Tag Archives: politics

János Kornai: Threatening dangers

The Peterson Institute for International Relations (USA) and the School of Public Policy at the Central European University (Hungary) held a conference on “Transition in Perspective: 25 Years after the Fall of Communism” in Budapest on May 6 and 7, 2014. Among the attendees were Leszek Balcerowicz, Václav Klaus, Anatoly Chubais, and many other well-known economic policymakers and academic economists of the post-socialist transition period. This is the text of János Kornai’s keynote address.

INTRODUCTION

I would really like to give a cheerful and optimistic talk. I was optimistic when I was working on my book The Road to a Free Economy in 1989.  I undertook comprehensive evaluations of the post-socialist transformation later, on various occasions, and although all the essays pointed out the problems, they always ended on a note of optimism. Even today, there are several developments that may give grounds for satisfaction: in many countries in Central-Eastern Europe and in the Baltic regions dictatorship has been replaced by democracy, the command economy by the market economy, socialism by capitalism. My sentiments, however, are overcast by two depressing developments.

David Levine: Business & financial figures, economists /New York Review of Books

David Levine: Business & financial figures, economists /New York Review of Books

I am Hungarian – my mind can barely stop processing the uninterrupted flow of gloomy news for a second.  Hungary was moving forward on the path of democratic development for 20 years. People were tormented by various troubles, however, it was to be hoped that sooner or later we would manage to overcome these too. But the situation changed for the worse in 2010, when the political forces leading the country performed a U-turn. Instead of the strengthening of democracy we saw the abolition or drastic restriction of numerous fundamental institutions of democracy. Instead of private property being reinforced, the security of private property came under attack. Instead of continuing decentralization, the tendency to centralize was revived.

What has taken place here in four years and what will, in all likelihood, continue for the next four is a unique phenomenon: Hungary is the first – and so far the only – one  among the countries that chose the democratic path in 1989 – 90 which made a U-turn. This one example, however, is enough to prove that such a change can happen. The path on which we started in 1989 is not necessarily a one-way road; the changes, of historical significance, are not irreversible. Quite the contrary – and this is one of the terrible aspects of the Hungarian state of affairs -, the situation after the U-turn may become irreversible for a very long time. Democracy, especially in countries where it has not yet taken deep root, might be unable to defend itself. It may be overpowered if it is attacked unscrupulously and with Machiavellian determination.

The other shadow over our celebration is cast by the Ukrainian situation. Nobody can tell for sure what the months to come will bring. But one thing has already happened, and this is the de facto annexation of the Crimean peninsula. One of the fundamental principles of the Accords signed in Helsinki in 1975 was the sanctity of the status quo: the state borders valid at that time were not to be changed for any reason whatsoever. The Crimean peninsula became part of Ukraine twenty years before the Helsinki Accords. One of the basic principles of the Accords was overthrown in March 2014, and the world took note of this and responded only by wagging a disapproving finger and introducing mild reprisals. Like the Hungarian changes, this constitutes a powerful precedent, according to which it is possible to change a lawful border using military force on some pretext or another, and for this purpose the most obvious excuse is ethnic.

All the things I wish to say tonight I will discuss in the light of these two precedent-forming events.

ALTERNATIVE POLITICAL REGIMES

Let us imagine the map of the world and let us look at the Eastern half. We shall use three colors. Let’s cover the new democracies with green, the color of hope. I call them the post-communist democracies. Although many of their features are identical with those of traditional Western democracies, their political cultures still bear the marks of the communist past.

East of this stretches a very wide zone, which I would cover with pale red: this is the zone of post-communist autocracies. Their prototype is Russia. After 1989 the transition towards a market economy was launched there as well. At the very beginning a democratic constitutional structure appeared : parliamentary elections among competing parties, debates between a government relying on its parliamentary majority and the opposition. The rule of democracy, however, proved to be a very brief episode. Following a few stormy years Putin seized power and a new political structure emerged. This has restored certain aspects of the communist system, especially the great power of the state, but it also differs from that in some significant ways. The number one leader (whatever his official legal status might be) is invested with an enormous amount of power and rules over a strictly centralized hierarchical state and political apparatus, but he does not possess the absolute monopoly over power of a real dictator. There are opposition parties, parliamentary elections do take place, although it is true that the opposition is very weak and doomed to lose the elections from the start. There are newspapers, radio and television stations and internet portals that are independent of the ruling group – their voice, however, is weak. This type of autocracy is halfway between the full-fledged Western-type democracy and a totalitarian dictatorship. What mainly distinguishes it from the latter is the fact that, although the regime is very repressive, it does not use the most brutal means: the arrest and confinement in cruel concentration camps or physical liquidation en masse of the representatives of alternative political movements. The other great difference from the communist system is that the autocratic political regime is connected to an economy in which private ownership is dominant. The ruling political powers hold important positions in the economy, both in the still significant state-owned and the very broad private sectors.  The larger part of the economy works according to the behavioral regularities of capitalism

Of the 15 successor states of the former Soviet Union, three Baltic countries have become relatively stable post-communist democracies. I would place Belarus and the Central-Asian republics together with Russia in the post-communist autocracy category. Now, 25 years after 1989, it can be stated that the situation in the post-communist autocratic countries is basically unchanged; there is absolutely no sign of the iron hand relaxing its grip.

Ukraine’s position is uncertain, and has actually now become especially problematic; over the past 25 years it has sometimes displayed the signs of post-communist democracy; at other times those of post-communist autocracy.

