“The State of the Union” Hungarian style


speecThirteen years ago while still prime minister Viktor Orbán, inspired by the American president’s State of the Union address, decided to introduce the practice of delivering a speech every February. Even then he wasn’t keen on delivering his yearly speech in parliament. After all, the opposition might criticize it or ask him questions. No, he delivered his yearly speech in front of a friendly audience especially invited for the occasion.

Time went by, Orbán lost the elections in 2002, but he fell in love with his yearly speeches and kept delivering them year after year in front of an adoring crowd. These speeches naturally had nothing to do with governing. Instead they were pep talks designed to keep his followers together, to bolster their spirits during eight years of anxious waiting.

Today Orbán again talked as the prime minister of Hungary, but he still delivered a pep talk. The speech lasted a little over half an hour. In the crowd one could see the usual faces. Ferenc Mádl, former president, and his wife never miss these occasions. László Tőkés, nowadays one of the deputy speakers of the European Parliament from Romania and an ardent supporter, was also present. Among the invited guests were Miklós Kun and his wife Ágnes Gereben. In case anyone is wondering, Miklós Kun is Béla Kun’s grandson; he was born in the Soviet Union. By now he is a fierce anti-communist. Another former communist, Imre Pozsgay, who has since become a nationalist and an anticommunist, could also been seen in the audience. I was somewhat surprised to find Mrs. József Antall among the guests. I wonder what her late husband would have thought of Viktor Orbán’s total disregard of the constitutional order because, if we can believe József Debreczeni’s portrait of the first prime minister of the Third Republic, for József Antall the constitution was sacred.

Orbán outlined a five-year plan, although he hastily added that his five-year plan has nothing to do with those old socialist five-year plans. 2010 was the year of joining forces; 2011 is the year of renewal; 2012 will be the year of take-off; 2013 the year of ascent and finally, 2014 the year of growth. This plan is the common plan of several million people. Not one plan of many but the last possible one that could save the country and the people from sliding toward the precipice.

Everything has its time and place. The country, he said, must first be completely reorganized before we can talk about success. By renewal Orbán means turning the whole country upside down. Rebirth to his mind is when a nation changes the whole world around itself and when “the spirit of the nation gets away from the prison of an evil time, rises above the horizon and begins to lead the actions of a community.”

In this process of renewal the key is the writing of a new constitution. The current constitution, he repeated, is a Stalinist construct, even though it has been so thoroughly rewritten that it bears no resemblance to the original. According to him the current constitution is “not the constitution of the Hungarians.”

Although early in his speech Orbán announced that it seems that “neither bullet nor iron can touch” them, later he warned his audience that there is still a possibility that the politics of the earlier era will return. One must fight against this possibility. Orbán has always been fond of warlike metaphors and he used them profusely in this speech. Hungary “must declare war on the sovereign debt” and his government “will be victorious in this fight.” Hungary “must subdue the debt because otherwise the debt will subdue Hungary.” They “must face the dangers and they must conquer them.” They “must take up the struggle.”

Renewal also means mission. “This will be the last, historical struggle we owe ourselves, our ancestors, and our successors.” “There must be a renewal in spirit and in intellect in order to pledge ourselves not to Fidesz, not to KDNP, not to the government but to the good.”

Most people who don’t belong to the Orbán fan club said that the speech was no more than a collection of empty slogans. It certainly had nothing to do with the achievements of the last year as the Hungarian description of these yearly speeches would indicate. It was about the future in the most general terms. It was aimed at inspiring his audience for the struggle ahead of them. The struggle might be fierce but Orbán promised the faithful a happy ending. By 2014 there will be prosperity. Every able-bodied man and woman will be gainfully employed and as a result of the Hungarians’ hard work–because Hungarians are not only talented people but incredibly hard-working as well–the country will conquer everything including the national debt. Hungary will again be first in Europe in many fields as “it is already in the system of taxation.”

So, as pep talks go it most likely did the trick. But then one listens to all the people who bitterly complain that life has never been harder. Hungarian businesses are losing out to foreign competition. People cannot pay back their bank loans. Alternatively, they are unable to secure loans. It all sounds pretty downbeat. Perhaps for Orbán’s devoted audience it was enough to say at the end of the speech that “renewal means rebirth, struggle, and mission. Forward Hungary, forward Hungarians!” but I doubt that it will be enough unless the government can deliver. Perhaps we will find out what Orbán’s remedies are at the end of this month when the Hungarian government must come up with a radical reform package.