Month: July 2012

Gábor Vona’s letter to Congressman Joseph Crowley

Gábor Vona, Vará

You may recall that back in June I published a facsimile of a letter sent by fifty U.S. congressmen to Viktor Orbán expressing their concern over the growing antisemitism in Hungary. In addition, the letter called attention to the treatment of  homosexuals, specifically mentioning the employment of Róbert Alföldi, director of the Hungarian National Theater. The letter also called attention to the discrimination against  the Roma population. The man who initiated sending this letter was Joseph Crowley, a Democrat from the State of New York.

The letter was actually criticized by some people in Hungary as putting the blame for the rise of antisemitism exclusively on Jobbik, the party of the extreme right in Hungary, when the current Hungarian government should share in the blame.

All that was detailed in a post entitled “Letters back and forth: Will they change the course of events in Hungary?” Here I’m publishing a letter by Gábor Vona, the party chief of Jobbik, to Congressman Crowley. It seems that Vona felt compelled to react to the contents of  the letter and to teach Joseph Crowley a thing or two. The letter is published verbatim, with all its grammatical errors. I think this letter says a lot about Jobbik and its leaders.

* * *

Mr. Joseph Crowley

Member of Congress

United States House of Representatives

Washington. DC

Budapest-11 July, 2012

Dear Congressman Crowley,

The predominant part of the letter written by you and forty-nine other representatives to Viktor Orban is related to Jobbik and what the Prime Minister should do to subdue us.

First of all, I would like to remind you that nearly one million people’s vote legitimize us in the Hungarian public life which we have gained in a democratic election in 2010, and according to the polls our popularity has only been increasing ever since. You do not mean that all these people in our country are extremists or racist citizens, do you? It was not Jobbik that you insulted, excluded and stigmatized but our voters; which not only was an irresponsible act but a serious self-contradiction, as well, since you have just ignored your own values you referred to.

I am sorry that your Budapest representation has forgotten to inform you that in the Hungarian parliamentary democracy, just like in the US, every party is responsible for itself. We do not write a letter to Barack Hussein Obama because of Councilman Charles Barron of New York, likewise a Democratic Party member, who, during his competition for Congress on the 11th of June lost against his opponent, stated earlier: “the Gaza Strip is a virtual death camp, the same kind of conditions the Nazis imposed on the Jews “.

In your letter, you logically refer to the Anti-Defamation League since this organization, together with the pro-Israel lobbies, provides the largest share of the funding for your political campaigns. Thus, we understand your diligence that as a superpower you must act to please the league in matters such as the homosexuality of the theatre director Róbert Alföldi, which must obviously be deeply troubling for the American people.

We–and the peoples of the world–are more concerned that after having destroyed Iraq and Afghanistan and caused the death of hundreds of thousands, you will do the same with Iran, who has not initiated a war against any country for centuries; just because Israel commands you to pretend that Teheran possesses nuclear weapons. And it is not only the Muslim world with its 1.3 billion population but all the benevolent peoples of the Earth who are equally worried that you provide an annual support of 3.5 billion dollars for your strategic ally, Israel who, according to former president James Carter, operates an apartheid system that kills thousands of civilians sometimes in Lebanon other times in Palestine.

If the representatives are interested in the politics of Jobbik, I will be very pleased to present you the reality. I would like to tell you in advance that in Jobbik’s political agenda or bills there is not one single point that would make a distinction between citizens by their religion or race. In fact, we are the only party in Hungary that has constantly been arguing to have the same rules and laws applied for everyone, and that no one should be treated with either negative or positive discrimination. I hope that I will be able to personally change your surprising anti-democratic views that condemn people for their political affiliation or Hungarian nationality. I also hope that I can draw your attention to the truly intolerable situation of Hungarian minorities living in the neighboring countries and tormented by chauvinism, as well as to the present vulnerable and exploited state of our truncated motherland. I am convinced that your sensitivity and sympathy for the prostrate and the down-trodden would certainly prompt you to support our cause after learning the hardships of Hungary.

Yours sincerely,

Vona Gábor

President of Jobbik

Leader of Parlamentary Group Jobbik


Voter registration in Hungary

Viktor Orbán and his closest friends and political allies must be genuinely afraid that after four years, even with a new electoral law that clearly favors their party, Fidesz might lose the next election. If, however, the government makes prospective voters jump through a pre-election hoop, victory is more likely.

