Tag Archives: poverty

The past seven years: Hungary in numbers, 2010-2016

Máté Veres, research associate of Gazdaságkutató Zrt., published this study in Új Egyenlőség at the beginning of the year. The article was translated by “Observer,” who added the following notes:

This article offers a set of indicators to reveal the state of the Hungarian economy and society. We think, however, that the situation is somewhat worse than Veres’s assessment because there are additional detrimental factors not discussed here, e.g.:

  • The very low investment rate as a percentage of GDP
  • The budget deficit hidden in subsystems down to individual units like hospitals or schools districts
  • The consumption boost by the remitted earnings from abroad, which are to decline in time
  • The poor ratings of the Hungarian places of higher education, the outdated, retrograde education model and policies, the very low number of people with IT or foreign language knowledge, etc.  

Analyses of these points will eventually be presented in another article. I’m grateful for the work and care “Observer” took in translating this important article for us.

♦ ♦ ♦

Analyzing the results of the second Orbán government [and third as from 2014] after seven years of freedom fight and other kinds of struggle and hundreds of millions of euros from the EU spent, it’s time to draw a picture of how the Hungarian economy and society are doing compared to 2010 in the light of the latest figures available.

After [the election victory in] 2010 the government benches have been widely using the already well known “past eight years” phrase. It was used by Fidesz and the Christian Democratic politicians as their favored counter-argument when the opposition tried to challenge government actions. The performance of the governments between 2002 and 2010 in many areas could have been criticized (as we did in our analyses), but in general the “last eight years” argument has always been a simplistic communication tool, often used to bypass substantive discussions. In our evaluation of the Fidesz government performance we now follow a different path and instead of summary political statements we shall stay with the facts and figures to show what the “past seven years” were like.

Seven years are already a sufficient horizon for an evaluation of the government’s achievements. For this purpose, however, in addition to showing the changes in numbers, we need to find explanations for the results, and therefore – where possible – to compare the results with those of our regional competitors as well. So now we’ll consider some areas of key importance to the future of the country.

UNEMPLOYMENT

It was 10.3% in 2010 and only 5% in 2016, according to the KHS (Central Statistics Office-CSO), or 6.8%, according to Eurostat.

Apparently the situation has improved, but it is worth adding that the [2008 world financial] crisis played a major role in the exceptionally weak 2010 numbers, while the much better 2016 numbers include both those working abroad and those fostered workers vegetating on subsistence wages (USD 180/month).

The same factors underlay the Eurostat numbers showing a miraculous growth of employment in Hungary (59.9% in 2010 and 68.9% in 2015). According to official figures we caught up with the EU average, but without those working abroad and the fostered workers we just caught up with the eastern [EU] member states. In any case, there is an improvement, primarily due to the EU-funded, labor-intensive construction projects.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT

2010 – 36th place, in 2016 – 44th

Human development is an indicator introduced by the UNO, a concept of human well-being wider than the GDP indicator. It is generated by averaging three numerical indicators: life expectancy, education and standard of living (GDP Purchasing Power Parity per capita). In this area we not only managed to fall significantly behind, but all our V4 [Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary] regional competitors overtook us, while Poland was still behind us in 2010.

HOUSEHOLD DEBT

EUR 7,844 mil in 2010, 5,683 mil in 2016

A clear success can be booked in this area. The composition of the debt is just as important as its size, as the crisis taught a large part of the Hungarian middle class. Until 2010 the household debt of the Hungarian population grew at a rate remarkable even by regional standards, and in foreign currency, which was mainly due to the bad interest rate policy of the Hungarian Central Bank (HCB) and to the lack of regulation. The central bank’s interest rate policy between 2001 and 2007 encouraged the population to borrow in foreign currency.

PUBLIC DEBT

In 2010 the PD was HUF 20,420 billion or 78.8% of GDP. Seven years later, in 2016 it was 25,393 billion or 75.5% of GDP.

This figure has fluctuated during the second Orbán government. It had been over 80% GDP too, but at the end of the year ‘with hundreds of tricks’ – the best known being the seizure of the pension finds – they always managed a decrease from the previous year [the government publishes and uses only a single figure – that of Dec. 30th). There is a lot of uncertainty as to whether the government can sustain the downward trend, given the scale of the debt, but if it manages to keep the balance of payments at zero, the government can eventually claim a clear victory on this front.

TAXES ON LABOR

In 2010 the total was 54.1%; in 2016, 49.0% There is a sizable literature on the issue. The differentiated and on average higher taxes on labor and/or profit are not at all problematic, if they are used by the state to provide high-quality, accessible to all, health, education and other services. This is evidenced year after year by the results of the economic systems of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, known as the “Nordic model”, since the above-mentioned countries have figured at the top of the lists in competitiveness, innovation and the environment for decades. However, in Hungary things are developing in a direction exactly opposite to the Nordic Model. This question is also interesting because the Fidesz government proclaimed itself to be the government of tax cuts.

Social security expenses in the European Union, 2014

It is clear that if we look at the overall situation, the taxes on labor have decreased. Although it’s worth adding that in international comparison while in 2010 we had the second largest burden rate in the OECD, by now we managed to move up only by two places, occupying fourth place from the bottom. This small success is mainly due to the introduction of a flat personal income tax and its rate reduction to 16%.

However, it’s worth mentioning that the replacement of the progressive tax system used until then by a flat tax rate opened a HUF 444 billion hole in the yearly budget and benefited only the richest. In addition, never has labor in Hungary been burdened by such a wide variety of taxes as today. Actually the situation here is the worst in the region. Meanwhile the government promised a massive tax burden reduction in the medium term and a single-digit company tax. There has been a long-standing debate about the need for a significant reduction of the tax burden with regard to the competitiveness of the economy.

In any case, despite the 2010 promise, we surely didn’t get any closer to the “beer mat-sized tax return” [as V. Orbán half-jokingly promised in opposition]. However, with the new flat and extremely low 9% company tax rate, another 2010 slogan – “we shall fight the offshore knights” – now seems to have morphed into “join the offshore knights’ race.” Similar to the effect of the flat-rate personal income tax, now once again the richest (and the big companies) will do really well as not the Hungarians, but the multinationals, such as General Electric (GE), already did under a special agreement with the government.

GDP GROWTH

Between 2004 and 2010 the growth amounted to 9.9% or in absolute terms USD 114.2 billion to 129.4 billion (a 15.2 billion difference). Between 2010 and 2015, in the same length of time, the Orbán government boosted the GDP from USD 129.4 billion to 138.8 billion (a 9.4 billion difference). The right side of politics clearly underperformed. These numbers, however, may be deceptive because much depends on external factors. But if you just look at our competitors in the region, save for the Czechs and Bulgarians almost all Eastern European member states, even Romania, performed better.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT

The [public transport] ticket price in Budapest in 2010 was 320 Ft., in 2016 – 350. The ticket prices in the region were as follows in 2016. Sofia – 158 Ft., Bucharest – 90 Ft., Warsaw – 240 Ft., Prague – 275 Ft. So the situation remains unchanged, we are the most expensive.

FREEWAY CONSTRUCTION COST

During the Gyurcsány government overpricing [in public projects] gained notoriety, but there are still no authoritative studies regarding its extent. Interestingly, according to Zsuzsanna Németh, Minister of Development 2010-2014, the Hungarian freeway construction cost per kilometer had decreased steadily during the Gyurcsány government, and in 2010 was 1.8 billion Ft. on average. Compared to this, according to the same Ministry led by Zsuzsanna Németh, the freeway construction unit cost had increased to 2.3 billion per kilometers in 2013. But there were also sections where the costs reached almost 4 billion forints.

BIG MAC INDEX

[Or how many minutes you have to work for a Big Mac]

Crisis or not, the change here is clearly positive: in 2009 – 59 min., in 2015 only 44 min. That said, we still haven’t overtaken anyone in the region, we are on par with Bucharest. It is also important to point out that the Big Mac index focuses on cities, and while Budapest is clearly catching up, the country is dropping behind compared to the other EU Member States. And this worsening trend continued during the past seven years just as before.

