Gordon Bajnai

The European Anti-Fraud Office is a bit slow: The case of the Heart of Budapest project

Well, we are back in Budapest’s District V, which is known by many names: Lipótváros (Leopoldstadt), Belváros (Downtown), or lately for a little political propaganda “The Heart of Budapest.” At least this was the name of the mega-project undertaken within the boundaries of the district that made the historic district mostly traffic-free and repaved the streets between Kálvin tér and Szabadság tér, stretching 1.7 km, with fancy cobble stones. Like everything else, the project was largely financed by the European Union.

It was Antal Rogán, the newly elected mayor of the district, who came up with the idea of revamping downtown Pest shortly after the municipal election of 2006. He convinced the City Council of Greater Budapest to apply to Brussels for a grant, and it seemed that at least on the surface the SZDSZ-MSZP city and the Fidesz district were of one mind. We mustn’t forget that at this time Antal Rogán was considered to be a moderate and reasonable man. Later the Fidesz media praised him as a truly remarkable Fidesz mayor who managed, despite the fact that the city of Budapest and the government were in SZDSZ-MSZP hands, to receive a huge sum of money for the development of his district. Well, the Heart of Budapest project really was impressive. A good portion of District V became something of a showcase.

The renovated Károly körút - Photo András Földes

The renovated Károly körút – Photo András Földes

As we know, Antal Rogán has had his share of his political trouble ever since Péter Juhász, who was Együtt’s candidate for mayor last October, decided to investigate shady real estate deals during Rogán’s tenure. I wrote about corruption in the district in December and again in January. Juhász, unlike most Hungarian politicians, doesn’t give up. Whether he will succeed in putting Rogán in jail remains to be seen.

What Rogán did not need was another scandal. But he’s under attack yet again, this time in connection with the Heart of Budapest project. The internet site vs.hu reported yesterday that OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office working under the aegis of the European Commission, found serious irregularities in connection with Rogán’s project. According to vs.hu, OLAF finished its investigation at the end of last year and called upon the Hungarian Chief Prosecutor’s Office to begin an investigation of the case. Naturally, OLAF’s findings were also sent to the European Commission. The Chief Prosecutor’s Office admitted that they received the documentation that supports OLAF’s case but said that “currently work is being done on the translation of the material.” Knowing the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, they will work on that translation for months if not years. Moreover, some opposition politicians learned that in the last few years the Chief Prosecutor’s Office received several dozen such complaints, but as far as we know Chief Prosecutor Péter Polt’s crew did nothing about them.

This is not the first time that questions have been raised about the project. At the end of 2012 OLAF found that not everything was in order. There was a good possibility that both District V and the city of Budapest would have to pay sizable fines: about 900 million forints each. The charge? The officials of the district and the city who were handling the bidding process demanded such unnecessary qualifications from the applicants that only one combined firm, Reneszánsz Kőfaragó Zrt and Bau Holding 2000, forming the Heart of Budapest Consortium, could possibly undertake the work. The bidding was theoretically open to foreign firms as well, but I doubt that much effort was put into finding non-Hungarian companies for the job.

What kinds of unreasonable demands did the authorities insist on? To qualify, a company had to have references for 1.2 billion forints worth of work on historic buildings even though the new project focused on repaving streets. There was absolutely no restoration of historic buildings. This ploy is commonly used in Hungary to make sure that the “right” company is the successful bidder. In Hungary 40% of all projects end up with a single bidder. Every time such a thing happens we can be pretty sure that corruption is not far away.

In 2012, when this story broke, Rogán and his deputy András Puskás, who has since left the district under the cloud of possible corruption, argued that there was nothing wrong with the project. It was done properly. The problem, they countered, was that the European Commission didn’t like the Orbán government and concocted this case to attack Viktor Orbán and his politics.

Now that OLAF finally got to the point of calling on the Chief Prosecutor, the district is trying to shift the blame to the current opposition. After all, the argument goes, the first phase of the project was finished in 2009 when Gordon Bajnai was prime minister. And Gordon Bajnai was present at the official opening. I guess that, according to the brilliant logic of the editorial offices of Magyar Nemzet, Bajnai had something to do with passing on the job to an earlier designated firm just because he cut the tricolor ribbon at the opening ceremony. For good measure, Magyar Nemzet added that Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair of Együtt and then Bajnai’s chief-of-staff, participated in the negotiations. Szigetvári calls the accusation a lie.

