Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
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
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