Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Who's afraid of Big Brother? This guy

Germany's largest publisher lobbies against Google.

By Jason Overdorf
April 29, 2014 (GlobalPost)

BERLIN, Germany — You wake up one morning and your smartphone tells you, “On your way to work you will run into your ex-girlfriend, Vanessa. Be sure to act surprised when she tells you she's getting married. She hasn't told anyone yet.”

That's the future in a world where Google knows more about you than George Orwell's Big Brother ever dreamed possible, argues the chief executive of Germany's largest publisher in a recent “open letter to Eric Schmidt” — his counterpart at the $50-billion company now synonymous with internet search.

Alarmist? Perhaps. Axel Springer head Mathias Doepfner borrowed the scene from futurist author Patrick Tucker's book “The Naked Future,” not any undisclosed Google strategy documents.

But Doepfner says his fear of Google is serious, and comes despite what Schmidt has called a “path-breaking advertising deal” between the two companies.

Now Doepfner and other European media players are looking to the German government and the European Union for help to counter Google’s expansion by filing an antitrust suit while mounting an unprecedented bid to force the US giant to share its search-engine revenues with the media companies that arguably supply most of the information people are actually searching for.

“We are afraid of Google,” Doepfner writes. “I must state this very clearly and frankly because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly.”

Comparisons with “1984” notwithstanding, that fear is chiefly economic, as Axel Springer's efforts to fight Google show.

In the ongoing EU antitrust action, Axel Springer and other companies argue that Google has “fixed” its search algorithms so that its own service offerings come out ahead of competitors.

Since Google accounts for as much as 90 percent of European internet searches, it's effectively the only game in town. When the search company tweaked one of its algorithms, for instance, an Axel Springer subsidiary lost a whopping 70 percent of the traffic to its website.

“Many [Google] competitors are more or less invisible for the consumer,” says Robert Maier, who heads an Axel Springer-owned e-commerce company called Ladenzeile.

In February, Google offered to settle the dispute by promising to allot space at the top of its search results for its competitors to advertise their products — a solution Axel Springer condemned as extortion because it essentially asks Google's competitors to pay for equal footing.

“It’s a question of applying existing rules and laws,” Maier says. “The EC has the relevant toolbox to take the required actions, it just has to make use of it.”

At the same time, German media companies have been pushing for an unprecedented tax that would compel Google to share a portion of its search-engine revenues with them over and above the fees generated by the advertisements hosted on their home sites. They argue Google is reaping huge benefits from people searching the internet while the companies that create the information for which they are actually looking are being driven out of business.

They may be making some headway.

Last year, the German parliament passed a copyright law that extended publishers' rights to sue websites that earn money by repackaging their content. But while the original bill would have covered the headlines and snippets that appear in a Google or Yahoo! News search, the amended version that eventually passed stopped short of that, following arguments that it would violate protections on the freedom of speech and potentially prevent media outlets and commentators from citing other articles.

Many agree, saying the media firms' demand for such a deal is like a theater demanding a cut from the taxi drivers who bring moviegoers to their door.

But there's already a precedent for such revenue-sharing in Germany, where a so-called “private copying levy” forces sellers of blank CDs and DVDs and other recordable media to give a cut from every sale to music and movie companies.

Moreover, Google’s critics say a cursory analysis of the web-based media business quickly exposes flaws in the taxi analogy.

So-called “referrals” from Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter already account for the bulk of traffic to news sites.

But sites such as Google News and Yahoo! News are also emerging as indirect competitors of media outlets, the German firms argue.

Google disagrees.

“Much ink has targeted Google News and how it allegedly 'kills' journalism,” Google's Schmidt wrote in his own open letter to German executives. “[But] there is no advertising on Google News [and] each month Google sends more than 10 billion visits to publishers around the world.”

Others say it's hard to tell if Google has created $30 billion in new revenue for its “publisher partners,” as Schmidt suggests, or taken away more.

In the early days of the internet, users might have made the New York Times or Das Bild — Axel Springer’s conservative tabloid — the default page that popped up when they opened their browsers.

But with access to the latest headlines from every news provider and algorithms that push popular stories to the top, the news provider-search engine combination sites are steadily eating away at that market. Since headlines and first paragraphs of news stories are often written to communicate all the essential information, only a small number readers click through to the page that actually generates revenue for the news agency.

As Axel Springer might put it: It's as if taxi drivers are showing movie scenes every one wants to see at the cab stand.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Germany has a serious wolf problem and no one knows what to do about it

“Five years from now we’ll have them in nearly every district.”

