Orbán and the “state of the union”

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.

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This thing about the “Bigger bread, not thinner slices” is rather good actually. Maybe Orban should dress up as a Baker in future? It compresses though Orban’s idea since 2006, that Hungary, with Fidesz in Government would expand Hungary out of the financial crisis. But how? As I remember Fidesz has already promised to buy back all (?) “illegal” sold State Assets, like Ferihegy Airport, so they will need a lot of money. They also want to cut taxes, so the middle-class would have money to start new businesses. Then of course give more money to everyone who needs it, you know health care, education, Post, MAV etc. And all public service should be free. For one thing is that they will give up the Euro-implementation for many years, because then they do not need to balance the budget for the next years. Orban has never had a problem blaiming EU when it suited him and it would also strengthen him in his role as “The Hungarian Nation’s Father”. This speach seems to be the start of that theme? It was probably more aimed at weary traditional MSZP-voters (the so called Center in Hungarian politics). The question is how Orban… Read more »
New World Order
I think there are a couple of strands running through his speech and probable new approach. (1) He senses the risk that while they will achieve over 50% “yes” votes on the referendum, the abject apathy (if one can say such a thing) of the populace means that reaching the minimum qualifying voting numbers is not a sure thing. A failure in the referendum would in any other country and party doom Orban. In Hungary and in FIDESZ, it probably would only set him back. (2) He senses that the “mob on the street” approach to being in opposition only has limited appeal going forward. By winning over the lunatic fringe, he continues to bleed siginficant potential support closer to the center (wherever that may be). In particular, he sees a real opening among traditional MSZP voters who are really hurting economically and have a limited vested interest in or understanding of the needs for any reform. Some siginficant portion of these voters may be won over but not if he continues to paint the country as good Christian conservatives against evil communists. As such, the new dividing line is good Hungarians versus imcompetent Government. If he moves this way,… Read more »

****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.****
It is less about revenue, than it is about moral hazard and distortion of supply via subsidies.

Odin's lost eye
The idea of ‘Bigger Bread’ I think are the slight surpluses that MZSP is developing through its belt tightening process. What he (Olban) will do is to committ the cardinal sin of printing more money for time and let that thief of men’s efforts -inflation- rip. He can always blame it o tne strengthening Euro etc. As Varangy says It is less about revenue, than it is about moral hazard and distortion of supply via subsidies. To pour money into Health and Education without getting tight controls over them them solves nothing. Health and Education are all devouring black holes. Doctors just look at the latest equipment catalogues and do no more work. Acadamaics are worse the buy more books, eat bigger dinners and drink better wine. They do even less work! Viking remarks “As I remember Fidesz has already promised to buy back all illegaly sold State Assets, like Ferihegy Airport”. What will he do if the current owners do not want to sell at his price? As to tax cut so the middle-class would have money to start new businesses, from my observations of these people in Hungary. I feel that they would just buy new phones and… Read more »
Odin's lost eye

PPS it is it is 19:13 hrs CET

What impresses me the most is the boundless opportunism Orban never fails to display. This would be normal in a politician, especially in a populist, but the quality of his arguments is sliding lower and lower at each turn. Nor is there any threshold, below which he wouldn’t go. By this time there were no arguments to mention. They were replaced by folkish truisms and sophistries. However, the other incredible fenomenon is the reception and the earnest analysis given to the cheap drivel he is hawking, as politics. Must we suppose that the Hungarian population is so primitive that they give credence to this garbage, uncritically and happily? In my observation, the far right, this rapidly growing segment doesn’t consider Orban good enough anymore, so he probably lost them for the long run, although can count on their votes for the referendum. His “mainline” mass of followers, an approximately two million people, are seemingly united behind him, but in fact are quite fragmented. The best indicator of this is the incredibly varied and many-colored hodge-podge of rethoric coming from different directions, all purportedly supporting, or being supported by him. Best example of this the railroad workers’ strike. He and his… Read more »