Month: November 2007

Why do Hungarian émigrés bet on the wrong horse?

Why it is that Hungarian émigré groups usually side with the Hungarian right? Why do they support the Fidesz or even the extreme right in the old country?

The trigger for these questions was the Canadian-U.S. visit of Krisztina Morvai, the chief spokesman of the so-called "independent" legal defense team (Független Jogász Fórum). This group is anything but independent. Her real aim in life is to portray the present government of Hungary as the embodiment of the worst Stalinist-style dictatorship. Morvai, who in her spare time is an associate professor in the most prestigious law school of the country, can come up with incredible statements. By her tireless activity, half of Hungary believes that the Hungarian police attacked the peaceful demonstrators on October 23, 2006, not vice versa. She likes to compare the Hungarian police force to the Rákosi regime’s ÁVH (Államvédelmi Hatóság), the most dreaded national security force in the worst of Stalinist times. Morvai tirelessly tries to blacken the name of the Gyurcsány government at international forums. She was not successful in the European Union, and therefore she is now trying at the United Nations. Perhaps member countries can put pressure on the EU to condemn Hungary. Of course, all this is nonsense, but it provides a backdrop to the events in Toronto.

It is noteworthy that Hungarian émigré organizations invite people like Morvai to deliver lectures. This is what happened in Toronto, New York, and several other places. According to people I know in Toronto, the leadership of the Hungarian House (Magyar Ház) comes exclusively from the right. Therefore, they don’t really serve the whole Hungarian community of Toronto but only the politically like-minded crowd. Anyway, Morvai’s first stop was in Toronto, where she delivered her usual speech about police terror and dictatorship. Everything would have gone smoothly but for a one single man, Sándor Kerekes, who walked in with a black umbrella on which he wrote: "Here we all have two countries!" This was a reference to the notorious letter Ms Morvai wrote to Népszava some time ago in which she made a distinction between "our kind" and "your kind." While "our kind" has only one country, "your kind" has more than one. From the context of the letter there was no question that she was talking about Hungarian Jews. Shortly after Morvai began to speak Kerekes got up, walked to the podium, opened the umbrella, message facing the crowd. All hell broke loose. Kerekes’s umbrella was seized, he was dragged out of the room and yelled at, while the crowd greatly enjoyed itself. Obviously there was no one there who would side with Kerekes.

That was one exciting moment in Morvai’s visit to Toronto. Another was also noteworthy. During the speech in which she practically compared herself to Jesus Christ leading her people out of darkness, she referred to the Virgin Mary as the "Palestinian girl." Later, by then back in Hungary, when she was asked whether she really called Mary a Palestinian girl, her memory failed her.

But let’s get back to the question of why the great majority of Hungarian émigrés seem to be right-wingers. Of course, one can argue that only the active groups are dominated by right-wingers. Those who hold moderate views simply refuse to participate in émigré politics. And so appearances are deceiving. But I still believe that even if we had more scientific polls the majority of the Hungarians abroad would side with the Hungarian right rather than the left.

I see several reasons for this. First and foremost, it is due to their relative ignorance of what has happened in Hungary since they left. As far as they are concerned, life in Hungary stopped at the time of their departure. If someone left in ’56, for instance, he remembers only the bloodthirsty Kádár of the early years and has no knowledge of the "soft dictatorship" of the later years. So it is understandable that the émigrés are ferociously anti-communist. They believe that those horrible communists managed to survive the change of regime and that the MSZP (Magyar Szocialista Párt) is nothing but the old communist party of Kádár in a slightly different guise. It is, of course, true that the reform wing of the MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt) formed the new party, but the old well-known figures were forced to retire from politics. The other thing that these people don’t realize is that the Hungarian Socialist Party is not very socialist. In fact, it is the MSZP that has tried to steer the country away from a socialist market economy and the welfare state. Under Gyula Horn most of the state property was privatized. And now Gyurcsány is committed to re-educating the Hungarian public and minimizing their dependence on the state. Just as state property was privatized, now there is a push to privatize some state services (most notably and contentiously health care).

