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Media manipulation in Hungary

May 31, 2008 6 comments

I have to admit that the inspiration for this blog comes from Sándor Friderikusz's program (ATV) where Júlia Lángh, writer and journalist, had a conversation with Paul Lendvai, an Austrian-Hungarian political commentator. Friderikusz, who has a decidedly low opinion of Hungarian journalists and the Hungarian media, repeatedly complains about the shoddy reporting of Hungarian newspapers, radio, and television. Not long ago he devoted a whole hour to the topic of the widely circulated pseudo-news that three and a half million people live in poverty in a country of ten million. As it turned out, a brand new, never-heard-of-before, so-called civic organization came out with this figure. The president of the organization gave a press conference, and it seems that none of the reporters present asked the man where he got his figures. Moreover, once they sat down to write their report, none of them took the trouble to check the data. Only last week I heard the same figure from the mouth of a very influential "political scientist," just a day before Friderikusz focused on the topic. He invited representatives of the Hungarian Statistical Office, who reported that the official figure is 16%. Exactly the same as the average within the European Union.

Perhaps one can blame this kind of reporting on laziness. But what I want to talk about here is media distortion. The background is the following. Last Monday, May 26th, Georg Maier wrote an opinion piece about Viktor Orbán in the liberal Austrian newspaper, Der Standard. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate the German original, but the Hungarian translation of the title was: "Orbán Changes Strategy, Still Everything Remains the Same." MTI (Magyar Távirati Iroda) duly summarized the article and several newspapers (off-line, on-line) also summarized its contents. Most of the written and electronic media published an almost identical summary. Briefly it went something like this. "It is most probable that there will be early elections sometime at the end of the year or the beginning of the next because the relationship between MSZP and SZDSZ has cooled considerably. In this situation, Viktor Orbán, the right-wing populist opposition politician, sees an opportunity and therefore shows renewed activity. However, his strategy is now different. He no longer tries to move his followers at street demonstrations, but rather he is turning to the political and financial elite. He wants to break out from the right-wing corner into which he pushed himself in his disappointment that his people denied him its love. His goal now is the political middle where surely he can achieve the most. He gives encouraging words to the business world, words no one has heard from him for years. He talks about tax reform, decreasing bureaucracy, stimulation of the economy while he is outlining a plan very similar to the one that was torpedoed by his own party and the referendum." However, the opinion piece of Der Standard asks: "Can Orbán really change? Like other populists he disdains democracy in action as well as democratic institutions. One has to add to that his desire for revenge, and his wish to pay back many times over his alleged humiliations."

These harsh words show that Georg Maier's attitude to Orbán and his party is rather negative. Most media included these crucial words in their reporting, but there were exceptions. There were those who acted as if Der Standard didn't write a thing about Viktor Orbán–Magyar Hírlap, for example. Then there were the ones who transformed an op-ed piece into an alleged news item. The most surprising in this category is Magyar Rádió, the official public radio of the country. Let me quote their summary verbatim: "The Austrian liberal paper states that the president of Fidesz in the last few weeks is more and more active, but, as opposed to earlier activities, he no longer wants to put pressure on the government by organizing street demonstrations. According to the newspaper, Orbán wants to break out from his right-wing pigeonhole and is taking aim at the middle where he most likely can achieve more." The listeners of Magyar Rádió had a truncated, distorted version of what Georg Maier said about Viktor Orbán. And unfortunately Magyar Rádió is the only station the whole country can listen to, and most people tune in out of habit regardless of the content.

And then there is Magyar Nemzet which really distorts. The paper summarized Der Standard's article thus: "In the left-liberal Austrian daily Gregor Mayer (sic) writes that Orbán is changing his strategy. Viktor Orbán in the last few weeks showed significant but discreet activism. He is conducting confidential conversations with businessmen, leaders of the media, and students of theater and film. According to the author it is obvious that the politician who is capable of change is working on a new image. According to the polls, Fidesz of Viktor Orbán at the present can count on the support of two-thirds of the electorate." This is real never-never land reporting.

Fidesz damage control

May 29, 2008 2 comments

It seems that even some of Viktor Orbán's friends and advisors think that his "honest" talk was a mistake, and they immediately began damage control. How effective these efforts will be against an onslaught of MSZP attacks remains to be seen. Uncharacteristically, MSZP has moved into high gear: the party leadership is taking out full-page ads in different publications. And ads are expensive in Hungary. Even on-line ads may cost half a million forints.

Ferenc Gyurcsány in his blog, not unsurprisingly, had some harsh words to describe Viktor Orbán's behavior. As I reported earlier, Gyurcsány is a diligent blogger. For two years now he has kept up his blog, writing almost every weekday. Gyurcsány spent two days on Orbán's speech. Yesterday the topic was pensions and pensioners. He talked at length about the meaning of "freezing" pensions. In today's papers there were already calculations of how many thousands of people would lose how many thousands of forints a year if Orbán had the opportunity to make his plans a reality. Today Gyurcsány sharply attacked the leader of Fidesz on moral grounds, territory previously occupied only by Fidesz. It seems that bits and pieces of Orbán's talks with business leaders also became public. According to this information, he apparently told his audience that first he wants to win the election. For a period of time he would do nothing and then only slowly would he reveal his program. Gyurcsány interpreted this as an admission that Orbán would wait until local elections were held (normally in early October of the same year as the national election) before introducing his intensified austerity program. Gyurcsány added: "This is cowardly behavior. What mendacity! Especially from the mouth of someone who until now kept repeating that a government can introduce only those measures that were sanctioned by the electorate before the elections." Fidesz is attempting to trivialize these comments; on the party's homepage the headline reads "A new Gyurcsány outburst!"

