Péter Juhász

Property swindle in Budapest’s District V

The revelations that surfaced about NET Holding in the last few days, thanks to 444.hu, exposed an intricate network of affiliated companies and described the complicated international trading in natural gas. The corruption case I will be talking about today is a lot simpler. Admittedly, the loss to the taxpayers is also a lot less, about four to ten billion forints over the last eight years. Small potatoes, you might say. But keep in mind that we are talking about the sale of one-third of all real estate owned by the municipality of District V, where property prices are the highest in the country. Moreover, these shady deals occurred during the mayoralty of Antal Rogán, considered to be the third most important politician in Hungary after Viktor Orbán and János Lázár.

Stories of corruption in District V, downtown Budapest, have been circulating for almost a year. Népszava learned in April 2014 that a city official demanded a bribe from a businessman who had just successfully competed for a site to open a restaurant. The brave man refused and went straight to the police, naming names. As is typical in Fidesz country, the deputy mayor who was most likely implicated in the affair did not end up in court but was simply removed from the scene and transferred to the ministry of foreign affairs where an “urgent” job was waiting for him. His replacement was Péter Szentgyörgyvölgyi, who became the district mayor last October. Soon enough it became known that Szentgyörgyvölgyi himself was a beneficiary of the shady real estate deals of the past few years. Under pressure, he decided to give his apartment back because “he just got tired of all the attacks against him.” Details of these revelations can be found in a post I wrote in December.

The force behind the investigations is Péter Juhász (Együtt), who was Szentgyörgyvölgyi’s opponent in the municipal election and who subsequently became a member of the city council of District V. He thus has access to documents that shed light on the means by which expensive apartments or business sites were passed on to political friends for a fraction of their real value. Juhász is a former human rights activist with vast experience as an investigator of corruption cases.

So, how was it done? The key concept in these transactions is preemption, the right of a tenant to purchase something, especially public property, ahead of anyone else. Ever since the 1990s a law has been on the books that allows the state or the municipality to sell its properties to tenants at a reduced price. The rationale behind this practice was that every year the tenants of these public properties were obligated to pay higher and higher rents and received no equity in return. The price abatement thus assumed a long-standing contract between owners and tenants. Moreover, as Antónia Rádi of Átlátszó.hu pointed out, three persons are needed for such a transaction: the owner, the person who intends to buy the property, and the current tenant. Apparently, in practice this particular rule is often dispensed with. That is, no outside buyer is necessary for the transaction. What happened in District V, however, went beyond both the law as it was written and the law as it was practiced. The transactions were, quite simply, illegal.

Let’s say an apartment or store front became vacant. The city officials notified their friends, political or otherwise, that these sites were available for rent. After a few months the happy tenants announced their desire to buy the property. The price was determined by two “independent” appraisers. One of the appraisal firms was owned in part by György Rubovszky, a Christian Democratic member of parliament and father of Csilla Rubovszky, deputy mayor of District V. In addition, Rubovszky, a lawyer, was employed by the district as an “expert” assisting the committee in dealing with properties owned by the district. The assessed prices were very low. They always agreed with the prices on the district’s books, most likely thanks to inside information by Rubovszky. Then came the bonus: a 30% reduction in the price.

Among the many cases Péter Juhász is pursuing, he found a tenant turned owner who within a few months sold his newly acquired property for double what he had paid for it.

Juhász is not only digging through property files. He also organized a walk through the streets where most of the questionable property transfers took place.

And how much did Fidesz steal from you? Péter Juhász leading the walk in District V

“And how much did Fidesz steal from you?” Péter Juhász leading the walk in District V

Rubovszky is just one of several people with Fidesz or government connections to surface in these real estate swindles. Péter Heim also handled some of the deals. He is now head of Századvég and as such may be on the list of individuals banned from entering the United States because of their involvement in corruption cases affecting U.S. businesses operating in Hungary. András Giró-Szász, undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, is also indirectly involved through his brother-in-law and business partner, Péter Serfőző.

Juhász is convinced that the city officials undertook these real estate deals as part of a private business venture and did so in a conspiratorial manner. Between 2008 and 2013 277 pieces of real estate changed hands in District V. The appraisers low-balled the value of these properties at a half or a third of their real worth. On top of that came the 30% abatement. If Juhász, who since then pressed charges against District V, can prove his claim, the people involved might end up in jail for years. Or, they should but, judging from other earlier cases, they most likely won’t.

