Archive for June, 2009

A return to Kiskunlacháza–An extreme right locality in Hungary

June 30, 2009 5 comments

A couple of days ago I briefly mentioned that after a seven-month manhunt the police found the murderer of a fourteen-year-old girl in Kiskunlacháza, a small town south of Budapest. And I'm not using the word "murderer" instead of the customary "alleged murderer" unadvisedly. József P. not only confessed but the police found the missing belongings of the murdered girl in his house: an ID, her cell phone, a necklace, and a purse. All hidden, of all places, inside a vacuum cleaner. And yes, the DNA sample found in the semen matched. Also, the pubic hair that was reddish. The experts pretty well knew months ago that the perpetrator was most likely not a dark-skinned, brown-haired Gypsy but someone who is blue-eyed with reddish-blond hair.

This is a terrible blow to the so-called "independent" mayor of Kiskunlacháza who has made political hay out of his repeated accusations that the murderers (plural) were Gypsies. A whole gang of them. In fact, ever since last November when the murder took place, he has been doing nothing else but inciting the inhabitants of this town of 9,000 against the local Gypsies in particular and against Gypsies in general. The mayor is József Répás, who politically identifies himself as "independent" as do nine others on the town council. Among the thirteen-member council there is only one MSZP member and three who ran on the Fidesz ticket.

It is customary to run as "independent" in villages or smaller towns where everybody knows everybody and where the person means more to the electorate than party affiliation. Répás's predecessor was also an independent as were most of the council members. The lone MSZP member seems to be popular because he is reelected time and again. Learning a little bit about the town I wonder who voted for him because Kiskunlacháza's inhabitants seem to be strongly attracted to the right. Not the moderate right but its extreme variety. It is true that at the European parliamentary elections the voter turnout in town was low (34.95%) but Jobbik did extraordinarily well: 24.6% while MSZP received only 11.89%. It is enough to look at the town's website to realize that this is Jobbik country. Perhaps more than the 25% who voted for Jobbik a few weeks ago would indicate.

Anyone who would like to get a feel for the mood of the town should take a look at the video available on the town's web site The video records the speech the mayor delivered at a town meeting on May 11. First of all, the fairly large auditorium was full. All seats were occupied and those who couldn't find a seat had to stand in the aisles. The mayor is a good-looking guy and a fairly decent speaker. At least he seems to have grabbed the attention of his audience. I am actually wondering when Gábor Vona or Krisztina Morvai will get in touch with him and put him in a top leadership role in Jobbik because his message is identical to that of their party. He told his audience that it is time to tell the truth instead of the "insidious hypocrisy" that exists in the country. In plain language, let's expose the unbearable situation that exists with the Gypsies in Hungary. (Unbearable, of course, for the non-Gypsy Hungarians.) Forceful steps must be taken because "otherwise we will all perish." The town council decided that no financial assistance will be given to those families whose children "terrorize teachers and everybody else." Families who don't teach their children to behave "should leave town." Well, that was very popular. A long rythmic applause greeted the pronouncements. The audience also loved the idea that children who don't behave will be thrown out of all the schools in town. The speech went on in this vein for about twenty minutes. It is clear that Répás, who is apparently very popular in town, has pinned his political career on Gypsy bashing.

So it's no wonder that the discovery that the murderer wasn't a Gypsy came as an unwelcome piece of news to Répás and his followers in Kiskunlacháza. The television stations interviewed not only the police chief of Pest County whose team was responsible for finding our red-headed murderer but also the mayor. In those interviews Répás doubted the police's findings that József P., the non-Roma, was alone responsible for the murder. He had to have accomplices and of course these accomplices had to have been Gypsies. Répás told his audience that the whole town is convinced that József P. couldn't have acted alone. It doesn't matter what the police say. Actually after reading a few pages of the local paper "A mi ujságunk" (Our newspaper), one could tell ahead of time that if the final result is not what the right-wingers expect, these people will turn against the police. Gyula Budai, a Fidesz member of the town council, last December wrote an open letter to the undersecretary of the ministry in charge of the Hungarian police. He accused the socialists of "demoralizing the police force." The police "are silent because you don't allow them to tell the truth." I wouldn't be at all surprised if Mr. Budai wrote another open letter to the government, contending that they forced the police to lie and arrest the wrong man while the guilty Gypsies are still loose.

Many telltale signs of the Hungarian extreme right can be found in Kiskunlacháza's local newspaper, a publication of the town council. One tipoff is that the newspaper has published a whole series of articles about Kazakhstan. The extreme right is fascinated by the Kazakhs whom they consider to be close relatives of the Hungarians. Another telltale sign is that the paper claims to be a newspaper of culture, public life, entertainment, and "guardianship of tradition." On July 1, 2007, I wrote about the "lunatic fringe" who call themselves guardians of tradition. The most incredible theories circulate about the origins and early history of the Hungarians in these circles. It seems that one of these guardians of tradition is active in local politics. Perhaps even a member of the Kiskunlacháza's town council. The town's paper began publication in 1991 but it has been available on the Internet only since March 2008. So I don't know how long the falsification of history has been part and parcel of Kiskunlacháza's local governmental politics. Just to give you an idea of the kind of nonsense  being promulgated on public money here is one example. The paper introduces an Avar leader, Khagan Bayan, with the express purpose of somehow proving that the Avars were Hungarians. (Anyone interested in the relationship between the Avars and the Hungarians should take a look at András Róna-Tas's book available on the Internet Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages However, the Kiskunlacháza's local expert sends his readers to that describes itself as a "mythical historical site." And all this on public money.

There are other problems in Kiskunlacháza but this is another story. Perhaps tomorrow another side of town government under József Répás. That's not pretty either.

Hungary and the East German “tourists”

June 28, 2009 Comments off

Originally I was planning to write about the seven-month search for the murderer of a fourteen-year-old girl in Kiskunlacháza where the mayor of the town was sure that the murderer had to be a Gypsy. I wrote about the case on November 29, 2008, "A new murder and a new anti-Gypsy demonstration." A couple of days ago the real murderer was apprehended and he confessed. He is not a Gypsy but a red-haired young man who lived about 200 meters from the scene of the crime. But perhaps more about this at some other time.

Instead I would like to continue yesterday's theme–the events of the summer of 1989–because since I wrote that post I had the opportunity to read an interview with András Oplatka, the Hungarian-Swiss author and journalist (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) who only a few months ago published a book on point entitled Egy döntés története: Magyar határnyitás 1989. szeptember 11. nulla óra (The History of a Decision: Opening of the Hungarian Border, September 11, zero hour).

