state of the election process. Three days ago one young man, who was a volunteer for the Magyarországi Cigánypárt (MCP), came forward. He claimed that not just MCP but to his knowledge at least four other parties exchanged lists and endorsements. Aladár Horváth, chairman of the Gypsy party, denied all charges. He denigrated the work of the volunteers who, according to him, did more harm than good, and he accused MSZP of hiring the young activist to level false charges against MCP. As he contended, MSZP has a Roma section that was opposed to Horváth and his friends organizing a separate party, and now these people are paying MCP back for being “traitors” to the cause.

Yesterday 8,000-10,000 photocopied endorsement lists were sent by an unnamed person to László Helmeczy, an Együtt-PM candidate who is a lawyer and a former Fidesz member. Helmeczy, by the way, must be an excellent lawyer because in the past important politicians asked him to represent them in politically motivated cases. For example, Ibolya Dávid, herself a lawyer and former minister of justice in the first Orbán administration. Or János Veres, former MSZP minister of finance in the Gyurcsány administration.

Tibor Szanyi (MSZP) and Viktor Szigetvári (Együtt-PM) immediately turned to the National Election Committee. It is the committee’s duty to investigate cases of electoral fraud.

After looking at the material, Összefogás came to the conclusion that not just five but ten parties were involved. Keep in mind that eighteen parties are on the ballot. Here is the list of parties that presumably submitted phony endorsements: Új Magyarország Párt, Új Dimenzió Párt, Kisgazdapárt-MIÉP, Szabad Választók Pártja, Szociáldemokraták Magyar Polgári Pártja, Sportos és Egészséges Magyarországért Párt, Magyarországi Cigány Párt, Összefogás Párt, Elégedetlenek Pártja, and Jólét és Szabadság Demokrata Közösség. Now it is up to the National Election Committee to decide what to do. Of course, it is possible that in usual Fidesz fashion the committee will simply ignore the whole thing, although I have the feeling that the government is already feeling the pinch of foreign criticism.

As a first line of defense the Hungarian government decided to “explain” that the critics are wrong and that the new Hungarian electoral law is much better than its predecessor, which was the result of a compromise between communist apparatchiks and the new opposition in 1989-1990. The document, which is unsigned, was distributed to a select list of Americans in the DC area. It answers the “myths” that are circulating about the Hungarian election and and gives the “facts.”

I would like to call attention to problems that the document doesn’t even try to tackle. For example, the handling of foreign votes; the distinction between new citizens and citizens by birth right; the very limited opportunities for the opposition to be heard; and the government propaganda that is being broadcast on public television and radio. And naturally it says nothing about fraud committed by the government-funded fake parties.

Three important civic supporters of Fidesz László dizmadia (FÖF), András Bencsik (Magyar Demokrata, and Zsolt Bayer (Magyar Hírlap

Three important organizers of CÖF/Békemenetth
László Csizmadia, András Bencsik, and Zsolt Bayer

Yesterday we got proof that CÖF, the famously” independent” civic organization that was suspected of receiving Fidesz and/or government financing, was indeed organized by Fidesz. A telephone conversation was recorded between a citizen and a Fidesz party official about a free bus ride to CÖF’s big demonstration next Saturday. It became apparent that Fidesz party headquarters is organizing the bus rides to the capital. All of CÖF’s campaign posters are in reality Fidesz posters.

Here is the Hungarian government’s propaganda leaflet, which might interest you.

* * *

HUNGARY ELECTIONS: MYTHS AND FACTS

MYTH: The governing Fidesz-KDNP party alliance unilaterally and hastily changed a well-functioning electoral system before the elections to ensure electoral victory in 2014.

FACT: Hungary’s hybrid electoral system was one of the most complicated in Europe,1 mainly because it was a result of a difficult political compromise of the 1989/90 roundtable negotiations between the communist state party and the democratic opposition.2 Adjusting the electoral system was not Fidesz’s new idea. Since 1990, every major party in Hungary had their own reform proposals, but no party or coalition had a strong enough majority (two-thirds) to pursue fundamental changes in the electoral law. An average voter could not fully understand or explain how their votes turn into mandates. The system needed more transparency and simplification. The new electoral law was adopted in 2011, three years prior to the elections and the electoral procedural law was adopted in 2013, one year prior to the elections, following a 7 month long debate in Parliament. To predict that the new system will favor Fidesz is a hypothesis that lacks real empirical evidence, since the new system has never been tested before, all parties act under a veil of uncertainty. By now, one of the most obvious result of the electoral reform was that it made it easier for political parties to enter the race and register candidates, so if anything, it has widened the scope of democratic choice and enhanced political competition for all parties.3

MYTH: Establishing a single round of voting instead of the previous two round (run-off system) was designed to make it even harder for small parties to win seats in the individual districts.

