Archive for February, 2010

Viktor Orbán’s thoughts on the “Hungarian quality of existence” (III)

February 28, 2010 8 comments

We have finally arrived at the most controversial part of Viktor Orbán's speech. He describes the Hungarian political situation at least until very recently as a "dual field of force." In Hungarian it is "duális erőtér." That is not a term used in any kind of political discourse. People are not even sure what it means. But it looks that this dual field consists of the government on the one hand and its opposition on the other. The existence of these two poles is not a good thing according to Orbán because "there are no common values, no common goal in this dual field … but a constant battle about the most fundamental questions." And he gives an example. If Fidesz wants to introduce family support through tax cuts, MSZP-SZDSZ puts an end to it. If Fidesz says that it wants to give dual citizenship to Hungarians living in the neighboring countries, MSZP-SZDSZ opposes it. These disagreements are not only about politics but also about values. And according to Orbán that is a dreadful situation.

But there is hope. It looks as if Fidesz is gaining such overwhelming strength that soon enough "a central political field of force" will become reality. Thus there is the possibility that "the next fifteen-twenty years will not be characterized by a dual field of force" and thus one will be able to avoid all those useless arguments between the government and the opposition. Instead, "for a long time a big government party will be in charge that will be able to formulate national goals and be able to do it without constant bickering." In fact, according to Orbán, they "should build such a governing system that would reduce to a minimum the possibility of the dual field of force's return. Instead, a central field of force would handle political questions. Otherwise counter-government and the dual field of force will return." Orbán is convinced that one mustn't continue this "counter-governing." Instead, "one must realize a government of national affairs." In place of "constant battles we must choose constant governing." So, instead of "a two-party system" a big government party without much discussion will govern as they see fit.

Well, that sparked a huge outcry in the ever shrinking liberal camp. In spite of the strange talk about central and dual fields, the message seems to be clear. Orbán would like to see an opposition so weak that it wouldn't be able to create a counterweight to a very strong government party. Once a party, in this case Fidesz, gains overwhelming power it could institute a system that would prevent the opposition from ever effectively opposing its will or unseating it.

Such a scenario reminded everybody who knows anything about twentieth-century Hungarian history of the political monopoly that István Bethlen created in 1922. Through a system of ballot manipulation, handing out government jobs, and changing the electoral law to enfranchise supporters, he was able to form a political machine that was unstoppable in Hungarian politics. It was a multi-party system, but the opposition to the Party of Unity was powerless.

Yesterday I briefly mentioned József Orosz's radio program Kontra. On Friday two people were invited to comment on the events of the week: András Gerő, whom I mentioned yesterday, and Gábor Bruck. Bruck very rightly pointed out that politicians don't have to be intellectual powerhouses. There must, however, be an intellectual elite who can supply them with ideas. He finds the Fidesz brain trust wanting.

Surely all this talk about dual this and that wasn't born in Orbán's head. Someone had to supply him with these ideas. Whom were they reading? What was their source of inspiration? Tamás Ungvári dropped a line about Carl Schmitt, a political philosopher with whom I was not familiar but whose views have seen a resurgence of interest in Hungary. So I did a little research and here's what I found.

Schmitt was an academic who got mixed up with Hitler's Germany. For a whole year he was in an American internment camp. After his release he never again taught in a German university because he refused to adhere to the de-Nazification required for such a post. I might add that he was an anti-Semite. His complicity with Nazi Germany left him discredited. But he is recognized as an insightful, if flawed critic of the modern democratic order. Jürgen Habermas noted that Schmitt's arguments have a potentially fatal appeal in the contemporary world. It seems that Hungary is no exception.

Schmitt was a sworn enemy of pluralism and liberalism. He described politics as a serious game of war and peace. He preferred unity to duality and talked about a strong government. For Schmitt every government capable of decisive action must include a dictatorial element within its constitution. In one of his works on dictatorship he says that dictatorships can be more meaningfully democratic than democracies. No wonder that I found his name crop up in books such as Anti-democratic Thought, or Law as Politics: Carl Schmitt's Critique of Liberalism. The title of a book about him is telling: The Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought. His books are available in English, some of them in paperback.

In Hungary there is a definite Carl Schmitt revival. Between 2000 and 2008 four of his works were translated into Hungarian. His theories are included in the university curriculum at the University of Pécs. And recall that it was in 2006 that Orbán began talking about the distinction between legal and legitimate. He kept saying over and over that Gyurcsány's government wasn't legitimate. That adjective, in ordinary parlance, meant much more than not being popular. Interestingly I found that Schmitt's book of the same title came out in Hungarian the very same year, Legalitás és legitimitás (2006).

All in all, I have the feeling that the philosophical foundation of Orbán's speeches is the tainted Carl Schmitt. I for one am mighty uncomfortable with a politician who instinctively finds the give and take of democracy nettlesome being influenced by a political philosopher who thinks that dictatorships trump democracies. And this, for any readers who have kneejerk reactions, has nothing to do with liberalism or conservatism. I happen to believe that democracies trump dictatorships, pure and simple.

Viktor Orbán’s thoughts on the “Hungarian quality of existence” (II)

February 27, 2010 1 comment

As promised, I'm continuing my close reading of Viktor Orbán's speech delivered in Kötcse on September 6, 2009, but released in full only about a week ago. Yesterday I outlined the "cultural" half of the speech where Orbán tells us about the role the intellectual elite must play in supporting the government's "cultural policies." In the second half he moves over to the political sphere. First he outlines the story of the Hungarian left between 1990 and 2010. He then continues by summarizing the victorious revival of the right after its total collapse in 1994. Finally he talks about the future.

