Odds and ends from Hungary

Yesterday wasn't my day. The day before around 5 o'clock in the afternoon the internet connection was interrupted. I tried all the home remedies, but nothing worked. The provider, in spite my pleading, announced that the earliest time anyone can come out and take a look is Sunday morning. Meanwhile there is my blog and my obligations toward www.galamus.hu. Moreover, I couldn't even inform them why the silence from my end. I wasn't a happy camper.

About twenty-four hours went by when suddenly I found that after all I could get on the internet. The whole thing is quite mysterious. Tomorrow the technician is presumably still coming because after all I would like to get some kind of explanation for this inexplicable disruption of service.

In any case, while I was cut off from news in Hungary, KSH (Központi Statisztikai Hivatal/Central Statistical Office) came out with its latest figures on the state of Hungarian industry in November. Year over year the drop is 7% percent; taking into consideration the difference in the number of workdays in November 2008 as opposed to November 2009 the drop gets bumped up to 9.2%. That is practically the same as was predicted. The number seems high but the month over month drop is the lowest (1.3%) since the economic crisis hit Hungary in October 2008. (The trusty old second derivative.)

The BKV strike is continuing, but Hungarians are learning to cooperate. Two young men came up with the idea that they should organize a community effort to help people without cars. On the internet they began soliciting volunteers who would place a cardboard sign on their cars' windshields indicating their destination and their willingness to take passengers. Thousands and thousands signed up and their words were actually translated into deeds.

Now that might not be a big thing for people who are unfamiliar with the Hungarian situation, but, believe me, it is a revolutionary change. It is customary in Hungary to wait for help from the government. It doesn't matter what the problem is, accident, strike, whatever, the response is: bitter complaints and demand for immediate action by someone else. In vain did Ferenc Gyurcsány (or even László Sólyom in his New Year's Message) urge people to do something for themselves because otherwise Hungary will never be a prosperous modern state; nothing worked. I suspect, in fact, the reaction was annoyance. What do you mean that we are supposed to help ourselves?

However, here is the first sign that something is changing in Hungarian society. Something observers of Hungarian politics and society obviously missed. In the past civic groups were not really grass root organizations. Parties, especially Fidesz, created them from above in order to serve the party's needs. But here is a truly civic initiative via a high-tech medium. Two guys who decided that those with cars should help  those without. And this is not the only such initiative. In far-away villages groups of eight to ten men and women decided not to wait for the government to establish a local police station; instead they go out every night and patrol the village. One can only welcome this new development. I think it shows that Hungarians are, after all, moving in the right direction.

The pension debate is still raging. As I indicated a day before yesterday Fidesz is in trouble because it is becoming obvious that Mihály Varga's description of Fidesz's plans to change the system of handling pensions was for real. The reporter didn't misinterpret his words. It didn't matter that he tried to deny it, there were just too many indications that the Swedish model is greatly favored by Fidesz. The other side not surprisingly took advantage of the situation and as of yesterday Fidesz was desperate enough to come up with a promise that the party leaders think will help the party's situation. Their newest plan is that women wouldn't have to wait until they are 65 or 67 years old before they can retire. They could retire as long as they worked for forty years. Thus if someone began working after high school at the age of 17 or 18 she could retire at age of 57 or 58. There are at least three problems with this "brilliant" idea. First, the European Union forbids any kind of discrimination based on gender. Second, if women could retire earlier than men, men would have to work even longer in order to finance the pensions of the early retirees. There is a third problem. The life expectancy of women is much higher than that of men. Therefore, the whole system could collapse financially.

A good piece of news from the BBC. Something the Hungarian public doesn't even know yet because it was only yesterday that MTI published a short news item about it. Bosch, the German manufacturer of appliances as well as auto parts, decided to close its factory in south Wales. 900 jobs will be lost. The firm announced that it decided to transfer the factory to Hungary in 2011. Plant director Adam Willmott said the move was one of "pure economics" after a feasibility study had concluded that the switch to Hungary, where labor costs were 65% of those at the British plant, was necessary to gain the benefit of economies of scale. Gordon Bajnai's successor at the Ministry of Development and the Economy, István Varga, rarely gives interviews. Therefore, one often doesn't know what kinds of new foreign investments are in the offing. This Bosch plan is certainly an important one.

One more tantalizing piece of news appeared in the last couple of days. Forsense-Századvég did a poll in the middle of December. They asked 1,000 people which party they would like to see in the next government. Not surprisingly, 40% of the people preferred Fidesz and only 17% MSZP. However, 12% preferred Jobbik, 10% MDF, 7% SZDSZ, and LMP 2%. If we add up MSZP, MDF, SZDSZ and LPM votes the the figure is 36%. That is not all that bad. It's certainly a much more balanced picture than the results other pollsters produced lately. Interestingly, Jobbik voters are overwhelmingly in favor of a coalition between Jobbik and Fidesz, while two-thirds of Fidesz voters reject a coalition with any party. The next few months will certainly provide ample fodder for this blog.

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John T

The news about Bosch is not good news for the employees in Wales, but does prove the point that Hungary needs to be business friendly to attract investments and all the political parties have to bear this in mind. Whatever the rights and wrongs of globalisation, it is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Talking up the nation state as the saviour to protect the population from all their problems is rather dishonest, as the average nation state has little influence on global affairs these days. I certainly have my reservations about how globalisation is currently playing out – but I don’t see a reverse in the process coming anytime soon, although I suspect that a greater appreciation of the negative / positive effects on society will occur.

Eva S. Balogh

John T. I fully agree with you. That’s the situation and those who talk up economic nationalism is doing a disservice.

Mark Novak

# I think it shows that Hungarians are, after all, moving in the right direction.#
Does it mean toward Fides or JobiK?

John T

Well, it shows Hungary is cheaper than Wales. Although I’m not sure from the news reports whether long term production of the items the Welsh / Hungarian plants are making will continue. Demand had fallen significantly. My comment at least was addressed towards all of the parties, left, centre or right.