That Was Not The Deal – A Conservative Critique of The Orbán System
One of the most widely-reviewed interviews with Viktor Orbán was published by Postoj. Later, the conservative Slovak news outlet initiated a debate about the policies of the Hungarian PM – offering a chance for Válasz Online to participate. The editor-in-chief has asked us to summarize the conservative critique of the Orbán government, having read exclusively liberal-left criticism from the Western media which he handled with reservations. We have done so. Postoj has published our article in Slovak and so did we – in Hungarian and now in English. Our point is: if Orbán was in opposition and Hungary’s rulers did what he is doing now, he would loudly call them communist. And he would be right.
Why would a journalist at the Hungarian Válasz Online write an article for a Slovak conservative portal, Postoj? With some pathos, we would say, ‘to promote the development of good neighbourly relations and cooperation in Central Europe’. The reality is much more prosaic: in early May Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave a high-impact interview to Postoj (the official translation can be found here) to which several former Slovak prime ministers responded. And the magazine asked Polish, Czech and Hungarian journalists for a brief comment, including Válasz Online‘s editorial team.
At the time, we thought that was it. However, the editor-in-chief of Postoj suggested that since Válasz Online has a reputation as a conservative but impartial medium, which is critical towards Orbán’s government, and since Postoj’s readers are already aware of the classic liberal-left wing reservations about our Prime Minister from the Western press, Válasz Online could summarize the gist of conservative criticism of Orbán. After a brief deliberation, we accepted the request even though we are not political players or analysts. Nor are we judges of the ‘Great Conservative Court’ – we are certainly not infallible. We can only act as a newspaper – and this, we can and want to do.
Nothing is more radical than the facts
The basic tenet of a journalist is that, as a general rule, we do not hold our personal worldview and principles to account for a political force. We hold politicians accountable for their own commitments and promises. We believe that these commitments are in fact contracts: oral, or written agreements with voters (which can, of course, be amended in the event of force majeure or with the consent of the parties). So, if a Green politician allows cutting down a forest for a huge carbon emitting factory, it is obviously a matter of credibility, and the media should raise questions. The same is true for a Socialist government that wants to privatise healthcare. Or when a liberal movement opposes freedom of speech and tries to destroy historic statues. Or if a mayor belonging to the conservative ruling party cheated on his wife with prostitutes while attending a secret yacht party on the Adriatic Sea. One can not remain silent when a married Conservative politician, specifically József Szájer, took part in an illegal gay party in Brussels during the quarantine period. Szájer, as one of the authors of the current Hungarian Constitution, should in principle respect the law and set a personal example of the traditional family model and ‘Christian culture’.
It is also worth to mention if Viktor Orbán’s policies in 2021 on public property, privatisation, the media, tabloid politics, pluralism and national sovereignty do not in any way resemble the principles he has voiced before (or even recently).
Of course, a public figure who defines himself as a conservative, right-wing Christian Democrat politician can be criticised on a green, socialist, or progressive basis. However, such criticisms do not really confront him. Orbán was never a climate activist, an advocate for an aid-based society, or an apostle of gender ideology. He certainly did not disappoint the masses who elected him on the basis of such matters. In fact, there is nothing to hold him accountable in these areas. And although his party, Fidesz, last wrote a substantive and official election programme in 2010 (later only promising to ‘continue’), Orbán has always communicated his ideas effectively with axiom-like sentences. He should be confronted with these. Especially since a two-thirds parliamentary majority has been behind his Government for the last eleven years – thanks in part to an electoral system that has been purposely ‘distorted’ by his party. Confrontation, on the other hand, only works if it is not done by simply railing against someone. Fact-based specifics play the main role. Nothing is more radical than the facts.
Politicians can react in at least four ways when the press confronts them with their breach of ‘contract’ with the electorate. They can recognise the truth, admit they made a mistake and find their way back to their original mission. Or they can prove that it is not their fault and the media have gotten the facts wrong; they can blame the mirror in front of them. They may indiscriminately call any article or report about them fake news and start criticising the critics. And of course, they can smash the mirrors.
Which of the four options above Viktor Orbán and Fidesz prefers is left to the imagination of the readers. On the other hand, it is certain that today’s Hungarian pro-government politicians suffer the most when targeted by ‘conservative criticism’. They are actually happy with any liberal-left-wing criticism – especially if it comes from abroad, from the West – since it enables them to point the finger at their opponents. Anyone who calls himself a political warrior, as Orbán does, also needs well-defined enemies. If you do not have them at home, you need to create them – at least virtually. In this way, fighting oppressive bureaucrats in Brussels or George Soros, who is presumably striving for world domination, can be presented to the electorate as noble goals that justify the use of all existing political means.