In addition, Magyar Nemzet blames the SZDSZ-MSZP administration of the city of Budapest. “All this happened during the era of Demszky-Hagyó-Steiner.” Pál Steiner was the whip of the MSZP caucus on the city council while Miklós Hagyó was the MSZP deputy mayor. Hagyó was later accused in a vast corruption case, which is still pending. The lurid details of the case tarnished MSZP and helped Fidesz coast to an overwhelming victory, resulting in a two-thirds majority in 2010.

OLAF has been investigating for the last six years. Right now, the Chief Prosecutor’s office is busily, or not so busily, translating. When do you think we will know exactly what happened? If you ask me, never.

 

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The world according to László Kövér

Just when I think that Viktor Orbán and his fellow politicians must have exhausted their inventory of outrageous pronouncements comes another shocker. This time László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament and the third most important dignitary of the country after the president and the prime minister, decided to share his grievances and accusations. His message was intended for the Fidesz faithful, but soon it will reach Hungary’s allies from Washington to Brussels. I don’t think they will be pleased.

I guess the Fidesz leadership wants to make sure that everybody understands the Hungarian position, and therefore they must repeat their shrill message at least three times: first János Lázár, then Viktor Orbán, and now László Kövér. Although the underlying message remains the same, each repetition reflects the personality of the speaker. Kövér is perhaps our best source on the thinking of Viktor Orbán and the members of his closest circle. And what we find there is frightening–a completely distorted view of the world and Hungary’s place in it.

The basic outline is old hat by now: the United States wants to rule the European Union and is currently trying to teach Putin’s Russia a thing or two. Hungary is only a pawn in this game, but the United States is still trying to influence political developments in the country. Therefore, the most urgent task of the Orbán government is to retain the sovereignty of the Hungarian state. Also they “must assure the nation’s survival.” Their paranoia, they would argue, is grounded in reality.

The charge of American interference is based on a speech by Sarah Sewell, U.S. undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, in which she stated that “addressing corruption is tough, but we are using a range of tools – and often working with other states and international institutions – to encourage and assist anti-corruption activity. At the State Department, our Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement works on corruption along with our bureaus that handle economics, energy, and human rights, and together State collaborates with USAID, Treasury, the Department of Justice, Interior, and Commerce – each of which brings specialized tools to the table.” For the Fidesz leaders this means direct interference in the internal affairs of East European countries. Kövér even suspects that the Americans had a hand in the recent election of Klaus Johannis as Romania’s president.

As far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, Hungary shouldn’t even try “to make the Americans love [them].” They must find other allies in the countries of Central Europe. The Slovaks and the Romanians shouldn’t put “the Hungarian question,” which for Kövér means “their phobia,” at the top of their agenda. They should think about their common fate. “Our goal should be emancipation within the framework of the European Union.”

Source: Magyar Hírlap / Photo Péter Gyula Horváth

Source: Magyar Hírlap / Photo: Péter Gyula Horváth

According to Kövér, the United States was always partial to the left. In 1990 U.S. Ambassador Mark Palmer ( 1986-1990) “favored the SZDSZ politicians” while Donald Blinken (1994-1997) during the Horn-Kuncze administration “sent exclusively negative information home about the activities of all the opposition parties.” He didn’t even want to meet the opposition leaders because he didn’t consider them to be human beings. To be fair, Kövér mentioned a few “good ambassadors.” For example, Charles Thomas (1990-1994), Peter Tufo (1997-2001), George H. Walker (2003-2006), April Foley (2006 and 2009), and Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis (2010-2013) “at least as long as the State Department didn’t discipline her.” Every time there was a right-wing government the United States found “problems that should be solved.”

Until recently the Americans only wanted a simple change of government if they were dissatisfied with the one in power. But lately they have been thinking of “a complete elite change.” Their favorite was always the liberal SZDSZ and when it ceased to exist they supported LMP (Lehet Más a Politika/Politics Can Be Different). Then the U.S. supported Gordon Bajnai, who “became the Americans’ new favorite.” Now that Bajnai is gone “the new season of the soap opera will open.”

According to Kövér, the U.S. at the moment is looking for new faces in the crowd of “hired demonstrators” or perhaps they just want to maintain the constant tension so that “at the appropriate moment they can come up with a new Bajnai.” But surely, he continued, sane advisers to the U.S. government cannot possibly think that a new political elite can be created by 2018 that will be capable of governance. Perhaps their goal is to fill the place of the defunct SZDSZ with a new party that would be able to tip the balance of power in favor of the minority. This worked very well in the past when a small party, SZDSZ, managed to pursue a policy that was to the liking of the United States by blackmailing MSZP.

