I put away an article from two years ago because I was hoping to use it one day in a piece of my own comparing the first Orbán government (1998-2002) with Viktor Orbán’s post-2010 governance. (Sorry, today’s post is nowhere near that grandiose.) The title of the article was “Nine spectacular differences between the first and third Orbán governments.” The author admits that Viktor Orbán was a divisive politician even then and that his tenure was not without scandals, yet even “left-liberals” talk nostalgically about Fidesz between 1998 and 2002 in comparison to the Fidesz of today.
According to Gábor Bordás, the author of the article, the first and most striking difference between the two governments is the quality of the people who were ready to work with Viktor Orbán then and who by now have joined the liberal opposition. Moreover, Bordás goes on, in those days Fidesz politicians were still ready to sit down and debate political issues with people on the other side. Although he admits that during Orbán’s first term corruption was a serious problem, “it was nothing like now.” Then at least a new National Theater was the center of attention, not the Pancho Arena. After his 2002 defeat, Orbán still suggested setting up two public television stations, one for the left and the other for the right, while by now public television, lavishly endowed, is nothing but a crude propaganda center. Also, the Fidesz of the 1998-2002 period couldn’t be compared ideologically to what it is today, that is, a far-right party led by an old-fashioned tyrant. Finally, Bordás believes that Orbán’s infamous saying that “the nation cannot be in opposition” is infinitely better than “we will avenge agents of international empires” working against the homeland.
I’m less charitable, and I am not at all nostalgic for the first Orbán government. The most significant difference between the two periods was that, in those days, there was a still robust opposition. Just to recall the situation after the 1998 election, Fidesz could claim only 32.22% of the parliamentary seats, and therefore Viktor Orbán had to settle for a coalition government with József Torgyán’s Smallholders and with MDF, led by Ibolya Dávid. The three parties together had a plurality of 45.18%, against the combined MSZP and SZDSZ strength of 40.94%.
How did Viktor Orbán form a government in 1998? To understand the complicated road to Fidesz victory, we must remember that before Fidesz changed the electoral law in 2010, voting for the 386-member parliament took place in two rounds two weeks apart. After the first round, on May 10, Fidesz candidates finished in first place in only 52 individual districts while MSZP was leading in 114. The Smallholders finished first in six districts. As for the territorial lists, Orbán was also badly trailing behind MSZP. Of the 20 lists, MSZP was leading in 14. It was obvious that Fidesz and the Smallholders would have to collaborate if either of them was to have a chance of forming a government. Originally, Fidesz had no intention of getting involved with Torgyán, who was considered to be a political adventurer and a clown, but the prospect of becoming prime minister at the tender age of 35 was far too inviting.
Torgyán decided to lend a helping hand to Fidesz by offering to withdraw his candidates in 65-67 districts as long as Fidesz also retired 30 of its own. Messages went back and forth, but 10 days after the first round there was still no agreement. On May 21, however, it was announced that Torgyán was ready to withdraw 82 Smallholders while Fidesz would withdraw only 20. How did this very favorable deal for Fidesz come about? Apparently, Orbán’s charm made the difference. He and his wife appeared with a huge bouquet of flowers at the Torgyán villa in Leányfalu, which apparently was hugely appreciated by the very vain Torgyán. Of course, in addition to the flowers, Orbán also promised him important ministerial posts. Orbán is regularly described by people who know him well as a real charmer who “can sweep people, women and men like, off their feet.” He can force his own will on people who don’t even realize that “they are just tools in his hands.”
In the second round, both Fidesz and the Smallholders did exceedingly well. Fidesz-Smallholders-MDF together came away with 192 seats against 161 for MSZP and SZDSZ combined. But the price was that Fidesz was stranded with Torgyán, who was given three ministerial posts, including the one Torgyán wanted most, the ministry of agriculture, with himself at the head and two Smallholder undersecretaries. Leading the ministry of the environment was the Smallholder Pál Pepó, whose claim to fame was his corrupt and scandalous behavior. The third Smallholder in the government was Imre Boros, minister without portfolio in charge of the PHARE program, which provided EU assistance for applicant countries in Central and Eastern Europe in preparation for joining the EU.
During the negotiations, Orbán was so eager to get Torgyán’s help that he even promised the Smallholders Party the right to nominate the next president of the republic, whose election was two years out. Of course, Torgyán believed that he would be the candidate. Orbán, however, knew already in 1998 that he would get rid of Torgyán and all his men in the government at the first opportunity. According to Torgyán, who gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet in 2016, shortly before his death, “the leaders of Fidesz trumpeted in the media that they will never form a government” with the Smallholders, and Orbán also assured his friends that they don’t have to worry because “they already have their plans for how they will get rid of me.”
As long as Orbán needed the Smallholders to stay in power, he protected the Torgyán family from media attacks over Torgyán’s new 50-million forint house, his son’s bribery case, and his lavish travel to countries as far away as Chile to talk about “exporting cherries” to Hungary. But Torgyán’s political days were numbered.
Orbán’s first task was to make sure that Torgyán would not become president. This he achieved easily. He explained to Torgyán that, since voting for the president is done via secret ballot, he cannot guarantee that all of his MPs will vote for him. But Orbán’s final goal was to get rid of Torgyán altogether. Once Orbán secured parliamentary approval for his two-year budget, Torgyán and the Smallholders were dispensable.
In February 2001, Torgyán paid a visit to the prime minister’s official residence where, in the presence of Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, and János Áder, he announced that “for the sake of the coalition” he is resigning. Once he was gone, half of the Smallholder caucus joined Fidesz. Torgyán ended up as an independent MP who, after the summer of 2001, boycotted the parliament. That was the end of his party and his own political career.