We are getting closer and closer to the national election, which most likely will be held sometime in early April. Therefore I think we ought to ponder what happened at the municipal election in Fót on and after November 24. Fót may well be an omen of what can be expected at next year’s national election.
Someone who is supported by the three opposition parties wins the election, but a week later, after the local election commission finds everything to be in order and gives its blessing to the results, on the basis of unproven election irregularities a court decision renders the results null and void. Moreover, it not only orders the election to be repeated but forces participants to start the whole procedure over from the beginning, including getting endorsements. The new election will be held in February. Yes, February because the procedure takes that long. Meanwhile Fót’s municipal government is in disarray. In the Fidesz-run town the city fathers, all belonging to Fidesz, have managed to get rid of three mayors in three years.
What happened in Fót is a serious situation and doesn’t bode well for next year’s national election. I will try to provide a timeline of the events.
The first complaint came from Jobbik’s county organization. They claimed that someone reported that a Volkswagen minibus allegedly transported voters from outlying districts. They claimed to know who the owner of the minibus was. It turned out that the man “with MSZP sympathies” sold his Volkswagen years ago. And although they produced a picture of the white bus, it was impossible to ascertain how many people were inside the vehicle or where the photo was taken. So, here the situation was entirely different from the Baja case where there was proof of regular transports by a single man with a single car.
Then came another complaint. Some people found in their mailboxes a handmade poster without a logo and without the name of any organization which advertised that there would be extra bus runs on the day of the election for easier access to the polling station. As it turned out, the bus schedule was not changed in any way, but it looks as if the three-man panel at the courthouse didn’t find it necessary to ascertain whether the intent had been followed by action. For them the picture of a minibus and a piece of paper promising extra bus runs was enough.
These learned judges rendered their verdict on the basis of §47 of the old electoral law that still regulates election procedures. It says that free transportation service provided by the candidate or the organization he represents is considered to be electoral misconduct. But the verdict in the Fót case says not a word about the candidate or his party or organization that allegedly was behind this dastardly deed. So, from here on every time someone doesn’t like the outcome of an election he can produce a picture of a minibus or come forth with a handwritten crumbled piece of paper announcing extra bus runs and, voila, the election will be declared null and void.
The verdict was so bizarre that the notary of Fót asked twice what the judges actually meant. And the town notary is normally someone with a law degree.
Almost all electoral commissions–local, territorial, and national–are in Fidesz hands, and yet the territorial election committee last Wednesday decided that all was in order. They claimed that even if there had been irregularities such actions couldn’t have influenced the outcome of the election. But then came an appeal from a “private person representing a law firm” who objected. The person asked the court to re-examine the bus route case and, in addition, he called attention to two women who “had in their possession some MSZP-DK-E14 leaflets” and who urged people to vote because “the number of voters is low.” Apparently, they didn’t dispense the leaflets. All in all, we are talking about minor infractions, some of which are unproven.
Was the decision an example of judicial incompetence or were the judges influenced either by their own political views or, even worse, were they subject to some outside influence? It’s hard to tell, but the message is: if an opposition candidate wins, the results will not be allowed to stand. I don’t think too many people remember the 2010 Felcsút municipal election when the man elected mayor was not Viktor Orbán’s favorite Lőrinc Mészáros. The election had to be repeated because it was decided that the winner owed a small fee to the local authorities. He was apparently a Fidesz supporter but not quite the right man.
Of course, from my peaceful rural suburb in Connecticut all this sounds crazy. Why couldn’t I ask my neighbor to take me to vote if my car broke down the day before? What is wrong with someone urging me to go to the polls because participation is low? Of course, nothing. But this is, thank God, not Hungary where for a few bucks you can buy the votes of downtrodden Romas. And then there are the crooked local election committees and the incompetent/crooked judges. As a very bitter opinion piece in HVG said: “there is a brutally misleading electoral procedure. A media that makes equal chances of all parties illusory. A population misled by the state, municipal authorities and even by owners of private companies. There are all sorts of lists. And a wacky opposition that hopes it can get justice from the independent investigative and judicial authorities. Keep hoping!”
Considering that yesterday was Sunday, the Hungarian political scene was anything but quiet. First of all, there was the court decision mandating a repeat of the mayoral election in Fót, which was won by the candidate jointly supported by MSZP, Együtt 2014-PM, and DK. The reasons for the decision are flimsy and the alleged misconduct was committed in a district where it couldn’t possibly influence the outcome. But I guess the court figured that if an election won by Fidesz had to be repeated so should one won by the democratic opposition.
I don’t remember whether we discussed the decision of Gábor Fodor, who was the last chairman of SZDSZ and who established a new liberal party, to run a separate candidate in the Fót election. Fodor obviously picked a good candidate, someone who is well known and well liked in the town of 20,000 inhabitants. She received 500 votes, half of what the candidate of the other opposition parties received. Still she ended up last because, in addition to the front runner and herself, there were three other candidates: two independents, one of whom was supported by Fidesz, and a representative of Jobbik.
I was greatly surprised by the liberal candidate’s showing, especially since Fót is apparently a conservative town where I assume the word “liberal” is despised by the majority of the inhabitants. However, I wonder whether given this new turn of events, it wouldn’t be smart for the liberal candidate to support the candidate of MSZP-Együtt 2014-PM-DK in order to increase the chances of the joint candidate of the three parties. After all, Fodor wanted to test the strength of his party. He proved his point.
The other event of the day was the announcement of the main points of the Democratic Coalition’s campaign platform. Apparently, the final program that will cover about 70 or 80 topics will be ready by next February. Yesterday Ferenc Gyurcsány announced sixteen important points of DK’s program. Here I will briefly summarize these points.
1. European future: We want a European Hungary and we want to pay with euros. By 2018 we will prepare the way to be eligible for the introduction of the euro in Hungary in 2020.
2. Franchise for only those who live here: We will stop granting citizenship to those without an established residence in Hungary because it is unfair that people who don’t have to bear the consequences of their decision can determine the results of an election. Therefore only those will be able to vote who are either born Hungarian citizens or naturalized citizens who have a permanent residence in the country.
3. Separation of church and state: We will abrogate the Concordat with the Vatican and restore the complete separation of church and state in all its aspects. We will abolish the privileges of the churches and terminate subsidies for their strictly religious activities.
