A day in Hungary: From a small village to the meeting of ambassadors

Today I would like to cover three topics. First, it is D-Day for smokers since as of today only tobacconist shops can sell cigarettes. Second, we have the results of the latest opinion poll on the standing of the parties and politicians. And third, Viktor Orbán gave a speech to Hungary’s ambassadors this morning.

Why do I start with the tobacconist shops? Because I have been convinced for some time that the government’s decision to restrict the number of outlets where tobacco products can be purchased will turn a sizable portion of the population against the government. The adverse effects of the decision will be especially pronounced in those rural areas where Fidesz has traditionally been strong.

Until now one could buy cigarettes in 40,000 shops, from department stores to corner groceries. As of today there are a mere 5,000 outlets. This “downsizing” will create dislocations and inconvenience for smokers. Then, just think of the 4,000 small boroughs where no cigarettes at all will be available.

Until today Hungary’s smokers didn’t feel the brunt of the new system of tobacco distribution because the old outlets were given a two-week grace period during which they could sell down their inventory. But all this ended at midnight. From here on there is no mercy. And for many no cigarettes either.

The first report on the mood of the villagers who have to go as far as twelve kilometers for cigarettes came from Zsolt Kácsor, the Debrecen stringer for Népszabadság. He visited three villages in the County of Bihar where passions are running high against the government. In one of these places the owner of the pub (kocsma) described her customers’s reaction as one of “rage.” The mayor of another village (population 600) delivered the following little speech: “No one ever f..cked the poor people over as much as Orbán and his friends are doing. Write it down word for word. I don’t even care if they hang me. Write it down that I haven’t witnessed such f…ing screwing of the people in 78 years. He even prescribes from which angle I should watch the stork’s nest.” And the public workers around him were nodding in agreement. So, it is not only the lack of cigarettes that bothers the old gentleman but also, or perhaps even more, the government regulations that intrude into his personal sphere. He feels that his personal freedom is being violated.

The mayor doesn't want to watch the stork's nest from the same angle with Viktor  Orbán

The mayor doesn’t want to watch the stork’s nest from the same angle as Viktor Orbán

The reporter visited two other villages in the area that have no cigarette shop. In one of them he talked to guests at the local pub. They are all outraged. It turns out that the closest shop is only three kilometers away, but there the local Fidesz mayor got the concession to run the tobacconist shop. One of the customers swears that he will not buy cigarettes from him. He may not need to since he easily manages to find smuggled Ukrainian cigarettes, which are cheap. He pays 450 forints for a pack; the Hungarian price is about double that.

I think that the Orbán government’s decision to make 5,000 party faithful rich will cost a lot in votes next year. And that takes me to the latest poll by Ipsos, although the numbers are not at all interesting. They are practically the same as last month and the month before. There is, however, a handy Ipsos graph that gives figures for both party preferences and politicians for the past few years that readers of Hungarian Spectrum might find informative.

These latest results certainly don’t deserve the ovation with which Magyar Nemzet greeted them. Their headline reads: “Fidesz devastates its opponents, Bajnai is nowhere.” There is no reason for such exuberance, especially since still only 28% of the adult population want this government to continue in office. But the opposition cannot rejoice either since 62% are dissatisfied with the opposition. So, unless there is some dramatic change in the strategy of Együtt 2014 and MSZP it could easily happen that although the majority of the people wish Viktor Orbán and his government straight to hell, Fidesz-KDNP will still win the elections. Although the Bajnai and Mesterházy teams met today, they seem to be in no hurry to create a viable opposition.

And finally, I would like to focus on a couple of sentences that Viktor Orbán uttered today. He gave a speech to the Hungarian ambassadors who once a year gather in Budapest to hear the prime minister’s words of wisdom on foreign policy. I assume that the complete text of the speech will be available on the prime minister’s website soon enough; a shorter version is already available on orbanviktor.hu. The sentences I’m interested in were not part of the speech itself, which Orbán always reads word for word. Instead, they came as an answer to a question from the audience.

