Month: March 2009

What we know about the current Hungarian situation

In a way I would prefer to continue my short biography of Ferenc Gyurcsány. But I have the feeling that my readers would prefer to hear about current events and short-term predictions rather than the 1980s and Gyurcsány's student years in Pécs. (I'll return to that on a slow news day.)

I'm trying to avoid passing along every rumor that reaches the ears of a third-rate reporter and then is sold as hot news. Most of these stories sound unlikely if not outright unbelievable. The reporters also seem to have a penchant for trying to create panic by outlining scenarios that all predict the certain failure of a smooth transition from Gyurcsány to Bajnai. Both SZDSZ and MSZP are fractured (true enough), so there won't be the necessary votes for Bajnai to become prime minister of Hungary (wrong). The problem with this scenario is that we know the exact number of SZDSZ members who voted against Bajnai. I reported on that yesterday. We also know that out of about 120 members of the MSZP caucus present at the Sunday meeting only four abstained and one didn't vote. Even without the members of MDF who, by all indications, will support the constructive vote of no confidence Bajnai should be fine. So what's the problem? One has the feeling that Hungarian journalists love chaos and trouble. Then perhaps they can write more riveting articles about the impending doom.

Since I'm not trying to sell papers or write episodes of The Perils of Pauline, let me outline briefly the pieces of information that seem credible. (1) Ferenc Gyurcsány decided to resign as party leader when it became obvious that the candidate for the post of prime minister would come from the inside. Two names were mentioned, the first a member of MSZP and the second politically unaffiliated–József Gráf, minister of agriculture, and Gordon Bajnai. If Gráf were to become the candidate Gyurcsány would resign because in his opinion the posts of prime minister and head of the party should be held by the same socialist politician. In Bajnai's case he would resign because they are close friends; if he remained the leader of the party it would look as if he were the puppetmaster and the new prime minister the puppet. (2) Currently there are two serious contenders for the post of chairman of MSZP: Ildikó Lendvai and Péter Kiss. But the field keeps widening. Imre Szekeres, minister of defense, is another frequently mentioned possibility. Kiss says he would accept the nomination but suggests Lendvai. Lendvai says that she would rather stay on as head of the MSZP parliamentary delegation. She claims that she is no good at administration. Next Sunday the nominating congress will have to make its decision. (3) For me the most interesting piece of news today was János Veres's revelation that Bajnai's austerity program is practically the same as the one he and his ministry worked out at the end of January and suggested for immediate acceptance. At that point he didn't get the nod from either the cabinet or the parliamentary caucus. In fact, Veres claims that he had already outlined his plan last summer at an MSZP retreat at Dobogókő. Not only did his plan get rejected only to resurface with a new advocate heading a new government, but it seems almost certain that he will be replaced as minister of finance. A new government, an old/new economic plan, a new minister of finance. (4) According to information the media received (which might just be part of the rumor mill) Bajnai is already talking about personnel changes in the cabinet; at least five people will be leaving.

And finally. What will Ferenc Gyurcsány do once he's no longer prime minister and head of the party? He made it clear that he is committed to continuing his political career. Although he said that he will remain a member of parliament, surely being an ordinary back bencher is not exactly Gyurcsány's style. One conceivable scenario was that if Ildikó Lendvai becomes chairman of the party then Gyurcsány could head the caucus. But no. Gyurcsány rejected that as well. He did, however, mention a position he would like to occupy: heading the Táncsics Mihály Alapítvány, the theoretical think tank of the socialist party. Here I'm speculating, but let me suggest what Gyurcsány has in mind. He is planning to work on making MSZP a truly social democratic party that would meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. A party of which he would be the logical head.


The end of political chaos or just a brief respite?

I stopped writing about daily events in Hungary because it was impossible to construct a coherent story. I think I left off at the point that György Surányi, the leading candidate for prime minister, withdrew his name from consideration and SZDSZ suggested Lajos Bokros for the post. In fact, they more than suggested; they announced that it was Bokros or nobody. Bokros appeared eager enough and he apparently confirmed his interest to the SZDSZ politicians who suggested his name. By that time MSZP was desperate enough to accept Bokros as long as SZDSZ would be a willing partner in the new government. But as soon as MSZP announced that Bokros was fine as a candidate, Bokros suddenly announced that he no longer wished to be prime minister. I'm not going to go into the accusations hurled at Bokros from the SZDSZ side or Bokros's rather murky attempts to explain away his change of heart. But he was the second candidate acceptable to both MSZP and SZDSZ who decided he didn't want the job. By that time, even friends of SZDSZ and MSZP thought that what was going on was a joke.

At this point MSZP proposed Gordon Bajnai, the minister of economic development in charge of the large amounts of money Hungary received from the European Union. Bajnai's economic/austerity plans, outlined in the media, are very close to the ideas of the Reform Alliance that SZDSZ wholeheartedly supported. So one would have thought that Bajnai would be acceptable to the liberal party. But no, the SZDSZ presidium was evenly split between those who supported Bajnai and those who opposed him. The presidium has thirteen members including the president, Gábor Fodor, but Gábor Demszky wasn't present. Therefore the result was 6:6. At this point pandemonium must have broken out within the SZDSZ leadership, especially among members of the parliamentary caucus where the followers of János Kóka, head of the caucus, are in the majority. I heard of members of parliament who threatened to leave the party if the presidium didn't accept Bajnai. I could foresee a situation where those who disagreed with the hotheads in the presidium would simply leave the caucus and sit with the independents and support a Bajnai government from there. The SZDSZ presidium and the caucus negotiated all day long.

