Tag Archives: politics

The factious Hungarian opposition

Yesterday by 11 a.m. it became clear that there was no chance of an electoral alliance between the socialists and the representatives of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Perhaps there never was because, although Attila Mesterházy only a few hours before this final meeting gave a 50-50 chance of reaching an understanding, I suspect that the decision had already been reached to reject the DK proposals.

Shortly before the meeting Mesterházy claimed that his party hadn’t formulated its position on Ferenc Gyurcsány’s participation in the campaign and his advocacy of a common party list. However, most of the DK demands eventually put forth had been known for at least a week, and I assume that the socialist leadership was fully aware that Gyurcsány’s person would be on the agenda in one way or the other.

As it turned out, DK had seven demands: (1) there should be joint MSZP-DK candidates; (2) the number of districts should be based on the principle of proportionality; (3) DK should receive nine districts, three of which should be winnable, three hopeless, and three uncertain; (4) on the list a DK candidate should occupy every eighth place, again on the basis of proportionality; (5) the person of the candidate should be decided by each party; (6) MSZP should receive the first and DK the second place on the list although if MSZP doesn’t accept this DK is ready to consider their counter-proposal;  (7) DK’s top place on the list should go to the chairman of DK. So, DK was not adamant about the second place but certainly wanted Gyurcsány to be on the best DK place whichever that would be.

MSZP wasn’t in a negotiating mood. Their demands reminded me of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia in 1914, which was formulated in such a way that the Monarchy knew that there was no way Serbia could accept it. MSZP offered four districts to DK, none of which was winnable. Instead of every eighth place on the list, MSZP was only willing to place a DK candidate in every twenty-fifth. According to electoral mathematics, the largest number of seats the opposition can win from the list is fifty, which would mean that only one or two DK candidates would receive mandates. In addition, DK couldn’t represent its own political ideas and would have to follow the MSZP-Együtt14 line. MSZP didn’t want anything to do with Gyurcsány and, when pressed, it turned out that they also didn’t want to see Ágnes Vadai, Csaba Molnár, or László Varju anywhere near the campaign. (In addition to Gyurcsány these three people represent DK in the Hungarian media.) MSZP would have veto power over any candidate put forth by DK but DK wouldn’t have the same veto power over the MSZP candidates. This was unacceptable to the DK negotiating team.

If you recall, MSZP in January was the prime proponent of joint action with all democratic parties and groups while Együtt 2014 was stepping back from close cooperation with MSZP. They were undoubtedly afraid that Attila Mesterházy was planning to seize the opportunity to lead the future coalition. E14 decided to postpone further negotiations in the hope of gathering more support. Precious months were wasted in what turned out to be a futile effort. So, came the compromise agreement of no common list but common candidates. Some politically savvy people consider the agreement a very good idea while others view it as a failure and an indication of weakness and discord.

Együtt 2014 with its 6% of the electorate came out the real winner with 31 districts. MSZP didn’t fare as well (75 districts), especially since it was the socialists’ burden to reach an understanding with the other smaller parties. Of the three parties only DK has measurable support. We are talking about 100,000-150,000 voters for DK while MSZP has about 1.2 million. If we look only at these numbers DK’s demands sound reasonable. The real aim of the opposition, however, is to convince the large block of undecided voters. We don’t know the party preferences of about 40% of the electorate. The opposition parties’ real goal is to attract this large group to their ranks.

And here the socialists and E14 are convinced that if they embrace Ferenc Gyurcsány and DK they will attract fewer people from the ranks of the undecided. József Tóbiás in an interview yesterday disclosed that the party had conducted a poll that was designed to measure the effect of cooperation between MSZP and DK. The poll revealed to the party leadership that they would lose more votes with Gyurcsány than they would gain. This finding lay behind their decision. If this poll correctly measures the effect of a joint MSZP-DK ticket, then MSZP’s decision was logical. Of course, we know how a wrongly formulated question can distort the results.

Naturally this poll reflects only the current situation. One doesn’t know how MSZP’s rather abrupt negative attitude toward the other parties and groups will affect MSZP’s standing or the electorate’s attitude toward DK. It is possible that they will consider MSZP too high-handed and uncompromising and DK an underdog. They may think that MSZP is not serious about unity, not resolute enough in its determination to unseat Viktor Orbán and Fidesz.

opinion pollOne could also ask MSZP whether the poll inquired about those possible voters who under no circumstances would vote for MSZP, because apparently they are also numerous. What about those who think of E14 as a party with no well defined political agenda? Only yesterday Szabolcs Kerék Bárczy, the last spokesman of Ibolya Dávid’s MDF, complained about Együtt 2014’s lack of political coherence. He pointed out that although E14’s avowed aim is to attract liberal conservatives, there is not one conservative in its ranks. Moreover, how can these people be attracted to a group whose members often applaud Orbán’s nationalization or who make statements against free markets and competition? Kerék Bárczy is thinking here of some people in the PM group with their decidedly leftist views of the world. Liberal conservatives, he says, will not vote for either E14 or MSZP. Because it looks as if MSZP is going to make a sharp turn to the left since some party leaders claim that MSZP’s failure stemmed from its move toward liberalism under Ferenc Gyurcsány’s chairmanship.

