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New infringement procedures: “pálinka” and big box stores

April 24, 2014 25 comments

The European Commission most likely waited until the election was over before handing down some bad news to the Hungarian government. The first to reach Budapest was a court ruling on the issue of tax-free “pálinka,” a powerful alcoholic drink made out of various kinds of fruit. The Orbán government’s decision to allow country folk to produce tax-free home brew from fruit grown on their own land came early. It was one of the twenty-two proposals presented by Viktor Orbán to solve the “economic crisis,” and it went into effect on July 1, 2010 despite warnings that it was in contravention of EU law. The announcement that home-distilled pálinka would no longer be taxed was described as the pinnacle of ninety years of struggle for liberation against the backdrop of the tyranny of the state. The “tyranny” referred to was the sensible regulation that owners of orchards who wanted to distill pálinka had to take their fruit to a state distillery and pay tax on the product.

This hasty decision to please Fidesz’s rural voters had all sorts of negative effects. First of all, since these amateur distillers can produce up to 50 liters of pálinka a year without paying taxes, the Hungarian state nowadays receives considerably less revenue from excise taxes on liquor. Second, the professional pálinka producers worried about the hard-won fame of good pálinka, which is considered by the European Union a “hungaricum” and is highly regulated. It must be made from fruits or herbs indigenous to the Carpathian Basin and grown in Hungary. It must be produced and bottled in Hungary, and its alcohol content must be between 37.5% and 86% ABV (alcohol by volume).

To make a long story short, a few days ago the European Court of Justice handed down its ruling: Hungarian home brewers must pay taxes on their products even if they produce no more than 50 liters a year. The reaction? The typical Fidesz one. Instead of telling Brussels’ real objections, they lie and claim that “the bureaucrats in Brussels want to abolish the national heritage of pálinka distillation which is a hungaricum.” Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture, called the court’s decision a provocation.

As long as the Hungarian government distorts the rulings of the European Court of Justice we shouldn’t be surprised if the ordinary Hungarian farmer in the countryside accuses the European Union of interfering with the values and traditions of their nation and if he develops a hatred of all those anti-Hungarian foreign bureaucrats. But I guess this is the purpose of the government rhetoric.

The second infringement procedure is about the “plaza stop.”  This particular infringement procedure hasn’t yet ended up at the European Court of Justice and it may never land there because of the extreme slowness of EU bureaucracy. For some background on this particular piece of legislation I suggest reading an old post of mine from November 2011. It started as an LMP draft bill and was then taken up and completely rewritten (and distorted) by the government party. The bill stated that between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2014 no establishments greater than  300 m2 (3,230 ft2) can be built. Real estate developers protested, not without reason. Moreover, the law inflicted economic pain on the country. Hungary was in the midst of an economic crisis in which unemployment was high and the construction industry had almost collapsed. At that time there were at least five such retail outlets in the planning stages. All work on the construction had to be stopped.

Today the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary over the country’s ban on the construction of “hypermarkets” as it may be against the competition rule applicable in the territory of the European Union. The reaction? The usual Fidesz demagoguery. “The European Commission once again put the interests of large multinational companies before that of the small Hungarian businesses.”

Hyper market

But who is going to defend the Hungarian consumer from the higher prices which are inevitable in smaller retail stores? And what about the variety of goods that only large establishments can offer?  Small, individually owned stores can never compete with chains on price or availability. I know all the arguments pro and con on this sensitive issue, but the fact is that forcibly stopping economic developments that seem inevitable is not good for anyone, including the consumer.

Retail is always changing. Think, for instance, of the mail order catalogs of businesses like Montgomery Ward and Sears that not only revolutionized nineteenth-century retail but also improved the lives of the rural poor and the segregated blacks in the South. That was in the 1870-1880s. Today online companies like Amazon have disrupted retail yet again.

Yes, big box stores tend to squeeze out small retailers just as mail order catalogs were hard on ma and pa stores in the nineteenth century. But this is how modern economies function. The state’s role is not to forbid the normal flow of goods and services but to regulate their activities.

Budapest municipal election: MSZP-LMP deal?

April 23, 2014 41 comments

I think it’s time to pay some attention to LMP which, against all expectations, managed to garner 5.34% of the votes on April 6 and thus will be represented in parliament. LMP is a relatively new party. Its origins go back to a group of environmentalists who were responsible for the nomination of László Sólyom, himself an ardent environmentalist, for the position of president in 2005. Several members of this civic organization, called “Védegylet,” came up with the idea of forming a new political party which, as the party’s name indicates, would be a different kind of political actor. Obviously pure as the driven snow. This message resonated with many voters who were convinced that all politicians are corrupt and all politics outright dirty. The party received 7.48% of the votes in 2010 and was able to send 16 of its members to parliament.

The LMP delegation which represented the party was very active. Women comprised half of the delegation, a welcome addition to the otherwise monotonously male makeup of Hungarian politics. Their ambitious leader, András Schiffer, had great plans. Eventually, he wanted to have LMP be the premier party. A party that could win elections by itself. Therefore, he always refused to tie LMP to any other opposition party. It was this stance that eventually led to a split within the party. More than half of the party’s parliamentary delegation left LMP. They considered Schiffer’s position injurious to the democratic opposition which should have united to concentrate their efforts against Viktor Orbán, whom they considered to be the greatest danger to Hungarian democracy. When Schiffer and six other people in the caucus rejected their argument for unity, they left and joined Gordon Bajnai’s Együtt 2014. At the time Schiffer accused these people of selling their honor for parliamentary seats. As it turned out, none of the former LMP politicians who joined Bajnai managed to get into parliament, whereas the rump LMP will be represented by six MPs in the new parliament.

In comparison to 2010 LMP lost a considerable number of votes. In 2010, 383,876  people voted for Schiffer’s party while in 2014 that number was only 269,414, a loss of about 30%. In Budapest, however, they did a little better than four years ago. They were especially strong in the center districts. In districts I and V, which are known to be conservative areas, they received over 10% of the votes, one percentage point higher than in 2010. Schiffer is certain that this slightly improved performance means that he is making headway with conservative voters. I somehow doubt that this interpretation holds water. LMP’s fiercely anti-capitalist rhetoric shouldn’t appeal to conservatives.

