Tag Archives: Zsófia Mihancsik

Mária Vásárhelyi on the “media octopus” in Hungary

Yesterday I talked about the state of the Hungarian media. In today’s Galamus, Zsófia Mihancsik, who is a very good journalist, suggested to her colleagues that it would be a good idea if they learned to read. But, as some of you suggested, the slanted reporting on certain “sensitive” topics might be the result not so much of careless reading or writing but of a willful distortion of the facts. This is definitely true about media under the direct or indirect control of the governing party.

So, I think it’s time to look around a little in the world of the Hungarian media. Here I’m relying heavily on Mária Vásárhelyi’s essay “The Workings of the Media Octopus–Brain and Money Laundering” that appeared in the Bálint Magyar-edited volume, The Hungarian Octopus.

According to Vásárhelyi, Viktor Orbán’s psyche was crushed in 1994 when he  managed to lead his party with a 40% chance of winning the election into almost total ruin with 7.7% of the votes. Before that fiasco Orbán was the darling of the press, but subsequently he became the pariah of the then still mostly liberal Hungarian media. He decided right then and there that the goal is not to be liked by the existing media; rather, a smart politician should strive for a loyal media he can easily influence. In Vásárhelyi’s estimate Fidesz had the lion’s share of responsibility for the 1996 media law that turned out to be neither liberal nor democratic.

Once Fidesz won the election in 1998 Viktor Orbán made a concerted effort to build a media empire with the use of private and public money. Billions of public money were spent on establishing Heti Válasz and on the “rescue” of the heavily indebted Magyar Nemzet. And right-wing oligarchs like Gábor Széles, Tamás Vitézy (Orbán’s uncle by marriage), Zoltán Spéder, István Töröcskei, and Lajos Simicska put large sums of their own money into media outlets that were anything but profitable. They were hopeful that their investments would serve them well one day when Viktor Orbán again returned to power.

Between 2002 and 2010 the preponderance of media outlets shifted to the right. Moreover, by 2008 the liberal media’s financial situation was dire. Companies strapped for funds cut their advertising budgets, and the liberal media outlets had no rich oligarchs who could ensure their continued existence during the hard times. Since 2010 the lopsidedness between right and left in the field of media has only become worse. According to Mária Vásárhelyi, “only those messages which the government party wants to deliver reach 80% of the country’s population.”

octopus

Studying the changes in the political orientation of radio stations is perhaps the most fruitful and most telling because it is here that the Media Council, made up entirely of Fidesz appointees, can directly influence the media. It is in charge of allocating radio frequencies. As the result, in the last five years the radio market became unrecognizable. Every time existing radio stations had to reapply for frequencies, the frequencies were given to someone else. The new stations were owned by companies or non-profits preferred by the government party, and in consequence government advertisements immediately poured in. Between 2010 and 2012 some 50 local and regional radio frequencies changed hands. Of these Mária Rádió (Catholic Church) got seven frequencies all over the country and Lánchíd Rádió (also close to the Catholic Church) got five. Európa Rádió, which is close to the Calvinist Church, by now can broadcast on three frequencies. Magyar Katolikus Rádió has two local and two regional frequencies. All these stations are considered to be non-profit and therefore they don’t pay for the use of the frequencies.

Zsolt Nyerges has built a veritable media empire: he is behind “the three most valuable radio frequencies in the country.” During the same time the liberal stations have been disappearing one by one. Radio Café, very popular among Budapest liberals, lost its frequency in 2011. So did another popular liberal station called Radio1. Of course, Klubrádió is the best known victim of Viktor Orbán’s ruthless suppression of media freedom. Klubrádió began broadcasting in 2001 and could be heard in a radius of 70-80 km around Budapest. By 2007 the station had acquired eleven frequencies and could be heard in and around 11 cities. Soon enough Klubrádió was the second most popular radio station in Budapest. Today, Klubrádió after years of litigation moved over to a free but weaker frequency that it already had won before the change of government in 2010. Out of its 11 provincial stations there is only one left, in Debrecen, and we can be pretty sure that as soon as its contract expires Klubrádió will no longer be able to broadcast there either.

As for the public radio and television stations, let’s just call them what they are: state radio and television stations as they were during socialist times. But then at least the communist leaders of Hungary didn’t pretend that these media outlets were in any way independent: the institution was called Hungarian State Television and Radio. They were at least honest. The only difference was that in those days state television and radio aired excellent programs, especially high quality theatrical productions and mini-series, all produced in-house. Now I understand the programming is terrible and only about 10% of the population even bothers to watch MTV, and most likely even fewer watch Duna TV. Their news is government propaganda: on MTV more than 70% of the news is about government politicians and the situation is even worse at Magyar Rádió.

These state radios and television stations have a budget of over 70 billion forints, a good portion of which ends up in the hands of Lajos Simicska. How? MTV and Duna TV no longer produce shows in-house but hire outside production companies. Thus, public money is being systematically siphoned through MTV and Duna TV to Fidesz oligarchs. The programs are usually of very low quality and complete flops.