Kerék Bárczy doesn’t understand why MSZP nine months before the elections suddenly stiffened its attitude and refused to negotiate with anyone. He puts forward the question: what will happen if the poll numbers change as a result of these failed negotiations and a serious attempt by DK to attract more followers? What will E14 and MSZP do? Renegotiate their agreement? It will be difficult to change course without losing face.

László Kövér’s ideas about the ideal democracy: Governance by decree

I really didn’t think that László Köver, president/speaker of the Hungarian parliament, could still surprise me. Yet he manages. Here is his latest.

By way of preface, I should note that there are some commentators who say that one ought not take Kövér terribly seriously. He is just this kind of a fellow. Perhaps his bark is worse than his bite.

Well, I don’t belong to the camp of those who take him lightly. He is the alter ego of Viktor Orbán. He always was. In reminiscences about the early days of Fidesz participants often describe him as the man who had an enormous influence over young Viktor Orbán. Kövér took his sweet time graduating from law school and therefore was four years older than Orbán. According to those who shared their recollections of Kövér in the book compiled by György Petőcz (Csak a narancs volt), Kövér was a cantankerous, hard-to-get-along-with fellow who was utterly devoted, body and soul, first to the college that he, Orbán, and others ran and later to the party. To those who didn’t particularly like him, he was Viktor Orbán’s evil spirit. If Kövér wasn’t around, it was easy to come to an understanding with Orbán. Some even claim that there is a cowardly side to Orbán; if he feels threatened, he is ready to give in. Not so Kövér. He often propped up Orbán, and thus there could be no compromise in the party leadership.

I don’t know whether it was clear to his fellow college students that the man was an ardent nationalist even then. Apparently Kövér’s real interest was in history, not so much in the law. Therefore he attended classes in the university’s history department. His references to modern Hungarian history reveal his deep-seated nationalism, which leads to historical distortion. In the center of his historical universe stands Trianon. I suspect that in this respect Kövér didn’t change much. As far as his politics are concerned, he did change from ardent socialism to fierce anti-communism with a good dose of right-wing extremism mixed in. On his way from extreme left to extreme right he never managed to feel at home in a democratic republic. The very idea of democracy is alien to the man, as we will see from his latest pronouncement.

Yesterday afternoon Kövér gave an interview to Aréna, a political program on Inforádió, a right of center radio station.  In it he covered many issues dealing with the Hungarian parliament. During the course of the interview he said: “I would find it normal, quite independently from what kind of governments we will have in the next few years, if the parliament would lay claim only to the creation of the most fundamental legal guarantees and would otherwise hand over its mandate to the government for the next four years.” When pressed, he explained that this would mean a kind of governing by decree. In his opinion it is no longer necessary to have a government whose functioning depends on laws enacted by parliament. The present system was worked out in 1989-1990 because of the fear of a return of dictatorship. This fear was justified until 1998. But by now this danger is gone.

An incredible statement demonstrating a complete ignorance of the role of parliament in a democracy. The parliament enacts laws not because it is “afraid of dictatorship” but because the representatives of the electorate thus have the opportunity to discuss the laws proposed by the government and can have a measure of control over them.

Kövér also has peculiar views on the essence of democracy. If there is no fear of dictatorship, the government can do whatever it pleases. Earlier on this blog we discussed Kövér’s willingness to get rid of the Constitutional Court because then, he claimed, parliament would have the final, irrevocable say in matters of policy. But now he would be willing to emasculate the parliament of which he is the speaker and empower the government to govern by decree.

Kövér also seems to believe that once democracy is firmly established it needs no improvement or even much oversight. According to this static view, the democratic political system cannot slide back into dictatorship. It would be amusing, were it not so sad, that Kövér believes that this perfect state of democracy arrived in 1998, when Fidesz won for the first time.

I doubt that Kövér learned much about modern Germany while dabbling in history. Otherwise he might have been more cautious in advocating governance by decree. It was in March 1933 that an amendment to the Weimar Constitution took effect which gave power to Chancellor Adolf Hitler to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. The act stated that this arrangement was to last four years unless renewed, which subsequently happened twice. This so-called Enabling Act (Ermächtigungesetz) gave Hitler plenary powers and made him the dictator of Germany. What did Hitler himself say at the time of the enactment of the Enabling Act? It will sound familiar to us: “after the methodical destruction of the nation” the age of renewal has arrived. “The most important question is the handling of the short- and long-term foreign indebtedness. One must save the German peasantry, and the national government will also assist the middle classes.”

