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Viktor Orbán's political ambitions far exceed Hungary, says Political Capital's Péter Krekó

“Characteristic of illiberal systems is that they turn the opposition into fools.  They create rules of the game within the framework of which it is not possible to engage in politics effectively or seriously.”

“Orbán practically portrays himself as a European politician.  He is very deliberately building himself up with interviews given to international newspapers, translated YouTube videos and international appearances.  I think he seriously believes that sooner or later he will become the official or unofficial leader of Europe.  Perhaps he does not exclude the possibility of becoming the President of the European Council, if not in 2019.”

Translation of interview with Péter Krekó of Political Capital appearing in hvg.hu on January 3rd, 2017 under the title “Orbán’s political ambitions far exceed Hungary.”

The lack of an alternative keeps the Orbán government in power.  The prime minister considers next year’s election to have already been decided, and for this reason is thinking longer term, political analyst Péter Krekó tells us.

“Much is at stake in 2017.  But what happens in Hungary’s domestic politics depends more on European and international events than on the actions of Hungarian political actors.  The Berlin terrorist attack, for example, has a more serious political impact at home than the fact that the prime minister’s future work room and office is to be renovated at a cost of HUF 4 billion (USD 14 million),” says Péter Krekó, guest researcher at Indiana University in Bloomington and an employee of Political Capital with whom we discussed what can be expected in 2017 in Hungarian politics.

Péter Krekó. Photo: Ákos Stiller

So far domestic internal politics has been totally provincial, insensitive to and unaffected by external forces and events.  Nowadays, foreign politics has become domestic politics as for the past two years the government has not talked about anything other than the migration crisis.  “We might greet the fact that finally there is more talk about foreign politics as a good thing.  But on the subject we hear in the same deceitful, propagandistic  and extraordinarily strong ideological framework as we do about the actions of domestic political actors,” says Krekó.

A new axis forms

Viktor Orbán is politicizing on an international level in a manner completely different than his official position would warrant.  While Fidesz is an often relatively conformist member of the European People’s Party that votes accordingly, Orbán openly attacks the European center-left actors, among them Angela Merkel, and increasingly he supports such extreme right-wing parties as the French National Front, the Austrian Freedom Party, or the Alternative for Germany,  In Europe, it is primarily extreme right-wing powers that represent the same thing that Orbán does at home.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Viktor Orbán at a joint press conference held on 2 February 2015

From an international political point of view, 2016 was totally favorable to Viktor Orbán, whether we think of Brexit, the two-thirds electoral victory of Vladimir Putin’s party, or the election of Donald Trump as US president, or the resignation of Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, one of Orbán’s most serious European critics, says the analyst.

“The tendencies of 2016 confirm the political consolidation of the new vision of politics represented by Orbán, which I think in reality is actually built on old nostalgia. A sort of new axis is being formed,” says the analyst, adding that in this way the Hungarian government can feel more secure diplomatically in that it has stronger allies than previously: Putin, Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Has populism plateaued or will it strengthen?

The big question of 2017 is whether the power of populists will continue to advance, pushing to the background the traditional mainstream political actors, the struggle against political correctness portrayed as an enemy, isolationism in Euroatlantic relations, and points of view understanding of Putin’s politics. As for whether populism continues to make progress or merely maintains itself at its current level, good or bad is a question of political tastes and value systems, but such changes are taking place which, taken together, push to the background the traditional, liberal democratic and human rights principles, while increasing the chance of international conflict, says Krekó.

The populist forces can make additional breakthoughs at more elections, be it the Czech or the Dutch elections, but it is a serious question whether the extreme right-winger Marine Le Pen will win the French presidency.

The current indications are that the chances of this are small, but look what happened with Brexit and Trump.

If not her, but the decidedly conservative Francois Fillon wins, then politics which favors parties of order, euroskepticism and which is pro-Russian will come to France.

Conservative, pro-Russian candidate for French presidency, Francois Fillon.  Photo: Thomas Samson

A possible Italian election will also have a serious effect on the future of the European Union and the euro: if the radical Five Star Movement wins, it promises to renegotiate the national debt.