Most Hungarians watch one of the two commercial stations: RTL Klub and TV2. Both are foreign owned but as Orbán said not long ago, “this will not be so for long.” And indeed, a couple of weeks ago TV2 was sold, allegedly to the director of the company. Surely, he is only a front man. An MSZP politician has been trying to find out who the real owner is. Everybody suspects the men behind the deal are Lajos Simicska and Zsolt Nyerges.

And finally, the print media is also dying, which is not surprising given the worldwide trend. But right-wing papers are doing a great deal better than liberal and socialist ones for the simple reason that public money is being funneled into them through advertisements by the government and by state-owned companies. Even free newspapers are being brought into the right-wing fold. There was a very popular free paper called Metro owned by a Swedish company. But Orbán obviously wasn’t satisfied with its content. So, the government severely limited the locations where Metro could be stacked up, free for the taking. Thus squeezed, the Swedish owner decided to sell. And who bought it? A certain Károly Fonyó, who is a business partner of Lajos Simicska. The paper is now called Metropol and, in case you’re wondering, is doing quite well financially.

Napi Gazdaság was sold to Századvég, the think tank that was established by László Kövér and Viktor Orbán when they were still students. As I mentioned earlier, Népszabadság was sold recently to somebody who might be a front man for Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development who had financial interests in the world of the media before he embarked on a political career. The paper was owned by Ringier, a Swiss company that wanted to merge with the German Axel Springer, which owns a large number of provincial papers in Hungary. Although in many European countries the merger was approved with no strings attached, the Hungarian government set up an obstacle to the merger. The merger could be approved only if Ringier first sells its stake in Népszabadság.

Fidesz hasn’t been so active online. Most of the online newspapers are relatively independent. What keeps the party away from the Internet? Vásárhelyi suspects that it is too free a medium and that it doesn’t comport with Fidesz’s ideas of control. Surely, they don’t want to risk being attacked by hundreds and hundreds of commenters. Index, howeveris owned by Zoltán Spéder, a billionaire with Fidesz sympathies. After 2006 it was Index that led the attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány and the government. Vásárhelyi predicts that Index will turn openly right sometime before the election.

The scene is depressing. There is no way to turn things around without the departure of this government. And even then it will require very strong resolve on the part of the new government to stop the flow of public money to Fidesz media oligarchs. The task seems enormous to me.

Some musings on Hungarian politics today

I hope I haven’t bored you to death with my continuing saga of the Hungarian democratic opposition’s struggles, but there are still many aspects of the issue that are worth investigating.

The general consensus is that Gordon Bajnai is the victim of a political game that has been going on for the last year and a half. On October 12, 2012, Gordon Bajnai seemed to be the messiah the anti-Orbán forces were waiting for. He offered himself as the beacon of the opposition; with his name on their banner they could march toward a better future in the name of democracy. He didn’t establish a party at that time but a kind of umbrella organization under which the groupings on the left could gather.

The initial reaction was fantastic. There were at least 50,000 people who cheered him on, and a few weeks later Medián registered a 14% approval rating for his organization. But from there on it was all downhill. Attila Mesterházy seized the initiative and suggested immediate negotiations with all the parties and former eminent politicians on the left. It was at this point that Gordon Bajnai, most likely on the advice of his former chief-of-staff, Viktor Szigetvári, decided to postpone negotiations. The rest of the story is only too well known, and there is no need to repeat it here.

Most commentators are burying Gordon Bajnai as a politician. In fact, many of them suggest that his failure is largely due to the fact that he is not a politician but a technocrat. They talk about his inept moves. Zsófia Mihancsik, editor-in-chief of Galamus who rarely minces words, blames Bajnai for “ending up exactly where we were in 2010.” According to her, he “stepped back into the nothingness, he ceased to be a counterweight, even if a minimal one, and handed full powers to Mesterházy.” The title of her short piece is “Congratulations to Gordon Bajnai.”

In this game most people see Attila Mesterházy as the ultimate winner. Someone who first managed to get rid of Ferenc Gyurcsány and hence remained his party’s only authoritative voice. And then came his next victim, Gordon Bajnai. However, according to one analyst, there is still one more possible victim–Ferenc Gyurcsány, who by joining the Mesterházy-led formation will find himself in the same corrupt socialist party that he left two years ago. Surely, the commentator, Zsolt Zsebesi of gepnarancs.hu, is no friend of the socialists and its chairman. His Mesterházy is a schemer and a power-hungry man who has been wanting to be prime minister ever since childhood. According to him, Mesterházy loves power as much as Viktor Orbán does. But what is worse, he writes, is that Mesterházy, other than being good at jostling in the intra-party power games, has no other redeeming qualities. He has no vision and no competence when it comes to becoming the next prime minister of Hungary.

