Outlook for Hungary for 2021
2020 has been spent in the spirit of punishing opposition cities for voting against Orbán in the October 2019 municipal elections. Most of the pandemic has been used for that. The only mitigating factor was that Orbán had his wars to fight in Brussels. Those being out of the way, 2021 will be the year when the financial crackdown on opposition cities will gain momentum. No self-restraint can be expected in this regard.
Orbán’s greatest successes against democratic resistance this year were the appointment of a top judge who is hostile to judicial independence, pushing opposition cities towards bankruptcy, securing the uninterrupted flow of EU funds at least until the 2022 elections, the accelerating Orbanization of media and the political occupation of new universities under the false pretenses of making them private. But the move that was at the very core of his regime was the unprecedented amount of public money directed at his allies and his ideological supporters this year.
The question on everyone’s mind is whether Orbán can be defeated in 2022, even with the grossly unfair election system and the distorted media and advertising market, as 2021 will be the beginning of the long campaign running up to the 2022 elections. The short and beside-the-point answer is that for the first time since 2010, there is a unified rainbow opposition and they took over the lead in polls in November 2020 beyond the statistical margin of error. But it is not just too early to predict anything – it is irrelevant. The real question is whether Orbán could lose. To answer that, we need to look into how much of his power is of his own doing and what Orbán’s power is really based on at this point, whether he can retain it through actual obstacles. Namely the rapidly changing international environment, the end of the economic cycle, and maybe even the pandemic.
To answer the question what his power is based on at the moment and what he cannot afford to lose, we could do worse than looking through his decade of reign and what it was based on, whether it was his talent or a lucky constellation that he exploited. Turns out, it was the second.
Unlike last year’s outlook that put the emphasis on domestic events, this year’s outlook has to focus on international affairs as they are not looking up for Orbán. Unlike the domestic front, the international sphere held nothing positive for Orbán in 2020. The illiberal trend seems to have hit a roadblock globally, if not a turning point. Brexit didn’t shape up to be an unmitigated success, Orbán’s allies like Belarus president Lukashenko, Poland’s ruling PiS, Serbia’s Vučić and Turkey’s Erdogan are under various forms of political stress. The alt-right tide in Europe seems to have hit an invisible ceiling, and even the Islamist terror threat has failed to make Orbán the hero of Europe. Out of Orbán’s three most influential political backers, Merkel, Trump and Putin, at least two is scheduled to leave office in 2021, leaving Orbán, who prefers to conduct diplomacy based on personal relationships with lot to do. Most consequentially, the Biden-administration that is slowly taking shape in Washington reads like a list from Orbán’s political nightmares.
But wishful speculation about the end of Orbánism should be cooled by the knowledge of what would happen after him. An anti-Orbán parliamentary majority would not only run into problems due to their own internal divisions and general incompetence – they would be stymied by the legal, financial, constitutional and institutional traps placed in the system to ensure that none other than Orbán (not even someone else from Fidesz) can govern the country after 2022.
The Long 2020
The long 2020 started in October 2019, when Orbán’s party didn’t win the municipal elections. In a surprise vote, he had lost half of Hungary’s major cities to mayoral candidates supported by the entire opposition. This was the first election of any kind since 2006 that Fidesz didn’t win completely and it caused an immediate and surprising crack in Orbán’s loyalist army. They have practically written off their chances in 2022, as if only a mythical spell of invincibility have held up the regime so far.
The repeat mayoral elections and the subsequent polls have confirmed that a considerable number of voters would now only vote if they saw a chance to beat Orbán – but then they would. Orbán has forced a them-against-us, bipolar political system on the country that still believes in ideological nuances and the anti-Orbán side has taken long to accept the new reality. But by 2020 they did. Not least because they are now legally forced to, based on the latest changes in the electoral law.
If 2020 started in October 2019, it might end in April 2022, with the next scheduled general elections. It might be stretching a metaphor too far, but it certainly is the new normal when it comes to the length of campaigns, invisibly morphing government propaganda into Fidesz campaigns. Everything that happens from now on will be with April 2022 in sight.
The pandemic didn’t really register in Orbán’s reign, even though it hit his most painful spot, the healthcare system. If anything, Orbán reacted to the conundrum by attacking doctors and trapping them in a new healthcare law, effective from January 2021. But the retention of information about hospitals (that started long before the pandemic) has worked well for Orbán and he had managed to frame the pandemic as primarily an economic problem. That may backfire though in 2021.
It is a testament to Orbán’s ability to play everyone that an emergency in the field that was the most sensitive to him could still not shake him, and he even managed to accomplish it without giving in to doctors. The full impact of the new healthcare law will only be visible in 2021 – and after the pandemic emergency ended, as healthcare professionals are not allowed to resign until then. But the heavy-handed reorganization of hospitals and the entire healthcare system seems to be informed by scorn and contempt – and possibly the goal to cronify healthcare just as it happened to other sectors of the economy.
2020 was not the year of the pandemic, but that of Orbán’s long fight against Brussels, which he has won for all intents and purposes of his own, the next seven years of EU money secured and the specter of rule of law accountability pushed beyond April 2022 – a huge win for Orbán against Europe. The question on everyone’s mind was whether he would punish opposition cities once he’s back from Brussels, and exactly how much. And although the punishing intent became clear in early 2020, the real wrath of Orbán was only unleashed after he returned from Brussels.
The theme of 2021 will thus be the punishment of opposition cities and the breathtaking spending spree to loyalists – cities and individuals alike. The question is whether Orbán is doing it to prepare for a defeat in 2022.
Another question plaguing last year’s analysis was whether Orbán has started a mini anti-corruption purge inside his own party. The answer to that is a resounding no. In 2019 one of the minor, local strongmen was charged with corruption. But it turned out to have happened against Orbán’s will. It is now known that the prosecutors who dared to make a move against a loyalist of Orbán were doing so against political pressure to drop the case. They have since been demoted or removed, one has committed suicide, but they have managed to push the case all the way to the courts where it could not be reached by Orbánists. That might change though as Orbán had a long-awaited success against the courts in 2020 as well.
In 2019 the myth of Orbán’s invincibility was broken and the opposition returned on the political map. The pandemic has arrived in a massively changed political environment. It is now obvious that Orbán’s partial defeat at the municipal elections has brought back politics – if not actual ideology – in Hungarian politics. The most interesting sign of that is that the pandemic could have happened without an opposition and it would have looked massively differently. As a result, the defense has been supplanted by attacking the opposition.
If the October 2019 election defeat was a crack on Orbán’s system, his wars with Brussels and the challenge posed by the mere existence of the opposition in 2020 was close to chaos by Fidesz’ earlier standards. The question of 2020 was how the defeat would change Fidesz (if at all) and what new direction Orbán would take. That has partly been answered by an expensive (and often comical) push to communicate to youth, a huge effort to channel hitherto unprecedented sums to his loyalists, and the relentless campaign to punish opposition cities – but the full extent of his response is not yet clear.
The repeated local mayoral elections in November 2019 have confirmed that an opposition candidate with an actual chance to win attracts more voters than one that has no chance. And by November 2020 that chance was visible in the polls nationwide. Support for an all-opposition candidate surpassed of that of Fidesz for the first time beyond the margin of error – although pollsters warn that the evidence is not straightforward. In 2020, polls found half a million voters who would only vote for an anti-Orbán candidate supported by all opposition parties, and thus having a chance.
If we are to make an educated guess on whether 2020 has brought Orbán’s full power closer, we would have to split the answer. He had increased the effort to cement his power – even for the unlikely case that he would lose in 2022 – but his overall grip on power may have weakened, thanks to mostly global events of 2020.
Viktor Orbán has been the political love child of Putin’s gleeful autocracy export and Merkel’s dependable appeasement. Lately, he has also benefited from Trump’s mindless enabling. In 2021, at least two of these three world leaders will leave office – possibly even all three.
