DEMOCRACY DIGEST: FROM INDEX TO TELEX

Hungary’s first solely reader-funded news site to launch with a little help from foreign friends; a football match in front of fans even as COVID returns with a vengeance to the region; and ructions within the Polish government.

The government-friendly daily Magyar Nemzet promptly did a hitjob on Bakala, calling him the “George Soros of Czechia” – the Hungarian-born US financier being a favourite bogeyman of Orban’s Fidesz party. Like Soros, Bakala is rich, espouses liberal views from a foreign base, and has been used by populists as a symbol of the corruption of political elites. He’s also widely accused of questionable business practices in building his fortune during the privatisation process of the 1990s and beyond – the collapse of the OKD coal mining group under his watch was the subject of investigation for over a decade – which Magyar Nemzet took great delight in detailing.

Telex is already showing its mettle on Facebook: it ran a story about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade asking Hungarian embassies abroad to provide information about journalists who participate in study trips, which media they meet with and who is organising the trips. The letter was leaked to Telex journalists.

The Foreign Ministry explained its unusual request by saying that all those working in Hungarian foreign affairs “have to do everything necessary to hinder foreign influence in the media”. Tamas Menczer, State Secretary for the International Representation of Hungary, had a peculiar way of reacting to the scandal, saying in a television interview that it seems Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto  had not yet fired enough people from his ministry, as there still seems to be some prepared to leak such internal memos.

The International Press Institute expressed its concern about Hungary’s intimidation of critical journalists and the independent media.

The ugly game in Hungary

This week’s discourse in Hungary was dominated by the controversial soccer match organized by the UEFA in Budapest on Thursday. Despite growing numbers of COVID-19 infections in Hungary, Budapest hosted the UEFA Super Cup Final between Germany’s Bayern Munich and Spain’s Sevilla. This was the first international soccer match held in front of fans since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis in Europe. Around 16,000 fans – among them, 500 Spanish and 2,000 Germans – were allowed into the Puskas Ferenc Stadion, a prestige piece of infrastructure built by the Orban government at a cost of 190 billion forints (540 million euros).

UEFA acknowledged that the match was a test to see whether spectators could at least partially return to stadiums. Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony said he would have preferred the match to be held behind closed doors. “I do not have any right to intervene, so the responsibility rests also on those who have,” he was quoted as saying by the government-critical newspaper Népszava.

The district’s mayor, Socialist politician Csaba Horvath, called the match a “human experiment” and said he had asked “Viktor Orban to stop gambling and to hold the match behind closed doors. The prime minister must also understand that this is no longer a matter of his hobby, it is putting the lives and health of tens of thousands of people at risk.”

The government remained silent and referred questions to UEFA for any comment, saying that the match had nothing to do with politics. But, actually, it did. The government has long been waiting for such a grand occasion to inaugurate the stadium, and the prime minister was even lucky enough to be able to attend the match personally, as the European Summit –  which was supposed to be held on Thursday and Friday – had been cancelled at the last minute.

The Hungarian Football Association promised to abide by strict regulations, letting in foreign visitors only with a negative PCR test and ensuring social distancing measures. Nevertheless, fans were reticent about attending: the majority of Spanish fans cancelled their trip and Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Soder also argued against it, pleading with fans not to travel to Budapest, which he called a “risk area”.

Second wave casualties in Czechia

Amid a spiralling number of new COVID-19 cases and growing pressure for a more active government response, Adam Vojtech quit as Czech health minister on Monday. The role of the one-time talent show hunk, plucked by Prime Minister Andrej Babis to be his photogenic protégé, has been a bit of a mystery for a while. Perhaps, say some, Vojtech got fed up being the punching bag anytime the PM’s famously erratic temper got the better of him in public.

Either way, there was little concern that his departure would disturb the overall strategy for dealing with the pandemic. In April, a court in Prague annulled four measures from the Health Ministry restricting free movement and retail operations due to poor administration. After that setback, most measures to fight the pandemic were left to the government’s crisis committee that ruled through the state of emergency. Vojtech had been due on Monday to submit a report to the government outlining whether another state of emergency should be called, but instead handed in his resignation.

We do not want to close the economy and jeopardize employment. Like you, we only want to manage with measures that will limit our lives as little as possible.

– Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis

Roman Prymula, appointed as Vojtech’s replacement the same day, wasn’t seeking to win any popularity contests as he arrived. The lead epidemiologist during the first wave, his first move as the new minister was to urge Czechs to get ready for tough times ahead, cautioning that things are likely to get worse before they get better. While there are no plans for a lockdown, he stressed, greater discipline and more restrictive measures are inevitable. Pubs will now have to close at 10pm and public events are restricted. Still, regional and Senate elections remain scheduled for October 2-3. The measures are neither repressive nor political, Prymula said, going on to tell politicians to put aside their political bickering for the greater good.

Babis and his team – whose refusal to roll out more restrictions has seen them accused of being led by politics rather than medical considerations – might do well to worry, however, about the political fallout. That’s if recent polls are anything to go by anyway. His government’s success in keeping a lid on the first wave had helped his Ano party hit new highs of around 34% approval in surveys taken by the Stem agency earlier this year.

However, by late September this support had dropped to 28.4%. That’s 1.2 percentage points below the share of the vote the party won in elections in 2017, which left it at the head of a minority government dependent on support from extreme parties on the left and right. At the same time, the billionaire prime minister will take comfort from the fact that the largest opposition parties – the centrist Pirates and centre-right ODS – have made few gains. That means the formation of a government without Ano as leader is still all-but impossible.

The Ano leader promptly popped up in a public address on national TV to admit the rapid relaxation of restrictions in the summer may have been a “mistake” and to plead with the country to help avoid another lockdown. “I… do not want to allow us to have millions infected and thousands dead,” Babis said, before adding: “We do not want to close the economy and jeopardize employment. Like you, we only want to manage with measures that will limit our lives as little as possible. Please come and help us with that.”

Weapons dump

The pandemic is also set to dent Babis’s carefully crafted image in Washington DC. The Czech government is dumping its commitment to NATO to raise defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2024, Finance Minister Alena Schillerova – busy trying to make the sums add up through the crisis – announced after a meeting with Defence Minister Lubomír Metnar on Wednesday.

Metnar rather hopefully insisted that the trajectory of spending on defence is still headed toward the magic 2% mark – a threshold advised by NATO that President Donald Trump has converted into an urgent issue of foreign policy. Both the Czech prime minister and president have previously repeatedly committed to meet that demand.

Ruling Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (C) delivers a speech during the PiS Youth Forum in Lublin, eastern Poland, 24 June 2020. EPA-EFE/Wojtek Jargilo

PiS leader Kaczynski to become vice-PM

According to several Polish media reports, quoting sources inside the governing coalition, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski – until now referred to as the de facto leader of Poland despite being just a parliamentarian in title – is set to assume a governmental role, most likely as a vice-prime minister overlooking several key areas, including defence, internal affairs and justice.

The decision comes after days of intense negotiations between the PiS leadership and United Poland led by hardline Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, one of two smaller parties that make up the governing coalition (and on which PiS depends for its majority in the Sejm). Last week, Ziobro’s party refused to support two draft laws proposed by PiS: one exempting from criminal responsibility those officials who argue they acted in the name of the coronavirus pandemic; the other on animal rights.

However, Ziobro’s refusal to back the two bills seems to have been primarily a negotiating ploy, meant to help the justice minister secure a central role in the governing camp. With Kaczynski ageing, a fight has been brewing for the leadership of the three-party governing coalition, called the United Right: while Kaczynski seemed to prefer Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to eventually take up reins of government, Ziobro has continued to fight for the role.

During the weekend, it seemed likely that Ziobro was losing and would be dismissed as part of a planned government reshuffle this autumn. However, this would mean PiS losing its parliamentary majority and might even eventually force an early election, which it is not guaranteed to win (the other smaller party in the United Right coalition, led by Jaroslaw Gowin, has challenged Kaczynski in the past, most recently on organising presidential elections during the pandemic).

The deal cut this week between Kaczynski and Ziobro will probably involve Ziobro giving support to the two PiS draft laws, the first of which would potentially allow Morawiecki to escape responsibility for “having grossly violated the law” in organising a postal presidential vote that never happened, as a court ruled earlier this month.

The governing coalition in Poland seems set to survive, but it is far from stable.

Miners strike underground

More than 200 miners have been striking underground at mines in southern Poland, in protest against the recently announced plans by the government to speed up the transition away from coal to more environmentally friendly sources of energy. According to the trade unions, as many as 400 miners are actually striking, with some of them joining the underground protest only temporarily. Negotiations with the government are ongoing, with miners requesting the coal-phaseout date is pushed back to 2060, from 2050.

