It’s not what you think. Not major corruption or economic mismanagement. It’s a U-turn on a symbolic issue that doesn’t even serve the purpose of corruption.
The Orbán-government had to retreat on a policy – for the first time during its six years reign. It is the first crack on the authoritarian exercise of power built on the futility of civic resistance.
Don’ expect something big or even relevant. The government had to perform a U-turn on the mandatory Sunday closure of retail stores. The policy was uncalled for, wildly unpopular, and produced farcical results. But it wasn’t meant to deliver any real-life benefits. It was originally introduced to divert attention from the scandal of the day – a vintage Fidesz tactic. The fact that it incensed people made it even more effective in achieving that goal.
But now a referendum was looming that guaranteed a pushback.
You should probably know that PM Orbán has a special fetish for referendums. In 2008, he delivered a fatal blow to the then socialist government with a referendum over a similarly petty and symbolic issue: a one EUR payment for the visit to the doctor. Orbán managed to spin it as the Socialist Party’s evil plot to introduce capitalism in healthcare – and it worked. That triumph contributed to his winning in 2010.
This is why he avoided any chance for the opposition to organise a referendum ever since. The infamous thugs blocking the submission of a referendum question to the Election Committee about the Sunday shopping ban was one such effort from Fidesz.
It had, however, backfired. The images of bald thugs went viral and the Election Committee was in no position to reject the submission of the question again. There was too much attention.
So the opposition had to be let to submit their referendum questions on the Sunday shopping ban.
By Friday, it was cleared to go. In his first reaction, Orbán announced that he would never retreat and threatened to double down and extend the closure instead – in true Orbán fashion.
By Monday, a minister announced to let go. (By Tuesday, it was pushed through Parliament…)
What happened is that they knew for a fact that a referendum would be lost. To say that the Sunday closure was unpopular is an understatement. So they retreated – and it is newsworthy.
To illustrate how hard it is for Orbán to back down and let the people have their way, consider the case of tobacco stores. When a completely unnecessary and random piece of regulation to cover the windows of tobacco shops backfired (creating an epidemic of tobacco shop robberies and the eventual murder of a tobacco shop worker), Orbán had similarly refused to retreat and threatened with the death penalty instead. That time it worked. Throwing the death penalty into the public discourse was sure to divert attention. Then the issue fizzled out.
Not this time.
Orbán’s other almost-defeats include the non-introduction of the internet tax and the non-abolition of the disastrous centralisation of the education system. But he never actually had to retreat on an existing policy. It is his explicit strategy never to let the protesters win, not even in small things, to demonstrate that resistance is futile. He would rather lose a limb that be seen retreating. It comes from the zero-sum war-logic encoded in authoritarianism. Also, some say, from his personality.
Things to watch out for
Kremlinology is already running high around the votes. János Lázár, Orbán’s right hand man (for now) and oft-rumoured aspirant for succession, has denied to vote for the policy reversal. Orbán forbade him to vote ‘No’, so he abstained. (It will cost him HUF 100 000 in fine, because democracy…) But it is still a rebellion. He is a smart fox, and worth watching.
The opposition was already preparing for a referendum campaign with two other questions on corruption. The referendum was the opposition’s big chance to gain relevance. But it was presented by not their own competence, but by the miscalculation of Fidesz.
The opposition may weaken Orbán – but only Orbán can defeat himself. The aftermath of this retreat may turn out to be a turning point in his undisputable reign – for the better or for the worse. Nothing is more alarming than the notion that the majority is not behind him. Even the results of his infamous National Consultation surveys are confidential.
There are two other issues that may gain momentum on the back of this surprise victory:
1) Orbán’s wealth has hit the news recently with images of his Habsburg-era castle making the front pages.
2) The protest of teachers is slowly growing into tentative strikes that may spread to other parts of the public sector.
Neither of them can break Orbán – unless he makes a mistake.
On the civil society level I cannot sufficiently press how important it is that resistance finally worked. Even if it was just resistance in opinion polls.
And that’s a weakness. It was survey results that made the government change its stubborn course, not a pesky opposition or civil society. This may or may not ferment more bravery next time by unfreezing the sense of helplessness carefully cultivated by the authoritarian exercise of power over the past few years.
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Featured image: by 444.hu An opposition politician circling the time stamp machine at the Election Committee to be the first to submit the referendum question.