Month: March 2010

An attempt at fact checking in Hungary

It is perhaps not surprising that it was György Bolgár who introduced the call-in-show to Hungary in 1992 and recently began a series in 168 Óra entitled "Things that can happen!" which concentrates on the not quite truthful statements of politicians. Bolgár spent five years in the United States as the foreign correspondent of Magyar Rádió. At the time call-in-shows were unknown in Hungary, and Bolgár's superiors were at first not too enthusiastic about the idea. What would happen if somebody says something on air that is not quite appropriate? However, he persevered and his show became a favorite with the listeners. Subsequently he left Magyar Rádió and moved over to Klub Rádió. The program is still a favorite, mostly with liberals, although it is quite obvious that right-wingers also frequent his program if for nothing else but to phone in and argue with him.

As far as fact-checking is concerned it is not exactly a strong suit of Hungarian journalism. Sometimes well known journalists are unfamiliar even with recent events that have been all over the media. Maybe they only write and never read! György Bolgár's knowledge of Hungarian and foreign affairs, by contrast, is really remarkable. Occasionally he jokingly says that he is not a walking encyclopedia, but he is close to it. Moreover, he is a diligent man. If he is not sure of something he looks it up. Something a lot of people don't bother to do.

I would like to sample some of these fact-checking shorts of the last week or so. On March 22, Bolgár starts with Viktor Orbán who, by the way, refuses to give him an interview and with good reason. Bolgár concentrates on a recent speech of Orbán in front of Hungarian businessmen. According to Orbán for some years now it has been the practice of the Hungarian government to hide the true economic situation of the country and "falsify the budget's numbers." As a result the country lost its credibility and its creditworthiness in international financial circles.

After quoting a statement Bolgár considers to be untrue he always leads off with the same sentence:  "However, the fact is…." This time he continues that the Hungarian government didn't falsify any data. Instead it predicted more favorable results than eventually materialized. But that is not the same thing as actually falsifying numbers. Hungary's creditworthiness wasn't lost because the government falsified figures but because banks were unwilling to lend money in general and especially to a country as indebted as Hungary. However, adds Bolgár, in the last half a year Hungary's creditworthiness has been restored somewhat and by now the Hungarian government is able to borrow from international financial institutions. Something Orbán will also be able to do if he becomes the prime minister of the country.

A day later, on March 23, Bolgár's next victim was Gábor Kubatov, Fidesz's "party director." Kubatov is a simple auto mechanic who was discovered by Viktor Orbán to be a political wizard. Kubatov on HírTV claimed that the socialists ever since 1947 have been doing nothing else but slicing away at their opponents from the inside. (Actually he used the verb "leszalámizni" which is a reference to an alleged saying of Mátyás Rákosi, the Hungarian Stalin. It means that by cutting off slices from a stick of salami it becomes smaller and smaller and eventually it disappears.) The socialists, continued Kubatov, in this way managed to get rid of the Christian Democratic People's Party, the Smallholders, and MIÉP. Inside elements secretly working for the socialists ruined them.

Bolgár rightly points that "the fact is" that Rákosi with these tactics managed to achieve a one-party system while the socialists today couldn't accomplish this even if they wanted to. It is true that the Christian Democratic Party fell apart, but their members didn't end up in MSZP but in Fidesz. As for the Smallholders' Party it was in coalition with Fidesz, and perhaps József Torgyán could tell Kubatov "whether Fidesz or socialist politicians stood behind the counter in the butcher shop."

Zsolt Bayer, the notorious anti-semite and political hack, on Echo TV, perhaps the most "radical" television station in Hungary, said that in the 1970s the Israeli air force shot down a Hungarian commercial plane with 270 Hungarians aboard. He added that the Israelis decided to shoot the plane down because they suspected there was an Arab terrorist on the plane.

"However, the fact is" that an investigation into the incident failed to discover who shot down the MALÉV plane. At the time because of the civil war in Lebanon most airlines stop flying to Beirut. MALÉV didn't. It is true that the day before the incident the Palestine Liberation Organization opened an office in Budapest, but the PLO delegation left a day later on another plane. We also know that on the plane there were only 60 passengers and not 270. In those days MALÉV didn't have such large planes. Moreover, out of the 60 passengers there was only one Hungarian national and of course the 10-member crew. All others were foreigners. As for the perpetrator we simply don't know.

And let's finish up our survey with Viktor Orbán again. This time in connection with the affair of the two Israeli spy planes. Pilots from small countries, including those of Hungary, don't have enough space at home to practice the art of flying. Countries belonging to NATO can fly over each other's territory easily. They simply have to announce that a plane from such and such a country will fly over another country's airspace at such and such a time. Friendly nations that don't belong to NATO, like Israel, must ask for permission. This time Israel asked permission from Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to have two of their planes fly over; at Ferihegy, the Hungarian national airport, they were supposed to almost land but in the last second return to higher altitudes. Every country granted the appropriate permissions, though Turkey insisted that the Israeli planes carry no spy equipment.

Someone familiar with the details of the flight plan of two Israeli planes leaked the information about their arrival at Ferihegy. So there was a reporter on hand with a video camera. What followed was the typical Hungarian operetta. Neither the Ministry of Defense nor the National Security Office knew anything about the Israeli planes so the Hungarian government didn't look too good. Eventually everything was sorted out. It is the job of the Chief of Staff of the Army to grant these permissions. On paper he is supposed to inform the National Security Office, but there are so many of these flights that the two offices tacitly agreed not to bother to inform each other. The Ministry of Defense, according to the current rules and regulations, doesn't have to be informed.

Now we can return to Viktor Orbán's reaction to the Israeli planes. He said that it was amusing, or rather incredible, that the Ministry of Defense claims that it didn't get any information about the flight of Israeli spy planes in Hungarian airspace. And he continued: "I thought until now that they are the first ones who know about such things and immediately react. Either they force them down or oust them, or whatever. There are ways to handle such a thing."

Indeed there are ways to handle such a thing and perhaps the current practice is not the best, but can you imagine what would have happened if the Israeli planes that had permission to fly over Hungary would have been forced to land or chased away by Gripen fighters or even worse shot down? At the end Bolgár adds: "I am really curious what will happen to such planes after Viktor Orbán is the prime minister of the country. And what can that 'whatever' be? Will they go out to the airport to wave at them?"