The émigrés, stuck in a time warp, think that the socialists are really socialists, the descendants of Kádár and Rákosi, while the Fidesz offers a new way forward. In fact, the Fidesz’s ideas about Hungarian society are much closer to the old socialist system. They don’t want to privatize anything; they want to keep state ownership of many industries. While the socialists and liberals keep saying that "the state is not a good owner," the Fidesz insists that the state is an excellent owner. The only trouble, they argue, is that the state at the moment is in the wrong hands. If they were in charge, the state-owned sectors of the economy would thrive.

The other thing that appeals to the émigrés is the Fidesz’s nationalism, perhaps even irredentism. Again, this is understandable, probably grounded in a certain nostalgia for what Hungary was before things turned so sour and they had to leave. They really were born in a wonderful country, indeed formerly a truly important country.

So while in their adopted countries they support self-reliance, competition, and private ownership and oppose anything smacking of socialism, they don’t seem to realize that in Hungary they are betting on the wrong horse. Out of misinformation, out of prejudice, out of ignorance. Because surely the thinking of the SZDSZ and the MSZP politicians is much closer to the political thinking prevalent in their adopted country. It is the Hungarian right’s anticommunism and nationalism that leads them astray.


Good economic news in Hungary doesn’t carry over into the political arena

The economic news in Hungary is good: the estimated 6.4% deficit for 2007 will be smaller: 6.2%. The economic growth for 2008 is estimated be about 4%. Higher than thought. The stock market immediately recovered what it lost yesterday, and the forint gained against the euro. The head of the central bank of the European Union announced that Hungary ought to be congratulated: he has never seen more ambitious and successful reforms in such a short time.

Would that everything were so rosy in the political arena. But it’s not. By now not only the Hungarian press but foreign papers as well are speculating about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s possible fall. On the surface it sure doesn’t look too promising. There is a rather loud minority within the MSZP caucus that is relentless in its criticism of the party’s and the government’s policies. They obviously became frightened of the polls, the strikes, the constant political attacks by the Fidesz. Their solution would be to slow down the reforms. Some would even vote against the healthcare reform bill. Then with the help of the opposition members the bill would be dead. But if the bill is dead the coalition is dead as well. Whether they will go that far, I doubt.

One cannot really make predictions because we have no hard data on the size of the opposition within the MSZP. But looking at the situation from the outside, I don’t think it’s very logical to have a palace revolt against the leadership at the moment. There would be only one beneficiary of such a move: the Fidesz. If there are early elections, Fidesz would most likely win about two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Those who worry about the future of the coalition, for example József Debreczeni, try to warn the revolting members of the socialist party that "they are dancing on thin ice and they don’t have any idea how deep the water is beneath" (Népszava, November 27). Debreczeni is really worried about Viktor Orbán’s antidemocratic tendencies and the future of Hungarian democracy. And he’s not alone.

But the socialists continue to demand changes in the healthcare legislation. Some of these changes are minor: a comma here, a period there, may be a better sentence structure. However, some of them are substantive and would make meaningful reform impossible. The four sticking points are the composition of the boards of the mixed (state and private) insurance companies, the payment of dividends, the compensation per patient and among regions, and the expenses of running the companies. These socialist demands are not new. They have been around since summer but then it seemed that the two parties in the coalition managed to come to an understanding. These old problems have now resurfaced with a vengeance. And they will be difficult to resolve because they reflect radically different attitudes about the relationship between government and private enterprise.

And if the serious challenges to the legislation were not enough, add to them one absolutely mad suggestion by a single socialist parliamentary member: once the new insurers begin their activities, the co-payment and daily hospital fee should be abolished because then everything will be wonderful and it won’t be necessary to receive the extra payments. Considering that the copayments remain with the family doctors, specialists and the hospitals, I don’t understand why our genius of a socialist thinks that it has much to do with the successful operation of the insurers. But it is indicative of the current political environment that although the parliamentary committee on health care decided to drop this crazy suggestion, another committee on the budget decided to pass it on for full plenary discussion.