4. Elimination of usury: We will establish the Bank of Solidarity that will enable the truly poor to receive quick short-term loans at a reasonable interest rate.
5. Assistance to underdeveloped regions: We will create special economic zones in the most backward regions. We will stimulate the economy in these regions with tax breaks, with the expansion of public transportation, and with government investments.
6. Sustainable agrarian policy: We will re-examine the land leases hitherto granted. We will allow corporations to acquire agricultural land and emphasize animal husbandry, vegetable farming, and viticulture.
7. Tax breaks for small and medium-size companies: Depending on the number of employees, we will decrease the social security contributions of employers, which will considerably lower the burden of small and medium-size companies. It will also help to decrease the number of salaries paid under the table.
8. Fair child support: We will change the current system of tax breaks given to families with dependent children to cash support for every child. This way no children will be discriminated against. As it is now, the government gives more to those who are better off while it gives nothing to very poor families who have no taxable income.
9. New nursery schools and kindergartens: We will start a program aiming at building more nursery schools and kindergartens where payment will be a certain percentage of the family’s income.
10. English bilingual education: We will transform all elementary and high schools to bilingual institutions. From 2018 on more and more subjects will be taught in a foreign language in all schools.
11. Computers for all students: We will put a computer on every desk. Until 2018 in all schools at least part of all subjects will be taught digitally.
12. Open and accessible higher education: The first year of college or university will be open to all who pass their matriculation examination. We will give generous scholarships to those who do well and who come from financially disadvantaged families. However, everybody will pay reasonable tuition fees. The tuition fees will remain with the institution the student attends.
13. A pension system without coercion: We will abolish the compulsory retirement age and introduce a universal state pension plan based on individual accounts in which we will include the money taken away by the Orbán government from individual private pension plans. Anyone can theoretically retire after the age of 55, but naturally his/her pension will be low. Persons can retire when they think the amount of their pension reaches a point that would satisfy their needs. We will also redress the wrongdoings meted out to the disabled.
14. Modernization of half a million dwellings: We will help with considerable subsidies to all those who would like to invest in heating systems fueled by sun or wind. In addition, we will help homeowners insulate their houses and change their windows and doors. In four years we plan to assist the owners of 500,000 dwellings to change to the most modern energy systems.
15. More opportunities for women: From 2016 on one-third of the top management of state companies and companies listed on the stock exchange must be women. From 2018 on one-third of those placed on the party lists both locally and nationally must be women.
16. Instead of public television, culture: We will stop public television broadcasting. From the billions spent right now on Magyar Televízió we will support good news and cultural programs on commercial stations. Some of that money can also be used for television movies and cultural programs.
I will not comment on the program because I’d rather hear what the readers of Hungarian Spectrum think of it. But I will tell you what the Hungarian right seems to object to most: getting rid of Magyar Televízió. Although there are sixteen points, the headlines in both Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap bemoaned the outrageous idea of getting rid of MTV. Perfectly understandable. It has been for at least ten years the foremost source of Fidesz propaganda. If the present opposition by some miracle wins the next election, MTV would still remain firmly in Fidesz hands. The loss of this propaganda machine would be a serious blow to Fidesz.
And finally, one or two words about the allegations of András Horváth, former tax official, of the massive VAT fraud with the assistance of the Hungarian Tax and Customs Office. As we discussed, LMP began to collect signatures for the creation of a parliamentary committee to investigate, but MSZP members refused to sign the petition because neo-Nazi Jobbik members also signed it. But without Jobbik members there will not be enough signatures to demand the establishment of such a committee.
Initially DK’s leadership shared MSZP’s view, but then it became evident that the party membership was divided on the issue. DK has about 10,000 active members and several thousands more supporters. It was decided that the membership should vote. The yeas were in the majority and therefore this morning Csaba Molnár, deputy chairman of DK, announced that the ten DK parliamentary members will join LMP and will sign the document. They have only one demand: József Balogh’s signature cannot be on the petition. He is the former Fidesz, now independent, member of parliament who beat his wife and claimed that Terike’s fall was due solely to her unfortunate encounter with a blind komondor. So, it seems that pragmatism triumphed. Anyone who would like to know more about the split within the party on the issue should look at some of the articles that appeared on Galamus in the last three days or so. Especially the two articles by Tamás Bauer, vice chairman of DK, and Mihály Andor’s two contributions. Andor was for joining LMP regardless of Jobbik signatures and Bauer dead against it.
You may recall that, shortly after the formation of his cabinet, Viktor Orbán practically ordered Hungary’s ambassadors to respond immediately and forcefully to all unfounded criticism in their “local” media. I’m pretty sure that the foreign ministry also directed Hungarian ambassadors to perform this task, but Viktor Orbán, who has taken away more and more of the competence of the foreign minister and his diplomats, gave some of his own men the task of keeping an eye on the foreign media’s depiction of Hungary and the Hungarian government.
One such man is Ferenc Kumin, about whom I already wrote in connection with a documentary film shown on Swedish television. In this instance Hungarian interference on the ambassadorial level backfired. Since then at least two other television programs have dealt with problems in today’s Hungary. Moreover, Hungary was also the topic of a radio program broadcast on Sweden’s public radio station.
Kumin has quieted down somewhat since his inglorious encounter with Ágnes Heller and was satisfied with only a modest comment affixed to an article that appeared in Maclean’s, the foremost Canadian weekly, about Ákos Kertész, who recently received political asylum in Canada. The author of the article was Anna Porter, the well-known Canadian publicist, who wrote several books on Eastern Europe. What did Kumin object to this time? Interestingly, he didn’t try to deny the harassment of Ákos Kertész by the authorities and by people who were offended by his bitter criticism of his own people, the Hungarians, but concentrated instead on the following lines in Anna Porter’s article:
The far-right Jobbik party demanded that Kertész be stripped of his honours and distinctions; the prime minister agreed and promised a bill would come before parliament to deal with “such racist, anti-Hungarian, traitorous statements.”
