Hungary`s all-powerful Orban ends 2014 with `slap in the face`
With three election victories in less than a year under his belt, along with a rosy economic outlook, a weak opposition and a comfortable parliamentary majority, Hungary`s Prime Minister Viktor Orban looked invincible just a few months ago.
Budapest: With three election victories in less than a year under his belt, along with a rosy economic outlook, a weak opposition and a comfortable parliamentary majority, Hungary`s Prime Minister Viktor Orban looked invincible just a few months ago.
After the legislative blitz of his first term, which sent alarm bells ringing about the state of democracy in the EU member state, the charismatic right-winger had carte blanche to cement his vision of Hungary.
"Unity has triumphed over disunity," Orban declared in October after his Fidesz party swept the board in local elections, adding to triumphs in legislative and European elections in April and May.
"These elections proved that the unity showed in 2010 was not just a flash in the pan but a permanent and long-term coming together."
But as 2015 looms, the 51-year-old, who first rose to prominence in protests at the end of communism, has just been dealt what Csaba Toth, analyst at the Republikon Institute, calls a "slap in the face".
This came in the form of a sharp and sudden drop in opinion polls, with Orban`s popularity plunging 16 percentage points to 32 percent and that of Fidesz falling between 10 and 12 points to 25-26 percent.
Pollsters called the plunge "unprecedented" since the fall of communism.The trigger was Orban`s proposal for a tax on Internet usage, the latest of his many unorthodox economic policy ideas.
The tax peeved the usual suspects -- the opposition, Internet firms -- but crucially, and unlike many of Orban`s reforms of the past four years, also annoyed his grassroots supporters.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in October in the biggest protests in years, prompting Orban into a rare retreat on the levy.
Another problem area has been a very public spat with the United States, with Washington banning six officials from entering the US, including the head of the national tax office.
Orban`s reaction, as in the past, was to lash out at outsiders, saying the US was trying to punish Hungary for its close ties to Russia.
But Washington said the ban was related to alleged corruption, touching a nerve among Hungarians, particularly in light of Orban`s staunch support for the tax office chief.
Several thousand people took part in anti-graft demonstrations in December.
Some veteran Fidesz politicians have even broken ranks to lambaste younger members for their flashy lifestyles and luxury villas.Despite being seen as a skilled tactician, Orban has had trouble coming up with policies to get his second term back on track and reverse his slide in the polls.
"Since backtracking on the Internet tax, Fidesz has been in damage-control mode, coming up with ad-hoc ideas to retain support," Andras Biro-Nagy, co-director of the Policy Solutions Institute, told AFP.
The latest ideas meant to appeal to the party`s conservative base have included a ban on big shops opening on Sundays and proposed drug tests for journalists and teenagers, but these have not gone down well.
"These latest proposals feel like the government wants to educate people and this irritates voters," Balint Ablonczy, a columnist at the normally pro-government Heti Valasz weekly, told AFP.
"The idea of permanent revolution is not working anymore; this logic is no longer accepted by voters," he added.
Analysts note that Orban survived a worse wobble in 2012 by cutting utility prices. This time, however, there is no easy solution in sight.
"Any silver bullet might have a credibility problem: a cynical, tactical move, even though it might have been popular two or three years ago," argues Toth.
All this could come to a head on February 22 in a by-election in Veszprem in western Hungary: defeat would mean Orban would lose his two-thirds majority, currently hanging by one vote.