The rise and fall of Ferenc Gyurcsány, Part I

His rise was rapid and the fall even swifter. Not only did he propose that he be replaced as prime minister but, despite an 85% vote of confidence from the party, he resigned as head of MSZP. Whether this is only a temporary fall we don't know yet. After all, there are many famous politicians who failed only to rise again like a phoenix from the ashes.

In this installment I trace Gyurcsány's background and his early life, looking for clues to his fall. I am indebted to József Debreczeni's Az új miniszterelnök (Budapest: Osiris, 2006). Debreczeni, originally an MDF member of parliament and a great admirer of the conservative József Antall about whom he also wrote a book, became very fond of Gyurcsány during their long hours of conversation. In fact, in the last two or three years Debreczeni hasn't hidden his admiration for the "new prime minister." Debreczeni considers only three Hungarian politicians in the last twenty years to be of real significance: Antall, Orbán, and Gyurcsány. He continues to admire Antall and Gyurcsány but came to despise Orbán whom by now considers a dangerous populist who may lead the country into dangerous waters.

Gyurcsány's family background was modest. Neither his father nor his mother even went to high school. The mother worked as a textile worker all her life. The father was a truck driver who disappeared off and on. Mostly off. At one point he might even have been in jail. Ferenc knows little about his paternal heritage, but it seems that his Gyurcsány grandfather, Géza, whom he actually resembles, was an official in the internal revenue service. From the picture in Debreczeni's book Géza and his wife look like respectable middle class folks. Géza Gyurcsány's ancestors were typical gentry types from somewhere in the north of the country, today's Slovakia. Grandfather Géza seems to have adopted typical Hungarian gentry pastimes, like gambling. Apparently he managed to amass so much debt that he saw no way out and committed suicide sometime in the second half of the 1930s. His wife Mária died a year or so later. The young boy, also called Ferenc, was brought up by "relatives." Actually, maybe yes, maybe no. His son, our Ferenc, is not at all sure. Perhaps he was brought up by foster parents in a small town.

Gyurcsány's mother, Katalin Varga, came from a dirt poor family with eight children from the town of Pápa. Katus (as even her son calls her) didn't even finish eight grades, and sometime in the middle of the 1950s she got a job as an unskilled laborer at a factory in the city of Győr. It is here that Ferenc senior met her at a dance. Both were twenty-three at the time. They got married and eventually went back to the birthplace of Katus, Pápa. Soon enough there were two children–Éva and Ferenc. The family lived in "deep poverty," as Gyurcsány said. The four of them lived in a two-room apartment without a bathroom or even a toilet. The adults slept in the "living" room, Ferenc and his sister in the kitchen. There was one Christmas when there wasn't even money for a tree. Apparently, the cause of this poverty was Ferenc senior who drank heavily. When he ran out of money he borrowed to tide the family over, but often he didn't repay his debts. In job after job he was either fired or he quit. After a while everybody knew him in Pápa and no one would hire him, so he had to seek employment in Budapest where he lived in workers' hostels. Sometimes he would disappear for years on end, which was actually a blessing because Katus was very good with the money they had and there was no husband to drink it away. When one looks at Gyurcsány it is hard to imagine him growing up in such circumstances. He has an aristocratic look and elegance about him. He knows how to behave and finds himself at home in every new situation. There is a certain ease about him.

Young Ferenc excelled at school with little effort in spite of the fact that he didn't get any encouragement at home. There was not one book in the house, and Gyurcsány doesn't recall reading anything as a child other than the compulsory school assignments. And that wasn't much. His teachers remember him as a well behaved child, never any trouble. But even then it was clear that he was ambitious. He wanted to do well. Most likely because of his lack of reading Gyurcsány's favorite subjects were mathematics, physics, and chemistry. He was also a good debater and showed leadership qualities. He had a homeroom teacher who also taught him mathematics. This teacher noticed an announcement for a competition for one of the best high schools in the country, the Apáczai Csere János Gimnázium, a school attached to the university (ELTE) where the future teachers could learn their trade. (I once visited this high school watching a Hungarian literature class and I must say that the children had a better grasp of poetry analysis than most of us college students.) The applicants had to come from poor, working class families. He applied and was accepted. He received a scholarship and could live in the kollégium attached to the school.