The resemblance between the German Enabling Act and what Kövér proposed in this interview was first picked up by János Avar and seconded by György Bolgár on ATV’s UjságíróKlub last night. It has since been repeated by many bloggers. It is one of the most frightening suggestions I have heard in the longest time. And let’s not fool ourselves. This is not some kind of off-the-cuff remark that Kövér hasn’t thought through. Already in February he was talking about giving more power to the government at the expense of the parliament.  In the interview he complained about the current practice which requires that every piece of legislation be enacted by the legislature and long debated. What a bore! Let’s cut out the middle man.

MSZP and Együtt2014-PM made a joint statement in which Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy found it “appalling that the president of the Parliament wishes to enlarge the authority of the government at the expense of the Parliament.” They considered the very suggestion “threatening.”

This man isn't joking!

This man isn’t joking!

I guess the Fidesz leadership decided that Kövér revealed more of the party’s plans than was advisable and immediately announced that naturally the opposition completely misunderstood what Kövér was getting at. Gergely Gulyás, the constitutional expert of Fidesz, in fact claimed that Kövér said the exact opposite of what we all heard from Kövér’s mouth. In fact, said Gulyás, he was talking about “the extension of the opposition’s rights and the greater oversight of the government by the parliament.”

Some observers, including one of our commenters, suggest that Fidesz here is working on a devilish plan that would allow the party and Viktor Orbán to continue their present policies in case after 2014, as they suspect, they don’t have a two-thirds majority in parliament. By curtailing the powers of parliament and enabling the government to rule by decree, the unfettered governing by the third Orbán government could go on despite a stronger parliamentary representation by the opposition. This hypothesis sounds plausible to me.

Of course, if the opposition wins, the big loser in this scheme will be Fidesz. But Viktor Orbán and his alter ego like to gamble. If I were an opposition politician I would double, triple my efforts to unseat this government. Otherwise Hungarians may end up living in Fidesz’s perfect democracy, known to the rest of the world as a dictatorship.

Joint effort of the Hungarian state and the churches to keep some schools segregated

It was about a week ago that I wrote a post about “the growing influence of the Catholic Church in Hungary.” In that post I mentioned that both the Church itself and Catholic lay organizations had acquired schools in Hungary. For example, the Kolping International has taken over at least three schools.

No one knew at that time that a school acquired several months ago by Kolping International in Szászberek (pop. 987) would soon be the focus of a huge controversy as it expanded its “campus” to take over part of the segregated public school of nearby Jászladány.

Jászladány has been in the news off and on since 2000 when the “independent” mayor of the town (pop. 6,000) decided that the single eight-grade elementary school was not big enough for both Gypsy and non-Gypsy children. I might add that according to the official statistics 11% of Jászladány’s population is Roma. So came the ingenious plan of establishing a private school, to be housed in part of the enlarged school building, where students had to pay tuition. The bulk of the expenses, however, were covered by the municipality.  For example, the newer half of the school building was given free of charge to the private foundation that ran the school. The town also allowed the new school to use all of the equipment that had earlier belonged to the public school. There was a door between the two wings of the school building, but it was locked for six solid years.

Those children whose parents could afford the tuition fees went to the good school; the rest, like the Roma, went to the inferior school. The “private school” children received all sorts of privileges. For example, a free lunch regardless of need. They were the first ones to receive free textbooks; the children in the “Gypsy” school got them only once everybody was served in the “private school.” At one point the Open Society Institute offered to pay the fees for those children who wanted to attend the private school. The Institute was told that it had missed the deadline.

Erzsébet Mohácsi, director of CFCF and lawyer for CFCF, Lilla Farkas after the Supreme Court's favorable decision

Erzsébet Mohácsi, director of CFCF, and lawyer for CFCF, Lilla Farkas, after the Supreme Court’s favorable decision

The head of the local Roma organization is an energetic man who soon enough called the attention of Esélyt a Hátrányos Helyzetű Gyermekekért Alapítvány (Foundation for Equal Opportunity of Underprivileged Children), popularly known as CFCF, to the situation in Jászladány. For ten years CFCF fought against the barely disguised segregation in Jászladány, losing one case after the other, until June 2011 when at last the Supreme Court (today the Kúria) ruled in favor of CFCF and Jászsági Roma Polgárjogi Szervezet (JRPSZ), a Roma organization in the area. The court ordered the town to work out a plan to integrate the two schools.

The new mayor, Katalin Drávucz (Fidesz), whose own child attends the “private school,” ostensibly complied with the court order. She began negotiations with the plaintiffs’ representatives to work out the details of the integration of the two schools. But behind their back she also began negotiations with the county’s “government office,” a newfangled institution that is supposed to be the arm of the central government in every county. Her real goal was to avoid the integration of the school in Jászladány.

