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Issue-based Politics vs. Hungarian Politics

by DoDo Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 01:13:39 PM EST

Promoted and intro edited by Colman

Whataboutbob asked me a general question about the direction I think Hungary is heading, the state of the economy and the issues that are now politically important. In a first short reply, I explained that the economy is relatively fine, but that's the wrong approach to understanding politics here as I will show by way of an example: healthcare. I'll write about the issue, the solution, the policy that was - and then how our politicians 'dealt' with it.


On request - repost of the first of two comments about some funny or strange developments in the recent history of Hungarian politics; with introducion added, and some edits.

(If you find that the parties, the referred events or names are confusing, read the introducion to Hungary's senseless politics in the older diary entry.)

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 (pharmacies, home doctors). On the other hand, 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/border revisionism (the latter actually had success 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 young economic migrants anyway - but the Right could have been happy for a significant increase in voter base.

Now, what happened: the two referendums were slated for the same day - and Fidesz (populist right-wing party led by a cabal of yuppies, see older post) 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. And playing cynically with ethnic Hungarian's emotions abroad. That wasn't just a 180-degrees-turn on healthcare: just before, they were praising flat tax, and in government (1998-2002 - see older post), 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 (post-reformed-communists, see older post) 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 to behold for MarekNYC, MSzP ranted on a lot about Fidesz allying with the communists (and fascists)! And this was the main theme of the campaign: us vs. them, if you're not with us then you're with them, do you really wish them to win; and that in both camps.

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 predicted, and polls spun towards the opposition's followers with the message that their numbers won't be enough for the double citizenship vote to pass, 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 a clear voting intention before got unsure or disgusted, especially those whose views were along a Yes/No (or No/Yes) vote. (I did vote Yes/No, but felt the pressure.)

Thus the result was a participation of only 37.5%. The law here 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 (with the majority of Fidesz voters either staying at home or voting No). 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; and angered ethnic-Hungarian minorities.

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.

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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.

I'm not sure it "will" happen. At least not without a real grassroots organization. And I don't see many younger people who are interested in social issues. And of course, the parties, as your post shows, will turn it to individual advantage.

On another note, I studied for a month in Budapest in 1990. The program was largely organized by then Fidesz members/sympathizers. I'll never be able to figure out what happened to that party. Reading this and your other post at least leaves me less dejected. Misery loves company, as they say.

by gradinski chai on Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 08:21:30 AM EST
I'm not sure it "will" happen. At least not without a real grassroots organization. And I don't see many younger people who are interested in social issues. And of course, the parties, as your post shows, will turn it to individual advantage.

You know, I used to take that view, but during the Iraq issue and later, I was surprised to learn that there are a lot of young people who do think like me, or like Western counterparts. They are completely detached from the present political mainstream, kind of a subculture, except many are isolated from each other (like me - I talk much more politics on-line than in person) - but just because of this growing detachment from mainstream politics, this group is growing. I referred to some grass-roots organising, in the civilian 'sector'. For example, there is now a small movement against estate speculants who'd let old houses be run down and pulled down, to build an ugly new something that's either not really needed, is for rich people, or doesn't fit in the area.

Yes, the parties would like to have everything under their hands. One trick of the Fidesz leadership was to kick-start the formation of civilian groups, which were steered from above, and used for the takeover of the faithful in local party cells. The largest 15 february 2003 protest in Central-Eastern Europe was in Budapest, with about 50,000, but ended in scandal due to a large far-right contingent who ignored calls for leaving party politics outside. However, these people I spoke of live and newly organise in this environment, and their 'detachment' means they are by now immune to the parties.

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

by DoDo on Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 08:43:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On another note, I studied for a month in Budapest in 1990. The program was largely organized by then Fidesz members/sympathizers.

Can you name any names? Maybe I could tell what became of them. (Not all of the original team went along all the way with Orbán, I must note.)

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

by DoDo on Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 08:46:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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