Kim Scheppele

Interview with Kim Scheppele, Part II: From the Tavares Report to the Electoral System

Members of the Orbán government and its defenders never miss an opportunity to remind critics that it was the Hungarian people who democratically elected Viktor Orbán and his party to govern their land. Not once, they add, but three times just this year–and each time with an overwhelming majority. What they neglect to say is that “Fidesz got its two-thirds using every trick in the book, and it needed every trick in the book to do that,” as Kim Scheppele tells Benjamin Novak in the second part of the interview The Budapest Beacon conducted with her at Princeton University. The first part of the interview can be seen on Hungarian Spectrum (November 13). Kim Scheppele is an expert on the Hungarian constitution, but as you can see here she is thoroughly conversant with Fidesz’s electoral law as well.

Thanks to The Budapest Beacon, I can republish the video and the transcript of the interview. I’m sure that you will all find it most enlightening.


Let’s talk about the Tavares Report. George Schöpflin tells me that it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

In what sense? Does he thinks it’s false or does he think it’s meaningless?

He thinks it’s the left-liberal way of complaining about this unacceptable situation in which a center-right conservative party gets a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

So let me start with what I take to be the vote on the report, and then maybe we can get into what the report actually says. The report actually came to the floor of the European Parliament. As I understand it, the European People’s Party, which is the party that Fidesz is affiliated with, had a number of members who wanted to be able to vote for the report but were afraid to do so because their party leadership told them to object to the bill. So there was an agreement that there would be a “voice vote”, which is to say just a count of the actual numbers and not a roll call vote. So that said, when you look at the actual numbers for the Tavares Report, the number of people who voted against it was less than half of the total number of European People’s Party representatives, which means that the EPP was divided. Now, it was true that almost all those who opposed the report were on the conservative side. But it was also the case that conservatives had a majority in the European Parliament at the time that that report was voted on. Actually, two-thirds of the members of the European Parliament either voted for it or abstained and let it go through. So, you can’t any longer make this argument that it was just the left against Hungary, because at least half of the conservatives in the European Parliament had to support the report in one way or another. So it’s just wrong that this was something that the left pushed through and the right opposed.  In fact, what was so striking was that that was the first vote in which you could see that the European People’s Party was already splitting on Hungary.

And now they’re splitting again. Just the other day MTI actually reported on the European Parliament’s debate on Hungary and there were a number of people who participated in the debate who afterward gave interviews to MTI.  There was one guy who was described in the Hungarian news service as “Frank Engel, MEP from Luxembourg” because they didn’t want to say “Frank Engel, MEP from the European People’s Party”. He’s in the leadership of the European People’s Party and he came out and said Hungary is really on the edge of being kicked out of the family of democratic states.  I’m seeing this from an outside perspective, but if you look at the comments being made by EPP leaders, you look at the votes on issues having to do with Hungary, I don’t think that the Hungarian government should presume that it’s got the support of the European People’s Party, or that it’s divided the European Parliament left-right.  It just hasn’t done that.

Also every time the European Commission brings sanctions against the Hungarian government, or brings an infringement procedure against the Hungarian government, or makes a criticism of the Hungarian government, it’s very often EPP commissioners who are doing it. The commissioner that the Hungarian government loved to hate most was Viviane Reding, who was an EPP representative from Luxembourg, that was her party. So I think it’s a mistake to think of this as left-right in the European Union. It clearly isn’t. It’s true that the supporters of the Hungarian government in the European Parliament are EPP people. But the EPP is very divided.  And I would be very surprised if the whole party stood up on mass to defend the Orbán government. I just don’t see that happening.

What does the Hungarian government have in store for itself in the upcoming years? Are there going to be sanctions? Obviously, you don’t know if there will be but if there were, what would these look like?

Several of the commissioners during their hearing before the European Parliament, both Juncker who is the President of the European Commission, and now also Timmermans, who is kind of the right-hand man of Mr. Juncker – they’ve all said that when countries violate basic European principles that something must be done. They’ve never mentioned the Hungarian government by name, but they’ve actually made some quite tough statements going into their new terms that something I think is going to happen.

Also, the European Parliament has already started to schedule these hearings on Hungary. So far it has been the left who have initiated these hearings. But the Tavares Report is still there as the statement of the European Parliament.  And the Tavares Report laid out a series of programs for both monitoring what was happening inside Hungary and also checking on whether what the Hungarian government said it was doing actually fixed the problems that the European Parliament identified, and set up a potential road to sanctions. Last Spring the European Commission came out with something it called its Rule of Law Initiative which provided a kind of glide path for how to use Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, which is the harshest punishment available now in the European system. So they’re all inching toward actually using the mechanisms that European law makes available to sanction Hungary.

So then the question is what kind of sanctions?  What people don’t realize is that in the European Union there is no way to throw a state out. There now is a way for a state to quit. If Orbán really believes that the EU is being a really repressive actor . . .

. . . then he can pack up and leave.

That’s what Britain’s talking about doing. But if Orbán thinks that, then he can leave. But I really suspect that Orbán will not do it because Hungary really needs the money. You know, the vast majority of funds coming in for economic development to Hungary are coming from the EU. The EU is holding up the Hungarian economy in ways that Orbán can’t afford to walk away from. But if he wants to complain that much, then he has that exit strategy.

Do you think this “eastward opening” is a bluff?

No, I think the “eastward opening” is really important to Orbán because I think what he realizes is that the Hungarian economy rests on a very shaky foundation. And it rests on a shakier foundation now that he’s disrupted all of the legal certainty that foreign investors came to Hungary in reliance on. So, as you’ve seen, foreign investment has been drying up. That’s why the dominant money coming into the country right now is coming in from EU funds. So Orbán has to find some way to kickstart the economy.

Now he’s clearly indicated that he wants no constraints on his own sphere of action. So, any money coming from the Troika – which is the IMF, the ECB and the Commission – or any EU sources is going to come with strings attached about changing the domestic landscape so that Orbán is no longer an autocratic monopolist as it were. Obviously, he doesn’t want that, so he has to find money elsewhere.

Frankly, I think the “eastward opening” is Orbán’s trick of how to find money elsewhere because what he’s discovered, and all the attention right now on Hungary is because of Russia, that he’s also (seeking) investments from China, he’s been going hat in hand to Azerbaijan, to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, the Saudis –

To the ideal illiberal democracies.

Well. they’re not even democracies in many cases. Turkmenistan is definitely nowhere close to a democracy.  I was just there this summer.  But these are countries that are rich and Orbán goes to them and says “give us some money”.  And in a number of cases these countries are giving Orbán money. So then the question is, why are those countries giving Orbán money? Now, we’ve had the most focus on Russia and think that Russia is Orbán’s model. Although, these autocracies, these non-constitutional, non-rule of law, non-democracies, will never ask Orbán to become a constitutional democrat.

Of course not.

So what do they want from Orbán? I think what they want from Orbán is Orbán’s position within the EU. They want somebody on the inside of the EU advocating for their interests.

It wouldn’t be unheard of.

In fact, here at Princeton University we had an undergraduate student who did a very fabulous senior thesis a few years ago. He wanted to know how do tiny, tiny little countries, like little islands in the South Pacific that have only 10,000 people but they’re members of the United Nations… they have nothing to sell, no natural resources… how do they support themselves? He went off and he interviewed members of those parliaments, people in the governments, and what he discovered is that these little countries joined every single international organization that they can.  And then they sell their votes in these international organizations to the states that will pay to keep their governments going.

