Zoltán Kész emerged out of nowhere to win a crucial by-election in Veszprém in February and smash the two-thirds majority enjoyed by the Fidesz-KDNP government since 2010. The Budapest Times spoke to him about his work in Parliament and his vision for national politics.
What is it like to be an MP nowadays?
It’s always an uplifting experience. On the other hand, the debate that I imagined as a part of representative democracy is less and less present in the Hungarian Parliament. Even though Fidesz has lost its two-thirds majority they still try to push a lot of things through simply by force. The positive aspect of my election is that there have been two-thirds laws that could not be pushed through. It’s quite clear that the government coalition is not used to making compromises. They are not seeking out dialogue with anyone. Another point, before my election the Constitution was changed eight times. Following my election there has not been even a single change. I think that this is a clear sign that it was worth the voters in Veszprém giving me their vote instead of a voting puppet. Sorry for the expression but I have to refer to the representatives of Fidesz as a puppet, since they behave exactly like one. Many times they even have no idea what we are voting about. They are ordered to press “Yes” or “No” and they do it.
How do they “push things through by force”?
Just as it sounds, that there is not even a conversation about other possible opinions. I also observed that when the opposition comes up with a logical, good idea, the government prefers to sweep it off the table and then bring back the whole issue two weeks later before Parliament as their own initiative.
Just as happened recently with the “National Minimum” to fight child poverty?
That was a joke. Or more like a catastrophe: the arguments brought up on the governmental side, especially by the Christian Democrats. They were the last ones I expected such a thing from. Now I am excited which type of National Minimum they would like to establish.
As an independent, what are your chances to effectively work against this voting machinery of the governmental coalition?
Not really against the machinery, but I think that the examples I have mentioned prove how important it was to break down Fidesz’s absolute two-thirds majority. So far the results of the by-elections in Veszprém and then in Tapolca are a really positive thing because Fidesz is missing only two votes for the super-majority.
Do you consider preventing this majority as your major task or are there any other things that you are fighting for?
Of course there are other things I would like to bring before Parliament. I have suggestions for amending law and my own law proposals. Right now the Committee of Experts is dealing with my proposal that would excuse deaf children from the obligatory foreign language exams. I have worked as a foreign language teacher for a long time and I have encountered such a case myself. I think this is a topic that can be supported independently of party membership. However, I am already excited about what will be the reasons Fidesz will use to sweep it off the table. There are also local topics of course for which I am fighting, such as building roads, railways and so on.
Who are your allies in Parliament?
In general I am on the side of the opposition, though I have less contact with Jobbik.
Is this a personal decision, or you simply do not want to collaborate with Jobbik? If it is your own intention, how in the long term can you ignore a party that continuously scores over 25% in opinion polls?
You see, when I was still campaigning, I always said I am independent, I am happy to accept support from parties – except for Jobbik. For me Jobbik is not the cream of the crop among the parties, especially their extreme, often openly negative attitude against minorities is ruling them out from the list of possible allies. We have observed that if we want to split Parliament into two support groups, we will see a left opposition facing a Fidesz-Jobbik support group. Many people consider it as the most serious danger that in 2018 a Fidesz-Jobbik government could take power. Let’s be honest, we often hear the same suggestions coming from both their corners. I also think that the idea of such a coalition is absolutely realistic.
How do you think the left opposition would be able to stand up against them?
This is a very good question. I don’t really like this bipolarity, I don’t consider myself as a left person fundamentally. If we absolutely want to make this split, then we can say that in Hungary there is currently a pro-Russian bloc, composed of Fidesz and Jobbik, and a European bloc, composed of all the others, independent of their view of the world. It does not matter if they are socialists, liberals or actual conservatives. Fidesz might say that they are conservative but in reality they are far from it. But how can we do something against this bloc in 2018? I think it will involve a lot of work and good co-ordination. I imagine a primary, which shows which candidate will be able to score the most votes at the actual election. I really believe in this very radical form of pre-elections. Let’s see what we really want. The main goal is to relieve the Fidesz government of power in 2018. When this happens, we can begin to think about all the other things. But this can be only achieved if all [left] parties take part in it.
