Elemental rearrangement on the Hungarian right?

Over the past few years we often heard that the regime Viktor Orbán built in the last five years can be dismantled only from the inside. Internal dissatisfaction with the leadership will one day reach such proportions that it will force the retirement of Viktor Orbán and his closest associates. Until recently, however, we didn’t see any such movement within Fidesz, despite its steady loss of sympathizers and supporters. We do know that there are insiders, including Fidesz members of parliament, who would like to get answers to their questions and who complain to reporters that they have been waiting a long time for an opportunity to discuss the problems the party is facing, without any success. Still and all, I don’t see any serious cracks in the solid political wall of Fidesz.

The right-wing media is another matter. Although some talking heads predict that the Simicska affair will blow over in no time, I disagree. I believe that the Simicska-Orbán falling out will have serious repercussions in the media world, signs of which have already appeared. My bold prediction, admittedly mixed with a large dose of wishful thinking, is that the fomentation in the media will facilitate the collapse of the Orbán-led political edifice.

On what do I base this prediction? First of all, there are signs that Lajos Simicska means business. He will use his considerable talent and financial resources to build a media empire that can take on state television and radio, a task that is, let’s face it, not terribly difficult. He began by appointing Péter Tarr to be one of the directors of HírTV. Tarr worked for Radio Free Europe until 1994 when he moved over to MTV. In 1997 he became the first managing editor of RTL Klub. In that capacity he was influential in exposing some of the corruption cases of the 1990s. According to Esti Újság, Tarr is gathering a fantastic staff at HírTV that should be able to produce the best news television in Hungary. The plan is to produce a program that “would restore the pillars of democracy and the power of the media.” Well, one could say that this is far too optimistic a scenario and that Simicska is not the most obvious man to lead the fight for democracy and against corruption. Admittedly, but he seems determined to ruin his old friend Viktor Orbán. People who know both men, like Gábor Fodor, a former friend from college days, are certain that this fight will last until only one of them is left standing.

So, what are the signs that encourage me to predict real changes on the mediascape? First of all, the report from the far-right wing media that half of the reporters of Magyar Nemzet and HírTV had quit turned out to be premature. For instance, Szabolcs Szerető, one of the people who quit last Friday, has already changed his mind and returned to the fold. He was the editor of the Monday edition of the paper.

Second, one can already detect substantial changes both in news reporting and in the opinion pieces in Magyar Nemzet. Let’s take a piece of news that has occupied the Hungarian media in the last two days. The chairman of Fidesz’s youth branch (ifjúsági tagozat) was caught with €30,000 of counterfeit currency. Fidesz immediately tried to distance itself, claiming that the young man had been removed from the party way back in 2012. The proof they presented was specious. In the past Magyar Nemzet would have supported the Fidesz position regardless of how ridiculous it was. But not this time. Let’s start with the headline: “He didn’t pay his membership fee and therefore was expelled?” The article continues with an honest description of the case and leaves no doubt that the Fidesz version is most likely untrue. In fact, when the article refers to the culprit as the “former chairman” of the organization, the writer or the editor put a question mark after the word “former.”

The same is true of Zsuzsanna Körmendy, who used to write the most vicious editorials about the opposition and was always supportive of the government and Fidesz. Zsolt Bayer predicted that “everybody from Csaba Lukács to Zsuzsanna Körmendy will quit because they will not be ready to write articles” demanded by Simicska. Yet today Körmendy wrote a piece titled “Self-examination never hurts.” Here Körmendy confronts her readers with the steady decline in Fidesz support and calls on the party “to examine its decisions thoroughly.” From here on the government should make wiser and more thoughtful decisions because “there is nothing more pitiful and destructive than taking back in full or in part earlier decisions. One ought not to experiment with citizens who have been losing their patience.” This kind of language is new in Magyar Nemzet. So it’s no wonder that Policy Agenda, a think tank, is certain that “after five years of governing Fidesz has lost its media,” which will be deadly for the future of the party.

