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Another round of talks between Viktor Orbán and José Manuel Barroso

January 30, 2013 35 comments

Viktor Orbán had a full schedule today: a lecture in Brussels and three important meetings with José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission; Herman Van Rompuy, president of the Council of Europe; and Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament. A pretty exhausting schedule, especially since tomorrow the Hungarian prime minister is flying to Moscow to have a discussion with Vladimir Putin. The meeting will be brief, only half an hour, but the topics to be covered are weighty: setting natural gas prices for the next ten years and possible Russian involvement in the extension of the Paks Nuclear Plant.

In anticipation of the Orbán visit to Brussels, commentators differed in their assessment of what Viktor Orbán could expect in his negotiations. Some predicted difficult negotiations while others contended that after the two-year-long “freedom fight” it was time for Hungary to mend fences and normalize relations. Interestingly enough, Magyar Nemzet‘s commentator predicted a tough time, especially in light of the IMF-EU report released on January 28. The IMF officials predicted that in both 2013 and 2014 Hungary’s deficit will exceed 3%. If the European Commission takes the report seriously, their opinion might adversely influence Ecofin’s decision about lifting Hungary’s Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP). And Viktor Orbán’s political future might depend on this decision. If the EDP is lifted, the Hungarian government could spend more freely in 2013 and early 2014 in anticipation of the election sometime in April of that year. Otherwise, further austerity measures must be introduced.

Viktor Orbán’s meeting with  Herman Van Rompuy was also more than a courtesy visit. As it stands, the European Union is planning to reduce the subsidies to Hungary by 30% over the next seven years. Considering that the little investment there is in the country comes from the EU convergence program, a 30% reduction could be devastating to the Hungarian economy.

Orbán began his Brussels schedule with a lecture at the Bruegel Institute, a European think tank specializing in economics. HVG somewhat sarcastically entitled its article about Orbán’s appearance at Bruegel “Orbán teaches economics to his audience in Brussels.” The very idea of Viktor Orbán giving a lecture on “work-based economies” to a group of economists working for this think tank borders on the ludicrous. I also wondered what his listeners thought when he boasted about his government’s achievements and called his economic policies a “true success story.”

The meeting between Barroso and Orbán took place in the afternoon and lasted a little longer than expected. At the subsequent joint press conference Barroso told the reporters that they talked about the upcoming EU summit in early February, about the 2014-2020 EU budget, and naturally the present state of the Hungarian economy. For the time being the Commission has no definite opinion about the past performance of the Hungarian economy, but by February 22 their recommendations to Ecofin will be ready. There was one sentence here that I think needs more clarification: “We also discussed the quality of the economic adjustments.” To me this means that Barroso and the Commission are aware that the way the Hungarian government achieved the low deficit may not be optimal.

Viktor Orbán and José Manuel Barroso at the press conference, January 30, 2013

Viktor Orbán and José Manuel Barroso at the press conference,
January 30, 2013

Viktor Orbán was more exuberant. “It was an excellent meeting,” he announced. They discussed matters that had created friction between the the Commission and Hungary in the past. He claimed that on the issue of the Hungarian National Bank they came to an agreement quickly. He admitted, though, that there are outstanding issues. Orbán indicated that he has no intention of backing down: the European Court of Justice will decide those issues he refuses to address himself. I might add here that cases the Commission sends to the Court usually go in the Commission’s favor.

Barroso sent a message to the Hungarians about the “rights and duties of the European Commission to insist that all national governments respect the laws of the Union.” The Commission tries to be impartial and objective. The Commission, like an umpire, must enforce the rules and regulations. This comment was most likely prompted by last year’s anti-European Union demonstrations instigated by the Orbán government.

Viktor Orbán might claim that the meeting was successful, but serious differences of opinion remain between the European Union and the Hungarian government over economic policies. The IMF-EU delegation predicted that further budget adjustments will be necessary to hold the deficit under 3%. Viktor Orbán disagrees, but I would be surprised if in the next few months, sometime before April, György Matolcsy didn’t announce another new tax in order to boost revenues.

All in all, at least on the surface, the meeting was friendly, or at least the two men pretended that it was. However, both Barroso and Orbán were careful in formulating their thoughts. In fact, Orbán opted to speak in Hungarian instead of his customary English, ostensibly because most of the reporters present were from Hungary. I suspect that the real reason was to avoid any imprecise formulation of his carefully worked out statement.

Whether Viktor Orbán was hoping for a public promise of support with regard to the Excessive Deficit Procedure I don’t know, but he didn’t get it. Olli Rehn, the commissioner in charge of finance, will have to mull over the details of the IMF report as well as the 2012 economic data submitted by the Hungarian Statistical Office. In my opinion, the 2013 budget belongs in a Brothers Grimm collection. The question is what the experts in Brussels will think of it.

IMF delegation’s report on the economic health of Hungary in 2012

January 29, 2013 61 comments

The IMF delegation was back in Budapest, but the visit was not part of the non-existent official negotiations between the International Monetary Fund and the Hungarian government. It was simply a routine examination of the Hungarian economy. Every six months, according to an agreement signed after Hungary received a substantial loan from the IMF, the officials of the Fund have the right to assess the financial well-being of the country.

The delegation arrived on January 16 to look over the balance sheet of 2012 and to suggest steps to correct perceived mistakes in the economic governance of Hungary. Mihály Varga, the man in charge of the non-existent negotiations, told the press that “all talks with the IMF are after all about the loan guarantee Hungary would like to receive.” The Orbán government wants to have a financial arrangement that would allow them to pursue their uniquely Hungarian economic policies without anyone looking over their shoulder. They sure don’t want to have those pesky IMF officials poking around.

IMF-Hungarian government negotiations, January 16, 2012Photo László Beliczy / MTI

IMF-Hungarian government negotiations, January 16, 2012
Photo László Beliczy / MTI

Mihály Varga simply doesn’t understand why the IMF is reluctant to extend a loan guarantee to Hungary without no strings attached when, according to him, everything is swinging. The deficit is low, the government bonds sell well, the price of their credit default swaps is reasonable, and the Hungarian economy is stable. But, it seems, the IMF sees all this very differently.

The unofficial negotiations continued off and on throughout the two weeks the delegation spent in Hungary. For Varga the question was “whether the IMF is willing to accept Hungary’s current model of economic policy as the basis of negotiations or it insists that we change the structure of our economic governance.” The answer came on January 28. The IMF does not accept György Matolcsy’s unorthodox economic model, and it insists on a different course of action. If Hungary does not comply, there can be no question of a loan. Forget about a guarantee.

It is unnecessary to summarize the contents of the fairly lengthy IMF report here. It can be found on the IMF website. The gist of  the report is that “a new policy course is needed to deliver the required medium-term fiscal adjustment in a sustainable way to support growth and confidence, repair the financial sector, and promote structural reforms to boost the potential of the Hungarian economy.”

The weak performance of the Hungarian economy is due both to structural factors and to specific domestic policies. The IMF doesn’t share the Hungarian government’s claim that Hungary’s problems are due solely to the weak performance of the European Union as a whole. The report argues that the “increased state interference in the economy and frequent and unpredictable tax policy changes, particularly on the corporate sector, undermined private sector activity. This contributed to a negative feedback loop between slow growth, weak investment, bank disintermediation, and high public debt.”

If the current policies are continued, the IMF report predicts, the general government deficit will increase in 2013-15. The IMF, like most Hungarian economists, predicts that there will be revenue shortfalls. As a result, the deficit will be above the maximum 3% necessary to exit the European Union’s Excessive Deficit Procedure.

In addition, the IMF delegation was deeply concerned about Hungary’s potential growth. They predicted that growth, if there is any at all, will be in the 1.0-1.5% range in the next two years. In order to foster growth the IMF would like to see “increased policy predictability, a level playing field for all businesses, and structural reforms.”

The Ministry of National Economy immediately reacted to the IMF, but it was as brief as possible. It simply stated that according to the government the “Hungarian economy in fact is in a much better situation than is portrayed in the IMF’s report.” Moreover, “the steps taken by the government are not ad hoc but will remain permanent features of the system.” Well, if this is true, the Hungarian economy will be unlikely to recover in the medium term.

The government’s take on the country’s economy is optimistic, and the ministry of national economy contradicts the IMF assessment on several points. For example, they do not admit that government policies contributed to the recession. In a report of its own, the ministry blames the problems on outside factors: recession in the euro-zone, the drought that produced a poor harvest, and the economic decline of several foreign businesses (Nokia, Flextronics, for example). Otherwise, they list a number of reforms the ministry considers “structural.” Among them, taxation, changes in education, healthcare, pensions, public transportation, and solving the problem of municipal indebtedness. The document can be read in its entirety on the government’s website.

Mihály Varga tried to shift the blame for the sluggish Hungarian economy to the European Union. After all, Hungary was forced by the EU to lower the deficit and to put into place austerity measures that resulted in economic contraction. He also insists on continuing the exorbitant tax levies on banks that has further stifled economic growth because of the lack of credit from banks that can barely keep their heads above water.

In contrast, most of the media described the IMF report as “devastating.” HVG emphasized the real possibility that because the IMF-EU delegation predicts a higher than 3% deficit  Hungary might remain under Excessive Deficit Procedure. That would be very bad news for Hungary. I assume that one of the topics José Manuel Barroso and Viktor Orbán will discuss in Brussels tomorrow will be the delegation’s critical remarks about Hungary’s economic policies.

On the right, the economist György Barcza, who used to work for ING Bank (2001-2012) but moved over to the pro-Fidesz Századvég last November, was the first one to raise his voice against the IMF’s critical report. He claimed that “the IMF didn’t dare tell the truth.” The members of the delegation criticized but did not say what remedies the Hungarian government should implement.  Barcza claimed that if the tax levies on banks and on international companies were lifted the budget would lose about 800 billion forints. In order to make up this sum the government would have to take drastic measures. It would have to introduce a 0.5% property tax. The tax rate for those who earn more than 4 million forints per year would be 50%. In addition, the government would have to stop the generous tax rebate to which families with three or more children are entitled.

Well, I’m no economist but I have other ideas that might solve the problem of the missing 800 billion. For example, the government could sell its MOL stock for which they spent billions, not in forints but in euros. I would suggest getting rid of the recently purchased shares in Rába. They shouldn’t have spent billions on a Hungarian-language university in Romania.  They shouldn’t have spent 13-14 billion forints on TEK (Terror Elhárítási Központ). It was really not necessary to spend 2-3 billion on a 400-member guard for the parliament. They shouldn’t be spending billions on recruiting voters abroad. Hungary doesn’t need several new football stadiums, each costing 10-20 billion forints.  And what about taking over the loans of municipalities that under Fidesz leadership piled up debts they can’t pay? I’ll bet that one could easily make up those missing 800 billion forints.

Attila Mesterházy’s official visit to Washington

January 28, 2013 33 comments

Surprisingly little appeared in the Hungarian media about Attila Mesterházy’s official visit to Washington. I found mention of it only in Népszava a few days ago, and today a short article appeared in Népszabadság that summarized the seven-member MSZP delegation’s week in the United States.

On the other hand, Magyar Nemzet is always vigilant. On January 24 it picked up MTI’s interview with Mesterházy and described the trip this way: “Attila Mesterházy again ran to Washington.” Gabriella Selmeczi, the Fidesz spokeswoman, woke up a bit late, only after Attila Mesterházy’s interview had appeared in The Wall Street Journal the day before. Her comments were predictable: Mesterházy is again trying to discredit  Hungary abroad. In addition, according to her, the socialists favor banks over their own citizens and foreign companies over Hungarian ones. Such accusations almost always resonate with the nationalist Hungarian right.

Interestingly enough, I could find no other mention of this trip to Washington and New York although the available information indicates that it was a very successful visit for MSZP’s party leader.

On the first day, January 22, the Hungarian delegation, made up of younger socialists in their thirties, had a meeting with Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state between 1993 and 1997, and two ranking members of the National Democratic Institute. NDI is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that has supported democratic institutions  all over the world in the last twenty-five years. Specifically, they want to strengthen political and civic organizations, safeguard elections, and promote citizen participation, openness and accountability in government. Albright is the chair of NDI. Kenneth D. Wollack, president, and Robert Benjamin, senior associate and regional director of Central and East European programs, were also present at the meeting that lasted more than an hour.

The next day Mesterházy gave a lecture in the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund. According to the MSZP press release (a biased source, naturally) there was great interest in what Mesterházy had to say. Among those who attended were members of the diplomatic corps, representatives of various U.S. government departments, businessmen, university professors, and Hungarian Americans. Mesterházy concentrated on MSZP’s plans for the future. There were many questions about the economy and the new electoral law. One of the members of the delegation was Csaba Kákosy, former minister of economics and transportation, who was actually nominated for the job in 2007 by SZDSZ but who is now economic adviser to MSZP. The title of the MSZP press release was “Washington is looking forward to a new beginning.” Surely, an optimistic reaction to a couple of days that the participants felt were a success.

Attila Mesterházy's lecture in the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund

Attila Mesterházy’s lecture in the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund

On the day of the American inauguration, the socialists had extensive discussions with some campaign advisers to the Democratic Party. MTI reported this piece of news, but I found no broader coverage of  it in the Hungarian media. The discussions centered around Internet communication, data-base building, opinion polls, and mobilization of the electorate. The release indicates that the socialists will not rely exclusively on Ron Werber but most likely will also hire advisers who were active in the Obama campaign.

In addition, Mesterházy and his fellow socialists met with the staff of the State Department who have a special interest in Hungary and the region in general, including Tomicah Tillemann, special adviser to the secretary of state, who is the grandson of the late Tom Lantos. Mesterházy also had a long conversation with Charles Gati, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. And the delegation had talks with the appropriate officials of the United States Holocaust Museum.

