Friday, March 07, 2008
We're less than 48 hours away from Hungary's crucial referendum on whether to scrap the doctor and hospital visit fees and tuition fees introduced by the hated Gyurcsany goverment. Here's my piece from the Morning Star on the wider importance of Sunday's vote.
While much media attention in recent weeks has been focused on Serbia in the light of the illegal US-sponsored breakaway of the province of Kosovo, things are hotting up in Serbia’s northern neighbour Hungary too.
Public dissatisfaction with the neoliberal, pro-big business government of Ferenc Gyurcsany (above, with buddy George W. Bush) has reached an all-time high.
Gyurcsany’s ruling Socialist Party (MSZP) has slumped to just 13% in the polls, support for its fanatically pro-capitalist coalition allies, the Free Democrats (SZDSZ) is just 3%. There have been widespread strikes and numerous public demonstrations. With millions of Hungarians struggling to make ends meet because of the government’s ‘reforms’, there is increasing public anger at the country’s corrupt and arrogant political elite: homes of the MPs who support health care privatisation have been attacked.
And on Sunday, there is a crucial referendum on whether to scrap the doctor and hospital visit fees and higher-education tuition fees introduced by the Gyurcsany government.
What is at stake in Sunday’s vote is not just the future of the Hungarian health service and preventing university education from once again becoming the preserve of children from wealthy families, as it was in the 1930s, but the ruling Socialist/Free Democrat coalition’s entire neoliberal ‘reform’ package. A ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum is being supported by a wide range of patriotic and progressive forces, including the main conservative opposition party, Fidesz, the Christian Democratic People's Party, (KDNP), the Hungarian Green Party and the Hungarian Communist Workers Party (Munkaspart).
Although he operates under a ‘Socialist’ banner, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, whose estimated personal fortune of $17m was made from controversial privatisation deals in the early 1990s, has adopted neoliberal policies so extreme that to call them Thatcherite would be an understatement. Even the Iron Lady did not seek to introduce compulsory private health insurance or charge people to visit their GP, as Gyurscany has done.
“Gyurcsany is our kind of socialist“ was the verdict of a US junk bond trader- in other words, Gyurcsany, an open admirer of Tony Blair, is no socialist at all. While even conservative opposition leader and staunch anti-communist Viktor Orban has conceded that for the majority of Hungarians life was easier under the benign 'goulash’ communist regime of Janos Kadar than it is today, Gyurcsany instead launched a hysterical attack on Kadar and Kadarism at a Socialist Party’s conference last year. The attack astonished delegates- if it was so obvious that the Kadar years were bad, why waste time attacking them?
By following a pro-big business agenda, one which has seen over 170 state enterprises sold off and a tax on stock market profits abolished, Gyurcsany has avoided the criticism from western leaders that his authoritarian rule might otherwise have received. When an alleged 108 anti-government protestors were arrested after the elections in Belarus in March 2006, there was loud condemnation from the US and EU. Yet that same year, when 145 protestors were still held being by the Hungarian authorities three weeks after anti-government demonstrations were violently dispersed by riot police, the US - and the EU- stayed silent.
Under Gyurcsany’s watch, a small proportion of Hungarians have got richer, but the vast majority of ordinary people have seen their living standards plummet.
In 2005, a UNICEF report highlighted Hungary as a particularly dramatic example of the worsening situation of children, with child poverty now over 20%. And in October, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that 200,000 people in Hungary, including 20,000 children, were under-fed. Around one in 10 Hungarians lives below the poverty line, with leading sociologist Zsuzsa Ferge warning a conference of the European and Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network that this year's planned price rises would push a further three million people into poverty.
The good news is that the Hungarian people are now fighting back.
They’ve been told constantly since the political changes of 1989 that good times were just around the corner. But apart from a short period at the turn of the Millenium, all they’ve had to endure is wave after wave of austerity. Hungary's GDP fell 20 per cent in the years after 1989, it was only in 2002 that output returned to its 1989 level.
According to the Gyurcsany government, there is no alternative to "economic reorganisation" of the health service and further cutbacks in state provision. The government propaganda leading up to Sunday’s referendum has been unrelenting: the health care and education reforms, will, the Hungarian people are repeatedly told, somehow ‘improve‘ the system.
But although there’s no money for the health care, education, or for Hungary’s seriously underfunded state railway, the Hungarian government is not always so miserly. Somehow it found £7.7m to buy new medium-range air-to-air missiles from the US arms manufacturer Raytheon. And the government also spent £34.5m for "training reforms" to "adapt" the armed forces to the demands of Nato and EU membership.
At the end of the day, Sunday’s vote is not just about Hungary, but about whether ordinary people and an alliance of principled conservatives, principled socialists, communists, greens and other progressives, can defeat the anti-democratic and increasingly tyrannical rule of money power.