He starts off by stating that the 2010 elections will bring to a close a whole era after which something entirely different will emerge. After 1990 the Hungarian left built a structure that guaranteed the long-term survival of their power base. In fact, he uses the word "hatalompolitika" or power politics, but in English the term is reserved to describe power relations among sovereign states. There are a couple of problems with the notion that immediately after 1990 the left managed to erect a structure that ensured their continuous rule. Orbán here seems to forget the four years of the right-of-center government of József Antall as well as his own four years in power. So if the socialists built a power base in 1990 it was a rickety structure all right.

For this power base, according to Orbán, one needs three things: money, ideology and votes. And, he continues, "after 1990 the socialists discovered privatization as a source of money and once that money was gone they began borrowing money in order to finance their power base." Again one is a bit puzzled. Orbán seems to have forgotten several things here. In order to lay down the foundations of a market economy the privatization of the state-owned industries was a must. Moreover, even if the government had wanted to keep all the industrial complexes it couldn't have because they were either close to bankruptcy or were so antiquated that without large infusions of capital they couldn't have survived. And the Hungarian state lacked such capital. In fact, it was heavily indebted already in 1990 to which the Antall government only added. And interestingly it wasn't a socialist government.

As for ideology, Orbán thinks that the ideology of the left had helpers: the media and the intellectual elite. Members of the elite "made people believe that being a man of the left was the natural state of things. Everything which is leftist is modern while everything on the right is antiquated."

As for the votes, the socialists came up with an ingenious plan: make more and more people dependent on the state and therefore these dependent people will gratefully vote for the socialists. Orbán admits that not all of these people automatically voted for the left, but "statistics clearly show that those who depend on the state are more easily reachable by the left." Again, I'm not sure what Orbán has in mind. If he means the pensioners they certainly voted for the socialists but not because they were "state dependent" but because of their age. If he means the close to one million "disabled," they were not the creation of the socialists but rather of the Antall government. In fact, it was Gyula Horn who once complained about a country where there are 700,000 "cripples." Giving miminal "disability pensions" to close to a million people was the Antall government's answer to the massive unemployment created by the change from a socialist to a capitalist economy. Moreover, giving more money to the people in exchange for votes is not the monopoly of any one party. In 1998 Orbán promised all sorts of things for votes. It is another matter that he didn't deliver on them. However, starting in 2000 when the elections were approaching he introduced an entirely irresponsible fiscal policy. He started the wanton economic policy that led to the situation in which Hungary found herself in 2006. Once the 2002 election campaign began, both sides promised all sorts of economic benefits but Péter Medgyessy, the socialist candidate, made the mistake of actually fulfilling his promises. In 2006 election promises continued when Orbán again tried to outdo his socialist rival. If they gave thirteenth month salary and pensions, he promised a fourteenth. So he can't say that he is entirely innocent when it comes to indirect vote buying.

Orbán thinks the only reason the socialist structure collapsed was that there was no more money to finance it. This claim in my opinion is too simplistic but Orbán is most likely right that the slow and steady decline of the socialists was due to the unavoidable introduction of an austerity package. As I said earlier, support for Gyurcsány and his party began to drop immediately after the announcement of the "convergence program." Not after the public learned about Gyurcsány's speech at Balatonőszöd.

Orbán's story of the right in the last twenty years also has some gaps. Among other things he doesn't mention that he and his party were on the radical liberal side before 1993. Reading his words one would imagine that since 1990 Fidesz was always the stalwart flag bearer of the right. Orbán claims that he tried to create a "civic alliance" of right-of-center parties already in 1994 but because of the Christian Democratic People's Party's opposition this attempt failed. Perhaps, but I remember differently. In 1994 Fidesz and SZDSZ were still allies at the 1994 elections. The much desired alliance of right-of-center parties (notably Fidesz, MDF, the Christian Democrats, and the Smallholders) came into being in 1996 which eventually led to the 1998 election victory. I may add here that the election victory wasn't overwhelming and in fact after the first round MSZP was leading. The Smallholders who did exceedingly well offered a deal for the second round. The Smallholders withdrew their candidates in one hundred electoral districts that made a slight Fidesz lead possible. The price was a coalition with the Smallholders although the Fidesz leaders had sworn earlier that "with the Smallholders never!"

Why were they successful in forming an alliance of right-of-center parties in 1996? For two reasons according to Orbán. First the Hungarian Catholic Church offered the Hungarian right assistance. "The criticism of the left that the cooperation between the churches and the Hungarian right is too close is not without foundation." Not that anyone had any doubts on that score. Second was the support of "Professor István Nemeskürty … who brought with him the traditionally conservative, patriotic intelligentsia and encouraged its members to join the alliance." I really think that one day I have to say something about the professor who is by now 85 years old. He is a perfect dilettante who thinks that he is a historian. He wrote a couple of historical potboilers during the Kádár regime that are absolutely full of egregious factual errors.

Originally I thought that I would be able to finish the summary of the whole speech today but I see that I'm running out of time while the most portent messages are still to be analyzed. Therefore, I will continue tomorrow.

Viktor Orbán’s thoughts on the “Hungarian quality of existence” (I)

February 26, 2010 5 comments

It was on February 17, 2010, that the speech Viktor Orbán delivered in September at a "civic picnic" in Kötcse, a small village near Lake Balaton, was published in its entirety. It appeared in a new literary weekly financed by Fidesz or Fidesz connected foundations. At the time I didn't go into all the details of the speech though I did call attention to the fact that, as opposed to the Hungarian media, I noticed already on September 8, 2009, that this speech was something out of the ordinary.

