In an autocracy, public opinion must be managed – not appeased. That means intimidating people and showing them that nothing would work against the powerful. For public opinion it means that it must not be allowed to change anything.
With time, the people learn that their outrage will not achieve anything, so better not get worked up about blatant corruption and lawlessness on the top. They also learn that even when something really hurts, especially when something really hurts, they better not complain or whimper, because that would just force the autocrat to punish them even more. They easily understand why oppression requires that from an autocrat. So they suffer on, hoping that their plight is seen and their obedient silence will be rewarded with some easing of the pain. One can only hope in an autocracy – never actually control anything. That is the point of the autocracy.
In the early stages of autocracy the ignoring of public outrage (and doubling down on the scandal just to show them) is usually coupled with a face-saving excuse to still support the autocrat. It is a very commonly voiced opinion that even though Fidesz is stealing without even trying to hide it, “at least we know who they are – we don’t know the others”. Or if another set of politicians would gain power “they would have to start stealing from scratch – these ones are at least already full”. The latter excuse is obviously hoping that the theft will stop and the Fidesz comrades might one day start to govern or something – ignoring the looming dread that thieves might not be good at governing and it may be more than just their imminent need to enrich themselves that stands between them and wise, if a bit cruel, governance.
In an autocratic system and anti-corruption drive is not what you think it is. It is not meant to clean up anything, it only serves as a message to the loyalists. And the message is that they, too, can be removed and have no control over their political faith.
An anti-corruption purge in an autocracy is not about the placation of the public opinion, even if it accidentally also serves that purpose. In fact, an autocrat might want to hold back on open anti-corruption measures, lest the public gets the idea that public opinion matters. The public opinion in an autocratic regime needs to be managed and influenced from the top down – not placated and vindicated. People may get the idea that their outrage matters and it changes things – and unlearn the helplessness that had been so carefully planted in their minds.
This is why it is difficult to see what motivated the downfall of a corrupt local politician.
Since nothing here happens if the higher-ups didn’t explicitly command it, especially not in prosecution, when a bunch of local strongmen were exposed and prosecuted the first guess was an internal purge. On the zenith of his power, when the October 2019 local election defeat hasn’t happened yet, Orbán may have thought it was a good time to demonstrate precedent and take his cronies down a notch. After all, they were flouting their ill-gotten wealth and being Orbán’s local representatives to decide who gets EU funds and who doesn’t even get to keep his job. They were also openly bragging about being above the law.
These things don’t get you prosecuted here anymore, as long as you’re a member of the gang.
A couple of months ago two Fidesz local strongmen got into the limelight because the prosecution, inexplicably, decided to move against them. Speculation started why it was allowed. Where authorities are perceived following orders rather than the law, legal action against politically connected strongmen appears like an internal issue within the party, rather than the regular course of the law. Even if they are obviously corrupted, even if the corruption is out in the open, even if it is documented. If prosecution makes a move, people ask who gave them the order – because no one believes that they are still following rules.
For subjects of an autocratic regime such a purge looks like the license to hunt down a few strongmen, and people wonder why. Is it a message within the Fidesz camp reminding them that their positions are at the mercy of the king – or is it a message to the public? Is the regime behaving alongside the logic of a democracy where public opinion matters – or an autocracy where competing gangs within the ruling party have conducted an assassination against each other? And most importantly – is it a beginning of a decline?
Orbán has been long rumored to be dissatisfied with things going on in his System of Economic Cooperation (NER for short) – the fancy name of a hand-picked, politically connected oligarchy. In particular, Orbán was said to have expressed displeasure at certain individuals taking individual incentives, creaming off more than their assigned percentage, or using their position for extorting money on their own account.
But letting courts be the judge of anything is against his vision of the country. He had often proudly bragged that only the liberals squabble internally. Nationalists show a united front and close ranks, especially when they have to cover up murder. And in the mind of an authoritarian submissive it is a reason to vote for him – not to shun his party that openly puts power above public interest – even the pretense of it.
Our question is now answered. As one of the heroic anti-corruption crusaders in the opposition, Ákos Hadházy revealed, this was not an internal purge but a glitch in Orbán’s well-oiled steal-and-bully mechanism called NER.
Two prosecutors let their professional duty and conscientiousness run amok and pushed these cases along. They were both fired. One committed suicide.
At the cost of the terrible personal damage they sustained, they managed to push the case far enough so that the chief prosecutor couldn’t stop it – not even by firing more men.
And how we know this? Because the defendant was caught on tape (again) bragging about it.
This was also the case when the chief prosecutor (and one of the two pillars of Orbán’s regime – next to EU funds) accidentally gave it in writing that a law has been changed in an attempt to save this measly local MP from prosecution.