Of course, I know that the Orbán February speeches over the last ten years are not the same as the American president’s state of union address to a joint session of congress, but the inspiration certainly came from Washington. In 1999, it occurred to Viktor Orbán, then prime minister of Hungary, that he should give a speech every year, which he called the "speech on the assessment of the past year." This speech was made not in parliament but at different conference centers in front of hand picked, sympathetic audiences. This way no booing could come from the opposition, no icy stares, no questions from the different parliamentary delegations. That in itself was a sign of the "moderate importance" Orbán gave to parliament. The interesting thing is that, although Orbán lost the elections in 2002 and 2006, he still gives his "assessment speech" every February. The assessment, of course, can no longer be about the accomplishments of the government; rather, it is normally a sharp criticism of his political adversaries.
This year’s speech was somewhat of a surprise. Instead of whipping up hatred against the traitors of the nation he emphasized unity. He no longer claims, it seems, that the government is actually intent on ruining the people. Gyurcsány and his colleagues are simply incompetent–and increasingly irrelevant. He minimized the political division present in Hungary today: "The walls that divide us are beginning to crumble." The whole nation wants "change." The message is that nobody supports the government any more. Gyurcsány and his government are all alone. Everybody is behind Fidesz, everybody is against the reforms. "What the country needs is not reforms but success" and, of course, success will come only after this incompetent government leaves office. The new slogan is: "The future begins with yes." This is a reference to the referendum scheduled for March 9, where the questions are phrased in such a way that "yes" actually means "no" to the changes. As far as the slogan is concerned, unfortunately the word "future" already appeared once in the Fidesz vocabulary. In 2002 the campaign slogan was: "The future has already begun." Well, that didn’t work too well. As far as "yes" is concerned, this is not very original either. The MSZP campaign of 2006 used the "Yes, yes, yes!" slogan, even composing a pleasant little tune that was a mighty successful earworm–that is, a song that gets stuck in your head–to reinforce it.
Again, Orbán returned to his favorite theme: one mustn’t think in negative terms: one mustn’t close schools, post offices, one mustn’t always say that if this group of people gets more money that money must come from some other segment of society. According to Orbán the question is not how many slices of bread we get out of a loaf. The loaf must be bigger. That’s a great idea, of course, but Orbán doesn’t seem to have any recipe for that bigger loaf.
According to him there are three important things in a nation’s life: health, knowledge, and good governance. It is hard to fathom how Hungarians’ health will be better by not paying 300 Ft to the family doctor or how higher education will improve without tuition. To my mind, if the doctors and the hospitals get more money they should over time be able to deliver improved care. If universities continue to collect tuition, they can improve their facilities and give scholarships to talented students. However, it seems that Orbán thinks differently.
The speech was obviously not too inspiring because there were few outbursts of applause. The greatest response came when Orbán said: "Let’s face it, we are a talented people!" However, he continued, given the current government, soon enough people will not even bother to send their children to high school because they know that they cannot afford their university education. (I think I should mention that more than half of the student body pays tuition–a pittance by Western standards–already.) If the economic situation doesn’t improve and, of course, it won’t under this government, Hungarians won’t even be able to work in tire factories (a reference to the Korean factory in Hungary and a newly sealed deal with India for another tire factory). They will only be able to burn garbage as if they were in a third world country.
What I found most puzzling was Orbán’s mention of the huge discrepancies in medical service in different parts of the country. He brought up District II (a wealthy district in Buda) and a village in Nógrád county (in eastern Hungary). There is an eleven year difference in life expectancy between the two places. The lucky man in District II lives as long as people in western Europe while the man in Nógrád dies as early as someone in Ukraine. But that is exactly what the current government complains about and what it wants to change with the reforms. What I cannot understand is how Orbán can campaign against the reforms while pointing out the incredibly bad current situation.
As for the outcome of the referendum? Orbán was very cautious. He simply stated that it will be "the opening of a new era." Being able to hold this referendum is in itself victory. No longer does he suggest that a successful referendum will ensure a change of government.
And what was the political gurus’ assessment of the speech? No surprise here: those who sympathize with Orbán found the speech brilliant, masterful, the best ever, while those on the other side found it boring, confusing, ridiculous. To me it seemed to indicate that Orbán is not 100% sure of victory on March 9.