I rarely touch on the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries because I don’t know enough about them. Yes, I read the Hungarian media, but that is not enough for an analysis of the Hungarian minority situation in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine.
However, I feel compelled to say a few words about Transylvania. Hungarians represent about 7% of the Romanian population. In 1992 they numbered 1,624,959, and in 2002 1,431,807. Their birthrate is low and emigration to Hungary is high. Nonetheless, the Hungarian minority remains significant, with its own political representation. The RMDSZ (Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség, in Romanian Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România) was established in 1989. Ideologically the party is right of center, currently headed by Béla Markó, a poet. (Its first president, Géza Domokos, was a writer.) The RMDSZ is part of the Romanian government, with four ministers. Markó until recently was also deputy prime minister of Romania.
Then comes László Tőkés, the Calvinist bishop and hero of the Romanian revolution. I admired Tőkés’s role in 1989. After all, his brave stance gave rise to the Romanian "revolution" that toppled Ceausescu’s regime. Since then I have lost my admiration for him. His nationalism and extreme stance on the Hungarian minority are, in my opinion, harmful to the Hungarians of Romania. Among other things, Tőkés has political ambitions of his own and has been working to organize a Hungarian party to the right of the RMDSZ. As a first step, he announced his candidacy as an "independent" candidate for the one of the seats allotted to Romania in the European Union’s parliament. If the Hungarian minority in Romania votes as a bloc, getting 5% of the votes cast, they might have two representatives. However, if there are two candidates–one from the RMDSZ and the other an "independent," the Hungarian votes will be split and most likely neither will be successful. And so the Hungarians of Romania willl be without representation in Brussels.
The RMDSZ conducted lengthy negotiations with Tőkés, to no avail. Tőkés is now campaigning furiously in advance of the May 19, 2008 elections. Viktor Orbán this past weekend traveled to Transylvania to help Tőkés along. (By the way, Orbán likes to visit Romania. He hardly ever goes to Slovakia. In fact, I can’t remember a single occasion, but he goes to Transylvania several times a year. Very often he makes important announcements concerning Hungarian politics there.)
So, Orbán campaigned with great gusto on Tőkés’s behalf without mentioning his name. He simply followed the practice of the Hungarian clergy who in their sermons never explicitly endorse a candidate (but who nonetheless make clear the political road to salvation). From the point of view of the Hungarian minority in Romania the current political situation is grim. According to the latest polls, if the elections were held this Sunday, the RMDSZ would get only 3.9%. That would not be enough to get into either the parliament in Bucharest or the parliament of the European Union.
What does Viktor Orbán say to all this? Don’t blame me if no Hungarian gets into the parliament of the European Union. It is the fault of the Hungarians of Romania. They didn’t vote the right way! Meaning for László Tőkés. One of the RMDSZ leaders, Hunor Kelemen, called Orbán’s attitude "unconscionable cynicism." I really don’t know what Orbán is doing.
Today six Hungarian citizens lost their lives in highway accidents. Three in Austria and three in Hungary. A charter bus with forty-two young soccer fans was on its way home from Milan when around four o’clock in the morning the bus, apparently quite new and in good shape, went off the road and hit a guard rail. Three people are dead, and two were seriously injured: one broke his back and is paralyzed, and the other’s arm had to be amputated. Twenty-one others are injured but not seriously. Apparently, the driver turned his head to talk to his "co-pilot".
In Hungary, in a chain reaction, four vehicles ran into each other. The first vehicle was a van. Behind it a truck carrying paraffin. Then came an ordinary sedan and at the end a smaller truck carrying bananas. The truck ran into the the van, the sedan into the truck (which went up in flames), and the truck carrying vegetables ran into the sedan (that also caught on fire). Three people are dead–two in the sedan and the driver of the truck with the bananas.
One can say, yes, such things happen. The problem is that in Hungary they happen far too often. To give you some idea about the extent of the problem, according to the Hungarian Statistical Office (Országos Statisztikai Hivatal) in the first six months of 2007 595 people died on Hungary’s highways. This is a 15% year over year increase. There were 9,500 traffic accidents in which 13,000 people were injured, including the 595 dead. The total number of accidents is 2% higher than a year ago. (This is not a worrisome statistic as the number of cars continues to increase. But fender benders are one thing, fatal accidents another entirely.) Over 90% of the time the problem lies with the driver. Some accidents are caused by drunken drivers. Their number increased by 11%. Other accidents are right-of-way violations.
