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‘In Hungary, Even Vaccine Choice is a Political Question’ -Interview with Political Analyst Gábor Török

Ábrahám Vass 2021.05.16.

Hungary is so divided when it comes to politics that even the attitude toward vaccines is determined by party affiliation for many, said Hungary’s most well-known political analyst, Gábor Török, to Hungary Today. Due to this polarization, nuances can potentially determine the outcome of the upcoming elections, although Fidesz can be regarded as a clear favorite at this point, he says, additionally revealing his views on Viktor Orbán’s uniqueness.

What do you think are the features of Hungarian politics that foreigners may find difficult to understand?

There are many of them. None is a ‘hungaricum,’ however, as in the world examples of anything and its opposite can be found.

In my experience, it is rather the lack of a national minimum, a national consensus, that astonishes a foreigner to the greatest extent.

For us, this is not something new, as we have lived among party battles for centuries, but for outsiders it quickly becomes apparent how deeply divided Hungary is politically, and how taking sides in politics sometimes overrides all other aspects of life.

In Hungary, even the attitude toward vaccines was determined by party identification. Similarly, one cannot define the concept of Hungarian interest without political sides. This is something really hard to understand for those who consider themselves members of a nation above being a supporter of a party or a politician.

Does this go for foreign politicians and public figures too? Given many opinions that “we are not understood” in the West.

I don’t think that anyone who wants to understand Hungarian politics couldn’t do so. Certainly, there are a few weird things, just as certain aspects of Japanese or Belgian domestic politics may surprise us. But those who deal with politics on a professional level do understand us accurately, even if they don’t agree with us.

Fact

Dr. Gábor Török is the most well-known and perhaps also the most well-reputed political analyst in Hungary. Although reportedly he maintains good relationships with several personalities in domestic politics, he is famed for not taking sides or making any gestures toward any part of the political spectrum, only analyzing politics on a scientific level. His impartiality, however, doesn’t mean that he is totally refrained from involvement with policy-making. In 2010, he was elected as a local representative in lake Balaton village Aszófő, where he resides. While he stepped down from the leadership of Corvinus University’s faculty of politics in 2019, he regularly appears in the media, and publishes his observations on his blog, besides a number of other publications.

Fidesz has pocketed a two-thirds victory in the last three elections. This is exceptional not only in Hungary but also in the European Union. What are the secrets of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz?

I wouldn’t try to figure out in a few sentences what tons of articles and books have been discussing for years. I would rather point out the distinctive mark of this current governance instead. Hungary has never before had a government with a political governance comparable to today’s. No one has ever been able to build such a disciplined, conscious, strong power machine before, while Hungary hasn’t had such a successful political entrepreneur. And the expression ‘political entrepreneur’ is not something contemptuous, as I just want to illustrate it:

Viktor Orbán is a new quality in Hungarian politics after the change of regime in terms of talent, will, work ethic, and ruthless purposefulness.

Each and every step of him is determined by political success, to which he subordinates everything as a politician.

Viktor Orbán said he planned to be prime minister until 2030. How different would Hungary be in 2030 from 2010 if he succeeded in this matter?

It is undeniable that even just this last decade will already have a ‘long shadow.’ I agree with those who speak about an ‘Orbán era:’ what so far has happened after 2010 will stay with us for a long time.

And this is actually what both sides feed on: policy-making in Hungary is either Orbánist or anti-Orbánist, and I think this will remain so for a long time after his departure.

PM Orbán's 'Seven Rules' Written on His Mirror
PM Orbán's 'Seven Rules' Written on His Mirror

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán posted a picture to his Facebook page, showing him in the reflection of a mirror engraved with “Hungary’s seven rules.” Orbán, the author of the rules, has described them as “the seven rules created through the tears and blood of Hungary’s nation-politics in the XXI century.” Simply tagging his presence at […]Continue reading

How would you describe the political system of Viktor Orbán? 

I consider it a classic political government, where everything is determined by political success, and where the most important – and I hope not the only – task of the power machine is to keep governmental power, to ensure a continuous electoral majority.

In my opinion, Viktor Orbán is not building a dictatorship, his aim is to build the strongest possible power structure within the democratic framework, to gain as many positions as possible and to ensure the dominance of his political camp in the long run. That’s what it’s all about, and everything serves that purpose.

What do you think of the European policies of the prime minister and Fidesz? Are they similarly successful?

Success on the international stage is still in doubt today; however, it cannot be ruled out. Obviously the break-up with the People’s Party (EPP) can hardly be labeled a favorable outcome, since being the largest member of EPP’s group has had lots of advantages for Fidesz, and losing it has definitely hit them hard even if it was a logical step.

It remains to be seen whether Fidesz can establish a useful cooperation with the European radical right, but as of now, there is still much doubt about this matter.

Gábor Török (right) with Interior Minister Sándor Pintér (center) and former Jobbik leader Gábor Vona (left) after a conference in 2012. Photo by Zoltán Máthé/MTI

The “Eastern opening” of the government in political and economic terms is constantly under criticism. Is this a pragmatic step, or as some critics claim, a friendship that has gone beyond the limits in the EU? 

