Gábor Fodor

Elemental rearrangement on the Hungarian right?

Over the past few years we often heard that the regime Viktor Orbán built in the last five years can be dismantled only from the inside. Internal dissatisfaction with the leadership will one day reach such proportions that it will force the retirement of Viktor Orbán and his closest associates. Until recently, however, we didn’t see any such movement within Fidesz, despite its steady loss of sympathizers and supporters. We do know that there are insiders, including Fidesz members of parliament, who would like to get answers to their questions and who complain to reporters that they have been waiting a long time for an opportunity to discuss the problems the party is facing, without any success. Still and all, I don’t see any serious cracks in the solid political wall of Fidesz.

The right-wing media is another matter. Although some talking heads predict that the Simicska affair will blow over in no time, I disagree. I believe that the Simicska-Orbán falling out will have serious repercussions in the media world, signs of which have already appeared. My bold prediction, admittedly mixed with a large dose of wishful thinking, is that the fomentation in the media will facilitate the collapse of the Orbán-led political edifice.

On what do I base this prediction? First of all, there are signs that Lajos Simicska means business. He will use his considerable talent and financial resources to build a media empire that can take on state television and radio, a task that is, let’s face it, not terribly difficult. He began by appointing Péter Tarr to be one of the directors of HírTV. Tarr worked for Radio Free Europe until 1994 when he moved over to MTV. In 1997 he became the first managing editor of RTL Klub. In that capacity he was influential in exposing some of the corruption cases of the 1990s. According to Esti Újság, Tarr is gathering a fantastic staff at HírTV that should be able to produce the best news television in Hungary. The plan is to produce a program that “would restore the pillars of democracy and the power of the media.” Well, one could say that this is far too optimistic a scenario and that Simicska is not the most obvious man to lead the fight for democracy and against corruption. Admittedly, but he seems determined to ruin his old friend Viktor Orbán. People who know both men, like Gábor Fodor, a former friend from college days, are certain that this fight will last until only one of them is left standing.

So, what are the signs that encourage me to predict real changes on the mediascape? First of all, the report from the far-right wing media that half of the reporters of Magyar Nemzet and HírTV had quit turned out to be premature. For instance, Szabolcs Szerető, one of the people who quit last Friday, has already changed his mind and returned to the fold. He was the editor of the Monday edition of the paper.

Second, one can already detect substantial changes both in news reporting and in the opinion pieces in Magyar Nemzet. Let’s take a piece of news that has occupied the Hungarian media in the last two days. The chairman of Fidesz’s youth branch (ifjúsági tagozat) was caught with €30,000 of counterfeit currency. Fidesz immediately tried to distance itself, claiming that the young man had been removed from the party way back in 2012. The proof they presented was specious. In the past Magyar Nemzet would have supported the Fidesz position regardless of how ridiculous it was. But not this time. Let’s start with the headline: “He didn’t pay his membership fee and therefore was expelled?” The article continues with an honest description of the case and leaves no doubt that the Fidesz version is most likely untrue. In fact, when the article refers to the culprit as the “former chairman” of the organization, the writer or the editor put a question mark after the word “former.”

The same is true of Zsuzsanna Körmendy, who used to write the most vicious editorials about the opposition and was always supportive of the government and Fidesz. Zsolt Bayer predicted that “everybody from Csaba Lukács to Zsuzsanna Körmendy will quit because they will not be ready to write articles” demanded by Simicska. Yet today Körmendy wrote a piece titled “Self-examination never hurts.” Here Körmendy confronts her readers with the steady decline in Fidesz support and calls on the party “to examine its decisions thoroughly.” From here on the government should make wiser and more thoughtful decisions because “there is nothing more pitiful and destructive than taking back in full or in part earlier decisions. One ought not to experiment with citizens who have been losing their patience.” This kind of language is new in Magyar Nemzet. So it’s no wonder that Policy Agenda, a think tank, is certain that “after five years of governing Fidesz has lost its media,” which will be deadly for the future of the party.

But that’s not all. The most faithful Gábor Borókai, editor-in-chief of Heti Valóság, who served Viktor Orbán’s government as its spokesman between 1998 and 2002, stood by Lajos Simicska and against his former boss in an editorial that appeared today. For Borókai it is obvious that with the Simicska-Orbán duel “an unpredictable tectonic shift began that will turn into an elemental rearrangement on the right.” According to him, that kind of change has been long in coming. In plain language, the performance of the third Orbán government is dismal. In the past year Viktor Orbán has been preoccupied with his balancing act between Merkel and Putin while at home everything is falling apart. People have had enough of a government that wants to rearrange every facet of their lives. They want to be left alone.

