Gergely Karácsony

Is Deutsche Telekom lending a helping hand to the Orbán government to suppress media freedom?

Scandals in Hungary often fizzle out, as one of our readers correctly stated, but abroad scandals don’t die so fast. They spread via the international media. This is what happened with the case of Origo, an internet news organ, whose latest editor-in-chief, Gergő Sáling, was forced to resign, most likely for political reasons. Soon enough the deputy editor-in-chief followed suit, and by now practically the whole news team is gone. A fairly large demonstration was organized immediately after the sacking of the editor-in-chief, and more demonstrations are planned for next week.

Yesterday 444.hu, a relatively new internet newspaper, came out with additional information on the case which, if true, isn’t pretty. Origo Zrt. is a subsidiary of Magyar Telekom, which is in turn a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, which is partly owned by the German government. 444.hu learned from a high-ranking member of the government that the firing of Gergő Sáling was the result of a deal between Magyar Telekom and the Orbán government.

Kerstin Günther / Source: Portfolio

Kerstin Günther / Source: Portfolio

One of the problems with the Hungarian economy is the preponderance of the state in all facets of economic life, which means that good relations with the government are very important for any company. In 2010 and 2011 relations between Magyar Telekom and the government were strained, mainly because of the extra taxes levied on communications companies. Apparently Hungarian politicians didn’t particularly like the CEO of Magyar Telekom, the American Christopher Mattheisen. Then in April 2013 the post of CEO was split in two, carving out a separate post of chairperson of the board. This new job was created for Kerstin Günther, who was very knowledgeable about Hungary because she began her Telekom career in Budapest in the 1990s. According to 444.hu‘s informer, she was sent to Hungary for the purpose of improving relations between the company and the Orbán government.

The company needed the goodwill of the Hungarian government because it is the government that decides the fates of frequencies that T-Mobil, a large part of Magyar Telekom’s business, uses. In 2013 it was time to renew these frequencies. Their renewal was vital for the company. At the end of the year, the government decided to renew the frequencies of all three cell phone companies operating in Hungary until 2022. For these frequencies the government asked a total of 100 billion forints. Magyar Telekom’s share was approximately 35 billion forints. It is 444.hu‘s claim, based on information received from its source, that Origo’s fate was sealed by the end of 2013. The deal was that Magyar Telekom would get an extension of its frequencies and that in return the management would make sure that Origo plays ball. Apparently, János Lázár “was often unhappy” about some of the articles that appeared on the site about various Fidesz and government wrongdoings, including his own.

According to the informer, Günther and Lázár met even before Günther arrived in Hungary. Lázár apparently showed her a 150-page analysis of the news items that had appeared in Origo and Híradó, the government mouthpiece that provides news to all state radio and television stations. Given Híradó‘s pro-government stance, it’s no wonder that Origo looked “dramatically oppositional.” It seems, however, that Magyar Telekom found the “study” well founded and often referred to it in arguments with Origo.

In the last two years pressure mounted on the internet site, hence the frequent personnel changes at the head of the editorial board. In three years there have been four different editors-in-chief. In government circles it was common knowledge that Lázár believed that “one must do something about RTL Klub and Origo.”

The relationship between Magyar Telekom and the Orbán government is excellent at the moment. In fact, it looks as if Deutsche Telekom will be entrusted with “the government’s comprehensive development of rural broadband access” that will cover the whole country. Or at least this is what János Lázár said in his parliamentary hearing that approved his suitability for the post of minister at the head of the prime minister’s office.

444.hu immediately translated the article into English, and naturally the story was picked up by several important German papers, especially since DPA (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) reported on it. A long and detailed article, not based on the DPA summary, entitled “Under Pressure” appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung by Cathrin Kahlweit. She operates out of Vienna but knows the Hungarian scene quite well. In the article she reminds her readers that four years ago the controversial media law “drew international protests,”  and says that it seems that the Orbán government is again using “money and new legal provisions to impede critical reporting.” According to her, Deutsche Telekom received a one-billion euro contract from the Hungarian government for the “expansion of the broadband network,” the price of which was the taming of Origo. Deutsche Welle also reported on the attempted censorship by the Orbán government. And naturally, Reporters Without Borders protested as well.

