The new electoral law and the dilemma of the democratic opposition

I’m going to cover several intertwined topics today.

Perhaps the most important news of the day was that three members of parliament (two Fidesz, one KDNP) submitted their draft bill on the most recent changes in the new electoral law. This bill, the key provisions of which I’ll outline  later on in this post, might act as a catalyst for possible change on the political left and be center stage in Hungarian political life for months to come.

But first let’s step back a bit to last week’s hunger strike by four members of Demokratikus Koalíció, a new party established by former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and several other former members of MSZP. Some leading members of the by now defunct liberal party SZDSZ and the right-of-center MDF have since joined DK.

The media’s initial reaction to the idea of a week-long hunger strike was, as I noted earlier, largely negative. Even in the liberal and socialist media there were scores of critical articles. As time went by, however, people changed their minds. Even those who had been very critical of Ferenc Gyurcsány, primarily because they considered him a traitor to the socialist cause, came to the conclusion that the former prime minister had managed to call a very apathetic country’s attention to the threat of an electoral law that might mean the end of Hungarian democracy, even formally.

Cooperation / flickr

Gyurcsány seems to be so eager to form a solid unified opposition that he has gone so far as to officially announce that not only does he have no intention of being a candidate for prime minister but he is ready to endorse anyone chosen by a future united opposition. He initially announced that he is ready to endorse Attila Mesterházy if he is chosen, although Gordon Bajnai’s ideas about the future of Hungary are closer to his own thinking. The next day he went further. He declared that he would even vote for András Schiffer (LMP) if he were the candidate. You may recall that it was András Schiffer who brought charges against Gyurcsány because of his handling of the sale of a tract of land where American and Israeli businessmen were planning to build a casino-wellness complex.

There were faint signs of a positive reaction from MSZP to Gyurcsány’s gesture. Mesterházy immediately announced that MSZP will support the demonstration announced by DK for Saturday afternoon. I spotted Ildikó Lendvai in the crowd, but that didn’t surprise me terribly. After all, Lendvai not long ago wrote an article urging the establishment of a united opposition, and during the hunger strike she  visited the striking DK politicians. What, on the other hand, did surprise me was that Tibor Szanyi (MSZP), who said not a few very nasty things about Gyurcsány in the last year or so was also there. Moreover, earlier Szanyi and Ágnes Vadai (DK) had a joint appearance, taking part in a kind of friendly debate about what to do next.

LMP was not moved. The party leadership steadfastly maintains that the Orbán government  can be ousted at the next elections, regardless of what kind of electoral law is finally accepted, without a unified opposition emerging before the elections. When LMP politicians face questions about their specific plans, however, they cannot really answer. One of the most pitiful recent examples of such an encounter was an interview yesterday with Benedek Jávor, the whip of the LMP delegation. This  morning when Gergely Karácsony, another important LMP politician, was asked whether LMP would join DK in forming a “living chain” around the parliament building, he proudly announced that he and his fellow LMP politicians discuss matters in parliament and not on the streets. This remark is especially amusing because until now it was mostly members of the LMP delegation who liked to chain themselves to objects, only to be removed by the police. Jávor went so far as to claim that Gyurcsány’s hunger strike will have only one result: the Hungarian people will love the idea of registration. Of course, this is colossal nonsense. A recent poll from Nézőpont, a research institute close to Fidesz, indicates that 75% of the people are against Fidesz’s registration scheme.

This is where we stand. So, let’s see what the Orbán government is planning to do.

First, yes, there will definitely be registration. And it’s not a one-shot deal: every four years citizens wishing to vote will have to re-register. Registration will enable the voter to vote in all elections for the next four years: national, local, European, or, for that matter, by-elections. If a person fails to register, he deprives himself from voting for four solid years.

Second, the Fidesz government is not at all sure whether the newly introduced registration procedure will be constitutional. That fine point never bothered them in the last two years. Moreover, their sacred new constitution has  already been changed once and will be changed time and again. Right now at least three new constitutional changes are being contemplated: retirement age of judges, limit on the sovereign debt, and now voter registration.

Third, the endorsement tickets (ajánlószelvény) will be replaced by an endorsement sheet (ajánlóív) on which 200 signatures will enable a candidate to run. Since Hungarians will be allowed to endorse more than one candidate in a race, signatures should be very easy to come by.

Fourth, perhaps the most important question cannot be answered yet because there is no word in the proposal about campaign financing. Rumor has it that individual candidates would receive 2-3 million forints from the budget instead of lump sums going to parties based on the party’s size. So, this critical question remains unanswered.

