István Hiller

Historian Zoltán Ripp’s analysis of the Hungarian election

Post-election soul-searching and analysis continues in Hungarian opposition circles. I spent two days talking about the remedies offered by MSZP insiders Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller. Politicians from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, have so far been silent. I understand they are spending this coming weekend analyzing the lessons of the election. On the other hand, DK activists gathered 42,000 supporting signatures, ensuring their participation in the EP election on May 25. Their election slogan, “Europe Is Performing Better,” is a take-off on the government’s claim that Hungary is doing better.

It is extremely difficult to guess how the opposition parties, this time campaigning alone, will do. Turnout for EP elections is usually very low, and Fidesz will most likely get a majority of the 22 seats Hungary is entitled to. Jobbik will probably do even better than in 2009 when they captured three seats, only one fewer than MSZP. The other opposition parties, Együtt 2014-PM and DK, are real question marks because this is the first time they will be able to measure their strength at the polls. Parties need at least 5% of the votes cast to send a delegate.

While the campaign for the EP election is going on, political analysts continue to ponder the consequences of the national election. This time it was Zoltán Ripp, a historian, who tackled the election results. Ripp is deeply immersed in political history, especially the history of the Hungarian communist party in the last fifty years or so. He also wrote a monumental work on the change of regime (Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990), which I find invaluable for understanding the political history of those years.

Ripp was described in a review of one of his books as a historian close to MSZP. Well, that might have been the case a few years back but, as evidenced by an article he published in Galamus, Ripp nowadays has a devastating opinion of MSZP’s current leadership. According to Ripp, MSZP politicians “are “culturally empty, morally dubious, and politically feeble.”

Zoltán Ripp / 168 Óra

Zoltán Ripp /168 Óra

So, how does Ripp see the election and its consequences? The title of his long essay is telling: “Opting for  Servitude.” The essay itself is a subjective description of his despair. Ripp, like most historians, doesn’t think much of the so-called political scientists and leaves “objective” analyses to the talking heads. He is convinced that now, after the election, “the constitutional third republic is gone for ever.” The change of regime is final, especially now that Viktor Orbán with the blessing of the electorate won another stunning victory. One can no longer claim that the Orbán regime is illegitimate. Those who voted for Fidesz reaffirmed its legitimacy.

Ripp, of course, realizes that for the core voters of Fidesz Orbán’s regime doesn’t mean servitude at all. On the contrary, they are convinced that they are performing a service in pursuit of a higher and more noble goal. They are lending a helping hand in the task of elevating the nation into future greatness. Viktor Orbán is described as “the chief shaman, ” “the anointed leader” who knows what he is doing. “Who is the embodiment of what is the best in us.” But, the problem is, Ripp continues, that “the party of Viktor Orbán could have won only in a country where society is gravely ill.” What is that illness? “The lack of democratic culture and mentality.” And that is very basic. Ripp claims that the failure of the democratic third republic was bound to happen. It was practically inevitable.

As opposed to many others, Ripp asserts that it was “not material questions that decided the outcome of the election.” Not that they didn’t matter, but the chief culprit was “the revival of the culture of subjugation.” The return of “resignation,” “assuetude.” And the problem with the opposition was, in Ripp’s view, that they didn’t concentrate on the real issue: that with the election of 2010 came a “regime change.” What was at stake in the election was democracy vs. autocracy painted over with a pseudo-democratic gloss. Ripp fears that the regime put in place byViktor Orbán will stay perhaps for decades. “We can get into a situation from which there is no way out by holding elections.”  Those who believe that there will be another chance in 2018 are mistaken, “they don’t understand anything about the nature of the Orbán regime (kurzus).”

In Ripp’s opinion this opposition misunderstood the very threat that Viktor Orbán’s regime was and is posing to Hungarian democracy. So, what should have been done? How should the opposition politicians have handled the situation? The key word in Ripp’s vocabulary is “radicalism,” but he quickly adds that radicalism is not the same thing as using scurrilous language. There should have been a concentrated radical attack on the illegitimate character of the Orbán regime. Democratic politicians should have announced as their goal the total elimination of the whole system Orbán built in the last four years. Instead, “our brave politicians” only managed to come up with the label of “kormányváltó,” which didn’t even make it to the Magyar Értelmező Szótár as an adjective. It simply means “change of government.” As Ripp puts it, “instead of strategy that great zeal degenerated into a whimper.” On such a basis one could not put together a civic concentration of forces that would have produced enough power for the removal of the Orbán regime. Instead, a coalition of parties was formed “based on cheap haggling.”

Ripp knows that “the intellectual giants of MSZP” will call him an idealist who cannot see farther than downtown Budapest and who talks nonsense because he doesn’t grasp the realities of the countryside. Ripp’s answer is that the democratic politicians had four years to explain to the population the connection between the lack of democracy and the rule of law and the quality of material life. He uses a famous line from Sándor Petőfi to illustrate his point: “haza csak ott van, ahol jog is van.”

