The Orbán System

15. 3. 2017

The governing party has taken over all the crucial institutions, including education, the judiciary, the prosecutors offices and the media. Having a close look at Hungary, it is obvious that liberal democracy is dead and buried.

At the beginning of August 2012, the German weekly “Der Spiegel” presented a list of “the 10 most dangerous politicians in Europe.” It named Silvio Berlusconi, Marine Le Pen, Alexis Tsipras of Greece, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, Timo Soini the head of the True Finns party, and Viktor Orbán, who was listed tenth. Nevertheless “Der Spiegel” did not notice one important thing: that among all 10 politicians Orbán is the only one who currently governs a country.

What does Orbán exemplify? According to the results of opinion polls, Hungarians appear not to support him as much as they did before, but even today he still could be a winner of elections. Europe has its own problems and the small country of Hungary with only 10 million inhabitants is not typically the focus of European politicians. Particularly as a result of the democratic election in the spring of 2010 which was both clear and obvious. The winners obtained qualified majority in parliament and a few months later they essentially had the same results in local elections. Even Budapest, the Hungarian capital, that has been the hotbed of socialists and liberals since 1990, fell into the hands of their adversaries. In FIDESZ’s terminology it was called “a return of the capital to the Fatherland.”

Orbán and his FIDESZ (“his” being a good term, because Orbán is leading the party in somewhat feudal way) had already governed in 1998–2002. It was a time when the first hallmarks of the style which was to be settled in 2010, appeared. There is no doubt that FIDESZ would not regain power without Orbán’s determination, strong will and above all his feeling of national pride and lust for power. It is also very obvious that Orbán prefers one-man rule; it is he who sets the tone and implements the vision. Such characteristics do not constitute a liberal democracy. However, this system is not highly rated by Orbán, nor is the supremacy of the market.

A couple of years ago, while still in opposition, he wrote about all this in his book Egy az ország (“There is one homeland”). We can read in it that Hungary, as well as the whole former communist bloc, “has been taken by a market dogma, a liberal god” in which “the mystery of money” was taking place and the new system was ruled by “the superpower of the market dogma, i.e. a conviction that the market is able to substitute an agreement between the state and its citizens.” Orbán anticipated the global crisis which he wrote about before its outbreak, stating that the dominant system had proved ineffective and that foreign capital and corporations have taken the lead while his beloved country “has been put up for sale”, and had incurred debt which had resulted in, as he said, “Hungary, our Homeland, is now a weak country.” That is why Orbán decided to, “build up the strong Hungary,” as he writes; he found that “the strong Hungary is a base and a foundation of everything.”

He begun to build it as soon as he decidedly won the election. He struck against all those who, in his view, hitherto imposed their conditions: from the commercial centers to the European Commission. He taxed the former and refused to obey the latter and Hungarian society liked it at first. He did not reckon with the opinions of others and was constantly building up his own system based on his own will and vision. That is why neither the members of the ruling party nor the opposition have questioned the fact that since 2010 Hungary has been the scene of the emerging Orbán System. I have described its birth and characteristics elsewhere (“Przegląd Polityczny” No. 111/2012) and in this article I will only give some insight into its functioning.

Hungary Resurrected

A liberal Hungarian weekly “Magyar Narancs” has recently presented a cover on which several of Viktor Orbán’s portraits intertwine. This is accurate. No matter whether we like it or not today the face of Hungary is Orbán. His personal leadership and will dominates not only FIDESZ, but also in the whole state. Orbán steers everything personally. Over the last two years FIDESZ (or Orbán) has been efficiently taking over the most crucial institutions of the state: education, the judiciary, the prosecutors office, the media and even the Constitutional Tribunal and the position of the President of the Republic. Only a takeover of the National Bank ended unsuccessfully due to strong external opposition from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The weekly “Magyar Narancs” wrote about his system’s functioning on the 9th of August. The author of the analysis stated that true power in Hungary is not in the hands of the ministers but that it belongs to three recently nominated secretaries in the Prime Minister Office. The interesting thing in it was that they were nominated even before a special rule concerning such nominations was created. The fact is that the checks and balances between the judiciary, the legislative and the executive bodies respectively, and the media, was replaced with the manifest domination of the executive.

