István Tarlós

Post mortem: election results of the Hungarian municipal elections

Now that I’ve had a good night sleep and listened again to all the speeches by the various party leaders, I came to the conclusion that there are two points on which everybody agrees. One, that Lajos Bokros, the candidate of the united democratic opposition, did extremely well and, two, that the greatest loser in these elections was András Schiffer’s LMP.

So, let’s first talk about the mayoralty race in Budapest. We all know the handicaps Bokros had to overcome. Months of indecision, constant bickering, especially between the twin parties Együtt and PM, and only two weeks of campaigning. I think most people were prepared for a complete fiasco. Four years ago the socialist candidate received 29.47% of the votes but, the analysts predicted, Bokros who claims to be a liberal conservative will receive even less support. Behold, he got 36% of the popular vote. As Bokros likes to say, only 13% less than the victorious István Tarlós who was reelected with 49% of the votes as opposed to his 2010 achievement of 53.37%.

As for the LMP loss, we should keep in mind that LMP’s strength is confined to Budapest. To give some idea of what has happened to LMP in Budapest over the last four years, in 2010 Benedek Jávor, LMP’s mayoral candidate, received 9.9% of the votes. (Jávor since left LMP and joined PM. He is today Együtt-PM’s representative to the European Parliament.) This year’s LMP candidate, Antal Csárdi, received only 5.69% of the votes. I suspect that LMP lost its appeal among voters who came to the conclusion that a tiny party’s lonely fight against the Fidesz colossus is hopeless and perhaps even counterproductive.

Jobbik’s candidate, Gábor Staudt, received the same percentage of votes in both 2010 and 2014, around 7%.  The liberals’ candidate, Zoltán Bodnár, received 2.1% of the votes.

Tarlós’s decrease in support and the surprisingly strong showing of Bokros should give the Fidesz leadership pause, warns even the pro-government Válasz. Árpád W. Tóta, a sharp-tongued and talented journalist, approaches the same topic from the point of view of the opposition. He takes issue with Viktor Orbán’s claim that there is unprecedented unity among Hungarians. In Budapest one-third of 41% of the Budapest adult citizens voted for Lajos Bokros, “whose middle name is Package,” referring to the extremely strict austerity program Bokros introduced as minister of finance. Therefore, he argues, “there must be considerable bitterness” in the electorate for them to vote for Bokros.

onkormanyzati valasztasok

Just as predicted, Jobbik did well. The party’s mayoral candidates received about 100,000 more votes than four years ago. In 2010 the party’s candidates won in three smaller towns but in the last four years they added a few more larger villages, mostly in the northeast corner of the country. After these elections the party has more members in the city/town/county councils than ever before. Moreover, the party’s popularity is no longer confined to its former stronghold in the poorest districts of the country. Jobbik also did quite well in Transdanubia. For example, in Somogy County four years ago Jobbik received 9.83% of the votes while this year it got 19.34%. The situation was similar in Győr-Moson-Sopron County, which is considered to be a well-off district due to a number of large foreign-owned factories.

Finally, here are some general observations and comments. Voter participation has been steadily declining in Hungary ever since 2006. As Political Capital, a think tank, observed, Fidesz’s victories are due solely to the ineptitude of the opposition and voter apathy. Fidesz keeps winning while steadily losing voters. Although the opposition in Budapest didn’t do as well as they had hoped, Fidesz did lose two districts, XIV and XV, in addition to two “towns of county rank” (megyei jogú város). Political Capital published a long list of the towns where votes for Fidesz mayors dropped considerably. Take, for instance, my own hometown, Pécs, where Zsolt Páva won 68.59% of the votes in 2010 but this time got only 39.28%. Admittedly this was the largest drop in popularity but Kecskemét, the home of the Mercedes-Benz factory, was not far behind (79.12% versus 59.31%). Yet the democratic parties are incapable of enlarging their voting base.

