It doesn't happen too often that Hungary appears in important western newspapers. Therefore every time there is an article in The New York Times, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, or any major western newspaper, the Hungarian media and politicians cannot get enough of the story. They analyze every word of the article, be it an opinion piece or straight news. Most of the news, at least in my opinion, is rather superficial, and the outlook of the opinion pieces usually depends on the general political orientation of the newspaper. This time, the Financial Times published an article based on an interview with Viktor Orbán. The headline: "Global crisis opens way for comeback." The author is Stefan Wagstyl, editor in charge of Eastern Europe.
"The comeback kid's" conversation with Wagstyl began with his pronouncement that "the socialist government is missing the opportunity created by the economic crisis to launch serious structural reforms." Well, at that point the Hungarian reader must drop his teeth. What? Who says that? The leader of the very party that refuses to support any of the structural changes the current government has been trying to introduce ever since 2006? Yes, the very man. Moreover, Viktor Orbán expressed his opinion that the emergency loans given to Hungary by the IMF, the World Bank, and the European Union should have been used for these structural reforms. In Orbán's words: "This package could have provided room for maneuver for reforms. We will lose valuable time." I don't quite understand this business about "room for maneuver for reforms," but perhaps the problem is only linguistic. However, let's assume he means that the loans should have provided a cushion for Hungary while it embarked on a program of reform. In that case, he could be a member of the current government. He certainly can't mean that the loans should have been in effect a stimulus package. I suspect that what he is saying is simply that the country is losing valuable time in enacting the appropriate reforms because he is not prime minister.
Orbán admits that there has been a "slight improvement in Mr. Gyurcsany's low popularity ratings owing to the global crisis," but he predicts that this will prove to be temporary. Orban bases his prediction on the assumption that "the voters will want to see action and will be disappointed."
I sometimes wish that Hungarian politicians would use interpreters because their prose sounds so primitive. For example: "The government has said that bad things will happen, that the country cannot win on its own, and that the world must win together. The government makes a lot of noise. But there are no concrete policies and people will suffer for the lack of policies." The fact is that the government is trying all sorts of remedies to mitigate the economic downturn, but like everywhere else in the world the crisis is deepening. Unfortunately not even Mr. Orbán's magic touch could change this situation.
Stefan Wagsyl was a bit behind the times when he wrote that "Mr Orban's reform plans start with a headline-making proposal to cut the number of MPs from 386 to 200." As I mentioned two days ago, it is the government that is proposing to change the electoral system and to reduce the number of MPs. Their proposed number is 199. Interestingly enough, Fidesz refuses even to discuss the matter. They counter that they proposed a reduction in the number of deputies to 200 "sixty-seven" times. Péter Szijjártó and his fellow politicians repeat this claim at least five times a day. The first time I heard this magic number I thought it was simply a turn of phrase. The way we say: "I told him fifty million times!" Well, no. I was wrong. They actually proposed a change in the constitution to reduce the number of MPs to 200 sixty-seven times. These guys are persistent. However, the other parties refused to make a constitutional change in the number of parliamentarians without a proposal to change the electoral law itself. They asked Fidesz to provide details. They refused. And then a few days later Fidesz resubmitted the same proposal for a constitutional change in the size without any proposal about how to achieve such a change. Sounds like the Fidesz version of "Groundhog Day."
Then there is another mysterious sentence: "We have 40 different authorities. Our programme is to unify them into one." What on earth are these "authorities""? Well, this morning I found out from a government spokesman: they include the ministries as well as specialized departments dealing with, for example, weights and measures. Surely, combining all these into one cannot be taken seriously.
Orbán repeated his party's favorite hobby horse (beside a smaller parliament and a savings on paper clips and furniture). He wants to get rid of more bureaucrats. Not policemen or teachers, but bureaucrats. The trouble is that since 2006 more than 200,000 bureaucrats already got the sack and it is unlikely that there are another 200,000 who could be let go. Finally he threw in his favorite idea about tax cuts. The maximum income tax rate is 40 percent but Hungary must be competitive with its neighbors, for example, with Slovakia or Romania where there is a flat tax of 19 percent. What he neglects to mention is that a reduction in taxes must be counterbalanced by savings elsewhere and these savings cannot come from a smaller parliament or a cutback in the number of paper clips. Mr. Orbán was quiet about all this.
Wagstyl mentioned that healthcare reform was torpedoed by Fidesz that initiated a referendum against a modest co-payment that "won with more than 80 per cent of the vote. The coalition was forced to cancel the programme." But Orbán makes no apologies for opposing the healthcare reform, saying it was "the wrong place to start overhauling the state." The final sentence is from Orbán who makes no bones about his uncompromising approach to party politics. "Political competition should be real and tough." It is especially useful and constructive, I guess, in times of national emergency when reforms are, even according to Viktor Orbán, so important. But party politics dictate a tough stand against anything the other side suggests.