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Of course, Borókai is still a man of the right, but not the kind that Orbán surrounds himself with these days. He is yearning for the “western, strong, sovereign and ‘polgári’ Hungary which Viktor Orbán wanted to build in 1998.” In 2010 Orbán set out to fulfill this wish, and he did rebuild a devastated economy, but “since then everything around us has changed for the worse. While searching for new solutions one shouldn’t forget the original goal. Otherwise, the chandelier will fall on us.” Borókai’s piece is full of contradictions, but it must be difficult to admit that his assessment of Viktor Orbán and his ideology has most likely been wrong all along. Even in 1998 when he decided to represent the first Orbán government. At one point he claims that “it is not too late” for Fidesz to find itself, but elsewhere he talks about an elemental reorganization of the right. Eventually these right-wing journalists will sort out their ideas, but at least they have begun writing as individuals instead of media servants of the government.

Meanwhile Reporters Without Borders published its World Press Freedom Index, 2014. In the last four years Hungary’s ranking dropped from 23d to 64th out of 180 countries. While the situation in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia is considered to be good, in Hungary there are “noticeable problems.” Even the Romanian press is freer than the Hungarian. Hungary is in the cluster with Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, and Albania. Nothing to be proud of. But perhaps there will be a revolt of the right-wing journalists and with it will come a freer press and perhaps even political change.

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A new opposition candidate for mayor of Budapest, a rift in MSZP

It was about a week ago that I wrote about the Budapest municipal election. At that time there were seven candidates running against the incumbent István Tarlós, Fidesz’s choice in both 2006 and 2010. At that junction Ferenc Falus, the candidate of the joint democratic opposition, was trailing behind Lajos Bokros, former finance minister (1995-1996) and EU member of parliament (2009-2014), a man who calls himself liberal conservative. Együtt-PM, the party whose nominee Falus was, tried to convince Bokros to withdraw in Falus’s favor, but Bokros refused, saying that he was ahead of Falus in the polls. If anyone should withdraw it is Falus. At this point it looked that neither man would budge, and therefore I predicted that Bokros would be the scapegoat of the united opposition if István Tarlós wins the election by a large margin. Well, I was wrong. Yesterday Falus withdrew in favor of Bokros. György Magyar, an independent, followed suit.

So, what happened? Well, that’s not exactly clear. Here is Lajos Bokros’s side of the story. He received a telephone call from Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair of Együtt-PM, allegedly speaking in the name of all four parties–MSZP, DK, Együtt and PM–who informed him that they were ready to support him and drop Falus’s candidacy. A meeting was arranged, to be attended by representatives of all four parties, but to Bokros’s dismay only Szigetvári of Együtt and Ferenc Gyurcsány of DK showed up. Szigetvári was again asked about his authority to speak in the name of those who were absent. Szigetvári assured him that he had the authority. Falus later joined the meeting, and the participants decided to make the announcement yesterday at noon.

It turned out that Szigetvári did not in fact have the authority to speak in the name of MSZP and PM. MSZP’s Budapest executive board got together in a hurriedly called meeting as did the national executive board at a separate gathering to decide the matter. After a lengthy discussion Ágnes Kunhalmi, chair of MSZP’s Budapest board, announced last night that they support Bokros’s candidacy. A few minutes later József Tóbiás, chairman of MSZP, made a short statement. Although he did not say that the party is not endorsing Bokros, he stressed that for them it is not enough that somebody is a democrat, as Bokros surely is; he must be “a social democrat.” He expressed his great sorrow that voters of socialist convictions cannot vote for a leftist candidate. It is a shame. They had a good candidate in Csaba Horváth, who in 2010 received 35% of the votes, but on the insistence of the other three parties they sacrificed him for the sake of Együtt’s candidate, Ferenc Falus. PM earlier announced its refusal to support a liberal conservative candidate because the party can’t expect him to fully represent their green-socialist agenda.

Ágnes Kunhalmi, chairperson of the Budapest MSZP

Ágnes Kunhalmi, chairperson of the Budapest MSZP

With less than three weeks to the municipal elections at least we have two fewer candidates vying to unseat István Tarlós. It was always clear that András Schiffer’s LMP would have nothing to do with any of the other democratic parties because he is convinced that within a few years his party will be able to unseat Viktor Orbán and Fidesz singlehandedly. As far as Jobbik is concerned, the democratic opposition wants nothing to do with an anti-Semitic and racist party. That leaves only the candidate of the Magyar Liberális Párt (MLP). This is the party, if you can call it that, of Gábor Fodor, who in the last hours of SZDSZ served as its chairman. Although he makes a very good impression in interviews, people who know him say that his main concern is his own advancement.

