We left off yesterday at the point that the concentration of political power and organized corruption cannot be divided because they are both part of the very essence of the system. The mafia state has a distinct advantage over traditional mafias. Whereas the latter must reach their goals either by blackmail or by intimidation, a mafia state by definition has the power of the state behind it. Therefore it can “adjust” laws according to its needs. In brief, the “organized upperworld” makes its own illegal activities quasi-legal. Acquiring ill-gotten riches no longer must be hidden.
The new mafia state is different in this respect from both the Horthy regime and the Soviet system. The Hungarian ruling elite between the two world wars didn’t want to change the “economic elite”–with the notable exception of the expropriation of Jewish property in its last phase; it only wanted to enrich the already existing Christian middle class. In the Soviet Union the communists nationalized all private property. Both decisions were merely political decisions fairly uniformly applied. The situation is different in a mafia state. Instead of a uniform political will, decisions are individual and random. “What they like they take.”
As for the comparisons between Hungary’s mafia state and that of the former Soviet Union and its successor states, although the final result is the same, the road to it is different. In Russia and elsewhere east of Hungary the members of the former party elite managed to “privatize” state property. In Hungary economic power ended up for the most part in the hands of technocrats. In Russia the few non-apparatchiks who managed to get into the select circle of economic moguls were eventually sent packing or ended up in jail.
In Hungary, when Fidesz appeared, “the field” was already taken. In order to change the current state of affairs Fidesz either has to get rid of members of the economic elite or make them part of the “family” or “service nobility”. Fidesz’s misfortune is that in Hungary, as opposed to Russia and its satellites, a true democratic process had already begun. In order for Viktor Orbán to reach his final goal, the very institutions of Hungary’s fragile democracy must be eliminated. We are not at this point yet and it depends on the Hungarian voters whether Orbán can succeed or not. In Poland there was a similar attempt by the Kaczynski brothers but their attempt failed.
How is Hungary’s current political elite handling this takeover of economic power? The ideology behind the process is a “national war of independence.” The first step is trying to achieve a certain percentage of Hungarian ownership in the various business sectors. Next, the government begins to force out legitimate owners of enterprises by levying extra taxes, forbidding the construction of new malls, imposing impossible requirements to obtain a building permit, or as in the case of the French firm Suez in Pécs, by simply taking over the company by force. Often the state itself buys the foreign-owned company and after a short while the company is sold to a friend of “the family.” There have been cases (notably MOL and E.ON) where the elite at public expense purchased large blocks of stock or buy entire companies at prices way above their market value.
One of the most brazen takeovers of a business sector is the tobacconist shop tenders. This time the mafia elite decided to change the law in order to create a state monopoly by which it impoverished forty or fifty thousand small businessmen. Why did they have to deprive relatively poor mom and pop store owners of their livelihood? Because the “the family” must be continually extended outward, giving gifts to the small fry in the organized “upperworld.” By making tobacco products a monopoly, additional revenues will reach the treasury while those relatively few shops that can sell cigarettes will be owned by “clients” who will have a guaranteed income. Killing two birds with one stone.
Although it is becoming crystal clear that the selection of the future tobacconists was fraudulent, there will be no legal consequences. By now both the police and the prosecutor’s office are part of the organized “upperworld.” We already know that these cases will never reach the courts because the prosecutors announced that there is nothing to investigate.
Analysts often talk about certain Fidesz moves as irrational and self-defeating. The tobacconist shop scandal is one of the examples. Magyar thinks that, according to Fidesz logic, the creation of a monopoly and its distribution to clients is a perfectly rational move. “I can do what I want and therefore I go ahead.” Of course, not all Fidesz moves work out, and we will see whether the tobacco affair does or doesn’t hurt the party and Viktor Orbán personally. For the time being it has not. According to the latest polls Fidesz’s lead is assured. What helps the Orbán government survive these scandals are the limits the central power puts on information flow through its stranglehold on public television and radio and other media outlets.
According to Magyar, the mafia state is waging a national war of independence against its own citizens by taking away their wealth and freedom. It is eliminating the sanctity of private property. It is introducing the right to collect taxes before anyone else. It talks about Christianity but takes care of only its “adopted family”; it is cruel to those outside the charmed circle. It preaches about family but what it actually means is the family adopted by the organized “upperworld.” It heralds a society based on work when it receives its income from “protection money” taken from others. “The mafia state is a privatized form of a parasite polity which preaches work but ‘drinks’ dues. But it is no speculator. It goes for the sure thing.”
To be continued
In the past few years I’ve often written about Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ), one of the few active opposition leaders during the Kádár regime. After the change of regime he became a member of parliament and served twice as minister of education in the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition governments. The Fidesz-Christian Democrats who are now running the Hungarian educational establishment have singled him out as their bête noire, responsible for the “deplorable” state of Hungarian education. Magyar stood for everything Rózsa Hoffmann finds wrong with Hungarian education. He tried to bring Hungarian education closer to western models by liberating it from its nineteenth-century shackles. He also had the “temerity” to focus on the child.
But here I don’t want to talk about Magyar’s educational philosophy but rather his latest analysis of the Orbán regime. He began writing about the nature of the Orbán government as early as 2001–that is, during the first Orbán government. This first article in a series over the years showed that Bálint Magyar has a very sharp eye. Already then he noticed that Fidesz functioned as “an organized upperworld” as opposed to an underworld. He called it the “Hungarian octopus.”
