Is Viktor Orbán’s edifice starting to crumble?

I know many people in Hungary and elsewhere are certain that Viktor Orbán is a political wizard who always wins. I concede that he is a skillful political strategist, but it is simply not true that all of his political moves have met with success. A year and a half ago he didn’t win when he had to scrap his ill-conceived internet tax. In 2002 he lost the election, due primarily to his inability to govern the country effectively. And it didn’t matter how viciously he attacked the Gyurcsány government and Gyurcsány personally, he lost the election again four years later.

Admittedly, the situation is different today. Orbán is running the show, and he has done everything in his power to guarantee that he can remain prime minister of Hungary (or perhaps, later on, president) until his last breath. Yes, everything is stacked against the democratic opposition, which is weak and fragmented. But there are times when a structure can collapse without much help from the outside. The beams give out and the roof falls in because the whole structure is rotten.


Something like that is happening today in Hungary, but I don’t think that Viktor Orbán realizes the gravity of the situation.

Let’s start with Medián’s latest poll, which shows that, for the first time since August-September 2015, Fidesz lost a substantial amount of support last month. After the fence went up in September 2015 Fidesz’s popularity soared. And it stayed high throughout late 2015 and into January of 2016. In February, however, it dropped. The change was especially large among the “active voters,” i.e. those who faithfully cast their votes at every election. In this category Fidesz’s 53% dropped to 46% within a single month. And what may be even more worrisome for the government party is that those who think that Hungary is heading in the wrong direction grew from 54% to 60%. Moreover, every tenth person who remembers voting for Fidesz in 2014 now says that there is no way he/she would vote for the party again.

As I emphasized in my post on his speech to the faithful the other day, Viktor Orbán went “all-in” on a single hand: fierce attacks on the European Union for its refugee policy. These verbal assaults have been intensifying, to the point that a growing number of people fear that Viktor Orbán’s real goal is to leave the Union altogether. Turning against the European Union, however, is probably a dead end. Seventy-three percent of the population support Hungary’s EU membership. EU bashing will not quell the rising domestic unrest.

On the education front the government is getting nowhere. László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, keeps inviting organizations representing the disaffected to the roundtable, but one after the other refuses to participate in a process they consider to be a charade. By now the government even appears to be ready to give up KLIK, the giant state employer of 140,000 teachers and other school workers, which was supposed to be sacrosanct only a few days ago. Zoltán Balog is also prepared to allow 10% autonomy, even in matters of curriculum. But nothing doing. Those who started the movement for fundamental change in education are not ready to negotiate with the authorities because they don’t trust the government.

The government and Viktor Orbán personally are being viewed as cowardly because they are so afraid of a referendum on the issue of Sunday store closings that they sent skinheads to physically prevent István Nyakó (MSZP) from turning in his referendum question. Even Fidesz bigwigs consider what happened in the building of the National Election Office a dangerous precedent and a disgrace. The husband of the woman whose nonsensical referendum question, with the help of those 200 kg football hooligans, was accepted is in some trouble. He is the mayor of Herceghalom, and the members of the town council, including Fidesz members, are demanding his resignation. If he doesn’t leave on his own, he will be recalled.

Then there are the problems at the Museum of Fine Arts, one of which involves lending five or six baroque paintings for practically peanuts to friends of the mysterious Árpád Habony. Átlátszó asked the museum to provide a list of all the artwork currently out on loan. The museum director, a Fidesz favorite, instead of quietly obliging, demanded 600,000 forints for the list. When Átlátszó complained, they were told that 450,000 would do. At this point someone from above must have told the politically insensitive museum director to cease and desist. Suddenly, Átlátszó could receive the list free of charge.

The Fidesz-majority Hungarian parliament wanted to restrict access to public information about the state-owned postal services as well as businesses and foundations established by the National Bank. Attila Péterfalvi, head of the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, whose past judgments didn’t go against the Fidesz government, rejected Fidesz’s attempt to justify the constraints by claiming that public funds given by the central bank to its foundations “lose their public nature.” This morning Magyar Nemzet learned that János Áder might refuse to sign this disgraceful piece of legislation. I’m almost certain that Magyar Nemzet’s information is correct, especially since László Kövér announced a few hours ago that the Hungarian National Bank’s money is public money. Period.