Gábor Fodor’s behavior in the last year and a half supports his critics’ contentions about his character. In April 2013 he established his own liberal party and a year later, thanks to the intervention of Ferenc Gyurcsány, he received the #4 place on the party ticket of the united opposition. I assume Gyurcsány thought that after the election Fodor would join the DK parliamentary caucus out of gratitude. Indeed, if Fodor had done this, DK today would have a separate delegation. But once Fodor was safely ensconced in parliament representing practically nobody except himself, he had no intention of joining anyone. He decided to remain independent.

Fodor’s second move was to present his own candidate for the mayoralty of Budapest, Zoltán Bodnár, a former deputy governor of Hungary’s central bank. Considering that the party is not supposed to have any money, Bodnár’s campaign seems to be extraordinarily well financed. His posters are all over town, which has made the other democratic parties suspicious. It is widely believed by opposition politicians as well as voters that it is Fidesz who stands behind the lavish liberal campaign. This suspicion was reinforced yesterday when Zoltán Bodnár announced that he has no intention of withdrawing because he is “the only serious candidate.” At the same time, with no support for his contention, he accused Ferenc Gyurcsány of orchestrating Falus’s removal from the campaign. In his version it was Gyurcsány who “forced Falus’s withdrawal.”

In any case, at the moment it looks as if Bokros will have four opponents: István Tarlós (Fidesz-KDNP), Gábor Staudt (Jobbik), Antal Csárdi (LMP), and Zoltán Bodnár (MLP). According to Nézőpont Intézet’s poll, Csárdi and Staudt will each receive 3% of the votes. Bodnár’s name did not appear on Nézőpont’s list, but “Other” polled at 2%.

I consider the most important political development of the last couple of days to be the open split of the socialists. We have always known that within the party there is a left and a right wing. The right wing has been more open to cooperation with non-socialist but democratic parties and groups. In the Budapest MSZP these people seem to be in the majority. They think that getting rid of Tarlós in Budapest is more important than any party consideration. They feel comfortable with people in DK, among whom there are a number of former SZDSZ politicians as well as people from the moderate conservative MDF.

As far as I can recall, this is the first time that the MSZP leadership has split so openly and unequivocally. This rift may have serious repercussions–in the most dire scenario leading to the eventual breakup and possible demise of MSZP. If that happens, the hard-liners will have nowhere to go. The moderates, by contrast, have already established networks that may lead to some kind of association or even merger with other parties. The next couple of years might be more exciting than we think right now.

Domestic reactions to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy”

In the wake of Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 26 politicians on the left have been united in their condemnation while journalists on the right have been scrambling to make the speech more palatable.

The reactions of MSZP, DK, and Együtt-PM to the horrendous political message about establishing an “illiberal democracy” were fairly similar. They all deplored the fact that the Hungarian prime minister seems to be following the example of Putin’s Russia.

József Tóbiás, the newly elected chairman of MSZP, was perhaps the least forceful  in his condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s political philosophy. Tóbiás pointed out that Orbán with this speech demonstrated that he has turned against all those who don’t share his vision: the socialists, the liberals, and even the conservatives. Because all of these ideologies try to find political solutions within the framework of liberal democracy.

Együtt-PM found the speech appalling: “The former vice-president of Liberal International today buried the liberal state. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán not only lay to rest liberal democracy but democracy itself.” Subsequently, the party decided to turn to Brussels, asking the European Commission to protect the independent NGOs.

Gábor Fodor in the name of the Hungarian Liberal Party recalled Viktor Orbán’s liberal past and declared that “democracy is dead in our country.” The prime minister “made it expressly clear that it’s either him or us, freedom loving people.”

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy in the name of the Democratic Coalition (DK) was the most explicit. He said what many people have been hinting at for a while: that “a fascist state” is in the making in Hungary. “Unfortunately,” he added, Orbán “is either insane or a traitor, or both.”

LMP’s András Schiffer, as usual, had a different take on the speech. According to him, Orbán’s critique of liberal democracy is on target. Only his conclusions are wrong. LMP, which likes to describe itself as a green party, is an enemy of capitalism and also, it seems, of liberal democracy.

Magyar Nemzet published an interesting editorial by Csaba Lukács. He fairly faithfully summarized the main points of  the speech with one notable omission. There was no mention of “illiberal democracy.” And no mention of “democracy” either. Instead, he went on for almost two paragraphs about the notion of a work-based state and expressed his astonishment that liberals are so much against work. “Perhaps they don’t like to work and that’s why they panic.” Lukács clumsily tried to lead the discussion astray. Surely, he himself must know that the liberals are not worried about work but about the “illiberal democracy” he refused to mention in his article.

Journalists who normally support the government and defend all its actions seem to be at a loss in dealing with Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” Deep down most likely they also know that this so-called “illiberal democracy” will not be democracy at all. So, they simply skirt the issue.

