Tag Archives: referendum

Viktor Orbán avoids humiliation at the hands of the International Olympic Committee

It may not be official yet, but Budapest’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games is dead. It is only a question of time when the proposal will be formally withdrawn.

The resounding success of the Momentum Movement’s referendum drive is widely interpreted as the first sign of the awakening of a depressingly inactive and uncaring public. The time might be ripe for action if there is a political force that can take advantage of the mood of the country. According to the latest poll, of the 1.5 million undecided potential voters only 300,000 would like to perpetuate Viktor Orbán’s political stranglehold on the country. All in all, the number of people who are dissatisfied with the present government far surpasses the 2.2 million core Fidesz voters even without the 1.2 million undecided voters who, given a viable alternative, would be inclined to vote for an opposition force.

Fidesz politicians themselves indirectly admit that what happened was a political defeat. They talk disparagingly about Momentum’s leaders, who used Viktor Orbán’s Olympic “dream” as a vehicle to fulfill their political ambitions. These unpatriotic youngsters made a political issue out of a “national cause,” they argue. There was once absolute unity on the issue, but oppositional forces drove a wedge between people for political reasons. Or, at least this is the story Viktor Orbán wants Hungarians to believe.

This morning in his Friday interview Viktor Orbán expounded on the topic of the Olympic Games and hinted at the real problem with Budapest’s bid. The telling sentence was his very first on the subject: “Look, the referendum is a Hungarian affair but the Olympic Games must be won abroad in an international race in Switzerland, in Lausanne, before the International Olympic Committee.” Indeed, this is the case. Hungary was supposed to convince 88 men and women who determine the venue of the 2024 Olympic Games, and the likelihood of persuading the majority in Hungary’s favor was slim. Perhaps even impossible. That is the truth which most likely Viktor Orbán has known for some time. According to rumor, he learned the sad truth of Hungary’s poor chances in Rio de Janiero. The referendum drive therefore came in handy. He can withdraw from the competition and blame the opposition for it.

In fact, this is exactly what he decided to do after a few days of hesitation. While Orbán was trying to figure out a good story, Fidesz politicians gave interviews with wildly disparate messages, as usually happens when an autocrat rules a country. His minions, lacking instructions, are completely lost. Now that they have the word from above, the parrot commando can begin to work in earnest.

The story is as follows. Cities which in the past held referendums, even if these referendums were successful, were never awarded the privilege of holding an Olympics. Thus, with this referendum drive Hungary’s chances have become practically nil. It is therefore useless to hold the referendum because the whole enterprise has become hopeless. In fact, so hopeless that “it is questionable whether we would be able to garner even one vote.” This would be exceedingly shameful. “One can lose but one shouldn’t be beaten to smithereens.” According to Orbán, “we shouldn’t expose the country to such shame because we deserve better.” Hungary’s proposal was excellent, “we were honest, we really wanted to do it, and after all that, the world downgrades us to zero or just one or two votes while the other two [contenders] receive the trust of the members of the International Olympic Committee. This would be a humiliating defeat.” What these young people did was “a murder of a dream.”

To be the murderers of Viktor Orbán’s dream is no small feat, so from here on we can be certain that Orbán’s propaganda machine will be hard at work trying to discredit the organizers of the referendum drive. In fact, the character assassination has already begun. Orbán compared the group to SZDSZ, and we know what that means for Hungary’s illiberal leader. They are the greatest enemies of everything Orbán has been fighting for. He already sees a repeat scenario of what happened in 1994 when the leadership of the liberal SZDSZ, despite the fact that the socialists won an absolute majority in the national election, decided to join them in a coalition government. Orbán is certain that this young crew, which at the moment claims that their future party will face the electorate alone, will, after all, make peace with MSZP. “We must be ready for that scenario.” I’m sure he has already made plans.

According to those who are in the know, Orbán’s “whole story is nothing but a lie.” Hungary’s chances had been slim from day one. Initially commentators couldn’t understand how Momentum got permission to hold a referendum drive when earlier attempts had failed. I think it is pretty clear why Momentum’s request for a referendum was approved: it gave Orbán a way out. Some people thought that perhaps the approval had been simply an oversight on the part of the government; others argued that Fidesz thought the drive would either never get off the ground or would fail spectacularly. I think today we can safely say that Viktor Orbán is begrudgingly grateful to Momentum for allowing him to avoid a major embarrassment at the hands of the IOC.

