Who is Viktor Orbán?

I must admit that yesterday I was mentally and physically exhausted after trying to follow the day’s events and attempting to make sense of all that happened. In the course of my research I gained the strong impression that Viktor Orbán is no longer capable of fooling the world. He may still have a dwindling group of true believers, but according to the latest polls even that is no more than 18% of the adult population of the country.

Today being Saturday, all is quiet and therefore I can spend a day writing about the man whom György Konrád called “rossz ember,” an evil man. “Anecdote” called my attention to the interview that took place yesterday. Today I had time to watch it, and I was struck by the animation Konrád exhibited during the conversation. He is normally very low keyed, but this time he hardly let Olga Kálmán get a word in edgewise. I would like to remind the readers of Hungarian Spectrum that Konrád was one of the very few people who in the late 1970s and 1980s actively opposed the Kádár regime. He is also one of the signatories of the New Year’s message published here on January 2. Konrád reminded Olga Kálmán that in the late 1980s the Democratic Opposition categorically announced that “Kádár must go.” His message today is “Orbán must go.”

But who is this man who many fear can bring only misfortune to the country? Even people who have known him for a long time can’t quite decide what makes Viktor Orbán tick. I have a whole folder entitled “Viktor Orbán–Portraits,” and going through it I find that there are two entirely different assessments of Viktor Orbán’s career. The first and the larger group consists of those who express great astonishment at the change-over of Orbán from liberal to right-wing nationalist. According to these people Viktor Orbán was a wonderful young man of great talent who was a “radical anti-authoritarian” and who a few years later became a “radical Christian conservative.” Both descriptions were offered by Miklós Haraszti, another member of the Democratic Opposition, from 2002.

Orban 89-ben

 Orbán, the radical anti-authoritarian

Then there are those who don’t really see any huge change in Orbán over the years. One of them is Attila Csernok, an economist by training who has been writing popular history books lately. He wrote a piece in today’s Népszava in which he collected bits and pieces of opinions about Viktor Orbán and his party from the earliest days. He claims that if one carefully combs through books and memoirs written about the early history of the movement, later called the Association of Young Democrats (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége or Fidesz), one can discover telling signs of later developments. Some people found that “his eyes expressed a desire for power instead of compassion for those in the coffins” during the speech that made Orbán famous on June 16,1989. Indeed, even his speech wasn’t about the martyrs the nation was reburying but about his generation and their suffering during the Kádár regime.

His professor, László Kéri, discovered already in 1983 that “Viktor and his friends behave exactly like the Bolsheviks.” But even his fellow Fidesz leaders believed that Viktor Orbán’s leadership style was “somewhat Stalinist.” And who said that? Lajos Kósa, today’s deputy chairman of Fidesz and long-time mayor of Debrecen. Another member, Zsuzsa Szelényi, observed that “in Viktor’s thinking there is no room for consensus, only strength, fight, and victory.”

By 1993 the Fidesz leaders demonstrated that, after all, their socialization had taken place in the Kádár regime. During one of the conferences there was a secret voting procedure. One of László Kövér’s intimates said to the rest of the gang, “Come on, let’s go and vote and I hope you don’t mind if we see what you write on the ballot.” This is how voting usually took place in the Kádár regime. Klára Ungár, another early Fidesz politician, claims that “there was really no change in Viktor. He didn’t change from one day to the next as some people would like to believe … Instead he returned to his own true self…. Back to the roots that are getting their nourishment from smallholder values.”

I should note here that in the first half of the 1990s the smallholders were very much on the right of the political spectrum. At that time I was a member of an Internet political discussion group. One of our members said that he voted for the smallholders. Why the smallholders, I asked? Because the Smallholders Party was to the far right at the time of the first democratic elections in 1990!

Although Viktor Orbán as prime minister between 1998 and 2002 looked very much like a conservative gentleman in attire and demeanor, the general impression was that “Orbán’s government … behaved vis-à-vis the economy in a plundering way that was almost far-left in character. It re-nationalized much of the economy, and siphoned off immense resources of taxpayer money to the private accounts of ‘friendly’ companies, thus ending the possibility for the public to exert any control or supervision.” Again, the quotation is from Miklós Haraszti from 2002, right after Orbán lost the elections.