I always enjoy reading György Bolgár's short pieces in the series "Things that can happen!" I learn a lot. For example, I knew nothing about the fate of the MALÉV plane on its flight to Beirut.

Sándor Pintér, Fidesz and BKV

Sándor Pintér was Viktor Orbán's minister of the interior in charge of the police. At the time of his appointment many critics claimed that Pintér as the former chief of the entire Hungarian police force shouldn't be the civilian minister in charge of that same police force. Just as there were critical voices when György Keleti, a former army officer, was made minister of defense in Gyula Horn's government. But Orbán absolutely insisted that it was either Pintér or nobody.

Rumors have swirled around Sándor Pintér ever since his appointment. One rumor claimed that he was among the beneficiaries of a scheme that illegally converted imported fuel oil, dyed red and sold for a low price for heating purposes, to diesel oil with no dye that commanded a much higher price. I wrote about this back in 2007 under the title "Oily business." Rumor also has it that Pintér was appointed minister of the interior in 1998 because he knew too much about the rather suspicious explosions in front of the headquarters of Fidesz and the Smallholders' Party as well as at the houses of József Torgyán, party chief of the Smallholders, and József Szájer, who today is the leader of Fidesz's EP delegation. Suspicion lingers that these "explosions" that did only minor damage were staged by Fidesz in order to turn public opinion against the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition just before the elections.

After Viktor Orbán lost the elections in 2002 Pintér moved into the private sector and established a security firm that, thanks to his extensive connections, did exceedingly well. By now Pintér is a billionaire. His name crops up here and there in the media as the most likely candidate for minister of the interior once again. I might add here that Ferenc Gyurcsány made the mistake of combining the ministry of the interior and the ministry of justice. According to the critics of this move the two functions cannot be combined successfully under one roof, and Fidesz has made no secret of the fact that they want to reestablish a separate ministry of the interior. However, apparently Pintér's appetite for power has grown since 2002; he has demanded the establishment of a "super ministry" that would also be in charge of the secret services.

On March 26 those who predicted that Pintér would be minister again felt justified when the news broke that he had sold his security business, Civic Biztonsági Szolgálat (CBSZ). The buyer was Prostasia Zrt, a company established only a few months ago and headed by Tibor Kántor, second in charge of the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service during the Orbán government. The sale according to rumors was necessary because an agreement was reached between Viktor Orbán and Sándor Pintér concerning the latter's post as the head of the beefed-up super ministry of the interior.

Today Népszava came out with some details that may shed a different light on the sudden sale of a very profitable company. As it turns out, Pintér's company won three very valuable contracts with BKV. Apparently the contracts were supposed to be signed on March 12. Two of these three contracts were won by Pintér's firm without competitive bids. Another interesting aspect of the deal is that Vilmos Tölgyesi, a high official at BKV for thirty-five years and currently working for the company as an independent contractor, was a member of CBSZ's board of directors. Tölgyesi is among those whose contracts and retirement packages are being questioned. And no wonder! When he retired in 2005 he received 25 million forints in addition to other "benefits" and was then immediately rehired as an independent contractor for five years. When his contract was prematurely terminated in December 2007 he received 55.7 million in addition to 13.1 million for keeping BKV's secrets plus 13.3 million because BKV broke the contract.  Six days later he was rehired again at 600,000 per month. More than suspicious, isn't it?

It is very possible that Pintér's sudden decision to "sell" his company might have something to do with the probes being conducted at BKV. Fidesz doesn't like messy situations like that. One ought to recall the very promising female Fidesz candidate who suddenly became "ill" and retired from political activity. As it turned out, her husband's company had had some shady business dealings involving BKV. Of course, this may only be a precautionary move to ensure Pintér's chances for the job of minister of the interior. It all depends on whether more toxic dirt is unearthed.

Jobbik: Are the Hungarian media after the party?

Yes, and not without success. Although parties on the left don't seem to have much skill in unearthing dirt,  Fidesz has a long history of successful detective work against its political opponents. Once Jobbik's danger to Fidesz became evident the Fidesz sleuths began work in earnest. In fairly short order they came up with some really juicy stories.

Let's start with stories that are old and have nothing to do with the media. Last April a man who was a member of the Hungarian Guard in Kalocsa fatally stabbed his girlfriend and drew a swastika on the poor girl's back post mortem. At last the case was decided; he got a fifteen-year sentence. A bit earlier it came to light that the chairman of the Bicske chapter of Jobbik was involved with the Arrows of the Hungarians, an organization led by György Budaházy. The group carried out a number of attacks against MSZP and SZDSZ politicians and its members were planning the assassination of some politicians not to their liking. The Jobbik politician from Bicske was supplying Budaházy's gang with ammunition. He had to resign.

But that's not the end. It was discovered that one of Jobbik's spokesmen, András Király, participated in a gay parade in Canada. Vivid pictures illustrated his "misdeeds." They are in stark contrast to the pious portrait he drew of himself as a deeply religious person who reads the Bible every night to his beloved wife and children.

Then came pictures of Adonis Kassab, Jobbik's candidate in the ninth district in Budapest, with a group of friends. It seems from the objects on the table that they were enjoying more than just a little wine.

Magyar Nemzet unearthed a rather ugly story. Tamás Sneider, #9 on Jobbik's country list and therefore most likely a future member of parliament, wanted to put his parents under guardianship because according to him his father wanted to kill him. The parents had a different story to tell. Sneider apparently spent the family's fortune of 8.5 million forints and further demanded the sale of their winery in Eger. When they refused, all hell broke loose and the parents sued the son. It was at this point that Sneider insisted that his parents were no longer able to be on their own due to their psychological impairment. Since then psychiatrists have determined that the parents are perfectly normal. According to the parents, Sneider is a no good who never did a day's work and who always demanded money from them.

It was discovered that another Jobbik politician had spent nineteen years in jail for AUTHOR: Eva Balogh

Four organizations involved with the law and human rights just published a report on the work of the new parliament. Three of the four are Hungarian branches of international organizations: Transparency International, TASZ or the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and the Helsinki Committee. The fourth is a strictly Hungarian organization called Károly Eötvös Institute established in 2003 with the help of the Soros Foundation. Károly Eötvös (1844-1916) was a politician and lawyer whose name is associated with the infamous Tiszaeszlár case (1882-83) in which he successfully defended a Jewish community falsely accused of murdering a young girl and using her blood for ritual purposes. I gave the links because each web site has an English version; for those not familiar with the Tiszaeszlár case Wikipedia offers a decent account.