According to Kumin,
The author has misquoted Prime Minister Orbán and distorted his comment about the proposed law. It’s simply incorrect to say that he “agreed and promised a bill would come before parliament to deal with ‘such racist, anti-Hungarian, traitorous statements.’” In fact, the prime minister was talking about when it is appropriate to respond to offensive, insulting statements and when it’s better to simply ignore them. He said, unfortunately, one has to handle statements that are often “ignoble, silly or racist” (“nemtelen, szamárság, rasszista”)…. Also, he said that when the parliament considers the law on state honors, it should debate whether it is a good idea to be able to withdraw such honors and, if so, on what conditions. A misquote as serious as this would ordinarily merit a correction.
Kumin gave a link to Viktor Orbán’s answer to a question addressed to him by Sándor Pörzse, a member of Jobbik, the Hungarian anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy party. But before I give the exact wording of the prime minister’s answer, I would like to recall a few events that preceded this exchange on October 24, 2011.
On September 10 the Fidesz caucus of the Budapest City Council proposed withdrawing Ákos Kertész’s “Freedom of the City” award because he called Hungarians genetically servile. A Jobbik member of the City Council agreed and further suggested that the President should consider taking away Kertész’s Kossuth Prize, which he received in 2008. And indeed, “President Pál Schmitt requested that the government examine the possibility of withdrawing state awards from those who had become unworthy.” The Orbán government seemed to have supported the idea because János Halász, undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs in the Ministry of Human Resources, agreed: “If Kertész doesn’t apologize, the government won’t consider him to be worthy of the Kossuth Prize.” In plain language, they will take it away from him.
On September 21 Kertész was stripped of his “Freedom of the City” award by a vote of the Jobbik-Fidesz majority on the City Council. Three days later the Kertész affair got to the Hungarian parliament. It was on October 4 that Orbán rose and answered Jobbik’s Sándor Pörzse in connection with Kertész’s Kossuth Prize.
We, right-wing Christian politicians, must get accustomed to ignoble, silly, racist comments which revile Hungarians and we must carefully choose when we pick up the gauntlet, when we hit back and when not…. As far as the concrete issue is concerned, clearly it makes one unhappy that a writer who received the Kossuth Prize entertains us with such stupidities. But there are worse cases than that. For example, Ernő Gerő is still on the rostrum of Kossuth Prize winners. This only shows that in the last twenty years we didn’t have enough steadfastness to scrutinize the law on state prizes and decorations and discuss the question in this House whether a prize already awarded can or cannot be withdrawn, and if it can be, under what circumstances its withdrawal is or is not desirable. Soon the law concerning prizes and decorations will be before the House when we hope we will have the opportunity to discuss soberly and dispassionately, quite independently from racist stupidities that offend Hungarians, the whole question.
But Kumin didn’t quote the rest of the exchange. Pörzse had an opportunity for a follow-up question, and he asked Orbán to take the initiative of stripping Ákos Kertész of his prize. He emphasized that he should take that “symbolic step.”
Orbán’s answer must have been soothing to the ears of the Jobbik MP. The prime minister stressed that the “solution” is not in his hands. “We will bring the bill here, we will discuss it, and the Hungarian government will follow” the law that is enacted. Galamus‘s headline read: “Orbán reassured Jobbik.”
You can decide whether or not Anna Porter grossly distorted Viktor Orbán’s comments. I don’t think so. I think she summarized Orbán’s statements on the subject quite accurately.
On November 8 a surveyor of taxes, András Horváth, turned to the prosecutor’s office to report a breach of fiduciary duties committed by the top leaders of NAV (Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal/National Office of Taxation and Customs). During his press conference he stood between representatives of two civic groups, Levegő Munkacsoport, an environmental organization, and Vállakozók Érdekvédelmi Szövetsége (VÉSZ), basically a lobby group of small entrepreneurs.
Horváth claimed that large-scale cheating goes on with fictitious VAT reimbursement payments, especially in the case of large multinational and domestic companies. Since Horváth was mostly involved with agricultural products and foodstuffs in general, I assume that the companies he was talking about are mostly large food chains. He claimed that the loss incurred in just this sector of the Hungarian economy amounts to about 1.7 trillion forints per year, more than 10% of the country’s entire yearly budget of 15 trillion forints.
Horváth seems to be a naive soul because before his revelation he turned in his resignation and was expecting to sever relations with NAV only in two months’ time. I guess you will not be surprised to hear that Horváth was immediately dismissed from NAV and that currently NAV is in the process of pressing charges against him.
When Index asked for details from NAV, they were told that tax fraud is usually committed through complicated layers of phony companies and that therefore it is often impossible to find the culprits despite the concerted efforts of NAV’s employees. The spokesman for NAV emphasized that the more than one thousand large multinational and domestic companies actually provide 42% of all tax revenues. These companies are thoroughly investigated.
Yet NAV, either on its own or because of prodding from above, immediately announced an internal investigation. Keep in mind that NAV has 23,000 employees, and yet over the weekend in only two days’ time (November 9-10) the “investigation” turned up nothing. I have the feeling that the internal probe couldn’t have been too thorough.
On Tuesday, November 12, disappointed by the internal investigation of NAV, Horváth put all his trust in the government, emphasizing that he has no political motivations. He just wants the truth to surface. In fact, he was an early Fidesz party member and has old friends in the party from those days. He indicated that he knows two of the “highest dignitaries of the land.” I think he was talking about János Áder and László Kövér. He also said that he wrote two letters to leading politicians in the Prime Minister’s Office and he definitely knows that one reached the person for whom it was intended. I assume again that this was János Lázár. Exactly when Horváth wrote to the person in the Prime Minister’s Office is not clear, but we definitely know that he wrote a long letter to Antal Rogán, head of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, back in November 2011.
Rogán didn’t seem to remember any such letter. His only recollection was that somebody stopped him in the corridor of the parliament and exchanged a few words with him. But then Horváth released his long, detailed letter which Átlátszó.hu, an investigative online paper, published in its entirety. At that point Rogán’s memory was jiggled, but he still claimed that the letter contained only generalities. It is true that Horváth didn’t mention any names, but he indicated that some of the high officials of NAV were getting paid off for their “leniency” and that some of them had become quite rich in the process.
The way the fraud was committed does look complicated, but in essence it entails a phantom supplier who gets reimbursed for VAT, which is the highest in the European Union. Thus a product for which the Hungarian company paid 100 forints to, let’s say, a Slovak company cost the Hungarian company only about 80 forints and thus its profit margin is about 20-25% higher than it would have been without the assistance of this phantom company. There is a drawing of the scheme in Index.
