Zoltán Pokorni

Signs of internal divisions within the Hungarian governing party

In the last few months, as the popularity of Fidesz has been steadily declining, signs of serious internal divisions within the party have been proliferating. Ever since November one opinion poll after the other has reported serious losses in popularity for both Viktor Orbán and his party. Fidesz still leads, but the parties on the left are gaining ground. In fact, for the first time, the number of voters favoring all the democratic opposition parties combined is slightly higher than that favoring Fidesz.

It was almost inevitable that Fidesz’s political leadership would start looking for explanations for the waning popularity. Of course, the most obvious target should be Viktor Orbán himself. After all, Fidesz is a monolithic party where, according to grumbling party leaders, all decisions are made by the prime minister, who is also the head of the party.

His confidants nowadays are not the grand old men of Fidesz but upstarts like Antal Rogán, János Lázár, or the mysterious Árpád Habony who allegedly has no position either in the party or in the government yet is privy to the most confidential information if not state secrets. The old Fidesz leaders who joined the party twenty-five years ago either left a long time ago or Viktor Orbán set them aside. The less important characters had to be satisfied with positions inside state companies or insignificant administrative offices; the more important ones were either given positions that have clout on paper only, for example János Áder and László Kövér, or were shipped off to Brussels. Zoltán Pokorni, who at one point was chairman of Fidesz, had to be satisfied with a humble district mayoralty.

Until last November Fidesz spoke more or less with one voice, the voice of Viktor Orbán. If there were doubting Thomases, they became convinced by the cleverly orchestrated elections that, after all, “Viktor was right.” In fact, he is a political genius who can overcome all obstacles and lead the party to victory not just for the next four or eight years but for a very long time. Now, however, it looks as if Orbán has lost his touch. Instead of being able to correct his mistakes, he piles new ones on top of earlier ones. Moreover, several times in the last few months he had to retreat, which must have shaken the confidence of his closest associates.

I suspect that we are still not at a point that we will hear open criticism of Viktor Orbán himself. Instead, the criticism is directed against the men around him. The first public quarrel occurred in December when Zoltán Pokorni said a few disapproving words about the extravagant lifestyle of János Lázár. Kövér chimed in, taking Pokorni’s side. It is a well known fact that Kövér is no friend of Lázár, who runs the government’s daily business, serving as de facto prime minister, while Orbán himself acts like its all-mighty president, moving effortlessly on the stage of world politics. The quarrel didn’t end there. Lázár shot back and told Kövér that “a political veteran should think twice before he attacks us out of personal resentment or for political gain because he not only weakens us but also weakens or even executes himself.” I guess in this instance “execution” means the end of this veteran’s political career. This is not an idle threat. When after the lost 2006 election Orbán found out that some of his political friends at a party had discussed the desirability of replacing him because of his mistaken election strategy, they were promptly sent into political exile. The most prominent victim was János Áder. More recently, Tibor Navracsics, who as minister of justice criticized the legislative practices introduced by the prime minister’s office, soon enough found himself in Brussels.

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In January we learned that József Szájer and János Kövér also have their disagreements, primarily over Hungary’s relations with the European Union. Szájer is an old timer all right. He was one of the founders of Fidesz but, as opposed to the provincial Kövér, is now serving his third five-year term as MEP in Brussels. In his case, Brussels is not a political exile. He is still a very close associate of Orbán. In fact, Szájer’s wife is perhaps the most important person in the Hungarian judicial system today. In any case, the two old friends from college don’t see eye to eye on the European Union. Kövér belongs to the right wing of Fidesz, a Euro-skeptic who ordered the removal of the EU flag from the parliament building and instead put up a newly-designed flag of the Szeklers living in Romania. About three weeks ago Kövér in an interview expressed his dislike of the European Union and said that it might not be a bad idea to think about leaving. Szájer openly expressed his dissatisfaction with Kövér’s ill-considered statement in an interview on ATV.

