Month: March 2008

Coalition crisis?

It seems that there is, or at least appears to be, a crisis: SZDSZ is mighty sore. They took offence at Ferenc Gyurcsány’s announcement of his intention to dismiss Ágnes Horváth as minister of health. Ágnes Horváth, who is not even an SZDSZ party member, was nonetheless the party’s choice for the post. Poor Horváth in her thirties became the most hated politician in the country although she did nothing else but execute, for better or worse, the government program. So basically she is the sacrificial lamb of a failed policy. Personally, I feel sorry for her. I think she deserved better. However, in political terms, I can understand why the prime minister decided as he did. Ágnes Horváth became a symbol of defeat. There is a need for a new face.

What János Kóka and a newly unified SZDSZ complain about is the way Gyurcsány dismissed Horváth. The prime minister was not lying (as Péter Szijjártó, spokesman of Fidesz claimed) when he announced at the party conference that he informed both Kóka and Horváth of his intentions. He did phone them before the fact. What Kóka and SZDSZ politicians complain about is that he acted without consulting them. Yet Gyurcsány did nothing illegal. The prime minister has the right to unilateral action in cases of choosing or dismissing members of his cabinet.

Some people, including Sándor Friderikusz who had a long interview with Gyurcsány tonight, feel that the prime minister, by announcing Horváth’s dismissal at the party conference in front of thousands, if not millions, humiliated the smaller governing party. Gyurcsány’s answer was that he didn’t intend to humiliate anyone and, in any case, "we are big boys and girls" and in politics one shouldn’t be offended. Taking offence and acting in anger or hurt is not good politics.

Both Kóka and Fodor are hanging tough. At the moment SZDSZ’s position is that if Ágnes Horváth is dismissed as of the end of April on the very same day SZDSZ will leave the coalition. Unless, of course, Gyurcsány resigns. Then they will think about it! The answer to this was swift. The presidium of MSZP got together tonight and said that they support the prime minister and that Kóka and company can decide what they want to do. MSZP would like to continue the coalition but not at any price.

Meanwhile Gyurcsány made his first move toward achieving a possible coalition reconciliation. He announced that in the revised health care bill he still wants to see mention of private capital. (Earlier there were rumors that private capital would be banished.) I don’t know whether SZDSZ will find this enough. Another piece of news (at least according to a couple of on-line newspapers) is that perhaps the current undersecretary of health, Gyula Kincses, will be Horváth’s successor. Kincses is a white-haired, male doctor who has worked as a health expert for all major parties. Perhaps he will be accepted by SZDSZ. After all, they accepted him as deputy to Horváth.

Fidesz birthday bash: Twenty years

It was on March 30, 1988, that a group of university students established a youth organization (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége/Association of Young Democrats) independent of the sanctioned KISZ (Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség). The founding members numbered thirty-seven, and most of them lived in a residential college later named after István Bibó (1911-1977), one of the most original political thinkers of modern Hungary. For Fidesz’s twentieth anniversary the founders, by now with their growing families, gathered in their former residential college to cut the giant birthday cake. And, of course, some of them made speeches.

The most important speaker was László Kövér who was the moving spirit behind the organization. Kövér was not the most assiduous law student so his studies lasted a tad longer (seven years all told) than normal. He was four years older than his friend, Viktor Orbán, who apparently greatly admired him. Kövér admits that originally they didn’t want more than to "be able to organize freely." The leaders of Fidesz are very proud of the fact that they were the first daring ones who managed to formally establish an oppositional group.

While Gyurcsány was making a speech in front of the party faithful, Kövér claimed in his speech that "the same governing elite that was in power in 1988, 1989, and 1990 still holds Hungary captive." This rather exaggerated remark is based on the fact that in those days, the current MSZP leaders, including Ferenc Gyurcsány, György Szilvássy, and Péter Kiss, were all employed by KISZ. Of course, KISZ didn’t have much importance or power. Moreover, the dividing line between the two groups wasn’t that sharp. After all, Kövér three years earlier, in 1985, envisaged himself and his friends as future MSZMP party leaders who would have a political role to play "whether they want it or not."

Kövér went even farther and compared today’s democratically elected government to the one-party dictatorship. The October 23, 2006 "police attack" bears a strong resemblance to the "sins of the late Kádár regime" when police brutally attacked leaders of the opposition. The only difference between the two periods is that in the dictatorship the government had all the legal weapons to crush the opposition while today Gyurcsány had to break the law in order to quell the rightful opposition to his regime.

Kövér emphasized that the most stable characteristic of Fidesz in the last twenty years has been its anti-communist stance. This is certainly true, because otherwise the party has gone through incredible transformations–from the liberal SZDSZ "junior partner" to a "conservative" party that considered itself the rightful successor to József Antall, all the way to what it is today, a radical populist party. As they changed their orientation they gained followers. Kövér proudly announced that the party begun by 37 people had 7,000 to 8,000 members by 2000. Today Fidesz can boast 37,000 card carrying members, the strongest right-wing party in the region, they claim.