Before I begin a summary of the report I should explain once again some of the intricacies of Hungarian parliamentary rules. Most of the time a bill is prepared and presented by the government. That usually takes months of work by the appropriate ministry. During the preparation of the bill the ministry by law must consult with groups that will be affected if the bill is passed. Normally experts are also consulted and their opinions can be scrutinized by members of parliament. So, it is a long and arduous affair. On the other hand, there is something called "bills proposed by individual members" that dispenses with all these compulsory stages of preparation. This "institution" was adopted to enable the opposition parties to take part in the legislative work of parliament. However, the practice is not restricted to members of the opposition, and in the last three months Fidesz has made extensive use of it. Of the 56 bills only 11 were proposed by the government, all the rest by individual Fidesz-KDNP members.

These bills were not the brilliant ideas of individual parliamentarians. Behind the flood of individual proposals was most likely a group of people who have been working furiously on various subjects that the party and Viktor Orbán found important. It was too much, too fast. Often these proposals were poorly prepared. Some of them had spelling and grammatical errors. Often there were internal discrepancies; sometimes important items were left out. In any case, most of them evidenced haste and carelessness. Equal speed was dictated by the speaker of the house, and thus there wasn't enough time to catch even the bigger problems with these bills. It often happened that the proposal was presented on Friday afternoon, on Monday morning it was discussed in committee and voted on without much discussion, and in the afternoon the bill was put to the floor for general discussion which they also closed on the same day. The result of this clever move was that no proposal for any modification could be suggested. Tuesday they scheduled the "detailed discussion." Usually there are only two sessions of parliament a week, and thus the following Monday the final vote was held. Even changes to the constitution were introduced and voted on in this manner.

As a result the public has been in the dark about the details of the proposed bills although some of them will have serious repercussions when it comes to the everyday life of citizens or the workings of Hungarian democracy. But nothing stopped the newly elected parliament with its huge Fidesz-KDNP majority. On average, bills were pushed through in nineteen days from the submission of a proposal to the final vote, but ten proposals were accepted within a week–that is, in two or three sessions. There were also bills that needed only one day to pass from start to finish. Within ten weeks parliament changed the constitution six times.

The result of this frenetic schedule was that it was almost impossible to follow the work of parliament. The justifications that accompanied the bills were neither detailed nor convincing. In important pieces of legislation, like the media law, justifications for certain proposals were summarized in single sentences. The justification for decreasing government subsidies to parties was simply that it was necessary to fulfill one of the goals outlined in the 29-point "action plan" introduced by Viktor Orbán in a great hurry after the Kósa-Szijjártó-Varga debacle that sent the forint plunging.

According to the legal experts of our watchdog organizations even bills proposed by the government were not prepared according to the rules and regulations currently on the books. For example, if the government wants to change the status of state employees, it will have to negotiate with the representatives of the employees. The ministry must also post the proposal on its web site and invite comments and suggestions. Of course, with this breakneck pace there was no time for such formalities. There was also no time to ascertain whether these new bills conformed to European Union laws. In fact, several observers have already predicted that the Orbán government might have to appear before the European Court because there was at least one occasion on which it knowingly violated EU dictates–namely, lowering the salary of the Hungarian National Bank's chairman, vice-chairmen, and the members of its Monetary Council. And most likely there will be others.

The first part of the report criticizes the way in which bills were prepared and passed. As is clear from this summary, the employees of these organizations found the whole process unsatisfactory and in certain cases illegal. But the substantive criticism is reserved for "the elimination of basic guarantees of a constitutional state." I will leave the discussion of this more weighty subject for tomorrow.

Farkas Bethlen, an independent (sic) politician

A familiar name, isn't it? Yes, he is a true Bethlen but unfortunately neither as talented nor as moderate as his most famous relative István Bethlen, prime minister of Hungary between 1921 and 1931, was. István Bethlen had the "privilege" of being hunted by the Germans and finally arrested by the Russians. He died in the Soviet Union in 1946.

Even Farkas's grandfather was a respectable politician. Béla Bethlen was appointed "governor" of the part of Transylvania that was returned to Hungary as a result of the Second Viennese Award. While Béla Bethlen remained in Romania, his son, Farkas's father, moved to Hungary where Farkas Bethlen, currently the mayor of Verőce, a small village just north of Budapest, was born.

The Bethlen family cannot be terribly proud of this one. Without going into the gory details, Farkas Bethlen mismanaged the finances of his village terribly; by late 2007 it was close to bankruptcy. The meager resources of the place were spent on grandiose statues, including a bust of Albert Wass, a writer who died in the United States and who was considered a war criminal by the Romanians and was condemned to death in absentia. According to some there was no evidence against Wass but later in life, while in the United States, he was heavily involved with the Arrow Cross Movement, still alive abroad thanks to followers of Ferenc Szálasi who escaped from Hungary along with the retreating German troops.

Farkas Bethlen also liked statues with religious motifs and statues of Hungarian heroes. Every year one or two statues were erected. The inhabitants of the village were outraged when ten million forints were spent on a statue of Prince Géza, father of St. Stephen, on horseback. Although Bethlen managed to win in 2006 by a slim margin, most of the members of council were "liberals," acording to Bethlen. On paper they were all independent but obviously they had had enough of Farkas Bethlen's activities.

He took part in the demonstrations in front of Parliament in 2006 which eventually turned into a months-long camp-out of the most extreme elements. The predominantly Catholic inhabitants of the village were not too thrilled when the mayor passed the local school on to the Hungarian Reformed Church. And what was going on inside of the school didn't please everybody either: maps of Greater Hungary hung in the classrooms and the extreme right-wing group of László Toroczkai, The Sixty-Four Counties' Youth Organization, helped finance the school. At one point Farkas Bethlen was even caught stealing some roofing supplies from a neighbor. All in all, Farkas Bethlen is bad news.

Although on paper he is an independent candidate in the upcoming local elections, more and more signs point to a very close relationship between Bethlen and Jobbik. He is the patron of the Hungarian Island Festival organized by György Gyula Zagyva, currently the parliamentary candidate of Jobbik in the county of Csongrád. Bethlen and Vona are close allies and they gave speeches together in nearby Kókényesd. He had a run-in with the local Fidesz politicians because in Vác somebody plastered Bethlen's posters all over the door of the Fidesz headquarters.

