The current Hungarian political situation and the Gyurcsány speech in Balatonőszöd

Today I think I should step back a bit in time and address the "infamous" speech Ferenc Gyurcsány made shortly after the election in the spring of 2006. This election ended with an MSZP-SZDSZ victory, a watershed in Hungary’s short democratic history. Previously, the electorate had never been satisfied with the work of the government in power; with great optimism it had always expected something "better" from an opposing party.

The fall of the MDF in 1994 was spectacular, and equally spectacular was the victory of the MSZP. The socialists had an absolute majority in parliament and therefore didn’t need a coalition partner, but in the end a coalition it was. Opinion polls indicated that the majority of SZDSZ sympathizers championed for their party’s joining the government. Perhaps they didn’t quite trust the socialists who, after all, four years earlier were in a second-tier position in Kádár’s old MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt = Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party). Economically the country was in shambles in 1994, and Gyula Horn, the socialist prime minister, was afraid to introduce measures that would save it from outright bankruptcy. He wasted eight months before he agreed to radical change. Eventually he allowed the "ruthless" economist Lajos Bokros to make order in the economic sphere. What happened to the socialist-liberal government then was very similar to their situation now: because of these stringent measures the party’s popularity was about as low as if not a bit lower than it is now. But as these measures bore fruit and the economic situation improved, about six months before the elections the MSZP was again leading in the opinion polls. However, in the last few months, a couple of very bad decisions by Gyula Horn, a possible corruption case, and a series of bombs at different Fidesz and Smallholders (yes, there was still such a party in those days) politicians’ houses or at opposition parties’ headquarters all came together to result in the defeat of the governing coalition.

Viktor Orbán, who like all politicians promised the world, actually conducted a very prudent economic policy. Promises were not fulfilled. In fact, an economist who was supposed to be minister of finance was scrapped because he told the truth: "Campaign promises are not the same as the government program." The Orbán government’s economic strategy worked quite well. Economic growth was robust (due in part to the healthy state of the Hungarian economy thanks to Bokros and his policies). However, as the election drew closer, the Fidesz began a wanton spending program, hoping to buy votes. It didn’t work.

In an effort to outdo the Fidesz, the socialists promised an earthly paradise. For instance, they promised to immediately raise the salaries of state employees by 50%. (And there are a lot of state employees: it’s enough to think of all of the teachers and doctors.) This pie in the sky campaign strategy was successful. The only difference was that Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, former minister of finance and someone who should have known better, actually fulfilled his promises. If you take the trouble to read the first part of the Balatonöszöd speech ( you will find a couple of rather obscure sentences about the stupid mistakes they made. He says it less politely: "… we have fucked it up. Not a little but a lot. No European country has done anything as boneheaded as we have." What he is referring to here is that they spent money the country didn’t have. The promises could be fulfilled only by borrowing money until the budget deficit became enormous. According to estimates, the socialist-liberal government must shoulder about three-quarters of the blame while the Fidesz in their last-minute spending spree about one-quarter.

Although the new government took over in May, in some ministries, thanks to Fidesz largesse, 90% of the yearly budget was already spent. So, for the year 2002 the coffers were practically empty. At this point they could have said: "Terribly sorry folks but this horrible Orbán government spent the nation’s last forint and yes, we promised to raise salaries but, you see…." Any savvy politician would have done something similar. But not Medgyessy and his crew. They proceeded on their preannounced course, raising government employee salaries by 50%. Needless to say, their popularity soared. In October after the municipal elections the whole map of Hungary turned red.

Short-term popularity had its price. I assume they were hoping that there would be a worldwide economic boom and that Hungary would be a beneficiary of that trend. Instead the opposite happened. And soon enough came the election campaign again and the Fidesz this time promised really incredible things: fourteenth month pensions (the socialists had already given the thirteenth month which greatly added to the government’s financial burdens), reduced taxes, subsidies, and so on and so forth.

At this point Gyurcsány couldn’t say: "Elect us and we will increase taxes, will insist that you pay for your healthcare, will make sure that you pay taxes in the first place, will make your kids pay tuition and yes, there will be co-pay when you visit your doctor." Surely, no politician who hoped to be elected would ever say such things.

And now at last we come to the speech in Balatonőszöd. It took place on May 26, 2006, and it was a gathering of the party’s parliamentary caucus. Gyurcsány actually made two speeches: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The speech in the morning was very different from the afternoon one, which was indeed sprinkled with obscenity and a lot of exaggeration. What happened between the two? The only thing most observers can hypothesize is that while in the morning he rather calmly tried to explain the disastrous situation of the country’s finances and the urgency of drastic changes, most likely some influential party leaders balked at such measures, fearing the party’s popularity. (As we can see not without reason.) At this point he must have felt that he had to convince them somehow. His "shock jock" strategy worked: the party rallied behind him. Or at least most of the party, because to this day we don’t know how a copy of the speech leaked out. One has the feeling that Gyurcsány and his friends know who the culprit was, but for the sake of peace they are not looking very hard.

The meeting took place on May 26, 2006, but the speech became public only on September 18. Magyar Rádió played the most damaging part of it: we lied morning, noon and night. There was no question it was Gyurcsány’s voice. The rest is history: a few hundred people attacked the building of the public television station, burned some cars, and injured scores of unprepared policemen. However, it is most likely that Viktor Orbán knew about the speech perhaps a couple of months earlier because in his speeches the words "lie," "liar" began appearing quite frequently. Surely, Gyurcsány, although he thought that he was "among his own," shouldn’t have spoken those words in front of close to 200 people. Especially because some of his statements were not even true. For example, we did not do anything for four years. Nothing. This is more than exaggeration, but it could be used very effectively against him and his government. It was a huge political mistake.

And now for the four-letter words. Yes, the language is quite shocking, especially for those who no longer live in Hungary. Perhaps the general public expects more from the prime minister but, let’s face it, the language used in Hungary by large segments of society is pretty bad. It is enough to read the works of Péter Esterházy (what a distinguished name and still . . .). I think of his Javított kiadás–melléklet a Harmonia caelestishez (2002) in which he describes his discovery that his father worked for the secret police. The whole work is peppered with four-letter words. (By the way, Esterházy considered Gyurcsány’s speech one of the most important in modern Hungarian history.)

Yes, I think that the speech had to be made, but not how it was delivered. The message had to be driven home: the old socialist way of doing things simply will not work. You can’t have capitalism and at the same time act as if you still lived in Kádár’s Hungary.

As for the speech as a catalyst for anti-socialist opinion, I still consider it less important than some people. After all, the size of Fidesz sympathizers hasn’t really changed. MSZP voters became unsure of themselves, and the polls taken therefore don’t tell us much because of the increase in the number of undecided voters. Or the ones who refuse to tell their party preferences. I wouldn’t bury Gyurcsány and the socialist party yet. A lot depends on the economic situation in the next two and a half years.