As for Orbán’s decision to withdraw the bid, anti-Orbán forces, including the leadership of Momentum, consider it a sign of cowardliness. In general, large segments of the Hungarian public consider Orbán to be a coward, and not without reason. For instance, the last time he agreed to a political debate with his opponent was in 2006, when he cut a pitiful figure in his debate with Ferenc Gyurcsány. That was a lesson he never forgot. And his reticence is not limited to political debates. He consistently refuses to answer questions from reporters and rejects all requests for interviews from any organ that is not part of the government media empire.

It seems that portraying Orbán as a coward is not limited to his antagonists. Just yesterday a forceful article appeared in the right-wing Mandiner accusing Orbán of being afraid to discuss the pros and cons of holding the Olympics in Budapest and refusing to ask the people their opinion on the matter. Even his supporters are coming to the conclusion that their idol’s brave countenance is but a mask. Inside there is a quavering little fellow.

February 24, 2017

Momentum’s anti-Olympics drive has momentum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 27, 2016

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

Hatemongers in their own words

With three weeks to go until the Hungarian referendum on refugees, the government campaign has intensified. A host of politicians and government officials, from ordinary backbenchers to the president of the country, the president of the parliament, and all the cabinet ministers, have been mobilized to spread fear of the “migrants” at town meetings. Members of the pro-government media have also been enlisted to support the government’s efforts to achieve a valid, successful referendum, which allegedly would thwart the plans of the European Commission to foist masses of unwanted people of an alien culture on Hungary. And Viktor Orbán is ready to employ the basest instruments of coercion, including blackmail.

Let’s start with his speech at the opening session of parliament on September 12. After accusing the European Union of planning to relocate “migrants” to cities under socialist leadership, he warned local politicians that “it will be decided [by this referendum] whether there will be and, if yes, where the migrant settlements will be, so [local leaders] should watch out and make sure that large numbers of people go and vote.” He added that if the local politicians don’t like this message, they shouldn’t blame him because he is only relating the words of Martin Schulz. Of course, this is not at all what Schulz said when he visited Szeged in March, one of the few socialist strongholds in Hungary. He simply said in an interview with Stern after his return from Hungary that there are places in the country which, unlike the Hungarian government, do not reject migrants. He brought up Szeged as an example of a city where “any migrant would be safe to go.” But then came an op-ed piece in the right-wing Magyar Hírlap by Ottó Nagy, who charged that László Botka, the socialist mayor of Szeged, had made a secret pact with Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, promising them that if and when he becomes prime minister he will accommodate migrants in Szeged.

Orbán emphasized that this nationwide referendum is also thousands of local referendums, meaning that the government will judge each city, town, and village according to the outcome of the referendum. If they don’t manage to turn out the (correct) vote, they will see what will happen to them. In plain English, he is blackmailing local leaders, who in turn will most likely blackmail the inhabitants, who already fear the migrants more than the devil himself. The word is spreading: if you don’t go and vote “no” or if there are too many spoiled ballots, your city, town, or village will have thousands of migrants who will rape your girls and blow up your churches.

Not surprisingly, local governments with left or liberal leaderships were outraged, especially because the story was immediately picked up by the pro-government media. Even Fidesz mayors found it too bizarre for words. Others, often Fidesz-supported independents, objected to the pressure coming from Fidesz to add their names to the government’s locally distributed campaign literature.

I’ve already written about the pressure being applied to the Roma population, who are told that if Hungary has to admit refugees they will be deprived of government assistance. In the first place, by now there is hardly any government assistance given to anyone. Most unemployed Roma do public work for a meager salary. So, that is an idle threat. But what is a serious matter is that their eligibility for public work is determined by the mayors, who can easily pressure the local Roma to make sure they vote the right way. Otherwise, no public work. As usual, the Orbán government found its man, Attila Lakatos, the Gypsy “vajda,” a kind of leader-judge within the community, who was willing to put out the call to his fellow Gypsies “to defend our children, families, work, and the country in which we live.” He is convinced that if the “immigrants come here we will have to worry about our daughters, wives, and children because they will be unsafe.” Soon enough a number of anti-government Roma mayors got together to reject the government’s hate campaign, but I’m afraid their voices will be drowned out in the din of government propaganda reaching the majority of the Roma population.

