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Hungarian report
by Euro Reporter
2015-02-28 12:54:49
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Hungary’s Ruling Party Loses Two-Thirds Majority after By-Election

Hungary’s governing Fidesz party lost its two-thirds majority in parliament after the opposition won a seat on Sunday in the constituency of Veszprem. According to preliminary results, independent representative Zoltan Kesz, backed by the Socialists and most of the left-wing opposition parties, gained 42.7% of votes while his biggest opponent, Fidesz party representative Lajos Nemedi, got 33.6%. The position was left empty by Fidesz representative and former prime minister’s office minister Tibor Navracsics, who became a European Union commissioner and quit his position in Hungary Oct. 30 last year. Prime Minister Viktor Orban earlier in February said his party wasn’t under pressure to retain the two-thirds majority since there are no more laws they intend to change that would need such an overwhelming strength and Fidesz would maintain its majority anyway.

Since winning the 2010 election in a landslide, Mr. Orban has redrawn Hungary’s laws, passing a new constitution and other laws that required the two-thirds majority and often put him on a collision course with the European Union, which the country joined in 2004. The country’s leader has said there is just one issue that needs qualified majority: whether Hungary intends to send troops to Iraq’s Kurdistan region on a joint mission with Russia and Germany. Such an issue needs parliamentary consensus, Mr. Orban told the state news agency MTI at the Fidesz party summit earlier in February. “We only want to maintain the trust in our party in Veszprem,” Mr. Orban was quoted as saying. Veszprem voters chose between 12 candidates on Sunday, with turnout at 44.8%, higher than usual at by-elections but lower than last year’s local elections in the town.

The Fidesz party won 133 out of the 199 seats in the 2014 general elections but its two-thirds parliamentary majority came into question after the departure of Mr. Navracsics and the death last month of parliament representative Jeno Lasztovicza. The governing majority now controls 131 of the 199 seats in the legislature. A by-election to fill Mr. Lasztovicza’s seat will take place in April. The Liberals called Sunday’s election result a milestone. “Today it has been proved that democratic opposition, be that parties or civil groups, can join forces and win over Fidesz,” said Gabor Fodor, head of the Liberals. In a statement Sunday evening, Fidesz said “The Fidesz party congratulates independent representative Zoltan Kesz for his election victory. Special thanks to all of those cast their votes at the elections and supported the Fidesz nominee Lajos Nemedi, Veszprem’s deputy mayor.”


Orbán says EU’s Energy Union is a threat to Hungary

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said his country has a “major problem” with Brussels because of the European Commission’s plans to set up an Energy Union, which in his words hinders national sovereignty. Orbán, who two days ago hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin from whom he obtained major gas price discounts, said his country does not agree that he must inform the Commission of his gas supply agreements with Russia. One of the key elements of the Energy Union is that member states’ energy deals with non-EU nations should be scrutinised by the European Commission before they are signed. Russia has always insisted that those deals are confidential.

Orbán himself said that Hungary now receives Russian gas at $260 per 1,000 cubic meters, down from $500 in 2009. Also, Russia abandoned demands that Hungary should pay for unused gas under a “take or pay” clause. The Hungarian Prime Minister also made it clear that Hungary would no longer reverse Russian gas to Ukraine. In recent months Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have reversed Russian gas, which those countries buy at lower price than Kyiv, back to Ukraine from where this gas has transited. The EU is supporting the initiative and helps finance the equipment which makes reverse flows possible.

“We have to promise [Moscow] that Russian gas won’t get in the pipeline under a reverse flow to Ukraine,” Orbán said, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Hungarian Prime Minister added that his country can only sell gas to Ukraine that it has bought on the spot market, through Austria’s gas hub. "This provision," according to the WSJ, he said, "ensures Hungary doesn’t reap any profits from the difference between the lower price it pays to Russia and what gas costs on the spot market." “Ukraine makes a political issue out of this, but this is a price issue,” Orbán added.


The Viktor and Vladimir show

The Ukraine crisis, and Mr Orban's links with Russia, have put Hungary in the spotlight. Georgia's prime minister has just visited; Turkey's president is expected soon. Western fears of Mr Orban's autocratic drift have intensified. He caused considerable alarm around the European Union in July 2014 when he declared that Hungary would remain a democracy but become an "illiberal state", citing the examples of Russia, Turkey and China. Mrs Merkel criticised the term on her visit, but was firmly rebuffed by her host. On Ukraine, Mr Orban is vacillating between a desire for closer ties with Russia and his obligations as a member of the EU and NATO. Russia is Hungary's biggest trading partner outside the EU, and supplies most of its gas. Moreover, America's loss of interest and influence in central Europe points to a greater focus on Germany and Russia, argues Mr Orban.

The cancellation of Russia's planned South Stream gas pipeline was a blow. Cheap gas is a fundamental pillar of the government's populist policies, says Peter Kreko of Political Capital, a Budapest think-tank. "The question is what kind of political price President Putin will try and exact. He wants to exert pressure on the EU's weakest links to break European unity." Many in the West think the cosying-up between Mr Orban and Mr Putin has gone too far. Hungary has taken a EUR10 billion ($11 billion) loan from Russia to upgrade its ageing nuclear power plant. The contract was negotiated in secret and not put out to tender. (Officials cite reasons of national security.) Last year Mr Orban also broke ranks over EU sanctions on Russia, claiming that they did more harm to Europe than to Russia. Hungary has repeatedly called for autonomy for ethnic Hungarians in western Ukraine. Such calls were seen as further weakening the embattled government in Kiev, helping Moscow.

But Mr Orban has since come back into line, supporting Ukraine's sovereignty and stressing Hungary's commitment to NATO. He has courted Germany, on whose economy and investment Hungary depends most heavily. European governments understand Hungary's position on energy, says one Western diplomat, but dissent from the EU's common position is not an option: "EU member states agree a policy and we all follow it, especially in a high-stakes environment like this one." Russia's relations with Hungary are "isolated from the overall situation in the world," says Vladimir Sergeyev, Russia's ambassador to Hungary. Yet this seems implausible. Ukraine, which borders Hungary, casts a long and ever darkening shadow. Doomsday scenarios include the break-up of the country, which could push waves of refugees across the border. Some 200,000 ethnic Hungarians live in western Ukraine, and many could seek sanctuary. Mr Orban may yet have to seesaw back towards the West.

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