Tag Archives: central field of force

Moving to the center? Anne Applebaum’s essay on Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump

This morning I encountered Anne Applebaum’s name on the “Reggeli gyors” (Morning express) program on KlubRádió, on several Hungarian internet news sites, and in a Hungarian-language summary of foreign news related to Hungary that I receive daily. Anne Applebaum is an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written several books on the Soviet Union and on Eastern Europe. She knows the region of East-Central Europe well, having spent several years in Poland while working as a correspondent for multiple British publications.

As a student of East-Central Europe, she is well acquainted with Hungary’s history and follows its current political events. She often writes about Hungarian affairs, so her name appears frequently in the Hungarian media. Every time an article of hers is published in The Washington Post, this or that Hungarian newspaper or internet site will report on its content. Hungarian journalists even follow her tweets.

As for her opinion of Viktor Orbán and his regime, it is devastating. This was not always the case. In 2010 she received the Petőfi Prize for her 2003 book on the Gulag, which was translated into Hungarian (as was her 2012 book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956). The Petőfi Prize was established by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society, which is a Fidesz-sponsored foundation. The prize was bestowed on her by Mária Schmidt, whom I call Viktor Orbán’s court historian.

Anne Applebaum (2015) Source: Václav Havel Library

If Anne Applebaum had any hopes for the Fidesz government in 2010, they evaporated soon after. She has written many harsh words on Hungarian domestic and foreign policy as well as on the government’s treatment of refugees. But this is not what I want to talk about here. Anyone who is interested in Anne Applebaum’s political opinions should visit her website, which offers an extensive collection of her writings over the years. Here I will focus on her latest article, “Beware: Trump may use the alt-right to turn himself into the center,” which appeared last night in The Washington Post, because it has a great deal to do with Hungary.

The article is about Donald Trump’s bigotry, which he has used as “an electoral tool, to excite a relatively small group of supporters.” He was successful mainly because the rest of his voters, mainstream Republicans, overlooked his tactics in their eagerness to win the election. Applebaum’s question is whether Trump will further manipulate racism “for political ends.” If he does and proves to be successful, the alt-right will gain strength, which might result in a level of violence that could offer Trump the opportunity to “present himself as the candidate of law and order.” In addition, “by encouraging the alt-right, Trump can also change our definition of what it means to be a moderate or a centrist.”

It is at this point that Anne Applebaum brings up the comparison with Hungary, where “the center-right ruling party, Fidesz, turned a neo-fascist alt-right party, Jobbik, into an electoral asset” and where Viktor Orbán can portray himself and his party as a centrist party that alone can save the country from extremism. A couple of years ago Fidesz used Jobbik very much as Anne Applebaum describes it, but I don’t believe this formula applies today.

In Hungary there are three main political forces: the left-liberals, Jobbik, and Fidesz. After 2006 the left-liberal group lost a great deal of its appeal, and at roughly the same time Jobbik, representing the extreme right, became an important political party. It was in this political climate that Viktor Orbán portrayed himself as the head of a right-of-center party that would save Hungary and Europe from the curse of a government of Gábor Vona, the leader of a racist, anti-Semitic party, which proudly declared itself to be an enemy of democracy.

But, as Anne Applebaum correctly points out, as time went by Fidesz, in order to maintain its support, took over more and more of Jobbik’s program. Applebaum says in this article that “Fidesz borrowed some of Jobbik’s ideas and language.” I think she is too kind. It wasn’t borrowing. It was a wholesale adoption of Jobbik’s program. From day one the Orbán government began fulfilling all of the important nationalistic demands of Jobbik, until the two parties and their constituents were barely distinguishable.

As the result of Fidesz’s rapid move to the right, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the myth of Fidesz as a central force, balancing between the “communists” and the “Nazis.” If Anne Applebaum had written this piece a few years ago, I would have fully agreed with her, but today I believe the picture needs to be refined.

As Fidesz was moving to the far right, becoming a nationalistic party with racist, anti-Semitic undertones, Gábor Vona of Jobbik realized that the political territory his party once occupied was being usurped. He decided to move his party more toward the center, with some success. Thus, the myth that the Fidesz government guarantees law and order in the face of a physically dangerous extreme right has collapsed. Today there is no longer a serious threat of extremists, akin to the alt-right extremists we saw demonstrating in Charlottesville, using deadly force in Hungary.

So, let’s go back to the United States and the “centrist” scenario Anne Applebaum foresees as a possibility. Viktor Orbán is a shrewd, intelligent politician, which we can’t say about Donald Trump. Such sophisticated thinking is, to my mind, unimaginable from Trump. I also believe that both his temperament and his deep-seated political views incline him toward extremism. I cannot picture him as a centrist in any guise, promising calm and the rule of law. He thrives on conflict and discord.

Before the 2010 Hungarians election I said in a lecture that “one doesn’t know where Jobbik ends and where Fidesz begins.” Today I am convinced that the same can be said about Donald Trump and the alt-right in all of its variations.

August 18, 2017

Election predictions and fallout from the Botka-Molnár controversy

You may recall that after Viktor Orbán’s performance in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad I wrote that my “overarching impression” was that Viktor Orbán is afraid. I based this opinion on his “extended and continuous self-aggrandizing,” which made me suspicious that he is not as self-assured as he would have us believe. Therefore I was somewhat surprised that a few days later Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV and András Stumpf of Válasz, who rarely see eye to eye on anything, agreed that Viktor Orbán’s self-confidence has never been greater. He was genuinely relaxed and justifiably satisfied with his accomplishments.