Whatever the case, according to reliable sources many members of the MSZP leadership are thinking of enticing Schiffer to cooperate with MSZP in the forthcoming municipal election in Budapest. MSZP’s original candidate for the post was Csaba Horváth, who lost to István Tarlós (Fidesz) in 2010. At that time LMP had its own candidate, Benedek Jávor (who got 9.98% of the votes), who today is the co-chairman of Együtt 2014-PM. (The Jobbik candidate, it should be noted, received 7.27% of the votes.) At that time, right after the large Fidesz victory in the spring, it was clear that the Fidesz candidate was practically unbeatable. Since then, polls indicate that Tarlós can be beaten, but MSZP believes that LMP votes are necessary for a victory. Thus, apparently, some people came up with the idea of dumping Csaba Horváth and instead making a deal with LMP: Schiffer’s party can name its candidate for lord mayor (főpolgármester) and MSZP will support him/her.

Apparently, MSZP is ready to abandon Horváth because Együtt 2014-PM refuses to support the MSZP candidate. Moreover, I am almost certain that important MSZP politicians consider Horváth a weak candidate and hence are quite ready to look for someone else. The cooperation would work the following way: MSZP and LMP would start the campaign with their own candidates but eventually the MSZP candidate would throw his weight behind the LMP person. A generous offer, but it looks as if LMP politicians are not crazy about the idea. They feel that in the long run any kind of electoral cooperation with other parties will harm LMP’s prospects.

Critics of the idea of MSZP-LMP cooperation in the Budapest municipal election, especially those who don’t think much of LMP and András Schiffer, have already announced that the MSZP leaders lost their minds. LMP wouldn’t be able to come up with a viable candidate. Well, I could come up with a name: Péter Róna, the American banker and economist. Róna left Hungary with his mother in 1956 when he was 14 years old. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and received a law degree from Oxford University. Lately, he threw in his lot with LMP and seems to be in LMP’s inner circle. I’m not surprised at Róna’s attraction to LMP: he considers himself a socialist and, despite the fact that he headed an investment bank before returning to Hungary, is a fierce critic of banks and capitalism in general. Róna also seems to be popular among those who are regular listeners of Klubrádió and ATV. It is another matter whether Róna, who is over 70 and has no political or administrative experience, would accept the nomination.

Péter Róna

Péter Róna

Today a caller to György Bolgár’s program, “Let’s talk it over,” announced that the opposition should simply give up the city and let Tarlós continue in office. If the candidate of a united opposition wins, Viktor Orbán will make sure that Budapest is “bulldozered.” Whoever the new mayor is, his life will be hell as will that of the city. Let Fidesz have Budapest for four more years. Sooner or later the Orbán regime will collapse because such a system cannot be maintained for too long. Maybe there is something in that argument.

Week-long demonstration in Budapest was not in vain

April 22, 2014 52 comments

Many people labeled the dogged effort of a small group of protesters against the erection of the proposed  monument to the victims of the German “occupation” of Hungary a waste of time and energy. What will they achieve? Nothing. They dismantled the barricade around the proposed site ten or eleven times, but work on the foundation for the monument continued unabated. The monument showing Archangel Gabriel being attacked by the German eagle will be in place before the end of May. They achieved nothing.

Well, this seems not to be the case. The protestors on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) accomplished something, after all. This morning the US Embassy in Budapest released a statement in which the United States urges the Hungarian government “to seek an honest, open, and factual assessment of the Holocaust in Hungary [which] includes soliciting and considering the opinions of all segments of Hungarian society, and especially those who are rightly most sensitive to the government’s plans during this 70th anniversary year.” The statement also reminded the Hungarian government that it “had indicated in February it would resume dialogue after Easter with stakeholders concerned about Memorial Year plans.”

Hard at work / Népszabadság

Hard at work / Népszabadság

It took no more than a couple of hours for The Wall Street Journal to report on the US initiative which, by the way, coincided with Mazsihisz’s own effort to resume dialogue with the Hungarian government. We have no idea what will happen, but perhaps the US’s unequivocal support for those who object to Viktor Orbán’s high-handed attitude toward Hungarian guilt may help focus the dialogue. The controversy is more than a debate over some fine points of history. The 7oth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust could provide an opportunity for Hungarian self-assessment. Unfortunately it is precisely that self-assessment which the current Hungarian government wants to prevent.

Meanwhile there were a couple issues in connection with the demonstrations that caused quite a furor. One was an interview with András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP, who seemed to be in an even worse mood than is his usual wont a couple of days after the election. He should have been elated because, after all, his party managed to receive more than 5% of the votes and thus he and five of his colleagues will be able to take part in the work of the parliament. Yet he was morose. When asked by Olga Kálmán what he had to say about the work that had begun on the monument in spite of Viktor Orbán’s explicit promises, Schiffer answered that he had nothing to say. He called the response “disproportionate hysterics.” The opposition shouldn’t waste its energy on this monument. Instead, they should busy themselves with the current very serious problems of the country. Kálmán was so stunned that she committed a  journalistic mistake: she let her own feelings interfere with her professionalism and expressed her disapproval of Schiffer’s response, which she obviously considered callous. Right-wing papers were delighted that András Schiffer, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, shared their view on the issue and pointed the finger at Olga Kálmán. Others, mostly in opposition circles, were horrified at Schiffer’s response.

Here I would like to quote Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist with a vast knowledge of foreign affairs, domestic politics, history, and sports. Aczél remembered an old political-literary event from 1937. In that year the cream of Hungarian literati decided to issue a proclamation protesting artificially inflamed anti-Semitism. Milán Füst (1888-1967), who happened to be Jewish, refused to sign it. These were the words he used explaining his reasons for not joining his fellow writers: “There is the Jewish question and perhaps it could even be solved. But it is not the most important question of the country because there are more burning questions. . . . I will not allow all our troubles to be pilfered on account of the Jewish issue.” A year later the first anti-Jewish law was enacted. The moral of the story is obvious.