They came up with a splendid solution: they decided to pass the private school over to Kolping International, which functions under the authority of the Archbishopric of Eger. The idea was to automatically transfer the pupils of the “private school” to the new Kolping Katolikus Általános Iskola. Although negotiations between the town and the “government office” began more than a year ago, the deal materialized only on August 30. Since Szászberek is only 10 km from Jászladány, the deal stipulated that the Szászberek Kolping school will simply “expand” and take over the former “private school” of Jászladány.

This new-old school will not charge tuition, but the Roma parents were not notified of this rather important change. By the time, practically on the day that school opened, the CFCF learned about it, it was far too late. They managed to get in touch with about twenty families, and a handful of children enrolled. The new Catholic school has no more places. As the spokesman for Kolping International said, their first obligation is to the children of the “private school.” Segregation remains intact in Jászladány. With the active participation of the Catholic Church.

And now let’s move back in time to the first months of the Orbán administration. Zoltán Balog, a Protestant minister and now the head of the mega-Ministry of Human Resources, was in charge of Roma integration in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. He often expounded on the plight of the Gypsies and promised all sorts of remedies. These remedies did not, however, include school integration. In his opinion, segregation works to the advantage of the underprivileged, most of whom are Roma. They need special attention to catch up with the other students. Of course, we know that this is a myth. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court declared when rendering its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” And, indeed, the special classes into which Roma children were herded in the past almost guaranteed failure. Balog, however, remains unrepentant. Only recently he repeated this mistaken notion when he sided with the Greek Catholic Church in a suit brought against it by the same CFCF that handled the Jászladány case.

What happened in this instance? In Nyíregyháza there was a school in a largely Roma inhabited section of town that was closed in 2007 because of its blatant segregation. In 2011, however, the new Fidesz administration in town reopened the school and it was given to the Greek Catholic Church. CFCF pointed out that only a couple of bus stops from this segregated school there was another school that is also run by the same Greek Catholic Church. It is a newly refurbished modern school. The Roma children could certainly attend that school. Balog offered himself as a witness on behalf of the Greek Catholic Church which refused to close the segregated school and refused to integrate the Roma children into their modern facilities.

There is more and more criticism of the churches lately because they seem singularly insensitive to social issues. Criticism of the Hungarian Catholic Church has grown especially harsh since the installation of Pope Francis, who has been a spokesperson for the downtrodden. Critics complain about the extreme conservatism of the Catholic hierarchy and point out that their involvement with charity work is minimal. It is quite clear from these two cases that the churches are reluctant to deal with disadvantaged children, Roma or not. And the good minister, Zoltán Balog, advocates keeping the disadvantaged separate from “mainstream” Hungarian children. The state and the churches are working hand in hand to keep segregation alive in the Hungarian public school system.

What does the Demokratikus Koalíció stand for?

On September 3, I wrote about an opinion piece by Tamás Bauer, vice-chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Its title was “Electoral mathematics: The Demokratikus Koalíció’s position.” Bauer argued for DK’s right, based on its numerical support, to receive at least 8 or 9 electoral districts. He added that DK’s positions on many issues differ from those of both MSZP and Együtt2014-PM and therefore it deserves a parliamentary caucus.

At the end of that post I indicated that I would like to return to DK’s political program because relatively few people are familiar with it. I had to postpone that piece due to DK’s very prompt answer to MSZP. On the next day, September 4, I posted an article entitled “The current state of the Hungarian opposition: Negotiations between MSZP and DK.”

Over the last few days it has become obvious to me that Ferenc Gyurcsány has already begun his election campaign.  Zsolt Gréczy’s appointment as DK spokesman signaled the beginning of the campaign, which was then followed by several personal appearances by Ferenc Gyurcsány where he began to outline his program. Surely, the amusing video on being a tour guide in Felcsút, “the capital of Orbanistan,” was part of this campaign. So, it’s time to talk about the party program of the Demokratikus Koalíció, especially since only yesterday Attila Mesterházy answered Ferenc Gyurcsány’s letter to him. I elaborated on that letter in my September 4 post.

You may remember that one of the sticking points between the two parties was whether DK is ready to have “an electoral alliance” as opposed to “a political alliance.” Gyurcsány in his letter to Mesterházy made light of the difference between the two, but as far as the socialists are concerned this is an important distinction. Yesterday Attila Mesterházy made that crystal clear in his answer to  Gyurcsány which he posted on his own webpage. According to him, a “political alliance” means the complete subordination of individual parties’ political creeds to the agreed upon policies.  In plain language, DK “will have to agree not to represent its own political ideas during the campaign.”

Since DK’s program thus became one of the central issues in the negotiations it is time to see in what way DK’s vision of the future differs from that of MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM. Here I’m relying on Tamás Bauer’s list of the main differences.

(1) An MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM alliance following an electoral victory will only amend the new constitution and the cardinal laws that are based on this new constitution. The Demokratikus Koalíció, on the other hand, holds that the new constitution is illegitimate because it was enacted without the participation of the opposition. Therefore, according to DK, the new constitution must be repealed and the constitution of the Republic must take its place.

(2) MSZP-E14 by and large accepts the policy of Viktor Orbán on national matters and would allow people living outside of the borders to vote in national elections. The Demokratikus Koalíció rejects this new law and would put an end to these new citizens’ voting rights.

(3) MSZP-E14 does not seem to concern itself with the relation of church and state or the Orbán government’s law on churches. DK would restore the religious neutrality of the state and would initiate a re-examination of the agreement that was concluded between Hungary and the Vatican or, if the Church does not agree to such a re-examination, DK would abrogate the agreement altogether.

(4) MSZP-E14 talks in generalities about the re-establishment of predictable economic conditions and policies that would be investment friendly but it doesn’t dare to reject such populist moves as a decrease in utility prices or the nationalization of companies. Only DK is ready to openly reject all these.

(5) MSZP-E14 accepts the tax credits that depend on the number of children and therefore supports an unjust system. DK, on the other hand, wants to put an end to this system and to introduce a system that treats all children alike.

(6) Együtt2014-PM opposes the concentration of land that is necessary for the creation of  a modern and effective agriculture. The policy of small landholdings was the brainchild of the Smallholders Party, which was largely responsible for the collapse of Hungarian agriculture after the change of regime. MSZP is against foreign investment in Hungarian agriculture. The Demokratikus Koalíció intends to liberalize the agricultural market. DK thinks that agricultural cooperatives should be able to purchase the land they currently cultivate. It also maintains that foreign capital should be able to come into Hungary in order to make Hungarian agriculture competitive again.

(7) The attitude of MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM toward the conflicts between the European Union and the Orbán government is ambiguous, while the Demokratikus Koalíció unequivocally takes the side of the institutions of the Union against the Orbán government.

These are the points that Tamás Bauer mentions. But as the Gyurcsány campaign unfolds more and more differences will be visible. For example, only yesterday Gyurcsány talked about his ideas to abolish the compulsory retirement age and to financially encourage people to demand higher wages in order to maximize their pensions after retirement. During this talk in Nyíregyháza Gyurcsány made no secret of the fact that his party is working on its election program.

So, it seems to me that the Gyurcsány campaign has already begun. Maybe I’m wrong and Gyurcsány will give up all his ideas and will line up behind MSZP-E14, but somehow I doubt it. Even if he tried, he couldn’t. Temperamentally he is not suited for it.

Meanwhile, an interesting but naturally not representative voting has been taking place in Magyar Narancs. Readers of the publication are asked to vote for party and for leader of the list. DK leads (52%) over Együtt 2014 (29%) and Gyurcsány (54%) over Bajnai (32%). Of course, this vote in no way reflects reality. What it does tell us is that the majority of readers of Magyar Narancs are DK supporters. Something that surprised me. If I had had to guess, I would have picked Együtt2014.

As for Ferenc Gyurcsány’s visit to Felcsút, I wrote about it a couple of days ago. The video is now out. This morning I decided to take a look at it because from Zsolt Gréczy’s description on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd the whole scene of Fidesz cameras following them everywhere sounded hilarious . At that time the video had been viewed by about 5,000 people. Right now the number of visitors is over 53,000.

Clips from The Godfather are juxtaposed with scenes from Felcsút. The video ends with the wedding of Vito Corleone’s daughter. While Gyurcsány is narrating the enrichment of the Orbán family, two people, one of whom is the Fidesz regional secretary and the other perhaps the cameraman of the Puskás Academy, follow him everywhere and record his every move and word. Definitely worth seven minutes of your time.

Since I am no fortune teller I have no idea what will happen. A couple of things, though, I’m pretty sure of. DK will never agree to drop Gyurcsány as their party leader. And Mesterházy indicated that this might be one of the MSZP demands for an agreement. Or at least that Gyurcsány not be DK’s top candidate, or possibly any candidate. Otherwise why would he have asked: “Are those media predictions that the Demokratikus Koalíció plans to nominate the chairman of the party, Ferenc Gyurcsány, for the second slot on the list true?”

At first reading I didn’t notice this linguistic oddity. The letter is addressed to “Dear Mr. Party Chairman, dear Feri” and continues in the second-person singular: “te.” Now that I returned to the sentence in order to translate it, suddenly I noticed that Mesterházy switched from “te,” which in a personal letter would have been normal, to “Ferenc Gyurcsány” in a letter addressed to Ferenc Gyurcsány.

What will the final result be? I have no idea. Let’s put it this way, it’s much easier to predict the outcome of Hungarian soccer matches than the outcome of opposition politics.