FACT: The two-round system was costly and it became redundant because with time, parties adjusted electoral strategies and many of the races were already won in the first round of the elections (hence the traditionally low voter turnout in the 2nd round). Small parties never really had a good chance of winning seats through the individual districts alone, since winning these races required an absolute majority in the first round or a relative majority in the second round. Most importantly, the single round system increases transparency because previously small parties usually withdrew before the second round to support their political allies based on behind-the-scenes bargains in which the voters never had a say. Supporters of the smaller parties usually ended up voting for their first preference in the first round without knowing if their favorite party will even compete in the second round. The best hope of small parties has always been winning seats through the party list and compensation list and not in the individual districts.4

MYTH: Fidesz gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure its own victory.

FACT: Parliament was required to redraw the electoral districts for the 2010 elections, not only because the number of MPs was cut in half and the number of electoral districts was reduced, but also because the Constitutional Court invalidated the district map in 2010 so elections could not have been legitimately held on that basis. The electoral district map which was used for the past six elections was unilaterally drawn by communist party apparatchiks and implemented by a Ministerial Decree before the first democratic elections took place, the thus created district map was not subject of the grand bargains of the Roundtable negotiations and there was no system for revisions despite significant population changes in the last decades. The Constitutional Court ruled on two accounts that the existing voting districts are unconstitutionally disproportional (e.g. Constituency No. in Pest County: 74,000 voters vs. constituency No. 06 in Veszprém  County: 27,00 voters). The size of the Parliament was also reduced in 2010 from 386 (which was a disproportionately large number of MPs for a country of 10 million) to 199, which also necessitated changes in the districts. The current system takes into account the Venice Commission’s recommendations, i.e. that deviation from the norm should not be more than 10% or 15% (in special circumstances) and furthermore the new law stipulates a trigger for automatic redistricting in case the deviation from the norm in a district exceeds 20%. Gerrymandering in favor of any party is constrained in the current law since the districts are required to cover a contiguous territory and must remain within the county borders. Since the relevant law was adopted, no party filed a constitutional complaint to challenge the district boundaries.

MYTH: Fidesz raised the threshold for the opposition alliance from 5% to 15%.

FACT: The parliamentary threshold did not change since 1994. The threshold has always been higher for party alliances: 10 per cent for two parties running together and 15 per cent for more than two parties. The same rules applied in 2002 when Fidesz and MDF ran together and in 2006 and 2010 when Fidesz and KDNP ran together. And the same rules will apply this year for the Fidesz-KDNP list (10%) and the MSZP-Együtt-PM-DK-MLP alliance (15%).

MYTH: Fidesz granted voting rights to Hungarians abroad to win the elections.

FACT: First, Hungarian citizens living or temporarily residing abroad who had a permanent residence in Hungary had the right to vote since 2004. Second, the simplified naturalization of ethnic Hungarians living abroad who might or might not have a permanent address in Hungary was supported by all of the parties in the Parliament in 2010. Hungarians who do not have a permanent residence address in Hungary and have registered to vote can cast by mail only one vote for the party list, while those who have a permanent address have to vote in person at Hungarian embassies and consulates, but can cast two votes, one for the individual candidate in the district where their address is located and one for the party list. As a general rule, larger parties focus on winning individual districts where their comparative chances are better, while smaller parties benefit more from party lists because of the proportional system. Generally, whichever party wins in the individual districts also wins the elections, so the newly naturalized citizens’ vote (about 230,000 registered voters vs. 8 million eligible voters residing in Hungary) will only be decisive in a very close race. Besides, no opinion poll has ever been conducted on the political preferences of out of country vote, so any conclusion based on this cohort’s vote is extremely hypothetical.

MYTH: The new campaign finance law makes it easier for “fake political parties” to run on public money, which divides the anti-Fidesz vote.

