Tomasz Pierscionek (TP) : Can you tell me a little about your background and explain how you became involved in politics?
Robert Braun (RB): I grew up in
TP: You helped found the Raoul Wallenberg Association?
RB: Yes, I was one of the Association’s founders and it is a sad story that 25 years later such organisations are still needed to counter prejudice.
TP: How widespread was anti-semitic and anti-Roma sentiment in the 1980s?
RB: It was definitely a problem, as it had been prior to the 1980s, but on account of the censorship of speech and thought that existed in those days, ‘bad’ free speech was suppressed as much as ‘good’ free speech. So anti-semitic and anti-Roma sentiments were suppressed. Once Glasnost, or openness, happened, not only good things but also bad things surfaced and because of the economic crisis of the late 1980s, many Roma who had low skilled employment, such as factory work, were left without jobs. This made them much more visible which in turn fired anti-Roma sentiment, especially in the countryside. The political establishment, as they do today, fuelled these sentiments and turned the anger of the Hungarian people away from the country’s leadership towards a weaker and poorer target. I also took part in founding Fidesz (
TP: Fidesz have certainly changed their political stance since the late 1980s.
RB: Well, you can’t change much more than Fidesz did. They started off on the liberal-radical left end of the political spectrum and now they are almost on the far right. During the late 1980s, I also took part in founding the Alliance of Free Democrats which was, at that time, a liberal party. Then I went to the
So I became a politician proper and now, following nomination, I am standing for election to the 9 member Presidium (executive committee) of the socialist party (MSZP) and ultimately I want to be involved in the formation of the ‘New Left’ in Hungary.
TP: Considering the MSZP has lost many seats in parliament since it won the election in 2006, what does your party need to do to reconnect with the Hungarian working class?
RB: A lot needs to be done and it all needs to be put into the perspective of what has happened in this country over the past 25 years. On the one hand, I think we [the MSZP] were on the wrong path?
TP: For the past 25 years?
RB: Yes. We believed our own fairy tale and that fairy tale was the transition from a totalitarian version of socialism into a free market version of democracy. Theoretically all this happened but practically this is a very strange type of capitalism and a very strange type of democracy on the periphery of
TP: What have been the biggest changes to occur in
RB: There have of course been profound changes but the changes are less interesting than the effects. We ask “why don’t people cherish democracy?” Because democracy does not cherish them.
“Why don’t people defend the free market and capitalism?” Because the free market and capitalism does not defend them. The biggest mistake we made was that we automatically thought capitalism and capital and multinational companies would bring prosperity and I think this was all wrong.
Over the past 25 years, the [top] 1%, have created a country of their own liking. At the time of transition, in 1989, the difference in inequality between the richest 10% and the poorest 10% was 4.6 times. Today this is 12 times so inequality has tripled.
There are four million people living below the poverty line and the biggest problem is not only extreme poverty but also the working poor – 1.5 million people who [work] 8 hours [a day] and are paid less than the official statistical minimum.
So, I think we need to rethink who we represent. Over the past 25 years we have been representing the people we thought wanted a Western [style democracy].
TP: Western liberal democracy?
RB: Exactly. But we forgot about the people who only hope for a better life. Their question is not whether there is a Western style free market system or not. Their question is whether tomorrow will be better than yesterday was. Their ideas are not big but small. Their ideas are “Will my child be better off than I?”
TP: How is it that Fidesz won the last election [April 2014]?
RB: The leadership of our party, in the eyes of the people, did not present an alternative. There were no alternatives in their vision, there were no alternatives in their plans for [running the country] and [they were not able to] get the message across that “I feel your pain”.
TP: So you feel that the MSZP has lost touch with its working class base?
RB: When you say working class, I would also add lower middle class. In
So the solution is easy – forget about the top 10%, be nice to them in words only, and say to the remaining majority that not only do we feel their pain but that we will actually bring change, Firstly, we need to raise the minimum wage to 20% above the poverty line. Hungarian productivity is 60% of the EU average but Hungarian pay is 30% [of the EU average]. At the same time, the price of goods [in
TP: So it is becoming harder for ordinary Hungarians to survive these days?
RB: Politics needs to put limits on the enslavement of the workers because if there is a productivity level of 60% [of the EU average] and a pay level of 30% [of the EU average] then the 30% gap is profit for the owners, or extra pay for the management and that is indeed unacceptable.
Additionally, if there is a productivity of 60% and a wage average of 30%, this ties in with what [Thomas] Piketty says about a ‘rentier society’ whether it is rent from land or capital. This means that the inequality which has tripled since 1989 will continue to grow exponentially over the next few years and this is something we need to change.
TP: Has the growth in inequality manifested in the rise of the far right? I note that the far right party Jobbik gained a significant number of seats at the last general election?
RB: I see it differently. I think the most important learning point from the General Election and the EU election is that Jobbik, the far right party, have reached a glass ceiling They did not exceed 20%. For instance, when you wanted to send a signal to the political establishment [in the
This is our role – to prove that we understand what inequality means, we understand what rogue capitalism means and we understand what rogue democracy means. We should have learned our lesson over the past 25 years. We are ready to change and accept that neither capitalism nor democracy alone will solve the problem. We need to redraw the lines and, most of all, we need to know who should be the beneficiaries of the democracy. If we see that the majority of the population are starving, then something must be wrong. It is so simple. If we keep seeing that year on year, the top 1% are getting richer whilst the rest of society is getting poorer, something is seriously wrong. It is that simple.
TP: So you see the vote for Jobbik as a protest vote rather than a threat to Hungarian society?
RB: It is a threat. It is a threat all over
And Jobbik, in very simple terms, seems to at least understand these concerns and since there is no challenger offering an alternative, they did not listen to the other parties as it seemed that no one else cared.
They think that these Jobbik guys at least understand we are poor, unlike those at the top.
Do they provide voters with solutions? No, but since there is no challenger who understands and also offers an alternative, Jobbik is alone on that front. Fidesz has lost almost a million votes and the Left cannot turn this to their advantage. Why? Because people feel that we are talking to them from 10,000 meters on high as we discuss issues such as the European Union and capitalism.
[They say] “Who cares, talk about me. Tell me how you will make my life better?” And that is what we need to do and that is what I am doing. However, in
TP: Politics has become a career option for some.
RB: Politics is media driven and heavily focused on image. If Mr Miliband seems to be a good leader, that improves his party [ratings] in the polls. If Miliband is not seen as a good leader, people ask “What difference will he make”. People no longer look to their local MP to make the difference but to the party leadership.
TP: Indeed. Politics has become about personalities rather than issues and at the same time, in the
RB: Absolutely. It is the same everywhere, And some may say that this is not good and a sad turn of events but that is the way [people] see things. For example, take the Second World War: when people remember who won World War Two, who do they think of? Do they remember the soldiers on
Part 2 of the interview will be published later this week
Robert Braun is also Pro-Rector at the International Business School in Budapest, Chairman of the New Economics Forum Budapest, and Associate Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility and Marketing at Corvinus University of BudapestTags: Europe
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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek