Tag Archives: poverty

People on the margins of Hungarian society: Szentegát and Szigetvár

A few days ago György Balavány published a fairly lengthy report in 24.hu about some poverty-stricken spots in and around Szigetvár in Baranya County. This is the region where Cserdi is located, the village made famous by the enterprising Mayor László Bogdán, whose effective but controversial methods considerably improved the quality of life of the village. According to Balavány, four of the ten poorest villages in Hungary can be found in this region, yet one hears relatively little about the hopelessness of the situation of the people who live there.

First a few words about György Balavány, who for many years prior to 2010 worked for Magyar Nemzet. Balavány, who describes himself as a conservative man with strong ties to the Hungarian Reformed Church, identified with the steadfast anti-government bias of the paper before 2010. But shortly after Fidesz won the election in 2010, when Lajos Simicska’s paper came to be in the service of Fidesz, Balavány left Magyar Nemzet. If I recall properly, he couldn’t imagine being part of a staff that from here on would have to sing the praises of a government. Any government. In the last eight years Balavány has become one of the severest critics of the Orbán regime.

Balavány and a camerman visited a village just south of Szigetvár called Szentegát and a section of Szigetvár named after Ferenc Móra, a twentieth-century Hungarian writer. What Ferenc Móra has to do with Szigetvár I have no idea, because as far as I know he spent practically his whole life in Szeged.

Let’s first take a look at Szentegát, a cul-de-sac village. There is a road to the village from Szigetvár, but from there one cannot travel any further. Once upon a time it was a retreat for the rich and famous. It was there that members of the Baron Biedermann family built their mansion, surrounded by forest, which today is a 235-hectare nature preserve.

It is in these idyllic surroundings that one can find 371 people who live in miserable circumstances. One of the more entrepreneurial women started a small general store and a “presszó,” a coffee shop, but the people of the village couldn’t maintain it. Nowadays, a mobile store makes occasional appearances. No doctor from Szigetvár visits the place. The sick can take a bus to town, 10 km away.

The former general store, pub, and “presszó” in Szentegát

From the conversations one can sense the hopelessness of the place. Those residents with whom Balavány talked don’t see a way out of their situation. Most of the people earn their miserable wages as public workers. They are bused to Szigetvár, where they clean streets.

One man, after 11 years, started his own business. He and his “employees” hire themselves out as earthworkers (kubikosok), but during the winter when the ground is frozen they cannot work. He admitted by the end of the conversation that “if you want to know, I am dissatisfied with this whole country. I left for England for a while, but it didn’t work out.”

And yet, he and his wife and mother-in-law will vote for Fidesz. As the wife put it, they will follow Orbán “because we don’t want migrants even if Soros wants to send them here. They would get apartments while we live in this hovel. We have enough trouble; we don’t want to support others. Especially not terrorists.” Her husband refuses to believe that the “migrants” are refugees. He added: “You must understand that it is about our lives, about our children. There shouldn’t be any mixing here. There are Gypsies, Hungarians, all kinds. We don’t need blacks and Arabs. And what incredible filth they left behind. In Germany God knows how many women they raped. Our girls will be going to school in Pécs. You must understand that I fear for them.”

Among the people who live in the part of Szigetvár that strikes me as a Roma ghetto, the level of dissatisfaction is even higher than in Szentegát and so is the desire to get out of this situation. Perhaps the most moving conversation was with a relatively young woman with a cancer-ridden husband and an eleven-year-old child. The husband receives 24,500 forints from the city and she takes home 64,000. “I don’t know how to escape from here, but I don’t want my child to sweep the streets of Szigetvár in a yellow vest.”

An older woman offered to speak on behalf of her neighbor: “My neighbor receives 22,000 Ft a month. I would like to see Viktor Orbán buying food, paying for electricity and water on that money. I wouldn’t mind telling him what I think of him straight into his face.” But she is not planning to vote because the representative for whom she voted last time pays absolutely no attention to them, refusing even to meet with them.

The parting words came from a man who didn’t mind if his name appeared in the newspaper. He sent the message to Viktor Orbán that “we have had enough of promises.”

An apartment house in the Ferenc Móra project in Szigetvár

From the report we don’t learn much about these people’s backgrounds, but we can safely assume that their educational attainment is extremely low. Among them, the anti-migrant and anti-Soros propaganda has obviously been extremely effective.

The openly anti-government sentiment in the Ferenc Móra project, or, as the Brits call it, “estate,” surprised me. But it was discouraging to hear that people who are most aware of the government’s total lack of interest in their fate will probably not bother to vote because “all politicians steal and cheat.”

