For the first time in 12 years, it seems like Hungary’s illiberal Prime Minister might need to worry about the outcome of a national election. The Government’s cronies are responding with a wave of attacks on the reputation of opposition members and their allies.
Clearly identify the enemy, then tirelessly reiterate that they pose a clear and present danger to Hungarian society – these are the two main requirements of the Hungarian Government’s communications strategy. Together with changes to the electoral law, exacerbated clientelism and a host of other measures, these are the pillars of Hungarian politics’ unlevel playing field. This is what enables Viktor Orbán’s Government to decrease the opposition’s chances of successfully competing in elections while still propping up the façade of something that resembles a democracy.
The Government’s smear campaigns have had many targets in the past – from the “liberals” and “communists” to George Soros, NGOs and migrants, all were said to be trying to rob Hungarians of their wealth as well as to destroy their culture and society – and their communication organs have also evolved a bit. The smearing started with provocative or confrontative public speeches, “peace marches” (pro-Government marches organised by allies that have attracted tens of thousands of participants) and statements given to some friendly media outlets. Once the Government and its cronies managed to transform enough influential news outlets (including the public service media, the local press, and some popular national outlets) into mouthpieces, an increasing number of fabricated news stories started appearing in the media. In the early “kompromats” (a term used to refer to Soviet-style fabricated news stories), it was often obvious at first sight that the stories distorted reality. Still, the reach of the Government-aligned outlets meant such material would turn into topics discussed at work or at the dinner table – on one famous occasion, for example, unknown people put a bumper sticker with the text “Allahu Akbar” on the car of politician Gábor Vona so that Government-friendly outlets could use it as “proof” when claiming Vona had converted to Islam.
We might be seeing a third smear wave developing now. As a product of years-long media capture, the Government’s allies have taken over several privately-owned news media. One is Index.hu, the most widely-read news outlet in the country that was famous for its ground-breaking investigative articles until mid-2020. As such, Orbán and his party can now rely on seemingly professional, still-trusted news media to pretend that they are investigating and uncovering alleged wrongdoing by the opposition. The two most prominent cases are the alleged fraud with EU funds by Katalin Cseh, a Member of Parliament who sits in the Renew Europe Group, and the alleged plans of Budapest’s Green mayor to sell the City Hall and some adjacent buildings.
The long-lost feeling of being challenged
Before looking into these allegations in detail, it might be important to explain why these stories have started appearing now. In 2021, the Hungarian opposition decided it is time to stand united behind a single candidate for Prime Minister – the person who could turn around Hungary’s descent into authoritarianism. Thus, in September and October, the key challengers to Viktor Orbán’s Government organized two rounds of primary elections to find out which opposition candidates voters would prefer represented the democratic alternative – both candidates in particular constituencies and as the candidate for the head of Government.
After some unexpected twists and turns, the race for the prime ministerial candidate was won by Péter Márki-Zay, a conservative outsider who has previously been elected Mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, a city previously seen as a Fidesz stronghold. From the parties with the relevant support, only the nativist, far-right antivaxxer Our Homeland Movement and the system-critical joke-party called the Two-Tailed Dog Party are still running on their own. However, even the latter has decided to withdraw its candidates whenever they feel the opposition has a chance to win a given constituency. At the end of October, independent pollster Závecz Research found that support for the united opposition was slightly greater than support for the governing party. Even if the Government’s challengers seem to have lost a bit of their momentum since, there are three more months to go before the parliamentary elections take place and the challengers have been planning the official launch of their campaign for January.
In order to stand a chance, though, the opposition needs to stay alert. As time passes, the challenges they face are growing. During campaign season, fake parties and outsiders with political intentions are always part of the mix. In the last elections, we saw shady celebrities announcing their candidacies, opportunistic entrepreneurs starting political parties just to collect state subsidies, and parties set up with names very similar to those of other opposition parties, with the aim of confusing voters. This year, the multimillionaire György Gattyán has decided to put his name on the ballot. Gattyán is one of Hungary’s richest people, having made a fortune as the founder of the LiveJasmin erotic web camera chat service. While it is not clear whether he was encouraged to run by Orbán’s Fidesz party or driven by his own megalomania (in the past, he has had visible conflicts with the government, but has also been rewarded with significant amounts of taxpayer money), his campaign might definitely hurt the opposition more than the Government. Attacks on the reputation of Orbán’s opponents should be expected to add to the challenges.
