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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Zsuzsanna Szelényi: "The regime change was too easy in Hungary."

In Their Own Words: Zsuzsanna Szelényi on Fidesz in the party's early years, the rise of Viktor Orbán and why Hungarian society has found the transition to a democracy so difficult

A gradute in psychology, Zsuzsanna Szelényi is now Program Director at the CEU Democracy Institute (Photo from her webpage)


Last week, a friend reminded me of Zsuzsanna Szelényi, who joined Fidesz in its very early days, and was a Fidesz MP from1990 to 1994. She left the party that year, after the spring elections. She was again elected an MP, via the Together party list, but acting as an independent, from 2014 to 2018.


She spoke to the Hungarian International Press Association in May, 2015. The following is a slightly edited transcript of her answers to some audience questions.


Kester Eddy: You started out with Fidesz, later leaving. Were you a founding member, and why did you leave?


Zsuzsanna Szelényi: There were 33 founders [of Fidesz, in 1988]. I joined one week later. I was in the first elected leadership, and I spent 6 years with Fidesz. In 1990, I got into parliament as a Fidesz MP, and in 1994, I left the party, and I left politics.


And until two years ago, I was not dealing with Hungarian politics.


KE: But why did you leave the party?


I left for a couple of reasons. And I was not the only one. By 1994, a quarter of Fidesz politicians and members had left. The first big [defections] were in 1993-94, for various reasons.


First of all, [Viktor] Orbán took power within Fidesz in '92. Until then it had been a collective leadership. It was okay to have a party leader, I think that was a professionalisation process, but Orbán took the entire party. He ate it up very quickly.


He was the same kind of person then as now, he [has been] a pretty authoritarian person forever. I just didn't find it good.


My idea of doing politics is more on the basis of partnership. If a party is based on pressures, and pure interests, and there is no common view, a common vision of life, then it's a problem.


KE: You said 'pure interests', what do you mean by that?


For example, in Fidesz today, there are no two people who would speak together, they all hate each other. It's a several years long, competition-based system, where everyone is against everyone else. This is how Orbán works.


The only thing keeping them together is that they are in power, and Orbán is the boss.


Therefore I think if Orbán for some reason disappeared, the entire party would collapse, because there is no cohesion. The cohesion started to disappear when Orbán took power, because he is an autocrat, a Bolshevik type of leader. From the first day that he got into position, he started using sticks and carrots as a way of disciplinary measures, and this was just a very different life of doing politics, one that I didn't like.


KE: Not fitting in the democratic tradition?


ZsSz: Exactly, not fitting the tradition of that very party.


The other reason was, obviously, I did not agree with the political, ideological turn that Orbán managed. Fidesz was originally a liberal, alternative, youth party. It was anti-establishment, open to the future, it was very progressive.


[But], when the MDF started to decline, after the death of Prime Minister [József] Antall [in late 1993], Orbán thought there would be room in the place of MDF, and he turned the party in that direction.


The problems with this were several. First, I don't like it when parties change their mind from one day to the other, it's a question of political integrity.


And the other is, during the regime change, Fidesz identified itself as in the centre. … We wanted to cut this [traditional' bi-polar, poisoned political tradition in Hungary with our [very] existence. We weren't accepting this.


[But], when Orbán made this shift in 94, he actually gave up this logic.


And as a result, Hungary quickly became a bi-polar system. It was not only Orbán, although he was one major element or creator of this situation, because no one was left in the centre.


Of course, when the [liberal] SzDSz went into coalition with the Socialists in '94, that was an influence, and by the mid-90s this traditional, harmful gap in the political elite had been reproduced. This lasted until 2010.


By the mid-90s, the Hungarian elites, the two sides, were not willing to talk to each other.


He, Orbán, consciously created this situation, he didn't believe there was enough room in the middle to govern. This was his analysis, and I think this was and is harmful for a long time for the Hungarian political system.


I consider myself a centrist, politically, and it's difficult to be there, because there is still such a big gap.


The media is structured like this … I think it's just simply bad for the country.


Stefan Marth (Austrian diplomat): Your personal opinion on Orbán, since you know him, about his personal views on communism and free markets? Is he a liberal thinker, in your opinion? 


ZsSz: He is a pure populist. He says what he believes at that very moment he believes serves him. He doesn't have any beliefs, [not] for a long time.


Runa Hellinga: Did he have them before?


I think yes, but he found that it's just a constraint. He understood that he doesn't need beliefs to get into power. 


Audience Voice: But he has a vision!


ZsSz: Of what kind? What's his vision? I don't think he has a vision.


He is now using a certain vision that many people believe in, but if it doesn't work, he can shift to another vision.


Audience Voice: But the new world order?


ZsSz: Yes, but what does it mean? It means nothing. A new world order in his mind means he doesn't have to respect anything that has happened before, and he can do whatever he wants.


This is my understanding of his understanding of a new world order. That the classical relationships and values no longer count, nothing counts from previously, everything is in crisis. This is simple demagoguery, and therefore he is free to do whatever he wants. 


