In the past few years I’ve often written about Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ), one of the few active opposition leaders during the Kádár regime. After the change of regime he became a member of parliament and served twice as minister of education in the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition governments. The Fidesz-Christian Democrats who are now running the Hungarian educational establishment have singled him out as their bête noire, responsible for the “deplorable” state of Hungarian education. Magyar stood for everything Rózsa Hoffmann finds wrong with Hungarian education. He tried to bring Hungarian education closer to western models by liberating it from its nineteenth-century shackles. He also had the “temerity” to focus on the child.
But here I don’t want to talk about Magyar’s educational philosophy but rather his latest analysis of the Orbán regime. He began writing about the nature of the Orbán government as early as 2001–that is, during the first Orbán government. This first article in a series over the years showed that Bálint Magyar has a very sharp eye. Already then he noticed that Fidesz functioned as “an organized upperworld” as opposed to an underworld. He called it the “Hungarian octopus.”
His latest thoughts on the subject were published just a few days ago in Élet és Irodalom (June 14, 2013) available only to subscribers. The article is actually an interview he gave to Eszter Rádai. Once again the topic is the nature of the Orbán regime, now full-blown. According to Magyar, the present Hungarian regime is “a post-communist mafia state.”
What are the antecedents of this regime? Some political scientists and historians try to find its archetype in the past but, according to Magyar, such comparisons are futile because it is an entirely new phenomenon. In vain can we look to the Horthy regime, to Mussolini’s corporative state, or to Franco’s Spain. We will not find Viktor Orbán’s real inspiration for his regime in any of these systems. None of these earlier models can describe in a comprehensive way the nature of today’s Hungary. It is an entirely new system because, after all, it is post-communist. It cannot be analyzed along the lines of democracy versus dictatorship. Trying to place it along the coordinates of corruption is also mistaken because the Hungarian government’s corruption cannot be measured simply by its degree. It is qualitatively different from the ordinary, garden variety of corruption.
After describing the different stages and degrees of corruption, Magyar arrives at the current Hungarian situation “which the West cannot comprehend and handle.” It is an intricate matrix of a centralized monopoly of corruption by a mafia-like political elite. This elite manages to end the anarchic world of the oligarchs and make them dependent on them. Western observers are not familiar with this kind of mafia state where “a political enterprise becomes an economic enterprise which captures the world of politics as well as the economy with the help of the complete arsenal of the power of the state.”
Magyar shows the difference between ordinary corruption and the mafia-state’s corruption by comparing the building of a football stadium in the 1990s by József Stadler, who became a billionaire by tax evasion, with Orbán’s personal football “empire”. Stadler’s dream was to build a stadium in the middle of nowhere, but eventually he was caught and jailed. The stadium still stands unused. But in today’s Hungary state-owned land is passed on to a middleman called the Ferenc Puskás Football Academy; the parliament sanctions a law allowing tax-free contributions to sports clubs, and, behold, three-quarters of the gifts go to the fourth-rate team of the godfather, i.e. Viktor Orbán. The rich contributors naturally know that if they want to receive state orders and EU monies they’d better support the club of the godfather.
How is this mafia-like political elite organized? Very much like its non-political counterpart. It is based on family and loyalty. It is a clan-like organization in which the family adopts its members. One can see in the latest scandals of the tobacconist shops or the land lease program that loyalty is mixed with family relations. One loyal Fidesz member’s whole extended family gets a piece of the pie.
As for the members of the civil service, their relation to the “family” is somewhat similar to the “service nobility” of Russia. Those of you who studied Russian history are familiar with the tsarist practice of demanding either military or some other kind of state service from members of the lower nobility.
How do these people build the mafia state? First, they make sure that local governments become powerless. Second, they transform parliament into a pseudo-representative body where laws are enacted serving the needs of the “political family.” Third, they limit the power of the opposition parties by not allowing them to campaign, withdrawing financial support, and depriving them of media exposure. Fourth, they put “family members” into important positions. After all this, everything runs smoothly. For the time being they have managed to tame only some of the judges, but it is clear that they are making a serious effort at cleansing their ranks.
According to Magyar, this mafia-state as long as it still belongs to the European Union cannot introduce dictatorship outright. But it doesn’t even need to. Political observers go wrong when they talk about a “concentration of power” on the one hand and corruption on the other. Because these two cannot be divided in this new mafia state since “the system is a centrally directed, rationally executed robbery.”
To be continued
I was once again lucky enough to receive a bunch of Hungarian newspapers and periodicals, among them the latest Magyar Narancs (June 13). Most of the articles in this issue are still not on the Internet, so you’ll have to wait awhile to read the full interview with Endre Hann, CEO of Medián, perhaps the most reliable polling company in Hungary. I found the interview absolutely fascinating, so today I’m going to share some highlights from it.
Endre Hann regularly appears on ATV’s “Egyenes beszéd” after Medián’s results on the popularity of parties and politicians are released. But he has only about eight minutes to explain the details of their latest survey. So, he cannot really say more about the results than what can be read in the newspapers. As it is, Olga Kálmán usually urges him to hurry. Well, here Hann has ample opportunity to go into the details of their latest survey based on a large pool of 3,000 voters.
What did the researchers at Medián learn from this and previous polls? First and foremost, that today there are considerably more people than a year ago who think that the country’s economic prospects are getting better. They are relieved that the economy survived a possible bankruptcy. This finding doesn’t necessarily mean that they believe in a bright future, but while a year ago optimists accounted for only 13% of the sample this time their numbers doubled to 26%.
At the same time only 33% of the people would like to see this government continue in office after 2014. These are the hard-core Fidesz voters, for whom nothing can shake their trust in Fidesz and Viktor Orbán. They number about 1.5 million. Last June when Fidesz’s popularity hit rock bottom (with a 23% share) it was only voters from this hard core that stuck it out. Today the number of potential Fidesz voters is 2.3 million, defined as people who believe that the present government is on the right track.
But what may cheer the opposition is that 56% of the sample would like to see the Orbán government voted out of office. Out of this group 20% (1.5 million voters) would like a change of government but do not know yet whom they should vote for. For the opposition it is key to attract that large group of people.
