Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Hungarian Revolt

This article of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free.

What a weekend for underdogs - and those who champion them! I refer not to the wonderful FA Cup giant-killing exploits of Barnsley, Portsmouth and Cardiff, but to equally stirring developments in European politics. In Spain, the progressive anti-war government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which pulled troops out of Iraq and refused to recognise the illegal US-sponsored breakaway province of Kosovo, has been re-elected. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP received a slap in the face in local elections.

And in Hungary, the ruling neoliberal coalition led by Ferenc Gyurcsany (above), the multimillionaire Tony Blair admirer, suffered a humiliating defeat in a national referendum.

The referendum asked the people's verdict on three key elements of the government's "reform" programme: the imposition of hospital and doctor's visit fees and the imposition of higher education tuition fees. The response could not have been more emphatic. With around 99% of votes counted, the results showed that 84.08% voted to scrap hospital visit fees, 82.42% to scrap doctor's visit fees and 82.22% to scrap tuition fees.

As much as the government tries to make light of this reverse, the vote threatens to derail the administration's entire "reform" programme.

Jubilant opposition leader Viktor Orbán warned the government that unless they repeal the controversial new law to introduce compulsory private health insurance, they would suffer another defeat in a second referendum in September.

Hungarians have been told repeatedly that there is no alternative to mass privatisation and cuts in health care, education and welfare provision. But more and more people are now waking up to the fact that far from being part of the solution, the neoliberal "reform" programme is an integral part of the problem.

Unemployment in Hungary has risen to 8.1% - the highest for 10 years. Poverty and malnutrition is on the increase: last autumn, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that 200,000 people in Hungary, including 20,000 children, were under-fed.

And as public anger with the country's corrupt ruling elite intensifies, a new and exciting political realignment is taking place.

Campaigning for a "yes" vote in yesterday's referendum were the leading conservative opposition party Fidesz, the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), the Green Party and the Communist Workers Party. Hungarian conservatives and progressives may still have their disagreements, but on the most important issues of the day - such as the need to protect state health care provision, halt the privatisation programme, and preserve Hungarian society from disintegration - they are singing from the same hymn sheet.

"Senkit nem hagyunk az út szélén" ("We don't leave anyone at the roadside") was the response of KDNP leader Zsolt Semjén to the referendum result: a noble sentiment that all true progressives would surely agree with. And for good measure Semjén also praised the "socialist-hearted" people who went out to vote "yes", and talked of a new "solidarity camp".

Contrast Semjen's rhetoric with that of János Kóka, the leader of the fanatically neoliberal Free Democrats (SZDSZ), the junior partner of the governing coalition. "I would like to reassure the international money and capital markets that the government upholds its commitment to reforms and a strict and tight budget," was Kóka's response to yesterday's vote: the suffering of the Hungarian people under the government's "reform" programme is clearly of less concern to him than buttering up foreign investors.

For far too long political parties which represent capital, like the "Free Democrats", have managed to get their way because anti-neoliberal conservatives and anti-neoliberal progressives have been reluctant to join forces. But when they do forget their past differences and collaborate in campaigns to protect state provision, the result is emphatic, as it was yesterday in Hungary.

The formation of conservative/leftist/green alliances to oppose neoliberal extremism and put the interests of people before global capital, is the most effective way that the anti-democratic rule of money power can be defeated.

Hungary shows us the way.

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