Bernadett Szél

Evidence is presented in the Jobbik espionage case

Shortly after the news broke on May 14 that Péter Polt, the Hungarian chief prosecutor, had asked Martin Schulz, president of the European Union, to suspend the parliamentary immunity of Béla Kovács (Jobbik), Fidesz moved to convene the Hungarian parliamentary committee on national security. The committee is chaired by Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), whose plate is full of his own problems. Two weeks ago a picture from 1992 of the 18-year-old hooded Molnár was made public. Magyar Nemzet accused the socialist politician of being a skinhead in his youth. I guess it was just tit for tat: the opposition was outraged over Fidesz’s support of a Jobbik candidate for the post of deputy president of the House.

A couple of days ago I expressed doubts about the charge of espionage in the case of the Jobbik MEP. First of all, we know only too well the Fidesz practice of accusing their political opponents of some serious crime that years later turns out to be bogus. The acquittal comes far too late; the political damage is instantaneous. After the 2010 election wholesale accusations were launched against socialist politicians and now, four years later, most of the accused have been acquitted. Among those court cases one dealt with espionage, but because the case was considered to belong to the rather large realm of state secrets we still have no idea about the charges or the evidence. Early reactions from Ágnes Vadai (DK), who at that point was a member of the parliamentary committee, indicated that both bordered on the ludicrous.

Since I consider the national security office an arm of the Orbán government that is often used for political purposes, my first reaction was to be very skeptical of the charges leveled against Kovács. Until now, Viktor Orbán concentrated on the left (MSZP, DK, E14-PM) and ignored Jobbik. Now that everybody predicts a resounding success for the extremist Jobbik party at the polls on Sunday, it seems that Orbán decided to turn his attention to his adversaries on the right. After all, he has the magic two-thirds majority in parliament and doesn’t need Jobbik.

There is no question of Kovács’s pro-Russian sentiments. He spent the larger part of his life in that country, and he is an ardent supporter of Vladimir Putin and his vision of Russia and the world. In Brussels he is considered to be a “Russian lobbyist,” and I’m sure that he represented Russia more than Hungary in the EP. At least some of his speeches indicate that much. But espionage is something different from making propaganda at the behest of a country.

Viktor Orbán, never known to worry about linguistic niceties, is capitalizing on the situation. On Friday night on MTV he equated espionage against the European Union with treason. He claimed that “the Hungarian public is familiar with the treasonous activities of internationalists who don’t consider the nation important, but that a party that considers itself national (nemzeti) would want to send such people to Brussels where they are supposed to represent Hungarian interests is really unprecedented.”

Let’s analyze this sentence. First of all, he is accusing some (actually, probably most) left-wing politicians of being traitors, while suggesting that there might be more spies among the proposed representatives of Jobbik to the European Parliament. I’m sure that Viktor Orbán means every word he says in this sentence. He is convinced that everyone who disagrees with him and criticizes him is not only unpatriotic but also a traitor; if it depended on him, he would gladly jail all of them. Also, there are signs that Béla Kovács might be only the first target. Perhaps the grand prize would be Gábor Vona himself.  As it is, Lajos Pősze, a disillusioned former Jobbik member, claimed on HírTV that Vona is Moscow’s agent.

In any case, the parliamentary committee on national security was called together this morning. Both Béla Kovács and Gábor Vona were obliged to appear before the committee. It seems that everyone who was present, with the exception of Jobbik member Ádám Mirkóczki, is convinced on the basis of the evidence presented by the national security office that Béla Kovács committed espionage.

Gábor Vona, Ádám Mirkóczy, and Béla Kovács Source: Index / Photo; Szabolcs Barakonyi

Gábor Vona, Ádám Mirkóczki, and Béla Kovács after the hearing
Source: Index / Photo; Szabolcs Barakonyi

What did we learn about the proceedings? Not much, because the information will be classified for a number of years. We do know that the Hungarian national security office has been investigating Kovács ever since 2009 and that they have pictures and recordings of conversations. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) found the evidence convincing but added, “there is espionage but no James Bond.” Apparently, what he means is that the case is not like espionage concerning military secrets but “an activity that can be more widely defined.” Bernadett Szél (LMP) was also impressed, but she added that “a person can commit espionage even if he is not a professional spy.” These two comments lead me to believe that we are faced here not so much with espionage as with “influence peddling.” On the other hand, Szilárd Németh (Fidesz), deputy chairman of the committee, was more explicit and more damaging. He indicated that “Kovács had connections to the Russian secret service and these connections were organized and conspiratorial.” Attila Mesterházy, who was not present, also seems to accept the story at face value. The liberal-socialist politicians all appear to have lined up. Interestingly enough, not one of them seems to remember similar Fidesz attacks on people on their side that turned out to be bogus. Yes, I understand that Jobbik is a despicable party, but that’s not a sufficient reason to call Kovács a spy if he is no more than a zealous promoter of Putin’s cause.