There are a few success stories in the otherwise grim picture of the left-liberal parties. MSZP improved its showing in places it won in both 2010 and 2014–three Budapest districts and Szeged. For example, in Szeged László Botka (MSZP) received 52.51% of the votes and his Fidesz opponent 45.84% in 2010; this year Botka got 58.21% while his “independent” opponent with Fidesz backing received only 36.88% of the votes. I might add that while after 2010 Botka had to work with a Fidesz-majority city council of 28, this year there is a clear MSZP-DK-Együtt-PM majority. So, it seems that joint political action coupled with good past performance still works.

MSZP remains the strongest of the three opposition parties, followed by DK and Együtt-PM, but the differences between MSZP and DK are not that great. For example, in Budapest in districts I , XII, and XXIII, DK did better than MSZP, and in several others the differences were minuscule. The situation was the same in some of the larger cities, for example in Debrecen and Nagykanizsa where DK received more votes than MSZP or in Zalaegerszeg where they were neck to neck. So, it’s no wonder that Ferenc Gyurcsány seems to be satisfied overall, although he is disappointed that DK won only one district mayoralty in Budapest instead of the two they had hoped for.

I’m pretty sure that we will spend a great deal more time on the repercussions of the elections and on the intra-party struggles that most likely will follow. The present MSZP leadership seems to be adamant about following LMP’s lead and going it alone against the Fidesz machinery. I suspect, however, that not everybody will follow Tóbiás and the hardliners. Gyurcsány last night announced that a new union party should be open to every democrat, from Gábor Demszky to Lajos Bokros and Ági Kunhalmi! This morning on ATV’s Start Kunhalmi (MSZP) very cleverly deflected the question about her future political plans.

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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.

The Budapest campaign: Lajos Bokros as challenger of István Tarlós?

Municipal elections will be held in three weeks. Not so long ago it seemed that the opposition actually stood a chance of winning in Budapest. After all, in the last election more people voted for the opposition parties than for Fidesz in the capital city. Fidesz sensed danger: its two-third’s majority in parliament promptly changed the Budapest electoral law. This move greatly reduced the likelihood of the opposition’s winning. But, as has since become painfully obvious, the real problem lies not so much in the new, admittedly unfair law but rather in the inability of the opposition to close ranks. As it stands now, there are seven hopefuls for the post of lord mayor of Budapest: István Tarlós (Fidesz-KDNP), Ferenc Falus (Együtt-PM), Antal Csárdi (LMP), Gábor Staudt (Jobbik), Zoltán Bodnár (MLP), Lajos Bokros (MoMa), and György Magyar (independent). Is it any surprise that, according to a couple of opinion polls, Tarlós is leading the pack by a wide margin?

When, after agonizingly long negotiations, the democratic opposition settled on Ferenc Falus, I thought he was a good candidate. I had seen several interviews with him from his days as the country’s chief public health official. He seemed to me the opposite of István Tarlós, whom even one of his political allies recently called “a fellow with churlish manners.” Falus, by contrast, struck me as a perfect gentleman with an even temperament whom people could trust. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a disappointment. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Was it Falus’s political inexperience or the fault of the party that nominated him? Wasn’t he properly prepared? Why didn’t he know enough about the workings of the city before he had to face an army of journalists?  I suspect that the fault lies with Együtt-PM, whose candidate he is, although MSZP and DK decided to support him. Sometimes I wonder whether Falus would be better off if Viktor Szigetvári, the man who is running the party nowadays, would just leave him alone. One day Falus says that if opinion polls indicate that another opposition candidate has the lead he will withdraw in his favor, but the next day he is forced to say that his statement was a mistake. He will not withdraw from the race. Meanwhile, the poor man’s credibility is severely damaged. I think that Falus’s chances of winning are approaching zero.

Today I will focus on another candidate, Lajos Bokros, the economist and former minister of finance in the Horn government (1995-1996). He was the one who made necessary economic adjustments which resulted in a very strict austerity program nicknamed “the Bokros package.” As a result, the popularity of the Horn government dropped, but within a couple of years, due to the measures he introduced, the Hungarian economy began to grow rapidly. He was criticized by the left as well as the right, but in fact Viktor Orbán should have been grateful to him. As a result of his reforms, the first Orbán government had an easy time financially, and before the 2002 election there was even enough money to loosen the monetary policy of the country. But the personal cost to Bokros was high; he became the most hated man in the country. His popularity at one point was 9%.

