Viktor Orban stormed into political notoriety on June 16,
1989. At a ceremony to mark the reburial of Hungarians executed
in the 1956 uprising, he publicly called for the withdrawal of
Soviet forces from Hungary.
While this had been discussed in government and among the
many newly formed political groups of the time, it was the
first time anyone had been so outspoken in public; millions of
Hungarians were inspired by the daring student activist.
What is largely forgotten, however, is that Orban had
earlier agreed with other speakers not to make such remarks.
This was a day to honour Imre Nagy, the executed prime
minister, and other victims of the Soviet repression after
1956. We had all agreed not to bring modern politics into
it, says Laszlo Rajk, then a leading dissident and chief
organizer of the reburial. Orban went back on this
promise and misused the reburial to launch himself onto the
political stage. In other words, Orban simply stole the
It would not be the last time Orban played the opportunist
for swift political advantage.
The bearded young firebrand, trained in law, was a leading
member of The Federation of Young Democrats Fidesz
then an innovative, liberal party frustrating the
authorities with its ability to quote the law back at the
But after poor results in the elections of 1990, and
especially 1994, Orban saw the conservative right lacked a
coherent political force. Skilfully exploiting a hurt national
pride and public frustration with corruption, Orban swung
Fidesz to the right to become the leading government party in a
conservative coalition from 1998 to 2002.
Yet despite inheriting and maintaining a growing economy,
Orban lost the 2002 elections. His critics said this was mainly
due to his divisive politics. Losing again in 2006, his
position as Fidesz leader briefly came under question
though no party member, in practice, was up to the challenge of
taking over from him.
In any case, he need not have worried: the Socialist-Liberal
coalition proved more than capable of shooting itself in the
foot, and the Hungarian public, weary of the political
bickering, has largely turned to this now-veteran politician
His politics are now classical conservative with an
emphasis on family, church and nation while his
economics are hazier. Orban speaks of over-privatization of the
Hungarian economy and the need for strong Hungarian companies.
He also angered foreign-owned utilities in his first
premiership, overturning agreements on the politically
sensitive issue of gas and electricity prices.
And in 2002 his administration ousted a foreign company
operating Budapest airport a move that finally cost the
Hungarian taxpayer some $90 million after an international
arbitration court found for the plaintive in 2006.
More recently, the Fidesz-led council in the southern city
of Pecs forcibly took control of the local water company, which
had been run and partially-owned by Suez, the French
conglomerate. In this case, a local court ruled the takeover as
Political analyst Csaba Toth says in practice the Fidesz
leaders bark is worse than his bite on such issues.
Yes, Fidesz is using nationalist rhetoric, but many
western parties are doing the same. I am sure that Fidesz will
say this is a new era for the Hungarian economy and domestic
companies, but it will mostly be rhetoric and very little