Sometime during the afternoon Gordon Bajnai decided to put an end to this squabbling one way or the other. He told SZDSZ that he would wait until midnight. If SZDSZ's top brass didn't come up with an answer by then he would no longer be a candidate. However, he was ready to join them and explain the details of his austerity program. A few minutes after midnight the smoke went up: 7 to 5 in favor of Bajnai. This time Mátyás Eörsi was absent. The five who voted against an agreement were Gabriella Béki, László Csőzik, József Gulyás, Péter Gusztos, and András Léderer. The last two are, it seems, part-time college students in their mid-twenties. Out of the nineteen parliamentary members seventeen were present and only four voted against Bajnai: Gabriella Béki, Péter Gusztos, József Gulyás, and Gábor Velkey. Three of these (Béki, Gusztos, Gulyás) are also members of the presidium. Out of these four, Gusztos said that he would abide by the majority's opinion, Béki and Velkey will think about their future attitudes, and Gulyás refused to budge. Today Gulyás explained why he won't support Bajnai: because MSZP will sabotage his program. Obviously Gulyás is blessed with supernatural powers; he can see into the future. The two absent members, Gábor Kuncze and Mátyás Eörsi, most likely would have voted with the majority.

And a few words about Bajnai. He is forty-one years old, seven years younger than Gyurcsány, and therefore he had no paid KISZ (Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség) position. In fact, at college (Karl Marx University) he was the first democratically elected president of the student body and as such organized a student boycott of the cafeteria where apparently the food was both bad and expensive. At the time of the change of regime he tried his hand at establishing a new democratic student movement, without much success. At one point he and István Stumpf, in charge of the prime minister's office between 1998 and 2002, organized a youth organization called MISZOT (Magyar Ifjúsági Szervezetek Országos Tanácsa), a kind of umbrella organization of the different youth groups. Because Bajnai spoke English and German well, he was the "foreign secretary" of the organization. In fact, his good relations with Stumpf didn't stop in later years: he gave a lecture series at the Századvég Politikai Iskola, a Fidesz creation.

After this brief sojourn into political life he settled for the business world after graduation in 1991. First he joined Creditum, a financial consulting company, where he stayed until 1993. In that year he received a scholarship to continue his "professional training" in London at the EBRD. In 1994, after returning from England, he joined Eurocorp International Finance Plc as a consultant. In 1995 he became a managing director and then vice CEO and Director of the Corporate Finance and Equity Capital Market Division of CA-IB Securities Plc. Between 2000 and 2005 he was CEO of Wallis Plc. In 2006 Prime Minister Gyurcsány, who knew him from his Creditum days, invited him to enter government service. First he was Government Commissioner for Development Policy, a year later he became Minister of Local Government and Regional Development in charge of the European Union subsidies. In 2008 he moved up and came to occupy perhaps the most important ministerial position: Minister for National Development and Economy.

Gyurcsány, Bajnai, and Kóka are old friends who came to know each other in the burgeoning Hungarian business world. Gyurcsány had previously called on Bajnai to join the government but he suggested János Kóka instead of himself. So, it's no wonder that Viktor Orbán already announced that even if Bajnai becomes prime minister the country will remain the captive of the same business circle as before. Such an accusation resonates well with the basically anti-business, anti-capitalist electorate. In addition, Tibor Navracsics announced that Fidesz doesn't consider a future Bajnai government legitimate because after all "nobody elected Gordon Bajnai" to be prime minister of Hungary. Of course, this is constitutional nonsense and an old Fidesz mantra. They said the same thing when MSZP named Ferenc Gyurcsány to be Péter Medgyessy's successor.

The "civil" organizations are planning a huge demonstration on Heroes' Square for April 5. Jobbik's EP candidate, the inimitable Krisztina Morvai, warned Bajnai that he will be shaking with fear if Jobbik moves into action against his so-called government. The couple of trade union leaders I heard today were not enthusiastic about the Bajnai package that wants to save about 600 billion forints this year. The few details sound pretty tough and even Bajnai predicted that the measures "will hurt." I wouldn't be at all surprised if the trade unions took their people to the streets soon enough. After all, they found the much milder Gyurcsány package unacceptable. It's a good thing that Bajnai apparently has no long-term political ambitions.

The rise and fall of Ferenc Gyurcsány, Part I

His rise was rapid and the fall even swifter. Not only did he propose that he be replaced as prime minister but, despite an 85% vote of confidence from the party, he resigned as head of MSZP. Whether this is only a temporary fall we don't know yet. After all, there are many famous politicians who failed only to rise again like a phoenix from the ashes.