From a Hungarian point of view, the most important question is who the German Chancellor will be.  Angela Merkel’s popularity has been eroding for a long time but is still rather high, and while the Berlin terror attack did not help, one study indicates that the Germans do not blame her.  However, even if she stays, she will be forced to form a larger coalition and conclude greater compromises.   If she gets another shake, then an Angela Merkel Chancellor-Martin Schultz foreign minister pair could cause discomfort for Orbán on an international level, although the Hungarian head of government so far has succeeded in turning international criticism to his advantage.

We are becoming Putinized

Looking at their conflicts, passions, struggles and divisiveness, the political scientist thinks the similarity between Putin and Orbán is spooky, the only difference being that in the Russian election the real Russian opposition, with the effective cooperation of the system, isn’t even in parliament.

“Characteristic of illiberal systems is that they turn the opposition into fools.  They create rules of the game within the framework of which it is not possible to engage in politics effectively or seriously,” explains Krekó.

It can already be seen that that opposition which does not confront the government can have something of a calm life.  When somebody fails to live up to this expectation – as in the case of Jobbik, which previously voted with the government, but not in the case of the latest modification to the Fundamental Law – then a campaign of personal character assassination building on visceral emotions follows, which is a strong warning to future political actors: if somebody wants to politicize against Orbán, they have to decide whether they want to see lies about their private life appearing in the government’s ever-growing media empire, or whether he or she desires a calmer professional life.  Analysts believe pre-emptive strikes of this kind intended to instill uncertainty will only strengthen.

There is nothing better

Orbán believes the 2018 campaign has already played out, as does the Hungarian left wing, says Krekó, who believes there is little chance that Jobbik will mount a real challenge to Fidesz in the election.  Jobbik is virtually the only extreme right-wing party in Europe that was not able to profit from the refugee crisis.  From its position as an opposition party it could not and, as it is in the middle of transitioning to more moderate politics, probably does not want to defeat Orbán.  Moreover, Jobbik would align itself differently internationally than Fidesz does now.  Fidesz’s enthusiasm and Jobbik’s indifference with regard to Trump’s election were telling.  If Orbán’s vision comes to pass, then Jobbik will rather lose ground.

Jobbik chairman Gábor Vona’s press conference in Gyöngyös, April 2015. Photo: Máté Fülöp

For now it is not clear what kind of scandal is required to dislodge politics from its current rut.  There is no threat of economic shock, only a weaker role in regional economic competition.  At present there is no corruption case that would result in a turnaround of the political power relations, and the threshold of tolerance on the part of voters has greatly increased – it is enough to consider the Pharaon, Mészáros or Rogán matters.  Even though corruption could soon have a deadly poisonous effect on support for the government, the lack of an alternative means the effect of this cannot be seen for now.

“This does not mean that the overwhelming majority of Hungarians are ecstatically enthusiastic about Viktor Orbán and his government. It is obvious that the government is unwilling or unable to address many expert political questions.  And yet they believe that, given the current political palette, they are most qualified to run the country. For this reason it is rather a new political formation that would have a chance of tipping the current balance,” says the analyst.

Viktor Orbán at the EU summit meeting in Bratislava on September 16th, 2016. Photo: Gergely Túry

So long as Orbán successfully maintains his insulting, war-like tone towards the EU, the refugees and the liberal West,  the Hungarians will be less susceptible to others, and these symbolic politics push existential questions to the background.  “It is not true that everybody listens to their pocket when they vote, although Orbán cynically buys votes, for example, with tax decreases or with another war on household expenses,” says Krekó.

Dreams of a big role

Since Orbán considers the next election to be already played out, his political ambition greatly exceeds that of Hungary, says Krekó, who says this was perfectly clear in the prime minister’s speech at Băile Tușnad (Tusnádfürdő).  “Orbán practically portrays himself as a European politician.  He is very deliberately building himself up with interviews given to international newspapers, translated YouTube videos, and international appearances.  I think he seriously believes that sooner or later he will become the official or unofficial leader of Europe.  Perhaps he does not exclude the possibility of becoming the President of the European Council, if not in 2019.”

The analyst believes that for now Orbán’s ambitions may seem exaggerated, but informally his influence has already increased.  The Hungarian prime minister has come to play a role in forming political opinion in the EU, and his general standing will either improve or become more subtle.  However, his real allies are outside his party family: the strengthening European radical right wing uniformly considers him a hero.

 

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