After leaving Washington, the socialist delegation visited New York where they had a meeting with the top officials of Freedom House, which was set up to support human rights and democracy, promote open government, defend human rights, strengthen civil society, and facilitate the free flow of information and ideas. Hungarians know Freedom House best for its yearly reports on media freedom.

After all of the official meetings, the socialist delegation “kicked back” with a group of about twenty Hungarian-Americans who have been getting together for dinner and conversation in the same restaurant for the past twenty-five years. The place used to serve Hungarian food but by now it is a Chinese restaurant. Included in the group were university professors, researchers, and managers. For more than two hours they discussed the economy, the student demonstrations, and the electoral law. The hosts were especially interested in the renewal of MSZP.

And now a few words about Mesterházy’s interview with The Wall Street Journal. From it we can glean more details of the socialist party chief’s conversations with officials in Washington and New York. Mesterházy apparently told the Americans that the socialists want to bring “the country back to a path of sustainable development.” He emphasized that “the party wants to clarify the separation of powers among the legislature, executive and judicial branches; restore authority removed from the Constitutional Court; ensure the independence of the central bank; expand press freedoms; and strengthen the country’s budget watchdog agency.” He pledged while in the United States that the socialists would “act swiftly and decisively to restore international trust in [Hungary's] economy.” He also emphasized his intention to work together with former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai as well as other “democratic” opposition groups. “I now see an almost 100% chance for an alliance to be formed.”

Mesterházy also pledged that the socialists would reduce the heavy banking-sector taxes levied by the Orbán government and thus free banks from their onerous financial burden so they could lend more readily. He also stated that “the war against foreign-owned companies must cease.” These are the remarks that prompted Gabriella Selmeczi to accuse the socialists of putting the interests of banks above those of ordinary citizens.

From what I heard from friends who met the socialists in Washington and New York, Mesterházy’s trip to the United States was a great success. Too bad that so little was said about it in the Hungarian media.

LMP’s rebels left the party: Who will be the winner of this game?

January 27, 2013 21 comments

A fair number of commentators have compared the current situation in LMP to what happened in Fidesz in 1993 when Viktor Orbán decided to make a sharp turn toward the right. At that time a number of liberal-minded leaders of Fidesz who objected to Orbán’s change of political orientation and his shift in strategy left the party. The “Dialogue for Hungary” platform is leaving LMP for strikingly similar reasons.

In preparation for writing this post I decided to take a quick look at a 2001 book, Csak a narancs volt (It was only the orange), about the early days of Fidesz. The volume, edited by György Petőcz, includes lengthy interviews with people who in 1992-1993 belonged to Fidesz’s internal opposition. One ought to read and reread this book to better understand Fidesz’s history and Viktor Orbán’s role in shaping it.

The liberal inner opposition left and joined SZDSZ. By the time the election rolled around in 1994 Fidesz had lost its momentum and the party barely had enough support to be represented in parliament. Viktor Orbán’s gamble paid off in the long run, however; four years later he became the prime minister of Hungary.

I doubt that András Schiffer will be able to imitate Viktor Orbán’s gambit. Surely, no one can believe Schiffer’s claim that LMP, currently polling at 3%, can win the elections either in 2014 or in 2018. Most likely he would like LMP to be strong enough by 2014 that in case Fidesz doesn’t have a clear majority, Viktor Orbán would have to turn to him as a coalition partner.  The European Union would frown on Fidesz becoming bedfellows with Jobbik but couldn’t raise any objections to a coalition with a green party.

Although LMP stands for “Lehet Más a Politika” (Politics Can Be Different), Schiffer himself is not a refreshingly different politician. Among other things, he plays fast and loose with numbers.  He confidently announced today that only 10% of the party’s membership is leaving LMP. Well, yes, about 70 people voted for the strategy advocated by the Dialogue for Hungary’s program at the congress. And indeed, there are 700 LMP members. But only about 150 people attended the congress. So about 45% of the attendees voted with the internal opposition. Most likely relying at least in part on this number, the internal opposition claimed that more than half of LMP members will follow them to form another party.

Schiffer ardently disagreed with this assessment, despite his poor short-term predictive track record.Yesterday he was certain that not all eight rebels in the fifteen-member parliamentary delegation were planning to leave the party but only “two or three.” As it turned out, he was wrong. The decision was unanimous. Despite this decision, he repeated several times today that we are not witnessing “the break-up of the party.”

The three young politicians of the rebels in LMP:Benedek Jávor, Tímea Szabó, and Gergely Karácsony

Three young rebel politicians in LMP:
Benedek Jávor, Tímea Szabó, and Gergely Karácsony

Even though he may say that LMP will remain whole, he’s joining Fidesz in advancing a conspiracy theory. Magyar Nemzet obliquely suggested that Gordon Bajnai’s E14 movement is behind this new development. Schiffer and his closest ally, Gábor Vágó, agree: E14 stoked the discontent of the rebels in the party.

One practical question is what will happen to the LMP caucus. House rules state that ten members of parliament can form a parliamentary delegation. With the split-up, LMP will not have enough members to retain its current status, and sitting with the independents allows the members very little opportunity to make an impact in parliament. Most likely LMP and whatever the new party will be called will sit together as a group. An interesting situation, although Benedek Jávor claims that as far as their work in parliament is concerned the two groups get along just fine. The only difference will be that the still No-Name Party will negotiate with E14 and other political parties on the left while the Schiffer faction will not.

Some people argue that such a parliamentary accommodation would be unsavory, especially from a party that considers itself the epitome of decency, honesty, and transparency. In at least partial defense of  the Jávor group, I would note that they announced that they will not claim half of the state subsidies LMP has been receiving since 2010.

As for my own opinion of the rebels, I consider them the “better half” of LMP, but I still have serious objections to some of their political views. Their anti-capitalistic stance is the last thing Hungary needs at the moment or, for that matter, at any time in the foreseeable future. What the country needs today is more capital and more capitalists who are ready to invest in the Hungarian economy. I understand their ecological concerns, but I can’t support a policy that would prevent Hungarians from shopping in large supermarkets where the selection is greater and the prices lower.

I was also outraged by Tímea Szabó’s behavior when she was a member of a sub-committee investigating Ferenc Gyurcsány’s and the police department’s handling of the “unfortunate events” of September-October 2006. She was siding with members of Jobbik.

The man I like best in this group is Gergely Karácsony, but even he behaved dishonorably when he first agreed to support Katalin Lévai (independent with MSZP backing) in the by-elections in District II in Budapest if Lévai received more votes than he did after the first round of voting and then went back on his word. I wrote about this sorry affair on November 14, 2011. I suspect that he was pressured to do so by Schiffer, but still…. I also found it unfortunate that Karácsony at one point suggested a “technical alliance” with Jobbik in order to dislodge Fidesz, after which they would hold new elections. The idea was dropped, but it just shows the ideological confusion that exists within the party.

