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The Hungarian Guard: a press conference, an opinion poll, and Fidesz strategy

August 31, 2007 Comments off

This morning, at the invitation of Ibolya Dávid, head of the MDF (Magyar Demokrata Fórum), the five party leaders were scheduled to give a joint press conference before an international audience, including ambassadors and foreign news agencies. Only three party leaders appeared. Conspicuously missing were Viktor Orbán, head of the Fidesz, and Zsolt Semjén, head of the KDNP (Christian Democratic Party). They sent their underlings.

I haven’t been able to get the full text of Prime Minister Gyurcsány’s speech, but from what I read about it in the papers, it was hard hitting. For instance, Gyurcsány gave several examples of the cooperation between the Fidesz and the far right, including Viktor Orbán’s praise for the openly antisemitic weekly, the Magyar Demokrata. Gyurcsány made no secret of his conviction that the Hungarian Guard is the creation of neo-Nazis and promised to change the civil code in order to be able to combat the forces of the extreme right.

Tibor Navracsics represented the Fidesz, and soon enough the "international press conference" was more like a brawl. Navracsics attacked the prime minister: "How does he dare to insinuate that the Fidesz wants to establish a Nazi regime in Hungary and how does he dare to call the whole political right fascist?" Well, this is not what Gyurcsány said, but this is how it was interpreted. Navracsics further accused the government of "playing the Jewish card" for political purposes. However, he argued, this "Jewish card" didn’t work last spring and it will not in the future either. (I must admit, I have no idea what event last spring Navracsics was referring to.) Navracsics wouldn’t distance his party from the Jobbik or the Guard, although he admitted that the Guard’s appearance is "bad for Hungary." He reiterated the party line–that Gyurcsány overstates the case, creating hysteria at home and abroad.

Then came an interesting sideshow. Mátyás Eörsi, head of the SZDSZ caucus, which, after all, is the coalition partner of the MSZP, announced that there is no fascist danger in Hungary. This had to be music to the ears of Péter Harrach, who represented the Christian Democrats. Eörsi kept emphasizing that, unlike the other East European countries, there is no extremist party in the Hungarian parliament. Eörsi repeated SZDSZ party chairman János Kóka’s offer that if the Fidesz were to break all ties to the Jobbik, the SZDSZ would cooperate with the Fidesz in certain local councils if they needed extra votes. Navracsics had his answer ready: if the SZDSZ breaks with the MSZP, the Fidesz will help to create a new coalition. So the whole thing was a travesty. Needless to say, there was no joint declaration as promised.

The head of the Jobbik got his cue from Navracsics. Gábor Vona wants to sue the government for calling them Nazis. Vona also wants to have a debate with Gyurcsány. Well, that would an interesting spectacle. Gyurcsány is a formidable debater; he demolished Viktor Orbán, and Orbán is a lot sharper and more eloquent than Gábor Vona. Not that anything of the sort will ever occur.

A couple of related points here that I think are more important than the day’s main event. Medián’s latest public opinion poll regarding people’s attitude toward the Hungarian Guard is fascinating. Sixty percent of those questioned said that the Fidesz should condemn the Hungarian Guard and distance itself from the Jobbik. Fifty percent of the adult population thinks that President Sólyom should do the same. Thirty percent would ban the Guard outright. Another thirty percent would use political means to isolate it. Twenty-nine percent would ignore them, and nine percent would actively support the guard. A few days ago I estimated the far right in Hungary at about ten percent of the adult population. It seems that I was pretty close.

My other comment concerns Mátyás Eörsi’s rather unfortunate role at this press conference and afterwards in an interview with Olga Kálmán, the ATV’s reporter (Egyenes beszéd = Straight Talk). He tried to defend his position by saying that he is "very proud of the Hungarian people" who were "so wise" as to exclude the extreme right (MIÉP and later the Jobbik) from parliamentary representation. But let’s review the facts. In 1998 the MIÉP received 248,901 votes, which constituted 5.47% of the total. Thus, the MIÉP managed to pass the minimum 5% requirement for parliamentary representation. In 2002, they didn’t. But not, as I mentioned in a previous post, because the Hungarian people were so wise. The MIÉP received only 3,575 fewer votes than four years before. Pretty steady following, I would say. However, they didn’t manage to get 5% of the votes (only 4.37%) because voter participation was much higher than in 1998. It is true that by 2006 the joint MIÉP/Jobbik joint ticket received only 119,007 votes (2.2%). Where did they rest of those far-right voters disappear? Of course, they didn’t disappear: they voted for the Fidesz, which by then was far more radical than four years earlier and therefore more to the far-right voters’ liking.

And here’s an interesting conclusion that can be drawn from these numbers. If Medián’s poll is correct and about 10 percent of the Hungarian voters would support the Guard, then the best performance of the MIÉP at approximately at 5 percent doesn’t recognize the full strength of the extreme right within the population. Therefore, those people who don’t quite understand why the Fidesz sticks by the Jobbik, or rather why it doesn’t condemn the far right, haven’t thought the whole thing through. They keep talking about 2 percent of the votes. They argue that losing 2 percent is nothing if the party at the same time loses more than that from the moderate right. Obviously, these people are wrong. The Fidesz knows what it’s doing: 10 percent of the votes is serious stuff. They must not alienate that many voters. Winning or losing could easily depend on them.

Hungarian laws and the courts

August 30, 2007 Comments off

Front page news in this morning’s Népszava: "Riots: the Budapest court reduced the sentences." From reading the article it becomes clear that this decision was reached on appeal and therefore is final. As usual, in the Hungarian media, court reporting can be a bit foggy. For example, the reporter neglects to tell us what punishment was meted out in the lower courts, but let’s be grateful for the snippets found in this article. The article talks about "last fall’s disturbances," which could be either the siege of the television station or the riots on October 23. From one sentence we learn that one of the accused was banging on a police car on Rákóczi Street, so it seems that the offense occurred on October 23. At any event, the higher court reduced Ádám Béla Géczi’s punishment to an eight-month suspended sentence. If the "young adult" doesn’t repeat his violent outburst against the police, if he doesn’t take part in further disturbances, or, more precisely, if no one catches him, then he is off scot-free. The judges took into consideration his youth, that he had no criminal record, that he lives with his parents in an orderly household, and (this is the most interesting) that "he was carried away by what was going on around him."