Investigative journalism Fidesz-style
Recent months have seen a number of new targets in these communications campaigns – often presented in a way that tries to resemble the routines of the traditional watchdog media. It is common that paparazzi photos of opposition politicians appear in Government-friendly outlets with claims that they were sent by the outlets’ readers, who allegedly witnessed some noteworthy incident by accident. Even a police raid on a depository outside of Budapest was allegedly randomly spotted by dogwalkers.
There is also a surge of Government-supportive pseudo-investigative journalism. The two most prominent fabricated scandals – which also prompted a series of articles and commentaries from politicians – revolve around the previously-mentioned allegations targeting a Member of Parliament and the opposition politicians who won back the capital city after it was controlled by a Fidesz mayor from 2010 until 2019. Both of these cases are weak, but they point towards a new direction in smearing the political “enemy”.
In the case of MEP Katalin Cseh, a number of Government-friendly news outlets claim she and her family have pocketed significant amounts of EU funding for fictitious activities. The story started with a whistle-blower: an unidentified person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask (worn usually by the activists of Anonymous) claimed he had submitted proof to newsrooms about Cseh’s hypocrisy, and that was followed up by alleged investigations undertaken by Government-friendly newsrooms. Although the Hungarian authorities have begun investigating this case, the corruption claims have not turned out to be well-founded, so the propagandists had to look for another angle to keep Cseh on the agenda. That was when a Government-friendly tabloid published photos taken at Cseh’s wedding. In the pictures, the bride was seen holding a drink, smiling, dancing and fooling around with guests; but the commentary implied that the politician got drunk, misbehaved and made guests feel uncomfortable.
Cseh is a perfect target for such a campaign, as she represents the new generation of politicians who became active when Orbán was already in power. The 33-year-old Cseh, who holds a medical degree and volunteered to save lives during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, is thus seen as an uncorrupted person who has entered the dirty game of post-2010 Hungarian politics to help her country. Her party, Momentum, is predominantly made up of 20- and 30-somethings who hope to stop the rampant corruption and rebuild the country’s liberal democracy. The smear campaign at the same time wants to prove that, in the words of Fidesz MEP Tamás Deutsch, she was “only ever interested in money and power.”
Selling City Hall
The aim of the attacks on Budapest City leadership is just as rational, but the methods are more extreme. Since 2010, Orbán’s competition has had almost no say in what is happening in national politics. Thus, the best indicator of their competence is their track record at the municipal level. If the hodgepodge of opposition politicians who have run Budapest since 2019 turns out to be corrupt and incompetent, the same should be expected from Orbán’s opponents on the national level – such is the logic of the smear campaign. To convince the masses that indeed the opposition cannot be trusted, the Government’s propaganda apparatus published an exclusive story on Index.hu about the opposition’s alleged plans to sell public property, followed by leaks of private discussions that could have been recorded using secret service methods – a measure that has so far been uncommon in Fidesz’s propaganda, but is not unexpected given that the phones of journalists, politicians and even the bodyguards of President János Áder (an Orbán ally) have been hacked by Hungarian authorities using Pegasus spy software.
The outlets covering the affair claim that the Budapest City leadership has been trying to sell City Hall and some other buildings in a scheme that would have involved bribes to municipal politicians. As in the case of Cseh, there is no proof of actual wrongdoing so far. Most of the evidence comes from recordings where the businessman Gyula Gansperger is heard talking about possible real estate transactions.
The recordings are also being used to serve as proof for further allegations about the opposition’s connection to foreign interest groups. In one of the leaked tapes, Gansperger discusses how George Soros, as well as American and German entities, fund the Hungarian opposition. According to him, one of the most influential players is the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a political foundation funded by the German government; it is associated with but works independently from the Social Democratic Party.
Publishing Gansperger’s private conversations aims to evoke the impression of an insider talking about dirty politics and the foreign puppet master that controls the opposition. In one of the recordings Gansperger discusses these issues with former Prime Minister and Orbán-critic Gordon Bajnai, which makes the claims even more convincing.
However, there is one little flaw in this constellation: Gansperger was, in the past, seen as being connected to Orbán’s Fidesz and not the opposition – thus it is very unlikely that he could have this kind of insider knowledge. Bajnai, the other person on the tape, is not an active politician anymore and claims the published recording has been heavily edited, making him seem to say the opposite of what was actually said.
While the current smear campaigns have turned out to be relatively weak and ineffective, we can assume there will be more where they came from. Hungary is preparing for three months of campaigning at a time when European societies are divided over lockdowns, migration, and a host of other issues, when trust in the news is low and disinformation is common, and at a time when Orbán is being seriously challenged for the first time in 12 years. Thus, smearing will be part of the campaign, and it will likely become dirtier than in the years before.