Tag Archives: Zoltán Ceglédi

Debate on the Hungarian electoral law

In today’s post I will not even be able to scratch the surface of the debate over restructuring the Hungarian electoral system to make it more proportional. It’s an exceedingly complicated, emotionally fraught subject.

Until recently the discussion was merely academic, but with civil activist Márton Gulyás’s call for a political movement whose goal is changing the unfair electoral system, it has become a political issue. Supporters of such a change believe that it is a prerequisite for fair elections that would reflect citizens’ true political views instead of the two-thirds Fidesz majority that the present system practically guarantees. Opponents argue that, given the present political landscape, the opposition would not benefit from a more or less proportional system but in fact would emerge weaker than it is now. As long as this greatly disproportional system exists, there is always the possibility that an opposition party may, even with 45% of the votes, be able to achieve a two-thirds majority, just as Fidesz did in 2014, which would enable it to dismantle Viktor Orbán’s illiberal political system. As Orbán said, “one has to win only once, but then big.”

There is nothing new in the disproportionality of the Hungarian electoral system. In 1994 MSZP got 32% and SZDSZ 19% of the popular vote. Together, with their combined 51%, they had a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. In 2010 a similar situation occurred: Fidesz’s 53% was enough to have a super majority in parliament. With amendments tipping the electoral law even more in their favor, in 2014 44% was enough for Fidesz to get a two-thirds majority in parliament. In a more proportional system, Fidesz wouldn’t even have been able to form a government on its own.

In 2015 János Széky, writer, translator, and political commentator, first talked about the need to address the serious shortcomings of the Hungarian electoral law as it was originally conceived in 1990. He devoted a chapter to it in his book Bárányvakság, the Hungarian equivalent of Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis or LCA, an inherited eye disease. He returned to the topic in February of this year, arguing in an article that with a proportional electoral system Fidesz would never have gotten a two-thirds majority. The standard response to this assertion is that it wasn’t the electoral system that produced Fidesz’s super majority but the extremely poor performance of the Gyurcsány government. Széky disagrees. Since the end of World War II no other party has received two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in any of the present members of the European Union. Not even 60% of the seats. “There is no such thing in a democracy,” claims Széky. In this essay and in his book, Széky forcefully argues for a proportional electoral system based on party lists and criticizes the political elite for neglecting this vitally important political issue.

Recently Miklós Haraszti, rapporteur of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a monitor of the elections in the Netherlands, began a campaign of sorts to induce Fidesz to change the electoral system before the 2018 election. He gave several interviews and wrote extensively on the subject. He shares Széky’s poor opinion of party leaders who neglected to explain to their followers the real reason for Fidesz’s “success”–a grossly disproportional electoral system. In order to escape from what Haraszti calls “constitutional dictatorship,” this system must be changed. As far as Haraszti is concerned, in talking about electoral victory the opposition parties are engaging in self-deception or, even worse, deceit.

Haraszti doesn’t believe in an alliance of the left-of-center parties, which would be a straitjacket for the parties and wouldn’t satisfy the needs of their followers. Moreover, at present there is no sign of any kind of cooperation among them. Competition among parties is a natural state of affairs, but it can work only if there is a genuinely proportional electoral system. Fidesz must be forced to change the system it made even less proportional than it had been. If it refuses, the opposition parties should abstain from participation in the election. Haraszti believes that no electoral campaign and election would be accepted if all the other parties refuse to participate. Haraszti argues that Fidesz cannot risk such a “one-party campaign and election” and therefore would have to negotiate with the opposition parties, all demanding radical change.

One of the first people to criticize Miklós Haraszti’s blueprint for achieving a reform of the electoral system was the political analyst Zoltán Ceglédi. He calls the plan an illusion. It is hard to imagine that Orbán would willingly replace a system that is advantageous to him with one that would give him fewer votes. Moreover, knowing Orbán, the more pressure is applied, the more adamant he will be to keep the present system. In his opinion, the claim that Fidesz cannot be defeated under the present system is wrong. The word “Fidesz” is not in the law. One simply must get more votes. Ceglédi considers boycotting parliament under the present circumstances an acceptable method of not collaborating with a thoroughly corrupt and dictatorial regime. But boycotting the election is not a realistic goal. The defeat of Orbán as soon as possible is of primary importance, but it must be done under the present system.