Up to now two opposition politicians, Gergely Karácsony (E14-PM) and András Schiffer (LMP), have written letters to Timotheus Höttges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom, in which both strongly disapproved of the alleged “deal” between Deutsche Telekom and the Hungarian government. Karácsony called the deal unethical and expressed his hope that Deutsche Telekom would not be a partner to such a dirty affair. Surely, he said, Höttges considers freedom of the press a basic right. Schiffer’s letter was equally hard hitting and expressed amazement that a respectable firm operating in a democratic country would lend its name to such shady business.

Deutsche Telekom is washing its hands of the affair. The spokesman for the firm emphasized that they are all for freedom of the press but reiterated that they have nothing to do with personnel changes within Origo, which are the “result of internal restructuring.” I fear that will not be enough.

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Two visits to Felcsút, the capital of Orbanistan

Let’s pay a virtual visit to Felcsút, which Gordon Bajnai, former prime minister of Hungary, a few months ago called “the capital of Orbanistan.” It is not a friendly place if the many security guards, cameramen, party secretaries, and Fidesz devotees suspect that you aren’t one of them. The reception is especially frosty if any of these people either recognize you or are alerted to your coming.

It was on July 18 that Gordon Bajnai and a couple of his fellow politicians, accompanied by members of the media, paid a visit to Felcsút to take a look at the work being done on the enormous, lavish football stadium erected indirectly on public  money. You must understand that this is the village where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán grew up and where he now has a home. Since Bajnai’s trip was announced in advance, the “welcoming committee” was already waiting for him. At the end Bajnai’s mini bus was practically forced out of the place. This “forcible removal” was described by Gabriella Selmeczi, one of Fidesz’s spokespersons, as a cowardly act on the part of the former prime minister. She said that “Bajnai slunk away.”

The other former prime minister who decided to pay a visit to the capital of Orbanistan was Ferenc Gyurcsány. Accompanied by Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s newly appointed spokesman, and a camera crew, he went to Felcsút yesterday to make a film about the recent “improvements” in the village of 1,000 inhabitants with a football stadium under construction for 3,500. The difference was that Felcsút was not prepared, so no screaming men and women waited for Gyurcsány as they did for Bajnai.

Felcsut2

This is what Ferenc Gyurcsány said about their visit on Facebook. He described the village as “a nice place and very safe where one can never feel alone.” Here is the longer version of the story. “We stopped at the sign indicating that we had entered Felcsút. We had a few takes and were ready to drive on when a young man knocked on the window of the car.

–What can I do for you?– I asked.

–Hello, Mr. Prime Minister Candidate, what are you doing here. Is there perhaps some kind of event to be held here?

–No, there won’t be any event. In any case, it isn’t any of your business. Are you a policeman?

–No, I’m not a policeman, I’m the Fidesz secretary of the electoral district.

–Well, Mr. Secretary, you have no right to inquire about what I’m doing here, so goodbye.

But by that time there were at least two cameras, several people, and a car. We went ahead, but our new acquaintances followed us and thus we entered Felcsút as part of a convoy. How nice. “Surely, they worry about our security and that’s why they are following us,” I whispered to Gréczy. We stopped at the stadium under construction. So did our companions. We went about our business and they followed us everywhere while they kept taking pictures. Meanwhile the secretary wanted to have a conversation with me by all means. I guess he liked me.

–My dear Mr. Secretary, if you really want to talk to me, call the DK center and ask for an appointment and then I’ll see what I can do for you, but please not now, allow me to work.

I encourage everyone to go to Felcsút. Take a still camera and a video camera along. Show some interest in the place. You will find friends and companions. The program is not expensive but  amusing. After all, there are not too many occasions nowadays to be amused. So, let’s be merry in Felcsút.