At this point the reporter interjected an observation: “But Jobbik did not exist then.” Yes, that’s true, Kövér answered, but the alleged American scheme would still work. Jobbik has gained some ground lately, but when Jobbik is stronger, more and more unacceptable, more and more considered to be anti-Semitic and racist and therefore cannot be considered to be a coalition partner, “it will be easy to patch together a coalition government on the other side in which perhaps Fidesz could also participate with its own weight. The important thing is that no government could be formed without the post-SZDSZ against Jobbik.”

I think this paragraph deserves closer scrutiny. As I read it, the most important consideration of the United States, according to Kövér, is to smuggle back a post-SZDSZ that would be, as SZDSZ was, a liberal party. To this end, the U.S. would make sure that Jobbik will grow and will be such an extremist party that Fidesz couldn’t possibly pick it as a coalition partner. Therefore, Fidesz would be forced to join MSZP and a second SZDSZ in an unnatural cooperation with the left. This post-SZDSZ would shape government policy to the great satisfaction of the United States of America. Although I don’t think it was Kövér’s intention, he unwittingly revealed in this statement that Fidesz might be so weakened in the coming years that it would have to resort to a coalition government with Jobbik.

Finally, a side issue that has only domestic significance. Here I would like to return to Kövér’s accusation of American manipulation in the formation of LMP. The party, currently led by András Schiffer and Bernadett Szél, has steadfastly refused any cooperation with the other democratic opposition parties. Therefore, the party’s leadership has been accused of working on some level with Fidesz because their “independence” was beneficial only to Viktor Orbán. András Schiffer’s refusal to have anything to do with the other opposition parties led to a split in the party in November 2012. Out of the sixteen LMP parliamentary members only seven remained faithful to Schiffer; the others joined Gordon Bajnai’s “Together” party. According to house rules at the time, a party needed twelve seats to form a caucus. The Fidesz majority was most obliging and changed the rules. LMP could have its own caucus with only seven members. The nine who left, on the other hand, had to be satisfied with the status of independents.

From the very beginning, the suspicion has lingered that Fidesz might have been involved in some way in the formation of LMP as a separate party. Now we learn from Kövér’s indiscretion that “the current politicians of LMP, until the split in the party, wouldn’t believe us when we explained to them why the Americans were supporting them. Then they suddenly realized how those who left the party in 2012–who were sent there in the first place–interpreted the phrase ‘politics can be different.’ They stood by Gordon Bajnai, who was the favorite of the Americans.” Thus Fidesz was in close contact with András Schiffer and warned him that his party was being infiltrated by “American agents.”

Kövér admits in this interview that “we, Hungarians, have never been any good when it came to diplomacy,” but now the Hungarian leadership thinks that their foreign policy strategy will be successful. They should make no overtures to the United States, in fact, they should turn sharply against Washington and instead rely on Germany. After all, Kövér is convinced that U.S.-German relations are very bad as a result of American spying on German politicians, including Angela Merkel. If Hungary keeps courting the Germans, perhaps Berlin will take Hungary’s side on the Russian question. Some friends think that Viktor Orbán may just be successful in pitting Germany against the United States. I, on the other hand, doubt such an outcome despite the fact that at the moment the European Union is very restrained in its criticism of Hungary.

The state of the Hungarian left and Ferenc Gyurcsány

I think it is time to return to the affairs of the opposition parties, which are in bad shape.You may recall that at the European parliamentary election it became clear that the strength of MSZP was nowhere near what the party leaders believed or wanted to believe. But Attila Mesterházy, who is considered to be a less than an inspiring leader, was a skillful negotiator. He managed to negotiate a joint party list for the national election of the three parties–MSZP, DK, and Együtt 2014-PM–that greatly favored MSZP. Currently, MSZP has 28 seats in parliament while the other two parties have only four each when in the EU election MSZP received 10.9% of the votes cast against DK’s 9.75% and Együtt 2014-PM’s 7.25%. Since then, according to Ipsos, MSZP lost a couple more percentage points while DK gained the same amount. Együtt 2014-PM’s support is unchanged.

Attila Mesterházy is gone as party chairman, but in parliament MSZP has a relatively large delegation with a party that currently has only about an 8% share of the electorate. Meanwhile the other two parties are deprived of the minimum number of members that would allow them to have their own parliamentary caucuses. They therefore have very limited opportunities to play an active role in parliament. They cannot have representation on parliamentary committees and their ability to speak or ask questions is greatly restricted. As Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted, DK “was too generous in its negotiations with MSZP.”