Then came another open disagreement, this time between László L. Simon, undersecretary of János Lázár in the prime minister’s office, and Gergely Gulyás, the right-hand of László Kövér and head of a parliament commission dealing with legislative matters, who talked about the likelihood of modifying the law on freedom of assembly. This announcement was unfortunate. It looked as if the Orbán government was planning to restrict the current law and was thereby intending to limit the kinds of demonstrations that took place recently on the streets of Budapest. L. Simon immediately announced that the idea was Gulyás’s private opinion. The government has no intention of revisiting the law on assembly. A very wise move on the part of the government.

Then about ten days ago Zoltán Illés, earlier undersecretary in the ministry of agriculture in charge of the environment, decided to go public with his criticism of the Orbán government’s nonexistent environmental policies. Illés is a committed environmentalist and was useful to Viktor Orbán when Fidesz was in opposition as he attacked the socialist-liberal governments for their neglect of environmental issues. Illés was everywhere a tree was cut down. He organized demonstrations and blocked several projects because of environmental considerations. In 2010 he most likely saw himself as the next minister of the environment and must have been taken back when the ministry was abolished and he became only an undersecretary in the ministry of agriculture. But, as he explained recently, he still hoped that even in this position he could be effective. That turned out not to be the case. His position was stripped of practically everything that used to belong to the minister of the environment. Between 2010 and 2014, while in office, the formerly vocal Illés was quiet as a mouse for example when hundreds of trees were cut out overnight around the parliament building. Eventually he no longer could stand it. He was the only Fidesz member of parliament to vote against building a new reactor at the Paks nuclear power plant. That sealed his fate. Not only is he no longer an undersecretary, he didn’t even receive a cushy job. Now he “tells all” everywhere he has the opportunity.

In the last few days there have apparently been open disagreements between Lajos Kósa and Antal Rogán on immigration; between Zoltán Balog and Károly Czibere, his undersecretary, on the segregation of Roma children; between Antal Rogán and László Trócsányi, minister of justice, on the necessity of new legislation in defense of religions.

Finally, newspapers reported yesterday that János Bencsik, a Fidesz member of parliament, published a long critique of his party and the government on his own website.

The parrots are starting to learn words of their own.

Dissension in Fidesz: Is Viktor Orbán’s leadership safe?

There is no question, the Orbán government is in trouble. And when there is trouble there is dissension. Of course, this is not the first time that Viktor Orbán’s political edifice has stood on shaky ground, but this latest quake has been the most serious of all.

In the middle of 2011 dissatisfaction with the government was considerable. Fidesz’s popularity in the polls was almost as low as it is now. Most of the government’s decisions were unpopular and there was genuine fear that Orbán’s new system of national cooperation would inevitably lead to an authoritarian state. By the end of 2011 sizable crowds could be called out to demonstrate against the government and for the republic.

During these stressful times rumors circulated that people close to Viktor Orbán were voicing their concerns and suggesting caution. Let’s not irritate the population further with unpopular decisions. Although it is normally difficult to learn much about the internal workings of Fidesz, it seems that several people raised their voices against Orbán’s strategy at the Fidesz congress held in July 2011. Criticizing the prime minister were László Kövér, Tibor Navracsics, and Zoltán Pokorni. Today these people have almost no say in the running of either the party or the government. Zoltán Pokorni, although on paper still vice-president of Fidesz, is only the humble mayor of a Budapest district. Tibor Navracsics, after being first minister of justice and later minister of foreign affairs, is today a marginalized EU commissioner. Kövér, although he rules the House with an iron fist, has no significant influence on the party.

By the end of 2012 Viktor Orbán silenced his critics with his masterstroke of lowering utility prices across the board. The unpopular decisions continued, but the majority of the Hungarian people were disarmed by a few thousand forints worth of savings on their utility bills. And those who at the beginning of the year were demonstrating against the government retreated, acknowledging the hopelessness of their cause. Fidesz’s popularity bounced back.

2014 began as a great year for Fidesz. After all, it easily won three elections within a few months, largely because of an unfair election law and the lack of a viable political alternative. I’m sure that the current Fidesz leadership–Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, Antal Rogán, and Péter Szijjártó–never imagined that by October a storm of anti-government sentiment would be unleashed.