According to the police, most of the accidents are caused by speeding. Many of the most serious accidents are single-car affairs. Drivers lose control and smash into walls, guard rails, houses, ditches, name it. Driving too fast always raises the risk of an accident, but the problem is exacerbated when the driver is inexperienced and can’t judge when he can speed and when he can’t. Although Hungary has more and more well-engineered four-lane highways, there are still secondary roads going through villages with pretty sharp curves. If the driver takes one of these curves too fast, he may be unable to keep the car on the road. From the description of Hungarian car accidents I suspect that most of the serious accidents are of this kind.
Many Hungarian drivers are inexperienced, the proud owners of their first car. Moreover, the newer cars are much more powerful than Hungarians who previously owned cars are accustomed to. The older Soviet, Romanian, or East German cars (especially the infamous Trabant) didn’t have a heck of a lot of horsepower. Now, people sit in a German, Japanese, or American car and feel that they have to show the world what their cars can do.
Add to all this the Hungarians’ penchant for ignoring rules and regulations. If the use of the safety belts is compulsory, it’s a sure thing that very few will use them. While in the United States 80% of the people buckle up, in Hungary maybe 20%. And then you hear that X or Y "flew out of his car." Years ago, before the 1994 elections, Gyula Horn had a terrible car accident (he broke his neck) when it turned out that he didn’t have his seat belt on. About a year ago, a member of parliament and mayor of Pécs, had an accident on his trip home. The driver died a few weeks later, the politician (who didn’t wear a seat belt) has been in a coma ever since.
Prime Minister Gyurcsány, as if he didn’t have enough trouble, decided to do something about this. Stricter law enforcement, higher fines, more police on the road, and more traffipaxes. There were traffipaxes before, but the problem was and still is that the owner of the car could get out of paying a fine by claiming that he was not the driver of the vehicle at the time of the speeding violation. The government is planning to change the law: the owner of the car is responsible for any speeding violations. If Mr. Kovács lent his car to his cousin, Mr. Kovács is still liable. He can fight it out with his cousin.
This leads to a sidebar about auto insurance. I admit that I don’t know a thing about car insurance practices in Hungary. In the United States most insurance companies require the policyholder to stipulate who will be driving the car and who will thus be covered by the insurance policy. It is not unimportant whether a forty-year-old woman is the sole driver of the car or whether her nineteen-year-old son also has access to the car. And just watch the premium skyrocket in the latter case!
In any case, some organization defending the rights of drivers already announced that the proposed legislation is simply alien to Hungarian jurisprudence. The ever skeptical Hungarian commentators already predict that nothing will change.
According to Hungarian law no party can inquire about a citizen’s political views and, an especially egregious offense, no one can amass a database. If for one reason or other one compiles a politically telltale list–any list–the data must be destroyed within a certain time. A few months.
There is the suspicion that the Fidesz has a database. The people who go from house to house, from apartment to apartment, write down names and make notations: friend or foe. People who lived in a dictatorship (however mild) don’t like this. They fear the consequences. What will happen if the Fidesz wins the elections? What will happen to those whom the activists marked as "foe"?
Although I understand the fear, I find this particular law (among many others in Hungarian jurisprudence) old-fashioned, and I’m not at all surprised that the Fidesz, a party of modern ideas concerning political campaigns, tries to circumvent it. After all, in working out a campaign strategy one ought to have a good idea of demographic and political realities. It is also very important for a modern party to have a list of sympathizers in order to mobilize its followers.
Before the last elections it came to light that the Fidesz had collected such a database. As usual, nothing came of it because every time the party is caught doing something not quite legal, the Fidesz simply doesn’t respond. One thing is sure. Whatever lists the Fidesz had they didn’t destroy. A week ago the party had no problem collecting 300 some thousand signatures in 48 hours. The party activists went from house to house, and it was observed that they pretty well knew where to go.
As I said earlier, I have no problem with this, and perhaps it would not be a bad idea to rethink this whole question. I very much doubt that the MSZP or the SZDSZ keep such lists (it shows, by the way), but they are in this case at a great disadvantage. I think it would be much better if the parties could collect lists of sympathizers to whom they could turn during the campaign period.
Hungarians are horrified by the American system of voter registration. Here one must register in order to be able to vote–as a Republican, Democrat, or independent. In every community there is a registrar of voters who maintains the lists, which are available to the local parties. Thus the local party officials more or less know what the situation is in their community. These lists are not surefire indicators of the outcome, because registration doesn’t commit a person to voting for particular candidates. A registered Republican can vote for a Democratic slate. But these lists provide guidance to the parties in conducting their campaign. If, for example, I’m registered as a Democrat it is very unlikely that a Republican campaign worker would ask me to put out a poster in my yard for the Republican candidate. It would be a waste of time.
Perhaps one day the fear will dissipate and it will not be a crime to keep lists. It would make political campaigns much easier.