Finally, another piece of news from today. Until now the government refused to admit that anything is wrong with Hungarian healthcare. The usual mantra has been that all of the hospitals outside of Budapest are in great shape. The capital needs a new hospital, as Orbán said in his speech, but it will be built by his government soon. Well, today one of the assistant undersecretaries in charge of healthcare policy in the ministry of human resources admitted that there is a shortage of physicians. He openly talked about the crisis that has developed in the sector. “It doesn’t matter what we do when there aren’t and there won’t be enough doctors to keep up the present healthcare structure.” The only solution, he said, is to produce as soon as possible a number of “physician assistants” who can take care of some of the less serious cases. The number of doctors and nurses leaving the country is alarming. A very large raise in salaries, he suggested, could slow down the process.

In brief, the structure Viktor Orbán built is falling apart at the seams. But what is Viktor Orbán’s response? He is building a new stadium. This time a 800-seat stadium in Kozármislény, a small town in Baranya. At least this one will be relatively inexpensive, only 440 million forints. Since 2014 the Orbán government has spent a staggering 225.5 billion forints on stadiums. It’s no wonder that people are fed up and are no longer so afraid to stand up and be counted. There will be a breaking point, and it may be sooner than we think.

The mood of the country is changing. Here is a good example of what I mean. Yesterday a very critical article was published by Mandiner, a conservative internet site, on György Matolcsy’s attempt to “privatize” public funds by hiding them in foundations established by the Hungarian National Bank. The articles that appear on Mandiner are not as extreme as those in Magyar Idők or Magyar Hírlap, but the comments consistently show a right-wing, pro-government bias. This time, however, almost all of the readers agreed with the author and were highly critical of Matolcsy. Something has changed. Something fundamental, which will be difficult to contain.

March 2, 2016
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March 2, 2016 7:10 pm

Agreed. Hubris and greed and ignorance destroy. But to turn this in to effective political and societal change in Hungary there needs to be a countervailing and persuasive narrative, and a messenger for that narrative. That is still missing. There is time, but as the electoral system and the media is so titled against allowing change, it will be difficult to have normal, peaceful democratic change. In the absence of such, Hungary will languish until one day it will explode.

March 2, 2016 7:13 pm

Yes, looks like very dark clouds are gathering over the revels of the merry pigs in the Hungarian Animal Farm.

March 2, 2016 7:39 pm

Vicktor the Magnificent…the Mr. Maggoo of politics

March 3, 2016 4:27 am
“Viktor Orban is a winner”. This piece of stupidity is often to be seen in Hungarian Spectrum comments and apparently this form of speech is becoming generally accepted. More stupidity! Still good as the standard for sound government is that saying from the early days of the United States, government “Of the people, By the people, For the people”. That is, sound and proper government is conducted through consent and consultation of all the people and its aim is the benefit of all the people. Alas, a beautiful and delicate flower, all too liable to be trodden into the mud by the base and greedy. In Orban’s world and that of his most blinkered supporters, “government” – being the kormányfö – is about stealing the most in the fastest possible time and arranging things so that you will never be held to account. We do not know how many millions Orban has squirreled away or how much Rogan has in off-shore bank accounts, how Lazar and his ‘family’ have acquired their wealth or precisely how much Tiborcz or Meszaros have “earned” under the guidance and with the assistance of Papa Orban. But they are all Winners! Fidesz people are Winners!… Read more »
March 3, 2016 7:54 am

You know if there appears to be about an 11% increase in those who believe the ‘country is going in the wrong direction’ it would have to be of concern to the government. And it is there in how they react to this change which will be interesting for ‘good’ and democratic government strives not to have itself in constant ‘opposition’ but rather have a focus of compromise and problem- solving as it takes in the nation’s deep concerns. Now perhaps the country will see how it’s supposed legitimate government deals with pressure put upon itself.

Where to? Probably depends on how well the cooks can stand the heat in the kitchen. And if the kitchen is really a democracy well ideally things should get sorted out a bit. But er ‘illiberalism’ may give another turn to this screw.