Kövér apologized for their behavior between 1990 and 1992 when they, as radical liberals, inflicted quite a bit of damage to the conservative side. On many questions they didn’t hold "the right views." For example, today they would vote for the return of church real estate. (Indeed, back then the party was ferociously anti-clerical.) He expressed his optimism about the future of the party. There will be early elections soon, and within five years the third Fidesz government will be in power. (That is, they will be elected soon and then re-elected.)

He compared the situation of "the so-called Hungarian left" to the "agony of a gravely ill man." The agony may last for years, but it may end abruptly. It all depends on when MSZP realizes that they have to get rid of Ferenc Gyurcsány.

At the birthday party Orbán only talked to journalists. According to him the present government is a lame duck that has no future, and therefore one must consider holding early elections. However, when asked how he imagines such an event, he admitted that he doesn’t really know. "Perhaps," he said, he "will be wiser tomorrow."

József Szájer, another founder now representing Fidesz in Brussels, also made a short speech in which he became quite lyrical. According to him "Hungary would be an entirely different country without the existence of Fidesz." He came up with the following: "We all [that is, all of Hungary] come out from under Fidesz’s overcoat," a reference to Dostoevsky’s famous saying about Russia coming out from under Gogol’s Overcoat. Not exactly modest. Neither were his other observations. According to him, Fidesz is "a historically unique phenomenon. After all, in other countries no similar youth organization and party came into being." He went even farther. His party showed the way not only in Hungary but because of its innovative capabilities it extended its influence to the whole of Europe. Its original ideas are now in the forefront of European thinking. (I’m thinking and thinking and still can’t quite figure out what had Szájer in mind.)

It’s obvious that the results of the referendum and the latest polls have made Fidesz bold and optimistic. We will see what will happen in the next few months or two years.

Soul searching in the MSZP

Yesterday and today were important in the life of the Magyar Szocialista Párt. Yesterday the presidium got together and spent six hours analyzing the political situation caused by the combined effects of the austerity program, a stagnant economy, and the devastating results of the Fidesz-inspired referendum on co-payment, hospital fees, and tuition. Although there are some in the socialist party who became weak-kneed and would give up the reform altogether, the more intelligent among the leadership know that the structural reforms cannot be postponed.

So after the gathering of the presidium yesterday, the party held a full-fledged congress where Ferenc Gyurcsány gave an hour-long speech. I found the speech good, but then I am inclined to like the prime minister’s speeches. I think he is a convincing speaker who is capable of steering his audience in his direction. I think he managed to do that again. After all, he knows the importance of the moment and the necessity of unity within the party. I cannot see into the heads of his audience, but I think that the vast majority is behind Gyurcsány.

Gyurcsány promised a "strong and honest speech." It was. He emphasized that the country is at a crossroads: "we will either choose the road of the western type of development, we will march on the road of progress, or will we try a unique, slightly inward looking, outwardly prickly Hungarian way. This has been our dilemma ever since the Enlightenment." He considers the MSZP the party of "national progress," an agenda for which he needs party and popular assistance. "Radical populism" is the opposite of "national progress." The recipe of "radical populism" is simple: "Trust us, we will raise salaries, we will raise pensions, we will abolish co-payments, one doesn’t have to pay tuition, we will produce 7% growth in the GDP, we will quadruple the salaries of the teachers…. Add to this a bit of national superiority, keep saying that there is a special Hungarian road, that economic textbooks lie and there is a different Hungarian economic solution. We are clever, talented, exceptional people, we are worth more than anyone else on the globe. Then add to all this a bit of anti-parliamentarian-ism. The parliament is only for the elite, it is from the ‘people’ that democracy is born. On the streets, in the direct popular will. Add a bit of love of the leader. Demand that the people kiss the leader’s hand, avoid any kind of debate, don’t attend the sessions of parliament, change your principles, values, ideals, as others change their underwear. Offer a little antisemitism and hatred of foreigners. Invite a journalist who recently wrote the nastiest antisemitic article only a few days ago to your birthday party. Wink here, wink there." [The reference to kissing the leader's hand is based on a fairly recently published picture where an old man is kissing Orbán's hand. A few years ago an old lady did the same. As for the birthday party. Today Fidesz celebrates its twentieth birthday, and Zsolt Bayer, a founder of Fidesz, was invited. His piece in Magyar Hírlap indeed was unspeakable.] And, continuing the recipe of radical populism theme: "For garnish add a menacing behavior, remain quiet if people brutally threaten your political rivals. Remain silent when there are Molotov cocktails thrown at the houses of your colleagues in parliament."

"These are the two roads!" He admitted that at the moment the idea of "national progress" seems to be on the losing side. Gyurcsány here formulated his strongest criticism of the party, the government, and himself up to date. They were chasing dreams and only increased people’s material desires. They strengthened the belief that the sky is the limit. The will of the government is enough. A year or two and there will be paradise in Hungary. Or, if they couldn’t achieve goals in a hundred days, they will pull it off in two hundred. This talk and the giving away of nonexistent goodies made the party popular. Then came the cold shower. The population couldn’t decide what kind of party the MSZP was: the one that gives or the one that a few months later takes away. The MSZP lost the people’s trust. Gyurcsány thinks that perhaps his biggest mistake was that he didn’t stand in front of the country in the spring of 2006 and tell the truth about the results of earlier fiscal irresponsibilities.

