Stefano Bottoni: Orban is a rebel with the consent of the authorities

Stefano Bottoni’s book on the Hungarian leader is called “Orban. A despot in Europe” (source: CentroVeritas.it)

Interview with the Italian historian and political scientist of Hungarian origin about the phenomenon Viktor Orban in an era when the so-called West and East no longer look for bridges between each other

CbT, 12.04.2022

The Italian historian and political scientist of Hungarian origin Stefano Bottoni discusses about the recent Hungarian parliamentary elections and the phenomenon Orban in the times of Russian intervention in Ukraine:

– what motivates the Hungarian province, underclass and the Hungarian elites of Buda to support Orban from very different positions and with different rationalizations;

– why did the Hungarian opposition fail so lamentably at the April 2022 vote – over 20% behind Orban in election results;

– Hungary as a regional powerhouse in Southeastern Europe – it started in 2015 with the refugee crisis and the coming in power of Law and Justice in Poland and it got quite a bit of magnitude – what are the relations with the other EU countries of the region;

– now when the Polish leadership scorned Orban over his reluctance to adopt clear anti-Russian position an policies over the war in Ukraine, Polish influence in the EU is rising, while the Hungarian one is falling;

– Hungary can no longer pretend to be a bridge and middle ground between “the West” and “the East” when there is an open confrontation between them;

– how to be a successful opposition to Orban and how not to be  – examples from the elections with a right-wing and a left-wing candidate.

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Hello, everybody, and welcome to yet another episode of Cross-border talks. Today we meet in a Polish-Bulgarian-Italian company to discuss elections in Hungary, a truly historical event for Central and Eastern Europe. It is Viktor Orban’s fourth consecutive victory. The opposition tried different strategies to confront this Hungarian leader over the years. They tried a united opposition bloc without the far right. They tried to face him as different parties, each going separately. They tried this time to form one opposition bloc, including all the key opposition parties. None of these strategies actually worked, and Viktor Orban’s mandate to rule Hungary seems stronger than ever.

What will be the consequences of this election for Central Eastern Europe, for populist movements on the entire continent? And what are the reasons for which Viktor Orban is being so heavily criticized abroad and still gains a majority in elections within his country? Those are the questions we are going to ask Stefano Bottoni, an Italian political scientist who is, among others, the author of a book on Orban. But Vladimir, my co-host, is going to say more about our guest.

Vladimir Mitev: Yes. Stefano Bottoni is some kind of a celebrity, academic celebrity, let’s say. He has a PhD from the University of Bologna. He’s currently an assistant professor at the University of Florence. And he has also written a number of books, not only the one on Orban, but we invite him specifically as he is knowledgeable about Hungary. In fact, one of the academic associations he had was with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He’s also a Hungarian speaker. Welcome to the program, Stefano! Thank you for coming! And may the cross-border talk begin!

Okay. So I want us to ask the question that everybody also has in Poland where there is a big interest for Hungary. Everybody asks why it is so that Orban is so heavily criticized abroad for his attacks on the principles of liberal democracy, but still, Hungarians seem to be happy with him as the ruler of the country. I wanted us to tackle this question from a little bit different perspective than the most of the liberal media do. What are the economic and social factors behind Orban’s popularity?

Stefano Bottoni: Thank  you very much for inviting me. It’s a real pleasure to discuss the most recent Hungarian elections with you. The first very simple answer to your question could be: because very few people seem now in Hungary really interested in liberal democracy and constitutional rules, rule of law, human rights, whatever. All the things because of all the things that make Orban so criticized, heavily criticized in the West. They do care about other things. And so the social sources of Orban’s power must be found elsewhere than in those legitimation sources we used to consider important in the West.

 You can call it a disillusion, a very deep disillusion with liberal democracy, but also with the West. This is a cultural part of Orban’s appeal to the Hungarian public.

The other part is social. Orban has an extraordinary grip, especially in the provinces, but not only among poor, uneducated people. If you look at the constituency, at the social composition of those more than 3 million people who voted Orban, that is a record, they set a record. Orban and Fidesz never achieved more than 3 million ballots. In the proportional part of the vote, which is 54% of all ballots cast with a turnout of 70%, which is not bad at all. So you can’t even blame the low turnout. Turnout was almost at its historical high.