Well, now comes the best. Somebody put up a short video on YouTube of a statement originally delivered at a regional television station. Bethlen's message is that democracy is against the natural order of things. After all, God created both man and the universe with "dictatorship" in mind. "Our toes, our hands, our lungs, our hearts, our kidneys cannot do whatever they want to do because what would happen in such a case? Man himself couldn't function. … Democracy is not a good system because everybody can interfere." According to Bethlen, the ideal state would be "a mixed, dictatorial democracy."

And he's supposed to be the brains of the operation?

Two interviews with András Schiffer, chairman of LMP

LMP's election program is very, very long: 228 pages all told. Considering that I downloaded it only a couple of hours ago I can't give a blow-by-blow analysis of the document. However, now that LMP has done quite well in gathering endorsements and can have a countrywide list, András Schiffer, the party's candidate for prime minister, is the man of the hour. I have at my disposal the texts of two interviews, both quite long and detailed. The first took place on March 25 on MTV with Antónia Mészáros and the second on March 26 on György Bolgár's popular program "Let's talk it over" on Klub Rádió. I might mention that all of Bolgár's interviews are transcribed and available on

My overall impression is that in some respects LMP's program strongly resembles the proposals of Fidesz. That is, the little we know about Viktor Orbán's ideas. This is certainly true about the party's plans for Hungarian agriculture, pensions, and healthcare. Here and there I detect the influence of Péter Róna, formerly a New York banker, especially when it comes to the party's negative attitude toward multinational corporations and its views on agriculture as one of the cornerstones of the future Hungarian economy. Since I disagree with Róna's solutions it's no wonder that I don't sympathize with LMP's program either.

My suspicion is that the relative success of LMP lies in its name. "Politics could be different" sounds enticing to people who are fed up with the political wrangling between Fidesz and MSZP and who long for a party that promises an entirely different political culture. Yet Antónia Mészáros of MTV rightly pointed out that it is odd to see a civic organization that doesn't know the word compromise when it comes to environmental issues enter politics, which is the art of compromise. Or at least it should be. Although Schiffer refused to admit that LMP is a "protest party," he called politics in Hungary no more than "the privilege of financial groups and half-criminal elements." That's quite an opening salvo!

LMP has been fairly consistently anti-MDF; they were especially virulent in their attack on Lajos Bokros and MDF's negotiations with the remnants of SZDSZ. As Schiffer said, "We don't want bankrupt, used-up politicians to sail into parliament on a lifeboat." It's hard to tell which Schiffer hates more, the liberals or Ibolya Dávid's MDF. And what does Schiffer think of Bokros? "An economist with an expiration date."

So, what are some of their ideas? Mészáros started with the question of pensions and inquired whether the party would nationalize private pension funds. The answer was no, but they would install an effective supervisory body over them. However, when György Bolgár asked him about changes in the current pension policy, Schaffer admitted that they would like to see the introduction of the Swedish model with some modification. The modification they propose is in fact no modification whatsoever compared to the pension policy currently in effect in Sweden.

As far as healthcare is concerned, again LMP is very close to the little we know about Fidesz's plans. Healthcare will remain completely public. No private investments are acceptable. However, he admitted that the healthcare system at the moment is in ruins. The remedy? The same as what Imre Pesti, Fidesz's healthcare expert, outlined: more money. To be precise, an extra 250 billion forints yearly, as we found out from the Bolgár interview. When Bolgár pressed Schiffer where this money would come from, he couldn't give a straight answer. First he suggested that healthcare payments should be changed to tax-like fees (presumably progressive), but when Bolgár inquired whether that would mean higher medical insurance premiums for people with higher incomes Schiffer changed his tune. No, this is not what he said. He thinks that there would be enough money in the budget to be able to give an extra 250 billion forints to the medical sector.

In addition to the 250 billion for healthcare, LMP would like to reshuffle the current budgetary allotments to the tune of 1,000 billion (and yes, at least as we multiply numbers in this country, we're now talking about a trillion). They are thinking in terms of a "green tax reform." Certain taxes would be lowered while they would raise or even introduce new ones that would be beneficial to the environment. For example, there would be a new kind of tax called "the carbon dioxide tax."  They would introduce higher excise taxes on gasoline or on truckers in order to divert traffic to the railroads. When the terrible situation at the MÁV came up in the conversation, Schiffer was very vague: all state-owned companies should be managed better. He mentioned that under ideal circumstances more people would use the railroad and therefore more people would buy tickets. Tickets?–asked Antónia Mészáros. But that's exactly the problem. Almost nobody buys tickets. Schiffer didn't take that bait. Why should his party stop all discounts currently in existence and the totally free rides for those over the age of 65? Because, according to him, "that is not the cause of MÁV's problems."

Bolgár was a bit more insistent when the question of the trillion forint reorganization came up. He wanted to know the details because his first impression was that "perhaps politics can be different, but one would need a lot more money than now." If this is just a question of a reorganization of the tax system, then this trillion must come from certain sectors that would be taxed at a higher rate. Schiffer first mentioned taxes on property, and therefore Bolgár thought of a real estate tax. But no, Schiffer offered some vague notion about "cataloguing valuable items." Bolgár at this point warned Schiffer that this is a very dangerous (and, I would add, utterly unworkable) proposition. Schiffer retreated to only cars and boats. However, we know the pitiful amounts of money that can come from the so-called luxury tax, and Bolgár pointed this out to him. Thus Schiffer retreated to the property tax in the normal sense of the word. Yes, it could be introduced later on. Would they extend this kind of tax to more people than in the last attempt rejected by the Constitutional Court? No, they wouldn't. But said Bolgár, this would never bring in a trillion forints. Perhaps not, but they would introduce higher taxes on the consumption of environmentally unfriendly products such as natural gas and gasoline. I think Bolgár was right when he remained unconvinced that a trillion forints could be squeezed out of these newly introduced green taxes.