FACT: The reason why the law on public financing of parties was introduced is precisely to bring accountability to the system. The new rules on how public money is spent are much stricter than the old rules, since the State Audit Office shall review the campaign spending of all parties that get into the Parliament. Besides, in a democratic society, one cannot distinguish between “fake parties” and “real parties.” Candidates who do not obtain parliamentary mandates and don’t get more than 2% of the votes must repay the public funding they have received which ensures that candidates who don’t have a legitimate support don’t receive undue taxpayer money.

MYTH: Political campaign ads were banned from commercial TV stations so voters won’t be able to make an informed decision.

FACT: On the contrary, campaign rules were tightened to make commercial TV campaigns more equitable and fair by providing equal representation in public media and requiring commercial channels to air political advertisements for free. Many European countries regulate campaign advertising. In Hungary, it was the decision of the individual private TV stations not to air political ads for free, which the government has no business in overwriting. But all the parties that were able to put up a national list now enjoy free equal airtime on public television and radio, which is a guaranteed platform widely accessible and regulated by strict rules to ensure fairness.

MYTH: The new electoral bodies are not independent.

FACT: There are two bodies overseeing and managing the elections: 1) the National Election Commission, whose tasks are establishing the results of the elections; ensuring the impartiality, fairness and legality of elections; adjudging legal remedies and restoring the legal order of elections if necessary; 2) the National Election Office, which is tasked with preparing and conducting elections (providing impartial information to voters, candidates and nominating organizations; aiding the activity of the National Election Commission; providing the material and technical conditions for the implementation of elections; and conducting the operation of election offices on territorial and local level). The members of the National Election Commission were previously nominated by the minister responsible for the elections, while now the President of the Republic nominates them and the Parliament confirms them by two-third-majority rather than by simple majority as previously. At the same time, the Commissioners’ mandate was extended from 4 to 9 years, i.e. longer than the parliamentary cycle, which is an attribute of independence. The commissioners’ benefits and remuneration are strictly regulated and they are now required to hold a law degree. As to the National Election Office, previously it operated as an arm of the executive branch (a department within the responsible ministry), with its head appointed by the responsible minister for an indefinite term. Now it functions as an autonomous body subject exclusively to the relevant law and hence it is separated from the executive branch. Its head is appointed by the President of the Republic for nine years.

NOTES

[1]The Hungarian hybrid system was a combination of the winner-takes-all system (see UK, US), proportional (PR) system (see GE, IT, ES) based on the Hagenbach-Bischoff formula, and compensation list based on the D’Hondt formula. It is therefore composed of (i) individual candidates running in voter districts and (ii) party lists. Voters cast their ballots both for an individual candidate and a party list.

[2]The communist state party and its successor (MSZP) was in favor of the winner takes all system since they were the only ones with national organization, while the newer, smaller parties were in favor of a PR (list) system which would have made sure that they are represented in parliament even if they cannot win in the individual districts.

[3]In the individual districts, a total of 810 candidates ran for elections in 2010, as opposed to 1,577 candidates running this year. Four years ago, only 6 parties could put up a national list, whereas this year 18 parties and 13 national minority party lists qualified. This means increased competition for Fidesz as much as for every other political group in the race.

[4]For example, SZDSZ in 2002 (13 out of 20 mandates won via compensation lists), MIÉP in 1998 (11 out of 14 won via compensation lists), Fidesz in 1994 (13 out of 20 won via compensation lists).

 

 

 

 

Another election trick: Bogus parties; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 5″

Although the Hungarian media is absolutely full of the story of a forthcoming book written by János Zuschlag, a former MSZP member of parliament who spent six years in jail for embezzling about 50 million forints while he was undersecretary in the short-lived Ministry of Sports. He alleges that MSZP paid him 50 million forints to refrain from entering the 2006 parliamentary election as a candidate. I am not wasting time on the Zuschlag allegation because I consider it a bogus issue being used by Fidesz as yet another weapon against the opposition, strategically released a month before the election.