In Hungary since 1990 if you look at the class composition of Orban’s voters, you can find the fragments of the Hungarian very high middle class people. For example, living in my district in Buda… I live in Buda in one of the wealthiest districts in Hungary and there Orban’s candidate lost. In this particular district. But nevertheless, he got, well, more than 40% and another far right wing candidate got 5% in Budapest as well. The candidate of For Motherland. I would say it is a pretty Nazi movement, really Nazi movement, proud of it, which made it into the parliament for the first time and getting 6% of all ballots. So Orban is very popular or quite popular in Budapest as well.

Look at this capital city where Fidesz got, well, more than 40% of votes. He came second. The opposition won technically in Budapest, but still Fidesz got here. 

We can vote, I would say in a very free way. We have the Internet. We have all the resources and means to make a distinction between truth and false, between good and bad and so on, between Western democracy and Putin’s lie, Putin’s type of autocracy and so on. Even here, Fidesz got more than 40%. 

Look at other places. For example, in Hungary, very wealthy cities like Sopron or Gyor, very close to the Austrian border. Fidesz got 60%. This is the west northern partner part of Hungary, typically well to do and feed us very well in those parts too. If we distance ourselves from the center and if we go to the peripheries, social and geographic peripheries as well, we will find an even deeper dominance.

Dominance means that in a lot of provincial constituencies there was formally a multi-party system. So formally you had three, four or five candidates, but basically people who showed up at the voting poll, they were rallied by a very simple slogan – Only Fidesz. They understood. And they were looking for the symbol to mark. It was really impressive. And we know this because more than 20,000 activists from the opposition camp were sent or they volunteered at the polling station.

It was the first time the opposition made such an extraordinary effort to be present in every single polling station in Hungary. They made it. They drove a lot of kilometers and they were sent to every small village of 300 inhabitants where literally, as you can imagine, everyone knows everyone. And what was the reality? They have a Facebook page and a lot of information I gathered, I know from it, because they started from the night of the elections. They started to write down their own impressions. It is the collective diary of the Hungarian opposition. 

Look, it is like reading the Russian populists of the second half of the 19th century, facing the rural country. Going down to the province looking at these old, often almost illiterate, bad looking, green people who wanted to vote for Fidesz. It was a collective, shocking experience for these educated, well looking, well-to-do people from Budapest and the surrounding with some intellectual or professional background driving down to the province, driving down to the villages to watch over the regularity.

And what did they find? The vote was regular. There were no frauds. The problem is that the whole system was so much triggered and so much conceived in the way, in a way that you cannot count on any other outcome than the outcome you got. And so they got incredibly depressed. So the whole Facebook page, which is now full of hundreds of accounts, long, very detailed accounts…

I’m a historian even more than a political analyst. This is my profession. I work on written sources, usually also oral sources, but written sources are my hunting territory. It is a wonderful written source. They are repeating more or less the same things. “We were convinced they will be hostile to us”. The locals were not hostile. They were told from Fidesz, from the center: “Look, guys, strange people from the opposition will come to watch you – so behave well. Be very polite. Feed them. Let them drink and eat. So let’s have a party. Election is a party. We have to. We have to have a good time together from 5 a.m. to midnight. In the end, they’re going to win. They are going home.” And so it happened. They went home, totally destroyed. So the opposition was not only destroyed in the ballots. From a numerical point of view, 54 per cent to 34. 20 points difference. Never happened… since ever.

So the Hungarian opposition was never so weak, numerically speaking. And their soul got injured, because they understood: “Oh, we know nothing about this country. We have no idea what locals really think about this country. About the state of democracy, about their own society. They seem to live on a different plan and. If we are not able to grasp the essence of this society. What do locals think? What do they do? What can we represent for them? Every message we send about corruption, about rule of law, about human rights, about democracy, about West or East, it absolutely makes no sense. It makes sense to us. It doesn’t make sense to them.”

 It was really shocking. And I think this is one of the most positive things we got from this election, a very precise picture of what the Hungarian society seems to look now. We got the radiography of the society.

 Orban is usually presented as an anti-European, at least has this halo of anti-European politicians. But in reality, Hungary is very closely connected economically to Germany with, let’s say, up to 30%, maybe a little bit less of the trade with Germany and a lot of foreign investment in Hungary. So how exactly this picture of a rebel fits into the material conditions which are European, in fact, and capitalist as well.

