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How To Clean Your Name In Hungary

by DoDo Fri Aug 12th, 2005 at 06:39:26 PM EST

Some of you may wonder why I don't write anything about politics in my home country, Hungary. It's because politics in this region is too depressing even for rage against it - and I feel a lot warmer towards, say, the German Greens or the merry group of latter-day Trots in the British Respect party (/SWP), than anything on offer here. But today I thought I'd write about a tragicomedic story for laughs - and if you feel interested, below the fold a general explanation of post-1989 Hungarian politics.

Britain has libel laws, Hungary has press correction suits. But by now, politicians don't have much to fear - the only paper that still doggedly does some investigative reporting is Élet és Irodalom, usually just called ÉS, a literature(!) paper. (Well, Hersch publishes in the New Yorker too...)

A few years ago, they had a series about financial machinations by the then governing main conservative party Fidesz (voted out in 2002): income from the unethical selling of party real estate ended up with businessmen close to the party, disappeared in two dozen fake firms that also collected up debt, and then all of them were "sold" to the stolen passports of a Croatian wine-grower and a Turkish guest-worker in Germany. (Yeah, don't tell me it's like a cheap B-movie script...)

Fidesz responded with a suit. They didn't challenge any of the claims. They sued for ÉS calling these firms "Fidesz-firms", rather than "firms close to Fidesz"! And they won! No matter that the verdict actually proved the misappropiation of money, they claimed a clean vest.

Undeterred, ÉS continued to follow leads. A side thread led them recently to a vineyard investment group with the former PM's wife and friends in it, which made money with speculative purchases and state grants - and they got written proof that former PM Orbán personally helped them.

Fidesz again sued. They again didn't challenge any of the claims, including the written evidence. They sued for ÉS calling their top evidence a "minutes of a members' meeting", for this wasn't an official firm members' meeting, altough all members were present. And just last week, they won again!


Here starts the introducion to Hungary's senseless politics.

I best do it by way of introducing the parties, and then the four governments so far. You'll be introduced to a centre-right business party posing as socialists, the empty shell of liberals, cozy-to-communists anti-communists, a gated-community peasant leader, and a bunch of yuppies cruising the whole political spectrum.

MSzP (Socialists): this one grew out of the reform wing of the former communist party. I'd separate out these three main sub-groups, all mostly but not completely ex-Party-members: 1) the naive base, believes in redistribution (but culturally not liberal), but has least power and intelligence; 2) the entrepreneur base, much more influence and outside-politics ties; and 3) the technocrats, mostly Western-educated in the seventies-eighties and dour. My classification is more sociologic, power groups might cut across these --- but it is a lame bunch too diverse and too much without vision to follow a consistent policy in government.

Munkáspárt (communists): this was formed by the hardcore that rejected the reformists, never got into Parliament but refuses to die. They made attempts at copying the style of West European hard left, and had one lucky pick when they called for a referendum against hospital privatisation (was pursued by all in parliament, rejected by some 75-80% of the people including yours truly), only ruined by Fidesz (but that would be stuff for another tragicomedic post). However, this is all facade, they are unreconstituted Stalinists - the party leader even flew to Moscow during the failed 1991 coup against Gorbachev, to plead allegiance to the new masters...

SzDSz (liberals): this one grew out of the eighties liberal dissident movement. They had diverse opinions and were the most progressive, but then their social liberal streak died out (literally/left the party), they were strongly hit by a vicious nationalist and anti-semitic campaign against them, and even more strongly by compromises in government (more on this in the second part). Today a shadow of themselves, too afraid to praise cosmopolitanism or confront racism openly, with tax reductions and neoliberal 'reforms' left to argue. And they are still the most progressive choice. It's a shame - I always voted for them.

MDF (old nationalist conservatives): originally the big right-wing party, led by old-timers who did not much in terms of dissident-ism, cooperated with the since dead nationalist wing of the MSzP, and were in a large part historians, with the tepid smell of the pre-WWII semi-fascist system. Now a dwarf, led by the most popular politician in the country, probably due to her elegant hats and (relative to others) cultured manners.