First a few words about András Oplatka. He was born in Budapest in 1942 and left Hungary with his parents in 1956. He attended high school and finished university in Zurich and worked for years as NZZ's correspondent in Stockholm, Paris, Moscow, and Budapest. He wrote several books both in German and in Hungarian: Hat Gorbatschow eine Chance? (1987), Der Eiserne Vorhang reisst (1990), Nachrufe auf den Ostblock (1998) Lennart meri–ein Leben für Estland (1998), Stephan Széchenyi (2004; translated into Hungarian as Széchenyi István, 2005), and Egy döntés története mentioned earlier. In addition he translated several Hungarian classics into German. His favorites seem to be Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910) and Mór Jókai (1825-1904), but he also translated Frigyes Karinthy's inimitable Tanár úr, kérem! (Please, Sir!) available in English on the Internet (

Oplatka's book on the Hungarian decision to allow the East German refugees to cross into Austria is a thorough study based mainly on lengthy interviews with the main characters in Russia, Hungary, and Austria, as well as with Germans from both East and West. The only person he couldn't reach was Chancellor Kohl. Oplatka, just as I wrote yesterday, emphasizes that cutting a piece of the barbed wire fence was not an "opening of the borders." The decision to let the more than 60,000 East German "tourists," in reality political refugees, cross into Austria occurred on August 22, almost two months later. The decision was made by Prime Minister Miklós Németh alone, without consulting with the party functionaries, after a meeting with his advisors. Present at the meeting were Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, István Horváth, Minister of the Interior, and Gyula Borics, undersecretary in the Ministry of Justice. In addition György Jenei and László Mohai, two advisers to the prime minister, attended but didn't participate in the discussion. No minutes were taken, but Oplatka talked to all the participants and read a summary written after the meeting by György Jenei. 

Today there are some people in Hungary (I encountered one myself on the Internet) who are convinced that Németh and his government let the East Germans go because they were a financial burden on the already economically strapped country. This is of course an incredible proposition which might have something to do with the Hungarian right's reluctance to give any credit to the political leaders of the old regime. Or it may be possible that they are mixing up two events: dismantling the electronic alarm system along the border and allowing the German refugees to leave Hungary for the West instead of sending them back to East Germany. The latter was a courageous political move with far-reaching consequences. The dismanting the 260 km barbed wire fence was indeed an economic decision because Miklós Németh was horrified at how much money the government was spending on this absolutely superfluous remnant of the Cold War. Before 1955 the Austro-Hungarian border was mined so trying to escape was a risky business. However, once the Russian troops left Austria the mines were removed. I assume the Hungarian political leaders after October 23, 1956 were very sorry about this decision. Without it two hundred thousand Hungarian refugees wouldn't have been able to leave Kádár's Hungary. In 1957 the Hungarian government once again mined the border; the mines were not removed until the mid-1960s when the barbed wire electronic alarm system was introduced.

According to Oplatka, when Németh decided to get rid of the barbed wire fence he didn't think in terms of possible political consequences. However, from the beginning his policy was westward looking. His first foreign trip after becoming prime minister was not to Moscow but to Vienna to Chancellor Franz Vranitzky. Oplatka emphasizes that Németh wasn't a "reform communist." He knew that the system couldn't be reformed. He wanted to make a clean break with the one-party dictatorship and work for the introduction of a democratic regime. At the same time he maintained good relations with Moscow. Or at least Gorbachev always defended Németh and Hungary. For example, when Nicolae Ceausescu wrote to Gorbachev demanding Soviet intervention in Hungary, Gorbachev sent a copy of the letter to Németh. Or when Ceausescu and Todor Zhivkov demanded more "forceful steps" against the foreign policy of the Hungarians at the socialist summit in Bucharest, Gorbachev refused to budge.

Oplatka lauds Németh on the domestic as well as the international front. He argues first that Németh hasn't been given enough credit for his role in the change of regime. And second, "although the Hungarians didn't unite the two Germanies or Europe they made world history. The Hungarian decision notably speeded up the process."

I also heard an interview with László Kovács, currently a member of the European Commission and in 1989 an undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Gyula Horn. He repeated that opening the border for the East German refugees was the sole decision of Miklós Németh and that he didn't consult with the secretary of MSZMP, Károly Grósz. However, the Foreign Ministry handled the details. Before the 60,000 refugees en masse drove across the border on September 11 there was a "dress rehearsal," known as the Páneurópai Piknik (Pan-European Picnic). On August 19, Austria and Hungary agreed to open the border; that day 600 East Germans managed to cross to the West. The picnic was a test case to gauge Soviet reaction. Gorbachev's Soviet Union said nothing. The Hungarians could act as they saw fit.

And finally I would like to say a few words about Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai's speech last night in the Opera House. He talked about the change of regime in 1989-90 as the common cause of the Németh government and the participants in the Round Table discussions, mentioning the most important actors in the drama including Viktor Orbán. He emphasized that the most successful periods in Hungarian history occurred when there was cooperation and compromise between the government and the opposition. Moving from "existing socialism" to democracy has been (and remains) a work in progress. Hungary has achieved great things in the last twenty years, but it takes a long time to change societal attitudes. Most likely generations. It was relatively easy to write a new constitution, enact new laws, and change the economic system. But Hungary's GDP is about 60% of the European average and one cannot close this gap overnight. Hungarians shouldn't harbor false illusions. It will take time and hard work. "The catching up process is unfinished and will remain so for a long time to come." All wise words but is there anyone listening?

Hungary and the Iron Curtain

June 27, 2009 Comments off

Today is a great day in Budapest because it is the twentieth anniversary of the official fall of the iron curtain between Hungary and Austria. On June 27 Gyula Horn, then foreign minister of Hungary, and Alois Mock, his Austrian counterpart, together used wire cutters to open up the barbed wire fence on the border between the two countries.Horn This was an official ceremony and it was more symbolic than real. By 1989 the fence built by the Hungarians during the cold war was not much more than a nuisance. By that time Hungarians were entitled to passports that were valid to any destination in the world. So Hungarians didn't need to escape across the border. In the last years before 1989 only a few hundred people were caught, and they were mostly foreigners from other socialist countries. However, since the fence was electrically wired there were many false alarms. Every year many thousands. I guess every time something hit the barbed wire the alarm went off. So the decision was reached earlier that the wire fence must go. The work began on May 2, 1989, but the world wasn't paying much attention. But then István Horváth, currently Hungarian ambassador in Vienna but then ambassador in Bonn, got the bright idea that a higher profile, public relations event was necessary for the world to notice that something important was going on. He convinced Gyula Horn, who then talked to Alois Mock, to have an official wire-cutting ceremony. That did the trick. All the newspapers were full of the story.

The East Germans who had been cut off from the world also heard about it, and within a few months thousands of East Germans arrived in Budapest hoping that the Hungarian government would allow them to drive across to Austria. That took a bit more finagling but in the end Hungary opened the border and the Germans poured into Austria by the tens of thousands. Helmut Kohl in December 1989 said that Hungary was the country that knocked the first brick from the Berlin Wall. Ever since, the Germans have been grateful to the Hungarians. In Wertheim-Reinhardshof they even named a street after Gyula Horn.