Instead, I would rather call attention to another election trick introduced by Viktor Orbán’s team that will make the democratic opposition’s chances on April 6 even slimmer. They decided to change the rules for getting on the ballot. According to the old rules, each voter received a piece of paper which he could hand to a canvasser from the party of his choice. The number of endorsements each candidate had to collect was pretty high, and therefore it was difficult for bogus parties to enter the race. But as a result of the changed rules voters now can endorse several parties, and the candidates need only 500 signatures. In addition, Fidesz decided to be generous with public money. They allocated 6 billion forints to distribute among all parties, including these new no-name parties and candidates. As things stand now, there are so many new parties that the 6 billion forints most likely will not be enough. It may cost the budget 10.5 billion forints to pay off those who are ready for this ugly game.

Originally, Fidesz claimed that eliminating the second round of elections would save a great deal of money. As it is turning out, with these generous subsidies the cost of the election will be exactly the same as if there had been two rounds of elections. I should also mention that although the European parliamentary election could have been held together with the national one this year, the combined election was torpedoed by Fidesz because they calculated that its results would be unfavorable to them.

The total subsidy to each party will depend on the number of districts in which their candidates run. Those parties which manage to have at least 27 candidates in Budapest as well as candidates in 9 counties will be able to have a nationwide list. The well known, established parties naturally had no difficulty gathering the necessary 500 signatures in all 106 individual districts. They are Fidesz-KDNP (Viktor Orbán), Jobbik (Gábor Vona), LMP (András Schiffer), MSZP-Együtt-PM-DK-MLP (Attila Mesterházy), and Munkáspárt (the communist party headed by Gyula Thürmer). They were joined by a new party I had never heard of called A Haza nem Eladó Mozgalom Párt (The Homeland is Not for Sale, Árpád Kásler). Given the name, I assume that it is a far-right opposition party.

Yesterday twelve new parties were registered: Sportos és Egészséges Magyarországért Párt (Party for Fit and Healthy Hungary, Patrícia Pásztori ), Szociáldemokraták Magyarországi Polgári Pártja (Bourgeois Party of Social Democrats of Hungary, Andor Ákos Schmuck), Független Kisgazda-, Földmunkás és Polgári Párt (Party of Independent Smallholders, Farmworkers and the Middle Class, Péter Hegedüs), az Együtt 2014 Párt (Party of Together 2014, György Tiner), Új Magyarország Párt (New Hungary Party, Péter Táncsics), Közösség a Társadalmi Igazságosságért Néppárt (Community of Social Justice, Katalin Szili), Magyarországi Cigánypárt (Gypsy Party of Hungary, Aladár Horváth), Zöldek Pártja (Party of the Greens, László Ács) , Új Dimenzió Párt (New Dimension Party, Szabolcs Kovács), a Jólét és Szabadság Demokrata Közösség (Democratic Community for Welfare and Freedom, Zsolt Makay), Összefogás Párt (Party of Unity, Zsolt László Szepessy), and Seres Mária Szövetségesei (Associates of Mária Seres). Now you understand why the name change from Összefogás (Unity Alliance) to Kormányváltás (Change of Government) was necessary. Of course, there’s still the potential confusion between az Együtt 2014 Párt and Bajnai’s party that belongs to Kormányváltás.

Originally the National Election Commission registered 80 parties and 2,600 individual candidates. Total chaos reigned at the Commission. The first list they released still had 31 parties, which then was reduced to 18. The word is that this may not be the final version. This is what the ballot would have looked like with 31 parties in their allotted places on the list:

partlistaEarly enough it became clear that at least 1,000 of the individual candidates couldn’t get 500 signatures. But still there remained more than 1,500. However, 300 of the 1,000 appealed the decision and their cases are pending.

Among the smaller parties there were several who did surprisingly well–for example, the Social Democrats of Andor Schmuck and Democratic Community for Welfare and Freedom of Zsolt Makay, a party that is a revived segment of the old MDF. They will receive 400-450 million forints. Even Aladár Horváth’s Gypsy Party will get about 300 million forints. I might add here that individual candidates will each receive 1 million forints, and these people will have to account for every penny they spend. The parties themselves have a great deal of freedom and can easily cheat.

So, we are talking about more than 1,500 candidates representing 18 parties. That means they had to collect 750,000 signatures altogether. Admittedly, a single voter can sign several endorsement lists, but still this is a very high number especially when better known small parties couldn’t manage to get the necessary number of signatures. Suspicion lingers that some of these bogus parties got their signatures illegally, by swapping data bases. If Party X had a lot of signatures in Baranya but few in Csongrád, they swapped names with Party Y which was strong in Csongrád but weak in Baranya.

