Hungarian Socialist member of parliament Ágnes Kunhalmi recently talked to the Budapest Beacon about herself, her party, Hungary’s educational reforms, and Europe’s immigration crisis.
My name is Ágnes Kunhalmi. I was born in Hungary in the small town of Kiskunmajsa. I’m very proud that by the age of 30, I became the president of the Budapest chapter of the largest opposition party.
It was a world where they did not put obstacles in front of those children who wanted to become somebody. We never expected solutions from anyone, but I had a chance to study. Thanks to my parents and the educational system I was able to get ahead. I envisioned my career in government administration, for a while as a public official, but on a macro level where I could have an impact. So I was to enter party politics at a higher level. I myself chose the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP).
My first real test was in 2014 when, 60 days before the election, there was a change in candidates in one of Budapest’s outer districts, the 18th district. Many had given up that district. I’m proud to say I only lost by 56 votes, and that I managed to get 22,000 votes, with over a 70 percent voter participation. On this depended the ruling parties’ two-thirds parliamentary majority. We exhausted the legal possibilities, but unfortunately an election law was adopted in Hungary before the elections making possible many small parties who often got more votes than the difference between the right-wing candidate and myself.
It’s good to be president of the Budapest chapter of MSZP because this is where very important national matters are centered. This is a good school of learning for somebody my age with my experience. We do not learn to politicize in our mother’s womb. Originally education policy is my field of expertise, so I deal with education as a political expert. And I know that if I did not spend the past five years criticizing changes to the school system, then perhaps the residents of the 18th district would have had nothing to do with me, regardless of how many days before the election I showed up.
HUNGARIAN SOCIALIST PARTY
As Budapest socialists we think it very important to deal with themes that were ignored by the country chapter, or even the entire left-wing establishment. We take the situation of women seriously. We would like to see a lot of women entrepreneurs in the country. Through my own example I try to show that there are no obstacles, not even in politics, for example.
There is a lot of pent-up energy and creativity in young women who have completed college. There is a lot of ambition and talent in them. But the system today in Hungary does not work in a manner that lifts them up.
Budapest Socialists also think the green revolution to be very important. A completely new energy revolution is taking place in the world, whose motor is Germany. Over the past few years there have been developments and discoveries that were inconceivable only ten years ago, making solar energy cheaper in some cases than atomic energy.
Those who hear this should know that the atomic versus green energy debate in Hungary is not only about using a new form of energy, or a cleaner or more livable world, but rather is connected to a Russian-friendly and a Western-friendly politicization. With the construction of new rectors at Paks and the secrecy surrounding the contracts so that we cannot even see them, it is related to Hungary’s decision to pursue a Russian-friendly agenda.
We Budapest Socialists also think it important that the city’s tax system and administrative system turn in the direction of start-up enterprises. There is a huge need for the city to become a center of innovation. We have excellent universities. Budapest is a city of schools. There are many foreign and Hungarian students here. There are a lot of 20-year-olds eager to test themselves.
Unique things are taking place in Budapest today. And while I know that out of ten start-ups only two survive, those could be realized in Budapest if they could work in a good system. If they received supports and incentives from the national and municipal governments, then they would make Hungary’s industrial culture richer and more colorful. And they could further develop. Unfortunately, there is little support in this direction. This is why it is very bad that the right-wing is running both the national government and the capital city government, because they simply do not pay adequate attention to bringing the intellectual creativity to the surface and helping it develop.
But what can I expect from a government where the state took away schools that were previously administered by local governments? Obviously we will speak later about how much damage a bad educational system causes and the return of an outmoded, outdated school system in terms of modern economic development.
If we look not only at Hungary but Europe or any country in the world, we see that those countries are successful that invest in human capital. To put it simply, there are no oil wells under the Danube. If we drill we find hot water and not gas. What we have is intellectual capital, and it is strong. And I believe that if good democratic systems work the way they should, then every person finds their own possibility to progress.
Today this is throttled and suppressed. Today only a very narrow, select few have access to state transfers, state support, and those state resources that actually prepare young, creative people to succeed in the marketplace and support their desire to launch companies. Today too few people have access to these. Let’s say those who are near to the fleshpots. But I believe the whole point of the system change was that such things should not depend on who you know or where you were born.
Regardless of whether someone was born in Kiskunmajsa, Kazincbarcika, or any district of Budapest, one should enter a world where they can be who they want, and where their own invested energies and efforts define the path their lives take. This is rather what we Socialists stand for today.