His latest thoughts on the subject were published just a few days ago in Élet és Irodalom (June 14, 2013) available only to subscribers. The article is actually an interview he gave to Eszter Rádai. Once again the topic is the nature of the Orbán regime, now full-blown. According to Magyar, the present Hungarian regime is “a post-communist mafia state.”
What are the antecedents of this regime? Some political scientists and historians try to find its archetype in the past but, according to Magyar, such comparisons are futile because it is an entirely new phenomenon. In vain can we look to the Horthy regime, to Mussolini’s corporative state, or to Franco’s Spain. We will not find Viktor Orbán’s real inspiration for his regime in any of these systems. None of these earlier models can describe in a comprehensive way the nature of today’s Hungary. It is an entirely new system because, after all, it is post-communist. It cannot be analyzed along the lines of democracy versus dictatorship. Trying to place it along the coordinates of corruption is also mistaken because the Hungarian government’s corruption cannot be measured simply by its degree. It is qualitatively different from the ordinary, garden variety of corruption.
After describing the different stages and degrees of corruption, Magyar arrives at the current Hungarian situation “which the West cannot comprehend and handle.” It is an intricate matrix of a centralized monopoly of corruption by a mafia-like political elite. This elite manages to end the anarchic world of the oligarchs and make them dependent on them. Western observers are not familiar with this kind of mafia state where “a political enterprise becomes an economic enterprise which captures the world of politics as well as the economy with the help of the complete arsenal of the power of the state.”
Magyar shows the difference between ordinary corruption and the mafia-state’s corruption by comparing the building of a football stadium in the 1990s by József Stadler, who became a billionaire by tax evasion, with Orbán’s personal football “empire”. Stadler’s dream was to build a stadium in the middle of nowhere, but eventually he was caught and jailed. The stadium still stands unused. But in today’s Hungary state-owned land is passed on to a middleman called the Ferenc Puskás Football Academy; the parliament sanctions a law allowing tax-free contributions to sports clubs, and, behold, three-quarters of the gifts go to the fourth-rate team of the godfather, i.e. Viktor Orbán. The rich contributors naturally know that if they want to receive state orders and EU monies they’d better support the club of the godfather.
How is this mafia-like political elite organized? Very much like its non-political counterpart. It is based on family and loyalty. It is a clan-like organization in which the family adopts its members. One can see in the latest scandals of the tobacconist shops or the land lease program that loyalty is mixed with family relations. One loyal Fidesz member’s whole extended family gets a piece of the pie.
As for the members of the civil service, their relation to the “family” is somewhat similar to the “service nobility” of Russia. Those of you who studied Russian history are familiar with the tsarist practice of demanding either military or some other kind of state service from members of the lower nobility.
How do these people build the mafia state? First, they make sure that local governments become powerless. Second, they transform parliament into a pseudo-representative body where laws are enacted serving the needs of the “political family.” Third, they limit the power of the opposition parties by not allowing them to campaign, withdrawing financial support, and depriving them of media exposure. Fourth, they put “family members” into important positions. After all this, everything runs smoothly. For the time being they have managed to tame only some of the judges, but it is clear that they are making a serious effort at cleansing their ranks.
According to Magyar, this mafia-state as long as it still belongs to the European Union cannot introduce dictatorship outright. But it doesn’t even need to. Political observers go wrong when they talk about a “concentration of power” on the one hand and corruption on the other. Because these two cannot be divided in this new mafia state since “the system is a centrally directed, rationally executed robbery.”
To be continued
The online newspaper Stop warned on May 29, after the news broke that the European Commission would recommend to the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (Ecofin) of the EU that the excessive deficit procedure against Hungary be lifted, that “Brussels is still watching.” Well, it seems that they didn’t watch closely enough. Here we are three weeks after the news so loudly trumpeted by the Hungarian government as a huge victory for its sound economic policies. And it appears that the great planners of the economy in the Ministry of National Economics realized, perhaps with some help from Brussels, that after all the numbers don’t add up.
In today’s Hungarian edition of Portfolio one of the headlines reads: “Surprising austerity package was announced by Varga: Tax hikes are coming.” I don’t know why the financial reporters of Portfolio are surprised. I think it was predictable, given the economic climate in the country, that the deficit was unlikely to be kept under 3% this year. And if it isn’t, Hungary could easily end up being under excessive deficit procedure again in no time.
There was another headline that caught my eye. According to HVG, financial analysts cannot agree on whether this latest austerity package was really necessary. The “expert” from TakarékBank claims that this step was unnecessary and only shakes investor confidence in a more predictable economic policy that everybody was hoping for after the departure of György Matolcsy. His colleague at BudaCash, on the other hand, detected a one hundred billion forint shortfall because only half of the anticipated revenues from the new taxes actually reached the treasury.
I was also fairly amused when I discovered that a Hungarian-language blog awarded Mihály Varga the Pinocchio Prize. At first I thought that awarding this “prize” to the minister of economics was a response to his announcement of the new tax hikes, but I soon discovered that the article was posted at 8 o’clock in the morning whereas Varga’s press conference announcing the new taxes took place only two hours later. The blogger was talking about the exaggerated descriptions of a booming economy very much in the style of György Matolcsy. As several newspapers said, the Hungarian population is still supposed to believe the government “fairy tale.”
