Orban Strikes Back

CímOrban Strikes Back
Közlemény típusaOnline cikk / Web Article
SzerzőkHegedűs, István
Teljes szöveg

BUDAPEST—On 21 September 1993, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban—then the freshly elected president of the liberal opposition Federation of Young Democrats (Fidesz)—gave a long interview to Pesti Hirlap, a combatant right-wing daily that strongly supported the conservative coalition government. At one point, Orban took pains to slam an opinion piece, written several months earlier, that had revealed a clash of political views within Fidesz. Referring snidely to "the Hungarian intellectual and journalistic society," he compared the message of the piece to newspapers produced under the communist regime.

Insiders knew, however, that the article that had enraged Orban was not written by a sworn enemy, but by political scientist Andras Bozoki in the liberal daily Magyar Hirlap. And Bozoki, a former Fidesz spokesman and at the time a member of the party, hardly represented the united forces of (former) communist intellectuals and journalists—if such a single block even existed. Orban's misconception about a hostile conspiracy shocked the liberal elite, since simplistic concepts about the hidden, but substantial power of the press had previously been confined to the circles of the ruling parties. Little did Orban watchers know that such rhetoric about the press would soon become the norm.


Jan Pienkowski © 1999

At that point, Fidesz had been the most popular political party in Hungary for two years running. But only one year later, in 1994, Orban's party—which had decreased its anti-government criticism and increased its anti-communist rhetoric—received just 7 percent of the vote at the second free election after the collapse of communism. The mainstream leaders of the party had tried to attract former supporters of conservative parties and convince undecided voters not to elect the ex-communist Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). Both Orban and his main ideologist, Laszlo Kover, blamed the failure of that message on what they described as attacks from the "hostile" media on the party line and the politically biased attacks of "opinion-forming intellectuals." The two argued that the press disliked Fidesz because of Orban's resistance to the desire of the media and the liberal intelligentsia to participate in a "unified opposition," a close cooperation with the socialists and the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). For them, the media was primarily to blame. Orban could never accept another explanation of his failure—one that emphasized the political and moral consequences of a gradual shift in Fidesz toward the conservative worldviews of the increasingly unpopular Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), which finally lost the election.

In that political moment, as a former member of the party leadership and an ex-vice chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the parliament, I left Fidesz, to which I had belonged since April 1988. It had become clear to me that there was no room left for dissident liberal views, and that the party was turning into a neo-right-wing movement. Today, as an observer, I am sure that the way of thinking and the attitudes of top politicians in the reformed Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Party (Fidesz-MPP) is still determined by the "injuries" they felt they suffered in those decisive years.


Orban has led a coalition of established and neo-conservative parties since 1998. "In 1993-1994 some of the newspapers tried to chase him out of the political arena, so it is understandable that he shows more reservations regarding them," Gabor Borokai, press spokesman of the new government, told the daily Nepszava on 17 July 1999. As a new presence in parliament in 1990, Fidesz had urged guarantees against state intervention that might constrain the free press. But just one year ago, Orban made a speech to conservative politicians, intellectuals, and journalists, saying that "a new balance in the fields of the media, the economy, and cultural life should be created." His ideas about the relationship between the media and the government have clearly moved far away from the early Fidesz concept.

Orban's views have become similar to the theoretical arguments of Bela Pokol, a political scientist and right-wing politician of the Independent Smallholder Party (FkgP). Pokol wanted to break down the power of what he called the dominant, liberal, Budapest-centered media elite. That is why, ironically, parties in the opposition, including Fidesz-MPP, were quite satisfied with the media policy of the former prime minister, the socialist Gyula Horn. Horn's representatives often bargained with the conservative opposition about filling top positions in the public television and radio with persons who were acceptable for both the socialists and the opposition parties. They also negotiated about the distribution of licenses for nationwide commercial networks—behind the backs of the socialists' coalition partner, the SZDSZ.




Orban's attitude toward the media goes along with the general tendency of the government to punish representatives and supporters of non-conservative parties and to weaken disloyal institutions. The government's shrewd methods of interpreting the media law in order to ensure a two-thirds majority of the delegates of the ruling parties on the boards of the public radio, the state-owned Danube TV, and the Hungarian News Agency (MTI), have been relevant examples of those maneuvers. The tricks have been implemented with the evident support of the extreme-right Hungarian Truth and Life Party (MIEP). According to the media law, equal representation of the government and the opposition should be maintained in the boards after new elections. The method was as follows: the Christian Democrats (KDNP) and the Hungarian Democratic People's Party (MDNP) did not receive enough votes to be elected into parliament again in 1998. The majority of the parliament redefined the representatives of those parties in the boards as opposition delegates—even though the president of MDNP, Erzsebet Pusztai, is state secretary in the government. Now, there was an urgent "need to counterbalance the majority": Fidesz-MPP, MDF, and the Smallholders sent new members into those committees.

While a new board was being established at MTV early this year, MIEP helped keep the board filled by delegates from government parties by successfully blocking an agreement on the candidacy of the opposition members. Four representatives of the governing parties—and not one from the opposition—have sat on this committee for almost a year. The new president of public television was a candidate selected by the four board members.


It has proven more difficult to reshape the political landscape of the press. Orban tried but could not persuade Jorg Marquard—the Swiss owner of Magyar Hirlap—to sell his paper to the government at the end of 1998. Yet there are fresh fears that Fidesz-MPP might make the media businessman an offer he can't refuse—for example, the license of a new, profitable, commercial nationwide radio station.

Under the surface, this is a strange media war—not like the one in the early 1990s, when each side had a firm ideological position. Back then, the ruling conservative parties wanted "to change radically the political disposition and tendencies of Hungarian television and radio," as Imre Konya, then leader of the parliamentarian faction of MDF, stated in a famous analysis published by Magyar Hirlap on 24 August 1991. Demonstrators on the street in favor of the post-1989 government of Jozsef Antall, demanded a truly national Hungarian television during those months.

Today, Orban generally tends not to look for sophisticated explanations. When arguing his political line, the prime minister uses simple black-and-white PR rhetoric, saying that Fidesz-MPP is fighting against the forces of the past.

Nevertheless, the struggle often seems to be irrational. Here, again, a psychological explanation might help: the emotional heritage of the 1993-1994 period motivates Orban's political behavior even today. Though his government completely changed MTV personnel and its ideology, it cannot reshape the commercial networks. It is illogical to create so many conflicts and new enemies to no end.

Since 1996, state-owned television networks have lost their monopolistic positions, and the two nationwide commercial companies have captured more than two-thirds of the audience. It does not make too much sense to establish a pro-government public television without spectators. Accordingly, the government is trying to exert pressure on the programming directors of the big commercial networks—in itself no easy task. But just a few weeks ago, Maria Schmidt, advisor to the prime minister, persuaded the popular station RTL Klub to invite new comedians to its political cabaret. Why? She claimed that the jokes on the program had not been politically balanced enough.