Where is András Schiffer leading LMP? Straight into the arms of Fidesz

January 26, 2013 30 comments

I was hoping to answer the question that has been on a lot of people’s minds: will LMP split if András Schiffer’s insistence that the party goes its separate way triumphs at the party’s congress? I even postponed my post to get the latest word. Unfortunately, I have nothing definitive to report. Schiffer’s ideas were endorsed by a majority, larger than last time, but we don’t know what the internal opposition led by Benedek Jávor will do after their second defeat by the Schiffer majority.

The dispute is not just over whether they should join the E14 or not. The members of the opposition sense a certain shift toward the right outlined earlier by András Schiffer and voted on at the last congress in November.

Their political views are irreconcilableAndrás Schiffer and Benedek Jávor

Their political views are irreconcilable:
András Schiffer and Benedek Jávor

Common sense would dictate that LMP should join forces with the other democratic parties if they, as they claim, want to defeat the Orbán government at next year’s election. How can a party whose support in the latest Medián poll was a mere 3% do that alone? Does András Schiffer really believe his own propaganda that he frequently repeats during interviews, that between now and April 2014 LMP will be able to defeat Fidesz single-handedly and form a government?

I believe that András Schiffer is leading his followers down the garden path. Or, to switch metaphors and put a more malevolent spin on it, I think he has something up his sleeve. At the November LMP congress the majority didn’t support a proposal that would consider the defeat of the Orbán government and LMP’s existence as a separate entity of equal importance. The final wording emphasized the “independent existence” of the party over the defeat of the Orbán government. The majority also voted against a proposal to preclude the possibility of negotiations with Jobbik and Fidesz.  There was one proposal that was eventually voted down, according to which LMP would consider itself “half way” between Jobbik and its opposition. The delegates also voted down another proposal that stated although LMP would decide on an individual basis whether to participate in anti-fascist demonstrations, it would always be ready to declare its solidarity with the demonstrators. No automatic solidarity here.

Gábor Scheiring, a member of the opposition group within the party, declared after the November congress that what happened there meant that “LMP is turning to the right.” Scheiring found it “surprising how many of our members feel that perhaps it is better if Fidesz stays if it can be defeated only with MSZP. The majority is looking at Gordon Bajnai as part of the MSZP scheme. That’s why so many people [at the congress] voted for independence rather than change of government [as the party's primary goal].” Scheiring added that for him this kind of strategy was unacceptable.

Last September Schiffer wrote a twenty-page study for internal use in which he outlined his ideas about the future of LMP. Soon enough the pamphlet became public. In it he noted that many of the views of Jobbik and Fidesz are the same as those of LMP. “We speak the same language when we talk about globalized capitalism or ecological catastrophe.” He added that LMP is critical of capitalism, globalization, and modernization and “therefore it is a leftist party.” But, in his opinion, “a new government in which the socialists would also be represented wouldn’t move ahead with the required speed to cure the wounds of society.”

In the same study Schiffer spent a great deal of time on the success of Jobbik that in his opinion highlighted legitimate grievances about the last twenty years. LMP, he argued, can’t afford to ignore the 800,000 men and women who voted for Jobbik. He suggested that especially in the larger towns on the Great Plains there could be a serious competition between Jobbik and LMP for the votes of the younger generation. A few lines later Schiffer declared that “LMP’s goal in ideal circumstances by 2014 or in the longer term is to be the alternative to the populist, right-wing Fidesz.”

Where will LMP find supporters for such an ambitious plan?  It’s unlikely that LMP will find new recruits among MSZP supporters. But that can mean only one thing. LMP must find new followers on the right.

Népszabadság got hold of Schiffer’s political manifesto and naturally wanted to talk to him about the contents of the pamphlet. Schiffer stood by his ideas but said that anyone who interprets his message as a move to the right “simply cannot read.” However, many of Schiffer’s colleagues in the party, for example Tímea Szabó, told the Népszabadság reporter that it is difficult to belong to a party that refuses to categorically distance itself from Jobbik. She, like others of the new internal opposition of LMP, cannot stomach the party’s move toward the right and its decision that the removal of the Orbán government is not the party’s primary goal. She considers the removal of Orbán an absolute necessity because another four years of this government would ruin Hungary’s chances of once again becoming a functioning democracy.

During today’s gathering the pro-Schiffer forces gained ground. A couple of days ago Benedek Jávor told Antónia Mészáros on ATV Start that if the majority follows Schiffer’s lead he will seriously consider leaving the party. According to today’s Origo, “if the congress doesn’t support the strategy of the Dialogue for Hungary its member will resign.” The paper predicted that the day of decision will be tomorrow.

The Hungarian government’s newest business venture: Installing an e-toll system

January 25, 2013 56 comments

György Matolcsy’s failed attempts at putting together a budget that doesn’t need almost immediate adjustment are legendary by now. The final budget accepted in December looked suspicious from the very beginning. Matolcsy included about 400 billion forints from taxes that were not in accordance with European Union laws. If the ruling of the European Court of Justice goes against Hungary, which seems likely, the companies that were so taxed must be reimbursed. So, there is already a 400 billion hole in the 2013 budget.

But that is just the beginning.  There are two other listed sources of revenue that most likely will not add a forint to the coffers of the Hungarian state. You may recall that the Orbán government hoped to receive 75 billion forints from an e-toll system that would require trucks over 3.5 tons to pay per kilometer fees on Hungarian roads. The system was supposed to be functional by July 1, 2013. Another 95 billion forints of value-added tax was supposed to be received by introducing a cash register network directly connected to the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service.

Well, it looks as if neither system will be in place by July 1. Here I would like to explain what went wrong with the e-toll system. Let’s start with the fundamentals. To work out such a complex system takes a lot of time. For example, in Germany, where the system functions well, the government began thinking about its introduction in 1998 but the law regarding the e-toll system was enacted only in 2002. The Germans hoped that the system would be up and running in 2003, but it was completed only in 2006. It is based on a satellite positioning system.  The Austrians also took their time planning and eventually setting up a system in 2003. In Hungary, by contrast, the decision was reached within a few months and by September companies were invited to tender bids for the new electronic toll road system. There were two bidders: T-Systems, a unit of Magyar Telekom, with a 53.4 billion forint bid and Getronics with a bid of 34.89 billion forints. The Hungarian government opted for the lower bid although Getronics had no prior experience in this area. On January 19, in large measure because of the hefty fines that would be levied if it did not complete the project on time, Getronics decided not to sign the contract. The Hungarian government, instead of turning to T-Systems, the under-bidder, decided to go it alone as a kind of “general contractor.”

Before pondering the wisdom of this move, let’s go back a bit in time to review Viktor Orbán’s attitude toward tolls in general. When he became prime minister in 1998 there was a functioning per kilometer system in place. It was the old-fashioned variety, with gates where one got a ticket which drivers paid once they left the toll road. Viktor Orbán in those days didn’t like that system. In its place the first Orbán government introduced a system based on prepaid fees that allowed the owner of the car to be on the road at certain times. It was called the “matrica” system. Matrica means sticker in Hungarian.

