Prime Minister Viktor Orban may only have a few months left in office, according to a Dec. 28 report published by Hungarian daily newspaper Nepszava, citing sources close to the ruling Fidesz party. The report describes deep dissatisfaction within the party and a growing sentiment that Orban is an obstacle to success, factors the sources say could lead to a change in leadership following German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s planned February visit to Budapest. The report is the latest indication of a growing rift within Fidesz. Although the party won re-election in April and controls two-thirds of the seats in Hungary’s parliament, tensions over Orban’s increasing isolation and disagreements over the country’s foreign policy orientation have increased over the past months. While Hungary’s government is unlikely to collapse anytime soon, the rift within Fidesz presents a challenge to Orban — the party’s popularity is falling and anti-government protests are on the rise.Fidesz, which stands for the Alliance of Young Democrats, originated in 1988 when a group of 37 young students and intellectuals in two university dorms founded the party as a liberal entity. Orban was one these founding members, and by 1994, he was steering the neophyte party toward the right wing of Hungary’s political spectrum. While he was unquestionably the leader of Fidesz throughout the 1990s and 2000s, a group of fellow Fidesz founders and early members played a major role in advising Orban and shaping the party’s policies.
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During his second term as prime minister from 2010-2014, however, Orban started to promote new, younger members of Fidesz to influential posts. Toward the end of the term he was relying on an increasingly small circle of advisors, many of whom were newly appointed officials who lacked significant political or administrative experience. In fact, many of these new appointees owe their positions and political careers to Orban himself. At the same time, many older members of Fidesz were sidelined or relegated to posts outside the country. A number of ministries also had their decision-making authorities removed, further concentrating power in the prime minister’s office and in the hands of Orban’s contracting inner circle. Dependence on this small group, which seldom challenges Orban’s views, has contributed to confusion and frequent changes in policies, alienating many of the party’s veterans and elements of the state apparatus. As Orban has centralized power, many of his political allies have been marginalized, and now they are becoming dissatisfied.
Orban’s suspicious feelings toward the United States have also contributed to rifts within Fidesz. Some party officials, such as founding member and current chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Zsolt Nemeth, have long seen the West in a more positive light. While the United States and Hungary have an uneasy relationship because of concerns over the Fidesz government’s centralization of power, the relationship has only worsened recently. In October, the United States banned six Hungarian nationals, including the head of Hungary’s National Tax and Customs Administration, over corruption charges. Orban responded by publicly pushing department’s head to sue the U.S. charge d’affaires in Hungary. A case was filed in December, and Orban repeatedly made public accusations that the United States is acting against Hungary’s national interest. Moreover, Hungary has continually made attempts to build stronger ties with Russia, even after the outbreak of the crisis in neighboring Ukraine. These foreign policy moves have combined to further alienate Fidesz members who support a Hungarian alliance with Western partners and increased political backing for the government in Kiev.
These reports of growing rifts within Fidesz come at a time when the party’s popularity is waning. Orban was forced to backpedal on a proposal for an internet tax after one hundred thousand Hungarians staged a protest against the plan in October, threatening to undermine the party’s support among its core middle-class constituency. Thousands also rallied against corruption, especially after the government refused to address U.S. concerns regarding corruption in Hungary’s National Tax and Customs Administration. While these protests failed to change Orban’s policies, in the month following the U.S. bans, one poll showed the Fidesz party’s popularity falling by an unprecedented 12 percentage points, demonstrating that strained relations with the United States and ongoing questions over corruption are impacting not only dynamics within Fidesz but also the party’s support among voters.
Despite the reported rifts in the ruling party, a faction capable of challenging Orban’s supremacy has yet to publicly emerge, though there are indications that some of the party’s members are distancing themselves from Orban and maneuvering in anticipation of such a scenario. Although there are doubts about Orban and his small circle of advisors, many Fidesz members have benefited greatly from his rule — both politically and financially. Because of this, they will hesitate to replace him without first building a coalition strong enough to challenge the prime minister. Any contenders will also want assurances that they will not lose their political positions and personal fortunes under a new Fidesz leadership. Orban’s rule may not be over, but the foundation of his power — the Fidesz party machine — has come under threat.
For Hungary, 2015 will see the government strive to avoid international isolation while also facing a host of domestic economic challenges. As a country in the Eurasian borderlands, Hungary has attempted to balance its ties to the West with its relationship with Russia. On one hand, Hungary is a member of both the European Union and NATO, depending heavily on investment and funding from the European Union and its central bank. On the other hand, the Fidesz government has sought to attract investment from Russia in the form of projects that include upgrading its Paks nuclear power plant and supporting the South Stream pipeline project. However, Russia cancelled South Stream and is facing economic troubles of its own, meaning Hungary has less of an opportunity to benefit from its relations with the Kremlin. Orban miscalculated, and now he finds himself struggling to rebalance the country’s foreign alliances.
In a conciliatory gesture to the West on Jan. 1, Hungary will resume reverse natural gas flows to Ukraine after halting them in late September. Nevertheless, with tensions between Hungary and its Western partners still rife, Hungary faces the challenge of avoiding international isolation in 2015.
Hungary’s international reputation has worsened dramatically during the past half year and in terms of rhetoric, the conflict between the United States and Hungary is becoming dangerously reminiscent of that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Fidesz politician Zsolt Németh, chairman of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee, has said in an interview given to the news website Index.
Mr. Németh pointed out that it gives cause for special concern that the situation has also worsened in regions that distinctly stood by Hungary in the previous four years, citing the country’s Central European allies as an example. Concerning the case of Ildikó Vida, the chairman of the National Tax and Customs Administration who is at the centre of the US visa ban affair, he said that it is unfortunately to associate someone with allegations of corruption without providing the possibility to defend oneself, adding that among allies, it can be expected from parties to do everything possible to root out unfounded accusations becoming public.
Commenting on US-Hungarian relations, he drew a comparison with a marriage experiencing a deep crisis. “This is the deepest crisis since the marriage took place, a situation in which the two sides occasionally completely loose their sobriety and thir self-control, such as the case involving Senator McCain. However, I do not believe that all responsibility can be laid on the Americans. It takes two to tango”, Mr. Németh said.
In Mr. Németh’s opinion, the aggravation of disputes between the governments of the United States and Hungary can be attributed fundamentally to questions of security policy, such as NATO, Russia and the South Stream, adding that this is no excuse for the country’s allies to disregard unwritten rules. The situation could be resolved if the West would present Russia with a reasonable political offer, the chairman of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee concluded.