The following interview with Dr Katalin Levai, Member of the European Parliament and former Minister for Equal Opportunity in the Hungarian government was conducted by CHEF partner and journalist Andrew Princz in October 2007.
More than politics — Katalin Lévai tries to promote social cohesion in a polarized Hungary
By Andrew Princz
Katalin Lévai is no ordinary politician. Today a Member of the European Parliament, she is an author, a commentator and has a long history of working in the field of sociology, including a former professorship, and a cache of books she authored on the subject.
In 2003 she was named as Hungary’s first Minister of Equal Opportunities, a clear signal to Europe regarding Hungary’s priority accorded to bettering the treatment of minorities. Her goal was the protection of vulnerable groups such as Roma, women and persons with disabilities.
As minister, she spearheaded the development, passing and enforcement of Hungary’s first anti-discrimination legislation. Subsequently as a member of the EU parliament, she is Vice-Chairwoman of the Committee on Legal Affairs, and sits on the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. While she may have moved to Brussels, she continues to play an active role in public life in Hungary.
Today, with Hungary’s economic situation worsening, the social context in parallel has fared no better. Andrew Princz of ontheglobe.com spoke to Katalin Lévai on the place of Hungary within the European Union, the challenges that Hungary is facing, and the continued polarization of the country that she represents.
As Hungary’s first minister for equal opportunity you set an example of a new role in politics. Today you are a writer, a member of the European Parliament, involved in social actions. You have become more than a politician!
I have a very colourful career, and I insist on this. If you are a politician you have to be interested in so many things. In my case social affairs, life strategies and coping with issues for those who have difficulties in life is an important mission. Having been a minister was a milestone for this country because it was the first time that somebody in government represented equal opportunities. Since that time there has been no such minister. Our economic and geo-political situation is so difficult at the moment that unfortunately many of the leading politicians believe that equal opportunity has become less important. It is very difficult to create a balance between economy and growth – a keynote notion in Hungary now.
You subsequently took up a position as a member of the European Parliament. How has Hungary fared in creating working strategies?
I think that for us – the newcomers – it was quite a difficult task. In contrast to the representatives from the old countries who were very experienced, and who knew the system. For the first year we all had to learn to accommodate ourselves. It was a time for adaptation and learning. But I believe that all of the members of the parliament are very ambitious and really want to show that we represent a country that copes with difficulties, and we want to give a more or less realistic picture of Hungary. In the European Parliament we have a better cooperation between the Socialist Party and the European Peoples Party groups than we have in Hungary between the Fidesz and the Hungarian Socialist Party.
For me it continues, however, to be very important to represent issues in Hungary. I take part in social actions, organize public hearings, and continue to have a presence in the Hungarian Parliament. I take part in conferences and events of civil society, keeping contact with socially vulnerable people. People write letters to me and ask for help, I try to help them. I try to bring back what I have learned in the European Parliament and to make myself useful.
Hungary remains a terribly divided society and signs are that it gets less and less cohesive. Do you see any positive changes?
Before the elections I do not think that it will become more cohesive because the dividing line between two politically biased groups is so deep. The whole country is totally divided into two parts. This is in a political sense not in an economic or a social sense. Socially the country is divided into many more parts. There are big differences between the regions in Hungary, which is also a problem. But in a political sense this division line is so marked and cannot be changed. It is not in the interest of the opposition to change this before the elections.
Why is it that certain members of Hungarian society have seen fit to create a so-called Hungarian Guard?
There is a new right-wing radical movement emerging at the moment. It is not very big, nor is it very widespread – but even so, I think that it is dangerous. Why is it so radical? The economic situation is bad in Hungary and this always gives a good base for radicalism. There are some who are more critical and hostile towards the present government than the so-to-say normal right-wing elements. They express themselves in this way. Every society has a certain percentage of people who are radical: in the right, or in the left. In Hungary it is no more or no less. They constitute about five percent of society. But we have a problem that we do not know how to cope with them because they found a loophole in the legal system. They created a civil society and as such they cannot be prohibited, even if they use Nazi reminiscences, dress or the whole symbolism recalling that era. In Germany, these movements are prohibited. In Hungary we are thinking about what we should change in our legal system to stop the development of these types of organizations.
These people are disgruntled. The party that you represent have been charged with inappropriate use of funds, and we can recall the speech of the Prime Minister in Ősződ where he admitted to having lied to the people. This leads many to question the transparency of this government, and we could attribute at least some of this ‘radical’ behaviour as a reaction to these events.
I absolutely agree, and if you look at the opinion polls you can see the difference. We have only half as many supporters as the opposition party, and we have lost half of our own supporters. This is due to the facts that you have mentioned. If the government cannot gain credibility in the next three years then we will lose the elections.
At the same time you talk about the radical right as being an ultra-radical concept. Yet at the same time when there is a cooperation among the whole political elite that hides problems under the carpet, the population becomes so disenchanted that the radical slowly becomes a mainstream concept. Would you agree?
Yes, I do. What makes us different from the majority of European democracies is that our rightist party has a close relationship with the radical right, and in fact they work together. The voting base is the same for the radicals and for FIDESZ. In France or better developed democracies this is not the case.
I go back to the systemic changes, and even discussions that I had with former president Árpád Göncz who denied that there were criminals among the former political elite. That there was an entente among the political elite during the systemic changes that allowed for many things to stay under the carpet. After a certain point you can ask yourself the question: is it radical to have enough of being governed from above? Is this not a plague of all the Hungarian political elite today?
That is true but we do not have another political elite – and this cannot be changed. I do not see the persons in the second line that could come forward. Neither from the Socialist Party nor can FIDESZ produce such newcomers. Those that are clean, that are ambitious and interested in social affairs are pushed behind. It is a very closed oligarchic system.
Clashes with police, massive street demonstrations, civil unrest. Many are very disappointed from these events. What do you see as the root causes of this situation?
People are fed up with our political elite, our political life. People have become affected in their everyday life. Everybody has become disturbed in their normal private lives, and is forced to deal with political life. People no longer want to accept this state of affairs. There is a big disillusionment.
The recent situation in Hungary is the result of a deep-felt disillusionment with the way that the privatizations took place, the fact that secret service files were not released as was done in some neighbouring countries. Can these events be reviewed? Are we past that? Many of these ‘radical’ elements ask that these be reviewed even today.
I do not think that this will happen in the future. It’s almost impossible to do that. It would mean a complex rethinking of the whole period which has been lasting for almost twenty years now, so there is no hope. There are reforms concerning health system, public administration. If these reforms can take place and happen, that is the maximum that we can achieve. But re-thinking the privatizations – it is not on the agenda.
Andrew Princz is a travel and culture writer and editor of the web portal ontheglobe.com. He is the author of Bridging the Divide: Canadian and Hungarian stories of the 1956 Revolution, a publication authored in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Hungary’s 1956 revolution.