Month: April 2010

Shaping a “revolutionary” new government

In his victory speech Viktor Orbán said quite a few things that are difficult to interpret or, if one is less charitable, are nonsensical. Among these is the assertion that a revolution took place at the polls. Nothing of the sort happened. A democratic election was held that resulted in a very large victory for one of the parties. Some people consider this reference to a "revolution" a gesture to those Hungarians who either voted for Jobbik or who voted for Fidesz but sympathize with the far right.

However, once one mentions the word "revolution" there is the expectation of revolutionary changes. After all, "revolution" in both Hungarian and English means in this context "a fundamental change in political organization." Surely the replacement of one government with another within the framework of a democracy cannot be called a revolution. He also said some silly things about the "destruction" of the old regime that has finally happened, twenty years after the "change of regime" that took place in 1989-90. A regime cannot be changed. It must be destroyed, said Viktor Orbán.

Orbán's reference to this election as "earth shaking" is surely an exaggeration. At the moment the Greek crisis has a much more serious effect on the world than Fidesz's great electoral victory.

And finally, there were three Latin words in the speech that raised some eyebrows. Since Orbán "found God" he likes to quote the Bible. Admittedly, the Bible is a great source for speechmakers, but Orbán often uses the Bible in a way that some people have deemed blasphemous. A few years ago he finished one of his speeches with the same words Jesus used to send his disciples forth to spread his teachings. But at least this was in Hungarian. This time around, however, he drew from the Vulgate (Matthew 6:10): "Thy will be done," or in Latin: "fiat voluntas tua." He changed it to "vincit voluntas tua." Thus instead of "Thy will be done," it was changed to "Thy will wins." Considering that Orbán learned no Latin in high school, the source of this bastardized Biblical quotation is most likely the Reverend Zoltán Balog, a member of parliament and apparently the spiritual advisor to Viktor Orbán. Several analysts found this quotation telling. Eszter Babarczy, who actually championed for a landslide Fidesz victory, wrote a linguistic analysis of these three words. József Debreczeni also found it peculiar and wrote about it in "Lord's Prayer."

So, let's see how this "revolution" is progressing. We were promised a very speedy government formation but the process has been slow. Orbán drops a name or two here and there, but otherwise we are in the dark. One day he talked about "super ministries," but two days later we were told there would be no super ministries. There was talk about two deputy prime ministers but by yesterday there was only one: Tibor Navracsics. Moreover, there is a bit of a problem with this deputy prime minister business: the Hungarian Constitution doesn't know anything about its existence. So, if Orbán is serious about creating a deputy then parliament will have to change the constitution. As we know, with the two-thirds majority that is no problem. I find the idea rather repulsive, mostly on historical grounds. With the exception of the Soviet dominated period, there was never such a position as deputy prime minister. Poor József Antall is undoubtedly turning in his grave. He was such a stickler for historical precedence.

Tibor Navracsics is going to be a very busy man. He will be deputy prime minister responsible for the operations of the entire cabinet (analogous, I guess, to the chief operating officer of a company). In addition, he will be the minister of justice. The question is: what will Viktor Orbán do then? It seems that he will be in charge of communication with "the Hungarian people." He will have his own spokesman, Péter Szijjártó. The government's spokesman is not yet named; it will be Navracsics's job to come up with someone. It is almost as if Navracsics were the actual prime minister while Orbán himself is something like the president without the title. It is a good question whether he will actually take part in parliamentary debates or whether interpellations will be addressed to Tibor Navracsics. I guess this way Orbán will not be in the uncomfortable position of being forced to answer, let's say, Ferenc Gyurcsány in the House.

Some analysts think that by putting Navracsics between himself and the cabinet, Orbán will be able to save his popularity. If something goes wrong Navracsics will be blamed. Perhaps that is his intention, but I doubt that a prime minister can shirk responsibility for the functioning of his government by claiming that he's not really in charge. If things do not go according to expectations, the people will blame Orbán regardless of the existence of a deputy prime minister.

Mihály Varga, who was mentioned as the possible head of the ministry of economics or the ministry of finance, will have to be satisfied with being an undersecretary in the Office of the Prime Minister. In earlier governments the Prime Minister's Office was headed by a minister, but it seems that for one reason or another Orbán is putting less emphasis on this job. By the way, he changed the name of the office. Instead of Miniszterelnöki Hivatal it will be called Miniszterelnökség! Wow!

Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the Christian Democrats, was also mentioned as a possible deputy prime minister but so far we have heard absolutely nothing about his future role. One thing is sure: he will no longer head the Christian Democratic caucus because we already know that he will be replaced by Péter Harrach. The KDNP caucus will be larger than before, which is neither here nor there. Simply more Fidesz representatives will be sitting with the Christian delegation. Why the silence about Semjén's future? There might be some disagreement between the two party leaders. Perhaps Semjén wants more than Orbán is willing to give. After all, Semjén doesn't have a real party behind him.

Apparently, we will get more details about the structure of this revolutionary government on Monday, but I already have some reservations about the future role of Viktor Orbán, the prime minister who is not.

