For those of you who have heard only of the Pisa with its leaning tower, this PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment. It operates under the aegis of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every three years tests are given to fifteen-year-old students across the globe in reading, mathematics, and science. The news is not good for Hungary and consequently for Rózsa Hoffmann, who is responsible for public education. Népszabadság couldn’t resist the temptation and ran the headline: “‘Here is Rózsa Hoffmann’s report card: Hungarian students’ results declined.”
Three years ago there was some excitement when the PISA results came out since Hungarian students improved considerably in reading. While in 2006 they scored 482, in 2009 they got 494. In math and science, however, there was no appreciable difference between 2006 and 2009.
Of course, when the PISA results came out in 2010 Rózsa Hoffmann deplored the dreadful damage that was done to Hungarian education under the ultra-liberal educational policies of Bálint Magyar and his socialist successor, István Hiller. At that time Hoffmann explained the improvement in reading scores by noting Hungarian teachers’ recognition that understanding written texts must continue through all twelve grades. She also noted that the quality differences between schools were still much greater than in most OECD countries and added that “it is very important to improve the material well being of families, without which the educational results will not get better.” I don’t think I have to remind readers of Hungarian Spectrum that living standards, especially for the poorer strata of society, have in fact dropped markedly since. Most of the families of those children who are having problems in school are poorer and more miserable than ever before.
Zoltán Pokorni, minister of education in the first Orbán government, decided to go further and claim that the 2009 results were due solely to his educational policies. After all, those fifteen-year-old teenagers who took the test began first grade in 2000! Total nonsense, of course but I guess it was difficult to swallow that, after years of stagnation, the newly introduced educational reforms were slowly showing some results.
The 2012 results are really bad. Hungarian children did worse in all three categories than three years earlier. In reading they dropped by 6 points, in math 13 points, and in science 9 points. By contrast, most of Hungary’s neighbors, with the notable exception of Slovakia, improved in all categories. Austria led the way (up 20 points in reading), and Czech students also showed great progress.
I have no idea what happened in the Slovak school system that may have caused such a steep decline, and I’m not sure how much the present Hungarian administration is responsible for the drop in the Hungarian performance. But the havoc that was wreaked in the field of education–the administrative chaos and constant changes in the curriculum–most likely had a negative effect on the quality of education in general. Also, studies I read on the subject claim that certain programs that were designed with a view to “competence development” were discontinued since Rózsa Hoffmann doesn’t believe in such newfangled ideas.
So, how did Hoffmann handle this situation? Her office placed an announcement on the website of the Ministry of Human Resources stating that the 2012 PISA results “support the urgent necessity of the renewal of public education.” She naturally tried to minimize the positive changes in 2009, saying that reading skills “improved somewhat” then but in math and science there was no change. (Of course, one could say that at least there was no drop as is the situation now.)
And what is the reason for this bad performance according to Hoffmann? “The majority of the students who took the test began attending school in 2003: the worsening results are the critical consequences of the beginnings of their schooling.” Didn’t we hear that earlier? Of course, we did. Zoltán Pokorni proudly claimed in December 2010 that the good 2009 results were due to the beneficial educational policies of the Orbán government. After all, the students who took the test started grade one in 2000. As if the amount of knowledge at age of fifteen was solely determined by the first two years of school attendance. After the Orbán government lost the elections, in May 2002 Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) took over the ministry of education. So, in fact, little Pisti or Marika spent only one school year under the watchful eye of Orbán’s ministry of education by then led by József Pálinkás, today president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Politicians can say the darndest things. Otherwise, in the rest of the announcement she dwells not so much on the 2012 results as on the 2009 ones, which she considers very poor. I might add that 2009 was the only year that Hungary was not under the OECD average.
Scores in reading, math, and science are important indicators of a country’s educational well being, but the percentage of functional illiterates is also a crucial consideration, especially since the European Union’s goal is to reduce their numbers significantly by 2020. Functional illiteracy in this case means a score below a certain number. The desired percentage would be 15 in all three categories. Right now only four countries in Europe have reached this goal: Finland, Poland, the Netherlands, and Estonia. In Hungary functional illiterates grew by 2.1% in reading, 5.8% in math, and 3.9% in science between 2009 and 2012. Currently Hungary has a functional illiteracy rate of 19.7% in reading, 27.1% in math, and 18% in science. Among the Visegrád countries Poland is doing the best in this respect: in reading 10.6%, in math 14.4%, and in science 13.8%. The whole report can be read here.