Lately two well-known political scientists came out with their assessment of the current political situation, with special attention to possible outcomes of the 2018 national election. Somewhat surprisingly, both Gábor Török, someone who maintained fairly good relations with Fidesz until recently, and Csaba Tóth of the liberal Republikon Intézet described the mood in Fidesz as apprehension concerning the forthcoming election. Viktor Orbán is afraid that Fidesz may not have an absolute majority, preventing it from forming a government.

I’m sure that readers of Hungarian Spectrum would view the scenario described by the two political scientists as outright impossible. After all, we have been doing practically nothing else but bemoaning the sad state of the left-liberal opposition, whose chances were further reduced after László Botka’s intemperate attack on Zsolt Molnár. But Török and Tóth approach the issue from the other end of the political spectrum. They have been paying attention to the changes that have taken place in Jobbik.

Török’s interview with Magyar Narancs is still not available. Magyar Narancs, which is a weekly, comes out on Thursday, but it published a short excerpt from which we can glean the main outline of his thinking. His claim is that the political situation today cannot be compared to 2014 when the so-called “center field of force” (centrális erőtér) still existed. This center field of force meant that Fidesz positioned itself in the center of the political scene between two irreconcilable political forces, a left-liberal and a far-right one. This political combination could assure Fidesz an absolute majority, even with 35-40% of the votes. Now that Jobbik has moved toward the center, Jobbik voters are more likely to vote for a left-liberal candidate and vice versa as long as they manage to defeat the present government. Opinion polls corroborate such a willingness for cross voting. Consequently, as things stand now, Török explains that Fidesz may lose 40 electoral districts, which would mean that it would come up short of the necessary 100 seats for an absolute majority. In that case, Orbán will try “to buy” some members of parliament, try to find a coalition partner, or, most likely, have a snap election within three months.

Tóth also concentrates on Jobbik. As opposed to the left, Jobbik “is capable of strategic thinking” and, unlike MSZP, is unified and speaks with one voice. He also stresses that it is a misconception to think that in order to defeat Fidesz one needs a single strong opposition force because of the possibility of cross voters in the new circumstances. In Tóth’s scheme, opinion polls indicate that the left-liberal opposition in Budapest is stronger than Fidesz and that 10-15 electoral districts could be won just in Budapest. Jobbik could easily win 10 districts nationally, and the liberal-left opposition could add another 10 districts in the larger cities. That would be enough for Fidesz not to have an absolute majority.

Tóth also talked about the Botka-Molnár controversy as far as the liberal-socialist opposition’s chances in Budapest are concerned. Keep in mind that Republikon Intézet is also a polling organization, and therefore Tóth has been looking at polling data as well as voting patterns in the past. The conclusion Republikon Intézet drew was that the left-of-center opposition can win only in individual districts where DK is strong and therefore the cooperation of MSZP and DK is a must in Budapest. As far as the person of Ferenc Gyurcsány is concerned, it is true that he is the most unpopular politician on the left, but even if Botka succeeded and excluded Gyurcsány from participation, “Fidesz would place Gyurcsány” behind any cooperation between DK and MSZP, even if on the local level. His conclusion is that “making the democratic forces free of Gyurcsány is impossible,” and therefore Botka’s efforts in this direction are misguided. Moreover, the numbers don’t support Botka’s strategy, because it was MSZP that lost voters and not the Demokratikus Koalíció.

Since my piece on the Botka-Molnár controversy was published yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to a couple of interviews relevant to the subject. One was by László Botka himself on Olga Kálmán’s “Egyenesen” on HírTV. In my opinion, it was a disappointing performance. Botka has only three or four sentences, which he keeps repeating over and over, even within the same interview. Otherwise, he is devoid of any vision. Anyone who’s interested in the interview should visit HírTV’s website.

Here I only want to point out something I found amusing, I guess because I have an interest in questions relating to language. Botka desperately tried to wiggle out of accusing Molnár of betrayal (árulás). After all, ‘betrayal’ is a strong word, and Botka’s use of it is widely considered to be politically damaging. Added to his discomfort was Kálmán’s disapproving tone while questioning him on this point. How did he try to get out of this sticky situation? This is the relevant passage: “After democratic discussions on political strategy a decision was reached and a few weeks later a socialist politician questions that decision. One cannot really find another word but betrayal because he divulged a common decision.” The poor man must have been desperate because, although it is true that “elárul” means both “to divulge” and “to betray,” “árulás,” the noun he used, can mean only one thing–“betrayal.”

Equally amusing was István Ujhelyi’s interview on ATV’s “Egyenes beszéd” yesterday. He also had a fairly lengthy conversation with György Bolgár on “Megbeszéljük,” a call-in show on KlubRádió, on Friday. Bolgár stressed the seriousness of Botka’s accusations and said that he hoped that Botka has proof to support his contention. Ujhelyi, who is perhaps the strongest supporter of Botka in the party, assured Bolgár that Botka is a man who doesn’t talk through his hat. He must have tangible proof. What about the others Botka alluded to, asked Bolgár? Ujhelyi answered that he was certain that after Botka returns from his vacation he will make public the “background information” about other possible traitors in MSZP.

By Monday this conversation, which took place a couple of days before, had become an embarrassment because it turned out that there was no hard proof of any “betrayal.” Moreover, the party bigwigs decided that all that talk about betrayal was damaging to MSZP. So, now Ujhelyi had to explain his words away. Luckily for him, András Sváby, one of the new anchors of “Egyenes beszéd,” was pretty clueless when confronted with Ujhelyi’s revised version of his conversation with Bolgár. Ujhelyi insisted that the only thing he said in the Bolgár interview was that “if there are people [in the party] who hold notions different from the official decision concerning electoral strategy Botka will put an end to their games.” It was really pitiful to watch the man, especially since I used to think highly of him as a hard-working member of the European Parliament. He is a decent man caught in a party machinery that has lost its way.

August 2, 2017