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Clowns play chicken, or chickens play clowns?

June 19th, 2011

Thousands protested on Thursday (June 16) against the government’s planned changes  to the early retirement system. Right-wing commentators detect political motives behind the protests, while left-wing media interpret the demonstrations as a plea for democracy and the rule of law. Both sides appear to assume that a reasonable compromise is not an option.

The demonstrations in Budapest and other towns were led by trade unions representing law enforcement and other public service employees, protesting against the government’s planned austerity measures, including the elimination of their right to early retirement. Many protesters were dressed as clowns in response to a sarcastic remark of PM Viktor Orbán earlier this month. When union leaders suggested that he go out into the square and face angry demonstrators, to discuss his plans with them directly, the PM  reportedly suggested that he would rather send  “the state secretary responsible for clowns, who is the competent official in this matter”. Some of the demonstrators on Thursday symbolically withdrew their votes from the governing coalition from mock ballot boxes.

Masquerade of unions

Right-wing commentators have hinted darkly that political motives lie behind the actions of law enforcement employees who are not willing to accept the compromise offered by the government. The government’s proposal is that the pensions of those who decide to retire before the age of 57 should be renamed benefits and taxed accordingly. Opinion polls suggest the majority of Hungarians agree with the introduction of the planned restrictions.

Writing in the right-wing Heti Válasz, András Bódi claims that some of the trade unions leading the protests have close ties with the opposition Socialist Party. Several supported the MSZP at previous elections, and a couple of their leaders served in former Socialist governments. Bódi suggests that the demonstrations play into the hands of “the highly unpopular opposition parties”, since the civil protest “could draw more public attention than the regular antics of the MSZP, LMP or Jobbik.”

The clowns’ revolution was neither genial, nor dramatic. The protest was intended to be funny, but was simply pathetic”, writes Miklós Ugró in the pro-government Magyar Nemzet. He finds it strange that unions, which accepted the cuts introduced by the former Socialist government without complaint, should now angrily demand the retention of their “irritating privileges” in the name of the people.

Right and left-wing politicians and commentators take turns at calling Hungarians stupid or smart”, suggests Zsolt Ungváry in the right-wing Magyar Hírlap. The left-wing opposition parties that now sympathize with the protesters fiercely opposed the politics of the street as long as they were in government, notes Ungváry. They recommended that political debates should take place in Parliament, instead of the radical politics of the street, while the right-wing opposition “after 2002 and 2006 questioned the competence and legitimacy of a government voted into power by only a quarter of the total population…Those who were once so patient [i.e the left-wing parties] now deploy their forces to oust a government which enjoys a two-thirds majority.”

Clowns in defence of democracy

Left-wing commentator Tamás Mészáros offers a rather different perspective on the protests. “This demonstration was very different from the aggressive auto-da-fes organized by Fidesz”, he writes in Népszava. According to Mészáros, the protesters were calm and peaceful. “They seemed to understood that their demonstration is no longer about the early retirement system, which has already been abolished by recent constitutional amendments.” Mészáros notes that the demonstrators had broader aims than to protest against the cuts planned by the government. “Their banners clearly indicated that they opposed the politics of the government in general, and that they took to the streets in defence of democracy. […] People have recognized that they have nothing to lose but their chains, and that the question has become whether they lie defenceless at the mercy of the government’s despotism, whether they allow retroactive legislation to be enforced and entrenched by laws which require a two-thirds majority.”

In another opinion piece in the same newspaper, János Dési notes that prime minister Orbán is applying the classic strategy of divide and rule. “He systematically attempts to create tension between different groups. So far, his opponents have not found the antidote to this strategy. But it is glaringly obvious, nonetheless: unity”, Dési suggests.

If the government was absolutely confident that eliminating the early retirement system was both the right thing to do and feasible, it could find a European way to introduce the reforms, while respecting the rule of law. It could, for example, announce that policemen, firemen and ambulance paramedics who are employed after January 1, 2012 will not be entitled to either early retirement or special benefits. But the clowns in the current workforce were not hired under such terms and conditions,” writes Miklós Hargitai in the left-wing Népszabadság.

Too late for reasonable compromises

There is no good answer to the dilemma of early retirement, notes political analyst Ferenc Kumin, spokesman for former President László Sólyom in Figyelő. “Passions are running high, the unions are fighting not only for the interests of their members, but also to justify their existence, which may at some point became more important than the original aim. Political parties also join the fray, and for them the stakes are much higher than the benefits. Demonstrators attack the government in a more and more general manner, and  opposition parties sense an opportunity in this.”

Early retirement is a highly controversial issue, Kumin adds. The majority do not consider the privileges of law enforcement employees fair and reasonable. According to surveys, “even left-leaning voters agree that something needs to be changed.” Kumin notes that the bonuses received by law enforcement employees date back to the pre-1989 era, when preferential treatment helped the recruitment drive for much-despised policemen, who helped maintain an oppressive system. “Today, the maintenance of this  system of benefits cannot be justified.”

The abolition of some early retirement rights also raises constitutional concerns about retroactive legislation, Kumin adds. Taking away the pensions would violate constitutional norms, but taxing benefits is no less constitutional than increasing taxes or raising the retirement age, which also affect those currently employed.

But there is little hope for a reasonable compromise, Kumin concludes. At this stage, any retreat from such a highly politicized debate is not an option either for the government, or for the unions. Kumin compares the current situation to the so-called chicken game.

“Two players drive straight towards each other at full speed. The one who swerves loses. And both players lose, of course, if neither chickens out. So what strategy should be applied in such a scenario? The answer is very simple: just stay out of such games.”

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