BUDAPEST (CENTRAL HUNGARY) GDP PPP / CAPITA compared to EU average

In 2010 144%, in 2014 143% where 100% means the EU average

Only Budapest is above the EU average, the second best county – Győr-Moson-Sopron stands at only 77%. In the light of the foregoing it is worthwhile showing also how the best performing Hungarian regions – where the situation in this area has worsened since 2010 – compare to our V4 competitors. In 2014 in the same category Prague was stood at 173%, Bratislava 187%, Warsaw 197%. Notably in the case of Budapest, Pest County is also part of the region.

GDP per capita by purchasing power parity, 2015

IMPORTED FOODS SHARE

In 2010 24.5%, in 2015 22%

The more food is produced by local, domestic producers the better, both environmentally and economically. According to a relatively recent Corvinus University study, positive, if modest changes have taken place in this area.

THE REAL VALUE OF PENSIONS
It is so far growing in the second Orbán government period, due in part to last year’s persistently low inflation, the third year in a row, and, on the other hand, partially due to the inflation-indexation of pensions introduced by the Gyurcsány government and which during the Fidesz government was often surpassed through the use of small tricks.

MATERNITY LEAVE

In 2008 the gross benefit was HUF 28,500, in 2016 just as much. In international comparison, this is dramatically low.

PRIMARY SCHOOL TEACHER GROSS ANNUAL WAGES

In 2009 it was USD 9,500, in 2015 – 9,149.

The biggest change in the area of earnings in the past period, as mentioned before, was the flat personal income tax, which benefitted primarily the affluent. At first glance the above seems even a decrease, but due to the significantly weakened forint exchange rate in the period the balance is rather a positive one. This fact doesn’t make for any exuberant joy because according to the OECD data, admittedly in need of updating, the approx. USD 9,500 earnings (just as a few years ago) was sufficient only for the last place among the EU member countries.

PEOPLE LIVING IN EXTREME POVERTY

In 2010 – 3 million, in 2016 – 3.6-3.8 million

In addition to this terribly high number, perhaps it is most important to note that after nearly a quarter of a century, in 2011 the CSO stopped publishing any figures about exactly how many people live below the poverty line. (The Policy Agenda think tank, however, has calculated that by 2015 the number has grown to 41.5%. See our article on all of this.)

Actual Individual Consumption in the European Union, 2014

Furthermore, the CSO had calculated that at least 87,351 Ft. monthly net earnings were required (in 2014) for living at a subsistence level. In comparison the net minimum wage in 2016 was still 73,815 Ft. In the first case it seems there was finally a move forward. Thanks to the tenacious struggle of the trade unions in 2018 the minimum wage will reach the subsistence level of around 90,000 Ft. However, thanks to the far higher 35% tax burden, in net terms the minimum wage is still light years behind that of our competitors in the region regarding the increases carried out between 2008 and 2016. In addition, Hungary has the highest proportion (72.2%) across the EU of households that wouldn’t be able to pay any unexpected expense.

HOSPITAL BEDS NUMBER

In 2009 – 70,971, in 2014 – 66,000

The population has been declining steadily since 2010, but we surely aren’t so many fewer. Actually there are more elderly. Therefore we need more, not fewer beds.

HEALTHCARE

Not only compared to 2010, but in fact never has any government since 1990 spent so little on healthcare, as a percentage of GDP, as in the past several years. And this is not only a basic requirement for a more successful functioning of the economy but also a factor that could have improved significantly the overall mood of the whole country. Recent research has shown that the overall satisfaction level in a country is not best raised by increasing the earnings of the inhabitants but by spending relatively larger amounts on problems of well-being. There is also a demand for it. According to the 2016 European Social Survey the Hungarian society is in a terrible state compared to the other European countries: in Hungary people consume the smallest quantities of fruits and vegetables, Hungarian women are moving the least, compared to the Hungarian men only Lithuanians smoke more, compared to the Hungarian men only more Czechs are overweight, Hungarian women are the most overweight, we have the largest proportion of men in poor or a very poor state of health, compared to the Hungarian women only the Spanish women are in a worse state of health, among the Hungarian men are the most showing signs of depression, and the Hungarian population, both men and women, is most affected by cancer. After that, perhaps it’s not surprising that we visit doctors most frequently among OECD countries.

EDUCATION

Similar to the health care case, counting from 1990 we have never spent so little of the GDP in this sector as during the Orbán government. Yet the word education could safely be replaced by “future,” since it is basically influenced by the country’s medium and long-term competitiveness. We are rank penultimate in Europe [in spending], so such investment here would bring the biggest return among the OECD countries. The results are visible: we are sixth from the bottom in the OECD in the number of researchers employed in the country; there haven’t been so few studying in higher education in the last seventeen years. We spent the least for developing computer skills, and our students have the largest number of school hours for non-essential knowledge (e.g., ethics [compulsory alternative to religion], etc.) as opposed to essential ones (e.g. reading, writing, literature, mathematics, natural sciences, second or other language). In view of the above, the recently published PISA results, which understandably caused an outrage, probably represent only the tip of the iceberg.

One of the few positive steps in the past few years is that those who cannot find work are, finally, offered free training, but the training offered by the National [Vocational] Training Register (Országos képzési jegyzék) is unlikely to boost the highest added value production areas. In addition, the participants’ livelihood is not guaranteed during the course; hence the training can only be used by jobseekers with a better financial cushion or those enjoying a patronage. Improving job qualifications is needed to raise our incredibly low average salary, which already inhibits economic growth.

CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX

In 2009 – 46th place, in 2015 – 50th place

Even the people in Saudi Arabia, Botswana, Qatar and four-fifths of our region feel their governments are less corrupt.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

No previous government has shown less interest in this area. The Orbán government’s response to the day-by-day worsening problem of global warming was to abolish the Environment Ministry and to do nothing about the few concrete promises it made before the election – including the creation of a green bank. In the meantime, they managed to earn the glory of the “tree-felling government” title, since probably no one has cut down so many trees as they have done in the last seven years in Budapest, and they have plans for more. Moreover, we are perhaps the only country in the world to impose taxes on solar panels while indebting Hungary by a loan equal to at least 10% of GDPif not more – for the sake of a twentieth-century technology for [Russian nuclear reactor blocks] Paks 2, which, in the bargain, will surely never produce a return.

Meanwhile, despite all the flag waving and freedom fighting the external exposure of the Hungarian economy has not been reduced at all. And here it is not primarily the foreign currency denominated debt segment that counts most, nor the export-import volume, which reached 200% of GDP, but the fact that less than half of the exported added value is created in Hungary. In other words, more than 50% of the added value produced in Hungary is by foreign-owned companies, which is unique in the European Union. It is no surprise that of the EU money arriving here for business development – after the government has carved off its significant slice – almost 70% is awarded to multinationals.

Such a level of foreign investor influence is extraordinary even by regional standards, although in Eastern Europe we are all rowing in the same boat, i.e. in what the literature calls a dependent market economy. That is, our economies are wholly dependent on Western investments. This is particularly true for the car manufacturing brought to Hungary, because it accounts for more than 20% of Hungarian exports, and this situation hasn’t changed since the year 2000. Meanwhile a leading Fidesz politician says that nothing can be done because “Hungary is a determined country, where it’s impossible to pursue other economic policies.” But it was precisely the Orbán regime which showed that it is. Over the last fifty years countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore went through economic development with substantial state assistance, which took them to where we are heading today. Big companies like Samsung, LG and Hyundai were heavily subsidized by the state, which in return set certain export expectations, so these companies were forced to continue spending on innovation. While it is a widespread view that the international rules made impossible this type of government intervention, we can see that the Orbán regime can support their oligarchs without any sanctions. The problem is that instead of innovation the regime expects only political loyalty. Despite its references to them as a model, none of the East Asian models’ components has been employed.

In light of the above it is not surprising that there have never been so many who wanted to emigrate from the country. Meanwhile the middle class is eroding and the differences in wealth between the richest and the poorest are increasing.