In the past, every time the party was under fire the answer of Viktor Orbán and his closest associates was that the prime minister’s strategy had always proved correct in the long run. Surely, this gifted magician will shape the future as well. But the situation today is different. Orbán is in trouble not only because of domestic unrest but also because of his failed foreign policy initiatives. Some of his associates realize that he is unacceptable to Hungary’s allies, the European Union and the United States. And thus ostracized by his allies, Orbán endangers his country’s standing in the western world. Orbán’s position is shaky not only at home but abroad as well. And his critics have been much more outspoken than ever before.

One big difference between the earlier times of trouble and now is that the sharp exchanges between Orbán and his closest associates on the one hand and their critics on the other are now out in the open. Earlier they took place in private and the public learned about them only second-hand. The critics have become emboldened.

The brewing palace revolution began with a fairly innocuous sentence by Zoltán Pokorni about the flaunting of wealth on the part of people like János Lázár, Péter Szijjártó, Lajos Kósa, András Giró-Szász, and the mysterious Árpád Habony. János Kövér, most likely independently from Pokorni, expressed his misgivings about these people “living in great style.” Perhaps, he suggested, it would be a good idea to hold back a bit. That caused János Lázár, whose Rolex watch and whose gift of a 60-million forint apartment to his 10-year-old son was one of the reasons for public outrage, to turn against Pokorni in an interview he gave to Figyelő, a weekly that appeared yesterday. Here is the exact quotation: “A political veteran should think twice before, either out of personal resentment or political considerations, he weakens us because he at the same time weakens or executes himself.” Lázár didn’t mince words: he considers Pokorni’s remark “a stab in the back.” He views the criticism coming from Kövér and Pokorni as a generational clash. These old fogies should realize that their time has passed. His generation, the thirty- to forty-year-olds, is running the show now.  444.hu translated Lázár’s words as a message to the insurgents: those who go against the current leadership have no political future. Kövér did not respond, but Pokorni made a conciliatory statement that he shared with vs.hu. Apparently Lázár’s attack on Pokorni was approved and encouraged by Viktor Orbán himself.

This was a long time ago: Viktor Orbán and Zoltán Pokorni in 2004

This was a long time ago: Viktor Orbán and Zoltán Pokorni in 2004

Why did Pokorni’s remark raise such a furor in the top leadership? Budapest is full of possible, if mostly implausible explanations. One is that both the United States and Germany came to the conclusion that it is impossible to work with Viktor Orbán and they hope that someone else in the party might be able to replace him. Rumor has it that the American favorite is Zoltán Pokorni, while Germany favors János Lázár. That’s why Lázár reacted so violently to Pokorni’s remarks. To tell you the truth, I don’t believe a word of that story. Pokorni has not been in the forefront of national politics for a very long time and, as far as Lázár is concerned, who in his right mind would want to work with him?

Gábor Török, a popular political scientist who has an influential blog, is known to be somewhat partial to Fidesz, but lately he has become more outspoken than usual. He is convinced that all the negative news about the corruption of people like Lázár, Rogán, and Kósa must come from the inside and that Fidesz is “full of Brutuses.” According to him, “there will be no uprising until its leaders are confident that Orbán, after leaving Fidesz, will be unable to establish a party that could win against them.” Once they believe that Orbán is not a political threat, the young Turks will not hesitate for a moment.

Well, this opinion might not be terribly off the mark. Török has many friends in Fidesz and is more familiar with the situation in the party than most political scientists of a liberal persuasion. I should mention that Török finds the strained relations between Viktor Orbán and Washington extremely serious. I agree with him. As Török  said, Viktor Orbán has no idea how much the Americans really know, not just about his close associates but about his own dealings. And that must be very troubling to him because surely he has been the coordinator of the systemic corruption that has permeated the country, especially since 2010.

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.