Let me be blunt: the SZDSZ is on life support, with their political "condition" somewhere between guarded and critical. According to the latest opinion poll (Tárki) only 1% of the electorate would vote for them.
Let’s review quickly the fortunes of the SZDSZ in the last seventeen years. In 1990 they received 23.8% of the votes. About 1 million people voted for the party. Four years later the situation didn’t change dramatically: the number of votes cast remained about the same, but because of the fantastic showing of the MSZP (who received 54% of the seats in parliament) the SZDSZ’s share was only 17.8%. Still substantial. In 1998 the SZDSZ had to be satisfied with 6.22% of the seats: instead of a million people only 500,000 voted for the liberals. In 2002 they managed to garner only about 300,000 votes (6.5% of the seats), and in 2006, when voter participation was very high, they managed to get 350,000 votes. They received 5.57% of the seats. One year later their situation is grave.
What is behind their declining support? Why were they so popular in 1990? And if they were so popular, how did the right-of-center coalition manage to form a government?
According to most commentators the initial popularity of the SZDSZ was due to their staunch anti-communist stance. The leaders of the party came from that very small group of outspoken critics of the regime, referred to as the "democratic opposition" in Hungary and as the "dissidents" in the West. Among the factors working against them in the 1990 election was that former communist party members (and there were 800,000 of them in a country of 10 million) feared reprisals if the SZDSZ won the election and therefore voted for the MDF, which seemed much more pliable in this respect.
The SZDSZ in its early days attracted people who were anti-communist and/or liberal. As we know, these two elements don’t always coexist peacefully. Liberalism in the modern sense never had a significant following in Hungary. Between the two world wars there was a small liberal party, but its strength was concentrated in Budapest. And still today, the bulk of SZDSZ voters live in the capital. Many of the people who were active in the early days of the Third Republic are now busy on the extreme (anti-communist) right. A charter member of the SZDSZ is in the Jobbik today.
So, to fast forward, what has happened in the last year or so? For one, the very popular Gábor Kuncze, former head of the party and leader of the parliamentary caucus, resigned from both positions. Mátyás Eörsi, whose forte is not internal politics (he spent quite a bit of time as an observer in Brussels prior to Hungary’s joining the European Union), now leads the caucus. Vying for the position of head of the party were two men: Gábor Fodor and János Kóka. Kóka wasn’t even a party member until very recently. Fodor began his career as an important person in the Fidesz (as students he and Orbán were roommates) but left the party in 1993 because Orbán and his friends were already showing signs that they were planning to move from the liberal left to the right. The two men, Fodor and Kóka, were in a dead heat. Eventually, Kóka won. Fodor had to be compensated somehow, and he received the post of minister of environmental affairs where right now he is throwing his weight around. Kóka a couple of months ago announced his resignation from his ministerial post at the end of the year in order to devote himself fully to the building of the party. That sounds nice, but I don’t think that Kóka is quite up to the task. Kóka also announced that he is also taking over the post of Mátyás Eörsi who seems to have taken the blow rather well, acting as if he always knew that his position would last only a few months.
Ever since the resignation of Kuncze there has been nothing but constant bickering between the SZDSZ and the MSZP. The culprit is usually the SZDSZ. The SZDSZ acts as if it weren’t in a coalition but was an opposition party. Kóka’s latest is that he practically sided with László Sólyom and Krisztina Morvai in blaming the police for terrible brutality. Gábor Horn, who is most visible in the media, announced a couple of days ago that the SZDSZ is not wedded to the MSZP and that he could imagine a coalition with the Fidesz (though only without Viktor Orbán). A day later he is trying desperately to talk himself out of this hole but he doesn’t sound too convincing. Realpolitik was never not the SZDSZ’s forte but the current leaders heap mistake on top of mistake. At the moment I wouldn’t bet on the party’s political future.
Yesterday I said a little about the economic woes of the country; today I would like to give a few more details. I’m relying heavily on an article of Péter Róna that appeared in Népszava (October 26,2007). I mentioned that the problems began in 2001 when, because of the approaching elections, the Fidesz government decided to change course. Until then the government had followed a disciplined fiscal policy. But, in the hope of winning votes, they began to be irresponsibly generous. They doubled the minimum wage and gave out guaranteed loans with very low interest rates for the purchase of houses and/or apartments. Continuing this pattern of excessive government spending, the Medgyessy government raised the salaries of state employees and, just before the 2006 elections, on the insistence of the SZDSZ, they lowered the value-added tax on some items. All these were long-term obligations. The housing subsidies were a tremendous burden, and they were not well targeted. Many people used these loans for speculative purposes. Moreover, the maximum loan size was so high that the government ended up subsidizing investors in the luxury real estate market. The Medgyessy government fiddled with these subsidies, lowering the value of the eligible properties and making the loans available only to people under a certain age, but the socialist-liberal government didn’t dare to take this new privilege away completely.
