All Viktor Orbán’s enemies

Fidesz is still the leading political power in Hungary, but public discontent with their governing style is on the rise. Their opponents – the old political opposition and newly emerging young political activists claim that ‘something is rotten in the state of Hungary’ and Hungarian society seems torn apart as never before.

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Dieter Zirnig


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It’s St. Nicolas Day in Budapest. In the late afternoon on Nádor József square I spot a group of people carrying banners with political slogans. Within a quarter of an hour some 5-6 hundred protesters gather and start a demonstration organized by the trade unions of public workers. Shortly the leaders appear on stage showing their “gifts” for the government – the virgacs (bunches of golden colored twigs prepared to lash the bad children) and a list of grievances: ‘we want fair treatment,’ ‘enough is enough,’ ‘we don’t want any new layoffs,’ shout the activists and the crowd of unionists who chant after them. The strangest slogan is ‘we want back the standard of living of 2008.’

I talk to three middle-aged ladies who complain about their meager salaries:  ‘we are nurses from St. John’s hospital. Recently we conducted a poll among ourselves and we found that the standard per capita income for families in the lower medical staff is roughly 47 thousand forint (just under 150 Euros). 1  It’s impossible to make ends meet!’

Others say that they fear for their jobs:  ‘in public institutions there’s a statute saying that your boss can fire you by just saying that you lost [their] trust. They use it as a tool to force obedience – that’s why there are so few of us here today’ explains László Varga, chairman of SZEF, the biggest Hungarian confederation of trade unions.

Indeed, the demonstrators are not very numerous – apparently there are much more people having fun at the advent fair in the neighboring Vörösmarty Square. Middle-class Budapesters and foreign tourists do not seem to care about the people airing their woes just some hundred meters away.

‘The reason for concern with the government is not its size, but the frequency of protests,’ says professor Tamás Pál, a sociologist from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.  ‘Some weeks ago something broke in this society. It happened on a day when a really big number of people estimated between 60 and 100 thousand, mostly young, took to the streets in protest against the proposed Internet tax,’ explains professor Pál.

This last exorbitance in a long string of taxes introduced recently by the newly re-elected conservative government of Fidesz has sparked great indignation. ‘They finally managed to attract the politically indifferent youth to politics, but exactly in the opposite direction than they hoped,’ Gábor Török, one the most popular Hungarian political analysts, notes ironically. Since late October there hasn’t been a single week without a demonstration – big or small. People protest against new taxes and fees, they demand better public services, but the overarching theme is a demand for the corruption to stop and for a government regarded as arrogant and corrupt to change its style.

Anti-communism and anti-colonialism

Viktor Orbán and his closest companions from the ELTE university dormitory with whom he created his Union of Young Democrats (Hungarian acronym: Fidesz) were never short on self-confidence. Their harsh, militant style of politics was well known already during the first Orbán governments in 1989-2002. The very same style returned when Fidesz defeated the socialists again in 2010.

Supporters of the ruling party liked their uncompromised anticommunism, especially as a fast cure was needed to revive an ailing economy and restrain the widespread corruption of the leftist political elites. Even the reforms of state, like a new redaction of the constitution seemed necessary. Some praise the social politics of Fidesz: ‘they introduced very family oriented fiscal regulations. For example a working father of three with an above average salary no longer has to pay income taxes,’ explains Fruzsina Skrabski, a young journalist, now on maternity leave. This is true, but only for some. The nex tax system awarded 500 billion HUF to the top percentile of taxpayers, 100 billion to the second percentile, and then increased taxes by 100 billion for the lowest four percentiles. 2

The Fidesz politicians constantly underline the party’s efforts to improve the situation of people struggling with material problems. Before elections the government boasted its success in forcing the utility companies to lower the price of energy and urban services and in helping those trapped in mortgages denominated by foreign currency. This led to conflicts with foreign companies and banks, 3 but earned the government more popularity among the people. Frankly saying in many cases Orbán was right as many Western investors in Hungary (as well as in most of Eastern Europe) demonstrated semi-colonial strategies oriented by fast profits, minimum investment and tax evasion. 4 For example big companies demand much higher and constantly prolongued  tax allowances than local companies. 5 Big retailer chains have avoided paying taxes at all declaring no profit for years (and getting an unfair advantage over local shops). 6 No wonder that policy of forcing big foreign companies to bear more burdens underpinned Fidesz‘s popularity during their first term.