Hann talks at length about the phenomenon of “hiding voters” who for one reason or other don’t want to reveal their party preferences. He recalls that as early as 1994 people believed that support for István Csurka’s MIÉP (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja) was much higher than the numbers pollsters came out with. They were certain that MIÉP voters were too ashamed to admit that they would vote for such an extremist, anti-Semitic party. Hann himself never believed in those “hiding MIÉP voters” and in fact in 1994 MIÉP received only 1% of the votes. However, this time around he is not so sure that one doesn’t have to count on true hiders.
I might add here that in 2002 all pollsters with the exception of Medián grossly overestimated Fidesz’s strength. Some by as much as 10%. At that time polls were skewed because of the fear factor; respondents were worried that somehow the Orbán government would find out if they expressed a preference for the opposition. This time is very similar to the situation in 2002, except to an even greater degree. Therefore, even Hann doesn’t exclude the possibility that the figures arrived at month after month overestimate the strength of Fidesz and underestimate that of the opposition.
How can a pollster notice that the respondent doesn’t answer the questions honestly? Internal inconsistencies usually give them away. Normally the answers to specific questions reflect the person’s stated party preference. Lately, however, this is less and less so. The example Hann gives is the tobacconist shop concessions. According to Medián’s latest poll, only 19% of the electorate approve of the government’s deciding who can sell cigarettes while 73% are against it. When these people were asked whether there should be a re-examination of the concessions, more than 40% of the Fidesz voters answered in the affirmative. Almost 50% of Fidesz voters consider it “unacceptable that a party should intervene with the market processes and should provide business opportunities to its followers. ” Only one-third of Fidesz voters think that the concessions were allotted lawfully. Yet these people say that they will vote for Fidesz. Will these people actually vote for Fidesz even though they don’t agree with its policies? Hard to tell.
This is not the only issue on which the majority of Fidesz voters don’t support Fidesz’s policies. There is, for example, the question of voting rights for Hungarians living abroad, especially in the neighboring countries. The majority of Fidesz voters supported giving these people citizenship but two-thirds of them opposed granting them voting rights. And 58% of Fidesz voters disapproved of the law on religion that allows political interference in the affairs of religious communities. Fidesz voters were also unhappy with the idea of voter registration that eventually was abandoned by the party and consequently the government.
Another topic discussed in this interview is the relationship between the Fidesz “hard-core” and Jobbik. Medián asked their opinion on a possible coalition between Fidesz and Jobbik if Fidesz gets the majority of votes but not enough to form a government. 51% of the “hard-core” answered in the affirmative.
As for regional differences, everywhere outside of Budapest Fidesz is leading the pack. In Budapest, according to the findings of Medián, the opposition even today “could easily defeat Fidesz.” Jobbik is still doing very well in northeastern Hungary (16%) while nationwide it has only a 10% support.
There is also a fairly long discussion on the “popularity” of politicians. The reporter pointed out that in the last Medián poll Attila Mesterházy was 3% ahead of Gordon Bajnai. Yes, answered Hann, but this result can be misleading. One is not only popular because a lot of people like the person but because he/she is less divisive. Hann checked the popularity of Mesterházy versus Bajnai in different voting groups. Only 5% of Fidesz voters would like to see Bajnai in an important political position, while 10% feel the same way about Mesterházy. The situation is the same among Jobbik voters: 16% of them would like to see Mesterházy in a political position as opposed to 10% in Bajnai’s case. “Mesterházy’s momentary advantage is due to being less rejected on the right.” This result is not very surprising given the aggressive anti-Bajnai campaign, while the government propaganda barely touches Mesterházy.
Bajnai is definitely doing better with the voters of the so-called democratic opposition parties. In all parties he leads over Mesterházy–among sympathizers of Együtt 2014 (89%), of DK (64%), of LMP (56%). Even among MSZP voters 30% think that Bajnai is more qualified for the job of prime minister than MSZP’s chairman. Overall, 51% of the democratic opposition prefer Bajnai over Mesterházy (43%). That is not a substantial difference. Translating it to actual numbers, we are talking about 200,000 voters. Among those who are against the present government but are still undecided as far as their party preference is concerned, 55% would prefer Bajnai over Mesterházy (33%). The difference here is about 100,000.
Another piece of information I learned from this interview is that 16% of Együtt 2014 voters would in no way vote for MSZP while 20% of MSZP voters hate Bajnai’s party. Despite this, Hann is optimistic about the next election. If the two parties agree on a common candidate he sees no problem with joint support of that common candidate.
And finally a few words about potential voters for Együtt 2014. Medián registered a fairly high voter base for Együtt 2014 of 7%, which means about 600,000 voters. This is a higher figure than the other pollsters came up with. Of these 7%, 25% claim that they voted for Fidesz in 2010, 37% for MSZP, 10% for LMP, and 15% didn’t vote in 2010 either because of age or because of general disappointment with politics.
These are highly instructive details. Month after month we hear only superficial descriptions of the results from different polling companies, although it is their in-depth analysis that gives the most food for thought.
Today I will report on a interview with Kriszta D. Tóth, a journalist who was “the face” of the news at MTV, the Hungarian public television station, for four years. In March 2011 she tendered her resignation. From the interview we gain a glimpse into the inner workings of the so-called independent Hungarian public media under Viktor Orbán’s premiership.
Kriszta D. Tóth’s husband is an Englishman who, according to her, had difficulties grasping the depth of the problems she had to face day in and day out. He couldn’t fully comprehend the extent of government interference in news reporting. Nor can most people, either inside or outside of Hungary. Tóth’s story provides some anecdotal evidence.
Kriszta D. Tóth is an impressive woman. She has an M.A. in English language and literature and, right after she finished her studies at ELTE, became a journalist at The Budapest Sun, a publication still in existence. During the spring and summer of 1996 she was a journalist trainee with the Instant News Service in Washington, from where she went to The Budapest Business Journal. It was in 1997 that she moved over to television, working for commercial stations in Budapest. In 2002 she was hired by MTV and for a while (2004-2007) served as bureau chief in Brussels, after which she returned to Budapest as MTV’s evening news anchor.