Today some experts believe that by lowering government expenses and increasing tax income Hungary will be able to set things right. This is what the government is trying to do at the moment, with some success. The current GDP growth of 1.5% is subpar by global standards, but the budget for 2008 projects a growth of 2.8%. This is most likely achievable, especially because in the next seven years, 22.4 billion euros in subsidies will be coming into the country. Moreover, the deficit is being reduced, and the government has even managed to deliver upside surprises. As part of the "convergence program" (the plan that is supposed to ready the country for joining the euro-zone) János Veres, minister of finance, projected a deficit of 6.8% for 2007, but actually it will be closer to 6%. Right now they project 5% for 2008, and it is possible that it may even be lower because the ministry’s estimates are conservative. So, according to some economists, everything is going splendidly.
However, there are other financial observers who think that the country’s economic woes cannot be remedied so easily because they stem from deep-seated structural problems. For instance, according to a new Financial Times article, 47% of the working-age population is unskilled, a worrisome statistic in a competitive global economy. In theory 6.4 million people would be able to work, but only 2.8 million are employed in economically productive jobs. (About 800,000 people are employed in the public sector.) Well, 2.8 million people cannot support 10 million, especially since some of the unproductive people must be maintained from the budget. In Hungary only 44% of households have at least one wage earner. In 1992 the situation was much better: 59%. Among other problems, the population is aging.
Although privatization was very thorough, the social "safety net" of the Kádár regime remained. In fact, it was strengthened. Today half of an average household’s income comes from some kind of direct subsidy; this does not include services subsidized by the government–from health care to sports or cultural activities. The heavily indebted state is still generous to a fault. For instance, on average, the government subsidy of a Hungarian theater ticket is as much as the cost of a theater ticket in London. Yet, the Hungarian people remain stubbornly unhappy. They want higher incomes, and they don’t want to part with all these cozy subsidies. The Fidesz opposes any "reform," which of course helps to maintain its lead in the polls. However, the small work force simply cannot produce the necessary tax base to support such government spending.
If this is really the case, the government is in an awful bind. Perhaps sooner or later they will have to do what they would loath to do: make very serious cuts in government subsidies. The outcry would be terrible, but there might not be any other way in the long run. Fortunately life always moves in the short run, and more often than not long-term problems get resolved in ways previously uncontemplated. The doomsayers are usually wrong (for instance, especially in light of Hungary’s situation, think of Thomas Malthus).
Today I think I should step back a bit in time and address the "infamous" speech Ferenc Gyurcsány made shortly after the election in the spring of 2006. This election ended with an MSZP-SZDSZ victory, a watershed in Hungary’s short democratic history. Previously, the electorate had never been satisfied with the work of the government in power; with great optimism it had always expected something "better" from an opposing party.
The fall of the MDF in 1994 was spectacular, and equally spectacular was the victory of the MSZP. The socialists had an absolute majority in parliament and therefore didn’t need a coalition partner, but in the end a coalition it was. Opinion polls indicated that the majority of SZDSZ sympathizers championed for their party’s joining the government. Perhaps they didn’t quite trust the socialists who, after all, four years earlier were in a second-tier position in Kádár’s old MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt = Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party). Economically the country was in shambles in 1994, and Gyula Horn, the socialist prime minister, was afraid to introduce measures that would save it from outright bankruptcy. He wasted eight months before he agreed to radical change. Eventually he allowed the "ruthless" economist Lajos Bokros to make order in the economic sphere. What happened to the socialist-liberal government then was very similar to their situation now: because of these stringent measures the party’s popularity was about as low as if not a bit lower than it is now. But as these measures bore fruit and the economic situation improved, about six months before the elections the MSZP was again leading in the opinion polls. However, in the last few months, a couple of very bad decisions by Gyula Horn, a possible corruption case, and a series of bombs at different Fidesz and Smallholders (yes, there was still such a party in those days) politicians’ houses or at opposition parties’ headquarters all came together to result in the defeat of the governing coalition.
Viktor Orbán, who like all politicians promised the world, actually conducted a very prudent economic policy. Promises were not fulfilled. In fact, an economist who was supposed to be minister of finance was scrapped because he told the truth: "Campaign promises are not the same as the government program." The Orbán government’s economic strategy worked quite well. Economic growth was robust (due in part to the healthy state of the Hungarian economy thanks to Bokros and his policies). However, as the election drew closer, the Fidesz began a wanton spending program, hoping to buy votes. It didn’t work.