Meanwhile two economists, both of liberal persuasion, came out with a lengthy article in Népszabadság (November 28) in which they complain that the execution of the reforms is too slow. I agree with them. However, the participants don’t play ball.

New voices in Hungarian “healthy living”

This time I am switching focus from the proposed governmental health care reforms to a reform that is already in progress in Hungary. And that is an increased awareness of the importance of "healthy living." There is more and more talk about prevention, about changing lifestyles. It is refreshing.

Almost daily there are interviews with doctors on television about this or that illness. Today a doctor explained that a mild elevation of sugar in the bloodstream should not be immediately treated with medication. Perhaps first one ought to discuss weight problems. The doctor should suggest daily exercise. A reader who lives in the United States would say: "But this is obvious!" Yes, it is obvious for us because it has been pounded into our heads that we ought to live healthier lives. Or at least the more educated and better-off population is trying to follow these pieces of medical advice.

In Hungary until recently there was very little emphasis on prevention. One went to a doctor if one was ill, sometimes fatally so. For instance, the cancer statistics are very bad in Hungary mostly because by the time people go to the doctor it is often too late. Lately, doctor after doctor announces on the radio and television that cancer nowadays is not necessarily a death sentence. People are urged to have screenings, and doctors keep repeating that if certain cancers are discovered early there is a 80-90% chance of recovery.

Obesity is becoming a problem in Hungary too. The causes are well known: too many cars, too little physical work, and too much unhealthful food. But it is increasingly fashionable to diet, and some savvy people even sign up for exercise classes in fitness clubs. There is also an attempt (however feeble) to curb smoking. The Hungarian statistics are bad. Perhaps the worst in Europe. The average smoker smokes a pack a day. Someone figured it out that if both a man and his wife smoke, they spend yearly 742,000 forints, or more than €2,800 a year on their habit. And cigarettes are still relatively inexpensive in Hungary. However, if we consider that the average salary in Hungary is about 150,000 Ft a month, this sum is staggering. Attempts are being made to curb smoking in public places. People grumble, people refuse to oblige, but sooner or later the new way of life will be accepted and fewer people will smoke.

This health propaganda is already bearing fruit. Since 1990, the year of the change of regime, the expected life span has increased by four years. It is still very low by European or American standards, but it is getting better.

If Hungarians improve their own lifestyles and if the quality of Hungarian health care improves, they can look forward to increasing life expectancy. Then they’ll just have to figure out how to pay for their golden years.

The Gripen affair again

Just when it looked as if the Gripen investigation would suffer a quiet death, there are new developments. And they are serious. Up to now the committee of experts under the leadership of Ágnes Vadai, undersecretary of the Ministry of Defense, managed to produce a thirty-five-page-long report that was handed over to Prime Minister Gyurcsány. Vadai was interviewed several times in the last few months, and she invariably told the reporters that her committee was not charged with investigating any possible bribery by BAE Systems/Saab concerning Hungary’s surprise purchase of Gripen fighter jets. The members of the committee simply analyzed the legality of the decision making process. They discovered a few procedural problems but nothing shocking.

There was a promise that a parliamentary committee would look into the real question: did the Orbán government receive any money from the British-Swedish company to ensure the purchase of Gripens? After all, the original decision was to purchase American planes, but in the last minute Viktor Orbán alone, against the advice of the Hungarian military experts, decided in favor of the Swedish jets. However, there has been a deafening silence concerning the creation of such a parliamentary committee. This isn’t surprising. The chairman of the committee on national defense is István Simicskó (the good Christian Democrat), who in the Orbán government was an undersecretary in the Ministry of Defense. So it looked as if the Gripen affair had been buried once and for all.

