The Bajnai government

As I mentioned yesterday, the appropriate parliamentary committees are in the middle of voting on the nominees for ministerial posts. The process is still not finished but one nominee, the twenty-nine-year-old Ádám Ficsor who until now was Ferenc Gyurcsány's chief of staff, didn't win the committee's approval. Rejection by a committee doesn't mean that the nominee cannot become minister, so this is not the real story. But it says a lot about József Gulyás, the SZDSZ member on the committe on national security. His affirmative vote was necessary for Ficsor's approval; instead, he abstained. He did exactly the same thing when the current minister, György Szilvásy, was nominated. And that was during the period when the coalition was still intact. He abstained and Szilvásy wasn't approved by the majority of the committee. However Gyurcsány stood behind him and therefore Szilvásy was eventually able to occupy the post. Bajnai might do the same. We will see. I simply don't understand what Gulyás hopes to achieve with this behavior. If he thinks that his conduct makes his party more popular, he is wrong. I know a lot of former SZDSZ voters who swear "never again." Precisely because of the erratic behavior of some of the SZDSZ parliamentary members.

I already wrote about Bajnai and his business career. What I didn't mention is that he plays soccer on a Division II team. He is the goalie. In his speech he referred to himself as a goalie who wasn't trained to make feinting moves but who is good at defense. He will need all his talent in this department because the "character assassination" has already begun.

As for the composition of his cabinet. A number of people from the Gyurcsány cabinet remained: Péter Kiss, Csaba Molnár, Imre Szekeres, István Hiller, József Gráf, Tibor Draskovics, Tamás Székely, and Imre Szabó. Péter Kiss has been a member of every socialist government to date. Until now he headed the enormous prime minister's office with several undersecretaries in charge of different governmental tasks. For one reason or other Bajnai didn't want Kiss in this post, but Kiss is a very important person within the party. And the party insisted. After long negotiations Kiss became minister without portfolio who will be the general deputy of the prime minister. His job will be to ensure an understanding with the trade unions and various interest groups. Actually this is a  critical job because the austerity measures will certainly not be popular. The prime minister's office will be headed by Csaba Molnár who until now was in charge of energy. Although he is young and relatively inexperienced, he was a good administrator and an effective communicator. He especially shined during the period when no Russian gas reached Hungary. He is considered to be "Gyurcsány's man." Running the prime minister's office will be no small task. Imre Szekeres is also an important man in the party and an able administrator. He remains in charge of defense where he did an excellent job. Imre Szekeres is one of the very few Hungarian politicians who knows how to brag about his own accomplishments and the "wonderful people" who serve in the Hungarian army. István Hiller, formerly a professor of history, remains minister of education and culture. Apparently he has a wonderful sense of humor. At least people who know him personally tell me so. Too bad that this is not at all evident in his public appearances. Apparently he was also a great lecturer. Again, this is hard to imagine. He sounds downright boring to me and has the tendency to speak in a sing-song manner. Moreover, although he may have been a good minister, there are few outward signs of the ministry's accomplishments. József Gráf, minister of agriculture, also remains in his post. He is touted as the most successful minister of agriculture ever, in part because he knows how to speak to the farmers. Occasionally, however, I have the feeling that he caves in too much to agricultural interests. His latest–that supermarket chains should fill their shelves 80% with Hungarian produce–strikes me as a singularly bad idea. Tamás Székely, minister of health, is relatively new. He succeeded Ágnes Horváth, SZDSZ minister, whose dismissal caused the breakup of the coalition. His communication skills also leave something to be desired but apparently he managed to appease the doctors somewhat. I'm not entirely sure whether this appeasement policy is a good idea; I wasn't too thrilled when his first move was to make up for the "loss" that family doctors suffered as a result of the referendum when a 300 forint copayment for medical visits was voted down. After all, the doctors supported the referendum; they were adamantly opposed to copayments, which meant some extra paperwork for their offices (but also extra money in their pockets). Tibor Draskovics, in charge of justice and the interior, remains in his post. I'm not the only one who is somewhat surprised by that decision. And finally Imre Szabó remains minister of the environment and waterways.