But that’s not all. The most faithful Gábor Borókai, editor-in-chief of Heti Valóság, who served Viktor Orbán’s government as its spokesman between 1998 and 2002, stood by Lajos Simicska and against his former boss in an editorial that appeared today. For Borókai it is obvious that with the Simicska-Orbán duel “an unpredictable tectonic shift began that will turn into an elemental rearrangement on the right.” According to him, that kind of change has been long in coming. In plain language, the performance of the third Orbán government is dismal. In the past year Viktor Orbán has been preoccupied with his balancing act between Merkel and Putin while at home everything is falling apart. People have had enough of a government that wants to rearrange every facet of their lives. They want to be left alone.

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Of course, Borókai is still a man of the right, but not the kind that Orbán surrounds himself with these days. He is yearning for the “western, strong, sovereign and ‘polgári’ Hungary which Viktor Orbán wanted to build in 1998.” In 2010 Orbán set out to fulfill this wish, and he did rebuild a devastated economy, but “since then everything around us has changed for the worse. While searching for new solutions one shouldn’t forget the original goal. Otherwise, the chandelier will fall on us.” Borókai’s piece is full of contradictions, but it must be difficult to admit that his assessment of Viktor Orbán and his ideology has most likely been wrong all along. Even in 1998 when he decided to represent the first Orbán government. At one point he claims that “it is not too late” for Fidesz to find itself, but elsewhere he talks about an elemental reorganization of the right. Eventually these right-wing journalists will sort out their ideas, but at least they have begun writing as individuals instead of media servants of the government.

Meanwhile Reporters Without Borders published its World Press Freedom Index, 2014. In the last four years Hungary’s ranking dropped from 23d to 64th out of 180 countries. While the situation in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia is considered to be good, in Hungary there are “noticeable problems.” Even the Romanian press is freer than the Hungarian. Hungary is in the cluster with Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, and Albania. Nothing to be proud of. But perhaps there will be a revolt of the right-wing journalists and with it will come a freer press and perhaps even political change.

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24 comments

  1. Today’s illustration reminds my of a piece exhibited in the show “Mi a Magyar” a few years ago in Budapest: a replica of the Parliament made of dried, hardened clay (not fired), set on a table.
    Under the table was a machine that vibrated, causing the model Parliament to shake and shake, eventually crumbling to bits. It was shocking.

  2. I am no expert, but I agree with you, Eva. SL is unlikely to let go of the bone, now that he has it, and is more capable generally (as his business empire demonstrates) than VO has shown himself. And the fact that he fundamentally dislikes the turn to the East is additional cause to hope that he has what it takes, and that VO won’t resort to murder to solve this (I think game changing) problem. And it’s also true that I have some wishes colouring my thinking, too.

    About editing: Facebook is much more flexible than WordPress. Just a thought.

  3. There’s no question that the press has great power to inform, educate and influence. Significant elements of the press are now lined up against Viktor and my guess is that he is in trouble. These are the circumstances that according to Viktor contributed to his first defeat.

    Still, I think, the people will have to forcibly express their desire for change; there’s no need for violence, but perhaps a nationwide general strike, unscheduled demonstrations (the police can’t arrest 10,000 people), or my personal favorite a boycott of CBA (a great supporter of FIDESZ and an easy target). Unfortunately trying to use legal means to attack the government is waste of time since the laws are stacked in FIDESZ’s favor.

  4. Simicska is a genius at making money from corruption. He has done nothing to show he can run a business honestly. Közgép has a huge turn-over but just check its website – it is not a functioning firm. So it is unlikely he could run a successful media empire because it would require him to live from the market (which is miniscule), from which he has no experience.

    And the media only exists in Hungary due to state advertising which Orbán has now withdrawn.

