Tag Archives: Tamás Lánczi

Old-timers offer a helping hand to the democratic opposition

About a year ago György Bolgár invited me for a telephone interview on his Klub Rádió program. At that time he was running a series called “What is to be done?” People were supposed to offer ideas on how the opposition parties could defeat the Orbán government. I put together a short list of items I considered essential for any success at the ballot box in April 2018. I especially emphasized the need for consolidation of the democratic forces or, more bluntly put, an end to the present situation where almost a dozen dwarf parties with very similar programs are trying to defeat a strong and unified Fidesz. I admitted that there are some talented and attractive politicians in these tiny parties but said that in the end they will have to be satisfied with less than leading positions in the opposition since it is only the two larger left-of-center parties, MSZP and DK, that have a chance of getting enough support to make a difference. Although almost a year later a caller said that my position was the only one among the hundreds offered that appealed to her, the immediate reaction was less kind. A young man condemned my ideas in the name of democracy. As far as he was concerned, all tiny parties had the right to compete, and anyone who suggested otherwise didn’t know a thing about democracy.

Today, unfortunately very late in the game, the leaders of these mini-parties are reluctantly realizing that their chances at the polls are nonexistent and that the likelihood of their financial ruin after their very poor showing is almost certain. In addition, the votes cast for them, due to the quirky electoral law, will not only be lost to the opposition but in fact will be added to the votes for the winner. Since these parties are risking their very existence by remaining in the race as independent forces, I assume that soon enough we will see negotiations between them and the three larger parties on the left–MSZP, DK, and LMP, parties that will likely be represented in parliament after the election. It is also questionable how long LMP, with its 7-8% support, can continue to insist that it will on its own beat Viktor Orbán and form a government without making itself ridiculous. Momentum’s situation is truly dire, with its 1-2% support. Just today Momentum lost two more prominent young politicians.

In this fluid situation one can only welcome the group of 11 seasoned members of previous administrations who felt it their duty to help the parties find common ground. They established a movement called “Válasszunk! 2018” (V18), meaning “Let’s Vote.” The aim of the group is twofold. On the one hand, they want to fight the general apathy in the country, the feeling that everything is lost and that Fidesz will win no matter what, and on the other, they plan to offer their expertise to the parties in blending their programs into a coherent whole.

Among the members of the group are several people who served in the Antall and even the first Orbán governments, so it is a politically mixed lot. As Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government and organizer of the group, said, under different circumstances some of these politicians would be arguing in parliament on opposite sides of the aisle. But the situation today has changed. The goal is to defeat a party and a government that is increasingly moving to the extreme right and that has introduced a virtual one-party system. The longer Viktor Orbán stays in power, the harder it is going to be to dislodge him and his regime. In fact, a lot of people claim that winning against Fidesz in a democratic election is already an impossibility. This assertion, strictly speaking, is not correct. If enough people go to the polls and the opposition is capable of offering an attractive program and one single candidate in all 106 electoral districts, the opposition could even receive the majority of the seats, mostly because of the unfair electoral system that favors the majority.

From left to right: Attila Holoda, György Raskó, Péter Balázs, Péter Németh (journalist), and Kinga Göncz at the press conference

The other task, lending a helping hand to the parties in blending their messages into a coherent whole, is much more difficult. Not surprisingly, there is considerable confusion about what the V18 group has in mind. Unfortunately, Péter Balázs doesn’t help the situation by often referring to the group as a kind of “shadow government.” The question is: whose shadow government would it be? At the moment there are two declared prime minister hopefuls on the left, Bernadett Szél (LMP) and Gergely Karácsony (MSZP), while Ferenc Gyurcsány as “the leader of the DK party list” would, in the unlikely event of a DK victory, become prime minister of the country. Or, looking at another possible scenario, Gyurcsány, alongside Szél, Karácsony, and Gábor Vona (Jobbik), would be vying for the top position in a coalition government. Do the three left-of-center parties, with or without Jobbik, want to have a common shadow government? Most likely not, although public sentiment is very much in favor of what the man on the street calls “a government of experts,” the mistaken view that so-called experts would govern better than politicians.