LMP's attitude toward the multinationals is very negative even though Schiffer admits that their presence is necessary. But he blames them for Hungary's low level of employment. Again, Péter Róna is lurking in the background here; he tried to sell this preposterous idea to fellow economists in a round-table discussion about a week ago on ATV. He was trounced. According to Schiffer "the distorted accommodation to the demands of the multinationals in the long run is never a success story." Bolgár's Irish and Slovak examples didn't impress Schiffer. LMP, like MSZP and Fidesz, emphasizes the need for state support of middle-sized and small Hungarian companies who are not quite ready to be competitive in the world market while the Hungarian market is too small. LMP focuses on a "green turn." We're not talking here about high-tech solutions but about a return to agriculture. And here comes one of my standing objections to LMP's and Fidesz's solution to Hungary's employment problems.

The percentage of the actively employed between the ages of 16 and 60 is only 56%. Very low. The problem is especially acute among the undereducated and the unskilled. Somehow proponents of an economy based largely on agricultural production think that this would also solve the low employment rate. They think, wrongly in my opinion, that uneducated, unskilled people would be able to find work in agricultural activity that requires no expertise. It is true that some crops still have to be harvested by hand. But that's not exactly steady work. Most of agriculture is mechanized, vastly improving productivity and on balance increasing profits. So anybody who thinks that an emphasis on agriculture would go a long way toward solving the problem of about one million unemployed Hungarians knows nothing about the requirements of modern agriculture.

Moreover, I find the whole notion of going backwards to a more primitive economic organization outrageous, even if it were realistic. Every country is a de facto participant in the economic "race to the top," and no one will get to the top or even very far up the hill by looking backwards.

LMP or can politics can be something else?

I mentioned that one of my problems with LMP (Lehet Más a Politika/Politics Can Be Something Else)  is that it is an offshoot of a environmental organization that suggested László Sólyom to be president of the republic. It seems that I'm not the only one who finds this an "original sin." I recommend an article by Ferenc Lendvai, a philosopher, about the "center" in Hungarian politics. I laughed heartily this morning when I read this piece in which, among other things, Lendvai complains that this party's "predecessor is the organization that let loose on us our current president, that odd creature who successfully combines the characteristics of Don Quijote and Tartuffe."

Lendvai doesn't even like the name because in his opinion the very name means turning away from the last twenty years. Although one could conduct politics in a more civilized manner in Hungary, rivalry among parties is part and parcel of democracy. Lendvai adds that Jobbik does the same thing from the right, admittedly in a less moderate form. This party, says Lendvai, is not left of center despite its greenness. Hungarian environmentalists, unlike their western colleagues, never really supported any reform movements. They simply opposed a limine every piece of investment even if the locals had no objections. Therefore, with their opposition to all foreign investment they actually strengthened the far right.

I even have problems with the predecessor's name: Védegylet/Defense League. It is linguistically quaint because it harks back to 1844 when Lajos Kossuth established an organization called Védegylet that was supposed to urge people not to buy foreign goods and to rely only on Hungarian products. Given the absolutely backward state of the Hungarian economy in the first half of the nineteenth century, one can imagine what happened to Védegylet. A huge flop. Yes, the city folks could buy Hungarian food at the local markets, but when it came to buying cloth to have a suit made that was a different matter. This economic nationalism spread to other spheres as well. Sándor Petőfi, a contemporary, refused to wear western style cloths and wore an outfit he thought was purely Hungarian. Apparently when he first appeared in this outfit on the streets of Pest people made fun of him.

Perhaps the founders of our modern Védegylet didn't think in terms of what I just outlined when deciding on the name, but the thinking of the nationalistic Hungarian politicians in the 1840s is not too far from the thinking of the modern Védegylet. András Schiffer, the number one man on the LMP list, made an appearance last night on MTV where it became obvious that this party is anti-capitalist and especially antagonistic toward foreign investors. Their ideas about taxes on polluting agents, for example, trucks, could have very serious negative consequences. Their whole economic program simply doesn't add up. There is not enough savings from a green economy to balance the expenses they consider essential at the other end. For example, they want more money for healthcare without any change in the present structure which is extraordinarily wasteful. But the source of the money is vague.

András Schiffer further undermined his and his party's credibility by appearing on György Bolgár's call-in show today. For those of you who don't know Bolgár, he is an extraordinarily polite man with a very mild manner. However, at the same time, he in his quiet way can be very hard hitting mostly because he knows his stuff. He was trained as an economist although after graduating he became a journalist and a writer. However, he seems to remember his economics pretty well. Mr. Schiffer crumbled during this interview. The transcript of this conversation will be available either tomorrow or on Sunday on and then I will be able to quote from it more precisely. But put it this way, voting for LMP is a real waste in my opinion.

MDF in trouble

I haven't written about MDF for some time because it wasn't at all clear to me where the party was heading or what its leaders wanted. The campaign manager of MDF is Zoltán Somogyi, formerly the president and part owner of Political Capital, a think tank that has been acting as MDF's political advisor for years. Ibolya Dávid, head of MDF, and the ever smaller top echelon of the party were very impressed with the advice they received from Somogyi's company. I suspect that it was Zoltán Somogyi's idea to get in touch with Lajos Bokros and convince him to join forces with MDF before the European Union elections. Everybody was stunned by the announcement that Bokros would be heading MDF's list, but Somogyi's brainchild was a success: Bokros, followed by the resident Habsburg, György, second son of Otto, once the heir-apparent to the Hungarian throne, managed to become members of the European Parliament.

After that coup Somogyi's reputation within the party must have risen considerably. Thus, when Somogyi announced that he was tired of being a businessman and political analyst but wouldn't mind embarking on a political career, naturally within MDF, he was warmly embraced and was immediately made the party's campaign manager.

Since his elevation to this post and the promise of a respectable place on the MDF list Somogyi has had a rather bumpy career. First was his idea (or at least I think it was his idea) that the party should get together with SZDSZ, or to be more precise with the little group of second-rate politicians who remained members of the truncated party. Considering that SZDSZ has the reputation of being an ultra-liberal party while Ibolya Dávid explains every second day that MDF is the only conservative party in Hungary, the marriage of these two parties raised some eyebrows. Within MDF the outcry was considerable and several old-timers actually left the party.

The second problem is that while Fidesz, MSZP, and Jobbik managed to collect enough endorsements to be on the ballot in all nineteen counties in addition to Budapest, MDF fell short: they were unable to put their people on the ballot in two counties. In addition, the National Election Committee only a few hours ago changed its verdict on the County of Nógrád. Someone complained about some technicality or other, and the Committee decided to strip MDF of this county as well.