Noble goals but aren’t these the same slogans we already heard in 2014?
This is why I would support a radical primary. What happened in 2014 was, some clever guys met in a closed room and decided together who should take which place on the list. They decided who should run in which electoral district in Budapest, so that winning the mandate would be as certain as possible. Under these circumstances the inhabitants of the districts did not have the slightest idea about who these candidates were, but for certain strategic expectations of the party they made this decision. This is an absolutely wrong way to handle things and it sends a wrong message to the voters, who ask themselves “Why this candidate?”, and rather skip the whole voting process. This resulted in a very low participation rate at the 2014 elections. And yes, we need people who are ready to work for their success and contact their voters in person.
We have 2.5 years until the next election. Have you already taken the first steps to realise your idea?
I would like to begin working with it in January or February next year.
Did you already select specific partners?
I think that the idea serves the interest of all the opposition parties, which do not want to contribute to strengthening the Fidesz-Jobbik bloc.
What is the chance that a time will come in Hungary again when we will be voting for something instead of against something?
I think that this is part of a long process. The first step in this direction is dissolving the Fidesz-KDNP government. After that we have to begin building up politics that rest on consensus, which I am certain is the wish of the majority of the citizens.
Is there currently anyone who would be able to lead such a broad opposition collaboration? Perhaps yourself? After all, following your success in Veszprém you are perceived as a kind of symbol of change.
I think that the election was a bit misunderstood. I am not a messiah, just a simple representative who won in Veszprém. However, I think that this country needs a leader who represents a whole different kind of politics than the current leader, someone like Árpád Göncz for example. Someone who is really supporting consensus, and we are still looking for someone, who can fill this role in a satisfying way. I am optimistic still, since we have two and a half years to find someone. Whoever this person will be, or whoever will build this society around him, we will be happy to tell him what led us to success in Veszprém. You can learn a lot from it. The type of directly representative democracy that I believe in is much more present in elections ever since. After winning I am still permanently on the road in my electoral district, just like before. I talk to people in rural regions, I organise open hours and discussion panels. Democracy can work that way too. Unfortunately I hear very often that people having difficulties tried to get in touch with their representative and many times only made it to the secretary.
Do you believe that there is someone in today’s political elite who would be the right leader personality? For example, Ferenc Gyurcsány?
No, not at the moment. When we are looking at the total voting population I don’t think that he would be the person who people would follow. I am not saying that he could not lead the parties but voters would probably not support him.
Which are the most important characteristics a candidate should have?
She should be a woman. It’s very important that Hungary is among the last countries in the world that does not have any woman in the government. If we look at Canada we can see that half of the Cabinet is composed of women. Prime Minister Trudeau has a simple explanation: “It’s the year 2015.” This is a fantastic approach. I believe that we will be able to find a lady as a leading figure to lead the country out of its misery. And then we will need even more women on the political scene in general.
Do you think that this would be possible? Hungary is considered very paternalistic.
A part of it surely is, yes. But to this I say: Yes, I believe it is possible. In Veszprém no one thought at the beginning that we would be able to make it. This is exactly why I think that having a woman as the political leader of Hungary would be possible. Maybe that would also change the way of thinking in the country as well. Feminine influence in politics would be urgently necessary. When we look at the past 100 years of Hungarian history, there were hardly any female politicians or even leading personalities.
Let’s talk about education policy. There is a recent plan that football will be taught twice a week. What is your opinion about that?
The planned classes are not obligatory, just facultative. And anyway the necessary conditions and human resources are both missing for this. This is not the place to introduce innovations; the existing system should be working well first. For example, money should not be stuck at KLIK [Klebersberg Institution Maintenance Centre], it should arrive where it’s needed. There are already many communities who have claimed back their schools from KLIK, since the institute is collecting more money from them than what is really needed for operating the schools. This is really a joke. But let’s just go back to the question of football education. We already see that daily physical education does not work. In my electoral district there are schools that do not have a sports hall. In those schools children are watching old Olympic Games during the sports class. As long as the weather is fine, the teacher can take children outside to the playground, but what about wintertime?
