Tag Archives: central power

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

Gábor Vona of Jobbik cleans house

Something momentous happened today in Hungarian party politics. Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, got rid of three of his most radical deputies: Előd Novák, István Szávay, and István Apáti. In addition, he made it clear to Mrs. Lóránd Hegedűs, wife of the anti-Semitic, extremist Reformed minister, that she shouldn’t even try to put her name forward as a member of the executive board because he has veto power over candidates. Instead of these far-right extremists Vona would like to see successful Jobbik mayors in the party leadership. The young mayor of Ózd, Dávid Janiczak, has already indicated that he will support the chairman.

Other Jobbik leaders in the provinces are outraged at Vona’s attempt to rid the party of people like Előd Novák. It took Tibor Ágoston (Debrecen) only “one sleepless night to come to a decision: [he] support[s] Előd Novák as a candidate for chairmanship of the party.” Ágoston’s name may be familiar to those who follow Hungarian politics closely. He is the Jobbik politician who was recently fined 750,000 ft for Holocaust denial.

All three radical politicians are ready to defy Vona who, according to the bylaws, does have veto power over the nominations.

Gábor Vona's signature photo where he shows a sweeter side of Jobbik

Gábor Vona’s signature photo, where he shows the sweeter side of Jobbik

Historically, far-right parties have a tendency to crumble. For years I have been predicting (either incorrectly or prematurely) that the same fate was awaiting Jobbik. Such an event most likely wouldn’t make a tremendous difference in Hungary’s political landscape if the current system didn’t consist of a two-pronged opposition: from the far-right and from the left. Each of about the same strength at the moment.

In order to understand the rationale behind Vona’s move we have to go back to Viktor Orbán’s concept of central power. I devoted a whole post to this notion, which is really the cornerstone of Fidesz’s political system.

Jobbik was founded in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the party’s popularity started to mushroom, until in 2010 it received 16.36% of the votes. In 2014 Vona’s party did even better, with 20.69% of the votes.

Sometime in 2008/2009 Orbán realized that Fidesz had a fantastic opportunity. It faced an opposition that was split between far-right and left and that could never form a common front against his party. The political situation resembled that between the two world wars when the “government party” faced noisy right-radicals whose idols were Mussolini and later Hitler and a handful of Social Democrats and liberals on the left. Obviously, the two groups couldn’t join forces against the “government party.” Orbán recognized that Fidesz was similarly well positioned in the new political landscape and would likely have a very long tenure.

Vona is trying to change that landscape, which, if he succeeds, is not good news for Fidesz. Although Vona keeps insisting that Jobbik can defeat Fidesz single-handedly and form a government in 2018, I doubt that he actually believes in such an unlikely scenario. If he is a rational human being, he can only think in terms of some kind of coalition with either Fidesz or with the left-liberal groups. In both cases, he would have to change his colors and show that Jobbik is no longer a far-right extremist party but a right-of-center party able to be part of a coalition government. He seems to be quite confident that he will be able to keep the troops together even if Jobbik sheds its anti-Semitic, extremist image.

We have no idea what Vona’s game plan is. Fidesz commentators believe that he will make a deal with the left-liberals, which would undercut Orbán’s notion of “central power.” Magyar Idők, the government organ, is certain that Vona is moving closer and closer to the left. In a sarcastic editorial Péter Szikszai writes: “What will the next step be? Are they contemplating using the Hungarian Guard to defend [Budapest] Pride that will be held on the anniversary of Trianon? Will they offer settlement permits to migrants at Röszke? Will they abandon the theory of the Hungarian-Sumerian relationship? Will they demolish Horthy’s statue? Or, will Vona attend the meeting of the Assembly of God (Hit Gyülekezete)?”

Another notorious right-winger, Ferenc Szaniszló, who works for the pro-Fidesz Echo TV, also believes that Vona is planning to leave the right-wing fold. As he puts it, both Fidesz and Jobbik have changed a lot in the last few years. Fidesz started off as “an extremist liberal party” which moved first to the right of center and “later to the right,” while Jobbik “used to be a combative right-wing party which moved slowly toward the soft right and from there to the right-of-center.” And he adds the following significant sentence: “This softer reassuring force might be more attractive, but if Fidesz can take over the role of Jobbik, then what is the use of Jobbik?”

What do Fidesz officials think of this new development? They naturally would like to see Vona fail in his endeavor. They claim to have polls indicating that Jobbik in the last year or so lost a number of its more radical followers. They consider it a grave mistake for Vona to turn his back on his radical base because this might lead to Jobbik’s losing its political prowess. Pesti Srácok, another government sponsored internet site, is also certain that Vona will fail in his task. The provincial leaders are behind those radical politicians Vona just got rid of. He will fail just as Ibolya Dávid of MDF failed when she moved closer to the left.

What Vona has done is certainly a gamble, although he seems confident that the majority of Jobbik’s voters and sympathizers are behind him. But when, according to Medián, 54% of Jobbik voters are strong and 15% are moderate anti-Semites, I doubt that getting rid of the most anti-Semitic Jobbik leaders will endear Vona to Jobbik’s electorate.

Fidesz, however, is worried about him because they fear that Lajos Simicska is one of Vona’s supporters. Magyar Idők’s editorial, quoted earlier, makes that clear. “What Vona’s plan is we don’t know yet. Perhaps he would like to make his party more attractive to those entrepreneurs who are disappointed in Fidesz,” adding “(didn’t I say that politely, Lajos?)”.

I myself can’t see at the moment how Jobbik and the socialist-liberal opposition could create a common front against Orbán’s autocratic rule.

April 21, 2016

The day after: What happened in the Tapolca by-elections?