Gathering endorsements in Budapest was not easy either, and without Budapest MDF has no chance of ever being represented in the Hungarian parliament. A couple of days ago there was great rejoicing: they would have a Budapest list. They needed eight people with the requisite number of endorsements and they had ten. But then MDF ran into trouble with the Capital City Election Committee who voted that a great number of endorsements received by MDF candidates were not valid and therefore the MDF candidates didn't have the requisite number of endorsements. The alleged reason for that decision was that on some endorsements the candidates' names were written with a different pen. The motion to deny MDF's place on the ballot came from Fidesz and was supported by Jobbik and MSZP. The vote was 3:2.

Ibolya Dávid is outraged and is convinced that the aim of the other parties is to silence Lajos Bokros, a serious contender. I'm not so sure that Dávid is right in the sense that the other parties are afraid of Lajos Bokros. If there was foul play, and there might have been, it was simply to get rid of a troublesome contender. Fidesz doesn't want to see a third force on the right; the party has enough problems with the extreme right, Jobbik. And MSZP wants to be the only representative of "the democratic forces."

Ibolya Dávid held an international press conference this morning where she outlined all her suspicions concerning this affair. MDF is appealing. Meanwhile Fidesz's reaction was that surely Ibolya Dávid is only fighting for her parliamentary immunity. In case anyone missed the reference, this "criminal activity" as András Cser-Palkovics, deputy spokesman of Fidesz, called it, is one of the most shameful cases of the Hungarian justice system. Details of the affair can be found in an earlier post entitled "Hungarian Watergate?" The upshot is that a company specializing in surveillance was entrusted by some Fidesz politicians to spy on Ibolya Dávid. However, by the end, with the assistance of the prosecutor's office, the victim became the accused. The company, UD Zrt., was wronged by Ibolya Dávid.

So this is where we stand at the moment. MDF is a scrappy party and has survived against all odds more than once. But with the first round of national elections set for April 11 time is not on its side.

Péter Tölgyessy’s analysis of the Hungarian political scene

Until now I haven't written much about Péter Tölgyessy and his career, but a few days ago I made an attempt in Galamus-csoport to compare two of his recent opinions on Fidesz's chances at the coming elections. To my great surprise I found that within the course of a few days he changed his mind about Fidesz's chances of achieving a two-thirds majority. While in one of the interviews he claimed that MSZP still had reserves and that Jobbik may take votes away from Fidesz, in the other interview conducted on HírTV, a channel close to Fidesz, he forgot about both opponents. Because Tölgyessy gives an interview on MR1 every Monday morning I decided that I should spend some time listening to these interviews because they may shed light on certain twists and turns in the commentator's opinions.

First, some background. Péter Tölgyessy went to law school, graduating in 1981. Right after graduation he moved to one of the Academy's research institutes dealing with law where his field was the legal aspects of interest groups. He came into contact with the founders of SZDSZ and in this capacity took part in the negotiations of the Round Table Discussions between the opposition and the communist party that eventually led to the regime change in 1989. He and László Sólyom were largely responsible for hammering out a constitutional framework for the new regime. Perhaps that's why he is often described as a constitutional lawyer. In fact, by now he cannot even be considered a legal scholar because in the last twenty years or so he has been doing only political analysis.

His political career was rather peculiar. In 1990 he became a member of parliament (SZDSZ) and eventually was the leader of the then rather large SZDSZ parliamentary delegation. A year later for a short while he was chairman of the party. However, in August 1996 he left SZDSZ and served as an independent for the rest of the session. By 1998 he moved over to Fidesz, was high on its party candidates list, and therefore became a member of parliament again. He sat in parliament for eight solid years without saying a word or doing anything. Well, that's not quite accurate. He wrote articles and gave interviews in which he was often quite critical of Fidesz. Eventually Viktor Orbán must have had enough of Tölgyessy. By 2006 he was of no use to anyone and was dropped. Since 2007 Tölgyessy has been working in another institute of the Academy, the Political Science Institute.

Well, with this little background behind us, let's move on to what Tölgyessy had to say on Magyar Rádió's "180 minutes" yesterday morning. This time he decided to talk about the chances of the smaller parties, LMP and MDF. Tölgyessy is very much hoping that these smaller parties will manage to cross the magic 5% threshold necessary to have parliamentary representation because, in my opinion mistakenly, he thinks that the presence of these small parties with their new faces "could substantially change not only the socialists but with time even Fidesz." For the better, I guess.

Let's stay with these claims a bit. There are so many things wrong with them that I don't even know where to begin. First of all, if MDF gets back to parliament the party will not present entirely different faces. Moreover, MDF has been represented in parliament for a good twenty years. If MDF's presence didn't mollify the cold war atmosphere in the parliament during the last eight years, it will not do so in the next four years either. New faces would appear on the scene only if LMP managed to get into parliament. Their small delegation–because one can't expect a spectacular electoral victory for the party–would be insignificant in comparison to Fidesz and MSZP, and it is unlikely that Fidesz's confrontational behavior would change radically once in power. And let's face it, the cold war atmosphere was mostly created by Fidesz. Moreover, Tölgyessy simply forgot about another force that might be considerable–that is, Jobbik. If the atmosphere was bad before, it will be much worse once this party's representatives grace the halls of parliament. And who is going to have a calming influence on Jobbik? LMP or MDF? The whole thing is bizarre.

Tölgyessy urges people to vote for the smaller parties and assures them that their votes will not be wasted because he is fairly certain that they will get over the 5% mark. Although he is talking about the small parties, including MDF, it is clear that his favorite party is LMP which is, according to Tölgyessy, fashioned after the German Green and Linke parties. Other people, whose views I trust more, have a much lower opinion of LMP. One of my problems with the party is that its origins go back to the same civic environmental group that produced László Sólyom for the post of president.

Tölgyessy is certainly no fan of MDF which he considers to be "the most wounded party of the sick Hungarian politics." Tölgyessy, in line with Fidesz's opinion, thinks that Ibolya Dávid transformed MDF into a left-wing party, pure and simple. He agrees with Viktor Orbán that MDF was partly responsible for Fidesz's defeat at the 2002 elections because Dávid refused to run with Fidesz as she did in 1998. Not only is MDF a left-wing party but it solicited Lajos Bokros, once minister of finance in Gyula Horn's government, to run at the head of the ticket. Moreover, today's MDF bears no resemblance to the party József Antall dreamt of because it adopted such slogans as "modernization" and "reform economics" which are the slogans of the socialists and the liberals. He doesn't like Dávid and MDF but he still thinks that their presence would have a calming effect on the parliament. How, I would like to ask.

