Ambassador Szapáry’s first letter to the NYT

Answer by György Szapáry – Ambassador of Hungary to Washington

Open letter to Professor Paul Krugman

As an economist, as well as a former IMF official and Deputy Governor of the Hungarian central bank, I have always followed your column in the New York Times with great interest because of the fresh insights and empirical foundations upon which you normally base your arguments. I was therefore surprised to read your comments about Hungary in your op-ed titled “Depression and Democracy,” published in the December 12, 2011 issue of the New York Times. I am sure that you would also agree, as someone used to the rigors of academic research, that basing one’s judgment on one individual’s opinion, in this case that of Kim Lane Scheppele, a respected Professor from Princeton, can be nevertheless misleading. Please allow me to respond to some of your arguments.

You write that the ruling party, Fidesz, “seems bent on establishing a permanent hold on power” by “relying on overlapping measures to suppress opposition.” You cite the proposed new election law. A new electoral law is necessary in Hungary, first, because there was a consensus among parties that the number of deputies had to be reduced from 386, a very high number for a small country of 10 million; and, second, in order to do away with the unconstitutionally disproportional districts. The proposed law stipulates explicitly that individual constituencies shall not extend across current county borders, and each shall cover a coherent geographical area, exactly to avoid the kind of gerrymandering we see happening in some parts of the United States right now.

On the issue of judicial independence, your concerns presume that the judges appointed in Hungary would simply follow party lines. Just like in the United States, where judges are selected and confirmed by elected officials, let us give the Hungarian judges also the necessary respect and not assume that they are mere puppets of politicians. As to the freedom of the Hungarian media, anyone who reads the Hungarian press can see that the part of media which has little sympathy for the current government has been as vocal and outspokenly critical about the government and its policies as ever.

Concerning the “criminalization” of the leading leftist opposition party, the proposed constitutional addendum only makes a symbolic and political declaration that acknowledges the horrors of the previous communist regime, something that most former communist countries in Europe have done years ago. The actual law only stipulates that crimes that were committed under the previous regime are still prosecutable.

Hungary has had some difficult choices to make in the past months, as the experience of the last two decades brought to the fore the need to change some of the cardinal laws formulated at the very outset of the transition from communist rule to democracy. Surely, not all Hungarian laws are Oscar winners, but to say that they are a danger to democracy is like pretending that only Oscar winning movies are good movies. While constructive criticism from our friends is appreciated, sweeping statements based on incomplete information and oversimplification do more harm than good for Hungary – and for your readers.

Sincerely,

György Szapáry
Ambassador of Hungary

The The New York Times completely refused to publish the second letter of Szapáry, written to Kim Scheppele.  In that letter Szapáry warned about the danger of factual mistakes and sliding into tabloid journalism. But these concerns were ignored of course. The first letter wasn’t treated much better.  The paper cut down the above letter and only published an edited version of it here. This is the version published by the NYT:

As an economist and former official of the International Monetary Fund, I have always read Mr. Krugman’s work with great interest; I was therefore surprised to read his summary judgment on Hungary.

He refers to gerrymandering, while in fact the proposed electoral law stipulates explicitly that individual constituencies shall cover a coherent area, exactly to avoid what Mr. Krugman assumes that the government is doing.

As for judicial independence, just as in the United States, where judges are often selected and confirmed by elected officials, let us give the Hungarian judges the necessary respect and not assume that they are mere puppets of politicians.

Regarding the Hungarian media, anyone who reads the Hungarian press can see as much outspoken criticism about the government as ever.

The supposed criminalization of the Socialist Party that Mr. Krugman cites is only a symbolic and political declaration that acknowledges the horrors of the previous Communist regime, something that most former Communist countries in Europe did years ago.

Criticism from our friends is appreciated, but sweeping statements based on oversimplification do more harm than good for Hungary — and for your readers.

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