Válasz‘s editorial avoided the term as well, but at least István Dévényi wanted to know more about Viktor Orbán’s plans. After discussing the reactions of the opposition parties which talk about the end of democracy, he added: “I don’t think that for the time being there is reason to worry, but it would be good to know what exactly the prime minister has in mind when he talks about a nation-state, a work-based state that will follow the welfare state.”

A new English-language paper entitled Hungary Today managed to summarize the speech that lasted for 30 minutes in 212 words. Not surprisingly this Hungarian propaganda organ also kept the news of “illiberal democracy” a secret. Instead, the reader learns that “copying the west is provincialism, and we must leave it behind, as it could ‘kill us.'”

As for DK’s reference to Italian fascism, it is not a new claim. For a number of years here and there one could find references to the similarities between the ideas of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös (1932-1936) and those of Benito Mussolini. As prime  minister of Hungary, Gömbös made great strides toward establishing a fascist state in Hungary. József Debreczeni, an astute critic of Viktor Orbán who uncannily predicted what will happen if and when Viktor Orbán becomes prime minister again, quipped at one point that comparing Orbán to Horthy is a mistake; the comparison with Gömbös is much more apt.

Népszava's headline: "He already speaks as a dictator / Getty Images

Népszava’s headline: “He already speaks like a dictator / Getty Images

Péter Új, editor-in-chief of 444.hu, rushed to the library to find a Hungarian-language collection of the Duce’s memorable speeches. I might add that the book was published in 1928 and that István Bethlen, who happened to be prime minister at the time, wrote the preface to Benito Mussolini gondolatai (The thoughts of Benito Mussolini). In this book Új found some real gems: “The century of democracy over.” Or, “Unlimited freedom … does not exist.” “Freedom is not a right but a duty.” “It would be suicidal to follow the ideology of liberalism … I declare myself to be anti-liberal.” “The nation of tomorrow will be the nation of workers.”

Others searched for additional sources of Orbán’s assorted thoughts and claims in the speech. I already mentioned Fareed Zakaria’s article on illiberal democracies. Gábor Filippov of Magyar Progressive Institute concentrated on Orbán’s assertion that a well-known American political scientist had described American liberalism as hotbed of corruption, sex, drugs, and crime. Filippov found an article by Joseph S. Nye, former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in the June 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “The Decline of America’s Soft Power.” (You may recall that Zakaria’s article also appeared in that periodical. It seems that one of Orbán’s speechwriters has a set of Foreign Affairs on hand!) But whoever wrote the speech badly misunderstood the text. The original English is as follows:

Autocratic regimes in the Middle East have eradicated their liberal opposition, and radical Islamists are in most cases the only dissenters left. They feed on anger toward corrupt regimes, opposition to U.S. policies, and popular fears of modernization. Liberal democracy, as they portray it, is full of corruption, sex, and violence—an impression reinforced by American movies and television and often exacerbated by the extreme statements of some especially virulent Christian preachers in the United States.

Radical Islamists are the ones who claim that liberal democracy is full of corruption, sex, and violence. Viktor Orbán is now joining their ranks. Putin, Mussolini, radical Islamists–these are Orbán’s ideological friends. And he has unfettered power to transform this frightening ideology into government policy.

Banks versus the Hungarian government

Today was the last day for the legislators to get together before the summer recess. They marked the occasion by voting for a piece of legislation that is supposed to ease the hardship of those who took out loans in foreign currencies. Nobody seems to be satisfied with the result, with the exception of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who announced that “this was a historic day that may be the start of a new era…. The era of fair banks may follow.” The debtors find the assistance insufficient. The banks consider it unfair and unconstitutional. And the Hungarian currency, the forint, has been ailing as more and more details of the proposed legislation have become known.

The loss the banks in Hungary face is at least $4 billion according to the estimates of Hungary’s central bank. Today OTP, Hungary’s largest lender, said it may have to refund borrowers $644 million, most of that sum due to the charge that banks were not transparent about unilateral changes to loan terms such as interest rate hikes and a smaller amount linked to exchange-rate margins. And this may not be the end of the banks’ troubles. Antal Rogán, whip of the Fidesz caucus, indicated that later in the year the government plans to force the banks to convert their forex loans to loans denominated in forints at a below-market exchange rate. That could cost the lending institutions an additional $16 billion.

The stock price of  OTP dropped as much as 4% during the course of the day, closing down 1.7% on the day and 4.1% on the week. The share price of Austrian Erste Group Bank AG, the second biggest lender in the country, plunged 16% after it was revealed that its loss in 2014 might be as large as 1.6 billion euros ($2.2 billion) because of its poor performance in Hungary and Romania.

London-based analysts see trouble ahead.  Peter Attard Montalto, an economist at Nomura International, thinks the market “is underestimating the disruptive impact the proposed path will have on the banks in the short to medium run.”