Politics and the media

I don't think one can overemphasize the role of the media in disseminating the messages of political parties. Viktor Orbán in a conversation with József Debreczeni in 2002, a few weeks after Fidesz lost the elections, talked about the necessity for a party to have robust media support. He said that József Antall inherited a media that was openly sympathetic to either MSZP or SZDSZ and that he had never managed to have even one newspaper that would look at the world through the government's glasses. Thus, when Orbán became prime minister he immediately began building, mostly on government money, a Fidesz friendly media. By the time he lost the elections the foundations of a Fidesz media empire were already laid. Since then right-wing "oligarchs" have put billions and billions into print and electronic media with spectacular results. There is an overwhelmingly right-wing media in place in Hungary.

Among the many mistakes the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition made in the last eight years was that it made no effort whatsoever to promote a media friendly toward the ideas of the left. Interestingly enough, "the government of oligarchs" didn't manage to find an oligarch or two who, like their right-wing counterparts, would put a few million into newspapers or radio or TV stations that were left-leaning. As it is, most liberal papers are shoestring operations whose financial futures are not at all assured. At the same time Fidesz's media empire is growing. The latest is that the owner of Heti Válasz, a more moderate right-wing weekly, just purchased IKO Média Holding Zrt. which owns 31% of M-RTL Zrt. M-RTL operates the most popular television station in Hungary, the RTL Klub. Tamás Fellegi, who was the majority shareholder in IKO Média Holding, most likely sold the company because he will be one of Viktor Orbán's ministers.

Hungary's only liberal television station, ATV, is owned by the Assembly of God. In the evening it broadcasts Hungarian translations of the 700 Club! The other liberal electronic media outlet is Klub Rádió, an FM station that can be heard in Budapest and in a couple of other places in the country. For the last twenty years Klub Rádió has been broadcasting from 97.7 FM, but next year their use of that frequency will expire and the frequency will no long be available for FM broadcasting. So Klub Rádió applied for the only remaining Budapest FM frequency. Its competitor was Katolikus Rádió. The board of ORTT, the organization in charge of matters concerning radio and television stations on which the socialist and liberal delegates are currently in the majority, gave it to Klub Rádió. Annamária Szalai, a Fidesz delegate on the board, was outraged because, as she quite openly admitted, they wrote the tender in such a way that it was tailored for Catholic Radio. And, she continued, "the prepared nest has been occupied by a cuckoo." She went on and on, arguing that Klub Rádió cannot have two frequencies, neglecting to mention that Klub Rádió will relinquish its old frequency as soon as it is in possession of the new one (92.2). received information to the effect that the new government is planning to create one organization out of ORTT and the National Communication Authority (Nemzeti Hírközlési Hatóság), which is responsible for electronic communications as well as postal and IT services. That by itself may be a rational decision, and I was glad to read that it may not be political parties who delegate members to the board. At the same time I became worried when I saw that this new organization would "also supervise the Internet." What does this mean? Could the staff of this organization check the contents of Hungarian Internet sites and shut down anything not to their liking? Because right now ORTT can suspend television stations from broadcasting for a period of time if they are deemed guilty of not obeying the "objectivity requirements" of ORTT. Let's say that Mr. Kovács didn't like what Mr. Nagy, the reporter, said to one of the politicians. He can complain to ORTT, which then decides on the guilt or innocence of Mr. Nagy.

Rumor has it that Annamária Szalai, who prepared the nest of Katolikus Rádió so nicely, will be charge of this new organization. Everybody who knows Ms. Szalai must realize that this is potentially very bad news.

The first signs of financial trouble

József Szájer, head of the Fidesz delegation to the European Parliament, only yesterday boasted about Hungary's arrival after eight years in the wilderness "at the High Street  (Fő utca) of Europe." I don't use "Main Street" as a translation because that has acquired a special meaning in English linked to provincialism and the ordinary citizen; it is often contrasted with Wall Street. What Szájer and other Fidesz politicians mean is something very different. In their heads "Fő utca" is just the opposite of Main Street. It suggests a meaning close to "forefront." Viktor Orbán considers himself a Hungarian intimately familiar with the world, someone who understands the intricacies of international politics and finance. In his first "international press conference" he in fact referred to "provincialism" as the trademark of the socialist government as opposed to his panoramic view of the world.

Unfortunately, it seems that provincialism in the sense of not understanding the interconnection between political sloganeering or petty local political squabbles for home consumption and international politics and finance is rather typical of Viktor Orbán's thinking. He was totally insensitive to foreign reactions to his policies in his first administration and as a result Hungary's foreign relations with the neighbors as well as with the United States and Russia were in a total shambles by 2002. It took his successors years to repair the broken bridges Orbán and his team left behind.

However, one was hoping that the political scientist László Kéri was right, that in the last eight years Orbán has matured a lot. After all, he was only 34 when he became prime minister in 1998. Alas, he has already made some unfortunate remarks that met with immediate negative reactions from the established High Street of Europe.

