Tag Archives: Viktor Szigetvári

Politics and the Hungarian socialists–Not a winning combination

The ineptness of MSZP politicians never ceases to amaze me, but their latest stunt really deserves a booby prize. While their new hope, László Botka, lectures on taking away from the rich and giving to the poor, high-ranking MSZP politicians endorsed a proposal to give away the state-owned Grassalkovich Mansion in Hatvan to the Széchenyi Zsigmond Kárpát-medencei Magyar Vadászati Múzeum (Zsigmond Széchenyi Hungarian Hunting Museum of the Carpathian Basin).

Hunting has become a favorite pastime of Fidesz politicians, who show a great affinity for the lifestyle of the traditional Hungarian landowning class, which included a love of hunting. Even during the Kádár regime high-ranking party functionaries indulged in this aristocratic pursuit. Zsolt Semjén (KDNP), deputy prime minister, and János Lázár, chief of the prime minister’s office, are the best known avid hunters.

First, a few words about the mansion that stands on the main square of Hatvan and that is named for Count Antal Grassalkovich (1694-1771), a wealthy man who owned vast tracks of land around Gödöllő, Hatvan, and Bag. In 1867 the mansion was purchased by the Deutsch-Hatvany family. After the German occupation of Hungary, the Gestapo settled there. It was also used as a military hospital. By 1979 the building was declared to be uninhabitable. After a lengthy reconstruction effort, the mansion’s restoration was more or less finished with the help of 3.15 billion forints provided by the European Union and the Hungarian government. In 2012 the decision was made to house the Hunting Museum, named after Zsigmond Széchenyi (1898-1967), a well-known explorer and writer, in the state-owned mansion.

A nice gift for the Hunting Association

On March 14 eight members of parliament, three from Fidesz-KDNP and five from MSZP, proposed an amendment to a law passed in 2011 that regulates the ways and means of giving away state-owned properties to private persons or private organizations. The three Fidesz-KDNP signatories were Zsolt Semjén, János Lázár, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the prime minister’s office. As for five MSZP members, they included well-known, important names: István Hiller, Gergely Bárándy, Dezső Hiszékeny, István Józsa, and Árpád Velez. According to the document, these eight men proposed giving the newly reconstructed Grassalkovich Mansion to the National Hungarian Hunting Association (Országos Magyar Vadászkamara/OMVK). The justification for the move was that this transfer of ownership will offer an opportunity for the museum to function “on a professional basis.” Because, the government politicians argued, at the moment the museum attracts very few visitors. Instead of the expected 100,000 a year, barely 30,000 visitors were registered in the last few years. That shortfall happened because the current management is not doing a professional enough job. Once the Hunting Association owns the mansion outright, however, it will have a more effective way of supervising the museum.

I must say that I do not see the connection between ownership of the building and management of the museum. Anyone with half a brain should have noticed that there is something wrong here. One of the Hungarian papers claimed that “the socialists were misled.” Well, it doesn’t seem to be very difficult to mislead these political geniuses.

There was another reason the MSZP politicians should have been suspicious. The privatization of public property needs a two-thirds majority in parliament. As we know, Fidesz doesn’t have that majority anymore. Most likely, they knew that Jobbik would never agree to cooperate with them on an issue like this. So, they turned to the patsies of MSZP instead. And it very nearly worked.

The reaction from the other parties on the left was swift. As usual, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció was the first to respond. Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for DK, said: “We always knew that Fidesz politicians steal,” but it is unacceptable for MSZP politicians to assist in this enterprise. According to Gréczy, MSZP must offer some kind of reasonable explanation for lending a helping hand to Fidesz in its quest to steal the country blind. MSZP’s leadership was unmoved. They answered that this is not about hunting but about a museum that serves the public good. Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt was the next to issue a statement. He went so far as to call this cooperation between Fidesz and MSZP “a grand coalition.” Shame, shame, he added.

A day later, on March 17, MSZP published a terse announcement: “MSZP wants to avoid even the appearance of working together with Fidesz in the privatization of state property, and therefore it withdraws its support for the privatization of the property destined for OMVK.” Before this announcement was made, however, Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, had stood by the party’s decision and repeated that cooperation with Fidesz for the sake of the museum was correct and justified. Gergely Bárándy, son of former Minister of Justice Péter Bárándy, accused the DK spokesman of “creating a scandal.” If he hadn’t opened his mouth, the public would have heard nothing about “this noble cause from the point of view of Hungarian culture.”

Who was responsible for this politically suicidal act? I’m afraid all the bigwigs of MSZP. I don’t have any knowledge of the interplay between the parliamentary caucus and the leadership of the party, but I would like to believe that the chairman of the party, Gyula Molnár, was informed that cooperation with Fidesz on the issue had been sanctioned by the parliamentary delegation. The leader (or whip) of the MSZP delegation is Bertalan Tóth. He is new at his job, but until now he struck me as an intelligent fellow. Perhaps he didn’t feel secure enough to go against people like Hiller, Bárándy, and Józsa. We know that the Fidesz politicians came to MSZP with the suggestion, which then was discussed at length. At the end, they decided to support the joint proposal. And now, here is this embarrassing retreat which was apparently initiated by László Botka, who must have hit the ceiling upon finding out about it. I don’t blame him. According to Népszava, Botka “specifically requested” the party’s immediate withdrawal from the joint project.