What were the sins of the individual actors in the drama? Ferenc Gyurcsány’s “chief responsibility lies in the fact that, although he knew and said a thousand times what was at stake, in the end he accepted the rules of a losing game.” Bajnai’s responsibility is great. He gave up his original ideas and “followed the script of MSZP… He deteriorated into a weakish participant in a political battle.” As for Attila Mesterházy, in Ripp’s eyes he was totally unsuited to lead the battle against Fidesz. “Anyone who did not see that should look for some profession outside of politics.” But, he adds, Mesterházy was not the cause of the crisis but its symptom. What an indictment of MSZP! If Ripp is right, the remedies Lendvai and Hiller propose are useless.

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István Hiller on restructuring the Hungarian Socialist Party

Doomsayers are already predicting the demise of social democracy in Hungary. According to their argument, the socialists will disappear just as SZDSZ vanished because Hungarian society has no appetite for anything that is associated with the left.

A party may disappear, but the political philosophy behind it certainly will not. SZDSZ as a party is no more, but the liberal idea is alive. It lives on in Együtt-PM, in DK, and, yes, to a certain extent in MSZP. Anyone who wants to throw the very ideas of social democracy and liberalism out the window and who claims that their disappearance will be good for Hungarian society is gravely mistaken. (One of these Cassandras suggests in a comment on this blog that LMP should be the major political force because, in his opinion, it is a centrist party. The fact is that LMP is more leftist than MSZP ever was.) If we send the representatives of social democracy and liberalism packing, we are going to have “national unity” of the worst kind, unity built on single-party autocratic rule.

I believe that both social democracy and liberalism will survive, just as they have survived in most European countries. Of course, the farther east we go the less weighty is their presence. That’s why Péter Pető of Népszabadság is very wrong when he assumes that the underdevelopment of the Hungarian countryside and its uneducated population does not matter. Yes, it does matter. He is also wrong when he minimizes the obstacles built into the electoral system devised by Fidesz. Yes, Fidesz would have won but not the way it did, and today we wouldn’t be talking about the demise of the Hungarian left.

After this brief detour, I would like to return to István Hiller’s recommendations for restructuring MSZP. Before he became a politician Hiller was an associate professor of history at ELTE, where he had the reputation of being an excellent lecturer. Although one of the young Turks in MSZP, Tamás Harangozó, included Hiller in the older generation of “aunts and uncles” (bácsik és nénik), he is in fact only 49 years old. When he became one of the founders of MSZP he was 25.

In the last election Hiller won his district (Pesterzsébet and Kispest) handsomely. As I learned from this interview with him in Népszava, he always insisted on being an individual candidate even when as party chairman he needed special permission from the party to do so. He won in 2002 and 2006 and  now again, in 2014. It is likely that the party will designate him one of the deputy presidents of parliament.

How does Hiller see the party’s situation? “Those people are right who call attention to the electoral law, the restricted possibilities of the opposition to be heard, and the uneven playing field. But those who stop here and make excuses don’t really want the rebuilding of the left…. I believe that the Hungarian left didn’t understand, didn’t digest the shocking changes that Hungarian society underwent in the last five years. Some of the multitudes who live in poverty most likely voted for MSZP in the past. These people hate the present government, but they didn’t choose us but the far right. These people are not extremists, their situation is extreme.”  Thus the party should concentrate on the poorest segments of society.

Some of Hiller’s ideas echo those of Ildikó Lendvai but with a twist. For example, “one cannot blame the left-liberal side for defending democracy and democratic rights, but one must know where to say what.” It is useless to talk about the fine points of democracy in a God-forsaken, poverty-stricken village in the countryside.

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller / MTI Photo: Attila Manek

Hiller admitted that his colleagues don’t get what he is talking about. “They don’t reject [my ideas], but for the time being they don’t quite understand what I want. But I’m accustomed to fighting. What I want is the complete rebuilding of the Hungarian left. It is not enough to climb out of the hole. It is not enough to get from minus to zero. I have higher goals.”

Another similarity between the thoughts of Lendvai and Hiller is that Hiller also believes that there is something very wrong with Hungarian politics altogether. He specifically talked about the divisiveness that exists in Hungarian society. As Sándor Csányi, CEO of the largest Hungarian bank OTP, said, this divisiveness has become an impediment to economic competitiveness. “We must change our whole political culture.”

Hiller is, of course, most concerned with restructuring the left. He offered some specific proposals.  He would concentrate on “internal structure” and “communication.” When it comes to changing the internal structure of the party, he would use local self-governments as the basis of the party structure. “This is what I’m trying to convince my colleagues of.” According to him, the party should concentrate on micro-communities. “We should reconstruct our organizational model based on the municipalities.” The party bigwigs, however, don’t cherish the idea of shifting the focus of decision-making away from the center.