  5. HiBoM,

    You might be right, I don’t know, but it’s also possible that he recognises his weaknesses (like any successful businessperson) and has hired quality advisers who will help him navigate the unfamiliar territory of the “free” media market (in reality not so free,of course, since his main competition will almost all be state-funded). Of course, if it’s really personal, he won’t mind losing money on his media assets, and he probably has plenty of money to put towards his new passion project.

  6. Of course, it’s not just the state media that Simicska will be competing against, but the other, still-loyal right-wing media, which might soon get some of its state advertising subsidy back.

  7. There is always the chance that Simicska will start to use his talent and wealth to support Jobbik. I’m not counting on it, but it should be considered as a possibility.

  8. I wonder how long Orban will allow Simicska’s antics. Orban’s image as a quasi-god among his supporters will suffer if for whatever reason he is unable or unwilling to prevent Simicska from causing damage to him.

    Putin settled the Hodorkovsky issue decisively and the oligarchs quickly fell in line. If Orban tolerates Simicska for long then that will be the beginning of the end, and Orban knows that.

  9. I always thought that Orban ran Simicska and not the other way around.

    Soon, Victor will give S. and offer he can’t refuse, and that’ll be that. Vic, in his sumptuous
    glory, does not want to appear as being beholden to anyone. Much better to surround oneself with airheads like Lazar…

  10. I agree with Eva, Jobbik favours Putin. That’s not possible for SL to condone. More likely that he splits FIDESZ, by demanding that the rank and file on whom he has the dirt abandon VO and get behind SL.

  11. @Eva – I hope and trust you’re right, but I don’t believe a single word Simicska has uttered.
    His media has never been very critical of Jobbik, and (still) has not taken a stance against the turn to Russia. Indeed, his newspaper, Magyar Nemzet, has published quite a lot of pro-Russian stuff in the recent past, along with a mass of anti-American articles.
    So, why should I believe him when he says that he doesn’t like this turn to Russia? Where is the evidence of that? I’m waiting. It still hasn’t appeared in his media.

  12. Simicska’ hobby is politics. Simply this is why he did not become a politician. Simicska is a businessman and that is his career, with plenty of money. He can stand on his own. He is not dependent on Orban, not like many others. Orban’s close support consist of people who are hobby diplomats or hobby businessman. Many of the become politicians because Orban need them and by default they strikes rich. Orban attracted them with offering power and/or money. Those who stand by him are simply placed a bet him at this point in time. Those who stand by Simicska placed a bet on Simicska. As much I am happy to read what it is quoted from Magyar Nemzet, I must ask about the conscience of the writers. Where were they the last while? Orban’s antics are no news, it did not just happened. Same goes for those who left Simicska. Are they these stupid, that they do not see what is Orban doing, are they this corrupted that they side with Orban although they know darn well about the antics they themselves use to smear the truth, to report a dented reflection of the reality to the Hungarian people. For a long time I do not consider the “journalist” of Magyar Hirlap Hirlap, Magyar Nemzet, etc, as real journalist. There are a few exceptions of course, but mainly I simply do to believe any longer what they publish. They are hobby journalist who are like ad writers in an advertising agency, and they will churn out anything they will get money for.

    I have respect to some writers in Pest Sracok, and Mandiner. Some. We need different point of views, we need to hear all the sides. We have to have “my side of the story” from every angle, but serious news should not turn into PR. Under Orban the Hungarian media has been reduced to PR with a few exceptions. Serious critical outlets (and I mean groups and individuals) have been silenced, ridiculed, cut off of funding, sued, fired, blackmailed, bought out, forced to take sides, etc. I am looking forward to the day when balanced journalism will return to Hungary.

  13. A bit OT:

    pol.hu reports Hunvad’s final acquittal – remember how Fidesz went on for a long time about his corruption?
    he spent several months in detention – does he get money as compensation?

  14. Webber overtook me. Magyar Nemzet – all the while Simicska was supposedly against the repulsive Soviet Russians – has been very consistently pro-Russian, for well over a decade actually. Magyar Nemzet had been for long pro-Russian already when Orban – at least on paper – was still pro-Western or at least critical of Russia. The pro-Russian stance is part of Magyar Nemzet’s DNA and readers appreciate that.