It is not only Mesterházy who has more or less disappeared from the political scene. I strongly suspect that Gordon Bajnai, despite his protestations to the contrary, will not be around for long. The party will be headed by a troika–Péter Juhász (Milla), Sándor Székely (Solidarity), and Viktor Szigetvári (Együtt 2014). Nobody from the Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM) seems to be represented. With this leadership, I have the feeling, Együtt 2014 will not be able to develop a large base and, in fact, might not last longer than its name implies.

As for MSZP, the leadership is searching for a new leader, and it looks as if József Tóbiás will be the man to succeed Mesterházy. Tóbiás might be a perfectly capable man, but charismatic he is not. Tabloids often talk about his wife who, as the second-runner-up in the Miss Hungary pageant, is well known, especially since she often makes appearances in soaps on RTL Klub. Maybe Tóbiás has some secret medicine for the ills of MSZP, but I will be most surprised if thanks to his activities the socialists double their popularity any time soon.

That leaves DK and Ferenc Gyurcsány. The party’s success in the EP election surprised everybody, perhaps even its leaders. Of course, before the election Gyurcsány gave the impression of great confidence. He went so far as to announce that if DK does not reach the 5% that would qualify the party to send at least one delegate to Brussels, he would resign. The reaction from the anti-Gyurcsány camp was derision. He? He will never resign. Luckily for him, he did not have to contemplate a move that would have destroyed DK which is, just like Fidesz, a one-man party though without the kind of undemocratic, centralized organization that is characteristic of Viktor Orbán’s party.

DK-logo2Success breeds success, as the saying goes. A couple of weeks after the election DK’s spokesman, Zsolt Gréczy, announced that DK had received applications for membership from over 860 people. MSZP politicians charged that Ferenc Gyurcsány had been phoning local MSZP leaders, trying to entice them to join DK. Gyurcsány’s answer to that was that “they come without asking.” One thing is sure, Gyurcsány has been even more active than he normally is. He is in the middle of organizing an anti-government demonstration. He also made several appearances on ATV and gave two long interviews, one to Origo and another to Index. Both are long and cover a lot of ground. Here I will concentrate on only two themes: the municipal elections and his views on the possible course of Hungarian politics in the future. Both were discussed in the Origo interview.

Although it was obvious that Gyurcsány had struck a bad bargain with MSZP before the national election, he, unlike Együtt-2014, still thinks that the three parties must run again under a common umbrella organization in the municipal elections. Otherwise, they have no chance against Fidesz. It is especially true after the government changed the rules of the game in Budapest. Until now all the inhabitants of the capital city voted for a lord mayor (főpolgármester) while inhabitants of each of the twenty-three districts voted for their own candidates for district mayor. At the same time all voters cast their votes for party lists. The composition of the city council was decided on the basis of the number of votes each party received. Now, there will no longer be party lists. The district mayors will make up the city council. János Áder signed the bill into law, although it is most likely unconstitutional. The population of the districts varies greatly, so it can easily happen that one member of the council will be elected by 90,000 people while another by only 30,000. But János Áder, just like his predecessor, has no problems signing anything his party and his friend, Viktor Orbán, find important. And he did find this bill important because without it there might have been a Fidesz defeat in Budapest. And that cannot be allowed. It is for this reason that Gyurcsány is such a champion of another “unity alliance.”

As for the possibilities for the future. Gyurcsány thinks that the changes on the left will be the result of “a long, organic development with different possible outcomes.” The simplest would be that each party goes its own way and sometime in 2017 they put together an “electoral coalition.” The second possibility is closer cooperation among the three parties. The third, which Gyurcsány described as a “dream,” is that “one day the voters and the party leaders decide that these three parties and perhaps some others should create one large democratic party.” But, he added, for the time being he does not see the slightest chance of such a development; perhaps “one day such an idea might become a reality.”

There is no question that Gyurcsány hopes that a large, powerful party on the left will materialize. Although at the end of the interview he denied the possibility that he would be the one to head such a unity party, one has the feeling that deep down that is exactly what he would like to achieve. And, looking around, I see no one else at the moment who could possibly fill the bill. Of course, someone may show up in the next few years who could have a real chance against Viktor Orbán, especially if he continues his irresponsible economic policies. Yes, I know, lately the GDP numbers look good, but every responsible economist claims that they are not sustainable. Moreover, another 100-150 billion forints are missing from the budget and that means yet another austerity program. A few more stories about János Lázár’s trips to the Riviera and his extravagant hotel bills might change the mood of the electorate. Gyurcsány at least thinks that Orbán might not last until 2018–but then he’s something of a cockeyed optimist.