The boarding school (kollégium) was a tough place. It was established in 1970 with the purpose of trying to bring very talented boys and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds up to the level of the sophisticated children of the Budapest intellectual elite who attended the school. It was not an easy job, but it seems that the teachers responsible for the well being of the children living in the kollégium succeeded. Although it was very difficult to get top grades at this school, the grade point average of the youngsters from the countryside was up to snuff. Life in the dormitory was very regimented. Students got up at six, exercised, ate breakfast, and walked over to the school that was attached to the dormitory. There were classes in the morning followed by lunch. Practically the entire afternoon was spent studying. Students watched the evening news on television after which they had a couple of hours of free time until lights out. One would have thought that the very active Gyurcsány would have found this regimented existence close to unbearable. But no, he adapted quickly and with relative ease.

Gyurcsány's only complaint was that, although he studied hard, he didn't receive one A in the first semester. All his grades were monotonous Bs. The young man wasn't accustomed to this and he decided to work harder and see what happens. He got up at four o'clock every morning and sat in the corridor and studied. By the end of the second semester he had four A's. By the end of grade 10 his grade point average was 4.5 which, according to the current principal of the school, was no mean achievement.

And here comes the first inexplicable break in the young Gyurcsány's life. This youngster who was so adaptive, who until then had never had any any serious conflict in school, in a huff puff quit the elite boarding school where he was liked and where he was academically successful. What happened was the following. Russian was compulsory for all four years, but students had to take a second language for at least the first two years. Gyurcsány took French but he didn't like it. By his own admission, he doesn't have a talent for learning languages. Anyway, after two years he decided to drop French. The kollégium, however, had a rule superseding the school's language requirement. If you were a student of the kollégium you had to carry on with both languages for four years. Gyurcsány had a little chat with the principal of the boarding school. Neither gave in. The four-year rule was applicable to students living in the dormitory, said the principal. Gyurcsány couldn't understand why he was held to a higher standard than other students in the school just because he happened to live in the kollégium. Gyurcsány quit and went back to the high school in Pápa. This was the first and unfortunately not the last time that the future prime minister behaved on impulse.

The high school in Pápa was not of the quality of the famous Apáczai, but it was a good school. Out of the thirty-eight students matriculating only two failed to go to college–and this at a time when college enrollment was very low. But in Pápa Gyurcsány didn't have to do any work to get the same grades as in Budapest. And he lowered his academic expectations. During the summer after his junior year he had a job as a bus conductor. There he got into a conversation with a passenger, a young woman who turned out to be a student at the Teacher's College in Pécs. Her major was biology and she reported that she had to take entrance exams only in physics and biology. Because Gyurcsány was good in science and because the entrance exam requirements were relatively low at the Teacher's College, he decided that Pécs would do. He was accepted, in spite of the devastating "recommendation" of his Hungarian teacher that followed his application.

The conflict with this particular teacher began innocently enough. In the Kádár regime every school had to organize a quiz program called "Who knows the most about the Soviet Union." Therefore each class had to subscribe to a magazine called "Szovjetúnió" because the quiz show questions were based on information from this magazine. The kids in the class were supposed to chip in to pay for the subscription. Everybody paid up with the exception of Gyurcsány. Not because of political reasons. He was just forgetful and didn't really care. When the Hungarian teacher, who was also in charge of the class, inquired where the money was and when it turned out that the account was still short because of Gyurcsány's tardiness, the teacher lectured him about the compulsory nature of this subscription. Gyurcsány indignantly announced that the school authorities could only ask the students to contribute, not demand that they contribute. An exchange of words ensued. Sharper and sharper. Not only did the teacher say nasty things to the student but the student responded in kind. The description of this dialogue followed him to college.

So this was the second time that Gyurcsány lost his cool. He wasn't the rebellious type in general but there were situations where he took a position and defended it to the death. His life in Pápa ended. The following September he went to Pécs to begin his career as a future teacher of biology.