The shocking truth: politicians lie

by Eszter Hargittai on September 20, 2006

People have been asking me to comment on the recent riots in Budapest so I thought I would say a few words. First, a necessary caveat. I don’t follow Hungarian politics closely.* In fact, I don’t follow Hungarian politics much at all. I could probably write a whole separate post as to why not, suffice it to say that I don’t live in that country for a reason (or two or three) and years ago I decided that it was simply not good for my blood pressure to keep track of events. So I don’t. That said, when something especially noteworthy happens, I am curious to know what it is and will go to Hungarian sources instead of relying on various international reports. I’ve read up on recent events a little bit so here is a quick summary.

Politicians lie. Yawn. The twist here is that apparently many Hungarians naively assumed that they don’t. Worse yet, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was caught on tape saying that his party lied a lot before the elections last Spring. To clarify, the instigator of the riots was not some public speech the Prime Minister made in the last few days. Rather, someone taped and recently leaked a discussion [link to Hungarian text] he had with a a few top people about 180 of his party representatives back in the Spring.

The level of honesty in his comments is naive, refreshing and scary all at the same time. Imagine if you could give some magic potion to a president or prime minister of your choice that would lead the person to talk about his/her actions and policies from the last few years completely openly and eagerly. It could result in some frightening and fascinating speeches. And who knows where that would lead.

Hungary’s got a lot of problems. The main point of Gyurcsány’s speech was that it was time to fix at least some of them. Yes, the irony is that the point of the speech was to say that it was time to stop the lies and make some difficult, but important changes.

Students organize demonstrations, because they don’t want to pay any tuition for college. Pharmacists are appalled, because the government wants to stop their monopoly on selling drugs. (You can’t even buy aspirin in Hungary anyhwere but a pharmacy. Talk about a ridiculous monopoly!) Other than public servants, almost nobody pays the taxes they should, because there are so many ways to cheat the system. So the country runs on a deficit and needs some major fixing. It’s going to be painful. It’s not as though any other political party or coalition could fix these problems without major repercussions. People are freaked out. And now the person who’s introducing painful changes is heard saying that he lied to get elected.

Many people seem naive enough to think that the other side didn’t lie before the elections. Unfortunately – and see any parallels in US politics? – for whatever reason the left won’t start pointing fingers at the right to note that for every lie Gyurcsány’s party told, Orbán’s party (the opposition) told double (if not triple or quadruple). So the question of interest in my opinion is why/how some get away with lies so much better than others. (Okay, I realize being taped admitting to lies is not helpful in keeping it out of the spotlight.)

As to the rioting, it’s probably due to a few, but enough bad elements to spin things out of control. The impression I get from talking to my parents is that the city seems to be functioning just fine and it doesn’t sound like there are major concerns about things getting much worse on that front.

[*] For those not familiar with my background, perhaps I should clarify: I was born and raised in Hungary.



CJColucci 09.20.06 at 12:03 pm

How common a Hungarian name is Hargittai? As you may have noticed Mickey (nee Mikloz) Hargitay, the former Mr. Universe best known for having married Jayne Mansfield and siring Mariska of “Law and Order: SVU” fame (though apparently with a later wife) just died.


Dr. Minorka 09.20.06 at 12:18 pm

Quite common. Hargita is a county in Transylvania:
Hargittai: someone from Hargita (originally).


jacob 09.20.06 at 1:48 pm

On BBC World Service Newshour the other day, they read out an email from one of the listeners, presumably a Hungarian. The gist of the email was that Hungarians have always been at the vanguard of attacking empires that were doomed to crumble–first the Mongols, then the Ottomans, then the Austrians, then the Soviets. Now it’s an attack on the post-Cold War, neoliberal order. Forgetting for the sake of argument the dubious argument about Hungry being the center of world history, was the guy right about this being an attack on neoliberalism? I know that Gyurcsány is from the ex-Communist party, so I’m a little doubtful, but just how liberal is he? And is this a rejection of economic liberalization?


