The Hungarian parliament according to Viktor Orbán

Even before the Pécs mayoral elections Fidesz politicians were very optimistic. Since then they have been downright cocky. Sure, one could say, Péter Szijjártó is always cocky. But yesterday, talking to Olga Kálmán, he was even more arrogant than usual. Lajos Kósa, mayor of Debrecen and an important figure in Fidesz, confidently announced yesterday that after they win the national elections "the very first step will be to restore the thirteenth month pension and repeal the property tax law, if it is ever enacted." And finally, Viktor Orbán today outlined his idea of the "coloration" of the next parliament. According to one on-line paper an Orbán parliament would look something like this. The caption reads: "No need for many parties?  After all, before 1989 only one strong party directed the affairs of the country."Orban's parliament

But let's go step by step. Let's start with Kósa's remarks about the abrogation of a possible property tax. He added that the Bajnai government has so little time left and the socialists are so weakened even without this unpopular move that they might as well give up on its introduction. There is no question that such legislation would ruin the socialists' chances even among older voters. However, the question is whether, even if the party somehow manages to convince Bajnai and his team to give up the idea, the results would be any different at next year's elections. I very much doubt it.  They would only convince absolutely everybody that perhaps Orbán is right: a strong government is needed to replace the current weak one. But there is another problem: Hungary promised the International Monetary Fund that they would introduce such a tax. Without this income Hungary would be unable to fulfill its obligations either to the IMF or to the European Union. And that brings us back to Kósa and how seriously one has to take such promises. My first thought was: why is it Kósa who is saying this? Why not Viktor Orbán himself? It is suspicious. I still recall the 1998 election campaign when Fidesz promised everything under the sun in order to gain votes. If they had fulfilled these promises, all the beneficial effects of the Bokros package would have disappeared and Hungary would have gone back to its pre-1995 sorry financial state. But, of course, they didn't keep their promises. At least for two years. Only in 2001 and 2002 in preparation for the next elections did they set out on a spending spree. So it is possible that these promises uttered not by Viktor Orbán but by one of his lieutenants mean absolutely nothing. After all, Orbán once said of Kósa: "he can say interesting things on occasions."

But let's move on to the weightier utterances of Orbán himself. First of all, Orbán chose as his forum Magyar Demokrata. This is a far-right weekly whose editor-in-chief, András Bencsik, was one of the sponsors of the Hungarian Guard. His wife designed their uniforms. One could write reams about this guy whose career started in Kádár's Népszabadság where he was in charge of party news. This was a sensitive job, given only to someone the party trusted. A dedicated party member. How Bencsik ended up as editor-in-chief of Magyar Demokrata and godfather of the Hungarian Guard is quite a story, though unfortunately not uncommon in the last twenty years in Hungary. Orbán in the past often asked his followers to support Bencsik's weekly in spite of its unsavory reputation.

In the interview Orbán again emphasized the personal responsibility of socialist and liberal politicians who are, according to him, solely responsible for Hungary's economic woes. He specifically claimed that the world economic crisis has nothing to do with anything. Losing the elections is insufficient punishment for their political mistakes; "they will have to answer in court." A rather interesting concept! But he went even further. He speculated that the socialists are worried about a possible two-thirds Fidesz majority because in this case socialist politicians' parliamentary immunity could be suspended. That sounds pretty threatening to me. If he had political corruption in mind, he could go to the prosecutor's office this very minute. Surely, Orbán is targeting some other "crime." Wrong political decisions. As far as I know in no democratic country can people be criminally prosecuted for political missteps.