After this fiasco the party leadership is threatening MSZP members of parliament with immediate removal from the caucus if they dare vote for the bill. This indicates to me that some of the original signatories are giving the party leadership a hard time about prohibiting any further cooperation. MSZP, as usual, failed miserably as an effective opposition to the politically savvy Fidesz party machinery.

March 19, 2017

Can László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, lead the democratic opposition?

The big news of the day is an interview that László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, gave for 168 Óra’s special Christmas edition. The paper will be on the newsstands only tomorrow, but the word is that Botka, the most popular socialist politician, is ready to lead the united opposition as a candidate for the premiership. Of course, he will accept the job only if his conditions are met by the currently negotiating opposition parties.

First, a few words about Botka, about whom I have written only twice before at any length. He joined MSZP at the tender age of 18. A year later, as a first-year law student in Szeged, he was already the honorary chairman of the party’s youth movement. In 1994 he won his district in the national election and, at the age of 21, was the youngest member of parliament. With the exception of four years, between 1998 and 2002, he was a member of parliament until 2014. In 2002, at the age of 29, he also became mayor of Szeged, a position he has continued to hold even as, at the municipal elections, almost the entire country turned orange.

László Botka in front of the Szeged City Hall

In the last few years Botka’s name was often mentioned as the party’s best bet for the post of prime minister, but the consensus in the party was that Botka was reluctant to accept the nomination, perhaps because of MSZP’s low standing in the polls. Maybe, commentators claimed, he is waiting for a better opportunity. Then last summer MSZP held its congress, and the delegates massively rejected Botka in his bid for reelection as chairman of the board. He felt betrayed and suspected some kind of conspiracy to remove him. He really wanted to remain in this post because, according to the new by-laws, the chairman is now able to influence the party’s strategy for the election campaign. This would have involved decisions concerning partnerships with other parties. My feeling at the time was that it was for this very reason that Botka was rejected as chairman of the board. He was known to be vehemently opposed to any kind of understanding with DK. Since at that point I had high hopes for a rapprochement between DK and MSZP, I was relieved that Botka was leaving party politics.

A couple of weeks later I wrote an article titled “Harmful politicians in the Hungarian democratic opposition,” in which I singled out Bernadett Szél of LMP and Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt. Szigetvári said that his favorite MSZP politician was László Botka. Since “MSZP blackballed Botka, the only conclusion one can draw is that the socialists don’t want to win the election,” he continued. I must say that Szigetvári’s praise of Botka didn’t endear me toward the mayor of Szeged.

Now, six months later, after seeing no signs of a constructive plan for a political formation that could possibly remove Viktor Orbán from power, I have changed my mind. I now think Botka should be given a chance, especially since I see no other viable and attractive candidate. The pro-government media has been floating names of possible contenders for the job, one less likely than the next. For instance, László Andor, former commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion in the Barroso II administration of the European Commission, whose name surfaced in Magyar Idők, is an excellent economist, but it’s hard to imagine him as an inspiring leader.

Although some people might find Botka too assertive, he is exactly the kind of person the opposition needs at the moment. In addition, it seems that Botka has changed his position on cooperation. Back in July I got the distinct impression that Botka believes MSZP can win the election on its own. Otherwise he wouldn’t have vetoed cooperation with DK. By now he realizes that this idea is dead in the water. MSZP can’t win the election on its own. Without cooperation the chances for the opposition are nil.

Botka put forth three conditions for accepting the candidacy. First, the opposition parties should have one common list. This is very important because, apparently, the negotiators still at the table envisage common candidates but separate lists. That would mean that people could cast their second vote for their favorite party, i.e. MSZP, DK, Együtt, Párbeszéd, etc. This would only confuse the electorate. In 2014, they did have a common list, but all the participating parties’ names were printed on the ballot. That was bad enough. Separate lists would be even worse. Second, candidates in all 106 districts would be picked on the basis of electability, not party affiliation. Thus, he would ban any behind-the-scenes negotiations about the number of spots allotted to each party, according to their relative strength at the polls. And finally, there must be prior agreement about the values and policies appropriate for parties on the left of the political spectrum. That means at some level a joint program.

Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read the full interview Botka gave to 168 Óra, I did hear his conversation with György Bolgár this afternoon. I also read an article published in delmagyar.hu, a local internet news site, whose reporter talked to Botka in Szeged. On both occasions he expressed the view that what’s going on at the moment at the negotiating table among representatives of some of the opposition parties is a replay of the 2014 scene. It led to failure then and it will lead to even bigger failure in 2018. “What we need are one million more voters because even if we add up the supporters of all democratic parties we have only half of what Fidesz has at the moment.” These new voters should come from the undecided group, as well as from Jobbik voters and disappointed Fidesz followers. The politicians at the negotiating table “must get their senses back and make a decision by the beginning of next year. Otherwise, they can forget about me. What’s going on right now I cannot, I don’t want to take part in.”