I'm now returning to the topic because in the last week or so commentators simply can't agree on what the speech was all about. They can't decide what the message was. What did Viktor Orbán actually want to say? How much of it is a reflection of what they can expect under an Orbán government politically and culturally? Or was it only the "delirious rantings of a guy in a small village," as András Gerő történész said on József Orosz's Kontra tonight, adding a semi-political joke that Hungary is "a free country where anybody can be stupid." Orosz rightly pointed out that these words were uttered by a man who most likely will be Hungary's next prime minister and not by a stupid lad from a small village. Orosz and his friends read something very sinister in this speech: a frightening picture of a future where the institutions of democracy are mere ornaments of a basically one-party system.

Actually I'm not surprised about these sharply divergent interpretations of this speech, now available on the internet. It is horribly muddled. Here and there it is outright incomprehensible. While reading it I had the distinct feeling that the speaker himself hadn't thought through the meaning of what he was saying. Almost as if the ideas gleaned from a variety of sources got garbled in his head. They were not thoroughly digested. Or, even worse, not quite understood.

The speech can be divided into two distinct parts. The first is about the interconnection of culture and government. The second dresses his political ideas in philosophical garb. Today I will deal only with the first half of it. I tried to pick out the sentences I consider important.

The title of the speech is: "To preserve the Hungarian quality of being." What does this title mean? We find the answer in the fourth paragraph. An ideal Hungarian government must realize that "the community of Hungarians, in general the Hungarian quality of existence among other things, originates from the fact that we possess a certain outlook that is characteristic of us alone. The way we describe, understand, perceive, express the world around us." So nationality shapes sensing, thinking, recounting. Presumably there is a Hungarian national Weltanschauung that informs every intellectual and creative endeavor.

The most sensitive question of the speech is the connection between culture and government. Orbán seems to be saying that the cultural elite must help advance the work of the government. "The politicians of the government in power are expecting from the representatives of high culture the impulses from which it becomes clear whether what they are working for still exists. In other words that Hungarian culture and quality still exist." This is horribly muddled, but there seems to be a very strong connection here between politics and culture, a connection that brings back bad memories of the Soviet-type dictatorship when literature and art had to serve political purposes.

In fact, I think this is exactly what Orbán is talking about although, as I repeat time and again, it is not easy to figure out exactly what he wants to say. According to him, "the elite, including the political elite, must give examples for living a life of quality and set examples of moral behavior."  And the government's duty is to pass all these examples on to the masses.

But Orbán goes further when he talks about public acceptance of the works of the elite. He seems to indicate that there should be only one set of values that serves the whole nation; "the real problem today in Hungary is that there are no set values that would guide the community in choosing the elite that could give them examples and models." The neo-liberal elite played a sorry role; when the long awaited political change comes it will need a different cultural elite that serves its purposes. The goverment and the cultural elite work hand in hand: if one is successful the other will be also.

The present elite has played itself out. Failed together with the government. "The poor showing of the government discredited the social-liberal cultural elite as well. Perhaps this sounds too harsh. Perhaps the people who are part of this elite don't find this opinion fair because they think that independently from all that they can still write good novels. The readers will decide that. But they still took part in forming public opinion that led the country to where we are today. It is bankrupt and they should take responsibility for this bankruptcy." Orbán doesn't go into detail about what awaits the members of this intellectual community. However, I can well imagine what will happen to those intellectuals who have been supporting Fidesz in the last eight hungry years. They are expecting to be paid; in return they will set the tone of this new Hungarian cultural life.

Tomorrow I will talk about the possible political ramifications of the change of government.

Hungarian parties and statistical “reality”

February 25, 2010 1 comment

I always get annoyed when I hear people quoting Winston Churchill’s saying that “the only statistics you can trust are those you falsified yourself.” Hungarians like that one very much, although perhaps they would be better off with the Benjamin Disraeli quotation: “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” When a Hungarian quotes Churchill, that usually means that he doesn’t believe in any statistics, especially if those statistics are used to prove that life is better than, let’s say, eight years ago. Both Fidesz and MSZP could have hurled the Churchill and Disraeli quotations at each other. Fidesz claims that the statistics used by MSZP in its pamphlet entitled “Tisztánlátás kedvéért” (In order to see clearly) are falsified. MSZP asserts that the Fidesz booklet, published a few days later in 4.5 million copies and called–what else–”It’s time!,” is “full of misleading statistics.”

As for the falsified MSZP statistics, I don’t believe that the raw numbers are wrong. In fact, Csaba Molnár, the minister at the head of the rather large prime minister’s office, claims that they were not using statistics gathered by the Central Statistical Office but instead they turned to Ecostat of the European Union. Because, said Molnár, they wanted to avoid the accusation that the Hungarian office is favoring the current government. So I believe the figures. But since the numbers are usually not translated to a common base, it can be difficult to make meaningful comparisons.

In any case, MSZP’s pamphlet portrays a success story while Fidesz’s publication describes a world of misery and a series of failures. According to the Fidesz scenario the three socialist-liberal governments set the country back decades. Even Lajos Bokros, a much more serious and careful man, claims that the whole past decade was wasted. The country is back where it was in 2000. Not even Bokros is correct in his assessment, and the problem with Fidesz’s propaganda is that it tries for political reasons to extend the economic difficulties of the last couple of years to the whole eight-year period.

MSZP claims in the subtitle of their pamphlet that instead of promises “the facts should talk.” Not that MSZP didn’t do quite a bit of promising in their party program. However, let’s talk about the “facts.” If we take the gross domestic product in 2001 as 100, in 2008 it was 125 but even now it is 116. The farmers received 206.8 billion forints in 2001 while in 2009 that sum was 613.3 billion forints. The inflation rate in 2001 was 9.2%; now it is 4.5%. During the Orbán government’s tenure 7 kilometers of super highways were built while in the last eight years 700 kilometers. Here’s a map depicting the situation in 2001 and 2010; one can appreciate the change more by seeing it graphically, although you may notice an old trick. The 2001 map of the country was drawn smaller in order to exaggerate the extent of progress.

