"The only language the Fidesz government understands is the language of power and money."

Flóra HevesiWhat were Fidesz’s strategic goals when it took over the government three years ago, and to what extent have they been realised?

Péter Krekó: This government has been pursuing reactive politics in the last three years, especially in the economic domain. Although its followers would like to believe otherwise, the government has largely shaped its economic policies based on constraints imposed by the outside world. Had the European Commission agreed to deduct private pension fund payments from the country’s budgetary deficit, for example, Fidesz would not have nationalised private individuals’ pension schemes. Or, if the Commission had given the green light to the government’s plan to run up a higher budget deficit in 2010, Fidesz may not have imposed crisis taxes in the retail, energy and telecommunications sectors. The government’s narrative differs, of course; it sees its economic policies as following its own logic – namely that of shifting the tax burden onto previously over-privileged actors. But what we have seen so far really looks much more like a sequence of ad hoc decisions. This is true for other policy areas was well, with one notable exception, however. The overhaul of the political system was achieved on the basis of a neatly crafted strategy. Fidesz successfully weakened the system of checks and balances which hitherto exercised significant control over governmental and parliamentary decisions. The party occupied one independent institution after another, significantly modifying their roles and powers along the way. And, as we all know, Fidesz was also successful in imposing a new constitutional regime which reflects its vision and values, in addition to providing a powerful shield for its most important policies. This also shows that the government’s moves basically served the interests of the ruling party, which is seeking to maintain its power after 2014.

Kornélia Magyar: It was interesting for me to re-read the programme Fidesz presented to voters before the 2010 elections. If you examine it carefully, you will see a lot of holes and vague formulations. We had already noted in 2010 that the lack of quantifiable electoral pledges would cause trouble in the foreseeable future. The programme contains merely a number of communication pillars – which we could more generously call strategic goals. The government has undoubtedly remained faithful to these. For instance, it can claim that it has kept its pledge to expand the scope of state intervention in the economy. However, if – as Péter rightly mentioned – you look under the surface, you will notice that the ruling party has indeed pursued a reactive strategy, most often responding to the given political situation and subsequently cloaking its reaction in the garb of the 2010 electoral programme. I nevertheless agree that the redrawing of the framework of the Hungarian Rechtsstaat was a different matter altogether. In this regard, I think it is important to note that, in my view, Fidesz transformed the constitutional system not only out of self-interest, but also because the party wanted to remain faithful to the concept of popular sovereignty. Fidesz’s leaders truly believe that the legitimacy of political decisions can be derived solely from the voters who exercise their power during elections (and cede it to their representatives between them). This is why Fidesz endows the act of legislating with an absolutist logic according to which only the parliament (where the party enjoys a two-thirds majority) can make legitimate decisions. The role of the Constitutional Court as a balancing power has been curbed precisely because it is regarded as an obstacle to the exercise of popular sovereignty.

PK: Well, I must say that we did not hear similar argumentation from Fidesz when the party was in opposition. So why don’t we turn the question around? Isn’t this position rooted rather in the party’s current interests? Doesn’t it simply provide an ideological cloak for the will to (maintain) power? It is definitely a truism that, since its victory, Fidesz has stuck to this strongly populist definition of democratic politics (which subordinates democracy to the will of the majority). Here, I would only allude to the fact that there are other possible approaches, for instance ones that highlight the role of institutions capable of defending democracy against the tyranny of the majority. Setting this difficult (yet salient) question aside, I think we should also mention the other areas where the government can claim successes: social policy and cultural politics, two spheres where it has imposed its fundamentally conservative vision of society. Even more importantly, as Kornélia rightly mentioned, Fidesz has had some success in pursuing its goal of establishing an omnipotent (and in some regards unquestionably authoritarian) state, which should ideally provide remedies for all social ills (and can expect almost unconditional obedience from its citizens in return).

KM: I agree that in many respects the government follows the logic of power, but I also see a more-or-less coherent ideological framework behind its moves. The problem is that Fidesz relies upon heavily outdated political-philosophical ideals which have proved to be problematic or counterproductive – for example in the Weimar era.

What has the government done in relation to welfare provisions and social services, e.g. pensions, health care, education? And what else can be expected?

KM: The government has formulated rather vague plans in these areas as well. To give you an idea, let me quote the title of the Fidesz programme’s chapter on health care: “It’s time to save health care.” The chapter then goes on to describe the damage inflicted on the health care system, and concludes by stating that all citizens need to be given access to appropriate health care. That’s all Fidesz had to say about one of the most critical policy areas. So instead of scrutinising the programme, we need to analyse what the government actually did in a specific area. Staying with the health care issue, it is worth noting that the sector has basically been left untouched for strategic reasons. If there is one thing Viktor Orbán has learnt, it is that health care is a sector riven with conflict and that it is therefore easy to lose battles here. Another good example of the prime minister making important policy decisions based on strategic political motives are his policies on pensions. While previously Fidesz had somewhat neglected this electoral group, on a number of occasions in the 2010 election campaign Orbán asserted his respect for pensioners and his commitment to preserving their purchasing power. This strategic move was based on the conviction that this electoral group was absolutely necessary for maintaining power. The recent 10% cut in utility prices (imposed on private gas and electricity providers by the government) and the mentioned stalling of reforms in health care are both symptoms of the same power logic. This is a short-sighted political strategy, however, as Fidesz is now beginning to experience the same difficulty that has plagued the Socialist Party for years – the ageing of its voter base. This problem was exacerbated by the government’s educational reform, which turned the younger generations (who previously had stood behind Orbán) against Fidesz. I do not know how they will be able to repair the damage caused by these moves.

PK: The issue Kornélia just raised – the alliance with pensioners – is very important. Viktor Orbán stated explicitly that an alliance between the active middle class and pensioners was needed. This highlights the core of the Fidesz strategy, which is bent on simultaneously favouring those with higher incomes and inactive citizens, amongst them pensioners. If we consider election formulas, the support of these two groups would be enough to ensure a Fidesz a victory in 2014. Out of the 8 million voters, 3 million are pensioners in Hungary and – importantly – these are the most active in elections, as almost every second participant in the elections is a pensioner. Fidesz is still trailing the Socialist Party in this critical voter group, however. That’s why I believe that Fidesz’s priority in the period preceding the next elections will be to appeal to older voters. This is what the utility price cuts are really about, not to mention the government mantra on preserving the real value of pension schemes (and some vague promises to raise pensions in the future). I see this as a problematic development marking a clear departure from Fidesz’s earlier rhetoric, which contained a promise to push through comprehensive social and economic reforms benefiting those who are active on the labour market. Fidesz appears to have dropped this promise and turned towards pensioners to safeguard its political power.