Fidesz: Can the struggle with Jobbik be won?

October 1, 2010 1 comment

The world’s press has been keeping a watchful eye on Hungary’s governing Fidesz party – and especially its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – since they took power last May. Journalists are usually most interested in questions surrounding Fidesz’s economic policies. But certain reporters, notably from France and Germany, have also put a lot of energy into dissecting Fidesz’s ties to Hungary’s extreme right. Some even accuse Fidesz of being directly responsible for the rise of the ultranationalist Jobbik party, as a piece in Germany’s Spiegel Online suggested September 9.

Such ideas are way off the mark. The question of Fidesz’s relationship with the extreme right is highly complex. What follows is a summary of the events that lead to Jobbik’s breakthrough in Hungarian politics – and Fidesz’s efforts to turn it around.

When state socialism collapsed in 1990, Hungary’s radical left was a spent force in Hungary. No far left-wing movements managed to gain any ground in the early years of Hungary’s new democracy. People who opposed the market-based system therefore found their voice in the extreme right. Even so, it took a long time for the far right to make any political waves. The only exception was István Csurka’s Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP), which squeaked past the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation in the 1998 election, mostly thanks to low voter turnout. In the 2002 ballot, MIÉP failed to get enough votes to remain in Parliament, mostly thanks to Fidesz.

Once Fidesz became Hungary’s undisputed right-wing standard bearer in the mid-1990s, it began working to consolidate Hungary’s entire right under its own umbrella, from centrists to radicals. The presence of MIÉP made this strategy impossible to realize. Fidesz therefore began reaching out to extremist voters (similar to the way Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement has targeted supporters of France’s far right). Fidesz’s efforts halted the growth of the radical right and bounced MIÉP out of Parliament. The price was that Fidesz’s public statements frequently blurred the lines between moderate- and extreme-right points of view.

Fidesz leaders have openly talked about this strategy on several occasions. In January 2007, Orbán himself told ManagerMagazin, “There’s no need to criticize the fact that right- and left-wing parties are trying to integrate radical voters, even though these parties’ policies are otherwise centrist. From a societal point of view, I see this as a benefit. It prevents Hungary from looking like other countries where radical forces are cropping up on both the right and the left. God only knows how long these can be kept below the 20% level or how long they can exist within the framework of Europe’s democratic traditions.”

Fidesz’s politics thus cannot be characterized as extremist. Indeed, the party has always worked to prevent the far right from becoming institutionalized. And for 10 years, it worked.

September 17, 2006 marked a turning point. That was the day Hungarian media got hold of a recording on which former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted that he had deliberately lied about the state of Hungary’s economy in order to win re-election the previous April (the infamous “Őszöd Speech”). Rioters poured into Budapest’s streets demanding Gyurcsány’s resignation, plunging the city into chaos for days. The turmoil in Hungary’s capital and the popular anger toward the Socialists gave the extreme right the opportunity it needed to regroup. Old ultra-right formations began to recover and new ones sprouted up.

It soon became clear that Jobbik, a youth movement that became a political party in 2003, was taking the leading role in building its movement. The party had run for Parliament in April 2006 in cooperation with MIÉP and failed to win a single seat. But in the October 2006 municipal elections, Jobbik successfully ran some joint candidates for mayor with Fidesz and other right-wing parties. At the end of 2006, Jobbik launched its campaign against “Gypsy crime,” tapping into popular prejudice against Hungary’s Roma minority.

The watershed moment came in 2007, when Jobbik spawned the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda), a paramilitary organization whose uniforms evoked memories of Nazi-era Hungary. Hungarian courts banned the Guard in July 2009 – but by then, the group had already worked wonders for Jobbik. It was not only a magnet for media coverage, but also served a unifying force for right-wing radicals: Smaller extremist groups that had once competed with each other now lined up behind Jobbik.

Fidesz began to give up on radical-right voters once the Hungarian Guard was formed. At first, Fidesz tried to trivialize Jobbik; when this was no longer possible, the party launched a targeted campaign against right-wing extremists. But Fidesz was unable to derail the radical-right juggernaut: Jobbik won more than 450,000 votes in the June 2009 elections for European Parliament and took more than 850,000 votes in the 2010 parliamentary ballot.

It is clear that Jobbik was helped by public revulsion toward the constant mudslinging that Fidesz and its biggest rival, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) engaged in between 2002 and 2010. But the main factor behind Jobbik’s rise has been its ability to make political hay out of popular demand for extremist policies. The percentage of Hungarians who are predisposed to radical right-wing ideologies more than doubled between 2003 and 2009, according to Political Capital’s Demand for Right-Wing Extremism (DEREX) Index. The primary driver behind extremist sentiment is a decline in public morale: Many Hungarians feel they can no longer trust the political elite or their governing institutions. The other factor is a rise in prejudice, especially toward foreigners. In 2003, 37% of Hungarians expressed prejudicial sentiments; in 2009 the rate had jumped to 52%, according to DEREX data.