András Schiffer’s response resembles what Péter Boross, former prime minister (1993-1994), had to say in an interview on HírTV despite the fact that Boross is a right-wing nationalist and an apologist for the Horthy regime while Schiffer is allegedly a democrat.  I wrote an article about Boross’s seemingly sudden political shift after Viktor Orbán won the election in 2010. Formerly, Boross acted like a true conservative who was afraid of the extreme right. He kept bringing up stories from the 1930s and talked about the consequences of this dangerous ideology. But in the last four years Boross showed himself to be a reactionary right-winger, in many respects sharing the views of the Hungarian extreme right. So, it’s no wonder that Boross considers the demonstrations no more than a hysterical reaction of the left-leaning intelligentsia. The demonstrations are not really about the memorial; they reflect “the hatred of the left fed by their loss at the election.” In an interesting twist he accused “the demonstrators of inflaming fears, especially in older people who went through those terrible years.” So, if I understand him correctly, the demonstrators are the ones who are frightening the Jewish population who, as he added, want to live in peace. “This is an intellectual crime.” And, he added, it is these Budapest intellectuals who are partly responsible for the critical voices from abroad as well. I think, knowing Péter Boross’s ideology, that we can safely replace the adjective “Budapest” with “Jewish.”

I have no idea whether Mazsihisz’s latest effort at continuing a dialogue with the government will succeed. I don’t even know whether the United States government’s statement addressed to the Orbán government will achieve anything. But at least we can say that the efforts of the people who were on that square every afternoon were not wasted. They drew attention once again to the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge–and to accept Hungary’s responsibility for–heinous actions of the past.

The Hungarian far right today and in the 1930s

April 21, 2014 48 comments

Not much of any political relevance happens over weekends in general but on a long weekend, as Easter is in Hungary, politics takes a real holiday. Today’s highlight was the resurrection of Hungarian football and the “great game” at Felcsút, with 4,500 fans in attendance. Ferenc Puskás Academy went up against Real Madrid’s football academy; both teams were made up of seventeen-year-olds. The final score was Real Madrid 1, Puskás Academy 0. At least it wasn’t a rout. Earlier Real Madrid beat Melbourne 10-1.

I’m taking advantage of the holiday to take a historical trip back to Hungary in the 1930s. Not that these were happier times. On the contrary, then just as now the Hungarian extreme right made considerable gains. One often hears from Horthy apologists that the governor and his conservative governments were just as hard on the extreme right as they were on the extreme left, i.e. the communists. This wasn’t the case. Politicians of the Horthy era were much more zealous when it came to the few hundred illegal communist party members than they were with representatives of the extreme right. Horthy and his friends had a blind spot when it came to the extreme right even though by all measures they were the ones who posed  a much greater threat to the regime than the weak and ineffectual communists did. Yet men like Mátyás Rákosi or Zoltán Vas received very long prison sentences while extremists on the right were rarely jailed. The longest sentence ever handed down for a right-wing extremist was three years, in the case of Ferenc Szálasi. Zoltán Vas, on the other hand, spent sixteen years in the infamous jail of Szeged.

Why did the interwar regime wage a half-hearted battle against the extreme right? Certainly not because government politicians found their racist ideas abhorrent. After all, more often than not they shared these people’s anti-Semitism. They found nothing wrong with nationalism; on the contrary, they pursued an openly revisionist foreign policy. What they found unacceptable was the socialism in “national socialism.” Official Hungary considered these men “revolutionaries” who wanted to turn the existing order upside down. Mátyás Matolcsy, a talented economist of extreme right views who died in jail after the war, didn’t mince words: “we must give up the idea of the sanctity of private property,” and “everybody can dispose of their property only so long as it does not infringe upon the universal interest of the nation.”  The Arrow Cross party program called for the introduction of  the Soviet system of a centrally organized planned economy. Their program also included total state control of the banking system. While Matolcsy wanted to expropriate only Jewish property, the Arrow Cross party was more  “egalitarian.” They would have taken away, for example, all agricultural lands from large landowners, including lands owned by the Hungarian Catholic Church. In 1938 the Arrow Cross party published a pamphlet on the fundamental principles and beliefs of the movement, which was intended to serve the needs of the swelling numbers of followers. In it the author explained that the party wants to exchange the liberal capitalist regime for a “collective economy.” So, it’s no wonder that contemporaries labeled the Arrow Cross leaders Bolshevik revolutionaries who presented a danger to the existing order.

Krisztián Ungváry in his latest book, A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus  (The Balance Sheet of the Horthy Regime: Discrimination, Social Policy and Anti-Semitism in Hungary), quotes from a speech by the legitimist (opposition) Hugó Payr who visited a slum area full of unemployed workers. One of them said to him, “Sir, we are all Bolsheviks here.” When Payr inquired whether they were followers of  the Arrow Cross movement, the answer was in the affirmative. Payr warned his fellow members of parliament that the middle classes who had been stirred up to embrace anti-Semitic passions didn’t realize that they were in fact helping to establish a new proletarian dictatorship. He invited them to accompany him to working class neighborhoods where “people already talk about which apartments they will requisition or rob.”

I think that while we are grappling with the growing influence of the neo-Nazis in today’s Hungary we should keep in mind what transpired in Hungary in the 1930s. There the result of the economic crisis was not the growth of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party but the incredible spread of the ideas of national socialism’s local version, the Hungarism of Ferenc Szálasi.

Jobbik zaszlo

One has to assume that Viktor Orbán is unhappy about the growth of Jobbik because it may become a threat to his own party’s position, as was already seen at the election. If he has any sense, he will turn his attention to the poorest segments of Hungarian society and offer them tangible economic incentives. Until now he competed with Jobbik in the domain of nationalistic humbug, but surely that will not be enough.

The socialists have also neglected the poor and frustrated masses, whose numbers are growing. People talk about four million people under or very close to the poverty line. If one of the two major parties doesn’t take the initiative, Jobbik may triumph.