MIÉP (far right): broke off of MDF, led by Csurka, a gifted playwright turned mini-Goebbels, whose open anti-semitism and militancy made even the leader of the infamous Vlaams Blok flip out. They were once in parliament (1998-2002), then out, unfortunately they refuse to die too.

FKGP (smallholders' party): the predecessor of this party won the only free elections just after WWII by a landslide. However, the 1989 version was quickly taken over by Torgyán, a gifted demagogue, a lawyer from the capital who understood how to appear as a man of the earth to gullible farmers. However, his party began to divide like a cell (at one time there were like one and half dozen smallholders' parties!), and they were incredibly (and stupidly) corrupt, they disappeared by now.

Fidesz ('young democrats', populist right): this party is the craziest of them all.

It started out as a progressive liberal party, with alternative-left and anarchist overtones, formed by a group of young hotshots. But when the star of MDF began to fall, the by then unquestioned leader of Fidesz, Orbán (BTW a demagogue even more gifted than Torgyán), decided that he'll be PM only if Fidesz takes the place of a large people's party - and as the place on the Right just got empty, that was where Fidesz moved. And where they won, in 1998.

But this cabal of yuppies never believed in any ideology, so their line changed whatever their tactical goal at the moment was, touching everything and the opposite (literally!) from far left to far right. And managed to get their flock to follow at every twist and turn. Like Bliar in Britain, they believed in spin - and used it heavily, borrowing heavily from around the world (from Tudjman in Croatia, Berlusconi in Italy, Bush in the USA - you cannot imagine the combined intensity). In the meantime, they 'ate' most of the rest of the parties on the Right, including the far right (many of whose 'arguments' they made mainstream).

Governments

1990-1994: MDF in coalition with FKGP and another small right-wing party, with SzDSz as the main opposition. Economic reforms with Western guidance lead to recession and increased poverty. Meanwhile, failure to suppress the far-right in the party with appeasement, ultimately they break off and form MIÉP. Authoritarian and nationalistic tendencies, culminating in the First Media War: fought over the control of the state media.

1994-1998: MSzP, despite absolute majority alone, with SzDSz. Socialists ride to victory on a wave of silly nostalgia for stability under the old regime, but people get something else. Initial haphazard populism is followed by the technocrats' austerity reforms (the previous government cooked the books), which straighten the budget but push a lot of people across the brink, and tuition fees alienate students for a decade. Still arrogantly confident in their majority, the Socialists battle with their coalition partners (who stupidly won't leave), produe a big corruption scandal, and revive a universally hated Slovakian-Hungarian river dam scheme that costs them reelection (and SzDSz credibility).

1998-2002: Fidesz, in coalition with FKGP and MDF, most of which they 'eat up' over the four years. Spin politics. Media war II: cooperating with the opposition far-right MIÉP, vagueness in legal texts is used to gain control of the state media. Fidesz first intends to create a US-style two-party system by creating its own corrupt client background in the economy, but noticing how lame the MSzP is, they go for a one-party system. But extreme arrogance, tit-for-tat battles with Budapest's popular SzDSz major, and a string of corruption scandals dwarfing the previous government's anger enough people for a narrow election loss.

2002-: MSzP-SzDSz lame duck government. As they have a hair-thin majority, Fidesz tries in the first summer to topple the government with continuous barrage, but over-reaches and the generated scandals (like exposing that the new PM was a spy - he was in counter-intel, ironically even acting against the Russians when Hungary seeked Western financial ties) fall back on its head.

Since then, Fidesz plays "let's ignore every unwritten rule of democracy, and even written ones if there is no punishment". But hand it to the government to undercut themselves. Feeling weak, to gain popularity, there were massive payrises, combined by tax cuts at the SzDSz's demand, predictably leading to a budget crisis. So it's back to 'reforms' - while political discourse is now exclusively about a series of storm-in-a-bathtub scandals. At the same time, they played apologists for Bush & Bliar, against much of their base. A year ago, the PM was replaced after an internal party coup - now a rich guy from the entrepreneur wing tries to be a counter-Orbán, not without success (now should I be happy about this or weep?), but Fidesz still commands 50%+ in polls.