A limited set of people chosen by the prime minister under the lead of one of his old colleagues, Jozsef Szájer, who is today a member of European Parliament, had arranged, in only a few weeks, a new constitution for Hungary. The parliament has been transformed into a sort of machine to put the stamp on Orbán’s ideas. It was proclaimed on Easter Monday in 2011 and that is why it is called “The Easter Constitution”. New bills followed it, being proclaimed, in accordance with the already known symbol, on the Christmas Eve and the day before New Year’s Eve in 2011. It is also worth mentioning that more than 300 bills were changed in the time between the triumph in the election and the proclamation of the new constitution. It is therefore obvious that the general conditions of Hungarian life have changed definitely.

On the 1st of January 2012, the Hungarian Republic ceased to exist although the republican system has been formally maintained. The country is simply called “Hungary” now. It is hence crucial because Hungary, as a nation, was divided and this created a large diaspora after the Trianon Treaty settled after World War I, and then confirmed in Paris following World War II. Those treaties created a situation in which huge Hungarian minorities found themselves under the rule of neighbouring countries. In Hungary these treaties are called “a dictate of the big powers” and the Orbán System also interprets it in that way. Consequently, the Hungarian consciousness and the national narrative have never fully been the same. In changing the name of the country, the explicit message has been provided: Hungary is where Hungarians live.

Youth Votes with its feet

Having a closer look at the Orbán System’s functioning, it is clear that liberal democracy has been buried there. The only opposition radio station “Klub Rádio” that is widely listened to by the frustrated intelligentsia in Budapest is being incessantly persecuted and repeatedly closed by the Media Committee (whose members are, obviously, the prime minister’s champions). Judges have usually reinstated it, but the employees of the station have not seen their salaries for more than a year. A renowned and influential daily “Népszabadság” does not obtain any announcements from the state offices and is falling in disrepair. There is a debate going on whether it should be taken over by the opposition Hungarian Socialist Party which is defeated and weakened. This would transform the daily from an important opinion-forming institution into a party propaganda organ. Other opposition journals that are left with no bigger state announcements also live in poverty. The media that support the government, however, definitely prosper.

Disillusioned youth either becomes more radical, with the minority joining the extremely nationalistic proto-fascist party Jobbik, which have taken up a fight with Roma and adopted anti-Semitism for its main slogans, or, more often, they daydream about going to the West which is much criticized by the prime minister. So the young people vote with their feet.

When I ask my colleagues, why do they only complain and do nothing to improve the situation, I receive a meaningful answer: “I cannot join the demonstration against the government because I may be filmed or photographed there and then I will lose my job and my daughter, who has just been promoted, will lose hers.” So what lays behind the Orbán System is a fear, which is either existential or political or both intertwined. István Bibó, who is believed to be the biggest Hungarian thinker of the 20th century once wrote shortly and clearly: “where there is fear, no democracy exists.”

Lead us, Viktor!

This new system is settled largely by the prime minister’s will. Viktor Orbán had once been a passionate football player and always played offense. He was an offensive player. He hated defeats, and never hesitated to play hard. Prime minister Orbán, who is in full charge now, often tosses out ideas and demands their instant realization. It is no less often that he shares his opinions, among them unorthodox ones, which need to be later explained by his close companions to the public in the EU and for the Western media, than even the Hungarians.

At the end of July, just before his vacation, the prime minister answered the critics of the economic conditions in the country, stating enigmatically that: “let God help me to avoid a situation in which I would have no other choice than to replace, in our half Asiatic country, democracy with some other regime.” His deputies have been explaining what he meant. They clarified that Hungary is undoubtedly a European country but of “Asiatic roots.” They did not handle the explanation of what kind of a regime would replace the present one that was only so recently introduced. One of Orbán’s deputies, Tibor Navracsics, ensured that Hungary would remain a republic and would base their system on “France under de Gaulle” as an example. It is hard to say whether this was compelling for anyone except the FIDESZ partisans.

After Orbán regained power, he promised “national unity”, but the country is intrinsically divided like never before. The division lies between the partisans of the prime minister and his adversaries. According to opinion polls the amount of the latter, extremely frustrated, is steadily increasing. Economic indicators are decreasing. The government had promised that in 2012 Hungarian economic growth will reach 1.5 per cent or more, however the official data published by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office have confirmed that the country has sunk into recession in the first two quarters of the year and the situation will not improve by the end of this year.

