cult of personality

A divided Hungary: Two images of Viktor Orbán

I will try to demonstrate, mostly for those who are not familiar with the Hungarian political scene, how controversial a character Viktor Orbán is in his own country.

Some Hungarians absolutely adore him and look upon him as the “Savior of  Hungary.” He occasionally alludes to himself as the light that will lead the whole of  Europe out of darkness. Just as he did Hungary. His detractors are just as passionate. They loathe him and often view him as a common thief.

Yesterday was the prime minister’s fiftieth birthday. To mark the occasion an organization called Lányok és Asszonyok Orbán Viktorért Egyesület (Association of Girls and Women for Viktor Orbán) ordered a mass for him, his family, and the whole nation. Celebrating the mass was Zoltán Osztie, the parish priest of Pest’s oldest church near the Elizabeth Bridge and an ardent supporter of Viktor Orbán and his regime. He has been involved in the organization of the Peace Marches alongside such men as Zsolt Bayer, Gábor Széles, and András Bencsik.

The government decided to downplay the adulatory birthday mass. There are already signs of a growing personality cult in Hungary, and so as not to fan it further (especially in light of EU criticisms of Orbán’s anti-democratic ways) word went out to keep birthday celebrations to a minimum. MTI, the Hungarian telegraphic agency, published only a couple of pictures, no story. Magyar Nemzet made no mention of  the mass.

Not so the opposition papers from which we even learned what gospel passage Osztie chose (excerpts from Mark 11:2-17):

2 On the following day, when they [Jesus and his followers] came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Jesus in the temple

Osztie and the 600-700 people who listened to him obviously look upon Viktor Orbán as a messiah who was sent to Hungary to cleanse the country from the filth the liberals and socialists left behind. To drive the money changers out and to create a country of honesty, decency, and purpose.

By contrast, among those who hate him the general belief is that Viktor Orbán is himself a thief and his inner circle a den of robbers. There are literally hundreds of blogs and thousands of reader comments that refer to him as a mafioso and a common criminal. I picked a blog post that is perhaps the harshest I have ever encountered. It appeared on pupublogja, “blog of the camel.” The blogger is a prolific writer and an Orbán hater. He calls him “the Hibbant” (cracked, a man with a loose screw). According to “pupu,” Orbán is a liar “who steals the country blind.”

People call Orbán “talented” because “he managed to survive all his friends and adversaries and destroy all his enemies.” But for “pupu” he is “the leader of a shoddy, trashy band of robbers.” The author of the blog compares him to László Moré, a sixteenth-century soldier of fortune who took advantage of the chaotic political situation that developed after the Battle of Mohács (1526) in which King Louis II died without issue. At times Moré supported Ferdinand and at other times János Szapolyai, the two contenders for the Hungarian throne, but while they fought each other Moré managed to rob practically the whole Transdanubian area until the two finally got rid of him by defeating his forces in Palota (today Várpalota) in 1533.

An increasing number of people suspect, just like “pupu,” that Orbán’s wealth is enormous and that what we see is “only the tip of the iceberg.” “Pupu” is certain that 90% of Orbán’s wealth is hidden. Moreover, not only is he a crook; he is also an untalented prime minister. His first premiership was a disaster: empty coffers, alienated neighbors, and his reputation abroad was such that every politician west of Hungary was relieved when he was defeated. And what is he doing now? “No more democracy, no sustainable economic growth, national debt is as high as before, people’s mood is rotten… Azeri murderer, stolen pension funds, Simicska, Lázár, Semjén, and a deal with Gábor Vona perhaps still to come. Stadiums, five million citizens under the poverty line, hungry children, and the plundering of the country. Yesterday tobacconist shops, today forests, tomorrow National Liquor Stores, a narrow-gauge railway for the family, and a stadium for son Gazsi.”

“On the list of the casualties are democracy, youth, education, healthcare, Hungarian agriculture, modernization, our lives…. Is this man talented? I don’t even know whether I should question the ‘man’ or the ‘talented.’ Perhaps both together and also separately.”

Yet there remain those in whose eyes Orbán is a saint. Cult of personality? During the summer the streetcar rails normally get repaired and therefore the Budapest Transit Authority reroutes certain lines. Streetcar #50 was one of those that will be rerouted this year. Index decided to make a little joke of it, recalling 1948 when Stalin celebrated his seventieth birthday and the servile Rákosi government renumbered one of the Budapest streetcar lines #70. A reporter and a camera man showed up at the current route of streetcar #50 and asked people what they thought about its being rerouted from its lowly position in the outskirts to somewhere closer to parliament.

It seemed that most of the people who commented missed the point of the comparison to Stalin’s 70th birthday. Some of them refused to answer “political questions.” But there was one pugnacious older woman who found nothing wrong with the idea of rerouting streetcar #50 to celebrate the prime minister’s birthday. After all, he is the prime minister of the country and he deserves it. She very much hopes that he will have many years to guide the country. Some people might complain that he didn’t manage to create one million new jobs, but after all it took even God seven days to create the world and in three years he couldn’t fix everything that the communists ruined. Try to explain to this woman that three years ago the Hungarian economy was in better shape than it is today. It would be a hopeless task. Just as “pupu” couldn’t be persuaded that Viktor Orbán is God’s gift to Hungary and the Hungarian people.