Corruption in District V under Antal Rogán, #3 man in the Orbán regime

I have been so involved with the political aspects of the Orbán regime that I have neglected the suspicious enrichment of some of the most prominent Fidesz politicians. If a researcher had half a year (and a team of investigators) he could easily write a whole book about these people’s wrongdoings.

A quick look at the list of names that crop up most often in the media leads me to believe that being the mayor of a city or a Budapest district offers excellent opportunities for corruption. Just to mention a few politicians who have been the targets of journalistic inquiries: Lajos Kósa, until recently mayor of  Debrecen; János Lázár, who was mayor of Hódmezővásárhely until he became head of the prime minister’s office; and Antal Rogán, who in addition to being the whip of the Fidesz caucus was also mayor of Budapest’s District V. Larger towns or cities offer ample opportunities for city officials, including mayors, to extract kickbacks for municipal contracts. Rumor has it that the average bribe is 10% of the value of the contract. In Debrecen, apparently the price was double that amount.

The finances of Lajos Kósa became the subject of scrutiny of late when his explanation for how he acquired a very expensive apartment in Budapest was found less than convincing or when he was found to have traveled to New Zealand for three days for a Rolling Stones concert.

János Lázár also had some hard times of late when it turned out that he purchased an apartment in Budapest for his ten-year-old son for 60-70 million forints. Naturally, that piece of property did not show up on the financial statement he submitted to parliament.

And finally, there is Antal Rogán, the number-three man in Hungarian politics today. His fraudulent financial statements have been the talk of the town. He greatly minimized the areas of his real estate and landholdings and was forced to correct them several times.

Given the limited space, I will spend less time here on Rogán’s fictitious financial statements and more on the possible sources of his and his political friends’ enrichment.

It was discovered back in March that Rogán, his wife, András Puskás (Rogán’s deputy), and his common-law wife jointly own 490 m² (almost 5,ooo ft²) apartments worth 300 million forints. For Rogán, who has never had any job save that of a politician, such a purchase under normal circumstances would have been beyond his means. And this is not the only piece of real estate he and his wife own.

A month after the revelations about Rogán’s luxury apartment(s) and his other rather shady real estate holdings, Bors, a tabloid, found out that the Central Investigative Prosecutor’s Office is looking into possible corruption in District V. A businessman who has several restaurants in Budapest won a tender for a piece of property in Rogán’s district where he wanted to open another restaurant. When he went to sign the contract, he was told in no uncertain terms that they expect several more million forints “under the table.” The businessman refused the generous offer and and pressed charges against the district, naming the man who approached him. By June Népszabadság learned that at least three real estate sales are under investigation.

There have also been some rather strange comings and goings in the mayor’s office. First, András Puskás, Rogán’s deputy who is implicated in the luxury apartment case, suddenly quit his job because he was “badly needed” in the foreign ministry. Almost at the same time the man in charge of the everyday running of the affairs of the municipality (jegyző, a kind of city manager) quit in a great hurry. His replacement a few months later was seen wearing a pair of Amadeo Testoni shoes worth 980 euros. The man’s monthly salary is 433,000 forints.

But the story doesn’t end here. Puskás’s replacement, Péter Szentgyörgyvölgyi, became the owner of an apartment in a stately apartment building in Szerb utca which he purchased for a mere 19 million forints, paying in monthly installments of 63,000 forints. The market value of such an apartment in a historic district is worth many times that amount. Meanwhile Szentgyörgyvölgyi became the new mayor, and on November 21 he decided to give the apartment back to the District. He claimed to be perfectly innocent in the affair; “he just got tired of all the attacks against him.”

