‘SOMETIMES WE DO REACH CONSENSUS’

The 45-year-old Fidesz politician hails from Veszprém in western Hungary, and trained as a lawyer. He has represented the Veszprém constituency in Parliament since 2006, when he also became leader of the Fidesz Parliamentary faction, then in opposition. In April 2010 he was named Minister of Public Administration and Justice, and Deputy Prime Minister in the new government.

NT: Fidesz won the elections, in part, by becoming a centrist party again – not just a right wing party. But since that victory, many people who voted for Fidesz feel it has abandoned the centre – that Fidesz betrayed the trust or the hope they placed in your party. Has it?

TN: I don’t think so, but I do think that it is very difficult to define the centre in the political playground now in Hungary. If you look at the government’s policies, you can see mostly centrist policies. I mean the taxation for instance, the flat tax, the reform of the public administration, the decentralization of the institutional scheme in the public administration – these are all “centrist” policies. Of course there are ideological debates in the Parliament. And there are ideological debates in political life. And because we are an almost dominant political force you can detect very colourful opinions inside Fidesz as well, and outside in the political life of the country. But if we take the government’s policies and government steps as a criteria for the definition of the centrist position, then I think Fidesz is a centre-right political party.

NT: You are widely regarded as one of the most moderate or “centrist” politicians in Fidesz – why don’t you and similar minded people play a bigger role?

TN: Sometimes I play bigger roles – it depends on the situation. I am a Minister now, of Public Administration and Justice. That means that while in the previous period between 2006 and 2010, when I was the minority leader of the Parliament, or the main opposition leader of the Parliament, I was at that time a more general political person. Now I am mostly focussing on policy issues, and that can give the impression that I am in the back seat. I’m not in the back seat, I am in a policy seat now.

The 45-year-old Fidesz politician hails from Veszprém in western Hungary, and trained as a lawyer. He has represented the Veszprém constituency in Parliament since 2006, when he also became leader of the Fidesz Parliamentary faction, then in opposition. In April 2010 he was named Minister of Public Administration and Justice, and Deputy Prime Minister in the new government.

NT: Fidesz won the elections, in part, by becoming a centrist party again – not just a right wing party. But since that victory, many people who voted for Fidesz feel it has abandoned the centre – that Fidesz betrayed the trust or the hope they placed in your party. Has it?

TN: I don’t think so, but I do think that it is very difficult to define the centre in the political playground now in Hungary. If you look at the government’s policies, you can see mostly centrist policies. I mean the taxation for instance, the flat tax, the reform of the public administration, the decentralization of the institutional scheme in the public administration – these are all “centrist” policies. Of course there are ideological debates in the Parliament. And there are ideological debates in political life. And because we are an almost dominant political force you can detect very colourful opinions inside Fidesz as well, and outside in the political life of the country. But if we take the government’s policies and government steps as a criteria for the definition of the centrist position, then I think Fidesz is a centre-right political party.

NT: You are widely regarded as one of the most moderate or “centrist” politicians in Fidesz – why don’t you and similar minded people play a bigger role?

TN: Sometimes I play bigger roles – it depends on the situation. I am a Minister now, of Public Administration and Justice. That means that while in the previous period between 2006 and 2010, when I was the minority leader of the Parliament, or the main opposition leader of the Parliament, I was at that time a more general political person. Now I am mostly focussing on policy issues, and that can give the impression that I am in the back seat. I’m not in the back seat, I am in a policy seat now.

NT: The government stands accused of weakening or destroying the system of checks and balances. There are now loyal party members in many public posts, starting with the President of the Republic, a tame public service media, a constitution which favours the current governing ideology and the party’s two-thirds majority… Surely the concentration of so much power in the hands of one ruling group represents a rather narrow understanding of democracy – the principle that “the winner takes all”?