Hungarians are tired of too many enemies

Nevertheless most Hungarians observed with reservation, as deep changes of nearly 60 fundamental laws were introduced under the dictate of one party. For opponents there was always one simple answer: we have two thirds in Parliament and it was the will of the people. But many Hungarians with whom I talked could hardly explain the importance of deleting the word “Republic” from the official name of the country. Not to mention loyal Fidesz activists were placed at the head of the all-important institutions, some with their terms extended to nine and in extreme cases even to 12 years.

The revolution promised by Mr. Orbán in 2010 probably already went too far. People are tired of the permanent political war with so many enemies. Doubters already appeared in the camp of devoted supporters. Orbán is not only in conflict with political opponents and critical media, but also with the multinational companies who are ‘exploiting Hungary’: with Eurocrats from Brussels; with banks; and with telecoms and companies running supermarkets. Recently Fidesz went to war with NGOs, which allegedly accepted foreign money to harm the legally elected government.  ‘Most of these conflicts are completely unnecessary as they create artificial tensions,’ says Gergely Ákos Balogh, editor-in-chief of the popular conservative political site Mandiner. Orbán was even able to evoke angry comments from Archbishop Péter Erdő, the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church who criticized a plan to make a large part of social care institutions the sole responsibility of the clergy, and one that introduced compulsory religious (or ethics) education in schools for which churches simply have no capacity. 7

The freshest, still ongoing conflict is the one with the US diplomacy. ‘Washington is losing patience towards Budapest, observing as Fidesz constantly dismantles the system of checks and balances while Orbán declares “illiberal” politics,’ explains politologist Kornélia Magyar, director of the Hungarian Progressive Institute.

The other reason for the State Department’s nervous reaction is Hungary’s overly Russia-friendly foreign policy. 8 The US’ move to ban six officials from the National Tax and Customs Office from traveling to the US was the heaviest blow in this diplomatic battle. Officially they were accused of corruption, but it’s clear that the real purpose of this unprecedented step was rather a warning. Sometimes the American criticism goes too far – for example when Sen. John McCain called Orbán, ‘a fascist dictator’.  ‘A Dictator? C’mon, what kind of dictatorship is he talking about?!’ writer Endre Kukorelly asks indignantly.  ‘OK, they exploit every possible way to grab more power, and they can also be accused of corruption and cronyism, but we still have free (alhtough not fair) elections, 9 and more or less free media, and nobody prevents me from criticizing the government!’

A growing number of Hungarians seem fed up with the continuous conflicts waged by Fidesz against all real or imagined foes. ‘People don’t really understand the reasons for all these battles. Most Hungarians – especially the well-educated urban middle class – are strongly oriented to the West and would prefer deeper cooperation with Western Europe instead of the obtrusively promoted “Eastern opening” towards Russia,’ says András Stumpf, a journalist for the pro-government weekly Heti Válasz.

The clearly visible deterioration of foreign relations is just one, and not even the most important reason for Fidesz’s sharply falling popularity. The fresh surveys of the two leading Hungarian opinion research institutes (Tárki and Medián) unanimously show that the ruling party has lost 12% points of the public’s support within a mere two months (from 47% to 35%). Ipsos — the third renowned institute measures only a 10% dive. Also the percentage of those who highly appreciate the work of Mr. Orbán has shrunk from 48% to 32%.  ‘We have never seen such a sharp and swift fall in the popularity of a ruling party in Hungary,’ says professor Tamás Pál.