Then comes his analysis of MSZP. Equally interesting. First, I have some serious problems with Tölgyessy's statistics. According to him in 2006 55.1% of the population voted for left-wing parties: MSZP, SZDSZ, and MDF. That meant 3 million votes. So far so good. But then he claims that currently MSZP has only 800,000 voters and that about the same number left the socialists and went over to Fidesz and Jobbik. As far as I know Fidesz's base hasn't changed in the last four years. It is still about 2 million voters. So in his simple scheme: 800,000 socialist voters remained, 800,000 left, and therefore about 1.5 million former left-wing voters are missing. Many of them will stay away, but "even if a smaller portion of this mass moves, the little parties, especially LMP, might cause a surprise." And then Péter Tölgyessy can wake up!

Ferenc Gyurcsány’s long-awaited speech (III)

Although the opposition and commentators close to Fidesz predicted that Ferenc Gyurcsány's speech would be mostly about Viktor Orbán the villain, actually only a small portion of it concentrated on Fidesz and the Hungarian right. Mind you, it might have been short but it was hard hitting. There are some statements that people find exaggerated, even untrue. However, on the whole it was a valid description of the Hungarian political scene.

It is undoubtedly true that for the current not too rosy political situation the government is not the only one responsible. As Gyurcsány put it: "the government is not a lonely warrior." The government has allies and it has rivals. The various parties have different ideas and therefore there are political debates. That is natural, but "it is not natural what Fidesz, unable to accept defeat in 2002, is doing to the country…. This is not natural rivalry. The Fidesz politicians have been instigating a civil war. One wouldn't waste much time on this question if MSZP were the only victim of this warfare. But the trouble is that it isn't only the Hungarian left that suffers as a result but Hungary as whole." Gyurcsány claims that the current confusion, people's losing their sense of direction, is due mostly to Fidesz's anti-government propaganda that went so far as to compare the current situation to 1945 when half the country was in ruins.

Gyurcsány doubts "the patriotism of an opposition that is beating into citizens' heads that this country is not worth anything, that the country has been left behind, that the country is shrinking, that the country trails after everybody, and that this country is not a good place to live." Finally, Gyurcsány comes to the meat of it. "I want to be clear. My government gave enough reason for criticism … but the country didn't do anything that would deserve its faith and its bearing being broken." And now he comes, in my opinion, to the most important message:  "I want to confront the chairman of the opposition party that while he wants to hurt us, wants to hurt me personally, in the end … he managed to undermine, crush the self-respect and optimism of the nation and instead of providing a rational alternative he created irrational hatred in Hungary."

After this indictment Gyurcsány turned to the Fidesz voters and asked them whether they really think that it behooves a democrat to use words against his opponents like "filthy," "miserable wretch," "bastard," or "trash." Actually, one could find even worse epithets, especially those directed against Gyurcsány himself: "blabbering idiot," "half-wit," "pathological liar," and "psychopath." József Debreczeni collected most of them and perhaps one day I will take the trouble to translate them for my readers. That is if I find enough good English equivalents. In addition to this verbal abuse Gyurcsány also complained about Viktor Orbán's silence when physical force was being used to frighten socialist members of parliament.

Gyurcsány then turned to Fidesz's election campaign and their total silence on what they are planning to do once in power. The former prime minister said that while Fidesz politicians at least fifteen times a day call the socialists liars, he thinks that "in comparison to nothing–and they haven't told us anything yet–everything is a lie." Gyurcsány thinks that this strategy is "a betrayal of the voters…. Yes, I think that this is cowardice and betrayal…. It is not a betrayal of the Fidesz voters but it is their deception."

Ever since 2002 warlike events have been taking place, starting with the occupation of the Elizabeth Bridge in the summer of 2002 and continuing with setting fire to the Hungarian Television building. These people managed to ruin every national holiday since 2006. Gyurcsány then went into the question of the storming of the television building. He understands that people were indignant, but no criticism can go so far as to end in violence. In his mind there is no question that the police were there to defend "our national institutions … the third republic. This police force was defending us and we owe them as much as to defend them. There were the police on the one side and the disorderly mob on the other side. Everybody must decide which side he is on in this struggle. False myths are being created. I must say that one must stand on the side of the police against the mob. Fidesz stood on the side of the rabble."

It is an easy step to move from the storming of the televison building to Jobbik. As it turned out lately, one of the Jobbik candidates in the upcoming elections was an important player in the mayhem. He was the guy who set one of the police cars on fire. He received a suspended sentence, but apparently that blemish on his record doesn't stand in his way. Moreover, he has a fairly good chance of winning his district.

Gyurcsány again expressed his understanding at people's disappointment and their dissatisfaction with their lot as well as with the government. However, he doesn't understand how it is possible that people who are so proud of being Hungarians can turn against their compatriots who don't share their ideals. Neither does he understand that these proud Hungarians ruin every national holiday and frighten their fellow citizens. Gyurcsány here is sending a direct message to the Jobbik electorate. He has never seen any debate that could be solved by hatred, aggression, and intimidation. "I must warn you that there is no such thing as radical democracy and I don't know one country that has been successful by using antidemocratic and radical methods. Extremism and radicalism are not lifting the country into a political-historical heaven but sending it to hell. Even if you think that you are serving your country. You're mistaken… you are hurting Hungary."

The part that will undoubtedly receive the most scrutiny, especially from the right, are Gyurcsány's words on the relationship between Fidesz and Jobbik.This part of the speech begins with a rather confrontational sentence. Let me quote the appropriate passage verbatim. "We could say that it is really meaningless to talk separately about Fidesz and Jobbik because they are in essence not two separate parties. I think that Fidesz and Jobbik are two parties but one party system (pártrendszer) and principally one idea." Well, this is muddled at best. Not two parties but after all two parties but one party system. It doesn't make much sense. This is a good example of the pitfalls of extemporaneous speech. When he realized that this was anything but clear and could be misunderstood, he elaborated. "My dear friends, here we are confronted with the sameness of an idea. The problem is that Fidesz, and even Jobbik, considers undemocratic law and order more important than democratic freedom. Fidesz and Jobbik find the state more important than the individual. Fidesz and Jobbik consider antidemocratic force more important than democratic dialogue. They see eye to eye on these matters…. It is true that in comparison to the extremism of Jobbik Fidesz may even seem democratic, but looking at Fidesz from the community of democrats Fidesz represents only a milder form of extremism. Instead of using openly aggressive and filthy discourse they use only a language of abuse. (A difficult translation problem. In the original: "a nyíltan erőszakos és mocskos beszéd helyett a mocskolódó beszéd.")