In 1998 the financial world at home and abroad reacted negatively to Fidesz's winning the elections. This time my distinct impression was that most analysts looked forward to a change of government and some of them actually welcomed the two-thirds majority that would enable the government to introduce the long overdue reforms. Not only the experts but investors as well enthusiastically greeted the Fidesz victory. While on April 11 (Sunday), on the day of the first round of the elections, one euro was worth 268.37 forints, after the elections the forint strengthened considerably. By April 14, the exchange rate was 262.20 forints to the euro. In the two weeks between the two rounds of the elections the forint weakened somewhat, but it was still around 263-265 forints to the euro. On April 26, that is a day after the elections, it again strengthened slightly (262.89), but then came Tuesday when it became a great deal weaker: it reached almost 270 forints to the euro. The last time the forint was that weak was in the middle of February of 2010.

What do the experts say? Of course, the Greek financial crisis had a substantial impact. But the forint also weakened on Viktor Orbán's less than careful utterances about the chairman of the Hungarian National Bank and his attitude toward the IMF. We can measure the effect of his statements by comparing the decline in the forint to that of other currencies in the region: the zloty and the Czech koruna also weakened but less so than the Hungarian currrency.

So, what did Viktor Orbán say that foreign investors didn't particularly like and foreign commentators wrote about? First and foremost, Viktor Orbán said a few less than diplomatic things about the International Monetary Fund. He announced at the international press conference that "neither the officials of the IMF nor those of the European Union are our bosses. We will negotiate but we don't bow to dictats." Thus the Financial Times Deutschland not surprisingly drew the conclusion that "Hungary is giving up its austerity program." In the middle of the Greek crisis this sounds especially ominous.

But Orbán didn't stop here. He said a few nasty things about András Simor, chairman of the Hungarian National Bank. It has been no secret that Orbán doesn't like Simor whom he called "an off-shore knight," referring to an earlier ownership of a consulting firm registered in Cyprus. Whatever we think of the chairman of a national bank owning a firm giving financial advice, any kind of change in the leadership of the Hungarian National Bank at the moment would have a very adverse effect. Yet there is no question that Orbán would like to force Simor out of office. Even if he himself didn't openly say so at the press conference, a day later one of his deputies in the party, Zoltán Pokorni, made it clear that the new administration expects Simor's resignation. Simor, whose term ends only in March 2013, has already indicated that he has no intention of leaving his post.

The reaction was immediate. Barclays Capital yesterday dealt with the threat of removing Simor, adding that it is unlikely that Simor will oblige, but they noted that the "political noise" might have an adverse effect on the bank's monetary policies. Barclays' analysts noted that even if Simor left, the new chairman would most likely continue his policies, but the market has trust in Simor and any "forced change" might adversely affect the exchange rate, and thus the ongoing reduction in the interest rate (which is at the moment the lowest since 1990) might come to a halt. J.P. Morgan followed suit, adding that the strained relations between the government and the Hungarian National Bank might have an adverse effect on investment.

So, all in all, it seems that the path to the High Street of Europe has its bumps.

The first day of the “new country”

Viktor Orbán promised that all those Hungarians who live within the borders of the Hungarian Republic will wake up in a new country on April 26. Such campaign slogans of course cannot be taken too seriously but in some ways Viktor Orbán was right. Topics that had been shelved for years suddenly cropped up.

The first piece of news this morning was that the Christian Democrats, who again want to have their own parliamentary delegation although they don't have a party, announced a warmed-up demand: all supermarkets and shopping centers must be closed on Sundays. Allegedly the reason for this "innovation" is that the Christian Democrats are against the exploitation of the poor employees who have to work on Sundays. The family cannot spend a day together and, after all, for the Christian Democrats the family is very, very important.

Behind this demand to close supermarkets and malls are an alliance and an antipathy. First, the Christian Democrats have a very close association with the Catholic Church. According to rumors, the Catholic Church insisted on having a distinct Christian Democratic group within the Fidesz caucus that would represent the Church within the walls of parliament. However, only about 13% of the population frequent churches on Sundays and therefore arguing on religious grounds might not attract much sympathy. Second, they are antagonistic toward the multinationals who own most of the supermarkets and shopping centers. However, it is difficult to talk about this openly. So there remains their fervent protection of the exploited workers who, by the way, receive double pay on weekends.

Sundays are popular days for family shopping. The kids love going to the malls, and shopping is often accompanied by eating at one of the restaurants inside the shopping center. I heard an interview with the spokeswoman of Tesco who claimed that 10% of their business comes from being open on Sundays. An owner of a restaurant chain is beside himself because his restaurants are in shopping malls and 25% of their business is conducted on Saturdays and Sundays. Both people claimed that they would have to fire some employees if the Christian Democrats' plans become reality.

A socialist sympathizer who likes shopping on Sundays came up with a capital idea. A referendum should be held where people could vote for or against Sunday openings. My feeling is that the yeas would way outnumber the nays. But I think Viktor Orbán knows that too. Moreover, he has been especially friendly with associations representing those "oligarchs" he has been condemning so fiercely in the last couple of days. Among his supporters is at least one very rich man who has built multiple shopping centers in Hungary as well as abroad. Somehow I don't think that Orbán's favorite oligarch would be enamored with the ideas of the Christian Democrats. Thus, although we will hear a lot about this issue, I doubt that anything will come of it.

