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Hungary: PM Caught on Tape
Scandal as Prime Minister Gyurcsany admits to a year and a half of lies
John Horvath (jhorv)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2006-09-19 18:27 (KST)   
With less than two weeks to go before municipal elections in Hungary, a bombshell exploded on the political scene. Yesterday an audio tape of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany addressing key party members in a closed meeting at the resort of Balatonoszodon surfaced. This speech was made shortly after his victory in parliamentary elections in May. In it he said outright that for the past year and a half before the elections they had lied while for the past four years they had done nothing.

It goes without saying that news of this speech spread like wildfire. Digital versions complete with a text transcript multiplied exponentially on the Internet. Within a few hours thousands gathered in front of parliament and elsewhere demanding the resignation of the government and new elections.

The prime minister, for his part, was quick to act. He unashamedly admitted to everything he said on the tape and was unapologetic, stressing that the entire Hungarian political system was built on lies. He appeared on television and radio to defend his position and categorically refused to resign because of the speech.

From the text of the speech it's clear that his talk was aimed at the party faithful in order to emphasize the need for a radical change of course. Nevertheless, the stark contrast between his May 26 speech and what he had said during the election of just a few weeks before has not gone down well with the general public.

In many ways, we all expect somehow that politicians will lie to us. Indeed, as the old joke goes: what do you call an honest politician? Unelected. Nor do we truly expect that the promises made during the election will all be realized. Still, people expect a certain level of accountability for the promises made and actions taken. Often this comes during the next election when a government is usually voted out of office if the electorate feels that promises have been left unfulfilled.

The problem with this scandal is that it raises serious questions as to the legitimacy of the government. It's one thing when promises are made during a campaign and subsequently they can't be realized due to miscalculations or some unexpected developments. It's quite another, however, when voters are deliberately and routinely misled.

Moreover, Gyurcsanyi's admission that his previous government had consistently lied and that for the past four years they had done nothing explains why certain actions, both foolhardy and even illegal, were taken by the government.

For example, the lowering of the sales tax or VAT (also known as AFA in Hungarian) from 25 percent to 20 percent at the beginning of the year was clearly a ploy to make it look like the government was actually doing something, this despite the fact that all financial experts had warned that such a move was unnecessary and would put undue strain on the budget, which is what happened.

Similarly, the finance minister's refusal to release statistical data until after the election was done with the explicit intent on hiding from voters the true state of the economy, something upon which many would cast their ballots. In most democracies, the unwarranted postponement of a scheduled release of public information for political gain is illegal.

Of course, Hungary is not the only country with politicians caught in the act of lying. In the late 1980s, when Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney went back on his promise made to seniors, a mob of gray-haired activists confronted him at parliament and in front of the cameras a senior said straight to his face: "you lied to us, Mr Mulroney." To his credit, the prime minister the next day reversed his earlier decision and even made some political capital in the process when he stated in parliament that, "we are big enough to admit we have made a mistake."

In much the same way, Gyurcsany is now trying to turn the scandal to his own advantage. Brushing off all references to the audio tape, he continues in stride by noting that not only is the entire Hungarian political system built on lies and deception, but that his government and party have now broken free from this framework and is engaging in honest politics. Not only this, he stresses that the promises made during the election campaign were no less different than what the opposition was promising, and that the opposition should have the courage to admit that they, too, were lying.

Although the damage to his prestige and the image of his party is immense as a result of the scandal, his government is nevertheless stable -- at least for now. The government's junior coalition partner have shied away from making comments about the tape and have reiterated their support for the government.

Meanwhile, crowds continue to gather demanding the resignation of the prime minister. The police, for their part, have stayed in the background, allowing the spontaneous protests to take place. The official reason for doing so is that since the country is in the midst of a campaign, such protests are allowed. Unofficially, however, the police are quite aware of how explosive the situation could become if they tried to break up any of the protests using force.

While many opposition politicians have also joined the chorus demanding the resignation of the prime minister, there is little they can do. With the continued support of the junior coalition partner, tabling a no-confidence vote is futile. Likewise, as the general public vents its anger and outrage on the streets of Budapest, constitutionally little can be done. True, the governing party can, and perhaps will, lose heavily during the municipal elections on Oct. 1, but then again municipal politics carry little weight in the national arena. At most a little prestige is lost; in fact, during the next elections four years down the line, the scandal will probably become a distant memory at best.

All this doesn't mean that democracy is fine and working well in this part of the world, or in any other part of the world for that matter. Although no political or constitutional avenue is open in Hungary to force the prime minister to resign, the fact remains that the deception practiced by the Gyurcsany government is on such a scale that it calls into question the legitimacy of the government. In such cases, people should somehow still have the right to a change in government or new elections otherwise democracy truly becomes nothing more than the election of dictators every four years or so.

Yet in some countries there have been examples to the opposite. A couple of years ago in Portugal, for instance, the government's policies had led to its popularity to sink to such a low level that the president felt compelled to call new elections.

Instead of trying to bring democracy and reform to the Middle East and other parts of the world, it would be perhaps wise for western governments to review their own democratic structures and reform them accordingly. By holding governments accountable to the web of lies and deception they spin, the likes of Gyurcsany would find the politics of deception that much harder to pursue.

Indeed, in a true democracy leaders like George W. Bush might even find themselves behind bars, facing charges of crimes against humanity.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter John Horvath

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