The other man’s crime seems to me much more serious. Tamás Zoltán Horváth was armed, and he and his fellow rioters, as a group, attacked "an official person." I assume a policeman. His sentence was reduced to fourteen months in jail. Again, we have no idea what the decision of the lower court was. The reasoning for the reduced sentence was very similar to the previous case: he was young, had no criminal record, and "under normal circumstances" wouldn’t have committed a crime. (How do they know that? It’s beyond me!)

In the current situation, when democratic institutions and principles are being challenged by right-wing extremists, Hungary is plagued by poorly crafted laws and by a judiciary that has not attracted "the best and the brightest." (In Hungary it was neither prestigious nor financially rewarding to be a judge.)

First, the problem with the laws. Almost twenty years ago, when the opposition tried to hammer out a new constitution and an accompanying set of laws, they tried to be extra liberal. As a result, they enacted laws that are ill suited to restrict the activities of people whose intentions are not always honorable. Moreover, the laws themselves were rather hastily crafted; under closer scrutiny they are subject to multiple interpretations. So the police often don’t know what their competence is. What they can do, what they cannot do. They are afraid to act decisively because then they can be accused of being the successor to the old repressive police force of the Kádár regime. To change these laws the government would need a two-thirds majority of the members of parliament, but given the current political situation this is clearly impossible.

And then there is the question of the competence of the judges. If the spokesman of the Budapest Court is any indication, these judges seem to wear blinders. And logic is not their strength either. The following conversation between Judge László Gatter and József Orosz, reporter for KlubRádió and Napkelte, will perhaps elucidate what I mean. The topic was the registration of the Hungarian Guard as an officially recognized organization. Gatter kept repeating that the court cannot use its own judgment in determining whether or not to allow the registration of an organization. Gatter claims that their decision can be based only on what they read in the application. In the Guard’s application there was nothing that would have prevented its registration. "They had no choice, they had to allow it." Orosz is not the kind of man who gives up easily. He recalled that the Jobbik asked for a permit in mid-April and that it was sometime at the end of June when the permission was granted by the court. In the meantime, Gábor Vona, head of the Jobbik, gave several interviews from which it was obvious that the real aim of the Guard was not what appeared in the application. In brief, the contents of the application were a pack of lies that served only one purpose: to make the Guard legal. Should the courts take this into consideration? Gatter’s answer: No! It doesn’t matter what happened between the request and the granting of the permission, the courts have no room for any kind of consideration. I find this an absurd position. But what can one do? Nothing! This is the voice and stance of the independent Hungarian judiciary.

Continuing the theme of "consideration," Orosz inquired whether the judges could take into consideration that the riots were actually aimed at overthrowing a legitimate, democratically elected government. Absolutely not: this would be a politically motivated consideration, and the courts cannot get involved with politics. Can’t the courts distinguish between politics and democracy? Need I say more?

Fidesz, the churches, the president, and the far right

August 29, 2007 Comments off

Honestly, I will change topics soon, but the country is being shaken by the aftershocks of the Hungarian Guard affair. Every day something horrendous happens that cannot be ignored. One doesn’t even know where to start. It is bad enough that, according to a public opinion poll conducted by Medián, today fewer people find the extreme right reprehensible than ten years ago. Then the number was 70%, now a bit more than 50%. What is even more alarming is that the number of those who think that the extremists call attention to real problems doubled during the same period. I must say, I am not at all surprised. In the last ten years the right-wing media has become very robust, mostly due to Orbán’s efforts. Prior to 1998 the left-leaning media ruled the market. By now, the situation is almost reversed. Moreover, the numerous right-wing papers, radios and television stations are real propaganda instruments. They don’t even pretend to be balanced in their coverage. One cannot ignore the existence of this right-wing media empire on the thinking of the population. And the number of radio and television stations is steadily growing. The latest addition was the Lánchíd Rádió (Chain Bridge Radio, named after the first bridge built across the Danube between Pest and Buda in 1842); it began broadcasting on March 15, 2007.

And with this new radio station we arrive at the most horrendous news of the day. On the radio’s homepage appeared a composite picture depicting Gábor Szetey, one of the undersecretaries of the Prime Minister’s office, who, alone among Hungarian politicians, admitted that he was gay. The image is really despicable. Szetey stands at the gates of Auschwitz with a pink triangle on his lapel.

Note, by the way, that Lánchíd Rádió is owned by the same group that owns HírTV (a television station specializing in news), Magyar Nemzet, a daily newspaper, and Heti Válasz, a weekly. All of these are mouthpieces of right-wing politics. The HírTV is vicious, so is Magyar Nemzet; the Heti Válasz is a bit more moderate. The Lánchíd Rádió is called an “organ close to the Fidesz.”

Admittedly, the picture was removed within hours and two of the editors were sacked. One of the fired editors, who was responsible for the day’s content of the homepage, was Gabriella Veress, Fidesz representative of the 20th district council in Budapest. She was not only sacked from her job, but she also resigned from the Fidesz caucus, thus automatically losing her party affiliation. Whether she did this on her own or was helped a bit from the big chief, it’s hard to tell. The radio station profusely apologized in a letter to Szetey and made a public apology on its homepage. Here is the link: http://www.lanchidradio.hu/ I should also mention that there was at least one employee of the radio station who thought otherwise. According to him “every editor can decide what article he wants to publish and what picture he includes to accompany it.”The picture was taken off, but of course it can be seen on the internet on other homepages. I found it on a “neonazi university student’s blog” but I don’t want to advertise the site. Instead one can look at it as it appeared on the Origo online newspaper’s homepage: http://www.origo.hu/itthon/20070829-szetey-gabort-auschwitzban-abrazolo-foto-ellen-tiltakozott-a-kormany.html

The reaction from the other side was also swift. Prime Minister Gyurcsány, with his whole cabinet behind him, gave a press conference. In very strong words he and his fellow ministers condemned this fascist revival and again called on Viktor Orbán and President Sólyom to condemn the events of the past few days in no uncertain terms.

