In their own words ... a Glimpse into ... József Pálinkás, Scientist and (would be) Politician
Updated: Nov 28, 2021
The former President of the Hungarian Academy of Science's bid to become the joint opposition's prime ministerial candidate foundered at the very first hurdle in the late summer, yet as a potential close ally of Péter Márki-Zay, this academic may yet play an influential role in the nation's political future.
Photo: József Pálinkás - taken from the New World Peoples' Party website
József Pálinkás, who turned 69 on September 18, is a nuclear physicist by training, and worked in Sweden and the USA before returning to Hungary after the system change in 1990.
Pálinkás served in the first Orban-administration of 1998-2002, first as political state secretary in the Ministry of Education, before taking the helm as minister in the final year. This political history made him unique among his six rivals for the prime ministerial candidacy in the opposition primaries which began in August-September.
(However, he failed to get the necessary minimum pre-election support signatures, and was thus not able to compete in the primaries proper.)
He was elected as President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (2008-2014), before being appointed head of the National Research, Development and Innovation Agency, which was - at least as he understood it - an independent institution.
After resigning from the Agency in 2018, claiming intolerable political interference at the agency, Pálinkás says a significant number of centre-right intellectuals, all disaffected with the Fidesz government, urged him to form a “genuinely democratic” grouping. As a result, he founded the New World Peoples' Party in October 2020, a movement which boasts a respected governing board and a “growing membership”, but which has thus far failed to register in the main political opinion polls.
As befits an academic, Pálinkás is quitely spoken and not given to hyperbole. He admits his profile is low outside intellectual circles and in the provinces, but says his skillset includes the ability to broker consensus among disparate groups, a talent that might well yet prove invaluable to keep unity among the potentially fractious opposition alliance.
“My main goal is that we can represent those people who will not vote for the left-green parties, but would willingly vote for a centre-right, liberal [ie democratic] conservative party,” he said in July, adding that to achieve victory in the 2022 national election, this voter segment must have faith that their voice will be heard in any government formed by the alliance.
Pálinkás said in the summer that he would join the Jobbik parliamentary group should he become an MP, should his party fail to achieve sufficient support in the 2022 election.
However, since then, Péter Márki-Zay, the ultimate winner of the primaries, has indicated he would consider some form of direct relationship with the New World Peoples' Party – possibly in a rebranded form.
The following is a word-for-word transcription (very slightly edited) of some parts of his talk to the Hungarian International Press Association on 13th July, via Skype.
József Pálinkás – Introduction. My interest in politics [began] back in 1989, when I joined the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). I was very enthusiastic that Hungary was joining Europe - not the Union, of course, that happened in 2004 - but even at that time, many of us who had worked in different countries as scientists, saw the opportunity that there would be a change in Hungary into true democracy, and a country where the rule of law and the democratic processes would take place, and the democratic processes [would mean] the country would be governed by a democratic government. I did not join politics in 1990 - that was my choice – I remained in science.
But in 1998 [during the first Orbán coalition government], I was asked to serve as state secretary for education, and later I became minister of education, and I thought that those democratic ideas which the MDF represented, those democratic ideas and government structures would be continued by the then Fidesz and Smallholders Party.
And I think that between 1998 and 2002 the governance in Hungary was democratic, and I supported Fidesz even after the change in 2002, until in 2010 I saw that their [excessive] power in parliament started them to steer off from this democratic governance.
They started to pass laws which were not passed according to the rules, and sometimes they passed a law which they applied [retroactively] for situations and events which had happened before.
And later, when they'd won the election in 2014, the non-democratic and I would say autocratic way of governing became more and more as a rule, so In Hungary now, they are ruling the country, and not governing it.
Between 2008 - 14, I as the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, I started several new projects. I brought home several excellent young scientists, and I still thought that even though I saw many things which I didn't really like, I still had the hope that when they had made the changes that they wanted to make, then they would govern properly.
But after 2014, I disagreed on many things. I should say at that time, I had to make a choice, whether I go back to the university or I had to accept an offer to create a real science funding agency, the name was the Research Development and Innovation Agency,
And after giving it some thought, I thought that if they don't interfere, then I could establish a really well run research funding agency/council.
But when they passed that law against the CEU, I had to voice my opinion, and when they won the election in 2018, then I realised that I could not continue the independent running of the agency.
After that, many people approached me, and asked me to come back to politics and to try to establish a [genuine] centre-right party because Fidesz had deviated from those kind of ideas and political philosophy, which they verbally are still saying, that they are a liberal-conservative, centre-right politicians, and running the country according to patriotic rules and all these things.
Journalist Question (Kester Eddy) You're Hungarian, you've lived abroad, so you have wide experience, ... If you look at what the government is doing with [taxpayers'] money, anything from these massive football stadia, to … there are so many things …
József Pálinkás: Fudan university, or the Chinese railway or the Motor-GP. I can tell you of many investments which are not serving the country's interests.
Journalist: Yes. And of course, the appalling state of the health system … I wonder, why are there not more people like yourself, who see this and say: Wait, this is ridiculous!
Yet Fidesz still has some 35% voter support, the pollsters indicate. What is in the Hungarian mentality that Fidesz has captured, so to speak?
József Pálinkás: I think that Hungarians, because of their history, are very easy to fall into this kind of national pride and national glory.
The world is against us! Two-thirds of Hungarian territory was taken away by the entente after WW1, and very effectively this kind of mentality could be used by Orbán to appear as a national hero.
[Count István] Széchenyi wanted a very rational development of the country, with a good compromise with the Habsburgs, and put the country on a track where you develop industry, agriculture, the railroad system and so on.
Whereas [Lajos] Kossuth wanted a revolution, to fight against the Habsburgs, even if it was not really for the benefit of the [average] Hungarian.
This attitude was fueled after WW1 by the Horthy regime. In the communist era, it was still lingering, and Orbán, after losing the election in 2002 realised that this kind of attitude of the Hungarian people, because of the history, could be used to fool the people that the world is against us.
Now we, many thousands of mainly scientists or people working abroad, know that the world is not against us. I was working in the US with Turkish, Philippine and Australian guys,
I know very well that the world is not against us. But it is hard to explain to people that no, no! The world is not against us. [But] in Hungary, there is this kind of attitude that the world is against us, so the state-owned media made him as a kind of hero.
If you look at this latest law with the homophobic component, they are saying that is for saving and protecting the kids from paedophiles, but they very shamefully put some sentences into that, and now, when the EU countries say, come on, this is nonsense, please, don't do this.
Then, Orbán can say: “See, all the European countries are against us because we want to protect our children. And the Hungarian state media is very [complicit] in this. This has to be changed.