Well, that is plain talk. Unfortunately, initial reactions, admittedly still scanty, are not encouraging. To my surprise, Együtt didn’t want to respond to Botka’s forceful proposal, which is interesting given Viktor Szigetvári’s earlier expression of admiration for Botka. After all, Szigetvári is the co-chair of the party. DK’s spokesman, Zsolt Gréczy, speaking on Klubrádió, wasn’t at all enthusiastic. He pointed out that at the negotiations the person of the future prime minister had not been discussed and therefore he assumes that Botka’s putting himself forth is nothing more than the expression of “personal ambition.” A rather unfortunate way of saying that, as far as he knows, Botka is not the official candidate of MSZP. To reinforce this point, Gréczy reminded his audience that Botka had been squarely rejected as chairman of MSZP’s board only a few months ago. He promised, however, that DK’s leadership will discuss the matter whenever the issue is officially presented to them. I assume the discussion will be brief.

In a few days an article of mine will come out in Népszava’s Christmas issue. In it I expressed my negative opinion of the politicians of the fractious democratic opposition. I am not sure that Botka’s plan would succeed even if all the others wholeheartedly supported him, but what’s going on now seems utterly hopeless to me.

December 21, 2016

Harmful politicians in the Hungarian democratic opposition

It’s time to vent my wrath against some of those politicians who allegedly want to win the 2018 election and free the country from a semi-autocratic leader who has introduced an illiberal political system in Hungary.

A couple of days ago György Bolgár invited me to outline my ideas about what the democratic opposition should do to put an end to the rule of Viktor Orbán. Among other things, I emphasized the need for one large opposition party, which would necessarily mean the disappearance of those parties that have only minimal support. As it stands now, none of them would receive 5% of the votes, so any ballots cast for them would not only be a waste but would boost Fidesz’s electoral position.

There are some very good people in these parties. People like Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Gergely Karácsony (PM), Tímea Szabó (PM), and Péter Juhász (Együtt) would be real assets in a large left-of-center party. But others should disappear from the political scene because they are obstacles to any kind of joint action and mutual understanding. The two most prominent people in this latter category are the chairman of Együtt, Viktor Szigetvári, and the co-chairman of LMP, Bernadett Szél. Szigetvári accuses MSZP of being in bed with Fidesz and wanting to lose the election as the result of a secret pact. Szél just assured Fidesz of her party’s support for the anti-refugee referendum and, while she was at it, joined the anti-Soros chorus of Fidesz.

Let me start with Viktor Szigetvári. Back in March 2014, just before the election, I wrote a critical article about him. For years, ever since he graduated from college, he was affiliated with MSZP in one capacity or another. He served under Péter Medgyessy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gordon Bajnai. Because he was one of the organizers of the 2006 MSZP election campaign, he acquired the reputation of being an election guru with a magic touch. But, as his efforts in the 2014 election campaign showed, a magic touch was not enough. In 2013, after he left MSZP, he became co-chairman of Bajnai’s Együtt-PM which, despite promising beginnings, today has the support of only 1% of the electorate.

I freely admit that I have been following Viktor Szigetvári’s political career with growing concern. He appears on ATV frequently, and each time he lessens the chances of a unified democratic opposition. He tries to discredit and undermine the two larger parties, MSZP and DK, and puts himself forth as the only man who could engineer a democratic opposition victory in 2018.

Szigetvári’s latest foray into backbiting was an interview with András Hont of HVG where he said that “Együtt has an existing hinterland and an intellectual radiance which might not be as large as that of a party with 40% support” but the party isn’t tainted by those who were discredited in the days before 2010. Of course, Szigetvári conveniently forgets about the large role he played in the service of that “rotten regime,” whose other participants should be banished from political life.

Behind Viktor Szigetv'ari: "For Hungary"

Behind Viktor Szigetvári: “For Hungary”

The whole interview was full of contradictions. On the one hand, Szigetvári is convinced that only someone who had nothing to do with political life prior to 1990 can unseat Viktor Orbán. On the other, he indicated in the interview that his great hope for the premiership would be László Botka (MSZP), who came from exactly the kind of family Szigetvári talks about so scornfully. Both parents were MSZMP members; Botka’s mother was one of the founders of MSZP, mayor of Szolnok, and a member of parliament. And surely László, given his family background, was a member of KISZ. He became a member of MSZP at the tender age of eighteen.

