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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Comeback of a Political Survivor

Guest Post by Mark Pittaway

The outright victory of Viktor Orbán’s FIDESZ party in the first round of Hungary’s parliamentary elections on 11 April, and the likeliehood that they will win a two-thirds majority in parliament after the second round on 25 April marks a new stage in the unfolding of Hungary’s entangled political and economic crises – crises that have been in process since the summer of 2006. Most discussion of the election outside Hungary has focussed on the 16.67 percent won by the neo-fascist Jobbik party, with its explicit racist rhetoric towards Hungary’s Roma, its open anti-Semitism and its uniformed paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard. Within the country attention has focussed, especially among FIDESZ’s defeated left-liberal opponents, on the probability that FIDESZ will use its new found power and influence to purge the public sector and the media of its opponents, waging an intensified version of the “culture war” it conducted against the liberal left when it was last in power between 1998 and 2002.

Viktor Orbán himself ranks among Europe’s most persistent political survivors. In 2002 he was narrowly defeated by a coalition of Socialists and the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats in an election he was widely expected to win that took place in a benign economic climate. This defeat was largely self-inflicted and a product of FIDESZ’s authoritarian and confrontational policies towards its opponents. A further, and larger defeat in 2006 seemed to confirm the outcome of 2002 – that Orbán’s divisive style and widespread suspicion of his authoritarianism and use of right-wing populism would keep FIDESZ out of power for a long period. In the light of this, Orbán’s political survival and return to power are worthy of explanation. In the morrow of his defeat in 2002, Orbán began to transform FIDESZ from a traditional political party into an alliance of disparate movements originally integrating elements on the far right into a broad political coalition. A politics of using the deep-seated left-right polarization within Hungary to integrate the far right into his coalition was combined with a reach for the political centre by seeking to present FIDESZ as a party that stood for an expansion of welfare protection for the population – a kind of social democracy in national colours. Re-launched as FIDESZ-the Hungarian Civic Alliance in 2004, the party promised an expanded welfare state and lower taxes, while it began using the provision in the Hungarian constitution to initiate referenda as a campaigning strategy. Between 2004 and 2006 this strategy failed, yet it has been used to considerable effect since 2006 – though this effect has been less the result of trust in Orbán than a consequence of the political failures of his opponents and the unwinding of Hungary’s post-socialist economic model.

After the deep recession that followed the collapse of state socialism during the early 1990s, Hungary produced growth of 4-5% per annum during the latter half of the decade as a consequence of favourable economic circumstances, the apparent stabilization of the country’s external debt as a consequence of receipts from the privatization process, and an influx of FDI, largely of German and Austrian origin, in the expectation of speedy Hungarian membership of the European Union. Growth peaked in 2000 and after this date the circumstances that underpinned it began to unwind. Hungary’s competitiveness vis-a-vis its German and Austrian neighbours declined progressively, exacerbated by the strength of the Forint, while the EU’s decision in 2000 to support a large eastern enlargement, rather than one in which a select number of countries in Central Europe would gain EU membership intensified competition for FDI. While growth averaged 3-4% per annum until 2006, this was only maintained by running larger fiscal deficits and as a consequence of the demand created by increased consumer indebtedness fuelled by the de-regulation of financial markets that occurred in the wake of the consolidation of the banking sector and with EU membership.

As predominantly Austrian-owned entrants into the personal lending markets sought to increase market share they used the strong Forint, and high Forint interest rates to offer loans to households denominated in foreign currency, predominantly in Swiss Francs, but also in Euros, and even in Japanese Yen.

In 2004 the Socialist-Free Democrat government, believing they faced defeat in subsequent elections, ditched Prime Minister, Péter Medgyessy, and replaced him with Ferenc Gyurcsány. Faced with a large opinion poll deficit and attacks from FIDESZ that called for an expansion of welfare spending, Gyurcsány sought to gain re-election through maintaining large public deficits. As a consequence of pre-election spending both the European Union, and international credit rating agencies became increasingly nervous at Budapest’s poor control over public spending, and its attempts to move some public expenditure – notably on motorway construction projects – off the balance sheet.

