“Hungary must be returned to the path of Democracy . . . the highest level of responsible behavior is required on everybody’s part.”
The following interview with former secretary general of the Agricultural Association (1989-1993) and Democratic Coalition (DK) supporter, Huszein Tibor Nagy, appeared in the 6 October 2013 edition of the Népszabadság under the title “The Five Great Waves of Theft” (A lenyúlás öt nagy hulláma).
As is often the case with Hungarian politicians, Mr. Nagy’s memory is highly selective on the subject of what corruption took place on which party’s watch. For example, Mr. Nagy incorrectly recalls that most of the “shady” government initiated privatizations took place under the center-right government of József Antall (1990-1994). In fact, it was during the first Socialist government of Gyula Horn (1994-1998) that many state-owned companies were sold for substantially less than fair market value. In many cases the buyer purchased the company by merely assuming all or part of the company’s debt, easily repaid from the sale of company assets whose book value had been devalued by the high inflation of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Such companies were then resold to private investors at a substantial profit, much of which is alleged to have found its way into MSZP party coffers (and former MSZMP officials’ bank accounts).
One such company engaging in the purchase and sale of former state owned companies was Altus Kft. whose main shareholder, Ferenc Gyurcsany, is alleged to have used his in-laws’ MSZMP and MSZP political connections to become one of Hungary’s wealthiest individuals and its sixth post-Communist prime minister (1996-1999).
Corruption seems to reach new heights with each successive government and Gyurcsany’s administration was no exception (although the extent to which Gyurcsany himself may have been personally involved is not clear).
Mr. Nagy lives in the village of Balastya, a relatively affluent suburb of Szeged settled primarily by Communist party members in the 1970s and 80s. That an interview so critical of current MSZP leadership was published in the Népszabadság (whose owner, the Free Press Foundation, has close ties to MSZP) suggests that this is part of a carefully orchestrated national media campaign to introduce recently recruited DK supporters and candidates to voters. It also suggests that Mr. Nagy may be one of several individuals the opposition parties are considering to be their joint candidate for prime minister.
When we last met you said as one engaged in growing hot house flowers you didn’t miss politics. So it turns out you do miss it.
I don’t miss it at all. I’m returning to politics because I see that the country is going in a very bad direction. Such politics obtained a two-thirds majority in Hungary that wants the entire economy and society to conform to it. Fidesz’s politics are bolshevistic and hegemonic. Today we’re in an even worse state socially as well as economically than during the end of the Kadar era when my generation started to organize in the interest of bringing about systemic change. Hungary must be returned to the path of Democracy.
What do you believe is most indicative of the current government’s diversion from this path?
There are many things beginning with the theft of the private pension funds, the dismantling of the checks and balances, the severe limitations placed on the Constitutional Court and the Budgetary Council, the filling of important government posts with party loyalists, the gerrymandering of the electoral system, economic policies that are called unorthodox but are really just stupid and damaging, and corruption.
Corruption existed in the system from the beginning.
Over the past thirty years Hungary has experienced five large waves of theft. The first took place during the Nemeth government (1989-1990), the so-called spontaneous privatizations. The second took place under the Antall government in the form of privatization which did not yield the hoped for results in the private sector because much of it was not real privatization but theft. When the country ran out of assets, then began the budgetary theft followed by the embezzlement of European Union money—the last two continue today in parallel with one another.
What’s the fifth?
Re-nationalization, the preparation for which is underway in the form of rezsicsökkentés (government legislated reductions in the price of household utilities—ed.), the visible objective of which is to eliminate foreign ownership of public utility companies—but this has been drawn out over a long period of time. In the meantime these systems are breaking down because the current owners are already not spending any money on them. It’s not only possible to make a lot of corrupt money from the sale of something, but also when the State buys something back. What has been repurchased to date experts believe took place at well above the market price—those who decide these matters are either uninformed and stupid, in which case they must go, or corrupt, in which case they must go for that reason. In the prime minister’s own village his friend, the local mayor, set up a company just to be able to build an expensive and unnecessary football stadium with taxpayer money, because the money retained from supporting these kinds of things is also public money. We must put an end to this. We have to open peoples’ eyes to the fact that this is not compatible with the image of the “good king” that Viktor Orban wants to project.
Is this why you have agreed to play a role in the Democratic Coalition?