Poland is the only country in the EU not to have committed to the bloc’s 2050 climate neutrality goal, but it’s been forced to plan for reducing coal consumption by other, earlier EU targets, as well as by rising costs of domestic coal production. Poland also has to come up with plans to transition coal regions away from the dirty source of energy in order to tap money available for these regions from the new EU budget.

Meanwhile, a Polish court ordered the owner of the 5.3 gigawatt coal complex at Belchatow, the most polluting in Europe, to negotiate with environmental lawyers over the future of the plant. The ruling was a result of a lawsuit filed by environmental lawyers at ClientEarth, who demanded that PGE either stop burning lignite at the Belchatow plant or reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2035. Environmentalists hailed the ruling for taking into account the climate impact of the plant and for giving a say to civil society – both unprecedented for Poland.

Placards against laws seekjng to restrict access to abortion in Slovakia. BIRN

Women fight abortion restrictions

At the end of September, the Slovak parliament will vote on the latest proposal aimed at limiting access to safe abortions for women. The new proposal is number 12 in the past year in Slovakia, with various drafts from different conservative MEPs ranging from the strictest “Polish” model to more relaxed proposals focusing on social help.

The current proposal, brought by Anna Zaborska, an ultra-conservative, Christian MP from the governing OLANO party, aims to increase the waiting time for an abortion to 96 hours (from the current 48), to require women to obtain two evaluations from different doctors, and to change the content of instructions offered to women by the doctors.

The second, and final, vote on the draft legislation faced strong opposition. It has been criticised by numerous NGOs, including Amnesty International, by over 100 professional and human rights organisations, by Slovak gynaecology experts, and by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic.

Families would appreciate it much more if they got access to affordable housing or enough spots for children in kindergartens.

– Juraj Hips, leader of Together

The non-parliamentary party Together (Spolu) organised a petition calling for the voting down of the new law, instead bringing 10 proposals for improving the socio-economic situation of families and single parents. In a week, the petition gathered over 6,000 signatures. Juraj Hips, leader of Together, said that the adjustment of the abortion law would mean no help to any family. “Families would appreciate it much more if they got access to affordable housing or enough spots for children in kindergartens,” he said in a statement.

Janka Ciganikova from the Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS) said that the abortion law proposal was not accompanied with a proper discussion and consensus among political parties, nor among the experts. Together with other coalition MPs, she introduced a change to the existing proposal, that would, in effect, make abortions safer and maintain the status quo. “I think religion has no place in medicine, nor in politics,” she said. “This proposal was not consulted with doctors at all.”

With the governing coalition divided, the vote in parliament could go either way. It could either limit women’s reproductive rights in Slovakia, or actually make abortions more modern and safe with the legalisation of an ‘abortion pill’ or chemical abortion, promoted by medical experts. “When it comes to using the abortion pill, there is a definitive consensus among experts,” said Ciganikova on September 16, after she organised a meeting with top gynaecology professionals in the parliament. “Right now, we are using a procedure that knowingly harms women’s health,” she said about the surgical abortion, which is currently the only type of abortion allowed by the Health Ministry.

Politicians broadly think Slovakia should join the 20 EU countries that already allow the use of chemical abortion instead of the less safe surgery. “For 20 years we’ve been trying to bring the most modern and safe procedures to Slovak women and we think our women deserve it,” said Professor Miroslav Borovsky, an expert of the Health Ministry on gynaecology and obstetrics at a press conference. “As long as abortions are legal in Slovakia, we should do them in the most considerate and safest way.”

180 000 children without online education during pandemic

A new report from the Institute of education policy, an analytical body at the Slovak Education Ministry, delivered a set of surprising data about the number of children excluded from quality education during the first wave of the coronavirus in spring.

According to the report, 52,000 children (7.5 per cent of all students in Slovakia) did not participate in any sort of education in spring at all. These children, most of them from disadvantaged backgrounds or the marginalised Roma community, didn’t have any contact with their teachers or schools since March, the analysts found. In their first report in April, the analysts expected the exclusion could affect around 30,000 children. The reality was even worse.

Moreover, 128,000 children in Slovakia (18.5 per cent of the student population) were unable to take part in online education via the internet. Most of them got access to distance education offline, with homework delivered or picked up from school.

“The most critical situation in general was at schools with a high percentage of children from a socially disadvantaged environment and in special elementary schools,” said the Institute in a statement.

The analysts from the Institute said that they faced political pressure from the ministry before publishing their findings, while Slovak media reported on tensions between the new education minister and the analysts for months. In a reaction to the bad results of the analysis, the Education Ministry criticised the experts and called them “people of Lubyova”, the former education minister.

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