Educational activist István Pukli’s encounter with the media

I think it is time to talk a little about “the art of communication” or rather the lack thereof in Hungarian political life. It was only a couple of days ago that Gyula Molnár, the newly elected MSZP chairman, mangled his party’s message on the forthcoming referendum to such an extent that Népszabadság gave the following title to an opinion piece: “If you want to get completely confused on the issue of the referendum, listen to Gyula Molnár.”

These verbal mishaps are far too common. Two days after the Molnár affair, István Pukli, the brave principal of the Blanka Teleki High School in the Zugló section of Budapest, gave two interviews a day apart in which he made contradictory statements that were turned against him by the pro-government media.

For months now I have been listening four times a week to György Bolgár’s call-in show on Klubrádió on which one can hear invited guests’ ideas about the best ways to advance the departure of the Fidesz regime. When the person begins with “in order to answer this question we have to go back a bit in time” I already know that he/she will never return to the question.

Confusion, contradiction, rambling: not exactly the stuff of good communication. And yet the funny thing is that communication as a college major is extremely popular in Hungary, and every organization or business has a spokesman, sometimes more than one, like the Tom Lantos Institute I wrote about yesterday. In the Hungarian school system it is almost a mantra that students’ verbal participation in the classroom will make them good public speakers. Teachers as well as parents complain about the growing number of written tests, which they consider to be detrimental to verbal proficiency. But it is doubtful that the regurgitation of a few pages from a textbook does much to promote either logical reasoning or verbal fluency.

Here is István Pukli who, before he became a school principal, had taught literature and history. You’d assume he would know how to think on his feet. But no, he wound up in a tangle of contradictions. Pukli gave two interviews, one to The Budapest Beacon, which appeared in English on September 1, and the other to Magyar Idők, which was published on September 2.

István Pukli / Source: Magyar Idők

István Pukli / Source: Magyar Idők

In the Budapest Beacon interview, he was asked the following question. “Can you really imagine genuine education reforms taking place within NER [System of National Cooperation]? Or is the failure of the current government minimally required.” To which Pukli answered: “We have to say that the answer is no. But this is not our primary goal. We resolved to lobby educational matters and fight to achieve our objectives until they are realized. If a side effect of that is that Viktor Orbán falls from power, then so be it.” He was categorical in rejecting the proposition that a change of prime minister might solve the problem. “No, it is necessary to defeat the Fidesz system,” he answered.

So far so good, but then a few minutes later he said that he “would not like to see a left-wing turn” because he is “not sure that solidarity among the left-wing parties and their coming to power is the solution.” Yet he liked György Magyar’s call for “the opposition to cooperate, win, create a proportionate electoral law, dissolve the new parliament and hold an election under a respectable electoral law” although “as a teacher of Hungarian and history, what would I have to do with that?” Well, does he want solidarity among the opposition parties on the left or doesn’t he? As for the meaning of the last sentence, I am not even trying to decipher it.

As the leader of a movement that has achieved considerable success so far, Pukli sadly lacks civic responsibility. He doesn’t even know whether he will vote in 2018 because he doesn’t know for whom he would vote. He considers Gyurcsány and the rest on the left as bad as Orbán on the right. He believes that there will be no change of government in 2018 because “a lot of people lap up Fidesz’s stupidity.” Or, I would add, because of apathy. His own political apathy is difficult to reconcile with his activities as a leader of those who want a complete turnabout in the educational policy of the government, which he knows can be achieved only after the fall of the present political system.