I read this thesis and thought what an interesting model for government finance! I can’t prove that this is what Hungary is doing, but then what does Hungary have that it can sell? I mean, pálinka is great, Tokaji is divine, I mean there are a number of things that Hungary has that it can sell, but not enough to hold up the whole government.

In Hungary’s case, it wouldn’t be unheard of.  There was this case regarding Béla Kovács, this Jobbik MEP, who allegedly was spying for Russia.

The relationship between Jobbik and Fidesz is not nothing, but they don’t have exactly the same interests. It’s clear that Russia has been sneaking around and looking for ways to get its perspective into European countries and EU institutions.  Because I think that Russia sees the EU as a competitor and a threat. You look at all the signals and it would make sense for Russia to try and make allies inside the EU.

So what does Hungary have to sell? It has its position within the EU. Again, I cannot prove this because I don’t yet have all the evidence, but one of the things that Orbán could be doing with the opening to east, is to get investment into Hungary. Then you have to ask what’s he giving back in return? I don’t think we have a good answer yet to that question.

Only time will tell.  What do you see happening with regards to the United States relationship with Hungary at this point?

Well, I think the United States has been saying for some time that “Hungary is an ally,”  “We’re a little concerned,”  “We’re a little more concerned”.  “Hungary is a friend,” “Friends criticize friends”.   The U.S. was making all those kinds of noises.

But then last month things changed. So first, there was that kind of off-hand remark by Bill Clinton, who is so clever that off-hand remarks like that are not anything he does. Then President Obama repeated these words at a speech in which he was critical of Hungary. Nothing the President says is casual, especially not when he mentions a foreign country. Then we have Victoria Nuland’s speech where she almost threatens Hungary’s position in NATO where she said that we fought for democracies in that part of world, now countries have become democracies, if they start to think that they can pull away from that, then they will not be able to “comfortably sleep at night under their Article 5 blanket”. Now, Article 5 is a piece of the NATO treaty that says that if any country is attacked that all the others will come to its defense. It’s the core of the collective self-defense provision. She put that on the table as contingent on being a member of the club of democracies. And then suddenly we have these sanctions against unnamed Hungarians, probably state officials. That’s a very rapid downhill slide of US-Hungary relations. And then we had the comment by Deputy Chief of Mission Goodfriend that says we are essentially wondering whether Hungary can still be an ally. Those are sharp words. In diplomatic language, that’s huge.  And its concerted, it’s coming from multiple players, and it’s not an accident. This is something that really represents, I think, looking from the outside, a breach in US-Hungary diplomatic relations.

Do you think US-Hungary relations will play a role in helping things at the EU level move forward with respect to Hungary?

This is interesting. When we think of what European Union sanctions are, they have this possibility of excluding Hungary from voting in European affairs. If you think about what I said a minute ago about Hungary’s eastward opening, if I’m right (and it’s a hypothesis), if Hungary is selling its influence in the EU to dodgy states, then losing its vote in the EU would matter a lot because then it could no longer vote on matters in the European Council, its position will be marginalized in European institutions, it can no longer have any influence in the European Union. That’s what that Article 7 is all about. That’s why sanctions could be serious if this is what Hungary is really doing.  Again, this is speculation, but it really is something that one has to wonder. Why are dodgy countries supporting Hungary? What is Hungary selling in exchange? That’s one kind of theory about this.

In terms of US sanctions, the US has relatively few ways it can directly sanction Hungary, except in the way that it’s been sanctioning Russia by issuing individually targeted sanctions on individuals. Those are very powerful. If you’ve been in Moscow recently you’ve seen that high-flying society there is basically closed down. Restaurants are empty. The high-value stores are empty. It hasn’t affected the average Russian very much, which is the good thing about those kinds of targeted sanctions. The US is a friend to the Hungarian people, as I hope it’s clear that I’m also a friend of the Hungarian people.  It’s the government we’re having trouble. Ideally, if the diplomatic community wants to have an effect on the government, they need to figure out a way to do that without also having it affect the people of that country.

Article 7 sanctions in the European Union would just affect Hungary’s vote. It will not be noticed by the average Hungarian. These denial of entry sanctions that the U.S. State Department has now issued against a number of Hungarians. Even financial sanctions which the U.S. has done in the case of Russian individuals and businesses, if the U.S. moves that way, are really designed to influence exactly the circle around the government and not the average people. I think that looks to me like that may be where the EU is going.  It may be where the U.S. is going.  But I think it’s very important for Hungarians to understand that, as I see it from the outside, it looks to me like both the EU and the U.S. are teeing up this possibility of having sanctions that will just be confined to the Hungarian government and the officials in the inner circle.

Let’s talk a bit about the Hungarian elections. In 2010 Fidesz wins with an unprecedented landslide two-thirds majority, a supermajority. Why can’t the West just accept that two-thirds of Hungarians want this?

Well, first of all, two-thirds of Hungarians didn’t want this.  If you look at the low turnout, so more than a third of Hungarians didn’t vote at all. Of those who voted, the opposition was divided. Fidesz only got 54 percent of the vote. This time, however, they got 45 percent. That’s pretty significant. If you look at the numbers, they’ve lost a big fraction of their voters and they managed to win this recent election by reducing the overall vote. Something like 500,000 Hungarians have left the country under the Fidesz watch since 2010, at least as far as we can tell. Many of them were voters affiliated with the opposition and Fidesz made it very difficult for them to vote in the election.

So they exiled the opposition. They then made it harder for them to vote. Then they give new citizenship to all these people in neighboring countries. That vote, by the way, went 97-98 percent for Fidesz. That’s like North Korea voting. There’s no election in which you get that percentage of the vote for the governing party. All the polls that were being taken in Romania, in the community of Hungarian citizens there, showed that Jobbik would probably get 20 percent of the vote, and Jobbik got nothing.   Which makes me wonder what happened to the Jobbik vote.  I’m not a fan of Jobbik but it really makes me wonder what happened to the Jobbik vote in this last election.

It was an election that was very carefully staged to make it appear that Fidesz got this two-thirds vote.  And often times what you’ll hear Fidesz leaders saying that, “We won with two-thirds support!” Well, certainly that’s just wrong in terms of just the numbers. It’s definitely wrong when you look at the way the election was micromanaged from the way they redrew the electoral districts.

Some serious gerrymandering happened.

Also, they put in all these new rules like this winner compensation vote. That was six seats in the parliament.

How would you explain the compensation vote to an American. It took me two months to understand what that is all about!

This is a really complex system. In many European parliamentary systems, voters get two votes when they go to the polls. One vote is like the American election where you vote for your representative. The second vote is where you vote for a party and the seats in the parliament are divided between single member seats and then these party list seats where the party makes a list of who will get in. If they get such and such a percentage of the vote then their top ten people get in and so forth.

So what happens is that single member districts are wildly disproportionate. Somebody can win with one vote and then they get the whole seat, even those where  one less than half voted for somebody else. So it means that these systems are always disproportionate, the American system, the British system, all the ones that use this “first past the post” system are highly disproportionate. What parliamentary systems that have this double vote do is they say maybe we can make it somewhat more proportional by taking the losing votes, the votes cast for losing candidates, and let’s give those votes to the parties when you count the party list votes. So either all of those votes, or a fraction of those votes, or some mathematical function of those votes get added to the other column where people voted for the party lists.

So this was for the original compensation list so that the winner doesn’t take all.

The German system works like that, they have a very disproportionate first past the post system for individual districts. Then by adding the lost votes, the votes cast for losing candidates, to the list votes. They then kind of balance the parliament so that overall the seats kind of represent the underlying votes across parties. It’s a very sane system. Now, that was the system that Hungary had before. It wasn’t perfect, it was still quite disproportionate in all kinds of ways, but that was the prior system.