Lajos Bokros / Source: ATV

Lajos Bokros / Source: ATV

The fact is that Bokros is not really a politician. His main concern is the economy, and therefore I was surprised that in April 2013 he and some former politicians of MDF decided to establish a political party called Modern Magyarország Mozgalom/Movement for Modern Hungary  (MoMa). In the April election he and his party supported the united democratic opposition, but on July 7, 2014 he announced his candidacy for the post of mayor of Budapest. At the time I don’t think anyone would have given him the slightest chance of even getting the necessary number of signatures to be able to proceed. But Bokros surprised everybody. In fact, Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ, a respectable political think tank, believes that among all the candidates he is the only one who would have a chance against István Tarlós, the current Fidesz-KDNP mayor. Moreover, Nézőpont Intézet, the only pollsters to conduct a survey in Budapest, already ranked Bokros ahead of Falus.

How could that happen? I see quite a few possible reasons for that unlikely development. One is that among the people running against the incumbent mayor, Bokros has the highest name recognition. Second, it is possible that Bokros’s lack of political finesse is a plus in the eyes of the electorate, which is suspicious of politicians. Third, people are beginning to appreciate professional expertise, and Bokros oozes self-confidence. And he even knows what he is talking about. Fourth, Bokros offered a coherent program well before the campaign got underway. Falus, by contrast, announced his candidacy without any program. His supporting party then cobbled something together, losing two precious weeks of the short campaign time.

Yet it is unlikely that any of the other opposition candidates, with the exception of the independent György Magyar, will withdraw in his favor. The candidates of Jobbik and LMP are out of the question. Neither the liberals’ candidate, Zoltán Bodnár, nor Ferenc Falus seems willing to step aside. In fact, Falus’s latest pronouncement is that he expects Bokros, who is ahead of him in the polls, to withdraw in his favor. He graciously offered Bokros a position in his administration.

On October 12, election day, it is almost certain that István Tarlós will win fair and square. The scapegoat will probably be Lajos Bokros. The opposition, the lament may go, could have won if only Bokros hadn’t refused to cede to the man who is most likely currently running behind him.

Reactions to Viktor Orbán’s speech to the ambassadors

I simply cannot get over the ineptitude of the Hungarian opposition parties. It is hard to pick the biggest loser among them. Here we are before the Budapest municipal elections where the stakes are high since with good candidates and a good campaign the democratic parties have a chance of replacing István Tarlós and perhaps even receiving  the majority of the district mayoralties. The chief MSZP negotiator was Ágnes Kunhalmi, a young woman with little political experience who, it seems, had difficulties keeping the local party bosses in line. As a result, in several districts the democratic parties will run not only against the Fidesz candidates but also against each other. A sure way of losing.

And what did the brand new party chief, József Tóbiás, do during these tense weeks of constant intra-party negotiations? He went on vacation! In his opinion he has nothing whatsoever to do with local Budapest affairs. The locals will take care of local affairs! As for the common candidate for the lord mayoralty, when asked what he thought of him, Tóbiás without batting an eyelash answered that Ferenc Falus must be a good candidate if all three parties agreed on his nomination. When pressed, he admitted that he does not know Falus, but after he meets him he will form an opinion. As far as I know, the meeting has been postponed several times since. Tóbiás is too busy.

The parties’ reactions to Viktor Orbán’s speech to the ambassadors yesterday were also poor. Perhaps the most feeble was Együtt-PM’s statement. It was penned by Nóra Hajdu, who is not exactly a household name in Hungarian politics. I managed to find her in tenth place on Együtt-PM’s list for the EU election. At that point E-PM was hoping to send three people to Brussels, but in the end they received only a single mandate.

Her statement began by expressing the party’s disappointment over Orbán’s failure to remedy the mistakes he committed in his “illiberal” speech because these mistakes “are accompanied by serious international consequences.” Disappointment? Couldn’t she find a more forceful and apt word for this speech? Hajdu expressed her surprise that Orbán instructed the ambassadors to represent “his mistaken policies.” I don’t know what else Nóra Hajdu expected. That is what ambassadors are supposed to do. At the end she did mention the unacceptable turn of phrase about “the half-witted nations” who follow a foreign policy based on universal liberal values.

