Hungary’s new era

About the nature of the Orbán-regime

Before the 1998 elections, Viktor Orbán promised „more than just a change of government”. Even with his victory, he had only 4 years to lay the foundations of the „civil Hungary”, a value-based, fundamental idea of the party’s election program.

From 2002 to 2010 Fidesz has changed it’s republican, liberal-conservative vision of the future and way of understanding the society to mere „political power engineering”. The supply-oriented program has become demand-oriented. Due to the lack of organic development, the society with goulash-communistic attitudes – which has adapted to regime-changes and continuous disappointments – drifted into the arms of a powerful leader, who has promised two credible things to the voters: security and effective action. In 1998 Viktor Orbán promised „more than a change of government”, in 2018, following his consecutive „two-third victory”, he made it clear: he is building an era and plans for at least until 2030.

Following the parliamentary election of April 8, in the remaining segments of the opposition press, bitter resignation and desperate path-finding efforts prevailed with fierce criticism of the opposition parties. Half of the country (at least the active voters) was astonished, mourned, abandoned to apathy, considered emigration or waited for a spark attack, participated in street demonstrations and began to form small-scale resistance against the regime on social media surfaces in a self-organized manner. Meanwhile, the supporters of the Fidesz-KDNP alliance greeted the old-new government in a cheerful mood or reluctantly, with second thoughts, perhaps waiting for the retaliation promised by the prime minister earlier. The ruling party – in the absence of an election program – promised only continuity without consolidation or self-restraint. It was a promise of new battles against Brussels, the United Nations, György Soros, the „hiding and faceless world powers”, and their domestic „agent organizations”. The opposition parties, the system-critical civilians, the oppositional idea itself proved to be ineffective. Due to the diversity of actors and problem layouts, the critical voices were united in cacophony, as opposed to the coordinated efforts of the government-sponsored media and the primitively simple-minded propaganda fueled by state resources.

„Today it is written in the book of fate that hidden, faceless world powers will eliminate everything that is unique, autonomous, age-old and national. […] And if we resign ourselves to this outcome, our fate will be sealed, and we will be swallowed up in the enormous belly of the United States of Europe.”

The celebration speech of Viktor Orbán on March 15, 2016

Since the elections, there has been a rather chaotic situation on the opposition side. The crisis following the resignation of the leadership of opposition parties is apparently over, but at the same time, the lack of organizational consolidation, the need for re-planning and some external conditions are determining the situation of the struggling political actors. The Orbán-regime lacks a potent opposition. The framework of parliamentarism has almost completely vacated with the two-thirds majority, the warlike logic of policy-making, the occupation of independent institutions with constitutional status, the highly disproportionate access to financial resources and the media. Despite all efforts by opposition MPs and parliamentary groups, the present-day Hungarian parliament is simply incapable of controlling the government, rather it seems to be the part of a scenic design to illustrate that the institutional framework of democracy is still formally functioning. The balance of power within the opposition and the question of who’s the strongest opposition party is less important due to the weakness of the opposition in whole. Fidesz has no real challenger, while Jobbik, or the so-called left-wing parties together are unable to resolve the fragmentation of the opposition. The „central power field” – which means, that on the „right” and „left” from Fidesz are only not coalition-capable mid-level players – is still working, ensuring the unbreakableness of Orbán’s system.

We have talked about the institutional conditions for maintaining the hybrid regime of Orbánism, but the social conditions are also worth mentioning. Through the eyes of a foreigner, it may be difficult, if not impossible to interpret, what is happening in Hungary. Simplified explanations may lead to the wrong conclusions. Why is there such a breeding ground for Orbán’s policy in Hungary? If the Hungarian society desires calmness and peace, why does it supports Fidesz’s ongoing „wars of independence”? What is the reason why the Hungarian voters do not shape their party-preferences along the lines of their own, everyday problems and the well-marked government policy failures? Why is it, that the ruling party is so effective in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people with messages of foreign threats and migration, who live permanently below the subsistence level, who have been left behind by the Fidesz government, who face impossible challenges every day on the fronts of education, welfare system, health, employment and social integration? (Not to mention any post-material issues or the grotesque nature of the daily “culture camp”.)

There are three key concepts that we should consider in order to properly understand Hungarian voter behavior: sense of disappointment, desire for security and national pride.