Fidesz politicians refuse to admit that their generosity toward smaller parties served the purpose of confusing voters and weakening the opposition. They proudly point to the democratic nature of the procedure. But the fact that the threshold of parliamentary representation was not lowered from the existing 5% reveals Fidesz’s real goal. They didn’t want to give small parties a chance to share power with them in parliament. They simply wanted to use them.

The parties’ place on the ballot was decided by lottery. Here is the (perhaps) final list: 1. Magyarországi Cigány Párt, 2. A Haza Nem Eladó Mozgalom Párt, 3. Seres Mária Szövetségesei, 4. Független Kisgazdapárt, 5. Új Dimenzió Párt, 6. Fidesz–KDNP, 7. Sportos és Egészséges Magyarországért Párt, 8. Lehet Más a Politika, 9. Jólét és Szabadság Demokrata Közösség, 10. Új Magyarország Párt, 11. Munkáspárt, 12. Szociáldemokraták Magyar Polgári Pártja, 13. Közösség a Társadalmi Igazságosságért Néppárt, 14. Együtt 2014 Párt, 15. Zöldek, 16. Összefogás Párt, 17. MSZP–Együtt–PM–DK–Liberálisok, 18. Jobbik.

The National Election Committee already announced that it will be necessary to have more voting booths and that there might be long lines because of the slowness of the procedure. It is also likely that the final results will not be released as promptly as in the past.

Good luck, Hungarian voters!

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question

Part V: The Unequal Campaign

Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton University

 Officially, the election campaign in Hungary starts 50 days before an election, so the race began in earnest on 15 February for the 6 April election. Once the campaign period starts in Hungary, special rules ensure that all parties are treated equally.

 But as Anatole France once said, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”

We’ve already seen how the new system in Hungary was designed to push opposition parties into an uncomfortable alliance and to require they win by a substantial margin to win at all. And we’ve seen how the system of minority and foreign voting has opened the doors for Fidesz voters while closing them to those who would vote for opposition parties.

Not surprisingly, the rules for the campaign period itself also have a similar logic.

A free and fair election requires that all contesting parties have equal access to the media to get their message out. The new Law on Election Procedure, which regulates media access during the campaign period, formally complies with formal equality. For the first time since the first post-communist election, the parties running national lists will receive equal numbers of free minutes on public television to make their case to the public. This is a victory for equality and transparency.

But a closer look at the small print reveals that it is a trap. The law allocates only 600 minutes total for all parties with national lists (including the “nationality” lists) and it requires that these minutes be equally divided. If, as the head of the National Election Commission predicted in his 29 January press conference with the Hungarian Foreign Press Association, there are 10 or 12 national lists contesting in the April election, each party would be entitled to 50-60 minutes to be used over 50 days. One minute per day on television is not much – especially when those minutes appear on the public television station, which is the least watched major television station in the country.

In addition, what the law gave with one hand it took away with the other. The election law originally gave free minutes on public television while simultaneously banning paid advertising on commercial television, a move which the not-yet-packed Constitutional Court struck down in December 2012 as a violation of free speech rights. The government then added this provision directly to the Constitution in April 2013 through the infamous Fourth Amendment. The European Commission found this provision contrary to European law and threatened a legal action over it. Eventually, the Hungarian government backed down and modified the commercial broadcast ban in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution passed in September 2013, permitting all parties to advertise in the commercial broadcast media during the election campaign.

But here, too, there was a catch: parties are only allowed to run campaign ads on commercial television if the commercial broadcasters donate the time and give this free time to all national lists equally. It is hard to imagine a for-profit television station giving free advertising time to all parties equally, especially when there are likely to be 10-12 lists. So it was not surprising that all of the commercial channels, the most watched channels in Hungary, have already said that they will not run campaign ads in this election cycle. In fact, there will be no prime ministerial debates either.

So the EU pressure and resulting constitutional amendment designed to open up the commercial media to campaign advertising have produced absolutely nothing. The only campaign ads on television during the campaign this year will be on the public broadcaster alone.

So how else can the parties and candidates get their message out?