Fidesz naturally suspects political motives behind Horváth’s revelations. Mihály Varga, minister of economics, warned Horváth that he as a civil servant is not supposed to engage in political activities. Horváth insists that politics has nothing to do with it and that the law is on his side. After all, he says, the law is supposed to shield those who unveil corruption and fraud. But Horváth is in trouble because so far his case has not been taken up by the prosecutor’s office. They want additional information, which sounds like a diversionary tactic. Knowing the political orientation of the prosecutor’s office, I will be most surprised if Horváth’s case is ever taken up.
Meanwhile, of course, the case became thoroughly politicized. It couldn’t have been otherwise. András Schiffer’s LMP immediately moved into action. Next Friday the party will stage a demonstration for “the purity of the tax office and for the upstanding taxpayers.” At the same time, LMP and József Ángyán, formerly Fidesz but now an independent member of parliament, initiated the process to set up a parliamentary committee to investigate the NAV case.
The establishment of such a committee must be supported by 77 members of parliament. As it turned out, in addition to the seven-member LMP only a few independents, a handful of Együtt-PM, and Jobbik members signed the petition. And that’s not enough. Without MSZP there can be no committee investigation of the case. DK members also refused to sign. The reason for both MSZP and DK holding back was the signatures of Jobbik members. They refuse to join any parliamentary action in which Jobbik is involved.
It is true that, even if the necessary number of signatures had been obtained, the investigative commission most likely wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Fidesz would have voted it down flat. But at least the charge couldn’t have been leveled against MSZP that they were reluctant to sign because they didn’t want their own part in the tax evasion scheme to be unearthed. Indeed, the reason for their refusal to sign doesn’t sound quite genuine, as some Együtt-PM members point out, because in the last three years MSZP members signed several documents on which one could find Jobbik names as well. Attila Mesterházy’s explanation for MSZP’s action (or lack of action) in this case is that the party decided to boycott Jobbik in parliament and elsewhere only recently.
I’m not sure whether refusing to collaborate with Jobbik in every instance is necessarily a smart political tactic. My feeling is that Mesterházy and others can explain their reasons until they are blue in the face, yet people who are inclined to equate the two parties when it comes to corruption will never believe them. And these are exactly the people whom Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy want to convince to vote for them. Of course, those who argue that nothing would have come of the investigative committee are right, but at least MSZP could have avoided another reason for labeling them a corrupt party, just as corrupt as the “mafia government” of Fidesz.
Sunday marked the unveiling of a bronze bust of Admiral Miklós Horthy. The bust is located on the property of a Hungarian Reformed Church in Budapest, but it is visible from the busy Szabadság tér. The minister of the church is Lóránt Hegedüs, whose wife is a Jobbik member of parliament. This is not the first time that Hegedüs has prompted controversy with his extremist political views and actions. A few years back there was already a more modest Horthy bust, but that one was by and large hidden from public view.
The main reason for Hegedüs’s admiration of Horthy is the governor’s alleged role in regaining some of the territories Hungary lost after World War I. We mustn’t forget that November 2 was the 75th anniversary of the First Vienna Award negotiated with the assistance of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. As a result of the Award, Hungary regained a sizable portion of Slovakia. Less than two years later, on August 30, 1940, the Second Vienna Award, also arbitrated by Germany and Italy, granted Hungary some of the territories lost to Romania.
Naturally, Horthy is only a symbol of these apparent successes of Hungarian diplomacy. The negotiations themselves were done by the Hungarian government, but Horthy was the one who as head of state rode on his white horse into the larger cities of the regained territories. It is this Horthy that the Hungarian extremists who gathered around the statue admire.
One often hears people who admire Horthy say that the admiral was responsible for Hungary’s relatively fast recovery after the war. These people don’t know that, although the whole interwar period is named after him, Horthy’s power was constitutionally extremely limited. Especially in his first ten or twelve years or so in office he had little say in the everyday running of the government. In the thirties, unfortunately for the country, he insisted on and received increased political power. Horthy knew practically nothing about politics before he became governor, and his skills didn’t improve greatly during his twenty years in office.
What these extremists admire most, his alleged skill in recovering former Hungarian territories, was actually his and the country’s undoing. For the good offices of Nazi Germany in November 1938 and August 1940 Hitler demanded loyalty from Horthy and Hungary. It was difficult to say no to the benevolent Führer who took Hungary’s side during the negotiations with Slovakia and Romania.
The other issue is the anti-Semitic nature of the Horthy regime and Horthy’s personal responsibility for the Holocaust in Hungary. It is undeniable that the interwar Hungarian governments actively helped the Christian middle classes achieve economic and intellectual prominence to the detriment of the Jews. The numerus clausus (1920) that restricted the number of Jewish students at the universities was intended to further that aim of the government. Anti-Semites of those days talked about “the changing of the guard,” meaning altering the composition of the economic and intellectual elite. Most leading Hungarian politicians, including Horthy, would have liked to see a Jewish-free Hungary, but they knew that shipping out all the Jews would have terrible economic consequences. Yes, there was pressure from Germany, but many people in the government actually welcomed that pressure since it would facilitate the “changing of the guard” which hadn’t proceeded as rapidly as they would have liked.
As for Horthy’s personal responsibility for the expulsion of the Jews, I have to side with the majority of Hungarian historians who blame him for what happened. First of all, Horthy was not powerless even after the German occupation on March 19, 1944. He could have forbidden the Hungarian administration to make the necessary preparations to send about 600,000 Hungarians to Auschwitz. Because everything that was done was done by the Hungarian authorities. If he could stop the transports in July, he could have ordered the ministry of interior to refuse to cooperate with the Germans earlier on. The Germans simply didn’t have the personnel or the know-how without Hungarian help to organize such a mass expulsion. Without the assistance of the Hungarian Railways, for example, no transport could have left the country. It was only when Horthy received threatening calls from all over the world in July 1944, including Great Britain and the United States, that he decided to act.