On a somewhat lighter note, one of the members of parliament who submitted this bill was Lajos Kósa. He gave an interview on the subject this morning on MTV. As we know, Kósa talks too much and often says very stupid things. I think it is enough to remember when he briefly shook the entire financial world by announcing in the summer of 2010 that Hungary was close to bankruptcy.

Well, this time he was trying to explain how much better this new electoral law was going to be than the previous one because even “with the endorsement tickets real clowns could be elected.”  He immediately gave an example: József  Torgyán, chairman of the now defunct Smallholders Party. Who was Torgyán? Once upon a time he was an important man. In 1998 without Torgyán Viktor Orbán wouldn’t have been able to win the elections, and as a result the first Orbán government–often called Orbán-Torgyán government–was actually a coalition government. Orbán wanted to be prime minister so badly that he even promised the presidency to Torgyán.  No question, Torgyán was a clown, but Torgyán never had to collect endorsement tickets. At every election from 1990 on, Torgyán was elected from the Smallholders’  party list. Oh well, checking facts really is a colossal nuisance.

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65 comments

  1. Aren’t there any young (under 30 e g) politicians in Hungary besides the people in LMP ?

    There should be a new generation, whatever happened, the old guard should fade away …

  2. @Eva
    “And indeed, neither she nor Gyurcsány was ever involved with anything financially shady.”
    – And still, they blamed for just about everything, even if they didn’t bought Gripen fighters for a bribe…
    Actually this is due to the very low level of communication skills within the opposition, nothing but.
    Ms.Lendvai is a decent lady with lots of brains, whoever says whatever.
    If you – or anyone for that matter – trying to come up with the “twenty years ago” mantra, I’d like to call your attention to a lot of other people at the same time – like Orbán, Kövér, Martonyi – or simply to the fact: are you the same person as you were twenty years ago?
    Why is that normal, that an atheist liberal democrat turns to national socialism and religious devotion (Orbán) but it isn’t, when a socialist turns to social democracy?

    Lendvai hasn’t changed her values or beliefs, she only developed and adapted to the times – as opposed to a bunch of her comrades, who has changed quite a few times as a whether-cock during these twenty years, – a feature what I respect truly.

  3. Petrovics: “One of the things about Democracy is that it moves society forward, not backward–do all you mustachioed Fideszers here that? Hence, in the democratically vibrant US you can elect a black man. That election was the achievement of a progressive democracy
    graduating to a new level. Now, compare that with the treatment of the Roma and Jews in Hungary today.”

    Not only in Hungary, but everywhere in E. Europe. Even in Rumania, they are being mistreated by intruders….http://www.romania-insider.com/foreign-bikers-attacked-with-stones-by-roma-in-romanian-village/65083/

  4. @Jano again
    “Lendvai is discredited because she was a major figure in a party that in eight years of government, achieved precisely nothing.”

    – As opposed to…?
    – Contrary of?
    – I’ll help you along:
    – They didn’t transferred the ax-murderer in exchange of imaginary benefits, they haven’t bought MOL shares, they didn’t stole the pension found, they didn’t introduced retroactive legislation, they didn’t gave voting rights to people don’t live in Hungary, they didn’t limited the voting rights of the common people in Hungary, they didn’t gave leading posts to friends and relatives, no, they didn’t do all of these, you’re right.

    Thank you for the help, appreciate it…

  5. The most frightening thing in the draft version of the new electoral law is the planned Fidesz appointment of the Electoral Commission for 9 years. This all-Fidesz Commission will prevent investigations of electoral fraud, will bar international observers from the local precincts and will veto initiatives for referendums between elections.

  6. spectator :
    @Jano again
    “Lendvai is discredited because she was a major figure in a party that in eight years of government, achieved precisely nothing.”
    – As opposed to…?
    – Contrary of?
    – I’ll help you along:
    – They didn’t transferred the ax-murderer in exchange of imaginary benefits, they haven’t bought MOL shares, they didn’t stole the pension found, they didn’t introduced retroactive legislation, they didn’t gave voting rights to people don’t live in Hungary, they didn’t limited the voting rights of the common people in Hungary, they didn’t gave leading posts to friends and relatives, no, they didn’t do all of these, you’re right.
    Thank you for the help, appreciate it…

    @Spectator:

    Everything you said about Fidesz/Orban is spot on. But Decency/Integrity is not a relativity project. Lendvai belongs to
    a party that was besmirched by its widespread fraudulent activity–the very activity that motivated most–myself included–to vote for Fidesz in 2010. We’ve learned better. No, that’s not quite right: no one who grew up in democratic surroundings as I have in Canada, could expect that a 2/3 majority gave a government the power to function ABOVE the Law. Planet Hungary.