So Fidesz comes in and says, “Let’s define what is a lost vote”, and they say, “A lost vote is any vote that was not absolutely necessary to a candidate winning the seat.” So suppose you’ve got three candidates in a district and the winner wins by 300 votes and the other candidates get 200 and 100. Under the old system, the 200 votes for that candidate would be added to that candidate’s party list votes, the other 100 votes would be added to that candidate’s party list votes, and the winner who got the seat would get nothing because the winner got the seat. They won.

Now, under winner compensation Fidesz says, “Okay, it turns out that we could have won that seat with 201 votes. The other 99 were just gravy, like that was just extra. So, as a result, those other 99 votes were lost because we didn’t need them to win the seat. So we’re going to add those 99 votes to our compensation list on the party list side.”

What that does just mathematically is it completely tips the balance because it makes it completely disproportionate, especially since Fidesz drew the electoral districts and could maximize its own votes in a lot of these places by dividing the opposition. This is why every time the opposition divided, either between Jobbik and the democratic opposition – and I’m not saying they should get together – or between LMP, the Socialists and the Unity ticket, every time you split the vote you not only split the vote and make it less likely that any opposition party will win the seat, you give Fidesz a bigger advantage over the second-place party because the more you divide, the more they conquer.

So it just compounds the problem.

So the new parliament has 199 seats. Those of us who have looked at the numbers and run the numbers have now realized that they got 6 of those seats just because of this trick. Now, look at how many seats they need for their two-thirds. They needed every vote they got for that two-thirds.  If they didn’t have winner compensation, if they did the election like any normal parliamentary system, they would not have their two-thirds and then they would not have bragging rights.

The foreign vote is another problem. There, they clearly were depressing the voter turnout for the emigré Hungarians – people who had lived in the country, still have permanent residence in the country, but were registered to vote elsewhere. Those people had to register to vote outside and their registration had to exact match what was back in the office in Budapest. So, first of all, a bunch people are rejected because they spelled their mother’s maiden name the wrong way, or if the information they provided didn’t exact match the data at home they were automatically rejected. And there were lots of people who were rejected for that reason. Then, people had to physically go to a consulate or to an embassy to vote. In the UK where there are somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 Hungarians, everyone had to go to London. There was no other place to vote except London.  So if someone was relatively far away from London, they’d have to physically travel to London. Then, the National Election Office sent a letter to everyone telling them what address to go to vote. Then it turned out that the address was wrong. They sent out the wrong instructions for the British vote.

Wow!

They also sent out the wrong instructions for what day the Americans had to vote. “Oops a mistake!” But all the mistakes went to suppress the external vote. So then, everyone has to go to the consulate to vote or go to the embassy to vote. Or in London they had to rent a bigger hall because they were expecting so many people. Then suddenly people show up and they are told “you need your foreign passport to be able to vote.” A lot of people showed up to vote with the identification they’d use to vote with in Budapest, their address card. So people show up with their address card and they’re told, “No, you need your foreign passport.” And so people who had travelled all that distance, people who could not go home to pick up their foreign passport and come back, they were then denied the right to vote in the designated polling station. Not surprisingly, there was a relatively small turnout among émigré Hungarians.  Because you really had to be determined and because Fidesz really had to let you vote and there were all these places where they could turn you down, in the registration, in giving you the proper instructions to vote, in going there and checking your ID. There were certainly members of the opposition who voted abroad.  But there were lots of people who were turned down too. In opposition circles the understanding is that it was not random who was turned down. You can’t prove it without better numbers but that was certainly the impression that a lot of people had.

But was that also the case with votes coming from neighboring countries inside the Carpathian Basin?

No. “Near abroad voters” as Fidesz calls them, had a completely separate set of rules. They would register to vote. The could sign up anywhere. Actually, their information didn’t even have to match. In the statute it actually says if their registration doesn’t match all the information we have on file for them, the election officials should ignore the discrepancy. It says that in the law.

So if you have the wrong birthplace, or if you picked the wrong district in Budapest where your family was last registered, or whatever else they needed, and you didn’t match the registration information in the official records, then you were still permitted to register. There was almost no basis on which the electoral officials could deny the registration. Then, how did they get to vote? They could vote by mail. So, you didn’t have to travel, moreover you could vote by mail and you could hand your ballot to anyone who would turn your ballot in for you. You didn’t even have to vote by mail. So there would be people who were of unclear political affiliation, but shall we say were given the vote were probably not affiliated with the democratic opposition, would go through these Hungarian villages and pick up all the ballots and take them to all these new consulates that were opened for example in Romania. Also, there was never a live human who showed up to check anything.

So there were no controls?

There were no controls, there were no checks. Somebody could register in the name of a voter with partial information because, again, the information didn’t have to match.  There was no check that the person who was registered was the one who cast the ballot.  There was no check that the bundler who handled all these hundreds or thousands of ballots hadn’t changed them.  There were no election officials where those ballots were opened in the consulates abroad. So there were no checks on that system at all. So far as we can tell, there were 2 or 3 seats in the Parliament that were determined with those foreign votes.

Again, you add those votes to the winner compensation scheme, I mean, Fidesz got its two-thirds using every trick in the book and it needed every trick in the book to do that. Any one trick, you didn’t have that way of doing foreign votes, you didn’t have that way of doing winner compensation, you didn’t have that way of redrawing districts, etc, etc., any one of those things meant that they certainly wouldn’t have their two-thirds. They probably would have gotten the majority anyway given the turnout. It’s like in Russia where if Vladimir Putin steals elections he’s going to win anyway. But in this case, that two-thirds was crucial because if you don’t have the two-thirds in Parliament, then Fidesz can’t just change any law at will, even the Constitution.

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Viktor Szigetvári’s mistaken notions about current Hungarian politics

Heti Válasz discovered me. As it is clear from the article, the journalists of the magazine know who I am, but only as someone who formerly contributed to Galamus and who appeared a few times on Klubrádió. Both were years ago. For example, the last regular article I wrote for Galamus was in May 2011.

This is the first time my name appeared in Heti Válasz. Once before Tamás Fricz, someone who calls himself a political scientist, mentioned me in Magyar Hírlap in connection with his attack on Professor Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton. The Heti Válasz piece is a variation on this theme.

I rarely look at Twitter. I simply don’t have time to follow thousands of tweets. When there is a crisis somewhere I may follow the comments of journalists on the spot, but otherwise I ignore the little bird. Therefore it was unlikely that I would have discovered Viktor Szigetvári’s pearls of wisdom that he finds time to dispense on Twitter. But Twitter decided that I had been neglecting them and sent me an e-mail listing some of the topics I might be interested in. The very first item on the list was a comment by Szigetvári from March 12. It read: “jogilag és tartalmilag kim lane scheppele-nél pontosabb és mégis visszafogott értékelés plankó és herczeg uraktól” (in legal terms as well as in content a more precise and more moderate analysis than that of Kim Lane Scheppele from Messrs Pankó and Herczeg). And he gave the link to an article in 444.

I could hardly believe my eyes. Not because Viktor Szigetvári the private person thinks that Messrs Pankó and Herczeg are better legal scholars than one of the most prominent experts on Hungarian constitutional law but because I found it astonishing that a politician could be so unskilled that he would make his criticism public. A politician should never turn against supporters of his cause. And Scheppele’s views more or less coincide with the opinions of the Hungarian opposition. They, like Scheppele, find many of the changes introduced by the Orbán government unconstitutional, undemocratic, and therefore unacceptable.

