Viktor Orban, 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 The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth why his critics are wrong in claiming that he is creating an autocratic, centralized state. Excerpts:
Your president, Pál Schmitt, resigned this week [amid charges that he plagiarized his doctoral 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 more than 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.
Your critics say you rushed the constitution through last year 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.
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.
I think that is unfair. I would say outside observers are worried about the way your country seems to be going and that there seems to be no representation of anything except your point of view. The head of the Media Council is a Fidesz party member and a friend of yours. The head of the National Judicial Office is a friend of yours.
Let’s separate the two issues. The Media Council members are elected by the parliament.
But they are all from your party.
That is not true. In the previous system, delegates were based on party background. Therefore we decided not to have party representation, and only those persons could be members of the council who are supported by the parliament.
Isn’t the head of the Media Council, Annamária Szalai, a member of Fidesz?
Yes, she is. She was a member of our caucus. What is the problem with that?
Why would you have a party person deciding who should receive radio frequencies? Why would a party person go into the state television station and say —
It is a council. It doesn’t run any television.
But it gives out licenses.
The media in Hungary is 90 percent private.
But you have a big state television station.
We have a small state television station, but we also have enormous private ones. At least 75 percent of the Hungarian media is foreign-owned. So go to the owners and ask them why they are not ready to provide proper media freedom.
I met Antonia Meszaros, who was fired from state TV after she interviewed you.
I would not like to defend any individual decision of any organization that is not known to me.
What about [opposition station] Klub Radio? What happened to their frequency? Why did you threaten to take it away?
As far as I know, it was a political discussion in Hungary. They lost a bid.
But there were conditions for Klub Radio to get the license — they had to increase music programming to 50 percent of programming and diminish news programming. And so you gave the tender offer to someone else.
The license ran out, and then there was a bid for it, as there is for all frequencies. If there is any kind of feeling that their interest is not respected, they can go to court, and they have done so. And they won.
But is the government acting in an even-handed fashion toward those in the print media that oppose the government? The government gives out advertising to the print media.
The government owns some companies — like an electric company or an oil company — and they run advertising. Try to imagine Hungary as at least as democratic a country as the United States.
You cannot put your people at the head of every authority and say it’s as democratic as the United States.
That is not true. The first constitutional court judge nominated by the new parliament was a previous MP of the Socialist Party, which is in opposition now. The vice chairman of the national accounting office is a previous MP of the Socialist Party. The budgetary council, which is one of the most powerful institutions in this country, has three members — two members are from the left. How is it you say all institutions are run by us?
What about the International Monetary Fund loan discussions — are you willing to satisfy the IMF’s conditions?
We don’t know what the conditions are.
Yes, you do. They are very upset about your treatment of the central bank.
They said they need an opinion from the European Union that the regulation of the national bank is fine. They asked me to do certain things, and we have done so. We had a plan to unify the national bank and the state financial authority office. The European Union disagreed about that, and therefore we decided not to unite them.
You have given [central bank] Governor Andras Simor a really hard time. He seems like a distinguished civil servant. What’s wrong with him?
Distinguished depends on your taste, but he is a good servant. He stays. Nobody would like to push him out. It’s impossible.
It sends quite a signal when you cut someone’s salary by 75 percent.
Hungary is a poor country. We decided that regardless of what kind of office you have, if you are a public servant, you have a salary cap for everybody of 2 million forints, which is 6,000 euro [about $7,800] per month.
Didn’t you want to put your own person in to run the central bank?
Unfortunately, the Hungarian constitutional system is not able to accept who I admire.
You created a Monetary Council, which sets interest rates and is made up of five Fidesz members.
The Monetary Council members are elected by the parliament. I would be surprised if any of them were members of the Fidesz.
You nominated a personal friend to be the head of the National Judicial Office.
She graduated from the same university and was active in the same anti-communist student movement that I was. She became a judge, and I became a politician.
The NJO head can only be replaced by a two-thirds majority in the parliament, which is difficult to achieve. The Venice Commission said the NJO head “has powers too great to enumerate. She determines the numbers of judges, appoints the presidents of courts, assigns cases — that leads to concern.”
We agreed how to modify it.
How do you think the relationship with the United States is going?
We are strategic allies. We belong to the same defense community. The Hungarian people voted for NATO membership. We are active in the joint actions of NATO.
Such as Afghanistan and Libya?
As far as I know, American [officials] respect the Hungarian achievements. Delegations from the United States that visit me say they are happy for the cooperation in terms of security, so I think we have good relations. And you have American businessmen here in Hungary.
Why did you change the name of Roosevelt Square?
One corner is the academy, which was created by the person who the square is now named after. The two main buildings are [now] named after the person who is called the greatest Hungarian because of the building of the country. . . . We have just set up a Ronald Reagan statue in Freedom Square, and a George [H.W.] Bush statue will be erected soon here in Budapest.
Why did you reduce the number of churches that could exist here from 300 to 32?
We haven’t reduced the number of churches.
Yes, you have. There is another Venice Commission report on churches.
If you would like to have a religious community in Hungary, you can do so — no limitation. The freedom is absolute. It’s about who gets state money and who does not. If somebody would like to get a subsidy from the government, they must fulfill certain criteria. In Hungary, a high number of communities registered themselves as churches, but they were not. They did so just for the money.
They can’t all be illegitimate.
No, we said if you want to get taxpayers’ money, just come and register yourself. But the number of churches here in Hungary is higher than in Austria or Slovakia.
How can you deregister more than 200 churches?
Now 30 are registered.
Originally there were only 16 recognized.
More than 95 percent of the believers are represented by the registered churches.
With the redistricting and the creation of jobs for people who will be in office for nine-year terms, won’t you stay in power for a long time?
There will be an election in Hungary in 2014. Sometimes I win, and sometimes I lose.
But the opposition isn’t in strong shape, and you plan to run again.
Is it my job to help them become stronger? When we established our party in 1988, it was established for national independence and freedom.
You were much more liberal then. When did you move so sharply to the right? Hungary is a secular country, but the constitution now says that this is a Christian country and that life begins at conception.
Life starts at conception and must be protected from the first moment. That was done by the constitutional court 15 years ago. What we have done is that the constitutional court decision is written now in the constitution.
What about homosexuals?
In Hungary, if homosexuals would like to live together, they can do so under the civil code. But what we call marriage is exclusively for one man and one woman. We are a Christian country. That’s a historical fact.
What about the abuse of the Roma [the gypsies] in the countryside?
When I came into power, Hungary was in trouble because we had paramilitary organizations. I banned them.
They have postings on Facebook.
Facebook is an important point because the anti-gypsy and anti-Jewish platform is coming from America.
I have asked for help from the U.S. government to shut down the servers, which in Hungary create a lot of trouble for the gypsies. They are Web pages — not Facebook. That is the only radical, organized platform for racist appeals.
Why did you put stress taxes on four sectors, which are mostly foreign-owned: banking, telecom, retail and energy?
Because we have a crisis. In 2010, Hungary was in worse shape than Greece. In order to get out of this crisis, we initiated crisis taxation because we need income.
Don’t these taxes dry up foreign investment?
We are flourishing. Just two days ago, I opened a Mercedes factory that will produce 1 percent of GDP next year.
Doesn’t starting your own state telecom company and putting a tax on foreign telecoms send a signal to other businesses that you might do the same to their companies?
Hey, come on. The German telecom [is] more than 30 percent owned by the German state.
Who is going to be the next president? Didn’t you say it would be someone to the right of you?
Is there anybody to the right of me? I am always accused of being a bloody rightist person.