public opinion poll

The Hungarian people are not thrilled with Orbán’s Russia policy

Népszava‘s information about Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest, seconded by Attila Ara-Kovács on Klubrádió, turned out to be accurate. Válasz, a pro-government internet site, was skeptical about the accuracy of the news because, after all, there was no mention of such a visit in Russian sources. Moreover, no western media picked up the news from Népszava. A commenter on this blog also expressed his doubts about the authenticity of the news. After all, Népszava is an opposition paper and therefore, I guess, not quite reliable. By this morning, however, the press department of the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the information: Putin is coming to Hungary, although the date hasn’t been fixed.

Meanwile Népszabadság, another opposition paper, learned “from diplomatic circles” that the trip was planned a year ago on Hungary’s initiative. At that time the sanctions against Russia were not yet in place. Moreover, originally the trip was supposed to take place sometime in 2014, but because of scheduling difficulties it was postponed to this year, a change that might be advantageous to Putin but is mighty uncomfortable for Orbán. But as László Kovács, former foreign minister, said yesterday, Orbán developed a relationship with Putin that precludes any postponement of the meeting.

While waiting for the arrival of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, several civic groups are preparing demonstrations. A group headed by Zoltán Vajda and Balázs Gulyás, two people whom I consider to be the most promising among the organizers of the recent demonstrations, plans to take the lead. Balázs Gulyás was the organizer of the mass demonstration against the internet tax, and Zoltán Vajda organized the demonstration on behalf of those 60,000 people whose savings in private pension funds the Orbán government wants to expropriate.

Vajda and Gulyás are planning two demonstrations. One will take place on February 1, the day before Angela Merkel’s arrival. It is called “Spring comes–Orbán goes: Demonstration for a European Hungary.” The second demonstration is planned for February 9 or, if Putin comes later, it will be postponed to the day of his arrival. The theme of the second will be “We will not be a Russian colony.” Other organizations and parties expressed an interest in joining these two Facebook groups, and it seems that they, unlike some others, are ready to cooperate with everybody who is ready to join them. As I wrote yesterday, PM asked all democratic parties to take part in massive demonstrations that include both parties and civilians.

In the lively discussion that followed yesterday’s post, a question was raised about the attitude of Fidesz voters toward Russia. According to one opinion, Fidesz voters are so brainwashed that they are ready to follow Viktor Orbán all the way to Moscow. Others, myself included, doubted the accuracy of this observation. In fact, I ventured to suggest that anti-Russian feelings might be a catalyst that will bring about a united opposition to Orbán’s regime. Well, today we have a more scientific answer to the question of Hungarians’ attitude toward the United States and Russia. The poll was taken by Medián for 444.hu

Here are some figures confirming that the Orbán propaganda did not significantly alter Hungarians’ anti-Russian sentiments. I will start with the most important and most telling figures: “If Hungary had to choose between the United States and Russia as a close associate, which country would you choose?” Fifty-three percent chose the United States and only 25% Russia. Hungarians are aware of the worsening relations between the United States and Hungary, and surprisingly the majority blame the Hungarian government for it. This finding goes against the widespread belief that Hungarians always blame others for their misfortunes. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents blame Hungary and only 14% the United States.

Medián also ran these figures against party affiliation. Those who feel more aligned with the democratic parties overwhelmingly blame their own country for the current situation (80%); only 4% blame the United States. Interestingly, the majority of Jobbik voters (59%) side with the United States. Only 13% put the blame on the U.S. while 27% think that the blame should be shared by the two countries. The situation is about the same among undecided voters. Fidesz voters are not as uniformly pro-Russian as some commenters on Hungarian Spectrum suspected. Only 37% blame the United States, 22% Hungary, and 40% think that both countries are at fault. I wouldn’t call that a resounding endorsement of a pro-Russian, anti-U.S. foreign policy.

