Mostly about the Hungarian prime minister

The first time I heard the name of Gordon Bajnai was when I read in 2006 that Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány called on him to be the head of the National Development Agency. Later appointments in more and more important posts followed; eventually he became head of the newly formed National Economic Development Ministry. And now, of course, prime minister.

The prime minister's given name, Gordon, is not exactly commonplace in Hungary. Actually I would be surprised if there were another person in the whole country named Gordon unless, of course, it is a brand new baby whose parents became enamored with the prime minister or the name. As things now stand, that it is not at all impossible. Gordon Bajnai is becoming more and more popular. And not without reason.

As I said, I knew nothing about Bajnai because he entered politics from the business world. However, I have a very good internet friend who happened to be his college classmate who kept telling me that this guy was very, very smart and very, very nice and that he will do a fantastic job. The same person started a "let's support Gordon Bajnai to be the next prime minister of Hungary" on Facebook, and I think she was very disappointed when there were not too many supporters. When she first mentioned  her initiative to me I was amused. Although his name had been mentioned several times as a possible successor to Gyurcsány, I didn't see how this quiet, unassuming fellow whom I elsewhere called a "boy scout" could be a really good prime minister. I guess I was too accustomed to Ferenc Gyurcsány who is anything but quiet or unassuming.

Then he took over and, although he didn't talk much as opposed to his predecessor, it soon became obvious that this quiet man had a will of steel and a power of persuasion to go with it. From the business world he brought along a willingness to compromise that is such an important ingredient in politics and that is in short supply in Hungary. He announced on day one that the 3.8% deficit target is "carved in stone" and kept his word. Then I heard Paul Lendvai, the well known Austrian (Hungarian born) journalist say that he heard Bajnai give a lecture in English in Vienna and he wished that Austrian politicians could speak English as well as he does. At home he was making headway both in parliament and in handling the economy. Moreover, in foreign policy about which he really shouldn't know much, he did a good job when he sat down and, in my opinion, had quite a successful meeting with Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister. Then I talked to people who met him in New York and who gained a very favorable impression of him. As László Bartus, editor-in-chief of Amerikai-Magyar Népszava, wrote in Népszava (the Hungarian variety), in New York "a miracle happened." Even right-wing Hungarians who came to listen to him "were jealous of the socialists" for having such an excellent man as Gordon Bajnai. Bartus said something that I found interesting. This man really didn't want to be prime minister and tells the world that he is not planning to be one. And, Bartus added, perhaps that's why he is so good at it.

And now I'm continuing my "delusions" as NWO called one of my posts when I was a bit more optimistic about left-liberal chances at the 2010 elections than most people (September 13: "Some good news from Hungary"). The trend that started in August seems to be continuing. According to the Századvég-Forsense poll released today, the popularity of socialist politicians has grown by five points while Fidesz politicians lost three points on a scale of 100. The lead of Fidesz politicians over their socialist colleagues is only 6 points at the moment. The greatest change is in the popular assessment of Gordon Bajnai. In the last quarter his standing went up by nine points. Right now Bajnai has 45 points out of 100. At the same time Orbán's went down by four points and therefore he has only 52 points. I am always amused when in Hírkereső, a Hungarian Google News, I look at the headlines. The left-liberal papers, the very few, hail the changes and therefore their headlines are optimistic. For example, Népszabadság introduced the news about this latest poll: "Bajnai is pressing hard on Orbán." Right-wing papers, on the other hand, prefer such headlines as "Fidesz politicians are still ahead." It is not a lie, indeed they are still more popular than the socialists, but the real news is that the gap is closing and not that Fidesz is still leading.