Finally, I would like to touch on the Orbán government’s position regarding the Horthy regime and Horthy himself. An unfolding Horthy cult is undeniable. It started with Jobbik, but eventually Fidesz decided not to try to stop the tide. Viktor Orbán himself didn’t promote the erection of Horthy statues or naming streets after Horthy, but he didn’t stand in their way either. Just yesterday in parliament he quite openly admitted that what he wants are the votes of those who voted last time for Jobbik. And if that is your aim you don’t condemn the Horthy regime’s foreign policy or admit its responsibility for the deaths of Hungarian Jews.
Even today, after the unveiling of the statue and after outcries from the Hungarian and the international Jewish community, Fidesz refuses to take a stand. János Lázár already announced that it is the job of historians to determine Horthy’s role. As if historians hadn’t done their job already. Although no full-fledged biography of Horthy has yet been written in Hungary, Thomas Sakmyster’s book, Admiral on Horseback: Miklós Horthy 1918-1944. appeared in English in 1992 in the United States. Since then we have even more information on that period, including archival material that indicates that Horthy most likely knew about Hitler’s plans for the extermination of the Jews much earlier than the summer of 1944.
An incredible number of documents have been published ever since the 1960s on German-Hungarian relations. Selected private papers of Horthy were published in English. Documents from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry were also published in several volumes between 1962 and 1982. Hundreds of articles appeared on different aspects of the Horthy regime. So, those Fidesz politicians who urge historians to work harder should first sit down and read a few books and articles which are readily available. Then they can decide whether it is appropriate to embrace the Horthy regime or not.
The time has come, I think, for the Orbán government to announce unequivocally that it does not seek its forebear in the different governments of the Horthy period. Not even the Bethlen governments because Prime Minister István Bethlen was an arch-conservative whose ideas were behind the times even then, and in the twenty-first century they have no place in a country that belongs to the European Union.
It seems that the Hungarian Reformed Church at least has finally taken action. The church is beginning disciplinary action against Lóránt Hegedüs. I don’t know whether they will have the guts to defrock him, but in my opinion that man has no business whatsoever leading a spiritual community.
I have been planning to write about the so-called Biszku case for quite a while, and this is as good a time as any. It provides something of a break from day-to-day politics. It was way back in the summer of 2010 that Jobbik went to the police to demand an investigation into Béla Biszku’s denial of his allegedly murderous communist past that by then was a criminal offense. The Orbán government insisted that if the legislature passes a law on the denial of the Holocaust this piece of legislation must also include a reference to the genocide committed by the communists.
Who was Béla Biszku? No question, he was a hard-line communist who had a rather short but spectacular career in the Hungarian communist party, especially after 1956. Prior to the revolution he was among the lower-ranked party apparatchiks. He served as party secretary in several Budapest districts. Not really high positions. But after the revolution, he had a meteoric rise. First, he became party secretary of the whole of Budapest, a member of the Central Committee, and later of the Politburo. At the same time he was chosen as minister of interior (1956-1961) and later deputy prime minister (Sept. 13, 1961-Sept 27, 1962). His eventual dismissal stemmed from his opposition to János Kádár’s new, more moderate policies. For a number of years he remained the secretary of the Central Committee, a position that carried no real weight. In 1978 the party sent him into retirement at the age of 57.
For at least fifteen years or so no one was especially interested in Béla Biszku, who has been living in Budapest as a pensioner. How did he suddenly become the center of attention? Sometime in the spring of 2010 two associates of Mandiner, a more moderate right-wing online paper, had a lengthy interview with Biszku which was subsequently made into a film. They got permission for the interview under false names and identities. They claimed that they came from Márokpapi (pop. 460), the birthplace of Biszku, as representatives of the village leadership. They would be thrilled if Biszku would come visit them and talk to the people of Márokpapi. The old man was so moved that he agreed. During the interview he called the 1956 revolution a counterrevolution and showed no remorse about the very harsh reprisals while he was minister of interior. Otherwise, he denied any direct involvement in individual cases that ended in death sentences or very long prison terms.
It was sometime after the release of the film that Jobbik decided that Biszku was guilty of a denial of the sins of communism. In my opinion, Jobbik either misread the law or misinterpreted Biszku’s statements in the film. The only thing Biszku did was to claim that the revolution of 1956 was a counterrevolution, which is no more than an opinion, whether we agree with him or not. So it’s no wonder that Zoltán Fleck, a liberal legal scholar, hoped that in case prosecutors bring charges against Biszku, the panel of judges would acquit him in the name of freedom of expression.
This was not the only attempt to get Biszku’s case to the point of indictment. Another suit charged him with crimes against humanity, but this was thrown out by the Budapest prosecutor’s office because according to Hungarian law one cannot be charged with a crime that was not part of Hungarian jurisprudence at the time. Crime against humanity is a new addition to the Hungarian juris corpus.
In October 2010 Ádám Gellért, a young legal scholar, brought different charges against Biszku. He claimed that Biszku was responsible for multiple homicides. Gellért specifically mentioned Pál Maléter, József Szilágyi, Miklós Gimes, and Imre Nagy for whose deaths Biszku was at least indirectly responsible. That charge was taken seriously by the Budapest prosecutor’s office and Gellért’s brief was sent to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office for an examination of the charges.
So by late 2010 there were at least two pending charges against Biszku: a denial of the revolutionary nature of the October events and homicide. The Orbán government decided to make the task of the prosecutors and the courts easier. They submitted a law to parliament that made it possible to charge Biszku and perhaps a few dozen other people with crimes against humanity by making it retroactively valid. This law, which of course was enacted, would allow Hungarian courts to treat these cases as war crimes that have no statute of limitations. The law has since been nicknamed Lex Biszku.
Throughout 2012 one could hear all sorts of speculations about what kinds of charges would eventually be leveled against Biszku, but it was only recently that the details of the indictment became known. As we found out, it took a whole year to come up with an indictment that might be able to stand on its own. It looks as if the prosecutors relied on one of Jobbik’s many charges which claims that Biszku as minister of interior was an accessory before the fact in several cases involving homicide. In addition, he is guilty of high treason, illegal imprisonment, and abatement. These crimes if proven might carry a life sentence.