György Balavány in an earlier article reported that even in “the poverty-stricken villages near Szigetvár” Fidesz will win more than 50% of the vote. According to recent polls, in Baranya’s electoral district 4, where these villages are situated, a Fidesz candidate would get 58% of the votes, Jobbik 15%, MSZP 10%, LMP 7%, DK 7%, and Együtt, Momentum, and Two-Tailed Dog 1% each.

But I don’t want to spread doom and gloom here, so I will end by quoting Gábor Török, a political scientist, who still believes that if Fidesz loses 20 districts out of 106 the party will not have a two-thirds majority and if Orbán loses 40 districts Fidesz will not have an absolute majority. Moreover, neither alternative is outside the realm of possibility, says Török. I hope he is right because four more years of the thinly veiled dictatorship of Viktor Orbán would be devastating for the country and its people.

January 3, 2018

Food for thought: Poverty, charity, and civil society

It was almost three years ago that the Ministry of Human Resources compiled a long list of words that were deemed unsuitable for use by ministry employees. Among the hundreds of words, one of the first was “szegény” (poor). “Poor settlement” was banished; in its place ministry employees were supposed to say “underdeveloped settlement.” A “poor person” was no longer poor but “rászorult” (in need). To learn more about this modern Hungarian newspeak, you might want to read my post on the subject from February 2015.

Now the ministry has gone even further in trying to hide poverty and human misery. For years civic organizations have been feeding thousands of people in Budapest and other larger cities. The best known such group is “Ételt az életért” (Food for life), which was established by the Magyarországi Krisna-tudatú Hívők Közössége (Community of Krishna-Conscious Believers of Hungary). The activists from this community are most visible on Blaha Lujza Square during the Christmas holidays, at Easter, and on October 17, which is the international day for the eradication of poverty. In addition, the group distributes 1,800 meals every day at various locations. One needs a permit for food distribution and a permission from the district to hold the event outdoors. People line up for a warm mid-day meal every day between Monday and Friday. According to the organizers, a few years ago the “customers” were mainly homeless people, but by now whole families, unemployed people, and pensioners also frequent the Krishna group’s food distribution centers. According to the leader of the Debrecen group of “Ételt az életért,” by now only 30% of those seeking a meal are actually homeless; the others are “poor” people or “in need,” if Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources, prefers that designation.

Source: MTI / Tibor Illyés

It has been noticed for some time that municipalities were increasingly reluctant to grant permission to distribute food outdoors. The city of Debrecen has gone further than that. The Fidesz majority voted to require those nonprofit civic groups that distribute food to pay a fee for the space they occupy. Admittedly, they asked for a ridiculously small amount of money, altogether 350 Ft., which cost the sender 750 Ft. in postage, but for a charitable organization to be required to pay, however little, to distribute food to the needy is truly outrageous. Suspicion has spread that the government has plans to put an end to this kind of charitable activity on the part of civic groups.

And indeed. Népszava learned on November 25 that the ministry of human resources has been busily preparing a modification of a ministerial decree on food distribution. The word was that the changes have already been agreed upon and that at the moment the ministry is circulating the modified decree among other ministries for comments. The gist of the new decree is that only governmental, municipal, and religious organizations will receive permission to distribute food.

Civil activists suspect that the long lines of clearly not homeless people irritate the Orbán government to no end. Contrary to the incessant success propaganda, people see the darker side of Hungarian reality when lines of hungry people form on the streets. The latest Eurostat data attest to the fact that 26.3% of the population, or 2.54 million people, are considered to be poor. A subset of that group–16.2%, or 1.4 million people–lives in deep poverty in Hungary. The number of Hungarian children threatened by deep poverty is the fourth highest in the European Union, after Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece.

In addition to its reluctance to allow these people to gather on the streets, waiting for a meal, the Orbán regime is also on the warpath against civic groups that are involved in such activities. The Fidesz leaders are most likely not mistaken when they see adversaries in those who gather in these civic groups.

Népszava got in touch with the ministry of human resources, which took its sweet time in confirming or denying the information the newspaper had received about the impending modification of the law. Earlier, the paper had inquired about the government’s use of money received from the European Union for that purpose. In Hungarian it is called “Rászoruló Személyeket Támogató Operatív Program” (Operative program for the assistance of needy people). At that time Népszava was told that the Hungarian government has 34 billion forints for this program, out of which 4 billion will be spent on feeding the homeless. Since the ministry certainly didn’t want to talk about the issue at hand, it repeated the old story about the 34 billion forints Hungary had received from the European Union, emphasizing that, in addition to the homeless, “food packages are distributed to old people and families with small children.” The ministry refused to confirm or deny the claim that the government intends to forbid the food distribution activities of charitable organizations.

