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What now? Civilians versus party leaders

Tomorrow’s demonstration is being organized by a Facebook group called “MostMi!” (Now us!). The chief organizer of MostMi! is Zsolt Várady, a man who two years before Mark Zuckerberg hit upon the idea of Facebook, started iWiW, a Hungarian site. Later purchased by Magyar Telekom, iWiW no longer exists. Várady tried his luck in Berlin but couldn’t quite make it as a software developer. Now back in Hungary, he has been waging a war for some time against the Hungarian tax system which in his opinion is ruinous for Hungarian entrepreneurs.

Várady’s strategy was bizarre. Sometime at the beginning of October he sued every Hungarian party that has existed since 1990, fifteen all told, for being responsible for the widespread tax evasion effectively foisted upon Hungarian citizens because of the existing system of taxation. Quite clearly, Várady does not like parties. The very name he gave to the organization responsible for tomorrow’s demonstration is telling: “Now us!” It implies that all the parties of the last twenty-five years have failed and that the time has come for him and other unaffiliated citizens to take the reins.

What does MostMi! want to achieve tomorrow? “We would like to experience again the same liberating feeling [of earlier demonstrations] after the holidays. To feel that we are not alone and that we dare to raise our voices against this regime.” I’m afraid this is not quite enough. It looks as if MostMi! will be unable to rouse large numbers of demonstrators. As of now only about 10,000 people have indicated they will attend. Of course, it’s mighty cold out.

But there might be an additional reason for the lack of enthusiasm. Speakers at earlier demonstrations talked about the misery of the last twenty-five years and railed against all politicians, no matter their political stripe, while the crowds demanded: “Orbán takarodj!” (Orbán scram!). The civil organizers and the demonstrators were not in sync. Many of the demonstrators are followers of already existing parties. They would vote for MSZP, DK, Együtt, PM, LMP–that is, mostly for the parties of the old “Összefogás” group. These parties want to remove the present government from power. Várady and his co-organizers, by contrast, are working to eliminate all the existing democratic parties while they wait for a new generation of pristine politicians to emerge from their own ranks to eliminate the present regime.

In the last week or so, several political analysts argued against letting civilians take the lead to the exclusion of parties because they are convinced that if parties don’t join the movement, it will end up just like Milla, another Facebook initiative, did. Milla refused to cooperate with established parties and as a result it disappeared, practically without a trace.

It is usually Ferenc Gyurcsány who makes the first move when he sees an opportunity. The Orbán government has been greatly weakened and, in his opinion, it is time for political action. He was the only politician on the left who announced that the opposition should devise a strategy that would result in an election in 2016 instead of 2018. For that, the parties must come out of hibernation and join the movement that was begun by the civilians. They seem to be the ones who can gather crowds, but the crowds are not as politically unaffiliated as the civic organizers think. The very fact that they go out on the street is a political act. And politics needs parties.

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On December 22, Gyurcsány asked his followers to join the demonstration once again, but this time with party flags and emblems. The reaction from the MostMi! group was predictable. They subscribed to the Milla template: no parties, no slogans. “Now us!” But who are the “us”?  Even a conservative blog,”1000 A Mi Hazánk,” insisted that parties must make their appearance because otherwise the whole momentum of the demonstrations will be lost. On the liberal side, István Gusztos in Gépnarancs was of the same mind. As he said, “the organizers sooner or later must understand that political parties are civic formations par excellence.” Keeping civilians away from parties is an impediment to their renewal, which will make a struggle against the present regime impossible.

A telephone conversation between Várady and Gyurcsány did not resolve the impasse. Gyurcsány said that DK members and sympathizers who have faithfully attended earlier demonstrations will be happy to join Várady’s goup on January 2, but only if they can show their party preferences. The debate between DK and the organizers continued for days. The other parties, whom Gyurcsány called on to join DK’s example, remained quiet. The main reason for their reluctance was that they don’t want to appear to be following Gyurcsány’s lead. After all, József Tóbás, chairman of MSZP, made it clear that the socialists will never work together with any other party. They will the ones that will form a socialist government in 2018. Obviously, they also reject Gyurcsány’s strategy of holding early elections.