Both are true at the same time: the government pursues the most pragmatic politics in the world in this field too, something which, on the other hand, certainly goes beyond the limits in Europe.

Some say Orbán will drive Hungary out of the EU. Is there a realistic chance of this happening?

Viktor Orbán certainly doesn’t want to leave the EU, as his value for the Eastern partners precisely lies in the fact that he can help to advance their interests inside the EU. That’s actually the whole point of the deal: while Orbán wants influential, strong Eastern friends to increase his field of play, it is well worth it for the Russians and Chinese to build such a cordial alliance with the leader of an EU country.

The coronavirus crisis is dragging on, yet Fidesz’s popularity still doesn’t seem to have changed much. Why?

Since the outbreak, there have been shifts in the government’s support: at first an increase, then an obvious decline could be detected. At the same time, it must be seen that polarization in Hungarian politics is so deep that rapid and radical changes in support of either side are virtually unimaginable. For years now, we have been witnessing the same tendency: almost as many people want the government to stay as to go. 

In addition to managing the crisis, what could be the main topics of the upcoming (or ongoing) campaign?

I don’t think there’s enough time left to bring in brand new themes. Both sides may rather aim to bring previous narratives together.

For Fidesz to draw a picture of the government that protects the country from the pandemic, migrants, Brusselites and liberals, as well as from the anti-vaccination, anti-homeland, and anti-Christian opposition. And for the opposition: to speak of a government robbing the country, building a dictatorship that also failed in the coronavirus crisis management. 

Gov't and Opposition Accuse Each Other of being 'Anti-Vaxxers' and Undermining Trust In Vaccines
Gov't and Opposition Accuse Each Other of being 'Anti-Vaxxers' and Undermining Trust In Vaccines

One of the most prominent political issues of 2021 is undoubtedly the subject of coronavirus vaccines in Hungary.  The opposition has strongly criticized the government from the start for trying to acquire vaccines from Eastern countries, with some going as far to say that using vaccines not authorized by the EU is a “human experiment.” […]Continue reading

In your opinion, who could be Viktor Orbán’s most likely challenger among the presently-known opposition candidates? And how do you see it: is the most likely challenger winning the opposition pre-election, or the one behind the strongest party infrastructure?

This is something to be decided by the voters and not by analysts. At this point, it can be read from the polls that Jobbik president Péter Jakab caught up to [Budapest mayor] Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd), who has long been considered the top favorite. One of these two may eventually win the primary as DK’s Klára Dobrev‘s victory is unlikely, though of course cannot be ruled out.

The primary is indeed a particular genre, to be won by somebody who could be an attractive option for the opposition voters beyond his or her own party; someone who could be able to persuade a significant number of his or her potential voters to participate in the primaries as well.

Would a diverse opposition, consisting of so many parties, be capable of governing?

This is again one of those ‘proof of the pudding is in eating it’ questions: until we try it, we won’t know the answer. One can certainly assume that the fewer parties a government consists of, the more stable it is, but it is not written in the stars that a broad coalition is indecisive.

In case the opposition comes out on top, I would assume that the fear of Orbán’s return would provide a fairly good cohesive force for them, even if their political agendas are very divergent at the moment.

From left to right: Gábor Török, former LMP leader András Schiffer, former Jobbik leader Gábor Vona, and former Együtt leader Viktor Szigetvári at a roundtable talks in 2016. Photo by Csaba Krizsán/MTI

In a recent interview, you said these upcoming elections cannot be won by the opposition, only the government can lose it. This means another Fidesz victory is almost certain?

No, not at all. Fidesz will definitely come in the race as the favorite, but I expect a tight outcome- even little things can eventually turn out to be of great significance.

There are those who say due to Fidesz’s political and economic hinterland built out in the previous three cycles, elections don’t really have a stake, as hands of a future government would be tied. In comparison, the opposition promises accountability of those guilty in the system- corruption in their view. How much room for maneuver would an opposition government have?

There are no such laws in politics.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be an easy task for the opposition to govern under the power factory built up in the last 12 years, but a ruling position can make a lot of things possible, if intention and will are there.

And I don’t believe Fidesz wouldn’t care if it wins or loses- whoever claims so, hasn’t lived here or paid enough attention in recent years.

At the beginning of the 2000s, the Hungarian political system resembled the US-type, a bipartisan system. Now again, two large blocks will face each other. Can you imagine, that this “bipartisan” character will be further strengthened in the future?

Yes, dichotomy does seem to be making a comeback in Hungary, it is still far from the symmetry of the 2000s, however.

Nowadays, deep asymmetry rules Hungarian domestic politics in almost every aspect: the government pursues purposeful politics guided from the center and is rich in resources, and none of this is true for the opposition.

Before each one of the elections, most claim that the campaign and its tone would be rougher than ever. This is a mission usually accomplished: participants usually depict the next vote as the last, decisive battle. So will this upcoming one be the roughest campaign ever? Are the stakes higher now than usual?

Well, the stakes are always high. However, one difference this time is that both sides can believe they will triumph. In terms of the campaign’s tone, the ‘stimulus threshold’ has been climbing higher and higher in recent years. And from that perspective,

some radically new things shouldn’t be expected: the campaign has been going on for years and it might never stop at all.

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