Orban, miniszterelnok

The outwardly conservative prime minister, 1998-2002

And finally there is the question of Viktor Orbán’s political abilities. The usual verdict is that he is an outstanding politician. Haraszti called him “Hungary’s most gifted post-modern politician.” However, I can recall the reaction of an ordinary caller to György Bolgár’s show that was a great deal less complimentary. The woman asked on what basis everybody considers Orbán to be an “outstanding politician.” Every time he was given the opportunity to form a government he made a mess of things. His first four years as prime minister were spent alienating practically everybody at home and abroad. His aggressive policies and the whole tone of his administration frightened the population. As a result he was voted out of office. His so-called political genius can be described as a constant striving for power and to this end he is ready to use any instrument, even the most vile. Blackmailing, character assassination, lying, cheating, you name it.

These are strong words and one could be more diplomatic just as György Konrád was in January 2010 in an interview with Le Croix, a French Catholic daily. Here he called Orbán “a hard-nosed Machiavellist who learned his trade early: strategy, rhetoric, and how one grabs power. He has the tendency to be a visionary who considers himself the source of all wisdom.” According to Konrád the leaders of Fidesz, including Orbán, inherited a kind of communist mentality that declares that the party, in this case his own Fidesz, is the repository of all power.

Orban ma

Prime Minister Orbán Viktor 2010-?

Konrád in the same interview talked about Orbán’s nationalism, adding that “even within the European Union one can remain a nationalist as long as that person doesn’t move beyond the level of verbal duels.” However, Orbán in the last year or so has been doing a little more than fighting verbal duels. He has been busily building a one-party system and undoing the democratic foundations of Hungary that were achieved unexpectedly, almost miraculously in 1989-1990. And this what the European Union mustn’t allow.


  1. Re: Joseph Simon “Orbán is just trying to shake up the country, restoring some confidence”
    So much nonsense indeed. Okay, I’ll give you that he is shaking up the country, but it is not in a positive way, and not in a way that is inspiring confidence. Disgust and fear is what we have now. Confidence? People are preparing to empty their savings accounts before the government steals the money. I don’t know where you got the idea that Orbán and company have even tried to accomplish something other than cementing their own stranglehold on the country (but please offer any concrete examples to contradict this, if you can find some). What we see here in NE Hungary is cronyism, corruption, spiteful behaviour, and incompetence. Yes, yes, MSzP was quite accomplished at the corruption part, which is why they were turfed out, but then they COULD be turfed out. Orbán/Fidesz are determined that that won’t be possible in their case. So, do you really think that the solution to Hungary’s problems is a one-party state with no checks on the power of that party/government? Do you believe in centralized institutions under the absolute control of that party/government? Then Orbán’s your man, and Fidesz is your party.
    As for your advice to Eva, I’ll suppress my urge to point out what a seggfej you are (whoops, I guess I didn’t), but I must observe that the sentiment expressed really tells me that Fidesz and Orbán are a good fit for your views.

    View Comment
  2. I suppose the above insult to Mr. Simon was a bit childish and improper (if not uncalled for). I apologize. I do suggest he start his own blog on Hungarian politics since he finds Ms. Balogh’s writings and our childish comments to be so lacking. I’m sure he will attract a wide readership who can benefit from his insight into Hungary as it is today.

    View Comment
  3. OT – but I’d welcome some explanation for this odd comment “(Don’t forget, the British public were quite shocked to find out more about the mental state of one-time UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.)”

    View Comment
  4. Vilmos: ” I do suggest [Joseph Simon] start his own blog on Hungarian politics since he finds Ms. Balogh’s writings and our childish comments to be so lacking. I’m sure he will attract a wide readership who can benefit from his insight into Hungary as it is today.”
    Many readers have suggested the same to Simon many times. Unfortunately he does not have the aptitude to do it. I also suggested to Mr Simon to share his involvement in Hungarian politics in the 1950s, but yet to see anything about it. Mr Simon has written a “memoire ‘Emlékezés 1956′, that [he] published in a monograph form” according to him, but he is not willing to share it. I suggested to him to upload the paper to http://www.mediafire.com/ as that is a great service to share documents, but he is reluctant to do it.