The other critic who published an opinion piece today is László Bruszt, professor of political science at Central European University and visiting professor at Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. He considers Viktor Orbán’s campaign for the recapture of the two-thirds majority pretty well lost. In his opinion, Viktor Orbán’s Easter message was not about the consolidation of his regime but a desperate stab at saving it. Bruszt is, however, unhappy with Márton Gulyás’s declared goal of changing the electoral system. Concentrating narrowly on one issue diminishes the opportunities the recent demonstrations offer the parties. In fact, it may divide them. Yes, Fidesz must be defeated but by Fidesz’s own rules. The secret is competition on party lists but with a single common candidate in each district.

What Bruszt considers more important than a change in the electoral system is a modification of rules and regulations not found in the electoral law. For example, the extreme limitations placed on sending messages to the electorate. A couple of weeks before the election in 2014 there were practically no signs of campaign activity. Parties had minimal possibilities to advertise either on the streets or in the media. Fidesz used so-called “civic organizations” like the government-financed CÖF as proxies. Since electoral laws did not apply to them, they were able to advertise where parties were forbidden to do so.

Orbán is in trouble now and much more vulnerable than in 2014. Bruszt actually compares him to Károly Grósz, the last party secretary of MSZMP in 1989 who, like Orbán, became more and more aggressive as he felt more and more threatened. The opposition should not let Orbán escape from the trap in which he finds himself by talking exclusively about an unfair electoral system and thereby offering excuses for failure. Moreover, since the present system can easily produce a super majority, if the opposition could receive 45-47% of the popular vote, it would be in a position to change the constitution and many other institutional laws the Orbán regime has introduced.

Electoral laws, of course, go beyond questions of proportionality. Electoral districts are drawn in such a way as to favor particular parties, voting procedures benefit some (for instance, Hungarian Romanians) and disadvantage others (Hungarians living in Great Britain), and campaign finance laws can make a significant difference in the outcomes of elections. All thorny, all worthy of debate.

April 20, 2017

László Toroczkai: Quite a career from the siege of MTV to the mayor of a small town

Hungarian media and the public attuned to politics have been unable to recover from the shock of a by-election in Ásotthalom, a larger village near Szeged, close to the Serbian border. László Toroczkai, an infamous neo-Nazi who has been banned from Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia because of his openly irredentist views and illegal activities, became the new mayor of the borough. How could this have happened?

“Political scientists” offered some highly unlikely explanations for this outrage, but these people rarely move from their desks in Budapest and therefore have no first-hand knowledge of local  politics and the politicians who more often than not influence the outcome of these elections. Moreover, they rarely bother to delve into the background of events they try to analyze. I who couldn’t just drive down to Ásotthalom had to gather information from at least two dozen sources before I had a fair idea of what was really going in that village.

Two of these political scientists, Gábor Filippov of Magyar Progresszív Intézet (which is becoming less and less progressive) and Zoltán Ceglédi of Republikon Intézet, blamed the democratic opposition for not coming up with a candidate of their own and thus letting Toroczkai be the sole challenger of Ferenc Petró, the former mayor who was just ousted by four of the six members of the council. Let me add that Ferenc Petró has been the mayor of Ásotthalom for sixteen years. Earlier he ran as an independent although the locals knew that he was a Fidesz man. In 2010 Petró decided that there was no longer any reason to hide behind the “independent” label and ran officially as the candidate of Fidesz.

As for blaming the democratic parties (MSZP, Együtt14 and DK) for Toroczkai’s victory, that is total nonsense. The inhabitants of Ásotthalom are known to be super loyal Fidesz voters. At the 2010 national election Fidesz-KDNP received 1,261 votes while MSZP got a mere 205. And yes, there were 164 Jobbik voters. Not an overwhelming number. Petró, the mayor ever since 1998, always won handily. He never had less than 55% of the votes, and there was at least one year when he received 70% of the votes. I would like to see a candidate of the left challenge this Fidesz mayor, however unpopular he is at the moment.

So, what happened? Ásotthalom’s budget shrank due to the policies of the Orbán government and the mayor of the village had to introduce austerity measures. Half of the staff of town hall was let go. Petró was heard making critical remarks about the government’s policies concerning municipalities and had conflicts with the district’s Fidesz member of parliament. According to some sources, Fidesz no longer supported Petró and perhaps even encouraged the four disaffected members of the council to dissolve it and force a by-election. Rumor has it that they had their eye on one of the Fidesz members of the council who in the last minute decided to drop out of the race. That left the door open to our neo-Nazi Toroczkai who moved into the village just this summer. He won with 71.5% of the votes. Mind you, only 37.4% of the voters bothered to go to the polls.