By Jason Overdorf
April 28, 2014 (GlobalPost)

SPREMBERG, Germany — Surrounded by a flock of 250-odd black-faced sheep near this northeastern town, Frank Neumann jams his green Trilby hat on his head before a gust of wind sends it flying, then chuckles as his 120-lb sheepdog leaps up to lick his face.

The bearlike Pyrenean mountain dog is people-friendly, but it's no pet. Before the stocky farmer obtained six of them to protect his flock, he arrived one morning to find 27 of his cherished sheep eviscerated, their guts strewn across the pasture. It was a tough way to learn that the wolf had returned to Germany.

“Officially, there weren't supposed to be any here,” Neumann says. “I was pretty angry because no one had warned us.”

New sightings confirm that wolves are making a rapid comeback across Europe. But the most surprising success story — together with possible related problems — is here in Germany, which lacks the infrastructure for wildlife protection despite its strong tradition of environmentalism.

“Germany as a whole is becoming affected by wolves,” says World Wildlife Fund wolf expert Janosch Arnold. “Five years from now we’ll have them in nearly every district.”

Since the year 2000, when an infrared camera produced the first evidence of their return close to the Polish border, the number of wolf packs in Germany has mushroomed from two to more than 30.

Their comeback was initially attributed to the emptying of rural areas in what was formerly East Germany.

But with wolf packs settling amid wind-energy projects, along well-trodden nature trails and even on Berlin’s doorstep, it's now clear that the European Union's tough protection laws are responsible.

Frank Neumann and dog. (Jason Overdorf/GlobalPost)

In a troubling development for some farmers, wolves are proving no more prone to remaining isolated in the wilderness than America's coyotes.

Wolves have killed some 350 farm animals across Germany during the past five years. Some farmers claim fear is stopping their sheep from breeding.

In recent weeks, wolves were indirectly blamed for a bloodbath on the Autobahn after a herd of frightened horses broke from their paddock and bolted onto the highway.

As in US states where wolves have made comebacks, such incidents have prompted calls from farmers and hunters for relaxing a ban on hunting the wild canines.

That's exposing a rift between the rural residents who must live with wolves and urban environmentalists who love them.

Conservationists are concerned that a serious lack of skills and funding would make the reinstatement of controlled hunting problematic.

Even in countries where wolves have always thrived, such as Finland and Norway, hunting licenses are often allotted with little understanding of population dynamics, critics say.

Germany has no agency that compares with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which has a budget of nearly $3 billion a year to implement laws like the Endangered Species Act.

Instead, the country's 16 states are left to conduct their own conservation policies. Research and monitoring is left mostly to poorly trained volunteers, says Ilka Reinhardt, one of Germany's rare wildlife biologists who helps run the wolf management bureau in Saxony, which has the Germany's largest population of wolves.

“In that regard, we’re like a developing country,” she says.

However, the real problem may be not the wolves themselves, but economics.

States compensate livestock owners for losses from attacks with various financial packages and incentives.

But farmers say compensation for slaughtered animals is always slow to arrive. And the funds cover only concrete items such as electric fences or sheepdogs, not the additional labor required for installation or training.

Compounding the problem, many sheep farmers make ends meet with the aid of European Union subsidies for the preservation of grassland ecosystems. They're essentially paid to graze their sheep, which means they must continually move from one pasture to another. The new threat of wolves requires them to also move their fences.

That's what bothers farmer Neumann, who despite the slaughter of his sheep remembers his lone sighting of a wolf as having filled him with exhilaration.

He's solved the problem of wolf attacks with his dogs and electric fences. But feeding his six huge flock-watchers costs him around $8,000 a year, a big chunk of the profits generated by 750 sheep.

“Many of us farmers here in Saxony are prepared to live with wolves,” he says. “But it's a huge financial burden.”


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What 'Berlin's favela' says about this uneasy and divided city

In the German capital, anti-gentrification activists are allying with immigrants and refugees.
GlobalPost, April 23, 2014

BERLIN, Germany — In a thicket of shanties improvised from scrap lumber and plastic tarps, 27-year-old Lukas runs a bicycle's rubber inner tube through a bucket of water, searching for a puncture that eluded him on the first go.

Next to him, a discarded lampshade — lightless, as there's no electricity or running water here — is speared on a post beside a stolen shopping cart that has been repurposed as a sieve for the camp's garbage. Farther on, a cracked aquarium now used as a planter for unidentifiable seedlings stands amid yet more detritus — a filthy sofa, a wheel-less office chair, rusted bedsprings.