In an effort to outdo the Fidesz, the socialists promised an earthly paradise. For instance, they promised to immediately raise the salaries of state employees by 50%. (And there are a lot of state employees: it’s enough to think of all of the teachers and doctors.) This pie in the sky campaign strategy was successful. The only difference was that Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, former minister of finance and someone who should have known better, actually fulfilled his promises. If you take the trouble to read the first part of the Balatonöszöd speech (http://tinyurl.com/25c5mr) you will find a couple of rather obscure sentences about the stupid mistakes they made. He says it less politely: "… we have fucked it up. Not a little but a lot. No European country has done anything as boneheaded as we have." What he is referring to here is that they spent money the country didn’t have. The promises could be fulfilled only by borrowing money until the budget deficit became enormous. According to estimates, the socialist-liberal government must shoulder about three-quarters of the blame while the Fidesz in their last-minute spending spree about one-quarter.
Although the new government took over in May, in some ministries, thanks to Fidesz largesse, 90% of the yearly budget was already spent. So, for the year 2002 the coffers were practically empty. At this point they could have said: "Terribly sorry folks but this horrible Orbán government spent the nation’s last forint and yes, we promised to raise salaries but, you see…." Any savvy politician would have done something similar. But not Medgyessy and his crew. They proceeded on their preannounced course, raising government employee salaries by 50%. Needless to say, their popularity soared. In October after the municipal elections the whole map of Hungary turned red.
Short-term popularity had its price. I assume they were hoping that there would be a worldwide economic boom and that Hungary would be a beneficiary of that trend. Instead the opposite happened. And soon enough came the election campaign again and the Fidesz this time promised really incredible things: fourteenth month pensions (the socialists had already given the thirteenth month which greatly added to the government’s financial burdens), reduced taxes, subsidies, and so on and so forth.
At this point Gyurcsány couldn’t say: "Elect us and we will increase taxes, will insist that you pay for your healthcare, will make sure that you pay taxes in the first place, will make your kids pay tuition and yes, there will be co-pay when you visit your doctor." Surely, no politician who hoped to be elected would ever say such things.
And now at last we come to the speech in Balatonőszöd. It took place on May 26, 2006, and it was a gathering of the party’s parliamentary caucus. Gyurcsány actually made two speeches: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The speech in the morning was very different from the afternoon one, which was indeed sprinkled with obscenity and a lot of exaggeration. What happened between the two? The only thing most observers can hypothesize is that while in the morning he rather calmly tried to explain the disastrous situation of the country’s finances and the urgency of drastic changes, most likely some influential party leaders balked at such measures, fearing the party’s popularity. (As we can see not without reason.) At this point he must have felt that he had to convince them somehow. His "shock jock" strategy worked: the party rallied behind him. Or at least most of the party, because to this day we don’t know how a copy of the speech leaked out. One has the feeling that Gyurcsány and his friends know who the culprit was, but for the sake of peace they are not looking very hard.
The meeting took place on May 26, 2006, but the speech became public only on September 18. Magyar Rádió played the most damaging part of it: we lied morning, noon and night. There was no question it was Gyurcsány’s voice. The rest is history: a few hundred people attacked the building of the public television station, burned some cars, and injured scores of unprepared policemen. However, it is most likely that Viktor Orbán knew about the speech perhaps a couple of months earlier because in his speeches the words "lie," "liar" began appearing quite frequently. Surely, Gyurcsány, although he thought that he was "among his own," shouldn’t have spoken those words in front of close to 200 people. Especially because some of his statements were not even true. For example, we did not do anything for four years. Nothing. This is more than exaggeration, but it could be used very effectively against him and his government. It was a huge political mistake.
And now for the four-letter words. Yes, the language is quite shocking, especially for those who no longer live in Hungary. Perhaps the general public expects more from the prime minister but, let’s face it, the language used in Hungary by large segments of society is pretty bad. It is enough to read the works of Péter Esterházy (what a distinguished name and still . . .). I think of his Javított kiadás–melléklet a Harmonia caelestishez (2002) in which he describes his discovery that his father worked for the secret police. The whole work is peppered with four-letter words. (By the way, Esterházy considered Gyurcsány’s speech one of the most important in modern Hungarian history.)
Yes, I think that the speech had to be made, but not how it was delivered. The message had to be driven home: the old socialist way of doing things simply will not work. You can’t have capitalism and at the same time act as if you still lived in Kádár’s Hungary.
As for the speech as a catalyst for anti-socialist opinion, I still consider it less important than some people. After all, the size of Fidesz sympathizers hasn’t really changed. MSZP voters became unsure of themselves, and the polls taken therefore don’t tell us much because of the increase in the number of undecided voters. Or the ones who refuse to tell their party preferences. I wouldn’t bury Gyurcsány and the socialist party yet. A lot depends on the economic situation in the next two and a half years.