I do not consider myself a messiah, but more is at stake than a simple election. We must stop trends which, if allowed to continue for another four years, will bring catastrophe to the country. All of us must take steps to oppose this and I don’t expect others either to act in my place.
Why Democratic Coalition, Ferenc Gyurcsany’s side?
Because he is the one who before 2008, if timidly and with small steps, tried to initiate reforms. The referendums compelled by Fidesz in the interest of regaining power started to surreptitiously instill in society the very Kadar spirit which necessitated systemic change in the first place. They are promulgating to the people the lie that the State will provide everybody everything: housing, cheap loans, cheap gas–the good leader provides a good life to his people. This wasn’t difficult because it strongly lived on in people’s memory. The systemic change should have made everyone understand that there is no free lunch!
That sounds like Lajos Bokros talking.
Few are aware that I got a little involved in politics in 2010 before the election. I did it for Lajos Bokros who I’ve known for a long time from college. He is the expert who is able to say intelligently, respectfully, and objectively what needs to be done. This is difficult to explain to the people and they (MDF) didn’t get into parliament. I think a different kind of strong movement is needed now which is why I accepted Ferenc Gyurcsany’s call.
A lot of people consider Gyurcsany to be dead politically. Someone who loses more votes than he brings.
That’s what they want society to believe, and in this, in addition to Fidesz, the opposition parties also play a role. I can say the reason I chose Gyurcsany was because he is the one who best attacks Fidesz. How many times have they attacked (MSZP Chairman) Attila Mesterházy during the past half year? The reason they don’t is because for them he is a good opponent: the weak opponent. Gyurcsany has survived many attempts to assassinate his character. He was right in the matter of giving Hungarians living abroad the right to vote: Fidesz was only interested in increasing the number of votes it could get, fraudulently if necessary. He is also right in that only those should vote in Hungary whose fates are tied to the consequences of their actions. I support Gyurcsany because he offers the best arguments for why it is absolutely necessary to replace the Orbán government.
Gyurcsány can campaign but he cannot govern.
Don’t be so sure about that! Among his serious mistakes was that he did not use his power enough and allowed the party behind him to turn the cart in the wrong direction. The MSZP did not support him but rather acted as a brake on his efforts at political reform. They never forgave the fact that after Medgyessy the delegates from the countryside put him in the prime minister’s chair over the objections of the party apparatchiks. The Socialist party understands renewal in such a way that (former party treasurer) Laszlo Puch, (former Defense Minister) Imre Szekeres, and (former Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development) Ferenc Baja have yet to remove themselves, even though they were the ones who obstructed reform and may have played a role in corruption. Renewal should mean the weeding out of such individuals.
Isn’t it possible that the people you mention found themselves in the spotlight because they did not agree with the neoliberal policies of their coalition partner? Not just them but the MSZP populist, national left-wing from Ferenc Janosi to Jozsef Geczi to Szili Katalin in different ways were progressively sidelined.
Katalin Szili was sidelined because her own initiatives turned out to be stupid. I respect Geczi and Janosi, but it wasn’t Gyurcsany that pushed them aside.
Is the problem with Attila Mesterhazy that he is trying to practice left wing politics at the head of a left wing party?
What you are implying is not true, namely that neoliberal politics failed. There have never been real neoliberal economic policies in Hungary. I don’t believe that it is necessary to attack this government with a left-wing program because it employs many of the left-wing means of governance as its own, just calling it right-wing or nationalistic. In Hungary nothing is ever what it is called. There is no point in saying that the opposition wants to do the same as Fidesz, just a little differently. If Fidesz wants to decrease household utility bills 20 per cent and we know this is damaging and in the long run leads the country to ruin, then we must not say we want to decrease them 25 per cent. We shouldn’t try to lure supporters away from Fidesz but rather win those who don’t know who to vote for, or even whether they will bother to vote at all.
For this we need at least two things: a clear program understandable to the public and either an obvious leading personality or a joint candidate for prime minister.
In order to win the election the point isn’t for (voters) to choose a direction offered by one of the opposition parties, but rather for (voters) to decide that anything would be better than the Orban system. I don’t see very different and original programs being represented by Gordon Bajnai, Gabor Fodor or Andor Schmuck apart from the need to defeat Orban. If this is what they have in common then every vote is needed.
But the program question will eventually come up, if not sooner, then after the opposition wins the election. An anti-Fico coalition won in Slovakia but then fell apart within a short period of time due to differences in interests and values and an unsuitable prime minister. Have they thought of that?
