Socialist Worker

Crisis in Hungary

A secret speech by Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány has led to a wave of protests. Political philosopher G M Tamás reports on the state of the country’s politics

Issue No. 2020

In May, Hungarian voters returned the reigning socialist-liberal coalition to office, hoping that it might continue its moderate policies which claimed a balance between neo-liberal orthodoxy and a few elements of social justice.

It was the first time that any government has been re-elected in post-1989 Eastern Europe.

At the beginning of its first term in 2002, the coalition had increased the salaries of state employees such as teachers, doctors, nurses and local government workers.

Average real wages increased by some 30 percent. Government deficit and debt have, of course, ballooned - mostly caused by servicing debt and paying interest.

After the elections, however, prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s government effected an about-face, and announced that the overly generous social policies - the prime minister called them “social romanticism” - had to stop.

He said austerity measures had to be introduced, taxes increased and benefits reduced. The state health service should be privatised along with the railways and other forms of mass transport, education fees introduced, public private partnership methods generalised, salaries and pensions frozen, and so on.

Since Hungarian workers are very poorly organised, this would not have provoked, perhaps, significant resistance, let alone an outbreak of violence.

The trade unions are weak and divided. For instance, there were 13 national labour confederations at the last count and there is no political left to speak of.

Retreat

In the first days of September, a secret speech by Gyurcsány at a retreat of the parliamentary Socialist Party, the major party in the coalition, was leaked to the press.

In this speech Gyurcsány, using unusually frank and brutal language, full of four-letter words, declared that everything he said during the election campaign, including his entire election manifesto, was an outright lie.

So were the pre-election measures meant to seduce the voters, which have now been unceremoniously revoked. Otherwise, he said, the Socialist Party would have lost the elections, since nobody would have voted for their real programme that had been kept secret from all but 15 selected officials.

While promising the earth, the Socialist leadership worked feverishly in the deepest secret on a programme that contradicted almost entirely everything they said in public.

Gyurcsány is a former secretary of the Communist Youth League under the one-party system before 1989 and, since the 1990s, a millionaire businessman, married into the post-Stalinist party aristocracy. He himself is originally of working class stock.

In the wake of the leaked speech, indignation swept the country. At first, the protests seemed to have been steered by the centre-right parliamentary opposition.

Gyurcsány was roundly booed during his whistle-stop tour before the local elections scheduled to take place on 1 October, mostly by centre-right “whistling squads”.

Soon afterwards demonstrations started in the capital, Budapest, and, unusually for Hungary, also in provincial towns. They soon turned violent.

The crowds took over the state television headquarters in the very centre of the capital, devastated the building and attacked the startled police. Out of some 200 wounded, 125 were policemen, an unusual ratio.

An almost permanent political rally is going on in Parliament Square. The night after the TV siege, the police forced the crowds out of Parliament Square and took their revenge.

Extreme brutality was countered by extreme brutality, cars and shops were burnt, several hundreds beaten, arrested, chased by mounted police.

Neither the rioters nor the police spared innocent bystanders. Our homeland security minister has mentioned curfews.

The protesters speak of revolution. They describe the government, the mainstream press and the figurehead president, Dr Sólyom, as common criminals.

The official right has hesitated, wavering between full support for the rioters and giving in to unsurprising middle class fears. The right wing news television channel egged on the rioters in an unabashedly open fashion.

Ideologically, the protest has been hijacked by the far right. Fascist regalia - the “Arrow-Cross” Hungarian Nazi flags and insignia - are on show.

The speeches echo the xenophobic and slightly paranoid rhetoric of the European extreme right. However, at the same time, the protests are the expression of working class despair and a general, vague sense of the rottenness of the system.

Contempt

It is true that football hooligans and other unappetising specimens have played an important role, especially in the violence - which is at a level not seen in this country since the 1956 revolution.

But it was mostly an instinctive, quite apolitical explosion of popular anger. The mainstream press speaks of “fascist rabble”, exhibiting the usual kind of sovereign contempt for the masses.

The riots were far from pleasant and occasionally rather mindless. Nevertheless, the protesters had a point. They had been cruelly deceived, and the proposed government policies are monstrously unfair.

The protest had been ideologically dominated by the loony right, but this is caused by the absence of a party, or parties, to the left of Blairite social democracy.

The small groups of the “independent” left are frightened and playing a “lesser evil” game. Only a handful of people on the left, including this writer, called for the resignation of the prime minister.

Now that the centre-right of former prime minister Viktor Orbán has left the rioters in the lurch and called off a mass rally they had planned for last weekend, there is no clear political path for the protesters.

Some vaguely leftish internet sites are documenting police abuses and are trying to conduct a dialogue with the younger rioters who still appear to enjoy the insurrectionary feel of the burning capital.

The “left” for these people means poverty, rule by millionaires, mendacity, fake sanctimony and the arrogance of the powerful.

The far-right orators are announcing a regime change to their thinning audiences.

The original cause of the troubles, the absurd neoconservative neo-liberal policies are all but forgotten.

The government is shaken, and the international financial institutions - which created the crisis in the first place with pressure and hair-raising demands - are already planning retribution, a run on the Florin, the Hungarian currency, and a tightening of the credit screw.

With the risk of sounding schoolmasterish, this is the price we pay for the absence of an authentic left-of-centre socialist party and for the absence of a trade union movement faithful to the working people. It is a heavy price and we cannot afford it.

G M Tamás is a professor of philosophy, a former dissident and a former member of the Hungarian parliament


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Article information

International
Sat 30 Sep 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2020
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