Hungary’s last Smallholder leader József Torgyán dies

Anyone who followed politics in Hungary during the nineties and in the early years of the current century remembers József Torgyán–the colourful chairman of the Independent Smallholders’ Party, former Minister of Agriculture and a true connoisseur of hyperbole. Mr. Torgyán’s wife and also a former Member of Parliament, Mária Cseh, confirmed that her husband died at their home in Budapest on Sunday, at age 84. There had been occasional news items in Hungary over the last month that Mr. Torgyán was ill, had been hospitalized and suffered from a heart condition.

József Torgyán in 2007. Photo: Imre Földi / MTI

Mr. Torgyán served as a Member of Parliament for the Independent Smallholders’ Party (Független Kisgazda Párt – FKGP) for 12 years, between 1990 and 2002 and as FKGP chairman for 11 years (1991-2002). After he joined the first Orbán government as its junior coalition partner, Mr. Torgyán had a three year stint as Minister of Agriculture (1998-2001). At one time, Mr. Torgyán famously declared: “Without me, the Smallholders’ Party is like a groom without his tool.”

The FKGP leader was born in the northeastern Hungarian town of Mátészalka into a Greek Catholic family, with several family members on his maternal side having served as clergy. His father’s family hailed from the peasantry. Mr. Torgyán moved to Budapest as a child, in 1936, where he later finished law school. During the days of the 1956 Revolution, Mr. Torgyán was a member of the revolutionary committee in the Budapest suburb of Újpest and following the uprising worked a manual labourer at a steel casting plant. He was allowed to practice law starting in 1959 and continued to do so until his entry into active politics in 1990.

József Torgyán’s political party had roots stretching back to 1945, when it resoundingly won what was Hungary’s first democratic national election. It represented an eclectic mix of conservatism, Christian conservatism, advocacy for rural populations and populism, as well as anti-fascism during its early years (its former chairman Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky was murdered by the Hungarian Arrow-Cross on Christmas Eve in 1944). The Smallholders won 57% of the vote in 1945, yet were forced by Soviet Commander Marshal Kliment Voroshilov to enter into a coalition with the Hungarian Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, as well as the National Peasant Party. With communist politicians leading key departments, such as the Interior Ministry, FKGP was pressured to remove dozens of its politicians from positions of power on trumped up charges and accusations. In 1947, the party’s first secretary, Béla Kovács was convicted of conspiring against the state and the Soviet occupying force as part of an underground movement, and was deported to a gulag in the Soviet Union, then later confined to a prison in Moscow.

Using what became known as “salami tactics,” the FKGP was gradually weakened and then eliminated after 1948 by Hungary’s Stalinist leader, Mátyás Rákosi. The party was briefly re-established during the days of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, but once again disappeared after the uprising was suppressed by the Soviet army. It was then re-established on November 18, 1988, in the dying days of Hungary’s Kádár regime.

In the newly proclaimed Republic of Hungary’s first free democratic elections in 1990, FKGP won 12% of the vote in the first round of voting and 44 seats in Parliament, becoming the country’s third largest party, after the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). FKGP’s campaign slogan was “wine, wheat and peace!” FKGP served briefly as the victorious MDF’s junior coalition partner.

In 1994, the reformed communists, by then known as the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), returned to power under Prime Minister Gyula Horn, the country’s former Foreign Minister who played a critical role in dismantling the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary in 1989. FKGP’s support slipped, with the party winning just 8% of the vote in the first round of voting and returning to parliament with only 26 seats. During Mr. Horn’s four years in power, József Torgyán would be a favourite for satirists, as he used overheated anti-communist rhetoric against the government, called on the prime minister to resign on an almost daily basis and once suggested that the low Hungarian birthrate was due to the fact that “Hungarian women did not want to give birth because of Mr. Horn.”

