Kester Eddy in Budapest -
In a move that won't have boosted Hungary's flagging popularity among its EU allies, Viktor Orban, the country's mercurial prime minister, shunned a long-planned breakfast meeting with EU ambassadors to have been hosted on December 4 by the Italian delegation in Budapest. While the official reason was, according to one EU diplomatic source, an “excessively busy schedule,” the conclusion by the ambassador from one of Hungary's neighbours was short and succinct: “The prime minister would have been on the defensive, and he doesn't like that. He likes to be in control.”
Orban, who has metamorphosed from a liberal, anti-communist student dissident to a staunchly nationalist-conservative leader in the past quarter century, is indeed on the defensive.
True, after garnering 45% of the vote in April's election – thereby winning a second two-thirds majority in parliament under the new electoral system – Orban's hold on power is not under any immediate threat. But possibly because of three election victories this year – including European Parliament and local elections – in an ironic twist Orban's second term of office has been less sure-footed.
Gone to their heads
Since the summer speech when Orban referred to his admiration of “illiberal democracies” and held up China and Russia as model systems, international reactions to his policies, coupled with a flurry of scandals involving the newly-acquired wealth of leaders of his governing Fidesz party, have begun to erode confidence even within hitherto loyal supporter groups.
As one Western diplomat put it: “This two-thirds majority has to some extent gone to their heads; they are able to pass laws at will and they do.” The implication being that their repeated success and very powerful position has led to a feeling of untouchability.
Nowhere is this headstrong attitude better illustrated than in the ongoing row with Washington after pro-Fidesz media revealed in October that the US had banned six government officials from entering on the grounds of corruption.
Rather than address the issue directly – or keep quiet and let it die – the Hungarian government and its media proxies have repeatedly kept the issue alive with charges against the US ranging from the evasive – ie. repeatedly demanding details of the alleged corruption activities when all along the US has insisted it will not release personal visa information – to the bizarre.
In the latter category, Ildiko Vida, the head of the national tax administration (NAV) – and who has admitted to being on the US list – was hanging around outside the US embassy with her lawyer one November day to surprise Andre Goodfriend, the US chargé d'affaires, with the request for an ad hoc interview. A pro-government television crew 'just happened' to be on hand to film the event, including Vida's distraught realisation that she needed to address the deputy head of mission in English. The resulting YouTube video went viral.
Just as the the Hungarian government was, at least in some instances, moderating the rhetoric, the row flared up again.
At the beginning of December, John McCain, a senator for Arizona, savaged the US decision to send Colleen Bell, a political appointee and TV soap opera producer, as the next ambassador to Budapest, saying she was unequal to the task in hand. In the same address, he denounced Orban as “a neo-Fascist dictator” who has undermined the fundamentals of democracy, including the independence of the Hungarian courts and freedom of the press.
The Hungarian government immediately summoned Goodfriend in protest and in turn denounced McCain's words as “unacceptable.”
Despite the remonstrance, the McCain broadside – which even the US government distanced itself from – “must have been a shock for Fidesz leaders,” Kornelia Magyar, director of the Magyar Progressive Institute, a political think-tank, tells bne IntelliNews. “McCain is, or at least was, a highly respected Republican for the political right in Hungary – even Orban himself called him a 'real hero' back in 2008.”
The prime minister's response was awaited: it did not take long. In his fortnightly radio interview on December 4, Orban dismissed McCain's personal accusations as “extreme” and more “a reflection on the speaker,” while the allegations of undermining democracy had already been scrutinised by the EU and were “past issues.”
However, McCain's words formed part of a general “attack on Hungary's independence” which, as the elected leader, he explained he was duty bound to defend. In an interview published in the pro-government Valasz magazine just one day previously, Goodfriend had “slandered” Vida by accusing her of direct involvement in corruption. As a result, the head of the tax office should “immediately” sue in the courts, Orban declared.
Commentators noted that the prime minister, knowing that diplomats are protected by international law, must have been appealing to his domestic voters.
Goodfriend, speaking to Nepszava, a left-leaning daily notable for its lack of state-sponsored advertising, said Vida would get specific reasons for her ban if she applied for a US visa, while suing him for slander could prove “very interesting” in terms of procedures. More critically, rather than insisting the US provide the reasons for the visa ban, the Hungarian government should investigate evidence of corruption supplied by its own citizens, he argued.
Meanwhile, ordinary Hungarians struggle to understand these issues in the context of their daily lives and sharply divided, government-dominated media sources. Yet despite some recent positive macroeconomic indicators, support for the governing party has palpably waned of late.
Support for Fidesz among decided voters contracted from 37% to 25% between October and November, an unprecedented monthly slump, according to a survey by pollsters Tarki.
Endre Sik, a senior researcher at Tarki, said the decline was “in all probability a result of recent domestic and international political conflict,” citing the US visa row in particular.
The Hungarian prime minister could take comfort in the results of a later poll by Szazadveg, an institute well-known for its close ties to Fidesz, which put support by “active voters” for the ruling party at a still-healthy 37%.
However, Orban and his supporters might have been unnerved by a public protest held on December 4, the day of the aborted EU-ambassadors' breakfast. On that inclement evening, a crowd of several thousand marched up to the des-res Castle district of Budapest behind a banner that read: “We can't pay as much in taxes as they [the government] steal”. Another protest is planned for December 16.
As a senior Western diplomat, commenting on the row, told bne IntelliNews: “I can't see this going away, not unless they actually do something, as opposed to talking about it.”
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