By now, I have the text of both speeches. I saw Gyurcsány’s speech live on MTV and thought highly of it. Yesterday I tried to catch Orbán’s speech live, but HírTV was ailing. Since then HírTV’s internet service revived and I was able to watch the video. Anyone who knows the language and has half an hour can listen to it here: http://tinyurl.com/3x67vq. Two very different speeches, two very different politicians, two very different men. I must admit that I don’t consider a good speaker someone who for thirty minutes does nothing else but scream on the top of his lungs. Orbán unfortunately did exactly that.
Gyurcsány, on the other hand, was surprisingly quiet. He normally gesticulates a lot, but in the Opera House he was subdued. This was more appropriate for an occasion when the country remembers a failed uprising with thousands dead, about 500 people executed, 20,000 people jailed afterward, and 200,000 emigres. Anyone who would like to see and hear Gyurcsány’s speech can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/33oh9h. The emphasis was on democracy, freedom, human dignity and cooperation. "Instead of emphasizing what divides the nation, the people should look for what keeps this fantastic country together." Gyurcsány urged people to extend their hands to each other. This tone was in sharp contrast to Orbán’s claims of purposeful wrongdoing by the government that does terrible things not because of incompetence but with outright evil intent. And then came the usual litany of poverty, unemployment, rising prices, and all that can be wrong in Hungary.
The truth is that real wages indeed are lower than a year ago, but if one compares that with the situation created by the so-called "Bokros package" in 1995 when real wages went down by 17%, the present belt tightening is relatively mild. Some of the decrease in living standards is not even due to belt tightening but to weather conditions (frost and drought during the same year), which resulted in higher food prices. Moreover, the international price of oil is not exactly the government’s fault. Finally, what everybody seems to forget is that prior to 2006 real wages had risen more than 40%!!! That is the main reason that the present government had to resort to drastic adjustments. After all, a national budget deficit of around 10% cannot be tolerated.
The problem with the Fidesz is that its politicians don’t offer an alternative to the government’s current policies. Here and there they talk about reducing the tax burden and giving financial incentives to Hungarian middle-size enterprises, but lately even their former minister of finance admitted that this is just a pipe dream. Since the Fidesz cannot realistically articulate an alternative economic strategy, there remains demagoguery and false hopes in uprisings and referendums. This has been going on for over a year now. Perhaps there are some naive followers who believe that Hungary would become a paradise once Viktor Orbán returned as prime minister, but we know that life is not so simple. The only promising sentences in the speech were those that categorically rejected force as an instrument of "regime change."
I would like to answer here Paul Hellyer’s comment concerning the speech in Balatonöszöd and the corruption associated with the MSZP. As for Balatonöszöd. On the surface it indeed seems logical to assume that the speech was a tipping point that shifted public opinion away from Ferenc Gyurcsány. However, if we take a closer look at the history of events since the MSZP won in 2006, it becomes evident that the loss of popularity of the goverment and the prime minister had little to do with Öszöd. Öszöd came, Öszöd went, and the popularity of the government didn’t change dramatically. Instead, the MSZP lost support because people realized that its agenda might not be in their short-term personal best interest. The safety net might not be removed, but it was going to cost more. Öszöd prompted the storming of the MTV building, but Gyurcsány’s popularity didn’t suffer because of it.
The second point that Mr. Hellyer mentions is the corruption of the MSZP. One seems to forget–people’s memory is so short–what was going on during the Orbán government. Josip Tot, Kaya Ibrahim, Csaba Schecht, the phantom companies with huge debts that disappeared, the appointment of Lajos Simicska to head the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, Viktor Orbán’s and his father’s wealth through all sorts of questionable transactions. And one could continue. József Debreczeni in his biography of Viktor Orbán mentions a conversation in which Orbán claimed that József Antall’s grave political mistake was that he didn’t manage to provide financially for a group of people who would then be supporters of the right. He certainly didn’t make this mistake. In brief, I have the feeling that while on both sides there is corruption, in Orbán’s case it was centrally directed. In the MSZP it was more haphazard as the MSZP is a much more haphazard party than the tightly organized Fidesz.
As for corruption, it seems to me that Gyurcsány really means to do something about corruption. All sorts of corruption because, let’s face it, corruption in Hungary is all embracing. A corrupt Hungary can produce only a corrupt political elite. After all, that elite is part of society as a whole. And we all know the everyday corruptions from gratuity to the doctors to the lack of receipts from the plumber. It was clear to me from the Fidesz’s eight points that Orbán’s party doesn’t really want to have meaningful anti-corruption legislation. After all, there will be life after Gyurcsány too.
Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech last night in the Opera House was excellent. He is an amazingly good speaker. Unlike most politicians he writes his own speeches, or, to be more precise, he spends some time in his study, walking up and down, and "thinks out" his speech. Then he appears without even a piece of paper in hand.
Viktor Orbán’s speeches used to be praised because of their eloquence, but he works from a text, most likely composed by a speech writer. Of late, people who used to like Orbán’s oratory are less enthusiastic about his performances. They find his speeches lacking in substance, and he seems to be lost in a mass of forced metaphors. Moreover, József Debreczeni, who used to be a teacher of Hungarian literature and history in high school, has complained about Orbán’s style, saying that he wouldn’t have accepted such verbal flourishes from his high school students. And not just one such flourish but one after another after still another.
Because I still don’t have the text of Orbán’s speech, I will not try to compare the two speeches in content or in style. I will do that perhaps in the next few days. Suffice it to say that Orbán didn’t even pretend that his speech had anything to do with 1956. It was a political speech pure and simple. As Mátyás Eörsi, leader of the SZDSZ caucus in parliament, said: he didn’t think that "the martyrs of 1956 died for Viktor Orbán’s ambitions to be Hungary’s prime minister again."
Tonight’s gathering was very moving. Actors read literary pieces written during those fateful days; afterwards a modern dance troupe offered an interpretation of the revolution, from the initial euphoria to the return of the Soviet troops.
And yes, there were a few disturbances but the police handled them well. Sixteen people were arrested, and a few policemen were injured–not the four hundred of last fall but perhaps nine. The troublemakers soon realized that they were too few in number and that the police were too well equipped. This was a very different situation from that of last year.
As for the Fidesz demonstration. The organizers expected 100,000 people but official estimates talk about 20-30,000, which was actually not bad considering the pouring rain. (The Fidesz likes to exaggerate. According to the organizers 250,000 turned out.) Just as I suspected, the extreme right managed to break through the cordon and join the Fidesz’s "peaceful" demonstrators. Thus, Nazi flags were seen in the Fidesz ranks although the organizers asked people to leave those flags at home. There were quite a few skinheads among them but luckily not enough to cause trouble. The march to the House of Terror went off well. It took the crowd about half an hour to get there; by that time at least half of the people had had enough of the rain and wind and went home.
I’m curious what Orbán’s next move will be. I can’t think of too many new things, but I should know better: Orbán always finds something new and surprising, if not always successful.
It is truly sad to see how the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is being "celebrated" by the alleged new revolutionaries. For the second year in a row, a group on the extreme right attacked the institutions of democratic Hungary, Molotov cocktails in hand, in the name of the revolution. The real culprits are not those ignorant youngsters who set fire to cars, turned telephone booths upside down, urinated in the middle of Andrássy Street, or attacked policemen with rocks and anything else that they found lying on the streets. The real culprits are those politicians who lead these youngsters by the nose for their own selfish political purposes.
Let’s start with the ignorance. In 2000, Péter György, a literary critic, wrote a book about the fate of the revolution after the Russian troops returned, followed by János Kádár, who had just arrived from Moscow. (How he got there, we still don’t know. Maybe he was kidnapped, maybe he went on his own.) The title of György’s book is Néma hagyomány (Silent tradition). People simply didn’t talk about the revolution. Parents didn’t dare talk about it in front of their children; moreover, most of the parents didn’t really know about the reprisals after the suppression of the revolution. One might add that a kind of amnesia also set in, perhaps out of self-defense. Whatever the case, for this ignorance we are now paying a price.
To the "forgetfulness" one must add the propaganda of the Kádár regime. They claimed that the October Revolution was a counterrevolution that wanted to restore the Horthy regime or worse. According to the propagandists of the Kádár regime, the "counterrevolutionaries" were not just ordinary Horthy sympathizers but outright Nazis. The youngsters out on the streets in 1956 were nothing more than common criminals. The propaganda worked very well. A few years after the change of regime, well over 30 percent of the people still considered 1956 a counterrevolution. And even today, to my utter astonishment, I hear from liberal people bits and pieces of this leftover Kádár propaganda. They don’t go so far as to claim that it was a counterrevolution but rather choose to emphasize the few atrocities that occurred during those days. In fact, surprisingly few atrocities occurred, especially considering the political situation of the period between 1948 and 1956. It was actually a very peaceful revolution, if one can use such a mixed metaphor.