Szerb utca 9 where Péter Szentgyörgyvölgyi currently mayor of District V purchased ab apartment for 19 million forints

Szerb utca 9 where Péter Szentgyörgyvölgyi, current mayor of District V, purchased an apartment for 19 million forints

Upon closer observation, investigators found that during Rogán’s eight-year-long tenure as mayor of District V one-third of all the real estate owned by the municipality was sold to individuals. One especially egregious case that surfaced lately is the business real estate that was sold to the common-law wife of Tamás Portik, a convicted murderer, back in 2011. The scheme seemed to have been the following. According to a city ordinance, the tenant of a property owned by the municipality has the right to purchase the property at a reduced price. Portik’s common-law wife became a tenant of a 212 m² business site in October 2011, and by December it was hers for 52 million forints. In July 2012 Portik and girlfriend sold the property for 102 millions, its fair market value.

Rogán’s bad luck is that Péter Juhász (Együtt), who was Szentgyörgyvölgyi’s opponent in the municipal elections in October, is a former human rights activist with vast experience as an investigator of corruption cases. And he is now a member of the District V city council. According to Juhász, under Rogán’s watch downtown Pest was the scene of incredible corruption. By now Rogán is a member of parliament and because of his immunity he himself is untouchable. However, András Puskás and Zoltán Sélley, who actually ran the municipality’s affairs and who prepared the contract with Portik’s girlfriend, can be sued, and Juhász is on their case.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, just one of hundreds. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at the spectacular enrichment of Lőrinc Mészáros, Viktor Orbán’s pipefitting friend from Felcsút. He also seems to be forgetful. Just lately he forgot about more than 1 billion forints he happened to have in his bank account.

No wonder that struggling Hungarians are outraged. Even some of the Fidesz true believers are angry. Yet the people involved don’t seem to realize that their conspicuous flaunting of their riches is not exactly going over well in one of the poorest nations in the European Union.

Growing troubles in opposition circles

It was only a few days ago that the democratic opposition’s mass rally ended with a protest from the crowd itself–a demand for unity and the resultant quasi demonstration against Attila Mesterházy, chairman of MSZP.

What followed was almost inevitable. The two parties that had signed an exclusive political arrangement which effectively shut out the other opposition parties and groups placed the blame for the protest on Ferenc Gyurcsány, former prime minister and head of DK, a party with sizable support. It didn’t seem to matter that the other speakers’ message was the same as Gyurcsány’s; he was the only one who was accused of flaunting an alleged agreement that speakers would in no way criticize the deal between MSZP and E14-PM. Opposition leaders deny the existence of any such agreement.

Then came the accusation that it was actually Ferenc Gyurcsány himself who organized the demonstration against Mesterházy. His people were the only ones who kept demanding “unity.” I looked at several videos of the event taken from different angles, and in my opinion just as many people holding MSZP red flags shouted slogans that for a while kept Mesterházy from speaking. Some overzealous MSZP politicians like Tibor Szanyi claimed to have seen Ferenc Gyurcsány leaving the gathering in a great hurry even before Mesterházy finished his speech. The implication naturally being that after he created the disturbance Gyurcsány quickly left the scene of the crime. Szanyi turned out to be wrong. Gyurcsány, his wife, and Ágnes Vadai were present to the very end of Mesterházy’s speech. According to Gyurcsány, he even applauded Mesterházy.

Gordon Bajnai joined the MSZP politicians in forcefully asserting that the deal that was signed will in no way ever be changed. This is the best arrangement even if all the other speakers and it seems the overwhelming majority of the voters on the left don’t think so. Of course, politicians can ignore popular demand, except they do so at their own peril. My hunch is that this unbending attitude cannot be maintained for long.

mistakesBut that was not the only problem the opposition had to face. Péter Juhász, who represents Milla, a group formed on Facebook, has caused a lot of trouble in the past, and he struck again. Juhász is not a politician. He worked as an activist even before 2010 and by and large has a devastating opinion of both politicians and parties, left or right. Therefore he often talks about the “past eight years” exactly the way Fidesz politicians do. I assume that within E14-PM his colleagues try to temper his outbursts, but it seems that he cannot help himself. Shortly after the October 23 gathering Juhász was the guest of Olga Kálmán on ATV where he announced that he would never want to stand on the same platform with Gábor Kuncze or Ferenc Gyurcsány. Moreover, he claimed that Kuncze wasn’t invited to participate. I guess Kuncze just appeared on the scene. Crashed the party, so to speak.