There is little doubt that the Gyurcsány administration bears a large degree of responsibility for the popularity of the extreme right. At the very least, the Socialists failed to counter Jobbik’s rise while in power, just as Fidesz did while in opposition. The main question is whether Fidesz will be able to weaken Jobbik as a governing party. The initial indicators are favorable: Since Fidesz took over last May, Jobbik has lost much of its power to affect public opinion. Whether Jobbik’s political support has declined is a question that will be answered when the votes are counted in the municipal elections October 3.

Péter Krekó

Vote now, ask questions later

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is trying to win the October 3 municipal elections using roughly the same tactic that brought it a 68% majority in Parliament last April: Make vague, crowd-pleaser promises without disclosing the dirty details of how they will be fulfilled – or more importantly, who is going to pay for them. There is certainly nothing unusual about politicians making unrealistic promises. But Fidesz has raised it to an art form: When pressed for more information, party leaders not only resort to tried-and-true political subterfuge, they behave as if they have no obligation to explain themselves.

Fidesz’s state secretary in charge of healthcare, Miklós Szócska, last week refused to elucidate his plans to overhaul the medical system, saying it would inappropriate during a political campaign, according to the Népszabadság newspaper.* This is an interesting take on democracy: A sitting government should clarify its budgetary priorities only when the voting is over. The press would have skewered Szócska in the United States, where he earned his master’s in public administration from Harvard University. But his words barely made a ripple on the Hungarian political radar screen.

Leading Fidesz candidates see no reason to defend their positions in public debates – a basic tenet of democracy in developed countries. István Tarlós, the runaway favorite to become Budapest mayor, refuses to go head-to-head with his rivals. His spokeswoman said Tarlós prefers to spend his time with the people of Budapest rather than other politicians. Ákos Kriza, Fidesz’s mayoral candidate in Hungary’s third-biggest city, Miskolc, did not show up for a September 15 debate with incumbent Socialist Mayor Sándor Káli and independent Ákos Hircsu. This means neither Tarlós’ nor Kriza’s ideas will be subject to the kind of scrutiny that only a debate can bring. Of course, both men have a strong precedent: Orbán refused to debate other parties’ nominees for prime minister ahead of the April 11 ballot.

Fidesz is also keeping its plans for the 2011 budget under wraps. On July 5, Fidesz restored an old law that extends the deadline for the government to present its draft budget until Oct. 31 in election years. Without this change, the Orbán administration would have had to send its 2011 spending plan to Parliament before the municipal vote. It is understandable that a brand-new government needs an extra month to get its spending priorities in order. However, Fidesz is facing an EU-imposed budget-deficit target of 2.8% of GDP for 2011, which would be a record-low shortfall since 1995. The budget is therefore bound to bring some negative news, whether it be delays in promised income-tax cuts, lower social spending or sector-specific corporate levies similar to the “bank tax.” Problem is, voters will not know the details until after the polls close.

Nonetheless, Fidesz is poised to sweep every county and nearly every major city on election day, if opinion polls are correct. Popular revulsion toward the main opposition party, the Socialists, is so strong that many Hungarians will stick by Fidesz no matter what they say. Perhaps it would be wise to recall the words of U.S. President Andrew Jackson: “Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty.” In modern-day parlance: “Democracy: Use it or lose it.”

*Szócska’s office declined to confirm or deny whether the Népszabadság quote was accurate.

Alex Kuli

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August 19, 2010 1 comment

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No Political Honeymoon in Slovakia

August 10, 2010 1 comment

In most countries, election winners enjoy a protracted period of public support immediately after taking office (the “post-election bandwagon effect”). Slovakia’s new government has had no such luck.

Former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party, which lost power in the June 12 general election with 34.8% of the vote, has seen its support jump to 42%, its highest level in 12 months, according to the most recent Focus Agency poll. Smer may be benefitting from an influx of support from former backers of Vladimir Meciar’s People’s Party – Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS), which failed to win enough votes to make it into parliament last June. But this cannot explain why overall support for Smer and its former coalition partners (Smer, LS-HZDS, and the ultranationalist Slovak National Party (SNS)) has increased from 45% to 50% in the two months since Slovak voters ousted them.  

One could argue that this also represents a bandwagon effect – Smer, which won more votes than any other single party on June 12, is becoming more popular. What is not typical is that the four-party right-wing/liberal coalition that replaced Fico (the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) and Híd-Most) has been unable to gain momentum since taking power; their poll ratings have either stagnated or edged up just slightly. This means that if elections were held now, Fico and SNS leader Jan Slota would beset Prime Minister Iveta Radicova’s government 48% to 40%. The upcoming corruption investigations and search for “skeletons” can challenge Fico’s popularity, but it won’t weaken the strong pressure from the opposition. And, if some austerity measures will be implemented, the populist rhetorics of Smer can remain attractive. 

