Secure in Hungary, Orban Readies for Battle with Brussels

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Viktor Orban, center, took his oath to serve a third term as Hungarian prime minister in Budapest on Thursday.CreditLaszlo Balogh/Getty Images

By Marc Santora and Helene Bienvenu

 

BUDAPEST — In his victorious campaign to secure a third consecutive term as prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban had a clear, urgent message: The nation was at risk from an international cabal looking to undermine its sovereignty, and it would be overrun with migrants if he was not elected.

With his party firmly in control of this Central European country, Mr. Orban says it is time to take that campaign continental. On Thursday, in his first address to Parliament in his new term, he styled himself as the leader of a movement to reform the European Union and as defender of the sovereign rights of its member nations.

“Now we will be hunting for big game,” Mr. Orban said. He presented a vision for Europe that stood in stark contrast to the one embraced by Western leaders like President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, with their acceptance of political and ethnic pluralism, dissent and fairly high levels of migration from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

“We need to say it out loud because you can’t reform a nation in secrecy: The era of liberal democracy is over,” Mr. Orban said. “Rather than try to fix a liberal democracy that has run aground, we will build a 21st-century Christian democracy.”

 

He made no mention of the Hungarian-American financier George Soros, whom he demonized nearly daily during the campaign, or of legislation aimed squarely at institutions connected to Mr. Soros. The laws are still likely to be enacted in some form, according to analysts, but there is no rush, as Mr. Orban made clear in his remarks.

In power since 2010, he confidently suggested that he planned to lead the country until at least 2030.

As lawmakers filed into the majestic Parliament building beside the Danube for their first gathering since last month’s election, passing the Holy Crown of Hungary, worn by monarchs for more than eight centuries, as a string quartet played, the event felt more like a coronation than an inauguration.

While populist leaders in other nations look to Mr. Orban’s political success as inspiration — success that critics say was built on undermining the traditional checks and balances essential to a healthy democracy — worried European Union leaders in Brussels have moved closer to tying the distribution of bloc funds to issues surrounding the basic rule of law.

Mr. Orban contended in a local radio interview that Hungary has a “moral duty” to refuse to take in refugees or asylum seekers as part of any European quota system — setting the stage for yet another bruising battle with Brussels.

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Protesters gathered in the rain outside Parliament on Tuesday. The crowds were smaller than other recent demonstrations, and a sense of urgency seemed to have been replaced by resignation.CreditMarton Monus/MTI, via Associated Press

“We need the union; the union needs us,” Mr. Orban acknowledged. “We are ready to be reformers in the changes that the E.U. can’t avoid.”

In a reflection of his dominance domestically, he said nothing about his party’s legislative agenda.

“In 2014, the message was ‘Anything can happen,’” said Edit Zgut, an analyst at Political Capital, a research organization based in Budapest. “Now the message is ‘I can do what I want.’”

Stefano Bottoni, a senior fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the author of “Long Awaited West: Eastern Europe since 1944,” said that Mr. Orban, having secured his position in Hungary, wanted to play on a larger stage.

“He wants to represent and give voice to a sovereign Europe, a European Union of nation-states,” Mr. Bottoni said.

In order to do that, he must remain part of the European People’s Party, the continental alliance of center-right parties, and influence it from within. There are already signs that he is adjusting his rhetoric, if not his agenda.

It was Mr. Orban who coined the phrase “illiberal democracy” to describe his government. Now, he has a different way of framing issues, co-opting the term “Christian democracy,” which has long been used to describe Europe’s dominant center-right political ideology.

For generations, Christian democratic parties, notably in Germany and Italy, have blended support for free-market economics and moderately conservative social policies with left-leaning stances on issues like labor rights and the welfare state.

Mr. Orban is framing Christian democracy as something different, a bulwark in a clash of civilizations, with Muslim migrants threatening Christianity and Christian values. His critics say he is hijacking the term to continue a campaign built on fear.

Michael Ignatieff, the president of Central European University in Budapest, said that Mr. Orban had succeeded in making himself a major player in Europe — a remarkable achievement for the leader of a nation of around only 10 million people.

“Is there a larger project in which he can shape Europe as a whole?” he asked. “I don’t know if he is a grand strategist or just a power player.”

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A poster in Budapest with the Hungarian-American financier George Soros and opposition party leaders. Mr. Soros was persistently demonized during the Orban campaign.CreditBernadett Szabo/Reuters

It is not an academic question for Mr. Ignatieff, since the fate of his university now rests with Mr. Orban. The university was founded in 1991 with an investment by Mr. Soros, whom Mr. Orban has accused of all sorts of nefarious behavior aimed at undermining Hungarian independence.

