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

April 19, 2014 4 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.

Soul searching in the Hungarian Socialist Party

April 14, 2014 35 comments

On Saturday the MSZP committee of important party leaders (választmányi bizottság) gathered to evaluate the situation following the disastrous showing of the United Alliance. Apparently the at times heated debate lasted almost six hours. The gathering began with a forty-minute speech by party chairman Attila Mesterházy who, according to those present, repeated what he had already said publicly in an interview with HVG. First of all, he announced that there is no need for hasty action. It takes time to assess the situation. In any case, according to the party’s by-laws, there will be an opportunity to vote on possible personnel changes after the October municipal elections. At that time he will be a candidate for the chairmanship.

Otherwise, Mesterházy admitted that they didn’t listen to the demands of the people, that they ignored Jobbik, and that they didn’t appeal to sentiment, which is more important than rationality. In brief, at least in my interpretation, Mesterházy thinks that they should more or less have followed the path Fidesz chose in the last eight years or so. That is, let’s be as populist as Fidesz is, but let’s do it better. If Fidesz operates with highly charged nationalism, let’s be nationalistic. If the people want law and order, let’s create a law-and-order MSZP and by extension, because Mesterházy admitted that cooperation among the democratic parties is necessary, a law-and-order Unity Alliance. Mesterházy even dragged in the latest tiff between Brussels and Budapest over the distillation of pálinka. He stands with Viktor Orbán on that, he would also fight Brussels on the issue. But the European Union doesn’t want to forbid the distillation of pálinka, as Mesterházy implied. The argument is over taxes. The EU doesn’t want to allow Hungarians to brew pálinka without paying excise taxes on their product.

All in all, I believe that what Mesterházy outlined is no remedy for the ills of MSZP or the Unity Alliance.

The party leadership didn’t call for Mesterházy’s immediate resignation, a good decision considering that the EP campaign has already started. In fact, Tibor Szanyi, who will lead the MSZP delegation to Brussels, is hard at work and managed to get the necessary 20,000 endorsements in record time. Yes, now is not the time to get rid of the whole top leadership, although apparently there were voices demanding such a radical step. There was, however, plenty of criticism of Mesterházy’s leadership techniques. One of the main complaints was that he tried to imitate the leadership style of Viktor Orbán and hence created a highly centralized MSZP, which goes against socialist tradition.

In the wake of its 2010 defeat MSZP tried to reinvent itself to portray a younger, fresher image. The selection of the new leadership was based on age instead of experience and merit. In its rejuvenation campaign the old leadership was pushed into the background. Mesterházy somewhat naively thought that Fidesz politicians would no longer be able to call MSZP a bunch of commies. He should have known better. The name calling continued unabated.

Ildikó Lendvai, one of the critics of MSZP's present strategy, is arriving at the meeting Photo: Simon Móricz-Sabján/Népszabadság

Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman of MSZP, is arriving at the meeting
Photo: Simon Móricz-Sabján/Népszabadság

Antal Rogán and Gergely Gulyás are now offering MSZP a (poisonous) olive branch. They are talking about the possibility of reaching an understanding with MSZP as long as the coalition gets rid of Ferenc Gyurcsány. Orbán is fixated with Gyurcsány; he wants the former prime minister out of politics for good. The Fidesz leadership doesn’t really care whether MSZP is full of old apparatchiks or young Turks; they’ll attach the “communist” label in either case. But  they’ll gladly work hand in hand with these so-called communists to achieve their goal of silencing Gyurcsány.

I mentioned that the EP campaign has already started. It was DK that organized the first street demonstration. While Mesterházy is ready to fight Fidesz for the same voters, Gyurcsány blissfully ignores “the psyche of Hungarian society” which, according to Mesterházy, MSZP misunderstood. He doesn’t have to make compromises in the hope of competing with Viktor Orbán for the same votes. He can ignore the nationalism of the majority and stand for a United States of Europe, which might not be a popular position in the present nationalistic atmosphere created by Fidesz. Although he made a compromise for the sake of unity, the party’s official position is that no new Hungarian citizens in the neighboring countries should be able to vote. While Együtt2014-PM was ready to bargain with Fidesz over the new constitution, Gyurcsány could simply announce that, if it depended on him, the new constitution would be thrown out as soon as he is in power. Yes, he can say all these things because at the moment he is in no position to translate his ideas into action.

As for his ideas on the European Union, besides wanting to have a stronger central power Gyurcsány also seemed to indicate that more financial help would be necessary to avoid the kind of political climate that produced the growth of the extreme right in the eastern fringes of the Union. I’m trying to interpret what Gyurcsány had to say on the subject. Surely, he cannot hope for larger EU subsidies. Perhaps he contemplates using the EU convergence monies not only for building roads and paving city squares but for eliminating poverty. He said that it is not enough to have free travel and the right of entrepreneurship; “people must feel that poverty can be eliminated in the long run and the gap between rich and poor can be narrowed.”

I don’t know how the Hungarian left will improve its standing among the Hungarian electorate. But listening to the demands of the people as they have been shaped by powerful government propaganda is not a formula for success. Steve Jobs famously said that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” The left has to create its own unique product line, one so attractive that people will decide that it is something they simply have to have.

Serious questions about Fidesz’s election results

April 12, 2014 90 comments

The first foreign media reactions to the results of the Hungarian election were anything but enthusiastic, but now that the dust has settled and there has been time to take a look at the figures, it is dawning on journalists and analysts that these “fantastic” results were achieved in a highly dubious manner. Even the raw figures give food for thought. How is it possible to achieve a two-thirds parliamentary majority with less than 44% of the votes? And then there is the disturbing statistic that among voters outside of Hungary’s borders 95% opted for Fidesz. Pictures showed vote collecting in street stalls in Transylvania, the source of most of the votes, with no attempt to even feign secret balloting. The ease with which these new citizens could cast their ballots as opposed to the difficulties expats in the United States, Canada, Australia, and western Europe encountered when they tried to register and actually vote makes critics question the intentions of the government. The final verdict most likely will be that Fidesz won this election before a single vote was cast.

