Tamás Meggyes

Viktor Orbán’s letters to the Hungarian people: An expensive habit

After the citizens of  Esztergom voted Tamás Meggyes, the long-standing Fidesz mayor of the city (1999-2010), out of office, the Fidesz-majority city council brought the normal functioning of city hall to a virtual standstill. Starting with preventing Éva Tétényi, the new mayor, from occupying her office, they did everything under the sun to paralyze the governance of the city. Articles appearing in the media often called attention to the fate of the city that had the temerity to drop a Fidesz official who also serves in the Hungarian parliament. They predicted that if by some miracle Fidesz loses the next elections this is the fate that will befall the new government.

Less attention was paid to the city of Pécs which had held a municipal by-election a year and a half earlier. Pécs was unlucky with its MSZP mayors. One died as the result of a car crash and his successor died of cancer shortly after he took office. Thus in May 2009, a year before the national election in which Fidesz-KDNP won a two-thirds majority, a Fidesz candidate, Zsolt Páva, decisively beat MSZP’s Katalin Szili, who was at the time the speaker of  parliament.

More attention should have been paid to this by-election in Pécs. With hindsight we can see that the city was in many ways Fidesz’s laboratory for its national election campaign. Moreover, once the new Fidesz mayor occupied his office, his political strategies also foreshadowed what was to come after the party’s landslide victory in 2010.

It was in Pécs that Gábor Kubatov, the party’s campaign manager, put into practice what American advisers taught him about grass root campaigning. The lists his activists compiled became infamous when his bragging about his knowledge of all the “communists” in Pécs became public. But once Fidesz found out that this new campaign style worked splendidly on a small scale, the party decided to apply it nationally.

I’m almost certain that during his first days in office every step Páva took was dictated from above. Otherwise, it seems unimaginable that the mayor of a city of less than 200,000 would on his own initiative forcibly oust a foreign company from the city (and hence the country as well). I think we can say with some degree of confidence that Viktor Orbán had already formulated his plan to nationalize utility companies. What strengthens this hypothesis is that shortly after the expulsion of the French company in Pécs, János Lázár, then still mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, population 40,000, uttered similar threats. Lázár’s threats never went any further, most likely because of the very strong reaction of French president Nicolas Sarkozy to the assault on French companies.

At any event, immediately after he was ensconced in his office Páva began writing letters to the citizens of the city, asking their opinions on various matters. They were supposed to register their views and send back their answers. At the time I thought that this was a very clever way of engaging the citizenry. Not that I thought the answers had much significance or effect, but I considered it a clever political move.

One of Viktor Orbán thirteen letters

One of Viktor Orbán thirteen letters

It seems to me that the barrage of letters with which the new Fidesz mayor in Pécs surprised his voters was again a test. If these letters had a positive impact, perhaps the practice could be adopted once Viktor Orbán became prime minister of Hungary. And indeed, the Pécs experiment worked. At the regular municipal elections the once solidly socialist city switched sides. Fidesz gained an overwhelming  majority on the city council and naturally Páva was reelected.

And so Prime Minister Viktor Orbán began his “correspondence with the Hungarian people.” His first letter was sent out in September 2010 followed by eleven or twelve more since, to the tune of 3.4 billion forints (taking the total number of letters to be twelve) according to an estimate by Index.  Népszava calculated on the basis of thirteen letters that 4.4 billion forints were spent on the letters themselves in addition to the cost of their accompanying ad campaigns. They estimated that about 5 billion forints were spent on Viktor Orbán’s penchant for “direct communication with the people.” The journalists of Népszava also figured out what kinds of  sorely needed goods and services this sum could have purchased. For example, 900 ambulances or the salaries of 350,000 people employed in the public works program.

In the beginning some of the more naive souls actually sent back their answers, and the government proudly announced the success of their solicitation. But as time went by fewer and fewer letters were returned. The overwhelming majority ended up in the garbage. On at least one occasion one of the trade unions organized a campaign to collect the letters and sell them for recycling, giving the proceeds to charity.

One of these letters was sent to inhabitants of towns with populations of fewer than 5,000. It explained to them in what manner and to what extent the central government would finance these smaller boroughs. Here it seems that the soothing explanations actually presaged drastic cuts. Just the other day Róbert Molnár, mayor of Kübekháza (population 1,600), received 3,480 forints for the month of July. This is not a typo. Kübekháza needs about 5 million forints a month just to meet its critical expenses. The electric bill alone is about 40,000 a month. Róbert Molnár with the full support of the town council sent the 3,480 forints back to the government. They found the sum insulting. And Molnár is a Fidesz politician who in fact was a member of parliament between 1998 and 2002. Naturally he made quite a splash since he made sure that the media outlets were informed.

The latest missive was a thank you note straight from Viktor Orbán to those who allegedly signed one of the two million petitions Fidesz received in support of  lowering utility prices. A nice gesture, one could say. But it seems that among those being thanked, according to more and more Hungarians who are speaking out, were family members long dead. One becomes a bit suspicious. Suspicious about Fidesz’s lists in general, about the number two million, and about the whole phony pen pal game.