Naturally, the right-wing press was delighted to hear that the organizers “fell upon each other” while the liberals who sympathize with Gyurcsány felt that the civilians “screwed it up again.” Defenders of the civic leaders considered Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision to be a way of usurping a demonstration that someone else organized. Indeed, by the rules of MostMi!’s game, Gyurcsány was trying to do exactly that. But as a liberal commentator said, “perhaps the rules of the game are wrong.”

The debate ended on December 30 when Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, a leading DK politician, announced that DK activists had received threats by civilians and that, in order to avoid possible violence, Ferenc Gyurcsány had withdrawn his request for DK sympathizers to be able to display their affiliation and affinity with the party. At that time Kerék-Bárczy still called upon the party’s followers to attend the demonstration. A few hours later, however, DK spokesman Zsolt Gréczy said that Gyurcsány had decided that if DK members and sympathizers can’t show their real colors, they will not attend. Of course, he cannot forbid DK sympathizers from attending, but neither he nor Gréczy will be there tomorrow.

Meanwhile criticism of the MostMi! group continues. Another civilian, Gábor Szabó, who has been demonstrating in front of the parliament building for months, wrote an open letter to Zsolt Várady saying that “it would be time to clear up what the real purpose of the demonstration is because the crowd thinks that the demonstration is against the Orbán regime while it seems that the goal of Várady and his collaborators is the creation of a new opposition.”

“European God” and other atrocities in a Hungarian textbook

While the MSZP bigwigs are trying to figure out what they did wrong in the past instead of attempting to come up with a strategy that might be useful in the future, let us turn to another topic: a new “experimental” literature textbook for grade 9 students. A sample page from this book was made available on Facebook, compliments of the Association of Hungarian Teachers. Hungarian teachers flocked to the site and were horrified. An outcry followed. The text disappeared from the Internet in no time.

Rózsa Hoffmann’s tenure in the Ministry of Human Resources is coming to an end. One newspaper announced, I suspect with a certain glee, “The Hoffmann Period Is Over.”  Unfortunately, by the very nature of her job, her influence on Hungarian education, especially now that the Orbán regime will have another four years, will cast a long shadow. It will take years, if not decades, before Hungarian public education will recover from Rózsa Hoffmann’s messianic zeal.

Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the Christian Democrats, described the departing education secretary as someone who fought like a “Berber lion.” Well, the Berber lion wrote a farewell letter in which she inflicted her final wound, making sure that the choice of textbooks will be seriously restricted from here on. Many popular textbooks will no longer be available and will be replaced by textbooks issued by two newly nationalized publishers. I read about one Budapest teacher who broke into tears when she heard that they are taking away her favorite textbook for third graders.

Let’s see what kinds of textbooks these Fidesz-Christian Democratic experts have in mind for Hungarian kids, in particular the experimental literature textbook for grade 9 students. (I would like to think that the Facebook post was just a belated April Fools joke, but I guess from the response that it wasn’t.) Thanks to social media it seems this experimental book will  never be published, but perhaps without Facebook it would have been. The page the Association of Hungarian Teachers picked dealt with Greek gods and mythology.

Before I begin to translate selected passages, let me point out that it is hard to believe that this book was written for fifteen-year-old students. It is so simple-minded, save for all the sexual references, that I think a ten-year-old would be offended by it. I should add that I find it difficult to write in such a primitive style as the original Hungarian, but I will try. As for the run-on sentences, they are like this in the original.

A 19th-century Hungarian writer once said that he would like to live in a country where people tell tales. Well, ancient Greece was such a country. The Greeks recognized that it is sexual desire that moves everything in life; so they called it Eros (Amor or Cupid in Rome); they realized that love is always young and that love rejuvenates the soul and therefore they showed Eros as a young child; they knew that no one can force anyone to love; they knew that love is illusive and came to the conclusion that a man in love is happy, his soul soars, therefore they told tales about Eros’s wings by which he can fly; they felt that love can be painful and that’s why they said that Eros had a bow and with it he wounds his victims.

