After a couple of withdrawals by candidates from the Budapest mayoral election this Sunday, the conservative Lajos Bokros is suddenly the great hope of the left parties. We asked the former minister of finance about this paradoxical situation and his strong will to oppose the Orbán system in the capital.
What is your party actually like?
The Modern Magyarország Mozgalom (Movement for a Modern Hungary, MOMA) was founded half a year ago. We define it as a middle-right party, which is conservative, free and loyal to Europe and to the nation. This is the exact definition of a party in the Western European set of norms. This is very important because in the Hungarian politics the terms “left“ and “right“ have a completely different meaning than in Germany or Great Britain. I have been sitting in the fraction of European Conservatives and Reformists in the European Parliament for five years, along with the British Conservative Party. According to the traditions of this party and the Christian Democratic Union, we define ourselves as a conservative party, which means in terms of economy that we are unconditional supporters of the market economy, the free competition, the freedom of entrepreneurs and free trade. We welcome foreign investors and we do not think that the state needs to create workplaces. We also do not believe that the state is responsible for funding the welfare; instead we say that the individual common trade activity of the free citizens is the basis for the economic development and democracy. This is in strict contradiction with all the ideas of Fidesz, who are representing the illiberal democracy. From the point of view of the Western civilisation this state and economy model is clearly a dead end.
Fidesz thinks the same about the liberal model…
Although the Hungarians are a nation who loves freedom, the government interprets freedom in a collectivist, nationalist and popular way. We on the other hand believe that the freedom of individuals is important, together with the individuals’ responsibility. We do say that there is no democracy without liberalism.
You rather stand for the conservative and liberal values, yet right now you seem to represent the last hope of the left wing in Budapest.
Yes, this is a paradox. However, I remember that in Germany the CDU/CSU and SPD formed a common government, so the left and the middle-right wing built up a common coalition. You cannot call it scarce or unusual in Hungary when the middle right in the Western European sense of the word, what we are, and the left wing in the Western European sense of the word, which means a couple of Hungarian parties, work together for the goal that the restoration of democracy gets the highest priority in Hungary. In addition, in Germany no one questions the rule of the law and constitution. No one questions the democracy; no one questions the sovereignty of the municipal governments. In Germany no one speaks of an “illiberal democracy”. In Germany no one is building up monopolies in order to suppress the free market and competition. In Germany the foreign capital is not tracked. In Germany they do not want to hold the banks accountable, at least from the side of the government. There are some extreme parties which are sounding such tones. In Hungary though, this Russian type of authoritarian leadership is the governing power. For that reason we need a broad coalition of the democratic forces, no matter if their viewpoints are rather left or right in specific issues of professional policies.
So you assume that due to the current conditions the left-oriented people in Budapest are willing to vote for a conservative or, better said, a right-oriented candidate?
Absolutely. The most important task today is to restore the market economy based on free competition, the rule of law and constitution and the representative democracy. When this will be settled, the age of “boring politics“ will return in Hungary, when we can discuss about things like how much the minimal rent should be and what kind of pension system would we like to have.
Was the resignation of Falus, which made you the candidate for the leftists in Budapest, agreed with you beforehand?
Yes, we agreed on that when Viktor Szigetvári (of Együtt-PM) and Ferenc Gyurcsány (of Democratic Coalition) visited us at the meeting of the Modern Hungary Meeting in order to negotiate. They made it clear that they had the full consent and support of all the left parties, including the MSZP and the party group “Párbeszéd Magyarországért” (Dialogue for Hungary). On the next Monday we found out that MSZP was divided on this question, since the Budapest party council supported me but the national party council did not. Concerning the Együtt-PM formation I found out that I was only supporter by Együtt and not by Párbeszéd Magyarországért. So I cannot say that the whole left wing stood up to support me. I have to say thank you however that compared to the situation in the weeks before so many stepped forward and we could finally form a broad coalition of democrats.
There are some new risks as well. Many people associate your name with the Bokros package, and think of a neoliberal, heartless, hard politician, which could mean that they say: “rather not”. This is a double-edged sword.
That’s true but there are no black and white situations in politics. It’s clear that there are many left-oriented voters who think that capitalism, the free market economy and the competition is not good and similarly to Fidesz they want a sort of state socialism. However, this system has no chance to create welfare in the country. When we look closely at Fidesz, they behave like a neo-communist party. They hate the market, hate the competition and hate the foreign investors. They are practising an economic policy that makes the entrepreneurs and investors lose their trust in the system. They punish different sectors with plundering taxes. The model of this state-centred, based on monopoles, anti-competitive oligarchic order is a dead end in terms of development because it leads to isolation. It might work in Russia. Hungary on the other hand is a small economy without its own raw materials, importing energy sources and completely open, as a part of the European Union.