When Postoj‘s editor-in-chief asks Hungarian journalists for a criticism of the Orbán Government from a conservative point of view, we have just one answer: he can only be truly criticised on a conservative basis. Only a conservative critique has merit – a process which holds the Orbán Government accountable to its own commitments and principles. Many would say that this is an unnecessarily confrontational attitude. They would say that family policy based on tax breaks and Fidesz’s social policy, which can be described with the slogan ‘work instead of aid’, are so decent and functional, that it is not fair to draw attention to ‘minor’ inconsistencies. We also find that from abroad – even from neighbouring Slovakia – the Hungarian Prime Minister seems to be viewed as an instinctive geopolitical genius who is redrawing the political map of Europe; so he does not deserve conservative criticism. However, we live in Hungary; and for our sense of comfort, it is important that our country does not exist as Orbán’s ‘hinterland’, but as a real democracy and a well-functional state for the coming years and decades.
Post-communists, hegemony, sovereignty, shoddy politics
Let us start with Orbán’s recent Postoj interview. In this, the Prime Minister sets out at least four basic doctrines:
- ‘We have always been ‘on the side of freedom, and against the post-communists, that has not changed’.
- ‘I asked [Angela Merkel] not to strive for hegemony but for pluralism’. In Hungary, for example, in the Hungarian media, no one ‘can see any sign of hegemony, but pluralism’.
- ‘We want to preserve the freedom we call national sovereignty at the national level.
- ‘Modern politics is no longer about persuasion, but about slogans, catch phrases and mobilisation. That is why today’s European policy is much shabbier than it was thirty years ago’.
Comprehensive, fact-based Válasz Online articles will be linked to these four points. For the sake of those who do not understand Hungarian, we briefly summarise the material below to show the tension between words and deeds.
1. What is this returning reference to Communism and Post-Communism by Viktor Orbán more than thirty years after the change of regime in Hungary? It is an old pain in the side of the Hungarian right that former state party apparatchiks preserved their political power and economic influence through various privatisation measures. Public property went to private entities, while the state barely received anything in return. Later, according to Fidesz’s narrative, the deeply entrenched former-Communists, who with the help of their networks managed to convert their former political power into economic power, made it impossible for the first Orbán Government (1998-2002) to really do its job. Obviously, there is some truth to the allegations, but it is also a fact that
the current Cabinet is now selling off public property to private entities in the same way as the much-scolded previous ones.
Moreover, if we look at the intensity of these new wave of privatisation, Fidesz is outdoing the Communists by a lot. This suggests that it is not the old sins that really hurt Orbán, but that at that time others had the opportunity to commit them.
The ongoing ‘perverse privatization’ rests on three pillars. After the 2010 election, Fidesz still sought to bring national utilities and strategic companies owned by foreign interests under state control. In essence, the Orbán Government received a mandate for this from the electorate. This aspiration has now been modified so that as a rule, the basic infrastructure of the country is not being taken over by the State itself, but instead by private owners who are the economic incarnations of the Prime Minister himself. Specifically, the most common winner of overpriced public procurements is Lőrinc Mészáros, a close friend of the PM. The second element of the current privatisation stimulus is that certain economic activities will suddenly be placed under the supervision of a new authority, the director of which Orbán will appoint for nine years. In other words, the pro-Government director of this entity will not be removed in the foreseeable future. On paper, these lucrative economic sectors (such as casino operations and tobacco trade, but other sectors will reportedly be included by the time of the 2022 elections) are state monopolies, but market concessions for them have recently been granted to private companies close to Fidesz. As the third pillar of ‘perverse privatisation’, the Government is outsourcing public property such as huge plots of land, castles and almost every institution of higher education for newly created private foundations. These are then given shares in state-owned companies such as Mol Group. The private foundations are headed by boards of trustees made up in part by today’s ministers and Orbán’s advisers. The trustees cannot be recalled. Furthermore, the trustees themselves decide on new members rather than the government in power at the time. So,
whatever the outcome of the 2022 elections and beyond, these bodies controlled by pro-Fidesz trustees will manage the former public assets of the country and spend the EU money that comes with them.
Viktor Orbán said that all this is appropriate and benign because in this way people with an ‘internationalist-globalist’ world-view never get to the top of universities and other ‘foundationised’ organisations. Needless to say, according to this logic, the current two-thirds parliamentary majority could now deprive any future government of the Hungarian State of all its functions, lest decision-makers with other ideologies ever dare to usurp public power.