I could call him a rebel with the consent of the authorities. It’s very easy to make a revolution with the consent of the police, basically, Brussels is that kind of police, which allows you to rule your country as you want, disregarding a lot of rules with no real price to pay for and distributing a lot of benefits. 

Hungary has been over the last 10-12 years, one of the biggest net recipients of EU cohesion policy. So dozens of billions of euros came to Hungary. And of course, if you look at the real estate, if you look at the amount of motorways, a couple of railways or public or private buildings built-up with this money, you will find that a lot of EU money was really pumped into the economy.

The point is, the regional and social distribution of this money. Hungary is also a country of inequality and social inequality, huge social and cultural inequality, and Fidesz is among the best among the rich, among those responsible for this. So social inequality, as sociologists and social historians say, traces back to Hungarian history. So it was very much there in the Horthy era in the 1920s and 1930s where it was not leveled a bit, but not totally eliminated during communist rule until the 1970s and then started to grow again. In the last ten years of the Communist rule under Janos Kadar in the 1980s, Hungary was already a country of massive unemployment or sub-employment, was a country, for example, with a huge Roma community. And you maybe know and if you don’t know, it’s very important to get knowledge about this, that 80, 90% of the Roma community voted Fidesz. They are an asset in electoral terms. They are maybe one of the most valuable assets of Fidesz nowadays. Sorry for being so blunt, but along with the pensioners and people from the Village, the farmers, the Roma are now the new core voters. And then you have a lot of other groups targeted.

All of these people are among the poorest. They are not and they were not recipients of EU funds… or in very little measure. So social policy planning is almost absent from the theoretical and practical horizon of Fidesz. 

I would say that Fidesz is providing a couple of basic good stuff and benefits to these people. For example, Orban gave back pensioners the 13th month of pension, which was taken away by the left in 2009. This is a fact. But social subsidies, social assistance is at a ridiculously low level. Since 2010 it has never been raised.

 Social insurance is linked to some kind of work contract. So if you want to be assisted, you have to have to have a you have to be a social worker or something like this. But the retribution of the social worker is now €140. The unemployment compensation or the unemployment salary is around €80 a month, which makes the social service still more attractive than being technically unemployed without any other salary. But in every case, we are speaking about a very, very low living standard.

All these people went to vote. And this is very important, I am convinced about two things. First, and I would say first about the price of gas. The economic issue, the energetic issue issues were very important. So the opposition, they said, wants to cut the Russian gas and if we cut the Russian gas there is going to be a huge social crisis affecting primarily the poorest. And the second issue, which was heavily exploited by state propaganda, was peace.

“Orban is a man of peace. He wants Hungary to stay out of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The opposition wants to send NATO’s soldiers and Hungarian soldiers there. Send your own son or husband, whatever, into this war. So they are warmongers. Orban is a man of peace.” And those who attended the elections, all of those people who wrote on this Facebook who open Facebook wall in Hungarian, of course, but it can be checked, really. All of them told us that it was a massive feeling: “We don’t want this war. We just want to be left in peace. This is not our war. This is not our concern. We have other problems. We have to survive. We are poor people. We don’t have we don’t have any other issues to cope with.”

And that was decisive, not for the  the victory of Orban. The victory was probably never seriously in danger. But for the amount of people no one had forecasted more than ten points between the government and the opposition. They achieved 20. So the difference can only be explained by a massive popular feeling for Orban and against the opposition on the matters of energy. So gas basically, and peace versus war.

You mentioned that your very rich district of Buda also voted Orban as well as some cities where the predominantly well-off population is located. I am wondering where they were also charmed by the slogans of cheap gas or non-involvement in the war, or there are some other things that Orban did for this higher class of Hungary.

Very good question. Thank you. Yes, they voted for him for totally different reasons. They voted for him, for example, because of very cheap loans granted to families. If you are a middle class family with two or three children, you can basically have, even from private banks, very cheap loans to build a new house or to buy a new one. This is one reason. So family planning schemes are very favorable for those youngsters who want to have a family. This is not new stuff. So it didn’t come with the elections. It is a well established policy, but it works very well with a certain group of people.