Anyone who’s interested in comparisons between individual countries should visit OECD’s website. Countries that scored very poorly in Eastern Europe are Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, but even those that did better, like Hungary, still underperformed globally. Hungarians who have such a low opinion of the educational attainment of American students may find it disturbing that American students actually did a little better in all categories than their Hungarian counterparts. Naturally, American commentators are unhappy. They consider the results disappointing and bemoan the fact that “the U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.” Yes, and that’s where Hungary is as well. It is useless to deny the fact that Hungarian kids are undereducated and that undereducated kids become undereducated adults. The kind who can easily be duped by unscrupulous populist politicians like Viktor Orbán and his coterie.
We are getting closer and closer to the national election, which most likely will be held sometime in early April. Therefore I think we ought to ponder what happened at the municipal election in Fót on and after November 24. Fót may well be an omen of what can be expected at next year’s national election.
Someone who is supported by the three opposition parties wins the election, but a week later, after the local election commission finds everything to be in order and gives its blessing to the results, on the basis of unproven election irregularities a court decision renders the results null and void. Moreover, it not only orders the election to be repeated but forces participants to start the whole procedure over from the beginning, including getting endorsements. The new election will be held in February. Yes, February because the procedure takes that long. Meanwhile Fót’s municipal government is in disarray. In the Fidesz-run town the city fathers, all belonging to Fidesz, have managed to get rid of three mayors in three years.
What happened in Fót is a serious situation and doesn’t bode well for next year’s national election. I will try to provide a timeline of the events.
The first complaint came from Jobbik’s county organization. They claimed that someone reported that a Volkswagen minibus allegedly transported voters from outlying districts. They claimed to know who the owner of the minibus was. It turned out that the man “with MSZP sympathies” sold his Volkswagen years ago. And although they produced a picture of the white bus, it was impossible to ascertain how many people were inside the vehicle or where the photo was taken. So, here the situation was entirely different from the Baja case where there was proof of regular transports by a single man with a single car.
Then came another complaint. Some people found in their mailboxes a handmade poster without a logo and without the name of any organization which advertised that there would be extra bus runs on the day of the election for easier access to the polling station. As it turned out, the bus schedule was not changed in any way, but it looks as if the three-man panel at the courthouse didn’t find it necessary to ascertain whether the intent had been followed by action. For them the picture of a minibus and a piece of paper promising extra bus runs was enough.
These learned judges rendered their verdict on the basis of §47 of the old electoral law that still regulates election procedures. It says that free transportation service provided by the candidate or the organization he represents is considered to be electoral misconduct. But the verdict in the Fót case says not a word about the candidate or his party or organization that allegedly was behind this dastardly deed. So, from here on every time someone doesn’t like the outcome of an election he can produce a picture of a minibus or come forth with a handwritten crumbled piece of paper announcing extra bus runs and, voila, the election will be declared null and void.
The verdict was so bizarre that the notary of Fót asked twice what the judges actually meant. And the town notary is normally someone with a law degree.
Almost all electoral commissions–local, territorial, and national–are in Fidesz hands, and yet the territorial election committee last Wednesday decided that all was in order. They claimed that even if there had been irregularities such actions couldn’t have influenced the outcome of the election. But then came an appeal from a “private person representing a law firm” who objected. The person asked the court to re-examine the bus route case and, in addition, he called attention to two women who “had in their possession some MSZP-DK-E14 leaflets” and who urged people to vote because “the number of voters is low.” Apparently, they didn’t dispense the leaflets. All in all, we are talking about minor infractions, some of which are unproven.
Was the decision an example of judicial incompetence or were the judges influenced either by their own political views or, even worse, were they subject to some outside influence? It’s hard to tell, but the message is: if an opposition candidate wins, the results will not be allowed to stand. I don’t think too many people remember the 2010 Felcsút municipal election when the man elected mayor was not Viktor Orbán’s favorite Lőrinc Mészáros. The election had to be repeated because it was decided that the winner owed a small fee to the local authorities. He was apparently a Fidesz supporter but not quite the right man.
Of course, from my peaceful rural suburb in Connecticut all this sounds crazy. Why couldn’t I ask my neighbor to take me to vote if my car broke down the day before? What is wrong with someone urging me to go to the polls because participation is low? Of course, nothing. But this is, thank God, not Hungary where for a few bucks you can buy the votes of downtrodden Romas. And then there are the crooked local election committees and the incompetent/crooked judges. As a very bitter opinion piece in HVG said: “there is a brutally misleading electoral procedure. A media that makes equal chances of all parties illusory. A population misled by the state, municipal authorities and even by owners of private companies. There are all sorts of lists. And a wacky opposition that hopes it can get justice from the independent investigative and judicial authorities. Keep hoping!”
Considering that yesterday was Sunday, the Hungarian political scene was anything but quiet. First of all, there was the court decision mandating a repeat of the mayoral election in Fót, which was won by the candidate jointly supported by MSZP, Együtt 2014-PM, and DK. The reasons for the decision are flimsy and the alleged misconduct was committed in a district where it couldn’t possibly influence the outcome. But I guess the court figured that if an election won by Fidesz had to be repeated so should one won by the democratic opposition.
I don’t remember whether we discussed the decision of Gábor Fodor, who was the last chairman of SZDSZ and who established a new liberal party, to run a separate candidate in the Fót election. Fodor obviously picked a good candidate, someone who is well known and well liked in the town of 20,000 inhabitants. She received 500 votes, half of what the candidate of the other opposition parties received. Still she ended up last because, in addition to the front runner and herself, there were three other candidates: two independents, one of whom was supported by Fidesz, and a representative of Jobbik.
I was greatly surprised by the liberal candidate’s showing, especially since Fót is apparently a conservative town where I assume the word “liberal” is despised by the majority of the inhabitants. However, I wonder whether given this new turn of events, it wouldn’t be smart for the liberal candidate to support the candidate of MSZP-Együtt 2014-PM-DK in order to increase the chances of the joint candidate of the three parties. After all, Fodor wanted to test the strength of his party. He proved his point.
The other event of the day was the announcement of the main points of the Democratic Coalition’s campaign platform. Apparently, the final program that will cover about 70 or 80 topics will be ready by next February. Yesterday Ferenc Gyurcsány announced sixteen important points of DK’s program. Here I will briefly summarize these points.
1. European future: We want a European Hungary and we want to pay with euros. By 2018 we will prepare the way to be eligible for the introduction of the euro in Hungary in 2020.
2. Franchise for only those who live here: We will stop granting citizenship to those without an established residence in Hungary because it is unfair that people who don’t have to bear the consequences of their decision can determine the results of an election. Therefore only those will be able to vote who are either born Hungarian citizens or naturalized citizens who have a permanent residence in the country.
3. Separation of church and state: We will abrogate the Concordat with the Vatican and restore the complete separation of church and state in all its aspects. We will abolish the privileges of the churches and terminate subsidies for their strictly religious activities.
4. Elimination of usury: We will establish the Bank of Solidarity that will enable the truly poor to receive quick short-term loans at a reasonable interest rate.
5. Assistance to underdeveloped regions: We will create special economic zones in the most backward regions. We will stimulate the economy in these regions with tax breaks, with the expansion of public transportation, and with government investments.
6. Sustainable agrarian policy: We will re-examine the land leases hitherto granted. We will allow corporations to acquire agricultural land and emphasize animal husbandry, vegetable farming, and viticulture.
7. Tax breaks for small and medium-size companies: Depending on the number of employees, we will decrease the social security contributions of employers, which will considerably lower the burden of small and medium-size companies. It will also help to decrease the number of salaries paid under the table.
8. Fair child support: We will change the current system of tax breaks given to families with dependent children to cash support for every child. This way no children will be discriminated against. As it is now, the government gives more to those who are better off while it gives nothing to very poor families who have no taxable income.
9. New nursery schools and kindergartens: We will start a program aiming at building more nursery schools and kindergartens where payment will be a certain percentage of the family’s income.
10. English bilingual education: We will transform all elementary and high schools to bilingual institutions. From 2018 on more and more subjects will be taught in a foreign language in all schools.
11. Computers for all students: We will put a computer on every desk. Until 2018 in all schools at least part of all subjects will be taught digitally.
12. Open and accessible higher education: The first year of college or university will be open to all who pass their matriculation examination. We will give generous scholarships to those who do well and who come from financially disadvantaged families. However, everybody will pay reasonable tuition fees. The tuition fees will remain with the institution the student attends.
13. A pension system without coercion: We will abolish the compulsory retirement age and introduce a universal state pension plan based on individual accounts in which we will include the money taken away by the Orbán government from individual private pension plans. Anyone can theoretically retire after the age of 55, but naturally his/her pension will be low. Persons can retire when they think the amount of their pension reaches a point that would satisfy their needs. We will also redress the wrongdoings meted out to the disabled.
14. Modernization of half a million dwellings: We will help with considerable subsidies to all those who would like to invest in heating systems fueled by sun or wind. In addition, we will help homeowners insulate their houses and change their windows and doors. In four years we plan to assist the owners of 500,000 dwellings to change to the most modern energy systems.
15. More opportunities for women: From 2016 on one-third of the top management of state companies and companies listed on the stock exchange must be women. From 2018 on one-third of those placed on the party lists both locally and nationally must be women.
16. Instead of public television, culture: We will stop public television broadcasting. From the billions spent right now on Magyar Televízió we will support good news and cultural programs on commercial stations. Some of that money can also be used for television movies and cultural programs.
I will not comment on the program because I’d rather hear what the readers of Hungarian Spectrum think of it. But I will tell you what the Hungarian right seems to object to most: getting rid of Magyar Televízió. Although there are sixteen points, the headlines in both Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap bemoaned the outrageous idea of getting rid of MTV. Perfectly understandable. It has been for at least ten years the foremost source of Fidesz propaganda. If the present opposition by some miracle wins the next election, MTV would still remain firmly in Fidesz hands. The loss of this propaganda machine would be a serious blow to Fidesz.
And finally, one or two words about the allegations of András Horváth, former tax official, of the massive VAT fraud with the assistance of the Hungarian Tax and Customs Office. As we discussed, LMP began to collect signatures for the creation of a parliamentary committee to investigate, but MSZP members refused to sign the petition because neo-Nazi Jobbik members also signed it. But without Jobbik members there will not be enough signatures to demand the establishment of such a committee.
Initially DK’s leadership shared MSZP’s view, but then it became evident that the party membership was divided on the issue. DK has about 10,000 active members and several thousands more supporters. It was decided that the membership should vote. The yeas were in the majority and therefore this morning Csaba Molnár, deputy chairman of DK, announced that the ten DK parliamentary members will join LMP and will sign the document. They have only one demand: József Balogh’s signature cannot be on the petition. He is the former Fidesz, now independent, member of parliament who beat his wife and claimed that Terike’s fall was due solely to her unfortunate encounter with a blind komondor. So, it seems that pragmatism triumphed. Anyone who would like to know more about the split within the party on the issue should look at some of the articles that appeared on Galamus in the last three days or so. Especially the two articles by Tamás Bauer, vice chairman of DK, and Mihály Andor’s two contributions. Andor was for joining LMP regardless of Jobbik signatures and Bauer dead against it.
It was only a few months ago, on March 15, 2013, that Ferenc Szaniszló, a so-called journalist who has a show twice a week on Echo TV, received the Táncsics Prize, the highest award that can be given to a Hungarian journalist. You may recall that the minister of human resources, Zoltán Balog, first claimed that he was not familiar with the work of Szaniszló and that eventually, when the whole Hungarian media was up in arms, he practically begged Szaniszló to return the award. He did, but as often happens with members of the Orbán government, Balog didn’t tell the truth. It wasn’t an oversight that Szaniszló, who is an anti-Semitic extremist, was chosen. On the same national holiday the lead guitarist of a far-right rock group called Kárpátia and the composer of the Hungarian Guard’s anthem, also received a state decoration.
So, let’s first say a few words about Echo TV. Wikipedia describes it as “a conservative Hungarian television channel” (although Wikipedia’s entry does go on to say that the channel “is a favorite among neofascists in Hungary”). “Conservative” is not an adjective I would use in connection with Echo TV. The channel was established in 2005 by Gábor Széles, one of the richest men in Hungary. Széles also purchased the financially ailing liberal Magyar Hírlap and transformed it into a far-right newspaper where one of the regular contributors is the anti-Semitic Zsolt Bayer. He is also one of the chief organizers of demonstrations called Peace Marches in support of the present Hungarian government.
Szaniszló’s half-hour program is called “Világ–Panoráma.” It airs twice a week, on Monday and Friday, in prime time between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m and can be seen by everyone who has a cable connection. Most people do.
What kind of information do devoted right-wingers receive about world affairs through Szaniszló’s interpretation of twentieth-century history and more recent events? We regularly complain about the general lack of knowledge of the vast majority of Hungarians and express our astonishment that they seem to believe all the propaganda they receive from their own government. If you listen just once to Ferenc Szaniszló, you will not be at all surprised.
Since non-Hungarian speakers don’t have the benefit of listening to this man in the original, I took copious notes on his ten-minute-long attack last Friday on the United States and on Jews, although he doesn’t refer to them explicitly. In the past Echo TV wasn’t that shy. I suspect the word came from above that the Orbán government is working very hard to convince the world that it is doing everything in its power to curtail anti-Semitic occurrences, so please refrain from being too obvious about the subject of international Jewry. As for attacks on the United States, Magyar Nemzet, Fidesz’s own favorite newspaper, has also been full of anti-American articles for some time. So, don’t think that only the far right specializes in U.S. bashing.
Szaniszló’s harangue begins with a rehash of the Kennedy assassination, a topic he talked about earlier. Here the story serves as an introduction to the main theme. Kennedy was assassinated by “financial powers that conquered the United States.” According to Szaniszló, Kennedy was not the first victim of this financial power group because “there were earlier presidents, vice presidents, and secretaries” who were killed by these people. I myself couldn’t come up with any president whose assassination was in any way connected to the financial world. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Southerner; James Garfield’s assassin was mentally unbalanced; and William McKinley was killed by an anarchist. As for vice presidents, no vice president of the United States has ever been assassinated. And as for secretaries, there was an assassination attempt on the life of William H. Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, at the same time as the president’s assassination, but he survived.
