Viktor Orbán and the rejection of Europe's old elite

August 12, 2016

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“It is not the goal of the Prime Minister to offer a coherent policy in response to the migration crisis. He simply wants to keep the issue on the agenda, the same issue that helped Fidesz win back its popularity last year. He wants to keep news of the dangers alive to prove that the Hungarian government is in control of the situation.” – Gábor Török, political analyst

“The political elite currently in power often makes decisions against the wishes of the voters, above their heads. The new elite, of which Orbán will most certainly be a member, will be able to take power simply because the old elite has been rejected. It is an entirely different issue that the Prime Minister does not have a final strategy in the wake of the Brexit and the transitional period for the elections scheduled through end of 2017.” – Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, political analyst

English translation of  interview with Hungarian political analysts Gábor Török and Ágoston Sámuel Mráz published in the August 4th edition of Heti Válasz (pg. 16-18)

For his 2014 Tusványos speech, together with the part on illiberal democracy, the Hungarian prime minister elicited a significant international response. Last year, the prime minister was in the news for erecting the border fence. This year, the prime minister brought more attention to himself with his statements concerning Donald Trump. Did the prime minister do the right thing by endorsing the Republican Party candidate?

Gábor Török: This was a completely logical thing to do from his own point of view. He knows that should the Democratic Party candidate win the election, he personally cannot expect much good to come of that. This idea is something that was further reinforced by Bill Clinton’s speech in May. For this reason, the Prime Minister decided it was best to gamble. He wants to hit on “19” to get the absolutely maximum out of this situation.

Ágoston Sámuel Mráz: What’s more, it was right after the [Tusványos] speech that CNN released the results of its poll that showed the Republican candidate taking the lead in the Trump-Clinton battle.

GT: Of course, it is important to mention that the poll was taken right after the Republican National Convention, right before the Democratic National Convention. Support for both candidates can change significantly before November. But Orbán’s endorsement is absolutely logical: Trump’s remarks on immigration fall right in line with Fidesz’s slogans leading up to the referendum.

ÁSM: And if Orbán really only expects an improvement to Hungarian-American relations from a Trump presidency, then the best thing he can do is to be among the first to endorse Trump. By calling for a [European] military, Orbán is also trying to align himself with the Republican candidate’s statements by pushing for a stronger military cooperation on the continent.

At the same time, Orbán emphasized in this speech that the common border protection worked worse “when we tried to do it together.” Was it correct of Tibor Navracsics to say last year that he would keep national defense in the hands of national governments while at the same time using shared European response to thwart migration at the border in Greece?

ÁSM: Calls for the EU to intervene in a Member State’s protection of the Schengen border came from the European Commission, not the Hungarian head of state. Orbán was the one who said that a country should be able to request support from other Member States if it is unable to protect its own border — that would not have caused injury to national sovereignty. The Greeks, for example, did not ask for EU intervention, but other countries along the Balkan line were able to successfully close the route. So, Orbán was completely just in saying that the issue could be resolved without any loss to national sovereignty.

GT: It is not the goal of the Prime Minister to offer a coherent policy in response to the migration crisis. He simply wants to keep the issue on the agenda, the same issue that helped Fidesz win back its popularity last year. He wants to keep news of the dangers alive to prove that the Hungarian government is in control of the situation.

ÁSM: “The goal is to make sure that Hungary remains a stable place in an uncertain world” – it is no coincidence that he made this remark during his Tusványos speech.

GT: [Orbán] is a classically pragmatic politician: he did not address the issue of border defense as an ideologue. “If it works, do it!” And that is what happens to be working at this current time.

Fidesz managed to keep its support high after putting a fence up along the entire length of the southern border despite the fact that the thousands of illegal immigrants crossing the border dwindled to such a low number. How would you explain that?

GT: There were jihadist attacks in Paris in November, in Brussels in March, and in July in Germany and France. This is not a time when it is necessary to continually remind people of the risk of terrorism and needs to be kept alive for voters artificially with government-sponsored billboards and public television.

ÁSM: Perhaps it is only the individual terror attacks or their connection to migration that needs to be brought [to the public’s attention], but those behind the terror attacks are by and large doing this “work.” What is certain is that ever since the Islamist terrorists showed up in Germany, it has become much more difficult for Angela Merkel to continue constantly saying that there is no connection between the terror attacks and migration… To put it politely, her immediate underlings may still believe her.

The Austrian government really served as ammunition for Orbán’s style of politics, perhaps against its own will. Why register the numbers and data of refugees if they do not want to stay in Hungary? That is what several opposition leaders and journalists asked, only to get a response from the new Austrian defense minister who said that the refugees need to be sent back to Hungary.

ÁSM:  The Austrian government is in transition, and they know that too. Following Chancellor Faymann’s resignation in May, there was no call for new elections. The Social Democrat-People’s Party coalition brought a new prime minister in from the outside. The new set-up resembled the 2009-2010 Gordon Bajnai bankruptcy-manager activity. The repeated presidential election of October 2nd can be seen as concession from Chancellor Christian Kern, but it was not enough to change the feeling on the ground. The next election of the head of state will be something that can significantly impact the future.