Finally, Hiller echoes Lendvai’s ideas about a social democratic network. The next three years should be spent moving the focal point from the center to the 3,000-some municipalities. Every village should have at least one party member or sympathizer who can help build the network that would cover the whole country. He ended the interview by saying that he will share his ideas with the party and with the public as well. He knows that it will be difficult to change, but without change there can be no renewal and reconstruction.

PISA 2012: No gold star for Hungarian education

For those of you who have heard only of the Pisa with its leaning tower, this PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment. It operates under the aegis of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every three years tests are given to fifteen-year-old students across the globe in reading, mathematics, and science. The news is not good for Hungary and consequently for Rózsa Hoffmann, who is responsible for public education. Népszabadság couldn’t resist the temptation and ran the headline: “‘Here is Rózsa Hoffmann’s report card: Hungarian students’ results declined.”

Three years ago there was some excitement when the PISA results came out since Hungarian students improved considerably in reading. While in 2006 they scored 482, in 2009 they got 494. In math and science, however, there was no appreciable difference between 2006 and 2009.

Of course, when the PISA results came out in 2010 Rózsa Hoffmann deplored the dreadful damage that was done to Hungarian education under the ultra-liberal educational policies of Bálint Magyar and his socialist successor, István Hiller. At that time Hoffmann explained the improvement in reading scores by noting Hungarian teachers’ recognition that understanding written texts must continue through all twelve grades. She also noted that the quality differences between schools were still much greater than in most OECD countries and added that “it is very important to improve the material well being of families, without which the educational results will not get better.” I don’t think I have to remind readers of Hungarian Spectrum that living standards, especially for the poorer strata of society, have in fact dropped markedly since. Most of the families of those children who are having problems in school are poorer and more miserable than ever before.

Zoltán Pokorni, minister of education in the first Orbán government, decided to go further and claim that the 2009 results were due solely to his educational policies. After all, those fifteen-year-old teenagers who took the test began first grade in 2000!  Total nonsense, of course but I guess it was difficult to swallow that, after years of stagnation, the newly introduced educational reforms were slowly showing some results.

PISA2

The 2012 results are really bad. Hungarian children did worse in all three categories than three years earlier. In reading they dropped by 6 points, in math 13 points, and in science 9 points. By contrast, most of Hungary’s neighbors, with the notable exception of Slovakia, improved in all categories. Austria led the way (up 20 points in reading), and Czech students also showed great progress.

I have no idea what happened in the Slovak school system that may have caused such a steep decline, and I’m not sure how much the present Hungarian administration is responsible for the drop in the Hungarian performance. But the havoc that was wreaked in the field of education–the administrative chaos and constant changes in the curriculum–most likely had a negative effect on the quality of education in general. Also, studies I read on the subject claim that certain programs that were designed with a view to “competence development” were discontinued since Rózsa Hoffmann doesn’t believe in such newfangled ideas.

So, how did Hoffmann handle this situation? Her office placed an announcement on the  website of the Ministry of Human Resources stating that the 2012 PISA results “support the urgent necessity of the renewal of public education.” She naturally tried to minimize the positive changes in 2009, saying that reading skills “improved somewhat” then but in math and science there was no change. (Of course, one could say that at least there was no drop as is the situation now.)

And what is the reason for this bad performance according to Hoffmann? “The majority of the students who took the test began attending school in 2003: the worsening results are the critical consequences of the beginnings of their schooling.” Didn’t we hear that earlier? Of course, we did. Zoltán Pokorni proudly claimed in December 2010 that the good 2009 results were due to the beneficial educational policies of the Orbán government. After all, the students who took the test started grade one in 2000. As if the amount of knowledge at age of fifteen was solely determined by the first two years of school attendance. After the Orbán government lost the elections, in May 2002 Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) took over the ministry of education. So, in fact, little Pisti or Marika spent only one school year under the watchful eye of Orbán’s ministry of education by then led by József Pálinkás, today president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Politicians can say the darndest things. Otherwise, in the rest of the announcement she dwells not so much on the 2012 results as on the 2009 ones, which she considers very poor. I might add that 2009 was the only year that Hungary was not under the OECD average.

Scores in reading, math, and science are important indicators of a country’s educational well being, but the percentage of functional illiterates is also a crucial consideration, especially since the European Union’s goal is to reduce their numbers significantly by 2020.  Functional illiteracy in this case means a score below a certain number. The desired percentage would be 15 in all three categories. Right now only four countries in Europe have reached this goal: Finland, Poland, the Netherlands, and Estonia. In Hungary functional illiterates grew by 2.1% in reading, 5.8% in math, and 3.9% in science between 2009 and 2012. Currently Hungary has a functional illiteracy rate of 19.7% in reading, 27.1% in math, and 18% in science. Among the Visegrád countries Poland is doing the best in this respect: in reading 10.6%, in math 14.4%, and in science 13.8%. The whole report can be read here.