The president’s spokesman, Ferenc Kumin, pretty well answered the prime minister. Sólyom already said what he had to say on the subject on Sunday (through Kumin). He condemns the demonstrations aimed at creating fear but he also condemns the other side’s exaggeration of the significance of these events. These are not his exact words but this is their meaning. This didn’t seem to be satisfactory to the government, but it is unlikely that Sólyom will change his mind on the subject. He is not that kind of man.

Gyurcsány called on Orbán to condemn the extreme right and break off relations with the Jobbik and to expel from his party Mária Wittner, Fidesz member of parliament, and András Bencsik, editor of the Magyar Demokrata (an antisemitic weekly) and a party member, both of whom were present at the swearing in ceremony. Ibolya Dávid, head of the moderate center-right party, the MDF, just as emphatically demanded a definitive response from Orbán. From the Fidesz there has so far been silence, but I’m almost certain that Orbán will not oblige.

Meanwhile, the government, the MSZP, and the SZDSZ demanded similar explanations from the churches whose leaders kept repeating that the three clergymen were not representing them. Moreover, today church leaders decided to attack instead of trying to defend themselves. They expressed their total amazement at the concerted attack on the churches. For no good reason, of course. Well, that’s where we stand today.

The Hungarian Guard and the churches

August 28, 2007 17 comments

I know I’ve written about nothing else but the Hungarian Guard over the past few days, and I promise my readers that I’m not a one-trick pony. But, first, the topic is important in and of itself. And, second, it serves as (with apologies to scientists, for whom I know this is a technical term) a polarizing prism. In my singularly non-scientific use of the term, the issue of the Magyar Gárda clarifies political polarizations in Hungary with more precision than has any other recent controversy.

And so to the topic of the day: the relationship between church and state in Hungary as seen through the prism of the Magyar Gárda. Perhaps one ought to devote a whole article to the issue of church and state, but here it is enough to mention that the separation of church and state exists only on paper. The state heavily subsidizes the churches, especially the Catholic church, including their teaching activities. This arrangement was solidified when, to go back a bit in time, the Catholic church managed to get a deal that Warren Buffett might have envied when Gyula Horn went to Rome and signed an agreement with the Vatican. Horn surely thought that with this deal he would get, if not the support, at least not the active opposition of the Catholic church at the forthcoming elections. He had to be disappointed. The church was decidedly ungrateful; it actively supported the Fidesz. Individual priests in their sermons called upon the faithful to vote the "right" way. Interestingly enough, once in power, the Fidesz was not at all generous with the Catholic church, but church leaders didn’t complain. However, as soon as the Fidesz lost the elections, the church launched new demands re money received for each child in parochial schools. It was fairly difficult to decide at the time who told the truth, but the minister of education claimed that the Catholic schools already got more money per child than the public schools, while church leaders claimed the opposite.

This is not the post to decide the issue of educational funding. Instead, let’s move on to the largest minority religion, the Hungarian Reformed (Calvinist) Church. They didn’t have as strong a bargaining position, so they were by default less demanding. But that didn’t mean they were politically neutral. Some of their leading ministers/bishops were active members of the MIÉP. If possible, the Hungarian Reformed ministers were more radical in their thinking than the Catholics. The Lutheran Church is small and usually less active in politics than the other two. (Will the Lutheran reputation ever outlive Garrison Keillor? And what, to switch briefly to a frivolous note, would a Hungarian Lutheran casserole consist of?)

Well, everybody knows that church leaders in general are not flaming liberals, but it seems to me that in Eastern Europe they are far more conservative than are their counterparts in the West. Therefore, I personally wasn’t surprised when at the swearing-in ceremony of the Magyar Gárda a Catholic priest, a Calvinist minister, and a Lutheran pastor showed up and blessed the guard’s flag. Fiery speeches were not missing either. Immediately, on the swearing-in day (August 25th), the MSZP wanted to know what the "representatives" of these churches were doing at the initiation of an anti-democratic, neo-Nazi, paramilitary guard. László Német, the new secretary of the Conference of Hungarian Bishops, was called on the carpet. I heard a radio interview with him. First, he made it clear that the reporter was using the wrong word: the priest did not "consecrate" the flag, he only "blessed" it. A priest can bless anything from a dog to a car. Moreover, one doesn’t even have to be a priest to be able to bless something. And a priest is not always a representative of the church: a priest can go into a pub in a cossack but nonetheless go there as a private person. The same thing happened here: Ferenc Dévényi appeared at the ceremony as a private person. He didn’t ask for permission, he didn’t inform any of his superiors. He acted on his own. (György Gábor, an expert on the philosophy of religion, considered "the point of view of the church in this matter absurd and nonsensical." He argued that an ordained priest, when he appears at such a function, cannot be simply a private person.) When the reporter asked whether at least his superior will talk to Father Ferenc, Német muttered something about Dévény not belonging to their diocese. Since then I heard that Dévény is a "Hungarian citizen," which in most instances is code for a person who resides outside of Hungary. My hunch is that he is serving in Slovakia.

