Hungarian journalists, cynicism, and wrong political assessments

I have been talking here and there about the Hungarian public’s skepticism concerning politics and politicians. Admittedly, this attitude is not unique to Hungary. In virtually every country the electorate has a fairly low opinion of those involved in politics, but somehow in Hungary this antagonism seems to have even deeper roots. Every month Szonda Ipsos sends its pollsters out to inquire about people’s opinion of leading politicians. While a few years ago, especially in the 1990s after the introduction of democracy, the most popular politician, usually the president of the republic, received well over 80 points out of 100, today the highest number is 47! Absolutely devastating!

This trend has been accelerating since 2002 when Viktor Orbán, in his disappointment over losing the election, began a campaign aimed at discrediting his opponents. If people hear repeatedly that the socialist politicians are thieves, liars, gangsters, members of the mafia who should be in jail, no wonder that at least half the country, especially those who are Fidesz supporters, thinks that this is so. Then the other side, fed up with the abuse, reminds the people of the wrongdoings of the Orbán government while it was in power.

The general skepticism concerning politics is only reinforced by the attitude of the members of the media. They are just as convinced as the public at large that all politicians are crooks. There is no one who is honest or who really wants to change the way things are. Tonight on ATV’s late evening news one of the "political scientists" of the Political Capital (this is the political science business venture I talked about earlier) announced that Gyurcsány decided to bring his seven points before parliament only because he wanted to divert attention from the Zuschlag affair. This boggles the mind, especially because, according to the latest poll, which came out today, the Zuschlag affair didn’t make the slightest difference as far as the popularity of the MSZP is concerned! I must say that Gyurcsány would have been an incredibly stupid man if he had assumed all that risk merely to divert attention away from something that basically didn’t make any difference to his party’s popularity. And one thing is sure, Gyurcsány is not a stupid man.

An even more incredible political conversation took place a few days ago among four journalists of 168 Óra, a liberal weekly that features interviews and some opinion pieces. The four journalists are luckily not political commentators. They usually conduct interviews with politicians. Yet, one would assume that they ought to know something about current Hungarian politics if they decide to sit down from time to time to discuss the political events of the week and to make predictions. And predictions they made. If anyone would like to listen to this conversation, they can listen here: The title: "Gyurcsány nélkül is menni fog?"

Of course, one could say, Eva, you listened to this conversation after you knew about the successful outcome of the MSZP caucus’s meeting yesterday. It is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. This criticism would be valid if I had changed my opinion about Gyurcsány’s move between October 8 and 14.  But I didn’t. In fact, I said yesterday that I had believed Ildikó Lendvai, who seemed to be optimistic about the outcome days before the meeting.

The four reporters are Dániel Bita (a young fellow who on the side is studying political science), Attila Buják, József Nagy, and Dávid Trencséni. The last three are older and more seasoned than Bita. Nagy is well known to those who watch the Magyar Televizíó’s Napkelte where he often is one of the "interrogators" in Kereszttűz (Crossfire). Bita led off the conversation with very pronounced, mostly negative, opinions about Gyurcsány. According to him, Gyurcsány’s points are haphazard thoughts from which nothing will ever materialize. The whole package of haphazard thoughts reminds him of the ideas Prime Minister’s Medgyessy set forth when his advisors suggested that he should come up with something in order to bolster his popularity. If we recall that shortly after the articulation of ideas that were indeed haphazard Medgyessy was forced to resign, we can assume that Dániel Bita is certain that Gyurcsány is so weak that soon enough he will put out to pasture. After all, Tibor Szanyi, an MSZP politician and no Gyurcsány fan, said that no one is irreplacable. People thought Horn was irreplacable but he wasn’t, and then came László Kovács. Some thought Kovács was irreplacable but wasn’t. And now there’s Gyurcsány…. In his anti-Gyurcsány way of thinking Bita even forgot the little he must have learned in the political science department of ELTE. He sided with another opponent of Gyurcsány in the party, József Karsai, who complained that if Gyurcsány is a proponent of full-time members of parliament then he himself should not be a member of parliament, prime minister, and head of the party. One can understand that József Karsai says things like that, but a future "political scientist"? What did he learn about parliamentary democracy? Not much.

Even more perplexing was that at least three of the journalists seem to think that these suggestions are not really important. As one of them said, "technical stuff." Gyurcsány should concentrate on important things, but the prime minister is in such a weak position that "he is escaping in this direction." He is so weak that he can’t really confront anybody but his own fellow party members. He "kicks into them" by asking them to give up some of their income. It is easy for him. He is a rich man, but what about the poor politicians? Bita added that the prime minister pokes his nose into things that are not within his domain. It would be the easiest and most proper thing if Lendvai and Navracsics simply sat down and talked things over. The parties should take care of all this and not the prime minister. (Bita seems to forget how long the parties have been "negotiating" about these issues without getting anywhere.) Gyurcsány was accused of not knowing the limits of his own role. They predicted that Gyurcsány simply can’t successfully emerge from this situation. According to them Gyurcsány is not really interested in reforms. He is simply defending his own position. And they went on like this for almost half an hour.

The only reporter who showed some understanding of the real situation was József Nagy. He had the decency to assume that perhaps Gyurcsány actually means what he says and that he may be risking his own neck by going against the "political elite." Nagy pointed out that if the MSZP caucus got rid of Gyurcsány, in the eyes of the people he would be the "martyr prime minister" and the caucus would be the crooked politicians. Unfortunately, Nagy couldn’t say too much in a four-way conversation. I fully agree with Nagy: the MSZP would be finished if Szili and Co. managed to get rid of Gyurcsány. However, as we know today, this is not what happened. A strengthened party leader emerged from yesterday’s meeting. As for the eight points, I am certain that they will be accepted. One way or the other. Either by the five parties’ cooperation or by forcing the Fidesz’s hand through a referendum.