One possible reason is the coalition parties’ squabbling over the governing program. Practically every member of the coalition, especially the SaS, was forced to compromise; voters may believe the parties they voted for two months ago have abandoned the most attractive parts of their election manifestos. This has also led to internal strife within the parties; some SaS caucus members have even threatened to quit the coalition.

These figures indicate Radicova will have a tough time governing and that Fico may find his way back to power. There is absolutely no guarantee the new coalition will be able to complete its four-year parliamentary term, especially given its paper-thin parliamentary majority (79-71) and a tough opposition like Smer.

What makes the government work a bit easier, is that after the forthcoming local elections in November, a period of 3 years will begin without any elections at all. Preliminary elections in the SK political system are almost impossible (it needs a constitutional majority: 90 votes out of 150 in the parliament), so the government should focus on maintaining its thin parliamentary majority. As the Finance Minister is drafting ambitious austerity measures, the real test will be the vote over the 2011 budget.

Péter Krekó – Csaba Molnár

It’s good to be an analyst in Hungary

Two statements by senior politicians from Hungary’s governing Fidesz party over past two weeks:

Tibor Navracsics, Deputy Prime Minister, June 23

“Obviously, during the planning of next year’s budget we will have to reckon with whether we can meet (the 3 percent 2010 target). We hope we can meet this undertaking by the (previous) Bajnai government, which would bring the budget deficit below 3 percent.”

György Matolcsy, Minister for Economic Development, July 2

“Hungary will seek a two-year precautionary deal with the IMF and EU for 2011-12 in the range of 10-20 billion euros and hopes to agree with lenders on a higher budget gap than 3 percent of GDP for next year.(…) The deep structural reforms which the government is planning for 2011 and 2012 will have significant additional costs, and the difficult situation of the euro zone economy could also make deep deficit cuts hard next year. (…)

In Hungary, totally contradictory statements from the government are no barrier to analyzing and predicting political tendencies.

These statements reflect uncertainties over the direction of economic policy within Fidesz. While both Navracsics and Matolcsy agree that the budget-deficit target for 2010 (3.8% of GDP) is carved in stone, the 2011 deficit goal is apparently up in the air.

Hungary’s government is set to meet this month with its main creditors, the EU and the IMF. The Hungarians will probably try to persuade them that minor fiscal loosening, along the implementation of certain reforms, may be a good medium-term investment for the country and won’t endanger economic stability. The success of this move is highly uncertain, as EU leaders and investors are still afraid of financial turbulence – or even wholesale collapse – among its members. Moreover, Hungary’s forint tumbled and its credit-default swap prices shot up following the recent crises in Greece and Romania, demonstrating that Hungary’s economy is still extremely vulnerable and fragile. Both the IMF and the EU are reluctant to let countries loosen their fiscal policies if they are able to keep their budget deficts below 3%.

So the uncertainty remains: The generosity of IMF and EU will decide whether Navracsics or Matolcsy will prevail.

Péter Krekó-Krisztián Szabados

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Independent Constitutional Courts: One man’s joy is another man’s pain

Few institutions generate stronger hatred among emerging-market investors these days than Romania’s Constitutional Court. By striking down the Romanian government’s pension cuts June 25, the court sparked financial panic that led to a general loss of investor confidence in the entire Central and Eastern European region. As a result of the court’s ruling, the IMF decided to postpone its June 28 review of its €20 billion standby loan; fund managers are currently discussing the fate of the loan’s next €900 million tranche – money that the country desperately needs.

The ruling sent credit-default swap prices skywards while currencies across the region tumbled. The Romanian lei hit a record low of 4.37 to the euro on June 28. Not only investors who took the hit: Households and companies that have foreign currency-denominated loans are now at a higher risk of default than ever before, especially in Hungary, where more than 600,000 households have foreign-currency credits. Weaker currencies and higher debt-service expenses can hamper economic recovery; moreover, a rise in non-performing loans may destabilize the banking sector. It would be unjust to blame Romania’s Constitutional Court for all Central Europe’s economic hardships ¬ but its ruling is helping to destabilize the region’s still-unstable economies.

After the court handed down its decision, Romania’s government decided its only recourse was to raise the value-added tax to 24% from 19% as of July 1, or lose its IMF lifeline. Romania now has the second-highest VAT in the European Union behind Hungary, Sweden and Denmark at 25%. This kind of austerity measure will affect all Romanians, and not just pensioners. Is there anyone in Europe who is satisfied with the court’s action (besides maybe a few hundred thousand Romanian retirees)? The fact that the Constitutional Court is one of the most important democratic counterweights to the government is poor comfort to the millions who must bear the brunt of the ruling.