There is money available though, since up to now the government has spent HUF 300 billion on state companies and a further HUF 100 billion on its own (i.e. our) soccer pet. Overall, we spend four times more on this prime minister’s mania than on road maintenance, while the number of spectators is steadily declining. There are other outlays that went wrong too – the György Matolcsy-led National Bank has had HUF 250 billion pumped into dubious foundations or spent for the purchase of art objects. In addition, another HUF 850 million was sunk into the Felcsút narrow gauge railway, never to produce any return, and HUF 6.7 billion credit was extended to Andy Vajna for the purchase of TV2. Speaking of Andy Vajna, it is worth highlighting the greatest of all items, in regard to which the government didn’t do anything, namely the offshore [knights racket]. Moreover, Hungary is actually moving in this direction. Even in the face of the couple of years old study finding that the almost unfathomable amount of USD 247 billion of untaxed income has left the country in past decades. In the course of this offshore racket we have suffered the second largest losses in Europe.

WHAT FOLLOWS FROM ALL THIS?

Looking at the numbers the government could demonstrate quite serious achievements compared to 2010, primarily in the area of balancing the ​​budget and public debt. The GDP growth rate could have been included but for the fact that this growth was due mainly to the accelerated EU investments and not to a better performance of the domestic economy. In fact our productivity has been stagnant since 2008.

On the other hand, the social inequalities have increased dramatically during these seven years. It is unlikely that these short-term favorable macro-economic data can be sustained in the long term, mainly because the Hungarian society’s human capital indicators have significantly deteriorated as a result of the dramatic underfunding of the public subsystems (healthcare, education, social policy, public transport). That is, the economic growth is due to a great extent to the EU investment funds and the short-term budgetary balance to huge austerity measures. Both are unsustainable.

February 19, 2017

The political credo of László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for prime minister

The original article by László Botka, titled “Az igazságos Magyarországért,” appeared in 160 Óra on January 21, 2017. Thanks to the staff of The Budapest Sentinelit was translated into English and published today. I am grateful to the Sentinel‘s editors for permission to make the translation available to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Hungarian left has not been in such a storm battered state during the entire existence of the third republic, yet Hungary has never needed the left as much as it does now.

Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010, has thrust a country that served in the 1990s as a model for democracy in Eastern Central Europe into autocracy. Any democratic political force that defeats Orbán must return to constitutional democracy and the rule of law. However, the Orbán regime has not only dismantled the rule of law and democracy, but also spread a concept of society that is deeply unjust, runs counter to the basic interests of Hungarian people, and which all true left-wing forces must fight against.

The crisis of the left wing is not only a domestic issue. The rapid advance of national populism means progressive political forces around the world have found themselves on the defensive. Talk in recent years has been about nothing else: from the refugee crisis, via Brexit, to the US presidential election. Populists promised those parts of society that have been left behind, or are just holding on, that they can once again enjoy a secure livelihood – through the repression of other groups. Migrants, the homeless, the unemployed, the “undeserving” poor, ethnic minorities, intellectuals who express solidarity with them, and civic activists are all marked down as enemies of the nation. Hungary is at the forefront of all this: here the breakthrough for national populism came in 2010 with Orbán’s “ballot box revolution”.

Photo: Péter Komka

The left is now charged with a historic task: we must put a stop to this far-right national populism, and make our own vision of society attractive once again. Populists cannot solve the crisis that exists on many levels; they only make the problem worse. A populist is like a dentist who does not dare to tell a patient with toothache what the real cause of the problem is. Instead of treating it, he prescribes painkillers. The patient may well get temporary relief, but in reality his condition is getting ever worse. The left will not get anywhere with false remedies. We must be honest, because lying to a patient is dishonorable, the effects of a painkiller are only temporary, and the problem will only return in a more serious form. The Hungarian left must present a vision of a future Hungary that we would all like to live in, somewhere we can live well.

In this piece – which will be followed by more over the coming weeks – I have undertaken to present a vision of how our homeland could become a more just country. By aiming for this goal, the left could finally haul itself out of its deep crisis. We need a politics of equality that is far removed from that practiced by the left-wing in recent years and one that is diametrically opposed to Orbán’s vision of Hungary.

Orbán dreams of a “work-based” authoritarian state in which government representatives have the last word on every issue, even when they are wrong – one where the powers that be promise a well-functioning and developed economy can be built by ending democratic debate. Some observers of Orbán’s system say the prime minister’s aim is to set up an eastern European Singapore, where Orbán could lead the country for decades as father of the nation, and hurriedly join the developed world by cutting back on political debate. To put it more simply, Orbán is offering prosperity and security in exchange for freedom and democracy.

Hungary cannot accept this deal for two reasons. First of all, because this promise is a lie. Hungary will not be the next Singapore. There is not and never will be an Orbán miracle. Instead of building a developing, authoritarian Singapore, there has been a Putinization of the country, where the promise of prosperity only applies to those favored by Orbán. For the rest there is only poverty, hopelessness and abjection – and restricted freedom. We are talking about a system where, according to the Ministry of Human Resources, capable members of society are carrying Hungary “on their shoulders” while disadvantaged people such as the disabled and the Roma are merely a burden. That is, in its own dishonest way, the government is dividing society into those who “pull their weight” and the “carried”. Yet this “carrying on the shoulders” is another lie, because the government long ago abandoned the disadvantaged to their own problems and difficulties. Society under Fidesz is a cast system in which everyone has their own place and fate. Helping the lower casts is in no way an aim of the Orbán state. This cast system is held together by the power principle. Since 2010, Fidesz has built a new feudalism, and with this it keeps Hungary on the margins of the Western world.

Orbán believes in a labor market where workers are diligent producers and desire nothing but a secure place on the production line. This is the opposite of where the developed world is heading. The knowledge-based economies of the modern world can only take off with the work of creative people. The only route to creating a prosperous, dynamic economy is one where the education system sends students brimming with imagination and creativity out onto the path. It is significant that the education budget as a proportion of GDP has sunk to tragic depths under the Orbán regime. A new left-wing government must set out the goal of transforming Hungary into an innovative, knowledge-based economy by markedly increasing funding for, and radically raising, the level of education.

Equally significant is the fact that Orbán has come up with just one idea to tackle unemployment: workfare. But is not difficult to see that no start-up entrepreneurs are going to emerge from among those on public work schemes. Moreover, it is unfortunately clear that there is no path from the prison of workfare to a real job. Orbán’s work-based state is, for hundreds of thousands of people, nothing but a dead end.

Instead of the Orbán state, where social groups are set against one another and divided into winners and losers, we need a state that actively intervenes to help people achieve their goals and, where necessary, ensure a high level of leverage for this recovery. Hungary can only be successful if an ”only the fittest survive” mentality is replaced with one of “we are all in the same boat”.

It is not only because authoritarianism does not lead to prosperity that we must say no to Orbán’s system. Authoritarianism is unacceptable in and of itself. Orbán’s cast system is unjust to its core and its authoritarianism unacceptable. As one of the 20th century’s most influential egalitarian thinkers, John Rawls, put it: justice is more important than any other parameter for evaluating societies. Equally important is Rawls’ view that freedom, equality and prosperity are indispensable building blocks for a just society, so one cannot sacrifice basic human rights in the interests of material prosperity. Therefore, we cannot choose the route of authoritarianism, because there is a better and more moral path: that of freedom and prosperity. Prosperity for the large majority of society – as the example of Scandinavian society shows – can and should be ensured when freedom and prosperity reinforce one another.

From 2018, the next left-wing government must build a successful and prosperous Hungary on a foundation of justice. To further this aim, I offer a vision of a successful left-wing state based on the ideal of equality for all as an alternative to Orbán’s authoritarian state. The three pillars of egalitarian politics are equality of opportunity, relative equality of wealth, and the principle of equal citizenship.

The ideal of equality of opportunity, a cornerstone of all western democracies since the Second World War is nothing other than the rejection of a cast system. The strong conviction is that social advancement cannot depend on others, only our own talents and endeavors, irrespective of whether we come from a rich or a poor family.