The idea of pre-registration already came up during the debates on the new electoral law in 2011. You may recall that it was János Áder, at the time EU parliamentary member, who was entrusted with the task of writing the law. It was Áder who first brought up the possibility of reviving the old Hungarian custom of voter registers. But it seems that in December 2011 the Fidesz leadership didn’t feel the need to reshape the voter pool by making it more difficult to vote. They felt that Fidesz’s lead was assured and that it was unlikely that the opposition would ever manage to mount a serious and concerted attack against the fortress Fidesz had built on what they considered to be very solid ground.

In the first few months of 2012, however, Fidesz losses as measured by the opinion polls were very serious, and so the idea of voter registration surfaced again. It was during a conference organized by Political Capital, a think tank, that Gergely Gulyás, undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, said that the idea had already been discussed in the Ministry.

That is exactly the problem

Then on May 22 an article appeared in Népszabadság in which some unnamed Fidesz politicians talked quite openly about the need to introduce voter registration in order to choose “active and sober citizens who cast their votes on the basis of conscious considerations stemming from their concerns for the future of the nation” and to keep out “the uneducated, ill-mannered, stupid boors [vadbarmok] who are easily influenced by campaign slogans.” This kind of voting restriction was immediately labelled  “intellektuális cenzus.”

A brief explanation of what “cenzus” means in Hungarian is in order. Before the introduction of universal suffrage “cenzus” meant a register based on property qualifications. The system Fidesz wants to and most likely will introduce in effect puts constraints on universal suffrage, with the poor, the uneducated, and the politically undecided likely to be disenfranchised.

Fidesz-KDNP politicians keep telling critics of the planned registration that “several European countries” have the system. This is not true. In Europe there are only two countries, Great Britain and France, who have anything resembling registration. In the United Kingdom registration is necessary because the country, unlike Hungary, doesn’t have an accurate nationwide database that includes every eligible voter of the land. In France, the only prospective voters who have to register are those who turned eighteen after the last election and whose names hence don’t appear on the roll. Otherwise, voters have to register only when they move.

The country most often mentioned by Hungarians as an example is the United States. But again, the United States doesn’t have compulsory registration of domicile. And most states try to make registration as painless as possible.  For example, in several states (Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Wyoming) one can register in person on the day of the election. As you can see here, in most states one can register about 20-30 days before the elections.

The Hungarian system would be different. First of all, it will not be called “registration” (regisztráció) but “signing up” (feliratkozás). What is the difference? Some people pointed out that these two words are synonyms. Yes and no because, as Orbán explained last Friday in his weekly interview, “signing up” is a more active form of “registration.”  It seems that “signing up” is required for national elections, though not for municipal and by-elections. Is it required for every national election? Maybe, maybe not. For the time being what is critical is that it would be mandatory for the 2014 national elections, when Orbán seems vulnerable.

To be eligible to vote in the 2014 national elections, held in late spring, a person must sign up by  January 31. No last-minute decisions. Citizens who don’t register because they aren’t sure  in the winter whether they would vote in the spring would be disenfranchised. And those who find it onerous to sign up would also be ineligible to vote. Think of the villages where there is no registration office and the inhabitants have to travel to a designated town within one of the new administrative districts called “járás.” What about people who have no means of transportation? They would be disenfranchised for no good reason because surely a nationwide database of the voting age population will still be maintained.

With the introduction of its registration or signing up system Fidesz aims to get rid of those people who are not really interested in politics and those who are at a loss about whom they would vote for at the next elections. Let’s not forget that they currently make up more then 50% of the electorate. These are the people who will be least likely to register. And yet, based on past polls, the “undecided” voters were the ones who in fact decided the outcome of the elections both in 2002 and 2006. These “vadbarmok” were the ones who defeated Viktor Orbán. Given his lust for power, one can only imagine Orbán’s hatred of this crowd. He is hoping to filter these people out from the election process.

In addition to filtering out the undesirables, the uneducated, the poor, and the undecided there is surely another consideration: Fidesz voters are easier to motivate. The party has a large, enthusiastic group of party activists who in the last few elections diligently visited each household and took careful notes about their reception. These people can again be employed to make sure that Fidesz voters will sign up. One can argue that MSZP should learn a thing or two about modern campaigning, but at the moment MSZP and the other two small parties are in no position to compete with Fidesz when it comes to most likely ill-gotten party contributions.