In this installment I trace Gyurcsány's background and his early life, looking for clues to his fall. I am indebted to József Debreczeni's Az új miniszterelnök (Budapest: Osiris, 2006). Debreczeni, originally an MDF member of parliament and a great admirer of the conservative József Antall about whom he also wrote a book, became very fond of Gyurcsány during their long hours of conversation. In fact, in the last two or three years Debreczeni hasn't hidden his admiration for the "new prime minister." Debreczeni considers only three Hungarian politicians in the last twenty years to be of real significance: Antall, Orbán, and Gyurcsány. He continues to admire Antall and Gyurcsány but came to despise Orbán whom by now considers a dangerous populist who may lead the country into dangerous waters.

Gyurcsány's family background was modest. Neither his father nor his mother even went to high school. The mother worked as a textile worker all her life. The father was a truck driver who disappeared off and on. Mostly off. At one point he might even have been in jail. Ferenc knows little about his paternal heritage, but it seems that his Gyurcsány grandfather, Géza, whom he actually resembles, was an official in the internal revenue service. From the picture in Debreczeni's book Géza and his wife look like respectable middle class folks. Géza Gyurcsány's ancestors were typical gentry types from somewhere in the north of the country, today's Slovakia. Grandfather Géza seems to have adopted typical Hungarian gentry pastimes, like gambling. Apparently he managed to amass so much debt that he saw no way out and committed suicide sometime in the second half of the 1930s. His wife Mária died a year or so later. The young boy, also called Ferenc, was brought up by "relatives." Actually, maybe yes, maybe no. His son, our Ferenc, is not at all sure. Perhaps he was brought up by foster parents in a small town.

Gyurcsány's mother, Katalin Varga, came from a dirt poor family with eight children from the town of Pápa. Katus (as even her son calls her) didn't even finish eight grades, and sometime in the middle of the 1950s she got a job as an unskilled laborer at a factory in the city of Győr. It is here that Ferenc senior met her at a dance. Both were twenty-three at the time. They got married and eventually went back to the birthplace of Katus, Pápa. Soon enough there were two children–Éva and Ferenc. The family lived in "deep poverty," as Gyurcsány said. The four of them lived in a two-room apartment without a bathroom or even a toilet. The adults slept in the "living" room, Ferenc and his sister in the kitchen. There was one Christmas when there wasn't even money for a tree. Apparently, the cause of this poverty was Ferenc senior who drank heavily. When he ran out of money he borrowed to tide the family over, but often he didn't repay his debts. In job after job he was either fired or he quit. After a while everybody knew him in Pápa and no one would hire him, so he had to seek employment in Budapest where he lived in workers' hostels. Sometimes he would disappear for years on end, which was actually a blessing because Katus was very good with the money they had and there was no husband to drink it away. When one looks at Gyurcsány it is hard to imagine him growing up in such circumstances. He has an aristocratic look and elegance about him. He knows how to behave and finds himself at home in every new situation. There is a certain ease about him.

Young Ferenc excelled at school with little effort in spite of the fact that he didn't get any encouragement at home. There was not one book in the house, and Gyurcsány doesn't recall reading anything as a child other than the compulsory school assignments. And that wasn't much. His teachers remember him as a well behaved child, never any trouble. But even then it was clear that he was ambitious. He wanted to do well. Most likely because of his lack of reading Gyurcsány's favorite subjects were mathematics, physics, and chemistry. He was also a good debater and showed leadership qualities. He had a homeroom teacher who also taught him mathematics. This teacher noticed an announcement for a competition for one of the best high schools in the country, the Apáczai Csere János Gimnázium, a school attached to the university (ELTE) where the future teachers could learn their trade. (I once visited this high school watching a Hungarian literature class and I must say that the children had a better grasp of poetry analysis than most of us college students.) The applicants had to come from poor, working class families. He applied and was accepted. He received a scholarship and could live in the kollégium attached to the school.

The boarding school (kollégium) was a tough place. It was established in 1970 with the purpose of trying to bring very talented boys and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds up to the level of the sophisticated children of the Budapest intellectual elite who attended the school. It was not an easy job, but it seems that the teachers responsible for the well being of the children living in the kollégium succeeded. Although it was very difficult to get top grades at this school, the grade point average of the youngsters from the countryside was up to snuff. Life in the dormitory was very regimented. Students got up at six, exercised, ate breakfast, and walked over to the school that was attached to the dormitory. There were classes in the morning followed by lunch. Practically the entire afternoon was spent studying. Students watched the evening news on television after which they had a couple of hours of free time until lights out. One would have thought that the very active Gyurcsány would have found this regimented existence close to unbearable. But no, he adapted quickly and with relative ease.

Gyurcsány's only complaint was that, although he studied hard, he didn't receive one A in the first semester. All his grades were monotonous Bs. The young man wasn't accustomed to this and he decided to work harder and see what happens. He got up at four o'clock every morning and sat in the corridor and studied. By the end of the second semester he had four A's. By the end of grade 10 his grade point average was 4.5 which, according to the current principal of the school, was no mean achievement.

