István Stumpf’s interview and what it tells us

One of the hot topics of conversation beside Viktor Orbán's speech in front of László Kéri's former students of political science is an interview, quite open and candid, with István Stumpf a week ago Saturday on MR1. Stumpf currently is the head of a think tank called Századvég (Fin-de-siècle) established by Fidesz in the early 1990s, but its roots go back to a publication, also called Századvég, published by those college students who later established Fidesz. The editors of the periodical were István Stumpf and Viktor Orbán. The date was 1985. Although Stumpf claims today that he has practically nothing to do with the party and barely sees or talks with Viktor Orbán, from this interview it is quite obvious that Stumpf is still one of the most important advisors of Orbán. If not the most important, at least in political matters. The two men's friendship goes back a long way. Stumpf, as a young teaching assistant, was put in charge by the dean of the law school of the dormitory where Fidesz was born. He remained as head of the dormitory for five years (1982-1987), just about the time Orbán was a student there. Stumpf could do all sorts of things other people in a similar position couldn't because he was the son-in-law of the Minister of the Interior. One must remember that the internal security apparatus was part of the Interior Ministry.

In any case, after Viktor Orbán won the elections he asked Stumpf to head the Office of the Prime Minister with the rank of cabinet minister. The Hungarian system is an interesting amalgam of the British and the German. Yes, there is a prime minister not a chancellor, but the prime minister's power is very similar to that of the German chancellor. He can pick and choose his ministers who don't even have to be members of his party or members of parliament. He has a very large office, practically as large as a good-sized ministry. This office is headed by a minister, unofficially called "kancellária miniszter" (minister of the chancellery), and also has several undersecretaries. In any case, Stumpf was in charge of this whole operation between 1998 and 2002. Since then he has been trying to make us believe that he is just an ordinary political scientist. His bias, of course, is clear, but among those political analysts who side with the right he is the most intelligent and best informed.

But, let's go back to the interview. Given Fidesz party discipline, without Orbán's permission Stumpf could never have said all the things he did. Perhaps he was too candid, but it seems that this is the new Fidesz strategy. Until now they said almost nothing about their future plans, and now we hear rather shocking revelations about what Fidesz and Orbán are planning.

I already wrote about Orbán's plans for a very stringent austerity program as outlined in László Kéri's seminar. There he talked about two really hard years that would be very painful for many, many Hungarians. A few days later, talking to Hungarian business leaders, he modified his stance somewhat: for a year or so he would do nothing but gather ideas about the ways to handle the Hungarian "crisis" situation. He said relatively little about his political plans except that he wanted to remain in power for at least twelve to fifteen years. He also boasted about his unique position on the right: he cannot be replaced, no one else in the party has a chance.

Stumpf's revelations add a few details to Orbán's political plans. First of all, Stumpf assumes a huge Fidesz win at an early election. He assumes a two-thirds majority, in which case Fidesz can change the constitution. One of the changes should be to assign a more important role to the president. Certain powers should be taken away from the prime minister and given over to the head of state. The president's tenure should be lengthened from five to eight years. This strengthening of the role of the president perhaps would end the "ideological war" between the parties.

Throughout the interview it was obvious that Stumpf would like to decrease the importance of parties, perhaps even get rid of them altogether, though they are the mainstays of parliamentary democracy. He kept talking about "social contracts" between government and different interest groups. He also would like to see a second chamber in parliament. The members of this second chamber would be appointed and would represent different groupings. Although Stumpf never uttered the word, this plan bears a suspicious resemblance to "corporatism." Corporatism or corporativism is a kind of political system that is based not on parties but on different civic assemblies called "corporations." These civic assemblies would represent all facets of society: economic, agrarian, industrial, social, cultural, and professional. The idea goes back to Pope Leo XIII and his Rerum Novarum in which the pope outlined his plans for Christian socialism. In the twentieth century Mussolini was a proponent of such a political structure. In Austria the theoretical proponent of corporativism was Othmar Spann. So Stumpf is not exactly original, but what he echoes is a frightening prospect. He added that such a second chamber is not far from Hungarian tradition. Indeed not. There was an Upper House prior to 1918 and again between 1926 and 1944.

