On October 28 József Szájer, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, gave an interview to Inforádió, a station close to the government party. To long-time readers of Hungarian Spectrum or those who have been following Hungarian politics in the last twenty-five years Szájer is a familiar figure. However, since we have a lot of new subscribers who might be less familiar with the leading figures of Hungarian political life, I should say a few words about this man.
Szájer is a real old-timer in Fidesz. He was there from the very beginning, living in the dormitory where Fidesz was born. He held important positions in parliament and in Fidesz between 1988 and 2004, when he was sent to Brussels as the leader of the Fidesz delegation. He is also one of deputy chairmen of the European People’s Party. Since Hungarian politicians don’t consider the job of MEP a particularly important one, it is hard to fathom why the decision was made to remove Szájer from direct involvement in Hungarian politics. He is supposed to be brilliant although, at least in my opinion, he does not put his brain power to the best use.
Just because Szájer officially holds no position doesn’t mean that he plays no role in the party behind the scenes. For example, Szájer himself proudly announced that he wrote the text of the new Hungarian constitution on his iPad. When the Orbán government is criticized in the European Parliament, it is Szájer who leads the troops in defense of the Orbán regime. And when in March 2013 there was a U.S. Senate hearing on the state of democracy in Hungary it was József Szájer who was dispatched to explain the Hungarian position.
During the interview on Inforádió Szájer defended the introduction of the internet tax with his usual vehemence. A government that dares to tax internet usage is a brave one, he said. “There are times,” he claimed, “when one has to speak in the language of strength.” Such a tax is “no attack on the internet.” After all, we have to pay for our food, but that doesn’t mean that it is an attack against the freedom of eating. The very fact that I had a heck of a time translating this sentence means that the comparison is outright idiotic. I consider the example Olga Kálmán used more apt. Let’s say that we buy a book but we still have to pay extra for being able to read it. Indeed, that is exactly what the internet tax is. Internet subscribers pay for their service, which includes a 27% tax, but in addition the government wants to tax their right to use the material offered by the provider whom they’ve already paid.
The reason that I quoted Szájer’s belligerent words on the brave government that dares to tax the internet is because it took no more than three days for the government to decide not to be so brave. The reason? Apparently, a quick poll was ordered which showed that the people who were at the demonstrations had been apolitical until now. They seemed to have awakened from their long slumber, and that truly frightened Viktor Orbán. Many of the people chanting slogans never even bothered to vote and claimed that they are not interested in politics. Suddenly they became active. This is the last thing Viktor Orbán wants. Among them might be future political leaders who will force this authoritarian government to resign one day.
In Viktor Orbán’s interview last Friday there was one sentence that I found especially revealing. He decided to shelve the internet tax because his government listens to the people, and they certainly don’t want to do anything that is unacceptable to the people. After all, they are not “communists.” But the problem is that the governing style of the Orbán government closely resembles that of the Kádár regime. For all practical purposes there is a one-party system in Hungary today.
During the communist period it was the Politburo that made the decisions. The size of that body varied from eight to thirteen members. They met weekly and discussed the day-to-day running of the country. Today the situation is actually worse. As far as we know, there are no weekly meetings of the Fidesz executive board. Decisions are not made by the ministers either because cabinet meetings are exceedingly short and there are practically no discussions. Everything is decided by Viktor Orbán and until he speaks, as someone wittily remarked, no one knows what to think. The people started to see the strong resemblance between the two regimes.
I watched Henrik Havas’s Saturday political program on ATV where the older participants recalled that in the last parliament of the Kádár regime there was a discussion about the Czechoslovak-Hungarian dam to be built on the Danube. The population opposed it, but the government was determined that it be built. The president of parliament called on those who were against the dam to stand up. Twenty some people did. And that was during a communist regime. Today it would be unimaginable for Fidesz MPs to stand up in a similar situation. Or to dare vote against a bill they don’t agree with. This is illiberal democracy in action.