Hungary's new twin cabinets powered up

Hungary's new twin cabinets powered up
Prime Minister Viktor Orban dreams of becoming a European heavyweight, leading efforts to reform the EU.
By Blanka Zoldi in Budapest August 17, 2016

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has established a new cabinet committee system, which will help him play divide and rule with his lieutenants and take a step back, as he dreams of playing a big role on the European stage.

Following the first meeting of Hungary’s strategic cabinet last week, the economic cabinet also held its first session on August 16, marking the launch of two new twin centres of power in Hungary.

The government announced in July its plan to create two key cabinet committees, in order to increase the speed and efficiency of governance. At the same time, the reorganisation of government tasks also appears designed to set up competition amongst senior figures of the governing Fidesz party.

Structuring the government’s work in cabinet committees is not a new phenomenon in Hungary. Since 1990, various committees were established by the government in order to improve the pre-decision preparation process before government meetings. Fidesz also experimented with the cabinet system between 2011 and 2013 – it ran an economic cabinet and one for social policies – but as the cabinets did not deliver the expected efficiency, the government scrapped them.

As it now re-establishes a similar system, Fidesz seems confident that the new economic and strategic cabinets will show better results. The cabinets "can be instrumental for faster and more precise decision-making”, Economy Minister Mihaly Varga said, who was appointed as head of the economic cabinet. The strategic cabinet will be led by Janos Lazar, leader of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Analysts suggest that the main goal of the new system is to let Prime Minister Orban Viktor take a step back from daily tasks, and leave him more time to concentrate on strategic policy making, both on the domestic and international stages. For example, he seems to want to take a lead role in the government’s campaign for a national referendum on the EU’s migrant quota system. He also still dreams of becoming a European heavyweight, leading efforts to reform the EU.

“Orban ended up not having time for those tasks that he wanted to do the most. From this point of view, it is a logical step to set up the new cabinets,” Ambrus Kiss, analyst of Policy Agenda tells bne IntelliNews.

In the new system, most discussions will take place in the cabinet committees. Instead of holding long government sessions, at the governmental level the cabinets’ decisions will only have to be approved, or, in case the government does not agree, the topic can be referred back to the cabinet committee. Although some details about the functioning of the new system – such as which specific topics and issues will be delegated to each cabinet – are yet unclear, the new government structure indeed offers a framework that can help to ease burden on the PM.

At the same time, the reshuffle also seems to set up competition among senior Fidesz politicians. “If Orban is unbeatable in something, it is his ability to move people around as if they were chess figures on a table,” Robert Laszlo, analyst of Political Capital tells bne IntelliNews. Kiss agrees, as he points out that now the newly appointed cabinet leaders – the minister of the Prime Minister’s Office and the minister for economy - “formally stand out from other ministers”.  

According to the analyst, the creation of the economic cabinet is not surprising, as previous Hungarian governments usually also had one such cabinet. It was also predictable that the cabinet would be led by Varga. Alarmed by disappointing GDP growth results in the first quarter of the year, Orban entrusted Varga to create an economic stimulus package, which is planned to be put on the government’s agenda in the autumn. Analysts suggest that by setting up the economic cabinet, Orban both rewarded Varga’s work and facilitated the quick creation of the stimulus package.

Lazar, as the head of the strategic cabinet, seems to have received even bigger power. “Even the name of the cabinet suggest that it will deal with issues of strategic planning. It will be a government within the government,” Kiss predicts.

The move of appointing Lazar came somewhat as a surprise, following a sudden and coordinated attack earlier this year on a close ally of his, banking oligarch Zoltan Speder. Although he was stripped of the task of supervising the integration of saving cooperatives, seemingly it did not cause additional damage to his power.

“Even if he does not always agree with Orban, he has always been there and proved that he is an indispensable part of the government’s work,” Kiss said about Lazar. The new head of the strategic cabinet has also been responsible for holding the government’s weekly press conferences for more than a year.

Lazar also seems to have outgrown one of his biggest rivals in the party, Antal Rogan. Last autumn Rogan was appointed as the leader of the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, which is responsible for "general policy coordination and coherent government communication”. In recent months, however, Rogan has faced several accusations of being involved in corruption cases. Analysts suggests that this caused increasing headache for Orban, who aims to push Rogan somewhat to the margins compared to Lazar and Varga.  

According to unnamed sources of local Heti Valasz, the new government structure not only creates competition, but even appears to set up two new candidates that could easily move into the prime minister's chair, if necessary. The paper points out that Fidesz, which is currently only supported by around 30% of the total population, might find it hard to gain an absolute majority in the upcoming elections in 2018. Should Fidesz need to form a coalition government with one of the opposition parties, either Varga or Lazar could lead the coalition government, the paper suggests.

Up to now, Orban has not shown any signs of stepping down. On the contrary, the new cabinet structure will leave him more time to concentrate on campaigning. “Without Viktor Orban, Fidesz cannot win the elections in 2018,” Lazar told local Figyelo in a recent interview. “It is not enough if we [government politicians] are satisfied with the government’s work, it helps a lot if voters feel the same way. In this work, Viktor Orban has the main role.”