Kunhalmi: now we are building a new, strong, game-changer vision

24.02.2015 | By Noémi Girst and Bartosz Światłowski

The etatist concept of Fidesz is the greatest danger. Everything came out of it. The government wrote a new constitution by itself, without any public debate. They’ve built up a new media regulation, that clearly implicitly and sometimes openly limits free speech and freedom of the press. They introduced a whole new regulation environment for corruption and transparency, so the new system masks the manipulations and highly questionable financial and economic decisions of the government, including public procurement issues.

You currently hold two positions. You are a MP of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the head of the MSZP Budapest Territorial Association. In addition, you are an education expert of MSZP.  How long have you been a MSZP member? What made you focus on education policy?

I’ve became a member of the MSZP in 2005. Nevertheless my attention to public policy, especially education was active for the past 17-18 years. I was born in a little town in southern Hungary. In elementary I wanted to become an actress, I was a usual recurring participant of county- and national level recitation championships. So I moved to Budapest at the age of 14, and I focused my efforts on my performance-skills in high school. In those years I became more and more interested on the ways the school was working and how it should be improved. My attention moved towards public debates on education, and then basically politics. So I chose to learn communication and political science after high school. During university years I started to work for the government in various positions for almost four years. I quitted my job at Prime Minister’s Office in 2006, the year I became member of the municipal government of II. district, Budapest. Retrospectively I think I always was looking for ways to affect people, to inspire them bringing change in their own life and to be a part of it. To develop tools and enthusiasm for change, especially in education. By the way my mother was a teacher for decades, and my father had his own ties to left-wing political thought, so I have my natural connections.

The notion of tuition fee in higher education is a constantly recurring issue, most of the time leading to heated debates and tensions. It is true for Hungary also, as we see the protests of 1995 („Bokros package”), 2007 (when PM Gyurcsány attempted to initiate it) and last but not least, 2012 (Széll Kálmán Plan 2.0 or the Orbán government). In your opinion what would be a fair proportion of sharing the burden among the entire society and the individuals? How do you think higher education can effectively and fairly be financed?

First of all, I don’t think there’s a one-and-only solution for higher education financials, that could be implemented in any country. We see a tremendous change in the field: what happened in the past 5 years around the online education, the rise of MOOCs and the apparent change of every age group’s education will transform our concepts of learning, schools and universities. A well-established national education policy must consider many issues before giving a green light for any kind of tuition. The population of the generations now and in the next decade, the quality of elementary and secondary school systems, the possible resources of economic growth of the nation, and numbers of poverty are all key issues to be weighted in our analysis. In Hungary we have a growing poverty problem, a deteriorating public schooling, despite the best chance for our country to build a sustainably growing society and economy is human resources. And we are still well under our educational targets of our Europe 2020 strategy objectives, what’s more we are actually getting further of them. So in the case of Hungary the most important task is to get as many people to universities as we can, and in parallel to improve lower levels of education, reduce early school leaving and inspire the whole system to get ready for information economy, for our current reality. Based on these in the case of Hungary I think the viable solution is to provide free higher education for the first one or two years for every student, and then to start to differentiate based on levels of performance, social background and the study area. The differentiation may bring in tuition elements, but the parameterization is a major issue here. Fundamentally I’m not against tuition as a policy tool, but for the reasons outlined I think it hurts Hungary today and limits our future. There’s many spending done by our current government that could be reduced or deleted to have the financial background of free first or first-two years.

The topic of strict student contracts that would prevent an individual from moving abroad once s/he studied in Hungary was a hotly debated topic two years ago. The narrative of the governing Fidesz-KDNP alliance behind was a reflection on the phenomenon that having graduated from state financed programs in Hungary without contributing to their costs of education, students seek for job opportunities abroad and in case of success they relocate. How do you think such a phenomenon should be handled?

People relocate for better chances to have a good, balanced life. The Fidesz-narrative is anachronistic. They speak like the knowledge that’s in the graduates head was a “government property” and moving abroad was some kind of stealing. They don’t consider the money, that these people send home to their families, but count in the same workers in employment statistics. What they do is not policymaking, but bookkeeping. Hungary could have a lot more job opportunity, if our country was more predictable and reliable. At first, Orban’s government could start with a tax policy that exists more than one year and one annual budget. I’m sure that many Hungarian expats would come home, if they could feel themselves and families more secure than they can know, even for lower wages that they earn know. The concept of a student contract expresses an overbearing governmental attitude, and that’s why it won’t work in the long run. It may help tuning statistics for a few years, but at the end the decision is on the possible quality of life in the country. So government shouldn’t focus on restricting the move of Hungarians, but to build a respectable, liveable environment with an efficient and smart governance, so people would like to come back, be innovative, find new ways to build there their own life and thereby the country.