So, after 1998 all the “gates” on the toll roads were dismantled because Orbán maintained that “gates are for football fields and not for roads.” At that time there were altogether about 80 such gates on two highways (M1 and M3). To build them cost about 5 billion forints; it was another 1 billion to demolish them. I remember being horrified at the idea of demolishing these gates and substituting the “sticker” system that I found unfair. After all, a valid sticker cost the same whether the person drove 200 km or 20km on any given day. Moreover, ascertaining whether a driver had a valid sticker was haphazard; the state relied on spot checking.

Fourteen years later Orbán obviously changed his mind. As far as I’m concerned this would be fine if the e-toll system was professionally and competently designed and executed. But, according to rumor, the job will end up in the hands of companies whose management teams have close ties to the government. The rationale for choosing them will be based not on experience and competence but on political connections. Most people claim that in Hungary there is simply no company capable of creating an e-toll system that is up to snuff. Yet Orbán promised the pensioners in Vásárosnamény that on January 23 Hungary will have an e-toll system that will be all Hungarian.

Illustration to autopult.hu's article on the subject of e-toll

The illustration accompanying autopult.hu’s article on the subject of  an e-toll system, Hungarian style

The government’s self-confidence is not shaken. András Giró-Szász announced that Getronics’s pulling out is only “a minor detail.” Orbán assured his listeners that all the budgets he submitted in the past went through with flying colors and this will also be true of the 2013 budget. Well, flying colors is surely a bit of an exaggeration because we all remember how many times Matolcsy had to change the figures and how many new taxes had to be introduced to meet the EU’s deficit target.

A toll system that works only in Hungary and that is not compatible with those of other countries in the European Union would be a waste of money, according to experts. Apparently within a few years the European Union is planning to introduce a single system that will be based on satellite technology. There is another problem if a unique Hungarian system is introduced. There is a Union rule stating that trucks from EU countries cannot be stopped at borders. That means that inside of the vehicles there must be a piece of equipment that is able to record the traveled kilometers. In an incompatible system that wouldn’t work. Trucks would need a separate Hungarian recording system. In addition, European Union rules require that all information about time, route, etc. must be safely stored, and experts fear that any system that could be introduced in five months wouldn’t be sophisticated enough to ensure the safe storage of information.

All in all, most people are pretty certain that with the Hungarian state as “general contractor” the proposed e-toll system will be a flop. Earlier the Hungarian government wanted to have its own mobile service and announced its plan with great fanfare. Even though the new company existed only on paper, it received a frequency necessary for operation. The government even appointed a CEO. Everybody told the government that it was an unnecessary expense. There were three other providers and there was no reason to have a fourth company. As a blog writer said, “the catastrophe was predictable.” And it was. The blogger is certain that the same fate awaits the e-toll business of the Orbán government.

“Canada will not send its refugees to Miskolc” says the Hungarian mayor

January 24, 2013 104 comments

The city of Miskolc gets a lot of coverage nowadays in the Hungarian media. At the center of the often swirling controversy is the Fidesz mayor of the city, Ákos Kriza. With the 2010 municipal elections the political map of this industrial city changed radically. Until then the socialists had always been in the majority on the city council and the mayor was also a socialist. Today Fidesz councilmen are in the great  majority and they are reinforced by three Jobbik members.

How successful is the new mayor of Miskolc? I found an article from the summer of 2012 in which one of the MSZP councilmen claimed that Ákos Kriza is such a failure that Viktor Orbán himself decided that at the next election Kriza will be dropped as a mayoral candidate and instead will be promised a seat in parliament. Well, I thought, this was probably only wishful thinking on the part of the MSZP councilman. But just today I discovered in the print edition of Magyar Narancs (January 17,  pp.13-15) that the new mayor of Miskolc, imitating his party’s leader, decided not to continue projects that were already in progress and instead started everything from scratch. As a result, none of the promised projects has been completed. Moreover, Kriza seems to be promoting businesses that can be linked to Jobbik. At least this is what a local online paper (Északi Hirnök) claims.

Kriza is not exactly a common name, and I immediately began wondering whether our Kriza has anything to do with the famous János Kriza (1811-1875), the Unitarian bishop and folklorist who collected Transylvanian Hungarian folk tales. Indeed, Ákos Kriza claims to be a descendant of or at least related to János Kriza. Ákos Kriza was born in Oradea/Nagyvárad (1965) and became a physician after finishing medical school in Târgu Mureş/Marosvásárhely. He moved to Hungary shortly after graduation and has been living in Miskolc since 1990. According to his political opponents, since his election as mayor he has been favoring his old friends and acquaintances from Transylvania and from the Partium, the region around Oradea.

János Kriza was obviously not a stupid man. Among his skills, he spoke German, French, and English and had a reading knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, which he needed for his theological studies. So, I don’t know what he would think of his modern-day relative’s bungling. Ákos Kriza’s behavior shows him to be ignorant of the most basic rules of democracy and decency.

So, what happened that thrust Kriza into the limelight again? There is a new, controversial Canadian piece of legislation called “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act” that became law on December 12, 2012. The law made immigration policies more stringent for political refugees. Up until now it took a fairly long time to decide on the eligibility of a political asylum seeker. The current Canadian government deemed this process too costly. Moreover, the Canadians consider Hungary a free country. No accounts of discrimination against the Hungarian Roma, their poverty, or even their systematic murder could move Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism. Canada will speedily expel hundreds if not thousands of Roma asylum seekers.

A few days ago the Canadian government decided to advertise the new immigration policies in the city of Miskolc because about 40% of the Hungarian Roma political asylum seekers came from there or from the city’s environs. According to the Christian Science Monitorthe Canadian government spent $13,000 on billboards as well as on television and radio ads warning about the changed immigration policies and about the likelihood of the speedy return of the asylum seekers. Kriza became enraged. He objected to the Canadian campaign in his city. Why Miskolc? The posters appeared on the streets on January 15, and Kriza immediately sent a letter to Tamara Guttman, Canada’s ambassador to Hungary. Kriza later admitted that “it was a bit strongly worded.”

kanadai plakat

Canadian poster informing Romas of the restrictions and mentioning the speedy return of those who are not eligible for political asylum

Kriza first objected to the fact that “the Canadian Embassy didn’t inform the city” of their impending campaign. Kriza also claimed that when Kenney visited Miskolc last October, the Canadian minister said nothing about “sending home [the Roma] more speedily.” Kriza claimed that “those who sought asylum have no right to return to Miskolc.” For good measure he told the ambassador that he “finds the steps taken by Canada offensive and undesirable. In addition, your course of action is unacceptable.” To the Hungarian media Kriza announced that “Canada will not send its refugees to Miskolc.” He considered the Canadian campaign “intimidation” of his city.