Prior to 1919 only a very small percentage of male citizens of Hungary was able to vote: around 7% of the population. In 1919 a new election law was passed that gave the vote to all Hungarian adults without any restrictions. However, soon afterward Prime Minister István Bethlen and his fellow conservative politicians who didn’t trust the people, especially the unwashed masses, kept restricting voting rights on the basis of educational attainment and also by making a distinction between men and women by age.

Today’s Hungary can’t be so obviously discriminatory. The CEO of a major company has exactly the same say in a national election as an illiterate Roma. Some on the far right might argue that this isn’t fair, that only the “right” people should be allowed to vote. Fidesz doesn’t make this noxious intellectual argument. It just contemplates structuring its election laws to tip the balance solidly in favor of the “right” people–those who will vote it back into office.

Viktor Orbán at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tuşnad

If it’s July it must be a new outrageous speech by Viktor Orbán at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tuşnad.

It all started in 1990 when Fidesz organized a gathering of young Hungarians from Hungary and Transylvania for a week of lectures and fun. It was a small affair in those days; perhaps 40-50 people showed up at the first meeting, dubbed Bálványosfürdői Szabadegyetem és Diáktábor (Free University and Student Camp at Bálványosfürdő/Băile Bálványos). The event consisted of almost a week of camping. In those days the young Orbán himself stayed for the duration and slept in a tent alongside the students.

As time went by the numbers grew and the gathering became so large that it was moved from Bálványosfürdő to Tusnádfürdő about 30 kilometers away. But this year the numbers were less impressive. Viktor Orbán’s website said that about 1,000 people gathered to hear the Hungarian prime minister. Although an Internet video referred to “short pants politicking at Tusnádfürdő,” the photos showed a different picture. The youngsters were in the minority.

Transindex, a Hungarian-language Romanian publication, complained about the lack of real dialogue in Tusnádfürdő because RMDSZ, the largest Hungarian party in Romania which received 80% of the Hungarian votes at the municipal elections about a month ago, was not represented. On the other hand, Jobbik was there, as is evident from this picture of an old warrior of the Hungarian extreme right.

An editorial in Transindex made fun of the description of Tusnádfürdő as the “center of the universe,” as a banner behind the speakers proudly announced. Moreover, it seems that God also had something to do with Tusnádfürdő: Zsolt Semjén attributed to divine will the coincidence that the opening of Tusnádfürdő also marked the happy event of registering the 300,000th new Hungarian citizen. No wonder that the author of the editorial in Transindex, Andrea Hosu, entitled her piece “Tusványos: Divine choreography in the center of the universe?”

Hungarians by now are accustomed to the fact that Tusnádfürdő serves as a pulpit for the most radical side of Viktor Orbán. Perhaps that fresh Transylvanian air in the middle of the Carpathian mountains has this effect on him. By now, however, practically everything that the prime minister says is radical. Orbán’s view of the world bears no resemblance to reality. There are some people, including Gábor Fodor, his old roommate and one of the founders of Fidesz, who are worried about Orbán’s mental state.

Indeed, Orbán said quite a few incredible things in Tasnádfürdő, but they were not more outrageous than what he has been saying for some time. Here is a sampling of the latest crop of statements.

According to him, the current crisis affects only the United States and Europe. The rest of the world is untouched. It is Brussels that is at the core of the problem where the bureaucrats worry about the psyche of geese,  toys for piglets, and the size of cages for chickens instead of the serious problems Europe is facing. Western Europe is laboring under the shadow of the two world wars which broke out as a result of national rivalries and therefore it preaches greater integration because of the fear of nationalism.  But there is today a renaissance of nation states and Brussels cannot go against their wishes. Today’s problems can be solved only by individual countries and the solution must be adjusted to individual needs. Europe is hopeless and it will never be successful. It is only staggering about like a sleepwalker.

What was perhaps the most frightening part of the speech was Orbán’s “analysis” of the history of twentieth-century Europe. According to him, western politicians are afraid of the politically activated masses because of the rise of fascism in Europe. Fascist governments came into power by democratic means, and therefore the western political elite put their faith in “principles and institutions” instead of the people. He admitted that he himself believed at one point that principles and institutions are the best insurance for success, but he has realized since that “this is what led politics to a dead end.” Because it is never principles and institutions that make decisions but people. “Overestimation of principles and institutions necessarily leads to irresponsible decisions.”

Here Viktor Orbán is perhaps most clearly showing his dictatorial side by turning away from the principles of democracy itself. Instead of  checks and balances he is putting his faith in “the people.” So, it is not at all surprising that he simply ignores the decisions of the Constitutional Court. After all, it is just one of those institutions that led Europe astray.