The idea of equality of opportunity cannot be reconciled with Fidesz’s politics. Under Orbán’s regime, the wealthy elite spend millions so their children can study in private schools or in Switzerland. For the poorer parts of society, an uncompetitive or downright segregated school is the first, and often the last, station.

With regard to this basic principle, the left should not shy away from self-criticism. The “third way” social democracy of the 1990s and 2000s – for which former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was the standard bearer in Hungary – moved too far from the idea of equal opportunity. The third-way “New Labor” party that will forever be associated with the names of British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and its successors, gave up on material equality and placed equality of opportunity as the exclusive guiding principle. The third way soon turned hollow: it became clear that it had been naive to think that equality of opportunity alone was enough. Even if it had succeeded in ensuring social mobility in education and the world of work, material inequality and social division would not have disappeared. The left believed, and its followers believed, that modernization would create no losers, only winners. The principle of equality of opportunity promised that everyone could find a place in knowledge industry based on high skill levels, but this remained an illusion. The fate of those left out of the modern knowledge economy became ever more hopeless. Nationalist, chauvinist and populist forces picked up on this, and disappointment gave them a way to reach the people.

Photo: Zoltán Balogh

Nor can a society of equals develop when half of the country is mobile, well trained and wealthy and the other is tied to the land, unskilled and owns nothing. We cannot describe such a country as just. Inequality of wealth today is tomorrow’s inequality of opportunity. This situation in Hungary in this regard is serious. A report by Tárki in 2016 showed that 44% of the population owns no property, and 60% are incapable of adopting a middle class way of life. The most absurd thing about all this is that it we find ourselves at this point under the leadership of a government that continually invokes the name of the middle classes.

Despite Fidesz’s chief economic ideologue saying that criticism of wealth disparities arises purely from jealousy, certain social risks can really only be averted by combating economic inequalities. Research has shown that a raft of new problems arise when wealth inequality gets out of control. In societies with high social inequality, life expectancy is shorter, education is of lower quality, social mobility is restricted, and there is a higher rate of mental illness, drug addiction and crime. Hungarians’ terrible state of health and its catastrophic results in the PISA survey are grimly related to the enrichment of Lőrinc Mészáros.

So the promise of equality of opportunity is not enough to improve the lot of the half of Hungarians that have been left behind. We must also strive for relative wealth equality – this is the second fundamental principle of egalitarian left-wing politics. Instead of sports stadiums and the enrichment of the “national” oligarchy, resources must be spent on citizens. Partly in the form of quality education, partly through social security packages that reduce the lack of food and adequate housing, and risks arising from illness of the loss of a job.

Besides all this there is a third pillar to equality that is less often mentioned: the principle of equal citizenship. In a society based on equal citizenship, the prime minister has to wait in line at the baker’s, the post office or the doctor’s surgery just like anyone else. This notion of equality must become the most important guiding principle for the Hungarian left.

The principal of equal citizenship is breached by the emergence of a new cast of powerful and gracious ladies and gentlemen who do not share public spaces with the common people, do not breathe the same air. It is enough to think of the minister in charge of propaganda, who flies to parties by helicopter, or the chief government minister who shoots hundreds of pheasants while hunting with his partners, and who believes that everybody deserves their lot in life. Meanwhile, the system they put in place locks entire masses into poverty and the world of workfare. This is how Viktor Orbán and Fidesz have corrupted Hungary: in place of a nation of fellow citizens, we have become a nation of lords and lackeys. Politicians of the governing party no longer represent the interests of the people, citizens or the nation in the Parliament, merely the private goals of their separate “elite” cast. It cannot go on like this!

I see the most important task of the left as precisely that of recreating the conditions for equal citizenship. We must become worthy of representing the principles and practicing egalitarianism. We must put an end to the era of unprincipled compromise, climb-downs and putting up with things – our political actions must have a moral basis. Egalitarian politics is just, and suitable for lifting Hungary to the level of the developed Western world.

It follows from this that the next left-wing government must also conduct a principled foreign policy. Viktor Orbán swapped a western orientation based on solid moral principles for opportunistic friendships with dictators. We cannot give up the ideal of an open and free Europe in favor of a new Iron Curtain era. A European partnership built on shared ideals is the right policy, and one that serves Hungary’s interests. However much Viktor Orbán might deny it, we belong to the free world.

In my political career to date, I have used the means at my disposal to work for a free and just Hungary and the politics of equality. If I am given the opportunity by the citizens, this is what I would also like to do as prime minister of Hungary.

January 28, 2017

Love at Christmas time in Hungary

Gusztáv Megyesi, whom Péter Esterházy described as the best Hungarian journalist of our time, wrote his usual weekly opinion piece in Népszabadság, which happened to appear on Christmas Eve. Normally, Megyesi’s pieces are very funny, but this time the topic was somber. He described a couple in their early thirties who had just purchased a 5 kg box of laundry detergent and a 2-liter container of fabric softener as presents for the woman’s mother. She asked the store to wrap them, adorned with golden ribbon. The store employee said to her: “Are you serious?” Yes, she was serious: everybody gets practical gifts because whatever they get, they need badly. They have three children, which they didn’t plan on, but fate surprised them with twins. The husband is a bricklayer and she is on family assistance with the little ones. There is very little money. Although on some family programs there was a lot of talk about the evils of the consumer society and that what really counts is love and thoughtfulness, unfortunately grandma wouldn’t be terribly pleased with a walnut painted silver for the Christmas tree. This laundry detergent she herself couldn’t afford is enough for a whole year. For her, it is either food or detergent. The other members of the family also got much needed articles, like socks and shirts from the MDF market where they sell cheap Chinese imports.

This article infuriated right-wingers. One early commenter called it “vomit on Christmas Day.” According to another, “it is outrageous that someone is unable to put aside what he does all year.” A third person considered the article nothing more than a “mockery of Jesus” because Megyesi talked about the “propagation of Hungarians” in connection with László Kövér’s infamous reference to women’s duty to produce grandchildren for his generation. In general, all right-wingers agreed that Megyesi was mocking not only Jesus and reproduction but also the struggling middle class. Another shining light of the right found the word mockery insufficient to describe Megyesi’s attitude. Instead, he talked about the “hatred of Jesus.” The most interesting comment came from “szalkai,” who would give Megyesi only a silver medal in the hate-speech category because the gold surely must go to Origo, which published an interview with Krisztián Ungváry, the historian, under the headline: “There was a Hungarian soldier who killed voluntarily.” He was referring to Ungváry’s latest book, Hungarian Occupying Forces in the Soviet Union, 1941-1944.

Today Megyesi, back to his usual funny self, decided to comment on the commenters. His latest piece is titled “Holiday drudgery” (Ünnepi robot). In historical times “robot” was work that had to be performed by the serfs for the landlords, but in a modern setting it means very hard, repetitive, boring work. Megyesi can’t understand what these commenters were doing on Christmas Eve when for hours on end they were commenting on his and on each other’s comments instead of devoting themselves to their families. One comment after the other appeared from early evening until midnight. “The government must know about this. When other Hungarians, among them even the unbelieving liberals, suddenly come to their senses and devote every minute to the family, these unfortunate souls spend the Holy Night reading Népszabadság articles…. While the real Christians are already at midnight mass, they still brood over the Hungarian-hating liberals who insult the family and dishonor Jesus and the devout Hungarian people. It’s almost as if many little Antal Rogáns were pounding on the keys.” Such diligence should be rewarded, and Megyesi hopes that the government will give them an extra Holy-Night bonus.

Those were the days

Those were the days

At the end of the piece Megyesi recalls an article of his that appeared at the beginning of the Advent season when he noted that in the nativity scene the government set up in front of the parliament building the Child was missing because after all he wasn’t born until the 25th. But then, he asked, what are the Magi, the angels, and the lambs doing there? After all, they couldn’t have known that a month later Jesus would be born. At that time “the commenters didn’t get involved with such complicated thoughts about the hatred of Christians, they simply called me a Jew.”