Árpád W. Tóta, a witty commentator and sharp observer, goes even further. He recalls in his opinion piece that an economist complained just the other day that the democratic opposition cannot offer anything more than a return to the pre-2010 world. But, Tóta continues, such a program would actually not be bad at all. The problem is that this crew within the socialist party is a great deal less talented than their predecessors. Gyula Horn, László Kovács, Ferenc Gyurcsány were ready for victory. Mesterházy is the only one who seems to be at a loss. (Actually Tóta, who sprinkles his writing with four-letter words, said something stronger than that.) His final conclusion is that the socialists, by trying to distance themselves from the infamous “last eight years” (2002-2010), are committing a folly. They can win only by identifying themselves with those years and should be glad  if they are not judged by the last three and a half years.

I must say that I have a better opinion of Mesterházy than those from whose writings I just quoted. Mesterházy seems to have managed to keep the party together which, considering the devastating defeat they suffered, was quite an achievement. Any comparison with Viktor Orbán, of course, is ridiculous, but having Mesterházy at the top of the ticket is certainly not a calamity. The only question is whether he can run a successful campaign that results in a change of government. And no one knows that yet.

Perhaps the most interesting comment came from Gábor Török, a political scientist whose comments usually annoy me because they are insipid and wishy-washy. One cannot pin him down on anything. But last night he made a good point on his blog. His argument goes something like this. For the time being Mesterházy seems to have won, but it will be some time before we know what his fate will be in the long run because, if the joint opposition forces lose the election, it can easily happen that he will be blamed for the failure. That his personal ambition was too high a price to pay for another four years of Viktor Orbán. On the other hand, for Ferenc Gyurcsány it is a win-win situation. He won this round and, if the new formation headed by Mesterházy loses the election, he will be declared a prophet, an excellent politician whose advice should have been heeded.

I should also say a few words about the PM contingent within the Együtt-2014-PM alliance. PM stands for Párbeszéd Magyarországért (Dialogue for Hungary). The politicians of PM are the ones who broke away from LMP due to András Schiffer’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with other democratic parties. Some of these people swore that they would never cooperate with Ferenc Gyurcsány. And now, here they are. Katalin Ertsey, a member of LMP’s caucus, even today can repeat with disgust that her former colleagues in the party “lie in the same bed with Gyurcsány.” Yet the PM members are ready to cooperate because they rightly point out that times have changed and it would be most irresponsible not to do so.

However, Péter Juhász, a civic leader who organized large anti-government demonstrations on the Internet, refuses to be on the same ticket with Gyurcsány. But that is not his only problem. He also rejects joining a ticket that is headed by Attila Mesterházy.

I always considered Juhász muddle-minded. I can’t understand how it was possible that Juhász didn’t notice until now that there was a very good chance of Mesterházy’s becoming prime minister if the Együtt-2014-PM-MSZP coalition happens to win the election. Because according to the original agreement the head of the list that receives the most votes will become prime minister. And there was never any point in time when Együtt-2014-PM was anywhere near MSZP’s popularity. Then what are we talking about? In any case, my reaction is: good riddance. I found Juhász a detriment to the cause.

And finally, Mandiner, the conservative site run by mostly young journalists, decided to devote a whole article with lots of pictures to Gyurcsány. It was supposed to be funny and whole thing was written in an ironic style. They included a video from the great MSZP campaign demonstration on Heroes’ Square and Andrássy út in 2006.

Of course, I saw this video earlier. In fact, I think I watched the whole fanfare. But it is an entirely different experience to watch it today, eight years later. The comparison between the self-confident MSZP in 2006 in the middle of the campaign and now is really staggering. I thought I would share this video with you to see the contrast and the sad state of the party today. Can it be revived? And if yes, how? And by whom? Or will it die and will something else come in its place?

Two polls, two different results, and disappointing opposition politicians

In the last couple of days the results of two new public opinion polls on party preferences appeared: Ipsos on November 18 and Medián today. According to Ipsos, Fidesz-KDNP and LMP gained and the left lost, both by an inconsequential 1%. Medián’s survey, by contrast, found more substantial shifts, and in the opposite direction. Fidesz-KDNP lost 4% of its support in one month and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, DK, became as strong as E14-PM.

Let us examine these results a little more closely. According to Ipsos, Fidesz-KDNP’s support among the electorate as a whole is 27% while MSZP’s is 15%. As for the other parties, 7% of the eligible voters support Jobbik, 3% Együtt-PM, and only 2% LMP and DK.

As for voter commitment, according to Ipsos only 36% of the electorate is certain that they would cast a vote rain or shine. And that is very low. In this group Fidesz-KDNP leads by a mile: they would receive 51% percent of the votes against MSZP’s 26%. Jobbik voters are also deeply committed to their cause and therefore show good results in this category.

Somewhat larger changes occurred in the last month or so among the 42% of the voters who call themselves undecided. Within that group the size of “the completely passive voters” decreased by 3% while the number of those who have a preference but refuse to divulge what it is grew from 8% to 11%.

And let’s pause a bit to expand on these last figures. According to Tibor Závecz, the man in charge of the monthly Ipsos polls, the pool of “secretive voters” is large, about 900,000. Although these people might not want the pollsters to know their political views, the poll takers ask indirect questions that can be quite revealing. Based on answers to these indirect questions, Závecz claims that at  least two-thirds or even three-quarters of the secretive voters actually sympathize with the left.