Further: "The democratic center is not a geometrical concept. Orbán doesn't become a democrat because there is a political force that is more extreme than Fidesz. To avoid misunderstanding, I don't think that the voters of Fidesz are extremists. I think that Fidesz's politics are extremist. Perhaps the marching guards by now are an inconvenience to Fidesz. But, to tell the truth, there is no doubt that the Guard expresses everything Viktor Orbán thinks of the world. The Hungarian Guard is the improper [actually: szalonképtelen, unfit for good society] Viktor Orbán."

Needless to say I saw an article about this speech in which a subtitle read:  Guard = Orbán. Of course, what Gyurcsány wanted to say here is not that crude. What he claims is that the two parties are cut from the same cloth. Indeed, there are telling signs that the flirtation with Jobbik ideology in the hope of electoral gain is continuing. István Tarlós, on paper not a party member but the head of the Fidesz delegation in the Budapest City Council who with Jobbik support ran at the last municipal election, pretty openly said that Fidesz shares Jobbik's goals. They differ only on the road leading to these goals.

Ferenc Gyurcsány’s long-awaited speech (II)

I just read a very intelligent article in Magyar Narancs (March 11, 2010) by Zoltán Ádám, an economist and an editor of the monthly Beszélő, a famous publication that began as samizdat written by a group later known as the democratic opposition. The leading members were the founders of SZDSZ. So Zoltán Ádám is surely not a socialist. Yet in this article he explains why he is going to vote for MSZP. And his rationale makes sense to me. When it comes to the eight years of socialist governance, Ádám as an economist divides the period in two. The first half was in economic terms bad, but they can be proud of the period between 2006 and 2010. Interestingly it was during this period that their popularity sank, for obvious reasons. These four years were a time of reckoning. What the speech at Őszöd was all about. The country was unable to sustain the kind of social net that had been built mostly on borrowed money in the early years.

In his speech Gyurcsány talked about the residual benefits of these eight years. It is good to keep in mind that a lot was accomplished despite the retracements that were necessary in the last few years. People who are not getting their 13th month salary or pension might be sore, but they simply forget that eight years ago their salaries' purchasing power was a great deal less than it is today even after the introduction of the austerity program. Real wages have grown by 25% and the purchasing power of pensions by even more. The development that has taken place in Hungary in the last eight years is visible practically anywhere we go. In almost every village there has been construction–schools, new roads, swimming pools, what not. Gyurcsány emphasized the construction of superhighways; indeed, the pace at which the governments of the last eight years built these new roads is quite staggering. They figured, and I think they were right, that without a modern infrastructure there can be no economic development. Surely, it is not a coincidence that Mercedes-Benz is going to build a plant in Kecskemét, which would have been highly unlikely a few years ago when there was no modern highway connecting Budapest to Szeged. Debrecen's spectacular growth in the eastern section of the country would have been equally unimaginable without the new four-lane highway. In a few weeks the road connecting Budapest with Pécs will at last be finished. That might help the struggling city break out of its present economic stagnation. I anticipate further economic growth for the city once Croatia is part of the Union and belongs to the group of Schengen countries. And one mustn't forget about the new bridges across the Danube at Szekszárd and Dunaújváros and a new bridge between Buda and Pest. Today there are almost half a million more cars than there were eight years ago, and close to one million people moved into new, bigger and better apartments in this period.

As for the reforms. He envisaged a western-style modernization, a change in attitude of the citizenry. He was hoping that people don't want to be "subjects" but want to be free and take into their own hands the direction of their lives. That they will not want to be subservient when it comes to health care, public services or educational facilities. In the past governments postponed the introduction of these reforms because they were afraid of the consequences. Every reform might benefit some but at the same time may run against the interests of others. Gyurcsány here mentioned Tamás Bauer's introductory remarks in which one of the founders of SZDSZ said that the former governments were "cowardly." They were afraid of the consequences. He specifically mentioned that the details of a health care reform very similar to the one the socialist-liberal government was proposing were actually drawn up much earlier but the Orbán government was afraid to introduce them. Thus, none of the reforms Viktor Orbán promised before he took office saw the light of day. Yet these reforms were absolutely necessary because the current structure stands in the way of sustainable economic growth. Perhaps the most shameful political move of Viktor Orbán was that when the Gyurcsány government came up with the idea of a token ($1.50) co-payment, also part of the proposed Orbán plan a few years back, he forced a referendum (with the help of the Constitutional Court) to determine whether people wanted to pay or not. Needless to say, they didn't. That was the end of the health care reform, and even of the socialist-liberal coalition.

Gyurcsány admits that they failed and not just because of the opposition party's resistance. Some people became frightened at the very idea of personal responsibility he was outlining to them. They felt a great deal more comfortable in the "warmth of the stable" where they believed that the state took care of them. He admitted in the speech that he "assessed the strength of the reform party wrong."  And he continued: "I was impatient, I believed that we were right, and that our will shall conquer. I believed that the justice of our cause will be enough for victory." I might mention here that a rather antagonistic commentator expressed his bafflement that the opinion of a minority might be right when the vast majority of the population rejects it. He claimed that "Gyurcsány with a rather undemocratic trick … tried to convince his audience that although the majority wanted something else they were the ones who were right." If we believed this man's logic we would have to declare that the followers of Hitler were right because they comprised the great majority of Germans while the handful of liberal anti-fascists were wrong. It only shows the confusion that reigns in some Hungarian heads.

What is the lesson, Gyurcsány asked. "Certainly not that one shouldn't dare, that one shouldn't want to create a better country. Certainly not that one shouldn't want to lead. Definitely not that a politician shouldn't dream of a better world and that he shouldn't create a clear-cut program for its implementation…. However, it doesn't matter how decent the intention of the reform is if the overwhelming majority refuses to come with us."

Again, I ran out of time because Gyurcsány's assessment of the right and the far-right certainly merits a detailed description. I will do that tomorrow.