The founder of the “Budapest Bike Mafia,” another civic group that is involved in food distribution, rightly said that “this whole thing is nothing but folly. To announce such a thing before Christmas would be the greatest mistake.” Moreover, he added, “one cannot ban helping people.” Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. Fidesz folks are quite capable of forbidding this type of charity, and I’m convinced that they have every intention of doing so.

Any kind of individual incentive is suspect in the eyes of the current political leadership. In the last eight years they have done their darndest to put an end to all local efforts. Just like in the Kádár regime: the population should remain inactive and quiet while the government takes care of everything. That might, however, be too generous a comparison. A lot of people critical of the Orbán regime are convinced that these people are so single-minded and self-serving that they don’t care about anyone else, especially not the poor and downtrodden. There might be some truth to that.

December 3, 2017

Karl Pfeifer: An interview with Zsuzsa Ferge on poverty in Hungary

Zsuzsa Ferge is the foremost Hungarian expert on poverty. By training she is an economist who has been working in the field of social statistics, sociology, and social policy. She became a full professor of sociology at ELTE in 1988 and a year later  established the first department of social policy.  Her main fields of interest have been social structure, social inequalities, education, and social policy. She is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the European Academy, and the European Academy of Yuste Foundation. She is the recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh. Although she retired in 2001, she is still the director of the Poverty Research Center at ELTE and head of research at the unit working on the National Program against Child Poverty at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

♦ ♦ ♦

Karl Pfeifer’s short report on the conference

On my way to the conference on poverty organized by Stádium 28, I saw the car of Érpatak mayor Mihály Zoltán Orosz, who is worried about “the efforts of Freemason Jews to rule the world.” On his car I discovered a sticker praising his own “Érpatak model” of “law and order.”

The hall of the Jesuit Center “The House of Dialogue” was filled with mostly young students who wanted to hear about the real situation in their country. One hopes that eventually they will participate in efforts to change the disastrous situation that exists in parts of the country.

As for the program, Ivan Szelényi, professor emeritus of sociology at Yale, spoke about inequality in the U.S.

Éva Havasi, a sociologist who specializes in social statistics and is senior adviser in the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, gave a lecture on the different ways of measuring poverty. She pointed out that a few years ago the Hungarian Central Statistical Office abolished the category of subsistence level, and therefore people interested in the depth of poverty in Hungary have to rely on their own calculations. According to her computation, 37.3% of Hungarians live under the subsistence level.

Zsuzsa Ferge finished her short and poignant lecture with the question: When will the government formulate a policy to reduce poverty and increase happiness in Hungary?

During the panel discussion Júlia Szalai, visiting professor at CEU, pointed out that most people are totally unaware of the depth of poverty in the country because it is concentrated in about 100 ghetto villages. Since there is no serious effort on the part of the government to ease poverty in Hungary, one wonders whether there are groups who are actually interested in the permanence of poverty. It is hard to imagine that being the case, but the government’s indifference to the problem is unfortunately real.

Especially impressive was the contribution of the Roma civil rights activist Jenő Setét, who told the audience that not one of his uncles reached the age of 50. He spoke about the successful government propaganda that claims that “we live in a world where everyone who wants to work can work.” This assertion is a brazen lie when there are regions where “in a 60 km radius there are no jobs.”

The plight of the public workers was also a topic of discussion. At first glance, the idea of a work-based society sounds attractive. Providing work instead of doling out meager financial assistance might be a better way to deal with the problem. But because the local mayors decide who can get work and who cannot, the whole public works program has become a weapon in the hands of the local authorities. Favors are distributed according to political loyalty. The program functions as a deterrent to protest and revolt against the government.

The interview

Karl Pfeifer: When I began to write about Hungary in 1979, I read the Kemény survey on Roma1 in Hungary. Yesterday I heard Jenő Setét, the Roma activist, speaking about the Roma not having any water nearby during the summer and that many have to walk 100-200 m to the closest fountain. It seems that not much has changed for the Roma since.

Zsuzsa Ferge: On the contrary. A lot has changed for the Roma. Their situation has gotten much worse. When Kemény published his survey, 90% of Roma men and 70% of Roma women had a job and earned a living. Most of them left the so-called cigánytelep (ghetto); they had more or less decent housing; they had quite good relations with their co-workers; and their children received good treatment in schools. Everything Kemény wrote was true. They were poorer than the rest of society and their educational attainment was curtailed. Their situation was not good, but it was relatively better than it had been 30 years earlier and much, much better than 30 years later.

What happened in 1990? The Hungarian government, without any preparation, privatized all big firms and, as a result, 1.5 million jobs were lost. Seventy percent of the Roma became unemployed. They were the first ones to be fired. Since then very few jobs have been created for those who have no special skills. The governments between 1990 and 2010 paid little attention to the poor, and in the last eight years the Orbán government’s economic policies have been outright antagonistic toward the poorest strata of Hungarian society.

