Portfolio blogger

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A strategy for the Hungarian opposition?

First of all a fast summary of what happened recently on the opposition landscape: - Talks are slowly starting between MSzP and Együtt 2014 - Mesterházy, president of the MSzP was more diplomatic concerning his candidacy for prime minister in an interview - The hassle around the name of the Party of Bajnai, Együtt-2014 continues - New attacks were launched against Bajnai - LMP received the right to keep its faction in the Parliament. Some main events in Hungarian politics and the economy: - The tobacconist saga continues with new leaks about who from friends and relations (in the Hungarian translation of "Winnie the Pooh": "Friends, relations and business partners") - well, not of Rabbit but of the FIDESZ notabilities won tobacconist concessions - The new land law has been voted and Ángyán, one of the main agricultural eminences in FIDESZ, who became outrightly critical to the land policy and the distribution of rental rights on state-owned land to "friends, relations and business partners" who have nothing to do with agriculture, left FIDESZ in response - The merger of the National Bank and the Financial Supervision is progressing and the head of the latter -who is set to lose his job or at least his power even when he was the most faithful executioner during the first FIDESZ government of foreign banks who helped companies in transactions the government didn't like - wrote an open letter to the president of the Supreme Court (recently renamed to Kuria to be able to get rid of the previous president) calling the attention of the judges to the danger to the economy if the loan contracts tied to foreign currency would be declared "en masse" invalid. It is a little strange that the basis of this invalidation would be the laws on financial services he helped to forge. - The minister of the national economy (also fulfilling the tasks of the finance minister) announced a new round of austerity measures (forgetting to announce one of them) in spite that the EU liberated Hungary from the excessive deficit procedure under which it was since it joined the EU. Debates started immediately whether this is to enable the government to relax spending and start "bribing" voters with spending - some bribes were already distributed in the form of cutting utility prices but the extent is small till now - or just to cover the losses to the budget coming from bad planing and delay of some revenues (like e-toll for trucks and the tax revenue expected from connecting the cash tellers of all shops electronically to the computers of the Tax Office). What is the context? About the actors: Everybody knows probably that FIDESZ is the governing party (having and utilising, one may say abusing 2/3 majority in the Hungarian Parliament). - MSzP is the main opposition party if we look at the number of members of Parliament or at the results of surveys. It is also the party which was in government for the 8 years before the 2010 elections, in coalition with the liberals, whose SzDSz party practically disappeared and no measurable successor has appeared yet on the stage. - Együtt 2014 is a new formation, which was intended to be an NGO as an umbrella organisation for the alliance of opposition parties who want to defeat FIDESZ in the 2014 elections. They have foreseen to nominate the unique opposition candidate in the "first past the post" individual constituencies while the parties could go independently for the votes in the proportional part of the elections (as all voters have two votes, an individual for a candidate of their constituency and one for party lists - there are some other details which I will ignore for the moment). Immediately the election law was changed to exclude the possibility of NGOs nominating candidates. The organisation is lead by Gordon Bajnai, short-time prime minister of Hungary for about a year before the 2010 elections, who took over without long-term ambitions, i.e. he was not going to be a candidate in the elections 2010. He put the budget and the economy back on track after the combined devastating effect of the 2008 crisis and the spending spree between 2002 and 2006 and the aborted attempts by Gyurcsány for austerity and reform at the same time from 2006. These attempts triggered an unprecedented series of demonstrations which peaked in the months-long occupation of Kossuth square, the square in front of the Parliament which was also scene of emblematic demonstrations during the 1956 revolution. Another climax was when the 23rd of October, the anniversary of the 1956 revolution, police had to dissipate forceful demonstrations, which (it is debated, by whose fault) mingled with the masses of the anniversary celebration of FIDESZ (set in a place which had no relationship to the revolution at all but was dangerously close to the place where the forceful demonstrators were stopped in order not to be able to get to the Parliament). As a consequence, participants of the FIDESZ-organised event were also attacked and hurt by police. - LMP, a grassroots green - left - liberal party, which surprisingly won seats in the Parliament in 2010 (their name is the abbreviation of the slogan: Politics can be different), split along the line whether to co-operate with Együtt 2014. Those who favoured co-operation, left the party and were denied the right to form a faction in Parliament (just like the faction who left MSzP with Gyurcsány at their helm) while those who wanted to go alone into the elections 2014 kept the name LMP. Why all this? The election law modified by FIDESZ (and introducing a smaller Parliament which was already a promise by Gyurcsány but he couldn't assemble a 2/3 majority behind his propositions) foresees a higher proportion of individual constituency seats but even in the previous system, individual constituencies were the key to success. Before, however, if no candidate attained absolute majority, the candidates with the most votes had to face each-other in a second round, and also here, an absolute majority was needed. If less than 50% of the voters voted in a constituency, the round was invalid. Now, there is no such limit, and the candidate with a relative majority wins the seat, there is no second round. Before, votes cast in a constituency for the losing candidates were counted towards a compensating list, thus they had, if only a lower, value. Now, this system has been complemented with one where the votes cast for the winning candidate in a constituency, also count toward this compensation which also increases the importance of individual constituencies. Given that according to surveys, most of the voters have no party preferences, or do not intend to vote, in case of a low turnout and several opposition candidates, FIDESZ (who amalgamated all parties on the "right" (at least for: MDF, KDMP, FKGP, MDNP - no importance who they WERE - except the extreme right Jobbik) can win a huge parliamentary majority even with a low proportion of the votes (if there are three opposition parties including Jobbik, with 25%), not to talk about the proportion to voters overall. Therefore unity of opposition is crucial. OK, if this is trivial for everybody, why no opposition unity? In my opinion, there are two main reasons (apart from personal controversies), one of principle and one of tactics. As Orbán put his party practically outside the normal political spectrum, the opposition covers all political streams. Classical right wing (i.e. pro-market, libertarian which build on individual incentive and the responsibility of the individual) have no great popularity in Hungary. But still, the co-operation of parties from the most various ideologies and social models is necessary. And a close co operation, meaning even possibly (see the second reason below) uniting in one party. And they have to formulate a programme in common. A programme which is reasonable, coherent, acceptable for the opinion leaders and experts and at the same time one with which they can win elections against a populist propaganda - and deeds - of the governing party, in a media space which is outright unfavourable for them (I will return to that in another post soon - talking about the Tavares-report and Viviane Reding). On the other hand, FIDESZ has the possibility to change any law it wants, within days (and has done so, if necessary, see above). So if the way the opposition wants to shape its co-operation gets known, this way of co-operation will immediately forbidden or strongly disadvantaged. AS parties who have joint candidates in individual constituencies already are in distribution of the "compensation" votes (explained above). I mentioned personal controversies. It is taken for granted, that the opposition has to have one candidate for prime minister (who would believe in co-operation if they had more? I think even more sophisticated voters than the Hungarians would not be able to follow this - even I was stuck now when I tried to spell out this solution although I just raised it) and of course both the president of MSzP as Bajnai announced their ambition (what would an opposition leader without a PM ambition be like?). So that's why the flexibility shown by Mesterházy is important. Although no one precisely knows how the voters think (there is talk about this or that politician or party causing voters of another one in alliance with him/her/it not to vote for the common candidates), and there are undoubtedly risks in naming a candidate, the politically conscious population on the Internet (Facebook and commenters on blogs) mostly trust Bajnai most. His movement organises meetings al over the country, has a Facebook presence and is (just like MSzP, of course) an unavoidable component of the opposition co-operation. So it is not easy, but if opposition politicians and voters will look for what joins them, and not what separates, they may be able to get to a solution.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Other conflicts between the EU and Hungary

