The election defeat triggered phenomena long unseen on the Hungarian political landscape to reappear. One of them was Fidesz politicians giving interviews to non-dependent media.
It would be a huge thing in itself, but it gets even better. They allowed themselves some – incredibly soft – criticism of Fidesz and even Orbán. Some of them are anonymous, but we didn’t even have that until now.
Let me list a few examples of comments made by Fidesz politicians to the non-dependent media since their election defeat (a non-victory really) in October 2019. These comments’ sheer existence is an event – and their content is a priceless clue for Kremlinologists. We have nothing else about Fidesz’ inner workings.
Shortly after the elections a few critical pieces appeared to everyone’s surprise.
A publicist of Magyar Nemzet, the flagship daily swallowed by Orbán’s media, had dared to talk to Orbán with a hint of amicable, constructive criticism (a distinctly Soviet-style thing). It was written in an incredibly subservient style – but it was still criticism.
It was printed as a letter to Orbán, even though his name is not explicitly mentioned. It reads like a love sonnet by a hurt, abused spouse:
“We need to finally talk! … What is between us is not what it used to be, you can feel it, too. When we first met, we smiled at each other and you said “Listen to your heart!” And we did that, we went after you. With you. We didn’t regret it. It was beautiful, it was uplifting, even at times when we ran into something bad. … We used to talk about our problems, we used to talk it out, and even if we bickered sometimes, our disputes were amicable. We bickered for each other. Back then, you were honest! … These days, there is no honest chitchat between us. You rarely listen to us anymore. Even when you do, you do not care about our opinions, you’re doing what you think is right. We stand by you, even though few actually know what is happening around you anymore. Do you really think everything is as it used to be? Is it possible that you are wrong? You took us for granted and moved on. Maybe because you know that we are here, that we will always remain your believers, you can do anything to us. Don’t do it! Be kind again, be loveable like you used to be!”
–Polgári körök by György Pilhál, 16 November 2019
He was not the only publicist who dared the unimaginable and gently scolded Orbán to bring back the good old days when they were friends and they were all allowed to talk to him. He was reacting to another Orbánist publicist, who had similar things to say – begging for the question, how dare they?
“The human voice disappeared along with admitting to mistakes, explaining successes, and the curious dialogue, the interest in other opinions. Instead, we have strongman politics and messages crafted by think-tanks and carefully measured out by pollsters.“
–Translation by Internal criticism resurfaces in Fidesz index.hu 8 January 2020
He also opined that “Fidesz irritates more and more people,” “many are angry at the government,” and the way the government “cooperates with the citizens” rubs them entirely the wrong way.
There were a few surprisingly senior Fidesz members who also commented. One of the is Fidesz-founder and outgoing constitutional judge István Stumpf, who said in an interview that while polls paint a rosy picture about the government, he senses a “significant dissatisfaction amongst some conservative intellectuals, as values that were previously held dear are forced into the background, and local leaders of Fidesz know no boundaries or standards.”
Stumpf didn’t blame Orbán for the dissatisfaction, he blamed the behavior of some party members, possibly joining the ranks of those who think that the sex tape mayor single-handedly brought down Fidesz. He also mentioned the youth and sensed that they are morally motivated to change the government, then he called Orbán perhaps old and tired. Those things are a huge blow for an autocrat who builds his power on the pillar of his inevitability and the perception of his invincibility.
In December 2019, József Répás, the reelected Fidesz mayor of Kiskunlacháza gave an unusual interview to Magyar Hírlap („Csak hittel lehet művelni a politikát” 23 December 2019 Magyar Hírlap). What’s interesting about his interview is that he is a mayor of a small town with 9000 inhabitants – if such a small fry can afford to speak out of party line in Fidesz’s national media, that is news.
As for the possible causes of the defeat he mentioned communication issues within Fidesz. He also stated that Fidesz has lost touch with the Hungarian youth, but he had only stale ideas like info points where government can talk to youth and vice versa.
He also mentions economic challenges ahead, echoing Orbán, who has been incessantly talking about the coming economic crisis since his election triumph in 2018. Répás also gave his view on youth, lamenting that they no longer vote for the same party for life, that party identities no longer run in families throughout generations – giving away just how identitarian gang politics have become. His complaints are echoed by other Fidesz politicians talking about youth. Without an ethnic identity, they complain, youth might even dare to vote against their government, even though said government helpfully calls itself ethnically national.
There have also been a range of Fidesz mayors who talked to various papers anonymously. Their complaints about Fidesz’ campaign are a revealing insight into the absurd and bizarre nature of Fidesz. Many mayors have complained, for instance, about the top-down, centrally orchestrated campaign, with the simplistic message that the opposition is un-fit. They all received a team from Budapest, the Fidesz HQ, who told them what to do, even if they protested. And local Fidesz and mayors even had to pay for the advice. Not only were internally used polls way out of ballpark, their messages often didn’t sit well with locals. As a result, at least one local mayor decided to pay the advisers to go home – and ran his own campaigns instead and was reelected.
István Tarlós, the previous, Fidesz-backed mayor of Budapest told Index.hu in an interview in November that he should not have allowed other people to run his campaign, also referring to the Fidesz HQ’s campaign team. The main news here is that a Fidesz-backed politician talked to independent media.
From the words of these complaining mayors it appears that the urban-rural rift has been created within Fidesz. The new generation of young and hungry Fidesz soldiers appear to have internalized a more urban approach, possibly due to their fast affluence, Western education and youthful dynamism. Being out of touch with local issues may be their affliction that transferred all the way up in the party. Local mayors lament that they have been sidelined within Fidesz and only the parliamentary fraction gets any attention. Fidesz strongmen are the leaders of election districts, not mayors, and they tend to run for parliament. The complaint that crucial or negative information is withheld from Orbán on purpose, probably because no one wants to bear the bad news, has been recurring.
János Lázár, former deputy PM and Orbán’s right hand minister has been sidelined after his district, Hódmezővásárhely, produced the shocking byelection defeat for Fidesz in 2018. But after the local elections in 2019, Lázár gave a number of interviews criticizing Orbán – partly posturing as a better politician more in tune with the people (even mentioning education and healthcare as things that need to improve, a startling thing) and partly in direct criticism. Lázár went as far as saying Fidesz “is no longer working with reality.” He even said the unimaginable, that Fidesz has no more than a 50-50 chance at winning in 2022.
Orbán called them old friends who are entitled to their opinions. Some heard a chill in his voice.