Dr. Minorka 09.20.06 at 2:32 pm

He is a neoliberal (market über alles), but he has a “big heart” for the poor.
This isn’t a particularly popular agenda in Hungary.
What we see is an attempt to finish 1989. They privatized the economy, but medical care and education were kept a little bit outside the market forces. Now they try to change the situation.
But the riot is an attack only on a shameless, incompetent liar.
accounts in English


rachel 09.20.06 at 3:50 pm

Aren’t the protestors angered not by the lies but by the telling of the truth? In Ontario (Canada) we currently have a fiscally responsible provincial government which has taken a hammering since being elected for ‘broken promises’ on various matters, the promises being more accurately described as lies which party leaders told during the election (we won’t have to raise taxes, we can reverse the screwups of the previous government painlessly etc.). Had they not told the lies, they would have almost certainly been rejected by the electorate in favour of the irresponsible tax-cutting party whose messes they are now cleaning up. But I’m sure that if the premier were taped saying, ‘Duh, of course we had to fib during the election!’ people would be outraged. Even though we know that they know that we know that they knew what we knew all along too…. Lying has become an accepted, expected form of deference to public opinion — telling the truth, not so much.
Or are the cases not similar?


mt 09.20.06 at 3:51 pm

Sorry to hear Hungary has many problems and riots to boot. FWIW: Having visited Hungary a couple years back with my wife & small child I was astonished at how children friendly and beautiful the country was. Driving in Hungary was not a joy.


clone12 09.20.06 at 4:35 pm

Having visited Hungary a couple years back with my wife & small child I was astonished at how children friendly and beautiful the country was. Driving in Hungary was not a joy.

I’m sure the two are related at some level. How rustic can Hungary look if you collar it with Interstate-10?


Dr. Minorka 09.20.06 at 5:34 pm

First: The unbeliavable rude language, like a drunken sailor: “we screwed up” (and several stylistic variants), “shit”, he said twice: “this whore country”, etc.
Second: It was a secretive meeting, protected by the Sercet Service, his speech was officially recorded. The meeting was held to persuade the elected socialist MPs to support his programme. There will be a new election (municipial) at October 1st, and the programme of the new government is hairrising. So, he had to persuade them to choose him, and his programme. This was a secret speech.
Of course his speech was a lie. He tried to avoid direct responsibilty: he said “WE did it”, not that “I’M responsible”. What happend is that he deliberately ruined the budget to win the election, at all costs. – So this is not the Ontario case. He was the acting prime minister before the election, and he is the acting prime minister after the election (though his chances to survive this crisis are uncertain).
What he really want is to transform the universal social services into means-tested services.
This is clearly the agony of the Hungarian Left.


leederick 09.20.06 at 5:42 pm

The two problems are these:

(1) After an election politicians aren’t in anyway bound by what they said before the election.

(2) Once elected politicians are in office for a term, regardless of the views of the public.

These are the case in governments all over the world. But it isn’t inevitable, so do we have to response with resigned cynicism? Maybe the protesters have a point.

Why shouldn’t the courts be able to remove politicians from office for lying and breaches of promises? And why shouldn’t we be able to kick politicians out half way through their term via recall elections? I wouldn’t hire a plumber I couldn’t sack him for breaches of trust and on the basis that he could do whatever he wanted until I reviewed the situation in 5 years time.


Brett Bellmore 09.20.06 at 5:47 pm

Rachel, I think this reaction underscores the difference between the public accepting lying by politicians, and being resigned to it. Sure, they do it. Sure, we have no real way to stop them from doing it. But that doesn’t mean we approve of it.

Today lying by politicians is restrained by their perceived need to at least appear honest. How much worse would they be if they were emboldened to think that perception unnecessary?