    View Comment
  5. Very interesting article from Will Hutton in the Observer and republished in the Guardian (Hutton’s short bio is here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2008/apr/22/will.hutton ) Little snippet:
    “There is to be no division of powers in Hungary between the executive, legislative and judiciary; no guaranteed freedom of the press, nor judicial impartiality; no freedom of worship. Abortion and same-sex marriages are outlawed. And echoing other horrific moments from Europe’s dark past, Orbán proposes to offer ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries Hungarian citizenship, rather as Hitler did for ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia.”

    View Comment
  6. Just a thought on comparisons between the late 80s and now – especially the part played by ‘the people’ in the removal of the government.
    Although, superficially, the times are similar – unpopular but all powerful governments, and the population cowed into non-resistance, or even (apparent) non-concern – the reality is quite different.
    In the late 80s the government was unpopular, but to most people only in a vague “wish it was different” sense, rather than in ‘man the barricades’ terms. For most people’s lifetime, things had always been much the same – life went on and it could have been a lot worse.
    The system was also showing many signs of age and dysfunction, so it was relatively easy for those who really wanted change to start openly working against it (for instance Orbán took no personal risk when he made his famous speech).
    The system was fragile and rickety, and ripe for collapse – it (and the people running it) had lost the will to fight to retain power. For a brief period, the power shifted to those outside the government who wanted change.
    But this is most definitely not the situation now. Although the economy may be in dire straights, the ‘system’ – Orbán/Fidesz – is far from weak and ripe for collapse. Orbán is still very much in control and still has all the power.
    Ironically, although people are much freer to protest and campaign against the government now, they can achieve very little compared to their equivalents in the late 80s. The power has not shifted at all, it remains firmly with the government – and mostly with one man: OV. The man who profited so much from the system’s weakness then is making very sure that no one gets the chance to do the same now HE is the system.
    We can speculate on what the EU/IMF/US can and can’t or will and won’t do, and we can try to guess what the powers behind Fidesz can/will do, but basically at the moment – and I think still for some time to come – it is Orbán, and Orbán alone, who determines what happens. And, as I said in one of my previous posts, even in the event of a Fidesz coup and his removal, it will still be Orbán who decides what happens next. It’s unlikely that he’ll go quietly.

    View Comment
  7. @Joseph Simon: “So much nonsense! Advice to Eva: ne foglalkozz politikával. Take up knitting instead.”
    Congratulations on this one, Joseph Simon. You cannot bring up any valid points to the argument (keep repeating the one many posters already rebutted) and add a condescending sexist slur, addressing an accomplished professor of History from Yale.

    View Comment
  8. Good link, Some1 – very interesting read.
    Focussed, as we are, on OV and his personal brand of madness, it’s easy to forget that he isn’t unique, but part of a regressive, reactionary trend all over the world.
    Since Reagan and Thatcher, the post-war, liberal consensus has been under sustained (and often successful) attack. And I fear it will be some time yet before the pendulum swings back.

    View Comment
  9. Paul, you said what I am thinking about, although perhaps it sounds too optimistic for you what I write because I think that ‘change is possible’. But this is of course in some way ‘theoretical’ because exactly what you say, the Fidesz camp is united, OV is not threatened from within. He could be if the protests in the street etc. were also more united. Instead, these are divided, and for instance because it is ‘un-patriotic’ to cooperate with Ferenc Gyurcsany. OV is an important player in this ‘game’, but he is so influential because his people do what he says, his followers buy his story, and the protesters are efficiently kept divided. Part of the division follows from even the protesters buying at least part of Orban’s story. For me the comparison with 1989 makes great sense, to learn how the stability of the system can be undermined. But again, at that time, Hungarians could believe that they ‘all want the same’, it was a foreign force that had to be defeated. This time Hungarians stand against Hungarians, this is what makes it so difficult (no Turks, Habsburgs, Soviets etc.). This is why so many ‘foreign’ enemies are invoked (EU/IMF, but you certainly know all the other ‘foreign’ influences as well). And this is why the external observers think: no, this time it is not us, this time it is about ‘modernising the image of the nation’ – from within.

