Mourning of Writer Imre Kertész, Outrage over Government’s Actions

Hungary, 13 Mar - 09 Apr 2016
Writer and Nobel prize winner Imre Kertész dies aged 86 ++ Outrage over education reform sparks “Plaid Shirt Revolution” ++ Brussels attacks renew government push for exceptional powers ++ Referendum process turns into tragicomedy. by Balázs Márton, Janina Rottmann
Writer and Nobel prize winner Imre Kertész dies aged 86

Hungary mourns the death of one of its most famous and talented writers, Imre Kertész, who died on 30 March at the age of 86 after suffering of Parkinson’s disease for several years. In 2002, Kertész won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The story of his awarded book „Fatelessness“ was largely drawn from his experiences as a teenage prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the communist dictatorship in Hungary.

Kertész was born in Budapest in 1929. In June 1944, he was deported to the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau and sent to Buchenwald later. He survived the Holocaust and returned home to Budapest. He started to work as a journalist and translator. From the 1970s to 1990s, he wrote numerous novels studying the Holocaust and repressive and totalitarian regimes. “Fatelessness” made him the first Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and brought him international fame and recognition. The Nobel committee explained that “Kertész's message is that to live is to conform” and that „individual experience seems useless as soon as it is regarded in the light of the needs and interests of the human collective.”

However, it brought him also resentment in his home country of those who preferred a Non-Jewish author to be honoured. The book was published in 1975 after a decade-long struggle. The communist regime and the public neglected any participation of Hungarians in the extermination of around 500,000 Hungarian Jews by Nazi Germany and the Hungarian authorities, who collaborated with Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. “I belong to those Jews whom Auschwitz turned into Jews”, said Kertész once. In 2002, the novel was finally incorporated into Hungary's high school curriculum.

Outrage over education reform sparks “Plaid Shirt Revolution”

Tensions are running high with education reforms in Hungary these days. The national conservative government of Fidesz party and Christian Democrats (KDNP) centralised the whole educational system, taking over control of schools previously run by local administrations, monopolising the issuance of textbooks and creating the Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Centre (Klik) that runs the day-to-day operation of schools. Its activity has been marred by complaints about increased bureaucracy, late payments and shortages of basics goods like paper and chalks. Further reforms included a new, controversial salary system for teachers.

Although Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tried to calm the situation by replacing the state secretary for education, promising to transform Klik and establishing a roundtable, a movement led by a disgruntled teacher demands reforms the government is unwilling to accept. After István Klinghammer, an ex-state secretary of the previous Orbán cabinet stated that he is angry with these “unshaved, shaggy” teachers in plaid shirts, the latter became the symbol of the movement. The public massively supports the teachers. Many children were kept home on February 29 as a protest and a strike was held on March 30, although this was relatively small. Another, more large-scale one, was announced for April 20.

Brussels attacks renew government push for exceptional powers

Two Hungarian citizens were injured in the Brussels terror attacks on March 22. Government members are trying to use the attacks to win support for their anti-migration policies. Furthermore, the government pushes again for the introduction of exceptional measures in case of a terrorist threat. Hitherto, the opposition parties have blocked this draft law because they deem the planned measures (e.g. controlling internet use, curtailing media activities, closing down borders) as too far-reaching. The governing parties Fidesz and KDNP need the votes of at least one other parliamentary group to reach the necessary two-thirds majority in the parliament for modifying the constitution. Therefore, a new, watered-down draft law was proposed. However, it did not gain the necessary support yet.

According to the Washington Times, the terrorist organisation Islamic State, that’s responsible for the Brussels attacks, stated that its next targets for a terror attack “might be Portugal and Hungary.” Additionally, Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita reported that the US intelligence agency CIA warned Polish authorities of a concerted attack on Warsaw, Berlin and Budapest. According to the Hungarian government, the agency stated that they did not issue such notice.

Referendum process turns into tragicomedy

A series of referendum questions are on Hungary’s political agenda. Previously, PM Orbán’s government of Fidesz party and KDNP had narrowed the rules under which referendums are conducted. One of the new regulations stipulates that only one referendum on a certain issue can be initialised by the National Electoral Committee at a time. Thus, the person or party who gets their initiative validated by the judiciary first gets the chance of asking the citizens on this certain topic. That way, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) had been hindered several times to let the people vote on the highly unpopular law to close all stores – except small family shops – on Sundays because others clogged up the process with poorly constructed questions that were eventually dismissed.

On 23 February, two Socialist MPs went to the NCB early morning to hand in their referendum proposal, but faced unexpected opponents: a group of skinheads and an old lady. The skinheads are affiliated with Ferencvaros, a professional football club headed by Gábor Kubatov, member of the parliament and vice-president of governing party Fidesz. The old lady is the wife of a former Fidesz politician. The skinheads physically hindered the MSZP politicians from entering the building, thus, securing that the old lady could hand in her referendum proposal first. It was approved by the so called validator shortly afterwards.

Neither the skinheads nor the old lady did give any comment regarding the encounter or the filed motion. Since MSZP’s referendum proposal attacked an unpopular but symbolically important law of the government, the sole purposes of the appearance of the skinheads and the old lady seems to be to prevent PM Orbán from a huge defeat.

The incident caused broad media attention. PM Orbán called it “shameful”, however, he missed to acknowledge the involvement of people closely related to officials of his party. Due to public outrage, the government pledged to re-write the rules that regulate referendums. Subsequently, on 6 April, the court unexpectedly validated MSZP’s referendum proposal.

The left-wing opposition party also handed in a valid referendum proposal to ban selling state-owned lands. Additionally, independent MP Zoltán Kész successfully initialised a referendum to limit the salary of executive officers of public companies. Meanwhile, Fidesz party pushed through a referendum against the mandatory redistribution of asylum seekers among EU member states, despite claims that the question is in legal clash with EU responsibilities, international law and the constitution.

HU_2016-2_Imre Kertész
Source: Scaba Segesvári camera-man | CC BY-SA 3.0

Imre Kertész (1929–2016) Hungarian writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002

Related topics

Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP)
Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Alliance
Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP)
Imre Kertész
Viktor Orbán

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