And then comes a lengthy article in The New York Times’ business section, November 25: “Payload: Taking Aim at Corporate Bribery.” The story is fairly intricate, and Hungary is but a subplot. The U.S. Justice Department is examining BAE because BAE generates nearly half of its revenue in the United States, and, more importantly, BAE recently acquired a major supplier of armored Humvees used by the Americans in Iraq. What the Justice Department wants to know is whether BAE violated any domestic laws banning international bribery and money laundering. This case is not unique. The Justice Department is investigating about sixty companies under a law called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).

The article is mostly about BAE’s bribes to the Saudi royal family, but toward the end it claims that BAE most likely also dispersed money to the Czech and Hungarian governments. There were, of course, earlier charges stemming from the Swedish investigation into the Gripen affair. According to the New York Times article, Lt. General Tome H. Walters Jr., then head of overseas sales for the Pentagon, wrote a letter to the Czech foreign minister in which he complained about a “lack of transparency” in the negotiations. He also maintained that “the competition for the contract was not above board.” As we know, the contract was subsequently awared to BAE and its Swedish partner, Saab.

General Walters, now retired, told the reporters that similar problems were encountered trying to sell American jets to the Hungarian government. BAE again secured the Hungarian contract. “American officials say they believe that the Hungarian and Czech governments were influenced by payments. They cite a CIA briefing during which they were told that BAE paid millions of dollars to the major political parties in Hungary to win the contracts there.”

This is a fantastic turn of events and, in my opinion, doesn’t bode well for Viktor Orbán and Fidesz in case these charges can actually be proven. The Department of Defense obviously suspected foul play already in 2001. The CIA was also keeping an eye on the situation. It may take some time, but I hope that eventually we will find out the truth (especially once Western reporters get inspired).

Needless to say, Hungarian reporters ran to Péter Szijjártó, the Fidesz spokesman. They wanted to know the party’s reaction. And what could be the reaction? Fidesz cannot be bothered fighting military companies over contracts. It’s none of their business. The charge is in stark contrast. It was precisely the business–big business–of Fidesz to exact payments for contracts. Let’s see whether the charge can be substantiated.

Those monthly polls in Hungary

Maybe I’m not paying enough attention, but I don’t hear the reports of six or seven American pollsters comparing the standing of the Republican versus the Democratic parties every month. This is the case in Hungary and, as if these polls concerning political parties weren’t enough, once a month Médián, one of the Hungarian pollsters, also publishes a popularity contest among politicians.

Pollster activity seems to be a perpetual motion machine. As soon as an election is over, the pollsters report the popularity of the party/parties that just won the elections; for a few months the popularity of the winning party inexorably goes up. When the pollsters ask people whom they voted for, it inevitably happens that more people say they voted for the winner than could have happened in reality. Then the euphoria wanes and as months go by the people become less satisfied with the government, whose popularity keeps going down.

The Medgyessy government’s popularity remained very high for longer than usual because Medgyessy fulfilled his campaign promises: 50% salary increases for health care providers and teachers, and all pensioners received an extra month of pension. But, of course, the beneficiaries of these incredible raises soon enough forgot the generosity of the government. When no more similar raises followed the first, disappointment set in.

This time, the disappointment was immediate because the government began to correct the earlier mistakes: somehow they had to reduce the nearly 11% budget deficit that Orbán, Medgyessy, and Gyurcsány in his first term had managed to accumulate. Gyurcsány promised less than Orbán or Medgyessy, but at the same time he didn’t divulge the whole truth about the desperate situation in which Hungary found herself. In the October 2006 municipal elections Fidesz swept the country, a clear sign of the terrible disappointment that had set in. And things haven’t gotten any better. Although the MSZP gained a few percentage points in August-September, since then the down trend in its polling results has resumed. (The September change in its favor and the relative loss of popularity of the Fidesz was apparently due to the formation of the Hungarian Guard and Fidesz involvement with the Jobbik, an extreme right wing party.)

