As soon as I turned my computer on this morning, a desk-top notification from a Hungarian internet news site informed me that the vote on Viktor Orbán’s amendments to the constitution had failed. He needed 133 votes and came up two short. Those opposition parties that have recognized delegations abstained, and three of the ten independent members voted “no.” I must admit I was surprised because, in the last few days when I repeatedly heard from Fidesz politicians that they would go ahead with the vote on November 8 as planned, I was certain that Viktor Orbán had already secured the two extra votes necessary for another Fidesz parliamentary success.
I was even more surprised when I read the article, which claimed that this defeat was actually a great victory for Viktor Orbán in the long run. And it wasn’t only this media outlet that seemed to be convinced that no matter what happens, Fidesz always wins. But that’s just not the case. It’s high time to abandon this increasingly unfounded assumption. Over the last few months Viktor Orbán’s strategy has suffered several serious setbacks. This last one is perhaps the worst.
All along Orbán had argued that his government needs a valid referendum, which would strengthen his position in his negotiations with Brussels. If the European Union is confronted with the fact that more than 50% of the Hungarian electorate stands fast behind him, he will have a much easier time defending Hungary’s strongly anti-migrant position in the European Council. But the referendum was not valid. Far from it. The opposition parties’ call for a boycott was effective. Only 39% of the electorate showed up. Admittedly, 98% of those who went to the polls supported Orbán’s purposely misleading and meaningless question. No, they didn’t want to have compulsory quotas unless parliament approves them. Who could say “yes” to that? Not too many people.
Orbán and his closest associates who gathered after the result became known looked as if they were attending a funeral. But by the next day Orbán was ready to give a positive spin to the outcome. The overwhelming number of “no” votes proves that his support is larger than ever before. In 2014, 2.2 million people voted for Fidesz, but 3.3 million people supported Fidesz’s referendum. A new unity, he said, has emerged behind his party. This large mandate means that the government party can amend the constitution regardless of its failure to secure a valid referendum.
But the failure of the referendum undercut Viktor Orbán’s clout in the European Union’s community. Many EU officials and members of the European Parliament expressed their relief that the referendum was not valid. The Hungarian people are wiser than their government, Martin Schulz said.
Then came the proposed amendments. Some people judged them to be totally unnecessary and meaningless. Others believed that certain sections of the amendments might be useful in attacking the very constitution of the European Union.
Initially, passing the proposed amendments seemed foolproof. The government assumed it would have the support of Jobbik, the party that used to be a radical right party but by now is practically indistinguishable from Fidesz. Jobbik supported the referendum because its followers are against immigration at least as much as, if not more than, Fidesz voters. But the Jobbik leadership saw an opportunity. Since Fidesz needed the Jobbik votes in parliament, the party decided to demand a price for its support: the immediate cessation of the sale of so-called residency bonds. The program is a fantastic deal for those who have 300 million euros to purchase a five-year bond in exchange for a residency permit and free movement within the European Union. And a good deal as well for those who benefit from the corruption that permeates the program.
Some politicians on the left were convinced that Gábor Vona either didn’t issue an ultimatum or that, if he did, he wouldn’t follow through on it. Well, they were wrong on both counts. Vona did deliver an ultimatum, and he meant every word of it.
Initially Orbán opted to oblige. It seemed that these amendments were so important to him that he would swallow a huge one and stop selling residency bonds to mostly Chinese and Russian businessmen. But then he changed his mind.
Fidesz announced that it would go ahead as scheduled, putting the amendments to a vote on November 8. Jobbik politicians swore that their 24-member delegation would not vote for the amendments. And so, if the opposition members on the left remained steadfast, the package of amendments was doomed. They did, and it was.
With this defeat Orbán can no longer go to Brussels and say that his hands are tied not only by 3.3 million Hungarian patriots but also by a two-thirds majority of the parliament. And that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t agree to accept any quotas. Today’s vote is a huge failure. Months of political maneuvering by Orbán have led nowhere.
A couple of foreign commentators concur. They note that this defeat will most likely weaken him “in his long-running fight with Brussels.” It is a personal blow to the prime minister. BBC’s Nick Thorpe described it as the second blow in a month, the first, of course, being the referendum itself. No constitutional amendment has ever been defeated since 1990, the beginning of the Third Republic. Since 2011 Fidesz easily pushed through six amendments. Well, things have changed.
Although, as I noted earlier, a few newspapers looked at the parliamentary vote as a success for a politician who is unbeatable, several others saw it quite differently, as a defeat that will hurt Fidesz both in the short and the long run. Jobbik’s strategy was praised by such until recently pro-Fidesz media as Válasz. Jobbik’s position is very simple: “neither poor nor rich migrants” should come to Hungary. Gábor Török, the well-known political commentator, called Jobbik the clear winner of this game. Until recently, Jobbik wasn’t a distinct political actor because the parties on the left conflated it with Fidesz. But in the last two weeks Jobbik was the leading force in the opposition’s attack on Fidesz. The left was nowhere.
Bálint Molnár, one of the editors of Kolozsvári Szalonna (Bacon à la Kolozsvár), and I seem to agree on the significance of what happened this morning in parliament. Let me quote: “I don’t agree with those who claim that Fidesz-KDNP, headed by someone named Orbán, won the match even if he was worsted. In my opinion, no one won here. On his own playing field, according to his own rules, he has burned an incredible amount of money and yet the seventh amendment of the Orbán all-mighty basic botchery has failed badly. The Young Democrats managed to bungle the all-time most expensive public opinion poll. That’s the essence of it. That is the situation. The hero, the martyr, the knight of a border fortress [végvári vitéz], the general of all Hungarians fell on his face…. For the first time since 2010 Orbán has tumbled and sunk to his knees.”
That pretty well sums it up. After this it will be difficult for Orbán to play the strong man who flexes his muscles.
I would like to call special attention to the photo Kolozsvári Szalonna attached to their piece on today’s vote in parliament. As soon as it became known that the government proposal had failed, Orbán got up and darted toward the exit. Gergely Gulyás, his eyes cast downward, may well be afraid of what’s waiting for him as the man responsible for legislative acts. He was full of self-confidence about easy sailing for this piece of legislation. Péter Harrach is scratching his head as if doesn’t know what to make of the situation.
Orbán is no longer accustomed to defeat. I’m sure he will take it very hard. And lash out.