The furor over John McCain’s harsh words about Hungary’s “neo-fascist dictator” and his “illiberal state” hadn’t subsided when a new Hungarian bombshell exploded: Máté Kocsis, a two-bit district mayor in Budapest, had a great idea which he immediately made public on his Facebook page last Friday. Given the widespread use of drugs, it would be a good idea, he claimed, to introduce compulsory yearly drug tests for teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 as well as for elected politicians and journalists. Why politicians and journalists? Politicians’ decisions have a lasting impact on the citizens while journalists have the power to influence public opinion. He promised that he would suggest to the Fidesz parliamentary delegation that they discuss the idea and prepare a legislative proposal to this end.
From what we have learned about this latest brainstorm of Kocsis, it looks as if the idea did not originate with the mayor of District VIII (at least not in his role as mayor) but with Viktor Orbán’s communication staff. It was, it seems, part of a desperate effort to devise a strategy that could neutralize the growing public dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán and his government.
Directly after the election Orbán talked about creating a “new communication team” headed by the chief communication adviser, Árpád Habony. I wrote about Habony earlier. He’s a shadowy figure with enormous influence within the party and the government but without an official title or an official salary. This new group apparently meets every Friday to discuss some of the issues that cropped up during the previous week. Máté Kocsis, who is no longer a member of parliament but besides being mayor of District VIII is communication director of Fidesz, is an ex officio member of the staff. So it’s no wonder, claim investigative journalists, that Kocsis’s bright idea was published on Facebook on Friday night.
Reports of this crazy idea spread like wildfire. The Associated Press immediately picked up the story. Scores of newspapers and television stations carried the news because journalists find such bizarre items outright delicious.
By now the general consensus is that, with this whacky idea, communication strategists were trying to divert the public’s attention from the corruption case of Ildikó Vida and five unnamed others. Apparently, Viktor Orbán himself thought that the idea of yearly drug tests was a capital idea and decided to support it. And of course we know from past experience that if the Hungarian prime minister supports something it will be law in no time. The members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation will automatically vote for it even if some MPs consider the idea to be of dubious value and/or legally questionable. By Monday, the Fidesz parliamentary caucus decided with some major changes to consider the proposal.
The idea of mandating regular drug tests for politicians and journalists was dropped by the caucus because such a law would clearly be unconstitutional. Even the Fidesz-dominated fake “constitutional court” couldn’t close their eyes to such a law. As for children’s screening, the Fidesz legislators opted to support only voluntary tests initiated by the children themselves or by their parents. This is certainly nothing like what the “communication staff” cooked up last Friday.
I wonder how Viktor Orbán will react to this unheard-of “revolt” of the Fidesz caucus. After all, the Sunday closing of stores will most likely be approved unaltered although the Fidesz delegation was deeply split on the issue. But now it looks as if Fidesz MPs finally balked at orders from above. If I were Viktor Orbán I would ponder the significance of this earlier unimaginable event.
But let’s go back to the Habony-led communication staff’s activities. It is rumored that leaking the U.S. decision to bar six Hungarian citizens from entering the United States because of charges of corruption was the idea of Árpád Habony. Again, naturally, with Viktor Orbán’s blessing. We who look at events from the outside think that this was a singularly bad idea that created serious tensions between the United States and Hungary. Ever since mid-October major newspapers all over the world have been talking about the Orbán government’s systemic corruption. The leak resulted in massive anti-corruption demonstrations which in turn added to the growing dissatisfaction with the government. A huge drop in popularity followed. In brief, most independent observers would consider this particular idea of Habony outright injurious to Viktor Orbán and his government. Yet not only has Habony not been fired; his position as chief communication adviser has been strengthened. Moreover, his advice about mandatory drug tests was heeded by the prime minister.
How can we explain this seeming contradiction? In my opinion only one way: Viktor Orbán still thinks that leaking the news of the American ban was a good idea. It was a clever communication ploy. Why? Because Hungary’s position in world affairs is a great deal less important to him than his domestic standing with the electorate. And obviously he must think that the contentious American-Hungarian relations actually work in his favor at home. Fidesz supporters who lately have become disenchanted will perhaps return to the flock because of hurt national pride. He thinks that the risk is worth the gamble. After all, it seems to be working in Russia.
So far so good, but there is the growing dissatisfaction of some members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation as demonstrated during the “stormy debates” that accompanied discussions on the Sunday closing of stores and the compulsory yearly drug test. In yesterday’s debate on drug testing Viktor Orbán came out the loser. What will happen next?
Let me bring up something that might further demonstrate intra-party dissatisfaction with Fidesz directives coming from above. You will recall that the former Fidesz mayor of Ózd, a very poor town in northeastern Hungary, was so unpopular that the citizens went out in hordes to vote for the only electable opponent, a young Jobbik candidate, who was elected with a two-thirds majority. But in the city council Fidesz was in the majority. The members of the caucus were obviously instructed from above to follow the strategy of Fidesz in Esztergom where the Fidesz majority refused to cooperate with the independent mayor and as a result nothing whatsoever could be accomplished for four long years. Within a few days it became obvious that Ózd had become ungovernable due to the refusal of the Fidesz council members to cooperate. But this time some of the Fidesz city fathers revolted. Three of the eight decided to quit the Fidesz caucus and serve as independents. Fidesz’s majority collapsed. I think we can expect more such events to take place on the local level. A certain erosion has begun that will be very difficult to stop.
György Rubovszky, a Christian Democrat member of parliament and a most faithful supporter of the Orbán government, found the drug test proposal “legally indefensible.” But he also had a personal story that he shared with a journalist of Népszabadság. His twelve-year-old granddaughter phoned him crying bitterly. “Grandpa, I must leave this country because I am not willing to pee in front of strangers.” I must say Rubovszky, who is not my favorite, has a smart granddaughter. Válasz, a pro-government site, wrote yesterday that this latest idea of Fidesz is a sure way to lose all the first-time voters in 2018. Even the party faithful recognize that some of these maneuvers may backfire.
Meanwhile those opposing the proposal are busily collecting urine and leaving it in a large bottle outside the city hall of District VIII. One really wonders whether Viktor Orbán has lost his touch–or, as some might claim, whether he is touched.