And here comes the first inexplicable break in the young Gyurcsány's life. This youngster who was so adaptive, who until then had never had any any serious conflict in school, in a huff puff quit the elite boarding school where he was liked and where he was academically successful. What happened was the following. Russian was compulsory for all four years, but students had to take a second language for at least the first two years. Gyurcsány took French but he didn't like it. By his own admission, he doesn't have a talent for learning languages. Anyway, after two years he decided to drop French. The kollégium, however, had a rule superseding the school's language requirement. If you were a student of the kollégium you had to carry on with both languages for four years. Gyurcsány had a little chat with the principal of the boarding school. Neither gave in. The four-year rule was applicable to students living in the dormitory, said the principal. Gyurcsány couldn't understand why he was held to a higher standard than other students in the school just because he happened to live in the kollégium. Gyurcsány quit and went back to the high school in Pápa. This was the first and unfortunately not the last time that the future prime minister behaved on impulse.

The high school in Pápa was not of the quality of the famous Apáczai, but it was a good school. Out of the thirty-eight students matriculating only two failed to go to college–and this at a time when college enrollment was very low. But in Pápa Gyurcsány didn't have to do any work to get the same grades as in Budapest. And he lowered his academic expectations. During the summer after his junior year he had a job as a bus conductor. There he got into a conversation with a passenger, a young woman who turned out to be a student at the Teacher's College in Pécs. Her major was biology and she reported that she had to take entrance exams only in physics and biology. Because Gyurcsány was good in science and because the entrance exam requirements were relatively low at the Teacher's College, he decided that Pécs would do. He was accepted, in spite of the devastating "recommendation" of his Hungarian teacher that followed his application.

The conflict with this particular teacher began innocently enough. In the Kádár regime every school had to organize a quiz program called "Who knows the most about the Soviet Union." Therefore each class had to subscribe to a magazine called "Szovjetúnió" because the quiz show questions were based on information from this magazine. The kids in the class were supposed to chip in to pay for the subscription. Everybody paid up with the exception of Gyurcsány. Not because of political reasons. He was just forgetful and didn't really care. When the Hungarian teacher, who was also in charge of the class, inquired where the money was and when it turned out that the account was still short because of Gyurcsány's tardiness, the teacher lectured him about the compulsory nature of this subscription. Gyurcsány indignantly announced that the school authorities could only ask the students to contribute, not demand that they contribute. An exchange of words ensued. Sharper and sharper. Not only did the teacher say nasty things to the student but the student responded in kind. The description of this dialogue followed him to college.

So this was the second time that Gyurcsány lost his cool. He wasn't the rebellious type in general but there were situations where he took a position and defended it to the death. His life in Pápa ended. The following September he went to Pécs to begin his career as a future teacher of biology.


Political chaos in Hungary

I wasn't sure whether I should write anything today because I can't make heads or tails out of what's going on in Hungary. Surányi says he doesn't want the job. So more scrambling. One wakes up to the name of János Takács as the newest MSZP suggestion for prime minister. I had never heard of him. He turned out to be the CEO of Electrolux Hungary. His name surfaced only to be dropped within a couple of hours: SZDSZ wants no part of János Takács. SZDSZ, although earlier its leaders emphasized that MSZP should nominate while they would simply nod or not nod, decided to come out with its own candidate, earlier the MDF candidate: Lajos Bokros.

Bokros at the beginning seemed eager enough and expressed his willingness to serve. At least that is what the Hungarian media reported. However, today the situation seems to have changed. Now Bokros says that he is not going to be part of the political machinations of MSZP. That can mean only one thing: he wants the support of the "opposition" parties: Fidesz, SZDSZ, and MDF. Well, if this is true Bokros will not be prime minister because in Orbán's opinion Hungary's future prime minister can  only be Viktor Orbán, preferably after early elections. The new spokesman of MDF, Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, behaved rather oddly today when Olga Kálmán inquired whether if MSZP supported Bokros's candidacy MDF would lend its name to a three-party political alliance behind its own favorite candidate, Lajos Bokros. Kerék-Bárczy refused to answer, saying that the very supposition is totally absurd. I guess that MDF is so afraid that anyone might associate the party with the left that its spokesman refuses to answer even a hypothetical question.

At the moment SZDSZ is sticking with Bokros although there are some voices (currently a minority) in the SZDSZ caucus who would be willing to support one of the MSZP suggestions. According to the latest rumors half of the MSZP nominating committee is ready to accept Bokros but the other half is dead set against him. They will meet again tomorrow morning. However, it might be irrelevant how Gyurcsány, Lendvai, and some of the others decide. The party's left wing is gathering strength: they have had enough of the "circus" of the whole nominating process and are planning to overthrow Ferenc Gyurcsány. According to Tamás Suchman, one of the heavyweights in this group, because Gyurcsány already announced his intention to resign he shouldn't be conducting the negotiations about his successor. Instead his deputy, the minister in charge of the prime minister's office, Péter Kiss, should assume his place at the negotiating table. Moreover, Suchman continued, he is going to make a motion to convene an extraordinary congress to elect a new party chairman. A left-wing putsch against Gyurcsány is brewing. Katalin Szili, Gyurcsány's rival in the party and the head of its left wing, somewhat more obliquely spoke of the party's duty to stop the "drift of the country" and urged that the party should take "political responsibility." I guess that means that Szili, Suchman, and others are ready to get rid of Gyurcsány both as prime minister and party chief and alone shoulder the responsibility of governing. But how?