TN: It’s a funny question, coming from a Briton! The logic of majority rule here, even with some periods of minority concessions, is pretty similar to the way British democracy functions. Although in the current political period in the United Kingdom we can witness a process of devolution, and the coalition government now represents a sort of political decentralization inside the cabinet and so on. But the phrase “checks and balances” is mostly an element of the presidential systems, where there is a separation of powers, and checks and balances. Hungary is a parliamentary democracy. A German-type, chancellor-type parliamentary democracy. That means that the Parliament and a strong government have political superiority above the other institutions. And although we have a lot of independent institutions – for instance the State Auditing Office, the Hungarian National Bank and so on, I would say that the most dominant element now, if not in constitutional terms, but in political terms, is a strong, single-party government with a two-thirds majority in the Parliament. And the Prime Minister, moreover, is a very strong person, even in constitutional terms, according to the Hungarian constitution. We have a German-type chancellor system, and that means that the Prime Minister is a key figure in the functioning of the political system. As for the criticisms about the personnel policy of Fidesz, we often face the accusation that for example the National Auditing Office is a part of the Fidesz political appointments system, but if you see that the president of the National Auditing Office is a former Fidesz MP, while the vice-president is a former Socialist MP, and just now the Office issued the sharpest criticism against next year’s draft budget. That means that even though they have a different political background – and they do have a party political background – in practice, in their current position they are mostly non-partisan, that means they can check the government’s activity, they can check the drafts of the government and so on.

NT: So the system of checks and balances, such as can exist in a parliamentary system, is alive and well?

TN: Yes, it’s functioning I think, basically.

NT: It has been said that the government has picked Hungary up by the scruff of the neck, and is trying to take the country to what it believes will be a better place. How would you describe the place you want to take Hungary? What is your vision of the kind of Hungary you want?

TN: I think our aim is basically similar to the visions of politicians in other countries as well. We want a happy country. That means, in our terms, a given country is happy when the citizens can live their own lives with no barriers. They can realise their dreams, their visions, and they get some help from the public administration, from the budget, if they are in a disadvantageous position. And we can demolish the burdens in the way of the talented people. I think these two very broad terms are the main pillars of our vision. But we know that to describe such a vision in words is very easy, but to realize it in political terms is very difficult. That’s why we introduced the flat tax for instance, why we give an incentive to people to be entrepreneurial, and we try to attract foreign capital to invest in the country, because we need credit, we need capital, we need more educated people, and we have to build up a new country on these lines.

NT: Another reason people voted for your party is that you promised to get this country back to work. With simpler, lower taxation, which would encourage employers to create more jobs. Surely the 2012 budget, already passed, has the opposite effect? In this very difficult global economic crisis, have you had to abandon those goals?

TN: We’ve never thought that lower taxation on its own can create more jobs. We have always thought that we need assistance, and this assistance is in the form of the public works schemes. That is why we are now testing in disadvantaged regions new schemes for public works, and from 1 January we will introduce a nationwide scheme for public works, because it can create jobs, it can re-integrate unemployed people into the job market, and that is how we can revitalize the whole job market. Because the Hungarian job market as a consequence of the economic crisis is almost dead now.

NT: A new election law is currently being debated, for a smaller, more streamlined Parliament. The draft terms, as made public, make it harder for smaller parties to enter Parliament. The paragraph which allows Hungarians living in neighbouring countries and the diaspora to vote, also appears likely to increase support for Fidesz. To use a footballing analogy, isn’t this another case of Fidesz moving the goalposts, to suit your style of play?

TN: I don’t think so. We will see in 2014 when the next elections are due, whether this new electoral law favours Fidesz or other electoral parties. I would say that it is a misunderstanding of the draft that it would make it more difficult for smaller parties to enter Parliament. The parliamentary threshold will remain the same. It is five percent…

NT: But a much higher number of nominations will be necessary?

TN: This is a point of debate now, it is a political debate. Probably 750 will be enough, possibly we will double it – it’s a point of debate now. I wouldn’t say that there is already a solution in this issue. We are determined to preserve all the main elements of the old electoral law, just because of the public trust. We have a pretty good, mixed electoral system, partly based on single-member districts, partly on party lists. Even though we have to accomodate it to a smaller Parliament with 200 MPs (from the current 386), the main features will be the same. And that is why the electoral logic will be the same as well.

NT: The Socialist leader Attila Mesterházy recently called in Parliament for a minimum national consensus to be reached on the main issues facing the country – for an end to the “battles of the trenches” of the past two decades. Do you agree with him, on the need to establish such a consensus? And if so, surely Fidesz, with so much power now, should take the first step?

TN: This is an eternal question of Hungarian politics – how to reach national consensus. But I think that there is a national consensus. If you take the issue of the Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries, or you see the issue of the national minorities inside Hungary. Or basic issues of for example public administration. Nobody attacks the recent reform in public administration.

I think those are the elements of national consensus. Although probably we are more romantic in soul than British people for instance, we are striving for an overall and very broad and far-reaching sentiment of consensus. The very essence of democracy is peaceful but sharp political debates about the elements of the national consensus. And regarding these debates we are not in a bad position. We have pretty good debates, and sometimes we do reach consensus. And we must not forget that the national election in April last year was a very good representation of that kind of national consensus, because we got two thirds. This was the most dramatic representation of national unity against the Socialist governments of the previous eight years which we showed in 2010.