Soon enough Szaniszló moves to more dangerous grounds. With a quick turn we are at 9/11, which is according to him “the biggest lie of world history” because it was a “willful self-provocation, one of many.” In plain English, the United States government itself attacked the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. And there were many similar faked attacks. The same thing happened with the Lusitania, the British ocean liner, which according to Szaniszló was not torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat but by the United States to have an excuse to enter World War I. Just as the United States bombed and destroyed practically the whole U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor to justify entering World War II.
Those who committed atrocities in New York disappeared because “they became extinct in the fire of 9/11,” but “the Arab passport remained among the ruins of the Twin Towers where even steel beams became dust. And naturally they kill Osama bin Laden, but quickly they throw his body into the bottom of the ocean. They destroy his house. These financial conspirators consider people idiots and indeed they are right because they are duped by those who possess all the power, all the money, the media, the film industry, the propaganda, and the brain washing machinery.” Yet, this is all so clear. “The plane that few into the Pentagon simply disappears, Building # 7 collapses on its own without any attack, and the helicopter that was used in the Osama raid is destroyed by a nonexistent Taliban anti-aircraft defense force.” That is not all. After the Boston marathon attack two American agents fall out of an airplane because they know the truth about Chechnya. Two other agents are killed for the same reason. In brief, the politicians who run the United States are murderous criminals.
Szaniszló goes so far as to say that all the terrorist attacks were fakes. Every time there was an attack an official anti-terrorist exercise took place. For example, on September 11, 2001 planes of the American Air Force were not flying between New York and Washington because of exercises. The Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut was staged by the American anti-terrorist group. “They sacrificed their own children and their teachers.” During the Boston marathon the same thing happened. The U.S. Air Force was doing routine exercises “in order to hide the truth which was a murderous attack organized from above.” All that to incite anti-Muslim feelings in the United States. “These were attacks against their own people disguised as anti-terrorist exercises. Their goal is to acquire more oil and gas fields and gold mines.
“What kind of morality is this? And the West builds its fortune on that? On this filth, on this garbage? Is this supposed to be the liberal democracy? This morass?” Thanks to Edward Snowden we now know that “they don’t even trust their closest friends, they spy on their own henchmen, and they even record when Angela Merkel does her number one and number two in the Reichstag or what Queen Elizabeth wears under her train.”
Once Szaniszló finished with the United States he moved on to Ukraine, a country that doesn’t want to supply slaves to the European Union. It would rather turn to Russia, which at the moment is trying to undo its own Trianon.
This is what Hungarian television viewers learn about the world. Hatred against the United States, the European Union, the West in general. And then we are surprised at the general ignorance and hatred of foreigners? We shouldn’t be.
You may recall that, shortly after the formation of his cabinet, Viktor Orbán practically ordered Hungary’s ambassadors to respond immediately and forcefully to all unfounded criticism in their “local” media. I’m pretty sure that the foreign ministry also directed Hungarian ambassadors to perform this task, but Viktor Orbán, who has taken away more and more of the competence of the foreign minister and his diplomats, gave some of his own men the task of keeping an eye on the foreign media’s depiction of Hungary and the Hungarian government.
One such man is Ferenc Kumin, about whom I already wrote in connection with a documentary film shown on Swedish television. In this instance Hungarian interference on the ambassadorial level backfired. Since then at least two other television programs have dealt with problems in today’s Hungary. Moreover, Hungary was also the topic of a radio program broadcast on Sweden’s public radio station.
Kumin has quieted down somewhat since his inglorious encounter with Ágnes Heller and was satisfied with only a modest comment affixed to an article that appeared in Maclean’s, the foremost Canadian weekly, about Ákos Kertész, who recently received political asylum in Canada. The author of the article was Anna Porter, the well-known Canadian publicist, who wrote several books on Eastern Europe. What did Kumin object to this time? Interestingly, he didn’t try to deny the harassment of Ákos Kertész by the authorities and by people who were offended by his bitter criticism of his own people, the Hungarians, but concentrated instead on the following lines in Anna Porter’s article:
The far-right Jobbik party demanded that Kertész be stripped of his honours and distinctions; the prime minister agreed and promised a bill would come before parliament to deal with “such racist, anti-Hungarian, traitorous statements.”
According to Kumin,
The author has misquoted Prime Minister Orbán and distorted his comment about the proposed law. It’s simply incorrect to say that he “agreed and promised a bill would come before parliament to deal with ‘such racist, anti-Hungarian, traitorous statements.’” In fact, the prime minister was talking about when it is appropriate to respond to offensive, insulting statements and when it’s better to simply ignore them. He said, unfortunately, one has to handle statements that are often “ignoble, silly or racist” (“nemtelen, szamárság, rasszista”)…. Also, he said that when the parliament considers the law on state honors, it should debate whether it is a good idea to be able to withdraw such honors and, if so, on what conditions. A misquote as serious as this would ordinarily merit a correction.