All my Hungarian interlocutors agree that the real reasons for this must be sought in domestic policy and in the economy. First of all, people complain about low living standards, which do not meet their expectations by far. The public, state-owned media have reported some good macroeconomic data  10Hungary’s 2014 economic growth was projected to reach over 2.5%; the budget deficit fell under 3%; and the unemployment rate was the lowest in the entire region around 7%. 11  ‘Still we have serious problems with poverty and social inequity,’ explains Kornélia Magyar.  ‘Some surveys show that about 3 million people in a nation populated by 10 million live in extremely low standards.’ This is especially true for the Roma society in the Eastern part of Hungary, but they are not the only ones. Nowadays the homeless people sleeping in the streets can even be spotted in downtown Budapest. The police have obviously abandoned forcing them into shelters, a practice strongly criticized by human rights defenders. 12

Complaints that I heard from the demonstrators in Nádor József Square seem to be repeated everywhere. ‘They say that teachers’ salaries were increased by nearly 50%. It’s basically true, but now we don’t get extra money for increased overtime, so the end result is a very moderate increase. Some younger teachers earn even less than they did previously,’ says Györgyi Nagy, a teacher with nearly 30 years of service. Popular opinion is that the good jobs or contracts – especially in regions suffering from high unemployment – are reserved for those who have friends or relatives in the administration.

‘They say that unemployment is getting lower, but I can’t find a good job even with a crane-operating certificate,’ says István, a man in his 50’s whom I met in a local pub, Sörsarok, in Budapest’s Józsefváros district. ‘I was offered public works for 50,000 forints (157 Euros) a month. That’s simply humiliating!’

Despite constant declarations of improving living standards in the official propaganda, the truth is quite unpleasant for the government. Unlike in Poland or Slovakia the number of people endangered by poverty and exclusion in Hungary has grown during the last decade and has now reached 33.5% of society. 13This is hardly something the leaders of Fidesz, who always refer to “ordinary Hungarians” and turn to hard-working families in their speeches, can be proud of.

Photo: CreativeCommons/Levente Hernadi

Photo: CreativeCommons/Levente Hernadi

Meet the new politicians: entrepreneurs

The other reason for the disaffection with Fidesz is a widely spread feeling of alienation from the highest leadership of the ruling party. Today one could hardly find the founders of the good old Fidesz of the 80’s in the inner circle of power around Viktor Orbán. No, they were not harmed, only now they hold nice positions like mayors, MPs or members of European Parliament, functions without real influence upon the daily execution of power. They were replaced by a new generation of younger politicians like Foreign Minister, Péter Szíjjárto; Chief of the Prime Minister’s office, János Lázár; or leader of Fidesz Parliamentary Group, Antal Rogán. They are all in their late 30’s, very assertive, self-confident and they never question their boss’ even more surprising ideas.

‘This new generation is a completely different breed of politicians,’ says Gábor Török.  ‘Unlike their older colleagues they are not idealists or revolutionaries. They are rather a new kind of political entrepreneurs: they invest in something and expect profits.’ The problem is that these profits are too often visible to the public. Hungarians were shocked to learn about the luxury villa Szíjjártó bought for a price much higher than his declared income, or about the 120 sq m apartment Lázár purchased for his 9-year old son.  People struggling with everyday problems read in the newspapers about politicians arranging private hunting tours, buying extremely expensive watches and cars, or 1 million forint trip to New Zealand for the concert of a popular rock-star.

This led to accusations of corruption among top politicians in Hungary. According to Transparency International the level of corruption in Hungary is comparable to that in others Central European countries, but the people in Hungary struggling with daily material problems see otherwise. They are enraged to observe the excess and  luxury enjoyed by political elites. ‘Down with corruption’ became the leading slogan of recent demonstrations. Even the most faithful supporters seem disgusted: Gábor Bencsik, one of the most active organizers of the pro-government rallies published an open letter to the leaders of Fidesz in which he wrote bitterly: ‘we didn’t start our revolution to make you rich’.

Another example of corruption on high level is the case of leaders of National Custom and Tax Authority. They have gained a sordid reputation after being accused of turning a blind eye to VAT fraud (e.g. declaring but never actually executing the export of goods). This financial offence was allegedly commited by government cronies.

Such revelations would never get to the media without intentional leaks from well-informed sources close to the inner circle of power. ‘It’s a clear sign of internal conflicts within Fidesz,’ says Gábor Török. The old generation of founders are more and more disgusted with the greed and impudence demonstrated by the “young wolves” – even towards older colleagues. The other crack in the monolithic structure of power is visible in the conflict between Orbán and Lajos Simicska, once his close friend, and later the industrial and media tycoon, who always won the best contracts from the state and demonstrated his gratitude with generous support to Fidesz.