That was Gyurcsány’s experience. Now let’s turn back to Bajnai’s visit and see in more detail what happened to him. Bajnai, accompanied by Gergely Karácsony and Tímea Szabó, tried to take a look at the “sights and developments” of the village. There were demonstrators waiting for the group already in Budapest with a banner that had appeared many times earlier: “The mafia left together,” said the sign, which was adorned with the pictures of Bajnai, Gyurcsány, Mesterházy, and Portik, a man of the underworld. Another group of demonstrators waited for them in Felcsút where the police decided that it was not safe for the visitors to leave the bus. It was only outside of the city limit that the politicians of Együtt-2014-PM managed to hold a press conference. The site was, according to Lőrinc Mészáros, mayor of Felcsút, director of the Puskás Academy, and a close friend of Orbán, “right next to the garbage dump.” Of course, Mészáros later emphasized that the town fathers are always happy to receive any visitors, but they must announce their visit ahead of time. Then they will proudly show them everything.

Here is a footnote to the Gyurcsány visit. This afternoon a young man who happens to be a member of the Puskás Academy phoned into György Bolgár’s talk show. Even before he began talking about the Felcsút visit there was no question about his devotion to Viktor Orbán and the cause. He claimed that he was about 10 meters from Gyurcsány’s car and that the former prime minister’s description of what happened was all wrong. According to him, he was sitting in the dining room of the Puskás Academy with the Academy’s full-time camera man whose job it is to record the matches. The camera man recognized Gyurcsány and decided to follow him around to document his presence in town. After all, said the young man, this is the instinct of a good camera man. He didn’t know whether this camera man was the Fidesz secretary of the electoral district or not.

The capital of Orbanistan is obviously determined to shield itself from the prying eyes of the lying “mafia.” And if it can’t completely shield itself, at least it can document what the “foreigners” are doing so as to counteract any lies they might concoct about the idyllic town.

Beginning of the end? Hungarian opposition in disarray

It was more than a week ago, to be precise on August 15 when I was listening to an interview with Tibor Szanyi, that I had the distinct feeling that the rumor that the negotiations between MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM had come to a halt was not really a rumor. Tibor Szanyi, one of the leading members of MSZP, was invited by Olga Kálmán to talk about the European Union’s decision to hold up practically all the money Hungary currently receives from Brussels. A few hours prior to that conversation, however, Olga Kálmán heard that the negotiations between the two parties had been halted. Szanyi, who is not a member of the negotiating team, neither could nor wanted to give details of what transpired at the meeting. Nonetheless, Szanyi, who is not very good at hiding his feelings, indicated that although the negotiations will most likely continue, for the time being the members of the negotiating teams decided to take a break. Maybe for a week. As Szanyi said, “they could all go home and think a little bit.”

The next day Péter Juhász of  Együtt 2014-PM was the guest on Egyenes beszéd. By that time Olga Kálmán seemed to have gotten more information on the stalled negotiations, specifically that it was actually Péter Juhász himself who caused the rupture by talking threateningly with his negotiating partners. So, Olga Kálmán confronted Juhász by first asking him about the allegedly stalled negotiations followed by probing questions about Juhász’s own role in the possible failure of the negotiations. Juhász denied both, but his nervous laugh gave him away.

Someone with whom I shared my misgivings about these protracted and now possibly stalled negotiations accused me of believing Tibor Szanyi over Péter Juhász. Indeed, given the tone and body language of the two men, I felt that Szanyi’s description of the meeting was closer to the truth than Juhász’s version.

Well, the holidays ended and the negotiators didn’t gather to continue their talks. It seemed that the week that was deemed necessary to think things over was simply not enough. On Friday morning, however, we heard that Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy will sit down alone in the hope of solving the still outstanding issues. After two and a half hours not only was there no resolution; the divide between the negotiating partners now appeared unbridgeable. As everybody suspected, the sticking point is who will be the candidate for the premiership.

Attila Mesterházy and Gordon Bajnai arrive at their meeting yesterday / Népsxzabadság, Photo Árpád Kurucz

Attila Mesterházy and Gordon Bajnai arrive at their meeting yesterday / Népszabadság, Photo Árpád Kurucz

According to Mesterházy, he arrived at the meeting thinking that the topic of the conversation would be those electoral districts about which the two sides couldn’t agree before. Instead, Gordon Bajnai came up with an entirely new proposal. He suggested putting aside the question of the premiership so that it wouldn’t have any bearing on the number of mandates each party would receive. Instead the two parties should divide the 106 districts: MSZP would put up candidates in 77 districts and Együtt 2012-PM in 35. As for the choice of prime minister, it could be decided after an electoral campaign lasting a few weeks followed by a couple of in-depth polls by two or three reputable pollsters. The man who according to the pollsters would be able to gather the most votes for the opposition should be the nominee.