Meanwhile rumors are circulating that after all there is a recording of the Orbán talk and that it was offered for five or ten million forints to anyone interested. Apparently MSZP was approached but declined to buy the tape.

And the incipient Hungarian gray panthers are on the offensive. An official organization of pensioners is calling a meeting to discuss Fidesz plans that it considers injurious to their interests. Tibor Navracsics is trying his best to minimize the damage by claiming that "freezing pensions" is actually a good thing. Today the value of pensions is being eroded by inflation; if Orbán's plans were introduced, the purchasing power of pensions would remain constant. (So, under the best of voodoo economics, no bonanza for seniors, just a "freezing." I doubt that this damage control would warm the cockles of the geriatric heart.)

So the real war of words has begun. The question is who is going to get the better of it. Oddsmakers would bet on Fidesz. MSZP is the long shot. But sometimes long shots deliver huge returns.

Orbán’s revelations and their afterlife

May 28, 2008 5 comments

The storm around Orbán's alleged government plans has not quieted down. On the contrary, it has intensified, especially after the appearance of the Népszabadság-Szonda Ipsos poll today. Last night when two newspapermen at Népszava were putting together their joint article for today's issue, they were still receiving the opinions of "experts" who were convinced that "as things stand today, it is outright advantageous to Orbán that what he said in private came to light." I wonder how Ágoston Mráz, head of the think tank Nézőpoint Intézet (View Point Institute) and author of this opinion, must have reacted when he woke up this morning and saw the results of the Szonda Ipsos poll. It highlighted the remarkably negative opinions of all segments of society about the important points Orbán brought up in László Kéri's seminar. Before the poll appeared Mráz dug an even bigger hole for himself by saying in what a brilliant manner Orbán "neutralized people's preconceived ideas about him." Not one thing Mráz predicted seemed to have panned out. Attila Ágh, a political scientist close to MSZP, thought that, although Orbán's speech was a mistake, "the clever Fidesz communication according to all indications has managed to change a mistake into a virtue." Ágh too was wrong. No clever communication could turn things around. Sándor Fekete, another political scientist, was the only one who was right. He thought that it was a huge mistake and was certain that opinion polls would attest to that fact. He didn't have to wait for long.

Here are some of the results of the opinion poll, based on a sample of 1,000, taken on Monday. Sixty-five percent of all those questioned were against freezing pensions, 56% against the suspension of the metro project in Budapest, and 55% against stopping road construction. So none of Orbán's ideas met with the majority's approval. This had to be cold shower for the right. Heti Válasz, a relatively moderate right-wing weekly, could muster only this lame comment: "Too bad I wasn't among those who were asked by Szonda Ipsos." Apparently the Fidesz-supporting newspapermen doubt the professionalism of the poll takers. Indeed, if the results are not advantageous, that is usually the reaction.

Nothing has been settled about whether Orbán was just careless or whether he wanted his plans to become known. According to some people, Orbán is a very calculating fellow, and he must have known that what he said could not be kept secret. If these observers are right, then Orbán simply miscalculated the reaction of the public. However, this is hard to fathom given Orbán's natural political savvy: miscalculating that much? Since when would a stringent austerity program be welcomed? Anywhere in the world. In Hungary especially.

I still maintain that Orbán in his euphoria became careless. He thought that thanks to SZDSZ's short-sighted policies there would be early elections and his party might receive two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. In this case, he could do anything he wants. To change the constitution, for example. His former minister and confidante pretty well admitted that they would like to strengthen the position of the president and that one nice day Viktor Orbán might occupy the presidential palace. The schedule would presume a three-term Fidesz government. Out of the twelve years two hard years but then ten good years. After which perhaps Orbán would move over to the position of the president. Reverse of the Putin trick. Putin moved from president to prime minister, Orbán would become president from prime minister.

However, I somehow have the feeling that it will not be such smooth sailing. Especially if MSZP takes advantage of this huge blunder.

Reactions to Orbán’s revelations

May 27, 2008 10 comments

My head is spinning. One hears nothing else but talking heads spouting their wisdom about Viktor Orbán's monologue at a seminar of young political scientists, students of László Kéri. One interpretation is more bizarre than the next. At least to my mind. The best solutions in mathematics are the simplest. I think the same is true about political analysis.

The first hypothesis is that Orbán actually wanted his plans to become public. Oh yes, he wanted all the pensioners to know that he is going to freeze their pensions and that in general he doesn't care much about them because he is basing his strategy on the "active population." He did this, the argument goes, because he came to the conclusion that Gyurcsány's downfall was the result of not making his plans known ahead of time. He will do otherwise. So far so good, but it sounds mighty strange that he chose this way of making his plans public. I understand that Orbán somehow must close the gap between unlimited promises and the harsh reality that may await him if he wins the next election. Yes, I understand that sooner or later Fidesz must come out with a realistic campaign program. But this way? Out of the blue, instead of slowly and methodically introducing the different steps to be taken? Surely, this couldn't have been Orbán's intention.

