Der Untergang

The myth of Orbán’s talent

Now that Orbán’s myth of invincibility is broken, people are suddenly starting to see his shortcomings as a politician.

In October 2019 the myth of Orbán’s invincibility, one of his greatest assets, has been shattered. In 2020 the myth of his political infallibility has followed suit. Now that they are not frozen like rabbit in a headlight, economists are starting to wonder whether Orbánˋs talent is truly that great.

What is it, really that Orbán did so well? What was of his own making – and what was just a lucky circumstance (which he had exploited with talent)?

As of the myth of Orbán’s political talent, it is perhaps important to remember that his current success in creating an uncontested autocracy has been resting on two preconditions – neither of which has been of his own making.

Firstly, his two-third, constitutional overmajority in parliament that he owns without coalition partners or any dissent from the ranks of his MPs.

Secondly, the unprecedented, massive avalanche of easy money flowing from the European Union – a flow that first picked up pace under Orbán’s reign.

And thirdly – he has never governed through economic hardship.

1. His 2/3 supermajority in 2010 was in big part a protest vote against the previous government

And the subsequent 2/3 supermajorities were ever easier, based on this first one. As Orbn tells the story to his political fan girls like the Slovenian or Polish wannabe autocrats: you only have to win once – but win big.

Outsiders will point out that Orbán’s Fidesz technically does have a coalition partner, but that is just for technical reasons. No one actually believes that the Christian democratic KDNP has any political weight, not least because it hasn’t been a party with any measurable support of its own for more than a decade. Its presence in the “coalition” is pure optics. Apart from serving as the supposed source of political Christianist policy proposals (such as closing retail stores on Sudnays, homophobia, and the hatemongering against non-traditional lifestyles) KDNP helps Fidesz to plant twice as many men into well-paid positions and twice as many votes in committees. Most recently it had helped Orbán to maintain a presence in Fidesz’ European party family, EPP, pretending that they were totally not Fidesz when Fidesz was gently “self-suspended” for uncivilized behavior.

And the 2/3 parliamentary majority in 2010 wasn’t solely due to Orbánˋs formidable political talents either, but partly a voter backlash against the previous government’s sins, an economic recession, the mortgage crisis, and a massive austerity package to salvage the economy.

Had Orbán not gained a constitutional majority in 2010, he would not have been in the position to do just as much damage to democracy in the following years. The following supermajorities happened on an increasingly tilted electoral field and with increasingly lopsided rules and campaign resources between Orbán and his opponents.

Due to the supermajority, the source of power has first migrated from the parliament to the Fidesz fraction, then to the party, which is to say to Orbán himself. His iron grip on his MPs was questioned in 2020 for the first time, when the pandemic started and his old MPs got scared. That is why he needed the enabling act.

2. Without EU money, Hungary would still be a democracy

The second source of Orbán’s formidable power was the unprecedented avalanche of EU funds that hit the country during his reign. Again, Orbán had nothing to do with the timing, he merely exploited it. He made sure that not a single cent of the money can be spent without his approval, starving the opposition and civilians, while paying his loyalists handsomely. He practically bought power on EU cash.

According to an analysis, 7 million euros a day have been sent from Brussels to Hungary during the 12 years between 2004 (Hungary’s EU accession) and 2016. The bulk of that money came during the reign of the Orbán-administration as payouts only really kicked in 2008 (their effect wasn’t felt due to the crisis) and only really became visible from 2012. By 2020, the EU funds gravy train is a massive fuel for building a loyalist base for Orbán and stemming resistance. Just think about the example of Budapest (population:1.7 million), that is currently starved for voting against Orbán – and tiny Tokaj (population:3900) awarded 400 million in EU money as a reward for loyalty. That is 50% of Budapestˋs annual budget (before Covid). Ten years of this dynamic and it is a miracle there is still an opposition to his autocracy. Whoever didnˋt swap to Orbánˋs side had to watch as his family went without money, while the Orbánists were bragging about their billions, built themselves houses on EU cash, accumulated money that was simply not possible in any other way but skimming a taxpayer somewhere.