Diplomats, present and former, have found it difficult to figure out what the real purpose of this meeting is. I could suggest a few topics that might come up. First, I think, is Paks. Orbán, for whom the building of a second reactor at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is very important, surely would like to get reassurance from Putin that the project is still on and that Russia will not turn its back on Paks as it did on the Southern Stream. Another topic might be Hungary’s attitude toward the extension of the sanctions against Russia. Would Hungary vote against such a decision? There is also the question of the U.S.-EU free trade agreement, officially called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which Russia opposes.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Orbán were a ready partner of Russia in opposing the free-trade agreement. On what am I basing this opinion? István Mikola, formerly the “nation’s doctor” and nowadays one of the undersecretaries in the foreign ministry, announced last night on HírTV that Hungary would go so far as to veto the TTIP if Hungary’s interests were not taken into consideration. One such reason would be the acceptance in the European Union of genetically modified food products coming from the United States. Fidesz lawmakers included a GMO ban in the new constitution. András Schiffer, the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist co-chair of LMP, went even further. In his opinion, the whole free-trade agreement is against the interests of Hungary. In fact, not just Hungary but in his words “it means in the long run the ruin of the whole globe.” He added that the agreement would mean the loss of 600,000 jobs in the EU. So, Putin and Orbán are of one mind when it comes to the TTIP. András Schiffer, the so-called opposition leader, joins them because of his far-left notions of modern capitalism and globalism.

Not so long ago, however, James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote an article in Foreign Policy: “Vladimir Putin hates the TTIP which is exactly why Europe and America need to get it done.” Stavridis explains his support of the treaty this way:

The TTIP is a sensible agreement on economic grounds, broadly speaking. But it also holds enormous real value in the geopolitical sphere. The increased linkages between the United States and our European allies and partners will stand in direct opposition to Putin’s key strategy of driving a wedge between the United States and the EU as the central members of the transatlantic community.

I don’t know how important the GMO issue is in the scheme of things, but one has the feeling that Hungary will be a difficult negotiating partner when it comes to the TTIP.

Another issue that might be discussed is Putin’s pet subject, the Eurasian Economic Union. It was only a few days ago that Russia’s EU ambassador urged Brussels to start talks with the newly born Eurasian Economic Union despite the Ukrainian crisis. As he put it, “common sense advises us to explore the possibility of establishing a common economic space in the Eurasian region.” A Russian-led bloc might be a better partner for the European Union than the United States. The reason: low health standards in the U.S. food industry. Orbán again might be helpful on this issue. However, in Orbán’s place I would tread lightly. It is true that Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union became reality on January 1, but according to Reid Standish, an expert on Kazakhstan, Putin’s Eurasian dream was over before it began.

Eurasian Union

All in all, I think the two have plenty to talk about. The topics I have outlined are primarily Russian concerns, and getting Hungary on board would be only to Russia’s advantage. For Hungary to become Moscow’s Trojan horse in Europe is not strategically wise.

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Gordon Bajnai blinked: He is ready to accept the thirty-five districts allotted to Együtt 2014

The somewhat surprising developments that occurred on Friday afternoon during the meeting between Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), and Gordon Bajnai, former prime minister and current co-chairman of Együtt 2014-PM, not unexpectedly created a huge discussion among political commentators. It still hasn’t subsided, despite the fact that Bajnai announced a retreat from his earlier position this morning.

When on Friday the two men got up from the negotiating table and held separate press conferences it looked as if even the partial results achieved over the past few weeks had been lost. Although there had been a tentative agreement on the division of the 106 mandates, Mesterházy made it clear that his party considered it null and void. According to this preliminary agreement, MSZP would be entitled to put up 71 candidates and Együtt 2014 35. These numbers, it seems, were not final. If MSZP insisted on providing the candidate for the premiership, Együtt 2014 wanted more than 35 seats. How many more is unclear. It was at this point that Bajnai introduced his idea of a campaign in which the two candidates would try to convince the electorate of their worth. After such a campaign the decision would be based on a couple of polls. Mesterházy turned the tables on Bajnai and suggested holding primaries.

