Yesterday I wrote about the Fidesz meeting that preceded the opening of parliament next week. Today I thought that I ought to summarize Bajnai Gordon's speech before the party faithful and Party Chairman Ildikó Lendvai's press conference afterwards. Both descriptions are based on media reports that include some direct quotations.
The tone of the two meetings was very different, which is not at all surprising. After all, MSZP is a government party with responsibilities in very difficult times while the opposition can basically say anything it wants. Viktor Orbán can demand the withdrawal of the budget and the resignation of the government, but he and his party would not be the ones who would have to suffer the brunt of such a decision. An opposition party can leave the heavy lifting to the government and focus exclusively on winning the next election.
Bajnai's speech naturally centered on the budget that had already been delivered to the Speaker of the House, Katalin Szili. It is actually surprisingly early that the government has the budget proposals ready to be presented. Normally, the budget is sent to parliament only at the end of September or early October, and the detailed discussion of the budget usually starts in November. The budget prepared by the government and passed by the majority just before an election is usually overly generous, and as a result in a couple of years the country's finances are in disarray. That was the case in 1994, in 1998, in 2002, and in 2006. Ildikó Lendvai described this very bad practice as a "financial roller-coaster." Overspending followed by austerity. For months now one has been hearing nothing else but that this practice is coming to a screeching halt starting with the budget of 2010. As Bajnai said, this is "a budget of reason and not of the heart." Yet it is not a "heartless budget" because it shows solidarity with those who live in difficult circumstances. It is, however, "implacable" when it comes to handling the crisis.
Bajnai admitted that this is not really a "left-wing budget" though it has the support of the Hungarian Socialist Party. The socialist MPs realize that sacrifices have to be made in order to hang on to some of the social networks currently available. In plain language, if this government didn't take back, for example, the thirteenth-month pensions and salaries Hungary might have collapsed financially. Or if they do not raise the retirement age, the whole system will go belly up. The prime minister's hope is that MSZP's role in handling the crisis will be rewarded at the ballot box. I assume that this is a pep talk. As things now stand the general opinion is that MSZP will orchestrate the turnaround and Fidesz will walk in and reap the benefits of the austerity program just they did in 1998 after Lajos Bokros set the country on a course of rapid economic growth.
As far as the government's achievements are concerned, Bajnai considers the strengthening of the Hungarian currency, the forint, its most important. What is even more remarkable is that the exchange rate seems to have held steady in the last couple of months at around 270 forints to a euro. However, Bajnai issued a warning, most likely directed at members of the central bank and Fidesz, that the "trust" the country managed to regain is still fragile. "A wrong move, an ill-considered statement" might change the situation, and the country "may end up in even deeper trouble than before." The prime minister then recalled the absolutely frightful situation Hungary was in during the spring. There was a real possibility of financial collapse that, thanks to this government's handling of the economy, was averted. If this program stops or slows, the catastrophe that loomed in the spring "might still become reality." Therefore the lean and mean budget must be supported. Referring to the opposition without mentioning the name of Orbán or Fidesz, Bajnai said: "Those who consider a responsible strict budget unpatriotic and a politics of promises something that serves the national interest are following the wrong path."
Bajnai is especially pleased that even in a financial and economic crisis the budget contains a fairly substantial tax cut that may assist in achieving future growth. The authorities are cutting back on administrative expenses both in the central ministries and on the local government level, but they are spending more money on the police force and on a program called "Road to Employment" aimed at raising the level of employment which is very low in Hungary. And that leads us to the Roma question which is indeed one of the most urgent tasks before the nation. As Bajnai said, "Hungary's future depends on Roma integration." He brought up the example of the United States where in fifty years the country "starting with the activities of the Ku Klux Klan ended up with Obama." He added that he very much hopes that the road to a Hungarian Obama will be shorter.
Ildikó Lendvai, the party chairman, pretty much continued where Bajnai left off. While the prime minister spent most of his time on the government's handling of the financial crisis, Lendvai emphasized the achievements of the last seven to eight years which, though considerable, have largely been forgotten in the wake of the financial crisis. She also assured the citizens that if they win the elections they will not start demolishing everything as promised by Fidesz but will build on the existing foundations. She said that Hungary was not "a country of holes," a witty reference to one of the first acts of the Orbán government. During the previous administration the decision had been made to build a national theater. The design was approved by an international jury, the site was designated, and the foundation was dug. Then came Orbán's victory. Work was immediately stopped and they scrapped the design and the site, allegedly because it was too expensive. In the end the theater cost considerably more than the original estimate and the building is hideous, designed by someone who had no experience with theaters or public buildings in general. But she was the choice of the man in charge of the project. After all, she designed his house! The hole in downtown Budapest remained for months on end, reminding everyone of the craziness of Hungarian politics.
Lendvai is a witty speaker who continued her not so veiled criticism of Viktor Orbán when she said: "It is easy to say a few words to describe a period: "Josip, Kaya, vineyard, holes, ditches, exclusion." Here she was imitating Orbán's description of the Gyurcsány period as "Őszöd, Zuschlag, offshore, severance pay." Everybody knows what Őszöd refers to. Zuschlag was a young local socialist who was caught embezzling about 70 million forints. Offshore refers to a company owned by the head of the central bank, and severance pay is connected to the outsized compensation received by some employees of the Budapest transit system. Lendvai's examples refer to the corruption cases which with the help of the chief prosecutor, a close friend and political ally of Orbán, were swept under the rug. Viktor Orbán's and his family's incredible enrichment during his tenure as prime minister is also legendary.
As things now stand MSZP's chances for victory next year are slim, but there may be some rays of hope coming their way. One is that the tax cut will be introduced on January 1. Take home pay will be considerably higher for most people. And there is something else that may help the current government. The budget deficit will be small and inflation is lower than expected. According to analysts abroad and at home it might be possible for Hungary to get into the so-called ERM II as early as the first few months of next year. Before a state can join the eurozone, it must spend two years in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM II). If Hungary manages to achieve to get into ERM II it would give a boost to MSZP's chances in 2010.