These unfortunate remarks were not without consequence. A number of well-known people, like Attila Ara-Kovács, László C. Kálmán, Mária Ludassy, and Ádám Csillag withdrew their support for E14. Most of them added that this Juhász incident was just the last straw. They had had their problems with E14 even before. Gordon Bajnai seems to be adrift, without a firm idea of his party’s goals. And E14’s floundering is reflected in its poll numbers. A year ago support for E14 was about 12%; now it hovers around 5%.

But that wasn’t the only blow to the democratic side. Shortly before he retired from politics Gábor Kuncze was asked by Klubrádió to be the moderator of a political show once a week. Although Kuncze’s program was popular, the owner of Klubrádió, András Arató, decided that since Kuncze agreed to make a speech at the opposition rally he should be dismissed. The result? A fair number of loyal listeners who have been generously contributing toward the maintenance of Klubrádió are angry. Some have gone so far as to stop contributing to the station, which is strapped for money due to the Orbán government’s illegal manipulation of the air waves. They argue that Klubrádió knew about Kuncze’s plans to attend and that Arató should have warned him about the possible consequences. These people figure that the speedy and unexpected dismissal was due to a “friendly” telephone call from MSZP headquarters. The station denies that they have ever yielded to political pressure and claim that no such call came.

Finally, there is the case of a sympathy demonstration organized in Budapest demanding territorial autonomy for the Hungarian-speaking Szeklers who live in a solid mass in three counties in the middle of Transylvania. Since I’m planning to write something about the autonomy question, I’m not going into the details here. It’s enough to say that the views of the Hungarian political leaders in these parts are close to Jobbik. The most important Hungarian party in Romania is a center-right party called RMDSZ, but Fidesz feels more comfortable with the Szeklers.

The sympathy demonstration was organized by CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), the Szekler National Council (Székely Nemzeti Tanács), and Fidesz. CÖF is the “civic” forum, actually financed by the government, that organized the two peace marches against the “colonizers” and that was also responsible for gathering the supporters of Fidesz for the mass rally on October 23. Well-known anti-Semites like Zsolt Bayer, Gábor Széles (owner of Magyar Hírlap and Echo TV), and András Bencsik have prominent roles in CÖF. The Goy Bikers also made an appearance at this demonstration.

Both MSZP and E14-PM decided to support the march as well as Szekler autonomy. They argued that after all RMDSZ also gave its cautious approval to the march that concurrently took place in Romania. RMDSZ’s position, of course, is very different from that of MSZP and E14. After all, RMDSZ needs the Szeklers’ vote; MSZP and E14 don’t. Or, more accurately, supporting their demands will not prompt the Szeklers to vote for these two leftist parties at the next election. Those who vote will vote for Fidesz.

MSZP was satisfied with verbal support, but E14 politicians actually marched along with all the right-wingers and Goy Bikers! And with that move E14 lost even more supporters.

If the opposition is to stand any chance at the next election it can’t keep alienating potential voters. And it shouldn’t act like an exclusive club open only to the MSZP-E14 “founding members.” Politics is a numbers game, and numbers rise with inclusiveness. And with unity.

Beginning of the end? Hungarian opposition in disarray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water and politics: The case of the Roma in Ózd

There are times, though not too often, when Fidesz and the Orbán government retreat and give up positions earlier thought to be sacrosanct. This usually happens when there is a big stink. Not just nationally but internationally. This is what happened with the public faucets in Ózd.

Ózd, a town with a population of 34,000, fell on hard economic times when the heavy metallurgical industry collapsed in the 1990s. Ózdi Kohászatai Üzemek had employed more than 10,000 workers. In 1975 67.3% of the men between the ages of 18 and 65 were gainfully employed. Now the unemployment in Ózd is extremely high. Ózd also has a large Roma population. Officially only 7% of the population declared themselves to be of Roma ethnicity, but according to some estimates one-third of Ózd’s population might be of Gypsy origin.

The Gypsies live in several ghetto-like sections of the town. Most of their houses don’t have running water, so these people must carry  water in buckets from public faucets. Apparently there are 123 faucets that serve about 8,000 people. Some of these people live in areas where city water was never hooked up; others don’t have service because they couldn’t pay their water bill. A family of four or five needs at least 100 liters of water a day and, especially in the areas where a lot of people live without city water, there might be as many as 100 people who use one faucet.