László Bartus introduces his piece by saying that Bajnai might be the only serious rival of Viktor Orbán because he so different. And then he brings up a photo that appeared in Népszava (September 25).Bajnai Obamaval  I must admit that I was also amused at seeing this picture but Bartus put it really well: "On the protocol photo released by the White House the Hungarian prime minister is standing between Barack Obama and his wife. Gordon Bajnai looks on this photo as people normally think of him on the basis of his looks. He gives the impression of a tourist who just happens to be there. He lacks the political savvy that made Obama and his wife able to produce the same smile while being photographed with all the presidents and prime ministers gathered in New York. But his look on this picture is much more honest and much more human. He has no illusions of stardom, his posture is that of 'everyman'." Bartus then points out the difference between his outward appearance and his inner workings. He thinks, and I tend to agree with him, that "the current prime minister of Hungary may surpass his predecessors and his rivals."

My suspicion is that Viktor Orbán is somewhat worried about Bajnai and the achievement of his government. Otherwise he wouldn't be trying so hard and wouldn't use tactics which under the circumstances seem totally unnecessary. If the Fidesz lead is so overwhelming and unchangeable, why would Lajos Kósa (the most popular Fidesz politician, by the way) feel compelled to organize a demonstration against the government's decision to give 4.5% less money to the local governments than they got last year. In all seriousness he said in the new "Ma reggel" (that seems to be functioning instead of Nap-kelte) that children will go hungry, schools will have to be closed, and hospitals will not be able to receive patients. The demonstration is planned for October 10 in front of the Parliament. Kósa talked only about a gathering of (Fidesz) mayors, but the inimitable Szijjártó yesterday called on everybody who is against the government and this horrific budget to join in. Starting street demonstrations again? Why? With an overwhelming lead? Hard to fathom. Unless they also have the feeling, as I do, that this is not the end of the story.

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Gábor
Guest
I have heard Bajnai giving a presentation in Brussels, lobbying the EU to make Budapest the seat of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. Two German guys (serious looking, in their fifties) just in front of me agreed he made it excellently. In fact he gave a presentation and as most of the presentations I have heard or seen from people coming from business, it was very basic and without significant content compared to what I’m used to in academia. (I mean the better ones, I won’t pretend that a significant part of papers presented at a historical or social sciences conferences is not mediocre at best…) It was rather a PR event, nice photos of the city and four or five arguments repeated. Bajnai was “smart” in this sense, he had a modest body language and certainly used his look and charm tactfully, but without any sign of invention, creativity etc. I do not want to argue that one specific occasion proves anything, but for me it conveyed the image of a man, who – although certainly intelligent – instead of posing critical questions and asking for the gaps in theories, solutions etc. accepts what he learned without… Read more »
Mark
Guest
“The trend that started in August seems to be continuing.” If you look at historic opinion poll data you will see that in every cycle since 1994-1998 the governing party has received a boost in opinion polling in late summer and early autumn in the year before the election. Only one government has been re-elected from this position. In fact looking at the figures if the MSZP repeats the achievement of four years ago, the MSZP will poll somewhere in the high 20s next year and FIDESZ will finish twenty points ahead of them with just under 50 percent (and that would given FIDESZ a two-thirds majority in parliament after the second round). Furthermore we know that Bajnai does not intend to lead the MSZP into the 2010 elections (most people I speak to here in Budapest believe he may be going to Brussels as Hungary’s EU commissioner). We have no idea who the MSZP will nominate as their Prime Minister candidate in December at their congress, and every sign suggests that the MSZP don’t know themselves. Nor do we know if the MSZP will run against the policies of the Bajnai government. Every indication of the public mood is… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark about Bajnai: “most people I speak to here in Budapest believe he may be going to Brussels as Hungary’s EU commissioner).”
90% of what one hears in Budapest is wild guessing without any foundation. Believe me, Bajnai isn’t going to Brussels. Either Kovács stays or perhaps Edit Herczog will replace him. They talk about János Veres but apparently he doesn’t know English. On the webpage of the parliament he indicates that he handles English and German “conversationally” (társalgási fokon). According to people in the know that means that in practical terms he doesn’t really know either.