László Botka is Szigetvári’s hero. The most popular MSZP politician who, due to some mysterious internal party conspiracy, was prevented from setting the agenda of MSZP for the next two years. Since MSZP blackballed Botka, the only conclusion one can draw is that the socialists don’t want to win the election, Szigetvári insists. Well, in my opinion, there is a more plausible explanation for Botka’s failure at the last party congress. It was well known inside and outside the party that Botka wouldn’t be willing to cooperate with anyone, especially not with Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, cannot be ignored as a factor in the present political constellation. My take is that the representatives who voted for Hiller instead of Botka were thinking in terms of the inevitable electoral failure if MSZP tries to run its own slate in the 2018 election.

Szigetvári himself also wants to meet Fidesz head-on, and it was at this point that he revealed his true position. “We will not sacrifice our community on the altar of ‘Down with Orbán!’” This is as clear as it can be. It doesn’t matter what Viktor Szigetvári says, it is not the politicians of MSZP and DK who want to lose the election for some unfathomable reason. It is Szigetvári’s politics that will weaken the forces of the democratic opposition and help Viktor Orbán remain in power, perhaps for decades.

The interview stirred up quite a controversy, but Szigetvári is not the kind of man to back down in the face of criticism. He accepted an invitation from Olga Kálmán of ATV to elaborate on the accusations he had made in his earlier interview. There he tried to explain the inexplicable with miserable results. Those who know the language should take a look at that encounter.

And now let me turn to Bernadett Szél’s performance at the 27th gathering of the Fidesz-inspired Bálványosi Nyári Szabadegyetem (Bálványos Summer Free University). It is no longer held in Bálványos/Cetățile Păgânilor. It moved to the larger Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad, so nowadays they call the event Tusványos. Every year Fidesz invites the leaders of the parliamentary caucuses of the opposition parties for a friendly chat with the Fidesz top brass, but last year only András Schiffer of LMP showed up. This year his former co-chairman, Bernadett Szél, also accepted the invitation. Neither Jobbik nor MSZP went.

Bernadett Szél and Lajos Kósa discussing the migrant issue

Yesterday morning I read an MTI news item from Tusványos. Lajos Kósa (Fidesz), Péter Harrach (KDNP), and Bernadett Szél (LMP) were having a friendly chat, mostly about the refugee crisis and the referendum. Kósa went on and on as is his wont about Hungarian sovereignty and that only the citizens of Hungary can decide who can settle in the country. No one from the outside can force Hungary to do anything. “I can invite anyone into my house but I won’t allow my neighbor to make such a decision.” Pope Francis is correct that we have to help our brethren, but “we should be the ones who decide the form of assistance.”

Bernadett Szél chimed in. According to her, “migration and immigration have always been within the competence of the member nations in the European Union and they must remain there. No nation must succumb to blackmail.” Therefore, Hungarians must vote “no” at the October 2 referendum. As you know, MSZP, DK, Együtt, and PM have urged their followers to boycott the referendum while Gábor Fodor recommended that the followers of his liberal party vote “yes.” Until now, LMP had said nothing. Szél finally clarified what most people had already suspected: that despite all the noise they make in parliament on other matters, LMP is not a serious opponent of Fidesz. In fact, LMP, with its refusal to cooperate with others, is an enabler of Fidesz’s political agenda.

And if that wasn’t enough, she decided to say a few ugly words about George Soros. LMP rejects Soros’s meddling in Hungarian affairs. It is unacceptable that some influential person from the outside tells us what the right attitude or position is in certain matters. He should be spending his time in other endeavors instead of giving advice in the matter of immigration. The Pope couldn’t be left out either. According to her, politicians misinterpret the Holy Father’s words.

Ákos Hadházy, who replaced András Schiffer as co-chairman of LMP and member of parliament, is an excellent man. Just like Péter Juhász of Együtt, he is doing a tremendous job unveiling government corruption involving EU funds. Quietly but fairly persistently he has talked about the necessity of “common thinking” and “discussion” among the democratic parties. But Bernadett Szél intervened and said there is no change in policy: LMP will go against Fidesz alone in 2018.

Gyula Molnár, after learning about Bernadett Szél’s shameful performance, announced that MSZP will have nothing to do with LMP. Szél won’t be upset. She has more powerful frenemies on the right.

July 23, 2016

Decoding Fidesz’s coded anti-Semitism: the Németh-Szigetvári “debate”

Friday night Antónia Mészáros hosted a political “discussion” on her program, “Szabad szemmel.” Mészáros is a very able young reporter who has the ability to attract politicians who normally wouldn’t get close to ATV, both for interviews and for discussions with their political opponents. They agree to appear despite the fact that Mészáros is a hard-nosed journalist who doesn’t let her guests off the hook easily.

When two Hungarian politicians of opposite political views get together, the task of the moderator becomes impossible. No Hungarian journalist ever manages to keep order, and these encounters usually turn into shouting matches. This is what happened Friday night when Viktor Szigetvári, chairman of Együtt, and Szilárd Németh, the latest favorite of Viktor Orbán, got together for a friendly chat.