Otherwise, the prime minister of a country that is in terrible economic shape and whose two-year governance only added to its problems announced that “Europe is actually envious of Hungary” because of its excellent handling of the crisis. This is one of those occasions when some people question Viktor Orbán’s sanity.

In addition to all that frightening nonsense Viktor Orbán also decided to meddle in Romanian internal affairs. A referendum is being held today on the fate of Romanian President Traian Băsescu.  A day before the voting, during the campaign silence, Orbán urged Hungarians living in Romania to “make good decisions, meaning to make no decision at all” during today’s vote. In addition, both he and László Tőkés appeared in white shirts that apparently signals their support for Băsescu. As things stand at the moment, Băsescu’s only hope is that not enough people will  bother to go to the polls. Three hours before closing time only about 38% of the eligible voters had voted; 50% plus one vote is necessary for the referendum to be valid.

As for cooperation with RMDSZ, Orbán admitted that he cannot ignore it because after all it is the major Hungarian party in Romania, but he added that cooperation with its politicians is out of the question. In 1994, he recalled, the socialists asked Fidesz to join them in a coalition. They refused because if they “had said yes then [they] would have been morally ruined and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to replace the socialist governments that ruined the country.” The obvious message is that there can be no compromise with RMDSZ, which he called elsewhere a party with Bolshevik roots.

No compromise with anyone while Zsolt Semjén in his introductory remarks on Wednesday talked about the looming danger of another Little Entente. Meaning cooperation between Slovakia, Romania, and perhaps Serbia against Hungary. Perhaps a different Hungarian attitude toward the neighbors could prevent such a “calamity.”

Paul Lendvai: Hungary Between Democracy and Authoritarianism:   A book review

Paul Lendvai has achieved quite a feat with his Hungary Between Democracy and Authoritarianism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).  Lendvai, a well kn0wn journalist who was born in Hungary but has been living in Austria since 1957, is in a way part of the story he is writing about. Due to his stature outside and inside of Hungary he had the good fortune to have personal encounters with all the public figures mentioned in this book.

Hungary Between Democracy and Authoritarianism is more than a history of the last twenty-five years of Hungarian history. In a mere 250 pages Lendvai also investigates Hungarian nationalism, the roots of antisemitism, the state of the Hungarian media, the growth of the extreme right and its targets, the Roma and the Jews. Each of these topics is discussed for only a few pages, but Lendvai provides the reader with enough information to understand the intricacies of day to day events in Hungary.

For background Lendvai describes the failed 1956 uprising and its consequences and offers a brief but apt description of the nature of the Kádár regime that followed it. Lendvai was a fairly frequent visitor in Hungary even before the change of regime in 1989-1990 and has some wonderful descriptions of the leading politicians of the communist regime. For example, he met Károly Grósz, successor to János Kádár, twice. Once in the fall of 1988 and again in May 1989. The description of the change in Grósz is masterful. Within a few months Grósz “no longer seemed to be in the driving seat but a passenger.” He also recounts meeting Gyula Horn, then undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry, in 1985 who “with the radio turned up and standing next to an open window whispered his critical observations about Soviet foreign policy” into Lendvai’s ears.

There are two biographies of József Antall in Hungarian, one critical and the other more admiring. Both are long and informative, but one can perhaps learn more about him from Lendvai who in a few pages seems to capture the essence of the man. I found telling, for example, something that I had read nowhere else before: that Antall’s embossed visiting card listed all his titles in Latin (!), English, and Hungarian. In twenty-two pages Lendvai describes both Antall the person and the history of the Antall-Boross governments.

The account of the period between 1994 and 1998 when the Socialists and the Free Democrats (SZDSZ) together had more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament is also excellent. Lendvai’s description of Horn as a “shrewd political operator” is at the center of his analysis of the socialist-liberal coalition, but he pays ample attention as well to Horn’s first two ministers of finance, László Békesi and Lajos Bokros, who today are vocal against the economic policies of the current administration. He also outlines the uneasy relationship of the coalition partners that led to the increasing marginalization of SZDSZ and the corruption scandals that contributed to the socialist-liberal coalition’s political defeat.

Viktor Orbán is discussed in two chapters. In chapter 6, entitled “The Young Comet–Viktor Orbán,” we read about Fidesz’s move from the liberal to the conservative side and Orbán’s ever increasing nationalism and populism. Orbán is described as a man of “overwhelming lust for power” and “a man who almost automatically believes the veracity of whatever he considers to be politically useful to him.” It was discovered already during the first Orbán government that Orbán believes in “the primacy of politics over economics.”