To today’s confusion on the left let’s add the very loud, right-wing so-called former revolutionaries. I have no way of knowing what these people did or didn’t do, but one thing is sure: there are more "revolutionaries" than one can count. Everybody and his brother received some kind of decoration during the Antall government. And these people can tell stories about their accomplishments, their bravery, their punishment, and their ruined lives. Maybe these stories are true, maybe not. But these people have managed to turn away a lot of well-meaning liberal or socialist Hungarians. When they hear "1956" they have already heard too much. They associate the revolution with these people. I can understand that.
And now comes the most recent culprit, the Fidesz. This party, headed by Viktor Orbán, has (since they lost the election) been telling their followers that the Gyurcsány government is not really democratic, that this is post-communism, that it is not Hungarian (what they actually mean is that the country is led by Jews), that this government can be "chased away," and so on and so forth. Then comes Mária Wittner, marketed as the "quintessential" victim of the revolution, who tells them that the revolution is not finished. Today’s youth is predestined to finish the revolution. Here is this ignorant crowd that knows nothing about the revolution. Perhaps they really think that they are destined to finish the revolution.
So, who is really responsible? The ignorant 2,000 or 3,000 people? I doubt it.
This afternoon, as promised by Gábor Vona (president of Jobbik, a small extreme right-wing party) six hundred uniformed guardists marched out to Heroes’ Square to be sworn in as new members of the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard). The uniform is the same, except I see a new item–a red and white striped scarf. Black boots, black pants, white shirt, black vest, black baseball cap with red and white striped insignia, similar insignia on the vest and on the back of it a drawing of a lion. Several online papers immediately published picture galleries of the event. The best perhaps can be found on the homepage of Hírszerző (http://www.hirszerzo.hu/galeria.63) According to the reports there were about 2,000 to 3,000 spectators, most of whom had the red and white striped flag of the Arrow Cross Party (aka Árpád-striped flag). Thus, they were not just curious onlookers but sympathizers.
Some people were conspicuously missing. For example, the representatives of the three churches (Catholic, Hungarian Reformed, and Lutheran). It seems that their superiors did a little more than give them friendly advice. Most likely they threatened them with consequences if they appeared and again blessed the flags of the Hungarian Guard. Mária Wittner didn’t appear either. Apparently, she had another urgent engagement. However, her short speech was read by someone else. What the exact story is here I have no idea. One thing is sure: Mária Wittner will be one of the speakers at the Fidesz "celebration" at the Astoria on October 23. It’s possible that Orbán gave Wittner the choice between appearing with the Hungarian Guard or with the Fidesz and she chose the latter. Moreover, one of the honorary Guard presidents resigned: the Guard, it was asserted, is strong enough to get along without his help. Again, another question mark.
Gábor Vona on the other hand was active. In his speech he outlined a Hungarian Guard that is somewhat parallel to but not exactly part of Hungarian society. For example, the Guard plans to organize "people’s colleges" (népi kollégiumok) in every county where the "students" would learn "Christian belief, runic writing, and decency." In Hungary a "kollégium" is not a post-high school academic institution but rather a dormitory. In the past, talented poor children of the peasantry and the working class were selected to leave home and move to one of these colleges. The colleges were attached to established schools, sometimes even elementary schools. The students got their basic education in these schools and lived in and received supplemental education in the dormitories. The most famous elite kollégium was the Eötvös kollégium; admission there was based solely on academic performance. Obviously, admission to Vona’s colleges will be based on ideology. Of course, it is possible that nothing will come of it. After all, the cost of establishing eighteen or nineteen "colleges" is not exactly peanuts.
An interesting side note. A year ago during the disturbances on October 23, the official organizers set up an old Soviet T-34 tank to remind people of those days in 1956. An enterprising middle aged man, György Horváth, managed to get inside of the tank. He knew enough about the mechanism that he managed to start it to the great surprise of the police. Well, this Mr. Horváth became very popular in right radical circles, and he either volunteered or was asked to join the Hungarian Guard. The guardists got so excited about his presence in their ranks and his feat with the tank that they decided to "walk" from Heroes’ Square in Budapest to Budaörs (not exactly a hop, skip, and a jump) to visit the tank. I hope the tank was appreciative.
I don’t know how the tank felt, but that the Slovaks were not happy is definite. The Slovak Foreign Ministry was ready. The celebrations on Heroes’ Square had barely come to an end when the ministry’s spokesman walked over to the MTI (Magyar Távirati Iroda) and handed over a note in which they expressed their worries concerning the establishment and growth of the Hungarian Guard. The note ended with their astonishment that such an organization can even be registered in a democratic country. Considering that the guardists swore allegiance to the Holy Crown and that another right radical organization (MÖM) thinks that the whole Carpathian Basin is the property of the Holy Crown, I would be a bit nervous if I were a Slovak. Although most likely these extremists will not get very far, the fear of the radicalization of the country in this direction is undoubtedly not baseless.