Tag Archives: Péter Ákos Bod

Conservative awakening in Hungary

About a year and a half ago I created a folder devoted to “internal divisions” within Fidesz. At that time there were a few signs of differences of opinion among the top Fidesz leaders, which to me signaled the possibility of a chink in the armor of this monolithic party. I was wrong. In no time Lázár, Kövér, Balog, and some others buried the hatchet–if there ever was such a thing as a hatchet in the first place.

This time there can be no question. An internal opposition has emerged, comprised of politicians who had once occupied important positions in Viktor Orbán’s governments. Even earlier, one had the distinct feeling that people like Foreign Minister János Martonyi, who served Viktor Orbán faithfully for eight years, István Stumpf, who served as Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office between 1998 and 2002 and since July 2010 as a Fidesz-appointed member of the Constitutional Court, and Tibor Navracsics, former head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation (2006-2010), minister of justice and administration, deputy prime minister (2010-2014), who was “exiled to Brussels” in November 2014 to become European commissioner in charge of education, culture, and youth, disapproved of Viktor Orbán’s growing shift to the right, his foreign policy, and his illiberalism. But there was little or no public display of their dissatisfaction. It now looks as if their concerns have become grave enough to overcome their reluctance to turn against the regime they so faithfully supported earlier.

About two weeks ago János Martonyi and István Stumpf delivered lectures at a conference organized by the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum, where  Martonyi took issue with Viktor Orbán’s attachment to “ethnic homogeneity.” In February of this year Viktor Orbán, in a lecture delivered at the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, had talked quite openly about “safeguarding the ethnic homogeneity” of the country. Later, during his last trip to Poland, at the joint press conference with Prime Minister Beata Szydło, he repeated his vision for Europe and for Hungary that included references to ethnic homogeneity. Martonyi said he couldn’t reconcile Orbán’s concept of ethnically homogeneous nation states with the fact that three or four million Hungarians live outside the country’s present borders. Martonyi is right. Orbán’s ideological struggles with the European Union led him to an irreconcilable contradiction on this issue.

István Stump was even more outspoken. He criticized the limits the Orbán government placed on the competence of the constitutional court. He was specifically talking about the suspension of the court’s competency over economic matters, which he called “an open wound on the body of Hungarian constitutionalism.” He also complained about the practice of retroactive legislation, which “in the long run, eliminates the maneuverability of future governments.”

Then there is Tibor Navracsics, who said that “the Soros Plan is not part of the European Commission’s agenda.” That upset Zsolt Semjén, KDNP deputy prime minister, mightily. In a radio interview he declared that Tibor Navracsics, as a European commissioner, knows that “his colleagues, his surroundings, people as well as organizations, are not only in the hands of George Soros, but also in his pocket.” Semjén accused Navracsics of disloyalty and called on him to decide where his real allegiance lies: with his own country or with the international community. Navracsics didn’t seem to be intimidated and called Semjén’s reaction “hysteria” which leads to wrong political decisions. Semjén’s attacks on Navracsics, however, continue unabated. Only today one could read that Navracsics’s denial of the Soros Plan is being used by the opposition “as a knife in the back of the government.”

One of the harshest critics of the Orbán government is Géza Jeszenszky, minister of foreign affairs in the government of József Antall (1990-1994), who during the first Orbán government (1998-2002) continued his political activities as ambassador to the United States. In 2011 he was named ambassador to Norway and Iceland. In October 2014 he resigned because he disagreed with the government’s attack on the Norway Fund, which achieved nothing and ruined the relations between Norway and Hungary for some time. Jeszenszky is no friend of George Soros who, in his opinion, was “an unfair adversary of the Antall government,” but he finds the anti-Soros campaign “shameful.” He believes that Orbán’s “aggressive” foreign policy is wrong and his pro-Russian orientation dangerous. He gives many interviews in which he doesn’t hide his true feelings about the Orbán government. He even expressed his willingness to help the opposition parties with his advice and support. Naturally, Jeszenszky’s criticisms couldn’t be left unanswered. Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, described Jeszenszky as being “in a state of political dementia.” Magyar Idők was brief and to the point: “Whoever is (was) Géza Jeszenszky, he should be ashamed of himself.”

