Péter Molnar, founding Fidesz member, on the great rift between Lajos Simicska and Viktor Orbán
And why Fidesz is not a conservative party - In their own words
Péter Molnar, taken from a YouTube video on his 'hate speech' project at the Central European University. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ighaNk8WsbE
In early 2015, news broke of an astonishing rift breaking out between Fidesz financier-cum-media magnate Lajos Simicska and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, when Mr Simicska, via the Hungarian media, publicly denounced his former friend and trusted political collaborator in the most profane terms.
It was the hottest political story in Hungary of the new millennium. But why and how had it come to this?
The two had become friends in the same university dormitory back in the 1980s, and had both been founding members of Fidesz in 1988 as the communist authorities gradually liberalised their rule. But while Mr Orbán became ever more a household name through his aggressive, adversarial political role, Mr Simicska kept a far lower profile, seemingly as Orbán's éminence grise, most especially managing economic and financial matters.
With the rift, Mr Simicska – at the time one of Hungary's most wealthy individuals (whose companies had wone numerous state tenders between 2010 – 2015) – began to back Jobbik, which was already well on the way to denouncing its far-right past and was seeking to present itself as a moderate, conservative party, and an alternative to Fidesz for those voters for whom the left and liberal groupings remained anathama.
However, with the overwhelming Fidesz victory in the 2018 general election, the party's former financial strongman, presumably unable to finance a daily paper, radio and TV station, almost immediately gave up his media empire and has seemingly left the Hungarian political arena entirely.
What follows is part of a press meeting in February 2015 with guest speakers Péter Molnar, a founding Fidesz member, and Péter Krekó, political scientest and executive director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank.
However, this post only features Molnar, who became disenchanted with Fidesz, or rather what the party had become under the direction of Viktor Orbán, by 1993. The meeting took place to delve into why the rift between Simicska and Orban had developed.
Péter Molnar: “I know it's true that for us, who founded Fidesz, and in that era towards the end of the '80s in general for many people, it was a really important thing to end the dictatorship. It was a sort of softer dictatorship, but it was still a dictatorship, [so it was important] to end it, and also to end that monolithic power that the communist dictatorship meant.
So, it was a strong anti-Communism [movement], we can call it that way.
It's not about the ideas of equality [espoused by Communism], but about the power structure [created during the Communist era]. Of course, it was also part of our idea that we end it and create a really nice, constitutional democracy, with wonderful respect for all human rights. The way I imagined it, ... was that we were going to create a really nice, model democracy, learning from all other democracies and really trying to build an institutional structure and surround it with a culture of democracy that people could look at from abroad, as a nice example.
We always thought in Fidesz that it was not enough only to create new institutions, but that it was also fundamentally important to change, or not to sound paternalistic, to inspire a change in the mind-set of society. To contribute to some spiritual changes, intellectual changes, changes in ways of thinking that [would] enable citizens and groups of civil society to change and live the reality of being independent citizens instead of being subjects.
And so that was our mindset. And it seems that Simicska was saying in some of those interviews [given at the time, ie early 2015] that he agreed with Orbán to break the power structure. He agreed with Orban that that sort of power structure had survived the system change, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with all the political positions transformed into economic positions.
For example, Jenő Menyhárt, a wonderful singer with Európa Kiadó, which was in the '80s one of the wonderful underground bands. They're still around, and the lyrics of those songs are still really deep - it's not about nostalgia - but those songs are really powerful today as well, on their own merit.
He told me this story, this is just an example, Menyhárt said that in the 80s [he met] the director of the only company which could publish records. He said: we cannot publish your stuff for political reasons.
Then in the 90s, after the system change, it came up that perhaps one of the new record companies, owned then by a foreign company, [might publish the band's records].
[But it turned out that] the same guy was the director, then in the marketing position [in this company] and he said: We cannot publish because we cannot sell [the records]!
Of course, it could be that the same guy had a market-based judgment, but one can see how it can be disturbing if the person who was sort of the censor in the dictatorship is in a position of control, a door keeper in the new system.
So, I'm just saying that allthough I thought that this anti-communist attitude after the years were passing became to some extent anachronistic after the system change in 1989-90, still, I myself can understand and agree that there were things to change there.
Of course, the disagreement starts with 'in what ways'.
I totally disagree with doing anything that does not respect basic principles of constitutional democracy, distribution of power, rule of law and human rights.
So the story, the bottom line, and either if it is true that Simicska believes in those things, in some democratic principles or not, what he's saying is that he agreed with Orbán to break the surviving post-communist power structure. He agreed with Orbán to break it through all sorts of legal tricks and constitutional tricks.
They mastered this method of doing things, which they can claim is formally legal, like we have the two-thirds majority, we've got the authorisation. What's your problem? We just used the majority, what's your objection?
Of course, it's clear the whole thing is totally immoral what they are doing, but formally, from a very narrow - and I would say very stupid, legal positivist way - they can just say, we are doing things formally and legally, so, it's all legal, formally.
Of course, many times they went out of their way, even according to that understanding of the law, but …
So that's what they created already by1992, when I was still an MP. And then in 1993 I was one of eight vice-presidents of Fidesz, before, at the end of 1993, we left the party.
The first big scandal of Fidesz [broke], when the MDF and Fidesz got the two buildings which were much bigger than what the two parties were entitled to receive for their needs, and then quickly sold them for a [very high] price.
As a vice president [at the time], I immediately initiated an investigation. And that was probably the first example of a major scandal around Fidesz … and that's where Simicska already had a key role in, of course, working closely together with Orbán.
It happened in a way that on paper, it was formally fine, at least there was one way of interpreting that it was ok, but morally speaking, it was perfectly clear from the facts that it was totally wrong and immoral.
And it seems that Simicska was saying a few weeks ago that when he started to come out with his sharp criticism against Orbán, even sharper than earlier, that he was saying that he agreed with breaking the post-communist power structure – if that's the best way to describe it – so he agreed with that, without being very picky about the ways he did that, to say the least, but he's saying he started to disagree when it was about demolishing the whole democratic structure, and turning the country into the sort of thing that many people are calling a dictatorship.
I personally disagree with that, I think in a dictatorship people are not free to demonstrate, as we are free to demonstrate, but it is certainly a system that is restrictive in very many ways in terms of freedoms and in terms of constitutional democratic opportunities.
So I think that is an interesting point to analyse and think about whether they developed the real disagreement in which Orbán started to declare the illiberal democracy that he wants to create and sustain with sort of close ties to Putin's kind of similar non-democratic system, and then whether Simicska really came at some point to say 'I have been a partner with you in lots of things, but there was a limit.'
So, in a way, it may sound even credible, although of course it's coming from a person – Simicska – who did such things that it is not really credible.”
There then followed comment and a Q&A session between journalists present and the speakers, Péter Molnar and Péter Krekó.
Towards the end of this session, in answer to a question, Krekó used the adjective 'conservative' in connection with Fidesz, a comment which agitated the normally mild Molnar, resulting in this response.
“You mentioned a conservative party, I really want to emphasise that I don't think the current governing party … [is] a conservative party.
At the time of the first Orbán government … they changed the rules of parliament, and instead of having a question time for the opposition every week, they said MPs needed to spend more time among the people, so let's have question time only every third week, and the other weeks for committee meetings and being among the people.
So, they cut back the power and significance of the democratically elected Hungarian parliament, which in Hungarian history many freedom fighters died for.
A party that does that is anything but conservative. I really want to emphasise this, I think it really muddies waters if they can claim, and we provide them with the title conservative.”
Péter Molnar today is Research Affiliate on Freedom of Speech at the Center for European Enlargement Studies at Central European University.