After self-criticism he turned to his "liberal friends." He suggested that they should be a bit more modest and "get off their high horses." "The trouble is not with the reforms themselves but with the reform blah-blah, the reform lecturing, the reform arrogance….. Instead of reform blah-blah and reform arrogance more dialog and more professionalism are needed. Perhaps these two will move us forward." The reform of Hungarian health care is unavoidable, but one ought to slow down and think things through before introducing changes. Therefore, he said, he has already explained to János Kóka and Ágnes Horváth that there is need for a personnel change at the head of the ministry of health.

After the criticism of the government parties Gyurcsány turned again to the topic of the behavior of Fidesz. He emphasized that the situation created by Fidesz’s strategy made governing extremely difficult. The government wasn’t prepared for such an atmosphere. According to Gyurcsány, "Fidesz mixes up parliamentary democratic rivalry with a fight for life and death and sometimes with a tavern brawl…. That party doesn’t seem to know limits in their choice of ideas, aims, instruments or style…. If they cannot win with liberalism, then what about conservativism. If that doesn’t work, try the national Christian politics of the inter-war period. If that doesn’t achieves its aim, then knead together everything that stands in opposition to progress. Offer godless hate, populism and radicalism, and you will see you will be in the majority." Gyurcsány compared Orbán to Meciar, Tudman, the Kaczynski brothers and Fico. If the country doesn’t realize what the politics of Fidesz means and is not willing to fight against it, then Hungary will find itself on a dead end road.

Gyurcsány had a few words for the so-called "independent intelligentsia." To be independent cannot mean standing in the middle because there is no middle road between radicalism and progress. "We must understand that our political adversaries are much more brutal than we could ever have imagined. At the same time let’s be self-critical and admit that we made more mistakes and had more misconceptions that we thought about our party, or I thought about myself."

Finally, Gyurcsány emphasized the necessity of the survival of the coalition, which he thinks is the foundation of successful governance until 2010. However, "blackmailing" within the coalition is unacceptable. From early SZDSZ reactions it doesn’t seem that the leaders of the SZDSZ got off their high horses.

The whole speech can be read in the original at


A short article in The Economist

Rarely does the English language press spend much time on Hungary. So Hungarian journalists and politicians tend to give undue weight to anything written about the country in reputable English language newspapers and magazines. If in a long article about some shady arms deal to Afghanistan appears in The New York Times in which Hungary is mentioned along with practically all other Eastern European countries, at least two dozen articles appear on the subject and the prime minister launches an investigation. Yesterday Hungary was singled out for criticism in a short article that appeared in The Economist entitled "A Magyar mess." It began: "Financial markets are jumpy about several east European countries. One of the more vulnerable is Hungary, notorious for its budget and current-account deficits. Once the local wonder child, Hungary is limping, its government outmanoeuvred by the opposition, its economy sclerotic and its population resentful." In Hungary, in brief, Chicken Little is triumphant, the sky is falling.

Indeed, there is a totally fatalistic public attitude even, or perhaps especially, in left-liberal intellectual circles. Everybody seems to be convinced that there is no way for the MSZP to win the elections in 2010, which is bad enough. But the real tragedy, in this view, is that the Fidesz will receive more than two-thirds of the the parliamentary seats and then this surely will be the end of Hungarian democracy. They envisage such changes in the constitution that would morph the current parliamentary system into a presidential type of democracy which in Hungary could lead to a destruction of the rule of law as it exists today. They already see Viktor Orbán moving over to the strengthened position of president, and then God help us!

Then there are those, also among the supporters of the MSZP, who think that perhaps the best chance for the party would be the resignation of Ferenc Gyurcsány. These people naively think that Viktor Orbán and Fidesz would be more cooperative without this thorn in Orbán’s side. Didn’t Orbán and his party say that they refuse to engage in any conversation with a liar? Perhaps if Gyurcsány disappeared from the political scene members of Fidesz wouldn’t leave the room when the prime minister speaks. There would be dialogue. There would be cooperation. I don’t think that it is necessary to emphasize that this is an absolutely wrong assumption. Nothing would change. Orbán’s appetite would only increase. With a lame and grey politician, like Péter Kiss for example, the MSZP would have even less of a chance for victory.

Now there is a new twist. A young but influential MSZP politician, Attila Mesterházy, came out with the idea that perhaps the best thing for MSZP would be to get rid of SZDSZ. If János Kóka threatens to quit the coalition if his party can’t achieve its original aims, especially in the questions of health care, then why doesn’t the MSZP say: "Fine! Go! Empty the ministerial seats, give back the car keys!" Admittedly, then MSZP would have to form a minority government. Mesterházy rather optimistically predicted that this new situation wouldn’t be problematic at all. SZDSZ would support the government from the outside. SZDSZ politicians very rightly countered: how can Mesterházy be so sure that this would be the case. Katalin Szili also liked this idea. Gyurcsány, on the other hand, outright rejected it.