Gábor
Guest

Mark: most people I speak to here in Budapest believe he may be going to Brussels as Hungary’s EU commissioner
Surprisingly many people read Magyar Hírlap and believe in their stories.

hel
Guest

“Even right-wing Hungarians who came to listen to him “were jealous of the socialists” for having such an excellent man as Gordon Bajnai.”
They are so jealous that the Post-Communist party supporting Bajnai is standing at 14% and their centre-right opposition at 47%.
Your desperate campaigning for the Post-Communists is absolutely ridiculous.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Hel: “”Even right-wing Hungarians who came to listen to him “were jealous of the socialists” for having such an excellent man as Gordon Bajnai.” They are so jealous that the Post-Communist party supporting Bajnai is standing at 14% and their centre-right opposition at 47%. Your desperate campaigning for the Post-Communists is absolutely ridiculous.”
Well, let me straighten you out. What you give me into my mouth was not uttered by me but by László Bartus who was in New York and talked to the American-Hungarians present. Most of these people are not voters in Hungarian elections and therefore your reference to the forecast of the election results has nothing to with anything.
As far as your figures are concerned. They are inaccurate. According to the latest poll (Századvég-Forsense) among people who claim that they would definitely vote: Fidesz would get 57% while MSZP 25%. In the population as a whole: Fidesz stands at 25% while MSZP 14%. At the same time 54% is either undecided or not planning to vote.

NWO
Guest
Eva I still believe you are “delusional” if you think MSZP is going to win the next election. If you were to review the history of my posts, you would see that I have mentioned many times that Orban is his own worst enemy and has a great ability to overreach and grab defeat from the jaws of victory. I don’t think that will happen, though I do expect the polls to tighten as some traditional MSZP voters either come back to the party (when they nominate a real left winger) or just stay home. Similarly, FIDESZ will get squeezed from both the left and right, which in the first round at least will hold down somewhat their numbers. But having said all that, MSZP cannot get a majority. SzDSz is unlikely to get above the 5% threshold. FIDESZ will win with something like 70%+ of the vote in Western Hungary, 50-60%+ in much of Eastern Hungary/Pest County and enough in Budapest to form a government. I actually do know the PM, but have not spoken to him in a while. As I have again said a number of times, I do respect the job he has done and can… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

NWO: “I still believe you are “delusional” if you think MSZP is going to win the next election.”
But I’m not saying that. I’m simply saying that one cannot make predictions for the future on the basis of the polls of today. Moreover, if a party begins a campaign with the idea that they are going to lose they surely will.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

NWO: “Even the Economist pointed out last week that he [Kovács] ranks among or atop the list of least effective Commissioners.”
It wasn’t an official ranking by the Economist but a blog writer’s private assessment. I think Kovács did a good job.

NWO
Guest

Really? What substantive changes in European tax policy can you cite to support that opinion? Actually, please let me know what his views are on this matter or any other substantive matter? He got the job because he was an elderly power broker in the MSZP who happens to speak good English.
And remember, he only was put in the tax position, because he became virtually the first commissioner to fail his “test” for his first portfolio-Energy.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

NWO: “Really? What substantive changes in European tax policy can you cite to support that opinion?”
We are talking here about László Kovács. I personally remember one occasion when either the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal was praising him for a very clever solution to some taxation problem. The fact is that the post is not an important one because taxation is more or less the privilege of the member states. What Kovács had to do was to convince each country to do this or that. And that not an easy thing to do. According to his own assessment he did achieve certain things. See the end of this article: http://www.fn.hu/kulfold/20091001/kovacs_interju/
As for flunking his first test. That was embarrassing. However, I don’t think that he failed because he is stupid but he was unprepared. Admittedly, that’s bad enough.

