András Kósa, a well-known Hungarian journalist, just published a book titled The Speech of the Chief: Őszöd after Ten Years. It is a collection of interviews with former and current politicians as well as with political commentators. Interest in Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech and its impact on subsequent political developments doesn’t seem to wane. A reader and friend of Hungarian Spectrum, Steven N., who is also a friend of Kósa, approached me asking whether we would be interested in Kósa’s interview with Ferenc Gyurcsány. If yes, he would translate it for us. I gladly accepted his offer. Here is the first part of the interview.
But first, a few words about András Kósa. I remember him from the time he was writing in the still liberal Magyar Hírlap in the early 2000s. Later he worked for Hírszerző, which was eventually absorbed by HVG. For a short while he wrote for vs.hu. The website received some bad press recently when it became known that New Wave Media, the owner of vs.hu, had received 642,255,760 forints from foundations of the Hungarian National Bank. Six of the website’s journalists immediately resigned. András Kósa was one of them.
This June Kósa joined Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. As he said, “I know both editorial teams and I could say yes to both offers in good conscience.”
My thanks to “Steven N.” for his work in translating the interview with Ferenc Gyurcsány. I know we will have a brisk discussion on this very controversial subject.
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András Kósa: Ten years after these events occurred, are you still interested in how the speech was leaked in the end?
Ferenc Gyurcsány: Not really. Of course, I wouldn’t mind it if some day it became clear what happened.
How much did your tenure as prime minister and the leaking of the Őszöd speech affect Hungary over the past ten years?
Significantly, because of its consequences. First of all, it discredited a very important reform policy that I still feel is the right direction to go. We would be much further along today in many respects if we could carry out reforms in education, health care, and other areas. I can immodestly say that the Őszöd scandal gravely wounded a politician who certainly had within himself the possibility of attaining further success – me. It can’t be denied that it contributed to the difficult situation that the left finds itself in these days. Individually as well as collectively, these are substantial developments in the life of the country. Incidentally, I can’t even count on one hand the number of European leaders who have said to me, “I’ve said things even more colorful than that, Feri!” This is not to say that I do not bear any responsibility in this matter. With greater wisdom and experience, I would have handled the situation that emerged after the 2006 elections differently. But those who did what they did with the speech, all the way from those who leaked it to how my opponents deliberately misinterpreted it, bear a grave, criminal responsibility.
Do you know who leaked it?
Interestingly, Fidesz brought up this topic again during the 2014 campaign. I can only say now what I said then: I am 99% certain of who did it.
At what point would it have been best to step down?
In spring 2008, after the Fidesz “social” referendum, which symbolically signified a defeat for my reform policy? It would have made sense then. And although I even experimented with this, the former MSZP board wasn’t behind it.
Many have said that your party wasn’t expecting to win the 2006 elections and was preparing for a role in the opposition (this was certainly the belief of your coalition partner SZDSZ), which is why the party didn’t have a ready program, and why it was already in trouble by the summer. Is this true?
I think that’s ridiculous. I can state with confidence that I and those I was in direct contact with in the government and in the MSZP leadership strongly believed in the possibility of victory. The so-called “100 steps” program announced a year earlier set the main directions for our governance post-2006, and at our request Prof. Sárközy prepared a comprehensive proposal package for the reform of state administration. So we were ready to continue governing.
Following the leaking of the speech in September and the first street disturbances, there was a vote of confidence in Parliament on October 6, 2006 that reaffirmed your role as Prime Minister. Was this not at all an issue for MSZP at that time? Were you supported uniformly?
If there really was such an issue in the party, they did not give any indication of it. I didn’t hear any kind of information that anyone had doubts about me continuing to lead the government. It’s possible that this was in some people’s heads, but such concerns never reached me.
If you had resigned in 2006 or 2008 and Fidesz had won early elections, then several commentators – for example, Gábor Török also discussed this with me – think you would have been able to triumphantly return to power even in 2010.
Who can know for sure after the fact? I certainly wouldn’t be able to say.
Many people have subsequently said that there would have been much less controversy if Ferenc Gyurcsány had delivered this speech (though not of course with these same words) in Parliament, at a public event or in a televised speech.
Yes, many have said that. Maybe they’re right. But I gave similar types of speeches at that time – though of course they weren’t like this one – and no one really paid any attention to them. Let’s face it: there are two exciting parts to the Őszöd speech. You can say that “the speech was leaked because it was secret.” That’s not true, because of course it was never secret, but it is a fact that it was “leaked.” The other thing, that there are two or three crude remarks in it, together with the swearing, truly put a horribly powerful weapon in the hands of my opponents and made these phrases barely defensible in the public sphere. Yet the text that lies behind it is one of the best since the change of regime in 1989. And it had a different function than a public speech. The Őszöd speech was the way it was because I had to shake up a reluctant party that found it difficult to take action, so I chose passionate, exaggerated words for this situation. If I have to confront people in a public setting, then naturally I formulate my words differently, because that speech has yet another function. It’s not that the Őszöd speech can’t be said publicly because you can’t swear in public. The speech stands on its own even without the profanity. It’s because making a statement in Parliament is different from a speech attempting to shake up my party and which wasn’t intended for the public.