As for the new people. I am especially pleased about the nomination of Péter Balázs, who was Hungary's first commissioner in the European Union's "cabinet." He was responsible for regional development. He did a marvelous job, but his slot was needed for László Kovács who earlier had been president of MSZP and for a while foreign minister in the Medgyessy and Gyurcsány governments. Balázs is a first-rate man with ambitious ideas about the future of Hungarian foreign policy. The other posts are filled mostly by "experts." Péter Oszkó, who will be minister of finance, is a tax lawyer. A couple of days ago I said something about Oszkó's serious demeanor and that I never saw him smile. I have to change my opinion because he obviously has another side. He plays the harmonica in a band called Blue sPot! (This is not a typo, so I assume there is a double entendre here.) The band performs publicly. Tamás Vahl will replace Bajnai at the head of the ministry of economics and development. He is an expert in computer science who spent part of his childhood in Germany. After 1990 he worked for Berliner Bank's Hungarian affiliate, Siemens, and IBM. Another man from the business world is Péter Hónig, nominated for the post of minister of transport, telecommunications, and energy. He is at the moment second in charge of the Budapest Power Company but earlier he was CEO of Malév, the Hungarian airline, and Dunaferr (Hungarian Steel). He has government experince: he was deputy undersecretary in the ministry of economics between 1998 and 2000 in the Orbán government. László Herczog will be responsible for labor and social welfare. He has served in every government since 1990, including the Orbán government, as undersecretary or deputy undersecretary. He is especially famous for his talent in the field of conflict resolution. For example, last year his sheer presence at the negotiations between MÁV and István Gaskó's trade union was enough to move the negotiations to a successful end. Ádám Ficsor who was until now Gyurcsány's chief of staff may or may not move on to be in charge of national security. Apparently he is hard working and ambitious, not without political aspirations. Otherwise he is an economist and a financial expert. And finally, Zoltán Varga, MSZP member of parliament since 2006, will be in charge of local governments. He is such an unknown in parliament that Fidesz members got mixed up and first thought that the new minister would be the very young László Varga. (There are two Vargas in MSZP and two Vargas in Fidesz. It is a common name.) Our Varga has vast experience in local governmental affairs and apparently managed to get along with members of Fidesz as well.

The financial markets reacted well to Bajnai and his suggested cabinet, but the Hungarian "political scientists" are certain that it will be a flop. I love Hungarian optimism!! Actually, my opinion is that it may be more stable and more successful than most people think at the moment. MSZP and SZDSZ are in such horrible shape that they can't afford not to support the Bajnai government. I don't think that Bajnai was joking when he said that he would remain prime minister only as long as there is solid support behind him. Otherwise, early elections! And that would be very bad news for both parties. On the other hand, if some of the economic forecasters are correct and within half a year both Poland and Hungary are approved for early admission to the eurozone the gloomy mood of the Hungarians might lighten up. And if the forint strengthens a bit more and those whose debt is in foreign currencies catch a break, the MSZP-SZDSZ backed government might become a bit more popular. Certainly, that is MSZP's only hope at the moment.

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Regarding education: I am quite amazed that the serious – and potentially disastrous – problems with Hungary’s education system have taken a back seat. Is it because there isn’t as much money to be made from EU funding, as there is, for example, in the Economics Ministry? Education is, for the most part, an entirely public commodity. We had 2 reports in the last couple of years which should have sounded the alarm. Firstly the PISA tests conducted by the OECD, placing Hungary’s 15-year olds in the below-average category for most subjects. Poland, Czech Republic, Slovenia all managed to improve on this. No consolation that Romania performed worse. Secondly, the comparative and weighted rankings of teachers salaries, placing Hungary at the BOTTOM of the OECD. This gives a very good indication of a society’s priorities! So massive reform is needed in the education system – not privatisation, for sure – but a total transformation. An idea would be to “demote” all current teachers to the role of teaching assistants. Then create a new well-paid role of “Teacher” – offer new training (with new methodology) to these demoted existing teachers, and a tough new qualification process. If they are up to… Read more »