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The party constellation sounds rather familiar except that there hasn't really been a Fidesz type party in Poland, just an endlessly disintegrating and recombining  kaleidescope of right wing groups, ranging from perfectly sane center-right types to the extreme right. I'll try to do a diary soon in time for posts on the Polish elections.
On the other hand the media picture is rather different, particularly the newspapers. Poland has two quite good daily papers - the center left Gazeta Wyborcza run by Poland's most powerful media group which was created and is still run by the old left wing dissident establishment. The second one is the moderate right wing Rzeczpospolita which is an old pre-1989 paper taken over by a combination of right wing dissidents and some more professional journalists. The pre '89 opposition had plenty of journalism experience in Poland's thriving underground press of the 1980's.  Both papers go after corruption quite agressively, priding themselves on taking down crooked politicians and competing to see how many scalps they can land. The libel laws in Poland can be a little strict but nothing like the sick parody you describe in Hungary. Plus GW and its parent company, Agora, are powerful enough in its own right to make them a rather big target for the judges and pols to take on, as governments have found out to their cost.
by MarekNYC on Sat Aug 13th, 2005 at 01:08:39 AM EST
Should be interesting; I hear less about Polish politics than say Czech or SLovak politics.

Regarding the media and dis/similarities, I recall something about a media war in Poland during the previous government. Was that ended soon, or you don't recall anything like that?

About our press, for fairness, I should tell more about it - it's not like media freedom died, or even scandal exposures, just investigative reporting.

There are two large political dailies: Népszabadság, the 'centre-left' daily, it was originally a Party paper  that emancipated itself in the last few years, later owned by Ringier, today by another Western media group I forgot. The opposition has Magyar Nemzet, which conserves the namer of a long-running respected conservative paper, but its staff is actually that of a right-to-far-right paper that bought MN. These two do report of a lot of scandals on the other side, like your big dailies, but almost all are either based on leaks (no journalist work involved), or - ever more often - based on nothing, more spin than substance. They are too beholden to the party line.

However, there are quality magazines. They do some investigating, but regrettably not much, they are more strong in punditry and analysis. The best is (ironically given my politico-economic views), the equivalent of the Economist, HVG. (In fact, it is the only paper I would call impartial.) Then there is 168 óra, which grew out of a very good radio show that did investigative reporting (and snuffing out which was one of the intentions of both Media Wars). Finally, there is Magyar Narancs (which I mentioned in the unknown European films thread): this is a paper originally allied to Fidesz, back in its progressive youth party years, but the paper maintained this worldview and broke with Fidesz. It has the stingiest tongue.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Aug 13th, 2005 at 04:22:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So where do you think things are heading in Hungary?  It sounds kind of bleak at the moment. How is the economy? Are there any key issues that are social supports? Trying to get a feel for where the people are in all this...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Sat Aug 13th, 2005 at 03:45:51 AM EST
bob, I'm just going to watch Nikita for the uptennth time (on TV), so sorry, I'll reply only tomorrow!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Aug 13th, 2005 at 04:23:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Kein problem! At your convenience!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Sun Aug 14th, 2005 at 03:33:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry, I must hold your patience even further - I only have time for a short reply today, and I will write only about the economy.

It is relatively fine - some numbers good, some not.

Foreign debt grew sharply, to euros 60.2 billion brutto/25.7 billion netto (however, most of it is private). Budget deficit is high, but decreasing. Bids still cover only a small part of EU money available in structural funds.

Joblessness grew last winter, but now it is stable at 7%. Differences between poor and rich are still low compared to many Western countries, but again slowly increasing (they decreased during the spending spree). However, the average wage is increasing significantly (this May, 11% year-on-year netto).

Inflation is decreasing, now 3.7% over 12 months. GDP is still growing at a seasonally adjusted 3.7% - in sync with the global economy, but less than other 'developing' countries.

However, as I implied and will show in my next post, politics here is not about real issues.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Aug 14th, 2005 at 02:19:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you...I'll be interested to hear!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 11:02:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So, you asked, where are things heading, and what are the issues? That's the wrong approach to understand politics here, and I will show by way of an example: healthcare. I'll write about the issue, the solution, the policy that was - and then how politics 'dealt' with it. (And for a more funnier and more international issue, I'll append a brief rundown of Bush-Hungary relations in another comment.)