Moving on to Medián, I’ll compare the still very sketchy outlines of this month’s results to Medián’s October figures. What we must keep in mind is that the October results reflect the situation before the October 23 mass meeting and the public demand there for unity among the forces on the left. The attendees wanted to broaden the arrangement Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy worked out to the exclusion of other parties and groupings. At that time Fidesz had a 36% share in the electorate as a whole and 52% among those who would definitely vote at the next elections as opposed to MSZP’s 14% and 21%. Együtt2014-PM still polled relatively well: 5% in the electorate as a whole and 7% among committed voters. DK at this point was weaker than E14-PM: 3% among all voters and 4% among committed voters.

red = the whole electorate;
black = those with a party preference;
orange = will definitely vote

And what is the situation today, after the mass demonstration?  Fidesz has a 34% share among all eligible voters and among the sure voters only 48%. That is a 2%/4% loss in one month. MSZP ticked up 2% in the electorate at large and remained unchanged among committed voters. E14-PM’s support eroded by 1%: last month’s 5% and 7% are 4% and 6% today. DK, on the other hand, as many people predicted, inched up and now matches Együtt2014-PM’s levels of support: 4% and 6%. If these numbers are more than a one-off, Gordon Bajnai who just the other day referred to those who were left out of the election agreement as small parties as opposed to his own might have to revise his estimate of the situation.

And this brings me to a couple of interviews György Bolgár conducted yesterday and today. Bolgár’s program lasts two hours and consists of a mixture of interviews and listener comments. Yesterday the whole first hour was devoted to a interview with Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy. Their performances were disappointing. My own feelings were exactly the same as those of Zsófia Mihancsik and Ferenc Krémer in today’s Galamus. Mihancsik’s article was entitled “This way there is no hope,” and Krémer called his “Sadness.” Shall I say more?

Attila Mesterházy took an unyielding position, standing by the arrangement that E14-PM and MSZP worked out. All other parties, including DK that is by now as strong as E14, should be satisfied with their sorry lot and support the two of them. I wonder what Mesterházy will do if in a couple of months it turns out that E14’s support has eroded further while DK has again gained.

I strongly suggest that those who can handle Hungarian listen not only to the interviews but also to the comments that followed. It is strange that these opposition politicians refuse to heed the voice of the electorate. They didn’t believe that the demonstration for unity was genuine and now surely they will say that all listeners of Klubrádió are DK supporters. How long can that fiction be maintained?

The MSZP argument for excluding DK is their conviction that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s presence on the ticket would take away more votes than it would bring in. However, a September survey, also by Medián, indicates that this is not the case. I wrote about this poll at length back in September. It is hard to figure out why Mesterházy clings to that, in my opinion, mistaken notion.

Today György Bolgár had a shorter interview with Klára Ungár, chairman of Szabad Emberek Magyarországért Liberális Párt or SZEMA, one of the three liberal groups. SZEMA’s support is immeasurably small.

I personally like Klára Ungár, but this interview highlighted the dysfunctions that pervaded SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége). The party fell apart because of internal squabbling, political differences, and personal animosities. Things haven’t changed since. It was clear from Ungár’s interview that she would refuse any cooperation with the other liberals, that is with Gábor Kuncze’s group and Gábor Fodor’s new liberal party. Ungár, who hasn’t been active in politics since 1998, feels very virtuous and insists that other SZDSZ politicians should not only admit responsibility for Viktor Orbán’s rise to power but should simply disappear from political life.

So, this is the situation at the moment. A change of strategy is desperately needed as soon as possible. But after listening to Bajnai and Mesterházy I see no possibility of such a change in the near future. Meanwhile time is running out.

Young Hungarians are disillusioned and feel helpless

A new study appeared a couple of days ago about the attitude of Hungarian youth between the ages of 15 and 29. Keep in mind that the people who filled out these questionnaires prepared by Kutatópont (Research Point) were born after 1984; that is, even the oldest ones were only six years old at the time of the regime change. The study is available free on the Internet. Naturally, it is impossible to cover every aspect of an in-depth study that is 350 pages long. (And, by way of confession, there was no way I could I read the whole thing in a couple of hours.) But here are its conclusions as summarized by MTI and Origo.

These young people are described as members of “the quiet generation” who don’t rebel against the value systems of their parents. They are inward looking and passive, in addition to being disillusioned. By and large they are at a loss as far as their goals in life are concerned. According to the authors, this generation most resembles the young people of the 1920s and 1930s who accepted the world as is and who believed in traditional values. If the authors are correct in their assessment, these people will soon feel very much at home thanks to Viktor Orbán’s efforts to turn the clock back and rehabilitate the Horthy regime.

Not surprisingly the least rebellious types live in villages where 52% of them agree with the worldview of their parents. In Budapest only 29% are so quiescent. Across the board when it comes to politics, they are simply not interested. Very few people even bothered to answer questions about their political opinions, most likely because they know next to nothing about the issues at hand. Two-thirds of them did not reveal their intentions about which parties they prefer and only 19% of them will most likely vote at the next elections. Naturally, they have a very low opinion of politicians in general, but I’m sure that in this respect this is not a unique group. When I once mentioned that if the change of regime had come a few decades earlier I wouldn’t have minded entering politics, my relatives were horrified at the very thought.

