Thursday, March 21, 2013


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).

Monday, March 18, 2013


There is nothing in the least amusing about neo Nazis although you will be permitted a wry smile during my opening paragraphs.

On Saturday I attended the MSZP socialist party rally in Budapest. It was held at the national stadium dedicated to Ferenc Puskás. Football followers of a certain age will want to take time here to genuflect: younger supporters of the beautiful game will just shirk their shoulders and pass.

I travelled by underground and two stations before my stop a man in his 50s entered my carriage. He was dressed in quasi military style and wore boots that were highly polished and could inflict a good kick. He carried a large flag and with him were two women with furled flags plus a man in his 40s dressed normally.

As they chatted happily I presumed they were MSZP supporters on their way to the rally. They got off at my station and I fell in behind them. Outside the station they were joined by other similarly dressed people who all seemed to be gathering along the road. I followed along happily.

Then alarm bells began to ring. The stadium with the thousands of MSZP supporters was on my right. Why were this group crowding together on land beside the main road? Why did they have a stand handing out leaflets? Why did they have a stage where giant speakers blared out slogans in Hungarian and loud music? Why was there a TV camera trained on their every move? Why were they surrounded by police? Then I spotted the massive flag with “Árpád stripes” and realised I had marched with Jobbik, Hungary’s far right anti-Semitic nationalist party. For the first time in my life I swung to the right and hurriedly joined the members of MSZP queuing at the stadium gates.

There was a session at the Party of European Socialists conference in Budapest on the far right. I have to say that after attending it I did not come away reassured the left had yet found an answer to the sinister threat of Jobbik and its sister parties especially in Eastern Europe.

One of the speakers at the PES session on the far right was Sanchia Alasia. She is a young Labour councillor for Barking. Sanchia and her colleagues at the last local elections defeated the 12 BNP councillors leaving the far right party with no seats. They did it by reengaging with local people, making the local Labour Party an activist party. However Sanchia admitted the BNP had not been eradicated and could make a come back.

This is where Jobbik and the BNP connect. The Jobbik supporters I met were working men and women, natural supporters of MSZP you would think. The people who voted for the BNP in Barking were not racists but traditional Labour supporters who no longer felt the party spoke for them on immigration, housing and employment or other key issues.

During the last UK election campaign the then Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was caught on a SKY TV microphone, calling 66-year-old Mrs Duffy a “bigot” because she had raised immigration with him on a walk-about in Rochdale. The discovery that his remarks had been broadcast to the nation sent Brown into grovel mode. However the fact is the BNP has been able to grow in traditional Labour seats such as Barking and Rochdale because those who voted Labour in the past have felt abandoned by their party.

In an interview in 2011 Lord Maurice Glasman, the man behind Blue Labour and an advisor to Ed Miliband, got in to hot water because he seemingly suggested the party should engaged with the English Defence League. Later in the New Statesman he said:  “It did not cross my mind that anyone could think that I support the English Defence League (EDL), which I consider a thuggish and violent organisation. When I said in an interview with Progress magazine in April that we should listen to supporters of the EDL, I was arguing that the best way to defeat fascist organisations is to engage with their supporters in a politics of the common good that addresses issues of family, housing and safer streets, the living wage and a cap on interest rates.”

The thought that Glasman, a practicing Jew, would align himself with the EDL or the BNP is too ridiculous for words. Yet his belief that “the best way to defeat fascist organisations is to engage with their supporters in a politics of the common good that addresses issues of family, housing and safer streets, the living wage and a cap on interest rates” is 100 per cent right.

The supporters of the BNP and EDL are working class Britons who the Labour Party used to speak for but has now lost its voice. I suspect the same may be true for Jobbik in Hungary. It doesn’t mean that Labour or the MSZP have to become racist but it does mean they have to address the fears of many people over immigration, housing and the changes in their communities. These traditional socialists are not bigots – but they are scared.

(Photo: “Árpád stripes”)

(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on March 17 2013).

Friday, March 15, 2013


In a recent article in the London Progressive Journal I highlighted an opinion poll in Andalucía that showed a majority of people in that region believed Spain to be the most corrupt nation in the EU.

Do I believe that Spain holds that title? No I don’t. There have been serious cases of political corruption but there are other more sinister abuses elsewhere. Having said that as the people of Spain live in a country in political and economic meltdown it is all too easy to see how they reached that grim conclusion. I know: I live amongst them.

Far more worrying to me is the collapse in trust by the people of Andalucía in their monarch, government in Madrid and Sevilla, the main political parties, the institutions, justice and the financial sector. Only the army and state security service were held in high regard. Students of Spanish politics will know that Spain has been here before.

Last week I spent several days in Budapest at a conference organised by the Party of European Socialists (PES). When I visited Pierre Kanuty, who handles international relations for the Parti Socialiste in Paris at the end of January, he stressed just how important supporting the socialist MSZP in Hungary was by holding the meeting there.