There is a chapter on Péter Medgyessy, the anything but charismatic politician, who managed to defeat Viktor Orbán in 2002.  He was described by people who knew him as “capable, but vain, and weak.” According to colleagues who worked with him he was Hungary’s worst prime minister, “the one who caused the greatest damage.” Or “a man who neither could make a decision nor inspire an example. He simply wanted to add to his CV the fact that he had been prime minister.” Not a very flattering picture. I must say that the few interviews I heard him give after he resigned confirm Lendvai’s negative image.

The Gyurcsány portrait is also interesting. Lendvai met him first in 2004 when Ferenc Gyurcsány was still minister of sports in the Medgyessy government. Lendvai describes him as “an exotic bird of paradise.” Different from the run of the mill socialist politicians. In his very first conversation with Lendvai “he pulled the Socialist Party to pieces, deriding it as a party incapable of deciding whom and what it represented.” After this first meeting Lendvai was convinced that Gyurcsány was “probably the most gifted and most dynamic politician in the socialist-liberal camp,” but he forgot Churchill’s warning, “In politics, especially at the top, there is no friendship.” Lendvai summarizes Gyurcsány’s role in Hungarian politics: “The flame of this perhaps greatest political talent in the post-communist history of the Hungarian left flared but briefly. Ferenc Gyurcsány turned out to be (in the sense of Jakob Burckhardt’s reflections on history) a ‘man of momentary greatness.'”

A whole chapter is devoted to the “Cold War at the Top–Orbán versus Gyurcsány.” This cold war is described as “a life and death struggle that destroyed Gyurcsány.” Lendvai lists the instruments that were used in this struggle by the master strategist, Viktor Orbán.

In addition to the chapters outlining the political events in Hungary more or less chronologically, there are important chapters that help the reader understand the background to these events. I especially enjoyed the chapter on the Hungarians’ sense of history entitled “The Sense of Mission of an Easily Seducible Nation.” One can ponder poll results that show that 76% of Hungarians believe that the Hungarians are related to the Huns and 79% are certain that during the reign of Louis Greater Hungary bordered on three seas. Or, 70% of all Hungarians are absolutely certain that the Hungarians treated the minorities living in Hungary fairly and only 9% think otherwise. As for Trianon, the results are equally shocking. In 2010 45% of the people said that the results of the border changes mustn’t be accepted.

There is an excellent chapter on the state of the Hungarian media with special emphasis on the media empire Fidesz built between 2000 and 2010. There are plenty of examples from right-wing papers that would give foreigners a fair idea of the state of journalism in Hungary. Chapters on the roots of antisemitism and anti-Roma attitudes are also helpful in understanding the current state of the affairs.

The last chapter is an addition to the original German edition of the book. Apparently, Viktor Orbán was greatly offended by it and made no secret of the fact that he considers Paul Lendvai an enemy. The title of this chapter is “Orbán Über Alles–Hungary at a Dead End.” In it Orbán is described as “a master tactician, a gifted populist, a radical and consummate opportunist, a ruthless power politician who believes not in ideas but in maximizing his power without any compunction, giving vent to Hungarian nationalism or tapping into fear and prejudice at a moment of crisis.”

Foreign diplomats, journalists, and businessmen who for one reason or another are planning to spend some time in Hungary should definitely read Lendvai’s book for background information. The rest of us can learn from Lendvai’s unique insights.

Hungarian business leader criticizes Viktor Orbán’s economic policy

Hungarian opposition newspapers have an annoying habit. If someone just once says something critical of Viktor Orbán or the policies of the current government, the liberal newspapermen practically elevate him to sainthood. All his past sins are forgotten. This is what is happening now with Sándor Demján, the managing director of VOSZ (Vállalkozók és Munkáltatók Országos Szövetsége = National Association of Entrepreneurs and Employers).

Demján is apparently the richest man in Hungary. He is a real estate developer and his company, Tri-Gránit Fejlesztési Zrt., builds shopping centers throughout the region, including Poland and Ukraine. The man might be a good businessman, but his ideas about the world are often reprehensible. In the past he frequently accompanied Viktor Orbán on his foreign trips, especially to China and Central Asia. Demján was very impressed with the Chinese way of doing business and expounded on the secret of Chinese success: using huge numbers of poor Chinese as a labor force. Poverty ensures progress. He added that the Chinese practice would be a good example for Hungary to emulate. At one point he suggested lengthening the work week to six or even seven days. After all, the country is in economic trouble. He also talked about “financial dependence being worse than tanks invading the country because in the latter case at least the picture is clear.” Almost as if he had heard István Csurka of MIÉP.