Across the border in Hungary, the problem is just the opposite. There, the governing Fidesz party is systematically eliminating institutional checks on its power, emboldened by a two-thirds parliamentary majority that allows the party to amend the Constitution singlehandedly. Last month, Fidesz MPs watered down the Constitutional Court’s independence by changing the rules for nominating the judges. Under the old system, each parliamentary caucus had the right to delegate one member to a committee that would nominate a judge by consensus. The full Parliament would then vote on the nominee, with a two-thirds majority required for confirmation to the court. Under Fidesz’s new rules, the governing majority will nominate Constitutional Court judges. Parliament still needs to confirm each candidate with a two-thirds majority, but Fidesz controls 68% of the seats. Fidesz can thus appoint and elect Constitutional Court judges on its own.

Fidesz’s efforts have met with harsh criticism at home and abroad. Outgoing President László Sólyom expressed his displeasure by vetoing the law on Constitutional Court nominations. However, Hungarian law makes it easy for MPs to override presidential vetoes, so Sólyom’s gesture was largely symbolic.

Romania and Hungary are grappling with problems that are mirror images of each other: In Hungary, Fidesz is meddling with nomination processes to switch off institutional controls on its powe; the Constitutional Court is just the tip of the iceberg. In Romania, an overly independent Constitutional Court is wreaking havoc across the region. The underlying tension is nothing new: Economic and governmental efficiency and the high principles of democracy are more often enemies than friends.

On the other hand, Fidesz doesn’t necessarily need the Constitutional Court to drive Hungary’s economy to near-bankruptcy; as the events of June 2010 proved, Hungary’s government is perfectly capable of doing that on its own.

Péter Krekó

Slovakia: No political landslide

June 18, 2010 1 comment

The Slovak opposition’s defeat of Prime Minister Robert Fico in the June 12 elections may give the impression that there has been a significant shift of in the balance of political power. It is a false impression. Fico’s Smer party received a greater share of the vote than ever before. The incoming right-wing government will be fragile, and any conflicts between the coalition partners may send voters into Fico’s camp. Reports of a 180-degree turn in Slovak policy are thus greatly exaggerated.

The outgoing coalition – Smer, the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the People’s Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) – took 44.2% on June 12, just 5.5% less than they won in 2006 (49.7%). Smer and the SNS can easily regain this percentage of voters, so it is far too early to talk about an irreversible anti-populist, market-friendly U-turn. Meanwhile, the LS-HZDS, led by onetime political heavyweight Vladmir Meciar, fell out of Parliament and will probably fade into obscurity. However, his voters will remain in the “nationalist” block and support the “neo-Meciarian” Fico, or the SNS. In addition, a far-right anti-Roma formation known as the People’s Party-Our Slovakia has joined the club of political contenders. They won just 1.3% on June 12, but this party has the potential to overtake the SNS to become Slovakia’s premier far-right group.

Híd-Most and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), two brand-new parties, made it past the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation. But this can hardly be regarded as something unique in either Slovakia or the region. Slovakia’s party system has been in flux in the 17 years since Slovakia became independent. Smer emerged in 1999 after splitting from the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) and soon reshuffled the balance of left-wing forces. The proportional-representation voting system makes it easy for new political formations to rise quickly – and fall equally quickly.

Two new parties also entered parliament in both Hungary and the Czech Republic at the recent elections.

The four-party governing coalition will be quite fragile. It will include Híd-Most, whose roots are in the ethnic Hungarian community, inviting attacks from Slovak nationalists. The cabinet will also be divided along ideological lines: The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) represent center-right/Christian-democratic politics, while the SaS and Híd-Most take a liberal line. The two sides will be in continuous confrontation with each other to avoid losing their political identities.
The new administration may therefore have a tough time sticking together. True, practically the same people cooperated with one another in the government of former Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, and true, the four parties’ views on economic policy are similar. But the politicians are in different positions now than they were in 2006; for example, Richard Sulik will find that being chairman of the SaS is a lot different from being “just” an adviser to the finance minister.

Meanwhile, Smer has gained ground in practically every election since it was founded in 1999. Fico’s return to the opposition benches means he’s back in his element. If a governing politician makes a false move, Fico and his populist allies will pounce on it and mercilessly pummel the coalition (tit-for-tat accusations of corruption are somewhat of a hobby for Slovak politicians). The coalition will have 79 seats out of 150 in parliament, so its majority will evaporate if only four MPs defect. Fico’s room for political manoeuvre is getting broader. He can easily find his way back to the prime minister’s office.

Róbert László-Péter Krekó

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