Hungary had a relatively fine, nationalised healthcare during communism - its only serious problem was the attitude of staff towards patients. Most of it is still nationalised, but in need of upgrading and maintenance overhaul, and its budget is severely strained.

What should be done, in my and others' opinion, would be a combination of higher spending for modernisation (if needed with extra taxes), awareness campaigns, and more, if needed (infectious diseases) compulsory, scans for common diseases (whose treatment is much cheaper before a chronic state).

Now, until the events I'll tell about, what all parties were thinking about policy-wise was a solution along the neoliberal consensus: bring in private capital, privatise hospitals. However, this wouldn't be a solution. If there is full privatisation, there would be medicine for the rich, and basically no one else, as our poor are poorer than say Germany's or even the more income-differentiated USA's poor. If, as was last envisaged, there is partial privatisation of only the most profitable parts, that will actually increase the deficits the state has to pay for what it keeps - and, of course, this will lead to further 'sparing' and thus deterioration. If, as was also envisaged, general service is kept up by the state paying for basic services, the privates will increase income (and the state's spending) with unnecessary treatments. Unlike the political elite, most people had a sense of these problems, hence in polls opposition to privatisation ran between 75 and 85%. But the political elite was anxious about the details, so nothing serious happened yet.

Now, until this point, there is not that much difference to other places - except you'd at least get to seriously discuss the issues group-thinking politicians will 'solve' the wrong way anyway.

However, two years ago, Munkáspárt (the unreconstituted Stalinists, see party descriptions in original post) started to collect signatures for a referendum on whether to keep healthcare nationalised. They hit the jackpot with this theme: in line with their professed ideology, in line with a wide majority of public opinion, and with no one else to stand for it. Now, besides the Munkáspárt, there were already problems: with the wording. On one hand, it was too general, so it could be interpreted as ordering the re-nationalisation of what was already private (apothekes, home doctors); on the other, it was too specific, with references to an actual draft law (which was downed by the constitutional court between the approval of the referendum and the referendum itself), so it could be interpreted as no limit for new proposals. But these problems are still connected to issue-based thinking.

As it happens, at the same time, a nationalist NGO was collecting signatures for another referendum, on granting double citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad.

Now, still in issue-based mode, I must explain why this would have been a catastrophe. After WWII, the territory of Hungary shrunk by 70%, and a lot of ethnic Hungarians (every third back then) got outside, most in today's Romania, Slovakia and Serbia, and most in smaller regions where they are majority. There was/is constant nationalist conflict, with fears of assimilation and suppression opposed to fears of separatism/irredentism (which actually happened just before/during WWII). Double citizenship would not just have meant envy-generating extra money for ethnic Hungarians, but, from the viewpoint of Romanians etc., the inofficial extension of Hungary's territorial sovereignity: people (who are in the majority in their areas) receiving money from, and possibly voting in the elections of, another country, would be cutting themselves off the Romanian etc. state. Thus also, given the likely response, double citizenship would damage rather than help Hungarian ethnic minorities. This would add to a migration to Hungary that would have been begun by economic migrants anyway - but the Right could have been happy for a dramatic increase in voter base.

Now, what happened: the two referendums were slated for the same day - and Fidesz suddenly decided to connect them, and campaigned for two "Yes"-es! Going for both the nationalist vote and the leftist vote, and a sure defeat of the government so humiliating it may lead to new elections. That wasn't just a 180-degrees-turn on healthcare: just before, they were praising flat tax, and in government, they seriously considered the social-darwinist idea of focusing child-raising supports on rich parents.

What followed was a vicious, insane, beyond-the-issues campaign. Some of it was platitudes, populism and denouncements in total ignorance of actual proposals in the hospital issue, but most of it on the other. The government and the MSzP ended up confronting nationalism with xenophobia: save-the-dying-nation vs. save us from a flood of ethnic Hungarian immigrants who live off welfare and take away our jobs! Also, and this would have been a sight for MarekNYC, MSzP ranted on a lot about Fidesz of allying with the communists (and fascists).