Most Hungarian commentators that I follow look upon yesterday’s Jobbik victory in the Tapolca-Ajka-Sümeg district of the county of Veszprém as proof that the political system Viktor Orbán so carefully constructed is now in shambles. In Orbán’s political constellation, there are insignificant parties on both the right and the left while Fidesz rules the center with such a large majority that it is assured an absolutely free hand in legislation. Due to the weakness of the parties on either side of it, this system also guarantees years and years of Fidesz governance. But something went terribly wrong. The “central power,” the present governing party, has been steadily losing voters while one of the “fringe” parties, Jobbik, is gaining ground.

I am less sanguine about the significance of Jobbik’s victory yesterday than most of the commentators. First of all, Jobbik won by only 261 votes over Fidesz. What is perhaps even more important, Lajos Rig won this race only because the voters of the town of Tapolca, who last year solidly voted for the Fidesz candidate, Jenő Lasztovicza, this time decided to support Rig, who is one of them. According to an Index report, the fact that Rig was from Tapolca made a great difference. His Fidesz opponent, from Ajka, is now a high school principal in Várpalota, a town outside of the electoral district. Therefore, the people of Tapolca looked upon him as a stranger. And without Tapolca, Zoltán Fenyvesi, the Fidesz candidate, would have won decisively.

Just to give you an idea of how important the town of Tapolca was, here’s a graph that compares the three parties’ results in 2014 and 2015.

The Tapolca results, 2014-2015  /valasztas.hu

The Tapolca results, 2014-2015 / valasztas.hu

A year ago Fidesz won in all fifteen polling stations in Tapolca; these year all went for Lajos Rig. The official election results available on the internet reveal that in Tapolca alone Jobbik received 3,689 votes. Pestisracok.hu, which is a Fidesz-financed site, claims that everywhere outside of Tapolca Fidesz held its own and that since Fidesz lost by only 261 votes Fidesz’s trouble is not as great as it appears on the surface. Others, for example Róbert László, an analyst with Political Capital, are convinced that Jobbik won the election in the villages. László argues that it had been known that Sümeg would vote Fidesz, Ajka socialist, and that Tapolca was Jobbik through and through. Therefore, it was in the villages that Jobbik’s strong showing made a difference. Of the 58 villages Rig won in 30, including some larger villages, while Fidesz won in only 24 smaller settlements.

Map of the electoral district

Map of the electoral district

There is no question that Tapolca’s support for Jobbik made a huge difference and assured its victory. But what pestisracok.hu neglects to factor in is the rate of mobilization which, according to the calculations of the think tank Political Capital, in the case of Fidesz was only 52.3% of its voter turnout in 2014. Although MSZP-DK’s results were abysmal, their rate of mobilization was still higher (70.5%) than Fidesz’s. Jobbik, by contrast, outdid itself: its mobilization rate was 105% of its 2014 number.

Talking about mobilization, here are a few tidbits about the campaign. Yesterday I reported that Jobbik had put an incredible amount of energy into the campaign because they knew they had a chance of winning. It turned out that besides the constant presence of Gábor Vona, the chairman of the party, in the last week or so several Jobbik members of parliament were also on the spot. And unlike the Fidesz bigwigs, who appeared for an hour or so, they stayed for days. In addition, the party had 70 young activists who volunteered their services. The party paid only for their room and board. Fidesz had hundreds of paid campaigners, whose heart was not always in the job. One reporter encountered a scene where a man’s car was full of Fidesz posters but the man assured Vona that he will vote for Jobbik. He just needs the money.

Jobbik’s campaigning strategy was apparently quite sophisticated. Its messages were tailored to local conditions. After checking the needs or gripes of each village, the activists specifically addressed those issues. They made sure that the encounters between the visitors and the locals in the smaller villages were intimate and therefore, for example, although Vona visited 44 of the 58 villages the party kept his itinerary a secret. It didn’t want reporters disturbing the ambiance of the meetings between the party chairman and the locals.

Last Friday, before the Tapolca election, Viktor Orbán in his usual interview on Kossuth Rádió alluded to the fact that Fidesz has “its own polls.” Therefore he must have known that Jobbik and Fidesz were neck to neck. That’s why he decided to visit the district’s three larger towns as the campaign was winding down. Did his visit help the Fidesz cause? We will never know, but his appearance in Tapolca was a disaster thanks to a demonstration organized, it seems, by Solidarity. Orbán is not accustomed to demonstrators who nearly prevented him from delivering his speech. But this is exactly what happened, which didn’t do much for the aura he has cultivated over the years. So, as far as his personal prestige is concerned, his appearance there was certainly counterproductive.

What will Fidesz’s answer be to the challenge Jobbik is posing to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s government? I’m cautious when it comes to predictions, but judging from Orbán’s reluctance to change course and thereby admit a mistake, I don’t expect any great change in strategy. As he said in his Friday interview, “nix ugribugri.”

Well, this expression needs an explanation. Like most of his “sayings” over the years, it is not an Orbán original. György Moldova, a popular Hungarian writer, the author of about 70 books since 1955, published a report way back in 1986 on long-distance truckers. In the 70s and early 80s these were the lucky ones who had a chance to see the world outside of Hungary. Moldova tells the story of a truck driver who is greatly bothered by an infestation of lice. Somewhere in Germany he stops and goes to a pharmacy to get some medication, but he wants to make sure that it is for lice, not for fleas. But he doesn’t know any German. So he comes up with “nix ugribugri,” meaning “not hopping here and there.” Orbán is no flea; he is planning to hold a steady course. He wants to finish what he started and wants to accomplish everything he promised the Hungarian people. But what if the Hungarian people have had enough of his experimentation?

Moderate Fidesz as a bulwark against the Hungarian extreme right?

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.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Chairman Vona Gábor of Jobbik

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Chairman Vona Gábor of 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.