Zsuzsa Ferge

Democratic Round Table’s Manifesto to the People of Hungary

It was on January 16 that four people who are concerned about the fate of Hungary announced the formation of a new Democratic Round Table (Demokratikus Kerekasztal or DEKA). People familiar with the period of the regime change in Hungary will recall that it was at such a round table that the foundations of the new democratic Hungary were laid.

The four patriotic people are Zsuzsa Ferge, a sociologist whose primary interest is social stratification with special emphasis on poverty; Gábor Iványi, the Methodist minister who works with the homeless and the poor; András Horváth, the whistleblower who revealed the rampant corruption within the Hungarian Tax Authority; and Zoltán Lovas, a journalist who was one of the organizers of the long demonstration against the erection of the memorial to the German occupation. They are convinced, as are many others, that Hungary is in a social, political, and economic crisis, and they are trying to stave off a “national catastrophe.” Due to the growing poverty in the country it is possible that people will increasingly be attracted to “radical solutions.” That’s why Hungarian society cannot remain quiet and must begin a dialogue, not just among the political forces of the left but also with those moderate conservatives who might have had high hopes for the Orbán government in 2010 but are by now disillusioned.

DEKA

Their plan is to create several democratic round tables where people will form “working groups” concentrating on different facets of the groundwork that has to be done in preparation for a regime change. Their final aim is, of course, Viktor Orbán’s removal from power by legal means. There will be six working groups: (1) vision,  (2) democracy and law, (3) social policy, (4) economic policy, (5) civilization, education, culture, and (6) foreign policy.

DEKA already has a forum that anyone can join. Although the working group discussions will not be open, they welcome suggestions from everyone who’s interested. I urge all those intelligent readers of Hungarian Spectrum to join this new think tank. So many of you have excellent ideas, and this offers you an opportunity to contribute something for the common good. Here is the link to the DEKA Forum. I’m sure that English-language comments are welcome.

For those of you who know Hungarian, here is a video about the launch of DEKA.

DEKA wants to work with everybody, including parties. For the time being, only Demokratikus Koalíció has said that they will definitely support the initiative, which is not surprising because DK has always been ready to cooperate with all groups that are interested in restoring democracy to Hungary.

Below is the English-language version of DEKA’s manifesto.

* * *

A Manifesto to the People of Hungary

Our nation has reached a crossroads as of early 2015. We are teetering on the brink of an all-pervasive social, political, societal and economic crisis.  Our nation has been fragmented into hostile camps pitted against and unable to communicate with each other. If our fate continues to be shaped by trends similar to those seen over the past years, one likely outcome is that the current regime will become entrenched with an increasingly autocratic profile. Nor can we rule out a scenario where social tensions reach a boiling point and where both the masses living in destitution and the members of the sinking middle class embrace radical solutions.

Concerned and worried about the fate of Hungary, we, therefore, recommend that our fellow citizens who bear responsibility for how things will evolve should enter into a dialogue with each other.  By opening such a dialogue, they should achieve a minimum consensus on the nation’s political, economic and social issues that enables the forces of a now badly divided nation to come to an agreement and find a way out jointly. We recommend that the restoration of the republic and democracy, the reinforcement of Hungary’s orientation towards European values and the remedy of the social injustices caused by the system be deemed such a minimum consensus.

The key to success is engagement in the dialogue by civil society organisations and movements, political parties, employer and employee organisations, the churches and all members of the nation, whether in Hungary or abroad, with a stake in public affairs.

This is likely to require a series of round table talks making way for change. Parties to these round tables may hold different values, however, they should be ready and willing to continue to co-operate. We as politically unattached thinkers believe that at least one round table with liberal left-wing stakeholders committed to the values of Europe and one with conservative right-wing participants need to be put in place.

We do hope that those in support of achieving a shared minimum social consensus will, their differing political or ideological affiliations notwithstanding, contribute to reaching such consensus on account of their commitment to democracy, the republic and fundamental European values. By this spring their co-operation could lead to the emergence of a negotiation forum and scheme that facilitates the forging of a new historic compromise serving the interests of the nation. We recommend that the starting date of the operation of the National Reconciliation Forum (NRF) be 15 March 2015.

Budapest, the 14th of January 2015

This manifesto has been endorsed by

Zsuzsa Ferge
András Horváth
Gábor Iványi
Zoltán Lovas

An additional note to the manifesto:

A democratic round table (DR) upholding left-wing values is slated to be established on 25 January 2015. The DR strives to contribute to the envisaged success of joint national efforts through offering documents drafted within the framework of its workshop targeting the public at large. We hope that similar documents will also be drafted under the aegis of other workshops, primarily by parties to a conservative right-wing round table.

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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.