As for that alleged national cooperation/unity the Financial Times also noticed that although Viktor Orbán emphasizes the necessity of such unity or cooperation, his plans don't include any kind of cooperation with the opposition. Today Fidesz gave another example of the kind of "cooperation" they have in mind. Tibor Navracsics, head of the Fidesz caucus in the last parliament, wrote a lengthy letter to Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai in which he outlined their numerous demands for the transition of government business. Bajnai immediately answered that in fact his government had already prepared the details of the transition that included all the Fidesz demands and more. He invited the representatives of Fidesz to discuss the details. Answer: Fidesz doesn't talk to this government. Period. Good beginning.

A third piece of news concerned the new civil code that was passed during the last legislative session. Fidesz didn't vote for it because they objected to certain provisions. The Christian Democrats were especially upset over the provision for civil unions for gays and lesbians and the omission of an old (1950s) provision in the civil marriage vows that included a reference to marital fidelity. Although the President himself didn't go to the Constitutional Court for a decision on the issue, Róbert Répássy, the Fidesz representative in charge of legal questions, did. The Constitutional Court decided that certain provisions in the civil code are unconstitutional and therefore it cannot come into force on May 1 as planned. What a coincidence! After all, Fidesz said months ago that if the new civil code became the law of the land the new Orbán government would immediately suspend it. The Constitutional Court did them a favor. All that legal hassle will be unnecessary.

And on to something I found amusing. I read in today's Népszava that Jobbik will insist on the creation of a National Hungarian Guard (Nemzeti Magyar Gárda). The courts and the democratic parties have been struggling with how to get rid of the Hungarian Guard, which is the party's paramilitary organization; now Jobbik wants to make it the official national guard of the country. That most likely makes István Simicskó, originally Fidesz and later for convenience sake a Christian Democratic parliamentary member, cringe. Simicskó might be the next minister of defense, and his hobby horse until now at least was the establishment of a volunteer reserve force akin to the National Guard in the United States. But can you imagine if the National Guard is also supported and to a great extent manned by Jobbik and its sympathizers? This force could eventually become a real threat to the Orbán government or its successors. And then there would be the international fallout to any cooperation between Fidesz and Jobbik in establishing a Hungarian National Guard.

One more footnote to the topic of the aborted civil code. A provision that would have been changed, also from the time of the one-party dictatorship in the old civil code, was that a newspaper that quotes a source is responsible for its content. To give an example. Let's say that MTI, the Hungarian news service, reports on an event in which a statement was uttered that someone found objectionable. The "injured person" could then force not only MTI but also the paper that used the item to publish a "correction." twice found itself in this predicament by simply publishing MTI wire news. The editor of the on-line paper made the corrections but wrote a piece in which she expressed her frustration with this practice based on some idiotic law of the 1950s. At the end of her piece she optimistically said something to the effect that people can continue to make these demands for another fourteen days but then comes May 1 when the "injured persons" can save themselves a lot of legal fees. Well, it seems that she was too optimistic. The nonsense will continue.

And finally, there is nothing new under the sun. I was hoping that once Viktor Orbán felt safe as prime minister elect of the country he would give up his old populist ways and actually start governing. But no, he continues with his "national consultations." There will be national consultations on five topics: law and order, social security, recovery of the economy, salvaging health care, and bringing back democratic norms. So again, Orbán is planning to conduct politics outside of parliament and to engage in useless consultations with "the nation." I for one was hoping that he and his team already had some plans worked out and that they were not hoping to get ideas from the people who are singularly badly informed about economic and financial matters. But, of course, this is just a trick by which he is hoping to turn people's attention away from the stark reality of the country: people will not live better for a while and the government will not be able to provide without economic growth that hinges on an international economic recovery.

Election results in brief

For the past week or so it was evident that the run-off elections weren't exciting too many people in Hungary. Most people were convinced that Fidesz would receive its desired two-thirds majority. Indeed, only 46.61% of the eligible voters went to the polls. There were only three electoral districts where there was any suspense about the outcome: in two Budapest districts where MSZP politicians, Tibor Szanyi and József Tóth, had a fair chance of winning and in the electoral district encompassing the town of Edelény in the country of Borsod-Abauj-Zemplén where three right-wing candidates battled for the seat: Fidesz, Jobbik and the independent Oszkár Molnár. In the end the two Budapest MSZP politicians won, as did Oszkár Molnár thanks to a last-minute deal with Jobbik which withdrew its candidate in favor of Molnár. I assume that after the six compulsory months as an independent, Oszkár Molnár will end up in the Jobbik delegation where he belongs ideologically.

The final numbers are as follows. In the 386-member Hungarian parliament Fidesz received 263 seats (68.14%), MSZP 59 (15.28%), Jobbik 47 (12.18%), LMP 16 (4.15%), and there will be the one independent (0.26%). Although these results were not unexpected, the election is nonetheless a watershed in the history of Hungarian politics since the fall of the one-party system. No party had ever achieved such a huge victory.