The Hungarian Reformed Church also claimed that they knew absolutely nothing about Tamás Csuka’s intentions to attend the ceremony. Same story: he was simply there as a private person. Mind you, his attire looked the same to me as I saw in the Pécs Hungarian Reformed Church as a child. He was especially popular with the crowd because he made no secret of what would happen to anyone who "dares to lift a finger against the Hungarians." As it turned out, the Reverend Csuka was no ordinary Calvinist minister. During the the Antall government, when Lajos Für, another man present at the ceremony, was the minister of defense, Csuka was the Calvinist bishop of the Hungarian army. He is retired by now, but he still holds the title of brigadier general and, I assume, also gets the pension that goes with it. I understand that according to military regulations a person can lose his rank if he becomes unworthy of it. In fact, the Mazsihisz (the Jewish umbrella organization) already asked Imre Szerekes, minister of defense, whether Csuka could lose his privileges. I wouldn’t be surprised if such proceedings would begin sometime in the near future. That might also bring into consideration the information that appeared in Stop.hu, an internet newspaper. If true, in 2002 the Hungarian Supreme Court found him guilty of "forgery of a contract" (magánokirat-hamísitás), and he received a one-year suspended sentence.

The Lutheran minister was a woman: Mrs. Bálint, Vilma Varsányi. First, the members of the media couldn’t get hold of her, but they managed to talk to her superior, János Ittzés, who told the Független Hírügynökség (Independent News Agency) that he is not planning any disciplinary action in this case. Since then, he must have changed his mind because, according to the late news on MT, the Lutherans are investigating the case and there might be consequences. As far as I can ascertain, the Lutherans are the only ones. The two other churches are adamant that they knew nothing, their clergymen acted on their own. The also expressed their total bafflement when István Hiller, minister of education and culture, during a conversation about school financing (what else?), asked for "emphatic condemnation of the Hungarian Guard." The church leaders don’t understand. They distanced themselves from the priest and the minister. What else can they do?

Fidesz and the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda)

August 27, 2007 1 comment

We outsiders can only guess what’s going on behind closed doors at the party headquarters of  Fidesz. Commentators often remark that Fidesz is a monolithic party where nothing can be uttered or done without the express desire or instruction of the chief, Viktor Orbán. One thing is sure, it is easier to see the different groupings within MSZP or even within  SZDSZ than in Fidesz. First of all, MSZP makes no secret of the fact that it is a political gathering of people with different ideas about the role of the socialist party in Hungarian society. The party itself has lower-level groupings, called “platforms.” The names of these platforms don’t always tell the whole story, but the most vocal members of each of these platforms make quite clear where they stand. There is certainly a left wing, who follow the lead of Katalin Szili, the speaker of the House. Szili, parliamentary member from the city of Pécs (my birthplace, by the way) is an interesting case study. She is an ardent Catholic and not entirely free of nationalistic enthusiasm. For example, she admitted that, against the wishes of her own party, she voted for dual citizenship at the 2004 referendum. And, most importantly, she is dead set against the “liberal tendencies” of Ferenc Gyurcsány. Gyurcsány, who occasionally says more than he should, spoke quite openly about their rocky relationship with József Debreczeni, who included the passages in his book about the Hungarian prime minister (Az új miniszterelnök/The new prime minister, 2006). There is even a small far-left group made up of mostly Marxist university professors. Then there is the social democratic/liberal wing headed by Gyurcsány himself.

The Fidesz is an entirely different party. Only rarely did it happen in the past that leading members of the party spoke in different voices. The unison is often deafening. Hungarians who are not too keen on  Fidesz call it “the parrot commando.” Indeed, if a certain adjective is decided on centrally, then every Fidesz politician in the media will include this adjective in every second sentence. If not in every sentence. An outsider can practically never detect any hint of disagreement within the party. At least that was the situation until now. Lately there are signs of cracks in the seemingly solid wall. Did this happen because of the Magyar Gárda? Or perhaps there were hairline cracks already earlier except we didn’t notice them?

Here and there a prominent Fidesz politician said something in the past that didn’t quite fit into the “official” party line. Commentators immediately jumped on it: “You see, there is an internal opposition to Orbán.” However, a few days later the same Fidesz politician changed his line: he was fully supporting Viktor Orbán. Indeed, this springFidesz had its congress and Orbán was reelected head of the party with an overwhelming majority. Out of the more than 1,000 votes there were only a handful who didn’t vote for him. Most likely, delegates realized that Orbán is the glue that holds the party together. If there is no Orbán, there is no Fidesz.

This time, I see more serious cracks in the united front. Indeed, there are signs of an internal party struggle. My impression is that within Fidesz the operative strategy, the definitive attitude toward the establishment of the Magyar Gárda, and more generally toward the extreme right, is still not quite decided. One of the vice-chairmen, Mihály Varga, former minister of finance, known to be a moderate within the party, announced, as I noted in my posting yesterday, that Gyurcsány himself was responsible for the establishment of the Hungarian Guard. As I mentioned, that was not a particularly sophisticated response, and it seems that some other Fidesz politicians found it inadequate. First, János Lázár, member of parliament and mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, not exactly known for his moderate political views, made a statement in which he considered a party militia unacceptable. Today, Zoltán Pokorni, a Fidesz vice president, although he didn’t condemn the guard outright, considered it a “gift to Gyurcsány” and something that is very bad for  Fidesz and bad for the country. Mind you, Pokorni added that MSZP itself is behind the establishment of the Magyar Gárda: it is a provocation by means of which the socialists want to discredit his party. A somewhat bizarre idea, I must say. Today, the head of the Fidelitas (the youth organization of Fidesz), Dániel Loppert, made a statement in which he called the guard dangerous, reminiscent of the dark times of Hungarian history. He and his organization want nothing to do with the guard, he added. This is especially interesting since this was the same young man who a few years ago yelled “traitor!” to Prime Minister Medgyessy. However, the official homepage of Fidesz mentions only Mihály Varga’s comments and not a word appears about either Pokorny’s or Loppert’s remarks, which may mean that no final decision has yet been reached concerning strategy.