Ágnes Vadai (DK) used to be the chair of the committee when she was still a member of MSZP and thus has the necessary clearance to attend the sessions. Since she had to retire from the chairmanship due to her change of political allegiance, she asked admission to some of the more important meetings of the committee. Normally, she receives permission. But not this time. Her reaction was:  “We always suspected that Jobbik has reasons to be secretive but it seems that Fidesz does also.” She promised to ask the Ministry of Interior to supply her with documents connected to the case. I doubt that she will receive anything.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the political philosopher whose views I normally don’t share, wrote an opinion piece that pretty well echoes what I had to say about the case three days ago. He calls attention to a double standard. The liberal journalists view Fidesz’s attack on the left-liberal political side with healthy skepticism, but this time they seemed to have swallowed the espionage story hook, line, and sinker. Kovács is most likely an agent d’influence but no more than that. TGM–as everybody calls him–considers the “criminalization of political opponents the overture to dictatorship,” which should be rejected regardless of whether it is directed against the right or the left.

Interestingly, Jobbik’s pro-Russian bias finds many adherents in Hungary. Apparently, whereas in most of the Eastern European countries the public is anti-Russian, especially after the Ukrainian crisis, Hungarian public opinion is divided. And the right-wingers, including some of the Fidesz voters, consider Putin’s intervention in Ukraine at the behest of the ethnic Russians justified. This sympathy most likely has a lot to do with the existence of Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.

How will Orbán achieve both of his goals–to ruin Jobbik with a Russian espionage case and at the same time defend Russia’s support of autonomy in Ukraine? He may well succeed. His track record when it comes to threading the needle is very good.

New details on the Russian-Hungarian agreement on Paks; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 2″

I’m returning briefly to the secretive Putin-Orbán agreement on the addition to the atomic power plant in Paks. Shortly after the news of the agreement became public, I heard rumors to the effect that what the Orbán government actually wanted was not so much a new power plant built by Rosatom but an outright loan of 5 billion dollars. The Hungarian media spent a few lines on this rumor, but the topic was dropped soon enough. Most likely the rumor couldn’t be substantiated. But now Népszabadság has returned to the topic. In a fairly lengthy article the reporter who has lately become a kind of Paks expert unearthed a number of new strands in the story.

The information comes from “an expert who is an adviser to the government with knowledge of the details” who asserted that the original rumor about the loan the Orbán government wanted so badly was in fact true. The government wanted a loan that it could use as it best saw fit. The Russian partner, however, wanted to link the loan to the extension of the Paks power plant. Although negotiations went on for about a year, the two sides couldn’t come to a satisfactory agreement. At this point István Kocsis, former head of Paks and later of MVM (Magyar Villamos Művek/Hungarian Electricity Ltd), was asked by the government to use his good offices with the head of Rosatom. It didn’t seem to bother Orbán that Kocsis had been charged with embezzling billions, a case that is still pending.

Apparently Kocsis achieved miracles and in no time Rosatom had a contract ready to be signed. Népszabadság‘s informant claims that the Hungarians couldn’t change a word in the terms of the contract. There is, in fact, the suspicion that the reason the Hungarian text is so awkward is that most likely it was a translation from Russian. Earlier difficulties arose as the result of Hungarian insistence that the loan be extended to Hungary even if for one reason or another the power plant couldn’t be built or the project were protracted. At the beginning Rosatom insisted that the money would be lent to Hungary only as the work progressed. We still don’t know exactly what is in the agreement but, as Népszabadság‘s informer said, we may find out that “in the final analysis the Orbán government didn’t bring two reactors but ‘a new IMF loan’ from Moscow.”