Many have said, and subsequently this is a fact, that already by the summer of 2006 the element of “this government has lied up and down to us!” had already appeared in Fidesz’ rhetoric. They built a campaign on this, which suggested that Viktor Orbán and his party knew about the speech well before its disclosure to the public.
We are almost certain of this, and we essentially know that Viktor Orbán, as the head of Fidesz, was informed very early about the speech, and that he knew exactly when and how it would be leaked. And we also know that Fidesz played a key role in preparing the ground for the disturbances that followed the leaking of the speech.
What do you mean by that?
As I said, literally.
Was Fidesz in contact with groups of football hooligans, or extreme right-wing elements that took to the streets and besieged the television headquarters, for example?
I can say this about it: I now know that there is a paper in the Hungarian public administration that describes this factually and is classified as a state secret. And I also know that there’s also a copy of this paper that Fidesz will not be able to get rid of, should they ever be concerned when the government changes and the new government declassifies these dossiers. From these reports, it became perfectly clear that leaders from the upper-upper-uppermost level of Fidesz were involved in this process.
Did you try in any way – informally – to confront them with this? Did you try to ask them, “Why are you doing this?”
We didn’t know this then. What we knew was that those who were involved came from the middle stratum of Fidesz’ leadership. But this was said in sessions of Parliament’s Defense Committee, and later also in sessions that were made public. Investigations by the state security services at that time revealed that mid-level Fidesz leaders had also organized the disturbances. So this brings us to the autumn of 2006. It was our clumsiness that even then we weren’t able to use this knowledge to our advantage. I learned about the involvement of Fidesz’ inner circle after 2010, long after I had left office. We weren’t even able to take advantage of the situation when, during Parliamentary hearings on the siege of the television headquarters in September 2006, it was precisely Fidesz politicians who demanded much tougher action from the police. For example, questioning why they didn’t use weapons. Compared to that, we are at the point now where I am considered the “one who shot out people’s eyes.”
The breaching of the cordon in February 2007 and the completely passive behavior of the police made it clear to all, even to laymen, how uncertain the entire state apparatus and even the legitimate bodies of violence were with respect to the government. What was your sense of this?
This is what we felt, of course. Absolutely. The police felt then that the left wing, which exactly 15 years earlier had passed through the eye of the needle and turned from a dictatorial state party into a democratic political force, was itself also very uncertain about whether or not it could use the powers of law enforcement, and if so, then for how long and to what extent it could use them. This uncertainty has been throughout our entire culture. The police themselves were also uncertain. They didn’t intend to sabotage the situation, but even they had not encountered such a situation for decades. Of course, it not only about them, as there were legal proceedings that resulted from breaching the cordon. The Hungarian court – in an unparalleled way – stated that according to the general principles of criminal law, the general condition of the realization of a crime (regardless of whether the Penal Code includes such facts or not) is that “the behavior must be dangerous to society.” And the court found that the fact that a police cordon was torn down was not dangerous to society, so it didn’t have to examine separately whether or not it qualified as disorderly conduct or something else.
Could there have been any political pressure on the court at the time?
I don’t have any direct proof of it, but I can’t rule it out.
In your own criminal case, what did you feel was the attitude of those who represented the administration of justice?
They wanted to charge me with many things, but altogether they only dared to accuse me of one. In this one case I was informed that Chief Prosecutor Péter Polt was constantly informed of the state of the proceedings, while he informed Viktor Orbán, and the Prime Minister constantly had an opinion about what should be done. I was also informed that there was considerable pressure on the prosecuting attorneys, and that enormous pressure had been placed on suspects in other cases to get them to cut an informal immunity deal and testify against me to have their charges dropped or reduced. It was about whom also spoke publicly. I was likewise informed that at the end of my case (the so-called Sukoró case), the prosecutor wished to terminate the proceedings due to the absence of criminal activity, and at the instructions of his superiors had to rewrite this to the absence of proof. But the absence of proof for the suspicion in question was practically conceptual nonsense. They accused me of abuse of official authority. But if this was the accusation, then they had to be able to show factually where I abused my authority. It either happened, or it didn’t – to end this because of the absence of proof? It’s absurd.
To this day, people in Hungary still recall your debate with Viktor Orbán for the candidacy of prime minister in the spring of 2006, which was viewed as a clear victory for you over the Fidesz chairman according to most commentators. Afterwards, you also had meetings with Orbán as prime minister. How did you view him subsequent to that?
There were some who told me that Orbán was very frustrated that he didn’t get into power right away after the Őszöd scandal, but had to wait out the four-year cycle. If he had become prime minister sooner, perhaps he would not have acted so ruthlessly against the left wing.
Do you think we would be seeing a different Orbán now had he come to power sooner?