Stumpf's parting word was that he could easily imagine Viktor Orbán in the position of president but not now and not under the present circumstances. After all, Orbán is too young to assume a basically ceremonial position. But if the constitution is changed, once Orbán served his twelve or so years as prime minister of Hungary he could move over to a beefed-up presidential position for an additional eight years. A corporative state with a strong president–quite a prospect.

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fascinating post:
“These civic assemblies would represent all facets of society: economic, agrarian, industrial, social, cultural, and professional.”
Was there any discussion of how these corporations would be enfranchised, or how there representatives would be selected – by election within the corporation or by government appointment?
It is also worth pointing out that the second chamber in the UK is now largely government appointed, this has not led to a break down of the party system there, though there are and always has been an unusually high number of independents.
This idea of represented corporations or ‘estates’ is medieval in origin. In the British Parliament, the distinction between Lords and Commons, and seats for Bishops, Judges and even the Universities have all been based on this idea. It is not clear to me however, how it would work in the modern world.

Tom Beretvas

As you know, I like your blog. My one question is why this blog (typepad) is such that referring to the URL does not automatically open the page. I.e., I have to copy your URL into Internet Explorer’s top line to get to your blog. Is there some solutions to this quandary?
Are you doing this intelligent and interesting commentary purely out of love, or is there some commercial aspect to it?

Perhaps this is what Orbán meant by “non-traditional governing”. Fidesz – assuming a two-thirds majority – would change the constitution to award more powers to the president and the second chamber at the expense of Parliament. Stumpf’s ideas on “social contracts” and the groups that would be represented in such a second legislative chamber are strongly reminiscent of how Orbán has restructured Fidesz since 2002. The party has made a point of signing deals with farm-ers’, pensioners’, families’ and workers’ groups and the like, and including their members on its electoral lists. One effect of downgrading the importance of political parties, as Stumpf and Orbán would prefer, would be to marginalise those parties opposed to Fidesz. It seems as though Stumpf and Orbán imagine that Hungary can be free of ideological conflict. This is probably what Orbán has in mind when he speaks – as he often does – of the need for Hungarians to “join forces” and “pool their re-sources;” a vision of all segments of society working towards a common aim. This seems rather unrealistic, as ideological conflict is inevitable where it is not brutally repressed. Even were Fidesz to become the dominant party for a significant period… Read more »

“It is normal for the major parties in the UK and US to have various factions within that fight for control of the party. Though these internal conflicts can be kept in check for a long time by a charismatic leader . . .”
Good point, but I think the key adjective is “successful” rather than charismatic, Thatcher and even Blair – apparently – were charismatic but were got rid of when their shelf life expired.
I think the large number of parties that are potentially government parties is damaging to good government in Hungary, getting rid of proportional representation or an executive president both seem simpler ways of correcting this than coming up with a medieval constitution as Stumpf proposes.
Eva writes “The Hungarian system is an interesting amalgam of the British and the German”. I don’t know enough about German arrangements to judge, but I believe they have PR as well.
Why is PR a disaster in Italy, but seems to work well in Germany? The number of parties would seem to be factor. Also charisma seems to play a more important factor in Italian politics than in German. On both counts Hungary seems more like Italy than Germany.

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All of the meaning and and intentions of the foregoing just serve as a reminder how duplicitous is the stance fidesz and Orban are taking. Orban, who regards himself as the last of the regime changers, often swears by democracy, but at the same time, and not in small measure due to his spectacular failure to benefit from democracy, finds the framework too narrow and too tight. He and his coterie are demanding with an ever increasing zeal, that the democracy, within which they should participate, be supplanted by a newly invented format that would be in their favour and would make normal democratic government impossible. As it turned out after ’89, it is impossible to anticipate all eventualities when creating a constitution. Now, twenty years later however, Orban has the experience to see what would suit him best and, as shameless as he is, demands the creation of this “new order.” All this wild and wooly ideas are completely contrary to contemporary constitutional thinking. The electorate however, has no idea about that. Somehow the vague allusions to a parallel with the Horthy era seems to reassure them to believe that this might work. Besides, they don’t care how, just… Read more »