System Decay

Things are not going Orbán’s way

The most interesting piece of news last week wasn’t the US presidential elections. It was that the Kremlin was forced to deny that the czar is ill and needs to resign soon.

No matter what a Hungarian ruler claims or even believes, no historic change takes place here that goes against global events. And the imperialistic autocracy-export has always been emanating from Moscow.

If Putin gets weak, he will have no friends or fans since his power is built on the threat of strength, not values. And the entire cast of his global puppet show will be suddenly left without a hand to animate them, left to their own devices.

Some of these illiberal strongmen will be helpless without their godfather. Others, like Orbán, are not stupid, but they will still be moving against the trend. Orbán’s regime is organic in the sense that it has exploited the historic traumas of Hungarian society (also emanating from Moscow) of the 20th century. But the story is still the same. Without Moscow, the export of autocracy will run out of steam – in much the same way democracy export is impossible without the US. (That is why Orbán doesn’t deserve to become a byline for autocracy, he is simply not that important or inventive.)

Putin may not be ill at all. But the rumor in itself is bad for a strongman, sparking speculation about succession and fears of the chaos that inevitably follows every strongman – they make sure of that.

Naturally, the US presidential elections and Trump’s defeat is also not inconsequential to Hungary. Yes, Trump can wreak havoc until January and a lot of things can happen. But if Biden becomes president, the US might start behaving like a country again. Last time they did that, the US embassy managed to embarrass and call out Orbán on his regime’s corruption – and corruption was more humble back then. Orbán’s sudden and secretive move to write a new method of corruption into the constitution a few days after Biden’s election looks like a signal that he is worried about it, too.

The US may not resume foreign policy activism, but simply not ignoring/aiding corruption and autocracy would make a huge difference.

Among other vanguards of the illiberal trend, Brexit is not going well at all. There is simply no way to get out of it looking good, no matter what straws they find to cling to, no matter what tiny little thing they will claim as proof of success. And the Muslim threat Orbán wished to build his international reputation on appears to be just fine without him. Macron and Kurz didn’t suddenly run to Orbán to tell him he was right and they were wrong.

Add the European Parliament’s recent determination to force rule of law conditionality into the spending of EU finds in Hungary, despite what the Council and the Commission wanted, and Orbán has a threat that cuts straight to the lifeblood of his regime: the spending of EU money independent of his will.

If even a fraction of that money would circumvent him, it can drop a lifeline to entities that are not his loyalists, make local authorities a little less dependent on him, create entities that can stand up and say no to him. Years of hard work to make every spending go through him would be undone, no surprise that he threatens to veto the economic rescue package deal for all of Europe to avoid it. His little ass in power is more important than the future of every business and every person in Europe.

Belarus is an interesting development, too. It is difficult to know how much Orbán is relying on Lukashenka – or whether they are just autocratic soul mates – but the incredible courage of the Belorussian people will not fade without consequence.

It is easier to ascertain how close Orbánˋs ties are with Erdogan – right at the time when the Turkish royal family is imploding under the pressure of their own economic incompetence. There have always been stories about assorted Turkish businessmen buying things up with political backing in Hungary, the last such story was about a family given full citizenship and allowed to buy a substantial chunk of Hungarian power generation capacity. The timing here is crucial.

Poland is also a weak spot in Orbán’s armor. Kaczyński may be an enthusiastic ally in political Christianism, but he had never gained the most important ingredient of Orbánism: the parliamentary overmajority that makes the rest of the takeovers possible. Orbán used his magic 2/3 to rewrite the constitution until it meant what he wanted it to mean, and to stuff every independent institution with loyalists. The Polish people also have more fighting spirit in them – not least because they have never experienced the good cop of late communism that could have broken them – and it would look odd if they gave up in light of the courage of their Belorussian neighbours. Kaczyński may be explicitly copying Orbán, but he simply doesn’t have Orbán’s most damaging tool at his disposal.

If Poland fails to keep marching down the road to serfdom, Orbán might find himself without a veto buddy in the EU. That would mean the commencement of the Article 7 procedure in the EU and with the suspension of voting rights the end of Orbán’s veto to the EU budget if it is linked to rule of law conditions. That is a major leg of his reign.

On the domestic front, Orbán is no better off. People can see all the above. It emboldens his opponent and discourages his fans. They don’t like weakness.

Frantic attempts to “talk to youth” and draw them away from anti-establishment rebellion are also doomed to fail. It is difficult to sell an establishment party ten years in power as hip and rebellious, especially when they try it with what they think youthful methods are.

Covid hasn’t helped any government, and if Orbán would lose due to the economic discontent of the Covid-fallout, it would be almost unfair. Almost. Because spending the uncounted billions that were supposedly earmarked for aiding the economy almost entirely on cronies, church, football, sport events and hunting exhibitions, while showing utter contempt (financial and otherwise) for both healthcare professionals and patients could and should misfire.

Not to mention the blatant and open effort to kill Budapest and other cities that dared to elect non-Orbánist mayors by removing all their tax revenues and hitting them with extra burdens to top it off. No one appears to believe the regime’s message that it is a proof that the opposition cannot lead cities, pointing at opposition mayors who didn’t submit so they are not good leaders. People are not looking at the opposition mayors for explanation, they knew it would happen when they voted for them. They are still looking at the king.

A lot can happen still. 2021 is not an election year and these things could all fizzle out by 2022. But Orbán’s apparent panic makes it look like these blows may cut even deeper than they look. It will definitely hurt us. They question is whether they hurt him – or he can double down.

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