For half an hour one had to listen to parallel monologues about the pros and cons of the referendum on the “compulsory quota” issue. In that verbal pankration, as one of the newspapers called the encounter, Németh was the winner in the sense that he managed to outshout his opponent. Early in the conversation Szigetvári tried to interrupt Németh’s monologue, but it was hopeless. Once this man opens his mouth, it is hard to stop him. Mind you, it is not impossible, as another performance of his on the very same program a few months ago demonstrated. But more about that later.

Szilárd Németh decides to leave

Szilárd Németh decides to leave

The program would have been a total bust, just inarticulate screaming on Németh’s part, but for the fact that in the last few moments Mészáros introduced a different topic, I guess in the hope of moving the conversation along. She brought up a brand new article that appeared in Politico according to which it is hard to be a Hungarian in Brussels. For one thing, people both inside and outside the offices of the European Union are suspicious of Hungarian officials. For another, non-Hungarians–Belgians as well as people from other countries living in Brussels–look upon Hungarians as a heartless people who should be ashamed of themselves. Mészáros wanted to know what Németh thought of this.

Németh responded: “This is simply a lie. The situation is that they will try anything to minimize the importance of the referendum. This is what I’m talking about: they will use everything … including their Hungarian politicians, their domestic economic enterprises, they will….” At which point Szigetvári chimed in: “And surely, also the Jews, isn’t it so?” A few seconds later, after Szigetvári had refused to take back his words, Németh got up and left in a huff.

Szilárd Németh, close and personal

Szilárd Németh, up close and personal

Naturally, opinions on the incident differ greatly, depending on one’s political views. The right-wing media accuse Szigetvári of calling Németh an anti-Semite, which they consider totally unwarranted. After all, he didn’t utter a word about Jews. András Schiffer, who tries to be an independent political player, took Németh’s side by saying that “just because someone is a boor and a slanderer he is not necessarily an anti-Semite. Just because someone is an automatic speaking machine he is not an anti-Semite. If we call someone an anti-Semite just because he seems to have discovered the geopolitical chess games played in Hungary, we only help the arguments of the anti-Semites.”

On the other side are Viktor Szigetvári and his supporters. Coded anti-Semitism has been going on for years in Fidesz circles, and it is time “to decode” the mantra of clandestine powers, foreign agents, and opposition politicians serving foreign interests. As Szigetvári wrote on his Facebook page after the incident, he is sick and tired of this practice. It is time for Fidesz politicians to say whom they actually mean when they refer to banker government, representatives of foreign interests, George Soros, colonizers, clandestine powers, people with foreign hearts in their bosoms (idegenszívűek), etc.

Viktor Szigetvári is right of course. Viktor Orbán and his fellow Fidesz politicians have sent coded messages of this sort for at least 20 years. Indeed, it is time to ask outright: Who are these awful people, lurking in the background, who want to ruin Hungary and who use Hungarian opposition politicians for their evil plans? Fidesz supporters are perfectly aware of the identity of these foreigners. They can easily decode those words. It is enough to read some of the comments following the articles on the Szigetvári-Németh affair.

At the beginning of this post I referred to another political discussion that took place on the same program a few months ago. Antónia Mészáros invited three politicians to discuss the government’s plan to introduce emergency powers in case of a “danger of terror.” The guests were Szilárd Németh (Fidesz), Tamás Harangozó (MSZP), and András Schiffer (LMP). I’m no fan of András Schiffer, but I must say that the sight of Németh, sitting speechless, unable to utter one word against Schiffer’s barrage of facts, was a pleasant experience. The “speaking machine,” as Schiffer called Németh, can be stopped, but few people are up to it.

May 15, 2016

The sorry state of the Hungarian opposition

I stumbled on today’s topic this morning when I read one of András Stumpf’s vitriolic articles that appeared in Mandiner on February 12. It was about a piece on a relatively new blog called Nyugati Fény (Western Light) which, according to Stumpf, referred to him, along with Zsolt Bayer and András Bencsik, as “a Fidesz propagandist nobody.” The author specifically objected to an article by Stumpf in which he talked about the “hysteria” that was created by the opposition around the topic of “child hunger.” Stumpf called the description of his article unfair because Nyugati Fény portrayed his attitude toward child hunger as cynical. After reading Stumpf’s original article, I came to the conclusion that Nyugati Fény’s comments were largely justified.

Stumpf was deeply offended and immediately began to search for who could possibly be behind Nyugati Fény. It didn’t take him long to find his answer. Back in December the right-wing Pesti Srácok reported on a tweet by Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair of Együtt (Together), claiming that Nyugati Fény is DK’s “party blog,” written by three prominent DK politicians: István Vágó, Zsolt Gréczy, and Viktor Mandula. Szigetvári repeated his accusation on Facebook.

This time Nyugati Fény tore into Viktor Szigetvári. The occasion was Szigetvári’s negative comments on Ferenc Gyurcsány ideas about political strategy that he decided to share with the editors of Magyar Idők. In his Facebook note he claimed that Ferenc Gyurcsány himself admitted that the “communication team of DK” supervises Nyugati Fény and another new blog called Európa Kávézó. According to Szigetvári, Gyurcsány even organized a meeting for him with Viktor Mandula, who during their talk suggested that if Együtt stops criticizing DK, the anonymous blogs will cease their abusive comments against his party and Szigetvári himself. After this revelation he immediately attacked DK, whose behavior he considered dishonorable.