Anyone who’s interested in comparisons between individual countries should visit OECD’s website. Countries that scored very poorly in Eastern Europe are Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, but even those that did better, like Hungary, still underperformed globally. Hungarians who have such a low opinion of the educational attainment of American students may find it disturbing that American students actually did a little better in all categories than their Hungarian counterparts. Naturally, American commentators are unhappy. They consider the results disappointing and bemoan the fact that “the U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.” Yes, and that’s where Hungary is as well. It is useless to deny the fact that Hungarian kids are undereducated and that undereducated kids become undereducated adults. The kind who can easily be duped by unscrupulous populist politicians like Viktor Orbán and his coterie.

MSZP’s new strategy: Public education reform

I would like to talk a bit more about Attila Mesterházy’s article in yesterday’s Népszabadság where he outlined changes that in the party leadership’s opinion are vital in order to rectify Viktor Orbán’s mistakes.

There are so many problems with Viktor Orbán’s vision of the future that one doesn’t even know where to begin. But here let’s focus on education. It is a well established fact that in today’s society, especially in countries that are poor in natural resources or are not flush with ready capital, the best investment a government can make is in education. It is also becoming evident that old-fashioned teaching methods are ineffective in the twenty-first century.

Viktor Orbán has definite ideas about the role of education in Hungarian society. He envisages a small, highly educated elite, let’s say 12-15% of the adult population. The rest of the population ought to be satisfied with a high school education or even less. In Viktor Orbán’s view of the world, everybody has his place. “Mediocre” students, even if they could be admitted to university on the basis of entrance exams, shouldn’t even bother to apply because only the very best deserve a degree. That kind of thinking led the current administration to lower the compulsory school age from eighteen to sixteen.  I don’t think they ever asked what the sixteen-year-old “drop-outs” will do after they leave school. Surely, they will add to the unemployment rolls.

In Orbán’s Hungary less money is spent on education than during previous administrations, which is a real disaster because even in previous years only about 5.2% of GDP went to education. The number of students entering college this year dropped considerably because of the introduction of very high tuition fees. All in all, Orbán’s Hungary is marching in the wrong direction in education as in so many other areas.

Although some of Mesterházy’s 15 theses enumerated in the Népszabadság article are vague, the section dealing with education is quite explicit. The persons in charge of party policy on education are István Hiller, former MSZP minister of education, and Ágnes Kunhalmi, an energetic and self-possessed young woman. Hiller, a former university professor, is mostly interested in higher education. He is normally the spokesman of the party when the Orbán government’s policies affecting higher education are being discussed in the media. Kunhalmi specializes in the equivalent of K-12 education. When I say she is young, I don’t exaggerate. She graduated from high school in 2002. She’s a new face in MSZP and a bright one, as is clear from an interview with her a few months ago in 168 Óra. I assume that the ideas Mesterházy shared with his readers on questions of public education come at least in part from Ágnes Kunhalmi.

As I said, Mesterházy is quite specific about trying to equalize educational opportunities in Hungary and to improve the overall quality of teaching. Currently there are huge differences among schools. A few are excellent and produce students who year after year receive prizes in international competitions. Most schools are mediocre. But then there are those whose graduates can barely read and write. For the most part teaching in Hungary is uninspired and uninspiring. In order to overcome this, it seems that MSZP is ready to adopt an interactive approach to teaching. At least this seems to be the message of Mesterházy’s reference to the Hejőkeresztúr model.

The model is actually an adaptation of a method of teaching that was developed at Stanford University. Thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, the principal of the school had the opportunity to get acquainted with the method and was so impressed that she decided to try out it out in her own school. Hejőkeresztúr is a very poor village a few kilometers from Miskolc where 90% of the adult population is unemployed. A great number of the children attending the Hejőkeresztúr elementary school are Roma. While we often hear about serious behavioral problems elsewhere, in Hejőkeresztúr children love going to school and do very well. They all eventually attend high school and actually matriculate. There is an article about this by now famous school in Népszabadság. Several private firms and individual donors help the school financially.

The children playing interactive games in Hejőkeresztúr  elementary school

Children playing interactive games in the Hejőkeresztúr elementary school

The idea behind the Stanford method is to replace ineffective passive learning with engaged learning. Actively working on a problem, especially in teams, has all sorts of benefits.

In the past the majority of teachers resisted change. Now it seems that MSZP is ready to stand behind a thorough educational reform. Mesterházy is quite explicit: “We will break with old-fashioned retrograde methods of teaching and will move on to the modern, child-centered interactive teaching that has been successful in other developed countries.” That is a real commitment that I haven’t heard before from MSZP politicians. I do hope they mean it.