The Rise and Fall of Ferenc Gyurcsány, Part II

I think it's time to take a breather and write about something other than current Hungarian politics. For those who don't follow Hungarian events closely, let me recap the day's news: Gordon Bajnai received 93% of the votes at the MSZP Congress this morning. Ildikó Lendvai was voted in as chairman of the party with 92%. These figures might be the highest ever in the history of MSZP. As everybody says, when the party is in big trouble MSZP can show remarkable cohesion. Moreover, I have no doubt that Attila Mesterházy will be elected to head the parliamentary caucus. The National Council (Országos Tanács) of SZDSZ spent five hours contemplating the obvious, and eventually 66 to 21 they gave their blessing to Gordon Bajnai. And now comes the really difficult job: to stick to the program and support Gordon Bajnai.

Fans of Ferenc Gyurcsány, those who religiously read Gyurcsány's blog and some of whom ran with him in the morning on Margaret Island, waited outside the building wearing white T-shirts with red lettering: "Húzzunk bele!," a colloquialism roughly meaning "Let's go and work!" These were the words with which Gyurcsány finished his blogs. Flowers and kisses, and I'm sure that Gyurcsány was moved.

But he was always a popular guy. At college too in Pécs where he arrived in September 1980 after serving a year in the Hungarian army. He was a scrappy fellow even then because he managed to get a good job right away: he and a friend of his became "teachers" in the dormitory of a high school. They got free room and board in addition to a monthly salary of 800 Ft, not bad money in those days. Their only responsibility was to keep an eye on the kids at night. One of them had to be in the building between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. In addition, Gyurcsány had four or five students whom he tutored in biology. All in all, he was financially quite comfortable.

Not only was he popular; he also had perceived leadership ability. When he was asked whether he would run for office in KISZ (Kommunista Ifjúsági Szervezet) he said okay. Moreover, something that surprised everybody, he stuck with this organization until the bitter end. József Debreczeni quotes an interview of Eszter Rádai with Gyurcsány in Mozgó Világ (December 2003) in which Eszter Rádai specifically asked Gyurcsány how it was possible that "such an intelligent, talented young man so enthusiastically and proudly organized his life around KISZ and didn't seem to notice that similarly intelligent young men found the whole 'movement' ridiculous?" Debreczeni shared Eszter Rádai's amazement. He himself in his third year of college gave up his membership in KISZ. That was in 1977 and by that time, according to Debreczeni, there were no political consequences of such a move. Debreczeni tried to find a way to reconcile his decision with Gyurcsány's. He did a lot of research in Pécs and interviewed many people who were there at the time.

The party leadership of Pécs was considered to be "liberal" in those days. Liberal not in the real sense of the word but in its Kádárist interpretation: less restrictive and oppressive than many other places in the country. The first secretary of the County of Baranya was a certain Dr. József Nagy who was a more cultured and thoughtful guy than the average apparatchik. (He became László Sólyom's father-in-law when Sólyom married Erzsébet Nagy, the party secretary's daughter.) Before 1982 there were two institutions of higher education in Pécs: the university where they taught law and economics and the teacher's college. In 1982 these two merged to become Janus Pannonius University, named after the Renaissance poet who was also bishop of Pécs. This new university was organized along western models and managed to get very good instructors. Perhaps one reason for allowing Pécs to test the limits of cultural and artistic freedom was György Aczél's earlier connections with the city.

So how did Gyurcsány end up becoming the KISZ secretary of the whole university and beyond? At the teacher's college he was initially in charge of organizing student volunteer work and job placement. According to his own account he was apolitical in those days. Politics was never discussed in the family and he never gave much thought to the political reality of the Kádár regime. He just took it for granted as the normal way of life. Obviously he must have been a good organizer because in the fall he was elected KISZ secretary of the college. He wasn't the only nominee. The rivals gave speeches to sway the "electorate." Even then he spoke well except that he talked too fast. According to some he had a speech defect: the end of words got swallowed. Whatever the alleged speech impediment, he won the election. Then came a "lucky break" for Gyurcsány. Because of the merger of the teacher's college with the university the responsibilities of the KISZ secretary multiplied, and the authorities decided that it should be a paid position. He would get 3,500 Ft a month. Would he take it? It was a tremendous amount of money. His mother made less. He even got an office, and he didn't have to go to classes. Just take exams. He was thrilled.

What did a KISZ secretary do in those days? Debreczeni talked to László Himmer who at that time was one of secretaries of the Baranya County KISZ. According to him, by that time the name of the organization was a misnomer. In reality it was an organization that busied itself with social programs: camps, quiz programs, organizing clubs, holding parties. They organized "university days" in which 15-20,000 students participated. Every year they held a mock election for president of the university. On the main square of the town 10,000 people listened to the election speeches. One year the nominee was Comrade Nobody and the university's KISZ plastered posters all over town with "Vote for Nobody." Trouble followed because it happened to coincide with the national "elections."

He was popular among the students but much less so in KISZ and party circles because he went outside the bounds of caution. He had constant differences of opinion with the party secretary of the university. After one of their "discussions" Gyurcsány found a quote from Friedrich Engels which said that the party should have control of an independent media because without outside criticism the party would not survive. He wrote a piece about the idea in the student paper. The party secretary accused him of "antidemocratic views."

But the real trouble came later. The students of the Institute of Aesthetics and Arts organized a post-modern exhibition, and among the works were some that were not exactly politically correct: for example a broken globe next to a red vacuum cleaner. Gyurcsány tried to save the students and with the help of one of the associate deans managed to keep a lid on the affair.  However, the university's MSZMP leadership was furious and made Gyurcsány personally responsible. After all, the exhibition was under the aegis of KISZ.

So, all in all, in Debreczeni's words, Gyurcsány's role as a paid KISZ secretary was not really political. The whole organization by that time had lost its political character. I might add that the financial independence that the KISZ secretary position gave him was most likely paramount in his decision to accept the job. He no longer had to rely on his poor mother. On the contrary, he sent money home to help her and her sister out.