I wrote several times about this young man. He was involved in so many far-right, neo-Nazi organizations that I’m sure one could spend days listing them all. Looking through the laundry list, I’m convinced that in a western country this man would already be sitting in jail instead of running for office.

toroczkai, MTV

László Toroczkai’s great moment in front of the building of the Hungarian Television on September 19, 2006

Toroczkai was born with the pedestrian name of László Tóth, but surely such a great Hungarian patriot cannot be called Mr. Slovak. (Tót means Slovak in Hungarian.) He picked the name Toroczkai, allegedly because his ancestors came from the town of Torockó/Râmetea, naturally in Romania. After all, someone who established the Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (HIVM/Youth Movement of the Sixty-four Counties), a reference to Greater Hungary’s counties, must find his origins somewhere outside of the Trianon borders.

As a high school student Toroczkai had a lucrative business smuggling alcohol and cigarettes from Subotica in Serbia to Szeged where he lived. He began his political career in 1998 at the age of twenty as a candidate of MIÉP. In the same year he became parliamentary reporter for István Csurka’s anti-Semitic Magyar Fórum. On the side, he organized a paramilitary organization called Special Unit of the Sons of the Crown, and a couple of years later in 2001 he set up HVIM, which became one of the most important organizations on the far right. He became known nationally when he led the mob from Kossuth Square to the building of MTV in September 2006. The crowd he led stormed, burned, and eventually occupied the building. During the siege 190 policemen were wounded, some of them seriously. The damage to the building was considerable, costing millions to repair. There were two attempts to charge him for his role in the attack, but both times he was acquitted. Nothing happened to him even when he threatened to murder Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.

After Fidesz won the election Toroczkai kept a low profile. And once in Ásotthalom he took on a whole new persona. He frequents the local Catholic Church. The parish priest, who didn’t like the former mayor because he didn’t let the public workers cut the grass of his parish, supported him. Toroczkai is married by now to a Romanian woman from Moldavia and the two have a child. The inhabitants of the village consider him a devoted and caring father. He also seems to have business interests in and around the village where a number of his voters managed to get jobs. In brief, he is popular, especially since he assured the people of Ásotthalom that there will be no austerity program and he himself will work for minimum wage. Moreover, according to a reporter of Népszabadság from Szeged who visited the village, it is almost certain that the majority of the voters have no idea of Toroczkai’s neo-Nazi career and his anti-Gypsy, anti-Jewish, anti-gay and anti-lesbian past and most likely present. The few videos I saw of him showed a young, thoughtful, soft-spoken man who takes his job seriously.

What will happen now? The town hall of Ásotthalom was in a great hurry to make sure that the borough’s website was immediately updated. Toroczkai’s name is already there for everybody to see. Toroczkai has no administrative experience, and the same is true about the new members of the council. Also, one doesn’t know what Toroczkai’s real plans are over and above those soothing words about the great future Ásotthalom will have under his leadership. At one point he wanted to create “a parallel state” in Hungary. I wonder whether it is his secret plan to set up one in Ásotthalom.

Sexism in the Hungarian parliament

I have written a number of times about female members of the Hungarian parliament and their treatment by male colleagues. I’ve also written about the attitude, especially of Fidesz MPs, toward women in general.

As a reminder, here are a few statistics about the minority status of women in Hungarian politics. Today there are only 35 women in a 386-member parliament (9.06%). According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s statistics, of the 144 countries listed Hungary ranks 118th! Among the countries that are doing worse are Malta, Brazil, Bhutan, Benin, Ghana, Ukraine, Botswana, Nigeria, Tuvalu, Georgia, Egypt, Oman, and Yemen.

Although the number of women parliamentarians is low across the board, Fidesz has the smallest percentage of women in its parliamentary caucus. It is also noteworthy that the credentials of Fidesz female MPs are less impressive than those of their colleagues in the opposition. There are at least three who have no higher education at all. There are several who are elementary school teachers. Some finished only “főiskola,” a three-year program, instead of university. I found only one woman in the caucus who has a law degree. Several majored in economics and there are a couple of physicians. I found only two Fidesz female MPs who studied subjects that could be considered to fall under the category of  a classical “liberal arts education.” Keep in mind that all the members of the Fidesz delegation were handpicked by Viktor Orbán.

If an attack is launched against female members of the opposition, the Fidesz-KDNP women are silent. They don’t even show solidarity privately with the victims of Fidesz testosterone. If they are asked about sexist incidents that unfortunately occur quite often, the brave Fidesz-KDNP women keep looking at the floor and remain silent. Not the slightest sign of female solidarity.

