Ferenc Gyurcsány focuses election campaign on populist themes

Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition party is contesting national elections on 8th April with a handful of populist themes that will likely mobilize his base and perhaps attract some traditional opposition voters disillusioned with the socialists. Based on a speech he gave on Saturday at a Budapest hotel, and on the narrative of his campaign to date, three of these themes are:

  1. The claim that every opposition party, except for DK, has colluded with the Orbán regime;
  2. The collaborationist Catholic Church in Hungary is rife with pedophile priests;
  3. Scores of Ukrainians are being allowed to claim lavish pensions in Hungary, while native Hungarians struggle economically in their own country.

On Saturday, speaking at a downtown Budapest hotel for approximately 35 minutes, Mr. Gyurcsány labelled the Orbán government as a “criminal alliance of rotten morals.” He added: “The government has made the country sick, it has crushed its sense of morality into dust, they see the honest person as a simpleton and theft as lawful, they wage war with Brussels and rub up against dictatorships…There exists no court that will be merciful to the Orbán government.”

Mr. Gyurcsány then added that there is but one party in Hungary (namely, his) that has never cut deals with Hungary’s criminal regime. He pointed the finger primarily at the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which is DK’s main rival on the opposition and the primary source of potential new voters. Mr. Gyurcsány noted that media organs close to the Socialist Party have accepted money from the Orbán regime. I assume that Mr. Gyurcsány was referring, at least in part, to Budapest’s Népszava daily, which caused controversy in December for publishing full-page anti-migrant and anti-Soros government advertising. In 2017, government ads in left-leaning Népszava comprised fully 56% of the publication’s ad revenue. This may seem very high, but it is worth remembering that a pro-Fidesz propaganda publication like the Magyar Idők daily gets 89% of its ad revenue from public, taxpayer funds.

“He who eats from Fidesz’s plate becomes synonymous with Fidesz,” charged Mr. Gyurcsány, adding: “One cannot accept something on the one hand, and then on the other hand warn them that things cannot continue as they are.”

Mr. Gyurcsány reminded his audience that DK is the only party to have announced a boycott against the Orbánite parliament, remarking: “a democrat cannot be the constructive opposition in the dictatorship’s parliament, as a dictatorship’s constructive opposition simply helps to build the dictatorship.”

On Saturday, Mr. Gyurcsány also singled out the Catholic Church of Hungary for special attention and criticism. No doubt he may have seen this as timely, given the recent attempt by a pro-government Christian group to hold a so-called “memorial mass” for Miklós Horthy on 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day, also the day that Auschwitz was liberated in 1945. It is often said that Auschwitz is the largest Hungarian cemetery in the world–some 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to the death camp.  There was another reason why the Catholic Church was recently in the news: a Catholic priest overtly instructed parishioners to vote for the government candidate in upcoming municipal elections, despite the fact that the opposition candidate is himself a practicing Catholic.

The Catholic Church in Hungary is not held in high regard among DK voters, nor is it among most traditional Socialist voters. As such, strong language against the Catholic Church in Hungary can appeal to these bases. First, Mr. Gyurcsány accused the Catholic Church of being in the service of the Orbán regime. Grosso modo, most regrettably this is not an inaccurate observation. Of course, there are exceptions, such as a well-read and thoughtful Catholic blog entitled SZEMlélek or Bishop Miklós Beer, who has spoken up against government-incited anti-migrant xenophobia. Yet the Church, as every other historic religious community, is beholden to the government and to a problematic system of state funding.

Mr. Gyurcsány remarked that parochial schools today receive three times more government support than public schools or those run by secular foundations. He also added that there are one hundred communities in Hungary that only offer a church-run school, rather than a public or secular option. If returned to power, a Gyurcsány-government would address this problem.

Then, referring to a report by the Vatican from the early years of this century, Mr. Gyurcsány said that 6% of Catholic priests are implicated in the molestation of children. I could not find such a report by the Vatican online, but the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse did note, in 2017, that 7% of Australian priests between 1950 and 2009 faced accusations of sexual abuse. Mr. Gyurcsány observed that there are 2,000 Catholic priests serving in Hungary and according to his estimation around 100 to 120 may be implicated in sexual abuse–this being based on the 6% figure that he initially quoted.

“What has the Catholic Church done? Nothing. In the past, only 5 or 6 cases of molestation came to light. This is the tip of the iceberg,” remarked Mr. Gyurcsány. If the DK were to form government, he promises to launch an independent national inquiry into sexual abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic priests. While there are, undoubtedly, Hungarians who were victims of abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy, the problem of silence and shame in Hungarian society, among victims, is much broader. Were the flood gates to open, the true scale of the tragedy would extend far beyond the Catholic Church.

A pillar of DK’s populist campaign has to do with the problem of Ukrainian citizens (many of whom are probably ethnic Hungarians) allegedly receiving lavish pensions in Hungary, despite never having worked or paid taxes in the country. According to DK, the Orbán government pays pensions to “thousands” of Ukrainian and Russian citizens who never contributed to the national pension fund. The party notes that there are several villages near the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, where over one hundred Ukrainian citizens are listed as residents. The DK’s slogan reads: “Hungarians should not pay for the pensions of Ukrainians!” One of the DK’s campaign ads depicts an infant called Bence, and the ad reads:

“He is Bence. If he works his whole life in Hungary, he will still not have a 300,000 forint pension, like the Ukrainians have!”

DK campaign material

The DK website explains:

“Orbán pays them 300,000 forints per month in pensions from our money, so that they may become Hungarian citizens and vote for Fidesz, in exchange for their pension…We do not work hard so that the Ukrainians get our tax forints and so that they might decide our homeland’s future in the election.”

This narrative is troubling for a few reasons. First, Mr. Gyurcsány’s party has very clearly borrowed a page from Viktor Orbán’s script, which reads: take an identifiable foreign demographic group and turn them into a menace, against which one may rally the nation–native Hungarians united against a foreign hoard. If you replace Ukrainian for the word “migrant,” DK’s language and messaging reflects that of Fidesz.

The second reason why this narrative is troubling is because it is somewhat misleading. An agreement from 1963, signed by the People’s Republic of Hungary and the USSR, allows for Ukrainians and Russians who voluntarily give up their Ukrainian or Russian pensions and claim to reside in Hungary to collect state assistance and benefits in Hungary, including pensions. This costs the Hungarian state around 13 billion forints per year. In order to collect a pension from Hungary, the individual must be registered as a resident–and for instance, in the border village of Kispalád, one hundred Ukrainians are registered as living in a 97 sq. metre house. Nobody has ever seen these Ukrainians.  This agreement, which survived the fall of the Soviet Union, is a problem–but it is one that previous governments, including that of Mr. Gyurcsány, have also failed to address.

Thus far, Mr. Gyurcsány’s campaign has been perhaps the most visible and energetic of any opposition party. The former prime minister also appears to believe that borrowing and then re-purposing populist language from Mr. Orbán is the way to draw in voters. Mr. Gyurcsány likely puts more effort into connecting with the average voter, including in small-town Hungary, than others in the opposition. But it would be more reassuring if this were not based on the “us” vs. “them” logic that underpins the very System of National Cooperation that Mr. Gyurcsány seeks to demolish.

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