Others, for example, are small businessmen. A lot of small businessmen are very actively using EU funds. They are amongst the big beneficiaries of EU funds, those businessmen who are linked in the supply chain, I would say, to some oligarchs. You have the kind of social pyramid with the oligarchs, with sub oligarchs. And at the base of the pyramid, you have thousands and thousands of people, families, their own relatives, their old friends, friends of friends, people linked in a way or the other to the system. So the grip of the system over the Hungarian society goes far beyond the electoral score they get, even if you don’t vote for Fidesz. A lot of friends who are using the family scheme or EU funds or all the advantages provided by the system. Even if they don’t vote for the system and they have to recognize that, wow, this is provided by the system. I don’t like it, but still I wouldn’t refuse the opportunity if they give it to me. So the grip is really very, very deep.

And it is puzzling to see a people of so many instructions from the poorest to the very highest level of the pyramid voting for the same party with totally different life horizons, expectations, possibilities. Some are voting, because they guess they are getting even more if Orban stays in power and they would probably lose something if the opposition wins. So they vote for Fidesz because it is convenient for them, which is a rational choice. But  a lot of other people vote for Fidesz because they don’t even imagine an alternative offer can be made. 

And I would say we are speaking about social issues here and we are trying to kind of make sense of the social grip Orban has got over Hungarian society. And I think that as we say and most of the Hungarian sociologists agree that the social policy of Orban is a right wing, is a neo liberal. Gabor Scheiring, Zoltan Pogatsa, other economists, sociologists in Hungary, from the left, always complain about this. How is it possible that you have such a right-wing party doing right-wing policies in economic terms, Thatcherism politics, destroying a lot of basic state services like public health, public education, higher education and so on, and getting very substantial support from those people, who are basically hurting with their own policies.

It is highly paradoxical. It can’t be explained only in terms of economic rationality because for some people, voting for this is a highly rational move. But for others it is absolutely not rational, but I can’t explain to them that they would probably be better off voting for someone else. They don’t have the feeling now that they have any alternative.

 And sorry to say this… but the opposition and not only their leader Peter Marki-Zay is, but also the other people of the opposition, the other parties of the opposition, from the Democratic Coalition to Momentum to the so-called Greens to the others they all failed to explain the poorest, the other Hungary, the provincial Hungary, that that such an alternative can be set up. And it actually exists. 

In every constituency there was at least one other candidate expressed and voted through the preselection in fall 2021. There is a candidate of the unified opposition. There is someone, there is at least one person. Every opposition party movement agreed. It is not technically still not a one party system, but they were not able to explain it. And this is why they failed, because most people didn’t believe it. We have to analyze the causes for it. But first, we have to recognize the fact that such an alternative, theoretically speaking, existed. It was, in many cases, just ignored.

Well, Hungary also seems to have success beyond its border in the sense that in southeastern Europe it has certain influence, even in Romania, Bulgaria as well, and of course as a Bulgarian. I’m aware that Macedonians had also this contradiction with Gruevski hosted in Budapest after.

Enjoying a good life here in Buda. We used to see him.

He was the former prime minister of Macedonia who was made to flee after Zaev took power for some time. So that seems to be interesting. In fact, how much of a regional power is Hungary and is anything changing now that Orban gets even stronger within his country?

In my book, I called Orban once a regional influencer, and he started to become a regional influencer with the migration crisis or the refugee crisis of 2015-16. That was the moment when Orban understood that his moment could have come on the European stage. 

He was very bored by Hungarian politics, so he thought he had achieved everything in Hungary. The Hungarian political spectrum is terribly boring. There is nothing to be said. There is nothing going on, especially when you want nothing to happen. And if you want nothing to happen in Hungary, nothing happens without your explicit consent. And so it was the time for him to upgrade, to become a regional leader and not only the small Hitler, Putin, whatever, of a small Eastern European mostly-ignored country. So he wanted to become more.

And this is the way he became more. He started to build regional alliances. Of course, Visegrad was already there. So the old and good sounding alliance of Poland, former Czechoslovakia and Hungary founded in 1991 was the perfect ground to start to grow the regional influence. And of course, since Law and Justice came to power again in 2015, it was a perfect moment to make an axis with Poland.

But even outside Visegrad, the way he was moving from Slovenia, for example, helping a conservative right wing Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, to consolidate and fund his own party through foundations, through the media system was remarkable. Good relationship with the HDZ party – party in power or sometimes in power in Croatia. Very, very good working relations with Vucic, with the Serbian, tall and big guy. Very, very, very powerful. Very paternalistic and very dictatorial. Very good relations with Boyko Borissov in Bulgaria. They are from the same kind of family, politically speaking. So so-called right wing or something like this. So not left wing. The same language of power, the same language of force, same idea of the relations between, state and society.

