Orbán hasn’t attended a single prime ministerial debate since 2006. The leader of the united opposition now challenged him but he only gave lame excuses through his spokesmen.
Young Orbán has been known to be incredibly persuasive in person.
He could convince any world leader or business tycoon that he is on their side, that he would do whatever they wanted, that there is a special connection they share. And those politicians and corporate leaders behaved like 14-year-old virgins who blushingly believed him and told everyone that they have a special bond with Viktor. And when it didn’t happen, they made excuses for him. For a long, long time, like 14-year-old virgins are bound to.
In the last decade or so Orbán’s snake charmer skills have deteriorated into the mere ability to say lies – and let the victims go out and defend him in public. If these victims were politicians, they burnt their reputations if they admitted that they believed Orbán’s lies. So they covered for him for a long time. Ask Manfred Weber.
It took a decade until the screwed over western politicians manned up to the sad truth that they have no special connection with Orbán and that he will keep lying to them and not delivering. He won’t even politely pretend to do so.
But now that they have lost their illusions about the special bond, Orbán has lost one of his greatest personal assets. From every visible aspect he grew rusty, stale and arrogant, without the ability to see things from others’ point of view – a vital skill if one is to persuade, debate or to charm someone.
Orbán is also failing at influence his own spin abroad, where he doesn’t have a media empire to blast his praise. After a decade of silence, two recent attempts at wooing western intellectuals/journalists by granting them a rare interview have backfired spectacularly. Orbán incoherently babbled to Bernard-Henri Levy about fondling each others’ backs with Erdogan, and he called his alleged EPP allies useful idiots for not aligning with Russia in a German paper.
It is safe to say that he has lost his snake charming aptitude – at least in person. But what about his ability to steer the public and win debates?
Another thing he may have lost during the years is the ability to debate an opponent. Orbán hasn’t attended a single prime ministerial debate since 2006 – and he is known to even avoid media outlets that are not his own.
The last time he participated in a prime ministerial debate was in 2006. Back then he was the challenger and he subsequently lost the elections. In 2010 it wasn’t in his interest to participate. He was bound to win by a landslide against the scandal-ridden MSZP after the financial crisis. In 2014, he had, once again, nothing to gain from a debate so he skipped it.
In 2018 he had more to worry about. He couldn’t lose his majority, but his supermajority was in danger. Curiously, he still refrained from participating in a debate and preferred to spread his message of fear and hatred for migrants in heavily controlled campaign events.
“The time for debates is over“, wrote his press chief referring to the apocalyptic threat of migrationandterrorism – as they called it. His communications director was even more nonsensical:
“Real and meaningful debate is not possible with those who are unwilling to keep even the most elementary interests of the country at heart, in fact, they are acting against it with all their might. Debating under these circumstances is hypocrisy. Worse than hypocrisy, it would be the disregard of voters.”
After all, an aspiring autocrat doesn’t even accept the legitimacy of his opposition. Furthermore, the opposition’s prime ministerial candidates must not appear in the same league as Orbán, must not sit at the same table as him, lest anyone think he could be him. Any impression that Orbán might be an ordinary mortal must be avoided at all cost. He is not a mere candidate. He is the position now.
By 2018 Orbán also gave signs that he was worried about open dissent at campaign events. His campaign tour itinerary was kept in secret, he arrived in towns without a public announcement so that only his loyalists could turn up. No press, no protesters.
He still gives speeches to his most dedicated followers in strictly controlled environments such as his annual state of the nation speech, his party’s summer festival in Romania, and his weekly radio sermon that he gives to a woman colloquially known as a “microphone stand” – a reporter who is only there to ask questions like:
“Our audience would kill me if I didn’t as about the spectacular economic developments.”
“Mr Prime Minister, isn’t it a terrible burden to be so great?”
His office routinely bounces back every request for an interview, opinion or TV appearance on independent media. One of the explanations is that he has nothing to gain. The other is that he might be out of touch and wouldn’t react well to criticism.
Into this atmosphere of inevitability came Péter Márki-Zay, the leader of the united opposition who keeps shocking and thrilling Hungarians by actually saying facts out loud and generally acting like it was still a normal country. Like one that has a debate between the prime ministerial candidates before elections. And he challenged Orbán to one.
Orbán was terrified. He kept a complete silence about the challenge, only his spokesmen reacted to it – and only when they were forced to. This time the arguments were even more lame than in 2018. One suggested that the true leader of the opposition is not Márki-Zay but the puppet master behind him, pre-2009 prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.
Another one even threw in an unserious offer that Orbán would debate Gyurcsány instead, knowing that it won’t be accepted. The dude is not even among the top four on the opposition list. But Orbánists have a new campaign showing Márki-Zay as Gyurcsány’s puppet (for no discernible reason) and keeps fighting the 2006 windmill called Gyurcsány – instead of his actual, 2022 opponent. But what can we expect from a man who wants to fight the homosexual threat when the country is drowning in inflation and economic mismanagement.
Everything points is the same direction: that Orbén has lost his touch, he is battling made-up enemies of the past, and he had lost his ability to be a politician. He can only do dictator now. Dictate, order, command, silence.
In the meantime, Márki-Zay is on the top of his game. Not only did he shock his way to the top of the opposition, he appears to be ready to tackle Orbánism head-on. His marketing and sales past is obviously helpful in the battle that he sometimes has to wage even against the intellectually challenged parts of the independent media.
His statements regularly make headlines on their own right and even the too-pure editors who were in love with the soft-spoken Budapest mayor and prepared for his candidacy must discuss Márki-Zay regularly. Even independent editors who are so deeply invested in their nothing-can-be-done attitudes, they would rather keep silent about the opposition (unless they can air some scandal about them), have to give him space on merit of the things he says. Sometimes just blunt. Sometimes it can be attacked by misguided sensibilities. But sometimes just simple, common sense statements about corruption that needed to be heard.
He is also a fierce interviewee. He takes even the most loaded and hostile questions without offence, almost as if he had expected them and insists on talking about the “real issues” instead. He seems prepared to blow up Orbán’s usual talking points if presented with an opportunity – like Orbán’s political Christianity, his lies about the economy, his feudalist attitudes about the country, his vassaldom to Putin, and his apparent plans to leave the EU before corruption investigations or anti-oligarch measures catch up with him.
Even Orbánist media outlets that were sent to battle to destroy Márki-Zay (before his candidacy) were burnt on the battlefield as Márki-Zay appears to be prepared to counter-attack. One of his interviews was so disastrous for the Orbánist TV that presented it that it was since removed from their site – only viral recordings circulate.
Orbán must have seen that and felt that he better stays low. He can no longer work his magic in private, not even on the friendly journalists of The Welt or on Bernard-Henri Levy – what chances does he have now against a young and hungry challenger whose brain appears to be fresh and not at all calcified.