The rumors surrounding Putin’s health and possible resignation may be unfounded, but there is nothing worse for an autocratic strongman than speculation about his strength. The rumors themselves are a political factor at this point of being reduced to helpless Kremlinology.
Merkel’s and Trump’s departure, on the other hand, is decided and scheduled. And their replacement will inevitably shake Orbán’s diplomatic abilities, having placed way too much emphasis on his personal relationship with various world leaders. Rejecting a rule-based international order and multilateralism may be completely absurd from such a tiny country, but Orbán’s self-confidence has overruled common sense in that regard. His oft-spoken belief that he can get better deals by being chummy with dictators and by playing great powers against each other is not fit for a multilateral world of institutional cooperation, let alone for a small country. This approach might buy a leader personal gains but it weakens his country’s overall influence and control. Not only are the institutions here to stay – despite the illiberals’ best efforts – but Hungarians probably deserve more than depending on just one man and his self-confidence to charm world leaders and whisper into their ears.
Having fashioned himself as the clever boy who navigates between giants and plays them against each other, Orbán will have to face two brand new giants to tame in 2021 – the worst possible moment for him, and during the most tumultuous year of his reign so far.
No matter what a Hungarian leader believes, no major historic trend emanates from Hungary that goes against global trends. The imperialistic autocracy export has always been emanating from Moscow (and recently from China). Without Putin, the illiberal trend would run out of steam – in much the same way democracy export is impossible without the US. That is why Orbán doesn’t deserve to become a byline for autocracy.
The Biden administration is already shaping up to be a massive hole in the barge of Orbánism and whoever follows Merkel might be less able to swallow his ego and let Orbán consistently get his wins against Europe, just to save the peace. If nothing else, his performance during the EU budget negotiations in Brussels made sure of that.
Orbán´s Wars in Brussels
The war of 2020 for Orbán was not Covid-19 but to secure the uninterrupted flow of EU cash during the next EU budgetary period – the pillar of his political strength. And he needed to secure it without interference, i. e. free from rule of law conditions or letting anyone else participate in the spending decisions. While the rule of law conditionality might not be avoided, it would only come after the 2022 elections – a win for Orbán. He had also made sure that his total control over the spending of EU funds has not been challenged – crushing the hopes of his opposition, Hungarian cities, non-crony businesses and NGOs. Orbán’s fight against Europe culminated in the infamous veto of the budget and the pandemic recovery fund, which was remarkable only because European leaders didn’t see it coming. Orbán had literally said that he would do it – and then he did.
It seems superfluous to remind European leaders of what else Orbán has openly and repeatedly said – but it must be because he meant it. One of those things is that he would always push “until hitting the wall”, which in authoritarian speak means that an autocrat will always push the boundaries until he meets pushback. And that pushback better be something that impacts him personally, like the money he distributed to loyalists or the impunity he relies on. Trying to make him unpopular at home is first world, democratic logic, it presupposes that his reign is based on popularity, not the people’s learned helplessness. Orbán’s veto in Brussels illustrates beyond every effort of denial the incompatibility of autocratic and democratic logic, and that the democratic world cannot appease aspiring autocrats without losing more than money. The sooner an aspiring autocrat meets credible pushback (i.e. “the wall”), the cheaper the containment.
It is also telling how obsessed autocrats are with the simplistic logic of creating precedents, as they are projecting their own attitudes on others: If they would see a precedent of effective pushback against authoritarian aspirations, they would think twice before trying it again. They believe that others only learn from precedent is because they themselves only learn from precedents. It also means that the question one has to ponder is whether Orbán would be hurt if he did something – and if the answer is no, he would do it. And by ‘hurt’, autocrats don’t mean being unpopular or that it would be scandalous or that someone would be angry at them. They mean actual pushback, having their nose broken politically.
Another triumph of Orbán against Europe is that Fidesz’ EPP membership has once again remained intact, after increasingly outrageous conduct. The same principle applies to them.
It is difficult to see from Budapest whether Orbán won or lost in Brussels – so he won.
The Biden Presidency Could Have Been a Great Opportunity for Us-Hungarian Relations
Joe Biden’s administration is shaping up to be a page out of the book of Orbán’s political nightmares. Not only does Biden himself know where Hungary is on the map and what it does – unlike his predecessor – but he seems to have a thing against autocrats. And since Russian and Chinese autocracy export has been enabled by Trump, merely stopping the enabling would make a potentially huge difference to liberal democrats worldwide.
Orbán knew that so he made sure to double down on his support for Trump during his campaign – again, a letdown of Hungary’s interests. Had Trump won, it would have been an obvious advantage for Orbán. If he lost, Orbán could accuse the Biden-administration of taking political revenge on him. Hungary’s foreign minister even posted a video during the campaign suggesting Biden should look at his own son’s dealings – a move that looks like he had never heard of diplomacy.
In short, with Orbán at the helm, these four years will be wasted for Hungarians. It shouldn’t have been this way, and not just because Biden himself has experience with Hungary, having spent his honeymoon here and having worked on returning the Holy Crown to the country in the 1970s.
Biden’s list for his cabinet could only have been worse for Orbán if he had included the late Senator John McCain, who also had a beef with Orbán and his explicit desire to build an autocracy. The new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, for instance, not only has family ties to Hungary, his close family includes people who escaped both right and left wing dictatorships of the 20th century, reducing the chance that he would buy the line that Orbán is anti-communists so he can only be good. To make things worse, the archives of the library of CEU, the university Orbán chased out of Hungary, bear the name of Vera and Donald Blinken, Antony Blinken’s parents, making sure that the new Secretary of State will be briefed about what happened to Hungary’s best university. (In short, Orbán attacked it because he desperately wanted to get Trump’s attention at the time.) CEU is now based in Vienna.
Other names on Biden’s list are Victoria Nuland, who had a fallout with Orbán over Orbán’s attack on the US Embassy in Budapest and who once referred to Orbán as the cancer of democracy, and Jake Sullivan as National Security Adviser, who believes that holding kleptocrats accountable can stop the surge of illiberalism. Orbán’s sudden and secretive move to carve a new method of corruption into the constitution a few days after Biden’s election victory looks like a signal that he is worried about that, too.
The US may not resume foreign policy activism, but simply not ignoring/aiding corruption and autocracy would make a huge difference. It has already started by rebooting Radio Free Europe, thankfully not as a radio channel but as a website, that immediately launched into investigative journalism from its headquarters in Prague. The Hungarian language site has published leaked records and emails proving and detailing how the Hungarian public broadcaster has come under direct political control, that its employees are obliged to twist the news or lose their jobs. Article after article deals with whistleblowers detailing how they are controlled from above, forced to create reports that the West is in decline, swarms of Muslim migrants are committing atrocities, that the pandemic is raging in Europe, only Hungary is safe. They must not mention the opposition, unless it is a designated smear campaign, and they fear not just for their current job, but that Fidesz would reach after them, even if they left.
And that is just a website. If the US starts to take anti-corruption efforts seriously, it might cause a headache to Orbán comparable to 2014-15 when the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Budapest, André Goodfriend, announced targeted sanctions against six Hungarian individuals for corruption reasons, including the head of the tax authority. The case has embarrassed the Orbán-government, who went out of their way to get a friendlier US ambassador next time. He eventually got what he wanted from Trump. Whoever follows can only be worse for Orbán.
2020 has been a relatively slow year in Hungarian domestic issues – and not because of the pandemic. Orbán has spent most of the year in a battle with Brussels and making sure that the flow of EU funds remained unconditional and his troubles with EPP-membership remained swept under the carpet.
