Orbán is dismantling the state apparatus and putting huge chunks of the country out of the reach of any future government. Is he preparing to lose in 2022?
I must say I enjoy the turn of tide. Not that it has brought Hungary any relief from autocracy – but at least I don’t feel gaslighted abroad when I dare to mention that Orbán may not be the pro-market, conservative hero many have thought he was. And of course, I can now point to any major international news outlet to explain the latest blatant move of corruption.
About the public money heist with university excuse you can read here, here, here and here. In short, Orbán has put 3 billion euros’ worth of public money and an inestimable amount in other assets into “asset management foundations” and then pushed them out of the reach of any future government. The universities are just an excuse. This is a loyalist nest egg.
The asset management foundations are novel legal entities and a legal oxymoron. Put outside of the legal reach and budgetary oversight of the state for good, they are supposed to manage the shares, real estate and other assets put into their care for profit. Far from what their name implies (“public interest serving foundations” in Hungarian) they are not meant to serve any public interest and public money sank into them loses its public nature, to quote a classic, and possibly their inspiration.
Last year, just after Trump lost and Orbán returned from Brussels deflated, his first move was to enshrine the new legal entities in his basic law, cementing them into 2/3 majority legislation, and started shoveling funds into them for safekeeping by turbo loyalists. The formal excuse of the massive public money hemorrhage are the universities and making Hungarians more ethnically minded and less liberal. The reality is probably more prosaic: money.
It is not for nothing that Orbán’s minions are begging Brussels to allow EU money going into these legal mules. These foundations are not subject to state oversight anymore and they can do as they please with the money. Forget those universities, they will be hanged out to dry without a cent once Orbán needs that money. The sum put into the foundation is four times more than Orbán allowed to go into higher education in the last decade.
The universities may have hogged the international limelight, but there was a flurry of other legislation on the same day, pointing in the same political direction: cementing loyalists in positions to paralyze any future government as well as to stashing money for safekeeping.
Take the new regulatory authority for instance, cementing Orbán’s influence in the sectors he have used to pay off lower level loyalists: tobacco, gambling and most recently the liquidation industry. These sectors have been grabbed and put up for concessions that only loyalists were allowed to win. Now Orbán created a new regulatory body with a leader hand-picked for 9 years and un-removable without a constitutional supermajority.
That means that the payouts to loyalists will continue even if Orbán loses power.
And that is why analysts are guessing that he might be stealing like there’s no tomorrow because he is preparing for a loss.
But they might be wrong.
Orbán doesn’t have to call an election next year. He is unlikely to let go of this cozy pandemic emergency easily.
And even if he does, he can easily win. Everything is still in place for another crushing triumph, the loyalist ballot counters, the jilted election law, the bankrupted and corrupted opposition, the full control of advertising and the total information isolation of most of the voters, etc.
But winning next year might not be the best that can happen to Orbán. After all, whoever will be in power will have to grapple with the triple hit of the pandemic, the lack of state assistance to weather it, and the inevitable economic crisis that follows globally.
Orbán has never governed over economic hardships, his alleged talent is only for mobstering and getting elected – not for actual governance. He may be aware of this shortcoming – or he is just trying to weather the crisis without taking the blame for it. And stepping down for a brief interval might just accomplish that.
Orbán may even step aside voluntarily and pull a Putin. He can sit on the sidelines and enjoy watching the country burn under his successor – whether from Fidesz or the opposition.
Of course, he can only pull that off if he can effectively communicate to his loyalists that all will be fine, he is still in change, they will not be legally touched, and most importantly, that the vital flow of public money remains open even while someone else is prime minister. And there is no way to communicate that better than through such blatant gestures.
If Orbán steps aside and lets another Fidesznik or even the opposition to take over, the following government will inherit no money, gigantic debts to China and Putin, and no legal power to govern. If they are from the opposition, they will also have to grapple with Orbán’s manipulation and the inevitable in-fighting (not to mention their own stupidity). Orbáns’ fronts and family will be the new de facto rulers of the land – they are already fashioning themselves as the new aristocracy – holding all the money and economic power, the constitutional court, the prosecution, the media, the central bank and a number of other authorities. There is no way to restore the rule of law and get back at them at the same time.
And as the inevitable economic crisis unfolds, Orbán can sit back, sipping his pálinka, acting like the crisis only happens because he is no longer in charge. And he can graciously accept the job again once the economic storm is over.
That is also a possibility.