Viktor Orbán’s team designed an electoral system that pretty well guaranteed Fidesz a two-thirds majority, which ensures that Viktor Orbán can rule Hungary, with the help of his 133-135 minions in parliament, as a prime minister of unlimited power. A Russian journalist, Leonid Bershidsky, who works for Bloomberg, called Orbán’s Hungary “the European Union’s only dictatorship,” and he compared Orbán to Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdoğan. One could argue that it is incorrect to describe Viktor Orbán as “a ruler exercising absolute power without the free consent of the people” because after all he won two elections. Moreover, he is “restricted by a constitution, laws, recognized opposition.” But, given the two-thirds majority, any law can be changed. And indeed laws were changed to fit the needs of the government all through the last four years. As we know, the constitution was also changed several times, and there is nothing to prevent Orbán’s parliament from changing it again. As for the consent of the people, well, one could argue that point, especially if we look at the 2014 election. Because although it is true that Fidesz won the 2010 election fair and square, we cannot say the same about this past election. Finally, a dictator according to the dictionary definition rules without an opposition. Well, in our case there is an opposition in the sense that there are a few dozen people who can make speeches in parliament, but they are unable to make a difference. Orbán’s team can forge ahead without any effective parliamentary opposition. For the time being, the majority of judges still come out with some surprisingly fair decisions, but Orbán already managed to get his own men on an enlarged constitutional court and tried to decapitate the judiciary by sending seasoned judges into retirement at the age of 62. The system that was introduced resembles the political setup of the Horthy regime (1920-1944) which Orbán, it seems, finds attractive.

Perhaps Leonid Bershidsky’s description is too strong, although he knows Putin’s Russia quite well, but other West European journalists also find the Hungarian situation serious. For example, Cathrin Kahlweit, writing for Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich), talks of Orbán’s laying down “the foundations for a permanent one-party government” achieved by “the declaration of a permanent revolution.” And these journalists call attention to the dangers this new breed of populists pose to the European Union. In Austria, Wolfgang Müller-Funk, professor of cultural studies at the Institute of European and Comparative Linguistics and Literature at the University of Vienna, calls Orbán’s system “Führer-Demokratie,” which is a threat to Europe. MDR, a radio and television station from Leipzig, called Orbán “a political predator” and compared him to Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin.

Viktor Orbán at one of his press conferences in Brussels / Photo: dpa

Viktor Orbán at one of his press conferences in Brussels / Photo: dpa

Let’s see  what Freedom House had to say about “the state of democracy in Hungary.” According to its report, “the changes initiated by Fidesz contributed to an outcome that was both less than fair and of benefit to Fidesz, as critics predicted. Indeed, Hungarian analysts suggest that without the electoral revisions, the party would have lost the supermajority it has enjoyed since 2010.” And Freedom House’s report didn’t even mention one of the most unfair features of the new Hungarian electoral law, the so-called “reform of the compensation list.” András Jámbor, a communications expert, wrote a piece for Al-Jazeera in which he described the system as one “where votes for individual candidates who did not win their electorate were transferred to their party list, originally designed to amass votes received by runners-up in districts – have now also allowed district winners (in most cases Fidesz candidates) to add their surplus votes to party lists, widening the gap between winners and their contenders, and bringing seven more seats for Fidesz.” 

The Freedom House report also called attention to the far too cozy relationship between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán. “It’s worth noting that the Hungarian election coincided with one of the most serious foreign policy crises faced by Europe since the Cold War’s end: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. On this critical issue, Orbán has had surprisingly little to say. He and his foreign ministry have issued anodyne statements of mild criticism for Russia’s action, questioned the sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, and made reassuring declarations about the safety of ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region.” The author of the article, Arch Puddington, vice-president for research, finds this attitude especially incongruous given Orbán’s anti-communist stand in the past. Moreover, he was until recently an outspoken critic of Putin’s authoritarian regime. He concludes that “Fidesz’s policies, both at home and abroad, are far from reassuring.”

It is likely that the combined effect of this questionable election and Orbán’s new pro-Russian policy will have a negative effect on his already strained relations with the United States and the European Union and will lead to the further isolation of Hungary in the community of western democracies. But Orbán doesn’t fret about isolation–at least as long as the EU money keeps flowing. As Jonathan Swift wrote (and Orbán’s quote-happy speechwriters might consider including at the appropriate time),“When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

Viktor Orbán against the world as fear spreads in Hungary

April 11, 2014 50 comments

Somewhat belatedly German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Viktor Orbán on his electoral victory. It was yesterday afternoon that the press director of the Prime Minister’s Office released the news to MTI, and around 4 p.m. a summary of the letter appeared on the government website. Merkel emphasized that Fidesz’s large majority carries a special responsibility to use it soberly and sensitively. “In doing so, you can continue to count on Germany as a reliable partner in Europe,” the chancellor remarked. For emphasis she added: “in this spirit, I’m glad about our continued cooperation.” I think this letter was a warning to Viktor Orbán, who has already ignored Merkel’s message. If Merkel is serious about making good German-Hungarian relations dependent on Orbán’s restraint and moderation, she can start preparing for a rocky four-year period. It looks as if Orbán has no intention of slowing down. On the contrary, on day one he decided to take on the Hungarian and international Jewish community.

Those readers who are not familiar with the background of the controversial monument commemorating the German occupation of Hungary should read my many posts that deal with the matter, starting in early January. Here it is enough to say that this monument is a distortion of Hungarian history and by extension a falsification of the Hungarian Holocaust. The question is why Orbán insists on erecting this monument despite worldwide protestation. Why is he ready to face condemnation and contempt as a result of his stubbornness? As far as I can see, there can be only two answers to this question. Either his psychological make-up simply doesn’t tolerate defeat, which is a serious problem in itself, or whitewashing Hungary’s role in the Holocaust is vitally important to him.

After three days of protest, during the police passively watched demonstrators dismantle the fence built around the future site of the monument, authorities gave the green light to the police to crack down. There were several arrests today, with most likely more to follow.

While the tug of war over the erection of the monument continues, we should talk about another topic. Fear. A day before the election, Lili Bayer, a young researcher on Hungarian politics wrote a piece on the “return of fear” in Hungary. Let me quote her:

One element missing in much of the coverage of Hungary, however, has been the rise of fear in Hungarian society. A few outspoken Hungarian journalists have come out and spoken about their experiences of being intimidated and censored, especially in the state-run media, where some topics are considered off-bounds. Some former state employees, from ex-Fidesz agriculture official József Ángyán to bureaucrats at the Central Bank have described corruption and intolerance of dissident opinion throughout the government bureaucracy. Some of the country’s most talented television hosts and policy experts have lost their jobs. Fidesz and its oligarch supporters control not only the state bureaucracy and most of the media, but also many businesses and all government contracts. Husbands, wives, and friends of opposition figures have therefore become unemployable. As a result, some Hungarians have come to fear speaking their minds.

