Rarely does one find insightful comments emanating from Hungarian "political scientists." But yesterday I discovered an article by Zoltán Lakner entitled "Small Steps, Big Words–One Hundred Days of Viktor Orbán" which was an exception to the usual fare. Lakner is trying to answer the puzzling question: how is it possible to govern as badly as the Fidesz government does and yet remain so popular?
Lakner begins by saying: "Fidesz knows something very well–at least opinions polls signal that much–but surely this 'something' is not governing." For years Fidesz politicians and members of the intelligentsia close to Fidesz kept repeating that all the problems the country is facing can be solved "by good governance." Fidesz won, Viktor Orbán has been the prime minister of Hungary for over three months, and yet no one has a clue what the government is planning to do next year. The past months saw only confusion on all fronts. The government doesn't seem to have any well defined plans. As far as the reorganization of the administration by counties is concerned, no one knows where the government is heading. The problem of the weak forint has been plaguing the country and those who took out loans in foreign currencies, but the government cannot find an acceptable solution to the problem. Bad communication infects the whole administration, and the "economic freedom fight" cost the country dearly. Fidesz promised an immediate and radical tax cut, a promise that can't be kept. Business taxes were lowered but the small- and medium-size businesses that can take advantage of the decision are not profitable enough to benefit from it. As for overall tax reform, personal income tax cuts will not take effect until 2013, and when they do only the well-off will benefit. So one would think that Fidesz's popularity should have sunk rapidly in the last three months.
But not so. Lakner is trying to answer the question: "Why is the second Orbán government still so popular?" In his opinion the first reason is that Fidesz knows something about timing. Although Orbán talks about "revolution" and "regime change," in fact the government has done practically nothing to bring about these alleged goals. Lakner cites Ferenc Gyurcsány's bad timing in 2006 after the elections. First, there was the news that the promises made during the campaign can't be fulfilled. After the announcement of the austerity program the mood of the population immediately soured. At the same time the government decided to initiate a slew of reforms which further irritated the population. Orbán, on the other hand, knows how to time his very slow steps. Here and there he announces some success, or some new tasks, so for the time being he doesn't need to tackle serious problems.
The second reason is Orbán's "rhetoric of success." He talks incessantly about "a strong and successful Hungary." He directs the frustration of the population to specifics: fire those who allegedly led the country close to the abyss, do everything the exact opposite of what the former government did. Appeal to national pride: see, we stand up for our rights. We sent the IMF packing. We are not interested in what the Slovaks say about dual citizenship. "Of course, the world doesn't work that way," says Lakner, but the government is testing limits and the population likes this attitude.
The third reason for Fidesz's success might be the "appeal to authority," the emphasis on strong leadership. The prime minister, talking about education, at one point noted that "men with authority are needed." On another occasion Orbán said that "some people claim that man is fit to decide the validity of all questions. I, on the other hand, say that there are questions which must not be freely judged. Instead one should accept their validity on the basis of the authorities." Lakner claims that this kind of thinking is not at all foreign to the majority of Hungarians. Orbán is often caught talking in the first person singular: "I introduced the bank tax." Lackner wittily remarks that even an absolutist ruler had to call the diet together if he wanted to levy new taxes.
The fourth reason for Fidesz's popularity is the past eight years. From the change of regime in 1990 until 2002 the party in power changed every four years. Conservative-socialist-conservative. But then came eight years of the socialist-liberal coalition, which to many seemed like an eternity. For them Fidesz's victory appeared to be a historic change.
Lakner's conclusion is that Orbán's most important goal is to keep his and his party's popularity. Therefore there will not be "a critical mass of reforms" and there will not be a second Őszöd either. Of course, Lakner most likely wrote this piece the day before yesterday. Since then Matolcsy in his press conference indicated that the Orbán government had to bow before the European Union's demands. Whether Orbán will be able to continue with his "small steps, big words" tactics seems to me unlikely.