utility decreases

The Orbán government is at a loss: Which way to turn?

Today even Válasz had to admit that the Hungarian government’s PR stunt that followed the less than successful Merkel-Orbán meeting was a mistake. Referring to the false news about mega-investment,” Valóság, after an earlier glowing report, had to retreat and acknowledge that “there is no BMW, there is no new Mercedes factory and Fidesz doesn’t seem to be successful in the RTL Klub affair either. This wouldn’t be drama if the government had the guts to deny Vs.hu‘s news. But now we do have a small drama.”

I don’t know whether we can call it a drama, but that the Hungarian government’s already tarnished reputation now has an ugly rusty spot as well, that’s for sure. AFP picked up the news about the gigantic German investments that were agreed on during the meeting between the German chancellor and the Hungarian prime minister, but unlike András Kósa, the author of the Vs.hu article, AFP, before publishing the article, did go to the “spokesman for the Hungarian government [who] declined to comment.” Not did the spokesman not deny the story, as Válasz would have suggested, but he purposely spread the disinformation. That leaves me to believe that this PR stunt was concocted by the large communication team around the prime minister’s office.

What can one say about a government that engages in such cheap tricks? Keep in mind that the team around Viktor Orbán was handpicked by the prime minister himself. The members of this team are the ones who manage “communication,” which seems to be the most important aspect of politics for Viktor Orbán. He is like a salesman who has only one goal: to sell his wares regardless of their value or even utility.

What were these communication wizards thinking? Surely they had to realize that sooner or later reporters will ask these companies about their alleged plans and the truth will be revealed. Indeed, Mercedes and BMW have already denied the leaked information about their plans to build factories in Hungary, and this morning we learned from the Siemens spokesman that Siemens is no longer active in industries connected to nuclear energy and therefore the news about their involvement with the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is untrue. As far as the helicopters are concerned, apparently no decision has been made. It is possible that after the meeting Airbus, the French-German company reported to have won the contract, might not be the favorite.

I can only hope that the story of this ruse will reach Angela Merkel’s office, not that I have any doubt about her assessment of the Hungarian prime minister’s character. In any case, the Orbán government’s courting of Germany as a counterbalance to the United States did not work out to Orbán’s satisfaction. Of course, he himself is partly to blame for the fiasco with his public defense of “illiberal democracy.” Even Gábor G. Fodor, a right-wing “strategic director” of Századvég, a Fidesz think tank, said that Viktor Orbán made a mistake when he openly defended his vision of “illiberal democracy.” In fact, he went so far as to say that “this debate cannot be won,” especially not before a western audience. If this absolutely devoted Orbán fan considers the prime minister’s defense of his ideology to have been a mistake, then, believe me, the mistake was a big one.

So, here we are. After all the effort the government put into good relations with Germany, it looks as if Angela Merkel was not convinced. So, where to go from here? There seems to be a serious attempt at improving U.S.-Hungarian relations. This effort was prompted by the long-awaited arrival of the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, who shortly after her arrival began a round of visits and attended to a number of official duties. Her first trip was to Csaba Hende, minister of defense, which was reported by Hungary Today, a  newly launched, thinly disguised government propaganda internet site. The news of her visit was coupled with the announcement of Hungary’s plans to purchase a new helicopter fleet. The fleet will consist of 30 helicopters that will cost 551 million euros. Discussing the helicopters and Colleen Bell’s visit in the same article was no coincidence. Most likely, the Hungarian government wants to give the impression that there is a possibility that the helicopters will be purchased from the United States.

Even more telling is the paean on the Hungarian government’s website to “successful Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” The occasion was the opening of Alcoa’s “expanded wheels manufacturing plant in Hungary.” It is, if I understand it correctly, an expansion of facilities that have been in place ever since 1996. The construction cost $13 million, and it will create 35 new permanent jobs. The facility was officially opened by Colleen Bell and Péter Szijjártó. Szijjártó was effusive: “with Alcoa’s new investment, a new chapter has opened in the success story of Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” We also learned that the Hungarian government “granted one billon forints for the project.”

Photo by Márton Kovács

Photo by Márton Kovács

Bell, for her part, appealed to Hungarian pride by reminding her hosts that, although Alcoa has existed for 125 years, “this is not very long in terms of Hungary’s 1000-year-old history, but for the United States, a 125-year period covers half of its existence.” Music to Hungarian ears. Of course, she also promised that in the future she will work hard to create new opportunities for both U.S. and Hungarian businesses and to further improve their cooperation. The mayor of Székesfehérvár, the city where the Alcoa factory is located, announced that the wheels of buses in the city will gradually be replaced with Alcoa products.

I somehow doubt that courting the United States in this manner will make Washington forget about the anti-American rhetoric of  pro-government papers or the incredible performance of the Orbán government in connection with the U.S. banning of Hungarian nationals because of corruption charges. Somehow I have the feeling that courting the United States without changing government policies will be just as unsuccessful as Orbán’s earlier efforts in Germany.