GT: Does the position of a president really mean that much in a parliamentary republic?

ÁSM: The autumn vote will not be significant from the standpoint of practicing power, but rather for its symbolic weight. This will be the first time since the lives of voters were fundamentally changed by the migration crisis, that citizens will be able to make their opinions known about how they judge the performance of the European elite.

GT:  Why? Who do you consider to be part of the European elite?

ÁSM: For example, Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz, or the foreign minister from Luxembourg who said that no European issue should be allowed to be decided through a referendum.

GT:  But if I look at the Austrian presidential election, the Freedom Party’s candidate who is deputy speaker of Austria’s lower house.  He is not a member of the elite, like his challenger, the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen.

ÁSM:  But it’s no coincidence that Austria’s dominating elite parties, the Social Democrats and People’s Party, got behind Van der Bellen in the first round of the elections. There are, of course, theories that suggest that every career politician is part of the elite. But it would be good to rank them on their actual influence. That said, even a second-tier politician can be part of the elite, and even politicians with strong mandates can be not part of the elite.

GT:  It is strange, nonetheless, that Orbán spoke at Tusványos of a crisis of the classic European left and right wing. All the while Fidesz has twelve MEPs sitting in the largest parliamentary group of the Brussels’ parliament — together with the Austrian people’s parties which make up the traditional European right wing. This is just like when Hungarian soccer players talk about how bad Hungarian soccer players are. Is he not a part of that group?

ÁSM: Yes, but this criticism can still be acceptable even if it is coming from a soccer player that they don’t even allow onto the field.

GT:  Are they not letting the Prime Minister onto the field? He is a full member of the European Council and can take part in the meetings with the leaders of other EU member states. Furthermore, he has been the most decisive politician in Hungary for the past two and a half decades, and he has also had the most power and most political opportunities. What else is needed for him to feel like he is playing on the field?

ÁSM: Do you think Orbán really has a say in what direction the European Union is taking?

GT: The foreign minister from Luxembourg whom you mentioned earlier has no more influence. The EU has certain key member states that have significant influence and it’s clear that the wind blows from that direction. But their heads of states and prime ministers are elected the same way the Hungarian prime minister is elected, that is, their legitimacy is no less significant than Orbán’s. The Hungarian prime minister should not be concerned with being angry with the elites, he should be mad at the voting citizens of those significant countries who elected those politicians to lead them. But the best thing to do would be to respect their decision because we expect the same of them.

ÁSM: But the voters are increasingly turning their backs on these politicians, and, based on the polls, elections scheduled to take place over the next year and a half will show this.

GT:  We will have to wait and see whether Viktor Orbán wins more allies. At the same time, a victory for Nicolas Sarkozy or Norbert Hofer will not prove a rejection of the elite, instead it will prove a switching out of the elite.

ÁSM: But the political elite currently in power often makes decisions against the wishes of the voters, above their heads. The new elite, of which Orbán will most certainly be a member, will be able to take power simply because the old elite has been rejected. It is an entirely different issue that the Prime Minister does not have a final strategy in the wake of the Brexit and the transitional period for the elections scheduled through end of 2017. The János Lázár- and Mihály Varga-led “two-headed” cabinet system shows that the Hungarian government’s policies towards the EU are somewhat elastic. Lázár last month said that he wants to leave the EU, or that he would not want to join again, and Varga has talked about an optimal time for joining the Eurozone. At the same time, it is true that this current situation tactically favors the Prime Minister: he is able to align key politicians and statements to the given situation. Orbán, if the situation dictates, will decide which of the statements he agrees with.

Wasn’t the purpose of this structural change, the reduction of his operative burdens, to allow Orbán to concentrate on the European stage?

GT:  This would be a logical reason, but wasn’t this the reason for last year’s Lázár–Rogán set-up?

ÁSM: This isn’t the first time the Prime Minister tried to elevate himself above day-to-day domestic politics — István Stumpf, Tibor Navracsics, and I could go on and on about such attempts. But it is worth mentioning that every such attempt to switch around personnel ended in failure.

GT:  Because in similar half-presidential systems there is the risk that the leader, the second in charge entrusted with operative management, becomes too powerful and outgrows his role as playing second violin.

ÁSM: Orbán’s shifting of responsibilities and reassigning of positions has thus far effectively prevented anyone from becoming too powerful. This has led to a situation where there is an independent chief of cabinet, but he does not control either of the two newly-created cabinets that are led by the two cabinet chiefs. But at the same time there are two separate cabinet ministers, a deputy prime minister, and even a minister of the chancellery. Good luck to anyone–analyst or spy–who can figure out how this structure works.

GT:  It is also worthwhile pointing out that Lázár and Varga have been appointed to significant posts among the ministers. The scandals around Rogán have seriously damaged his reputation. So much, in fact, that compared to his position last year, he must write off the losses of his current situation. The prime minister’s decision is logical: the cabinet minister’s role of constantly attacking “the European elite that are detached from the everyday lives of the simple people” has been made more difficult because that person is no longer able to perform that function as he himself has become an obvious point of attack.