Regrouping on the left: MSZP on the brink

In the wake of the EU parliamentary election the non-Hungarian media will undoubtedly be preoccupied with the fact that the second largest party in Hungary is an extreme-right, racist, anti-Semitic party. But in the domestic press the “demise” of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the surprisingly good showing of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció is the chief topic. After all, Fidesz’s large victory was a foregone conclusion, and the Hungarian media had speculated for some time that Jobbik would surpass MSZP. But no one predicted that DK would almost catch up with MSZP.

DK’s performance was especially unexpected because most opinion polls predicted that DK had no chance of sending delegates to the European Parliament. Medián, normally a very reliable polling firm, forecast a large Fidesz victory, Jobbik as the second-place winner, and MSZP in third place. As far as E14-PM and LMP were concerned, their chances were slim, teetering around the 5% mark. The party that, in Medián’s opinion, had no chance whatsoever was the Demokratikus Koalíció.

As it turned out, the predictions were off rather badly in the case of the smaller parties. As it stands now, all three–E14-PM, LMP, and DK–will be able to take part in the work of the European Parliament. The largest discrepancy between the predictions and the actual results was in the case of DK, which with its 9.76% will have two MEPs in Strasbourg.

The talking heads were stunned, especially those who have been absolutely certain that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s name is so tainted that there was no way he could ever again be a major player in Hungarian politics. Even those who sympathized with him felt that he returned to politics too early and by this impatience jeopardized his own political future.

The very poor showing of MSZP had a shocking effect on the Hungarian public as well as on commentators. No one was expecting a large win, but Medián, for example, predicted at least 14%. Instead, the final result was 10.92%.  A devastating blow. On her Facebook page Ildikó Lendvai, former whip and chairman of the party, described MSZP as being asleep or perhaps even dead. Slapping around a dead man, she wrote, is a waste of time. The governing body (elnökség) of the party has already resigned en bloc, and Saturday we will find out whether Attila Mesterházy will have to step down. Some well-known blog writers suggested that he should leave politics altogether and find a nice civilian job.

Let’s take a closer look at what happened to the three parties that constituted the United Alliance in the April 5 national election. The supposition that MSZP did all the heavy lifting for the combined ticket turned out to be false, at least based on the new returns. DK and E14-PM together garnered 18% of the votes as opposed to MSZP’s 10.92%. A rather substantial difference. EP-valasztas 2014-2It is also clear that the relatively good showing of the United Alliance in Budapest was due to the two smaller parties. This time around DK and E14-PM received 26% of the votes as opposed to MSZP’s 11.5%. DK ran second behind Fidesz in the capital (13.1o%), very closely followed by E14-PM (13.07%). Which party won in which district? It seems that Gordon Bajnai’s party was strong in the more elegant districts of Pest and Buda: the Castle district, Rózsadomb, downtown Pest, and Óbuda. Gyurcsány’s party won in less affluent districts: Köbánya, Újpalota, Csepel. Altogether DK won in nine outlying districts.

DK also did better than MSZP in several larger cities: Debrecen, Győr, Nagykanizsa, Kaposvár, Érd, Kecskemét, Pécs, and Székesfehérvár. In addition, there were two counties, Fejér and Pest, where DK beat the socialists. I should add that Fidesz lost only one city, Nyírbátor, where MSZP received 41.12% of the votes to Fidesz’s 32.35%.

As I predicted, very few Hungarians voted. In 2004 the figure was 38.50%, in 2009 36.31%, and this year only 28.92%. There might be several reasons for the low participation. For starters, people took a large Fidesz victory for granted. They did not think their votes could make a difference. Moreover, it was less than two months since the last election, and only the very committed took the trouble to make another trip to the polling station.

As far as the composition of the European Parliament is concerned, it looks as if EPP will have 212 members and S&D 186. So, the candidate for the post of the president of the European Commission will most likely be Jean-Claude Juncker, the man Viktor Orbán would not vote for in the European Council. What is wrong with Juncker? One very big problem is his country of origin: Luxembourg. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding is also a Luxembourger, and she was very tough on the Orbán government. As Orbán put it: “the commissioner from Luxembourg has only hurt Hungary in the past. So, Hungarians cannot support a Luxembourger.” And Redding was not alone. There was another Luxembourger, Jean Asselborn, foreign minister in Juncker’s government, who criticized Hungary’s media law. It seems that Orbán developed a general dislike of Luxembourgers.