MSZP claims an almost 30% growth in real wages between 2001 and 2009. The graphs that illustrate wage growth, however, are misleading because they don’t take into consideration the rate of inflation. However, here are the unadjusted numbers. In 2001 the average take-home pay was 64,913 Ft while in 2009 it was 124,466 Ft. and in 2010 it will be 140,868 Ft.

In discussing the purchasing power of wages and pensions and comparing it to the 1989 level the graphs are much more informative. In 2001 the purchasing power of pensions in comparison to 1989 was down 18.9%, while wages lagged 10.6% behind the last year of socialism. So, in brief, the new Hungarian capitalist system hadn’t caught up even to the level of the final year of the Kádár regime. By now, however, there is appreciable change. The purchasing power of pensions is 11.5% and of wages 12.3% higher than in 1989.

A physical worker in 2001 worked four times longer for a television set when it took 456 hours of work than he did in 2008 it took only 112 hours of labor. Of course, the price of televisions most likely decreased significantly during this period.

MSZP claims that families receive a great deal more assistance today than in 2002 when the government spent 252 billion forints on family support. Now the sum is 534 billion forints. Mothers who stay at home with their newborn babies for three years on average received 39,274 forints in 2001 while now the average is 75,000 forints. Again, I don’t think that the rate of inflation was figured in here.

The claim is that the government spent much less money on itself than during the Orbán period. In 2001 15.9% of the budget was spent on the administration while in 2006 only 14.3% and in 2010 only 12.4%. They claim that they made it easier to do business in Hungary. In 2001 it took 52 days to establish a new company. Today a businessman can handle the whole thing in one day.

Although doctors complain that hospitals are receiving less money than before, the statistics tell a different story. In 2001 they spent 623 billion forints while in 2010 the figure is 1,236 billion forints. Again, it would have been helpful to say what percentage of the budget is spent on healthcare.  Subsidies on drugs in 2001 amounted to 179 billion and in 2010 will be 345 billion forints.

In 2001 there were 179,753 computers in schools, today there are 273,479. The government is spending 70 billion forints more on higher education. Why did they focus only on higher education? Most likely because the number of college students has multiplied and the government gives a certain amount of money per student to the institutions while fewer and fewer children are entering elementary schools and therefore the statistics wouldn’t have been favorable.

I haven’t able to get hold of the Fidesz pamphlet and therefore I can only rely for the time being on the MSZP critique. Bernadett Budai, MSZP spokeswoman, pointed out that they mix up basic concepts like the “unemployed” and “inactive” population. Apparently, one of the Fidesz charges is that “the government wants to privatize the pension funds.” That is nonsense because these pension funds are in private hands already.

I’m looking forward to seeing the original. Have they given accurate figures? In the past I found far too many outright falsifications. Just lately, Péter Szijjártó announced that Hungary was dead last in Europe by all economic indicators including the unemployment rate. However, it is a well known fact that Spain and Latvia have close to 20% unemployment while even Estonia’s is higher than 15% as opposed to Hungary’s 10.5%. Not long ago, Fidesz’s “expert” on agriculture claimed that Hungary should do what Denmark does: no foreigner can buy land in Denmark unless he speaks Danish and finished agricultural college in Denmark where the language of instruction was Danish. Not a word of it is true. And one could continue. The problem is that these outright lies are left unanswered in the electronic media and few newspapers take the trouble to check with the Danish authorities to find out what the real story is.

In any case, in the next few weeks the two sides can battle it out over those “lies, damned lies and statistics.”

The strength of the Hungarian far-right

February 24, 2010 25 comments

All those "political scientists" who have mighty little to do with "science" are busily trying to predict what will happen on April 11 and after. The latest is that they are predicting on the basis of current polls that don't include about 40% of those who are still undecided that there is a possibility that Jobbik will do better than MSZP. And therefore they suggest that the two established parties should pay attention to the strides Jobbik is making instead of worrying about each other.

I'm not saying that Jobbik is not a threat. I only consider such speculations premature. Some of these assumptions are based on hearsay. For example, in the last few weeks the Hungarian media were full of a story about "five hundred well trained Fidesz activisits who left the party and joined the forces of Jobbik." This most likely baseless story was created by combining two bits of news. In the first Előd Novák (Jobbik) claimed that at least five hundred former Fidesz party members had joined Jobbik; in the second László Kövér (Fidesz) admitted that some activists and their assistants had left for Jobbik. Thus some journalists arrived at the conclusion that all five hundred people were well trained activists. Even István Nyakó, MSZP spokesman, fell for this gossip and related it as fact at a press conference. However, by the time the written transcript of his speech appeared on MSZP's website this particular sentence was missing from the text.

What do we know to be fact? I managed to find in, a provincial paper serving Szeged and environs, that Jobbik collected enough endorsements (kopogtató cédulák) in the County of Csongrád that Jobbik candidates can be on the ballot in all seven electoral districts. When one hears about the difficulties that MDF and LMP are encountering in trying to collect these endorsements, one realizes that even in the southern parts of the country Jobbik must have substantial support. By the way, Jobbik is following Fidesz's example; its activists continue collecting over and above the necessary number. (Fidesz apparently is over 1.5 million. This can serve two purposes. First, to show strength, and second, to create a usable database.) In the city of Szeged Jobbik seems to have 150 activists while Fidesz has 500. MSZP keeps the number of activists secret. Perhaps because they are embarrassingly few. MSZP is not noted for its organizational talents. On the other hand, Ildikó Lendvai reported yesterday that in Budapest the collection of endorsements is proceeding well, adding that it seems that their supporters' worry over Fidesz's plans must have grown lately. Especially since Viktor Orbán's speech at Kötcse became public.

