Attila Mesterházy and Gordon Bajnai on the campaign trail

I noted yesterday that the election campaign has begun. I should have added that Fidesz has been campaigning from the very moment its government took office in May 2010. With election comes what Hungarians call “the spreading of the goodies,” at least temporarily making the electorate happy so they will support the government at the next election. This practice, which cuts across parties, has been largely responsible for Hungary’s chronic indebtedness and its large budgets deficits. Very often this largesse was financed with borrowed money.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán swore that it would never happen under his watch that Hungary would borrow money to pay for social benefits. In fact, he was so serious about national indebtedness, which he considers the source of all the ills of the Hungarian economy, that it was written into the constitution that “the Central Budget … will have to ensure that the level of the state debt does not exceed half of the value of the gross domestic product of the previous calendar year.” Right now the national debt is larger than ever and only yesterday the government announced that Hungary had submitted a registration statement to the SEC for the issuance of up to $5 billion in debt securities. This will be the second such bond issue in US dollars this year. I wonder what Viktor Orbán will do if his government is unable to fulfill its constitutional duty with respect to the level of the national debt? It’s not that I fear for Orbán’s political well-being. This government is very inventive, so I’m sure they would come up with something to avoid the resignation of the government.

While the government has the means to distribute money and other perks, the opposition must be satisfied with promises. As has happened in Hungary time and again, these promises turn out to be empty. The 2010 promises of Fidesz, including one million new jobs in ten years, couldn’t be fulfilled. In fact, it was just announced that fewer people have jobs today than a year ago. The Balatonőszöd speech was partly about putting an end to this practice and stop deceiving the electorate. For a while the opposition parties seemed to have paid heed and refrained from falling back on their bad habits. Their politicians kept emphasizing the difficult economic situation and the long road ahead. But as the election gets closer they seem unable to resist the temptation.

So, let’s see who is promising what. MSZP held a huge meeting in Miskolc, a town that was once an MSZP stronghold. The crowd responded enthusiastically when Attila Mesterházy announced that if the MSZP, hand in hand with Együtt 2014-PM, wins the election “the winners will be the children, the youth, the women, the employees, the small- and medium size entrepreneurs, and the pensioners.” In brief, everybody.

Fair enough. Almost everybody would indeed win if Fidesz were sent back into opposition. But what specifically did Mesterházy promise? From September 2014 on students will receive a free education at Hungarian colleges and universities. A year ago the socialists were talking only about a tuition-free first year, after which tuition would be charged based on academic achievement and social needs. But now, it seems, there is no qualification. We know from past experience that the Hungarian budget cannot possibly afford the luxury of totally free higher education.

The socialists also plan to create a situation in which at least one person in each family is employed with a decent salary. I assume that he does not consider the current salary of workers employed in public works projects, which is not enough to keep body and soul together, decent. According to Mesterházy, the desired level of employment can be achieved by abandoning “this idiotic economic policy.”

He promised more money for education and promised to build gyms instead of football stadiums. They will spend more money on healthcare. Unemployment insurance, which was truncated by the Orbán government, will once again be available for nine months. The socialists will make sure that public transportation for people over the age of 65 will be “truly” free. Mesterházy admitted that to achieve all these things one must have robust economic development, but he added that “yes, we will achieve this too.” MSZP wants to modify the across-the-board lowering of utility prices, which currently threatens the industry with bankruptcy. The socialists suggest lowering prices only for those in need. MSZP would also change the tax system and get rid of the flat tax, which has done a lot of damage to the economy.

As you can see, there are plenty of expensive promises here. The healthcare system is in ruins, and it seems that the same is true of education. Even with higher taxation on the “rich,” as Mesterházy called those whose incomes are above average, healthcare and education cannot be salvaged. As currently configured, healthcare is a bottomless pit. Throwing more money into it is no remedy. It’s time for some fresh thinking.



Együtt 2014-PM also began its campaign, and it looks as if the party is concentrating, at least for the time being, on the under-35 generation. The party’s slogan is “Come home, stay home!” According to E14, the flight of young Hungarians is “one of the most serious problems today.” If they win the election they will open offices in each embassy and consulate where they would offer jobs in Hungary for those currently abroad. They would also assist those Hungarians who just finished their studies abroad and would like to return to Hungary. In addition, he promised that “he would guarantee a job or training that would lead to a decent job for all those under the age of 30 who hadn’t had a job in the last six months.”

Bajnai offered up a few numbers. He would spend at least 1% of the GDP on higher education and would again open the doors of colleges and universities to anyone who has the ability. Bajnai also promised 250,000 new jobs in four years. Well, that number is more modest than Orbán’s one million in ten years, but as we know governments cannot create jobs.

It’s not clear whether people actually believe these promises or whether, after all the unfulfilled and unfulfillable promises, they are jaded. Hungarians say they don’t believe politicians, but perhaps their belief is selective. Perhaps they believe promises from which they themselves will benefit and disregard the rest. Perhaps they believe some of the promises of their favorite candidate and none of the promises of the other candidates. Who knows? I doubt they would be honest with pollsters.

