The two Hungarian “leaders”: Gyurcsány and Orbán

I received a newly published volume (Game of Chance; Hazárdjáték) by József Debreczeni whom I consider one of the best political commentators in Hungary. The book contains all his published essays between May 2002 and November 2007. Since I spend a great deal of time reading Hungarian dailies and periodicals I read most of these articles when they appeared, but it is interesting to read them again a few years later. Especially in sequence and in one volume.

Debreczeni began his public career as a politician. As a young high school teacher in Kecskemét he bravely took advantage of a new law (1985) which allowed him to stand for parliament as an independent against the official candidate of the party. Not too many districts had more than one candidate, and very few opposition candidates managed to win. Debreczeni was one of them. When parties began to form again in 1988-89, he joined the MDF and was elected to the House from the second district of Bács-Kiskun County. In 1993, he was expelled from the party because he called István Csurka, one of the vice-chairmen of the MDF (nowadays the head of the antisemitic MIÉP), a Nazi. It is true that Csurka was removed from the party, but in order to keep "balance" Debreczeni also had to go. For the rest of the parliamentary session he served as an independent. After 1994 he became a full-time freelance writer. He wrote three biographies of three prime ministers (Antall, Orbán, and Gyurcsány), three collections of essays (1993, 1996 and 2000), and regularly writes in various papers on the op-ed pages.

He calls himself a "conservative liberal," and he is a passionate believer in democratic principles and the parliamentary system. He reserves his harshest words for modern populism which he considers an ideological relative of early nazism and fascism. Populism, he argues, shares the following characteristics with the ideology of nazism and fascism: nationalism, hatred of those who do not share their beliefs, the lessening of the importance of parliament and directly appealing to the "people," manipulation through modern tools of propaganda (earlier radio, now television), cult of the leader, vicious attacks on the forces currently in charge of the country, antiliberalism, constant references to the community as opposed to individual rights, anticapitalism, social demagoguery, dislike of anything foreign, and open or somewhat disguised antisemitism. Debreczeni finds all these characteristics in Viktor Orbán and his party. Therefore, the Hungarian right considers him a traitor.

Actually, Debreczeni’s opinion of Orbán is almost identical to that of Ibolya Dávid or Péter Boross, the luminaries of today’s MDF, a moderate conservative party. They also have devastating opinions of the radicalized Orbán whom they consider responsible (not without reason) for the current political situation in Hungary. Péter Boross, a great buff of Hungarian history, keeps repeating that Orbán and his party bear a striking resemblance to the extreme right between the two world wars, whom he deems responsible for Hungary’s misfortunes.

Here I would like to concentrate a bit on one of Debreczeni’s articles in the volume which appeared in Népszava on November 29, 2006. The title is: "Two leaders–two different standards?" First, the word he uses for "leader" is "vezér," which is stronger than the English "leader," especially if it is used by itself as opposed to as a compound word like "pártvezér," where indeed the translation would be simply "party leader." "Vezér" alone has a somewhat sinister meaning which would be closer to "Führer," a leader exercising tyrannical authority, as Webster’s defines it. What Debreczeni complains about in this article is that some commentators find no difference between Gyurcsány and Orbán: six of one, half a dozen of the other. And that sends Debreczeni up the wall because what he describes as modern populism he finds only in Orbán. None of these populist traits can be found in Gyurcsány. Gyurcsány doesn’t have ambitions to be a "Führer," he didn’t create such a centralized party as Orbán did where all power is in his hands, he doesn’t engage in politics on the streets instead of parliament, he doesn’t ignite hatred against his opponents, and on numerous occasions he has offered the opportunity for political dialogue. That’s why Debreczeni prefers Gyurcsány. According to him Gyurcsány is a democrat while Orbán is not. In Hungary today the choice is between these two politicians. I, along with Debreczeni, Ibolya Dávid, Péter Boross and many others, choose democracy.

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***First, the word he uses for “leader” is “vezér,” which is stronger than the English “leader,” especially if it is used by itself as opposed to as a compound word like “pártvezér,” where indeed the translation would be simply “party leader.” “Vezér” alone has a somewhat sinister meaning which would be closer to “Führer,” a leader exercising tyrannical authority, as Webster’s defines it.***
First off, “vezér” while from the same root as vezetni (to lead), is probably better translated as ‘chief’ as opposed to ‘leader’. Second, nice try with the Hitler association, as you know well, the word “vezér” has no ‘sinister’ connotation at all. Unless you think Álmos, Előd, Ond, Kond, Tas, Huba, and Töhötöm were somehow evil.
Your anti-Orbán hysteria is laughable.
-Varangy vezér


I watched Hannibál tanár úr (1956) again last night and the modern day parallels to the Horthy period are as strong as ever.
In the final scene, in the amphitheatre, the nationalist uses all the flowery, overblown pomposity we hear from Orbán. If only Orbán spoke directly to his audience and honestly and directly said what he really thinks then I could forgive him his ignorance. As it is, he is just a coward that uses innuendo and poetics in place of policy and ideas. His populist audience love him for it though.
At last year’s book week it was appalling to see many great and promising Hungarian writers with only a few people queueing to have their books signed. Meanwhile the queue for Orbán to sign his book stretched to the horizon. These are not literate people.
What is worse is remembering Orbán and Fidesz when they had energy and irony. The latter is now a distant memory. Is this really the party that used “Érik a narancs” as their campaign slogan.