Moreover, until now the socialists and liberals refused to engage in a dialogue with Jobbik. After all, they are a racist and neo-Nazi group with whom the “better half” of society should refuse to conduct business. But this also meant that there was no public forum in which the ill-conceived ideas of Jobbik politicians could be confronted.

The socialists must pay more attention to Hungary’s poor as well as to the Hungarian extreme right. Those who voted for Jobbik must be convinced that Jobbik’s remedies are no remedies at all. On the contrary, they would mean a total collapse of the Hungarian economy and society. But at the same time the socialists have to offer about half of the citizenry a way out of their present misery.

István Hiller on restructuring the Hungarian Socialist Party

April 20, 2014 36 comments

Doomsayers are already predicting the demise of social democracy in Hungary. According to their argument, the socialists will disappear just as SZDSZ vanished because Hungarian society has no appetite for anything that is associated with the left.

A party may disappear, but the political philosophy behind it certainly will not. SZDSZ as a party is no more, but the liberal idea is alive. It lives on in Együtt-PM, in DK, and, yes, to a certain extent in MSZP. Anyone who wants to throw the very ideas of social democracy and liberalism out the window and who claims that their disappearance will be good for Hungarian society is gravely mistaken. (One of these Cassandras suggests in a comment on this blog that LMP should be the major political force because, in his opinion, it is a centrist party. The fact is that LMP is more leftist than MSZP ever was.) If we send the representatives of social democracy and liberalism packing, we are going to have “national unity” of the worst kind, unity built on single-party autocratic rule.

I believe that both social democracy and liberalism will survive, just as they have survived in most European countries. Of course, the farther east we go the less weighty is their presence. That’s why Péter Pető of Népszabadság is very wrong when he assumes that the underdevelopment of the Hungarian countryside and its uneducated population does not matter. Yes, it does matter. He is also wrong when he minimizes the obstacles built into the electoral system devised by Fidesz. Yes, Fidesz would have won but not the way it did, and today we wouldn’t be talking about the demise of the Hungarian left.

After this brief detour, I would like to return to István Hiller’s recommendations for restructuring MSZP. Before he became a politician Hiller was an associate professor of history at ELTE, where he had the reputation of being an excellent lecturer. Although one of the young Turks in MSZP, Tamás Harangozó, included Hiller in the older generation of “aunts and uncles” (bácsik és nénik), he is in fact only 49 years old. When he became one of the founders of MSZP he was 25.

In the last election Hiller won his district (Pesterzsébet and Kispest) handsomely. As I learned from this interview with him in Népszava, he always insisted on being an individual candidate even when as party chairman he needed special permission from the party to do so. He won in 2002 and 2006 and  now again, in 2014. It is likely that the party will designate him one of the deputy presidents of parliament.

How does Hiller see the party’s situation? “Those people are right who call attention to the electoral law, the restricted possibilities of the opposition to be heard, and the uneven playing field. But those who stop here and make excuses don’t really want the rebuilding of the left…. I believe that the Hungarian left didn’t understand, didn’t digest the shocking changes that Hungarian society underwent in the last five years. Some of the multitudes who live in poverty most likely voted for MSZP in the past. These people hate the present government, but they didn’t choose us but the far right. These people are not extremists, their situation is extreme.”  Thus the party should concentrate on the poorest segments of society.

Some of Hiller’s ideas echo those of Ildikó Lendvai but with a twist. For example, “one cannot blame the left-liberal side for defending democracy and democratic rights, but one must know where to say what.” It is useless to talk about the fine points of democracy in a God-forsaken, poverty-stricken village in the countryside.

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Hiller admitted that his colleagues don’t get what he is talking about. “They don’t reject [my ideas], but for the time being they don’t quite understand what I want. But I’m accustomed to fighting. What I want is the complete rebuilding of the Hungarian left. It is not enough to climb out of the hole. It is not enough to get from minus to zero. I have higher goals.”

Another similarity between the thoughts of Lendvai and Hiller is that Hiller also believes that there is something very wrong with Hungarian politics altogether. He specifically talked about the divisiveness that exists in Hungarian society. As Sándor Csányi, CEO of the largest Hungarian bank OTP, said, this divisiveness has become an impediment to economic competitiveness. “We must change our whole political culture.”

Hiller is, of course, most concerned with restructuring the left. He offered some specific proposals.  He would concentrate on “internal structure” and “communication.” When it comes to changing the internal structure of the party, he would use local self-governments as the basis of the party structure. “This is what I’m trying to convince my colleagues of.” According to him, the party should concentrate on micro-communities. “We should reconstruct our organizational model based on the municipalities.” The party bigwigs, however, don’t cherish the idea of shifting the focus of decision-making away from the center.

Finally, Hiller echoes Lendvai’s ideas about a social democratic network. The next three years should be spent moving the focal point from the center to the 3,000-some municipalities. Every village should have at least one party member or sympathizer who can help build the network that would cover the whole country. He ended the interview by saying that he will share his ideas with the party and with the public as well. He knows that it will be difficult to change, but without change there can be no renewal and reconstruction.

Ildikó Lendvai’s “Plan B” as a solution to the ills of Hungarian politics

April 19, 2014 13 comments

Right after the election I created two new folders: “Orbán government, 2014-” and “MSZP, 2014-.” In the first instance, I hesitated to be too specific and add the expected date of the end of the third Orbán government. In the second instance, I was certain that a new era would begin soon after the election. It was inevitable that the role of Attila Mesterházy both as party chairman and as the candidate for the post of prime minister would be questioned.  Supporters of Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány were never happy with Mesterházy and were convinced that with Bajnai at the head of the Unity Alliance the opposition to Fidesz would have done better. Bajnai was always slightly ahead of Mesterházy in popularity, though not by much.