Please explain us a contradiction. On one side there are the Hungarians who are terrified of the Orbán system due to the reasons that you described. When it comes to opting out, then they get into conflicts among themselves andcommit the most serious conceptual mistakes. This was the case at the time of the elections this spring and now it is happening again. What are those destructive forces which are working in the background for the left parties especially?
You are asking me a very hard question, since I am not from the left wing and I do not have any insider information. I can’t look behind the scenes and see what kind of fights are going on there – between the four parties. I think the main reason is that Hungary did not develop a social democratic set of values in the Western European sense. I see an ideological wasteland here. The Orbán government functions basically as a neo-communist party. Therefore it is quite hard to position yourself left of them. This is how it happens that in the Hungarian Parliament there are basically only social parties. They are all more or less against capitalism, against the market and competition and believe in the almighty power of the state. There is only my party that is committed wholeheartedly to the Western European world view. Although we are not members of the Parliament.
The values that we represent are in reality not particularly popular, because many people believe that the political turn did not bring them improvement, or quite on the contrary it made them go bankrupt. They are longing for a paternalistic state of the late Kádár era. However, at the end of that era Hungary was heavily in debt and on the edge of national bankruptcy. The problem is not that we lost a million workplaces but that there were no million new workplaces created instead – ones that efficiently produce quality products for the global market. In order for that to happen an educational reform would be necessary, and a much better quality in education, free companies, which we do not have, because monopolies are being built. We would need much less redistribution of values by the state and to reduce corruption. There are many people who would like to have the same welfare here as in Germany but not the competitiveness, the pace of work and culture of work as in Germany. This is however an illusion, which is unfortunately encouraged in the people by the Hungarian socialist parties.
Why are you taking up the challenge to change all that? You could just quietly continue teaching in the country or even abroad right until the end of your career. Instead of that you expose yourself and you risk that you will be scorned verbally for your unpopular views.
… unfortunately not only verbally, sometimes also physically. The Orbán government made violence acceptable. The culture of the mob is the ruling power.
Why are you doing this?
I would not like to say big words… I would simply like to see my children and grandchildren grow up in a happy, liveable democracy with Western European culture. I will be turning 60 this year and I could take the pension in a short time, but I would still like to contribute to the rebuilding of the Hungarian democracy before I do.
So you do not think that there are any other people who would be able to fulfil this task?
No way. There are many of us, in the party as well. I just spoke to Erzsébet Pusztai, to the deputy president, who is fighting side by side with me. This will not be the fight of a lonely warrior; this is not about Don Quixote de la Mancha. Everyone must fight along for the sake of civility and reason. Whoever can manage to engage in political activities beside his daily job, whoever does not have to run for earning bread all the time, has a duty to give back to his home, to his nation what he has received. Even among the left-oriented people there are many sane-minded democrats, who want to rebuild their home country. And there are always more and more of us. More and more people realise what is going on. We are choosing now between democracy and dictatorship, West and East, the rule of law and constitution and the arbitrary ruling, and the free, self-developing competitive market economy and the state-centred monopolies and oligarchs. The choice we have to make is perfectly clear.
Nevertheless, most Hungarians support the current course of the country.
When we continue in this direction we will surely hit a dead end. You can already feel the gap widening between Hungary and not only Germany or Great Britain, but also the three other Visegrád countries or the Baltic countries. Twenty years ago, when we have been working on the stabilisation, which we did with success and beside the resetting of the balance we laid down the foundation for the long-term growth, it was a time when Hungary was solely left behind by the Czechs or Slovenia. Today we are lagging behind Slovakia, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and in next year even Lithuania. Hungary has become part of the Balkans from the point of view of the investors. Our country belongs in the same group as Romania, Serbia or Ukraine. This reflects in the risk premiums on the capital markets. Who would like to invest their capital here where there is no legal certainty?
You can even compare to Romania from first-hand experience.
Yes, I have been teaching in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca in Romanian) at the Babes-Bolyai University for ten years. I am there for every second month. When I was working for the World Bank I advised the Romanian government for years. I have a very good relationship with a large part of the Romanian elite, top managers and scientific superpowers. There are many more free discussions there in the television; the newspapers are much more readable. In Hungary there is no press freedom, there is no equal rights provided for the churches, the civil organisations are under attack, the municipal governments are weakened. In conclusion, this is about the choice between dictatorship and democracy in Hungary. I would not like my children and grandchildren to grow up in a land that will disappear from the map of history. Right now, when for the first time in 500 years there are no foreign oppressing troops in the country! We have received freedom from Mikhail Gorbachev. We are members of the European Union, which is the community of nations that are liberal and equal, and we are fighting a war of freedom against this Union – although we are constantly receiving huge sums of money from there. This is not only paradox, this is ridiculous!