Did the government have to adjust the budget again? Was it necessary? You can bet your bottom dollar that it was necessary. Let’s not forget that Ecofin will reach its final decision on the excessive deficit procedure two days from now, on June 19. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we found out that the Hungarian government received word from Brussels that the figures they submitted didn’t quite add up. Now the only question is whether this last-minute scramble for additional funds will satisfy Brussels’ demands for an economic policy that ensures sustainable economic growth. Or whether they will change their minds, claiming that these periodic adjustments are no remedy for Hungary’s economic ills. In fact, they exacerbate them. One could argue that the very heavy taxation imposed on both consumers and companies may lead the country back into recession.
Here are the main points of the package: (1) a hike of the financial transaction tax (FTT) rate on non-cash transactions to 0.3% from 0.2%; (2) an increase in the FTT rate on cash transactions to 0.6% from 0.3%; (3) an increase in the telecom tax to HUF 3 from HUF 2 per minute or per SMS and a higher cap for corporations from HUF 2,500 to HUF 5,000 per month; (4) an increase in the mining royalty fee to 16% from 12%; (5) a 6% health care contribution to be paid on interest and capital gains; (6) and, what Varga forgot to mention in his press conference, banks will have to pay a 7% tax on the amount of their loans to the municipalities that the national government took over. The rationale? The state is a more reliable borrower than the municipalities. So, the “reliable customer” will not pay back what he owes in full! What can one say?
There are some who have plenty to say. LMP announced that Varga’s economic policy is not one whit more reliable than Matolcsy’s. Its spokesman Gábor Vágó emphasized the need for a total economic turnabout. Együtt PM called attention to the fact that a week ago Varga still claimed that the budget’s cardinal numbers were solid and needed no adjustment. There is still something very wrong with the Ministry of Economics.
The blog that handed the Pinocchio Prize to Varga published an estimated total of the ten “packages” since the Orbán government took over. They arrived at 3 trillion forints. This last package, the eleventh, is also quite large. Experts estimate it at anywhere between 100 and 200 billion forints.
The forint survived the announcement relatively well. It is still hovering around 291 to a euro. Unfortunately the BUX (the Budapest Stock Market) did not fare as well, with heavy telecom and banking (OTP) losses.
When Varga took over the ministry he indicated that perhaps the government will stop some very expensive and not urgently needed projects such as soccer stadiums and refurbishing the square in front of the parliament. But soon enough it became clear that for Viktor Orbán these mega-projects that symbolize the greatness of his regime are far too important. The government would rather introduce new taxes to pay for his pet projects. Especially if on Wednesday Hungary is released from bondage by Ecofin. In fact, there is speculation that the government never seriously thought of abandoning these “prestige projects.” It was only a ploy to show the EU that the Hungarian government is even willing to sacrifice stadiums on the altar of economic stability.
I predict that this is not the end of the austerity measures. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if within a few months, most likely well before the end of the year, there is another announcement about new taxes. This time to avoid being returned to the group under excessive deficit procedure.
I was once again lucky enough to receive a bunch of Hungarian newspapers and periodicals, among them the latest Magyar Narancs (June 13). Most of the articles in this issue are still not on the Internet, so you’ll have to wait awhile to read the full interview with Endre Hann, CEO of Medián, perhaps the most reliable polling company in Hungary. I found the interview absolutely fascinating, so today I’m going to share some highlights from it.
Endre Hann regularly appears on ATV’s “Egyenes beszéd” after Medián’s results on the popularity of parties and politicians are released. But he has only about eight minutes to explain the details of their latest survey. So, he cannot really say more about the results than what can be read in the newspapers. As it is, Olga Kálmán usually urges him to hurry. Well, here Hann has ample opportunity to go into the details of their latest survey based on a large pool of 3,000 voters.
What did the researchers at Medián learn from this and previous polls? First and foremost, that today there are considerably more people than a year ago who think that the country’s economic prospects are getting better. They are relieved that the economy survived a possible bankruptcy. This finding doesn’t necessarily mean that they believe in a bright future, but while a year ago optimists accounted for only 13% of the sample this time their numbers doubled to 26%.
At the same time only 33% of the people would like to see this government continue in office after 2014. These are the hard-core Fidesz voters, for whom nothing can shake their trust in Fidesz and Viktor Orbán. They number about 1.5 million. Last June when Fidesz’s popularity hit rock bottom (with a 23% share) it was only voters from this hard core that stuck it out. Today the number of potential Fidesz voters is 2.3 million, defined as people who believe that the present government is on the right track.
But what may cheer the opposition is that 56% of the sample would like to see the Orbán government voted out of office. Out of this group 20% (1.5 million voters) would like a change of government but do not know yet whom they should vote for. For the opposition it is key to attract that large group of people.
Hann talks at length about the phenomenon of “hiding voters” who for one reason or other don’t want to reveal their party preferences. He recalls that as early as 1994 people believed that support for István Csurka’s MIÉP (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja) was much higher than the numbers pollsters came out with. They were certain that MIÉP voters were too ashamed to admit that they would vote for such an extremist, anti-Semitic party. Hann himself never believed in those “hiding MIÉP voters” and in fact in 1994 MIÉP received only 1% of the votes. However, this time around he is not so sure that one doesn’t have to count on true hiders.
I might add here that in 2002 all pollsters with the exception of Medián grossly overestimated Fidesz’s strength. Some by as much as 10%. At that time polls were skewed because of the fear factor; respondents were worried that somehow the Orbán government would find out if they expressed a preference for the opposition. This time is very similar to the situation in 2002, except to an even greater degree. Therefore, even Hann doesn’t exclude the possibility that the figures arrived at month after month overestimate the strength of Fidesz and underestimate that of the opposition.