At any event, it’s tough to campaign with the message that people should prepare themselves for more lean years when opponents are promising a host of goodies in a “rising tide” economy. People want hope and change and a “yes we can” attitude.  (And a few more forints in their pockets one way or another.)  Disappointment that the government hasn’t delivered sets in only later.  Just ask Barack Obama.


  1. Yeah, my head was spinning when I heard Bajnai’s promises … I think he believes that this is the only way to have the attention of the electorate in Hungary.

    It seem Gyurcsany’s Dk is the only sane party. But this is the reason they will have no followers. It’s just depressing …

  2. Both MSZP and Bajnai may legitimately spend and distribute about HUF 400 bn because they will introduce the progressive personal income taxation the abolishment of which resulted in a loss of tax revenue by that amount. (I think the loss on that item is actually bigger but in the meantime so many people left Hungary that the tax base became smaller).

    It is a lot of money enough for truly free transportation for the elderly and free university education. Of course it would be a bad policy to abolish all these fees altogether, but it’s politics (MSZP needs to establish that it’s really leftist) and there would be money for it. MSZP could finally score a good point with the younger generation too.

    More problematic are that the special banking/transactional taxes (mind you, the Hungarian financial transaction tax has nothing to do with the transaction tax the EU wants to introduce) which distort the operation of the financial sector completely. Unfortunately the tax revenue from these banking taxes became so large that it is just impossible to abolish them. One could perhaps abolish the banking taxes while reintroducing the top income tax brackets, but then there is nothing fancy to do politically (and Fidesz will charge you with being the friends of the banks instead of the people and we anyway know that MSZP has a ‘bankár-government’, so MSZP will not do that).

    It is psychology, if one party offers a lot, however preposterous, a competing politician can’t just sit there that well, we can’t afford that. A competitor has to offer other goodies, otherwise he will not even get heard. People both know that a big offer is a lie and at the same time still expect it to turn out to be possible after all. It’s a contradiction, but people are contradictory and are conditioned that during the election season all politicians come up with offers and sometimes they even turn out to be true (like when the state salaries were increased by 50% by Medgyessy). So you just never know if you can believe them or not.

  3. ttmttyy wrote a good math study.
    under kadar, hungary was a dark and suffocating place. the sane ones were leaving.
    under orban, hungary is a dark and suffocating place, but the twisted patriotic turulizing class is celebrating orban.
    and the sane ones are leaving.
    bajnai has not got enough funds for an effective PR against this sad comedy.
    orban can continue being the charming prince. it works on some.
    and hungary is drowning….

  4. Given all these promises, maybe this is exactly the right time for Gyurcsány to start trying to “re-deliver” what he was trying to say in the Őszöd speech. From your coverage a few days ago, that seems to be exactly what he’s doing.

    OT, but the promises remind me of one of the posters I saw in Budapest last week:

    This was in an installation of dozens of posters from a competition run by ARC:

    For many of them I had to ask my Hungarian friends for help with the text, but some of them were clear enough even to a beginner in the language. My favourite was this one:

    Ki kezdte?

    I’ve emailed ARC asking if they’re going to put the images online, as the 3rd-party photos online so far don’t capture all the detail. (And this beginner-reader would like to re-read some of the text slowly). This poster, for example, has hundreds of beautifully-drawn cartoon characters all over Hungary, all in pairs blaming each other for the mess. There’s even a submarine periscope popping out of Balaton blaming someone else, and two pigs arguing near Miskolc (naturally, calling each other “Disznó!”).

    Other highlights were a parody “Monopoly” game (not exactly Monopoly, but a different version dating from the Communist era which I’m not familiar with), a “choose your paranoid worldview” poster, the “social funeral” presented as IKEA assembly instructions, a “Mindent vissza!” poster with the shape of Hungary inside an otherwise empty skull, and endless swipes at the tobacco-shop swindle and Orbán’s habit of building football stadiums.

    I wish it was possible to recommend Prof Balogh to pay it a visit (assuming she likes this kind of thing, which I do), but unfortunately the exhibition ends tomorrow. For anyone who’s in Budapest, it’s just behind the Műcsarnok.

    I found some of the posters (as well as some irrelevant images) through this search:

    It’s slightly sinister that one of the images results is a closeup of a poster caption with the artists’ names, found by Google on a certain site beginning with “K” that I won’t name in full.

  5. This is very funny. Just this morning Orbán declared that for Hungarians hope is much more important than facts. So, I guess no one should be surprised that he constantly lies. The latest is that he told the honorary consuls that they never claimed that there was a revolution in the voting booths. Here is a meme that makes fun of it.

  6. Thanks, sebt!

    These posters show that at least some Hungarians haven’t lost their sense of (gallows …) humour.

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