A variation on the same theme but a bit more sophisticated is the following. Actually Orbán didn't want the contents of his speech to leak out, but now that they have, he doesn't mind. Oh, yes, he is jumping up and down for joy that people are comparing his speech to Gyurcsány's infamous performance at Balatonőszöd. That people make fun of his boasting and that they now hear that his austerity program will be more stringent than that of Gyurcsány. Sure thing!  He is just thrilled that Gábor Vona, head of Jobbik and the spiritual father of the Hungarian Guard, is mighty upset that Viktor Orbán wants to slap him and his guardists around and send them home like Horthy did to the members of the Arrow Cross Party. After all, according to the latest polls Jobbik has 8% of the votes, and Orbán cannot write off the votes of the far right. Vona, in fact, hit back: he revealed that many Fidesz members are secretly members of the Hungarian Guard, whose numbers are growing rapidly.

Another widely held view is that the revelation will not hurt Orbán and Fidesz. They will keep on marching toward a two-thirds majority at the next election. Be that election this year or in 2010. Even people like József Debreczeni, whose opinions I respect, think that this speech will make no difference. Another political analyst whose writings I usually agree with also thinks that for a few days there will be a lot of talk about the speech but once summer comes (which in Hungarian is called the cucumber season) the whole thing will be forgotten. Well, that is a possibility if MSZP lets it be forgotten. In order to keep something alive a sophisticated modern political party must do what Fidesz does: its spokesmen must repeat every day at every turn the same story about the horrid consequences of a possible Fidesz victory.

Then comes the widely held belief that no negative reaction to the speech will make the slightest difference to the thinking of the "true believers." Indeed, there are many people for whom Orbán is demi-God who can do no wrong. He is perfection himself. However, it is not these people whose thinking might be changed as a result of the speech. Rather, it is the less devoted part of the electorate who vote according to their pocketbooks, those who two years ago voted for MSZP but at the referendum voted "yes" for the three questions. Perhaps this group will say: "Oh, after all, all these promises were nothing but lies and MSZP is at least trying to minimize the 'pain' while Orbán promises 'a lot of pain to a lot of people.'" These people might not vote for Fidesz at the next election because, while Gyurcsány keeps saying that "we are over the hump," Orbán is promising two more years of austerity, an austerity much worse than what they had to endure in the past two years.

So I don't think that Orbán is happy about the leak or that he thinks it will serve his purposes. Otherwise, he wouldn't have promised one million new jobs in the next ten years after his speech became public. Surely, he feels that he has to counterbalance the negative message that came through from his outlining the future of his government. He called on the socialists to leave. He actually used the imperative and the familiar form, giving a sharp and scornful edge to his call: "Menjetek el!" Simply: Leave!  And he added: "It will be better for everybody." This way he can implement his plans and lead the country to economic paradise.

I think that there is a very simple, human explanation for the whole affair. Orbán is feeling very self-confident at the moment. Obviously when he is happy, he is very happy and when he is sad, he is very sad. He himself admitted that "he fell apart" after the lost 2002 elections. Most likely that was the case in 2006 as well because again he disappeared for months. Right now he is in his manic mode, with every good reason. He has bounced back to assume a commanding position when a year and a half ago people were burying him as a politician. I believe that in his happiness and newly regained self-confidence he said things that he shouldn't have. Add to this that according to reports he consumed some wine as he went on talking for three hours. (Gábor Gavra wrote in Hírszerző that Gyurcsány apparently also had a couple of drinks before he gave his afternoon speech at Őszöd.) Inhibitions fall after a few drinks, and surely a politician ought to be careful about giving speeches after or while drinking.

I am almost certain that Orbán didn't think that the contents of his speech would leak out: after all, László Kéri has been holding these Wednesday night seminars for a number of years. Several politicians were invited, and the public heard nothing. Yet this time the situation was different. Orbán doesn't even know whether there is a recording of his speech. So he can't even deny the different statements allegedly made by him in case there is. He is not happy. He knows that this leaked story is not to his advantage.

This morning a fairly rough-sounding woman phoned into Bolgár's program who in no uncertain terms summarized the real meaning of these revelations. According to her, people turned away from Gyurcsány and MSZP because of the austerity program. If Orbán now offers the same, his fate will be identical to that of Gyurcsány. Except Gyurcsány didn't tell about his program before the elections, and perhaps it would have been wiser of Orbán to keep his plans to himself. It is very possible that he will lose some of his commanding lead as a result of this speech.

Szálasi as party leader

May 26, 2008 5 comments

As mentioned yesterday, Szálasi’s obscure language and confused ideology were not conducive to the creation of a viable political party. However, Szálasi was determined. In 1935 his situation in the army became unbearable because of the pressures put on him to cease his political activities. So in March he resigned and immediately founded his first party, Nemzeti Akarat Pártja (Party of National Will), consisting of, in addition to himself, Sándor Csia, a typist, and two members. Csia eventually became Szálasi’s deputy and from 1939 on a member of parliament. After the war he was also sentenced to death and executed like Szálasi.

Szálasi wrote a new program, Cél és követelések (Aim and Demands) which had some curious items: for instance, there would be a moratorium on all personal debts, the state would pay off the creditors and would extend credit (financed by the state) to all in need. During the by-election in April 1936 Szálasi tried to get into parliament but polled only 942 votes out of 12,051 in Pomáz. However, he wasn’t discouraged; he merely became convinced that it was not through elections and parliament that he could succeed in reaching his goal.