Considering the internal tensions that most likely existed within MSZP in the last two years or so, it was remarkable that the leading socialist politicians stuck pretty well to the party line. But some, especially the old hands, were unhappy with the way things were going. I must say that I sympathize with them. These people had years of experience behind them and a record of accomplishment. They had known the leading members of Fidesz since 1988-89. They had dealt with them on a daily basis. By the time Mesterházy and some of the newcomers got into politics, Viktor Orbán was no longer involved in open give and take. For eight years, between 2002 and 2010, he rarely showed up in parliament. He was a shadowy figure for these newcomers.

The younger generation also had no experience in party organization. They decided, for instance, not to put any effort into grass roots organization in the countryside. The new party leaders thought they could let Fidesz have the countryside and win with only city voters. That turned out to be a grave  mistake. And this particular problem was just one of many on the organizational level.

In the last few days, more and more old-timers have hinted rather strongly that Mesterházy should resign. I suspect that he will not resign, but it is unlikely that he will be reelected given the mood of the party faithful.

Today and tomorrow I will talk about the criticism that came from two former chairmen of the party: Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller. Hiller had a long interview with Népszava, and Lendvai published an op/ed piece in Népszabadság. 

As I was looking through my notes, I found an interview with Lendvai from November 2011 which also appeared in Népszabadság. The reporter jokingly asked her: “Don’t you think that you are going to be in trouble for giving an interview?” He asked that question because Attila Mesterházy had asked the older party leaders not to appear in public. Lendvai, who is well-known for her quick ripostes, answered: Mesterházy “asked everybody to work hard. I can report that I’m working and not just having fun, however pleasant the company.” Even in that old interview, Lendvai made it clear that she would like to have party leaders who were not looking to see “where the head of the table is.”

So, how does she assess the state of the party now? The title of her article is “Plan B.” She doesn’t mince words: both MSZP’s structure and its functioning are bankrupt. Actually, not just MSZP but the whole Hungarian political structure is in trouble, including Fidesz. The symptoms of the crisis in her opinion are:

(1) Fewer and fewer people bother to vote. Politics has become a game of the few. Politicians are often preoccupied with their own former political battles. The chasm between politics and the citizenry is growing.

(2) The very notion of parties is questionable. Fidesz no longer functions as parties normally do. KDNP is no more than a name while Fidesz operates more like a hierarchical, almost religious organization rather than a party. It exists only in “political processions” and is no longer the molder of government policies. It tried to take over the role and culture of the extremist Jobbik, but its hegemonic role in the right became weaker instead of stronger. It can easily happen that there will be a time when two right-wing parties fight between themselves for supremacy.

(3) In the last four years there were attempts at building bridges between parties and civil society but they were all failures. Fidesz’s Civil Összefogás Fórum is no more than a “collection of party soldiers” while Gordon Bajnai’s attempt at cooperation with civil society failed.

(4) The intellectual aging of the political elite has accelerated. No new ideas have penetrated the parties for years. In MSZP “change” was seen simply as a change of generations. But the electorate doesn’t have any better opinion of the new politicians than of the old. Politicians have to face the fact that even those who are interested in politics got to the point that they want to throw out all politicians. The electorate is becoming older and older, the camp of  the “politically homeless” is growing, there is less and less interest in politics, and less and less hope. This is what Hungarian politicians have to face.

In this situation the disappearance or reappearance of a party or some politicians will not solve the problems. One has to start with Plan B. This Plan B has at least three important components.

Plan for a solution: To change the party logo "Try to under: this is the twenty-first century! At least you should sometime take a look at the popularity lists of of the Internet Marabu / Népszabadság

Plan for a solution: Change the party logo
“Try to understand: this is the twenty-first century! At least you should sometimes take a look at the popularity lists on the Internet”
Marabu / Népszabadság

The first and the most difficult component of Plan B is the creation of an entirely new political structure. Instead of the present two political centers, a true network should be built that includes the whole society. This network would not only prepare Hungarian society for an election in 2018 but would also help it to survive the next four years. Lendvai finds it essential to build a network that could eventually become a movement. The lessening importance of parliament can be expected in the next four years. As a counterweight new communities should be created: professional volunteer organizations, a network of mini-parliaments, regional and societal advocacy groups, and so on. Just as happened economically in the Kádár regime: besides the official economy a “second economy” was born that not only helped people survive but also prepared the ground for future changes.

Second. In the coming parliamentary cycle the social divide between the haves and the have-nots will most likely grow. Solidarity must be strengthened in Hungarian society. People should be encouraged to volunteer for all sorts of work, from feeding the poor to offering pro bono legal help to the needy. This way new blood could come into traditional politics. And the parties should be made more open to accepting help from the outside.

Third. People both inside and outside of the party must discuss topics they feel uncomfortable with.  Is it really true, as a lot of people in MSZP claim, that “we don’t have to talk about democracy because this doesn’t interest the poor people? Or that we shouldn’t talk about the Gypsies because the topic is apt to arouse negative feelings in many?” Lendvai’s answer is that the left should fight against vulnerability, which derives both from the lack of bread and the lack of rights.

At the very end of her article there is an innocent sounding sentence that may not even be noticed by the casual reader. “One ought not to compete with Fidesz and Jobbik by copying Fidesz’s centralized one-man rule and imitating Jobbik’s spurious slogan of law and order accompanied by the limitation of rights. We need a Plan B. But our own.” This sentence contains a severe criticism of Attila Mesterházy, who lately has been building a more centralized party with his own small group of young politicians and who a few days ago even talked about MSZP standing for “law and order” because after all that is what many people want. This is a hopeless and unacceptable proposition, as some of his fellow MSZP politicians immediately announced. I don’t know whether Lendvai’s ideas would work, but that Mesterházy’s ideas are a dead end I’m sure.

