Sándor Friderikusz’s portrait of Orbán, II

Everybody tries to figure out Viktor Orbán. How it is possible that this very talented, thoughtful, liberal man always ready for dialogue could have changed so much? Today a lot of people consider him to be anything but thoughtful, certainly not a liberal, intellectually dried up, dictatorial, and unwilling to listen to or debate with anyone. There are of course a variety of answers to the metamorphosis question. Friderikusz's explanation seems to be that the real change occurred only in 2006 when Viktor Orbán lost the election for the second time. If he had left politics then, says Friderikusz, "even if the statue wouldn't have survived at least its pedestal would have remained intact." Friderikusz thinks that the trouble really started only with the debate between the two candidates for the position of prime minister of Hungary in the spring of 2006. In his opinion Orbán's most important trait is his vanity and during that debate Ferenc Gyurcsány humiliated him, something Orbán cannot forgive or forget. According to Friderikusz the question of power is not paramount for Orbán. It is a secondary issue for him whether he is the prime minister today or not. The thing that matters is that he was humiliated in front of millions of television viewers.

Friderikusz thinks that "we are all victims of Orbán's resentment ever since April 2006." What happened during that debate? Ferenc Gyurcsány handily won the debate. He had all the facts at his fingertips, he was self-assured, well prepared yet natural. Orbán, on the other hand, sounded artificial, refused to look at his opponent and kept talking to the people, out there somewhere. Most likely his trainers suggested that ill-chosen tactic that badly misfired. After all, it is difficult to answer your opponent's utterances when you don't even look at him. (If I recall John McCain did the same thing a few months ago with similar results.) And yes, Gyurcsány was relentless and yes, at the end Orbán looked ridiculous. I considered the debate a knock-out but not everybody thought so. A friend of mine watching it in Hungary decided a few minutes after the end of the debate that it was at best a draw although he was keeping fingers crossed for Gyurcsány. Gyurcsány himself, as he later related, didn't realize how successful his performance had been (at least in the minds of the party faithful). When he went back to parliament and all his political friends were jumping for joy he didn't understand what the big fuss was about. The next day, it turned out, according to viewers Gyurcsány won the debate but not by as much as people think today.

Friderikusz saw the debate somewhat differently. According to him in that debate "Gyurcsány went beyond the acceptable limits. He kept calling him "Mr. President [his official title as head of a party], he kept repeating it when his opponent was already on the ground and yet he stepped on him again and again. He simply humiliated Orbán. In the debate Gyurcsány was right about many things, he argued about important things, but one cannot humiliate one's opponents in such a way. I'm convinced that by now even Gyurcsány understands this." So it seems that in Friderikusz's view Gyurcsány is at least partially responsible for Orbán's current vengefulness although he adds that "this is a petty attitude in general and in the case of a politician it is outright unacceptable. In my opinion such a man is totally unfit to lead others because he can offer them nothing but vengeance. Gyurcsány, on the other hand, always talks about Orbán even in his absence with the requisite politeness. He never utters anything ill about him."

Friderikusz returns after this passage about the debate to the harm Orbán is inflicting on the country. Because Orbán's hatred of Gyurcsány influences his entire political attitude he has only one aim: somehow to remove Gyurcsány from the political scene. It doesn't really matter how. At one point, I'm convinced, he was ready to use the streeets to achieve his goal. When that failed he tried methods from referendums to strikes. He is still demanding the resignation of Gyurcsány although it should be quite clear to him by now that Gyurcsány and his team will most likely remain in power until 2010.

Friderikusz misses "the rational arguments and debates in the politics of Fidesz." That kind of negative politics will have serious consequences. "They have not only divided the country but they have even robbed it of the little bearing, sobriety and everyday culture that it managed to acquire during the Kádár regime." Tolerance has disappeared from politics, the language that is being used by Fidesz politicians is anything but civilized, and the bad example is spreading. "Most likely they don't even understand what they are doing to this country. People imitate the behavior they see in Fidesz circles. Thus one sees this kind of rude behavior and language everywhere. … This is the real sin of Fidesz…. Or rather perhaps it is not right that I speak in this respect about Fidesz. I hold Orbán responsible for this state of affairs. Today's Fidesz is nothing but the institutionalization of Orbán's worst traits. The party is made up politicians molded in the image of Orbán who were chosen based on whether they were capable or not of being clones of the party's leader. I lived through the era of MSZMP [Kádár's one party rule] and I know that Fidesz dangerously resembles it. And naive people think that this is a conservative party."

I think that Friderikusz is right in many respects when it comes to Orbán's politics and his negative influence on the country, but I disagree with his description of Orbán's development from good guy to bad. People don't change that much. I also disagree (and it seems to me Zsófia Mihancsik, the interviewer, feels the same way) that Orbán's changed personality and his current politics began only in 2006. Most likely Friderikusz's old friendship with the Orbáns and his admiration for the young politician clouds his vision. Though not in such a virulent form, Orbán has been like this ever since 2002 and even before during his tenure as prime minister. Most likely he was the same already in the second half of the 1980s when László Kéri, a professor of his in law school, during a heated political debate, got up and said: You're a bolshevik! and left the meeting. Kéri noticed that this young fellow was intolerant and that democratic thinking was not his strong suit.

I also strongly disagree with Friderikusz concerning Orbán's attitude toward power. For him power only secondary? Oh, my! He might also be vain but at the same time, and perhaps primarily, he is power hungry. He liked to be prime minister and he demanded the utmost respect. Although all the cabinet members knew each other very well and everybody called everybody by their first name, Orbán at the first cabinet meeting told the ministers that when he enters they all have to get up and remain standing until he tells them to sit down. They were also told that from here on they have to call him Mr. Prime Minister and use the formal. And it was clear on whose behalf he spent billions restoring the Sándor Palace up in the Old Castle district. For himself. And when he was ready to move in, when the building was finished in all its splendor, he lost the election he was sure he was going to win. He has not been able to recover ever since. His successor, the ineffectual Péter Medgyessy, posed no real challenge but then came Gyurcsány whom he considered even in the late 80s the only really smart and talented man in KISZ (Kommunisták Ifjúsági Szövetsége), the youth organization of MSZMP. And he immediately launched a personal attack. The debate was only the final straw when it became clear that Orbán had every reason to be afraid of Ferenc Gyurcsány.