In light of how much Orbán’s autocracy has been resting on the pillar of a never-before-seen amount of money at his disposal to buy loyalty – coupled with Brussels willingness to let him distribute it all by himself – it is painfully ironic how the entire world is expecting the stupefied, divided and starved Hungarian opposition to fix their own problems. The problem is only partially domestic. Just like in 1956 when resistance against the Russian occupation was bound to fail, no matter how many brave men and women took to the street to protest the Soviet tanks, the resistance to Hungary’s current autocratic push (also emanating from Moscow) is also facing formidable enemies – from outside of Hungary. Those, who enable it financially, are sending in the financial equivalent of tanks – and I am quoting Fidesz again.

Orbán’s third weakness are his loyalists.

There seems to be an odd shortage of talented cadres who also understand the rules of loyalism. It is small consolation that all the EU cash couldnˋt buy Orbán a smarter army of loyalists – but it is also inevitable, as loyalism is not a smart manˋs game.

In 2019, when Fidesz’ election machinery hit its first speed bump since 2006, Orbánists were quick to speak out and complained to the media. Many have written off their chances in 2022, and as if the sentiment was pervasive, big shot Fidesz MPs have abandoned their Budapest electoral districts 18 months before the elections for safer constituencies. Orbán has always delivered them the money from Brussels and even the election victories – and now that their father failed to deliver they acted like all was lost.

As of the non-Orbánists, when the intimidation of power is gone, when fear is gone, there will be no love for Orbán to take its place. He had not built his power on the basis of real popularity, much of the incentives to support him were rooted in his strength. With that lost, some will not even remember they had ever supported Orbán.

But that doesn’t mean that Orbán can now be beaten in his own election system, or that any government that follows him would be able to govern.

3. Orbán never governed through economic hardship – and he has been anticipating it since 2018

Analysts now openly wonder whether Orbán would be able to govern through an actual economic recession. He may have been at the helm for a long time, but never long enough for an economic cycle to catch up with him. But after ten years and with an economic crisis looming some start to wonder whether we have overestimated him. After all, Orbán had never governed through economic hardship.

Each time he came into power he benefited from protest votes against his predecessors due to an economic crisis. And both times, in 1998 and in 2010, his job was made easier by a massive austerity package helpfully enacted by his predecessors. He had also enjoyed the protest votes against his preceding governments because of said austerity packages.

Orbán has been talking about the coming economic crisis ever since his 2018 election triumph. Out of the blue and for no visible reason, he had started warning of the years of plenty being over soon – and of course started blaming the West for it preemptively.

He wasted the years of plenty without forming reserves. Indeed, his only policy move appears to be massive spending – not so much to stimulate the economy, but to benefit his loyalists – and petty, hyper-targeted handouts to targeted voter groups. His war on state debt has remained in the realm of bellicose words and when cornered, he was quick to promise a 13th month pension and conditional cash handouts to voter groups in which he was underperforming. Under the propaganda of pro-business (not pro-market) governance, he merely built cronyism dependent on state largesse – and their test of viability is yet to come. Orbán appears to have mistaken enriching a bunch of handpicked loyalists with enriching “the nation”, but the logic of enriching loyalists crowds out market logic and rationality.

It is also an easy mistake to be made to assume that oligarchs are the ones influencing Orbán when in fact it is the other way around. Far from oligarchs being kingmakers, the king can make or break his strongmen, lifting someone and dropping him the moment the beneficiary mistakenly starts to believe that he is an entity in his own right. Indeed, Orbán has been called the checks and balances of his own system, keeping every oligarch on their toes. As his former deputy minister (who experienced firsthand being pushed back down once he grew too influential) put it, there is no second or third line in Orbán’s system of hand-picked oligarchy, political or economic. That preserves him in power but is really bad for the country – the usual problem with whatever autocrats do.

So can Orbán survive the pandemic and the following economic recession? He doesnˋt seem to think so, not without some miracle. At any rate, he had put state spending on cronies into an even higher gear, practically adding a zero to whatever was going on before – and that was plenty corrupt already – and some say he is explicitely giving that cash in the hope that the idiots wonˋt spend it all on candies, at least not all at once.

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