The way the Orbán government spends money every penny will be needed. As it is, the national debt is higher than ever. It is over 80% even with the large infusion of money the government laid its hands on from the private pension funds. If we discount this “stolen money,” the national debt would be over 90% of the GDP. The government so far has spent more than 600 billion forints buying up private utility companies and is embarking on very ambitious plans to create a so-called “museum quarters” in Pest, which will accommodate the museums and Hungary’s National Library that are currently housed in the Royal Castle. This project is necessary because Orbán wants to move the entire government to the Castle District. The president’s office would move from the Sándor Palace to the Royal Castle and Viktor Orbán would presumably move into the Sándor Palace.

Yesterday another interesting tidbit about the Putin-Orbán agreement saw the light of day. An LMP member of parliament, Bernadett Szél, initially demanded access to the document but her request was refused. LMP will sue the government on that issue. She was, however, granted a half-hour interview with Mrs. László Németh, who admitted to her that the Orbán-Putin agreement was signed before the Hungarian government had a chance to authorize the deal. Lately, it seems, Fidesz politicians often slip and tell the truth by mistake. Like Lajos Kósa about the tape of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech at Őszöd. The next day he had to “correct himself.” That was the case with Mrs. Németh as well. Her ministry immediately corrected her. The ministry’s spokesman claimed that it is clear from the January 31 issue of the Official Gazette (Magyar Közlöny) that the authorization was dated January 13 and it was on January 14 that the agreement was signed. My only question is: why did they publish the text of the authorization only on January 31?

Finally, let’s not forget about the Holocaust Memorial Year. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, decided to step down from the advisory board of the House of Fortunes. Since Mazsihisz (Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities) opposes the establishment of this new museum, Heisler saw no reason to remain a member of the board. Moreover, as he said, the board is totally inactive. Mária Schmidt, who is the government-appointed director of the project, called the board together only once.

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question

Part II: Writing the Rules to Win – The Basic Structure

Professor Kim Scheppele, Princeton University

How did the governing party Fidesz stack the deck so much in its favor that the upcoming Hungarian election’s results are not in doubt?

Fidesz started immediately after its election victory in 2010 to reshape the electoral system to ensure its hold on power. The Fidesz parliamentary bloc, which enacted constitutional changes without including or consulting any opposition party, slashed the size of the parliament in half, redrew all of the individual constituencies unilaterally, changed the two-round system to a single first-past-the-post election for individual constituencies, and altered the way votes were aggregated.

Moreover, Fidesz has granted dual citizenship and therefore voting rights to ethnic Hungarians outside the borders who are overwhelmingly Fidesz supporters, while at the same time maintaining a system that makes it comparatively harder for Hungarian citizens living or working abroad to vote.

The media landscape and campaign finance rules overwhelmingly benefit Fidesz and a series of last-minute changes to the law just before the campaign started put the newly united center-left opposition at an even greater disadvantage. In addition, the governing party has captured the election machinery which is now staffed with its own loyalists.

The sum total of all of these changes makes it virtually inevitable that Fidesz will win.

The devil is in the details, so let’s walk step by step through these various ways that the governing party has changed the rules in its favor.

As one of its first acts in office, on 25 May 2010, the Fidesz parliament amended the constitution it inherited to cut the parliament’s size in half. This was a move lauded by all sides of the political spectrum, as the old 386-member parliament was widely perceived as too large to be effective and too expensive for a small country in debt. The new 199-member parliament that will be seated after the 2014 elections will represent new electoral districts that had to be newly drawn to accommodate this new, smaller parliament. Redrawing the districts was not only widely welcomed, but also required by the Constitutional Court, which had ruled (first in 2005 and again in 2010) that the old districts had become too unequal in population size to give all citizens an equal vote.

The old districting system already favored Fidesz because the larger districts were in the urban strongholds of the left and the smaller districts were in the rural districts of the right. As a result, rural conservative votes were given more weight because it took fewer of their votes to elect an MP. But the way that Fidesz redrew the districts for 2014 gave their party an even greater advantage than they had before.

Without any consultation with opposition parties, Fidesz enacted a new “cardinal law” in 2011 that simply set the boundaries of the districts (Law CCIII/2011). While most election laws provide principles for drawing districts and assign some neutral or at least multi-party body to actually draw the boundaries, the borders of the districts in Hungary are now written directly into the law. Moving a district boundary by even one block requires a two-thirds vote of the parliament. The districts are therefore heavily entrenched and were not the result of either a public or an inclusive process. No justification for these districts was offered by the governing party.