Meanwhile, all the former presidents of the National Bank, a number of former ministers of finance, and many, many economists are suggesting draconian economic cuts that would be political suicide. The government cannot take away pensions, child support, the three-year government subsidy after each baby, and I could continue. Yes, it would be advisable to lower taxes but how when, as The Economist points out, "some 20% of workers pay four-fifths of income tax." And Hungarian society is not heavily skewed between the haves and have-nots.

Of course, the government could do a number of things before they take away pensions. The most important problem to address is the black economy. Does that mean targeting the tax-free status of those who allegedly earn only the minimum wage–all 1.2 million of them? That’s a blunt instrument that could hurt the truly poor without identifying those who are gaming the system. According to The Economist the black economy may account for 18% of GDP. I think this is probably a low figure. But, even assuming The Economist’s guess, just think how much more viable the Hungarian economy would be if all income were reported. Tax enforcement is never popular, but it’s almost always effective. Here I am, the small business classic tax evader: "Janos is going to jail for tax evasion. Oops! I’d better record these profits." And all of a sudden the coffers start to swell.

In addition to enforcing individual tax collection, Hungary would be wise to reduce the business tax rate from its temporary 20% back to its original 16%. But let’s be realistic, this is not enough. Politics is still the deal breaker. As The Economist said: "Hungary’s politicians are doing what they do best: squabbling for short-term advantage, while leaving structural problems untouched." An excellent cartoon appeared in today’s Népszava which depicts the situation very well. There is a little boat. Written on its side: Magyarország. At one end of the boat which is sinking, half drowning there is the captain, Ferenc Gyurcsány. At the other end, high up of the sinking boat there is Viktor Orbán in triumphant mood. The title: Az előny (Leading).

Meanwhile let me quote a short comment on the Economist article, obviously written by a right-wing Hungarian. Isn’t it nice to see the world in such simple terms? I didn’t correct the fellow’s English:

"There are some half-truth in your articles, as it is usual. First $2. This vote is not about $2 or not, but against a government, recruited among old communists and close friends and which illegible, couldn’t tell truth either to their supporters, achieved criminal-diplomacy and corruption and the prime minister is mentally instable. The well over than 50% voted against lies, the unlimited corruption and undemocratic way of administration."

Simple, isn’t it? Get rid of the mad prime minister, get rid of the communists, get rid of those who conduct "criminal diplomacy," and bring in democracy as this fellow and many like him envisage it. And all the problems would be solved.


Violence in Hungarian schools

In this new world of cell phones capable of taking videos and upload sites like YouTube, nothing can be kept secret for long. A few days ago a sixteen-year-old boy (grade nine) was seen attacking a quasi-geriatric male teacher. He kicked him, picked up a dangerous-looking instrument, and made threatening moves toward the man who was frightened and obviously disoriented. The class cheered their hero on, obviously enjoying the scene. The incident happened in Budapest’s District VIII where most people of Roma origin live. Of course, one wonders how it is possible that in this poor district students have expensive cell phones, but that’s another matter.

Those who have an authoritarian streak, and there are many in Hungary, cry foul: the modern school system introduced by the cursed SZDSZ is at fault. It gives all sorts of rights to students and none to teachers. Teachers are not supposed to check students’ backpacks, they are not supposed to embarrass students, they are supposed to treat them decently. In the good old days teachers had all the rights and students had none. Loud voices, including the more radical teachers’ union that usually sides with Fidesz, demand changes in the law. These changes might be difficult because Hungary is a signatory to an international agreement that produced the present system.

Let’s face it, even with the best of intentions, teachers always have the upper hand, and a teacher who takes a dislike to a student can make the student’s life miserable if he so chooses. He doesn’t have to embarrass him in front of the class, he doesn’t have to send notes to parents. He has the most powerful weapon: he gives the grades. This is especially true when the grades are based mostly on oral examinations.

But what about the student who doesn’t care about his grades? The student who is simply marking time? And what about a whole classroom of students who would rather be anywhere else but in school? This is a challenge for any educational system. Just look at American schools, especially in urban areas, that have security cameras, trained guards, and metal detectors.

And yet when it comes to the behavior of students, virtually everything depends on the teacher. If a teacher cannot keep order in the classroom (and this old gentleman certainly couldn’t–apparently the noise coming from his classroom was deafening), the students realize that the teacher is fair game and will take of advantage of him.

When I was in high school, we had a chemistry teacher who could easily have been beaten by a hefty sixteen-year-old boy. But that didn’t happen, first of all because if it was fifty years ago, when mostly middle-class children attended gymnasium, and second because it was a girls’ gymnasium. Otherwise, the noise was the same, the girls ran around in the classroom, on tests everybody cheated without even trying hide the fact. Right in front of his nose. Our poor man just stood there, clapped his hands helplessly and kept repeating: "Girls, girls, please!" If he saw someone copying the formulas straight out of the book, he said, "No problem, at least you know where to find the answer in the book." He was not fit to be a teacher.