Given the intra-party revolt, MSZP and SZDSZ should move quickly to decide on a mutually satisfactory  candidate. A rational human being would think that the survival instinct of these two parties would kick in and dictate cooperation. However, we are in Eastern Europe. In fact, very close to an area called the Balkans. In that area rational political thinking doesn't always have the upper hand. Cooperation? They don't know the meaning of the word. Western businessmen often complain that Hungarians are not good at team work. They are not joking! These two parties should have learned a lesson from the fiasco four years ago; because of their refusal to cooperate, although they had a majority in parliament, the country ended up with László Sólyom as president. The same left wing of MSZP was certain that their candidate, Katalin Szili, would win despite SZDSZ's refusal to support her. Well, it didn't work out that way. Both parties were at fault then and both are behaving the same way now.

I consider Gyurcsány a talented politician, but at the moment he is in a very difficult situation. The candidate both parties supported wouldn't accept the job. So now names come, names go, and tempers flare. His party's left wing wants to unseat him and undermine him at every turn. Meanwhile Viktor Orbán calls any prospective candidate a "clown" (paprikajancsi in Hungarian) because a "serious" candidate simply wouldn't take the job. Meanwhile the Hungarian Guard is planning to blockade roads to force early elections.

I'm downbeat today and I recall "Gloomy Sunday," the Hungarian "suicide anthem." Why would political parties in effect commit suicide? According to the Hungarian psychiatrist Bela Buda, Hungarians regard suicide differently from most other people. "In the unconscious popular mind suicide is a positive pattern of problem solution, it's a formula which is actualised in times of crisis because everybody has experiences with other persons who committed suicide and who were regarded not as failures but as brave people daring to restore their self-esteem and dignity by this desperate and heroic act." Is it heroic to turn over the reins of government to Fidesz?  I think not. So MSZP and SZDSZ had best come up with another solution to the problem of national governance.

Fact and fiction: A Canadian perspective

Last night someone called my attention to a piece that appeared in Canada's National Post (March 25) entitled "Democracy, Hungarian Style." The author, George Jonas, is a regular columnist of the paper and the author of several books, the most famous of which is Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team (1984) on which two films were based–Sword of Gideon (a TV film, 1986) and Munich (a feature film, 2005). In addition he wrote a play and two operas.

Jonas was born in Budapest in 1935 and therefore was already a young adult when he arrived in Canada after the Hungarian Revolution. In Hungary he was a "radio producer."  Between 1962 and 1985 he worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a script writer and producer. He was a columnist for the Toronto Sun (1981-2001) and then moved on to the National Post.

I'm not going to argue with Jonas about Hungarian politics. It is obvious that he and I see things differently. That is a question of "political perspective." However, I'm a stickler for facts. Anyone who  writes an article that shows either ignorance of or disregard for basic facts cannot be taken seriously.

Let's start at the beginning. Jonas claims that "Hungary is making a bid for first place" in the race for economic dysfunction because, according to pessimistic forecasts "the economy may shrink 5% but the government's own prediction of 3.5% is dire enough." Did Jonas look around in Europe lately? Latvia's GDP could fall by 20% in the next two years (Capital Economics, March 26, 2009). According to Commerzbank, the German economy will shrink 6-7% this year; the OECD makes the less "dire" forecast of 5.1%. In Lithuania the GDP will shrink this year by 10.4% according to the Lithuanian finance ministry (March 23, 2009).

Jonas continues by saying that Ferenc Gyurcsány "offered to resign" on March 21 (Saturday) and "on Monday, he did." Wrong! He didn't resign. He said he would resign when a suitable replacement was found and voted on by a majority in parliament. Jonas asks whether the so-called resignation was a "selfless gesture or an attempt to leave the scene of an accident." Jonas of course opts for the latter "masquerading as the first."

Jonas likes the idea of "resignation" so much that he returns to it again: "by letting the prime minister resign, his Socialist party avoids having to call an election it would lose…. Call it democracy, Hungarian style." There is nothing undemocratic about a constructive motion of no confidence and, as we know from my earlier blog, there is nothing uniquely Hungarian about it either. But Jonas calls Gyurcsány's move a "ruse." Moreover, he claims that this "ruse" serves only to let the government replace "one set of its cadres in [the] cabinet with another." "The government" doesn't choose a cabinet; rather, the prime minister forms a government and chooses his cabinet. Both the socialists and the liberals want an outsider, a non-party candidate, for prime minister, an expert who will form his own cabinet.

Jonas also misconstrues the Hungarian constitution. "In Hungary's constitutional system, the mechanics of such a move require the minority socialist government to make a non-confidence motion against itself." There is nothing of the sort in the Hungarian constitution. Let me quote the relevant passage again. According to Article 39A(1) of the Hungarian Constitution: "A motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister may be initiated by a written petition, which includes the nomination of a candidate for the office of Prime Minister, by no less than one-fifth of the Members of the National Assembly. A motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister is considered a motion of no-confidence in the Government as well. Should, on the basis of this motion, the majority of the Members of the National Assembly withdraw their confidence, then the candidate nominated for Prime Minister in the motion shall be considered to have been elected." As it is clear, the Hungarian constitution says absolutely nothing about a minority government. Anyone can suggest a new prime minister if one-fifth of the parliamentary members sign a motion of no confidence and agree on a candidate. There can be a change of the premiership by majority vote of those present.

