Tag Archives: Ron Werber

Bernadett Szél hopes to be Hungary’s next prime minister

Although Bernadett Szél’s name can be found in scores of posts on Hungarian Spectrum over the years, I don’t think that I ever devoted an entire post to this popular female politician, the co-chair of LMP (Lehet Más a Politika/Politics Can Be Different). Well, now that LMP formally announced that she is the party’s choice to run for prime minister, it is time to assess her candidacy. Although Szél is a very attractive contender, one must keep in mind that LMP has consistently refused to consider cooperation with any other political party. LMP, led by Bernadett Szél, is planning to win the election single-handedly.

The forty-year-old Szél has an undergraduate degree in economics (2000) and a Ph.D. in sociology (2011). She is an excellent debater who has delivered some notable speeches in parliament. She is quite capable of silencing her opponents. She is perhaps best known as the most eloquent and resolute opponent of the extension of Hungary’s nuclear power plant in Paks. Unlike most of her colleagues in parliament, she speaks both English and German well. She also seems to have an abundance of energy and, despite her many duties, has time for a daily run or some other form of physical exercise. So, unlike the present prime minister of Hungary, she is in excellent shape. She and her husband have two young daughters.

Of the current candidates for prime minister–László Botka (MSZP), Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd), and Gábor Vona (Jobbik)–Bernadett Szél is probably the most promising. Even her gender may be in her favor. Thirty percent of the electorate would prefer a female prime minister, and sixty percent of the left-of-center voters would support a woman over a man. There is a growing conviction, often expressed by men, that women are more inclined to reach compromise solutions and that therefore Hungary would be better off with a female prime minister. I’m not at all sure that Bernadett Szél is the prototype of that compromise-ready woman since she has repeatedly expressed her total rejection of all politicians who had anything to do with politics before 2010. But still, judging by her accomplishments and talents, I believe that she would qualify as a very good and most likely popular candidate. With a party behind her with about 4-5% support of the electorate, however, it is unlikely that the name of Hungary’s next prime minister will be Bernadett Szél. Unless, of course, she is ready to strike a bargain.

Source: 24.hu / Photo Dániel Mátyás Fülöp

Despite the party’s low poll numbers, Szél and LMP are dead serious about winning the 2018 Hungarian national election. Their first move was to get Ron Werber, an Israeli campaign strategist, to serve as LMP’s adviser. Werber used to work for MSZP, and his greatest accomplishment was MSZP’s victory in 2002 against all odds. From that point on, Werber became Fidesz’s bogeyman, the “conductor of hate” as they called him because of his negative campaigning style. I don’t know what kind of advice Werber has given Szél so far, but Werber and Szél seem to be a good fit. She has confidence in him, and Werber considers Szél “competent and someone who knows what she is talking about.” Werber apparently talked with both MSZP and DK but finally settled for LMP. The media would love to find out how much LMP is paying the Israeli adviser, but for now we must be satisfied with Szél’s claim that Werber’s advice is pro bono.

According to Magyar Nemzet, before the party’s announcement of its candidate for the premiership LMP hired Závecz Research to conduct a poll to assess Bernadett Szél’s chances against Viktor Orbán in a hypothetical two-person race. It turned out that four-fifths of socialist voters would support Szél. As far as Jobbik voters are concerned, the support is not that overwhelming, but the majority (54%) would vote for LMP’s candidate. This is especially significant because one would have assumed that a Jobbik voter in this scenario would vote for Orbán, but in fact only 20% would commit to the Fidesz candidate. LMP also wanted to know what would happen if the electorate could vote for prime minister separately. How would Szél fare? At this point, even before the announcement of her candidacy, Szél would get 29% of the votes to Orbán’s 44%. All this shows considerable support for Szél, but, of course, the problem is that the next election is not shaping up to be a two-way race.

Bernadett Szél has given several interviews in the last few days, but perhaps the most detailed one, as far as her ideas are concerned, was conducted three days ago by Attila Kálmán of 24.hu. Her message is straightforward. She decided to run because, just like the majority of the electorate, she can no longer endure “the total chaos” that exists within the opposition. In this interview she presents herself as the embodiment of LMP’s program, which is ready, but soon she will also tell the voters what she will do in the first 100 days of her administration. She is categorical when it comes to other parties on the left. Creating a unified voting bloc would be a “Frankensteinian construction,” after which they would be unable to govern. Members of this Frankensteinian construction “time and again forfeited the trust of the people in the last thirty years and therefore they shouldn’t be entrusted with the future of the country.” She promises “to shutter the past and revitalize the country.” But Bernadett Szél ought to realize that one cannot close the past because history is a continuum, nor can one drastically change a country at will. Still, despite her shortcomings and in a different electoral system, she would be a very promising candidate. Unfortunately, she has to measure herself against Viktor Orbán in an electoral system that he devised to his own advantage.

One more item that is only tangentially related to Bernadett Szél’s candidacy. ATV’s famed program, “Egyenes beszéd” (Straight Talk), has gone through some fundamental and unfortunate changes. First, at the end of last year the anchor of the program, Olga Kálmán, left the channel and started a new program called “Egyenesen” (Straight) on HírTV. “Egyenes beszéd” was taken over by Antónia Mészáros and Egon Rónai, both seasoned and outstanding reporters. Then, unexpectedly, Mészáros left to become managing director of the Hungarian section of UNICEF. After a few weeks of total chaos, when assorted people tried to replace Mészáros and Rónai, who was on vacation, a new setup emerged: one week Zsuzsa Demcsák, formerly of TV2, is the anchor, and Egon Rónai runs the show the next week. Her first week’s performance doesn’t bode well for the future.