Among the journalists of the pro-government media Zsolt Bayer is the most popular. Every locality wants him to deliver one of his inspirational lectures. His first stop was in Kecskemét, the city where Mercedes-Benz has its plant. Ironically, he delivered his hate-filled speech in the auditorium of the Piarist high school. The place was filled to the brim with people who greeted him with extended applause. After delivering the government’s favorite conspiracy theories about the forces behind the recent migration, his parting words were: “Those who don’t go and vote or who vote “yes” are traitors who cannot be called Hungarian.”

hate

Bayer’s fellow extreme right-wing journalist, András Bencsik, editor-in-chief of Demokrata, a far-right weekly, is another important spokesman for the government. Bencsik’s paper is not a Jobbik publication, though you would never know it by reading the articles published there. Bencsik and his staff are steadfast supporters of the Orbán government and Fidesz. He, alongside Bayer, was one the chief organizers of the Peace Marches staged in defense of Viktor Orbán, whom foreign governments allegedly wanted to remove from power. The marches, which were supposed to be spontaneous affairs, turned out to be government-sponsored, government-organized demonstrations to which thousands of people were bused from all over the country. Viktor Orbán was extremely grateful. He later claimed that without the organizers he would have been unceremoniously ousted. Bayer, Bencsik, and a few others saved him. So, we are talking here about an important Fidesz and Viktor Orbán supporter.

Bencsik wrote an op-ed piece titled “Where shall we put them?” He begins by explaining that if the referendum is valid and successful, there is a good likelihood that regardless of how much the Brussels bureaucrats “resort to subterfuges, they cannot disregard the highest expression of popular sovereignty.” So then the migrants will not be coming to Hungary.

But what if there is not a sufficient number of votes and the referendum is not valid? We will find ourselves in an interesting situation. According to the plans of the Union’s bureaucrats, in the first round Hungary will have to settle 13,000 people, but they have already put forward another proposal which doesn’t specify an upper limit. So, if the referendum is not valid and the judges in Strasbourg [where Hungary attacked the decision of the settlement of the 1,294 migrants] decide against us, then whether we like it or not, the migrants will be coming. Yearly at least 13,000.

How will they be divided among 3,000 Hungarian localities? These people cannot be locked up in camps because they are citizens of the Union. Clearly, they will be dispersed according to how the people in each locality voted. The towns where many people went to vote and the ratio of “nays” was high may not receive one single migrant or perhaps only a few. But where this question was not important enough for the inhabitants and they didn’t bother to answer the referendum question, in those places surely the people will not mind the arrival of happy Muslim families. There will be plenty of them.

In those towns the girls will not go out after dark. Or, if they do, they will have to be followed by three male members of the family with pitchforks in hand. Girls will not go to discos; they will not bicycle in shorts; they will not leave the house on New Year’s Eve. They will celebrate the new year in the cellar; they will not dare go to the swimming pool, but if they do, they will not wear a bathing suit. Young boys will not walk alone on the street because, after all, it is a different cultural milieu and one never knows.

All this is no joke but is taken from daily occurrences in Western Europe. There will be parts of towns where first at night, but later even during daytime it will not be advisable for a Hungarian to enter. And in time there will be explosions, assassinations, constant tension, jitteriness, and so on.

This is what’s at stake in the referendum that will take place in three weeks. Either Europe will be the victim of forcible change of epic proportions and a thousand-year-old civilization will irretrievably fade away or Europe will resist the pressure and defend itself.

This is a typical anti-refugee message of the Orbán government. It is one thing to read in general about the intensity of Hungarian government propaganda and an entirely different thing to be confronted with an example of the message the Orbán propagandists have been delivering for well over a year. Whipping up hatred day in and day out on state television and radio, even during the Olympic Games, the government has succeeded in gripping the population in a state of mass hysteria. And the effects of this indoctrination will not disappear after the referendum. They will linger for many years to come, reinforcing and amplifying an already lamentable Hungarian xenophobia.