Meanwhile, more and more former politicians and professionals who used to work for the Antall and earlier Fidesz governments are ready to join the efforts of the opposition to dislodge the present government. Tamás Mellár, a conservative economist at the University of Pécs who used to work for the Fidesz think tank Századvég, announced his intention to run as an independent candidate for parliament if all the opposition parties would support him. Given the disastrous Fidesz administration in the city, I have no doubt that Mellár could easily win one of the two parliamentary seats from Pécs.

Some of the disenchanted conservatives: Attila Chikán, László Sólyom, and Péter Ákos Bod / Source: Magyar Nemzet

Péter Ákos Bod, minister of industry and trade in the Antall government (1990-1991) and later chairman of the Hungarian National Bank (1991-1994), has been a severe critic of the Orbán government for a couple of years. By now he is openly talking about the need to remove Viktor Orbán from power because he fears economic disaster if the present government prevails. In order to appreciate the significance of Bod’s present stance, one should keep in mind that in 2006, when Viktor Orbán was desperate because he realized that his party might lose the election again, he offered the post of prime minister to Bod between the first and second rounds of election in the hope of reversing the trend. So, Bod’s presence at an LMP event where Bernadett Szél announced the party’s cooperation with a small, right-of-center party called Új Kezdet (New beginning) established by György Gémesi, mayor of Gödöllő since 1994, is significant. It shows Bod’s total disillusionment with Viktor Orbán and his regime. György Gémesi’s decision to work together with LMP is also noteworthy. Gémesi was once an important MDF leader.

Analysts have been saying for years that the Orbán regime cannot be removed only by the left-of-center parties. Disappointed Fidesz voters who most likely would never vote for MSZP or DK must have their place in the sun. The awakening of these conservatives might be the harbinger of a new, truly right-of-center political formation that could help stop those far-right forces that Fidesz let loose on the country.

October 25, 2017

Corruption and the Hungarian economy

Frigyes Solymosi, a professor of chemistry and member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, has been a longstanding conservative critic of Viktor Orbán’s undemocratic regime. For years he has been writing op/ed pieces in Népszabadság because Magyar Nemzet, when it was still a government mouthpiece, refused to publish his articles. His latest is titled “Where is the hot spot?” The current behavior of Hungarian society reminds him of something that happened in his lab years ago. They were studying some explosives that for a long time remained dormant. At some point, however, a “hot spot” developed within the explosive tablet, and boom! It made quite a mess of their lab.

Solymosi’s article lists some troubling signs in the Hungarian economy, the lack of technological advancement, the neglect of education and healthcare, and the growing exodus of the best and the brightest. They all point to a further deterioration of conditions in the country.

Along these lines today I’m focusing on a conference organized by Világgazdaság to deal with the question: “Is this sustained growth?” The Hungarian financial paper invited several finance or economic ministers from earlier years. Two of the participants served in the Antall government (1990-1993). Antall changed finance ministers three times. The first one lasted only a few months (May 24-December 19, 1990). Kupa lasted longer (December 20, 1990-February 11, 1993). I always enjoy listening to him when he is invited for an interview. He strikes me as knowledgeable and level-headed, and he has a wonderful sense of humor. The other participant from the Antall era was Péter Ákos Bod, who served as minister in charge of industry and trade for a short time, after which he became the chairman of the Hungarian National Bank. Attila Chikán represented the first Orbán government, in which he served as minister in charge of the economy (July 8, 1998-December 31, 1999). He was replaced by György Matolcsy, who has since become Viktor Orbán’s right hand. The only “liberal” economist present was István Csillag. He was minister in charge of the economy and transportation during the Medgyessy government.

From left to right: Mihály Kupa, Péter Ákos Bod, István Csillag, and Attila Chickán

From left to right: Mihály Kupa, Péter Ákos Bod, István Csillag, and Attila Chickán

All of the participants agreed that the government propaganda about the robust economy that will not only be sustained but steadily grow is just that. Propaganda. Whatever growth there is is due only to the subsidies received from the European Union. The growth the Hungarian economy is capable of producing on its own is about 1% per year.