As time went by, more and more surprising charges emerged which, according to legal experts, will be practically impossible to prove: for example, Biszku’s connection to the firing at civilians in Salgótarján and in Budapest at the Western Station. A total of 50 people died in the two incidents. The connection between Biszku and the Salgótarján-Western station massacres was already investigated once in the early 1990s. At that time prosecutors turned the archives upside down but couldn’t find any direct link between Biszku, who at that time wasn’t even minister of the interior but a member of a temporary committee of the party handling the immediate work of getting things back to “normal,” and the two massacres. As far as we know, no new documents have surfaced since.
Although Biszku is an unsavory character who most likely committed an awful lot of crimes, there must be proof of these crimes. Unless the Hungarian prosecutors have come up with some new evidence that can link Biszku to these massacres or can prove that Biszku ordered the justices to condemn Imre Nagy and his close associates to death, this whole Biszku case will go nowhere. Even the Lex Biszku will be impotent if the prosecution fails to prove its case.
Finally, a brief note. It was only a few days ago that I read that a leading prosecutor might be dismissed for incompetence. We don’t know who the person is, but the suspicion is that he was involved in those high-profile cases which the prosecution lost, one after the other. All were politically motivated, like the Hunvald case involving the former MSZP mayor of one of the Budapest districts. Or former Budapest Deputy Mayor Miklós Hagyó’s case. And these were not the only ones where the prosecution showed complete incompetence.
This Biszku case seems to be heading toward the same fate, that is, if Biszku lasts that long. I’m not even sure whether the prosecution or the Hungarian government believes or even cares whether Biszku’s wrongdoings can be proven. Most likely their only goal is to show how seriously they take crimes against humanity, especially if they involve the communists. Their eagerness in the case of László Csatáry who was charged with crimes against Hungarian Jews in 1944 was a great deal less visible. I think that the main aim is to show to Jobbik and its followers that they take all this very seriously and that their anti-communism can be translated into deeds. Otherwise, the outcome of the trial doesn’t interest them very much.
In the last few days I have encountered a number of studies, television interviews, and polls on Hungarian anti-Semitism. The inspiration for this sudden burst of information is undoubtedly an international conference organized by the Tom Lantos Institute, which is described as “an independent human and minority rights organization with a particular focus on Jewish and Roma communities and other transnational minorities.” So far their activities have been meager and even their website is unfinished. This conference, held in the chamber of the former Upper House of the Hungarian Parliament, was a closed affair for invited guests only, most of whom were foreigner visitors.
I should actually devote a whole post to the rocky history of the Institute, which is currently an instrument of the Hungarian government whose attitude toward the issue of anti-Semitism is ambivalent at best. On the one hand, the government tries to convince the world of its progressive attitude and fair handling of the issue and, on the other, it promotes the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime in which several discriminatory laws were enacted which eventually led to the horror of the Hungarian Holocaust. Moreover, for political reasons the governing party, Fidesz, usually placates the neo-Nazi anti-Semitic Jobbik party by giving in to their demands, which often entails the rehabilitation of anti-Semitic characters from the past. That’s why Stefan J. Bos of BosNewsLife entitled his article on the Lantos Institute’s conference “Hungary’s Crocodile Tears Over the Holocaust.”
Let’s see the results of some recent studies on anti-Semitism in Hungary. According to the sociologist András Kovács, who conducted about fifteen such studies between 1993 and 2011, the number of anti-Semites has grown over the years, especially since 2009, but he adds that the Hungarian population is quite xenophobic in general, and when they were asked about their attitude towards the Arabs, the Gypsies, the Blacks, the Chinese, the Hungarian Germans, and the Jews, the Jews actually came off best. That is, they were hated the least. Still, the percentage of people who vehemently hate the Jews jumped from 9% to about 20% between 2009 and 2013.
A few days ago a new poll was taken by Political Capital, which focuses exclusively on Internet users. So, the poll is skewed because in Hungary relatively few people over the age of 60 use the Internet. The percentage of young people included in this poll is higher than in the population as a whole. According to Political Capital, those for whom Jews are “antipathetic” make up 28% of the adult population. I tried to use the equivalent of the Hungarian original (ellenszenvezők) instead of “anti-Semitic” (antiszemiták) because the latter linguistic choice would probably have altered the results. “Anti-Semitic” is certainly a more loaded term than “antipathetic.” The team conducting the survey also offered a “sympathetic” (rokonszenvezők) category, and the percentage of the sample who opted for that choice was surprisingly high, 34%. The percentage of those who claim to be neutral is also high, 26%.
Not surprisingly, there are great differences in people’s attitudes toward Jews when it comes to party preferences. Jobbik has the highest percentage of anti-Semites, 75%, while E14, LMP, and DK have the lowest, 14%. Fidesz voters show an interesting pattern: 33% dislike Jews, 27% claim to be neutral, 22% like them, and a very large percentage in comparison to the others simply have no opinion, 18%. Among MSZP voters the percentage of those who find Jews to be an unsympathetic lot is almost as high as among Fidesz voters but at the same time 45% of them actually sympathize with Jews and only 15% are neutral on the issue.
The researchers of Political Capital call attention to the fact that “anti-Semitism is a politically induced phenomenon.” Although in terms of percentages Fidesz and Jobbik voters are very far from each other on anti-Semitism and although the difference is relatively small between Fidesz and MSZP, when it comes to hard-core anti-Semitism (including a belief in theories of an international Jewish conspiracy) Fidesz and Jobbik anti-Semites are very close to one another. Here is the graphic illustrating Political Capital’s contention. In the lower left quadrant are anti-Semites of the parties who don’t believe in conspiracy theories while in the upper right quadrant are the Jobbik and Fidesz anti-Semites who do believe in conspiracy theories.
That is, the nature of Fidesz-Jobbik anti-Semitism is fundamentally different from that on the democratic side. But why? Political Capital’s researchers claim that anti-Semitism is a politically induced phenomenon. Well, that is quite clear in the case of Jobbik because this party’s messages are unequivocal. The party’s sympathizers are barraged with hard-core anti-Semitic messages. But what’s happening in Fidesz? I suspect that the double talk and ambivalence that can found in Fidesz communication is responsible for the high number of Fidesz believers in an international Jewish conspiracy. Some Fidesz voters view the incessant anti-foreign, anti-capitalism remarks as coded anti-Semitic messages and translate them into unambiguous statements. Moreover, it is often asserted that about 30% of Fidesz voters are already so far to the right that they could easily vote for Jobbik. In fact, many of them indicate Jobbik as their second choice when asked by pollsters.