Since the city must provide water to the inhabitants, these people receive their water free of charge. The Fidesz-led town hall found the 13 million forints the city had to pay for the water used on roadsides too high. They claimed that the families living in those parts waste water. They use it for washing cars, watering their gardens, and for the children to splash around in. The city fathers, including the sole MSZP member, voted to restrict access to water at public faucets. They completely closed 28 of the 123 faucets and set the water pressure in another 61 very low to discourage the use of too much water.

There are conflicting claims about how slow these faucets became after the town hired a company to lower the pressure from 100% to 60%. The mayor and other Fidesz officials in town claim that lowering the pressure made little difference. (Then why do it?) One of the city fathers declared that the difference between full pressure and reduced pressure is negligible, but others figured that it now takes at least ten minutes to fill a ten-liter bucket with water. A family of five that needs 100 liters of water a day would have to stand for an hour and a half to fill the requisite number of buckets. The men are not around at this time of the year because they managed to get some seasonal work in agriculture, so it’s mostly women and children who carry these buckets. Ten liters of water is terribly heavy, especially for a skinny eight-year-old whom I saw on one of the photos. And he must make at least ten trips. Sometimes quite far. There are cases where they have to walk at least half a kilometer each way.

The water is barely trickling / Népszabadság Photo by István Konyhás

The water is barely trickling / Népszabadság photo by István Konyhás

It’s easy to blame everything on the Gypsies, but one of the city fathers admitted that it’s not the inhabitants of the “segregatums,” as one journalist called these Gypsy ghettos, who steal the city’s water but owners of weekend places outside of Ózd. They come by car and take away 200-300 liters of water. In fact, 444.hu received an e-mail from someone who called attention to a 2011 Google Earth video of a hose that led from a city faucet to a well appointed house in one of the wealthiest sections in town. You can see it on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1msthmIB3o

It was inevitable that the decision of the Ózd City Council would become a national issue. Although the city fathers never mentioned the word “Roma” or “Gypsy,” it became a Roma issue. It couldn’t have been otherwise when it is the Roma population’s neighborhood that is without running water and when it is mostly the dirt poor Roma who can’t pay their water bills.

Opposition politicians were on hand, led by István Nyakó (MSZP) who is from these parts. László Varju (DK) arrived as did Aladár Horváth, a Roma activist. There were all sorts of useless negotiations between Nyakó and Pál Fürjes, the Fidesz mayor of Ózd. I don’t know in what language they tried to converse, but the two gave entirely different reports of their conversation. Nyakó understood that Fürjes promised to restore the standard pressure in the faucets while Fürjes claimed that there was no such agreement. Moreover, he made it crystal clear that the city will not move an inch. It is not fair that the majority of the city’s population has to pay for water while others don’t. As he put it, “perhaps the majority of people feel good when they steal, but someone has to pay for the water.” He neglected to mention that these people have no choice because they have no water hook-up.

Fürjes’s claim is especially distasteful in light of the fact that Ózd received 1.75 billion forints from the Swiss-Hungarian Cooperation Program for the express purpose of providing running water to the Roma ghettos. Opposition politician Péter Juhász of Milla and Együtt 2014-PM demanded to know the fate of this money. According to the website of the town of Ózd, work on the modernization of the whole system will be done between 2013 and 2017. Well, more than half of 2013 is gone and there is no sign of any work on the pipes. Fürjes immediately rebuked Juhász, saying that the Ózd Fidesz government is not like the Gyurcsány-Bajnai government which stole the country blind and was corrupt to the core. The money is there and work will begin in November. I must say November’s not the best time of the year to start such a project.

Negotiations between Nyakó and Fürjes led nowhere;  the city was ready to open only one faucet. Nyakó then said that he was going to call on Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to force the town of Ózd to restore all the faucets that had served the town’s Roma population.

I must say that yesterday I wasn’t very optimistic that Pintér would intervene, especially after the  Fidesz spokesman Róbert Zsigó threw the party’s weight behind Pál Fürjes. Since yesterday, however, a few things happened that changed the situation.  Zoltán Balog, whose ministry is responsible for Roma integration, announced that he considered limiting water to the Roma ghettos inhumane. Then came the bad publicity from BBC, Deutsche Welle, Der Spiegel, and a very long and detailed article in the Swiss Tages Anzeiger. After all, a lot of Swiss money was given to Ózd specifically for the purpose of making running water available in the Roma ghettos and now the mayor of the town limits water for them even at the roadside faucets!