Tóbiás wasn’t exactly hard-hitting either. He talked in general about mistaken policies and an alternative reality that exists only in Orbán’s head. But the most surprising part of the announcement was that, in his opinion,”the ambassadors should represent the Hungarian nation and not Viktor Orbán’s parallel world.” I really don’t know what to think. Ambassadors represent the government they serve. If someone cannot in good conscience do that, he should resign.

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy of DK spoke somewhat more forcefully about his and his party’s objections on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd where he stressed the unacceptability of a foreign policy based exclusively on material gain. In his interpretation Orbán “gave the order” to lead Hungary further toward eastern dictatorships.

In addition to these official statements, Viktor Szigetvári, who by now has assumed the leading role in E-PM, wrote a long post on his own blog. Of course, this is not the best place to air his reactions to Orbán’s latest since few people will find it. It is, however, a surprisingly good analysis, which indicates to me that Szigetvári is most likely a better political analyst than a politician. After all, he was trained as a political scientist.

Szigetvári rightly points out that “in all mistaken analyses there are several real and factual elements.” For example, it is true that the European Union struggles with the problems of the protracted economic crisis.

According to Szigetvári, Orbán is also right about the necessity of conducting “intelligent Realpolitik.” In the classical meaning of the word, it means a diplomacy that is primarily based on power and material considerations rather than ideological or ethical premises. Such a foreign policy, however, presupposes individual, absolutely sovereign states who can play a power game on the chessboard of the world. Hungary cannot conduct that kind of Realpolitik since it is part of a larger unit, the European Union, and is a country without complete sovereignty. Therefore, the kind of Realpolitik Orbán advocates is unrealistic and doomed to failure.

Unless, of course, Orbán is contemplating a series of moves that would end in Hungary’s either leaving the European Union on its own or being forced out of it. András Vértes, an economist and chairman of GKI Gazdaságkutató Zrt, is convinced that, in spite of what everybody says, Orbán’s final goal is saying goodbye to Brussels. Orbán suggested in his speech that 50% of Hungary’s exports should go to countries outside the European Union. “That is an astonishing wish…. The overwhelming majority of investment in Hungary comes from EU sources and EU countries, but we send the message that Russian and Chinese capital is more important for us…. That kind of talk will frighten away the few investors who are still interested.”

Thus, there is something very wrong with Orbán’s version of Realpolitik. It doesn’t seem to serve the interests of the country. Orbán urged the ambassadors to entice investors to Hungary, but Vértes is right. Given the political and economic climate in Hungary, the ambassadors’ attempts cannot be successful.

As for the overall assessment of the speech, there seem to be two schools of thought. One is that Viktor Orbán retreated from his resolve to develop an “illiberal state” and the other is that he simply reiterated and strengthened the messages of his speech in Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad. Given Viktor Orbán’s penchant for delivering talks that are anything but clear, both groups will find plenty to support their contentions. But more about that tomorrow.

The sorry state of the Hungarian opposition: The Budapest municipal elections

It was around noon in Hungary when I began writing this post on the negotiations among the three democratic parties in preparation for the municipal elections on October 12, and I’m not at all sure that within a few hours, by the time I upload this post, the situation won’t have turned around 180 degrees.

I began collecting material on these negotiations right after the national election on April 6. On April 23 a strange news item appeared in Index according to which the socialists had a magic formula for certain victory in the Budapest municipal election. What if, said Zsolt Molnár who at that time was chairman of the Budapest MSZP, András Schiffer’s LMP, a party known for its refusal to cooperate with any other opposition force, would nominate a person for lord mayor (főpolgármester) whom MSZP, and presumably DK and Együtt-PM, would support? Schiffer’s answer was brief and to the point: “let’s not clown around.”

Well, since then the three parties–MSZP, DK, and Együtt-PM–have been doing nothing else but clowning around although it is critical that they reach an understanding. It is only in Budapest that the democratic opposition has a chance to win the city and perhaps even the post of lord mayor.