Of course, not all districts in any electoral system have identical numbers of voters. But how much can districts vary before they deny equality of the vote?  The Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission), recommends no more than 10% variation as the international standard. The Venice Commission is not terribly clear about what this means, but given that the Venice Commission is working with a principle that demands that votes be weighted as equally as possible, one can guess that this means that districts should not vary by more than 10% in population overall.

The Hungarian law is fiendishly clever in appearing to come close to that standard while being miles away from it. The Hungarian Election Law (Act CCIII of 2011 – section 4(4)) mandates that the districts should not vary by more than 15%. The Venice Commission was not thrilled with the difference, but let it pass. They shouldn’t have.

A closer reading reveals the trick. The Hungarian law requires that districts vary by no more than 15% calculated from the mean number of voters in the district. This is not an overall 15% deviation, as the Venice Commission presumed, but is instead a standard that permits districts to vary by 15% below the mean and 15% above it.

An example demonstrates what a huge difference this makes. To aim at an average district containing 100 voters, a 10% overall deviation would permit districts to vary between 95 and 105 voters. (Divide 95 by the 10 voters that separate the largest and smallest districts and you get about 10%). The Hungarian law would permit districts to vary between 85 and 115 voters – 15% above the mean and 15% below the mean of 100. The gap between 85 and 115 voters in a district would be 35% overall! (Calculated the same way as above: 30/85 = 35%.) This is a huge difference that the Venice Commission did not seem to see.

In the actual districts were constructed as a result of the new election law, the variation became even larger than that. As you can see in the chart below, the smallest districts in Hungary now have about 60,000 voters while the largest districts have nearly 90,000 voters, roughly a 50% gap. (The horizontal axis shows the number of eligible voters in the new constituencies based on voter data from 2010, and the vertical axis shows the number of districts in the new scheme with that number of voters.) Not only are the actual districts highly unequal, but this variation has no apparent justification.

sizeThe Size of Parliamentary Districts in Hungary after Redistricting
Source: Calculations by Gábor Tóka, Central European University

Hajdú-Bihar County, in the eastern part of Hungary, provides a case in point. A last-minute amendment to the 2011 election law divided the city of Debrecen into two districts of highly unequal size. Now, one district has 87,278 voters and the other, right next to it, has 60,125 voters. These are very nearly the largest and smallest districts in the country, side by side, without official explanation.

The government may have given no reasons for its districts, but this huge variation in district size is not random. As Political Capital shows, the left-leaning districts are systematically 5,000-6,000 voters larger than the right-leaning districts, which means that it takes many more votes to elect someone from a left-leaning district than to elect someone from Fidesz.

The borders of these new districts also appear to be drawn to Fidesz’s advantage, since they just happen to break up the areas where the opposition alliance voters have traditionally been strongest and they scatter these opposition voters over a new Fidesz-majority landscape. Historically left-leaning districts were partitioned and blended into historically right-leaning districts, creating fewer districts where left-leaning candidates are relatively certain to win.

One of the most obvious gerrymanders occurred (again) in Hajdú-Bihar County. In the 2006 election, which went nationally by a wide margin to the Socialists, the county voted three of its nine districts for the Socialists and six for Fidesz, as you can see in the chart below, on the left. If the results from the 2006 election were tallied in the newly drawn six districts for that country, as shown on the right, Fidesz would now win every district. The map reveals that this all-Fidesz result was accomplished by drawing the districts to divide up the compact concentrations of Socialist voters so that they would become minority voters in Fidesz-dominant districts.   Examples like this one can be found all over the country, as left-leaning districts were partitioned to break up clusters of opposition voters to mix them with even more conservative voters from neighboring areas.

hajduThe US may have invented the gerrymander, and so it may seem presumptuous for an American to complain about the new districts. But the Hungarian gerrymander is different from the (also outrageous) American type. In US national elections, gerrymanders occur at the state level, which means one party cannot redistrict the whole country at once. In the US, districting plans are also subject to judicial review to check the worst self-dealing. In Hungary, however, the whole country was redistricted by one party all at once so the Hungarian gerrymander is far more decisive. And there is no judicial review to correct excesses. In addition, unlike in America where the governing parties in the states get a new shot at gerrymandering every 10 years, after each census, it will take a two-thirds vote of the parliament to change any district in Hungary’s future.