The forex loan legislation passed with an overwhelming majority. There was only one dissenting vote and two abstentions. The former came from Gábor Fodor, the sole MP of the Hungarian Liberal Party, and the two abstentions from DK members. Fodor argues that the legislation “will cause serious economic troubles.” He is also convinced that the Supreme Court’s (Kúria) decision regarding the currency bid/ask spread and the practice of unilateral changes in contracts is unconstitutional. In addition, there is the problem of the statute of limitations, which the bill retroactively changed in a bizarre way. The clock will start counting down only after the loan has been paid in full.

Naturally, the Banking Association (Bankszövetség) is up in arms. Taking advantage of the currency spread is an internationally accepted practice which covers the real cost to the banks. Like Fodor, the secretary of the association, Levente Kovács, considers the change in the statute of limitations unacceptable. He also objects to other retroactive changes incorporated into the legislation as “they violate the rule of law and cause uncertainty among investors.” He pointed out that the banking sector is one of the largest taxpayers in the country. The banks pay 220 billion forints yearly in taxes, and that does not include the extra tax levies they had to suffer in the last three years. The extra levies themselves amount to 1 trillion forints, which translates into 2 million forints per forex debtor. He predicted serious losses and, as a result, forced consolidation in the sector.

Everybody suspects that the banks will go to court over the issue of unilateral contract changes. It is also almost certain that there will be court battles over the legality of converting foreign currency loans into forint loans at below-market rates.

Swiss franc2

All this made no impression on Fidesz legislators. Antal Rogán claimed after the vote that parliament had at last meted out justice for the debtors and promised that within a few months all unfairly collected charges would be refunded. According to Rogán, the average debt holder may receive a refund of between 600,000 and 1 million forints before the end of the year.

This promised windfall did not satisfy those foreign exchange debt holders who had earlier organized several groups to battle for their “rights.” One of these groups, Otthonvédelmi Tanács (Council of Home Defense), demonstrated in front of the parliament building this afternoon. Figuring that an average loan is 7 million forints, they now demand 5.9 million back because in their estimation that 7 million forint debt has since doubled. They claim that the bill just passed will decrease their debt by only 1.2 million, which is not enough. They charged the banks with fraud, and some of the signs demanded jail sentences for bank managers.

Those who predicted court battles did not need to wait long. OTP shortly after the passing of the bill announced its decision to sue the government. And this is just the beginning.

The political bickering has begun

The disappointment among sympathizers of the democratic opposition forces is indescribable. But reasonable barometers of the mood in this circle are the call-in shows on Klubrádió and ATV, which by now are the only opposition electronic media in Hungary. Of course, among the callers there are always those who believe that, if they had been in a position to decide, they would have done much better than the Bajnai-Mesterházy-Gyurcsány trio and who offer their pearls of political wisdom. But a lot of the callers simply describe their utter shock when they heard that Fidesz would most likely win again with a two-thirds majority.

Not that these people ever thought that the Unity Alliance would win the election, but the size of the Fidesz victory made them despair. Many students are ready to leave the country at the earliest opportunity because they don’t want to live in Orbán’s Hungary. Even before the election every third person in the younger generation was planning to leave the country. I suspect that the emigration will only accelerate in the future because I very much doubt that the Hungarian economy will improve any time soon, especially if Orbán and Matolcsy continue their unorthodox economic policies. It is also unlikely that the Orbán regime will change political course. No, they will continue their aggressive war against all the foreign and domestic “enemies” of their regime. It’s enough to note that immediately after the election Orbán gave the go ahead to erect the controversial monument to the German invasion of March 19, 1944.

Yet the democratic opposition must continue to fight the good fight because its electoral results were not as bad as they appeared at first sight. As Árpád W. Tóta said in his last opinion piece, if 1,200,000 voters stuck it out with this two-left-handed Unity Alliance, not everything is lost. The opposition simply has to do a little better, which shouldn’t be that difficult.

The Unity Alliance before the election

The Unity Alliance before the election

The disheartened sympathizers will bounce back. Soon enough, especially if the democratic opposition finds someone who can actually lead the anti-Orbán forces effectively, they will once again gather around the liberals and socialists. I am not worried about them. I am, however, very concerned about the politicians and the so-called political scientists who are now engaged in a blame game.

The finger pointing has already started. Attila Mesterházy blames everybody except himself. He doesn’t think he should resign from the chairmanship of his party. Too bad he doesn’t listen to the callers on Klubrádió. I don’t know what his colleagues in MSZP think (perhaps we will see in May), but László Botka, mayor of Szeged, announced that “continuing in the same way and with the same set-up is not worth doing.”

Or there is Gordon Bajnai, who once it became clear that he would not be the candidate for prime minister succumbed to Weltschmerz. After a fleeting appearance in politics he has already had enough. He is throwing in the towel. He just announced that he will not take his parliamentary seat. And the PM people will all resign after the European parliamentary election. That would be fine if there were a second tier of politicians behind them. But there isn’t.

