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Orbán’s Biographer

Orbán’s Biographer

József Debreczeni tells us who Orbán is—at the moment.

H. David Baer

József Debreczeni, a former Hungarian politician, is an important public figure. He entered politics in 1989 as a representative in Parliament for the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), the center-right party of József Antall. In 1992 Debreczeni publicly criticized a member of MDF for holding right-wing views and was pushed out of the party.

Between 1994 and 1996 Debreczeni was a personal adviser to Viktor Orbán. After 2002 he turned away from Orbán; in 2006 he supported Orbán’s opponent, Ferenc Gyurcsány. Today he is a member of Gyurcsány’s party, the Democratic Coalition (DK).

Debreczeni has written extensively on Hungarian politics and public life. Among his many books are a biography of Antall, Hungary’s first post-communist prime minister, and a biography of Orbán. Debreczeni has documented the rise of Hungarian corruption in a book titled, in English translation, The Fidesz Robber Barons. His enormous output has helped document Hungary’s entire political history from 1989 to the present.

The following interview was conducted in Hungarian, translated into English, and has been lightly edited.

H. David Baer: What is there in Orbán’s childhood that might help explain him as a politician?

József Debreczeni: Orbán’s family was extremely poor but improved its position through hard physical work and education. The children participated in household chores that included tilling the land and feeding the pigs. Orbán was raised on hard work and perseverance. The family climbed out of poverty, moving from a house without hot running water, bathtub, or shower to a city apartment with modern conveniences. This journey played an important role in shaping Orbán’s ambition and unrestrained desire for personal enrichment.

Orbán’s upbringing included frequent physical punishment. We know from his own telling that his father had a violent temper and until he was seventeen would beat and kick him. Orbán was a smart kid but a troublemaker. He had to switch schools often.

Soccer also played an important role in his life, shaping his determination to win at any cost and his view that anything goes if the referee doesn’t see it. We can see this characteristic in the way he radically and continuously rewrites the rules to ensure his hold on power.

HDB: Orbán started his political career as a liberal politician and embraced conservative politics only later. Why did this shift take place?

JD: In 1994 the re-emergent socialist party (MSZP) won the election and formed a coalition with the liberal party (SZDSZ). Orbán saw that he could not be anything but second fiddle on the left. The death of the conservative Antall and the decline of Antall’s MDF created a political vacuum on the right; Orbán saw his opportunity. By 1998 he had integrated the conservative opposition and led it to victory.

However, he did not follow Antall’s liberal democratic conservatism. Instead, he embraced a more traditional, nationalistic Hungarian conservativism, which allied with the churches and abandoned, then rejected liberal democracy. These changes reflected pragmatic tactical decisions that advanced Orbán’s interests, which doesn’t exclude the possibility that the worldview of Orbán and his compatriots had also changed. Orbán is a politician who can quickly identify 100 percent with a position that matches his interests, then embrace the opposite position if circumstances require it.

HDB: For a long time, several center-right and far-right parties competed with one another in Hungary. How did Orbán consolidate the Right?

JD: Orbán maneuvered each political ally into a position of dependence, then destroyed it. The MDF and Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) both underwent splits and were subsequently integrated into Fidesz. Between 1998 and 2002, Fidesz broke down the Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP), then gobbled it up. A small MDF contingent held out the longest, but in 2010 they didn’t gain seats in Parliament; then, they ceased to exist.

With the entry of the Jobbik party into Parliament in 2010, Orbán faced opposition from the right as well as the left. After 2010, therefore, Fidesz accelerated its rightward shift to take the wind out of Jobbik’s sails. Today, Fidesz is clearly on the far right, while Jobbik has moderated, democratized, and become part of the opposition. For some time, the real dividing line in Hungarian politics has been not between Right and Left but between democratic and anti-democratic parties. The fight, completely unequal, is between a strengthening autocracy and the democratic opposition.

HDB: Orbán has also come to embrace Christianity. Was his “conversion” sincere?

JD: Orbán’s family was nominally Reformed but not religious. Orbán was baptized because of pressure from his grandparents, but he never received religious instruction; and no one considered enrolling him for confirmation.

When Orbán married Anikó Lévai in 1986, there was no church wedding, even though Levai is alleged to be a religious Catholic. Their first child, born in 1990, was not immediately baptized; in 1993 Gábor Iványi, a Methodist minister with whom Orbán had a good personal relationship, baptized the child. Afterward, Iványi married Orbán and his wife. Iványi also baptized Orbán’s second child, a son born in 1992. The third child, born in 1994, was baptized in the Reformed Church according to Orbán’s received faith. The fourth and fifth children were baptized Catholics. All Orbán’s daughters, including the one baptized Reformed, received Catholic religious instruction; the son baptized as a Methodist received Reformed religious instruction.

In 2011, through a constitutional amendment, Orbán revoked the legal status of the Methodist church in which he was married and baptized his first two children.

I am convinced that Orbán’s faith is insincere and mendacious. In mid-1993, when Fidesz shifted to the center, it began to embrace national and Christian values cautiously. After Fidesz lost in 1994 and a new political constellation emerged, Orbán and company made a fundamental shift and forged a political alliance with the churches based on the quest for power. Orbán gives money and privileges to the churches and in return seeks support and legitimation. The Orbán government now governs under the banner of Christian nationalism. The churches and clergy have become an integral part of the government’s politics.

HDB: There’s a lot of corruption in Hungary. To what extent has Orbán contributed to this?

JD: Corruption resurfaced in Hungary’s parliamentary politics after the 1989 democratic transition. But Orbán’s first government, 1998 to 2002, exceeded the traditional levels, using power systematically for personal enrichment as well as the expansion of power. After 2010, when state institutions like the legislature and judiciary no longer functioned democratically, Orbán used them to secure unlimited wealth for himself and his supporters and to stockpile resources to ensure the preservation of his power.

This is no longer simple corruption. Ordinary corruption occurs when someone with political power gives preference to private interests over the common good in exchange for financial benefits. The state fights against such corruption. In Hungary, not only does the state not fight against the theft of public goods, but the prosecutor also never levels charges, so there are no serious investigations or trials. The state is controlled by a small clique that does all the stealing. This is kleptocracy.

HDB: What is the current condition of Hungarian democracy?

JD: There has been neither democracy nor rule of law in Hungary for some time. It’s not Orbán but his puppets who fill all the positions. Step by step, Orbán established hegemony in the media. The independent press is suffocating and in retreat. Meanwhile, Orbán has introduced a new constitution, a new election law, and thousands of other laws to ensure he never loses power. If the opposition should somehow join forces to overcome its enormous disadvantages in finances, organization, legal discrimination, and media access and win an election, Orbán has already tied the hands of any new government so that it can never govern.

Orbán’s regime today most closely resembles Putin’s, though in a softer version. For the time being, there is no open violence. Journalists and opposition figures are not murdered or jailed. Political alternatives aren’t nipped in the bud as they are in Russia. But the tendencies all point in that direction. If Hungary were to leave the European Union and break from the Western alliance, this process would accelerate at a devastating pace.

H. David Baer is the Pastor Gerhard A. and Marion Poehlmann Professor in Theology at Texas Lutheran University. He is author of The Struggle of Hungarian Lutherans under Communism (2006). Twitter: @h_david_baer