Viktor Orbán on the levees: A political victory

This morning I discovered a short news item. In Mórahalom, a town in the County of Csongrád, a certain Ilonka néni died two days before her ninetieth birth. Let’s start with the Hungarian media’s annoying habit of calling every woman over the age of 50 or 60, at least if she is not a famous Budapest celebrity, “néni,” a word hard to translate. “Nagynéni” means “aunt,” but children address every adult female as “néni.” Students can call their female teacher “tanitó néni.”  In the case of an elderly woman, it simply means “granny.”

In any event, Ilonka néni, according to the mayor of Mórahalom, was so eager to receive the birthday card Viktor Orbán sends every ninety-year-old that she allegedly asked the mayor to read the prime minister’s greetings at her funeral. Even though she didn’t quite make it to her birthday, the mayor accommodated. Moreover, the card was buried with her. I think this says a lot about the modern version of hero worship in Hungary. Mind you, this is not new. Many of us still vividly remember the scene when another “néni” kissed Viktor Orbán’s hand. That was a long time ago during his first term as prime minister. At the time one of the members of my political discussion group felt that it would be enough to print thousands and thousands of posters depicting this scene to assure Viktor Orbán’s defeat.

The threat of massive flooding in Hungary provided the prime minister with a golden opportunity to demonstrate his managerial competence and personal compassion. Viktor Orbán’s staff must have put up at least a hundred pictures showing the prime minister in every possible pose as he took charge of protecting the nation from Mother Nature’s vengeance.

A natural disaster usually serves the government in power well if the operation is executed smoothly and the final result is satisfactory. Admittedly, Viktor Orbán’s decision to show himself as the man in charge of the operation entailed a level of risk. What if at the end scores of towns get flooded and several people lose their lives? In this case the prime minister’s heavy involvement might backfire.

Since I know nothing about waterways and flooding, I don’t know whether the Hungarian authorities could predict the maximum height of the water once it got to Hungary. We know that in Germany the damage caused by the flood on the Danube was great and scores of people died. In Passau it was only in 1501 that there was such a threat to the city. I heard less about Austria and I read that the city of Bratislava was spared. Therefore it is possible that the experts didn’t expect anything more serious than the floods of past years. If this is true, it wasn’t much of a political risk for Orbán to show himself as the man in charge of the whole operation. Exaggerating the possible trouble might also have served the prime minister’s political ends.

In any case, his admirers, who are numerous, have been writing  comments on Viktor Orbán’s Facebook page that are over the top. As early as June 4 Orbán, accompanied by István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest, stood on the bank of the Danube which was not yet flooded and intently gazed at the river. This picture inspired the following comments: “The Prime Minister is there on the dike. He is not lazy. At last there is a real leader of the country. Thanks you for the unselfish work performed on behalf of the country.” And “Viktor don’t give in if the flood comes or if you fight against the European Union or the Bolshevik opposition. The Hungarians are with you.”

Practically every picture is entitled “Leading the defense….” There are several pictures showing Orbán intently studying large maps. Those who don’t admire him as much as some of the people who comment on his Facebook page made fun of his presumed understanding of the import of these maps.

Orban and mapThe picture that was copied over and over, and reproduced here, shows Orbán sitting with a huge map in front of him. Orbán isn’t looking at the map; he’s gazing off into the distance. But this didn’t bother one of his admirers, who commented: “This is what a decent Hungarian looks like. Someone who is truly interested in the fate of the country! We have an extraordinary prime minister!”

And he is a good Hungarian in other ways too. It cannot be a coincidence that the staff felt that they have to show the people that Viktor Orbán is one of them. Here is this fancy Ferenc Gyurcsány who cooks all sorts of weird dishes–Italian, Indian, Thai. No, our man eats “kolbász” that he himself helps make in Felcsút. And the comment? “Never mind the luxury minibus. He is frugal.” In addition, he suggests that those who criticize him should be built into the dikes. “At least they would be useful.” What an uplifting Christian idea!

Viktor Orbán leads while the others can hardly keep up with him / Photo Népszabadság

Viktor Orbán leads while the others can hardly keep up with him / Photo Népszabadság

But the most often repeated conversation from the many videos about Orbán’s days along the Danube is the one that tells the story of his trip from Komárom to Szentendre.

György Bakondi, the head of the whole organization in blue overalls, says, “The most important task is to fill the sacks with sand.” He calls it “localized filling.” Viktor Orbán is gazing at a map, looking at danger zones. Orbán then looks at Bakondi, who nods meaningfully. . . Orbán asks Bakondi: “How much is that?” Bakondi replies, “Meaning what? In time?” Orbán pointing toward the Danube: “Until it comes up.” At this point one of the experts who is standing by tries to explain the situation, but Orbán is waiting for an answer from Bakondi: “How much water? In your opinion how high will it come up?” Bakondi: “Where? There? Yes.” … Orbán: “Are we raising it to 85?” Everybody nods. Orbán: “Will the peak be tomorrow? It will come in then, isn’t it so?” Answer: “Friday-Saturday.” Orbán: “We will take over the water level at the border on Thursday.”