“Stephen, the King” 30 years later

Sometime either at the end of the 1970s or early in the 1980s I had a visitor from Hungary, a middle-aged historian whom I would never have guessed would be an ardent fan of rock music. Yet she brought an album by a Hungarian rock group as a gift. The group was considered to be a significant anti-government voice; it was linked to Levente Szörényi and János Bródy, later composer and lyricist of István, a király (Stephen, the King).

It was in 1983 that István, a király, a rock opera, was first performed in Budapest’s city park (Városliget). It was an immediate hit. Today it is described as a “cultic” and “legendary” work that was intellectually and politically influential in the years following its first performance.

The story deals with the dynastic struggle between Stephen and his uncle Koppány and, through their struggle, with the transformation of late tenth- and early eleventh-century Hungarian society.

During the communist period it was customary to “read between the lines,” and to the popular mind Stephen’s story soon became an allegory of recent Hungarian history. To many Stephen was János Kádár, who realized that the country cannot go against the Soviet Union and the neighboring socialist countries, while Koppány was viewed as Imre Nagy, who represented the true Hungary and who at the end fell victim to outside forces.

In the years since the first performance of István, a király it became a favorite of the Hungarian right, especially since a few years ago a film based on the opera was released. The film’s director specializes in nationalistic productions of historical topics. Meanwhile Szörényi became politically identified with the right and Bródy with the left. So, when the thirtieth anniversary rolled around and the idea of restaging István, a  király came up, it was completely unexpected that Bródy and Szörényi not only got together but chose Róbert Alföldi to direct an entirely new production of their opera.

Alföldi is known for his avant garde productions. Both his political views and his artistic philosophy are anathema to the Orbán government. It was only recently that in a clearly rigged competition he lost his bid for a renewal of his appointment as the director of the National Theater. Szörényi, who recently expressed his misgivings about the Orbánite Kulturkampf, is a good enough artist to know that Alföldi’s talent and his opera might be a winning combination.

Szörényi and Bródy insisted that the new performance not be “historically accurate,” i.e. Stephen and his entourage shouldn’t be wandering around in late tenth-century costumes but should depict modern men and women. The Bavarian soldiers accompanying Gizella en route to becoming the bride of Stephen should be members of modern army, police, and anti-terrorist units. So, those who now object to the modern setting and blame Alföldi’s directing style are unfair. The authors of the opera wanted the modern setting. They had only one demand: Alföldi shouldn’t touch the lyrics or the music. Apparently, he didn’t.

The new production of the rock opera was performed in Szeged in an open air theater where most of the time around 200 people were on stage. On August 20th RTL Club showed it live on television. Just as in 1983, critics found symbolism in the new István, a király. Right wingers are convinced that Stephen is a caricature of Viktor Orbán. They also greatly object to Alföldi’s portrayal of the Catholic Church. One critic claimed that István, a király is perhaps the most “anticlerical” performance ever put on a Hungarian stage. The nationalists vehemently object to Stephen’s depiction who in Alföldi’s interpretation looks like a less than resolute leader who doesn’t even have a great desire to be king; he is under the thumb of his strong-willed mother, Sarolt. The view of Stephen as a king who manages to win over his domestic enemies only with foreign help doesn’t quite fit the historical picture most Hungarians have of their saintly king.

Meanwhile, Alföldi, who has given a couple of interviews in the last few days, claims that what he did was nothing more than depict true historic fact. He tried to get rid of the nationalistic pathos and the unhistorical interpretations that falsify history. Up to a point he is right, but surely the interpretation reflects Alföldi’s own worldview. When two bards arrive in an old Trabant, the message is clear: these two guys in their fifties with their old Trabant represent the past while Gizella’s silver Mercedes, which brings her from Bavaria, is the future. Which is the more attractive? I don’t think we get a clear answer. With that Mercedes also come soldiers, policemen, and commandos without whom the state couldn’t be maintained. Survival has a price.

The most controversial prop is a huge rusty crown into which eventually the people of the realm are herded. The cage-like structure is shut. There is no escape. Eventually, in the last moments of the play, the people inside begin to sing the national anthem, an act that jolted quite a few of the conservative and nationalistic critics.

The rusty crown-cage of Róbert Alföldi's rendition of István, a király

The rusty crown-cage of Róbert Alföldi’s rendition of István, a király

Yes, the performance is controversial but still 750,000 people watched it on television.  MTV at the same time aired a lesser known Ferenc Erkel opera called István király in which relatively few people were interested. I think that the official state television’s choice says a lot about the cultural preferences of the present government. A safe nineteenth-century historical opera that practically nobody wants to see.

In addition to the 750,000 people who watched the opera on television, the three performances in Szeged were sold out. It seems that the history of those turbulent years at the crossroads between the old and the new still has relevance today. But Viktor Orbán is not Stephen. If anything, he is Koppány.

