Orbán’s strategy

I must admit I’m a bit confused and possibly even distressed. A couple of days ago I had the feeling that Viktor Orbán, perhaps because of the negative reaction to the Hungarian Guard and the fiasco of his meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy, was retreating somewhat. I thought that perhaps he also realized that he was playing with fire and that, consequently, he decided to "commemorate" the prime minister’s "lying" speech by holding a closed meeting for invited guests miles away from Kossuth Square. (A footnote: commentators have remarked that the failure of the demonstrations was largely due to the fact that they didn’t have implicit Fidesz support.)

I was hoping that perhaps Viktor Orbán had seen the light: his strategy doesn’t lead anywhere. Not only is the revolutionary fervor waning, but foreign politicians disapprove of his way of conducting business. And the MSZP’s popularity is inching upward while that of the Fidesz is stagnant. Perhaps, I thought, he would listen to Sarkozy, who apparently suggested closer cooperation with the other side in the interest of the country. Well, it seems that I was wrong. In the last few days I have seen a renewed onslaught on Orbán’s part against the socialist-liberal side. His "contra-lying" speech, although it might have been delivered to an audience of only 1,200 people, was a frontal attack against the government, full of baseless accusations.

Even so, I was still hoping that at least Orbán would not lead "his people" again onto the streets to commemorate the anniversary of the 1956 revolution on October 23. Well, last night I saw an interview in MTV’s Este (Evening) with him, and he left no doubt in anyone’s mind that there will be a "peaceful gathering," where, I’m sure, he most likely will not speak about 1956 but about current politics. He will again demand Gyurcsány’s disappearance and will ask people to vote "no" on the referendum questions. He will plant the false hope in his followers that if this referendum is decided in the Fidesz’s favor, the government will collapse. When the interviewer inquired about the place of this demonstration, Orbán mysteriously smiled and refused to answer. According to today’s rumor, it will again be at the Astoria.

If this rumor is well founded and if the police give it its blessing, it could well be a Hungarian "Groundhog Day." The far right would repeat last year’s performance, would try to join the nearby Fidesz demonstration, would attack the police. The not too experienced riot police would try to keep the peaceful demonstrators apart from the non-peaceful demonstrators, most likely in vain, and, in the end, we would start the whole thing about police brutality all over again. In my opinion, the only reasonable thing would be for the police not to allow the Fidesz to hold such a large meeting at such a busy intersection. They do have the legal right to say no if the demonstration greatly interferes with traffic. Whether the new police chief has the guts to do that, I’m not at all sure. I think he should. Naturally, there would be the usual outcry from the opposition (minus MDF), but it would still be better than a repeat performance of last year’s events on October 23.

Orbán, as I said, has been very busy. He also gave an interview to Le Monde (http://www.lemonde.fr/web/article/0,1-0,36-956071,0.htm ). In this interview he mentioned that the "street pressure" would be kept up, a statement that didn’t sound too promising for future political calm. This threat was repeated not only in Este last night but also in another lengthier (30-minute) interview at HírTV, a right-wing news-only channel. From this interview we learned that he is in Rome today, where he is attending a conference of the Christian Democratic International’s congress. He is one of the vice-presidents of this organization (mind you, some time ago he was one of the vice-presidents of the Liberal International!), and in this capacity he will have an audience with the Holy Father. His Calvinist ancestors are surely turning in their graves. This Calvinist politician’s attitude toward the Catholic Church reminds me of another Calvinist dignitary, Miklós Horthy, who wished so-so much that he hadn’t been baptized a Calvinist but could belong to a church that is the dominant church in Hungary. (The Calvinists are only about 20-25% of the population, a strong, but definite minority.)

The reporter brought up the topic of "street pressure," about which Orbán had talked so optimistically to the reporter of Le Monde, and mentioned that this street pressure is getting weaker and weaker. Orbán, of course, didn’t agree: on the contrary, he argued, the pressure is growing. In the past only Fidesz could move really large crowds. Often hundreds of thousands of people. But nowadays, other organizations manage to bring thousands to the streets: the Association of Large Families (Nagycsaládosok Országos Szövetsége), the Hungarian Medical Association (Magyar Orvosi Kamara), the Living Chain (Élőlánc), and the March Charter ( Márciusi Charta) of Sándor Csoóri, etc. Well, let’s take these one by one. The Association of Large Families used to be an apolitical association whose work focused on the betterment of families with three or more children. Lately, a new chairman was chosen in the person of Dr. Endre Szabó, a family physician. Since most doctors’ political sympathies lie with the right, this new chairman is increasingly leading the association in that direction. The association is becoming an instrument of the Fidesz. The Hungarian Medical Association has been always a supporter of the Fidesz. So much so that an earlier chairman was chosen by Orbán to be minister of health in 1998. As for the Living Chain, the naive organizer ended up with a mess on his hands because the extremists mingled with their peaceful crowd and began throwing beer bottles at the members of parliament. Apologies followed. Again, the connection between the Living Chain, the Fidesz, and President Sólyom is quite well known. And we’d better not talk about Sándor Csoóri’s March Charter, a manifesto that was an intellectual nightmare. It was horrifying how low Csoóri, one of the leading figures of 1980s and 1990s, could sink. Of course, it might only be age, but it was frightening that about a hundred so-called intellectuals signed this confused manifesto, including six Catholic bishops.

Orbán’s most politically promising moment came at the beginning of the interview when the reporter brought up a minor MSZP member’s problem with the law. Apparently, a young MSZP member (who had been in trouble before when people overheard him make an utterly tasteless remark about the cold and victims of the holocaust) is now in jail because about 50 million forints disappeared into some "deep pockets." Orbán announced that such a scandal is the party’s "best dream." I assume they are going to try a repeat performance of the Márta Tocsik affair, which greatly contributed to the MSZP’s losing the election in 1998. Without going into details, Márta Tocsik, a lawyer, received huge sums of money for performing certain services, part of which, it was alleged, ended up in the MSZP coffers. Right-wing papers already suggest that Ferenc Gyurcsány knew about the millions stolen, something I greatly doubt. However, what a beautiful dream. As for János Zuschlag, the culprit, he should have been booted from the party after his stupidly insensitive remark about the holocaust.

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Paul Hellyer

I seem to recall that in the late 1990s the Economist and Orbán had a spat when the magazine accused him of having anti-democratic tendencies and/or being a demagogue, or words to that effect. He responded as expected but the interesting thing to me was these characteristics of Orbán were evident so long ago. He is playing true to form today – which I think is a great tragedy both for the center-right who deserve better and for the Hungarian polity which is in desperate need of real, democratic leadership.