Viktor Orbán’s first 18 months in office was characterised by an extraordinary level of party discipline. Despite an overwhelming parliamentary majority that should have made backbench rebellions relatively cost-free, voting discipline held firm even as foreign and domestic criticism of his populist government’s economic and constitutional agenda mounted.
That has begun to change, as cracks start to spread in the government’s previously monolithic façade.
The decision of Tamás Fellegi to stand down in December as the national development minister was the first major cabinet change since Orbán took office in May 2010. Officially, Fellegi resigned in order to concentrate on a new role, negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about financial support. It was, though, rumoured that the former academic had become frustrated at continually losing economic policy battles to György Matolcsy (pictured), the national economy minister. In his new position, as minister without portfolio, Fellegi has been criss-crossing the globe in recent weeks, talking to multilateral lenders. But he is in an awkward position, acting as postman delivering messages from lenders who have shown that they intend to be firm with a prime minister who remains committed to the unorthodox policies of Matolcsy, whom he has called his “right-hand man”.
In the spotlight
The announcement by the European Commission on Tuesday (17 January) that it is investigating whether Hungary is in violation of its European commitments has brought the role of Matolcsy into still sharper relief.
Zsigmond Járai, a former central-bank governor who has been close to Orbán’s Fidesz party for more than a decade, has become an ever more vocal critic of the government’s economic policy in recent months. Last week, he resigned as head of the country’s fiscal council, a largely toothless body tasked with scrutinising the budget. He remains chair of the central bank’s supervisory board, but his remarks in an interview following his resignation made it clear how dissatisfied he has become. Matolcsy was looking “pretty worn out”, he said, adding that the government had picked fights with “too many important players – the IMF, the EU, investors, French multinationals”. He added that he would not accept a ministerial appointment.
That drew an extraordinary response from Matolcsy. In a statement published on his ministry’s website yesterday (18 January), Matolcsy invited Járai to visit him in his office to allow his “former friend” to confirm to his own satisfaction that “my physical and mental condition remains outstanding”.
Unsurprisingly, this response has done little to dampen rumours of battles inside Fidesz over the future direction of the government.
And there are signs that the once-lame forces of opposition are starting to find a new voice. Some 40,000 people gathered in central Budapest early this year to protest against the entry into force of a constitution unilaterally imposed by Fidesz by dint of its two-thirds majority in parliament.
With Hungary’s economy set to shrink, criticism from the EU is emboldening a growing chorus of dissent both within and outside the governing party.
Thomas Escritt is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.