According to the politicians of Együtt2014-PM and MSZP, the whole Unity Alliance was a mistake. Mesterházy apparently announced right after the election that “we could have done that well alone.” Bajnai declared on Sunday night that they will “never again agree to any unprincipled political compromise.” These politicians are reinforced by the talking heads who also suddenly discovered that the whole alliance was a huge mistake. It was a forced and unnatural political amalgam of diverse political groups. Yes it was, but it was Viktor Orbán’s devilishly clever electoral law that forced that straight jacket on them. The great minds who ex post facto condemn the joint action don’t ask what would have happened if three or four opposition politicians ran against a single Fidesz candidate. In that case, surely, not one district would have been won by the democratic opposition.

Given the mood of  the Bajnai and the Mesterházy groups, it seems there won’t be a united parliamentary delegation either. Both Együtt2014-PM and DK have only four parliamentary representatives, not enough to form a caucus. Only parties with a minimum of five members can have a caucus. That doesn’t seem to bother Együtt2014, whose politicians already announced that no meaningful political activity can be conducted in a parliament in which one party holds a two-thirds majority. They will conduct most of their activities on the streets. Unfortunately, the last two years showed how difficult it is to convince sympathizers of the democratic opposition to take an active part in street demonstrations. MSZP has its own caucus and therefore could care less what the Bajnai group does.

DK politicians haven’t said much, but from the little I heard from Ferenc Gyurcsány it looks as if he is in favor of joint action and a joint caucus.  This solution now seems close to impossible. Gyurcsány did mention that DK might approach Gábor Fodor, the lone “representative” of the Hungarian Liberal party, to join them. After all, it was Gyurcsány who convinced Együtt2014-PM and MSZP to put Fodor high enough up on the party list to assure him of a seat in parliament. Yesterday Fodor said on ATV that no such request had come from DK. Today, however, in the early afternoon Fodor announced that DK did approach him and that “the leadership” of his party had decided against it. DK’s spokesman denies that they approached Fodor with such an offer.

Otherwise, DK has already begun its campaign for the forthcoming European parliamentary election. They are collecting signatures. It was decided some time ago that the three parties would try their luck individually at the EP election. Of the three parties, only MSZP has a chance of actually sending representatives to Brussels. But since people can vote only for a party list in the EP election, Együtt2014-PM and DK can use this election to get a rough sense of their relative strength among the electorate.

So, this is where we stand. Not a happy picture.

American-Hungarian relations and John McCain’s visit to Budapest

It was a week ago that Gergely Gulyás, the young rising star of Fidesz, attacked the American ambassador designate, Colleen Bell, accusing her of bias against the current Hungarian government. At that time I pointed out that without Viktor Orbán’s approval or perhaps even instructions the open letter Gulyás published could never have appeared. Now, in light of the recent visit of Senator John McCain to the Hungarian capital, a fuller picture emerges about the circumstances of that letter.

The public learned only on January 30 that Senator McCain will be spending a day in Budapest. He came not alone but as part of a nine-member bipartisan delegation consisting of three senators and six congressmen.

Surely, the Hungarian government must have known for some time about the impending visit of the American delegation. I venture to say that they knew about it before January 22 when Gulyás published his outrageous letter accusing Colleen Bell of partiality toward the opposition. Those Fidesz politicians who watched the video of the Senate hearing realized that the Republican McCain had a rather low opinion of the ambassadors Barack Obama proposed and may therefore have thought that an attack on Bell would yield brownie points with McCain. If that was the case, it was based on a total misunderstanding of American politics. Sure, at home McCain will show his dissatisfaction with Obama’s choices, but in Budapest he will not cozy up to Viktor Orbán just because he thinks that Bell knows nothing about Hungary or diplomacy. He will follow American foreign policy toward Hungary, which is currently very critical.

A day before the visit of the American delegation János Lázár continued the attacks on the United States in connection with the electronic listening devices that were most likely used on Hungarian citizens as well. Here they found themselves in a strong position. All of Europe is up in arms over the facts disclosed by Edward Snowden, and the decision was most likely made at the highest level that this topic could be used effectively against McCain during the talks. Another miscalculation. McCain didn’t apologize but instead emphasized that surveillance is necessary in the face of terrorism. They will be more selective in the application of these devices in the future. Period.