Romania was a more difficult ground, not only because of Transylvania. Transylvania and the Hungarian minority issue is a is always a black hole in the in the bilateral relations, but also because Romania is the southeast flank of NATO and it’s such a NATO-compatible elites, secret services which are incredibly power powerful in Romania and all the Romanian deep state is so deeply connected to Washington that Hungary was a black spot for Romania. So if you are from Hungary, you can’t have good ties in Romania because of Transylvania.  There  is always some suspicion. And second, because of NATO and Russia. So Romania was a problem.

But look at Slovakia, for example, lots of historical problems with Slovakia, even after the Cold War. And now for years, you couldn’t even hear about bilateral problems between Hungary and Slovakia. Or Austria, for example, has a very complex, very, I would say, controversial and very ambiguous relationship with the Austrian elites. For Austria Hungary, of course, is the eastern backward country. And you can refer to Hungary when you need it. When you don’t need Hungary and Orban – Austria just kind of reminds itself “In the end, we are a German province, so we don’t need Hungary and those poor Eastern European”. 

But for Hungary, Austria is a very important asset because look at now, for example, look at the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, Austria makes exactly what Hungary does, only a little bit more kind of European and less vocal. They are absolutely on the same line. No conflict, no escalation, no NATO in there. Let the Russian gas come into Europe. We don’t want any energy crisis because of these bloody Ukrainians. And from this point of view, the Hungarian, the Austrian, the German line is absolutely the same, only declining in a slightly different way, according to the national path and according to the needs of pundits and of the general public.

The Hungarian general public really likes the way and I very, very sorry for this, but this is the way, the very dismissive and arrogant way the Hungarian leadership treats everyone: “I’m very proud of being racist. Thank you.” They are very proud of being such, such a thing. And the Hungarian general public, I would say, claps hands. So it really liked it. And so there is absolutely no need for Orban to be more merciful or to be more polite, because the constituency really likes the way he behaves. And it is not an issue of propaganda or not only an issue of propaganda, it is an issue, an issue of following the way everyday people would behave. And from this point of view, Orban is an incredible political animal. He really is always in stream with its own constituency. So, yes, he became a regional influencer.

Now, I would see I’m a bit more critical or I see that this is this. So the Russian-Ukrainian war can be a critical juncture, a critical point, especially in the relationship with Poland, because I don’t think the Poles are faking their own concerns and their own criticism. So I know from inside that the Poles really think that Hungary is doing very, very badly here and they have really plans for other kinds of alliances. So they are really disappointed in Orban. So the point where Kaczynski himself, who defended Orban a lot of times over the last month, the moment when Kaczynski last week or a couple of days ago said that Orban maybe didn’t understand, didn’t understand well, what is going on, he was very dismissive, very openly critical. It never happened. And some in the even in the party in Hungary, even in the foreign ministry in Hungary, are now getting concerned about the Polish alliance, because they say, well, we had one good friend in the in the Council of Europe, in the European institutions, in Brussels, in Strasbourg, it was Poland. We are defending each other. If Poland fails, we stand alone. We can be very friend of of Lukashenko. We can be very good friends of Vucic. But they are not political actors. They are puppets. We need true political actors to act. And the Austrians, the Czechs or the Bulgarians or the Slovenians will never defend us if something big happens with Brussels. Poland promised to do it. Poland promised to deliver. But if they fail to deliver, we could be in a trouble.

I think that this is the first major, I would say, image crisis of Orban in Hungary over the last years in terms of regional leadership, because, of course, Hungary is a small country with a small open economy. So it cannot be a regional leader. The only regional leader in Eastern Europe is clearly Poland. The others are basically non-players in this competition. But it is also true that Orban standing as the longest serving prime minister of the whole EU could really claim: “Guys, I know the world. I know how things are going. Now I’m explaining it to you, how he portrayed them himself, like the old guy who kind of lectures the others. But now he’s really on the defensive on this Russia, Russian, Ukrainian war. And of course, we don’t know the outcome. So it could also be that at the end of the day, Orban plays it all out well. But I’m not pretty sure about it. I think that in Berlin, in Washington and elsewhere and also in Brussels, Poland is growing and the influence of Poland is growing very substantially. And the residual Hungarian influence is in decline. So we still have to assess how it will affect the regional game and the regional plan as well.