How can a pollster notice that the respondent doesn’t answer the questions honestly? Internal inconsistencies usually give them away. Normally the answers to specific questions reflect the person’s stated party preference. Lately, however, this is less and less so. The example Hann gives is the tobacconist shop concessions. According to Medián’s latest poll, only 19% of the electorate approve of the government’s deciding who can sell cigarettes while 73% are against it. When these people were asked whether there should be a re-examination of the concessions, more than 40% of the Fidesz voters answered in the affirmative. Almost 50% of Fidesz voters consider it “unacceptable that a party should intervene with the market processes and should provide business opportunities to its followers. ” Only one-third of Fidesz voters think that the concessions were allotted lawfully. Yet these people say that they will vote for Fidesz. Will these people actually vote for Fidesz even though they don’t agree with its policies? Hard to tell.
This is not the only issue on which the majority of Fidesz voters don’t support Fidesz’s policies. There is, for example, the question of voting rights for Hungarians living abroad, especially in the neighboring countries. The majority of Fidesz voters supported giving these people citizenship but two-thirds of them opposed granting them voting rights. And 58% of Fidesz voters disapproved of the law on religion that allows political interference in the affairs of religious communities. Fidesz voters were also unhappy with the idea of voter registration that eventually was abandoned by the party and consequently the government.
Another topic discussed in this interview is the relationship between the Fidesz “hard-core” and Jobbik. Medián asked their opinion on a possible coalition between Fidesz and Jobbik if Fidesz gets the majority of votes but not enough to form a government. 51% of the “hard-core” answered in the affirmative.
As for regional differences, everywhere outside of Budapest Fidesz is leading the pack. In Budapest, according to the findings of Medián, the opposition even today “could easily defeat Fidesz.” Jobbik is still doing very well in northeastern Hungary (16%) while nationwide it has only a 10% support.
There is also a fairly long discussion on the “popularity” of politicians. The reporter pointed out that in the last Medián poll Attila Mesterházy was 3% ahead of Gordon Bajnai. Yes, answered Hann, but this result can be misleading. One is not only popular because a lot of people like the person but because he/she is less divisive. Hann checked the popularity of Mesterházy versus Bajnai in different voting groups. Only 5% of Fidesz voters would like to see Bajnai in an important political position, while 10% feel the same way about Mesterházy. The situation is the same among Jobbik voters: 16% of them would like to see Mesterházy in a political position as opposed to 10% in Bajnai’s case. “Mesterházy’s momentary advantage is due to being less rejected on the right.” This result is not very surprising given the aggressive anti-Bajnai campaign, while the government propaganda barely touches Mesterházy.
Bajnai is definitely doing better with the voters of the so-called democratic opposition parties. In all parties he leads over Mesterházy–among sympathizers of Együtt 2014 (89%), of DK (64%), of LMP (56%). Even among MSZP voters 30% think that Bajnai is more qualified for the job of prime minister than MSZP’s chairman. Overall, 51% of the democratic opposition prefer Bajnai over Mesterházy (43%). That is not a substantial difference. Translating it to actual numbers, we are talking about 200,000 voters. Among those who are against the present government but are still undecided as far as their party preference is concerned, 55% would prefer Bajnai over Mesterházy (33%). The difference here is about 100,000.
Another piece of information I learned from this interview is that 16% of Együtt 2014 voters would in no way vote for MSZP while 20% of MSZP voters hate Bajnai’s party. Despite this, Hann is optimistic about the next election. If the two parties agree on a common candidate he sees no problem with joint support of that common candidate.
And finally a few words about potential voters for Együtt 2014. Medián registered a fairly high voter base for Együtt 2014 of 7%, which means about 600,000 voters. This is a higher figure than the other pollsters came up with. Of these 7%, 25% claim that they voted for Fidesz in 2010, 37% for MSZP, 10% for LMP, and 15% didn’t vote in 2010 either because of age or because of general disappointment with politics.
These are highly instructive details. Month after month we hear only superficial descriptions of the results from different polling companies, although it is their in-depth analysis that gives the most food for thought.
It is time to talk again about the opposition parties, especially since next week Együtt – A Korszakváltók Pártja (Together-Party of the New Age) will begin negotiations with MSZP. In case you have no idea who on earth is behind this “new party,” this is the same old Együtt 2014-PM Szövetség (Together 2014 Alliance) that was established months ago by Gordon Bajnai, Péter Juhász of Milla, Péter Kónya of the Solidarity Movement, and the former members of LMP who decided to join Együtt 2014.
But what happened to the party’s name? It took the court that was supposed to give its blessing to the name seventy days of deliberation to decide that the name proposed by Bajnai-Juhász-Kónya was unacceptable for at least two reasons. First, a few days before the Együtt people proposed the name of their movement a couple of people had already turned in a request for the name. Second, the court objected to the word “szövetség” (alliance), although Fidesz’s official name is Fidesz Magyar Polgári Szövetség. So, the group around Gordon Bajnai “temporarily” adopted this ridiculous sounding name. The way the registration of this party is proceeding it could easily happen that by the time elections roll around the party will still not be a party. Bajnai of course tries to act as if all these name changes didn’t matter, but of course they do.
While the hassle over the party’s name was going on Péter Juhász, head of the virtual Milla movement, gave a press conference in which he compared Ferenc Gyurcsány to Viktor Orbán as symbols of oppressive regimes and corrupt politics. Juhász went so far as to call the pre-Orbán times part and parcel of “the current mafia-government.”