Let us go back to our map. To the east and south of the region of autocracies we can see China and Vietnam. These embody a third type, which I shall call post-communist dictatorship. Let us cover this region with a deep red color. The economy resembles, in many respects the Putin-type regime. Although the state sector has remained very significant, the larger part of economic resources are now in private ownership. Here too the political and economic worlds are closely intertwined. The significant difference lies in the fact that in China and Vietnam the ruling political parties have never for a moment given up their own power monopolies. The Chinese and Vietnamese communist leaders did a thorough analysis of the Gorbachev era. The series of events which started with glasnost and ended with the disintegration of the country, the loss of super-power status and the liquidation of political monopoly have been haunting them like horror dreams. Anything but that! The Chinese and Vietnamese leaders have made an unshakeable decision never to open the floodgates of free political movements.

The Chinese and Vietnamese governing parties are only ‘communist’ parties in name: nowadays they have absolutely nothing to do with the Marxist-Leninist program which intended to abolish capitalism. Lenin would classify these political formations as bourgeois. The Chinese and Vietnamese ruling parties accept capitalism in practice, they cooperate with it and profit from it.The case of China and Vietnam clearly demonstrate that capitalism is compatible with dictatorship. It is true that there is no democracy without capitalism, but this statement cannot be reversed. Capitalism can exist and function for a very long time without democracy. In spite of the hopes of many Western analysts, there are no signs of any tendency for the heavy-handed regimes to loosen their grasp.

I will not go on to discuss the situation of certain small countries: North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. Instead, I will refer back briefly to the introduction of my lecture. In 2010 Hungary changed color: it turned from green into pale red. It is not a post-communist democracy anymore, but a post-communist autocracy. As I have said, this is a first and so-far unique event. But here I ask the participants of this conference: is there no danger that other countries which are still in the green zone will make a similar U-turn?

NATIONALISM

Historical developments show, that the problem of state borders and the relationships between ethnic groups within the borders is one of the most important issues of the post-socialist transformation; it is no less important than the form of political government and the radical transformation of property relations.

The Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 successor states. Czechoslovakia was divided into two. These two changes took place peacefully. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, on the other hand, was followed by bloody wars. Not long after the declaration of independence a war broke out between two successor states of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Fighting is now virtually continuous in the southern regions of today’s Russia. And now here we are in the middle of Ukrainian internal strife and the Ukrainian-Russian conflict.

We have divided the post-communist region into three zones on the basis of the defining features of their political structure. What the countries in all three zones share, however, is the existence of ethnic conflict. The intensity of conflicts varies. Relatively speaking, the ‘mildest’ form is nationalist rhetoric: blustering about the superiority of the majority ethnic group, vilifying ethnic minorities, or rabble-rousing against neighboring peoples. A graver situation is when nationalist, racist arrogance is manifested in deeds as well. It can happen in discrimination affecting schooling and the distribution of work places, or in the limitation of the free use and official acknowledgement of a minority language. Unfortunately, the most criminal forms of nationalism also take place. Although infrequently, violent behavior driven by racist motives occurs, such as the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, and even Roma murders.

There is not a single country in the post-communist region which is immune to the epidemic of nationalism. There are degrees, of course: at one end of the scale we find the quietly thrown anti-Semitic or anti-Roma terms of abuse in ‘gentlemanly’ style. Next degree: hateful, cruel words. Next, more frightening degree: beating of members of the minority, threatening parades of uniformed commandos. And at the other end of the scale: murder. Who knows where the incitement to nationalism will lead?

DANGERS OF RADICALIZATION AND EXPANSION

In all three zones and every country of the post-communist region significant economic problems make themselves felt. Naturally, the constellation of difficulties, the relative gravity of the different issues varies from country to country. However, there are certain problems which are fairly general.

Post-communist transition has its winners and losers. Large numbers of people lost their jobs, unemployment became chronic. In many countries the inequality of income and wealth distribution escalated. Millions live in abject poverty, while others who have suddenly lined their own pockets enjoy their wealth in front of them. This explains why so many people think of capitalism with annoyance or hate. Few of them expect help from the extreme Left: the chances of a communist restoration are negligible. The number of those, on the other hand, who turn to the extreme Right, is significant. The ears of the disappointed, the losers and the needy quickly pick up the message of the populist demagoguery against profit, banks, and multinational companies.

The atmosphere of dissatisfaction is susceptible to the slogans of nationalism. “Life would be better if we lived again in an empire as large as it was during the tsar’s time” – they say in Russia. “If only we could get back those resource-rich parts of the country that we were stolen from us at Trianon in 1920!” – they say in Hungary.

So, what we have is a mass below, receptive to nationalism and slogans of “law and order”. And we have political parties and movements above which sense the opportunities provided by the angry mood of the masses. A vicious, self-inciting cycle evolves from disappointment in democracy, the attempts at anti-democratic governance, nationalism, and economic dissatisfaction. There are government intentions and mass sentiments at work which mutually reinforce each other.

The holders of power in Russia are anxiously observing how the growth of production is slowing down, how it has almost reached stagnation. This is when attention must be diverted from the problems of the economy towards ‘great national issues’ such as the plight of fellow-Russians living on the other side of the Western borders. Nationalism gives birth to an expansion drive. And this is no longer a domestic issue, but a tendency whose effect crosses national borders and threatens peace.