September 18, 2016

Orbán’s anti-refugee propaganda is a roaring success

I think it is time to report on the incredible hate campaign under way in Hungary in preparation for the October 2 referendum on the nonsensical question: “Do you want the European Union, without the consent of Parliament, to order the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” The outcome of this referendum is of the utmost importance to Viktor Orbán even though it has no tangible consequences. The government is sparing neither money nor energy to ensure that the referendum is valid (that is, that more than 50% of the eligible voters participate) and that the vote is overwhelmingly in favor of the government’s position on the refugee issue.

The official campaign begins on Sunday, August 13, but the government, as usual, has paid no attention to the campaign laws of the country. For months it has been conducting a kind of “informatory intelligence drive” to prepare voters on the subject of the referendum. Of course, this is just a fancy name for illegal campaigning. For months now the government has paid for newspaper ads as well as for TV and radio spots. A month ago several huge billboards appeared in a format similar to the earlier ones that “sent a message to Brussels.”

All “messages,” this time to the Hungarian voters, start with “Did you know?” and end with “Referendum, October 2, 2016.” Let’s take them one by one and fact-check them. (1) “Did you know that since the beginning of the immigration crisis more than 300 people died as a result of terror attacks in Europe?” (2) “Did you know that Brussels wants to settle a whole city’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary?” (3) “Did you know that since the beginning of the immigration crisis the harassment of women has risen sharply in Europe?” (4) “Did you know that the Parisian terror attacks were committed by immigrants?” (5) “Did you know that just from Libya close to one million immigrants want to come to Europe?” (6) “Did you know that last year one and a half million immigrants arrived in Europe?”

One of the six billboards carrying anti-refugee messages

One of the six billboards carrying anti-refugee messages

As is obvious, government propaganda used a number of tricks to scare the population. For example, how big is a city? Hungary has a very long list of settlements designated as cities. Balatonföldvár with a population of 2,064 is a city, and so is Budapest with 1.75 million. I couldn’t find any with a population as small as 1,300, the number of refugees Hungary would have to take in.

One can also find outright lies among these assertions. For example, between November 2015 and July 14, 2016 there were 259 terror victims in Europe, not more than 300. I suspect that the government propagandists included in their number the victims of the terrorist attacks in Turkey. As for how many Libyans want to come to Europe in the future, this is mere speculation.

And a takeoff "Did you know that they consider you 100% stupid?

And a takeoff:  “Did you know that they consider you 100% stupid?”

The accuracy of these slogans, however, is irrelevant as far as their effectiveness is concerned. A year and a half has gone by since Viktor Orbán began a concerted hate campaign against “the migrants.” His efforts have been spectacularly successful. In Hungary 76% of the respondents now link refugees with terrorism. Moreover, 82% of Hungarians surveyed are convinced that refugees will be a burden on the social system. Viktor Orbán can be proud of his propaganda.

It has never been in doubt that those who vote in the referendum will overwhelmingly support the government position. The only question is whether the referendum will be valid. It was for this reason that some of those opposing the government and Orbán’s handling of the refugee issue urged a boycott of the referendum. Unfortunately, as usual, there was no cohesion among the democratic parties. Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció sent a clear message from the beginning. All of its leading politicians spoke with one voice: a boycott is the only reasonable reaction to this totally useless and misleading referendum question. The others were less explicit. MSZP politicians are well known for airing their personal opinions without taking into consideration the party’s official position. Or, often, the official position comes too late and by that time voters have heard three different opinions coming from three different MSZP politicians. Then there is LMP. In her incredible performance at the Fidesz-organized Bálványos Summer Free University, Bernadett Szél supported Fidesz’s call for a ‘no’ vote. By now, the party has settled for the position that “they have no opinion on the subject.” Their followers can vote (or not vote) their conscience.

