Viktor Orbán’s Popular Defiance

An outsider in Budapest seeking to understand the Hungarian election of April 3 in the run-up to the vote was likely to find it a bit surreal. One friend and his wife were set to vote for the Two-Tailed Dog Party, which sadly did not in the end manage to elect any MPs; another friend rang up and told me to leave the country at once because Viktor Orbán planned to welcome Vladimir Putin’s army into Hungary and we were all in danger. This person was herself planning to sell her flat and move to Italy. Another acquaintance, apparently in full possession of his marbles, fulminated against Orbán and all his works for half an hour over tea and sütemények. During a pause in the rant I ventured to ask him who he was therefore planning to vote for. “Orbán, of course,” he said, as though the question was dumb. “There is no alternative.”

The Two-Tailed Dog Party was doing for Hungarian politics what Marcel Duchamp’s urinal did for French art. Its program was creative, if rather expensive. It included a project to build an overpass across the whole of Hungary for migrants, so they could be driven direct to their desired destinations. Another plan was to ease Hungary’s acute shortage of mountains by building one on the Great Plain. For ease of brand recognition, every party candidate was to be called Nagy István, one of the most common names among Hungarians.

This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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The Two-Tailed Dog Party had participated in the 2018 election and was thus entitled to receive some state funding, which it spent mostly on the Rózsa Sándor State Wasting Public Money Program. Sándor Rózsa was a famous outlaw on Hungary’s Great Plain in the nineteenth century, who also features in the fiction of Hungarian novelists such as Gyula Krúdy and Zsigmond Móricz. Apart from robbing banks and so forth, Rózsa and his followers participated in the 1848 revolution. However, Rózsa’s lot had to be disbanded due to “ill discipline”.

Despite its failure to bag any seats, Two-Tailed didn’t do too badly in the election, attracting 3.27 per cent of the vote and 185,000 voters, which brought it into fourth place after Fidesz (officially in alliance with a scarcely existent Christian Democrat party), the opposition coalition (United for Hungary) and the right-wing Our Homeland Movement. Individual members of the six-party United for Hungary hoping to unseat Viktor Orbán scarcely did much better overall. This unwieldy coalition was itself a pis-aller for Hungary’s splintered opposition parties which evidently believed that if they didn’t hang together they would all hang separately. In the event they mostly hung both separately (as individual candidates in the first-past-the-post races) and together as United for Hungary.

In Hungarian elections 106 seats are decided on the first-past-the-post system and the other ninety-three are distributed proportionally on the basis of party lists. Critics claim that constituencies have been gerrymandered by making “left-wing” districts larger than “right-wing” ones, an odd argument since presumably the point of elections is that “right-wing” ones can become “left-wing” and vice versa (as in the UK and elsewhere). Indeed only the other day I sat at dinner with a right-wing American journalist who was indignant that Republicans had recently lost an electoral battle despite what he delicately referred to as “favourable districting”. The proportional element allows all the votes that were surplus to achieving a plurality to be put back in the pot together with the losing parties’ votes for use in the indirect voting. It is complained that this favours Fidesz, presumably on the basis that Fidesz had plenty of majorities when the change was made; but then again, were the opposition parties to do well, it would equally favour them. 

In a primary for choosing a leader for the united opposition, a non-aligned prime ministerial candidate was selected called Péter Márki-Zay, the Mayor of Hódmezővásárhely in south-eastern Hungary. He was advertised as a right-of-centre religious person (we were frequently told about his seven children). However, Fidesz successfully portrayed Márki-Zay as a Potemkin figure preparing for the return of the discredited ex-communist politician and Socialist Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had left the country all but bankrupt on his resignation in 2009.