So, this man who before the 2010 elections said that “it is in the interest of every Hungarian that the Fidesz team wins the election because if they don’t that is bad for everybody” now seems to be dissatisfied.  The opposition papers are enthusiastic about Demján’s criticism of Orbán, and very few of them actually sat down and analyzed Demján’s suggestions for economic recovery, some of which at first blush seem unrealistic.

When Viktor Orbán suggested to the leadership of VOSZ that he meet with them he was undoubtedly expecting the usual adulation. But this is not what happened. Demján delivered an hour-long speech that was highly critical of the “unorthodox” economic policies of Viktor Orbán as delivered by György Matolcsy. That rattled Viktor Orbán so much that he asked for a ten-minute break, saying that in the wake of Demján’s speech he had to rethink his own. What resulted was largely nonsensical mumbo-jumbo; what was comprehensible was outright frightening.

Let’s see what kind of wisdom Demján entertained his audience with. “It is growth that creates wealth” and “one needs wealth because a country that is poor gets assimilated by globalization.” Whatever that means. Other comments, although not revolutionary, were at least on target: without investment there can be no growth. Foreign investment in Hungary has practically come to a halt. Bloomberg just published an article entitled “Orban’s Tax Binge Repels Investors.” Not surprisingly, Demján is not terribly worried about foreign investment. He wants Hungarian-owned companies to grow. But there is not enough domestic capital accumulation to help finance them. Therefore he suggests setting up a large investment fund for the sole purpose of assisting small- and medium-size Hungarian-owned companies.

I’m not going to go into the details of Demján’s plan for constructing such a fund because according to experts it is not realistic. But another idea of his might be more practical (at least if default or a government grab is off the table): to introduce something Demján called a “solidarity bond issuance” that would be “a kind of compulsory savings plan.” Otherwise, Demján is all in favor of an agreement with the IMF-EU. I think that Demján is far too optimistic on the subject, at least from what Orbán had to say on the subject in the last couple of days.

Viktor Orbán and Hungarian businessmen

So, let’s see what Orbán managed to put together in a great hurry after Demján’s speech. As I said, some of it was outright frightening, especially this sentence: In Central Europe a new economic system must be built “and let us hope that God will help us and we will not have to invent a new type of political system instead of democracy that would need to be introduced for the sake of economic survival.” A stunning admission that Orbán has been thinking of the possibility of governing by decree. As his political opponents said, this is one of the few honest words he has spoken of late.

He again repeated what we can hear constantly: that Western Europe is in decline while Central and Eastern Europe is on the rise. The latest economic data don’t support Orbán’s contention, but figures never bother the Hungarian prime minister too much.

He did admit that 90% of the current investments come from European Union subsidies: “There is no Hungarian money for development.” But if that is the case, why is he waging a war of independence against the European Union?

As for the negotiations with the IMF-EU delegation, “one needs cold logic, patience and calmness.” He is glad that “the IMF was not here in the last two years because then the government couldn’t have introduced certain elements of its economic policy.” According to him, if there had been an agreement with the IMF in 2010 the country would have saved 100 billion forints on its sovereign debt but the government couldn’t have received 200 billion forints yearly from extra levies on certain sectors of the economy. Moreover, they couldn’t have taken away the savings of the private pension funds. That’s why critics of the Orbán government claim that it is the IMF and the European Union that will safeguard the interests of the Hungarian people against their own government.

Orbán repeated that foreign banks that do business in Hungary are reluctant to extend credit because they remain in dire financial straits. The truth is not so simple. The “mother banks” had to allocate extra capital to their affiliates in Hungary because of the enormous taxes the Orbán government levied on them. The Hungarian affiliates are not profitable.

It is practically impossible to have an Orbán speech without the mention of the necessity to build a society “based on work.” Orbán and some of his supporters often intimate that Hungarians are lazy slobs who just don’t want to work. Of course, this is not the case. The majority of the people would love to work if there were an opportunity to do so. But there isn’t. There is a segment of society that is dreadfully undereducated. This is especially true of the Roma population. Others, although qualified, can’t find jobs because companies in a no-growth economy simply aren’t hiring.