Here I would like to share with you Hírszerző's speculations about the prospects of the three parties: Fidesz, MSZP, and Jobbik. I might mention that Hírszerző is closely connected to Political Capital, the think-tank that  was giving political advice to Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF). Hírszerző claims to know that Fidesz ordered a poll for its own use according to which Jobbik has gained enormous strength in northern Hungary where in many places the far-right party will end up second and the socialists only third. According to their informants from the two parties, both in Fidesz and in MSZP politicians began to worry about the growth of Jobbik. Until now the common wisdom was that Jobbik did well at the European Parliamentary elections only because electoral participation was low. Nowadays the analysts think that even with higher participation Jobbik might receive 15 percent if not more of the votes. The same analysts think that even in some counties in the lowland regions (Alföld) and in a couple of Transdanubian counties Jobbik might get very impressive results.

Hírszerző''s conclusion is that with the growth of Jobbik, Fidesz may not get the much desired two-thirds majority. Yet in spite of all this Fidesz is still preoccupied with Ferenc Gyurcsány, while MSZP is demonizing Viktor Orbán. As the article, the joint effort of three journalists, puts it: "There is no plan, only worry."

As opposed to the journalists of Hírszerző (Gábor Gavra, András Kósa, and Szilvia Nagy) I don't think that MSZP should turn its focus away from Fidesz and toward Jobbik; Jobbik is a much stronger threat to Fidesz. If the passive MSZP voters wake up and go out and vote MSZP might become strong enough that Fidesz not only will have no two-thirds majority but might have to look for a coalition partner. It would be impossible to form a government with Jobbik for political reasons, and in that case even an MSZP-Fidesz coalition, however unholy an alliance, might not be out of the question. In my opinion that might be the best outcome. Perhaps Gordon Bajnai's dream of a grand coalition is not such an impossibility.

But this is just speculation. We know that 250,000 Fidesz voters joined the ranks of the undecided in the last three months. Even Nézőpont (Perspective), a polling company and think-tank indirectly financed by Fidesz, came up with an 8% drop in Fidesz voters as of the middle of February. And that was before Kötcse and before the MSZP Congress where Attila Mesterházy did better than I expected. That might add a sense of urgency within the socialist camp and might change the predictions in the next two months for a less lopsided Fidesz victory. 

The farewell speech of the Hungarian prime minister

February 23, 2010 28 comments

Yesterday, on the last session of parliament, Gordon Bajnai made his final speech lasting about 40 minutes. I was unable to listen to it live given the six-hour difference, and yesterday's session is still not available on video. However, people whose opinion I value called it a "statesmanlike speech." But Bajnai's speech, which emphasized the necessity of cooperation between Fidesz and MSZP, didn't make an impression on Fidesz whose chairman didn't even bother to attend. Tibor Navracsics, head of the party's parliamentary delegation, wasn't impressed by the prime minister's somber words as this picture shows.


The chief spokesman of the party, Péter Szijjártó, most likely expressed the sentiments of Viktor Orbán and his party's position when he said that the best instrument against Jobbik is a good government and "not cooperation with an extremist party." The extremist party of course is MSZP, not Jobbik.

Bajnai outlined three goals that the next Hungarian government should try to achieve. First, Hungary should as soon as possible fulfill all the requirements for the introduction of the euro as the country's currency. The second very important task is raising the employment level. And third, the next government should continue the necessarily prudent and careful economic policy that was started ten months ago. The introduction of the euro would give Hungary financial stability instead of the current unstable situation with a national currency. As for raising the level of employment, everything depends on it: balancing the budget, the security of the pension fund, and, of course, steady economic growth. If the future Hungarian government follows the present course of action, between 2011 and 2014 it will be possible to have a 4 percent yearly economic growth. As he said in Hungarian with a play on words: "nem elosztogatni, hanem beosztani kellene" (one mustn't give away but spend sparingly). He suggested further tax cuts.

Bajnai claimed that he managed to fulfill 90 percent of the promises he made ten months ago and as a result of his policies the 1.7 million families who took out loans in euros instead of forints now pay 40 Ft less for a euro than about half a year go. The government spent 30 billion forints to save 100,000 jobs. The national debt even in 2010 will be less than the average within the euro zone. Investors have trust in Hungary and the ten-year government bonds that are on sale in the United States at the moment are three times oversubscribed. The structural reforms introduced laid down the foundations of lasting economic growth.

Bajnai It was after these words that he made his reference to the frightening growth of extremism. Bajnai emphasized that there must be common ground on at least one issue between MSZP and Fidesz: trying to stop the growth of Jobbik. As he said, "Viktor Orbán is a democrat and a patriot. Attila Mesterházy is a democrat and a patriot. Perhaps that's the only common denominator between them, but that is enough to conquer the danger of the extreme right." In his opinion "from the fanatical antagonism between the two big parties a monster was born. The hatred and division fed this monster day in and day out. This monster is standing right in front of our door and will come into the room and break the furniture into bits and will smash in our faces if he doesn't like the look of them."

Well, all that didn't impress Tibor Navracsics, who called Bajnai's speech bittersweet. If the country is in such big trouble why is Bajnai leaving, why is he running away? Why doesn't he stay and do his job? What Bajnai is doing, he claimed, is running away from responsibility; he is responsible for what MSZP did, which was nothing less than leading the country into bankruptcy.

I especially enjoyed Navracsics's change of heart. Until now every second day either he or someone from his party, including Viktor Orbán, demanded Bajnai's resignation and early elections. I'm almost sure that eventually the Fidesz politicians realized that Bajnai was doing a very good job and were pleased to hear that he had no intention of continuing in politics. As Vándorló said, some of his Fidesz friends confided that if Bajnai had decided to continue they might have actually voted for the party that put him up as a candidate.

