Hungary’s Controversial Prime Minister Gives His First Interview to an American Journalist

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 6 2012 6:11 PM

“Freedom Is Not the Property of the Liberals”

Hungary’s controversial prime minister Viktor Orbán gives his first interview to an American journalist.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

ATTILA KISBENEDEK

BUDAPEST, Hungary—Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, was once a leftist freedom fighter against the Soviets. But in 1994, he took a turn to the right and never looked back. As head of the Fidesz Party, he has governed since 2010 with a two-thirds majority in the parliament. Last week, in his first interview with an American journalist, he tried to explain to Lally Weymouth why his critics are wrong in claiming that he is creating an autocratic, centralized state. Excerpts:

Yesterday your president, Pál Schmitt, resigned [amid accusations that he plagiarized his master's dissertation].
The [president is] … a friend and a great hero in Hungarian sport history. It is his own decision and the only thing we can do is respect it.

I understood that the prime minister had the power and the president was more or less a figurehead.
The point is that power is regulated by the constitution. The first thesis of the constitution is that nobody can exercise power by himself.

Your party has a two-thirds majority in parliament. That's absolute power.
Even with two-thirds majority, the caucus cannot do anything.

They have passed over 368 bills since the 2010 election.
They can pass whatever regulation they would like to do so if it is not against the constitution.

Since you came to power, the constitution has been completely rewritten.
We are very proud of that because that was our mission. Hungary was the only central European country that was not able to create a new constitution after the collapse of the communist regime.

You were at the Round Table [talks in Hungary] where the constitution was rewritten in 1989.
When we rewrote the constitution, we said this is an interim constitution.

But the entire constitution was rewritten and you had a big role in that.
Unfortunately not enough. I was involved in the reconstruction of the constitution, but the communists were there as well.

Since your party, Fidesz, won a two-thirds majority, you have basically obliterated all checks and balances. Do you agree?
No. The constitution is based on checks and balances. That is a very unfair domestic opinion.

Your critics say you rushed the constitution through without consulting the opposition.
That is factually false. There was a commission created by the parliament. It invited all the parties represented in the parliament——even the opposition—to be part of that process.

Isn't it fair to say the outcome of the legislation has been to concentrate all power in your hands?
The constitution by itself does not make it possible to concentrate any kind of power.

You created a new judicial authority, the National Judicial Office, which the Venice Commission [of the Council of Europe] has attacked because it has too much power. Moreover, the commission also criticized recent legislation which says that judges are now forced to retire at 62 instead of 70.
Because the general age limit for any kind of job is 62.

That's not true. People who work at universities here are allowed to teach until 70.
That's a point, whether we should reduce that age or not. I am not against it, but there are a lot of opponents from the professors. But basically the average age to retire is 62.

Why did you decide there should be a board to control the media? You appoint the head of the media board, and parliament appoints every member of the board. And members stay in power for nine years and cannot be replaced unless there is a two-thirds vote in the parliament.
Everybody agreed that the previous media regulation system collapsed. It was the responsibility for the new parliament to create a system that works. Until the last election, international observers like you admired the Hungarian system because two-thirds majority means consensus. Now that we have a two-thirds majority, it is an accusation.

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