Hungary in the Crossfire Orbán Lashes Out at Critics in European Parliament
In his appearance before the European Parliament on Wednesday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán started out with moderate words before quickly launching into a nationalist tirade. But his speech was really aimed at his audience back home, where he desperately needs to boost his popularity.
Before speaking in Strasbourg on Wednesday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had said he wanted to address criticisms by the European Commission and the European Parliament in a serious and honest way. In fact, the debate at the European Parliament was actually supposed to be about how democratic freedoms in Hungary are being dismantled and the rule of law undermined.
At the beginning of his speech, Orbán displayed a willingness to compromise. But, by the end, he came across as pugnacious, dogmatic and unforgiving. He accused his critics of showing "absurd" rage that was "not worthy" of Europe. He defended the "spirit of Christianity and the family" against what he called the "majority" in the European Parliament. In his closing remarks, he told the deputies in Strasbourg that, over the course of its 1000-year history, Hungary had always been -- and would always remain -- the land of "freedom fighters," adding that: "We demand respect."
The appearance came one day after the European Commission initiated three separate proceedings against Hungary. The country is accused of violating EU laws with new legislation that curbs the independence of its central bank, data-protection agency and judiciary. Earlier on Wednesday, the Commission had sent another warning letter to Budapest about media freedoms after the private radio station Klub Radio, which has been critical of the government, did not have its license renewed.
When addressing the matter, Orbán appeared to strike a conciliatory note, telling the deputies that the problems "could swiftly be resolved." He said he was ready to talk about the changes to the laws demanded by the European Commission.
Orbán's appearance before the parliament was highly reminiscent of one he made almost exactly a year ago, on Jan. 19, 2011. At the time, the issue was Hungary's newly passed media law, which restricted press freedoms and particularly those of public broadcasters. Then, too, Orbán showed a willingness to compromise at the beginning of the debate but, later, began hurling accusations at the deputies. His target audience at the time was clearly the Hungarian public back home, and he was playing the role of a leader standing up for his country. On Wednesday, Orbán said he was standing in the "crossfire" of criticism.
Orbán urgently needs to boost his popularity at home. Polls have shown a rapid decline in the popularity of his government and his right-wing nationalist Fidesz party. Indeed, Hungary is in a very difficult situation both economically and socially, as the country could face default if it does not secure multi-billion loans from the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF). "That's why Orban, the government and his party are now constantly emphasizing their willingness to negotiate to the outside world," says József Debreczeni, a prominent commentator in Hungary and the author of two biographies on Orbán. "They know that there is the danger of a national bankruptcy and that they will have to reach an agreement with the EU and the IMF. At the same time, they are continuing with their 'freedom fighter' rhetoric for the domestic audience."
No one can say for sure just how long Hungarians will put up with these actions. In surveys, more and more people have expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo in the country. In addition, former Orbán allies, such as ex-National Bank President Zsigmond Járai, have become vocal critics of the Hungarian government. Even a large segment of Hungary's business community is increasingly angry about domestic developments.
Ferenc Rolek, deputy director of the Budapest Bank and vice president of the Confederation of Hungarian Employers and Industrialists (MGYOSZ), has been calling for a "change of direction" in Hungarian politics. "We need to restore legal certainty, both for Hungarian entrepreneurs and for our business partners abroad," he says. In a statement issued on Monday, the MGYOSZ urged the Hungarian government to swiftly reach an agreement with the EU and the IMF.
The criticism is all the more remarkable considering that the Hungarian business community has traditionally been one of the main groups supporting Orbán's Fidesz party. Under the socialist-liberal coalition government that was in power between 2002 and 2010, Hungarian business leaders often complained that foreign corporations and banks got preferential treatment in Hungary. For this reason, one of the main goals of Orbán and his party has been to give more power to Hungarian businesses.
'Worse Days to Come'
However, it would seem that Orbán's current policies go too far for many people. "Most Hungarian businesspeople are feeling anxious because they don't know what's going to happen with the country's financial situation," says Ferenc Dávid, secretary of the VOSZ employers' association. "We need corrections to economic policy, and we need more confidence."
Many Hungarian observers doubt that such corrections will actually take place. "Orbán will not allow anyone to demolish the pillars that are holding up his power structures," says Debreczeni, the commentator and Orbán biographer. "That's unacceptable to him."
Economist László Lengyel takes a similar view. In an essay published ahead of Orbán's appearance in Strasbourg, Lengyel wrote: "Are we at the bottom yet? Is there any hope? I could say yes. But there are worse days to come, not better ones." Orbán and his cronies, he wrote, "will keep lashing out until the last breath."