Now they suddenly parted ways, but the final outcome of this “conflict in the family” is still unclear. Simicska is probably too strong and knows too much to be publicly humiliated, but it’s clear that his position shortly will be taken by somebody else. Some insiders guess that may be István Garancsi, a new friend of Mr Orbán and a wealthy entrepreneur in the construction industry who already wins lucrative tenders from public institutions.

At the same time new figures emerged around Orbán and his closest collaborators –like Árpád Habony, an obscure adviser with no official function, but someone who has always stayed close to the PM and his ministers. Habony, called the political mountebank in Budapest, was an entrepreneur, actor, investor and . . . Japanese kendo champion. The man without any formal graduation is now known as the most influential gray eminence of government.  He allegedly authored some widely criticized proposals – like the one pushing for the compulsory drug-testing of teenagers, politicians and journalists – which were accepted by government swiftly and without hesitation.

‘The new politicians behave like this because they don’t smell any political danger yet,’ says an anonymous right-wing journalist with palpable worry in his voice. ‘If nothing changes it will prove to be suicidal politics’.

Fidesz’s strongest enemy is Fidesz

At the moment the skies really seem cloudless for Fidesz. Even the growing discontent doesn’t mean that Viktor Orbán’s rule is endangered. Not yet. Fidesz is still by far the most popular political party in Hungary. They won three consecutive elections within one year and even retained the two-thirds majority in Parliament. ‘If more elections were held next Sunday, they would win it again.  However now they would hardly get the constitutional majority,’ says Kornélia Magyar.

One of the reasons for that is the relatively high popularity of Fidesz, especially in the traditionally conservative countryside, but the other is the astounding weakness of the opposition. The post-communists, or socialists as they call themselves, have not only been deeply disgraced since their corrupt and incompetent government from 2002-2010, but even as opposition they are deeply divided and unable to unite in order to gain a better position.

The other political power, the LMP Party (Lehet Más a Politika – literally: Politics Can Be Different) – meant to be “the middle” of the Hungarian Parliamentary scene – cannot gather more than 5-6% of the votes. ‘I believe that this is the best political offer Hungarians can get today,’ says Endre Kukorelly, who attempted a political career as the MP of LMP, but resigned before the end of his term. ‘Unfortunately people did not appreciate our efforts. Besides I became deeply disappointed with politics. These guys in Parliament are not really interested in public activity – just keeping power and gaining wealth,’ explains Kukorelly for the reasons of his retreat.

The limitations of LMP’s popularity are however more complex – many observe them as a bourgeois party of big cities hardly representing the average János Kovács from the countryside. Others mistake them for straight continuers of the liberal Union of Free Democrats – once quite influential, but later losing popularity due to its coalition with the post-communists.

Despite the proliferation of bad sentiment there’s no real power able to challenge Orbán’s rule, especially because Hungary will not see another election until 2018.  ‘Today the only serious enemy of Fidesz is Fidesz itself,’ says Gábor Török.

‘I don’t see a viable alternative to Fidesz, but they must change their style of politics,’ notes Fruzsina Skrabski, a young conservative who is partial to Fidesz. Like many supporters of Orbán’s party she hopes that it is still able to recover. Despite the recent loses Fidesz is still popular, its challengers much weaker and the emerging new players not really ready to change the political scene.

Activists are handled as eggs

There are some new actors who emerged during the last cycle of street protests. These are young, energetic activists trying to organize their own movement, unwilling to cooperate with the traditional left but still not ready to create a serious political structure. I talk to one of the prominent organizers of protest against the Internet tax. Bálint Misetics is a 25-year old, well-educated young man with varied experiences abroad. He tells me about the actions organized by the young activists in their campaign for civic disobedience. ‘You know, the police handle us like eggs,’ he laughs, ‘They wouldn’t dare reach for their batons, because the government would never want to be compared to the socialists, who sent riot police against protesters in 2006’.