Well, one would think that so many factual errors were more than enough. But no, Jonas goes on. "In 2004, Gyurcsány himself inherited the mantle from his predecesor, an ex-communist apparatchik named Peter Medgyessy, in a somewhat similar manoeuvre." All wrong. Medgyessy, unlike Gyurcsány, did resign and therefore there was no opportunity to use the same "ruse," i.e. the constructive motion of no confidence. Therefore, again according to the constitution, it was the president's decision which party would run the government. Since the socialists and the liberals were in the majority, Ferenc Mádl asked the socialist-liberal coalition to continue, and the socialist party picked Gyurcsány as prime minister. Big difference!

George Jonas's political sympathies lie with Fidesz and, of course, that is his prerogative, but to characterize Fidesz as a "center-right party" is inaccurate. The center-right party in Hungary is MDF, which barely managed to get into parliament and which in the last couple of weeks even lost its right to form an official parliamentary caucus. Fidesz is a populist, right-wing party often in cahoots with the far right. One could only wish that a party with such overwhelming support were a moderate, conservative party.

I'm not going to spend time trying to correct Jonas's interpretation of Ferenc Gyurcsány's speech at Balatonőszöd. I very much doubt that he has read it in its entirety. Most likely he is relying on the two or three sentences taken out of context and with Orbán's help broadcast on the Hungarian public radio. I don't deny that the effects of this speech were devastating, but one must add that Gyurcsány's popularity had begun to decline already during the summer of 2006, well before his speech was made public. His unpopularity had less to do with the speech than with the austerity program he had to introduce because of the high budget deficit and the European Union's insistence on a strict convergence program. The government's efforts have been rather spectacular in this respect: Hungary's deficit of over 9% in 2006 has shrunk to less than 3%. But the voters were not impressed. And with the global financial and economic crisis came more discontent. Gyurcsány is not the only victim of the worldwide crisis; there have also been political dislocations in Iceland, Latvia, and the Czech Republic. Without any leaked embarrassing speeches. 

Jonas can't understand why the socialists won the elections in 2002. How is it possible that Hungarians abandoned Viktor Orbán and the "tolerable, even prosperous government" under him? When Jonas asks Hungarians they shrug. According to Jonas "it was one of democracy's unfathomable swings." Some of the Hungarians say "we were crazy" but most of them say nothing. Well, that's not quite correct either, but an analysis of the 2002 election would take me far beyond the bounds of today's blog. If Jonas doesn't understand the 2002 election results he is even more baffled by the socialist victory of 2006 which, he claims, was even narrower than the first. Wrong. The socialists won more seats than before and with the liberals had a much more comfortable majority than between 2002 and 2006.

One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when one reads a sentence like this: "having struggled for 40 years to get rid of the communists, why did Hungary's voters re-elect their inept progeny–twice?" Well, one can question that 40 years of struggle to begin with. By the end Hungary was called the happiest barracks of the Soviet bloc where gulyás communism reigned. According to most observers Hungarians would have voted for Kádár in overwhelming numbers even at a free election. So, if I were Jonas I wouldn't boast too much about the anti-communist zeal of the Hungarian people.

Jonas distinguishes between communists and socialists. "Communists prevent wealth-creation; socialists don't. They only redistribute wealth–in some cultures, mainly to themselves." I assume the implication is that Hungary is one of those cultures and that the socialists are getting rich on the backs of the rest of the population. Hungary is corrupt–income tax evasion, for instance, has been honed to a fine art. Local governments (at the moment mostly in Fidesz hands) are hotbeds of corruption. The parties don't receive enough money from the government to cover their expenses and therefore they resort to illegal activities to make up the balance. And this is true about all the parties, including Fidesz. As for personal gain, the whole Orbán family was the beneficiary of government largesse when Viktor Orbán was prime minister. Ferenc Gyurcsány, a successful business man before entering politics, works without a salary.

At least Gyurcsány isn't the only "socialist" singled out for criticism by Jonas. "Having a socialist government is bad enough in prosperous times. In times of economic hardship it's lethal–as Americans may soon discover. In years to come, voters who cast their ballots for Barack Obama may look nonplussed, too, when asked what possessed them in 2008. . . ."

“New York Perspective”

This is the title of an article by József Debreczeni in today's Népszava. The author complains about the coverage of Hungarian politics by The New York Times and The Washington Post. I will return to the article a bit later, but first I would like to talk about the American media and Hungary in general terms. Yesterday a radio station (Rádió Café) asked me to say a few words about the American media reaction to the current Hungarian political crisis. I was on during the second half of the one-hour program on world affairs, and I don't know who came before me. However, the interviewer started our conversation with something like  "My former guests all reported that the Hungarian political crisis was really no news in their countries." So, he added, he expects the same in the United States. I corrected this supposition and said that as far as I can see the coverage is quite extensive. I mentioned specifically that The Wall Street Journal has published an article about Hungarian developments every day since Ferenc Gyurcsány's speech on March 21. I also pointed out that, as a matter of course, Bloomberg follows Hungarian events practically daily. I also told him that their reports tend to be accurate and balanced, mostly because they have correspondents on the spot as opposed to, for example, The New Times or The Washington Post. Some of the correspondents, judging from their names, are Hungarians who are able to give a fuller picture of the situation than someone who pops into Budapest from Berlin.