Well, this was too much for the fiery Ágnes Vadas (DK), who addressed an open letter to “Dear Gordon” in which she inquired from him whether he approves such statements from his co-chairman. After all, in this case “you must have been a minister of this oppressive regime for three years; you accepted a position in the government of a man who put an end to democracy in Hungary and you served without raising your voice against this corrupt regime that was in the hands of a political mafia.” The letter is politely but strongly worded. Vadai wants to know what Bajnai thinks of Juhász’s attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány. As far as I know, no official letter reached Vadai as of yesterday, but Bajnai tried to explain his own position without completely distancing himself from Juhász.
Juhász has been the target of severe criticism from many quarters, and criticism was also leveled against Gordon Bajnai for getting involved with him. Back in November 2012 a portrait of Juhász appeared in Origo with the title “A good-for-nothing activist.” Not the best recommendation for an important post at a crucial junction in Hungarian political life.
Since then others have joined Ágnes Vadai in their condemnation of Péter Juhász. Blogger “Pupu” wrote that he considers Juhász an agent of Viktor Orbán. Another popular blogger, Piroslapok, is less harsh; he doesn’t consider him an agent, just a not very smart man who likes to moralize using false postulates.
Others, like Ferenc Krémer, describe him as a dangerous dilettante who stands in the way of unity in the opposition camp. Juhász makes assumptions about “the political usefulness” of certain strategies without knowing much about the intricacies of the present political situation. In the last few months he succeeded only in driving a wedge between the different opposition parties. So, says Krémer, Juhász is serving the interests of Fidesz because the government party wants to have open disagreements in the opposition camp. According to several commentators, the best solution for the opposition would be the removal of Juhász from Együtt 2014. Then he could expound his theories as a private person. These commentators are sure that the right-wing media would welcome him with open arms.
It seems, however, that Gordon Bajnai is not ready to get rid of him. Or at least this is what he said at a meeting of the Budai Liberális Klub where he had a conversation with Zsófia Mihancsik. But Bajnai ought to realize that the democratic opposition shouldn’t in a servile fashion follow “the narrative of Fidesz,” which also includes Viktor Orbán’s desire to push Ferenc Gyurcsány into the background.
Meanwhile Együtt 2014 or whatever it is called now is languishing just as MSZP, LMP, and DK are. Why? Not because people are worried about whether Gyurcsány is part of the joint opposition but because they see disunity, confusion, and a struggle for primacy.
Yesterday Együtt 2014′s visits across the country ended in Budapest. Bajnai had earlier refused to negotiate with MSZP because he first wanted to undertake a campaign tour that was supposed bolster his and his party’s popularity. Ipsos’s May poll results don’t show any great change. In fact, the party dropped from the 4% support it had in April to 3%. I doubt that the June figures will be very different. Yet Bajnai is still stalling. Yes, he will start talks “next week” but the conversations will begin only on Friday. What on earth is he waiting for? A miracle? It won’t come, especially if he sticks with Péter Juhász for much longer.
A few hours ago I received two suggestions for discussion. Both are fascinating. The one I decided to take up today is actually not a new survey, but the current political situation makes it relevant.
We keep asking how it could happen that in record time Viktor Orbán and his willing subordinates managed to introduce a political system that turns its back on democratic values. There is nothing surprising about this, says the blogger who returned to this older survey. “The current political structure is the product of societal attitudes, and it can flourish because Hungarian society desires the kind of political elite Fidesz provides. Viktor Orbán is popular because he is the embodiment of the value system of the majority.” That includes “corruption, a strong state, and a leader of unlimited powers.” This sounds terrifying, but a 2009 survey conducted by Tárki supports this claim.
I would like to refer back to the piece I wrote (“Value structure of Hungarian society, 2009“) on October 13, 2009, right after the results of the survey were released. It was the usual short post in which not everything can be mentioned. Moreover, our blogger Anonymus looks at the survey from the perspective of 2013, which naturally I couldn’t have done in 2009 when Viktor Orbán hadn’t yet started his “renewal of Hungary” program with a two-thirds majority behind him.
But in order to get the background you ought to read my short 2009 post. Here I will mention only those details that I did not touch on, including a Pew Research Center study, also from 2009.
We are surprised that all the cases of corruption that surface day after day do not seem to bother the majority of the people. It’s enough to mention the tobacconist shop concessions or the leasing of valuable agricultural lands to politicians’ relatives and friends or political supporters. And yet people are not up in arms. Why would they be, asks Anonymus, when Hungarians even by East European standards are very forgiving when it comes to corruption. In 2009 42% of them found it acceptable to cheat on their income taxes as opposed to 30% of the Poles and 18% of the Czechs. Two-thirds of the population think that “although they themselves are honest and law abiding, the others are not.” They assume that this is simply how things are, and they can live with it.
Then there is the Orbán government’s total lack of sympathy for the poor, the disabled, the disadvantaged. For example, members of the government defend the grotesque idea that in order for poor families who cannot afford to bury their dead to receive some financial assistance they have to help prepare the body for burial, dig the grave, and carry the coffin. In general, according to the 2009 survey, Hungary does not excel in giving assistance to the sick, the disabled, the elderly, neighbors, or immigrants. In fact, in this respect Hungary ended up last in the Union.