Here is one example. Bernadett Szél was Demcsák’s guest on September 4. The new anchor turned to the candidate and said something like “you know there will never be a woman prime minister in Hungary.” Later, she tried to convince Szél that she is on the side of women and of course would be delighted if one day a woman became prime minister, but the harm was already done. To add insult to injury, she asked Szél what her husband thinks about a female prime minister. Of course, she profusely apologized for the question, but for some strange reason she thought it was relevant.

It is a good thing that there are not too many Zsuzsa Demcsáks in Hungary. To me it is a pleasant surprise that the electorate doesn’t share her views.

September 11, 2017

Attila Mesterházy’s official visit to Washington

Surprisingly little appeared in the Hungarian media about Attila Mesterházy’s official visit to Washington. I found mention of it only in Népszava a few days ago, and today a short article appeared in Népszabadság that summarized the seven-member MSZP delegation’s week in the United States.

On the other hand, Magyar Nemzet is always vigilant. On January 24 it picked up MTI’s interview with Mesterházy and described the trip this way: “Attila Mesterházy again ran to Washington.” Gabriella Selmeczi, the Fidesz spokeswoman, woke up a bit late, only after Attila Mesterházy’s interview had appeared in The Wall Street Journal the day before. Her comments were predictable: Mesterházy is again trying to discredit  Hungary abroad. In addition, according to her, the socialists favor banks over their own citizens and foreign companies over Hungarian ones. Such accusations almost always resonate with the nationalist Hungarian right.

Interestingly enough, I could find no other mention of this trip to Washington and New York although the available information indicates that it was a very successful visit for MSZP’s party leader.

On the first day, January 22, the Hungarian delegation, made up of younger socialists in their thirties, had a meeting with Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state between 1993 and 1997, and two ranking members of the National Democratic Institute. NDI is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that has supported democratic institutions  all over the world in the last twenty-five years. Specifically, they want to strengthen political and civic organizations, safeguard elections, and promote citizen participation, openness and accountability in government. Albright is the chair of NDI. Kenneth D. Wollack, president, and Robert Benjamin, senior associate and regional director of Central and East European programs, were also present at the meeting that lasted more than an hour.

The next day Mesterházy gave a lecture in the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund. According to the MSZP press release (a biased source, naturally) there was great interest in what Mesterházy had to say. Among those who attended were members of the diplomatic corps, representatives of various U.S. government departments, businessmen, university professors, and Hungarian Americans. Mesterházy concentrated on MSZP’s plans for the future. There were many questions about the economy and the new electoral law. One of the members of the delegation was Csaba Kákosy, former minister of economics and transportation, who was actually nominated for the job in 2007 by SZDSZ but who is now economic adviser to MSZP. The title of the MSZP press release was “Washington is looking forward to a new beginning.” Surely, an optimistic reaction to a couple of days that the participants felt were a success.

Attila Mesterházy's lecture in the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund

Attila Mesterházy’s lecture in the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund

On the day of the American inauguration, the socialists had extensive discussions with some campaign advisers to the Democratic Party. MTI reported this piece of news, but I found no broader coverage of  it in the Hungarian media. The discussions centered around Internet communication, data-base building, opinion polls, and mobilization of the electorate. The release indicates that the socialists will not rely exclusively on Ron Werber but most likely will also hire advisers who were active in the Obama campaign.

In addition, Mesterházy and his fellow socialists met with the staff of the State Department who have a special interest in Hungary and the region in general, including Tomicah Tillemann, special adviser to the secretary of state, who is the grandson of the late Tom Lantos. Mesterházy also had a long conversation with Charles Gati, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. And the delegation had talks with the appropriate officials of the United States Holocaust Museum.

After leaving Washington, the socialist delegation visited New York where they had a meeting with the top officials of Freedom House, which was set up to support human rights and democracy, promote open government, defend human rights, strengthen civil society, and facilitate the free flow of information and ideas. Hungarians know Freedom House best for its yearly reports on media freedom.

After all of the official meetings, the socialist delegation “kicked back” with a group of about twenty Hungarian-Americans who have been getting together for dinner and conversation in the same restaurant for the past twenty-five years. The place used to serve Hungarian food but by now it is a Chinese restaurant. Included in the group were university professors, researchers, and managers. For more than two hours they discussed the economy, the student demonstrations, and the electoral law. The hosts were especially interested in the renewal of MSZP.

And now a few words about Mesterházy’s interview with The Wall Street Journal. From it we can glean more details of the socialist party chief’s conversations with officials in Washington and New York. Mesterházy apparently told the Americans that the socialists want to bring “the country back to a path of sustainable development.” He emphasized that “the party wants to clarify the separation of powers among the legislature, executive and judicial branches; restore authority removed from the Constitutional Court; ensure the independence of the central bank; expand press freedoms; and strengthen the country’s budget watchdog agency.” He pledged while in the United States that the socialists would “act swiftly and decisively to restore international trust in [Hungary’s] economy.” He also emphasized his intention to work together with former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai as well as other “democratic” opposition groups. “I now see an almost 100% chance for an alliance to be formed.”

Mesterházy also pledged that the socialists would reduce the heavy banking-sector taxes levied by the Orbán government and thus free banks from their onerous financial burden so they could lend more readily. He also stated that “the war against foreign-owned companies must cease.” These are the remarks that prompted Gabriella Selmeczi to accuse the socialists of putting the interests of banks above those of ordinary citizens.

From what I heard from friends who met the socialists in Washington and New York, Mesterházy’s trip to the United States was a great success. Too bad that so little was said about it in the Hungarian media.