Former Népszabadság editor: Orbán’s referendum was no failure

Viktor Orbán [360b/ Shutterstock]

Hungarian newspaper Népszabadság was closed down in October 2016, in a move that was seen by many observers as the Orbán government’s attempt to crack down on dissenting voices. EURACTIV’s partner Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft talked to its former Deputy-Editor, Márton Gergely.

Márton Gergely was the deputy-editor of Népszabadság until its closure on 8 October 2016.

Gergely spoke to IPG’s Anja Papenfuß.

How was Donald Trump’s US presidential victory received in Hungary?

Well, we know how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán reacted. He was pleased. He proclaimed that democracy had prevailed. But Hungarians are quite alarmed, at least the ones interested in politics are. They’re wondering what’s going to be next. Hungarians, despite the huge anti-EU and anti-West propaganda of the government, are a bit more positive towards the West than their Eastern European neighbours. The long transitional period known as “Goulash Communism” had a positive view of the West, maybe more so than in the Czech Republic or Poland. That’s why sympathy towards it is more prevalent in Hungary and that is maybe why Trump’s victory was a bigger shock for us.

Nevertheless, Hungarians, as EU citizens, sometimes feel like second or even third class citizens…

On the one hand, Hungarians think they are entitled to every little bit of help or aid from the EU. But holding your breath in anticipation of gratitude there is not advised. On the other hand, Hungarians believed they would be welcomed into the West more quickly. There’s a lot of disappointment there. Some people often feel a sense of abandonment.

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According to statistics, nearly 4 million Hungarians live below the poverty line. That’s nearly half the country. Is this really the case?

If you ask the government that, then it isn’t. They try to suppress the data. Unfortunately, there is a lot of poverty in Hungary and the government has embarked on a policy of social redistribution towards the richer elements of society. Very deliberately, the poorest have suffered because they are not voters.

The only voter demographic to be better off financially, but who are inactive, are pensioners. The poorest of society, minorities and job seekers are the worst off. Entire areas have been left behind by Orbán. He’s tried to implement the ‘trickle-down’ ideology of the American Republican Party and has distributed assets towards the rich. In terms of the economy, he has tried to redistribute foreign ownership to Hungarian oligarchs.

But the unemployment rate in July was 5.1%, very low. Or are these statistics that cannot be trusted either?

Orbán brought in community service as an option. Community service means that an unemployed person is not registered as being unemployed. People are registered as community workers and get a monthly wage of 47,000 forints. According to the government, that’s enough to live on. That’s about €150, a mere pittance. There are entire villages that lost all their jobs since the downturn and there is only community service work. The mayors decide who gets to work, who can’t and who gets nothing. Unemployment benefits do not exist. In those villages, mayors are lords of everyone and everything. They can decide which families get an income and which don’t. The main social black spots in Hungary are interestingly not in the cities but in villages, that is where you will find a large part of those 4 million that are beneath the poverty line.

But who votes for Orbán then?

These people do, but they get no benefit from it. In the 2 October referendum on EU refugee quotas, the mayors called on anyone who wanted community service work to vote.

They may not have been told how to vote, but they were at least told to go out and vote. The Hungarian mass media, particularly the state media, have driven an anti-migration campaign that has been partly based on lies. They go out to these villages that have been completely ruined and make videos where the people are afraid of migration. In villages where everyone moves away and where migration will never be a problem, people have real fears about immigration, Muslims and refugees.

Government employees, for example, said in the lead-up to the referendum that the Brussels refugee scheme would need so much money that there would be none left for social programmes or community work. Also, and I quote, anyone who is a Gypsy must vote against migration. Hungary’s justice minister said that we cannot look after refugees because we already have gypsies to look after. That’s the level we are at.

In the end, Orbán failed in his referendum bid due to low turnout. And at the beginning of November, his proposed law failed to make its way through the parliament. Will he now abandon this project?