Orbán's most worrisome pronouncement was that what the country needs is not a parliament composed of many parties (he used the adjective: sokszínű = multicolored) but a strong government. In case of a very large Fidesz victory the parliamentary "horseshoe" (the Hungarian chamber looks like a horseshoe) may be indeed only one color: orange. I don't think that either MDF or SZDSZ will receive enough votes (5% minimum) to have parliamentary representation. MSZP will surely get in but perhaps with only a couple dozen representatives. In this case we can speak only of a pseudo-parliamentary system. I heard one political commentator discuss an alleged Fidesz plan for such an eventuality. They would create pseudo parliamentary caucuses. After all, Fidesz already has one: the Christian Democratic People's Party headed by Zsolt Semjén. Several other such phony caucuses could be formed. For example, they could organize a separate caucus from people who left MDF three years ago and joined Fidesz after sitting out their compulsary time of six months among the independents. This group already calls itself Nemzeti Fórum (National Forum). Or perhaps they could dig up some former Smallholders who are now in Fidesz. Thus there would be the semblance of parliamentary democracy. Heads of the pseudo caucuses would ask questions from the minister and there would be polite answers that surely would be accepted by a majority of the members. There is always the possibility that the far-right Jobbik might get enough votes to send a delegation to parliament, but some kind of deal could be made with Jobbik, similar to what Fidesz had with MIÉP between 1998 and 2002. Such a deal would ensure cooperation between the two parties behind the scenes. This is a prospect no one should cherish.

At the same time Viktor Orbán keeps repeating that there is no chance of Fidesz receiving a two-thirds majority. Out of the question, he says. I guess he doesn't want to sound too optimistic and talk too much about an overwhelming Fidesz majority. He is worried that MSZP supporters might get reinvigorated hearing about a two-thirds Fidesz majority. But deep down I am certain that this is what he wants. He could get rid of all kinds of pesky laws that annoy him and create a strong state that could be perpetuated through changes in the constitution.

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It is often forgotten, especially in Hungary, that opposing can be done from the fringes, but governing is best done from the middle.
When the fidesz comes in with the above described overwhelming majority, the voters will soon discover, just as they did in 2002, that the game is rigged.
It is also quite common in democracies that ideologues have short tenure.
If Orban makes a one-party constitutional set up he will have a gorilla on his back: he won’t be able to risk loosing an election, because if he does, his successors will inherit and exploit the exclusive position and he may never get back into government again.
He often surprised me with his short-sighted politics and true to this tradition he will risk again being dangerously short-sighted.


“But there is another problem: Hungary promised the International Monetary Fund that they would introduce such a tax.”
I was surprised to read this, because the question of a property tax is not mentioned in either the letter of intent, nor in the memorandum of understanding that establish the terms of the IMF loan to Hungary (if anyone wants to see if I’ve missed anything you can read them here: Hungary’s only promise on taxation issues is quite non-specific: “we will not make any changes in the tax code that could lead to lower net revenues.” Who is saying that it is now a condition? When was it demanded? Or are the government just making it up?

Éva: “Indeed, not in so many words but in order to lower expenses and raise income this money is necessary. Plus I think that the introduction of this tax is a good move.” Let’s leave aside whether it is a good public policy move or not. There are really two issues here – did the IMF demand it? No. And, one can argue that those promises could be fulfilled through any number of measures. And secondly, can FIDESZ abolish it if they win the elections? Yes. Even if it were a condition of the IMF loan (which it isn’t it) that facility will be subject to renegotiation in spring 2010, immediately after the elections (if Bajnai lasts until then). Is FIDESZ likely to campaign on it. Yes. The Italian precedent is one that FIDESZ will be aware of. In 2006, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was behind in public opinion polls until he started to promise the abolition of the property tax that funded local authorities. The result was that he closed the gap making the election an effective draw – though Berlusconi lost, the popularity of the demand was so great that his successor, Romano Prodi began exempting as many… Read more »
Éva: “Mark, if one only thinks of the next elections nothing will be done and the country will go down the drain.” While I’m not political neutral (I will support policies that are consistent with democratic left-wing values), I am – at least in Hungary – politically independent (I really don’t support any of the parties). Therefore my interest in Hungarian elections is an observer – and I’ve been watching elections in Hungary semi-professionally since 1994. And from this standpoint I’d make a few observations which address your point. In a democracy with a market economy, a government has to address the logic of the economy, and the logic of democracy. Hungarian governments have been very bad at doing this. On the one hand a number of people with questionable democratic legitimacy (because either they themselves were not elected, or were elected promising different things to that which they delivered) have attempted to ram unpopular policies down the populations throat (I’m thinking of Bokros, Gyurcsány since 2006, and now Bajnai). The first two failed politically and both produced an enormous backlash that wiped out any of the gains of the policies they pursued. And, from where I sit based on… Read more »