The Hungarian right after the EU elections: Orbán’s dilemma

Although Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz leadership tried to hide it, the spectacular showing of the extreme right in the EU parliamentary elections had to be an awful blow. Their worst fears materialized: years of diligent work of trying to bring all shades of political opinion right of center under Fidesz's umbrella failed. MDF, the moderate right of center party led by Ibolya Dávid who seems to have a great deal of political savvy and who cannot be easily intimidated, managed to get enough votes to send one member to the European Parliament. And that member is an influential economist of international fame: Lajos Bokros. Jobbik, the racist, antisemitic and nationalistic party on the extreme right of the Hungarian political spectrum, received almost fifteen percent of the votes and thereby three delegates out of the twenty-two. In order to appreciate the magnitude of this win one should keep in mind that the socialist party with the greatest number of representatives in the Hungarian parliament won only four seats!

Indeed, this had to be an unexpected event for Fidesz. Between them, MDF and Jobbik, the two other parties on the right, received about 20% of the votes. Admittedly, the turnout was low and most of the disaffected MSZP voters stayed home, but so did Fidesz sympathizers. In spite of the party's greatest efforts, Orbán and his friends were unable to mobilize their voting base. About one million Fidesz voters didn't bother to go to the polls. So there was a lot to talk about at the hastily convened meeting of the Fidesz top brass right after the elections: where to go from here? What should they do with Jobbik? The more moderate Fidesz sympathizers like István Elek whom I mentioned almost a week ago suggested a move toward the center and a vigorous campaign against Jobbik. Knowing Viktor Orbán, I was almost certain that he was not going to follow Elek's advice.

After two days of talks Orbán came out with an interesting solution that József Debreczeni (Népszava, June 13) called "comical." He didn't mention Jobbik at all. In fact, he repeated that "the camp and the flag" is still one and stronger than ever. Instead of talking about the real problem he turned against the socialists, whom Fidesz just beat to a pulp. He insisted on early elections by demanding the immediate resignation of the government. "Last Sunday the voters withdrew their support from the socialist party and therefore in a democracy early elections must be held." Surely, Orbán knows full well what the Hungarian constitution says about elections and therefore understands that the dissolution of parliament can be done only within the walls of parliament. As usual and not without reason he takes advantage of the ignorance of the majority of Hungarians.

Orbán even wrote a letter to Ildikó Lendvai, president of MSZP, in which he outlined his demands. The government should stop all privatization. It should withdraw the bill, currently under discussion, to introduce property tax. It should immediately abandon all work on the new civic code. It should suspend the reorganization of the administration. It should immediately end all work on reforms of higher education. And it should immediately stop preparation to set up a Hungarian company to handle the natural gas coming from the Southern Stream. In brief, the government should stop functioning. One must admit it takes chutzpa to write a letter like this simply because there were elections for the European Parliament where the governing party didn't do well. It especially takes gall to demand such things when Orbán and his government in 2002, between the first and second rounds of the election, privatized twelve state enterprises and passed them on to friends and clients. Ildikó Lendvai at the time charged that Orbán's government greased the palms of friends and supporters to the tune of about 275 billion forints. Fidesz sued and lost.

This weekend, following on the heels of the two-day meeting of Fidesz big wigs, over 2,016 party members held a congress which included election of the members of the "presidium."  Surprise, surprise: Orbán was renominated and so were his four vice-presidents–Mihály Varga, Zoltán Pokorni, Lajos Kósa, and Mrs. Pelcz née Ildikó Gáll. There was no opposition. Orbán received 2,011 votes out of 2,016! Then Orbán gave a fairly lengthy speech that ended thus: "The time is now! The camp is one and huge! There is only one flag that furls high and proud. On it is written: Go Hungary, Go!"

I must say that I found the whole speech frightening because it was easy to see the outlines of a one-party system emerging. He has quite openly turned away from a democratic multi- or two-party model where at specified intervals there are general elections in which people choose their government. Sometimes they choose the socialists, sometimes the conservatives. Or in the United States sometimes the Democrats, sometimes the Republicans. That's how democracy works. But that's not Orbán's vision of the future for Hungary. Hungary's political map, according to him, has changed for good. In the past, he admits, there were times when either this or that color dominated the political map but "the red was always too much" and he hopes that the defeat of the socialists is permanent. "This will be the last battle." After this fight there will be only one party left: Fidesz, with Viktor Orbán at its head. This party will not have to compromise with anybody, this party will not have to set up a coalition government. With the help of "free Hungarians" they will rule in the name of justice.

What Viktor Orbán says in this speech is that although there was an ostensible change of regime from one-party dictatorship to multi-party democracy, the change wasn't real. He always had the feeling that the forces of the old regime were pulling the strings from the background. "The old and the new lived side by side but I always felt that the old had the upper hand." Those communists who were defeated in 1989-1990 "had a plan about how it was possible within a democratic framework to operate a dictatorship." And the Hungarian people must be careful because "they didn't give up their plans. We can be certain that new plans are being hatched at this very moment." And he continues by claiming that the socialists became frightened after the mayoral election in Pécs and the EU elections, and now they are trying their best to change the current political map of the country. Well, it would be mighty strange if a party that in the last two years has been losing support simply gave up and didn't want to devise a winning strategy. According to Orbán they have the gall even to think of "returning one day." These are frightening words. Words of a man whose thinking is far, far from democratic norms. Meanwhile the Fidesz audience was in ecstacy and the former president, Ferenc Mádl, a legal expert, nodded in agreement.

In the whole speech not a word about Jobbik and only a passing mention of the extreme right. But even here, as he referred to armed groups marching up and down and people throwing Molotov cocktails into houses, he placed responsibility squarely on the government. According to Orbán it is to the advantage of the socialists for these people to do their evil deeds in relative freedom.

I'm only hoping that Orbán in his eagerness overstates his case. Because if his ideas are translated into action the country is in trouble.