President János Áder takes heat from Hungarian high school students

If students at Budapest’s Ágoston Trefort Secondary School are representative of a new, young generation of educated Hungarians, then that would be very positive news indeed for the future of Hungary. We know, of course, that Trefort is an elite secondary school–almost exclusively for students seeking to attend university. President János Áder visited Trefort to give a talk about environmental issues and sustainability. Instead, dozens of bright students peppered him with sharp, prodding questions on why he signed the highly problematic law against Central European University and about the politics of the Fidesz regime, of which he is a pillar.

One student asked President Áder about “the Hungarian government’s violations of the law,” in reference to the skinhead thugs who in 2016 physically blocked the opposition from submitting a proposed referendum question against Sunday store closures–a highly unpopular piece of legislation that Fidesz ultimately withdrew. It has been widely reported that the thugs who prevented a Socialist MP from exercising his right to enter a government building are likely connected to Fidesz party vice president Gábor Kubatov. The same student who inquired about the regime’s illegal activities also asked Mr. Áder why overtly sexist remarks can be made in parliament without any consequence. The student was likely referring to recent sexist comments from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who flippantly noted that he was not going to answer questions on the removal of Hungary’s female ambassador to Washington, because these were just “women’s issues,” which are of no concern to him.

Mr. Áder did not answer this question directly, ostensibly because he was waiting to hear all questions, before beginning to provide responses. But when another student asked if Mr. Áder repeatedly claims to be the president of all Hungarians, then why he failed to take into consideration the opinions of 70,000 people who marched in Budapest against the anti-CEU law, the president offered an immediate response:

“Let’s not think that just because there were 70,000 people on the street, that this was representative of the opinion of all Hungarians.”

János Áder answering questions at Trefort. Photo: MTI.

Another student asked Mr. Áder about whether CEU actually “causes any harm to Hungary,” and if it does not, then what is the logic behind the new law. Yet another student reminded Mr. Áder that there is no way that the bill presented to parliament was properly prepared and vetted, so for this reason alone, the president should have at least sent it back to the legislature for further consideration.

In his answer, Mr. Áder claimed that he faced a choice: did he want to be popular or principled? He believes that by signing the deeply problematic legislation, he was being principled. Few people of any political conviction would accept this explanation. President Áder was not being principled, he was simply being totally servile to the regime, the party and the prime minister that he serves, with total disregard for Hungary.

Mr. Áder then added that the change in regime in 1989 meant that people could ask any question and that politicians “could be made to sweat,” which undoubtedly happened to Mr. Áder at that Budapest high school. But the president added that he felt some of the attacks, especially those involving his daughter, crossed a line. According to Mr. Áder, his daughter was told that she would “soon have to dress in black” because of her father.

A student also pointed out to Mr. Áder that CEU would not be able to open up a brand new campus in New York state within the next six months, which is what is stipulated in the legislation, if it is to continue granting accredited diplomas in Hungary. Mr. Áder suggested that CEU may not have to open a new campus, they might be able to simply come to an agreement with an existing university in New York.

Some students also asked hinted at the hypocrisy of President Áder lecturing on environmental issues when the government has a terrible track record on this front. Doesn’t the production and transportation of absurd “Let’s stop Brussels” billboards have a carbon footprint and can’t we produce “let’s stop global warming” billboards instead?–asked one student. Mr. Áder agreed that this had a carbon foot print, but then added that “there are other considerations too.” Another student asked about why the government is so opposed to wind energy. Here, Mr. Áder noted that on this issue he has a disagreement with the government.

The topic of the government’s increasingly intense euroscepticism also came up. A student asked to what degree this impacted President Áder’s work. The president offered a two word response: “not much.”

It is important to note that both the teachers and some 170 students of the Trefort school had signed a written protest letter against the CEU bill. The school’s teachers and students also spoke in defence of academic freedom.

The events of the past several days–the protests spearheaded by young Hungarians and the results of Budapest by-elections–and now the tone in today’s forum signals that Fidesz is rapidly losing the youth vote. This is significant, because up until recently, the Hungarian right (both Fidesz and Jobbik) was very dominant on campuses, among youth organizations and in terms of voting intentions. Something has changed. Fidesz is losing its foothold among younger Hungarians and it now appears that it will base its 2018 electoral plans on appealing to its committed base and to pensioners, with the prospect of a significant one time bonus payment to retirees coming at the end of the year.

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