Viktor Orbán was well aware of the threat  because the results of both the national and the EP elections indicated that the democratic opposition had a chance of taking the city back from Fidesz. It was at this point that Fidesz decided to change Budapest’s electoral law so that it would be very hard for the opposition to gain a majority on the city council. In the past, positions on the council were determined by the number of votes received on straight party lists. From here on, mayoral winners on the district level (and there are 23 districts in Budapest) will make up the council. Thus, the opposition parties cannot compete individually; they have to agree on common candidates.

The jostling began immediately. It was clear from day one that the three parties must agree on a common candidate for the position of lord mayor. Weeks went by, with a different name circulating every other day. Hungarians call this graceless performance “casting,” using the English word for the phenomenon. Finally, after weeks of searching for someone who would take the job and who was also acceptable to the three parties, the candidate was announced a few days ago: Ferenc Falus, a physician who served as the country’s chief medical officer between 2007 and 2010. He is described by people who know him and worked with him as a good administrator and “almost stupidly honest.” Moreover, he seems to be everything that István Tarlós is not. While Tarlós is an intolerant boor and quite vulgar, he is a mild-mannered, well-spoken gentleman.

At least the three parties agree on Ferenc Falus as candidate for mayor of Budapest

At least the three parties agree on Ferenc Falus as candidate for mayor of Budapest

Although choosing the candidate for the post of lord mayor was not easy and seemed to take forever, the decisions on some 300 posts on the district level were even more difficult. Why such large numbers?  Because for each district the three parties had to agree on not only the person of the mayor but also members of the district councils. And naturally, each party wanted to have as many of their own people as possible.

As the national and EP elections demonstrated in Budapest, DK and Együtt-PM have taken away a fair number of votes from MSZP. Although the strength of the three parties is more or less equally divided, leaders of  MSZP seem to have some difficulty understanding that their party is no longer the “large” party while the other two are the “small” ones.

MSZP’s chief negotiator was Ágnes Kunhalmi, the new chair of the Budapest MSZP. She is young woman who until recently was the face of MSZP only when it came to matters of education. But then, Kunhalmi was thrust into the limelight just before the national elections when in the last minute she was nominated by the party to run instead of the disgraced Gábor Simon in Budapest’s 15th electoral district. She lost to her Fidesz opponent in a very tight race. In fact, the difference was so small, something like 200 votes, that a complete recount would have been in order. Kunhalmi was suddenly a star in the party.

It seemed to me that negotiations went along splendidly as long as Kunhalmi didn’t have to return to party headquarters to get approval of the deal from the chief honchos. But there Kunhalmi ran into difficulty. She asked for a few days to iron things out but said she was sure that in a day or so she will get the okay. The deadline had to be extended because MSZP was unhappy with its lot. Finally, a “firm” deadline was fixed for Friday, but Friday came and Friday went and MSZP was still playing coy. Then they got another extension, to midnight on Monday. But by Tuesday morning there was still no MSZP agreement. It was at this point that Viktor Szigetvári, who seems to be running the show  in Együtt-PM, announced that their patience had been exhausted: they will run their own candidates in districts where MSZP refuses to recognize the tripartite agreement.

The revolt against the agreement apparently came from MSZP politicians who have been in city politics for a long time and who couldn’t understand why they would have to give up their places to inexperienced newcomers. After all, they have the experience that will be necessary in case of an electoral victory.

This may be true, but the electorate will not appreciate MSZP’s arguments. They only see that while the two other parties, especially DK, are eager to cooperate, MSZP stands in the way of an understanding. They are running out of time and the campaign cannot begin. A lot of people, including faithful MSZP voters, are disgusted with the performance of the socialists. At the same time I doubt that Együtt-PM will gain extra votes by their abrupt decision to go it alone. On the contrary, they might lose some because voters will punish them for their impetuous behavior.

DK at the moment is sitting on the sidelines, watching the battle between MSZP and Együtt-PM. Under the circumstances this seems to be the best strategy. In my opinion, the warring parties can only lose with this latest conflict. People are fed up with parties in general and even more fed up with the democratic opposition, whose members seem to be more preoccupied with their personal ambitions than with unseating the current administration in Budapest and elsewhere in the country.