    Not only the IMO graduate Gabor Stier has been section editor of all foreign affairs news for a long time, D Horvath Gabor – the new editor in chief – is known to be extremely pro-Russian too. There is almost no available info on Horvath’s CV, let alone a detailed one. One wonders why. Simicska knew of the editorial line of Magyar Nemzet to say the least. He is also a good manipulator. If he had gotten a portion from Paks 2 I am almost certain he would have remained shut up.

    Let’s approach Simicska’s words critically.

  15. OT: An issue that tends to fly under the radar when people discuss the negative changes under Orban is the dismantling of environmental protection mechanisms in Hungary.

    I had previously commented that in addition to the tobacco shops, and agricultural land give aways to Fidesz cronies, a new regulations will open up Hungary’s ten National Parks to as much as 40% non-conservation use. Another avenue for a give-away to those connected to Fidesz.

    Recently the former undersecretary for environmental affairs gave an interview that paints a very bleak picture of environmental protection in Hungary.

    There is an English translation of that interview here: http://budapestsentinel.com/interviews/former-environmental-undersecretary-condemns-orban-government/

    Among the changes since 2010 was the dissolution of the former Ministry of Environmental Protection. In addition, he states there is no environmental expert in the Hungarian government in a high level position.

    “Since 2010 there have been no independent public health, education, environmental, or cultural ministries. At the time I thought, okay, this is a new state administrative structure. At least until 2014 there remained secretariats for public health, education, and culture. Environmental protection was assigned to an office within the Ministry of Agriculture responsible for protecting uniquely Hungarian products such as funnel cakes (kürtöskalács) and cherry pálinka. A four person office was all that remained after they did away with the office of waste management, destroyed the background institutions to the national environmental protection authority, and transfered environmental oversight to the new county prefectures. They destroyed everything.”

  16. I have a feeling from what I hear that André Goodfriend was himself surprised why he was called back to so abruptly (clearly before his term was over). Apparently there was a welcome party for the incoming ambassador which to the surprise of all invitees, and perhaps including Mr. Goodfriend as well, was at the same time the latter’s farewell party.

    A kind of diplomatic “reset”, I guess which we know worked so well the first time.

    This reset is of course interpreted by everybody as a sign of weakness (of the US) underscoring the general Fidesz/Putin/Dugin etc. narrative that the West is inherently weak, doesn’t care, wouldn’t commit, completely clueless (ie. in this case not Goodfriend, but his bureaucrat bosses back at State) and so on. I tend to agree unfortunately. Actual power is also about the projection of power and I fear that this was mismanaged in this case.

  17. Just a wild guess; Russiam diplomats just detected the explosive existence of Goodfriend in Budapest. so a little message to Washington accomplished his retirement.

  18. Orban will make those “immigrants” work (!) while awaiting their expulsion because they have to earn all the money we have to spend on them. Then they will learn not to come.

    Orban is happy, after some search, he stumbled upon the perfect story of our times. The opposition cannot (and doesn’t) oppose Orban because voters emphatically hate poor foreigners, he can create controversy and he can act tough, as a leader, as a defender of the righteous Hungarians — so Orban is getting stronger, Putin is here to support him, Goodfriend sent home, Simicska is getting weaker, what can possibly go wrong?

    “Ha erőteljesen lépünk föl, és a magyar rendőrség föllépéséből a Balkánon is világossá válik, hogy nem érdemes Magyarországra jönni, mert letartóztatják őket, mert fogva tartják őket, mert kitoloncolják őket, és amíg itt vannak, dolgoztatni is fogják őket — mert meg kell keresniük az ellátásukhoz szükséges pénzt —, akkor nem fognak jönni.”
    — Orbán Viktor, Magyarország miniszterelnöke. 2015. február 13. Kossuth Lajos rádió, 180 pe

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