Yesterday János Avar said on Újságíró Klub (ATV) that it would be really funny if Gordon Bajnai took Navracsics's words to heart and said: "Oh, if you think that I should actually continue and take responsibility, I'm following your advice. I've decided to stay." Of course, nothing of the sort could happen, but I would like to see Navracsics's face after such a hypothetical announcement. I bet he wouldn't be laughing so heartily as on the picture that accompanies this blog.

The Hungarian socialists’ program

February 22, 2010 9 comments

As I reported earlier, the programs of Magyar Demokrata Fórum and Jobbik have already appeared. I outlined these programs at the time of their appearance. Both are available online. MDF's program, Munka és méltóság (Work and Dignity), can be found on the MDF website and Jobbik's lengthy program, "Radikális változás" (Radical change), is also available. I spent quite a bit of time on Jobbik's program and someone, most likely a Jobbik sympathizer, predicted that I wouldn't dwell much on the MSZP program. Another person couldn't understand why I kept complaining about the lack of a Fidesz program when there was no MSZP program either.

However, I knew that there was going to be an MSZP program. First of all, they always had one and, second, the socialists complained so much about the lack of a Fidesz program that it would have been impossible not to come forward with one. But I also knew that it wouldn't be available before the end of February. I think that they should have come up with the program earlier. Moreover, I think that from their own vantage point it was not a very good idea to start the actual campaigning so late. I suspect that the program wasn't ready. The economic and political advisors were most likely still madly trying to put together a viable and believable program. There might also have been quite a bit of wrangling about the details among the party leaders.

Because the program is over fifty pages with rather small print I will not be able to summarize it all. In fact, I managed to read only about a fifth of it so far. My initial impression is that the economic predictions on which the possibilities for the next four years are based are perhaps a tad too optimistic. But before we go into these economic predictions let's talk briefly about the title of the program: "Nemzeti modernizáció, összetartó közösség" (National modernization, cohesive community). Even earlier I noticed that  Attila Mesterházy Mesterhazy was talking about "national modernization" instead of simply "modernization" as Ferenc Gyurcsány or Gordon Bajnai did. I thought that it was a silly attempt to look terribly patriotic. If everything is "national" with Fidesz and if the right claims that MSZP is not patriotic, here is the remedy. Let's make that modernization "national modernization." However, those who are convinced that the socialists are traitors to the national cause will not think differently just because "national" is put in front of modernization.

The program begins with a brief outline of accomplishments between 2001 and 2008. They leave out 2009 with good reason. It was in October 2008 that the international financial crisis hit Hungary and from there on the government could only try to keep its head above water and save the country from total collapse.

That the socialists would emphasize their accomplishments was expected months ago because after all if one listened only to Fidesz one would be convinced that Hungary is in shambles. There were Fidesz politicians who actually compared today's situation to what Hungary faced in 1945 after a lost war when half the country was in ruin. As a result of all this negative propaganda Hungarians themselves began to believe that they are poorer today than during the Rákosi regime.

So, what do the socialists see as their accomplishments? First and foremost, Hungary's GDP grew by 25 percent between 2001 and 2008. Even after the international financial crisis the GDP is 16 percent higher than in the last year of the Orbán government.

In comparison to 2002 the value of Hungary's exports doubled. In 2008 it amounted to more than 73 billion euros. Foreign investment at the end of 2008 was 61 billion euros. Between 2002 and 2008 new foreign investment averaged more than 4 billion euros a year. During this period Hungarian companies aggressively moved into foreign markets: yearly Hungarian companies invested about 2 billion euros. By the end of 2008, 11 billion euros worth of Hungarian capital investment occurred outside of the borders. The budget deficit that was very high at the end of the Orbán government and even higher in the Medgyessy period is now under 4 percent.

In 2001 the average gross income of a wage earner was 104,000 Ft out of which the take home pay was 65,000 Ft. The current average gross income is 205,000 Ft. and the take home pay is 141,000 Ft. As of this year because of the tax reform employers will save 700-800 billion Ft. The personal income tax was also lowered, and thus the average wage earner will save about 36,000 Ft a year.

Having pointed out their accomplishments, the socialists move on to their plan for national modernization. The program rightly points out that Hungary's economic situation in the future will depend in large measure on the state of the global economy. For them the most important task is job creation. However, they admit that the rate of employment, at the moment very low in comparison to other European countries, will grow only slowly. They figure about 1 percent a year. That is, if I figure correctly, about 30-35,000 jobs a year as opposed to Fidesz's magic 100,000 or 1 million in ten years which, according to practically all responsible economists, is well nigh impossible.

They hope that gross incomes "may be about 20 percent higher in four years" than now. If taxes are lowered that figure may even climb to 25 percent. Real wages, assuming a rate of inflation of between 2.5 and 3 percent per year, are expected to climb by about 12 percent in four years.

The other day I heard a conversation with a liberal economist who was very much down on some of the points of this program. The whole program was not available yet, but word got out that "the government wants to introduce the Tobin tax." The Tobin tax would be a 0.05 percent tax on all financial transactions. Our liberal economist found the idea ridiculous because, as he said, no country can unilaterally introduce such a thing. The program, however, says only that "the government would support the introduction of the Tobin tax suggested by international forums." Well, that's a different kettle of fish.

Péter Róna, whose name I just mentioned in connection with Viktor Orbán's plagiarism case, has been very hard on the government's support of multinational companies. He claims that they actually don't help the Hungarian economy. The view of the party program is different. According to the program, multinational companies employ about 250,000 people, and therefore if they manage to form a government they will continue to give as many financial breaks to these companies as the European Union allows.

