Von Gábor Egry
The crisis so far revealed how much the Prime Minister lost control of events for a while as soon as he was facing a real threat.
The much-awaited announcement of the economic crisis measures of Viktor Orbán’s government in early April was unusual and an event not seen in the country for many years. As it was unveiled protractedly and relatively late compared with similar measures in other European countries the public was not only rife with speculations regarding its content, but a series of stakeholders published detailed proposals, often with recommendations that transgressed the ideological constraints of the ruling Fidesz party; even without such heresies this is a rare occurrence in Orbán’s Hungary where policy and even professional debates tackling government policies are stigmatized. Even more unexpected was the public reaction to the timid (overall fiscal stimulus is negligible, monetary measures dominate) package that was previously presented by the government as the largest ever crisis management package in Hungarian history and touted to mobilize 20% of the GDP. Almost uniformly everyone criticized the government, including the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Alliance of Hungarian Industrialists, two reliable and loyal transmission belts of the regime.
It happened, however, not out of the blue. Viktor Orbán was clearly driven by pressures throughout the crisis since the beginning of March starting with the announcement of the closing of schools at a Friday evening while in the morning he still had resisted this measure in his usual Friday radio interview. Later, he caved in to mayors and handed extensive special powers to regulate entry and lockdown conditions in their localities, and also abandoned his attempt to easing the measures with Easter, again mainly due to resistance from mayors in all shades of political color. Especially the Fidesz mayor of Székesfehérvár was vocal about his disagreement, but also many other local Fidesz politicians expressed opinions contrary to the government line, signaling significant strains on Viktor Orbán’s carefully designed system of rule.
An Extensive, Drilled and Uniform Political Machine
In most countries such dissenting voices are part of everyday politics yet not in Hungary, where Fidesz’ political success was built on the existence of an extensive, drilled and uniform political machine in which everyone at every level plays a critical role. No public dissent is allowed, and the most some dissatisfied Fidesz politician dare do is to air their frustration anonymously to opposition media outlets. The crucial role of local mayors within this system is a result of two factors: first, they are a node of (re)distribution of EU funds as they are responsible for awarding public procurement for the right contenders – a means of rewarding loyal or silent businessmen. Second, they are also the local, often very popular faces of the party, who command the loyalty of public work scheme participants, and mitigate the negative effects of unpopular government measures.
Anyway, they are crucial for attracting the local elite (priests, cultural figures, high school and university teachers, small -and mid-sized business owners etc.) to the party (Fidesz), while this elite and its dense network of civic associations and organized events was indispensable for embedding Fidesz into Hungarian society after 2002 – as demonstrated by Béla Greskovits and Dorothee Bohle. Thus, the loss of their trust could spell problems for the party’s legitimacy and even for its electoral performance.
These mayors, amidst the pandemic and with a population disconcerted and uncertain, facing an invisible but very real threat, have found themselves between the anvil of their constituents’ demands and the hammer of the centralized and uniformized Fidesz communication machine. They choose very often the former. While it is certainly very much the result of the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting social tensions that proved to be uncontrollable even for the Hungarian government, and very easy to think to recede after the crisis ebbs out, it was preceded and is made more significant by what happened at the local elections in October 2019.
A Beginning Revolt
While most observers then focused on the good results of a united opposition in Budapest and the larger cities, and considered the results as a proof that Fidesz still held the small towns and the countryside in its firm grip, there was another story hidden among the results: a beginning revolt of the local elites. Hungarian sociologist Imre Kovách and his team conducted a large research project on the social structure in Hungary that ended by the end of 2017. While the results have shown that Fidesz has penetrated the Hungarian society deeply and held the loyalty of large and diverse segments of it, Kovács emphasized one factor of risk to them: the local elites started to feel too much constrained in their autonomy. They usually considered themselves not as accessories of the governing party but as social actors who deserve their position due to merit. As a consequence, they legitimated Viktor Orbán but were not one-sidedly dependent on the government, which started a new wave of centralization right after Orbán’s third electoral victory in 2019.
Thus, at the local elections even in towns or larger villages all over the country, and in many of the citadels of Fidesz, a surprisingly large number of Fidesz mayoral or local council candidates lost with huge margins against independents or against a coalition of independent candidates and the opposition who run as ‘localist’ candidates. At these places, Fidesz usually scored 15-20% more for its county council list (a body with no significance and low recognition) than its local visible faces achieved. It could have been a sign of a starting realignment at the local level, control slipping away from Fidesz. The Covid-19 crisis, thus, caught the party in this precarious situation, exacerbating the tensions between a government that neglects local interests, and its locally elected representatives.
As always, it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, but the crisis so far not only revealed how much Orbán lost control of the events for a while as soon as he was facing a real threat and not one manufactured through media manipulation – and many think the worst for him is to come with the economic crisis. It has shown that at the local level the dynamics of the events can turn even loyal Fidesz politicians against the government, putting a strain on the swift operation of Orbán’s political machine, and offering leverage for his opponents.
Gábor Egry, PhD, is Chief Director of the Institute of Political History in Budapest and leads the ERC funded project “Negotiating post-imperial transitions: from remobilization to nation-state consolidation” (NEPOSTRANS).