Péter Krekó says all Fidesz need do to win next year’s election is continue deceiving its own supporters

August 23, 2017

Péter Krekó

Viktor Orbán doesn’t want the love and support of eight million eligible voters. In 2014, including votes from Hungarian dual citizens abroad, less than 2.3 million votes and less than 45 percent of total ballots were enough for Fidesz’s two-thirds electoral victory. The greater the apathy, the fewer the votes needed, provided the opposition is sufficiently divided. If he successfully obscures critical information from his own sympathizers, then he doesn’t need to care about the others.

Interview with Péter Krekó, director of Political Capital, appearing in the August 20th online edition of Hungarian print weekly Vasarnapi Hirek. Translated by Justin Spike.

Waiting for miracles isn’t a strategy

  • The government, already talking about rough opposition protests, knows exactly what it will do in the run-up to next year’s general elections, beginning this Fall
  • Prime Minister Orbán is “only” worried about civil organizations and what remains of the media because he feels he has control of the world of the opposition parties
  • The small parties running separately reduces the chances of a change in government, while Jobbik cannot be avoided

Governing-party politicians envision riots (organized by [the Open Society Foundation’s] George Soros) in the Fall. Do you see any issue or societal movement that could send crowds into the streets little more than a month from now? 

I don’t see anything that this emergency scenario could be based on. Anyway, the government shouldn’t have any problem with anyone protesting in the Fall, and nobody should be outraged about that in a democratic system.

Do you think of it as a democratic system?

The government claims it is. In a democratic system, demonstrations are legitimate modes of expressing one’s opinion.

And civil disobedience? 

Let’s not forget which party it was after the 2006 elections that first resorted to this tactic.

But Minister of Justice László Trócsányi said that civil disobedience isn’t recognized by our legal system. Then Viktor Orbán clarified by saying it is recognized – but there are consequences. What do you think those in power will tolerate concerning civil disobedience? 

In 2007 Viktor Orbán tore down the cordons that police had placed around the Parliament with his own hands. After that, it is – to put it nicely – hard to believe when a Fidesz politician makes this look like a terrible danger. It’s quite clear, however, that their aspiration is to overwhelm the critics of the Orbán system from outside the party (the still-independent media, and civil organizations). They are trying to buy up every media outlet, or at least tame them with government advertising. The civil organizations, on the other hand, are forced to register themselves as foreign-funded organizations. But the Russian example shows us clearly that this is just the first step. Next can come “spontaneous” accusations levied by private individuals, investigations by the tax and prosecuting authorities, until the operation of the civil organizations is made impossible. If Fidesz is speaking about mass disorder in this kind of political and communication environment – totally baselessly according to publicly available information – then it raises the strong suspicion that it has some goal in doing so.

Are you trying to say that the government might organize unruly demonstrations?

Not necessarily. It could create the kind of legal or political environment with which it could portray innocent acts of civil disobedience as acts of a quasi-civil war, or at least the starting point of a civil war, and justify widespread retaliations.

Isn’t that an exaggeration? 

It was clear from the Soros campaign that [the government] can’t serve exclusively communication goals. Of course, it’s easier to get a message across if you only have one enemy: George Soros is an “umbrella” image of the enemy, under which they can put Brussels, the media, civil organizations, the opposition, the refugees. Still, there isn’t the kind of visceral hatred for George Soros in the Hungarian voters that would justify automatically making him the main enemy. He’s not even running in the election, and there isn’t presently any referendum campaign that would justify the constant verbal abuse. Let’s look further at the economic data and perceptions: there is perceptible economic growth, stagnating public debt, manageable shortage, and more importantly, an improving economic outlook in the people. It’s almost a textbook rule that at a time like this it is not worth risking. You can also run a boring success campaign. This would probably be enough for a Fidesz victory in 2018. Then what is this campaign good for if not some kind of preparation for government steps?

But something is still boiling beneath the surface. Wage wars in the commercial sector, manufacturing sector and public services could erupt in the Fall. It’s not realistic for the government to say ahead of time that this is a Soros rebellion,  [so that] no one would believe that these people are protesting because of their modest living standards. 

I wouldn’t believe it. Still such a wage battle would be good for the government, which officially started a campaign for conscious eating and shopping for good quality groceries, which was really against multinational grocery chains. They say the multinationals are feeding us trash, which contradicts studies they ordered themselves, but still the government communicates this without interruption. If there’s a strike or dissatisfaction at Tesco or some other big employer, for example, the government can easily say, “See, I told you, the multinationals are trouble.” I would point out that the Hungarian government is not usually against capital, only in those areas where its economic satellites have holdings like in the banking sector, in the media, the food sector, and in the construction industry.

And what will the government do if public services and public administration go on strike? 

This is a real danger for the government, but in this case it always pays off the dissatisfied sectors: the teachers and healthcare workers got a raise, and they will probably raise the pay of municipal workers too. We can expect public employees in all sectors to receive enough to keep them quiet and off the streets before the elections.