This is what the world celebrated today. Barack Obama's staff didn't forget to send greetings to the Hungarian people, read this morning at the commemoration held in the parliament. He called the day one of the most significant in recent history, a day that marked the beginning of a process that ended in the unification not only of Germany but of Europe. He expressed his admiration for the courage of those who took the first steps. In addition to Gyula Horn the man who was perhaps equally if not more important in this drama was Miklós Németh, who did a splendid job as the last prime minister of the old regime leading the country from a one-party system to a democratic one. I was glad to see Miklós Németh at today's celebration. Unfortunately Horn suffers from Alzheimers and is totally oblivious to the world. Gordon Bajnai, László Sólyom, and Katalin Szili greeted Miklós Németh this morning on the attached picture.Nemeth Miklos The celebrations began in front of the parliament, on Kossuth Square. First came the military parade, then the flags of all the countries represented were brought in, followed by the Hungarian flag. And, of course, the band played the Hungarian anthem and Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the anthem of the European Union. Among those present were Horst Köhler, president of Germany, Heinz Fischer, president of Austria, Traha Halonen, the Finnish president, Danilo Türk, Slovenian president, Hans-Rudolf Merz, president of Switzerland, Günther Verheugen of the European Council, and Bronislaw Komorowski, president of the Polish Szejm. Even a former East German refugee was there representing the thousands of East Germans who a few months later could cross into Austria. In the evening there was a gala performance at the Hungarian State Opera House.

In today's Népszava there is an interview with István Horváth, Hungarian ambassador in Bonn in 1989 and the mastermind of the wire cutting ceremony. According to him Germany was so grateful to Hungary for letting the East Germans cross into Austria that the Germans offered material assistance to the Hungarian government. However, according to Horváth, József Antall kept telling the Germans that Hungary didn't open its border to the East German refugees in the hope of compensation. The Hungarian government missed a great opportunity when it didn't take up the offer, Horváth argues. Apparently Antall went to Bonn in May 1990 when the Germans suggested setting up "strategic working groups" whose job would have been to coordinate the offered financial assistance. The Germans set up such a group, the Hungarians didn't. To this day Horváth doesn't know why not. In 1994 when Gyula Horn became prime minister he tried his very best to revive the scheme, but by that time Germany was in distress itself because of the financial burden the incorporation of East Germany imposed.

Horváth also claims that Hungary in the last twenty years didn't take advantage of the pivotal role it played in 1989. There were no celebrations, no remembrances of the day. Horváth thinks that the reason for this is the deep division between right and left concerning 1989-1990. I believe Horváth has a point. Even today László Sólyom's celebratory speech struck a somewhat sour note. He emphasized that just opening the border and letting the East Germans cross over to Austria didn't lead to the unification of Europe. The barbed wire fence might have been removed but there were radically different political regimes on the two sides of the border. In order to unite Europe this difference had to be obliterated. His speech on the occasion of the anniversary, in brief, actually belittled the significance of the day. But this is a rather peculiar interpretation of the events of 1989-1990. Sólyom is trying to draw a sharp dividing line between before and after. As if the proclamation of the democratic Hungarian Republic on October 23, 1989, could be separated from the the reburial of Imre Nagy and his comrades on June 16 or from granting permission for the East Germans to cross the Austro-Hungarian border in August or from cutting that barbed wire fence on June 27. History is a seamless flow of events and it doesn't matter how much Mr. Sólyom would like to marginalize everything that happened before the first free elections, it cannot be done.

Strange turns of justice in Hungary

June 26, 2009 Comments off

It was on September 12, 2008, that I first wrote about the Hungarian scandal later nicknamed Polypgate. In the subsequent few weeks I had to return to the topic several times because it was a story that didn't want to die. It looked for a while as if Fidesz was in serious political trouble. To make a long story short, on September 10, 2008, the Hungarian National Security Office raided a company called UD Zrt, a close corporation with the standard "everything under the sun" business mandate, including and obviously its primary focus, computer security. As it turned out, the National Security Office had been watching the activities of UD Zrt for months and asked for a court order to wiretap the company's telephone conversations. The National Security Office was mostly interested in their attempts to obtain highly secret government information that they suspected was being passed on to Fidesz. Indeed, among the later released tapes there were several highly embarrassing conversations between UD's owners and Ervin Demeter, the minister in charge of national security in the second half of the Orbán government.

Among these tapes there was one that had nothing to do with the National Security Office; rather, it addressed Fidesz's attempt to ruin Ibolya Dávid and MDF. Dávid had been a thorn in Orbán's side for a long time–ever since MDF under her leadership refused to buckle and join Fidesz. So the bigwigs in and around Fidesz decided to use an indirect method to remove Dávid. They found their man in Kornél Almássy, a young MDF member and one of the deputies of Dávid, who seemed to be a willing partner. The hope was, of course, that Almássy might win and under his direction MDF would eventually join Fidesz. However, they were not quite certain that in a clean competition the young and rather inexperienced Almássy could win against the popular Ibolya Dávid, so they approached UD Zrt to see whether they would be interested in finding some dirt on her. This telephone conversation was caught on the National Security Office's wiretap together with the hundreds of others dealing with other matters.

It didn't take more than a day before a CD containing the information about the plans of Fidesz reached Ibolya Dávid's desk. I gave a fairly detailed translation of the conversation that took place on August 1, 2008, between János Tóth, one of the owners of UD Zrt, and Sándor Csányi, CEO of OTP, Hungary's largest bank ("A Hungarian Watergate?" [September 12, 2008]), so I'll be brief here. My suspicion is, and I'm not alone, that UD Zrt and Sándor Csányi had a very close relationship. I wouldn't be surprised if he had actually been the "boss" there and not just one of UD Zrt's customers. On the CD János Tóth, one of the owners, is basically asking Csányi's advice or perhaps permission whether the company should accept the job. According to Tóth, it is András Tombor, head of the national security cabinet under Viktor Orbán, who is the prospective customer. According to the tape István Stumpf and "his associates" will pay for services rendered. I assume I don't have to introduce Stumpf, formerly head of the all-powerful prime minister's office of Viktor Orbán. Csányi didn't reject the proposition out of hand. He simply said at the end of the conversation that he would think about it and the two of them would talk about it later.

We don't know who gave the CD to Ibolya Dávid. She claims that she herself doesn't know. It came without a return address. Dávid, a lawyer and former minister of justice, was very careful. When she made the CD's contents public she used only initials. However, a day or so later, HVG published the text including full names: Csányi, Stumpf, Tóth, Almássy, Tombor, et al. Moreover, Ibolya Dávid sent the CD to the prosecutor's office asking their opinion on the matter. A few days later the prosecutor's office returned the CD, claiming that there was nothing to investigate.

To most people the case was clear-cut. Some people in and around Fidesz wanted to get rid of Dávid and  used Almássy for that purpose. Of course, no one fessed up. On the contrary, they vehemently denied that they played any role in this sordid affair. Stumpf was indignant and promised to sue Ibolya Dávid. (I think he actually did and the case is still dragging on.) Almássy admitted that he talked to one of the owners of UD Zrt but not about Ibolya Dávid or MDF; he wanted to use UD Zrt's services to make sure that his apartment was secure. In plain language that there were no bugs because he was suspicious.