    View Comment
  10. @Paul:”He hasn’t just taken power, before then he put considerable energy into creating an environment where he could take power – totally.
    And that included destroying the opposition and creating an environment where the extreme right has legitimacy, anti-Semetic views can be expressed openly, and those who might normally disagree have been sociologically pressured into becoming anti-political and pessimistic.”
    The best description I read why the situation is sooo difficult right now in Hungary. Even if OV is out of the picture, it is hard to see how all this damage can be undone. Actually, the damage he has done in the Parliament is probably the easier one to tackle… but the damage done to people’s mind is the trickier one to “undo”.
    This is not saying that the toxic ideas propagated by OV and Fidesz did not fall into fertile ground.. a large part of the population was and is susceptible to these, that is why these ideas worked for OV to grab power. But people are happy to latch on easy explanations and solutions, that is why politicians and leaders’ do have responsibility in what ideas they are advocating. We seriously need an alternative political program and narrative to emerge in Hungary that is credible for most of the population and offers some kind of positive and attainable goals for the future.
    It is very unfortunate and definitely not a coincidence, that liberal democracies are facing tough times in the western world. The model of the western-European welfare state is shaking, the very model that Hungary was aspiring to follow in the 1990s. I do hope that the EU can come out strong from its current crisis, because it is the only way it can offer a viable model for a post-Orban Hungary.

    View Comment
  11. @Joseph I’m trying to convince myself here that you are not a “seggfej” as Vilmos very eloquently put it … so help me out please and try to explain how does this “restoring some confidence” by Orban work? First of all why some confidence? You don’t believe in yourself enough to have your full confidence back?
    The way I see it the whole world is laughing at us. By the way your contributions to this blog is not helping either. So how would this “confidence” thing work, say in case of Hungarian health care? Orban spent the same amount of money on his favorite new football academy last year as on the healthcare professionals. How does this work? If we win the world cup we get the nurses back?

    View Comment
  12. From Anecdote.
    The “odd” comment about Gordon Brown.
    Gordon Brown and Tony Blair entered the UK Parliament at the same time. Together (and with Peter Mandelson and Brian Gould) they set about “modernizing” the Labour Party into “New Labour”. At this time Gordon Brown was quite a star performer. In 1994 it was not exactly clear whether Brown or Blair would become PM. Without going into details Blair prevailed BUT on the agreement with Brown that Brown would have enormous control over domestic policy and finance. In 1997 Brown became Minister of Finance (but always with the codicil that Blair would step down later and let Brown be PM). As Minister of Finance, Brown gained the nickname “The Iron Chancellor”. In short, Brown was generally regarded as having proved, by his political career, that he was a “heavyweight”.
    However, when Brown actually became PM things soon started to go badly for him in all sorts of ways. Furthermore, the people around him (fellow Labour politicians and civil servants)were not only shocked by his apparent indecisiveness BUT by the flaws in his personal character. When these became public many people were astounded to think that the man at the top was so unfit for the job (especially given his earlier supposed successes)…it wasn’t simply a question of bad policies…it was a question of the man’s fitness for office.
    My point was to draw similarities with many themes in the article and the comments: i.e.it is not just a question of WHAT Mr. Orbán does but whether he should be allowed near the commanding heights of the state at all.
    Paul! When you are resting from writing your much welcome and illuminating comments, please look on Youtube: “Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair” (about 47 minutes…some blips but quality passable)…this is a hilarious piece of black satire; the portrayal of Brown will make my point even clearer.