NT: A range of new groups have emerged in the past few months – a kind of extra-parliamentary opposition, working beyond the confines of traditional party and trade union politics. Their most recent march was on 23 October, under the slogan “Nem tetszik” (“We don’t like it”.) Do you take them, and their criticism seriously? And as they represent tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of citizens who want to take part in the democratic process, do you see them as partners in a dialogue about the future of Hungary? Over and beyond the parliamentary parties?

TN: Yes. I think it is very good evidence of a functioning democracy in Hungary. And of course if they want to be partners we can be partners as well. But as far as I know the atmosphere of this public demonstration was not really in the spirit of building a partnership. But that is not a problem. We are of course different people, belonging to different communities. We have to continue a dialogue about the issues of politics or policies. It is not necessary that we reach consensus. We have to debate all these issues, and this debate is going on. And in the coming years there will be a very lively “river of words” in Hungarian politics.

NT: The latest and sharpest criticism of the government has come over the appointment of a rather prominent actor with radical right-wing views, György Dörner, as head of the Új Színház, the New Theatre in Budapest. The decision was made by the pro-Fidesz Mayor, overruling the opinion of a professional body. Wasn’t that a rather clumsy piece of political interference?

TN: Well, it is not a government issue, of course. It is a Metropolitan issue. The Mayor of Budapest made this decision. He had the right to do that, because according to Hungarian laws he can overrule the opinion of the advisory board. But I think it is good evidence again that this is a democratic society and a democratic political system, because all the arguments and counter arguments are being aired. Again, it is a political debate, and if we intervened into this issue it could be an intervention into the autonomy of the City Council and the Mayor. So let us see who are the stronger – the supporters or the protesters.

NT: Fidesz will soon have completed two, rather dramatic years in power. The party has been punching rather hard. Will the following two years be similar? Or can we expect a more “human face” to emerge in the coming period?

TN: This is only partly Hungary’s business – it depends on Europe as well! If the European economy and the whole EU, or the Euro zone countries can revive in the coming years, this could be a good chance for Hungary, and a good chance for Fidesz, and for the Fidesz government. But if there is a stalemate and stagnation, or if there is a decline in the economy, there could be very difficult times for us as well. I think we have a pretty good record from the period 1998–2002. Of course that period was more peaceful than now. But we were able to show our competence, our skills in governing, and the first two years of this period again can prove that we are really unorthodox if necessary, and we can also be very traditional if necessary. So we try to pursue good policies. Nevertheless we have to follow the European path, of course. And I think the most important necessity is that we have to be competent and very good at governing.

NT: A well-known right-wing publicist, István Lovas, recently noted that few people had joined the anti-globalization march in Budapest, because the government, rather interestingly for a centre-right government, is pursuing a relatively anti-globalist, anti-bank, anti-multinational corporation policy. Was he right?

TN: I don’t know whether we can characterize this or any other government’s policies in recent times in such abstract terms. All the governments inside and outside the EU are trying to find feasible exits from the current situation. This is a brand new situation, in all its elements. You cannot find patterns in earlier periods in the twentieth century or nineteenth century. The previous economic crisis had different characteristics with different developments, and so on. So everybody is just trying to identify the nature of the crisis, the weakest point of the crisis, the strongest points, and trying to find the exit as soon as possible. And I don’t know if it is anti-globalization or pro-globalization, we are simply trying to make a good government policy.

NT: In your speech to a closed meeting of Fidesz supporters at Kötcse last year, you spoke of the need to create a state which does not serve party interests, but which serves the public. Do you still feel that way, and when might we expect such a state to be created?

TN: Well I hope that by the end of this period, in 2014, voters will be able to feel a different attitude of the state. We have a Marxist historical background. In Hungary the voters and sometimes some of the politicians believe that the government and the state is simply an instrument of the class war, that it is an instrument of the elite – the political elite or the economic elite – and I would like to re-establish the Hungarian state as a public administration above partial interests, above vested interests, and serving the public good, the public welfare of the Hungarian society. That is why we try to build up a new career-line for the public sector, a new institutional scheme for public administration, a very disciplined and a very precise method of working and functioning of the public administration, and I hope that by the next elections, voters can feel the difference in the functioning of the Hungarian state.

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