Hungary: Scandal deepens over Budapest mayor’s English-language skills, false PhD claims

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The scandal around liberal Budapest mayor and 2022 prime ministerial candidate Gergely Karácsony’s English skills, or their lack thereof, broke with the publication of a 2020 television footage where the mayor seems to go out of his way to avoid any conversation in English with a foreign diplomat during a memorial event. During last year’s meeting with the Korean ambassador, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó was forced to translate for the mayor in order to avoid further embarrassment. The footage shows Karácsony leaving the occasion without addressing the Korean diplomat at all.

The video had prompted a media investigation into how the liberal mayor, who is Viktor Orbán’s main rival for the 2022 parliamentary elections, was able to obtain his PhD title without the appropriate language skills, which are a legal requirement in Hungarian post-graduate education. The investigation has revealed that not only does the mayor lack any valid language exams, his previous claims of holding a PhD title have also been misleading.

As it turns out, the mayor had started his PhD studies in 2007 without a foreign language certificate, something that was still possible at the time. Yet, he had failed to complete his PhD studies partly due to his language skills, as well as his lack of academic progress during the program. He was unable to finish his research and did not publish any articles during his studies.

This did not prevent Karácsony from claiming that he held a PhD degree during the 2018 elections. On his party’s website he claimed that he was awarded a degree in political sciences in 2007. This has since proved to be a fabrication since he only commenced his doctoral studies in 2007, furthermore, for obtaining a PhD diploma he would have needed as much as two foreign language certificates, of which he has none. In fact, during this period, he worked for a survey agency which has received tens of millions of Hungarian forints in commission fees from the then Socialist government of Ferenc Gyurcsány.

According to recent polls, 83 percent of Hungarians expect the country’s prime minister to speak English, and only 13% would like to see Karácsony at the helm of the country. As if the embarrassing polls, to which the language skills scandal has no doubt contributed, were not enough, an off-hand remark from the mayor, in which he goaded his former academic supervisor, prompted the said professor to enter the debate with more cringe-worthy revelations.

According to Prof. András Lánczi, during his post-graduate years Karácsony had received all the support from academic staff, and was even granted an extraordinary extension to complete his studies. Despite all the help, the professor had no option but to release Karácsony from the university, as he had failed to show progress and meet the required deadlines. Rather magnanimously, the professor regards the lack of his former protégé’s language deficiencies a heritage of the former communist regime, in which only a few select were able to acquire high level proficiency in English.

Although Karácsony’s intention to stand for prime minister in the 2022 elections was announced only days ago, some analysts call this the worst start to an election campaign since the fall of the communist regime. In his own defense, Karácsony claimed to have what he called a “hyper-passive” knowledge of English. To protect himself from further criticism, he has also tried to adopt a victim-group identity when he claimed that his problems with English stem from childhood dyslexia, yet, according his own assessment, he was able to overcome this in adulthood.

Although the mayor did not show any evidence that he was ever diagnosed with dyslexia, nor is there medical evidence that childhood dyslexia can disappear in adulthood, Karácsony had claimed that he is now able to read through tens of pages at a time at speeds that few others are capable of.

The liberal mayor, who often positions himself as a defender of freedom of the press against the allegedly authoritarian government of Viktor Orbán, when asked about his PhD diploma by a journalist, reacted angrily by saying, “Shame on you”. He was more forthcoming with foreign journalists though when in an interview entitled “The man who could oust Orbán” with the American magazine The Economist, he body-shamed the current prime minister, referring to his weight and height. The incumbent prime minister, Viktor Orbán, Karácsony’s main rival for the 2022 elections, is known for his strong command of English. 

Orbán has held a number of press conferences in English and appears to use the language as a diplomatic and communication tool to promote Hungarian interests at the international level. Given the relative lack of Hungarian speakers worldwide, this may be a factor in why Hungarians strongly support a prime minister confident with the language.

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