Parties are allowed by the campaign law to advertise without limit on billboards. But, as it turns out, most of the display advertising space in the country is owned by companies in the possession of the circle of oligarchs close to Fidesz (Mahir, Publimont and EuroCity). If the opposition parties buy billboard space, the proceeds go straight into the pocket of the Fidesz family of companies.

As it turns out, however, having the opposition enrich the governing party through the purchase of billboard space was the least of the problems with the monopoly on billboards. One of the leaders of the Unity Alliance told me on a recent trip to Budapest that all of the billboards in the country are sold out for the duration of the campaign and not available for purchase. But one can see already that Fidesz-friendly billboards are everywhere. As I write, Budapest streets, streetcars, metro stations and other public spaces are flooded with Fidesz-friendly ads, using the spaces owned by the Fidesz-friendly companies.

What about newspapers? Fidesz has a large group of party-friendly newspapers, owned by their oligarch allies. By contrast, the Unity Alliance has a smaller group of much-poorer newspapers that are sympathetic to them. So far, no advertisements from the allied opposition have appeared in the Fidesz-friendly media which don’t need the money while advertisements for Fidesz have already appeared in the opposition papers which cannot afford to turn down paying ads.

So the media landscape is severely tilted against the Unity Alliance, which now needs to get a new message out to let people know what this new joint party is all about.

If most of the regular broadcast and print media are not open to the democratic opposition, however, surely, of course, the parties can plaster the light posts, bus stops, trees, walls and other public surfaces with posters and handbills, right? Actually, not.

A law from 2011 that received virtually no attention at the time it was passed bans commercial advertisements and political messages from major thoroughfares around the country. It is billed as a safety measure, designed to keep drivers’ eyes on the road. Suddenly the law came into public view, however, when a late-Friday-afternoon prime ministerial decree on 17 January 2014 added campaign posters to the list of advertisements already banned by this prior law. Now no campaign ads can be placed within 50 meters of a major road or 100 meters of a highway, joining the prior ban on other kinds of posters.

A Budapest ordinance adds to the spaces from which political posters are banned. Acting in the name of environmentalism and heritage preservation, the Fidesz-dominated Budapest City Council has prohibited political posters from going up on bridges, on metro station walls, in street underpasses, on statues and memorials – and on trees. A 26-page addendum to the law adds many specific places where posters may not be placed, and the list includes almost every major square and public meeting point in the city.

Of course, incumbent parties can find many ways to keep themselves in the public eye, so restrictions on the media disproportionately tend to affect challengers. So how is the opposition supposed to get its message out for this campaign given that all of the traditional avenues are blocked?

Well, there’s the internet. But anyone who has read the comments sections of Hungarian newspapers, blogs or other public spaces on the internet (even the Krugman blog!) knows how quickly government-supporting trolls try to occupy and dominate the space. And while internet-based media like Facebook are good at reaching the young and the educated, it is still not a universal medium.

What about mailing campaign literature to supporters and reaching them by phone? A recent announcement from the head of the data protection office (the office whose independence is being questioned in an infringement action before the European Court of Justice seems to limit even this sort of access to voters by parties.

According to Attila Péterfalvi, the government’s data protection official, political parties must notify him when they intend to keep lists of their supporters. (EU law, by the way, does not require the regulation of such lists, but confines its scope to lists kept by the government.) Péterfalvi told the parties that they may not use for campaign purposes lists of addresses in the phone book, nor may they call people who have not explicitly indicated that they welcome campaign calls. The Election Office added to this privacy protection by sending all voters a letter that explains how to opt out of receiving campaign materials. So access to voters through these traditional means has been limited in the name of data privacy.

Perhaps the opposition can hold campaign rallies and stage personal appearances by the candidates to reach voters? But already a friend in Debrecen tells me that the Unity Alliance has had a hard time finding a place to hold a rally there because all of the spaces large enough for such a gathering are controlled by the Fidesz allies. They have either forbidden all political rallies or charge so much for the use of the space that the opposition parties cannot afford it.

Which brings us to campaign finance reform as another aspect of the campaign regulation in which rich and poor alike are banned from sleeping under bridges.

The new campaign finance law attempts to regulate campaign spending by publicly funding campaigns. Before the Fidesz reforms, campaign finance was completely non-transparent and had few enforceable rules.  It was listed as one of the policy areas most deserving of reform by Transparency International, so change is a good thing.