On the other hand, we had a Russian teacher (who earlier taught French and German) who tolerated no nonsense. Yet we liked and respected her. She told me that her first job after getting out of university was in a boys’ gymnasium. Apparently she was the first woman ever to teach at that school, and her arrival caused quite a stir. She held her first class and walked toward the teacher’s room when she heard two boys talking. One asked the other: "How was she?" Her student answered: "Just as if she were a man. No different." (Well, not as if she were my male chemistry teacher.)

Some of the challenges (among them, violence in the classroom) facing today’s teachers are new. But they aren’t a paradigm shift, just a racheting up of old challenges. So an obvious solution, it would seem, is to rachet up the talent of Hungarian teachers. (This is supported by new "scientific" studies in Hungary.) But where we are going to find these good teachers? Even in my days when the teaching profession was prestigious I can count on one hand the number of good teachers I encountered. I survived, but most of what I learned was outside of the classroom. Mostly in the library.

What’s going on in SZDSZ?

Maybe I’m being influenced by Bálint Magyar, one of the founders of SZDSZ, whom I heard twice today on the SZDSZ election crisis, but I’m getting increasingly suspicious. Somehow I can’t get it out of my head that this whole controversy, given its timing and circumstances, has links to the largest opposition party. This would not be the first time that Viktor Orbán managed to get rid of a party that was not exactly to his liking. In 2001 it was his own coalition partner who became a burden. This time perhaps he thinks that the demise of SZDSZ might serve his purpose. After all, in the last two elections, SZDSZ’s presence helped the socialists into power.

Without wanting to repeat myself since I know that I already wrote about this controversy once, I would like to summarize the events leading up to the current situation. After Gábor Kuncze’s decision not to run again as a candidate for the post of president of SZDSZ the election became wide open. Against Kuncze no candidate stood a chance. Gábor Fodor tried twice and lost. The situation now was different. His opponent was János Kóka who until recently wasn’t even a member of the party and whose political experience was slim. This time Fodor had a real chance. A fierce battle ensued. In the first round each candidate received exactly the same number of votes. A second round of voting became necessary. Kóka won by thirteen votes. That was more than a year ago.

A couple of months ago a fellow showed up at HírTV with a juicy story. He claimed that, although he wasn’t even a delegate, under false names he and some others voted for János Kóka, assuming the places of real delegates who were absent. According to him, the head of the county delegation asked them to do this. The only problem with the story was that the head of this particular country’s delegation was an ardent supporter of Gábor Fodor, and it was unlikely that she would urge phony delegates to vote for Fodor’s opponent. An internal investigation followed that came to the conclusion that, although several people voted who were ineligible, neither Fodor nor Kóka had anything to do with the affair. Moreover, for some inexplicable reason the fellow changed his story, claiming that he actually voted for Fodor. The committee investigating the affair, of course, couldn’t verify his story one way or the other. Thus, Kóka and people supporting him, including Gábor Kuncze, felt that there was no need to repeat the election.

Throughout the investigation Fodor kept repeating that he wasn’t taking any action, that he was awaiting the committee’s verdict. Well, Fodor was furious with the decision. It was clear that he was hoping for a different outcome. He wanted to repeat the election because he believed that this time he would triumph. My feeling is the same. There are a lot of people who are very disappointed in Kóka. Kóka promised all sorts of things, including strengthening SZDSZ. Instead, SZDSZ support has shrunk to under 5% which means that, if national elections were held today, SZDSZ wouldn’t get into parliament.

There is no question that SZDSZ can only come out of this badly. Some people talk about a split between the two camps. And many recall the agony of the Smallholders, splitting into bits and pieces until they eventually disappeared from Hungarian political life. That can happen to SZDSZ. People keep asking: "Cui prodest?" or "Cui bono?"  In whose interest or for whose benefit? Certainly not Kóka’s. Certainly not SZDSZ’s. The very fact that the phony delegate offered his services to HírTV, whose owner is the same as that of Magyar Nemzet, tells us something.  Who sought out whom? Another question: why now? The elections, after all, took place about a year ago. There are no definite answers, of course, but one can’t help being suspicious.

If Viktor Orbán’s hand is in this sordid affair, one can ask: what role is Gábor Fodor playing in the game? After all, Fodor began his career in Fidesz. He shared a dormitory room with Orbán while in law school. He left Fidesz in 1993 because he was dissatisfied with the party’s turn toward the right and was suspicious of the financial dealings conducted in secret by Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s right-hand man. He went over to SZDSZ, where I’m sure he greatly contributed to the impressive SZDSZ showing in the 1994 elections. Whether his move may also have been at least partially responsible for the poor showing of Fidesz is debatable. In any event, Fodor prides himself on being a man who is able to achieve consensus. He was the only SZDSZ candidate for a ministerial post whom Fidesz members supported in committee. Some of his legislative proposals were accepted wholeheartedly by the opposition members as well. A unique situation in the current political atmosphere. He normally talks in glowing and reverent terms about "Mr. President," with whom he consults all the time.

Anyway, I can’t get it out of my mind that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark." But why? Why? It seems so unnecessary when, according to a post-referendum poll, if elections were held today Fidesz would receive two-thirds of the votes. They don’t need a dead SZDSZ. Or are they still not sure? Okay, all you conspiracy theorists, is there a plot afoot and, if so, what’s the strategy?

