Zsolt Várady

Yada yada. And next?

The demonstration just ended. I didn’t have a chance to hear all eight speeches, but those I did listen to greatly varied in quality. There were some that demonstrated political naivete and some that questioned the very notion of a market economy, which was described as a system of exploitation. Not surprisingly, the politically most sophisticated speech was delivered by a former politician, Gábor Vágó (LMP). In the speeches of the two organizers of MostMi!, Zsolt Várady and Bori Takács, a frequent refrain was that “we will have to figure out what kind of Hungary we want.” I found this worrisome. It seems that once again Hungarians want to invent something new and unique instead of following the examples of successful democracies that offer their citizens a decent living and security.

According to Abcúg.hu, “this first demonstration of the year was one of the shortest and least eventful of the past few months.” The reporter overheard someone saying that “we have been hearing the same thing over and over,” which is of course true. Speakers complain about the government and about all politicians and parties while the crowd chants “Orbán scram!” The demonstrations, quite frankly, are becoming boring. But the trouble is that the organizers have no idea how to go beyond demonstrations, how to elect a new government, how to create the idyllic Hungary they would like to see after the fall of Viktor Orbán.

There was one speaker, Bernadette Somody, a lawyer who is the director of the legal think tank Károly Eötvös Institute, who pointed out some practical problems facing those who are dissatisfied with the present political situation. In order to rid Hungary of the whole system, the politicians who take over after the fall of the Orbán government must cleanse the government edifice of Orbán appointees. But that will be exceedingly difficult because Viktor Orbán made sure that most of the appointments are of very long duration.

Otherwise, the speeches were full of vague notions about the full participation of citizens at every level of decision-making. A politically engaged citizenry will discuss every issue. Politicians will not be able to make decisions without their approval. I guess I don’t have to elaborate on the impossibility of creating a large-scale participatory democracy in today’s world.

I was greatly disappointed in László Kálmán, He showed a surprising lack of knowledge about anything practical. He said, for instance, that one needs neither a centralized nor a community-based school system. Parents will get together and establish their own. There is a saying in America about those academics who “can’t even tie their own shoe laces,” meaning they are singularly impractical. Well, Kálmán seems to be one of them.

demonstrcio jan2

Although it is a welcome development that there is a growing awareness of widespread poverty and sympathy for the poor, the two speakers speaking for the homeless talked in quasi-Marxist terms that poor Marx wouldn’t recognize. In Hungarian this kind of primitive Marxism is called “vulgár marxizmus.” These speakers talked about the poverty that is inseparable from the capitalist system. There was a lot of talk about exploiters and exploitation. Once the present system is gone, they suggested, there will be an “even distribution” of goods. Another hopeless idea.

And the biggest problem of all: the rejection of party politics. One of the speakers, unfortunately I forget which one, announced that “we don’t need parties but a new alternative.” He neglected to tell us what this alternative is. Several speakers, Várady and Kálmán for example, found all the parties of the last twenty-five years totally incompetent. I am much more charitable. It’s a lot easier to be a Monday morning quarterback than to be on the field in real time. In 1990 an inexperienced crew took over the reins of government in incredibly hard times. The country had a staggering national debt, the collapse of the socialist economic system led to more than a million people being unemployed, inflation was over 30%. Under these circumstances the new government had to lay the foundations of a democratic regime. On balance, they and their successors didn’t do a bad job. For instance, by 1998 Hungary’s most serious economic problems were over. Yes, they made mistakes, but to say that they botched up everything is simply not true.

The organizers’ anti-party attitude went so far today as to refuse Zoltán Kész, the independent candidate supported by all parties with the exception of LMP in the crucial Veszprém by-election, the opportunity to speak. Péter Krekó of Political Capital, a think tank, rightly pointed out that this was a grave mistake. Kész is not a party candidate. He can be considered a civic-minded citizen, an English teacher in town. His slogan is: vote for me and you vote against the two-thirds majority. This election for Tibor Navracsics’s old seat is important for Fidesz also. The government just gave 800 million forints to the city just to make sure that the voters know who butters their bread. And yet the organizers who are so eager to unseat Viktor Orbán didn’t allow this man to speak. Incredibly short-sighted.

All in all, I don’t know where this movement is going. Let’s just hope it’s not another Occupy Wall Street, which fizzled. I was pleased to hear that a large demonstration is planned for February 2 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel is supposed to visit Budapest. But as long as the opposition remains fractured, as long as people’s dissatisfaction is expressed only in the form of demonstrations and not in political organizing, Viktor Orbán doesn’t have to lose sleep. Foreign pressure might be a different story.

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What now? Civilians versus party leaders

Tomorrow’s demonstration is being organized by a Facebook group called “MostMi!” (Now us!). The chief organizer of MostMi! is Zsolt Várady, a man who two years before Mark Zuckerberg hit upon the idea of Facebook, started iWiW, a Hungarian site. Later purchased by Magyar Telekom, iWiW no longer exists. Várady tried his luck in Berlin but couldn’t quite make it as a software developer. Now back in Hungary, he has been waging a war for some time against the Hungarian tax system which in his opinion is ruinous for Hungarian entrepreneurs.