Illustration accompanying the article against Viktor Szigetvári in Nyugati Fény

Illustration in the article against Viktor Szigetvári in Nyugati Fény

I believe this single incident speaks volumes about the state of the Hungarian opposition. As for whether Nyugati Fény is in the service of DK or not, I doubt it. Several articles published there simply don’t fit the picture we have of Gyurcsány’s party. As Júlia Lévai, a frequent blogger herself, pointed out in a comment to Szigetvári’s post, such articles as “The liberal migrant policy is clearly a failure” couldn’t possibly have been written by one of the politicians of DK. Or, what about an article in which the blogger attacked György Kakuk, one of the leading members of the party? István Vágó himself wrote a comment to Szigetvári’s post in which he recalled that he had written several times that he has nothing to do with Nyugati Fény, but “it seems that Mr. Szigetvári writes his posts without paying any attention to the comments.” As for Európai Kávézó, it is most likely written by someone who is an uncritical DK supporter. For example, one of the articles is titled “Gyurcsány shows the way.” But, of course, this doesn’t mean that the blog is the product of DK’s communication team.

There is friction among all the parties on the left. Magyar Idők gleefully announced on February 3 that “the left wants nothing to do with Gyurcsány’s program.” Szigetvári made a statement to the government paper in which called his party’s solutions, unlike those of Gyurcsány, “sober and moderate.” “We don’t believe in free water or a flat tax.” There can be no collaboration on the basis of such a program. Együtt has its own program, its own alternatives, and its own candidates. Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM/Dialogue) announced that it is not interested in the programs of other parties. Keep in mind that each of these two parties has only one percent support. The socialists (MSZP) also said that they pay no attention to the other parties. In fact, Chairman József Tóbiás talked about this in an interview he gave to the government mouthpiece.

The depth of the division among opposition parties is highlighted in an article about a roundtable discussion organized by the Republikon Intézet on the topic of holding primaries ahead of the elections, during which possible candidate for the premiership could emerge. As the reporter said, “after about half an hour the representatives of MSZP, DK, PM, and the liberals were exchanging personal attacks.” Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) told Bence Tordai of PM that he should be more modest because he talks as if his party had 40% of the electorate behind it. Tordai shot back: “perhaps more modesty should be shown after the last twenty-five years.” Soon enough it became evident that these people are incapable of cooperation even though they know that alone they are incapable of winning the election. Szigetvári’s Együtt didn’t even send a representative. That LMP wasn’t there surprised no one.

And I haven’t even talked about the Modern Magyarország Mozgalom (MOMA) of Lajos Bokros. Bokros was severely criticized lately by the other opposition parties for organizing a demonstration on his own protesting the planned amendment to the constitution that would allow the government to declare a state of terror threat and assume widespread powers. Again, the parties pointed fingers at one another. MOMA charged that the other parties simply didn’t support it, while the others claimed that MOMA never asked them to participate. The number of demonstrators was predictably small.

The sad part of all this is that when one encounters these people individually in interview situations they come across as sympathetic, intelligent, and reasonable. Their views are not terribly far apart. Yet when they begin to denounce each other, one feels frustrated and loses hope that they will ever be able to form a united front against the present regime.

It may be Valentine’s Day, but love is not in the air in the Hungarian opposition.

February 14, 2016

Chief Justice Lenkovics on the Fidesz Constitutional Court, Part II

Yesterday I tried to summarize the legal philosophy of Hungary’s new chief justice, which I found shocking and totally at odds with our understanding of the rule of law in a democratic society. Viktor Szigetvári, chairman of the opposition party Együtt, in an impassioned Facebook note, called Barnabás Lenkovics morally unfit for his post. Szigetvári doesn’t spend much time on the topics I covered yesterday but instead bases his condemnation of the chief justice on some currently relevant issues such as the status of churches, the refugee issue, human rights, same-sex marriage, and the Orbán government’s latest attempt at limiting access to public documents. On almost all of these issues Lenkovics holds not conservative but outright undemocratic views.

At the moment the Hungarian government is taking its sweet time drafting an entirely new law on the recognition of churches. The original law of 2011 stipulated that only churches approved by the Hungarian parliament could partake of the benefits churches usually enjoy in democratic countries. Smaller, less traditional churches or congregations, including some following reformed Judaism, were stripped of their church status. In February 2013 the Constitutional Court, which at that time wasn’t yet packed with Fidesz loyalists, found the law to be discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. The Orbán government’s answer was to change the constitution and leave the objectionable law unaltered.