These Fidesz comments haven’t moved Ildikó Lendvai, a close ally of Gyurcsány and two-term leader of MSZP parliamentary caucus (“frakció” in Hungarian). She was interviewed today by Olga Kálmán, a reporter at the ATV television station. According to her, it is not enough to say that this or that Fidesz politician distances himself from the guard. What the party as a whole should say is: “We have absolutely nothing to do with the Jobbik, the party that is behind this guard.” But Orbán, for one reason or other, simply hates to make such a statement. Why? Is the extreme right’s vote that important to Fidesz, or has Orbán himself moved so far to the right that he is actually sympathetic to the Jobbik? We should find out sooner or later.

Magyar Gárda (Hungarian guard): no end to the controversy

August 26, 2007 1 comment

It seems that the Fidesz found a clever, if fairly obvious, strategy to extricate itself from the Magyar Gárda trap. The party might (on the surface, in some eyes–pick your qualifying phrase) be linked with the guard, but they’re not responsible for its formation. Using what can only be described as a blunt instrument, they decided to blame Ferenc Gyurcsány for the growth of the extreme right and all its ramifications. If the prime minister hadn’t said what he said at Balatonöszöd, where he tried to convince his fellow socialists that reforms and belt-tightening couldn’t be postponed, then today everything would be peachy pie. There would be no extreme right, no disturbances, and no paramilitary organizations.

Let’s step back a bit in time to put the "clever" response into context. The fact is that the extreme right–even if no violence accompanied its activities–was fairly strong in Hungary from 1990 on and very visibly after 1992 when István Csurka was expelled from the MDF and established a new party, the MIÉP (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja/Party of Hungarian Truth and Life). Csurka was able to move crowds of over one hundred thousand people at some of his party’s gatherings on certain holidays. In 1998 the MIÉP received enough votes to have parliamentary representation. It is true that in 2002 the MIÉP didn’t manage to repeat its triumph of four years earlier, but the number of people voting for this antisemitic, extreme right-wing, nationalist party didn’t really diminish. They received less than the necessary 5% of votes cast only because voter participation was at an all-time high. Since the 2002 defeat the MIÉP lost its appeal and most of its voters. Where did these right wingers go? They can be found among the supporters of the Fidesz which moved enough to the right to appeal to former MIÉP supporters. Thus, the far right’s camp, as far as I can judge, is about the same size as it was in 1992. The only difference is that a certain segment of this far right is now ready to use force. And, again in my opinion, not because of Gyurcsány’s speech or because of the belt-tightening but because the Fidesz’s verbal attacks on their opponents give these groups fodder for their paramilitary agenda.

If a party leader keeps repeating that the current government is illegitimate because the party and the prime minister lied in order to retain power, then one ought not to be terribly surprised that all this talk emboldens the violent elements within the extreme right. It may not be the equivalent of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater (when essentially speech becomes action and is therefore not protected by the U.S. Constitution under the first amendment), but it’s mighty close. Violent words, violent acts. They feed on each other.

How successful the new Fidesz strategy will be, I don’t know, but somehow it will be difficult to blame Gyurcsány for the Magyar Gárda and other paramilitary organizations. Fortunately, the extreme right-wing gatherings are getting smaller and smaller. Their leaders were promising all sorts of anti-government demonstrations for August 20th, but with the exception of half a dozen people trying to disturb the raising of the flag nothing happened. These same groups promise further trouble for the anniversary of the Balatonöszöd speech’s leak which the Magyar Rádió made public in late September. Again, my feeling is that these groups have spent themselves already. Yes, there is Magyar Gárda, yes, Gábor Vona talks about thousands, but somehow, in the long run, I am hopeful that they will not succeed in making the Gárda a movement that could sway national politics. First of all, a movement from the right that looks dangerous usually causes the left to close ranks. Moreover, even the Fidesz is not entirely of one mind on the question. There were people, high enough in the party, who raised their voices against the formation of this paramilitary organization. The international pressure that seems to be mounting might also force the Fidesz to change its course. And there is one more thing to consider. When push comes to shove, the Jobbik is no friend of the Fidesz. Once Orbán has had enough of the Jobbik’s attacks on his party, perhaps he will be less sympathetic to the Magyar Gárda and its "peaceful aims," like getting rid of ragweed and giving blood. (I assume that the guard performs all these community service projects in uniform.) The upshot: I am fairly hopeful.

The Hungarian Guard: white, not black shirts

August 25, 2007 15 comments

It seems that even Gábor Vona, party leader of the Jobbik, realized that dressing the Magyar Gárda in black shirts was a bit over the top. He therefore changed the guard’s uniform to a white shirt, black sleeveless vest, black pants, high black boots, and a black baseball cap with an insignia reminiscent of the Hungarian Nazis’ armband. The result is a fairly grotesque uniform somewhat similar to outfits of nineteenth-century peasant lads. It reminded one of the reporters of the uniform of chimney sweeps or the old-fashioned "főpincér" (the waiter who at the end of the dinner at a restaurant came with the bill).

While people focused on the Gárda’s uniform, I felt even more uncomfortable looking at the uniform of another paramilitary group present at the initiation: they wore military fatigues, boots, and genuine military caps. Until now I hadn’t heard of this "guard." The name is Nemzeti Őrsereg (National Guard), an old-fashioned word for Nemzetőrség. Their leader is Tamás Poszpischek and the organization is one of the small local paramilitary units which sprung up at different parts of the country lately. A picture gallery of this whole sorry affair is available: http://www.hirszerzo.hu/galeria.40

According to reports, several thousand people enthusiastically greeted the fify-five guardists. Yes, the original number was fifty-six, but the organizers claimed that one of their members got shot with an air gun and therefore was unable to appear. I am very doubtful that such an attack occurred, at least not by a member of the left liberal camp (not normally the gun slinging crowd). I think that this claim was designed to arouse the ire of the audience and show that they are in danger.