In the last few hours Ágnes Kunhalmi fought back. By mid-afternoon she expressed her astonishment at Együtt-PM’s announcement about the breakdown of  negotiations when only a few seats were still undecided out of the 300. MSZP was supposed to announce its agreement to the nomination of the last three candidates. She accused Szigetvári of personal ambitions to which he is ready to sacrifice the chances of the opposition at the Budapest election. Stop, a portal close to the socialists, thought that the biggest loser in this latest turn of events is Együtt-PM because, after all, the other two parties are in favor of continuing talks and compromise. A few hours later, Kunhalmi decided to use less belligerent language in connection with Együtt-PM’s decision  to withdraw from further negotiations. She expressed her belief that there will be an agreement.

There may be, but the last few weeks of negotiations among the three parties did not enhance their reputations. The voters’ faith in their political acumen has been further eroded as the result of all that wrangling. Trust in their ability to govern either the city or the country may have been shaken in light of their inability to present a united front against a very resolute and ruthless political foe.

János Lázár’s fight with Budapest and Norway

Until now I don’t think too many people ever heard of Nándor Csepreghy, who originally hails from Cluj/Kolozsvár, Romania. In 2002 he moved to Hungary to enroll as a student at the University of Szeged, where he majored in history. A year after his arrival he was already heavily involved in Fidesz politics. His political career began in Fidelitas, the youth organization of Fidesz. As a party activist he was full of rather innovative ideas, some of which, like a video called Gyurcsány Twister, did in fact manage to twist the truth quite a bit. In 2008 he was sent to the United States to study campaign strategies, where he obviously learned something. In 2010 he was the campaign manager for a Fidesz candidate for parliament who easily defeated the MSZP mayor of Szeged, László Botka. In 2012 he was at last rewarded with an important government position. He became undersecretary in charge of government investments “of special importance.” It is in this capacity that Csepreghy has been in the limelight recently.

He has two uncomfortable tasks to deal with. He is negotiating in Brussels with the office handling the Norwegian funds, and he has the unpleasant job of telling the citizens of Budapest that the government will not award the city funds to upgrade the metro. Without these funds metro line #3 may have to be closed because it so old and technologically behind the times that it has become outright dangerous.

In addition to his degree in history Csepreghy also majored in communication, “concentrating on public relations.” Again, he learned well. He talks in full sentences and usually has ready answers to uncomfortable questions. It is perhaps not his fault that he has to deliver messages from his boss, János Lázár, that turn out to be politically unwise, which later he is obliged to cover up.

This is what happened in the case of the Budapest convergence funds. He explained that Budapest cannot receive anything from these funds because they are meant primarily for underdeveloped regions. And, of course, everybody knows that Budapest and Pest County are the most developed regions in Hungary. The inhabitants are  better educated and average salaries are the highest in the country. There was only one problem with this explanation: there are no such regional restrictions on funds in the convergence program. In an interview he helpfully suggested that perhaps the city of Budapest could take out a loan, which the government would guarantee.

Surely, Csepreghy is too low on the totem pole to make announcements of this sort on his own. I’m certain that he was just a messenger of János Lázár, who a couple of days later sent another message to Mayor István Tarlós through Csepreghy: he should lobby in Brussels for more money just as his predecessor Gábor Demszky did.

János Lázár and istván Tarlós

János Lázár and István Tarlós

Once Olga Kálmán of Egyenes Beszéd (ATV) pointed out to Csepreghy that the allocation of funds is entirely up to the government, he had to take a different tack. So, he continued this way: It is true that one-fifth of Hungarians live in the capital, but the government has an equal obligation to areas outside of Budapest. Therefore, the government decided to allocate the money to needier areas, which is only fair.

A day later Csepreghy came up with another story. No decision was made that “all financial resources would be taken away from the capital.” But the amount will be less than would be necessary for the modernization of Budapest’s transport system.