According to another survey by the Pew Research Center dealing with the post-communist countries, Hungarians were certain in 2009 that they were economically worse off than they had been under communism. In Hungary 72% of the people considered themselves poorer than they were before 1990, as compared to Slovakia with 48% or Poland with 35%. And when it comes to the Hungarian attitude toward democracy it is nothing to boast about. While in the Czech Republic 80%, in Slovakia 71%, and in Poland 70% of the respondents approved of democracy, in Hungary the number was only 56%. Just for comparison: Lithuania came in at 55%, Russia 53%, Bulgaria 52%, and Ukraine 30%. Hungarians’ attitude toward capitalism is again the most antagonistic in Eastern Europe. If we compare the sentiments in 1991 and in 2009 we find that enthusiasm waned in all countries studied, but the largest drop (from 80% to 46%) occurred in Hungary.
A working group put up a video based on the Tárki study.
It’s fun to watch it even if one doesn’t understand everything. Basically, the story is that countries such as Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria thrive because people there believe that everybody has the opportunity to succeed, they believe in themselves and in their future, they consider hard work important, they appreciate knowledge, they trust each other and their institutions. “So, if you want to change the world, change yourself.”
While Viktor Orbán wants a strong, successful Hungary, he is reinforcing the worst instincts of the majority of Hungarians. Exactly those qualities that retard the kinds of changes that could make Hungary successful. “Összezavarodott magyarok” (confused Hungarians), says the blog’s link. Indeed. The confusion is also in Viktor Orbán’s head.
Since my less than flattering comment about László Gy. Tóth aroused so much interest in the quality of Hungarian education, I thought it might be a good idea to devote a post to the nonexistent Ministry of Education and its newly appointed undersecretary in charge of higher education, István Klinghammer.
Let’s start with the very structure of the second Orbán government that deprived certain key ministries of their independent existence. To list only the three most obvious, finance, education and culture, and health were all demoted. Viktor Orbán demonstrated the “frugality” of his government by having only eight ministries–as many as the first Hungarian government in 1848. Naturally, nowadays a central government has a few more tasks than the Hungarian government did in 1848. Moreover, even Lajos Batthyány’s government had a minister of finance. Moreover, not just anybody but Lajos Kossuth himself.
As a result of Orbán’s consolidation, some previously separate ministries were subordinated to mega-ministries, the largest of which is the Ministry of Human Resources under Zoltán Balog. He is supposed to take care of health, education, culture, and who knows what else. Mind you, he as a former Hungarian reformed minister knows mighty little about any of these fields.
Education was given to the Christian Democrats, who chose a middle-aged schoolmarm to be in charge. Although on paper Rózsa Hoffmann has all sorts of qualifications, she is basically a small-minded high school teacher. I wrote earlier about the nationalization of schools and her plans to turn the clock back to the 1970s when she finished her studies as a Russian-French major. Eventually it became patently clear that this woman just doesn’t have what it takes to “reform” Hungarian education. Moreover, she was an irritant to the country’s university professors and students. By February of this year Orbán at last confronted the Christian Democratic leaders with the sad news that “Rózsa didn’t quite work out” and that, since she is so busy with education on the lower level, higher education should be handled by someone else. So came István Klinghammer, former president of ELTE.
Klinghammer was a controversial choice, although Fidesz politicians felt that “he must be better than his predecessor.” He was described by others as a tough guy who grew up in the worst section of District VIII. At the time of his appointment I noted that he began his studies at the Budapest University of Technology but two years later transferred to ELTE to become a geography teacher. Well, for me that meant that the young Klinghammer couldn’t quite handle the work in this very tough technical college. After getting a teacher’s certificate in geography he became a cartographer and received a “university doctorate,” not to be mixed up with the Ph.D. As far as I can ascertain, this is the highest degree he received, but he made quite a career for himself at ELTE. In 2000 he became president of the university and in 2010 became a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Klinghammer likes to talk and is considered to be a good communicator, but perhaps it would be better if he talked less. Ever since he became undersecretary in charge of higher education he has been giving one interview after the other, often saying things he shouldn’t. Not long ago he made great pronouncements about the nature of the university. There is a consensus in the U.S. that a university is, to quote my favorite definition (Random House), “an institution of learning of the highest level, comprising a college of liberal arts, a program of graduate studies, and several professional schools, and authorized to confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees.” The Hungarian word for university, “egyetem,” also gives a clue about the universality of disciplines taught in universities. But then comes our Klinghammer who announces that “engineering and music” shouldn’t be taught at the same university. So, an engineer should know nothing about music, art, or literature. In Hungarian there is a good word for such a person: “professional barbarian” (szakbarbár). Moreover, Klinghammer has little appreciation of any fields outside of natural sciences and engineering because they “don’t produce any value, they only please people and give them happiness.”
So, busy bloggers–I suspect students–did some research on Klinghammer’s own scientific accomplishments. He was prolific, writing according to one account 15 books and 30 chapters in different publications, primarily in Hungarian. But his work attracted little interest abroad; foreign academics referred to his works only twice. Details of his academic activities can be found here.