First, we need to establish whether his indeed did fail when it came to the referendum. It had two goals in my view. Firstly, he wanted to be a frontrunner in Europe. He wanted to do Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Norbert Hofer a favour and show Jarosław Kaczyński that he’s a pioneer now, not Poland. He missed that particular target. But the referendum had another, for him very important, goal. It was an opinion poll under real world conditions. It showed how many people were in favour of the Fidesz party. Out of 8 million people, 3.3 million voted the way Orbán wanted them to. It showed him that the voters that granted him a two-thirds majority in 2014 will still vote in force. That’s scary. 3.3 million, or 40% of our population answered a nonsensical question on a non-existent danger the way Orbán wanted them to.

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So it is a sham debate?

Yes, it’s a pseudo-debate, a pseudo-law and a pseudo-amendment. The funniest thing about all this is that it is also a pseudo-danger. We can deal with the migration issue in Hungary. But we say no one can come in, so no one wants to come in and then we claim to have solved the problem ourselves.

Maybe they want to divert attention from other problems like corruption and nepotism. Your newspaper, Népszabadság, revealed some of these scandals. You were shut down on 8 October on the grounds that the newspaper was no longer making money.

Népszabadság was the political daily with the highest circulation in the country, it was a market leader. There are two pro-government newspapers that do not even have a quarter of the readership we did. I ask myself why it makes economic sense to discontinue the market leader but not two less well-read newspapers. Our former owner, Austrian Heinrich Pecina, bought the paper in 2014. Pecina must have seen sense in buying the newspaper in the first place. In the last two years, things have got better. We have seen expenses reduced and we agreed that our salaries should be cut. We even let people go. In the summer, eight new employees were hired for the online edition though. We are not talking about a company that was on the edge of financial ruin. The newspaper was part of a profit-making portfolio.

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What strategy is Orbán pursuing?

I don’t know what Orbán’s plan is. I am sure that he wants to restrict the freedom of Hungary’s journalists so that nobody bothers him. He wants to bring the mass media under his control. I don’t think that his plan is to silence all critical voices. But he is looking to axe funding for all projects that are interested in investigative and quality journalism. He doesn’t care if I call him an idiot. He cares if I show people how he made his money.

At the same time, he allows what Erdoğan or Putin no longer tolerate in their own countries, he allows a small group of journalists, bloggers and humanists to ridicule him. He’s generous because he knows that he will win the elections and it’s enough to control the mass media. A spine-chilling machine has arisen that, while not official, is full of propaganda, produced by the state media. That is why he allowed the buying up of the second-largest commercial broadcaster. ProSiebenSat.1 AG is no longer in Hungary. A Hungarian oligarch, who holds a government position, bought it up. The second-largest Hungarian broadcaster is owned by another government representative, who is also an oligarch. Deutsche Telekom sold its largest portal in the country to another oligarch.

What happens now to Népszabadság?

We think that that’s the end of it now. It’s not going to reappear. We can’t even use the name anymore. Since we were shut down, we have found out step by step how long our fate was sealed. It goes back two years. We had to shut down six days after the referendum. Many said that it was revenge, as the vote had failed due to low turnout. We think that it was a success for Orbán who cemented his hold over the electorate. So he learned nothing negative about himself. There is no corruption or misstep that can do him damage. He can even afford to close down Népszabadság. It was pure cold political calculation on the back of a successful referendum.

How do you see Orbán’s vision of a limited EU, an EU which only is responsible for security on the external borders and defence, leaving the rest up to national governments? Will he enforce this vision?

I do not know. Orbán, I see more and more when I speak with politicians and diplomats, is a much better partner for Europe than he may appear. Take the free trade agreement between the EU and Canada, CETA. The Hungarian government signed off on it without so much as a murmur. There’s not much in CETA that could indeed offend his populist outlook. He delights in his role as protector of Europe from the Muslims, the “politically correct” and the wayward liberals.

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But he is very often a small player in Brussels. He is no Putin and no Erdoğan. There are two big differences in fact: Firstly, he’s more like the mouse that roared. But when the big fish says something, he’s still a mouse.

He does his job very cleverly and he is useful to people like Angela Merkel. His success has gone to his head a little and sometimes he provokes a bit too much. But he has shown himself to be a reliable partner, much more reliable than someone like Kaczyński.

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