Disappointment

In the first half of the ’90s, during the transformation crisis, Hungarian society was disappointed in the change of regime (transition to a market economy), hoping that freedom and prosperity comes hand-in-hand. Soon afterwards it became apparent, that even after the EU accession in 2004 the voters fostered false hopes regarding the pace of convergence and the opportunities for individual prosperity. The „drag it – drop it” politics of the different governments along the last 28 years, the series of crises and the social victims in their wakes, the high degree of corruption and the post-communist elite’s role in undermining public confidence, the reckless, yet pointless political debates had their impact: a significant part of the society became apolitical. The disastrous economic and social policy of the socialist-liberal coalition, its apparent lack of government-capability, the so-called Őszöd speech (the former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány has admitted, that they lied to the voters about the conditions of the Hungarian economy), the fading of both the welfare model and the vision of Civic Hungary (the first one was promised by the socialists, the latter one by Fidesz), the street clashes on the 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution showed us, that the dividing line is growing wider. The sea was parted before Orbán’s team: they achieved an overwhelming victory in the 2010 elections by winning a qualified majority – without the pressure to perform and intense campaign work. In the possession of the two-thirds majority, the process of adopting a new constitution, the complete transformation of the public law system, the occupation of state institutions, the gradual dismantling of the brakes and counterweights, and the fundamental redefinition of the media-power relations has began. (Since April 8, the remnants of the government-critical media have been abolished or sold to Orbán’s oligarchs.) Fidesz – learning from the previous (2002 and 2006) defeats – has left nothing to chance: they neutralized any perceived threat with promises, financial benefits, ad-hoc legislation, administrative means, and sometimes with violence (denial of a referendum initiative by hired thugs). Apart from short periods, the opposition lost its initiating role and was forced to step down gradually – limiting itself to tactical clashes, sometimes symbolic, inspirational aftermaths.

As long as the pole-forming system parties competed with each other for the votes of the pensioners and old age groups – who were socialized in the era of state socialism and paternalism (13th and 14th-month pensions, early-retirement services, Erzsébet voucher, etc.) – the young voter groups turned away from politics. They felt that the political elite is not dealing with their problems, and they are not able to engage effectively in public affairs. The willingness to participate on elections is significantly lower in this age group than among the older voters. Professional organizations, advocacy organizations, different actors of civil society and institutions with social autonomies have learned by now: there is no demand for social partnership, involvement in decision-making, feedback, constructive criticism. Orbán’s Hungary is about dependence and submission: the system keeps everybody – from the mere public workers to the state-owned company CEOs, from public servants to entrepreneurs – in line through corruption, dependence, pacification. All those, who resist, can count on repercussions.

„After the election we will of course seek amends – moral, political and legal reparations.”

(Viktor Orbán’s speech on March 15, 2018.)

Whoever counts on social solidarity in spite or against the power structure of Fidesz, will be disappointed. Anyone who counts on the responsibility and brave resistance of the intellectuals, will be confronted with silence and opportunism. The ’policy of grievance’ has a tradition in Hungary, but it is also a tool in the hands of the governmental communication team, which names the people responsible. While the voters of left-wing parties were almost disappeared from the countryside, Fidesz mobilized additional reserves. While former Socialist PM Ferenc Gyurcsány campaigned against the voting rights of Hungarians beyond the borders and demanded revision of Church finance and, in this context, the annulment of the Vatican Treaty, government parties can bolster their ranks with the vast majority of Hungarian voters abroad, and it is not unusual, that priests and clerics are openly supporting Fidesz during the campaigns. Orbán’s party has built up a system of beliefs on social break lines, historical traumas, which can justify and contextualize everything. Frustration generates indignation, which is becoming an elementary driving force.

