Ferenc Gyurcsány’s infamous Őszöd Speech put an end to the careers and political aspirations of many left-wing local politicians. They weren’t the ones who lied, they were the ones who were lied to. Reports on the conditions of rural communities and proposals which could have prevented Fidesz from getting a two-thirds supermajority in parliament fell on deaf ears, says János Fetser, who served as the mayor of Orosháza between 1994-2006, and whose 25 percent lead vanished after the Őszöd Speech was made public.
The following interview appeared in the online version of Népszabadság on September 16, 2016 under the title “Fidesz should be chased away with a pitch fork, but Ferenc Gyurcsany makes this impossible: a disappointed MSZP politician on Öszöd.”
What was the mood like after the successful election on May 24th, 2006, during the first parliamentary group meeting in Balatonőszöd?
Everyone was swimming in joy because we had defeated Fidesz with an undisputed lead. We were full of ambitions and had plans for things we wanted to accomplish in our second parliamentary cycle.
Gyurcsány started to speak, and people became more shocked by the minute. Pál Vastagh sat next to me and he asked what is going on with this boy, he has never heard him speak like this. We were paralyzed because this was not why we campaigned. This was not why we went from street to street, ringing doorbells in villages.
We felt like we did it! And then came that terrible speech which, for all intents and purposes, practically executed us. For those with us that day, this meant the end of our political and professional careers.
Were you unaware of what the economic situation was really like?
No. And we also did not understand what good it could do [for Gyurcsány] to rub it into our faces in the manner he did. That we lied morning, day, and night. We did not want to lie and we did not lie. Later, during a parliamentary group meeting, I said that we did not even have this information. If you lied, then you lied to us, too! You should be ashamed of yourselves.
Many claimed that Péter Medgyessy’s 100-day program was unsustainable. Did your members of parliament not sense this?
Later, when this issue came up, I asked finance minister Csaba László why they said these expenses could be covered? Why did they say that if it was not true? He responded by asking me whether I would have dared challenge the prime minister.
That was also when Péter Medgyessy’s past as a state security agent was made public. If that would not have happened, would the situation have evolved differently?
We heard about [Medgyessy’s past] from inside circles during the 2002 campaign. When it was made public, it immediately destroyed Medgyessy’s popularity and reputation. Even SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats) started attacking him. The prime minister tried to compensate for these attacks by keeping his promises to the voters.
MSZP then made two terrible decisions.
Instead of choosing Péter Kiss, they chose Gyurcsány, and later nominated Katalin Szili to become president of republic.
Both were difficult decisions. Péter Kiss was a better worker, he was more balanced. But he was also much more difficult “to sell.” But things would have ended up differently if we would have chosen him. And Katalin Szili should not have been nominated because we knew that there are 4-6 people in MSZP who would have stopped at nothing to prevent her from becoming president. But allowing Gyurcsány into that position was a fatal decision. Two of my acquaintances, who had worked with Gyurcsány back in their days with KISZ (Hungarian Young Communist League), told me not to vote for him as he would ruin everything!
What was the problem with him?
He came forward with all kinds of visions, studies, and analyses that seemed to be logical. It all seemed very convincing, but when it came to discussing these, I realized there was no serious work behind them. And when he had to make decisions, it became clear that these things could not stand their ground in reality.
Was there no one who brought this to his attention?
For a time, there were those who did, but he had little patience for them. The 2006 national elections were not only won with Gyurcsány’s campaign, there was also serious work done by MSZP’s municipal groups who canvassed local areas. But we became a burden for Gyurcsány, and by his second term he wanted to push us out. For example, László Lengyel on numerous occasions said that the supply of politicians is secure because there are many talented mayors in the party. But Feri always pushed for us to adopt a new set of party bylaws that would make him an omnipotent entity in the party, like Viktor Orbán is in Fidesz, or as Gábor Vona in Jobbik. He preferred people bowing to him over well-intentioned criticism.
Were there any consequences of this from the perspective of the Őszödi Speech?
Yes. I have no doubt that Ferenc Gyurcsány released the Őszöd Speech to the public, and that he had no regrets that, following the October 2006 municipal elections, MSZP lost its rural cities. This way he could push MPs from these areas into the background–the same MPs who lost their mayoral races. I can back this up with facts. His confidantes had the text, he controlled the police and the National Security Services. I told him that if he can’t figure out who leaked the speech, then he is totally incompetent as a prime minister, party chairman, and leading politician.