RH: If tomorrow, Hungary woke up suddenly being suddenly very pro-gay marriage?


ZsSz: It wouldn't be a problem for him. It's hard to imagine, but it wouldn't be.


As an example, the new Constitution or Basic Law. It says the family is the basis of life, and we protect the life of the foetus, because life starts at conception.


But, they [the Fidesz government] didn't touch the abortion law, because they know that most Hungarians just wouldn't accept it. Abortion was introduced in Hungary in the late 60s. There would be a lot of opposition if they did this, [yet] this is completely contradictory to the Basic Law, but it doesn't matter. No problem, because he is a populist. 


RH: But among the 33 original founders, many are still with Fidesz.


ZsSz: No. Most of them have left. Actually, not just the of the founders, but the original parliamentary party, there are only five of the 22, [Viktor] Orbán, [László] Kövér, [Mihály] Varga, [Zsolt] Németh and [Lajos] Kósa. These were the guys with whom I shared the faction with once.


RH: These guys were all willing to make the same turnaround as Orban did, in 1994.


ZsSz: Yes, they followed Orbán. But today, Németh is definitely not in a serious position, because they don't trust him, Kósa is not trusted enough to pick up a ministry, Kövér is in a prestigious position, but not a very powerful place, as speaker of Parliament, and Varga is the only one in the cabinet, he has this very special relationship with Orbán.


He's a kind of grey, admin manager behind Orbán. He never had any ambition, any desire for a first line role, so Varga is special in this sense. He's a good manager, and Orbán keeps him as a good manager ... he is kept in this role,


But all the others, who sometimes had ambition for a more important political role, they are actually pushed aside.





KE: As a psychologist, what do you think the model of democracy, if you can call that, tell us about Hungary? Because, if you take something like the tobacco shop scandal, or the [release of the] Azerbaijani axe murderer, in many countries these would bring down a government.


But here, yes, ok, Orbán's popularity was waning until the rezsicsökkentés [utility price caps] came along, and that seemed to satisfy everyone. It seems like an unprincipled kind of society, with people just looking out for themselves.



Szelényi is the author of the book 'Tainted

Democracy, Viktor Orbán and the Subversion

of Hungary', published in 2022.


ZsSz: I think that Hungarians are typical central Europeans. I don't think we are any better or worse. We are typically like the Slovaks, the Croatians. We are very similar to the Austrians as well.


If you see the attitudes and values, you could analyse it [and conclude] that a couple of years ago we were more like the Balkans, but I don't agree with that. We are like our neighbours, I don't think Hungarians are better or worse in any way.


I think, in any country, if someone gets such enormous power, then there is a critical moment of using it.


And, I think Orbán's personality, of course, adds to that. I think that such a level of power, this super majority, is a risk, but it's not necessarily proof that everyone gets an autocrat such as Orbán. There is no other European country where someone has such power.


If you look at other countries, since as Thatcher, and then Blair and Schroder, there are European leaders who are there for a long time. Power can work for a long time if it's managed well.


But Orbán has enormous power, over people, over money, over institutions, over everything. This is what he created from 2010 within the first two years.


He reorganised the institutions, he undermined the checks and balances by nominating his people, his friends and cronies, into the checks and balances positions for nine years! Everyone, all the top people in Hungary, they practically come from his class. I have known these people for a long time, these are all closely related to him.


It's like a family business, getting a super majority.


Obviously, the NGOs are not strong enough. This kind of democratic culture, the immune system is not strong enough, but it's not strong enough in Czech or Slovak either. It's pretty similar.


I think, well, there are analysts and also older politicians from the regime change like Péter Tölgyessy, who says - and I can agree with him on this - that the regime change was too easy in Hungary. It didn't go through the entire society.


Because Hungary was in the situation that the shift was done pretty quickly, the opposition at that time was much better organised than anywhere else, but that doesn't mean that there was a popular movement behind that opposition.


It was an elite opposition, which were quickly ready to negotiate the change of regime with the communist party, … but somehow the real mass movement was not behind the regime change.


RH: There were no demonstrations.


ZsSz: There were, absolutely [but] all in Budapest, it was not a big country-wide movement.


The other reason was Kádár [János Kádár, the communist leader], who managed a relatively good living [standard] in the '80s in Hungary.


So, as Tölgyessy says, the upside of the regime change was not big enough for Hungarians, [in contrast to] the Baltics, where the upside was enormous, it was freedom.

There, there was catharsis. For some countries it was living standards, for others there was freedom.


For Hungarians it was neither, because Hungary was ok before, financially it was fair. So, this all meant that the regime change was relatively easy, and didn't have enough upside.


Probably, in 50 years, we will see these two stories together. A part of the regime change is going on now, and the learning process of what freedom means still needs to be done by a majority of Hungarians.


This is how I see it. It's a difficult and painful process, [but] if we watch it like this, then it is more acceptable and bearable.



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