Well, as a person, located in Poland, I can only confirm what you said about the big problem that appeared in Polish-Hungarian relations. Indeed, for leaders of the Polish ruling Law and Justice Party. Viktor Orban was more than a role model. He was for them a living example that the conservative vision of a society can be real put into practice in Central Eastern Europe, and it can gain big popularity and be realized step by step for years. Well, now, however, Orban’s position in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is a big disappointment for Law and Justice. And really the traditionally good Polish-Hungarian relations are undergoing a serious test. But I wanted to ask about this European dimension you already mentioned. For years you said that Orban received European support, European cohesion funds, despite all the bad stuff he did, including the homophobic measures, including the anti social measures. So for Europe, neoliberalism has never been a problem for the European Union, but the attacks on human rights also were not apparently that important. Now, when Orban is deviating from the common course of the European Union against Russia, is this finally this moment when Brussels stands up against him more significantly?

It could be, but I’m not still sure. I think that the outcome of this conflict will be decisive, and we have no idea how it will end. So many people have predicted the decline or even the fall of Orban over the last 8-10 years that I wouldn’t dare to make such a prediction. So many times I have read that he’s declining. He’s in trouble. He’s in crisis. He’s really coming to the end even before these elections. I read a lot of such analyses.

Now, the opposition was strong. Now the opposition was united. They really had a chance and we saw the outcome. So I think that it is an open question with some new elements and the geopolitical element is a new one. For Hungary it was quite remunerative and pretty easy to portray it itself as a balancing factor between East and West. Until now. 

Now such a moment comes when you cannot any longer play this game. You can’t do it because it cannot play out well. And this is the moment when you have to take sides. When Orban publicly refuses to take side implicitly takes sides for Putin which is now a very, very bad omen, you know, in the West. This is while he is a member of the alliance.

I made the parallel once and people accuse me of making bad parallels but I made once the parallel with Ceausescu. Ceausescu played it very, very nicely and very smartly in the 1960s and 1970s. While being a member of a military and political alliance, the Warsaw Pact, the COMECON and so on, he tried to be in a very, very friendly and mutually advantageous relationship with the West. It worked very, very well until the early eighties. In the early 80s, with the second Cold War, with the issue of human rights emerging with the were with the perestroika and Gorbachev in the US it came out that – “wow, do we need this bad looking guy Ceausescu mediating between east and west? No, we don’t need him. We can even actually can rid of him.”

I’m not implying that the events of 1989 were a play script of the CIA and of the West. It was not, of course, but the idea that Ceausescu was thought to be necessary to create a balance, to trigger Moscow, was true in the 1960s and seventies when they still hoped to transform him into a second Tito. It made no sense in the 1980s when Ceausescu’s Romania appeared for what it was: a poor, repressive, awful place to live in. Of course, Orban’s country, Orban’s Hungary nowadays is not such a place. Conditions are very different. But the idea of playing between East and West, posing as a friend of the East while you are in a different political military alliance, only plays well, when you have a non-conflictual relationship, now it becomes very difficult.

And another thing I wanted to add, even if it doesn’t belong to this issue, but I want to say it or the opposition candidate, Peter Marki-Zay, from a moral, moral point of view, from an ethical point of view, he’s a good person. He’s just not a politician. And he was totally unfit for the role he had to play. If you want to confront fascism because Orban’s rule is, culturally speaking, something close to fascism, modern fascism, digital fascism, 21st century fascism, nothing to do with Horthy, nothing to do with Hitler. Mussolini. It is totally different. But the idea of mobilizing the society the way he does is kind of fascism. If you want to confront this how could it be a good idea to tackle it from the right because culturally speaking, Peter Marki-Zay is a father of seven, convinced Catholic, from conservative Hungary, an American-loving person, raised in Hungary, but with a substantial living and working experience in Canada and the US and so on and so forth. How good was the choice of such a person as Leader of the Opposition? He was everything but a left-wing person.

His program, his personal program. So what are the things he believes in are totally opposite from from a socialist or social democratic vision of Hungary or of Europe. So it was probably not the best choice because we have seen that. There was a utopia. There was an idea. The idea was to attract those disillusioned by Fidesz, by Orban. To attract them to the opposition. No one was attracted. No living people, no living person formerly known as a voter of Viktor Orban, voted for the opposition. So this operation failed miserably. On the other side, many people formally standing with the left are now voting, as I told you, are now voting urban for social reasons. And the left and Marki-Zay personally had no word for it on it. They had absolutely nothing to say to these people. And I give you just one example of the contrary.