Gyurcsány’s wife, Klara Dobrev, was the runner-up to Márki-Zay in the primary. She had made a name as Vice-President of the European Parliament and an MEP. In that capacity she had, inter alia, likened her own country’s government to those of Belarus and North Korea, though it is not so clear that voters liked the comparisons. Not greatly in Dobrev’s favour was that her lineage was from the purple of communism, her maternal grandfather having deserted Imre Nagy’s government for the Russians in 1956 and her mother also having had a star-studded career in the communist nomenklatura. Members of Hungary’s political establishment (including politicians on the Right) still occasionally have to battle such exposés, even after thirty years of democratic politics. Still, we can’t help who our grandparents or parents were; it was probably more damaging politically to be the wife of Gyurcsány, who is remembered chiefly for his secret speech to the Socialist Party leaked in 2006 in which he admitted to having lied relentlessly to the voters in the recent election.

The Two-Tailed Dog Party was an expression of the political alienation of Hungarian urban liberals, a satirical statement rather than a political party. It may be placed in the anarchist tradition and has some affinity with the libertarian Pirate Party that sprang up quite recently in Iceland, Sweden, Germany and elsewhere. It was also colourful, while on the other hand the six-party coalition of the not very United for Hungary struggled to come up with a program bland enough not to upset one of its components, which ranged from the far Right to the fairly radical Left with a whiff of Old Communism. When its representatives were first invited into the television studio shortly after its inception, the ensuing discussion was already ominous: one of the Socialists present observed somewhat acidly that there should really be a program first and afterwards a coalition whose members agreed to offer it to Hungary’s highly educated and alert electors.

Such considerations did not seem to concern the foreign press, which has become obsessed with Orbán, especially as he has a knack of verbally dismantling its most sanctimonious effusions. It welcomed the new coalition with great enthusiasm, the journalists of the Brussels press corps giving Márki-Zay a heartfelt ovation when he turned up to address them.

In the week running up to the election I was in Vienna, where surrealism of a different hue prevailed. The press and ORF (Austrian Broadcasting) gave extensive coverage to Hungary and Orbán, though the ORF “coverage” could more accurately be described as an anti-Orbán Hassfest. Monday kicked off with the first of four radio segments analysing Hungary past and present, the template being set by historian György Dalos together with Paul Lendvai, the Viennese Cato and would-be Orbán nemesis. According to them, the Hungarian psyche consisted of a dangerous fusion of the victimhood myth and nationalism, of which fusion Orbánism was the product. Myth is a favourite buzzword in politico-cultural discourse, suggesting historical events that have been made iconic, often through factual error or romanticisation, in order to buttress national identity.

The trouble about applying it to Hungary in a sloganeering liberal way is that the facts of modern Hungarian history are stubbornly resistant to the idea that, for example, the Treaty of Trianon, or the sell-out to Stalin at Yalta, or the imposition of a savage Stalinist imperialism, or the invasion of 1956, did not leave Hungary as victim, in every case as a result of decisions by self-interested Western powers. Part of Orbán’s skill as a politician has been to exploit the gap between the political and historical script that the EU’s liberals have prepared for him and the political and historical realities that embarrass them.

However, it can hardly be expected that Jewish Hungarians will share the sorrow of victimhood in the sense suggested above, since the Horthy regime consigned 400,000 Hungarian Jews to the death camps and most of the rest of the Jewish population was used as forced labour towards the end of the Second World War or locked in the Budapest ghetto. Indeed to many Budapest intellectuals, political harping on the fate of the Magyar nation’s victimhood in this way may seem to be tinged with anti-Semitism. Accordingly, vigorous attempts have been made to associate Viktor Orbán himself with anti-Semitism as a way of discrediting what critics regard as his obnoxious nationalist populism.

To a Left-liberal writing about Hungary in the Western press, the fact that evidence for such anti-Semitism is lacking leads to much convoluted argumentation (the last such article I read pushed the idea that although Orbán skilfully avoided offending Jews, this was evidence of his political agility, not that he was untainted by anti-Semitism). The battle with George Soros is frequently cited, although it is Soros’s open hostility to his government that produces a political reaction from Orbán. There is the difficulty that Orbán gave the keynote speech at the World Jewish Congress when it was held in Budapest and that he has established close relations with Israel; but then again Israel itself is highly suspect to the modern Left-liberal who prefers the Palestinian “freedom fighters”. Also Orbán is alleged to have obtained the controversial Pegasus spyware from its Israeli inventors, which (if true) is a useful get-out-of-jail-free card for making hatred of Israel respectable—and of course nothing to do with anti-Semitism. In Central Europe anti-Semitism immediately recalls the Nazis, Stalin’s anti-Semitic paranoia and the “doctors’ plot” of 1953 conveniently being forgotten.   

