László Sólyom served as President of Hungary–a largely ceremonial role–between 2005 and 2010. Mr. Sólyom, an environmentalist who was well respected among conservatives and many liberals as well, was Viktor Orbán’s ally at the time. He was elected President of Hungary by Parliament–which at the time had a left-centre majority–thanks to the strategic machinations of Fidesz, then in opposition, and the fact that the now defunct Alliance of Free Democrats, the coalition partner of the governing Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), was not willing to support the Socialist candidate for President, Katalin Szili. (As an aside, today Ms. Szili works for Mr. Orbán, as a consultant in the Prime Minister’s Office–how things have changed…)
Mr. Sólyom, now 74 years old, has led a relatively private and quiet existence since the end of his five year term as president. He spoke up on occasion against the new Fundamental Law introduced by Fidesz, which replaced the former constitution–a document, which the former president was intimately familiar with, having served on the Constitutional Court of Hungary during the nineties. Mr. Sólyom was also seen playing a very commendable, yet humble role during the refugee crisis in Budapest last summer. He was a volunteer with the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service and handed out cookies to refugee children in and around the Keleti Pályaudvar train station.
He certainly wasn’t engaging in this good deed for the media attention. In fact, he has largely evaded journalists. For instance, when his wife Erzsébet died in February 2015, he managed to keep this news from the tabloid press for a full eight months. The media only found out about the death of the former president’s wife in October of that year and even in that case, Mr. Sólyom provided no public statement.
But when Mr. Sólyom does make the occasional public statement, people certainly pay attention. The former president was a speaker and moderator Wednesday evening at a gathering of conservative intellectuals, who have been increasingly critical of the Orbán regime. The so-called József Eötvös Group, named after a nineteenth century Hungarian writer and politician, was formed in late 2015 and has been quite sharply critical of the populism and demagoguery of the regime, as well as its oligarchic nature. Regular members of the group include Attila Chikán, a former minister of the first Orbán government (1998-2002), Béla Kádár, a minister of the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) government, which assumed office in 1990, and Péter Ákos Bod, former Governor of the Hungarian National Bank. Another regular participant is András Schiffer, leader of the Politics Can Be Different (Lehet Más a Politika – LMP) green party. Mr. Schiffer is a friend of Mr. Sólyom, and he was present Wednesday night, to listen to the former president’s speech.
Mr. Sólyom used particularly stinging words for the politics of Fidesz and Mr. Orbán, especially in terms of their top-down, authoritarian and regressive approach to public education. “The main characteristics of the regime include aggression, centralization and mercilessness. With this, they also take the necessary reforms down a completely wrong path,” noted Mr. Sólyom. He then added: “We are talking about critical problems, that not a single government has been able to solve. These include poverty, the state of public health care and schooling.”
Mr. Sólyom, who also moderated the evening, commended protesting teachers for their bravery. In fact, Mr. Sólyom joined one such protest earlier this year, near a Buda school.
Much like the former president, the József Eötvös Group has worked largely under the radar. Initially, they met in private, although more recently, representatives of the media have been invited. They show a completely different face of Hungarian conservatism–or what it could be. I suspect that many of the group’s members are now loosely affiliated with LMP, even though the small opposition protest party started off very much to the left of the Socialists on many socio-economic issues.