At the beginning of August Závecz Research conducted a telephone survey to find out whether people intended to vote in the referendum. The enthusiasm is tremendous. At the moment the majority of population (54%) plan 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.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the survey is a table that links voter intentions  to party preference, especially those who decided to boycott the referendum. It looks as if only DK’s message was effective in that respect. Almost 70% of its supporters got the message and will boycott the referendum; another 20% are still undecided. MSZP with its mixed messages only managed to confuse its followers: 30% will boycott, 37% are still undecided, 17% will go but don’t how they will vote, and 11% will vote and will vote “no.” One commentator went so far as to state that “Orbán can win this referendum only with MSZP votes because there are not four million Fidesz and Jobbik voters.” But “other parties,” where LMP most likely figures large, may also contribute. Only 23% will boycott, 27% will support the government’s position, and 36% haven’t yet decided whether they will go to the polls.

Závecz Research’s survey most likely underestimates the size of the number of voters on October 2 because, for obvious reasons, they couldn’t conduct a poll among ethnic Hungarians living in the neighboring countries, among whom fierce government campaigning is taking place at present. Perhaps 100,000 ethnic Hungarians will vote on October 2 in addition to the bona fide inhabitants of the country. In 2014, 128,378 of them voted in the national election and they overwhelmingly (85.49%) supported Fidesz. The government has made it extremely easy for them to vote in Hungarian elections and referendums. Without much oversight they can vote by mail while Hungarians born in Hungary but currently working somewhere in Europe, the Americas, or Australia can vote only at Hungarian embassies or consulates, often very far from their home. The Orbán government is adamant on the subject. It even used its overwhelming majority in the Constitutional Court to support the indefensible: to maintain a distinction between Hungarians depending on their domicile. They must know what they are doing.

August 9, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s pointless but possibly dangerous referendum

Although the international media has been aware, for some months, of the Orbán government’s looming referendum on the “migration quota issue,” now that President János Áder has fixed its date for October 2 the Hungarian referendum is a hot topic. Stories abound about its unfortunate nature and timing.

Within Hungary its critics viewed it, at least initially, as a stunt designed to reinforce the population’s antagonism toward the “migrants” and bolster their support for the anti-refugee policies of the Orbán government. They thought, that is, that it was primarily a domestic issue.

The democratic opposition parties opposed holding such a referendum, but first the Kúria and later the Constitutional Court agreed to let voters answer the following question: “Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?” There are so many things wrong with this question that it shouldn’t have been approved by the National Election Commission in the first place. Not only is it a leading question, but the Hungarian Parliament has nothing whatsoever to do with the government’s relationship with the European Union. It is a bad question on a nonexistent issue. As Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg pointed out, the Cameron government’s original question read: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union,” but the country’s Election Commission recommended spelling out both options instead of only one. (Not that it helped.) Orbán’s illiberal state has very few independent institutions by now, and the National Election Commission is certainly not one of them.

After Brexit many people from the left-liberal opposition parties practically begged Orbán to scrap the whole idea. Their argument was that there are many countries where large and powerful anti-EU parties exist, which will try to stage referendums similar to that of the Cameron government. Such actions may fracture the very structure of the Union, already wounded by Brexit. I don’t understand the democratic opposition’s repeated appeals to reason when it comes to this government. By now they should know that once Viktor Orbán embarks on a course of action, he will go through with it no matter what.

Orbán’s goal is a valid referendum with the highest possible number of “no” votes. I have no doubt that those who take part in the referendum will overwhelmingly vote against any mandatory settlement of migrants. That’s a no brainer. The question is whether enough people will turn out to vote. To get four million voters to the polling stations out of the eight million eligible voters will not be easy. As voting patterns from earlier referendums have shown, Hungarians demonstrate a low level of awareness of the blessings of participatory democracy. In fact, the Horn government lowered the requirements for a valid referendum to 25% just before the July 1997 plebiscite on Hungary’s membership in NATO, which was a wise move because only 49% of eligible citizens voted. For the referendum on Hungary’s joining the European Union only 45.6% of eligible voters turned out. Viktor Orbán, who has a genuine fear of referendums, raised the threshold for validity to 50%. It is this hurdle the government has to overcome with a propaganda tsunami between now and October 2.

I have no doubt that nothing will be spared in the next few months to achieve the magic number. The government will use disinformation, lies, and “incentives” to convince as many people as possible to vote with a resounding “no.” Huge billboards have already appeared telling Hungarians that with their vote at the referendum “they are sending a message to Brussels.”