The patience of financial markets was stretched up to the elections in April 2006, which Gyurcsány won, aided by a cut in the rate of VAT on luxury goods from 25% to 20%, and unfunded promises of tax reduction over the coming parliamentary term. Austerity followed the election as taxes were hiked, spending was cut, while co-payments in health and higher education were introduced. The government became severely unpopular by the beginning of summer, a situation compounded by a series of communication errors that culminated in the leaking to the press of a recording of a speech by Gyurcsány in which he admitted “we lied morning, noon, and night” to win the elections in September, and several months of disturbances on Hungary’s streets.

The austerity programme effectively removed demand from the economy, while the strong Forint policy was maintained by the central bank, and foreign currency lending continued apace. The economy stagnated, entering its first recession since 1993 in early 2007. Enormous discontent with austerity measures focussed on the figure of Gyurcsány, who many believed had shamelessly lied to win the election. Street demonstrations radicalized sections of right-wing opinion, which laid the basis for the future rise of Jobbik, and FIDESZ attacked directly the austerity programme with a series of several citizen-initiated referenda, three of which – on two sets of co-payment in health, and one in higher education- made it onto the ballot.

When these referenda succeeded in March 2008 by large margins, they weakened Gyurcsány fatally, but also strengthened FIDESZ’s credibility with a Hungarian electorate tired of market-based reform and frustrated at cuts in living standards as a party that offered social democracy in national colours. Thus, even before Hungary was forced to call in the IMF in October 2008 at the height of the global financial crisis the stage was already set for FIDESZ’s return. Events since – the fall of Gyurcsány in March 2009 and his replacement with Gordon Bajnai along with continued IMF-sponsored austerity; the electoral collapse of the Socialist Party; the rise of an explicitly neo-fascist party with mass support, especially in ex-Socialist voting industrial areas; and the victory of FIDESZ stems from the intensification of the impact of factors already visible in 2002.

The FIDESZ led list with its 52.73% of the first round list votes has become the first party to win an absolute majority of the popular vote since 1990. Its success reflects the considerable support among large sections of Hungarian society for a government that offers social democracy in national colours, and a desire for a period of respite from continued falls in living standards. This is revealed by opinion poll data and the broad geographical distribution of its support in the first round, where it was able to lead its opponents even in many of the formerly Socialist-voting strongholds in the working-class eastern suburbs of Budapest. Its electoral success was aided by its failure to offer any kind of concrete programme to the electorate, which allowed potential supporters to project their desires onto the party.

Yet this strength is now clearly a weakness moving forward. The latest figures suggest that Hungary’s GDP declined by 6.3 percent in 2009, and will continue to decline at a slower pace in 2010 – though the precise extent is uncertain due to the country’s dependence on exports to the Eurozone. Independent experts believe that Hungary will have severe difficulties in keeping its budget deficit below 4% in 2010 without urgent remedial action to raise revenues and cut spending. Furthermore, these figures do not include the deficits and the lending undertaken by local authorities, many of which are on the edge of bankruptcy, as are Hungarian State Railways and the Budapest Public Transportation Company. Consolidating these entities will place further pressure on the budget. There remain question marks over the long-term financial health of the Hungarian financial sector.

At the same time, given the high value of the Forint against the Euro, the consequent persistence of the problem of Hungarian competitiveness, and the continuing burden of financing debts in both the public and household sectors, Hungary’s economy seems to be condemned to either stagnation or sluggish growth for the foreseeable future. FIDESZ’s approach to these problems is almost completely unknown. It is difficult, however, to imagine that the measures they will have to undertake to deal with this situation, in all probability underpinned by an IMF loan, will be anything other than extremely painful.

Hungarian households are under severe pressure from declining real incomes, unemployment and the fear of unemployment, and the burden of servicing loans denominated in foreign currency. Furthermore, Hungary is now entering its fifth year of austerity and consequently the climate in the country is very tense, as the patience of the population with this situation is thin. Orbán has never been a universally popular leader and his divisive style seems to make him deeply unsuited to leading Hungary through the crisis. Furthermore, he will face considerable opposition both from his left, and from a militant, insurgent neo-fascist right. At the same time in a clientelist political system he will face enormous pressure to reward his supporters, and failure to do will meet with negative consequences. For these reasons, despite the size of his victory, it is difficult to see his position as being very secure. Hungary’s road out of the crisis will be, at the very best, a bumpy one.