On the surface, the campaign finance picture looks much better. All of the parties running national party lists get equal amounts of public money (between € ­475,000 and € 2 million, depending on the number of candidates fielded) and each candidate gets a fixed amount of money in addition (about € 3400). This will provide transparent funding for all parties equally, something very much needed.

Political parties can still accept private money, though, up to a defined limit. But of course there is a catch.   Now, suddenly, no campaign may accept private money from a foreigner (understandable). But, in addition, no party may accept money from a “legal person” – meaning any company, NGO, foundation or trust. After the US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, permitting corporations to give unlimited cash to American campaigns, the ban on corporate donations in Hungary may seem a great idea to Americans. But context is everything. Fidesz is funded by a set of oligarchs tied to the party who can give virtually unlimited amounts as individuals. The Unity Alliance, by contrast, has been funded by party-allied foundations, which now cannot contribute to the campaign. The campaign finance regulations are, like Anatole France’s aphorism, designed to equally prohibit what the rich don’t need and the poor can’t do without.

But there is clearly an election coming because, on the streets of Budapest, there are huge billboards and posters everywhere attacking the Unity Alliance.

Nem erdemelnek2Civil Unity Forum (CÖF) Election Poster, seen everywhere in Budapest
CÖF is a civil society group aligned with Fidesz, unregulated by the election laws.

These ads (see above) show the three of the leaders of the Unity Alliance (Mesterházy, Bajnai and Gyurcsány) with a Socialist former deputy major of Budapest (Miklós Hagyó) who is currently facing trial for corruption. Hagyó is not running for any office in this election, so he is there on the posters to convey guilt by association. The message, which blares “They don’t deserve another chance” shows all of the men holding placards of the sort featured in police mug shots. And seen also in the photo is the clown, who has been making appearances at events of these candidates, following them around to make fun of them. These sorts of messages are unregulated by the campaign finance rules – or in fact by any campaign rules at all.

Why not? They’re not sponsored by Fidesz but instead by the CÖF (which stands for Civil Összefogás Fórum or the Civil Unity Forum). As it turns out, civil society organizations can advertise without being limited by either the campaign media rules or the campaign finance rules. As a result, CÖF has plastered the city with election ads on billboards owned by Fidesz-friendly billboard companies, and none of these ads count toward Fidesz’s money or media allocations under the election law.

Of course the united opposition could do this also, if it had the wealthy backers. But virtually all of the wealth in Hungary stands behind Fidesz.  And even if there were rich backers of the united opposition, they would still have to buy the billboard space from Fidesz-friendly companies, billboard space that is now conveniently all sold out.

 * * *

The Orbán government vociferously insists that it is still a democracy. But in its four years in power, the Orbán government has been preparing for the moment when it actually has to get through an election in order to still be able to make that claim. Not surprisingly, this government of lawyers has created a complex legal framework in which the rules may appear to be neutral, but they don’t have neutral effects.

Fidesz has designed a system that allows it to face an apparently contested election without the real possibility of losing. With this election, then, Hungary has mastered the art of appearing to be something it is not – a true democracy holding free and fair elections.

Greed might be the undoing of Viktor Orbán and his regime

Today I’m going to look at two corruption cases that might have serious consequences for the Fidesz empire in Hungary. The first is the “seizure” of the profitable retail tobacco market and its redistribution among friends and families of Fidesz politicians. It seems that the government may have gone too far here; there are signs of internal party opposition. We know only about small fry at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that dissatisfaction isn’t present in the highest circles of the Fidesz leadership.

The other scandal is not new at all. For years Közgép, a company owned by Lajos Simicska, a childhood friend of Viktor Orbán, has won practically all government projects financed by European Union subsidies. But it came to light only now that Brussels suspended payments on two very important “operative programs,” one dealing with the environment and energy and the other with transportation.

First, the response of  two party faithfuls to the tobacco shop scandal. On April 26 HVG received a letter from a Fidesz city council member in which he said that in his town the Fidesz members of the council decided who would get the tobacco concessions. At that point the informer didn’t want to reveal his identity, but two days later he was ready to give an interview, name and all. It is a long interview from which I will quote the key sentences.

