The secret of Fidesz’s success?

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.

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whoever
Guest

I guess in this we shouldn’t ignore the continued disarray of the opposition; that the Socialists seem to have so little credibility to reconstruct a viable political party, and still have further scandal ahead with the trial of Hagyó and others.
Not only this, but the LMP are unable to collect enough signatures to run candidates for many of the districts in Budapest, and their somewhat ramshackle coalition appears to depend on some kind of arrangement with Fidesz, or at least, forces close to Fidesz, as well as a few wealthy patrons who could turn out to be fickle.
Combine this with a younger ‘lost generation’, for whom ‘left’ and ‘liberal’ is like a swear word, and it’s very easy to see why the only real challenge to the government comes from Jobbik, and in particular, their distinctly anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Mark
Guest
I probably think the premise of Lakner’s question is wrong. We don’t really know for certain how popular FIDESZ is – we have some opinion polls which show large leads. But then, before the elections the same polls were overstating FIDESZ support by about 10%; and they were overstating FIDESZ support before the 2009 European elections. We know this is influenced by an effect known as “the spiral of silence” – fear of telling pollsters what they really think; fear which can only have been exacerbated by the insecurity caused by the purging of so many public sector institutions in June and July. Many of these polls were conducted too in the depths of the August holidays in a period when no-one was really thinking about political choices. My sense is that FIDESZ support is very soft. We will know more certainly on 3 October – but even then people are voting for local authorities, not for national parties – and this will distort the message. But then, as whoever says, who would anyone vote for if not FIDESZ? Without a major breach between FIDESZ and the right Jobbik’s peak is currently around 20%. The MSZP are discredited by the… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “My sense is that FIDESZ support is very soft.”
Mark, you’re an optimistic fellow. But, I think that MSZP will do better than predicted at the moment. On the other hand, I think you’re overstating Jobbik’s support.
I don’t think that LMP will do as well in Budapest as at the national elections. Its supporters are liberals (SZDSZ?) who are not thrilled with the too close connection with Fidesz. But we will see. I’m sure that we are all going to watch the results with great interest.

Paul Haynes
Guest

I always look forward to Mark’s sharp and thoughtful comments on Eva’s articles, but this one puzzles me – “I probably think the premise of Lakner’s question is wrong”. Probably?? Surely, Mark, you of all people know what you think?!

Mark
Guest
Éva: “Mark, you’re an optimistic fellow. But, I think that MSZP will do better than predicted at the moment. On the other hand, I think you’re overstating Jobbik’s support.” You really think so? Everything I hear – outside the printed media – is about those CHF loan repayment. Everyone was waiting for relief from that burden before the election, and among those who took them out this is a huge issue. That is why I think FIDESZ support is soft. Unless something is done, and done so, this will cause them serious problems. You also have to remember the differential turnout problem. Normally in low turnout elections supporters of opposition parties have a high incentive to vote to express their protest; voters who are not satisfied with the government, but dislike other parties are much more likely to register their protest by staying at home in parliamentary election. This dynamic worked for FIDESZ in October 2006 and June 2009; this time it is working against them (though it is hard to tell who it will work for). The MSZP? Well, this is a local election and one interesting sign is what happens in urban areas where they have candidates who… Read more »
Mark
Guest

“dislike other parties are much more likely to register their protest by staying at home in parliamentary election”
Sorry should read “than in parliamentary elections”.

Mark
Guest

Paul, what I wanted to say with the probably was that it is an instinct. I have good reasons to doubt the polls, and whether they accurately reflect the mood, but I lack the hard evidence that would enable me to remove the probably.

whoever
Guest

Well, I’d say these are strange circumstances. The MSZP largely gives the impression of a tired party that would like to crawl away and die somewhere. However, it’s role as the main opposition, the influx of support from old SZDSZ people, and continued backing from its ‘corporate’ sponsors means that it isn’t totally collapsing, yet. It looks set to muddle on, between 17% and 23%, crippled but not yet fatally injured. A situation that, I suspect, the Fidesz leadership is quite happy about.