So, let’s move on to the Magyar Idők interview. Keep in mind that Magyar Idők is the most loyal pro-government organ in the country. Still, Pukli bravely announced his disappointment in Fidesz. He told the less than sympathetic journalist that “the party in which [he] believed doesn’t represent conservative values. It is being guided by political and economic interests and has ruined the educational system. There is party loyalty and there are principles.” But then, without any qualification, he stated that “The goal is not the removal of the Orbán regime, only that they should realize and correct their mistakes.” As the journalist reminded him, his movement’s school-opening message this year contains Pukli’s slogan used at the spring demonstrations he helped to organize: “They have no power over us.” Pukli clarified the source of the message, saying that it was borrowed from the film Labyrinth where “it refers to the demons within us.” So, it’s no wonder that Magyar Idők gave the following title to the interview: “The current political left cannot be an alternative. István Pukli: We have no enemies, we struggle with our own demons.” Because of his confused thinking and poor verbal literacy the right-wing paper managed to make a liar and an opportunist out of Pukli. The other right-wing organ, Magyar Hírlap, reinforced this assessment in an article titled “Pukli’s public schizophrenia: “If the press writes about us, they cannot not reappoint me.” Unfortunately, Pukli did utter this unfortunate sentence in the Magyar Idők interview, so he could also be viewed as someone who is involved in the protest movement to save his job.

After such a blunder come the usual attempts to explain the inexplicable and to distance oneself from the person who got himself into the mess. Yesterday afternoon both Olivér Pilz, the other leader of the “We Want To Teach” movement, and István Pukli were interviewed on Klubrádió’s “Esti gyors” (Evening express) program. Pilz suggested that Pukli in his interviews was talking only about his own political views, which got mixed up with the program of the movement. As for Pukli, he repeated what he told The Budapest Beacon. It looks as if the Orbán government has no intention of changing course in its educational policy and therefore, although their original aim was certainly not the overthrow of the government, “if this is the only way, so be it.”

September 3, 2016
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Gyula Bognar Jr
September 3, 2016 8:55 pm

I have difficulty to understand , that the guests, who will have to answer questions in an interview;
1. do not request a list of the questions and/or the subject of the questions they will have to answer.
2. when they hear a question, that requires serious evaluation of the political situation or their answer would be on the level of political declaration, they should think first and formulate their answer carefully.
3. if they think that the question is being asked, so their honest answer would put them in a bad light, they should avoid answering such a question.
4. refuse to answer questions about their personal lives and their family and friends.

A really good reporter can make anyone look like a fool, if that person is not very, very careful.

September 4, 2016 11:35 am
Re: ‘A really good reporter can make anyone look like a fool, if that person is not very, very careful’ For sure especially if they have their own agenda as they take in the ‘communication’ You know there has been a book called ‘The Elements of Style’ here which has been constantly in print for many many years and used by students and writers to aid in making sure that when you say or write something to make sure you really have said it or wrote it. But that is not necessarily the case. Mr. Pukli , from the experiences shown, could perhaps really learn some tips from the ‘communications’ book. If the movement’s ‘big idea’ is ‘They have no power over us’ it arguably is easy to say but to persuade that observation is entirely another matter. Persuasion is not only of the intellect but needs to appeal to desire and emotion. Fidesz looks to be apparently outstanding in this area. It’s as if they have taken advertising principles and successfully applied them to the political process. They always seem to have the winning brand….. no matter even if some think it’s past its prime. And if so buying… Read more »
September 4, 2016 3:57 am
Again, a promising political movement getting stuck with personal disputes and antipathies? “I do sympathize with their ideas and goals, but their leader has lost all credibility” – how often have I heard this in the last few years? So sadly Hungarian. Speaking of education: while these sad things are happening (?) with the “We Want To Teach” movement, the education system is being thrown into a chaos, according to “Index” ( ): the vocational secondary schools which were supposed to be the most successful part of Hungarian public education nowadays, were “reformed” on extremely short notice. Index writes that the teachers are starting a new work year without knowing in detail what is supposed to be taught and who can do it. Especially the “general education” part is downgraded in the new curricula, to “adapt education with the needs of the job market” (that is, Hungary is going to produce cheap, only minimally educated labour instead of superfluous intellectuals who might get dangerous ideas). But don’t worry: at least the new eighth-grade history textbooks now present Viktor Orbán and his 2015 Brussels speech, in which he told the world that since Hungary never had colonies, accepting immigrants and multiculturalism… Read more »
Zoltan Bretter
September 4, 2016 9:09 am

Short note. This piece exhibits more than anything else the inner contradiction of the so called “civil society” How far the self-appointed members of the “civil society” are “civil” i.e. philatelists and how far the activists relate to society, i.e. to politics. The original idea of “civil society” that goes back to Rousseau, is exactly to solve this problem. The individual gives up its particular freedom to be part of the freedom of participation in political affairs. Direct participation in the political affairs renders obsolete any philatelist activity, which would never reach the status of activity proper. But if we consider politics a “dirty business” we would never get closer to civic activity. This is what causes the confusion in István Pukli’s utterances.