How much is how much when it comes to teachers’ salaries in Hungary

As we know only too well, teachers’ salaries are extremely low in Hungary and teachers haven’t had a raise since the 2008 financial crisis. Given the fairly high inflation rate, at least until recently, the already very low living standards of teachers have further deteriorated in the last five years.

For some time it looked as if the Orbán government had no intention of raising salaries this year. Undersecretary Rózsa Hoffmann kept promising the raise, but the date kept getting pushed out. Eventually, it seems, the Fidesz politicos came to the conclusion that something must give, especially since the election is less than a year away.

The Orbán government had already mandated an increase in teacher work loads. They raised the number of classes teachers have to give each week. When not actually teaching, teachers from here on will have to remain within the walls of the schools for at kleast 32 hours and do whatever the principal asks them to do. And, in addition, the government insisted that if there is a salary raise the practice of paying extra for teaching classes over and above the compulsory work load must come to an end.

Source: qalapwu.com

Source: qalapwu.com

The long, complicated negotiations over salaries split the two teachers’ unions. But now even the more pliant Mrs. István Galló concedes that, although some teachers will do better than before, the majority will see mighty few benefits from the promised salary raise. Mrs. Galló, however, felt that her union had no choice but to reach an agreement with the government because otherwise even those few benefits wouldn’t have materialized. She was convinced that she couldn’t credibly threaten the government with a general teachers’ strike. Teachers are so worried about their jobs that they will settle for very little as opposed to nothing.

According to the final settlement, the raise will be given out gradually between September 1 of this year and 2017. Zoltán Balog promised that come September the teachers will receive 60% of the full amount. That would mean, he claimed, a 34% raise on average.

But then some investigative reporters began scrutinizing leaked documents and came to the conclusion that the numbers didn’t add up, that another 7 billion forints was necessary to reach the 60% figure in September. They concluded that the most the government is planning to give in September is only 50% of the total amount promised.

A few days later Népszava received a leaked document in which they found an 11 billion forint gap between the ostensibly negotiated raise and the actual figures that will appear as a budget item. They came to the conclusion that the government is planning to let several thousand teachers go over and above those who have already been barred from teaching because they either reached or are over the compulsory retirement age of 65. Naturally, the Ministry of Human Resources announced today that not a word of this speculation is true and that “the government counts on the work of teachers who are employees of the state at the moment.”

I myself have no idea how much more money teachers will get from September 1 on. One thing the teachers are already sure of–there will be great disparities in pay. As for the children, they will spend a lot more time in school. So will the teachers. From here on they will have to spend 32 hours in the school itself, during which they will be obliged to teach if necessary. Without additional compensation. So, in the end the salaries might be higher but the amount of work will also be greater. If a teacher until now had to teach only 22 hours and will have to teach 26 hours (and possibly 32), the raise, viewed as forints per hour, might not be much of a raise at all.

Admittedly, there’s a fair amount of fat in the Hungarian educational system. It’s inefficient, and deleterious to educational attainment, to have a school in every village instead of busing kids to regional schools. And having an average class size of 13-14 students in Budapest schools is a real luxury. For instance, in Westport, CT, which is one of the wealthiest communities in the state with a median family income of around $200,000 and a school system to match, the average class size is 21. Admittedly, not all Hungarian schools have such a high teacher: student ratio as the ones in Budapest. I checked out Viktor Orbán’s old high school in Székesfehérvár and found that the average class size there is about 35. Apparently, class size can be adjusted “according to need.”

But not properly compensating teachers may be counterproductive. Thanks to Rózsa Hoffmann, teacher education falls outside of the by now generally accepted Bologna system. It is a six-year course of study. How many bright 18-year-olds would want to commit themselves to paying high tuition fees for six years only to end up in a career that pays miserably and carries little prestige? And that, by the by, doesn’t port well if they decide to leave the country.

Viktor Orbán, the economist and the foreign policy expert

The consensus in Hungary is that Viktor Orbán’s speech before the Hungarian diplomatic corps and representatives of the foreign embassies was more muddled than usual.

Contrary to what I thought yesterday, Orbán didn’t read his speech that lasted, by the way, almost an hour but spoke extemporaneously. Since he hardly ever dares to speak at such length without a written text, he has little practice in the art of spontaneous oration. That might be one reason for the confused nature of his message.

The second reason is, and I guess this is the real problem, that foreign policy, international relations, diplomacy are not strong suits of the Hungarian prime minister. Unfortunately, due to Viktor Orbán’s political omnipotence, Hungarian foreign policy is entirely within his purview. A mini foreign ministry was created inside the Office of the Prime Minister; Foreign Minister János Martonyi can either twiddle his thumbs or try to explain away Orbán’s alienating statements.

First, some general observations about the speech. Orbán looked less haggard than usual. Perhaps the reason for his healthier countenance was a four-day vacation in Croatia accompanied by his body guards. The newspaper report made no mention of his wife and children. What it did mention was that he insisted on having a room in which he could watch a Hungarian sports television station and MTV!