Kumin gave a link to Viktor Orbán’s answer to a question addressed to him by Sándor Pörzse, a member of Jobbik, the Hungarian anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy party. But before I give the exact wording of the prime minister’s answer, I would like to recall a few events that preceded this exchange on October 24, 2011.
On September 10 the Fidesz caucus of the Budapest City Council proposed withdrawing Ákos Kertész’s “Freedom of the City” award because he called Hungarians genetically servile. A Jobbik member of the City Council agreed and further suggested that the President should consider taking away Kertész’s Kossuth Prize, which he received in 2008. And indeed, “President Pál Schmitt requested that the government examine the possibility of withdrawing state awards from those who had become unworthy.” The Orbán government seemed to have supported the idea because János Halász, undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs in the Ministry of Human Resources, agreed: “If Kertész doesn’t apologize, the government won’t consider him to be worthy of the Kossuth Prize.” In plain language, they will take it away from him.
On September 21 Kertész was stripped of his “Freedom of the City” award by a vote of the Jobbik-Fidesz majority on the City Council. Three days later the Kertész affair got to the Hungarian parliament. It was on October 4 that Orbán rose and answered Jobbik’s Sándor Pörzse in connection with Kertész’s Kossuth Prize.
We, right-wing Christian politicians, must get accustomed to ignoble, silly, racist comments which revile Hungarians and we must carefully choose when we pick up the gauntlet, when we hit back and when not…. As far as the concrete issue is concerned, clearly it makes one unhappy that a writer who received the Kossuth Prize entertains us with such stupidities. But there are worse cases than that. For example, Ernő Gerő is still on the rostrum of Kossuth Prize winners. This only shows that in the last twenty years we didn’t have enough steadfastness to scrutinize the law on state prizes and decorations and discuss the question in this House whether a prize already awarded can or cannot be withdrawn, and if it can be, under what circumstances its withdrawal is or is not desirable. Soon the law concerning prizes and decorations will be before the House when we hope we will have the opportunity to discuss soberly and dispassionately, quite independently from racist stupidities that offend Hungarians, the whole question.
But Kumin didn’t quote the rest of the exchange. Pörzse had an opportunity for a follow-up question, and he asked Orbán to take the initiative of stripping Ákos Kertész of his prize. He emphasized that he should take that “symbolic step.”
Orbán’s answer must have been soothing to the ears of the Jobbik MP. The prime minister stressed that the “solution” is not in his hands. “We will bring the bill here, we will discuss it, and the Hungarian government will follow” the law that is enacted. Galamus‘s headline read: “Orbán reassured Jobbik.”
You can decide whether or not Anna Porter grossly distorted Viktor Orbán’s comments. I don’t think so. I think she summarized Orbán’s statements on the subject quite accurately.
Time to move from the past to the present. From Viktor Orbán’s personal enrichment to the much greater sins he is committing today. I would like to call attention to something that didn’t receive the attention it deserves in the Hungarian media: a small item in the new electoral law that makes it easy for new Hungarian citizens from the neighboring countries to vote while practically depriving about half a million Hungarian citizens who temporarily work abroad of the right to vote.
How can this be when we’ve heard so often from government politicians that there cannot be two different kinds of citizenship? The Hungarian government cannot grant citizenship to people of Hungarian heritage without giving them the right to vote even if they have never set foot in present-day Hungary. This argument, advanced by Fidesz and the Orbán government, makes some sense. But what kind of sense does it make that people from other countries who just received their citizenship can vote by absentee ballot while those who became Hungarian citizens by birth cannot? Because this is what is happening. And as with everything else, Viktor Orbán knows what he is doing.
On October 25 an article appeared in Népszava about a document the newspaper received that attests to the disparate treatment of new and old citizens living and working abroad. János Kiss from Romania who just got his citizenship and passport can sit in the comfort of his living room in Chicago and vote by absentee ballot. By contrast, József Nagy, who was born in Mátészalka and finished his schooling in Hungary and who also lives in Chicago, can vote only by traveling to the Hungarian embassy in Washington or one of the consulates in San Francisco and New York. Take your pick. The situation is just as bad in the United Kingdom where bona fide Hungarian citizens might have to travel from the northernmost point of Scotland to London to vote at the Hungarian embassy while their lucky new compatriots would have to go no farther than the closest mailbox.
According to the Central Statistical Office, 7.4% of Hungarians between the ages of 18 and 49 work abroad. These people have permanent addresses in Hungary. There are various estimates of the true number of people who have left Hungary to seek their fortunes elsewhere. We hear of 100,000 Hungarians living in London alone. Emigration to Germany has accelerated of late and the same is true about Austria. All in all, there might be as many as half a million Hungarians living abroad. Although theoretically these people can vote, in reality they are unlikely to go to the lengths necessary–often involving both time and money–to cast their ballots.