Orbán might not be alone in the European Council in his opposition to Juncker because it looks as if  David Cameron will also oppose him. Mind you, he also has problems with Martin Schulz. I doubt that the anti-Juncker forces will succeed, however, because Angela Merkel has thrown her weight behind him.

As for Juncker, naturally he was asked about his reaction to Orbán’s opposition to his nomination at his press conference today. Juncker started off by keeping the topic away from his own person, saying that “this is a problem that exists between Fidesz and EPP,” but then he told the journalists what was on his mind. “I cannot accept that just because a former minister from Luxembourg got into an argument with the Hungarian government it is en0ugh reason to exclude another Luxembourger from the post of president of the European Council. This is not elegant reasoning.”

Elegant reasoning and Orbán? In his fairly lengthy and exuberant victory speech, the prime minister called the Hungarian MEPs the “advanced garrison of Hungarians who defend the homeland abroad.” He sent them off with these words: “Greetings to the soldiers entering the battlefield!”

 

Historian Zoltán Ripp’s analysis of the Hungarian election

Post-election soul-searching and analysis continues in Hungarian opposition circles. I spent two days talking about the remedies offered by MSZP insiders Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller. Politicians from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, have so far been silent. I understand they are spending this coming weekend analyzing the lessons of the election. On the other hand, DK activists gathered 42,000 supporting signatures, ensuring their participation in the EP election on May 25. Their election slogan, “Europe Is Performing Better,” is a take-off on the government’s claim that Hungary is doing better.

It is extremely difficult to guess how the opposition parties, this time campaigning alone, will do. Turnout for EP elections is usually very low, and Fidesz will most likely get a majority of the 22 seats Hungary is entitled to. Jobbik will probably do even better than in 2009 when they captured three seats, only one fewer than MSZP. The other opposition parties, Együtt 2014-PM and DK, are real question marks because this is the first time they will be able to measure their strength at the polls. Parties need at least 5% of the votes cast to send a delegate.

While the campaign for the EP election is going on, political analysts continue to ponder the consequences of the national election. This time it was Zoltán Ripp, a historian, who tackled the election results. Ripp is deeply immersed in political history, especially the history of the Hungarian communist party in the last fifty years or so. He also wrote a monumental work on the change of regime (Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990), which I find invaluable for understanding the political history of those years.

Ripp was described in a review of one of his books as a historian close to MSZP. Well, that might have been the case a few years back but, as evidenced by an article he published in Galamus, Ripp nowadays has a devastating opinion of MSZP’s current leadership. According to Ripp, MSZP politicians “are “culturally empty, morally dubious, and politically feeble.”

Zoltán Ripp / 168 Óra

Zoltán Ripp /168 Óra

So, how does Ripp see the election and its consequences? The title of his long essay is telling: “Opting for  Servitude.” The essay itself is a subjective description of his despair. Ripp, like most historians, doesn’t think much of the so-called political scientists and leaves “objective” analyses to the talking heads. He is convinced that now, after the election, “the constitutional third republic is gone for ever.” The change of regime is final, especially now that Viktor Orbán with the blessing of the electorate won another stunning victory. One can no longer claim that the Orbán regime is illegitimate. Those who voted for Fidesz reaffirmed its legitimacy.

Ripp, of course, realizes that for the core voters of Fidesz Orbán’s regime doesn’t mean servitude at all. On the contrary, they are convinced that they are performing a service in pursuit of a higher and more noble goal. They are lending a helping hand in the task of elevating the nation into future greatness. Viktor Orbán is described as “the chief shaman, ” “the anointed leader” who knows what he is doing. “Who is the embodiment of what is the best in us.” But, the problem is, Ripp continues, that “the party of Viktor Orbán could have won only in a country where society is gravely ill.” What is that illness? “The lack of democratic culture and mentality.” And that is very basic. Ripp claims that the failure of the democratic third republic was bound to happen. It was practically inevitable.