It couldn’t have been easy for her to submit her resignation after spending almost nine years with the MTV news staff. What’s worse, Kriszta D. Tóth felt compelled to resign twice. MTV coaxed her back after her first resignation by agreeing to move her from news to entertainment. But after a year and a half she realized that even the “lighter side” of MTV didn’t offer a refuge for someone like herself. In January 2013 she resigned for the second and most likely final time.
What caused this woman, after a lot of soul searching, to quit? As she says at the beginning of the interview, political interference in the programs of public television and radio has always existed; it was only the self-restraint of the politicians and the professionalism and human decency of the news staff that moderated it. All this changed after 2010. The new regime has no self-restraint, and those members of the staff who upheld the professionalism of the news programs were fired.
Interference with the news was not subtle. Tóth, as anchor, always wrote her own leads, but she often found minutes before the live program that they had been rewritten and that this rewritten appeared on her teleprompter. Initially she tried to recreate her original story, but eventually she just gave in. For example, the word “opposition” was always crossed out from her stories.
There were daily fights with the “news director” over the content of the program. Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point that “political messages” were sent from above and the staff was ordered to write the news accordingly. “The question wasn’t what the news of the day was but what the politicians wanted to hear that day.”
Her life started to be sheer hell because her professional standards were being violated daily. Eventually she and her husband came to the conclusion that this couldn’t go on. The next day she submitted her resignation. But then came that infamous evening news broadcast that she anchored for the last time. It covered the European Parliament’s condemnation of Hungary’s media law. To refresh your memory, this was the time when Vikt0r Orbán traveled to Strasbourg to defend his government’s position but failed and the vote went against Hungary. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), delivered a fiery condemnation, which Orbán had to endure. I wrote about the scene on January 19, 2011. It was this event that had to be “explained” somehow to the Hungarian public. Apparently the fight over the content went on for hours and, according to Tóth, although the final product was terribly unprofessional it was still “a hundred times better than it would have been if the original instructions had been followed.” While the camera was focusing on Cohn-Bendit’s role in the 1968 student riots in Paris and his alleged pedophile activities, Tóth was just sitting there with her head down, totally exhausted and most likely disgusted. The camera caught her in that pose. Many of her audience thought that it was an intentional signal to them about the state of affairs at MTV.
Tóth was urged to stay on. She agreed to the request on the condition that she could have a show that has nothing to do with politics. So, after half a year of recuperation, she returned and started an entertainment show entitled, after her initials, the DTK Show. The program had a bumpy start because of her inexperience in the genre, but eventually it attracted a sizable audience, surpassing MTV’s other entertainment program called the Fábry Show. Nonetheless, the management kept firing the people involved with the show, and eventually she was even told whom she could and could not invite as guests. By January 2013 Kriszta D. Tóth had had enough and resigned anew.
She has just published her first adult novel. (Earlier she wrote children’s books.) It is entitled Jöttem, hogy lássalak ( I came to see you again). She thinks that one day she may return to television, but I guess it will not be at MTV while Viktor Orbán is in power.
It was in April 2011 that I began a new folder labeled “Viktor Orbán–After.” The very first item in that folder was an opinion piece written by Mátyás Eörsi, former SZDSZ member of parliament and the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
His article, entitled “2014,” appeared in Magyar Narancs. Even at that point it was pretty clear to everybody engaged in politics that a Fidesz defeat could be achieved only by a joint effort of the democratic parties and that the next government would most likely be a coalition. Eörsi envisaged a coalition of MSZP, LMP, and perhaps some civic organizations. We mustn’t forget that at this point Ferenc Gyurcsány hadn’t yet broken with MSZP and the rebels of LMP were still supporting András Schiffer’s strategy.
Eörsi outlined the impossible situation in which the new prime would find himself given that all the key appointed positions would already be filled with Fidesz supporters. This new prime minister might offer Viktor Orbán a deal: Fidesz would support minor changes in the constitution in exchange for keeping the symbolism and the conservative nature of the constitution. In addition, the new head of the government would promise not to prosecute former politicians. But, in Eörsi’s opinion, it was unlikely that either Orbán or his successor would agree to such a deal because, among other things, Fidesz’s men could easily obstruct the work of the government. For instance, if the Budgetary Council’s Fidesz apparatchiks were to use stall tactics so there was no budget by March 31, the president could dissolve parliament. It would not be in the interest of Fidesz, Eörsi argued, to make a deal. But then what?
Eörsi’s answer was that any kind of dealmaking with Fidesz would not only be a waste of time but also in the long run would work against the new government by allowing the opposition to become stronger with the passage of time. Instead, immediately after taking office the new prime minister ought to suggest holding a referendum on the constitution. Fidesz would argue that the constitution itself precludes the possibility of any change by referendum. But the prime minister could insist that the will of the people supersedes the constitution. In brief, Eörsi suggested a not entirely legal way of solving the problem. I may add here that Eörsi wasn’t the only one struggling with this problem. Several people, including József Debreczeni and László Lengyel, published articles in which they suggested similar schemes to get around the iron grip of the Fidesz-built political system.
Viktor Szigetvári, who at this point was the head honcho in Gordon Bajnai’s “Haza és Haladás Alapítvány” (Homeland and Progress Foundation), immediately answered Eörsi in an op/ed entitled “There is no emergency exit: Can the constitution be subverted by illegal means?” In Szigetvári’s opinion the Orbán constitution is legitimate and legal and the new government cannot use illegal means to repudiate it. Eörsi’s solution, he maintained, is “undemocratic.” The only solution is to get a two-thirds majority in parliament. Of course, we must keep in mind that the parliamentary discussion of the electoral law hadn’t yet taken place. Szigetvári admitted that there was a possibility that Fidesz would come up with an electoral law that would make a two-thirds majority an impossibility. But even then, he would rather opt for “a long period of government crises, political standoff, and everything that goes with it” than use unconstitutional means to remedy the political impasse.
According to Szigetvári, Eörsi’s solution was not only legally unacceptable. It was also a misguided solution in political terms as well because it would retard the opposition forces’ ultimate goal: a two-thirds majority. Moreover, it would preserve the old political elite, meaning the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition, which Szigetvári thought unfit to introduce the changes necessary for a new era in the history of Hungarian democracy.