The decision to distinguish between new and old citizens is not a coincidence or an oversight. Viktor Orbán and his cohorts figure that the new citizens, who are intrinsically more conservative than the adult population of Hungary proper, will vote overwhelmingly for Fidesz. After all, they received their Hungarian citizenship from this government. They are not at all sure of the recent émigrés’ party preferences. They left the country either because they couldn’t find a job or because they found the atmosphere oppressive. Recent émigrés complain about the lack of meritocracy in Hungary which works against those without “connections.” If these people could vote by absentee ballot, who knows what the results would be. So, let’s make sure they don’t vote. I’m sure that’s how the argument goes in Fidesz circles.
After October 25 I was waiting with great interest for the reaction to Népszava‘s revelation. I was disappointed. There was not a word about this outrageous discrimination for quite a few days. At last on November 1 Hir24.hu came out with a four liner with the headline: “It will be mighty expensive for people working abroad to vote.” Surely, the reporter didn’t grasp the true significance of the provision. At the end of the article it was mentioned that, according to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ), this part of the electoral law is unconstitutional.
TASZ may have found the provision unconstitutional but according to Róbert Zsiga, a Fidesz spokesman, the law did not change the voting status of Hungarians working outside the country. Prior to the enactment of the new electoral law Hungarians who were abroad at the time of the election could vote only at embassies and consulates. That is still the case. He forgot to add that in the past there was no such thing as absentee ballots for new citizens.
Századvég, the think tank that has been receiving billions of forints worth of government orders in the last three years, immediately announced that there can be no constitutional objections to the law. According to Balázs András Orbán, it would be possible to talk about discrimination only if some people in the same homogeneous group had different rights from others. But here we are talking about two groups with two different sets of rules.
I’m no legal expert, but I find this particular line of reasoning bonkers. So did TASZ, who summed up their reasoning in the headline: “Either to everybody or to nobody.” At the same time a Hungarian citizen, represented by TASZ, turned to the Constitutional Court for remedy. TASZ’s argument can be read here. As of today the Constitutional Court hasn’t responded to TASZ’s brief.
With the exception of DK the opposition parties somehow managed to miss the news of this gross discrimination. DK submitted an amendment to the electoral law on December 4 which would give all Hungarian citizens living abroad the right to vote by mail. Csaba Molnár, deputy chairman of DK, also approached the new Fidesz-appointed ombudsman, who has the right to turn to the Constitutional Court with cases raising constitutional issues. Molnár received a letter about two weeks later from the ombudsman, László Székely, who naturally found nothing wrong with this provision of the Fidesz electoral law and therefore refused to ask the Constitutional Court’s opinion on the matter. According to Székely, as long as all citizens have the right to vote, the “method of voting is not a constitutional matter.”
So, this is where we stand. It looks as if the Hungarian opposition must turn to international organizations, for example, to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or to the European Court of Justice. An opinion piece written by a lawyer, László Szlávnits, suggests that if there is no remedy to this incredible provision of the electoral law the opposition should seriously consider boycotting the elections.
Today I will return to József Debreczeni’s book on “The Fidesz robber barons.” This time the topic will be the enrichment of the Orbán family, which included Viktor Orbán’s father, Győző, between 1998 and 2002–that is, while he was prime minister.
Debreczeni, who for years taught high school history before he became a politician and subsequently a writer on politics, notes that although political corruption has had a long history in Hungary, the highest political dignitaries did not dirty their hands with money grubbing. Not so Viktor Orbán who, as investigative journalists discovered, systematically exploited his position for financial gain.
Just to put things in perspective, here are a couple of figures. In 1998 Orbán and his wife had 5.5 hectares of agricultural land. Four years later they had 11.5 times more. In 1994 the couple purchased an apartment for 563,000 forints in downtown Budapest. In 2002 they purchased a villa in the most elegant section of Buda for 75 million forints, which they enlarged and renovated to the tune of tens of millions.
Viktor Orbán’s father Győző–which by the way is the Hungarian equivalent of Viktor–had two smallish quarries worth 98 million forints. Four years later, he was worth 666 million forints.
The Orbáns were involved in two separate business ventures. Neither is pretty.
Their first business venture took them to Tokaj. Dezső Kékessy, a wealthy Hungarian businessman from Switzerland who left Hungary after the 1956 revolution but returned to Hungary after 1990, was looking for business opportunities. Tokaj seemed like a good prospect. During the socialist period Tokaj, which had had a very good name before the second world war, lost its luster due to the general deterioration of viticulture in Hungary. The stock was old, so vineyards could be had for relatively little money. Kékessy and Orbán met and became friends and eventually business partners. Well, that’s not quite precise. On paper Kékessy’s business partner was Orbán’s wife, Anikó Lévai. I might add that Orbán eventually named Kékessy ambassador to France.