I’m trying to imagine a situation in which one of Viktor Orbán’s politicians would openly criticize a leading conservative theoretician who just wrote a glowing report on the Orbán government. I wonder how long this man or woman would remain part of the team. Not a minute, I’m sure. And I wouldn’t blame Viktor Orbán for getting rid of the person. In politics, party loyalty is important. If someone cannot adhere to this basic rule of the game he or she should get out of politics. This is a price you pay when you decide to become a politician. And this loyalty extends to supporters as well. A politician doesn’t weaken his party’s case by calling an argument supportive of that case imprecise and inferior.

confusion3

It was for this reason that I decided to engage in a dialogue with Viktor Szigetvári. If he had decided to admit his mistake I would have left it at that. But he insisted that his open criticism of Scheppele was a most normal and acceptable way of talking about one’s supporters. After all, he has the right to express his opinion. He is mistaken. He as a politician doesn’t have this privilege. He might tell his friends what he thinks, though even that might not be a smart move. In no time it can become common knowledge that X has a low opinion of Y or that X doesn’t agree with the party’s strategy. Soon we may hear from friends and acquaintances that there are huge political differences among the top leaders of the party or coalition. In fact, this kind of talk reached me from many quarters over the last few months.

One could retort that I’m advocating a  monolithic and therefore undemocratic party structure like that of Fidesz. But that would be a misunderstanding. I encourage broad debate, but only inside the party. Every time the opposition parties are accused of not having a unified voice, as is often the case, a pious explanation comes about the virtues of diversity. But that is no more than self-delusion. Especially when the stakes are so high and one’s opponent is a truly monolithic party. Under such circumstances one cannot afford the luxury of speaking in many tongues or criticizing one another in public. That’s why I said that Viktor Szigetvári shouldn’t entertain political ambitions. Unfortunately, as co-chair of Együtt 2014, he does.

From our exchange I came to the conclusion that Szigetvári’s main problem with Kim Scheppele is that she is too harsh on the Orbán government. It seems that Szigetvári still clings to the notion that one can come to some kind of understanding with Orbán’s Fidesz. It is time to wake up. One cannot make a deal with the Fidesz of today. I suspect that Szigetvári is one of the proponents of this mistaken notion just as he most likely had a hand in Együtt 2014’s mad search for the nonexistent “moderate conservative middle.”

Why should we be more moderate in our criticism of the Orbán regime? Why is the more moderate analysis of the electoral law preferable to the harsher criticism of Kim Scheppele? Whom is Szigetvári defending? Viktor Orbán? What is he defending? Orbán’s dictatorship? It looks like it. Szigetvári’s analysis is fundamentally wrong and can lead only to defeat. That’s why I decided to take him on in public.

Viktor Orbán finally spoke against Vladimir Putin; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 1”

Over the next five days, in addition to my regular daily posts, I will republish Professor Kim Scheppele’s five-part series on the pitfalls of the new election law that makes free and fair elections in Hungary doubtful. The article, entitled “Hungary, An Election in Question,” originally appeared on Paul Krugman’s blog on February 28, 2014 in The New York Times.

The reason that I asked Professor Scheppele to allow me to publish her article on Hungarian Spectrum is because, although we always knew that the newly enacted law was slanted in favor of the current government party, news coming from Budapest of late indicates that the situation is worse than we ever imagined. The opposition’s advertising options have been greatly restricted. And it seems that even the few posters the opposition candidates managed to put up are systematically being torn down. Budapest and other cities are full of posters of so-called civic groups campaigning for the government while the opposition has virtually no advertising presence. So, the more people read Professor Scheppele’s analysis of the new Hungarian  electoral law the better.

And now back to the Hungarian government’s attitude toward Ukraine. It was only yesterday at noon that Viktor Orbán said anything substantive about the Ukrainian crisis. In his statement he kept his concerns narrow and provincial, presumably not wanting to criticize his newly acquired friend, Vladimir Putin. His only concern seemed to be the safety of the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia. He sent them a message: “you can count on us.” He added that “Hungary is not part of the conflict.” Well, in a narrow sense, perhaps not, but the conflict directly involves the European Union and Hungary’s neighbor, whose territorial integrity has been challenged.

Today the prime minister decided to elaborate on his position, crafting it to be more in line with EU thinking, a wise move since on Thursday he will attend an EU summit in Brussels. He will “represent the standpoint that the European Union will have to respond to the Russian military moves,” a response that has to be “immediate, unambiguous, and integrative.” He further elaborated on the theme when he announced that “the only alternative to war is negotiation. We want negotiations and not military conflict. We want peace, not blood.” Hungary wants a democratic Ukraine. Again, he stressed that “in the whole Ukrainian crisis the most important consideration for Hungary is the safety of Hungarians in Hungary and in Subcarpathia.” Note that he didn’t mention anything about the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

While Viktor Orbán talked to the media in Budapest, Vladimir Putin gave a press conference just outside of Moscow in Novo-Ogaryovo. It was a long and fairly rambling talk in which he announced that he had given up, at least for the time being, plans for the annexation of the Crimea. However, although he knows about and even condemns Yanukovych’s thievery, he still considers him to be the legitimate head of Ukraine and therefore refuses to recognize the interim government formed a few days ago.

Hungary is after all a neighbor of Ukraine

Hungary is after all a neighbor of Ukraine

Mid-afternoon the prime minister’s office released the “Statement of the Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Countries on Ukraine.” If we compare the text of this joint statement of the Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian prime ministers to Orbán’s words, we see that the joint statement is a great deal stronger. Let me quote a few sentences from this document.

The Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Countries are deeply concerned about the recent violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the fact that the Russian parliament has authorized military action on Ukrainian soil against the wishes of the Ukrainian Government…. We condemn all action threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and call on Russia to decrease the tensions immediately through dialogue, in full respect of Ukrainian and international law and in line with the provisions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

The Visegrád Countries believe that the recent military actions by Russia are not only in violation of international law, but also create a dangerous new reality in Europe. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are appalled to witness a military intervention in 21st century Europe akin to their own experiences in 1956, 1968 and 1981….

The European Union and NATO should demonstrate solidarity with and assist Ukraine in this difficult moment and stand united in the face of this dangerous development threatening European peace and security.

A few hours later Zsolt Németh, undersecretary in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, spoke to Aleksandr Tolkach, Russian ambassador to Hungary. Németh called on Russia to move its troops back inside the Russian naval base in Sebastopol. Németh repeated that Hungary insists on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and considers Russian behavior contrary to international law. So, it seems that Viktor Orbán eventually had to conform to the position held by the United States and the European Union. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question, Part 1

Professor Kim Scheppele, Princeton University

Hungary’s parliamentary elections will be held on 6 April. And it is already clear who will win. Unless something truly surprising occurs, the governing party Fidesz is headed to victory. The only uncertainty is whether it will again win two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, a result that would continue to allow it to change the constitution at will.

Fidesz won the last elections in 2010 fair and square. But this time the election is unlikely to be judged so favorably. The whole election framework – the laws, the institutions and even the new electorate – favors Fidesz because the governing party has used its four years in office with its two-thirds majority in the parliament to redesign every aspect of the electoral system to its advantage.

Fidesz also overwhelmingly dominates the offline media and has closed off almost all avenues through which opposition parties can reach the electorate. New decrees from local Fidesz-affiliated officials around the country and misleading instructions from election officials are creating last-minute campaign obstacles that put the opposition even more on the wrong foot.

