Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chris Pohlad '07: Talking politics in Budapest

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For the past six months I have been living and working in Budapest, Hungary as an analyst for a Pepsi bottling company that sells and distributes in Central Europe. Despite the apparent disconnect between my degree (international relations) and what I find myself doing on a daily basis (business) I can say that my experience has heightened my awareness and knowledge of foreign affairs on many different levels. Whether it be my proximity to Kosovo, who just declared independence from Serbia, or learning the hard way that Hungarians have an unbelievable cynicism for their government (justified for a myriad of reasons) I am very fortunate to be applying my interest in politics in such a dynamic and transformative part of the world.

Before I left for Hungary Patrick O'Neil put me in touch with two politics professors at the University of Economics and Politics called Corvinus University in the heart of Budapest. After meeting with them several times over lunch (they are among the few people in the city whom I can speak to without worrying about the language barrier) they asked if I would be willing to participate in a discussion group with a club quite similar to Puget Sound's very own Political Science Association. I happily agreed and was subsequently invited to speak to roughly 20 students on the state of the U.S. presidential election. Despite being somewhat removed from the excitement of the race I believed I could offer them a practical view of the nominating process, the candidates themselves, and what I think (for what it's worth) the outcome will be come the nominating conventions in August and September.

After preparing several times given the evolution of the race after Super Tuesday and again following the Potomac Primaries, I settled on what I thought was a non-biased and informative outline of topics that would be interesting to them. To summarize I focused on the fundamental differences between the parties, nominating processes (proportional representation vs. a winner take all format), the four leading candidates at the time (McCain, Huckabee, Clinton, and Obama), the demographics that each cater to and why, as well as an attempt to explain the role of superdelegates. This last topic was particularly challenging as I myself recently learned of their significance and given the delicate English I had to use in order to be understood. Once finished I was asked repeatedly about what superdelegates are (imagine trying to understand this concept in a foreign language and with little background on our nominating process) as well as detailed questions on particular candidate's policies ranging from global warming to Putin's Russia. To be sure, many of their questions I could not answer and was left to say "umm, I'm not quite familiar with so and so's stance on China's economic situation." However, I think my inability to adequately field some of their questions was testament to the fact that I was there to offer a "practical" view of how the typical American voter looks at the election.

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The most interesting part of the discussion was when I posed a question to the group about divisiveness in Hungarian politics (if you think it's bad in the US...). My question was straightforward, something along the line of "I understand politics is not a particularly popular topic among Hungarian citizens, but could you please offer me an explanation of the differences between the major political parties and are politics so divisive that families have been literally torn apart by the issue?" In retrospect maybe my question was a bit intrusive, if seemingly broad, because no one spoke for roughly a minute. So I moved on having my question answered by the sheer silence of the room. I later came to realize, though this is becoming less and less the case with every generation, that the majority of people are apprehensive to say anything about their beliefs, political or otherwise, possibly due in part to the fact that Hungary has just recently (relatively speaking) come out of a communist regime that prohibited such expressions. These are the types of cultural differences that make living in Central Europe so interesting and unpredictable. Overall, it was a very informative experience for me and I was glad to be able to participate.

I hope all is well with the University and the PG department in particular and look forward to hearing from other students and alumni about your experiences on campus or otherwise. Take care.

Chris Pohlad '07