Dr. Minorka 09.20.06 at 5:49 pm

“Unfortunately – and see any parallels in US politics? – for whatever reason the left won’t start pointing fingers at the right to note that for every lie Gyurcsány’s party told, Orbán’s party (the opposition) told double (if not triple or quadruple).”
The left tries, unsuccesfully. In a pre-election debate (television) Mr. Gyurcsany asked Mr. Orban not telling lies, as he won’t raise prices (household gas), he won’t introduce fees for patients (for using medical services). It turned out that he was the liar. (There are many examples of this type).


Pepe 09.20.06 at 9:21 pm

Actually, cj, Mariska Hargitay is the daughter of Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay.


István Aranyosi 09.20.06 at 9:26 pm

I agree with everything dr minorka has said before. Let me add, as a Transylvanian Hungarian (which means in my case that I’m not a Hungarian citizen), that the guy, Gyurcsány, is –believe me- since December 2004 the most hated person in Transylvania, because of his dirty, truly disgusting, and unfortunately efficient campaign against Hungarians outside Hungary (and so Transylvanian Hungarians) being offered the option to take up Hungarian citizenship too, besides their current citizenship. The riots are unfortunate. Fortunate they will be if they’ll lead to the fall of Gyurcsány together with his government. The problem is then: what’s the alternative? On the other side, on the right wing, it seems to me, Hungarians also have to deal with the Devil in person. But all this is not my business, as I’m not a citizen of their country and don’t even plan to, or wish to be…

Finally, I find it unfortunate that most of the international media seems to be sympathetic to Gyurcsány in many ways.


Melissa 09.20.06 at 9:56 pm

#9 Leederick asks
And why shouldn’t we be able to kick politicians out half way through their term via recall elections?

In the Parliamentry system, governments can loose a confidence vote. It is commonlly limited to minority governments, but even a majority can fall if enough ruling MPs will vote against the government.


Jim Johnson 09.20.06 at 10:19 pm

I thought it was oddly inspiring that people got pissed off enough by politicians fibbing to protest. Call me naive (you will be in a very small minority), but I wish the US public would have the gumption to do the same in the face of BushCo and their casual attitude toward the truth …


Nick L 09.21.06 at 4:08 am

re neoliberalism:

I thought Hungary had gone down a Keynesian-ish route of deficit spending, which despite early signs of success resulted in the huge deficit, thus ‘necessitating’ the Structural Adjustment style austerity that Gyurcsány is trying to bring in. Is there an expert here who can clarify this?

On the Hungarian passport issue, I don’t want to stoke things up, but it was my understanding that the EU and most of the international community were very glad that the dual passport referendum failed, as it would have created tensions with Romania and Slovakia.


Dr. Minorka 09.21.06 at 5:28 am

(I’m not an economist).
Initially it was a policy based on boosting domestic demand (though not in a careless way), but deficit was controlled. (-2002)
The new socialist government promised everything and they fulfilled the promises; this was a mindless general spending furry; not specifically targeted, so the situation rapidly run out of controll.


xyz 09.21.06 at 6:57 am

I know people in US and EU have become jaded and find it normal for politicians to lie. However, Central and Eastern Europeans have just come out (maybe not “just”) from a political system where lying was the norm. Do you find it so weird that they are disappointed when they hear they were lied and have elected hypocrites? Besides, what makes a democracy superior to a dictatorship if both are based on the same sort of lies? Also, maybe people from developed countries have forgot that their institutions have a long enough history of checks and balances that keeps their politicians from abusing the power too much. This is not necessarily so in a new democracy.


jacob 09.21.06 at 8:52 am

Besides, what makes a democracy superior to a dictatorship if both are based on the same sort of lies?