What do you think about the improvement of the school system in general?
There are countless challenges in this area. I see particularly a lot of problems with language education. Bilingual schools are closed one after the other. Changes in vocational education also make me worry that bilingual education has been completely made impossible there in the meantime.
What do you think is the reason behind this?
Bilingual schools are simply fantastic and they broaden the horizon of the students. Is it the interest of this government to educate smart and comprehending citizens, who on top of that also speak foreign languages?
Is the state interested in making people more stupid?
Yes. On the official side they are always talking about a Montage state [no own development, only final assembly, screwing the parts together]. There are so many bad changes in the education system, beginning with the compulsory evaluation of teachers by a professional board – where it’s not ensured at all that the ones judging are really professionally entitled to do so – up to the introduction of PÖCSe [self-evaluation groups within the collegiums]. I hear horror stories about how these evaluations are held.
You are spending a lot of time abroad. What is your experience of how Hungary is perceived?
I have countless contacts, ranging from the British Conservatives through German Liberals up to Australian Democrats. All of them are looking towards Hungary with expectations; they expect that something new will happen here. Fidesz and Jobbik are both supported by Russia. It almost seems like a new cold war is taking place in Hungary. On one side there are the pro-Russian, on the other one the pro-European parties. And yes, Hungary is observed with suspicious and worried eyes. I recently visited the Congress of Conservatives in Manchester, where I often heard: “What Orbán does has nothing to do with conservative politics, even if that is what he claims about himself.” Conservatives do not steal, they do not nationalise property, do not put their friends in good positions – and the list can be continued. It looks almost like Hungary is looking for a way out of the European Union.
Do you think there is a realistic chance for Hungary to exit the European Union?
No, the EPP [European People’s Party] is still the strongest faction and I think that it’s impossible they would ever accept this.
How would you consider your influence on everyday politics and the work of Parliament?
The fact that we could defeat Fidesz in Veszprém has still not lost its importance. I am frequently invited to give lectures and I often hear that it’s good to see a politician who has an optimistic attitude. I believe that if we are able to plant this way of thinking, namely optimism, in Hungarian political culture, then we have already done a lot. We should not be working on a project because it has to be done but because we believe in it. When I believe that in 2018 we could make a change, then I should climb very high on the ladder and do something for it. It only makes sense to work for something this way: when I believe in it.
How do the voters react to that?
In a very positive way. Even though the participation rate at elections has been very low, first you need to go to the people and answer their questions. I believe in direct democracy and in the primaries, since I can see there exactly what is important for the people. We noticed this during our campaign as well. What have we done? We have asked around what the people want. All other parties have just made promises to bring the stars from the sky. We were the first ones to ask for the needs of the voters.
And you want to share your recipe for success with other politicians?
Of course I do. I have already written a long article for Népszabadság about the “Veszprém model”.
How would you mobilise the people to take part at the elections again?
It’s important to offer alternatives. Veszprém and Tapolca are good examples for this. In Veszprém the winner is not the member of any party, in Tapolca it’s a member of a party that has never governed before. And yes, when you are able to find these alternative people, who are really strong personalities within their electoral district, then yes, it is possible.
Do you think that the time of the large, established parties is over?
When we consider what happened in Tapolca and Veszprém, then yes. Looking forward to 2018 I think that party membership will not be a deciding factor. It will be much more important that strong personalities need to run for the elections.
Do you believe that despite Hungary’s present toxic political climate such a change is still possible?
If I did not believe it was possible, I would not be working for it. I am convinced that the majority of citizens do not want politics led by pro-Russian Fidesz and Jobbik. They are rather oriented towards Europe.