On the domestic level, Orbán’s biggest triumph against democracy this year have been 1) the appointment of an anti-judiciary top judge to lead the Curia, 2) the takeover of the country’s biggest news site, and 3) the financial and PR attack on opposition cities. That latter work will gain full force in 2021 since most of Orbán’s attention has been tied up in Brussels until December.
Orbán has also ramped up the cronification and Orbanization of cultural institutions, such as theatres and universities, making sure that they remain out of the reach of any successive government, even if he loses elections. With the same logic, he injected unprecedented sums into his own ideological hinterland (and changed the constitution to make it irreversible), allegedly to make sure that they can endure a long time in opposition.
In 2020, Orbán seems to have completed the Orbanization of the courts – a success that had eluded him for years because the judges proved to be as good in legalizing as the government was. But the appointment of a new top judge at the head of the Curia for nine years effectively ended the war.
The new top judge lacks any court experience, having once said that he prefers the primacy of the executive branch and the strong, top-down discipline of the prosecution to the autonomy of judges.[i] He had worked directly under the chief prosecutor for years, who is another important pillar of Orbán’s regime. From there he was sent by the Fidesz supermajority to the constitutional court in 2014, where he got busy publishing paper after paper calling the judiciary “the most dangerous branch of power” that must be reined in “with immediate urgency”. Without even completing his constitutional court mandate, he won the job of leading the Curia with a program to “rediscover the natural limitations of court independence” and to eradicate court autonomy. [ii] He is against the application of any kind of legal precedent by courts – possibly because court precedents cannot be rewritten by parliamentary supermajorities, while laws can.
Upon his return from Brussels Orbán has changed the constitution in an overnight, surprise move, to cement the spending of public money on his ideological support institutions – and the election law, effectively forcing the opposition to cooperate in the next elections. The latter move may backfire – making it easier for them to decide to cooperate at the next election – but it is too early to analyze the impact and the election rules can still change.
In November 2020, the opposition has overtaken Fidesz for the first time in the polls – but with a lot of caveats. Also, for the first time, a substantial percentage of voters appeared who would only vote if an all-opposition candidate would challenge the monolith of Fidesz in the elections, otherwise they would remain passive. This development may not have been enough to herd the cats of opposition parties together, but the new election rules have forced them to run together anyway.
By December 2020 opposition parties have agreed to run together and on a minimal shared program – which is better than a detailed one, as any concrete policy program would only serve as a point of attack, while Fidesz has been campaigning without a program for a decade. They have also agreed on the principle of vetting candidates for unacceptable past conduct as well as suspicion of being planted by Fidesz.
The Pandemic Could Have Happened Without an Opposition
As a rule, every regime and political force on the planet used the pandemic to do whatever they have been up to before the pandemic – but faster and with a pandemic excuse. Those who still crave popularity were working on that and posed as saviors and caring politicians. Those who were busy building total surveillance before the pandemic have accelerated, aided by the public’s decreased ability to resist more oversight. Those who have been busy demolishing the rule of law have also had their efforts accelerated by the pandemic, while kleptocracies spent the pandemic stealing faster than ever before.
Orbán got a lot of international criticism for his enabling law to rule by decree indefinitely during the pandemic emergency – but the criticism came for the wrong reasons, as usual. Arguably, his move wouldn’t have received so much attention had he not spent a decade building a reputation of an autocrat. What was largely invisible from abroad in the fog of the pandemic is that Orbán had been under pressure to stop relying on his 2/3 parliamentary voting machine for the first time since 2010. His MPs are not political entities that would ever get in Orbán’s way, but according to reports, they were so panicked due to the virus that Orbán had to do something about it.
At the beginning, Orbán had been extremely reluctant to jump on the pandemic bandwagon. The reason is simple. He had been working on his strategy to dominate the agenda running up to the 2022 elections, and fighting the pandemic was not in it.
Instead, Orbán’s propaganda machine had been pivoting for enemies, ever since he lost the municipal elections in late 2019. The topic of migrants as enemies has been exhausted – it was a miracle it lasted as long as it did. Orbán was ready to put the migrants as designated hate target to rest.
To build a new enemy, a new “national consultation” direct marketing letter has been prepared, pointing out how outrageous it was that 1) judges at the urging of 2) Sorosist NGOs have awarded compensation to 3) inmates for inhumane prison conditions and that 4) gypsy children were also awarded compensation for school segregation. Orbán dubbed it the “prison business”. Questions suggesting that we are extremely aggravated by the “prison business” were prepared in February to be mailed to every household mid-March – supported by a massive advertising campaign, with the usual, massive budget, to be spent through crony businesses, media, etc. Orbán was grandstanding and promised to pass new laws against “the prison business” by the end of March, based on what the citizens allegedly respond to the inciting questionnaires.
But then the pandemic started and Orbán was very, very reluctant to let go of his carefully crafted agenda – just like illiberal populists were slow to embrace the fight against Covid-19 worldwide. The reason for that is simple: a virus is not the right kind of threat for an autocrat.
When it comes to threats and their usefulness by authoritarian strongmen, a few things must be considered. A threat can be internal (domestic) or external. It can be visible or invisible – the latter is infinitely better than the first. The threat can be outside us, among us (like foreign spies) or inside us (in our own bodies). When the threat is among us, we can’t trust each other. When the threat is inside us, like a virus, even without our knowledge, we can’t even trust ourselves. A virus is such an internal threat, invisible, and individuals can’t even be sure of themselves. So far, and theoretically, corona should be a strongman’s wet dream.
But there are other aspects to consider and corona doesn’t fare that well in those aspects. For one thing, this particular virus is a real threat. It is not just perceived, it is not just invented or fabricated by the propaganda machine. So the strongman doesn’t control it – unlike imaginary threats.
And even worse than an imperfect propaganda threat – pandemic response was demanded by the opposition. And that alone is enough for something to be ruled out forever by Orbán because the opposition can never get what they demand. (Indeed, the way to make someone’s job safe under Orbán is to say something outrageous that triggers the opposition so they demand the person’s head.)
When the announcement about his infamous enabling act was made in parliament, Orbán made a weird little quip, sarcastically calling his MPs “the 133 bravest men in Hungary”. At the time everyone was preoccupied with the enabling act, but this little remark was the key to what had happened. According to gossip coming out of Fidesz[iii] (another highly unusual thing in Hungarian politics) the enabling act was really needed by Orbán because his (typically old) MPs have threatened with a mini-mutiny. According to press reports that was necessary to make Orbán turn his attention to the pandemic. For a start, he enabled himself so their votes were no longer needed.
For a while, Orbán was trying to get on top of the pandemic and experimented with the protector king image. He surprise visited hospitals and shared photos on his all-important Facebook page – but that didn’t go down well, not even according to his propagandists. Even Putin has stopped doing that after a brush with the virus. Not to mention there was nothing to gain from it. It has only drawn attention to one of the weakest points of Orbán, the state of healthcare. Healthcare has been so badly neglected – willfully and with explicit contempt from Orbán – it was named one of the three reasons Fidesz had lost half the cities to the inept opposition in 2019. To say that a healthcare crisis was the last thing Orbán needed is an understatement. It is no coincidence that Orbán stopped trying to win the pandemic and later framed it as an economic issue instead.
Orbán illustrated during the pandemic the evil brilliance of his regular direct marketing mail letters (called “national consultation”) that are disguised as a survey with loaded questions. In June, he sent out another round of mail asking the 9.7 million armchair epidemiologists about the kind of pandemic measures they would prefer. The options were curfews, social distancing, masks, shutting down borders, closing educational institutions, transferring to digital education, limiting events, maintaining the dedicated shopping hours for over-65, limiting the export of PPE from the country, and free parking.
The free parking probably deserves some explanation. By this time Orbán had taken away plenty of revenues from cities (especially Budapest) while demanding they pay for various extra services. And when one day someone from Budapest city hall complained that they are down to parking fees as their only revenue, Orbán needed to hear no more. The next day he made parking free by decree – and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. Just like 99% of the Covid-decrees, this one only makes sense as a political power move.