As opposed to other universities in the Visegrad Group, the University of Szeged is ranked 551-600 (the best among the Hungarian universities – ELTE 601-650, Budapest Corvinus University 701) on the list of QS World University Rankings 2014/15. What is the pledge of the quality in higher education in East Central Europe? Why Hungarian schools underperform their counterparts in the region?

Mainly because insufficient funding, unpredictable environment, and deteriorating conditions. By decreasing quality of elementary and secondary schooling, and the globalization of higher education the Hungarian institutions have to manage more unprepared generations with lower funding in real terms. Meanwhile institutional structures are also quite inflexible. It’s hard to build an academic career, difficult to have a proper salary as a young academic, while the attraction for best brains from abroad is very strong. As a young professional it means a more comfortable and prosperous life to follow a career on a western university – or even in particular CEE-region countries – and avoid the obstacles of the Hungarian system. The factors of this course were with us in the past decades, and you’ve just highlighted the consequences.

In September 2014, one of the best Hungarian university, ELTE was hardly hit by a series of scandal. Based on the allegations the freshman camp organizers made participants sing songs about abuse and rape. On top of that, it was also revealed that one year earlier, a freshman was drugged and raped on the same camp. Not to mention the incident of sexual abusement in an other freshman camp that affected another Faculty. Such cases question the necessity of and raise the integrity of the university student councils along with a broader topic of women’s right and the gender issue. How would you comment on this?

These cases were horrible. They were clear violations of criminal code, and that’s how the given cases must be handled. Sadly, Hungarian public opinion is very retrograde on the gender issue. Our society lags behind in various value researches on this issue, and very few public leaders are on the right side here. The governing parties implicitly and openly undermine women in communication, tolerate verbal abuses against female opposition party members, MPs, and defend their misogynist members. They talk about gender equality as “liberal bullshit” and usually utilize and amplify the anti-woman delusions of our society. As a reaction for the unearthed cases now the cabinet plans to nationalize the organization of freshman camps. And this is where we get to the main problem: public opinion is getting more etatist day by day, and politicians strengthen this “omnipotent government” misconception. It’s huge mistake to think that teens do abuse each other because it’s not banned yet, and also is to see prohibition as a working solution. Lawmakers and basically everybody else should spread knowledge and culture of living together, respecting each other, as a society. Schools and parents are in the critical role. Our institutions for children must educate to respect diversity and equality, and we must start it now, today. Raising student council integrity is an issue, but I don’t think more red tape would help. I think policymakers should introduce more democracy, competition and transparency in the election of student councils, so they would pay more attention to their represented. As a first step it would be logical to introduce a mandatory online transparency system on financial and electoral information of university student councils, and lower the barriers participation. Along with remodelling the communication on equality and diversity in education, starting in infant’s school could really bring change. And of course public speakers have a great responsibility.

MSZP performed relatively weak in all the elections taking place in 2014, notably in the legislative, the European Parliament, and the local government elections. On top of that, the party is no longer the second largest party as Jobbik – representing the far right – emerged to take over this position. All attempts to unite the left, including the liberals have failed. Recent statements made by the newly elected chairman of MSZP, József Tóbiás, imply that MSZP would shift back to the one-party strategy dropping the idea of a long-term coalition of the Hungarian center-left. What kind of development should we expect on the Hungarian left?  Is MSZP going to abandon parliamentary cooperation in favor of cooperation with foreign leftist organizations, non-government organizations or the organizations defending human rights?

That’s seems a strongly reduced version of our strategy. The main objective is to develop and present a prosperous and credible vision for the future of Hungary. This roadmap has to answer how the next social democrat government will restart real growth instead of statistical manipulation, facilitate job creation, how we will bring a new set of chances and tools to the poorest half of our society, and how we will rebuild the various freedoms of Hungarian people. It also has to contain an authentic plan for reform our education and healthcare systems, and a sustainable vision for pension system. As we will provide this clear vision, backed by a credent roadmap and present the team that will execute this plan, MSZP will bring these topics to the political agenda and rise in polls. Last year’s elections lacked the debate about real issues. The left-wing added topics only about itself to public conversation: who will run for PM, what parties will join, districts, lists, running constructions. We almost only spoke about candidates an candidacy affairs, instead of the future, our policy and the people. The final list of local candidates in Spring were introduced after the candidacy process started! So the question is not really around who will join forces with who, but the cornerstones of the next government’s proposal and how this reflects to everyday life. My opinion is that in the process MSZP should be open-minded and receptive. Our natural allies certainly will help us, and through that help Hungary to form a new, inspiring vision for it’s future. We count on think-tanks, NGOs and intellectuals in the process, whether they are members of any left-wing parties in Hungary. I really think that the new generation of Hungarian politicians must exceed this pointless cold war and introduce a smart, authentic new politics to our society and to the world. By the way if you check actual polls, left-wing is still the second force in the country if you add up everybody, in some poll it even transcends Fidesz. I see this as a good chance for change.