After 2010 a very bad concept came to dominate governing circles, according to which the kind of state school system Hungary had during the Kádár era under socialism should be brought back, even in the case of a modern economy. This is a completely false path. Everyone should know that in the 1980s, before the system change, the school system was a lot more free. The liberalizing processes had already taken place or been initiated that helped bring about the modern world. For this reason a lot of people in Europe and the western world believed that Hungary would prosper after the system change. That we were the happiest barrack in the Eastern bloc. Among other things our school system made steps in this direction. It was not only in the backyards and the small circle of private enterprises that demonstrated that these will do better in a market economy than in the case of our Romanian or Slovak brothers.
Today there is a reverse tendency. Previously, the school system was maintained by the local governments together with the state. Each individual school had its own profile. The state created a common national curriculum, the common canon of knowledge that contains our history and identity, forming the basis of study in every country in which the children learn about their history and where they came from, where they are going, and about national identity. But the institutions enjoyed a degree of freedom that allowed the teachers in a given school to adjust for the fact that not every child is born in good family surroundings. There are those born to poor families and those born to more affluent families. The schools could accommodate this and provide sufficient time and freedom to allow for the fact that a seven-year-old child may not have the same vocabulary. A very poor family living from seasonal work, where the parents do not have high levels of education going back generations, there are not as many books, and not as many words are used as in the case of a middle-class family. But the solution is not to separate these children, but to create a school system that can lift both of them up. But for this the state must ensure certain conditions, and that is the responsibility of the state.
Unfortunately today in a centralized school system they want to direct many thousands of teachers and several million children and many thousands of institutions from a single center. Often the center is not even made aware of local needs, let alone able to quickly react to them. If someone listening anywhere to what I’m saying fails to understand why Hungarians are their own opponents, it is because socialism is over, and the industrial society where an adult spends his entire life at one job no longer exists. Comecom collapsed, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the industrial and agricultural associations that existed for forty years before the system change no longer exist.
Our educational system, on the other hand, remained. The task is to create an educational system, not only at home but in Sweden, Finland and Germany as well, that trains children for a modern information-based society, industry and economy. It is not important to train children how to perform one job their entire lives, but rather to instill basic skills and the ability to learn. If a child completes primary school in Hungary today without knowing how to write, read and do math properly. If he knows what letters follow one another but doesn’t understand what he reads; or if he can write but cannot express himself. If he knows how much is two times two but cannot think logically. If our children leave school functionally illiterate and they cannot think differentially. If they do not develop a critical attitude, then for such this will lead to an extremely low value-added labor market, a dumbed-down society and a poorly performing economy. Because they do not understand certain economic and social interdependencies, this will lead to a democracy deficit and extremist parties of the right- or left-wing populist parties will gain ground. That is why it is very dangerous when a country dumbs down its educational system.
Unfortunately, this is what is deliberately happening in Hungary today. I wouldn’t have thought it to be in the interests of right-wing democrats not to invest in intellectual capital and to develop our economy along those lines, but for Hungary to become a cheap assembly plant. We need foreign capital but we also need domestic capital. Today children are leaving school without the intellectual strength to stand on their feet and create small- and medium-sized companies. If we connect the stupid educational system with what happened over the past three, four or five years, especially after 2010, three hundred thousand, three hundred and fifty thousand, three hundred and seventy thousand people left. Those left who need to go into business at home. They went to Berlin, they went to London, they went to Vienna and they went to America. They went to market economies, so they don’t have a problem with the fact that a market economy has existed here for 24 years, but that it works badly. That’s the problem. But it shouldn’t be this way. But in Hungary today they are dumbing down the primary schools, they are dumbing down the technical educational system, and they are diverting from higher education the children of the middle classes and pushing them in the direction of a dumbed-down technical training, instead of increasing the number of those participating in higher education and increasing the quality of technical education.
What am I to do with right-wing Fidesz and Christian Democratic members of parliament who tell me over the course of a parliamentary debate that I shouldn’t talk because all a car mechanic needs is a wrench and a hammer in his hand? In vain do I tell them that today there is no longer socialism, that we are not repairing Wartburgs, Dacias or Trabants but Audis and Mercedes, who, moreover, have factories in Hungary. The representative should go and see for himself the work culture that exists in those factories. What kind of informatics and foreign language knowledge a mechanic requires. When he opens the hood of an Audi, he cannot even begin to repair it without training in informatics.
The world is changing. Our children need other skills. And yet they are deleting language classes from the system of technical training. There is no training in programming. There isn’t enough time for this as the number of general education classes has been decreased to one third. There is no time for the children and the poorest children go into technical training, not those born in middle- or upper-middle-class families.
Even after eight years of primary education these children need the general education classes: history, literature, language, math, rhetoric, spelling, because their basic competencies still need to be developed. But today the problem is fundamentally with the primary schools. And if we do not address the roots of the problem, then we are not going to make any progress. And I could only trust that the government will accept my proposal, our proposal that the lower school which is presently four years in Hungary, where from the age of seven the children learn to write, read, do math, that this be extended by another year in order for teachers, parents and students to have enough time to master basic competencies. What they do not learn in lower school cannot be learned remedially in technical school, and especially not in higher education.
