Yesterday Medián published the results of its poll on the Hungarian public's reaction to Ferenc Gyurcsány's resolve to ask for a constructive motion of no confidence against himself. As part of the survey Medián asked about possible successors to Gyurcsány. Lajos Bokros's name is the best known. Eighty-seven percent of the people know who he is. Péter Kiss, minister in charge of the prime minister's office, is next in line with 71% followed by László Békesi, finance minister in 1994, and Gordon Bajnai, minister in charge of the economy in the present government, each with 69%. Then came György Surányi, former head of the Hungarian National Bank, András Simor, current bank president, each with 67%, and finally, József Gráf, minister of agriculture, with 66%. So, with the exception of Bokros who has been the subject of numerous front-page stories of late, the possible successors are pretty well clustered in terms of name recognition.
By now I feel safe in dropping from my scorecard all the members of the current government–that is, Gráf, Kiss, and Bajnai–because after the first meeting of MSZP and SZDSZ it was evident that neither party wants a politician or a member of the cabinet as the next prime minister of the country. That leaves four possibilities from Medián's list. Let's start with the clear losers from the poll: László Békesi and Lajos Bokros. Their popularity is low: only 39% of the population think that either should head the new government. The most controversial figure is Lajos Bokros, perhaps because people remember only too well the "Bokros package" of 1995 and are also aware of his draconian ideas about future austerity measures. Békesi, one of the architects of the Reform Alliance, is also well known but unpopular, perhaps because Hungarians consider even the Reform Alliance's program too drastic. The clear winner with 47% is György Surányi, followed by András Simor with 42%. Simor already announced that he hadn't been asked and, if he were, he would say no. I don't think that he has to worry. Yesterday a new name surfaced: Tamás Mészáros, an economist and president of Corvinus University (formerly Karl Marx University of Economics).
If I had to handicap this "race" I would put the odds in Surányi's favor, especially since he was seen this morning leaving the headquarters of SZDSZ. Although there have been rumors in the last two days that Surányi would head a "national government" only if Fidesz supported him, it's unlikely that these rumors have substance. First of all, Viktor Orbán talks only of early elections; Fidesz would not support any interim government, "national" or not. Moreover, the relationship between Surányi and Orbán was rocky after the formation of the Orbán government when Surányi was the president of the Hungarian National Bank.
So who is György Surányi? He was born in Budapest in 1954 and graduated from the Karl Marx University of Economics (today Corvinus University of Budapest) in 1977. After graduation he worked at the Research Institute of Finance (Pénzügykutató Intézet) attached to the Ministry of Finance. In 1986 he left the Institute to work for a year at the World Bank in Washington. In 1990 he was chosen to be the first chairman of the independent Hungarian National Bank. His stint at the National Bank was brief; a change in the law in 1991 gave Prime Minister József Antall the opportunity to name Péter Ákos Bod, an MDF member of parliament, to the post. Apparently at that time Surányi was quite close to Fidesz (then in opposition as a liberal party) and during 1992 and 1993 he met frequently with Viktor Orbán. However, after that date the relationship between Surányi and Orbán soured. It's not clear what drove them apart, although according to an article that appeared in Élet és Irodalom in early 2000 Orbán already at that point wanted to achieve economic growth with the help of the state, an idea Surányi fiercely opposed. After Surányi lost his job at the National Bank he became president of CIB Bank, an affiliate of the Italian Intesa Sanpaolo.
In 1994 MSZP won the elections and Gyula Horn formed a government with SZDSZ. Péter Ákos Bod, the chairman of the National Bank, was not one of Horn's favorites and Horn made no secret of the fact that he "couldn't work with Bod." I remember so well his exact words. Under pressure Bod eventually resigned and for a good three months there was no chairman of the central bank. And during the winter László Békesi, the minister of finance, announced his intention to resign, giving Horn two months to find a replacement. So there was no central bank chairman and the finance minister was on his way out. All the while the country was in dire economic straits. At last Lajos Bokros was named minister of finance on March 1, 1995, and, on the same day, Surányi became central bank chairman. His great accomplishment as bank chairman was his successful fight against inflation. Inflation in June 1995 was 31%, by the end of 1996 only 23.6%, a year later 18.3%, and all the way down to 10% in the last few months of 1998. This accomplishment brought Surányi international recognition. While he was in office the Hungarian forint also became partially convertible. However, inflation remained stuck at the 10% level, and Surányi suggested to the Orbán government that they introduce a more flexible foreign exchange policy because their monetary policy kept the forint too strong. Details of Surányi's proposal are not known, but it was rejected. Interestingly enough, as soon as Surányi left and Zsigmond Járai was named as his replacement the changes necessary for a weaker forint and complete convertibility were introduced.
In any case, Surányi's relations with Fidesz had become strained even before the Fidesz-Smallholders coalition won the elections. Prior to 1998 a study for internal use written by the economists of the Hungarian National Bank that was critical of the economic plans of Fidesz got into the hands of the socialists, who used it in their campaign. Orbán was certain Surányi was somehow complicit. [A footnote to Fidesz's economic plans during the campaign. The economic goodies promised to the population were extravagant; if the promises had been kept, all the accomplishments of the Bokros-Surányi team would have been undone. However, as we know, Orbán didn't honor his promises and instead pursued a strict fiscal policy in his first two years in office. The victim of these campaign "lies" was László Urbán, who was initially proposed as the new finance minister. However, Urbán happened to say that "there is a difference between the campaign and government programs." At that very moment, Urbán's political career came to a screeching halt.]
Surányi served his full six-year term, which expired in 2001, when he returned once again to head CIB Bank. Once out of public office he didn't say much about monetary and fiscal policy, but here and there he criticized his successor's policies. He considered both Járai's efforts to lower inflation "by artificial means" and the Orbán government's spending spree in its last two years harmful.
In 2006 he was asked by Ferenc Gyurcsány to take part in the work of Convergence Council that was to prepare a program acceptable to the Council of the European Union. The gist of the convergence program was to lower the deficit to under 3% in the shortest possible time in order to receive subsidies from the Union designed to help the less developed countries move closer to the more developed west.
Surányi received many prizes and accolades. For instance, in 1993 the World Economic Forum named him the "Global Leader for Tomorrow." In 1996 Euromoney honored him as "The Best Central Bank Chairman in Central Europe." Tomorrow, if it still looks as if Surányi is a viable candidate I will try to outline his current ideas on the path Hungary should follow in this world economic crisis.