László Mendrey, leader of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ), in his speech delivered this morning in pouring rain at the mass demonstration organized by the trade unions, said that the government, which he labelled “the Power,” overestimated its strength and greatly underestimated the determination of the teachers. This is most likely the case, judging from the public statements of Fidesz officials, including those of the prime minister.
One can always be sure that János Lázár will be the harbinger of the impertinent, insulting tone that is typical in Fidesz circles. He has also acquired the reputation of being a liar. Most of his assertions are unfounded, and the Hungarian media can usually prove it within days. In his “government info” on February 11 he accused the teachers’ unions of refusing the offer to negotiate and instead opting to create a fracas (balhé). The teachers were understandably offended. First of all, they have been negotiating with the government, admittedly unsuccessfully, since January. Second, fracases are not the style of the anti-Fidesz forces in general. So far all of their demonstrations have been peaceful and dignified, unlike that of the national-Christian forces supporting Fidesz in the fall of 2006. In addition, Lázár accused the unions of “creating a political brawl” because their leaders have been organizing demonstrations against the government. As if a demonstration against a government were an unforgivable sin. He also accused unnamed persons and organizations of financing the opposition and indirectly the teachers.
People who have followed the careers of Viktor Orbán and his minions should not be surprised that their reaction to the teachers’ revolt is a total rejection of the idea that the chaos created by the new law on public education is somehow their fault. This is especially the case because everybody knows that the concept of the new educational system came straight from the “Great Leader,” as he is nicknamed by his critics. Apparently during 2010 and 2011 when Zoltán Pokorni, Fidesz minister of education in the first Orbán government, tried to counter Orbán’s arguments in favor of centralization and offered examples and numbers, Orbán replied, “Zoli, you can bring up all sorts of facts and figures, but I have a different opinion.”
So, what was Orbán’s first reaction to the unrest among the teachers? In his opinion, the teachers are egged on by outside forces. It simply cannot be the case that “Oszkár Pilz wakes up one nice morning in Miskolc and suddenly realizes that he is extremely dissatisfied and begins to write a letter and protest.”
Viktor Orbán, perhaps because he has been in the international limelight lately and has seen support for Fidesz increase as a result of the refugee crisis, feels very confident. Most likely overconfident. He thinks that the situation today is less dangerous than it was last October when thousands marched to protest the internet tax. His confidence, I believe, is misplaced. Then the protesters had only one simple demand: to withdraw a bill that hadn’t even been voted on. Today the teachers insist on dismantling the entire edifice that was forced on them and their students. To satisfy them will be a great deal more difficult than Orbán imagines.
I suspect that there is considerable confusion within Fidesz over the whole issue. I understand that there are several Fidesz bigwigs who have doubts about the current system. After all, most of them have children or grandchildren and are therefore fully aware of the problems that make successful teaching and learning in this new system close to impossible. For the time being at least, they are quiet. It is not advisable to contradict the boss. On the other hand, those who condemn the teachers’ demonstrations began openly criticizing the quality of the teachers, which might further impede any understanding between the government and the teachers’ unions.
While the demonstration was going on, László Palkovics, the undersecretary who replaced Mrs. Czunyi, gave a press conference at which he declared that the demonstration had lost its purpose because everything will be taken care of in the forthcoming roundtable discussions. He charged that the teachers are bringing politics within the walls of the schools. He also accused them of an unwillingness to engage in negotiations. As he put it, “it is a question of taste: some people like to negotiate while others would rather demonstrate.” Another ill-conceived remark.
Former undersecretary for higher education István Klinghammer, former ELTE president, questioned the competence of the teachers. “Just as Lóránd Eötvös said a long time ago, the quality of education depends solely on the quality of the students…. We need teachers who are clever and moral and who can pass these virtues on to their students. That’s why I’m so angry when I see these unshaven, disheveled teachers in checkered shirts on the TV monitor, wandering about.” Rózsa Hoffmann, in her inimitable fashion, said the teachers were “wailing for nothing.” László Posán, a Fidesz MP who used to teach history at the University of Debrecen before he became a politician, also accused the teachers of political bias. According to him, the demonstration was totally uncalled for. Teachers have never had it so good as now. And earlier Posán was known as a moderate who, alongside Zoltán Pokorni, didn’t vote for the public education law in 2011.
So, for the time being an incredible self-confidence prevails. Mind you, some of these statements were made before the demonstration took place and before a public opinion poll was released about public support for the teachers’ demands, which brought some bad news to the Fidesz government.
The poll was conducted by the Publicus Intézet between February 9 and 11. The first surprise is that 90% of the adult population had heard about the demonstrations held in the last few days. Seventy-six percent support the demands of the teachers and only 14% are hostile. The Fidesz claim that the unrest is being fueled by the opposition parties is undercut because two-thirds of Fidesz voters support the demonstrating teachers. What do people see as core problems? Overworked students and teachers, unacceptably low teachers’ salaries, and a lack of textbooks of the teachers’ choice. Two-thirds of people believe that if the demands of the teachers were met, the quality of Hungarian education would improve. Three-quarters of them believe that the quality of education has deteriorated in the last few years and for that state of affairs the government is responsible.
A few days ago rumors circulated to the effect that Fidesz may declare an early election. After all, the argument goes, Fidesz’s popularity is at its height and Fidesz would like to reclaim the two-thirds majority it enjoyed a year ago. Perhaps they should grab the opportunity and ask the people to vote in the next month or so. At the moment the opposition is totally unprepared and support for Fidesz, according to all recent polls, is overwhelming. There is a good chance for them to regain that greatly missed and greatly desired two-thirds.
With Fidesz one doesn’t know what to believe, but if they seriously contemplated an early election, in light of this poll they should abandon any such thought. According to the latest polls that measure party support, 36% of the population is currently undecided. In the poll on education, however, only 10% had no opinion. While some people may be leery about disclosing their political preferences, they exhibit less hesitation when answering questions about education. All in all, the desired two-thirds might not be so easily achieved as some Fidesz leaders thought a few weeks ago.
What the government’s next step is I have no idea. I suspect that Orbán and company don’t either.