Under current law, the university, which has the support of the United States government and powerful figures in the European People’s Party, will not be allowed to accept new students after Jan. 1, 2019. Unless an agreement is reached, it will be forced to close.

 

Whatever Mr. Orban’s ultimate goals, there is little need for him to rush. The political opposition is now almost an afterthought. Opposition parties failed to unify before their election, allowing Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party and its coalition partner, the Christian Democrats, to win a two-thirds majority.

One of Hungary’s oldest newspapers — one of the few critical voices in a country where Mr. Orban and his allies control most of the news media — closed in April, when its chief financial backer pulled out.

Mr. Orban has said he plans to impose a 25 percent tax on any foreign-funded group that supports migration, a move that would make it nearly impossible for some organizations to continue working.

University professors from 28 countries have signed a letter calling on the government not to take further action against those groups, and appealing to the European Union to “immediately take action to prevent this flagrant human rights violation from happening on its own territory.”

Janos Fonagy, a Fidesz member of Parliament, said it would soon pass “some constitutional amendments” but people should not be concerned.

“There is no need to fear,” he said. “Those that are afraid don’t know what is happening here.”

Outside Parliament, protesters gathered this week for what might have been their last chance to make their voices heard before lawmakers got busy fulfilling the Orban agenda.

The mood was decidedly different from that in the first weeks after the election, when some 100,000 people took to the streets to protest their new government. The recent crowds were smaller — police officers outnumbered demonstrators — and their chants less full-throated. A sense of urgency seemed to be replaced by resignation.

“Our spirit has been broken,” said Laszlo Horvath, a 29-year-old organizer. “What can we do?”

As evening fell and the demonstration got underway, the skies opened up. Pouring rain and chunks of hail sent protesters scrambling for cover.

By the time the skies cleared, just a few dozen people were left, shouting into the night.

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First Lebanese election in 9 years sidesteps divisive issues -AP

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In this picture taken on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri who is a candidate for the parliamentary elections which will be held on May 6, addresses a speech during an elections campaign, in Beirut, Lebanon. Campaigning for the first election in nine years has revolved around promises of stability and growth and has avoided divisive issues such as Hezbollah’s weapons and its regional alliances, virtually guaranteeing the Iran-backed militant group’s continued domestic hegemony.Hussein Malla / AP
BEIRUT — Few countries are as vulnerable to the Middle East’s mayhem as Lebanon, which has taken in a million refugees from the catastrophic war in neighbouring Syria, seen the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia embroiled in that war and watched Saudi Arabia try to oust its prime minister.

Yet campaigning for Sunday’s parliamentary election, the first in nine years, has timidly sidestepped the big issues, leaving many Lebanese expecting more of the same. It’s especially galling for Lebanese concerned a still-dominant Hezbollah could drag the country into a looming Iranian-Israeli regional confrontation.

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The vote is expected to be a test for the country’s Western-backed Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, and his Iran-backed Shiite militant opponent, Hezbollah, which is looking to tighten its grip and expand its presence in the 128-seat parliament — likely at Hariri’s expense.

Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouk, a member of Hariri’s inner circle, said the election is not “a Sunni-Shiite conflict but rather a conflict between a group that believes in a state and a nation, and another that has regional and Iranian leanings.”

The sides, however, can hardly govern effectively without each other and are expected to recreate the unity government that currently exists, which incorporates members of the militant group.

Most of the campaigning by more than 500 candidates has revolved around platforms of stability and economic growth, with many of Lebanon’s civil war-era political titans set to return, including Lebanon’s aging Shiite parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally who has held the post for more than 25 years and who is virtually uncontested. Some warlords are passing on their seats to their sons, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

“Divisive issues such as Hezbollah’s weapons and the controversy over its participation in regional conflicts are almost entirely absent from the electoral campaigns, indicating implicit acceptance of the party’s domestic hegemony,” wrote analyst Joseph Bahout in an article for the Carnegie Middle East Center.

A new election law agreed on last year has opened cracks through which rivals within the Shiite community could potentially challenge Hezbollah, and political newcomers and independents could try to break through the monopoly long enjoyed by the political dynasties.

It also promises to shake things up by reorganizing Lebanon’s electoral map, consolidating 23 districts into 15, and awarding seats by share of the vote received, rather than winner-takes-all. The law also allows Lebanese expatriates to vote abroad for the first time, adding a new level of unpredictability to the mix.