I think that those who fall for the “crocodile tears” should keep all of this in mind. Viktor Orbán, who is politically very savvy and who has his finger on the pulse of his followers, believes that he cannot ignore the feelings of his flock. Whether he is an anti-Semite or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is his careful tiptoeing around this issue for the sake of his followers whose anti-Semitism is deeply ingrained.
Today’s topic is the Hungarian police’s decision not to investigate the attack on a Roma family in Devecser, one of the villages that earlier fell victim to the red sludge that covered acres and acres of land around a factory producing aluminum. I didn’t deal with this specific incident except as one in a series of anti-Roma attacks by far-right groups during the summer of 2012. However, here is a description of what happened on August 5, 2012 from The Economist. “You are going to die here,” shouted members of a 1,000-strong march as they stopped at houses they thought were a home to Roma, hurling their water bottles and stones to emphasize their point.” The Economist also mentioned that “not a peep of condemnation [came] from Fidesz.”
Ever since that time the Hungarian police have been investigating, taking their sweet time trying to ascertain whether a crime of incitement against the Roma minority occurred in Devecser. One would think that it shouldn’t take a year to come to the conclusion that inciting a crowd to kill people is a crime. But it seems that in Hungary it takes the police a year to decide the opposite. The police in Veszprém county announced a week ago that they found that no crime had been committed and they therefore stopped the investigation. According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, it was a clear case of incitement and there was a good chance that the court would hand down a verdict against the neo-Nazi groups present in Devecser. But the Hungarian police prevented that from happening.
Before the attack on houses of Gypsies several extremist leaders gave speeches in which they called on their audience to kill the Roma. How else can one interpret such a sentence as “we must stamp out the phenomenon; we must exterminate it from our Lebensraum.” According to the Criminal Code, this kind of incitement against an ethnic group is a serious crime that may result in three years of jail time. Moreover, as a result of these speeches the crowd actually went on a rampage. The Gypsies under siege feared for their lives.
How can the police explain dropping the investigation for lack of evidence? According to them, the person “who incites doesn’t address the intellect but appeals to primitive instincts which may result in possible action.” In their opinion, the utterances in this case “did not contain intemperate, antagonistic statements that may induce maleficent action.” What could be heard from the leaders of these extremist groups, according to the police, may be offensive to the Roma population and morally reprehensible, but these extremists cannot be punished by the instruments of the criminal justice system.
Organizations involved with human rights cases decided to appeal the case. One group, called Tett és Védelem Alapítvány (Action and Defense Foundation), will appeal to the Constitutional Court. The president of the Foundation told members of the media that in the last nine months he himself reported 28 cases involving incitement against minority groups but they were all ignored by the police. A day later, however, we learned that there will be an investigation into the case of a member of the far-right crowd in Devecser who, most likely unintentionally, hurled a rock at a Jobbik member of parliament, who as a result suffered a slight head injury.
Meanwhile another case emerged that sheds light on the thinking of the Hungarian police when it comes to hate speech and incitement against minorities. One of the speakers in Devecser was Zsolt Tyirityán, leader of the Army of Outlaws. On October 23, 2012, he delivered another speech in Budapest; this time the targets were the Jews. He vented his hatred of certain Jews who “should be put into freight cars and taken a good distance away and put to work.” The Tett és Védelem Foundation again demanded a police investigation of this incitement case, but the Budapest police refused to investigate. The reasons? One was that this speech is still on YouTube because not enough people complained about the speech’s content. Otherwise, YouTube would have removed it. And the second was that one cannot talk about incitement when “the whole audience shares the speaker’s ideology .” In this case we “should rather talk about agreement of the participants.” So, it seems that according to the Hungarian authorities one can speak of incitement only if not all listeners agree with the speaker. 168 Óra, which reported on the bizarre police rationalization for not investigating, gave the following title to the article: “According to the police one can deliver a Nazi speech before Nazis.”
But don’t fear, the Hungarian police are quite ready to act when it comes to members of national minorities. An organization called Roma Közösségi Hálózat and several other Roma groups staged a small demonstration in front of the Ministry of Interior after the police refused to investigate the Devecser case. The man who organized the demonstration was Jenő Setét, a Roma activist. There were only about 30 people present, who kept repeating the slogan: “The police shouldn’t assist the Nazis.” The final result was a misdemeanor charge against Setét.
It is my impression that Hungarian policemen, who were somewhat constrained during the socialist-liberal administrations, now feel empowered to act aggressively, sometimes illegally, against ordinary citizens and minorities, especially Gypsies. I have been collecting evidence to prove my point and in the near future will give some examples of what I mean.
Just the other day Hungarian Transparency International released a study on the “Lack of Transparency in Hungary’s Higher Education.” This title is somewhat misleading because the main emphasis is on corruption in higher education and in the student unions, Hallgatói Önkormányzatok (HÖK). Five hundred students were interviewed in a questionnaire survey, and a number of in-depth interviews were conducted with teachers and administrative professionals. According to the students, it is in politics that corruption is the highest but it is also present, even if not to such an extent, in higher education. Thirty-two percent of students believe that the teaching staff is not at all or only partially honest. Twenty-six percent question the integrity of the admission committees, and 46% doubt the honesty of the student council/union.
Let me concentrate on the student councils here. The HÖKs were set up with generous support from the government in the early 1990s when politicians in their democratic zeal felt that students, just like every other group, needed their own self-governing institution. They were given both funding and wide-ranging privileges. They could offer financial assistance to students in need. They also had jurisdiction over the dormitories. And they had the right to vote on the appointment and promotion of professors.
Quickly enough some students discovered the benefits of attaining high positions in the student union, including substantial personal monetary benefits. As a result, it was not always the most honest men and women (mostly men, I’m afraid) who vied for these positions.
These student unions became incubators for future politicians, especially those who eventually ended up in Fidesz. Fidesz in the 1990s was extremely popular among students, and eventually the whole leadership of Fidelitas, the junior branch of the party, underwent their political apprenticeship in student unions of various universities. Since then, with the rise of Jobbik, in some universities Jobbik took over the student unions. You may recall that at the Faculty of Arts of ELTE the Jobbik leadership of HÖK picked out “the most promising” (i.e., most likely to join Jobbik) freshmen. This crew had a running list of entering freshmen and made special mention of who might be a Jew or a left-winger.