Since 2010, political phenomenon in Hungary can be seen as extraordinary both in political terms (electoral advantage of one party) and in axiological terms (legal transformation called as a whole the „conservative revolution”). Which of these legal changes does the Hungarian Socialist Party find dangerous breaking with the democratic traditions and standards of the western world?

The etatist concept of Fidesz is the greatest danger. Everything came out of it. The government wrote a new constitution by itself, without any public debate (they put the final draft in pdf online for one or two weeks and that’s all!). This and laws around it introduced many changes. They’ve built up a new media regulation, that clearly implicitly and sometimes openly limits free speech and freedom of the press. They introduced a whole new regulation environment for corruption and transparency, so the new system masks the manipulations and highly questionable financial and economic decisions of the government, including public procurement issues. They restrict civil organizations, social movements, have given wider rights to restrict various freedoms of specified individuals and communities. They have completely rewritten the election laws, included gerrymandering and new procedural rules, so they could win a two-third majority again. For the sake of clarity: Fidesz got 800,000 votes less then in 2010, left-wing got 200,000 more, and their new system – which wasn’t discussed with anyone, included the redrawing of constituencies – still provided them a two-third majority. Along the open attacks of western democratic standards they try to shift away of western alliance. They usually coordinate in political issues with eastern countries that clearly violate human rights, freedoms, not to mention good governance code. They have a more-than-economic relationship with Russia, so Hungary appears worse day by day for the world. That’s why the left-wing has to provide a clear roadmap how our government will turn the tides. Otherwise this “de-liberalization”, as Orban called it once can be followed clearly in the reports of Freedom House and NGOs alike.

Fidesz was established as a party of authentic liberals devoted to the ideas of free market, limited state intervention and free competition. The party has gradually been directed to to the left (economically) after 2010, increasing state intervention. Does it mean that Fidesz skilfully used the typical leftist agenda, while remaining rightist national party in terms of values (political-ideological dimension). What do you identify as the main success factor of Fidesz?

2010 and 2014 are different stories, even if there are some similarities. 2010 was about punishing the left-wing for the stagnation and deteriorating living standards. The road from 2002 to 2010 had a lot problems and mistakes, but the most serious problem was the great financial crisis for the end of the decade. The social liberal coalition had a billowy economic policy years of increase in expenditures and at least three determinative austerity program. The start was literally weeks after the 2006 elections, than it held until the end of 2007. After it in 2008 as the crisis hit Hungary first and hardest in the continent, we had to implement another, harder program to keep the country up and running. Even PM Ferenc Gyurcsany had to step down, and the next government led by Gordon Bajnai was sort of a technocrat one. The point is, the whole course seemed very chaotic and unprofessional. 2010 was about picking the “guilty coalition” and punish them, and also replace them with a responsible, strong, capable government. Before 2010 there were no doubts that Fidesz was a competent and prepared party, with all their mistakes. That’s why they had more than 2,7 million votes in that time. They got their supporter base, and bulk of the protest votes, while MSZP was in quarantine. So the success factor was the belief that they have a plan for Hungary, they will be able to lead and manage, not arguing with each other, but advance. As it turned out, they used their two-third majority to rewrite the constitution and the most important laws to change the environment in favour of the Fidesz. As we’ve spoken about it, 2014 was sort of the same story, but in a very different environment. Fidesz lost about the third of their votes, but the new laws provided a clear win again, and cooperation of MSZP and the new left-wing parties wasn’t able to exceed. Of course it was also a problem, that the new election system – it was turned from a more proportional one into a majority rule scheme – squeezed out a cooperation of parties in the left, while two of these were founded very close to the MSZP, and that’s an understatement. So there were personal conflicts on the left, and no one was able to really cope with the challenge. So 2014 was about the new election laws and partly as a consequence the sad inability to agree on the left, and out of that the lack of vision. That’s why I’m quite optimistic for the future. As I see it now, the MSZP learned tremendously of the case and now we are building a new, strong, game-changer vision, that’ll raise attention and create a real new chance for Hungary.

About Author

Ágnes Kunhalmi

Hungarian politician, member of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), member of the municipal government.