The fear extends beyond ministries and media institutions. It is present in private corporations, in schools, and in households across the country. At its root, the fear comes from the decline of Hungary’s democratic institutions and the lack of checks on the Fidesz party’s power. Fidesz has used its two-thirds majority in parliament over the past four years to gain control over nominally independent institutions. The Media Council, which oversees both state-owned and private news outlets, is dominated by Fidesz loyalists. Justices from the country’s top court have been forced out to make way for Orbán’s appointees, thus undermining the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on the government’s actions. There is therefore no institution to protect those fired on political grounds, no one willing to start a formal inquiry into censorship.

The fear is not, of course, comparable to the fear of Chinese, Uzbeks, or Iranians, who live under the rule of much stronger and more authoritarian regimes. But the return of fear to Hungary after a two-decade absence is significant. It impacts the daily lives of millions, and has no place in a modern democratic society. The existence of this kind of fear in the European Union should ring alarm bells across the continent.

An increasing number of articles are appearing in Hungary that talk about fear, in Hungarian “egzisztenciális félelem” (fear for one’s livelihood). This fear is widespread. That’s why in the past four years the teachers’ unions could not get too many people on the streets. That’s why these same teachers cannot be enticed to strike. That’s why so many people refuse to answer the questions of public opinion firms. People notice that cameramen are hard at work at demonstrations, and they are convinced that these pictures will be used against them one day. People are afraid that their telephone conversations are no longer private. There were instances when Fidesz propaganda messages arrived on cell phones whose numbers were not public. I heard about cases where university students were threatened by their dean to stop their political activities. Naturally, these political activities were on behalf of the parties of the democratic opposition.  At opposition gatherings one can see mostly people of retirement age. We know that young people all over the world are not terribly interested in politics, but there is another reason. Younger people are worried about their jobs as civil servants, doctors, or teachers.

There is another kind of fear that affects entire communities. Take, for instance, the city of Esztergom. The city had a famously bad Fidesz mayor before 2010. Esztergom is a conservative city, but even the good burghers of Esztergom had enough of the mayor. In October 2010 with a large majority they voted for an independent newcomer to politics, a woman. The people of Esztergom thought, however, that the mayor was only a bad apple among the otherwise wonderful Fidesz local politicians and voted overwhelmingly for Fidesz candidates for the city council. Subsequently the Fidesz majority did everything in its power to prevent the new mayor from carrying out her duties. And the government decided to punish the city for voting one of their own out of office. This time Esztergom voted solidly for the Fidesz candidate. They learned that voting against Fidesz is dangerous and counterproductive.

This morning one of Hungarian Spectrum‘s commentors sent me a video. It is a recording of a ten-minute segment of the Fidesz gathering in Debrecen where Viktor Orbán made his last campaign appearance. Before his speech an elderly gentleman with a monumentally large moustache recited a poem written byRudolf Kotzián. The elderly gentleman turned out to be Zsolt Dánielfy, a member of the Csokonai Theater of Debrecen. Keep in mind that Attila Vidnyánszky, the Fidesz favored new director of the Hungarian National Theater of rightist leanings, used to be the director of the Debrecen theater.  Kotzián seems to specialize in bad nationalistic poems, some of which are available on a rather obscure site called Eugen. The poem recited here is a frightening warning of what lies ahead for those who don’t vote for Fidesz. Kotzián might be off his rocker, but the organizers of the gathering surely knew the content of his poem and gave their blessing to having it recited. What is the message? “You will be treated the way you voted.” If you vote against this regime, look around, you will see what happens to you. This message is repeated ad nauseam until the fear of God is pounded into those brave souls who stand up against this power.

Zsolt Dánielfy recites Rudolf Kotzián's poem on April 5, 2014, Debrecen

Zsolt Dánielfy recites Rudolf Kotzián’s poem on April 5, 2014, Debrecen

There is also an entirely new police force whose members with their black outfits and masks are a frightening sight. By now there are almost a thousand of them. Why Hungary needs such a force is a mystery. Officially, it is supposed to be an anti-terrorist unit, but surely the terrorist threat to Hungary is minimal. The country doesn’t need a force of a 1,000 heavily armed men against non-existent terrorists. In reality, this task force has only one purpose: the protection of Viktor Orbán. What is Viktor Orbán afraid of? The people. And what are the people afraid of? Viktor Orbán. This is where we are in April 2014.

Viktor Orbán is the real danger, not the Hungarian far right

April 10, 2014 53 comments

While commentators in the western media were not at all surprised about Fidesz’s electoral sweep, they were shocked at the substantial growth of the neo-Nazi racist party Jobbik. The original name of the organization was Jobb Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary), which eventually was shortened to Jobbik, meaning “Better.”

Almost all the articles dealing with the election mention that “every fifth Hungarian” voted for an extremist party. Of course, this is not quite accurate because only 62% of the eligible voters actually bothered to vote, and it is a well-known fact that Jobbik followers turn out in high numbers. They even surpass Fidesz sympathizers. Nonetheless, this result must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán, who has been trying for years to convince the West that his party is the guarantee that Hungary will not fall prey to extremists. After all, he argues, Fidesz is a party of the moderate right-of-center. On the far right are the neo-Nazis and on the left the “communists.” Naturally, with the exception of a very small communist party that hasn’t managed to get into parliament in the last twenty-four years, there are no communists in Hungary, a detail that doesn’t seem to bother the propagandists of Fidesz.

Now Orbán has to face the fact that all his efforts at weakening Jobbik’s base have failed. He thought that if he moved his own party farther and farther to the right he would be able “to steal” the Jobbik sympathizers. He showed Jobbik voters that his own government could satisfy all their demands. In his last termViktor Orbán gave numerous unexpected gifts to Jobbik. This was especially true when it came to media policy and questions of unifying the nation across borders. The rehabilitation of the Horthy regime was also originally a Jobbik demand. Moreover, it is possible that Orbán’s pro-Russian stance was inspired by Jobbik.