Almost every Hungary-related report in Austria during that pre-election week rolled out the obligatory list of Orbán’s sins: he had, it was endlessly repeated, interfered with the judiciary (details vague or not supplied) and suppressed press freedom. He was excoriated as the beneficiary of corruption (particularly in government procurement) and having altered the election system in favour of Fidesz. But just as the political nature of the US Supreme Court, the outrageous gerrymandering in the US, its pork-barrel politics and the racism in the police force and the judicial system are not the full story about democracy in the US, so these accounts of Hungarian democracy are not the full story about Hungary.

Noticeable by its almost complete absence in the coverage was any serious interview with a member of the Orbán government, let alone its supporters, but plentiful input from embittered opposition critics and their sympathisers. As a result, following the exit polls on Sunday evening, Austrian journalists struggled to explain why the misguided Hungarians should not only have voted for Orbán in a free election, but did so in record numbers.

Why this lop-sided attitude in Austria towards its neighbour? If I may join the world’s amateur psychologists for a minute, I would say that it stems from a curious mixture of insecurity and superiority complex that often seems to characterise Austria’s Left-leaning intellectuals. The insecurity probably stems from Austria’s slower Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the Nazi past) than Germany achieved, though this is not entirely Austria’s fault, as the allies encouraged the idea of Austria as “Hitler’s first victim” at the end of the war, while many on the Left felt better if they swallowed the communist line that Hungary was “Hitler’s last ally”. It is also largely risk-free to orate about the democratic shortcomings of a small neighbour, particularly one led by a skilful politician who has had a habit of saying or illustrating unwelcome truths (about the EU, about immigration and now about the relationship of European countries to totalitarian states—see below). Not to mention the woeful record in office of the Austrian intellectuals’ preferred leftist Hungarian government, about which a curious amnesia has enveloped the German-speaking media.

As the exit polls began to show a landslide for Orbán on the 7.30 p.m. ORF news, the crestfallen moderators finally tried a little analysis. At one moment something off-message slipped out, namely the comment that living standards for Hungarians had actually improved under twelve years of Orbánism. I made a small bet with myself that this departure from the script would not survive the scrutiny of the news editors, and sure enough by the 10 p.m. news the comment had vanished. Instead we had Daniel Hegedus of the German Marshall Fund explaining the result in terms of the unfairness of the polling conditions. Then, for the first time, we had the indefatigable ORF correspondent in Budapest, who has spent years explaining to viewers and listeners how dreadful Orbán is, admitting that the opposition candidate’s performance had been lamentable—which you would hardly have known from the pre-election coverage.

The report of the OSCE election monitors stated that “the legal framework [for Hungarian elections] forms an adequate basis for democratic elections to be held, but a number of key aspects fall short of international standards”. It added that the election day passed peacefully, with observers assessing the process as well-organised, orderly and smooth. Further that the elections “offered voters distinct alternatives and were well run, but while competitive, were marred by the pervasive overlapping of government and ruling coalition’s messaging that blurred the line between state and party, as well as by media bias and opaque campaign funding”. Human Rights Watch stated that the election was “marred by serious concerns about its fairness”, adding that the “EU has responded insufficiently to the hollowing out of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary”.

The first thing to notice in these reports is that neither seem to back the canard that the electoral system has been tilted in favour of Fidesz, as constantly touted on the ORF and elsewhere. Second, 190 OSCE observers evidently failed to find any misconduct in the process of voting and counting, and went further in saying that distinct alternatives were on offer and the poll was competitive. The Human Rights Watch comments seem partly analytical and mostly political. So what did the voters actually decide in this free election held in an allegedly “hollowed out” democracy?