Slowly the Party of National Will started growing. At the beginning of 1938, well after the party was banned, the police reported that the people most attracted to Szálasi’s party could be found among the civil servants. The police also managed to get a list of contributors with over five hundred names. Although there were three unskilled workers on the list, most were civil servants, doctors, lawyers, and retired military. At that time membership was still fairly small: between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Most of these people came from the provinces, Sopron and environs, and smaller towns around Budapest. Thus Szálasi’s party at the outset didn’t differ greatly from other smaller national socialist groups consisting of middle class adherents. In 1937, however, Szálasi and Csia visited Germany and what he saw in that country “made a deep impression on him.” Szálasi decided to turn his attention to the workers, and therefore the party’s slogans changed. The party demanded “justice, work, respect” for the “Hungarian worker” so he could “free himself from the shackles of the social democratic-communist trade unions and from the claws of feudal-capitalist, destructive monied Jewry.”

At this point, Horthy’s police had had enough. Szálasi was arrested and served three months in jail; his party was banned. After he was released, he tried to establish a mass movement by pulling together the different extreme right, nazi groups. The name of the party was Magyar Nemzeti Szocialista Párt–Hungarista Mozgalom (Hungarian National Socialist Party–Hungarist Movement). By this time his ideology was clearly antisemitic, consisting of demagogic rantings extolling extreme nationalism and totalitarianism. Horthy’s police were after him again, and this time he received three years in the infamous Csillag prison in Szeged where, by the way, Mátyás Rákosi spent sixteen years before his release to the Soviet Union.

Szálasi’s imprisonment actually helped the popularity of his movement. While he was in jail, his new deputy, Kálmán Hubay, established the Nyilaskeresztes Párt (Party of the Arrow Cross). The official date of its birth is March 8, 1939. It was the successor to the Magyar Nemzeti Párt–Hungarista Mozgalom. Under the leadership of Hubay (editor of Függetlenség, a far-right daily) the party achieved a sudden and unexpected success. By the end of the year, it had half a million members and at the 1939 elections, under the electoral law that basically made suffrage universal, they managed to get thirty-one members into parliament. Almost a million people voted for the Party of the Arrow Cross. By the way, here is the Arrow Cross next to a slightly different version of the so-called Árpád-striped flag, one of the flags used in medieval Hungary.

 

 

Szálasi managed to get out of jail earlier than expected because of the general amnesty (August 30, 1940) in celebration of the “spectacular” diplomatic success of  the Second Viennese Award as a result of which Hungary received a fairly large portion of northern Transylvania. But as soon as Szálasi was out of jail and became the actual leader of his party, the Arrow Cross Party began to lose its popularity. It wasn’t only Szálasi’s ineptness and confused, incomprehensible ideas that caused the decline but because it had competition from a new extreme right party headed by former Prime Minister Béla Imrédy (Magyar Megújulás Pártja, Party of Hungarian Renewal). Moreover, internal disputes, mostly about the relationship betwen the party and Hitler’s Reich, began to fracture the Arrow Cross Party.

Szálasi thought his golden opportunity arrived when, on March 19, 1944, German troops invaded Hungary. But the Germans, deciding that he was not quite normal, paid no attention to him. The Germans agreed to make him the Leader of the Nation (nemzetvezető, vezető = Führer) only after October 15, 1944, when Horthy announced that Hungary was leaving the German side. At this point the Germans had no other choice but to rely on Szálasi to whom Miklós Horthy handed over power after Horthy’s son was kidnapped by the Germans. Szálasi then announced the “final solution” for the remaining Budapest Jews and allowed Eichman and his henchmen to begin driving Jews from Budapest on foot toward Austria. Meanwhile in Budapest the Arrow Cross men were drowning Jews in the Danube and killing anyone they didn’t particularly like. The Soviet troops eventually surrounded the Hungarian capital and the long siege began, but the killing inside the city continued. Szálasi and his government eventually left Budapest and moved to Kőszeg, close to the Austrian border. Seemingly oblivious to reality, Szálasi went on with his nation building plans. Meanwhile he and his government slavishly served the German military and were actually planning the removal of the Hungarian population from the territories still in German-Hungarian hands. On March 29, 1945, he and his government boarded a train and left for Germany, ending up in Augsburg. There he fell into American hands. On October 3, 1945, the Americans brought him to Budapest. On March 1, 1946, he was condemned to death by hanging as a war criminal.

Here is the best known picture of Ferenc Szálasi, but I remember him differently. Our family received a kalendárium (a kind of political and literary yearbook) for 1946. On the very first page there was a picture of Szálasi with a rope around his neck. The picture was obviously taken just before his execution. It made a huge impression on me.

 

Szálasi and Hungarism

May 25, 2008 12 comments

Because there has been so much talk lately about the growth of the Hungarian radical right, about paramilitary organizations and the young and not so young waving Árpád-striped flags associated with the Arrow Cross movement, it may be time to say a few words about Ferenc Szálasi (1898-1946).

Perhaps no one will be surprised to discover that the man who came up with “Hungarism” wasn’t an ethnic  Hungarian. His original name was Szalosján. His fraternal ancestors came from Armenia and settled in Transylvania, but Szálasi was born in Kassa (today Kosice in Slovakia) where his father was a noncommissioned officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. On his mother's side he was of Slovak origin.