Meanwhile, the government sent mixed messages: publicly, they urged a double "No" vote, but between the words and through the mouth of press on their side, a boycott was suggested, and polls spun towards the opposition's followers with the message that they won't be enough, so why go. Actually, what did the trick, IMO, was the viciousness of the campaign itself, which precipitated down to family/friends level: many who had clear voting intention before got unsure, especially those whose views were along a Yes/No (or No/Yes) vote. (I did vote Yes/No, but felt the pressure.)

Thus the the result was a participation of only 37.5%. The law is that a referendum is valid if the majority side is at least 25% of all eligible voters. With only a 51.5% majority of actual voters, the double citizenship fell short of the mark spectacularly. The hospital issue got a 65.0% majority, so in the total voting-age population, it fell just 0.6% short of becoming law.

And the real end result: nothing happens to solve problems in healthcare, but the vote will at least keep any government from trying privatisation in the near future; Fidesz got a stinging defeat, but one quickly forgotten as parties generate new scandals and power-plays every week.

You see, this is where Hungary is heading: things go relatively well (see the economy), partially because politicians' ineptness or infighting prevents a runaway policy; but people are frustated and feel as if there is stagnation, because there is no vision, no direction of the government but there are constant scandals. From all the polls this year, it looks like Fidesz is poised to take over again in 2006, but in the last few weeks there has been such a scandal overdrive that anything can happen.

Meanwhile, there are real progressives around here, who if not in politics get active in an infant civilian society. I think it's still a long way before they blow over into the world of politics like the Greens did across Western Europe two decades ago, but it'll happen.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 03:33:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When Hungary pulled out its troops from Iraq at the end of 2004, it only because of another power politics by Fidesz: they decided humiliating the government is worth more than repairing relations with their ideological brothers and role models across the pond.

Repairing, I say? Let's go back six years.

When Fidesz was newly in government, there was a tender for NATO-compatible fighter jets to replace the MiGs. There were two competitors: a Swedish company with BA offered the Gripen, and Lockheed offered used F-16s with an upgrade. The Gripen was considered the better option, but everyone assumed a Lockheed win, due to ties with Fidesz. This was reinforced by the most ridiculous corruption scandal in Hungarian history, when a string of Fidesz MPs signed a lobbying letter for a Lockheed executive that was nominated for ambassador, and some even signed as "senator" - something that does not exist in our system...

Now, a year later, in autumn 2001, the inofficial campaign season started early.  Fidesz was busy putting forth spin to supress its real big corruption scandals, just blowing over in the press. So the leadership thought a Lockheed win could lose them the elections - and decided for Gripen. Bush wasn't amused. A few weeks later, when PM Orbán flew to Washington for a campaign photo with Bush at the White House, Bush wouldn't receive him. Suddenly, the US ambassador, Freedom House et al discovered the virulent anti-semitic talk and the attempts at media takeover, and openly criticised it.

This all was real fun to watch for yours truly - until after the elections, until next fall. Then, in the run-up to the Iraq war, during which our government first kept anxious silence, when the government visited Bush in Washington, they were openly criticised, after reminders of 'support' in the elections. At the same time, suddenly there were a string of articles in the WSJ and other papers about Hungary sabotaging the NATO, not spending anything on modernisation and raising its military budget etc., and of growing intentions of NATO leaders to do something about it. And more widely, about various 'signs of crisis'. (Yeah, that reminds of certain campaigns against certain other countries a few months later...)

This was in the open; I wonder what went on behind closed doors. And our government took heed, and suddenly, they began to beat the drums of war. They kept to the line against wide popular opposition. Of the parties in parliament, only the MDF had a clear line against the war and the following troop deployment, so the required two-thirds majority was there in the summer of 2003, and during the first extension half a year later. The end of it I told of at the beginning. Since then, the government tried to prove its good vassalness with promising token supports, that mostly weren't called for later.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 03:57:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Could you turn those into diaries please? They're far too good to bury down here. And I mean cut and past them into diaries!
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 06:04:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Just did.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 08:11:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks,. That's great. Now, off to recommend.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 08:12:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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