    View Comment
  13. ok, this article helped me to understand more about the guy.
    You wrote “during the speech that made Orbán famous on June 16,1989. ” ..but is that all?
    what has he achieved (with results) that so many admire him, to quote Paul “where he is seen (still) by millions of voters as a Messiah figure” ?
    All I see is a bunch of mafias treating the country as if she is their playground…
    during the speech that made Orbán famous on June 16,1989.

    View Comment
  14. LoL, on “Poltics.hu” I was just called “Not Hungary lover, but ‘Red Eva’ lover”…. it didn’t dawn on me what he was referring to there…..
    I hate to say it, but Eva, you are far too liberal for me…. I am conservative to the point of being practically libertarian.
    But, that poster’s charcterization of me just points to how misinformed and primitive the average voter is, in Hungary…
    I guess it is unfathonable to that Hungarian person, that you and I could share a love of democracy, and probably disagree on just about everything else.
    Makes me question if the state of affairs isn’t borderline hopeless.
    Also, it reconfirms my belief that the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe/ Hungarian, closed up shop way too early.
    Some posters on this thread hit the nail on the head when they point to the “Eastern” and rural areas of the country, and say that nothing lasting can really happen until they stand up to Orban too.
    I believe VoA could be instrumental there, as the program has credibility amongst many of Orban’s own followers.

    View Comment
  15. Straight from Facebook:
    ‎- Anya kérek enni, mert nagyon éhes vagyok!
    – Nincs étel.
    – Mi az, hogy nincs étel? Akkor főzzük meg a papagájt!
    – Nem lehet, nincs víz!
    – Akkor süssük meg!
    – Nem lehet, nincs gáz!
    A papagáj megszólal: – Éljen Orbán!
    -Mother I’d like to eat because I’m starving!
    -There is no food.
    -What do you mean there is no food? Then let’s cook our parrot!
    -There is no water!
    -You can FRY it!
    -No, I can’t, there is no gas!
    Then Parrot goes: Long Live Orban!

    View Comment
  16. “Actually, the damage he has done in the Parliament is probably the easier one to tackle… but the damage done to people’s mind is the trickier one to “undo”.”
    Spot on, An. I’m afraid it will be like these ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, and other similar events – the revolution is the ‘easy’ bit because there is a known, straightforward, achievable aim that unites all.
    After that it’s anyone’s guess. What do ‘we’ want? How do we get there? How do we deal with those who disagree with us? How do we get the economy functioning while all this is going on?
    Although to some extent the Hungarian situation is easier – let Fidesz ‘cope’ (and get the blame) until 2014. Then present a united democratic opposition whose one programme will be to revoke all Fidesz laws (including the constitution), and install a caretaker government whilst a new constitution is agreed (followed by a second election).
    But that is a hell of a lot easier to write than to do.
    For instance, there’s the civil and political (if not actually violent) resistance that will be put up by the Orbán supporters. Then there is the difficulty of dealing with the Jobbik evil, let out of Pandora’s box by Orbán.
    And that’s only the opposition. Within ‘our’ own ranks we have to ‘deal’ with Gyurcsány, vilified by Orbán and unquestioningly hated by a large minority, and Schiffer, son of Orbán.
    Although, personally, I suspect none of this will happen, and Hungary will just go back to its old ways of inefficiently staggering from one crisis to another.

    View Comment
  17. anecdote – are you a Brit?
    I am, and I don’t remember Brown being known as ‘The Iron Chancellor’. And, if he was, it was because he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, not “Minister of Finance” (historically and politically, the first is far more than the second).
    I am no supporter of Brown, principally because he carried on the Tory’s insane market/City based economic policies (which directly led us to 2008) when he didn’t have to. But he did do a lot of good and deserves much praise (which will come in time) for the way he managed the 2008 banking crisis.
    Unfortunately, he proved a poor Prime Minister due to his lack of political awareness and naivety, and was easy fodder for the right-wing press.
    It’s well known that he had a short temper and did not suffer fools (although he’s hardly alone in politics with those two failings). And, of course, he was blind in one eye. And I wouldn’t be surprised, after all he’d been through, if he was on medication towards the end. But the link supplied by Gretchen is hardly a reliable or balanced source.
    In a different time, he might have been one of our greatest Prime Ministers. Unfortunately he not only followed Blair (dragged out kicking and screaming), and copped the banking crisis, but, by the time he became PM, the tide had turned, the public were fed up with ‘New’ Labour and the Tories had finally emerged from their political wilderness.
    One last thought – as bad as Blair was (and he was), the thought of him in power on his own, without Brown to keep his feet on the ground and give his government some semblance of authority and intelligence, makes me feel quite faint.
    (Apologies to all for being so wildly OT.)

