BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Cracks are starting to show in Hungary’s ruling center Fidesz party as corruption allegations, diplomatic disputes and policy inconsistencies sap popular support for Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government after nearly five years in power.
Helped by a weak political opposition, Orban remains firmly in control of the central European country and of the party he has led for most of its 27-year history and he does not face another parliamentary election until 2018.
But Orban, 51, can ill afford internal party strife as he tries to fend off criticism from Western allies over Hungary’s perceived drift towards more authoritarian rule and its pursuit of closer ties with Russia despite the Ukraine crisis.
Orban’s ability to balance Hungary’s relations with Russia and with the European Union -- which it joined in 2004 -- will be put to the test next month when he hosts, separately, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Hungary has to renew a long-term gas shipment contract with Russia, supplier of most of its energy, and also try to mend strained ties with the EU, by far Budapest’s biggest trade partner and source of the development funds it needs to modernize its 100 billion euro economy.
Fidesz also needs to win two local by-elections or lose the two-thirds parliamentary majority that allows it to amend the constitution.
Senior party officials, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said rank-and-file members were increasingly restive over what they see as a remote, autocratic and in some cases corrupt Fidesz elite.
“There are clearly visible cracks inside Fidesz,” one party member with knowledge of the conflicts told Reuters. “There is an up-and-coming new generation around Orban that is attaining more and more power.”
“They have a sense of mission and they expect total loyalty. The main figure of this generation is (Orban’s chief of staff, Janos) Lazar. He broadcasts Orban’s every wish and efficiently rams them through the (government) apparatus.”
Middle-level officials feel they were kept in the dark over unpopular policies -- such as a plan last year to tax internet data traffic -- which stirred popular outrage and protests.
An opinion poll by Ipsos this month showed support for Fidesz tumbling to 23 percent from 37 percent when it won re-election last April. Its rivals remain far behind -- the far-right Jobbik party had 14 percent and the Socialists 11 percent.
Asked about possible internal party tensions, Lazar told Reuters: “That is just our adversaries’ wishful thinking.”
He and other Fidesz leaders have acknowledged that debates exist but say they should not be conducted in public.
“I don’t think it’s okay to discuss family disputes outside the family,” Fidesz parliamentary caucus leader Antal Rogan told the web site Index.hu.
Fidesz has also been hurt by a dispute with Washington, which barred six Hungarians, including the country’s tax chief, from entering the United States over corruption allegations. [ID:nL6N0SV2FT]
Media reports have highlighted the lavish lifestyle of some Fidesz leaders, leading party vice chairman Zoltan Pokorni to urge greater discretion and responsibility.
“Since the U.S. exclusions ... responsible government members ... cannot afford to flaunt their riches as they might once have been able to do,” Pokorni told Hir TV. “Now all this is immediately seen as proof of corruption.”
Tamas Lanczi, chief analyst of the Szazadveg think-tank, which is close to Fidesz, played down the significance of the disputes within the party.
“I cannot see anyone who would want to split the parliamentary group and erode its governing ability, much less anyone who would be able to do that,” he said. “Also, the prime minister has no challenger, internally or externally.”
Editing by Gareth Jones