The democratic opposition’s fear is that, although the overwhelming majority of Hungarians view the European Union favorably, such an intensive propaganda campaign might turn a large number of Hungarians against the Union. As it stands, the EU’s strongest supporters are the Poles (72%) and the Hungarians (61%). Is it possible that Viktor Orbán would like to temper this high level of enthusiasm for the EU? Is this why we heard from the government’s second highest official, János Lázár, that he “wouldn’t be able to vote to remain in the European Union in good conscience”? Or is this outrageous remark from the man who is in charge of the dispersion of EU convergence funds merely a come-on to encourage high participation in this very questionable referendum?

Source: András Stumpf's article "It was a mistake to hold a referendum, mandiner.hu

Source: mandiner.hu

Whatever the case, anyone who doesn’t want to be a pawn in Viktor Orbán’s game should stay away from this referendum to make sure it is not valid. The lower the participation the better. The alternative of going and voting “yes” as a sign of support for the European Union is the most bizarre idea I can imagine. Who will consider a “yes” vote an endorsement of the European Union as the Magyar Liberális Párt suggests? Luckily, Gabor Fodor’s Liberal Party is a practically nonexistent entity. Otherwise all the opposition parties, excluding Jobbik of course, will be campaigning for a boycott of the referendum.

To my great surprise even András Stumpf, a journalist currently working for Mandiner.hu, a right-of-center, pro-government internet site, also considers the referendum “pointless” and Orbán’s insistence on holding it “unfortunate.” He more or less decided to join those who will stay home. According to Stumpf, the question should have been phrased this way: “Do you object to the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent even at the possible cost of leaving the European Union?” Well put. But as long as the question voters will see on October 2 is what it is, the only answer is to boycott the referendum. Bershidsky is right in describing it as “manipulative” and the whole affair as a “farce.” But it’s a dangerous farce.

July 6, 2016

Scare tactics: The coming of an Islamic Europe

Reactions to the election of Sadiq Khan as mayor of London depend on people’s attitude toward Islam and multiculturalism. Those who are optimistic about the integration of the newly arrived refugees from the Middle East welcomed this tremendous victory by the son of Pakistani immigrants. It capped a distinguished political career over the last ten years or so. Khan served as minister of state for communities and minister of state for transport in Gordon Brown’s government.

Yesterday Khan gave an interview to Time Magazine in which the name of Donald Trump came up in connection with the presidential candidate’s anti-Muslim sentiments. Back in November Trump told Yahoo News that he would consider requiring Muslim-Americans to register and mandate that they carry special identification cards. By December he was calling for a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. Although Khan would like to meet with the mayors of New York and Chicago, he said in the interview that “if Donald Trump becomes the President, I’ll be stopped from going there by virtue of my faith, which means I can’t engage with American mayors and swap ideas. Conservative tacticians thought those sorts of tactics would win London and they were wrong. I’m confident that Donald Trump’s approach to politics won’t win in America.”

Trump’s answer to Khan came yesterday in an interview with The New York Times. He said that “there will always be exceptions” to his proposed ban, and naturally Sadiq Khan would be exempt. He hoped that Khan will do a good job “because I think if he does a great job, it will really — you lead by example, always lead by example. If he does a good job and frankly if he does a great job, that would be a terrific thing.” As you will soon see, Trump sounds like a raging liberal in comparison to the Hungarian right’s attitude toward Muslims in general and the election of Sadiq Khan in particular.

To illustrate the hate campaign being waged in Hungary against Muslims I’m turning today to an opinion piece written by one of the shining lights of Fidesz journalism, János Csontos. On paper he looks terrific. Since 1991 he has published 13 volumes of poetry and 22 volumes of prose, has produced five theatrical productions and at least two dozen documentary films, and has received 11 prizes, most for his documentary films on architectural monuments. However, he also received a couple of prizes for “journalistic excellence” from strongly right-leaning groups. His only literary prize came last year from the Orbán government, which considered him worthy of the once prestigious Attila József Prize. I managed to read only one poem by Csontos, “A sentence on lie,” which calls up Gyula Illyés’s famous poem written in the 1950s, “A sentence on tyranny.” Csontos’s alleged masterpiece is about Gyurcsány’s speech at Balatonőszöd.