March 3, 2016 9:28 am

The US government is “Of the people, By the people, For the people”.
The Hungarian is “Off the people, By the government, For Orban”

March 3, 2016 8:21 am

Tough Times for TTT

Expect more intensified (and increasingly shrill and hysterical) migrant scare-mongering from Orban Inc. Plus cosmetic, self-congratulatory appeasement attempts with the teacher revolt, utility-rebate-style. More show-trials and posturing against the US and EU. Professor Balogh, ever positive and optimistic, may not be vindicated yet, but it’s nice to be able to say that events are currently tilting her (our, HS’s) way. (Except, of course, the TTTs (Turul Triumphal Trolls), with their “always-wins” chant, suitable only for soccer games…)

Mr. Pukli (who is now the prime target of Orban’s rage) restores one’s faith in the Hungarian soul…

March 3, 2016 12:22 pm

Re: Mr. Pukli

With my familiarity with the shadow ‘age of Kadar’ it is undeniable that ‘watch what you say’ has survived through the decades. In a way looking on that sad era I feel so bad that I troubled my hosts perhaps with my visits. Just my presence perhaps gave them a feeling of dread.

Looking back where I saw silence it was perhaps only the top of a turbulent storm underneath and that was ‘please please don’t go there’ as the glasses clinked. In hindsight, I think I was a good guest. And arguably some semblance of the ghost of Janos truly lives on. And if we get down to it plenty of others.

March 3, 2016 4:58 pm

This was far too subtle for me: I confess I did not understand a word (aside from “ghost of Janos”…)

March 4, 2016 8:52 am

You know back when the big man Janos ran things and this is my personal recollection as a ‘foreigner’ in a strange land no talk even hinting at politics passed between myself and all I met and that included family and friends of family. Nada. Zilch. Zippo. Nil. Nein. And I never pushed it. It was like learning about sex in Puritan America…hush-hush..;-)…One traveler learned much in those oh so halcyon days of goulash communism.

March 4, 2016 9:10 am

Yes. This is what my partner confirms – no one ever discussed politics – ever! Not even in the family.

To further your education you had to join KISZ as I’m sure most on here know – no KISZ no education.

She found herself selected as some sort of leader and said she didn’t have a clue.

I told her that’s exactly what the nomenklatura wanted. She doesn’t like it when I told her she was ‘a good little communist’!

She now blames me for politicising her – when all she is really doing is participating in a decent democracy.

Yes the ‘Happiest Barrack’ was a compliant barrack.

March 4, 2016 9:52 am

Re: ‘the Happiest Barrack’

And nothing like April 4 1945 when the Russians sang songs to high heaven praising the day Magyarorszag was apparently ‘liberated’. And ‘barrack’ construction had its ruinous start there.

March 4, 2016 10:49 am

My wife also can tell some stories – her father had a small bakery so he was considered a “kulak”. The bakery of course was taken away from the family and the children could not go to university …
The sister later became a party member so she was allowed to become a teacher – but my wife always stayed a lowly typist, often wondering at the intellectual capacity of her superiors.
But she stayed independent and used her mind.
Oh, the stories she can tell about the “Nomenklatura” in Eastern Hungary – some barely able to write …

March 3, 2016 8:32 am

Rather OT – butI just wanted to put up some good news!

The founder and owner of the Müller drugstore chain, Mr. Müller (now 83 years old) has put up little red boxes for his customers in 700 branches in Europe where they put in around 260 000 € to which he added the same sum – to help the refugees in Germany and abroad …
He said in an interview in our local German paper that he was really astonished that especially in the branches in Austria, Hungary and Slovenia a lot of money was collected.
And he also said that he knows from own experience what it means to flee your home and to go hungry …

PS: He’s also giving jobs to qualified refugees – and his company pays at least the German minimum wage: 8,50 €/hour.
How many Hungarians make that much?

March 3, 2016 8:48 am

Hungary should be the happiest spot of the universe.

Above the clouds, from heaven, Ferenc Deák smiles on our nation.

March 3, 2016 9:42 am

Forget the “the happiest”, be real, but
Hungary used to be “the merriest barrack” in the Soviet dominated camp.

Quite an achievement by the subjugated Kádár regime, following Hungary’s alliance with Hitler, the vigorous Holocaust execution and the 1956.

Now Hungary is the “saddest hut” in the same region.

Quite an achievement by free hand Orban following the substantial head start and the support from the EU and Germany (thanks to the Horn border opening among others).

So much for wining, poor sods.

March 3, 2016 9:38 am

“These verbal assaults have been intensifying, to the point that a growing number of people fear that Viktor Orbán’s real goal is to leave the Union altogether. ”

Also – according to the Median poll – 73% of Hungarians support Hungary’s EU membership and – as a suprise to me – 78% of Fidesz voters do so.

Then why is Orban fighting the EU so hard?

Isn’t this a clear case of Orban being Putin’s stooge?