In any case, Pintér gave a friendly or perhaps not so friendly telephone call to Pál Fürjes, who suddenly saw the light. In order to save face he repeated that the town’s action was entirely legal. But the extended heat wave that hit Hungary after the town council made its decision led him to revoke it. Tages Anzeiger immediately reported the good news. It would be interesting to know whether the Swiss, directly or indirectly, put pressure on the Hungarian government to change its mind on the issue of water supply in Ózd.

Dissension in the already weak Hungarian opposition

It is time to talk again about the opposition parties, especially since next week Együtt – A Korszakváltók Pártja (Together-Party of the New Age) will begin negotiations with MSZP. In case you have no idea who on earth is behind this “new party,” this is the same old Együtt 2014-PM Szövetség (Together 2014 Alliance) that was established months ago by Gordon Bajnai, Péter Juhász of Milla, Péter Kónya of the Solidarity Movement, and the former members of LMP who decided to join Együtt 2014.

But what happened to the party’s name? It took the court that was supposed to give its blessing to the name seventy days of deliberation to decide that the name proposed by Bajnai-Juhász-Kónya was unacceptable for at least two reasons. First, a few days before the Együtt people proposed the name of their movement a couple of people had already turned in a request for the name. Second, the court objected to the word “szövetség” (alliance), although Fidesz’s official name is Fidesz Magyar Polgári Szövetség. So, the group around Gordon Bajnai “temporarily” adopted this ridiculous sounding name. The way the registration of this party is proceeding it could easily happen that by the time elections roll around the party will still not be a party. Bajnai of course tries to act as if all these name changes didn’t matter, but of course they do.

While the hassle over the party’s name was going on Péter Juhász, head of the virtual Milla movement, gave a press conference in which he compared Ferenc Gyurcsány to Viktor Orbán as symbols of oppressive regimes and corrupt politics. Juhász went so far as to call the pre-Orbán times part and parcel of “the current mafia-government.”

vadai agnes femina.hu

Ágnes Vadai / femina.hu

Well, this was too much for the fiery Ágnes Vadas (DK), who addressed an open letter to “Dear Gordon” in which she inquired from him whether he approves such statements from his co-chairman. After all, in this case “you must have been a minister of this oppressive regime for three years; you accepted a position in the government of a man who put an end to democracy in Hungary and you served without raising your voice against this corrupt regime that was in the hands of a political mafia.” The letter is politely but strongly worded. Vadai wants to know what Bajnai thinks of Juhász’s attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány. As far as I know, no official letter reached Vadai as of yesterday, but Bajnai tried to explain his own position without completely distancing himself from Juhász.

Juhász has been the target of severe criticism from many quarters, and criticism was also leveled against Gordon Bajnai for getting involved with him. Back in November 2012 a portrait of Juhász appeared in Origo with the title “A good-for-nothing  activist.” Not the best recommendation for an important post at a crucial junction in Hungarian political life.

Since then others have joined Ágnes Vadai in their condemnation of Péter Juhász. Blogger “Pupu” wrote that he considers Juhász an agent of Viktor Orbán. Another popular blogger, Piroslapok, is less harsh; he doesn’t consider him an agent, just a not very smart man who likes to moralize using false postulates.

Others, like Ferenc Krémer, describe him as a dangerous dilettante who stands in the way of unity in the opposition camp. Juhász makes assumptions about “the political usefulness” of certain strategies without knowing much about the intricacies of the present political situation. In the last few months he succeeded only in driving a wedge between the different opposition parties. So, says Krémer, Juhász is serving the interests of Fidesz because the government party wants to have open disagreements in the opposition camp. According to several commentators, the best solution for the opposition would be the removal of Juhász from Együtt 2014. Then he could expound his theories as a private person. These commentators are sure that the right-wing media would welcome him with open arms.