Immediately after Kriza’s outburst several national and local papers inquired on what basis Kriza wants to prevent the returning Roma from going back to their original houses and apartments. The next day Kriza received the Canadian ambassador’s letter, and the mercurial mayor calmed down somewhat and behaved in a  less objectionable way when he was interviewed on “Az Este,”  an evening program on MTV. However, he obviously didn’t give up his plan to get rid of the returning Roma. A couple of days after his appearance on national television Kriza announced that he will “keep the criminal elements out of Miskolc by checking whether any of the people who left for Canada also took advantage of social assistance from the city or the central government.” He claimed that he had already found five people who were ineligible and who thereby committed a crime. He got in touch with the police. He will do everything to prevent “these criminals from settling in the city. Moreover, criminals currently residing in Miskolc will be driven out by the authorities.” He even threatened returning Roma parents that the authorities would take their children away and place them under state supervision.

Today Népszava claimed that Kriza’s threats can be considered “harassment.”  The Hungarian Helsinki Commission also took notice and pointed out that Kriza’s threats and his intention to restrict the free movement of the returning Romas are in direct contravention of Hungarian and international law. In addition, NEKI (Nemzeti és Etnikai Kisebbségi Jogvédő Iroda) argued that “the words of the mayor of Miskolc actually support the merits of the requests for political asylum.”

I do hope that Kriza’s words get to Ottawa. But even if they do, the Canadians most likely will not have the “pleasure” of reading the comments from some of the peace-loving people from Miskolc. They would most likely be shocked. Perhaps then the Canadian officials would lend a more sympathetic ear to the plight of the Hungarian Roma.

MSZP campaign at home and abroad. Part II

January 23, 2013 30 comments

Hungarian pollsters did after all come out with their most recent findings. Although there are no earthshaking developments in the popularity of politicians and parties, there are a few noteworthy points.

First, neither the student demonstrations nor the government’s announcement of a 10% decrease in natural gas prices made a difference as far as electoral support was concerned. The number of those who are undecided has grown since December. There are, however, signs that something is brewing if questions are posed in a way that doesn’t address actual voter participation. When asked whether they would like to see this government continue after the 2014 elections 53% said no and only 21% answered in the affirmative.  The problem for the opposition is that 48% of those who would like to see Viktor Orbán and his pals go don’t support any of the opposition parties either.

Second, although Gordon Bajnai is still more popular than Viktor Orbán, support for E14 has been decreasing in the last two months. There might be at least two reasons for this decline. One is that E14 seems to be a reluctant partner in the initially promising prospect of a united front embracing all democratic opposition forces. I don’t think that it is Gordon Bajnai himself who is responsible for this development, although one can blame him for choosing Milla’s Péter Juhász as one of his partners. Péter Juhász seems to be about as reluctant to work together with MSZP as LMP’s András Schiffer. I recall that back in October, before the Milla-organized mass demonstration, Ferenc Gyurcsány expressed his doubts about the wisdom of this move. I’m afraid he was right. Juhász and other civic organizers are only strengthening the population’s mistrust of parties. But without parties on one side against a ruthlessly led and centralized party on the other side there is no way of winning an election.

While E14 is losing momentum, MSZP under the leadership of Attila Mesterházy is gaining ground, although its gains don’t show up yet in the statistics. One must keep in mind that Fidesz’s lead over MSZP is slight: 1.5 million would vote for Fidesz and 1.3 million for MSZP. So, it doesn’t matter how many people, even among the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, would prefer that MSZP not have an important role in Hungarian political life, its disappearance will not happen any time soon.

But let’s move away from the domestic scene to MSZP’s play for Hungarians abroad. Key MSZP politicians made a pilgrimage  to Romania on January 16. As I mentioned earlier, Fidesz is the clear favorite among the Hungarians of Romania. Why? First, the Romanian-Hungarian population is conservative. After all, RMDSZ, the largest and most important Hungarian party, is a right-of-center political formation. Second, because Transylvanian cities formerly inhabited by Hungarians became Romanized with the passing of time, Hungarians for the most part remained in the countryside. And as we know from examples all over the world, there is a great deal of difference in the politics of the cities and the countryside. Third, I’m being told time and time again by people who know the psyche of the Hungarians of Romania that those who live in Transylvania know darned little about what’s going on in Hungary. They made up their minds years ago that Fidesz represents their interests and the socialists do not.

mszp uj logoNow with the possibility that perhaps tens of thousands of Romanian Hungarians might cast their votes in the Hungarian elections, MSZP felt that they had to make themselves heard. The first trip was to Cluj/Kolozsvár where Attila Mesterházy outlined the party’s new “nationality policy” (nemzetpolitika). He sketched out five programs. (1) The Carpathian Basin program would in the next ten years try to strengthen the economic and cultural level of Hungarians. (2) If MSZP wins the elections the new Hungarian government would promote education, culture, and the study of history. They would pay special attention to the dissemination of information via the Internet. (3) They would encourage cooperation between the electronic media near the two sides of the border and they would restore the original function of Duna Television. (Duna Television, although ostensibly still the TV station for Hungarians in the neighboring countries, is today under the central governance of all public media and thus its programming doesn’t reflect the needs of those living outside of the country.) (4) They would continue the past practice of  joint Romanian-Hungarian cabinet meetings. (5) They would make the dispersal of Hungarian subsidies more democratic by including Romanian-Hungarians in the decision-making process.

In addition to these programs Mesterházy outlined five MSZP strategies. (1) MSZP in contrast to Fidesz will never try to “export domestic political debates” to Hungarian regions in the neighboring countries. (2) The principle of equality between the Hungarian government and the democratically elected representatives and organizations will be scrupulously observed. Unlike Fidesz the government will not pick and choose among Romanian-Hungarian organizations according to political preferences.  (3) MSZP will not interfere in domestic issues that might influence the lives of Hungarians in any given country. (4) MSZP’s policy will be based on partnership, and therefore Budapest will not dictate policy to Hungarian representatives and organizations of other countries. (5) The guiding principle will be “nothing about them without them.” MSZP will seek continuous dialogue with the Hungarian political leaders abroad on all questions that concern the Hungarian minority.

rmdsz3Finally, Mesterházy apologized for MSZP’s decision to support those who cast their votes against dual citizenship in the December 5, 2004 referendum. As he put it, “it was a wrong question at the wrong time.” Responsibility for that mistiming lay not only with MSZP. Obviously, he was alluding to Fidesz, the party that in the last moment joined the clamor for a plebiscite.

The reactions of pro-government papers were predictable. It was also expected that László Tőkés, who only recently established a new Hungarian Party supported by Fidesz, immediately attacked the meeting. He is an opponent of both MSZP and RMDSZ. His new party, Erdélyi Magyar Néppárt, ran against RMDSZ in the last election and did poorly. It seems that some of the Hungarians in Transylvania were also skeptical of  MSZP’s effort to gain a toehold among Romanian-Hungarians.

