social policy

Viktor Orbán’s “state of the nation” speech

Although Viktor Orbán delivered his annual address (which allegedly assesses the achievements and shortfalls of the previous year) two days ago, I always like to wait to comment until the complete text is available. Since Orbán never strays from his written text, that occurs within a day or two.

In fact, neither Orbán’s nor Gyurcsány’s speech, delivered the day before, had anything to do with the past year. Instead, both signaled the beginning of the election campaign. Gyurcsány’s speech was delivered a day before Orbán’s. Sensing that Orbán’s message would be void of any vision for the future, Gyurcsány wittily compared the prime minister to Hungary’s first king. King Stephen, he said, had a vision: he wanted a Christian Hungary, he wanted his country to belong to the family of European nations, and he wanted to get a crown from the Pope. He didn’t lower the price of oats before the tribal election! Of course, Gyurcsány was alluding to the lowering of utility prices, which has a lot to do with Orbán’s allure.

For his “state of the nation” speech Orbán faced a suspiciously young crowd in the Millennial  Center. As for past achievements, he was careful not to be too specific, but the little he said was mostly the figment of his imagination. Tamás Mészáros of the popular Újságíróklub on TV said last night that he is still waiting for the day when Orbán’s claims have any truth to them. He couldn’t find any in Orbán’s latest. There’s a good summary of his claims (with refutations) by Péter Uj and Zsolt Kerner in 444!.hu

Zsófia Mihancsik of Galamus initially found Orbán’s speech boring, but she reversed herself the next day after reading the transcript. She was amused by Orbán’s compulsive efforts to collect witty sayings from all over the world. Anita Vorak of Origo also came out with an article on the same subject  in which she tried to find the origins of “Viktor Orbán’s recycled pieces of wisdom.”

Orban evertekeloBeing a stickler for historical truth, I wasn’t too taken with the old story about Franz Joseph who kept repeating everywhere he went in Hungary that “everything is very nice, everything is very good, I’m satisfied with everything”–allegedly because these were the only sentences he knew in Hungarian. The truth is that Franz Joseph knew Hungarian very well and so did all Habsburgs in line for the throne, including Otto von Habsburg. But I think this tale about the “Kaiser” served a purpose because it is fashionable nowadays to say nasty things about the Habsburgs, who were after all the link between Hungary and the West for four hundred years. And Orbán in the same speech talked about today’s “labancok,” the socialists and the liberals. The “kuruc/labanc” dichotomy goes back to the early 18th century when the “kurucok” fought on the side of Ferenc Rákóczi while the “labancok” were traitors in the service of the Habsburgs. I wrote about this topic some time ago. So, Orbán and his followers are the “kuruc” patriots while the socialists and liberals serve foreign interests. If I were Orbán, I wouldn’t emphasize this “kuruc/labanc” distinction. After all, the word “kuruc” has been pretty much usurped by the anti-Semitic Jobbik, as in “”

Among Orbán’s many claims, there is one that is definitely true: he admitted that his accession to power was not a simple change of government. It was a change of political system. And thanks to God’s blessing, Fidesz and the Christian Democrats were able to participate in two such changes. One in 1989-1990 and the second in 2010. The twenty-year period that followed the first he describes as “post-communism.” The real change is the one he and Fidesz introduced in 2010. So, those of us who think that the regime change in 1989-1990 signaled the beginnings of democratic transformation in Hungary are now being told by Orbán that period is over, replaced by Viktor Orbán’s new political system. But what is this new system all about? We get no answer except that it is based on national unity, which is necessary for “building the future,” a future that remains unspecified.

Naturally the speech had its share of Biblical quotations. Given the fact that the prime minister may be one of the richest men in Hungary (Ferenc Gyurcsány estimates that just the real estate holdings in his and his wife’s names are worth 310-330 million forints) the quotation from Ezekiel 34:2-3 was amusing: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock.'”

The second Biblical quotation is applicable to Orbán’s social policy. It is the famous parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. You may recall the story of a well-to-do man who, before setting out on a long journey, called together his servants. He gave five talents to the first, two to the second, and one to the last for safekeeping . The first two servants invested the money and eventually doubled the amount they received. The third hid his talent in the ground. The master tells the third servant: “You wicked and slothful servant!… you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Indeed, Orbán’s social policy favors those who are the best off at the expense of people of modest means. However, the story has one aspect that doesn’t jibe with Viktor Orbán’s worldview. He has been steadfastly attacking those who become well-off by “speculating.” Of course, what the rich man’s two servants did was exactly that. They did not “work” for the money in the sense in which Orbán understands work. In his eyes, work means physical work, and riches coming from speculation are illegitimate as far as he is concerned. Yet he compares himself to the good servants; he has been a good steward of the nation’s wealth. He was brutally honest here: “Those who used the money best will get new chances. There is no sham egalitarianism here.” Modern Europe’s ideal of solidarity? Not for Orbán’s Hungary. Those who for one reason or another cannot compete will find themselves in a situation where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. They cannot expect help from this government, despite its fondness for talking about love, charity, and Christian values.

