There have been TV debates in Hungary ever since 1998 when Viktor Orbán and Fidesz insisted on one. The Young Democrats imitated the American presidential debates. In general, Fidesz politicians learned a lot from the Americans when it came to campaign strategy and practice. In 1998 one could bet on the young vigorous Viktor Orbán winning the debate over Gyula Horn, an old MSZMP politician. Indeed, the polls conducted right after the event showed that Horn had lost and Orbán had won. Nonetheless MSZP still came out on top in the first round of the elections. In the end Orbán won only with the help of those Smallholders with whom Fidesz politicians said they would never form a coalition government. Of course, they did.
Orbán also won his debate with Péter Medgyessy. Polls taken after the debate indicated that 42% of the audience thought that Orbán was the winner and only 19% was convinced by Medgyessy. Yet Fidesz lost the elections. Obviously not because of the debate.
Those earlier encounters were real debates. The two candidate sat down face to face and with little prodding from the moderator actually had a conversation about issues. In 2004 Fidesz strategists, perhaps because they realized that Ferenc Gyurcsány was a more formidable opponent than either Gyula Horn or Péter Medgyessy, insisted on a much more American-style show that can hardly be called a debate. A very tight organizational structure was introduced and only a few minutes were allotted to each candidate to say a few words about the chosen topics. Let's face it, these debates are quite boring. George H. W. Bush even checked his watch during the debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
So when, in 2004, the American format was transplanted to Hungary it promised about the same level of excitement as its American counterpart. Each man was allowed to deliver some introductory remarks lasting two minutes and subsequently questions were directed to them which they could answer in three minutes followed by a one-minute rebuttal. Unexpectedly, it became a very exciting event, and not because of Viktor Orbán.
I watched the 2004 debate live and immediately afterwards decided that Gyurcsány had won that political duel hands down. It was, to shift metaphors, a knockout, I said to the group of people who watched the debate all over the world with me. I was not alone. Szonda Ipsos posed several questions concerning the debate to the listeners and the overall assessment was that 54% of the people considered Gyurcsány the winner and only 23% chose Orbán. It turned out that 26% of the Fidesz voters considered the hated Gyurcsány better than their own man.
Not long ago I read an interesting article about the linguistic aspects of this debate by Anna Szilágyi, a linguist whose analyses of the language of politics I find fascinating. Actually I wrote about one of her articles in three parts in May 2008 under the title "The Language of Fear: Fidesz communication." In the piece about the debate between Gyurcsány and Orbán she goes step by step and analyzes the two men's linguistic strategies and comes to the conclusion that Orbán's linguistic arsenal was inadequate.
Her first observation was that Orbán's spin doctors instructed him to practically ignore Gyurcsány's presence. Instead he was supposed to talk to the audience. And he did. He never looked at his opponent, never mentioned his name but steadfastly looked into the camera and talked to "the people." In fact, he even addressed them: "Tisztelt nézők!" (Dear audience!) Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate that "he is above politics." That he doesn't sink to the level of verbal dueling. Gyurcsány, on the other hand, tried everything to free himself from the shackles of the format forced upon him. "He acted as if it were a real debate." In order to emphasize that it was a debate he kept addressing Orbán by name or by title.
Orbán made several other linguistic mistakes as well. Szilágyi especially found "the lack of a definite subject" counterproductive. Sentences like "they closed many kindergartens" or "although they promised that the price of medicine would decrease…" instead of "you" or "the government" weakened the weight of his message. Szilágyi also complained about the frequent use of impersonal subjects: "Everybody would like it if…." or "The young people say…." Szilágyi adds that this rhetorical instrument works very well in oratory when someone speaks to his own audience. Or perhaps Orbán thought that he was not really taking part in a debate but delivering an address to the nation. In any case, it was a very wrong strategy.
While Orbán was vague, Gyurcsány tried to be specific: "We did this and this in…" and he mentioned cities, villages, or factories. Such a presentation suggested a command of facts and figures. Moreover, he always called attention to Orbán's inability to cite figures. He even made fun of him: "You seem to be afraid of numbers," or "if you please, come up with some figures, the talk is not enough." At times he voiced his expectation of a specific answer. For example: "When were more apartments built? During your tenure or during ours? I will help you. In your time 25,000 while in ours 40,000 in one year." Almost as if a teacher were talking to a student.
Eventually the whole debate became so lopsided that Gyurcsány's superiority became overwhelming. As time went by Orbán himself became aware of his total defeat. He started to lose his composure, his voice cracked, his throat became dry and he had to drink water often. He was becoming more nervous and losing his self-confidence. And with all this his intonation became outright monotonous. Gyurcsány became more and more self-confident and "used the complete scale of intonation known in the Hungarian language."
Yes, this is how I remember the debate. It was a huge success for MSZP although later Gyurcsány told József Debreczeni that after leaving the television station and going back to his office he didn't quite understand the great ovation that awaited him there. By contrast, the debacle "burned into Orbán's soul," as József Debreczeni put it in Arcmás (p. 289). This defeat "determined the political history of the country for a long time to come."
When after September 2006 Viktor Orbán decided that the parliamentary Fidesz delegation would walk out every time Gyurcsány spoke in the House, I had the sneaking suspicion that this device was used in order to avoid another possible debate between Ferenc Gyurcsány and Viktor Orbán. Because surely, Orbán would never again have a debate with that man. A refusal without some explanation would look like running away, being afraid, but this way Fidesz politicians could say that under no circumstances would they exchange one single word with a liar.
As it turned out there is no more Gyurcsány to reckon with, but I'm still not sure that Orbán will have a prime ministerial debate next April. It is simply beneath him to talk to people like Attila Mesterházy, and surely he wouldn't want to have a conversation about economics with Lajos Bokor. We'll see what he will come up with.