Hungarians don’t just cast votes for individual representatives in districts of the sort we have just seen, however. Hungarians cast two votes in national elections. In addition to casting ballots for representatives in the voters’ individual constituency, voters cast second ballots for party lists. Those votes are aggregated across the country and additional parliamentary seats are awarded to parties based on these results, above and beyond the seats won in the individual districts.

In the new parliament as in the old one, MPs elected both ways sit together with equal status. While this dual system of MP elections appears to mitigate the effect of the gerrymander, the new parliament, unlike the old, allocates more seats to the individual constituencies than to the party-list mandates. The new parliament features 106 district mandates and 93 party-list mandates. Since individual constituencies are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, this tilts the system toward an even more disproportionate distribution of mandates than in the prior also-disproportionate parliament.

Individual constituencies in Hungary were allocated from 1990 to 2010 in a two-round run-off system. Unless a candidate won 50% or more in the first round, a second round would be held between the highest vote-getters to determine who won the mandate. This system meant that many political parties would field candidates in round one, and then form coalitions before round two after the relative viabilities of the individual candidates could be assessed. Hungarian political culture grew up around this system so that parties were not accustomed to bargaining before any votes were cast.

The new electoral system in Hungary eliminates this second round, benefiting Fidesz, as the largest single party. It can now win districts outright without needing majority support because it only has to get more votes than any other party on the (single) election day to capture the constituency. Given that the districts have been drawn to give Fidesz an advantage overall, one can imagine other parties will have a hard time winning constituencies which have been constructed precisely so that Fidesz is the largest party.

The design of the new system means that the democratic opposition would only have a chance to win individual constituencies if the various opposition parties of the left could create a grand coalition before the election so that they didn’t run candidates against each other. But this was a result that everyone familiar with politics in Hungary knew would be hard to accomplish. The parties in the “democratic opposition” (excluding Jobbik) are sharply divided both by ideology and personality. But unless these parties could set aside their differences to unite, they would surely lose.

The announcement on 14 January that five parties in the opposition had managed to agree on a single list of candidates for the single-member districts as well as a common party list was therefore something of a political miracle.

But can the party leaders of the Unity Alliance bring all of their voters along with them? Many voters for the smaller parties on the left often don’t trust the larger Socialist Party which now dominates the coalition.  And some personalities in the mix are popular only within their own parties and unattractive to the others in the coalition. As a result, it cannot be assumed that votes for the five parties can simply be added together to produce a united whole that is the same size or even larger than the sum of the parts.

Because voters cast two ballots on election day, the individual constituencies are only part of the story, though they are the largest part. Parties will also run national lists to compete for voters’ second votes. The new conditions that came into effect since the last election actually make it easier than it was in 2010 to nominate candidates for the individual constituencies and to register parties with national lists, something that is consistent with a dominant-party strategy to divide up the opposition as much as possible.

But the party-list system also builds in incentives for small parties to join together to form a larger alliance. To be approved to run a national list, parties must field candidates in at least 27 individual constituencies in at least nine of the 19 counties plus Budapest. While this guarantees that parties are truly national, it also aggravates the problems created by the loss of the second-round runoff in the individual constituencies. Any new national list adds to the “clutter” of individual candidates in the individual constituencies and further fragments the vote.

So it makes sense, under these rules, for small parties to form a common national list. To avoid competing head-on and perhaps pushing each other below the 5% threshold for entering the parliament, small parties on the same side of the political spectrum are pushed by the logic of the system to join forces. But as soon as they do so, they run into another problem. In all elections since 1994, parties have had to meet a 5% threshold of the popular vote to gain a fraction in the parliament. For two parties that run together, the threshold rises to 10% and for three or more parties, the threshold is 15%.

If the smaller parties were going to unite for 2014, then, they ran the risk of together missing the higher threshold required of joint party lists. The rules of the game have therefore pushed the small parties of the “democratic opposition” to do what they did – which was to join with the Socialists to form Unity. Only an alliance with the larger Socialist party guaranteed that these smaller parties would be able to enter the parliament given the higher thresholds for joined lists. Because many of the smaller parties were created precisely to distance particular groups of voters from the Socialists, however, this is an uneasy alliance at best.

So that is where we were as the campaign was launched, witnessing a democratic opposition alliance whose members do not like each other much but who have to work together if they are to have any hope of ousting Fidesz given the way that the rules are structured. The public squabbling that occurred as the grand coalition went together belied the name of Unity Alliance and weakened their electoral position. They have the campaign period to convey a new unified message, but – as we will see – that is going to be very hard.