Others now say that obstructionist members of MSZP sought to undermine a prime minister working towards modernization.
It really hurt me when he accused us of betraying him. In the autumn of 2008, during the crisis, we had an extraordinary meeting of the parliamentary group, where we clashed with each other from 5pm-10pm. Gyurcsány lashed out and said he has had it with these good for nothing mayors who are constantly only worried about their own cities. Earlier, we had told him countless times that they have no idea how poor people are in the countryside. That was when József Balogh, the very reputable mayor of Győr, stood up and said that this situation is no longer sustainable. There is no confidence in the prime minister, the country has lost its international reputation, the crisis is hanging around our necks, and simply generating ideas will get us nowhere. We are not satisfied with you, Feri, and we want to hold a vote of confidence.
Did the vote of confidence take place?
No, but the mood would have certainly resulted in us ousting him. While all this was happening, József Karsai started to shout something, but he became very ill and fell over. We had to call for an ambulance — two hours were lost with this. At around midnight Ildikó Lendvai went to Gyurcsány and told him to go in the conference room, beg for everyone’s pardon, and to say this would be continued later. That is how the vote of confidence was taken off the agenda.
Were the party’s leaders unaware of what was happening in the country?
In February 2008, just before the “social” referendum, the prime minister’s closest colleagues reassured him that the referendum would be unsuccessful and that he need not concern himself with it. I think the hospital visit fee and and hospital daily fee would have been accepted by the people, but not with 2-3 weeks left in the campaign and with pretty much only SZDSZ experts doing the campaigning. But they really had no idea what was going on in the world.
There were eastern connections back then, too. For example, we met with members of the Kazakhstani government and Kazakh businessmen in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I had dinner with them as a member of the Hungarian parliament. They told us how the American real estate crisis was causing them huge problems. One of them, who was involved in building apartment communities, said his project came to a halt because all of his foreign investors pulled out because of the crisis. We had no idea what they were talking about. Soon after, a presentation on the international economic situation was held for Hungarian MPs by economists from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the National Bank of Hungary, and the National Development Bank. They told us that we are looking at an economic crisis so great that nothing like it has been seen since 1929. We were just standing around, it had no impact on us.
So Fidesz’s two-thirds supermajority could have been prevented?
Yes. We had been conditioning Bajnai for years to take over as prime minister, but he was Gyurcsány’s confidant and was unwilling to challenge him for quite some time. I have a lot of respect for him for doing what he could in very difficult circumstances. There was a vote in the parliamentary group in 2008 to have the government resign and to call for an early election. Gyurcsány and Ildikó Lendvai always said there are a thousand reasons why that would not be a good idea, but they never gave a single reason. It never happened. On several occasions I felt as though there was some kind of deal in the background about very important things.
One of these problems was overly indebted municipalities led by primarily Fidesz; untold sums of party money had been syphoned from the municipalities. The Socialists’ parliament group proposed to the government that the State Financial Institution Oversight Agency perform an inquiry into this issue. But that never happened. There was even information of mayors’ brokers receiving payment for the sale of municipal bonds, but no one investigated this. Instead, certain Socialist-led cities started selling municipal bonds — all the while, this is how Fidesz laid the groundwork for its 2010 two-thirds supermajority. Later the state [under Fidesz-ed.) covered these debts when it bailed out the municipalities.
The other area where I think there may have been a secret agreement was the decision to leave Péter Polt in office. He did not stay on the job as chief prosecutor, but rumors were circulating that politically sensitive criminal cases were under his influence. Nothing ever came of holding the Fidesz government’s cadres to account for their crimes.
Is the left wing finished in the countryside? Or will the left be able to retake its former position?
The left has not been able to increase its supporters by even 5 percent since 2010, except now these votes are split between 5-6 parties. Gyurcsány once said at a forum that he bet his wife that MSZP would no longer exist by 2018. I think Gyurcsány and his plan to become the left’s one-man leader by 2022 will end up burying the left.
The other problem is that there are no politicians on the left like Gyula Horn, someone who was able to sense the mood of society and was capable of responding. With poverty and corruption like this, Fidesz needs to be driven out of Hungarian society with a pitchfork. Instead, when we are collecting signatures in Battonya, people ask why it is bad if they steal? Well, brother, because they are taking away what belongs to you!
When left-wing supporters hear things like this, they think they are incapable of coming to power and that we have lost the ability to reflect on our own actions. This is also why they are willing to look the other way when Fidesz unscrupulously abuses its power. And it is also why it is very difficult to defeat them through democratic means.