Orbán Forever

A typical Hungarian joke goes like this: How are you? – Thanks, fine.  –  Can you elaborate?  Well, actually, things are not that good.  Over the past few years the Hungarians have discovered things are not good at all and they have voiced their frustration in the recent election, giving Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz more power than any other politician in Europe (Belarus’s Lukashenka aside) currently enjoys – a constitutional majority in parliament.

The state of the Hungarian economy is well known: last year the International Monetary Fund had to rescue the country from bankruptcy, to which it was driven by reckless previous governments; what makes this humiliation even harder to swallow – as analyst János Széky has pointed out – is that we were shocked to see countries such as neighbouring Slovakia race ahead of us. Now the Hungarians expect Orbán to lead them out of the mess, and not just the economic one. However, even though they have known this politician for twenty years, nobody apart from him really knows what he’’s planning. Budapest won’’t tolerate Hungarians being treated and talked about the way they have recently been, declared Orbán during the first press conference following his glorious victory. Who did he have in mind? Perhaps neighbouring countries, such as Slovakia, or perhaps multinational corporations, of which the renowned writer Péter Nádas recently said in Die Zeit the big German and French companies in Hungary have been behaving like colonial powers.

What is certain is that Orbán intends to go down in Hungarian history as the great leader whose firm hand led the nation out of  twenty years of chaos and liberated it from the rule of the oligarchs.  He started demonstrating his intentions on the first day after the election, when the Constitutional Court suspended the new civil code, which had legalized homosexual partnerships.  These days Orbán is a conservative who won’’t tolerate this kind of social liberalization.

This is unprecedented in Central Europe. Over the past twenty years no politician has gained such concentrated power (Orbán has already indicated that this summer he will replace current President László Sólyom with a party colleague) and the Hungarian minorities in Romania and Slovakia give Hungary a key role in this region. On the other hand Orbán’s vision – whatever it may be – has to go on the back burner for the time being as the devastated economy needs to be attended to first and foremost.

Interestingly, the response of the Slovak government has so far been restrained and Prime Minister Robert Fico even suggested that he would like to meet Orbán as soon as possible. Although these two politicians ought to be ideological and national enemies, in fact they are quite similar and both are currently engaged in a tactical game whose goal is to garner a better international reputation, and thus more influence in Brussels. Both are aware that Brussels is not keen on aggressive noises and both have skeletons in the cupboard: for Fico it is his coalition with the extremist Slovak National Party and for Orbán the neo-Nazi Jobbik in parliament, a party whose success in the election has attracted more attention from the horrified European press than Orbán himself.

Orbán is an extraordinarily gifted politician with a thirst for power that he will want to make full use of. That, however, is the only thing about him that is certain – apart from the fact that he is unpredictable.  While in 1990 his liberal-cosmopolitan party’’s election video clip featured a song by Roxette (Listen to Your Heart) in English, today the same, by now conservative Fidesz, spouts slogans glorifying the Hungarian nation and national traditions. And while only ten years ago Orbán’’s key plan was to create a system of two political parties, today he talks of unifying the nation under one party rule.

It is  thus not a question of how Orbán will change (to which no ready answer exists) but how Hungarian society will change and how much it will let Orbán get away with.  However, as a recent comparative study (World Values Survey) has shown, Hungarian society is not particularly resistant to authoritarian tendencies. A wide-ranging international survey of shared values has revealed the Hungarians to be among the most closed societies (they have ended up in the same group as Russia, Moldova and Ukraine) whose desire for civil and political liberties is considerably lower than in countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Poland, and who, of all European nations, are the least trusting of other people and institutions.  On the other hand, of all European nations they come second after the Greeks in terms of the strength of their desire for social equality. Sociologist György István Tóth sees these dismal results partly as being caused by the history of a country in which the development of the middle classes was constantly and repeatedly interrupted.

These findings seem to favour Orbán but only superficially.  How is he to rule a society, which on the one hand expects the state to look after it, but is deeply suspicious of power on the other? A society, which has extremely powerful intellectual elites as well as a sense of humour? In a country like that, Orbán’s got his work cut out.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Czech in the Respekt on 02 May 2010. 

We are grateful to Martin M. Šimečka for the permission to publish this text in English.