And how does he come across as a person? Badly. In a lengthy interview he gave to Népszabadság he gave the impression–to use the description of György C. Kálmán (literary historian and former professor at ELTE)–of a man “who finds his titles terribly important, who is a puffed-up academic with narrow views, someone who doesn’t understand the first thing about democracy, someone whose views on learning and erudition are hopelessly wrong; in brief, he is an old fogey.”‘
Another blogger, after looking through Klinghammer’s scientific accomplishments, discovered that among his many publications he even listed articles in Magyar Nemzet and in a popular science magazine, Élet és Tudomány. This blogger summarizes Klinghammer’s impact on the world: “He wrote seven books in Hungarian that inspired ten references. After forty years of work his impact is zero.” Whatever the precise number of publications and references, foreign and domestic, we can definitely conclude that Klinghammer, despite his own inflated self-image, is not a renowned scholar. Perhaps if he had bragged less he wouldn’t have elicited so many antagonistic responses. And this is the man who is supposed to make Hungarian higher education world-class.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine made a quick visit to Hungary and bought some magazines for me–Élet és Irodalom, 168 Óra, Magyar Narancs, HVG, Heti Válasz, and Magyar Demokrata. For those who are not familiar with the political orientation of these magazines, the last two are to the right while the others are to the left of center. Heti Válasz, begun on government money supplied by the first Fidesz government, is the more moderate of the two on the right. Magyar Demokrata, whose editor-in-chief is András Bencsik, one of the organizers of the Peace Marches who also had a hand in the organization of the Hungarian Guard, is a far-right publication known for its anti-Semitic references.
Quickly enough I read all the magazines, with the notable exception of Magyar Demokrata. I kept postponing reading it until this morning when I had a routine doctor’s appointment. Knowing that I invariably have to wait a long time before seeing my doctor, I decided to take along Magyar Demokrata. Let me share some of its content.
József Szájer graces the cover because the issue features a long interview with him about the attacks against the new Hungarian constitution (more below).
András Bencsik, who writes a short op/ed piece in every issue, promises that “the Peace March will continue,” although this time on the Internet. He asks supporters of the Hungarian government to send letters to foreign journalists, politicians, and representatives of civic organizations with the message of Hungarians who feel that their country is being attacked for no good reason. “The truth of a nation is like the blinding sunshine that sends light through the fog of lies.”
As for the Szájer interview, he and other members of the Hungarian government have repeated often enough that there is absolutely no basis for criticism of the constitution or its amendments. But here he goes further. “As far as sovereignty is concerned, I told members of the Venice Commission it is not the president of the United States, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, or the president of the European Commission who has the right to adopt Hungary’s Basic Laws.” They will listen to suggestions but they “will not accept that instead of the members of the Hungarian parliament who were democratically elected others want to decide what is in our constitution.” Hungarians who were dependent on foreign powers during the last five hundred years are very sensitive on that issue. “We don’t like it when Comrade Brezhnev tells us what to do. Our current partners must be very careful on this score because otherwise very bad historical parallels might be conjured up.” Otherwise, Szájer couldn’t come up with anything new about the possible causes of western antipathy toward Hungary.
Another article entitled “The Secret” is by Gábor Bencsik, a nephew of András Bencsik who is a Jack of all trades. He’s written about onions as well as Miklós Horthy. He styles himself as a newspaperman and historian and is a proud graduate of Gödöllő, Hungary’s foremost agricultural school. In this piece he tries to discover why liberal intellectuals have such good connections abroad while their right-wing counterparts don’t. The left-liberal intellectual elite in the West was ready to overlook the shortcomings of the Kádár regime but sympathized with the democratic opposition of the liberals. They understood each other’s language. The right-of-center opposition never developed a close-knit group. They did have a few meetings but then they went home. And they had no connections abroad.
Well, this is a somewhat distorted view of what happened. The sad fact is that there was no right-of-center opposition to the Kádár regime, and therefore it didn’t even occur to the few people who could perhaps be labelled “narodnik” writers to get in touch with western critics of the socialist order in Eastern Europe. Moreover, let’s face it, most of these people were isolated even linguistically. A friend of mine who lives in California told me that he was flabbergasted when he found out that the poet Sándor Csoóri spoke no language other than Hungarian. My friend served as his interpreter when he was in in this country. Well, under such circumstances it is difficult to develop a network with western supporters. Bencsik admits that the Hungarian right still has no avenues that would lead to foreign contacts but “there is hope.” Time will solve the problem; the liberals will get older and eventually die.
Up to this point the tone of the magazine was acceptable. One might not agree with Bencsik and Szájer, but one cannot criticize them for using unacceptable language or expressing racial prejudice. Another op/ed piece by László Gy. Tóth, a political scientist and chief adviser to the prime minister, however, borders on the unacceptable. It is about “Gyula Horn and History.” Here Tóth uses words that are especially objectionable from a so-called political scientist who is an adviser to Viktor Orbán. The article, which is basically a book review, looks at a biography of Gyula Horn by Árpád Pünkösti. First, Tóth describes Pünkösti as “a not too significant left-wing journalist” who tries to make an important politician out of Gyula Horn when in his opinion Horn was no more than “an uneducated communist apparatchik [and] the greatest socialist wordsmith of nothingness.” Horn is described as an immoral and unscrupulous politician who sold Hungarian national wealth to foreigners. This one-sided portrayal is jarring and demonstrates the author’s incredible bias.
When we come to István Gazdag’s article entitled “Red Danny and the Children,” Magyar Demokrata’s anti-Semitism surfaces. Gazdag goes into great detail about Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s sexual aberrations and comes to the conclusion that, although child molestation is a serious crime everywhere in Europe, most likely Cohn-Bendit will not have to worry about jail time because his fellow politicians, including Angela Merkel, will shield him. After all, most likely nothing will happen to Dominique Strauss-Kahn as nothing happened to Roman Polanski. Continuing in an ironic tone, Gazdag writes: “Only a vicious anti-Semite could possibly think that all this has anything to do with their belonging to ‘that nonexistent lobby‘. Naturally, such a claim is without any foundation. Honni soit qui mal y pense.”