Apparently the quiet generation of the 1920s-1930s had great trust in the government and public institutions. In this respect this group is different. They don’t believe in anything: government, parliament, banks, the president, or the constitutional court. One ought to mention that not trusting the president and the court is a new phenomenon because in the last twenty years these two institutions received high grades from the population. So perhaps this generation is not as ignorant as we assume; perhaps it became evident to them that both the presidency and the constitutional court lost their independence. Or perhaps they just tar everybody with the same brush.

They have so little trust in the system that only 40% of them consider democracy the best possible political system and, although they never experienced it, most of them think of the Kádár regime with nostalgia. Naturally, this is what they hear at home, especially since 71% of them still live with their parents. Only 10% of them are married and only 15% of them have children.  In this age group the unemployment rate is high, 25%. All in all, young Hungarians don’t see any hope and that’s one reason that so many young people have already left the country or plan to do so. But some of them are trapped; they can’t even leave to try their luck abroad because they don’t have enough money to survive the few months while they look for a job.

ApathyOrigo‘s article inspired almost 300 comments and most of them are educational. One can read such sentences as: “In Hungary there are free elections but there is no alternative. I can’t even travel abroad because I don’t make enough money to save. They even took the money I put away in my pension plan.” Or here is another one commenting on this generation’s passivity and their lack of rebelliousness:  “But didn’t they actually want us to be like that? They wanted us to be zombies so the powers that be can lead us in the direction they want.” Or, “in my opinion all generations are responsible for the present one.” Or, “I could have written that study sitting at home…. There are no jobs, there is no social net. This government and to be honest all politicians just create one stupid law after the other. … For example, here is this national tobacco shop affair. Black market, smuggling. I am serious, idiots are sitting up there.”

The accusing fingers point overwhelmingly to the present government. For example, “not everybody can have a job with Közgép, not everybody can have a government subsidy for a horse farm. The great majority of my generation washes dishes in England and elsewhere. This is the situation.” The sentence about the horse farm is a reference to the family of Ráhel Orbán’s husband. Another loudly complains that in Orbán’s NER (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere) decisions are made from above and the people have no input. “If you don’t like it you can engage in an endless fight that you will lose, will drive you crazy, or they will do you in.” These comments support the conclusions of the study.

Zsófia Mihancsik of Galamus also wrote about the study, and she began her article with a number of pictures of crowds who gather at political demonstrations. The one taken at the Demokratikus Koalíció’s latest demonstration was ridiculed in the German-language blog, Hungarian Voice. The demonstrators’ average age seems like 65. The title: “Foto des Tages: Gyurcsány verammelt die DK-Parteijugend” followed by a one-liner: “No further comment…”  But, says Mihancsik, all political meetings are attended mostly by older people, including the pro-government demonstrators. The simple reason for that phenomenon is that younger people are not interested in politics.

I’m not even sure whether this particular generation is less interested in politics than any other of the same age bracket. Yes, there are some who plan a career in politics very early in life. For example, Bill Clinton. Or I had a student who as a junior (age 19-20) told me that after graduation he will enter local politics. He will try to become the mayor of his hometown. And you know what, he became mayor shortly after he left Yale and today he is an important member of the U.S. Senate. There are people like that but not too many. Most of them care not a whit about politics. What is different about this group becomes clear from the comments. As a result of the last five years or so, these people have lost all hope and are disgusted with the country Viktor Orbán created.

Attila Mesterházy and Ferenc Gyurcsány outline their plans for the restoration of Hungarian democracy

It’s time to get back to the present, which is a great deal  less upbeat than the days just before the Hungarian government allowed the East Germans to cross into Austria. Those days were full of hope. The Round Table Negotiations were winding up and within a few days the establishment of the Fourth Republic was declared.

Today the mood of the country is outright gloomy. The economy is languishing and the opposition is in disarray. And yet one must move ahead. One helpful sign: a discussion about how the wounds the Orbán government inflicted upon the democratic institutions of the country can be healed is going on in earnest on the Internet. Zsófia Mihancsik, editor-in-chief of Galamus, was the one who initiated a series of articles on the topic. Up to date eleven pieces have appeared; I will compare the last two. Yesterday Ferenc Gyurcsány wrote and today Attila Mesterházy.

Attila Mesterházy

Attila Mesterházy

My first impression was that their ideas on the restoration of democracy in Hungary run along very similar lines. In my opinion, if it depended only on these two men, MSZP and DK could come to an understanding on practically all the important issues in no time. I don’t know whether Gordon Bajnai will join these two politicians and outline his own ideas on Galamus, but from what I know about E14-PM ‘s view of the future without Viktor Orbán it is quite different from those of Gyurcsány and Mesterházy.