Mark
Guest
Éva: “90% of what one hears in Budapest is wild guessing without any foundation. Believe me, Bajnai isn’t going to Brussels.” I think you’ve concentrated on the rumour and missed the important point – we are six months away from polling day. The current Prime Minister, whose budgetary policies are making a deep recession worse, has told everyone who has asked him on the record that he will not stand for election in 2010. The MSZP has no candidate for Prime Minister; no programme, and no message. Furthermore, we (and I assume the MSZP itself) has no idea who the candidate will be, and what basis it is going to run on. By this stage in 2005 the MSZP had already run its “values” poster campaign, and Gyurcsány had launched his book in a blaze of publicity. Furthermore they were a good 15% ahead in the polls of where they are now. Furthermore, as today’s unuscessfuly first round by-election in Pécs shows fewer people are prepared to turn out and vote in what should be a safe MSZP seat than in June (when turnout was utterly miserable), and of those an even lower percentage (14.5% against 16.7%) are prepared to… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “Furthermore, as today’s unuscessfuly first round by-election in Pécs shows fewer people are prepared to turn out and vote in what should be a safe MSZP seat than in June”
That’s an interesting interpretation. At the first two attempts the Fidesz candidate was leading. That seat is not a safe MSZP seat and Fidesz voters aren’t turning out to send their man to parliament.

Mark
Guest

Éva: “That seat is not a safe MSZP seat”
The winning MSZP candidate in 2006 took the seat in the first round with 59.07% of the vote (nearly 16% in advance of the party’s national score). It was in the top five highest MSZP scores of any individual constituency in the country, and only 3% less than their best score. If that isn’t a safe seat, I don’t know what is.
As for differential turnout yesterday FIDESZ turned out 58.6% of those who voted for it in the same seat in 2006 (which is broadly what one would expect given the lower level of interest generated in a by-election compared with a general election). The MSZP only turned out only 5.0% percent of those who voted for it in 2006. Who knows what local circumstances affecting it are, but I’m afraid that if we discount those (as I’ve no idea what the local dynamics are) this suggests that the opinion polls are overestimating the national level of MSZP support by a big margin, i.e. it is probably half of what the opinion polls are saying it is.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “It was in the top five highest MSZP scores of any individual constituency in the country, and only 3% less than their best score. If that isn’t a safe seat, I don’t know what is.”
In my opinion there is no such thing as a safe seat. Given the general mood of the country and Páva’s win as mayor, it was likely that the seat will go to Fidesz. Yet, Fidesz voters are just as apathetic as the MSZP voters. They know that it matters because winning the seat would mean one extra Fidesz member of parliament and yet they didn’t get inspired. You can’t say: oh, this shows that the MSZP voters abandoned the party because one could also say: the Fidesz voters don’t give a damn about the fate of this seat.

Mark
Guest
Éva: “Yet, Fidesz voters are just as apathetic as the MSZP voters.” This is precisely what you can’t say – FIDESZ turned out more than half of its 2006 voters; 95% of the MSZP voters in 2006 stayed at home. This is a level of differential turnout in a parliamentary by-election that is almost without precedent. The FIDESZ score is consistent with them turning out two and half million to vote for them in a national parliamentary election. The MSZP score is consistent with that of a party that has effectively ceased to be a serious contender for power. And this is in a district where – based on historic data – they should be especially strong. Certainly if a party faces the kind of wipeout the MSZP appears to be confronted with there is no safe seat for it. But there is a common pattern to the electoral geography of European social democratic parties to which the distribution of MSZP support conforms exactly – namely it tends to be stronger in urban areas with some past of industrial employment. What is happening – and we have the evidence of the European election and the smattering of local government by-elections… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “And in consequence FIDESZ is poised to win overwhelming because it will mobilize the same number of people it did in 2006, when its main opponent has effectively collapsed.”
I really think that you overstate the case. Yes, Fidesz managed to get about 50% of its 2006 voters to mobilize while MSZP couldn’t. But that doesn’t mean that all those who did stay away will vote for Fidesz or that they will stay at home next year as well. A lot can happen in between.

Mark
Guest

Éva: “I really think that you overstate the case.”
We will know by next April if I am overstating the case or not. While a parliamentary election is never like a by-election or European elections normally there is a relationship between them and the larger parliamentary elections. They provide compelling information on underlying trends, and this one is a very clear one, and if anything has been hardening since spring 2008.

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