The Orbán government likes to compare Hungarian economic growth to the EU average and boast, as he did recently in Mongolia, that Hungary, along with other East European countries, is the engine of the Union’s economic growth. But this is not really relevant. What one has to concentrate on is Hungary’s standing within the region. It should be compared to the neighboring countries: Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, all of whose economies are growing faster than Hungary’s. Romania’s economic development still lags behind her western neighbor, but it is catching up.

According to István Csillag, “Hungary exists only as long as there is the European Union. If the EU ceases to exist, there will be no Hungary.” Of course, this statement is overly dramatic, but we know what Csillag has in mind. He said that even 2014, which was hailed as an unusually successful year with a 3.7% economic growth, still pales in comparison to 2004 when the Hungarian economy grew by 5% with a 7% additional expenditure compared to 2014’s 3.7% growth with an 8% additional expenditure.

György Matolcsy’s efforts at stimulating the economy met with general disapproval by all participants. Such stimulants look promising initially, but their end is usually “painful,” creating economic bubbles.

I left Attila Chickán’s contribution to last because his field of expertise is “competitiveness” and “productivity.” Hungarian productivity is half that of the European average, due primarily to the inefficiency of the institutional structure. For sustained growth a country needs stable institutions, investment in human capital, and a competitive market without corruption. The problem with the present Hungarian economy is that none of these conditions exists at the moment, and there are no signs that the government is making any attempt to remedy the situation.

And that leads us to Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index 2015,” published yesterday. While a number of countries in the region have improved significantly in the last few years–for example, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, in 2015 Hungary’s standing dropped to 50th place out of 168 countries. In 2014 Hungary stood in 47th place among 175 countries, which means that corruption in the country has increased relative to the other countries studied.

The Hungarian government makes no effort to combat corruption, which ensures the further deterioration of the Hungarian economy. Fidesz and the government blithely ignore the problem and accuse Transparency International of bias because—hard to believe but true—George Soros has been supporting this global anti-corruption non-governmental body. The terse reaction of Fidesz to the news of Hungary’s poor performance was: “Transparency International, which is financed from Soros’s money, serves the immigration policy of George Soros. Transparency International’s goal is to exert political pressure on Hungary.”

Alas, that’s not the end of the bad news. More will come tomorrow.

January 28, 2016

Conservative critics of the Orbán regime: The József Eötvös Group

I’m convinced that “something is in the air.” There is a growing dissatisfaction in all strata of Hungarian society, which may signal the beginning of more active political participation on the part of those who find the current government’s policies injurious to the interests of the country and devastating for the majority of the Hungarian people.

I already covered the demands of teachers and physicians, which are professional in nature but may at any time morph into political opposition. After all, when students and teachers complain about outdated teaching methods and demand fewer restrictions and more time for independent thinking, they are expressing views incompatible with the undemocratic worldview of the Orbán regime. As we discussed in the comments, most likely the majority of the teachers and doctors who today are challenging the government were Fidesz voters. And if Jenő Rácz of the Veszprém hospital thinks that Hungarian healthcare is on the brink of collapse—something that the lowly nurse Mária Sándor also says but no one listens to—then, believe me, the problem is serious.

As we know very well, there are problems in other fields as well. The economy, of which Viktor Orbán and György Matolcsy are so proud, is struggling if one looks beneath the surface. The spectacular 3.6% economic growth in 2014 was due solely to the unusually large size of subsidies that arrived from Brussels. The state of democracy and the rule of law are also in deep trouble.

Until now only so-called liberal economists and legal scholars criticized the Orbán government’s policies and its trajectory. But now so-called conservative economic and legal thinkers have also felt the need to sit down and exchange thoughts on the sorry state of the Hungarian economy and legal system. I want to emphasize up front that the opinions of these conservative thinkers are practically indistinguishable from those of the liberals. Looking at the situation from the outside, I simply can’t understand why these two groups cannot get together.