March 3, 2016 2:43 pm

Before we rejoice:
In June 2012, 80 percent of survey respondents told Median they thought Hungary was headed in the wrong direction.

Fidesz’s fortunes began to improve once rezsicsokkentes came into play. Even so, 54 percent of respondents still thought Hungary was headed they wrong way just before the 2014 election.

It didn’t matter. Fidesz clobbered all comers.

If the second Orban government could overcome an 80 percent negative rating between 2012 and 2014, does anyone really think the third Orban government will be unable to overcome its present popularity deficit?

Sure, they can’t do rezsicsokkentes again. And the teachers’ unions are flexing their muscle. And Fidesz no longer has a ⅔ majority. But they have migrants. And terrorism. And show trials. And it won’t be too terribly difficult for Orban to persuade a couple of Jobbik MPs to help him pass the ⅔ hurdle should he need to change a cardinal law or two to ensure victory in the 2018 election.

I like good news just as much as the next guy. I’d just say it’s too early for optimism.

March 3, 2016 4:47 pm

I am afraid you are right. How many times “we’ve predicted” the end the last few years. Orban always managed to throw a bone here and there, create some panic, “save the country”, and voila… So many times I thought, this is it, just to be disappointed.

March 3, 2016 5:06 pm
@Pibroch Today 2:43 pm Yes, you are right, it is much too early to rejoice. Nonetheless, it is good to see some rays of light shining through the unrelieved gloom of the past few years. At the same time however, we know full well that Orbán is a very bad loser lacking all democratic instincts and decency. In the unlikely event of losing the 2018 general election, he would be sure to make the country absolutely and totally ungovernable by an incoming liberal democratic government, inciting and instigating wave after wave of massive civil disobedience, sabotage and violence on the principle that the “Nation” cannot be in opposition, a principle he clearly enunciated back in 2002. Also, I am not holding my breath that anything would change in Hungary regarding Jew-hate and Roma-hate even if Orbán & Co. did get the boot in 2018 by some heavenly miracle. These two hates are so deeply ingrained in Hungarians as to be inseparable from their sense of identity. This makes Hungary a particularly unpleasant place for anyone who is fluent in Hungarian, understands the way Hungarians think and happens to be a Jew or a Roma. Xenophobia, the love of thieving and… Read more »
March 3, 2016 5:48 pm

BTW it would seem relevant to mention in this connection that the saying that a Hungarian entering a revolving door last is likely to come out first was actually coined to characterize smart expat Hungarian Jews, particularly in places like Hollywood, and not at all as any kind of a cover-all redeeming feature of all Hungarians, and least of all those living in Hungary.

March 3, 2016 6:25 pm
Eva is of course right sooner or later Orban likely will fail, chances are pretty good he will not die in office like Stalin did. She is a wise professor in not predicting where Hungary is at in the crumbling process because it can be a long time from the beginning of the crumbling process to the conclusion of that process. Also all is not well with what the Mdeian survey reveals. The Median survey indicated that Jobbik has regained some support it has lost to Fidesz, so it is back up to where it was last May. Among those most likely to vote, the Jobbik were polling 25%, which was 1% more than MSZP, LMP, and DK combined among those most likely to vote. Needless to say if we look at Fidesz and Jobbik together they are polling 71% of those most likely to vote. That is disturbing to say the least. It’s hard to see much positive when the Median survey data is looked at that way. Then there is not much positive over here in the USA when I see Trump’s numbers either. The Washington Post by the way had an interesting opinion piece by Charles Lane… Read more »
March 3, 2016 6:53 pm
@Istvan Today 6:25 pm Your point about the combined Fiddik support base is absolutely spot on. I would say that the combined support runs at about 3/4 of voters and non-voters in the Hungarian electorate, which can fluctuate slightly up or down from time to time, but can be taken as a political given in Hungary unless some kind of political earthquake occurred that would totally deligitimate both Fidesz and Jobbik, which is of course a virtually unimaginable eventuality at the present time. As to Trump, I think that Hilary Clinton’s ascendance to the presidency is now just about certain, unless she gets indicted. In that case of course all bets would be off and who knows what would happen. As to Trump’s legacy, I don’t think it is going to be any longer lasting than Ross Perot’s from back in 1992. What is certain to last however is the anger and frustration of the radical rumps on both the left and right, but that could only be remedied, at least to a certain extent, by a sustained period of economic boom and prosperity which unfortunately does not seem to be currently on the horizon in the US. The most… Read more »
March 4, 2016 1:35 pm