“Orbán simply wants to reflect those beliefs, the imagery, and myths that the majority of the public holds to be true, which is precisely being measured by the government. All they do is shout back what the people want to hear, and they are incredibly good at that, all the catch-phrases about how the government supports the center and how the government will protect them from ‘evil foreigners’ . . . What Fidesz lauds as its success are most likely dead-end fanfares. If this system ever starts to become shaky, its demise may be swift.” – Péter Tölgyessy.
“Powers that cannot be ousted somehow always seem to find their place in Hungary,” observes Péter Tölgyessy, a researcher at the Political Science Institute at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, in a recent interview published by index.hu. The former SzDSz (Alliance of Free Democrats-Hungarian Liberal Party) and later Fidesz politician says that a quarter of a century after the system change of 1989 “we have returned to the point where we have a power structure that can’t be ousted and a state-controlled economy.”
Tölgyessy says Hungary is one of several Western countries where “irrationalism is taking over, and the authority once held by the old parties and the elite is unraveling.”
Kadárism alive and well
The political scientists says that 25 years after the collapse of communism, the Kadár era lives on.
“A good number of Hungarian entrepreneurs do not believe in market competition and instead prefer to be unscrupulous. The secret to success is now tax evasion, stealing from the state, and taking advantage of their partners on the market,” he says.
Tölgyessy says Orbánism is to capitalism what Kadárism was to communism — an attempt to adopt an economic system to Hungary by blending it with the country’s traditions to make it more livable. In this Prime Minister Viktor Orbán enjoys much popular support, says Tölgyessy, pointing out that Hungary is coming rather late to the game to reap the benefits of capitalism the way western and northern European countries did after the Second World War, and that it finds itself unable to complete with the likes of India and China.
The former Fidesz politician says the Orbán system excels at developing scapegoats.
“A country needs to be kept together even if the country itself is not successful — and Hungary is pretty unsuccessful. If we cannot achieve success, then at least we can point the blame at some enemy.”
More importantly, “Orbánism is finding its place in a much larger global trend” says the political scientist.
The political scientist says the weakening of the middle class has given rise to uncertainty, not only in Hungary but throughout the West.
He says “inequality has been on the increase in the developed world for the past forty years”, and “those who have been on the losing end of market inequality are now using the institutions of democracy to revolt against the truths and science of the elites.”
“In Hungary, there is hardly something we could call a middle class” says Tölgyessy.
Tölgyessy attributes Orbán’s political success to his willingness to tell Hungarians what they want to hear.
“Orbán simply wants to reflect those beliefs, the imagery, and myths that the majority of the public holds to be true,” which he says is “precisely being measured by the government.” As a result “all they do is shout back what the people want to hear, and they are incredibly good at that, all the catch-phrases about how the government supports the center and how the government will protect them from ‘evil foreigners’.”
Supporting elites at the expense of the middle class
Tölgyessy says that, for all the government’s talk about helping the middle class, in fact it is destroying it by defunding health care and education, and he observes that “social policy under Fidesz follows an old Hungarian tradition.”
“Back during the time of dualism, but even during the interwar period, the Hungarian state primarily gave support to the upper class and those with high status, and even those classes which were afraid of backsliding, but it never really supported those really at the bottom. Now, the most significant state resources are being directed to the highest levels of society, and this is [Fidesz’s] economic policy.”
Fighting fire with fire
Tölgyessy says Fidesz politicians believe they must kill or be killed, and there is no middle ground. He says this mentality is rooted in the Fidesz defeat of 1994.
“The left-wing parties started building their media and economic power back in the years of communism, and this sin-based clientelism has the country in its clutches. The idea being that the only way to fight back against them is by using the same tactics.”
Governance by political expediency
Tölgyessy accuses Orbán of working “against the spirit of everyday trends” since the 1980s, and of subjecting truth and rationality to political will by “relentlessly bending the facts of any given situation to satisfy his position.”
Acknowledging that after 2010 Orbán “risked quite a lot by being among the first to acknowledge that a new trend was taking place in the world”, he says that today Hungary’s Prime Minister “can consider himself a leader of the times in this respect”, and that despite all the “corruption and falsities of the system” he obviously believes that he was destined to be the savior of the country.”
“He believes we are seeing the twilight of the old West. He must believe that he knows better than any old Western politician what this country needs, and even what the entire Western world needs.”
The political scientist says that pre-1994, Orbán was the Hungarian politician “calling for more accountability in following the Western models” and that for a long time he was “a policy-oriented leader,” but he has since become a leader “who emphasizes the broad historical narratives over the solutions offered by the old West.”