A few days later Csaba Tordai, a legal scholar and a board member of “Haza és Haladás,” went even further than Szigetvári, who objected only to Eörsi’s legal trick. Tordai basically claimed that there is nothing terribly wrong with Orbán’s constitution. As he wrote, “one can live with this document.” In an earlier article Tordai had found the codification of the constitution very poor, but basically he felt that there was no burning need to change it. After all, the constitution by and large followed the structure of the 1989-90 constitution. The preamble, he argued, is not that important because “nothing follows from it.” Again, one must keep in mind that at that point the details of the cardinal laws were still unknown. Tordai swept aside the role that the Budgetary Council could play that might lead to the dissolution of parliament. As for the Fidesz apparatchiks in key positions, “a half competent government should be able to defend itself from them.” He was also optimistic about the independence of the judges although about the time his article appeared the forcible removal of judges age 62 and over was announced and András Baka, chief justice, expressed his worry about the independence of the Hungarian judiciary.
László Majtényi, former ombudsman and today the head of the Károly Eötvös Institute, a legal think tank, more or less sided with Tordai and Szigetvári and rejected Eörsi’s proposition. A new government must negotiate with Fidesz. That’s the only possible way. Eörsi answered in Élet és Irodalom (June 22, 2011), an answer that highlights the difference between a practicing politician and constitutional lawyers. Eörsi thinks with the head of a politician. Naturally, he wrote, one must investigate the possibilities of negotiations, but he would like to see just one occasion when Viktor Orbán actually tried to achieve consensus. Even after the defeat in 2002 he came back more combative than ever. There are some people who think that Fidesz might force Orbán to resign after a lost election. But Eörsi called those people who believe in Orbán’s fall “dreamers.” The chance of an agreement with Viktor Orbán, who will most likely try to remain in his post as head of Fidesz, is close to zero.
The suggestions of the people in “Haza és Haladás” and the Eötvös Institute are all well and good, he wrote, but a future prime minister would throw them into the wastepaper basket because he would know that their ideas cannot be translated to everyday politics. Eörsi agreed with Zoltán Fleck and Ferenc L. Lendvai that the new constitution is illegitimate. And therefore, he expressed less compunction about a referendum on the constitution, especially because he saw no other solution. (I might add here that Kim Scheppele was of like mind when she talked about the “unconstitutional constitution.”)
These articles were the first to probe what steps a new government could take under the circumstances. Let’s keep in mind that this discussion took place two years ago. Since then the situation has become far worse.
Yesterday’s post didn’t excite too many people. But how can one compete with Trianon? Who cares about the LIBE Commission’s report and the 500 some proposed “amendments,” mostly from Fidesz MPs and their Hungarian friends from Slovakia and Romania? On top of it all some people didn’t even get the details although I gave a link to the amendments that are available on the Internet.
But isn’t it the case that these amendments are a hundred times more relevant to the fate of the Hungarian people than absolutely useless discussions of a treaty, however just or unjust it was, that cannot be altered? Revisionism was the cornerstone of Hungary’s interwar foreign policy and some people were convinced, as was John F. Montgomery, U.S. ambassador in Budapest in the 1930s, that “the Hungarian people were not quite sane on that subject.” Well, it seems that some Hungarians are returning to the very same insanity that led Hungary nowhere except to another lost war, the loss of millions of its people, and a series of absolutely tragic events. But there are always people who are incapable of learning from past mistakes. Just like the Bourbons.
So, discussing Trianon endlessly and crying over Hungary’s misfortunes are dead ends. The Venice Commission’s opinion and the LIBE Commission recommendations, on the other hand, are of the utmost importance. The outcome of the investigations of the Hungarian government’s reshaping of Hungarian democracy into an authoritarian or even worse regime affects the very future of Hungarian democracy.
Let’s talk a little bit about the fate of Hungarian democracy. Some people are convinced that true democracy no longer exists in Hungary due to Viktor Orbán’s “renewal” of the country. I know that a lot of the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are certain that Viktor Orbán and his ilk will be running Hungary for the next twenty years. They are certain that Fidesz is unbeatable because the party communicates better, because all the state institutions are in party hands, and because the new electoral system is designed to keep them in power. By contrast, the opposition is fractured and lacks a charismatic leader. So why bother to do anything?
This defeatist attitude may be misplaced, especially since almost half of the electorate at the moment either doesn’t know or doesn’t divulge its political preferences. The various social groups that have been injured in one way or the other by the “renewal” measures of the Orbán government are numerous: civil servants, teachers, doctors, judges, university professors, artists, writers, and people receiving the minimum wage. One could go on and on. At the moment all these people are shaking in their boots, fearing for their jobs. They are afraid to go out to demonstrate. Surely, hidden cameras will reveal their identity. Fear has returned to the country.
But there might be a tipping point when all the grievances converge and serious opposition to the government breaks out. Who could have said on October 21, 1956 that in two days there would be an open rebellion against the Rákosi regime in Budapest? Or two weeks ago who would have thought that there would be street fights between young Turks and the police? Most likely nothing that drastic will happen in Hungary, but the possibility of a broad common front cannot be ruled out. Therefore, the opposition must be ready for such an occurrence. Moreover, the democratic parties have to come to some kind of an agreement concerning their attitudes toward “the accomplishments” of the Orbán government. Of course, I’m using the word “accomplishments” ironically.
What I mean is: can there be some kind of compromise between Fidesz and its democratic opposition? Because if not, says one school of thought on the subject, the present political division will only be perpetuated. Others are convinced that there is no way any kind of compromise is possible: Orbán’s autocratic rule cannot be “balanced” by those who believe in liberal democracy. Oil and water don’t mix.
Let me go back a bit to history and linguistics. I use the word “compromise” for “kiegyezés.” Indeed, when we talk about the historical “kiegyezés” of 1867 between Austria and Hungary in English we use the word “compromise.” The Compromise of 1867. However, the German word for the same event is “Ausgleich,” which means not so much compromise as “settlement.” Austria and Hungary settled their differences. So, according to a number of politicians, including Gordon Bajnai, the opposition must sit down with the politicians of Fidesz and settle their differences.