    The great Hungarian is supra all restrictions. Nietsche Alive!

    But to return to Lendvai and the MSZP: where do those people figure that all is forgiven? The sins of Fidesz do not wash clean their own.

  7. Louis Kovach :
    Petrovics: “One of the things about Democracy is that it moves society forward, not backward–do all you mustachioed Fideszers here that? Hence, in the democratically vibrant US you can elect a black man. That election was the achievement of a progressive democracy
    graduating to a new level. Now, compare that with the treatment of the Roma and Jews in Hungary today.”
    Not only in Hungary, but everywhere in E. Europe. Even in Rumania, they are being mistreated by intruders….http://www.romania-insider.com/foreign-bikers-attacked-with-stones-by-roma-in-romanian-village/65083/

    Ahh, Louis, your the master of light-handed irony. You must make mommy, dearest, proud.

  8. @petofi
    While I don’t intended to argue about the credibility of the MSZP – I have no reason to – I still don’t see, how the Fidesz can come out as the impeccable political entity – even if someone has had only the first Fidesz regime as a reference point – it beats me.

    In spite, I asked, I still haven’t received anything substantial regarding the fraudulent activity of the MSZP – let alone, that so far even the Fidesz bloodhound – name Budai – turned up nil as a result in his ferocious haunt of MSZP criminals, so I really have no any solid proof beside some heresy here and there – but hey, we are talking about Hungary, right? So, it has to happened something or other, hasn’t it?
    Or has it really?
    Or it’s just part of an elaborated campaign, too?
    Just how it adds up to the recent couple of years?

    Back to basics: being the member of a party who’s other members may- or may not committed felonies, or whatever, really discredit someone?

    Does – say Mr.Pokorny – became less honorable just because Orban is a lying jerk?

    There is a lots of questions, without satisfactory answers to a non-believer as myself – I have this awful habit to demand facts to draw conclusions – shame on me, I know, but still…

  9. The problem with the argument of Kingfisher for me is not that he finds that specifically MSzP has long had a strategic advantage in all types of corruption. The problems are the following. You use words such as “rob the country blind”, which you may use as such wheelings and dealings appear rather inconceivable in UK terms. But this is less so in the central European region. IF IT WERE SO EASY TO LEARN TO LIVE WITHOUT THESE PRACTICES, THEY WOULD NOT BE SO PERVASIVE. The popular but general statement about the country being “robbed blind” is nearly inconsequential.

    It is true that there are people who got rich and keep the majority of people relatively poor – but these excluded people are unable to change the rules of the game. And these rules of the game cannot be changed only by waiting for the few incorruptible people who magically transform the country and its people. For you and Jano even people who may not have benefitted personally from dirty deals are too close to the system to count as the relatively “clean group”, but what kind of people are you hoping for? (Can you present a sufficiently large number of people who qualify in your definition for clean Hungarian politics?) With such an approach, it is comprehensible that it had to “turn out” that Fidesz is not much better.

    To accept that these practices are so entrenched that NEARLY ALL people would have to change their behaviour to some extent to change the rules of the games, is a first step to a change in the system. And this change STARTS with the expectations of the broad public (to change the system, means hard work), CONTINUES with personal courage of people who sit in the right places in the police, in the judiciary, in the parliament, INCLUDES ALSO the broad public that will devote its time and efforts to this task, and thereby show their commitment to the ends, which THEN ULTIMATELY would reduce the space for those people who benefit so much from the lethargy and passive despair of people, so that they can “rob day and night”. Your insistence on the role of MSzP, even if Fidesz is full of former communists, full of people who now “rob the country blind”, can only be understood as support for Fidesz because you seldom emphasise how systemic this behaviour is.

    What Hungary needs is to mobilise people who are willing to change the rules of the game. And you have to try that with the people living in Hungary, of which most are directly and indirectly part of the game. So, in the absence of saints who could do the job, I think it is more practical to try to gather those people who want to change at least something in the system – in particular if they have not been related to the big dirty business up to now.

  10. Wolfi:”Aren’t there any young (under 30 e g) politicians in Hungary besides the people in LMP ?”

    Apparently not too much, with older generations clinging on, I’m sure that it’s pretty hard to get into anywhere near the frontline. Unless you have very good connections or family ties of course. That might earn you a BKV managerial position for example.

    Spectator: Citing Petőfi: “Everything you said about Fidesz/Orban is spot on. But Decency/Integrity is not a relativity project.”

