How it feels like

An authoritarian regime must never retreat

The futility of resistance is the cornerstone of authoritarianism. It is called helplessness. When its victims internalize that there is nothing they can do, there is nothing they can change, no courts, no media, no election, no protest can achieve anything – they will be much cheaper to subdue. And once they have internalized that sense of helplessness, it is very hard to unlearn it.

Outsiders often assume that Hungarians (as such) don’t even protest what’s happening. They do. Some of them do. What citizens of free countries don’t begin to grasp is that protests don’t matter to an autocrat. If anything, they deepen the sense of helplessness in protesters every time they achieve nothing. Which is all the time.

People seem to forget, so it might be worth repeating: Oppression means that the will of the people doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter when they voted, nor when they turned to courts, so why would it suddenly matter when they express it by protesting? It just looks livelier on camera, but autocrats have no shame. If they don’t meet the unstoppable force, they will not turn back.

A democratic regime can live with policy reversals, it can take criticism and change its policy based on public demand – in fact, things are much less likely to deteriorate to the point when a thoroughly unpopular motion gets passed.

But an autocrat cannot admit that he was wrong. He has to built his power on the futility of resistance. The regime has to teach the population that resistance is always futile – so that they will eventually stop trying. It is useful as it makes the maintenance of power as cheap as possible. Physical enforcement is pricey. But creating apathy is cheap, and it is an equally good way to break future resistance.

Authoritarian power over you is also a zero-sum game. Either people have a say in their own lives – or the regime does – there can be no middle ground.

Orbán’s retreats

No protest has ever achieved anything under Orbán (with the lame exception of a proposed internet tax – see below) and the resulting apathy is one of the gravest issues in Hungary right now. It baffles international public opinion, but it has a very simple explanation. No protest has ever yielded anything. No one, not even the janitor of the Parliament talks to protesters – and when they do, it is even worse.

The apologetic protest of teachers against the debilitating centralization and politicization of elementary and secondary education had, for instance, been met with an actual delegation by Fidesz – only to secure a handshake with the teachers’ delegate on camera, who later admitted that he was duped. He had been reassured of everything, but no promise has been kept, none of their demands has been met. The teachers relapsed in even deeper apathy – if at all possible.

It is also very telling that throughout their protests the teachers were very keen to express that they were “not political” – meaning that they are not associated with opposition parties – but also that they are desperate not to upset the power.

Orbán had only been forced to retreat on five issues since 2010.

1.

The first was in 2012 when a months-long online protest and scathing ridicule has forced the President, Pál Schmitt, to resign for plagiarism. Well, ‘forced’ is not the right word. There was no need for him to resign, public opinion has no power over Orbán. And the President was Orbán’s loyal friend, a sport-related political persona, once a member of an Olympic team – and one of the pillars of Budapest’s infamous Olympic bid. The president is a political figurehead with merely symbolic powers, but Orbán didn’t want to lose face by letting him go. He put a lot of force behind Schmitt, but eventually he let go of him. But the president is a symbolic position, and it happened when Orbán’s power wasn’t complete yet.

There was no active act of resistance by the public. Orbán backpedaled, for the last time.

2.

The second crack happened in 2014 when mass protests broke out at the proposal of an internet tax – a minor item on the government ongoing taxation drive, yet with surprising galvanizing power. But the proposal was not a law yet and Orbán managed to push the defeat on a minion – who then drowned the issue into a “consultation with the people”.

3.

In 2016 Fidesz had to perform a U-turn on the mandatory Sunday closure of retail stores. By that time Orbán had won a reelection and extended his powers considerably. When the policy of Sunday retail closure was introduced, it was a distraction from the Fidesz scandal of the day – as much as it was an attack on Hungary’s retail sector (an Orbán policy). The Sunday closure was uncalled for, wildly unpopular, and it produced farcical results. But when a referendum about it became a possibility (despite physical threats and every possible legal obstacle put in its way) – Orbán was forced to drop it. It didn’t go down well for him, he threatened to keep it and even extend it until the last moment, but eventually he let go of the policy for the time being.

But this retreat was still not a win for the opposition, or the expression of discontent by the people. The reason it was cancelled was in the opinion polls – a passive form of resistance – there was no active citizen resistance.

4.

That came a few years later with the appearance of Momentum, a youth movement-turned-party. It has been the most significant crack on Orbán’s regime yet. In 2017 Momentum successfully managed to collect a stunning number of signatures against Orbán’s pipedream for Budapest to host the 2024 Olympic Games.

By 2017, signing someone’s name, ID number and address on a petition against Orbán felt as a risky act – yet so many people did it that Orbán had to cancel the Olympic bid. It was a hugely symbolic disaster, even more so since it hit Orbán’s personal sport-fanatism, as well as a massive public procurement opportunity for friendly oligarchs.

They have never stopped the preparations and spending though and Orbán has demonstratively stepped up his sport event hosting game, hinting that one day there will be Olympics in Budapest anyway.

5.

The last act of resistance came at the voting booth. Just weeks before the 2018 general elections, a local mayoral byelection delivered stunning defeat for the Fidesz candidate in an all-time Fidesz stronghold, Hódmezővásárhely. Thousands of first-time voters walked up to the voting station and voted on the opposition candidate, who had all non-Fidesz parties’ support. The defeat was so shocking that Fidesz spent the rest of the election campaign mobilizing all their sleeping agents in the opposition parties to block any further election coalition. They didn’t even mind that it was obvious.

And when the general election came, the last blow to electoral control was delivered – a seriously suspicious election when a mass of votes have been evaporated and the government didn’t offer any credible excuse why. Whether one believed that there was wide-scale electural fraud or not, Fidesz’ surprise third supermajority took away the last drops of the sense of electoral control and cemented in the sense of helplessness that is such a great pillar of Orbán’s reign.

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