It seems, however, that Gordon Bajnai is not ready to get rid of him. Or at least this is what he said at a meeting of the Budai Liberális Klub where he had a conversation with Zsófia Mihancsik.  But Bajnai ought to realize that the democratic opposition shouldn’t in a servile fashion follow “the narrative of Fidesz,” which also includes Viktor Orbán’s desire to push Ferenc Gyurcsány into the background.

Meanwhile Együtt 2014 or whatever it is called now is languishing  just as MSZP, LMP, and DK are. Why? Not because people are worried about whether Gyurcsány is part of the joint opposition but because they see disunity, confusion, and a struggle for primacy.

Yesterday Együtt 2014’s visits across the country ended in Budapest. Bajnai had earlier refused to negotiate with MSZP because he first wanted to undertake a campaign tour that was supposed bolster his and his party’s popularity. Ipsos’s May poll results don’t show any great change. In fact, the party dropped from the 4% support it had in April to 3%. I doubt that the June figures will be very different. Yet Bajnai is still stalling. Yes, he will start talks “next week” but the conversations will begin only on Friday. What on earth is he waiting for? A miracle? It won’t come, especially if he sticks with Péter Juhász for much longer.

“The beginning of a new era” as Gordon Bajnai’s E14 envisions it

Yesterday was highly anticipated, not only in opposition circles but also among government officials and Fidesz politicians. Gordon Bajnai was to deliver a speech he called “Evaluation of the Orbán Government.” Actually, it was more than that. I would call it an opening bid to become the next prime minister of Hungary.

A blog writer with whom I had been unfamiliar until now considers Bajnai a bad speaker and charged the organizers with placing two even worse orators ahead of him so that Bajnai would look good: Péter Juhász of Milla and Péter Kónya of Solidarity (Szolidaritás).

Juhász led off. A friend of mine who was present thought he gave a splendid speech. Well, the audience didn’t seem to think so. Moreover, I suspect that there weren’t too many Milla supporters present in the rather large audience because Juhász’s appearance didn’t meet with much enthusiasm. The applause wasn’t exactly thunderous.

Several times I’ve expressed my doubts about Bajnai’s decision to join forces with Juhász because I consider him someone whose political acumen is sadly lacking and because it is hard to judge the size of the electorate that stands behind him. I was often disappointed in his interviews that showed a total lack of political finesse and no grasp of the present situation or the rules of modern democracy. One cannot achieve anything in politics by fueling the citizens’ hatred of politics and politicians.

Now to my reaction to his speech yesterday. First, I disagree with Juhász’s contention that in the past twenty years “the powers-that-be excluded people either because they were right-leaning or left-wingers; or because they were liberals, or because they were independent ‘civilians’; or because they were poor, Gypsies, Jews, gays, disabled, or homeless.”  Well, I don’t remember any governments actually excluding these people before 2010, but obviously Juhász and I see the world differently.

I also noticed that Juhász does not always use the right words when describing certain political concepts. For example, he claims that “we want only one thing: we should have representation. We want to be part of Hungary as simple citizens.”  For Pete’s sake, were the simple citizens disenfranchised in Hungary in the last twenty years? Didn’t they have representation?

Or here is another expression used incorrectly in the context of Hungarian politics. According to Juhász “politics is too important a thing to leave it to professional politicians.” Juhász used the expression “megélhetési politikusok”  (megélhetés means livelihood), coined by an MDF politician. The original usage  referred to a former MDF member who changed party affiliation during the first Orbán government in order to become a member of the cabinet. So, he left his convictions behind to be promoted and remain part of the governing elite. He did it for his material and professional benefit. This is not what Juhász had in mind.

One could also argue with the generalization that all governments since 1990 were “sly, contradicting themselves, liars who took us for fools.” These descriptions fit the present government better than any others before. This kind of generalization is good for only one thing: to shake the confidence of the population in democracy. If all governments in the last twenty-two years were rotten to the core, what is the likelihood that this crowd will be drastically different? Because Péter Juhász says so?

And finally, Juhász said a few words about MSZP, alluding to the fact that there are voices within the party that mistakenly believe they can win the elections alone. There is quite a bit of truth in that, although the group within the party that advocates cooperation is growing. But it is clear that the party leadership would like MSZP to be the leading force in forging that cooperation. I find that desire quite natural. After all, MSZP is the largest party and the only one with a nationwide political machine. But to say, as Juhász says, that “the socialists traditionally don’t like coalition governments and power sharing” is outright wrong. I don’t know whether anyone read Juhász’s text before he delivered it, but you don’t have to be a political wizard to know that all the governments in which the socialists participated since 1994 were coalition governments. Even between 1994 and 1998 when the socialists had an absolute majority in parliament and didn’t really need SZDSZ in order to govern, Gyula Horn asked the liberals to join his government.

