Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for the portal index.hu

11 June 2024

Szabolcs Szalai: You haven’t given a long interview to Index for over ten years, but now you’ve agreed to our request. Why did you make an exception this time?

You’ve survived the last ten years or more, and I congratulate you on that. It’s been an exciting and important election. That’s why.

For this reason we have a large backlog of questions, but let’s start with the most topical ones. A few days ago in Dabas, on your tour of the country, I asked you what you expected to see on Sunday. You said a “landslide pro-peace victory”. Is this it?

Something like this – because it really was a landslide pro-peace victory. From the votes that were cast it was clear that the Hungarian public – perhaps even a significant portion of the Left – supported the Government in its efforts to protect Hungary from the danger of war. On Sunday the Government received the endorsement it needed in its stand for peace. 

More than two million people voted for the Fidesz-KDNP list for the European Parliament, a higher number of votes than five years ago; but because of the high turnout this was still a lower percentage than before. Just days before the election, Medián had predicted a result of around 50 per cent for you, but you ended up with 44.79 per cent.

We prefer to see that as 45 per cent.

Okay, let’s round it up to 45 per cent – but that’s still not the number many people expected. In addition, TISZA, led by Péter Magyar, who’s only been in public life for a few months, has achieved a surprising result of around 30 per cent. Disappointed?

I can say two things. First, 45 per cent is a good result. The other is that this was an election in which we had to defeat two opponents at the same time: the old opposition and the new opposition. We defeated them both, and by several furlongs. A silver medal shines brightly, but a gold is even brighter.

Péter Magyar has said that TISZA is within shooting distance of Fidesz. Doesn’t this concern you?

In politics there’s always cause for concern – sometimes minor, sometimes major. Those who can’t live with it have chosen the wrong profession. The questions of who’s within what shooting distance and who has the gun are ones that should be left for the next election campaign. There’s been an election in Hungary that we’ve won. Moreover, we’ve won it with more people voting for us than in any previous European Parliament election. On the one hand, 44–45 per cent is less than we got last time, but still, more than two million people voted for us. In 2019, when we won over 50 per cent, we got 1.8 million votes. One thing I do know is that we’ve always won – now and in the past – because we worked hard for it. The answer lies in working with humility. What keeps us going is always achievement – and for that one must work.

Earlier you said – half-jokingly – that you’d be satisfied if you won all twenty-one of the twenty-one EP seats available.

We took eleven of them, so more than half. You can’t always swim a world record time in every race; sometimes you have to settle for a European record. In this race, we set one, because no one else in Europe had anywhere near the support we had – apart from the usual outstanding Maltese Labour result, of course. Today any party on the continent running in this election would gladly swap places with us. Why should I be dissatisfied?

Because the stakes in this election were higher than ever. You said that we’re now deciding the question of war and peace.

If we look at the election not from a party viewpoint, but from the viewpoint of the really important issues, that’s what was at stake. With this election our aim was to slow down – and then stop – the European train that’s hurtling towards war. And we succeeded. The pro-peace forces have strengthened – not only in Hungary, but also in Europe. In the key country of France, for example, where you find people who were perhaps most committed to sending Western soldiers to the war in Ukraine, the political system has been overturned. Now early parliamentary elections have to be held there, where there’s a good chance of a repeat of Sunday’s victory for the pro-peace party. This is what I’ve been working on for the last few months, I’ve been putting everything into this, I’ve been touring the country in the cause of peace, and this is what I’ve been talking to everyone about. I think that in this struggle between pro-peace and pro-war forces, we in Europe are leading 1–0, the half-time whistle has sounded, and the second half is being played in the United States. And there’s a good chance of winning over there too.

In France there’s been a real turnaround. But in Slovakia, for example, your political allies Robert Fico’s party have only come second, as have PiS in Poland.

I think that in Slovakia, too, the pro-peace forces are in the majority, but they’re just spread across three or four different parties. Poland’s a different story: a pro-war party won there, but the runner-up is also a pro-war party.

For a long time you’ve been talking about the need for a kind of rightward turn in Europe. If you look at the map now, at these results, can you see it? Do you have international allies in the European political mainstream?

Today, the Right is organised into two parties in Europe: the ECR [European Conservatives and Reformists] and ID [Identity and Democracy]. If they could finally get together and Fidesz joined this grouping, it would be the second largest European political group. We’d overtake the Socialists, the Greens and everyone else, and only the European People’s Party would be ahead of us – although I think that the emergence of such a right-wing party would take voters away even from them. So the turnaround is within reach. The key question is whether the Italian and French party presidents can agree with each other. If they can, a rightward turn in Europe will not only be a possibility, but a fact. 

Let’s return to Hungary for a moment. In our country on Sunday there was not only a European Parliament election, but also local elections. In some Budapest districts and cities with county status you managed to turn the tide compared to 2019, but elsewhere you were defeated. How do you assess the results overall?

In the provinces we suffered painful losses and scored fantastic victories. The loss of Szolnok and Győr are painful, although in the latter we won fourteen out of the fifteen electoral districts, and only failed to win the Mayor’s seat. The case of Győr is a lesson that if we cannot put old, unresolved issues behind us, sooner or later they’ll catch up with us. There the Borkai affair caught up with us, and this is why the Mayor lost.

Do you think that Zsolt Borkai’s return to local politics split voters on the Right?