Clearly, the MSZP leadership has an entirely different scenario in mind. As far as they are concerned, in the case of a coalition government in a parliamentary democracy the largest party provides the prime minister. However, Mesterházy, who was apparently somewhat taken aback by Bajnai’s unexpected suggestion, seemed to be willing to compromise. Indeed, he and his party are ready not to insist on the position and are willing to put it up for a vote. But they insist on the votes of “real” people and not perhaps manipulated opinion polls. Why don’t they have a true primary instead? MSZP is quite willing to hold primaries in larger cities and towns. According to Mesterházy, they wouldn’t cost a lot and would be relatively easy to organize. After all, two years ago the party membership voted without a hitch on whether they would rather follow Ferenc Gyurcsány or Attila Mesterházy.

It’s a stretch to compare a nationwide primary to a party vote of perhaps 20,000 registered members. And just think of the potential Fidesz shenanigans that could wreak havoc with the outcome of a primary. However, one must admit that Mesterházy is a good tactician. Együtt 2014-PM will have a difficult time turning down a seemingly democratic solution to the disputed premiership. At the same time such a primary would greatly favor MSZP, which has a well established national organization with local party headquarters, membership, and delegates in the local town and city councils. Where would Együtt 2014 be in such a primary? Nowhere. So, it’s no wonder that Gergely Karácsony (PM) already announced that as far as he is concerned Mesterházy’s suggestion of a primary is unacceptable.

This latest move of Együtt 2014 baffles commentators, and they’re hard pressed to offer logical explanations. The most outlandish explanation, and one that seems to be gaining some traction in the media, is that Együtt 2014 never really wanted to have an agreement with MSZP and from day one they planned to run alone at the next election. Well, I may have a low opinion of Gordon Bajnai’s advisers, but I still think that they cannot be that stupid. How could a party that has been trying for months to edge up in the polls without much success possibly want to go it alone in an electoral system that severely limits the chance for smaller parties?

It is more likely that Gordon Bajnai or rather his chief adviser, Viktor Szigetvári, misjudged the situation. Együtt 2014 demanded too much given their size and importance. People who always preferred Bajnai to Mesterházy are rather angry at the Együtt 2014 team whom they blame for the sorry state of the negotiations. First, they point out, Bajnai and Szigetvári were dragging their feet in hope of a great breakthrough that never materialized and now because of their political appetite they are practically killing the possibility of an electoral victory. Because, let’s face it, most people at this point think that the next prime minister of Hungary will be neither Attila Mesterházy nor Gordon Bajnai but Viktor Orbán despite the fact that the majority of the electorate want to see the Fidesz government go.

Even those people whose political views are closer to those of Bajnai’s party than to MSZP’s reacted angrily. Gábor Fodor (Liberal Party) wrote on Facebook: “Attila Mesterházy answered Gordon Bajnai’s ultimatum with an ultimatum of his own. This way there will be nothing of the whole thing. The largest opposition party must be the one that names the prime minister. The political games of Együtt 2014 have wasted a whole year. It is time to close the debate and begin attending to the ills of Hungary.” Ferenc Gyurcsány, who often expressed a preference for his old friend Gordon Bajnai, also came to the conclusion that Bajnai made several major mistakes and now has to give up the idea of becoming the next prime minister of Hungary. Gyurcsány is very pessimistic about the chances of the opposition altogether.

As things stand now, Mesterházy announced that if Együtt 2014 is not willing to play ball, MSZP will begin negotiations with Gábor Fodor’s liberals, Andor Schmuck’s Hungarian Social Democratic Party, and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció.

This might not be the end of the story. If Bajnai has any sense, Együtt 2014 will retreat from this position. Although Bajnai lost a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm of the electorate, he still has a certain following, but if his followers realize that because of his unfortunate political strategy he is helping Viktor Orbán’s cause his reputation will be seriously tarnished.

