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Hungary’s prime minister keeps the ball

Soccer metaphors a good explainer for Hungarian politics

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses a news conference after parliamentary elections in Budapest April 7, 2014.

Laszlo Balogh/REUTERS

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses a news conference after parliamentary elections in Budapest April 7, 2014. Orban has won another four years in power.

“Small victory, small future – big victory, big future,” Viktor Orbán, the present and future Prime Minister of Hungary told supporters at a rally on April 1. He was making a reference to Ferenc Puskás, the top scorer of the Magic Magyars, a soccer team whose style changed the face of The Beautiful Game. According to the urban legend, Puskás (in whose honor the Puskás Award is given annually by FIFA for the most beautiful goal of the year) once told the head coach at an international meet in Switzerland: “Little cash, little soccer, big cash, big soccer,” thus drawing a premium and turning the result from 0:2 to 4:2, while inadvertently laying the foundations of professional soccer.

April Fools, I thought of Orbán’s comment. Who claimed, after all, that people of power have no sense of humor? A few days later, Orbán won the elections, securing a supermajority for his conservative Fidesz party in a land being shaped more and more in his own image backed by a rhetoric richly oiled with soccer lingo.

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Picture a Sunday afternoon in a sleepy country town in Hungary in the early ’90s, where the author of this piece had been waiting — as a member of the writers’ team — to play a friendly game with a group of young liberals in the parliament. We heard they had a strong team and a merciless striker as their captain. We were ready to show them a trick or two. But they never showed up. Something important came up, we were told. Surely, they take themselves too seriously, we thought – what can be more important than a game? Picture a country whose highest officials once all played in the same soccer team: President János Áder, House Speaker László Kövér, and Orbán, the prime minister himself.

During this year’s election campaign, sports-enhanced language raged all over the country. Kövér, the House speaker, urged supporters to mobilize voters until the last minute. He asked them to persuade everyone they meet — on the pitch or in the pub — to go and vote. “Our expectations are great for the next four years, unless an unexpected event, like the elections, would thwart them,” he said jokingly.

But how can one make sure nothing unexpected happens on the pitch? Hungary has played two World Cup finals and managed to lose on both occasions. It’s not enough to be the best, most Hungarians would agree. Orbán’s personal trauma comes from 2002, when he lost an election even though the polls showed him in the lead all the way to the count. Since then, his attitude toward politics and power has changed radically.

Something more important came up, but the language of soccer prevails, even in the ranks of the left alliance, whose prominent member, former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, used to be a goalie. Bajnai rose once again as the opposition man-of-the-hour two years ago, but he lost momentum and now competes with the current PM only in figurative Olympics. In a recent interview he explained that the Fidesz party is inviting the left alliance to an Unfair Game (as opposed to the “Beautiful” one — though he also used the word diabolic at some point), in which Fidesz is doing a 100m dash, while the opposition has to run 400m hurdles with the same stopwatch ticking.

“I know we are the favorites,” Orbán said, in his final campaign speech in Debrecen earlier this month. “But the match starts Sunday morning at 6 a.m. with the score nil-nil.” It does not matter how great you are, he told his fans, or what has happened before the game: The only thing that matters is the score on Sunday.

Adao Silva, the head of the election monitoring mission in Hungary, stated in a press conference after the election that Fidesz enjoyed an advantage because of “restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage, and campaign activities that blurred the separation between political party and the State.”

Four years ago, with the collapse of the left due to major blunders, widespread corruption and the financial crisis, Fidesz won a supermajority that allowed them to change the rules of the game. They wrote a new constitution and amended it five times without consultation, restricted the power of the Supreme Court, and made changes concerning the judiciary, the national bank, and the media, putting their trusted people in key positions. They have turned state television and radio into propaganda arms of Fidesz. They have changed the electoral laws and the constituencies in a manner that has enabled them to win a supermajority again, even though they have fewer votes than in either 2002 or 2006, when they repeatedly lost to the socialists.

Most likely, Fidesz would have won the elections without these changes, but not to the extent of having a two-third majority, which allows them to ignore the opposition. Orbán managed to force the left into a league that made them look like a thing of the past and kept angry voters away from the booth. Although it was an uphill struggle for the challenger, the main reasons for the left alliance’s loss lie in their poor performance, unconvincing campaign, internal fights, and the continued shadow of corruption cases.

Orbán and his party have built up a network and economic power that is nearly impossible to rock. Fidesz has governed for four years without an opposition. The role of the opposition was instead played by the European Union, which challenged some parts of the new laws, which were then withdrawn.

Orbán is unquestionably the most talented Hungarian politician of his era. Since 1989, he has contributed to Hungarian democracy which led to the country’s joining the EU. But his critics will tell you he simply cannot pass the ball. He has concentrated power at an unprecedented level which makes a lot of people reluctant to form a critical opinion. He has undone the system of checks and balances, yet his party is wearing braces and a belt. He is a high risk-taker, but he is risking more than his own skin. He enjoys confrontation and handles matters with an authoritarian air to it. Just like any striker on the field would.

Orbán’s regime does not encourage critical thinking and favors loyalty over merit, which influences the attitude of public servants down to the last village teacher and thus the whole country. Nowhere is this more evident than on public television, where some of the new personnel cannot even spell “boot licking” properly.

Seems like the qualities a politician requires to become a conservative MP are more widespread among men. While the Hungarian green party’s gender balance resembles a Scandinavian welfare state with 40 percent of the seats taken by women, Fidesz has only 6.76 percent out of its 133 members. Could this mean that men adapt better to the great expectations of nation building? It is largely due to Fidesz that Hungary, with a rate of 9.54 percent, has the worst representation of women in national parliaments in any European country, including Ukraine.

With this month’s election, Orbán has cemented his position as captain and will carry team Hungary to further victories against invisible teams. Seems like no man can beat this veteran at his game. But what if someone doesn’t want to play his game? Someone who is not into competitive sports. Someday she’ll come along. She will be fair and strong. And we’ll all play a different kind of ballgame.

Peter Zilahy is a Hungarian novelist. His book, “The Last Window Giraffe,” has been translated into 22 languages.
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