Eventually UD Zrt hired a laywer, Barnabás Futó, who seems to represent every right-wing defendant. What Futó usually does is not to defend but to sue. It seems that Barnabás Futó managed to convince the chief prosecutor that the true victims are Sándor Csányi, János Tóth, and Kornél Almássy, not Ibolya Dávid. They are charging her and Károly Herényi with coercion and "violation of personal data" of the people mentioned in the telephone conversation. The chief prosecutor asked parliament to suspend the two members' parliamentary immunity.

Coercion? Yes, says the prosecutor in his letter to the parliamentary committee on immunity questions, because Károly Herényi talked to an adviser of Almássy, a political scientist close to Fidesz, András Giró-Szász, and told him that they were in possession of the tape. Herényi also talked András Tombor who apparently initiated the "business proposition." He told him that Almássy had until noon to decide whether to give up his parliamentary seat and his membership in MDF; otherwise they would make the tape public. Herényi's version of course is different. He simply wanted to save the young Almássy from embarrassment. Ibolya Dávid got the job of talking to Csányi, who admitted that such a conversation had taken place, but right in front of Ibolya Dávid he called János Tóth and inquired from him whether they had gathered any information on Dávid. Over the speaker phone Tóth said "no." However, he did admit that his partner had met with Almássy, but only about "debugging" his apartment. Apparently, Dávid asked Csányi to handle the "Almássy affair." Although Csányi indignantly answered that he could not be blackmailed, he did talk to Almássy who apparently refused to give up his plan to run against Dávid. Then Dávid allegedly told Csányi as well that in that case she would make the tape public. Csányi apparently denied permission.

The conversation between Csányi and Tóth over a speaker phone seems to support Almássy's story–which, let's face it, is highly unlikely. But there might be a simple explanation. Csányi, Tóth, Almássy, Tombor, the whole crew already knew before September 12 that Ibolya Dávid had received the CD with the incriminating conversation and would most likely make it public. So they had time to coordinate their stories. Why do I think that? Because there was a bit of a slip-up on the part of Ervin Demeter, former minister for national security, whose conversations with one of the owners of UD Zrt were also in possession of the authorities. Demeter got so nervous that he phoned József Bencze, head of the country's police force, on September 11, a day before Dávid made the tape public, and tried to convince him to stop the investigation of UD Zrt. Demeter, according to Bencze's notes on the conversation, seemed to know that there would be revelations about the attempt to blacken the name of Dávid. So Csányi, UD Zrt, and all the others were expecting Ibolya Dávid to show up and were ready with their coordinated story.

Meanwhile, Ibolya Dávid, who was greatly wronged, is the accused. An interesting twist in the sordid story of Hungarian justice. Ibolya Dávid said that she feels ashamed to be part of the system of justice that exists in Hungary today. If I'm more charitable, I can say that the Hungarian prosecutors' logical powers are not as keen as I would expect from prosecutors who not only initiate formal charges but are also supposed to investigate.

Left-liberal media in Hungary

June 25, 2009 8 comments

Instead of continuing with a brief history of the Hungarian right-wing "media empire" I will move quickly to the left because Mária Vásárhelyi, a sociologist who is a media expert, wrote a critical article entitled "Balliberális médiaharakiri" (Left-liberal media harakiri) in the June 19 issue of Élet és irodalom. And because Vásárhelyi knows much more about this subject than I do, I decided to turn to her analysis of the current situation, which she considers disastrous.

Vásárhelyi begins her article with a series of questions, among them "Can anyone take a party seriously in the twenty-first century that has no media strategy whatsoever?" "Can a party remain a player in political life when there is no politician in it with any coherent media program?" Obviously, Vásárhelyi thinks that the answer to these questions is a resounding "no."

The author briefly summarizes the situation right after 1990 when the overwhelming majority of journalists were of liberal persuasion while the first government of democratic Hungary was a coalition of forces that came from the right of center. The government realized that its difficulties were multiplied under the constant criticism of members the left-liberal media so it made rather clumsy attempts to establish a media empire of its own. Its efforts to establish a viable newspaper friendly to the government were not successful. But the government still had a monopoly on the electronic media inherited from the Kádár regime: the state television and state radio. The problem was that the state-owned TV and radio stations were run by a liberal staff. Getting rid of the old guard wasn't exactly easy. The government put its own men at the head of the Hungarian Radio (MR), and they immediately started "cleansing" the staff. Admittedly, the staff was too big but the 164 people who were let go were politically unacceptable to the government. The reaction of the journalists was virulent, and Vásárhelyi acknowledges that the media played an important role in the spectacular defeat of the Antall-Boross government in 1994. Those years are called the time of the "media war."

The temporary winners of this war were members of the media. I will never forget my total astonishment when as a newcomer to the Hungarian political scene I discovered a picture on the cover of 168 Óra that showed the triumphant formerly fired journalists "storming" the radio station after the election results were announced. They simply pushed aside the official announcer and took over the job of broadcasting the day's news. The journalists completely identified with the new socialist-liberal government and quite a few hagiographical pieces appeared in which they sang the praises of all the socialist politicians who could return to the political scene after their four years of exile in opposition. I must say that I was horrified at this blatantly partisan behavior on the part of an allegedly independent media.

Fidesz learned a lot from the failure of the Antall government. First of all, politicians are not supposed to alienate journalists because they are a powerful lot. It is not a good idea to wage war against them. Instead Fidesz would have to build a media empire of its own that would counterbalance the liberal bias of the profession. Billions of tax forints were passed on to these burgeoning enterprises, and wealthy individuals were convinced to support newspapers and television and radio stations. I wrote earlier about Heti Válasz (May 22, 2009) and the other day about Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV, and Inforádió. I learned from Vásárhelyi that Hír TV, as a result of the billions it received from various sources, was able to purchase the most technically advanced equipment that allowed them to broadcast with greater ease huge street demonstrations. The station became famous when it was the only television station on hand at the storming of the MTV building. (One has wonder how it was possible. What did the staff of Hír TV know the others didn't?)

Vásárhelyi comes up with another observation that might shed light on Fidesz's media strategy. If one accepts the supposition that within Fidesz there exist three different groups–moderate conservative, national-populist, and far-right–then, says Vásárhelyi, one can see that Fidesz's media empire is organized in such a way that all three groups can find something that speaks to them. The extreme right can read Magyar Demokrata and Magyar Hírlap or watch Echo TV. The national-populists have Hír TV, Lánchíd Rádió, and Magyar Nemzet. And the conservative wing can listen to Inforádió or read Heti Válasz. In addition there is a free newspaper Helyi Téma (Local Theme) published in 650,000 copies in conjunction with local governments mostly in Fidesz hands. This is in addition to local radio and television stations, also in the service of the locals.