The importance of the Constitutional Court

I always had the distinct feeling that Hungarian political parties, especially the MSZP, didn’t realize the importance of this new institution. After all, between 1867 and 1944 the court system was organized in a four-tiered hierarchy at the top of which stood the kúria (Supreme Court), the highest court in the land. In 1950, after the communist takeover, this system was abolished. Although the járás (a unit smaller than a county) remained for a while, at least in name, the courts serving these geographical areas were abolished. The kúria was renamed Legfelsőbb Bíróság. And the lower appellate court, the ítélőtábla, was also abolished. Thus, for a number of years there was only a two-tiered system, which resulted in an overburdened Supreme Court.

In 1990 the people responsible for designing and putting into practice a new judicial system opted for a separate constitutional court, following the German model, instead of leaving the interpretation of the constitution in the hands of the Legfelsőbb Bíróság. Apparently the democratic opposition, who were responsible for this decision, greatly distrusted the highest court of the socialist regime. As it turned out, not without reason. Thus they set up an institution quite separate from the normal judicial system. The judges of the constitutional court don’t go through the usual steps of starting as a clerk for some well known judge, later perhaps working as a lawyer, then getting a prestigious job as a judge, and slowly moving up until they reach the peak due to their judicial excellence. No, the Hungarian constitutional court’s judges are "scholars" who come from the nation’s law schools. Their names are put forth by the different parties, and parliament must approve them by a two-thirds majority. A lot of people claim that this practice leads to choosing mediocre judges because if you aspire to a job on the Constitutional Court you’d better not offend anyone.

The present situation shows how important the constitutional court is. In many ways, more important than the government. After all, a bad decision by the court which, for example, allowed holding a referendum on questions that should not have been decided by plebiscite caused a huge political turmoil and put the country into a most precarious situation. MSZP politicians claim that they pay serious attention to choosing judges for the constitutional court. Yet in spite of both sides having a say in the composition of the court, it seems that one side, that is the Fidesz, pays a great deal more attention to the constitutional court than does the MSZP. After all, the court as it stands now is solidly on the right. The most interesting case is perhaps the "retiring" chief justice, Mihály Bihari, whose name was suggested by MSZP.

I’m not surprised that the MSZP suggested Bihari. After all, he was a long-time member of the MSZMP and one of the editors of Társadalmi Szemle, the scientific monthly of the party’s central committee. It’s true that because of his deviant thoughts he was kicked out of the party in the 1980s, but that might have been perceived as a plus. Admittedly, in 1989 he was close to the MDF instead of lending a helping hand to the reform wing of the MSZMP in the establishment of a new socialist party. But surely the party leaders thought that Bihari was a decent candidate and that Fidesz would not object. As it turned out, Fidesz can be grateful to Bihari. After all, the Bihari court delivered a wonderful political gift to Fidesz in form of the plebiscite. Yet, according to rumors, the opposition party is not grateful. They won’t support his reelection. Neither, of course, will MSZP or the liberals.

Another departing judge of the eleven-member court is István Kukorelli, who most likely will step down in June. Thus two people must be found. Apparently, the socialists and the liberals would like to present only one person and they even found someone who seemed suitable, but the person wouldn’t accept the nomination. Fidesz still has no candidate.

This time, I’m very much hoping a better qualified man will replace Bihari, whose narrow interpretation of the constitution is criticized even by other constitutional scholars. Also, one can only hope that the court’s composition will not be as one sided as it is now.

A case study: Hungarian papers on the MSZP pow-wow

I think that even a cursory look at one political event and how the different media present it might be a useful exercise. Prior to the recent meeting of the MSZP leaders the right-wing papers and television stations were full of rumors of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s dismissal by the MSZP from either his position as head of the party or as prime minister or both. HírTV was the busiest spreading the news that Gyurcsány’s days were numbered. Therefore, it had to be rather hard to admit a couple of days later that they were wrong.

Parenthetically, let me inject that a rational reporter would realize that it would be absolutely suicidal of MSZP to get rid of the prime minister under the circumstances. And, let me add, it would be also irresponsible given the belief in foreign financial circles that the reform and the convergence program are closely tied to Gyurcsány. As long as he is at the helm with János Veres at his side there is hope. Otherwise, who knows? Moreover, who could replace him? Surely, nobody at the moment could fill his shoes. However, the right-wing media put wishful thinking ahead of rationality.

HírTV (3/24/08, 12:16) gave an unusually terse headline to its short news item after the meeting of the MSZP leaders: "They won’t dimiss Gyurcsány." Although so far it seems that very little information leaked out of the meeting, HírTV purports to know that the party bigwigs gave Gyurcsány another year to prove himself. The witching date, according to the journalist of HírTV, is next year’s European Union elections. That seems to be the opinion of InfoRádió as well, which headlined its story: "Gyurcsány received a pass till the middle of 2009." If MSZP’s standing with the electorate does not improve by the summer of next year, he will be kicked out. I traced the source of this "information" to MTV’s Este in which the reporter on the scene mentioned this possibility. I interpreted his words as a private opinion rather than an official explanation. MTV’s reporter also added that anyone who knows Gyurcsány understands that in the case of failure he wouldn’t have to be dismissed but would resign.