The debt trap
Tölgyessy says Orbán took up Kádárism after the failed referendum of 2004.
“That is when it became clear to him that relying solely on the traditional right would not be enough for him to defeat the left-wing coalitions. He tried to woo the the children of Kádár away from the left. This was part of the ‘we are worse off’ campaign. But this yielded weak results against Péter Medgyessy’s initial big spending. But MSZP did not own the Kádár era voters. In order for Fidesz to successfully carry out this transformation, it needed for the old left wing to collapse. But this did not occur as a result of Fidesz doing a good job. It happened because the country went on a spending spree and fell into the debt trap. Overspending led to austerity and market-oriented reforms. One might say the left-wing coalition fell in the same way that János Kádár fell.”
Orbán as the anti-Kádár
Tölgyessy observes that, whereas Kádár avoided conflict in later years, Orbán is a “warlike politician” who is “always eager to project the imagine of being in battle, always on the attack.”
He says that in this regard, “Kádár was a conservative politician compared to Orbán” who he accuses of following Mussolini’s example of “living dangerously.”
“He needs an opponent to crush every day. He does not understand why the EU treats his conflict-oriented politics with constant negotiation. Instead, he treats his European partners like he treats his opponents at home: by making loud and noisy accusations.”
Orbánism is here to stay
Tölgyessy believes that the current system will remain “as long as this system is buoyant and has support from the people in this current global context.” However, he warns that “if the politics of ‘take from the bad and give to those who deserve’ no longer works because they have already given everything to their followers, if the budget is placed under too much stress, and if we are still not as effective, all of these will emerge as signs of crisis.”
Staring into an abyss
Tölgyessy warns that system changes can be incredibly fast sometimes, as in the case of the Kádár system, which “collapsed in one big crash together with the Soviet Union.”
He warns that if and when this happens, it will not just be the governing Fidesz-KDNP political alliance that collapses, but the political opposition as well.
“Hungarian history shows us that the systems usually collapse together with the opposition. It will not be the old opposition who win the next elections. Rather, it will be the system together with the opposition will lose in an environment when international and domestic relations have changed. The new system ushers in a completely different power structure and, in many cases, a new economic system.”
Divided opposition serves to stabilize Orbán’s system
Tölgyessy does not believe that anyone from Hungary’s current opposition is capable of defeating Orbán’s “central power area”, namely that section of the political spectrum between radical right-wing Jobbik and the left-wing opposition which the Fidesz chairman has carved out for his party and its Christian Democratic allies.
He accuses former Socialist prime minister and now Democratic Coalition (DK) chairman Ferenc Gyurcsány and Jobbik chairman Gábor Vona of being “important pieces of the Orbán system structure.”
“Do not misunderstand me, this does not necessarily mean they are necessarily paid agents. They are all part of this regime in one way or another. Some are around simply because there needs to be an enemy that can be crushed. The more they work for their own success, the more they help the Orbán system.”
Identifying Vona as “the most talented” of Orbán’s political opponents, Tölgyessy says his ideology is too close to that of Fidesz, as a result of which the governing party needs constantly to “take the wind out of his sails.” However, Tölgyessy notes that Vona also stands “the furthest away from Western middle-class solutions.”
Tölgyessy says Hungary’s divided political opposition “serves to stabilize this system.”
“One side of the opposition (MSZP, DK) can always be portrayed as being comprised of people from the past with solutions from the past. The smallest opposition (LMP, PM) is overly green. The third option (Jobbik) is the one that says everything the ruling power says, except that it is unable to govern.” And Jobbik “uses its radicalism and right-wing mythology to seduce the younger generation otherwise capable of revolting”, but that “its supporters can be drawn over to the central power area from time to time”, as in the case of the October 2 referendum.
Tölgyessy says it is not the political opposition but rather civil society that poses the greatest threat to the Orbán system, especially when it comes to detailed policy issues such as education. Unfortunately, however, Hungarian society is not willing to sustain its participation in civil movements.
“In Hungary, we have ‘professional civilian [operatives]’ who earn a living organizing movements and defending the rights of citizens. So, if the government makes even partial concessions, or if public awareness is directed elsewhere, the movement immediately loses traction. But single-issue movements are not enough to take it to the next level. The Prime Minister is actively working on making sure these movements get stuck, that they are forced to join existing political parties, and to paralyze them by other means.”
The system Orbán is creating is likely to be around “for many decades” and in this regard “world events seem to be working in his favor at this moment in time.” However, he warns that “what Fidesz lauds as its success are most likely dead-end fanfares”, noting that the Orbán system “has once again put distance between Hungarians and the century-long desire for a middle class.”
“If this system ever starts to become shaky, its demise may be swift.”