By Robert Hodgson, dpa -
VIKTOR Orban is set to become Hungary’s prime minister for a second time after leading his centre-right party Fidesz to election victory on Sunday. Victory for the 46-year-old politician came after eight years of unremitting opposition to his old foe, the Hungarian Socialist Party. Despite his relatively young age, Orban’s political career began when the Berlin Wall was still standing and Hungary was a communist dictatorship. Orban first entered the public consciousness during the dying gasps of the old regime in 1989. Then a goateed, 26-year-old student activist, he made a speech in which he called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungarian soil. Nobody had ever said this in public before.
Never one for underestimating his own importance, Orban said in a television interview as Central and Eastern Europe marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism last summer: “No matter who I speak to about the past 20 years, one thing is always the same: they all remember where they were when I made that speech.” Standing for the liberal, anti-communist party he helped set up, Orban entered Hungary’s first democratically elected parliament in 1990. However, the Alliance of Young Democrats — commonly known by its Hungary acronym Fidesz — got less than ten per cent of the vote. Orban became the leader of Fidesz the same year and promptly began to recast the party in a conservative mould.
In 1994, the old Communists — rebranded as the Hungarian Socialist Party — came back to power. The electorate had been shocked by massive redundancies and the economic uncertainty that followed the switch from a planned to a free market economy. In 1998, however, it was Orban’s turn: Fidesz succeeded in forming a coalition government, though it won slightly fewer votes than the Socialists. Its partners were the very parties that had sidelined Fidesz in 1990: the conservative Democratic Forum, the Smallholders’ Party, and the Christian Democrats. Viktor Orban became, at 35, one of Europe’s youngest prime ministers, leading Hungary into Nato in 1999.
The period from 1998 to 2002 was one of rapid economic growth for the country, and Orban was a popular leader. Some critics, however, complained of his authoritarian style. In 2002, the Socialists won again. When the Socialists defied the pollsters to win a second term in office in April 2006, it began to look like it might be the end of Orban’s leadership of Fidesz and his hopes of becoming prime minister again. But the newly re-elected Socialist premier Ferenc Gyurcsany threw Orban an unwitting lifeline.
In September 2006, national radio broadcast a leaked recording of a closed post-election speech in which Gyurcsany acknowledged that he and his party had lied about the economy. Rioting broke out on the streets of the capital Budapest, followed by weeks of anti-government protests. Crowds gathered regularly in front of the parliament building calling for early elections. Orban led the call, with Fidesz declaring the Socialist-liberal coalition “illegitimate” at a mass rally in the capital in October 2006.
That event was marred by heavy handed police suppression of riotous far right protesters round the corner, and many Fidesz supporters were caught up in the chaos of tear gas and rubber bullets. This only served to strengthen Orban’s popularity, and since then Fidesz has consistently come out way ahead of any other party in opinion polls. The Socialists clung on to power, but Gyurcsany finally stood down last March, acknowledging that his lack of popularity prevented the consensus needed to tackle the economic crisis. Hungary had been forced to turn to the IMF and the EU for a 25-billion-dollar bail-out in October 2008. But still there was no early election. A technocrat government under Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai was installed, and it promptly slashed public sector spending and pensions. By this time, with a handful of high-profile corruption cases thrown into the mix, the Socialists were so unpopular that Fidesz needed merely to wait for the general election to arrive.