Under the new election framework, the allied opposition parties cannot win a parliamentary majority, even if they gain more votes than the governing party. Simultaneously, the changes also make it nearly inevitable that the governing party will keep its two-thirds parliamentary majority even if it gets less than half of the overall vote.

Róbert László of the Political Capital think tank in Budapest shows how Fidesz can win a two-thirds majority with less than half of the party-list vote. His model also predicts that a united center-left opposition would need about 6% more votes than Fidesz to win a simple majority in the parliament.

Central European University Professor Gábor Tóka estimates that, under the new system, a united center-left opposition might get 8% fewer parliamentary seats than Fidesz if both got an equal share of the votes.

Political Capital’s “mandate calculator” permits everyone to try out different models and different assumptions. We tried it here in Princeton and, depending on the assumptions one makes about the nature and shape of the opposition, Fidesz could get its two-thirds majority in parliament pretty easily with only 48% of the vote if the other parties perform as polls indicate they would if the election were held now. If the foreign votes split 85/15 for Fidesz (not unreasonable for reasons I will explain), Fidesz could get its two-thirds with only 44%. If Fidesz wins by the same margin it won last time, with 53% of the party-list vote, it would get 76% of the seats in the parliament instead of the 68% it won under the old system.

In short, Fidesz has designed the election to allow itself to win big, even without majority support. Or, to put it differently, Fidesz has designed the election so that the opposition loses even if it wins.

These effects occur because the way that the districts are drawn and the votes are aggregated. It doesn’t even count all of the other things that Fidesz is doing to help the opposition lose, like monopolizing the media, operating an election office that is giving out misleading instructions and only selectively registering to vote Hungarian citizens who are living abroad.

If Fidesz is reelected under this self-dealing system, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the election has been rigged. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “mandate” will be tainted.

It’s serious to accuse an incumbent party of potentially rigging an election, so the evidence needs to be strong. In this series of five blog posts, I will show precisely how the outcome of the election is cooked into the rules even before a single ballot is cast. The rules were designed to look “normal” but to allow Fidesz to win in a very particular political context, which is where we will start.

As Fidesz officials are quick to argue, they will win the election because they are the most popular single party in Hungary. Which is true (see graph below). But Fidesz’s popularity has only recently climbed above 30%, a level that would cause analysts in most democratic states to predict that an incumbent party is in trouble, especially given how low Fidesz fell over the last several years. What makes Fidesz look like a winner, however, is that all of the other parties are even less popular.

voting intentionsFor the last month, however, Fidesz has been confronted by a more substantial opponent than it has had during its tenure in office so far. Five left-leaning parties calling themselves the “democratic opposition” have combined to form the Unity Alliance (Összefogás). They have put forward a common slate of candidates for the individual constituencies and they are running a joint party list. Their joint strength might just be enough to challenge Fidesz’s domination of the elections – if there were a level playing field. But they were late to the election party, so to speak, announcing their joint effort only on 14 January 2014 just before the election date was set. So they have some catching up to do.

(The five parties in the Unity Alliance are the Socialists/MSzP headed by Attila Mesterházy; Together 2014/E-14 headed by Gordon Bajnai; Dialogue for Hungary/PM led by Benedek Jávor; Democratic Coalition/DK headed by Ferenc Gyurcsány and the Hungarian Liberal Party/Liberálisok headed by Gábor Fodor. Since the coalition was formed, the Movement for a Modern Hungary/MOMA, headed by Lajos Bokros, a conservative MEP, has agreed to support the joint ticket.)

And then there is Jobbik, which its detractors call the “non-democratic opposition.” This far-right party has become internationally known for its anti-Semitism and anti-Roma agitation, its toxic assertion of nationalism, and its ideology so far beyond the edge of the European political spectrum that its three representatives in the European Parliament cannot affiliate with any party caucus. Fidesz might reasonably worry that it would lose votes to Jobbik on the right, which may be why many – including Jobbik’s leadership – claim that Fidesz is “stealing [their] issues and ideas.”  For its part, Jobbik’s campaign ads this year portray it as substantially more moderate than its reputation in order to steal voters from Fidesz.

At the moment, Jobbik seems to have the allegiance of just under 10% of the electorate, though some worry that Jobbik’s support may climb again to the 17% of the vote it won in the 2010 election. Jobbik cannot form a government with that vote, but is the only party that can seriously challenge Fidesz’s electoral strategy by dividing the vote on the right.

Just as Fidesz faces a challenge to its base from Jobbik, the Unity Alliance is challenged by a party called Politics Can be Different (LMP) that provides an alternative for its voters as well. In the last year, LMP – a small party to begin with – split so that one fraction joined the broader opposition alliance and the rest remained unaligned. While LMP lost support since the split, it still seems to be polling around the 5% threshold needed for a single party to enter the parliament.

Though Fidesz and the Unity Alliance are the two big parties in this race, polling data show that the largest single voting bloc – a clear majority of the electorate for the last several years – is still “undecided.” That large number becomes even more formidable when one considers that more than half of the Hungarians asked do not answer surveys. Is it hard to know if those who do not answer are still engaged in politics at all, and if so, how.

In past Hungarian elections, the turnout had to reach 50% for the election to be valid. But Fidesz changed that rule too so that there is no minimum turnout required any longer. Low voter turnout, then, is no barrier to a valid election.

But even with the large number undecided or apolitical voters, the results are not in doubt. The governing party designed the system precisely to prevent surprises in this particular political landscape, and they wrote the rules to allow themselves to win almost no matter which way opinion breaks and almost no matter what the turnout is on election day. It is hard to see a realistic outcome for this election that doesn’t put Fidesz front and center in the next government. Fidesz will thrive if there is low turnout because the party has a powerful system for bringing out its voters. If Jobbik surges, Jobbik could not govern unless Fidesz were the dominant partner in a coalition. But, perhaps most importantly for judging the fairness of the election, Fidesz will win even if the “democratic opposition” were to pull ahead of them by a substantial margin.

Why is that? According to election experts, the Unity Alliance could only gain a parliamentary majority if it won by more than a comfortable margin in the popular vote. That is because of the way that the system has been designed. Unless there is swing toward the left that is larger than anything we have seen in the post-communist period or unless Jobbik’s support rises by so much that it substantially depletes the Fidesz vote, Fidesz will surely win outright and is very likely to get its two-thirds back again.

How could Fidesz win under almost any likely scenario for 6 April? I will turn to that next.

George Orwell in Budapest: The new surveillance law

When faced with the task of writing a post my usual problem is that I have far too much material. On any given topic there can easily be 50-60 news items and opinion pieces. Well, that’s not my problem today. I simply can’t understand this silence about the new law on the surveillance of top government officials, especially when according to Máté Szabó, ombudsman for basic rights, and several other human rights organizations the law is unconstitutional.

Who are the people who will automatically be subjected to surveillance? The bill insists that the new bill on national security does not extend the circle of those who must undergo this procedure. According to the Hungarian-language description of the bill, the high officials who must agree to surveillance are cabinet ministers, undersecretaries, deputy-undersecretaries, government commissioners and commissioners appointed by the prime minister, heads of independent government organizations, heads of government offices handling the official business of citizens, high officials of parliament, the head of the Office of the President, ambassadors, consuls, chief of the general staff, generals, high police officers, CEOs of state companies, members of the national security offices, member of the counterintelligence, members of the parliamentary committee on national security, and even the ordinary parliamentary guards recently appointed.

