The other topic I have been thinking of sharing with you is the upheaval Péter Boross, former prime minister between December 1993 and May 1994, created a few days ago. He gave an interview to Heti Válasz that appeared in the print edition on August 27. Thanks to MTI, the Hungarian news agency, soon enough the Hungarian media were full of the story. And not without reason. In the interview Péter Boross said some pretty outrageous things and, considering that he is one of the six people who are supposed to advise Viktor Orbán on the main outlines of the new constitution, it is not immaterial that as far as Boross is concerned the restoration of Hungary as a kingdom would not be out of the realm of possibilities.
Most people got stuck on Boross's off-the-cuff remark about a possible restoration, but this is not what Hungarians should worry about when it comes to the new constitution. Much more worrisome was Boross's suggestion to further strengthen the competence of the prime minister which is already quite extensive, although in this interview he wasn't explicit. However a couple of days later he gave another interview to Népszabadság in which he elaborated on the point, and the more he talked the worse it got. According to Boross, the prime minister should name the chief justice of the supreme court, all the ombudsmen, and the chief prosecutor. In certain cases the prime minister could govern by decree instead of in accordance with the laws passed by parliament. At this point some people like Géza Kilényi, former justice of the constitutional court, not so gently suggested that perhaps Péter Boross should take a long holiday to restore his health. I assume he meant that the eighty-two-year-old Boross had lost his sanity.
But Boross didn't stop here. He expressed his hope that Fidesz had "effectively smashed the left for good." Anyone who suggests destroying either the moderate left or the moderate right is no democrat. Moreover, no democrat would want to erect a statue in honor of Anna Ratkó, minister of health between 1948 and 1956, whose name is associated with the period when abortions were made illegal and women and men between certain ages who were childless had to pay a tax amounting to four percent of their wages. Thus, it seems that Boross wouldn't even mind using dictatorial methods to reverse the national and European birthrate trends. The last time such draconian laws were applied was in Romania during the rule of Ceauşescu. In Boross's place I wouldn't be too proud of the comparison.
I guess the public is stunned by these utterances because in the last two or three years of his public life Boross positioned himself as a moderate conservative. Therefore he often criticized Viktor Orbán and the radicalization of Fidesz.
Péter Boross became prime minister after József Antall's sudden death in December 1993. I remember quite well the reaction of the majority of the Hungarians when they heard that the MDF leadership had designated him as Antall's successor. Most people hated the "snowy owl," as they called Boross. Indeed there is a very strong resemblance between him and the large Arctic owl. Boross, who was born in 1928, was sixty-one years old at the time of the change of regime and was already a pensioner. Prior to his retirement he was the director of a chain of restaurants and never entertained any thoughts of entering politics. Yet within a few months he was minister without portfolio in charge of the secret service and later minister of interior in the Antall government. The reason? They were old friends and both were very interested in history. Antall was an academic historian while Boross was a history buff.
Both men came from fairly comfortable backgrounds. Antall's father was a high-level civil servant and Boross's was a forester on a large estate. Politically, I would say that Boross's family was a great deal more conservative than the Antall family. As Boross often said, his family always sided with the government parties which thanks to the electoral laws always had such a large majority that they governed without any real opposition. Boross's father was also the kind of patriot who would send his older son Péter at the age of ten to military school in 1938! Yes, in 1938! The military school he attended was the same one that Géza Ottlik (1912-1990) wrote about in his famous novel Iskola a határon (School at the Frontier). The novel is a horror story about the sufferings of the boys in that school. Boross loved it, though: he learned order there. After four years in Kőszeg, he was sent to another military school in Pécs. In November 1944, when the Soviet troops were getting close, the Szálasi regime that had taken over the reins of government on October 15 ordered the school to evacuate. The boys were taken to Germany, but in January 1945 Boross and some of his fellow cadets escaped and joined a Hungarian unit in today's Slovakia to fight the advancing Russians. Boross claimed that his father "didn't like the Germans but the Russians even less so" and therefore it is not terribly surprising that the sixteen-year-old boy, instead of trying to get home, went off fighting against the invading armies.
It is fairly difficult to figure out from Boross's stories what his father's attitude was toward the Germans, but it seems that after the war he ended up for a while in an internment camp and even spent a short stint in jail. Péter Boross entered law school in 1947, graduating in 1951. One needed a strong stomach to practice law in the 1950s, but perhaps his job with the city of Budapest dealing with finances was less politically charged.
He and Antall, already friends, were not interested in the pre-revolutionary activities that excited the intellectuals of the country because in their eyes a "communist is always a communist." They still remembered that those who were laying the intellectual foundations for the revolution were faithful supporters of the regime a few years back. But then how can Boross be such a great admirer of Prime Minister Kálmán Tisza(1875-1890), who was a fierce opponent of Ferenc Deák, the man largely responsible for the compromise between the Hungarians and the Austrian court, and who a few years later changed his mind and took over the party of Deák? Boross doesn't always use the same measure when judging people. A Kálmán Tisza can change, a former communist cannot.
During the revolution of 1956, according to his own admission, he did nothing except make speeches against Rákosi, but he lost his job anyway and for a while he earned a living by working at odd jobs. At one point he was a bartender and it was here that he began his climb to one of the top jobs in the business. By 1971 it seems that his sins were forgotten.
I happened to be in Hungary at the time of Antall's death and was rather ignorant of Hungarian politics. Therefore the references to the snowy owl didn't make much sense to me. The people I talked to didn't like the Owl at all. Actually by that time it didn't make any difference who was taking over the job of prime minister. The MDF was on its last legs. Antall called his cabinet a "kamikaze" government because he knew that the changeover from socialism to capitalism would be terribly difficult and costly. Millions lost their jobs, living standards dropped. People were in a terrible mood and it was predicted that the right-wing coalition would lose badly. Indeed, the socialists and the liberals together received two-thirds of the parliamentary seats.
Boross remained a member of parliament until 1998. One didn't hear too much about him when he was in parliament, and after he lost his seat he really disappeared from sight.
Then came the unlikely return of MDF as a separate party in the 2006 elections and because Boross led the Pest county list he became a member of parliament again. It was at this point that, instead of a snowy owl, people started calling him the "wise man of the country." His wisdom seemed to have stemmed from his frequent references to the necessity of moderate conservatism as opposed to the radicalized Fidesz. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Ibolya Dávid. He liked to bring up examples from the 1930s when the growth of the Hungarian far right drove the country into the abyss, and he warned against a repetition of such a development. He expected Fidesz to distance itself from and fight against Jobbik. At the same time Boross bemoaned the fact that the left had won the elections and blamed Viktor Orbán for the defeat of the right. Orbán in his ill-conceived goal to create only one party on the right actually deprived himself and his party of victory. If Fidesz had not attacked MDF and told people that voting for Dávid's party was the waste of a vote MDF might have received not 5% but 8% of the votes and in that case "there could have been negotiations." Meaning coalition negotiations which might have prevented the formation of a socialist-liberal government. Moreover, he continued, MDF in coalition with Fidesz could have had a moderating influence on the radicalized party of Viktor Orbán.
So it's no wonder that observers are taken aback by Péter Boross's new attitude toward Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. It seems that Boross's moderate conservatism was only skin deep. Perhaps because of his family background he actually feels quite comfortable with a governing party that has no real opposition. After all, this was case when his favorites, Kálmán Tisza, István Tisza, and István Bethlen were prime ministers. Then everything was wonderful. Perhaps Boross in his old age thinks that a new era has arrived in which Hungary will thrive just as it did after 1875. In any case, I have the feeling that Boross is a fallen hero in some eyes.