The fact that dictatorship is based on coercion and (parliamentary/liberal) democracy is based on consent. Er, at least in theory.


xyz 09.21.06 at 9:55 am

jacob – well, i guess that the key word in your reply is “at least in theory”. If you know that both party A and party B are lying to you and whoever you vote is going to pursue only his own interests none of your own and there are no ways to keep the party in power accountable to what they declare, the wording “based on consent” is rather empty. Communism was also based on consent – since you had no other viable option (just one party and persecution as the alternative if you were not supporting the one party).
What shocks me, as a person from a new democracy, is the way people shrug their shoulders at the impunity of some politicians. It seems very cynical to say “yes, i know the politicians lie to me in all aspects and their actions harm me and there is nothing i will do to stop them”. Then we all go at get superpissed at the american corporation because they lie. Why not? If the politicians lie, why shouldn’t they?
not that i support the protests in Budapest – it is a beautiful city and seeing photos burned cars is very disquieting – however, simply dismissing the statements of the Hungarian PM as banal is even more disquieting.


CJColucci 09.21.06 at 11:23 am

Thanks. That’ll teach me to guess a woman’s age. Maybe it’ll teach me to be less cynical, assuming that the powers-that-be in show biz wouldn’t cast a 40-something in such a part……Nah!


Eszter 09.21.06 at 12:20 pm

Part of the point I was trying to make was that the other side has lied tremendously more and that seems to go ignored completely.

As Pepe noted, Mariska Hargitay IS the daughter of those two people. She’s a great actress. L&O SVU, in general, does quite a few things one might not expect.

Hargittai: someone from Hargita (originally).

Not quite right. “Hargitai” is someone from the Hargita region. The extra t suggests that the relation may be less direct. My family has nothing to do with that region, for example, since my uncle and then father picked up this name (sort of out of nowhere) so we have absolutely no history with it.

There are four variants of it:
Hargitai and Hargitay are more “authentic” given that the area in Transylvania is spelled as such. Hargittai and Hargittay are less authentic. You’ll definitely find a few dozen such names in the phone book, less of the 2 ts variety.


Jacob Christensen 09.21.06 at 2:36 pm

Just out of curiosity, I took a look at the latest Eurobarometer report (that’s #65 and it’s only the preliminary report which has been published). The picture of Hungary is a bit bewildering – on the one hand:

The proportion of people experiencing improvement over the course of the last five
years in their personal situation has been increasingly steadily in Hungary. Although
the proportion of people saying their situation has worsened is decreasing, their
number still surpasses the number of people experiencing improvement.

Similarly to the results of the previous surveys, Hungarians are the least satisfied in
the European Union with the life they lead in general. In the EU, 81% of citizens said
they are satisfied with their lives but only half of the people asked in Hungary
expressed similar feelings.

And since politics and economic development could be linked, one should expect a high degree of dissatisfaction with the political system, but:

In the spring of 2006, when parliamentary elections were held in Hungary,
spectacular growth in Hungarians’ trust in the national political system was seen.
Almost half of those surveyed said they trust in the government and almost the same
proportion expressed trust in the parliament. Even trust in political parties, which was
very low in previous periods, has doubled and nearly one-third of people taking part
in the survey said they trust in political parties. This proportion is extremely high in
comparison with other EU member countries.

A lot of things could be said about the EB and the way its findings are reported but this seems a bit strange. On the other hand the severity of the protests could perhaps be explained as the reaction to the earlier (temporary?) increase in political and institutional trust.

Eurobarometer 65, Executive summary of the national report for Hungary (pdf-archive). The quotes are from pages 2 and 3.


Jacob Christensen 09.21.06 at 2:45 pm

I’m sorry: I didn’t mean to make poetry out of the Eurobarometer but for some reason the preview box doesn’t work in my browser so I didn’t notice the odd formatting.

Speaking of names and completely off-topic: I have always found it slightly amusing that one of my cousins is in fact married Lakatos. Mr. Lakatos has no interest in the philosophy of science that I am aware of, though. One the other hand, my cousin is half-Finnish.