I was hoping until the last minute that Lajos Für, former minister of defense in the Antall government, would change his mind and wouldn’t take part in the ceremonies. But he did. A commentator, former MDF member József Debreczeni, called him "by now completely senile" in an article that appeared in Népszava this morning. But perhaps this is too kind a description. In addition to Für, Mária Wittner, a Fidesz parliamentary member whose claim to fame is that she was condemned to death after 1956, gave a speech. She was waving a Hungarian flag with a hole in the middle, the symbol of 1956. I, who had a minor role to play in the 1956 revolution as a college student, shudder just to think about that misplaced symbolism. Wittner spoke of the  Magyar Gárda as a "chain of love which will fight against satan, that is the current government and communism of fifty years." Vona announced that they will establish local units of the guard in every county and in Budapest. "They will fight against global capitalism and global power, whose aim is to destroy nations and make people into mere consumers." After the ceremony at a press conference he also muttered something about establishing a bank, the Bank of Hungarian Families, that will not be interested in profit.

Gábor Vona promised that on October 23 they will swear in several thousand new members. Up to now 2,000 people have allegedly indicated their interest in taking part in the movement. The Gárda’s aim is to finish the change of regime (because according to them there is still communism in Hungary) and save the Hungarian nation which, he claims, is in danger of extinction. There were the usual cries: "Down with Gyurcsány" and "Down with Trianon."

The appearance of three members of the clergy raised quite a few eyebrows. A Catholic priest, a Lutheran pastor, and a Hungarian Reformed minister blessed the flag of the guard. The MSZP immediately demanded to know what these three churches have to do with a clearly neo-Nazi organization. The Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches claimed ignorance. The priest and and the minister acted on their own. They didn’t know anything about their plans. The Lutherans couldn’t be reached.

According to Ildikó Lendvai, Wittner’s presence at the ceremony is a clear-cut admission on the part of the Fidesz that the party is in some way involved with the Jobbik and its guard. The Fidesz claims that they had no knowledge of Wittner’s plans. This time I more or less actually believe the Fidesz spokesman. Anything is possible in connection with Mária Wittner. Why the Fidesz put Wittner on the party list so that her becoming a member of parliament was assured is another story.

Magyar Gárda: shots heard round the world

August 24, 2007 Comments off

The formation of the Black Guard (the official swearing in of the first guardists will take place tomorrow in front of the President’s palace) didn’t remain a local affair. Not surprisingly. The Jobbik (or, in more complete form, Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom [Movement for a Better Hungary]) is an openly antisemitic party; it also carries on a vicious propaganda campaign against gays, lesbians, and Gypsies. The World Jewish Congress (WJC), together with the European Jewish Congress (EJC) and the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz, were the first ones to react. WJC President Ronald S. Lauder and EJC President Mosha Kantor wrote a joint letter to Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in which they called the guard’s formation an "extremely alarming development." They wrote that the "impending creation of an armed guard, under the false guise of ‘sporting and shooting clubs,’ with uniforms resembling those worn by fascists in World War II," was a danger to democracy and had to be stopped. The WJC and EJC presidents urged Gyurcsány to do his "urgent utmost to see to it that any political party which manifests expressions of hatred and bigotry, whether by speech, threats to arm, and other incitements to racial violence, is stopped." The letter can be read in its entirety here:

http://www.worldjewishcongress.org/PDF/070821_hungary_letter.pdf

Gyurcsány immediately reacted and asked the country’s chief prosecutor Tamás Kovács to "closely monitor" the extreme-right Jobbik party and the Magyar Gárda "and act without delay in case of acts counter to the laws in force or the Hungarian constitution." In the letter, the Hungarian prime minister expressed his own feelings on the matter: "I share the opinion of those who say that the creation of the Magyar Gárda, based upon the facts and statements known so far, carries with it the direct danger that our most important common values may be harmed–the respect for human dignity, the right to everyday life without fear and the respect for each other’s culture, descent and world view."

Then came an interesting reponse from the Fidesz. An unsolicited letter reached the WJC and EJC from Viktor Orbán. The letter stated that his party "was committed to the liberties of individuals and their communities, including the Jewish community in Hungary, and the inviolable nature of their basic rights and freedoms." Please note that the letter didn’t specifically mention the Magyar Gárda and, as an example of the party’s democratic convictions, he brought up the party’s defense of the "peaceful demonstrators against police brutality" on October 23, 2006. It is worth noting once again that more policemen were injured during the encounter than those so-called peaceful demonstrators. The usual double talk of which Orbán a master.

The European press naturally picked up the story. It seems that even for the conservative Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), normally sympathetic to the Fidesz and Orbán, the Magyar Gárda was too much. In today’s paper a lengthy article appeared on the topic. The title is: "Ungarisches Sommertheater in rechtsextremer Kullise" (Hungarian summer theater with an extreme right stage set). The author also thinks that the group might be small and that the overwhelming majority of Hungarians don’t support it, yet one must take the affair seriously. The extreme right is very active: day after day they come up with some provocative act. The conservative NZZ mentioned that most Hungarian parties raised protests against the formation of a paramilitary organization which clearly mimics Nazi uniforms and bears an insignia used by the Hungarian Nazis. There were only two exceptions, the Fidesz and its close ally, the Christian Democratic party, whose claim to fame is that it doesn’t really exist but nonetheless has a parliamentary caucus! The NZZ found it difficult to understand Viktor Orbán’s behavior. It is a well-known fact that Viktor Orbán has been courting the extreme right in the hope of putting together a unified right but, according to the reporter, if extreme right-wing elements were to march in the streets of Budapest in the fall and cause trouble again, the moderate right and those on the left who are currently disappointed in Gyurcsány would make the Fidesz responsible. But, the newspaperman adds, it seems that Orbán doesn’t contemplate such a possible scenario.