Viktor Orbán seems to think that public works projects paid for by the government are the remedy for unemployment. A few hours of mostly useless public work is also dole, but I guess it looks better when the employment statistics come out. In a year or two there will be no welfare payments without enrollment in a public works project. That would seem to include child support, to be administered through a “system of work” (munka rendszere). What on earth is this? Is it possible that Orbán is alluding to a child support system that is available only to families where one or both of the parents are gainfully employed?

Work seems to be the remedy for everything, including the unity of the country. Demján suggested consulting with the opposition, an idea that is far from Orbán’s thinking. According to the prime minister, “there is no need to shake hands [parolázás] with the opposition.” Instead, the unity of the country can be achieved by “giving work instead of government assistance to the people.”

And I left the best to last. “Cooperation is a question of force, not of intention. Perhaps there are countries where things don’t work that way, for example in the Scandinavian countries, but such a half-Asiatic rag-tag people as we are can unite only if there is force.”

Well, well, well. Do you remember what happened to Ákos Kertész, the Kossuth Prize winning author, when said something about Hungarians being genetically servile? He was chased all the way to Canada, where he asked for political asylum. Surely nothing like that will happen to Viktor Orbán, but the best answer to this unspeakable statement came from Gergely Karácsony of LMP: “The prime minister should know very well that Hungary in the last one thousand years, ever since the reign of Saint Stephen, has been part of Europe.” Admittedly, like every other nation, Hungarians also made mistakes. For example, when “they gave political power to an Asiatic-style despot.”

Statement by the IMF Mission to Hungary

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission visited Budapest during July 17-25 to start discussions on an IMF/EU-supported program following a request by the Hungarian authorities. The IMF mission worked in close cooperation with a mission from the European Commission and observers from the European Central Bank. At the conclusion of the visit, Thanos Arvanitis, IMF mission chief for Hungary, issued the following statement:

“The Hungarian economy continues to face a series of interconnected challenges related to high public and external indebtedness, strained bank balance sheets, weak confidence, and elevated risk perceptions. Amid a difficult external and domestic environment, real GDP is expected to contract in 2012 and recover modestly in 2013. Beyond the current cycle, historically low levels of private investment and labor participation cloud the growth outlook.

“The key near term challenge is to maintain macroeconomic and financial stability, while building the foundations for a more robust recovery which is necessary to raise living standards. Policies should therefore aim to advance the needed fiscal consolidation in a sustainable manner, restore the soundness of the financial sector, and set in place a more business friendly environment and promote structural reforms, building on the objectives of the original Széll Kálmán plan.

“The authorities’ commitment to the fiscal targets under the revised Convergence Plan in 2012-13 is welcome. However, greater focus should be placed on achieving a more balanced fiscal consolidation, shifting away from ad hoc tax measures towards streamlining public expenditures, while ensuring adequate support to vulnerable groups. A smaller and more efficient state with strong and predictable policies would create better conditions for private-sector led growth, and reduce the tax burden over time. For 2013, additional measures will be necessary to secure the government’s deficit target, and put public debt firmly on a downward path.

“The monetary policy stance remains appropriate, reflecting the recent uptick in headline and core inflation and persistently elevated risk premia. The contracting credit reflects mostly structural challenges confronting the banking, household, and corporate sectors as well as recent policy actions. Reforms to restore banking system soundness in a more business-friendly environment are critically important so that banks can contribute to economic recovery.

“Generating higher and more inclusive growth will require more emphasis on structural reforms. The focus should be on measures to encourage labor participation, advance competition, reform loss making state-owned enterprises, notably in the area of transport, and put in place a regulatory level-playing field for all companies.

“The IMF mission, jointly with its European partners, has had constructive discussions with the authorities on these issues. The dialogue will continue in the period ahead.”

Press Release No. 12/276
July 26, 2012

The future of LMP: An interview with Benedek Jávor

Today a fairly lengthy interview with Benedek Jávor, the leader of LMP’s parliamentary caucus, appeared in Népszabadság. LMP (Lehet Más a Politika = Politics can be different) has the smallest parliamentary delegation with fifteen members; it has 3.9% share of the seats.

LMP, despite its name, is just another political party that plays strategic and tactical games like any other. Even its beginnings were somewhat marred by talks that without secret Fidesz help LMP wouldn’t have been able to collect enough endorsements to participate in the elections in Budapest. Without the possibility of running in the capital, LMP’s fate would have been sealed. On the day of the deadline, around noon, LMP was short of endorsements, but then suddenly endorsements started pouring in.