Since all remedies at home had been exhausted, sixteen small churches decided to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to seek justice. In April 2014 the court ruled in the churches’ favor: the law was unconstitutional, so it should be scrapped and the churches compensated. The Hungarian government decided to appeal the decision. Five months later, on September 9, 2014, the court turned down the appeal. At the moment the government is apparently working on a new version of the law. They are in no hurry to compensate the churches for their financial losses between 2011 and 2015.

Barnabás Lenkovics in the middle of the upper row

Barnabás Lenkovics in the middle of the upper row

It was this case that came up in the conversation between Lenkovics and the journalist from Mandiner.hu. Keep in mind that the constitution itself was altered to make an unconstitutional law constitutional. Lenkovics, who was a nominee of the then opposition parties Fidesz-KDNP and MDF in 2007, and four of the five Fidesz justices who were appointed after 2010 found nothing wrong with the church law. Consistent with that view, Lenkovics sees no reason to amend the constitution in light of the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. It is enough if “the law is rewritten or at least significantly altered.” But he still thinks that the 1989 law on churches “gave too much freedom in the establishment of churches … who, in turn, abused it.”

Well, if the churches abused their freedom, the same is true of civil rights activists whom he labelled “hobby civil rights activists” and “professional revolutionaries.” He added that “probably there is need for them, otherwise they wouldn’t finance them.” Who are these “they”? I guess the trouble-making foreigners who would like to know what the members of the government are up to. In any case, Lenkovics finds it “strange that they [the activists] exercise their own rights at the expense of the community.”

When the reporter noted that the corruption of officials and politicians may be much more costly to the community than photocopying a few hundred pages of documents, Lenkovics came up with this gem: “We assume that those who decided to serve the common good and who took an oath will not abuse their power and will not take advantage of the public purse for their own use.” The reporter was so stunned that he could only mutter: “That is what the Constitutional Court assumes? That’s all?” At this point Lenkovics realized that he went too far and quickly retreated: “Everybody is entitled to the presumption of innocence. I believe in civil control.” A little later he even sang the praises of investigative journalism, bemoaning the fact that there are not enough reporters who can ferret out the sources of corruption.

There was a brief exchange on same sex-marriage, in which Lenkovics resorted to the old natural law argument which claims that “certain rights or values are inherent in or universally cognizable by virtue of human reason or human virtue of judicial recognition or articulation.” In his view marriage has “traditional and natural legal foundations … and it is the basis not only of European and Christian civilization but of the whole human civilization.” He compares changing the current law on marriage to creating a law that would state that “a child can be born of a man by a man.” One could write such a law, but that doesn’t make it possible.

Lenkovics wove into the topic of same sex marriage a couple of intriguing sentences. “It is an interesting absurdity that while among heterosexuals the number of marriages is decreasing and more and more existing marriages break up, among homosexuals the demand to be able to get married is growing. Did anyone try to compare them?” I suspect that this intellectual giant thinks that homosexual “propaganda” is making headway and actually has an impact on the sexual behavior of the society in favor of homosexuality.

Finally, there was an exchange on the refugee question, which came up as a corollary to Lenkovics’s distinction between “legal” and “political” constitutionality. The latter in his opinion considers reality while the former is too abstract and unworkable. So, Lenkovics thinks that

It is a great problem that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes universality while in reality something very different is going on. The world, the United Nations, the European Union signed a blank check about universal human rights but that check is uncovered.

These people now, as refugees flood the world, declare their human rights and the duties of Europe. Not the duties of their own governments to look after them, but those of the West.

My take on this is that human rights as such should be thrown out of our legal arsenal.

This interview, I believe, tells us more about the nature of the Orbán regime than hundreds of pages of analyses by political scientists. The chief justice opened the door to the workings of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state.

Gathering clouds: The opposition parties take a common stand

This afternoon the leaders of the democratic opposition parties held talks in the wake of Viktor Orbán’s announcement yesterday that he was the one who ordered the ministers of his cabinet to withdraw all government assets invested in bonds issued by the Quaestor Group. Since the meeting ended only about three hours ago, I could find only one commentary on the event. It was by Dániel Bita of Népszabadság who, if I interpret one of his rather convoluted sentences correctly, found it less than successful. I am, on the other hand, more charitable, especially since András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP who up to now has consistently refused to cooperate with the other opposition parties, decided to attend.

Today’s meeting was called by József Tóbiás, chairman of MSZP, which is in itself fairly remarkable since it was Tóbiás who shortly after the lost 2014 national election declared that “never again” will MSZP cooperate with any of the other parties. The socialists will go it alone and will single handedly win the next election. Of course, since then MSZP was forced several times to accept the assistance of DK which supports, for example, the MSZP-nominated Ferenc Pad in the Tapolca-Ajka election.

Fairly late last night MSZP released a communiqué titled “The government is in crisis, it is time for the opposition” in which Tóbiás called on “the representatives of the opposition parties” to meet at 1:00 p.m. in the parliamentary office building. Jobbik could hardly wait to express its willingness to join the other parties. It took Gábor Vona, the party chairman, no more than half an hour to announce that “naturally they will join the others [but] they expect Fidesz to be represented at the gathering.” He added that they “will also have to discuss the role of the socialist governments in the brokerage scandal.” They want to know about “the business relationships that did exist and perhaps still exist between leftist politicians and the corrupt leaders of the brokerage firms.” Tóbiás goofed. Surely, he didn’t mean to invite Jobbik, but he was sloppy in composing his invitation.