And finally, another letter was written today. Ildikó Lendvai, the head of the MSZP parliamentary caucus, and Prime Minister Gyurcsány, as head of the MSZP, together wrote a letter to Viktor Orbán and Tibor Navracsics, the head of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus. The letter is hard hitting and doesn’t lack irony. Orbán’s less than forthright letter to the World Jewish Congress was described as "a letter of uncompromisingly antifascist and democratic convictions … which tries to dispel the worries of the free world." And it continues:  "Whether you were able to convince the international organizations, we don’t know. But if you did, here at home, we have our doubts…. These are nice words, but your deeds contradict them. There are plenty of examples but here we mention only half a dozen." To list them here briefly: (1) Orbán urged his followers to subscribe to the weekly, Magyar Demokrata, which is an openly antisemitic far-right publication and whose editor-in-chief is among those ten individuals who announced the establishment of the Magyar Gárda. (2) A few years ago Orbán in a speech, in an admittedly ambiguous construction, talked about the left as "genetically determined" and a group that attacks its own nation. Lendvai and Gyurcsány reminded Orbán that he never took this sentence back and never apologized for it. He didn’t even try to explain its meaning. (3) Orbán once said that he looks upon the activities of the young leaders of the Jobbik "with encouraging love" because "they are decent, honest young people who are committed to the best interests of the nation and the deeper meaning of life." (4) Can one believe in Orbán’s letter when 79 Fidesz candidates were supported by the Jobbik at the last local elections? Or when the head of Jobbik, Gábor Vona, and Viktor Orbán were members of the same civil cell? (5) Can one believe "this hastily improvised antifascist manifesto" when the Fidesz insists that the red and white striped flag is simply one of the twenty-three "historical flags"? At first it was used only by the extreme right, but now even the Fidesz meetings are full of them. This flag was forever compromised by the brutal acts which were committed under it during 1944. (6) Lendvai and Gyurcsány mention that the Fidesz said not a word when the Jobbik and other extremists attacked the gays and lesbians at their yearly parade.

Finally, the letter called on Orbán to announce openly and "unambiguously" his party’s real stand on these issues. Perhaps this occasion will be an opportunity for self-examination and for a change in attitude. They warned Orbán that one cannot claim to be "a democrat and humanist" and at the same time talk about "genetic predetermination, or to give political shelter to neo-nazi flags, or keep up intellectual, psychological, nay, political alliance with far-right organizations. Either/or, gentlemen."

Navracsics acknowledged receipt of the letter. Addressed only to "Dear Madame" because the Fidesz refuses to have anything to do with the "pathological liar," Prime Minister Gyurcsány, it continues: "I want to acknowledge receipt of your letter which I read with interest but also with puzzlement." Well, it was crystal clear to me.

University tuition: a never-ending Hungarian controversy

August 23, 2007 Comments off

Currently there is no tuition for about half the students enrolled in Hungarian universities. Here’s how the system works (or doesn’t). In order to be able to enroll as a student in one of the institutions of higher learning a certain number of "points" is necessary. The necessary number of points varies from university to university; even within the same university it can vary from department to department. These points can be collected from several sources: high school grades, entrance examination results, and official foreign language examinations, just to mention a few. In order to avoid paying tuition for his entire university career, the student has to earn the minimum number of points for admission plus an additional fixed number of points. Once the student reaches this magic number, he can attend university tuition free regardless of his academic performance for the next four or five years. He can barely scrape by and still be subsidized. His fellow student who failed to achieve the magic tuition-free number as a university applicant can be a brilliant university student, but he will have to pay tuition every year. This is an academically unfair system.

The system is also economically unfair. For instance, a student whose parents are college educated, where the family has a large library, where the dinner conversations are on a high level, will most likely perform better in high school as well as on the entrance examinations. Moreover, the extra points earned as a result of foreign language examinations are again the privilege of the well-off: they are the ones who can afford to send their children to private lessons or abroad to study a language. So it is quite likely that the children of wealthier families will receive a free education while those of poorer families will have to pay tuition.

As far as the students are concerned, the tuition controversy isn’t cast in these terms. The students who aren’t paying tuition right now don’t want to have to pay tuition in the future. I assume they’re also advocating on behalf of the students who are currently paying tuition.

To give some background to the tuition question: In the spring of 1995, when Gyula Horn, the socialist prime minister, at last realized that if the government didn’t do something the country would go bankrupt, he reluctantly asked the economist Lajos Bokros to be minister of finance. Bokros didn’t hesitate, and he introduced a series of belt-tightening economic measures, including tuition. This tuition was more symbolic than real, amounting to approximately $10 per month . Morever, if a student achieved a certain grade point average he or she was exempt. Bokros’s plan was to drive home the fact that "there is no free lunch." He was also hoping that tuition would have a beneficial effect on the educational standards in institutions of higher learning.  There was an outcry, but eventually things calmed down. Although the students weren’t happy, they paid. (Mind you, I thought that either the universities interpreted the law rather loosely or the law itself allowed peculiar loopholes. For instance, a relative of mine proudly announced that his daughter didn’t have to pay tuition because of her high grade point average. I inquired what this grade point average was. It turned out that the girl had two "majors." In one of the majors she did reach the necessary grade point average but not in the other. However, for the university that was enough: no tuition.)

The Fidesz during this period began their shift from left to right. In their bid for election they received wide support from young people, in large part because the party promised that if they won the elections they would abolish tuition. And indeed, they were true to their word. But after four years of a Fidesz majority, the socialists and the liberals returned. Under Bálint Magyar, SZDSZ minister of education, a lot of reform took place. Everybody knew that Magyar was in favor of the reintroduction of tuition, but the government had enough trouble without stirring up the university students, who overwhelmingly supported the Fidesz. When Gyurcsány became prime minister about a year and a half before the new elections, his first trips were to several large universities. From the videos of these appearances one knew that he was addressing a largely antagonistic audience.