Despite Orbán’s best efforts, the 10% growth in Jobbik’s voting base came largely from the ranks of former Fidesz voters. On the last day of the campaign in Debrecen Orbán warned his audience that splitting their votes between Fidesz and some other party would weaken the Fidesz cause. Although he didn’t mention the party by name, it is clear that he was thinking of Jobbik. And indeed, once we have all the numbers I suspect we will find that a fairly large number of Fidesz voters split their votes between Fidesz and Jobbik. They voted for a Fidesz candidate locally but chose to use their second vote for the Jobbik list. In the final tally 100,000 more people voted for Jobbik than four years ago.

Jan-Werner Mueller in his article in The Guardian sees a correlation between the growth of Jobbik and Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy. In order to understand the connection between Jobbik and Orbán’s pro-Russian policy we have to go back a bit. The first time I learned of Jobbik’s infatuation with Putin’s Russia was in 2009 when I read a study on “Russia’s Far-Right Friends.” According to this study, Jobbik’s attachment to Russia became evident for the first time during the Russian-Georgian border dispute. It also turned out that Gábor Vona, Jobbik party chairman, made at least two trips to Moscow even before 2009. Jobbik wanted “to open Hungary to eastern markets and to sell Hungarian products to Russia, China or even Iran instead of the European Union.” Jobbik also wanted to expand Hungary’s nuclear capacity and even then, the authors of the study believe, Jobbik had the Russian Rosatom in mind when it came to the Paks power plant’s expansion. Keep in mind that at this point Viktor Orbán had very different ideas about Russia, which he considered to be a danger to Europe and Hungary. It seems that Jobbik managed to convince him otherwise. He saw the light and more or less copied Jobbik’s ideas on Russo-Hungarian relations.

These moves didn’t slow the growth of Jobbik, just as government policies didn’t help the position of the conservatives vis-à-vis the extreme right in interwar Hungary. Orbán followed a policy of appeasement in dealing with MIÉP, the precursor of Jobbik, during his first government (1998-2002) just as he did in handling Jobbik. Give them what they want and perhaps they will be satisfied with Fidesz rule. That strategy didn’t work in the Horthy era as it doesn’t work now.

Viktor Orbán at the victory celebration, April 7, 2014 /Photo picture alliance/dpa

Viktor Orbán at the victory celebration, April 7, 2014 /Photo dpa

To be fair to Horthy, there’s appeasement (at a distance) and appeasement (embracing). I think we can safely say that Orbán’s ideas are closer to the extreme right today than were those of any of Horthy’s governments. After all, Orbán is a populist while Horthy and his ministers were hard-core conservatives. The leaders of the extreme right in the 1930s held some “revolutionary ideas” when it came to social policy. Many of the party’s ideologues were outright admirers of the Soviet experiment with its planned economy and egalitarian ideology. Szálasi, for example, was well versed in Marxism. For Horthy all that was anathema. It would have been unimaginable for Horthy to allow his government to conduct a pro-Russian/Soviet policy or to get too cozy with Ferenc Szálasi and his friends. On the other hand, Orbán seems quite willing to take over Jobbik’s ideas–their pro-Russian foreign policy as well as their views on modern Hungarian history–and pass them off as his own.

There is a paper thin line between Jobbik and Fidesz. I know that the western media is preoccupied with the growth of Jobbik, but I think everybody would be better off realizing that the real problem is Fidesz and the system Viktor Orbán created. Jobbik will be in opposition, but Viktor Orbán, who often carries the Jobbik banner, has practically unlimited power. He is the much greater danger, not Gábor Vona.

The political bickering has begun

April 9, 2014 70 comments

The disappointment among sympathizers of the democratic opposition forces is indescribable. But reasonable barometers of the mood in this circle are the call-in shows on Klubrádió and ATV, which by now are the only opposition electronic media in Hungary. Of course, among the callers there are always those who believe that, if they had been in a position to decide, they would have done much better than the Bajnai-Mesterházy-Gyurcsány trio and who offer their pearls of political wisdom. But a lot of the callers simply describe their utter shock when they heard that Fidesz would most likely win again with a two-thirds majority.

Not that these people ever thought that the Unity Alliance would win the election, but the size of the Fidesz victory made them despair. Many students are ready to leave the country at the earliest opportunity because they don’t want to live in Orbán’s Hungary. Even before the election every third person in the younger generation was planning to leave the country. I suspect that the emigration will only accelerate in the future because I very much doubt that the Hungarian economy will improve any time soon, especially if Orbán and Matolcsy continue their unorthodox economic policies. It is also unlikely that the Orbán regime will change political course. No, they will continue their aggressive war against all the foreign and domestic “enemies” of their regime. It’s enough to note that immediately after the election Orbán gave the go ahead to erect the controversial monument to the German invasion of March 19, 1944.

Yet the democratic opposition must continue to fight the good fight because its electoral results were not as bad as they appeared at first sight. As Árpád W. Tóta said in his last opinion piece, if 1,200,000 voters stuck it out with this two-left-handed Unity Alliance, not everything is lost. The opposition simply has to do a little better, which shouldn’t be that difficult.

The Unity Alliance before the election

The Unity Alliance before the election

The disheartened sympathizers will bounce back. Soon enough, especially if the democratic opposition finds someone who can actually lead the anti-Orbán forces effectively, they will once again gather around the liberals and socialists. I am not worried about them. I am, however, very concerned about the politicians and the so-called political scientists who are now engaged in a blame game.

The finger pointing has already started. Attila Mesterházy blames everybody except himself. He doesn’t think he should resign from the chairmanship of his party. Too bad he doesn’t listen to the callers on Klubrádió. I don’t know what his colleagues in MSZP think (perhaps we will see in May), but László Botka, mayor of Szeged, announced that “continuing in the same way and with the same set-up is not worth doing.”

Or there is Gordon Bajnai, who once it became clear that he would not be the candidate for prime minister succumbed to Weltschmerz. After a fleeting appearance in politics he has already had enough. He is throwing in the towel. He just announced that he will not take his parliamentary seat. And the PM people will all resign after the European parliamentary election. That would be fine if there were a second tier of politicians behind them. But there isn’t.

According to the politicians of Együtt2014-PM and MSZP, the whole Unity Alliance was a mistake. Mesterházy apparently announced right after the election that “we could have done that well alone.” Bajnai declared on Sunday night that they will “never again agree to any unprincipled political compromise.” These politicians are reinforced by the talking heads who also suddenly discovered that the whole alliance was a huge mistake. It was a forced and unnatural political amalgam of diverse political groups. Yes it was, but it was Viktor Orbán’s devilishly clever electoral law that forced that straight jacket on them. The great minds who ex post facto condemn the joint action don’t ask what would have happened if three or four opposition politicians ran against a single Fidesz candidate. In that case, surely, not one district would have been won by the democratic opposition.