The questionnaire was also very useful for Orbán. Not because he had learned what the people want, but for legitimacy. (He certainly hasn’t learned from it what would make sense from an epidemiological perspective.) We don’t know how many people respond to these surveys and what they respond – so Orbán can always claim whatever he wants. In this case, he claimed that whatever he ordered, it was the people’s will. Like refusing to shut down the economy.
A real virus is a threat an authoritarian strongman cannot control, it is thus not useful for his power purposes. But it could be used for other purposes, most notably to economically punish the enemy, to foster unchecked public procurement opportunities, to utilize the governance-by-decree to dole out unheard of sums of cash to loyalists.
According to a report[iv] published by the Corruption Research Centre Budapest (CRCB) corruption risk in Hungarian public procurement reached its highest level since 2005 during the Covid-19 emergency rule. The biggest winner was Orbán’s top oligarch, but CRCB follows a list of all crony companies that are owned by the same group of people and tracks their miraculous public procurement successes. CRCB analyzed more than 248 thousand Hungarian procurement contracts between January 2005 and the end of April 2020, so the dataset included a comparison with corruption (risk) under the previous regimes. In comparison with previous governments, Orbán’s regime has visibly increased corruption risk – as indicated by the number of companies competing for the same tender. The share of public procurement contracts won by crony companies within the total public procurement value has also increased significantly under Orbán. Furthermore, before 2020 51% of all public contracts these crony companies won were without competition. In 2020 68% of their winnings was without competition.
It is difficult to see how most pandemic-decrees were related to the virus. Not to mention funds earmarked for pandemic-related economic recovery. According to a painstaking summary[v] of Covid-excused spending by decree, between the beginning of the pandemic and November 2020, almost half of the money was spent on sport, for instance. To be precise, EUR 400 million on sport, EUR 295 million on churches, and only EUR 145 million on healthcare. The sum spent on sport was not only three times higher than the money sent in the general direction of healthcare – it was multiple times higher than what was spent on saving jobs and compensating for the economic impact of the lockdown. And that doesn’t include December, when the last 20 year’s biggest ever monthly deficit was created simply by ramping up the spending on loyalists even further.
On top of that there was the obligatory respirator-procurement scandal many governments have fallen for. The Hungarian one has publicly procured a mind-boggling 17 thousand respirators (according to them, because thousands of these machines still haven’t turned up in the import registry, even though their steep price was justified by the emergency purchase) at the average price of more than 56 thousand euros. For context, Hungary only has human resources to operate approximately 2000 ICU units – and even that at a stretch, according to the Hungarian Chamber of Doctors – and when the European strategic reserves were sourcing respirators for future pandemics, they would only pay 15 thousand euros per machine. So Hungary couldn’t even pass the machines on to them.[vi]
Perhaps linked to Orbán’s Brussels grandstanding (that he would rather not want the funds from the European pandemic relief package if there is any kind of rule of law conditionality in the budget) and to prove that he could go through with his veto, a 2.5 billion euro bond release was announced proudly by Orbán himself, walking back on his almost religious mantra to reduce debt and exposure in foreign currencies and sell forint bonds instead. According to reports, the move was executed in just a few days from idea to execution. At the same time the Hungarian National Bank has suddenly decided to buy assets worth of USD 2.5 billion from an entity it owns[vii] in November. It is also a huge red flag as the central bank has been warned for monetary financing by the ECB before.
But that is still not the big money. A never-before-seen sum may have been directed at loyalists between March and November, but the real spending has only kicked in in December, when Orbán’s attention finally returned from Brussels.
Whatever Orbán concluded in Brussels, spending increased even more significantly in December, resulting in a 9% budget deficit for the year – even by the friendly standards of the EU – and planning another 6.5% for 2021, running up to the elections in early 2022. Unprecedented sums are flying out of the budget ever since the constitution was amended to ease the process and to make it irreversible. The beneficiaries and the causes have not much to do with the pandemic, nor with helping businesses. Symbolic spending has always been bad under Fidesz but now it seems to know no boundaries.
Orbán and his ministers keep talking about the coming golden age when lush EU funds will finance never-before seen plenty. It is perhaps the most telling sign of what might be going on that Orbán has been spending like there’s no tomorrow ever since he returned from Brussels. It may serve to fatten up his loyalist, to strengthen their loyalty that has been shaken at the local election defeat – but also to bankrupt any successive government that might not be his, leaving debt, bankrupt cities and empty budgets behind. And a constitutional clause that public money once spent is no longer the public’s business.
The most interesting development around the coronavirus crisis was that it took place with a visible opposition. People in the west take that for granted but just a few months earlier there was no opposition to speak of in Hungary, no one that could have raised a voice of accountability during the pandemic.
The existence of the opposition has probably not influenced how Orbán handled the crisis, but it has certainly influenced minds. There was an opposition with a voice – even if limited to the ever-shrinking realm of independent media. There was a Budapest mayor with high visibility and an active approach during the pandemic, demonstrating a long-forgotten thing in Hungary: a politician who acts like he cares. Even when his efforts were gleefully stifled by the government, he made an effort to let the public know about it.
Without an opposition the coronavirus crisis would have looked massively different. Unchallenged Orbánist propaganda – which still reigns supreme in most of the countryside – blasted at full volume that the West is even worse, that Hungary is a refuge from the virus, just as we were supposedly a refuge from the lawless gangs of Muslim migrants. But this time there were other voices, local mayors.
Transparency of healthcare has been bad long before the pandemic hit – but the control over what information comes out of hospitals has been tightened even further. The media is not allowed to enter a hospital or go near it without permission that is never granted – making it difficult to illustrate the scale of the problem. Infection and mortality data is released only by the designated pandemic task force, but it is missing crucial information and what is shared is often unrealistic. Statistics keep changing retroactively and the list of safe and unsafe countries as well as the process of vaccine-hunting look like a political and diplomatic rather than a public health priority. But without a few pesky anti-corruption politicians, we would know even less.
Treatment of the Economy Under the Pandemic
One of Orbán’s lesser known (abroad) moves was to cut back on local autonomy at the early stages of his reign, even though local autonomy had been a focal point of the opposition movement against the pre-1989 autocratic regime. Local autonomy, no matter how poorly executed, has been viewed as a cornerstone of not letting oppression happen again in Hungary.
Local authorities’ autonomy has been seriously cut back with the rewriting of the constitution once Orbán came to power in 2010. Not only are they not allowed to go into debt without the government’s permission – an understandable move that nonetheless increases their political dependence – they have also lost much of their revenues, like a share of the personal income taxes. They have also lost competencies like issuing local building permits, which is now at the government. If local authorities retained any autonomy under Orbán, it was because they were almost all led by Fidesz mayors – with the notable exception of Szeged. Now that they became a thorn in Orbán’s side, they can expect their relevance to be cut back further.
The goal is obvious. Local authorities must not appear to be helpful during the pandemic, especially not the non-Fidesz ones. They must also go bankrupt, so that Orbán’s promise that opposition cities would be left behind could be fulfilled. As a response, the Pact of Free Cities movement was created by the mayors of Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw, and Budapest, lobbying to have access to at least parts of the EU pandemic rescue package directly. Orbán would never let them keep it.
The great question of 2020 was how Orbán would react to the local election defeat of October 2019. On the one hand, a strongman must punish every form of resistance. On the other, there were too many people living in opposition cities now – can Orbán attack them without alienating them?
His reaction to the 2019 local election defeat became clear early on: revenge and punishment of renitent cities. And the pandemic lent him an excuse. For most of 2020, however, Orbán has been bogged down in Brussels and the full force of his punishment will probably be seen in 2021.