Eszter 09.21.06 at 4:34 pm

Jacob – Hungarians have a history of not being satisfied. The country has had one of the highest suicide rates for decades. Although I see now that it’s been decreasing [pdf] in recent years, interesting. So I’m not sure what all that explains in this context.


Tracy W 09.21.06 at 9:09 pm

If you know that both party A and party B are lying to you and whoever you vote is going to pursue only his own interests none of your own and there are no ways to keep the party in power accountable to what they declare, the wording “based on consent” is rather empty. Communism was also based on consent – since you had no other viable option (just one party and persecution as the alternative if you were not supporting the one party).

Just because there’s no mechanism to hold parties to their promises doesn’t mean that there’s no mechanism to hold parties accountable. Whoever you vote has an incentive to pursue enough of the interests of the general population to win the next election. (This may not include pursuing your interests however).

Parties can manage to stuff up in all sorts of ways, including ways that don’t have much to do with whether they kept or broke their campaign promises. After all, Governments often have to deal with situations that no one anticipated during the election campaign. And a Government could conceivably keep all its pre-election promises and yet still be massively incompetent as a Government when it comes to day-to-day running.

For example, I don’t recall any political party in the NZ 1999 election laying out what its response would be to a major terrorist attack on the USA, yet that’s what the NZ Government faced from 12 September 2001 onwards. And responses to new situations, not just security threats, but evolving information about climate change, etc, can lead a Government to shift its priorities and policies as it governs, in a way that could lead to it being a bad idea to implement pre-election promises.

On the other side, voters can hold governments responsible for things the government can’t do anything about. I’ve never seen the data, but people keep saying that when the All Blacks play badly the NZ Government’s ratings fall – if that’s true it’s an example of a Government being held accountable for something it really can’t control. Another, clearer one, is that Governments are often held accountable for short-term fluctuations in the economy which probably has nothing to do with them.

So don’t give up on democracy yet. The accountability thing is rather vaguely connected to what Governments actually do, but there is more of a connection than under other forms of large-scale Government humanity has tried.

And there are mechanisms around for reducing the lying politicians can do. For example, political independence of the statistics department.


bi 09.22.06 at 2:47 am

Tracy W s3z, “So don’t give up on democracy yet.” Of course, given that the arguments you’ve advanced for current forms of democracy hinge largely on abstract abstractions and unknown unknowns, the question is, when do we give up democracy?


abb1 09.22.06 at 3:23 am

And there are mechanisms around for reducing the lying politicians

It’s called ‘guillotine’.


xyz 09.22.06 at 6:27 am

tracy w:

well, so it goes in theory. One major ingredient is that there would be a party that is willing to pursue enough of the interests of the general population. If neither party is interested in this, the electorate cannot do much. It all amounts to the quality of the people in the political class. Thank you for the basic lesson in how a democracy works. You have just confirmed that people in developed contries have no clue how eratic the system can become when it is confronted with very weak and young institutions and a rotten political class (which cannot be changed at will, unfortunately).
I have never assumed the government will pursue my interests as an individual, but you would like to believe that they should try to pursue enough of the interests of the general population, at least for the sake of re-election. And I have seen them failing to show at least the good-will of trying to do so.
Now, this does not mean that I will “give up democracy”, as you put it, but that I sympathise with the Hungarians that feel disappointed by the government. Not with the Hungarian opposition or the people burning cars.
Also, that i find more hope in a disfunctional country that is appaled when their politicians misbehave, than in a disfunctional country where everybody accepts that politicians lie and cheat and nobody gives a damn.


Jacob Christensen 09.22.06 at 9:32 am

Eszter (post 25): Scary and fascinating figures indeed. It’s not just the Hungarian food which is deadly, being Hungarian is, too. (I assume that Slovakia, Romania and Poland are the proper cases to compare with)

OT but the numbers for Belgium are interesting, given that the country’s Catholic culture. But maybe it is the quality of public services (any services, actually) which drive the Belgians over the brink?

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