If there’s no basis to the “Fall terror” then can we assume that the cabinet knows that it’s going to do something which would bring people onto the streets? 

It’s more that they want to prevent the kinds of mass protests that there were a few months ago. The threatening image of the enemy is needed so that no one will feel sorry when the government cracks down. It could be the “hot Fall” is just a warm-up, and the major steps can be expected after the government changes. The civil organizations by default will have to register themselves after 2018 elections. And then Fidesz – assuming it wins the elections – can start a new attack against the critical organizations that accept foreign donations, and refer to its fresh authority.

When Orbán talks about resistance against the opposition and against power, he mentions opposition parties only tangentially. Why? 

Because Viktor Orbán feels that he is able to keep the parties under control, with threats, or with a carrot, or simply because they very often spontaneously and reliably act suitably according to his will.

What do you mean that they’re led by a carrot? That they’ve been bought? 

I wouldn’t rule that out.

Is Fidesz just attacking Soros simply because the opposition has no real worthwhile themes or leaders?

Partly. They’ve been searching for enemies since 2010. The government constructed and attacked the kinds of characters that did not want to retaliate, and who don’t have a support base. Let’s remember, first they went after the “foreign scapegoat,” the International Monetary Fund. Soros is in the same situation.

But the cabinet is messing with Brussels, and all signs indicate that the EU will fight back.

When British journalists visit Hungary, they are shocked at what a proportion of Hungarians support the EU, while the government’s rhetoric falls directly in line with the voices of the Brexit politicians. But while a recently published Chatham House study shows that 36 percent of UK residents are proud of their European Union citizenship, in Hungary that number is 74 percent. More people are proud of being European in Hungary than of being Hungarian. That’s exactly why Viktor Orbán sees an enemy in the EU, because people trust the European Commission and European Parliament more than they trust the Hungarian government and parliament. They even find the EU much more democratic than the domestic regime. So Viktor Orbán isn’t constructing an existing picture of an enemy, but is trying to change public opinion. In the medium and long term, he wants to move farther from the EU, because he wants to build the kind of illiberal state where nepotism and corruption are the main principles. Well, he can’t do that in Europe’s center. For that he needs to turn the population against the EU. He remains a part of the community for the money, but he has partly moved away voluntarily to the EU’s periphery. At this point it becomes obvious that the economic interests of Orbán’s family and their satellites come into conflict with Hungary’s long-term interests. It’s very important that the voters not see this, because then the system’s legitimate base would begin to crack.

That’s why cases are popping up day after day.

And until that can be stopped, it will be the goal that they fizzle out without more serious political reverberations. The goal is that, regardless of documents or recordings that support an allegation, the Fidesz-believers still won’t think of it as credible.

But there are around 2-2.5 million in the Fidesz camp. With the disapproval of the majority, what will the power do?

Viktor Orbán doesn’t want the love and support of eight million eligible voters. In 2014, including votes from Hungarian dual citizens abroad, less than 2.3 million votes and less than 45 percent of total ballots was enough for Fidesz’s two-thirds electoral victory. The greater the apathy, the fewer the votes will be necessary – provided the opposition is sufficiently divided. If he successfully obscures critical information from his own sympathizers, then he doesn’t need to care about the others.

Are his hopes for the fragmentation of the left justified? 

They are.

Momentum just declared that they will not cooperate with anyone and that they’ll run their own prime ministerial candidate. It seems like a logical decision from their perspective: they don’t have to bother with attacks on other parties, and if they get into parliament they’ll have four years to gain strength. But how does it look from the perspective of a change in government? Did Momentum’s decision weaken or strengthen the chances of a change in government?

It weakened them. One can see from government statements, background information and, interestingly, from government-tied public opinion polls, that the government’s side really is afraid of a broader coalition. A precondition for this would be the appearance of a new pole around LMP  [Politics Can Be Different] and Momentum, without MSZP [the Hungarian Socialist Party] , which could redraw the political lines. The main goal of the government’s side is that everything should stay like it is, nothing should dynamize the opposition, there should be no surprises. Momentum’s decision helps to maintain the fragmentation and nothing changes.

Are you saying that Fidesz is mingling with Momentum? 

No. If the opposition formations choose diverging policies, which is justifiable from the perspective of their individual goals, then they forfeit the collective goal, the possibility of changing the government. All signs indicate that Momentum has chosen the simpler and maybe safer-seeming solution: attempt to strengthen into a parliamentary party. I must note, there is no guarantee that this strategy is necessarily successful. Additionally, LMP is a widely recognized parliamentary party which has more space and opportunity to prevail, and which has lately been dealing with heavy themes related to national security, so it isn’t certain that there is space for another major opposition party next to them. I think the opposition voters will rather seek the party which has force of gravity, and not that which obstinately closes itself off from cooperation.

Can it be said that the idea of a “new pole” has died? 

