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. . . ."


  1. I came to know and despise George Jonas more than thirty years ago, when I first embarked on learning english, by reading the most primitive of the Toronto press: The Sun.
    It was a relatively new paper then, written in the style suitable for 8th graders and two of its columnists, both of the ultra right-wing persuasion were the Czech Lubor Zink and the Hungarian George Jonas.
    The latter, your subject today, was a typical carpetbagger. Always addressing his subject as he perceived, the public would wish to read about it and always with a forced, unpleasant right-wing bias. He also richly benefitted from associations, without which he wouldn’t have been able take a foothold in the realm of letters. His wife at the time was Barbara Amiel, a super interesting woman and a British-trained journalist. He also cultivated the friendship of Canada’s preeminent criminal lawyer, Eddy Greenspan, who helped him in developing a television series of crime stories.
    Mr. Jonas is also re-known by his permanently neglected appearance and his unpleasant, if not gruff manners as well as his sanctimonious manner of speaking. As far as I could detect, he is also completely devoid of any sense of humor. (That alone should be enough to disqualify him as a Hungarian.)
    Over the last thirty years I have spoken to him a couple of times, both equally regrettable, and decided to shun him with all my might. (I hope, it will be enough to avoid him.)
    So, I am not at all surprised by his bad performance. In his defense, which he doesn’t deserve, I can only mention that he suffers from a terminal illness in years of late, (possibly Parkinsons?) but that hasn’t helped him to acquire any additional humanity, which he, in my estimation, sorely needs.
    In short, I always considered him an intellectual light-weight and a certified, unmitigated jerk.

  2. Jonas is witty and entertaining. He is well connected. But that is all. I agree 100% with Eva’s evaluation of his latest article on Hungary.

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