Meanwhile  news reached the public that János Lázár has a fairly grandiose plan of his own for his birthplace, Hódmezővásárhely, where he was mayor between 2002 and 2012. He would like to build a tram-train between Hódmezővásárhely and Szeged (23 km). Tram-train is a light-rail public transport system where the train functions as a streetcar in urban centers but between cities uses railway lines. Whether this is the best way to spend billions, I am not sure. I read that currently very few people use the train between Hódmezővásárhely and Szeged; most of the people use the bus. Apparently daily there are only about 8,000 trips between the two cities. Some people pointed out that no town exists anywhere in the world with a population as low as 40,000 that has its own streetcar system.

After about three days of silence Tarlós decided to say something about the grim news. He tried to be conciliatory, stressing that he and Viktor Orbán would find the necessary funds for the #3 metro line. Up to now Budapest has received 635 million forints, but the renovation would cost about 200 billion. The city sent detailed plans and financial estimates to the government. János Lázár, however, claimed in a public forum in his home town that they had received nothing from Tarlós’s office. Who is telling the truth? I’m almost certain that Lázár isn’t.

The question is why the government would want to pick a fight with Tarlós and why they would strip Budapest of all the money promised in 2013. It makes no sense to alienate the population of the city a few months before the municipal election. Well, perhaps Viktor Orbán and his minions think that, thanks to the new electoral law that was dutifully signed by President János Áder today, the election results are sewn up. With the new provisions the opposition won’t have a chance. Or it might be that the government is trying to curry favor with the rural population who are hurting and who think the inhabitants of Budapest get far too big a slice of the common pie. In any case, Brussels favors upgrading Budapest’s transportation system.

As for Csepreghy’s other unpleasant task, negotiations with the Norwegians are not going very well. The government had to accede to the demand of the Norwegian government and abandon the idea of outsourcing the distribution of the funds to a private firm. According to Csepreghy, there was an understanding between the two sides concerning the fate of the larger amount handled by the Hungarian government. However, Csepreghy continued, no agreement was reached about the funds distributed by the NGO Ökotárs Alapítvány (Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation).

I am not at all sure that Csepreghy is telling the whole truth. Let me quote a Norwegian source, which I trust more. Here is the Norwegian government’s position: “Norway and Hungary have still not reached an agreement on lifting the suspension of the EEA and Norway Grants to the country…. Hungarian authorities have initiated an audit of the EEA Grants-funded NGO program strengthening civil society in Hungary. Responsibility for the program and any potential audits lies with the donor states. … Hungary must meet the requirements stipulated in the agreements, which means that the audit must be halted. At the same time, a solution must be found on the issue of the transfer of the implementation and monitoring of the Grants scheme out of the central government administration. Norwegian authorities have as a precondition that these outstanding issues must be resolved before the suspension of the EEA and Norway Grants is lifted. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is waiting for a response from Hungarian authorities before deciding if and how further meetings will take place. ” According to this summary, nothing has been resolved. Both the EEA Grants handled by the government and the Norway Grants handled by the NGO program are still suspended, waiting for a satisfactory response from the Hungarians.

How to make sure that Fidesz wins the municipal election in Budapest?

Viktor Orbán and his minions have no shame. They fear their opponents and hence are once again ready to change the electoral law.

What am I talking about? Municipal elections will be held in October, and Viktor Orbán is afraid that Fidesz may not have clear sailing in Budapest. Although Fidesz won the city at the national and the EP elections, both times there were signs that the opposition might stand a chance of winning the city back from current Budapest mayor István Tarlós, who is Fidesz’s man. And as far as Viktor Orbán is concerned, that must not happen. The easiest way to guarantee a Fidesz victory is to change the electoral law that until now governed the elections and the functioning of the municipal government of Budapest. It was announced that within the shortest possible time parliament will discuss the matter and naturally, with the help of their two-thirds majority, the bill will become law by the middle of June.

The structure of Budapest’s municipal government does need reforming, but the desired changes point to more centralization. In the current system the districts have far too much power and the lord mayoralty does not have enough authority. In the first place, it is ridiculous to have twenty-three district mayors, their numerous deputies, and their separate councils for a city with a population of less than two million. Especially since these mini-kingdoms have such wide powers that they can even decide on parking fees and regulations. Thus, it can easily happen that parking fees and traffic regulations are different on the right side of the street from the left. Moreover, Fidesz further weakened the power of the center by allowing districts to keep certain taxes deriving from tourism. This benefited Antal Rogán’s 5th district enormously since it is that district where most tourists enjoy the sites and spend the most money. Under such circumstances, it is exceedingly difficult to have rational, comprehensive city planning.