Viktor Orbán's victory speech was described even by the sympathetic political scientist László Kéri as the opening salvo of a new campaign. Time and again he referred to the government as "the regime of national cooperation"; I suspect this will be the official description of the second Orbán government. The communication experts of the party came up with this (I hope) fairly meaningless phrase that will now be on the tongue of every Fidesz politician. This group-speak has been dubbed by people not friendly toward Fidesz "the parrot commando." Another phrase of the last few years that seems to have caught someone's fancy in the party is "the old regime of oligarchs." "Oligarch" is a well-known term even in English when we talk about Russia, but in Hungary this is new. LMP's leader, András Schiffer, liked the "regime of oligarchs" phrase so much that he immediately announced in his speech that his party will help put an end to the regime of oligarchs! Let's hope the Hungarian "oligarchs" don't suffer the same fate as some of the prominent Russian billionaires.

There was practically nothing in Orbán's speech that would indicate any cooperation with other parties. He again equated Fidesz with the nation itself: "Hungary won" by Fidesz's win. He emphasized the importance of these results by suggesting that with this election Hungary is showing the world the way of the future. The election results, he continued, are a stunning success (világsiker) that will shake the world. The election was "a revolution in the voting booths."

As usual, there's no consensus when it comes to evaluating this huge Fidesz win. Optimists stress the fact that there are many aspects of economic and political life that need fixing and here is the opportunity for Fidesz to tackle the problems without hindrance. Others simply don't trust Viktor Orbán and fear that all sorts of retrograde steps will be taken that will stymie the modernization process.

I was tuned into ATV's electoral coverage, at the end of which was a conversation between Gábor Kuncze, formerly chairman of SZDSZ, and László Kéri, the political scientist. Both men know Viktor Orbán well. Kuncze as a colleague and Kéri as his former professor. László Kéri used to be very critical of Fidesz but lately his remarks led me to believe that his evaluation of Fidesz and Orbán had changed. In fact, he eventually announced that it would be beneficial to the country for Fidesz to achieve the two-thirds majority. Yet tonight he said something that made me pause. Kéri said that in the last couple of years he had detected the appearance of a new Fidesz that made him hopeful that the party and its chief had changed for the better. But in Orbán's victory speech he again heard the voice of the Viktor Orbán of 1998. If he is right that's not good news.

Too much self-confidence and the inevitable political mistakes

At first I thought I would write about the uselessness of the Hungarian practice of campaign silence. It was unnecessary twenty years ago but in the age of the Internet it is truly ridiculous. Every Hungarian political site starts off saying: "Campaign silence: For older news, click here!" You click and a second later every bit of political news concerning the campaign that was written before midnight of April 23 is at your fingertips.

However, campaign silence is good for one thing, at least from my vantage point: at last I have a little time to catch up with news I missed over the week. I usually read the hundreds of items released by the Hungarian news service MTI (Magyar Távirati Iroda) and the more important daily papers, but often I don't have time to see MTV's early morning political show Ma Reggel (This morning). And yesterday I learned from one of the MTI releases that Ildikó Lendvai, chairwoman of MSZP, accused the media of partiality toward Fidesz politicians because the reporters know that soon it will be Fidesz that butters their bread. She brought up two examples, both involving Lajos Kósa, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, who had a rather unfortunate encounter with Olga Kálmán on April 12 during an interview on her Straight Talk (Egyenes beszéd ). I saw that interview at the time and I thoroughly enjoyed watching Lajos Kósa, who is never at a loss for words, being flustered when he couldn't find appropriate responses to Kálmán's probing questions about the Kubatov affair. I first wrote about this embarrassing business on April 7 ("A bit awkward: Fidesz caught red handed") and two days later in "Further developments in the Kubatov affair." Admittedly it was difficult to explain away the contents of the leaked tapes, but Kósa handled the questions surprisingly poorly. He must have realized that he didn't sound convincing and that Kálmán was basically making fun of him. He was getting redder and redder and at the end he pretty well warned Kálmán that from here on he will insist that only those topics can be covered that he has approved in advance. The reporter, on the other hand, insisted that a reporter is allowed to ask any question whatsoever. The politician has the right not to answer and Kósa could have avoided this embarrassing situation by simply saying at the very beginning that he knows nothing whatsoever about the whole thing.

Lendvai's other example also involved Lajos Kósa exactly one week later, on April 19, on the early morning show of MTV. There is a segment in this program called Szemközt (Face to Face) in which the invited guest must answer questions from the anchorman as well as from two invited outside journalists. Normally they ask reporters from opposite sides of the political spectrum to participate. On this occasion one of the reporters was Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság, who apparently told Kósa before they went on camera that she intended to ask him questions concerning the Kubatov affair. At that point Kósa lost his cool, started to dismantle the mike already attached to his lapel, and began walking out of the room. He told the reporters that he came here to talk about the elections and the future of local governments, not about Kubatov. The reporters convinced him to stay, but Csuhaj in the last minute told Kósa that it was impossible not to ask the deputy chairman of Fidesz about Kubatov's lists. At that point Kósa stopped dead in his tracks and began dismantling his mike for the second time. The anchorman who wanted to have the already announced program on the air begged him to stay and promised not to mention Kubatov.

