Forcing Viktor Orbán to debate his opponents through legislation

Hungary has gone through two national election campaigns (2010 and 2014), in which Prime Minister Viktor Orbán refused to engage his opponents in televised debates. Ever since performing poorly against then Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in the 2006 election debate (an election that Mr. Orbán lost to the Hungarian Socialist Party – Alliance of Free Democrats coalition), Mr. Orbán has avoided all debates with his opponents. Indeed, Hungary’s prime minister is a better orator than he is a debater and rarely does he grant interviews to journalists who will pose critical question or push back on his responses. It is known among political observers in Hungary, that his experience with Mr. Gyurcsány in 2006 was bruising and jarring for Mr. Orbán.

Viktor Orbán debates then Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2006. The experience was so jarring for Mr. Orbán that he never again engaged in debate with an opponent.

On Tuesday, Socialist MP Bertalan Tóth and independent MP Tímea Szabó (who is a candidate on the joint MSZP – Párbeszéd list for the 8th April election) proposed an amendment to the election law that would require the sitting Hungarian prime minister to engage in two debates during national election campaigns. According to the proposal, both debates would be a minimum of 90 minutes in duration. The first debate would include the lead candidate of each party or party alliance that fields a national list in the given election. The second debate, however, would be reserved for the candidate for prime minister or leading candidate of the two most popular parties, based on the most recent polling data. This proposal actually codifies what was practiced in Hungary until 2006. It was typical to have two national debates in each campaign, with the second one reserved for the two leading candidates. Some of our readers will recall the debate back in 1998 between a youthful, 35 year old Viktor Orbán and veteran Socialist politician and then Prime Minister Gyula Horn.

Prime Minister Gyula Horn debates Viktor Orbán in 1998.

Based on this proposal and current polling data, Mr. Orbán would debate Gábor Vona of Jobbik in the second round, while the first debate would also include the leading candidate or prime ministerial nominee of MSZP-P, the Democratic Coalition, Politics Can Be Different (LMP) and likely a handful of other parties that manage to field a national list, such as Együtt and possibly Momentum and Munkáspárt.

According to the proposal, the debates would be held between five and ten days before voting day.

The proposal is sound and it is based on common practice in Hungary until 2006 and in nearly every country that hold democratic election. While the proposal is likely to have the support of every opposition party, it will be defeated. We can say for certain that Fidesz will veto the proposal and it will never become law. It is not in the interests of the ruling regime to ever create the perception that there are alternatives to the country’s current ruler and that he has any legitimate opponents.

At the local riding level, particularly in Budapest, there have already been several debates between candidates hosted by activist Márton Gulyás’ Country for All movement (Közös Ország Mozgalom, in Hungarian). I watched the debate between candidates in Budapest’s Józsefváros-Ferencváros electoral district and the video is available on YouTube. While some controversy erupted about whether or not the local candidate from the Hungarian Gypsy Party (Magyar Cigány Párt – MCP), Ilona Nótár, should be permitted to participate alongside candidates of larger, more prominent parties (in the end she did participate, and did a fine job), the debate was a good example of intelligent, policy-driven discussion and competing ideas. Every national party except Fidesz, which refuses to engage in democratic debate, was present–including Attila Ara-Kovács of the Democratic Coalition (also supported by MSZP-P), Dóra Dúró of Jobbik, Tamás Jakabfy of LMP, Katalin Cseh of Momentum and Krisztina Baranyi of Együtt. Máté Kocsis of Fidesz refused to attend and his place was ultimately occupied by Ms. Nótár–an articulate candidate with a great deal of local credibility and experience in Józsefváros.

If one sees past the fact that the ruling party boycotted the debate, this local discussion–which was well-attended in person, streamed online and watched on YouTube by more than 3,500 people–offered an insightful look at how the opposition candidates would address issues of significance to the local population and beyond on the national stage that is parliament–issues such as affordable housing, social solidarity and the far broader question of democracy.

Hungary needs many more of these debates–and it needs Fidesz to participate in them.

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