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Weeklies on the character of the Hungarian government

August 14th, 2023

Left-wing and liberal authors describe what they call the Orbán regime as an outlier in the European Union, while their pro-government counterparts see it as upholding the values of freedom and national sovereignty in a sometimes-hostile environment.

In his Jelen editorial, Zoltán Lakner condemns the explanation cabinet minister Gergely Gulyás offered for the decline in basic reading and comprehension skills measured in Hungarian schools earlier this year. The Minister said the lowest values were reported in areas with a high Roma presence in public education. The left-wing columnist retorts that Roma children were present in Hungarian schools in previous years, therefore this year’s worst-ever competence values cannot simply be attributed to them. He takes the cabinet minister’s words as expressing a government policy that seeks scapegoats instead of solutions.

In his front-page Élet és Irodalom column, János Széky quotes the minister’s words on Gypsy schoolchildren as a sign of what he calls a strange kind of idiocy he finds characteristic of government officials who otherwise are highly intelligent but have to explain away government failures. Another sentence he cites from the same cabinet minister to substantiate his thesis concerns the wealth of Hungary’s richest man – the former mayor of the Prime Minister’s native village. Mr Gulyás said the only problem is that ‘there are not 30 or 40 Lőrinc Mészároses.’

The same sentence is also quoted by Árpád W. Tóta in Heti Világgazdaság. The liberal columnist writes that the yacht Mr Mészáros spent his holiday on in the Mediterranean reportedly cost about 27 billion forints, the equivalent of the amount the government spends on scientific research a year. Meanwhile, many public institutions including schools, children’s homes and hospitals struggle to make ends meet, he adds.

In a parallel interview with Magyar Hang, a former liberal politician and a Hungarian Italian historian ponder whether Hungary will remain a member of the European Union in the long run. Both Zsuzsa Szelényi and Sandro Bottoni have recently published books on governance in Hungary under Prime Minister Orbán. They describe Hungary as neither a dictatorship nor a full-fledged democracy. Szelényi believes that despite the increasing animosity in Hungary’s relations with the European Union the country will still be a member in 10 years’ time because it has no other choice. Bottoni, on the other hand, thinks that Hungary might drift out of the European Union as the idea of an exit has already been planted in the minds of many people. It is still a minority opinion, but as it seems unlikely that Hungary will get the EU transfers that are suspended due to rule of law concerns, things may change. Relations may become so embittered that leaving the Union might be put on the agenda one day or at least links with the community may become purely formal, he muses.

By contrast, Demokrata’s Gábor Bencsik suspects that it is the European Union that might be trying to squeeze Hungary out of the community. That is at least one possible explanation he puts forward for the decision of the European Commission to exclude the many foundation-run Hungarian universities from the Erasmus student exchange programme and the Horizon scientific research scheme. Hungary withdrew government officials from the boards of those universities, he points out, as requested by the European Commission which then came up with new requirements. The government wrote new bills to satisfy those demands but the Commission replied that they wanted to see the laws passed, rather than drafts. Bencsik finds it absurd that the Commission doesn’t want to express an opinion that the Hungarian side could take it into account before finalising the legislation. He believes the European Commission either hopes that enraged students will help topple the government or aims to squeeze Hungary out of the European Union. ‘Anyhow, he writes, ‘they won’t succeed – the elected government will remain in place and Hungary will remain an inseparable part of Europe’.

In Mandiner, editor Zoltán Szalai dismisses as unfounded the rule of law concerns about press freedom in Hungary. He describes the media landscape as ‘fully reassuring’. The number of foreign media owners has decreased, and practically all kinds of views are expressed by media outlets. Left-wing views dominate online media, he writes, although left and right are equally present among the 10 most read outlets. Meanwhile, he adds, in the West, the left has created a media climate where conservative voices struggle to reach the surface. Positions that used to be mainstream centre-right opinions, he suggests, are now branded extreme right and therefore sidelined.

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