“In the captivity of pseudo axioms”

This is the title of an excellent political commentary by Kornélia Magyar that appeared in the February 23 issue of Népszabadság. This is the first time I have encountered her name or the institute she works for: Progresszív Intézet (Progressive Institute). After a little research I found out that this institute is part of DEMOS Hungary, a political think tank belonging to the DEMOS family of institutes whose main concern is public policy research. It is also an advocacy group. The Hungarian DEMOS was the brainchild of Tibor Dessewffy, a sociologist. If someone would like to learn more about DEMOS, here is a link: http://www.demos.hu/

But let’s go back to Kornélia Magyar’s opinion piece. I guess I liked her article so much because I have been very dissatisfied with the level of political analysis of late. Time after time I stop reading opinion pieces half way through. I don’t know whether I have changed or they have, but commentators whose writings I could agree with a couple of years ago today write what I consider nonsense. I think Ms. Magyar puts her finger on the problem: "The cloudy vision of political commentators is due to pseudo axioms that are considered to be unquestionable but are actually easily refutable."

One of these pseudo axioms is that Viktor Orbán keeps Ferenc Gyurcsány alive. And vice versa. It is in the interest of both men that the other remains on the scene. This brilliant thought is usually followed by the equally brilliant conclusion that both men should simply disappear and Hungarian political life would be tranquil again. As if these two men appeared on the scene completely independent of circumstances. Nobody called them in, nobody wants them to stay. The commentators who are enamored by this "revolutionary" idea seem to know very little about politics. Because "strong, charismatic individuals" will come up time and time again. It is not by chance that the leaders of the two large parties are charismatic men. If for one reason or other they disappeared, their followers would seek similar people to lead their parties. Moreover, it is an utterly false assumption that it is in the interest of, for example, Viktor Orbán, to have Gyurcsány around. The truth is exactly the opposite: it would be outright beneficial for Gyurcsány to be out of the way. This is exactly what Orbán wants to achieve. I also think that Gyurcsány would be the happiest if Orbán disappeared from the scene. So the idea that these two people keep each other alive is outright ridiculous. But the media is full of it.

The other pseudo axiom is that the electorate was never so fed up with politics as now. They turned away and why? Because of the behavior of the two parties and their leaders. This is also not true. It seems that some people like to write more than to read–i.e., to check the facts. According to an old Szonda Ipsos poll, half way through the Orbán government’s tenure 46% percent of the people were unsure about their party preferences or indicated that they had no intention to vote. Two years after the Medgyessy government took office this number was 41%, and half a year after Gyurcsány became prime minister the number was 45%. According to Median today this number is around 27-30%. Thus the situation today is better than it has been in the last eight years. Yet every second article mentions this falsehood.

But let’s continue with other pseudo axioms. One often hears that no government was hated as much as this one. Ever. This is also untrue. Each government has had its bad periods. During the Horn government only 12% of the electorate supported it (1997 January-March). During the Orbán government (December 2000) 17%. Gyurcsány’s worst number in his first term was 20% (June 2005). Today support is low–15% (January 2008), but in line with the low points of previous governments.

Another favorite axiom is that Gyurcsány will lose his position if the referendum favors Fidesz. Indeed, according to recent polls the Fidesz will have no problem getting either the necessary participation or the number of "yes" votes. According to some people, the number of "yes" votes might even reach three million. About one million more than needed. Thus parliament will abolish co-payment, hospital fees, and tuition at universities.  If all this is already known, nobody will be suprised. It will not be a huge shock to the MSZP, and therefore it is unlikely that there will be a palace revolt against Ferenc Gyurcsány. As Gyurcsány said in his blog: "What will come after March 9th? March 10th!"

The real question is, as Kornélia Magyar concludes her article, not whether Gyurcsány will go but whether he will be able to come up with new programs, new ideas. Can he show positive results of the reforms: will there be better health care, less taxation, will there be "ownership," will there be a larger and more prosperous middle class? It is not the referendum that is important but whether the prime minister can come up with a strategy to turn things around.