The new Hungarian media tsar: Mónika Karas

For Viktor Orbán control of the media is a political priority.  His government institutionalized this priority by creating the Media Authority, initially chaired by Annamária Szalai. She was the perfect person for the job, and I’m sure that Orbán mourned her death last April. He had to find a replacement who was both loyal to him and who, as mandated by law, demonstrated professional competence in media matters.

Months of searching and fiddling with the requirements followed. At one point there were rumors that Tamás Deutsch might be tapped since he had represented Fidesz in a parliamentary committee dealing with the media. Well, that was too bizarre an idea and I doubt that Orbán seriously considered his old friend for the job, a friend whom he had already exiled to Brussels years before. Mind you, exile in Brussels can always be cut short if there is need. Just think of János Áder who was called back after the fall of President Pál Schmitt. Still, a fouled-mouthed, irresponsible, and not too bright 50-year-old who has never grown up would have been a liability. Someone else had to be found.

Today the nominee to head the “independent” agency was announced: Mónika Karas, a lawyer who since 2004 has represented two Fidesz media outlets: Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV.

Perhaps the best comment I saw was a one-liner after the news hit the Internet: “This must be a joke.” Unfortunately, it is not. This woman will surely be appointed by János Áder for a nine-year term. As blogger “vastagbőr” (thick skin) pointed out, even if Viktor Orbán hangs on until 2022 Mónika Karas will still outlast him as head of the Media Authority for a few months. That’s called a long tenure!

Karas’s record as a lawyer is pretty dismal. Mind you, it is not easy to be the defense lawyer for Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV since both outlets are full of irresponsible propagandists with scant regard for the truth. Thus Mónika Karas lost one case after the other. “Vastagbőr” found twelve of her cases in the archives of the Hungarian News Agency (MTI). But this list is incomplete. I myself found a few more that MTI didn’t report on.

The summaries of these cases are boring reading. Almost all of them inform the reader that Magyar Nemzet lost the case in the lower court but that “Mónika Karas told MTI that they will surely appeal because the verdict is erroneous.” Later on came the report that Magyar Nemzet lost the appeal. She had to tell her sad story many times over between 2004 and 2013. One day I will return to some of her more important cases, including the one where she represented Szárhegy-dűlő-Sárazsadány-Tokajhegyalja Kft. in which the Orbáns had an interest in 2005.  She also worked for Árpád Habony, the éminence grise behind Viktor Orbán’s propaganda machine, and represented Antal Rogán’s district in downtown Pest against an Internet investigative website, Átlátszó (atltszo.hu). She is connected to Viktor Orbán, Fidesz, and its media empire in multiple ways. So much for the independence of the Hungarian Media Authority.

Mónika Karas / Magyar Nemzet

Mónika Karas / Magyar Nemzet

Karas represented Magyar Nemzet in 2012 when Ferenc Gyurcsány sued the paper over its claim that he plagiarized his senior paper. Once again she lost because of Magyar Nemzet‘s sloppy handling of the facts. Gyurcsány spoke from personal experience today when he said that Karas was as unsuccessful as a lawyer as she is unfit for her new job. He described Mónika Karas as “the cleaning lady of Fidesz’s lying factory.” He somewhat optimistically added that Karas will not be the head of the Media Authority for long because she will be removed from the agency right after the elections.

According to her official biography, Karas passed intermediate language exams in German and Russian and speaks English on an “introductory level,” which in my opinion means that she doesn’t know the language. As a sharp-tongued journalist said: “This way it will be difficult to write notes on Facebook, ask the Americans to forbid the appearance of kuruc.info, buy Sanoma [Media Group], or whatever her duties will be.” By way of explanation, Fidesz at the moment is in the middle of a frontal attack on Sanoma, which is the owner of the largest school textbook company in Hungary. The word is that the Orbán government wants to nationalize the whole textbook industry to create one big publishing company that publishes a single standard text for each subject.  Just like in the Kádár regime.

But there are much more interesting items that can be found in this official biography. What caught my eye was that Mónika Karas was legal counsel to Magyar Fórum Kft., the publisher of István Csurka’s Magyar Fórum, the anti-Semitic MIÉP party’s official organ, between 1993 and 2002. The biography also contains an item mentioning the innocuous sounding “Lapkiadó Vállalat” (Newspaper Publishing Co.). I must say that I was not suspicious until a friend who is much more familiar with the Kádár regime’s secrets than I am informed me that “the Lapkiadó Vállalat was an extraordinary outfit, not even a state company, but directly subordinated to the Party (MSZMP) leadership, also owned by the Party. To work there, one had to have a security clearance on a higher level than even at the secret police: they published all local papers and all official organs of the county Party committees.”