The last time elections were held in Lebanon was in 2009. Since then, members of parliament have extended their terms twice, citing security threats linked to the war in neighbouring Syria.

Lebanon is technically a parliamentary democracy but is shackled by a decades-old sectarian-based power-sharing system, and its politics are dominated by former warlords that have long exploited the system to perpetuate corruption and nepotism. All senior government positions are allocated according to sect, including the head of state, who should be a Christian, the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker, a Shiite. Parliament is divided equally between Christians and Muslims, with seats allotted according to religious sect.

The formula, based on outdated demographic data that does not account for nearly 200,000 Palestinians who are denied citizenship and a vote, allows people to vote according to their religious affiliations, not a political program.

A record number of first-time hopefuls are campaigning for change, urging voters to shun politicians who have drowned the country in corruption and debt. Many rose to prominence as organizers of protests over a 2015 trash collection crisis that left garbage in the streets for months and laid bare the extent of the public sector mismanagement plaguing Lebanon.

“It reflects a new mindset emerging among significant sectors of the Lebanese electorate, pointing in the direction of making a small dent in the religious sect-based political system,” said Randa Slim, an analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Still, the biggest winner appears to be Hezbollah and its allies, who look set to scoop up at least some of the seats lost by Hariri’s coalition, largely because of the expected fragmentation of the Sunni vote.

Hariri now has the largest block in parliament, but is likely to lose seats to rival politicians. Some of Hariri’s supporters shifted their loyalty after the billionaire businessman, who also holds Saudi citizenship, laid off scores of employees in his development company, Saudi Oger, as well as in Hariri-owned charities and media outlets in Lebanon, largely because of Saudi spending cuts.

That loss of support has been compounded by what some see as a weak stance vis-a-vis Hezbollah, accusing him of catering to and giving political cover to the militant group, which a U.N.-backed tribunal has accused in the 2015 assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri.

Hezbollah offered its support to Hariri after he was detained in Saudi Arabia late last year during a visit to Riyadh in which he announced his resignation as prime minister, citing Iran and Hezbollah’s meddling in the region. The move was widely seen as Saudi coercion, although Hariri denies stepping down against his will and has since reversed his resignation.

Hezbollah now seeks, along with its allies, to win at least 43 seats in the 128-member legislature, which would enable the militant group to veto any laws it opposes.

Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to shore up President Bashar Assad, and has cleared the vast region along the countries’ shared border of Islamic militants, leaving hundreds of its fighters killed and wounded. It is now campaigning heavily on those achievements.

Its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, called for heavy voter turnout, particularly in the Baalbek-Hermel region in eastern Lebanon, traditionally a Hezbollah stronghold which now faces a challenge from rivals.

“You should protect with your votes your victories and achievements, for which you’ve paid a very high price,” Nasrallah said in an appeal to supporters at an election rally in the area on Monday.

Despite limited pushback from the Shiite community, Hezbollah has largely delivered on its promises in Syria as far as the Shiite community is concerned and will now be expected to deliver on the economic front, Slim said.

She expects a governing coalition between Hariri and Hezbollah to re-emerge from Sunday’s vote and says if the elections produce a weaker Hariri, it will be all the more reason for Hezbollah to push for him to be the next prime minister.

“In light of the talk of a looming Iranian-Israeli confrontation in Syria, Hezbollah will be more incentivized in not rocking the boat in Lebanon,” she said.

——

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Mahathir’s rides red tide into Langkawi hoping nostalgia will trump ruling party

international News, Politics

Horford shows how indispensable he is, but now he has to deal with The Process

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BOSTON – His long work week finally complete, Al Horford elected to take the long way home.

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens fetched Horford with 41.8 seconds remaining in Saturday’s Game 7 win over the Milwaukee Bucks but after a 26-point, 8-rebound performance that only confirmed the notion that Horford was the MVP of the series, the big man showed a rare bit of emotion during a slow stroll back to the Boston bench.

With fans inside TD Garden serenading him with a standing ovation, Horford took in the moment before repeatedly pumping his right fist near midcourt. Finally, he gave one more gigantic arm swing in celebration of a gritty first-round victory.

A series of handshakes and hugs followed with teammates and coaches before Horford reached the end of the bench and, a wide smile on his face, turned to watch Boston’s younger players close out a 112-96 triumph.

“It’s an emotional game,” said Horford. “These are the kind of moments that you play for. And, for me, that time there was just me enjoying, with the players and with the fans that were there, and it’s just emotional. I’m happy that we came out on top.”

