Kester Eddy in Budapest -
Twenty-six years ago to the month, the world watched as Hungary – still a member of the Warsaw Pact military alliance – paid homage to its heroes of the 1956 uprising. Executed for opposing hardline communist rule from Moscow, and buried in unmarked graves, the leaders' remains of that short, bloody freedom fight were re-interned on June 16, 1989 in a massive, moving, public ceremony in Budapest.
But for many, the abiding memory of that day is of a bearded law student who stood up to demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from his country. Viktor Orban, a firebrand activist with Fidesz, a liberal, anti-communist student group, had seized the moment: many a Magyar heart beat proud.
But not that of Laszlo Rajk, at the time a veteran dissident and chief organiser of the reburial. “This was a day to honour Imre Nagy, the executed prime minister, and other victims of Soviet repression after 1956. We had all agreed not to bring modern politics into it,” he tells bne IntelliNews. “Orban went back on this promise and misused the reburial to launch himself onto the political stage.”
A quarter of a century on, the formerly anti-clerical, anti-establishment Orban is a clean-shaven, church-friendly, self-declared conservative, now serving his ninth year as prime minister of Hungary – having won elections in 1998, 2010 and 2014, the last two by landslides.
Yet Orban is still thrusting, controversial and making headlines well beyond Hungary's borders. Hailed by supporters for stimulating the economy and reviving the Magyar nation, both at home and among ethnic Hungarians in lands lost after World War I, critics, including former political allies, accuse him of destroying the rule of law, and creating crony capitalism with funding from EU taxpayers.
Just who is this Orban, a man who spent his earliest years in Felcsut, a village of 1,700 souls southwest of Budapest that now boasts a state-of-the-art football stadium capable of seating twice the local population, courtesy of the prime minister's special sports' policies?
Man for all seasons
Even his critics admit that Orban, 52 at the end of May, has charisma and persuasive charm. Such qualities Orban no doubt used to the full on June 4, when he met Manfred Weber, chairman of the European People’s Party (EPP), the conservative grouping of MEPs who were in Budapest for a caucus meeting.
Fidesz is a valued member of the EPP, but Weber had earlier criticised Orban for talk of re-introducing the death penalty for murder. Yet just one breakfast together, and any misgivings were quickly put to rest. Orban assured Weber that Hungary would not introduce any legislation contrary to the founding principles of the EU: the Bavarian MEP was so impressed he left the table to say that Europe could “learn a lot” from Hungary's economic successes.
As if to seal the compact, Orban declared after the meeting: “There is no Europe, no European politics and no European Union without the European People’s Party,” stressing that it is in Hungary's interests to cooperate with the EPP as the “strongest political organisation and community” on the continent.
Could this be the same Orban who, in the past, has railed against the EU, equating Brussels with domination from Moscow in the communist era? Sadly, it is, says Zsuzsanna Szelenyi, originally elected in 1990 as a Fidesz MP in Hungary's first free parliament after the collapse of communism – and that is precisely the problem. “He is a pure populist. He says what he believes at that very moment serves him. He doesn't have any beliefs for any length of time,” she says.
As an example, Szelenyi, now one of the centrist Together Party's two lawmakers in the Hungarian legislature, points to the way that Orban commandeered the liberal Fidesz and dragged it to the right in 1994. It was, she says, a betrayal of the party's founding principles. “We saw that historically, bi-polar politics in Hungary has been poisonous, destructive… We knew this in 1988, and Fidesz decided from the first day not to participate in it,” she says. But Orban, whom she now describes as a “Bolshevist leader”, wanted power, and “ate up” the party.
Far from settling into a predictable, consolidated political entity, in Szelenyi's eyes Fidesz is in a constant state of flux, both in terms of internal and external policies.
One aspect of this is the continual emergence of controversial issues, initiated by the government or its allies, as a smokescreen to divert attention from potentially more damaging scandals. Of late, examples include talk of reintroducing the death penalty and fanning fears of mass immigration by what the government terms “scrounging migrants”. “No question, these are political campaigns to hide other stories, and it works. Nobody speaks about Quaestor [an investment scandal] anymore. I'm truly upset by this, because I deal with Quaestor in parliament, but no journalist is interested in this anymore,” she says.
(Some) people’s hero
For his supporters, however, Orban is a true hero, steadfastly upholding traditional Hungarian, Christian values. At a mass in Budapest to commemorate his birthday on May 31, one celebrant told broadcaster ATV: “I'm glad to give thanks that so many people envy him [Orban]… His whole appearance, his every utterance is as from a true statesman. He [always] represents the interests of the nation.”
On the economy, critics say the much-vaunted economic growth of some 3.5% in 2014 was largely the result of EU funding, along with new auto-industry investments that were decided before the Fidesz election victory in 2010. And even supporters accept that Orban's “unorthodox” economic policies are, ipso facto, typically not in line with classical conservative thinking: Orban has re-nationalised several banks, utilities and at least one manufacturing company since 2010 – not to mention the confiscation of mandatory private pension fund savings.
Peter Molnar, a founder of Fidesz and a Fidesz MP in the 1990-94 government, is now a critic of the Orban-led government. From the time when the original Fidesz was transformed to the party of today that he no longer identifies as Fidesz, Molnar says Orban and others used “all sorts of legal tricks” to enact policies which often had only tendentious links to a genuine democratic process. “It would all be legal, but only formally, from a very narrow, legal positivist way.”
Molnar fundamentally objects to describing the Orban administration as “conservative”. “Already at the time of the first Orban government [1998-2002] they changed the rules of parliament. Instead of having a question time for the opposition every week, they made it only every third week,” he says, explaining the pretext used was that MPs “needed to spend more time among the people”.
This is just one example of how the government “cut back the power and significance of the democratically elected Hungarian parliament, a parliament which in history many freedom fighters died for,” he argues.
For Molnar, now a scholar of free speech and activist, a government that reduces the power of parliament “is anything but conservative”. “I really want to emphasise this,” he says, “I think it really muddies waters if they can claim, and we provide them with, the 'conservative' title.”
But Orban, while seeing Fidesz's ratings tumble in the polls since the elections of 2014, still heads the most popular party, with around 37% support of decided voters. It would appear that Molnar, Weber and many others will have to peer through muddy waters for some time to come.
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