Tag Archives: social policy

Spread of indifference and hate in Hungary

The events of the last few days have been shocking reminders that something has gone very wrong in Hungary in the last few years. Hungarian society has been poisoned by monstrous ideas. And it seems that the more the present government feels threatened, the more vicious it becomes in the hope of appealing to the beast in all of us.

Sometime ago I read about a study of the Orbán government’s social policy which appeared in the prestigious Journal of European Social Policy. It was written by a member of ELTE’s Faculty of Social Studies, a faculty whose existence has been threatened by the latest “university reforms.” She maintained that the present Hungarian government has no coherent social policy. One finds elements of neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, and etatism, all at the same time. She came to the conclusion that “the only aim of the government is the punishment of the poor.” What an indictment.

In a recent editorial in HVG, “Hate the weaker!,” the author recalls those instances when the Orbán government incited hatred against the homeless, the unemployed, and now the refugees. This government went so far as to change the constitution to legalize punishment of homeless people. The government pared back unemployment insurance benefits to only three months. Welfare payments have been cut to practically nothing, while public works programs are used to influence electoral outcomes. And now here are refugees arriving with only the clothes on their backs.

The government is inciting the population against foreigners in general even though in January 2014 only 1.4% of the population consisted of foreign nationals. Although the government talks about the huge numbers of applicants for refugee status, in 2014 only 360 political refugees received permission to stay in Hungary. These incitements are intended to divert attention from the incompetence (and worse) of the government, but their negative effect on the psyche of the population is immeasurable.

A lack of compassion is discernible among Fidesz politicians, even when working-class Hungarians are the victims. The other day a 21-year-old girl was murdered while working in one of the stores allowed to sell tobacco products. Her murderer, a young boy as it turned out, killed her for 22,000 ft. ($80.00). The interiors of these stores cannot be seen from the street. Their windows are covered; the doors are solid and cannot be left open. All that in the mistaken notion that young people, just by glancing at packs of cigarettes through the shop window, will take up smoking. As a result, the number of robberies at these stores has been far above the average. But at least until now no shopkeeper was killed. But here we have the first victim of this ludicrous new law. The owner of the store where the tragedy happened had enough. He decided that he is taking off the protective material from the shop windows of all his stores. He cares not whether it is against the law. He will not endanger the lives of his employees. One death was more than enough.

Will the government change the law which clearly serves no purpose and endangers lives? A reporter for Hír24 was all set this morning to ask the opinion of Fidesz politicians as they arrived in parliament. One after the other, starting with the prime minister, they went by without a word and without the slightest sign of sympathy for the victim. A few muttered that they had no time to say anything. Up to now over 200 comments have appeared commenting on this video, and practically all of them are highly critical of the whole Fidesz lot. One recurring accusation is that they were elected by the people and have an obligation to answer reporters’ questions. Another charge is that these Fidesz politicians refuse to answer because they haven’t yet received their orders from above. They simply don’t know what the “right answer” is. And finally, there are many who believe that Viktor Orbán and his minions are incapable of admitting that their decisions could be wrong. These people also predict that the law will not be changed.

How much does Fidesz’s anti-immigration policy stem from racist prejudices? The first reaction is that it has nothing to do with prejudice. Fidesz is not a racist party. Viktor Orbán is just using the anti-foreign card for political purposes. It is only Jobbik, the far-right neo-Nazi party, that owes its popularity to openly racist, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic ideology. But then what can we make of what happened today at a press conference given by László Pósán, a member of Fidesz since 1992 and a member of parliament from 1998?

Pósán is a historian who became an associate professor of history at the University of Debrecen after receiving his Ph.D. in 2000. He is a medievalist who specializes in the German principalities and has written a book on medieval Germany. This illustrious professor of history told journalists that to allow people of different cultural backgrounds to settle in Hungary would have very serious consequences. After all, what would parents think if their child, returning home from school, “was surrounded by six African blacks making threatening gestures?” Naturally, he fully supports Viktor Orbán’s ideas on immigration. If this isn’t racism, I don’t know what is.