I have mentioned Russia because the looming monster of Russian expansion has appeared in our immediate vicinity. But we must also speak of China. The idea of nationalism is growing stronger there too. The rate of growth has fallen spectacularly. The inequality of income is extreme. There is a great deal of audible dissatisfaction about the fact that the rise in the living standards is far behind the growth of production.  Here too, nationalism proves to be the best way of diverting attention. Local protests are crushed not by eliminating economic problems, but by police measures. The people in charge are iron-fisted fighters for ‘order’.

Although in my imaginary map post-communist autocracies and post-communist dictatorships were given two different colors, in terms of nationalism, the tendency towards expansion and the heavy-handed restriction of democratic rights they share many features. These create a strong kinship between them, bonds which are strong enough even after the shared beliefs in Marxist-Leninist ideology disappeared. Most likely this political kinship also plays a part in the fact that so often the international political actions of the countries in the pale red and deep red zones correspond.  At important sessions of the United Nations they vote the same way, they support or turn down the same interventions. They have no joint center, but it is as if they were marching to the same drum on crucial issues. The axis of repressive powers opposing Western democracies is in the making – if I may borrow the expression “Axis” from the vocabulary of the period preceding the Second World War, when it was the name of the Alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I am no Cassandra: I am not blessed or cursed with the ability to foresee the future. All I can say is that present-day events recall historical memories in me.

Hungarian current events remind me of the end of the Weimar Republic. There is great economic dissatisfaction. Millions of patriotic Germans feel humiliated by the terms of peace. More and more join the Nazi side. In the meantime, the anti-Hitler forces are at each others’ throats. In the 1933 multi-party election, which are conducted lawfully, Hitler’s party emerges victorious, but without a parliamentary majority. And then the moderate right-wing Centrum party is ready to enter a governing coalition with the Nazis … I shall stop this story here.

Thinking about the Ukrainian events Hitler’s first conquests come to my mind: the occupation of the Saarland, then the annexation of Austria. The aggression is based on ethnic reasoning: the territories in question are inhabited by Germans. Then comes the Munich agreement; Chamberlain’s joyful announcement: we have saved the peace at the price of Czechoslovak territories inhabited by Sudeten Germans being annexed to the German empire. Soon comes the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Then the plan to conquer Danzig, referring to ethnic reasoning… Here I shall leave this story too.

Who knows how the history-writers of the distant future will view the conference on Ukraine recently held in Geneva. Was it merely an insignificant diplomatic event? Or did it give birth to a new, albeit minor, Munich agreement, encouraging further aggression?

It was George Kennan who in 1946 pronounced the principle of containment. It is time to declare this principle again. Now it is not the spreading of communist principles, the Stalinist expansion, but the spread of nationalist principles, the expansion of post-communist autocracies and dictatorships, that need to be contained.

It is not for me to work out the methods by which the new principle of containment could be applied in practice. I can say this in the plural: we academic researchers are not fit for this task. I regret, but I cannot present the present company with a plan of action.

Let me finish here. I am just not able to end my lecture with words of reassurance. My intention was to alarm you, to unsettle you, to arouse in you the sense of threatening dangers.

Hungarian university students and politics

As voters go to the polls across the European Union to vote for parliamentary representatives, newspapers are full of stories about the rise of the far right. Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank, just released a study which predicts that “in a number of countries (France, Great Britain, Denmark) these [far-right] parties may even finish in first place and in some others (Netherlands, Hungary, Austria) may come in second.” It is possible that the European Parliament will see the formation of a significant pro-Russian, anti-EU group.

Hungarian societal attitudes provide especially fertile ground for right-wing extremism. Prejudice against minorities and foreigners in general is very high in Hungary, 44% of the adult population, while in Germany that figure is 11%. I think one can safely say that widespread prejudice, intolerance, and xenophobia occur mostly in countries where little or no attention is paid to civics. In Hungary civics is at best an afterthought. (By the way, a model of how to make civics engaging can be found on the website of iCivics, an organization founded and led by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.) Hungarian college students are either politically passive or, worse, they despise politics.

A new book edited by Andrea Szabó and available on the Internet analyzes the attitudes of young people who are currently studying for a higher degree. When they were asked how they would define the word “politics” they offered the following answers: 1.strife, tension (6%); 2. lies, scam, fraud (21%); 3. a curse word (15%); 4. corruption, stealing (12%); 5. power, self-interest, responsibility (9%); and 6. government, parliament, democracy (16%). I fear not too many high school teachers read sociological studies such as this one, but these responses should make them sit up and take notice. Hungarian students desperately need to learn the basic precepts of democracy and its institutions. They should also gain an understanding of the European Union and how it functions.

Statements in the survey designed to gain insight into the students’ attitude toward democratic values also resulted in worrisome answers. The first statement was that “the democratic system is better than any other.” Among the students surveyed 42%  agreed, but 23% stated that “under certain circumstances a dictatorship is better than democracy.” Equally worrisome is the large number (23%) of those who are utterly indifferent to the kind of regime they live in. Finally, the researchers reported that 6% of the students believe that the Hungarian situation is so bad that it would be better to introduce a dictatorship in the country.

Interest in politics is also very low among Hungarian university students. They show less interest than did students in the 1970s-1980s. Then 12% said that they were “very much interested in politics.” By the late 1990s only 3-6% answered in the affirmative. And since then the situation has deteriorated further. The same research team that prepared this volume published a study in 2008 when they found that only 2.5% of young people between ages of 15 and 29 showed any interest in political matters. This is a very low number. Hungary is next to last among the 22 countries that participated in the survey. The Czech Republic came in dead last. Denmark led the pack, followed by Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, and Iceland. Even Russia was ahead of Hungary.

