Ferenc Gyurcsány’s long-awaited speech (II)

I just read a very intelligent article in Magyar Narancs (March 11, 2010) by Zoltán Ádám, an economist and an editor of the monthly Beszélő, a famous publication that began as samizdat written by a group later known as the democratic opposition. The leading members were the founders of SZDSZ. So Zoltán Ádám is surely not a socialist. Yet in this article he explains why he is going to vote for MSZP. And his rationale makes sense to me. When it comes to the eight years of socialist governance, Ádám as an economist divides the period in two. The first half was in economic terms bad, but they can be proud of the period between 2006 and 2010. Interestingly it was during this period that their popularity sank, for obvious reasons. These four years were a time of reckoning. What the speech at Őszöd was all about. The country was unable to sustain the kind of social net that had been built mostly on borrowed money in the early years.

In his speech Gyurcsány talked about the residual benefits of these eight years. It is good to keep in mind that a lot was accomplished despite the retracements that were necessary in the last few years. People who are not getting their 13th month salary or pension might be sore, but they simply forget that eight years ago their salaries' purchasing power was a great deal less than it is today even after the introduction of the austerity program. Real wages have grown by 25% and the purchasing power of pensions by even more. The development that has taken place in Hungary in the last eight years is visible practically anywhere we go. In almost every village there has been construction–schools, new roads, swimming pools, what not. Gyurcsány emphasized the construction of superhighways; indeed, the pace at which the governments of the last eight years built these new roads is quite staggering. They figured, and I think they were right, that without a modern infrastructure there can be no economic development. Surely, it is not a coincidence that Mercedes-Benz is going to build a plant in Kecskemét, which would have been highly unlikely a few years ago when there was no modern highway connecting Budapest to Szeged. Debrecen's spectacular growth in the eastern section of the country would have been equally unimaginable without the new four-lane highway. In a few weeks the road connecting Budapest with Pécs will at last be finished. That might help the struggling city break out of its present economic stagnation. I anticipate further economic growth for the city once Croatia is part of the Union and belongs to the group of Schengen countries. And one mustn't forget about the new bridges across the Danube at Szekszárd and Dunaújváros and a new bridge between Buda and Pest. Today there are almost half a million more cars than there were eight years ago, and close to one million people moved into new, bigger and better apartments in this period.

As for the reforms. He envisaged a western-style modernization, a change in attitude of the citizenry. He was hoping that people don't want to be "subjects" but want to be free and take into their own hands the direction of their lives. That they will not want to be subservient when it comes to health care, public services or educational facilities. In the past governments postponed the introduction of these reforms because they were afraid of the consequences. Every reform might benefit some but at the same time may run against the interests of others. Gyurcsány here mentioned Tamás Bauer's introductory remarks in which one of the founders of SZDSZ said that the former governments were "cowardly." They were afraid of the consequences. He specifically mentioned that the details of a health care reform very similar to the one the socialist-liberal government was proposing were actually drawn up much earlier but the Orbán government was afraid to introduce them. Thus, none of the reforms Viktor Orbán promised before he took office saw the light of day. Yet these reforms were absolutely necessary because the current structure stands in the way of sustainable economic growth. Perhaps the most shameful political move of Viktor Orbán was that when the Gyurcsány government came up with the idea of a token ($1.50) co-payment, also part of the proposed Orbán plan a few years back, he forced a referendum (with the help of the Constitutional Court) to determine whether people wanted to pay or not. Needless to say, they didn't. That was the end of the health care reform, and even of the socialist-liberal coalition.

Gyurcsány admits that they failed and not just because of the opposition party's resistance. Some people became frightened at the very idea of personal responsibility he was outlining to them. They felt a great deal more comfortable in the "warmth of the stable" where they believed that the state took care of them. He admitted in the speech that he "assessed the strength of the reform party wrong."  And he continued: "I was impatient, I believed that we were right, and that our will shall conquer. I believed that the justice of our cause will be enough for victory." I might mention here that a rather antagonistic commentator expressed his bafflement that the opinion of a minority might be right when the vast majority of the population rejects it. He claimed that "Gyurcsány with a rather undemocratic trick … tried to convince his audience that although the majority wanted something else they were the ones who were right." If we believed this man's logic we would have to declare that the followers of Hitler were right because they comprised the great majority of Germans while the handful of liberal anti-fascists were wrong. It only shows the confusion that reigns in some Hungarian heads.

What is the lesson, Gyurcsány asked. "Certainly not that one shouldn't dare, that one shouldn't want to create a better country. Certainly not that one shouldn't want to lead. Definitely not that a politician shouldn't dream of a better world and that he shouldn't create a clear-cut program for its implementation…. However, it doesn't matter how decent the intention of the reform is if the overwhelming majority refuses to come with us."

Again, I ran out of time because Gyurcsány's assessment of the right and the far-right certainly merits a detailed description. I will do that tomorrow.