Promising economic news from Hungary

I think it is time to introduce the chief spokesman of Fidesz, Péter Szijjártó (30), who can get under a lot of people’s skin. He certainly gets under mine. It is difficult to describe what is so annoying about this good-looking, always smiling, man. I think that in many ways he is the perfect spokesman for Fidesz: facile, brazen, slippery. He is also full of energy and seemingly tireless. He can rarely be cornered, although in Ferenc Vicsek, reporter for Klub Rádió and ATV, he found his match. The first time I saw Szijjártó at a loss for words was when he encountered Vicsek on Egyenes Beszéd (Straight Talk), an evening political program on ATV, right after the news.

Szijjártó was born in 1978 and therefore spent his formative years in the new, democratic Hungary. His parents sent him to parochial school (Benedictines in Győr), and he was an exchange student in the United States for half a year. (I heard him speak English and I must say that the half a year wasn’t enough!) He is a real politico who already as a seventeen-year-old joined Fidesz and had all sorts of positions on the local level and in Fidelitas, Fidesz’s youth organization. In 2002 he finished college (Corvinus University, earlier Karl Marx University) majoring in international relations, although he describes himself as an economist. How much economics he knows is hard to tell because, as a good spokesman, he simply repeats the party directives. In fact, he is the real head of the “parrot commando,” as the chorus of Fidesz politicians is called by the other side.

Presumably in anticipation of what Fidesz thought would be better than anticipated government economic figures Szijjártó made a preemptive strike. He announced yesterday morning that the government is playing games with economic indicators and that the deficit could be even lower than it is now because the government is saving money for its planned spending spree. As a result, these economic tricks will lead to an even greater crisis than the current one. He demanded (he always demands, but always adds “respectfully”) that the government stop this immoral behavior.

A few hours later came János Veres, minister of finance, with the official figures. He announced two corrections to economic projections. One concerns the size of the deficit; it was projected to be 4% for 2008 but it looks as if it will most likely be only 3.8% of the GDP. That means a deficit of 1051 billion forints instead of 1080. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the government had to change its prognosis for the rate of inflation. In the spring the prediction was 4.8%, but later that had to be changed to 5.9% and now to 6.5%. Veres is still hopeful that by the end of the year (the global slowdown should lead to demand destruction and hence lower prices for commodities) the inflation rate may be reduced to 6%. As far as economic growth is concerned Veres was apparently conservative: 2.4%.

Considering the dismal economic situation worldwide and in the United States in particular these numbers look very good even if Hungarian businessmen are still dissatisfied. But why would Hungarian businessmen be more optimistic than the population at large? A new survey on economic expectations in the four Visegrád countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary) was conducted by the Central European Research Group and Tárki. The first such survey was conducted in 2006 when the Poles and Czechs were a great deal more optimistic than the Hungarians. By now, pessimism seems to be the norm in the Czech Republic and in Poland, while in Hungary the situation is about the same as it was two years ago. The most optimistic, of course, is Slovakia. While in the Czech Republic 13%, in Poland 20%, and in Hungary 15% think that life will be better next year, 28% of the Slovaks look forward to the happy days of the euro. Of course, only a Pollyanna would view even the Slovak outlook as truly optimistic.