There is no question, the Orbán government is in trouble. And when there is trouble there is dissension. Of course, this is not the first time that Viktor Orbán’s political edifice has stood on shaky ground, but this latest quake has been the most serious of all.
In the middle of 2011 dissatisfaction with the government was considerable. Fidesz’s popularity in the polls was almost as low as it is now. Most of the government’s decisions were unpopular and there was genuine fear that Orbán’s new system of national cooperation would inevitably lead to an authoritarian state. By the end of 2011 sizable crowds could be called out to demonstrate against the government and for the republic.
During these stressful times rumors circulated that people close to Viktor Orbán were voicing their concerns and suggesting caution. Let’s not irritate the population further with unpopular decisions. Although it is normally difficult to learn much about the internal workings of Fidesz, it seems that several people raised their voices against Orbán’s strategy at the Fidesz congress held in July 2011. Criticizing the prime minister were László Kövér, Tibor Navracsics, and Zoltán Pokorni. Today these people have almost no say in the running of either the party or the government. Zoltán Pokorni, although on paper still vice-president of Fidesz, is only the humble mayor of a Budapest district. Tibor Navracsics, after being first minister of justice and later minister of foreign affairs, is today a marginalized EU commissioner. Kövér, although he rules the House with an iron fist, has no significant influence on the party.
By the end of 2012 Viktor Orbán silenced his critics with his masterstroke of lowering utility prices across the board. The unpopular decisions continued, but the majority of the Hungarian people were disarmed by a few thousand forints worth of savings on their utility bills. And those who at the beginning of the year were demonstrating against the government retreated, acknowledging the hopelessness of their cause. Fidesz’s popularity bounced back.
2014 began as a great year for Fidesz. After all, it easily won three elections within a few months, largely because of an unfair election law and the lack of a viable political alternative. I’m sure that the current Fidesz leadership–Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, Antal Rogán, and Péter Szijjártó–never imagined that by October a storm of anti-government sentiment would be unleashed.
In the past, every time the party was under fire the answer of Viktor Orbán and his closest associates was that the prime minister’s strategy had always proved correct in the long run. Surely, this gifted magician will shape the future as well. But the situation today is different. Orbán is in trouble not only because of domestic unrest but also because of his failed foreign policy initiatives. Some of his associates realize that he is unacceptable to Hungary’s allies, the European Union and the United States. And thus ostracized by his allies, Orbán endangers his country’s standing in the western world. Orbán’s position is shaky not only at home but abroad as well. And his critics have been much more outspoken than ever before.
One big difference between the earlier times of trouble and now is that the sharp exchanges between Orbán and his closest associates on the one hand and their critics on the other are now out in the open. Earlier they took place in private and the public learned about them only second-hand. The critics have become emboldened.
The brewing palace revolution began with a fairly innocuous sentence by Zoltán Pokorni about the flaunting of wealth on the part of people like János Lázár, Péter Szijjártó, Lajos Kósa, András Giró-Szász, and the mysterious Árpád Habony. János Kövér, most likely independently from Pokorni, expressed his misgivings about these people “living in great style.” Perhaps, he suggested, it would be a good idea to hold back a bit. That caused János Lázár, whose Rolex watch and whose gift of a 60-million forint apartment to his 10-year-old son was one of the reasons for public outrage, to turn against Pokorni in an interview he gave to Figyelő, a weekly that appeared yesterday. Here is the exact quotation: “A political veteran should think twice before, either out of personal resentment or political considerations, he weakens us because he at the same time weakens or executes himself.” Lázár didn’t mince words: he considers Pokorni’s remark “a stab in the back.” He views the criticism coming from Kövér and Pokorni as a generational clash. These old fogies should realize that their time has passed. His generation, the thirty- to forty-year-olds, is running the show now. 444.hu translated Lázár’s words as a message to the insurgents: those who go against the current leadership have no political future. Kövér did not respond, but Pokorni made a conciliatory statement that he shared with vs.hu. Apparently Lázár’s attack on Pokorni was approved and encouraged by Viktor Orbán himself.
Why did Pokorni’s remark raise such a furor in the top leadership? Budapest is full of possible, if mostly implausible explanations. One is that both the United States and Germany came to the conclusion that it is impossible to work with Viktor Orbán and they hope that someone else in the party might be able to replace him. Rumor has it that the American favorite is Zoltán Pokorni, while Germany favors János Lázár. That’s why Lázár reacted so violently to Pokorni’s remarks. To tell you the truth, I don’t believe a word of that story. Pokorni has not been in the forefront of national politics for a very long time and, as far as Lázár is concerned, who in his right mind would want to work with him?
Gábor Török, a popular political scientist who has an influential blog, is known to be somewhat partial to Fidesz, but lately he has become more outspoken than usual. He is convinced that all the negative news about the corruption of people like Lázár, Rogán, and Kósa must come from the inside and that Fidesz is “full of Brutuses.” According to him, “there will be no uprising until its leaders are confident that Orbán, after leaving Fidesz, will be unable to establish a party that could win against them.” Once they believe that Orbán is not a political threat, the young Turks will not hesitate for a moment.
Well, this opinion might not be terribly off the mark. Török has many friends in Fidesz and is more familiar with the situation in the party than most political scientists of a liberal persuasion. I should mention that Török finds the strained relations between Viktor Orbán and Washington extremely serious. I agree with him. As Török said, Viktor Orbán has no idea how much the Americans really know, not just about his close associates but about his own dealings. And that must be very troubling to him because surely he has been the coordinator of the systemic corruption that has permeated the country, especially since 2010.