This morning I discovered a short news item. In Mórahalom, a town in the County of Csongrád, a certain Ilonka néni died two days before her ninetieth birth. Let’s start with the Hungarian media’s annoying habit of calling every woman over the age of 50 or 60, at least if she is not a famous Budapest celebrity, “néni,” a word hard to translate. “Nagynéni” means “aunt,” but children address every adult female as “néni.” Students can call their female teacher “tanitó néni.” In the case of an elderly woman, it simply means “granny.”
In any event, Ilonka néni, according to the mayor of Mórahalom, was so eager to receive the birthday card Viktor Orbán sends every ninety-year-old that she allegedly asked the mayor to read the prime minister’s greetings at her funeral. Even though she didn’t quite make it to her birthday, the mayor accommodated. Moreover, the card was buried with her. I think this says a lot about the modern version of hero worship in Hungary. Mind you, this is not new. Many of us still vividly remember the scene when another “néni” kissed Viktor Orbán’s hand. That was a long time ago during his first term as prime minister. At the time one of the members of my political discussion group felt that it would be enough to print thousands and thousands of posters depicting this scene to assure Viktor Orbán’s defeat.
The threat of massive flooding in Hungary provided the prime minister with a golden opportunity to demonstrate his managerial competence and personal compassion. Viktor Orbán’s staff must have put up at least a hundred pictures showing the prime minister in every possible pose as he took charge of protecting the nation from Mother Nature’s vengeance.
A natural disaster usually serves the government in power well if the operation is executed smoothly and the final result is satisfactory. Admittedly, Viktor Orbán’s decision to show himself as the man in charge of the operation entailed a level of risk. What if at the end scores of towns get flooded and several people lose their lives? In this case the prime minister’s heavy involvement might backfire.
Since I know nothing about waterways and flooding, I don’t know whether the Hungarian authorities could predict the maximum height of the water once it got to Hungary. We know that in Germany the damage caused by the flood on the Danube was great and scores of people died. In Passau it was only in 1501 that there was such a threat to the city. I heard less about Austria and I read that the city of Bratislava was spared. Therefore it is possible that the experts didn’t expect anything more serious than the floods of past years. If this is true, it wasn’t much of a political risk for Orbán to show himself as the man in charge of the whole operation. Exaggerating the possible trouble might also have served the prime minister’s political ends.
In any case, his admirers, who are numerous, have been writing comments on Viktor Orbán’s Facebook page that are over the top. As early as June 4 Orbán, accompanied by István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest, stood on the bank of the Danube which was not yet flooded and intently gazed at the river. This picture inspired the following comments: “The Prime Minister is there on the dike. He is not lazy. At last there is a real leader of the country. Thanks you for the unselfish work performed on behalf of the country.” And “Viktor don’t give in if the flood comes or if you fight against the European Union or the Bolshevik opposition. The Hungarians are with you.”
Practically every picture is entitled “Leading the defense….” There are several pictures showing Orbán intently studying large maps. Those who don’t admire him as much as some of the people who comment on his Facebook page made fun of his presumed understanding of the import of these maps.
The picture that was copied over and over, and reproduced here, shows Orbán sitting with a huge map in front of him. Orbán isn’t looking at the map; he’s gazing off into the distance. But this didn’t bother one of his admirers, who commented: “This is what a decent Hungarian looks like. Someone who is truly interested in the fate of the country! We have an extraordinary prime minister!”
And he is a good Hungarian in other ways too. It cannot be a coincidence that the staff felt that they have to show the people that Viktor Orbán is one of them. Here is this fancy Ferenc Gyurcsány who cooks all sorts of weird dishes–Italian, Indian, Thai. No, our man eats “kolbász” that he himself helps make in Felcsút. And the comment? “Never mind the luxury minibus. He is frugal.” In addition, he suggests that those who criticize him should be built into the dikes. “At least they would be useful.” What an uplifting Christian idea!
But the most often repeated conversation from the many videos about Orbán’s days along the Danube is the one that tells the story of his trip from Komárom to Szentendre.
György Bakondi, the head of the whole organization in blue overalls, says, “The most important task is to fill the sacks with sand.” He calls it “localized filling.” Viktor Orbán is gazing at a map, looking at danger zones. Orbán then looks at Bakondi, who nods meaningfully. . . Orbán asks Bakondi: “How much is that?” Bakondi replies, “Meaning what? In time?” Orbán pointing toward the Danube: “Until it comes up.” At this point one of the experts who is standing by tries to explain the situation, but Orbán is waiting for an answer from Bakondi: “How much water? In your opinion how high will it come up?” Bakondi: “Where? There? Yes.” … Orbán: “Are we raising it to 85?” Everybody nods. Orbán: “Will the peak be tomorrow? It will come in then, isn’t it so?” Answer: “Friday-Saturday.” Orbán: “We will take over the water level at the border on Thursday.”
Orbán’s presence made no difference from a practical point of view, but in political terms it was a capital idea. I’m sure that his popularity, which has been sagging for at least a year, will soar after the flood. While pictures circulate about a playground where Ferenc Gyurcsány was working on the levees. The pictures show that the whole playground has been flooded since. The dike didn’t hold. That is the difference between an extraordinary prime minister and the opposition losers.