The skeleton program the group offers at the moment is modest and moderate enough that all democratic parties could easily adhere to it. Of course, all parties would like to stop the gaping political divide between left and right, and everybody would like to give opportunities to the poor and the middle class to fulfill their dreams. Who doesn’t want to improve Hungarian healthcare services and education? And yes, all parties and an overwhelming majority of people want to have better relations with the other members of the European Union and would like to belong to the group of the most advanced member countries. Because of these generalized demands, several commentators have already criticized the group.  András Jámbor of Mérce and Szabolcs Dull of Index, for example, found the group’s proposals confusing and most likely ineffectual.

Obviously, the pro-government media as well as their commentators don’t think much either of the people involved or the aims of the group. Tamás Lánczi, a political scientist with Századvég and editor-in-chief of Mária Schmidt’s Felügyelő, called V18 “because of its participants junk car racing” (roncsderbi). Tamás Fricz, who calls himself a political scientist and has a column in Magyar Idők, described the members of the group as “frustrated people” who haven’t achieved the positions they think should be theirs.

Hungarian commentators are too quick to pass judgment on others, and I think we ought to hold our horses for a little while. I find the very fact that such a politically mixed group came together encouraging. I am almost certain that more prominent right-of-center people will gather their courage to join the group. After all, there are several people not yet on the list who are quite vocal in their condemnation of Orbán’s political system. Trying to stop what currently seems like an inexorable drift to an alt-right type of political system in Hungary is certainly a worthwhile undertaking.

January 4, 2018

Botka’s formal introduction as MSZP’s candidate for Hungary’s new prime minister

Two days have gone by since László Botka, mayor of Szeged and MSZP’s candidate for the premiership, delivered a fifty-minute speech which has since received mixed reviews. The most quoted part of the speech was a frontal attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány as an impediment to electoral victory. Not even the socialists seem to be entirely happy with Botka’s attack, especially since Botka’s party is in the midst of negotiations with the other democratic opposition parties, including the largest among them, Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció. After the speech Lajos Bokros, former minister of finance and chairman of Modern Magyarország Mozgalom Párt (MoMa), withdrew from the negotiation process while Párbeszéd accused Botka of lifting one of its signature programs, the introduction of a guaranteed basic income.

The speech, both in content and in delivery, began well enough, but after about ten minutes Botka lost some of his early eloquence. The speech deteriorated at times into a hurried laundry list.

In his editorial Péter Németh, editor-in-chief of Népszava, while noting that the speech could be considered an ideological shift for MSZP, said that most commentators paid little attention to the socialists’ turn leftward and concentrated only on the vicious assault against the former prime minister. After this speech, he said, MSZP must make clear what the party’s intentions are. Does Botka’s speech mean the discontinuation of the negotiations? Has MSZP opted to confront Fidesz alone in 2018? It’s time to decide. Index’s Szabolcs Dull shares Németh’s opinion that “we will most remember [Botka’s speech] as an event at which Botka publicly assailed Ferenc Gyurcsány.”

Since the transcript of the speech is available, I can quote some of the more controversial passages verbatim. The reader must keep in mind that László Botka has been an MSZP politician for 23 years. With the exception of the 1998-2002 period, he was a member of parliament between 1994 and 2010. He has been mayor of Szeged since 2002. Therefore, one must take with a grain of salt that Botka bears no responsibility whatsoever for “the missteps committed by the left-liberal governments, especially between 2002 and 2010.” And he continues: “Those who lied into the eyes of the electorate are liabilities for the left and they therefore should decamp…. In Hungary consolidation and peace will come only when the two most divisive politicians in the country, the beloved and/or hated icons, at last leave the sanctuary of politics.” Gyurcsány’s reaction to this assault was muted: “The voters will decide who has a place in the democratic public life of Hungary. I, as a voter, would give a place to Botka also. Moreover, I wish him much success.”