Gyurcsany Ferenc

Ferenc Gyurcsány

So, let’s see what they agree on. Practically everything. Neither of them believes in any kind of compromise with Viktor Orbán’s party. Gyurcsány, as is his wont, puts it in stark terms. He considers the Orbán government illegitimate and illegal. Illegitimate because it didn’t receive a mandate to change the basic democratic structure of the country and lead it toward autocracy. It is illegal because it strives toward the acquisition of exclusive power. He also finds the 2012 Constitution illegal and illegitimate.

Neither Gyurcsány nor Mesterházy thinks that the 2012 Constitution can be left in place, but while Gyurcsány considers a two-thirds majority necessary to write a new constitution, Mesterházy perhaps  a little bit more realistically thinks that some kind of legal possibility exists that might solve the problem. For example, wide societal support for a new constitution that could force a referendum on the issue. That would require some very clever legal finagling given the current restrictive provisions of the Hungarian constitution.

Mesterházy spends some time distinguishing between Fidesz as a party and the Fidesz voters. He is convinced that the majority of those who voted for Fidesz in 2010 did so in the hope that Viktor Orbán would ensure them a better future but that by now they are disappointed in their man and his government. I disagree with his assessment of the current state of affairs. I don’t think that most Fidesz voters are disappointed. Yes, a lot are, but the so-called hard core is unshakable. In my opinion Mesterházy is far too optimistic when he writes about the eventual attrition of Orbán’s followers. Past experience tells us that 1.5 million people will always vote for Fidesz no matter what. Gyurcsány doesn’t address this problem.

Both think that political appointees must be relieved of their jobs because otherwise the new government would be totally powerless to make the changes necessary for the restoration of democracy. Gyurcsány specifically mentions a few crucial appointments in the judicial system such as Fidesz nominated judges to the Constitutional Court, new high-level judges, and the supreme prosecutor. He also thinks that many of the newly appointed civil servants most likely will have to be let go because by now the whole civil service is completely politicized. Unfortunately neither of them tells us how he would be able to accomplish this legally.

Both agree that the illegal concessions, be they land leases or tobacconist shops, must be reevaluated and if necessary revoked. As for the tobacco state monopoly Gyurcsány specifically calls for an immediate abrogation of the law. Let’s open the tobacco market, he says, and let the new Fidesz owners compete on a level playing field.

Gyurcsány is quite specific about which Fidesz changes he would leave alone. He would allow municipalities to choose whether they want to have their schools back or whether they are satisfied with having local schools under centralized state administration. One could even make an argument to leave hospitals in the hands of the state. He would not abolish the new administrative unit, the járás, although one most likely would give them autonomy instead of centralized state oversight.

These two men could easily see eye to eye. EP14-PM is a different matter. Bajnai’s team are ready for a compromise with Fidesz, and they think they could live with the current constitution after a little fiddling with it. On this point both Mesterházy and Gyurcsány are clear: there can be no compromise with Fidesz. This is such a basic disagreement of principle that it will be difficult to resolve. And, by the way, E14-PM again lost a couple of percentage points according to the latest Tárki poll that was released only today. The postponement of the negotiations in the hope of gaining strength didn’t bring the expected results. On the other hand, MSZP gained a couple of percentage points.

How to rebuild democracy in Hungary? According to some, not by compromise with Fidesz

As I mentioned yesterday, there were two topics suggested by readers and I agreed that they were interesting and definitely worth spending time on. After tackling two surveys on Hungarian societal attitudes we can now turn to the question of “What will happen, what should happen after Orbán?” posed by Zsófia Mihancsik, whose writings have appeared more than once on this blogHer latest contribution is  a series of questions she thinks the democratic opposition should discuss even before the election campaign. At the moment the various opposition parties and groupings agree on one thing:  Orbán’s regime must be removed. However, some very important decisions must be made and agreed upon. It is for this reason that she as editor-in-chief of Galamus initiated a series of articles that might assist those whose job it will be to work out a common platform necessary for setting up a successful and lasting coalition.

The first question is: “Do we have to reach a compromise with Fidesz after the party’s loss of the 2014 elections?” In practical terms that means that the democrats must forget about all “the political and moral crimes that had been committed by Fidesz  in opposition and in power.” One can make a case for such compromise by pointing out that, after all, the voters of Fidesz represent a certain portion of the electorate.

If the decision is to seek a compromise, one must determine whether this compromise should be with the party itself, with its voters, or both. Moreover, how much should the democratic forces be willing to pay for such a compromise? And one ought to ponder whether such a compromise would actually achieve the desired result of political and social tranquility.

But if it becomes obvious that no compromise is possible either with Fidesz or its voters, then how should the new political leadership handle the coming conflicts? Can they in a democratic regime ignore a party that received the votes of many and is represented in parliament?

What should they do with “the products of Fidesz’s rule–the new constitution and all those new laws?”  These laws were enacted in order to build a centralized, state-dominated regime serving only the needs of an autocracy. Would it be enough to whittle away at them or, like Orbán, should they start everything anew and develop an entirely new regime? “In other words, can one build democracy on a set of laws that were designed to build autocracy?”

