Hungarian parties and statistical “reality”

I always get annoyed when I hear people quoting Winston Churchill’s saying that “the only statistics you can trust are those you falsified yourself.” Hungarians like that one very much, although perhaps they would be better off with the Benjamin Disraeli quotation: “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” When a Hungarian quotes Churchill, that usually means that he doesn’t believe in any statistics, especially if those statistics are used to prove that life is better than, let’s say, eight years ago. Both Fidesz and MSZP could have hurled the Churchill and Disraeli quotations at each other. Fidesz claims that the statistics used by MSZP in its pamphlet entitled “Tisztánlátás kedvéért” (In order to see clearly) are falsified. MSZP asserts that the Fidesz booklet, published a few days later in 4.5 million copies and called–what else–“It’s time!,” is “full of misleading statistics.”

As for the falsified MSZP statistics, I don’t believe that the raw numbers are wrong. In fact, Csaba Molnár, the minister at the head of the rather large prime minister’s office, claims that they were not using statistics gathered by the Central Statistical Office but instead they turned to Ecostat of the European Union. Because, said Molnár, they wanted to avoid the accusation that the Hungarian office is favoring the current government. So I believe the figures. But since the numbers are usually not translated to a common base, it can be difficult to make meaningful comparisons.

In any case, MSZP’s pamphlet portrays a success story while Fidesz’s publication describes a world of misery and a series of failures. According to the Fidesz scenario the three socialist-liberal governments set the country back decades. Even Lajos Bokros, a much more serious and careful man, claims that the whole past decade was wasted. The country is back where it was in 2000. Not even Bokros is correct in his assessment, and the problem with Fidesz’s propaganda is that it tries for political reasons to extend the economic difficulties of the last couple of years to the whole eight-year period.

MSZP claims in the subtitle of their pamphlet that instead of promises “the facts should talk.” Not that MSZP didn’t do quite a bit of promising in their party program. However, let’s talk about the “facts.” If we take the gross domestic product in 2001 as 100, in 2008 it was 125 but even now it is 116. The farmers received 206.8 billion forints in 2001 while in 2009 that sum was 613.3 billion forints. The inflation rate in 2001 was 9.2%; now it is 4.5%. During the Orbán government’s tenure 7 kilometers of super highways were built while in the last eight years 700 kilometers. Here’s a map depicting the situation in 2001 and 2010; one can appreciate the change more by seeing it graphically, although you may notice an old trick. The 2001 map of the country was drawn smaller in order to exaggerate the extent of progress.

MSZP claims an almost 30% growth in real wages between 2001 and 2009. The graphs that illustrate wage growth, however, are misleading because they don’t take into consideration the rate of inflation. However, here are the unadjusted numbers. In 2001 the average take-home pay was 64,913 Ft while in 2009 it was 124,466 Ft. and in 2010 it will be 140,868 Ft.

In discussing the purchasing power of wages and pensions and comparing it to the 1989 level the graphs are much more informative. In 2001 the purchasing power of pensions in comparison to 1989 was down 18.9%, while wages lagged 10.6% behind the last year of socialism. So, in brief, the new Hungarian capitalist system hadn’t caught up even to the level of the final year of the Kádár regime. By now, however, there is appreciable change. The purchasing power of pensions is 11.5% and of wages 12.3% higher than in 1989.

A physical worker in 2001 worked four times longer for a television set when it took 456 hours of work than he did in 2008 it took only 112 hours of labor. Of course, the price of televisions most likely decreased significantly during this period.

MSZP claims that families receive a great deal more assistance today than in 2002 when the government spent 252 billion forints on family support. Now the sum is 534 billion forints. Mothers who stay at home with their newborn babies for three years on average received 39,274 forints in 2001 while now the average is 75,000 forints. Again, I don’t think that the rate of inflation was figured in here.

The claim is that the government spent much less money on itself than during the Orbán period. In 2001 15.9% of the budget was spent on the administration while in 2006 only 14.3% and in 2010 only 12.4%. They claim that they made it easier to do business in Hungary. In 2001 it took 52 days to establish a new company. Today a businessman can handle the whole thing in one day.

Although doctors complain that hospitals are receiving less money than before, the statistics tell a different story. In 2001 they spent 623 billion forints while in 2010 the figure is 1,236 billion forints. Again, it would have been helpful to say what percentage of the budget is spent on healthcare.  Subsidies on drugs in 2001 amounted to 179 billion and in 2010 will be 345 billion forints.

In 2001 there were 179,753 computers in schools, today there are 273,479. The government is spending 70 billion forints more on higher education. Why did they focus only on higher education? Most likely because the number of college students has multiplied and the government gives a certain amount of money per student to the institutions while fewer and fewer children are entering elementary schools and therefore the statistics wouldn’t have been favorable.

I haven’t able to get hold of the Fidesz pamphlet and therefore I can only rely for the time being on the MSZP critique. Bernadett Budai, MSZP spokeswoman, pointed out that they mix up basic concepts like the “unemployed” and “inactive” population. Apparently, one of the Fidesz charges is that “the government wants to privatize the pension funds.” That is nonsense because these pension funds are in private hands already.

I’m looking forward to seeing the original. Have they given accurate figures? In the past I found far too many outright falsifications. Just lately, Péter Szijjártó announced that Hungary was dead last in Europe by all economic indicators including the unemployment rate. However, it is a well known fact that Spain and Latvia have close to 20% unemployment while even Estonia’s is higher than 15% as opposed to Hungary’s 10.5%. Not long ago, Fidesz’s “expert” on agriculture claimed that Hungary should do what Denmark does: no foreigner can buy land in Denmark unless he speaks Danish and finished agricultural college in Denmark where the language of instruction was Danish. Not a word of it is true. And one could continue. The problem is that these outright lies are left unanswered in the electronic media and few newspapers take the trouble to check with the Danish authorities to find out what the real story is.

In any case, in the next few weeks the two sides can battle it out over those “lies, damned lies and statistics.”

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” In fact, Csaba Molnár, the minister at the head of the rather large prime minister’s office, claims that they were not using statistics gathered by the Central Statistical Office but instead they turned to Ecostat of the European Union. Because, said Molnár, they wanted to avoid the accusation that the Hungarian office is favoring the current government.”
This statement doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence in the MSZP’s integrity. According to Eurostat’s own website:
“Eurostat does not collect data. This is done in Member States by their statistical authorities. They verify and analyse national data and send them to Eurostat” (
So, either Molnár is ignorant of how the EU collects its statistics – in which case he doesn’t know what he is talking about, or he is lying because it is politically convenient to do so.
If I wanted to be sure the accuracy of sets of statistics in the middle of an election campaign the last place I’d look is in something published by a political party.