I’m not good at offering political-psychological analyses, and I don’t even know Viktor Orbán all that well personally. But even after the Fidesz defeat in 2002 that surprised everyone, there were statements about how they needed to learn from this failure, and that they had to be even harder on the opposition next time. So I’m not certain that it was the defeat in 2006 that fundamentally made him this way.
How can you explain that even after eight years in the opposition, Fidesz was able to continuously build up its own media and create a base of support, while the left, after eight years of governing, now finds itself bled dry, and in a very difficult situation? What do you think the reason for this is?
There are several reasons for this. In part, the success that Viktor Orbán has had in building a very strong political base can’t be denied. Its internal cohesion and capacity to withstand stresses are even now significantly stronger than those of its rivals. In 2003, I made a kind of analytical statement to the effect that Orbán was constructing a shadow government, and so would be able to hold on to positions of power even in opposition, which was unusual not only for a Western-style democracy, but also for Hungary. This also demonstrates the capabilities of this camp and of course their lack of inhibition as well. Thirdly, using not a small amount of “grey” money, Lajos Simicska, the party’s former treasurer, built a strong economic power base, one that endured for eight years while they were in the opposition. For us in the opposition, poverty mostly characterized us. So while these three factors have undoubtedly been a success from the point of view of Orbán and Fidesz, in terms of the fate and future of the country, many negative lessons have rather been associated with them.
Fidesz’ economic model, based on Lajos Simicska, was really very effective for a long time, and incidentally, operated in a completely open way. Didn’t it ever occur to the MSZP to adopt this model?
Many certainly thought about it. For me, there are some things in politics that will never be venial sins, such as corruption. Along with others, it also appears likely to me that parties who were large during the regime change had a background full of murky financial affairs. This had the consequence that I sponsored a new bill on party financing in 2006 – and Fidesz thwarted it. A two-thirds majority was needed to pass it, and they didn’t support the bill in Parliament.
Yet it seemed that Hungarian politics would have a moment of grace, and that the parties would be able to agree with each other on a very important issue.
Fidesz initialed the draft law. Following the discussions, I was informed by the Parliamentary delegations that it would soon pass through Parliament. But then it didn’t happen. I then asked someone I knew who was in touch with Fidesz’ party treasurer to go to him and find out the reason for this incredible about-face. A few days later, I was told: Party Chairman Viktor Orbán does not want others to look into Fidesz’ finances. For him, things are fine the way they are now. If it didn’t really happen the way I said it, then I was also misled. But what I’ve quoted to you now was pretty much word-for-word what I was told at that time.
2006 also brought a strengthening of the Hungarian far right and Jobbik. There have been all sorts of theories, even conspiracy theories, about which political side is responsible for this, and may have provided support for it. To what extent was the political crisis that arose in the wake of the Őszöd speech the breeding ground for this development, as you see it?
There are many reasons for this, but I do not want to hunt for responsibility in anyone else. We, and I myself, did not have a quite accurate feel at the time for the kinds of consequences, in part socially and in part psychologically, that would accompany the austerity policy that we continued from autumn 2006 for another year and a half or two years, or for its capability of radicalizing certain groups of the electorate. In this sense, we did have something to do with voters migrating to the Jobbik camp from both the left and right wings alike. All other statements about us deliberately and consciously looking for ways to build up such a camp belong to the world of conspiracy theories.
There are two general opinions about the current difficult situation of the left wing: the first is that fundamentally there’s a kind of personality crisis (there haven’t been any personable leaders since Ferenc Gyurcsány’s term as Prime Minister), while the other says that the left wing has (also) become vacant ideologically, that the well-known “third way” of Anthony Giddens/Tony Blair, which you also previously wanted to introduce here, has proven to be a dead end, not only for left-wing parties in Hungary, but for European ones as well. What do you think the cause of this crisis is?
There’s some truth in both of them. The Hungarian left lacks people with personalities. The great age group, which played a key role (and a progressive role) during the time of the regime change and had Gyula Horn as its leader, has reached its end of life, and the next generation has basically found Fidesz as its own party. Support for the left is very low among those now in their 30s and 40s, while those in their 20s are more prone to being radicalized, and it’s there that the far right is stocking up. The other phenomenon is more complex, and global in nature. We see its manifestations in the U.S. presidential elections with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders; we see the success of the Freedom Party in the Austrian presidential elections, the advance of the National Front in France, or even UKIP in Great Britain. The two major German parties, CDU-CSU, as well as the SPD, garner a total of 50 percent support. Those in this new generation have arrived at the beginning of their adult lives unable to enjoy things now that previously seemed almost natural (a relatively good job at some point, with relatively good pay, an apartment that is relatively easy to acquire). Therefore, they first became disillusioned with the left wing (since previously it was the “obligation” of the left wing to create the conditions for these things), and have now become disillusioned with the centrist parties as well. This is the real reason behind this radicalization. I don’t think that there are any big tricks to reversing this bad trend: if we do not democratize the political system, then radicalization and anti-elitism will continue even further, and will eventually reach all moderate parties.