Hungary’s impoverished Roma to vote their pocketbooks on April 8th

April 4, 2018

_HDA9294
Photo: abcug.hu/András D. Hajdú

Translation of Eszter Neuberger’s  “Some turn out to vote for their sons, some for public work” appearing in abcug.hu.

Many of the poorest residents of Pásztó and Szirák in Nógrád county will soon go to vote because they feel the general election is their only opportunity to have a say in politics. Some are in despair over their children being forced to emigrate, and others fear for their only opportunity for employment: public work. But they agree that they have some kind of civic duty to vote this Sunday. In Szirák, they will have a public gathering in front of the general store in the center of the village to await the results of the election.

“Did you come for the trash?” asks a man leaning out of his car on the edge of Pásztó, upon seeing us picking up a governing party election flier from the side of the road.

When we tell him no, that we’re asking locals whether they will go to vote in the election, the man tells us his opinion.

“The idea that gypsies are easily led really isn’t right, we’re going to go and vote consciously for those responsible for us having regular, official work,” he explains as the passengers in his car nod in agreement. They are just getting back from work: all three of them work in a local lamp manufacturing plant. “90 percent of the workers there are Roma, which would have been unimaginable before,” he says, and then the crew drives on.

What do they think about democracy?

Pásztó is a small city of 17,000 in the eastern part of Nógrád county, at the foot of the Mátra hills. A mix of Roma and non-Roma live together on its southern edge, mostly low-income, poor locals, compared to the average population.

We came here because we were curious of how poorer residents who typically make their living from physical labor would engage with the parliamentary election – to what degree they feel they have a say in national politics.

“I will definitely go to vote. I went in 2014 and now I’ll be taking my whole family with me,” explains an elderly woman, Mrs. Péter Juhász, who lives on the other side of town but came here to visit her sibling. On her way she met with Katalin Tari who is walking beside her and nods in agreement with Mrs. Juhász’s answer.

Mrs. Juhász is retired and worked for 40 years in the Pásztó leather works. When she tells us this, she and Katalin break into laughter: Katalin works there now, but the company has transformed since then. Now it’s one of the largest state companies that employs people with reduced working capacities, and operates as the Pásztó site of the Kézmű Közhasznú Nonprofit Kft. It continues to produce leather products.

“This is the only way that we too can have a say in what is happening with the country,” Mrs. Juhász says, explaining why she considers participation in the election important. She adds, “But it would be nice to get this all behind us.” When asked what she means, she says she’s thinking of the campaign, especially the smear campaigns which, no matter which side it comes from, she doesn’t believe a word of.

There are those for whom local issues are more important

While the two women, Mrs. Péter Juhász and Katalin Tari, appear that they will probably decide based on their sympathy for the governing party and its candidate for prime minister, Angelusz Kolompár, who we met with a bit earlier, will probably vote based on local issues. He says he will definitely go to vote.

“I participated in the mayoral election as well, and then too I was thinking it would be good if they would get around to finally fixing the road on our street. If it gets wet then a sea of mud appears in its place that you’ve got to go through to get home,” he says, adding that maybe the representative in the national assembly also has some influence over this.

The unusually named Angelusz does public labor with many other locals in the town. They believe that without that work they wouldn’t be able to find employment elsewhere. Natasa Botos and her daughter Klaudia will cast their votes based on which candidate guarantees that there will continue to be public labor in the village.

“I don’t especially like the kind of work that we have to do, but if we have it…It’s better than if we’d only have half as much work instead,” says the 20-year-old Klaudia, who will now vote for the first time. She doesn’t have a profession, and she went straight to work after finishing eighth grade, but she says she’d have gladly become a waitress instead.

They vote in reaction to their grievances

While preparing our report, we met with two people in Pásztó who consider participation in the election important because certain changes have occurred in their own families in the past years which they attribute to the deterioration of living conditions and opportunities in Hungary.

Ani, 55, who works as a cleaner in a public institution, has a son who was forced to find work abroad – he travels Europe as a carpenter – so that he and his family wouldn’t have to go into debt for him to start his life. It angers Ani that her son had to go so far away from her because of the difficulties here at home, and she fears it’s only a matter of time before her daughter-in-law and grandchild follow him. That would mean he wouldn’t come home to visit as often as he does now: once every couple of weeks, or months.

“This is all because they don’t reward work with decent wages here. That’s why I feel I’ve got to go vote: I have to express that I don’t think this is right,” she says. Ani’s husband also works as a carpenter in Budapest, commuting every day between Pásztó and the capital. Ani shares her political opinions with him: at times like these, when elections are close, it often comes up, but only rarely in “peace time.”

A retired DJ and professional foster parents

In the past, the small city of Szirák, a picturesque Nógrád county settlement 23 kilometers away, belonged to Pásztó’s electoral district, but during the last elections it was attached to the Balassagyarmat district, which encompasses the county’s western section – we learn from an elderly man in the village, Imre Haluska.

The retired Szirák man “has been a lot of things,” but he is most proud of his time working next to György Komjáthy as a DJ on Petőfi Rádió’s “Only for Young People” program until its cancellation in 1993. He inherited his house close to the center of Szirák from his parents, and has lived a long time in the town.

“People who want to vote are dissatisfied, and so are those who don’t want to vote, but they don’t believe they can change anything,” the man puts it ironically, adding that he will certainly vote, but “whether I believe that my vote can change anything, let’s not dwell on that.”

A local Roma woman, Ildikó, calls Imre out to the street to chat. “Come and give your opinion, you’ve got one on everything!” the woman says teasingly, who herself very much likes to talk about public issues.

When we ask her where she stands on the upcoming election, she enthusiastically responds:

“It’s obvious that I’ll go, I’ve always voted. I’m usually the last one to vote – I go at the most exciting moment when the result is almost ready. Last time, at half past six when they already thought no one else would come, I showed up,” says Ildikó.

Vote tallying commissioner for four years

A whole army of children are buzzing around us: Ildikó and another local woman who is there at the moment are professional foster parents. They raise institutionalized children in their homes, something Ildikó has been doing for 14 years.

“The children come mostly from the eastern part of the country, and the parents stay in contact with most of them, often coming here to Szirák to meet with them,” she explains, adding that not many people would think of what strict criteria a person must meet to be a foster parent. “They are regularly inspecting whether the children are living in good conditions, and a psychologist observes them to see if we’re also treating them well spiritually.”

Standing next to Ildikó is her 26-year-old daughter Ludmilla, who the children are obviously very fond of. Ludmilla is Ildikó’s pride, not only because she graduated from high school, but she also finished family-care training and even worked for a time as a pedagogical assistant at the local primary school.

There is another thing Ludmilla and her mother are proud of: for the past four years, at every election – be it for national assembly, local council elections, or last year’s referendum – Ludmilla was asked to be the commissioner of vote tallying.

“This meant a lot to me, and I enjoy doing it. I recently signed my oath,” she explains, adding that through this she’s been able to see that people in Szirák are usually quite active in elections.

“It’s happened that a whole crowd gathered here in front of the store and waited for the results on the evening of the vote,” Ildikó adds.