A short while before his victory strut, Horford had given a similarly emphatic hand gesture to signify the series was over, this as Boston pushed its lead as high as 19 in the final quarter. Around that time, Boston fans chanted, “We want Philly!” while readying for the Eastern Conference semifinal series between Atlantic Division rivals that tips here Monday.

Having vanquished the Greek Freak – though Horford made sure to gush about the job rookie Semi Ojeleye did in helping to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo over the final three games of the series – Horford now pivots to find a Process-trusting frontcourt ofBen Simmons and Joel Embiid waiting for him.

Which is to say, things don’t get any easier for Horford and his frontcourt brethren. For all the headaches Antetokounmpo presented – and there were plenty – Boston bigs only had to otherwise worry about Thon Maker andTyler Zeller after John Henson didn’t return after Game 2 of the series.

Horford often matched up on the versatile Simmons during the regular season and could routinely get that assignment again, when not asked to close the lid on Embiid’s offensive toolbox.

“[The Sixers] are playing great. They have a great team, a great coach,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “I think everybody talks about Embiid and Simmons – and rightfully so. But I think the skill that they have added to their team and their other young guys getting better and obviously [J.J.] Redick’s presence have just opened everything up.

“They are a bear to play against. You can tell from the last series. I think Brett [Brown] is terrific, and on down the line, they are terrific.”

Fortunately for Boston, Horford has been terrific and the stabilizing force for a team decimated by injuries. He’s the only upright All-Star the Celtics have asGordon Hayward recovers from a fractured ankle and Kyrie Irving mends from knee surgery.

“I think that the best way to phrase it with Al is he provides stability for all of us,” said Stevens. “Whenever you have lost other guys to injury, when people aren’t available when things aren’t going your way, he has likely been through it, and he provides a very calming influence to the younger players.”

Horford beams with pride when discussing Boston’s younger players, including the leaps displayed by Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, or the late-series emergence of rookie Jayson Tatum.

The Celtics are going to need all of them against the 76ers.

But, maybe more than anything, they’re going to need Horford to continue to be spectacular at both ends of the court.

“Al makes the right play, does the right thing. That’s what a five-time All-Star is supposed to do,” said Jaylen Brown. “[Horford] continues to play the game the right way and, when times get tough we lean on him a little bit. And tonight, Game 7, biggest game of the year, he showed out.”

Among the 26 high-volume offensive players with at least 100 posteason possessions finished, Horford ranks fourth in at 1.124 points per play, per Synergy Sports data. He’s one spot behind Anthony Davis (1.133) and one spot ahead of LeBron James (1.12). Decent company.

The knock on Horford has always been that he lacks offensive aggressiveness for a max-salary player. Horford’s first instinct will always be to pass first, but he showed Saturday that he’s capable of being ultra assertive in a must-win game. While Antetokounmpo struggled to consistently find good looks, Horford muscled his way around the basket. Only four of his 17 shot attempts came outside the painted area, and Horford was 11-of-13 on the paint attempts for a career postseason-best 22 paint points.

Overall, Horford made 13-of-17 field goals for a Boston team that shot 53.6 percent from the field in Game 7.

Horford seemed to relish the accomplishment of beating a scrappy Bucks team despite all the youth on Boston’s roster. He’s excited about the more distant future when his All-Star teammates will be back but he’s also excited about the right now – which starts Monday against Philadelphia.

“This experience is unlike any other,” said Horford. “Being in the playoffs, the type of pressure and intensity, this type of experience will shape [Boston’s younger players’] careers in the NBA because they see the level of commitment and the way that you have to play. It’s going to make them better players.

“It’s all for the best for our group.”

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April 28, 2018 at 11:25PM

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APC releases timetable for National Convention, Congresses

2019 Elections, APC, PMB, Politics

The All Progressives Congress (APC) has released a time table for its National Convention and Congresses. The timetable was released by the party’s national organizing secretary, Osita Izunaso, on Wednesday, April 18. In a mail sent to NAIJ.com, it was noted that the ruling party scheduled its National Convention for May 14, while ward congresses have been slated for May 2. Congresses for local government will hold on May 5, while state congresses are taking place on May 9.  The timetable was released on Wednesday night, April 18. The ruling party had previously written to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), requesting its presence at the events.

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The All Progressives Congress constituted its National Convention Committee members. The party on Sunday, April 15, released a list of its members to serve in its committees, drawn from different hierarchy and positions in the party. The list included governors, senators, members of the House of Representatives and other caucuses in the party.

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