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Europe diary: Political lies
21 September 2006

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell on the Hungarian prime minister's admission of lying, the motives of the protesters hoping to bring him down, and the difficulty of selling painful reforms to voters.

The diary is published every Thursday.


Protesters and coffin outside the Hungarian parliament
Gloomy protest: A coffin symbolises the wish to bury the government
The lawns outside Hungary's ornate domed parliament are slowly turning to mud under the protesters' feet. There's no relief for the grass or the people as the morning's downpour turns to afternoon drizzle. They wave the red, white and green Hungarian flag as best they can while holding umbrellas. Their expectation that they will destroy a prime minister they detest is strong, but it's difficult for them to feel exultant in this weather.

The chanting of "Resign, resign!", "Come out here now!", "The police are on our side!" is sporadic, brief and the singing of the national anthem peters out into a deep-throated mutter - as ever, people don't really seem to know more than the first verse. But the weather will change and their resolve will not. This may not be an Orange Revolution, but it goes to the heart of a question that plagues modern democracies. Why are politicians such liars?


Hungary's Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany has come unstuck for telling the truth about lying. He wasn't tricked or trapped. It wasn't a late night ramble to his closest confidant that was caught on tape. Instead his recorded words were from an amazingly honest speech about not telling the truth, to his own party.

And while he didn't intend it to get out to a wider public, he knew what he was saying and meant it to shock. He admits that his party has made a mess of Hungary's economy, and that "We lied morning, noon and night". Now the crowds outside his office are saying he's got to go.


A Texan cameraman once despairingly drawled a phrase I have never forgotten, which sums up TV news: "If it bleeds, it leads." Violence does make headlines and I doubt the protest in Hungary would have got so much attention if it hadn't been accompanied by a riot. In the small hours, a few hundred people did smash their way into the main TV station setting it on fire, so I was whisked to Budapest to cover a story that is fascinatingly complex. The crowds outside parliament are a mixed bag with mixed motives.

Elderly demonstrator
Some of the protesters are reasonable pensioners...
First there are those who are simply outraged by the lying. A smartly dressed man, who travelled with his wife form the lovely Lake Balaton area to demand the PM's resignation summed up this view well.

A necessary frustration of TV reporting is having to cut complex arguments to 15-second soundbites, so I'm going to quote him at length here: "For more than two years he said we had an economic boom and everybody believed him and voted for him. Now it turns out the opposite was true. We have very serious economic problems and as pensioners we feel it every day. If he'd told us we were in trouble and it was going to be difficult for a few years we would have accepted it."


But it's not all nice reasonable pensioners. There is also the hard right, fascists, extreme nationalists - call them what you want. Knots of young skinheads stand together smoking. One has the SS flash tattooed on his neck, 88 (meaning "Heil Hitler!") is stitched to another's leather jacket. Older men wear paramilitary gear complete with berets.

Protester using mobile phone
... others represent the hard Right
As afternoon turns to evening, the skinheads hang back from the chanting, singing crowd and mutter into mobile phones. Eventually they march off, some now hooded, hiding their faces. I am sure the violence is their doing, but it's hard to say if it's a revolutionary act or whether politics, like football, is just an excuse for a ruck.

Then there is the feeling of unfinished business with the communists. Many demonstrators argue they are the heirs of the spirit of '56 when Hungarians rose against their Soviet masters. The prime minister is a former communist who became a millionaire. That apparent dichotomy sums up a certain mood here, which is familiar in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Many feel the same elite is still in charge and is bent on making changes to pensions and public service that will hurt the ordinary citizens and feather their own nests.

While the historical background is very different from Britain's, many of the economic arguments against tuition fees and privatisation of the health service feel very familiar. One man told me: "The people who lead Hungary are thieves. They are the sons and daughters of ex-communists who have come to power cheating the nation. They have all the money and all the power."


The prime minister is not contrite. But his defence explains why people in democracy think politicians lie, and why they are often right. It's because the people who want power don't think the voters are tough enough, mature enough, to take the unvarnished truth.

Ferenc Gyurcsany
I was speaking about the whole elite - we repeated and repeated that you can be richer, fulfil your dreams, and we can give you happiness and fortune
Ferenc Gyurcsany
The prime Minster tells me that he wasn't talking about specific lies uttered by him, but by everyone. I asked him why he wouldn't resign, as he admitted lying. He said: "I was speaking about the whole elite. We repeated and repeated that you can be richer, fulfil your dreams, and we can give you happiness and fortune as a gift. This is a real lie. For the last 15 years, none of us were brave enough to initiate deep reform. We wanted to avoid painful measures and always found excuses not to act. That's the real lie." He says now he is the first politician brave enough to admit his mistakes.

I'm pretty sure he was laying it on with a trowel in the speech, to convince his own left wing they had to change. But I am even more certain that many politicians feel they know what is the best for their country, but don't think people would vote for the unvarnished truth. Perhaps we need not only honest politicians but an honest electorate, willing to face the fact that sometimes there is only a choice between unpalatable options. What's your solution for a more honest politics?


If this is a general dilemma in democracies, it's particularly acute in Eastern Europe. In the last couple of weeks I've been told the same thing in the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania. Many who want economic reform think their governments are too lily-livered to push through changes and not honest enough about what they would mean.

But the changes that market economists say are vital will initially benefit the well-off and hurt the poor. That is difficult to sell, and not just in the East: I think Romano Prodi and Angela Merkel in Italy and Germany will continue to have trouble making the changes they want - changes that are not as far-reaching as many economists say is necessary.

I was in Hungary two decades ago and people told me how lucky we were to have Margaret Thatcher. I had difficulty explaining that not everyone in Britain felt that lucky. Did she push through the sort of changes much of Europe is still struggling with by being honest, or concealing their impact?