Watching the video taken at the event, I came to the conclusion that there was a divide when it came to Botka’s attack. There are those, like István Ujhelyi, MSZP member of the European Parliament, who believe that cooperation with the other parties will materialize despite Botka’s outburst. I saw István Hiller sitting rather stone faced without applauding. I assume those who are enthusiastic about Botka’s strong language think that the leadership of DK will tell their chairman to go and fly a kite and will merrily cooperate with MSZP and Botka. But “others are less optimistic as far as electoral cooperation is concerned.” They are seriously worried that this speech might end all negotiation between MSZP and DK, which may result in a devastating loss for the democratic parties on the left. Jobbik was not far off when the party claimed that “it became clear that László Botka, MSZP candidate for the premiership, and MSZP don’t want to defeat Prime Minister Viktor Orbán but Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció.” Botka bet everything on a single card. His hope seems to be that his strong speech will whip up such enthusiasm for the socialist party that it will be able to beat the forces of Fidesz and Jobbik singlehanded. Suddenly, the opinion polls will show an incredible shift in popularity for the party and, as a result, it will draw those one million undecided voters Botka referred to in his speech in addition to the loyal DK voters who will see the light and switch their votes to the revitalized socialist party.

Of course, anything is possible, perhaps even this scenario, but it is not very likely. Only a joint anti-Orbán force has any chance of removing the present government from power. Moreover, I have been convinced for some time that most commentators and politicians don’t study the polls that could give us direct or indirect clues about the political attitudes of the electorate carefully enough. For instance, the Závecz poll’s findings that about 75% of the electorate would not vote for a ticket that had Gyurcsány’s name on the list is misleading because it also includes millions of Fidesz and Jobbik voters who would not vote for a left-wing party or parties no matter what. The same is true of the undecided voters. When Závecz came out with its finding that for half of the undecided voters Gyurcsány’s presence would make a difference, the assumption was that all these people would vote for the left. But, of course, this is not the case. Therefore, this whole Závecz report, on which many people on the left rely, is totally useless as a guide for future action. I’m convinced that most people who want to get rid of Orbán don’t give a hoot whether Gyurcsány’s name is on the list or not–as long as it’s not at the top of the list.

The government press is naturally delighted. Magyar Idők’s headline reads: “László Botka: Gyurcsány is a burden on the left.” However, Tamás Lánczi, a a right-wing political scientist and the new editor-in-chief of Figyelő, gave a surprisingly objective assessment of the speech in an interview on Inforádió. In his opinion, the speech contained many significant elements, but Botka’s attacks shifted attention away from its essence. It might be the case that the candidate for the premiership has to show strength, but “we know from various surveys and research papers that the voters of MSZP and DK readily cross-vote. The voters of the two parties don’t look upon each other as enemies, and therefore there is the possibility of cooperation.”

I must say I have to agree with the young Lánczi. Where I disagree with him is in his description of Botka’s speech as populist. I’m afraid Lánczi doesn’t know the true meaning of the word. Let me quote Jan-Werner Müller, who just published the highly acclaimed book What is Populism? A few days ago an interview appeared with Müller in Bloomberg titled “Why Donald Trump Really Is a Populist.” Müller said: “Not everyone who criticizes elites is automatically a populist. Rather, populists always claim that they—and they alone—properly represent the people or what they frequently call ‘the real people’ or the ‘silent majority.’”

Botka gave a social democratic speech, which emphasized social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy. It’s too bad that most Hungarians have no idea what the speech was really about. It deserves considered debate. The Gyurcsány bashing doesn’t.

February 20, 2017

The Hungarian government online

Partly because of the feud between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his former friend and financial guru, Lajos Simicska, an entirely new media structure seems to be in the making. Lajos Simicska, a very rich businessman, was the linchpin of the so-called Fidesz media empire, at least since 2002, but even earlier he acquired a large portion of the public advertising surfaces that served Fidesz’s political purposes, especially at election times. This cozy relationship between the party and Simicska’s media and advertising empire is now crumbling. But this is only half the story.

Viktor Orbán, who is not exactly known as an internet guru, decided that Fidesz should have a larger presence online. This decision was quite independent from the Simicska affair. One of the government’s projects was to develop English-language news sites that can influence international public opinion. Perhaps the most successful site in this category is Hungary Today, a rather unfortunate name since it reminds everybody of the Russian propaganda news channel Russia Today. It is a publication of the “Friends of Hungary Foundation” that was established with massive government funding (between $15 and $20 million) in November 2012. The publication’s editor-in-chief is Szabolcs Nótin. Nótin started his career at Nézőpont Intézet, a think tank that supports the government party. After a short stint there as an analyst, he moved on to be “operative manager” of the Friends of Hungarian Foundation. After less than a year in this position he was named editor-in-chief of Hungary Today in June 2014. The site is professional and must cost a great deal of money. Obviously the Orbán government finds the investment worthwhile.