His father was a strict disciplinarian, and most likely it was he who decided that his son should follow a military career. As a young child he was sent to military academy in Wienerneustadt from which he graduated in 1915 with the rank of lieutenant. He was immediately sent to the front where he served to the bitter end, spending altogether 36 months in the war zone. What he did during the turbulent years of 1918-1919 is not known, save for the fact that he left Kassa/Kosice and moved to Budapest where he managed to get a job as a courier for the Ministry of Defense. In 1923 he was sent to General Staff College where he apparently excelled. After a two-year stint at the College he graduated in 1925, moved up the ladder to the rank of captain, and worked for the general staff until 1931.

His promising career ended abruptly when it was discovered that he was dabbling in politics, an activity forbidden to members of the military. He was transferred to a remote garrison somewhere in the provinces where he had plenty of time to “study” political theories. He apparently read Marx, Trotsky, Bebel, Lenin, and Kropotkin with such gusto that he could recite whole passages from their works. His “philosophy” was an amalgam of his readings and his own ideas. He apparently prided himself on “working out his theory all by himself” with the help of textbooks on history, ethnography, geography, Hungarian grammar, as well as the Old and New Testaments. (Miklós Lackó, Nyilasok, nemzeti szocialisták, p. 44). There is also reason to believe that Szálasi was under the strong influence of an army doctor friend of his, Henrik Péchy. Péchy was a clairvoyant and astrologist who wrote a prophetic world history based on mathematics. He predicted coming wars, revolutions, and events in general “with mathematical accuracy." (Ibid., p. 62)

What was Hungarism? Hard to tell. The book in which he outlined his ideas (The Way and Aim) explains: “Hungarism is an ideological system. It is the Hungarian practice of the nationalistic view of the world and the spirit of the age. It is neither Hitlerism nor fascism, nor anti-Semitism, but Hungarism.” Well, that is not much, and further excerpts would lead one to ask whether Szálasi was not a bit mad. Here are some samples from Hans Rogger and Eugen Weber’s The European Right: A Historical Profile: “Social Nationalism is life’s only genuine physics and biology. The true individual forms matter with his soul; his hand is but an instrument. And since this is so, the formed matter is not a value but a ware. Social Nationalism is therefore the nation’s biological physics and not its historical materialism.” Or (this time from Lackó, p. 234): "The East-Westerly orientation of our Fatherland broke down and died away with a shocking suddenness; and without transition it became the border interest-sphere of Europe’s Northern and Southern life-sphere.” As Nicholas Nagy-Talavera said in his book Green Shirts and Others: “Szálasi was superbly oblivious about such minor details as intelligibility.” No wonder that he got nowhere as a practical politician. His many parties’ failures attest to that. His briefly successful Arrow Cross party wasn’t really his creation;  some of his followers organized it while he was in jail.

As for what we can find out by wading through all this gibberish. (1) He was apparently genuinely concerned about the welfare of the broad, dispossessed lower classes. (2) He had a rather original plan for maintaining Hungarian supremacy in the Carpathian Basin. (3) His ideology lacked apocalyptic images or a call to violence or terror. Initially at least he wasn’t an anti-Semite but, again as Nagy-Talavera called him, “an a-Semite." Later he moved in the direction of outright anti-Semitism.

Of these three, the most detailed are his ideas about Hungarian supremacy in the Carpathian Basin. Szálasi’s Hungary encompassed the historic lands of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, including Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Within the non-Croatian part he wanted to grant the nationalities autonomous rights but only in territories where their majority was absolute or an overwhelming 80-90%. The non-Croatian part was to be called Magyarföld (Magyar Land) within which there would have been Ruténföld (Ruthenian Land) and Tótföld (Slovak Land). Today’s Burgenland (Austria) was to be called Nyugat Gyepű (March of Hungary) and Erdélyföld (Transylvanian Land). And there would have been the Horvát-Szlavonföld (Croatian-Slavonian Land). The whole area, instead of being known as Hungary, would have been called Kárpát-Duna-Nagy-Haza (Great Carpathian-Danubian Fatherland). However, the Hungarians’ supremacy within this Great Carpathian-Danubian Fatherland was never questioned. The only official language would have been Hungarian and the political leaders would all come from the Hungarian political elite. One more thing to keep in mind: this new state was to be established by the Hungarian Army, which would have enjoyed preeminence in order “to force the nations back to the shaken pillars of Religion, Patriotism and Discipline.” He planned an “industrialized, highly developed peasant state.” Hungarian society was to be classless. There would be three groups: the “peasants who support the nation,” the workers “who build the nation,” and the intelligentsia “who lead the nation.”

Some who studied Szálasi’s “ideology” claim that in comparison to other Hungarian national socialists he was actually quite moderate as far as the “Jewish question” was concerned. He felt that the Jews as a nation were “capable of founding a home,” and once they found it, they should leave Hungary. He was ready to let them take their property with them. However, he believed in the “Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion” and considered Jews to be the chief culprits of both capitalism and Marxism, which he often called Judeo-Bolshevism. In matters of religion he was a devout Christian but his Christianity was to be a Turanian (?) one and not a corrupted “Jewish version of Christianity.” He even came up with the idea that Jesus was of the “Godvanian race” (whatever this means), which is related to the Hungarian (Lackó, p. 54).