But, as I said, Orbán himself picked men and women who would be rubber stamps in parliament. Orbán most likely cannot abide independent and outspoken women because he thinks in terms of traditional gender roles. Just lately, in connection with his daughter’s wedding, he talked about the women who will cook and who will cry at the wedding and made it clear that he wouldn’t be caught dead dropping a tear or two at his daughter’s wedding. I’m also sure that he didn’t want to choose people who were too brainy to be the representatives of the people; the Fidesz delegation has an awful lot of people who, under normal circumstances, would never have found themselves in such a position.  According to Zoltán Ceglédi, a political scientist who wrote about the qualities of the ideal Fidesz MP, most of the current officeholders are incapable of answering the opposition’s questions. They become frustrated and hence behave in an unacceptably aggressive manner. Moreover, as a result of the practically unlimited power of the Fidesz politicians and government officials, they feel omnipotent. The result is boorish behavior. The few women in the opposition are the prime targets, it seems.

On September 9 Bernadette Szél (LMP) rose to inquire from Zoltán Illés, undersecretary in charge of the environment in the Ministry of Agriculture, what the Hungarian government was planning to do about the Romanian gold mines and their possible use of cyanide, pointing out that until now not much has been done about it. This is how the gentleman answered:

Just because you are good looking it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are clever. I have to refute one by one all those stupidities and imbecilities that you talked about here in the last five minutes.

I was there together with others, … when Viktor Orbán took a great number of steps in connection with the cyanide pollution in Nagybánya [Baia Mare, Romania]. I take my hat off to him. This is not brown nosing on my part. I was there, I heard it, my hat off again for all that he did there.

Honorable … ah, dear madame member of parliament.

Madame member of parliament, don’t dare to utter a word about the Prime Minister. And my last comment: it is not the clothes that make a person. Your having a T-shirt on doesn’t make you an environmentalist. Shame.

Zoltán Illés is performing. On his right Undersecretary Zoltán Cséfalvy seems to enjoy the exchange

Zoltán Illés is performing. On his right, Undersecretary Zoltán Cséfalvy

The whole exchange can be heard on the parliamentary radio. Both Szél and András Schiffer wore a T-shirt over their normal clothes to emphasize their interest in the environment. LMP is a left-green party. As for Szél’s qualifications, she has a Ph.D. (2011) from Corvinus University.

Well, that was too much even for some members of the Fidesz delegation. Sándor Lezsák (Fidesz), deputy president of the parliament, instructed Illés to take back the epithet of “imbecilities,” but it seems that the “stupidities” or the reference to physical appearance and brains didn’t bother him. Illés obliged. At the same time Máté Kocsis apologized in the name of the Fidesz delegation right on the spot. Eventually, Illés did apologize to Szél, not in person but via sms, an act greatly criticized in the media.

Perhaps the most politically objectionable part of Illés’s answer was his effort to forbid Szél to utter the name of Viktor Orbán. An article in Magyar Narancs rightly pointed out that it is written in the Old Testament that one cannot mention the name of God. What kind of a political community is it when the leader cannot be criticized? What kind of political culture exists within Fidesz? As for Illés’s reference to the brave steps Viktor Orbán took in connection with the gold mine in Nagybánya, I suspect that he was talking about the 2000 cyanide pollution of the Tisza River and Viktor Orbán’s efforts at that time and not about the current situation.

Illés in his answer accused Szél of ignorance when the LMP MP claimed that the European Union should ban the use of cyanide. Didn’t she know, asked Illés, that the European Parliament already passed such a resolution? Yes, such a resolution was passed by the European Parliament a few months ago, but for such a resolution to become law the European Commission must endorse it, which it failed to do. So, if someone is ignorant it is the undersecretary for the environment.

Of course, members of the opposition were eager to hear from László Kövér, who is such a stickler for manners in parliament. It seems that he is much fussier when he detects irregularities in the ranks of the opposition. Bernadette Szél herself was already fined by Kövér because she held up a poster on which there was a quotation from Viktor Orbán. Kövér didn’t think that Illés’s behavior was unacceptable. He didn’t think that Illés’s answer was “flagrantly offensive” and added that offensive comments more often come from the opposition than from his own side. Even Bernadette Szél said some very offensive things in the past, he claimed.

I should add that this is not the first time female members of parliament have had to endure this kind of talk–and worse. You may recall the story of Ágnes Osztolykán (LMP) when she asked for a lift home. Some MPs suggested that they would take her home, but to their own apartments. And finally György Gyula Zagyva (Jobbik) got involved. Zagyva told her that he wouldn’t mind f…ing her even though she was a Gypsy. At that time I wrote that, although the present parliament is lopsided given Viktor Orbán’s personal preferences, the trouble goes beyond the walls of the Hungarian parliament. The problem is in Hungarian society as a whole.