It was a year ago, on March 21, 2009, that Ferenc Gyurcsány resigned. Since then he made no public speeches although he will most likely be a member of the next parliament because he is number four on the MSZP list. But he broke his silence and accepted an invitation by the Hungarian Democratic Charter (Magyar Demokratikus Charta), a small group of like-minded liberals. This group was established in October 2008 in defense of human rights, freedom and democracy. According to their website the Charter has about 10,000 members. A couple of weeks ago members received an invitation to attend the gathering yesterday at which the former prime minister would speak. About 3,000 people asked for tickets.
The audience was certainly sympathetic; Gyurcsány was preaching to the choir. I personally found it rather peculiar, however, that Péter Tölgyessy, considered by some the most talented political analyst in the country, called the attendees "members of a sect." If these people belong to a sect, then how shall we describe those who in rapture keep repeating, "Viktor, Viktor" at the invitation-only gatherings when Fidesz's leader speaks?
Indeed, there's no question that the audience loved him because, although Fidesz did everything in its power to smear his name, Gyurcsány still retained a very sizeable following. And these people are not just liberals who have lost their party and now pin their hopes on Ferenc Gyurcsány's return to politics. His popularity is considerable even among the higher echelons of the Hungarian Socialist Party. I was surprised to see the standing ovation he received at the last party congress when Ildikó Lendvai mentioned in her speech that "Feri Gyurcsány is also here."
First I have to say a few words about Ferenc Gyurcsány's skills as an orator. They are considerable. This is an especially remarkable achievement in a country where in the last half a century or so the speechmaking talents of party functionaries wouldn't exactly have earned them prizes. I still have some old volumes of János Kádár's endless speeches. They are painful reading. He also gave practically no radio or television interviews. Since the Kádár regime was a one-party system politicians didn't have to be worried about the opposing side, and therefore there was no one to debate and no reason to give inspiring speeches. Long lists of accomplishments and numbers and that was all.
Gyula Horn, the first MSZP prime minister, was of the old school and in 1998 when Viktor Orbán forced a television debate on him, he lost mightily. Orbán is a fairly good speaker but it didn't come naturally to him. He first had to learn to speak slowly. Unfortunately even as he mastered the fundamentals of public speaking the poverty of content in his speeches and their patchwork nature became increasingly more evident: too many cooks (speechwriters) spoiled the broth.
I don't know where Gyurcsány learned to speak so well. I have the feeling that in his case it is a natural talent; he was born with it. While Fidesz politicians took lessons in speech making I'm sure that no one taught Gyurcsány to speak. And no one wrote his speeches. He closeted himself in a room and put together his speeches which he often delivered without any notes. The first time I heard him was sometime in 2004, shortly after he became prime minister. Even then among university students Fidesz was very popular and the socialists not at all. Gyurcsány decided to change that, and he embarked on a tour of the most important universities. Someone sent me a DVD of these speeches, and it was amazing to watch the audience. At the beginning the students were quite antagonistic; they were making faces and one could see sarcastic smiles. But as time went on there was more and more laughter, more and more encouraging gestures, and at the end a standing ovation.
In this speech Gyurcsány wanted to talk about the successes and failures of the last eight years. Things got terribly entangled and they cannot be cut like a Gordian knot, he said. Viewed from a historical perspective–but he added that no one really cares about history–Hungary is experiencing the most successful decades of the last five hundred years. But the people don't see, don't feel that success and therefore Hungarians "are disappointed in their past, unsure of their present, and immensely impatient concerning the future." Taken together, disappointment, insecurity and impatience are an upsetting, sometimes maddening combination.
He admitted that he cannot be completely objective. After all, he was part of the events of the last eight years. But he promised to be as honest as possible. All the governments in office since 2002 had the best of intentions: they all wanted Hungary to move toward modernity, toward building a strong middle class. He also reminded his audience that these governments had to strengthen the democratic institutions because after four years of the Orbán government they were in shambles. Instead of weekly parliamentary sessions, the Orbán government illegally changed the rules so there were sessions only every three weeks. The opposition was stripped of its rights. The Orbán government kept no records of cabinet meetings. No historian will ever know what happened at those weekly meetings.The Medgyessy government restored the proper functioning of these parliamentary institutions.
As for the "sin" of Péter Medgyessy in raising the salaries of public employees by 50%, Gyurcsány tried to defend it: it was "a belated social compensation." The people who benefited from this compensation had been the losers of the regime change. They had to be rewarded at last. Medgyessy promised something before the elections and he delivered. However, added Gyurcsány, by 2006 "after ten years of an economic dream came the bitter awakening. All these dreams couldn't be financed given Hungary's economic situation. It became clear that the growing well-being of the citizens wasn't covered by the work of the people but by the state and often from loans." Gyurcsány explained the situation that led to the disaster. Between 2001 and 2006 altogether 1,500 billion forints were spent by the successive governments, financed through loans. Medgyessy was responsible for half of this amount, Orbán for one-third, and Gyurcsány for one-sixth. "Something else became clear. What is true in mathematics is not so in politics. While in mathematics four times two equals ten minus two, this is not so in politics. If someone gives a lot but later takes back some, that person gives less than if he had slowly, calmly given less."
Just as I anticipated, I can't summarize the whole speech. I still have three very important topics to discuss: the accomplishments of the last eight years, the reforms and their failures, and finally Gyurcsány's opinion of Fidesz and Jobbik. But that must wait until tomorrow.