Lendvai felt that this kind of media response doesn't bode well for the future when it seems that reporters will not be able to ask questions from Fidesz politicians. This is not just a figment of Lendvai's imagination. In opposition certain Fidesz politicians refused to give interviews to reporters who asked tough questions or were deemed not sympathetic to Fidesz. In the last couple of years Fidesz went even further. The party insisted on the removal of certain reporters from Nap-kelte (Sunrise), the predecessor of the current early morning political show. MTV obliged, but that didn't satisfy Fidesz whose politicians decided to boycott the show. And finally, MTV, most likely under Fidesz pressure, broke its contract with the producers of Nap-kelte. From past behavior the independence of the Hungarian media is not at all assured.

While I was doing a little research for this post I happened upon an interview with Ildikó Lendvai on Ma Reggel. I must say that Lendvai is better in opposition than she was when her party was in power. Her performance leads me to believe that MSZP will not be entirely powerless in opposition. It might be in parliament but when it comes to the war of words there is hope.

A few quotations from the past

It is always amusing to read quotations from politicians a few years apart, especially if circumstances have changed radically in the meantime. Lately the Hungarian media has dredged up interesting quotations from people like László Kövér and Viktor Orbán during the summer of 1994 when Gyula Horn asked SZDSZ to form a coalition government although MSZP already had a comfortable majority of parliamentary seats. SZDSZ, encouraged by several polls that indicated the party's electorate supported such a coalition, agreed. Thus, MSZP and SZDSZ had a 72% majority in the House.

It was during the spring of 1994 that I began using the Internet and I joined an English-language discussion forum in which SZDSZ supporters were in the great majority. I was new to Hungarian politics and was just beginning to feel my way around. Therefore I mostly listened. I clearly remember that my new Internet friends knew way before the day of voting that MSZP would win, but as one of them said: "But not that big!" I myself had no doubt that the left would win the elections. That was clear to me just by speaking to people in Hungary when I visited the country in December 1993. Even casual conversations on the streets revealed that the MDF-led Antall and later Boross governments were hugely unpopular.

With SZDSZ joining Gyula Horn's party, the majority of the government parties was indeed overwhelming, and not surprisingly it created a certain unease among the opposition. This unease was natural, just as it is natural today that certain opposition parties, I think of MSZP first and foremost, are deeply worried. But there is a huge difference between the situation in 1994 and now. In 1994 two former opposition parties found themselves at the helm of government; their behavior once in power was an unknown. One could worry about their future behavior but one couldn't point to an earlier period when these parties took advantage of their large majority. This is not the case now. Unfortunately one has vivid memories of the governing techniques of the first Orbán government. Even supporters of Fidesz today, I think here of László Kéri and Péter Tölgyessy, can only say that Orbán has learned a lot since. He is now wiser and less aggressive. Mind you, I haven't seen any signs of this change of heart, but we will see soon enough who is right and who is wrong.

In any case, here are a few quotations from the summer of 1994. I'm relying on the blog of Gábor Török, a political scientist. László Kövér pointed out that in democratic regimes the coalition created by MSZP and SZDSZ is "unusual and it is not to our liking." He didn't question its legitimacy but he "wanted to call attention to its immense responsibility." After all, the new government wasn't restricted by any institutional controls. He pointed out that the new government could change the constitution, the jurisdiction of the president, the position of the Constitutional Court, the electoral law, the structure of the local governments according to its whim. Doesn't it sound familiar?

János Áder, today Fidesz European parliamentary member and speaker of the house during the Orbán government, called attention to "the limitless power of this government." It is only on the government's "gentlemanly or comradely word of honor" that the opposition can rely. By adding the word "comradely," he indicated that the opposition didn't really trust this government's word of honor. As it turned out, comradely or not, the Horn-Kuncze government remained true to its word. It didn't touch the constitution or any of the fundamental laws in a serious way.

István Balsai (MDF), who was minister of justice in the Antall government, didn't trust the government's intentions in spite of reassuring words from Peter Hack (SZDSZ). He saw signs as early as July 1994 that the new government would change the constitution. The same Balsai today, as a member of Fidesz, is entrusted with the investigation into MSZP politicians' criminal activities. To me he is the embodiment of the kind of hatred Fidesz managed to plant in the heart and soul of the entire nation.

The Horn-Kuncze government made a single, in my opinion very unfortunate, fundamental change in the law governing the status of members of parliament. The constitution stated that members of parliament couldn't hold offices in local governments. The change was to the advantage of MSZP because out of the 200 MSZP members of parliament 50 were also mayors of their localities. Interestingly, Fidesz voted with the government parties at the time and since then they have never questioned that particular law. In the last four years an incredible number of Fidesz parliamentary members were also mayors of various cities and towns.

