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Frank, as in honest

The leaking of a secret speech by the Hungarian prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, has led to mass protests and political crisis in Budapest. In the speech, Gyurcsany said that his party had lied to the electorate to win the April election. Laszlo Bihari reports on the political fallout from the truth about Hungary's honest liar

November 1, 2006
7 min read

We all know he lies.

Some of us even assume that this is true of politicians in general. But Hungarians rarely take to the streets for moral reasons. This is not just because the communist era made us accustomed to political lies, but also because Hungary had been under foreign domination for centuries before that – and none of the leaders of those times were more honest than the current prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany. What actually led to the revolt in Budapest following the leaking of Gyurcsany’s secret speech to Socialist Party members was not the lies, but the fact that the prime minister had, for once, spoken honestly.

It is not clear whether the revolt was initiated by any particular political group. People started to gather in front of the parliament building on the same day that Gyurcsany’s speech was made public. Reports described how they used mobile phones and community websites to spread the news about the gathering.

There is no doubt that rightwing organisations soon took charge of the gathering, however – something they freely admitted. ‘You need professional political organisations to get things up and running in such a process,’ a member of the Movement for a Free Hungary told me. This is a group that demands, for example, that the number of Chinese people doing business in Hungary should be limited.

Other right-wing groups involved in the protests include the 64 Counties Movement. The name refers to the time, before the loss of two thirds of its territory in the first world war, when Hungary used to have 64 counties. The group often holds protests in the former territories where Hungarian minorities live; its leader was expelled from Slovakia in September for organising an illegal demonstration in Bratislava.

Another far-right group seeking to steer the anti-government protests in its direction is Dávid Kovács’ Movement for a Better Hungary. (Its abbreviated Hungarian name, Jobbik, is a play on the words ‘better’ and ‘right’, which are both represented by the word jobb in Hungarian.)

Kovács’ party has campaigned strongly for the right of traditional churches to take political stances, and in opposition to positive action to improve the lot of Romanies. It has also made various statements that contain encoded anti-semitic messages.

But these and other right-wing groups were not the only ones involved in the protests, which were targeted at not only the parliament, but also other significant institutions in Budapest. Many people of various political backgrounds attended gatherings on the main square, and took part in the siege of the Hungarian national television building. Up to 100,000 people have turned out on protests all over the country, including 80,000 people in Budapest on 6 October, the day that Ferenc Gyurcsany faced – and won – a confidence vote in parliament. Many of the protesters are sympathisers of the main, centre-right, opposition party, Fidesz (the Young Democrats, a party which began life as a dissident social movement against the old communist regime in the late 1980s). While distancing itself from the violence of some of the protests, Fidesz declared that it supported ‘people expressing their feelings’.

The majority of Hungarians, however, remained at home – not because they thought that the prime minister was right to lie to them, but because there was no cause on the streets that they wanted to join. And there was nobody, no group, no party, no initiative that they felt they could trust and follow.

One night at the height of the protests I followed a group who marched to the headquarters of Gyurcsany’s Hungarian Socialist Party, a successor to the old communist party. Its present political profile is similar to that of New Labour in Britain. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has led the way in introducing many of the structural changes in Hungary’s political and economic system. These include the marketisation of public services and infrastructure and opening the economy to international trade and investment.

This is the Socialists’ third term in office since 1989. It is impossible to be sure what they want now – the prime minister lies, you know – but it’s reasonable to assume that it will include liberalising the national health care system, the public transport service and higher education. It’s a fully neoliberal agenda, served with a nice rhetoric of ‘solidarity’ and ‘social justice’. And the people who marched to the party headquarters and clashed with the police, throwing stones and inhaling tear gas, have little faith in these policies, to say the least.

Many of them are people with only secondary education, living in the suburbs, wearing worn out Nike shoes and facing fewer and fewer job opportunities – sometimes none at all. Most of the time, they are invisible. You never see them on TV. The only time anyone is alerted to their predicament is when they set cars on fire, as in France, or throw stones at the police as in Hungary. They are, nonetheless, a global phenomenon.

So far, the principal beneficiaries of the crisis in Hungary politically have undoubtedly been on the right. In the local elections held within days of the revolt breaking out, the opposition parties won all over the country. Fidesz is urging demonstrations to continue until Gyurcsany is removed.

But people in Hungary are also now more open to criticism of unregulated capitalism. For example, on a trade unionorganised demonstration this summer against the government’s austerity measures, a union leader declared – much to my surprise – that ‘the multinational companies have more say on political decisions than the people’. You can hear this kind of sentiment more and more often. Fidesz has even started to build its core political message around statements such as ‘Health is not a business matter’. A couple of years ago I had to travel many hours to social forums in Italy, France or London to listen to this kind of opinion because it was unheard of in Hungary.

In reality, Fidesz remains committed to the same neoliberal agenda as the ruling Socialists, but for now its leaders are less honest about it than the prime minister. Despite declaring, before the last election, that it was against the liberalisation of the health service, during the campaign the party nominated as deputy prime minister the former minister of health, who had been involved in private health companies and as minister had introduced new legislation allowing the privatisation of hospitals.

The crisis caused by the prime minister’s confession of his lies has inspired a public debate in Hungary about ‘how to restore real democracy’. For many people, the answer is simply to kick out Gyurcsany’s Socialists and install the opposition Fidesz, who they believe had the election stolen from them by untruths.

But it is a great illusion to believe that the opposition party does not lie. The truth is that for years there has been a kind of political consensus here that is utterly based on lies. And many people are refusing to face this truth because this would require looking much deeper for answers.

Many other Hungarians accepted all this a long time ago.

‘Didn’t your Tony win the last election when the majority knew that he had lied to them?’ they ask British friends. Just like our Frank -as Ferenc Gyurcsany likes to be called by foreigners – in Budapest. That’s Frank as in honest, by the way. A great name isn’t it?Laszlo Bihari is a journalist and activist in Budapest

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