The Fidesz–Christian Democrat alliance led by Viktor Orbán won 54 per cent of the votes on a 70 per cent turnout, the highest share of the vote of any party since the fall of communism. This once more gave it a two thirds “super” majority in parliament with 135 seats. The Márki-Zay-led United for Hungary won 35 per cent of the votes and fifty-seven seats in parliament. The far Right party Our Homeland won a little over 6 per cent and seven seats. Virtually the whole countryside voted Fidesz, but Budapest voted heavily for the opposition, which also picked up a few seats in the university towns of Pécs and Szeged. Fidesz wins occurred in the poorest areas of the land, and even in Budapest it polled better than expected. In his victory speech, Viktor Orbán, never short of salt to rub in his antagonists’ wounds, said that such a decisive victory was so big “that you can see it even from the moon, but certainly from Brussels”.

The opposition complained that the election was unfair (one might add: “because we lost”). Its coalition dissolved as gracelessly as it had conducted much of its campaigning, which had already included signs of desperation, such as reckless claims that opposition candidates would be prevented from standing or even assassinated. Now the individual parties began blaming each other or Márki-Zay for their poor performance. Two days after the vote, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that the EU was cutting funding to Hungary which, not unreasonably, a government official in Budapest described as punishment for Hungarian voters. Congratulations offered to Orbán on his remarkable victory were offered by leaders of right-wing parties while most EU heads of government remained silent.

Clearly the excuse that the election was unfair (although free) is, to say the least, an insufficient explanation for such a decisive Orbán victory, even if pro-government broadcasting media will certainly have helped him. More significantly, the international media and opposition’s insistence that Orbán was a “Pocket Putin” spectacularly backfired as it emerged how deeply dependent Austria and Germany were on Russian gas. Furthermore, their elites were far more in cahoots with Putin than was Orbán—Germany with its ex-Chancellor Schröder chairing Rosneft and loudly supporting Putin, Austria with two ex-Chancellors (one conservative, one socialist) enjoying sinecures on the boards of Russian enterprises such as Lukoil and the Russian railway. Their fees for occasional attendance were rumoured to be some 50,000 euros. The new German chancellor even tried for a while to pretend that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, designed to make Germany even more tied to the whims of Putin, was a private business matter in which he should not interfere, rather than part of Angela Merkel’s disastrous legacy of appeasement. Later Germany’s President, Frank Walter Steinmeier, a well-meaning if rather naive man who had got too close to Putin’s thuggish Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, had to abandon a solidarity trip to Kyiv after being told he would not be welcome.

As usual, the liberal political establishments in both those countries had assumed that the voters were too stupid to notice the implications of their policies. Now they are trying to disengage from Russian supplies and are obliged to explain sheepishly why they are meanwhile still financing the Putin war machine to the tune of some 700 million euros a day.

Orbán’s great sin was to state openly that, yes, he (like Germany, Austria and others) needed Russian gas; in order to preserve the supplies that Hungary required, he would remain neutral in a war that was not Hungary’s business, and would take in refugees, but not engage in arms supply. However, he has reluctantly gone along with the EU sanctions levied so far against Russia. Orbán’s position hardly differs from that of the prominent US economist Jeffrey Sachs, although Sachs actually went further in an interview with CNN. He asserted not only that sanctions against Russia were inadvisable (he took the same view about Venezuela on humanitarian grounds), but also that pushing the boundaries of NATO to the east after the collapse of the Soviet Union had been a provocation—which would only be made worse if neutral Finland and Sweden went ahead as currently being planned and joined NATO. Sachs is of course spared the odium reserved for Orbán, though the Left (Naomi Klein, for example) regard him as a neoliberal architect of what they have dubbed “disaster capitalism”.

Orbán’s opponent managed during the election to kick the ball firmly into his own goal when he seemed to imply that Hungary might engage in hostilities in Ukraine if NATO decided that was necessary. As on the issue of migration, Orbán clarifies what the EU would like to fudge and takes the action he feels necessary as a matter of Realpolitik, while the EU is caught between geopolitical realities and moral posturing. Germany and Austria say with St Augustine, “Oh Lord make me pure—but not yet.” Orbán says “Remember the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.” His election slogan was simple: “Béke és biztonság”—“Peace and security”.