According to Orbán, for the European Union to remain competitive it must find an accommodation with Russia. This is a difficult proposition because Russia is not a democratic country. “However, we must understand that for Russia it is not democracy that is the most important consideration but rather how the country can be kept intact.” Moreover, an alliance between the European Union and Russia is not an easy proposition for the countries of Central Europe because “if one reads about a rapprochement between the European Union led by Germany and Russia then one will go to the window to see whether the children are still playing in the backyard.”  I don’t think I need to add anything here, except to ask why this constant needling of Germany is necessary. Sooner or later German patience will run out.

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33 comments

  1. On the Ipsos page I created a graph that compares Bajnai’s Gyurcsany’s and Orban’s popularity since 2010 January.

    Gyurcsany is a steady 20% slightly increasing. Bajnai was also steady, a bit below 30%.

    Now Orban. First the 2010 euphoria – above 50%. Then from December 2010 – the honeymoon was over – sharp, steady decline. By April 2012 he hit rock bottom, Bajna took over in the lead. Then in March 2013 Orban shot up 5-8 percent. The highest in June during Danube flooding.

    I can’t believe this. The snowmageddon was in March then the flood in June. He didn’t do shit, he was just galloping around in the country basically holding up emergency personnel and shooting stupid videos. This cheesy “dear leader” propaganda still worked?

    Depressing.

  2. @Mutt. I’m pleased that you find the Ipsos charts useful. I bookmarked it ages ago and I use it constantly when I have to come up some figures from the last ten years or so.

  3. Eva, I can only hope that Germany’s patience will run out sooner then later. I cannot believe to be honest that Audi and Mercedes does not pack up and tell Orban to go and fick himself. If there is anyone who conspired against Hungary in the last three decades, it is Orban and his band of goofs. I can only hope that at some point he will be held responsible.

  4. As far as I can see, Germany is not really interested in Hungary. German industry is – as long as Hungary is part of the EU. (And quite OT: To my mind as a German, Germany isn’t governed well at all and doesn’t behave in a European spirit.)

    Tonight I have to go to Hungary for three weeks and see for myself.

  5. @Some 1. Audi and Mercedes are not political enterprises. They don’t give a hoot as long as the conditions they agreed on are met. And there are. Sorry.

  6. Minusio :
    @Some 1. Audi and Mercedes are not political enterprises. They don’t give a hoot as long as the conditions they agreed on are met. And there are. Sorry.

    Yes and no. Although the companies are more interested at the bottom line, the consumers are interested about the whole package (image, performance, relative value, resale value, and more and more about the where/by whom? aspects). I am sure that majority of the cars manufactured in Hungary are not for the Canadian market. As many countries already fed up with their jobs are being exported to other countries (hence their unemployment rate is growing), it will not be to long before they will question the transport of labour in the EU. In Canada for example the outrage of costumers with Royal Bank’s firing people and giving their work to low paid labourers in India, made the bank reverse their decision. Customers are actually are waking up, and require their government, their grocery stores and manufacturers to make better decisions. It is a factual global trend. Also, I understand that there were some investments made, but the uncertainty (new taxes, etc.) and the constant bickering of Orban will drive out many businesses, and it did already.

  7. @Some1. You are dreaming. In real life this just ain’t so.
    Tell me how many Mercedes customers know whether there car was produced in Rastatt or in Kecskemét? Not 1 per mille.

    None of the FDI (foreign direct investments) that export will ever be touched by Orbán. Those that sell goods and services and utilities domestically suffer a different fate.

  8. OT: “Fitch Ratings has on Tuesday revised the Outlook on Hungarian oil and gas group MOL’s Long-term Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to Negative from Stable and affirmed the IDR at ‘BBB-‘. ”
    http://www.portfolio.hu/en/equity/fitch_lowers_hungary_mol_rating_outlook_to_negative_from_stable.26354.html
    So, how much Orban lost for Hungarians on this gamble?
    At the time (May, 2011) Mol worth around $24-25/share. Now it is around $16-17/share. It is around 1/3 less. (http://quotes.wsj.com/HU/XBUD/MOL/interactive-chart ) As we also know accusations of corruption against Hungarian oil and gas company MOL chief Zsolt Hernadi are flying high, and Croatia’s anti-corruption authority renewed its request to extradite the accused.
    I am sure some people made good money from MOL, but they are not the Hungarian people in general.