It is nearly impossible to find any pandemic-rationale behind most Covid-decrees, but they all make sense if we look at them from the political angle and see them as tools of punishing opposition cities and removing local autonomy, to be replaced with conditional, discretionary financial assistant directed exclusively to loyal cities.
Take free parking, for instance. Or the cut in local authorities’ tax revenues, paired with a ‘tax stop’, forbidding them to increase taxes or the prices of public services. (The ‘tax stop’ might have been a revenge for Budapest mayor’s campaign promise to levy a new tax targeted at loyalist oligarchs, named after Orbán’s son-in-law, who owns luxury real estate in Budapest.) In another case, the Samsung factory in the town of Göd had been declared a special economic zone, after Göd elected an opposition mayor. The government also started pointedly demanding more contribution to the cost of public services.
An example was made of the city of Eger. After a particularly inane mistake by Fidesz, Eger was lost to an opposition candidate in October 2019. But Eger is part of the electoral district that was the battleground in the byelection in October 2020, when Orbán’s 2/3 supermajority was at stake. During the campaign the opposition mayor (now independent) of Eger supported the Fidesz candidate, because a responsible mayor cannot be against Orbán.
Ministers and state secretaries visited the district in great numbers supporting the Fidesz candidate. They handed out potatoes and free laptops and promised all sorts of investments if the Fidesz candidate wins. She won. But how to reward the district without giving money to its biggest city, Eger (population: 52 000)? The solution: giving an enormous sum to the small town of Tokaj (population: 3 900). After the election, Tokaj was awarded more than 400 million euros in EU funds, which is the equivalent of half of Budapest’s pre-pandemic annual budget (population: 1.7 million).
But Eger’s mayor wasn’t rewarded for his gestures either. A month after the byelection he was forced to allow the ministry’s candidate to take over the city theatre, even though the city council voted in another director. Had he resisted the ministry, he would have had to repay nearly a million euros and received no money to run the theatre next year.
But the worst hit was Budapest. Apart from the ‘tax stop’ and the extra contributions demanded from the city hall, the Orbánist media ran a smear campaign against the mayor, accusing him of Covid-19 deaths in retirement homes. He was then attacked for not being able to finance the long-overdue renovation of the city’s oldest bridge. After a relatively relaxed summer in terms of lockdowns, the government learned that the absence of foreign tourists only hits Budapest, while the hotels and hospitality in the countryside flourished due to domestic guests having no other choice. These also happen to be the locations where Orbánists have bought up hotels in great numbers, especially around lake Balaton. So in September the borders were closed for foreigners, leaving the Budapest hotel and hospitality businesses in even deeper despair – and with Kafkaesque conditions to ask for help, if they are still employing people for some weird reason.
Apart from making hotels cheaper targets for potential takeovers, the border closure shot Budapest Airport in the leg. Budapest Airport has been a sore spot for Orbán for a long time, as he prefers to see everything “in Hungarian hands”, meaning one of his allies. When Budapest Airport turned to the EBRD for a EUR 50 million emergency loan, the government simply blocked it.[viii]
It took until late December before Orbán could turn his full attention to his domestic enemies but when returned to Budapest, he summoned the representatives of the mayors’ alliance. The only opposition mayor at the table later claimed that he was only allowed in for a photo-op, he was escorted out before the real negotiations started.
Then Orbán announced the deepest blow yet, that he would cut back on one of the most important revenue of cities, the local corporate tax (hipa). Local corporate taxes are an important source of revenue for towns and cities – mostly because everything else has been taken away from them during Orbán’s earlier moves against local autonomy. But they were still allowed to collect up to 2% of tax from corporations on their territory – accounting for up to 77% of cities’ revenues. They have to beg to the government for every other resource, including permissions to win EU tenders (the permission being contingent upon their election results). Cutting hipa was not a real help for businesses (it is a revenue-based tax and only accounts for 1-2% of their entire tax burden), but it sends the local authorities in question into bankruptcy.
Orbán then announced that he wants to see every city mayor one by one to discuss a possible compensation. Naturally, all the cities with Fidesz mayors got compensated. Budapest and the other opposition cities were not. The logic of an autocratic regime built purely on economic tools is that those who are against us, must not eat. Economic tools – most notably disposition over the EU funds into the country – have been Orbán’s miracle weapon to silence dissent, buy loyalty and bend backbones.
An outsider would ask whether “people” know that Orbán is behind the bankrupting of their towns. But that is not the real question. The question is whether this demonstration of power will be interpreted as a reason to stop resisting – or the opposite, that they should resist harder.
Treatment of the Economy Under the Pandemic
The old communist constitution had a line that said those who don’t work shall not eat. Unfortunately, the old communist constitution failed to elaborate on the principle applicable when the government prohibits work in the form of a pandemic lockdown. So when Orbán ruled out giving money directly to people who lost their livelihood and expressed his views that giving money without work would be unheard of, he may just have been let down by the shortcomings of his youth indoctrination.
But that wasn’t what hit people’s ears. Getting money without work is exactly what oligarchs are doing all the time, their sole merit being that they are picked by Orbán. And with that in mind the paternalistic quip didn’t sound all that well.
Indeed, the only beneficiaries of the massive “economic rescue package” could be listed by name. Billions after billions have been awarded to various sport and religion-related organizations – and the usual oligarchs. Orbán’s first “economic defense action plan” was announced in April, with the sound bite that he would create as many jobs as are lost – rather than giving money to weather the pandemic. He also announced the gradual re-introduction of the 13th month pension – a move clearly targeted at voters for 2022.
As a rule, Orbán’s regime loves structuring the time and dominating the agenda with big announcements – and slowly dripping the details and conditions later, so that they can harvest the political credit at the beginning, but reduce the number of beneficiaries with time to the point that their largesse is not too expensive. In the end every spurned recipient blames it on himself. Measures included a mortgage holiday, a patchy and whimsical, belated and partial compensation of wages for reduced employment, making sure that most businesses applying for the assistance would bounce back from the wall of bureaucracy. The most spectacular aspect of pandemic relief was just how selective it was and how obviously loyalists and well-known cronies were targeted. The reduced local corporate tax was also not a relief for businesses, but a blow to local authorities.
Economic relief measures have been chaotic and left much to be desired in every country, not just Hungary. But the economic impact of the pandemic will be a crucial test of Orbánism. As it turns out, Orbán has never governed through an actual economic crisis, and with this attitude, he might just trigger resentment. And he is doing so while putting the emphasis on the economy, to distract from the also disastrous state of healthcare.
Orbán vs Doctors
The oddest thing about Orbán’s pandemic response is that he chose to attack doctors.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to describe just how bad the state of healthcare was before the pandemic struck. Worst outcomes in European statistical comparison were paired with extraordinary corruption. The system of “gratitude money”, aka. bribes to doctors permeates the entire healthcare and society. According to a survey by K-monitor, the amount Hungarians pay in bribes to doctors every year is the same size as the annual budget shortfall of hospitals.
Contrasting Orbán’s stadium obsession with the disintegration of state-funded healthcare due to lack of funding is a standard talking point about Orbán domestically.[ix] It is a testament to the effectiveness of Orbán’s propaganda that his core supporters, over-50s, haven’t blamed him for it. Meanwhile, Orbán’s favorite healthcare talking point is that hospitals keep hoarding debt – i.e. they keep ordering supplies even when state funding runs out halfway through the financial year. Otherwise they are not allowed to go into debt without permission. Orbán’s solution was to strong-arm the hospital suppliers to accept reduced payments – risking future supply.
Entering a hospital is a dreaded prospect, as underpaid and overworked staff is pitted against fearful and desperate patients and relatives, seeking medical attention amidst a chronic shortage of doctors and medical professionals. Hospital departments have been shutting down for lack of nurses and doctors for years, the standards of care are lowered to improve statistics, even the cleaning standards have been lowered to one cleaning a week or less due to the lack of staff.