Jean P.
Jean P.
September 4, 2016 12:55 pm

“This is what causes the confusion in István Pukli’s utterances.”


September 4, 2016 3:04 pm

Philatelists? Philatelist activity/

I’m at a loss to understand what stamp-collecting has to do with Eva’s post – have I missed something.

If it is a ‘lost in translation’ – apologies.

My (lack of) Hungarian sometimes leads me up the garden path – so I understand.

I suspect you mean ‘Philosophy’? Which still leaves me confused.

Jean P.
Jean P.
September 4, 2016 3:24 pm


September 4, 2016 3:47 pm


(Like George Soros.)

Yes thanks.

Zoltan Bretter
September 4, 2016 5:08 pm

Sorry to disappoint you, but “philatelist” is exactly the word I wanted to use. Collecting stamps is par excellence the activity that has nothing to do with civic activity in its original sense, though all who are collecting stamps as members of a club implicitly are part of the civil society. (I’m not sure that I am clear enough, but you know, I’m a philosopher 🙂 What I really meant is that until people like Pukli consider themselves civic activists, but they refrain to take on politics, they will remain stamp collectors and won’t be able to successfully challenge the authoritarian regime of Viktor Orbán. Still I am grateful to all of you philanthropists to give me the chance to dwell on this issue.

September 5, 2016 9:10 am

Ok thanks. A strange unfathomable articulation in my view.

I’ll stick to collecting – and my collection – of clocks.

I’m sure I could confuse anyone who bothered to read me with erudite connections with Proust.

But I have a better regard for the sanity of Eva’s readers.

September 5, 2016 9:42 am

And what makes you think I’m a philanthropist?

September 5, 2016 1:47 pm

Ah a reference to Mr. Proust!
Amazing how his mouth melted into a ‘madeline’ and a whole world was brought back to him in an instant to mine and examine the effects of the past with his literary genius. Funny I think he was onto something because when we read and see and feel that inherent Fideszian ‘soulfulness’ coming off in the prouncements of the right one would have to think that with each tasting of their ‘madelined’ utterances it takes us back to another time and another place where anyone with their right mind would never want to visit. Their ‘madeline’ is a confection that isnt made to please but to haunt anybody who tastes it. What a deadly pastry for Magyarorszag to take with their coffees.

September 5, 2016 4:17 pm

Well done wrfree!

I understood your allegory!


September 4, 2016 3:30 pm

Rather OT – but this news shows one of the problems that the former Communist countries have:

In the East German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the AfD (the German equivalent of Jobbik) got around 20% of the votes in the elections for the local parliament – however the Social Democrats are still the strongest party, the Christian Democrats are just third in line…

So we have a similar situation in a way like in Hungary.

The French “Jobbik”boss Miss LePen already sent congratulations to the AfD …

Now I’m wondering whom Fidesz will applaud!

September 5, 2016 8:23 am
Pukli effectively got thrust into the role he is playing now in the larger civil society of Hungary. He was trained to be part of the public sector education bureaucracy. This bureaucracy is faced with its own imponderable situation of providing a free public education in the context on contained resources and new state mandates. The fact that the Tanitanék movement has gotten the press it has despite the very limited impact of its organized actions, one hour strikes, teach ins etc. has been impressive. But it reflects the apparent chaos Fidesz has created in the eduction sector ( see ). This chaos is reflected in the movement itself and for those who read Hungarian its reflected in this brief statement posted yesterday . Eva has discussed the thrust of the government’s vocational conversion laws, but the actual laws themselves were not formalized until around August 20. Effectively Fidesz implemented shock and awe in the education sector. The Civil Public Education Platform argues as is this rapid implementation is idiotic, when in reality its strategic. It’s critique of the vocational conversion is valid ( ) But there is a denial or avoidance of the overall facist nature of… Read more »