  9. A couple, our friends and both smokers, told us on the weekend that they shall stop smoking in order not to support this govt. scheme. So, we will see how all this will turn out,,,

  10. Re the German car manufacturers:

    I fear Minusio is right – Mercedes used to assemble cars in South Africa during Apartheid and nobody cared …

    Volkswagen (of which Audi is a part) now sells more cars in China than in Germany and Porsches are assembled in Slovakia – most people don’t know a thing about that.

    And the German workers know of course that they can’t compete with those low wages in the East!

    As long as the finances are ok, nothing will change.

    I have to agree with Minusio btw regarding the quality of Mrs Merkel’s government – “everybody” (at least the really important people) knew about the NSA’s spying on everyone – but nobody said a word …

    Now it might backfire and the left opposition might win the next election in September – at least I hope so, they just have to go on reminding us Germans that for Mrs Merkel and her party we are nothing but the willing slaves of the USA!

  11. enuff :
    A couple, our friends and both smokers, told us on the weekend that they shall stop smoking in order not to support this govt. scheme. So, we will see how all this will turn out,,,

    I’m afraid that reducing tobacco consumption is part of the scheme…

    Well, in Bp nagykörút is now tobacco-retailer free from the New York kávéház to the Oktogon. I’m not sure my usual 24/7 shop and its 3 full-time jobs will survive. I’m not sure either it will play well this fall, or even next month during the Sziget festival. But wait, people queuing in front of State shops and contraband flourishing? The good old days might be here again…:)

    Now about next year’s election: in my opinion this can only be (slightly) significant if the opposition is able to pick up a much larger theme about Fidesz, and use the ‘trafiktörvény’ as an example for this theme. That’s a big if. Otherwise, this alone cannot be a vote-switching issue, since most non-smokers eventually agree on every governmental restraint, and most smokers just know that their addiction is socially outdated.

    Plus, I have the feeling that a large majority of shopkeepers vote right-wing. Those who lost the right to sell tobacco might be angry of course, but I’m not sure their competitors are. If the Government doesn’t give up too much to the new tobacconists before this election (more than liquor, lottery tickets and oops… ice cream) then my guess is that the law won’t have a significant negative result on this population.

  12. There are more and more people living under or at minimum level – there are more and more ultrapoor people, who, some years ago may have afforded to buy a television with a loan, and by now, have lost everything and hould even “fight” for food. Their primary concern is not the tobbacco-scandal, the Tavares Report, GDP etc. but to be able to eat from day to day and feed a family.

    The first conclusion is that these people cannot be motivated by promising to them the preservation of their fundamental rights, the freedom of speech etc. These messages are useless for them.

    A second conclusion might be the simple nature. If you are poor, “hungry”, you are depressed, concerned, stressful, pessimistic. These generally raise hate. By hate they could “talk out” their depression. Hate in this sense is a means of relaxing stress termorarily. It is the same as alcohol or cigarette. If hate meets religion (an other means to escape reality), or religious-type feelings, then the situation becomes almost irreversible. Hungarians are not believers generally, at least it is not this nation which will be the symbol in the Vatican in the future as having been a truly religious and christian nation. People generally search for other things to believe in. And this is the “nation”, the “leader”, the “Hungarism”. They are believing in OV, believing in the things which are “national”, and at the same time hate radically what is said to be hated (EU, Gyurcsány, certain minorities etc.). For them it is so much far from reality now (especially due to the limited and one-sided information the mass receives through the public media) that the opposition could have only chance if could offer something alternative to believe in, which is – at the same time – meaningful for these people. Even in this case, the current hate will not be replaced by an alternative hate offered by the opposition, because the opposition will not =and certainly should not) offer such new subject of hate.

    Thus the final conclusion is failure in 2014. More time should elapse to reach the next stage, when poorness will become so vast and unbearable which overrules “religion” and “hate” and turns them against the people responsible for it. One could agree with Mesterházy (one of his speech in the parliament) that as any dictator, OV will fail definitely.

    But the time has not yet come.

  13. DH,

    I have to agree with you – though I’d prefer it were otherwise …

    We have several examples of people in our neighbourhood or who we have business contact with, who have fallen into the “loan trap” – whatever they try, they get deeper into it.