However, the tuition question couldn’t be postponed and Gyurcsány’s new socialist minister of education, István Hiller, formerly a very popular college teacher of history, tackled the problem again. He managed to convince the university presidents that tuition would benefit them directly because it would remain with the university. Half of it they would have to spend on scholarships, but with the rest they could do whatever they felt was needed. He also remedied the problem of the anomaly of free tuition status regardless of performance. The first year there would no tuition because performance in high school, given different standards, could not really be compared, but from the second year on, exemption from tuition would depend on academic performance. After a lot of haggling he even managed to convince the HÖOK (Hallgatói Önkormányzatok Országos Konferenciája), a nationwide organization of university students, to accept the notion of tuition. Prime Minister Gyurcsány boasted about Hiller’s success and somewhat maliciously remarked that Hiller’s diplomacy was the right way, not like the minister of health’s heavy handedness. After all, Hiller managed to convince the students and the university presidents, while the SZDSZ minister of health didn’t get anywhere with the doctors. Well, he spoke too early. Yesterday the busybody president of the HÖOK (I would love to know how much time he has for his studies) announced that, sorry, the students had changed their minds and would organize a huge demonstration. And, of course, one of the vice-presidents of the Fidesz, the former minister of education, already announced that if they win the next election (whether in 2010 or earlier) they will abolish tuition. So, here we go again. Good luck, Mr. Hiller.

The Hungarian Crown: a mountain out of a molehill

August 22, 2007 Comments off

The Hungarian opposition can’t be beaten when it comes to scandal-mongering. The latest is the few sentences Ferenc Gurcsány uttered to Angela Merkel about the Hungarian crown, which at the moment is displayed in the Hungarian parliament building.

After World War II the Holy Crown of St. Stephen ended up in American hands, and it was housed at Fort Knox until 1978 when it was returned to Hungary. The Hungarian government then displayed the crown in the National Museum where it stayed until 2000, when the Orbán government, not without huge protest from the opposition, moved it to the parliament building. A rather odd move in a republic. At the same time, the right of center parliamentary majority voted for the enactment of the so-called Holy Crown Act, which, among other things, stated that "the Holy Crown lives as the symbol of the continuity of the Hungarian state and the embodiment of its independence in the consciousness of the nation and in the tradition of Hungarian common law." Please read it carefully. The act doesn’t say that the crown is the symbol and embodiment of the Hungarian state and its independence. It simply says that it lives as such in the consciousness of the nation and its common law tradition. This distinction will become important later in the discussion.

As in everything else, the right and the left hold entirely different views of the place of the Hungarian crown in modern Hungary. The people of Hungary generally respect the crown as a symbolic reminder of the nation’s successful survival through a millennium of turbulent central European history, but they are deeply divided over the conservative political movement’s efforts to claim specific powers for the crown. What are these specific powers?

In the early days the crown was simply the symbol of royal power "by the grace of God." Later, when the barons were often stronger than the king himself, the crown became the symbol not just of the king but also of the "nation," which in those days meant only the nobility. After the sixteenth century no king was legitimate unless the crown was placed on his head. Later on, the crown also became the symbol of the territories that belonged to the Holy Crown, including Croatia and Slovakia. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, when Hungary was left as a kingdom without a king, the crown received further significance. For example, court decisions were made "in the name of the Holy Crown."

So, let us return to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s remarks. The prime minister uttered only a few sentences on the topic. Word for word: "The truth is that I greatly disapprove of the crown’s presence here. In my opinion, this parliament is the republic’s parliament, and there was no reason to bring the symbol of royalty here. The right-wing government made the decision to bring it here–Prime Minister Orbán. We don’t want to take it away because it would not be very nice that it is brought here and then taken away. So, we decided to leave it here."

Well, one can imagine what the reaction was to this on the other side. This time the attacker was Péter Harrach, a member of Orbán’s cabinet. Actually, Harrach was originally a member of the Christian Democratic party which was not strong enough to get into parliament on its own and, just like the MDF in 1998, entered parliament under the umbrella of the Fidesz. Last year, the Christian Democrats formed a caucus of their own because this way the opposition could get more positions in the different committees. The Christian Democrats’ leader, Zsolt Semjén, who actually finished divinity school, is singularly lacking in the Christian spirit. Harrach likewise.

Harrach is beside himself. I heard him say today on the radio that he is upset about two things. One is the prime minister’s ignorance because, as we all know, says Harrach, the crown is not the symbol of royalty, as the prime minister claimed, but "the embodiment of the unity of the nation and the continuity of statehood." He did add that a lot of people don’t know this, but this is what the Holy Crown Act says. The other problem is, according to Harrach, that this was said to a foreigner. Even "if this foreigner is an ally," the prime minister of the country cannot say such a thing. Harrach considered this the worst sin a politician could commit. Worse than a faux-pas in a public speech or something he would utter privately. Harrach continued: "Today when one should strengthen the nation’s unity and the national consciousness, it is irresponsible to make a statement which undermines the national consciousness, contains factual errors, and endangers the nation’s unity."

So, here we are. The crown is not a symbol of royalty, but the embodiment of national unity according to Harrach and the Fidesz as well, because the whole incident and Harrach’s comments immediately made it to the party’s homepage. Harrach rather shamelessly twisted the meaning of the original wording: it is one thing to "live in the consciousness of the nation as the symbol of unity and continuity" and another to be "the symbol of unity and continuity." Not even Orbán tried to invest the crown with such powers.

As for the future of the crown. A group of historians was asked to form a committee to investigate the best place for this very valuable and beautiful relic. They mentioned the Royal Castle in the old medieval town, splendidly situated on a hill overlooking the Danube. Some parts of the Royal Castle that were badly damanged in World War II have been restored, but not the whole. In the next two or three years, thanks to European Union subsidies, the restoration of the Castle will be completed. My feeling is that the Crown will find its final resting place there.

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