So, it’s no wonder, given this rejection of current political life and politicians, that Jobbik with its sharp attack on the establishment and with its easy answers to very difficult questions is popular among Hungarian college students. In 2013 Jobbik was the most popular party (17.3%) closely followed by Fidesz (16%). Last year at least, Együtt14-PM did quite well (13.7%) and LMP also received a fair number of votes (7.7%).  The socialists have insignificant support among this age group (3.1%).

Andrea Szabó defines three prototypes of university students as far as their ideological orientation is concerned. She calls pro-Fidesz students the “Tusványos” generation, named after the yearly Fidesz gatherings in Transylvania. These students are ardent Fidesz believers who accept everything handed to them by the “late Kádár generation,” a term coined by Ákos Róna-Tas for the generation of Viktor Orbán and his followers. The second group consists of Jobbik sympathizers, whom she names “the kuruc.info generation.” And finally, there is the much smaller “critical mass generation,” those who feel close to LMP’s green and anti-capitalist leftist politics.

Unfortunately, the Orbán government’s radical reshaping of the Hungarian educational system and its insistence on blindly following accepted norms will only add to the popularity of Jobbik because it feeds the personality traits of those who are attracted to radicalism: authoritarian impulses, lack of inquisitiveness, nationalism, and intolerance toward others.

The latest Medián poll: Left-liberal voters want a united front

The democratic parties got a lot of bad news today. Two polls came out, and both show a growth in the popularity of Fidesz and less dissatisfaction with the performance of the government. At the same time, support for the opposition parties is stagnant. The democratic opposition has to rethink its strategy if it is to have a chance of standing up to the Fidesz electoral onslaught we all expect. The setup that was worked out by MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM isn’t attracting voters.

The Tárki poll shows a considerable strengthening of Fidesz support. According to the poll, Fidesz has the support of 50% of active voters. That means that, given the peculiarities of the new Hungarian electoral system, if the elections were held this coming weekend Fidesz would again achieve a two-thirds majority in the new smaller (199-seat) parliament. Among the same group MSZP has the support of 20% and E14 only 6%. That means that E-14 wouldn’t even manage to get into parliament because as a “party alliance” it needs 10% of the votes to be eligible for parliamentary representation. DK has 4%, 1% shy of the necessary 5% to become a parliamentary party.

In case someone thinks that Tárki is apt to overestimate Fidesz’s strength, Medián’s poll, also released today, confirms Tárki’s findings. Based on Medián’s latest poll, Fidesz would win big at the next election. A two-thirds majority is guaranteed. Medián figures 139 parliamentary seats out of 199. According to their model, MSZP-E14 is currently running 9% behind Fidesz. They would need another 450,000 voters in order to win the election.

Medián also asked potential voters about the state of the opposition. The details of the poll are still not available, but I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of the article that will appear shortly in HVG. The title of the article is “Kétséges együttes,” a clever wordplay that is difficult to translate. In plain language, those questioned have doubts about the agreement Bajnai and Mesterházy signed.

What is it they don’t like? Almost everything. The great majority of voters who support the democratic parties are not satisfied with the MSZP-E-14 deal. They don’t like the fact that the two parties decided on separate party lists. They also dislike the arrangement whereby the two parties divided the 106 districts between themselves.

Medián conducted personal interviews with 1,200 people between September 6 and 10. Only 23% of those interviewed were completely satisfied with the arrangement while 22% were totally dissatisfied; 41% said that the agreement is good but that it could have been improved by having a common list and a common candidate for prime minister. Even supporters of E-14 are not totally satisfied, although one would have thought that they would be pleased with the agreement that greatly favors their party. Only 37% of them are totally satisfied with the agreement as opposed to 26% of MSZP supporters.

As for the person of the potential prime minister, the supporters of the democratic parties still prefer Bajnai as they did earlier, but the difference in popularity between Bajnai and Mesterházy is smaller today than it was in July.

Median gyurcsanyPerhaps the most interesting question posed in this month’s Medián poll concerned the left-liberal voters’ assessment of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The question was: “There are those who claim that for the replacement of the Orbán government every opposition force is needed including Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, the Democratikus Koalíció. Others maintain that Ferenc Gyurcsány is so unpopular that many people would rather not vote because they wouldn’t want to vote for a political alliance in which he is included and therefore it would be better if the parties’ collaboration would exclude him. Which viewpoint do you share?”

Support for the first viewpoint is colored in orange on the chart, support for the second in blue, and “no opinion” in light orange. The first line represents the replies of MSZP voters, the second E14 voters, the third “all left-wing voters,” the fourth “without a party,” and the last those who will most likely vote but who at the moment are unsure of their party preference.

I think this poll somewhat favors DK, although some people might counter that DK’s inclusion wouldn’t garner a lot of extra votes because his support is the lowest among those without a party. But considering Medián’s finding that support for MSZP-E14 hasn’t increased since an agreement was reached between the two parties, they probably don’t have anything to lose by including DK in a joint effort. I suspect that the potential upside reward outweighs the downside risk.

And if I were Bajnai and Mesterházy I would seriously reconsider the present arrangement of having two or three party lists. The majority of their voters prefer one common list and common candidates. They could run as a coalition called, for instance, Democratic Front or Fórum. And yes, one common candidate for prime minister candidate is a must. If they are serious about removing Orbán and making an effort to restore democracy in Hungary, they must come up with a winning strategy. Truly combining their efforts in a united front is what their voters want them to do.

