Átlátszó’s review of IRI’s involvement in Hungarian politics has turned up a history going back to 1990, when the organisation, which was then named the National Republican Institute for International Affairs, donated thousands of dollars to MDF, the main initial right-wing democratic party on the local political spectrum at the time of the transition to democracy.
At the time, Fidesz was considered a liberal party, but at least after 1994, with MDF falling from power and Orbán’s party disappointing at the elections, Fidesz began to move towards the right. According to news reports of the era, one Daniel Odescalchi, another US political advisor played a key role around these events.
The name Odescalchi has a history in Hungary: the local branch of the old Italian banking family has elevated among the aristocracy of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Ironically enough, the former mansion of the Odescalchis in Budapest now belongs to the family of former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, the most visible political opponent of PM Viktor Orbán, and Gyurcsánys wife, Klára Dobrev, another key opposition politician.
Daniel Odescalchi, a US political advisor who also speaks Hungarian, has turned up as advisor to József Antall, the MDF PM at the time in 1992. According to Odescalchi’s online available field report from the time, he had to tackle peculiar issues among the Hungarian politicians unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of free elections. MDF people, in general, tended to dismiss any polling results, believing that the pollsters were all under “liberal” influence. Elected MP’s weren’t keen on actually going to their respective electoral regions and meeting their voters.
As opposed to the campaign methods in the US at the time, Odescalchi was surprised to find that the main force in government didn’t have any database to facilitate voter outreach. As a solution, he implemented mass mail surveys, and a central office supporting the campaigns of various local candidates.
But he was also drafted in to help with particularly sensitive matters as well. According to the website of Strategic Advantage International, Odescalchi’s consultancy firm, they were behind the communications team that “helped the government of Hungary when the international community accused it of illegally selling arms to Croatia during an arms embargo during the Bosnian War”; and they were also assisting the government “in developing a campaign to sell the concept of privatization” to the Hungarian public.
After Antall’s untimely death, his replacement Péter Boross basically greeted Odescalchi with the following words, according to the advisor’s field report: “You do your campaign, but leave me out of it.” Odescalchi had a conflict with the MDF mainstream as well and left their employment in 1994.
But he didn’t leave Hungarian politics. After postcommunist MSZP won the elections and pulled liberal SZDSZ into a coalition government, Odescalchi played a key role in the pulling together of the plethora of beaten right-wing parties that later resulted in their 1998 win. That was the time he also started to work with Orbán.
“When I first met Orbán I worked with the Antall Government. Once MSZP won the election, I created and ran a program called Survival in a Democracy to support the center-right parties. At the time, Fidesz, and their leader, Viktor Orbán, were rising stars. This was probably 1994/95. Orbán was seen as a darling of the West due to his anti-communist, anti-authoritarian rhetoric” — wrote Odescalchi in an email to Átlátszó.
“The goal of Survival of a Democracy was to prop up these new parties who, at the time, had difficulty getting monetary support. Survival in a Democracy received funding from 13 international organizations who wanted to make sure Hungary had a robust and competitive multi-party system. They also want the center-right to be able to compete in elections.”
Odescalchi’s job was to create public opinion polls that were paid for by Survival in a Democracy, and then present the polling results to the center-right parties. They would also present strategies that the parties could implement based on polling.
“Fidesz was a priority of the program” — Odescalchi wrote.
The program said to be supporting a multiparty character of the Hungarian democracy, however, became a topic of multiparty mudslinging in Budapest, after a leaked message allegedly posited that Americans, who would like to finance a centre-right alliance, would like to see less of the Smallholders Party and their demagogue, but popular leader József Torgyán and more of SZDSZ — which incensed MDF folks, who harbored deep resentment against the liberals.
Contemporary press reports do not speak of 13 organisations supporting the program. In a 1995 article in Magyar Nemzet, there are only two supporters named:
“Strategic Advantage International Ltd., an American political consultancy institute — which doesn’t hide its aim to strengthen Hungarian conservative parties — held the fourth gathering of [the program] with the support of the International Republican Institute and Batthyány Lajos Alapítvány.”
In 1995, Odescalchi left Hungary to join Steve Forbes’ ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the presidency, but returned again for some time to Budapest. We don’t know when he stopped advising Orbán, but his ideas, apparently, foreshadowed Fidesz politics for years.
In 1996, he told Magyar Nemzet: “We still support the idea for these parties to establish an alliance. I made up the whole program — that these opposition parties should come together — because they are much stronger together.”
Notably, after the 1998 elections brought Orbán’s first stint as PM, his party started to employ various political plays to break their rivals — which were also their nominal allies either in government or in belief. By various methods and to differing extent, several right-wing parties met such fate, including both MDF and the Smallholders. Their voter base was integrated into Fidesz, which grew big enough in size to directly rival the left-liberal block afterwards.
Fidesz even changed its official name in the 2003 aftermath of these events to include “alliance” instead of “party”. They haven’t changed the name since.
Written by Márton Sarkadi Nagy. Hungarian original was also written by Márton Sarkadi Nagy for Átlátszó. Cover photo: Remix