Something else that got obscured in the Blitzkrieg of negative coverage was that Orbán pursues several policies that are genuinely popular—for example relatively low income tax, strict control of the external EU borders in the south-east of Hungary to stop illegal immigration, and generous subsidies for families. Indeed, his challenger’s proposals seemed to out-Orbán Orbán in respect of border security, which doubtless didn’t go down too well with the Left-leaning parts of the coalition. Maybe that’s what comes of being the mayor of a place like Hódmezővásárhely down in the badlands of the south-east. Even Mr Gelegs of the ORF told us (after the election of course) that Márki-Zay had seemed muddled and had more than once retracted statements he had previously made. The Fidesz machine made mincemeat of him and potential opposition voters held their heads in their hands.  

Daniel Hegedus wrote on March 28 on the German Marshall Fund’s website:

A landslide victory resulting in a new constitutional supermajority for Fidesz would be a confirmation of the popular support behind Orbán’s multivectoral foreign policy. In the context of the war in Ukraine, it would be interpreted as overwhelming support behind his “peace policy” that rules out any significant support to Ukraine, his friendly relations with authoritarian great powers, and his fight against the EU.

But what are the policies of Macron, Scholz and Austria’s Nehammer if not “multivectoral”? The EU itself, with its ill-timed and one-sided trade deal with China in 2020 just as the Covid pandemic struck, has tried the “multivectoral” option, but with less skill than Orbán in pursuit of his country’s vital interests. Macron was cosying up to Putin before the Ukraine war and has hardly been off the phone to him since. The whole business, ever since the annexation of Crimea by Russia since 2014, has been an unseemly mixture of talentless public performance and corruption behind the scenes—a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest.

The six-party anti-Orbán alliance, as Douglas Murray pointed out in the Spectator

ranged from communists to fascists. Making Orban the moderate, as it happens. And he beat them. He beat them all. But did his international opponents accept that? Did they hell. On Twitter the writer Yascha Mounk denounced the elections as “dubiously free and barely fair”. The Daily Telegraph called Orban “Kremlin-backed”. And the writer Anne Applebaum gnomically declared that “It’s easier to win elections if you cheat.” 

Such reactions are entirely in line with liberal orthodoxy, which nowadays regards election results that go the “wrong” way as illegitimate. In the UK after Brexit the Electoral Commission took several years trying unsuccessfully to undermine the legitimacy of the winning side and only stopped when humiliated in the courts.

Orbán has a rocky road ahead. He could be pressured into giving up Russian energy supplies if the core EU countries finally are shamed into doing so. He has a tail wind of inflation. He will not be able to keep the election caps on the price of petrol and heating. He cannot indefinitely ignore the dire state of the health service. There is a perceived gap between the oligarchic rich and the low-income sectors that could become a volatile source of grievance if it finds competent political expression. The EU will finally get around to withholding the Hungarian portion of Covid emergency money and then also deny or reduce infrastructure funding.

On the other hand, Orbán has mastered the political feat of luring voters who cordially detest him. “Anyone but Orbán” was the slogan of Budapest intellectuals going into this election, but the result was mostly “anyone but Gyurcsány”. “You have enemies,” Winston Churchill once remarked to a beleaguered colleague. “That’s good. It means you stand for something.”

PS: My Budapest friend has not left for Italy. She says the market for buying property there is “not favourable”.

Nicholas T. Parsons is a freelance author, translator and editor who lives in Vienna. He wrote on Austrian politics in the March issue

2 thoughts on “Viktor Orbán’s Popular Defiance

  • brandee says:

    Bravo Nicolas Parsons. How George Soros must must resent the splendid result for Viktor Orban. The American-Hungarian philanthropist/political puppeteer must also resent paying for Viktor Orban to study in London in 1989 but conservatives have surely benefited.
    Might we be supporting sweet victory if we purchased Hungarian coffee and cake at the Kurtosh Patisserie in Crows Nest, Sydney!

  • whitelaughter says:

    A delightful read, informative and gleeful.

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