Viktor Orbán’s private stadium is completed: “The resurrection of Hungarian football”

April 18, 2014 75 comments

The great day is coming. Monday, which is a holiday in Hungary, will not be about the resurrection of Jesus Christ but about the resurrection of Hungarian football. I’m not kidding. This is what György Szöllősi, communication director of the Puskás Academy, said to the hundreds of reporters who showed up for the first tour of the facilities of the Pancho Arena. Why Pancho Arena? Because, as we just learned, this is what the Spaniards called Ferenc Puskás when he was playing for Real Madrid. Mind you, in Hungary everybody knew him as Öcsi Puskás (“öcsi” means younger brother or a really young boy in Hungarian). And while we are on the subject of names, Puskás’s family name until he was ten years old was Purczeld. Yes, one of the Mighty Magyars was of German extraction, a descendant of one of the many German immigrants who settled in Hungary in the early eighteenth century.

I guess the creators of the Pancho Arena in Felcsút, a Hungarian village about 40 km from Budapest, decided on the name because Viktor Orbán, who was already working on making a national superhero out of Ferenc Puskás, decided during his first premiership to name the old Népstadion (built between 1948 and 1952)  after the football legend. So, the Puskás name was already taken. Thus they had to settle for a name that isn’t terribly familiar to Hungarians.

I doubt that Puskás in his youth ever heard of this village. His favorite town was Kispest, where he started to play football. Kispest was a separate town until 1950, when it was incorporated into greater Budapest. Nonetheless, Orbán managed to get all “the Puskás treasures” in the possession of the Puskás family to Felcsút, where the prime minister spent part of his childhood and where he built a weekend house a few years ago. These “treasures,” which include old jerseys, pictures, trophies and other memorabilia, will be on permanent display in the halls of the stadium. Daily guided tours will be available to all who would like to see this “sanctuary” to Ferenc Puskás and football. The description of the arena as a sanctuary also comes from the Academy’s communication director.

The sports reporters were clearly in awe of the excellent conditions created in Felcsút for the sport. I’m also sure that they are looking forward to reporting from the press box equipped with all the latest marvels of modern technology. They lauded the turf that is being watered and heated from below ground.

Journalists who deal with political matters were less enthusiastic. They made sarcastic remarks about the man who is able to satisfy all his whims because of his position of power. They can’t quite get over the fact that such a large and ostentatious stadium, which will be able to seat 3,600, is being built in a village of 1,800 people. Index calculated that each individual inhabitant of Felcsút received 3.77 million “football” forints. One old peasant woman who was interviewed kept emphasizing that the erection of such a stadium is a real joy for the Felcsútians because “after all, the building will remain here.” But this is exactly what worries the critics. What will happen whenViktor Orbán is no longer the prime minister or when he is no longer, period? What will happen to this stadium? The same thing that happened to the one Nicolae Ceaușescu built in his birth place, the village of Scornicesti, which now stands empty and crumbling? Moreover, what can one say about the leader of an allegedly democratic country who allows a football stadium that is supposed to be an exhibition piece to be built in his backyard? Indeed, a valid comparison can be made between the Romanian dictator and Viktor Orbán. This is what a blogger was alluding to when he gave this title to his post on the stadium: “Santiago Orbaneu: Ilyen lett a felcsúti stadion.” (This is how the stadium in Felcsút turned out.)

Felcsut stadium1

Photo László Döme / pfla.hu

There are several boxes, complete with I assume well-stocked bars for those who either “deserve them” or can afford them. One box belongs to Viktor Orbán and his guests. The plaque next to the door reads: “The prime minister’s office.” That aroused the interest of the journalists, but it turned out that the plaque is somewhat misleading. It is the private box of the founder of the Puskás Academy, Viktor Orbán. It will be his as long as he lives. Another box is designated for “local entrepreneurs.” I guess it is reserved for Viktor Orbán’s front men in Felcsút.

In the VIP section the seats are apparently made out of real leather, and the lucky ones who sit there can watch game replays in slow motion on monitors attached to the backs of chairs in front of them. I’m not sure how well these leather chairs will stand up to nature’s vicissitudes and the inevitable stains.

Photo Läszló Döme / pfla.hu

Photo László Döme / pfla.hu

The elaborate wooden structure will also be difficult to keep in tip-top shape. And the copper roofs in no time will tarnish. In brief, the upkeep of the structure will be enormous. What will happen if the flow of money that is coming in now due to the founder’s position stops? Because, although perhaps Viktor Orbán doesn’t want to face the fact, financial supporters of his hobby will drop him once he is no longer of use to them. Once Viktor Orbán is out of office–because it will happen one day regardless of what some pessimistic people say–I doubt that a new Hungarian government will pick up the tab.

Source: Nëpszabadság

Those leather chairs / Source: Népszabadság

On Monday at the opening ceremony there will be the usual speeches. Two of the stars of the show will be former president Pál Schmitt, an Olympic champion and member of the International Olympic Committee, and Ángel Maria Villar, president of the Spanish Football Association and vice president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. The former had to resign in disgrace because of plagiarism and the latter’s reputation is marred by his possible involvement in corruption cases. What a pair!

The communication director of the Puskás Academy admitted that decent people no longer go to watch football, but he predicted that “on Monday the change of regime of Hungarian football will begin.” Critics of Orbán’s football mania very much doubt it. They consider every penny spent on stadiums a waste of limited resources. And the stadium at Felcsút a disgrace that speaks volumes about Viktor Orbán and the regime he has built.

Hungarian history textbooks under scrutiny

April 17, 2014 48 comments

Recently the Hungarian government purchased/nationalized two of the larger textbook publishers: Apáczai Kiadó and Nemzedékek Tudása Tankönyvkiadó. Perhaps it should be mentioned for the sake of Hungarian cultural history that János Apáczai Csere (1625-1659), polyglot author of the first textbook written in Hungarian, was one of the many Transylvanian scholars who studied at Dutch universities (Leiden and Utrecht). What linked the Principality of Transylvania and The Netherlands was their common Calvinist heritage.

Because of the Hungarian state’s direct interest in textbook publishing, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the new list of “recommended” textbooks heavily favors these two publishers although, if the quality of textbooks is any indication, these publishing houses are not the best. Of the 3,223 textbook titles currently available, the ministry approved only 922 (29%). Private publishers tend to fall into the “unapproved” category. For instance, one private publisher, Mozaik, has 17 titles and, according to the CEO of the company, 260,000 books currently in use in Hungarian classrooms. But there is not a single Mozaik title on the recommended list.