On the other hand, the left-liberal media didn't know how to use or keep the admittedly undeserved monopolistic position they inherited from the old regime. Fidesz originally demanded only a "balanced" situation, but by now the right-wing media is much stronger than the left. In seven years of socialist governing the situation has further deteriorated in favor of the right. Vásárhelyi complains about the sorry financial state of the so-called liberal media. ATV is the only liberal television station, but it is owned by the Hungarian branch of the Assembly of God and therefore its evening political programs must share space with The 700 Club and such low-level programs as Vidám Vasárnap and Fásy-mulató. Klub Rádió doesn't have that kind of problem and by now almost the whole country can listen to it, but apparently the station lives from day to day. There is no strong financial support behind it. And even public television and radio are under the influence of the opposition party. Without going into the sordid details of the disastrous financial state of MTV and the incredible waste associated with it, one can safely say that most of the programs lean toward the right rather than to the left. Nap-kelte, an early morning political program, is a good example. I wrote about it earlier. Originally the people who conducted the interviews came from the left as well as the right. Fidesz insisted on firing the liberals and their places were filled with second-rates.

As for the liberal papers. The situation is also terrible there. While behind Heti Válasz there is a group of well-heeled investors with plenty of money, 168 Óra operates on a shoestring budget. Heti Válasz sells only 18,000 copies while 168 Óra sells 25,000. But Heti Válasz manages to get as many ads as HVG whose circulation is four times greater than that of Heti Válasz. Just lately a 25% stake in Heti Válasz was sold for 300 million forints. Vásárhely raises the question: how is it possible that investors find putting money into these right-wing media ventures profitable while there are no investors interested in the liberal media? Vásárhelyi, I think rightly, comments that most likely these people hope for returns "not from the media market."

And finally, Vásárhelyi talks about journalism as a profession. As we know, in most western countries the left-liberals are in the majority among journalists. In England the ratio of liberals to conservatives is 9 to 1. In France two-thirds of the journalists consider themselves left of center. In Germany the majority of the newspapermen are social democratic voters. In Spain only 12 percent consider themselves right-wingers. In the United States the majority are Democrats. In Hungary, according to a 2006 study, the majority are still on the left-liberal side but their percentage has decreased dramatically in the last twenty years. Those newspapermen who sympathize with MSZP decreased from forty to eighteen percent while supporters of Fidesz increased from ten percent to thirty-four percent. This tendency will most likely continue because the future isn't too bright for liberal journalists. When the liberal journalists were fired, for example, from Nap-kelte, Vásárhelyi says, "the government parties showed total unconcern and didn't move a finger in their defense." In brief, liberal newsmen can't hope for any help from liberal politicians.

As a footnote. Shortly after Mária Vásárhelyi wrote this article came the news that the government gave some money to Népszava and Klub Rádió. Ten and fifteen million forints. That is not certainly not enough. 

Political opinion in Hungary–Medián and Tárki

June 24, 2009 25 comments

Two respectable opinion polls came out today with slightly different results but confirming one critical fact–that people who voted for Jobbik in the EU parliamentary elections came largely from the Fidesz camp. Medián specifically asked Jobbik voters about their political preferences in 2006. It turned out that only 14% of them had voted for MSZP. The rest either came from the right or were new voters. Tárki indirectly supports this result. Among those who said they would definitely go to the polls only 58% said that they would vote for Fidesz this Sunday while in May that number was 70%. A twelve percent drop is considerable especially if, again according to Tárki, MSZP gained only six percentage points during the same period. In fact, Tárki specifically states that "today, in comparison to the times prior to the EP elections, the number of Fidesz supporters has shrunk by the same number of percentage points as the Jobbik camp has grown." So although Viktor Orbán tries to minimize the problems stemming from the spectacular growth of Jobbik, his grandiose goals may be in jeopardy.

Another way to look at the change is to compare the survey results from March with those from June. Here I'm reproducing Tárki's bar chart showing shifts in party preferences of those who would definitely vote and who know for whom they would vote.Tarki Today MSZP, SZDSZ, and MDF have the same level of support they had in March; Fidesz is down four points, Jobbik is up six points, and "others" are down two points. I should add that in the most recent survey these voters represent at best a slim majority of the total sample; those who at the moment are uncertain for whom they would vote is 40%.  Moreover participation would be very low if elections were held today. According to Medián fewer than 50% of the voters would actually go to the polls. So that is another variable in trying to forecast the outcome of the national elections. Normally participation in national elections is more than 60%. Yet Medián is bold enough to predict that "whenever the next elections are held it seems that Fidesz will get the most votes." One reason for this assumption is that 86% of the voters, including  65% of the MSZP supporters, predict a Fidesz victory.

Medián asked some penetrating questions about Jobbik. Although many people after the EP elections proudly claimed that they knew all along that Jobbik would surpass the 5% minimum, according to Medián "two months prior to the EP elections only every twentieth person predicted such a success." Of course, as usual people are quite forgetful. Now fewer than 30% say that they were surprised at the showing of Jobbik. However, one must keep in mind that only 64% of them could even list the names of the parties that were able to send representatives to Brussels.

The majority were either very happy or more or less happy with the results. Twenty-one percent were very happy and 40 percent more or less happy. I assume that the Jobbik voters (close to 15%) are ecstatic and it is hard to tell what "the more or less" category actually means. I wouldn't draw the conclusion that Medián reaches that "public opinion is more tolerant of Jobbik than earlier." It may simply mean that Fidesz voters might have been more enthusiastic if the party had received 17 seats and not 14. Therefore they are more or less satisfied. Public opinion is very divided as far as Jobbik is concerned. Fifty-four percent consider the party "dangerous"  and 45% think that Jobbik is actually a "fascist" party. At the same time 39% (up from 34%) think that "only Jobbik really cares about the common man." Or they expressed the opinion that "Jobbik at last tells how it is."

Medián probed the topic of the relationship between Fidesz and Jobbik. A huge majority of MSZP voters felt that Fidesz should make clear its refusal to cooperate with an outright Nazi party. Those who voted for Jobbik insist that Fidesz should look upon them as allies. Then Medián continues: "It doesn't matter which way Fidesz moves, the party would lose voters because Fidesz supporters are themselves split on the issue." About one-third of Fidesz voters agree with the majority of MSZP while a little over one-third of them would prefer cooperation with Jobbik.

Medián tried to find an answer for Jobbik's success. It seems that its anti-Gypsy rhetoric was an important factor. Jobbik, a party almost no one had heard of a few months ago, started to gain momentum when crimes committed by Gypsies received widespread publicity. Medián checked the voting results according to the size of the Gypsy population and came to the conclusion that in cities where their population was greater than 5% Jobbik received almost 20% of the votes. Gypsies are highly concentrated in places where MSZP is normally strong, so the common wisdom right after the elections was that most of the Jobbik votes came from the left. However, it was also in these places where participation was low. The Medián assumption is that it was mostly MSZP voters who stayed home. As for where the Jobbik votes came from here is an interesting chart. JobbikszavazokMedián asked Jobbik voters which party they had voted for in 2006. If one can believe the information they provided, 9% either don't remember or will not tell; 24% are so young that in 2006 they were not eligible to vote; 15% didn't vote but were now inspired by Jobbik; 13% voted for the MIÉP-Jobbik joint ticket; 25% voted for Fidesz-KDNP, and 14% came from the MSZP camp. The very high percentage of first-time voters reaffirms suspicions about the popularity of extreme right ideologies among the youth.