Given the mood of  the Bajnai and the Mesterházy groups, it seems there won’t be a united parliamentary delegation either. Both Együtt2014-PM and DK have only four parliamentary representatives, not enough to form a caucus. Only parties with a minimum of five members can have a caucus. That doesn’t seem to bother Együtt2014, whose politicians already announced that no meaningful political activity can be conducted in a parliament in which one party holds a two-thirds majority. They will conduct most of their activities on the streets. Unfortunately, the last two years showed how difficult it is to convince sympathizers of the democratic opposition to take an active part in street demonstrations. MSZP has its own caucus and therefore could care less what the Bajnai group does.

DK politicians haven’t said much, but from the little I heard from Ferenc Gyurcsány it looks as if he is in favor of joint action and a joint caucus.  This solution now seems close to impossible. Gyurcsány did mention that DK might approach Gábor Fodor, the lone “representative” of the Hungarian Liberal party, to join them. After all, it was Gyurcsány who convinced Együtt2014-PM and MSZP to put Fodor high enough up on the party list to assure him of a seat in parliament. Yesterday Fodor said on ATV that no such request had come from DK. Today, however, in the early afternoon Fodor announced that DK did approach him and that “the leadership” of his party had decided against it. DK’s spokesman denies that they approached Fodor with such an offer.

Otherwise, DK has already begun its campaign for the forthcoming European parliamentary election. They are collecting signatures. It was decided some time ago that the three parties would try their luck individually at the EP election. Of the three parties, only MSZP has a chance of actually sending representatives to Brussels. But since people can vote only for a party list in the EP election, Együtt2014-PM and DK can use this election to get a rough sense of their relative strength among the electorate.

So, this is where we stand. Not a happy picture.

András Schweitzer: Factors that made Hungary a borderline democracy (and are likely to stay)

April 8, 2014 75 comments

András Schweitzer is a journalist who has been working for HVG since 1999. Currently he is on leave of absence. Since June 2013 he and his family have been living in Brussels.

In addition to being a journalist he is also scholar with a Ph.D. in political science who is currently working on completing a second Ph.D. in history. For a number of years he has been involved with a historical research project for the 1956-Institute.

* * *

According to the official rhetoric, the profound constitutional and political restructuring by the second Fidesz government (2010-2014) aimed to put an end to two decades of post-communist meandering and to finish off the remaining legacy of state-socialism. However the actual legal and economic changes constitute more an illiberal turn back to the bad old days. Of all the countries that joined the West in the Annus mirabilis of 1989 Hungary returned to exist again in history in the Fukuyama sense.

It is logical but inadequate to blame the global financial crisis for this unfortunate chain of events. The corruption of the Hungarian democratic political and market-oriented economic system had already been going on years before it. The dramatic transformation should instead be attributed to the following factors.

1. As an unfortunate coincidence the Hungarian democratic opposition did not have a single outstanding politician comparable to Czechoslovak Václav Havel or Polish Lech Walesa when the Wall fell.  István Bibó, a brilliant scholar and deeply convicted democrat (the once spirited state minister of the Imre Nagy government in the heroic days of 1956) could have been such a character acceptable to all main dissident groups – but he died a decade too early. Of the sizeable pool of dissenters, Machiavellian and confrontational Viktor Orbán happened to be the most talented and ambitious, who managed to politically survive the last quarter of century by being both harsh with the opponents and attentive to popular expectations. He showed signs of wanting to concentrate political and economic power in his hands already after he had first become prime minister in 1998, but it was the two-third majority between 2010 and 2014 which made it achievable for him.

2. Skepticism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary and yet voters have always showed affinity for political illusions. Research shows that the correlation between the level of government spending and the election cycles in Hungary is significantly higher than in other East-Central European countries. Elections have increasingly become promise-contests where honest players (at the beginning Fidesz included) had no chance to win. Politicians had to learn this lesson or leave the scene. After winning with excessive election pledges in 2002 and 2006 the Socialists found themselves in a difficult position: first they tried to be true to their promises and accumulated a budget deficit reaching 10% of the GDP, then after the 2006 elections, when this was no longer feasible without an immediate financial crisis, Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted he had lied about the state of the economy and introduced tough austerity measures. This became an important reason for the increasing popularity of Fidesz.

3. Despite all the good intentions and creative solutions at its crafting, the complex election system of 1989 was unfit for Hungary. In a country where people tend to vote for candidates mostly according to their party affiliations and where there are no significant regional differences in voting patterns even the party list leg of the system and the additional compensation list could not guarantee proportionality. In a single party list system, which would be the proper alternative for Hungary, Fidesz would have won a simple majority of just over 50% in 2010, but the actual electoral system transformed this into a two-thirds win which is the legal limit to changing the constitution. The new rules made the 2014 election results even more unproportional: with more weight given to the first-past-the-post leg the system guaranteed about two-thirds of the seats to Fidesz with less than 50 percent of the votes. (It is typical of the relatively uniform Hungarian voting behavior that in a Westminster-style system Fidesz would have had a 98% majority in the 2010-2014 parliament as its candidates won in 173 out of 176 districts. The election result of last Sunday showed a similar pattern of homogeneity: with the exception of a few electoral districts in Budapest, Miskolc and Szeged the whole country turned orange again.)

4. Liberal democracy and free market economy did not produce a general sense that things are looking up as a result of economic reform (which would have been a necessary ingredient of the success of transformation according to the insightful prophesy of Ralf Dahrendorf), and there has been an illiberal downslide in public opinion. The failure of half-implemented liberal policies was used as an argument against liberal ideals. It was claimed that “neoliberal” openness and privatization resulted in foreign intrusion and the cheap selling out of the country’s wealth; tolerance increased crime; multiculturalism endangered the country’s cultural character; preference for market mechanisms brought unemployment and oligarchs; protection of civil rights brought inefficient government. Capitalizing on and enforcing this sentiment, left and right political groups sometimes joined forces in measures to undermine the third (liberal) power block, which practically disappeared by 2010.