I mention Berlin because one of the articles József Debreczeni is complaining about was written by The New York Times's bureau chief, Nicholas Kulish, who seems to have accomplished a lot in his thirty-four years. Among other things, he wrote a well-received novel, Last One In, about an embedded journalist in Iraq. Kulish is of Croatian-German heritage and is fluent in German. Therefore, I'm certain he is thoroughly familiar with German politics. He seems to be not so well acquainted with Hungary. He most likely made a quick trip to Budapest where he fell into the trap of getting information from only one side. And this is what Debreczeni is complaining about. Kulish talks about numerous analysts but mentions by name only Ágoston Sámuel Mráz of the Perspective Institute. This think tank is basically a Fidesz creation. According to information I received from a reliable source, it was set up by a "foundation" financed by the party under the stewardship of Zoltán Balog, MP and protestant minister, who is Viktor Orbán's "spiritual father." When this institute was brought to life, after the infamous speech of Ferenc Gyurcsány became public in 2006, and when Mráz first appeared on the scene, I made fun of this young man in one of my blogs about the "political scientists" of Hungary. I don't remember exactly what the event was, but Mráz with all the self-assurance of a young man with little experience in political analysis said that something definitely would or would not happen. A few hours later exactly the opposite occurred.

In any case, Mráz studied in Germany and Balog also has good German connections. Apparently he was in the entourage of Viktor Orbán the last time the party chief visited Germany. I assume it was because of this German connection that Kulish ended up at the Perspective Institute, whose board of directors includes János Martonyi, Orbán's foreign minister, András Lánczi, a close advisor to Orbán who calls himself a philosopher, and Zsófia Vitézy, a cousin of Orbán who was brought up by the Orbán family. The person in charge of running the office is Tibor Navracsics's wife. All in all, not exactly an independent source of information.

Debreczeni wasn't happy with the coverage of recent Hungarian events by Pablo Gorondi either. His article appeared in The Washington Post. As opposed to Kulish, Gorondi's headquarters seems to be in Budapest. But he is not a correspondent of the paper; rather he works for the Associated Press. Thus, the very same article Debreczeni is complaining about appeared not only in the Post but also in the conservative Washington Times. Gorondi didn't even get to Mráz. He talked only to a certain Orsolya Milován, the "press secretary" of the Perspective Institute. No one has ever heard of her. Debreczeni found it interesting that two of the most respected American papers found this particular institute their best source of information. In defense of The Washington Post I must mention that besides the AP article they also published a report by Reuters written by Krisztina Than and Gergely Szűcs. It is factual and balanced.

One thing is sure. Fidesz is much more adroit in reaching out to foreign correspondents. According to information I received, every time there is a new reporter in town, the "party activists" with foreign language skills get in touch with him and "introduce" and "guide" him through the complicated labyrinth of Hungarian politics. This tactic is certainly good for the party, but unfortunately not for the foreign reader who would like to find reliable information about the country. From both "perspectives."

Finally, on an optimistic note. At the beginning of the blog I wrote about the very thorough coverage of The Wall Street Journal. I would like to call attention to the latest addition to the string of excellent articles in WSJ. The paper today published an analysis by Charles Forelle: "Pension Glut Lies at Heart of Crisis Wracking Hungary." I highly recommend it.

One possible prime minister: György Surányi

Yesterday Medián published the results of its poll on the Hungarian public's reaction to Ferenc Gyurcsány's resolve to ask for a constructive motion of no confidence against himself. As part of the survey Medián asked about possible successors to Gyurcsány. Lajos Bokros's name is the best known. Eighty-seven percent of the people know who he is. Péter Kiss, minister in charge of the prime minister's office, is next in line with 71% followed by László Békesi, finance minister in 1994, and Gordon Bajnai, minister in charge of the economy in the present government, each with 69%. Then came György Surányi, former head of the Hungarian National Bank, András Simor, current bank president, each with 67%, and finally, József Gráf, minister of agriculture, with 66%. So, with the exception of Bokros who has been the subject of numerous front-page stories of late, the possible successors are pretty well clustered in terms of name recognition.

By now I feel safe in dropping from my scorecard all the members of the current government–that is, Gráf, Kiss, and Bajnai–because after the first meeting of MSZP and SZDSZ it was evident that neither party wants a politician or a member of the cabinet as the next prime minister of the country. That leaves four possibilities from Medián's list. Let's start with the clear losers from the poll: László Békesi and Lajos Bokros. Their popularity is low: only 39% of the population think that either should head the new government. The most controversial figure is Lajos Bokros, perhaps because people remember only too well the "Bokros package" of 1995 and are also aware of his draconian ideas about future austerity measures. Békesi, one of the architects of the Reform Alliance, is also well known but unpopular, perhaps because Hungarians consider even the Reform Alliance's program too drastic. The clear winner with 47% is György Surányi, followed by András Simor with 42%. Simor already announced that he hadn't been asked and, if he were, he would say no. I don't think that he has to worry. Yesterday a new name surfaced: Tamás Mészáros, an economist and president of Corvinus University (formerly Karl Marx University of Economics).