A few years back I became very interested in what Hungarian high school students learn about modern Hungarian and world history in grade 12. At that time the most popular history textbook in this category was Konrád Salamon’s. I ordered a copy of it as well as another textbook that was the work of a team of historians whom Viktor Orbán would surely find unacceptable. Names like János Kende, Tamás Krausz, Zoltán Ripp, Péter Sipos, and Éva Standeiszky. I found the joint effort of these historians far better than Salamon’s textbook, which included many questionable notions about such fundamental values as democracy. The historian László Karsai wrote a detailed critique of the Salamon book, which was pretty devastating. Yet it was at one point the most popular book, not because teachers liked it so much but because the matriculation questions on history were based on this particular textbook. (Personally, I think it’s high time to get rid of matriculation exams altogether, but that’s a topic for another day.)

tortenelem konyvek

Recently, as part of a foundation study, László Miklósi analyzed five grade 8 and three grade 12 modern history textbooks, with special focus on their treatment of the fate of Hungarian Jews. The one he liked best was published by Műszaki Kiadó–Csaba Dubcsik and Ildikó Repászky’s Történelem IV. It is especially strong in providing important source material and asking thought-provoking questions based on the material. Instead of taking it for granted that students understand the meaning of certain concepts (racism, political anti-Semitism, differences between fascism and Nazism), the authors explain their meanings. In general, the book devotes more time than the others do to ideologies. Its authors spend considerable time defining concepts like conservatism, liberalism, “Christian-national,” and the different meanings of “Christian” in the Hungarian setting. While among the books discussed there is at least one that claims that Horthy was not anti-Semitic, this textbook actually publishes Miklós Horthy’s infamous letter to Pál Teleki in which he tells the prime minister that he always was an anti-Semite.

The book also includes a speech from Hitler from which it becomes clear that the Führer’s final goal was the physical elimination of all Jews. And students should learn something about the dangers of fanaticism when reading a Himmler quotation in which he admits that he would be willing to kill his own mother if Hitler so ordered. This seems to be the only book that quotes from people who survived Auschwitz. The description of the situation after March 19, 1944 seems to be detailed and accurate, including Horthy’s role. There is mention of the fact that, although Horthy in his memoirs claimed that he knew nothing about the fate of the Jews, “there are several sources that prove his knowledge of the truth about the deportations.” All in all, this seems to be the best modern history textbook on the market at the moment. At least as far as the question of the Hungarian Jewry’s fate between the two world wars is concerned.

I can’t imagine that this book will be available in state high schools. It is a shame, but Viktor Orbán’s worldview is so radically different from what Dupcsik and Répászky summarize in this textbook that he couldn’t possibly tolerate exposing Hungarian students to such intellectual “poison.” After all, we hear often enough how unique and magnificent the Hungarian nation is. This regime puts so much emphasis on “Christian-national” values that the less than glowing description the authors offer of this term would be unacceptable. This and similar textbooks couldn’t possibly be tolerated by an authoritarian regime that wants to be in charge of what people think.

What else can one expect from a regime that has the temerity to set up a state research institute under political supervision (just like in the one-party system of Rákosi and Kádár) and call it, of all things, Veritas?

 

Days of protest, but the “Nazi” monument will stand in Budapest

April 16, 2014 63 comments

I have been so preoccupied with the election results that I have neglected the recent tug-of-war between the Orbán government and a small group of people who desperately want to prevent the erection of a monument to commemorate the “occupation” of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944.

The monument depicts Hungary in the guise of the Archangel Gabriel as an innocent victim of German aggression when, in fact, Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany. By extension, the present Hungarian government puts the blame for the Hungarian Holocaust entirely on Germany, although they do admit that some civil servants shamefully collaborated with the commandos of Adolf Eichmann. But the Hungarian government is not to be blamed because, with the occupation, Hungary lost its sovereignty. Most historians who are experts on the subject, inside and outside of Hungary, see it differently. So does the Hungarian Jewish community, whose representatives have been trying to have a dialogue with Viktor Orbán: they proposed more appropriate ways to remember the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. At the end of February there was a short reprieve in the “war of words” between Orbán and the Jewish community when Orbán promised to postpone the erection of the monument and offered to engage in a dialogue sometime after the Easter holidays.

But then came the election, whose results Viktor Orbán described as a resounding victory, and he was again full of energy. Two days after the election workmen appeared on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) and started building a barrier around the designated site of the monument. Soon enough activists gathered and swore they would take it down. And indeed, in the morning the workmen constructed the wall and in the afternoon the demonstrators took it down. By the second day the demonstrators had the right kind of equipment to do quite a professional job disassembling the barrier. By yesterday, the barrier had gone up six times and come down six times. Someone compared the situation to the famous Hungarian/Romanian folk ballad in which the walls that are built one day by the masons at the Fortress of Deva/Déva are destroyed by the next morning.

While this was going on, about 20 policemen stood idly by until April 14, when several of the organizers were ordered to appear at the police station and charged with defacement of property. The defacement consisted of using spray paint to write messages on the canvas that covered the metal barrier. Included among the people so charged were Zoltán Lovas, a newspaper man; Fruzsina Magyar, wife of Imre Mécs who as a young man was condemned to death after the failed revolution in 1956; and Alice Fried, a Holocaust survivor, whose “graffiti” read: “I survived the Shoa. I still want to live!” Since then Imre Mécs, who “willfully” wrote messages on the canvas, was also charged.

History falsification / spiritual well-poisioning The first on the right is Fruzsina Magyar

History falsification / Spiritual well-poisoning
Fruzsina Magyar is on the far right.

Meanwhile tourists keep inquiring what’s going on and the participants tell them that “the government wants to erect a Nazi monument and the people are protesting.” Of course, it would be far too complicated to explain to these people what is at stake here. The game of erecting and taking down the barrier will go on for a while, but meanwhile the foundation for the enormous statue of Archangel Gabriel is being built. Yes, it must stand just as ordered by the imperious Viktor Orbán. His announced deadline is May 1.