Bajnai, in an interview with Die Zeit, envisages an electoral outcome in 2014 in which the united opposition achieves a modest victory which “would be an opportunity for a kind of national agreement for fair negotiations.” He wants “to cross party lines to reach a consensus” and has no intention of turning everything back to the pre-Orbán period. After watching Viktor Orbán up close and personal ever since 1998, I would like to see just one occasion when he was ready to come to a “national agreement.” We all remember when in 2002 Péter Medgyessy, then apparently on the advice of Ferenc Gyurcsány, tried to extend a hand to Viktor Orbán. He called this approach “filling the trenches” or “burying the hatchet” in English. He got nowhere. He was only rebuffed.
The latest attempt at “appeasement” (at least this is what I call it) on the part of Gordon Bajnai is asking for forgiveness for the referendum of 2004 when the Fidesz-supported idea of giving citizenship to Hungarian nationals living in the neighboring countries was rejected with the active support of the government parties. Since then the Orbán government’s super-majority voted for citizenship, which includes voting rights. Bajnai feels that this right cannot be revoked. Thus, the citizens of Hungary must live with perhaps a million extra votes of people who have no real stake in the outcome of the election and don’t have to bear its consequences. That is a very large number when only about four million people vote at national elections.
Bajnai, in the hope of extra votes from the other side, is giving in on many other issues as well. For example, he made special mention of the Day of Unity (in other words, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Trianon) where he talked about three-fourths of the territories and two-thirds of its population Hungary lost. Of course, these numbers are correct, but failing to point out that the majority of this two-thirds were not Hungarians was a mistake. Talking about Trianon as a “tragedy” is again only adding oil to fire. He is hoping to come to an understanding on “the trauma of the Soviet occupation” and “the trauma of the Holocaust.” No wonder that the headline in HVG declared: “Bajnai compared Trianon to the Holocaust.” I don’t think that the loss of territories and the loss of lives can cause the same trauma. The last sentence of Bajnai’s communiqué stated that “we will have to close the period that meant the silence and abuse of Trianon.” That to me means that he promises the Hungarian nationalists that Trianon will remain a topic of debate. Keeping Trianon alive will also stoke the self-pity that is so injurious to the Hungarian psyche and that should be discouraged.
But that’s not all. Gordon Bajnai said the following about anti-Semitism and the Orbán government in Berlin the other day. “There are many problems with the government but one cannot claim that it has anything to do with antisemitism and racism.” One doesn’t have to go that far in seeking “national consensus” or “settlement” with Viktor Orbán and his followers. After all, Orbán’s attitude towards both is far from unequivocal.
That is the Bajnai approach, which in my opinion is utterly mistaken. Devoted Orbán followers will not vote for the democratic opposition because Bajnai supports the voting rights of Hungarians in the neighboring countries. It is also unlikely that a devoted supporter of Fidesz will be terribly impressed with all that mea culpa on the issue of Trianon. But the voters of the democratic opposition may lose trust in him.
In the next few days I will outline some other ideas about what the opposition should do concerning the Orbán government and its supporters.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on public opinion research in the Kádár regime. There was little reader response to it, most likely because a few hours later on the same day I published the speeches of Péter Feldmájer and Ronald S. Lauder at the Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest. I suggest that you take a look at it because today I’m returning to the subject.
If I were living in Budapest I would have access to the Open Society Archives at the Central European University where these old public opinion poll results are stored. But since I don’t live there I have to rely on a summary of one of these sociological studies that appeared in Origo. The study is from 1989; it seeks to understand the reasons for the popularity of the Kádár regime. The Origo journalist picked this particular year because by then, very close to the anticipated regime change, people had little reason to worry about any possible consequences of their answers.
As a point of reference, in 2001 53% of Hungarian adults thought that the years between World War II and the change of regime in 1989 were the happiest time in Hungarian history. By 2008 62% thought so.
According to a study right after the death of János Kádár (July 1989), 50-60% of adults judged Kádár’s role in Hungarian history in a positive light. Moreover, this was the opinion not only of people with minimal educational attainment but of highly educated people as well. When asked what they liked about Kádár they pointed to his modest, puritanic lifestyle and his informality. 87% declared that their impression of him was always positive. They considered him “one of the great benefactors of the Hungarian people” and “the greatest personality in Hungarian politics.”
What did people appreciate in the old regime? That education and health care were “free” and that the state provided pensions for everybody. People insisted that all these benefits should remain even after the regime change “despite the demand for a multi-party system and a market economy.”
The respondents appreciated the steadily rising living standards, especially noticeable in the 1970s after the introduction of the 1968 economic reform (New Economic Mechanism). In 1987 the sociologists asked people what conveniences they expected to be part of their everyday lives. Well over 90% of the population took it for granted that they would have bathrooms, ready hot water, and a refrigerator. 71% lived in apartments with central heating; almost 60% had automatic washing machines and record players and took family holidays. But only 44% of the families had a car or a colored television set. And getting a telephone line was close to impossible. Only 37% of the families had telephones.
When the Horn government was forced to introduce an austerity program in 1995 (the so-called Bokros-csomag, named after Lajos Bokros, minister of finance) it cost the socialists dearly. In 1998 they lost the election. Viktor Orbán, the new prime minister, promptly announced that every family should have “three rooms, three children, and four wheels,” meaning a car. He was appealing to the Hungarian yearning for a better, more comfortable life.
The later Kádár years were marked by an understanding between the rulers and the ruled. MSZMP and the state would leave the population more or less alone; in exchange for that privilege, the population would give up its ability to exercise political rights. “This compromise for twenty years was a success,” the authors of the study concluded.
In December 1989, that is, after the establishment of the Third Republic on October 23, the team of sociologists asked the respondents what issues would determine which political party they would vote for. They had to list these issues in order of importance. This is the list the group as a whole ended up with: (1) living standards, (2) freedom, (3) independence,(4) democracy, (5) equality, (6) socialism, and (7) capitalism.
The compromise between the rulers and the ruled in the Kádár era made a lasting impression on the Hungarian population. Nostalgia for the Kádár regime is not only growing among those who experienced it firsthand but is being “inherited” by those who were either small children before 1990 or not even born by then. And their priorities are not all that different from the priorities of the respondents in 1989.