NWO
Guest
I see a number of inter-related factors for the fact that FIDESZ has not yet paid the price for its ham handed policies and communication strategy. Many of these have been raised previously. (1) No credible opposition. MSZP is totally discredited. Does anyone have any idea what they would propose to do differently now? (2) Orban’s crude but deft use of nationalism and standing up for Hungary vis-a-vis IMF, the banks and others. This still has resonance. People’s self image is terrible. They feel that the country has failed. They want someone who stands up and says we are strong and we are free (even if it is not true). (3) There is no available serious outlet to hear opposition to the Government. Believe it or not, most Hungarians (even those educated one who speak foreign languages) do not spend any time reading the FT or the Economist. (4) Related to (2) above, a lot of people invested a lot emotionally in changing the Government this past Spring. They are not ready to admit the problems in the country cannot be fixed by changing Governments. The MSZP still “owns” this economy. While people are getting worried by the Fx burden,… Read more »
Mark
Guest
whoever: “The MSZP largely gives the impression of a tired party that would like to crawl away and die somewhere.” This is nothing new – though the hole it is now in is deeper than before, and therefore its problems are more evident. It has no strategic grasp how to be a left-wing party in a democratic political system with a market economy. It has few models abroad to copy, as post-war social democracy is in need of a makeover everywhere in Europe. Furthermore it suffers from oligarchic political practices and a basic hostility to democratic participation. Really between 1998 and 2002, it was a pretty clueless oppostion that was largely rescued by the stupdity of Viktor Orbán, who was its greatest electoral asset right down to 2006. Aside of antipathy to FIDESZ and offers of free money it didn’t really know what to do after 2002. And other than being a more media-savvy presented and more willing to play fast-and-loose than his predecessor Gyurcsány didn’t really alter this. The problems are so great that one wonders whether ironically Viktor Orbán will rescue them again. After purging them from the public sector and putting their leaders on trial for corruption… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “So who do the liberals vote for? Jobbik? So, no I don’t think LMP will do poorly, even if for negative reasons.”
But Mark, in eleven or twelve districts they couldn’t even get enough endorsements to run for mayor. They almost didn’t manage to run for the top post (főpolgármester). In the last few hours the endorsements started coming, but a lot of people think that Fidesz activists came to the rescue.

Mark
Guest
Éva: “But Mark, in eleven or twelve districts they couldn’t even get enough endorsements to run for mayors.” I really wouldn’t draw any conclusions from this. You may remember that in the parliamentary election LMP didn’t collect sufficient endorsements to run a candidate in Budapest 11 individual constituency (in district VIII). If, however, you look at the votes cast for them on the Budapest territorial list, they won their third highest vote in the city in Budapest 11 constituency. The problem is that the nominating ticket system has become a way for some larger parties to manipulate the election result by restricting the choice of candidates, in a way that is undemocratic. It is also out of line with international practice – to run in a parliamentary election in the UK a candidate needs a proposer, a seconder, and six further signatures, combined with a £500 deposit that is returned if the candidate wins more than 5%. The system is there to allow a wide choice of candidates to voters, with safeguards against frivolous candidates putting themselves forward. Certainly this system is not in the interests of the big parties, but then isn’t democracy about giving voters are broad choice,… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “The problem is that the nominating ticket system has become a way for some larger parties to manipulate the election result by restricting the choice of candidates, in a way that is undemocratic. It is also out of line with international practice”
I agree with you on that score. The practice should be abolished, but because Fidesz is the greatest manipulator in this regard and now that they raised the numbers necessary to run which restricts the chances of the smaller parties they will certainly not touch the current system.

Pásztor Szilárd
Guest

“The MSZP largely gives the impression of a tired party that would like to crawl away and die somewhere.”
I wish they did so. But I can’t be that optimist, they failed to die for the last 80-90 years and caused more harm to Hungary anyone else.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Szilard: “”The MSZP largely gives the impression of a tired party that would like to crawl away and die somewhere.” I wish they did so. But I can’t be that optimist, they failed to die for the last 80-90 years and caused more harm to Hungary anyone else.”
Such outrageous comment can come only from a person who has no clue about how democracy works. Who himself is a follower of a totalitarian type of regime, be that left or right. As for your blanket statement about the harm the social democratic party caused Hungary stems from ignorance. And ignorance is not bliss, believe me.

Pásztor Szilárd
Guest
Eva: as the MSZP is very far from being a “social democratic party”, as you put it, my comment is not outrageous at all, in fact it is quite natural. The MSZP has never been faithful to any democratic ethics, laws, or pursuits. They are almost exactly the same as they were before the Horthy era or after WWII, a totalitarian party with the sole purpose of gaining and keeping power. Both their ideology and crew were and are completely focused on this task only, it’s only their instruments that are different somewhat now to what they used a few decades before to achieve their goal. In a Western country with an established democracy, the moderate left-wing can easily be a social democratic party, but in Hungary this is completely untrue and will remain so until the MSZP in its current form exists. Therefore, it is of key importance for Hungarian democracy to squeeze out all anti-democratic forces – this applies mainly to MSZP, and in part to Jobbik. (And SZDSZ, similarly anti-democratic as MSZP, doesn’t really exist any more). Such squeezing out may only happen through democratic elections (and not the dictatoric way before you strike on that –… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Pásztor Szilárd: “They are almost exactly the same as they were before the Horthy era or after WWII, a totalitarian party with the sole purpose of gaining and keeping power.” Szilárd seems to lack any sense of history, and any notions that historical periods are different. He is almost like the fresco painters in medieval churches who painted biblical scenes as if they are part of a continuous present, and his thought seems stuck somewhere in the middle of fourteenth century before human beings discovered the concept of anachronism, and the notion that historical periods are actually different from each other. I would hope that he would recognize that if indeed the MSZP were the same as, say, the MDP in the early 1950s Viktor Orbán would most probably have been shovelling coal as a forced labourer in Komló, or somewhere similar, and certainly would be nowhere the Prime Minister’s chair. Spot the difference – between 1990 and 2010 the right were in power for eight of the twenty year period; between 1948 and 1990 they weren’t in power for any. It is a shame that Szilárd doesn’t seem to have a clue about this basic difference. And all this… Read more »
Pásztor Szilárd
Guest

Mark: your jammer about me having no clue about history is as ridiculous as your comment is in general. Times change and this is the exact reason why Orbán is not forced to shovel coal in some mine, no matter how much you’d like to see him doing that I suppose.
It’s not so simply because MSZP can’t do what they habitually would and could, because the Russian army is not here any more. This is the only reason as anyone with sanity could check it during the 2006 riots in Hungary.
Furthermore, your low-standard insults towards me tell quite a lot about your motivations and the like of yours in general.

Öcsi
Guest

Pásztor Szilárd wrote: “It’s not so simply because MSZP can’t do what they habitually would and could, because the Russian army is not here any more.”
Still fighting the old, non-existent, communist phantoms, eh? No wonder you have no credibility here.
If you were French, would you still be fighting the Jacobins?

Paul Haynes
Guest

Whether Szilárd has any knowledge of history or not may be up for debate, but he certainly has no sense of irony.
A Fidesz supporter describing MZSP as a “totalitarian party with the sole purpose of gaining and keeping power” would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
No, actually, it is quite funny.

Mark
Guest

Pásztor Szilárd: “Times change and this is the exact reason why Orbán is not forced to shovel coal in some mine”.
Thank you. That was exactly my point.

Pásztor Szilárd
Guest

@Mark: you don’t ever remember your own posts.
Your point was that MSZP has changed – while they haven’t. It’s the times and MSZP’s possibilities are what changed.
@Öcsi: my “communist phantoms” are not any less real than your usual fascist phantoms. Moreover, these “communist phantoms” are still here in person and their web of contacts. Denying this is simple ignorance: for example, Gyurcsány’s family is a perfect instance of this.
Imagine: how would you react if there was no Nürnberg trial and the Nazi ciminals were to compete for the lead of a country while “teaching” democracy to youngsters who grew up in opposing the totalitarian system?
Your wrecked and distorted interpretation of Hungary’s history is one of the main reasons why most people consider the likes of you immoral: because you fail to admit the obvious, instead you support the ones who have exhibited little more than violent methods of keeping power in the unfortunate country they’ve managed to seize.

Paul Haynes
Guest

Szilárd, you missed out the usual bit about the world-wide Jewish conspiracy. Perhaps you should type in less haste?

Mark
Guest
Pásztor Szilárd: “Imagine: how would you react if there was no Nürnberg trial and the Nazi ciminals were to compete for the lead of a country while “teaching” democracy to youngsters who grew up in opposing the totalitarian system?” This point seems to me to underline a lack of realism about how countries building a dictatorship come to terms with the past. The situation that Szilárd describes has held in almost every country I can think of in Europe that has made a successful transition to democracy. In West Germany, you might want to look up Theodor Oberländer, who was Minister for Refugees and Expellees under Konrad Adenauer and his career both as an advocate of the persecution of Jews, and as a planner of policies of ethnic cleansing in Poland in the Nazi regime. In Austria I can on the basis of my own research identify some continuities of personnel and institutions between the Nazi and post-war democratic regime that are just as striking. Certainly you will find the same thing in Italy, and very similar things in Iberia and Greece. Naturally this situation is difficult to justify from the perspective of victims, but if one looks at history… Read more »
whoever
Guest

But Mark, it was all Attila Mesterházy’s fault. 1956, the show trials, the Hungarian, economy. The rotten weather in the summer of 2010, my personal inadequacies, the fact my neighbour has a better car… BLOODY COMMUNISTS!

Alias3T
Guest

Whoever: Not just the commies, the pot-smoking liberals too.

Passing Stranger
Guest
@pasztor szilard “Therefore, it is of key importance for Hungarian democracy to squeeze out all anti-democratic forces” That sounds like a quote by Matyas Rakosi or Jozsef Revai. As you you have listed all parties that are not Fidesz or KDNP as being ‘anti-democratic’, your attitude does not differ very much from that of the MDP. I find the comparision with Nurenberg a joke. Hungarian voters helped the MSzP into power after the Red Army had left, indeed, they did so several times. Most of the young voters now spouting this kind of rhetoric have no recollection of what Hungary was like before 1989. They remind me of the western, especially German 1960s student generation: heroically joining the resistance against the nazi’s, long after they had been safely defeated. In the same way, young Hungarian students now denounce ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘communism’ with the pretence of being resistance fighters, but unlike the real revolutionaries of 1956, at no risk to their lives, and unlike the real dissidents of the Kadar period, at no personal risk to their careers. Regime change standard comes at the cost of having to work with the old guard. The communists themselves had to rely on Horthy… Read more »
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