Várady’s strategy was bizarre. Sometime at the beginning of October he sued every Hungarian party that has existed since 1990, fifteen all told, for being responsible for the widespread tax evasion effectively foisted upon Hungarian citizens because of the existing system of taxation. Quite clearly, Várady does not like parties. The very name he gave to the organization responsible for tomorrow’s demonstration is telling: “Now us!” It implies that all the parties of the last twenty-five years have failed and that the time has come for him and other unaffiliated citizens to take the reins.

What does MostMi! want to achieve tomorrow? “We would like to experience again the same liberating feeling [of earlier demonstrations] after the holidays. To feel that we are not alone and that we dare to raise our voices against this regime.” I’m afraid this is not quite enough. It looks as if MostMi! will be unable to rouse large numbers of demonstrators. As of now only about 10,000 people have indicated they will attend. Of course, it’s mighty cold out.

But there might be an additional reason for the lack of enthusiasm. Speakers at earlier demonstrations talked about the misery of the last twenty-five years and railed against all politicians, no matter their political stripe, while the crowds demanded: “Orbán takarodj!” (Orbán scram!). The civil organizers and the demonstrators were not in sync. Many of the demonstrators are followers of already existing parties. They would vote for MSZP, DK, Együtt, PM, LMP–that is, mostly for the parties of the old “Összefogás” group. These parties want to remove the present government from power. Várady and his co-organizers, by contrast, are working to eliminate all the existing democratic parties while they wait for a new generation of pristine politicians to emerge from their own ranks to eliminate the present regime.

In the last week or so, several political analysts argued against letting civilians take the lead to the exclusion of parties because they are convinced that if parties don’t join the movement, it will end up just like Milla, another Facebook initiative, did. Milla refused to cooperate with established parties and as a result it disappeared, practically without a trace.

It is usually Ferenc Gyurcsány who makes the first move when he sees an opportunity. The Orbán government has been greatly weakened and, in his opinion, it is time for political action. He was the only politician on the left who announced that the opposition should devise a strategy that would result in an election in 2016 instead of 2018. For that, the parties must come out of hibernation and join the movement that was begun by the civilians. They seem to be the ones who can gather crowds, but the crowds are not as politically unaffiliated as the civic organizers think. The very fact that they go out on the street is a political act. And politics needs parties.

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On December 22, Gyurcsány asked his followers to join the demonstration once again, but this time with party flags and emblems. The reaction from the MostMi! group was predictable. They subscribed to the Milla template: no parties, no slogans. “Now us!” But who are the “us”?  Even a conservative blog,”1000 A Mi Hazánk,” insisted that parties must make their appearance because otherwise the whole momentum of the demonstrations will be lost. On the liberal side, István Gusztos in Gépnarancs was of the same mind. As he said, “the organizers sooner or later must understand that political parties are civic formations par excellence.” Keeping civilians away from parties is an impediment to their renewal, which will make a struggle against the present regime impossible.

A telephone conversation between Várady and Gyurcsány did not resolve the impasse. Gyurcsány said that DK members and sympathizers who have faithfully attended earlier demonstrations will be happy to join Várady’s goup on January 2, but only if they can show their party preferences. The debate between DK and the organizers continued for days. The other parties, whom Gyurcsány called on to join DK’s example, remained quiet. The main reason for their reluctance was that they don’t want to appear to be following Gyurcsány’s lead. After all, József Tóbás, chairman of MSZP, made it clear that the socialists will never work together with any other party. They will the ones that will form a socialist government in 2018. Obviously, they also reject Gyurcsány’s strategy of holding early elections.

Naturally, the right-wing press was delighted to hear that the organizers “fell upon each other” while the liberals who sympathize with Gyurcsány felt that the civilians “screwed it up again.” Defenders of the civic leaders considered Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision to be a way of usurping a demonstration that someone else organized. Indeed, by the rules of MostMi!’s game, Gyurcsány was trying to do exactly that. But as a liberal commentator said, “perhaps the rules of the game are wrong.”

The debate ended on December 30 when Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, a leading DK politician, announced that DK activists had received threats by civilians and that, in order to avoid possible violence, Ferenc Gyurcsány had withdrawn his request for DK sympathizers to be able to display their affiliation and affinity with the party. At that time Kerék-Bárczy still called upon the party’s followers to attend the demonstration. A few hours later, however, DK spokesman Zsolt Gréczy said that Gyurcsány had decided that if DK members and sympathizers can’t show their real colors, they will not attend. Of course, he cannot forbid DK sympathizers from attending, but neither he nor Gréczy will be there tomorrow.

Meanwhile criticism of the MostMi! group continues. Another civilian, Gábor Szabó, who has been demonstrating in front of the parliament building for months, wrote an open letter to Zsolt Várady saying that “it would be time to clear up what the real purpose of the demonstration is because the crowd thinks that the demonstration is against the Orbán regime while it seems that the goal of Várady and his collaborators is the creation of a new opposition.”