Hungarians’ attitude toward the disabled: Not in my backyard

Only yesterday we were discussing the surprisingly low level of educational attainment in small Hungarian villages, especially in the country’s less developed regions. I brought up the example of a man from the village of Tolmács, about 50 km from Budapest, who seemed to be blissfully ignorant of the fact that the money the local government spends actually comes from the taxpaying public. A similar ignorance reigns when it comes to the mentally and physically disabled. This ignorance often stems from unfamiliarity. It has been the practice ever since the Rákosi era to hide the disabled in large facilities, preferably in the middle of nowhere.

Large facilities are still maintained to warehouse the disabled despite the fact that the European Union has been urging successive Hungarian governments to break up these facilities and place their inhabitants in community housing. Brussels even provided money for such a project, but it turned out that the Hungarians used the billions they received for the modernization of the large buildings instead of embarking on changing the whole system.

At last, sometime after 2010, the Ministry of National Resources–later renamed the Ministry of Human Resources–worked out a plan. But the EU deemed it unsatisfactory, especially since it envisaged moving about 15,000 disabled persons to home settings in thirty years! Eventually the ministry officials sighed and announced that, after all, such a transfer could be achieved in four or five years.

We are nearing the end of the year and if the government doesn’t move fast Hungary can lose 7 billion forints from the European Union. The first project was planned in the Bélapátfalva region near the City of Eger where there was a facility housing 150 disabled persons. The idea was to distribute them to smaller units. Some would remain in Bélapátfalva and others would be moved to Szilvásvárad, Nagyvisnyó, and Mónosbél, all three villages close to Bélapátfalva. First, Bélapátfalva’s inhabitants revolted: they didn’t want any disabled persons in non-restricted home settings. The disabled were fine as long as they were locked up. It seems that the authorities accepted the verdict.

Then came Szilvásvárda. While Bélapátfalva didn’t make headline news, the recent events in Szilvásvárda did. The difference between the two events was a video taken by TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union.  The video records the meeting of Szilvásvárda’s town council, which was open to the public. Several online newspapers included the video with damning articles about the heartless and ignorant local inhabitants and the equally heartless and ignorant town council members. Earlier not too many people noticed that on September 13 László Horváth, the Fidesz member of parliament from this district, published a statement on his personal website in which he supported the inhabitants of Szilvásvárad in their opposition to establishing three houses in their town for about 40 disabled persons.

Of course, the town can’t interfere with the private sale of those houses, whose owners were ready to sell them to the Szociális és Gyermekvédelmi Főigazgatóság (Chief Administration for  Social Welfare and the Protection of Children) that handles institutions for the disabled. Horváth therefore asked the head of the Administration to change its plans and buy houses elsewhere. After all, he said, 300 people out of the town’s 1,700 inhabitants don’t want to have any disabled in their town. Why don’t they buy houses in the neighboring villages?

Horváth’s position strengthened the hand of Szilvásvárda’s town council, whose meeting can be seen on the unedited video taken on the spot and published by TASZ. The mayor explains to the audience that the council itself has nothing to do with the whole thing. In fact, they “want to get rid of it.” One of the stars of the local council claims that they “are not against these people but only that they are being  distributed.” Brilliant. Another city father gives a fairly incoherent talk about these disabled people who will be in town “among normal people,” which “will be a very strange sight.” Most newspapers mention only these sentences from his speech, but I felt that he was perhaps the only one present who had some inkling that something was amiss here. While others were outright antagonistic and claimed that putting these people in their town might have a bad effect on the disabled persons’  health because it will be clear to them that they are not welcome, he did talk about the peaceful dispositions of the retarded. He even queried what will happen to these people if no community will tolerate them. What is Hungary going to say to the European Union? Yet the decision was made to follow László Horváth’s lead and ask the authorities to buy houses elsewhere, for example in Bükkszentmárton where Szilvásvárda had already sent some Gypsies.

László Horváth, Fidesz member of parliament, with the four mayors behind him

László Horváth, Fidesz member of parliament, with the four mayors behind him

Today László Horváth had a sudden change of heart, which I suspect was not a decision he made himself. The ukase most likely came from above that it would be injurious to the party both at home and in Brussels if Fidesz local and national politicians supported such an outlandish attitude toward the disabled, toward those who are blind, deaf and mute, severely crippled or mentally retarded. Perhaps it occurred to someone in the party leadership that Hungary and Fidesz will look very, very bad in the eyes of the civilized world if Fidesz stands behind the Bélapátfalva and Szilvásvárad initiatives. (And, after all, these people are not being relocated to Felcsút.)

Horváth talked to the city fathers in all of the towns, talked with the neighbors and those who opposed the move, and now he sees that the problem can be solved. After all, people protested not so much because of the disabled people’s presence but rather because they were not properly informed. Naturally, Horváth isn’t telling the truth. There is no question, it wasn’t a lack of information that upset the local inhabitants. They simply didn’t want to have any disabled people in their neighborhood.

Horváth promised that he will personally take part in the settlement project. Szilvásvárad and Bélapátfalva will now have only two houses, Mónosbél and Nagyvisnyó four each, and Bükkszentmárton three.  He managed to get the mayors of the four villages lined up behind him even though the mayor of Szilvásvárad, who is on the far right on the photo, looks mighty unhappy. In the spring of 2015, if all goes well, the disabled people will be able to move to their new homes.