It certainly didn’t help. We weren’t steely enough, because we couldn’t completely extinguish a matter that had caused national discontent. Our hearts also ache for Szolnok, a key municipality for the development of the armed forces, where we have a lot of work to do. The previous mayor was our partner in this, and now we’re waiting to see what will happen with the next one. We also scored some proud victories at the weekend. Winning Miskolc, for example, was a famous feat of arms, almost as difficult as taking Berlin. We’re also proud of Salgótarján – I’m glad that we managed to get the chance to prove ourselves there. You know, it’s nice to win Budapest’s District XII, District V, Győr or the traditionally successful big cities; but Dunaújváros, Tatabánya or Salgótarján, they’re real political challenges. The lesson for me is the same: success requires work carried out with humility, and more work. 

What happened in the capital? A few days before the mayoral election in Budapest, Alexandra Szentkirályi stepped down in favour of your former state secretary for transport, who wasn’t nominated by Fidesz, but by an opposition party. From the beginning Gergely Karácsony [the incumbent] said that this is what would eventually happen. Was he right? Was Dávid Vitézy’s candidacy and the move by Fidesz’s mayoral candidate a conspiracy born in the Carmelite Monastery [the Prime Minister’s Office]?

As far as the Mayor of Budapest’s opinion is concerned, let’s just say that ill doers are ill deemers. If we run somewhere, we want to win there. We’re the great Hungarian governing party, which has just won its twelfth and thirteenth elections in a row. Once we get into a fight, we commit ourselves to it fully. I think Alexandra Szentkirályi led a campaign that Fidesz hasn’t managed in Budapest for a long time. We’re very proud of her.

Did you really think she was a good candidate? 

Excellent. Here she didn’t get any further because the community-building work we’ve done in Budapest in recent years hasn’t been of a high enough standard.

Is this a criticism of the Fidesz leadership in Budapest?

More of a statement of fact. If I have to criticise anyone, it’s myself, because I’m the President of this party. We weren’t in an easy position in Budapest, given that the job of Mayor was previously done by István Tarlós, who wasn’t a member of Fidesz, and whom we supported externally. We respect him and his work, but his period as Mayor didn’t bring with it the building and strengthening of Fidesz and of the civic, national, Christian community in the capital. And so Alexandra Szentkirályi started from a disadvantage. I was one of those who listened to her when she said that change was needed in Budapest, but that she couldn’t achieve it now, and so she would step down. In the end, the majority of people in the capital didn’t think so. As Prime Minister and as a resident of Budapest I accept and acknowledge this.

There were rumours that there was a serious casting process within Fidesz to find a challenger to Gergely Karácsony. Why wasn’t Dávid Vitézy chosen by default?

It never occurred to me. There have been so many conflicts between Dávid Vitézy and the Government in recent years that I couldn’t have accepted such a divisive candidate to run in our colours. The party couldn’t have united behind him.

István Tarlós also had skirmishes with János Lázár earlier. There have always been conflicts between the incumbent mayor and the Government over the lack of funding for the capital. Or was it more of a personal disagreement between Dávid Vitézy and his transport minister?

I’d rather say that it ran deeper than a professional dispute usually does. Conflicts are part of everyday life in politics, but within the Government, especially between Minister Lázár and Dávid Vitézy, it got to the point at which he couldn’t be the Fidesz candidate.

Do you regret that it turned out that way?

What I regret is that although many of us wanted change in Budapest, it didn’t happen. I have some knowledge of the state of this city, and there are big problems. Budapest is on the verge of financial collapse, or has already collapsed. So here the elected representatives and the Mayor have their work cut out if they want to pull the city out of this situation.

Gergely Karácsony claims that it was you who pushed the capital into this situation, with government cutbacks.

That isn’t a debate worth having. If someone takes on a city and runs it, then let him run it. It’s not good enough if you fail but always skilfully identify a third party as being responsible. If I miskick the ball, I don’t look at my boots or the grass, because I’m the one who miskicked.

It seems that the people of Budapest have now given Gergely Karácsony a renewed mandate for another five years. Does he want to settle the relationship between the Government and the capital? After all, they have to work together on a number of issues for the benefit of the people of the city.

Our situation’s easier now, because Alexandra Szentkirályi sits in the City Assembly, and she’s a leader who’s absolutely capable of negotiating.

So if the Mayor wants to get something done with the Government, should he go to Fidesz’s Budapest faction leader and not come here to the Carmelite Monastery?

The Mayor must first solve the problems in Budapest. He must always deal with problems where they arise. If that fails, the Government is at his disposal.

Finally, let’s talk a little more about Péter Magyar. Many people on the opposition side now see the former husband of the former Minister of Justice as the chance of replacing you, because he’s a defector from Fidesz, someone who has seen a lot and experienced a lot.

We’ve never seen him as a defector from Fidesz. His membership of the inner circle is only a legend that he’s put about, because the inner circle of Fidesz have no knowledge of that. He received the courtesy due to the husband of the Minister of Justice, but he was simply never on our radar screen.

All the same, many on the opposition side are confident that his emergence will create divisions within Fidesz, and that it could even lead to a party split. The Vice President of TISZA has said that after the elections there will be some people who will move to them from Fidesz.
I’ve never been excited by the political peepshow of peeking to see who’s up to what or where they want to stand. There’s a clear order to our work. Everyone has their own job to do. My job is to ensure that the Government – the current and future Fidesz leaders – perform to the best of their ability over the next year and a half or two, until the next election. And we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. We’ve just fought a battle that we won, beating the second placed party by 15 per cent. We’re by far the largest party, and so I’m optimistic about the future. 

On several occasions Péter Magyar has referred to Gergely Gulyás, the minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office, as a friend. The political analyst Gábor Török has said that this could have undermined confidence in him. Did this really test your confidence in him?
Gergely has plenty of work to do to fend off the ribbing on this, but it’s nothing more than locker-room banter – although of the stronger variety. He can take it.