We have to add a footnote to all this: when it came to power in 2010, Fidesz promised the country a clean public life, an end to corruption, and the protection of state property. In line with European regulations, it has declared a fight against offshore companies and all forms of concealed ownership. It even inscribed in the new Fundamental Law that ‘payments from the central budget may only be granted on the basis of a contract with an organisation whose ownership structure, mechanisms and activities are transparent’. In comparison, Orbán has now created its own secret ‘money bags’, so-called private equity funds, to which part of the extraordinary profits of companies close to Fidesz flow. As we wrote earlier in Válasz Online, there are now 43 private equity funds operating in Hungary managing billions of forints. Although the ownership and the actual beneficiary structure of these funds are undiscoverable, the persons involved (stooges) clearly belong to the top government elite. To summarize this, we suspect that if Viktor Orbán were in the opposition today and saw how the Government was privatising state assets the way he is doing now, and the billions siphoned off from public tenders, he would accuse the Government of being Communist.
2. In the light of what has been said so far, it perhaps sounds strange that Orbán is, in turn, asking the leaders of the European Union to ‘strive not for hegemony, but for pluralism’. Such a statement would certainly be heartfelt if he did the same and sought pluralism instead of hegemony in his own country. But obviously, this is not the case with acquiring monopoly power over significant sectors of the Hungarian economy and higher education as they are switched to Fidesz operating mode, and a significant part of the decision-making possibilities over these public assets are lost to any future elected politicians. In addition, the Fidesz majority has reshaped the electoral system in such a way that old ‘worn out’ opposition parties must team up with the new forces before an election if they want at least a theoretical chance of eliminating Fidesz’s two-thirds parliamentary majority. This is damaging to the credibility of any new oppostion forces which are forced to make dirty deals.
Besides, of course Orbán’s statement to Postoj is not necessarily true: the Hungarian press id far from being truly plural. In this article, we demonstrated that
Fidesz and its economic satellites have a clear ownership influence in 44 of the 88 media of national importance. Consequently, the party’s central messages penetrate the surface almost unhindered.
And although the Hungarian Prime Minister suggests that everybody who does not follow government orders is automatically part of the ‘opposition’, the free media consists largely of islands that are also independent of each other. Where media diversity really exists is in the online press – but this has not developed by the Government’s will, but against it. There are Fidesz-portals fueled by public funds and filled with State advertisements; but several non-partisan websites are also proving viable. There still exists a part of Hungarian society that is less susceptible to propaganda and has gotten a ‘taste’ for community funding to support the media – for example, Valász Online is largely supported by paying subscribers.
3. ‘We want to preserve the freedom that we call national sovereignty at the national level’, Viktor Orbán told Postoj. It is an acceptable aspiration, but the Hungarian Government only seems to want to strengthen sovereignty against European-Atlantic influence. The cordial relationship with the Russians has been clear for years, but Orbán’s engagement with China is a relatively recent development. The Cabinet plans to spend the amount equivalent to one-year budget of the entire Hungarian higher education system on the establishment of a new Chinese Fudan University campus in Budapest – moreover, this will be financed by a Chinese loan. If we add to this the nearly HUF 500 billion, Chinese loan already taken for the reconstruction of the Budapest–Belgrade railway, we will have a Chinese loan exposure of 1 trillion Forint (nearly 3 billion Euro). In addition, in an interview with the Hungarian public radio in December 2017, Orbán stated that it does not matter whether the Budapest–Belgrade railway line will ever pay off financially. Does anyone really seriously think that this promotes Hungarian national sovereignty?
4. Viktor Orbán almost regrettably told Postoj readers that modern politics is about ‘slogans, catch phrases and mobilisation’; and that as a result, politics is much poorer than it used to be. That is a great truth. However, in Hungary, Fidesz has undertaken the sad ‘task’ of dumbing down, tabloidising and toxifying political speech. Although Orbán increasingly incorporates the concept of Christianity into his communication, it is also true that a significant proportion of the tabloid press, which is obviously not based on Christian values, is owned by pro-Government media holdings and is used as a political billy club. And the election campaign will only start this autumn…
COVID-19 was no obstacle, either
The press outside Hungary often calls Viktor Orbán’s political bloc simply conservative or Christian Democrat. So far, we have just written that the situation is different when seen from Budapest.
There is no doubt that a conservative line runs through Fidesz, one from which family policy measures can be derived. However, the party is not so much concerned with a worldview, but with power and profiting from public assets. Its policies towards the media, China and Russia are in stark contrast to its former self.
Moreover, the head of Government, in possession of a two-third parliamentary majority, has expanded his grip on power almost to the extremes. This process has only accelerated during the COVID-19 period. That is, while preoccupied with the pandemic, no one has been overly concerned with issues related to privatisation, pluralism, and sovereignty. The impact of this on Hungarian political life in the short- and medium-term is unpredictable – but we have a foreboding about it.
Translation: Dan Swartz
Cover picture: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban leaves a round table meeting during an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, on December 11, 2020. (Photo by AFP/POOL/Francisco Seco)