For good measure he told a few horror stories about the Debrecen internment camp for political refugees. According to him, at one point there was a fight inside of the camp that was so serious that “600 policemen had to be called to the scene.” Well, being a historian myself, I  looked into the 2013 incident in the Debrecen camp. Apparently the camp was terribly overcrowded. Some of the inmates didn’t even have a bed to sleep on. They had to be satisfied with a mattress on the floor of the cafeteria. The fight broke out as a result of a football game between two different groups. As for the number of policeman, Index heard about 100-150, but they could not confirm the number. So much for Pósán’s 600 policemen.

The Debrecen refugee camp in June 2013

The Debrecen refugee camp in June 2013

On the other hand, while I was searching for details about the fight in the Debrecen camp, I found a 2009 article, also by Index, which perhaps tells us more about the real state of affairs than Pósán’s exaggerated story. It was about an Afghan refugee who jumped from a second-floor window, trying to commit suicide. He didn’t die but broke an arm and a leg and damaged his spine. He was to be sent back to Greece and, when the police arrived for him, he jumped. He was first caught in Greece, from where he escaped to Serbia. He was arrested in Serbia and spent 70 days in jail. It was at that point that he headed to Hungary, where he asked for refugee status. He was promised that after ten days he would be sent to Debrecen as a refugee waiting for approval or rejection of his case. Instead, on the thirteenth day after his arrival he was told that he would be sent back to Greece. Apparently, the treatment of refugees in Greece is much worse than in Hungary, and he certainly didn’t want to go back to Afghanistan where he feared for his life. He claimed that his father had already been murdered by the Taliban, and he was afraid that he would be next. His long journey from Afghanistan to Greece, Serbia, and Hungary indicates to me that he was most likely telling the truth. He was not a “megélhetési bevándorló” or, to use Miklós Haraszti’s English rendition, an “occupational immigrant.” A few hours after the suicide attempt 27 Afghan refugees began a hunger strike to protest against and try to escape the fate of deportation.

Viktor Orbán’s “state of the nation” speech

Although Viktor Orbán delivered his annual address (which allegedly assesses the achievements and shortfalls of the previous year) two days ago, I always like to wait to comment until the complete text is available. Since Orbán never strays from his written text, that occurs within a day or two.

In fact, neither Orbán’s nor Gyurcsány’s speech, delivered the day before, had anything to do with the past year. Instead, both signaled the beginning of the election campaign. Gyurcsány’s speech was delivered a day before Orbán’s. Sensing that Orbán’s message would be void of any vision for the future, Gyurcsány wittily compared the prime minister to Hungary’s first king. King Stephen, he said, had a vision: he wanted a Christian Hungary, he wanted his country to belong to the family of European nations, and he wanted to get a crown from the Pope. He didn’t lower the price of oats before the tribal election! Of course, Gyurcsány was alluding to the lowering of utility prices, which has a lot to do with Orbán’s allure.

For his “state of the nation” speech Orbán faced a suspiciously young crowd in the Millennial  Center. As for past achievements, he was careful not to be too specific, but the little he said was mostly the figment of his imagination. Tamás Mészáros of the popular Újságíróklub on TV said last night that he is still waiting for the day when Orbán’s claims have any truth to them. He couldn’t find any in Orbán’s latest. There’s a good summary of his claims (with refutations) by Péter Uj and Zsolt Kerner in 444!.hu

Zsófia Mihancsik of Galamus initially found Orbán’s speech boring, but she reversed herself the next day after reading the transcript. She was amused by Orbán’s compulsive efforts to collect witty sayings from all over the world. Anita Vorak of Origo also came out with an article on the same subject  in which she tried to find the origins of “Viktor Orbán’s recycled pieces of wisdom.”