    View Comment
  18. The situation is getting so “interesting” that my brother in law for the first time ever started to talk about the current political/economic situation. My wife also had a phone call from my sisiter in law who lives outside Hungary where she commented on what was going on “back home”.
    Doesn’t sound very interesting I know… except that these are people who NEVER… I mean NEVER would talk about these things. Countless times I tried to bring up the subject over the last years and nothing… total ambivalence… the only conversation aside from family issues were secondary gossip.
    But even they are now wondering what the hell is going on and asking for context and background about why we are in the pickle we are in.
    For me this is a good sign. One side of me even hopes that the situation gets worse just so that people wake up and start to ask questions. I fear that if an agreement is reached with the IMF (which I severely doubt by the way) then not enough people will have been woken up to realise that something fundamental needs to change in the way that Hungarians approach the idea of democracy and government.

    View Comment
  19. Hoping: ” I fear that if an agreement is reached with the IMF (which I severely doubt by the way) then not enough people will have been woken up to realise that something fundamental needs to change in the way that Hungarians approach the idea of democracy and government.” THese were my exact worries in previous posts. The conditions that are attached to the IMF money is strictly to with money.
    An was mentioning that EU approval is mandatory, so my only hope is that the EU will put a stop on the money until certain democratic conditions will meet. If the money will come with no other conditions, I can pre-script Orban’s speech right now. He will tell the whole word about how Fidesz overcome the difficulties MSZP left behind, and how Europe recognized after reviewing the new constitutions that everything is well and dandy in Hungary. Everyone but Fidesz was wrong, especially Ms Clinton, and now the whole world will beg Fidesz for the recipe on democracy and media freedom, as well as on how to deal with similar crises. THey will move on to completely destroy the opposition, as there will be nothing left in their way. It will be a sad day for Hungary.

    View Comment
  20. My hope is that OV will exit soon (how is another topic altogether) and that the a coalition government will step in.
    For me a coalition government would be perhaps an interesting way for public interaction in democracy to be addressed. Any coalition at this stage would be raw, novice, it would be messy, with arguements and discussion and give and take. It would be necessary for all parties to concede ground in order to move forward. and from that point of view it would be interesting as a new way of thinking about governing and decision making would be necessary.
    No longer would there be one central daddy figure to tell us what should be done… it would be messy “democracy” (of a kind at least) that may (!) lead to a new kind of interaction and understanding of what the public’s interaction with government could be.
    At least there would be discussion and give and take, which would be quite a novel thing for Hungary I think.

    View Comment
  21. I Love Hungary: “I hate to say it, but Eva, you are far too liberal for me…. I am conservative to the point of being practically libertarian.”
    Red, I’m certainly not. I am liberal when it comes to social issues but quite conservative when it comes to economics and finances.

    View Comment
  22. Hoping: “My hope is that OV will exit soon (how is another topic altogether) and that the a coalition government will step in.”
    Can you see Fidesz politicians forming a coalition government with the opposition parties? And which ones? Jobbik too?

    View Comment
  23. Viktor Orban is guy from black hole in Central Europe.
    P.S. It is comedy or tragedy? I´m affraid than this type of politics is tragedy for polite people.
    After the rocky separation from the Czechs, Slovakia at first languished under the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Meciar. Slovakia, a country of 5.5 million people — about half the population of the Czech Republic — has come a long way since the 1990s. In that period, Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. secretary of state, called it a “black hole” in the middle of Europe after its domineering prime minister, Mr. Meciar, turned his back on the European Union and NATO.

    View Comment

Comments are closed.