How this man ever achieved any fame and position is hard to fathom. He certainly had a following, and even his boss, Gyula Gömbös, minister of defense and later prime minister, predicted that one day he would be prime minister of Hungary. What a prediction!  But I don’t think that Gömbös, who died in 1936, could have envisaged the circumstances under which his prediction would become reality.

Tomorrow I will talk about Szálasi’s political career from his first attempt to establish a political party in 1935 to his disgraceful role in 1944-45 and his death sentence and execution for war crimes.

Orbán’s Őszöd?

May 23, 2008 8 comments

You will remember that Ferenc Gyurcsány's problems began with a passionate and not too diplomatic speech to the MSZP parliamentary delegation at Balatonõszöd in which he tried to convince the reluctant socialists that an austerity program had to introduced. Without which, he argued, economic collapse would be inevitable. As usual he didn't speak from a prepared text but improvised, and some of the sentences were–how shall I say it kindly?–more than sloppy. Outright misleading. He said things that could easily be turned against him.

Well, today János Kóka was, I think, close to the truth when he said that Orbán's monologue (apparently it was almost impossible for the students to ask questions) will be his Őszöd. The more that leaks out the worse it sounds. And it seems that an ever increasing number of the students present (who, by the way, were sworn to secrecy) are "telling all."

By now the date is known. Index was vague: a few weeks ago. It turned out that the speech took place on April 30th. We even know that it was an early meeting because Orbán, the soccer player and avid soccer fan, wanted to be home to see a game on television. Orbán came not alone but accompanied by István Stumpf, the "independent political scientist" and his former cabinet minister and college dean, who tries in public appearances to make us believe that he has no connection to Orbán. Orbán arrived in jeans and was in a jolly good mood. He was relaxed and was sipping wine between sentences. He was self-assured, nay, at times outright conceited. At times he made condescending remarks about the competence of his audience in political matters.

As reported earlier, he praised Gyula Horn, his predecessor, as an astute politician who based his power on the old folks, the inactive population. For example, said Orbán, Horn wasn't trying to find out too much about who was and who wasn't eligible for disability payments. He, on the other hand, relied on the active population and helped, for example, the smaller entrepreneurs with the Széchenyi Plan (about which I said a few words yesterday). He tried to establish a base by paying attention to those who worked and who already had some financial background. Ferenc Gyurcsány (whom he consistently referred to as the "current prime minister") abandoned the alliance between MSZP and the inactive population but made no "social contract" with others. Thus, Viktor Orbán got a free pass.

He spent some time on Gyurcsány's speech at Balatonőszöd and in this connection called the prime minister "a stupid idiot, let's face it." He concluded that Gyurcsány is not a pro because a really good politician cannot lose his cool. With him nothing like this could happen. (Well, we will see!)

He considers his tenure (1998-2002) an outstanding era in Hungarian history. He is very satisfied with the results of those four years. He again brought up the National Theater and the Széchenyi Plan. Why did he lose the election after such a successful term? The reason was wrong Fidesz strategy. They were sure that those active people whom they favored could win over the older inactive socialist base. They were wrong. He also confirmed the rumors circulating about him after the lost election: "he fell apart and didn't quite recover for about six months."

How did he explain the lost election in 2006? In fact, Fidesz didn't want to win because they already knew in what bad shape the economy was. (Of course, if they really knew in what bad shape the country was financially, why did they promise an additional month of stipends–a 13th month–to the pensioners?)

If someone had asked Orbán in 2006 when he would be prime minister again he would have said in 2008. In the intervening months he often thought that the end was near and in fact he is very surprised that Gyurcsány is still in power. He is now confident that Gyurcsány will not survive until 2010. The rope is around Gyurcsány's neck already, and his feet are laden with stones. (Is this the Fidesz version of concrete shoes, à la the Mafia?) By remaining in power he is pulling down the whole socialist party with himself. They will sink together to the bottom of the ocean.

As for the future, Orbán is certain that if they win now they will win at least two more times. So the country can prepare itself for a twelve-year stint of Orbán and his friends. His governing will be divided into two parts. The first two years will be hard. Austerity measures will be introduced. Pensions will be frozen. He will have an easier time introducing these austerity measures than Gyurcsány did because in 2006 people didn't really believe that these measures were necessary. But since then the population has been hearing nothing else from the prime minister but that the the economy is in bad shape and so they are already somewhat prepared. Moreover, from him the population would accept these austerity measures. Unlike from Gyurcsány.

His government would again give preference to the middle class and those who are active in the country's economic life. As for health care, they would change the system but they don't yet know how. But people will have to pay more for health care. Fidesz is in favor of long-term plans. He mentioned a ten-year plan. (Even in the Kádár regime there were only five-year plans!) Fidesz politicians, it seems, are also taken with the ideas of an economist who is warming up an old idea of "Garden Hungary," a hobby horse of the populists between the two world wars. He claims that Hungary has plenty of water that will be in short supply in the future. All the water that floods the country in the spring should be stored and used for agricultural purposes. This should be Hungary's economic niche. (I personally don't think that this is a viable solution for healthy economic growth.) The dry, barren lands between the rivers Tisza and Duna should be flooded with water, creating a green paradise from a wasteland. He thinks that Hungary's future lies in tourism and agriculture.

As far as the Hungarian Guard is concerned: it is a reaction to a real problem. The state is weak, especially in the countryside. There are not enough policemen. The innocent population is not defended. Therefore the answer is (beside slapping the guardists around and sending them home) to strengthen the police force in the villages.