The chances have been greatly decreased. But there would truly be a chance for a change in government if the opposition would put forth a maximum of three significant powers, which would additionally have to negotiate within the voting constituencies.

Including Jobbik?

Yes. This would be the biggest threat to the government. Political Capital has written a great deal about Jobbik, so you don’t have to convince us how radical that party used to be. But it makes changing the government nearly impossible that the opposition has moved to two opposite sides of the political field, and between them looms the Fidesz “national center.” Which of course isn’t the center, since it is increasingly moving to the extreme right. If power relations are not reformed, then Fidesz has nothing to fear in the single-round election system that was built to dominate the voter constituencies. Even though Viktor Orbán is not nearly as popular a leader, with some 50 percent support, as Vladimir Putin, who has more than 80 percent of Russians cheering for him since the annexation of Crimea.

Besides the “new pole”, other strategies are at play.  [Hungarian Socialist Party prime ministerial candidate] László Botka, for example, is stating that everyone should sign onto one common list, and one candidate should run in the voter constituencies. This, for the moment, is rejected by most of the parties. But the Socialists act as if they want to unite the left on the electoral level, believing that if they show enough force, then the left parties will have campaigned separately in vain and the people will vote for MSZP in the privacy of the voting booth. Is there some rationality in this? 

The question is whether MSZP could be the catalyst of such a cooperation – and based on the reactions, it doesn’t seem likely. A new political logic would be needed for people to see that there is a chance for change. The left simply doesn’t have enough voters currently to have the chance of changing the government – but together with Jobbik they would.

Before we talk about technical solutions, how could an MSZP, DK or Együtt [Together] voter be convinced to vote for a radical party that they reject so viscerally? 

There would definitely be defections. And I don’t think that this would be a good solution. But it might be the only solution. Whether the left or the Jobbik camp acknowledge their interdependence, I don’t know, but it seems like both sides have reduced their rejection of the other. Necessity has forced the opposition players closer together. Let me bring an unflattering example to Hungary. For the opposition to defeat the Yanukovich regime in Ukraine, they certainly needed the radical right as well. This dictated reality, and a lot of people temporarily put aside their aversions. It’s a different question of what moral price must be paid for this kind of cooperation, and whether it would be worth it. But presently Fidesz, which is building an illiberal system based on a repressive economic empire, is much more dangerous in terms of democracy than Jobbik, which is less embedded and forced into compromises, which it is more open to.

Let’s develop the cooperation hypothesis: the left, regardless of the moral price, cooperates with Jobbik, and the left formations together with the radical party win a majority in the elections, and there is Fidesz as the largest party. What guarantees that Jobbik won’t go into coalition with Fidesz? The government would be more stable this way, and Jobbik would have a great potential for blackmail. 

It could happen. But Jobbik being presently led by Gábor Vona – with the visible and perceptible support of [businessman] Lajos Simicska – isn’t really capable of a coalition with Fidesz. Fidesz’s interests in the middle and long term are for Vona to weaken within his party, and for the kinds of figures to come to the forefront that they can better negotiate with. That’s how it was earlier, mostly before 2016.

Fidesz would be willing to cooperate with a Jobbik without Simicska, or Jobbik with a Fidesz without Orbán? 

Pretty much. Of course, political interests can override a lot of aversions. But I would dare to say that a Fidesz-Jobbik coalition is weaker because of the conflicts, and would, therefore, be less harmful than if Fidesz once again formed its own government, completely drunk on its third electoral victory.

Let’s look at another hypothesis: does the opposition have any chance of survival if at least one-third of parliamentary mandates are not in the hands of one party? 

One-third doesn’t have to be in the hands of one party if the opposition players can work together in preventing laws requiring two-thirds, which has happened several times recently. But there is political, legal and psychological significance if Fidesz is no longer able to win two-thirds. There are many cornerstone laws – like the election laws – which cannot be changed with constitutional tricks without a two-thirds majority. But back to the previous question: Fidesz will be capable of winning as long as it maintains a critical mass of support. The fact that it has been successful until now is at least as attributable to the opposition as to its own policies. It’s not disputed that Fidesz hacked the system but the opposition can still win – if with more difficulty – if its support would be sufficient.

The opposition cannot break through the government’s media messaging, for one thing because of a lack of a platform. 

It’s a fact that government ads during the refugee campaign took over the television, radio, printed newspapers and the online portals. The power created a media concentration like none ever seen before. The opposition could stand against this with organic support, embedded organizations and local personal campaigns. If there is no active support base, then Fidesz is unassailable in the near term because we can’t win an election anymore based on the media. Of course we could optimistically wait for the Macedonian scenario (when scandalous telephone conversations of the Balkan prime minister were recklessly leaked and he was swept out by the people’s anger), but it isn’t worth it. You can’t build a strategy waiting for miracles.

Krekó Péter
Political Scientist and Social Psychologist.
His Ph.D. research topic was the social psychology of conspiracy theories.
He is the director of Political Capital, who deals primarily with attitude analysis and extremism research.