So, if this surveillance bill does not affect more people than the earlier one why is everybody up in arms? One big difference is that earlier bill stated that once a person was found reliable and received security clearance he would not be the object of further surveillance. Now this provision has changed. As Fidesz’s brief announcement said, “surveillance will be continuous.” Twice a year for at least thirty days each time the government can listen to these people’s telephone conversations, search their houses, and read their correspondence. These surveillance measures would also extend to their family members. Moreover, the number of people who would have to go through this continuous clearance procedure might grow in the future because the bill contains a paragraph that allows the authorities to change the parameters by decree. That is, without amending the bill.

According to the new bill, it will no longer be necessary to get a court order to gather secret information. And there is no possibility of appeal for the wrongfully accused. Once someone  is found guilty by the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal (AVH, what an unfortunate name since its abbreviation is practically identical to the notorious ÁVH, Államvédelmi Hatóság) he can immediately be fired. No cause need be given.

But let’s go back a step to the questionnaire these top officials must fill out. Some of the questions are pretty routine. For example, those about alcohol or drug consumption. The Hungarian questionnaire also delves into people’s sex lives, asking them about their extramarital affairs. Another peculiarity of the bill is that the ongoing security clearance/surveillance also extends to the official’s family. So, the spouse of a high official will have to answer the same kinds of questions.

One especially objectionable item on the questionnaire is the official’s private connections with foreign nationals. Who is considered to be a foreign national? Is a German citizen a foreigner? Both the Hungarian and the German are citizens of the European Union. What about relatives living in the neighboring countries? Or Internet connections via social media? After all, some members of the government write blogs or are busy on Facebook and Twitter. Does such a link to the outside world constitute a national security risk?

A few weeks ago there was great hilarity in opposition circles when two very ignorant Fidesz members of parliament suggested that people who were members of the communist party or KISZ, the communist youth organization, before 1990 should be considered security risks and thrown out of their jobs. Well, if that had been adopted, they could have started with Viktor Orbán himself, followed by János Kövér,  János Áder, and several others. They were all KISZ secretaries. Naturally, that amendment was not approved.

Kim Scheppele was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal and told the reporter that “Hungary now allows investigation of particular individuals without any need to demonstrate a specific reason why every aspect of a person’s life must be reviewed.” She added that “that’s unheard of in democratic states” and that “the new national security law creates an Orwellian landscape in Hungary.”

Magyar Narancs / Photo Dániel Németh

Magyar Narancs / Photo Dániel Németh

Some Hungarian activists, quite independently from Kim Scheppele, also immediately thought of Orwell. Members of a group that calls itself “The Constitution is not a game” got together to teach Sándor Pintér a thing or two. About fifteen of them settled on the pavement and read George Orwell’s 1984 all day long. At the end, when they wanted to send a copy to the minister of interior, the policemen insisted that each of them sign the book before they would agree to take it inside the building.

One of the participants, approached by a reporter for Magyar Narancs, refused to talk to him in an area with trees with lots of branches because he was convinced that up in the trees among the branches the authorities place microphones. Maybe yes, maybe no. But the person was wary; Big Brother might be listening in. It says a lot about the atmosphere in Budapest.

The Orbán government’s favorite pastime: Crossing swords with everyone

Although I know that some of you have already discovered Kim Scheppele’s answer to Gergely Gulyás’s attacks on her scholarly credentials, those who haven’t should visit Paul Krugman’s blog on The New Times and read her rebuttal entitled: “Hungary, The Public Relations Offensive.” Her analysis of the public letter addressed to her highlights the way members of the Orbán government operate. And in case you didn’t see Gulyás’s letter to Scheppele, make sure that you read it now.

A couple of days ago I also wrote about the scandalous personal attack on George Kopits, this time by the new deputy governor of the Hungarian National Bank. This young and apparently unqualified upstart, who owes his position to his allegiance to Fidesz, Viktor Orbán and György Matolcsy, attacks a man with an impressive academic and professional background. I suggest taking a look at his curriculum vitae.

They like to fight

They like to fight

But the list doesn’t end here. The latest is an attack on Viviane Reding, Vice-President and Commissioner responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship, who happens to be a Christian Democrat. Just like Fidesz politicians in the European Parliament, she is affiliated with the European People’s Party (EPP). So her attackers can’t even claim that her criticism of the current Hungarian government derives from her left-liberal political leanings. One can read about Viviane Reding’s career here.

Regardless of how many degrees, prizes and distinctions she has received, the Hungarian minister of justice and administration, Tibor Navracsics, still thinks that she is unqualified for her job. Navracsics shouldn’t throw stones: his own legal background is minimal. After he graduated from law school he immediately switched to political science, which he taught at his alma mater until Viktor Orbán discovered him and made him the whip of the Fidesz caucus between 2006 and 2010.

It is obvious from the statements Navracsics’s ministry released lately that the minister of justice and administration either decided on his own or was instructed from above to launch an anti-European Union campaign. First, he came up with the bizarre explanation that the “renewed attacks” on Hungary have something to do with the German elections that will take place in five months and the EP elections more than a year from now. According to Navracsics, “the European left uses all means at its disposal to discredit the European right” through its attacks on Hungary. It seems that Navracsics, who is supposed to know something about political science and politics, considers Hungary a linchpin in the political war between right and left in Europe. Political commentators laughed at the very suggestion.

But why the renewed attack on Viviane Reding? She made the mistake of giving a lengthy interview to the Hungarian paper Népszava. In it she emphasized that she has no grudge against Hungary or the Hungarian government as Navracsics often claims. It is her duty to enforce the laws of the European Union. She expressed her disappointment that the Hungarian government didn’t heed José Manuel Barroso’s request for a postponement of the vote on the latest amendments to the constitution. She used some pretty strong words in connection with the Hungarian government’s lack of responsiveness when it comes to adjusting Hungarian law to conform to the laws of the Union. Here is one of the many statements she made during the interview that may indicate that the European Commission means business. “As President Barroso mentioned, if necessary we will not hesitate to use all means at our disposal–I repeat, all means at our disposal–if Hungary disregards the legal norms of the Union and those of the Council of Europe.” Reding repeated what she had said earlier: “a constitution is not a plaything that can be changed every few months. This is especially true when the independence of the judiciary is at stake.”

Finally, there seems to be a difference of opinion about the information flow between Reding and Navracsics. Navracsics complains that he finds out about Reding’s positions on certain issues only from the media. Naturally, Reding denies the charge, claiming that she and her staff are in constant touch with Navracsics’s ministry. As for the veracity of Navracsics, it is worth recalling his run-in with Nellie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda in Brussels, about a year ago. Kroes and Navracsics had a long private talk after which there was a press conference during which Navracsics’s position suddenly changed. Kroes was furious and announced to Navracsics and all those present: “That is not what you told me half an hour ago.”

There are a couple of nasty international situations where Navracsics thinks that Reding is not sufficiently supportive of the Hungarian position. One is the so-called Tobin case. Tobin is an Irish national who caused the death of two Hungarian children. He was released on bail but left Hungary and went back to Ireland. For years Hungary has been trying to get Tobin extradicted to Hungary where he is supposed to serve his sentence. However, according to Irish law, Ireland extradites somebody only if the person actually escaped from the country asking for his extradition. Tobin didn’t, and therefore the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled in Tobin’s favor. As Reding explained, this is the law, whether we agree with the outcome or not. Under the circumstances she can do nothing.