"In the footsteps of our fathers" / Magyar Narancs

“In the footsteps of our fathers” / Magyar Narancs

5. Unlike the short 20th century Czech history, which could be schematized as the interwar democratic “good guys” being followed by the communist “bad guys” Hungarian heavy weight political leaders of the era – Miklós Horthy and János Kádár – are both controversial figures. Numerous Hungarians tend to forgive the interwar governor for being complicit in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews by claiming that he resisted deportation until the German occupation, which, in turn, didn’t leave him much choice. Many exonerate Kádár for his crimes as a communist dictator by emphasizing that he managed to construct the “happiest barrack” in the Soviet camp. As opposed to the Polish, the Czech or the Slovak context, Hungarian history lacks the heritage of a wide scale popular anti-fascist movement, and the revolutionary fever of 1956 also faded with the subsequent decades of a relatively mild dictatorship. A democratic role model is generally missing from Hungarian political consciousness. Horthy gained legitimacy by being the admiral of the nation who held the steering wheel of the Hungarian mothership against a sea of powerful enemies (even if the nation suffered a devastating defeat at the end). Kádár was made popular by providing welfare to the widest possible masses (even if this led to a crippling debt burden by 1989). Already the first democratically elected government capitalized on the earlier dormant nostalgia for the Horthy era, which has steadily grown stronger ever since, while Socialists never dared to dissociate themselves from widely popular János Kádár.

6. The Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map of the World based on findings of World Value Survey reveals a remarkable cultural pattern: of all the countries of “Catholic Europe” (other ex-communist states like Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia included) Hungary scores the highest on having  “survival” instead of “self-expression” values. This puts the country the furthest away from leading democracies of “Protestant Europe” and the “English-speaking” world and the closest to Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia. Survival values are indeed reflected in prevalent ideas of Hungarian political life: yearning for economic paternalism instead of a free market (stemming from the existential fear of individuals) and ethno-nationalist sentiments instead of tolerance (stemming from the collective existential fear of the nation). Kádár’s ways to gain legitimacy well fits the former whereas those of Horthy go hand in hand with the latter.

7. Sixteen years ago it was Hungary’s northern neighbor, Slovakia that was generally considered to be a laggard among the transition nations of East-Central Europe, with a populist unchecked majority rule in an unconsolidated democracy. At that time however the fear that Slovakia would be left out of NATO and EU enlargement served as a wakeup call to the people who in the 1998 elections ousted Vladimír Mečiar’s authoritarian-populist government. Unfortunately, lacking similar incentives, the equally strong signals from Western democracies to Hungary don’t seem to have a substantial effect. While numerous Hungarian individuals contributed greatly to world civilization (usually after emigrating from the country) the wider public has traditionally been quite inattentive to the outside world. Hungary is perceived by many to be an island in the German, Latin and Slavic seas, a feeling reinforced by the living grievances of the post-WWI events when Hungary lost two-thirds of its historic territory and more than 3 million ethnic Hungarians found themselves in foreign countries. The so-called Trianon-tragedy is usually blamed on disingenuous neighbors and conspiring great powers. The island feeling is also existent on the individual level: surveys have for decades shown an extremely high level of individualist sentiment and low-level of trust among Hungarians which hampers effective social cooperation.

Between 2010 and 2014 Orbán’s government created a peculiar system, which could be called a borderline democracy. It walks the rope of taking all possible undemocratic measures to ensure its power (from gerrymandering through concentrated denigration campaigns to limiting free press) while at the same time trying to maintain all the formal legal criteria of democracy. In order to produce laws that serve its political interests but don’t contradict EU legislation it collects and connects “worst practices” from other European countries (to use a term EU-expert Györgyi Kocsis used in early 2011 about the new media law). Having changed the electoral system to its liking, having filled political posts with friends and clients, having an overwhelmingly friendly media, it had a remarkably wide array of potential measures to ensure its decisive win at the 2014 elections. It must be noted however, that even if the democratic left had won in 2014, this would not have meant a quick return to democratic normalcy. Instead, the political fight and cold civil war that characterized the years 2006-2010 would have come back.

During the last 25 years politicians on the left and right have learned the lesson of being popular by being populist. As liberal parties were disappearing incumbents have managed to gain an ever greater pool of supporters. Orbán’s 2014 victory is the second time in a row (after the 2006 narrow win of Gyurcsány) when a party and a prime minister were given a second term. Orbán’s government successfully combined Kádár’s and the Horthy’s approaches to gain support – its actions and rhetoric were at times more socialist than those of the Socialists and more nationalist than those of the nationalists. It also managed to bleed out its opponents on the left and on the right by a thousand cuts (from discovering and publicizing awkward information about their politicians through starting legal procedures against them to strictly limiting their channels to address a wider audience or even to collect and use campaign money) but its voter base diminished since 2010 nevertheless. In the future more resources may be needed to successfully apply similar techniques, therefore further political and economic centralization and an increase in the confrontational rhetoric is likely to come in the run up to 2018.

Written on October 27, 2013, updated on April 7-8, 2014

The Hungarian election: A day after

April 7, 2014 107 comments

I’m in the middle of reading a slim volume by György Bolgár, the “Dear Mr. Bolgár” of the call-in program “Let’s Talk It Over” on Klubrádió. His latest book is Poligráf, a word that needs no translation. In every short chapter he refutes another lie of Viktor Orbán.

If Bolgár had waited a month or so he could have added another chapter to the book: Viktor Orbán’s claim of “national unity.” In his acceptance speech Orbán said that what his party achieved is “a European record. This is a fact that gives us the right to say, and not just to say but also to be proud of the fact that Hungary is the most unified country in Europe.”  First of all, that “record” is nothing to be terribly proud of. In fact, in comparison to Fidesz’s most successful showing in 2010, the party lost over twenty percent of its voters. As 444‘s reporter pointed out, in 2002 and again in 2006 Fidesz lost the election with more votes than it got this time around. Others remarked that the last time Fidesz did so badly was in 1998.

As for “national unity” here are some figures. Fidesz won 44.36%, Unity Alliance 25.89%, Jobbik 20.46%, and LMP 5.24% of the votes. Do these figures suggest that Hungary is “the most unified country in Europe”? Surely not. The super majority that Fidesz may (probably will) achieve is the result of a cleverly devised electoral law, not the popular will. Unity? No, electoral manipulation. That’s the reality behind this fantastic European record.