And finally another interesting story. This is about an interview conducted by Sándor Révész, which also appeared in Népszabadság on December 26. It was an interview with Mihály Dés, who until recently was better known in the Spanish-speaking world than in Hungary. Before he left Hungary in 1986 he worked as a freelance translator of authors like Jorge Luis Borge, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, Garcia Márquez, and Vargas Llosa. In 1986 he settled in Barcelona where he became well known as a writer of short stories and editor of the most influential Spanish-language periodical, Lateral. He returned to Hungary, and his first novel ever–Baroque á la Pest (Pesti barokk), which appeared in 2013–became a bestseller. In any case, at the end of the interview there is a short passage which, as we will see, greatly bothered a far-right contributor to Magyar Hírlap. It goes like this: “Viktor Orbán is only a final product. This is what came out of the body of the nation after a painful digestive process. This dictator was not foisted upon us from the outside; he is the result of self-development. Hungarian society, especially the elite, is responsible for his appearance.”

The reaction was swift. Four days later Pál Dippolt, a writer who slowly moved further and further to the right until he now regularly contributes to the far-right newspaper Magyar Hírlap, wrote an essay titled “They hate.” I have no idea whether Dippolt is a good writer or not, but he certainly has a chip on his shoulder when he accuses his liberal colleagues of not considering him a writer because he doesn’t “belong to their filthy canon, can’t brag about [his] past full of knavery and [doesn’t] spew hatred all around.” Of course, Dippolt’s real problem is Dés’s less than complimentary description of Viktor Orbán as the final product of a painful digestive process. “These are vile, filthy, lying sentences. They insult and vilify everybody who doesn’t follow the unbelievably conceited muck-raking elite of Budapest. If it were a real dictatorship here, the bodies of Révész and Dés would be dangling on the lampposts of Andrássy, pardon, the Road of the People’s Republic. Their only decoration, as poison-dropping traitors, would be the Colombian necktie.” In case some of you, like me originally, have no idea what a Colombian necktie is, you should get acquainted with the term. After a man’s throat is cut, his tongue is pulled through the opening.

In the first story what struck me was the right-wing commenters’ refusal to face the facts of life. At Christmas to talk about poverty, hardship, and hunger shouldn’t be done. One should simply talk about love of one’s fellow man without being reminded of the darker sides of love. Just devote yourself to your closest family and forget about everything else. And if one does write something honest, as Megyesi did, he does something that is almost against the wishes of the Almighty. On the other hand, someone like Dippolt who “doesn’t spew hatred all around” in his Christian purity envisages bodies dangling on lampposts with their throats cut. He accuses his adversaries of hatred and, by the end of his article, points his finger at himself. Quite a feat.

Mária Vásárhelyi: “Self-appraisal”–The failure of the regime change

Now that for almost two weeks political life in Hungary has pretty well come to a standstill, I have time to read some analyses of topics of current interest. That’s why I decided to summarize the article of János Széky on the parallels and dissimilarities between the Polish and the Hungarian regimes the other day. Another article that appeared in the December 18 issue of Élet és Irodalom that piqued my interest was Mária Vásárhelyi’s probing look at Hungarian society’s seeming indifference to the destruction of democratic institutions by Viktor Orbán’s government. The article bears the title “Szembenézés–önmagunkkal,” which perhaps can best be rendered as “Self-Appraisal.” She is seeking answers for the failure of the 1989 regime change and assesses the role of intellectuals in the years that led to 2010 and after.

Hungarian society displays deep and widespread despondency in the face of changes introduced by Viktor Orbán’s government. Many people know that these changes, both in the short and in the long run, are injurious to the country. Yet they seem unable to take a stand against them, most likely because they no longer have any hope for a better life. Some people talk about the Hungarian psyche, which is inclined toward melancholy and pessimism; others bring up national tradition as an obstacle to an energetic response in the face of adversity. What Hungarian intellectuals don’t want to realize is that the democratic accomplishments they view as great achievements of the regime change are not considered as such by the public. “However painful it is, we must face the fact that for the majority the regime change is not a success story but a failure.” Achievements are dwarfed by losses. The values inherent in democracy and personal freedom cannot be measured against the shock of lost security and existential perspectives.

Vásárhelyi, a sociologist who already during the Kádár period was part of a team that conducted opinion polls, recalls that in the 1980s the great majority of the people considered a secure job, material advance, and free and widely available healthcare more important than such moral values as freedom, democracy, equal opportunity, and justice. The Kádár regime, with the help of foreign loans, ensured these material benefits. Exchanging these material pluses for abstract moral values was not what these people expected. But this is what more or less happened between 1989 and 2015. Between 1990 and 1994 one million people lost their jobs, Hungary’s industrial production decreased by 40% and its agricultural production by 30%. Hungarians never fully recovered from the shock of those years. Moreover, since 2010 the situation has grown worse.

During the four years of the second Orbán government the gap between rich and poor grew enormously. Consumer spending today barely reaches the 1988 level. In 1987 51% of the people reported that they had no serious financial problems, another 44% were able to make ends meet, and only 5% didn’t have enough money to make it through the month. Today one-third of households struggle to put food on the table and the remaining two-thirds barely manage. In the Kádár regime two-thirds of families could afford a summer vacation, today only one-third can. The middle class, instead of expanding, is shrinking.

I'm remaining a democrat and I am staying in Hungary

Mária Vásárhelyi: I’m remaining a democrat and I’m staying in Hungary

Not surprisingly, 80% of people with leftist leanings and 42% of Fidesz voters think that Hungary’s situation was better under socialism than it is now. Among the East European countries, Hungarians feel the most dejected and disappointed, which can partly be explained by the relative well-being of the population during the second half of the Kádár era. Another reason for the greater disappointment in Hungary might stem from Hungarian wariness of capitalism and private ownership of large businesses and factories. Already in 1990 half of the population opposed privatization, but today almost two-thirds are against private property on a large scale. Not only do Orbán’s nationalization efforts meet no resistance, they are most likely welcomed.

The situation is no better when people are asked their opinion of political institutions. At the beginning of the 1990s trust in the new institutions was quite high: on a scale of 0 to 100 the average was around 65 and none was under 50. Today not a single democratic institution reaches 50. Two-thirds of the people have no trust whatsoever in parliament and in politicians. Only 25% have any trust in politicians, parliament, government, or the opposition. Only 20% of them think that politicians want the best for the country and for the people. They don’t trust the media and the financial institutions. They have even lost faith in the judiciary, the police, the churches, and the scientific institutions. More than half of the population believe that the leaders of the country don’t care about their fate. Two-thirds are convinced that one cannot succeed by being honest. Almost 75% think that the laws serve only the interests of those in power and that they have nothing to do with justice.

“Thus it is not at all surprising that not only the democratic institutions but democracy itself has lost its importance.” According to a 2009 poll, three people out of four agree with the statement that the change of regime caused more harm than good to the country. Only every fifth person is convinced that regime change will bear fruit in the long run.

It was on this general disappointment with capitalism and democracy that Viktor Orbán built his electoral strategy in 2010 and managed to acquire a two-thirds majority in parliament. In Vásárhelyi’s opinion

It was not the right-wing values, the restoration of the Horthy regime, not even the anti-communist slogans that attracted the majority of the voters to Orbán but the violent anti-regime rhetoric studded with overwrought nationalism. He convinced his voters that he would redress the injustices and the wrongs of the regime change. … It was the promise of a new change of regime, the restoration of the state’s dominance in the economy, the compensation for losses suffered, calling to account those who illegally benefited from the privatization of public property that the people voted for when they cast their votes for Fidesz.

And because for the majority of people the democratic institutions held no great attraction the systematic  destruction of these institutions didn’t meet with any resistance. The rule of law, freedom, equal opportunity were popular points of reference in the first few years [after 1990], but when the promises of the regime change didn’t materialize they lost their appeal. What followed was mass impoverishment, closing of channels of social mobility, dramatic differences between rich and poor, segregation, the narrowing of opportunities in the small villages, and the hopelessness of breaking out from disadvantageous positions, all of which started well before 2010.