Meanwhile the parliamentary committee investigating American surveillance held its first meeting on January 30.  In addition to the official members, János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and János Martonyi, foreign minister, were also present. By the way, the so-called “moderate” János Martonyi, the favorite of former American ambassadors, also condemned Colleen Bell’s testimony as if he were not aware that Bell didn’t express her own opinions but simply presented the official position of the United States government. Pintér promptly made the proceedings secret while Martonyi announced that the topic of surveillance will “remain on the agenda,” adding that “it will take a long time to repair the trust that is so important between allies and friends.” János Lázár announced that the surveillance affair “may influence in a significant way the relations between the USA and Hungary.” All in all, the Orbán government was ready to receive John McCain in full armor. Lázár also said at the press conference after the meeting that the new ambassador “will have to appear before the parliamentary committee,” something that will surely not happen. Máté Kocsis, the youthful chairman of the committee, went even further. He wants to see Edward Snowden himself in Budapest to answer the committee’s questions.

It was only on Thursday that McCain’s impending visit leaked out. The Hungarian media was convinced that the chief topic of the conversations would be Ukraine. The newspapers recalled that McCain had visited that country in December, but they really couldn’t give any reasonable explanation why Hungary would be that important in connection with the crisis in Ukraine other than having about 200,000 co-nationals living in its subcarpathian region who at the moment don’t seem to be threatened. What we learned afterwards was that Viktor Orbán “informed the American delegation of the V4 [Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary] discussion on the situation in Kiev.” So, Ukraine was not at the center of the discussions.

McCain

So, let’s see what McCain himself had to say about his time in Budapest. Besides the usual round of praise for the faithful ally, he stated that “we understand the concerns about the state of democracy in Hungary that have been raised by people both inside and outside of this country. Some of these concerns are very serious…. The United States and the rest of the free world have an abiding interest in Hungary’s continued development as a strong, inclusive, and tolerant democracy, with a free market economy, an independent judiciary, and a free media.” During the conversations “we also expressed our hope that Hungary will address its energy security needs in ways that further diversify Europe’s supply of energy.” To translate all that into plain English, McCain criticized the state of democracy in Orbán’s Hungary and also must have shared his concerns over Hungary’s sole reliance on Russian energy sources, especially now that Orbán seems to have committed Hungary to Russia in building two new reactors on borrowed money.

From other Hungarian sources it became clear that the forthcoming election was also discussed. McCain must have expressed his worries about the fairness of the election because apparently Orbán readily agreed to have international observers. McCain was also worried about the lack of transparency in the negotiations with the Russians concerning Paks. And at this point I’m not at all sure that McCain knew that all the financial details of the Paks negotiations have already been made secret for years to come.

McCain and the others present were familiar with the memorial to be erected on Szabadság tér. They even talked about anti-Semitism in Hungary. The Democratic congressman from Florida, Ted Deutch, told Orbán that he must be sure that the monument will not be used “to whitewash history.” Apparently, Viktor Orbán gave his word, but unfortunately we know how much his word is worth.

The American delegation met Attila Mesterházy, Gordon Bajnai, Benedek Jávor, and Gábor Fodor. I assume that Ferenc Gyurcsány was not present because in 2007-2008 he was accused by the Americans, with help from Viktor Orbán who was then in his anti-Russian mode, of being a great friend of Vladimir Putin.

Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap, the government’s mouthpieces, have for some time been publishing articles with a sharp anti-American edge, but since the Orbán government decided to take on the American government through an attack on Colleen Bell the articles and opinion pieces written in these two organs have become outright vicious.

Magyar Nemzet after the official meeting  made a flippant remark about “the former presidential candidate who suddenly had an attack of worry for Hungarian democracy.” István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels, wrote an opinion piece in today’s Magyar Nemzet entitled “At last,” in which he expressed his delight that at last Hungary is hitting back: “Goodbye servitude, goodbye hopelessness.” Magyar Hírlap just today published four articles on American-Hungarian relations where they talk about John McCain as “a somebody called McCain, … a loud American” who lectures Hungarians about democracy and who “worries himself sick” over undemocratic Hungary. Hungarians are bored with all that talk about checks and balances they keep repeating. A few weeks ago an article in Magyar Hírlap described the oft repeated phrase “checks and balances” as American whining (nyivákolás).

I’m pretty sure that this fierce anti-American rhetoric is popular in certain circles in Hungary, but I have to believe that it will have very adverse effects on both the diplomatic and the economic relations between Hungary and the United States.

MSZP’s campaign kickoff: Mesterházy in the limelight

As promised, I am returning to the large socialist gathering in the László Papp Sport Arena where, according to those who were present, all seats were filled. What you have to keep in mind is that most of the attendees are the core of the MSZP activists. Their job is to organize the campaign on the local level. My friends who attended the gathering were duly impressed by MSZP’s ability to mobilize so many people. They were struck by the enthusiasm and determination that seemed to have gripped these activists.