In one of the poorest constituencies of Budapest, the eighth District, in Pest, there was one single candidate linked to the grassroots radical left. write down his name. He will become famous, I think, and he’s a very great guy. Andras Jambor. He was the former editor of Merce, a left wing portal. He’s a great grassroots guy with a great standing. He got almost 50%. He came first. He got the seat. He beat an awful Fidesz guy, a very corrupt one, but with very good technological and and and financial disposal resources locally. He beat him and made a remarkable door to door campaign for months. He did it from the left. It is not impossible to tackle the system from the left. You have to go door to door and you have to do politics in a totally different way. You don’t have to expect any help from Washington, Brussels, Berlin, whatever. You have to try to help yourself. You have to measure the ground where we are standing. Who are the potential voters? Which are their needs? What did they want to hear? They probably didn’t want to hear that we are sending NATO’s troops into Ukraine. If NATO asks us. It was a very unfortunate formulation and it was heavily exploited by fighters propaganda for weeks. It caused a lot of damage without bringing any new elements to the opposition coalition.

So I think that we have a couple of examples locally where good left wing candidates can add some value to the coalition. Even electorally speaking, they perform very well. So there is also a need for these people and for this part of the program of a united opposition. So I’m from Italy. You know, in the 1990s, Nanny Moretti, an Italian filmmaker, made a film about the Italian post-communist left. And there’s a very famous scene when he’s looking at Massimo D’Alema, who was at that time prime minister in Italy and says: “D’Alema say something which is left-wing”. So don’t speak like them. Don’t speak like Berlusconi. Don’t try to be Berlusconi because you are not. We have to be different. If we are not different, if we say more or less the same things just with a different face, people will invariably vote for the original. And I have the impression that something similar also happened last Sunday in Hungary.

Marki-Zay is an ethically outstanding person. He was just too right-wing for those of the left. And too left-wing for those of the right. So people standing in the middle just thought: “We’ve got Orban. Let’s continue. Let’s continue until we find a better one to replace him.” And that this is how it goes. Most people don’t think so. In political terms, they have nothing to say about politics. For them, politics is a very basic thing. They didn’t want war. They wanted peace. They wanted some assurances on inflation, gas tariffs, whatever. And they had problems with the notion of the West. What is the West? What is the cultural content of the gender?

Look at the referendum! There was also a referendum last Sunday. And technically speaking, the referendum on the change of gender, change of sex. There was this referendum on this issue. Can you imagine this being an issue in a Hungarian village? You had to explain people what changing sex was. “You mean you have to do an operation down there? What?” So it is a non-issue. But it became the metaphor of the West. The West? Believe me, it is. I’m not joking. It’s true. The West became for many people the metaphor of a crazy place where crazy things can happen, like changing sex. It was a cultural metaphor. Roma people asking, no, no, we don’t want to  change sex. No one is asking you to change sex to your children. No one really believes me, no one is coming to the kindergarten with such purposes. But state propaganda. Media propaganda. Media message. And I would say the blurred image of the West all causes this.

So campaigning with the West. In such an environment, a cultural environment was probably not the best idea. Because when confronted with a blunt choice between East and West, I would say the most of the Hungarian society. Just followed the path some sociologists are describing of a Hungarian society whose values are now more oriented towards, I would say, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, then toward Czech Republic or Austria. And I’m not categorizing. I’m not judging. It is just with a lot of issue acceptation, for example, of homosexuality or other things. Hungarian society is really conservative on this point. It is a fact. And so when confronted with the stereotypical image that the West is such a total freedom of doing everything and the East is not. They said, Well, East, thank you. Very sad, but it seems to be accurate.

Okay. So I think it is time to close this exciting conversation, which really explained us a lot. Well, thank you, Stefano, very much for explaining the things we could have never learned about Hungary from other media. And thank you for this valuable insight. And, well, we ask everybody to follow Cross-border talks on Facebook. We will soon also be present in other social media. We also ask you to subscribe to our YouTube channel with more exciting talks like this to come. So once again, Stefano, thank you very much for being with us.

Thank you very much, Malgorzata and Vladimir. Thank you. Bye.

Photo: Stefano Bottoni, PhD (source: Facebook)

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4 thoughts on “Stefano Bottoni: Orban is a rebel with the consent of the authorities

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