Wagging tongues claim that the upsurge in eager LMP voters was engineered by Fidesz activists who urged their followers to help LMP along. After all, it was to Fidesz’s advantage to have another left-of-center party in order to split the anti-Fidesz vote. As it turned out, LMP received 7.48% while MSZP got 19.30% of all the votes cast. If there had been no LMP it is likely that MSZP would have received substantially more votes. After all, those who didn’t like Fidesz could have voted only for the socialists.

LMP is indeed like any other party except that it refused to elect a party leader. It operates under a kind of “collective leadership” with all the difficulties such an arrangement poses. However, the party had to name a parliamentary leader because house rules pretty much demand it. So, András Schiffer was named “frakcióvezető” because by all accounts it was he who was the dominant force in building a party in record time out of nothing.

Benedek Jávor running for mayor of Budapest

However, Schiffer resigned his post in January 2012. In his place the LMP caucus chose Benedek Jávor, a Ph.D. in biology and assistant professor of environmental law, as the new leader of the 15-member LMP caucus. Now it seems that Jávor may also be contemplating resigning. What’s going on?

One can only guess about the internal affairs of LMP, but surely not all is well in the top leadership. One MP resigned already and another threatened to do so. There also seems to be a split over LMP’s relations with the other democratic parties, although for the time being Schiffer’s position is triumphing. When Schiffer resigned, the hope was that LMP would elect someone who would be more flexible on the issue of cooperation with MSZP, DK, and any other democratic formation. Great was the disappointment in certain circles when Benedek Jávor seemed to hold exactly the same position as his predecessor. But observers claim that there is still a group within LMP that doesn’t approve of the current attitude of the party on this issue.

My own reactions to LMP are largely unfavorable, although personally I find Gergely Karácsony, one of the top men in the party, a pleasant and likeable man. It seems that I’m not alone. In one of the polls he actually was shown to be more popular than Viktor Orbán. I suspect that Karácsony is also more realistic about the chances of LMP at the next elections. One cannot take András Schiffer seriously as he expounds on LMP’s winning the 2014 elections alone. After all, Gyurcsány, whose party is almost as popular as LMP, only hopes that DK will be able to achieve 10% of the votes if all goes well and instead urges close cooperation with others in order to unseat Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

You may recall the results of the by-elections in Dunaújváros where MSZP refused to cooperate with DK and as a result lost to Fidesz by only a few votes. At the same election LMP bombed. While the LMP candidate received 7.62% of the votes in 2010 he ended up with 1.68% this time around. This dismal showing should have been a wake-up call, but if I read Jávor’s message correctly LMP isn’t planning a change of direction.

Soon enough there will be a mayoral election in Hódmezővásárhely where János Lázár held sway for last eight years until Orbán made him chief of staff in the prime minister’s office. Admittedly, it would be exceedingly difficult to change the color of the city from orange to red when it has been under Fidesz rule for so long, but what kind of a politician is Benedek Jávor who announces that defeating the Fidesz candidate even with a common candidate will be a “bravura.” Meaning, almost impossible.

The MSZP candidate is a 31-year-old woman, and although Jávor doesn’t know her personally he doubts that any non-Fidesz candidate can win. In fact, LMP didn’t even name a candidate yet. They will allow the locals to come up with a suitable name. To me that means that LMP has given up on the idea of even competing for the post of mayor of Hódmezővásárhely. As far as Jávor is concerned, MSZP will have to change radically before LMP is willing to cooperate with its leaders. Instead they would like to strengthen their ties to Solidarity, Milla, and 4K. I think this plan is doomed. In modern politics one can’t ignore parties and rely exclusively on civic organizations.

Apparently there are some in LMP who think that winning the elections in 2014 shouldn’t be the goal of the party. It seems that Jávor doesn’t belong to this group: “The Orbán government must go. No question. But later it will be an important issue whether Fidesz actually exists or not and if it does what it will be like without Viktor Orbán…. After a lost election there might be an opportunity for the formation of a Fidesz without Orbán and a conservative party without him.”

Rumor has it that if Jávor leaves the post Schiffer will return. I do hope that this is only a rumor because Schiffer, if he continues his old strategy, will be the greatest obstacle to cooperation among anti-Fidesz forces, which offers the only chance of defeating Viktor Orbán in 2014.