Since last night I must have seen at least twenty articles in French, German, and English about Viktor Orbán’s eighteenth speech on the “state of the nation.” They all emphasize his forceful attacks on the European Union, but for those of us who have heard or read his earlier speeches there was nothing new in his latest harangue, except that he was much less belligerent in criticizing his domestic opponents. He went so far as to admit that calling members of the democratic opposition “communists” is pretty senseless when almost half of the population were either born after 1990 or were too young to have been politically aware in the last years of the Kádár regime. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Fidesz politicians will stop calling their political adversaries “commies.” I can’t imagine that László Kövér will be able restrain himself and stop insisting that “communism” is still flowering in Hungary, it is just called something else.
The milder, kinder tone toward the opposition is necessitated, in my opinion, by the uneasy domestic situation, which may be more serious than some of the recent opinion polls would indicate. The chief reason for the unreliability of the polls is the inordinately high number of undecided voters. In one of the recent polls it was measured to be 47% of the electorate. Another poll found that only 39% of eligible voters would bother to go to the polls if the election were held today.
There is no denying that the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian people support Orbán’s refugee policy and that 85% of the adult population reject the mandatory resettlement quotas (according to Századvég, Fidesz’s favorite polling company). Naturally, Fidesz supporters are most adamantly opposed to admitting any refugees (97%), but voters from the opposition parties are not exactly enthusiastic about them either: MSZP (56%), LMP (51%), and DK (49%). So, as long as Orbán can play the migrant card he can feel pretty safe.
It’s not clear, however, how long Orbán can capitalize on this issue. At the moment no refugees can be seen anywhere in the country. Of course, one could argue on the basis of recent incidents at the border, where in the last few days hundreds of refugees broke through the fence, that the issue will be kept alive as long as refugees gather south of the Hungarian border. But if the pressure intensifies, the fence is demolished, and thousands again show up in Hungary, Orbán will not be able to tell his people: “You see, I defended Hungary from the onslaught. My policy was correct. We spent 260 million euros on the fence but it was worth it.”
But one doesn’t have to wait for the possible collapse of Orbán’s refugee policy. There are other storms on the horizon which, at least in public, Orbán refuses to recognize. He did utter a couple of sentences about the problems in education and healthcare, but he made light of them. And yet the opposition to the kind of education the government has forced on the teachers and students is widespread, and there is no sign that the two sides will find common ground any time soon. What the government has offered thus far doesn’t satisfy the teachers and those educational experts who want radical change, an entirely different educational philosophy that is antithetical to the very essence of this regime.
On healthcare issues one cannot expect the kind of unified action from the doctors as one sees among the teachers. The doctors are sharply divided on both the state of healthcare and their pay scale. Some doctors are doing exceedingly well under the present system; they more or less run their practices in state facilities at the state’s expense. The public, however, is dissatisfied with the poor healthcare the state is currently providing and may put pressure on the government to improve it.
And finally there is the huge victory for the democratic opposition in Salgótarján, county seat of Nógrád county, where Zsolt Fekete, the joint candidate of MSZP and DK, won the mayoralty. First, a few words about the town itself. The city limit lies on the border between Slovakia and Hungary, and the area was once known for its productive coal mines. Fidesz politicians talk about Salgótarján as a “socialist city.” But the last time there was a socialist mayor of Salgótarján was between 2002 and 2006. Since then the same two people battled for the post: Mrs. Széky, neé Melinda Sztrémi (Fidesz) and Ottó Dóra (MSZP). Both in 2006 and in 2010 Mrs. Széky won, even if narrowly. In 2006, when 48.69% of the electorate participated and about 12,000 people cast their votes, the difference between the Fidesz and the MSZP candidates was only 210 votes. In 2010, when practically the whole country turned orange, Mrs. Széky received the majority of the votes (51.39%). Mind you, participation was low, only 36.95%. Then came 2014 when Dóra at last succeeded, but just barely. He received only 50 more votes than Mrs. Széky. Again, participation was low (39.32%). A year later Ottó Dóra died suddenly at the age of 53. Hence the by-election that was held yesterday.
For a by-election, participation was extraordinarily high, almost 50%. And the difference between the two candidates, in favor of Zsolt Fekete (MSZP-DK), was 1,802 votes. It was a huge victory for the democratic forces. Fidesz apparatchiks can try to explain away their loss in public, but apparently in private they admit their disappointment. As one of them said to the reporter of vs.hu, commenting on the high turnout, “it’s obvious that they went out in order to vote against us.” Some Fidesz politicians bemoaned the fact that László Kövér, while campaigning in Salgótarján, practically threatened the voters of the city: if they want to have a better future for their children and grandchildren they should vote for Fidesz. They must choose a mayor who can develop a good relationship with the government. Others felt that it was a mistake to send leading Fidesz politicians to Salgótarján to campaign on behalf of the candidate because this way Fidesz’s nationwide problems were imported into the city. Moreover, the Fidesz candidate’s chances were not enhanced by the fact that he was originally the local director of KLIK and lately was named one of the department heads at the central office of that much hated institution in Budapest.
It is almost certain that Salgótarján will be punished. Already after 2014 when the socialist candidate won, the government stopped financial support for the city. Here are some statistics. In 2011 Salgótarján received 608 million forints, in 2012 1.2 billion, in 2013 1.1 billion, and in 2014 60 million. The future might be even bleaker. Zsolt Becsó, Fidesz MP from Salgótarján, finished his congratulatory speech after the lost election with “God save Salgótarján.” What I find amazing is that the inhabitants of Salgótarján must have known what is waiting for them and yet they still voted overwhelmingly against Fidesz. That says a lot of the mood of the people, feelings that might not show up in the polls.