This case demonstrates that if the Fidesz leadership decides on a course of action, it can force its will on the local authorities. Therefore, we must assume that in countless other cases–for instance, when the locals kept changing street names or erecting Miklós Horthy and Albert Wass statues–the party leadership simply closed their eyes, shrugged their shoulders, and falsely claimed that they were powerless to intervene.

Young Hungarians are disillusioned and feel helpless

A new study appeared a couple of days ago about the attitude of Hungarian youth between the ages of 15 and 29. Keep in mind that the people who filled out these questionnaires prepared by Kutatópont (Research Point) were born after 1984; that is, even the oldest ones were only six years old at the time of the regime change. The study is available free on the Internet. Naturally, it is impossible to cover every aspect of an in-depth study that is 350 pages long. (And, by way of confession, there was no way I could I read the whole thing in a couple of hours.) But here are its conclusions as summarized by MTI and Origo.

These young people are described as members of “the quiet generation” who don’t rebel against the value systems of their parents. They are inward looking and passive, in addition to being disillusioned. By and large they are at a loss as far as their goals in life are concerned. According to the authors, this generation most resembles the young people of the 1920s and 1930s who accepted the world as is and who believed in traditional values. If the authors are correct in their assessment, these people will soon feel very much at home thanks to Viktor Orbán’s efforts to turn the clock back and rehabilitate the Horthy regime.

Not surprisingly the least rebellious types live in villages where 52% of them agree with the worldview of their parents. In Budapest only 29% are so quiescent. Across the board when it comes to politics, they are simply not interested. Very few people even bothered to answer questions about their political opinions, most likely because they know next to nothing about the issues at hand. Two-thirds of them did not reveal their intentions about which parties they prefer and only 19% of them will most likely vote at the next elections. Naturally, they have a very low opinion of politicians in general, but I’m sure that in this respect this is not a unique group. When I once mentioned that if the change of regime had come a few decades earlier I wouldn’t have minded entering politics, my relatives were horrified at the very thought.

Apparently the quiet generation of the 1920s-1930s had great trust in the government and public institutions. In this respect this group is different. They don’t believe in anything: government, parliament, banks, the president, or the constitutional court. One ought to mention that not trusting the president and the court is a new phenomenon because in the last twenty years these two institutions received high grades from the population. So perhaps this generation is not as ignorant as we assume; perhaps it became evident to them that both the presidency and the constitutional court lost their independence. Or perhaps they just tar everybody with the same brush.

They have so little trust in the system that only 40% of them consider democracy the best possible political system and, although they never experienced it, most of them think of the Kádár regime with nostalgia. Naturally, this is what they hear at home, especially since 71% of them still live with their parents. Only 10% of them are married and only 15% of them have children.  In this age group the unemployment rate is high, 25%. All in all, young Hungarians don’t see any hope and that’s one reason that so many young people have already left the country or plan to do so. But some of them are trapped; they can’t even leave to try their luck abroad because they don’t have enough money to survive the few months while they look for a job.

ApathyOrigo‘s article inspired almost 300 comments and most of them are educational. One can read such sentences as: “In Hungary there are free elections but there is no alternative. I can’t even travel abroad because I don’t make enough money to save. They even took the money I put away in my pension plan.” Or here is another one commenting on this generation’s passivity and their lack of rebelliousness:  “But didn’t they actually want us to be like that? They wanted us to be zombies so the powers that be can lead us in the direction they want.” Or, “in my opinion all generations are responsible for the present one.” Or, “I could have written that study sitting at home…. There are no jobs, there is no social net. This government and to be honest all politicians just create one stupid law after the other. … For example, here is this national tobacco shop affair. Black market, smuggling. I am serious, idiots are sitting up there.”

The accusing fingers point overwhelmingly to the present government. For example, “not everybody can have a job with Közgép, not everybody can have a government subsidy for a horse farm. The great majority of my generation washes dishes in England and elsewhere. This is the situation.” The sentence about the horse farm is a reference to the family of Ráhel Orbán’s husband. Another loudly complains that in Orbán’s NER (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere) decisions are made from above and the people have no input. “If you don’t like it you can engage in an endless fight that you will lose, will drive you crazy, or they will do you in.” These comments support the conclusions of the study.

Zsófia Mihancsik of Galamus also wrote about the study, and she began her article with a number of pictures of crowds who gather at political demonstrations. The one taken at the Demokratikus Koalíció’s latest demonstration was ridiculed in the German-language blog, Hungarian Voice. The demonstrators’ average age seems like 65. The title: “Foto des Tages: Gyurcsány verammelt die DK-Parteijugend” followed by a one-liner: “No further comment…”  But, says Mihancsik, all political meetings are attended mostly by older people, including the pro-government demonstrators. The simple reason for that phenomenon is that younger people are not interested in politics.

I’m not even sure whether this particular generation is less interested in politics than any other of the same age bracket. Yes, there are some who plan a career in politics very early in life. For example, Bill Clinton. Or I had a student who as a junior (age 19-20) told me that after graduation he will enter local politics. He will try to become the mayor of his hometown. And you know what, he became mayor shortly after he left Yale and today he is an important member of the U.S. Senate. There are people like that but not too many. Most of them care not a whit about politics. What is different about this group becomes clear from the comments. As a result of the last five years or so, these people have lost all hope and are disgusted with the country Viktor Orbán created.

