08/12/2014 10:04 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

Starting Out With Fidesz

It's difficult to recapture the sheer ebullience that accompanied the official debut of Fidesz in Hungary. It was a movement of youth in a country that was starting over. It was quirky and full of memorable characters. People of widely ranging political sympathies - liberal, radical, alternative -- were attracted to the new organization. Its lack of experience was deemed a strength in a country where experience was somehow compromised by association with the previous regime.

Fidesz started in March 1988 as the initiative of 37 university students. By its first anniversary, it had more than 3,000 members and 70 local chapters around Hungary. When it held its second congress in October 1989, Hungarian television devoted a one-hour summary every day to the conference. In the first free elections in 1990, Fidesz came in fifth and sent 21 MPs to parliament. By 1998, it was strong enough to form a government, but by that time the party had already swung over to the conservative side. It lasted for four years before being ousted by a Liberal-Socialist coalition. Still led by Viktor Orban, one of the movement's founders, Fidesz returned to power in 2010 and just recently won the elections again in a landslide.

Attila Ledenyi was one of the early shapers of Fidesz. He was in charge of international relations in the organization's early years. He's quick to remind me, when we met last May after 23 years, that Fidesz wasn't a political party in those early years.

"In 1990, for the first campaign, Fidesz was not a political party," Ledenyi said. "It didn't identify itself as a party. There was an age limit. It was a youth movement. We were very easygoing about things. Obviously, there were lawyers and economists who were thinking in bigger terms. But generally speaking, our image and self-image were very youthful. Most of us were between 18 and 25."

Eventually Fidesz lost much of its quirkiness, and Ledenyi left the organization. But he doesn't look back in anger. "We can be nostalgic for 1988 and 1989 when we had great parties and there were great changes and we suddenly had influence over things that we didn't have any influence over before," he told me. "But I was never disappointed by the way things developed because I thought that these parties had to become institutions and the whole electoral system was changing, and if Fidesz wanted to have influence in all this, it would have to become a political party. Beyond a certain point, Fidesz was not sexy any more."

The turning point for Hungarian politics came in 1994, the second free parliamentary elections. "I was very disappointed when in 1994 the Socialists won," Ledenyi recalls. "That was a shock for me. After four years, people seemed to forget everything that happened before 1990. The other shock was when SzDSz [the Alliance of Free Democrats] joined the coalition with the Socialists. Many of those people, the Fodor type of people, decided to go in and go under the Socialists even though SzDSz in that coalition was mathematically unnecessary. They were invited only to be makeup on an otherwise ugly face. That I felt was humiliating. It was legitimatizing something that I thought was totally illegitimate. In that context, it was far easier for me to understand the turn that Fidesz was taking."

In 2002, after the first Fidesz government, history repeated itself and the Liberals once again joined the Socialists to form a government. "When Medgyessy got elected, and mostly because of intellectual reasons, I was very disappointed that we had a prime minister who couldn't talk, couldn't properly read," Ledenyi concluded. "He was almost illiterate. I was very unhappy on an intellectual basis, especially when Medgyessy said that we are a small country and we have to learn how to be small. My life has never been about that. Even if Orban was already hated by a lot of people, by a lot of intellectuals, he was someone who could always stand up and look like something and sound like something and have a vision."

The Interview

How did you get involved in political activism?

It all goes back to my mother listening to Radio Free Europe all the time. My mother was always the kind of person who couldn't keep her mouth shut. She inherited that from her parents. In the 1950s my grandparents were pretty outspoken. They were not involved in any political movement because there were no political movements. My grandfather used to be a Social Democrat. When the Communist Party invaded the Social Democrats in 1947-8, he went to the party office and threw in his membership card. Both of them were frightened that something was going to happen with the other one. This was the type of family my mother grew up in, and she was very similar to them in terms of telling me the truth. Back then, when we were going to school, we realized that there were two kinds of truth. One of them was what my mother told me, and the other one was taught in school. So indirectly that's how I got politically involved.

Then, in March 1988, a friend of mine took me to a meeting where supposedly a youth movement was going to be formed. And it was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. That was the night that Fidesz was established. I'm not a founder. I was there when the founding took place, but I joined about a week later because it took me a couple days to put it all together. From that point, everything became so very active and fast. After the first months of struggling to stay alive, Fidesz started to organize all sorts of things -- parties, concerts, demonstrations. We were touring the country meeting with people. In 1989, I already initiated a trip to Prague to meet with fellow dissidents there. That was a great trip, and a good party too.

What month was that?

That was the beginning of 1989 when Havel was still in prison. We met with people like Jiri Dienstbier who was doing some physical work, and a year later he was foreign minister. We met with Jan Urban, with Havel's wife. They were all hiding. Then I was involved in setting up an international network for Fidesz. You know, I haven't really thought about these things in a long time!

When you went to that first Fidesz meeting, were you a student?

Yes: a student at the business college.

Did you finish your studies or did you immediately start working for Fidesz?

I did finish. I completed my studies a couple months after Fidesz was launched. I was lucky. At my job, my boss was also very involved. He wasn't a member of a party. He was just one of those spontaneous resistance people, but in a very clever way. He always had samizdat papers to read. I told him, "Listen, I'm going to be busy not doing my job from this point on." He said, "Fine." He gave me a lot of freedom to do my things. I had a lot of time to concentrate on organizing for Fidesz. I'm very grateful. He later joined Inconnu, which was an independent group of artists, because he was a graphic artist.

One of the major moments for Fidesz was when Viktor Orban gave one of the speeches at the reburial of Imre Nagy, and it was quite a radical speech. Is that something you remember as well?

I remember the speech. I remember it all. But in the end, for me, what Viktor said there at the reburial of Nagy and the other '56ers was something we took for granted. He didn't say anything other than what we were talking about already in our circles. When he said that the Soviet troops should leave, it was not particularly radical. I was actually surprised by the reactions because this is what we all wanted anyway. It's just that someone stood up and said it out loud. When people started saying, "Well, it was too radical, he shouldn't have said that," I was really angry. When someone stands up and says what everybody had been saying in in a hidden way, we should be happy about it. So, I was pleased, and I was not surprised at all.

You spoke of the two truths -- the truth in school and at home. For many people, that was a moment when the two truths came together.

Yes, very possibly.

Maybe that was the shocking part, more than the content of what he said.

It must have been a shock for many. But when those are your natural terms of speaking anyway, every day and every night, then you just feel that it's a normal thing to do. We knew Victor was pretty outspoken and ready to say what we all thought. And that's what he did.

You mentioned the first Fidesz meeting, which was a momentous occasion for you. And then organizing the trip to Prague. Are there other moments from that period that jump out at you?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.