Of course, each man suggested a course that would best serve his interests. So, let’s see first what the Bajnai group is confronted with. You may recall that sometime in June I wrote about an interview with Endre Hann, CEO of Medián, a polling company. In this conversation we learned that although overall Mesterházy has a 3% lead over Bajnai in the polls, this is due only to Bajnai’s relative unpopularity among Fidesz and Jobbik voters. As I reported, “Bajnai is definitely doing better with the voters of the so-called democratic opposition parties. In all parties he leads over Mesterházy–among sympathizers of Együtt 2014 (89%), of DK (64%), of LMP (56%). Even among MSZP voters 30% think that Bajnai is more qualified for the job of prime minister than MSZP’s chairman. Overall, 51% of the democratic opposition prefer Bajnai over Mesterházy (43%). That is not an unsubstantial difference. Translating it to actual numbers, we are talking about 200,000 voters. Among those who are against the present government but are still undecided as far as their party preference is concerned, 55% would prefer Bajnai over Mesterházy (33%). The difference here is about 100,000.”

Negotiations
In a poll asking supporters of the democratic opposition to choose between the two potential candidates, Bajnai would most likely come out the winner. Or at least this is the situation now. I’m sure that Mesterházy is aware of these figures and that’s why he would prefer a primary which, given the well developed nationwide MSZP organization, would favor him. I myself find a primary not a bad idea in theory, but under the present circumstances it is out of the question. At least for two reasons. First, Hungarian parties don’t have rostrums of their likely voters. If sometime in the future Hungarian politicians decide to introduce primaries, they will need to build databases of the party faithful (or introduce party registration). Second, primaries are held to pick a candidate from contenders within the same party. And Bajnai and Mesterházy are the leaders of two different parties. Primaries in the United States, for instance, are not held to decide whether a Republican or a Democrat will run for the presidency. Sándor Révész, a liberal supporter of Bajnai, in an editorial in Nepszabadság called the suggested primary a not so well hidden fraud.

On the other hand, there are others, for example, Andor Schmuck, chairman of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, who severely criticized Bajnai for his unacceptable demands. According to him, Bajnai might be more popular than Mesterházy, but he is the co-chairman of a party with a 6% share of the votes. Moreover, Együtt 2014 is not really a party but a coalition of different civic groups with no numbers behind them. He went on to list them: Milla has 50-100 people, Solidarity 250, Haza és Haladás (Homeland and Progress Foundation) 15-20. At the end Schmuck came up with 800 people who are organized behind Bajnai. It took them four months to come up with 90 names, which shows the lack of party organization and support. This holy mess (hercehurca) has been going on for eight months and people who want a change are sick and tired of it. Mesterházy went through four very difficult years when it was not exactly a picnic to be head of MSZP while Bajnai retired only to appear three years later, and now he wants to be the prime minister. As you can see, each side has its own valid arguments.

Mesterházy’s ultimatum also has another consequence that might not be welcome to the MSZP leadership. MSZP, like all parties, is made up of people with different shades of political opinion. Although MSZP has its share of liberals, there is also a fairly strong left-wing group whose ideas are strangely foreign to the ideal of western social democracy. One of the people in that group is Tibor Szanyi who, emboldened by Mesterházy’s rejection of any further negotiations with Bajnai, came out with the kind of demagoguery that makes a lot of people uneasy. On Facebook Szanyi tore into those capitalists whose wealth originates from communist oligarchs–like Péter Medgyessy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gordon Bajnai–who were not fit to lead a socialist party that is supposed to be a party of the working people. Gordon Bajnai might have been their prime minister in 2009-2010, but he is certainly not one of them. He doesn’t represent the working people. After all, he took away the thirteenth month salaries and pensions. If MSZP had been able to decide on its own, the thirteenth month salary wouldn’t have been touched. And I may add that they would have led Hungary into a financial abyss. Mesterházy needs these kinds of socialists like a hole in the head.

On the other hand, the Friday ultimatums prompted László Botka, the socialist mayor of Szeged, to raise his voice. I don’t think that I mentioned László Botka in the past, though perhaps I should have. His name often comes up as a possible candidate either for party chairmanship or even prime minister one day. On Facebook he expressed his surprise at the breakdown of negotiations and reiterated his belief that the most important goal is “the replacement of the Orbán government and anything else is secondary to it.” He asked for “more responsibility, greater magnanimity , and more wisdom.” He added that for those who want Orbán out of office the important question is not whether the prime minister will be Mesterházy or Bajnai. At last a sane voice in MSZP.

 

A public opinion survey about János Kádár and the Kádár regime from 1989

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on public opinion research in the Kádár regime. There was little reader response to it, most likely because a few hours later on the same day I published the speeches of Péter Feldmájer and Ronald S. Lauder at the Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest. I suggest that you take a look at it because today I’m returning to the subject.