Együtt 2014-PM’s puzzling message

Opposition politicians are busy rallying the troops. Gordon Bajnai and Tímea Szabó (PM) paid a visit to Óbuda to campaign. Yes, to campaign because, although the campaign will start officially sometime in January, unofficially it has already begun in earnest. Yesterday MSZP held a large gathering in Miskolc where Attila Mesterházy addressed an enthusiastic crowd. And this afternoon several thousand DK supporters gathered on the Freedom Bridge in Budapest where Ferenc Gyurcsány, Ágnes Vadai, and László Varju gave speeches.

Neither the MSZP nor the DK rally was especially newsworthy. Mesterházy made a slew of campaign promises and Gyurcsány repeated his pledge never to make compromises with Viktor Orbán. But Gordon Bajnai made news with his speech in Óbuda. He talked mostly about the mistaken economic policies of the Orbán government and the damage they inflicted on the country. Naturally, he promised a reversal of the Matolcsy-Varga line and a return to economic orthodoxy. However, he said something that puzzles practically everybody. Talking about constitutional issues, he said that “if there is not a two-thirds majority … then we will put to the new opposition a proposal that they will be unable to refuse.” He added that at the moment he doesn’t want to reveal more of his plans.

This mysterious offer conjured up nefarious thoughts in my mind, and it seems that I was not alone because someone from the audience inquired whether this offer will resemble similar offers in The Godfather. A day later the question came up again on Egyenes beszéd during a conversation with Viktor Szigetvári, the co-chair of Együtt 2014, who tried to minimize the significance of this sentence. But, if at all possible, he only further confused the issue. In fact, Szigetvári got himself into a jam by at one point advocating negotiations with Fidesz and a few minutes later saying that “with this Fidesz he certainly wouldn’t be willing to negotiate after a lost election.” But then what?

Together for Hungary? E14-PM belies its name

Together for Hungary? E14-PM belies its name

Like everyone else, Olga Kálmán wanted to find out more about Bajnai’s offer that couldn’t be refused by Viktor Orbán and his party. A fairly long-winded explanation followed. If there is no two-thirds majority then the new government must sit down and negotiate with Fidesz and convince Viktor Orbán to lend his support to “constitutional corrections.” When he was further pressed by the reporter, Szigetvári came up with another idea: holding a new election.  With good governance this second early election could achieve an overwhelming two-thirds majority. Thus the government would have a free hand to “make adjustments” in the constitution and in some of the cardinal laws that need a two-thirds majority to change. But in any case, even with a two-thirds majority “consensus” must be achieved, although he did admit that “with this Fidesz” such consensus is unlikely. He added, in my opinion naively, that if Fidesz refuses to come to an understanding, then it must bear “the historical responsibility” for a failure to set the country on the right track. As if Viktor Orbán cared a hoot about their opinion of the “right track.” He thinks that he is the one who will lead the country to Paradise.

Olga Kálmán was skeptical about “Fidesz suddenly being ready to dismantle the edifice that it built in the last four years.” Szigetvári immediately assured his audience that “not everything has to be undone,” but one must make an attempt at an understanding. If that doesn’t work, then comes the next step: early elections in the hope of the two-thirds majority. But what if the new government parties not only fail to get a two-thirds majority but actually lose the early election? It seemed that such an idea hadn’t occurred to him. He was confident that Együtt 2014-MSZP would win a second election in 2014 or 2015. But after further questions on a possible Fidesz victory at the early election, he no longer insisted and said that “this is only one possibility.” He didn’t elaborate on what the others are.

While Bajnai was in Óbuda, Szigetvári gave a speech at a conference organized by the Republikon Institute headed by former SZDSZ politician Gábor Horn. Here he concentrated on the Együtt 2014-MSZP agreement, praising MSZP and claiming that for the breakdown of negotiations between MSZP and DK Ferenc Gyurcsány was solely responsible. Magyar Nemzet naturally was delighted and joyfully announced that “Gyurcsány is at fault,” the phrase the Fidesz propaganda machine invokes anytime the Orbán government faces an economic difficulty. In fact, Szigetvári went so far as to accuse his former boss of betraying his own party and putting his personal interest above the good of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Magyar Nemzet concluded that there seems to be confusion within the leadership of Együtt 2014 because in Óbuda Bajnai talked about the importance of DK and expressed his hope that it will join the coalition of the two democratic parties while Szigetvári fiercely attacked the former prime minister.

The Együtt 2014-PM-MSZP duo needs to start sending a clear, unified message. Voters are not decoders.

Sexism in the Hungarian parliament

I have written a number of times about female members of the Hungarian parliament and their treatment by male colleagues. I’ve also written about the attitude, especially of Fidesz MPs, toward women in general.

As a reminder, here are a few statistics about the minority status of women in Hungarian politics. Today there are only 35 women in a 386-member parliament (9.06%). According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s statistics, of the 144 countries listed Hungary ranks 118th! Among the countries that are doing worse are Malta, Brazil, Bhutan, Benin, Ghana, Ukraine, Botswana, Nigeria, Tuvalu, Georgia, Egypt, Oman, and Yemen.