Welcome to the Cuvrybrache, newly christened “Berlin's favela.”

The infamous squatters who once occupied vacant lots and abandoned buildings across Berlin have all but disappeared. But as the city's renaissance drives up rents and wealthy migrants from southern Germany displace leftists, artists and slackers, a new alliance of anti-gentrification activists, immigrants and refugees is emerging in pockets of resistance like this one.

Home to 40-odd permanent residents and a constant flow of temporary campers, the Cuvrybrache or “Cuvry street fallow,” originated during a protest against a multimillion-dollar project to redevelop the banks of the Spree River, which flows through the city center.

But as the presence of African refugees, a family of Roma and economic migrants fromPoland suggests, it's now on the verge of becoming something more, says Lukas, a tall, thin hippie from Hamburg with blond dreadlocks and a sprinkling of sun freckles across his nose.

“The big time of squatting in Berlin is over, but it's not done yet, as you can see,” he says.

In many ways, the history of squatting reflects the city’s story.

Home squat home: Squatters were evicted in February 2011 from this building after occupying it since the early '90s.

The squatting movement arose in what was then West Berlin from the anti-parliamentarian student movement in the 1970s and expanded as a housing crisis deepened throughout that decade, the result of post-World War II policies that discouraged low-income rental projects.

When the Berlin Wall came down, a new burst of squatting erupted to occupy the sudden appearance of abandoned buildings in the former East, says University of Nottingham historian Alex Vasudevan.

Over the past few years, however, construction has failed to keep pace with demand. The excess housing that long kept prices low — and allowing Berlin to remain a haven for artists and dropouts — has disappeared. Rents are rising faster than wages, turning immigrants and hipsters into allies.

“Now squatters and other housing activists are collaborating with migrant communities and refugee groups in a wider activist politics, which hasn't happened in Germany since the early '70s,” Vasudevan says.

Over the past five years, high-profile evictions have demonstrated Berlin's new commitment to protecting owners' property rights, while some of the oldest squatter communities have been forced to go legit — and turn capitalist — to survive.

In 2010, police faced down hundreds of protesters to evict residents of a five-story central Berlin apartment house that was then called “the last rent-free squat in Berlin.”

Meanwhile, residents of Rauchhaus, a squat first occupied in 1971, now offer classes in yoga, silkscreen painting and welding and operate a proletarian, albeit capitalist, bar to foot the tax bill since having gained legal title to the building.

But the battle for the city's soul is hardly over.

Less than a year after the supposedly last rent-free building was emptied, 2,500 police had to be deployed to evict residents from yet another squat in the neighborhood of Friedrichshain in the former East.

Even as housing prices rise, threatening the laidback lifestyle that prompted Mayor Klaus Wowerheit to tag Berlin with the nickname “poor but sexy” a decade ago, a steady influx of asylum seekers and immigrants from poorer European Union countries is revitalizing the struggle, says 26-year-old housing activist Helena Mueller of the group “Wir Bleiben Alle” (We're All Staying).

Using flash mob-style squatting as a public relations tool, Wir Bleiben Alle warned police in advance before occupying an abandoned building late last year, and helped Bulgarian immigrants squatting in an ice cream factory in the central part of city to resist eviction just before Christmas.

“Their problem is our problem,” says Mueller, who used a pseudonym because of the illegal nature of her group's activities. “That's why we're working with them.”


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The zero-emission engine is getting ready for prime time

As the global market for electric and hybrid cars expands, Germany is also betting on another alternative power source.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost, April 16, 2014

STUTTGART, Germany — At the Mercedes-Benz headquarters here, a showroom display illustrates the rapid evolution of the iconic luxury brand’s hydrogen-fueled cars.

In a 1992 prototype, the fuel cell takes up the entire cargo area of a delivery van. Across the room, today's model — now merely the size of an average television set — is displayed in front of a neon-lit outline of a compact passenger car.

This “zero emission” engine, it appears, is ready for prime time.

With the aid of government spending and joint efforts by Ford and Nissan, Daimler — Mercedes’s parent corporation — aims to start selling hydrogen-fueled cars to the public as early as 2017.

If they take off, the biggest impact may be felt not in the car industry but in wind energy. Experts say a large commercial market could enable green energy producers to use their excess power to make clean hydrogen instead of storing it in costly batteries.