Ákos Hadházy is a veterinarian in Szekszárd, the county seat of Tolna. He considers himself to be a conservative, but “this tobacconist shop-affair broke something in [him].” The Fidesz members of the council looked at all the applicants and suggested who should get favorable treatment.” Mostly friends and relatives. Hadházy struggled with his conscience. He felt that the way the selection was made was wrong, but at the same time he realized that “many would consider revealing his doubts a betrayal” of his party. Finally he decided that although “perhaps in the short run the party might lose a few percentage points, in the long run these revelations might actually be good for this party.”

In his opinion “the 2010 landslide victory was a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time such a large victory is harmful for a party.” A well functioning opposition is “a basic necessity…. If there is no opposition, sooner or later [the party leadership] will be unable to control [its] own decisions. There will be no reaction when [they] make wrong decisions.” Unfortunately this is what happened in Fidesz’s case.

Hadházy even went further and announced that the problem is that there is no opposition within the party either. The members of parliament are no more than voting machines because after 2014 there will be fewer seats available and naturally everybody would like to keep his job. “One can’t expect negative opinions from them…. If there are no debates within a party … then there are only two possibilities: either [the party] does something fantastically well or something is not right.” Most often decisions are unanimous. Ordinary party members are not consulted. Maybe once a year there is a meeting of the local party members, but that’s all.

corruption2Fidesz is indeed a very disciplined party, but he thinks they “went too far.” Such discipline was fine when Fidesz was in opposition. Then “the para-military structure was acceptable, but when in power the party should have moved in a more democratic direction.” Hadházy believes–I think wrongly–that Fidesz has fantastic “intellectual capital” but doesn’t try to use this capacity and doesn’t listen to them. “This in the long run is a suicidal strategy because the members of the intelligentsia  are the ones who can influence public opinion.”

As far as he is concerned there are two possibilities: the party will not take kindly to his going public and then his political career will be over. If, on the other hand, he is spared he “will be very glad to know that Fidesz is full of real democrats, even if this is not always evident given how decisions are made now.”

The other rebel is András Stumpf of the pro-government Heti Válasz.  Don’t think that András Stumpf is a “soft” Fidesz supporter. He is no Bálint Ablonczy, another reporter for the same weekly, who is a moderate right-winger. Stumpf is pretty hard-core. He aggressively defends the government at every opportunity–for instance, when he appears on ATV’s Start. Even in this critical article he expresses his belief that Sándor Laborc of the Office of National Security hired Tamás Portik to spy on the opposition, meaning Fidesz. Yet it seems that the tobacconist concessions and the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act were too much for him. Not even he believes that the quickly amended piece of legislation has nothing to do with the concessions and the government’s attempt to hide the truth from the public. In Stumpf’s opinion, the amendment is most likely unconstitutional and what the government is doing is “frightening.” If they have nothing to hide, make the documents public.

Moving on to the withheld EU payments, a new internet website, 444.hu, published an article entitled “Secret war between Budapest and Brussels” on April 30. According to the article, last summer the European Union suspended payment for cohesion fund projects. The apparent reason was that Brussels discovered that there is discrimination against foreign engineers. Only engineers who belong to the Hungarian Society of Engineers can be hired.

With due respect to the journalist of 444.hu, I can’t believe that this is the real reason for the suspension of billions of euros. Instead, I recall that about a year ago Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció turned to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) to call attention to the fact that Közgép, Simicska’s company, had received an incredible number of government contracts, all financed by the European Union. The suspicion is that Közgép through Lajos Simicska is actually owned by Fidesz. Or at least a substantial percentage of  its profits ends up in party coffers. I remember that sometime during the summer of 2012 OLAF’s investigators took possession of Közgép’s computers. I suspect that the suspension of funds has more to do with Fidesz government corruption than with discrimination against foreign engineers.

By now opposition politicians are openly accusing Közgép of being a front for Fidesz. Gábor Scheiring (PM) said that “the essence of Lajos Simicska’s firm … is financing Fidesz from its profits.” Gyurcsány considers “Lajos Simicska  the most notorious and most influential person in Fidesz and the business establishment built around it.” László Varju, the party director of DK, in one of his press conferences talked about the need to investigate the possible “role of [Közgép] in the financing of the government party.” If it could be proven that Közgép and Simicska are just a front for Fidesz, Orbán might find himself and his party a lot poorer.