The most dramatic aspect of these two opinion polls is that they clearly delineate the problem Fidesz is facing. The problem is  genuine: it doesn't matter which direction Fidesz moves, the party will lose a sizable portion of its voters. Right now the strategy is to ignore the problem. I guess the Fidesz leadership is hoping that Jobbik will lose its appeal. It will make one big mistake or many smaller ones that will make it less attractive. And that is a possibility. It is enough to think of the "conference" held in Szeged of the various extreme right-wing organizations including Gábor Vona (Jobbik) and György Budaházy, who might be the mastermind behind the Arrows of Hungarians, a terrorist organization. Budaházy is already in jail together with five other bomb makers. Then there are rumors that the parliamentary caucus in Brussels that the three Jobbik members wanted to join would take only Krisztina Morvai because she is not a member of a neo-Nazi party. So Orbán's calculations might be well founded. As a fall back position, if Jobbik survives or actually gains ground then Fidesz will make a deal with them in the belief that they can handle them. After all, they made a deal with the Smallholders of József Torgyán and no harm came of it. In fact, Fidesz was so successful that today there are no more Smallholders and József Torgyán pretty well retired from politics. But that is a gamble. Jobbik might be much more resilient and ideologically committed.

The Hungarian right-wing media: Magyar Nemzet, Inforádió, and Hír TV

June 23, 2009 3 comments

Magyar Nemzet is considered to be the mouthpiece of Fidesz, at least by centrists and people left of center. If something appears in Magyar Nemzet, even if on the op/ed page, they are certain that it reflects official Fidesz policy. Just to give a recent example. A few days ago an op ed piece argued that the election of András Baka was not in the interest of Fidesz because, after all, the party can do "better than that" next year. From this one sentence people speculated that, just as they presumably had done the first time around, the Fidesz caucus would not vote for Baka. (I might add that yesterday Baka was elected with a large majority, 309 to 36, but that outcome might have been the result of a last-minute decision by the Fidesz leadership.)

The reason I am starting my blog with Magyar Nemzet is that it was Viktor Orbán's first triumph in building an ideologically sympathetic media empire. József Antall, the first Hungarian prime minister (1990-1993), had tried to have a "party paper," but his efforts were not successful; one right-wing paper after the other folded. By contrast, in the year 2000 Orbán effectively took over Magyar Nemzet, a newspaper with a proud past. It was established in 1938 by Sándor Pethő, a journalist who had worked for Magyarság. When, under new ownership, Magyarság moved to the far right, in the direction of the Hungarian variation of nationalism socialism, Pethő and some of his fellow journalists left and established Magyar Nemzet. It became the leading liberal-conservative anti-German paper in the country. As such it was forced to suspend publication temporarily several times; after the German occupation the Gestapo shut it down for the duration of the war. It resumed publication only on May 1, 1945, and remained a daily throughout the Rákosi regime. Of course, it couldn't publish anything that wouldn't be approved by the regime but it had a politically less strident voice. After 1954 Magyar Nemzet was clearly on the side of Imre Nagy, and during the revolution it acted as a semi-official paper of the Nagy government. As a result, it had to suspend publication once more, starting up again only in September 1957. During the Kádár period Magyar Nemzet had a bit more leeway in distinguishing itself from the official Népszabadság. It became the paper of the intelligentsia. At the end of the 1980s Magyar Nemzet stood firmly on the side of democratic change and was instrumental in the regime change that took place in 1989-1990.

After the change of regime Magyar Nemzet was considered to be an independent and moderate right of center paper. It received generous financial assistance from Postabank, which unfortunately eventually went bankrupt. The Orbán government rescued the bank. And with this rescue came the opportunity to reshape the Hungarian media. In order to remain financially solvent Magyar Nemzet was forced to merge with a much farther right-wing paper, Új Magyarország. Magyar Nemzet kept its name but not much else; most of its moderate jourrnalists were fired and replaced with the journalists of Új Magyarország. With this change of profile Magyar Nemzet lost some of its readership, but that was offset by mandatory government office subscriptions. In addition, government ads poured in to keep Magyar Nemzet afloat. As time went on, Magyar Nemzet developed a faithful readership. It still lags behind Népszabadság but now manages to stand on its own.

Inforádió, an all-news FM station, began broadcasting in October 2000. It is more moderate than Magyar Nemzet but definitely right of center. Its political usefulness is limited, however, because it can be heard only within a radius of about eighty kilometers around Budapest and on the Internet.

The big breakthrough in expanding right-wing media was the appearance of Hír TV on January 2, 2003. Initially it was severely undercapitalized, founded by a company with only 20 million forints in the till. The CEO of the company was Gábor Borókai, former spokesman for the Orbán government. Obviously a television station couldn't operate on a budget of 20 million forints; in February 2003 three individuals put up an additional 350 million forints. In March 2004 there was a change in ownership. A former member of the board, István Töröcskei, together with two companies acquired the television station. For the next few months there were personnel changes at the top in rapid succession. In October 2004 Gábor Liszkai, the owner and editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, also took over Hír TV. In 2007 Liszkai's empire expanded: Hír TV and Magyar Nemzet started a radio station called Lánchíd Rádió.

Hír TV's orientation is decidedly right radical. Typical of its objectionable reporting was its coverage of the storming of the Magyar Televízió (MTV) building when the reporter compared the hoolingans' attack on the television station to the revolution of 1956. There are devoted Fidesz voters who watch nothing but Hír TV, so their view of the world is one-dimensional. As critics from the other side claim, these people live in a virtual country.

A newspaper, a radio station, and a television station within three short years is quite a feat. And this was just the beginning. Since then a rich Hungarian who doesn't seem to know what to do with his money started another right-wing newspaper and television station. But more about them tomorrow.

Hungary twenty years ago: The rise of Viktor Orbán

June 21, 2009 3 comments

Twenty years ago often seems like yesterday, but technologically it was light years away. When around that time I wanted to follow Hungarian events more closely I had to purchase a short-wave receiver and get a fellow to string a four-hundred-foot-long wire from the roof to a tree that enabled me to listen, more or less, to the official Hungarian Radio's short-wave news program Szülőföldünk, "Our Fatherland." First came half an hour of news in Hungarian and then half an hour in English. Very often the reception was terrible and the news not very enlightening. The English version was difficult to understand because while other East European countries hired native speakers, in Hungary the announcers were Hungarians who only thought they knew the language. In brief, in those days I wasn't exactly up on things.  So it's not at all surprising that it was some years later that I first read the text of Viktor Orbán's 1989 speech.

Today, of course, one can read it in several places on the Internet and can listen to it on YouTube. Not long ago I saw an interview with Tamás Deutsch who claimed that both he and Viktor Orbán became famous overnight. Orbán after his speech at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs on June 16, 1989, and he after his well publicized arrest in Prague during one of the demonstrations against the regime. Some people remember differently. They claim that, although Orbán's speech was well received, his name didn't become an instant household word.

