October 21-23: two men, two speeches; and political corruption in Hungary

By now, I have the text of both speeches. I saw Gyurcsány’s speech live on MTV and thought highly of it. Yesterday I tried to catch Orbán’s speech live, but HírTV was ailing. Since then HírTV’s internet service revived and I was able to watch the video. Anyone who knows the language and has half an hour can listen to it here: http://tinyurl.com/3x67vq. Two very different speeches, two very different politicians, two very different men. I must admit that I don’t consider a good speaker someone who for thirty minutes does nothing else but scream on the top of his lungs. Orbán unfortunately did exactly that.

Gyurcsány, on the other hand, was surprisingly quiet. He normally gesticulates a lot, but in the Opera House he was subdued. This was more appropriate for an occasion when the country remembers a failed uprising with thousands dead, about 500 people executed, 20,000 people jailed afterward, and 200,000 emigres. Anyone who would like to see and hear Gyurcsány’s speech can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/33oh9h. The emphasis was on democracy, freedom, human dignity and cooperation. "Instead of emphasizing what divides the nation, the people should look for what keeps this fantastic country together." Gyurcsány urged people to extend their hands to each other. This tone was in sharp contrast to Orbán’s claims of purposeful wrongdoing by the government that does terrible things not because of incompetence but with outright evil intent. And then came the usual litany of poverty, unemployment, rising prices, and all that can be wrong in Hungary.

The truth is that real wages indeed are lower than a year ago, but if one compares that with the situation created by the so-called "Bokros package" in 1995 when real wages went down by 17%, the present belt tightening is relatively mild. Some of the decrease in living standards is not even due to belt tightening but to weather conditions (frost and drought during the same year), which resulted in higher food prices. Moreover, the international price of oil is not exactly the government’s fault. Finally, what everybody seems to forget is that prior to 2006 real wages had risen more than 40%!!! That is the main reason that the present government had to resort to drastic adjustments. After all, a national budget deficit of around 10% cannot be tolerated.

The problem with the Fidesz is that its politicians don’t offer an alternative to the government’s current policies. Here and there they talk about reducing the tax burden and giving financial incentives to Hungarian middle-size enterprises, but lately even their former minister of finance admitted that this is just a pipe dream. Since the Fidesz cannot realistically articulate an alternative economic strategy, there remains demagoguery and false hopes in uprisings and referendums. This has been going on for over a year now. Perhaps there are some naive followers who believe that Hungary would become a paradise once Viktor Orbán returned as prime minister, but we know that life is not so simple. The only promising sentences in the speech were those that categorically rejected force as an instrument of "regime change."

I would like to answer here Paul Hellyer’s comment concerning the speech in Balatonöszöd and the corruption associated with the MSZP. As for Balatonöszöd. On the surface it indeed seems logical to assume that the speech was a tipping point that shifted public opinion away from Ferenc Gyurcsány. However, if we take a closer look at the history of events since the MSZP won in 2006, it becomes evident that the loss of popularity of the goverment and the prime minister had little to do with Öszöd. Öszöd came, Öszöd went, and the popularity of the government didn’t change dramatically. Instead, the MSZP lost support because people realized that its agenda might not be in their short-term personal best interest. The safety net might not be removed, but it was going to cost more. Öszöd prompted the storming of the MTV building, but Gyurcsány’s popularity didn’t suffer because of it.

The second point that Mr. Hellyer mentions is the corruption of the MSZP. One seems to forget–people’s memory is so short–what was going on during the Orbán government. Josip Tot, Kaya Ibrahim, Csaba Schecht, the phantom companies with huge debts that disappeared, the appointment of Lajos Simicska to head the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, Viktor Orbán’s and his father’s wealth through all sorts of questionable transactions. And one could continue. József Debreczeni in his biography of Viktor Orbán mentions a conversation in which Orbán claimed that József Antall’s grave political mistake was that he didn’t manage to provide financially for a group of people who would then be supporters of the right. He certainly didn’t make this mistake. In brief, I have the feeling that while on both sides there is corruption, in Orbán’s case it was centrally directed. In the MSZP it was more haphazard as the MSZP is a much more haphazard party than the tightly organized Fidesz.

As for corruption, it seems to me that Gyurcsány really means to do something about corruption. All sorts of corruption because, let’s face it, corruption in Hungary is all embracing. A corrupt Hungary can produce only a corrupt political elite. After all, that elite is part of society as a whole. And we all know the everyday corruptions from gratuity to the doctors to the lack of receipts from the plumber. It was clear to me from the Fidesz’s eight points that Orbán’s party doesn’t really want to have meaningful anti-corruption legislation. After all, there will be life after Gyurcsány too.

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Paul Hellyer
Eva, thank you as always for your thoughtful and interesting comments on Hungarian politics. As I have said before, it is fantastic that you write so regularly and well in English – thank you! I would still argue that Gyurcsány speech was a turning point. Perhaps if only because it coalesced anti-MSZP opinion and gave the Right something to “nail” the PM. But you are correct Eva when you say public opinion was already turning against the government before the speech became public. The excellent “Hungary Around the Clock” website reported in its 28 August 2006 edition that “Fidesz leads the Socialists by 52% to 36% among decided party voters, according to the latest survey by pollsters Szonda-Ipsos. The July poll gave Fidesz a lead of 48% to 40%.” The fall off in support is clear. Nonetheless the Öszöd speech, especially its coarse language, remains a sore point for many. Wikipedia (of course!) has an English translation, so readers can judge for themselves. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferenc_Gyurcs%C3%A1ny%27s_speech_in_Balaton%C5%91sz%C3%B6d_in_2006_May As to corruption, well yes, of course. We could write a list as long as the length of Hungarian motorways on the corruption of FIDESZ 🙂 So, yes, Éva, I agree that corruption is not… Read more »