As for the election law, voters currently elect the lord mayor and the twenty-three district mayors directly, but they also vote for party lists on the basis of which members of the city council are elected. For some time Fidesz has been toying with the idea of making the lord mayor a less important position; in 2011 there were talks about getting away from direct voting for the mayor of Budapest. Instead, they suggested a setup that would allow the twenty-three mayors to vote for the lord mayor from among themselves. That idea was eventually dropped.

The latest suggestion, which I fear will soon be law, still allows direct voting for the lord mayor, but it completely changes the composition of the city council. The city council would be comprised of the twenty-three district mayors and nine people from the compensation list. That is, from among those who ended up second in the election for district mayoralties. There would be no party lists. According to Lajos Kósa and Antal Rogán, the two MPs who presented the bill, this new electoral law would be much more democratic because in the new system the members of the council would be directly voted on by the electorate as opposed to having an arbitrary party list put together by the different parties. Moreover, Rogán added, it would be much cheaper to run the new council because members of the city council would get no salaries. Being a member of the council would be included in the duties of each district mayor.

Although the claim is that the suggested system will be more democratic than the one now in effect, that is not the case. On the contrary. It is less democratic and, according to constitutional lawyers, might even be unconstitutional. First of all, the members of the city council must represent the entire electorate and not just parts of the whole. After all, only people who live in a particular district are eligible to vote for that district’s mayor. As the quick analysis of Political Capital, the well-known think tank, pointed out, the Fidesz constitution states in Article 35(1) that “voters shall exercise universal and equal suffrage to elect local government representatives and mayors by direct and secret ballot, in elections allowing the free expression of the will of voters, in the manner defined by a cardinal Act.” But if this bill is voted into law, the representatives of the local government, i.e. the city council, will not be elected by all the voters. And there is a second problem that probably makes the new law unconstitutional: the huge differences in population between districts. Political Capital points out that in District I (the Castle district) there are only 20,949 eligible voters while in District XIV there are 92,806. In fact, the Constitutional Court several times ruled on the issue of electoral districts that were in the judges’ opinion too divergent as far as their populations were concerned. By abolishing the party lists, Fidesz prevents the opposition parties from accessing their support across the city as a whole.

In the April parliamentary election Fidesz received 39% of the votes, the United Alliance 37%, Jobbik 12%, and LMP 12%. Portfolio figured out that with the same percentages and under the current rules Fidesz and the United Alliance would both have 13 mandates, Jobbik 4 mandates, and LMP 3 mandates. In the new system, however, Fidesz would have 17 seats on the council, which amounts to 70% of all the available mandates, while E14-PM, DK, and MSZP would have to share 6 mandates. LMP and Jobbik wouldn’t even have seats on the city council. If Fidesz is generous and there is still compensation, assuming 10 more seats and the old “list system,” Fidesz would have 21 seats, Együtt-PM-DK-MSZP 10, LMP 1, and Jobbik 1. No matter how Fidesz fine tunes the law, it will make sure that it dominates the council and controls the fate of Budapest.

No wonder that they are having fun

Lajos Kósa and Antal Rogán: No wonder they are having fun

The opposition parties are up in arms. The most straightforward and hardest hitting criticism came from DK, Együtt14-PM, and Gábor Fodor’s liberals. They call it what it is: electoral fraud. DK is seeking remedies at the Constitutional Court, but by now Fidesz-appointed justices are in the great majority on the thirteen-member body. MSZP’s Csaba Horváth focused more on the negative results of decentralization, which was not the most effective response to this latest Fidesz coup. The others are right: Fidesz just figured out a way to make sure that they will win in Budapest regardless of the strength of the left.

Just as I said at the beginning, Viktor Orbán and his friends have no shame. They no longer even try to hide their plans to deprive their opponents of their rightful representation. Hungary is marching rapidly toward a one-party system.