The excessive deficit procedure was not the only point of conflict – in fact not even the main one – between the EU and Hungary. And although some people in Hungary complain that the EU has lost leverage on Hungary by letting it out of the procedure, I would not support measures designed for economic purposes to be used on political disagreements. First of all, this would further fuel anti-EU propaganda, but probably also anti-EU sentiment in Hungary and could also lead to a legal defeat of the EU which would harm its prestige even more. I also doubt whether the EU is the right institution to be judge and even less one fighting party in political conflicts in Hungary. There are, however other pending questions – the fourth amendment of the fundamental law (ex constitution) and also the general questions around the measures limiting democracy and political freedoms, the Tavares-report (or in Hungarian ) and the article 7 procedure it proposes (working documents can also be found here ). The Commission on its part indicated that infringement procedure may be launched because of the fourth amendment (which in Hungary has a totally different connotation than the fourth amendment of the U.S. constitution). Of course to launch of the article 7 procedure is not so simple. It can be initiated by one third of the Member States, the Parliament or the Commission. The Council will most probably not initiate it, the Commission is reluctant to apply the „nuclear option”, in particular as this – and the Romanian – case supports strongly the quest for a less drastic but more flexible tool for the Commission to sanction a breach of European values (mentioned in Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union). (The Commission also wants a framework be created to analyse the conditions for applying Article 7 .) Rui Tavares proposes this step to be taken by the Parliament. There are in fact three phases: Phase 1: The Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Phase 2: The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2, and Phase 3: The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council. Phase 2 can only be proposed by one third of the member states of by the Commission, i.e. the Parliament has no right of initiative in this phase. Phase 3 requires no specific initiative, it can be (but is not automatically) a consequence of phase 2. See: here So a majority in the Parliament and a four fifth majority in the Council is necessary even for the first phase (and unanimity in the European Council to start the second phase). This is not possible without consent of at least part of the members of the EPP to which FIDESZ belongs. Several analyses has appeared in the Hungarian press, in particular following the leak of a purported discussion on the Dubrovnik meeting of EPP leaders (where FIDESZ was not present) about extraditing the FIDESZ from the EPP. This was vehemently denied afterwards. In the following EP debate on Hungary – while in previous debates Joseph Daul, the leader of the EPP faction forcefully defended the Hungarian government – the EPP was represented only by Frank Engel, who resorted to general statements and was very lukewarm. (His contribution is only published in French ) It is, however, very doubtful whether ever the necessary majority will be achieved. The amendments to the Tavares report are arriving, so let’s wait what will be the final text. I retort from details of diplomatic and less diplomatic exchanges between Orbán and other conservative European leaders, as it is totally unforeseeable when they will decide to take steps and whether this will not be attributed to personal sensitivity rather than to political differences by FIDESZ propaganda.