And that is not an accident, but a willful policy. Orbán had every tool to finally reform healthcare, even to introduce market elements to it. But after ten years in power, the most notable thing about healthcare policy was Orbán’s deafening silence about it, paired with tall tales about so-called “superhospitals” being built in the future – unclear who would pay for the service.
His disdain is tangible. Even after he identified the state of healthcare as one of the reasons his party lost in October 2019, he couldn’t bring himself to even make empty promises that would later be forgotten. His contempt for both patients and doctors is explicit and Fidesz’ concept of how to solve the problem is exhausted in the erection of big buildings to become “superhospitals”, but it is difficult to see when they might come to fruition and who would work in them. All that seems to be clear is that they will operate on a typical, Orbánist faux-market model, and that the usual oligarchs are surrounding these projects.
The state of healthcare has been so bad that photography and reporting from hospitals had been banned long before the pandemic. And during the pandemic the most effort was no doubt put into keeping information from coming out and clamping down on those who leaked it. In true autocratic fashion, it was the emergence of bad news that was handled, not the actual problem.
Another new development in healthcare was the emergence of a politically active Hungarian Chamber of Doctors (MOK). It all started a few years ago when a lone doctor started to publish long and painfully detailed posts about the mismanagement of MOK. He moved from platform to platform and reported about the mismanagement of membership fees, the political servilism and the proclivity of the Chamber to transmit political will upon its members, rather than representing them – as it is bound to happen in mandatory membership representative organs.
By 2019, his work has come to fruition. Enough members voted on the leadership election of MOK to oust the old and corrupt leadership. (In true Fidesz fashion, they didn’t think at first that they should leave their office just because of a result of some vote.) Then the Chamber started to actually represent doctors, including trying to aid the flow of information between hospitals during the pandemic, as the heavily centralized information monopoly by the government kept them in the dark. The Chamber has also opened a platform for anonymous whistleblowers and generally refused to be compliant and keep saying that everything is awesome in healthcare.
It got to the point when they were invited to meet Orbán himself. As it always happens with the representatives of non-political professions, Orbán promised things and got his smiling photo-op and a handshake with them. The fact that they agreed was widely reported, and then the opposite of what was agreed had happened. In fact the draft law that didn’t contain any of the promises was published immediately after the photo-op, and MOK later found out that there was no more communication from the ministry to supposedly ask doctors’ views.
The law promised to increase doctors’ salaries in exchange for banning bribes (which has not been illegal until now). The new law would be enforced from January 2021, it remains to be seen how. Crucially, the ban on bribes is not applicable to the most corruption-infested field, to obstetricians. According to K-Monitor, a corruption database, gratitude payments are involved in 68% of births, with an average amount of over EUR 300. The government claimed “demographic reasons” for allowing corruption to reign in deliveries.[x]
Apart from giving a gesture to doctors, the wage increase had pitted them against other healthcare professionals, who wages are still in the alarmingly low level – a classic move.
In the end, the law contained at least two unacceptable elements for doctors. One was to ban them from holding down more than one job – the absolute pillar of the current system as there simply isn’t enough of them. After their protest, the enforcement was only postponed until after the 2022 elections. It is difficult to see how healthcare would operate after that, let alone the new “superhospitals”.
The other caveat was that they could be stationed anywhere in the country, for up to two years. It was later reduced and only applicable during healthcare emergencies, but those can be conjured by a penstroke. In other words, MOK couldn’t win against Orbán, not even during a pandemic, and the doctors were duped. It remains to be seen how they will react, especially after the public health emergency is lifted and medical professionals will be allowed to resign again. When the new law was announced, over 6000 of doctors signaled their intention to do so.
Orbán’s most visible move towards more control in 2020 was the takeover of the most important news portal, Index.hu on July 25. It is not an exaggeration to call Index.hu the front page of the Hungarian internet. And since independent news outlets keep disappearing under Orbánist takeovers, the realm of real news has shrunk to a handful of little online islands.
Orbán has been craving this platform for years and his loyalists were competing to deliver it to him. Its takeover has been years in the making – the reason no one was surprised when it happened. All it took was to hack one lawyer, whose trust the newsroom was placed in and who seemed to have been under the false impression that he can navigate between Fidesz and Index.hu indefinitely, as he had connections at Fidesz (and not the other way around). He ultimately let in the wolves.
It is impossible to know what transpired in those last days due to the non-disclosure agreements, but when the editor-in-chief was fired, the whole newsroom stood up and resigned together. They were best placed to know what happens next, having reported about the hostile takeovers and subtle or not-so-subtle Orbanization of many news outlets before them.
Index’ intended fate was not to become a raging propaganda site like origo.hu was a few year earlier. It was meant to invisibly convert into something politically manageable and to be ready (Orbanized) for the 2022 elections. First, the critical pieces disappear (also from the archives), then Fidesz politicians start to give self-serving interviews without hard questions, then their Facebook posts are quoted as news, without context – all while index.hu’s front page still looks the way it used to. Those who are less informed might mistake the new index.hu with the real thing, even though all its journalists left. And many people keep reading it even though they know the new journalists are politically manipulated, because they are overconfident in their own ability to see through spin and propaganda, and underestimate what it does to them when certain information never hits their eyeballs. Especially while they still believe they are reading a comprehensive news site.
The drive to fill up the emptied jobs was farcical, and the list of new hires ranged from the tellingly loyalist to actual journalists who needed the money and chose to believe someone’s promise that they can remain independent. An Orbanized paper pays its employees well (until it sheds its staff because everything is written in the propaganda ministry anyway).
The day index.hu was Orbanized, our fight against fake news has turned into struggle for real one. As soon as resignations were processed and notice periods fulfilled, efforts have been made to start a new site (the same journalists and the same ethos, but under a new domain name) and an unprecedented crowdfunding drive resulted in the start of telex.hu, where most of index.hu’s journalists found a new home and started reporting on October 2.
Telex.hu has been a success in its massive ambition to start as a comprehensive news source from day one. No other site could have reached half a million readers in such a short period of time. But despite all that success, it must be noted, that the zombified index.hu, with its rapidly hired, makeshift, and ever-changing team of typists and journalists did not lose its market dominance. After a dip from 75 million total visits to around 40 million, it was still the most visited news portal in November. It is not surprising if we remember the fate of index’ one time biggest competitor, origo.hu, that has been Orbanized a few years prior and turned into a raging pit of loyalist hatemongering, fake news and Orbánist propaganda. It has not lost readership.
Index journalists may have been the best placed to know that they can not win under a loyalist leadership, no matter what is promised, but that didn’t mean that their courageous and spectacular decision to resign en masse was an obvious one. Entire industries and professions have been brought under Orbánist influence by sheer inertia, political naivety, being divided or just plain fear of their members, some always choosing to submit or pretend to believe. The fact that it did not happen this time surprised everyone, most importantly the loyalists who took over Index. They were supposed to do it quietly, a noisy act of spectacular resistance was not going to please Orbán.
Resistance may be the only thing one can do when facing an authoritarian bully, but it almost never happens. The fact that it did – and it was seen – added to the fermentation that has been brewing in the system. And almost at the same time, another act of defiance happened, almost as if Index’ journalists inspired a new takeover target to resist.
SZFE, the University of Film and Theatre is a small and elite university that became the target of the government’s faux-privatization effort in 2020. The new “foundation model” for universities is essentially a way to increase their political and financial dependence under the disguise of turning them private. SZFE students and professors – perhaps inspired by what happened at Index.hu – have rebelled and occupied their building. After over 70 days of physical resistance and ever-increasing pressure from the government, the enhanced lockdown measures and a curfew conveniently ended their blockade.