In the last minute, Hungary’s teachers received a modest raise

An extraordinary parliamentary session had to be convened because a 2011 law mandating a substantial increase in teachers’ salaries was in need of modification. The law was supposed to take effect on September 1, 2013, so time was in short supply. Yesterday the honorable members conducted an abbreviated version of the usual parliamentary debate and today came the vote. All went smoothly: 257 people voted for it, 34 against it, and 2 abstained. MSZP, LMP, and PM had great reservations but in the end voted for it. DK announced early on that their members would vote against it. One of the abstentions was Zoltán Pokorni, former Fidesz minister of education, who has had a longstanding battle with Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of education in the current Orbán government, over this government’s ideas about education in general.

Why was it necessary to modify the bill? The answer is simple. The original law that was enacted in December 2011 promised a substantial increase in teacher’s salaries. But then came 2012 and the first six months of 2013 and it became obvious that there was no money for it. But some boost in compensation had to be given to the teachers who by and large were Fidesz supporters in 2010. And the next election is not so far away. Thus came the “solution”: 150,000-160,000 teachers will receive 60% of the promised amount. The rest will be handed out in 10% increments until 2017. That, of course, is just another promise; the final decision will depend on the state of the budget. So Dóra Duró (Jobbik) was right when she complained that the extraordinary session was convened not to discuss “the increase in teacher’s  salaries” but rather their decrease.

Mrs. István Galló, leader of the Teachers' Union, Zoltán Balog, and Rózsa Hoffmann, January 2013

Mrs. István Galló, leader of the Teachers’ Union, Zoltán Balog, and Rózsa Hoffmann, January 2013

Moreover, the extra salary will entail more work. Instead of 21-22 hours of teaching a week, teachers will have teach 26 hours after which, whether they have formal obligations or not, they will have to spend an additional six hours inside the school. As Hoffmann said, it is not right that teachers can go home after they are finished teaching. I must say that one doesn’t expect such a stupid remark from someone who was trained as a teacher although admittedly she didn’t spend much time in the job. A teacher must correct tests, essays, and homework which he can certainly do at home. A conscientious teacher must prepare his lectures for the next day or write a study plan. I would say that one can do all this better at home than in the teachers’ room where most of the teachers don’t even have a separate desk. School teachers are not in the same position as university professors who normally have offices where they can work in peace surrounded by their books.

All in all, teachers will have to spend 32 hours a week or almost 6.5 hours a day inside the school building. Until now those who taught more than the base 22 hours got extra pay. This will no longer be the case. Under the new system only those teachers who have “homeroom” duties (osztályfőnök) or who supervise students who live in dormitories attached to the schools will get added compensation.

According to calculations, on average teacher salaries will grow by 34 percent.  There will, however, be significant variations. For instance, a twenty-seven-year-old teacher will get a larger raise than will a 53-year-old who had extra pay because he was also a vice-principal. As one teacher’s union leader said, the new system doesn’t reward more work, more diplomas, or better quality teaching because for none of these will a teacher receive extra remuneration.  Moreover, some teachers will receive even less money than before. According to estimates, there might be as many as 4,000-5,000 such individuals. Yesterday Zoltán Pokorni (Fidesz) tried to remedy this situation by offering an amendment that would have kept some of the extra pay for extra work, but by last night he withdrew his suggestion, most likely because of pressure from party and government officials. At that point Gergely Farkas (Jobbik) turned in the same amendment, which naturally the government majority voted down.

Fidesz used this partial fulfillment of the promised salary increase for teachers as an occasion to boast about its fantastic accomplishments. Antal Rogán, head of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, touted the sharp rise in real wages in 2013. He claimed that between the second quarter of 2010 and the same period in 2013 real wages grew by 13.1%. He also announced that the salaries of government employees can finally be raised substantially, thanks to the freedom Hungary achieved by paying back early and in full the loan it received from the IMF and the EU. If that hadn’t happened, Rogán claimed, the Hungarian government couldn’t have raised the salaries of doctors and teachers. I think it is unnecessary to point out that this is an outright lie. But, unfortunately, most Fidesz and government propaganda has no basis in reality.