Then there is another case in which Navracsics suddenly discovered that Reding didn’t do her best on Hungary’s behalf. A Hungarian woman in the middle of a divorce ended up with her husband and child in Bora Bora. The husband took her passport away and has been keeping her and her son captive. According to Navracsics, he wrote to Reding about the case on February 14 but has gotten no answer. By now it seems that Reding is really fed up with Navracsics and his ministry because she found it interesting that “these accusations surfaced only after the Commission announced that it is analyzing the legality of the constitutional amendments.” Reding claims that she answered Navracsics’s letter on March 19. Moreover, she got in touch with the French minister of justice and asked her to investigate the case. Reding sarcastically mentioned that perhaps Navracsics should check his mailbox because the Hungarian Embassy in Brussels acknowledged the receipt of her letter. And she added her final observation: “Such mistaken information surely doesn’t improve the relations between Budapest and Brussels.”

I doubt that Navracsics’s answer to Reding dated April 8 will mend the already strained relations between the commissioner and Navracsics. Here are a few choice sentences: “Your statements of late have plenty of factual errors.” He goes on to elaborate. He claims that he wrote a second reminder on March 17 to Reding which must have prompted her to write him on the 19th. He added that two of his letters have still been unanswered. The first he wrote on November 13 and second on November 16 about the Tobin case. In addition, Reding keeps talking about judicial independence in connection with the early retirement of judges when the European Court of Justice in its ruling wrote only of “discrimination on the basis of age”; the decision had nothing to do with the independence of the judiciary. And a final dig: “Madam, you asked me to check my mailbox. I ask you to check your facts.” So, relations between Brussels and Budapest are splendid!

I should mention that Hungary has problems not only with the European Commission but also with the European Parliament, which will discuss the Hungarian constitution on April 17. As far as we know Viktor Orbán was not invited, but Orbán is “theoretically ready to debate” with the MEPs. This weekend he will consult with József Szájer whether he should go. Meanwhile the European Parliamentary Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs prepared a document “on the situation of Fundamental Rights: standards and practices in Hungary (pursuant to the EP resolution of 16 February 2012)”–Rapporteur is Rui Tavares, Portuguese MP. Apparently even the European People’s Party members of the committee signed the report. Doesn’t sound too promising from the Hungarian point of view.

 

Vicious attacks on critics of the Orbán government: George Kopits and Kim Scheppele

I’m in trouble again. I don’t know where to start because in the last three days an incredible amount of news emerged from the turbulence of Hungarian political life.

But perhaps I should first say a few words about topics we’ve already covered but thanks to the Hungarian penchant for not letting sleeping dogs lie remain in the news. This compulsion on the part of the Hungarian government to answer every criticism usually works against them.  To take but a single instance of how counterproductive these constant counterattacks can be, consider the case of the German children’s show on the Kinder Kanal (KiKa) about the Orbán government’s attitude toward democratic rights. There is no need to describe the details of the case, but the Orbán government took this “affront” so seriously that Viktor Orbán himself felt it necessary to tell the Germans off about “brainwashing” German children. The result? Another cartoon, this time showing Viktor Orbán dressed up as a clown stomping his feet and threatening his critics. Did Hungary need this? Certainly not. And did HírTV, a pro-government television station, have to respond with a primitive cartoon of its own about Angela Merkel who can do anything because Germany has a lot of money? Again, certainly not. In fact, it would have been best to have said nothing.

Well, something similar is going on at the moment but on a much more serious level. The Hungarian government has taken offense at criticisms from sources a bit higher up than a kiddie show in Germany.

In the first instance, the Hungarian National Bank’s new deputy governor decided to write a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal in connection with an opinion piece published in the newspaper by George (György) Kopits, former chairman of Hungary’s Fiscal Council between 2009 and 2011. I wrote about this hard-hitting letter in which Kopits called Viktor Orbán’s newly constructed regime “a constitutional mob rule.”

Newspapers normally give a government or important state institution the opportunity to answer any article it finds objectionable. So The Wall Street Journal had to publish at least part of Ádám Balog’s letter to the editor. Balog, a thirty-two-year-old with no banking experience, gained the favor of his boss in the Ministry of the Economy from where he followed György Matolcsy straight to the Hungarian National Bank. Now, it seems, he’s the bank’s “hit man.”

A very short letter appeared only in the European edition of the paper although Kopits’s piece appeared in the American edition as well. Let me quote the text that The Wall Street Journal decided to publish:

In his recent op-ed, George Kopits urges action against Hungary by international financial markets and the European Union (“Constitutional Mob Rule in Hungary,” March 28). Mr. Kopits criticizes the operations of Hungary’s central bank in particular.

The operation of the National Bank of Hungary is lawful and transparent, contrary to Mr. Kopits’s claims. Under the leadership of new governor Gyorgy Matolcsy, the central bank has replaced an essentially one-person management system with a system based on a broader foundation. During this transition, the turnover in the central bank’s staff, including managers and subordinates, was less than 4%. That means that essentially the same people work at the Hungarian central bank as before.

The real threat to the authority and professionalism of the central bank lies not in such changes to management, but rather in criticisms, like Mr. Kopits’s, that are not supported by facts.

Adam BalogDeputy Governor / National Bank of Hungary

That was published on April 2. Obviously, the leadership of the Hungarian National Bank was dissatisfied with the excised version of Balog’s letter to the editor. They decided to make public the original, which was full of ad hominem attacks against Mr. Kopits.

Here is the original version:

Gyorgy Kopits’s outlash harmful for the interests of Hungary

A discredited person criticizes the Hungarian central bank in the international press

Gyorgy Kopits, a former member of the National Bank of Hungary’s Monetary Policy Council has urged action from international financial markets and the European Union against Hungary. Mr. Kopits heavily criticized Hungary, and the operations of the central bank in particular, in the editorial section of the Wall Street Journal on March 27.

American readers may not be familiar with Mr. Kopits’s career in Budapest. He was a member of the Monetary Policy Council of the National Bank of Hungary between 2004 and 2009. He received the request to fill that post from Zsigmond Jarai, who was finance minister in the first government of the current Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who Mr. Kopits furiously criticized in his article, and then was appointed by the same government to the post of central bank governor.

Mr. Kopits held his position in the Monetary Policy Council, the top decision-making body of the central bank, in a period when lending in foreign currencies was on the rise. Foreign currency loans continue to place a major burden on tens of thousands of Hungarian families and firms to the very day. The National Bank of Hungary is among those that are now making efforts to mitigate the damages, to lower the impact.

Gyorgy Kopits’s criticism of the central bank—while it harms the prestige of the independent central bank—also lacks credibility. As the president of the Fiscal Council, Mr. Kopits approved Hungary’s 2010 budget, in which revenues were significantly over- and expenditures underestimated. Without immediate measures, the budget deficit of the 2010 budget would have been above 7% of gross domestic product as against the originally planned 3.8% of GDP viewed as attainable by Mr. Kopits.

The operations of the National Bank of Hungary are lawful and transparent. The new central bank’s management under the leadership of [new central bank governor] Gyorgy Matolcsy replaced the essentially one-person management system with a system based on a broader foundation in March. Turnover in the central bank’s staff, including managers and subordinates, was less than 4%. That means that essentially the same people work at the Hungarian central bank as before. Not the changes in central bank positions but rather the malicious writings similar to that of Mr. Kopits, which are not supported by facts but are unfounded, are posing a threat to the authority and the professionalism of the central bank.

Ádám Balog, Deputy Governor, Magyar Nemzeti Bank.