Today, MSZP and SZDSZ politicians are very proud that they showed great restraint when the Horn-Kuncze coalition had 72% of the seats. It was only Imre Mécs (SZDSZ) who said in 1997 that they "should have used the opportunities offered by this 72%" and should have made the most urgent and necessary changes in the constitution." Mind you, after MSZP-SZDSZ lost the elections and Orbán became prime minister, some MSZP politicians mentioned their past virtuous behavior to their Fidesz colleagues, who bluntly replied: "Don't be so proud. You were simply stupid!"

New government, new plans

Although the final results of the 2010 parliamentary elections have not yet been decided, the Hungarian media have already spent considerable time and space speculating about what this government will look like and who will have important positions in the cabinet. There is also a lot of speculation about the structure of the government. While in the United States the creation of a new department is a rare event, Hungarian politicians love to make changes in the structure of government. Ministries come, ministries go, and things usually don't get any better. In fact, it often happens that the new structure doesn't stand the test of time.

In just the last few years I remember the introduction of a sport and youth ministry (by now gone), a ministry of information technology (also gone), a ministry of culture and national treasure (gone). Then there was the creation of a separate ministry dealing with local governments (still exists). The most fundamental and important change introduced by Ferenc Gyurcsány was putting the police, earlier handled by the Ministry of Interior, under the the Ministry of Justice by renaming it the Ministry of Justice and Law and Order. That turned out to be a very bad decision. The minister of justice and his staff were not able to handle the affairs of the police.

I took a quick look at the structures of the various governments since 1990 and came to the conclusion that the most logical and simplest division of governmental functions was introduced by Gyula Horn. His cabinet consisted of twelve minsters and two ministers without portfolio, streamlined from the government of József Antall that had thirteen ministries and nine ministers without portfolio. Viktor Orbán liked a big cabinet; he had altogether fifteen ministries plus two ministers without portfolio. He added two new ministries: one was the huge ministry of the prime minister with a full-fledged minister at its head. Both ministries appealed to his successors, Péter Medgyessy and Ferenc Gyurcsány, and are still important parts of the governmental structure. Medgyessy and Gyurcsány didn't reduce the numbers, just shuffled some of the responsibilities of the ministries.

Apparently, if current rumors have any foundation, an entirely new structure will be introduced that is totally alien to Hungarian precedent. It seems that Fidesz will imitate the British set-up by creating only eight ministries, among them some "super ministries." One of these super ministries will deal with human affairs: social issues, culture, education, health, and everything else under the sun. There will be only one minister and several undersecretaries in charge of the various fields. Even more bizarre is the apparent plan to abolish the post of minister of finance. He would be demoted to the rank of an undersecretary under the superminister in charge of the economy. The undersecretary in charge of finance would only be responsible for the budget. But more about all this once we know the details.

Jobbik is already making demands for representation on parliamentary committees. Currently there are seventeen parliamentary committees and by law the chairman of the committee on national security must belong to an opposition member of parliament. By custom the same is true about the chairman of the committee on foreign relations and the chairman of the committee on finances. Vona announced in no uncertain terms that he will demand the chairmanship of the committee on foreign relations! You can imagine what László Kovács, minister of foreign affairs in the Horn government, thought of that. He pointed out that this is a very important position. Foreign governments pay attention to what the chairman of this particular committee says or does. How can a politician whose party wants to sever ties with the European Union head such an important committee? The politicians of Jobbik have often made provocative remarks about Hungary's neighbors and have made no secret of their revisionist aims. Moreover, Jobbik has turned away from a western orientation in general and its European parliamentary member, Csanád Szegedi, has been assiduously working for better relations with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kirghistan of all places!

I took a quick look at the current composition of the parliamentary committees; of the seventeen committees eight are headed by Fidesz, two by SZDSZ, and the rest by MSZP politicians. During the first Orbán government the governing parties were not that generous with the opposition. There were twenty-four parliamentary committees between 1998 and 2002 and in sixteen cases the chairmen came from government parties.

My feeling is that in the next parliament Fidesz will assume the chairmanship of the lion's share of the parliamentary committees, arguing that the party has such an overwhelming majority and the opposition is so small that it wouldn't be fair to allow the opposition to wield undue influence. After all, the opposition  (MSZP, Jobbik, and LMP) will have no more than about 110 seats out of the 386. 

Jobbik will have to get something, but I very much doubt that it will be the chairmanship of the committee on foreign relations.

What does the two-thirds mean in reality?

There is so much talk about the dreaded two-thirds majority, yet I'll bet few people know what it might entail. What kind of legislation can be enacted by a two-thirds majority? The list is long and some of its provisions don't have practical consequences. After all, it is unlikely that the Orbán government by virtue of having a two-thirds majority in parliament would declare war. But in the long list one can find some items that are worrisome in the event the government in power doesn't exercise restraint.

The list is divided into two parts. There are pieces of legislation that can be enacted by a two-thirds majority of all 386 members of parliament and there are those that can become law if two-thirds of the legislators present vote for it. Obviously the more weighty decisions can be found in the first category.