To meet Europe's aggressive targets for emissions reductions, Daimler is developing hybrids and electric cars, too. But although hydrogen-powered cars have been slower to hit the market, their potential benefit to the wind-power industry means they may become even bigger in Germany, says Christian Mohrdieck, director of Daimler's fuel cell program.

“We’re very sure we can achieve a product cost level which is competitive [with today's hybrid cars]," he says. “But to get there, we still need to work very intensively on the business side.”

The selling points for consumers are strong.

Unlike hybrids, hydrogen-fueled cars are truly “zero emission” vehicles, powered by a chemical reaction with water as its only by-product. And unlike plug-in electrics, hydrogen-powered cars have the same range as those running on gasoline or diesel — and can be refueled just as quickly.

That doesn’t mean the going will be easy.

Expensive platinum components hydrogen cars require mean it will be challenging to bring their cost below $100,000.

Moreover, while drivers of hybrids can refuel at ordinary gas stations and battery-powered car owners can plug them in at home, hydrogen cars will require a network of special fueling stations.

Prominent critics such as Elon Musk, founder of the burgeoning electric car manufacturer Tesla, joke that hydrogen is the fuel of the future — and always will be.

“The fuel cell is so bulls**t,” he told employees at the launch of a new service center for his plug-in sports cars in Germany last year.

“It's suitable for the after-stage of rockets, but not for cars.”

Skepticism like this hasn’t discouraged investment, however.

In 2012, Germany's Transportation Ministry, Daimler and several other companies agreed to finance a network of 50 refueling stations across the country by 2015.

In September, Air Liquide, Daimler, Linde, OMV, Shell and Total unveiled plans to expand that network to some 400 stations by 2023, with the first 100 in place in time for Daimler's commercial launch.

Klaus Bonhoff, who heads Germany's National Organization for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology, says that would be enough to pass the industry’s first major test.

“In order to sell the first vehicles that will show up in the showrooms, you have to give the customer a certain gut feeling that he is able to refuel the vehicle he's about to buy,” he said in a telephone interview.

There’s another important factor at play.

In Germany, where an aggressive shift to green energy production known as “Energiewende,” or “energy transition,” has created a booming wind-energy industry, the impact could reach far beyond the automotive business.

Unlike conventional power plants, the output of wind and solar energy plants fluctuates dramatically — so much so that Germany's many wind-power companies sometimes produce as much as four times the amount of energy being consumed, which destabilizes the grid.

To offload and store that excess power, wind producers currently use costly batteries or pump water uphill, from where it can be allowed to flow down again to produce hydroelectric power. Neither solution is very efficient.

The commercialization of hydrogen-fueled cars would allow them instead to use excess wind energy for producing hydrogen — which is made by splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen — and tap a lucrative new market.

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That's where hydrogen's infrastructure hurdle may turn out to be a surprise advantage.

It’s still unclear how businesses can make a profit from plug-in car charging stations, which take six hours to charge a car. Hydrogen stations, in contrast, would operate on much the same model as existing conventional pumps, making the wind-to-hydrogen business not so different from today's petroleum-to-gasoline supply chain.

That, Bonhoff says, would enable the industry to “get to those viable business cases" much faster.


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The remarkable economic boom that began in Poland in 1990 has now become a remarkable economic divide

Born from a union protest, here's how democratic Poland lost the spirit of Solidarity.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost, April 8, 2014

GDANSK, Poland — Towering green loading cranes stretch along a wide canal leading to the shipyard where Poland's Solidarity movement began three decades ago.

For some, they are monuments to a golden age for the shipbuilders who fought for the right to form an independent labor union and eventually helped spearhead the communist collapse in 1989.

Among them, 54-year-old Zbigniew Stefanski stood on the barricades during the first strikes led by union leader Lech Walesa against the communist authorities a decade earlier. “I was arrested more times than I can remember,” he says. “Once I was beaten so badly my own mother couldn't recognize me.”

But the sacrifice was worth it. “There was a big victory,” says the gaunt, weather-beaten worker with a deeply lined forehead and a graying goatee. “There were great hopes.”

However, the painter at the former Lenin Shipyard — which was partially privatized before filing for bankruptcy in 1997 — quickly becomes wistful.

“Now it's all gone,” he says.

Poland has experienced a remarkable economic boom since it started on the path to democracy in 1990.

But it’s also seen a growing divide between those who managed to prosper and others like Stefanski who feel they’ve been left behind. He says he lost his home as well as his wife because of troubles with the law and low wages.

