OrbÃ¡n tightens grip on Hungary as opposition's power wanes
Hungary OrbÃ¡n tightens grip on Hungary as opposition's power wanes
Prime ministerâs foe, Lajos Simicska, whose media outlets provided opportunities for criticism, has seen his empire dismantled
In Hungary, where anti-migration prime minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n has steadily tightened his hold on power since entering office in 2010, he has fa ced one major source of opposition in recent years: his former best friend.
Lajos Simicska has known the Hungarian prime minister since their school days, and is credited with building the business and media empire that helped OrbÃ¡n achieve a firmer grip on Hungary than perhaps any other EU leader has over their country.
Then, three years ago, OrbÃ¡n and Simicska had a dramatic, acrimonious public falling out, and the businessman became a backer of opposition politicians and media.
In the run-up to parliamentary elections last April, liberal Hungarians had little hope that the fractured democratic opposition had any chance of unseating OrbÃ¡n, but were waiting in the hope that Simicska would air some laundry so dirty it could collapse the governmentâs ratings.
The much-awaited âatomic bombâ never came. OrbÃ¡n won a third consecutive term as prime minister and a two-thirds majority for his Fidesz party.
With four more years in power secured, OrbÃ¡n moved to neutralise the threat from his old friend, and over the past few weeks the oligarch has sold all his businesses. More significantly for the political scene in Hungary â" where most media backs OrbÃ¡n and his fear campaign about migration â" Simicskaâs media empire has been systematically dismantled.Hungary is making a mockery of âEU valuesâ. Itâs time to kick it out | Owen Jones Read more
First to fall was the newspaper Magyar Nemzet, which ended its 80-year history a couple of days after the election. LÃ¡nchÃd radio station also closed, and next came Heti VÃ¡lasz, a conservative-leaning but broadly independent magazine which has ceased all operations.
Finally, HÃr TV, one of the few stations to air views critical of OrbÃ¡n, was returned to the pro-government fold in a swift and ruthless operation earlier this month.
BalÃ¡zs LÃ¡ng, a producer of a news discussion show on HÃr hosted by popular Hungarian presenter Olga KÃ¡lmÃ¡n, said government-friendly media executives arrived with little warning and âread out a list of people to be firedâ, including KÃ¡lmÃ¡n.
That evening, instead of the discussion show, the channel repeatedly played a recent OrbÃ¡n speech. âIt was a show of power,â said LÃ¡ng.
âIâve been doing this for 25 years now but Iâve had enough. Iâm going to quit, because thereâs no point being a journalist in this country any more,â he said.
For years, the relationship between Simicska and OrbÃ¡n was a perfect match of political power with economic nous: âWithout Simicska, OrbÃ¡n would never have become prime minister and without OrbÃ¡n, Simicska would never have become a billionaire,â wrote OrbÃ¡nâs biographer Paul Lendvai.
However, after OrbÃ¡nâs victory in the 2014 elections, the two old friends began to argue. In 2015, the conflict erupted spectacularly when the publicity-shy Simicska, who for years had avoided all m edia attention, gave a series of interviews describing OrbÃ¡n as a âgeciâ, a Hungarian obscenity that translates literally as âspermâ. Because of the use of the word, the public breach has been known as âG-dayâ in Hungarian politician and media circles ever since.
Those in Simicskaâs circle say that in the run-up to G-day, he had become increasingly uneasy about OrbÃ¡nâs cosy relations with Vladimir Putinâs Kremlin, a remarkable about-turn for a political leader who first rose to prominence in the late 1980s with demands for Soviet troops to leave Hungary.The Sunday Essay: how we all colluded in Fortress Europe | Kenan Malik Read more
âLajos had the courage to turn his back on the system because he came to his senses,â said his longtime associate SÃ¡ndor Csintalan, in an interview. âHe was unhappy about the level of corruption and also furious about the level of Russian influence. Simicska always said that once you shake hands wi th the Russian bear, it will eat you whole.â
Others laugh off the suggestion of such a principled stand, and suspect the dispute was a far more banal one about how to split up the pie, as a new set of cronies around OrbÃ¡n circled for lucrative government tenders.
Whatever the reason for the split, Simicska in his new incarnation became the oppositionâs best hope. He offered advertising to op position parties, especially Jobbik, a far-right party which tried to move to the centre as OrbÃ¡n adopted many of its nativist policies. âIn this country, almost everything is in the hands of the state. There was nobody else to turn to but Simicska,â said MÃ¡rton GyÃ¶ngyÃ¶si, deputy leader of Jobbik.
The liberal opposition were wary of their new potential supporter but glad for a small breeze of fresh air in the media market. âIt was hard for us to forget what he did before G-day. What Fidesz is now is a creation of Mr Simicska,â said IstvÃ¡n VÃ¡gÃ³, executive director of the Democratic Coalition, an opposition party which received 5% of the vote in the April elections.
But Simicskaâs media outlets, initially bought up in the service of Fidesz, did offer rare opportunities for public criticism of OrbÃ¡n and his policies. Now, his surrender removes the last potential threat to OrbÃ¡n on the domestic political scene for the foreseeable future.
âHe told me he had no choice but to sell,â said one associate of Simicska, who asked to remain anonymous, about the businessmanâs decision to sell all his businesses. âHe didnât quite say there was a horseâs head in his bed but he hinted that there had been threats.â
OrbÃ¡nâs government is expected to reboot its relentless anti-migration campaign ahead of the European elections next year, and the prime minister also claimed recently that his latest election win was ânothing short of a mandate to build a new eraâ. He said this new era would involve embedding new âcultural trends, collective beliefs and social customsâ, leading some to expect a full-on culture war against the enemies of his populist, traditionalist government. An early taste last week was a government proposal to ban the teaching of gender studies at Hungarian universities.
With OrbÃ¡n jubilant, and embarking on a plan to implement âgreat aims of a kind that were previously uni maginableâ, even the political opposition say it will be hard to stop him.
âI donât see any light at the end of the tunnel. It appears quite hopeless,â said GyÃ¶ngyÃ¶si. âItâs like when youâre climbing and you donât see any ledge, anything you can get a nail in or hold on to. Just now itâs bare surface.âTopics
- Viktor OrbÃ¡n
- Vladimir Putin
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