    Others just make ends meet – but whenever something extraordinary happens and has to be paid for they just don’t know what to do. Several of our contacts (hairdresser, masseuse etc) were extremely happy when my wife offered them to “pre-pay” for their services, so they could pay the repair to the car or the new washing machine and so on.

    These were not large sums – between 30 000 and 60 000 HUF – but they just did not know how to raise them!

    PS:

    Maybe I should have asked them about their political affiliation …

  14. DH :
    There are more and more people living under or at minimum level – there are more and more ultrapoor people, who, some years ago may have afforded to buy a television with a loan, and by now, have lost everything and hould even “fight” for food. Their primary concern is not the tobbacco-scandal, the Tavares Report, GDP etc. but to be able to eat from day to day and feed a family.
    The first conclusion is that these people cannot be motivated by promising to them the preservation of their fundamental rights, the freedom of speech etc. These messages are useless for them.

    In Hungary, people with lower income 1) vote less and 2) vote mostly MSZP.

    It’s among the middle class and upper-middle that Fidesz and Jobbik fare better (see every Tarki study on the subject since 2009). Surely, the global increase in poverty plays a role, but mostly because it raises the level of their own insecurity.

    This is not about flocks of poor and poorly educated people lured by Pied Pipers. It’s about middle class angst.

  15. @Marcel De,
    I’m afraid that reducing tobacco consumption is part of the scheme…

    hahaa..I totally ignored and forgotten the fact that the govt. introduced the the tobacco shop to reduce consumption as a “selling point”.

    I’m aware that this small act of boycotting is not going to make any difference in terms of the bigger picture. I’m just happy that there are people in our circle who care enough to make a stand, even a small.

    ps. knowing this, I don’t feel so silly for boycotting CBA,

  16. @ Marcel “In Hungary, people with lower income 1) vote less and 2) vote mostly MSZP. ”

    If it was correct, then in 2010 2/3 of the voters should have been coming from the middle class, which I am afraid is not true. Some say that retired people are another voting clas for MSZP traditionally. But these asumptions always forget that thoe who are 65 now, have been 55 ten years ago and 45 twenty years ago, and thus such a general assumption which has arisen since the first elections in 1990 is no longer valid. Besides, one should not forget that most of Jobbik voters were used to be MSZP voters, which also underlines that general assumption cannot be made – in fact if this assumption would be well grounded, then MSZP would be interested in keeping people poor – lots of things can be aid about the left, but there was no sign of such a goal.

    And finally, thinking of MSZP is also misleading, I believe. People should be provided with a real alternative which is not (or not just) MSZP. I rarely hear that people are in favour of MSZP in these areas. They rather talk about Fidesz, Jobbik, Bajnai (not even Együtt, but plainly Bajnai) or the fact that there is nothing on the “other” side. I have a sense that on the countryside Mesterházy is thought of as a person, who is probably a politican, or someone at the TV (may be a reporter). Again: these people do not read blogs, do not read economist, do not listen Klub radio and do not watch CNN or Euronews. These people are feed by Magyar Nemzet, Heti Válasz, M1, parlament TV and Hír Tv. Just try this for 1 month. I am 100% sure you will have a different view of what do these people think about politics and mechanics of Hungary.

  17. wolfi :
    Re the German car manufacturers:
    I fear Minusio is right – Mercedes used to assemble cars in South Africa during Apartheid and nobody cared …

    That is true, although I am not sure if Viljoen ever indirectly referred to Germans as possible current villains because of their past history. What I am saying is that I am not aware of any country out there that “bills” Germany in general with such labels on the regular basis as Orban does. I do not think that Germans care to much about how Hungarians let themselves be treated by Orban, but I would think there is such thing as German national pride in what Orban willingly and happily wipes his feet off every so often. I am just wondering how much the Germans know about it, and if they do, how far they will let this go on.

  18. I tend to agree with most of what DH wrote. An other thing I would add is that amongst younger people impression about MSZP is that it is an “old people’s club”. Fidesz the other hand bears the name “young” (and other lie, that at some point was true), and from marketing perspectives it is great. Fidesz assures that the young image is carried with such ideas as Fidelitas (idea taken from the communist party’s KISZ).