As opposed to many others, Ripp asserts that it was “not material questions that decided the outcome of the election.” Not that they didn’t matter, but the chief culprit was “the revival of the culture of subjugation.” The return of “resignation,” “assuetude.” And the problem with the opposition was, in Ripp’s view, that they didn’t concentrate on the real issue: that with the election of 2010 came a “regime change.” What was at stake in the election was democracy vs. autocracy painted over with a pseudo-democratic gloss. Ripp fears that the regime put in place byViktor Orbán will stay perhaps for decades. “We can get into a situation from which there is no way out by holding elections.”  Those who believe that there will be another chance in 2018 are mistaken, “they don’t understand anything about the nature of the Orbán regime (kurzus).”

In Ripp’s opinion this opposition misunderstood the very threat that Viktor Orbán’s regime was and is posing to Hungarian democracy. So, what should have been done? How should the opposition politicians have handled the situation? The key word in Ripp’s vocabulary is “radicalism,” but he quickly adds that radicalism is not the same thing as using scurrilous language. There should have been a concentrated radical attack on the illegitimate character of the Orbán regime. Democratic politicians should have announced as their goal the total elimination of the whole system Orbán built in the last four years. Instead, “our brave politicians” only managed to come up with the label of “kormányváltó,” which didn’t even make it to the Magyar Értelmező Szótár as an adjective. It simply means “change of government.” As Ripp puts it, “instead of strategy that great zeal degenerated into a whimper.” On such a basis one could not put together a civic concentration of forces that would have produced enough power for the removal of the Orbán regime. Instead, a coalition of parties was formed “based on cheap haggling.”

Ripp knows that “the intellectual giants of MSZP” will call him an idealist who cannot see farther than downtown Budapest and who talks nonsense because he doesn’t grasp the realities of the countryside. Ripp’s answer is that the democratic politicians had four years to explain to the population the connection between the lack of democracy and the rule of law and the quality of material life. He uses a famous line from Sándor Petőfi to illustrate his point: “haza csak ott van, ahol jog is van.”

What were the sins of the individual actors in the drama? Ferenc Gyurcsány’s “chief responsibility lies in the fact that, although he knew and said a thousand times what was at stake, in the end he accepted the rules of a losing game.” Bajnai’s responsibility is great. He gave up his original ideas and “followed the script of MSZP… He deteriorated into a weakish participant in a political battle.” As for Attila Mesterházy, in Ripp’s eyes he was totally unsuited to lead the battle against Fidesz. “Anyone who did not see that should look for some profession outside of politics.” But, he adds, Mesterházy was not the cause of the crisis but its symptom. What an indictment of MSZP! If Ripp is right, the remedies Lendvai and Hiller propose are useless.

Ildikó Lendvai’s “Plan B” as a solution to the ills of Hungarian politics

Right after the election I created two new folders: “Orbán government, 2014-” and “MSZP, 2014-.” In the first instance, I hesitated to be too specific and add the expected date of the end of the third Orbán government. In the second instance, I was certain that a new era would begin soon after the election. It was inevitable that the role of Attila Mesterházy both as party chairman and as the candidate for the post of prime minister would be questioned.  Supporters of Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány were never happy with Mesterházy and were convinced that with Bajnai at the head of the Unity Alliance the opposition to Fidesz would have done better. Bajnai was always slightly ahead of Mesterházy in popularity, though not by much.

Considering the internal tensions that most likely existed within MSZP in the last two years or so, it was remarkable that the leading socialist politicians stuck pretty well to the party line. But some, especially the old hands, were unhappy with the way things were going. I must say that I sympathize with them. These people had years of experience behind them and a record of accomplishment. They had known the leading members of Fidesz since 1988-89. They had dealt with them on a daily basis. By the time Mesterházy and some of the newcomers got into politics, Viktor Orbán was no longer involved in open give and take. For eight years, between 2002 and 2010, he rarely showed up in parliament. He was a shadowy figure for these newcomers.

The younger generation also had no experience in party organization. They decided, for instance, not to put any effort into grass roots organization in the countryside. The new party leaders thought they could let Fidesz have the countryside and win with only city voters. That turned out to be a grave  mistake. And this particular problem was just one of many on the organizational level.

In the last few days, more and more old-timers have hinted rather strongly that Mesterházy should resign. I suspect that he will not resign, but it is unlikely that he will be reelected given the mood of the party faithful.

Today and tomorrow I will talk about the criticism that came from two former chairmen of the party: Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller. Hiller had a long interview with Népszava, and Lendvai published an op/ed piece in Népszabadság. 