On 12 October the voting will also be over the communal topics. What would you do differently than the current holder of the position, István Tarlós?
First of all I find it the most important matter that the capital preserves its assets by any means and does not let anything become centralised. Because without own assets it will have no own income, and without own income there will be no high-quality public services. The public transportation will not become any better if it will be transferred to the national government to direct. As we have already experienced in the case of schools and hospitals, centralisation only made the situation worse. When we develop something we have to make sure that it goes with good quality, cost efficient and without corruption. We do not need to repair each street each year, but when we do we need to ask a quality guarantee from the contractor that the road will serve the urban population for many years. Furthermore, in the case of every development we have to make sure that the costs of future operation will be covered. It is not enough to say that we will build a new Museum Quarter with the money from the decadent West. The question is whether we can maintain it. The maintenance is very important. In addition we have our own ideas for solving the housing shortage problem, the development of public transportation, the improvement of the health services, the preservation of the green surfaces – practically for all the areas which influence the everyday life of the citizens. In general the corruption should be fought against harder because today it is present in every level of the state, not only in the central government but also the local authorities.
In terms of corruption the era before 2010 was not too perfect either…
I have not said that it was better. That is partly the reason for the two-thirds majority of Orbán. We can see it quite clearly that the current dictatorial rule of command is not without any precedent. The restoration of democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition in order to eradicate corruption.
How has your Budapest campaign run so far?
I see it as an enrichment that I can meet with the Budapest citizens on a regular basis. This way I have the opportunity to speak to people directly and find out what matters to them. The majority of the feedback that I receive is absolutely positive. Of course there is always some dirty talk but less and less than in April. You can feel a clear change of mood in the population since then.
What do you think the reason for that is?
In the summer the term “illiberal democracy“ was spread. In my view the government head has done damage to himself with that. He has unmasked his government and pulled the earth from under the feet of some of his followers. Until now I have always heard in Brussels, where I was working as a representative of the European Parliament for five years, that Viktor Orbán is the greatest democrat and only the Western press wants to spread the image that he does not believe in liberal democracy. But now he said it himself and with that he revealed himself! He brought shame to all of those people who have been protecting him so far. From now on no one will protect him any more, everyone will think three times before they raise a finger for him. Because nobody knows what foolish things he will say in his next speech – simply because he thinks that he can do whatever he wants. Finally he has told what he really thinks.
Did the mood of the population change for the worse?
The citizens are mad that their tax money is used for financing party propaganda. Just take a look around the streets, what do you see among the political posters other than posters advertising parties? Where is the equality of chances here? The municipal elections might be free but they are not fair and clean for sure.
According to you this happens more and more often in Hungary!
We are hoping that there will be always a larger part of society which will understand that this system does not bring us material growth, no cultural development, no national reconciliation and in addition it is based upon lies. Democracy must be restored not only because we will feel better but also because democracy has a cultural value in itself. Just like the free expression of opinions, the free founding of churches, the freedom to congregate, the rule of law and constitution and the legal certainty. No company should be simply dispossessed in this country only because one or other oligarch cast his eye on it.
Are there any chances that you will reach a common approach with the Liberals or LMP too?
Probably not. They simply do not want that.
Are the differences between your program and theirs so decisive?
Not even that! There was a discussion between the candidates for the lord mayor position not long ago, at which beside György Magyar – the candidate of the Civilians, who has resigned for my benefit the same as Ferenc Falus – also Zoltán Bodnár, the candidate of the liberals, and Antal Csárdi, the LMP candidate, were participating. They could not answer the question what they would like to do differently, but at the same time they were convinced that they would like to continue the fight because they want to represent the only credible party.
Isn’t it crazy to take such a rigid position due to personal motivation with the social background that you have just described?
From my personal, very private point of view it is, without a doubt. As a party leader, however, I have to refrain from making such comments. We, the Movement for a Modern Hungary, are preparing not only for the elections; we would like to create a new political culture in Hungary. We will not take part in attacking the political opponents. For that reason, I will never express myself formally about anyone in a way that reminds me of the widespread mud fight which is going on in the current Hungarian political scene. I would only say one thing: I don’t say that I disagree with the assessment that you have just made here.