So, it is not true that Orbán’s speech was merely a collection of meaningless clichés. He said a lot about himself and his wonderful new world. It is in many ways a frightening vision.

Increasing poverty in Hungary

It was only a couple of days ago that I mentioned MSZP’s complaint that the data on the number of people living at the subsistence level and below the subsistence level (in poverty) in Hungary still hadn’t been released. One of the MSZP politicians whose expertise is social welfare issues claimed that the report was ready to be published at the beginning of May but that the government put pressure on the Central Statistical Office (KSH or Központi Statisztikai Hivatal) not to release it at that time. Well, at last the figures are out together with an indignant denial of MSZP’s accusations. Yes, said the press release, normally the figures are published before July 1, but this year because of the work that had to be invested in the census–which by the way was also late–KSH was a bit behind.

Before we go into the details of the figures and what they mean, let’s go back a bit in time. In early 2012 Zsuzsa Ferge, a well-known sociologist whose main field of interest is the Hungarian poor, predicted that if the trend of the last few years continues the number of people who live at the subsistence level will reach 4 million by the end of 2012. The trend was definitely moving toward growing poverty. In 2000 there were only 3 million people who were living at the subsistence level; by 2005, 3.2 million; and by 2010, 3.7 million. That was 37% of the population. Today’s figure is, as Ferge predicted, a shocking 40%.

The growing number of poor people (and here I use the term “poor” loosely to include both those living at the subsistence level and those living beneath it) come mainly from the ranks of the middle class–teachers, nurses, and other low-paid workers. The Orbán government’s social policy clearly favors those who belong to the top income bracket. Sociologist Balázs Krémer also wrote a study published alongside that of Ferge in which he demonstrated how the rich are getting richer while the poor are becoming poorer in Hungary. Between 2009 and 2010 per capita income grew on average from 910,000 to 940,000 forints per annum. However, during the same period the incomes of the poorest 10% decreased by 12,000. The top 10%, on the other hand, became 98,000 forints richer and later, when the Orbán government changed the tax law,  they saw their income grow by 314,000 forints per year.

Központi Statisztikai Hivatal, subsistence statistics per household

Központi Statisztikai Hivatal, subsistence statistics per household

According to KSH estimates, a family of four (two working adults and two children) need a minimum of 249,284 forints to maintain themselves on a subsistence level. That means 62,421 per person. A single-person household needs at least 86,000 and a two-person household 150,400 forints. KSH’s table is self-explanatory with the possible exception of  the last three items that refer to pensioners, living alone or with one or two others.

In Hungary 60% of the family income goes for food and shelter. For comparison here are a few figures from the United States. Shelter is a large chunk of the family income here too. About the same as in Hungary or a little more (34%), but an American family spends only 12% of their income on food as opposed to 31% in Hungary.

In addition to the 4 million people in Hungary who live at the subsistence level there are 1,3800,00 people who live below it. That number constitutes 13.8% of the population. So only 46% of the Hungarian population live above the subsistence level.

It’s no wonder that more and more people are seeking a new life abroad. Mostly in Germany and the United Kingdom. Last year Tárki estimated that about 20% of the adult population planned to leave the country. Since then these numbers have only grown. According to some recent polls, half of all high school and university students are contemplating leaving Hungary. Naturally, it is a lot easier to talk than to act. Most of these people will end up staying at home, but the numbers are still very high.

A few months ago György Matolcsy referred to the half a million Hungarians who live and work outside the country. He didn’t give any source, but journalists figured that he must have based his numbers on some statistics that were available only to government insiders. Now we have an official figure from KSH that accounts for part of this “diaspora”: 350,000 people still have a permanent address in Hungary but have been working abroad for some time. Most of these individuals, I suspect, are young people who are still registered as part of the family household.

This brings up an interesting point about the way that KSH calculates its employment statistics. KSH includes among the employed even those who actually work abroad, including the 350,000 people we are talking about here. KSH inquires whether József Kovács, who is living abroad, has a job; if so (and presumably if he’s in another country he is gainfully employed), he is counted among the Hungarian employed. If KSH didn’t include these people in their statistics, the Hungarian unemployment figures would be significantly higher.

Hungary has seen modest employment gains in the public sector due to the public works program.  But the salaries that workers in this program receive are way below the official minimum wage and are only about half the subsistence level for an individual. (And since only one member of a family is eligible for public works, he’s earning less than 20% of what a family of four would need to subsist on.) Yesterday Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of the public works program, refused to answer Olga Kálmán’s question as to whether 43,000 forints, the salary of a full-time (40 hours per week) public worker, is enough to live on. The interview is already available on YouTube.

Given the economic realities in today’s Hungary, I don’t expect any improvement in the living standards of Hungarians in the near future. And I think we should anticipate an even higher emigration rate, for both economic and political reasons.