The division is clear right here in the shipyard, part of which has been taken over by Sunreef Yachts, which builds luxury boats. For young Poles of the post-communist generation such as 28-year-old Lukacz Lorkowski, whose father once worked in the state shipyards, the rusting cranes are symbols of a broken past.

After earning a degree in ocean engineering, he found a job at Sunreef and swiftly climbed the ladder from craftsman to supervisor. He owns a car and a motorcycle and is building a new house.

“I have a lot of things my father didn't have,” he says.

Inside a brick building the size of an airplane hangar, a dozen craftsmen in jeans and flannel shirts string wires and secure plywood boards in the cockpit of a new 70-foot yacht. The air is thick with the smell of fiberglass and the whirring sound of machines.

Business is booming.

Last year, Poland's 900-odd privately owned boat builders did more than a billion dollars of business, delivering around 15,000 luxury yachts to buyers in the US and Europe.

The rapidly growing industry helps explains why the export-oriented economy is expected to grow another 2.5 percent next year.

Still, among maritime workers, Sunreef's Lorkowski is among lucky few. At 13,000 workers, the country’s entire yacht-building industry employs only three-quarters of the number that once swarmed over ships in the Lenin Shipyard alone.

It's the same story in industries across Poland, whose 10 percent to 13 percent unemployment rate matches the European Union average.

A full quarter of the country's young remains jobless despite the exodus of some 2 million Poles for jobs elsewhere in Europe.

That wasn’t the promise in 1989.

During the first democratic elections that year, all seats in parliament went to Solidarity members except for one. That went to a businessman who had been thrown out of the Communist Party for corruption — a feat that took considerable doing. He won by promising workers he would give the one in ten with real talent a chance to rise to the top.

“That should have been a warning signal,” says Konstanty Gebert, a journalist who was part of the union movement.

The government lifted price controls and opened trade to foreign competition, forcing businesses to adapt or die. While that later enabled companies such as Sunreef to thrive, it also put millions out of work and gutted a labor movement that had inspired the world.

“Nothing was sexier than a trade union in 1980,” says Gebert, who remembers a TV news announcer applauding rising unemployment — an indicator of a “normal” economy. “But by 1990, it had gone the way of bad toilet paper and shiny suits.”

Last September, a glimmer of the old labor movement surfaced in what some called an “autumn of discontent.” Over four days, Solidarity and two other trade unions protested austerity measures that included the abolishing of the eight-hour workday, a decrease in the minimum wage and an increase in the retirement age.

But when the peaceful demonstration culminated in a march on Warsaw by as many as 100,000 protesters, Prime Minister Donald Tusk called it “an attempt at overthrowing the government.”

A year before, Lech Walesa himself had called on Tusk to send out police with truncheons when unions picketed against an increase in the retirement age.

How did Solidarity become shunned even by the man who was once its leader?

Many of its leaders left Poland or made new careers after the communist collapse, while the idealism of those left behind broke amid the privatization of state assets.

Jeremi Mordasewicz, a construction entrepreneur and former member of the government's labor commission, says the unions that had fought on behalf of Poland's workers later doomed companies in industries like shipbuilding and mining to shut down because they resisted reforms.

“In my enterprises, we had to cut half of the employees, and even then our production was higher than it had been before,” said Mordasewicz, who is now a mediator in union negotiations.

Similar problems continue to drag on the economy, he says.

Borrowing capital costs more than in Germany, while the productivity of Polish workers is far lower. That’s bad for investment, which is sorely needed to create jobs for a workforce that’s still bloated.

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Some say the social inequities partly stem from a deeper problem.

Thanks to the backlash against communism in the 1990s, people naively believed competition could solve every problem and scorned investing in education and social programs, says Andrzej Celinski, a former leader of the independence movement who broke from Solidarity in 1999.

“It's one of the country’s biggest shames,” he says.

Back at the former Lenin Shipyard, row upon row of bracings for building container ships stand empty. A single, orange-colored gas transport ship floats in the canal.

“In the '80s, we used to build 13 or 14 ships a year,” painter Stefanski says.

“You could walk across the decks from one to another,” he adds, gazing off across a scrubby field where now pallet after pallet of steel lies rusting.


Sunday, April 06, 2014

Hungary: Exit polls show Orban in clear victory

Preliminary results indicate controversial PM may repeat two-thirds majority.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost, April 6, 2014

BERLIN, Germany — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center right Fidesz party won a decisive election victory on Sunday and likely earned enough votes to retain a dominant two-thirds majority in the parliament, exit polls showed.