And one final note. Today Orbán announced that the fate of cheaper utility costs depends on his successful negotiation with Vladimir Putin on the price of gas and oil to Hungary. If he is unsuccessful, the current low utility rates cannot be maintained. The message? The Hungarian people should support his Russia policy. If not, their utility bills will rise again. Let me add that the team that came up with the idea of reducing utility prices hit a gold mine. The Orbán government’s popularity in 2012 was even lower than it is now. Yet a year and a half later the popularity of the party and the government soared. For Orbán utility rates are terribly important, and therefore I suspect that he will do everything in his power to strike a deal with Putin. The question is at what price.

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Is Viktor Orbán a coward?

As I was writing yesterday’s post on Viktor Orbán’s March 15th speech and came to the part where he talked about bravery as an essential ingredient of a nation’s success, my mind wandered to one manifestation of his own lack of bravery (admittedly, most likely wise risk management on his part). It was in 2006 that he made the mistake of agreeing to have a television debate with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who headed the MSZP ticket. Score (being charitable): Gyurcsány 1, Orbán 0. Since then he has systematically avoided head-to-head encounters with his opponents.

Prior to 2006 Orbán had two public debates, one in 1998 with Gyula Horn and another with Péter Medgyessy in 2002. The first debate was a clear win for Orbán, who at that point, following U.S. practice, thought pre-election debates were a capital idea. Gyula Horn, who had had a long political and diplomatic career in the Kádár regime, was no match for the young and more dynamic Viktor Orbán. Although Horn is considered by many the best prime minister of Hungary since 1990, on that occasion he looked unprepared and tired. In a major miscalculation, I don’t think he took the debate seriously.

After the first debate, I’m sure Viktor Orbán was looking forward to taking on Péter Medgyessy in 2002. Medgyessy was not known for his eloquence; in fact, people made jokes about his difficulty with long Hungarian tongue twisters. Orbán was dynamic, Medgyessy very low-key. Moreover, according to all the polls, it looked like easy sailing for Fidesz at the election. Orbán had nothing to lose. But in the debate Orbán looked and sounded like a bully while Medgyessy came across as a modest everyman with whom people could sympathize. As it was, the Hungarian electorate had had enough of the incessant government attacks on everyone who didn’t support them. Orbán lost the election, a result he never quite accepted.

Then came the debate of 2006 with Ferenc Gurcsány. It is something Orbán will never forget or forgive. I’m convinced that his hatred of Gyurcsány dates from that day. I watched the debate and immediately proclaimed it a rout. (The debate is available on YouTube.) Orbán was demolished. Interestingly enough, some people in our group who were exchanging e-mails during the debate were not as sure as I was. Later polls confirmed my first impression. Even Fidesz supporters had to admit that Orbán had lost the debate. Since then Orbán has been trying to pay Gyurcsány back for his humiliation. If it depended on him, he would send Gyurcsány to jail for life. Orbán may be on top of the world right now, but he still considers Ferenc Gyurcsány a threat. Moreover, it seems that after 2006 he got permanently cold feet when it comes to public debates.

He refused to debate Attila Mesterházy in 2010 and it looks as if he has no intention of debating this year either. There are different excuses each time. Four years ago he claimed that there were too many candidates. This year he listed several reasons for refusing to debate. First was that “to this day we don’t know who the real leader of the opposition is: Ferenc Gyurcsány, Attila Mesterházy, or Gordon Bajnai.” Well, this sounds like a lame excuse to me. After all, the united opposition’s candidate for premiership is Attila Mesterházy. Mesterházy called on Orbán to debate several times; in his blog he even dubbed Orbán a coward for refusing to measure the Fidesz program against the opposition’s. Of course, the fact is that Fidesz has no party program unless one considers the decrease in utility prices a program. That is why the following “manifesto” that appeared on the Internet is so apt. In 1848 Sándor Petőfi and his young friends had a list of twelve demands, including freedom of the press, an annual national assembly in Pest, national army, civil and religious equality before the law, equal distribution of tax burdens, and abolition of socage. Viktor Orbán had the gall to compare his lowering of utility prices to the abolition of socage and serjeanty, feudal dues. As you can see, Orbán’s 12 points in this “Orbán” version of the twelve demands are all the same: “utility decreases, utility decreases” twelve times over. Thus it would be rather difficult to have a debate on party programs.

rezsicsokkentes

A take-off on the Hungarian nation’s demands in 1848

It would be uncomfortable to answer questions about the Putin-Orbán agreement on Paks or the incredible corruption. If Mesterházy were well prepared, he could demolish Orbán’s economic figures. And what about the ever larger national debt? All in all, Orbán will not debate because it is not to his advantage. Moreover, his admirers don’t even demand any program. They seem to be perfectly happy with the government’s performance in the last four years and look forward to four or even eight more years of the same.

Another reason that Orbán gave for his refusal to debate is that in his opinion there is no political formation today outside of Fidesz-KDNP that is fit to govern (kormányzóképes). Such labeling in a democracy is unacceptable. It just shows what kind of democracy we are talking about in Hungary.

András Schiffer of LMP would like to have a debate with Orbán, Mesterházy, and Vona (Jobbik). As you know, Schiffer is not one of my favorites, but he is a good debater and could score extra points if given the opportunity. I’m sure that Orbán will not be game, and I understand that Mesterházy will agree only if Orbán also participates. So, we can be pretty sure that there will be no debate in 2014. The opposition will remain invisible.