New Statesman 17th October 2005
It’s a country where people say ‘Hullo’, when they mean ‘Goodbye’. Where first names come last and last names come first. Where the most un-socialist political party one could imagine goes calls itself ‘Socialist’ and where the case for public ownership and a national health service is put by the conservative opposition. Welcome to modern Hungary-and to a topsy-turvy political landscape straight out of a Savoy Opera. In the three years since it took office, the Socialist-led government of Ferenc Gyurcsany, has sold off 160 state owned enterprises, imposed VAT on medical prescriptions, abolished a tax on stock market profits and sent troops to Iraq in support of President Bush’s illegal invasion. Its future plans include cutting the top rate of income tax and extending privatisation into areas even the Iron Lady dared not go- the railways, the post office, and most controversially of all, health care. Gyurcsany, a former Communist Youth leader whose personal fortune of $17m derives from the first wave of privatisation in the early 1990s, has received enthusiastic backing from neo-liberal institutes, western business journals and U.S. government officials. ‘The immediate future seems to be in safe hands’ says the American Ambassador to Hungary, George Herbert Walker III, who incidentally, is also George W. Bush’s cousin. Meanwhile, the case against the Hungarian Socialist’s Thatcherite agenda, is being put by the country’s ‘right-wing’ opposition. ‘Fidesz’, the largest opposition party and the strong favourites to win next year’s elections, want to introduce a ‘National Assets contract’, requiring that the privatisation of certain public assets- which include Budapest Airport, the state railway, the post office, the intercity bus company and the Hungarian health service- would need a two-thirds majority in parliament. ‘The (current) privatisation law only needs a simple majority and it is about selling assets. The National Assets contract is about keeping those assets’ said Fidesz spokesperson Eszter Pataki. Fidesz has not ruled out renationalising Budapest Airport, if the government goes ahead with its plans to sell it in spite of a Constitutional Court ruling - and there is a precedent for their action- the party repurchased the M1 motorway when last in government. Fidesz’s dislike of privatisation is shared by the smaller Munkaspart (Hungarian Workers Party), a remnant of the former communist party which governed Hungary for over forty years. Co-operation between the staunchly anti-communist Fidesz and the Marxist Workers Party would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Yet co-operate is what the two parties did last year, in their successful campaign to force a national referendum on the government’s plans to privatise health care. Fidesz’s leader, Viktor Orban, once referred to the Hungarians who had grown up under communism as ‘the lost generation’. But faced with the impact of the neo-liberal ‘reform’ process, which has reduced 4 million Hungarians (40% of the population) to poverty, Orban now concedes that for the majority of Hungarians, life is much harder today than it ever was in the days of Kadar’s goulash communism. What the current political debate in Hungary demonstrates, is that the real divide of our time, is not between ‘left’ and ‘right’, but those who support the neo-liberal agenda- of privatisation, tax cuts for the wealthy and running the economy for the benefit of Western multinationals and those who don’t. If Lady Thatcher were Hungarian, there can be little doubt that she would vote for the incumbent government. But for all those who consider themselves to be socialists, the likely demise of the Hungarian Socialist Party- and its replacement by the ‘right-wing’ opposition can only be a cause of celebration. Whatever would Gilbert and Sullivan have made of that?
Copyright N.Clark/New Statesman 2005