It was years ago that Viktor Orbán revealed for the first time his vision of what he later labelled illiberal or managed democracy. In those days he called it “the concept of central power.”
On September 5, 2009, in Kötcse, a picturesque village near Lake Balaton where Fidesz holds its annual “civic [polgári] picnic,” Orbán expounded on his theory of one central power that would preclude any strong and meaningful opposition for a long time to come. The idea was to create a political structure in which there was only one strong party that could, without interference from the opposition, run the country. Such a structure could not called be a dictatorship or a one-party system because there would be several parties. The others, however, would be so weak that they couldn’t challenge the leading political party, or if you wish, the central power.
Since then, Viktor Orbán, with the help of the Hungarian voters who handed him practically unlimited power, managed to make his vision a reality. Today Hungary’s political landscape strongly resembles the setup that existed between the two world wars, which may have been the inspiration for Orbán when he came up with the idea of a central power. Throughout the Horthy period the “government party” faced only a handful of parliamentary members who represented the Social Democrats and the liberals. The liberal party existed only in Budapest, where there was a sizable Jewish population (25%). The Social Democratic party’s activities were confined to a few large towns in addition to the capital.
Since 2010 it has been clear to everybody what “central power” meant in Fidesz’s vocabulary, but lately I have been noticing a transformation of the term. I guess “political products”–to use Gábor G. Fodor’s by now infamous phrase–must be adjusted to new circumstances. Although the left is fragmented and seems incapable of gaining ground, the same is not true about the right. Especially in the last three or four months the extreme right-wing Jobbik party has been attracting new supporters. The growth of a neo-Nazi party has frightened not only the Hungarian democratic forces but also the West. It is enough to glance at the major newspapers of Europe and North America to sense the concern over Jobbik’s robustness. Mind you, Fidesz’s reputation has not been soaring either, especially after Viktor Orbán described his ideal of an illiberal state. His friendship with Putin’s Russia further aroused suspicion. And now we come to the metamorphosis of the concept of “central power.”
As I heard from Gergely Gulyás a few days ago, it no longer means what it once did. Now “central power” simply means that Fidesz stands in the middle of the political spectrum, facing opposition from both the extreme left and the extreme right. Fidesz politicians are trying to sell their party as a moderate political formation that can keep Hungary in the democratic camp.
No one is especially worried about the so-called “extreme left,” because the parties that make up the democratic opposition can hardly be described as extreme. Moreover, they have never recovered from their devastating defeat in 2010. The extreme right is a different cup of tea. Both at home and abroad politicians as well as the democratic public are worried about Jobbik.
Under these circumstances it makes eminent sense to transform “the central power” into a bulwark against the extreme right. The message to the European Union and the United States runs along the following lines: “Stop attacking Fidesz and Viktor Orbán because they are the only ones who can save Hungary from Jobbik, which is a racist Nazi party in the true meaning of the word.” This is, of course, a ruse concocted by the Fidesz leadership, which is under considerable political pressure, and not just from Jobbik.
Already back in 2009, before Viktor Orbán could carry out his plans, I considered both Fidesz and Jobbik to be extreme, anti-democratic parties, the only significant difference being that Jobbik is also racist and anti-Semitic. Between the two parties there is a “continuum.” One doesn’t know where Fidesz ends and Jobbik begins. At a conference held that year I said that “there are just too many signs that the messages of Jobbik and Fidesz are not radically different from one other. It is also becoming increasingly clear that supporters of the two parties overlap. It seems to me that on most fronts Fidesz says the same things as Jobbik but in a slightly more civilized manner.”
The recent development of a significant movement of former Fidesz voters to Jobbik illustrates this point rather eloquently. Polls have confirmed that the second choice of 30% of Fidesz voters would be Jobbik. Fidesz voters don’t consider Jobbik to be an extremist party. Therefore Viktor Orbán himself has never condemned Jobbik. In fact, back in 2003 he “looked upon the [youngsters] with encouraging love.” At that point he wouldn’t have advised them to organize a party, but he admitted that “it is possible that time will prove them right.” Yes, Jobbik began as a youth organization of Fidesz, and ever since on the local level the two parties have worked hand in hand.
Since then Fidesz has moved farther to the right. Expecting Fidesz to combat the extremism of Jobbik is at best a naive idea. There are some people, however, even on the domestic left, who fall for this kind of Fidesz propaganda. Perhaps the best example is Gáspár Miklós Tamás, a political philosopher whose ideological meanderings are hard to follow. He was a liberal, then a conservative, and currently is a Marxist who believes in a Utopian paradise. He got so frightened by the latest Ipsos poll that he wrote the following sentence in a long essay that appeared in today’s HVG: “Jobbik is quietly getting ready. And yes, in comparison to perdition Fidesz is still the lesser evil.” A totally wrong assessment of the situation.
Without Fidesz there would be no Jobbik in its present configuration. Expecting Fidesz to eradicate the noxious ideology of Jobbik and its followers, who freely move back and forth between the two parties, is foolish. If western democracies throw their weight behind Fidesz in the false belief that Fidesz is a moderate party, it is only Viktor Orbán who will emerge victorious from such an alliance. Such a policy would not only strengthen Fidesz but also weaken the democratic opposition. Surely, no one wants to do that. Especially since Jobbik would in the meantime happily cooperate behind the scenes with Fidesz in the Hungarian parliament, just as Professor Kim Scheppele outlined in The New York Times a couple of days ago.