Orban evertekeloBeing a stickler for historical truth, I wasn’t too taken with the old story about Franz Joseph who kept repeating everywhere he went in Hungary that “everything is very nice, everything is very good, I’m satisfied with everything”–allegedly because these were the only sentences he knew in Hungarian. The truth is that Franz Joseph knew Hungarian very well and so did all Habsburgs in line for the throne, including Otto von Habsburg. But I think this tale about the “Kaiser” served a purpose because it is fashionable nowadays to say nasty things about the Habsburgs, who were after all the link between Hungary and the West for four hundred years. And Orbán in the same speech talked about today’s “labancok,” the socialists and the liberals. The “kuruc/labanc” dichotomy goes back to the early 18th century when the “kurucok” fought on the side of Ferenc Rákóczi while the “labancok” were traitors in the service of the Habsburgs. I wrote about this topic some time ago. So, Orbán and his followers are the “kuruc” patriots while the socialists and liberals serve foreign interests. If I were Orbán, I wouldn’t emphasize this “kuruc/labanc” distinction. After all, the word “kuruc” has been pretty much usurped by the anti-Semitic Jobbik, as in “kuruc.info.hu.”

Among Orbán’s many claims, there is one that is definitely true: he admitted that his accession to power was not a simple change of government. It was a change of political system. And thanks to God’s blessing, Fidesz and the Christian Democrats were able to participate in two such changes. One in 1989-1990 and the second in 2010. The twenty-year period that followed the first he describes as “post-communism.” The real change is the one he and Fidesz introduced in 2010. So, those of us who think that the regime change in 1989-1990 signaled the beginnings of democratic transformation in Hungary are now being told by Orbán that period is over, replaced by Viktor Orbán’s new political system. But what is this new system all about? We get no answer except that it is based on national unity, which is necessary for “building the future,” a future that remains unspecified.

Naturally the speech had its share of Biblical quotations. Given the fact that the prime minister may be one of the richest men in Hungary (Ferenc Gyurcsány estimates that just the real estate holdings in his and his wife’s names are worth 310-330 million forints) the quotation from Ezekiel 34:2-3 was amusing: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock.'”

The second Biblical quotation is applicable to Orbán’s social policy. It is the famous parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. You may recall the story of a well-to-do man who, before setting out on a long journey, called together his servants. He gave five talents to the first, two to the second, and one to the last for safekeeping . The first two servants invested the money and eventually doubled the amount they received. The third hid his talent in the ground. The master tells the third servant: “You wicked and slothful servant!… you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Indeed, Orbán’s social policy favors those who are the best off at the expense of people of modest means. However, the story has one aspect that doesn’t jibe with Viktor Orbán’s worldview. He has been steadfastly attacking those who become well-off by “speculating.” Of course, what the rich man’s two servants did was exactly that. They did not “work” for the money in the sense in which Orbán understands work. In his eyes, work means physical work, and riches coming from speculation are illegitimate as far as he is concerned. Yet he compares himself to the good servants; he has been a good steward of the nation’s wealth. He was brutally honest here: “Those who used the money best will get new chances. There is no sham egalitarianism here.” Modern Europe’s ideal of solidarity? Not for Orbán’s Hungary. Those who for one reason or another cannot compete will find themselves in a situation where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. They cannot expect help from this government, despite its fondness for talking about love, charity, and Christian values.

So, it is not true that Orbán’s speech was merely a collection of meaningless clichés. He said a lot about himself and his wonderful new world. It is in many ways a frightening vision.

Increasing poverty in Hungary

It was only a couple of days ago that I mentioned MSZP’s complaint that the data on the number of people living at the subsistence level and below the subsistence level (in poverty) in Hungary still hadn’t been released. One of the MSZP politicians whose expertise is social welfare issues claimed that the report was ready to be published at the beginning of May but that the government put pressure on the Central Statistical Office (KSH or Központi Statisztikai Hivatal) not to release it at that time. Well, at last the figures are out together with an indignant denial of MSZP’s accusations. Yes, said the press release, normally the figures are published before July 1, but this year because of the work that had to be invested in the census–which by the way was also late–KSH was a bit behind.