Another item in the official biography is her stint as general counsel for the company that published Esti Hírlap between 1992 and 1994. Well, the innocent sounding Esti Hírlap also has a history. According to my informant Esti Hírlap was the afternoon party tabloid (naturally also published by Lapkiadó Vállalat), widely considered to have been the semi-official organ of the secret service and in general of the Ministry of the Interior. Apparently Esti Hírlap, even after the regime change, was largely staffed by old-timers inherited from the Kádár regime.

So, it seems that Mónika Karas is one of those who transitioned easily from the communist media to the far-right media. By the way, those who want a sense of István Csurka’s anti-semitic Magyar Fórum at the time that Karas was working for Csurka’s company should read Zsófia Mihancsik’s article in Antiszemita közbeszéd Magyarországon 2001-ben (see pp 77-90), which contains a wide selection of quotations from Magyar Fórum.

Not surprisingly, all the opposition leaders are up in arms. Gergely Karácsony talked about the Karas appointment in the name of Együtt 2014-PM. He promised to ask János Áder not to put his signature on Karas’s appointment. But János Áder, who is just as much a puppet as Karas, is highly unlikely to accommodate. Karácsony called attention to recent signs pointing to the expansion of the Fidesz media empire. For instance, Századvég, a Fidesz think tank largely financed by the government, just purchased the economic daily Napi Gazdaság. Appointing the legal representative of the Simicska-Nyerges media enterprise will only solidify Fidesz’s hold over the media.

Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP) emphasized the international implications of the appointment. You may recall that the first serious clash between the European Commission and the Orbán government occurred over the media law. The conflict eventually ended with some minor adjustments to the media law but its essence remained pretty well untouched. By appointing Karas, Viktor Orbán’s message to Brussels is: “we are not going to change our media policies.”

Indeed, Fidesz’s grip on the media is as tight as ever and its media empire continues to expand. And, making sure that things will remain this way, perhaps until 2022, will be Mónika Karas.

LMP’s rebels left the party: Who will be the winner of this game?

A fair number of commentators have compared the current situation in LMP to what happened in Fidesz in 1993 when Viktor Orbán decided to make a sharp turn toward the right. At that time a number of liberal-minded leaders of Fidesz who objected to Orbán’s change of political orientation and his shift in strategy left the party. The “Dialogue for Hungary” platform is leaving LMP for strikingly similar reasons.

In preparation for writing this post I decided to take a quick look at a 2001 book, Csak a narancs volt (It was only the orange), about the early days of Fidesz. The volume, edited by György Petőcz, includes lengthy interviews with people who in 1992-1993 belonged to Fidesz’s internal opposition. One ought to read and reread this book to better understand Fidesz’s history and Viktor Orbán’s role in shaping it.

The liberal inner opposition left and joined SZDSZ. By the time the election rolled around in 1994 Fidesz had lost its momentum and the party barely had enough support to be represented in parliament. Viktor Orbán’s gamble paid off in the long run, however; four years later he became the prime minister of Hungary.

I doubt that András Schiffer will be able to imitate Viktor Orbán’s gambit. Surely, no one can believe Schiffer’s claim that LMP, currently polling at 3%, can win the elections either in 2014 or in 2018. Most likely he would like LMP to be strong enough by 2014 that in case Fidesz doesn’t have a clear majority, Viktor Orbán would have to turn to him as a coalition partner.  The European Union would frown on Fidesz becoming bedfellows with Jobbik but couldn’t raise any objections to a coalition with a green party.

Although LMP stands for “Lehet Más a Politika” (Politics Can Be Different), Schiffer himself is not a refreshingly different politician. Among other things, he plays fast and loose with numbers.  He confidently announced today that only 10% of the party’s membership is leaving LMP. Well, yes, about 70 people voted for the strategy advocated by the Dialogue for Hungary’s program at the congress. And indeed, there are 700 LMP members. But only about 150 people attended the congress. So about 45% of the attendees voted with the internal opposition. Most likely relying at least in part on this number, the internal opposition claimed that more than half of LMP members will follow them to form another party.