Finally, at the end, he praised himself profusely. He is the only important politician today who was already an important figure at the birth of democracies in the Eastern European countries. Vacláv Hável is too old, Péter Tölgyesy (SZDSZ/Fidesz)  abandoned politics, Iván Pető (SZDSZ) has spent himself, László Sólyom at the time of the change of regime was not in the center but rather on the periphery of political life. For at least fifteen years he will remain the leader of the Hungarian right unless he makes a very stupid mistake.

Is it possible that this pro already made his first mistake?

Viktor Orbán’s plans for Hungary?

May 22, 2008 19 comments

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had read a sentence or two reporting rumors about Viktor Orbán's plans after his presumed certain victory at the next election. Whenever this election takes place. I think the initial piece of news appeared in Népszava. According to these rumors Viktor Orbán's answer to Hungary's economic ills would be the immediate cessation of all large government infrastructure projects. Currently there are five roads under construction. One toward Pécs, which will be one of Europe's cultural capitals in 2010. The only problem is that there is no modern highway leading to the city. Only an old two-lane road that goes through numerous villages; the trip from Budapest to Pécs takes three hours. Another important although smaller project is a bypass around Budapest that would divert many of the huge trucks clogging traffic in the capital. Another project that would be scrapped: the new metro line in Budapest under construction and postponed once before by Viktor Orbán in 1998. All these projects would come to a screeching halt, I presume in order to divert government funds to improved social benefits and lower taxes.

This vague talk about stopping current infrastructure projects was reinforced by Zsigmond Járai's repeated references to the unnecessary, expensive investments in this sector. According to Járai, one could easily save 1,000 billion forints this way. The rumors were repeated this weekend in Vasárnapi Hírek, and thus one increasingly had to give credence to them. Today, it all came out and more.

The usually well informed internet newspaper Index managed to get hold of an apparently reliable story that wasn't supposed to be public. Apparently some weeks ago Viktor Orbán in a seminar setting spoke with surprising frankness about his opinions and plans. What happened was the following. László Kéri, a political scientist who quite a few years ago wrote a book about Viktor Orbán and who was once Orbán's professor at the Law School, organizes from time to time meetings of his students with different politicians. I don't know how, but he managed to convince Orbán to be one of his guests. I found Orbán's acceptance of Kéri's invitation surprising because Kéri is not considered to be exactly an admirer of Orbán. Moreover, I am not sure how Kéri could promise that not a word would ever leak out of his seminars, but he did. Well, it didn't for a few weeks but it is public now. Orbán was brutally frank, and I'm afraid he did a disservice to himself, his party, and his cause by what he said at that seminar.

According to Index's informants (Index uses the plural), Orbán was brutally frank about his assessment of the present political situation as well as about his future plans after 2010. The informants were struck by his extreme self-confidence, a description that is most likely not exaggerated because the editor-in-chief of Népszabadság also commented on Orbán's self-confidence which he found "a bit too much." In any case, Orbán has no doubt that Fidesz will win the next election. He mentioned his amusement when he hears about alleged attempts at his removal by his colleagues on the right because in reality he has no rivals. Even if he resigned as party chief or if someone else were to become the prime minister, he would remain the leader of the right. He attributes his preeminence to the fact that his government was the first conservative government since 1948. (József Antall must be turning in his grave!) He is preeminent because important "national icons" are associated with his name, like the National Theater and the Széchenyi Plan. If I were Viktor Orbán I wouldn't be too proud of the National Theater. The foundations of a modern theater building had been already dug in downtown Pest when Orbán won the election. He immediately halted the construction because, according to him, it was too expensive. The winning plan of a modern building was scrapped and a new site and a new architect was found. The architect had never designed a theater building and the result is according to most people a disaster. A building not really fit for the twenty-first century. In addition, in the end it cost more than the original structure would have. As for the Széchenyi Plan: Orbán's government offered grants to small entrepreneurs. Giving money away free is never a very good idea. It wasn't in this case either. Moreover, the amount spent on the Széchenyi Plan was actually quite small but the noise around it enormous.

Apparently Orbán spoke highly of Gyula Horn's political talent while he called Gyurcsány "an idiot" and "a fool." According to Orbán, Gyurcsány confuses political tactics with communication. He talked about the infamous speech of Balatonőszöd which "could be even called sympathetic" (not from his point of view though) but politically one cannot make a speech like it. (Orbán is absolutely right about that.)

And then came the really interesting part of the speech. Although he didn't give a detailed account of his plans concerning governing, he said that "for two years there would be no traditional governing." What can that mean? "A lot of things will be painful to a lot of people." This last sentence is apparently a verbatim quotation. And he specifically mentioned scrapping road and metro construction.

Orbán also talked about the Hungarian Guard. He seems to have a simple, if not too democratic answer to the problem. When he becomes prime minister "he will do what Horthy did with the leadership of the Arrowcross Party. He would smack them a couple of times and send them home."

Well, the question is whether, after all, the Hungarian people would like to have a couple of years of non-traditional governing and a lot of pain. In addition to no metro, no new roads. And whether the far right supporters would like to be smacked and sent home.