Therefore, I consider those ideas that look for a solution to the crisis of Hungarian democracy in the revival of the traditions of the regime change and the reconstruction of the democratic institutions mistaken. Those political and cultural values that the non-right-wing elite considers important clearly don’t speak to the majority of Hungarians…. They don’t even attract those who are victims of all that has happened since 2010 and who are greatly disappointed in the Orbán regime. These people are actually in the majority. According to the 2014 European Values Survey, almost half of the population believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Only 25% of the electorate are satisfied. Twice as many people look toward the future with trepidation than with hope. The former group are those who will have to get rid of Orbán’s autocratic regime, but it is obvious that they can only be inspired by a more attractive alternative than the elite democracy that developed after 1989.

Is there an alternative to the fundamentals of the democratic changes or the introduction of a market economy, which were the promise of 1989-1990? I don’t believe there is. What has to be changed are not the fundamentals but their implementation, so that a growing prosperity will be shared by all the people of Hungary, not just the upper crust with political connections, which is the strategy of the Orbán government. Any other economic policy is doomed to failure.

Illés Szurovecz: Hungary’s poor worse off after March “reforms”

The following article by Illés Szurovecz of Habitat for Humanity originally appeared in The Budapest BeaconIt is reprinted here with the permission of The Budapest Beacon.

Habitat

Hungary’s four million poor are considerably worse off since the national government transferred certain social welfare programs to local governments in March 2015. In many cases it does not matter how poor someone is, if they don’t tend their garden or properly clean their toilet, they receive no support for the maintenance of their household.

According to a recent study prepared by Habitat for Humanity, reforms to Hungary’s social welfare system introduced in March 2015 have primarily affected large and poor families. The point of the change was that a number of social supports previously administered by the national government and funded in the national budget were eliminated, and the decision whether to continue them, and in what form, was entrusted to local governments. Habitat for Humanity examined 31 settlements to determine the extent to which poor families have access to household supports and debt management subsidies. It appears that settlements in general have tightened their belts to the detriment of Hungary’s poorest.

In Habitat’s opinion, since 3200 settlements were given a free hand, Hungary became a country with 3200 different household support policies. Prior to March the national government reduced subsidies for household maintenance. In 2007 the government distributed HUF 130 billion (USD 650 million) of household support to poor families. By 2012 this had decreased to HUF 20 billion (USD 90 million).

Larger households worse off

Previously, some 450,000 poor households received monthly support of HUF 3,870 (USD 14) for use primarily towards paying public utility bills. The amount decreased over the years but was still an important supplemental income for poor families.

In March local governments were given the option of discontinuing this altogether. Of 31 settlements chosen at random by Habitat to examine, three had completely done away with this kind of support—Gávavencsellő, Hódmezővásárhely, and Vámosatya.

In general what Habitat experienced was that, while local governments tried to continue the earlier supports, the conditions were made far more strict. In twelve settlements the per capita income limit for qualifying for household support payments was set at between HUF 40,000 (USD 143) and 70,000 (USD 250). True, poor families living in those settlements previously received relatively small amounts, HUF 2,500 (USD 9) on average.

A number of local governments do not differentiate between different income groups and provide the same support to everyone regardless of whether their income is near the top or approaches zero. Where they differentiate, those earning less than HUF 30,000 (USD 107) a month, in other words the poorest, often receive less support than prior to the March reforms, whereas those earning HUF 40,000-60,000 (USD 143-214) are doing better.

Another important change is that, whereas previously the supports benefitted mostly large families, local governments often do not differentiate among different-sized households, meaning that often a family of eight receives the same amount as a single-member household.

The study cites the example of Cikó in Tolna county where every household that qualifies for a subsidy receives HUF 3,000 (USD 11). This is one-third the amount a four-person family living on HUF 47,000 (USD 280) a month received before March. On the other hand, single-family households earning HUF 60,000-70,000 (USD 215-250) a month receive HUF 500 (USD 1.8) more.

When presenting Habitat‘s findings, Eszter Somogyi of City Research Ltd. (Városkutatás Kft.) said the change was surprising and speculated that it was politically motivated by the desire to win the votes of pensioners.

In some settlements limits are placed on what the support can be used for. In the northern Hungarian cities of Ózd and Miskolc, and in the south-eastern city of Mezőtúr, regulations favor utility companies owned by the local government. In this way, the entire support (capped at HUF 2,000/USD 7) goes to garbage removal. Miskolc only supports the cost of heating between October and March. In Ózd the money may only be used to pay for heating or the cost of renting a flat from the local government.

In many settlements one of the conditions for receiving the support is that the household spend 30 percent of its income on home maintenance and improvement. Habitat believes such a condition is not a bad idea but that considering the average ratio in Hungary is around 25 percent, a lot of impoverished households end up being disqualified.

Are you poor? Let’s see your toilet and your garden!

One of the “sticks” of the new system according to Habitat is that subjective decisions play a much greater role in determining who receives supports and who does not. The government primarily justified the changes to Hungary’s social welfare system on the grounds that settlements can better decide locally who is really needy. However, it appears that many municipalities abuse this and stipulate conditions that violate people’s rights.

Of the 31 local governments examined, six did not prescribe any conditions, with the notary, mayor, and the local authorities determining who receives how much support. More often the support is conditioned on “plot orderliness,” a practice previously condemned by Hungary’s ombudsman for human rights. In the Szabolcs county settlement of Ibrány, only those qualify for household support who install a chip in their dog, weed their garden, and clean the ditches in front of their houses. In Somogy county’s Bőszénfa, keeping a garden is also a condition. In Miskolc they also pay attention to the cleanliness of one’s toilet. Eszter Somogyi believes one of the most astonishing conditions can be found in Miskolc and Ózd, where households deemed to be “overcrowded” are disqualified from receiving any household support.

Habitat believes this makes the poor vulnerable and conditions the support on one’s relationship with the local mayor. Habitat is concerned that local governments will use subjective conditions to drive poor families away.

Less money to go around

Prior to March the so-called household debt management service was provided to around 10,000 people annually. It was intended to help those who had fallen into arrears with their public utility bills, or whose utilities had been disconnected. In addition to the financial support, individuals were given advice on how to manage their debts. Although settlements with populations under 40,000 were not required to provide this, many smaller cities made it available.

Out of 31 settlements, only five offer this service since March. In Miskolc (Hungary’s third-largest city) and Hódmezővásárhely the service was discontinued in March. Where it remained, they raised the income cutoff level and decreased the amount of the support so that now the poorest have to compete with the lower middle-classes for limited resources. Habitat believes that this makes it even more difficult for impoverished households to pay off their debts.

Local governments are allowed to provide other supports, such as social firewood, rent supports, or extraordinary heating supports. However, out of 31 settlements, only eleven offered any of these supports.

Who is responsible for this?

It appears that, on the whole, Hungary’s poorest were adversely affected by the March changes to the country’s social welfare system. The question is whether this is primarily the responsibility of the national government or municipal governments.

Undersecretary for social affairs Károly Czibere said earlier that a HUF 30 billion (USD 107 million) “compensation fund” was being set up to which 90 percent of settlements would have access in order to ensure that nobody is worse off. The settlements, however, sense that their financial sources are increasingly limited. One city notary told abcug.hu several weeks ago that they have to decrease development expenditures in order to fund social welfare payments.

The author of the study, Bence Kováts, says that, for the time being, it is difficult to decide who is right because the 2014 social welfare data has not yet been released, and for this reason they cannot determine whether the HUF 30 billion compensation fund is sufficient. Kováts says that probably there are many settlements where the old supports remain but on a reduced level, not out of contempt for the poor but owing to a lack of resources and technical expertise, primarily in the case of the smaller settlements.

Habitat for Humanity believes the study for the most part faithfully reflects the general tendencies and warns that the situation of Hungary’s poor will considerably worsen if Prime Minister Viktor Orbán makes good on his promise to do away with social welfare altogether by 2018.

Sándor Kerekes: Letter to Angela Merkel

Dear Chancellor Merkel:

I am impelled to write to you on the occasion of your impending visit to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary in February. I have no doubt that your able staff is more than adequately preparing your visit; however, I wish to add to that a point of view representing the Hungarian perspective.

