Internal criticism resurfaces in Fidesz


Though on the eve of the Hungarian municipal elections back in October officials of Fidesz mostly spoke about a landslide victory, by today, many voices within the governing party say that one of their chief weapons, communication, is gravely misfunctioning. But they talk about other problems as well, such as voters punishing Fidesz for their increasing arrogance and self-aggrandizing. More and more members of Fidesz are speaking out publicly to sound the alarms: if they do not change their politics, they could face troubles at the 2022 general election.

A long-absent phenomenon seems to be making a comeback in Hungarian domestic politics: ever since the municipal elections on 13 October, members of Fidesz from all levels of the party keep speaking up, telling leadership that things need to change.

This situation was somewhat expected after the municipal elections rearranged the political playing field - although there is still a monolithic government party facing several smaller opposition parties, and the electoral rules instated by Fidesz in 2011 clearly favour the former, the myth of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's invincibility seems to have been shaken.

The opposition is still miles behind Fidesz in both organisation and resources, but remarks from within the governing party show that its members are seriously considering the possibility that the System of National Cooperation could be in for a surprise in 2022.

To evaluate and analyse

Viktor Orbán already expressed his dissatisfaction with the municipal election's results right after they came out. He recited the obligatory elements of the government narrative (Fidesz remains the strongest party, the map turned orange, etc.), but at the end of his speech he made an unusual promise:

"we will evaluate and analyse the results and we will run the numbers, and we will shape the policies of Fidesz and KDNP in the upcoming period in accordance with what we find."

A couple of days later, Chief of Staff Gergely Gulyás was a bit more critical of the results. In general, he said that "if somebody loses an election, then they have obviously made mistakes," adding that the reason why incumbent mayors of Fidesz were unable to increase the popularity of Fidesz in Budapest is something worth looking into. 

Opinions are divided on the question of responsibility for Fidesz's failure to win the majority of Budapest districts. One common theory suggests that pollsters vastly underestimated the mobilising power of the alliance made by opposition parties, and some had suggested that problems in Fidesz run deeper than the Borkai-scandal as early as mid-October, there were even comments from within the party saying voters had enough of oligarch Lőrinc Mészáros.

A botched campaign

Several people close to the party had stated publicly that Fidesz botched their campaign. G. Fodor Gábor, editor-in-chief of pro-government news site and long-time Fidesz pundit pointed out that Fidesz's campaign lacked a central, overarching message such as migration, the Soros-plan, or cutting utility prices had been earlier; if there would have been a similar message, that could have prevented the opposition's cooperation.

István Tarlós, the previous, Fidesz-backed mayor of Budapest told Index in an interview conducted in November that he should not have allowed other people to run his campaign (referring to the Fidesz HQ's campaign team) and that it may have not been such a bad idea to have a debate with his opposition challenger Gergely Karácsony. Fidesz-backed mayor of Székesfehérvár, András Cser-Palkovics was also baffled by his party's campaign in the capital, as it was mostly built around claims that opposition mayoral candidate Gergely Karácsony was unfit for the position. "In a democracy, it is the voters' job to determine if a candidate is fit or not, not ours," he said, adding:

"We should not have said that our opponent is unfit, instead, we should have said that we want to keep on doing or job." 

János Pócs, former mayor of Jászberény, who lost even the repeated election in his city, spoke about his local failure, but his words could very well be interpreted within a wider context. He opined they did everything wrong, their messages fell flat, and whatever they did do well was communicated on the wrong channels, unable to reach voters. As to what needs to change, he gave a very brief answer: 

"the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we appear - everything."

Communication overhaul

József Répás, the mayor of Kiskunlacháza also mentioned communication issues in his interview with pro-government daily Magyar Hírlap. What's interesting about his remarks is that as a mayor of a small town with 9000 inhabitants, he is hardly a key player in Fidesz - if such a small fry can afford to speak out of party line in Fidesz's national media, that could be a telling sign. He stated that Fidesz has lost touch with the Hungarian youth, so

"We need to overhaul our communication, our slogans, and our image."

Répás warned that "we will have to think of something, as it would be very difficult to come back if the shock of 2002 repeated itself in 2022," referring to the election ending Orbán's first stint as Prime Minister. 