Although the number of women parliamentarians is low across the board, Fidesz has the smallest percentage of women in its parliamentary caucus. It is also noteworthy that the credentials of Fidesz female MPs are less impressive than those of their colleagues in the opposition. There are at least three who have no higher education at all. There are several who are elementary school teachers. Some finished only “főiskola,” a three-year program, instead of university. I found only one woman in the caucus who has a law degree. Several majored in economics and there are a couple of physicians. I found only two Fidesz female MPs who studied subjects that could be considered to fall under the category of  a classical “liberal arts education.” Keep in mind that all the members of the Fidesz delegation were handpicked by Viktor Orbán.

If an attack is launched against female members of the opposition, the Fidesz-KDNP women are silent. They don’t even show solidarity privately with the victims of Fidesz testosterone. If they are asked about sexist incidents that unfortunately occur quite often, the brave Fidesz-KDNP women keep looking at the floor and remain silent. Not the slightest sign of female solidarity.

But, as I said, Orbán himself picked men and women who would be rubber stamps in parliament. Orbán most likely cannot abide independent and outspoken women because he thinks in terms of traditional gender roles. Just lately, in connection with his daughter’s wedding, he talked about the women who will cook and who will cry at the wedding and made it clear that he wouldn’t be caught dead dropping a tear or two at his daughter’s wedding. I’m also sure that he didn’t want to choose people who were too brainy to be the representatives of the people; the Fidesz delegation has an awful lot of people who, under normal circumstances, would never have found themselves in such a position.  According to Zoltán Ceglédi, a political scientist who wrote about the qualities of the ideal Fidesz MP, most of the current officeholders are incapable of answering the opposition’s questions. They become frustrated and hence behave in an unacceptably aggressive manner. Moreover, as a result of the practically unlimited power of the Fidesz politicians and government officials, they feel omnipotent. The result is boorish behavior. The few women in the opposition are the prime targets, it seems.

On September 9 Bernadette Szél (LMP) rose to inquire from Zoltán Illés, undersecretary in charge of the environment in the Ministry of Agriculture, what the Hungarian government was planning to do about the Romanian gold mines and their possible use of cyanide, pointing out that until now not much has been done about it. This is how the gentleman answered:

Just because you are good looking it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are clever. I have to refute one by one all those stupidities and imbecilities that you talked about here in the last five minutes.

I was there together with others, … when Viktor Orbán took a great number of steps in connection with the cyanide pollution in Nagybánya [Baia Mare, Romania]. I take my hat off to him. This is not brown nosing on my part. I was there, I heard it, my hat off again for all that he did there.

Honorable … ah, dear madame member of parliament.

Madame member of parliament, don’t dare to utter a word about the Prime Minister. And my last comment: it is not the clothes that make a person. Your having a T-shirt on doesn’t make you an environmentalist. Shame.

Zoltán Illés is performing. On his right Undersecretary Zoltán Cséfalvy seems to enjoy the exchange

Zoltán Illés is performing. On his right, Undersecretary Zoltán Cséfalvy

The whole exchange can be heard on the parliamentary radio. Both Szél and András Schiffer wore a T-shirt over their normal clothes to emphasize their interest in the environment. LMP is a left-green party. As for Szél’s qualifications, she has a Ph.D. (2011) from Corvinus University.

Well, that was too much even for some members of the Fidesz delegation. Sándor Lezsák (Fidesz), deputy president of the parliament, instructed Illés to take back the epithet of “imbecilities,” but it seems that the “stupidities” or the reference to physical appearance and brains didn’t bother him. Illés obliged. At the same time Máté Kocsis apologized in the name of the Fidesz delegation right on the spot. Eventually, Illés did apologize to Szél, not in person but via sms, an act greatly criticized in the media.

Perhaps the most politically objectionable part of Illés’s answer was his effort to forbid Szél to utter the name of Viktor Orbán. An article in Magyar Narancs rightly pointed out that it is written in the Old Testament that one cannot mention the name of God. What kind of a political community is it when the leader cannot be criticized? What kind of political culture exists within Fidesz? As for Illés’s reference to the brave steps Viktor Orbán took in connection with the gold mine in Nagybánya, I suspect that he was talking about the 2000 cyanide pollution of the Tisza River and Viktor Orbán’s efforts at that time and not about the current situation.

Illés in his answer accused Szél of ignorance when the LMP MP claimed that the European Union should ban the use of cyanide. Didn’t she know, asked Illés, that the European Parliament already passed such a resolution? Yes, such a resolution was passed by the European Parliament a few months ago, but for such a resolution to become law the European Commission must endorse it, which it failed to do. So, if someone is ignorant it is the undersecretary for the environment.

Of course, members of the opposition were eager to hear from László Kövér, who is such a stickler for manners in parliament. It seems that he is much fussier when he detects irregularities in the ranks of the opposition. Bernadette Szél herself was already fined by Kövér because she held up a poster on which there was a quotation from Viktor Orbán. Kövér didn’t think that Illés’s behavior was unacceptable. He didn’t think that Illés’s answer was “flagrantly offensive” and added that offensive comments more often come from the opposition than from his own side. Even Bernadette Szél said some very offensive things in the past, he claimed.

I should add that this is not the first time female members of parliament have had to endure this kind of talk–and worse. You may recall the story of Ágnes Osztolykán (LMP) when she asked for a lift home. Some MPs suggested that they would take her home, but to their own apartments. And finally György Gyula Zagyva (Jobbik) got involved. Zagyva told her that he wouldn’t mind f…ing her even though she was a Gypsy. At that time I wrote that, although the present parliament is lopsided given Viktor Orbán’s personal preferences, the trouble goes beyond the walls of the Hungarian parliament. The problem is in Hungarian society as a whole.