And finally, at least for today, the program outlines strategic economic activities in which Hungary can be competitive: the pharmaceutical industry, biotech, logistics, the automobile industry, energy in the sense of building pipelines (Nabucco and Southern Stream) and gas storage facilities that in turn would stimulate the construction industry. There are many service centers of foreign companies already in the country and further development of such facilities should be encouraged. Hungary might also be competitive in information and communication technology, as well as agriculture and the food industry.

On the whole I find the program well constructed, although perhaps too optimistic. At least the socialists outlined a program that can be argued with or criticized. We still know nothing about what Fidesz is planning to do. Moreover, just yesterday Viktor Orbán pretty well admitted that they don't have an economic program yet. They will work it out after the elections.

Ferenc Gyurcsány in the Hungarian media again

February 21, 2010 16 comments

Ferenc Gyurcsány was more or less invisible during the past year. Lately, however, he has been making his rounds and is giving talks to small groups of invited guests in various Hungarian cities where apparently he is being very well received. If the reception he got at yesterday's MSZP Congress is any indication, I'm not at all surprised. When Ildikó Lendvai, party chairman, mentioned his name as being one of the people present, an enthusiastic applause broke out ending in a standing ovation. The group kept repeating Gyurcsány's slogan, "Húzzunk bele!" (a not very elegant translation is "Let's get to it!"). I was amazed at his popularity among the party faithful.

Gyurcsány's name has also surfaced again in the Hungarian right-wing media. He was apparently in Szombathely at one of these closed gatherings when according to HírTV and Magyar Nemzet "some socialists" smuggled out a tape on which Gyurcsány said all sorts of terrible things about Viktor Orbán. The article claimed that Gyurcsány is already preparing for the role of being in the opposition; he apparently suggested that his party should behave in such a way that Viktor Orbán would curse the day that he decided to be prime minister of Hungary again. The paper directly quotes Gyurcsány: "In opposition, one can say all sorts of awful things. These people behaved terribly in eight years, now they can see what kind of opposition we will be when we will behave exactly the same way as they did. … If it depended on me, I would be as harsh in style and in character as one can be." Magyar Nemzet suggests that its readers take a look at a video on HírTV. If a reader were naive and thought that he could see a video taken on the spot, he would be entirely wrong. It is a simple announcement of these accusations on the evening news.

Yesterday I noticed a short announcement that MSZP is not doing a thing about the so-called leak in Szombathely. András Nemény, chairman of the Vas County MSZP who was present, remembers differently. Someone from the audience put a question to Gyurcsány about how MSZP would behave if it ended up as an opposition party. Gyurcsány answered that they want to win but in case they are in opposition, on certain issues they have to cooperate for the sake of the country. On the other hand, if the government doesn't behave in an acceptable manner, then one must be very hard and critical.

I think it is enough to check one of the sites that lists articles in the Hungarian media to realize the overwhelming presence of right-wing sites on the internet. At least fifty different online papers copied the news from Magyar Nemzet, including the official website of Fidesz. 

Well, it seems that Gyurcsány had enough. He normally ignores the abuse he gets from Fidesz, but this time he felt that he had to answer. He told MTI that "the party media of Fidesz spreads outright lies" and demanded that the whole tape be released. He said that his answer to the question was exactly the opposite of what the paper claims. In fact, he emphasized that one must not follow the path Fidesz laid down in the last eight years.

He is furious. He said that after what happened there is one more reason to prevent "such a dishonorable, immoral force" from forming a government. The socialists don't think in terms of being in opposition; instead they "want to fight against the unacceptable behavior that is exhibited by the Fidesz party media." If I were Fidesz I wouldn't want to make Gyurcsány angry. He can be lethal.

P.S. By the way, MSZP's party program is now available but it is very long and needs serious analysis.


The future prime minister of Hungary and plagiarism

February 20, 2010 5 comments

Do you recall what happened to Joe Biden in 1987? While campaigning to become the Democratic nominee for president of the United States he ran into serious trouble when he was accused of plagiarizing a speech that had been made by Neil Kinnock, leader of the British Labour Party. Kinnock's speech included the lines: "Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? [Then pointing to his wife in the audience] Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?" Biden's speech included these lines: "I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? [Then pointing to his wife in the audience] Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I'm the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?" A few days later it came to light that Biden had had a problem in law school. He had plagiarized a law review article. That was the end of his presidential quest.

I can assure you that nothing of the sort will happen in Hungary where Iván Andrassew, a journalist with Népszava, caught Viktor Orbán or his speech writer blatantly plagiarizing from Péter Róna, formerly a banker and lawyer in New York and London but in the last twenty years a resident of Hungary where he managed to get a name as an economist. He writes quite often in Népszava. I happen not to be an admirer of Róna's ideas, mostly because I find them too far to the left and also quite nationalistic. A lethal combination in my opinion. That Orbán plagiarized from a left-wing socialist shouldn't surprise anyone. Orbán's populist ideas are not far removed on certain topics from those of Róna. It is especially amusing that the Róna article appeared in Magyar Nemzet, where left-wingers are normally not welcome.

Andrassew begins his article by relating a personal experience when he was teaching journalism in one of the many journalism schools in Budapest. He found out that most of the stuff he was getting from the students were stolen ideas. Out of ten students six had plagiarized. They got F's. (Well, at Yale they could depart from the university for a whole year, but Hungarians are much more "understanding" when it comes to cheating.) In fact, Andrassew says that if someone engages in such activity as a student it is "to some extent understandable and tolerable." (I'm much less tolerant, but that's an argument for another day.) But, he continues, it is unacceptable that a politician who claims that he has never lied in his life plagiarizes.

