Interview with Robert Braun (Part 1 of 2)

August 11, 2014 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

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 Hungary and before the transition, in the late 1980s, I was involved in the fringes of the democratic opposition. I helped found some of the NGOs that sprang up at the time, such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Raoul Wallenberg Association, which was formed to combat anti semitism and anti-Roma sentiment.

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 (Hungary‘s current ruling party) who, at that time, were a young liberal-left party.

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 US in the early 1990s where I completed my PhD before returning to Hungary and delving in and out of politics. I had an academic career and a business career and also worked in politics. I was the chief of staff of the SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats) in the early 90s and then I was the communications director to Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy. Then I was a strategist working for Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány (both Prime Ministers were from MSZP). Later, I was chief advisor to the governor of the National Bank and then I decided that, as I had worked behind the scenes for some time and as the country was in poor shape, I needed to take up a different role. After spending 20 or so years in politics, I thought I have the experience and knowledge to stand for election.

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 Europe. We thought that foreign direct investment would bring about peace and love and prosperity and that the [smaller] the state the better because if we allowed the market to rule then in time we would be like Austria. It didn’t happen that way.

TP: What have been the biggest changes to occur in Hungary over the past 25 years?

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 Hungary, as in most of the central European countries, working poor is not only a problem of the working-class but also a problems of all those people who are less skilled whether they work in factories or in administrative jobs. We should represent people who are simply employees across the board. We should represent those people who do not have a voice. And what is interesting with the current government is that simply by saying “I feel your pain”, whilst doing politics in favour the top 10%, they get a lot of support.

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 Hungary] is 85% of the EU average. This is unacceptable!

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 UK], especially Cameron, [people] voted UKIP who won the EU elections in the UK. In Hungary, people are also frustrated with Fidesz but they didn’t vote for the far right. They just didn’t vote. There was an extremely low turnout. Yet, people still voted for the Left. We have our voters out there. We have 1.2 million voters who believe that we represent something good and there are another 1-1.5 million voters who would be ready to listen to us if we only could say a) We feel your pain and b) We have some solutions and we will defend you; fight for you.

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 Europe. However, when our comrades say that this is a fascist country because if its history, I think they have got it wrong. This is a country whose population is sad, frustrated and has simple things on its mind. [They think] “I want security. I don’t want to be rich, I just want to be better off. I want some kind of social mobility so that my children get a better education and climb the social ladder”.

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 Hungary as in the UK and elsewhere, politics is becoming divorced from the grassroots.

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 UK at least, power is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of the executive and being taken away from the legislature.

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 Omaha beach or do they recall that Churchill won the war? We know that without the guys jumping out of the boats on Omaha beach, no victory would have been possible. So, is life and politics unfair? Yes, it is. But it is a leadership vision driven enterprise. So we had better accept that. We should offer a leadership that people trust. We should offer a leadership that is ready to listen. We should offer a leadership that cares about and knows who it represents.

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 Budapest


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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek

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