Freedom was never the centerpiece of their demands. That pretty well explains the fact that, although the current government has severely limited the democratic rights of the people, there is no great resistance. Fidesz’s popularity in the last two years or so hasn’t dropped all that much. But if the Orbán government is unable to raise living standards it might find itself in trouble. And if people wake up to the widespread corruption and visible signs of ill-gotten wealth, there might be a change in public sentiment. Kádár won the hearts and minds of the people in part by not being ostentatious. So, if I were Viktor Orbán I might dial back some of those projects that set the prime minister and his coterie of friends apart from the rest of the population. A private football stadium might be too much. Or those tobacconist shops that can make families millionaires. The “have-nots” rarely believe that the “haves” deserve all their toys.
If the economy doesn’t turn around, there will be nothing to give to those who expect a visible improvement in their standard of living. Then we might see a change in the present acceptance of Viktor Orbán’s growing dictatorial governing style. The question is when the patience of the Hungarians with their mindset inherited from the Kádár regime will run out.
Hungary’s liberal world is buzzing with news of the documentary shown on Al Jazeera, an independent television station broadcasting from Doha, Qatar.
I received the following from our friend S.K. this morning:
Unexpected irony from an unexpected corner: Hungary on Al Jazeera
The neo-Nazi Jobbik party is known for its frequent sympathy demonstrations towards Arabs and specifically towards the Palestinians, using this as a cover to express their anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments, if not hatred. This was surprising at first, but due to the relentless repetition, has become customary by now, at least to the Hungarian public. This is why it strikes me as a most unexpected and profound irony that the Al Jazeera network, Arab-owned and financed, operating throughout the world, devoted a twenty-five minute long documentary to depict Hungary’s state of affairs a few days ago.
The piece doesn’t need much commentary at all; it speaks for itself most eloquently. The only surprising thing about it is the thoroughness and depth of the insight the filmmakers were able to muster during their very short time spent in the country. And, of course, how ironic it is that even the Arabs, who are enjoying the dubious “patronage” of Fidesz and Jobbik, can see through the screen of government propaganda and skullduggery, and present the facts concisely, irrefutably and devastatingly.
Anyone with any doubt about the fatal developments in Hungary should urgently view this report and take it to heart.
I can only send my thanks and congratulations to Glenn Ellis, the maker of the film, for this remarkable work.
Unfortunately WordPress.com in its current configuration is unable to embed this video, but I urge everybody to take a look at it. It is in English and lasts only twenty-five minutes.
Those who know German can view another documentary on Hungary, part of a series called Dokuworld 2013. Even those whose German is not fluent but who know the present Hungarian situation will enjoy its summary of the growth of the far right in the country and Fidesz’s ambivalent attitude toward democracy. More and more foreign observers consider Hungary a country that is quickly slipping into one-party dictatorship.
For those who’ve had enough of a weighty subject on a holiday weekend in the U.S., here’s some news about the “Are you free for a dance?” extravaganza. Although the event in Budapest and in other larger cities is still going on, early reports have already appeared online. If I read these reports correctly, Miklós Soltész’s brainchild is a colossal flop. The few people who showed up are not youngsters looking for spouses. Rather curious old folks. Professional dancers demonstrated the steps, but when invited to join in, the few people there fled.
A number of “provocateurs” also wanted to attend, but the police originally didn’t want to let them in. They wore signs like “Hello, I’m X.Y. I’m looking for a squire with a large landholding or for an owner of a tobacconist shop.” The authorities eventually relented. There were others who decided to dance with people of their own sex after they learned that Soltész announced that gays are welcome. All in all, those who were bent on making fun of this whole harebrained idea seem to have prevailed.
In Szeged the situation was even worse. There the reporter of the newspaper Délmagyarország did not see a single person who was looking for a dance partner. There were only a few children and their curious grandparents. If these party hacks just knew how ridiculous they are. But I guess they live in a world of their own and refuse to see reality. I wonder how long it will take them to wake up to the fact that their activities are injurious even to their own cause.
It was unexpected, but Imre Kerényi’s notion of national culture is even too much for the saner members of the Hungarian right. Both Magyar Nemzet and Heti Válasz consider his activities outright injurious to the government and the reputation of Fidesz. Not just because of what he had to say about the repertoire of the National Theater but because of his untenable views on “national culture.” The piece by Bálint Ablonczy in Heti Válasz goes even further. He pretty well tells Fidesz and the government “to get off culture.” It is not their thing.
I wholeheartedly agree with Ablonczy. Viktor Orbán should stick with football. Culture is not his forte; if it were, he surely would not have picked Kerényi as his “cultural commissar.”
To backtrack a bit. The first reaction to Kerényi’s homophobic words came from members of the Hungarian theater world. János Kulka, a former member of the National Theater who agreed to play a part in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull next season when Attila Vidnyánszky will be the director of the theater, led the charge. He wrote a sharply worded letter after he learned that Vidnyánszky had been present when Kerényi delivered his outrageous opinions about the repertoire of the theater under the directorship of Róbert Alföldi. The president of the University of Performing Arts followed suit. Then came the president of the Association of Theaters. And finally Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP) demanded an explanation from Viktor Orbán. She is expecting an answer in about two weeks.
Vidnyánszky, who is apparently a talented director, in order to get the job as head of the National Theater cast himself as an ideologically committed man, a man he thought this Christian, national regime would find desirable. Lately he has been wearing a white shirt and black vest, a kind of Hungarian folk costume or a more modern version of it, the uniform of the Hungarian Guard. He also announced that the new theater building is a sacred site and that he will have to find a way to consecrate it. People have been shaking their heads at the transformation of the man.
Although it seemed from the video of the encounter that Vidnyánszky considered Kerényi’s reference to faggots too much, he said nothing on the spot. Moreover, a day after the video became public he repeated on one of the commercial television stations that he also thinks that there were too many plays with homosexual themes in the National Theater’s repertoire. I did find one, the 1993 play of Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. In fact, the play will open this weekend and will continue its run throughout June.
But then something happened. The very next day, Vidnyánszky suddenly apologized for not speaking up when he heard Kerényi’s homophobic remarks.
It is possible that Kerényi may be removed from his position. Or at least there are signs that someone may have convinced Viktor Orbán that Imre Kerényi is a burden. A few hours after Vidnyánszky’s apology an incredible statement entitled “Nine sentences about one Kerényi” appeared in Magyar Nemzet written by the editor-in-chief, Gábor Élő. He talked about the excrement that left Kerényi’s mouth that was spattered all over the national heroes. For a Christian and a nationalist (nemzeti) his behavior is especially disgusting. What he said is unacceptable to anyone who subscribes to the basic principles of human dignity.
As a media outlet from the other side of the political spectrum said, if an editorial like that can appear in Magyar Nemzet it means that Kerényi no longer enjoys the protection of Viktor Orbán.
But let’s move on to perhaps the most interesting article that appeared in the right-wing media, Bálint Ablonczy’s “The case of the lemony banana with orange which is actually a peach.” This title will need a bit of an explanation. “Banana” is used in Hungarian conversations for a case which may end in a disaster of sorts. Something someone can slip and fall on. “Orange” naturally is the symbol of Fidesz. Well, the “peach” is something new. Another atrocity the Hungarian government came up with. This time Tibor Navracsics’s Ministry of Public Administration and Justice is the culprit. They gave their blessing to a theme song for the Day of National Togetherness, June 4, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.
But before Ablonczy gets to the Song of National Togetherness he expresses his total rejection of any kind of “national culture.” There is good and bad art, good and bad literature. He pretty well admits that on the right there are not too many first-rate artists, but the couple he can think of will be discredited by Kerényi and his ilk.
The Song of National Togetherness, according to Ablonczy, is “horror itself … which after three years one can say unfortunately manifests the government’s utter confusion, its total misunderstanding of what culture is all about.” Here are a few lines from the “masterpiece.” “I dreamed of a peach tree under which everybody dances / I stood in a large circle with you, in the soft grass on a dewy field / Our hands touch, the soles of our feet step on each other / The light of happiness burns in our eyes./ Join the circle! / Dance as your blood dictates, feel the heart of the earth beating with you because we are all in one together.”
I guess I don’t have to point out how stupid and confused these lyrics are. I especially like the line about the soles of our feet stepping on each other. And then, of course, there’s the music. Ablonczy suggests that the government “leave that culture thing alone.”
Yes, there are signs that certain people even on the right, especially those with some artistic sensitivity, are starting to realize that this government, in addition to all its other sins, is becoming a laughingstock.
And speaking of laughingstocks, here is another brilliant government idea. Miklós Soltész, undersecretary in charge of social policy in Zoltán Balog’s Ministry of Human Resources, decided that young men and women have neither the time nor the opportunity to find spouses. The government ought to assist them in their quest. And so Soltész, a Christian Democrat who found his wife at a Catholic church function, decided that the ministry should organize “mixers.” In Budapest and in larger cities young adults can attend these events, called “Are you free for a dance? The first step toward each other.” They’re sure to be a roaring success.
Today I’m going to look at two corruption cases that might have serious consequences for the Fidesz empire in Hungary. The first is the “seizure” of the profitable retail tobacco market and its redistribution among friends and families of Fidesz politicians. It seems that the government may have gone too far here; there are signs of internal party opposition. We know only about small fry at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that dissatisfaction isn’t present in the highest circles of the Fidesz leadership.
The other scandal is not new at all. For years Közgép, a company owned by Lajos Simicska, a childhood friend of Viktor Orbán, has won practically all government projects financed by European Union subsidies. But it came to light only now that Brussels suspended payments on two very important “operative programs,” one dealing with the environment and energy and the other with transportation.
First, the response of two party faithfuls to the tobacco shop scandal. On April 26 HVG received a letter from a Fidesz city council member in which he said that in his town the Fidesz members of the council decided who would get the tobacco concessions. At that point the informer didn’t want to reveal his identity, but two days later he was ready to give an interview, name and all. It is a long interview from which I will quote the key sentences.
Ákos Hadházy is a veterinarian in Szekszárd, the county seat of Tolna. He considers himself to be a conservative, but “this tobacconist shop-affair broke something in [him].” The Fidesz members of the council looked at all the applicants and suggested who should get favorable treatment.” Mostly friends and relatives. Hadházy struggled with his conscience. He felt that the way the selection was made was wrong, but at the same time he realized that “many would consider revealing his doubts a betrayal” of his party. Finally he decided that although “perhaps in the short run the party might lose a few percentage points, in the long run these revelations might actually be good for this party.”
In his opinion “the 2010 landslide victory was a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time such a large victory is harmful for a party.” A well functioning opposition is “a basic necessity…. If there is no opposition, sooner or later [the party leadership] will be unable to control [its] own decisions. There will be no reaction when [they] make wrong decisions.” Unfortunately this is what happened in Fidesz’s case.
Hadházy even went further and announced that the problem is that there is no opposition within the party either. The members of parliament are no more than voting machines because after 2014 there will be fewer seats available and naturally everybody would like to keep his job. “One can’t expect negative opinions from them…. If there are no debates within a party … then there are only two possibilities: either [the party] does something fantastically well or something is not right.” Most often decisions are unanimous. Ordinary party members are not consulted. Maybe once a year there is a meeting of the local party members, but that’s all.
Fidesz is indeed a very disciplined party, but he thinks they “went too far.” Such discipline was fine when Fidesz was in opposition. Then “the para-military structure was acceptable, but when in power the party should have moved in a more democratic direction.” Hadházy believes–I think wrongly–that Fidesz has fantastic “intellectual capital” but doesn’t try to use this capacity and doesn’t listen to them. “This in the long run is a suicidal strategy because the members of the intelligentsia are the ones who can influence public opinion.”
As far as he is concerned there are two possibilities: the party will not take kindly to his going public and then his political career will be over. If, on the other hand, he is spared he “will be very glad to know that Fidesz is full of real democrats, even if this is not always evident given how decisions are made now.”
