Some people think that Viktor Orbán has made an awful lot of political mistakes lately. It was a mistake not to make conciliatory gestures at the National Summit, not to show up at a high-level meeting of politicians and experts on the economic crisis, not to take an active part in the hustle and bustle of everyday politics. He stayed aloof and sent emissaries to meetings.
A few days ago he decided to speak up. However, according to analysts, it would have been better if he had kept his own counsel. Here is an example of the criticism about what Fidesz and Viktor Orbán personally have been doing lately; it appeared in the English version of Portfolio.hu. "The main opposition party is frantically trying to escape even the appearance of having anything to do with the crisis management of the Socialist Party (MSZP). But what it will really accomplish with its shoddy communication is the brick-by-brick destruction of its professional credibility that it has been building up for years in opposition. Portraying Hungary's stand-by credit agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a hugger-mugger deal is a mere blunder; the rejection of the fiscal responsibility package is a mistake of historic proportions and the call on the central bank to cut its base rate immediately to 6.00% is pure madness."
I think in one respect the analyst here is too kind. I don't see the professional credibility that Fidesz has been building up for years. There were no constructive suggestions to remedy the terrible situation in which Hungary found itself by 2006. The government tried its best and pretty well succeeded in decreasing the incredibly high deficit. Fidesz couldn't suggest anything to replace the austerity program that is "too hard on the Hungarian people." Here and there the party offered silly ideas to reduce taxes and thus further increase the deficit but nothing constructive. What happened with the IMF stand-by credit deal was definitely more than a "mere blunder." It was embarrassing. First there was the condemnation of the whole deal. Hungary didn't need IMF money. That early criticism was followed by emphasizing the "shame" that had befallen the country: Hungary was now somewhere between Pakistan and Ukraine! Once the stand-by credit agreement was a done deal and the document of intent signed and sealed, Mihály Varga, the economic expert of Fidesz, kept insisting that there must be some secret deal. When the IMF itself declared that there was no such thing Fidesz madly searched for a "contract." And when it turned out that there was no contract Varga tried to get out of hot water by claiming that that since Gyurcsány made references once or twice to "a contract" he must be a total nincompoop who doesn't even know that no contract had to be signed. If all this nonsense had been uttered only once or twice, it would have been bearable. But the sound bites are repeated over and over. A new messenger, the same message. So the same blahblah on Napkelte in the morning is heard again at noon, in the evening, and late at night. Mistakes are thus magnified.
The latest blunder was Orbán's "demand" to the Hungarian National Bank and the government to immediately lower the interest rate from 11.5% to 6.0%. In one fell swoop. This news first appeared in a regional paper called Észak-Magyarország. Instead of denying the report in an effort to maintain credibility, he repeated this nonsense in Veszprém where Fidesz bigwigs got together for a meeting. Here he added that lowering the interest rate might help Hungarian enterprises get credit more easily. Needless to say, the media jumped on the story because even those who are not too savvy in financial matters know that such a sharp reduction in the interest rate would have catastrophic results. The questions multiplied. Does Orbán really know so little that he can seriously suggest such a move? Doesn't he know that the Hungarian National Bank is independent of the government and the government, even if it wanted to lower interest rates, couldn't do it?
It seems that this latest suggestion caused consternation even within the party. Fidesz is a very well disciplined organization. What Orbán says is Holy Writ. Everybody follows. No cracks in unity. But his call for the immediate reduction of the interest rate by almost 50% was more than his followers could take. Even the very right-wing Magyar Hírlap called it "perhaps too sweeping a suggestion" and suggested a more cautious, step by step, reduction of the indeed very high interest rate. Mihály Varga repeated the same and Zsigmond Járai, former minister of finance and head of the National Bank who did everything in his power to keep interest rates high and thus make the Gyurcsány government's situation very difficult, also explained that such a reduction must be gradual. (Mind you, I remember when Járai raised the interest rate by 3-4% for no apparent reason.)
Orbán apparently had another brilliant idea: to have a referendum to stop the privatization of the Budapest Gas Works (Főgáz) pretty well decided on by the city. After all, with the same strategy he defeated government plans for healthcare copayment and tuition. But the likelihood of a successful referendum today is very much in question. Fidesz's popularity has plummeted of late in the capital. Moreover, it seems that István Tarlós who was narrowly defeated in the mayoral contest two years ago and who is now the head of the Fidesz caucus in the city council is dead set against a referendum; apparently he managed to gather nearly the entire inner circle of Fidesz against Orbán on this issue. Another sign that Orbán's hold on the higher echelon of party leadership might be loosening. A few more mistakes would certainly help those who deep down are worried about the future of the party as long as Orbán is leading it.