So the educational system, industry, economy and existence of a democratic society, an attitude propitious to democracy, differential thinking, forward thinking and preventing xenophobia, for example, all of this is formed in the time spent in school.
The government deliberately addressed the question of immigration in a very bad way. Today everyone should see that the governing parties, Fidesz and the Christian Democrats, are not interested in handling the situation properly and well. In fact, I maintain they are not interested in finding a collective European Union solution. The reason for this is that short-sightedness of the person of the Prime Minister and his group, who as “politicians of the minute” are only interested in arresting their parties’ loss of popularity.
In a historical situation, when not since the Second World War have there been so many crisis areas and war in the Middle-East and elsewhere from which war refugees are fleeing in the thousands and millions, new challenges are presented not only to Hungary but the entire old continent of Europe. And yet the Hungarian Prime Minister and the Hungarian government practically obstruct matters by building a wall and terminating the Dublin agreement just like that, and by launching a billboard campaign in Hungary inciting hatred of foreigners, all for domestic political reasons.
In vain does the Italian Prime Minister or other heads of state say “don’t do this Hungarians, we will help you, we will give you whatever money you need, don’t foul the table from which you also get your bread.” The Italian Prime Minister also said “nobody has received more refugees from the sea than I have, but it is not possible to build a new iron curtain in Europe.” Because who builds walls today and wants to handle the situation in this way will find that it is very lonely in there. In reality, the walls are in our heads.
Unfortunately, the Hungarian Prime Minister plays on this very well, even as we tell him again and again that it is necessary to strengthen the Hungarian refugee system. It is necessary to speed up processing requests for asylum, and for this new employees need to be added to the system. Unfortunately, weeks passed until we reached this point. We see that the migrants have appeared in Budapest. They are at the Budapest train stations in very bad shape, and if civil society did not stand its ground the situation in Budapest would have exploded long ago. But fortunately they could handle the situation.
Months passed before the city realized that it was necessary to provide water and basic hygienic products to those who are spending three or four days in the capital city while their applications are being processed. One of the basic problems I feel is that the government is mixing up expressions. It is deliberately confusing immigrants with refugees. It is not by chance that European politicians are talking about war refugees. That is what we are dealing with. But the Hungarian government created a new expression with immigrants, the “illegal immigrant”, which the law does not even recognize. The law talks about illegal migrants whose status has been determined by a multi-round process of determining, regardless of which EU member state they first enter, whether they are war refugees, immigrants, or who exactly we are dealing with. But since it is not the goal of our government for these matters to be clarified and clearly determined, but rather to enflame the crisis in order to, building on people’s fears and aroused xenophobia, demonstrate the need to build a wall as well as the need for their existence in such situations, and to show that the government is competent. This is why they deliberately mixed up the expressions. Meanwhile, 80% of immigrants are Hungarians from the near abroad.
The reason I thought it necessary to visit Hungary’s “best” refugee camp, and strongly put “best” in quotes, because our most cultured camp is in Vámosszabadi, although by now there are already twice as many refugees as there is capacity, is because the government did not allow the press in. Independent press are being kept away from these institutions and prevented from entering and seeing what is happening there. I considered this wrong given that the camps are being maintained using our tax forints. Hungarian people have the right to see who the refugees actually are, what they are doing, and how the Hungarians helping them there are getting along.
If the government would not build walls or billboards that incite hatred, and if it did not spend its money on government advertisements but on the public employees in the Hungarian refugee system, their numbers would increase. And if they would ensure humane conditions for these unfortunate people, who are fleeing war and crisis zones, then things would be different today. And the domestic political situation would not be such that you can bite the hatred in Hungary today.
It is a natural thing that the people of western civilization, the peoples of Europe, fear the unknown. Among the refugees are people who belong to another civilization. If there existed a common refugee system in the European Union, then short-sighted “minute politicians” could not incite hatred for domestic purposes like the current Hungarian Prime Minister. It’s a fact that many European countries rejected the obligatory quota, including Hungary. But every country volunteered to take in a certain number of refugees in an effort to find a common solution. Only Hungary did not.
After the Second World War the peoples and states of Europe came together by giving up a part of their sovereignty. In this manner we became strong economically, and our democracies became strong, and we could maintain peace and prosperity. Let us not view this challenge as a threat, but as a new opportunity that will also bring about changes in ourselves. It will involve the European people and ourselves stepping out of our comfort zone. But change always starts where we leave the comfort zone. I am happy to see that Austrians, Germans and Swedes are preparing their educational system and employment authorities for the new situation. Only solidarity and commonsense will help Europe in this situation, as in so many other things.