The other rebel is András Stumpf of the pro-government Heti Válasz. Don’t think that András Stumpf is a “soft” Fidesz supporter. He is no Bálint Ablonczy, another reporter for the same weekly, who is a moderate right-winger. Stumpf is pretty hard-core. He aggressively defends the government at every opportunity–for instance, when he appears on ATV’s Start. Even in this critical article he expresses his belief that Sándor Laborc of the Office of National Security hired Tamás Portik to spy on the opposition, meaning Fidesz. Yet it seems that the tobacconist concessions and the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act were too much for him. Not even he believes that the quickly amended piece of legislation has nothing to do with the concessions and the government’s attempt to hide the truth from the public. In Stumpf’s opinion, the amendment is most likely unconstitutional and what the government is doing is “frightening.” If they have nothing to hide, make the documents public.
Moving on to the withheld EU payments, a new internet website, 444.hu, published an article entitled “Secret war between Budapest and Brussels” on April 30. According to the article, last summer the European Union suspended payment for cohesion fund projects. The apparent reason was that Brussels discovered that there is discrimination against foreign engineers. Only engineers who belong to the Hungarian Society of Engineers can be hired.
With due respect to the journalist of 444.hu, I can’t believe that this is the real reason for the suspension of billions of euros. Instead, I recall that about a year ago Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció turned to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) to call attention to the fact that Közgép, Simicska’s company, had received an incredible number of government contracts, all financed by the European Union. The suspicion is that Közgép through Lajos Simicska is actually owned by Fidesz. Or at least a substantial percentage of its profits ends up in party coffers. I remember that sometime during the summer of 2012 OLAF’s investigators took possession of Közgép’s computers. I suspect that the suspension of funds has more to do with Fidesz government corruption than with discrimination against foreign engineers.
By now opposition politicians are openly accusing Közgép of being a front for Fidesz. Gábor Scheiring (PM) said that “the essence of Lajos Simicska’s firm … is financing Fidesz from its profits.” Gyurcsány considers “Lajos Simicska the most notorious and most influential person in Fidesz and the business establishment built around it.” László Varju, the party director of DK, in one of his press conferences talked about the need to investigate the possible “role of [Közgép] in the financing of the government party.” If it could be proven that Közgép and Simicska are just a front for Fidesz, Orbán might find himself and his party a lot poorer.
The tobacco concessions scandal is growing. By now there is even a Google Earth map of the country with a guide to all those places where Fidesz politicians, their close relatives, or known sympathizers received permission to open tobacconist shops. That there were political grounds for these awards is not speculation. János Lázár and Antal Rogán explained to the local Fidesz politicians on what basis the concessions should be awarded. Apparently, anyone with either MSZP or Jobbik ties was out of luck.
When the government first announced the so-called competition for concessions, applicants had to draw up their business plans assuming a 4-5% profit margin. Not exactly a potential goldmine. Yet there were a great number of people who seemed to be interested in this business opportunity. Among them were several who applied for concessions for several stores. The suspicion is that the insiders most likely knew that the government would do something to sweeten the deal. And indeed, after the winners were announced an amendment was tacked on to the bill that suggests a profit margin of at least 10%. A day later Viktor Orbán talked about the desirability of a 12% profit margin. If the amendment is approved, the price of cigarettes will go up.
In one of my earlier posts I mentioned that between the two world wars these concessions were normally given to war widows. This was also the case after World War II. Naturally, even then one had to have “connections” in higher places. Endre Aczél, one of the best journalists of the older generation, recalls that his mother was lucky to be granted one of these concessions in 1948 but only because she was the childhood friend of Júlia Földi, better known as Mrs. László Rajk. As we know, Rajk, after being accused of all sorts of treasonous activities, was executed on October 15, 1949. In 1950 someone discovered that a Rajk-protege still had a tobacconist shop, and she was summarily booted out. But at least, as Aczél says in the article, his mother was a war widow. Fidesz rulers don’t even worry about the stated aims of the legislation. They feel they can do anything. And they are right. They can.
However, now that everybody is up in arms and the media will undoubtedly demand information on the details of the concessions, the government decided in a great hurry to amend a law on data privacy. Here is a quick report from Budapest:
The amendment prevents the FOA (Freedom of Information Act Provisions on Data Privacy) from applying to material that is reviewed by the state audit office and the government accountability office. The reasoning behind the law is that government agencies are already overburdened and fulfilling data requests would be too strenuous. The amendment also states that if another law already regulates the right to information and to accessing, reviewing or copying the documents then the data privacy law does not apply. [The law seems to] exempt some requests from judicial review by the courts. Furthermore, the law requests that entities that use public money to provide information to the public. However, the amendment now requires that people turn to the body with legal oversight over the entity with complaints if a data request is rejected. The problem here is that in some cases the legal oversight is practiced by courts specializing in business litigation, which are not equipped to judge matters pertaining to FOA.
For one reason or another this tobacco concession business must be very important to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán himself. But I wonder whether the party and the government might be paying too high a political price for material gain. The number of smokers in Hungary is among the highest in Europe. The statistics I checked mentioned 38% in the population as a whole. That is being translated by others as close to 50% of the adult population. The sharply reduced opportunities to buy cigarettes will inconvenience this large group of people who might not care much about democracy and the constitution but will be mighty upset when in the middle of the night they will not be able to buy a pack of cigarettes at the next gas station. And what about those 1,400 small hamlets where most likely there will be no permanent tobacconist shop? And let’s say that the price of cigarettes also goes up as a result of making the sale of tobacco products a state monopoly. All in all, I suspect that Fidesz will lose voters as a result of this move.
Although the Hungarian government inquired in Brussels about the reaction of the European Union to the concession scheme, I consider it possible that, after seeing that currently functioning tobacconists are being deprived of their livelihood, the lawyers of the Union might not find the concession scheme as innocent as it looked a couple of years ago.
It is also possible that the way Fidesz as a party got involved with awarding the concessions might be unconstitutional. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Máté Szabó, the ombudsman, turned to the Constitutional Court.
In addition, there are signs of possible cracks in Fidesz’s armor. At least one rebel raised his naive voice about the state of the party. He even went so far as to question the benefits of unlimited power. We will see what happens to the good veterinarian who is worried about his party. In the past he would have been dropped immediately, but today he may be left alone. Perhaps Viktor Orbán will decide that chastising him would only add oil to the fire.