Schiffer ardently disagreed with this assessment, despite his poor short-term predictive track record.Yesterday he was certain that not all eight rebels in the fifteen-member parliamentary delegation were planning to leave the party but only “two or three.” As it turned out, he was wrong. The decision was unanimous. Despite this decision, he repeated several times today that we are not witnessing “the break-up of the party.”

The three young politicians of the rebels in LMP:Benedek Jávor, Tímea Szabó, and Gergely Karácsony

Three young rebel politicians in LMP:
Benedek Jávor, Tímea Szabó, and Gergely Karácsony

Even though he may say that LMP will remain whole, he’s joining Fidesz in advancing a conspiracy theory. Magyar Nemzet obliquely suggested that Gordon Bajnai’s E14 movement is behind this new development. Schiffer and his closest ally, Gábor Vágó, agree: E14 stoked the discontent of the rebels in the party.

One practical question is what will happen to the LMP caucus. House rules state that ten members of parliament can form a parliamentary delegation. With the split-up, LMP will not have enough members to retain its current status, and sitting with the independents allows the members very little opportunity to make an impact in parliament. Most likely LMP and whatever the new party will be called will sit together as a group. An interesting situation, although Benedek Jávor claims that as far as their work in parliament is concerned the two groups get along just fine. The only difference will be that the still No-Name Party will negotiate with E14 and other political parties on the left while the Schiffer faction will not.

Some people argue that such a parliamentary accommodation would be unsavory, especially from a party that considers itself the epitome of decency, honesty, and transparency. In at least partial defense of  the Jávor group, I would note that they announced that they will not claim half of the state subsidies LMP has been receiving since 2010.

As for my own opinion of the rebels, I consider them the “better half” of LMP, but I still have serious objections to some of their political views. Their anti-capitalistic stance is the last thing Hungary needs at the moment or, for that matter, at any time in the foreseeable future. What the country needs today is more capital and more capitalists who are ready to invest in the Hungarian economy. I understand their ecological concerns, but I can’t support a policy that would prevent Hungarians from shopping in large supermarkets where the selection is greater and the prices lower.

I was also outraged by Tímea Szabó’s behavior when she was a member of a sub-committee investigating Ferenc Gyurcsány’s and the police department’s handling of the “unfortunate events” of September-October 2006. She was siding with members of Jobbik.

The man I like best in this group is Gergely Karácsony, but even he behaved dishonorably when he first agreed to support Katalin Lévai (independent with MSZP backing) in the by-elections in District II in Budapest if Lévai received more votes than he did after the first round of voting and then went back on his word. I wrote about this sorry affair on November 14, 2011. I suspect that he was pressured to do so by Schiffer, but still…. I also found it unfortunate that Karácsony at one point suggested a “technical alliance” with Jobbik in order to dislodge Fidesz, after which they would hold new elections. The idea was dropped, but it just shows the ideological confusion that exists within the party.

Hungarian voter registration found unconstitutional

Reuters was the first foreign news agency to report that “Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party abandoned plans to force voters to register for parliamentary elections before the 2014 poll, after the Constitutional Court threw out the measure saying it limited voting rights.”

The court’s ruling is considered to be a  major blow to the Orbán government. Just before the holidays there were nationwide students demonstrations that forced Viktor Orbán, for the first time in his present tenure as prime minister, to retreat. Now, instead of fighting the ruling of the court as this government has done several times in the past, the decision was made to give up the idea of registration. But, as Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz delegation, emphasized in his press conference after the ruling became public, “there will be no registration for the 2014 election.” So, perhaps there might be for subsequent elections. However, I would like to remind Mr. Rogán that first Fidesz must win the 2014 election, which is not a done deal at the moment.

The court was “mindful of the practice of the European Court of Human Rights… [and therefore it] established that for those with Hungarian residency the registration requirement represents an undue restriction on voting rights and is therefore unconstitutional.” In addition, the court also found that some of the law’s provisions on political campaigning imposed “severely disproportionate restrictions on the freedom of opinion and the media.”

