Changing political scene in Hungary

Szonda Ipsos, which has a contract with Népszabadság to prepare a monthly opinion poll on current party preferences, came out with the January numbers. The title of the article that appeared on the results read: "Fidesz suffered a setback, Jobbik reached historical heights." As soon as I saw this lead I realized why in the last two days Viktor Orbán has changed tactics.

Just last week in his speech he didn't address any topic of recent political discourse. For example, the controversial pension plan mentioned by Mihály Varga or property taxes that cost the Fidesz old timer, László Mádi, so dearly for fleetingly mentioning the possibility of its introduction sometime in the future. He didn't talk about another favorite topic: Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. It was obvious that he didn't want to bring up anything that might be controversial. The best tactic was to say nothing.

That's why I was very surprised when a couple of days later Orbán announced that the current system of pensions is absolutely wonderful. It will be good for at least thirty years and Fidesz will not touch it. I simply could't figure out this change of heart. Even greater was my surprise when Orbán began offering goodies for votes. First he turned to the people living in those Soviet pre-fab apartment houses that are called "panel houses." In 2002 one of the Fidesz politicians after the lost election blamed the "panel prolis" for helping the socialists win. "Proli" is the derogatory abbreviation of "proletariat." It was a very unfortunate comment, and people who live in those buildings and happen to be socialist voters often introduce themselves on radio talk shows as X.Y., a "panel proli."

If on Monday Orbán tried to reassure the old folks that all is fine and dandy with pensions, on Tuesday he courted the "panel prolis." He announced that he would set up a "green bank" that would give bushels of money away to inhabitants of these pre-fab apartments for insulation that would also include changing windows and doors. These apartment houses were built when Soviet gas was dirt cheap and no one cared about the cost of energy.

The cost of this work that in the long run would save a lot of money for the owners is about 1 million forints per average unit. At present the owners pay one-third of the cost while the government pays one-third and the rest is covered by loans on very favorable terms. Out of the blue Orbán announced that the government will fix everybody's apartment for free! There are close to 1 million such units. Where will this money come from? Moreover, is it wise to fix up someone else's property at absolutely no cost? What about those 200,000 families who already paid for the cost of insulation? Their tax forints will pay now for someone else's unit next door. The whole thing is incredible.

And if that weren't enough on the third day came the promise that doctors and people working in the health care industry will receive such a salary boost that Hungarian salaries would be nearly on par with English or Swedish pay. It's true that he added that it wouldn't be for dollar for dollar (or kronen to forint or pound to forint) but competitive given "the comfort level of living at home." According to some old data I found, adjusted for purchasing power, GPs in England made $118,000, in Sweden $66,000, and in Hungary $26,000. Specialists in England made $150,000, in Sweden $76,000, and in Hungary $27,000. There are well over 100,000 people working in health facilities in Hungary.

Finally, the most ridiculous offer was given to farmers with fruit trees. Hungarian "pálinka" that received European Union recognition as a uniquely Hungarian product is a brandy made out of various kinds of fruit. The owner of fruit trees often collects in large vats the fruit that is not marketable as produce. When it is ready to be distilled, the farmer has to take this fermented concoction called "cefre" to the state distillery where they make "pálinka" out of it. The owner pays for the cost of distillation and must also pay excise tax on the amount he takes home. Well, Orbán promised these guys that they can make their brew at home. Distillers of "pálinka" are up in arms. At last they managed to reestablish the good name of Hungarian "pálinka" and now Orbán encourages the distillation of rotgut stuff in people's kitchens. Some people also wondered what will happen to the excise tax collected.

So this morning all became clear to me. Orbán undoubtedly knew the results of Szonda Ipsos's opinion poll according to which a quarter of a million people left Fidesz in one month. Well, they didn't leave in the sense of moving over to MSZP, but they are no longer sure whether they would vote for Fidesz. They joined the large group of the undecided. Between November and now Fidesz lost 6% of its potential voters. According to observers, it was the pension question that did Fidesz in. It is also clear that Jobbik is attracting former Fidesz voters. This month Jobbik's numbers were the highest ever measured. Among those who say that they would definitely go and vote Jobbik received 14%.

The question is whether these Fidesz promises will turn back the tide. It is possible that the electorate will simply not believe anymore in promises made by politicians. They've heard an awful lot of promises before. MSZP is in a good position to exploit the situation, but I see little movement in socialist circles. I''m not sure when they will wake up and actually start campaigning.

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Peter Koroly

Today the conservative Vienna daily “Die Presse” published an interesting article on Jobbiks success. Die Presse is owned indirectly by the Catholic church of Austria.
In comparison to this article in Die Presse,your articles dear Prof. Balogh are full of understatements.
In a German paper published in Budapest I’ve read, that Mr. Orbán has no problems with Jobbiks policy, he has only warned potential voters, that Jobbik with it’s 10-15% will not be capable to change things. And Orbán is vicepresident of EVP (association of European conservative parties).

Eva S. Balogh

Peter Koroly: “In comparison to this article in Die Presse,your articles dear Prof. Balogh are full of understatements. In a German paper published in Budapest I’ve read, that Mr. Orbán has no problems with Jobbiks policy, he has only warned potential voters, that Jobbik with it’s 10-15% will not be capable to change things. And Orbán is vicepresident of EVP (association of European conservative parties).”
You see and for some people I’m too harsh! Your German paper published in Budapest is correct. More and more people noticed (what I missed, by the way) that Orbán didn’t tell people not to vote for Jobbik because it is an extremist and racist party. He simply told them that they would waste their vote because Jobbik will not be in position to affect real change. Not like Fidesz.

Peter Koroly

Dear Prof. Balogh,
Thank you for your answer. Here in Austria Die Presse a daily belonging indirectly to the catholic church of Austria is publishing a long report on Jobbik, describing their Revisionism, Racism and Antisemitism. In Hungary the catholic church is not heard as clearly as in Austria, to condemn xenophobia and racism, why is that so?

John T
The role of the Catholic church is interesting, as there seems to be a number of politicised priests in Hungary and of course, the church has a fair amount of influence in education. When my brother got married, I was seated next to the officiating priest at the reception and we spoke during the meal – he spoke pretty good English. During the wedding ceremony, he had strayed into making some fairly strong points on modern society and during dinner he elaborated on what he saw as the evils of the world. Funnily enough, he’d visited Canada a few times and I think he considered Canadian’s as the children of satan. It was also clear that he also viewed homosexuals as degenerates and didn’t have any time for foreigners. Needless to say, this was all rather heavy for a wedding and I thought it best not to prolong the chat and mention that I’m not a fan of any organised religion. Still, he was aware from my replies that I didn’t agree with almost everything that he said and after dinner we went our separate ways, though I remember his facial expression visibly hardening when he looked across and saw… Read more »