There are two thought experiments for predicting the future in an environment that is chronically short of public information – such as an autocracy. One is a what-if scenario, asking yourself what would be obvious with hindsight if a certain thing happened. The other one is looking at the things the autocrat worries about.
Predicting the future is difficult enough when we have all the information the public deserves in a democratic, citizen-centered regime. But it becomes devilishly difficult when we are deprived of information by a less than democratic regime.
One of the tools to circumvent such an information vacuum (and maybe even craft a strategy) is imaginary hindsight – when we imagine why it would have been obvious if a certain (unlikely) event happened.
The other one is looking at what political actors, such as the autocrat, are afraid of. (Rather than obsessing about what they say/do.)
It is not always what we would think they should be afraid of. And when it comes to autocrats who keep us in the dark regarding the workings of power (and thus our future), it is often all that we have.
Take Putin, for instance. His Botox habit is not necessarily a signal of vanity. It can tell us what he is truly afraid of (politically speaking): appearing old and thus weak. Age in an autocrat is not taken as a sign of wisdom, after all, but that of weakness and an impending death. And death still appears to be the only method the world gets rid of despots.
Putin’s fear of appearing less than youthful is telling. Humanity has a poor track record of doing away with autocrats. More often than not, only their death rids us of them. And approaching 70, the world’s top puppet master knows that – and so do his minions. If Putin would one day turn up with a slight limp, even if it’s from a gym accident dead lifting tons, his own dogs would catch a whiff of weakness and the foundation of his rule would crumble. This is not to say that there would be fight for his post or that there’s anyone who could or would take over. Only that the system would start to crumble, minds would be fermented with calculations, certainties would be gone and a lot more things would look imaginable. And once an alternative to his eternal rule seems possible – the minds resigned to his inevitability would start to speculate.
Orbán also appears to be aware of his age and weakening, even though he is much younger than Putin (57 and 68 years, respectively). Even one of his former lieutenants dared to say this out loud in an interview. And it was such a touchy subject that there was even furious denial from the loyalist press, those who are mentally fine tuned to protect their master. So it’s official, I am not the only one who sees the signs of fatigue.
What would happen if he appeared old and tired in the eyes of his followers and enemies? It is difficult to say. My first guess is that his opponents are so tangled up in reacting to the chew toys he keeps throwing them that they are not even taking the long view. They are not analyzing his weaknesses with the eye of a strategist – they merely react to him, panicking. As long as even his opposition is so deeply convinced of Orbán’s invincibility, reality has no chance of catching up with him. Maybe a nuclear disaster or a virus – but not people.
What would happen within his own party if he showed signs of weakness? If he made a mistake that cannot be denied.
It is more difficult to say. The answer hinges upon your judgement on whether there are any power centers in his party that may even dream about taking over, about being the next king. And that is not at all obvious.
Every time someone in Fidesz gathers some popularity and political capital independent from Orbán, that politician is made to do something terrible. Like signing the end of the rule of law, or sent to Brussels to burn his reputation defending Orbán. When his backpack-carrier-turned-deputy-PM appeared like he is above the anti-migrant hatemongering hysteria of Orbán’s election campaign, Orbán made the guy to post the lowest racist videos on Facebook (his first ever social media post), burning his own reputation as a moderate.
At this point it is hard to say who would even fancy himself as Orbán’s successor in Fidesz. It is is his own party, under hegemonic rule, Fidesz doesn’t make the slightest sense without him at the helm. Only a seriously deluded idiot would believe that he could take over all that Orbán is in his own regime: top oligarch, top distributor, master of economic life and death, keeper of secrets and kompromat, center of the patronage system – and a demigod for many of his followers. His legal seat as prime minister is about the least important thing about his power.
But showing weakness may still bring fermentation in the system – even the local election hiccup made many loyalists spill the beans and give up 2022 in head. They may not take over – but they may leave him at the first sign of weakening.
Another fear of Orbán is talking to the independent media. He calls it being misunderstood and being treated with hostility – but the fact is, he is more than capable of burning himself as he can’t seem to be be able to control what he says.