Hungary’s leader decides to go green, although critics argue that his climate plan is too little, too late.
Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán’s much anticipated state of the nation address on February 16 came as his ruling Fidesz party looks to redefine itself with new domestic policies after the relatively heavy losses it incurred in local elections last October. Unlike similar speeches in the past, Mr Orbán this year spoke to an audience carefully selected from his supporters in the political and business elite. His address, which comes after a meeting with local Fidesz leaders from all 106 electoral districts, was mainly a reflection on his past decade as Hungary’s political leader, although he did offer a take on what can be expected in the near future.
Here are four takeaways from Mr Orbán’s speech that will shape Hungarian politics for the next two years.
1. New government action plan to tackle climate change
Following up from his earlier promises at the beginning of the year and responding to continuous criticism from the opposition, the Hungarian prime minister acknowledged that climate change was a real threat for future generations and announced his government’s first climate action plan,
The plan includes stricter punishments for illegal dumping, banning single-use plastic, protecting Hungarian rivers from waste coming from abroad, pushing multinationals operating in the country to use more environmentally friendly technologies, higher government funds for SMEs producing green energy, a six-fold increase in solar power over the next decade, introducing green residential bonds, supporting the use of electric cars and switching the Hungarian public transportation system to use only electric buses from 2022.
In political terms, the plan is seen as a move to increase the ruling party’s popularity ahead of parliamentary elections in 2022 given that the Hungarian opposition, which consists of several smaller parties, is now fully united against Fidesz despite all their ideological and political differences.
The action plan is also a response to young voters, a majority of whom continue to ignore the ruling party. Addressing the younger generation, Mr Orbán reminded his audience that they should never forget the corruption of the socialist-liberal governments between 2002 and 2010.
The Hungarian opposition was quick to dismiss his announcement, claiming it was insufficient and late. “This is so weak it can’t even be called greenwashing,” said Bernadett Szél, an influential MP and former co-president of the Hungarian Greens.
What’s more, much of Mr Orbán’s plan, including green residential bonds and the expansion of Hungary’s solar parks, are measures that have already been announced.
2. A conditional expansion of pro-family policies
Mr Orbán first announced his family protection plan last July. Aimed at increasing birth rates, the plan includes financial support for families with three or more children, preferential housing and construction loans for young couples, as well as debt relief.
Building on the success of the initiative, the Hungarian PM has since announced a second raft of incentives for families, including an income tax exemption for women with three or more children and an increase in maternity leave payments.
Mr Orbán has yet to say when these plans would be introduced, recognising the global economic slowdown that will most likely limit the country’s GDP growth, which – at 4.9 per cent was the highest in the EU in 2019 – to 3.5 per cent this year.
Hungarian business news portal Portfolio estimates that the second round of measures would cost some 150-200 billion forints (447-595 million euros), which might be difficult to afford as the Hungarian government is also looking to reduce its budget deficit by 2021.
Mr Orbán’s government is now in the process of preparing a new action plan for protecting economic growth which is expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
3. A new national consultation
Mr Orbán also announced what he called a national consultation, a public survey conducted by the Hungarian government to find out if the public agrees with its upcoming plans. Past experience from such consultations has shown that the Hungarian government would move forward with its policies anyway since both the questions and answers of these surveys are well-tailored.
The upcoming consultation, which will begin in March, is no exception: it will – among other topics – ask voters if they agree with Mr Orbán’s criticism of a recent court verdict that ordered the Hungarian to state to pay close to 100 million forints in compensation to Roma students in the city of Gyöngyöspata who were subject to racial segregation at school. The Hungarian PM argues that the state should ensure high-quality education instead of paying compensation. He also defended his earlier remarks by naming the eradication poverty as one of his main goals, which he said should not be dependent on race. Other questions will be designed to show support for the government’s criticism of recent compensation payments it was ordered by the courts to make to prisoners.
Most Hungarian observers agree that the Fidesz party is trying to revitalise its hardline supporters by indirectly turning public opinion against the Roma community, one of the most recurring topics of the Hungarian radical right. The Hungarian government has been repeatedly criticised for its harsh take on immigrants and refugees, and its current push for law and order, which some also see as an attack on the country’s judiciary, aims to strengthen this political narrative.
In practice, this national consultation serves three goals: surveying popular support for the ruling Fidesz party among its more loyal voters in general, polling how much those favouring Fidesz agree with the new policies, and pushing the political debate to the right.
4. The main course will not change a bit
Mr Orbán’s said little about migration, a topic which might have been controversial at the European level given the ruling party’s strong anti-migration policies. However, it is clear that the stance of Fidesz on the issue has contributed to its support, and it has been the most popular political party in Hungary for more than a decade. The topic will enjoy greater emphasis as the year moves on, even though Fidesz has been forced to deal with other issues that have had an impact on the party’s poll numbers.
The prime minister also criticised the European Union, drawing a strong contrast between “the Brussels way” of leading a country and his own policies, arguing that the Hungarian model is a success story – regardless of how his liberal opponents portray it.
“The last 10 years were the most successful of the past century,” Mr Orbán proudly concluded.