Of course. Looming overhead is the question of what should be done about the Constitution, the cardinal laws, or the Fidesz party faithful cemented into place in government agencies for 9 years.
[DK member of Parliament] Ágnes Vadai stated on ATV that DK simply regards the Constitution as illegitimate.
She also knows that in Europe it is not entirely appropriate to use such means to modify the legal system. But it can happen in certain cases there remains no other option, which is why it is necessary to win with a large majority so that there is no need for this. Expert plans not yet public are being prepared to modify the legal system lawfully and appropriately. But this can only be actualized once the result of the election is known.
If not sooner, in the event the opposition wins it must answer the question who should be prime minister.
I believe this will be decided by the end of the campaign at the latest. The current situation is that the opposition powers are meeting separately, trying to appeal to certain sections of the electorate to which their allies cannot, trying to get stronger individually, so that before the final clash they can combine their resources. The decision as to the person of the opposition candidate for prime minister should be decided then.
Is it possible that with an effective campaign DK could sufficiently strengthen so that Ferenc Gyurcsany could also be considered?
Ferenc Gyurcsany said clearly that he has no intention whatsoever of becoming prime minister.
Knowing him, perhaps he didn’t mean that seriously.
Why do you think he would say something and not mean it? The stakes are much higher than this. But so as not to avoid the question, I don’t know who can be Orban’s challenger. I am not convinced that Attila Mesterházy will be. Nor am I convinced he won’t be. On 23 October of last year when Gordon Bajnai reappeared on the political scene this question seemed answered. If Bajnai remained in the position of rising above politics, then he had a chance of success. Except Bajnai broke the verbal agreement several days later when he pitilessly trampled Ferenc Gyurcsány. This step was neither tactical nor ethical as he was a minister in Gyurcsany’s administration and was Gyurcsany that recommended him for the position of prime minister.
The opposition parties have good memories of the Bajnai administration.
Bajnai’s situation resembles that of Miklos Nemeth in many respects who went from being an obscure party official to prime minister, but then succeeded in creating an independent power base. Because the MSZMP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party) no longer stood behind him they could not fundamentally influence his party politics. In this way it was possible for him as an expert in economics to appoint ministers who were technical experts, and in this way they were able to accomplish serious governance in a short period of time. Gordon Bajnai became prime minister during a similar situation, when for him the Socialist party had already lost power.
During a period of crisis he was able to govern because he did not have to worry about two things: what the party behind him thought, and what the consequences of his actions to his popularity would be in the long run. That is how he was able to be a “good prime minister.” It would have been possible to build on this foundation as the joint candidate for prime minister had everyone, including Attila Mesterhazy, got behind him.
But he wanted to impose this on Mesterhazy and the Socialists without having the necessary strength.
Perhaps Bajnai’s fate will continue to resemble that of Miklos Nemeth. When Nemeth wanted to return, the party no longer needed him. But even now I would not rule out that the unified opposition will get behind him. For my part, in light of what has happened, I think the best thing would be for the opposition powers to back a neutral, charismatic individual.
Do you know of one?
Not yet. Those who would be (suitable) are technically good but the one is not well enough known and is not very charismatic, the other is too well known and too charismatic. Regardless the situation is such that it is possible to put a suitable person out front—as they did with King Juan Carlos at the birth of Spanish democracy.
In 2002 it was a little bit like this with Peter Medgyessy who they pushed aside after discovering that he wanted to behave like a real definitive leader and, furthermore, one that took his campaign promises seriously. If I was such a neutral figure I would worry about how long they would need me.
The highest level of responsible behavior is required on everybody’s part.
How is it possible to avoid so many coalition partners divvying up the political spoils? After removing a Fidesz party general from his seat, who is to take his place?
Even worse, what if the newly victorious opponents come to like the anti-democratic government system created by Fidesz? It might turn out that it is not so bad to govern like that: one needn’t pay attention to this or that rule, and the system is such that nobody on the outside has any say on matters. I’m a little afraid for our side, that, seeing the legal difficulties, they might decide that we didn’t create this system but this is the system we’ve got and, unfortunately, we cannot change it.
What role do you envision for yourself in politics?
It doesn’t depend on me. I will work at the post where I am most needed. I wouldn’t rule out any responsibility, but would prefer to remain a technical expert.
Referenced in this article:
“A lenyúlás öt nagy hulláma”. Népszabadság Online. 6 October 2013.