Originally the organizers didn't plan to include a representative of Fidesz, an anticommunist youth organization, among the speakers. The speakers were all people who had something to do with the 1956 revolution: Miklós Vásárhelyi, Imre Nagy's press secretary who spent years in jail; Imre Mécs, then a student who was originally condemned to death but got "only life" on appeal; Tibor Zimányi who was first arrested in 1949 and sent to Recsk, a notorious internment camp with a low expected survival rate; and Béla Király, head of the National Guard during the 1956 revolution who was supposed to speak in the name of those 200,000 people who left the country after the failed revolution.

How did Viktor Orbán end up in this company? Well, the Fidesz guys were not shy and demanded a role. The older generation was disinclined, but István Csurka (who in those days wasn't yet the notorious leader of the antisemitic MIÉP but one of the important leaders of MDF) insisted on giving Fidesz the opportunity to choose someone who would speak in the name of Hungary's youth. The beginnings were not auspicious. The night before the reburial the radical student leaders of Fidesz organized a demonstration in front of the Soviet Embassy with slogans like "Your visa has expired!" and "Russians go home!" (actually "Ruszkik haza!" as the crowd demanded in '56). The two men mostly responsible for orchestrating the reburial, Miklós Vásárhelyi and András B. Hegedűs, were furious, not without reason. Working with the moderates in the Communist party and the Kádár government, they felt responsible for a peaceful ceremony, and understandably they didn't want to infuriate the Soviets either. They called the Fidesz student leaders "radical Leninists." Just as László Kéri called Orbán a "Bolshevik" during a discussion after a lecture he gave to the students who later formed Fidesz.  Outsiders obviously noticed a radical streak in him and his friends. For instance, the Fidesz leadership was dead set against allowing Prime Minister Miklós Németh and Imre Pozsgay to stand in the honor guard next to the coffins because, after all, these people were "the hangmen" responsible for the death of the victims.

In the end, the remains of five of those executed in the wake of 1956 were gathered from unmarked graves, placed in coffins, and reburied in marked graves. In addition, a sixth empty coffin was displayed to commemorate the youths who died in the fighting or were later condemned to death. Apparently, that was also done on the urging of Csurka, to whom the burial of "only communists" was distasteful.

The Fidesz leadership had heated debates about the reburial. For instance, some didn't think they should participate because, after all, they "wanted to have multi-party democracy, so what were they doing at the burial of communists?" Orbán sought a rebuttal to the naysayers, and eventually László Kövér came up with the idea that the sixth empty coffin should be treated as a symbol of what their generation had lost and the bleak future that awaited them.

When I first read Orbán's speech my reaction was visceral. I hated it. Mostly because of this sixth empty coffin and Fidesz's expropriation of it. Yes, I know everybody praised the speech then and now because the young Orbán (chosen by the leadership of Fidesz to deliver the speech mostly written by Kövér) dared to tell the Russians to go home. That didn't strike me as especially brave. By that time the Soviet Union was a toothless lion, Gorbachev had pretty well made it clear that the Soviet Union no longer wanted to keep the empire going because they simply couldn't afford it. Moreover, negotiations were ongoing about Soviet troop withdrawals and quite a few units had already left. I barely paid attention to these demands; what infuriated me was this coffin business. Orbán was born in 1963, Deutsch in 1966, Fodor in 1962–and they're complaining about their lives being ruined forever? They suffered the most? What about those who were ruined after 1948 when they lost all the modest wealth they managed to accumulate after decades of hard work? Their little stores, their livelihood? What about those people who never had the opportunity to live in a democracy? What about those who were too old to reap the benefits of the new era? How could Orbán (or Kövér) dare to say that "the Hungarian Socialist Worker's Party deprived us, today's youth, of our future in 1956"? Or how could he say that "in that sixth coffin lies not only a murdered youth but our next twenty or God only knows how many years." I thought it was shameless then, and I still think so.

As we know, the future for Orbán and his friends was bright and prosperous. And this future had its start during the Kádár regime. There were winners and losers under Communist rule; interestingly enough, it was the children of the winners who complained most bitterly in 1989 and claimed that their future lay in that coffin. It is enough to read the first pages of Orbán's biography (Debreczeni József, Orbán Viktor, 2002) to understand that the Orbán family was one of the beneficiaries of the regime. Starting from nowhere, eventually both of his parents managed to get college degrees. And their children went to the best schools and became university graduates. Considering that Orbán's grandfather, one of eight children, left home for Budapest on foot because he didn't even have enough money to take the train, it's striking how much the Orbán family profited under the Communists. When I first read it I found Orbán's 1989 speech disingenuous and, quite frankly, stomach turning. And more recent events haven't given me any reason to change my mind.

Turmoil in the Hungarian Socialist Party

June 20, 2009 10 comments

Yesterday I said that I wanted to avoid speculation about what happened behind closed doors in the inner sanctum of the Hungarian Socialist Party. However, today I am forced to talk about these "rumors" because one of the members of the presidium, Vice-Chairman István Ujhelyi, gave a lengthy interview in today's Népszava in which he outlined his ideas about what the party should do in the wake of its devastating showing at the polls.

First a few things about István Ujhelyi. He is thirty-four years old and has been a member of the party since the age of eighteen. He spent practically his entire life in Szeged where he graduated from high school and went on to study law. Throughout his university years he was heavily involved in politics; perhaps that was the reason he finished his studies only in 2002 when he was twenty-seven! He started his political career at the tender age of nineteen when he became a member of the Szeged City Council. After serving for four years in that body he tried to get into parliament from the city of Szeged but wasn't successful. However, four years later, in 2002, he was elected with a handsome margin. He was successful again in 2006.

In the last few years there were visible signs that Ujhelyi was not satisfied with Ferenc Gyurcsány's leadership of the party. A year ago Gyurcsány, during one of the stormy sessions of the presidium, offered his resignation as party chairman and Ujhelyi jumped at the opportunity, but as it turned out he was alone. In the last year or so I've heard a couple of interviews in which he tried to explain why he has not been so active in party affairs of late. So in a way I'm not surprised that the leader of the Young Turks at the moment is none other than István Ujhelyi. Here is a picture of him.Ujhelyi The Hungarian media labelled the rift within the party's leading body as "the revolt of the generations" because all five people who wanted to convene a full-fledged party congress at which the current leadership should call for a vote of no-confidence against itself are relatively young. There were four members of the presidium who supported Ujhelyi: Attila Mesterházy (35), László Varga (30), Gergely Bárándy (33), and Ágnes Vadai (35). The older, more seasoned politicians in the group eventually triumphed. The Young Turks lost that round. The final tally was 9 to 5.

However, it seems that Ujhelyi remains undaunted and now is trying to achieve his goals with the help of the media. After reading the long interview in Népszava and hearing him this morning in a live interview on Hetes Stúdió (a Saturday afternoon political program in KlubRádió), I'm very much hoping that Ujhelyi will fail. My reasons for saying this are twofold. First, I don't think that his preferred strategy is the right one. Second, I don't think that Ujhelyi is a talented politician.