The people who reported to me about their impressions are not MSZP activists. They are members of a small group of outsiders who were invited because of their political roles in earlier times. Therefore, their  enthusiasm reflects a genuine satisfaction with Attila Mesterházy’s performance and MSZP’s organizational ability. They considered the event “professional.” From what I saw of it on video, I detected a lot of American influence. Although some reporters made fun of the “log cabin” video introducing Attila Mesterházy, I thought that it was well done and most likely effective. After all, people know relatively little about him.

According to one of my eyewitnesses, the introductory speeches covered practically all the topics. He was worried that Mesterházy would not be able to add much to them. He didn’t have to fear. Although Mesterházy’s speech was a little too long, it was well structured. First, he gave a succinct assessment of the last four years in which he covered all the major topics dealing with the workings of the mafia state. Second, he outlined his ideas about the future after the election. It was practically an outline of a government program which first and foremost will concentrate on strengthening the trust of foreign politicians and investors in the new Hungarian government. He promised to stop the kind of legislative practice that was introduced by the Orbán government. He pledged a more just social policy, a better quality of life, strengthening the middle classes, and greater mobility. The basis on which all of that can be achieved is a sound educational policy. Last but not least he talked about the need for the restoration of the rule of law. He added that some people don’t seem to realize the importance of a democratic state, but without a strong democratic structure there cannot be real freedom and real prosperity.

Source: news.yahoo.com

Source: news.yahoo.com

Mesterházy promised to take strong action against extremists and extremism, and he insisted that all the illegal and shady affairs of the Orbán government will be investigated and persons found guilty will be punished.

At the end of the speech Mesterházy walked over to Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gábor Fodor and shook hands with them. At this point came a standing ovation which showed, in my opinion, that it wasn’t only DK supporters who demanded joint action on October 23 but MSZP followers as well. Another sign of satisfaction with the new unity was the enthusiastic reception Gábor Kuncze received. All in all, it seems that supporters have no problem with the new coalition.

But now let’s look at how some reporters saw the event. András Pethő of Origo noted that until now only Fidesz called the MSZP politicians communists, but now MSZP leaders are returning the favor. For example, Mesterházy referred to Viktor Orbán as Bolseviktor. Actually, the communist label fits Fidesz better than it does the socialists. Hungarian socialists are not the ones who nationalize everything in sight. He also noticed that in Mesterházy’s MSZP there are entirely new faces and the great old ones were no longer sitting in the front row. On the other hand, Origo’s reporter found Mesterházy’s speech old-fashioned and far too long. Index‘s reporter was still preoccupied with Gyurcsány’s role in the campaign. He kept asking the participants to guess how many votes he will bring and how many people he will deter. Otherwise, the reporter for some strange reason decided that “Mesterházy’s weapon against Orbán will be Paks.”

The relatively new Internet site, 444.hu, was its usual flippant self. It started its coverage with: “Someone should think twice before voting for Attila Mesterházy because if he becomes the prime minister, his ‘state of the country’ speeches will be very long. This is the most important message of MSZP’s meeting Saturday.” And what follows was no better. The whole article is depressing with its supercilious and, let’s face it, stupid remarks. And then some people are surprised that the Hungarian public is full of cynical characters for whom nothing is important or sacred.

The assessment I enjoyed most was that of Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, director of Nézőpont Institute, which is an indirectly Fidesz financed think tank and polling company. He tried to be “scientific” and talked about Mesterházy’s “tactical mistakes.” One of them was that he invited Zoran Milanović, the social democratic prime minister of Croatia, to attend and to speak at the meeting. After all, Croatia has its differences with Zsolt Hernádi, CEO of MOL, who is being sought by Croatian prosecutors on bribery charges. According to Mráz, Hungarian public opinion is solidly behind Hernádi and therefore inviting Milanović was a mistake.

According to Mráz, Mesterházy should be more cautious and shouldn’t talk so openly about himself as the next prime minister of Hungary. He should be more modest because, if he loses the election, he will be responsible for the defeat. Mráz finds Mesterházy’s claim that the socialist government’s economic affairs were in order in the spring of 2010 “incomprehensible.” With this statement Mesterházy “included himself among the failed left-wing politicians.”

While one of my sources specifically mentioned all the friendly gestures Mesterházy made toward Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gábor Fodor, Mráz, following some of the reporters’ mistaken information, claims that Mesterházy never mentioned Gyurcsány’s name and “looked through him.” Clearly, these media servants of Fidesz are trying to sow dissent in the newly unified opposition, but I don’t think that they will succeed. Only yesterday Ferenc Gyurcsány advised his fellow politicians not to react to every accusation Fidesz comes up with. The best thing is ignore them. Mráz closed his analysis with these words: “Mesterházy with the campaign opening that was designed for him risked a lot. His predecessors, who may well be his successors, acknowledged all that with visibly mixed feelings.”

A friend of mine told me that he thinks most people underestimate Mesterházy’s political acumen. Let’s hope he is right.