The young activists are still not prepared to found a political party and take part in the next elections and other traditional opponents have proven powerless. ‘If nothing changes, Fidesz is set to win again,’ says Kornélia Magyar, while stipulating that the election is still far away.

It is interesting that hardly anyone is eager to talk about the advance of Jobbik, the only political party that has been consistently gaining popularity while the leftist opposition parties have not been able to improve their position in the recent period of Fidesz’s weakness. Political analysts console themselves hoping that the radical far-right extremists and xenophobes have already reached maximum popularity and their influence, fueled by low living standards, should not get stronger in the immediate future. But the danger of this should not be underestimated; the same was stated after April’s elections when Jobbik, supported by 20.5% of voters, won 23 seats in Parliament (16.6%). Now their popularity has reached 24% and according to some politologists is set to grow further.

In some surveys the personal popularity of Gábor Vona, the chairman of Jobbik, caught up with the popularity of Orbán himself. And Vona has been working hard to improve his image even further. He speaks now in a very balanced manner, avoiding all expressions that could be considered hate-speech. Learning from Marine Le Pen of the French National Front he even dropped his anti-Semitic remarks and advised his comrades to do so as well. The aim is clear: to change the image of Jobbik as an extremist, racist power and pave its leaders’ way to political saloons.

In the eyes of many Hungarians they seem to be the only “virgin” political power that is not spoiled by power yet. Like all populists they give very simple answer to complex questions: how to solve the problems of people struggling with poverty, fearful of criminality and uneasy within their neighborhood of the deprived Roma. Last but not least their anti-corruption rhetoric easily goes to the ears of potential voters. The further deterioration of Fidesz could even mean a victory in next elections.

‘How much money would you wager that Fidesz would smoothly win in 2018 again?’ I ask Gábor Török. ‘Frankly? Not so much,’ he shakes his head. ‘Just don’t ask me who will’.

Notes:

  1.  This must be the case not only for single mothers or families with one unemployed parent. According to the official statistics the typical income in a family of two low-earners with two children is around $360 per capita per month, but auxiliary medical staff get salaries closer to that of low-income workers (just over 140,000 forint). Day care workers (also belonging to the health ministry) earn under the minimum wage, at 80.000 HUF = 250 EUR even after 25 years of experience, even with higher education degree. Nurses at least get some (illegal) gratuity money, a form of corruption.
  2.  The Budapest Beacon, “European Commission report on taxation in Hungary,” June 17, 2014.
  3.  Financial Times, “Inside Business: Hungary a nightmare for foreign groups,” April 13, 2013.
  4.  HVG.hu, “Mennyi adót fizet egy multi Magyarországon?,“January 28, 2011.
  5.  VG.hu, “Nem adózott az Audi és a Suzuki,” July 7, 2012.
  6.  MNO.hu, “Ellentmondások a Tescónál,” October 3, 2014.
  7.  No details of this proposal are known. Archbishop Erdő during his press conference on December 4th commented on earlier talks on this subject with the Ministry of Human Resources.
  8.  András Rácz, “From Pragmatism to Bear Hug: Hungary´s Russia Policy on the Eve of the Ukraine Crisis,” in Visegrad Revue, December 29, 2014.
  9.  OSCE, “Hungary: Parliamentary elections, 6 April 2014: OSCE/ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission, Final Report,” July 11, 2014.
  10.  European Commission, “Economies of the Member States; Hungary“.
  11.  Ministry for National Economy, “European Commission published favourable figures on Hungary.” & Trading Economics, “Hungary Unemployment Rate, 1995 – 2015.
  12.  Portfolio.hu, “Egyre nő a szegénység Magyarországon,” November 26, 2014 & Index.hu, “Elkeserítőek a szegénység legújabb adatai,” November 20, 2014.
  13.  Napi.hu, “Drámai adatok Magyarországról – így terjed a szegénység,” August 18, 2014.
Jarosław Giziński

Jarosław Giziński

is a journalist, lecturer and commentator. From 2002 -2012 he was a foreign editor for “Newsweek Polska”. Presently, he works as a deputy foreign editor and commentator for the daily “Rzeczpospolita”. He fluently speaks Russian and Hungarian. After hours he is a keen archer.