  19. Some1 :

    Minusio :
    @Some 1. Audi and Mercedes are not political enterprises. They don’t give a hoot as long as the conditions they agreed on are met. And there are. Sorry.

    Yes and no. Although the companies are more interested at the bottom line, the consumers are interested about the whole package (image, performance, relative value, resale value, and more and more about the where/by whom? aspects). I am sure that majority of the cars manufactured in Hungary are not for the Canadian market. As many countries already fed up with their jobs are being exported to other countries (hence their unemployment rate is growing), it will not be to long before they will question the transport of labour in the EU. In Canada for example the outrage of costumers with Royal Bank’s firing people and giving their work to low paid labourers in India, made the bank reverse their decision. Customers are actually are waking up, and require their government, their grocery stores and manufacturers to make better decisions. It is a factual global trend. Also, I understand that there were some investments made, but the uncertainty (new taxes, etc.) and the constant bickering of Orban will drive out many businesses, and it did already.

    What RB did was illegal. Audi and Mercedes might care about the government but not as much as they care about per unit costs. If these plants can successfully bid on projects and win them, they will be operational. Right now Germany has the lowest unemployment rate and is the biggest importer of labour in the union. So I don’t think that losing jobs to other countries is a big concern at the moment.

    What companies care about is a stable business environment. If companies can negotiate these conditions before making an investment…. Mercedes and Audi are safe as long as the government honours their side of the deal. It was the same with Volkswagen when they complained about a change in the laws and then got grandfathered in.

    I miss our trolls so I’ll play the part….

    As for the tobacco shops. Do I care that people have to travel 15km to get a pack? Not really. This should be an incentive to quit and if OV gets people to stop smoking then good for him. The fact that this whole deal was enacted in a very slimy way.. who cares, that is par of the course.. but the situation was, any child would be sold cigarettes and at least with these stores it appears as if it will make things more difficult. Ok, there might be more smuggling but I’m not sure if that really will be the case. Ukraine products are 1/2 the price and *everyone* knows where to get them. That said, they are unfiltered and if possible, even worse for you than the filtered treated ones. Plus anyone who invests in setting up shop has to know that this will only work as long as Fidesz is in power. As soon as they are gone this whole scam will either be converted to favour the new party in power or re-liberalized.

    Many people say that Hungary is close to no longer being a democracy but do people mean by this? Some thoughts from Simone Chambers, a noted philosopher who studies democracies.

    “It’s important that we don’t identify democracy with voting. I think it’s important that we identify democracy with ruling. So the idea of the people ruling because although the people ruling always requires voting, voting does not always means that the people rule.”

    “It’s important to think about ruling and what is effective ruling and how voting results in actual rulings. There it’s important to think of regular fair and free elections”

    “There elections and voting going on in all sorts of places where it’s really not very democratic”.

    If we define one of the elements of democracy as being control of the population by the government as well as control of the government by the population, the traffic shops seem to demonstrate that the population doesn’t have control of the government and this is why just voting out Fidesz isn’t enough and this is what the opposition needs to start talking about if people are going to (once again) start taking them seriously. How can the people finally gain control of the government and finally make the accountable.

  20. LwiiH: I miss our trolls so I’ll play the part….

    You do not need to. Like Stevan Harnad said; look in the comments sections of the FT (a few days ago, or Bloomberg (about entrepreneurs, although some comments seems to be removed) or the Guardian (about Hungary: Orban Wasteland). They moved up to the international press. However, it seems that most commentators are not impressed by them.

  21. @DH

    I’m not making assumptions about income and voting based on 1990 data, but on Tarki polls from 2009 to November 2011. And the turnout difference beetween the lower and the higher quintile was 14% in 2010, which is quite high (I read that in an OECD publication, I’ll try to find the source study).

    I’m not trying to make reverse clichés either. There are many factors in electoral sociology. Just saying that the cliché of the ‘uneducated/unemployed masses voting for populists’ doesn’t hold.

  22. I guess, someone should come up with a viable solution, how to include all the civilised parties – beside E14 and MSZP – in the upcoming election, if we really want a regime change, that is. So far it seems that those who refusing to participate on the behalf of Bajnai or/and Mesterházy easily outnumber their voters, and it will lead to defeat, no question about it .