Tóbiás had to get out of this sticky situation. This morning MSZP released an explanation. According to the press release to MTI, the party said that all “democratic parties indicated their willingness to participate” but they didn’t think that Jobbik’s presence at the meeting would be appropriate because “Jobbik at such a gathering would only be a power broker for Fidesz.” According to MSZP, Jobbik, which is financed from abroad, is neither patriotic nor democratic, and it is certainly not an opposition party.

The following people attended the meeting: József Tóbiás (MSZP), Ferenc Gyurcsány (DK), András Schiffer (LMP), Timea Szabó (PM), Viktor Szigetvári (Együtt), and Anett Bősz (LP). The only person who was missing was Lajos Bokros, representing MoMa, a moderate conservative grouping, perhaps because it is “movement,” not a party.

At the meeting there seemed to be unanimity among the politicians that Viktor Orbán should leave Hungarian political life. According to Tóbiás, Viktor Orbán should simply resign. Barring that, at the very least he should ask for a vote of confidence. Tímea Szabó held a similar position, adding that if Orbán does neither then she will submit a declaratory resolution for the dissolution of parliament and for holding early elections. In addition, some of the participants added Péter Szijjártó and György Matolcsy to the list of those who should follow Viktor Orbán as undesirable political figures.

Tímea Szabó, József Tóbiás, Anett Bősz, András Schiffer, Viktor Szigetvári and Ferenc Gyurcsány

Tímea Szabó, József Tóbiás, Anett Bősz, Ferenc Gyurcsány, Viktor Szigetvári, and András Schiffer

Viktor Szigetvári is convinced that Orbán is guilty of insider trading, which is a criminal offense, and therefore he is longer fit to be the prime minister of the country. However, he was pretty vague about what to do if Orbán does not resign, which is all but certain. He came up with the shopworn remedy of creating a parliamentary committee to investigate Viktor Orbán’s role in the Quaestor scandal. Unfortunately, Hungarian investigative committees are not like the Watergate committee whose hearings eventually led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Orbán will simply not show up and that will be the end of it.

András Schiffer also thinks that Orbán “is morally unfit to be the prime minister,” but he concentrated on amendments to be offered by the opposition parties to a Fidesz draft proposal that is designed to financially assist those who suffered heavy losses as a result of the bankruptcy of Quaestor.

What Gyurcsány said or what kinds of plans he entertains under the present circumstances we don’t know because he was the only politician who gave no interview after the meeting. He said only that the meeting was “pleasant and constructive,” which the reporter of Népszabadság interpreted to mean that DK’s chairman found the gathering pretty useless. Although it is true that no definite road map emerged from this first meeting, the very fact that all the democratic parties were ready to sit down and discuss a common strategy is a step forward. The next few days will tell us whether any concrete steps will be taken after this exchange of ideas.

In my opinion, the most important event of the meeting was the decision to hold a mass rally organized by the democratic parties on April 11, the day before the Tapolca-Ajka by-election. This means that these parties are no longer afraid to show themselves and take a leading role in anti-government demonstrations. At the last big demonstration on March 25, although the parties could show their flags and logos, MSZP did not take advantage of the opportunity. Only MoMa and DK flags could be seen. Now MSZP seems eager to come out with their red carnations. Moreover, the civic organizers, as was demonstrated on March 15, no longer mind the presence of parties. All told, given the public mood, the rally should be a great success.

Fidesz interprets the opposition’s gathering of forces as a “petty power struggle.” The left “acts as if they had absolutely nothing to do with the socialist brokerage scandal although they were the ones who allowed financial corruption to flower in the last decades.” The problem is that this old “socialist brokerage story”–especially in light of the close relationship of the government, Fidesz politicians, and men close to Viktor Orbán with Csaba Tarsoly, CEO of Quaestor–is no longer believable. Fidesz has been in power for the last five years, and it was Fidesz-appointed officials who were supposed to make sure that financial institutions operate in a lawful manner. But the Hungarian National Bank allowed Quaestor, even when it was on its last legs, to issue 60 billion forints worth of bonds.

This morning Gábor Horn, the former SZDSZ member of parliament who was the intermediary between his party and the Gyurcsány government, was interviewed on ATV’s early morning program, Start. He compared the situation of the present government to that of the socialist-liberal government back when it became obvious that the government would not be able to survive much longer. Although, Horn said, Orbán is a “more talented survivor than Gyurcsány,” he now has to admit that Viktor Orbán is in big trouble. A caller to Klubrádió, however, described Orbán as being as slippery as “a soaped dolphin.” It is still quite possible that the great survivor will escape this scandal unscathed.