Orbán’s presence made no difference from a practical point of view, but in political terms it was a capital idea. I’m sure that his popularity, which has been sagging for at least a year, will soar after the flood. While pictures circulate about a playground where Ferenc Gyurcsány was working on the levees. The pictures show that the whole playground has been flooded since. The dike didn’t hold. That is the difference between an extraordinary prime minister and the opposition losers.

Gordon Bajnai versus Attila Mesterházy: The latest opinion poll

It’s time to return to the current political situation, although admittedly the flood occupies center stage at the moment. The flood may be a terrible calamity for some and an expensive item in the national budget, but so far Viktor Orbán is the hands-down winner in this particular political game. Learning from the disaster of the late winter snowstorm when government performance was  abysmal, the prime minister made sure that all would go smoothly. Orbán considers the Danubian flood an opportunity to bolster his and his party’s popularity. While other prime ministers or presidents make brief appearances on the levees, assuring people of the government’s assistance, Viktor Orbán became the general manager of the operation, handing down orders and looking like the man who is actually running the show. Mind you, here and there the propaganda films made on the spot reveal that Orbán knows next to nothing about the waterways. One day perhaps I will share a couple of excerpts from his weighty conversations on the state of the levees and the rise of the water. They are pretty hilarious.

But let’s move on to non-crisis politics because there are some interesting developments. A couple of days ago a newspaperman asked Attila Mesterházy whether he would accept the nomination of his party to be the next prime minister of Hungary. He answered in the affirmative. Gordon Bajnai’s supporters were outraged and interpreted his answer as a sign that MSZP wants to go it alone at the next election. They took Mesterházy’s answer as a repudiation of his earlier insistence on common action by all the democratic parties and civic groups.

This reaction was somewhat hasty. Bajnai supporters seemed to have forgotten that Bajnai on March 2 announced that, if asked, he would say yes to running as a candidate to be the next prime minister of Hungary. Certainly both people are capable and at the moment the front runners for the job. In my opinion, the question is which candidate will be able to maximize the number of votes on the anti-Fidesz political side.

So, let’s see what the situation is at the moment. Here I will give some details from Medián’s latest public opinion poll that was released on June 5. Since we are getting closer to the national election people are becoming a bit more engaged in the political process. After two and a half years this was the first time that 50% of the eligible voters said they would definitely vote next year. At the same time the percentage of undecided voters decreased to 33%, another record after two and a half years. And while two or three years before an election the figures pertaining to active voters are pretty useless, as we get closer to the actual date of the election they become more reliable. Of those sampled who had an opinion, Fidesz garnered 45% of the votes to the democratic opposition’s 40%.  When asked their opinion on the performance of the Orbán government, only 31% responded in the affirmative; 56% would like to have a change of government.

public opinion polls blogs.worldbank.org


As things stand at the moment, the opposition’s favorite is Gordon Bajnai. It is especially significant that non-MSZP voters and those who are otherwise undecided prefer Bajnai by a large margin.

A couple of days ago I expressed my dissatisfaction with Együtt 2014-PM’s strategy, and my opinion has not changed after seeing these figures. I still think that Gordon Bajnai’s mad scramble for the non-existent moderate conservatives who would be ready to vote for the anti-Fidesz forces is worse than a waste of time. Any kind of compromise with an autocratic regime that is rapidly marching toward a sophisticated post-communist dictatorship would most likely be repugnant to those who would like a regime change.

The historian Zoltán Ripp mentioned in one of his articles that from the very first moment of the second Orbán government he considered Orbán’s new political regime “counterrevolutionary.” The new prime minister was talking about a “revolution in the voting booths,” but according to Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794) we can talk about a revolution only if its goal is the widening of freedom. This is certainly not the case in today’s Hungary. Thus any kind of compromise with Fidesz is out of the question for a democrat, concludes Ripp.

Finally, Medián also measured the popularity of Hungarian politicians. The most popular, János Áder, got a whopping 46 points on a scale of 0-100. Viktor Orbán was second with 35 points, and then came Mesterházy with 33 points and Bajnai with 32 points. The “most hated politician” Ferenc Gyurcsány received 22 points. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when there is only a 24-point difference between the most liked and the most hated politician in the country. Perhaps once the anti-Fidesz forces get together and start campaigning against Fidesz and not against each other their reputations will improve somewhat. Let’s hope so. Without parties and politicians there is no parliamentary system and no democracy.