Hungary has worse economic indicators than neighboring countries, even Slovakia and Romania (which is particularly painful for Hungarians). Investments have been seized and an increase in exports are owed to motor industry plants of foreign producers (Audi, Opel, and recently Mercedes). The opposition “Népszabadság” commented on those painful economic results in an editorial stating: “Only 6 per cent of our society looks with optimism into future. So it has become clear that except people in power, everybody realizes that this recession cannot be explained by the inheritance of the socialists’ 8 years in power, the global financial crisis, the crisis of the West, nor even the subversive activity of the left in the EU.”

Nevertheless the prime minister is uncompromising and obstinate. He still believes that Hungary is sure to have a bright future and thanks to his rule the country will be reborn and will gain force. He explained it in August at the “Tranzit” Festival during a meeting with his young supporters. He said that “the qualified majority is like deep-set stone pillars,” that Hungary will overcome its problems (he did not use terms such as “crisis” or “recession”) because “we redeemed MOL from the Russians, our waterworks from the French, the Raba plant from the Malays and soon we will repurchase E.ON from the Germans.” The message is clear-cut: Hungarians have taken their fate into their hands and this is why nothing can harm them anymore.

The prime minister is also singing in another tone, his favorite one, saying: “ The beginning of the next year will bring us a necessity to solve the crucial question: who is to rule in Hungary, the Hungarian government or Brussels?” This repeated opposition to Brussels, the EU, the West, the IMF, foreign capitals and transnational corporations was initially approved by Hungarians, but at the moment, when none of the promised manna has fallen from heaven, more and more people question and shake, at least inertly, the prime minister’s postulates.

After two years of the Orbán System and rule on the top-down formula, and an “era of the national cooperation”, Hungarians are lost. The majority of them are indolent and discouraged. They do not believe in the official optimism proclaimed by the government, although they do not see any program nor political alternative, and they do not have the will to go into the streets again. They have protested the new constitution, with thousands of people coming to the Opera House in Budapest in January 2012. But then a few weeks later FIDESZ organized an even stronger demonstration in favor of the constitution, manifesting its strength and organizational skills.

The Future Lies in the East

The role of Viktor Orbán in Hungarian history will be evaluated in the future. It is now too early for that. Even the dispersed opposition that has no alternative program and is weak institutionally is prepared for Orbán to win the general election in 2014.

However, one can try to define the Orbán System even now. It is obviously in conflict with the Copenhagen criteria that defines whether a country is eligible for European Union membership. The System is characterized by an explicit inclination towards executive power and particularly the prime minister’s office. The constitutionalists and political scientists in Hungary and outside debate whether it is still a democracy, or already an autocracy, even if we call it a “soft autocracy.” The formal foundations of democracy and the republican system have been maintained, but the Hungarian democracy since 2010 has come to resemble non-liberal systems outside of Europe such as Singapore rather than classical liberal democracy of a Western-European or American style.

Orbán often refers to non-European solutions and claims publicly that “the future lies in the East”. But there is no evidence that he has thoroughly studied “the Singapore Model” and its national ideological program announced in 1989. There are nevertheless two things they have in common: the preeminence of the nation over local communities and of the latter over individuals, and a recognition of a family as the “basic social unit.” It is complacent with the Orbán System. But other determinants of this ideology like the role of community in supporting individuals, consensus driven activities or maintaining social harmony are contradictory to the System due to crucial FIDESZ’s slogan: “let’s fight those who are not with us!”

Orbán would prefer to create an isolated island of happiness. He stated at the annual conference of his ambassadors that: “we will not let Europe undermine our successes.” Once again he stood in opposition to the outside power. Nevertheless the question remains: how can a small, isolated country of 10 million inhabitants supported or not by a large diaspora survive in the age of globalization and the connected institutions of the global economy and, even more, the European Union framework?

The Hungarian prime minister does not conceal his attitude towards the Western system, which he believes is discredited and finished, nor the fact that he seeks alternatives. At some moment he leaned toward China. However the “strategic partnership” between two countries did not succeed, even though the person responsible for the contacts with the Chinese was and still is György Matolcsy, an economics guru in Orbán’s government. Efforts to set up a similar partnership in the Middle East, including one with Saudi Arabia, has also proved void. A return to the IMF and the European Commission was then necessary, although the new talks are going at a snail’s pace. Everything points to the fact that one basic thing is lacking: mutual confidence.

Bogdan Góralczyk

is professor in Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw, since September 2016 also a director of the Center. Former Ambassador of Poland to Thailand, the Philippines, and Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma). He was also Chief of the Cabinet of Polish Foreign Minister and long-term diplomat in Hungary; a prolific writer, author of many books and articles in Polish, English, and Hungarian.

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