Viktor Orbán claimed that, before delivering the speech, he consulted with Péter Gottfried, an old hand at the Foreign Ministry who served almost all governments since the change of regime and currently foreign policy adviser to Orbán. Mind you, he was already in a high government position during the Kádár regime. Gottfried seems to have warned the prime minister to stay clear of certain subjects, but Orbán didn’t listen. Perhaps he should have.

I was somewhat surprised about Orbán’s repeated claim that those present, including he himself, were at one time or another “intellectuals,” “members of the intelligentsia.” The implication was that, due to his intellectual prowess, he is a better judge of the current economic and political situation in the world than (mercifully unnamed) others.

He also tried to be funny, but his sense of humor always has an edge to it. It often involves the degradation of someone else. In this case the butt of his jokes was János Martonyi. Right off the bat he announced that “the danger no longer exists that the foreign minister will give the prime minister’s speech [but] if some of the questions require his competence he should without any fear take part in this consultation.” Isn’t that generous of him!

At least this year he allowed the European Union flags to be displayed unlike last year / Népszabadság, Photo Simon Móricz

At least this year he allowed the European Union flags to be displayed, unlike last year Népszabadság, Photo Simon Móricz

The complete speech, unfortunately without his responses to the questions, is now available on the prime minister’s website. It is unfortunate because some of the juicier remarks about Russia, Germany, and the United States were delivered during the question-and-answer period.

In the body of the speech he spoke at length about the accomplishments of his government. Allegedly he dwelt on this subject only because he is supposed to follow tradition, but he is never shy when it comes to his alleged achievements. The list he offered to the ambassadors was the usual fare, complete with the usual lies.

We know that the national debt is not lower today than it was three years ago. We know that Hungary’s self-financing through the financial markets is more expensive than getting a loan from the IMF and the EU. We know that the IMF loan is not “dole.” We also know that the situation of the forex borrowers is not solved and that unemployment didn’t decrease.

After his lengthy introduction Orbán began talking about the financial and economic crisis of the European Union and pondered the nature of this long-lasting recession. The outstanding question, according to him, is whether this particular crisis is just one of those periodic crises characteristic of market economies or whether it is the beginning of a permanent and steady decline of the European Union. He didn’t give a specific answer to this question, but given Orbán’s earlier references to the decline of the West, we can be pretty confident that he considers the current economic situation in Europe the beginning of the end.

But if this is Orbán’s “Spenglerian” vision, the rest of the speech is pretty incomprehensible because he began talking about the necessity of a strong eurozone on which Hungary is economically dependent. Right now it is the sluggish eurozone that is holding Hungary back. In brief, Hungary’s poor economic performance in the last three years is due to the failures of those Brussels bureaucrats who don’t seem to understand that it is Viktor Orbán who has the key to success. They are stuck in the mud; they keep insisting on the same rules and regulations for everybody and they call this “predictability.”

Yes, we know that the unpredictability of Hungarian legislative moves over the last three years wreaked havoc on every facet of life in Hungary and that it especially did a lot of harm as far as foreign and domestic investments were concerned. Companies never knew what was coming next. One day levies on banks, the next day on telecommunication companies, the following day on utility companies, one can go on and on. But, claims Orbán, the crisis will never end without what he calls “selectivity.” You select your victims almost at random. According to Orbán, this unpredictable behavior is the secret of his success, without which the western nations will never in this stinking life (büdös életben) get out of this crisis.

He outlined another theory of his, again connected to his being an intellectual. The European Union made a mistake when it waited until 2004 to allow the ten central-eastern European nations to join the Union. If it had moved in 1995, it is possible that the EU could have completely avoided the financial crisis brought over the Atlantic from the United States. He put forth this theory based on the current situation. If we look around in the European Union, only those countries that joined the Union later show any economic growth. (He conveniently forgot about Hungary’s track record.)

And finally, he talked about his conflicts over sovereignty with the European Union. The media describe this conflict as a war of independence. Actually he likes this term, but he is not fighting against the European Union but is fighting for the maintenance of a correct balance between union and national rights. The EU cannot change the rules. Right now a stealth attempt at federalization is taking place. Of course, this is also nonsense because the founders of the European Union from the very beginning envisaged ever closer relations among the member states that might eventually result in a United States of Europe.

Out of this mumbo jumbo I tried to figure out what Orbán really wanted to say. Basically, he condemned both the methods and the economic principles that politicians and economic experts in the European Union apply. They are dead wrong in demanding predictability and traditional remedies. With these policies they retard the Hungarian economy and the economies of other Eastern European nations that are the engines of growth in Europe.

With this attitude the cold war between Hungary and the rest of Europe will not come to an end any time soon. Unless, of course, the Hungarian people become tired of their intellectual prime minister next April.