    What I thinking about is a system, where every district could vote to the person/party who they think would represent them best, say, from Bokros, or DK, or the Liberals, whatever, and they would be able to sit under an umbrella-party in the Parliament, in alliance with the above named already established bodies.

    Basically, this is what the E14 were supposed to be, before they started to give statements like “not him, not them, not so, not such …” etc. The question really is: do they realised, that this is much more than deciding, who gets the sit on the velvet cushion?

    Seeing how it goes, I hardly think so.

  23. Mutt :
    Good news today! Facebook took down the kuruc.info page!

    It is good news indeed, but there is still problem with other semi-nazi sites, and with some members. It is very hard to report issues to Facebook, and it takes forever for them to react, I assume mainly because they do not speak Hungarian, and it is hard for them to understand how awful some of the members are in their comments.

  24. Well, I watched “egyenes beszéd” yesterday when Mesterházy as well as Bajnai were guests. Sadly it was very easy to capture the good old “bidding” approach. Mesterházy was asked by OK about the fate of the decrease of the utility fees if they would win the election. The answer: no increase, and even will be further decrease, almost 30% (compared to Orbán’s 20%) by optimalisation of usage etc….
    OK’s other question related to education. She wanted to know whether schools remain in state hands or there will be a change. She did not get an answer but Mesterházy emphasized that they will ensure that in September 2014 all university students who accomplish the minimum examination rate will be able to attend to the university for free.

    There were other examples, worth watching. The bidding has started :).

  25. DH :

    Well, I watched “egyenes beszéd” yesterday when Mesterházy as well as Bajnai were guests. Sadly it was very easy to capture the good old “bidding” approach. Mesterházy was asked by OK about the fate of the decrease of the utility fees if they would win the election. The answer: no increase, and even will be further decrease, almost 30%

    Yes, I saw it. I was appalled.

  26. DH :
    Well, I watched “egyenes beszéd” yesterday when Mesterházy as well as Bajnai were guests. Sadly it was very easy to capture the good old “bidding” approach. Mesterházy was asked by OK about the fate of the decrease of the utility fees if they would win the election. The answer: no increase, and even will be further decrease, almost 30% (compared to Orbán’s 20%) by optimalisation of usage etc….

    Please, don’t forget that Mesterházy also added, they wouldn’t lower the utility costs to everyone – he pointed out, that he don’t need it, since he can afford to pay for it – but to those who are in need, as opposed to the orbanist solution: lower utility fees even to Gyurcsány and Bajnai, – beside himself and his cronies, of course.

    The bidding is on, no doubt, but the whole picture should be presented, if it has some significance at all, I think.

  27. spectator: That’s not DH’s point. The problem is that politicians can only speak “who’s the bigger socialist/freedomfighter, etc”. On one hand, this only appeals to their own firm voter base as nobody else believes a word they utter. On the other hand for those people who are not able to choose a party this just says that there is no alternative, because all of them are the same.

  28. A few years ago after some years experience here I’ve learned one thing. Do NOT blieve what people in this country (Hungary) say.

    The partiors will be abhorred by what I think. The lovers of Hungary (including myself) are also abhorred. But it’s the very SAD fact.

  29. Jano :
    spectator: That’s not DH’s point. The problem is that politicians can only speak “who’s the bigger socialist/freedomfighter, etc”. On one hand, this only appeals to their own firm voter base as nobody else believes a word they utter. On the other hand for those people who are not able to choose a party this just says that there is no alternative, because all of them are the same.

    While I agree with your last sentence, I do not with the previous ones.
    As I see it, that shameless BS regarding the lowered utility fees must be put at their place, the sooner the better. If I was speaking in place of Mesterházy, I would definitely have told to the public, just how much HUF the kind Orbán have saved to me, to the well paid MSZP leader, just to make it clear, this is not for the benefit of the common people.

    The lower prices shouldn’t apply indiscriminately to everyone – you see none of this in any country with welfare system in place.
    Another question that how it turned out during the TV show, yet another, where is the politician who is up to the task and can convince the presently apathy ridden Hungarians only with honesty and hard facts, nothing but…

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