His article, “Londonistan,” is full of factual errors, as an article written by Elek Tokfalvi, a pen name that is a mirror translation of Alexis de Tocqueville, points out. First of all, Csontos wants his readers to believe that the municipal election in London was not a battle between the candidates of the Conservative and the Labour parties but a “desperate struggle … between the child of a penniless [csoró] Pakistani immigrant and the rich Jewish child of a Rothschild,” which, by the way, Goldsmith is not. Csontos, following Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis, considers the outcome of the election a victory for Islam over Christianity.

For Csontos it is especially galling that the people of London could overwhelmingly elect a Muslim because, “after all, London is not a small town somewhere in one of the Benelux countries but it is the second largest financial center of the world whose first citizen will frequent mosques in his spare time and will ask the help of Allah against the faithless giaours [non-Muslims].” Surely, Csontos writes, it would be time to stop talking about Christian anti-Semitism. Instead, “in the spirit of the Scriptures, Christians and Jews should unite against Muslim expansion.” Csontos is obviously trying to set Jews against Muslims and minimize the political fallout of anti-Semitism, which in his view is no threat to European Jewry.

Let’s not abandon the Jewish theme in this nauseating article so quickly. Csontos describes a horrid future for both Christians and Jews, but Jews have more to worry about than anyone else. Jews are wrong in thinking that “everything will be politically correct in Eurorabia, whose leaders will be worried about the proper way to deliver speeches at Holocaust memorials.” He continues: “Do you think that a Muslim Tarlós [the mayor of Budapest] would allow György Soros’s private composer, Lajcsi Lagzi, to slink around on Vörösmarty tér in the hope of a tip?”

In order for non-Hungarians to understand this sentence I have to give some linguistic and cultural cues. Of course, Soros’s private composer is Iván Fischer, conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, here thinly disguised as Lajcsi Lagzi, a musician who had a couple of popular programs on TV2 until he was arrested in September 2015 for fraud. “Lagzi” is the familiar form of “lakodalom” (wedding). So, we are talking about a musician who plays at weddings. Now we can move on to the verb I translated as “to slink.” The word is borrowed from the Romani language, “bazsevál.” It describes a Gypsy violinist who has focused on one of the guests, playing his favorite song in hope of a tip. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that Csontos uses another Gypsy word, “csoró,” to describe the penniless state of the Khan family.

Mayor Sadiq Khan and Chief Rabbi Mirvis. They seem to be getting along fine

Mayor Sadiq Khan and Chief Rabbi Mirvis. They seem to be getting along just fine.

Back to London (and reality). As Elek Tokfalvi noted in his article, the very first official act of the new mayor of London was to pay his respect to the millions of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. A detailed description of the event can be read here.

But in Csontos’s view of the future, in the center of which is an Islamic Europe, little Prince George will be forced to marry an Arab girl one day. It will be politically incorrect to teach the French Song of Roland or the Hungarian Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, a twentieth-century novel popular among young readers. What a juxtaposition! Instead, Hungarian kids will have to watch a film about Suleiman the Magnificent from which they will learn that the depraved Hungarians deserved what they got in the Battle of Mohács (1526).

I assume Csontos is relieved that this apocalyptic future is not here yet. Hungarians can still assert their superiority here and there. Turks have complained about a children’s song, taught in Hungarian kindergartens, about a stork’s bloodied leg that was cut by a Turkish boy and healed by a Hungarian child. A French woman living in Hungary also had objections when her child had to learn the song. Not to worry, Hungarian psychiatrists responded. At this early stage in a child’s development, any anti-Turkish message the song might send will not plant any seeds of prejudice. I don’t know, but I wonder whether the children will ever ask how it can happen that the stork’s leg is healed by a pipe, drum, and a violin-shaped instrument (nádi hegedű) made out of broomcorn. I had to look up the last instrument, the description of which I found in the Hungarian dictionary of folklore available online.

Kindergarteners might not comprehend the message of the ditty about the Turkish and Hungarian boys, but the readers of Csontos’s piece will get the message just fine. After all, the Hungarian parliament just approved the referendum on unwanted immigrants.

May 10, 2016