The government and its executioners reacted as pettily as expected, selling SZFE’s buildings to a church and scattering the students, awarding zero credits for their last semester (that took place in the occupied buildings), because courts didn’t allow them to annul the semester altogether. By the time the students will be allowed back, there will be nothing to protect.
The government has also slated the faux privatization of new universities, while giving a billion dollar endowment to their own right wing cadre creator of choice (an endowment comparable in size to that of George Soros’s original endowment to CEU, a university Orbán chased out of Hungary), which now also offers to Orbán’s western apologists generous grants and scholarships that are so large, it is more common in an oil state.
The Myth of Orbán’s Talent
In October 2019 the myth of Orbán’s invincibility, one of his greatest assets, has been shattered. In 2020 the myth of his political infallibility has followed suit.
Analysts now openly wonder whether Orbán would be able to govern through an actual economic recession. He may have been at the helm for a long time, but never long enough for an economic cycle to catch up with him. But after ten years and with an economic crisis looming some start to wonder whether we have overestimated him. After all, Orbán had never governed through economic hardship. Each time he came into power he benefited from protest votes against his predecessors due to an economic crisis. And both times, in 1998 and in 2010, his job was made easier by a massive austerity package helpfully enacted by his predecessors.
He also wasted the years of plenty without forming reserves. Indeed, his only policy move appears to be massive spending – not so much to stimulate the economy, but to benefit his loyalists. His war on state debt has remained in the realm of bellicose words and when cornered, he was quick to promise a 13th month pension and conditional cash handouts to voter groups in which he was underperforming. Under the propaganda of pro-business (not pro-market) governance, he merely built cronyism dependent on state largesse – and their test of viability is yet to come. Orbán appears to have mistaken enriching a bunch of handpicked loyalists with enriching “the nation”, but the logic of enriching loyalists crowds out market logic and rationality.
It is also an easy mistake to be made to assume that oligarchs are the ones influencing Orbán when in fact it is the other way around. Far from oligarchs being kingmakers, the king can make or break his strongmen, lifting someone and dropping him the moment the beneficiary mistakenly starts to believe that he is an entity in his own right. Indeed, Orbán has been called the checks and balances of his own system, keeping every oligarch on their toes. As his former deputy minister (who experienced firsthand being pushed back down once he grew too influential) put it, there is no second or third line in Orbán’s system of hand-picked oligarchy, political or economic. That preserves him in power but is really bad for the country – the usual problem with whatever autocrats do.
As of the myth of Orbán’s political talent, it is perhaps important to remember that his current success in creating an uncontested autocracy has been resting on two preconditions – neither of which has been of his own making. Firstly, his two-third, constitutional overmajority in parliament that he owns without coalition partners or any dissent from the ranks of his MPs. Secondly, the unprecedented, massive avalanche of easy money flowing from the European Union – a flow that first picked up pace under Orbán’s reign.
Outsiders will point out that Orbán’s Fidesz technically does have a coalition partner, but that is just for technical reasons. No one actually believes that the Christian democratic KDNP has any political weight, not least because it hasn’t been a party with any measurable support of its own for more than a decade. Its presence in the “coalition” is pure optics. Apart from serving as the supposed source of political Christianist policy proposals (such as homophobia and the hatemongering against non-traditional lifestyles) KDNP helps Fidesz to plant twice as many men into well-paid positions and twice as many votes in committees. Most recently it had helped Orbán to maintain a presence in Fidesz’ European party family, pretending that they were totally not Fidesz when Fidesz was gently self-suspended in EPP.
And the 2/3 parliamentary majority in 2010 wasn’t solely due to his formidable political talents either, but partly a voter backlash against the previous government’s sins, an economic recession, the mortgage crisis, and a massive austerity package to salvage the economy. Had Orbán not gained a constitutional majority in 2010, he would not have been in the position to do just as much damage to democracy in the following years. The following supermajorities happened on an increasingly tilted electoral field and with increasingly lopsided rules and campaign resources between Orbán and his opponents. Due to the supermajority, the source of power has first migrated from the parliament to the Fidesz fraction, then to the party, which is to say to Orbán himself. His iron grip on his MPs were first questioned when the pandemic started.
The second source of Orbán’s formidable power that was out of his control was EU funds. According to an analysis, 7 million euros a day have been sent from Brussels to Hungary during the 12 years between 2004 (Hungary’s EU accession) and 2016.[xi] The bulk of that money came during the reign of the Orbán-administration as payouts only really kicked in 2008 (their effect wasn’t felt due to the crisis) and only really became visible from 2012. By 2020, the EU funds gravy train is a massive fuel for building a loyalist base for Orbán and stemming resistance. The examples of Tokaj and Budapest are just a drop in the ocean.
In light of how much Orbán’s autocracy has been resting on the pillar of a never-before-seen amount of money at his disposal to buy loyalty – coupled with Brussels willingness to let him distribute it all by himself – it is painfully ironic how the entire world is expecting the stupefied, divided and starved Hungarian opposition to fix their own problems. The problem is only partially domestic. Just like in 1956 when resistance against the Russian occupation was bound to fail, no matter how many brave men and women took to the street to protest the Soviet tanks, the resistance to Hungary’s current autocratic push (also emanating from Moscow) is also facing formidable enemies – from outside of Hungary. Those, who enable it financially.
Orbán’s third weakness are his loyalists. There seems to be an odd shortage of talented cadres who also understand the rules of loyalism. In 2019, when Fidesz’s election machinery first hit a speed bump since 2006, Orbánists were quick to speak out and complain to the media. Many have written off their chances in 2022, and as if the sentiment was pervasive, big shot Fidesz MPs have abandoned their Budapest electoral districts 18 months before the elections for safer constituencies. Orbán has always delivered them the money from Brussels and even the election victories – and now that their father failed to deliver they acted like all was lost.
As of the non-Orbánists, when the intimidation of power is gone, when fear is gone, there will be no love for Orbán to take its place. He had not built his power on the basis of real popularity, much of the incentives to support him were rooted in his strength. With that lost, some will not even remember they had ever supported Orbán. But that doesn’t mean that Orbán can now be beaten in his own election system, or that any government that follows him would be able to govern.
Autocrats make sure that if they are not allowed to rule, no one else can. It is naturally against the interest of the actual country, but the diverging of the interest of a nation and that of its autocrat is the main feature of autocracy.
After Orbán, an opposition government would meet formidable obstacles. Some internal, due to their uneasy coalitions and general incompetence, others external – created by Orbán. If Orbán is beaten in 2022, its successors will have to face a number of institutional, legal, constitutional, economic, and budgetary obstacles. In other words, even if Orbán loses in 2022, he wins.
Firstly, a simple majority is not enough to govern anymore. The number of topics that could only be legislated by a 2/3 parliamentary majority has been high for historic reasons. During the 1989 regime change negotiations the parties did not trust each other so they relegated a range of issues into the 2/3 realm – a move that made the new democracy more difficult to govern by a single majority. Rather than making the country more governable, Orbán has increased the number of fields where only a 2/3 supermajority can legislate.
But even in possession of a parliamentary supermajority (and in the unlikely case they can consistently vote together), a hypothetical anti-Orbán new government would still have to face down with Orbán’s personal loyalists cemented for oddly long periods as leaders of independent institutions, such as the chief prosecutor (often called the pillar of Orbán’s regime and reappointed for nine years in 2019), the governor of the central bank (reappointed for 6 years in 2019), the constitutional court, the media council, the president, and now the Curia.
Another move Orbán pulled quickly after his 2010 return to power was changing the constitution into the new Basic Law, removing elements of constitutionality and the reference to a market economy, enshrining the exclusivity of traditional lifestyles and only leaving independent institutions that would later be staffed by trustworthy loyalists. A non-Orbánist parliament would have to start with changing the constitution. But even if they have the majority to do so, even if they agree that the Basic Law must go, it would be a formidable challenge to agree on what to replace it with.