HírTV also seems to know that Gyurcsány was as self-critical at this meeting as he had been at Balatonőszöd almost two years ago. This is a fairly obvious ploy to remind their listeners of the lying prime minister’s speech that prompted the political crisis of the last year and a half. InfoRádió and MTV seem to be able to differentiate between Balatonszemes, where the meeting was held, and Balatonőszöd, but another right-wing online paper, Gondola, introduced a highly speculative piece with the title: "Another ‘honest’ speech at Őszöd." I guess for a punchy headline one can even change the location. After all, Szemes is close to Őszöd!

Magyar Nemzet "was informed that the prime minister admitted his responsibility for the failure of the referendum." Again, simply using common sense, I very much doubt this. After all, it wasn’t Gyurcsány’s fault that there couldn’t be a more favorable outcome of a plebiscite on questions so devilishly formulated as these three were. If anyonone is responsible for the whole fiasco it is the Constitutional Court and the judges’ narrow interpretation of a bad constitution. Magyar Nemzet also seems to know that "the presidium demanded" a change in governing style and closer cooperation with the party. From other less antagonistic sources the picture that emerges is different. An informal soul searching and a discussion of plans about how to solve the problems the party is facing.

While Hírextra (an online paper) called the weekend MSZP gathering a "crisis conclave," Népszava, a paper close to the government, called the meeting "informal." Although the prime minister "also received criticism, it was not a discussion on a crisis situation." HVG, normally a moderate weekly, in its online edition went so far as to say: "there are no signs that anyone could or would replace Ferenc Gyurcsány, and this is especially true about the post of the prime minister." HVG‘s headline read: "Gyurcsány is firmly sitting on his throne." Even Magyar Nemzet learned that Katalin Szili supported the party and the prime minister, admitting that perhaps she also made a few mistakes and could have taken the initiative in having better relations with Gyurcsány.

HVG mentioned "the journalists’ guessing games," pretty well indicating that all of their speculations were basically wrong. In this guessing game Gondola went farthest since it seemed to know that "important businessmen behind MSZP" are already looking around for a prime minister who would be acceptable to the international financial community. Apparently, they found their men: the current and the former head of the National Bank! But, according to Gondola they are not too eager. I assume this latest piece of "information" is about as accurate as some of Gondola’s other fantasies.

Political journalism in Hungary

Sometime it’s outright uncanny that I write about a specific aspect of a topic one day and the next day I find a whole article on the subject. That happened to me just today. Yesterday I wrote about the hysteria the right-wing media has been creating of late and today, having a bit of time on my hands, I read some of the Hungarian weeklies, including Élet és Irodalom (Life and literature), perhaps the best publication dealing with politics and literature in the Hungarian language. I should mention here that most people refer to Élet és Irodalom simply as És, harking back to the time when this publication was nothing to brag about. Right after the defeat of the revolution when most writers were either in jail or refused to publish, this creation of the Kádár regime was a rather anemic literary effort. As people said: there is neither life nor literature in it.  But that was a long time ago, and the publication today is first rate.

Anyway, going back to the media and hysteria. The author of the article that aroused my interest is Péter Bajomi-Lázár, a media sociologist. Or at least I think that is what his job is called. In any event, he studies the media. The title: "A vélemények makacs dolgok: Politikai újságírás Magyarországon." Or in English: "Opinions are stubborn things: Political journalism in Hungary."  The title is a take-off on a Stalin quotation. Apparently he made the brilliant observation that "facts are stubborn things, comrades."

The first surprising fact I learned from Bajomi-Lázár is that in Europe as a whole 42% of people think that journalists do a good job and that their work is admirable. In Hungary and Slovakia only 3 out of 10 people have a good opinion of journalists. Thus, a significant majority of the Hungarian public doesn’t trust journalists and their newspapers. Bajomi-Lázár speculates that the problem may be that in Hungary "engaged or cause promoting" journalism is more prevalent than "neutrally objective" reporting. This is especially true about the right-wing papers where the norm is: "always say good things about our side and bad things about our opponents."

Bajomi-Lázár lists some of the most serious journalistic sins found in the Hungarian media. (1) Speculation. Surely it doesn’t increase trust in Hungarian journalism when a journalist writes about "possible intentions" or what the politician "might be thinking." I found a good example of that just today in, not surprisingly, Magyar Nemzet. "Demszky is pondering the possibility of resigning his membership on the board of directors of SZDSZ." Did they look into his head or just speculate? (2) Insinuation. Let’s assume that somebody is implicated in a corruption case and the journalist mentions that, by the by, years earlier this person was an advisor, assistant, what not of an important politician. (3) Recontextualization. In plain language, the journalist takes a sentence from a given context and puts it in another, giving the sentence an entirely different meaning. (4) Fabrication. This practice of citing nonexistent sources or interviews is not too frequent but apparently it has happened. I don’t know the inner workings of the Hungarian press to be sure which case Bajomi-Lázár has in mind, but unfortunately we know several such cases in the American press, including one mightily embarrassing The New York Times. (5) Second hand reporting. You could also call it faking. When a journalist writes about an event as if he had been there but actually his information is based on the reports of other people. I myself discovered such a journalistic practice on the left-liberal side about an antisemitic demonstration in front of Titok Rádió.  (6) Overstatements. Often Hungarian journalists present insignificant events as if they were tsunamis and draw far-reaching conclusions. (7) Odd timing. Out of the blue, let’s say in the middle of a campaign, some old event is dredged up that had not been presented to the public earlier. The astute reader can rightly ask: Why now? What is the reporter’s agenda?