Source: Index

Source: Index

A Fidesz super majority naturally means a system that discriminates against other parties. Both the Unity Alliance and Jobbik ended up with much smaller parliamentary representations than their actual performance would have warranted. In part that was achieved by the split between seats won outright and seats allocated on the basis of party lists. In any event, a totally unrepresentative parliament will convene after the formation of the third Orbán government.

It is now time to talk about Jobbik, the neo-Nazi party. Yes, it gained about 130,000 new voters. At the moment there are close to a million Jobbik voters in Hungary. Most of these voters came from Fidesz, which lost all told about 700,000 voters. Many people are very concerned about the growth of Jobbik. Some foresee a Hungary which will soon be run by neo-Nazis. The people who seem most concerned about Jobbik are also certain that the Hungarian Left’s poor showing will result in their total disappearance from the political scene. They envisage a second Poland where the Left was pretty well left for dead.

I’m a great deal less gloomy on the subject. First of all, in the twentieth century Hungarian extremist parties didn’t have long life expectancies. One year the Arrow Cross party had at least a million voters but a year later they lost most of their support. Moreover, these extremist parties have a tendency to splinter. A number of Jobbik members of parliament have already left the party for ideological reasons. In my opinion, Jobbik’s recent rise in the polls has two main causes. One is that the party leadership toned down their racist propaganda. And second, Fidesz made no attempt to curb their activities. Fidesz’s propaganda was directed against the Unity Alliance and specifically against Ferenc Gyurcsány; Jobbik remained untouched by the Fidesz propaganda machine. Although Jobbik did well at the polls, its leadership is still dissatisfied. Party chief Gábor Vona himself lost to a Fidesz candidate in one of the strongest Jobbik strongholds in northeastern Hungary. Moreover, his unreasonably high expectations for Jobbik’s performance might prompt a serious debate within the party about the efficacy of the new ideological line which didn’t bring about the desired results. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some serious disagreements about the future course of the party.

Finally, let’s talk about those who are ready to condemn the whole nation for voting for autocracy, semi-dictatorship, and servitude. Again, let’s see the figures. Out of the whole electorate only 27.30% voted for Fidesz, 17.87% for Unity Alliance, 12.31% for Jobbik, 3.23% for LMP, and 2.61% for other smaller parties. And yes, 38.81% didn’t bother to vote at all. It is true that almost two-thirds of those who did vote cast their votes for the Right–that is, for either Fidesz or Jobbik. But that is still not the whole country. And at least a vote for Jobbik was not a vote for autocracy.

One problem is that Hungarians’ attitude toward democracy is ambivalent, due mainly to ignorance and undereducation. Instilling an understanding of the importance of democracy should be the first task the democratic parties to tackle. Without a democratically-minded population one cannot build a democratic society.

Finally, let’s see what the International Election Observation Mission of OSCE had to say about the election:

The 6 April parliamentary elections were efficiently administered and offered voters a diverse choice following an inclusive candidate registration process. The legal framework for these elections was amended substantially in recent years. While some changes were positive, a number of amendments negatively affected the election process, including important checks and balances. The main governing party enjoyed an undue advantage because of restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage and campaign activities that blurred the separation between political party and the State.

The Fundamental Law (the constitution) and a large number of cardinal laws, including electoral legislation, were passed using procedures that circumvented the requirement for public consultation and debate. This undermined support and confidence in the reform process. A number of aspects of this legal overhaul undermined checks and balances, such as a reduction of the oversight powers of the Constitutional Court.

In a widely welcomed change, legal amendments reduced the number of parliamentary seats from 386 to 199, necessitating alteration in constituency delimitation. The legal requirement to have constituencies of a more equal size is positive. However, the need for a two-thirds majority for redrawing of constituency boundaries may make it difficult to change the boundaries in the future. The delimitation process was criticized by several OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors for lacking transparency and inclusiveness. There were allegations of gerrymandering; it remains to be seen how this translates into results.

Well, by now we know how all this translated into results. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington wrote to “Friends of Hungary” that “during the course of the election, monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) said they were satisfied with the voting process.” Surely, if we think of process as “a series of actions, changes, or functions bringing about a result,” then the Hungarian government isn’t telling the whole truth. The Election Observation Mission’s report didn’t express complete satisfaction with the process and the final word will be coming only when the results are final. I assume that, after analyzing the votes and how they got translated into seats, the final report will contain serious reservations about the “process” carefully devised by Fidesz to retain a super majority far into the future.

A quick look at the results of the Hungarian election

April 6, 2014 111 comments

The interest in the Hungarian election is incredibly high on Hungarian Spectrum. The number of visitors more than doubled today. I’m sure that some of them were disappointed to see no new post analyzing the results. But the numbers began to trickle in very late, and the fate of some districts is still undecided. It looks, however, as if Fidesz will have 132 seats in parliament, enough for a two-thirds majority. This feat was achieved with only 44-45% of the popular vote. The new electoral system favors the winner that much. Four years ago Fidesz needed at least 52.5% to achieve that magic number.

Yes, the democratic opposition did very badly, but still better than four years ago. If you recall, in 2010 there was only one district in Budapest that was won by an MSZP candidate. This time that number will be considerably higher. Yes, it is true, as many of you remarked in the comments, it looks as if the Left lost everything except the capital. But four years ago they also lost practically the whole city. There are some high points. I find it amazing, for instance, that Szilárd Németh, the grand prophet of utility decreases and mayor of Csepel, lost to the candidate of the democratic opposition. And that Ágnes Kunhalmi was able to win in the district in which Gábor Simon was supposed to run. And that Ferenc Papcsák of Zugló lost the election. These are the bright spots.

Valasztasok 2014 Budapest

It is also true that the election campaign that was orchestrated by Fidesz cannot be considered a campaign in the traditional sense of the word. In democratic countries the parties of the opposition have a more or less equal opportunity to reach the electorate. This was not the case in Orbán’s Hungary.

Yet one must admit that the democratic opposition’s performance in the last four years, ever since Gordon Bajnai offered himself as the man around whom the parties of the opposition could gather, has been abysmal. This is not the time to list all the mistakes he and Attila Mesterházy made. It is enough to say that they wasted at least a year and a half of precious time. It doesn’t matter how often one repeats that a month or even two weeks are enough time to campaign, this is self-delusion, especially when one’s opponents are campaigning all through their four years in office.

