As I was writing yesterday’s post on Viktor Orbán’s March 15th speech and came to the part where he talked about bravery as an essential ingredient of a nation’s success, my mind wandered to one manifestation of his own lack of bravery (admittedly, most likely wise risk management on his part). It was in 2006 that he made the mistake of agreeing to have a television debate with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who headed the MSZP ticket. Score (being charitable): Gyurcsány 1, Orbán 0. Since then he has systematically avoided head-to-head encounters with his opponents.
Prior to 2006 Orbán had two public debates, one in 1998 with Gyula Horn and another with Péter Medgyessy in 2002. The first debate was a clear win for Orbán, who at that point, following U.S. practice, thought pre-election debates were a capital idea. Gyula Horn, who had had a long political and diplomatic career in the Kádár regime, was no match for the young and more dynamic Viktor Orbán. Although Horn is considered by many the best prime minister of Hungary since 1990, on that occasion he looked unprepared and tired. In a major miscalculation, I don’t think he took the debate seriously.
After the first debate, I’m sure Viktor Orbán was looking forward to taking on Péter Medgyessy in 2002. Medgyessy was not known for his eloquence; in fact, people made jokes about his difficulty with long Hungarian tongue twisters. Orbán was dynamic, Medgyessy very low-key. Moreover, according to all the polls, it looked like easy sailing for Fidesz at the election. Orbán had nothing to lose. But in the debate Orbán looked and sounded like a bully while Medgyessy came across as a modest everyman with whom people could sympathize. As it was, the Hungarian electorate had had enough of the incessant government attacks on everyone who didn’t support them. Orbán lost the election, a result he never quite accepted.
Then came the debate of 2006 with Ferenc Gurcsány. It is something Orbán will never forget or forgive. I’m convinced that his hatred of Gyurcsány dates from that day. I watched the debate and immediately proclaimed it a rout. (The debate is available on YouTube.) Orbán was demolished. Interestingly enough, some people in our group who were exchanging e-mails during the debate were not as sure as I was. Later polls confirmed my first impression. Even Fidesz supporters had to admit that Orbán had lost the debate. Since then Orbán has been trying to pay Gyurcsány back for his humiliation. If it depended on him, he would send Gyurcsány to jail for life. Orbán may be on top of the world right now, but he still considers Ferenc Gyurcsány a threat. Moreover, it seems that after 2006 he got permanently cold feet when it comes to public debates.
He refused to debate Attila Mesterházy in 2010 and it looks as if he has no intention of debating this year either. There are different excuses each time. Four years ago he claimed that there were too many candidates. This year he listed several reasons for refusing to debate. First was that “to this day we don’t know who the real leader of the opposition is: Ferenc Gyurcsány, Attila Mesterházy, or Gordon Bajnai.” Well, this sounds like a lame excuse to me. After all, the united opposition’s candidate for premiership is Attila Mesterházy. Mesterházy called on Orbán to debate several times; in his blog he even dubbed Orbán a coward for refusing to measure the Fidesz program against the opposition’s. Of course, the fact is that Fidesz has no party program unless one considers the decrease in utility prices a program. That is why the following “manifesto” that appeared on the Internet is so apt. In 1848 Sándor Petőfi and his young friends had a list of twelve demands, including freedom of the press, an annual national assembly in Pest, national army, civil and religious equality before the law, equal distribution of tax burdens, and abolition of socage. Viktor Orbán had the gall to compare his lowering of utility prices to the abolition of socage and serjeanty, feudal dues. As you can see, Orbán’s 12 points in this “Orbán” version of the twelve demands are all the same: “utility decreases, utility decreases” twelve times over. Thus it would be rather difficult to have a debate on party programs.
It would be uncomfortable to answer questions about the Putin-Orbán agreement on Paks or the incredible corruption. If Mesterházy were well prepared, he could demolish Orbán’s economic figures. And what about the ever larger national debt? All in all, Orbán will not debate because it is not to his advantage. Moreover, his admirers don’t even demand any program. They seem to be perfectly happy with the government’s performance in the last four years and look forward to four or even eight more years of the same.
Another reason that Orbán gave for his refusal to debate is that in his opinion there is no political formation today outside of Fidesz-KDNP that is fit to govern (kormányzóképes). Such labeling in a democracy is unacceptable. It just shows what kind of democracy we are talking about in Hungary.
András Schiffer of LMP would like to have a debate with Orbán, Mesterházy, and Vona (Jobbik). As you know, Schiffer is not one of my favorites, but he is a good debater and could score extra points if given the opportunity. I’m sure that Orbán will not be game, and I understand that Mesterházy will agree only if Orbán also participates. So, we can be pretty sure that there will be no debate in 2014. The opposition will remain invisible.