A clear mandate, the result will allow Orban to claim public support for various policies that have been controversial abroad and criticized by the opposition, including amendments to the constitution and a so-called “freedom fight” against the European Union, said Bulcsú Hunyadi, an analyst with Budapest-based think tank Political Capital.

“With this result, Fidesz will say that the vast majority of Hungarians back the government and all the reforms the government has made in the past four years,” Hunyadi said.

Fidesz earned 48 percent of the vote, while the opposition Unity Alliance led by the Socialists earned 27 percent, and the far right Jobbik party earned 18 percent, according to exit polls conducted by Nézőpont Institute, an independent think tank based in Budapest.

Those numbers, if confirmed by the final tally late Sunday night, should allow Fidesz to win 133 seats, slightly more than two-thirds of the 199 seat parliament.

Depending on the final breakdown of the votes, the election could result in a new struggle for the leadership of the opposition alliance, prompting factionalism that could further strengthen Orban's dominance, Hunyadi said.

Going into the polls, Orban's Fidesz was widely expected to win, due in part to controversial changes to the election system the government pushed through in the previous term.

In addition to changing the way votes are counted and reducing the size of the parliament from from 386 to 199 members, Fidesz allegedly redrew the borders of voting districts to dilute support for the opposition.

As a result of those changes, experts had predicted that Orban could attain another two-thirds majority with as little as 40 percent of the popular vote.

Outside experts have predicted that another two-thirds majority for the prime minister power could be bad for Hungary.

In January, the European Parliament slammed Orban for using his near-absolute authority to circumvent or eliminate democratic checks and balances. Among other actions, he curbed judicial authority and wrote a law into the constitution enabling security forces to jail homeless people after the measure was struck down by the courts.

Orban also drew flack for his recent unilateral decision to award a $14 billion tender for the expansion of the country’s only nuclear plant to Russia's Rosatom nuclear agency — in a deal under which Moscow will lend Budapest most of the money. Along with Orban's reluctance to back sanctions against Russia for its actions in Crimea, the deal prompted accusations that he's pushing Hungary away from European democracy toward Russian-style oligarchy.

In the leadup to the polls, various economists told the Wall Street Journal that Orban's autocratic style and statist economic policy had eroded business confidence and discouraged foreign investment.

Meanwhile, critics at home and abroad have claimed that Orban ran Hungary like a party machine, allegedly turning cronies like Lorinc Meszaros, an old friend who is now the mayor of Orban's hometown, into millionaires.


Thursday, April 03, 2014

Roma in Hungary fear they’ll be a pawn for the ruling party

As Hungarians prepare for elections, new minority voting rights may boost Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost, April 3, 2014

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Tourists and well-heeled locals sip espresso at a cafe near this city’s majestic 19th-century Nyugati train station as a dark-complexioned elderly man in a shabby suit shuffles past, apparently faking a limp while trying to bum a cigarette. Near the station entrance, a woman with a basket hawks cooking spices.

That's the stereotypical image of the Roma, an ethnic minority also known by the more pejorative term “Gypsy.”

Although many Hungarians celebrated the end of communism in 1989, the transition to democracy hasn’t been good to the minority group.

Closures of overstaffed communist factories left as many as nine out of ten Roma unemployed in some regions. Despite making up a tenth of the population, the community has never played a significant role in politics except in the racist rhetoric of the far right.

Now its members are warily awaiting new changes in their political status as the country prepares to vote in parliamentary elections on Sunday.

As part of controversial changes to the electoral system, the Roma and other ethnic minorities will be allowed to vote as a special category whose creation the government has trumpeted as a victory in the fight for equal rights.

But Roma are worried the policy is just as likely to isolate the persecuted community even more.

Among them is Bela Racz, an ethnic Roma activist who works for George Soros’s Open Society Institute in Budapest.

“The change forces us into a choice,” he says. “Do you want to be Hungarian or do you want to be Roma?”

Under the new rules pushed through parliament by the center-right Fidesz Party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, each of the country’s 13 formally acknowledged ethnic minorities will be able to elect a member of parliament with only a quarter of the votes required for mainstream candidates.

Although registering as a minority voter is optional, it may be the only way for other minorities less numerous than the Roma to get a voice in parliament.

But critics argue the policy will reinforce a sense that Roma aren’t normal Hungarian citizens while discouraging the general Hungarian electorate from supporting the new independentHungarian Gypsy Party.

That would impede Roma integration, Racz says.