These "professional mistakes" are not restricted to Hungary, but unfortunately they are typical of the country’s journalistic practices. A rather sad, but unfortunately accurate description of the state of Hungarian journalism. And Bajomi-Lázár didn’t mention the annoying manipulation of the readership with misleading headlines. They really drive me up the wall. Unfortunately, I could climb that wall daily. Several times. And I don’t need that much aerobic exercise.

Propaganda campaign in the media?

In the last week I have become more and more convinced that certain circles close to Fidesz are waging a well constructed and successful propaganda campaign in the media that will "rewrite" the results of the plebiscite. Attila Ágh, the political scientist, made an interesting observation. Every political event has an afterlife, and the massaging of this afterlife is just as important or perhaps even more important than the event itself. He gave a very good example: the events of October 23, 2007. The actual event was a fairly serious disturbance by a violent mob against the police. But its afterlife bears little resemblance to the original events. By now the conversation is not about a drunken mob but about peaceful demonstrators who were attacked by the vicious police. And the police are led by a bloodthirsty dictator, the prime minister, who is criminally liable for endangering the lives of peaceful citizens. With clever manipulation the events we saw with our own eyes on the television set become a mere mirage. Something like that is going on today with the results of the plebiscite.

Everybody knew in their heart of hearts, including Ferenc Gyurcsány himself, that the referendum could not be won. The only surprise was the number of people who went out to vote. A bit over 50% of all eligible voters. The analysis of the results is not ready yet, but according to educated guesses Fidesz managed to convince about 70% of its own followers to vote. Where the other 30% came from remains unknown: from MSZP supporters, from the undecided, from those who never voted at general elections but when the question concerned their pocket books decided to go and write in a big "yes"?  There is a strong, and a likely, suspicion that those dollar signs (pardon, forint signs) had something to do with the large turnout. We might recall the earlier referendum of December 2005 that also included a question on the ownership of hospitals. That referendum didn’t attract people in such large numbers.

Following the counting of the ballots of the recent referendum rumors have been flying, especially in the right-wing media. Magyar Nemzet is the leader in this department. This paper ignores the most basic practices of good journalism. The informants are always anonymous, and there is no confirmation of information. There are, however, a lot of conditionals. An article about the prime minister’s possible resignation begins with the words "not unimaginable." I guess not too many things are unimaginable except perhaps that the sun will rise in the west or that we will live forever. The problem with this kind of journalism is that it is highly misleading. The careless reader who looks through an article while having breakfast will not remember the "not unimaginable" phrase. Rather, his takeaway will be that Gyurcsány will not be prime minister by summer time, and he will spread this news to his neighbor.

The homepage of Fidesz announced that this weekend the upper echelon of the MSZP was scheduled to hold a vote of confidence on Gyurcsány, and the article adds that "political analysts are trying to pinpoint the date of his departure." Tamás Fricz, a Fidesz propagandist posing as a political scientist, purports to know that "Gyurcsány will resign this year and Péter Kiss will be the new prime minister." Heti Válasz, allegedly a more moderate right-wing weekly, also has its candidates: Gordon Bajnai, minister in charge of local government and regional development, or András Simor, the head of the National Bank. Needless to say, these prophecies have no basis in facts.

Meanwhile this propaganda campaign even manages to infect the more liberal "intellectual elite" as they like to call themselves. These people are also spreading rumors about grand coalitions, the breakup of the coalition, the MDF’s future role, and all sorts of things that again lack substantiation.

The real news about this weekend’s meeting of the MSZP bigwigs is that it was a rather prosaic, peaceful affair. There was no vote of confidence/no confidence, they didn’t tell Gyurcsány to get lost, they didn’t suggest that he give up his post as party chief. Just the opposite, the "presidium" (elnökség) supported Gyurcsány, and Gyurcsány promised to work more closely with the leading members of the party. Even Katalin Szili promised to be a good girl in the future. This outcome was a bit of a cold shower for the right-wing journalists. Nonetheless, they run headlines that show Gyurcsány in a Lenten rather than an Easter mood: "I am not able to carry on alone…." A pessimistic sounding phrase full of foreboding.

Hungarian society is in a feverish state, and it will be difficult to cool it off given the present situation. There is a slight chance that Fidesz will slow down its attacks on the government because, after all, not even Viktor Orbán wants to have early elections and an early victory. Although he would very much like to be prime minister again, under the circumstances I’m sure that even he thinks that it is better to leave the dirty work to his hated enemy.