Let's start with his preferred strategy. Although he tries to act as if he had no personal ambitions and is acting only for the good of the party, self-interest seems central to his call for "renewal"–that is, a change in leadership. Moreover, if the party got bogged down in personnel changes even less time could be devoted to the formulation and execution of an urgently needed strategy to recapture its former supporters. The problem is not that the MSZP voters don't like Ildikó Lendvai or Péter Kiss but that they are dissatisfied with the austerity program the government and the party were forced to adopt. Unfortunately this economic strategy cannot be drastically changed but the "package" can be sugar coated somehow. I think this is what some people within the party are trying to do. See yesterday's blog. Wasting time with "who will be what" within the party is outright counterproductive. I guess that's why János Veres, whose political instincts are most likely a great deal better than those of Ujhelyi, apparently criticized Ujhelyi and his supporters.

In the newspaper interview he amply demonstrated why he should not vault to the top of the party. He said that the national elections are a lost cause for his party. Not only will MSZP lose the elections but, as he put it, "I'm not afraid to say: The leading power will be Fidesz and Viktor Orbán after 2010." Well, if a so-called politician says something that stupid a Hungarian can only say that "this man is a political antitalentum." Not just that he lacks political talent but that he is the antithesis of it. He has already conceded to Fidesz. He has announced defeat months before the elections. No politician worthy of the name would ever say something that self-defeating. But that's nothing. He goes on. He pretty well outlines the happy future for the party. Local elections will be held in October 2010 and the socialist party should concentrate all its efforts on those elections. He figures that the new Orbán government will have to continue the economic policy that the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments introduced. The Fidesz true believers will then see the light and will vote overwhelmingly for socialist candidates. This is not only a naive proposition but also a dangerous one. What if Fidesz gets such an overwhelming majority that the government can easily and unilaterally change the constitution and the laws governing local elections? What if an Orbán government with the help of a new president and a new chief justice begins arresting former socialist politicians whom they accuse of crimes against the nation?

If Ujhelyi is the best that the younger generation within the socialist party can come up with, perhaps it would be better if they waited a few years. Quite a few years. But unfortunately in the interim they can do a great deal of harm.

Hungarian socialists: change of strategy?

June 19, 2009 Comments off

Although before the EP elections the leaders of MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party) kept repeating that nothing would change after the results were known, it was predictable that there would be consequences of a serious defeat at the polls. The media ever since June 7 have been full of stories about internal strife among the party leadership, but Hungarian newsmakers are notoriously unreliable when it comes to leaked information. One tidbit (with no confirmation from another source) and it's printed. And if one newspaper reports the leak, within a few hours the whole world will know about it because every newspaper, electronic or written, will be full of it. Since most of these stories in the past turned out to be untrue or greatly exaggerated, I won't venture into the world of rumor. Instead I will concentrate on something I myself noticed listening to interviews with József Tóbiás, director of the MSZP caucus.

The tone and content of these interviews were noticeably different from earlier interviews of MSZP leaders. In brief, Tóbiás ferociously attacked the heads of banks yesterday on Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk–ATV) and today on Nap-kelte (Sunrise–MTV). Moreover, according to two other MSZP representatives are giving speeches in a similar vein today–István Nyakó (MSZP spokesman) in Miskolc and István Tukács (MSZP member of parliament) in Nyíregyháza.These interviews and speeches would appear to signal a change in strategy to reclaim some of those voters who have lost faith in the socialists.

For weeks now there have been signs that the party leaders realized that their voters demanded greater empathy for the poorer strata of society. Yes, they said, they know that the government must introduce an austerity program but this program must be packaged differently. They also realized that  Ferenc Gyurcsány's speech at Balatonőszöd that was leaked in September 2006 resulted in the loss of credibility not only for the former prime minister but for the party as a whole. So the party has to realign itself to represent the interests of the common man and has to regain credibility with its former supporters. Moreover, they're trying to shift their presentations, formerly characterized by too much rationality and too little emotion. If I sense it correctly, yesterday the "new course" began.

In yesterday's interview with József Tobiás the adjectives were sharper, the volume higher, the delivery more passionate. He tore into the top management of the leading Hungarian banks. The immediate cause of the outburst was a remark by Péter Felcsuti, head of the Hungarian Banking Association (Bankszövetség), in which Felcsuti called the government's decision to establish a "crisis fund" with seed money of one billion forints to which they were expecting "gifts" from wealthy individuals and banks "cheap populism." He announced that one billion is too little money, it wouldn't be enough for anything, and the distribution of the pittances to the needy would cost more than the total value of the crisis fund. It seems that the government approached about 100 people to contribute to the fund, but as far as I know only a few Hungarian cabinet members (Bajnai, Oszkó, Kiss) and one member of the MSZP caucus obliged. The banks were not at all eager. Tóbiás found Felcsuti's remark "scandalous" and "bicskanyitogató"–a Hungarian saying quite untranslatable that describes a feeling of such anger that the pocket knife in one's pocket opens up by itself. He went on to say that the crisis was caused mostly by irresponsible bankers and that, while the Hungarian government immediately rushed to the banks' rescue, now they refuse to help those in trouble. The government gave the money to the banks to make sure that Hungarian small and medium-size businesses would be extended credit. Nothing of the sort happened. He accused the banks of doing practically nothing to ease the financial problems of people who took out mortgages or car loans in foreign currencies. He swore that the government will not allow even one family to remain without a roof over their heads. And if the banks don't do something on their own, then the government will force them to do so. MSZP already asked Gordon Bajnai's government to look around to see what legal means they have at their disposal.

If someone is interviewed on Egyenes beszéd one day then the next morning the same person normally appears on Nap-kelte. That's exactly what happened this time. This morning Tóbiás expressed his own personal opinion on MTV that András Simor, president of the Hungarian National Bank, should retire from his post. Or, I guess, if he doesn't want to step down, the government should force his hand. He added that there are many well qualified people who would be well received in the international financial community who could take Simor's place. András Simor, we recall, transferred some money to a firm established in Cyprus where taxes are a great deal lower than in Hungary. What Simor did is not illegal, but it didn't look good and it even reflected badly on MSZP. After all, he was chosen for the post by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány who was also the leader of the socialist party.

The new approach has lots of populist overtones, but it might be effective. There is a great deal of truth in the assertion that no successful politics can be conducted without emotional content. Economists and political analysts must be cool headed and rely on facts and figures, but politics without emotion is simply not a saleable item. Of course, it makes a difference what kind of emotions are invoked. Jobbik offers all sorts of sentiments that are unacceptable. So does Fidesz, whose message on many key points is not terribly different from that of Jobbik. But a criticism of the banks is a legitimate political weapon. After all, Tóbiás is right. The banks received prompt help from the government and have been using this money to shore up their balance sheets, only sluggishly beginning to lend some of it out. Moreover, Hungarian banks until now could unilaterally change the terms of signed contracts with their customers. But parliament has tightened banking rules and regulations; the new legislation will take effect on July 15. Felcsuti is not happy with that either. I'm sure the banks will try to find loopholes and the banking lobby will be hard at work pushing for modifications. All in all, I foresee a tug of war between the government/party on the one hand and the banks on the other. Whether that would help to restore confidence in MSZP it's too early to tell.


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