“It's saying that Roma who are living in Hungary aren’t part of this society,” he says, adding that his opinions don’t necessarily reflect his employer's. “That they should have different rights, different decisions, different systems.”

The stakes are high for Roma.

During the past five years, Hungary has seen a growth of anti-Roma vigilante groups, as well as hate crimes and racist public statements by state officials and members of mainstream political parties.

Although Hungary has adopted European Union laws against discrimination, the far-right Jobbik Party is becoming more influential at a time that violence is becoming an everyday reality, Rasz says.

In his office around the corner from Budapest's breathtaking St. Istvan's cathedral, the tall, articulate activist dressed in a khaki shirt and grey pants looks more like a marketing executive than a street fighter. But he blithely recalls youthful battles with skinheads and organizing villagers blocking far-right vigilantes from entering his hometown.

Still, there are some signs that the authorities are responding.

The government's spokesman points out that the Fidesz Party stopped uniformed vigilantes from a far-right group called the Hungarian Guard from patrolling villages for what they called “gypsy crime.” That followed years of hand-wringing from the rival Socialist Party.

In August, a Hungarian court sentenced three right-wing extremists to life in prison for the serial murders of six Roma.

Still, despite evidence that the killers belonged to neo-Nazi networks and their admission they were searching for a “solution to the Gypsy problem,” the crimes were categorized as simple murder — belying what human rights groups describe as accelerating patterns of anti-Roma violence.

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Critics of the new voting regulations say rather than the result of high-minded principles, the privileges they give to minorities look suspiciously like an attempt to stack the deck for Fidesz — because the minority candidate must first be selected by another elected body, the national minority self-government, whose current leadership is allied with Fidesz.

Although only around 22,000 Roma voters have registered to vote in the minority category, those votes won't go to the new Hungarian Gypsy Party and will probably be enough to elect a fully empowered MP who's allied with Orban.

What appears to be official bungling hasn’t helped calm nerves.

The authorities described the new voting rules by distributing a confusing letter that left many Roma believing registering for the minority vote is mandatory, partly because they weren’t described as optional until the second page.

Although minority voters can change their minds after registering, they must do so at least two days before the election.

Whatever happens on Sunday, even if the new regulations do nothing to isolate the Roma, few believe they’ll do anything to change society’s image of them anytime soon.


Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Hungary: How to steal a constitution

As Hungarians prepare to vote in parliamentary elections on Sunday, critics say gerrymandering has stacked the deck for the right-wing prime minister.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost, April 1, 2014

KECSKEMET, Hungary — Gordon Bajnai was once Hungary’s most powerful man. Now he’s fighting a losing battle for a seat in parliament as the country prepares for elections on Sunday.

At a campaign rally in this provincial city 50 miles from Budapest, voters gather in the packed town hall to greet the former prime minister with shouts and applause.

They clap rhythmically as Bajnai takes to the stage and quips, “We're just getting started.”

But experts say he's already finished: Polls favor the party of sitting Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Critics say that’s less a reflection of public opinion than the result of new election rules the controversial PM used to gerrymander districts in order to make the vote a slam-dunk for his center-right Fidesz party, which heads a two-thirds majority in the parliament.

Worse than that, they say, more rule changes could enable him to turn just 40 percent of the popular vote — or the support of as little as 15 percent of the population — into another two-thirds majority.

A former investment banker and CEO who guided Hungary through the worst years of the euro crisis, Bajnai helped cobble together a coalition of half a dozen left-leaning parties into an anti-Orban alliance in January — just in time for the campaign. But he has no illusions going into Sunday's polls.

“When Senator McCain was visiting Budapest, he asked me is it going to be a free and fair election,” Bajnai said in an interview using his flawless, American-style English. “I told him I think it's going to be free but it's not going to be fair.”

That’s worrying not only Hungarian civil society but also the European Union.

In January, the European Parliament slammed Orban for using his near-absolute authority to circumvent or eliminate democratic checks and balances. Among other actions, he curbed judicial authority and wrote a law into the constitution enabling security forces to jail homeless people after the measure was struck down by the courts.

Orban’s policy toward Russia is also raising concerns.

Although he defeated the rival Socialists by disparaging their historical links to Russia, he has dragged his feet on joining EU sanctions to punish Moscow for annexing the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea last month.

He also recently made a unilateral decision to award a $14 billion tender for the expansion of the country’s only nuclear plant to Russia's Rosatom nuclear agency — in a deal under which Moscow will lend Budapest most of the money.

