PROFILE: The rise of Viktor Orban

15/05/2010 | Kester Eddy

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 ceremony.

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 security forces.

Right move

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 for salvation.

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 legal.

Political analyst Csaba Toth says in practice the Fidesz leader’s 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 action.”

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Parts of the democratic process are under siege.

Radmila Sekerinska, president, National Council of European Integration