Mr. Torgyán initially appeared to stand a good chance of succeeding Mr. Horn and beating MSZP in the next elections, with polling in 1996 showing his party hovering between 25% and 30%. But in a highly controversial speech that he gave in 1996 in front of some 150,000 people in Budapest, he spoke about his liberal opponents as “worms” that had to be “exterminated.” This was pre-Jobbik Hungary and it was before Fidesz took a hard-right, populist term. The Hungarian public was not accustomed to this type of language and Mr. Torgyán’s words were roundly condemned by all parties, including the then liberal-conservative Fidesz and one if its most prominent politicians at the time, József Szájer.

By the time that the 1998 elections came around, Fidesz had morphed itself into a moderate conservative political force, having realised that the anachronistic and divided Hungarian right, as it stood, was in no position to take over power from the socialists. MSZP actually won the first round of voting with 32% of the vote. Fidesz trailed with 28% and Mr. Torgyán’s FKGP garnered 13%, followed by MSZP’s junior partner, the liberal SZDSZ, with 8%. It was, in large part, Mr. Torgyán’s decision to support Fidesz candidates in the second round of voting that propelled 35 year old Viktor Orbán to power.

In the Orbán cabinet, Mr. Torgyán was criticised for using significant public funds to save the struggling Ferencvárosi Torna Club, Hungary’s most prominent professional football club. Mr. Torgyán also made headlines for exporting Hungarian cherries to Chile and hoped to then import Chilean cherries to Hungary when they were in season, thus making cherries available to Hungarian consumers throughout much of the year. Mr. Torgyán’s efforts did not pay off and it was not possible to sell Hungarian cherries, in large quantity, in the Chilean market.

Internal feuds and divisions began to appear in FKGP starting in 2000. Nepotism within the Orbán government, due to the activities of FKGP politicians, also reared its head. Mr. Torgyán and his supporters tried to secure his position as party chairman by changing the party’s internal rules, making it tougher to remove him. By 2001, part of FKGP’s parliamentary caucus turned against the party leader and Mr. Torgyán was forced to resign as minister, but hoped (in vain) to have a hand-picked successor replace him.

The party then began a two year process of destroying itself–with constant feuds, resignations and by banning renitent members. The party split into several factions and in the 2002 elections, FKGP had managed to reduce itself to just 0.75% of the vote. The party never recovered and Mr. Torgyán resigned, leaving active politics.

József Torgyán with his wife, Mária Cseh. Photo: MTI.

Over the years, Mr. Torgyán occasionally appeared in television interviews, where he came across as a jovial, somewhat quirky personality, displaying a degree of paternalism. He seemed like the old-fashioned, colourful uncle from a very different generation and proposed that in order to improve Hungary’s reputation internationally, the government should hold a public event in which it formally offers up the country to Mary, the Mother of God.  He lived in a house in the Buda hills, where the walls were adorned with maps of pre-1920 Greater Hungary and framed pictures of himself with international leaders, including Yasser Arafat and the Dalai Lama. He was known to offer visitors copious amounts of coffee and tea, in succession. Mr. Torgyán tried to make a comeback with a new party in 2006, but with no success.

In one of his last interviews, given to the Magyar Nemzet daily in 2016, Mr. Torgyán said: “If Fidesz were wise, it would realize that it has come into conflict with every segment of society. Once it finds itself faced with an acceptable opponent, it will have no allies left and little strength to win an election. (…) My wife used to tell me: If I would have stayed in active politics, I would no longer be alive. I consider Fidesz to have saved my life, by having killed me politically.”

2 Comments

  1. May he rest in peace.

    He did nothing to end the one party dictatorship of Kádár – according to the Mécs Committee, he was a police informer after 1956. After 1990, he made a major contribution to Hungary’s departure from the path of democracy, indeed, he happily paved the way to Orbán’s autocracy, until the latter decided to go it alone. Torgyán is just one of the tragically flawed, and irresponsible politicians of post-communist Hungary.

  2. He was antisemitic.

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