Their problems are also akin. When Sarkozy visited Hungary, his father’s birthplace, the two men hit it off immediately. They are very similar in many ways. Both are quite athletic, both are tireless, and both are convinced that without reforms there is no future for their countries or for Europe as a whole. And both are in big trouble. The problems Sarkozy faces are very similar to those facing the Hungarian government: a general dissatisfaction with the reforms that will take away certain privileges. And that is a very difficult proposition under any circumstance.
Less than a year ago 67% of the French people thought that Sarkozy was doing a good job. Today that number is only 39%. Gyurcsány’s approval rating is even lower than that, while his opponent’s popularity is soaring. In France, public resistance to deregulation and pension-spending cuts helped to erode Sarkozy’s popularity. The Hungarians aren’t too happy to hear that they are responsible for their own lives and not the government. The national conference of student organizations is furious about the introduction of tuition of 380 euros per semester, and although the co-pay at doctor’s visit is very low the population resents even the smallest amount. The French students are also upset about having less say in the governance of the universities. Not only do the Hungarian railway workers strike on and off; the French transport workers also rose up against an attempt to change pension eligibility requirements. French economic growth is sluggish and inflation is higher than it should be. That is the case in Hungary as well, but the stagnant economic growth there is mostly due to the severe reduction in government spending. As for the high inflation rate in Hungary (over 7% at the moment), this is mostly due to the double whammy of higher energy and food prices. Hungarian agriculture was hit twice last year: frost and drought in the same year. Something that doesn’t happen too often.
What will happen to the French reforms? Hard to tell. As for the Hungarian reforms? The claim is that they will continue. Some pessimistic people predict that as a result of these reforms the Hungarian economy will be booming again by 2010 and Viktor Orbán will receive a balanced budget and healthy economic growth when he becomes prime minister.
However, in politics one can’t see so far into the future. It is enough to look at the American scene: a few months ago who would have predicted that John McCain would be the winner of the Republican primaries or that Barack Obama might win over Hillary Clinton? In Hungary, political life is even more volatile. In a couple of months Mr. Popularity may become Mr. Hated. It can happen that a few months before an election a party’s victory seems absolutely solid: over 40% according to the pollsters. Then comes the election and that party receives only 8% of the votes. This is what happened to Fidesz in 1994.
It seems to me that hospitals and doctors have already recognized that these reforms are to their advantage. One hospital managed to buy over 400 state-of-the-art hospital beds from its co-payments. By law, 30% of the co-payments must be used to raise employees’ salaries, so they have a stake in the reforms. A group of primary physicians is now circulating a petition asking the people not to vote "yes" for the abolition of co-payments at the referendum on March 9th. The university presidents are adamant about the benefits of receiving extra money–to improve academic quality and to offer scholarships to good students. The government has put up billboards with the pictures of Prime Minister Gyurcsány and Viktor Orbán and the following question: "Do you want to pay for the education of these people’s children?" Perhaps it will do the trick.