The Orbáns’ share in the company that Kékessy formed was relatively small, but the Orbáns naturally became key business partners due to Orbán’s position. First, he made sure that the grapes the company produced found a market. There was an ailing state company in Tokaj that was still the major buyer of grapes in the region. Since the head of the state bottling company was appointed by Orbán, they had a ready market for their grapes. In fact, in 2000 the state company bought grapes only from the Orbán-Kékessy vineyard. Orbán also made sure that the state bottling company had money to buy their grapes. In 2000, the government financially strengthened the ailing company with the injection of 1.5 billion forints. In 2001 another 2.5 billion was invested in the company. And it kept buying the prime minister’s grapes, even though there was a glut in the wine market.
The Fidesz government also offered what amounted to a “friends and family” package. István Stumpf, who headed the prime minister’s office in those days, had a large, extended family in the region, some of whom owned vineyards. In 1998 the Stumpf family managed to sell only 5 million forints worth of grapes, but after cousin István became an important man in the government they did exponentially better. In 2000 their sales were 17.7 million and in 2001 30.6 million. Two Stumpfs were actually employees of the bottling company, and it was their cousin in Budapest who approved pumping billions into the state company.
But that wasn’t all. The Orbán-Kékessy company asked for state subsidies for the improvement of their vineyards. The owners got together to discuss business matters, often in Viktor Orbán’s apartment. It was during one of these meetings that Orbán warned his business partners to be cautious about the subsidies: “we shouldn’t be the ones who get the most.” Obviously he was worried about someone discovering his interest in the company. So they didn’t get the most, only the second most. In 2001 570 people received subsidies for vineyard improvements. Only two got over 40 million forints. The first received 44,636 forints, and the second, the Orbán-Kékessy concern, 41,475. In addition, on two other occasions their company received an additional 64.5 million forints in subsidies.
The other setting for the growing Orbán empire was Felcsút, the village where Orbán spent his early childhood. Of course, nowadays we hear mostly about the Puskás Football Academy and the huge stadium for 3,500 in a village of 1,800 inhabitants. But twelve years ago the expansion of Orbán’s holdings was still in its infancy. Here too, the launch of the Orbán empire was shady. In 2001 the Orbáns purchased 54 hectares of agricultural land for half the price of what land sold for in those days in the County of Fehér. Anikó Lévai purchased the land from Sándor Bognár, the head of a large state farm in the vicinity (an Orbán appointee). Two weeks after Bognár sold the land to the Orbáns, the state farm without competitive bidding was privatized. And who became the majority owner of the farm? Sándor Bognár.
But that is not the end of the story. Felcsút and five villages around it received a 2.7 billion forint state subsidy for water control. Apparently flooding is not a problem in the area. In fact, these villages receive less than the average amount of precipitation. The ministry in charge put the Felcsút application in thirtieth place on their list of ranked applications. Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, stopped the discussion and made the documentation of the parliamentary commission a state secret. Against the recommendations of the ministry he placed the Felcsút project at the head of the list.
After Felcsút received this subsidy, the puzzle of the low price of the land that Sándor Bognár sold to the Orbáns was solved. It turned out that Bognár had purchased the land from two sisters who had additional acreage, which now the local government purchased on the government subsidy for the purpose of building rain collectors. The sisters received 10 million forints for about three hectares, seven times the average price of land in and around Felcsút. This is how the two sisters got compensated for selling their land for half price to the Orbáns and the Hungarian taxpayers footed the bill.
As a result of the large government investments in and around Felcsút, real estate prices have skyrocketed. The land the Orbáns bought for 5 million is today worth 34.4 million. It is also possible that the status of this land might be changed from “agricultural” to “land for development.” In that case it could be worth 400 million forints.
And finally, a few words about Győző Orbán’s business ventures. Dunaferr, a steel plant, was in those days still a state company. After Orbán took office the management of the company was changed. Soon thereafter Dunaferr signed a five-year contract with Győző Orbán’s quarry to supply gravel and concrete for Dunaferr. He was the low bidder but later it turned out that the contract didn’t include transportation costs that were separately billed. These costs had to be considerable because Orbán’s quarry was a great deal farther from Dunaferr than the company that had supplied the materials previously.
It turned out that the elder Orbán also supplied material for road construction as a subcontractor. His son later denied his father’s business connection with Vegyészgép, which received the construction job without competitive bidding. But Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the truth. Győző Orbán, in anticipation of the large order from Vegyépszer, managed to get the rights to quarry rock and gravel. Once his son warned him about the dangers of getting state orders, he passed these rights on to one of his men, who established a new company called Femol Kft.
As the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.