Surely, you are aware that the government of PM Orbán and his Fidesz Party have relentlessly attacked and emasculated most institutions of the democratic state ever since their election in May 2010. But, just to keep up appearances, they have maintained them as a façade, populating them with their own appointees, often for nine and twelve-year terms, thus rendering them unable and unwilling to carry out their original, constitutional functions, since the appointees only follow Fidesz instructions. From the outside they look like checks and balances to the unsuspecting viewer. However, nothing could be further from the facts. All those institutions are interconnected through the invisible network of personal and party connections, all serving to promote the political and financial interests of a selected few of Viktor Orbán’s friends. In fact, those institutions are only there to serve as a disguise, hiding the actual operations of a government whose single and concentrated aim is to siphon as much of the country’s resources to the hands of this small coterie, as possible.

The street demonstrations of recent days mobilizing tens of thousands of people almost every other day, demanding democracy and fair government, are largely concerned with the ever-increasing corruption of the government. Those thousands are in dire need of help that could surely come from you Madame Chancellor. This monumental, institutional corruption is seemingly unassailable by the people, because Parliament, as the Prime Minister’s voting machine, legislates and legalizes the constant, obvious thievery. And as it so often happens, if a superficially constructed piece of legislation should prove insufficient to cover up the crime, either a subsequent retroactive law will bend the rules after the fact, or all complaints will be rejected or ignored by the Prosecutor’s Office. Since the election in 2010, not one single corruption case was launched against any corrupt government official, despite the numerous cases submitted. It is not surprising; therefore, if many consider the government of Viktor Orbán as a well-functioning Mafia operation.

The presently concluded contract with Vladimir Putin’s Russia for the building and financing of the Paks 2 nuclear power plant is hugely disadvantageous to Hungary and yet a most rational pact in view of the rapacious corruption system. The contract includes a 20% Hungarian share in the financing – 2.5 billion Euros – that is available for stealing. Since the Hungarian state otherwise has run out of sources for available money to steal, this gigantic project will provide a copious source of corruption money for the coterie. At the same time, it may bankrupt the country, but by the time that will become clear, this Mafia will be long gone.

Under these circumstances, even the government of the United States raised a strenuous complaint and took the unprecedented step of banning certain government officials from its territory for reasons of corruption. At the same time, the United States government made it clear that it will not shirk from the confrontation, and insists that the Hungarian government must address the systemic corruption. So far, Viktor Orbán has resorted to lies, denial, and communications trickery, but taken no action.

Apart from some prestige projects, such as football stadiums and municipal beautifications, public investments ground to a halt years ago. Private capital is fleeing the country. If there is any investment at all in Hungary today, it is funded by European Union transfer money. In fact, over 90% of all public investment projects are financed by the European Union. But invariably, those projects are “one-off” short term ones that create neither lasting effect, nor permanent jobs for people. In fact, all that European Union financing is squandered on useless, short-term veneer, merely creating appearances and an opportunity for kickbacks. Presently, any government public bidding process is tailor-made for the single, Orbán-friendly bidder, and the general consensus is that the “usual” kickback is between 20 and 40%. Despite all this, the Orbán government is conducting an unrelenting verbal and political campaign against the European Union, the United States and most of all the ideals of liberal democracy.

The barren Hungarian puszta

The barren Hungarian puszta

When the European Parliament commissioned the Tavares Report, it was assumed in good faith that the problems of the Orbán Government were mere mistakes and with the help of the Report itself, with some good advice, and genteel prodding, the system could be corrected. Today it is clear that the Orbán government is by no means acting in good faith. In fact, the Tavares Report failed to recognize that Hungary is rapidly and intentionally sliding towards a one-party, single-ruler, authoritarian, illiberal regime. The Report was to no avail; the Hungarian government not only ignored it, but also legislated its rejection. All this was done in front of the uncaring eyes of the European Union.

While the officials and friends of the Orbán government are getting obviously and obscenely rich, the population of the country is sliding into deep poverty. Today, four million people are living under the poverty level, hundreds of thousands are starving and tens of thousands of children cannot get enough to eat. Poverty today is endemic in Hungary and it is increasing. Over the last four years, 500,000 of the mobile, enterprising people of Hungary have emigrated to other countries in the European Union, Germany amongst them.

Not wanting to extend needlessly the list of reasons for writing this letter, I wish to come to the obvious implications.

Hungary today is a disturbing foreign object in the very middle of the European Union. But because its transformation, running counter to everything European, is far from complete, it is likely that in the future she will be a cause for much more, and much more painful headaches within the European Union. The process of transformation is accelerating unbridled, and Hungary will be a source of an unhealthy inspiration, inviting any self-appointed tin-pot dictator to repeat the exercise: build an illiberal, single-ruler dictatorship and do it at the expense of the European Union. Why not? Nobody is raising any objections and the money keeps flowing to finance the process.

Madame Chancellor:

The interest of the European Union, the people of Hungary, and basic common sense dictate to submit to you the humble request that you, a dominant person in the European Union and in the World, give an unmistakable expression of disapproval to Mr. Orbán about what is happening in Hungary. It is inconceivable, and yet a strange fact of life, that the European Union and its citizenry should generously finance Hungary’s corruption, its war against Western Values and Mr. Orbán’s campaign against the people of his own country. Why should the European Union pour billions of Euros into a few people’s pockets, just to enable them to steal even more?

The suspension or denial of the transfer payments would bring the insane policies of the Orbán government to a screeching halt since nothing but these payments keeps it going.

The European Union, on the other hand, would greatly benefit from saving those billions by using them for more worthy purposes than stuffing the pockets of a corrupt regime that uses them as an opportunity to conduct a surreptitious anti-European, anti-liberal, people-busting war in peace time.

Dear Madame Chancellor:

I fervently hope that my suggestions coincide with your own intentions, and that your highly anticipated visit to Hungary will bring the beneficial results most of us are hoping for. It would be a bitter disappointment for the entire country if Prime Minister Orbán could in any way interpret your visit as a public relations success and a stamp of approval on his policies.

Very truly yours,

Sándor Kerekes

—-

Sándor Kerekes is a freelance journalist whose articles regularly appear in Kanadai Magyar Hírlap. He also wrote several articles in the past for Hungarian Spectrum.

Goodbye to democracy: An interview with Gáspár Miklós Tamás about Viktor Orbán’s speech

Since there is a debate going on about the art of the translator, I am happy to publish a translation by George Szirtes, Hungarian-born British poet, writer, and translator. He has translated many important Hungarian literary works into English, including such classics as the nineteenth-century verse play of Imre Madách, The Tragedy of Man, and novels of  Gyula Krúdy, Ferenc Karinthy, and Sándor Márai. His last translation, Satantango [Sátántangó in Hungarian] by László Krasznahorkai, received the Best Translated Book Award in 2013.

So, enjoy both the translation and the thoughts of Gáspár Miklós Tamás or, as he signs his publications in English, G. M. Tamás. The interview took place on Egyenes beszéd [Straight talk] on the television station ATV on July 28. The original interview in Hungarian can be seen here. This dramatic interview should help foreign observers realize the seriousness of the situation in Hungary.

Only today two important editorials were published. The New York Times calls on Jean-Claude Juncker to act more forcefully because otherwise “the commission would diminish its credibility.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that the “West’s victory in the Cold War led to a complacency that the liberal idea was triumphant–that it was ‘the end of history,’ in the fashionable phrase of the day…. Western Europe needs to set a better example of what freedom can achieve by reviving economic growth, and the American President who ostensibly still leads the free world ought to break his pattern and speak up on behalf of the liberal idea.” 

I’m grateful to George Szirtes for allowing me to publish his transcription and translation. The text originally appeared on his blog.

* * *

GOODBYE TO DEMOCRACY

‘On Saturday Hungary officially, ceremonially, openly, publicly, said goodbye to democracy.’ 

[My transcript is very close but here and there I have cut a passage for brevity or shaped a phrase in what I believe is a faithful fashion.  In it TGM [TGM here since Hungarian puts the surname first] argues this is the beginning of a very dark chapter in Hungarian history.

