Commentary

The curious case of Hungary’s 133 bravest men

When the announcement about the infamous enabling act was made in parliament that allowed Orbán’s government to rule by decree infinitely with the corona excuse, Orbán made a weird little quip calling his MPs “the 133 bravest men in Hungary”. 

At the time everyone was more preoccupied with the WTF of the enabling act, but this little remark was admittedly odd. After a few days, gossip started to emerge about those fateful days and hours – another highly unusual thing under this regime – that shed some light on what was going on behind the scenes and why the enabling act was really needed by Orbán. It is not what you think it is.

Did you know that Orbán could have lost his 2/3 overmajority without it? 

For the purposes of this story, you must keep one date in mind – and that is October 2019, when the united opposition delivered a blow to Orbán at the municipal elections, beating him in half the cities and Budapest.

By that time Orbán’s regime was so final in his followers’ minds that Fidesz mayors who lost their seats openly wondered whether they should really hand over power just because they lost the election. It was no longer obvious to them. The unspoken assumption was that Orbánism made sure that it can never happen. (Indeed, the last pre-corona poll confirmed that the majority of Orbánists believed that he couldn’t be removed by elections any more.)

But the time to openly flout the election result hasn’t come yet and the defeated mayors reluctantly left their offices, some leaving shredded documents and empty folders behind, others taking them home, and in one case the entire staff of the local authority quit, down to the last driver, to render the district unmanageable (or because they didn’t want to be contaminated by working for an opposition mayor).

Orbán gave a 100 day “patience period” to the new mayors (like that is totally appropriate for a prime minister to attack mayors) and decided to handle them later, once his troubles in Brussels had been taken care of. He had to secure the uninterrupted flow of EU money, and give enough time for the corrupt EPP politicians to forget (yet again) that they were supposed to shut Orbán out already.

Meanwhile, Orbán’s communication juggernaut has been pivoting for new enemies.

On March 10, Orbán’s version of Pravda – the Party mouthpiece that regularly pre-announces decisions, incites against political targets in anonymous editorials, and tests the waters before new measures – announced that the new “national consultation” campaign will commence mid-March, and it will be targeting gypsies, judges and civil society attorneys representing inmates in what Orbán named “prison business”, the court-mandated compensation for poor prison conditions. “People’s sense of justice has been wounded,” Orbán announced. From the supposed results of the manipulative direct mail campaign, new laws would be passed before the end of the same month (!), the article claimed.

The new hate campaign was all set and loaded with the biggest ever communication budget earmarked to it, and nothing could stop it. Except for covid-19.

According to the first background article, Orbán was really reluctant to let go of his new prey. Similarly to other leaders of his ilk worldwide, he dismissed the significance of the pandemic. He is also incredibly stubborn and changing course prompted by reality would mean losing face to reality and let reality believe that it is the top dog – autocrats always reach this point in their little lives.

Not only was the public more frightened of covid-19 than it was of the scary-scary (but equally invisible) migrant threat that Orbán built up since 2015 – his own MPs were also scared. And this requires some explanation.

Orbán’s 133 MPs are old. They threatened with dissent(!)

Orbán’s MPs are not in any way relevant, their names don’t deserve mention, as they are not there for their individual little opinions anyway. Fidesz MPs are voting machines. Failing to vote according to the party line results in cash penalties. A few votes and they see their entire salary withheld, and they are not there to be heroes or martyrs, they are there for that money and for the juicy bones thrown at them and their constituencies – but strictly in the discretion of Orbán. They don’t vote against Orbán ever.

Orbán’s MPs, the basis of his 2/3 overmajority are in no way relevant to what happens or what gets voted. But they were scared this time and demanded crackdowns weeks before they happened. Which took Orbán b surprise – when it finally reached his ears, that it.

Unfortunately to the scared Fidesz MPs, there was another entity demanding crackdowns, and that was the opposition. And since we all know that whatever the opposition demands must not happen, Orbán was even less likely to yield.

But then he had to. And he is nothing if not adaptive. He managed to change from anti-lockdown to pandemic savior and kick the opposition at its own game. Once he turned, he did it with a bang. His sarcastic reference to the 133 bravest men in Hungary makes a lot more sense if we know that he pivoted under (highly unusual) pressure from his own, otherwise quiet and subservient MPs, whose fear of corona overtook their fear of Orbán, but only because their old, corrupt ass seemed to be at risk.

Orbán didn’t need the enabling act for anything he couldn’t do without it. But only in possession of the votes of the 133 bravest men. Now they don’t matter again.

But Orbán could still have lost his supermajority. No, not to one of his old MPs falling victim to corona (although that, too), but to a byelection. (More about that in the next post.)

Maybe the enabling act was not meant as a premeditated step into limitless dictatorship – but that doesn’t mean it cannot end up being one. After all, the regime is like a shark. Once it tasted blood, it might develop a taste for it. After the regime tasted truly uncontrolled power and how much easier it is to do their business under the cloak secrecy and the speed that the corona-excuse had provided, they may not be willing to part with it.

It will be the story of 2020 whether Orbán lets go of the precious.

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