    That’s my answer too. In general, please, I beg you, save me from the “but Fidesz…” arguments, I swear on everything that’s sacred I won’t vote for them.

    “And indeed, neither she nor Gyurcsány was ever involved with anything financially shady.”

    Well GyF had a case that expired, but yes, nothing else was PROVED. From here on it’s up to what you believe.

    “If you – or anyone for that matter – trying to come up with the “twenty years ago” mantra, I’d like to call your attention to a lot of other people at the same time”

    So wait, are you saying that the Fidesz old-timers shouldn’t retire if this government is voted out?


    – As opposed to…?
    – Contrary of?

    Irrelevant. MSZP-SZDSZ had a stable majority in the house and they achieved nothing but some initial welfare results that pushed the country into the debt crisis, followed by spectacular impotence and drifting, random number of “what to do” points from Gyurcsány every second week clinging on to power with all ten fingernails, and one corruption scandal after another. In a parlamentary democracy, the responsibility is with the majority. Hence, Fidesz not being the nicest opposition is equally irrelevant. Bajnai’s governance is a good example of that, even though his not a politician and I don’t think he’s good enough in the powerplay to conduct solid governance either when he’s not needed badly as a firefighter.

  11. Kirsten: I do think that everybody has robbed the country to blinds so far, I do want to emphasize that. The fact that I’m going to vote for one of the opposition parties despite of my nausea, doesn’t mean that I have to have a high opinion about them. This does not imply any Fidesz support, and Kingfisher’s posts don’t seem pro-Fidesz at all to me either. We are simply concerned and sceptical, I guess you don’t want OV back after a few years of coalition chaos either right?

  12. Some1 :
    @ LwiiH: Yes and no, regarding Gyurcsany. Yes, maybe things were happening under his nose, but how about what is happening with Fidesz? Why would Lendvai should quit? MOre people can bring in more people, and more people can work on a united opposition the merrier it is. Gyurcsany maybe was not able to deal with the corruption but he was not corrupt, he had no personal gain, and certainly he started to put HUngarian politics back on track. I think Bajnai was better but that is beside the point. Show me one Hungarian politician over forty who cannot be accused with some form of incompetency, and is in the “race”.

    If Mr. Gyurcsany was clean then he had no fear of exposing corruption.. but he didn’t which leads me to believe he had his fingers in the cookie jar as well. Maybe as PM he wasn’t taking anything but by then it was too late… or there should have been no fear in ratting out those that were stealing from the public purse or taking bribes to do their job.

  13. Jano, I nearly agree regarding the assessment of MSZP, however, the Fidesz gained power partly because they promised being different, even better(!).
    Actually I tend to go with Kristen – the problem here seems so embedded into the mentality of the people generally, that they can’t really change on it, not from one day to the other.

    That’s what infecting the everyday life just as the politics.

    As a matter of fact this is the time of partial agreements: LwiiH, Gyurcsany’s motivation wasn’t his fingers in the cookie jar – it was a combination of ill-placed loyalty toward comrades, saving face, and trying to hold on power – otherwise the old-school would have kicked him out on day one.
    Another question, that it would have been better to him, but being an idealist he thought he can change how things are in Hungary.
    He was wrong, of course, as we know.

    So, what now?
    Are we have to accept to chose between the bigger- or smaller thieves?
    This is the $XXX.XXX question, isn’t it?

  14. LwiiH: “Maybe as PM he wasn’t taking anything but by then it was too late… or there should have been no fear in ratting out those that were stealing from the public purse or taking bribes to do their job”.

    I’m pretty sure that if you want to be and stay PM in either MSZP or Fidesz, there are certain mouths you have to keep well fed. That’s how the system works. Spectator, unlike you, I don’t claim to know exactly Gyurcsány’s intentions. Were his fingers in the cookie jar, or did he let other peoples finger into the cookie jar for power. Did he just enjoy power for itself, or he thought that by making this pact with the devil he can turn things better? I have my opinion but opinions are just opinions. But looking back at his governance, it was bad, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters to me. Now you can say that you are sure for whatever reason that he means the best and that he probably have learned from his mistakes. Well, maybe, but I had the exact same thought (at least the second one) about Orbán two years ago. One thing is sure, I do learn from my mistakes.

  15. “Are we have to accept to chose between the bigger- or smaller thieves?
    This is the $XXX.XXX question, isn’t it?”

    Well, so far it seems to me that we have to. I am going to vote as it is very important to me to do so, but I’m not going to leave the booth filled with hope. Whatever happens I’m very concerned.

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