The metamorphosis of the leader of the Hungarian right (I)

A few days ago I received József Debreczeni's new book about Viktor Orbán entitled Profile (Budapest: Noran-Libro, 2009). The Hungarian title, Arcmás, although it simply means "profile" in Hungarian, is much more telling and whimsical than it seems at first glance. "Arc" means face, "más" means "different." With this very clever title Debreczeni is indicating that this "face," this man, is not the same man he wrote about seven years ago in Orbán Viktor (Budapest: Osiris, 2002).

There is another difference. In 2002 Debreczeni was careful not to publish his biography until the national elections were over. He didn't want to influence the outcome one way or the other. This time, he purposely set the date of publication so that it would precede the elections that most likely will take place in April or May 2010. This time around he decidedly and unabashedly wants to influence voters because in his opinion a major win by Viktor Orbán would mean the end of true Hungarian democracy. He argues that with a two-thirds majority Orbán will be able to change the constitution and could set up a quasi-democratic regime very similar to the one that existed between the two world wars. There were parties except it was always "the government party" that won the elections. The small opposition parties didn't have a chance. Indeed, Orbán did make allusions to a fairly permanent stay in power when he said that "we have to win only once but then big."

Debreczeni leans toward pessimism. In 1994 when Gyula Horn's MSZP received an absolute majority and by asking SZDSZ to join his party in a coalition the new government had a two-thirds majority, he was certain that the "restauration" of the Kádár regime was near. Of course, he said, it would not be a one-party system but a regime that on the surface looked democratic but in essence would be a disguised continuation of the regime as it existed before 1989. He wrote two articles with this message, both in Magyar Nemzet which in those days was a moderate slightly right of center paper. Anyone interested in these articles can find them in his collected essays entitled Restauráció (Budapest: Széphalom, 1996). The pieces were all written between October 1993 and December 1995.

As we know, no restauration occurred. Debreczeni was wrong. If today someone confronted him with his predictions concerning the MSZP-SZDSZ government, his answer most likely would be that the potential for a restauration was there but out of decency and democratic convictions the government parties didn't take advantage of their greatly weakened political opponents. On the contrary, they went out of their way to give them as much space and opportunity as possible. But now, Debreczeni would continue, the situation is different. This time the political leader who is poised to become the next prime minister has no compunctions. He already showed between 1998 and 2002 that he is quite ready to set aside the rules of democratic governance.

Debreczeni begins his story with Orbán's childhood, which he combed through in his earlier book about Orbán. There is not much new in this chapter except that Debreczeni emphasizes the rougher aspects of Orbán's personality. He was a difficult child; his poor mother was at her wit's end about how to handle him. His father's approach to his oldest son was much simpler, he beat him regularly. As a teenager Viktor turned out to be fairly uncomplicated. No great questions of life and death ever bothered him. He did his homework and off he went to play soccer. Apparently, in order to avoid his father at home. While some of his classmates were discussing art, literature or philosophy he didn't know what to do with such abstract concepts. Even later, at the time of his legal studies, Gábor Fodor who was his roommate in college said that "Viktor moved in the world of culture like a bull in the china closet."

Debreczeni spends quite a bit of time on the early years because he thinks that Orbán's personality today can be traced back to his life in Felcsút and Székesfehérvár. However, one can make an argument that one's surroundings have less to do with personality than those complicated genes that he inherits from parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. I'm sure we have all read about identical twins adopted by different families; years later their personalities were remarkably similar. Orbán inherited a lot of genetic material, most likely from his father and grandfather, that makes him a very competitive human being who wants to win at any cost. If necessary he is willing to push aside anyone in the party whom he sees as a potential detriment; the sole exceptions are his closest friends from high school and college.

Debreczeni tells a funny story he heard from one of the participants. It was in 2000 when Orbán was already at the height of his power. Members of the government were spending a weekend at the government retreat at Balatonőszöd (who hasn't heard of this place?). A friendly soccer match was organized before supper. Two groups were formed from Fidesz politicians and high government officials. The sides were evenly matched; neither seemed capable of scoring against the other. However, shortly before supper Orbán's opponents, including his good friend János Áder, then speaker of the house, took the lead. Orbán couldn't stand to be on the losing side and insisted on continuing play although it was already supper time and it was getting dark. Everybody wanted to stop but Orbán insisted. At last Orbán's team managed to kick a goal. Everybody was greatly relieved: now at last they could stop. But Orbán wanted to continue, because a draw was not good enough. Finally Áder put an end to this ridiculous situation. He simply left the field.

As Fodor said: "Orbán wasn't interested in anything outside of politics and soccer." That's why I think he sounds so false when he tries to talk about political philosophy or economic theories. For him everything is subordinated to politics and within this to strategizing about winning and holding onto power. Most likely that's why he finds it so easy to change positions and make contradictory statements about important issues.

As for the alleged transformation of Orbán or anyone else. We don't change that much. Not that radically. We may get a little wiser, we may get a little mellower, but we don't change dramatically. Most likely Viktor Orbán was always essentially the same Viktor Orbán as he is today.

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Dear Eva,
I have a problem also with something else. How Debreczeni will be able to cope with the fact that some of his old-new party mates already declared (Roszik for one example) that MDF should make a coalition with Fidesz saying that is the way MDF can save democracy in Hungary? Somogyi, the real leader of MDF said the same several times. So, hard times come for Debreczeni, I guess, who will be an MDF-candidate in 2010…

Ivan Zoltan
Dear Ms. Balogh As usual, very informative and important stuff here. Could you please comment further on how either you or Debreczeni see Fidesz turning Hungary into a less-than-democratic state? It is argued they will change the constitution– how exactly, and to what end? How exactly will other parties not really be able to challenge them? Would it be something so obviously anti-democratic that the EU might step in and threaten penalties? Relatedly, how do you anticipate Fidesz and Jobbik supporting each other in an unofficial coalition by voting the same way on key issues? In public both speak ill about the other, but they seem to have some similar goals. Finally, is all the Fidesz behind-the-scenes corruption that you report on in this and the subsequent post being reported in mainstream Hungo media? How can they have done all this stuff and still be in a position to win the next election so easily? Could it be that the Left’s corruption has been as bad or worse (after all Gyurcsany sure went down in flames)? It all reminds me of the US political scene, in which a 2-party system is consistently a choice bw the lesser of two evils,… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh

Ivan Zoltan: “It is argued they will change the constitution– how exactly, and to what end? How exactly will other parties not really be able to challenge them?”
Very good questions and I will try to answer them in the next blog.
As for Gyurcsány’s going down in flames it wasn’t because of corruption. The Hungarian media (the very small liberal-socialist media) do report the corruption cases. The right-wing papers do not. The Fidesz voters are simply listen to their favorite organs and there they hear nothing about anything negative. Or, even if they hear about them they simply don’t believe it. It’s a very peculiar situation.