First and foremost an absolute two-thirds majority is necessary for the declaration of war and the conclusion of peace. A state of emergency either because of foreign invasion or internal threat can be declared only by two-thirds of all representatives. A two-thirds majority is also necessary to sign or abrogate international treaties. Let's say that the government in power would like to sever relations with the European Union. In this case such a momentous decision would be in the hands of a single party representing, let's say, about half of the population.

The election of the president would be straightforward: the government party's choice would sail through on the first day of voting. Moreover, if a president for one reason or another were not to the liking of the government party he could just as easily be removed. The election of the members of the Constitutional Court also depends on an absolute two-thirds majority. Again, a government party would be able to nominate and easily elect judges of a particular political stripe. The same is true about the nomination and election of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the head of the Accounting Office (Állami Számvevőszék). I might mention here that Fidesz most likely has plans as far as the head of the Accounting Office is concerned because they refused to vote for the reappointment of Árpád Kovács, head of the office between 1997 and 2009 to everybody's satisfaction.

We can now move on to the second category: the list of legislative acts that require a two-thirds majority of those present. Any change in parliamentary rules can easily be introduced and accepted as can the remuneration of members of parliament. A party with a two-thirds majority can also decide the fate of members of parliament from the opposition parties. It can simply begin procedures against them based on an alleged conflict of interest that normally leads to expulsion. A two-thirds vote is also necessary to hold a nationwide referendum or to decide on the employment of the Hungarian armed forces. We may recall when Fidesz in opposition refused to support a certain use of Hungarian forces in Iraq that eventually resulted in much more dangerous work, driving trucks along a road on which roadside bombs were exploding daily. This time the government would not have to take into consideration the opposition's views.

A two-thirds majority of members present is required for the enactment of legislation affecting many aspects of government. For example, any change in the present law concerning the status of local governments. A change here is certainly in order, and several times in the last eight years the government tried to attack the problem but Fidesz refused to cooperate. Now, according to László Kövér's announcement, one of the first tasks of the second Orbán government will be a drastic reduction in their number and in the size of the city/town councils. That would be a good move. Too bad that from opposition Fidesz refused to support it. I wonder, though, what the mostly Fidesz-led local governments will think of such a change in their status.

A slew of existing laws can be changed, including ones affecting the courts, freedom of movement, the free exercise of religion, freedom of assembly, citizenship, the right to strike, military service (which at the moment is voluntary but which doesn't seem to be to the liking of Fidesz), and one could go on and on.

In brief, a two-thirds majority is a dangerous weapon in the hands of a party that wants more than a change of administration; it wants a change of regime.

March for Life

Its being Monday, at first I thought that I would skip writing today, but then I saw a picture of the huge crowd that took part in Sunday’s March for Life (Az Élet Menete) commemorating the Holocaust. Even before I read the article describing the event my first thought was that it was really remarkable that this commemoration managed to attract several thousand people while all other demonstrations organized lately by left-liberals were very small. Only a few hundred people took the trouble to raise their voices against intolerance and the visible growth of the far right. And behold, here is this huge crowd. Maybe it means that in the future we will see more vigorous political participation on the part of the left.

The march was obviously more than a commemoration of the Holocaust. It was also a demonstration against the growing Hungarian Nazi movement. Because, let’s face it, it is a Nazi movement although in Hungary most people don’t dare to label it as such. When I wrote an article in Hungarian about the international reaction to Jobbik and mentioned that foreign commentators call them fascists, my editor wrote back expressing her hope that I could footnote that claim because otherwise Jobbik will sue the paper.

This is the eighteenth time that the march has taken place. In the first year only 400-500 people bothered to gather to commemorate the death of about 400,000 Hungarians in 1944-45. Last year there were more than 10,000 participants and this year their number might have been over 20,000. Among the marchers were several socialist and Fidesz politicians, including Péter Kiss, Ildikó Lendvai, Attila Mesterházy, Katalin Lévai, Ferenc Gyurcsány with his family, Antal Rogán (Fidesz mayor of the fifth district), Zoltán Balog (former chairman of the parliamentary committee on human rights), Gábor Kuncze (former chairman of SZDSZ), and Gábor Iványi, a well known Methodist minister. Apparently several members of the diplomatic corps also took part. I definitely saw the U.S. ambassador.

The march began in St. Stephen Park in District XIII and the crowd completely filled the New Pest section of the bank of the Danube.

Although there were several speeches the most interesting was the one given by Sándor Németh, head of the Hungarian chapter of the Assembly of God. This church is a very curious phenomenon. One would think that it would be politically conservative, but the Hungarian fundamentalists are a liberally minded lot and the church has long been associated with the liberal party. For instance, ATV, a liberal television station, is owned by the church.

Most commentators noted approvingly that Sándor Németh at last didn’t mince words and called Jobbik what it is, a neo-Nazi party. It is the shame of Hungary, he continued, that members of this party will be sitting in the Hungarian parliament. And, yes, the Jobbik parliamentary members will be sitting in the very same chamber where the laws against the Jews were enacted in the late thirties and early forties.

To finish this short piece on an upbeat note: I consider this very large demonstration a clear sign that the until now not very active left-liberal voters of Hungary will not be taking any anti-democratic shift in Hungarian politics lying down.