There were two topics dominating public discourse in Hungary over the weekend. One was the impending "general" strike and the other, the possible breakup of the coalition over the government’s health care legislation.
First there is the question of the strike. I put "general" into quotation marks because, although some trade union leaders call it a general strike, it is obvious that the strikes organized for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow are not truly general. That is, life is not going to stop. The only question is how many people the trade unions will be able to mobilize.
In the past I didn’t talk much about strikes and trade union demonstrations because they were rather insignificant events. Five trade unions managed to bring out about 1,500 people to demonstrate in front of the prime minister’s office. One trade union in the MÁV (Magyar Államvasutak = Hungarian State Railways) organized two work stoppages (one was for two hours, the other, I believe, for four hours). Yes, it was a bit inconvenient but these stoppages didn’t shake the world. Not exactly like the general strike in England in 1926 or in France in 1968.
The MÁV engineers complain about the planned closing of several small lines that carry so few people that their continued service cannot be justified. The engineers’ fear of possible job loss is understandable, but they have added new demands, most likely in order to widen their base. Now the engineers and several allied trade unions complain about the new regulations concerning pensions and the private insurance companies’ planned presence in Hungarian health care. It is quite obvious that the leaders of these two trade unions are madly looking for allies and for causes that would mobilize large crowds.
And this is where the trade unions’ interest and the interest of the Fidesz meet. If the trade unions alone cannot mobilize thousands and thousands, perhaps they can with Fidesz help. At the end of last week it became known that the president of one of the trade unions had had a conversation with Viktor Orbán before Orbán’s departure to the United States. Of course, the trade union leader refused to divulge what they talked about, but I don’t think it takes a lot of imagination to figure out what the topic could have been.
A direct Fidesz attempt to foment a strike that would make life difficult for people in Budapest targeted the largest of the many trade unions at the BKV (Budapesti Közlekedési Vállalat = Budapest Public Transportation Company). A young Fidesz delegate to the board of the BKV, a company in the hands of the City of Budapest, foolishly got in touch with the head of this trade union and tried to convince him to join the strike. Not only did he fail, but the trade union leader spilled the beans. Since it was a one-on-one conversation, the young man denies while the trade union leader insists.
Over the weekend, János Kövér announced that Fidesz supports the strikes and trade union demonstrations. Although they will not take part in the demonstrations as a party, they urge their supporters to show their solidarity with the unions. Well, this was too much for some of the trade union leaders. They announced that they would not strike or demonstrate because they don’t want to be pawns of any political party. If some of the hotheads who listen to Kövér actually join the demonstration, there could be trouble. It could very easily happen that the strike and demonstration will be flops and, at the same time, extreme elements who could be associated with the Fidesz will cause new upheavals. I think this is a very dangerous gamble on Fidesz’s part.
As for the MSZP-SZDSZ feud over health care, I always trusted (and, I admit, sometimes prayed to the god of reason) that neither party would be stupid enough to let "irreconcilable differences" lead to divorce. It would be suicidal for both parties. Unfortunately I remain in my "trusting and praying" mode because the two parties continue to negotiate. Today’s comments are upbeat about the possibility of an agreement. But Ildikó Lendvai and Ferenc Gyurcsány still have a lot to convincing to do. There are about 20-30 left-wingers in the MSZP caucus who are very suspicious of private insurers taking part in the system. They are trying to introduce restrictions that would make the situation of private investors impossible. And so the much needed financial infusion into the system simply wouldn’t materialize. Put it this way, it is time to put an end to this whole debate. The longer it lasts the longer this unstable situation in health care will continue and there will be more and more complaints from doctors and patients. Time to end it. The faster the better for everybody.