What should be done with party cadres who masquerade as experts? Should they be replaced? And there is the question of those who were appointed for nine or eleven years. What should be done with those people who, thanks to Fidesz, received land or tobacconist shops? What about the nationalized schools? Does one have to face the fact that these mostly illegal changes cannot be undone and that one must live with them? And if yes, what are the consequences?

More or less these were the questions that Mihancsik posed in her article.

The first answer to some of these questions came from Ferenc Krémer. You may recall that he was one of the early victims of the Orbán regime when he lost his job as professor of sociology at the Police Academy. He was far too liberal for that place. I will summarize the article in greater detail, but his message is crystal clear: there is no way of making a compromise on any level because one cannot build  democracy on undemocratic foundations.

Building blocks - flickr

Building blocks – flickr

Can one build democracy by undemocratic means or does one need consensus? Krémer’s answer is that neither road will necessarily achieve the desired end. After all, the 1989-90 regime change was based on consensus and yet it didn’t produce a lasting democratic regime. At that time consensus was easier to reach because all segments of Hungarian society desired the the same thing, the establishment of a democratic regime. But today the situation is different because, although “all democratic opposition forces assume that there is need in this country for democracy, the fact is that almost as large a segment of society gladly settle for a dictatorship.” Thus the reintroduction of democracy in Hungary at the moment, unlike almost fifteen years ago, does not have a solid societal foundation.

If the preconditions of a general desire for democratic change are missing, can one substitute for them concessions to those whose ideal is not exactly democracy? In Krémer’s opinion one can’t. In the past, no concessions to a Viktor Orbán-led Fidesz ever followed by any tangible result of cooperation. Moreover, the election will be decided by the now still undecided voters. In Krémer’s opinion “it is a grave political mistake to consider the undecided voters as disillusioned Fidesz followers and to talk to them as if they had anything to do with what happened in the Fidesz era. … It is very probable that one cannot offer anything to the Orbán voters that would change their minds and therefore one shouldn’t even experiment with such an approach because it only confuses the anti-Orbán voters.”

The democratic opposition first and foremost must decide whether Orbán’s regime is a democracy or not because “autocracy will remain with us as long as its institutions and its culture exist and function.” If the answer is that, yes, it is a democracy, then both the institutions and the people populating them can remain in place. In this case, in Krémer’s opinion, there will not be democracy in Hungary even after the fall of the Orbán regime.

Krémer then outlines a series of possible compromises that could be offered to Fidesz. What Fidesz institutions should be left intact? The Media Council?  The current system of public works? The “orbanization” of state lands? The national tobacconist shops? The nationalized and centralized school system? The militarized police? The Anti-Terrorist Center (TEK)? Forcing experts into retirement? Which ones?

What about some of the newly enacted laws? “Vote for which one you would like.”  The new labor law? The Basic Law, especially with its fourth amendment? The law dealing with the police? The law that dispensed with local autonomy? The law on churches that discriminates against some religious communities? Or what about the law in the making that would sanction school segregation?

What can they offer to the “servants of dictators”? Should they follow the policy of Imre Kerényi and György Fekete, commissars of national culture, or the views of the historians of MTA who decided that no György Lukács or Vladimir Mayakovsky can have streets named after them? Should one say that there is agreement regarding Fidesz’s concept of family or that one can believe in God in only three ways? “Yes, we could say it but then we wouldn’t be who we are.”

In brief, Krémer is unequivocably against any compromise. Naturally one could argue with his views, but his reasoning, in my opinion, is sound.

Zsófia Mihancsik: “Zero tolerance”–then let’s begin!

This is not the first time that I’ve provided a loose translation of Zsófia Mihancsik’s writing for English-speaking readers because I consider her to be one of the top analysts of Hungarian politics today. She is the editor-in-chief of Galamus, an excellent Internet forum. Galamus, besides offering outstanding op/ed pieces, also publishes Júlia Horváth’s translations of foreign articles in German, English and Russian while Mihancsik does the translations from French about the political situation in Hungary. For example, Professor Kim Scheppele’s articles on the constitution appeared in Hungarian on Galamus immediately after their publications. These translations fill the gap left wide open by MTI, the Hungarian press agency. Galamus also has volunteers from Sweden and Spain who offer their services to the “translation department.”

Mihancsik, in addition to the arduous task of running pretty much a one-woman show, often finds time to contribute articles of her own. The one that appeared today examines the Orbán government’s duplicity on the issue of anti-Semitism. It reveals to the foreign reader the kind of Hungarian reality that is normally closed to outsiders. Even those Hungarian speakers who pay attention to politics and the media may miss a sentence here and a sentence there that speak volumes about the real nature of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

* * *

On May 5 Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivered his opening speech in front of the 14th General Assembly of the World Jewish Congress and stated that “today’s Hungarian Christian Democrat government felt that it was its moral duty … to declare a policy of zero tolerance against anti-Semitism.” On May 9 Péter Feldmájer, the president of MAZSIHISZ, said in an interview that Viktor Orbán’s “speech is satisfactory as a reference point but only time will tell what kinds of decisions will be made as a result.”