According to the Médián which, according to some, produces the most reliable polls among the many similar companies, among those who claim that they would definitely vote if the elections were held next Sunday, the popularity of Fidesz is 64% while that of the MSZP is 26%. Of course, this sounds pretty terrible for MSZP supporters, but one must keep in mind that almost 40% of those asked were not sure of or refused to tell about their choice. Another consideration is that Fidesz supporters are far more resolute at the moment: 66% of them are certain that they would vote while among the MSZP supporters only 55% would cast a vote. All this shows the hesitancy of the MSZP voters.

One reason for this jump in Fidesz support is the renewed referendum campaign. One mustn’t forget that the Fidesz activisits again visited over one million households, which undoubtedly boosted their popularity. Another reason for the loss of popularity of the MSZP is their irresolute behavior. Some of the MSZP MPs became so frightened by their party’s sinking popularity that they turned against the reforms which, in their opinion, had made their party so unpopular. Their estimate is most likely correct, but turning back now or slowing down will not change the public’s mood. On the contrary. Several studies show that voters prefer political strength; they look around now and find the MSZP weak with a small but vocal minority criticizing the party leadership from the outside, sending messages to Gyurcsány and his circle through the media. Katalin Szili is the leader of this group.

And this brings me to another interesting point. Szili, who normally is at the very top of the popularity list of politicians, fell back considerably. László Sólyom now heads the list, followed by Lajos Kósa and Zoltán Pokorni, vice presidents of the Fidesz who are known as more moderate than their boss. Then comes Viktor Orbán, who at one point was very far down the list. Szili moved from second place to sixth place, behind Ibolya Dávid, head of the MDF. The only thing I can think of is that some MSZP voters don’t like Szili’s criticism of her own party, especially not in right-wing papers. Even this weekend she gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet.

In any case, the elections are far away, and early polls like this one don’t tell much about the possible results of elections that will be held two and a half years hence. But if the MSZP is to reverse its fortunes, it must improve its communication with the public and stop dragging out the health care reforms. People are afraid of what the reforms will mean for them. Until the reforms are in place, these fears will not subside.

Will Hungarians be representing Romania in Brussels?

No one really knows. The election is tomorrow. The different polls vary widely in their predictions. President Traian Basescu’s Democratic party is expected to do best, with 30-35% of the votes. Whether the Romanian-Hungarian Democratic Alliance (RMDSZ) will manage to receive the necessary five percent of the votes is unlikely.

Today’s blog, by the way, relies heavily on an article by Zoltán Tibori Szabó, a native of Cluj (Kolozsvár) and Romanian correspondent of Népszabadság.

Romania will send a delegation of thirty-five to the European Parliament. The voters in Romania will have to cast their votes for a party not for individuals. Six parliamentary parties and seven smaller parties whose support was insufficient for parliamentary representation are in the ring. In addition to these thirteen parties there is a sole individual who received permission to run as an independent: the Reverend László Tőkés. (One has a sneaking suspicion why!)

Ethnic Hungarians constitute 6.5% of Romania’s population. With an independent Hungarian candidate running in addition to the RMDSZ, it is quite possible that no Hungarian will be in the Romanian delegation to Brussels. Here are a couple of different scenarios. If participation is more than 50% of the eligible voters it can easily happen that Tőkés will not get the neccessary 2.85% of the votes but he will take away enough votes from the RMDSZ that the official Hungarian party will not reach the necessary 5% either. Then there are the optimists who hope that participation will be only 35%. In this case the RMDSZ will be able to get the necessary 340,000 votes and Tőkés the necessary 180,000 votes. Thus the RMDSZ will be able to send two delegates in addition to Tőkés. Thus the Hungarian minority in fact will have three representatives. One poll this week predicted a 54% participation while the other 35-40%.