If I were living in Budapest I would have access to the Open Society Archives at the Central European University where these old  public opinion poll results are stored. But since I don’t live there I have to rely on a summary of one of these sociological studies that appeared in Origo. The study is from 1989; it seeks to understand the reasons for the popularity of the Kádár regime. The Origo journalist picked this particular year because by then, very close to the anticipated regime change, people had little reason to worry about any possible consequences of their answers.

As a point of reference, in 2001 53% of Hungarian adults thought that the years between World War II and the change of regime in 1989 were the happiest time in Hungarian history. By 2008 62% thought so.

According to a study right after the death of János Kádár (July 1989), 50-60% of adults judged Kádár’s role in Hungarian history in a positive light. Moreover, this was the opinion not only of people with minimal educational attainment but of highly educated people as well. When asked what they liked about Kádár they pointed to his modest, puritanic lifestyle and his informality. 87% declared that their impression of him was always positive. They considered him “one of the great benefactors of the Hungarian people” and “the greatest personality in Hungarian politics.”

What did people appreciate in the old regime? That education and health care were “free” and that the state provided pensions for everybody. People insisted that all these benefits should remain even after the regime change “despite the demand for a multi-party system and a market economy.”

Fortepan 1985

Photo of new prefab houses in Budapest, 1985 / Fortepan.hu

The respondents appreciated the steadily rising living standards, especially noticeable in the 1970s after the introduction of the 1968 economic reform (New Economic Mechanism). In 1987 the sociologists asked people what conveniences they expected to be part of their everyday lives. Well over 90% of the population took it for granted that they would have bathrooms, ready hot water, and a refrigerator. 71% lived in apartments with central heating; almost 60% had automatic washing machines and record players and took family holidays. But only 44% of the families had a car or a colored television set. And getting a telephone line was close to impossible. Only 37% of the families had telephones.

When the Horn government was forced to introduce an austerity program in 1995 (the so-called Bokros-csomag, named after Lajos Bokros, minister of finance) it cost the socialists dearly. In 1998 they lost the election. Viktor Orbán, the new prime minister, promptly announced that every family should have “three rooms, three children, and four wheels,” meaning a car. He was appealing to the Hungarian yearning for a better, more comfortable life.

The later Kádár years were marked by an understanding between the rulers and the ruled. MSZMP and the state would leave the population more or less alone; in exchange for that privilege, the population would give up its ability to exercise political rights. “This compromise for twenty years was a success,” the authors of the study concluded.

In December 1989, that is, after the establishment of the Third Republic on October 23, the team of sociologists asked the respondents what issues would determine which political party they would vote for. They had to list these issues in order of importance. This is the list the group as a whole ended up with: (1) living standards, (2) freedom, (3) independence,(4) democracy, (5) equality, (6) socialism, and (7) capitalism.

The compromise between the rulers and the ruled in the Kádár era made a lasting impression on the Hungarian population. Nostalgia for the Kádár regime is not only growing among those who experienced it firsthand but is being “inherited” by those who were either small children before 1990 or not even born by then. And their priorities are not all that different from the priorities of the respondents in 1989.

Freedom was never the centerpiece of their demands. That pretty well explains the fact that, although the current government has severely limited the democratic rights of the people, there is no great resistance. Fidesz’s popularity in the last two years or so hasn’t dropped  all that much. But if the Orbán government is unable to raise living standards it might find itself in trouble. And if people wake up to the widespread corruption and visible signs of ill-gotten wealth, there might be a change in public sentiment. Kádár won the hearts and minds of the people in part by not being ostentatious. So, if I were Viktor Orbán I might dial back some of those projects that set the prime minister and his coterie of friends apart from the rest of the population. A private football stadium might be too much. Or those tobacconist shops that can make families millionaires. The “have-nots” rarely believe that the “haves” deserve all their toys.

If the economy doesn’t turn around, there will be nothing to give to those who expect a visible improvement in their standard of living.  Then we might see a change in the present acceptance of Viktor Orbán’s growing dictatorial governing style. The question is when the patience of the Hungarians with their mindset inherited from the Kádár regime will run out.