They saw that there are many wars in the world, and they began telling tales about a god who is the god of war and they named him Ares, the Romans called him Mars, but they also saw that often there is war between lovers, they fight a lot, and they thought that love is a kind of war, therefore they told tales about Ares who fell in love with the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite (Venus). They saw that at dawn the sun arrives and at night it disappears and that’s why they told tales about a god that is the sun and named him Helios who drives his carriage across the sky every day. They saw that the moon comes up and they saw that the moon keeps changing; they saw that every 28 days something happens like what happens to girls and that’s why they thought that the moon is a woman and they called her Artemis (Diana).

They were surprised how clever a human being can be and told tales about the goddess of wisdom, Palas Athene (Minerva), and they felt that while man is clever, his body sometimes is not at all clever, as if on top man was clever, but lower down he is a stupid animal, so they spoke of beings existing in the forests who are goats lower down but men above and they called them satyrs who are running around in the forest at night chasing women (nőkre fáj a foguk); they thought that everything in the world comes from these gods and therefore they told tales about the chief god, Zeus, who falls in love with every beautiful woman and that the world is full of Zeus’s children…. The Greek men also had jealous wives and that is why they told tales that Zeus’s wife, Hera (Juno), was not taken with her husband’s debauchery and watched over the unity of the family with watchful eyes (árgus szemekkel); they thought that Hera was the goddess of familial unity.

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But that is not all. On another page we can read:

What is polytheism? Our European God is alone, unknowable, almighty Lord above us and above nature. The gods of the Greeks were entirely different: there were more of them because they were born from myths of  natural phenomena and became anthropomorphic creatures similar to men.

One cannot be terribly surprised that a blogger, László Szily, gave the following title to his post: “The moon menstruates every 28th day in Hoffmann’s textbook.” Or that 444.hu addressed the departing secretary as “Rózsa Hoffman, you European God.”

The Hungarian opposition has awakened. What comes next?

Hungarian commentators who follow politics very carefully and whose opinion I trust kept saying all along that cooperation among the diverse opposition groups would materialize because it cannot be otherwise given the electoral law. I was also inclined to believe that to be the case, but I have worried all along that they would run out of time.

I was enthusiastic when Gordon Bajnai decided to return to politics because he did a terrific job during his months as prime minister. There was modest economic growth as opposed to the recession that resulted from the unorthodox economic policies of the second Orbán government. I also thought that his quiet nature and measured tone would stand in stark contrast to Viktor Orbán’s firebrand style. But in the last five months I became increasingly disenchanted with Gordon Bajnai’s strategy. I don’t want to repeat myself, but for those who are not regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum my main objection was his alliance with a group called Milla that was formed on Facebook and that could get 40-50,000 people out on the streets on national holidays to protest the present regime. That was a feat, but the fierce anti-party rhetoric of the Milla group about whose leadership we knew practically nothing didn’t bode well for the future. Whether disenchanted Hungarians like it or not, elections can be won or lost only by parties.

Most likely because of Milla, Bajnai’s Együtt 2014 group and later party dragged its heels on the subject of negotiations with the other opposition parties. Five precious months went by, and about a week ago Bajnai asked for yet another two months before Együtt 2014 would sit down with MSZP to talk about the details of cooperation.

Attila Mesterházy, the chairman of MSZP, is most likely right when he says that the people he and his fellow politicians meet while traveling from town to town desperately want cooperation. It’s no wonder, Mesterházy said–and I can only agree with him–that about half of the voting population is undecided when there is no united party to vote for. Moreover, Mesterházy looked like an open and generous soul by saying that the candidate for the premiership should be the person who has the best chance of getting the most votes for the united party. He may not be completely honest on this question; one couldn’t blame him for wanting to have the post when he is the head of the largest opposition party. However, I have the feeling that if polls were to indicate by the end of the year that with Bajnai the opposition’s chances would be better, he would step aside.