Hungarians were happier in the Kádár regime

May 21, 2008 2 comments

This is what a recent poll concluded. Six out of ten people, including younger folks, think that they were happier in the days before the change of regime. According to sociologists this feeling is based not just on the usual nostalgia for the happy days of youth. Instead, analysts think that 60% of the population would like to see the paternalistic regime of yore return. Not, I assume, the years before 1956, which were anything but happy: the Rákosi regime was a brutal dictatorship. Nor the years immediately after the unsuccessful revolution, which saw the oppression of many thousands of people. Rather the "idyllic" '80s.

The pollsters broke the results down by age group. Respondents older than 50 are predictably the most attached to the Kádár days: 80% think that life was peachy pie before the change of regime. The situation is not much better among people between the ages of 40 and 49. Here 75% say that they were happier twenty years ago. Those who were school children or young adults in 1990 are less enamored with the past, but still 55% of them think that life was better in those days. Naturally, the youngest generation, which has no first-hand experince of life before the arrival of democracy, is the least enthusiastic about the Kádár regime: only 24% think that those days were happier than now. Most likely that is what they hear from their parents. After all, the oldest of last group was only about ten years old at the time of the regime change.

Seven years earlier, in 2001, a similar poll was taken. At that time just over 50% felt that they had been happier in the old regime, in contrast to the unrounded 2008 figure of 62%. In 2008, 50% of those with a college degree, almost 60% of those with a high school education, and 65% of those with an eighth-grade education think that life was much better twenty or more years ago.

Pál Tamás, a member of the Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is certain that these results are derived not only from the usual nostalgia for the past. According to him, in the whole region (i.e. in countries that managed to abandon the Soviet overlordship and the forced socialist system) already in the 1990s there were signs that people were disappointed. They expected something more. An East German worker gainfully employed was less happy than an unemployed West German worker. Today people in the region miss the security of the "good old days." They don't know what to expect and crave the safety net that they lack in today's capitalist world.

According to Zoltán Kiszelly, a political scientist, MSZP's loss of  support is mainly due to its abandonment of the old paternalistic practices of the socialist party. Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, discovered that the great majority of Hungarians would like to return to a paternalistic state and so changed tactics. Now he talks about a large, powerful state that serves the Hungarian people. I underlined "Hungarian" because the Fidesz parrot commando, as it is called in Hungary, doesn't talk about people but always about Hungarian people. In brief, they combine nationalism with socialist paternalism. And this is, let's face it, a potent combination.

However, we know very well that a return to socialist paternalism is impossible because economic pressures don't allow it. There is no way that any government could return to the old practices and spend and spend and spend the limited amount of money at its disposal. Fidesz may talk, may evoke, may excite. But if the party came to power, it would have to weigh the merits of a roughly balanced budget against the rush of irresponsibly flooding the social net, currently the highest draw on the government budget, with money. (And don't forget Hungary now has the EU looking over its shoulder.)

The challenge for MSZP is to regain its old supporters without sinking into staggering debt and suffering sluggish economic growth. To make Hungarians understand that there is no way back to the good old days and that perhaps life will be happier one day. But it's hard for the party to run on the Reagan slogan–"Are you better off than you were four (or, in the case of the Hungarian poll, twenty) years ago?" The answer would be an unequivocal "no."

The newest poll: SZDSZ is in trouble

May 20, 2008 16 comments

Századvég-Forsense came out with the first poll since the break-up of the coalition. There are a fair number of pollsters in Hungary: some are better than others. I personally find Gallup the least reliable. While all others (Századvég, Médián, Marketing Centrum, Tárki, Szonda Ipsos) come out with similar results, Gallup is occasionally off by ten points. Századvég is the foundation established by Fidesz; to this day it is headed by István Stumpf. Therefore it is often accused of coming out with results favorable to Fidesz. But the differences are not huge, and I find Századvég quite reliable.

The polling took place between May 5 and May 15, that is, after the breakup of the coalition. The big loser seems to be SZDSZ, whose support shrank to one percent, while the winner seems to be MSZP.  According to the poll, at least half of the SZDSZ supporters switched allegiance and today would vote for MSZP. Népszabadság summarizes the results thus: "If the elections were to take place this Sunday, Fidesz would receive 30%, while the MSZP would receive 13% of the votes. Since April Fidesz lost two percentage points while MSZP gained three…. However, the difference is still very substantial." Indeed, it is substantial, but today the difference between the two parties is 17% while in April it was 22%. MDF's popularity went up a bit: it finds support among four percent of all eligible voters and two percent of those who definitely would vote.

Yet it's difficult to draw far-reaching conclusions based on this poll because of the large number of non-respondents. A few months ago the number of those who indicated that they had no intention of voting was high. This number decreased somewhat. Seven percent of those questioned responded that they would definitely not cast a vote. Twenty-three percent are undecided, and twenty-one percent refuse to answer. In brief, because over half the sample didn't opt for a party, one can draw only the most tentative of trend indicators based on these results.

Finally, Századvég-Forsense asked questions concerning people's opinion about a possible change of government. Forty-nine percent think that early elections would be a good idea. Forty-eight percent think that an MSZP minority government will not last until 2010. But forty-one percent think that it will finish its four-year mandate. These numbers may be more telling. Here, at least, 51% percent of the people aren't responding "I don't care," "I don't know," or "it's none of your business." Although one certainly cannot conclude that those who think that the government will serve out its term would support the MSZP in 2010, perhaps the difference between the two sides is smaller than the 30%-13% split would indicate.

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