Please use the postform below to comment on any of the issues raised in the diary.

Most people didn't have a clue about what was going on in the economy before the elections and believed whatever was said in the media. As I see it, if people had known the truth about the economy, they could have accepted the consequences, but being misled and taken for fools - that really hurt people a lot. Mr Gyurcsány behaves in such an arrogant way on top of all that. Since the tape has been leaked, he hasn't apologised to people for having misled them. How can you trust a liar in the future? How can you believe him in the future? How can a liar represent Hungary? The least he could do is to step down.
Katalin Kertai, Budapest, Hungary

I do not think that Gyurcsany should resign. In the pre-election campaign the right-wing parties told us the same lies, made similar promises if they were elected, while trying their best to discredit the government, and they have been doing the same ever since. Some demonstrators are reasonable citizens who disagree with the austerity measures, but the violent gangs are football hooligans and far-right activists. I believe the riots should not be overrated and considered as another "glorious fight against Communist dictatorship", but in fact I feel ashamed and disappointed that the far-right could summon and manipulate their masses like this and put our country in such bad light.
Emese Racz, Budapest, Hungary

This ex young communist leader did not tell anything to his nation, he was caught. He did not admit anything! He is not brave, just wants to save his and his ex-communist friends' power. Almost all of the TV channels were on his side to tell these lies... He is not accepted any more by half of his country.
Gabor Hovan, Szarvas, Hungary

Let me say this: Mr Gyurcsany hasn't actually lied to anyone. The opposition has been accusing him of lying ever since he took office as they would accuse any socialist. This is just a given in their discourse. So there is no surprise for them and certainly no fan of Mr Orban voted for him, that's why I think it's hypocritical to say that he tricked people in that camp.

The people who voted for Mr Gyurcsany did so not because they believed his lies, but either because they were true believers in whatever he said or did not say or because they thought they would be worse off with Mr Orban.

Not one person protesting today against Mr Gyurcsany ever voted for him, so the disillusionment and betrayal issues are totally beside the point. In reality (or at least what I think is the case), this is just a felicitous coincidence for Mr Orban, who has been building up a discourse about the "illegitimacy" of the government and its "lies" for months.
Istvan, Hungary

The sun comes up every morning. The politicians lie. That's the same, everybody knows these things are true. Why did Ferenc Gyurcsány and the MSZP tell people that everything is ok, your life will be better and better? It's simple. They wanted to win the elections. They knew if they won this election in 2006 they would be able to win the next two also. Hungary will get an enormous amount of money from the EU in the next few years, but for this Gyurcsány has to get the economy in a normal way. Of course he wanted power, but he also knew that the country needs the reforms and he also knew that the other party (Fidesz) and its leader Orbán won't do these reforms, because the aren't interested in that. Gyurcsány doesn't have to resign. He was elected democratically. Now he must finish what he has already started.
Béla Rabi, Budapest, Hungary

I am sad, really sad that that is my nation. This is how people are. Stealing and destroying everything around them. There are some who think, but most of the crowd is just there to make a fuss. Honestly this is not the last time when politicians lie. I don't think Gyurcsany's resignation would solve the situation. I think what could move us forward as a nation is thinking. People should start to read and think and not to follow other people's ideas but to have their own opinion. So reforms would not take them by surprise. So they would have other reason than "I am here on this demonstration because of the cheap beer".
Barbara, Budapest, Hungary

I commend the people of Hungary for demanding the resignation of a liar! All peoples should follow their lead - if politicians had to resign when they were proved to be telling porkies then they might think twice about it... We NEED politicians who serve the country, NOT their parties or themselves!!!
Carol Moss, Spain

The socialists (former communists)... acquired enormous personal wealth at the cost of ordinary Hungarians. Then they tell everyone else that they have to pay more taxes (I have my own business and 70% of my income goes into government coffers and as a foreigner I have no rights). Frankly the only solution is going to be something drastic. The violence that has occurred in Budapest is only harming the cause of democracy and the chance to get rid of the liars.
Mark, Pécs, Hungary

He is uniquely honest and hence deserves support of the people, not a hostile attitude. He deserves forgiveness. But it is better if he leaves.
Maroof Matin, Freetown, Sierra Leone

I hope all readers know that the rioting people are just a bunch of hooligans and criminals riding the wave of this political tension. Normal, everyday Hungarians, and especially people of Budapest refuse this violent behaviour... We are upset about these people destroying private property, threatening us and reflecting such a bad image on our country. The PM has to go, that's no question, but there are other means to solve this problem. (I just wonder why people believed in him so far?!)
Gabor Mihaltz, Budapest, Hungary

In truth there will always be some group that is harmed in some way by an economic policy; to say that any policy is for the good of everyone is both simplistic and deceitful.

No government will ever do what is best for the greater good, because what is good for most isn't good for all. Meaning they will have to admit that some will be harmed without ever seeing the benefits of that policy. So because doing what is best for everyone is impossible to achieve they do what is best for themselves and their small group of interests. And if this happens to coincide with what their other supporters want, then so much the better. In this respect there is no difference between any Western leader and any Third World dictator. And people will tolerate this cynical reward for the loyalty they show these politicians because all they are looking for is what is best for themselves and to hell with anyone else.
Steven Corradi, Bolingbrook, ILL., US

I sympathise with Mr Gyurcsany. We get the politicians we deserve: most voters only want to hear promises of good news with no pain (or if pain is involved only for the mythical 'rich'). As another politician said on being asked when they would institute economic reforms: "Oh, we know what to do, but not how to be re-elected afterwards".
TB, Hampshire, UK

Winston Churchill earned the esteem of the British people in 1940 because he told the people the bare facts, rallied them, and they responded magnificently as did many other peoples around the world. A lesson for all politicians.
Brian Judge, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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