I am somewhat amazed that the UK press hasn’t picked up more on the Orbán speech. It is, after all, quite something to declare the end of liberal democracy and to suggest that the prime minister should not be answerable to other state checks and balances. GSz]

one-to-one
Interviewer recounts views of other parties on Viktor Orbán’s speech then turns to Gáspár Tamás Miklós. She asks if there are any points in Orbán’s speech that the opposition and the press have left undiscussed.

TGM replies that this is a speech of extraordinary importance. He credits Orbán with being a highly  intelligent man, a significant historical figure and a charismatic politician, one whose place is assured in Hungarian history. This, he claims, is the proclamation of a new political system, the seeds of which had already been sown. The speech was clear and simple to summarise. 

TGM counts on his fingers and summarises.

TGM:
1. He is building an illiberal state. This is demonstrated by his rewriting of the constitution and by his ending of the separation of powers. He joked about this saying that if there were any attempt to impeach or obstruct him that would mean he wasn’t the leader of the country. In other words he knows what the game is, as do I.

2. His stated his doubts about democracy

3. He announced that the concept of human rights is out of date. That human rights are finished

4. He declared  the country must abandon any notion of social support (or welfare state)

5. He declared that his preferred state models were Singapore, Russia, Turkey and China.

6. He declared that all NGOs working in the cultural or social sphere were foreign agents, traitors paid by alien powers

Gáspár Miklós Tamás

Gáspár Miklós Tamás

Interviewer asks which of these six points was new.

TGM`: Every one of them.

Interviewer doubts that but TGM insists that they are completely new. Was it not just a matter of actually articulating them in a new way? asks the interviewer.  TGM repeats that it was utterly new, in every respect

TGM: Yes there was this kind breast-beating before but that’s not important.

He goes on to Orbán’s idea of the state founded on work, the ‘work state’, the ‘illiberal state’ the ‘populist state’ the ‘national state’ etc.

TGM: This is a complete break with the post-1945 consensus as espoused by what we call the free world, not only with 1945 but with the less-free post-1989 political, social and moral consensus. Its abandonment of social responsibility represents a break with the ideas of freedom, and equality. What does a ‘work-based state mean?  It means a non-social state, a non-welfare state, a state that offers no support or aid – it is a case of arbeit macht frei isn’t it? It means that work is what people do not because they want to but because they have to so that capitalists may prosper, the kind of work the unemployed would be forced to do against which, in a free country, there would be mass demonstrations….

Interviewer returns to her earlier question. ‘But what is new in all this?’ Again TGM replies: everything. The question is what is to come?

TGM: So what is to come? What is new is that this has become a political programme to be enacted by the state. On Saturday Hungary officially, ceremonially, openly, publicly, said goodbye to democracy. The prime minister, the autocratic leader of the country, has declared that he is opposed to civil society. Have you noticed we no longer have a governing party by the way? When was the last time we heard anything of Fidesz as a factor, a genuine player? – all we have recently been hearing is a state apparatus in which not a shred of democratic process remains and when we see the Secretary for Defence using a violent thug [a named army officer from Hungarian history] as a role model for new army recruits we may be certain what kind of violent, thuggish, and repressive state is being promised to us… a state that, since the prime minister’s speech was given in Romania, believes in provocation, [a speech] that did in fact elicit a storm of protest in the Romanian press and many declared that they had had quite enough of Hungary.

So here we have, in this truly terrifying speech, given to his friends and a highly enthusiastic audience, one of the darkest moments in Hungarian history, a moment of darkness provided by Viktor Orbán. Meanwhile everyone goes, ‘oh dear, there he goes again, isn’t that just the kind of thing he tends to say ‘ But that’s not what is happening here. It is time to take Viktor Orbán seriously so that we can take up arms against  him and save Hungary. I don’t despise him, I don’t look down to him. What we have here is an almost fully achieved dictatorship.

In any dictatorship the person of the dictator is important. Viktor Orbán is not going to let power slip from his hands now. All dictatorships depend on the dictator so now we have to concern ourselves with the kind of person Orbán is.

He told us that he will not be removed by elections. [That means] that those who are against him must be prepared for the grimmest struggle. Either that or he remains in office as long as his health permits, directing the affairs of the country by his own authority, while the country descends ever further into darkness in every possible respect in economic, political, cultural, social, or moral terms until we become a waste land, a wreck, a terrible place, a black hole in the map of Europe, a place more backward and more tyrannous than any of our Eastern European neighbours, and we will have to start envying the Bulgarians and Macedonians who will be in a far better condition, far freer, more cultured.

Interviewer asks what happens if Orbán refuses to be voted out through normal elections.

TGM: Blood and chaos. That’s the way it usually goes when elections don’t work. It’s what happens when people’s social plight becomes ever more desperate. Our social circumstances are bound to worsen and there will be people desperate and violent enough to bring down the country in the process.

We really can’t take this seriously enough. What was said in that speech is highly dangerous.

Interviewer asks whether people are in the mood to rise in defence of such high ideals.

TGM: Not at all, not at the moment. This is a browbeaten society that has utterly bought into [the Orbán persona?]. But it won’t always be so. Nothing lasts for ever. At the moment there is no ideology to confront this dark chauvinism, this cult of the state, this cult of force, full of anti-democratic sentiment.

Interviewer: Why isn’t there?

TGM: We are exhausted. We Hungarians are too tired to argue. You can’t expect people to sacrifice themselves without a hope of success. People are resigned. Like it or not, they accept they can’t change it.

Interviewer:  So what hope is there?

TGM: [Thinks] The one hope lies in continuing to uphold the ideals of freedom and equality as long as we can. The hope is that, despite everything, we don’t give up on the ideals of 1918, 1945 and 1989. Those  [ideals] belong to us. No one can take them from us. We might have to prepare for a long and very bad period. I myself might not live to see the end of it. Who knows? The fact remains that if we wish to live a moral life and to protect the culture of freedom we have to maintain a cool but obstinate resistance and to repeat our own commonplaces.

Interviewer: How can you maintain these high ideals when the prime minister offers hard facts? When he takes banks back into Hungarian control? When he forces banks to pay back what they owe. Has anyone ever made a bank pay us? So he doesn’t go on about ideals, about constitutional details.

TGM: I never said he was an unsuccessful politician. He is that, among other things. He is the only man who can give us hard facts because he is in charge of the government.

Interviewer: So there you are, hard facts. Isn’t it better to have hard facts than to be dreaming about ideals?

TGM: Are you talking about those four million people currently in desperate straits in this country? Do you think they like it? Do you think they don’t believe in ideals such as a better life? That too is an ideal: they believe their own children deserve as much as the better off, the middle class and the rich. That ideal is called equality.

It’s not the way they refer to it every day, of course. But that is the proper word for it. These things are connected. These ideals are not a matter for a few specialists divorced from reality. Equality means that the bottom four million have a right to food, electricity, to a heated home, to read, to enjoy their pleasures. That is an ideal but it’s not the reality.

This ideal concerns the poverty of four million people and the servitude of ten million,  and opposes the torrent of state funded lies with which Viktor Orbán and his underlings flood this small country. Yes, there are ideals in which people believe, that, for example, they should be able to live a decent honourable life. That ideal has roots in Christianity, in liberalism, and in socialism. That is not something they are obliged to know, but they know it. And Viktor Orbán is telling you directly, in your face while laughing at you that that is what you have to live without.

And if, dear fellow Hungarians, that is what you accept that is what you’ll get. There’s nothing anyone can do for now except to regard this terrible speech with hatred and contempt. Because society is weak but it is possible for it to know these things.

  * * *

[That is the end of the interview. It is a very dark vision of Hungary’s future and TGM is clearly angry.  It is fascinating – and liberating – to hear a man talk of socialism with such conviction. It is fascinating that he should include Christianity and liberalism in the struggle for freedom and equality.

What that shows is that TGM is not an old-system communist. He was part of the opposition to the pre-1989 order. He is part of the spectrum that any democratic society should be proud to represent. It is the spectrum Hungary is on the point of leaving. GSz]