Vicious dog / beardenb / flickr

Vicious dog / beardenb / flickr

You will, I’m sure, notice that the English of the original version leaves a lot to be desired. And, instead of answering Kopits’s criticism, Balog hurls personal attacks on him. He is “a discredited person.”  He is ungrateful because he received his post on the Monetary Council of the Hungarian National Bank thanks to Viktor Orbán whom he now “furiously” criticizes. During his tenure on the Monetary Council wrong decisions were made concerning “lending in foreign currencies,” so he is responsible for the current financial problems of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families and businesses. Kopits not only “harms the prestige of the independent central bank” but “also lacks credibility” because he was “president of the Fiscal Council” that approved the 2010 budget despite the fact that in that budget “revenues were significantly over- and expenditures underestimated.”

Similar personal attacks were launched against Professor Kim Lane Scheppele the other day by Gergely Gulyás, the great Hungarian “expert” on constitutional law. I am almost certain that the letter was not written by Gulyás. The language of the text and its reasoning points to someone who received his legal training in the United States. Moreover, the author of the letter is thoroughly familiar with laws of individual U.S. states which, with due respect to Gergely Gulyás’s wide ranging knowledge of the law, is probably outside the purview of someone who received his law degree at the Catholic Péter Pázmány University in Budapest.

The ad hominem attacks on Professor Scheppele are similar in tone to those Ádám Balog leveled against Kopits, but they are considerably more sophisticated. The document is worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few choice tidbits: “unfounded allegations,” “factual mistakes,” “academic freedom … does not equal freedom from facts,” “egregious mistakes ,” just to mention a few descriptions in the first couple of paragraphs of a fairly long letter. The author of the letter even accuses Professor Scheppele of misleading Paul Krugman who allowed her to use his blog in The New York Times, because if he knew about all the misinformation in her writing Krugman “would surely object to … using him in such ways.” Body blow after body blow.

I can only surmise that the Orbán government came to the conclusion that they crossed the line with the latest amendments to the constitution, which may have grave consequences for Hungary. Therefore, serious critics like Kopits and Scheppele must be discredited. I expect these attacks on critics of the Orbán government to continue unabated.

My suspicion that the Fidesz political elite fears serious countermeasures from the European Union was only reinforced when I heard Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió. According to him, Hungary’s economic performance doesn’t warrant the continuation of the excessive deficit procedure, but he expects no fairness in Brussels toward Hungary. The country must be prepared for the possibility that the European Union will not be satisfied with the current figures and the government’s predictions for 2013. Hungary will be punished unfairly.

Critics must be discredited one way or another.  Just as the Austrian paper, Der Standard, said the other day: “Fidesz politicians are bloodthirsty, unscrupulous, and vindictive.”

Hungarian media reaction to the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Hungary

Now that the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Hungary is over, let’s take a look at how much Hungarian citizens learned about what transpired in Washington on March 19. MTI’s Washington correspondent was present and sent very brief summaries. Judging from the precise dating of the MTI reports, all four or five reports were written while the hearing was going on. All of them, with the exception of the description of József Szájer’s speech, were extremely short. Benjamin Cardin and Brent Hartley merited only 137 words while Kim Scheppele’s fairly lengthy testimony was summarized in 135 words. Not much can be said about such complex topics as the constitution, the rule of law, antisemitism, and the Holocaust in only a few sentences. The description of Szájer’s speech was extensive (634 words). By way of comparison, most of my posts are between 900 and 1,200 words.

Helsinki CommissionNot surprisingly, the right-wing papers that were not too eager to publicize the criticisms of the Orbán government from the three people who testified simply copied out MTI’s reports, playing up Szájer’s speech and giving practically no coverage to what Benjamin Cardin, Brent Hartley, Kim Scheppele, Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska, or Paul Shapiro had to say.

However, thanks to modern technology and the well-prepared newspapermen of Népszabadság, HVG,  and Index, a more balanced account reached the Hungarian public almost simultaneously with MTI’s super-short reports. The first to report was Népszabadság, about 20 minutes after the hearing ended. The headline repeated what Kim Scheppele had said during her testimony: “Hungary is on the verge of tyranny.” In the article itself the journalist offered a short (316 words) description of what transpired during the proceedings.

It was nearly twenty-four hours later that Magyar Nemzet first mentioned the names of Ben Cardin, Brent Hartley, and Kim Scheppele. Paul Shapiro, it seems, was not considered important enough to be mentioned by name. He was described merely as “one of the employees of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.” Neither Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska nor Freedom House was mentioned at all. Kim Scheppele was described as “the loudest [leghangosabb] critic of the Hungarian government.” By the way, one normally talks about the “severest [legkeményebb] critic.” “Loudest” carries the connotation of lacking substance or foundation.

Now let’s see how József Szájer and Gergely Gulyás viewed the hearing itself, the American officials, and their own roles in the proceedings. Up to now I haven’t written much about Gergely Gulyás, who is the rising star of Fidesz. He is in his early 30s, good looking, and way above the run-of-the-mill Fidesz-KDNP party hacks in mental ability. Gulyás’s role seemed to be to hand two books on Hungary to Senator Cardin. Apparently one of them was on the police brutality in September-October 2006. Otherwise he silently sat next to Szájer while the latter delivered his speech. It was clear from his expression that Gulyás was extremely satisfied with Szájer and most likely admired one of the founders of the party for his eloquence.

Szájer immediately gave a telephone interview to a reporter of a new outfit called Hungarian Globe, which is part of Mandiner, an Internet paper run by young conservatives. Besides this one interview and the texts of the testimonies I found nothing else on the Hungarian Globe site. According to Szájer, “the level of interest was rather weak, only one U.S. senator who is the chairman and no congressmen showed up.” Otherwise the hearing was not properly balanced because “the other three witnesses were heavily critical of the Hungarian situation. The verdict was already decided before the trial, but at least Gergely Gulyás and I had the chance to make our contributions.” (Gulyás’s only contribution was the lecture he gave Cardin about the proper pronunciation of his name.) Szájer complained that “the chairman sometimes wasn’t even sure which country the hearing was about. He mentioned Austria a couple of times instead of Hungary.” On the other hand, he felt that the chairman “showed a positive attitude towards my offer [of dialogue] and understood my message.” As for the quality of the other participants, “we heard numerous biased, partly or completely untrue remarks.” He was especially critical of Paul Shapiro who was accused of “a number of false and misleading details during his testimony…. I was expecting a more correct approach.”

Gergely Gulyás also talked to journalists, and to Index he repeated the same belief that no one is really interested in Hungary in the U.S. government because members of the Committee were not present. He even claimed that most of the people present were reporters. I talked to people who attended the hearing, and they reported that this simply was not true. The hearing was held in a small room for forty people and seventy people were present. Several people stood along the walls for two solid hours. Index also stressed that the Helsinki Commission is in fact a very important body with big names from both sides of the aisle.

All in all, the coverage was skimpy, although it became a convenient forum for taking the occasional pot shot at the U.S.. One Internet website from Pécs talked about “American darkness [homály],” implying ignorance. Many right-wing papers made fun of Ben Cardin, portraying him as senile because he didn’t even know what country the hearing was about. One gets so tired of the old joke about Americans who mix up Budapest and Bucharest. Now we will hear about mixing up Hungary with Austria.

I would not, however, take the criticism of Brent Hartley of the State Department lightly. His words carried a serious warning, and he made it clear at the end of his speech that his message reflects the views of the U.S. State Department. Although I think Szájer comported himself well, the evidence against the Hungarian government is too solid to be shaken by a list of cleverly constructed half-truths. It is possible that his forcefully delivered speech might mislead someone not thoroughly familiar with the facts, but those responsible for Hungary and the region in the State Department will not be swayed by Szájer’s twisting of the truth.