Much less transparent is a site called Daily News Hungary, which I discovered only a few days ago although it has been in existence since December 2013. Judging from the lack of comments, the site can’t have too many visitors, yet it covers politics, business, culture, society, and sports and is always up-to-date. That can’t be done without a professional staff.

In addition to foreign-language news sites, apparently the government would like to have a presence in the blogosphere. Some of the better-known Hungarian blogs have a large readership and are quite influential. But most of them are written by liberal-socialist-moderately conservative bloggers. I assume that by creating a number of blogs affiliated with hirado.hu, the government is trying to combat the influence of the existing blogs. Taking a quick look at these newly established blogs convinced me that every penny the government spends on this endeavor is a waste. The “government blogs” are apparently the brainchildren of Attila Várhegyi.

The Hungarian governments' blogger are different

The Hungarian government’s bloggers are different

Várhegyi used to be a very important person in and around Fidesz. In the 1990s he was mayor of Szolnok and a member of parliament. He also was in charge of the party’s finances. After Fidesz won the election in 1998 he became undersecretary in the Ministry of Culture, a position he had to leave in November 2001 when he was found guilty of a breach of fiduciary responsibility. His political career seemed to have evaporated overnight. In the last few years, however, he reappeared as a high official in MTVA (Médiaszolgáltatás-támogató és Vagyonkezelő Alap), the government organization where propaganda news is created and distributed to the various state media outlets.

The blogs appear under hirado.hu, the site of the official news that one can hear on state TV and radio. I rarely bother to even look at their news items, and I assume that I’m not the only one who finds propaganda disguised as news less than palatable. On these blogs one cannot comment, only read. By the way, unlike most bloggers, these people get paid.

One of the blogs, named “Látószög” (point of view), is written under the watchful eye of Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror and the controversial new Holocaust Museum, the House of Fates. She admits in her introductory remarks that one of the purposes of the blog is to acquaint readers with the work that goes on in the House of Terror. She published a somewhat abbreviated version of her lecture in praise of her idol, Viktor Orbán, on this blog. The other contributors, mostly historians, focus on such topics as victims of communism, prisoners of war, and the deportation of class enemies from Budapest in the 1950s.

Another blog, called “Mozgástér” (room to maneuver), deals with political science. The editor of the blog is Tamás Lánczi, president of the notorious Századvég Intézet that might be implicated in the corruption case that led to the banning of six Hungarians from the United States. The political scientists are much more active than the historians. The last post is by László György, who tries to convince his readers that “the Eastern opening is a necessity.”

Foreign affairs is covered by “Messzelátó“(far-sighted). The “chief blogger” there is Gergely Prőhle, who lost his job in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the reorganization and is now undersecretary in the Ministry of Human Resources in charge of European affairs. The last post was written by Ferenc Kumin, consul-general in New York. It is about US-Israeli relations. Pröhle also wrote an obituary of Boris Nemtsov on March 1.

On “Urbánus” mayors write articles about the problems municipal leaders face.  And “Gazda” (farmer) deals with topics related to agriculture.

Cink.hu talked to Károly Szita, mayor of Kaposvár who is in charge of Urbánus. Szita admitted that they have no idea about the size of their readership.

So, here is another feeble attempt to boost the government’s waning popularity. I must say that the Orbán government is grasping at straws nowadays.

And talking about blogs and bloggers. Gábor G. Fodor, who caused so much trouble for the government with his careless remarks about Viktor Orbán’s political strategies, decided to be quiet for a while. After February 23 he wrote nothing on GFG.blog.hu. Today he was back. “There is a situation. We are after Veszprém and before Tapolca. The question is: what is more important? Governance or election?… For the next three years governance has priority.” Did the government resign itself to losing Tapolca? This is what it sounds like to me.