Between these two dates, on May 8, the new issue of the Demokrata, a weekly magazine, appeared and in it, on page 42, an op/ed piece by Ádám Pozsonyi entitled “Bacon” that included the following sentences:

I read in Magyar Hírlap that  a miserable fellow called András Gerő–I don’t know his original name–reviled the House of Árpád in some kind of libsi gutter-paper…. Should I get myself wound up about this miserable man who couldn’t adapt and wipes his shoes on the past of the people who gave him shelter? … It just occurred to me, breakfast, Mr. Gerő, don’t you want a little bacon? Please have some. I’ll give you some gladly. [Italics by Zs.M.]

This is what is called anti-Semitic talk. Even if the word “Jewish” is not used. After all, the Hungarian right and far right has a lot of practice in the genre. If Viktor Orbán has no ear for the coded anti-Semitic speech I will translate this passage for him. I don’t know his original name means that we know that this Jew had the temerity to Hungarianize his name. So, Pozsonyi makes sure that everybody understands that Béla Kun’s original name was Kohn, and Mátyás Rákosi’s Rosenfeld. So, they were Jewish.

The word libsi rhymes with bipsi, which means Jewish among the racists. It is the nickname for liberals, primarily used by those who consider everything that is not national and Christian–everything that is liberal/libsi, cosmopolitan, European, etc.–Jewish pollution. (The “libsi” gutter paper, by the way, is the prestigious weekly, Élet és Irodalom.)

This miserable man who couldn’t adapt and wipes his shoes on the past of the people who gave him shelter is a Nazi idea expressed by many. It is a variation of the “Galician vagrants” (galiciai jöttmentek) that was often heard in the last ten years. So, the Jews immigrate from God knows where while the Hungarians give them shelter but the the Jews, because of their character, turn against the accepting Hungarians. (Exactly the same way the left turns against the nation, which is another favorite Orbánite turn of phrase.) The Jews desecrate everything that is holy for the nation, mostly because of their always doubting minds.

Bacon naturally means pork, which an observant Jew cannot have. For the author of Demokrata it is totally irrelevant whether the person in question is Jewish or not, or if he is religious or not. The mention of bacon here is about the humiliation of someone outside of the nation who cannot eat the national food of Hungarians. He was an outsider and he remains an outsider.

So, I think that in the name of “zero tolerance” Orbán must have a little chit-chat with Demokrata‘s author.

Before anyone tells me that it is unfair to expect a reprimand of an anti-Semitic author by the prime minister, let me explain why I think that Viktor Orbán should rise to the occasion and do something. Why? Because we are not talking about an independent publication but a branch publication,  a party paper, a mouth-piece, a hired organ. We are talking about a paper that has a political boss in whose interest it functions and on whom it depends.

Here are three reasons that I believe Viktor Orbán is responsible for what appears in Demokrata. After the lost election in 2002 he did two things. He organized the civil cells and he urged his followers to support media close to Fidesz. He said at the time: “I ask every member [of these cells] to subscribe to Magyar Nemzet, Demokrata, and Heti Válasz. Those of you who are better off should subscribe in the name of a less wealthy friend or acquaintance.” And he gave a website where the supporters could fill out the order forms for the above publications.

From left to right: Gábor Széles, András Bencsik, and Zsolt Bayer / fnhir24.hu

From left to right: Gábor Széles, András Bencsik, and Zsolt Bayer / fnhir24.hu

In an article that appeared in Magyar Narancs (April 20, 2012) we could read that Fidesz-led municipalities gave 26 million forints in the previous five years to Demokrata.  Another article that also appeared in Magyar Narancs (April 23, 2012) concentrated on the incredible amount of state-ordered advertisements these right-wing papers receive. Given the centralized nature of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s individual leadership style, one can assume that the largess these papers receive depends on “performance.” If they “behave” the money comes; if not, the money supply dries up.

Another reason to assume that the relationship between Demokrata and Fidesz is close is the fact that the paper’s editor-in-chief, András Bencsik, is one of the chief organizers of the “Peace Marches” that were supposed to show the world the incredible support Viktor Orbán has. But in addition to Bencsik, one could find among the organizers Ádám Pozsonyi, the author of the article on “Bacon”; István Stefka, editor-in-chief of Magyar Hírlap; Zsolt Bayer, senior editor of Magyar Hírlap; and Gábor Széles, Magyar Hírlap‘s owner

So, given the cozy relationship between Viktor Orbán and the extremist journalists serving him, it would be the easiest thing for Orbán if he were really serious about this new-fangled “zero tolerance” to say: “Boys, if once more you make anti-Semitic propaganda in your paper or on your television station there will be no more financial assistance. Moreover, you will not receive 3.2 billion forints for organizing peace marches. You will not receive any ads from state companies, and the municipalities will be told to stop payment. In a word, you will starve to death.”*

Moreover, I go further. That message shouldn’t just be whispered into the ears of the journalists at these newspapers but should be announced loud and clear to the Hungarian public.Everybody should understand what will happen to him if  he goes against “our Hungarian Christian Democratic politics.”

When that actually happens Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, can make an apology with good reason. If not, then only the shame remains–for us.

*Demokrata sold only 12,000 copies in November 2011.