In the late 1970s then Communist Hungary introduced a series of reforms that became known as Goulash Socialism. This made the country the envy of other Warsaw Pact nations and in turn its healthy economy made it the West’s favourite Communist nation.
Since then Communism has collapsed and in 1990 Hungary held its first free elections. Fidesz, the current right wing party of government under Viktor Orbán, came to power in 1998. However it was ousted in 2002 by an alliance of socialists and Free Democrats. Whilst that coalition took Hungary into the EU and won the 2006 general election, the first time a government had been re-elected since democracy was restored, it proved to be a disaster for socialism and Hungary, which still reverberates to this day.
In 2004 millionaire businessman Ferenc Gyurcsány became socialist prime minister and surrounded himself in government with other millionaires. Despite the worsening economic situation he managed to win the April 2006 election then in September of that year the political shit hit the fan. A national radio station broadcast a tape of Gyurcsány telling his ministers that harsh economic measures were necessary “because we fucked up” then going on to admit “we lied in the morning, we lied in the evening.” The socialists clung on to power to 2010 but were a spent force.
There is no easy way to put this. MSZP, which had grown out of the reform Communists, had become a party of ministers and officials in fast, luxury cars who had lost touch with its socialist roots. It became as unelectable in Hungary as Labour did in the UK when Thatcherism tore the country apart and the respective nations needed socialist saviours. Hungary did have its “Blair” figure but that was populist Orbán.
Today socialist party activists under new leader Attila Mesterhazy are working tirelessly to re-establish MSZP’s credibility. Centre stage too is Zita Gurmai, a Euro MP who is also President of PES Women, who has her feet firmly on Hungarian soil speaking with fervour for the people she represents. Likewise Nándor Gúr, of whom I shall talk shortly. None-the-less once political trust is lost it is hard to get back.
The tragedy for Hungary is that it allowed Orbán and Fidesz to once again take centre stage vowing to wipe socialists off the map with its conservative Christian agenda. It talks of national unity but pursues division and intolerance. Freedom of the press and human rights are under attack.
Hence we arrive at the Hunger March. It was in February of last year that 40 people marched in the freezing cold from Borsod, one of Hungary’s poorest regions, 200 kms to Budapest. Their aim to bring the plight of their homeland to the attention of an indifferent government.
The “Work, Bread” March was not organised by the MSZP although the socialists endorsed it. Rather it was started by Imre Tóth, a 44-year old jobless steel worker upset over the suicide of a friend who ended his life because of his dire economic plight. Around 40 kilometres in to the march near the town of Bukkabrany Tóth stated: “This hunger march signals that we are close to dying of hunger and our livelihood is barely secured.” He then added: “It was the inflexibility and inhumanity of this country’s government which moved us to launch our protest.”
The march continued with socialists, activists and local people who walked the 25 kilometres a day in temperatures of around minus 10 centigrade, snowdrifts and biting wind alongside Tóth’s protestors.
When they reached the town of Mezökövesd they were met by the Fidesz mayor and he predecessor MP András Tállai, who is also an interior ministry minister. According to press reports they told the marchers walking under the slogan “Work, Bread” they could have bread and hot tea. They were then told if they wanted to work they could clear the snow. The marchers had been forewarned by socialists and shovelled the snow till midnight. Some of them did this officially as part of the government’s public works programme: others who were barred from such work or didn’t want to give their identity shovelled for free. Next morning 30 jobless people turned up at the mayor’s office demanding the same jobs as the marchers. There were none, it had all been a PR ploy that had gone badly wrong for Fidesz.
Eventually after covering 200 kilometres the march arrived at the parliament in Budapest. Inside MSZP MP, Nándor Gúr, who leads his own Work, Bread, Decent Salary campaign, placed Ft 47,000 in front of the State Secretary Zoltán Cséfalvay. The Economy minister, György Matolcsy had previously stated that a person could live off that amount. Forint 47,000 is around 155 euros or 134 pounds sterling which is paid monthly. Of course one person does not have to live off that: more often than not it is an entire family!
Over the past year the situation in Hungary has gone from bad to worse so in February another march set off from the village of Sellye again the destination was Budapest for the start of parliament’s spring session on February 11. MSZP continues to support the campaign and is calling for a rise in public workers’ wages from Ft 47,000, fairer taxation and a reversal of the labour code and welfare-related changes introduced over the past two years.
Of the first march Socialist MP Istvan Nyako said “Nothing has changed, the requests were met with cynicism and arrogance. We must go again, from different places, so that members of the government can see that 47,000 forints is not enough to live on.”
Hungarians are a proud people: few would wish for a return of Soviet dominance. However it is claimed there are three million starving people plus 700,000 children without sufficient food in Hungary’s impoverished regions. They are demanding the dignity of work, bread and a decent salary. Given them that and then they would happily supp a bowl of nourishing, hot goulash.
(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on March 21 2013).