If I had to handicap this "race" I would put the odds in Surányi's favor, especially since he was seen this morning leaving the headquarters of SZDSZ. Although there have been rumors in the last two days that Surányi would head a "national government" only if Fidesz supported him, it's unlikely that these rumors have substance. First of all, Viktor Orbán talks only of early elections; Fidesz would not support any interim government, "national" or not. Moreover, the relationship between Surányi and Orbán was rocky after the formation of the Orbán government when Surányi was the president of the Hungarian National Bank.

So who is György Surányi?  He was born in Budapest in 1954 and graduated from the Karl Marx University of Economics (today Corvinus University of Budapest) in 1977. After graduation he worked at the Research Institute of Finance (Pénzügykutató Intézet) attached to the Ministry of Finance. In 1986 he left the Institute to work for a year at the World Bank in Washington. In 1990 he was chosen to be the first chairman of the independent Hungarian National Bank. His stint at the National Bank was brief; a change in the law in 1991 gave Prime Minister József Antall the opportunity to name Péter Ákos Bod, an MDF member of parliament, to the post. Apparently at that time Surányi was quite close to Fidesz (then in opposition as a liberal party) and during 1992 and 1993 he met frequently with Viktor Orbán. However, after that date the relationship between Surányi and Orbán soured. It's not clear what drove them apart, although according to an article that appeared in Élet és Irodalom in early 2000 Orbán already at that point wanted to achieve economic growth with the help of the state, an idea Surányi fiercely opposed. After Surányi lost his job at the National Bank he became president of CIB Bank, an affiliate of the Italian Intesa Sanpaolo.

In 1994 MSZP won the elections and Gyula Horn formed a government with SZDSZ. Péter Ákos Bod, the chairman of the National Bank, was not one of Horn's favorites and Horn made no secret of the fact that he "couldn't work with Bod." I remember so well his exact words. Under pressure Bod eventually resigned and for a good three months there was no chairman of the central bank. And during the winter László Békesi, the minister of finance, announced his intention to resign, giving Horn two months to find a replacement. So there was no central bank chairman and the finance minister was on his way out. All the while the country was in dire economic straits. At last Lajos Bokros was named minister of finance on March 1, 1995, and, on the same day, Surányi became central bank chairman. Suranyi His great accomplishment as bank chairman was his successful fight against inflation. Inflation in June 1995 was 31%, by the end of 1996 only 23.6%, a year later 18.3%, and all the way down to 10% in the last few months of 1998. This accomplishment brought Surányi international recognition. While he was in office the Hungarian forint also became partially convertible. However, inflation remained stuck at the 10% level, and Surányi suggested to the Orbán government that they introduce a more flexible foreign exchange policy because their monetary policy kept the forint too strong. Details of Surányi's proposal are not known, but it was rejected. Interestingly enough, as soon as Surányi left and Zsigmond Járai was named as his replacement the changes necessary for a weaker forint and complete convertibility were introduced.

In any case, Surányi's relations with Fidesz had become strained even before the Fidesz-Smallholders coalition won the elections. Prior to 1998 a study for internal use written by the economists of the Hungarian National Bank that was critical of the economic plans of Fidesz got into the hands of the socialists, who used it in their campaign. Orbán was certain Surányi was somehow complicit. [A footnote to Fidesz's economic plans during the campaign. The economic goodies promised to the population were extravagant;  if the promises had been kept, all the accomplishments of the Bokros-Surányi team would have been undone. However, as we know, Orbán didn't honor his promises and instead pursued a strict fiscal policy in his first two years in office. The victim of these campaign "lies" was László Urbán, who was initially proposed as the new finance minister. However, Urbán happened to say that "there is a difference between the campaign and government programs." At that very moment, Urbán's political career came to a screeching halt.]

Surányi served his full six-year term, which expired in 2001, when he returned once again to head CIB Bank. Once out of public office he didn't say much about monetary and fiscal policy, but here and there he criticized his successor's policies. He considered both Járai's efforts to lower inflation "by artificial means" and the Orbán government's spending spree in its last two years harmful.

In 2006 he was asked by Ferenc Gyurcsány to take part in the work of Convergence Council that was to prepare a program acceptable to the Council of the European Union. The gist of the convergence program was to lower the deficit to under 3% in the shortest possible time in order to receive subsidies from the Union designed to help the less developed countries move closer to the more developed west.

Surányi received many prizes and accolades. For instance, in 1993 the World Economic Forum named him the "Global Leader for Tomorrow." In 1996 Euromoney honored him as "The Best Central Bank Chairman in Central Europe." Tomorrow, if it still looks as if Surányi is a viable candidate I will try to outline his current ideas on the path Hungary should follow in this world economic crisis.