I will concentrate here on the crucial year 2002 when Viktor Orbán to his greatest surprise lost the elections. It was an inflection point; the antagonistic and basically undemocratic behavior that now characterizes Fidesz began then.
Orbán simply couldn't understand what had happened. At the end of 2001 Fidesz together with MDF looked to be the sure winner. Fidesz-MDF was leading by about 10% over MSZP, and SZDSZ's chances of getting into parliament were slim. But then something happened in January. MSZP gained ground. By January-February MSZP was leading by 5-10%. What caused this shift? For months Orbán had been negotiating with Romania and Slovakia concerning a Hungarian ID card to be given to "Hungarians" living in those two countries. The Hungarian ID would have permitted its holder to work in Hungary for three months at a stretch. During this time he would have received free health insurance benefits. Romania refused to consider the Hungarian proposal on the basis that it would create an inequality among Romanian citizens. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase was not moved by Orbán's rhetoric and insisted that if the Hungarian side insists on giving ID cards to some Romanian citizens it will have to give them to all. Orbán agreed.
Of course, MSZP took advantage of a God-sent opportunity and apparently at Ferenc Gyurcsány's urging, who at that point was working for Péter Medgyessy as an advisor, started a campaign against the Orbán-Nastase agreement. They called the population's attention to the possible ill effects of giving free passage to all Romanians. All twenty-three million of them. One mustn't forget that at that time the differences in wages and living standards betwen Romania and Hungary were greater than they are today. This campaign tactic had its detractors. József Debreczeni labeled it groundless scare tactics. Even László Kovács, at the time the chairman of MSZP, wasn't sure whether such a campaign ploy was a good idea. Well, in my opinion such hesitation only showed MSZP's unfamiliarity with the wiles of modern campaigning. By allowing every Romanian citizen to carry a Hungarian ID the potential for a mass migration was real. Not all twenty-three million would move to Hungary for work and health care provisions, of course, but theoretically it was possible.
It is hard to fathom why Orbán decided to pursue negotiations with Romania and later with Slovakia concerning the Hungarian ID card. He didn't need more votes from the nationalistic followers of Fidesz. He was leading nicely, and the Hungarian ID had nothing to do with voting rights. Perhaps he didn't want to return from his meeting with Nastase empty handed, having to admit that his attempt at "the unification of the nation" had ended in failure. Perhaps given the very promising opinion polls he felt that he could do anything. Debreczeni rightly points out that the concentration of power within Fidesz backfired. Orbán talked only to like-minded colleagues and most likely never asked the opinion of others outside of his charmed circle.
After this mistake came another. Orbán playing the important statesman announced in January that until March 20 he would simply not get involved in the campaign. The first round of the elections took place on April 7 and and second on April 20! So he cut it short. He began instead a "foreign policy offensive." He met his British, Finnish, Swedish, Irish, Belgian, and Dutch counterparts allegedly to show how assiduously he was working to further Hungary's chances to join the European Union. Campaigning? He was way above such lowly pursuits.
Then came the American trip. Tufts University granted Orbán an honorary degree. One of the leaders of the Hungarian-American Coalition was a graduate of Tufts, perhaps even a member of its board. This American-Hungarian was the one who convinced the university to give an honorary degree to Orbán. Honorary degrees are normally awarded at graduation, but Orbán managed to persuade the university authorities to give him the award on February 11 in a private ceremony because, after all, he was a very, very busy man! The reason for the unusual date was again an attempt to bolster his chances at the polls, especially because his American-Hungarian friends (from the same Coalition) were busily working on a brief meeting with President George W. Bush. But no go. The American president refused to receive Orbán. The official explanation was the election that was to take place in three months. But the real reason was apparently something else: (1) Orbán's unilateral decision to purchase Gripen fighters instead of the American Lockheed Martin F-16 planes which until the last minute were the clear winner and (2) Orbán's silence when István Csurka, head of MIÉP, pretty well said in parliament after 9/11 that the United States got what it deserved.
So, no meeting in the White House and on top of everything else it became known that the Hungarian government paid 32 million forints for a private jet to transport Orbán and entourage for a one-day, essentially private trip. Why couldn't he simply go on a scheduled flight? To show how important he was. He had to be back the following day for a cabinet meeting!
And then there were László Kövér's infamous lines about those who can go down to the cellar and hang themselves. The speech was about the Orbán government's plans to host the Olympics in Budapest in 2012. Their opponents, I think rightly, said that such a plan was no more than a pipe dream. Budapest couldn't possibly be ready for the Olympic games. Bridges, roads, metro, swimming pools, soccer fields: everything under the sun was lacking. Kövér was talking about those "pessimists" who didn't believe that Hungary could hold the games. They should go down to the cellar and hang themselves because after all it is not worth living without optimism. Of course, by the time it was "translated" to an ever widening audience, the background text got lost. Only the cellar and the rope remained.
After the elections Viktor Orbán was devastated. He simply couldn't understand what had happened. He didn't want to acknowledge any personal mistakes. He tried to find an explanation for the defeat. His first reaction was that there had to be electoral fraud. He never openly said this, but there were enough indirect allusions to that effect.
Some people, including Debreczeni, thought and still think that Orbán's four years in office were characterized by naked, harsh, ruthless governing that frightened a lot of people who said "we don't want to have another four years like the last four." Therefore Debreczeni asked Orbán after the elections whether he didn't think that his policies were too confrontational. Orbán answered: "No, I think exactly the opposite. If I could start those four years anew … I would conduct the work of the government with more severity."
Can you imagine what his mood is after eight years in "exile"?