Since 2010 discrimination against the Roma has been increasing. What Setét said yesterday is true. Discrimination is reinforced through the efforts of the government in order to cover up all the real problems that exist in the country. It manipulates people through hate campaigns to fear and/or loathe others. It has created a “culture of hate” in which an overwhelming majority of Hungarians by now hate migrants, hate foreigners in general, and hate George Soros. An organic part of this hate campaign is “consultation with the people,” which consists of a questionnaire posing questions about the population’s attitude toward the “migrants” and about the “Soros Plan.” Concentrating hatred on the migrants and Soros is also an implicit way of concentrating hatred against the Gypsies and the Jews. So, the migrants, a minority, can be replaced by the Gypsies and Soros by the Jewish “world conspiracy.”

KP: The association organizing the conference on poverty in Hungary had difficulties finding a site, and in the end the event took place in a hall belonging to the Jesuits. At least in Austria the Catholic Church is, as far as social issues are concerned, to the left of the left-wing parties. It seems paradoxical.

ZsF: I am not surprised by your question. There are many different strands within the Hungarian Catholic Church. On one hand, the government is handing as many schools, old age homes, and hospitals as possible to the Catholic Church. It also favors the churches by allocating two to three times more money per student to parochial schools than to public schools. On the other hand, the Jesuits offered a place for this group of scholars, who are not exactly revolutionaries. It is a group composed of members and doctors of the academy who just want to conduct an academic debate about important questions. Such an academic discussion poses no danger to politics. Still, social scientists have something to say about social reality. They have the necessary scientific instruments; they have the know-how; they have the research facilities to diagnose the ills of society. That is what the “Stadium 28” group stands for. Actually, we went first to the university, where the rector offered a room, but then a new rector was appointed who immediately withdrew the permission. It was at that point that the Jesuits offered this place, which is fantastic, and yes, it means that they are more open to autonomous thinking than many other institutions.

KP: I have the impression that now, unlike in the Kádár period, poverty is not hidden. Even in Budapest, one can see homeless people everywhere. Is Hungary still a country with three million beggars?2

ZsF: There are statistics, there is reality, and there is government information. The three are at odds with one another. The government wants to cover up the problem. Statistics try to measure poverty, but yesterday in this academic conference statisticians told us that it was extremely difficult to measure poverty for many, many reasons. So, it happens that the statistical measures of various aspects of poverty are sometimes very similar to European averages, but in some cases, especially where exclusion is concerned, which means lack of goods, lack of ability to cover basic necessities, then Hungary is at the bottom of the European ranking, usually together with Romania and Bulgaria. In brief, poverty in Hungary is a very serious problem.

The sad reality is that the majority of the poor are those Gypsies and non-Gypsies who have no qualifications, who have no possibility of getting jobs except what is called government public work, which is a poor substitute for real, productive employment. Those village dwellers who subsist on a pittance are becoming invisible. In the villages many of the Roma are recreating their former ghettos, which were defined 20 years ago by the excellent British sociologist John Rex, who said that the Gypsy settlement starts where the collection of garbage stops. The local authorities do not collect garbage from the Gypsy ghettos and therefore it is infested with…. A very depressing place. Theoretically, all houses and flats should have water. But if you do not pay for it, sooner or later you will be cut off, and many of those people who live on a cigánytelep have to go 200 meters or more for water because water is scarce and often cut off. Water is the first need. However, water is not considered a basic necessity by this government.

The same is true for the life chances of children. For five years my group of researchers used to visit villages in one particular region in order to offer the inhabitants help. We tried to ease their situation somewhat. Well, in 2011 the government ended the program altogether. People in poverty face extreme difficulties. Both parents and children encounter hunger. Many of these villages have no medical facilities, and the poor people have no means of transportation to reach a doctor. There is no money for medication. Malnutrition is common, healthcare is inadequate, and what is most upsetting is that the schools serving these people are thoroughly deficient. Instead of trying to provide adequate education for the children of these disadvantaged families, the quality of these mostly segregated schools is extremely low. One of the last decisions of the government was to allow people to teach in schools without proper qualifications. Up to now, you had to have a teacher’s diploma to teach in school. Now, you do not. So, these children have no chance to ever get out of these villages and receive an education that would prepare them for the job market. The school reform has lowered compulsory education from age 18 to 16 and abolished the rule that in order to leave school students must have a certificate attesting to the fact that they finished at least the equivalent of eight years of primary school. Now when they are 16 they can leave school and become a wage earner as a member of the large public work force.

1. http://kisebbsegkutato.tk.mta.hu/uploads/files/archive/311.pdf
2. Hungary was characterized in 1928 by György Oláh as the “country of 3 million beggars.”

October 21, 2017

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


[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.


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


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.

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.