On Monday at the National Assembly, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that anyone who has lost employment due to the current and imminent economic downfall in Hungary, will be able to get another job within 3 months, if not in the private sector, then through employment by the state. This was a bold statement that ignited a heated debate in Parliament and raised many questions by the opposition.
While some politicians did not doubt that the objective to enable everybody to have a job was meaningful, they played the populist chord and said that oligarchs should pay back now what they took away from the people earlier. Others said in a similarly frivolous style that the government should reveal the real number of unemployed people, and answer why it is unable or unwilling to help them.
Attila Mesterházy, member of the MSZP party, emphasized in a more serious remark that the situation bears inherent possibilities, and if we step forward in self-sufficiency and restructure the country’s economy, our society would become more resilient, which might prove to be useful any time in the future. PM Viktor Orbán agreed that the proposal was worth considering.
Most articulated was the “what-if” scenarios addressed by LMP and DK politicians, who proposed that in case job-seekers could not find a job in 3 months, their benefits should be extended both in terms of time, amount, and scope, i.e. granted for 9 months if needed, and also cover those entrepreneurs who are using the simplified KATA tax-scheme. Others proposed that the government should increase the minimum wage, and ban multinationals from firing employees. László Keresztes, member of the LMP party, argued that large-scale investments such as the Budapest-Belgrade railway construction project should be halted in the current situation. Freed resources could then be reallocated to the worst-hit branches of the economy.
As the essence of his viewpoint, Viktor Orbán repeated several times that job seekers would be able to find a job within 3 months. Guaranteed. If not in the private sector, then in the public sector. He also said that there was no ‘plan B’ – ‘plan A’ shall be implemented.
What is this debate all about? Why is it that the government insists on a single recipe, while the opposition proposes a multi-faceted solution?
In order to understand the government’s standpoint, it is important to recall that maximizing employment has been a strategic goal for ruling Fidesz over the past ten years. Indeed, the government achieved remarkable results there: the number of those employed increased from around 3.7 m in 2010 to around 4.5 m in 2019. In line with increasing level of employment, the unemployment rate plummeted from above 11% in 2010 to just 3.4 % in 2019.
The government has a proven track record of getting as many people to work as possible. This is in fact one of the achievements of the Orbán regime, and understandably they would insist on it as much as possible. The Prime Minister made it clear several times that he is in favor of an ‘employment-based’ strategy and he is strongly against a ‘subsidy-based’ alternative.
For the opposition, the political arena offers a different position yielded by the current situation. While they do agree that saving as many workplaces as possible is important (moreover, they say that the Orbán administration’s reaction is too slow compared to other countries and there is too little budget allocated to this program, while many in need are not able to claim the subsidies), they are the ones now to protect the people from insecurity and propose measures that guarantee that no one is left alone with the dramatic consequences of the economic pitfall. From their standpoint, this is the time to strengthen the social net because now it is needed most. This argument is also clear and would be difficult to challenge.
Nevertheless, we are at a junction and have to go left or right, we cannot proceed both ways. In my view, this is because of two reasons.
One is that resources are limited, and the revised yearly budget must focus on either retaining and creating jobs, or unemployment subsidies. The government has to make a choice and set the priority. As a general rule, budget responsibility is always on the government’s shoulders; the opposition has a wider playground to propose measures assuming ‘abundant resources.’
The other aspect is anticipation and motivation. We know that collective anticipation has an effect on the course of unfolding events. External circumstances are of course important and draw a line between what is possible and impossible. That being said, our imagination and anticipation play an equally important role in influencing our future.
I accept that it is difficult to imagine in the current situation that everyone shall have a job within 3 months, although I trust the government does have a plan that is not yet fully unveiled (it could be a new public work scheme – PWS). But whatever it is, if we anticipate and accept that restoring the employment rate to the level of 2019 will take a longer time, then we are not motivated to get there by driving in the fast lane. I say ‘we are’ and ‘motivated,’ because I notoriously believe that everyone can make a difference within his/her own competence. Acknowledging that for some it will be just impossible to retain their old jobs, or find a new one, government aid must be at hand as a last resort.
In recent weeks, Hungarians have come up with an outstanding diversity of creative initiatives while handling the challenges imposed by a situation that is turning our life upside down. We will all have to go beyond our comfort zones in the coming months. It will take extra effort to figure out how to move forward. With the right mindset and motivation, flexibility, creativity, versatility, and cooperation, we will be able to set the course of our lives back on track again. Are we going to be there in 3 months? I don’t know. But let’s do whatever we can to do it as soon as possible. That surely is our common interest.
Featured photo illustration by Attila Balázs/MTI