Those actions have prompted accusations that he's nudging Hungary away from European democracy toward a Russian-style oligarchy, says the Socialist Party's Viktor Szigetvari.

“The tendencies and the structures are quite similar,” he said.

More neutral critics from civil society organizations ranging from the nonprofit sector to trade unions also say Orban has run the government like a dictatorship, eschewing consultations in favor of sudden edicts.

The prime minister spent many months ignoring the tripartite National Reconciliation Council, which was designed to resolve conflicts among the government, corporations and union workers, says Peter Fiedler, a spokesman for the Liga confederation of trade unions.

Then he disbanded the negotiating body altogether, pushed through sweeping reforms to labor laws that allowed managers at state-owned firms to fire workers without cause and effectively banned strikes — prompting union members to block roads to force the government back to the table.

“The prime minister said he's been elected by employers, he's been elected by employees, and he himself is the government, so why should he consult with anyone?” Fiedler says.

The Orban government also reorganized the education system to place it under the control of a central body without consulting stakeholders and summarily dissolved the National Development Agency responsible for distributing EU funds, says Veronika Mora, who works at a nonprofit that distributes grants to environmental groups.

“I don't say that the National Development Agency was working well,” said Mora. “But now the complete governance of distributing the structural funds is under the prime minister's office.”

Despite the criticism, Orban remains unquestionably more popular than his rivals: Opinion polls show Fidesz leading the opposition alliance by 30 percent to 40 percent compared to the left’s roughly 20 percent.

Most controversial is the belief that his relatively narrow advantage will almost certainly translate into an “overwhelming majority” in the parliament, as leading research institutes predict.

That’s because Orban used the two-thirds majority he won with 53 percent of the vote in 2010 to rewrite the election rules to guarantee the same outcome this time around with a fraction of that support, says Peter Kreko, director of Budapest-based Political Capital, an independent think tank the government accuses of supporting the opposition.

The government dismisses the concerns. Although they drew criticism from the EU, none of Orban's changes violate the principles laid down by the Venice Commission's code of practice for elections, according to Ferenc Kumin, a spokesman for the PM's office. And the new system integrated 16 out of 23 changes recommended by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) after the 2010 polls, he adds.

“Why didn't Fidesz invite the smaller parties in the parliament in the drafting period?” he said about criticism that the Socialists and others dropped out of the process. “The answer is they were invited many, many times.”

“The problem was that they didn't want to be part of something they knew could be a success story for the government because it wouldn't serve their political goals.”

The electoral system in Hungary, like a number of other European countries, requires people vote for specific candidates from their constituencies and again for political parties. The parties are awarded seats for candidates selected from party lists based on the amount of the popular vote they receive under a system of proportional representation.

Acting on a universal call to shrink the size of the parliament and redraw borders to reflect population changes that have occurred since 1990, Orban's government reduced the number of parliamentarians from 386 to 199.

But in addition to placing otherwise desirable limits on campaign financing and restricting television advertisements in a way that's made it harder for the opposition to get its message out, Orban restructured the scheme to boost the party that wins a plurality, even if it gets only a fraction of the total.

The new rules also lower the bar for the entrance of new parties, making Fidesz pluralities even more likely by fracturing the opposition.

But the simplest measure was good old-fashioned gerrymandering — or redrawing districts to divide left-leaning constituencies and strengthen right-wing ones — Kreko says.

His supporters point out that Orban corrected anomalies that made some districts as much as three times more populous than others and that the new constituency map doesn't feature any suspicious shapes that would suggest gerrymandering.

Moreover, they argue, the previous borders unfairly favored the left. In any case, since Hungarian voters don't register as members of one party or another, true gerrymandering is virtually impossible, says Agoston Mraz, who heads Nezopont Intezet, another Budapest-based think tank.

“No one knows exactly whether gerrymandering has been done or it’s just political rhetoric,” he says.

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Nevertheless, Political Capital's comparison of the previous district map with the present one suggests there was a definite strategy behind the new borders, Kreko says.

“The differences in size between the constituencies are smaller than before, but the left-wing voters are located in bigger electoral districts,” he says. “What does it mean? A left-wing vote matters a bit less than a right-wing vote.”

That's grim news for voters such as 61-year-old Szena Tibor, a gray-haired small-business owner seated in the back of the Kecskemet youth center during Bajnai's opposition rally.

“I'm a democrat, and Orban is not,” she says. “Everything he's done, from rewriting the constitution to making rules in reverse based on the outcome he wants to achieve so there's no competition in the economy, has been anti-democratic.”