Before we go into the details of the figures and what they mean, let’s go back a bit in time. In early 2012 Zsuzsa Ferge, a well-known sociologist whose main field of interest is the Hungarian poor, predicted that if the trend of the last few years continues the number of people who live at the subsistence level will reach 4 million by the end of 2012. The trend was definitely moving toward growing poverty. In 2000 there were only 3 million people who were living at the subsistence level; by 2005, 3.2 million; and by 2010, 3.7 million. That was 37% of the population. Today’s figure is, as Ferge predicted, a shocking 40%.

The growing number of poor people (and here I use the term “poor” loosely to include both those living at the subsistence level and those living beneath it) come mainly from the ranks of the middle class–teachers, nurses, and other low-paid workers. The Orbán government’s social policy clearly favors those who belong to the top income bracket. Sociologist Balázs Krémer also wrote a study published alongside that of Ferge in which he demonstrated how the rich are getting richer while the poor are becoming poorer in Hungary. Between 2009 and 2010 per capita income grew on average from 910,000 to 940,000 forints per annum. However, during the same period the incomes of the poorest 10% decreased by 12,000. The top 10%, on the other hand, became 98,000 forints richer and later, when the Orbán government changed the tax law,  they saw their income grow by 314,000 forints per year.

Központi Statisztikai Hivatal, subsistence statistics per household

Központi Statisztikai Hivatal, subsistence statistics per household

According to KSH estimates, a family of four (two working adults and two children) need a minimum of 249,284 forints to maintain themselves on a subsistence level. That means 62,421 per person. A single-person household needs at least 86,000 and a two-person household 150,400 forints. KSH’s table is self-explanatory with the possible exception of  the last three items that refer to pensioners, living alone or with one or two others.

In Hungary 60% of the family income goes for food and shelter. For comparison here are a few figures from the United States. Shelter is a large chunk of the family income here too. About the same as in Hungary or a little more (34%), but an American family spends only 12% of their income on food as opposed to 31% in Hungary.

In addition to the 4 million people in Hungary who live at the subsistence level there are 1,3800,00 people who live below it. That number constitutes 13.8% of the population. So only 46% of the Hungarian population live above the subsistence level.

It’s no wonder that more and more people are seeking a new life abroad. Mostly in Germany and the United Kingdom. Last year Tárki estimated that about 20% of the adult population planned to leave the country. Since then these numbers have only grown. According to some recent polls, half of all high school and university students are contemplating leaving Hungary. Naturally, it is a lot easier to talk than to act. Most of these people will end up staying at home, but the numbers are still very high.

A few months ago György Matolcsy referred to the half a million Hungarians who live and work outside the country. He didn’t give any source, but journalists figured that he must have based his numbers on some statistics that were available only to government insiders. Now we have an official figure from KSH that accounts for part of this “diaspora”: 350,000 people still have a permanent address in Hungary but have been working abroad for some time. Most of these individuals, I suspect, are young people who are still registered as part of the family household.

This brings up an interesting point about the way that KSH calculates its employment statistics. KSH includes among the employed even those who actually work abroad, including the 350,000 people we are talking about here. KSH inquires whether József Kovács, who is living abroad, has a job; if so (and presumably if he’s in another country he is gainfully employed), he is counted among the Hungarian employed. If KSH didn’t include these people in their statistics, the Hungarian unemployment figures would be significantly higher.

Hungary has seen modest employment gains in the public sector due to the public works program.  But the salaries that workers in this program receive are way below the official minimum wage and are only about half the subsistence level for an individual. (And since only one member of a family is eligible for public works, he’s earning less than 20% of what a family of four would need to subsist on.) Yesterday Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of the public works program, refused to answer Olga Kálmán’s question as to whether 43,000 forints, the salary of a full-time (40 hours per week) public worker, is enough to live on. The interview is already available on YouTube.

Given the economic realities in today’s Hungary, I don’t expect any improvement in the living standards of Hungarians in the near future. And I think we should anticipate an even higher emigration rate, for both economic and political reasons.