National pride is very important to Hungary’s leading party, Fidesz, and the government backed by its majority; it is the heart of their political vision. The new constitution’s preamble, called “National Creed”, addresses the interpretation of Hungarian history and concentrates on its glorious events and periods. Concerning the decades under communism, it says that the country was under foreign occupation, and that the nation had lost its capacity to govern itself. Mr Orbán’s government loves to “declare”, to make laws about symbolic debates, and about the correct interpretation of history. The government considers its work to be a new beginning, a new historical era. Mr Schmitt signed the new constitution during Easter, in a reference to the resurrection of Christ. The government wanted to base its legitimacy in part on these declarations, on these newly established traditions.
This is why symbolic roles are so important in Hungary, and the role of the president is mainly symbolic. During his career, Schmitt achieved many things which are respected across the political spectrum, both as a sportsman – he is an Olympic champion – and as a successful diplomat with the International Olympic Committee. It was part of his image that he had academic qualifications in this field as well – a life story without any gaps. Schmitt always wanted to be viewed as dignified. Otherwise, he would not have committed plagiarism; he did not need his doctorate and never used it.
As a politician, however, Schmitt became ridiculous very early. His loyalty to Fidesz and Mr Orbán was so exaggerated that no one took him seriously as an autonomous political figure. His speeches sought to convey an air of dignity, yet these efforts only revealed their emptiness even more clearly. Even before the scandal broke, the internet was always full of jokes about Schmitt, and afterwards all suspicions were confirmed. The scandal showed the emptiness of the political aims that chose him as a symbolic leader – a role model. The one thing that Fidesz and Mr Orbán clearly learned from Schmitt’s fall was that if you want to be perceived as a dignified person, you cannot be seen as excessively loyal to those in power. This is probably why they chose János Áder to succeed him.
Mr Áder is (not formally but practically) the founder of Fidesz, and has been a member of the party since the very beginning of his career. Still, when Mr Orbán’s leading role in the party was questioned after losing two elections in 2007, the leading right-wing daily Magyar Nemzet accused Mr Áder of planning to betray Mr Orbán and Fidesz by becoming the leader of a new right-wing party. The article was attributed to a non-existent journalist, and no one knows who really authored it. In 2009, Mr Áder became a Member of the European Parliament, and most commentators suggested he was anxious to leave the country over conflicts with Mr Orbán. Whatever the reason, these events allow Mr Áder to be perceived as an independent president who will not sign every law that Mr Orbán places before him.
Mr Áder’s first speech, immediately after his election, signalled a desire to represent the entire Hungarian political community, even though his party has often sought to exclude those outside its support base. After losing the 2002 elections, for example, Mr Orbán said that “the motherland cannot be in opposition”, and other Fidesz representatives have made similar exclusionary statements from time to time. After Mr Schmitt’s resignation, Speaker of the National Assembly László Kövér said that the Socialist party’s elected MPs did not deserve to sit in parliament. A few days later, the Socialists were preparing to walk out of parliament to protest the election of a former Fidesz politician as president, Mr Kövér said he would prefer for them to leave , as the ceremony would be more dignified without them. Mr Áder’s speech can thus be understood as a response both to Mr Kövér and to opposition MPs. He expressed his gratitude to those who did not support him because, he said, one can learn from those who criticise one’s deeds. He also tried to address all social strata and ethnic groups, emphasising that he considers himself the symbolic leader of the whole country, and that the opposition and the majority belong to one political nation. The nation is divided by different political values, different memories of the past and different opportunities, he said, but should be united as a political and cultural community. The speech itself contained merely attractive platitudes, but its context made it very important.
We should not forget, however, that Mr Áder took part in preparing the new election law and the “judicial reform” – both of which were severely criticised in Hungary and abroad. Mr Orbán did not take a huge risk in choosing Mr Áder, but on the other hand Mr Schmitt turned out to be a much greater risk than Mr Orbán ever would have imagined. It is not yet clear whether Mr Áder’s proclaimed desire to serve the rule of law rather than the rule of Mr Orbán is genuine, but even someone who can very convincingly pretend to be autonomous, and to believe in independent institutions where politicians are constrained by independent media and not vice versa – someone like this, over time, will likely begin to resemble the role he plays. If not, he will be just as ridiculous as Mr Schmitt.
György Vári is a journalist working for the weekly Magyar Narancs, who also writes articles for Hungary’s leading daily, Népszabadság. His main focus is internal affairs. His PhD thesis was a monograph on Imre Kertész, and was published in 2003.