The fact of plagiarism is to my mind unquestionable. But perhaps the best thing is to translate parts of the two passages. First Róna's and then Orbán's.

Róna in Magyar Nemzet:

"According to myth our country is small and depends on exports and because it is lacking natural resources and endowments it must defer to others…. [The authors and propagators of this myth] don't talk about the fact that half of the countries in the European Union are smaller than Hungary. They don't talk about it because this compulsion toward deference is a characteristic basis of the political elite's legitimacy…. They build their power and personal well being on the execution of this compulsion toward deference. They know what capital and power demand from them–be that Vienna, Moscow or Brussels….. They are capable of convincing us that those wishes and expectations directed toward us through their transmission are not only legitimate but their fulfillment serves the interests of our country and society."

And here is Viktor Orbán's version:

"Let's forget the myth that our country is small and depends on exports and because it is lacking natural resources and endowments it must defer all the time and without conditions to others. My friends, half of the member countries of the European Union are smaller than Hungary….The Hungarian elite builds its power and its personal well being on the myth of compulsion of deference. This is an old story. They know what capital and power want from them: Vienna, Moscow, Brussels, Washington. They are the ones who convince us that those wishes and expectations coming from abroad are not only legitimate but their fulfillment serves the interests of our country and society."

Curiously, I found widespread silence in response to Iván Andrassew's discovery of Orbán's blatant plagiarism. The only exception was György Bolgár who had an interview with László Halák, who heads the Committee on Ethics in the Association of Journalists. One Hungarian publicist in a personal letter to me expressed his belief that the rules governing plagiarism don't apply to politicians. I think he is wrong as Biden's example showed.

“The nation won’t do”: Tamás Bauer’s musings on the unification of the Hungarian nation

February 18, 2010 4 comments

In today's Népszabadság Tamás Bauer, an economist, former member of parliament, and publicist, wrote an interesting piece on the Hungarian right's conception of the nation. He mostly argues against the ideas of János Gyurgyák, a historian of not exactly liberal views. His conclusion is that Viktor Orbán's notions about the concept of nation, mostly borrowed from Gyurgyák, are politically dangerous.

Bauer begins his essay by reminding his readers that a young Christian Democratic politician (and please keep in mind that the Hungarian Christian Democratic Party is a far cry from its West European variety) not long ago suggested that the subject of "patriotic education" be included in the basic curriculum. It was difficult to fathom what he meant. A subject called patriotism? So György Bolgár had a conversation with the young politician and inquired what he had in mind. After some probing questions the only thing he could come up with was that schools should organize trips to visit Hungarian inhabited areas in the neighboring countries. Thus, it seems, patriotism in his view includes territories that no longer belong to Hungary.

About the time that Gyurgyák's piece appeared at the end of May 2009, Orbán made a speech on the Hungarian side of the bridge between Esztergom and Štúrovo (Párkány) in which he made references to the Hungarian representatives of the whole Carpathian Basin. As if ethnic Hungarians elected to the European Parliament from Slovakia or Romania would represent Hungarian interests. Here Orbán wasn't talking about cultural affinity among Hungarians in the region; rather, he deemed all those who consider themselves Hungarian a "political entity." (The original "magyarság" is hard to translate.) Not surprisingly, the reaction in Slovakia and in Romania was instantaneous. Bauer dates the recent very strained Slovak-Hungarian relations to this speech.

The real question is what we are to understand by "nation." According to Gyurgyák it is "a linguistic-cultural unit that has absolutely nothing to do with borders." This is what defines the "concept of the unification of nations across borders." But this is clearly a spurious definition. Bauer brings up some examples by way of counterargument. At the moment there are four ministers who belong to the Hungarian minority in the Romanian cabinet. Or before the Romanian elections the RMDSZ, the Hungarian party in Romania, supported Klaus Walter Johannis, a Transylvanian Saxon, for president. So would Johannis, a member of the German nation, have been president of Romania? Surely not. Just as the four Hungarian ministers represent the interests of all Romanian citizens, not just the "nation" they themselves belong to.

Gyurgyák's shortest and most concise defintion of nation is that "the nation is common memory of the past and common plan for the future." The first part of the definition is acceptable according to Bauer but what can one do with the second? The plan for the future certainly cannot be the same in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, or Slovakia. In these countries the Hungarian minorities together with the majority are planning a future within the borders of their country.

My own feeling is that even the first half of Gyurgyák's definition, that "the nation is common memory of the past," is wrong. After all, our "memory" of the past is shaped in part by what we learn in school, and the writing of history is a nationalistic undertaking, especially in this region. A hero of one country is the enemy of another. And even if a Hungarian child studied in a Hungarian school in one of the neighboring countries, he would be learning from textbooks written from the point of view of the majority.

Moreover, I believe that the memories and experiences of our lifetimes or the memories of our parents' lifetimes have a much greater impact on our thinking than school learning about the distant past. Therefore a person's mother tongue might be Hungarian but because most likely even the grandparents of those who are about thirty years old today were already born in Romania or in Czechoslovakia surely their experiences differ greatly from those who lived in the middle of the Hungarian Great Plains. It's enough to think of divided Germany. The East and West Germans lived in separate countries for only 40-45 years and yet everybody noticed very distinct differences in world view between the two groups, differences that are noticeable even today, twenty years later. Yet they belong to the same nation.

All these efforts to satisfy Hungarian nationalism by trying to give definitions of the nation as something entirely different from being citizens of a country are futile and in the final analysis dangerous because they raise the suspicion of the neighbors about some hidden Hungarian agenda. Especially when the agenda is not even so hidden. The kind of common political action Orbán was referring to in Esztergom is unacceptable to the neighbors.  


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