Tuesday

10th Dec 2019

Opinion

Viktor Orban - disliked and misunderstood

  • Viktor Orban is a vice-president of the European Peoples' Party (Photo: europeanpeoplesparty)

During his first press conference after winning the the 2010 Parliamentary vote, Viktor Orban noted that "88 percent of the vote at this election went to pro-EU parties and only 12 percent to an anti-European party" - he didn't even mention their name, the far-right Jobbik - Movement for a Better Hungary.

"Viktor Orban has always been strongly pro European Union," says Ferenc Kumin, lead analyst of Szazadveg, a centre-right think tank, "though this is often forgotten nowadays." Last Saturday (14 January), as a Jobbik parliamentary deputy symbolically set fire to an EU flag on the stage at a Jobbik rally, Orban - a vice-president of the European Peoples' Party - was already preparing for his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

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As one of Europe's most disliked, and arguably most misunderstood politicians, he can expect a rough ride. But he can also be expected to give as good or better than he gets.

He will be 49 in May, and has already spent almost his whole adult life in politics. That is both his strength and his weakness. When he expounds his political theories, he can sound like a politologist, or sociologist. In 2002 he painstakingly explained to this writer why, mathematically-speaking, his Fidesz party was sure to win the upcoming election. They lost. As a performer, his defeats are as spectacular as his victories.

His first period as prime minister, from 1998 to 2002, was a frustrating one. The country was almost equally divided between a right wing alliance of Fidesz and three smaller conservative parties on the one hand, and the Socialists and their liberal Free Democrat allies on the other.

That extreme polarisation has bedevilled post-1990 politics in Hungary. No new constitution, and a host of other badly needed legislation could not be passed, because there was no consensus between the two sides. Public bodies like the ORTT, which oversaw the media, were paralysed by party rivalries.

There was no consensus on which strategic areas of the economy - like the railways, energy providers, water supplies - should be kept in state hands, if any. The country was unbalanced between a self-important and over-sized capital city, Budapest, which looked down on 'the provinces', and a rural and small-town electorate, from which Orban himself comes, which resents the lack of respect which the urban elite show towards them.

Three quarters of a million Roma languished in ever-deepening poverty, kept alive only by state handouts - the real losers of the collapse of Communism.

Eight years of Socialist and sometimes Socialist-Liberal rule followed, in which the national debt ballooned, the country joined the European Union in 2004, but alone of the east Europeans, failed to improve the standard of living.

"Hungarians were the most disappointed people among east Europeans, and I think Orban recognised that very well," says Peter Hack, a former Liberal Parliamentary deputy and long-time adversary of Fidesz. "So Orban played the card of saying that from now on, there must be a change. And the public would support, even I would fully support what they are doing now, if they didn't touch the checks and balances. If they didn't weaken the rule of law. If they didn't weaken the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms."

But when Orban sees the danger that such institutions as the President of the Republic, the Constitutional Court, the National Bank or the Ombudsman, might obstruct his pro-market, pro-growth reforms, he brushes them rudely aside. And that is exactly what has placed him in the international dock today. Liberal-minded people fear his medicine will permanently damage the patient. And they prepare for a return to the 'cold war' of the pre-2010 years.

Fidesz won 54 percent of the popular vote in 2010, which translated into 68 percent of parliamentary seats - a constitutional majority sufficient to break the 20-year-old deadlock. In the past 20 months, the Fidesz government has passed almost four hundred laws, an avalanche of legislation rushed through Parliament with the barest minimum of debate.

Many of the laws were drawn up by individual Fidesz deputies, not the government. And as Orban prepares to slash the size of Parliament from 386 to 200 deputies from the 2014 election onwards, many in his own party are trying to outdo each other with their zeal - to impress their leader, and improve their own chances of being chosen to run again next time.

One example is a new Church Law, which limited the number of churches which win automatic registration to just 14. The Methodists, the Anglicans, the Buddhists and the Hare Krishna movement are just the best known of 82 churches which lost their legal continuity on 1 January, and now face the indignity of seeing their applications examined, approved, or rejected by a dogmatic, Catholic-dominated Parliamentary committee with scant respect for other faiths.

"We refuse to even apply on those terms, as a matter of principle,' says Gabor Ivanyi, a pastor of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship. A former Liberal deputy himself, he also christened Orban's two elder children. Now he is one of the Prime Minister's fiercest critics, and was a key speaker at the big anti-government rally on 2 January. "This government is a disaster," he says simply, through his long, biblical beard.

"Western countries assumed Hungary was a 'well-established, boring democracy', therefore they did not and do not understand that the Hungarian right wing doesn't want a consensual democracy with former communist and leftist-liberal parties," wrote Tamas Fricz, in the pro-government daily, Magyar Nemzet on Tuesday.

Such a 'majoritarian' understanding of democracy is central to Orban's approach, Fricz argues. Fidesz is not the first election winner to believe that 'the winner takes all,' but they have won more, and taken that argument further than all their predecessors.

Andras Biro Nagy, analyst at a liberal think tank Policy Solutions, believes Fidesz can no longer claim such democratic legitimacy.

"Is this government really doing what the voters wanted when they chose it? 84 percent of those asked in a recent poll believe Hungary is going in the wrong direction."

"We hear often that the wars of the future will be fought for land and for water," Orban told his audience this week, as he launched his government's new agricultural programme. 'But I have some bad news for you. The war has already begun, but it is not being fought with weapons, but with other tools - ratings agencies for example...."

Hungary has been downgraded three times just in the past month, most recently by Fitch's. Orban quotes a fable by La Fontaine, about the fox and the crow. How the fox flattered the crow to make it sing, and drop the piece of cheese from its mouth for the fox to eat. "We should beware of the fox," Orban concluded.

The difference today is that few are flattering the Hungarian Prime Minister. He is rather the target for their abuse.

The writer is the BBC's correspondent in Hungary.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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