Apart from the political system, Orbán made sure to take over entire economic sectors, the media, utilities, and even universities, to name a few. The cronification of entire economic sectors into the hands of personal loyalists would ensure that a non-Orbánist majority would have to govern surrounded by hostile economic strongmen, who were enriched by Orbán. After the fall of the pre-1989 pro-Russian autocracy the lingering presence of old, communist comrades and the beneficiaries of the previous autocracy was a problem. The same will happen after Orbán with some of his beneficiaries openly dreaming about becoming the new aristocracy that will long outlive the regime, i.e. the era of original amassing of capital. How they will ever learn to operate their holdings based on market logic is unclear.
2020 has been spent in the spirit of punishing opposition cities – mitigated by Orbán’s Brussels battles that commanded most of his attention. In 2021 there will be no such mitigating factors.
2021 will be the year when opposition cities go bankrupt or bend the knee to Orbán. According to the first estimates after Orbán’s December decree to radically cut local authorities’ corporate tax revenues Budapest would become insolvent by November 2021. It would be surprising if Orbán wouldn’t want to bring that date forward. In the meantime, loyalist cities are showered with astronomical sums of EU funds as a reward for their loyalty – another trend that is likely to pick up pace in 2021.
Outsiders may ask whether voters would punish Orbán for such heavy-handed treatment of opposition cities, but that is the wrong question to ask. The real question is whether voters take this demonstration of power as a cue to submit to Orbán – or as a reason to resist even harder.
In 2021, the long election campaign starts – at least for Fidesz. Orbán’s first task will be to fix the cracks on his rule. His myth of invincibility has been shattered in October 2019, and the chaos around The Veto has further deepened the problem by showing that he might not even be infallible. He will tighten the ropes of loyalty now that his attention is at home, but the question remains, exactly how strong is his grip on his loyalists.
In 2020 Orbán didn’t have the time to reinstate party discipline. His inexplicable and unprecedented largesse might be a way to buy loyalty back – but it is not enough. His men might be just as quick to cooperate with prosecution in case of an election loss as they were to turn to the media to complain in 2019. Orbán’s regime is built around his person. If that takes a hit, no amount of warmongering may reinstate discipline.
The pumping out of public money took to hitherto unprecedented levels in December 2020 – after a year of already spectacular spending on cronies and loyalists. The government exploited the increased tolerance for lax budgets in the EU due to the pandemic and it also took on new debt. It is planning to keep doing so well into 2021 and 2022. Orbán may be preparing to leave a bankrupt country behind in case he would lose in 2022. It is perhaps the most telling sing of what might be going on that Orbán has been spending like there’s no tomorrow ever since he returned from Brussels. It may serve to bankrupt any successive government that might not be his.
At any rate, he can prepare for the worst from the Biden-administration, if not from Brussels whose rule of law push has been conveniently postponed to bite only after the 2022 elections. Whoever may inherit the country in 2022 will be held accountable even for Orbán’s handling of EU funds.
Orbán has been incessantly talking about the coming economic crisis since his election triumph in 2018. In 2021, he may just get one. Indeed, as the fog of helpless dread is clearing from minds, analysts are starting to point out that Orbán has never governed through an economic crisis. Instead, he benefited from such crises occurring under his predecessors, and the voter backlash as they helpfully carried out austerity packages to make the bed for Orbán.
Opposition may have moved ahead in the polls for the first time in November 2020. The new election rules have forced them to run together and they agreed on a minimal shared program. But they will have to fight an uphill battle. And if they somehow beat Orbán in 2022, they would have to govern amid Orbán’s legal, financial, constitutional and institutional traps placed in the system – not to mention an empty budget, debt, and EU-funds distributed for years in advance. And it is still unclear when the pandemic emergency ends – as it might block one of the opposition’s wonder weapons, primary elections to help agree on candidates, including one shared candidate for prime minister.
2021 will also be the year when independent media is the quietest, having been reduced to just a few websites. The independence of courts might also fall with the appointment of a new top judge with a program to reduce court autonomy.
The discontent of the doctors and medical professionals has been silenced for now, but once the pandemic emergency is over, resignations might start. The complete failure and unwillingness to reform the failing healthcare system has been one of Orbán’s biggest problems before the pandemic, but duping the doctors into an unwanted new regime may or may not backfire. No profession has managed to collectively stand up to Orbán before, the real challenge to his regime is not expected to come from there.
The real threat for Orbán is the poor state of illiberalism worldwide. With many of his allies under pressure and Merkel and Trump out of office, Orbán will have to adapt – at the worst possible time. His only success is that even though the EU might one day figure out a way to enforce rule of law conditionality on member states, it has been postponed until after the 2022 elections – the current greatest concern for Orbán next to the new American leadership.
[i] Az életben a legtöbb döntést nem én hoztam meg (24 November, 2016) https://jogaszvilag.hu/szakma/az-eletben-a-legtobb-dontest-nem-en-hoztam-meg/
[ii] Varga Zs. András: a bírói hatalom korlátozásának programjával a Kúria élére – 444.hu blog by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (14 January, 2020) https://helsinkifigyelo.444.hu/2021/01/14/varga-zs-andras-a-biroi-hatalom-korlatozasanak-programjaval-a-kuria-elere
[iii] Saját emberei ébresztették rá Orbánt, hogy a vírus itt van a nyakunkon (4 April 2020) Rényi Pál Dáániel, 444.hu - https://444.hu/2020/04/04/sajat-emberei-ebresztettek-ra-orbant-hogy-a-virus-itt-van-a-nyakunkon
[iv] New Trends in Corruption Risk and Intensity of Competition in the Hungarian Public Procurement from January 2005 to April 2020 (26 May 2020) by Corruption Research Center Budapest http://www.crcb.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2020_hpp_0520_flash_report_1_200526_.pdf
[v] Állami pénzpumpa a válság idején: 140 milliárd forint ment sportra (7 December, 2020 mfor.hu) https://mfor.hu/cikkek/makro/allami-penzpumpa-a-valsag-idejen-140-milliard-forint-ment-sportra.html
[vi] Az EU-s közbeszerésen már nem sikerült eladni azokat a lélegeztetőgépeket, amiket a magyar állam tavasszal simán megvett aranyáron (5 December, 2020) 444.hu https://444.hu/2020/12/05/az-eu-s-kozbeszeresen-mar-nem-sikerult-eladni-azokat-a-lelegeztetogepeket-amiket-a-magyar-allam-tavasszal-siman-megvett-aranyaron
[vii] Hungary Pushes the Limits of Central Bank Asset-Purchase Plans (By Marton Eder, November 20, 2020 Bloomberg) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-11-20/hungary-pushes-the-limits-of-central-bank-asset-purchase-plans
[viii] Hungary Blocked Budapest Airport From Emergency Covid-19 Funds (3 November 2020 Alberto Nardelli, Zoltan Simon at Bloomberg) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-11-03/hungary-blocked-buda…
[ix] In Hungary, Viktor Orban Showers Money on Stadiums, Less So on Hospitals, New York Times By Patrick Kingsley and Benjamin Novak October 26, 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/26/world/europe/viktor-orban-soccer-hea…
[x] K-Monitor: A szülések kétharmadánál kap hálapénzt az orvos (16 December, 2020 telex.hu) https://telex.hu/belfold/2020/12/16/k-monitor-a-szulesek-ketharmadanal-kap-halapenzt-az-orvos
[xi] Naponta 2 milliárd forint jött Magyarországra az elmúlt 12 évben. Hol van? (Péter Magyari, 444.hu 8 June 2016) https://tldr.444.hu/2016/06/08/naponta-2-milliard-forint-joett-magyarorszagra-az-elmult-12-evben-hol-van
Eszter Nova is a lecturer at Cevro Institute in Prague.