A leadership position in HÖK could have been good preparation for an honorable political career. These student leaders had to negotiate with the faculty and the university administration, and in theory they were supposed to defend the rights of the student body. Unfortunately their primary concern was to fill their pockets and acquire more and more power. In the study half of the students claim that members of the student union ask for money, gifts or favors from those who request a place in the dormitory or social assistance. The financial affairs of the student union are unregulated and opaque.
The corruption of the budding Fidesz-Jobbik student leaders practically guaranteed that when they found themselves in more important political positions they would carry on their shady business, only on a much grander scale.
Perhaps the most notorious HÖK was at the University of Szeged where in early 2011 there was practically a student revolt to get rid of the corrupt HÖK members. There, as István Tanács, Népszabadság‘s Szeged correspondent wrote, “instead of student autonomy HÖK had a potential for blackmail of the administration.” About 600 students, freshmen and sophomores, naive souls, signed a petition demanding more electoral transparency. Their demands were modest: they wanted the votes collected to be kept at night in the safe of the Dean’s Office and not in the office of HÖK. They wanted a public notary to be present when the results of the election were counted. They also demanded a completely new election for all positions and not individual replacements of students whose term of office was ending.
The leadership of the Szeged HÖK managed to fend off the attempts at undercutting their power within the organization. That could be done relatively easily because the heads of the student unions are not elected in a truly democratic manner. In fact, the HÖK in Szeged is organized in such a way that its president has absolute power and the university’s administration has no say whatsoever over its affairs. The university’s senate accepted that arrangement as well as the demand of HÖK that this provision can be changed only with the approval of the student union.
The head of the Szeged HÖK is in charge of billions of forints spent on scholarships, the maintenance of dormitories, and assistance for living expenses, for books, for sports and cultural events. Moreover, without the approval of the leadership of the Szeged HÖK no student can be removed from the university for academic or disciplinary reasons. One of the vice-presidents of the university who made such a decision on his own was himself eventually removed from the university at the insistence of the HÖK chairman. It looks as if the university administration is actually afraid of the student union.
So, the younger Fidesz leadership, and these people by now are probably in their early forties, often comes from these student unions where for years they were masters of manipulation and where they enjoyed unquestioned, concentrated power. We shouldn’t be surprised about the atmosphere that pervades the party. In addition, let’s not forget that Viktor Orbán and his buddies come from a very similar background. When they were at university they spent more time politicking than studying. They managed to achieve self-government within their small dormitory and ran the show with practically no supervision.
While I think that political activity should be part of university life, I also think that the power of HÖK should be broken once the electorate gets rid of those who brought into Hungarian political life the institutionalized corruption learned already in college.
Sajóbábony, a small town of 2,000 inhabitants 13 km from the city of Miskolc, has been in the news off and on since 2009, shortly after the random murders of Gypsies in several towns and villages. In the aftermath of these murders the Hungarian Roma population was not surprisingly jumpy and fearful. Intensifying their fear was the activity of Jobbik and the Hungarian Guard, its paramilitary unit. Guardists often appeared in towns with a large Roma population, almost as if they wanted to provoke some kind of conflict with the Gypsies.
In November 2009 the Hungarian Guard decided to move about 600 of their members to Sajóbábony, and Jobbik organized a political gathering in the town. The local Roma community felt threatened and unprotected by the police. Some of them decided to defend themselves, apparently armed with axes, swords, and canes. When they saw a dark car going through their neighborhood, at least nine people attacked it. The two people in the car, who were members of the Hungarian Guard, received minor injuries.
As a result of this incident the nine people involved in the incident were arrested. Last May the Miskolc court found them guilty. According to the prosecutors, in the course of attacking the car the Roma threatened to kill “the stinking Hungarians.” All of the accused denied the charges and claimed that they simply sent “the filthy guards back to where they came from.” Notwithstanding their protestations, all nine were found guilty of a hate crime directed against a distinct community, in this case against the Hungarians. Each received between two years and six months and four years in jail.
This was not the first time that a law designed to protect members of a minority against the aggression of the majority was invoked by Hungarian judges to rule in favor of the majority. There were two very similar cases to that of Sajóbábony, one in 2010 and another in 2011, in which the defendants were found guilty of committing a hate crime against the Hungarian community.
In the wake of the verdict TASZ (Társaság a Szabadságjogokért), the equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, released a communiqué in which they stated that the verdict is based on entirely wrong premises. Serious legal mistakes were committed. Yes, the defendants should have been charged with disorderly conduct or breach of the peace, but they should not have been convicted of a crime motivated by racism. After all, they attacked the car because they thought that members of the Hungarian Guard were inside, whom they suspected of intending to harm them and their community. They didn’t attack them because they were Hungarians. TASZ actually accused the court of racism.
As soon as the verdict was handed down the nine Gypsies decided to appeal, right then and there. They made the wrong decision. The appellate court (ítélőtábla) in this particular district is in Debrecen. There, on September 30, the court decided that the lower court’s verdict was not harsh enough. What these nine people did was so heinous that longer sentences were warranted. Instead of sentences ranging from two years and six months to four years, their jail time was extended to between three years and six months and five years and four months.
TASZ released another communiqué in which they reiterated that the motivation was not anti-Hungarian prejudice but fear of an attack by the Hungarian Guard members. Moreover, the court did not consider the background leading up to the encounter. The judge neglected to give reasons for considering the attack on the two people in the car a hate crime directed against the Hungarians. Moreover, “the essence of violence against a given community is that the perpetrator is prejudiced toward a group which he considers to be inferior.” From the testimony of the accused it is clear that it was not “anti-Hungarian prejudice” that motivated them.
It often happens that racist attacks on Gypsies go unpunished while Gypsies are convicted on charges of racism. “All that makes it look as if in Hungary the Roma were responsible for racism and not that the Roma are the ones who are fearful because of their ethnic origin.” Clearly, the communiqué continued, the members of both the Miskolc district court and the Debrecen appellate court are racists themselves since they declared the Gypsies to be racists because they got embroiled with members of the racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, xenophobic, ultranationalist, irredentist Hungarian Guard. There is no appeal. The verdict is final.