This message was underscored by the PES president, Sergei Stanishev, who spoke at the rally for 10,000 MSZP supporters in Budapest on Saturday addressed by party leader Attila Mesterhazy, which I attended. Stanishev attacked the Fidesz leader and Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban, for “not understanding democracy”. On Monday Orban’s government passed major constitutional amendments that made his previously illegal legalisation legal. It is widely believed it will impact on the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights. Stanishev slammed Orban’s “assault on democracy” and urged a postponement of the decision. The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz and the Council of Europe General Secretary Thorbjorn Jagland had also called on Orban to back down and to refer the legislation to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe for an opinion. No prizes for guessing that the Hungarian Premier ignored such calls. In Stanishev’s words: “Mr. Orban, like all populists does not have the interests of the people at heart and sees democracy as little more than an obstacle”.

However a bigger shock came later on Saturday when Sergei Stanishev addressed the PES delegates. Stanishev is the former Bulgarian Prime Minister (2005 -2009) and is leader of the socialist BSP. On May 12 Bulgaria will hold a general election after the people of that country took to the streets and got rid of Byoko Borrisov, a right wing populist prime minister in the same mould as Hungary’s Orban.

Stanishev urged PES delegates to come to his country for May 12. However he did not want them to campaign for his BSP but to monitor the elections. He stated that other European politicians looked at him in disbelief when he told them there were no guarantees that Bulgaria’s elections would be fair and free. International observers and PES delegates were needed at the polling stations and the counts.

How could an EU nation such as Bulgaria rig the ballots and get away with it? In exactly the same way as Orban in Hungary rides roughshod over the constitution ignoring the European Parliament and Council of Europe.

It is clear that with the breakdown of trust in the institutions in Spain, the authoritarian governments in Hungary and Bolivia, democracy in Europe is in grave danger.

In Budapest I was told of families who would not speak openly of their support of the MSZP because they feared for their jobs. Police wouldn’t call but a tax inspector certainly would. Women who were party activists found that jobs in the public services were barred to their children. People who spoke out against the Hungarian government or who were involved in union campaigns faced similar obstacles. Where the media is under attack and the one radio station that supports a liberal agenda Orban wants closed down.

It is then you realise the true frailty of democracy and the urgent need for all of us to speak out to defend it in Spain, Hungary, Bulgaria - in other countries in the EU and the wider world.

(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on March 15 2013)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Let me give you that statement again. Spain is the most corrupt nation in the EU. Who says so? The people of Andalucía!

That is the finding of an opinion poll carried out by the Instituto Commentia to coincide with the autonomous region’s national day – Día de  Andalucía. It reveals that 73.6 per cent of people questioned in Andalucía believe their country is the most corrupt in the EU. This compares with 1.8 per cent who believes that corruption in their country is not so serious.

Indeed 65.5 per cent of people in this region believe that Spain is now living through the most serious crisis since the days of the Transition following the death of Franco. They single out both political and economic fraud. Spaniards believe their politicians are more corrupt than the rest of society. In that assessment they see no difference between the centre right Partido Popular and the centre left PSOE.

The messages to the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, over the Bárcenas scandal are mixed. Luis Bárcenas, the former Partido Popular treasurer, is alleged to have made illegal, secret payments to party officials. He is also said to have amassed million of euros in off-shore bank accounts. The percentage of those asked who believe that Rajoy should resign now is 27.3 per cent. The leader of the opposition PSOE, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, has made such a demand and support for Rajoy to go is highest amongst socialist voters. However the same number believe Rajoy should stay and clean up his party whilst 39.5 per cent believe any decision on his future should await the findings of the various investigations.

The soundings would also indicate a massive loss of trust by the people of Andalucía in the institutions of State. The biggest suffer has been the monarchy with just 34.9 per cent giving it an approval rating compared with 63 per cent in 2010.

The positive ratings for the justice system is 21.1 per cent, the Andalucía Parliament 20.3, the Andalucía Government 18.6, the Spanish Parliament 18.1, the Spanish Government 17.3, the Unions 13.7, the Cajas de Ahorros savings banks 10.9, the economic system 8.7 and the banks just 7.7 per cent.

Indeed Spaniards in Andalucía have confidence in only one institution. The armed forces and State security, being the various police forces. They command a 71.5 per cent approval rating.

It has to be said this is a chilling finding. If the people of Andalucía and may be the rest of Spain have no faith in their Royal family, governments, political parties, financial system and only value their armed forces and police that indeed raises the spectre of a Franco figure emerging from those ranks to save the nation.

With a non-conscript army and the nation embracing democracy since the death of Franco the days of a coup d’état in Spain should be firmly in the past. However Spain is a nation in despair and its support of its politicians and its institutions has collapsed. In that event we have to be very wary indeed of those in the military whose ambitions extend further than the parade ground and would march straight in to the Palacio Real crushing the government and Royal Family as they go.

(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on March 6 2013)