Then there were polls taken only among Hungarians. According to these, 4.8%-5.2% of the Hungarian voters would vote for the RMDSZ while only 1.8-2.2% for Tőkés. If we can believe these numbers, it would be necessary for 10% more Hungarians to take part in the voting procedure than Romania’s non-Hungarian voters. First of all, this is unlikely. But second, the week-old polls may not accurately reflect the current situation. Fidesz has been actively assisting the Tőkés campaign. On the other hand, Wilfried Martens, former president of the Christian Democratic International and an old supporter of Viktor Orbán, showed up lately on behalf of the RMDSZ. So we can only wait and see. If the most dire predictions occur and, thanks to Tőkés and Orbán, no Hungarian is among the Romanian delegation to Brussels, I’m curious what the silver-tongued spokesman of Fidesz will be able to say. Knowing him and his party they will come up with some explanation.

Hungary: A country where there are no consequences? Perhaps less and less so

Hungarians like to say that Hungary is a country where a person can do anything he wants without consequence. Indeed, there are far too many examples of cases in which the punishment does not fit the crime or where there’s no punishment at all. Either because of the statutes or because of the incompetence or political sympathies of the majority of the judges. For instance, surprisingly light–or no–sentences were meted out to the physically abusive "revolutionaries" in recent disturbances. The lack of repercussions emboldens those who do not respect the law; more and more one can read about people who attack the policemen who stop them for traffic violations.

I mentioned earlier one case where a Fidesz parliamentary member attacked the policemen who pulled him over and asked for his papers: he had none. He demanded special treatment because he was "a very important man, a member of parliament, and how do they dare…." And when they dared, he attacked.

Early this morning there was a near repeat performance, almost at the same place. This time "the very important person" was an Olympic champion. A member of the water polo team that received the gold medal in Sydney. He was drunk, and it took the police close to ten minutes to handcuff him and his buddy and push them into the car. The camera took a fairly decent video of the scene. For anyone’s personal enjoyment one can see the video here: Considering that eight policemen could hardly restrain two drunks says something about the relative mildness (or incompetence?) of the Hungarian police. I try to imagine a similar situation in the United States. If we had cameras taking videos, we sure wouldn’t have the pleasure of watching eight policemen struggle with two guys before they could handcuff them. Meanwhile the Olympic star was screaming obscenities and telling the policemen that they should be ashamed of themselves for trying to handcuff an Olympic champion. And as if this weren’t enough, he added that it is shameful that Gyurcsány who is a criminal is still loose while he is being handcuffed.

Well, the former Olympic champion and his companion, another water polo player in the Pécs club, were immediately suspended by the club. We don’t know what will happen to them in the long run, but at least their club didn’t try to whitewash their activities as happened a couple of years ago with two weight lifters after the Athens Olympics. (Mind you, the doping charges against the weight lifters were a tad more serious, and they ended up losing their medals.)

The other current case also had serious consequences: the police captain of District XIII in Budapest, a certain Ernő Kiss, lost his job. This morning his official car was found locked but abandoned on one of the streets within the district. There was only one problem with it. Before it came to a halt it hit three parked cars along the way. Kiss seems to have a drinking problem which had already gotten him into trouble earlier. This time what was his excuse? The old story: he wasn’t the driver of the car. His official car was stolen. It had been parked in front of his house in District II and, my golly, he didn’t notice its absence until this morning when it was found in District XIII. Who drove the car? Someone who resembles him. His enemies set him up; people who want to discredit him are waging a campaign against him.

His feeble lie points to Hungarian statutory inadequacy. Right now the Hungarian government is addressing this issue by planning legislation that would make the owner of the car (or in this case the person to whom the car is assigned) responsible for any traffic violation. The excuse that "my twin brother" was the driver (this is actually not a joke, someone did come up with this tale) cannot be used. Well, the country’s chief of police didn’t fall for the captain’s story: Kiss was immediately relieved of his duties. Good for him. I think it is high time to end this lawlessness.