Opponents say that as soon as Viktor Orbán and his government are gone this statue will join the statues erected during the Rákosi and Kádár periods, which are now  in a kind of statue cemetery in Memento Park. Others are certain that the new monument will have to be guarded day and night because it is likely that opponents will deface this monument that they find so objectionable.

The English-language media doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of what’s going on in the heart of Budapest. I discovered only one opinion piece, by András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador in Washington, who finds Viktor Orbán “deaf to the uproar by the Jewish community and other decent Hungarians. He fails to show leadership and magnanimity. He is missing the opportunity to behave like a statesman.”  Statesmanship? Magnanimity? From Viktor Orbán?

By contrast, the German press has been covering the story of the monument from the beginning. After all, Germany is implicated in this story. But the Germans, unlike the Hungarians, faced up to their own past and were ready to take the blame. They also know, as do most historians, that the Germans had eager accomplices in the Hungarian Holocaust. German public radio had a segment on the controversy, “Proteste gegen Nazi-Bezatsungsdenkmal.” Yes, the description of it as a Nazi monument is spreading. In it the journalist responsible for the text accurately described the situation that awaited the German troops in Hungary. Junge Welt ran an article entitled “Orbán in the role of the victim.” Perhaps the writer who claimed that Hungarians never quite got over the fact that they lost World War II is right. Seventy years after the fact. It would be high time to do so, but self-examination is impossible as long as the Hungarian government prevents any kind of honest look at Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.

“European God” and other atrocities in a Hungarian textbook

April 15, 2014 33 comments

While the MSZP bigwigs are trying to figure out what they did wrong in the past instead of attempting to come up with a strategy that might be useful in the future, let us turn to another topic: a new “experimental” literature textbook for grade 9 students. A sample page from this book was made available on Facebook, compliments of the Association of Hungarian Teachers. Hungarian teachers flocked to the site and were horrified. An outcry followed. The text disappeared from the Internet in no time.

Rózsa Hoffmann’s tenure in the Ministry of Human Resources is coming to an end. One newspaper announced, I suspect with a certain glee, “The Hoffmann Period Is Over.”  Unfortunately, by the very nature of her job, her influence on Hungarian education, especially now that the Orbán regime will have another four years, will cast a long shadow. It will take years, if not decades, before Hungarian public education will recover from Rózsa Hoffmann’s messianic zeal.

Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the Christian Democrats, described the departing education secretary as someone who fought like a “Berber lion.” Well, the Berber lion wrote a farewell letter in which she inflicted her final wound, making sure that the choice of textbooks will be seriously restricted from here on. Many popular textbooks will no longer be available and will be replaced by textbooks issued by two newly nationalized publishers. I read about one Budapest teacher who broke into tears when she heard that they are taking away her favorite textbook for third graders.

Let’s see what kinds of textbooks these Fidesz-Christian Democratic experts have in mind for Hungarian kids, in particular the experimental literature textbook for grade 9 students. (I would like to think that the Facebook post was just a belated April Fools joke, but I guess from the response that it wasn’t.) Thanks to social media it seems this experimental book will  never be published, but perhaps without Facebook it would have been. The page the Association of Hungarian Teachers picked dealt with Greek gods and mythology.

Before I begin to translate selected passages, let me point out that it is hard to believe that this book was written for fifteen-year-old students. It is so simple-minded, save for all the sexual references, that I think a ten-year-old would be offended by it. I should add that I find it difficult to write in such a primitive style as the original Hungarian, but I will try. As for the run-on sentences, they are like this in the original.

A 19th-century Hungarian writer once said that he would like to live in a country where people tell tales. Well, ancient Greece was such a country. The Greeks recognized that it is sexual desire that moves everything in life; so they called it Eros (Amor or Cupid in Rome); they realized that love is always young and that love rejuvenates the soul and therefore they showed Eros as a young child; they knew that no one can force anyone to love; they knew that love is illusive and came to the conclusion that a man in love is happy, his soul soars, therefore they told tales about Eros’s wings by which he can fly; they felt that love can be painful and that’s why they said that Eros had a bow and with it he wounds his victims.

They saw that there are many wars in the world, and they began telling tales about a god who is the god of war and they named him Ares, the Romans called him Mars, but they also saw that often there is war between lovers, they fight a lot, and they thought that love is a kind of war, therefore they told tales about Ares who fell in love with the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite (Venus). They saw that at dawn the sun arrives and at night it disappears and that’s why they told tales about a god that is the sun and named him Helios who drives his carriage across the sky every day. They saw that the moon comes up and they saw that the moon keeps changing; they saw that every 28 days something happens like what happens to girls and that’s why they thought that the moon is a woman and they called her Artemis (Diana).

They were surprised how clever a human being can be and told tales about the goddess of wisdom, Palas Athene (Minerva), and they felt that while man is clever, his body sometimes is not at all clever, as if on top man was clever, but lower down he is a stupid animal, so they spoke of beings existing in the forests who are goats lower down but men above and they called them satyrs who are running around in the forest at night chasing women (nőkre fáj a foguk); they thought that everything in the world comes from these gods and therefore they told tales about the chief god, Zeus, who falls in love with every beautiful woman and that the world is full of Zeus’s children…. The Greek men also had jealous wives and that is why they told tales that Zeus’s wife, Hera (Juno), was not taken with her husband’s debauchery and watched over the unity of the family with watchful eyes (árgus szemekkel); they thought that Hera was the goddess of familial unity.

gorog istenek

But that is not all. On another page we can read:

What is polytheism? Our European God is alone, unknowable, almighty Lord above us and above nature. The gods of the Greeks were entirely different: there were more of them because they were born from myths of  natural phenomena and became anthropomorphic creatures similar to men.

One cannot be terribly surprised that a blogger, László Szily, gave the following title to his post: “The moon menstruates every 28th day in Hoffmann’s textbook.” Or that 444.hu addressed the departing secretary as “Rózsa Hoffman, you European God.”

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