Péter Kónya of Solidarity was the second speaker. It seems that perhaps the majority of the audience came from the ranks of Solidarity, which is a union-based organization. As a former union leader himself, Kónya concentrated on labor demands but always added that the changes employees would like to see depend on economic performance. He listed very specific issues the next government should concentrate on: taxation, minimum wages, new labor laws, unemployment insurance, programs for the Roma, and the right to strike, which has been greatly circumscribed.

And then came Gordon Bajnai. Only a few days ago the organizers of the phony civic organization that is responsible for the 200 million forint anti-Bajnai-Gyurcsány campaign compared Bajnai to a funeral director. Contrary to that image, Bajnai is becoming a good speaker, although he worked from borrowed material. His reference to Hungary not being a “normal country” was first used by Ibolya Dávid of MDF. His emphasis on “hope” reminded me of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan. His references to the half a million Hungarians who left the country and his emphasis on producing more children were obvious appeals to patriotic, perhaps right-of-center sentiments.

Here I will pick two themes from the speech. One is Bajnai’s attitude toward MSZP and the other his view of his own place in a future “togetherness.”

Bajnai seems to be convinced that the majority of currently undecided and/or disillusioned voters will never vote for MSZP. This assumption seems to me outright wrong if we believe polls that focus on the undecided voting bloc. All polls attest to the fact that the majority of the undecided voters lean toward the left and not the right. Believing, as Bajnai does, that there are at least a million people who would under no circumstances vote for MSZP is simply not warranted. So alienating MSZP in the hope of gaining millions of votes from the allegedly right-of-center voters is I think a mistake. Because I firmly believe that there is no true moderate right in Hungary. The 1.5 million Fidesz voters will never vote for E14. The undecided, if they vote at all, will vote for the left. If E14 positions itself to the right, it may end up nowhere.

If Bajnai had only claimed that MSZP at the moment doesn’t have enough voters to win the 2014 elections alone, he would have been perfectly right. But adding that “it doesn’t have enough credibility or enough expertise to govern” was an unnecessary dig if Bajnai would like to forge an alliance with MSZP.

Glorious new era /a heartforgodsglory

Glorious new era /aheartforgodsglory

The second theme that will further infuriate MSZP politicians is that Bajnai practically introduced himself as the next prime minister of Hungary. I consider this a premature announcement. At the end of the speech he switched to the first person singular and declared himself to be the leading force in the change that will be more than a change of government but the beginning of “a new era.” To this end he will “not allow any diversionary maneuvers … petty political games, positioning and selfish tactics.” He will “concentrate all his energies to organize the victims of the current regime.” And finally, he “will shape the dreams and hopes of [his] compatriots into a concrete government program.”

“Come with me, join the coalition of hope!” This is how Bajnai concluded his speech. He asked the people to join him at a mass demonstration on March 15, an idea Ferenc Gyurcsány first suggested in his speech at DK’s Second Congress on January 26. I might add that Bajnai didn’t mention the Demokratikus Koalíció at all, which might be a politically savvy move on his part, although he must know that if anyone supports his candidacy it is Ferenc Gyurcsány. One thing is sure: devoted DK supporters are already mightily offended.

MSZP supporters will be too. And if my hunch is correct, this constant harping on the bad governing of the past will not go over well. After all, Gordon Bajnai was a member of the Gyurcsány government that is now being mightily criticized by Bajnai’s associate Péter Juhász. Moreover, he was a prime minister of an MSZP-SZDSZ government that Milla’s leader considered to be as bad as the Orbán government. The difference of the last three years is “only qualitative of everything we didn’t like in the last ten or twenty years.”  And why ten years? Prior to 2002 it was better?

There are just too many contradictions that leave me uneasy about the success of the effort and the program that this odd coalition of a liberal economist and a populist non-politician with a hatred of politics can come up with.