Part three of a thought experiment.
Predicting the future with imaginary hindsight is a fun tool.
It was inspired by talking heads who can always explain how the shocking things had happened – the day after they happened. These experts can tell you in detail how exactly the fall of the Berlin wall was inevitable – but only after it happened. Of course, these are ex post explanations with the benefit of hindsight – but they gave me an idea.
If Orbán’s regime would lose the next elections, what would these talking heads say the next day? Why did it happen?
4. Local strongmen having no grace exercising (Orbán’s) power
The country-level oligarchs that were made by Orbán may be out of the mental reach for many, but their local counterparts feel a bit closer to the locals. Close enough to envy them.
It may be a Sisyphean task for journalists to list all the breathtakingly overpriced stadiums, for instance, but locals know perfectly well if they have one in their townships. And the tiny, little outrages, like heated lawns when locals are dying in unheated homes, are observed.
A national journalist may not have the time to write yet another article about the nth castle and manor Orbán’s son-in-law received to have fun with – but the locals remember as it is staring them in the face day after day. And once they stop regarding legalized corruption as a law of nature, once they get the idea that something might be done against it, they will be just as hungry to do so as they are now to be kept being fed. It may not be for the most noble of reasons, but people might turn on their local masters of Orbánism in a heartbeat.
And local strongmen are often just as out of touch as Orbán is. Only with much fewer excuses. They like flaunting their money (Orbán claims to be dirt poor) and they are more likely to rub their power in people’s faces. Many of them also can’t remember a time when Orbán wasn’t the ultimate political will, the master of the law and redistribution, ten years is a long time. Orbán has also incorporated all the ex-communist comrades who know the nature of his regime very well from before 1989. But they will be just as fast to desert the ship as they were in 1989, if the tide turns.
5. Are there enough local cadres to replace the ones who disappoint?
It is easy to believe that if a local strongman fails to deliver the votes Orbán can just fire him – but it proved to be wrong. I’m not sure how it happened, but it is definitely a question worth digging.
Autocrats always have the same problem: they can’t have an heir. If they built one up, he could take over. Not to mention building one up would send the message that they are ageing – and that is weakness and autocracy crumbles on any sign of weakness. It leaves their countries exposed when one such beast dies – but of course, who cares. An autocrat’s rule is about him. His country is about him. So when he dies – he doesn’t care what happens to you.
Funnily enough, Orbán seems to have the same problem with his hit men that we have with him. There don’t seem to be enough of them (not quality ones) to replace one if he disappoints. Take the local election defeat.
After October 2019, Fidesz started blamestorming as to the cause of the defeat. There were some harrowing idiocies proposed by some loyalists, but Orbán appears to be zooming in on local strongmen – leaders of election districts who are also local MPs – for not delivering the mayoral seats. According to Fidesz’ internal conclusions personnel changes are needed. But the question remains: what will suffice – and whether there is an alternative elite to choose from.
Orbán has already said that ministers will not be dismissed, especially not due to pressure from the public, which he called a “Western European practice”. Instead, he claimed to talk things through with his ministers, to caress their smart little heads, gently support them and give them goals and time to correct their mistakes because “stability in governance is of great value”. (Sure, cuddle them, by all means. This is a politician welfare state, ladies and gentlemen.)
But he was not that kind to local strongmen. He ordered all district heads for rapport in January. The question is, surprisingly, whether he has enough quality cadres locally to replace all who disappointed him. In the district of Dunaújváros, for instance, a parliamentary byelection will take place on 16 February 2020, as the seat of an opposition MP is up for grab after he became mayor. Orbán would love to have a more comfortable margin to protect his two-third supermajority (without which he proved to be a lame duck between 2015-18) but his party couldn’t even deliver a candidate, let alone a winning one.
I repeat, Fidesz couldn’t find an MP candidate of their own (!!!!!!) in a major town. If it is not something to look into, I don’t know what is.
If the Fidesz-supported independent MP wins and later decides to join Fidesz in parliament, he will run into the very rules Fidesz had devised after the October defeat to keep the opposition from uniting: that independent MPs are not allowed to join any party once inside parliament. To say that Fidesz is in disarray – despite their comfy majority – is an understatement. Orbán may parade around in Europe as the strongman, but it might be the last time he can do so.
6. Unreliable polls
Voters hiding their preferences are always a bad sign. It signifies a very poor collective mental state, if not a vindictive regime. We have both and it had ruined all the pre-election polls.
Almost as soon as the ballots were counted and Fidesz mayors who lost their seats started speaking up there was word that Fidesz polls, even the ones for internal use, have been way out of ballpark. The natural explanation is hiding non-Fidesz voters. After nine years of Orbán’s rule, and the entire society saturated with fear of consequences, there aren’t many people who are reckless enough to report non-Orbán political sympathies on the phone to a caller who claims to be a pollster. Especially since we have fake pollsters.
It is a curious fact that Fidesz is so top-down that even the local mayors get their campaigning advice from the top – or “the center” as they put it. Advisers are dispatched from Budapest, they must be paid for by local taxpayer money, and their prescriptions must be followed to the letter. Their consultancy in the campaign is not optional, Fidesz mandates it. But they are also out of touch – a completely new phenomenon, but not surprising at all if we have a faintest clue as to the way top-down hierarchies distort information. There were multiple cases when the local Fidesz clearly stated that the poll numbers used by “the center” look off – but were ignored.