When I began this post, there was no word yet from Attila Mesterházy. Gordon Bajnai made a nice speech but, if I understand him right, he is planning to go it alone and sever relations with the others in the Unity Alliance. If that is the case, I can’t think of a worse reaction to the defeat. As it stands, Együtt 2014-PM will have two parliamentary members: Gordon Bajnai and Tímea Szabó. One needs at least five people to form a parliamentary caucus. DK, if all goes well, will have four members. Again, not enough to form a caucus. Ferenc Gyurcsány hoped to be able to form a separate DK caucus, but now that it is unlikely. I assume he has the good sense to promote a joint effort of the parties within the Unity Alliance in the next parliament unless perhaps he can convince Gábor Fodor of the liberals to join him. That is the only reasonable thing to do under the circumstances. If Bajnai, who perhaps spoke too hastily, decides against cooperation, I believe he will seal the fate of Együtt 2014-PM.

In order to cheer up those who kept fingers crossed for the anti-Orbán forces I suggest taking a look at the electoral maps of 2010 and 2014 on the site of the National Electoral office. Yes, this year’s map looks terribly orange but four years ago it was even worse. That’s some consolation, albeit admittedly small.

Final polls before the Hungarian election tomorrow

April 5, 2014 249 comments

This morning an editorial appeared in politics.hu by a former senior editor of the internet paper who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Liverpool. The title of his opinion piece is “Forget rigged elections, Fidesz will win because there is no viable alternative.” The core of his argument is that with the exception of Tímea Szabó “the top four politicians are all from the Socialists’ eight year corruption run.” He is not the only one who is convinced that Hungarian politics needs an entirely new cast of characters. András Schiffer of LMP, for example, just yesterday announced that “voting for Gyurcsány is voting for Orbán.” I guess he is offering himself as the only pristine Hungarian politician of the future.

I think it would be high time for these people to learn that one cannot just produce brand new, ready-made politicians out of thin air. One of the handicaps of the first Hungarian democratic government of József Antall was that it was made up entirely of people with no political experience. The other strongly held notion is that just because the leading politicians of the Unity Alliance held office prior to 2010 they are forever unelectable. They should simply disappear, never to be seen or heard of again. I wonder where the Unity Alliance would be standing if they had obliged. I would guess somewhere close to where LMP is today.

I also doubt that the problem of the opposition is that they can offer no viable alternative. If that were the case, why was it necessary for the government and Fidesz to do everything in their power to prevent the opposition from delivering that nonexistent message to the electorate? Why do they need the votes of Hungarians from Romania where, according to the latest poll taken in the Partium, areas closest to the Hungarian-Romanian border, 66% of the voters are Fidesz sympathizers, 13% would vote for Jobbik,  and only 2% for the Unity Alliance? And why does Fidesz need an electoral law that dramatically reduces the democratic opposition’s chances?

Practically all the English- and German-language articles I read are certain of an overwhelming Fidesz victory. Their predictions are based on the numerous public opinion polls that have appeared in the last few months. By now there are mighty few people who believe in the possibility of victory for the democratic opposition. But some suggest that the results will be closer than current polls indicate. They are convinced that in the last four years the political fear that Hungarians were accustomed to during pre-democratic times returned. People who were always somewhat suspicious of poll takers by now are genuinely fearful that the information they share with the pollsters will end up at Fidesz headquarters and that soon enough they or their relatives will lose their jobs as teachers, doctors, or civil servants. Or, if they are small businessmen, that they will no longer receive government orders. Unity Alliance activists claim that they frequently meet people who actually lied to the pollsters because of their fears of the present ruling party. If the final election results are substantially different from the generally predicted ones, perhaps there is something to this explanation.

We may never know how many people misled the pollsters, but we do know that it is very difficult to convince people to answer their questions. Reluctance to participate in a survey is not a new phenomenon, but lately the polling companies are in real trouble. In order to find 1,000 willing participants they have to canvass about three times that number, sometimes even more. Surely, this fact says something about the Hungarian population’s present psyche.

Unity Alliance activists report full houses at their gatherings. They claim that their tables, set up alongside Fidesz posts, have long lines of interested people while Fidesz activists are not at all busy. This description might be a reflection of their bias and wishful thinking but one thing is sure: this morning  the square in front of Debrecen’s Great Church was not even half full during an event Fidesz organized as the last, triumphant stop in Viktor Orbán’s campaign. Is it possible that Fidesz voters have also become apathetic? Are they possibly disappointed? Or perhaps too sure of a Fidesz victory?

But let’s return briefly to the two latest polls. Medián shows unusually high percentage of committed voters (62%), larger than in 2002 or 2006. If these people actually go and vote, that fact itself might help the Unity Alliance, which benefits from high turnout. On the other hand, it was highly disturbing that 2% of these committed voters actually opted for the “Együtt 2014 Párt,” which was created to confuse voters. It is especially easy to mix up the two parties since Együtt 2014 Párt occupies the sixteenth place on the ballot while the Unity Alliance in which Együtt 2014-PM is listed is seventeenth. The Zöldek Pártja (Party of the Greens) received 1% of the sample’s votes, most likely from people who actually wanted to vote for LMP.

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Ipsos, although it predicts a large Fidesz victory, also saw signs that confuse the issue. For example, it is very difficult to judge what the voters will actually do once they are in the voting booth. For example, there are 250,000 Fidesz supporters who think that they might vote for Jobbik while about 100,000 Jobbik voters think they might support Fidesz after all. There might also be some last-minute changes within the anti-Orbán forces. 150,000 Unity Alliance supporters are contemplating switching to LMP and a goodly number of current LMP supporters are thinking about voting for Unity after all. About 10% of the electorate is still undecided and another 10% refuses to divulge. Endre Hann of Medián also points out in his article that one must keep in mind that in the by-elections the opposition did considerably better than in 2010.

And finally, those who are keeping fingers crossed for the democratic opposition call attention to what happened to Slovak prime minister Robert Fico who a week ago was still leading in the polls by a margin of 10%. The next day he lost his bid to become president to a newcomer to politics, Andrej Kiska, a businessman, and not by a small margin. Kiska received almost 60% of the votes against 41% for Fico.

It would be a miracle if something like that were to happen in Hungary tomorrow, but there is a possibility that the Fidesz victory will not be so overwhelming as everybody thinks. As a Hungarian commentator said this morning, if Fidesz won with only a simple as opposed to a two-thirds majority, under the circumstances it would actually mean a victory for the opposition. Tomorrow, after all, might be a more interesting day than the current polls indicate. Let’s hope so.

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