The idea of organizing a group of conservative economists and legal scholars came from Tamás Mellár, professor of economics at the University of Pécs, and András Jakab, director of the Institute of Jurisprudence of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Mellár was the director of the Central Statistical Office (Központi Statisztikai Hivatal / KSH) between 1998 and 2003. Jakab’s curriculum vitae is most impressive. He taught at the University of Liverpool, the University of Nottingham, and the William and Mary Law School and was research fellow at the Max Planck Institute.

Their idea was to organize small gatherings to discuss topics of importance. Jakab, the moderator, normally invites two speakers who approach the given topic from different perspectives. Their last meeting took place a few days ago. Although they advertised their meetings on Facebook, this is the first time that the public learned of the József Eötvös Csoport (Group).  The group was named for the minister of education between April and September 1848 and again between 1867 and 1871. Eötvös was a moderate, a centrist, and a devoted follower of Ferenc Deák. Today we would call him a liberal conservative.

The group was established in March 2015 by Péter Ákos Bod, Attila Chikán, László Csaba, András Jakab, András Jóri, Béla Kádár, Tamás Mellár, László Sólyom, Péter Tölgyessy, and László Urbán. It would take up too much space to identify each of these people, but all of them were involved in some capacity with the governments of either József Antall or Viktor Orbán. Bod was even the candidate for prime minister for a few days in 2006 when Viktor Orbán felt that without him Fidesz had a better chance of winning the election.

In the front row László Sólyom and Béla Kádár

In the front row László Sólyom and Béla Kádár

I’m not sure how many meetings the group has held since March 2015, but I know that they had one on “corruption and economic decline” where the two speakers were Miklós Ligeti, director of Transparency International Magyarország, and Balázs Szepesi, strategic director of the Hétfa Kutatóintézet (Hétfa Research Institute). Szepesi at one point described those responsible for the Hungarian economy today as blind people trying to fix a watch with a hammer. There was also a discussion on “national independence and European integration.”

The last meeting was about the nature of Viktor Orbán’s system. Is it populism or something else? One of the speakers was András Körösényi, about whose ideas I wrote already in a post titled “Orbán system or Orbán regime: Debate on the nature of the Hungarian government.” This time Körösényi, a political scientist, came to the conclusion that although there are certain identifiable populist elements in Orbán’s political system, his government most of the time ignores the popular will. It is better to describe Orbán’s decisions as based on “oligarchic interests.” This description of the Orbán regime is not too different from Bálint Magyar’s mafia state. Yet they come from different sides of the Hungarian political spectrum.

Although the organizers insist that this is not an opposition group, the speakers and discussants express views critical of the present regime. Sooner or later these conservative thinkers must face the fact that their discussions are more than “offering a good example of civilized discourse.” I very much doubt that any of the founders of the József Eötvös Group believe that Orbán’s political system can be “reformed.”

This became evident to me when I listened to Antónia Mészáros’s interview with Péter Ákos Bod on ATV. Bod, the former Fidesz prime minister delegate, talked about his worries over the rule of law and economic progress that has been halted. He criticized the economy, in which corruption is widespread. He described the existing economic system as a far cry from a true market economy. He criticized the ad hoc nature of economic decisions and the lack of professional expertise. The economy is slowing, he said, and the government is not prepared for the difficulties that will ensue when the flow of money from Brussels slows or even stops. Every time policy makers sense an economic slowdown they come up with some new idea that is supposed to remedy the situation. One such remedy is the idea of giving 10 million forints to families willing to have three children who want to buy a new home. The idea is fraught with hidden pitfalls which are not yet evident. Such fiddling with the economy usually has adverse consequences in the future.

How often did we hear all these criticisms not from “conservative” economists but from “radical liberals,” as Fidesz politicians like to call them? But the message is the same, regardless of whether it comes from the left or the right. The whole system is flawed, and sooner or later it will come to a sorry end. And then the country will need all these people to try to fix the problems.

January 23, 2016