Today started well for Gordon Bajnai. Szonda Ipsos published the results of its latest poll about Hungarians' attitude toward the new government. Their previous poll, taken on April 1, showed that only 28% of the population was optimistic about the new government's ability to handle the crisis. In two weeks that number went up to 35%, while those who felt that Bajnai and his team would not succeed decreased from 25% to 18%. Undecided voters, who normally shrink from expressing strong opinions, are surprisingly optimistic this time: 38% of them are hopeful. About the same number are skeptics. When these undecided voters were asked whom they consider more suited for handling the crisis, Bajnai outscored Orbán. On a scale of one to five Bajnai got a 2.8 and Orbán 2.4. Seventy-five percent of the population realizes that the austerity measures are necessary. Of course, they wholeheartedly support measures such as lower salaries for CEOs of state enterprises. They are a great deal less enthusiastic about proposed cuts in social benefits.
If Szonda Ipsos had conducted its poll after the first cabinet meeting today, the approval rate would most likely have been even higher than a few days ago when very little was known about the government's intentions. Very cleverly, the government released first those measures that will affect members of the administration. Ministerial salaries will be cut by 15%. Until now undersecretaries' pay could vary as much as 30% from the official figures at the discretion of the prime minister. This practice will be stopped. The government will suggest a change in the law governing the salaries of directors of state owned companies. Currently, for example, the head of MÁV (Hungarian Railways) gets a yearly salary of 78 million forints. Considering MÁV's dismal performance, that high figure is unjustified. They will reduce by 50% the daily allowance of members of government travelling abroad. (They can eat at MacDonalds!) At the moment if an official doesn't take all his vacation time he can be reimbursed in cash. This practice will come to an end. Ministers and undersecretaries will no longer be eligible to receive large premiums after a certain number of years spent in the public sector. Surely, these measures will boost the popularity of the government because the general perception is that the government spends too much money on itself.
I don't know whether this relatively good news for the government had anything to do with the unusually shrill voice of Viktor Orbán this afternoon at a Fidesz conference. Some of the themes were familiar. Orbán called his political opponents "cheating businessmen" from whom the Hungarian people ought to take their country back. The change of government, according to Orbán, means nothing: a comedy, a circus, and the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition reemerged in order to prevent "change." This old-new coalition will be "the coalition of collapse." The EP elections on July 7 will be a "vote of no confidence." After a Fidesz rout the government will have to draw the necessary conclusions and simply give up. At least this is what Orbán is hoping for. His clairvoyant powers are modest at best; he has predicted such outcomes at least half a dozen times and nothing happened. And when something happened, it had nothing to do with one of his ultimatums.
And what did Orbán offer? According to him the real problem in Hungary is not financial but a lack of jobs. At least "one million jobs are missing." As long as there are no one million new jobs the financial well being of the country will be temporary. He repeated his promise that after the "removal of the rubble" will come "the day of reckoning" when the guilty ones who brought this crisis to the country will have to answer in a court of law for their misdeeds. (This would be fairly difficult under the current judicial system. After all, this is not a one-party dictatorship in which show trials were staged for political opponents. However, at one point Orbán mentioned the possibility of "some legal adjustments" that will take care of the problem.) After that comes the "rebuilding."
This "government of hopelessness" will lead the country into outright bankruptcy. Says Orbán. But his negative message and the monotonous incantation of "hopelessness" might be self-defeating. One ought to remember the 2006 elections when Fidesz plastered walls with the saddest-looking old lady who tried to explain to the people that they live worse than they lived four years before. That strategy at a time when the old ladies' pensions had risen by 40% was most unfortunate! Naturally it didn't work. The mantra of "hopelessness" might also backfire. At least an awful lot of people, even those who are not committed MSZP voters, kept saying today on György Bolgár's talk show that they are sick and tired of hearing about all this hopelessness and people they know feel the same way. While Bajnai at the moment predicts a contraction in the GDP this year of 5.5-6%, Orbán confidently announced that it will be 8% and added: "Where does this man live? When the German forecast is -7.5%." (Who are Orbán's forecasters? The official German estimate is that GDP will fall by 2.25%; the IMF as of April 10 put the contraction at 5%, the OECD at 5.3%). Another problem with Orbán's strategy is that he keeps repeating that the crisis is a uniquely Hungarian phenomenon caused exclusively by the Gyurcsány government. How long can this be maintained? The Hungarian public might not be terribly sophisticated, but surely they can't help hearing that the crisis is worldwide. And soon enough they will figure out that factories are closing because Hungary can't keep up its level of exports when its trading partners are in a deep recession.
I have the feeling that the current Fidesz message is a bit confused. Earlier, the party's strategy hinged solely on attacks on Ferenc Gyurcsány. Now that he is gone they are trying to paint Bajnai as a second Gyurcsány, just another communist. But the two people are very different, and by no stretch of the imagination could one call Bajnai's agenda communist. But here's the clincher. How does Orbán know that these people are communists? Gyurcsány announced his intention to resign on March 21, the anniversary of the declaration of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919. And the socialists decided to choose a new prime minister instead of holding elections on April 4, the anniversary of the liberation of Hungary by the Soviet army. Q.E.D.