Szabadság, a Hungarian-language paper in Cluj/Kolozsvár, republished an analysis from Mensura Transylvanica. The author of the article was not impressed. One by one he criticized past policies of the MSZP-SZDSZ governments and expressed his doubts that the party’s attitude toward the Hungarian minority’s organizations has changed. Moreover, there is nothing new in the proposals or strategies outlined.  MSZP’s favorite was always RMDSZ while they were leery of the two right-wing parties, one favored by László Kövér and the other by Viktor Orbán. Mensura Transylvanica doesn’t seem to like the MSZP idea of having good relations with the governments of the neighboring states. This policy harks back to the Antall government that wanted to have a balance between good relations with the governments of the neighboring states and the rights and interests of the Hungarian minority. “All in all, the new program of MSZP does not bring anything new to past practices.”  The author especially worried about “the partnership that is being forged by RMDSZ and MSZP.” Whoever our author is, he is no friend of the largest Romanian-Hungarian party. As for MSZP trying to get votes from Transylvania, he considers it a hopeless cause.

Yet Mensura Transylvanica admitted that the visit was “an important milestone in Hungarian nationality policy” and an indication of RMDSZ’s changing policy. Until now, RMDSZ kept equal distance from all Hungarian parties, but now due to the worsening relationship between RMDSZ and Fidesz the political leadership of the party gave up one of its cardinal rules concerning its relationship with Hungary. However, warned the writer of the article, if RMDSZ decided to make this move in the hope of achieving a better relationship with Fidesz, it is a risky undertaking. In order for RMDSZ to benefit from this partnership MSZP and its future allies must win the elections. And our man doesn’t believe that this will happen.

Psychology and politics: Two studies

January 22, 2013 36 comments

Today I would like to summarize two articles on Viktor Orbán and his political strategy.  One was written in July 2012 and appeared in Élet és Irodalom, unfortunately available only to subscribers. The author, András Bruck, spent the bulk of his lengthy article on the psychology of Viktor Orbán and came to the conclusion that “he betrayed not only his own past but also that of his parents.” Bruck fears “that for this betrayal, for his own conflict ridden soul, we, the whole country, are paying dearly.”

While Bruck tries to discover the inner workings of Orbán’s psyche, Kristóf Varga, a political analyst and a psychologist, attempts to interpret the psyche of the Hungarian people. He comes to the conclusion that Viktor Orbán found the key to the wishes and desires of Hungarians. His policies that on the surface make no sense in fact speak to the “anxiety” of Hungarian society, a state that was induced by the uncertainties of life after 1990.

For Bruck it is Viktor Orbán’s insatiable appetite for power that moves him. Orbán realized that he can establish absolute power, even a dictatorship, only if he turns segments of society against each other. Earlier he concentrated on the dividing line between the left and the right, but by now he is turning judges against judges, teachers against children, children against their parents. This way, claims Bruck, society’s connecting fabric will be completely destroyed and the road will be open to a dictatorship.

Varga is also aware of Orbán’s pathological attitude toward power, but he puts the emphasis on Orbán’s recognition of society’s expectations. Many Hungarians live in a state of constant anxiety because of the uncertainties of the world that followed what was a secure life in the Kádár regime. In 1989-1990 came capitalism, democracy, and globalization, all at once. This new world was about individual responsibility, competition, and the well deserved results of competition. The Hungarian people were not ready for such a leap. Their answer was to escape from reality.

Anxiety by Joana Roja / Flickr

Anxiety by Joana Roja / Flickr

Many of us are prone to think when we encounter true believers that these people are under some kind of a spell. That their sense of reality is warped by some magic propaganda whose secret is known only to the leader of Fidesz and his small coterie. But, continues Varga, magic propaganda potions are only temporary. A smaller paycheck will not look bigger for long. The success of Fidesz, he argues, lies in “the presentation and transmission of  a behavior that helps the people cope with the anxiety that has been gripping a large segment of Hungarian society in the last twenty years.”

Post-1990 Hungarian politics discovered how to handle that anxiety. The strategy was “the establishment of a soft democracy.” You may recall that the later Kádár years are often described as “soft dictatorship,” which meant a regime that made life even in a one-party dictatorship bearable. Politicians realized that a rapid move to full-fledged “hard democracy” with its emphasis on individual responsibility, competition, and globalization might lead to social instability. Moreover, the immediate introduction of “hard democracy” would have endangered the position of the intellectual and political elite.

All parties adjusted their policies to this reality, but it was Fidesz that perfected the strategy of “soft democracy” by creating a closed community and offering membership in that community to all. The leadership of that community denied the necessity of competition, globalization, even the rule of law. They aroused a fury against the Hungarian reality, resulting in their landslide victory in 2010.

The reason for the hatred of the Gyurcsány era was Ferenc Gyurcsány’s insistence on precisely those “virtues” a large number of Hungarians were reluctant to embrace: individual responsibility, global integration, the necessity of competition, and meritocracy. He escalated tensions even as he was unable to carry out the necessary reforms that would have established a “hard democracy.” Fidesz, on the other hand, promised a world without tensions and thus without anxiety.

Orbán is trying to shield Hungarians from competition and globalization by turning against the very institutions that provide the critical ingredients of modern global capitalism. As Varga puts it, like Jim Jones who took his followers to the jungles of Guyana, “Orbán took his own people to the forest of HirTV, EchoTV, Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hírlap, Heti Válasz, Helyi Téma, M1, M2, Duna TV, Kossuth and Petőfi Radios, MTI, Láncrádió, media outlets that hermetically seal off anything that might remind his followers of the threatening outside world.” Here Orbán and his closest associates are building a world that doesn’t exist while their followers are desperately trying to believe that the picture they receive from above is both real and promising.

The relationship of the individual to a therapeutic community is always irrational. Its members often support the cause even if it means going against their own interests. Also, the cult of personality is such that the individual follower can readily explain the inconsistencies that can be uncovered daily in the leader’s announcements. Moreover, the Fidesz true believers have no difficult reconciling their own tax evasion with their complaints about the rich who put their money in Swiss banks. They can easily vote against a 300 forint co-pay and at the same time give thousands to doctors in white envelopes.

“The anxiety-ridden people were not shocked–or more properly frightened–because Gyurcsány lied in his speech at Őszöd but because he admitted his lie.” The mutual lying–between the politicians and the people–was something they were used to and therefore were comfortable with. New rules totally alien to them were unacceptable.

Varga is optimistic that sooner or later the true believers will recognize that hiding in a forest that takes them away from the real world is no solution. First of all, Hungary cannot be hermetically closed off from the outside world and therefore even if Orbán has ideas about introducing a full-fledged dictatorship, it cannot be realized. Second, sooner or later the economic problems will be too daunting to paper over with communication tricks. And third, the anxiety that Orbán’s strategy was supposed to alleviate is in fact greater today than ever. The presumed remedy has failed.

Bruck, on the other hand, calls the present system a “pre-classic dictatorship.” He is certain that if it depended on Viktor Orbán he would introduce a full-fledged one. For such a move Orbán would have to take Hungary out of the European Union. Bruck thinks that this is not an impossible proposition. He predicted last summer that Orbán was preparing the ground for such a move.