It was exactly one week ago that Bajnai came up with his ideas for a timetable, but something happened between  April 19 and 27. First of all, according to the latest two public opinion polls Együtt 2014 further lost voters, three months in a row. Second, Bajnai couldn’t really explain why he needed two more months, aside from the obvious fact that Együtt 2014 is weak now and he would like to be in a better position in his negotiations with MSZP. He looked like the kind of schemer and cunning politician the Hungarians hate so much by now

But, in an apparent about face, when Attila Mesterházy called him on Thursday night to join MSZP’s steering committee meeting today, Bajnai accepted.

By Arrow-ErnetO / Flickr

Giving a helping hand by Arrow-ErnestO / Flickr

It seems to me that Fidesz was caught flatfooted. On the day that the news of the impending meeting between Bajnai and the steering committee of MSZP was announced, the Fidesz propaganda machine was behind the times. At least three articles appeared in Magyar Nemzet in two days about the close connection between Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai. As I said earlier, it really doesn’t matter how much Gordon Bajnai tries to act as if he has nothing to do with Ferenc Gyurcsány, it will not convince the Fidesz propagandists. It’s a waste of time and most likely politically injurious as well. After all, Gyurcsány’s party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, has a sizable following that might find Gordon Bajnai’s behavior unsavory.

Magyar Nemzet, the semi-official paper of the government party, at first tried to minimize the importance of the meeting. The paper, which is very good on getting the scoop from government circles, is much less well informed about what’s going on in the other parties. According to the paper, “the MSZP leadership doesn’t consider cooperation with other parties necessary for victory at the election next April.” In brief, one mustn’t be terribly worried about this meeting because it will lead nowhere.

According to the normally well-informed HVG, Bajnai originally accepted the invitation in order to explain to the socialists why he would like to start negotiations only in mid-June. Well, it turned out that the meeting was much more productive. The MSZP politicians were receptive even before the meeting started. Tibor Szanyi, one of the leaders of the party, emphasized that Bajnai came as a friend and, after all, “we are all friends here …. and comrades.” (The word “elvtárs” in Hungarian simply means “sharing the same ideas.”)  Bajnai, for his part, emphasized that “once during the economic crisis we worked together with great success and so we will able to do it again.” He was ready to subordinate all other issues to electoral success. Mesterházy was of the same opinion and called the coming election one of historic importance. “We must look after each other, we must help each other.”

In the end they agreed on the following: (1) In each electoral district there will be only one candidate. (2) At by-elections there will be joint campaigns and a common candidate. (3) The parties won’t try to weaken each other either in statements or in any other way. There will be a hotline set up between Bajnai and Mesterházy to coordinate the work between the two parties. (4) Each party’s activists, although they will work separately, will strengthen cooperation between the parties on the local level.

Two hours after the joint press conference of Bajnai and Mesterházy the editorial board of Magyar Nemzet already figured out an “appropriate” headline: “The Bajnai-Mesterházy-Gyurcsány pact became a reality.” “Pact” has a bad ring in Hungarian political discourse, and there is no way the government paper could possibly leave out the name of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the newly arrived at understanding between Együtt 2014 and MSZP. Moreover, the Hungarian opposition has a new name in the Fidesz vocabulary: “the mafia left.” It was first uttered today by Máté Kocsis, one of the young Turks of Fidesz, who began his youthful career in István Csurka’s anti-Semitic MIÉP party. He is only one of the newly appointed spokesmen, but I guess  if you have several and all of them say the same thing over and over the message will stick better with the party faithful. The more the merrier.

Meanwhile the strategists of Fidesz are working hard to discredit the opposition. In this deadly game the presumably trumped-up charges against György Szilvásy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Sándor Laborc will play an important role.

The real campaign just began. Perhaps somewhat optimistically Stop, an Internet paper, came out with this headline: “This is what Fidesz is terrified of: A strong opposition cooperation came into being.” And, let me add, it also began on the local level. Együtt 2014, MSZP, and DK launched a joint effort against the Fidesz mayor, Ferenc Papcsák, of Zugló (District XIV of Budapest). I have the feeling many such cooperative efforts will follow now that there is an understanding in the center.