In December, even Gergely Gulyás admitted to ATV that Fidesz's communication style has to be different, which could foreshadow interesting developments: As Chief of Staff, Gulyás is an important member of the Orbán-cabinet, and Fidesz's communication strategy is key in the party's political operation. 

In the spirit of change, the government replaced spokesperson István Hollik with the former deputy of István Tarlós, Alexandra Szentkirályi, who introduced herself in a video message on Facebook using informal language (Hungarian has a formal and an informal way of addressing someone, and the latter is rather unconventional in politics - if you wish to go a little further down this sociolinguistic rabbit hole, we suggest reading this blog post). Gulyás said that he cannot stand the informal tone personally, but his tastes alone cannot be the standard if the government wants to communicate effectively. 

The turn towards this informal tone is most likely an attempt to address the issue that Fidesz has trouble finding their way to the younger demographics. This narrative spread through pro-government media like wildfire after the municipal elections, with many noting that 500.000 people will reach voting age by the 2022 general elections, and mobilising them could be a crucial question of that campaign.

Arrogant behaviour

Publicist György Pilhál also starkly criticised the Prime Minister in the flagship of pro-government media, Magyar Nemzet. Though Pilhál is not the most influential staff member of the political daily, his remarks were echoed by several other pro-government outlets. The opinion piece is a letter to Orbán, and though at no point does he directly address the Prime Minister, it's hard to interpret his words otherwise:

"We used to discuss our problems, and even if we fought sometimes, our disputes were benevolent. We fought for each other. Back then, you were honest! (...) These days, we no longer have honest conversations. You rarely listen to us anymore. Even when you do, you do not care about our opinions, you're doing what you think is right. We stand by you, even though few actually know what is happening around you anymore. Do you really think everything is as it used to be? Is it possible that you are wrong?"

Pilhál suggests establishing the "civic circles" again, the people's movement comprised of a loose web of social groups called together by Orbán to keep his base together after Fidesz's 2002 election defeat. The party dropped the civic circles right after their landslide victory at the 2010 elections, and Pilhál notes that the party has thus lost its "human touch," as they were no longer in direct conversation with their supporters. The publicist cited András Bencsik, an emblematic figure of Fidesz's media, who also noted

"The human voice disappeared along with admitting mistakes, explaining successes, and the curious, conversational attitude interested in other opinions. Instead, we have strongman-politics and messages created in think-tanks and measured out by pollsters."

Bencsik also opined that "Fidesz irritates more and more people," "many are angry at the government," and the way the government "cooperates with the citizens" rubs them entirely the wrong way.

Fidesz-founder and outgoing constitutional judge István Stumpf voiced similar concerns. He said that while polls show a pretty picture about the government, he senses a "significant dissatisfaction amongst some conservative intellectuals, as values that were previously held dear are forced into the background, and local leaders of Fidesz know no boundaries or standards."

Stumpf thinks that this dissatisfaction does not stem from the government's performance but the behaviour of some party members. "Amongst the youth, I do sense a sort of moral intention to change the government," adding that Orbán is also ageing and therefore, cannot handle the pace so well anymore, he gets tired.

Lázár is on a roll

Fidesz's former Vice President and former Chief of Staff János Lázár withdrew from his government position in 2018 after telling Magyar Nemzet in 2017 that he would prefer to focus on his constituency instead of national politics, but ever since the municipal elections, he became the party's fiercest internal critic. In November, speaking at the Makó city council, he quipped:

"Hungary is performing better, but not for everyone,"

twisting the well-known government slogan and adding that building a new hotel and thermal bath in the town is no consolation for a sick elderly lady who lives on a  250 pension.

The politician later stated that Fidesz has to recognise that they have lost the municipal elections, and the party and its communication needs to take a different course. Lázár also noted that finding a voice with young people is crucial and that Fidesz can only be successful in 2022 if they finally listen to people's problems.

On Monday, Lázár went so far as saying Fidesz "is no longer working with reality," but could be successful once again if it finds its way back to that path. He assessed that Fidesz had lost the trust of certain voter groups, and besides a green turn, Hungary also needs world-class healthcare and education, as not addressing everyday issues of the populace creates opportunities for the opposition.

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