I dealt with the question of the electoral law several times and also with the latest ruling of the Constitutional Court on the so-called “temporary provisions” of the Constitution, one of which was the electoral law. A thorough analysis of the electoral law by members of the pre-1989 democracy movement can be found on Hungarian Spectrum. I also covered the ruling on the temporary provisions, and therefore I don’t think it is necessary to dwell on the proposed law itself. A much more interesting question at the moment: why did Fidesz decide to abandon its previously inflexible position on the subject?

Opinions naturally differ on the cause.  An unsigned editorial in HVG is of the opinion that the Orbán government really doesn’t care about the rulings of the Constitutional Court. It happened before that the court found something unconstitutional and the answer was immediate: “It doesn’t matter. In this case, we will put it into the Constitution or add it to the list of items in the temporary provisions to the Constitution.”

László Kövér just lately said in his  usual blunt way what he thinks of the Constitutional Court. In his opinion, the court misunderstands its role. It acts as a “quasi appellate forum over parliament in such a way that the judges, unlike members of parliament and members of the government, are not responsible to anyone. The judges created the theocratic power of a divinity called ‘the invisible constitution’ over and above the sovereignty of the people.” In brief, Kövér doesn’t seem to realize the real function of a constitutional court. Kövér is not alone in his opinion within the Fidesz leadership.

Moreover, the HVG article continues, the Hungarian Constitutional Court is a shadow of its formal self and therefore what is going on now is not a struggle between two equal branches of government. The real reason for the change of heart, according to the author, is pragmatic. As he puts it, it is “the self-correction of a regime that only understands force.” The author suggests that the opposition parties and organizations should follow the example of the students. The logic of this particular explanation is not at all clear to me in light of its conclusion of “force” as the only thing Fidesz understands. If the Constitutional Court is so weak, why would Fidesz bow before it?

retreating, in formation  Flickr

Retreating, in formation / Flickr

Another article that also appeared in HVG  is by Áron Kovács and András Kósa. They think that pushing ahead with the registration issue would have been “too politically costly” to Fidesz. It didn’t matter how hard the government tried to sell registration as something desirable, the idea wasn’t gaining traction. According to Medián, 78% of the population is still against registration. Even the majority (51%) of Fidesz voters disapproved of the plan. The large group of undecided voters that the parties must court was overwhelmingly (85%) against Fidesz’s plan. Even the pro-Fidesz Nézőpont measured a substantial reluctance to support the government’s registration scheme.

As for the “political scientists,” only a few have been interviewed so far. Gábor Filippov (Magyar Progresszív Intézet) considers the decision a “defeat” for the government. Filippov added that going against the Constitutional Court’s ruling would “ignite wide and long conflict internationally” which, under the present circumstances, would place a heavy burden on the weakening Hungarian government.

Csaba Fodor of Nézőpont took a different position. Fodor normally vehemently defends the government’s position in all matters. He stresses pragmatism as the motivation behind the decision to bow to the ruling of the Constitutional Court because this way “one will not be able to question the legitimacy of the next election.” Moreover,  the idea of registration is not popular and therefore it may even be counterproductive. Fodor also mentioned that  Fidesz supporters can be more readily mobilized than the forces of the opposition which gives Fidesz an advantage anyway, so imposing an unpopular registration procedure is unnecessary. Please note that Fodor, most likely unwittingly, admits the real reason behind Fidesz’s eagerness to introduce voter registration.

Naturally, all opposition parties and civic groups are delighted and greeted the decision with great enthusiasm. Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) praised the decision as a sign that “the rule of law is still alive in Hungary.” According to Gergely Karácsony (LMP), “promoting voter registration was one of the worst moves of Fidesz” and he hoped that the decision would have a major impact on the politics of the government party for the better. E14 warned the government “not to try to smuggle back through the window what the Constitutional Court threw out of the door.” According to Csaba Molnár (DK), “the ruling was a decent and wise decision.” In his opinion Fidesz retreated not so much because of the Constitutional Court’s ruling but because of the opposition of society.

All in all, the opposition is delighted. They consider it a major defeat for Fidesz and a huge victory for the opposition. Within a couple of weeks we will see what the potential voters think of all this.