Well, here I really can’t agree with Bruck. Yes, Viktor Orbán would love to get out of the uncomfortable embrace of the European Union, but after failing in his attempt to get financial backing from the East he cannot. Since Bruck’s article was written, we have seen a desperate effort to secure cohesion funds and other subsidies from the EU without which the Hungarian economy would collapse.

So, all in all, if Varga’s prediction about the disillusionment of the faithful if true and if I’m right that Orbán, whether he likes it or not, can’t jettison Hungary’s EU membership, I think we’ll see a growing weakening of the Orbán regime. It is up to the opposition forces to take advantage of this development.

MSZP campaign at home and abroad. Part I

January 21, 2013 42 comments

I’m really looking forward to the political polls that can be expected sometime in the middle of February. It seems that the pollsters don’t publish their findings in January, most likely because of the extended holidays at the end of the year.

I’m curious about the results because I have been noticing a quickening pace of activities on the part of the Hungarian Socialist party (MSZP). As I see it, the campaign has begun and on many fronts, both at home and abroad. Because let’s not forget about the 300,000 new citizens living abroad who are now eligible to vote in the Hungarian elections.

It’s no wonder that the government party immediately began a smear campaign against the chief MSZP adviser, Ron Werber from Israel, who was hired by the socialists to assist them in their 2014 election campaign. Werber’s influence was immediately noticeable. As of yesterday, over-sized posters appeared throughout the country with pictures of György Matolcsy and Rózsa Hoffmann. The choice of these two was wise because their activities are widely criticized even within Fidesz circles, but I have the feeling that a poster featuring Viktor Orbán is not long in coming. One could also read about the training of hundreds of MSZP activists who will be in charge of individual electoral districts. It will be their job to mobilize local supporters of the party to get in touch with every voter and convince them that MSZP’s program is worth voting for.

Promises, promises. Instead of unparalleled success economic fiasco; instead of free higher education, tuition fee

Promises, promises.
Instead of unparalleled success economic fiasco;
instead of free higher education, a tuition fee

Well, it is time that MSZP woke up to the fact that their old-fashioned campaign strategies no longer work. As Ron Werber pointed out, it is not enough for a few MSZP leaders to make an appearance on ATV or chat on Klubrádió. It is also useless to stand on street corners hoping to pass out a few leaflets. MSZP should have learned something from Fidesz and the strategy it adopted years ago.

Fidesz immediately attacked Ron Werber whose advice in 2002 resulted in a narrow victory for MSZP and SZDSZ while everybody, including Viktor Orbán, expected a sure Fidesz victory. Fidesz’s criticism of Werber has always had a slight anti-Semitic edge. But Fidesz also works with Israeli and Jewish-American advisers, George E. Birnbaum and Arthur Finkelstein, who have conservative parties in the United States and worldwide as clients. Their latest job was to advise Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in connection with the current Israeli election. It seems that Israeli and/or Jewish advisers are cheap Fidesz targets only if they work for MSZP.

Werber describes himself as a “widely recognized expert on political and communication strategies, … grassroots work and community mobilization.” This is exactly where MSZP is weak. Werber, who now spends two days a week in Hungary, gave the socialists a pep talk (or, perhaps better described, a talking to, four-letter words included) a couple of days ago. Werber told the MSZP leaders not to whine but to get to work. Népszabadság translated one of Werber’s descriptions of the socialists at the moment as “egy nagy rakás szerencsétlenség” which more or less means “futzing around” without producing any results. Well, it is a little bit stronger.

There is a change in MSZP strategy with regard to its relations with Hungarian political parties in the neighboring countries. The largest Hungarian minority exists in Romania, but the number of Hungarians in Slovakia, especially along the Slovak-Hungarian border, is also considerable. Relatively few Hungarians live in Ukraine and Serbia.

In Romania there is no question that Fidesz is the most popular party among Romanian Hungarians. According to a poll conducted by the Hungarian Political Capital and Kvantum Research of Romania (Cluj-Kolozsvár) a year ago, 55% of Transylvanian Hungarians support Fidesz while 35% are undecided. Jobbik, although a lot of people claimed that the party’s support was growing among Romanian Hungarians, is really minuscule, and support for MSZP and LMP is no better. Hungarian Slovaks don’t figure here because according to Slovak law holding two citizenships is illegal. Anyone who takes out Hungarian citizenship automatically loses his original Slovak one.

In a referendum on December 5, 2004 Hungarian voters rejected granting expedited citizenship to Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. Citizenship would have enabled them to carry a “Hungarian ID” (magyar igazolvány) that would have entitled them to certain financial privileges within Hungary. In the end, the referendum was not valid because neither the supporters nor those who objected to the expedited procedure managed to reach the requisite 25% mark (that is, 25% of the entire electorate). Otherwise, those who cast their votes were split on the issue (51.57% for and 48.43% against).

In 2004, with Ferenc Gyurcsány in the lead, the government conducted a campaign against the Fidesz-supported Hungarian ID and expedited citizenship privileges for ethnic Hungarians. The reason was their fear of what has actually happened since: Fidesz would eventually grant voting rights to the new citizens who know very little about the politics in Hungary and who are by and large fully committed to the right-wing Fidesz. Viktor Orbán swore that they had no such long-range plans yet, as we know, after the 2010 elections one of the first pieces of legislation granted fast-track citizenship and with it voting rights to ethnic Hungarians.

It has been known for a long time that Fidesz counts on these new votes at the coming elections. István Mikola, minister of health in the first Orbán administration, made the mistake of divulging the party’s belief that once the Hungarians living in the neighboring countries get the vote “Fidesz will be in power for the next twenty years.” This slip embarrassed the party and in 2010 Mikola was shipped off to Paris to become Hungary’s ambassador to France.

In the last two and a half years, Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of the Hungarian government’s relations with the churches and with the Hungarian minorities living outside the borders of the country, has been busily recruiting new voters. By some estimates, by the time of the 2014 election there will be half a million new citizens eligible to vote if they so desire.  But lately, it seems, the enthusiasm for collecting votes from abroad has waned somewhat. There are several possible explanations for the decreased zeal. One is that dual citizenship, especially with voting rights, has never been popular in Hungary, and that includes even Fidesz supporters. The argument is that outsiders don’t have to suffer the consequences of their decisions unlike the domestic voters who do. Another is that political analysts came to the conclusion that the foreign vote might be able to influence the outcome of at most one or two seats in parliament and therefore all that effort will bring meager results. Miklós Hargitai of Népszabadság added that Fidesz doesn’t want to encourage the growing number of young  expatriates living in western European countries to cast ballots. These people “voted with their feet” already and most likely would vote again. And the party of their choice would not be Fidesz.

In any case, MSZP decided to change course and court the Hungarians of Transylvania. Attila Mesterházy and a high-level MSZP delegation traveled to Cluj/Kolozsvár to meet the leadership of RMDSZ (Román Magyar Demokrata Szövetség), the largest Hungarian party in Romania. Mesterházy formally apologized for MSZP’s opposition to fast-track citizenship procedures in December 2004. But more about the negotiations in Cluj and their reception in Hungary and in Romania later.

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