As I was looking through my notes, I found an interview with Lendvai from November 2011 which also appeared in Népszabadság. The reporter jokingly asked her: “Don’t you think that you are going to be in trouble for giving an interview?” He asked that question because Attila Mesterházy had asked the older party leaders not to appear in public. Lendvai, who is well-known for her quick ripostes, answered: Mesterházy “asked everybody to work hard. I can report that I’m working and not just having fun, however pleasant the company.” Even in that old interview, Lendvai made it clear that she would like to have party leaders who were not looking to see “where the head of the table is.”

So, how does she assess the state of the party now? The title of her article is “Plan B.” She doesn’t mince words: both MSZP’s structure and its functioning are bankrupt. Actually, not just MSZP but the whole Hungarian political structure is in trouble, including Fidesz. The symptoms of the crisis in her opinion are:

(1) Fewer and fewer people bother to vote. Politics has become a game of the few. Politicians are often preoccupied with their own former political battles. The chasm between politics and the citizenry is growing.

(2) The very notion of parties is questionable. Fidesz no longer functions as parties normally do. KDNP is no more than a name while Fidesz operates more like a hierarchical, almost religious organization rather than a party. It exists only in “political processions” and is no longer the molder of government policies. It tried to take over the role and culture of the extremist Jobbik, but its hegemonic role in the right became weaker instead of stronger. It can easily happen that there will be a time when two right-wing parties fight between themselves for supremacy.

(3) In the last four years there were attempts at building bridges between parties and civil society but they were all failures. Fidesz’s Civil Összefogás Fórum is no more than a “collection of party soldiers” while Gordon Bajnai’s attempt at cooperation with civil society failed.

(4) The intellectual aging of the political elite has accelerated. No new ideas have penetrated the parties for years. In MSZP “change” was seen simply as a change of generations. But the electorate doesn’t have any better opinion of the new politicians than of the old. Politicians have to face the fact that even those who are interested in politics got to the point that they want to throw out all politicians. The electorate is becoming older and older, the camp of  the “politically homeless” is growing, there is less and less interest in politics, and less and less hope. This is what Hungarian politicians have to face.

In this situation the disappearance or reappearance of a party or some politicians will not solve the problems. One has to start with Plan B. This Plan B has at least three important components.

Plan for a solution: To change the party logo "Try to under: this is the twenty-first century! At least you should sometime take a look at the popularity lists of of the Internet Marabu / Népszabadság

Plan for a solution: Change the party logo
“Try to understand: this is the twenty-first century! At least you should sometimes take a look at the popularity lists on the Internet”
Marabu / Népszabadság

The first and the most difficult component of Plan B is the creation of an entirely new political structure. Instead of the present two political centers, a true network should be built that includes the whole society. This network would not only prepare Hungarian society for an election in 2018 but would also help it to survive the next four years. Lendvai finds it essential to build a network that could eventually become a movement. The lessening importance of parliament can be expected in the next four years. As a counterweight new communities should be created: professional volunteer organizations, a network of mini-parliaments, regional and societal advocacy groups, and so on. Just as happened economically in the Kádár regime: besides the official economy a “second economy” was born that not only helped people survive but also prepared the ground for future changes.

Second. In the coming parliamentary cycle the social divide between the haves and the have-nots will most likely grow. Solidarity must be strengthened in Hungarian society. People should be encouraged to volunteer for all sorts of work, from feeding the poor to offering pro bono legal help to the needy. This way new blood could come into traditional politics. And the parties should be made more open to accepting help from the outside.

Third. People both inside and outside of the party must discuss topics they feel uncomfortable with.  Is it really true, as a lot of people in MSZP claim, that “we don’t have to talk about democracy because this doesn’t interest the poor people? Or that we shouldn’t talk about the Gypsies because the topic is apt to arouse negative feelings in many?” Lendvai’s answer is that the left should fight against vulnerability, which derives both from the lack of bread and the lack of rights.

At the very end of her article there is an innocent sounding sentence that may not even be noticed by the casual reader. “One ought not to compete with Fidesz and Jobbik by copying Fidesz’s centralized one-man rule and imitating Jobbik’s spurious slogan of law and order accompanied by the limitation of rights. We need a Plan B. But our own.” This sentence contains a severe criticism of Attila Mesterházy, who lately has been building a more centralized party with his own small group of young politicians and who a few days ago even talked about MSZP standing for “law and order” because after all that is what many people want. This is a hopeless and unacceptable proposition, as some of his fellow MSZP politicians immediately announced. I don’t know whether Lendvai’s ideas would work, but that Mesterházy’s ideas are a dead end I’m sure.

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.