Analysis

Will Orbán make good on his threats to starve opposition cities?

The coming months will show whether Orbán cracks down on cities that elected a non-Orbánist mayor – or whether he chooses to hit a more conciliatory tone with them. Neither of them spells him well.

The weeks before the local elections Orbán visited known swing cities and threatened them. He claimed that the opposition wants to settle tens of thousands of migrants if they win, and then he went on explaining how exactly he won’t give any money to opposition-led towns. Don’t those towns want to be part of the future? Don’t they want development? Don’t they want money?

Remember, the cornerstone of Orbán’s system, voiced by him and his minions repeatedly, is that you can dissent if you like, but then Orbán won’t feed you. And no one else can feed you (Orbán disposes of all the resources) and no one else will dare to feed you because they want to stay away from Orbán’s wrath. If you join the gang, Orbán promises to take care of you – but there is nothing you can do to make that happen if you won’t. In other words complete, unilateral dependence. (This is why the Eger strongman said weeks before the elections at an internal meeting that there is still enough for everyone, there are still positions for those who are willing to bend the knee. He needed to say that because people honestly wonder.)

In his first reaction to Sunday’s local election results Orbán promised to accept the decision of Budapest citizens who have elected a non-Orbánist mayor and to cooperate with him. (It is not what he was telling before the election.)

The coming months will show whether Orbán cracks down in revenge or chooses to hit a more conciliatory tone with opposition cities. But neither one is a good option for an autocrat, who built his reign on the futility of dissent.

If people start to matter, especially opposition people, if Orbán has to re-start dialogue with opposition entities, they will suddenly exist again politically. Remember, Orbán has ceased to accept the legitimacy of his opposition, he doesn’t even debates opponents for this very reason. They are traitors, they are not Hungarians in his rhetoric, and we don’t debate the enemy, do we? We crush them. Giving them the resources to live would be equivalent to feeding the traitor, feeding the enemy. (In the campaign running up to this election the press was shocked to find that there were a handful of places where candidates actually debated. We don’t do that here anymore.)

But if we know anything about an autocracy, it is this: The moment the strongman is forced to make concessions, the moment he starts making gestures and yield to public will, the cracks on his system will widen into massive leaks and the dams holding back change crumble.

And the same thing happens if he cracks down on every “traitor” city and starves them of resources for the next five years. The opposition no longer considers itself illegitimate and unable to defeat Orbán’s regime. And people won’t swallow that easily if Orbán punishes 3.5 million (out of 9.7) citizens who happen to live in opposition-led cities.

Naturally, the real question is how everything became so centralized in the first place.

One of Orbán’s lesser known (abroad) moves was to cut back on local autonomy. Cities and towns can’t keep any income tax revenue, for instance, they have to humbly beg to the government every time they need to cover a pothole. And when they beg, their election results will be rubbed in their face.

Schools can’t buy a chalk without bureaucracy from the government, infrastructure crumbles without “help” from above, salaries are not paid and hospitals has to shut down if the government stiffs a city. Centralization of resources was one of the first thing Orbán did – and he can do it again. Mayors have much less room for maneuver under Orbán’s regime than they had before – and Orbán can tighten the grip even further with his control-less parliamentary majority and a subservient constitutional court that would never thwart him.

And that is before EU-money, Eastern Europe’s biggest cursed resource, comes into view. It may sound terribly logical to give the money to locals who know better how to spend than Brussels does – but just exactly how local should the recipient be? Can cities circumvent Orbán’s grip on the distribution of the EU development funds?

Apart from revenge and reconciliation, however, Orbán has a third option. Namely, saying one thing and doing the other. Oh yes, it works.

It would look something like this: Orbán announces that he generously gives a zillion forints to Budapest, despite its opposition leadership. But in reality he cuts every funding and starves Budapest.

Now the Orbánist media will featurethe word “zillion” in each and every headline and TV-spot. They will parrot the claim and it will stick, especially because no one ever used the word “zillion” before. And the opposition will left with no choice but to keep repeating “zillion” every time they deny that they received it.

The Fidesz online troll army will make sure to “list” a few things that even got funded with that such as a “newborn triplet hospital” and the example of the “newborn triplet hospital” will echo throughout the whole country. It will come up in every conversation when someone wants to defend Orbán – and accuse the opposition of misspending the non-existent “zillion”.

During the 30-year history of democracy in Hungary, people voting at local elections always knew that they are voting for more or less funds coming from the government, depending on the respective political parties. That is why local elections always helpfully take place after the general elections. This time, however, outrage (or something) was so strong that people chose not to care. They opted to vote against Orbán (it wasn’t a vote for the ragtag assembly of non-Orbánist candidates) despite the threats.

It is also possible that the anticipated next economic downturn will render Orbán’s dilemma moot. When Orbán has to tighten the belt the lesser cronies are bound to suffer a cut – and so are the opposition cities, whether Orbán wants it or not. A recession would look like economic revenge, even if cuts were a necessity.

But again, the real question is why he has so much power in the first place. Why he distributes so much of the GDP? Why Orbán reigns over the distribution of resources with an iron grip – and not the people who actually create those resources? After all, if those who are closer to the “local” level know better how to spend money, the best person to spend it is the individual.

Orbán shouldn’t have this much power in the first place. Now he will wish he could blame someone else.

Attack on courts and the media to resume and intensify

There is one thing that is almost certain to happen is the continued (and possibly intensified) attack on the remaining bits of independent media and the justice system. Orbán’s media grab created a formidable juggernaut – but it still didn’t protect his campaign from a single whistleblower blog that managed to lure hundreds of thousands of readers in the week before the elections.

And courts will become the new battleground for local corruption cases if the new non-Fidesz mayors decide to expose Fidesz’ contracts and dealings in their cities. The independence of the justice system had been under attack for a long time, but so far complete control eluded Orbán. His intendant failed to reign in the unruly judges and his plan to establish a parallel court system was temporarily iced to please EPP after the EU elections. But he has the supermajority to get both done. Orbán also owns prosecution and it might give his local crooks continued immunity from prosecution without any further crackdown on courts, but attacks on the court system are all but certain to intensify.

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