Desire for security

In 2015, after Fidesz lost its two-thirds majority in the mid-term elections, it seemed that Orbán’s „illiberalism” started to go downhill. Fidesz hastened, made mistakes, their communication strategists were looking for distracting topics (e.g. a question of re-introducing the death penalty was also raised). The breakdown of the migration crisis was a political life buoy for the governing parties. With recognition, they stepped in the right time. The left-wing parties initially denied the existence of the problem, and the right-wing opposition (Jobbik) – in the absence of governing power – couldn’t demonstrate its crisis-managing ability – only at municipal level and in parliamentary debates. The Hungarian society perceived an external threat, and – with the help of powerful media work, massive money spending on permanent campaigns and a referendum – stood behind the government. At the same time, the possibility of switching votes between governing and opposition parties, significantly decreased. The alternative reality-building, the occupation of the national media and important commercial media surfaces, the acquisition of all the county papers by the government-friendly oligarchs, the division of the opposition and the paralysis of the European Union’s institutions have decided the question: Fidesz’s narrative will dominate social discourses and metapolitics. Against this weapon, any raised question from the opposition – no matter how important and cross-cutting it is – was simply ineffective and marginal. Even residents of settlements in depressed areas, at a safe distance from the southern border (who faced migration through the television screen only) felt that in spite of unemployment, the state of local road infrastructure and utility network, health care and social care, migration is the number one issue needs to be solved. In the eyes of the Hungarian voters, the migration crisis was intertwined with various cultural, security, health and social concerns that were heavily fueled by the government’s communication panels and the weak crisis management capability of the European political elite. But this phenomenon can be observed elsewhere. Voices of law and order, cultural identity and national sovereignty have been intensified all over Europe (we can’t address the problem if we are satisfied with branding these concerns „populist”, and not digging deeper), and in some EU-countries already ascended into government positions in recent years. Against the stormy sea of globalisation and the waves of migration, Hungarian voters voted for the „Leviathan” instead of the promise of a moderate government.

National pride

After the decades of socialist internationalism, and the change of the regime, national symbolism was revalued, romantic history view and nationalism came to light. Positive and negative energies were released simultaneously. After 1993-1994 Fidesz – which has defined itself as a liberal, alternative and radical party in that time – shifted to the political right, and with the policy of „one camp – one flag” they have built up a nationalistic, „Christian” narrative on a popular, civil (non-socialist) basis. Although it was only a political product (not a real ethos), it has granted them authority in almost every question related to the nationalistic view of the political right-wing. Big public investments, sport events, the cultural policy and the – sometimes rudely – confrontational foreign policy became an extension of the sovereignist, self-justifying, symbolical policy. At the same time, the search for a regional alliance, the „freezing” of support for the Hungarian territorial autonomy in neighboring countries, and the synchronization of national interests with party politics, are more evidence of political pragmatism than of following a national-Christian doctrine. Orbán’s government attaches the role of legitimacy and mobilization to national sentiment, which they are using willingly in cases of foreign criticism of their policy. Resistance to empires is a returning motive on the pages of Hungarian history. Vienna as a symbol of Habsburg dominance, Moscow as a synonym of Russian occupation, or Brussels as a supranational actor, which enforces EU law, are often become similar in Orbán’s speeches.

The term „right-wing” – the meaning of which is getting faded – is being rewarded by Fidesz for itself, and its identity-building power is being used to justify their policy. Meanwhile they are maintaining the post-Kádáric (the era of goulash communism and János Kádár) sense of life with traditional and demagogic left-wing messages. It is enough to think about the reduction of overhead costs of households, the distribution of Erzsébet-vouchers, and other acts of social demagoguery. Fidesz, of course, is not the party of the „small people” (it’s enough to look at the tax system and the level of social transfers), but not even the „civic center” (which is unfortunately only an economic, instead of sociological category in Hungary). Fidesz is a party of a narrow power elite and an expanding group of economic interest supported by the multitude of poor, deprived people, who hardly have autonomy, and are more or less dependent on the state.

Conclusion

Today, Orbán’s system seems to be difficult to break down. Internal politics, events on the stage of European politics, or abstractions such as „Hungarian popular psyche” (national characterology) suggest that the ambitions of the current government to shape the future of generations were not unfounded. Furthermore Orbán has new ambitions now: to have a greater impact on European politics and the strategic decisions of the European Union. For now, we can’t see the banners on the horizon, which under the opposition forces are likely to march and take up the fight against Fidesz with the promise of victory. At the same time, the failure is codified in Orbán’s system due to its ineffectiveness, indefensible nature and its unsustainability. In order to successfully confront and disenchant the society with the consequences of the Orbán regime, the opposition must deal with the three governing feelings discussed above. The frustration of disappointment (and the rage or apathy that it fuels), the desire for security (the antidote of the government’s propaganda) and the feeling of national pride („the homeland cannot be in opposition” – the question of „who is representing us, our true interests”) have to be addressed. Orbánism is flourishing now in Hungary, and it is constantly looking for potential allies across the EU to strengthen its position in the fight for the soul of Europe.

Photo: MTI

János Kovács, political analyst

Follow János Kovács’s blog or Facebook page!

Hungary Journal plans to publish articles by several Hungarian journalists and political analysts in the future. By the works of our guest authors, we wish to contribute even more to the English-language understanding of Hungarian, or Hungary-related politics, foreign policy.

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